Against the Current, Once Again

If you got dragged through an American literature course in your younger days, you might have stumbled across this line:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

That, in case your memory needs a nudge, is the much-celebrated closing line of  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s much-celebrated novel “The Great Gatsby.” It’s one of the most famous sentences in the American literary canon, praised for both its haunting, poetic beauty and the way it perfectly encapsulates the human relationship with time and memory.

The past is a common theme in “The Great Gatsby,” maybe the central theme. It’s a common theme in many works of art, and for good reason. The past is the one thing we cannot change or return to, no matter how hard some folks try. You might fiddle with its gears in an attempt to bend it to your will. You might spend your days soaking it up, to a point where it either saves you or drowns you. But you can’t change the past, and you can’t go back. That alone makes it fascinating – and a little depressing.

The past has invaded my head a lot lately, along with the heads of countless other men and women around the globe in this year of global pandemic and social unrest. It’s easy to let your thoughts drift back to a time when the world seemed a little steadier on its feet, and wish you could drop in for a visit.

On a more personal scale, there’s this:  Tom Seaver and Lou Brock both died recently, reminding me (again) that the clock ticks fast in this life. If you’re not familiar with Seaver and Brock, you probably didn’t grow up in North America during the 1960s and 70s. Otherwise, you’re probably aware they were both Hall-of-Fame baseball players who dazzled a generation of young fans.

Lou played for the St. Louis Cardinals, a daring runner and skilled hitter, quiet and classy, one of my all-time heroes on my all-time favorite team. Tom was the cerebral, photogenic, magnetic and otherworldly New York Mets pitcher who might not have been a personal hero (I was no Mets fan), but was one of a handful of sports superstars who emerged around the time “superstar” made its first appearance in the popular lexicon.

Both players were gifted physically, but it was the way they approached the mental part of the game that set them apart from the crowd. Lou secretly filmed pitchers to study their pickoff moves and tendencies, 30 years before this became a thing. Tom often referred to pitching as an “art form” in which outthinking hitters was just as important as overpowering them.

Lou died on Sept. 6 after years of health problems, including cancer and an amputated leg. He was 81 years old. Tom died six days earlier of complications due to dementia, compounded by COVID-19. He was 75, but seemed ageless until the very end.

As public figures go, athletes occupy rarified air in our collective memories. Athletic careers, much like childhood, have a very limited shelf life. Most professional athletes stop playing before they reach middle age. They remain forever young in our memories, fast and strong, invincible, larger than life.

Lou Brock became a Cardinal in 1964, when I was still in pre-school. He retired in 1979, when I was in college. That was only a span of 15 years, but it took me from a near-toddler to a fully-formed adult, from not being able to cross the street on my own to being able to hop on a plane and fly across the world on my own. There may be no period in your life when you go through so many changes.

Lou will always be the young guy who singled to left, swiped second, swiped third, then scored on a grounder. He was still a good player when he retired, but after that he all but disappeared from our daily lives. Tom was the unhittable force, coming down off the mound like a locomotive and sending an aspirin-sized fastball over the tiniest corner of the plate. He was Tom Terrific, the biggest apple in the Big Apple, the All-American California kid with the good looks and endless well of confidence. A year before he retired he was still one of the better pitchers in the majors.

Compare that with an aging musician who hit it big for a while in the 1960s and 70s  then spent the next four decades grinding through the same old songs to increasingly sparse and disinterested crowds. Or, an A-list actress who loses the battle with age and spends the latter half of her career taking bit parts in bad movies just to earn a paycheck

Lou and Tom never had to endure that. They were effective players till the end, still key cogs in their respective machines, then retired when they were relatively young men. The next thing you know it’s 2020, they’re gone, and you’re left wondering where the time scrambled off to. You take a peek behind and try to snatch a memory of Lou steaming toward second or Tom winging a fastball past an overmatched hitter. What your memory can’t conjure up, YouTube can.

But it’s not really them you’re seeing on these little trips through the memory tunnel. It’s you. The skinny little kid in front of the rabbit-eared TV, watching Lou Brock in the ’67 World Series against Boston. It’s October 12, Game 7 – late afternoon because they still played day games back then – and Lou bangs out two hits and scores in the top of the 5th to put the Cardinals up 3-0, and the Cardinals go on to win it 7-2, and you jump up and down and wait for Dad to get home from work, because you know he’ll be happy and you can celebrate together, and we’re the World Champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, El Birdos, you’re goddamn right we are.

You’re in that memory somewhere, 53 years in the wrong direction. A boat against the current, borne back into the past. Never reaching shore.

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