Not the usual suspect
Growing up, I spent too much time thinking about the Red Sox. And when I thought about the team, sometimes my thoughts would rest on one particular player. His name was Wes Gardner. He was a righthander, a starting pitcher, a former 22nd round draft pick out of the University of Central Arkansas.
In his second year with Boston, Wes Gardner went 8-6 with a 3.50 ERA. In 149 innings pitched, he gave up 119 hits, walked 64 and struck out 106. Good stats. It was a good year. That was 1988. I was sixteen.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to think about Wes Gardner, didn’t want to focus on him. But, like so many other aspects of my life at that time, I wasn’t in control of the situation. I was rarely a verb, more often the direct object. I did not fully understand how to take charge of my own life back then—after all, at that age, how many of us are truly lucky enough to have it all figured out? The idea of Wes Gardner was thrown at me without warning, and it caught me unaware. These days, I can see them coming. These days, I can hit the curve.
But back in 1988? It was a whole different story.
How to survive the roughest years of your life
When I was a teen, Sarah Lorge held a disproportionate level of importance in my daily routine. She was cute, had a good head on her shoulders, and we got along really well. We spent every night talking to each other for hours on end over the phone. Every night. It left everyone bewildered. Her mom used to ask her, “What could you guys possibly talk about for all that time?”
What would we talk about? Good question. Who knows? Anything. Everything. Sarah and I would talk about whatever came to mind. We were just killing time, trying to find a way to survive high school, trying to get through our days. It’s what teenagers did. We would talk about life. We would talk about baseball. We would talk about the Red Sox. It was good. I was just happy to have someone to talk to.
One night, talking to each other on the phone as usual, Sarah tossed in a casual remark. In the flow of conversation, she told me she had a crush. On Wes Gardner.
“I like him,” she said. “He’s hot.”
Yeah. Great. Good to know. Really.
Pride, vanity and ego are volatile elements in a teenage kid. Well, more accurately, any given emotion is subject to volatility in a teenage kid. Especially teenage boys. Yeah. It’s just a mess. Hormones are colliding at light speed, bouncing around like some kind of chemical demolition derby, and the kids just don’t have the sense of perspective to keep things in check. No wisdom, no common sense. Everything seems so dramatic at that age. Every setback seems like the end of the world. And the fact that the world doesn’t end each time seems to be a fact that escapes them. They don’t learn. Because they’re teenagers. That’s how it works.
Okay, maybe that’s unfair. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for all teenagers. There’s always a danger when painting in broad strokes, when speaking in generalizations. But I’ll say this much—when Sarah told me that she had a crush on Wes Gardner, I did not take it well. No. I was irrational. Irrational. Everything I wrote about teenage boys in the paragraph above? It will probably come as no surprise to hear when I say, I was basically writing about myself.
Wes Gardner. Figures. He was tall, blond and white. Which was everything I wasn’t. Which was everything I would never be. Which played into every insecurity, every cultural fear that I had. And I knew that. How could I not? Look, I couldn’t blame Sarah. Of course she thought he was hot. But seeing as how I was an immigrant kid, the son of an illegal alien, a short guy, with dark hair, and brown skin, basically she was vocalizing the thoughts I already had in the back of my head. You’re not what girls are looking for. Which was not a surprise.
Still, that didn’t mean I wanted to hear it articulated, that didn’t mean I wanted to hear it out loud. But sometimes, you don’t have any choice in the matter. You get one life. You play the hand that’s dealt.
From 1987-1990, Wes Gardner pitched in 141 games for the Red Sox, 44 of them starts. And every time he took the mound, he was always tall and blonde and white. He couldn’t help it. That’s how he pitched.
When you look up, you see the stars
We root for our teams. They carry our hopes, our dreams and the weight of our expectations. When they win, we celebrate. We live vicariously through their success. They carry us along. This is the seductive allure of sports.
But there is also the other side of the mirror. Major Leaguers exist on the other side of the white lines from us. They are players, we are fans. They perform, we watch. They push us away. They are a separate lot—reminders of what we are not, demonstrations of who we cannot be. We can’t have Bret Saberhagen’s arm. We don’t have Paul O’Neill’s bat. We don’t get Willie McGee’s speed. That’s why we root for them. They do the things that we cannot do ourselves. They are the physical embodiments of our athletic ideals. They are bigger than us, stronger than us, faster than us. And I suppose it means that sometimes they are also taller than us, blonder than us and whiter than us.
So when I thought about it, I couldn’t really blame Sarah. No. I was just a dumb, lovestruck teenage kid. Wes Gardner was a Major Leaguer. And nobody had to explain the difference to me.
A turning point
In life, things change. Things you thought you knew and understood suddenly become strange and incomprehensible. Looking back, I think that things moved even faster when I was a teenager. I don’t know if it’s true, but it sure feels that way.
On August 12, 1989, Wes Gardner toed the mound in Memorial Stadium to take his start against division rivals, the Baltimore Orioles. It was game 114 for the Sox, and it was an important one in the standings, as the Orioles were in first place, 2.5 games ahead. And in many ways, it was more than a little surprising that Wes Gardner was even available to pitch. Because, only two nights earlier, he had been sitting in a jail cell, waiting to make bail. Two nights earlier, before taking the mound for Boston, he had been arrested for hitting his wife in the Baltimore hotel where the Sox were staying.
There you go. It happens just like that.
On that lazy August night, I felt something click into place. I felt like everything changed. Suddenly, Wes Gardner wasn’t so hot. Suddenly, Wes Gardner wasn’t so handsome. It didn’t matter how tall he was, or how blonde he was, or how white he was. I saw things more differently. With more perspective. Just like that, I thought that there was a whole lot of ugliness to Wesley Brian Gardner.
Blur the line
Yes, it’s true, Major Leaguers exist on the other side of the white lines from us. They are players, we are fans. They perform, we watch. But once the game ends, they’re human, just like you and me. No better, no worse. And sometimes, it’s in those moments when they think that everyone’s stopped watching, that we find out who the true winners and losers are. Sometimes, it’s in those moments when they think that everyone’s stopped watching that we really learn the score.
On August 10, 1989, I realized that I was no longer jealous of Wes Gardner. No, I was not. And when I talked to Sarah the next night, I didn’t bring up the topic. No point to it. Instead, we talked about anything. Everything.
Well, everything but that.
Twenty years down the road
That was 1989. It’s 2008 now. I don’t talk to Sarah every night for hours any more. But we still see each other on occasion, and we send each other emails every now and then. We check up on each other, make sure everyone is doing okay. We’re both in a good place, reasonably happy with our lives. I know that I feel a lot of gratitude towards her. Leaning on each other, helping each other out, we managed to survive those difficult teenage years together. No mean feat.
Sometimes, we look back at that awkward, ridiculous period of our life and share a good laugh. And sometimes, we just make small talk. We talk about life. We talk about baseball. We talk about the Red Sox. And it’s all good. Today, just like back then, I’m just happy to have someone to talk to.