Sunday, May 6, 2018
Kerry Wood, Edmund Gorski, and Necessary Realities: A Twenty Year Remembrance
My commute to high school took me by Wrigley Field twice a day, roughly an hour and forty-five minutes each way, from my home in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood to the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, northside to the far, far west side, just to the edge of the city limits. I left the house at 6:15 every morning. The Clark Street bus passed Addison Street on the way to or from Belmont Avenue, and once I caught the Belmont bus, I settled in as it took me almost to the end of the line to St. Patrick High School. In the mornings, I’d stare at the quiet, dark stadium, illuminated by interior office lights and the red marquee. In the late spring afternoons, the bus would crawl through game day traffic, navigating pedestrians, tour buses, and the choke of cars. In the mornings, I gave myself internal pep talks, telling myself to have a better day than the day before. In the afternoons, tired and defeated, I tried not to cry, tried to muster enthusiasm to tell my parents I had a good day, that everything was wonderful, that I was making friends.
Both of my older brothers went to Lane Tech High School, a public school roughly 40 minutes away. I, however, was a naive, awkward child, and I knew right away that I couldn’t handle the expanse of a school as large as Lane. I’d latched on to the idea of St. Pat’s, an all-boys Catholic school that felt safer to me, as if I’d seamlessly blend into a smaller, close-knit community.
I was very wrong. Most of the students there had grown up together, gone to the same elementary schools, played little league and flag football together, and had family and friend links that spanned generations. I was an interloper, a fourteen year-old with a bad haircut, glasses, no athletic skills, and a speech impediment. It was the perfect combination for an imperfect new environment, one that I knew right away I didn’t belong to at all. By the spring, I had created a hardened shell, putting up with the shoves, the mocking, the realization I wasn’t going to have a joyous four years. I also had no idea money was tight in my family. It cost my parents hundreds of dollars a month to send me to a private school, one that I secretly hated.
On the afternoon of May 6th, 1998, the bus drove by Wrigley, and I was unaware that history had been made. When I arrived home, the news was on, as it always was; my parents had a ritual of afternoon coffee, Jeopardy!, and the local news following. The lead story came from the ballpark. Cubs rookie pitcher Kerry Wood, in his fifth Major League start, had struck out twenty Houston Astros, trying Roger Clemens’ record, as well as setting the new rookie and National League record. An error by third baseman Kevin Orie had inexplicably been ruled a hit, costing Wood a no-hitter. I was transfixed. It hadn’t been until the previous two years that I’d taken an interest in sports, but this interest, as it is for me now, applies only to baseball and basketball. I became a basketball fan as the Bulls started their second threepeat in 1996; and not long after, I felt the pull of baseball.
I was only dimly aware of the Cubs’ decades of futility, but the 1998 season was off to a promising start, especially after the team started the previous season by losing their first fourteen games. Wood’s game felt like a magic signal. I watched the highlights of the game over and over. I learned about pitching records, how rare Wood’s performance was, and saw just how ferociously he threw his fastballs, his slider/curve, the exasperation on the faces of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Moises Alou as they swung, took called strikes, and shook their heads on the way back to the dugout.
In the face of high school ostracization, my interest in baseball turned into an obsession, an escape, but also a cache of facts and talking points I could use to endear myself to my classmates. However, my following of Wood’s game made me feel guilty. At any other time, I would have bonded with my father, who grew up a Yankees fan in Brooklyn, who was likely relieved I was taking an interest in sports instead of Frank Sinatra albums and MGM musicals.
He couldn’t focus on baseball.
His mother-in-law, my maternal grandmother, was dying of stomach cancer, literally on her deathbed in the hospital. If my parents weren’t at work or refueling at home, they were at my grandmother’s bedside.
I kept the Cubs as my escape, even though I was overcome with new adult emotions and realities. In an act that today feels fantastically archaic, even in the days before widespread Internet access, I clipped out the newspaper articles about Wood’s game and stored them in a folder.
On May 11th, his next start, Wood took the mound against the Arizona Diamondbacks and struck out thirteen batters over seven innings, setting a new record with thirty-three strikeouts over two consecutive starts. The Cubs were three games over .500, not much of a cushion, but the whispers were growing louder in Chicago media. With Wood now a national celebrity, a memorable season was certainly underway.
On May 13th, my father woke me up. The cancer had done its work. My grandmother had passed away during the night. My mother was still at the hospital. Like a small child, I burrowed up in the blankets and sobbed, partly out of grief, but also partly out of the knowledge that everything would be drastically different in our lives.
Doris (who we called Nan) and Edmund Gorski lived with us, occupying the first floor of a two story house. Nan and my father didn’t have the stereotypical mother-in-law/son-in-law dynamic. Instead, there was mutual love, respect, and laughter between them, as they’d both come from working class backgrounds in two very different areas.
Nan was born to a large, poor London family in 1928. She met and married Edmund, a handsome Polish soldier who found work as a banquet manager at the Savoy Hotel. My mother came along in 1951, and in 1956, they moved to Chicago. On the surface, it was an almost propaganda-like immigration story. My grandfather ended up working in the upscale service industry, waiting, bartending, and managing ballrooms at the Bismarck Hotel, the Illinois Athletic Club, the Tower Club, and the Drake Hotel. Nan, who dropped out of school in the sixth grade, worked in various department stores, briefly worked as a telemarketer, and ended up as a clerk at the CNA Building downtown. My mother was their only child, and they made lifelong friends with various neighbors, a seemingly seamless integration to a new country.
But nothing is ever wholesome on the inside as it appears on the outside.
Nan never stopped missing England, preferring it to the United States her whole life. In her early years as a Chicago resident, she was homesick and bewildered, aghast at the concept of working on commission at a department store, disgusted by her coworkers and their thirst for money. She’d grown up with next to nothing and knew how to adapt. She wore her outsider badge with pride.
As my grandmother, Nan wasn’t a frail, gray-haired old lady, doling out candy when we came to visit. She was a staircase away, the smell of her Benson & Hedges Menthol Light 100s curling up the back stairway and back porch. She adored me and my brothers, but would tell anyone else to fuck off as easily as she’d tell them to have a nice day.
Edmund was an alcoholic and gambler, faults that undermined his own American dream. His hotel work had the air of Mad Men period details: memories of war, bottomless glasses, a work life that was strictly separate from his home life. As he aged, and, escalating after Nan died, the effects of his alcoholism made way for his descent into dementia. His world was limited to four chairs: the front porch, the armchair in the living room, the kitchen chair, and the folding chair in the backyard. At night, he smoked and blared his Polish TV shows at the highest volume, so loud the voices hummed and vibrated the walls in our second floor living room.
With Nan gone, the spring turned into summer. My mother had lost her best friend, and her world was in supreme upheaval. The ensuing months showed me firsthand how messy adulthood can be. My mother alternated between fantastic, determined “I’ll get through this” highs, and quiet, fog-like lows, feeling her way through a strange new grief like one feels their way through a dense forest.
Our small family was ruptured. Nan was dead, my eldest brother had been in the Army since 1994, and my middle brother joined the Navy after he graduated in June. I’d finished my first year of high school, and fell into baseball even harder.
The Cubs were winning. Kerry Wood was racking up strikeouts, and to everyone’s surprise, outfielder Sammy Sosa was hitting home runs, many home runs, his totals increasing as the baseball world followed Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr., the potential heirs to the single-season home run record. I caught every game I could on WGN-TV. I maintained an old man routine: every morning I’d walk to the corner White Hen Pantry to buy a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times, which featured the daily home run totals of Sosa, McGwire, and Griffey. I discovered the joy of hate-reading, shaking my head as I studied Jay Mariotti’s terrible writing, screeching alternations between baseball passions and cold dismissals of players he deemed unworthy of respect.
I went out of my way to ride the bus to Wrigley Field every week during the summer to buy a copy of Baseball Weekly, because retrieving it from a newspaper box across the street from the ballpark felt more authentic than picking it up elsewhere.
My mother’s relationship with her father had always been fraught with distance, but the bottom fell out when she found herself as his primary caretaker, without Nan as a buffer. She bought him food, did his laundry, and even upstairs, I could hear snippets of arguments. He once threw an ashtray at her, likely over something inconsequential. She came upstairs in tears and sat by herself in the kitchen. I was too young to have words of advice, but knew enough to keep my distance with enough body language to let her know I empathized. My mother was still angry over her loss, and the distance between her and Edmund was now an expanse. Edmund was mourning in his own way, not just over his wife’s death, but the hand that life and addiction had dealt him. He’d squandered a small fortune from his working days, had no friends, and was isolated.
I helped my mother out where I could. Every Sunday morning, I went downstairs, helped him strip out of his stained pajamas, and quickly got used to the sight of his naked, wrinkled body as he gripped my arm with a strength I didn’t know he still had in him, lowering himself onto his shower stool. Once he was in the tub, he could wash himself. I retreated to his kitchen to read my baseball magazines in preparation for that afternoon’s game.
Kerry Wood showed signs of fatigue; he spent the month of September on the disabled list with arm fatigue. But the Cubs were rolling. Sammy Sosa approached and eclipsed sixty home runs. Despite every attempt to squander away their Wild Card lead for good, they still stayed in the picture. I was a baseball fan, and this new identity gave me happiness and something to look forward to; I read the magazines in a happy bliss until Edmund called me back into the bathroom to help him dry off and get dressed. Once he sat back in the kitchen, I quickly fixed him a smoked salmon sandwich, mixed him a cup of instant coffee, and hurried back upstairs to watch the pregame show, to lose myself further in Steve Stone and Chip Caray’s analysis, Sammy Sosa’s heart taps, Mickey Morandini’s mullet, and Mark Grace’s eye black. The guilt I felt leaving him alone once my obligations were done quickly turned into relief. I was angry with him for making my mother completely stressed out, and in my burgeoning teenage psychology, I told myself he deserved to be alone. In reality, it was for the best, for both of us. Had I stayed with him, we would’ve been forced to make small talk, to entertain each other, when all he really wanted was to sit in one of his chairs, smoking his Chesterfields.
In early September, my father bought three tickets to an afternoon game between the Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds. Once we found our seats, I went down by the field, hoping to score autographs on my baseball. I was fifteen, but gloriously childlike: jumping up and down, peering onto the field, absolutely thrilled to be so close to the players, caught up in a scrum of people reaching, yelling, and waving balls, pictures, and ticket stubs. I turned and looked toward the upper deck to locate my parents. I saw my mother, who sat, staring into the outfield, her chin on her fist, already bored out of her mind, wanting to be anywhere but the ballpark. Even from a distance, her face and body language was a representation of still-lingering grief and anger. Perhaps she agreed to go when my father got the tickets, perhaps she had to be talked into going. That moment struck me as one my earliest representations of parenthood: my parents taking me to a baseball game, to have a family outing, to take shaky, tentative steps toward normalcy when the world is in grotesque disarray.
It’s fitting that I don’t remember anything about the game itself. Sammy Sosa didn’t hit any home runs, and the Cubs dropped a crucial game in their playoff push.
Somehow, they made the playoffs. They forced an additional game with the San Francisco Giants, which they won 5-3, setting up a divisional match with the Atlanta Braves. After dropping the first two games in Atlanta, Kerry Wood returned for the third game in Chicago. Despite allowing just one run over five innings, he was gassed and spent. The offense was stagnant, the bullpen collapsed again, and the Braves swept the Cubs.
Wood tore a ligament in his arm during spring training the following year and missed the 1999 season. He had flashes of stability, spent more time on the disabled list, and regrouped enough to lead the Cubs deep into the 2003 playoffs. After stints with the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees, he retired as a Cub, having been converted to a relief pitcher years before.
Until winning the World Series in 2016, the Cubs were a cliched representation of hope and the potential for ultimate happiness and fulfillment, represented by the “long suffering” fan base, the community, and the history of the team and ballpark. If baseball is the perfect metaphor for real life (disappointment marked by occasional flashes of good), the Cubs were the literal manifestation of that. But for me, Kerry Wood elevated that to a more grim level. Cubs fans never gave up on him, despite his long stretches of inactivity. The twenty strikeout game in 1998 was his best and worst moment, because that random afternoon showed what he was capable of, and he spent the rest of his career trying to live up to that potential. He gave it everything he had when he was healthy, but it led to more breakdowns, more injuries, and more “what if” reflections. That one nearly perfect game was enough to earn years of patience through every injury and losing season that followed.
Chicago is a mess of contradictions. It’s the third-largest city in the country, yet clings to a Midwestern small-town complex, its officials constantly dropping the phrase “world class city,” as if saying it makes it true, rather than letting the culture speak for itself. The Cubs have long played under the guise of being a working-class team: Wrigley Field is situated in a neighborhood, not in a suburb or off a freeway. The notion of the Bleacher Bums, unemployed or truant fans reveling in baseball while willfully disregarding responsibilities, took on a national mystique. Today, the atmosphere around the park is different. It’s wealthier and more exclusive, but still tries to cling to the old ways.
Kerry Wood was an involuntary part of those contradictions. We loved the young, hard-working Texan, and hoped his arm would lead to the glory that came eighteen years later.
Edmund didn’t undergo any personal transformations. He didn’t make peace with my mother, didn’t shake his head and examine the mistakes he’d made in his life. Kerry Wood won the Rookie of the Year award, but never regained what he’d planted that May afternoon. Baseball and immigration are essential components to whatever one deems as “American,” but they don’t fit into perfect narratives the way we’d hope. When Edmund died in 2004, his legacy was left in what he didn’t mess up for good: my mother became stronger and more at peace in her life, and his grandchildren, my brothers and I, are aware of his faults, despite making plenty of mistakes on our own. His immigration story has the veneer of success, but once one looks deeper, between the lines, he would have been just as frail and stubborn in Poland as he was in the United States.
This story wouldn’t have been possible if the Cubs had somehow pushed through and won the World Series in 1998, or if Edmund made changes in his life following Nan’s death. We always hope for happy endings, but the road to them often takes much longer than we anticipate. Baseball is such an easy metaphor for life, such an unexpected coping mechanism, because of its propensity for long stretches of failure and hopelessness. Kerry and Edmund represent two sides of a spectrum, a Venn Diagram of hope and reality. The overlap is tiny, but we can see it, no matter how small the sliver ends up being.
(Kerry Wood photograph: Richard A. Chapman/AP)
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