Apologies for the lack of activity here so far this year. As it happened, the filming of the remaining episodes of Treme required my full attention, and following that endeavor, a couple of prolonged illnesses in the family required additional time. And, well, I owe a lot of script work.
If you’ve read the introduction, you know that one of my fears in beginning a blog was that when things got hectic, I would be unable to properly service the damn thing. Certainly, for the first quarter of 2013, this has been the case.
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What prompts a rapid return is the recent news that former all-star Oriole catcher Gus Triandos has passed away. There are better remembrances and obituaries of the ballplayer to be had, but I can’t help but provide a small, additional anecdote about the man. It is a backstage story that deserves some corner of baseball posterity.
The tale begins with Richard Price, the noted novelist and screenwriter who was kind enough to grace The Wire with some of his script work for four seasons of the HBO drama. Price is famed for the verisimilitude of his urban patois and his detailed characterization, but he doesn’t get enough credit, in my opinion, for his comedic chops. Looking to bring a little of that out in a particular episode, we decided to lay a secondary storyline on him in which Herc and Carver engage in that essential debate of fractured masculinity: You can screw any three women in the world if you have sex with a man of your own choosing first.
This barroom game, of course, only has one correct answer for entrenched heterosexuals: No way. Because the very moment that a participant makes any concession to his friends — “I can be on top, right?” or “Just a blowjob, okay” — he opens himself up for the usual locker-room derision.
“Can the guy be Steve McQueen?”
“Nevada Smith-era Steve McQueen?”
Whenever you want him.
“And it’s just oral. Not anal, okay?”
Just a blowjob. No worries.
“Okay, I’ll give Nevada Smith-era Steve McQueen a blowjob if I can then do anything I want to Angelina Jolie, Audrey Hepburn and Jodie Foster, except Jodie Foster isn’t gay. Deal?”
And the fixed coda: “Steve McQueen, huh? That’s your thing? I always knew you were a cocksucker.”
Even in these enlightened and expansive times, when judgments about sexual lifestyle are no longer publicly acceptable, such remains the standard banter of the heterosexual male. And after assigning this very banter to Price for his episode — and doing so using the aforementioned example so that Price himself could stare at me and say, “McQueen, huh? He does it for you?” — we sat back in our happy little writers’ room and waited.
When the script came in, Price had gone us one further, offering up comedy gold. Not only had he accessed the essential lust and homophobia of our characters, but he had combined it with yet another straight-male elemental: Sports trivia.
“This isn’t about sex, this is about giving a guy a break,” Herc tells Carver before offering up the name of Gus Triandos.
Price had gone deep into his 1950s era baseball-card collection, which is considerable, believe me, and picked out the slow, lumbering Baltimore Oriole catcher of the late 1950s. Triandos hit 30 home runs in 1958 to break Yogi Berra’s stranglehold on the All-Star Game starting catcher spot, and he had caught no hitters in both leagues, first for knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhem in ’58 and later, Jim Bunning’s perfect game for the Phillies. He was well-enough known, in Baltimore at least, that the reference would knock Oriole fans on their asses with laughter, but not so well known that the humor inherent in the obscurity of Herc’s choice wouldn’t play. And more, Herc catching a blowjob from Gus Triandos is a funny thought. The choice itself implies a wonderful overthinking of the problem. A mainstream Oriole reference — Herc on his knees before , say, Brooks Robinson or Cal Ripken — no, god no. In Baltimore, that rolls into the territory of straight-up, get-a-rope sacrilege.
Herc explained his choice as a mercy fuck. He had a card of Triandos in his collection, and the guy just had this big, sad face. Why sad? He had to catch Wilhelm’s knuckleball all those years. Ball moved around like a greased pig. Triandos had to employ an oversized catcher’s mitt to have any hope of getting through a game without a dozen passed balls.
After the script was circulated and the entire writing staff gathered itself from the bout of collective laughter, I was suddenly filled with a sharp pang of guilty horror: Was Triandos still alive? Why not? He’d only be in his early 70s, I calculated. Christ. I mean, I know the guy is, legally, some sort of public figure as an ex-professional ballplayer, but how do you throw this joke up on national television without his say-so? I was nauseous at the thought of big, slow Gus Triandos, now wrinkled and weathered and walking with a cane amid a copse of cherubic grandchildren. Yeah, great. Make that guy into a blowjob joke on HBO.
I told Price that while Gus Triandos was perfect, he needed to think of an alternate for Herc, and it should preferably be some celebrity or semi-celebrity who had already departed this vale. Steve McQueen, say. Because I was only going to do this for Price’s script once.
“Do what?” Price asked.
“We have a number for Triandos. He lives out in California.”
“You’re gonna call him?”
“What choice do I have?”
“Oh shit. Never mind. I’ll think of someone else.”
“No, Triandos is perfect for this, inspired even. But Richard, when you speak of me in the days to come, remember what I did for you here and speak well.”
It is hard to describe how fast I was speaking when I got on the phone with Gus Triandos, trying desperately to turn the corner with the old fella, to make him see that the joke wasn’t really on him, but on this character named Herc, this big, lumbering narcotics cop in Baltimore, Maryland. No, no, he wasn’t saying that you had sex with him. No, no way. And he’s not even saying that you would want to have sex with him. It’s not about you. Really, trust me.
“I’m not sure I understand,” Triandos said.
“Okay, let me send you the pages. I’m gonna send all the pages for this storyline. And if you see what the joke is and you are okay with it, then great. And if not, we won’t use your name. Just look at the pages, okay?”
“This is a television show? Really?”
Christ. I sent the pages off with little hope, other than that Gus Triandos said he would get together with his sons and they would read them and he would, eventually, get back to me. Naturally, I imagined he would pick up the phone to call me and everyone with anything to do with this television show a pack of free-range assholes.
But four days later my cellphone rang and Triandos was on the line.
“I get it. It’s pretty funny.”
“You get it?”
“Yeah, he feels sorry for me ’cause I had to catch Wilhelm.”
“Hey, I feel sorry for me. Catching Wilhelm was miserable,” he laughed. “Go ahead. It’s not like you’re making me out to be gay or nothing. It’s just a joke.”
I never had a chance to speak to Mr. Triandos after that, to hear how that episode actually landed on him. But I like to imagine him enjoying the joke — and the improbable cultural reference — for years to come.