Tears, Life, and Potholes — Singing the Baseball Blues with Randy Newman
By Stuart Mitchner
…little boys playing baseball in the rain …
… it starts with a game of catch.
New York Mets fans will remember Adam Wainwright as the lanky rookie pitcher who struck out Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded, sending the St. Louis Cardinals to the 2006 World Series. Randy Newman fans may remember his song, “Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America,” especially the verse that begins, “Americans dream of Gypsies.”
Eleven years ago my wife and I were having dinner at the Swan in Lambertville and spending our 45th wedding anniversary night up the road at the Black Bass Inn, where I watched the pitcher’s duel between the Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter and the Phil’s Roy Halladay, one of the great playoff games, won 1-0 by the wild card Cardinals on their way to the 2011 World Championship. I had to muffle my cheers because my wife had gone to sleep in the seventh inning.
Now it’s another anniversary, the wild card Phils are playing the Central Division-winning Cards, we’re in Lambertville again having dinner at the Swan Bar, and the Cardinals are facing elimination after the previous day’s ninth-inning debacle.
Ryan Helsley’s Finger
2022 had been a storybook season for the Cardinals — until that ninth inning. With St. Louis ahead 2-0, and the Phillies coming to bat, there was every reason to believe All-Star closer Ryan Helsley would be good for an extra inning of relief. Not once during the regular season had the Redbirds lost a lead after the eighth inning. With this in mind, I tore myself away from the TV to drive my son to an appointment he’d been looking forward to for days. If I still believed that a current of magical emotional energy ran between me and my forever team, I’d have stayed in front of the set. But that was me at 12. Now I’m a forever father who would have been breaking a promise to his grown son and for what? I’d have been going out of my mind, yelling at the TV, “It’s his finger dammit!” as soon as Helsley walked the first hitter. Yet he stayed in the game, gave up a hit, issued another walk, and then hit a batter, setting in motion a six-run catastrophe. A day later, no surprise, it’s goodbye to the post season dreams of Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, and the storybook Cardinals.
Calling Out Atlanta
Think of it — a whole season riding on the left middle finger of Ryan Helsley’s pitching hand, which he’d jammed during the last series of the regular season. Helsley had been phenomenal all year and not just because he throws a 104 mph fastball. As a citizen of Cherokee nation, he called out the crowd-rousing ritual of the Tomahawk Chop that was being used to rally the hometown fans in the 2019 National League Division playoffs with the Atlanta Braves. Terming it “a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general,” he said, “It’s not me being offended by the whole mascot thing … It’s about the misconception of us, the Native Americans, and how we’re perceived in that way.” Expressing “respect for Mr. Helsley’s concerns,” the Braves management amended their “in-ballpark presentation” by “not distributing foam tomahawks to each seat and not playing the accompanying music or using Chop-related graphics when Mr. Helsley is in the game.”
The Cardinals won that series, routing Atlanta in the final game, 13-1. This year the Phillies, who were eliminated by the Cardinals in the 2011 playoffs, are on their way to the NLDS with the 2021 World Champion Atlanta Braves.
On Losing Big
While last week’s nightmare ninth-inning collapse was ugly, it was easier to handle than what happened in the 1985 World Series, which the Cards were on the verge of winning when umpire Don Denkinger blew the call that turned the tide for the Kansas City Royals. As Denkinger himself later admitted after viewing a replay, the runner crossing first base he’d called safe was clearly out. Although he was the subject of death threats for years thereafter (imagine the level of abuse he’d suffer in the killing fields of today’s social media), the historic Blown Call has become so much a part of Cardinal lore that the once-loathed umpire was the guest speaker at a 20th anniversary dinner honoring the 1985 season.
For all my moaning and groaning over the injustice of that call, which haunted me for years, I never felt total inconsolable disappointment, like the kids in the stands you sometimes see on TV, crying after their team suffered a rough loss. Players cried, too, most famously Mickey Mantle on the plane home from Pittsburgh after the crushing loss of the 1960 World Series. His wife tried to comfort him, telling him “it’s only a game,” but it was more than a game, it was life. “I couldn’t stop crying,” he said, as quoted in the New York Times. “I felt as bad as I’ve ever felt.”
Whenever I have the baseball blues, it cheers me up to listen to Randy Newman’s 2008 LP Harps and Angels, where even a near death experience can rouse a smile, as in the title song when the voice of God speaks French (“Encore! Encore! … Tres bien! Encore!”) as the heavenly entourage departs. In “Potholes,” Newman’s variation on a talking blues, he sings “God bless the potholes down on Memory Lane” before relating his personal collapse during a sandlot ball game: “I used to pitch, I could get the ball over the plate, but anyway this one time … I walked about fourteen kids in a row, cried, walked off the mound, handed the ball to the third baseman and just left the field.” Years later “I brought the woman who was to become my second wife … to meet my father for the first time. They exchanged pleasantries, I left the room for a moment and when I came back he’s telling her the story right off the bat about how I walked fourteen kids, cried and left the mound. Next time he met her he told the same goddam story.”
As one of the “little boys playing baseball in the rain” in Newman’s song, I knew what he was talking about, but there were no tears in the sandlot days before adults and coaches took over, not when my friend Bob and I were happily locked into games of catch, which is where Adam Wainwright says baseball begins. We’d keep it going at night, in freezing weather, under the floodlights of a parking lot. No tears, just the joy of pitch and catch, as much a ritual of friendship as practice for big games that never happened.
The exception for me was playing football in seventh grade, a third-string quarterback sitting on the bench wearing a real uniform, a beautiful, bright red, Cardinal-red jersey. The coach had told me I could play, but when the time was right, instead of letting me in the game, he told me to take off the red jersey and give it to another kid. So I did and I didn’t cry until I was walking home. I lived only five blocks from the big flood-lit playing field. The tears had nothing to do with winning or losing. It was the shock of realizing that I was in another world, a world where adults were in charge. The joy of playing, whether it was baseball, football, or basketball, had been that we had it all to ourselves, no adults, no coaches, no managers. Just us.
When Losing is Winning
Another sort of pothole tripped me up the night the 2000 presidential election was called for Bush. Hours earlier I’d seen the television moment when CBS gave Florida to Gore and I’d seen the tense do-something-about-it expressions on the faces of the Bush family aimed at governor Jeb after they heard the news, which was based on exit polls. Beyond depressed, I was stupefied, and then, like they say in movies, “Everything went black” and when I woke up Gore had been stopped on his way to concede because suddenly Florida was “too close to call.” Then came the extra-inning epic of the hanging chads, the mob shutting down the Miami recount, and the Supreme Court fixing the game for good in an election where the loser was pronounced the winner, without benefit of a video replay.
Eight years later, with Bush in office, Randy Newman composed “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country.” The lyric appeared in print on the op-ed page of the January 24, 2007 New York Times (with one notable deletion concerning the three most conservative members of the Supreme Court). The last lines still resonate: “The end of an Empire is messy at best / And this Empire is ending / Like all the rest / Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea / We’re adrift in the land of the brave and the home of the free / Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.”
“Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America,” is from Little Criminals (1977), which I referred to in an August 27, 2008 article on Newman, with “Impersonation” erroneously printed as “Interpretation.”