Tom Ley writes at Word’s Finest. You can email him too, at leyt345(at)gmail(dot)com.
There he was again.
I was nine years old watching Andres Galarraga stride across the lobby of the Viscount Suites in Tucson for what must have been the sixth or seventh time in the last three days.
I was in Tucson part in what had become an annual family excursion to take in the Colorado Rockies spring training. Mom and Aunt Chris came down to bake in the Arizona sun, and us kids came down for one reason: to get as many autographs from as many players as possible. (It wasn’t always autographs, though. I may or may not be in possession of a half-full tin of Skoal that once belonged to Bruce Ruffin).
And we were good at it, too.
Equipped with backpacks full of freshly purchased baseballs and pockets full of black sharpies, we moved around Tucson like a well-trained tactical unit. We knew exactly which areas of Hi Corbett Field offered us the best chance to catch the players before and after games. We stayed at the same hotel as the players, and we knew precisely what time they passed through the lobby. We even knew when Vinny Castilla was likely to be found at the bar of the local TGI Fridays. We were exacting, methodical and relentless.
This particular year, poor Andres Galarraga continually found himself in our cross-hairs. We saw him everywhere we went, and every time we swarmed him with our arms extended expectantly, our small, sweaty fingers wrapped around baseballs and sharpies.
Looking back, it’s hard to understand why we continued to accost Galarraga even though, between the four of us, we must have had two dozen iterations of his signature. Why didn’t we just let him pass by after the tenth autograph?
I’m sure it had something to do with the “thrill of the hunt.” Our quest for autographs often required a great deal of discipline and patience, and so whenever an opportunity for a pay-off arose, we couldn’t help but take it. Each autograph, no matter how repetitive, was a conquest.
The more I think about it though, the more I begin to realize that there was another big reason why we kept descending on Galarraga.
We were little fish.
The Big Cat.
That’s what everyone called Andres Galarraga. It was a nickname that suited him well. His legs were huge, long, and powerful in a way that forced you to notice them anytime he stretched out from first base to scoop up a low throw or uncoiled his hips on a thigh-high fastball. He’d stand at the plate, locked into his wide, wide-open stance with his left leg, a pinstriped obelisk, extended out behind his torso. He’d lift it and move it calmly in line with the rest his body as the pitch was delivered, ready to plant his foot and pounce on the pitcher’s offering. You fixated on his legs the same way you fixated on those of a cheetah as it chases down a gazelle in one of those super slow motion action shots that make nature shows so hypnotizing.
Despite his size, Galarraga wasn’t exactly a commanding presence. He didn’t have that edge on the field, nor did he have the domineering personality off of it that is such a necessary component of the superstar formula. He was unassuming and reserved, but not mysterious—he smiled too much for that—he just showed up every day, played the game, and quietly knocked the shit out of the ball.
Given his demeanor, I never really felt like I “knew” Galarraga the same way that I felt like I knew Vinny Castilla or Larry Walker because I had seen them act silly during an interview or pump their fists enthusiastically after a home run. I liked it better that way, though, because the Big Cat’s performance on the field was all I had to judge him by. He was just a great, great player, nothing more and nothing less.
That would change in Tucson.
The Big Cat saw us coming.
The four of us had each given each other a questioning look as if to say, “Again? Should we really go after him again?” We doubted our singular purpose for a brief moment, until one of us snapped out of it said simply, “Let’s go.” I don’t remember who said it, but it was enough to get us out of our chairs and digging in our backpacks for balls with some white space left on them.
And so Andres Galarraga, slowly making his way across the hotel lobby, saw four familiar faces coming towards him. I have no doubt that he recognized us, as a look of solemn resignation came over his face, and he stopped to meet the inevitable.
My brother and his two friends got to him first and presented him with a sharpie and a ball the same way they had done four or five times previous.
“Andres, can we have your autograph?”
The Big Cat answered without speaking and bent down to accept their offerings, signing each ball carefully before handing it back. As he turned his attention towards me, my mom asked if he would take a picture with us kids. He looked past me for a moment, nodded his assent, and then reached down to receive the ball that I had hastily grabbed out of my backpack a few moments earlier.
He turned the ball over once in his hand and stopped to frown at something that had caught his attention. He hesitated for a moment, then looked up and gently handed the ball back to me.
“This already has me,” he said.
Two little fish are swimming around in the ocean and along their way they happen across a much bigger, older fish. The big fish nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The big fish swims on without the little fish answering; who stay silent for a few moments after the big fish has left. Finally, one of the little fish looks at the other and says, “What the hell is water?”
If you’re familiar with this joke, it’s probably because you are a fan of David Foster Wallace and you recognize it as the beginning of the now famous commencement speech that he gave to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College (or you may recognize as a few lines amongst the many thousands from Infinite Jest).
The joke’s meaning becomes the nucleus of Wallace’s speech, in which he essentially pleads with the graduates to learn to take their awareness of the world beyond themselves.
In the joke, the little fish don’t know what water is because they have never taken the time to step out of their own minds long enough to notice the very thing that sustains them and keeps them alive every day. The little fish are the absolute centers of their own universe, and everything else that exists is rather inconsequential.
Wallace posits that it is our inherent nature to live our lives in the same self-centered fashion as these little fish. This frame of mind is the reason why when we see a mother struggling to quiet her screaming toddler in the supermarket we feel annoyed rather than sympathetic. It is the reason why when a co-worker begins to tell us a completely banal story about what they did last weekend we begin to feel impatient, and then eventually angry that they would dare waste our time with such drivel. We perceive everything in relation to how it immediately affects US.
We were very bad at seeing the water.
Andres Galarraga, however, was not.
“What a little shit,” he must have thought, at least for a moment, when he saw his signature staring back at him. How could he not?
Here he was, 37 years old, just trying to get through yet another spring training, an event that, after all these years, must have felt more like a hindrance than anything else.
Here he was, heading into what he must have known would be his last season with the Rockies . (Todd Helton, our hot shot 1B prospect was nipping at his heals). Knowing that at his age he’d need to have a big year if he wanted to secure another lucrative contract elsewhere.
Here he was, just trying to get to his hotel room so he could relax for a bit and get a good night’s sleep before having to drag himself out into the blazing sun again tomorrow.
And here we were, again. Why did it seem like we were there no matter where he went? It was as if we always knew precisely where he was going to be. It was almost like we were stalking him for Christ’s sake. And we wanted more autographs? How many did we possibly need from the same guy?
He had every right to wave us off with a dismissive, “Sorry, not signing today,” (as so many other players had done that week) and continue on his way. Even after agreeing to sign our baseballs once again, he could have easily refused our request for a picture. I mean sure, he loved his fans, but how much was he really expected to give to us?
And then to top it all off, this little shithead hands him a ball that already has his fucking signature on it. What a waste of time. After handing the ball back to me, he could have easily rolled his eyes or shaken his head in disappointment, he could have curtly stated that there would be no picture today after all, and walked off. No one would have blamed him.
That isn’t what he did, though. Instead, he took one big step backwards, and beckoned for us to scrunch up next to him and pose. The four of us followed his lead, and a few moments later the picture was snapped and Andres retired to his hotel room. The picture came out well. Andres had a big smile on his face.
When I think about that smile, and the gentleness with which Andres had returned the round white source of shame to my hands, it becomes clear to me that he could see The Water. He could see that I was just a kid, and that no matter how inane my need to collect trophies from my favorite players may have seemed to him or any other adult, doing so made me happy. In that moment, he was willing to put my happiness, the happiness of a complete stranger, ahead of his own.
Yes, it was a small thing that Andres did that day, but I think that is precisely why it is worth praising. We often forget that the smallest of actions can determine how moments become imprinted onto other people’s memories. In no time at all, just enough for a few synapses to fire and a few facial muscles to contort, we can give someone a moment that is either remembered fondly, or with shame and mortification. Andres, either consciously or subconsciously, seemed to understand this.
And so he took the picture, the Big Cat that I think of as the Big Fish, posing graciously with four of us little ones.