In April Anything Could Happen

On April 7, 1970, I conned my mother into letting me stay home from school in order to watch my beloved Minnesota Twins play the first game of the new season against the Chicago White Sox. The Twins won, and a journeyman outfielder named Brant Alyea, newly acquired from the Washington Senators, collected four hits, including two home runs, for a total of seven runs batted in. 

My imagination was fired by Brant Alyea. It was not just his name, exotic though it was, or his powerful right-handed batting stance, or even his stylish sideburns, but the sense of possibility he embodied, the potential for heroic accomplishment. At this rate, I calculated, he would finish the season with over three hundred home runs, a thousands rbis, a slugging percentage to rival the gross national product of Bolivia. I had discovered opening day.  

As a Twins fan in the early 1970s, I’d scan the opening day rosters optimistically, always expecting great things from Calvin Griffith’s latest collection of imposters: Rick Renick, who had the potential to be the next Harmon Killebrew, who hit a home run in his first big league at bat and managed only nineteen more the rest of his career; Eric Soderholm, an intense third baseman with tinted glasses who underwent hypnosis, hit the ball well for a few months, then suffered a bizarre injury (he fell down a manhole—really, he did, who could make something like that up?) and never wore a Twins uniform again; Bob Gorinski, who had the potential to be the next Rick Renick; Tom Tischinski, a reserve catcher, damned with faint praise even by the local broadcasters, who assured us that Tom excelled at blocking the plate; Paul Ray Powell, who sounded fast and looked like a batting champion but never hit his weight; Mark Funderburk, the next Bob Gorinski. 

And then there were the pitchers—ah, the pitchers!—a litany of losers, an epic roll call of hapless heroes whose very names evoke years of futility, scores of wild pitches and gopher balls and blown leads: Albury, Singer, Decker, Bane, Luebber, Pazik, Hands, Fife, Serum, mighty Thormodsgard. 

I believed in them all, the washed-out veterans, the castoff utility men, those with warning track power, with no wheels, who couldn’t hit the breaking ball, who could throw but not field, run but not get on base. I saw in them the glimmer of their greatness, the promise of their best selves. I felt in them the confidence they’d left behind in high school and the Sally League, in Cedar Rapids and Elizabethton.

They disappointed, of course—don’t we all?—but in April, anything could happen. Win the opener and you’re in first place; get just one hit, and you’re batting a thousand. In June and July, though, it was a different story. The law of averages exerted its iron will, and the Twins swooned. The hitters endured their strikeouts and feeble ground outs with grim patience. The pitchers fooled nobody, looked genuinely relieved when they handed the ball over, and didn’t even bother to kick the rubber. My favorites were sent to Toledo, dispatched on waivers, released outright. By midsummer 1970, Brant Alyea was playing once again like the ham-and-egger that everyone but me seemed to know all along that he was. 

Now, thirty years later, a tenured professor, careful offacts, respectful of documentation, I study Brant Alyea’s modest lifetime record in a thick baseball reference book. I discover that his finest year came not in Minnesota but in Buffalo, New York, my new home, where my AAA Bisons play ball in a lovely outdoor park—on real grass—where Buster Bison throws Frisbees into the stands between innings and autographs my kids’ gloves.

I am middle-aged now, ancient for a ballplayer but just midcareer in academe. I am a steady if unspectacular teacher, a .285 husband and father, a writer who nibbles at the corners. And because I want to believe that my best years are still ahead of me, my career year just around the corner, I still need opening day. Older, but no wiser, I choose to put a twelve-year-old’s lunatic faith in possibility, yearning still for the chance to put last year’s errors and humiliations behind me, to begin and be made new, to fulfill my potential at last.

From Scoring from Second: Writers on Baseball, Edited by Philip F. Deaver, University of Nebraska Press.