Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dock Ellis: Part II

Like I alluded to in the other post, Ellis was essentially chased out of Pittsburgh. A lot of that had to do with race and racial politics. The fact that Dock wasn't winning, at least like Dock and everyone else THOUGHT he should have been winning, provided an opening. The book Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball ends with Ellis's trade to the Yankis.
Now, the book is one of the better baseball bios I've read, but it's most interesting for what it tells us about ourselves, as fans. Donald Hall, the former Poet Laureate, wrote the book, and for all the flowing prose it reads as though it were written by a talented school boy. Hall gives us fairly uncritical looks at Ellis and the Pirates of the early '70s behind that scenes which, while commendable insofar as he is "non-judgmental," teeters into a strange form of enabling. Hall, more than a reporter, more than a fan of the game, is someone enthralled by Dock Ellis. The portrait we get is more of a mis-understood anti-hero than the youth of a man who would go on to die of a "liver ailment" (also seen: cirrhosis). It's strange how, even in death, we clear the house of all the mirrors to keep our heroes from seeing themselves as they are: multifaceted and as flawed as the rest of us, as if our mutual non-recognition of who they are somehow made them who we want them to be.

In the early 1960's, an old man came in to my grandfather's barbershop lamenting that he'd never been to a MLB game even though he'd been a fan all his life. That Saturday my grandfather closed the shop so he, my dad, the old man, and another customer who'd been in the shop at the time could drive down to Atlanta to catch a Braves/Giants game. That's just the kind of guy my grandfather was. It was also my dad's first game and he still recalls that Juan Marichal was on the hill that day.

My grandfather, like Dock Ellis, was also an alcoholic most of his life, with everything that entailed. In fact, one of my father's earliest memories of my granddad is overhearing a conversation he was having on the phone with one of his "other women." He could also be spectacularly violent, so much so that on one one occasion my grandmother started shooting at him to get him out of the house.

And believe me when I say that all of these things had a profound effect on my dad, even though he never talks about any of it. It explains a lot about who he is. His struggles are his father's struggles, and if he has failed in different ways over the years I know, for a fact, that as his son I never went through what he went through.

At the point I'm sure you're asking what any of this has to do with baseball, much less Dock Ellis? Well, reading the book, and reading the silences Hall would interject about certain subjects like the undoing of Dock's first marriage (wife couldn't take 'it'), I couldn't help but wonder if they, the people most dependent on Dock, would have told a different story? One not about a pitcher always on the brink who loved the good life and was an important political activist, but about an absent father or unfaithful husband and the pain that comes from those relationships. Good people, even great people, can also be very bad people who make very poor decisions. There is no line, no contradiction.

It makes me wonder if, when our heroes are dead, how else are we to make sense of things other than by sanding off the jagged edges of their stories so they can RIP and the rest of us begin to forget what we can't forgive?

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