Dear Coot Veal

Sorry for writing you and asking for your autograph under false pretenses.

This was a long time ago. 1981 or 82, I think. My friend Chris Pack and I were ten or eleven years old, and deeply, totally obsessed with baseball. We collected cards, memorized statistics, perfected pantomime of our favorite players’ pitching deliveries and batting stances — Dan Quisenberry’s submarine sidearm, Cecil Cooper’s low-slung crouch, Graig Nettles’ rod-straight right leg. In the summer, we’d watch the Yankees on Channel 11 every night (the Mets on Channel 9 if the Yankees had an off day) and play our own games of Wiffle ball in my backyard — all day, everyday. The fence to our neighbor’s yard, the outfield fence, was covered in honeysuckle vines, and another friend of ours, Blair Bryan, came up with the name “Brigley Field.” (Like Chicago’s famous ivy-draped Wrigley Field, but with a “B” for my family’s name.) We’d get out there early in the morning — us and Blair, or Jamie Mazacco, or Chris’s little brother Jon, or Kirby Reynolds who lived on the next street over — and play until it was dark. Sometimes even later. We’d catch lightning bugs and smush their phosphorescent abdomens all over the ball so we could see it at night. (Gross, right? But it actually worked pretty well.)

Like many nerd baseball fans, we became scholars of the history of the game, poring over our copies of The Baseball Encyclopedia, ranking players, making fantasy line-ups and all-star teams, arguing minutiae for hours. That’s where I learned your name, from the The Baseball Encyclopedia. It lists every player to have every played in a major league game. And you played in 247 of them, over six seasons, from 1958 to 1963, for the Detroit Tigers and the Washington Senators and the Pittsburgh Pirates. You amassed 141 hits, a career batting average of .231 and exactly one home run. (August 11, 1959 — man, that must have been a fun day, huh? Do you still call Billy Pierce, the White Sox pitcher who served it up, every year on that day to razz him? I hope so. He’s 85 now, and you’re 80.) As I’m sure you’re aware, and I hope comfortable talking about, these are not particularly strong batting statistics. You were apparently a defensive specialist. You played shortstop. I miss the days when defensive skills trumped offense skills at the shortstop position. I liked a time when a toothpick of a man like Mark Belanger, with his lifetime average of .227, could be granted four reliably futile at-bats a game for 13 years for a great team like the Baltimore Orioles, simply because he was so very good at scooping up the ground-balls the opposing hitters hit during their turn at the plate. I suppose Belanger’s replacement, the giant and mighty Cal Ripken, had something to do with recasting the standard, but I like to blame Alex Rodriguez. I like to blame Alex Rodriguez for as much as I possibly can. Do you find him as detestable as I do? I would think, probably.

After summer ended, and the baseball season, and the Wiffle ball/lightning-bug hunting season, we found other ways to feed our yen. Chris got this book that compiled big leaguers’ mailing addresses. We wrote letters to all our current favorite players. And many of our historical heroes — Harmon Killebrew, Hank Greenberg, Yogi Berra. We always included a baseball card, or a photograph, cut out of Sports Illustrated or the Sporting News’ preseason preview or something and a self-addressed stamped envelope. We tried to be as polite as possible, and lots of people signed the stuff and sent it back.

But the winter is long for hyperactive pre-teen baseball fans, and after months of mailing numerous letters a day, we eventually ran out of people to write to whose autographs we genuinely wanted. Chuffed as we were to have discovered this great mail-away autograph system, and without much else to do, we started choosing people for reasons of novelty. You have an unusual name. Or at least, by 1980s suburban New Jersey standards, it was unusual. I suppose in the 1930s, in Sandersville, Georgia, where you’re from, a name like Orville Inman Veal, or even a nickname like “Coot,” might not have struck a pair of bored brats as being quite as hilarious as it did Chris and I. Making fun of names that sound different to you is the lamest kind of humor anyway. Remember when David Letterman hosted the Oscars and tried to milk laughs out of the fact that Oprah Winfrey and Uma Thurman were in attendance? “Ooooooprah,” he said, “Uuuuuma…” He’s never bombed so badly in his life. And good thing, too. It’s hegemonic at heart, that vein of humor. Silly, mean-spirited kid-stuff, even for kids. Anyway, I hope not to hurt your feelings by telling you this now. But I sent you that letter as a lark.

I forget exactly what I wrote. Some sarcastic praise about your statistics, your single homerun, kept just dry enough so that you might not catch the irony and would still send me back your autograph. I remember thinking myself very clever. And reading it aloud to Chris and laughing until my stomach hurt.

What goes around, as they say, comes around. Two or three years later, when I was in eighth grade, at a point in my life when I wanted very much to be attractive to girls my age, but was apparently not very attractive to those girls, my friend Jerome Connolly and I started to get these coy, flirty phone calls from two girls who said they were from a neighboring town. We were confused; they said they’d seen us at the mall, or from across the river near my house, and looked up our names in a copy of our school yearbook that they had access to at one of their cousin’s houses or some such nonsense that challenged our suspension of disbelief; but we were not about to hang up. They said they thought we were cute. They said they wanted to meet us. We did our best to play it cool, but I remember giggling like a ninny.

Of course, we never met them, and the calls stopped after a few days. And a month or so later, that summer, after school had ended, two girls from our class, Stephanie Maimone and Lisa Humphries, girls of a higher social status than Jerome and I enjoyed, let us in on the joke they’d played. They told us about it one night at the ice-cream shop near the gazebo by our town’s Borough Hall; they sat down at a table we were sitting at and asked us whether we knew the girls — I forget the names they’d made up. They were their friends, they said at first, one of them was one of their cousins, but they gradually spooled out more and more information so that we’d know that this was a confession. They weren’t monsters; they wanted us to laugh along with them. They weren’t monsters any more than Chris and I were. But, man, the harsh, bright overhead lighting in that ice-cream shop glared down harsher and brighter than it ever had before that night. And as I tried to muster up some laughter to go along with theirs, to prove that I was a good sport and not at all bothered by such silly kid stuff, my stomach hurt — and not from the laughing.

I still have your autograph. It’s on a piece of white-lined paper that I cut into a neat rectangle. (Not having any baseball cards of pictures of you to send.) The lines have faded but your name is clear and legible. I keep it in an old, green ring-binder with all those other autographs — Willie Mays’, Sandy Koufax’s, Ted Williams’, Hank Aaron’s — in a transparent plastic folder made to display baseball cards.

“Best wishes, Dave,” you wrote, “’Coot’ Veal.”

Previously: Dear Sanj

The book Public Apology, a memoir based on the Awl column (but made mostly from new, never-before-published material) comes out March 19th through Grand Central Publishing. (Preorder it here!)

Dave Bry has a lot to apologize for.