Up until last Thursday night, San Francisco Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong had never hit a home run in a major league career that began in 2000 and has included long stints in the minor leagues and in the Japanese professional league. Then in a game against the Colorado Rockies in Denver, Vogelsong launched a ball over the right field fence for the First Home Run of His Major League Career.
That is always a seminal, uniquely gratifying moment in the life of anyone who has ever dared to dream of being a big league ballplayer.
As he circled the bases and began to approach the dugout where his giddy teammates waited for him with high-fives and backslaps at the ready, Giants announcers Mike Krukow and Duane Keiper had the following exchange:
Krukow: Do you think he’ll smile?
Krukow: “Not even with his first big league home run…Down two runs, he will not smile…
And so Vogelsong didn’t, instead making his way to the end of the dugout with a stern expression on his face, not a hint of joy or satisfaction betraying his stoic countenance.
The headlines in next day’s news reports told the sad tale:
Ryan Vogelsong hits first HR, doesn’t enjoy it an iota
Vogelsong has tough time savoring 1st HR
This was Vogelsong’s own post-game response after his pitching loss:
“I’m not enjoying it at all.”
The emotional lives of men—or lack thereof—has been fodder for plentiful discussion in recent decades, some of its most trenchant critiques coming from feminism. We’ve all seen and heard about it. Men maintain this veneer of steely reserve and invulnerability, impervious to pain and devoid of emotional expression.
“Man up!” goes the half-comic command. Be a Marine: the tough, the unfeeling, the true.
Steely straight spines, hard muscles, armored hearts.
Women—and increasingly men—have long been on record as calling B.S. on this whole hyper-masculine myth, asking men to loosen up at least a little, admit their pain, state their need. Claim your inner female, goes the Jungian injunction. Only then will you become the whole and integrated person life (and your wife and your kids) need you to be.
The same goes for women, though from the opposite end, wholeness requiring a reconciliation with their inner male.
Gender, behavior, goodness and evil: Everything about us is on a spectrum, and we must tend to every part of ourselves on that spectrum. Take it all in, and claim it as your own.
I am that, and that, and that too, says Hinduism. And from Whitman: “I contain multitudes.”
When the payoff of a home run comes, we too often keep our heads down, staying close to the business still at hand. The problem is that there is always still business at hand, so when do we take time to pause and savor our home runs?
The critique of emotionally stunted maleness is accurate as far as it goes, and like all generalities, it has limitations and many exceptions, though those do not make the generalities untrue. But I think the focus on what men miss out on by suppressing their vulnerability and pain under-emphasizes the other half of the loss we endure by being disconnected from our emotions.
Which is this: we close ourselves off from and thus miss out on intense expressions of joy, of gratitude and appreciation and celebration. Deep in that wounded repressed place where we hide from the world’s and our own pain, there also lies a boy ready to get dizzy with pleasure, enraptured with life and relationship, longing to tromp and dance through fields both literal and rich with metaphor.
And while we work and work to accomplish our self-appointed tasks, aware, if we’re attentive and lucky, of the pure pleasures to be found in pursuing excellence and engagement, when the payoff of a home run comes, we too often keep our heads down, staying close to the business still at hand. The problem is that there is always still business at hand, so when do we take time to pause and savor our home runs?
“There’s a ballgame to be played here, and we’re still behind,” Vogelsong’s dour expression said.
“I’m not enjoying it at all.”
The consequence of this too-frequently repressed joy, like all repression, is that it leaks out misshapen. Denied authentic and spontaneous expression (which the Baltimore Orioles demonstrate in the photo above, albeit in the more naturally combustible occasion of a walk-off home run), it can take dark forms such as ridiculing or talking trash to vanquished opponents. Or truly over-the-top strutting and preening, like a peacock or other lowly, bird-brained creature. There’s a lot of this in our gladiatorial sport of football. Boxing, too.
Or we engage in false modesty that seeks to wave away or displace all individual accomplishment. (“It was really nothing, it’s all about the team and I couldn’t have done it without the waterboy.”) There are times when that can be gracious, and other times, ridiculous. Part of good grace is being able to accept compliments and not contort yourself to deflect them.
Back in 1983, I was a struggling writer with a couple of graduate degrees, living in a shack on the Marin County coast. I read and wrote and saw almost no one from Saturday night through Friday morning, when I would catch the bus into San Francisco to work two long days in a running shoe store for $5 an hour. I stayed overnight at some friends’ house, a married couple in The City.
I was barely surviving financially, had not a true asset to my name, and I was 31 years old. Was I concerned with exactly where all this was going?
But finally, I scored what for me at the time was a plum assignment: writing a profile on an old Beat-era poet for the Sunday magazine of the old San Francisco Examiner.
The $500 they paid me was a princely sum for one in my circumstances, but that wasn’t the real payoff. The story landed on the cover, and it was well-received. And I was immensely pleased.
Friday night, after I closed up the shoe store, I hoofed it the half hour or so across town to my friends’ house in the dark, stopping on the way in a corner store where I knew advance copies of the Sunday paper would be available. I found the stack of papers low on a shelf and quickly rifled through one, my heart pounding.
And there, finally, it was: my cover story with the glorious picture of the widely grinning poet and his flowing white beard.
What I should have done, what every cell in my body was screaming at me to do, was buy that paper, run the rest of the way to my friends’ house, rip that sucker out from between all the ridiculous ads and news and comics, and dance around with it, singing, “You see this, wow, hey, break out the champagne, woo woo woo, my article on the cover of the Sunday magazine!”
What I did instead was put the paper back in its place on the shelf and proceed to my friends’ house, where I said not a word, at least about the article. The evening passed pleasantly enough, and then I left the next morning to work the Saturday shift at the shoe store, relegated to imagining what it might be like for them, what they might say to each other, when they opened their Sunday paper the next morning and beheld the story I hadn’t even told them would be appearing.
How sick is that?
I’ve thought about that episode quite a few times since then, most recently in beholding Vogelsong’s nearly superhuman restraint in pretending that hitting his first and probably only major league home run didn’t matter and was No Big Deal.
Contrary to what one might deduce from my own version of Vogelsongism, I am hardly devoid of joy and mirth and other forms of emotional expression. But some reserve in me, some overarching modest impulse, some fear of being perceived as bragging or covetous of plaudits and attention, some perceived manly negation of others’ interest and joy in my accomplishment, held me in check that night and has, in only slightly different forms and circumstances, held me in check many times since.
I’m not certain what’s at the bottom of it, how much it might be comprised of individual psychological quirks and/or/in some combination with gender-based prohibitions against unfettered joy that doesn’t involve drunken escapades, when the “I love you, man!” emotions get let out of jail for the night.
But here’s the compounding sadness of such male emotional prohibition: Not only do we deny ourselves the richness and pure relief of giving our feelings free rein, but we also deny our friends, loved ones and teammates their own pleasure in our accomplishment.
Vogelsong’s teammates were genuinely happy for him, and they’d just endured five straight losses and a 4-0 deficit in this game before he hit his moon shot. For Christsakes, they needed and deserved a moment of levity and joy, a momentary celebration to recognize and share in this once-in-a-lifetime (and not in very many lifetimes at that) accomplishment.
But instead, they got Mr. Stoneface.
Like my friends got Mr. Nothing Going on in My Life that night of my first magazine cover story.
Talk about being a party pooper.
Vogelsong will never experience another First Major League Home Run. He won’t get that moment back.
Nor will his teammates.
I’ll never have another First Magazine Cover Story. Nor will those friends of mine get to experience it with me. They are both dead now, by the way, so I can’t even recount the episode with them anymore.
Such complicated creatures we are, yes? Tragic and stupid in so many ways.
But noble, too. Let us not shortchange or go all jaundiced on ourselves.
We just do well to remember that in these matters of the emotional life, both happy and sad, we need to be far more like the best side of the Marines:
Carpe diem, Baby.
And while we’re at it, Celebrare.
I really enjoy the “Yahoo!” that shows up early in this classic song, and it just gets better from there with its important mantra and message…
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Deep appreciation to the photographers:
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Photo of Ryan Vogelsong and family at Giants World Series parade by Randy Chiu, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/randychiu/
Photo of Baltimore Orioles walk-off home run celebration by Keith Allison, Hanover, Maryland, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/
Photo of champagne toast by BluEyed A73, Chicago, Illinois, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/blueyeda73/