Former Glories

19Apr08

BRITAIN STREET
Saint John, New Brunswick

This is a street at war.
The smallest children
battle with clubs
till the blood comes,
shout ‘fuck you!’
like a rallying cry ––

while mothers shriek
from doorsteps and windows
as though the very names
of their young were curses:

‘Brian! Marlene!
Damn you! God damn you!’

or waddle into the street
to beat their own with switches:
‘I’ll teach you, Brian!
I’ll teach you, God damn you!’

On this street
even the dogs
would rather fight
than eat.

I have lived here nine months
and in all that time
have never once heard
a gentle word spoken.

I like to tell myself
that is only because
gentle words are whispered
and harsh words shouted.

– Alden Nowlan

Last night on CBC, due to the annual programming changes that come with the NHL playoffs (namely, the relegation of Coronation Street to merely the Sunday morning marathon rather than the usual nightly 7pm airings — a move which, no doubt, infuriates Corrie fans, but really, with the lame story lines as of late, what’s the big deal? Claire will still be just as annoying and crazy, Liz will still be slutting around on Vernon, and Steve will still be lodging foot firmly in mouth and squandering any chance for romance come Sunday morning. So relax), I caught the Short Film Face-Off which features a number of directors from around the Maritimes facing off in a battle royale of, you guessed it, short films. Before switching over to Jeopardy (sorry CBC, I love me some Jeopardy), I managed to catch Haligonian Evan Kelly’s contribution to the proceedings, a five minute gem entitled ‘Former Glories.’ Consisting of little more than a few people recounting their fleeting fame as youthful amateur athletes, the film really struck a chord with me.

Sure, it’s easy to talk shit about sports, what with the overpaid pageant of spoiled, entitled jackassery that normally clogs the screen of cable TV on any given day, but it’s easy to forget about the positives that come with good clean sporting competition: teamwork, comradery and self-esteem.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I loathe the average jock-past-their-prime as much as anyone else, always rambling on about their glory days as though anyone else could really give a damn about what they managed to achieve in high school, long before they got that chick preggers and settled into a life of clerical oblivion, but there’s a common misconception about the participants of any given sport: not everyone is a ‘jock.’ Some of us just love the game and feel no need to embrace any of the usual signifiers of said activity.

But as a kid I was a generally lousy athlete, too busy worrying about what others might think of me rather than just relaxing and having fun. As a result, I always hated the regimented atmosphere of organized sports and, instead, gravitated to pick-up games with my friends. Free of pressure from any coaches, I flourished and turned into a pretty good hitter in baseball and a capable 2 on 2 basketball player with a wicked hook shot who knew how to work the give and go.

Basketball was my thing in high school and the source of my only good memories from that period of my life. Every noon hour, my friends and I would walk to the courts in the south end of Saint John and engage in spirited games of half-court 3 on 3 amid the fumes belching forth from the since-closed Lantic sugar refinery across the street. I looked forward to these games everyday. Sure, there was never any mesh on the hoops and you had to be careful to avoid the broken beer bottles, but that court of cracked asphalt and grime had a certain indescribable charm that people from posh neighbourhoods would never understand. The rim we always used had been bent down to facilitate dunking and although I never managed to rock the rim myself, I was on the receiving end of more than one Upper Deck moment of dunked-upon shame courtesy of Tyrone, one of the few guys from St. Malachy’s (the “Catholic” school and my school’s chief rival) who would venture down every day for a game. Tyrone was a hell of a player. Explosive speed, ace ball-handling and passing skills, with a wicked base-line jumper. Plus, he was a nice guy. I haven’t seen him since then. Last I heard of him was the time he got stabbed by a Guatemalan sailor outside a local bar and, were it not for the presence of mind of one of the waitresses who held his intestines in, nearly died.

But my greatest sporting moment had nothing to do with basketball and had none of the drama of a near murder.

A few years after high school I decided to join an orthodox softball league at the behest of one my former basketball compatriots (who was, in actuality, one of my best friends during both middle and high school). As previously mentioned, I wasn’t much of a little-leaguer: I was always too nervous to settle in at the plate. However, in the intervening years, I had played a form of baseball every night in the yard of my parents’ house, using an orange hockey ball instead of a baseball and a hockey net in place of a catcher. As such, I developed into a wicked power hitter in my own right, never quite settling into a consistent batting stance, but switching between that of Robin Ventura and Frank Thomas as my mood suited me — I was a White Sox fan at the time, for whatever reason.

So when I took up fast-pitch softball, I was a threat at the plate and, most satisfyingly, playing against the same guys I had embarrassed myself against during little league (which my lone memory of remains as a fat lip I suffered upon being struck in the mouth by a bad-hop grounder during a pre-game fielding practice). I earned a spot as the number three hitter in the lineup (which might have had more to do with the lackluster lineup of my team more than my hitting ability, but such things get filtered out by rose-coloured glass) and ended up leading the team in home runs both years I played.

My crowing achievement — former glory, if you will?

Easy. One balmy July night I went 3 for 3 with two home runs, a double and five RBI’s while making a big play in left field that involved a collision with my shortstop and a mild concussion. I remember the home runs clearly, one to left and one to right. The double was down the right field line and just stayed fair over the head of the first baseman. The big play in left field? Well, it was a pop-up to the shallow outfield that I charged hard on (heh heh, he said ‘hard on’) and called vociferously. Nonetheless, the shortstop — a rather muscular, but short individual who could make diving plays, but little else — ignored my calls and tracked back… right into me as I made the catch. His cranium cracked me in the forehead and we both fell to the turf, ball lodged firmly in my glove. I jumped up, admittedly dazed and showed the infield umpire my prize, thus ending the inning. Mr. shortstop stayed down for awhile, but eventually shook it off and made his way to the dugout. As did I.

The coach subbed me next inning and the rest of the night passed as though I was peering out from the rear of my head, distant and blunted.

I don’t even remember if we won or lost, but the handshake at the end was well worth it…

It was, indeed, a good game.

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