LIKE ALL GREAT STORIES, WE BEGIN IN BOWIE, MARYLAND
I think a good sign that it’s time to retire is the desire to punch a mascot.
And, no, I don’t mean one of those funny punches like they lay on you, un-uh.
I’m talking one of those “rip off that stupid cartoon head and punch that minimum wage
dickwad right in his face” punches.
That’s what I wanted to do to Louie.
Louie, for those of you who don’t know, is a thing. Really. He makes the Philly
Phanatic look like a God-designed creature. He’s green from head to toe, his hair is pink,
his nose covers half of his enormous face.
And he was shaking his ginormous ass right in my face.
The crowd was laughing. I was counting to ten, then twenty, then just plain hiding
my face under my hat.
“Why, Matt?,” you ask, “Why punch out a beloved figure like good ol’ Louie?”
Well, it’s like this, folks. I was looking at the back side of 34, of 12 years of
minor league bus rides, never getting higher than Triple-A ball, and only briefly then, and
I’m on the bench, in Bowie, Double-A ball, behind some 20-year-old kid.
Looking at my future was bleak enough. Looking at Louie’s green backside only
served to piss me off.
They even gave him my uniform number, double-zero.
OK, they gave me his uniform number, he was there first, oh, forget it, you get the
point. I was depressed, I was angry, and I had had enough.
The only thing that kept me on that bench, in late August, on a nowhere team in a
nowhere organization in the middle of nowhere was my sense of professionalism.
Be the first to arrive, my father’s voice rang in my brain, and the last to leave.
So, I’m on the bench, haven’t even had a single at-bat in two weeks, and there I
am, watching like I care.
The shortstop, a weak-hitting little guy from the Dominican, he rolls it over to
second base, like he does just about every time at bat, and the game is over.
Nice guy, that Santiago. Knows two words in English (“pizza” and “pussy”),
knows how to get both, can’t hit to save his life.
Yet…he’ll be on his way to Baltimore to play out the string with the Orioles as
part of the 40-man roster, because they love his glove.
He’s been in pro ball all of two years. If and when he gets in a game to help mop
up the end of a blowout, he’ll officially have more of a major league career than me.
I’d never wanted a game to be over with more in my life than that one.
“So, Matt,” the tall blond kid that’s stepping on my heart at first base asks, “know
any good places to eat in Baltimore?”
Now that I think of it, I can’t think of a thing to hold against Santiago, but this
“Don’t know, Simmons,” I say, “never been there.”
Ever notice how some people just can’t seem to avoid being assholes? There’s that overdressed jerk two desks down from you at work, the cop who still writes you that
ticket even when you beat them to the meter, Terrell Owens. Simmons was one of those
The kid looks like a major leaguer, he hits like a major leaguer, he’s just biding
his time, and he knows it. He knows it so much that he whoops like a kid at hearing the
broke-down never-was say that, right in my face.
“Well, my man,” he said, chuckling, “I’ll let you know when I get there.”
He walks, I wonder how he’d look with Louie’s big green head on.
“Well, Dad,” I say, looking up, a cold one in hand, right under that clearly printed
“NO ALCOHOL PERMITTED IN CLUBHOUSE/Ningún alcohol permitió en el club”
sign, “I’m the last one to leave.”
Downing half the bottle in one pull, I sit at that stool in front of my locker and
look around it. Takes all of two seconds to take it all in. There’s two pair of spikes, a few
bats (MATT BERNARD burned in gold into the black wood of the head), my one
professional baseball card, when I was with the Padres organization three years into this
train wreck, a couple shirts, a couple of gloves.
I pick up that bubble gum card.
There I am, what I was.
There’s a kid, hair still a solid brown, eyes clear, holding one of the long-gone
forefathers of the bats in my locker now. He’s a left fielder, bats right, throws right, six
feet two inches tall, 185 pounds, hometown Caplan, Nevada.
He smiles, a wide smile, the future spread out in front of him, looking as good as
Miss July waiting in bed.
I turn the card over, and there’s one of those wonderful little stories they tell about
the person on the front of the card. Stuff like “Ozzie takes infield practice for a full hour
every day to stay sharp,“ or “Jim’s favorite meal before a game is spaghetti and
meatballs,” or my personal favorite, “Roger’s been hit by more balls than any man in the
last three years.”
I’ve met Roger. It is an apt description.
Anyway, the wonderful scribe that had the great misfortune of writing me up only
managed this witty line: “Matt had more doubles in the ninth inning (6) than anyone else
on his team last season.”
And that’s the highlight right there.
My life is now in a beat-up Baltimore Orioles duffel bag. The cab is waiting
outside the clubhouse entrance. The guys at Prince George’s Stadium are glad I’m finally
on my way, so they can get home.
In my hand is my cell phone. The list of contacts is a graveyard. There’s my
agent’s number. Actually, that should read “former agent.” I just can’t bring myself to
There’s a number for the minor league director’s office of the Texas Rangers, my
last organization before crashing in Bowie. And the Chicago Cubs. And the Chicago
White Sox. And the Seattle Mariners. And three others.
And the one I’m getting ready to call, that 410 area code in front of the Orioles’
front office number.
I’m still looking at it when the cab drops me off at the little budget dive just off I-
295 that had been home for the past six months.
I step into the room, flip on the lamp by the bed, and, of course, the bulb decides
to blow out, so I’m just as in the dark now as when I came in. Fitting.
So it’s over to the bathroom. A sniff in the air brings me a familiar, and much
wanted, smell to my nose, but I wave that off as hoping for things that can’t be.
I run the water in the tub, slip out of my clothes, and sit on the toilet while I wait
for the ancient basin to fill up.
And still I’m looking at the number.
Do I want to do this?
I hear it all the time, that timing is everything.
You tell a joke about bombs in the airport, you could find yourself in jail.
You sign that contract for the car, then find out a week later you could’ve got it
In my case, I happened to sign with the Kansas City Royals at the same time
Johnny Damon did. Guess who they picked between us?
I played a little while with Johnny. Always a great teammate, a little nuts, but
charming. Didn’t think much of his arm, I could outthrow him left-handed. All he could
do better than me was run, hit, hit with power, cover ground on defense, and steal bases.
Needless to say, I was trade bait once I got a little value.
That’s when I led that wonderful Single-A Padres farm team in ninth inning
On to the Mariners then, and that was just after they cleaned house, getting rid of
those pesky Hall of Famers like Griffey and Johnson. Clear shot to the majors, I thought.
Two things stood in my way there: Jay Buhner and a ruptured Achilles tendon.
What little speed I had was gone, and if I wanted to keep playing, it would have to
be somewhere that didn’t require a lot of running.
So I ended up at first base.
First basemen are huge, hulking creatures that hit balls that don’t land for weeks,
guys like Mark McGwire, and I know what you’re saying. Didn’t they have a little help?
Perhaps. And maybe I should’ve taken it, too.
Me, I’m more like a pop gun, spraying the occasional single here and there,
maybe finding a gap for a double, then, sometimes, getting thrown out by a mile at third
going for a triple. Made me quite the popular guy in that job market.
But I thought, hey, I’m with the St. Louis Cardinals now. Tino Martinez is on his
way back to the Yankees, they’ll need someone with a good glove and a horrible bat to
fill that spot! Yeah, I was big on self-delusion.
No delusion, small or large, was going to help me once they found themselves
some guy named Albert Pujols to play over there.
So I packed my duffel bag and headed to the Orioles organization.
Oh, no, by the way, it’s not this time I’m talking about. This is my third time with
Then the White Sox, who signed Jim Thome right after I went into the hospital for
another knee surgery.
Then to Cincinnati, who traded me back to Baltimore as part of a trade that no one
important was part of and no one knows about now. Baltimore let me walk, because even
they get one right once in a while, and Texas picked me up.
Somehow I managed to make their Triple-A team in Oklahoma City. For two
innings. That’s when some kid’s near-100 mph fastball found my face, and that cost me
the rest of my season and just plain fucked up my chances at the cover of GQ.
And it was back to the Orioles and into this bathroom staring at my phone
You know there are times that I wonder who I pissed off to get these kinds of
breaks. I’ve been pretty good about how I deal with others in my life. Yeah, well, OK,
there was that. And maybe a little wish that Pujols had a soap accident in his shower, but
I only wished for a little one.
Other than that…
OK, maybe I just suck at baseball.
I was on the sixth of the 12 pack when it struck me. The hell with
professionalism. People get fired over the phone, by express mail, get dumped by
boyfriends, girlfriends, and hunting clubs (oh, how I wish I could take back that drunken
night with the deer head and the tub of butter) by answering machine, damn it, I’m
texting my way out of professional baseball.
I’ll do it right: no lol or lmao or anything like that.
YO SKIP, I QUIT, THANKS FOR EVRYTHNG
PS COULD YOU TELL BALTIMORE?
There, that oughta do it.
It must be part of a motel’s way to make you feel worse about yourself to put a
full-length mirror right behind the door. “Hey, folks, guess what? Not only can’t you
afford somewhere where the toilet paper doesn’t feel like sandpaper, but this is what you
look like! Have a nice day!”
What I saw in the mirror on the day I left pro ball didn’t upset me that much. It’s
my body, I’ve gotten used to it. Got a little paunch going, but, hell, I’m 34, and I’ve seen
worse from younger guys. Still got a good tone to my arms, well, my forearms, at least.
Little gray at the temples, but no bald spot yet. My green eyes a little red around the
edges, but I have the Busch family to thank for that.
No ass, but that runs in the family.
A woman could do worse…
That smell is back. I know that smell, what is that?
On my way to bed that night, my foot found something slick on the floor, and I
skated across the room like Dorothy Hamill if someone shot her up with crack, and
crashed onto the bed. That’s where I was until morning.
Beer number five? Still functioning.
Beer number six? I officially enter “I Can’t Do Shit Land.”
Man, was I glad not to have a roommate then.
I woke up, towel open, ass hanging out, mouth feeling like someone snuck in and
filled it with those puffy cotton balls, and a purple envelope sticking onto the bottom of
my left foot.
Still trying to pull myself up out of the wreckage, I managed to sit up Indian-style
on the bed, and then, and only then, was I able to dislodge the envelope from my toes.
I sniffed it (The envelope, you sick freaks!) and that’s when I found out where
that smell came from. The combination of beer and a love of this mystery smell kept me
there for a few extra minutes than it normally would to open an envelope.
The infatuation over (OK, on hold), I got it open and read the little card that was
We understand you are about to leave pro ball. We’ve heard of your special skills
and feel that you would be a great addition to our little league.
If you think you’ve got one more year left in you, we’ve got a sweet deal for you
here. Accept our offer to join the Leopaki team in the Dream Isle Baseball League
and spend a year playing ball in paradise!
No one signed it, and that almost made me throw it out. Plus, they thought I was
good, which made me wonder just how much they knew about baseball.
Until I found the plane ticket inside.
I picked up the envelope again, held it under my nose like a wine taster getting the
Well, I told myself, not like I’ve got a million options here. Why not play one
more year in paradise?
I had time to think about Hawaii. Hell of a long time on a plane, you know.
What I thought about instead was, well, everything else. About my former Baysox
teammates, and, yeah, I got a little bitter.
The Orioles were in New York then, in front of those famously hospitable fans at
Yankee Stadium. So Santiago, Simmons, and the others were possibly getting their first
listen about all the different kind of bitches and sluts their mothers were.
And I, the no-name never was, was specially invited to play in Hawaii, for the
Leopaki, whatever that was. Point to me!
That helped ease my pain somewhat.
Then I thought about where I would stay in Hawaii. Couldn’t count on a lot of
money from this team, by the look of this airline. This was the one the discount airlines
called cheap. And, since I was going to Tourism Central, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t find
a place like Starlite Motel, and if I did, it’d probably be four-star rates for my one-star
digs, not to mention my half-a-star budget.
Fuck it, I thought, it’s still Hawaii, I’ll worry about that when I get there.
Why, thank you, yes, I will have a beer.
Yes, I will have another.
Sorry, gotta pass this time, only have a twenty on me.
Then I tried to place that smell again, even went so far as to get the envelope out
of my, er, luggage, that battered Orioles duffel.
Should’ve seen the look on the old lady’s face next to me as I sniffed it like a
convict with a used pair of supermodel panties.
But she must’ve really wanted someone to talk to, because she tried to strike up a
conversation. Why not mess with her?, I thought.
By the time five minutes with her new best friend had passed, the lady tried
looking anywhere but in my direction. Guess I shouldn’t have shared the nasty rash on
the underside of my testes on the first talk.
Back alone with my thoughts wasn’t much fun either, though. Read some of the
airline magazine, thought I saw someone duct-taping a plane door in the background,
decided to put it down.
Finally, I had an idea of how to pass the time. A little trick I learned years ago to
put me right out. I’d think of the one at-bat I had against Randy Johnson in spring
training one year, hear that 95-mph fastball whistle past my left ear like it was yesterday,
and scare myself to sleep.
Worked like a charm.
10 HOURS IN COACH HELL TO CHASE A LITTLE GIRL
I got off the plane and had a dream come true.
I got lei’d in front of a planeful of people.
Sorry, couldn’t help it.
Yet another life experience I can cross off my bucket list was having to deal with
the lost luggage office of a third-rate airline in Honolulu, Hawaii, and having to explain
the contents of my baseball bag, including its three bats and assortment of leather goods
and wonder if the clerk there was mentally running through a list of terrorism suspects in
“Trust me, lady,” I said, “I know what you’re thinking, and you don’t have to
worry about me. I don’t feel strongly enough about anything to take offense, much less
take over anything.”
“What’s with the bats then, brah?,” she asked.
“I’m a bat salesman. Thought I’d make a sale while on vacation.” After her cross
look, a look she must have practiced in a mirror to make someone feel three feet smaller,
I added, “I’m a baseball player, I’m joining the Dream Isle league.”
“Never heard of it?”
Again, that look. “No, man, I enjoy asking stupid questions, and I see I’m not the
only one. What’s the bag look like?”
After 10 hours on a plane and two hours in claims, finally, me and my weapons
were reunited and I was on my way.
I stepped out onto the curb and finally got to feel some of that world-famous
Hawaiian sunshine on my face. Thinking the warm tropical breeze was right behind it, I
took a deep breath and got me a lungful of some nice bus exhaust.
It was easy to blame that for what I saw next, that being a little girl across the
busy road in front of Honolulu International Airport. Cars were zipping by at a more than
decent rate of speed, and this girl locked eyes with me, and started to move.
“No, no! Stop!,” I yelled.
The girl did, and I got a closer look at her. She had the classic Hawaiian look to
her, long dark hair the color of night, with dark eyes to match, slightly slanted at the
corners. In a little girl, it adds to the cuteness, in a grown woman, to the allure and the
nighttime fantasies of many of man, this one included.
The big difference was that she looked to be a faded blue color other than that.
Her skin was paler than paler, like cigarette ash, only less healthy looking.
But her eyes had the power of magnetism, I think, because I couldn’t pull my
gaze away from them.
Which was why I didn’t see her moving right away. And stepping into traffic.
Until it was just about too late. One foot was on the road, and the other was off the
sidewalk, and here came a semi.
“No!,” I yelled, and did the only thing I could think to do right then, which was
close my eyes to keep an image of a little girl getting torn to shreds by Detroit’s meat
grinder on wheels from burning itself in my mind.
I heard no squealing brakes, no horn, no nothing, so I looked up. My thoughts
were that she was supernatural-like pale, maybe she was super fast, too.
Nope, no such luck. She just walked through traffic.
Please feel free to read that sentence literally, by the way. She just walked through
cars, buses, and could’ve topped the act off by juggling pineapples on the way across for
all I know, because that’s all I saw before I showed her my unique “two elbows and an
asshole” style by running back into the airport, freaked beyond anything Timothy Leary
could’ve dreamed up.
I ran past a couple of Jews for Jesus, a few homeless looking for some change,
and one Hare Krishna, bald head, orange robe and all, heard none of it.
Past the ticket counters, heard a few security guards yell at me, didn’t stop.
They came in chase, but it wasn’t them that had me kick it into another gear.
I looked back and saw my little pale blue friend, walking like she was just looking
for seashells in the waves and not stalking me for my eternal soul.
I lost the puffy guards pretty quick, took a left here, a right there, and found
myself in a very deserted corner near a ticket counter being remodeled. I dropped the
bags, my back found the wall, and I slid down it like a ball of slime until my butt hit the
My eyes now closed, I took a deep breath, and, out loud, I said, “That was
nothing, just the beers and the fumes talking to me. I’m good, I’m good, time to get back
out there and get where I’m going.”
I opened my eyes and found two deep browns staring into mine from pale blue
skin-covered eye sockets.
Like a valley girl forced to get a job, I screamed, jumped up, and tried to run, but
something icy ran up and down my spine.
“That’s just the start,” a voice said, tiny in volume, but huge in impact, “I can do
more to get my point across if you’d like.”
I just shook my head no.
“Good,” she said, in a stage whisper, “go ahead and sit down, haole.”
“What’s that?,” I heard myself say as I sat.
“Any newcomer to the islands,” she said, and now I could see her again, and she
smiled, which was just about the scariest thing I’d ever seen to that point, “you, in other
“Doesn’t sound nice.”
“It isn’t. Shut up and listen.”
The little girl crossed her legs and floated in mid-air, keeping herself at my eye
level, and I got a closer look at her.
Everything I’d thought I’d seen before, hair, eyes, skin, was right on. Around her
body was wrapped a silver and blue dress, patterned with flowers, looked just like any
Hawaiian shirt I’d ever seen, just prettier. Her teeth were white, stunningly white, even
against the near-whiteness of her skin, and her little bare feet had silvery toenails on
And maybe my nose was beating the rest of my body to being senile, but now I
got another strong smell, that of fresh-cut flowers.
“Guess what I am?” After I said “What?” like the perfect moron I felt like, she
said, “Well, you’re looking at me like there’s 5000 questions that come down to just one,
so let’s get it over with now.”
“You’re a ghost.”
She put a tiny finger to the tip of her nose, crossing those deep brown eyes as she
did it, looking every bit like the silly little girl. I found myself smiling despite the world-
blowing weirdness of it all.
“Been one for about 50 years now. Now a question for you, Matt Bernard, did you
really think you, a has-been ballplayer with no wheels in the first place, could outrun a
“Will you give me credit for not asking how you knew my name? And what’s
with the ‘has-been’ crack, eh? I got contacted by the--”
“Yeah, yeah, brah. We need to talk.”
I crossed my arms. “I don’t talk to strangers.”
“How rude of me. My name is Tehani. And you’re an asshole. So, there, we’ve
met. Oh, wipe that stink eye off your face, I’m old and dead enough to cuss.”
I just nodded.
“OK, now listen. This league you’re so proud of, baseball’s just the small part of
it, and you’re in for quite the trip. There are lessons to learn, sonny, and you need to learn
“I’m here to make you work, not throw you a fat one to put in the basket.”
I looked at her, she at me, then laughed.
“That’s not a baseball term, is it? I’m still learning this stuff. Now, sure, you’ll get
to hit your touchdowns, but the idea is to make things in your past right.”
“By playing baseball?,” I asked.
She did the right thing by going on like I didn’t even speak.
“There will be pain, there will be choices to make, and there will be more
questions than answers at times, but you must…are you listening to me?”
“Yes, yes, pain, choices, got it. Can you tell me what that smell is on the
“Very self-centered, are we?”
“OK, you’re right. What’s that other smell, is that you?”
“Yeah, Matt, it’s flowers, my name means ‘floral caress,’ will you focus, numb
nuts, or what?”
“I’ve never been cussed at by a kid.”
“Keep it up and I’ll make you think Alfred Hitchcock was well adjusted, haole.
“Lesson number one,” she said, putting her middle finger up at me.
“Wrong finger,” I said.
“Nope,” she said, dully, then kept on, “Lesson number one”-hand to the face now-
“is that you are not the center of the universe. That is the most important one, but no one
thinks you’ll learn it too quickly, considering your past.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Lesson number two,” she said, now throwing up the other middle finger, “is that
in any paradise, from Eden to Waikiki, there’s a serpent, and you must do all you can to
resist the apple.”
“Something tells me there isn’t a lesson three,” I added.
A third hand popped out of her forehead and formed a middle finger, and she
laughed while I screamed.
“Very Dickens of me, huh?,” she said, then popped the hand back into her head.
“Oh, uncover your eyes, lolo, I put it away.”
“OK, I think I’ve heard enough for now,” I said, “you can go now.”
She gave me the cutest, most hate-able little laugh.
“You’re stuck with me for quite a while, Matt,” Tehani said, “I’ll be there, just
like those linebackers you play with on the rink.”
I had to chuckle.
“Am I getting close?,” she said, making a sheepish face and kicking her feet on
the ground, er, above the ground.
“No,” I said, “but it’s cute.”
“Think that’s cute?,” Tehani said, “Wait until you find out you’ve been staring at
the road and arguing with yourself for the last five minutes.”
“What?,” I yelled out.
“I said, ‘Do you want a cab?,’ and you said something about no lesson three. You
feelin’ alright, brah? Looked like you went holoholo in your head.”
Looking around, I saw that I was still on the curb, my bags still in hand, and that I
hadn’t moved at all, just like Tehani said.
I had a feeling she was going to be a real pain in the ass.
And now I looked at the man standing next to me, a red and blue Hawaiian shirt
and white shorts, and felt like an idiot.
“Yeah, how far away is Kailua?”
FIND THE BALLPARK AND WIN A PRIZE
“So, brah, you’re saying there’s a ballpark here? Did you get hit in the head or
I looked out the cab’s window again, and it was hard to argue with the Hawaiian
“It’s just like the directions said, I…I think.”
Out of my bag, I fished the directions for the 40th time in this 30-minute drive.
“Go moo oka…,” I started.
“Ma uka,” the driver corrected, also for the 40th time.
“Yeah, what you said, until Kailua, then Ewah--”
“--til you come to a wood tiki, three heads high, on the corner.”
So, again, as if I was hoping for Kevin Costner, a corn field, or at least a voice, I
looked out the window, and only saw a grass field and a small man in a (say it with me)
Hawaiian shirt and, to mix it up some, jean shorts.