Madison: On Updike, Williams and Starting Over in The Minors

Roy Madison@roymadisonContributor IFebruary 12, 2011

The Oceanside Hotel - Vancouver BC, Canada
The Oceanside Hotel - Vancouver BC, Canada

Vancouver during the Winter is dramatic. Everything seems obscured by something. The clouds hang low in the sky and cover the tops of skyscrapers, while mountains wrap around the city to stop the horizon from getting out of hand and turning into infinity—there is always an end. The trees are enormous green firs that reveal just a small section of the atmosphere when you look up from beneath them. It's warm here in the Winter though. A moist, green, wet warmth. On a rare day when the clouds do lift, and the rain shuts off for a bit, the sky opens up making the temperature plummet into a much more familiar temperature, known to me from my days spent in American cities on the other side of the Continent—everything turns brilliant, and the mountains, once menacing in their moody darkness reveal themselves with a fresh dusting of white snow that when mixed with a view of the crisp waters of the Pacific Ocean burn the eyes into a submission of just how beautiful this Vancouver is.

I'm told Summer here is temperate, not too hot and not too cold. So I wait here in Vancouver, for Summer, for baseball, for the park to open, and the Northwest League to begin assigning teams their opponents, and for the work to start by calculating numbers, reviewing odds, percentages, averages, stances, field presence, swings, pitches and the guffaws and heckles of the crowds. I arrived early (the Northwest League doesn't take to the field until June) but I had to give up my apartment in Manhattan under much distress and circumstance. That's another story, best left for another time.

Let me tell you, instead, that I've secured myself a nice enough suite on a month to month basis at the Oceanside Hotel, it's a 2 minute walk from the beach here in Vancouver. The Oceanside, a plain looking three story walk up except for its exterior walls which are covered in teal-blue and white stripes that make it look like it should be sitting at the side of the road in a  Dr. Seuss book, has an illuminated sign out front that says "OCEANSIDE" just in case I lose my bearings from one too many cocktails at the neighboring Slyvia Hotel where I've been spending most of my time in preparation for the upcoming season.

The Sylvia's huge windows that front the ocean cast a long gaze at ships lazily sitting in the water, waiting for something to fill them with before heading back East. It's an ideal place for pouring over the headlines of offseason antics in the newspapers, studying the nuances of the Minor League system, and spending time reading the greatest writers who've turned their attention to "the game" at least once in their lives.

Take John Updike for example, touted as one of the greatest essays on baseball, Updike's now legendary piece, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," published in the New Yorker in 1960 was the only thing he ever wrote on the subject of baseball, except for an obituary on Ted Williams after he died in 2002, the subject of Hub Fans.

It was mainly by chance that John was there to witness Williams' last at bat which produced a home run that, to the amazement of everyone in attendance, seemed surreal in its perfection as an end. Legend has it Updike had not even planned on attending the event, but instead was scheduled to a date with a woman that had him knocking on the door of an empty house. With no alternative, he decided to go to Fenway, alone, and witnessed the greatest of dramas.

History has a way of polishing the past with nostalgia into something valuable where once stood just another day, in reality Williams' last turn at the plate after a tumultuous 17 year career as a Boston Red Sox wasn't even much of a fanfare. It was an afternoon game, a meaningless game, and not even sold out, but when Updike saw Ted look at the outfield field from the tip of the diamond, his bat in hand, John saw something that helped him understand that what he was seeing was worth spending the next three weeks describing. Updike:

Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy, the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around the corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.

I was once a beat writer for the Major League Baseball network of writers. I lived in Manhattan and mainly covered The Mets. I wrote about the greats, the not-so-greats and the greats being terrible, turning in lousy performances as they began a slow slide into obscurity or returned to the form that their seemingly impossible averages dictated.

Here in Canada, this summer, it will be different—obviously. The Vancouver Canadians are at the beginning of a daunting ladder one must climb to get noticed, to make it. Heroes and superstars are few and far between in Single A ball. The park these kids will play in, Nat Bailey Stadium, is small—it rarely sells out.

Consistent however, is the game, and the stories it can produce, plucking events out of the future and presenting them for a keen eye to form them into depictions of the past. These moments can happen anywhere, in the smallest of fields, the feeblest of hands, and the rainiest of cities, far away from home.


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