Abby writhed on a hospital bed. I stood beside her. A large monitor was beeping. My feet seemed to not exactly be connected to anything.
“I can’t do this!” she said. “You don’t understand.”
“You can do it,” I said, but it came out like a question.
She was suffering the relentless knifing pain of pharmaceutically induced labor and looked past me to search the faces of hospital staff for help. She knew I could tell her nothing. This had been going on all day, all night.
“You can do it,” I continued to recite.
In the first few hours she had been able to hobble to the adjoining bathroom and vomit. When she became immobilized she used a wastebasket. At some point I carried it to the bathroom to rinse. I caught a glimpse of a grizzled figure in the mirror. Calvin Schiraldi, Game Six of the 1986 World Series, the moment too much.
“Hey,” Schiraldi murmured as I was leaving.
“No, you don’t understand, I can’t do this,” my wife was saying.
Nurses and specialists huddled around her. I got up near her head with the puke bucket.
“You can do it,” I mumbled.
Eventually I was subtracted from the room so Abby could receive an epidural. She’d hoped to avoid this back when we imagined that together we could visualize away the rumored pain of contractions. We’d simply ride rising and falling waves.
During the administration of the shot into Abby’s spine I sat in a little waiting room alone. It was two or three in the morning, somewhere in there. I stared at the dim institutional carpeting, hoping and praying, two activities of limited if not altogether invisible impact. I waited.
What kind of asshole, his wife in agony, naps? I fought it, but it kept pulling at me. I’d drift off in my chair for a second before wrenching awake. Then sleep would pull me down again, some brief, shallow version teeming with visions. Figures in motion, senseless, sprinting, hurdling, vaulting. Then I was in motion, drowsing on a bus, a grizzled figure seated beside me, Calvin Schiraldi again. The moment too much. When my head grazed his shoulder, the gray away-uniform sleeve, I snapped awake. I glared at the waiting room carpet.
“Please, please, please,” I said, punching and punching my thigh.
I wanted Abby to be all right but couldn’t do anything about it. I was scared that the epidural would lead to some kind of complication. I was also scared it simply wouldn’t work, that we’d have to go on as before, one of us in spasms on a hospital bed like a fish suffocating at the bottom of a boat, the other standing alongside, powerless, hoping and praying. I was scared that the moment would be too much, that I’d be faced for the first time in my life with true adversity and that it’d go down for me like it had for Calvin Schiraldi.
Calvin Schiraldi had been a rookie in 1986, brought up from the minors in midseason. The Red Sox had jumped off to a fast start that year but had a distinct flaw, a hole at the end of their bullpen. The rookie filled this hole instantly and flew through the regular season virtually untouched, relying on a blazing fastball to rack up strikeouts and saves and a stunning 1.41 ERA. He didn’t face any adversity until the playoffs, and then he seemed to handle the first tremor of misfortune well, following up a blown save and loss in Game Four of the American League Championship Series with two scoreless appearances in Games Five and Seven. He extended this scoreless streak into Game One of the World Series, in which he earned a save. He didn’t pitch again for a week, when he was brought in to close out Game Six, which would have given the Red Sox their first World Series Championship in sixty-eight years. He gave up one hit, then another, then another. Schiraldi took the loss in that game and in the decisive Game Seven two nights later. The look on his face in those two games as the adversity mounted, as it proved too much for him, has haunted me ever since.
I drifted off to sleep again. The bus was crowded. We were headed somewhere where we wouldn’t be bothered, somewhere painless. We were being subtracted. The passenger at my side leaned so close I felt his unshaven cheek on my own.
“Hey,” Schiraldi murmured, and the bus began to speed. I snapped awake. The careening of the bus carried over into this world for a moment, the empty waiting room seeming so much to be racing down a sharp incline toward impact that I grabbed the armrests of my chair.
Agony of Defeat, the
In a famous video clip a ski jumper hurtling out of control down the steep ramp tries to stop himself, almost appearing as if he wants to gently sit down. Who hasn’t had this hope? The one that goes, Just stop, please. I changed my mind. Can’t we just stop? But it’s too late. Gravity has taken over, history has taken over. He flails off the ramp sideways, flipping and whirling into the air before smashing down onto the slope. When first aired during the opening montage of the weekly show ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the clip elicited gasps and grave concern. As the years went on, the footage evolved into a warm constant. The catastrophic fall punctuated the voiceover phrase “the agony of defeat,” which was preceded by the phrase “the thrill of victory”; victory was illustrated over the years by a rotating roster of images of winning, but the clip for defeat never changed. It was always a Yugoslavian ski jumper losing control of one of his efforts during a competition in Oberstdorf, West Germany, in 1970.
Yugoslavian? West Germany? Thrills come and go, winners come and go, even borders and nations come and go. But the agony of defeat guy abides. Beloved was this guy, who happened to be named Vinko Bogotaj. At a star-studded thirtieth anniversary gathering for ABC’s Wide World of Sports in 1991, Bogotaj received the loudest ovation of any of the internationally famous athletes assembled. Muhammad Ali asked him for an autograph. But if you stay with anything long enough, you see that nothing abides. The footage of Vinko Bogotaj is fading from the world. ABC’s Wide World of Sports was canceled long ago. The concept of a weekly show is itself disintegrating. You can still find grainy clips of the show’s opening sequence on the Internet. I watched it recently and was surprised by how quickly Bogotaj came and went. In my memory—watching on Saturdays, a morning of cartoons behind me, a bowl of SpaghettiOs with meatballs in my lap—his fall went on and on. But it’s over, naturally, in the time it takes Jim McKay to say seven syllables. The footage cuts off as Bogotaj bounces up from his initial impact. He is rising. He rises into the mind to fall and rise and fall and rise. In my mind he tumbles, rising and falling, rising and falling, down a mountain forever.
The epidural worked for a while, then gave way to more agony, even worse than before. I can catalog the bullshit miscellany of life but can’t find words for what my wife endured nor for the way it finally ended: a blood-slick newborn tumbling out into the world face-up, a boy, tumbling then rising up wailing, choking, wailing, to me.
Excerpted from "Benchwarmer: A Sports-Obsessed Memoir of Childhood" by Josh Wilker. Published by PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Book Group. Copyright 2015 by Josh Wilker. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.