Otis Redding Was Right
I've begun to see that the pleasure men take in being with each other -- playing cards together, being in a bar together -- isn't actively anti-female. It isn't against women; it just has nothing to do with them. It seems to come from some point in their lives before they were aware that there were women. They have so much fun together. I really have become much more sympathetic to men because of my job.
Jane Gross, on her experiences as woman sportswriter, to Roger Angell, 1979
One of the primary reasons why I'm a baseball fan is that it is a way for me to connect with other men. Some dudes like to talk about cars or hunting or books or records. We generally need something to bring us together, to connect us. Women get together all the time and can actually talk about their feelings. While men aren't excluded from this kind of discourse, it sure isn't the norm. Then again, men can also sit together and watch a ballgame without saying anything to one another for more than an hour and be utterly content, whereas I defy you to put a group of women in a room and have more than 30 seconds pass without someone saying something.
But while male-bonding is an intrinsic part of baseball's appeal for me, I've always shared the game with women as well. The two are not mutually exclusive. Some of my earliest (and fondest) memories of the game are playing with Vera Plummer, a close friend of the family's whose daughter was my age. Vera grew up in Brooklyn but was a Yankee fan and to this day she'll show you Gil McDougald's batting stance and talk about Raschi and Reynolds with little prompting. While my father was impatient and often irritable when it came to playing ball, Vera never seemed to get tired of pitching me that whiffle ball. More than any specific detail, I recall the feeling of her enthusiasm and enjoyment.
One the greatest women fans I've ever known is my friend Marylou Ledden who grew up in Fitchburg, a small town about fifty miles west of Boston. Marylou had just turned 18 during The Summer of Love, also known as The Impossible Dream season in Boston, and I'm sure she knew as much about baseball as she did about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Her father, a burly Irish drinking man, would take her to the bleachers at Fenway Park, and although she was quite beautiful, she was also surely no pushover.
I first met Marylou around 1984 when I was about 13 at a party that my father took my sister, brother and me to during our weekend visit with him in New York. The gathering was at the apartment of a woman whose brother-in-law was Lorne Michaels and I distinctly recall Marylou, in jeans, wearing combat boots, and sporting a Lulu haircut like the one Melanie Griffith would make fashionable again in "Something Wild" a few years later. Like that character, Marylou lived down in the lower east side. She was bright and funny and attentive (we were the only kids at the party).
Over the next few years, she was around often and soon we developed a close friendship. She was like a big sister or a second mother to me. She thought I was a great kid and believed in me, and was very much of a mentor.
Not only was she funny and unpretentiously hip, but she was probably the most analytical and intelligent woman that I had ever met. She thought like men did, though she was anything but. She taught me about women and sexuality during my adolescence (taking me to see "A Room with a View" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," neither of which I understood at the time) and turned me onto literature and movies. We went to see Buster Keaton movies together and she would clue me in to the subtleties of the sexual dynamics in his movies. I took my cues from her laughter as we watched, and then later by discussing those moments at length.
She was also an avid sports fan, and someone who could appreciate the way men perceived and followed sports as well. At the same time, she was true to her own feminine instincts toward the game. She appreciated the beauty of the baseball, watching elite athletes perform, the strategies and history of the game, while she could also step back and salivate over them as sexual objects as well. I don't recall watching "Bull Durham" with her or what she thought about it, but she was as close to the Susan Sarandon character as anyone I have ever known. She wasn't a groupie, but she was a feminist who did not hate men.
Marylou moved to New York in the 1970s, and for years she remained loyal to the Red Sox -- she never let me forget the cruel messages I left on her answering machine after the Bill Buckner game. But by the mid-nineties there was no doubt that not only was she softening her stance towards the Yankees, she was even beginning to like them, too. After the Yankees dominated the league in 1998, she had been won over by Joe Torre's team. We went to any number of games together, including Pedro's first as a member of the Sox at Yankee Stadium, and talked on the phone during many more.
In February of 1999, Torre was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Marylou had recently gotten married to a nice Jewish guy from New York -- she always had a thing for Jewish guys. Shortly thereafter, she began complaining of dizziness and, after a series of visits to the doctor, on May 7th, she was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. As it turned out, she was suffering from brain cancer as well.
She immediately began chemotherapy treatments, but before long it was clear that she did not have long to live. The last several months of her life were spent in the hospice ward of Beth Israel in downtown Manhattan. It was the first experience I'd ever had with anyone close to me dying. During the days, I worked on a forgettable Cameron Diaz movie, and during the evenings I watched the Yankees and visited Marylou. Often, while I was in her room, the Yanks would be on the small TV, and, at moments, it was easy to slip into the rhythms of the game, temporarily forgetting the gravity of her situation.
I remember being very worried one evening about the pending labor issues on the horizon, and Marylou dismissed my concerns by saying, "Baseball will survive." She said it quietly but it was as if she had never been more certain of anything in her life. "No, but, you don't understand," I protested. She gave me a look that said, "You just don't get it." "Honey, no matter what happens, baseball will go on."
About the only good thing I can say about cancer is that it allows you to say goodbye, it allows you to tell somebody how much you love them. Marylou had worked her ass off to get where she was in the world and though she was now slowly deteriorating she did not succumb to self-pity readily, though for a while there, she was plenty pissed off. Somebody recommended Mitch Albom's best-seller "Tuesdays with Morrie" to me, which I promptly devoured. When I told Marylou about it, she said, "I don't want to be anybody's fucking Morrie." She had just gotten married and would never get to be a mother, and was not ready to be anybody's wise old sage. But her rage didn't last long. "Why you?" her therapist told her one day when she was particularly upset, "Well, why the hell not you? What makes you so special?"
Just because she was dying didn't mean she was suddenly going to be accorded special treatment. I have a fuzzy memory of the summer. (One day I came home from seeing her and, alone in my apartment, watched David Cone pitch a perfect game.) Mostly, I remember the intensity of the emotions. And she continued to teach me. On another day, I was sitting by her bedside with her sister Lisa, and Aretha Franklin's version of "Respect" came up in conversation. "You know Otis Redding wrote that," I said. "No he didn't," she replied. "Oh yes, he did." But even before I could get going, she touched my forearm and looked me directly in the eyes and said, "You don't need to be right here. I still love you." This cut right through me. She knew me so well, understood my neurotic need to be validated by being correct all of the time.
I left the hospital that day, wandering back to Brooklyn in the heat of the New York summer, humbled by the fact that here I was really revved up about making her see that I was right about something trivial, when here she was withering away before my eyes. Later that night, I was relaying this story to a record-nerd friend of mine and he said, "Otis Redding did write 'Respect'." My first instinct was to run back to that hospice and shake her, "See, I told you I was right!"
But being right was irrelevant. Whether I was right or not did not affect the way she felt about me. If I learned one thing that summer it is when it comes down to it, and you don't have your looks or your health, when you have to be carried to the bathroom, when you start to lose your mind, nothing, and I mean nothing in this world matters but love. That's all you get, and if you are lucky enough, it will envelop you and make the existential fear of dying a bit easier.
Three months after she was diagnosed, Marylou died. I had stopped going to see her weeks earlier. It had become too painful to say goodbye again and again, not knowing when she would actually be ready to leave. That season, I wanted the Yanks to win more than ever -- to confirm the greatness of 98 -- but also felt that if there was ever a time that I wouldn't mind the Sox beating the Yanks, this would be it. For Marylou's sake. Life isn't that accommodating though and the Yanks whipped the Red Sox in the playoffs and went on to win the World Serious.
Death and illness followed the Yankees that year, drawing me even closer to them. Late in the season, Yankee third baseman Scott Brosius' father passed away after a long battle with colon cancer; soon after, Luis Sojo's father died of a liver infection following surgery for an aortal aneurysm. Then, before Game 4 of the Serious, Paul O'Neill's father passed away after a long battle with heart disease. In the victory pile after the game, I'll never forget the image of the massive O'Neill collapsing into Torre's arms like a child. I wished I was him and had a guy like Torre to console me.
I miss my old friend dearly because I still have so many questions to ask her, so many more games to watch with her. I doubt I'll ever know anyone like her again. In the last years of her life, when we'd go out to dinner, she'd make me order for the two of us because that's what a guy is supposed to do. It's not often that a woman teaches you how to be a man but, in the purest of ways, that's exactly what she did for me. Who says baseball is just about fathers and sons?
Alex Belth is the founder and co-author of Bronx Banter. His first book, Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights will be released next spring.