One long streak | Chuck's World
The two men in this story seem to resist my adjectives, which are all synonyms for “old.”
Grizzled, wizened, seasoned, venerable, superannuated: I take them out of the sentence and then put them back in, but when I calculate the ages of these men at that time, I come up with an average, as it turns out, of my age. So forget that.
They were baseball veterans, though, in different ways, and they passed an afternoon at spring training, many years ago, watching a rookie infielder.
A manager and a writer, they both had experienced eyes and they were both impressed with this kid. Whether he would end up at shortstop or third base was a question still, but the manager found this irrelevant.
“Just write his name into the lineup every day for the next 15 years; that's how good he is,” he told the writer.
I’m in awe of moments such as this one. I want to preserve them in amber, mount them in a case, take them out occasionally to observe and admire.
Moments of clarity, or whim, or chance, but remarkable moments because they’re at the beginning of the story, and we now know the rest.
The manager was Earl Weaver, the team was the Baltimore Orioles, it was the spring of 1982, and the rookie was Cal Ripken Jr., who would skip the second game of a doubleheader later that season and then be inserted into the lineup every day for the next 15 years. And then a couple of more.
I don’t think this is a remarkable moment because of the prescience of Earl Weaver, by the way. It was quite a thing to say, in retrospect, but for all I know he’d said it about many young players before.
No, what’s remarkable about this story is that the writer wrote it down. Wrote it down, kept it in his notes, published it in his piece, and published that piece in a book a few years later.
It’s a difficult thing to do, pick out the future and then prove that you did, but here is the proof, printed and bound before Cal Ripken did anything all that special except play every day.
Baseball lost Earl Weaver last year, at the age of 82, but the writer is still with us. He was and is Roger Angell, now walking a bit more slowly through his 94th year, still writing essays for the New Yorker, his home since before I was born. And I’m pretty grizzled.
Roger Angell is known for writing about baseball, but we get the sense that he resists, and he should.
He’s written about many things, non-fiction and fiction, and he’s a glorious essayist, an American voice, a poet who doesn’t mind a declarative sentence structure. His love of the game is evident, but there are other subjects.
This column is not about baseball. For example.
Roger Angell’s most recent New Yorker essay can be read online for free. You should, maybe, but only if you keep getting older.
Called “This Old Man,” Angell gives us some inside baseball on life lived long, from arthritis to losing track of narratives to walking with a cane (“Stop brandishing!” his wife used to tell him, an image that makes me await my own walking stick, any day now).
We rely on all sorts of writers to take us places we’ll never go, from spring training to war zones, but Roger Angell has given us a glimpse into where we might be.
There’s a statistical argument to be made about whether we are living longer or just not dying younger, but as Mark Twain reminded us, statistics are a particular kind of lie.
I once heard a physician laugh at the idea that a very elderly patient of hers had an elevated cholesterol level. “What’s a normal value for a person who’s supposed to be dead?” she said, not being unkind at all.
So the statistical fact that Roger Angell has lived longer than the average lifespan is meaningless given that he is, in fact, alive. And he brings us some news from the 90s, with wit and charm, and with the poetry of slower steps and long memories.
We’re all getting there. When my daughter turned 29 last December, I resurrected an ancient video of her father at the exact same age, griping about getting old.
We can sneer from respective vantage points, but only if we’ve forgotten the sense that comes, earlier than we expect, to inform us that we are not staying the same, not ever.
We approach our 20s eagerly and leave them reluctantly, and it doesn’t get easier after that.
So even though Mr. Angell has a four-decade head start on me, I read his essay with admiration but also interest.
I joked last year about approaching 55 and its demographic significance, the communities I could now join, the mail I would now receive, the statistical mushiness of being relegated to “55 and older,” but I wasn’t prepared for the feeling that I am somehow older now than I was.
But that’s me, and this was him. I found it even more remarkable than the Cal Ripken story, in fact, given that Mr. Angell had a beginning, as we all do, and now we all know the rest of the story.
He was in the lineup every day, as it turns out, and there are more days.