Ask the pilot

There's no crying in the cockpit! The life of a baseball player and a pilot are closer than you think.


Patrick Smith
October 24, 2003 11:30PM (UTC)

If you're wondering where I was for that cataclysmic eighth inning of last week's playoff game between the Red Sox and the Yankees, I was curled on the kitchen floor in a semi-fetal position. At first I'd tried buttressing myself against a wall, bent forward with my arms wrapped over my head, but the tension was too great. So I dropped to the ground and half covered my ears so I wouldn't hear the crack of the bat when the Yankees, against all odds, tied the game.

Which, of course, they did.

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Red Sox fans, overinvested in their team and pathologically defeatist, are accustomed to pain. We feast on perennial October failure, served cold and often the result of some preposterously unlikely chain of events. Like a plane crash. This particular heartbreak, consensus has it, was the most stunning of all. The game was there for the taking. We had it won. It was over. The ghosts of Gotham had fled, Louisville Sluggers driven through their hearts. The dustbin of history was ready, and gaping. We couldn't lose.

So, naturally, we lost. We lost because fate will have it no other way. Because that's what we always do. The dogs of hell got whiff of a redeeming Red Sox triumph and promptly made for Yankee Stadium to chew the hearts out of every New Englander.

Again.

Am I a sports fan? No, not really. I don't watch football and I couldn't tell you, offhand, which team Kobe Bryant plays for. But every year between April and October I live and die with the Red Sox. It isn't about athletics or even, necessarily, about baseball. If you grew up around here you'll understand: The Red Sox have transcended sports to become a fixture of psycho-cultural obsession. Like the weather they are embedded in the New England psyche -- an eternal pattern of warm summer promise and cold autumnal foreboding. We remember our baseball seasons the way we remember famous storms. The Blizzard of '78; Game 6 at Shea Stadium. Momentous, brutal and unforgiving. The scar tissue of defeat is layered like the rocky crags of the Maine coastline, or the 300-year-old grime of a Boston street. To paraphrase Hall of Fame Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk: People don't merely watch the Red Sox, they live their lives through them.

There's something awful about that, don't you think?

The Boston Globe's Ellen Barry puts it this way: "Over the years, there has been no shortage of self-analysis in Red Sox Nation, whose fan base includes the highest concentration of mental health professionals in the country. On the contrary, the Nation has fingered its past injuries obsessively, like a character out of Dostoyevsky, trapped in a recurring parable of loss. They are, as a group, swamped by their own emotions, suspicious of happiness, and apt to catastrophize."

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Barry's colleague, Globe columnist Alex Beam, assures me that my fit on the kitchen floor is nothing to be ashamed of. "This shows that you are a totally normal human being," he tells me, "because gibbering on the floor in the fetal position is the only human response to that kind of event.."

According to Beam, that's what James Carville used to do every election night. Except Carville would do it in his underwear. At least I had clothes on: New Balance sneakers, gray pants from L.L. Bean, and a green mock turtleneck covering a Hüsker Dü T-shirt from the early '80s that I'd put on for -- what would you call it? -- good luck. Decades from now I will still remember my ensemble exactly. That's just how it works around here.

A year or so ago I was asked to compose an article about my most vivid flying memories. I decided to pick a handful and work up a couple of paragraphs about each. They weren't the most dangerous, heart-stopping or glamorous memories -- just those I recall most fondly and vividly. Two of them, as it turned out, were recollections involving the Red Sox.

1. In the summer of 1991 I'm still in my early 20s, as is Mo Vaughn, Red Sox minor leaguer and projected star first baseman. My career, like Vaughn's, is already one of jolting success. Before my 25th birthday I'm flying a million-dollar turboprop with four stripes on my shoulder, while most of my friends are dropping out of school or working temp jobs.

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On the night of June 27, Vaughn, just up from Pawtucket, is making his debut at Fenway Park. I'm at Logan Airport, in the middle of a two-day rotation. With an hour to go before departure, I grab my flight case and a bag of food and walk out to my plane.

Most cockpits feature a radio-like box called an ADF . The ADF receives signals from certain navigation stations on the ground. Because these stations broadcast over AM bands, the receivers also pick up regular old AM radio stations. If you know the frequency, simply dial it up the way you'd set the radio in your car.

I put 680 in the window and find WRKO, the Red Sox affiliate in Boston. With the press of another button, the signal is routed to the overhead speakers along the cabin wall. The booming baritone of Sox announcer Bob Starr suddenly fills the 15-seater. I go to the last row, a bench seat, and sit down, detaching the backs of the two chairs in front of me. As the game unfolds, I sit there with my legs up eating a turkey sandwich from Au Bon Pain in Terminal E. The weather is beautiful and the apron quiet.

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Nobody but me could have sensed it, but here was one of those moments of perfect solace and clarity. I was still so blissfully young, and I felt triumphant, my sense of satisfaction bookended by these two great objects of my affection -- airplanes and the Red Sox. Both of those things, in the end, would crush me like a peach with no pit, but for now all was well.

Vaughn came to the plate and took first base on a walk. Everybody cheered. By the sixth or seventh inning my copilot showed up, followed by the passengers. I switched off the game and we flew to Burlington, Vt.

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2. It's the night of Oct. 10, 1999, and I'm the second officer of a three-man crew on a cargo jet, flying from Brussels, Belgium, to New York. I'm seated behind the captain and copilot, eating dinner from a plastic tray on the table of my workstation.

We've been given a northerly crossing, up around 60 degrees, nearly scraping the tip of Greenland. We're late, and this out-of-the-way assignment will makes us even later. I'm very annoyed, not because our customers are facing tardy shipments, but because the Red Sox are facing elimination against the Indians in Game 4 of the divisional playoffs. I was hoping to catch at least a few innings from the hotel near JFK, but it appears I'll be stuck with the ESPN highlights.

But what if... The team's current station, WEEI, has some pretty powerful wattage, and nighttime AM signals are known to travel thousands of miles. I ask the captain if I may appropriate an ADF box. "For what?" he wants to know.

I'm lucky, because our captain is a hardball fan. Not just any fan: He even lives in the Dominican Republic, a virtual baseball state and homeland to dozens of Major Leaguers. "By all means! And get me the score."

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I push aside my meal tray, and with a piece of Tillamook cheese still in one hand I twist the black dial toward 850. Lo and behold, clear as day, seven miles above the glaciers and icebergs of Greenland, I discover the voices of Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano calling the next pitch from Bartolo Colon to John Valentin. I remember precisely that Valentin was the batter as the signal crackled to life in my headset.

For the next fifteen hundred miles I tune in periodically, giving updates to the captain, who, using an apple, demonstrates how to throw a proper forkball, curve, and change-up. The Red Sox win, 23-7.

Not very spellbinding, I know.

I reckon most pilots would take the NFL gridiron over that pastoral green diamond any day, but I've always been amused by certain cultural parallels between baseball and aviation. Baseball is adopted as a metaphor for just about everything, but there are, in this case, some colorfully nuanced comparisons. Ballplayers tend to look like pilots, for one, and their postgame interviews always seem to ring with the same clichés and regional drawls as those "thanks for flyin' with us" announcements.

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Both pilots and players train hard and face a long, regimented system of step-by-step challenges. Either can see a career wiped out by a single miscue or accident -- a fastball in the face, a torn ligament, or a gear-up landing.

When a pilot earns his private license, he's made it to the bottom of the minor leagues. Building time in a four-seat Piper or Cessna, he's playing in the equivalent of A-ball.

Next, with some time under his belt, maybe he gets a job instructing or running weekend charters to Nantucket. He's broke, with a job or two on the side, but when asked his occupation he answers "pilot" without that annoying twinge of embarrassment. Double-A.

Working at a regional airline finally brings some semblance of life at the top -- jets, flight attendants, and uniforms borrowing the names and colors of the majors. This is Triple-A. The American Eagles and Delta Connections are the Pawtucket Red Sox and Columbus Clippers. You're almost there, and for the first time you can just about eke out a living. A lucky few will take that final step; most will not. And if this is where it ends, well, heck, it ain't so bad, even if you sometimes think of that guy, now driving 777s around the world, with whom you once shared a crash pad and untold boxes of mac and cheese. He calls you once in a while and says, "Ah, it ain't all it's cracked up to be."

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Finally at the majors, be it Leagues or airlines, the perks and cachet speak for themselves. There's no higher plateau. You've made it. Of course, your first assignments swill the dregs of routes and schedules -- on call, reserve status, dragged from home by a phone call at 3 a.m. You are, you might say, a bench player. That 747 captain, like a star outfielder with the Yankees or Braves, is the exception to the rule. Maybe someday. For now you're glad to be here, rubbing elbows with these guys.

And when the economy tanks and the furlough notices go out, it's back to the minors for a few seasons.

Not everybody makes it, and there are only so many Americans, Uniteds and Deltas to go around. A pilot may instead find himself at ATA, AirTran, or JetBlue. An exciting job, sure, but without that edge of prestige. He is, so to speak, playing in Japan.

Etc.

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One thing pilots need to complete the analogy, maybe, is a Hall of Fame.

We'll cool things right there, before I'm tempted to compare the logos of baseball teams with those of the airlines. How would an Airbus look in pinstripes, do you think? (Yes, sports teams have occasionally owned and decorated their own aircraft. Most, however, contract or lease for the season.) In the next few weeks I'll share the best of my non-baseball flying experiences, and for now we'll consider this a sufficient catharsis of my Red Sox agonies. Thanks for your patience.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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