Behind the faded, red brick of my parents' home, the land stretches out like a blanket. It casually falls over the rolling countryside, fences and shrub lines tracing across it, like stitches in a verdant quilt. Patches of houses, corn and wheat fields, pastures and power line inlays, they're all set beneath a blue midwestern sky. Some people called this Ohio. I just called it the backyard.
When I was six years old, my dad built me a clubhouse. Dad was a engineer by trade, and while all engineers hold maxims about design -- sleek, minimalist, green, invisible, provocative, etc. -- his was to make sure everything he built could withstand cannon fire.
He erected a fortress for me. Solid wood, ridden with screws and caulk and nails, 20 feet tall and anchored by concrete. It sat between two apple trees in the backyard, and, as it was made for a child with an inclination to throw things, not a summer day went by that my fortress' sides weren't splattered with fruit shrapnel in the name of some fantastical battle. I was a super hero, with super powers, and anything and everything was a villain that only I could stop. After all, what good is a fortress if you never get to defend it?
Years later, I traded the art of throwing fruit for that of throwing baseballs. Dad reengineered the old clubhouse. Up went a wall of fiberglass, bolted to 4x4 legs of Ft. Hayhurst. Over the fiberglass went a sheet of 3x4 plywood. Then two coats of outdoor paint -- gray, overlaid with a grid etched in white and a sheet of white nylon at the center.
That's when the cannon fire came. Volley after volley of the largest ordinance my right arm could muster, the crack of cowhide on wood echoing out over the blanket and its patchwork. I'd throw for hours. Bucket after bucket of baseballs until each ball was flat, dented, frayed and smudged with white and gray. When I was out of ammo, I stood there, in the rut of earth that passed as a pitcher's mound, surveying the corn and wheat, and the pastures where horses cut capers in the twilight sun, and I'd wonder if I'd ever really do battle at the walls of a fortress, or if my dreams would amount to nothing more than throwing apples.
* * *
As a Little Leaguer, with stirrups that wouldn't stay up and a foam-on-mesh hat that wouldn't stay down, I can remember coaches telling me I needed to be a cocky son of a bitch on the baseball field. Hard to do that with a uniform that barely fits. But the coaches swore when they said it, which meant it was serious. To be a man in the game, I needed to carry myself in such a way that others knew I believed I could beat anyone. The thing was, when I started acting like that, the coaches would tell me I was arrogant, and how I needed to be humble because I'd done nothing in the game yet.
We also had to pick out heroes -- players we wanted to imitate. It wasn't mandatory, no laps to run if you didn't. That's because the call for heroes didn't come from the coaches, but from the players. We'd sit on the tailgates of our parents' pickup trucks in the summer haze, talking about baseball. It was decided that we needed to pick players to imitate. Avatars to represent us. And they had to be good, known, prolific, or else you wouldn't be respected as serious about the sport. Champions only.
I didn't watch the game. I wasn't concerned about the majors. I was concerned about what I was doing. And if I did grow up to be like my heroes, I would have preferred it be someone with super powers. But all the other kids adored their baseball heroes. It was as if, to them, Ken Griffey Jr. could wield Thor's hammer or Cal Ripken Jr. had Captain America's shield. I didn't understand it, but, in a gesture of solidarity, I told the kids that I was going to be better than Greg Maddux.
After the words came out of my mouth, they were instantly rammed back in. I was quickly reminded how much I sucked compared to Maddux, and that, if I ever ran into him, he would crush me. And how, most likely, I'd never be good enough to meet him because I was me, and he was him.
* * *
I never seriously collected baseball cards. They were just men to me. No secret fortresses, dual identities or cosmic parents. Just men, boring, sporty men.
And yet, as I aged in the game, I realized more and more that I lived in their world. I lived in Maddux' world. My mechanics were based on his benchmark. My thought process on the mound was checked against his interviews. My fielding ability was modeled after his Gold Glove standard.
I was too young to realize then that coaches had been telling kids to imitate the mechanics of successful pitchers for decades, with most of those mechanical endorsements stemming from the simple fact that the men wielding them were successful. I grew up thinking that Maddux's mechanics were perfect. Not as in perfect so far that particular season, or over the last few years, but ever. As in the most perfect mechanics ever. In fact, anything he did was what the best players ever did, which meant players, like me, who wanted to someday be the best, had to imitate it or be doomed to failure.
I began to hate comparisons, but they were everything in baseball. Talent versus talent, be it team or school or player. Bodies bought and sold on comparisons. Scouted and signed because of favorable ones and released because of unfavorable ones. Almost every narrative in the game was built around them. It was dehumanizing, even if you were on the favorable side of it -- and if you were on a quest to be the best, the favorable side was the best you could hope for.
I was not Greg Maddux. Not even close. I was, at best, more like other players that were themselves not even close to Maddux. I was told this for years, not directly, but in the antithetical terms that only the sports world can provide. Always believe you're the best, at least, that is, until you're not the best, and the consensus is that someone else is the best, then know your place and be humble so it looks like you appreciate the game and play it the right way. In fact, never act like you're the best even if you are because those who aren't the best might be offended by how best you're acting.
I began to hate professional players. I saw them as the source of comparisons, and the source of trickle-down dehumanization. Even so, I coveted their power. There was no radioactive super strength to be had in this world, but there was the ability to make others inferior to you through accomplishment. I remember being angry that Maddux had changed the zeitgeist of baseball from one of luck and chance to some form of equation with each batter, each pitch representing a term that, if you followed the order of operations correctly, you could solve every time. I maintained that there was no such thing, and, yet, out in my backyard, after my games and practices, I would attempt to solve Maddux's equation. If he did have some kind of baseball superpower, I wanted it for my own. I deserved to have it just as much as he did.
* * *
What I got, however, was toxic. In college, after getting my ass kicked in a game my senior year, I was addicted to comparisons. I wanted to become a professional athlete so badly, to have the incredible social power it wielded so badly, that I'd starved myself to the point of passing out. I'd started going to the weight room twice a day and overingesting supplement powders. I'd cut 20 pounds in two months and nearly damaged my heart. I'd broken myself at the altar of the game and the great comparison; for my trouble, I'd just gotten my ass handed to me.
After that game, my parents took me out to a buffet restaurant for dinner. They wanted me to eat more. They told me how my bad outing was no big deal, how everything was going to be alright.
I screamed at them, silencing the whole restaurant. Everything was not going to be alright. I'd already gone undrafted once and if I was anything less than spectacular this year, I'd be undrafted again. I had to be the best. I snatched up my keys and stormed out of the place, leaving them there so I could go home and sulk.
I went online, to the adjusted stat line next to my name on the Kent State baseball team page. Those sterile numbers that defined me and my future potential were all that mattered. I checked them against the other players around the league. I had to be the best, I just had to be, and I wasn't above enjoying the failure of my competition. If there was no way out of this game of comparisons, then there was nothing wrong with enjoying the failure of others.
In those days, I would read about the paths other players took to the big leagues. Their origin stories, so to speak. I'd read about Maddux, about how, if he couldn't be the best at something, he'd stop playing it. I wondered how much shit he took as a young man for acting that way, or if other people told him he was being arrogant, or, when he got upset, if his parents told him it was all going to be OK. I wondered how, in a game of failure, with people always saying to act humble and civil and worship those who were currently the best, he didn't spend most of his time seething for a chance to recognize the greatness in him?
* * *
My last year with the Padres, Maddux was in the organization. He was 42 years old, in the final season of his career, and yet he was still better than I'd ever been, or would ever be.
I never talked to him in person. After someone occupies your thoughts long enough, a type of force field seems to keep them from you even when you finally have a chance to make their acquaintance. I decided that, if we ever did talk, we would do so as teammates or not at all.
Until that time came, I would settle for watching him in spring training, listening to reports about him from other players who went to big league camp. Word was that he had a thing for mocking rookies. It was said that he'd pee on you in the shower, or wipe his ass with a sanitary sock and throw it in your locker, or wipe his ass with a towel and put it back in the stack. One of the guys even said that, after asking Maddux for an autographed ball, instead of a signature, he got "fuck you hick" written on it. Oddly, that made the ball worth more to him. It was more personal, and more legible than Maddux's normal autograph.
Maddux was a god walking among us. He knew it. We knew it. He'd pitch in the minor league games back at the Padres complex instead of traveling with the big-league team so he could go home sooner and get out to the golf course. We minor leaguers would joke that, while pitching against us, with minor league umpires calling the games, Maddux could throw the ball over the backstop and they would be called strikes. Some of the guys wanted desperately to get called up just to have a chance of getting pee'd on by Maddux in the shower.
Later that year I was called up by the Padres to replace Maddux in the starting rotation after he was traded to the Dodgers, but I was hardly a replacement. I was quickly beat senseless as a member of the rotation, and again after being sent to the bullpen. I was a waste of roster space. A year later I was injured and never recovered. I was not better than Maddux, I did not steal his powers. I was just a fly splattered on the windshield of the big league experience.
* * *
After I retired, I went back home to look over where it all started. The old ball fields and schoolyards, the augmented fortress in the backyard. When I tell people about Greg Maddux and how big a role he played in my career, they ask me if I have any regrets about not talking to him. No, I don't. Because for as much as I knew about him, I didn't know him. I knew what I was compared to. I knew him as a legacy and a plot on a graph of greatness that my own plot would never be near. I knew Greg Maddux about as well as a kid collecting his cardboard effigy would. Compared to him, my legacy will always be one of failure, and when I say this, folks ask if it bothers me.
I'm a failure as measured against greatness. There is a quiet sense of honor in that. The world speaks of winners and losers as if uttering their names gives or subtracts power. It doesn't. Comparisons are for those on the outside to make. But for those on the inside, they're a privilege. They're the proof that you got to defend your fort.
When Greg Maddux goes into the Hall of Fame this weekend, he will take a part of me in with him. He doesn't know that, and he doesn't need to. But what I know is this: We are not just boring, sporty men. We're not just powers, or accomplishments. We're never just athletes. We become symbols and role players, the impetus of someone else's dream, even if we don't know it's happening. We become burdened under or contained in or defined by a relationship we have to everyone who has born witness to our quest, started long ago in a backyard.