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The Unnatural Natural

It was supposed to be a simple story about a mysterious senior-softball phenom whose legend was growing in America's heartland. Of course, nothing is simple.

October 09, 2005|J.R. MOEHRINGER | J.R. Moehringer is a Times staff writer and author of "The Tender Bar: A Memoir" (Hyperion).

I checked my watch and peered into the distance. i was starting to think he'd never show. I was starting to think he didn't exist.

In a way I was right.

It was a warm summer night, two months ago, a slow dusk coming on. I was sitting beside a well-groomed baseball field in St. Louis, surrounded by a dozen well-groomed men in their 60s, members of a softball team called U.S. Pallet, which competes in an intensely serious league for senior citizens. The first game of a doubleheader against archrival Bud Light was set to begin, but there was no sign of U.S. Pallet's best player, one of the best players in the league--the man I'd come to see. His name was John Meeden, but most just called him Homeless John.

While waiting for Meeden, we talked about him, or tried to, though each attempt at a definitive statement went trailing off, because nobody knew anything. His teammates had told me the stories, the legends, "the myths," as one called them. Meeden had been homeless, they said, but no one knew why. Vietnam? Drugs? Alcohol? Every teammate had a theory, but no theory felt more plausible than the rest.

Meeden was a rare and gifted ballplayer, they all agreed, but how he got to be so good, no one could say. A few teammates believed Meeden had played organized ball as a young man. One said Meeden had signed with a major league club when he was just a kid and the pressure of going pro caused some kind of breakdown. What evidence was there for this? None. Just as there was no evidence that Meeden would ever show up tonight.

Again I checked my watch.

"Here he comes!" someone shouted.

At last, walking slowly toward us from the parking lot, was a man built very differently from the men gathered around me. He had none of their Midwestern roundness, none of their low-slung solidity. He was tall, lean, somewhat frail, and instead of clomping along on big feet, as the others tended to do, he picked his way forward delicately, as if someone had told him to watch out for broken glass.

He was dressed differently too. Rather than the dapper uniform worn by his teammates, Meeden wore baggy street clothes--he preferred to play in his everyday duds, his teammates insisted--and he carried a sad little Kansas City Chiefs tote bag. Also, while every other man looked as if he'd been to the same Supercuts that morning, Meeden wore his white hair rakishly, almost foppishly, long. The wispy strands fell well below his shoulders.

Like all but two of his teeth, Meeden's youth was long gone. His 64-year-old face showed the lines and leathering effects of age and hunger and hard times. Still, his eyes retained a gleam, just a glimmer, of boyishness. This became even truer as his teammates hollered their hellos. Meeden smiled and waved, and for a second he could've been that straggly kid who always shows up last for Little League.

I'd been warned that Meeden was shy. He won't talk to you, everyone said. But now he sat down next to me in the stands, so close that our knees nearly touched. I didn't know if he was being friendly or if he simply didn't see me. He began tugging an elastic brace onto his leg, fastening it around his thigh. Someone asked how the hamstring was feeling. Meeden had strained it during a recent game. He mumbled an inaudible answer while rubbing the hamstring and staring at some indistinct point in space.

I introduced myself and Meeden stopped fussing with his leg long enough to look at me. I told him I was hoping for a chance to speak with him later, privately, that I wanted to write a story about him.

His eyes widened.

Then he just giggled and trotted onto the field.

*

The hobo Roy Hobbs. the unnatural natural.

A homeless guy who clouts homers in a softball league somewhere in the heartland.

It sounded too good to be true, at first, but baseball is full of things that are too good to be true--baseball itself is too good to be true--and that's one of the things we love about it. Like no other sport, baseball caters to our need for mythology. For pretend.

Only now, looking back, do I recognize the internal pretending that propelled me to St. Louis in the first place. I told myself I wanted a good story, but in truth I wanted a simple story, one that was laid out before me, neatly arranged between two clean white lines. No trapdoors, no surprises. As I usually do when the world seems unusually crazy, I wanted to focus on something easy, just for a few hours. And I figured: What's easier than baseball? What could be more therapeutic for a flagging spirit than a nice, one-dimensional hero with a bat in his hand?

Simple.

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