Sunday, May 2, 2010

Scottsdale Home Depot

Why am I having so much difficulty writing about our sighting of Willie Mays and the rest of the pantheon in Mobile a few weeks ago? I'd been excited to go to Mobile in the first place—in no small part because crossing it off the list would mean we wouldn't ever have to go back to Alabama to watch baseball games.* And once the full scope of the Aaronfest became clear, I couldn't stop telling people about it, always building up the list of expected attendees to culminate in a triumphant "And. Willie. Mays!" This worked really well on guys in their fifties or early sixties, who invariably started to mist up as they remembered their lost childhood hero-worship.

Mays is one of those men who, as far as I know anyway, hasn't been overly tarnished by time and revelation. He's still the Say Hey Kid. He's still the guy who made that catch. He's still an icon. Well, OK, a guy who used to handle book signings for touring authors told me that Mays was mean, but he also said that Mickey Mantle was far worse. And yeah, one reporter at Aaronfest didn't see too much joy in Mays's eyes. He apparently once said that "growing old is just a helpless hurt," and in Mobile as we watched him throw baseballs toward the stands that didn't make it into the crowd, it wasn't hard to believe.

But so what? None of us has a claim on Willie Mays—but this icon business doesn't go away.

Rob and I both like the music of Joe Henry and in particular his "Our Song," from the album Civilians, which starts off seeming to be about Willie Mays the man but is really about Willie Mays the icon—and, ultimately, it's not about Willie at all but about the evaporation of America's better self in recent years. It begins:
I saw Willie Mays
In a Scottsdale Home Depot
Looking at garage-door springs
At the far end of the fourteenth row
There's something both humanizing and pathos-ridden about this image. On one level, why wouldn't Willie Mays go to a Home Depot in Arizona? On the other, does a legend really have to replace his own garage-door springs? Maybe he's just into home repair. In any event, the narrative that arises from imagining this encounter seems like it would go one of two ways: either Willie Mays turns out to be a normal guy who needs a garage spring, or he turns out to be a jerk, crushing our narrator's vision of him. Either way, he's just a man. But that's not what happens. Instead, Mays gets pushed even beyond icon status into spokesperson for an entire mentality, one that bemoans the loss of the pride, dignity, and humility that many of us like to think should typify what America stands for around the world. Now, I happen to agree that to the extent that something like national image or consciousness exists, America fell a long way in the Bush years (Civilians was released in 2007), but why does articulating this fall to Willie Mays—or rather the idea of Willie Mays? Can he, should he, bear the burden of speaking for our better selves?

And must I ask such sententious, faux-outraged questions? Willie Mays doesn't need me to defend him from idolization, even if I could. But there's famous and then there's famous—the song wouldn't work if it was Pete Rose or Phil Rizzuto or Reggie Jackson. Here's Reggie at the event, by the way:

People remember those icons well but not with that mist that clouds aging men's eyes and memories. Besides, Rizzuto seemed to be about half the weight of a garage-door spring.

That spring, in Henry's song, is characterized as
Something to slow a heavy door
Something to help us raise one up
And it's clear that that's what "seeing" Mays might do as well: slow the passage of time by reminding those who knew of what he was to them, once—those days may be long past, but there are still plenty who remember—but also open the door to the general prospect of youth and sunshine and excellence afield and at the plate.

There are strong narratives in every direction here, seemingly constraining the way we talk about famous people and what they mean. Joe Henry's using the icon and the man to tell the story of how America seems to have changed since Mays's heyday, and I'm using Henry to get around to talking about my own discomfort in seeing the man—which I guess is taking the long way.

What I'm getting at is that actually seeing Mays as we did was as heartbreaking as the portrait of a diminished country that Henry uses him to summon. Because if anything that heavy door of time seems to have crushed him with the weight, no less than Henry imagines him
Stooped by the burden of endless dreams
His and yours and mine.
Willie Mays is an old man who can't throw a baseball and can't give a decent speech on behalf of Hank Aaron. (He told an anecdote that was more about himself.) Seeing that a man who for many people was the very emblem of youth has turned into a weak, inarticulate, possibly selfish crab is not really anything to make a public spectacle out of. But there it was, and it wasn't a lot of fun.

I don't have any memories of Willie Mays, so I was drawn to the idea of him more than anything. My childhood heroes were guys like Carl Yastrzemski and, uh, Denny Doyle. But I don't think I would ever expect them to have much to say about America—or about anything other than baseball. Heck, Yaz couldn't even sell bread that well.

Maybe what made seeing Willie Mays so empty and strange was realizing that on some level, even though I should know better, I really did expect him to have some explanation for everything—including what all those belles were doing out there behind him, other than witnessing an unprecedented collection of iconic decrepitude.

* This is grossly unfair. We had some good times in Alabama in 2007, though they weren't baseball related: the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro is possibly a sham but it's a trove of delicacies all the same; the grotto of the architecture-crazed monk in Cullman is unquestionably one of a kind; and actually Mobile itself seemed rather lovely in a way. I'll leave it to Rob to tell the tale of the kid in Huntsville who single-handedly spoiled the "give it to a kid" mantra for a generation of Stars fans.

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