by Todd Walton, November 3, 2010
“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
My maternal grandfather, Myron “Casey” Weinstein, went to the University of Michigan in 1918 on an athletic scholarship to wrestle and play baseball. Casey was the backup catcher behind the great Ernie Vick, and proudly recited this historic tidbit even after Alzheimer’s had robbed him of virtually every other memory. My paternal great grandfather, Charles Walton, was a world champion roller skater in the days when skates had steel wheels. His world’s records for sprints and long distances stood for decades after steel skates were things of the distant past.
Even so, my parents were horrified to discover they had given birth to a son, yours truly, who shortly after learning to walk wanted to do little else but play ball. My father was a non-athlete and openly contemptuous of men who played or followed sports. My mother was fond of saying that only boys who weren’t smart enough to do anything else became athletes. I knew this was nonsense because I was one of the smartest guys in my class (judging by the number of silver stars after my name on the class chart) and I adored sports. In fact, the smartest guys I knew, the best guys, were crazy about sports. Kickball, dodge ball, four-square, tetherball, baseball, football, basketball. If a ball was involved, sign me up. I liked bows and arrows and spears, too, but I was most enamored of balls. In an earlier epoch, I would have been a warrior and a hunter. In these modern times I was a ball player. I liked to read and sing and dance, too, but given a choice, put me in centerfield, throw me a long pass, and let me shoot my fall-away.
“I know without our fans and the devotion of our fans we wouldn't be here.” — Roger Daltrey of The Who
Perhaps even more galling to my folks than my constant playing of ball games was my profound love for the San Francisco Seals, particularly the diminutive slugger Albie Pearson, which love was transferred to the Giants and Willie Mays upon their arrival in the city by the bay in 1957 when I was eight. I think I must have been inoculated with some sort of fan virus when I was born at St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco in 1949, because shortly after learning to read (circa 1954) I was sounding out articles in the Sports section of the Chronicle and begging for my first baseball glove and bat.
And I listened to the Seals’ and Giants’ games on the radio, which made my parents furious because if I was listening to Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges announcing games then I must not be studying, which meant I wasn’t preparing to become a doctor, which was the very least they expected of me. But what they didn’t understand, and what no one who isn’t a die-hard fan can possibly understand, was that I was not listening to the game; I was living the game. I was a Giant. The team could not exist without me. Adios Pelota! Viva los Gigantes! Long live Willie Mays!
“The boy was beginning to understand that intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it's all written there.” — Paulo Coelho
From my late teens until I was 35, a strange and wonderful mixture of basketball, delusion, passion, arrogance, ambition, and ignorance took me to places I otherwise would never have gone, and arriving in these places, I interacted physically, emotionally, and intellectually with people I otherwise would never have known.
By 16, I had settled on basketball as my main game, though I was a much better baseball player, and my real forte was tennis. Love, however, is irrational, and I loved basketball with a crazy passion. I traveled to parks in dangerous neighborhoods and boldly entered unfriendly gymnasiums in my quest to play with, and against, great players. Looking back on my career as a competitive basketball player, I am amazed by my boldness, for though I was a decent outside shot, I was at best a pesky defender, a mediocre passer, and a wimp of a rebounder.
Still, when I think of the marvelous and strange and intimidating and hilarious and ferocious and brilliant and daring people I met along my basketball way, and of the many fabulous games I played, the friends I made, the stories I heard, the dramas I beheld, the language I absorbed, the elation, the humbling, the millions of calories burned and thousands of gallons of sweat expelled that might otherwise have gone stale inside me and done me harm, I am eternally grateful to my fierce and irrational desire to play with the best players I could find.
Quite recently, after a two-decade hiatus, I took up shooting hoops again, a genteel once or twice a week alone at the grammar school, my sinews and synapses (after the initial shock of soreness) rejoicing to be reunited with the long-missed love of my body’s life—a sweet dance with a big ball on a court with backboard and hoop, a mystic improvisation of trying again and again to shoot the ball through the sacred ring into the fountain of youth.
“It’s like déjà vu all over again.” — Yogi Berra
So. At last, for only the fourth time since the Giants moved to San Francisco from New York fifty-three seasons ago, we made it into the World Series. When we beat San Diego the last game of the regular season to clinch the National League Western Division, I cried for five minutes. When we beat the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs, I cried for three. When we overcame the mighty Philadelphia Phillies to win the National League pennant, I wandered around in a daze sobbing, “We did it, Willie. We did it.” And on October 26, my mother’s birthday (she would have been eighty-eight) I watched a thirty-second highlight on my computer of the Giants’ team bus arriving at Willie Mays’ Park where a crowd of fans chanted “U-Ribe, U-Ribe!” and I burst into tears.
Then last night, November 1, 2010, for the first time in the history of the San Francisco Giants, which means for the first time in my life, and in defiance of virtually every Sports pundit in America, the Giants won the World Series, otherwise known as the whole enchilada, taking the final game of the 2010 World Series in stunning fashion to finish off the Texas Rangers four games to one. And I cried and laughed and danced and cheered and cried some more, and Marcia cried and danced and sang and cheered with me.
I thought of my mother and father and how they never got to experience this kind of ecstatic tearful joy because they never had a clue that sports could connect us to each other in such glorious ways, connect us to an ancient collective desire to transcend the eternal struggle to survive, if only for a moment, so we might bask in the glory of having conquered the beast—our tribe triumphant.
“It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.” — Yogi Berra
When I finally calmed down enough to fall asleep, I dreamt I stood atop the pitcher’s mound at Willie Mays’ Park and sang for the multitudes before the final game of the World Series. I was flanked by Jonathan Sanchez and Juan Uribe. Dozens of huge ravens strutted around the infield. My guitar was black and shiny with orange strings. I was wearing a neon orange T-shirt and black slacks and orange socks and black tennis shoes. My hair was Lincecum long and streaked with orange paint. The enormous crowd was hushed. An eloquent breeze blew in from McCovey Cove, humming in the key of G, of course. I strummed my guitar and began to sing, and Jonathan and Juan sang with me, and we sounded a little like The Grateful Dead and a little like Los Lobos, but mostly we sounded like the Giants.
* * *
Last night I had a precious dream,
I dreamt I woke into the dawn,
walked out of my little cottage and
found a newspaper on the lawn.
When I picked up that morning tribune,
it opened to the very front page,
and the headlines oh they told me
it was the dawning of a brand new age
Yeah, the rich folks had all decided
to share their money with the poor,
and the leaders had disbanded all the armies,
not another dollar spent on war.
And they’d stopped building prisons,
put that money in our schools and neighborhoods
and instead of making bombs and guns
and things we do not need
we were all of us working for the greater good.
(Todd Walton’s website is UnderTheTableBooks.com.)