TDA - Steve Kluger Interview
Steve Kluger is an author, playwright, civil rights activist and baseball fan. He granted us this interview.
Why do you think that baseball is such a big part of your life?
I'm still not sure how to answer that one. I didn't discover baseball until I was 25--and once I got into it, I recognized the sacrifice fly rule from the Bill of Rights, the Brooklyn Dodgers from the Battle of Saratoga, and Carlton Fisk's 12th-inning home run from the Cuban Missile Crisis. Baseball is the heart and soul of the way we live. Or at least the way we're supposed to.
What was the magic moment? What turned on the lightbulb? A visit to Wrigley? A great series on TV?
Sunday, June 18, 1978. Dodgers vs. Expos. I'd been dragged to Dodger Stadium against my will to watch Don Sutton go head-to-head with Wayne Twitchell (and to be aided in the late innings by Bobby Welch making his first appearance in the bigs). For fifteen outs I was bored to tears. And then, at the bottom of the third, Davey Lopes began to rattle Twitchell but good in his repeated attempts to steal second. For over five minutes it was a tug of wills, each one defying the other to make a move--and I was absolutely mesmerized. So much was going on, and with so few moving parts involved, I began to see the entire contest in terms of the thousands of tiny decisions we're required to make every day of our lives, and the risks that are inherent in each one of them. It wasn't so much an epiphany as it was a permanent shift in the two hemispheres of my brain.
Irrevocably hooked on something brand new and indefinable, I sneaked into the ballpark on my own the following Thursday afternoon to watch Joe Niekro and his Astros squeak by Doug Rau, 4-3--and I knew before it was over that I was never going to be the same again. In fact, I absorbed the 150-year history of the game so voraciously that, by late September, people were asking for my opinion before they placed their bets in playoff and World Series pools.
No metaphor invokes the human comedy better than baseball does. In fact, far from being merely a game, it's an indicator that lets us know what's just around the corner in our own lives. The 1919 Chicago Black Sox and the resulting collapse of baseball's prestige and accountability presaged the break-all-the-rules 1920s and the resulting stock market crash of '29. Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey anticipated Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus system by eight years; and the 1977 Yankees warned us about the corporate greed that's since homogenized every American city into the same generic mall, bleached sports of its unique personality ("U.S. Cellular Field", my ass), and sparked the globalization that's gotten us into real trouble overseas. Baseball reflects our culture and our society the same way a rearview mirror lets you know what's sneaking up behind you. What we haven't learned how to do yet is change lanes before it's too late.
You have been one of the driving forces behind the effort to restore the baseball diamond at the Manzanar War Relocation Center (a WWII Japanese American internment camp). How did you become involved? Why are you so passionate about this issue? Do you think the Park Service will change its position?
When you grow up Jewish and gay, you learn pretty quickly that other people's battles for dignity and respect become your own. And the history of the Japanese American internment had been so successfully swept under the rug while I was growing up, I didn't find out about it until I was 31. So, in a sense, I felt almost as betrayed as those who were imprisoned in the camps must have felt.
Issuing a public apology, paying out a reparations check, and building a memorial were gestures that, together, constituted the very least the U.S. government owed these people and their families. However, in order to effect real closure--a metaphoric hug, so to speak--it's necessary to go one extra mile so that those injured realize that the apology is genuine and not merely for the sake of public relations. The baseball diamonds at Manzanar and the other nine federal "relocation camps" comprised the very heart of the internment experience for most of the surviving internees. Baseball, in fact, was the only aspect of the lives they'd led before their Constitution was taken away that they were allowed to keep with them during their three years behind barbed wire. To rebuild the baseball diamond at Manzanar is to thank them for retaining their faith in this country, even when they had no reason to do so. THAT'S an apology.
The Park Service is not going to change its position without a real fight. But, in the end, I'm a far bigger pain in the ass than they are--so they're not really going to wind up with much of a choice.
What can others do to help? Which politicians need to be influenced or pressured?
The park people haven't been above dirty pool in attempting to block my plans to have the diamond restored. In fact, they warned the Manzanar survivors that the community's continued support of my efforts would have negative repercussions on the completion of the existing memorial. And since these are Nisei who remain understandably frightened of the federal government, they've had to back off from endorsing me. So the only way to see the diamond through to reality is--ironically--by playing hardball. I've already begun to lobby members of the House and Senate and am determined to take on both the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior in order to make this particular Field of Dreams a reality. Ideally, I'd like to put together a grass roots movement that would ultimately make it impossible for these people to say no any longer.
With the recent coming out of Billy Bean, how ready do you think baseball is for an out player? How does this affect your feelings about the game? Are people like Bean, Glenn Burke and Dave Pallone heroes, or are they just gay men who happen to be involved in baseball?
Baseball is as ready for an out player as the military is ready for an out general. Which is to say not very. However, all it would take to fix the scenario once and for all is an edict from the high command that essentially says, "Deal with it or get out". And maybe a player who'd be willing to go to the mat for what's right and for what he believes in. No, people like Bean and Burke who wait to come out until they've retired--when it's safe--are not heroes. Jackie Robinson was a hero. And I'm willing to bet the next Red Sox pennant that when pro sports finally turns pro gay, it'll be baseball paving the way. As usual.
Comment on being a Red Sox fan.
I'm not just a Red Sox fan, I'm a Cubs fan too--which is not nearly as masochistic as it might seem. Because nothing teaches you about life better than these two teams--and if you can survive the relentless vicissitudes that were built into both Wrigley Field and Fenway Park and STILL call yourself a fan, you've learned everything you ever needed to know about being alive. But in the end, nobody understood the Cubs or the Red Sox better than Rudyard Kipling did in his poem "If".
Tell us about your involvement in the Save Fenway Park movement. What do you feel are the most important issues here?
I believe in Fenway Park the way a six-year-old believes he's going to keep his beat-up first bicycle for the rest of his life. Anything that can still echo the giddiness of a more innocent time deserves to be cherished and protected so that others might share in the same experience.
My involvement in the Save Fenway Park campaign was limited to sending out fliers and writing editorials. Eventually, the movement began losing steam for two reasons: (a) saving Fenway Park has since meant $65 box seats and bleacher tickets that aren't much cheaper which has effectively priced Red Sox baseball out of the reach of lower- and middle-income families; and (2) the plans for a larger Fenway-esque ballpark directly across the street have mollified most of the rebels who see it as a reasonable compromise. So, absent any eleventh-hour intervention by Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, it looks as if the Dark Side's going to win this time. And to be entirely honest, the way baseball and its players have gone luxury-box-corporate, they no longer deserve Fenway Park anyway.
What have you been up to recently and what are your plans for the near future? (In other words, do you have a new book out now or soon?)
My newest novel, "Almost Like Being in Love", was released by HarperCollins on May 11. (The cast of characters includes a first baseman for the Utica Blue Sox.) Presently I'm outlining my next one, "Thank You, Mr. President", which is told in the same style as the previous three, and which follows a group of high school kids as they come of age during the thousand days of the Kennedy administration. I'm writing it for those of us who remember what it was like to grow up under a president we idolized, and for those who wonder if such a thing is even possible.
I've also begun moving away from writing and into a political arena. Since the last
six years of my life have been linked so inextricably to the struggle for a variety
of civil rights, it's become more and more evident that the next major item on my
agenda is a run for political office. Sooner or later it was inevitable.
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