So I hauled my aging carcass out of bed just before dawn one morning last summer, something I do as rarely as possible. After staying up to catch the late edition of "SportsCenter," it's hard hitting the floor that early. But it was my morning to feed horses out at my friend Randy's farm, a chore I do in return for boarding my two middle-aged geldings there. Actually, it's a pleasant ritual. My big buddies are always glad to see the man with the feed bucket coming. Also, in Arkansas, where I live, it was getting on toward that time of year when the hours around dawn are the only bearable time of day to be outdoors.
The date, which I remember precisely for reasons that will presently become clear, was June 10, 2005. I got back to the house around 8:30 a.m. and was mildly surprised to find my wife, Diane, pottering around in the kitchen. It seemed she'd taken the day off from her job as a hospital administrator.
"Oh, man, that's great," I said. "You know what today is, right?"
She turned with a heart-melting smile and embraced me. Diane's got one of those faces that appear almost sad in repose, but lights up when she smiles. It still knocks me out.
"Yes, it's our anniversary," she said. "Thirty-eight years. Can you believe it?"
"And I'm still crazy about you," I affirmed, nuzzling her hair while listening to the sound of angel's wings beating over my head. The angels that saved my sorry ass.
Because I wasn't talking about our anniversary at all, which I had, of course, forgotten. I'd marked the SOB on my office calendar in red ink, then couldn't read my own handwriting. No, I was referring to the first Chicago Cubs-Boston Red Sox game since the 1918 World Series, due to be televised that afternoon on WGN-TV. I'd already checked the Chicago weather report online. It was definitely going to happen. As a passionate fan of both teams -- and baseball means more to me today than it did when I was 10, the year Willie Mays and the New York Giants swept the World Series, when baseball meant everything -- I didn't know who I wanted to win. I guess I thought the Cubs needed it worse.
Well, the Cubs always need it worse, don't they? Anyway, here's the punch line: She watched the game with me. Wouldn't have missed it. Greg Maddux was pitching, and Diane rarely misses a Maddux start. She admires his finesse, competitive zeal, and cunning. She's bemused by Maddux's wry, card sharp's expression as he peers in to take the sign, and the graceful way he fields his position. She likes it that he knows how to bunt, and to execute the hit and run. She even thinks it's funny the way Maddux barks out a quick "fuck" when somebody takes him deep. Finally, Diane thinks Greg Maddux is seriously cute, and if he'd consider a fling with a woman not quite old enough to be his mother
Well, let's not go there. The blessed fact is that I married a coach's daughter, one of the wisest decisions of my life. Not that it was entirely a rational act, understand. We met at a reception for incoming grad students at the University of Virginia. I was this New Jersey Irish kid, fresh off the turnpike. If I close my eyes, I can still see her standing there in a little cotton shirtwaist dress, and recall how exotic she seemed to me then: small, brunet, hazel-eyed, intangibly Southern and intensely feminine, to put it very politely. I probably wouldn't have approached her on my own, but the dean, a fellow Arkansan, decided to have some fun with us. Steering Diane by the elbow, he presented her to me and a beaky, red-haired New Yorker I'd been talking to.
"Mr. O'Connell graduated from Notre Dame. Mr. Lyons is from Rutgers University. Miss Haynie is a graduate of Hendrix College," he said. Turning to me, he asked, "Mr. Lyons, have you ever heard of Hendrix College?"
In those days, I pondered college football scores the way some people study the Kabbalah. I'd heard of Transylvania, Slippery Rock and Hampden-Sydney, but not Hendrix. "Dean Younger," I guessed, "they must not play football." She gave a happy, unaffected laugh and my heart turned over. Hendrix, a Methodist liberal arts school in Conway, Ark., had dropped football a year before she enrolled. The coach's daughter thought it perfectly normal that my knowledge of academia derived from the sports page. Some months later, I ran into her on campus and she let me know she no longer had a boyfriend. On our first date, she told me about her daddy, and how much my little joke had put her at ease. By the end of the second, I was pretty far gone. After she got us tickets to the fourth and deciding game of the 1966 World Series, courtesy of her childhood friend (and her dad's best player) Baltimore Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson, I decided I'd better marry her quick before she got away.
Diane's parents had met at LSU, where he was a baseball and basketball jock from Arkansas and her mother a phys ed major. She'd grown up on school buses filled with wisecracking teenage baseball players, as her father's American Legion Team, the Little Rock "Doughboys," traveled all over Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas. They finished second in the nationals one year. Brooks Robinson -- genuinely the nicest guy in the world, as everybody says -- had been Diane's first major, unrequited crush. (She was 13, he 18.) She'd even forged his signature to a photo and showed it around until another girl asked why he'd given her a newspaper clipping. One of the proudest moments in her father, George Haynie's, life was attending Brooks' induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. At his funeral two years ago, her daddy's old players stood up -- most in their 50s and 60s by then -- identified themselves by position and year, and said a few words about all Coach Haynie had done for them. It was terribly moving.
OK, so she ended up settling for a guy who talked a lot better game than he played. Spending all that time on school buses made Diane blessedly tolerant of male preoccupations. Even after I'd gotten an eye kicked shut playing on the University of Virginia rugby team and ended up hospitalized with a concussion, she never once suggested I quit. For one thing, she'd been an athlete herself -- a scrappy 5-foot-2 basketball forward, a cheerleader, a lifeguard and an AAU state diving champion, although she insisted the level of competition had been downright pitiful. (In those days, it was a rare Arkansan who could practice diving in a snake-free environment.) Some years back, I needed to pour a bucket of water over her head so she wouldn't collapse of heat stroke during the third set of a tennis tournament. Even in 103 degree temperatures, there was no way she'd quit -- even though she forgets who won as soon as it's over.
I've always thought sports teach realism: What you can do, what you can't, how to win, how to lose, how to deal with it. In that sense, Diane's upbringing made her like a lot of younger women these days, whose own participation in athletics seems to me to make them less prone to Cinderella-type fantasies of marital perfection. Anyhow, here's some of what you get when you marry a coach's daughter -- especially, I suppose, a Southern coach's daughter: You get a woman who actually likes guys, and is constantly laughing at things that make other women emit smoke from their ears. Diane does draw the line at audible farting. Also, while our two sons are permitted to groan aloud over particularly cute cheerleaders or bleacher babe-cam shots -- WGN being particularly dutiful in this regard -- I've learned to be more discreet. She'll usually point them out for me anyway. The woman's got an eye for talent.
You also get a woman who considers it normal male behavior to watch a ballgame every day, and who has opinions about things like the Chicago Cubs bullpen. Idiosyncratic opinions sometimes, but strong ones. For example, she hated relief pitcher Kyle Farnsworth, for his swagger. "Oh no," she'd say, "here comes 'Fuck Me' Farnsworth. I can't stand him." Truthfully, old Fuck Me's tendency to groove fastballs didn't appear unrelated to his ego. And she liked lefty Mike Remlinger, precisely because he looked to her more like an associate professor of art history than a jock. Her daddy, she's made clear, would have sat Corey Patterson down until he learned not to swing at pitches over his head. Also to get the damn bunt down before racing to first base like a man with his hair on fire. Last year, she decided Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash must have a girlfriend, because he played only home games clean shaven. She liked that about him, as she loves his brilliant passing. Nash plays the way her daddy taught her the game ought to be played.
Diane's no fan of politicians named Bush or Texans in general. You should have heard her just before Albert Pujols hit his dramatic 9th inning home run against Houston in the NLCS last fall: "Sit down and shut up, Barbara," she was saying to our president's mother. As the ball soared into the night Diane said exactly what TV cameras caught Houston pitcher Andy Pettitte mouthing from the dugout: "Oh my God." She will put down her novel or come running in from the kitchen to see a particularly good replay.
Ever since cable TV started bringing the Cubs into our lives roughly 20 years ago, Diane and I have made irregular pilgrimages to Chicago to take in some games. The ratio has tended to be roughly three games to every required theater or museum visit, which I consider more than just. When the Cubs got into the playoffs in 2003 and a buddy secured tickets, she almost made me accompany him to Chicago. Hang the expense. Her reasoning was that neither he nor I might live to see it happen again. The same applied to the 2004 Red Sox-Cardinals World Series up the road in St. Louis. Any Red Sox fan who could go, should go.
Razorback game days, it goes without saying, are the equivalent of Holy Days of Obligation at our house, and occasional 200 mile drives to Fayetteville to catch the games live are semi-regular features on our domestic calendar. When her women friends suggest she somehow limit my passion for ballgames, if only because of the terrible example it sets for other women's husbands, she reminds them of all the worse failings middle-aged men are prone to.
A few years ago, it fell to Diane and two women colleagues to escort an off-season delegation of St. Louis Cardinals players through the children's hospital where she works. Catcher Tom Pagnozzi was among them, also Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky. The first she remembered because he played for the Razorbacks in college, Hrabosky because, well, how do you forget a ballplayer with a nickname like that? By this time, the maniacal Magyar was merely a very annoying TV color man. There were a couple of others she couldn't recall. Let me tell you, it's a tough tour. There's the burn center, the pediatric oncology ward, the intensive care unit for premature infants no bigger than baby rabbits, the cardiac unit and so on. Little kids suffering, barely clinging to life and their overwhelmed parents. Diane said the ballplayers got progressively quieter the longer the tour went on. Visitors there tend to do that.
Finally, she and her colleagues escorted Pagnozzi and his mates out to the parking lot and thanked them for the visit. As the door swung shut and the bus began to pull away, one player's voice was clearly audible from somewhere inside. He'd clearly spoken louder than he intended. "Oh God," he blurted out, "I need a blow job and a beer." Diane laughed out loud. To her, it was pure jock-speak for "Man, that was tough. Those poor little kids." Exactly the qualities she likes about athletes at their best -- profane, no bullshit, right off the top. If there's tension, somebody quick make a joke to break it.
Stricken mute, her women colleagues stared at Diane for a long moment as if she'd lost her mind. They didn't understand that she was back on that school bus with the Little Rock Doughboys, rolling across Oklahoma in the infernal heat of summer on the way to play some baseball.