The joke, said Braves broadcaster Skip Caray, is that if half the people who claimed to be at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium during the Bad Times (1985 to 1990) had actually been there, no seat would've been available. Jason and I were there — wandering, hounding autographs, chasing foul balls across acres of empty seats. We smoked our first cigarette in the solitary shade of the orange upper deck in left centerfield. Once, with no crowd noise to compete with our pubescent jeers, Padres slugger Jack Clark turned and flipped us a bird.
The stadium organ waltz of another Braves lost season was the soundtrack of our summers.
Routed. The Cellar. Loserville, USA. Defeat for the Braves was inevitable until it wasn't. In the summer of '91, enchanted words — Magic Number, Clinch, The Pennant — belonging to distant cities — New York, St. Louis, L.A. — could suddenly be touched each morning in the paper. Now only winning mattered. And the game rewarded us each fall by finding new ways to break our heart.
The Twins of Minnesota that fall. The Blue Jays of Toronto in the '92 Series. The Phillies — the fucking Phillies — in the '93 NLDS. The Strike in '94.
But then there was 1995. On October 21 — World Series, Game 1 — Jason and I and 51,874 fellow Braves fans poured into Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Now college roommates with almost calloused baseball hearts, we wedged into Section 311, high up, directly behind home plate. On the mound, warming up, blowing into his right hand between pitches, stood Gregory Alan Maddux.
I remember all of us standing, holding our breath. Then I remember light. Thousands of lights. Waves of tiny diamonds.
Jason kept a picture of Maddux above his desk in our dorm room at Young Harris College in the north Georgia mountains. A beautiful athlete, the best on campus, Jason played only intramurals and spent serious time at his desk. A physics workhorse and calculus whiz, he kept Maddux's image at eye-level.
Shuffling and pardoning down the aisle to our seats, Jason stopped and squeezed my shoulder. "Look," he said.
Maddux strode toward home, hurling the ball through the night.
It's 2014. I'm thirty-seven. My wife and daughter are both asleep. I'm a thousand miles from the stadium-turned-parking-lot. On YouTube, Kenny Lofton of the American League Champion Cleveland Indians looks at the first pitch for a ball. Inside, low. I don't remember the call. I remember all of us standing, holding our breath. Then I remember light. Thousands of lights. Waves of tiny diamonds. The whole stadium flashing and Jason, who would die five months later on the side of a south Georgia highway, leaning into my ear and whispering, "Maddux."
SCOUTING REPORT: Greg Maddux, age 18, by Chicago Cub Scouts Mapson and Jorgensen
Height: 5'11, Weight: 155, DOB: 4/14/66. Home: Las Vegas, Nevada.
Abilities: I really believe that this boy would be the number one player in the country if he just looked a little more physical. Has average to above average fastball now. He has a big league CB but needs to be more consistent with it.
Weakness: Lacks control on all his pitches. Just has to get ahead of hitters more often. Sometimes cocks his wrist too early on his curve and telegraphs it.
Jason Kenney with his parents on Senior Night in 1995. (Courtesy the Kenney Family)
SCOUTING REPORT: Jason Kenney, age 19, by Boyhood Friend & College Roommate Collins
Height: 6'2, Weight: 216, DOB: 1/9/77. Home: Atlanta, Georgia.
Abilities: Three-Sport Athlete. Center Fielder, Georgia Little League World Series team, 1990; Fullback and Tight End, Atlanta Colts Pop Warner Football National Champions, 1991; Guard and Small Forward, Dunwoody High School, Georgia High School Basketball Champions, Undefeated, Ranked No. 3 by USA Today, 1995.
A "natural." Hyper-competitive. Crazy instinctive touch and feel. Inspires envy.
Once bowled a 290 in Rome, Georgia while consuming 2 1/2 pitchers of Bud Light.
Weakness: Lacks control (drinking). Dismissed from basketball team two days before state title game — showed up drunk (again) to school. Binge drinking since age 14.
Trouble found Maddux on the second pitch. Kenny Lofton — that leadoff fury with legs electric — hit a scorcher to sure-handed shortstop Raffy Belliard who butchered the ball. Lofton stole second. Lofton stole third. Baerga bounced to short, Lofton scored.
"It's okay, Gregory," Jason said.
Jason didn't speak directly to Tom Glavine or John Smoltz or any other athlete. Unlike me, he wasn't prone to hero-worship. As a kid, he didn't wear the jerseys of Dale Murphy, Dominique Wilkins, or Deion Sanders. Jason identified more with the game and the desire to be playing. His father, Charles Kenney, played basketball at Georgia Tech and tried out with the Hawks. His older brother, Keith, went to Tech on a hoops scholarship. Jason, Boy-Midas, was next.
"Nothing we can do about that," he instructed Maddux.
When Jason started attracting attention for his abilities on the diamond and the court, he answered the Dionysian call of the party. His cup overflowed. In college, he estimated he spent 75 percent of his high school nights drunk or high. Jason told me this sober one winter morning, months after the World Series, at breakfast. His tone didn't betray bragging or bitterness, just curiosity. Instead of ACC ball at Tech, Jason was playing against me that winter in an ancient, empty gym in the mountains of North Georgia.
Greg Maddux pitches during Game 1 of the 1995 World Series. (Getty Images)
Maddux escaped the inning. Jason stood, excused himself, saying he needed a drink.
Twelve-packing our way through the Colorado Rockies and a sweep of the Reds, we drank beer in the playoffs just as we did in the regular season. Every game. Except for Maddux's. Jason didn't drink when Greg Maddux pitched. "We're good," he'd explain, though it wasn't clear where the boundaries of "we" began or ended.
Maddux was warming up to begin the second when Jason returned with two cups of coffee and bag of peanuts. He handed me a coffee.
"Let's get to work, Gregory," he said.
Jason used "Gregory" when Maddux was in trouble, which was rare that year (19-2, 1.63 ERA). But against Cleveland — Lofton, Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Eddie Murray — the water was deep.
"There you go, Gregory. Fastball inside. Now, change up away."
During his tenure with the Braves, Maddux had a cadre of entirely forgettable catchers: Damon Berryhill, Charlie O'Brien, Eddie Perez, Paul Bako, Henry Blanco. Maddux's personal pitching valets. Catcher caddies. Unknown to the sporting world in 1995, Maddux also had a singular fan, a real fanatic, from the Latin fanaticus, meaning "enthusiastic, inspired by a god."
"There you go, let him ground out Gregory."
"Cutter inside. Handcuff him. Yes. Like that."
"Curve, Gregory, then fastball, then change."
By the third, Jason was speaking only to Maddux, calling pitches and predicting where the outs would fall. Grounder Belliard. Ground out Lemke. Strike three looking.
Maddux found a groove, a keyhole, and Jason did too.
It'd be too much to tell you that every pitch and pop of the bat traveled the path of Jason's words, but for three straight innings the ball seemed to do exactly that.
Over the years, I've shared little about World Series Game 1. I don't trust my words. That for which we find words, Nietzsche writes, is something already dead in our hearts. Besides, the heart of baseball is already clogged with stories of Too-Soon-Gone-All-Star-Best-Dead-Buddies and Forlorn Fathers. I don't trust memory when it's sweetened by a sentimental, high-fructose, Field of Dreams corn syrup.
I don't trust memory when it's sweetened by a sentimental, high-fructose, Field of Dreams corn syrup.
What I saw though is what I saw. And only recently have I inched closer to the truth.
Before the Internet was in our pockets, Sports Illustrated arrived once a week in the mail. It was a big deal. Babe Ruth had Grantland Rice, DiMaggio had Jimmy Cannon, and in our days Greg Maddux had Tom Verducci. On August 14, 1995, the week we enrolled as freshmen at Young Harris College, the cover of Sports Illustrated featured Greg Maddux with the headline: "The Greatest Pitcher You'll Ever See."
In the cover story, Verducci attempts to explain in prose Maddux's astonishing range of gifts: intelligence, control, humility, instinct. "But," Verducci writes, "he is even better at analyzing hitters — so good that four times this year, while seated next to Smoltz in the dugout, he has warned, ‘This guy's going to hit a foul ball in here.' Three of those times a foul came screeching into the dugout."
Jason's SIs from August 1995 to March 1996 now sit in a trunk in my closet. A few weeks after the accident, his father Charles gave me the magazines along with Jason's Little League baseball cap, white Adidas basketball shoes, and Physics notebook. Charles said that Jason loved me like a brother and I wasn't ready to hear that yet. Each item, even the date stamped magazines, stood as singular reminders of my greatest failure.
I can't think of Jason today, or of the days leading up to his death, without thinking of Greg Maddux. And I can't think of Maddux without thinking of Verducci. With Maddux's Hall of Fame induction this summer, after having not opened the trunk in years, I cracked it open, brushed the dust off Verducci's article, and found the movie of my memory experiencing technical difficulties.
What unsettled my memory are two events stuck within the timeline of my best friend and our favorite pitcher.
It's September 1995. Jason and I are fishing the banks of a golf course pond near Lake Chatuge in north Georgia. A golfer lines up his 8-iron approach. Jason says, "Watch. He's going to shank this. But don't move. It'll land between us." The shot slices. Rises. The man yells, Fore! A heat-seeker, the ball hits right between us. The man issues a stream of apologies. Jason looks at me, winks, and casts his line back into the water.
It's October 1995. World Series Game 1. Maddux is dealing in dark matter and the ball is dancing as Jason calls pitches and outs. This Jedi-Mind-Meld can't last forever, but it's happening. For five innings Maddux is no-hitting Cleveland and Jason is part of the orchestration. The moment is as real as the spinning Titleist golf ball streaking past my left ear.
For years, I chalked up both memories as spooky coincidence. Jason had somehow accessed Maddux's wavelength. Now, I know better. Jason read Verducci closely. The picture at his desk was the first step. Each time he glanced up from his work, those calm brown eyes were the eyes his met. At the pond and at World Series Game 1, he decided to experiment further. Jason wanted to graph Maddux's control and command onto his own days, which had so often before drifted toward the edge of the road.
See Greg Maddux: Surviving Albert Belle; Frustrating Eddie Murray; Freezing Manny. Fly out. Grounder. Strike three. Jason's words, barely over a whisper, move with the ball. And the ball changes — it's an aspirin, a Wiffle ball, a whitetail.
Maddux works quickly. The bill of his cap dips his eyes in shadow. Batters must locate the ball — a dart, a dove — from a man inside a mirage who's locked in a conversation with himself and, apparently, my best friend.
To understand what Jason sees in Maddux, you have to travel back five years to Indiana.(Getty Images)
See Jason Kenney: elbows on knees; holding a cup of coffee like a prayer; eyes locked on Maddux. He is eighteen and he is handsome and his face is prematurely lined. He's wearing jeans and a gray hoodie. His eyes won't leave Maddux. To understand what Jason sees in Maddux, you have to travel back five years and five hundred and fifteen miles to Bloomington, Indiana. You have to see what he wanted to find in himself.
Look at Jason. We're thirteen. Sharing a dorm room at Indiana University at the Bob Knight Basketball School. Two boys in Air Jordans amidst a sea of boys in Air Jordans. Curfew. Lights out. Windows open. Jason is telling me about his dad.
Earlier that day, during the team games before lunch, Jason put on such a show that IU assistant Ron Felling and Coach Knight (tanned, huge) took up spots under the basket. They watched Jason drain a three, defend the pick and roll, grab weak-side rebounds, and — with the game tied, seconds left — drive hard, and draw a foul. With Bobby Knight looking on, arms crossed, Jason sank the first free throw and then the second. All net.
After the game, Knight — unsmiling — approached Jason and the same hand that fell on the shoulders of Coach K, Bird, and Jordan now rested tenderly on Jason's. Anointment. Knight spoke; Jason nodded. Knight kept speaking; Jason kept nodding. Finally, Knight smacked Jason — not softly — on the shoulder and Jason jogged off the court, head down.
At lunch, Jason brushed off our table's persistent questions, saying Knight just gave him a pointer on defending the post.
Nonchalant at lunch, at night, in the dark, Jason pontificated. Did you know, he asked, that I've never been this far from home? What would his dad say about the free throws? Could I tell his knees were shaking? Did I know Charles grew up without a dad? Just drove off when Charles was seven. Alcoholic. Landed in Miami. Did I know playing ball became Charles' obsession? Did I know Charles led the state of Georgia in scoring his senior year? Did I know Charles vowed to God, each time one of his six children was born, to be a good father? Did I know that Jason had promised himself to make his dad proud? That he was going to play at Tech too? That this was why he played so hard?
There was a lot I didn't know.
For the rest of the week, counselors at camp — high school coaches, small-college assistants — called Jason "Bailey Junior" after the ballyhooed Hoosier recruit, Damon Bailey, who'd just arrived in Bloomington. Every day — in drills, getting water, at the IU bookstore: Hey, Bailey Junior. Made me proud. And his sidekick. Made me sick.
Riding down I-75 in a mini-van as Jason slept, I saw a line of future coaches and scouts waiting to put their hands on Jason's shoulders. I took stock of my mere adequacy against his star. A Jason highlight reel had already played in my head; in Indiana, he added narration, a voiceover, a past, present, and future.
I never forgot Jason's promise.
Careful what you promise.
Every child dreams perishable dreams. It requires a hard lunacy to hold a friend accountable to their summer camp musings. But not every kid has the gift. I couldn't let go of Jason's potential. Neither could he. The deficit between his incredible promise and our intramural reality drove Jason's preoccupation with Greg Maddux in the fall of 1995. Maddux: that rare athlete (rare person) who realized the absolute limit of his potential.
That wasn't all, of course. There was more. More to Jason's affection, curiosity, and interest. More than I can know.
See Maddux: top of the fifth; one out. Thome shortens his swing and punches a ball to left. Cleveland's first hit. See Jason smile, sip his coffee, say: "Sorry, Gregory. My bad."
Greg Maddux! On top of a fire truck! Red lights spinning! No sirens, just cheers — Maddux, Maddux, Maddux! And there he was! Above us! Twenty feet in the air! Jason and I skipped Monday classes and made the hundred-mile pilgrimage south to stand shoulder to shoulder with half-a-million tomahawk-chopping Braves fans near Atlanta's Woodruff Park. World Series Victory Parade. And there was Maddux! Waving like an awkward emperor! Hair parted in the middle! Oh, Maddux! Jason grabbed his disposable camera and clicked as the City of Atlanta fire engine, approaching speeds of five miles per hour, crept down Peachtree Street, toward Auburn Avenue, carrying Greg Maddux out of sight.
In the first week of November, Jason got the film developed. Was he disappointed? The pictures revealed raised foam tomahawks, the heads of strangers, the side of the fire truck, and in one, the possible outstretched right hand of Greg Maddux.
A few days before final exams in November, Jason placed an index card on the bulletin board above his desk, just to the right of his image of Maddux. On the card, he'd written FOCUS. On another index card, below the first, he wrote: THINK BIG. After the holiday break in Atlanta, during the first week of January, Jason wrote a quote from Emerson, "To be great is to be misunderstood," and tacked it above the image of Maddux. A few days later, while we were doing homework, Jason asked if I'd take a forty-day vow with him.
"What kind of vow?" I asked.
"A vow with God."
"About what?" I asked.
"Staying sober. For 40 days."
Whether I acknowledged it or not, Jason's "issues with drinking" were my upper hand.
I hesitated. Whether I acknowledged it or not, Jason's "issues with drinking" were my upper hand. I didn't want to lose that advantage, even if it was illusory. Jason rolled his desk chair next to mine. "I've tried this before. I need you to hold us to it."
I recalled enough from Sunday school to know forty was the number of days Jesus went to the desert and Noah sat drifting as the world sank. Jason had surrounded the image of Maddux with meaning, literally. Now I wasn't sure where that meaning was headed.
"What's the longest stretch you've gone without a drink?" I asked.
"Six days. Six days last summer. I tried the forty-day vow then."
"Couldn't do it."
"Forty days?" I asked.
"Forty days," he said.
Saying no to Jason was hard, even if it wasn't clear what you were saying yes to.
"So let it be written," I said.
He smiled. "So let it be done."
The cheesy Technicolor lines were from Cecil de Milles' "Ten Commandments" starring Charlton Heston, a film we were subjected to twenty times a year in junior high. I went over to Jason's desk. The bulletin board shrine to Maddux began to take on a new light. I picked up a small desk calendar Charles had given him. Each day held a unique Bible verse. I counted out forty days, and read. I counted again. Then I handed Jason the calendar and he made an audible sound as if being punched.
The Bible Verse took the remaining spot to the left of the image of Maddux, and on it we marked off our days. If Jason was to become more like Maddux, it wouldn't be in the carnival barker voodoo of predicting the path of a ball. It would have to be in some deeper commitment-the very thing that makes us human: the capacity to make and keep a promise.
At the end of each day, Jason, not without self-dramatizing ceremony, announced the day completed and how many days we had left.
"So let it be written," I'd respond from across the room.
"So let it be done," he'd say, marking off another day next to Maddux.
The calendar page Jason and Jeremy used to mark off 40 days sober.
Whatever wavelength Jason found with Maddux fell flat in the seventh inning. Albert Belle, Jason's greatest fear, was on deck. Belle, who had fifty homers in a time when that meant something, had hit the ball hard each at bat. Jason, suddenly silent, kept his head down, shelled his peanuts, and tried to drop each shell into the empty Dixie paper cup between his feet.
Carlos Baerga led off the inning. Maddux struck him out in three pitches.
Albert Belle — whose menace radiated from his massive eyes and bulging forearms — strode to the plate. Jason juggled peanuts from his right palm to his left.
On a 1-2 count, Belle hit a screamer toward third. Chipper Jones gloved it and fired to first. Out! Jason sighed. If Maddux could go the distance, he'd avoid having to see Belle again. On the next pitch, Eddie Murray hit a comebacker. Three outs. Eight pitches. As Maddux made his way off the mound, Jason stood and stretched with the assembled masses. Then he disappeared.
In the bottom of the inning, the Indians' staff lost control. Orel Hershiser fell apart, finally running out of duct tape and glue. He walked Fred McGriff and then, on four straight pitches, walked David Justice. His replacement, Paul Assenmacher, walked the pinch-hitting Mike Deveareux. The Braves pushed over two runs. In a battle of wills, the deciding question was control.
In November of 1996, eight months after the accident, my uncle Gary took me horseback riding in southern Indiana. We rode through the fog and chill of Hoosier National Forest. During the day, we never spoke about Jason, but I felt my uncle's concern in the way he treated his horses and me, and in how he'd carved out a day for us to be in silence in the forest. I felt it saying goodbye when he handed me his AA token — fifteen years sober. I keep it on my desk now, along with a Greg Maddux baseball card. Wherever I've lived, both have traveled with me like two amulets.
The prayer is often called the Serenity Prayer, but I think of it as The Control Pitcher's Prayer.(Getty Images)
On the back of the coin is a prayer you've probably seen cross-stitched on the pillows in your grandmother's house or on the bumpers of diesel pickups: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. The prayer is often called the Serenity Prayer, but I think of it as The Control Pitcher's Prayer.
As a struggling young pitcher, Maddux found Harvey Dorfman, a former sports counselor and baseball guru — the troubled pitcher's Yoda. Maddux cited Dorfman in his Hall of Fame induction speech. For Maddux, his time with Dorfman represented a graduate course in control. What could he control? From his classic, The Mental ABC's of Pitching, Dorfman addresses the issue of control in reference to the Serenity Prayer: "That wisdom ... requires introspection and awareness that is often obscured by the emotions of the moment."
The emotions, plus a tired right arm, made the moment too big for Hershiser.
John Smoltz once said of Maddux, "He never did more than he was capable of doing. He stayed within himself and stayed within his ability."
Later in the chapter, Dorfman quotes one of his most famous clients at length:
Greg Maddux learned long ago to distinguish between what he could and could not control. "I can control the pitches I make, how I handle my mechanics, how I control my frame of mind. It benefited me most...when I realized that I can't control what happens outside of my pitching," he explained.
In 1995, Philadelphia outfielder Ryan Thompson said of Maddux, "He's so good it's funny. It's like he's controlled by somebody." Funny to say, the somebody is himself.
Driving home after the game, I asked Jason where he went after the top of the seventh. Nowhere, he said. Just walked. It made him uneasy, he confessed, to care so much about something over which he had no control.
Jason hadn't returned until the middle of the eighth. Retaking his seat, he raised his thick eyebrows twice, allowing the faintest of smiles. Jason knew things I didn't. But at that moment, I knew. The Braves were going to win. This game. And the Series.
"Let's go, Gregory. Six more outs."
I wasn't sure how long he could keep it up — sprinting from one end of the dark court to the other, stopping under each basket, jumping up, slapping the backboard ten times, and then back again. But he kept going. It was the middle of February and a winter storm had knocked out the power across campus and the entire Brasstown Valley. We were sitting at our desks, Jason in front of his Maddux shrine, when the world went dark.
Our routine that winter was to head to the gym every night after dinner, from 7:30 to 9. We'd shoot, lift, play one-on-one. The gym was like an old church — smooth, worn-out wooden floor with dead spots, a leak in the roof, the buzz of the fluorescent lights overhead. Deserted on most nights, we had the entire court to ourselves. The college once had a powerful team, but when the school dropped the program in the late '60s, it also stopped maintaining the gym. I was grateful that there wasn't much of a crowd for our games of one-on-one. As the vow went deeper, Jason became unstoppable. Usually I could steal a game or two by out-working him and getting hot from the outside, but that winter he was too quick, too strong, too focused, too Jason.
Some nights we played intramurals, and I was grateful for the reprieve. We could compete together and I could watch him beat someone else. Our team — a motley collection of former high school players of varying abilities — barnstormed through the fraternities and other intramural teams in front of crowds that sometimes reached double digits.
The night the power went out is the night the vow came into focus for me. Jason insisted, in the dark, that we still head to the gym. He had to keep the routine going. I protested. He persisted. We took the ball and headed into the night. Inside, the gym was dark except for the soft red pools of light in the corner, from the glow of the emergency exit signs.
Sober, the game and the court became something larger — a renewed promise, a place of possibilities.Jason Kenney with the 1995 state championship team. (Courtesy the Kenney Family.)
I jogged around the gym as Jason walked under the basket. In one motion, he sprang up and slapped the backboard. As soon as he landed, he jumped again. Smack! With both hands, Jason hit the glass ten times and then ran down to the other goal and repeated.
Jason loved the motion and the movement of the game just as he loved the flow of the party and the blurring of boundaries when he drank. Sober, the game and the court became something larger — a renewed promise, a place of possibilities.
If Jason wasn't drinking, he needed to play ball, to compete, to win, to streak through space and slap a glass backboard. In the moment of competing, maybe his scoreboard clicked off. He no longer had to measure himself against the standard.
When I drank with Jason, the scoreboard of resentment I'd been updating for years would turn off. I'd temporarily forget the words promise, past, potential, Tech, All-Star. On the court though, I rarely had the ability to concentrate the way Jason could — to become so lost in the game that the regular boundaries of time and space fade away and there is only the ball and the goal, the world shining in a vivid state of present tense.
Greg Maddux had this ability. Jason did too. The echo of Jason's palms pounding the backboard — flesh against glass — was unrelenting. In memory, each slap grows louder, more insistent. The night eluded my understanding then and now I can only see around the corner of the memory.
But if I could show you Jason on that winter night in Young Harris, Georgia — running and leaping and slapping the backboard glass again and again — then you'd see everything I need you to see.
Heading into the final inning, Maddux had thrown just eighty-two pitches. The last three outs would require thirteen more, but not before Kenny Lofton slapped a two-seamer into left and scurried and stole his way around the bases until he scored. Neither Jason nor Maddux blinked.
With two out, Maddux got Baerga to foul out to Chipper and fireworks filled the brilliant October sky — cascading lights and drifting smoke. Maddux, immediately, demanded the ball. He was not smiling. He wanted the ball. Watching the replay now, it's an insight into Maddux's sense of history and timing. In the moment, I saw neither the fireworks nor Maddux. As soon as Chipper caught the ball, Jason wrapped me up in a hug and wouldn't let go. Eventually, he sat and exhaled. With the color gone from his face, the whole night seemed more like a boxing match than a baseball game.
The game was the longest of my life. Not officially — at two hours, thirty-seven minutes it was just average. But afterward, we sat in our seats in silence for a long time. We watched the fans flock out of the stadium and the Braves leave the field. We watched the grounds crew go to work on the Bermuda grass, streaked with paint and the divots of cleats. We were the last in our section to leave.
We walked out of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, through the lots of beeping, jubilant car horns, past the mini-vans, past the pickup trucks, past the drunk, still screaming kids our own age, and into Jason's black Isuzu Rodeo. The same Rodeo we would climb into months later on March 20, 1996, headed to St. Simons Island on Georgia's Atlantic coast for spring break.
Jason and I kept our vow that winter quarter. We stayed sober forty days. We made sobriety what we had often made drinking before: a competitive sport. A game. We kept the streak going all the way up until the road trip to St. Simons.
Seventy-three days sober, on March 20, at a seaside bar, we "fell off the wagon." Technically, we flew out of the wagon — the black Isuzu Rodeo — and afterward I slid Jason's obituary into the desk drawer of my new single dorm room back at Young Harris College.
On the way to St. Simons, Jason told me he'd had dinner with his dad the night before. His dad had just received his report card and insisted on steak instead of burgers. After the dinner, Charles told Jason he was so very proud of him. After the funeral, Charles told me the same story. And now I am telling you. We had traveled three hundred and twenty-one miles. Our destination was six miles away when we pulled into the downtown parking lot by the lighthouse. We stopped at a bar. Figured we'd earned that too.
It started with a pitcher. And then another while playing pool. I don't remember how we ended up standing at the bar, but I remember the moment when the prospect of shots came up. And I remember exactly what we both did.
"We good?" Jason asked.
Translate: Stop now? Beer enough? Go home? Drink up? Your call.
In memory, this moment lingers and the decision hovers in midair, but in truth, I just shrugged. Smiled and shrugged.
The signals we give should be clear, the poet William Stafford writes. The darkness around us is deep.
You know the story from here. Your images are good as mine. I have no memory of riding shotgun down a dark seaside highway. I can't see the confusion of lights at the traffic circle or the moment Jason slammed on the brakes, flipping the Rodeo, sending us out into the night. When we landed, Jason snapped his spinal cord and I — I spent the nights and years that followed searching for solid ground.
On or off the diamond, if Greg Maddux shrugged — playing dumb, deflecting a question, appearing aloof — it was for a purpose. His career is a testament to purposeful self-knowledge and the refusal to budge, to forget, to become someone he was not.
Every day can't be Game 1 of the World Series. The critical moments of any life only become so in the rearview.
EMT and hospital officials had trouble identifying who I was. I didn't help. The hospital records state: Patient is a well-nourished, well-developed white male who is intoxicated and confused and unable to provide any significant history. His companion was D.O.A.
Every day can't be Game 1 of the World Series. The critical moments of any life only become so in the rearview. But standing in that sports bar, I knew. I knew Jason's blind spots and the miles we had traveled together. I knew he needed me. He knew that I knew.
We good? he asks.
And keeps asking.
And I smile. Smile and shrug. And the gold liquid pours and the keys are in his pocket.
I did not stand with the swelling crowd at the Westview Cemetery in Atlanta under a bright, spring sun. I was in bed at the Southeast Georgia Medical Center with a broken nose, a broken foot, and road rash. I didn't miss, however, a single game Greg Maddux pitched that season. Except for one. The last.
Maddux went 15-11 with a 2.72 ERA and made eighteen home starts in 1996. The drive from Young Harris was one hundred miles. Gas was a dollar and a quarter. I had a 1986 Ford Thunderbird with over one hundred eighty thousand miles and a shoddy transmission.
I drove down the rhododendron-lined highway and rolling Appalachian hills into a smog-enshrouded traffic hell. Park. Pay. Walk. I disappeared into the crowd of fellow believers. We marched down gridlocked Peachtree Street, past scalpers and T-shirt hawkers with car audio systems and sidewalk stereos set to Whoomp! There it is! Whoomp! There it is!
And there it was. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Home. Scheduled for demolition. Final season. Farewell, friend. Designed with all the aesthetic subtlety of an East German architect, I entered its gates repeatedly that season to watch Greg Maddux on a mound of soft dirt — in night and day and sun and shade — do a very difficult and direct thing.
I committed myself to the Braves and Maddux and the rapture I found in those hours.
His record didn't reflect his brilliance. Compared to his four previous historically transcendent campaigns, the 1996 season for Maddux was a struggle, a grind. Bad breaks. I didn't find there a single extended metaphor. Everything was metaphor. I couldn't cry about Jason. I couldn't speak `about Jason. I couldn't stop thinking about Jason. The terms shock and survivors' guilt didn't fill the Big Empty. So I committed myself to the Braves and Maddux and the rapture I found in those hours.
I kept score; I listened to Skip and Pete; I tried, and failed, to tune into Maddux's pitches. I hiked the concourses with echoes of the crowd through the haze of cigarette smoke and dried piss, each sticky step over a strata of spilt Coke. During the pennant race, I stood in concession lines with fellow-citizens of the South and argued SEC football. The push and pull of the people, the game, its music, the hovering humidity, even in the night — it felt like home.
If you destroy it, they'll still come.
On the drive back north, I would wrestle for miles. You wanted to be him. And you wanted him gone. You wanted to shine alone. Some nights in the hypnotism of the highway's white lines, I wanted to rip my teeth out. Sometimes, I shut my eyes and let the car drift and tried to remember ... the hum of the tires, the bump of the reflectors, the shoulder of
the road ...
Back in the mountains, in my single dorm room, I tried to sleep. I focused on Maddux's next scheduled start. The ballpark. The lineup. Tendencies. My elaborate lullaby.
"A baseball season is a novel written in the dirt," Atlanta sportswriter Dave Kindred once wrote. "There is no rushing to the end." The conclusion to the novel of '96 came in two parts.
When Maddux took the ball for World Series Game 2 against the Yankees, I sat in front of my tiny TV in Young Harris and had trouble breathing. Grief grants previously random dates new weight. October 21. That night marked the one-year anniversary of Jason and Maddux beating Cleveland. C'mon Gregory. Jason. Do it for Jason.
And then Maddux did precisely that. Eight innings. Shutout. Four hits. They couldn't touch him. And he knew it. He was almost smiling. With each strike, each Yankee ground out, my heart cracked.
Jesus, Gregory, yes. Shred these motherfuckers.
The feeling was vicious. By the seventh, tears swelled in my eyes. Jason, Jason, Jason. The Braves headed home up 2-0 with the stage set. Three games in Atlanta. Win two and I could say goodbye to the season, the stadium, and maybe even Jason.
The Braves dropped Game 3, 5-2, after Bobby Cox pinch-hit for Glavine in the seventh. In Game 4, up 6-3 in the 8th with two outs and two on, all-star reliever Mark Wohlers, whose fastball reached 103 miles per hour, had Jim Leyritz down 1-2. Fastball, fastball, fastball. A pitcher, Dorfman writes, must never forget who he is. On the fourth pitch, Wohlers shook off Perez. Wohlers threw a slider. The fat, dumb ball trailed back over the plate. Leyritz unloaded. The goofy, idiot ball hung in the air forever, but it was gone. Game tied. Game lost. Series tied. Series gone.
Mark Wohlers after giving up the go-ahead home run to Jim Leyritz. (Getty Images)
I couldn't stop watching the slow-motion replays of the slider. Something twisted in my gut; I could not accept the result. My mind and stomach looped and the room spun, but I couldn't take my eyes away. Wohlers's slider became the wreck I couldn't see, the tears I couldn't cry. It kept happening. The ball floating, moving in the wrong direction.
Slack jawed, I turned off the television. I knew this script. Unlike Jason, my baseball spiritual arrangements tended toward something darker. I knew Maddux's masterpiece was for naught. I knew in the way you know a team having grown up with them, that the Series was lost. I sensed some incredible waste. I couldn't watch anymore. I couldn't deal. It's not over till it's over, but for me it was over. I would read about it all later. And I did. Years later.
The next night, as the Braves lost Game 5, 1-0, I went to the gym and shot 1,000 three-point baskets. That was the goal. Shoot 1,000. Five nights a week, in the months to come, basket after basket, I shot until blisters opened on my feet and then I shot some more.
When Maddux lost the deciding Game 6, 3-2, I was at the gym shooting threes. I shot my 1,000. Showered. Did homework. Before going to bed, I stole a glance at a muted ESPN and saw a grinning Wade Boggs on the back of a police horse, celebrating.
The morning after the World Series defeat, with a backlog of homework, I finished "The Iliad." Achilles' friend Patroclus is killed. He rages. Can't sleep. But Achilles kept grieving for his friend, the memory burning on. He honors his friend with funeral games. Competitions. Races. Sport as mourning. Reading, I felt comforted by invisible hands. I decided to play intramural basketball the next semester for Jason. Each long distance shot now had a purpose. And each time I released the ball, I encountered something else.
You can't see it now, the gym is gone, but in the winter of 1996, you could stand under the basket, look up, and spot a series of handprints running up and down the foggy glass.
During that school year, I kept my uncle's AA token and a Greg Maddux baseball card by the lamp on my desk. I'm holding the 1995 Fleer Ultra Gold Medallion Number 129 right now. Maddux, centered in mid-throwing motion, is wearing the road grays with a gray T-shirt underneath. The background of empty stands and shadows suggests the old Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Maddux's mouth is open. Eyes lasered. His face is pure concentration as if he were flying a plane, playing the violin, completing a heart transplant.
Maddux is alone in the image. As every pitcher is. The mound a small and unforgiving island on a larger stage where one's capacity for concentration is only as good as the next pitch. I've stared at this piece of cardboard more than any grown man should care to admit. Maddux's expression and movement — effortless, frozen in time on the card — take on a certain child-like quality. "May what I do flow from me like a river," Rilke writes, "no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children."
In the image, Maddux is in that state of perpetual present tense. Flow. The Zone. He spent four years, from 1991 to 1995, operating in that state of grace. I've only brushed against it briefly.
On game nights, I touch the Maddux card before turning off my dorm room lights and heading across campus to the gym.
On game nights, I touch the Maddux card before turning off my dorm room lights and heading across campus to the gym. Intramural basketball at Young Harris College in the spring of 1997 is as unglamorous as you might imagine. But it's basketball. And I'm wearing Jason's white Adidas basketball shoes. One March night, late in the season, we take the court against the Brothers of Alpha Xi, whose capacity for talking shit transcends their hoop skills. The talk is white noise, background.
The tip goes to Dustin Goode, our wing, who finds me at the top of the key, twenty feet out. I catch, shoot, and drain a three. On the next possession, I run off a screen on the baseline and get open in the corner for a deep three. Good. Throughout the first half, the ball keeps finding me and I keep shooting. Splash, splash, splash. The basket looks huge. There is no basket. Shooting the ball requires no more effort than skipping smooth stones across Lake Chatuge.
In the second half, if I'm doubled, I pass. If I'm open, I shoot. With thirty seconds left and the outcome long decided, the ball comes to me on a fast break. Instead of laying it up, I dribble out to the wing, twenty-five feet from the basket. With all the arrogance my twenty-year-old self can muster, I wait. Dribbling, I wait. I wait for the defense to float back down the court. And when it finally does, with a defender running toward me, closing me out, his hand flashing in my face, I rise, release, and ... splash. Holding my follow through, I point to the sky until the buzzer sounds and the game is over.
Later, after a few teammates hug me, after we stand in line to shake hands with Alpha Xi, Leah, the director of intramurals, who keeps the books, comes over and shows me. I'd shot twelve three-pointers and made ten. She flips back to the year before. There it is. Jason's high for the year: thirty points. I smile. He scored it in a variety of ways. Flying through traffic, elevating, attacking the rim. Spinning drives morphing mid-air into reverse lay-ups. Jumpers at the elbow. Three-point bombs. The night he scored thirty, he was smiling. It's still the way I try to see him now — rapturous with joy, one with the moment, the game.
My own game is limited. I can do one thing, and looking at the notepad I realize that I'll never again do that one thing any better. I thank Leah, pull my hoodie on, and walk out into the vibrating air.
The comet Hale-Bopp streaks across the sky each night in March 1997. I want a shower, but I don't want to go inside. So I walk across campus, down Maple Street, and over Corn Creek to the darkened baseball field. The chain-link gate clicks open. I step across the diamond, onto the perfect green, and take a seat in centerfield. Thin trails of clouds ring the mountains. I untie the knots, loosen the laces, and remove Jason's basketball shoes. Shoes off, socks off, my feet sink into the soft grass. The comet — a silver-white ball of iridescence hurtling 100,000 miles per hour through interstellar space with dusted up foul lines — looks close enough to touch. I put my head into my hands and fall apart. I'm not ready as the feelings, all the colors of feelings, wash over me.
Twenty-three seasons, seven hundred and forty professional starts with four different clubs — there are endless ways to look at Greg Maddux. So many chances for accidental poetry, mixed metaphor, tongue-tied tautologies. In the televised broadcast of Game 1, in the seventh inning, Al Michaels is reduced to, "That is Maddux being ... Maddux." Who is Maddux? What is Maddux? Do you know Maddux?
He's a Magician. Modest. A Surgeon. Savant. Unassuming. Born in Texas, the family lives in Indiana, North Dakota, Spain. His first little league team is in Madrid. His dad, an Air Force officer, is the coach. The jerseys are green. In Spain, under a diffuse yellow sun, many years earlier, Hemingway writes, "Any man's life, told truly, is a novel."
He's a Choir Boy. The Bat Boy? A Prankster. When he is ten years old, the family settles in the desert city of kaleidoscoping lights. He has a brother Mike. A sister Terry. His mom is a Henderson County dispatcher. Dad deals poker. His first love is basketball, but he can't, in his words, "guard anyone." So it's baseball. He can pitch. From guru Rusty Medar, he's taught movement over velocity. Deception. He is a Viking of Valley High.
He's an Accountant. Math Teacher. Confident. A Nose-picker. Hard-working. Everyman. He's No One You've Ever Seen Before. He is an Iowa Cub with a sad mustache. A perm. A mullet. He marries Kathy, his high school sweetheart. He gets The Call and promptly gives up a homer to the Astros' Billy Hatcher in extras. Cubs lose. He is twenty years old.
He works hard, but not that hard. He pees in Andre Dawson's hot tub. He loses fourteen games his first full season. Off-season, Winter Ball, Venezuela, he works on his change. He wins eighteen the next year. He gives up a grand slam to Will Clark in the '89 Playoffs. He spends time with Mr. Dorfman and learns, in his words, to "like himself" and to stay within himself. The following year he wins twenty games. He wins at least fifteen games every season for the next seventeen years. In a post-game shower, he chats up rookie Chipper Jones while peeing down his leg.
He is a Brave. A dad. Two kids. A dog named Baxter. A multi-millionaire. Four straight Cy Youngs. He is relaxed. Intense. He is not juiced. Many juice. "Shit!" he yells after missing to Jim Thome in Game 1 of the 1995 World Series. At that game, in the nosebleeds, an eighteen-year-old boy in a gray hoodie tries to use The Force. "Fuck!" he screams after ball three to Sandy Alomar in the eighth. That boy's friend watches him watch Maddux. Are they in a trance? How does trance work? Baxter is a Yorkie Terrier.
He is carving up the Yankees under the lights, in New York, in October, with such savage lucidity that the friend's hands are shaking. A Gold Glover. An Older Ferris Bueller. He's Genius. Gross. A Bobby Fischer. A Van Gogh. Professor. Mad Dog. Doggie. A scar runs under his double chin. He is a Cub again. Briefly a Padre. Twice a Dodger. The friend plans his days and nights around each Dodger start so he can listen to Vincent Edward Scully paint pitches and outs. He is forty-two years old. He retires.
He is back in Vegas, back home. Follow him on Twitter @gregmaddux. With Kathy, he runs a foundation for battered women and kids with cancer. Hall of Famer. His induction speech opens with a fart joke. He can't stop smiling. Chicks might dig the long ball, but in a besotted game, during a craven era, he was the best. Follow Baxter on Instagram @littlefellabaxter. In interviews, he says the most satisfying performance of his career was Game 1 of the '95 Series. Of that night, he says nothing, everything: "It was my first crack at a World Series game, and I was lucky enough to get to pitch. And we won, too."
Now, he golfs. Plenty of time in the desert for golf. From dawn to dusk. All that light.
We were at the end. Goners. All of us — just sucking down the very last of our Starbucks Grande Triple Shot Caramel Frap with Whip. Evidence scattered everywhere. The plastic cups with bent green straws were abandoned on sofa armrests, near the Harry Potter overflow, next to "Conversations with God," and left upside down in the urinals at the Barnes and Noble near North Point Mall in Alpharetta, Georgia.
Home from college, I worked as a "bookseller," saving for a future where multi-national banks, utilities, and communications systems faced certain catastrophic collapse. Famine, Genocide, Global Chinese Takeover, and other untold horror awaited. We stacked title after title on a center display table, next to Oprah's Book Club, in perfect pyramids — Y2K Cookbooks, Y2K Survival Guides, Y2K for Dummies.
Can your vegetables.
During those summer weeks, fat men in Italian loafers read Guns & Ammo and Car and Driver as the espresso machine at our Starbucks annex hissed like an assembly line whistle. In our parking lot, adjacent to an AMC 14 Theater, caffeinated teens in polished, combat-ready Hummers and luxury SUVs blasted Limp Bizkit and Offspring.
Offer children and older family members measured reassurance.
Soccer Moms, Senior Citizens, Youth Groups — all of Metro Atlanta it seemed, was devouring the "Left Behind" book series as if it were free Chick-fil-A. The books depicted a fiery future where real Christians ascend and the rest of us — Jews, Catholics, Followers of the U.N, Muslims, Unitarians, Agonistics, Atheists, Other(s) — claw out each other's eyes. But I tell you, that first-century Mediterranean Jewish Peasant said, love one another.
As a self-serious English major, I kept a poetry journal in my pocket. Poems? Just words really, some my own, some others, mostly half-memories of Jason. I wasn't alone in thinking of the dead. Each night, bleary moviegoers wandered into the bookstore with "The Sixth Sense" and "The Blair Witch Project" still in their eyes.
Store gallons of fresh, distilled water.
We wished to see dead people and each, in our own way, wished for The End. Mostly though, we wanted to see Celebrity. Ringed by gated country club communities, golf courses, and horse farms, Alpharetta was haunted by pro athletes and musicians. It turned out Celebrity — just like us! — preferred to be surrounded by books while skimming magazines.
Don't forget the batteries.
Look! Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston! Is that Falcon QB Chris Chandler? There's Terrance Mathis. Shhh ... those are the parents of slain child beauty pageant contestant JonBenét Ramsey. Over there — NFL linebacker, Cornelius Bennett! Elton? Elton John?
Maintain constant vigilance. Keep a checklist.
Among the staff, we made Celebrity Spotting a game of rhetorical "Jeopardy!" Clues only. Don't go chasing waterfalls over in Self-Help. No names. Hey, you might be a redneck if you're shopping in Bargain Books. When Celebrity breezed by, customers cleared the aisles, removed their oversized sunglasses, and set their Starbucks down.
Are you good with your hands?
I tried to Maddux Up and focus. Taped inside my tiny locker in the break room, I kept a 1987 Maddux Topps baseball card and a Xeroxed passage from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness":
I don't like work — no man does — but I like what is in the work — the chance to find yourself. Your own reality — for yourself not for others — what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.
As Maddux walked toward me, I didn't see the illuminated bodies of Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson. Instead, on either side of Maddux, I saw Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams.
Late in the summer, on a slow weekday evening, I was working the front registers alone when I looked up and saw Greg Maddux — plaid golf shorts, canary yellow golf shirt — standing behind the red-velvet rope, a few feet away, waiting for me to look up.
In the Gospels, Jesus goes hiking with several disciples when he's suddenly lit up, arrayed with light. The shining forms of Moses and Elijah appear. A shout-out from the past. Transfiguration. As Maddux walked toward me, I didn't see the illuminated bodies of Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson. Instead, on either side of Maddux, I saw Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams. Not their ghosts. Not Mantle leaking tears to Bob Costas or Williams riding a golf cart with Tony Gwynn. But The Mick in '56 and Teddy Ballgame in '41. They were in black and white, as if stepping out of a book, and then they were gone.
Years later, driving my pickup down I-15 in California, it connected: as a boy, at meals, my father switched his fork from his right hand to his left and back again, in an endless quest to emulate the switch-hitting Mantle. In his west Atlanta boyhood room, Charles kept a picture of Williams beside his bed; in his office now in Montana, an advertisement for "Ted's Creamy Root Beer" graces the wall. Both men still recite volumes of Mantle and Williams statistics and stories.
Maddux set his books on the counter — two Dr. Seuss titles, a traveler's guide to Tuscany, and a copy of Golf Digest.
Words. I had to say something, but what? You almost singlehandedly saved the life of my friend. Could I say that? During my own bad time, you helped steady the days. Could I ask about October 21, 1995? Did the ball feel lighter that night? What could I say?
I asked Greg Maddux if he'd found everything he was looking for.
He nodded and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
My hands moved deliberately and I felt the pressure not only of the past, but the future. This moment, right now, leaned in. Years from 1999, I'd be trying and failing to say what Greg Maddux had meant to Jason and me and what it was like standing face-to-face.
I rang up his books and asked if he needed any of the items individually gift-wrapped.
He shook his head.
I asked if he wanted a bag.
Again, he shook me off.
I announced the cost and Maddux paid in cash. Making change, I slid his receipt inside the travel book.
"Sir?" I said.
Maddux raised his eyebrows.
"You've mastered your craft. Your flame burns clear and bright."
Hack-Hemingway with a splash of Bad Updike. Sorry — it was all I had.
Maddux kind of smiled.
"Cool," he said, before pausing a beat and then saying the one word I wish I'd said all along. "Thanks."
Jason Kenney. (Courtesy the Kenney Family)