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COMING SOON : Sneak Previews of Forthcoming Books : A Good Turn : 'I had a coach in college who said he wasn't trying to teach us to be pro ballplayers;he was trying to teach us to be decent people.'

February 07, 1988|ETHAN CANIN | From "Where We Are Now," from the collection of short stories "Emperor of the Air," published this week by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. Copyright 1988 by Ethan Canin. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

I MIGHT HAVE HAD a small career in baseball, but I've learned in the past 11 years to talk about other things. I was 23 the last pitch I threw. The season was over, and Jodi was in the stands in a wool coat. I was about to get a college degree in physical education. I knew how to splint a broken bone and how to cut the grass on a golf green, and then I decided that to turn your life around you had to start from the inside. I had a coach in college who said he wasn't trying to teach us to be pro ballplayers; he was trying to teach us to be decent people.

When Jodi and I got married, I told her that no matter what happened, no matter where things went, she could always trust me. We'd been seeing each other for a year, and in that time I'd been reading books. Not baseball books. Biographies: Martin Luther King, Gandhi. To play baseball right you have to forget that you're a person--you're muscles, bone--the need for sleep and food. So when you stop, you're saved by someone else's ideas. This isn't true just for baseball players. It's true for anyone who's failed at what he loves.

A friend got me a coaching job in California, and as soon as we were married we came West. Jodi still wanted to be an actress. We rented a room in a house with six other people, and she took classes in dance in the mornings and speech in the afternoons. Los Angeles is full of actors. Sometimes at parties we counted them. After a couple of years she started writing a play, and until we moved into where we are now we used to read pieces of it out loud to our six housemates.

By then I was already a little friendly with the people at school, but when I was out of the house, even after two years in Los Angeles, I was alone. People were worried about their own lives. In college I'd spent almost all my time with another ballplayer, Mitchell Lighty, and I wasn't used to new people. A couple of years after we graduated, Mitchell left to play pro ball in Panama City, and he came out to Los Angeles on his way there. The night before his plane left, he and I went downtown to a bar on the top floor of a big hotel. We sat by a window, and after a few drinks we went out onto the balcony. The air was cool. Plants grew along the edge, ivy was woven into the railing, and birds perched among the leaves. I was amazed to see the birds resting there 30 stories up on the side of the building. When I brushed the plants the birds took off into the air, and when I leaned over to watch them, I became dizzy with the distance to the sidewalk and with the small, rectangular shapes of the cars. The birds sailed in wide circles over the street and came back to the balcony. Then Mitchell put his drink on a chair, took both my hands, and stepped up onto the railing. He stood there on the metal crossbar, his wrists locked in my hands, leaning into the air.

"For God's sake," I whispered. He leaned farther out, pulling me toward the railing. A waiter appeared at the sliding door next to us. "Take it easy," I said. "Come on down." Mitchell let go of one of my hands, kicked up one leg and swung out over the street. His black wingtip shoe swiveled on the railing. The birds had scattered, and now they were circling, chattering angrily as he rocked. I was holding on with my pitching arm. My legs were pressed against the iron bars, and just when I began to feel the lead, just when the muscles began to shake, Mitchell jumped back onto the balcony. The waiter came through the sliding door and grabbed him, but in the years after that--the years after Mitchell got married and decided to stay in Panama City--I thought of that incident as the important moment of my life.

I don't know why. I've struck out nine men in a row and pitched to half a dozen hitters who are in the majors now, but when I think back over my life, about what I've done, not much more than that stands out.

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