Getting me to read a book at nine years old would be like forcing me to eat a bowl of mustard, my most hated food. If that book, or periodical, had anything to do with baseball, then that mustard was somehow converted into a warm bowl of chicken noodle soup. Just two years prior, my family had moved to a suburb of Pittsburgh, from Saginaw, Michigan, where I was vaguely aware that the Detroit Tigers were a team, coached by Sparky Anderson, and I had a dog-eared Topps baseball card of him that I regarded almost like a picture of my future self as a grandpa. As I met the neighborhood kids, an enthusiasm for the Pittsburgh Pirates soon infected me. The color scheme echoed the black and gold branding of Tim Burton’s Batman, helping seduce me into seeing the likes of Bobby Bonilla, a younger, more sinewy Barry Bonds, Jay Bell, Doug Drabek, Don Slaught, and especially, most especially, Andy Van Slyke, as heroes in the same category as the Caped Crusader. I looked at my Van Slyke collector cards as I would at images of myself from the future; a grown up, stubbled version of myself, when my little league in-the-park-home-runs would become wallops into the upper deck. I would probably be a remedial reader if it weren’t for Andy Van Slyke interviews in the ballgame programs we’d bring home from Three Rivers Stadium. Those I would curl up with and devour. Reading now had an urgent purpose, it would clue me in on how I would become the next Andy Van Slyke, and how I too would become an All-Star, Silver Slugger, diving and sliding in the outfield grass, just barely catching a dinger to end the inning.
In one interview, he mentioned how he slept on a waterbed; I felt this would be a major requirement as I molded myself into a Golden Glove winning ballplayer. I bombarded my parents with questions: What is a waterbed? Does it come pre-filled with water? When are we gonna go get me a waterbed? Can we go tonight? I’d even be okay with this weekend. A waterbed wasn’t in the cards, my parents would inform me, and it was discouraging. How would I ever be like Andy Van Slyke, if I didn’t sleep on the same type of bed that he did?
I stewed on this for a couple of years; this would be a challenge. But there was hope when I was invited to my friend Alex’s ninth birthday party, which would involve a sleepover after a night game outing to Three Rivers Stadium. In his basement, there was his parent’s old king size waterbed, where at least three of us would be spending the night. I would be one of them; I had called dibs. And they were quick to acknowledge my dibs, when they felt bad for teasing me during the game to the point of almost crying, when they told me Andy Van Slyke was a sucky player. I defended the man’s honor as best I could, but I was overwhelmed by a sense of outrage and injustice. They were perhaps just jealous of the Van Slyke autographed baseball I got for Christmas. My hurt feelings were in the air, but this helped secure me a spot on that glorious waterbed. So what if I had to endure ridicule and have my friends see tears welling up inside my eyes. I didn’t care if my friends now thought of me as a sensitive baby, I’d be immersing myself in the same style of slumber as my idol.
As most sleepovers go, not much sleeping was done. The night was spent whispering stories, playing video games, interspersed with general horseplay. Alex’s older cousin, who if memory serves me right, was in high school, was also sleeping down in the basement with us. Perhaps he was intended as a chaperone, but he was a big kid intent on opening our minds to learn about what we’d be obsessing about more than baseball once we were teenagers like him. He showed us a condom, wrapped it firm around his pointer finger as he demonstrated the mechanics of intercourse by making a circle with his other pointer finger and thumb. He thrust the latex covered finger in and out through this circle, vigorously, slurping loud like an amateur Foley artist. I wondered what was pleasurable about such a motion. Maybe size does matter. The bigger kids can hit the ball further. Maybe when I was taller, I would get a better feel for such a thing.
After the impromptu sex ed course, this cool cousin suggested we play a game. It wasn’t anything sexual, far removed from it, but it was a different sort of experimentation with pleasure. The cool cousin coached us in bending down, breathing fast, counting to 30 in our heads, and standing up straight against a wall. He then proceeded to choke us until we partially passed out, slumping to the floor, where for another 30 seconds we were immersed in a quick, pseudo-fever-dream. Around that time, there was a Nike commercial that often aired on TV, in which a scrawny person standing unequipped sees a massive football player charge at him, until inches before he’s plowed over, it cuts to black. Each of us, as we took turns experiencing a “space monkey,” recounted our weird nether visions that seemed to mimic the popular commercial. Football players, hockey players, race cars, wrestlers, and for me, I had the vision of a massive redwood tree falling on me.
As the sun started to come up, and we drowsy children decided to snag at least a little bit of shuteye, I got to experience that hour or so of wobbling on the mock surface of water, and the thoughts that seemed to emerge and drift inside of me. Why didn’t my brief “space monkey” dream involve some sort of sports player? It was a stupid tree, so far removed from the milieu of professional athletics. What did this mean for me? I didn’t feel like Andy Van Slyke on that bed. I didn’t feel like I’d ever be like him. It seemed like maybe from here on out life would unfold in a way that wouldn’t allow me to plan myself as a precise replica of someone else, and at the time, it was unsettling. I wondered if Andy Van Slyke had a favorite baseball player when he was a kid, and if Andy ever had that sinking feeling in his chest when he learned of ways in which they were different.
Later that summer, there was another interview with Andy Van Slyke in a Pirates program. He said he realized waterbeds were bad for his back, so he gave his bed to one of his sons. The other articles didn’t grab my attention. But the paperback spines spanning my parent’s bookshelf stirred in me a different sort of curiosity. A curiosity so powerful that I might even turn the pages inside, and someday squeeze just a little bit of mustard on a ballpark frank, and like it.