When the rock pioneer Chuck Berry died a few years ago, the Los Angeles Times quoted him espousing his views on living life at an even keel. “One of my realizations is that if you revel over joy, you’re going to ache over pain and get killed over hurt," Berry, who was 75, said. "Your span of feelings are going to go just as far one way as the other. So when something real good comes to you, take it and chew on it. Then when something bitter gets in there, you won’t feel too bad chewing it and smiling, because the other one wasn’t that good, so this won’t be that bad.”
This may be an odd quote to introduce a poem about listening to baseball over the radio. But when I was 12 or 13 years old and a rabid California Angels fan, I experienced more than a few nights reveling over joy and aching over pain -- the second one a bit more common, given the Angels' typical season records back then. For me, there were few more dizzying sensations than lying in the dark with the radio tuned to Bob Starr and Billy Sample on KMPC, sweating through the commercial breaks as a tie game inched into extra innings. As another American legend, Emily Dickinson, once put it, we eventually learn to anticipate men instead of kings. Back then, I wanted kings, and for a budding teenager in Orange County, the Angels' core lineup served that purpose.
It has now been roughly 30 years since that feeling passed, and I am confident that I will never experience it again. The hope and anticipation that I once attached to my home team winning now feels as curious as the attachment I once had to toys -- a hallmark of a younger self that I remember but no longer recognize. In the decades since, I have often wondered about the psychology of sports fandom, and my adolescent belief in the Angels offers a few answers. When I gripped an invisible bat in my hands and tried to will Tim Salmon to hit a walkoff home run, I had an obvious need to feel part of something bigger; if the Angels won, after all, it meant that Orange County -- and I -- had won too. Perhaps I simply craved the sublime, the way we hope for a singer or actor to deliver a great performance.
The only difference is that we don't stop rooting for a singer or actor if they move to another city. If the Angels had played in Pittsburgh or Detroit, I never would have rooted for them; chalk it up to tribalism, or at least vicarious living. To this day, I love the game of baseball, and I would still happily pay to see a major-league team play. But I have grown enough to accept that, whatever the outcome of the game, it is the team's business and not mine. Case in point: In 2002, years after I stopped staking my happiness on the Angels' triumphs, they shocked the sports world by coming from behind to win their first and only World Series. I smiled when I read the headline about Game 7 in the Times. I have barely thought about that moment since.
Even still, in a way, those long-ago nights by the radio are a happy memory -- since, at least some of the time, they amount to a memory of being happy. My poem "Awake," which came out ten years ago in the book The First Thing Mastered, is about a boy listening to a nameless team on the radio, the rest of the world suspended as he waits for a decisive crack of the bat to justify going to sleep. The poem, which started life as free verse, eventually became a villanelle, a rhyming repetitive style used in two of my favorite pieces ("Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas and "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop). Perhaps the lulling rhythm worked for a poem about sleep closing in.
One challenge that I gave myself in writing this poem was to portray a character without using pronouns; the boy is never "he" or "I," but rather defined by emotions, back story, setting, even individual body parts. In adoring his favorite team, he renders himself anonymous. I remember what that felt like.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.