The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Leaving it all Behind: Joe Wood Has a Beer in Ouray

The meals are generally warm and agreeable in this establishment, the last one down here along the highway before you get to Stony Mountain.  They all know me in here; got my table ’round back near the bandstand where all they ever play is goddamned “Waltzing Matilda” over and over, as if they might just conjure up another Gallipoli simply by doing so.  My reflection sits at the bottom of my beer mug, waiting for me to pull it out.  Once, I was of the inclination to do so, but thought better of it.  We each have to learn to make it on our own in this world.

"Smokey" Joe Wood, Boston AL (baseball)

“Smokey” Joe Wood, Boston AL (baseball) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The shoulder stiffens in the dry, brittle air of winter’s Colorado.  Jesus died at 33, and I ain’t planning on kicking the bucket just yet, and yes, that crown of thorns must’ve been one sonovabitch, but mister, until you’ve awakened at 4:00 a.m. after a hundred curveballs, and twice as many fastballs, well, all I’m sayin’ is, don’t come cryin’ to me about sin and redemption.  We all get squeezed sometimes.

Flaky Lacy over there says she’s seen my picture in a newspaper brought back from the East.  Says she thinks I was famous, playing some game of Ball or something.  Showed me the headline, and the picture of a dark-eyed, serious looking kid of the age when youth sets, then begins to die.  The camera captured the image the instant before the melting began, when first you lose your heater, then your heart.  Finally, they take your name and put it in a magazine.  Might as well be an obituary.

Tried second-base once.  It didn’t take.

I could hit a little.  Batted .366 years after I couldn’t comb my own hair with my right hand.  They say your body compensates for itself so that one part of it grows stronger when another part shuts down.  Well, the wrong part grew stronger, sir.  The memory of the ball just whistling out of my right hand, effortless as a young girl dancing barefoot in summer’s backyard — all lemonade and perfumed air — gets stronger and sharper.  It cuts and slashes leaving nothing but the wound of youth.

Boston ball grounds - 1912 (1st part of panora...

Boston ball grounds – 1912 (1st part of panorama), 9/28/12 (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Maybe I’ll leave this land of the Ute, and head back East after all.  Got a cousin in Connecticut.  Said I could get a job in New Haven teaching pitching.  I could get down to Boston once in a while, I suppose.  Sit with the old men in the bleachers, talking about the way things used to be.  How the young fellers of today don’t know how to play the game the way we once did.  Clean balls now, and everyone hits a homer, drives a car, and owns a radio.

Ran into a man on my way out of here yesterday.  Said he was a reporter.  Asked me to come back in and have one more for the road.  Said to me, “You was Smokey Joe Wood.”  I said, “I guess I still am, but for the part that refers to my right arm.”  He laughed and shook his head.  “Don’t know how you do it,” he pondered.  “Why, whatever do you mean, sir?” I retorted.  He held off for a moment, bottom jaw cranky with doubt.  Foamy beer clung to his lips and chin, leaving him looking like a bearded Greta Garbo.

“You had the world once,” he started.  “You were literally ‘King of the Hill’, and no one could knock you off your perch.”  He stared at me now, in the same way mortals first came to detest the fallen Gods of old when Olympus would no longer shelter them.  “How do you get on with it at all?”  His question lingered in the air, like the moment after the first drop of rain, but before the second.  It insinuated a dark chasm that I had heretofore generally avoided.

Colorado Meadows

Colorado Meadows (Photo credit: QualityFrog)

“I don’t get on with it at all,” I responded.  “I simply play dead, and it gets tired and moves along on its way.  It is dumb, sir, and spends time fretting over its feces, and pulling thorns from its feet.  Me, I adjust the shadows so they cloak me when I sleep, and when I arrive at a new destination, they always arrive a step behind me, lapping at the sunlit, dappled ground.”

I paid my tab and left that place.  On the way out of Ouray, on a cannonball headed to the Atlantic, I spotted a ballgame out my window.  A barefoot boy, bat on his shoulder, turned to look at the train barreling by his little, brown diamond.  He waved, perhaps not at me, but at the image of speed and power that captured his imagination.

I thought I knew just how he felt.  I waved back, (just in case), head resting against the cool windowpane, eyes closed now, and said goodbye.

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18 thoughts on “Leaving it all Behind: Joe Wood Has a Beer in Ouray

  1. Before I comment on your wonderful story, I should say that I love “The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda,” particularly the Pogues’ version, and Eric Bogle’s original.

    This story was beautiful and a little heartbreaking. I like how you saw the pathos in Smoky Joe’s later years, and imagined his return East from semi-anonymity in his home town. I didn’t even know there was an Ouray, Colorado–and it turns out it’s even got its own county.

    I loved the minutia and little details that really breathed life into this story.

    • I actually do love the Pogues version of that song, off “Rum, Sodomy and the Lash” as well. I was actually listening to that entire CD when I started writing this, so that’s how that happened. Thanks so much for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. I have to say, though, that your novel helped inspire me to try to write a little more creatively (though, of course, the genres are quite different.)
      Cheers, man.
      Bill

      • That’s a nice thing to say!
        You know, “Rum, Sodomy & the Lash” is one of my favorite albums. You probably know this, but it’s cool enough that it’s worth telling just in case you don’t, but the title comes from a Winston Churchill quote, roughly, “Don’t talk to me about British Naval tradition! It’s nothing but rum, buggery and the lash!”

      • Well, count me not at all surprised that you have great taste in music. “The Sickbed of Cuchulainn” is one of the greatest opening songs on any album ever. Also, if you are a fan of the Dennis Leary show, “Rescue Me,” about the F.D.N.Y., they ended the series with the Pogues version of “Dirty Old Town.”
        I think I may have heard about that quote before, but not sure. I guess Churchill was a bit biased against the navy, having served in the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars himself.
        Good stuff,
        Bill

      • I have said on more than one occasion that if I were half the poet Shane MacGowan was, I’d celebrate by being twice the drunk.

      • Oh, man, that’s great! Love it. But I’m not sure it’s physically possible to be twice as drunk as MacGowan without first being dead. 🙂
        Bill

  2. Glen Russell Slater on said:

    This is very, very good, Bill. I enjoy your feature writing quite a bit. I’ll admit that I had to do some research on Smoky Joe Wood’s life in order to understand parts of it.

    The one part I still don’t understand, though, is the part about Gallipoli and “Waltzing Matilda.”

    I remember reading Bill James’ book, “The Historical Baseball Abstract,” an excellent book that you no doubt have read. I recall some references in the book to Smoky Joe Wood in that book. By the way, Bill James is mostly known as a statistics guru, but I enjoy reading his stuff because of his entertaining writing. I’m fairly sure that Bill James could write a fine novel or fine short stories without any mentions of statistics at all. One of the best chapters that I read in that book was the one about Lonnie Smith and that if “recovery skills” after slipping and misjudging a ball was a defensive stat, that Lonnie Smith would be numero uno. It was a funny piece, but true as well!

    Anyway, back to your writing. Very entertaining; as you know, I also enjoyed that one you wrote about the sandlot days of Bridgeport, Connecticut quite a bit.

    Keep up the fine writing, Bill!

    Glen

    • Hi Glenn, Thanks for the complements. I chose “Waltzing Matilda” only because it was a very popular song at that time, a few years after World War I. I have to agree with you about Bill James. He is at least as good a writer as he is a statistician. He actually published a non-fiction book last year that was, I believe, about crime. Nothing to do with baseball at all. I’m sure he enjoyed the break.
      Anyway, thanks for reading. I appreciate it.
      Bill

  3. Bill,
    Excellent.

    Vince

  4. Great post, Bill. You have raised the bar for us this year – well done.

  5. All we bloggers bow in your direction. Great job, Bill.
    v

  6. Agree with Mr. Graham; this is some damn fine writing.

  7. Kevin Graham on said:

    Bill,
    Great post. Very nice piece of writing. I am extremely jealous .

    Kevin

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