Sunday, November 22, 2009

Of Virgil Trucks, the Detroit Tigers and the meaning of life

I think it’s generally agreed upon that sports metaphors are more overused than the Cleveland Browns’ punting unit. Rare is the modern business meeting that does not include a mention of tossing Hail Marys, sending in the B-team or making a game-time decision (I’ll admit to being a frequent abuser of that last one). Hackneyed or not, these metaphors serve their purpose. It’s a little easier to pretend that life makes sense when it’s framed in the context of an organized athletic competition. Plus, describing an overly complex planning session as “having 12 men on the field” will get me many more knowing nods than will comparing it to the audio track of an Altman film or the first half of The Sound and the Fury.

And sometimes a sports metaphor can be more than just convenient. I’m thinking specifically of Virgil Trucks’ 1952 season with the Detroit Tigers, a campaign that I believe may provide me with a model for life itself.

Virgil Trucks has led a pretty interesting existence by just about anybody’s standards. A native of Birmingham (reputedly the greatest city in Alabam’), Trucks was a Major League pitcher for 17 years. He played in two All-Star games, brought home a World Series ring in 1945 and almost certainly would have won a Cy Young Award had it existed in 1953, when he finished fifth in MVP voting. He also served honorably in the Navy during WWII and even has a tangential connection to the modern jam band phenomenon: Virgil is the uncle of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks and the great-uncle of guitar-slinger Derek Trucks.

That's all well and good, but I choose to cherish one of Trucks’ more ambiguous achievements. You see, in 1952, Virgil Trucks finished with a disappointing record of 5-19. Two of those wins, however, were no-hitters. Throwing one no-hitter is a rare feat. Throwing two in a season is something only four men have ever done. And throwing two in a decidedly losing season is my new ideal.

As I see it, in the game of life, there’s not much point in playing to win. Hard work and good intentions will only get you so far. Ultimately, the breaks are going to fall for you or against you, and you really don’t have much say in the matter. You can change up speeds, try a different grip on the ball, even file it down with an emery board in your effort to win, but the odds are that you’re going to rack up plenty of losses and no-decisions.

Some people are going to find a groove and pull off something spectacular, like Denny McClain’s 31-6 season with the ’68 Tigers. I don’t believe I know anyone personally who fits this profile, but I’m sure they’re out there. Other people are helpless to do anything but watch the losses pile up, like Adam Bernero’s 1-12 2003 campaign. This is how I picture life for that poor Star Wars kid from the YouTube video, or those guys who are always smoking cigarettes outside the weekly-rates hotel up the street from me. Those scenarios are, I think, beyond anyone’s control. Winners win, losers lose, but I don’t think many people fall completely in either category.

It seems like most people dedicate their lives to breaking even, like Paul Foytack going 14-14 for the 1959 Tigers. It’s not necessarily a bad goal. Closing out a season with 14 wins is pretty impressive. Losing 14 games isn’t great, to be sure, but at least you didn’t finish below .500. For a lot of folks, that’s enough. But me, I’m not content with aiming for the middle.

To me, what Virgil Trucks accomplished in that 5-19 effort is far more impressive. 19 is a lot of losses, and Trucks had enough success in his past that I guarantee every one of those blown games stung like hell. There must have come a point when he realized that his 1952 season was a wash-out, that there was no hope of him turning it around and posting a winning record. From that point on, I bet even the wins felt bittersweet, a reminder of what good pitching was supposed to feel like, and what it wouldn’t feel like until at least the start of the next season.

As a writer, that’s how I feel every time a rejection letter arrives in the mail, or a form e-mail from a literary agent shows up in my inbox. I count my losses with every story that writes itself into a corner, every line of dialogue that sounds embarrassingly stilted when read aloud, every scene that plays great in my head but falls flat on paper. Expand the metaphor to life in general and I could rattle off an endless litany of losses both tangible and intangible. Sure, I have some wins under my belt – more so than a lot of people, if I’m honest with myself – but most days the won-loss record feels even more lopsided than Virgil Trucks’ 5-19.

What pulls me through are those two no-hitters. Sure, 1952 was a lousy season for Virgil Trucks, but twice that year he achieved something very close to perfection. In those two games, he accomplished something that only a handful of human beings have ever done. The feeling he must have had when he recorded the last out of his first no-hitter is something few of us can conceive of. The feeling after the second one must have been indescribable.

That’s what I want out of life. I want my two no-hitters. Sure, it would be great to post a winning record too, but if tossing my gems means I lose in the long run, so be it. I will suffer my defeats with gratitude, so long as they’re in the service of two moments of ultimate, near-flawless success. Until then, I can only hope the sun keeps shining, my pitching elbow stays strong and the league doesn’t go on strike.


  1. Good stuff, Ira! I'd take a simple complete game shutout at this point.

  2. This post made me want to listen to Hit Somebody. Y'know sometimes people don't realize something's great until the person that created it is dead.... Oh wait, supportive friendship. I meant to say, "Go get 'em Tiger!"