For Dale Divelbiss (in very loving memory)
My grandfather was a great lover of sports. He would put a college football game on the living room television and then get up and pace about. While he might not be looking at the game, he did not miss a thing. Televised sports often formed a backdrop when we visited him and my grandmother at their home. And even though, more often than not, the game on the tube was American football, the image I have of him is of a fretful baseball player, pacing the dugout, aching to get into the game. My grandfather had an athlete’s restless energy.
Dale Divelbiss was a man who used to get into his car and go. When he was in his twenties and thirties, he was a salesman whose territory was the middle of America: Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. He would travel to towns and cities, meeting clients for lunch to discuss business, to introduce them to the virtues of the products his company sold. He had good social graces, knew how to make small talk, was blessed with an infectious laugh, and he could navigate the right subjects over steak lunches with martinis. He made the sale. I can see him in his suit, engaged in talk, while men in stetsons and fedoras, women in dresses walk past the restaurant window on their way to insurance offices and the local bank. This was my grandfather’s terrain, his habitat.
But now that he has passed, I look back at his life and I see something else -not someone else- but a different past, a what might have been. I see my grandfather, young and tan and fit wearing a baseball uniform.
He is nineteen and working his way up the ladder of the Minor Leagues. He plays ball in towns like Moline, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa. He rides the team bus across the American prairie poets such as Carl Sandburg immortalized, a land whose soil grew legends like Abraham Lincoln. There is dust in my grandfather’s cleats and he cleans them, keeping his glove oiled after a game.
I see him on that team bus crisscrossing the pan flatness of Kansas, the Sunflower State, listening to a teammate’s transistor radio. I see him reading The Sporting News or perhaps a pulp novel picked up at a drugstore. As he reads, he taps his foot on the floor in front of his seat, his eyes periodically scanning a horizon of grain elevators and corn silos, the skyline of farms managed by men like his father, silent gents who can do anything with their hands and wake before the sun comes up. I see my grandfather watching people come and go along the streets of towns like Hays, Kansas. He notices that the men look, perhaps, like the way he will look in a few years. They wear suits and have places to be. If his playing career doesn’t pan out, he thinks he might settle in a spot like this and make his start in a firm on Main Street. Insurance, maybe. Something that will allow him to move about, to remain mobile, to take in the country from the driver’s seat. He knows how he loves the road and keeps a mental tally of the miles he travels each day. It is a dream of his to set foot in every single one of the fifty states in the union.
But that is the future. The present is now and the news is good. My grandfather is a young pitcher with a jumping fastball. He can strike hitters out. The pitching coach and the manager like what they see, telling him to work on his curve and develop a third pitch, a slider, or even a screwball, maybe. They tell him that the fastball is his bread-and-butter but it’s good to fool hitters. Work on changing speeds. Concentrate. My grandfather listens. He is upbeat. He is having a great season. He knows how his teammates believe he deserves a shot at the big leagues. He feels that way, too.
He’s a popular player. He’ll walk up the aisle of the bus and some guys, playing cards, don’t even have to lift their heads to shout: “Hey Dale! Wuddya know?” And he laughs and says, “I know who’s bluffing.” And because his last name is Divelbiss they like to call him devil on the nights his heater is untouchable. My grandfather likes to win so he never has to dine alone. He’s also handsome and someone says that whenever he takes the mound, the grandstand is filled with women and girls.
This grandfather, I did not know him. He is a man out of my imagination. When I watch old films of ballplayers, so young and trim and loose, their lives ahead of them, I see him. My mother has a picture of her father, taken when he was a teenager, wearing his ballplayer’s uniform. He is crouched down on one knee, his glove arm tossed nonchalantly across it, looking out impassively at some undefined point. It is the portrait of an athlete. And when I look at that photo, I know that my grandfather’s got it. He is a great American ballplayer: young, clean-cut, from a northwest Missouri town. He could be Richie Ashburn, Sam Crawford, or Bob Feller, all small-town boys who made good. Men whose abilities and accomplishments I have always admired.
Times are strange. These days I think often of my elders, I have lost so many of them in recent years. I am no longer a young man either. Lately, when I take the time to try and forget for a few minutes the world we live in, I lose myself in a good baseball book. As I read, I fully expect to meet my grandfather on the page. He could be that young man showing up at tryout with nothing to lose and a world of talent to prove. I can see him laughing at the right jokes and participating in team hijinks and joining a game that has never run by a clock.
I am there with him. We walk out onto the field together, the dimensions of the park we are set to play in unchanged, the baselines, pitcher’s mound, backstop, outfield fences, and warning track looking the same as they do everywhere. Nothing about time and space is given away, there is only this: our game. And the beautiful thing is, my grandfather knows how to play.
Perhaps he can still teach me.