ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
No more than a month or so after I’d learned my friend Mike Steinberg had died, I started, as I often do in the dark of an Ohio winter, feeling a hot urge for baseball. I picked up David Halberstam’s book Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship about four old baseball friends and a journey two of them embarked on to say goodbye to the first of them destined to die. Although I have not a scintilla of regard for the Boston Red Sox, I do love the history of baseball, so I went along for the ride as Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky drove 1,300 miles to visit their dying teammate and friend, the great Ted Williams. Just a few pages into the book, I wanted nothing more than to call Mike.
I have no doubt Mike Steinberg had read the book the moment it was published in 2003. I’m sure he would have regaled me with anecdotes and stories about the players involved. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d met one or two of them. Not long after I met Mike twenty years ago, I knew he could not be separated from the baseball world or the writing life. Mike was an old-school baseball guy. He loved talking about the bunt, the blooper, the “nubber, a dying quail, a dinker, blooper, passed ball.” Mike resided deep in the soul of baseball, and he carried it in him throughout his life. In the writing community, Mike always seemed to me like the ultimate bench coach: seeing the best in everybody, never letting you get too down, always validating your talent, consumed with the game. He was a lifer. And he knew everybody in the game. I can’t say how many deep friendships I have because Mike brought like-hearted people together. That was one of his many gifts.
Mike’s utter obsession with baseball, as he wrote about in his memoir Still Pitching and in his last book, Elegy for Ebbets: Baseball On and Off the Diamond, would never leave him, nor could he shake it, although he often tried. Later in life Mike discovered that writing about his life in baseball could only be told in memoir and personal essays. As he writes in the essay “My Default Career,” “Then in my late forties, I wondered if writing personal essays could tap my deepest passions and energies the way pitching once did. Could it animate me, bring all the joy and exhilaration playing ball did?” When Mike discovered that indeed writing personal essays could deliver the joy baseball once brought him, he began writing them in earnest. And he wrote about baseball. “After all the years of writing failed stories and poems,” Mike writes, “of quitting and restarting, could it be that I’d finally found the genre that might be the right fit for me—the way being a closer in my adolescence was the right position for me as a ballplayer?”
Mike knew baseball was more than a game. He knew that childhood moments on the diamond defined a life, shaped a person’s character, broke you down, bent your sense of self. One of my favorite Mike moments appears in his essay “Chin Music.” Mike’s a fourteen-year-old kid in Rockaway Beach desperately trying to make the team, even more desperately desiring to prove himself as a pitcher to a bitter, malevolent and anti-Semitic coach. In a practice game on the last day of tryouts, Mike is called in from the bullpen to pitch to his best friend. A kid leads off third ready to attempt a suicide squeeze at the plate. As Mike’s about to pitch, the coach comes out to the mound.
“Sullivan and I stand inches apart. I could feel his breath on my right cheek. His nose red and swollen, slanted slightly to the right…Something was up…Sullivan rasps, ‘Steinberg, when Frankie breaks from third, throw it at his head.’ He meant the batter, Rubin. Why would I throw a baseball at my friend’s head? It wasn’t the right strategy. It was simply another one of [Sullivan’s] stupid tests of courage.” What I love even more than Mike not wanting to buy his coach’s bullshit by throwing at his best friend’s head is the fact that Mike, ever the baseball man, knows it’s not the right call for a suicide squeeze! As he says out loud from the mound a little later so that everybody on the field can hear him, “It’s the wrong play, Coach.”
Uneasy seconds slip by, and then Sullivan says, “My play, my way.” Mike says simply and honestly, “I can’t do it.” The coach loses it. “Sullivan slammed his cap to the ground, and in one honest, reckless moment it came out. ‘You fucking Belle Harbor Jews are all alike. No goddamn guts. You’re a disgrace to your own people.’ Nobody moved. The wind whipped a funnel of dust through the hard clay infield. So that’s what this was all about.” Mike the personal essayist understood that baseball is more than just a game, and this single instance was evidence of it. For him it was a proving ground. Although he wanted nothing more that day than to make the team, he knew what he could and could not do as a boy of fourteen, as the man he would become. He wasn’t going to succumb to a coach’s twisted character. Mike knew throwing at his friend’s head was the wrong call for baseball and an impossible one for him.
I could stop here because Mike so beautifully and elegantly squeezes out every ounce of meaning from this scene, this single moment of adolescence on a ball field. But it just gets too damn good a few moments later.
Sullivan steps to the plate and wants a little chin music himself. He then makes a mistake. He grins at Mike. “’Screw chin music, I’ll take his fucking head off,’ I whisper under my breath. I open my eyes as his cap flies off his head. As I watch him crumble, feet splayed in the dirt, I want to throw up.”
Incredibly, Sullivan stands up and takes it in stride. “Steinberg, get your nasty butt back on the hill. Suicide squeeze, same play as before.” But not for Mike. Sullivan and Mike had both crossed a line. “When I got to the rubber, I kept going. At second base, I pushed off the bag with my right foot and started to sprint. Unbuttoning my shirt as I pass Ducky Warshaue, our center fielder, I toss my cap and uniform jersey right at him.” When he gets to the locker room, he “hears the metallic clack, clack, clack of my spikes on the concrete floor,” and has second thoughts about what he’s doing. He wonders if he should go back out on the field. But he’s come too far. After his shower, Mike goes home, wondering what exactly he has just done. That Sunday night he gets a call from Sullivan. “I’ll see you at practice on Saturday,” Sullivan says. And Mike writes, “Of course I went back. That’s what you do when you’re 14 and your identity is wrapped up in being a ball player. I had a pretty good season, too.” Ever the baseball player.
As a narrator Mike stays pretty close to the ethos of the fourteen-year-old on the mound, but by detailing the action, by going back to the moment and taking his readers with him, he has shown us how a boy grows into a man. And all by not throwing a pitch, then throwing one, and then going home.
In his baseball writing Mike is utterly honest, totally open and willingly vulnerable—the best and most beloved of nonfiction narrators. In the title essay “Elegy for Ebbets,” Mike writes, “I grew up playing sandlot baseball and rooting for the Dodgers. Both were a big piece of my adolescent identity. I wasn’t part of the ‘in’ crowd at school. I was chubby, scared to death of girls, and an undistinguished student. So naturally I felt simpatico with this team of hopeful underdogs.” In his essay “Trading Off,” Mike admits what is likely the cardinal sin of a teammate. “During the games I found myself silently rooting against my own team. I sat on the bench or in the bullpen and prayed we’d get blown out, just so [the coach] would give me a few innings.” Mike leads with openness, honesty and vulnerability. They were essential to his nonfiction writing, a sequence of pitches that defined a writer—and a person. These same traits made Mike a true personal essayist, a dedicated and empathetic teacher, a trusted and loving friend.
In “My Default Career,” Mike is again writing about writing and writing about baseball, but as always, his ultimate theme surfaces through the action that reveals meaning. It’s clear in this essay that Mike understands perfectly what William Styron called “the desperate predicament of being human.” Of a time after cornea surgery that deeply shook him, Mike writes, “In the course of five years, both my parents died. Over a dozen friends and colleagues, some older, some younger, died. We reached the age of strokes, aneurysms, heart attacks, and cancer. You could go in an instant or rather slowly. It all spoke to my unfinished business and a finite amount of time to get it done.”
When Mike is in his fifties, he understands how inextricably knotted are his baseball past and his writing passion. “I realized my desperate need to prove myself to this hard-ass coach felt as strong back then as my desire to become a writer did right now…Baseball was the lens I looked through.” In a different essay, he goes further with the baseball as lens metaphor. “It’s the lens I look through to help me better understand my deepest feelings and confusions.”
Baseball was as good a teacher as Mike was. “When I started taking my writing seriously I knew I had to approach it in much the same way I taught myself how to pitch—through study, regular practice, and a highly disciplined regimen. That meant showing up at the desk every day, dealing with the disappointment of bad drafts and the myriad of rejection slips while still staying resilient and going back to the writing.”
I met Mike in Albany in 1999, the year his nonfiction journal, Fourth Genre, and mine, River Teeth, had their inaugural issues. When I learned of Fourth Genre’s existence, I was stupidly and immediately competitive. And then I met Mike. Within minutes we were talking about essay and memoir, balls and strikes. Mike wrote me often when my beloved Cleveland Indians faced the Cubs in the 2016 World Series. Like most people, Mike had a soft spot for the Cubs, the loveable losers and all that. Still, when Mike emailed me, he was perennially supportive, telling me lies that he made me believe about how the Indians were going to take the series. Mike and I tried to talk at least once a month. It seemed to always take us at least an hour to check in and straighten out the world as we saw it. We had much in common: We were both editors of nonfiction journals; we both had long and happy marriages—after having married way up. We were both neurotic as hell, and our neuroses seemed to fire along at the same pitch. We both loved creative nonfiction, and we both loved baseball.
We talked often of meeting up for a game at Tiger stadium, or maybe he’d come down for an Indians’ game, but we never got around to it. Attending a game with Mike Steinberg—where we could talk between pitches about the love of a wife, the guys up in the bullpen, a great, old baseball story one of us had heard, a nearly forgotten moment of childhood, where we could second-guess a manager’s move and reminisce about a time that was, all the while “…in the night mist and factory smoke…[be in] a sanctuary…a place where [we] were happy and secure”—would have been a helluva thing.
Joe Mackall is the co-founder and -editor of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative and of the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Prize in partnership with the University of New Mexico Press. He’s the author of the Book-of-the-Month Club selection Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, and of the memoir The Last Street Before Cleveland. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, Brevity, The Washington Post, and on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” He’s the co-editor of the book River Teeth: 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction