I used to live a couple blocks from Powell’s Bookstore in Hyde Park. Since I was in college and broke, I took full advantage of its discard box, regularly stocked with books that were too weird or obscure even for the University of Chicago community. One day I found this book.
You should know a little bit about Steve Sax to know what sort of a find this was, particularly for a devout baseball fan who grew up in the 1980s. Steve Sax was a very good second baseman, mostly for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the 1982 Rookie of the Year and a five-time All Star, and good enough to make the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team. A star, but not a superstar—Ian Kinsler would be a decent comparison.
In short, an atypical player to choose as one’s hero, much less serve as the center of one’s autobiography, much less as the subject of one’s theraputic idealization.
But the world is a very strange place, and there in it exists a harrowing psycho-autobiography by a Chicagoan, the unwanted child of an abusive relationship, that veers between vivid accounts of familial strife and invented, dreamlike dialogues with a major-league baseball player of modest renown. I’ve carried it with me from apartment to apartment for years, in part because it’s such a singular book; in part because I learned something from it.
I thought about My Steve Sax Connection when news of the allegations against Patrick Kane broke, and sportswriters found themselves buried under vitriol from fans of the Blackhawks’ superstar. Tim Baffoe, one of their targets, called it the Cult of Patrick Kane, those denizens of the ”I Support 88” hashtag. “You couldn’t pay me enough to be a call screener for a local sports station right now,” writes Kate Klabusich, a rape survivor and Blackhawks fan, at RH Reality Check. Yesterday the Sun-Times’s Blackhawks beat writer, Mark Lazarus, tweeted this:
Reader email. These people exist. A LOT of these people exist. pic.twitter.com/avilcBFyNR— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) September 2, 2015
I’ve been a sports fan for literally longer than I can remember; my parents have told me stories about how I ran around the house celebrating when the North Carolina State Wolfpack won the NCAA championship in 1983, when I wasn’t quite three years old. I still use a commemorative bath towel from that game.
But I’ve never idolized a player, or understood why anyone would; as Lazarus and other Chicago sportswriters have been inundated with hostility in defense of a sports hero, I’ve returned to that strange little book I found. My Steve Sax Connection is a raw dispatch from that state.
I thought about writing a second book, as I waltzed through the story of my life, entitled Portrait of the Young Baseball Player as an Algebra Equation. A whirlwind attempt to determine whether Steve Sax the baseball player is indicative of Steve Sax the person. Or, in mathematical terms, calculating whether “Steve Sax” = Steve Sax.
Whenever I watch Steve play baseball or hear him talk about his family I feel different. Happiness, excitement, pride, and sensitivity transcend his persona. He creates the basis for a true perception, which cements my belief that, in addition to being a good baseball player, he is a good person.
So, in an attempt to discern the truth, I imagined a storied confrontation. The little boy inside me is personified by my image of Steve Sax. Defending my hero with determination, fortitude and creativity, I aimed to prove the sheer beauty of Steve Sax is that “Steve Sax” is Steve Sax, and feel the self-esteem evolving from trusting my emotions. Challenging my imaginary character is the voice of my father. Muffling that little boy with a brutal force. Aiming to prove a heart exists solely to pump blood.
Steve Sax proves this in an indescribably weird invented scenario in which he duets “New York, New York” with the author, in top hat and cane: “While holding the last note, he held out his hand and smiled.”
It’s a surreal and uncomfortable book, but a fascinating document, watching the cult of an athlete being created within the mind of a young man, with the obeisance that entails.
His angry stone face expression hit me like a brick.
Are you mad? I can’t… never mind, you’re mad. I shouldn’t have said that. I should have said, “Yes.” Just “yes.” Right? Steve? Mr. Sax? Sir? Please, just say it. Call me a name! Something terrible. DO IT! ANYTHING! HIT ME! HARD! NOW! At least change your expression! WHAT ARE YOU THINKING!? I think I’m dead. Or I’m gonna be. Steve… please… I didn’t mean it…
And in its surreality it has the ring of truth. It’s an even more autobiographical cousin to Frederick Exley’s legendary cult classic A Fan’s Notes, the largely autobiographical novel based around the author’s obsession with USC and New York Giants legend Frank Gifford. Exley set out for New York to become a famous writer; instead he became a regularly hospitalized drunk who found moments of lucidity on Sunday afternoons.
More often than not we had to speed back to the hospital to get me there on time…. It was on one of these trips back, when I was punishing the Mercedes, that she asked me a question which led to my making a strange reply. Only a woman would have been capable of asking it. Another man would have simply thought him my favorite athlete.
“What is this thing with you and Gifford—or whatever his name is?” she asked.
The question took me unawares, and I did not answer her for a long time…. I told her about my first year in New York, how I had this awful dream of fame, but that, unlike Gifford—who had possessed the legs and the hands and the agility, the tools of his art—I had come to New York with none of the tools of mine, writing. I told her how I had tried to content myself with reverie, envisioning myself emblazoned across the back of dust jackets. I told her how I had gone each lonely Sunday to the Polo Grounds where Gifford, when I heard the city cheer him, came after a time to represent to me the possible, had sustained for me the illusion that I could escape the bleak anonymity of life.
“I should think you’d despise him,” she said. “Oh, maybe not despise him. Envy him to the point of disliking him immensely.”
“Despise him?” I said. I’m certain my voice reflected my great incredulity. “But you don’t understand at all. Not at all! He may be the only fame I’ll ever have!”
Exley’s father was not abusive, but he was a distant, sometimes violent drunk, whose reputation from the high-school gridiron shielded him from the consequences of his barroom brawls. From his father, Exley inherited not manhood, but mythology:
Why did football bring me so to life? I can’t say precisely. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it; I chose to believe it was not unlike the jobs which all men, in some sunnier past, had been called upon to do…. It had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity—perhaps it was no more than the force of a forgotten childhood.
A similar vein runs through My Steve Sax Connection—a boy, not tough enough for a domineering father, learning the structures of manhood not from his disappointed parent but indirectly, from the young men who seemed to have succeeded at it: “Without parents willing to fill that role, I guess it is only natural that a boy would turn to something else. Something like… the Chicago Cubs. Why not? They were concrete…. With one flick of a switch of a switch on a television set… voila! Family.”
Both men found not just solace, but structure, in the lives their heroes led, an astonishingly tenuous foundation, but something that speaks to the power of idolization: to fill a massive void, they chose men of outsized fame. But that void can reappear just as suddenly if the idols turn out to be just as disappointing as the real people who should have been that foundation.
One of Jerry Seinfeld’s most famous lines is that “loyalty, for any one sports team, is pretty difficult to justify. The players are always changing, the team could move to another city. You’re actually rooting for the clothes.” It is true; but perhaps it is the safest, and healthiest, way to be a fan.