life in bedlam
Tonight, I’m going bare my soul about something. I hope you’ll be gentle with me, readers.
I have an odd habit of falling for relatively obscure baseball players. If you “don’t get” baseball, read no further. Otherwise, I hope you’ll enjoy my tale of three sluggers.
Scene One: 1972
I was born into a Mets family, we lived in Queens and on Long Island until the early 1970s. At the tender age of four or five, I fell for a player.
Tom Seaver, you imagine, right? With his golden boy good looks, his near no-hitter….Nope….
Hmmm…I wonder why Rusty was my favorite player.
Scene Two: 1979
We moved to Maryland in 1977. My strawberry blonde locks darkened to auburn, and I quickly developed a deep passion for the Orioles. I reasoned that I could have two favorite teams — a National League team and an American League team. But, to be honest, the Mets faded from the scene as we sped down the New Jersey turnpike toward our new life below the Mason-Dixon Line.
All this time, I had been a hanger-on. My brother was the Little Leaguer, the baseball card collector. I was the kid sister who tagged along. No one really took my baseball fever seriously.
I finally got to go to my first major league baseball game in 1979. Along with thousands of other sixth grade safety patrols, I donned my orange belt and sat in the outfield bleachers of Memorial Stadium with my dad on a cold April afternoon. It was the most exciting moment of my life to that point.
That day, a player got hit by a pitch. And I had a new crush, who by the way, was now lying on the ground as the hushed crowd looked on.
Bye bye Rusty, hello Gary Roenicke.
Roenicke didn’t just get plunked that day. He was savagely injured by a fast ball that did more than make music on his chin. It took 25 stitches to sew up his lip and chin.
Following that game, I scoured the paper for any news I could find about my Gary. I learned that he was number 35, and that he shared left field duties with John Lowenstein. I started writing his number over and over on my notebook like this:
Gary returned to play a week later, wearing a funky makeshift protective bar on his helmet. Roenicke explained the helmet’s genesis a few years ago in an interview with the Baltimore Sun:
“The Orioles had gone to the Colts’ locker room, unscrewed the two bars off the front of (quarterback) Bert Jones’ helmet and put them on mine,” he said. “I wore that thing for two years.”
Sadly, Gary’s career never really reached the early promise he showed in the late 70s, and while he was a part of the Orioles 1983 World Series championship team, he bounced to a couple of other teams and retired after just ten years in the majors. From what I’ve read, he is a west coast scout for the Orioles organization, though, he’s been married 30 years, his son is in the early stages of a pro pitching career, and his life seems happy.
Scene Three: 2010
So now, fast forward to the present. I’ve been living in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for almost twelve years. In 2008, the Phillies moved their AAA affiliate – the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs — to a brand new stadium three miles from my house.
At first the Pigs were just godawful. It didn’t matter, though. Everyone was so hungry for baseball, the stadium sold out almost every night. As the team has improved, they’ve been sending more and more prospects up to the Phillies. Including the newest object of my affection:
John Mayberry, Jr. has had flashes of absolute brilliance in the three seasons he has spent at least part of the time with the Phillies. But I discovered JMJ during an “RBI Guy” promotion at the Iron Pigs stadium. He was designated the RBI Guy for the game, and if he knocked in any runs, everyone in the stadium would receive a coupon for an Arby’s roast beef sandwich. It was a great promotion, which led to all the fans standing and chanting “Roast Beef!” every time Mayberry came to the plate.
We all went home with those roast beef coupons that night, and my family started calling him Roast Beef. And then he got the call, and he joined the Phillies, and he became “our” Roast Beef. I jumped with glee when he hit a three-run home run in his first at bat at Yankee Stadium. I sat in my car furiously texting my husband as our Roast Beef won the first game of last season with a walk off hit.
These days, I just call him JMJ, and you’ll often find me tweeting #JMJ4EVER!!! when he does something great. Like last night, for example. Every time he has an at-bat, I hold my breath.
I’ve had more superficial baseball crushes over the years – Cal Ripken, Jr. and Jim Palmer were two players who I loved watching play not only because they were good, but because they were cute. And I love the game so much that I’m happy to watch almost anyone play.
But like Rusty Staub and Gary Roenicke before him, John Mayberry has (without his knowledge, of course) won a place in my heart.
As a very young girl, Rusty won me over because he kind of looked like me. We had bright red hair and stuck out a bit. I don’t know that as a four year old I really recognized that, but it seems obvious now.
With Gary Roenicke, the connection I felt was related to seeing him get hit by that pitch. Whenever he would come to the plate and the announcer would comment on his helmet, I had a moment of perverse pride. “I was there,” I’d think. “I saw it happen.” That I started writing his number on my school work and daydreaming about marrying him probably had more to do with the fact that I was 12, and that’s what you do when you’re 12.
My “special interest” in JMJ feels maternal. I’m not really old enough to be his mother, but he’s young enough that I feel protective of him. I want him to succeed so much! I want him to gain a foothold with the Phillies and become one of the greats. My heart breaks when he pops up or grounds into a double play. I was mortified for him when he was teased last season for expressing an interest in dating a beautiful actress.
Given how unpredictably my baseball loves have entered my life, I wonder if there will be a fourth. There probably will be. After all, it’s baseball. Anything can happen.