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Spring Hopes Eternal

O the excessive wretchedness! O the cold and sallow breath of moneys grim and monopolistic temper, the libertine specter of suicide curtsying nigh in the shadow of death, there by the punchbowl and curling a lascivious tongue round the tempting prospect of the warm pastries just now set down by the broad-shouldered server girl with flaxen bangs and biceps coiling python-like beneath her snug sleeve. How sweet a fate to be strangled by the serpent of her kiss! The amorous scales, the mystical writhing! O for my drifting mouth to be drowned forever mute by the gurgling tide of her stomach acids, as the fountain of her nature washes smooth the very stone of my consciousness, the once-sturdy block of noble granite upon which with patient blade I had carved my schoolboy illusions: sweeping across the steppes at the head of a Mongol army (horses neighing and arrowheads glinting in the sun), winning the Illinois Superball Lotto with all eights, shagging fly balls in the cooling dusk of Fenway Park as model-types in camo gear call for me to autograph their programs and Concorde ticket stubs. Such was the stuff of my dreams, walking in the dusty Boonville summer to Rubens Market to buy an R.C. Cola and a packet of Topps baseball cards. But then life reared its horror show of a head, a hydra-like beast of lies, half-truths, blatant deceptions, and expensive designer water bottled at Sunnyvales municipal source. Instead of fame and riches and dwarf chauffeurs driving me from gallery opening to aromatherapeutic massage sessions overlooking Malibu Colony, Mother Reality pounded my willowy aspirations into subservience by the relentless and grateful pistons of her knees and jungle thrash of her fists. So that eventually due to an acute lack of talent, a mediocre arm, an inability to get around on fastballs as well as a wonderful knack for bailing out on bush league curves, I was forced to exchange my baseball diamond dreams for decidedly more pedestrian goals: a larger cubicle, free tickets to the demolition derby, a case of Schlitz, a free afternoon and 50 rounds of ammo. I can only hope that through my good works, my prompt yet courteous memos to lower-middle management, my rehearsed good cheer at company holiday parties and the lush greenness of my hand-towel sized patch of lawn kept neatly clipped in front of my low-slung stucco shack a mere relay throw from the strip mall at this end of the industrial park, Fortune will reward my defeat by not removing all traces of me, my overdue books, the uneaten casserole beside the spanish olives in the ice box from the slumhole of life.

But I digress from my digression. Because just as the rain and the clouds and the ribbon of kindergartners rubberized in swatches of yellow represent winters intractable sogginess, the music of Marchs scented bud cracking ripely open sends birds and bees and little people of all ages scurrying to dugouts and baselines and warning tracks to act out the grand chimeras of their hearts desires. Even as I was scanning the cable universe for validation of my belief that I could not afford to pass up the opportunity to buy 47 kitchen knives ranging in blade size from 3- to 36-inches suddenly one of those wonderful spring training tableaus flashed onto the monitor: the camera panned from palm trees swaying in the breeze to a bucket of balls to a gaggle of baseball players tugging methodically at their family jewels stuffed like tangerine wedges into the cornish hens of their jockstraps. And as the old pain returned, the numbness in my throat and chest from shotgunning an ice-cold Busch, the screen went black and a somber sportscaster appeared and said softly into the lens: Joe DiMaggio has passed away.

And now in tribute to a great baseball player, a guy who never missed a game with a strained hamstring or a broken nail or a contract dispute, and because god knows no one's teaching history in school these days, lets touch upon Joltin Joes brilliance.

After winning only one pennant and World Series in the previous seven years, the Yankees won four straight world championships once DiMaggio arrived. In his 13 seasons, they won 10 pennants and nine World Series. (And people whine about the Braves and Yankees and Dodgers now!)

"I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing. They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand."
—Ernest Hemingway, "The Old Man and the Sea"

Joe indeed came into this world a member of a poor fishermans family. He was the eighth of nine children, born Nov. 25, 1914, in Martinez, Calif., what was then a small fishing village 25 miles northeast of San Francisco. The next year his father moved the family to San Francisco because he heard the fishing was better (this was before pollution and over-harvesting depleted local fisheries). Zio Pepe, as DiMaggio's father was called, wanted his five sons to become fishermen like him, but only the oldest two did. Joe and brothers Vince and Dom became major league baseball players, and all got their start in pro ball with the San Francisco Seals of the powerhouse Pacific Coast League. They played in a sadly departed gem, Seals Stadium, which sat in the elbow between the Mission and Portrero Hill. Joe spent three seasons with the Seals, setting a PCL record by hitting safely in 61 consecutive games as a rookie in 1933, which turned him into a local legend. In fact, Joe pointed to that early streak as a seminal event in his ball-playing career: "Baseball didn't really get into my blood until I knocked off that hitting streak. Getting a daily hit became more important to me than eating, drinking or sleeping. Overnight I became a personality." I'll say.

When Joe retired in 1951, he had a lifetime average of .325, down from the .339 it had been before he served three years in the military during World War II (the one conservative warrior Ronald Reagan conveniently missed). He won two home run crowns (with a career-best 46 in 1937 and 39 in 1948) on his way to 361, and struck out only 369 times, a ratio of dingers to whiffs that no other long-ball hitter even approaches. He hit better than .300 11 times and won two batting titles -- .381 in 1939 and .352 in 1940. He knocked in more than 100 runs nine times, leading the American League with 125 in 1941 and 155 in 1948 and finishing second with 167 in 1937. He won three MVPs (1939, 1941 and 1947). Ted Williams, who many consider the greatest pure hitter of all time, considers DiMaggio the best right-handed batter he'd ever seen (Williams bats from the left side). Joe also set a record with a stupefying 56-game hitting streak in 1941; no one else has come within 13 games of tying it.

He retired in 1951, and three years later married Marilyn Monroe. A union of icons, sort of like if Bill Clinton married Oprah Winfrey, or Hillary Clinton married O.J. Simpson. He was 39, she 27 when they married at the church in Washington Square in North Beach. Soon after Gay Talese wrote in Esquire, "disharmony in temperament and time: he was tired of publicity, she was thriving on it; he was intolerant of tardiness, she was always late." Not surprisingly, they divorced nine months later. When she died of an overdose in 1962, DiMaggio supervised her funeral arrangements and had flowers put on her grave three times a week for 20 years. To Joe's credit, movie stars like Sinatra and various Kennedy clan sycophants were barred from attending.

So long, Joe. Tonight I'll play "Mrs. Robinson" on my way out to Big Rec and then walk around the grass and think about baseball and hitting streaks and how time spikes us all in the end. I thought about driving to Martinez, but it's a pit out there, and all the fish are gone anyway.

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