|Pepper-Pots and Gum-Poppers: Something Will Happen Any Second Now|
For those who have forgotten or have never known childhood baseball, the worst player was always put in right field. Most batters were right-handed and usually hit to shortstop, center or left. So it was a rare and dreaded occasion when the right fielder had to do anything beyond remembering to come in at the end of his team’s half-inning in the field. (By the way, this changes dramatically as the talent levels in baseball rise—for example, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline, and Roberto Clemente were right fielders).
|What right fielder?|
Nobody knows what’s killed the right fielder, but theories abound, from heart attack, to sniper, to gangs and random gunfire. In exploring the theories, Dybek offers a couple of gems: “Young deaths are never natural; they’re all violent.” (36) Nor could it have been leukemia: "He wasn’t a talented enough athlete for that. He’d have been playing center, not right, if leukemia was going to get him." (36)
|Major League Swing|
His mates create a shallow grave right there in the outfield and try to smooth it over “so that the next right fielder, whoever he’d be, wouldn’t trip.” (37) But an elegant, trouble-free grave is not that simple: “. . . we couldn’t totally disguise it. A fresh grave is stubborn.” (38) And maybe that’s a good thing: "Perhaps we didn’t want to eradicate it completely—a part of us was resting there. Perhaps we wanted the new right fielder, whoever he’d be, to notice and wonder about who played there before him, realizing he was now the only link between past and future that mattered." (38)
|The Catch, The Fall, The Blur|
A good while ago, I met Stuart Dybek a couple of times, and I liked him. It seems everyone does. As I’ve said about some other writers, he came across as a perfectly regular guy, not some staggering, swaggering, histrionic exhibitionist (was that redundant? sorry).
But I think and hope that my admiration for “Death of the Right Fielder” goes far beyond knowing the author or feeling casually connected to baseball. The story’s inventiveness, economy, and philosophical depth are intensified by its modesty and its brevity. It refuses to take itself too seriously, though its issues are grave. It is not at all showy, yet it deserves multiple readings, for it is full of gems. And like its author, it’s for regular folks; it gives them their due, grants them the sadness of their mortality, while refusing, for even one minute, to wallow in self-pity or its opposite, self-aggrandizement.