Josh Wilker, the author of “Cardboard Gods,” one of the best-ever baseball books not necessarily about baseball, is back with another memoir. This time, it chronicles his first year as a new father, and the insecurities (and joys) therein. “Benchwarmer” presents his son Jack’s first year, while also detailing, in almanac form, the annals of all-time benchwarmers/sad sacks. Its not the easiest subject matter to traverse, as Wilker lays his first-time fatherhood neuroses and raw emotions out for all to read. There are of course, moments of joy as his son grows, but there are also many moments of wrenching angst. Its not a book you’ll finish in a day or so, but you WILL want to finish it. It will be worth it, especially if you are a parent and especially if you are new to parenthood.
Wilker was delighted to answer some questions I had about the book, including his affinity for athletes as diverse as Calvin Schiraldi, Mackey Sasser and Walter “Sneeze” Achiu:
VORG: How did you come up with the “almanac” format for the book? Was there a particular inspiration?
JW: The core idea for the book came in a bit of a rush, but I later saw from looking through my notebooks that I’d been dancing around a book like it for quite a while in different ways. The book really started taking shape when I came up with a working title, “Failure Face,” based on a concept coined in a Peanuts strip by the Shakespeare of the artistic depiction of losing, Charles M. Schulz. Years ago my brother and I built a whole mythology around the notion of the Failure Face as it appeared in sports, most notably with Calvin Schiraldi in the ’86 World Series, and when my wife was struggling through her labor this face was exactly what I saw in the mirror. Just a guy totally overmatched by the moment. I hadn’t been able to write about that labor or about anything I’d been struggling through as a new parent, but I figured I could at least write about Calvin Schiraldi, and from there I figured I could grope my way through the experience one Calvin Schiraldi at a time, so to speak. The encyclopedia format appealed to me not only because I’d loved sports encyclopedias as a kid but also as a potentially dynamic juxtaposition, in its orderliness, to the total disorder of my new life. Also, when you’re a new parent you are suddenly completely bullied by the alphabet every two seconds. It seems to emit from every object and surface all the time in an insanely cheery sing-song. I don’t know if the book was a product of a mental breakdown in the face of this onslaught or an attempt to head off such a breakdown. Maybe a little of both. I did really enjoy playing around with the encyclopedia format. One of the last fun developments stemming from the form came during the proofreading process, when one of my brethren in that heroic calling found that I’d put one of the entries just slightly out of correct alphabetic sequence. At first I was mortified and wanted to fix it, which we still had time to do, but then it struck me as a perfect comment on the whole doomed attempt at bringing order to the world.
VORG: Would you consider this a “sequel” to “Cardboard Gods,” at least in terms of being a memoir of a time in your life?
JW: I actually thought quite a lot about sequels in the book I wrote directly after Cardboard Gods, which was a slim 2011 volume for Soft Skull Press on arguably the sequeliest sequel of all time, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. It’s not as driven by personal experience as my books published directly before and after it, but it let me delve once again into the beautiful 1970s, the main timeframe of Cardboard Gods, and to kind of bid that era goodbye, at least for now. More importantly it was a way for me to grapple with the issue of artistic follow-ups. My basic takeaway from dwelling on that movie in terms of what to do after you finish one piece of work is “get in the van and go.” You may no longer have Matthau or Tatum O’Neal or whatever, but you just set out and maybe you get somewhere. Anyway, all three books are ways of making sense of the world through pop culture crap. But yeah, I came back to more personal narration in a big way in Benchwarmer.
VORG: Beyond tackling an “encyclopedia of failure,” you bring the reader into your world of neuroses, self-doubt and moodiness. Despite the back cover promising an “often hilarious” story, there aren’t a ton of bright, happy moments for you throughout the book. Was there any personal catharsis for you in writing this book?
JW: I don’t know about catharsis. I’ve never really thought about my life or my writing in terms of that word. I’ve just always needed to write about my life in order to get through it, and I know if I hadn’t been able to tell some kind of a story about becoming a father, the biggest transformation I’ve ever undergone, I’d be in trouble. I hope that there’s at least some stuff in there that’s funny to people besides me. I was definitely aware in the writing of the book of the need to attempt to leaven the tone set by centering the book on such a depressive protagonist. I’m happy that I managed to at least attempt more moments depicting being unabashedly in love than in all my previous writing combined, and hopefully that comes across as a kind of bright coloration amid the darker palette stuff. Ultimately I guess I was just going for honesty, and the truth is that parenting came very hard for me. My hope is that if some other poor sucker reading the book had—or like me is still having—similar difficulties he might feel less alone about the whole ordeal.
VORG: Mackey Sasser’s backstory (note: covered in greater detail by this ESPN short) really touched me. Were you aware of his history before developing the manuscript?
JW: I knew beyond a doubt from very early on that Mackey Sasser would be part of the book, but I had no idea what became of him after his career ended or what his life was like before he started double-clutching on his throws back to the pitcher. I was amazed and really gratified to find out how deeply he’d delved into figuring out what was going on in his psyche to cause his ruinous affliction.
VORG: You gave us quite a glimpse into your relationship with your wife, both pre- and post-birth. How much editorial say did she have in your manuscript?
JW: None! What a dickhead answer, right? OK, so here are a couple attempts to provide some context for that answer. One is about Mark Doty, this gay guy (this also seems like a dickheaded thing to point out, but I swear it’s relevant) who is one of the best poets of the last thirty years or so. I’ve loved his stuff since the end of the Reagan era, when I was trying to be a poet myself, and I even met him a couple of times. I don’t remember if I heard this from him directly or read about it—and I’m so suspicious of my memory at this point that I can’t even guarantee this is true—but at some point I at least remember learning that when he’d first gone away to a graduate writing program, he’d been married to a woman. He started writing these poems that were pushing him to be more honest about his own life, specifically his sexuality, and the choice he had to make became to stop writing and hold on to his life or to keep writing and just let it blow up everything and anything that didn’t jibe with the honesty of the writing. I always thought that was a courageous thing to do, something every writer should aspire to. So the point being: if my writing is true and fucks something up in my life, that thing that gets fucked up maybe wasn’t so true. This sounds cavalier, and I doubt I’d be able to say it without having some trust that my wife is OK with me writing honestly about my wobbly perspective on our life. The other thing I want to say is that my wife is my hero. She puts her heart into everything, most especially parenting, and she is almost invincibly honest in her life and her own writing. So she inspires me on that level. This is not to say she enjoys me bringing some fairly uncomfortable stories to light, but I don’t think she was unprepared for that. She’s known for a while that I go in for that kind of thing.
VORG: You managed to recall, in terrific detail, the day-to-day events of your son’s first year. It must have been hard to commit these items to a “piece of paper” while also doing the father thing and handling your proofreading job too. How did you organize your time and note-taking to develop the manuscript?
JW: I don’t really remember writing in the early weeks and months of parenthood, but somehow I did. I have the notebooks to prove it. They have the tenor of someone scrawling down notes while huddled in a bunker under siege. They were useless as pieces of sharable writing but came in handy as raw data when it came time to write the book, because without them I would have remembered next to nothing about that first year. I was able to work directly on the book when there was at least some semblance of consistency in the sleeping in my house. Basically, I learned that on most days my son would remain asleep until six in the morning or so, and so if I got up early enough I’d have some time. I developed a mantra to say when my alarm went off: “4 a.m. is my friend” and managed to struggle to my feet most days around then. By then the boy had taught me that I’d live even if I didn’t sleep much, so I put in the time I needed to write the book.
VORG: You are sitting at a bar, and Calvin Schiraldi and Walter Achiu sit down next to you. What is the first question you ask each of them?
JW: That’s a great question because I do think about both of those guys and several others in terms of imagining being able to express something of my gratitude to them. I have a lot of admiration for them. Schiraldi especially. I’ve heard he’s a high school baseball coach, and a very proud one at that. In some ESPN interview not too long ago he was wearing a sweatshirt with the high school team he coached very prominently displayed. I’d like to know what he teaches his players about losing and going on. Same thing with Achiu. He was one of the most marginal members of the worst pro football team ever, but somehow he found a way to go on and forge an outlandishly ballsy and stunningly long career as a professional wrestler. Everyone’s story is like this—you lose and go on—but somehow these guys did it in a larger sense that I find heroic.
VORG: Will you want Jack to read this book at some point? How soon? Teenager? College graduate? What do you think his reaction will be to the book, and to his dad for writing it?
JW: It’s totally up to him. Whenever he wants to. My gut guess is that he won’t be interested for a long, long time, if ever. I think in general sons are interested in their fathers only when something dawns on them that, you know, time is drawing nigh for the old man. And they may not even get interested in them then, especially if the potential objects of interest are, like me, these unappealingly forthcoming polar opposites of the mysterious Great Generation types that stormed Normandy Beach and landed on the Moon and never said anything. I say everything—there’s no mystery. But if he’s ever interested it’s there for him.
VORG: In the book, you mention the thoughts (good and bad) of having another child, and though its not covered therein, I know that Jack now has a younger brother. Here is a two-part question about this:
Can you share what the emotional turning point was for going ahead with adding to the family?
JW: It was simple: we were walking in the park one day and Jack had fallen asleep in the stroller and a moment of rare peace descended that fooled us into thinking that it wasn’t such a big deal, raising a kid. So, you know, let’s have another! I mean, we had plenty of time to back out of the agreement of that day, but we basically decided that we thought it would be nice if Jack had a sibling and we knew that, given our age, especially my age, it was kind of now or never. I’m really glad we did, of course. It’s a whole new kind of shitstorm, but I’m bowled over every day by the love I have for these two dudes.
Will we read about the new addition when the paperback edition comes out?
JW: I doubt it. In my mind the book isn’t really so much about my first kid but about the wrenching changes I had to go through when I became a dad. That transformation is ongoing and is definitely colored by the new kid too, but I think I said all I’ll say at least for a while on the subject, though then again who knows? Anyway since the second kid has come along I’m still waiting for my 4 a.m. window to reopen and haven’t yet written much more than grocery lists.
VORG: Given your benchwarmer status, how will you advise your sons if/when they express an interest in playing sports?
JW: I’m going to be like Cyril’s dad in Breaking Away. I looked up this quote to make sure I have the words right, but it’s never been far from my mind ever since I saw the movie in 1979: “I was sure I was going to get that [basketball] scholarship. My dad of course was sure I wasn’t. When I didn’t, he was real understanding, you know. He loves to do that. He loves to be understanding when I fail.”
Benchwarming aside, I did really love playing sports and have to admit I hope my boys play sports too, but I realize that there are a lot of other ways to have fun too, and a lot of those ways may actually be healthier in some ways. So I don’t care if they play sports or not beyond a selfish hope that they start doing things I like to do so we can do them together. If they do play sports I’ll encourage them to try to have fun. I don’t know. It’s tough. Caring to the point of misery about winning and losing seems so ludicrous to me now, but I used to rest my entire life on that duality, so much so that I let it carve my persona in what was often a negative way. If sports are what they end up caring about too, or whatever they care about, I’ll try to tell them to try to enjoy themselves and to try to stick with it and not quit. Like Tanner Boyle in the Astrodome. Hold your ground and keep playing.