Monday, January 30, 2012

Passion That's Skin Deep


On an almost regular basis I get questioned about my tattoos. “How may do you have? How long did they take? Did it hurt? Why did you choose that?” For almost everyone who has ever asked me any of those questions I generally give them a straight, non-emotional answer. In most cases it’s usually people I’ve just met; therefore there is no need to get into an elaborate story that they’ll more than likely forget the next morning. It wasn’t until my good friend, and former girlfriend Sarah Payne asked me the “why” question that I really formulated an articulate answer. I gave a brief history on each one and finished by saying, “I’d rather scar my body with the memories of the things I love, rather than have my memories scarred by the things that love me.” Having gone through torrential break-ups, my parents divorcing when I was five-years-old and an array of health issues, I’ve rationalized getting tattoos as my therapy. I currently stand at 44, but it’s the 33 tattoos I got from June through October of this year that have meant the most to me; my baseball tattoo. 

My parents divorcing was an incredibly difficult transition, especially considering that two months prior to their decision my father had moved us from our yellow two-story house in Stockton, California to a brand new, light blue one-story in Bakersfield. At the time we were one of roughly 20 families who lived on Mountain Oak Road. A school was being built about a block away and there were few kids in the neighborhood around my age to make friends with, only my older brothers were around to talk to and go outside to play with. I still remember vividly the afternoons and weekends we shared in our front yard in Stockton. My mother and father sitting happily in lawn chairs while watching my brothers, a few of the neighborhood kids and me play whiffle ball for hours. When we picked teams we never referred to ourselves by our real names, it was always Andre Dawson, Chris Sabo, Mark McGwire or any slew of professional baseball players we idolized. As the youngest of three boys my parents made sure that my brothers helped school me in the fundamentals of the game, and when they failed to do so my parents would jump in and help me with my swing or the best way to scoop up a grounder. It was one of the few times I can recall my mother and father working together. Occasionally we would pile into my dad’s brown Ford Pinto and head to Billy Hebert Field to watch the Class-A Stockton Ports play, or if we were really lucky, we’d stay at our grandparent’s houses in San Leandro or Livermore and head to Candlestick Park to watch the Giants or the A’s at the Coliseum, depending on who was in town for a home stand. Despite the collapse of my mother and father’s marriage the one thing that continued to remain intact was our collective love for the game. For years the only time I can recall my parents being in the same location at the same time was at one of our baseball games, or on the Sunday night when we had to head back to our house after a weekend visit with our father. But even in those moments the events that took place between the two of them didn’t really seem to matter. As my brothers and I hit, ran, threw and caught, the only thing that really mattered to us was the smile on our parents’ faces when we did well.
            Baseball, at least in my eyes has always been the common ground for my family. Whether the rest of them would like to admit it, they all still love the game to some degree, but clearly not as much as I. My father and my brother Adam are avid Giants supporters, while my brother Matt and I have rooted for the A’s since we each caught our first games in the Coliseum. My stepmother, stepfather and stepbrother follow the Dodgers and my mother remains the one outlier who loves the Red Sox. The mystery behind this decision still boggles me. At family gatherings we’ll have a few discussions and smack talking about how each other’s team’s seasons went. For the most part however, my other family members stopped going to games and really following their team except when the playoffs come around. For me, baseball never faded in the slightest.

As I got older I followed it more closely. I read the box scores with breakfast every morning, I watch as many games I can each day, I still play catch and hit the batting cages when I can; hell, I even play fantasy baseball and have been doing well at it for the past seven seasons. When I got my first tattoo in 2007 my mother was a bit surprised that I opted to get an Irish flag as opposed to an Oakland A’s logo. I’m pretty sure she meant that as a joke, but I took it seriously. For the past four years I toiled away at a perfect representation for my love of the game, trying to incorporate every facet, which draws me in year after year. The original concept was more mocking, in that it was supposed to be a half-sleeve on my left arm of the A’s mascot, a large, ferocious elephant breaking through my skin and charging down the mascots of all the teams I opposed (Giants, Red Sox, Marlins, Mariners and Mets). It seemed simple enough, but I was quick to get rejected by tattoo artists from Vancouver, Wash. to Bakersfield on account that my arms were too skinny and the design was too large and detailed. As time pressed on I got different tattoos, none of which had to do with baseball, but with that I still continued to come up with a solid design. On paper and in my head I always saw my original concept working, but every time I looked at it I was blinded with loyalty to my team, not the game. Back in March of this year as I lay helplessly on hospital bed fighting dehydration, strep throat and a staph infection I kept thinking about the design. It seemed like an odd thing to think about at the time as my body was shutting down, but then again, when all you have is time, it makes the most sense. I thought about whether I would ever see my family again. I thought about whether I would be able to have a family of my own and be able to teach my kids the game. But most importantly, I thought about the spring and summer days in Stockton, swinging for the fences with a plastic yellow bat while wearing a Chicago Cubs batting helmet as Matt threw me his best curveballs. It was then I knew where I had gone wrong with my ideas.
      Three IV bags and a slew of creams and antibiotics helped get through my own personal hell. In the days that followed my recovery I talked to a tattoo artist at Black Lotus in Eugene, Oregon about my new idea. Felix, a baseball fan himself, was more than happy to accommodate my request. Still about a month away from being completely healed I set to work, gathering photos and stories of all the mascots and logos throughout Major League Baseball’s 132-year history. I scrapped the original, more cynical concept and took a different, more positive approach. The new design features every team from both the American and National Leagues, and in a few cases, renderings and tributes to teams that no longer exist. The location went from a sleeve on my left arm to settling in on both sides of my body between the top of my ribs, down to my hips. On the right side we started with the American League logo at the top and did a pyramid-style stacking of all the teams, using classic logos, colors and team names in a few cases. Historical accuracies were also very important. For instance, we moved the Milwaukee Brewers mascot, Bernie, back to the A.L. side along with a lesser-known counterpart from the mid to late 70s named Bonnie. The A.L. side also features one of my favorite moments from baseball: Game 6 of the 1986 World Series when Bill Buckner let Mookie Wilson’s grounder “split his wickets,” but in place of Buckner I substituted Wally, the green monster. The National League side is just as intricate. I used the current Washington Nationals mascot, Screech, but subbed out the Nationals uniform for a powder blue Montreal Expos uniform in lieu of the team relocating and changing their name back in 2005. The Pittsburgh Pirates Parrot mascot features an array of stories ranging from the no-hitter Dock Ellis threw against the Padres back in 1970 while under the influence of LSD to the cocaine trials of the 1980s, which centered on Kevin Koch, the former man inside the outfit. Overall, the design took about a week to design each side and over 30 hours to carve into my body. More blood, sweat and tears… and money went into this project than any other I had created.  

Baseball has always been good to me. Sometimes it brought me the highest of highs, like when the A’s won the World Series in 1989, and the lowest of lows like in 1994 when the last month-and-a-half of the season including the World Series was cancelled. Regardless of what the men who have played the game have accomplished on and off the field, the game itself is not about them. The game is about the scores of men and women who give themselves emotionally to their teams year after year. It’s about the kids who pick up the game for the first time and learn the values of hard work and how to be a team player. Most importantly, it’s about spending time with your family at the ball yard or in the front yard. This tattoo is the one I love to talk about the most because so many people can relate to it. Despite the fact that it’s plastered on my body, it’s truly a design that was made for everyone.

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