Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball

Central to this blog’s fascination with sports–and I’d guess this is true of most ardent sports fans–is the question, “What is it like?” As we’ve mentioned here before, athletes at the pinnacle of exertion attain a level of conspicuous grace that we mere onlookers, in our humble, daily trials, can never truly access. We’re desperate for anything that can make this sort of unfathomable genius discernible to us. Or as David Foster Wallace put it, we’re trying to “get intimate with all that profundity.”

Our inability to understand is matched by the athlete’s inability to explain. Wallace dissects this disconnect in his essay, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” He suggests that the banal, unenlightening postgame clichés an athlete offers up aren’t evidence of his or her lack of intelligence, but instead are real and deeply true and essential to the athlete’s success in ways we can’t grasp. I think this is echoed by the A.A. members in “Infinite Jest.” For recovering addicts, like top-flight athletes, success is only possible by abandoning oneself and trusting in the mercy of some higher power. “One day/pitch/serve/foul shot/putt at a time,” then, takes on a terrifying, mind-clearing urgency. 

Dock Ellis, former Major Leaguer and recovering addict, died yesterday. He wore curlers in his hair, and once set out to bean every batter in the Cincinnati Reds lineup. He was maced by a stadium security guard who didn’t believe he was who he said he was, and spent his post-baseball years as a drug and alcohol counselor in Los Angeles. He was a man of his time, especially because he and his time didn’t often see eye to eye*. He also threw a no-hitter while tripping on LSD.

Still high from the night before, Ellis woke up the morning of June 12, 1970, in his girlfriend’s Los Angeles apartment. Believing he had the day off, Ellis dropped acid again before one of his companions pointed out that the newspaper listed him as the starting pitcher in game one of that day’s doubleheader. In San Diego.  The no-hitter wasn’t of the Kerry Wood, untouchably dominant sort. Understandably, Dock had trouble locating the strike zone, walking eight batters and–naturally–hitting one. But, c’mon, give him a break. He was really, really high.

This is a great story, great for so many reasons. But one reason, for me, is because it both emphasizes and explodes the divide between athlete and spectator. Asking Ellis what was going through his mind that day would have been absurd, and absurd not in the existentially tragic, Sisyphean way, but absurd in a way that was funny and potentially revealing. What could his response possibly have been? “I don’t know, freaking Yodas and shit?”

Or maybe something more like, “I noticed that there was a hole in a corner of the sky, and through it I had a complete view of the universe and the secrets it contained, and I watched as these secrets leaked through the hole like liquid, and I was filled with the knowledge that we, every one of us, are bathed by this liquid, today and forever.”

And everyone in attendance would have understood him, for once, because that day at Jack Murphy Stadium they had seen the same thing, too.

*For more on Dock’s struggle with race, drugs, and baseball, check out this book, which is also the source of this post’s title.

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