Saturday, January 17, 2009

Death on Olympus

I remember getting Reds pitcher Frank Williams' autograph in the parking garage under Riverfront Stadium one undistinguished summer. Do you remember when you could walk down ramp after ramp after ramp, every now and then getting to step on that squishy black stuff in the concrete, and then going to stand at the temporary fences, waiting desperately for a Reds player to come out from his shower and sign your stuff? That was my childhood, and Frank Williams was a tiny part of it. Loose Cannon at Red Reporter has informed us that he has died at age 50 of an apparent heart attack. His story is anything but common, as his life took a nasty turn.

Why am I writing about a nobody, a guy who was mentally ill and incapable of making it in American society? Maybe it is because this is a historic weekend, but I've been thinking a lot about social issues in the last week, really thinking, and this article aroused a sadness in me usually reserved for the death of a family member. Or an emptiness, worse than sadness. The guy only has a wiki because he died.

This is a sad story, originally told here but with a tragic ending in 2009. Frank Williams played Major League Baseball for the San Francisco Giants, Detroit Tigers, and the Cincinnati Reds from 1984-1989. He wasn't bad, either, posting a career ERA of exactly 3 in 471 innings pitched, averaging 96 innings a season, though that's a bit skewed, as he had two seasons of over 100 innings pitched and one only 50. If he had pitched in this day and age, he probably would have carried a fat wallet and have been in hot commodity about July 31 every year. Instead, he earned what is the league minimum today and blew through it years ago. My, how the game has changed.

Fate was not kind to Williams. In 1989 he was involved in a car accident that ended his baseball career. He had a bad marriage that may or may not have something to do with the accident. What followed was what most of us average Joes and Janes would consider horrific but is a daily reality for 3.5 million Americans. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama when he visited our nation's capital, how can so many have no place to live in the capital of the richest country in the world? How can any American not have a home in any city?

Frank, this nobody, this bum, was a guy more people than not would walk to the far side of the sidewalk to avoid. But he had once been on the top of the world. His wife took most of his MLB money, meager by today's standards, in a divorce settlement (it also is related to what I wrote about the Elijah Dukes case today) and he found himself in and out of homeless shelters and detox centers. All because his wife drove their car into a tree. But like when stupid people have no way of understanding that there are people smarter than them who actually think differently and more deeply than them, some people don't understand mental illness or addiction, and there is no way you can ever make them understand. Some people also don't understand that one second can change your life. May they never be forced to understand.

In a way, this story is another stake in the heart of my childhood. As a ten year old kid, the ink of Frank Williams was as precious as that of all but the greatest of players. It didn't matter if he was a mediocre relief pitcher - he was a Major League Baseball player. That meant he was a god.

Anyway, I wanted to write something for him, because the thought of the utter loneliness of his death, well, it just breaks my heart. He'd been the pride of his family, his town, and he became something people would rather spit on for no other reason than fate. I don't remember a single outing of his. I don't remember a single pitch he threw. I don't remember him ever coming out of the bullpen or shagging balls at BP or any of the mundane tasks a mediocre baseball pitcher undertakes. But I remember him signing my program. To a ten year old kid, that is everything. That is more than everything. That is divine.

Here's to him finally finding some peace.

No comments: