The Night I Won the Welterweight Title of the World

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Content advisory 18+ I once saw a film called "Field of Dreams" which involved a man hearing a voice in a cornfield that told him what to do -- which he did -- and what happened as a result. The idea behind it was simple but profound: how can we find the past again and correct it? Or maybe better would be to ask, "How can we HEAL the past?"

This question may not seem relevant to many of you, but give it time. It will.

Not having a chance just now to watch the whole thing again, I saw the trailer on YouTube to jog my memory and Googled a rehash of the plot. Damn..how much we forget. It's funny, the subtle way that time creates amnesia. Maybe a good thing.

I didn’t really need to ask myself why this film, which I saw light years ago, suddenly resonated with me once more. Turns out I have been building my own field of dreams, and I can explain.

Anyway, the film starts with an ordinary guy (John Kinsella) and his young wife and daughter who for some reason have moved to the Midwestern American state of Iowa. (What about Iowa? Well, apart for the famous Creative Writing Department at the University of Iowa, it isn't really renowned for much of anything. EXCEPT corn. I mean, gigantic pastures filled with elongated EARS of the stuff. Stephen King wrote a terrifying story called "Children of the Corn" (which also became a successful film), and, though I am not sure, it might have been set in Iowa also. I think that Iowa would be a great place to go if you felt like committing suicide during the bleakest, most frozen winter imaginable (don't even think about it, Moscow ! You live in the tropics !) But maybe it would also be the best location to hole up and write the American version of "War and Peace." -- maybe about the British invasion of 1812?)

John and his family have acquired a big, airy farmhouse type of home (humble but more than ample -- in fact rather sparkling -- in keeping with the affluent American ideal -- you know, the same way glamorous women in the Hollywood movies wake up after a night of frantic love-making with every hair in place) and in a rural setting etched in the granite emblems of American tradition -- a picturesque backwater where wholesome, honest people live (unless Stephen King is writing the book !) The small town nearby is at their behest, but as Great Evening brings on a growing sense of solitude to the night-inhaling sky, you sort of shiver, understanding that Darkness is for real out there, like some kind of incredible spider posing as a Black Hole.

Sort of like where I live here in Bulgaria, where the stars at night can burn so ferociously that they would have frightened even the likes of Van Gogh, but where a starless night can bring you face to face with the possibility that you do not have a soul, and your face is a stiff, wire-like black grill like that of a dead sunflower

The protagonist goes walking amid the vast cornfield in front of his house. Suddenly, he hears a voice floating through the dusky breeze of the crepuscular stalks: "If you build it, he will come." intones the voice. Naturally, John believes it was the wind and thinks nothing of it. But not long afterwards, it happens again, and this time it really gets his attention. He asks his wife (sitting on the front porch swing). "No," she didn't hear it. Well, she wouldn’t.

“If you build it, he will come.” Like Moses.

But gradually... John -- he understands. The voice is telling him to cut down the cornfield and build a baseball diamond in its place. When he conveys this almost biblical command to his countryside-pretty, unpretentious wife, she is, of course (as wives will be) incredulous and NOT enthusiastic, but -- long and short -- he builds the baseball field. No more corn, no more money (their income is shot), but the beautiful baseball diamond has been put in place and there it stands resplendent under the lights. Glowing like a fabulous green beacon in the middle of a brilliantly lit nowhere. Iowa.

When I was a kid, long ago, I played baseball under the lights. It was all well-organized, adequately-coached and umpired, and attended by people (our families among them) who passionately cared -- and sometimes there were heated disagreements and even fistfights among the adults. It was called Little League, and Little League Baseball has always been a staple American institution.

We played on the grounds of what was known as Bigley Field, a huge cow pasture of a place which itself had been emerald in patches and beautiful in a few spots until a terrible flood washed it all away, leaving only a barren desolation afterwards. 1960 or '61, I guess. As soon as the waters abated and sank into the gutters, the games resumed. The passion returned, and I played the summer of the 12th year of my life that way, on that knobby, gritty hunk of dried mud.

As an athlete, I was OK. Not great. My grandfather dreamed that I was better than I was -- he was seeing a different kid than the one really standing before him and living in his house.. It was a lot of wishful-thinking on his part. I knew, KNEW -- that my skinny body would never be able to do the things he imagined it doing. But I played, and tried, and gradually I became just as obsessed as he was. A little old man and a little boy in Charleston, West Virginia...imagining what never would even come close to being true.

Was that really me? Was I really there in that dusty place? Or was it someone else?

In "Field of Dreams", once the ballpark is intact, still surrounded on all sides by the towering corn, old ball players from the 1919 Chicago White Sox start to walk out from the hedges of stalks, starting with Joe Jackson, a legendary great of that period who was banned from baseball for reasons too complicated to tell here.

Also too complex to explain for now is the way the film ends -- with John meeting his father as a young man, and the two of them playing catch together. But that reconciliation is what the whole film is about. it just takes until the end to get there. Healing the past, as I said.

Imagine that. My own dad, who died a few months ago, was a great-looking young man and an excellent athlete. My grandfather too must have been pretty good. I lived with my grandpa and I got to know my dad better in our later years. I have often wondered what it would have been like to have met them (and their worlds) when they were, say, teenagers. When they were scouting the girls and just being bad ass boys. Me, my dad, and my grandpa -- all teenagers, throwing a football around. Or or a baseball.

Would we have liked each other, not knowing of anything to come? Would we have scrapped and fought?

I seem to have aged well. I have been a gym rat all my life, and I sincerely believe that sports and fitness have helped me to survive my many nightmares in life. Miraculously. I am proud, desperately proud, when I think that very few of those guys who could beat me back THEN could keep up with me NOW. They wouldn't have a chance. I outlasted them, didn't I? Of course I will never have to confront them. Not now. Would I be secretly afraid again, even now when I am holding all the cards?

(You can see that I still have issues with the past.)

So I learned to box, and when I started to get older, I would just pound the heavy bag or shadow box. In Moscow, years later (some would say a generation later !) I would put on the gloves, drink beer to get revved up at 22.00 and 23.00 after working all day and evening, and then shadow and kickbox 10 grim rounds in my apartment -- wearing a heavy sweater or jacket and something covering my head to make me sweat and seal the heat in -- pushing myself to the absolute limit. Sometimes the neighbors below pounded on the ceiling.

Nobody but a crazy man would do such things -- 69, half drunk, fighting ghosts and shadows till the point of exhaustion. Well, my name is Eric; glad to meet you. But, oddly, such things have kept me sane. It’s like more than ‘fitness’ -- really I was beating my personal demons and would-be assassins off that way. And also getting ready for the street if I ever had to fight. 70 years old and I am still preparing for street fights that likely will never happen. I dream of kicking some 25-year-old skinhead guy’s ass if HE picks the fight. In the darkness, Getting ready. Getting ready.

Here in Bliznatsi where I live out in the rolling country, I too hear voices. Mostly they are coming from predatory birds in the morning, the swooping evening wings, and the forest dogs at night. Maybe they are the ones who told me to build my Palace of Dreams.

Out in our back garden a hired gypsy worker and I built what I call "Eric’s Sports Palace." My wife and I keep the firewood there, and I have parked my bicycle, and, foremost, hung my heavy punching bag there. It gets a lot of use.

When the weather is most ferociously hot in the late afternoon, I go out to the Palace and do my 10 rounds. I never quit until I am done. No TKO’s; every bout goes the distance. I would like to fight 15 rounds like they did in the old days. That was the real championship distance, but they stopped it because a couple of guy’s got killed in the late rounds, and the bleeding hearts decided that 12 rounds was enough.

I can manage 10 at my age. Of course nobody is watching and nobody is fighting against me -- so maybe it is all just the twinkling of an old man’s revery -- but to me, I am fighting for the title

I am also thinking of putting night-lights out there and starting to pipe in Latino salsa music, or maybe some ghetto stuff, anything to make me fight harder and harder.

Mixing swift hard jabs and hooks, dancing, bobbing and weaving, pounding the big heavy bag and then dancing away, it is my Field of Dreams.

I am in Madison Square Garden. A full-house and the ringside cameras are popping. It's 1957, and my name is Carmen Basilio. The bell rings and Sugar Ray Robinson advances. We feint, jab, slug., and grapple. My right eye is almost swollen shut, but I am punishing the great Robinson. The ref pulls us apart, but I am relentless.

Fight over. The referee raises my hand and the crowd goes crazy.

Champion.

===Eric Richard Leroy===

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