December 20, 2016
On Days Like These
When I think of Dan Quisenberry, I envision the Midwest. I’m on the edge of a two-lane highway, facing out on a flat field of indistinct brush. The sky is a cloudless flat blue, and there’s a warm, barely noticeable wind. Otherwise it’s as quiet and calm as a smile.
Quisenberry reached the majors with the Royals in 1979 as a 26-year-old submarine reliever with a general-store mustache, an 85 mph fastball, and one solitary trick: he never walked anyone. It was enough to make him the best closer in baseball for a half-dozen seasons and earn him a World Series in 1985. Beyond his on-field talents, he was as clever and humble as he was successful, immensely quotable (“I found a delivery in my flaw” is an all-time favorite), and gracious.
He retired in 1990, at age 37. He camped, he hunted, and he attended writing workshops. Eight years later, he published a book, On Days Like These, collecting his works of poetry. He died that year of a malignant brain tumor. They planted a tree in memorial next to the freeway exchange near Kauffman Stadium.
I’m glad Quisenberry was a baseball player, because he didn’t need to talk about his successes; he had all of those numbers, those film clips, a diamond ring to demonstrate success. That might be one of the reasons that athletes rarely turn to writing: they already come packaged with a form of self-expression, a guaranteed purpose. If their story spirals out of their control, they usually turn to the ghostwriters to create pamphlets. Writing is usually about creating a legacy, and Dan had little trouble in this regard, in public or with his friends and family.
On Days Like These is split into two halves: the first is devoted to poems about baseball, while the latter section dwells on the day-to-day of his post-playing life. Both are written in the distant past tense. Quisenberry’s style is minimalist, plainspoken, peppered with imagery; William Carlos Williams appears to be a heavy inspiration. It is, more than anything else, restrained: there is nostalgia in his voice for his playing days, but it never succumbs to self-jealousy or melancholy. “We were spring / we were lust / we were vibrant,” he writes, “bumped and piled up like a litter of young Labrador pups.”
Youth is perhaps the dominant theme of the first half, along with the pressures of growing old. At the same time, there’s a secondary theme centered around the bifurcation of every celebrity: the public versus the private identity. In "A Night in Cleveland," Quisenberry describes the atmosphere of the bullpen in a foreign stadium, complete with unspoken retorts for the heckling fans. But it’s equally true of his own teammates, of the identity of the Baseball Player, which Quiz never quite fit.
The iconography of the 1970s relief ace was commanded by pitchers like Al Hrabosky and Sparky Lyle—furious men with furious facial hair, stomping and cursing and intimidating the opponents through their masculine show. Quisenberry was the complete opposite, in temperament and stuff, and yet he felt (and overcame) those same pressures, internalized and accepted them.
The second half of the book—picking up after the emotional low of the pitcher’s descent, exile, and retirement—would seem to be a letdown. The emotional arc of the playing career, so neat a fit for a traditional narrative, flattens out into a calm existence of retired life: conversations with friends, experiences parenting, looking down the sight of a rifle at the unsuspecting deer. And yet these poems, both more modest in scope and less resonant for the casual baseball fan, are stronger, more evocative. The baseball poetry is fascinating to read because of what it tells us about baseball, what our sport means to us. The rest is startlingly personal.
Poetry isn’t usually supposed to be that way. Poetry is generally meant to obfuscate, to twist, to force the reader’s examination back on themselves. I write to become formless and faceless, an aposematism of ideas and deflecting jokes; I allow my ideas to become free of me. Quisenberry could easily perform this same trick, lay into the stereotypes awarded him for his service. And yet he discards them, distances himself from the own vital youth, accepts the world and his diminished role within it. It’s a humility that runs deeper than the occasional bon mot or a salute to the batter who had his number; it’s a humility in the frailty and weakness of life itself.
His most haunting poem is one of the shortest:
you’ve seen that car
off the ranch road
the ‘57 chevy
behind the barbed wire
sitting there next to hay
ready for summer’s first mowing
i imagine it’s being the rancher’s
an awol son
groping high school escapades
in the back seat
racing away from chores
but it sits there still
parking brake on
gear shift in neutral
It’s a crushing metaphor, bleak to the outer limits of existentialism, and to combine that philosophy with an outlook of hope is a difficult task. And yet he does it, both through the first 67 pages of his book, and the first 45 years of life that got him there. Quisenberry is no nihilist; he was a devout Christian, unfooled by the suffering of life but undeterred in his (and our) ability to meet it head on. So it soon became with his own. There is no deflection, no cheap jokes, no cliche.
Six years ago, they knocked down Dan Quisenberry’s tree while they were widening the interstate. It was an honest mistake; the crew had simply forgotten (and, one assumes, missed the plaque). We all forget. Joe Posnanski, in a typically beautiful essay, described the accident as a hidden blessing: the incident gave us a pinprick, an opportunity to remember a man who should, by all forms of the imperative, still be here with us.
But we never really needed the tree. We already have On Days Like This, available for the cost of shipping on Amazon, a better memento than a shiny plaque or a bust on a wall. As Quisenberry said himself, shortly before his diagnosis: “Someone told me just recently that poets are eulogists. It's their job, to eulogize. I didn't know that, but it makes sense. Because in almost every poem of mine there is a loss.”
Every poem, and every day: we are constantly losing, losing time and opportunities and memories. And yet, as his book proves, we are also gaining so, so much.