Commentary

Mixing memory with desire

Larry Hasenfus, a 58-year-old knuckleballer, finds new life on the collegiate mound

Updated: November 15, 2011, 5:06 PM ET
By Marty Dobrow | Special to ESPNBoston.com

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- The first week of the baseball season can be a time for veteran left-handers to work out the kinks. Last Monday, 48-year-old Barack Obama was high and outside with his presidential first pitch before the Washington Nationals' opener. On Saturday, 47-year-old Jamie Moyer allowed five runs in the third inning to the Houston Astros but held on for a 9-6 victory, the 259th of his career.

And on a sparkling Sunday afternoon, Larry Hasenfus gets loose.

A first-year student at Springfield College, Hasenfus warms up in the right-field bullpen during the sixth inning of a JV baseball game against Tufts. Throwing to 19-year-old freshman Geoff Sabbagh, he tries to mix his fastball with two kinds of curve and his signature pitch: the knuckleball. Having long ago memorized the beginning of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," he believes in "mixing memory with desire."

To Karen Hasenfus, sitting on the top row of the aluminum bleachers, April does not seem at this moment to be the cruelest month. It is the coolest. Larry's wife looks out at the bullpen, clutches the arm of her sister-in-law Pat, and asks a one-word question: "Really?"

They understand the moment. They understand that Larry's return to the mound -- and to college -- represents a triumphant remaking of a painful past.

Hasenfus' teammates, dealing with their own late-teen dramas, can't understand that as deeply, but they still sense that something big is at hand. They have watched Larry for months now, persevering through preseason training that even they found arduous. Plus, he makes them laugh. When they asked him about his three favorite things in the world, he replied without hesitation: the intimate times with Karen, the memories of his children being born, and picking off runners.

So it was no surprise that when he was sent out to the bullpen, the dugout came alive with chatter: "Now's the time, Larry. Go get 'em, seven. Here we go, Larry, Larry Kid."

Looking like some sepia-toned image from Ken Burns' movie studio, Larry wipes the sweat from his handlebar mustache (a follicular time machine: gray in the middle, reddening as it curls out to the sides). He then swings both of his arms behind him, kicks his right leg in the air and delivers the ball right into the catcher's target.

Larry is raring to go at age 58.

Words made no sense

Growing up in the well-to-do Boston suburb of Newton, Larry dreamed of being a college athlete. He was a fast-skating right winger on the ice and a wily southpaw on the mound. College was always in his sights.

In Newton, he was surrounded in school by future doctors, lawyers and teachers. His dad, John, a Boston College graduate, was one of the Knights of Route 128, working for Raytheon and Sylvania. His late mother, Mary, used to work at MIT for the legendary electrical engineering professor Harold Edgerton. (In his basement in North Brookfield, Larry still has one of Edgerton's stroboscopes, along with numerous other artifacts, such his own second-grade report card -- which notes his propensity for daydreaming -- and a baseball autographed by another lefty knuckleballer from suburban Boston: Wilbur Wood.)

[+] EnlargeLarry Hasenfus
Ryan Matlack for ESPNBoston.comHasenfus has done whatever has been asked of him in making the Springfield College JV team. Asked his 87-year-old father, "Do you think there's any chance you'll get called up to the varsity?"

From a young age, Larry loved books. He liked the feel of the hard cover in his hands, the mystery tucked within, the sense of possibility. In elementary school, he always got excited on the days of the Scholastic book orders.

There was just one problem: He couldn't read.

Oh, he could recognize certain words and, as he now terms it, "say them like a parrot -- without comprehension." When he came to a word that didn't evoke a picture in his mind, though, everything would stop. He would hover over the word like a helicopter, turning it, twisting it, fastening onto it and refusing to let go.

Writing was also a formidable challenge. His handwriting was slow and messy. In his mind, he was often jumping ahead six or seven words in the sentence. It made no sense to him at all. He had struggled so much even to memorize the alphabet, always using the song -- the one he says he still has to rely on to this day.

He was labeled "lazy" and "stupid." Even his parents, whom he describes as "trying everything they could to help," sometimes got exasperated. They told him that he wasn't "applying himself."

In the backyard of his home, he used to pitch all the time to his father, who also served as his Little League coach. Afterward, sometimes the conversation turned to Larry's need to improve his performance in the classroom. "It's not too late, Larry," his father would say. "It's not too late."

Not surprisingly, he hated school. "It was terrible for me all along," he says. "I never understood what they wanted me to do -- or why."

When he was in school, his dyslexia was never identified (even after his brother Jack, four years younger and with even more severe word recognition problems, was diagnosed as a dyslexic in sixth grade). The understanding of the broad spectrum of dyslexia was more limited back then. Larry could, after all, identify some words.

What's more, he had developed masterful coping skills. He was unfailingly polite. He was a good listener. He had a tremendous memory. When he would recite the beginning of "The Waste Land" (a poem he admits he has never read all the way through) or lines from Shakespeare, teachers and classmates were snowed. "I'd find something that I thought was kind of cool and slip it into the conversation from time to time," he says.

With a report card littered with C's and D's, he graduated from Newton North High School in 1969. If that was a turbulent year to come of age, it was also one filled with idealism. It was the year of Neil Armstrong's one small step. It was the year of the Miracle Mets. In August, Larry told his dad that he was going with some friends to a music festival on a farm in New York.

"Why the sudden interest in music?" John asked.

"Dad," he said, "it's an event."

On the way back from Woodstock, when he was almost all the way to Newton, he crashed his motorcycle, breaking his pitching arm, his hip and his back. To this day he walks with a slight stoop.

Still, he kept his eyes on the prize of playing college sports. "That's what he always saw himself doing," says his sister Pat.

Recovering quickly, he enrolled that fall for a year of prep school at Tilton Academy in New Hampshire, a school whose motto is "the power of potential." He starred on the hockey team and struck out 13 batters one day on the diamond. He had no way of knowing in that fateful spring of 1970 that he would not pitch in another game for four decades.

The academic part of his life didn't go well. The preparation for college work meant more demanding reading assignments and longer papers. He was lost. When he arrived at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., he was academically ineligible. He felt like an imposter. Soon he failed out and vowed never -- never -- to return to college. Why would he?

Dyslexia came with a gift

Larry's sister Pat lives in a world of books. A librarian in Breckenridge, Colo., who flew in last week in the hopes of seeing Larry on the mound, Pat says Larry's dyslexia came with a certain gift.

"It's made him a very sympathetic and empathetic person," she says. "If it came as easily to him as we would have hoped, he might not be the man he is."

[+] EnlargeLarry Hasenfus
Ryan Matlack for ESPNBoston.comLarry's wife, Karen (left), and sister Pat, who flew in from Colorado, watch as Hasenfus makes his debut.

After St. Anselm, Larry gravitated toward social work. For years he worked with troubled kids at the Newton Community Service Center. He had a radar for private pain and a knack for putting people at ease. He listened. In time, he got his second-level license as a social worker. (These days, you'd need a master's degree to get the license, but thanks to earlier regulations that allowed licensure based on field work, he was, as the saying goes, grandfathered in.)

It was at the community center that he met Karen. She was seven years his elder and bubbling with life (as she still seems to be, her red hair flowing from under the Springfield College cap as she sits in the bleachers, her laughter filling the stands). She, too, was drawn to kids and social work.

In time, they were married and built a log home in the central Massachusetts town of North Brookfield, where they were determined to raise their three children without a television. All three are now college graduates (the eldest a social worker); all three are older than Larry's pitching coach, Louie Bernardini.

It was, for years, a nice little life. There were family vacations, including a memorable game of catch with his son, Nathaniel, at the Field of Dreams in Iowa. There were jobs that they liked, Karen becoming the clinical director at a school in Barre, Mass., working with juvenile sex offenders, Larry working in personnel at a textile company and ultimately becoming plant manager.

In North Brookfield, Larry became a pillar of the community. He was in the Knights of Columbus. He won a term as a selectman. At St. Joseph's Catholic Church, he occasionally pinch-hit for the priest, leading weekday services for "my little old ladies and one old guy." (He had coolly memorized Bible passages by listening to them in the car so he wouldn't have to read and be exposed.) Everyone just assumed that Larry had a college education. He didn't disabuse them of the notion.

He kept in shape by playing recreational hockey, something he continues to do to this day. At home, he continued to cultivate his literary collection. "He's always loved books," Karen says. "He's always kept books from way back when, hoping that one day he'd be able to read them. He just didn't have the key to unlock them."

At times, Karen would urge Larry to consider going back to college, thinking he now could pull it off. Repeatedly, he batted the idea aside.

'This might change everything'

Two events in the few years turned Larry's life upside down. One was going to a workshop on adult dyslexia, which he needed to attend in order to maintain his social-work license. The presentation by Harvard professor David Rose slapped him in the face. Karen recalls that when Larry came home that day he said, "Oh my God, that really is me."

He began learning just how widespread his type of dyslexia is and what sort of accommodations are now possible. Inwardly, he began to stir.

Then a couple of years ago, as the economy began to tumble, Hasenfus was laid off by the textile firm after two decades of service. Closer to 60 than 50, he found himself unemployed.

He found out, though, that he was eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance, a U.S. Department of Labor program. It provided retraining for workers who had lost jobs because of increased imports. The government would pay for his education.

With great trepidation, Larry drove the 45 minutes to Springfield College to find out about the School of Human Services, a weekend program for adults. He brought pictures of himself with governors and judges, hoping to offset the dark secrets contained in the sealed copy of his academic transcript. When he met with the admissions director, he handed her the envelope and said, "This might change everything."

To his relief and his horror, Larry was admitted. He was then introduced to his adviser, Richard Andersen, a gray-goateed professor of writing and literature. Larry poured out his anxiety. Andersen listened and nodded, and told him to give it a shot. "You clearly have a lot to say," Andersen said. "Just write how you speak. Write from your heart."

Larry's son, Nathaniel, set him up with a voice-recognition software program to help with his writing. Larry smiled and began speaking into the microphone: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice …"

The words appeared on the screen. "It was amazing to see," Larry said.

He would bring his books and articles home, and Karen would read them to him. They talked about the material for hours on end.

When he got his first report card back in September, Larry could not believe his eyes: straight A's.

Emboldened, he went into Andersen's office and asked him whether any School of Human Services students ever participated in events with the undergraduate students of the residential college. Andersen told him that once in a great while a student from the school had acted in a play "when they needed someone older."

Larry shook his head and said that wasn't what he meant. "I want to go out for the baseball team," he said.

Andersen shared with him a quotation from Albert Einstein: "Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible."

Attempting the absurd

At the first meeting in January, Larry sat on the floor with about 70 baseball players, attracting one stare after another. Flashing back to his first Little League tryout many moons ago in Newton, he felt "alone, frightened and shy. It's so weird. It's supposed to be a fun kids' game, and here I am at my age: I don't know anybody, I don't know where to sit, I don't know where to go."

The indoor workouts from January to mid-March are a brutal culling of the herd. Morning running and weightlifting typically begin at 6 a.m. For Larry, that meant getting out the door by 5, hopping in his green Honda Civic with well over 200,000 miles on it, and racing to campus. He had never lifted a weight in his life.

[+] EnlargeLarry Hasenfus
Ryan Matlack for ESPNBoston.comHasenfus quickly won over his teammates, some 40 years his junior. "He loves the game, loves being around it," sophomore Jared Gidan said.

Then he would head back home, only to return for an 8 p.m. indoor practice. Springfield players and coaches largely expected Larry to come to his senses and drop off within a week.

"We were in disbelief that this guy was coming to play on the team," said sophomore pitcher Jared Gidan. "We were taken aback: Why is he still here?"

At home, "the first couple of days he would just stagger in and fall on the bed," Karen said. "I'd ask him, 'Larry, are you really, really sure you want to do this?'"

Like Rocky Balboa getting up from another blast from Apollo Creed, he would turn off the alarm and limp out to the Honda. On several occasions, he was pulled over for speeding. What can you say to the officer at 5:15 in the morning? So sorry, sir; I'm running late for baseball practice.

In time, the players had no choice but to be won over by Larry. They saw him coming back again and again, going for it in a way they just had to admire.

"We started hanging around him and saw that he was really trying, and doing everything the way it's supposed to be done," Gidan said. "It just showed that he really wanted to be there, that he loves the game, loves being around it. My opinion completely changed -- he's really cool."

In solidarity, Gidan and two other Springfield pitchers began growing mustaches, aiming for the Rollie Fingers/Larry Hasenfus look. Larry was so taken with the gesture that he bought them mustache grooming kits, complete with a comb and wax.

His pitching began to improve. What Louie Bernardini describes as his "looping fastball" began to have some velocity on a downward plane. The knuckler began to dance. The curve went from spinning to slightly breaking. He generally threw strikes.

As the snow melted at home, Larry rigged up an old hockey net on its side in the backyard, pulled his steel tape 60 feet, 6 inches, cut out a two-by-four and drilled it into the ground for a pitcher's rubber. He began tossing pitch after pitch into the net, Karen chuckling from inside the house.

When he made the JV team, Larry called his 87-year-old father to share the news.

"That's great," John said before pausing a moment. "Do you think there's any chance you'll get called up to the varsity?"

In his first intrasquad appearance with the JV, Larry pitched a hitless inning, walking one batter. Later that day, they handed out uniforms. The coaches told the "older guys" they had first dibs. The sophomores tore into the bin, and then Bernardini said: "Hey, what about Larry? What uniform do you want?"

"You know, Coach, I'm just happy to have one. I don't care about the numbers. You guys pick your numbers, and I'll just go last."

When Larry got the number 7, Bernardini said, "The Mick!"

Mickey Mantle made his debut in 1951 -- the year Larry was born.

'The kids really like him'

Karen says that Larry's return to school and to the baseball diamond has been "absolutely life-changing" for her husband. She went to one of the first games up in New Hampshire and was struck by the affection that clearly existed between her husband and the players. "The kids really like him," she said. "It was so fun to see him with them. Plus, he looked very cute in his uniform."

In the first few games, Larry kept the scorebook and often jogged after a foul ball, jiggling it in his left hand all the way back to the dugout. In truth, he was beginning to feel anxious about getting into a game. He knew this was a one-shot deal. The School of Human Services had given him a lot of credit for his professional work in the field, meaning that he is in line to graduate this December. The brief JV season -- his one and only -- would be over on the last day of April.

Last Thursday looked as though it might have been the day. Springfield was trailing Franklin Pierce 8-0 going into the top of the ninth. Richard Andersen sat in the stands, wearing a vintage 1914 jersey from the Brooklyn Tip-Tops of the old Federal League. He was talking with Pat Hasenfus, just in town from Colorado, hoping against hope. Larry was sent down to warm up in the ninth inning. Freshman Jon Kuzaro put two runners on base with two outs. Bernardini later said that with one more baserunner, Larry would have gotten the call. On a borderline 2-and-2 pitch, Kuzaro was given a called third strike, eliciting a loud groan from Andersen.

On Sunday back at Springfield College, Andersen is stewing in class, unable to get out for Larry's 1 p.m. game. Karen sits in the bleachers in a pack of family. When Larry goes to warm up in the sixth inning, the crowd comes alive. In the seventh with two outs, a runner on second, and Tufts leading 5-1, Bernardini strolls to the mound and taps his left hand.

Larry Hasenfus slowly jogs in from the bullpen.

[+] EnlargeLarry Hasenfus
Ryan Matlack for ESPNBoston.comWhen Hasenfus made it into his first game, he didn't last long. But his next outing went a little better.

"Now's the time, Larry. Go get 'em, seven. Here we go, Larry, Larry Kid."

Tufts' young coach, Brian Casey, looks out at the mound, trying to suppress his shock.

Karen puts her hand up against her face, peering over her fingertips.

In truth, Larry has a rough outing. On a 1-and-0 pitch, he hits the first batter. The second hitter lines a single to center on a 1-and-0 pitch. Then Bernardini jogs out to the mound to summon Kuzaro from the bullpen. As Larry is offered fist bumps from everyone on the bench, you can hear the grumbling in the stands about a quick hook.

Afterward, Larry seems relieved, discouraged and determined all at once. "I would have liked to get a couple of guys out," he says. "It just wasn't in the cards today. But I'm going to keep working at it and see what happens."

The next day, Larry gets right back on the horse, pitching the ninth inning in a loss to Western New England College. He allows a run but records the first three outs of his college career. Who knows what else might happen in this glorious month of April? Perhaps he'll get another chance Wednesday. That will be essentially a home game for Larry at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, not far from the log home with the hockey net in the backyard.

After he goes to court, hoping to fend off one of those speeding tickets, Larry will head over to the ballpark. He'll be ready to play again.

Marty Dobrow teaches journalism at Springfield College. His book, "Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream" (UMass Press) is due out later this year.

Marty Dobrow

ESPNBoston.com

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