Boy Culture opens in Royal Oak, just outside of Detroit today, in my home state. Although I'm a Michigander (honest, that is the right word!), I rarely ventured into Detroit—in the ’70s, we white-flight-suburbanites considered it a dangerous trek, and it's really been forgotten today. Funny how the U.S. of A. will abandon cities it's done with, just like it'll do with citizens.
If I was ever taken into Detroit as a kid, it was irregularly by my dad for Tigers baseball games, sometimes alone and sometimes with my cousin/then-idol. I never liked baseball—STEE-RIKE ONE!—but to please my father, I threw myself into gathering players' autographs and acquiring complete sets of Topps (and Donruss...and Fleer...) baseball cards every season. Sports? I didn't get it. Collecting? I got it—in fact, I usually got one to keep and one to trade.
At games, my cousin and I would buy programs and then linger wherever we spotted players (from either team) gathering near the wall. If they were close enough, even if they were busy warming up, we could lean over and call down to them from the stands and get them to saunter over and sign. There must be a unique kind of pride that an adult male athlete feels when a little boy wants his autograph. It has to be different than it is for movie stars and rockers—after all, those people are famous for excelling in or at least nimbly navigating the frivolous arts, whereas an athlete is like some kind of superdeveloped male in the eyes of a boy. They are like perfect examples of manhood, which of course boys are hoping they'll blossom into—muscular, lean, physically potent. This applies to all boys, even the ones (like me) who are also thinking, in a confused way, how cool it would be not only to be them, but to be desired by them. Having that latter urge doesn't erase the former hero-worship; it just complicates things.
I had a second cousin in professional baseball. He wasn't around much (I barely remember ever meeting him) and he didn't play for the Tigers, but whenever one of the teams he was on or, later, was employed by swung through Detroit, my dad would try to hook us up with special access of some kind. I only remember this happening once, but it was a doozy—a locker-room tour.
After the game, not feeling any loyalty to the home team, I was taken into the California Angels' locker room for introductions and autographs. Keep in mind I was probably eight. I still remember how it looked, or rather, I have remembered it over and over so many times that it exists in my mind clearly, if perhaps in a weirdly stylized copy of the original. I swear everything I saw looked like one of those cheap ’70s Fotomat photos, faded orange at the edges.
Maybe the details are swirling away from me like so much shampoo, soap and sweat down a drain. But here is what I think I saw:
The first thing I saw upon entering the swelteringly hot lair were huge black dicks, huge pink asses, huge brown handlebar mustaches and blindingly white towels, all popping from a dark, steamy haze and set off against dull tile. I was taken around to several guys (I think maybe the ones who my host—my second cousin?—thought might not be total assholes about it), who varied from nice at best to inoffensively detached at worst. No jerks. Looking at an old team roster, I think I probably met Don Aase, Al Fitzmorris, Nolan Ryan and Carney Lansford, among several others others. Or is it that their names are etched into my brain from all the card collecting? (I know I met Ryan; he was one of the more interesting sigs on my many programs, which I later sold, along with my baseball cards, for a couple of hundred bucks when I was in college.)
One guy I know I met was Lyman Bostock. I recall him looking like Richard Pryor and being bare nekkid as he signed for me. I think he was a bit remote—wouldn't you be in that awkward situation? Or was it that the Angels lost that game? Dunno, but he was pleasant enough.
Then I was taken away, with only a vague understanding that memories of this visit would somehow be useful to me in the future.
Not long after, within a year, we were in the car listening to the radio and it was announced that Bostock had been shot to death in the back seat of a car somewhere. My dad reacted with his usual animation over death announcements on the radio (when Natalie Wood died, I thought the world was ending by the level of interest he showed). "You met him. Remember?" I did. And I have.
I think the important thing I was supposed to remember is that he used his pull to get me something not many other kids were given that day, an unearned early trip into the vault of manhood. It wasn't his fault that I didn't care about baseball, or that I would wind up recalling that visit not fondly but fondle-y. I did and do remember his good intentions in arranging it, in taking me to see the Tigers irregularly, in forcing me into tee-ball and Little League baseball year after year. He was just trying to help.
I've never been a blame-the-parents type. Mine are relatively blameless anyway, so maybe I'm not one to talk—there is no major issue that's plagued me. But even with minor things, like my dad wantinig me to play and/or appreciate sports, I haven't held a grudge. I think my experience in that locker room—so different from the experience he presumed I was having—showed me that there is no way for parents to have any clue whether the child they're rearing is the child they think he or she is. Parents have to assume a lot just to proceed, and there's a very good chance one or more of the bedrock assumptions will not be accurate.
In the end, in parenting as in baseball, it's not how many you win or lose, but how you play the game.