METAMORPHOSIS

​​​It was just yesterday when all his troubles appeared so far away, but now, he needed a place to hide away. He became an island where he built a fortress with walls so mighty that no one could enter. He had his books so there was no need for love, but oh ... how he yearned for yesterday.

   What actually happened during that soul-searching journey into the mind after Van Roth hypnotized himself in front of Husserlʼs mirror? Was the vision merely an illusionary doppelgänger looking back, or did Van Roth somehow invert, witness himself from within, and reach his inner soul? Was he standing at the helm of destiny while staring deep beyond his own reflection -- attempting to free himself from all expectations only to hear the cry of his own soul and begin anew? Did Van Roth discover his soulʼs true calling while gazing at his inner self? Perhaps McCrackin was just a roadblock in his soulʼs true path and simply a segment of lifeʼs travels. In spite of distractions, the inner soul never forgets one's true mission in life. Conceivably, Van Rothʼs ascetic mental pain was his salvation and there is a reason for everything, or perhaps that mirror-experience was nothing more than an empowering catalyst to a renaissance already visited; or perchance, that frightful vision of some mystical spirit was simply a flash of clarity amidst a background of darkness. Why the capsizing mental shipwreck and struggles with doubt and faith? What a mind-boggling labyrinth of metaphysical soul-searching. Did Van Roth witness a passionate heart or an envisioned mind when he opted to return to the ball field?

   Like most philosophers, Van Roth wanted to understand the meaning of life, his own in particular, and especially an existence that didnʼt include baseball. He had turned to the masters in hope of some answers. Socrates, according to Plato, stated that perhaps the unexamined life is not worth living and that one should know thyself. Dostoyevsky felt that the examined life was an understanding of the soulʼs adaptability and its ability to recover from pain, hardship, evil, and misery. For the great Roman stoic Seneca, the examined life was to provide a meaningful goal and perfect oneʼs character. His student Nero must have paid no heed when he fiddled while Rome burned. Van Rothʼs conclusion was a little of all-of-the-above with a heavy splash of his brotherʼs influence via Sartre, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Kierkegaard. Being would be meaningless without the essence of baseball and to perfect it would be his main goal in life, or as Kierkegaard would say, a reason for living. As far as Van Roth was concerned, he was put on this earth to be a ballplayer and he was now ready to go for it. Oh life, the things you wonʼt go to. Donʼt bother trying to keep an eye on me.

   Davie Van Roth chose not to go to Reed College as arranged by professor Bernard Ruben. They didnʼt have a baseball team and it was too late for Stanford, Nevada Reno, or Eastern Washington. The Stanford scholarship arranged by American Legion coach Fred Heringer was never considered and the application forms remained blank at the bottom of his strongbox along with his journals. The University of Nevada Reno scholarship was offered by the legendary Jackie Jensen, former American League MVP, and teammate of the great Ted Williams while with the Boston Red Sox. Jensen, from Oakland California, was in his first year as head coach at Reno and would be considered as among the greatest athletes of all-time. He's the only athlete ever to have played in the Rose Bowl, College World Series, Major League Baseball's World Series, and in an MLB All-Star game. Known as “The Golden Boy,” Jensen was an All-American in football (1949) and twice in baseball as an outfielder (1947 and 1949). He set several football records at Cal Berkeley, including the first player to rush for more than a thousand yards in a single season. Jensen averaged .279 during his eleven-year MLB career including leading the American League in stolen bases (22) in 1954, RBI's (116, 122, and 112) in 1955, 1958 and 1959, and triples with 11 in 1956. He hit .315 for the Boston Red Sox in 1956 and hit 32 HRʼs with a .535 slugging percentage for the Bo Sox in 1958. Jensen was a three-time American League All-Star, a Gold Glove winner, and the Boston outfield of Jensen, Jimmie Piersall, and Ted Williams during the late 1950s is considered as one of the best of all-time. Van Roth didnʼt even consider his offer.

   In 1969, just a few months after offering Van Roth a scholarship, Jensen suffered a heart attack in the dugout while coaching at Nevada Reno. Destinyʼs gravity or perhaps some odd form of serendipity kept Van Roth close to home. He walked on at local Yuba College where he selected philosophy as his major and chemistry as a minor -- or what the world is made of, and the nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. His calling was to play baseball and he homered in his very first at-bat in a 49er uniform, went 3-4 at the plate, and picked up the mound victory against the Aggies of U.C. Davis. Did that hypnotic war waged in front of Husserlʼs mirror expose and unshackle a powerful inner being that had been lying dormant within?

   Søren Kierkegaard gave up his aesthetic life as a man-about-town, jilted his lovely fiancé Regin Olsen, and chose to dedicate the rest of his life to the love of God. The love or attachment that Van Roth chose to delve in was of a different nature. He took a little time and thought things over for he had traveled too far and just toss his love away. Van Roth did, however, take the Danish philosopherʼs advice and chose a reason to live and die for -- baseball.

   Davie Van Roth was reborn -- a born-again ballplayer. Something happened between September of 1968 and the first day of ball practice held during the first week of January 1969. In just a few months, a transformation took place, a metamorphosis, an unbeknown leap of faith, a rebirth -- a Phoenix rising out of the ashes. His protective cocoon had been torn away prematurely but no swallowtail would emerge. After a few months of soul-searching ... the past evaporated. Perhaps, Dante was right when stated in his cantos that one must first pass through the gates of hell to reach Paradisio ... in this case, a mental hell created by Van Rothʼs own contriving. No longer, was he the easy-going, calm, cool, and collected ballplayer as he appeared in high school. He may have looked so on the outside, but on the inside, a blazing inferno raged while on the diamond. The game had become personal, and he now performed in a controlled state of exasperation. Perhaps, his rebellious nature would be his fall and resurrection -- his Finneganʼs Wake.

   It was just a few games into his first season at Yuba College when Davie Van Roth was nicknamed by right fielder Jimmy Ohrt as “The Animal” due to his actions on the field. The trespasses leveed against Van Roth had been forgotten, yet he performed with an equilibrium of calm and fury -- a hidden anger. You cannot conquer evil with forgiveness alone. It was the great artist Gauguin who once stated: Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge, but Van Roth had turned that vitriol upon himself. The righteous desire for vengeance cannot be quelled simply by turning the other cheek. There are other ways to salvation and pain can be a catalyst.

“He made a whip and chased them all out of the temple and overthrew the tables. Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 1

   Baseball was Van Rothʼs insulation from hell and the Godless soul of McCrackin had ripped away his dreams of becoming a professional ballplayer. Was this the trigger; the cause that led to a Vishnu reincarnation or was his transformation sanctioned by some higher authority? By witnessing the work of the devil, one can appreciate the work of God. Was his vision while staring into that mirror a sign of victory, a la Constantineʼs illuminated cross in the sky, or was it an astral out-of-body experience more like one of Immanuel Swedenborgʼs near-death, or life-after-death communications with some spiritual entity? Could the metaphysical and spiritual offer some sort of field guide to a happy and successful life or did a Faustian Van Roth barter his soul with a Mephistopheles? Had Van Roth found his supreme self, his Brahman, or did he somehow just stumble upon a crystal sphere?

   During the summer of 1968, Van Roth was reading Thomas Taylorʼs translation of The Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries. Perhaps this withered old quarto provided a skeleton key that unlocked the secrets of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians and led to an inner union with a Divine Essence. The Dionysian Mysteries of ancient Greece included the use of intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques such as song and dance to remove inhibitions and liberate an individual to a natural state. The ritual was used by those marginalized by Greek society -- women, slaves, non-citizens, and outcasts. Van Roth might have been an outcast, but he didnʼt drink, sing, nor dance. There was certainly cognition by reading books, but where did his newfound physical strength and vexed motivation come from?

  I turned to his journals in an attempt to find out what might have triggered this transformation. Steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs were not in vogue at the time and there was no mention of any off-season training or workouts. Van Roth remained idle, huddled-up in the back room of olʼ Rubyʼs saloon, mostly alone with his books, and for the first time in ten years, there would be no summer baseball. He should have dominated American Legion baseball that summer. Bobby Van Roth had traveled back to Vera Cruz for the winter and was no longer his mentor. Journal entries mentioned melancholy talks while listening to the sounds of the times with a long-time artist-friend whom he only referred to as “The Song Leader.”

   Wearing a beaming, charismatic smile, she took to the sidelines with shimmering pom-poms; quaking ... like aspens. Jaggerʼs “Paint It Black” bellowed and echoed throughout War Memorial Stadium as she danced, acrobatically, to a frenzied Bacchic crowd. With black and orange, crepe-paper orbs quivering high above her head, she performed leg kicks, rhythmically, like a cancan dancer in a French cabaret. Donning a smiley face, she sang and danced while Mick painted the whole world black ... then just faded away. Even though they grew up on the same side of the river, their worlds were at opposite ends of the spectrum -- herʼs cheerful, bright, and rosy ... his troubled, dim, and gray. Hello, darkness, my olʼ friend.

1 Jesus. Holy Bible. Authorized King James Version. John 2:13-19

   The song leader was a social butterfly, outgoing, and the most popular girl on campus while the ballplayer lived on the outside, looked in, and kept his thoughts to himself. While she sang and danced, he wrestled with an inner turmoil. She put John, Paul, George, and Ringo to canvas ... he pondered Plato, Schopenhauer, Descartes, Sartre, and Camus. She was joyful, jovial, jubilant, a model citizen, and a toast of the town ... he was rebellious, a malcontent, a nonconformist, and became downtrodden, distant, and disgusted. Together, they sat and pondered while bewitched by the sounds of Vanilla Fudge ... after looking over his shoulder, what vision did he see? Some long-ago ballplayer he yearned to be. They became soul mates but never lovers. She put a flower in her hair; moved to San Francisco ... he went underground, into hiding, then fled ... far, far ... far away. Thereʼs got to be some way out of here, said the outcast to the thief. Two agents were approaching and the wind began to howl ... howl! ... HOWL!!

   Van Rothʼs longtime friend and batterymate Tony Rossi, or Roscoe as he called him, would offer no solace. He was serving a two-year prison sentence for selling a couple of doobies to a snitch. The two ballplayerʼs friendship had become passé a few years earlier after Rossi quit the baseball team and went over to the wild side. His only other references at that time were those of a Westside Story with someone he referred to as “Sherlock.” She would babble on about God only knows what, and he would reply, No shit, Sherlock. They drag raced the streets of Marysville in his Model A coupe and went on motorcycle rides into the Sierra Mountains. He took her on a trip to San Francisco, walked “The Haight,” and visited L. Ronʼs Scientology where they were promised spiritual enlightenment, freedom, lasting happiness, knowledge of how to know and able to achieve new states of awareness by the understanding of oneʼs true nature and relationship to self. Yeah, right. Been there and done that, he thought. They visited the home of Dr. Bernard Ruben where they engaged in discussions about life and debated philosophy. It seems odd that a distinguished and well-respected professor of English would invite the couple into his own home while coach McCrackin despised the young ballplayer and kicked him off the ball field. Why was Van Roth venerated by one and hated by the other? One would also have to wonder what this deb from the upper east side was thinking when she hooked up with the son of a trucker; linked up with the cynical existence of an existential rebel-soul like Van Roth. Perhaps the jewelerʼs daughter from upscale East Marysville had a thing for bad boys from across the river -- nothing that should have drastically changed the ballplayerʼs performance on the ball field ... or perhaps this muse made a man out of the boy and became his goddess of inspiration while unlocking all his doors and opening up the shudders of his mind; instigated an unwrapping and the ballplayer emerged from his existential cocoon. They seemed to hit it off, but then she went away -- off to college; off to San Jose. Donʼt bother trying to find her for sheʼs not there. He would never see her again; never look into those eyes again. You wouldnʼt want to know me somehow.

“I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world....it was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with itʼs signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, made me realize that Iʼd been happy, and that I was happy still.” 2

   Davie Van Rothʼs thoughts had been plagued by the nihilistic humanism of existentialism. His predicament reminded me of a colossal novel I once read while at Dartmouth. If Atlas began to waver while struggling to hold the world on top of his shoulders, what should he do? Shrug! Van Roth shook it all off and his ghosts were all behind him now. No more Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, nor Camus; certainly not Socrates. Along with Husserl and Descartes, they died and vanished when Van Roth jettisoned all his existential thoughts. No more doubts, no more excuses. No more demons, and most importantly, no more specter caused by the antagonistic and cankerous coach Joe McCrackin. The landscape of Van Rothʼs soul and baseball were interwoven and it was now time to unkink those tangled thoughts of his mind; cast off those shackles of past thinking and free himself from the veils of illusion. He would start anew with a clean slate -- Tabula Rosa. On page 62 of his journals, he wrote: There shall be righteousness in what I shall do. Self-determination: the process by which a person takes control of their own life.

"The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long.” 3

“...we live among things that are destined to die...Often a reverse has made possible a more prosperous future. A building is destroyed and replaced by a better one.” 4

2 Camus, Albert. The Stranger. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951. pp. 154
3 Russell, Bertrand. Mysticism & Logic and Other Essays. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1919. pp. 56
4 Seneca. Epistles. Basore, Gummere. Loeb Classical Library, 1925-ʼ28 (Vol. 10) XCl pp. 439, 441