The numbers 34, 44 and 31 are not the combination to any lock I own, no lotto I've played or the measurements of any woman I've dated. They're baseball numbers, anniversary markers and a thread of the type that connects and brings to life the "holy" utterances of James Earl Jones' character, Terrence Mann, in Field of Dreams:
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.
Number 34 belongs to the Washington Nationals rookie phenom, Bryce Harper. Number 44, with all due respect to Henry Aaron and Willie McCovey, refers to Reggie Jackson and the number of years that have passed since our mutual "rookie seasons;" mine in life, his in the big leagues. Thirty-one is the number he wore during his initial call up with the Kansas City Athletics in 1967 and those on the front and back of that "rookie" shirt I currently have consigned to a major sports memorabilia auction house. They and the game they represent, reflect a uniquely American permanence and thread where I like to think that even as I write, someone could have written something very similar 44 years ago and could do so again with equal relevance, 44 seasons hence.
I was once accused by a former girlfriend of having a fetish for "other men's dirty laundry." Given the collection I have amassed of sweat stained caps, grass stained pants and dirty shirts with other men's last names emblazoned on the backs, it was a difficult charge to refute. The memory of that snipe coupled with the recent polar opposite query from a friend and fellow hobbyist, "how could you ever let go of that Reggie rookie," made me ponder just why it was I have and continue to collect, other men's "dirty laundry." The answers I came to are no more just about baseball than Moby-Dick is just a book about whaling. They're really about those things that make me smile.
When I look at my 1976 Reggie Jackson Orioles road jersey, I recall the wonder in my then nine-year-old eyes at the sight of Reggie's bespectacled visage smiling at me from the cover of Sports Illustrated as I underwent the humiliating experience of waiting in line at the local drugstore to pay for the pair of "all-nude pantyhose" my mother's shopping list directed I buy! My 1979 Don Baylor Angels home jersey calls forth memories of the "Big A" or Angels Stadium as it was called then and the refuge that place became from an always loving, but nonetheless tumultuous parental domestic scene. Trips there came courtesy of both my grandfather and step-dad and it pains me to this day, that before their passing, I never had the presence of mind to thank them for the particular gift of and love for, the game.
The Reggie Jackson-Don Baylor collective also reminds me of the value of role models and of the unsettling question a family member once posed... "Why can't any of your favorite players be white?" I am happy now as then that I was of a time and upbringing where such a question had never entered my mind. When, as an adult, I would later serve as a Marine overseas, these items served as a symbol and touchstone of home... America, and to further recall the five years' worth of battling banter with my General, over the merits of my Angels versus his Mariners.
But beyond nostalgia and reflection, collecting and letting go of these baseball treasures, has brought to and intertwined my life with, an ever more meaningful collection of the most improbable characters and friends. There's Bill and Seeg, George and Joe; partners in youthful and not so youthful, collecting crime... Tom and Steve, the keepers of all things Angels and Washington-Baltimore, respectively. Then, there's most improbable friend of all, Reggie Jackson.
We met a little over two years ago at a sports center opening in Milwaukee and ten minutes into our initial conversation, "HoF'er" (Hall of Famer), "Mr. October," disappeared to be replaced with someone I consider to be an "HoFHB" (Hall of Fame Human Being). The topics of that discourse ranged from his joy at having just participated in the opening of Henry Aaron's museum to thoughts on family. That and the many conversations which have followed, gave pause to remind me of the elegant truth once uttered by Dick Allen's older brother Hank: "Baseball is what I did, it's not who I am." Reggie will rightly forever be tied to America's pastime, but it has been my privilege to enjoy his fellowship and to discover that baseball is but a part of his much profounder whole and as such, the items I have collected from his playing career reflect but a small part of the man and his history -- and not necessarily the most important ones.
My collection is cool, but riding in the back seat of his SUV with our friend Joe, all of us singing along to the Stylistics "Betcha By Golly Wow" and Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" was priceless and I wouldn't trade those moments for anything!
So, why am I letting go of my friend's rookie shirt with a smile? I am parting with the jersey partly because of the realization above, partly because my collecting focus has changed to, "if I didn't see the player wear it, I no longer collect it," ... and because I just picked up and united a hitherto ever elusive 1974 Reggie A's Gold jersey, with the dirty, torn 1974 pants of his I've owned forever! Some habits should never totally be broken.
As for Harper... living on the outskirts of Washington D.C. has allowed me to watch the spectacle of the beginning of what I hope for him is a career reminiscent of another began 44 years ago and to reflect on and hope that as America twists and turns, "being erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again," one thread... one strand of permanence will remain and continue to remind us "of all that once was good, and could be again."