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A People’s History of Pinch-Running Specialists

Late in the evening sometimes, when the moon is high and the echoes of my wife’s indie music have been soaked into the drywall, I will make an effort to Better myself as a Person and open, with no small hesitation, Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. For those readers who are unaware or are not masochistic, People’s History is America as seen by the working class, the men and women who worked eighteen hours a day while dying of cancer and mercury poisoning simultaneously, who were thrown in jail for whispering and were regularly beaten for wearing denim.

In other words, People’s History is not what people in the marketing business call a “light read”. It almost explains why, after eighteen months, I have finished 54.7% of the book. I am not good with the concept of sadness.

But I wouldn’t have made it even that far without Matt Alexander:

I don’t know how Alexander and Zinn came to be connected; books require bookmarks, and apparently 1981 Topps cards exist in everyday places to be seized and used to that effect. So it was with Matt Alexander. Whatever the cause, it was an auspicious choice. Every time I read about a factory being set on fire or an entire House subcommittee being bribed, and I start thinking that perhaps we haven’t made much headway since Alcibiades, I can look at Matt’s unforced smile and hopeful, upturned eyes, and I know that things will be okay. Sometimes. For some people.

After all, Matt Alexander is a Howard Zinn kind of ballplayer, assuming Howard Zinn didn’t consider baseball a frivolous and egalitarian hobby. Far from gilded, he wears a canary yellow, striped hat and a nylon windbreaker. He watches as baseball’s unions have begun to break free from their corporate overlords. Men like Gorman Thomas and Richie Zisk gathered in the newfound wealth of the wounded state, but Matt Alexander only took what was given to him.

If history, as Zinn argues, is kindled in class warfare, Matt Alexander and his brethren are the lowest class in baseball. He dwells even below the Hansens and the Iorgs. At least pinch hitters get one chance to make their mark; Alexander and his pinch-running companions had the bats taken from their hands. Despite never posting an OPS below .700 in the minors, someone decided Alexander couldn’t be trusted to hit, and so he saw less than 200 chances in his nine seasons.

Maybe Alexander is only smiling on that card because he doesn’t know his full history yet. Maybe he believes that he’ll still get his chance to prove he can hit. Maybe he’s yet to realize that his fame as a pinch-runner would not only fail to serve as a template, but would be soon forgotten. Maybe he could never conceive that the Pirates would cut him in Spring Training in 1982, a game short of earning the full pension of a ten-year career.

Maybe he didn’t know these things, but maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe Matt Alexander smiles anyway, because it’s not just about what’s real in this world, but how you react to it.

Maybe in another eighteen months, I’ll finish that gut-punch of a book.