"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Chasing the Game

Over at SB Nation check out this long article I wrote on an old friend:

He’d played a lot of positions over the years. Today, he was a pitcher. It was more a testament to his willingness to be a good teammate than his talent. His curveball was non-existent, his knuckler average, and his fastball wasn’t all that fast. But he worked quickly and threw strikes, valued skills on a Sunday in the Westchester-Putnam (N.Y.) Men’s Senior Baseball League. The MSBL is an 18-and-older organization whose motto is “Don’t go soft, play hardball!” The national website claims more than 45,000 members, and it’s one of several amateur adult baseball programs to form over the past several decades. Nationwide, there are perhaps as many as 100,000 grown men still playing baseball every week.

“I don’t go to court thinking I’m Clarence Darrow,” Birbrower told me this summer. “But I hit a ball in the gap and think I’m Don Mattingly.”

For the past 20 years, Birbrower, a lawyer and divorced father of a son with autism, has played ball for teams like the Alleycats and Robins, the Smokers, and now the Braves. He was the guy who’d talk about at-bats from as far back as Pee Wee League. He had stories about everything: plays the scrubs made, wise cracks from guys on the bench, what the third baseman’s father yelled at an ump. But he loved nothing more than talking about himself. Anyone who has hit a ball on the sweet part of the bat knows it’s one of the greatest feelings you can have with your pants on, and Birbrower knew that rush as well as anyone. When he was a sophomore in high school he once hit five home runs in one week. It changed the way he saw himself. He wasn’t a regular guy who had gotten lucky; he was a star and now expected more, from both himself and the game.

“Until recently, everything was exaggeration,” Birbrower said. “If I went for a run it couldn’t be a nice run. I would be like, okay, I should run a marathon. I should write a book about running a marathon. Fuck it, I should write the best book about running a marathon that’s ever been written.”

Hope you like one. It’s about a kid who has become an admirable man.


1 Jon DeRosa   ~  Nov 6, 2012 4:11 pm

Excellent, Alex. It's amazing how that one week shaped his perceptions.

I played over-18 hardball until I was mid-to-late 20s, and now play in an annual summer tournament through work. I guess it's hard to explain why people keep showing up, but for me, it's harder to explain why I wouldn't.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 6, 2012 4:15 pm

1) Great point. But I think, from what I know of you and what I know of Birbrower, you were always a more grounded person.

3 Jon DeRosa   ~  Nov 6, 2012 4:32 pm

[2] Looking back, do you think he would rather not have had that week?

I wonder what his life would have looked like if he had a only 2 homers and a nice hot streak that week, but not the whole she-bang.

4 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 6, 2012 4:36 pm

3) I can't say for sure of course cause it's not my life. I think that week was just something he could grasp on but the leanings to fantasy, the relationship between the game and pleasing his father, were already there, so perhaps it wouldn't have changed anything. Or maybe it did. It's hard for me to tell.

Not sure it came across in the story but the guy is really funny, too.

5 Start Spreading the News   ~  Nov 6, 2012 4:36 pm

Nice writeup.

6 Jon DeRosa   ~  Nov 6, 2012 4:53 pm

[4] Well whatever the case for him, I can imagine myself having such an extreme experience and it embedding itself in my subcoscious identity calculus.

7 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 6, 2012 5:09 pm

6) Oh, yeah, absolutely. You don't forget that. Funny, but he remembers the one time I launched one in a high school game. We were playing in Tuckahoe on a field without a fence. Had we been at our home field it would have gone over for a homer. As it was, I was so stunned that I only managed to get to second. All I recall is not believing that I actually hit one that far, that I later made an error that led to a run and that we lost, 2-1.

But Adam remembers the hit perfectly. I think he was probably happy for me and envious that he didn't square on up that day like that. LOL

8 Ken Arneson   ~  Nov 6, 2012 5:37 pm

[6] Similar thing happened to me when I got back to blogging in September. First two things I wrote, I got like 30 readers. Then the third thing I wrote went a bit viral and got about 3,000. That was my 5-homer week. Suddenly, I was measuring myself against that, and when I'd write something that got 30 readers again, I'd feel like I was failing, and then I'd be knocking my head trying to figure out how to capture that high again, and then all the fun went out of it and I've kinda crashed with my writing since then. Success too soon -- not a good thing.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
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