On Certain Nights We’re Almost There, Mr. Kerouac
The Real Brian Holman didn’t last very long, and neither did Jack Kerouac. An injury cut Holman’s career as a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners short; Kerouac died at 47. When I was a kid, I used to dream about pitching in the big leagues like Brian Holman, and then when I went to college, I dreamed that I would be a writer and a beatnik like Jack Kerouac. I’ve had limited success on both of these accounts. My baseball career came to a close in 1992, one season into the Pony League for boys 14-17 years old. I didn’t pitch an inning that year and I had exactly zero hits. In my last at bat ever, I was hit in the head.
So, in some respects, I’ve come closer to actualizing the Kerouac persona. I’ve published some stories and poems and I write a blog. I have lots of disks with writing on them, including a novel that’s unreadable and will never get published. I smoke a lot of cigarettes and I bounce around different places in the world. Last night I drank by myself and listened to Bert Kaempfert’s Orchestra play “Wonderland By Night.” In that moment, between sips of beer and after the horn made that weird crescendo that opens “Wonderland,” well, that’s when the guy I want to be seemed real and present. I was an artist then, a hip bastard drinking and smoking in a strange little corner of South Korea, jotting down ideas for novels and acing the heck out of Sporcle quizzes on black and white movies.
Of course, when I woke up, it was back to the real me. I’m not an artist. I’m a teacher. I guess I can live with that. As I opened the window to try to get the smell of smoke out of my room, sweeping up the ash and the gum wrappers from the floor, I didn’t feel hip anymore. I felt tired and lonely and old. Maybe later in the week I’d glance at the stuff I wrote down. Maybe I wouldn’t. I’d have too many classes to teach, and too much baseball to watch.
Back in college, I thought I could define myself very neatly. I’d gone to film school and then when they kicked me out I went to an arts college to study writing. I drank like a fish and read everything I could get my hands on. Furthermore, I had a ponytail. Oh, and I dressed in all black. In my own head, I couldn’t have been cooler. I’d met Elvis Costello and my poetry professor was Hettie Jones, who was a poet from the actual Beat Generation and hung out with Ginnsberg and Kerouac. I had my self-image pretty much developed. True, I hadn’t published anything and nobody else thought I was cool, but those were mere details. Success and recognition were things that were supposed to happen after college.
There was one thing that didn’t fit in with the rest of the role I was playing, though, a part of my persona that stuck out like a sore pinkie finger (I would’ve said ‘thumb,’ but that’s clichéd). It was only beginning to blossom then, and in the next decade it would grow out of control, like my anxiety when I try to talk to pretty girls or police officers.
I’m referring to my obsession with baseball and, more specifically, fantasy baseball. Currently, I spend at least 5 hours a day watching baseball, reading articles about baseball, or listening to baseball podcasts. Every night I wake up at 2 in the morning so I can watch the afternoon games in the US (I go back to sleep at 5 and then wake up again at 9 so I can watch the night games). Last week, I made love to my girlfriend and then literally rolled off her and immediately turned on the Tampa Bay/Boston game. I was dying to see Matt Moore’s first start of the season. After seeing the expression on my girl’s face, I knew I had to turn the game off, although, for a moment, I considered choosing the rookie lefty over her.
Being a complete baseball nerd has been my hidden source of shame for years. That’s why I was ecstatic a few years ago when The NY Times published an article saying that Jack Kerouac, Sal Paradise himself, also had an obsession with fantasy baseball. My heart leapt. It turns out Kerouac used to have his own make believe baseball league. He created teams and filled their rosters with made up players. For their games, he simulated everything by hitting a marble with a toothpick. Yes, that’s right, cooler-than-thou Jack Kerouac spent untold amounts of time whacking a marble with a toothpick and writing down what happened. When he got older, he ditched the marble in favor of a card game he invented. All this he did in secrecy. He wrote articles about his baseball league as if it was real, talking about player performance and even inventing contract disputes. He never told Ginnsberg or Ferlinghetti or Corso about any of this and it only came to light about fifty years after his death.
Perhaps the reason why I found this so exciting is because I used to do almost the exact same thing myself when I was a kid. I had my own make believe baseball league too. I created a system using dice to simulate the games. Instead of making up players, I used my baseball cards. At the start of the season, I had a draft, managing all the teams myself, where I took players using whatever Tops, Score, or Upper Deck cards I happened to own. Once the teams were set, they started playing. I had a notebook where I’d jot down the results and keep the standings. I never told a soul about it, just like Kerouac. It was my own special league, and only I knew about it.
My baseball card league would eventually lead to other things, like my eventual fascination with baseball statistics and fantasy baseball. It also led to a memorable night almost 25 years ago, when my illusions grew up and I realized that so much of life, as funny and fickle as it is, revolves around the slender discord between fantasy and reality.
In 1989, the Seattle Mariners traded their ace pitcher, Mark Langston, to the Montreal Expos for two young pitching prospects. One of them was named Brian Holman. The other was named Randy Johnson. This trade is well known because it brought Johnson to the Mariners, where he would become one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball history. Holman’s career didn’t pan out that way. He pitched two seasons and retired in 1991.
To me, Brian Holman was much more important than that. In my make believe league, Holman had somehow become the best pitcher in all of baseball. I had a Holman baseball card – a 1989 Donruss card from when Holman was with the Expos. There’s really no way to mirror reality when one is running a league where the results are based on the numbers on some dice. Dice don’t know that Jose Canseco is supposed to be better than Billy Ripkin, or that Mark Langston is supposed to be better than Brian Holman. By coincidence, or due to dumb luck, the dice just really loved Brian Holman. Any time I had him pitch, he would blow away his opposition. He was, by a good margin, the best pitcher in the little world that existed in my bedroom. I would get excited when Holman’s turn in the rotation came around, and time after the time the dice proved that Holman was a star.
Then, on April 20th, 1990, something coincidental happened. I was 11 years old at the time. It was a Friday night, and I was up later than I was usually allowed to be. I was in my bedroom when my father came and got me.
“Come out here!” he said, full of energy. “Some guy’s throwing a perfect game!”
It was the 8th inning of a game between the Oakland Athletics and the Seattle Mariners. The pitcher for the Mariners had not allowed a single hit or walk. He had retired all 21 batters he’d faced. At that point in time, there were only 14 perfect games in the history of Major League Baseball. The Mariner pitcher was trying to become the 15th person since baseball began around 1869 to do this, to retire all 27 batters he faced in perfect order. Who was the pitcher? It was none other than the Real Brian Holman.
In stark contrast to my bedroom league, Holman was, in reality, a nobody. He was unknown, a talented kid who was trying to make a name for himself. I personally had never seen him outside of the picture on that baseball card.
Holman cruised through the 8th. “Jesus,” my father said, pacing around the room nervously, “he might do it!” To begin the 9th inning, Holman struck out pinch hitter Felix Jose. Walt Weiss was next and Holman got him to ground out to second.
It was at that time that my mind started going. Could it be that fantasy and reality sometimes cross paths? It was as though my league had augured this; had somehow predicted that it would happen. Maybe Brian Holman really would become a super star. Maybe it was all possible, all of it. Maybe I could saturate my world with dreams, like I was building something, and it would look just like I’d seen it before. Like I’d made it myself.
All the Real Brian Holman needed was one more out. In all my years of being a sports fan, I’ve never wanted anything more than for Holman to do it. The A’s sent up Ken Phelps to pinch hit. Phelps was an aging left handed power bat, someone who had been around a long time. Holman wound up and threw a fastball. Phelps hammered it, launching it deep into right field. To this day, I can still picture the trajectory of the ball off Phelps’ bat. The right fielder didn’t even move. The ball was gone. The perfect game was no more.
The crowd in Oakland erupted. Holman had failed. With one pitch, he’d gone back to being a nobody.
“What a bum!” my father shouted. “He grooved it right over the plate! Right over the plate! He choked! I could’ve hit that pitch!”
I felt sad. Ashamed for some reason. Beat. Phelps trotted around the bases. It would be the last home run of his career. It was fitting, I guess. Old men always have a way of shitting all over the great ambitions of young ones.
The Real Brian Holman struck out Ricky Henderson to end the game. He would pitch another year before his arm went out on him and he was forced to retire. I watched an interview with him on YouTube where he talked about the night he almost made history. He said he couldn’t sleep, and at 4 in the morning he screamed as loud as he could because he knew he would never come that close again.
You don’t have to be asleep to wake up from a dream. I’m not sure how the Fantasy Brian Holman did after that. If my memory is correct, my league didn’t go on much longer. My heart wasn’t in it anymore, and the league folded.
I actually feel bad for writing that Brian Holman became a “nobody.” He didn’t. In reality, he became a manager at a consulting firm and a motivational speaker. It sounds like life has been more than okay for him.
Still, I wonder how he sees himself. In a shirt and tie, working in an office, or on the pitcher’s mound, back in 1990, one out away from being perfect.