It took me too long in life to comprehend that life is absurd and that nobody really knows much of anything and that if anybody tries to tell you they know much of anything, they're often similar to a rich clown praying from a TV studio in Virginia Beach while asking viewers to send in more money.
That thought rose again upon the dreadfully sad death of Pascual Perez, the former Major League pitcher for the Pirates, Braves, Expos and Yankees. Perez lived a vivid 55-year life and pitched vividly through the vivid 1980s, yet when I thought of him, only one incident came to mind.
That seemed quirky, but then I clicked on a brief news flash concerning his death in an apparent robbery in the Dominican Republic, and only one incident came up: the same one.
I no longer remembered that his pitching included antics such as head fakes or the occasional between-the-legs glance at a baserunner or the inning-ending sprints back to the dugout. I did not remember he once threw a ball into the Cubs dugout after a line drive almost hit him. Until rereading a Sports Illustrated story from the marvelous Franz Lidz, I did not remember Perez once "disappeared" in New York for five days to consult "a Dominican spiritualist," although I do adore the anecdote. I did not remember the preposterous game from August 1984 when he beaned San Diego leadoff hitter Alan Wiggins on the first pitch -- repeat: the first pitch -- leading to Padres’ pitchers throwing at Perez in each of his four at-bats, to an astonishing 14 ejections and five fan arrests, and to the suspensions of managers Dick Williams (San Diego) and Joe Torre (Atlanta). I did not remember that at one point in there, Perez picked up a bat and wielded it.
I also forgot he couldn't turn up to the Braves until May in 1984 because he sat in jail, Dominican authorities having arrested him possessing cocaine, although the idea of any one person possessing cocaine in the 1980s probably would not have stuck in memory anyway.
I forgot his big-for-the-time ($5.7 million) contract with the Yankees.
No, my memory got stuck with only the thought of that one afternoon he got lost trying to find the ballpark as the scheduled starting pitcher, and that this highlights the absurdity that a man can be rather famous for a decade or so, and the prevailing memory 30 years on might be a single ludicrous event that has happened to everyone (save for the part about being the starting pitcher). Day in and day out, year in and year out, professional athletes take the risk that one day everybody will remember them for a single error or fumble or missed free throw, and for that, among other things, I don't envy their salaries. It does say something kooky about our species in general that we remember Bill Buckner more for one error than for a 20-season career with five clubs batting .289 with 2,715 hits.
In our mysterious memory banks, incidents often outweigh longevity … never more so than that rare time when a pitcher misses a start because he can't find the ballpark.
So before going back to look, I did not remember the year (1982), let alone the date (Aug. 19) or the day (Thursday). I did not remember that, of course, Joe Torre managed the Braves then. I did not know precisely where Perez got lost (evidently the I-285 perimeter around Atlanta), or that it was his third Braves start (so he had found Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium previously), or that he had borrowed a friend's vehicle, or that he covered a reported 120 miles for a usual half-hour drive, or that he forgot his wallet so couldn't pay for gas, or that he promised to go repay the gas-station owner who let him have some, or that he couldn't go repay the guy because couldn't find the gas station again, or that the club called his wife about 40 minutes before game time and learned he had left two-and-one-half-hours prior, or that as he put it then, to various wire services, "I got in the locker room just as they were playing the National Anthem."
I did not recall that Phil Niekro started instead, or that the Braves won 5-4 against Montreal, or that Perez pitched nine scoreless innings the next night against the Mets, or that the Braves soon cited the case of the lost starting pitcher as granting them levity, that teammates put a city map above Perez's locker, that they soon believed it helped right them from a 2-19 slump that had erased their nine-game lead over the Dodgers and caused a four-game deficit. I did remember that the Braves started hotly that year and that they wound up winning the National League West before the Cardinals got them, as ever.
I long since forgot this wondrous quotation Perez gave to Lidz in late 1989, concerning that day in 1982: "There's a big radio and the merengue music was real loud. I forgot my wallet, so I have no money and no license, pass around the city two times easy, but the car so hot I stop at a gas station. I ask for $10 worth, and the guy say, 'You Pascual Perez? People been waiting for you at the stadium.' I'm 20 minutes away, he tell me. I feel like a heart attack. I think I get fired, maybe. Boss Torre say he fine me $100. I say, 'What you say, 100?' He smile, say, 'Ciento pesos.' I smile. 'Ciento pesos' worth only 10 bucks."
Yet in the memory, Pascual Perez lived as a major-league pitcher, and as The Guy Who Got Lost Going To The Ballpark. That's it. Maybe it tells us something about the brain. Maybe across time the brain forgives things such as throwing a ball in a dugout or wielding a bat in a brawl, but takes to its deepest core the idea of getting lost. We all have, especially in the pre-GPS era. The concept seems so embedded that it can turn up in our scariest nightmares.
But I don't know. Nobody ever really knows.