My Trip at the Ballpark

Today is the anniversary of the day Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitcher Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres … while tripping on LSD. To celebrate/commemorate this day, here’s a true story about another acid-laced day in baseball history, which happened 30 years ago (almost to the day, as a matter of fact), when I was young and indestructible.

I figure it’s safe to ask for forgiveness, since asking permission was never really an option – I’d already swallowed the tab of LSD by the time Charlie Clark called, asking if I could cover the Suffolk County (Long Island) high school baseball championship.

It was a bright day in June, the college semester was over, when my brother, a couple of friends and I planned to take a communal chemical trip to and on one of the nearby beaches, expecting bikinis and rainbow colored water. Charlie was more conciliatory than usual: “Grillo. Charlie. Shaw’s sick. Can you cover the Suffolk County baseball championship? Kings Park and Commack North. Game starts at …”

It was a part-time gig at Newsday, a great daily newspaper that covered Long Island and tried to cover the city. Somehow, I’d talked my way into a job there, and became part of a crew of maybe a dozen part-timers in the massive sports department, all of us kids pitted against one another in competition for the few actual writing assignments that existed for untested punks (that’s what Charlie usually called us, “punks,” or “finks,” which was still part of the standard bitter old man lexicon in those days).

Usually, we each worked three to four days a week, manning the phones, taking scores and writing (or “writing”) high school or local college round-ups for the next day’s edition. Occasionally, you’d get a call from Marty Noble or one of the other actual sportswriters who covered the Mets or Yankees, filing a story, wanting you to take dictation. Once, I asked a question, something like, “are you sure you want to lead with the color of the sky? I mean, Grantland Rice has been dead a long time …” and the sportswriter on the other end said, “shut up and type.”

Charlie was the editor in charge of high school and local sports, and he genuinely hated working with us, and I couldn’t really blame him. He’d worked with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He covered about 500 Indy 500s. He’d been around newsprint about twice as long as any of us had been alive, a bunch of 21ish-year-old know-it-alls, some of us still in college, each of us believing we were the next Hemingway, or Red Smith. I didn’t think he knew my actual name, having gotten used to answering to “hey you.”

Dave Shaw was a great guy, a real grown-up compared to must of us (maybe he was a grizzled 25 at the time?), and one of our top high school writers. If I hadn’t just eaten a little square with Mickey Mouse’s picture on it, I might have been happy enough to kiss Dave Shaw for the opportunity his illness availed me. Luckily for both of us, I was stunned and petrified to be talking to Charlie just now. My eyes hadn’t begun to dilate yet. I said, “you can count on me, Charlie.” And I was off in my powder blue Pinto, headed toward Commack.

The acid kicked in long before my arrival at the ballpark. The nature of the trip – a sense of soaring that demanded constant motion, perhaps a game of Frisbee – rendered the pace of a baseball game almost intolerable. But the reality of having an assignment and having to beat deadline broke through the hazy hubris (LSD used to make me feel invulnerable – not a cartoony Go Ask Alice “look at me, I can fly!” invulnerability, just a cocksure, “this is eminently doable” sort of way), intensifying a feeling that I had a great purpose. Also, I didn’t want to piss off Charlie.

So, instead of taking a seat and keeping score, or hanging out in the scorekeeper’s box behind home plate, I circled the baseball diamond – again and again and again, filling my notebook with stuff both useful and useless (there was, no doubt, something about the color of the sky, and the strong limbs of indifferent trees, and the taste of music that I couldn’t actually hear, but fortunately, none of that found its way into the resulting story).

All I remember about the game is, Commack North won (I think Pete Harnisch, now a former Major League pitcher, went the distance on the mound), and Kings Park had a guy named Craig Biggio (yes, the guy who will one day be in the Hall of Fame) batting something like .450 in their lineup. I managed to interview a couple of the young stars, the coaches, and was still as high and electrified as Ben Franklin’s kite when I pulled into the Newsday office. And here was the real trick: maintaining composure and writing a simple game story while surrounded by grown men who actually did this sports writing stuff for their livelihoods, men who had little time or patience for punks or finks angling for their jobs.

The VDTs stretched out like reflections of reflections, and I found one near the back of the now surreal sports department, and began hacking away. The story ran, and there wasn’t a single mention of sky, tree, grass, though I did go to lengths describing the arc of Harnisch’s curve ball. All in all, a straightforward piece of game-writing.

Next day, I covered Game 2. Commack North won. I wasn’t high, and that story had the same simple, inverted pyramid shape to the prose as the first story, which proved to me the existence of another force, an internal autopilot that helps navigate language and thoughts to find useful words that link together in a comprehensible way. And as long as I don’t get in that guy’s way, my sentences will have happy landings. Mostly. Hopefully.

Editors Note (literally, a note to any editors who have worked with me in the 30 years since the Biggio-Harnisch acid-trip ballgame): None of the crazy (or less than crazy) shit that’s come your way from my way had any psychedelic chemistry attached to it, “psychedelic” being the operative word because, you know, pretty much everything’s chemistry when you break it down.

Another Note: Here’s an even more interesting story about drugs and baseball (Chuck Brodsky’s stellar musical rendering of the Dock Ellis story)


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