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©2018 Barren Magazine. An Alt.Lit Introspective.

Chicken Men


by Matthew Muilenburg

My father has always preferred menthol cigarettes, from his first preteen puff on a Kool to the cherry he smoldered atop his Camel this morning. When I was a kid, rival brands jealous of his allegiance tried wooing him with paraphernalia: hand towels, pocketknives, frisbees, beer koozies. Once, Newport cigarettes mailed my a father a t-shirt one size too small. It was destined for the Salvation Army until I smuggled it into my room like I was sneaking in Marlboros. I tried it on—Newport fit me well.

My parents allowed me to wear the t-shirt on one condition: I could never be seen in public with it on. Imagine what the nuns or my Little League coach or the D.A.R.E. officer would say had they seen me pimping menthols. So I gamed the system and wore it beneath my other tees and my Catholic school uniform, ripping the sleeves off when another growth spurt threatened to turn it into a hand-me-down. One summer night, I wore the Newport shirt beneath my Little League jersey. We won that game via walk-off homerun, smashed off of a schoolmate of mine, J.A. Happ, who would go on to pitch in Major League Baseball and make millions. I was the winning pitcher that night, outdueling the future pro, and scored the game-tying run ahead of my best friend, Joe, who’d poked the dinger. After that night, I refused to play in anything else the rest of the season. Newport became my superstition long after the company failed to recruit my father’s lungs.

Superstition is as much a part of baseball as the Seventh Inning Stretch. Players have sold their cars to snap cold streaks at the plate and on the mound, brushed their teeth between innings, yelled at the baseball. They’ve worn the same cup since high school, slept with their bats, and cinched bags of minerals around their necks. An outfielder who once played for the Cubs, my favorite team, urinated on his hands because he thought it toughened them up. Superstition, however, is hardly monopolized by the professionals. In high school, I played with a guy who fondled himself in front of everyone while lying on the bench press because it supposedly gave him extra strength. After the Newport shirt went into the trash with barely a thread left to it, I claimed new superstitions. In high school, I refused to touch the baseline on my way to and from the mound. During my sophomore year of college, I wrote a stanza full of lyrics from Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” on the underside of the brim of my hat because it was the last song I’d heard before a game in which I threw a no-hitter. Baseball is the rabbit’s foot of the sports world. The rosin bag pitchers use to dry their hands might as well be a voodoo doll.

Wade Boggs, a Hall of Fame third baseman known mostly for his time with the Boston Red Sox, was one of the more superstitious players in baseball history. He drew the Hebrew word chai in the dirt before every at-bat, fielded exactly one-hundred-fifty grounders during pregame, and would only take batting practice at 5:17. Later, he ran wind sprints at precisely 7:17. Boggs also ate fried chicken before each game, earning him the nickname of Chicken Man.

When I was a kid, Boggs was my American League mistress, my favoritism for the third baseman trumped only by a quartet of Cubs, including my all-time favorite player, Ryne Sandberg. Any Boggs that I pulled from packs of baseball cards went directly into protective cases. When my friends and I played sandlot, I tabbed Boggs, a redhead like myself, as my third baseman. I even tried to hit left-handed when his turn came up in my lineup. One Sunday night in the early ‘90s, as I lied on the floor watching television, Boggs appeared on my favorite show, The Simpsons, in one of the series’ more iconic episodes, “Homer at the Bat.” My fandom deepened.

But here’s the thing about sport, baseball or otherwise: it shows fans the most superficial version of who a player truly is. As a kid growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I knew nothing about the players outside of what I could glean from box scores. Boggs’ legend grows the further one gets away from the ballfield. Mr. Perfect, a professional wrestler, once saved his life and Boggs snagged himself on barbed wire on a hunting trip and nearly died. Boggs once drank sixty-four beers on a cross-country team flight, with rumors upping the count to one-hundred plus. He stole a pair of Kirstie Alley’s panties after appearing on Cheers, and former teammate Oil Can Boyd once called Boggs a racist, an accusation which he denies. Most famously, Boggs enlisted the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the late ‘80s to assist him in breaking up with mistress Margo Adams, who was later featured as both an interviewee and centerfold in Penthouse. Much of the Adams drama played out in 1988, a year in which Boggs led the American League in nine offensive categories. Those stats I knew. Here’s what I didn’t know: during their time together, Boggs liked Adams to slip into stockings and a garter belt and serve him anchovy pizzas.

I was blind to all of this as a kid, but eventually came to learn that peripheries exist in baseball players’ lives, too. I learned that Mark Grace spent many of his waking hours steeping his liver in barley and hops, that Daryl Strawberry enjoyed cocaine, that Mel Hall raped minors, that Albert Belle stalked an escort, and that Lenny Dykstra once paid his escort with a check—and that check bounced. The backs of baseball cards are not police blotters; they only showcase numbers of achievement. Not .093, Tony LaRussa’s B.A.C. when he was arrested for a D.U.I. after falling asleep at a stoplight. Not 160,000, the number of dollars allegedly paid to Denny McClain for his help in smuggling a fugitive out of the country. Not 1, the number of humidifiers that Chuck Knoblauch, who couldn’t manage the throw from second base to first base late in his career due to a mental hiccup, hurled at his wife. Not 6, the counts of criminal sexual conduct that lawyers slapped on Chad Curtis for inappropriately touching female students during his tenure as a high school coach. Not 25,000, the amount MLB fined former Reds owner Marge Schott for her racist, anti-Semitic comments and alleged glorification of Hitler’s early days. Not 2,005, the year in which Ugueth Urbina was accused of attacking a group of workers on his ranch. First with machetes. Then gasoline.

Wade Boggs stepped out on his wife like he was stepping out of the batter’s box to adjust his cup, a shameful, prideful act, but not one so heinous that I could forgo years and years of perceived infallibility when, in 2012, I received the opportunity to interview him. That fall, Boggs signed on as an investor for a baseball complex proposed to be built at the Field of Dreams movie site. At the time, I served as editor for the paper in Dyersville, Iowa, where the Field is located. To garner goodwill in the community, the CEO of the development company gave us Boggs’ first interview following the announcement. She called me at night on my cell phone to share the good news, having no idea how much Boggs had meant to me as a kid. When I hung up, I hurried into the bathroom so my wife and sons wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes.

When I told my uncle about the interview, he joked that I should ask Boggs about the Adams affair. That was the first time I’d heard Margo Adams’s name, and at first I didn’t believe him, the naivety of my childhood adulation stretching all the way into my early-thirties, an umbilicus made of leather and stitches and a Wonder Years pressure to find a mortal god worth idolizing. A quick internet search confirmed the story.

The following morning, of course, I didn’t mention Adams or anchovy pizzas or Kirstie Alley’s panties when I interviewed Boggs over the phone. For ten minutes, I lobbed him softball after softball like I was throwing batting practice, and he responded with what could have been scripted answers. Near the end of our conversation, I thanked Wade for speaking with me and confessed to him that he’d been my American League Ryne Sandberg, a comment at which he snickered. When we finished, I waited until he hung up before doing so, too.

Later that night, the story written, my skin still goosefleshing each time I thought about typing the words Boggs said, I bucket-listed myself a celebratory beer, an act Boggs surely would’ve approved of. Then, a few weeks later, as my initial giddiness waned, the development company CEO surprised me once more: Boggs was travelling to the Field for what amounted to a meet-and-greet. She informed me that media were welcome to attend. I would’ve called in sick if we were not.

The night before Boggs’ arrival in town, I went into my basement and took out the couple hundred baseball cards that I’d kept from childhood. Gone were the Kelly Grubers, John Jahas, Gary Gaettis, and Paul Assenmachers. Seven Boggs endured, however, in the thick plastic cases in which I’d placed them decades earlier. I took them out of the cases and tucked them safely into the back of my reporter’s notebook.

The next morning, I stood behind home plate at the Field of Dreams, my internal nostalgia as thick and sticky as pine tar. A crowd larger than any I’d seen at the Field had gathered, most of those in attendance there for festivity, not fandom. They didn’t know that Boggs won eight Silver Slugger Awards and made twelve All-Star teams. They didn’t know he had his number retired by two organizations. They’d never read the back of his baseball card. But I had—as a ten-year-old in ‘92 and as a thirty-year-old in 2012. I was ready.

But I had to wait my turn.

Boggs was ushered to the center of the crowd and spoke for several minutes, his words repetitious of what he’d told me over the phone weeks earlier. “Don’t tell me it can’t be done,” Boggs said at one point, referencing the development, which had become a point of contention in the community. “Because they told me I’ll never make it to the Hall of Fame, I’ll never make it to the Bigs. Proved them wrong. Don’t tell me this can’t be done.”

I felt like he was speaking to me.

Afterwards, Boggs posed for pictures with fans and local government officials. I loitered on the periphery, trying to beat down my fandom, trying to drown out that little root-root-rooter inside of me who wanted to do nothing more than fawn over and flatter a ballplayer he worshipped. This was no easy chore, but by the time most of the gathered had dispersed, I had tamped down enough of my nervousness to approach Boggs, a man who I had quite literally pretended to be at times as a child. I reintroduced myself, feeling half his size despite being three inches taller. “Good to talk to you again,” Boggs said and shook my hand, his grip fierce and brawny, mine wet.

After asking a few easy questions, I turned off the voice recorder and Boggs started to leave. “Wait,” I said and stopped him so quickly that the ten-year-old inside me pissed himself. “Do you think you could sign this?” I asked, pulling out a copy of the article I’d written about his investment in the Field. “My publisher would like it for the office,” I said. Boggs signed the paper Wade Boggs, HOF ’05. Hall of Famers frequently include the HOF and the year they were inducted when they autograph paraphernalia. It’s both a conceit and a kindness: autographs are worth more money when accompanied by HOF.

Boggs handed me back the paper and the marker and went to leave once more. Again, I stopped him. “Think you could sign these, too?” I asked and pulled out the seven baseball cards I’d tucked into the back of my notebook the night before.

Now, one of the most important rules of journalism is to keep oneself out of the discussion, to report within context but remove oneself from that context. The military has conscientious objectors; journalism has conscientious observers. I tried to follow that idea as a journalist and succeeded for the most part—but not with Boggs. He stared at the cards for a moment, assessing whether to grant my request. I tried to remain as cool as a Newport, but felt only shame. Shame at seeking his autograph while I was on the clock. Shame for asking him not just for one, but for seven. Shame for offering him no recompense: later that September, I attended an event at the Field where long-retired ballplayers, Boggs included, played in a shits-and-giggles softball game. Afterward, those players, most of them legends, were available for autographs at a local casino, selling their John Hancocks at triple-digit prices. And here I was asking Boggs for half a dozen—plus one—on the house.

I half-expected Boggs to chastise me for asking in the first place, for my unprofessionalism and for my greed. He had no way of knowing that I was only keeping one autograph for myself, the other six going to family and friends across the country who love baseball as much as I. But he didn’t shame me. He just dropped his eyes and stuck out that powerful right hand. Boggs signed each card then left before I could thank him. There was no second handshake.

I waited until I got back to the car to look at the cards. I tossed my notebook and voice recorder into the passenger seat, the camera with which I’d recorded video still dangling from my neck, and flipped over the first card. He’d signed it thusly:
Wade Boggs.

No HOF.

No ’05.

Just: Wade Boggs.

It was the same for the other six cards. I unfolded the paper to double-check his signature: Wade Boggs HOF ’05. It was no accident: he’d intentionally slighted me, devaluing my cards even though they would never be for sale. Nostalgia doesn’t work like that.

Twenty-five years after praying for a Boggs each time I ripped open a pack of cards, I met the man. We shook hands, mine sweaty, his calloused from all those base hits and batting titles, all those nights he spent running his fingertips over Margo Adams’ body while his wife slept back at home. I witnessed the 2-D player posing on my ’92 Topps step into 3-D reality, and I genuflected at an altar that I created alongside thousands of others who grew up during his prime. Then, when I folded my hands to worship, Boggs flicked my fingers. He didn’t belittle me or call me unprofessional. He didn’t ask the FBI to help break off our short relationship or scold me for failing to show up in a garter belt. He just failed to meet my expectations.

I set the cards in my cup holder and left the Field of Dreams.

Header photograph © Jason D. Ramsey.

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