by Heather Henderson
(from the book The 1999 Big Bad Baseball Annual, NTC/Contemporary Publishing, 1999)
This summer the game lost its most distinguished poet. It was an unusual thing for a retired ballplayer to turn his hand to writing free verse, but Dan Quisenberry was an unusual man.
He had never expected to make the big leagues. He didn't have an impressive enough fastball and his record in the minors was less than electrifying. Frank White, who played second base behind him in Kansas City, says, "He had to beg the scouts to look at him." Quisenberry had no illusions. "I knew I had limited talent," he told a writer. "I was just happy I could play minor league baseball for two or three years and figure out what I wanted to do in life."
But he made it to the majors in 1979 as a mid-season callup for the Royals. In spring training the next year, manager Jim Frey had the idea of training Quisenberry to throw sidearm, like Pirates pitcher Kent Tekulve. When he changed his style, he found his groove. He went on to become one of the premier relief pitchers of the '80s, notching a major league record in 1983 with 45 saves. "The save meant something different then than it does now," says John Wathan, a friend who both played with and managed Quisenberry. "Now guys come in and throw to one batter. He'd pitch for three innings."
His eccentric delivery helped him fool hitters. No less quirky was his way of expressing himself. He was a naturally humorous man, with a disarming originality that endeared him to the press and to the fans. His pronouncement "I have seen the future, and it is much like the present, only longer" became famous. He enjoyed playing with words and poking fun at the conventions of baseball that demanded the post-game quote, no matter how trite. After coming out of a slump, he dryly informed reporters, "I found a delivery in my flaw."
In a world where immature bravado is commonplace, he seemed to have a humble sense of himself, and downplayed his prowess. His friend and teammate Paul Splittorff says, "He didn't look like a professional athlete, and didn't carry himself like one. He was kind of wide-eyed every day about everything. He was always surprised, maybe even amused, by his success. He didn't think he was that good." Much of his understated wit was directed at himself. Other top relievers were intimidating fireballers who came in and "slammed the door." Quisenberry, as he put it, just "closed the door quietly."
"He'd joke about his abilities," says Wathan. "He didn't have a lot of athleticism, but he was a tremendous competitor. He could throw strikes at will, with a good sinking fastball, and get a lot of ground balls. Whenever we needed a ground ball for a big double play to end a game or finish off an inning, Dan could do it. Here's a guy who most people thought would never be a professional athlete, never pitch in the big leagues. He was used to hearing people say, 'you can't do that'. Yet he became one of the most dominant relievers of the era."
Quisenberry was careful to keep things in perspective in the face of his success. He told the writer Roger Angell, "I'm trying to be very good at baseball and to keep it from becoming too important in my life. I have to live on that border all the time." Some athletes isolate themselves, hiding within their own egos, but he reached out to others. With his wife Janie, he became involved with the Harvesters, a charity dedicated to feeding the hungry. "I can't save the world," he said, "but at least I can feed my neighbors." Among their projects were food drives and a fundraising golf tournament that raised over $100,000. This work was something that remained important to Quisenberry throughout the years, even during his final illness. "He stayed with it until the end," Splittorff says. "And he put time into it too. He didn't just put his name on it."
When Quisenberry signed a hefty contract with Kansas City at the peak of his fame, he faltered a bit. Every player feels pressure to live up to the big bucks, but his doubts extended beyond the baseball field. He seemed to have difficulty understanding why he was being paid that much. How did he and the game of baseball fit into the grand scheme of things? Splittorff talked with him at length about it. "I think he felt that there were a lot of people in the world that were overlooked, and had more important roles in terms of mankind than a baseball player did."
His teammates knew he was a thinker. White remembers, "He was a reader--astute and brainy. Judging by his intellect, he was the kind of guy who, if he hadn't been a ballplayer, would have been a teacher." But nobody saw him as a poet. "I don't think anybody knew, when Dan was playing, that he had that ambition," Wathan says. "We always considered him a very intelligent guy--he had a tremendous vocabulary--but we never dreamed that he would be as talented as he was. About the only thing we did that had anything to do with writing was the crossword puzzle in the newspaper. We'd do that together in the bullpen early in the game, and maybe the Jumble. But as far as writing poetry, I don't think anybody had a clue that he would get into that. To be honest, I don't know if he knew."
After his career in baseball was over, Quisenberry began to attend writing groups. Eventually he enrolled in a poetry course taught by Gloria Vando Hickok, editor and publisher of Helicon Nine Editions, a small press in Kansas City. "He was a wonderful, enthusiastic participant," she remembers. "He had good things to say." When she read his poems, she realized that he had talent too. "When you're dealing with students, people who have just started writing and have not published, very often they haven't found their own voice. They sound like other people. But the thing I recognized right away with Dan was that he had his own voice. Even when we wrote something in class, it was Dan. It was Dan Quisenberry writing as he was thinking and feeling. It wasn't pretentious and it wasn't distant. It was very real and straight from the heart. He was a natural writer. That doesn't mean that he couldn't have gotten better and better, and he probably would have. But he was just instinctively, naturally good. He asked questions. He was curious about everything. He had an open imagination and interest in people and everything that was happening. And he had brains. It helps to be intelligent and a quick thinker--to be able to absorb things, make connections and synthesize them so that they're relevant to whatever you're doing. He had the ability to set his mind to it and do so very gracefully. And, it seemed, effortlessly. But it wasn't effortless at all. He worked hard and he rewrote a lot."
His former teammates were startled by his new interest, but they saw how much he loved it. "We were all surprised when he started doing that but we were very happy for him," Wathan says. "The stuff he wrote was just really good." Says Splittorff, "He went to class and he enjoyed that. He thrived on it. I think he was very comfortable with the writing and really at peace with what he was doing. He talked about it some, but he was shy about it. That kind of fit the profile--he didn't talk about himself a lot."
Not everyone was ready for the notion of a "jock poet." Some observers reacted with derision and skepticism. Splittorff says, "I told them, 'you don't understand.' When you know him personally, he comes across more as a writer or a poet than he does as a relief pitcher--and a closer, at that. That's usually a big tough mean guy who'll take a bite out of the world and not think anything of it. But he was anything but that. That's where he was out of character--the way the public knew him."
In 1995, Hickok published a chapbook of Quisenberry's entitled Down and In, consisting of three baseball poems. Friends and teammates, including Wathan, make cameo appearances. "He mentions throwing to the catcher, 'Duke'. That's my nickname," Wathan says. "I felt honored that he thought enough of me to put me in there." In the poems "The Double Play" and "A Night in Cleveland", Quisenberry sketches the world of the bullpen and the mound in bold strokes, showing humor as well as action and offering insight into the real human being behind the "game face". The third poem, "Baseball Cards", is a bittersweet look back at his career and the price he paid for success.
Journals and poetry anthologies began to publish his work. He participated in poetry readings, obviously enjoying the interaction with the audience. Hickok says, "He was a wonderful reader of his own poems. He loved doing it, and he was so funny. He had a showman quality. He would stand up there and not be the slightest bit nervous. As far as he was concerned, it was a piece of cake."
Quisenberry's full-length collection, On Days Like This, was published this year by Helicon Nine Editions. Fans who expect to be charmed by his humor will not be disappointed, but they may be surprised by his contemplative tone. Many of the poems are philosophical, and some contain a subtle shadow of mortality. There are 22 baseball pieces in the book, including the three from the chapbook. Among them are small, heartfelt masterpieces that are among the best poems ever written about the game. In "Ode to Dick Howser", the Royals manager who died of brain cancer, Quisenberry writes:
this small man
who fought big
now looked us in the eyes
just a man
who no longer talked of winning
but hinted at life beyond champagne
And at the end of the wistful "A Day at the Park", a remembrance of a ball field, he concludes:
now old friend
I walk on cement
and sit in cars
I miss dancing on
looking at sky
to daydream with
wind to judge
friend or foe
immense blue sky
of the mind of God
The other 28 poems are about the rest of the world in all its variety: love, marriage, teenage kids, fathers, mountains, stars, potatoes, war, materialism, religious faith. The style is simple and fresh, giving the sense that each word was chosen with care--not to trumpet the poet's expertise, but to convey the essence of the subject. Whether funny or serious--and often both at the same time--Quisenberry's voice is full of feeling. When he turns ironic, as he sometimes does when he talks of controversial topics, there is nothing detached about his emotions: he cares deeply.
From "How I know the world as we know it is almost over":
in the newspaper I read
they have a new vacuum
so strong it can suck
a baby's head off before it can breathe
and some people are so mad
they shoot the doctors who
do that, in the name of god
saying "thou shalt not kill"
I wonder who will sorrow
when other babies reach eighteen
twenty-one or thirty-something
and get sniped in bosnia
somalia, iraq, okinawa, korea
In "Antelope Wall Mount", a poem about an antelope he shot while hunting, he writes:
did he hear a death call?
will i hear mine
and stop all to stare at it
widely pointing my way?
When he wrote these poems he didn't know that, like his old manager, he had a brain tumor that would kill him. As the book was nearing completion, he experienced headaches and blurred vision. The diagnosis was a Grade IV astrocytoma, the worst kind of tumor. There was little chance of survival.
Despite this, he refused to give up hope. He continued his charity projects and even did a poetry reading. He took delight in the idea that he would soon have a book of his own. Hickok recalls, "When I told him this book was back from the printer and it was ready to go out, he bent down and got real small. He looked at me with this little-boyish, gleeful look and he said, 'I can't imagine that I deserve this!' He was just beaming. I'm sure if he had not gotten ill he would have kept writing and he would have had a full-blown career."
Throughout his months of treatment, Quisenberry retained his sense of perspective. Wathan recalls, "The thing that struck me the most during his sickness was that people asked him all the time, 'Do you ever say, why me?' And he'd say, 'No! Why not me? I've had a great life and a lot of blessings from God, but why am I any different from anyone else?'"
It was, indeed, a great life. Usually when a hero dies this young, we mourn for the things left undone. But Dan Quisenberry accomplished amazing things. He helped win the World Series, transformed himself from an athlete into a fine poet, and used his fame to help the hungry. We could hardly ask more of him. What we grieve for is his presence. He made a difference in the world with his caring. Hickok says, "I think he was born with 'sweet genes'. He was the sweetest, most thoughtful man. He had the ability to turn the conversation to you and make you feel as if you were the most important person in the entire world. And that's rare."
After reading aloud from his friend's book, John Wathan says quietly, "I was thinking about him today. I do often. I miss talking to him."
We will all miss his voice.
Poems from On Days Like This:
that first baseball card I saw myself
in a triage of rookies
atop the bodies
that made the hill
we played king of
I am the older one
the one on the right
long red hair unkempt
a symbol of the '70s
somehow a sign of manhood
you don't see
how my knees shook on my debut
or my desperation to make it
the second one I look boyish with a gap-toothed smile
the smile of a guy who has it his way
I rode the wave's crest
of pennant and trophies
I sat relaxed with one thought
"I can do this"
you don't see
me stay up till two
reining in nerves
or post-game hands that shook involuntarily
glory years catch action shots
arm whips and body contortions
a human catapult
the backs of those cards
that tell stories of saves, wins, flags, records
handshakes, butt slaps, celebration mobs
you can't see
the cost of winning
lines on my forehead under the hat
trench line between my eyes
you don't see my wife, daughter and son
the last few cards
I do not smile
I grim-face the camera
no more forced poses to win fans
crow's-feet turn into eagle's claws
you don't see
the quiver in my heart
knowledge that it is over
just playing out the end
I look back
at who I thought I was
or used to be
now, trying to be funny
I tell folks
I used to be famous
I used to be good
we thought you were bigger
i miss pitching so much
don't miss it at all, sick of it
i'll miss baseball forever, an old high school flame
burnt out, want nothing to do with it
it's part of me, like an extra limb or another ear
cut it off, numbed, like it happened to someone else
gave all of me to the game: head, heart, body, soul
gave nothing to it: zero
baseball was clear, focused, true
baseball was confusion, a roller coaster, a lie
learned so much
i yearn for the attention, the dance of the big game
it was p.r. events that were meaningless, roars with no passion
i want a hat that tells me who I belong to
the logos were from cities I wasn't from
the game sings its siren song for my soul
i'm a mercenary who wants peace
i don't need another word of it
i'm synonymous with it
i've seen enough, heard enough
wonder who they're playing tonight?
There is a telescope called Hubble
that can look so far into space
they say you can see thousands
of other galaxies and somebody said
they saw the face of Jesus if you
looked just right. But somebody else
said it looked more like Gene Shalit.
I don't know who is right. I don't see
anybody in the stars with these naked
eyes that turn red in the wind and itch
in the summer. I feel pretty good when
I can pick out the big dipper and its little
brother, but wonder sometimes when the
sky is laden black and those pinheads of
light seem to be winking at just me.
don't believe that lie
about sticks and stones
words are the strongest weapon
under the sun
it's words that start wars,
broker the peace
in the beginning was the word
and it was God,
and still is
and if you use the wrong ones
i'll sock you in the nose
ram your car
and if you use the right words
i will praise you
kiss your face
and long for your company