On Jason Lane, Johnny Cash and History Once Removed

by M.C. Antil on September 21, 2010

It was the bottom of the 10th inning, Game One of the 2005 World Series between the Houston Astros and my hometown Chicago White Sox.  The Sox closer Bobby Jenks had just given up two runs in the 9th to allow Houston to tie the game, and now as the Sox came to bat in the 10th the chilled-to-the-bone fans who remained knew that one run – any run – would win the game and give them a huge 2-0 Series lead.

These were, of course, uncharted waters for any Sox fan under the age of, say, 90.  The White Sox had not won a World Series since 1917, and had not even appeared in one since ’59, so a vast majority of those in attendance were still unborn the last time their team had played so deep into October.  That harsh reality, coupled the fact that Jenks had given up the tying runs after getting the first two outs in the 9th, cast an ominous pall over the crowd as dark and foreboding as the clouds that hung over the city all day.

After having spent the top of the 10th inning visiting some friends under the right field bleachers in the Patio Area, I decided to watch the next half inning from behind the Plexiglas wall that separates the Patio from the field of play.  And it’s a good thing I did, because as soon as I stepped into the chill of the misty night I heard the unmistakable crack of the bat. 

As I walked slowly toward the Plexiglas fence I felt the low hum of the crowd noise double clutch as though searching for a higher gear.  Suddenly I realized the Houston right fielder, a young slugger named Jason Lane, was backpedaling in my direction.

Jason Lane

Now the crowd noise had indeed found that higher gear and the stadium instantly began crackling with anticipation.  My skin tingled, the hair on the back of my neck rose and I felt a surge shoot through me. Something was happening and I could, quite literally, feel it. 

As I peered through the fence, Lane had turned in my direction and was now craning his neck toward home plate as he tried to pick up the ball, which was apparently heading in our direction. 

Suddenly, all that anticipation burst into joy and the crowd erupted.  Sox Park started shaking never before, flashbulbs popped, fireworks flashed and thundered and thousands of delirious Sox fans rose as one raising their fists in celebration and screaming to the heavens.  

Meanwhile, as this was happening, Lane and I found ourselves standing just a few feet from one another, me looking at him and him gazing at a point in the distance.  I watched his face.  What had just been a study in concentration and athletic intensity only moments earlier had melted into a puddle of defeat.  I saw Lane’s shoulders droop, his mouth open slightly and go still, and his eyes stare blankly at a fixed point a world or two away.  As he slowly lowered his head, for the briefest of moments his eyes met mine, before continuing downward toward the gravel beneath him.  At that moment something hit me. 

In the infinitesimal amount of time it takes thought to crystallize, the world presented itself to me in a way I had never before considered, much less experienced.  I had just witnessed a walk-off home run in the World Series in a way very few baseball fans ever had, or ever would. 

I hadn’t seen it from the safety of the grandstands or the comfort of my sofa.  I hadn’t seen it leave the bat, clear the fence or get replayed from a dozen different angles and at varying speeds.  In fact, I hadn’t technically seen it at all. 

Instead, I witnessed one of the most dramatic moments possible in baseball, not so much as a spectator, but as a participant – or at least a participant once removed. I watched Scott Podsednik’s game-winning, World Series home run by seeing it reflected in the eyes of the only guy that night with a chance to catch it; the only guy in a position to stem the tide of history; a bit player named Jason Lane who on a rainy October evening found himself dead-center stage as the baseball world watched.  

 In other words, I didn’t see baseball history being written as much as I saw baseball history being lived.  What’s more, I watched it all through the eyes of the guy doing the living.  It was like walking through history using borrowed eyes. 

Young Johnny Cash

I bring that up because last night I happened to watch again Walk the Line, the film bio of country music legend Johnny Cash.  And as I was watching it occurred to me there is a strong parallel to what I had experienced that night at the ballpark in ’05 and my favorite scene in the Cash film (which, ironically, opened in theaters that fall, just weeks after the Sox’ sweep).

For me, Walk the Line’s most powerful scene has nothing to do with the central relationship in the movie; that between Johnny Cash and June Carter.  And it only deals with Cash to the extent that the movie is, indeed, about him.  For my money, the seminal scene centers on Sam Phillips, the Memphis entrepreneur who discovered Cash, along with Elvis Presley, and who started the legendary Sun Records in Memphis. 

Or, more to the point, it centers on the actor playing Phillips.

Sam Phillips is portrayed by Dallas Roberts, one of those terrific actors that producers love to hire because they have the ability to make all the illusion around them seem a little more believable, if not altogether real.  (And in all due respect to Joaquin Phoenix, he may had done a nice job as Cash – and even earned himself an Oscar nomination – but let’s be honest; there is only one Johnny Cash and no actor anywhere can embody his towering presence, his prodigious talent and his voracious appetite for life – not to mention his deep, resonant and utterly timeless voice.)

Anyway, there’s a moment in the film in which Cash, his bass player and guitarist are trying to lay down a demo version of a contemporary gospel hit.  The session is not going well, despite their efforts, and Phillips, unmoved to the point of boredom, is about to send the boys packing.  Just then Cash interrupts and challenges Phillips, getting prickly and defensive about both the song he’s chosen to sing and how he’s chosen to sing it.

 Phillips then launches into his own offensive and drills Cash right between the eyes, giving him a moving speech about getting hit by a truck and laying in the gutter dying, and picking one song to sing – one song – before you turned to dirt that would tell God about what you felt about your time on earth; a song that would sum you up. 

Dallas Roberts

As Phillips, Roberts challenges Cash by asking him if he’d choose to sing that same old Jimmy Davis song that’s on the radio all day, or some other song; something real; something you felt.  “Because I’m telling you right now,” he continues, “that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain’t got nothin’ to do with believing in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believing in yourself.”

After the exchange, Cash tells Phillips there is one song he wrote in the Air Force and then asks the producer defensively, “You got anything against the Air Force?”

 Throughout much of Phillips’ monologue and the subsequent exchange between the two actors, the camera is placed squarely on Dallas Roberts’ face, in close up.  And up to this point his face has been cold, hard and indifferent.  Then, as Cash somewhat sheepishly breaks into the song he had written in the Air Force – the gut-wrenching and mournful Folsom Prison Blues – the camera cuts to Phoenix, but only long enough to establish the dramatic shift in tone between the Praise-Jesus number his band had been trying to slog through and the stark, brutal honesty of the new song, which grows in intensity as, with each strum of his guitar, Cash reveals more and more of the fire burning within.

 After a few lines of the first verse, the camera cuts back on Roberts, and when it does something profound happens.  You watch in his eyes as his deep cynicism slowly melts away, for he is now standing way too close to the fire.  The hard lines on the actor’s face soften, as do his thin, pursed lips, while his eyes widen ever-so-slightly as he slowly realizes that he is witnessing greatness reveal itself to him. 

And when Cash sings the line, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” you can almost see Phillips gulp as he thinks to himself, not only might this man be a singer and poet unlike any the world has ever known, but I just might have bitten off way more than I can chew.  In fact, in Roberts’ eyes you can almost see the point at which Phillips comes to understand that the tiny Memphis studio in which Cash is pouring out his soul will never be able to hold him.

 It is a scene in which the director and/or film editor clearly made a daring choice.  They could have shown their leading man doing his best imitation of their larger-than-life subject, or they could have shown the dancing flames of their subject’s greatness as reflected in the eyes of the guy standing next to him. 

 They chose the latter.  And because they did, just like that night on the South Side of Chicago, I got to experience greatness, not so much as something observed, but as something reflected.  And by not being able to use my own eyes to record either of those two moments – one real and the other cinematic – but relied instead on the eyes of others, something remarkable happened. 

 I not only forged a deep, lasting and utterly unique memory of each moment, I discovered something I truly had never realized: that sometimes in life the best way to behold greatness — or to view history — is to see it reflected in the eyes of those living it.    ###

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