John Albert's strangely joyous new book Wrecking Crew profiles what may or may not be an emerging subculture: The Born-Again Jock.
We're talking about guys (yeah, it's pretty much a penal colony) who bailed from sports as teens because the coach didn't like their long hair or attitude, or because the idea of adult-supervised fun no longer was, um, fun. They may have lost a chance at the big leagues, but they've never lost the love for the game, even as their lives have fallen apart.
Albert's Griffith Park Pirates baseball team is united not only by the kind of midlife narratives that typically illicit "sucks to be you" shrugs, but also a repulsion to the reigning values of their hometown, Los Angeles.
As founding Pirate Mike Coulter notes, "People like me aren't even supposed to ... like sports." And, obviously, speed freaks, recovering heroin addicts, closeted transvestites and aspiring actors aren't supposed to play them, either. And they're really not supposed to play fast-pitch hardball with uniforms, umpires and hotly contested batting orders.
John Albert's story is typical of many Pirates, except that he didn't become baseball-obsessed until he started playing. Like many of his teammates, he boasted a solid punk rock pedigree as founder of the band Christian Death and former drummer for the legendary outfit Bad Religion. And, as with many of his teammates, Albert's youth was awash in bad decisions.
"When the Sex Pistols sang about "no future," someone should have informed [us] that it was merely rebel agitprop and not a design for living," he writes. So now, in his forties and with a case of dirty-syringe-induced Hepatitis C, a career writing screenplays you've never heard of and a body racked from years of drug use, Albert is as unlikely a candidate for right field as anyone.
Or, as he puts it: "For someone like me, an anti-social intellectual who had spent his life sneering at any kind of middle-class normalcy, joining a baseball team felt oddly subversive."
Much of Wrecking Crew ignores such fundamentals as keeping your glove down on grounders or extending your arms through a swing. In fact, most of the book is a series of intermittent profiles of the Griffith Park Pirates. Much to Albert's credit, these illuminating and often hilarious vignettes paint a complex portrait of a diverse, dysfunctional team and its heartbreaking struggles for redemption.
Witness an abbreviated version of the roster: Behind the plate is Chris Casey, raised in a macho household with a military dad and brother, who, when not playing catcher, is coming out of the closet as a transvestite. The third baseman, Johnny Navarro (cousin of rock god Dave), undergoes a doomed romantic doubleheader with a Manhattan call girl and then a heroin-plagued stripper. The most undeniably talented player is Musashi Fujii, a Japanese dude who defied his family by pursuing an acting career in Hollywood.
Maybe the prospect of grown men playing baseball -- and taking it seriously -- seems downright pathetic. But as Albert shows, baseball rarely is just about baseball. In a city littered with thwarted dreams, where an entire servile class yearns for the TV pilot that turns into a sitcom or the gig that becomes a record deal, playing a sport for no other reason than enjoyment of the moment is as countercultural as any inner-lip tattoo.
While the Griffith Park Pirates aren't about to bring down the class system, the possibility of creating community through baseball (and not a PlayStation surrogate) truly is something to behold. So maybe punk's not dead. Maybe it's on the verge of stealing second.
-- John Dicker
by John Albert
(Scribner: New York)
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