Friday, January 22nd, 2021

Sort of Gone by Sarah Freligh

Sarah Freligh’s Sort of Gone is a collection of poems that tells the story of fictional pitcher Al Stepansky’s rise and fall in baseball. The story starts with Al getting his first pitcher’s glove (a gift from his alcoholic father) and ends with him watching tapes of his best games as he washes down his saltines and soup with several glasses of scotch.

While the idea of a baseball story told through poetry may intrigue some, for others the word “poem” may immediately summon images of a high school English teacher chanting phrases like “rhythm and meter” or “iambic pentameter.” Don’t worry. Sort of Gone won’t require Cliffs Notes, a tutor or even a dictionary. The collection includes a variety of poetry styles including sonnet, haiku, sestina and free verse, but reads like a short novel as you quickly turn the page to see what happens to Al.

Myka Diller has joined Books on Baseball as a contributing writer focusing on Women and Baseball

Freligh, a former sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was working on a novel when she started writing the poems that became Sort of Gone. She put the novel aside because at the time her mother was dying and she had started a new full-time job as the Marketing Director for poetry publisher BOA Editions. She says she had “neither the concentration nor the time” to continue the novel. The themes of loss and death emanate from nearly every page of Sort of Gone. In the first section of the book alone, we learn that Al loses a teammate to suicide, a no hitter to “some jive rook,” and his father to a residential treatment center.

Hear Sarah discuss her work on NPR’s Only a Game with Bill Littlefield (starts at 40 minute mark)

We follow Al to the Minor Leagues where his teammate Tommy’s locker was cleaned out, except for last month’s playmate. He is “Sort of Gone,” not dead, but no longer living the baseball life.

Now, looking at Miss May they think
of Tommy, remember how nuts he was,
laugh until their guts ache, forgetting
that one day, they’ll all be sort of gone.

Al, however, isn’t sort of gone, yet. He makes it to “The Show”, and he pitches a no hitter. Then, after seventeen years, he is sort of gone. We ache with Al in “After Seventeen Years, The End” as he tries to act like it was his choice to walk away from the club. We see him struggle with the press conference and with what to do when he no longer has baseball. We share a “Nightcap”  as tapes of his first game, Game Seven, and the no-hitter play in the living room.

He is young 
again, he is strong
again, he is loved.
by so many.
Oh listen
to how
he is loved.                     

I can imagine that many athletes past their prime can relate to Al at this point. Freligh says, “I’ve always been fascinated how athletes negotiate the long space between retirement and actual death–I think for many, it’s like dying twice.” 

Despite the themes of loss and death, Sort of Gone didn’t leave me feeling depressed. I rooted for Al when he sent “Postcard”

dad, got in the game today,
struck out three, skip says
I’ll make the show –Al

I  laughed during the “No-Hitter, Ninth Inning” which gave us a glimpse into Al’s innermost thoughts during the last outs of his big game. So yes, as clichéd as it is, I laughed and I cried while reading Sort of Gone! I actually read it a second time as soon as I finished it and found gems that I missed the first time through. 

Since Sort of Gone was published in 2008 Freligh has been awarded a $25,000 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and has been writing poems and a novel focused around swimming.  I was excited to learn that she has also begun another baseball project. She says she has been working on “dramatic monologues in the voices of the Page Fence Giants, a black baseball team that barnstormed the Midwest from 1895-1899. Most of the Giants had played on white professional teams, but were shut out when the color line was drawn. They were forced to resort to clowning instead and I’m trying to imagine and capture their pain and dreams in some new poems.” I will be rooting for Freligh to finish this work! 

Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf had a great Q&A with Sarah earlier this year

Sort of Gone can be ordered from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Powell’s.

Sarah Freligh

City of Tonawanda Softball Championship

Two down, two out, two on in the ninth
when Sid Szymanski stands in at catcher,
sorry substitute for Larry whose sure
hands were summoned to a plumbing
emergency by his buzzing pager in the bottom
of the sixth. Still, the usual chatter
Hum, baby, hum hey Sidder Sidder Sidder
though Zack’s guys are mentally packing
bats in bags, unlacing shoes in order
to get away – fast – before the Panthers,
arrogant bastards, can gather at home plate
in a love knot of high fives and beer foam
and gloat. Strike two and Sid calls time,
steps out to take a couple of practice cuts
a la Barry Bonds, a big man like him,
all head and chest, and Siddersiddersidder
the car keys are out, that’s all she wrote
when the pitcher gets cute with a breaking ball,
hanging it a nanosecond too long, time
enough for even fat sad Sid to get around
and give that pill a ride.

Rounding first, already red faced, a crowd
in his throat, Sid wants to believe
it’s not the sludge of a million
French fries, but pleasure
more exquisite than the first breast
he touched one winter Sunday
while his dad in the den upstairs
cursed the Packers and Bart Starr, while his mom
chattered on the phone to her friend
Thelma about macaroni casserole
and menstrual cramps, Sid swallowed
hard and bookmarked his place
in Our Country’s History, the page before
the Marines stormed the hill at Iwo Jima
and turned back the godless Japs, a high tide
clogging his chest as Alice Evans unfastened
the pearl buttons of her white blouse
and presented him with the wrapped gift
of her breasts, now second base and third
and the thicket of hand-slaps all the way
home where Sid hugs the center fielder
hurried and embarrassed the way men do,
oh, the moment, replayed again and again
over Labatt’s at Zack’s, the first pitcher
delivered by the great Zack himself
rumored to have been the swiftest,
niftiest shortstop on the Cardinal farm
but called to serve in Korea and after that
the closest he got to baseball was standing
next to Ted Williams at a Las Vegas urinal

Tomorrow Zack will make a place
for the trophy between dusty bottles
of Galliano and Kahlua while Sid
will field calls from customers complaining
about rising cable rates and too many queers
on TV, pretty much what he’ll be doing
five years from now and ten when his wife
leaves a meatloaf in the freezer and runs off
with Larry the plumber and in twenty years,
when Zack’s Bar is bulldozed
to make way for a Wal-Mart,
Sid will slump in a wheelchair
in a hallway littered with old men
mumbling and lost, wrapped
in the soft cloth of memory:
The arc of the white ball, a pearl
In the jewel box of twilight sky.

“City of Tonawanda Softball Championship,” from Sort of Gone by Sarah Freligh (c) 2008 Turning Point Books, Cincinnati, Ohio


One Response to “Sort of Gone by Sarah Freligh”
  1. Judy says:

    Nice piece, Myka – I’m eager to read Freligh’s book! Thanks very much for the recommendation. The connection between poetry and baseball is so important. SORT OF GONE reminds me of one of my favorite baseball books, Maria Testa’s BECOMING JOE DIMAGGIO (Candlewick Press, 2002), which is usually promoted as “juvenile” literature. It’s a lovely baseball story lyrically told in verse form and equally poignant for adults and kids alike. In my forthcoming memoir, I analyze box scores as if they were poetry – it’s fun!

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