Is there any sport more poetic than baseball? Sarah Freligh, a former sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, has recently published a collection of 48 poems titled, “Sort of Gone,” which follows the rise and fall of hard-throwing baseball pitcher Al Stepansky.
‘Sort of Gone’
AUTHOR: Sarah Freligh
PUBLISHER: Turning Point Books, 85 pages, ISBN 978-1-933-456997
HOW MUCH: $17
The book is broken into four sections. The first section is “Buffalo,” and it dramatizes the rise of the pitching prospect from the city of Buffalo and describes his difficult childhood and abusive father.
In the poem “Lesson,” Freligh describes a coaching technique employed by young Al’s father.
“Before dinner they play/ catch in the street, skin-deep/ in snow. No coats. We ain’t girls/ his father says, though you throw like one/ walks back to where Al is, slaps/ him across the face with his callused/ hand, says Son, that’s how the ball/ should sound when it hits the glove.”
The second section of the book is titled ‘Bonus Baby,’ and it brings to life the crazy days of being a minor league baseball player, the long bus trips, the eccentric teammates, and the groupie girls. In the poem “Groupie,” one of the girls writes: “he should have married a girl/ like me instead of the prom queen from high school, the girl/ voted most likely to succeed, the girl who’s now the wife/ who won’t listen when he tries to tell her about the bad day/ he had at the ballpark. As long as there’s women like that, men/ will need someone like me to talk to.”
The third section “The Show,” captures the glory and the heartache that Al experienced in his 17 years as a major league baseball pitcher. Al is a very flawed individual, a womanizer, an insecure baseball player who needs the love and adoration from the fans to fill the void he rarely received from his parents. But he’s also an excellent talent, a ballplayer who pitches a no-hitter, and he ends up winning seven World Series games. As his catcher Boonie tells the press after his no-hitter: “Wherever I put the glove, he hit it./ fastballs, sliders: He got everything/ where it was supposed to be/ tonight. It was magic.”
The final section “Sort of Gone,” is the most poignant as it describes Al’s last days as a professional, trying to pitch through the ache in his shoulder, trying to put a happy face on his retirement in his last press conference, and trying to find a happy life after baseball.
In the poem “Dead Men Making Trouble,” Al faces his first spring with no baseball in more than 20 years. “God, what he’d give to be there/ feeling the broad plank of the bullpen bench splintering his butt, the/ low flame in his chest the first time he runs wind sprints, the teakettle/ wheeze of his breath. Instead it’s days spent studying interest rates,/ answering questions about the tomato red Cadillac on the showroom/ floor for guys like Steve from Tonawanda who’s a big, big fan.”
At top of her game
Sarah Freligh obviously knows what she’s writing about. She knows both the game and the people who play the game. She has captured the glory of being a major league baseball player, the insecurity and anxiety of hanging on to your athletic talent, the adoration of fans and the gut-wrenching loss when your career is over.
Good books give me a different perspective about a subject and “Sort of Gone” has allowed me to think differently about professional baseball players. Al Stepansky is a flawed individual like we all are, but Freligh, through her poems, has also shown him to be a character we care deeply about.
Freligh is also an accomplished poet and many of these poems, which come in varying lengths, are dramatic, moving, inspiring and as poetry should be, they sound beautiful. I strongly recommend this book, especially for baseball fans and for lovers of poetry.
Sarah Freligh will read from her book and answer questions on Sept. 19 at 6 p.m at the Schenectady Museum, Nott Terrace. Her free talk is being presented as part of the exhibit “The Science of Baseball,” which opened on June 13 at the museum. More information is available at 382-7893.