PNC Park in late July is like a haunted house in mid-February -- flush with misery and horrors, but no one around to suffer them. Patrick Wilson is the rare exception, and he is only physically present. He unconsciously gropes at the fresh mustard stain on his new Roberto Clemente jersey, emotionally lobotomized after the Pirates' seventh consecutive strikeout, repeating Colonel Kurtz's parting words through still, cracked lips.
He sits among the generously estimated 8,532-person crowd. A sellout. Not the game, but Patrick. His band, Umbrella in the Shower, recently bartered its indie cred for a two-album deal with Reprise Records, Warner's flagship label. Reprise fronted a $1,000,000 advance, which means any songs Patrick writes from here on out will be $1,000,000 less inspired. Poverty is the mother of creativity. Money has a way of severing an artist's connection to the world he's meant to synthesize. A couple million bucks and he becomes wholly reliant on idioms and archetypes. No one on this iteration of the Pittsburgh Pirates is in jeopardy of suffering such creative extirpation.
No one except for Bryan Reynolds. He dresses and speaks like the sheriff of Deadwood, South Dakota, and he is the only rostered player who doesn't deserve the noose. He is still in his pre-arbitration years, earning the league minimum despite production among the league maximum, but his payday is inevitable. Patrick knows as soon as Reynolds signs that first, big contract, he will shave his Van Dyke beard, gain 25 pounds, and settle into mediocrity.
But people will know him. It's like Pitchfork said of Umbrella in the Shower -- "the songs won't be half as good, but the concerts will be twice as big." Pitchfork isn't allowed to positively review bands that don't qualify for Medicaid, so this was as generous a prognosis as Patrick could have hoped for. And he knows they're right.
Sandwiched between two Reprise executives in the first row of seats above the Pirates' dugout, Patrick recognizes more of himself in Christian Yelich's contented grin than the toothless maws of the Left Field Loonies raining juvenile heckles down upon him. Gents like Christian and he don't bristle at slander from the hoi polloi. They hold grievances commensurate with their social status. They don't fret the scarcity of food; they fume at how long it takes to reach them. 30 seconds for a hot dog? One and a half minutes for a basket of fries? Patrick had never before tallied the time between order and delivery. But what else is an idle amygdala to do? A healthy paycheck has rendered his virtually vestigial. For years, it had generated daily panic attacks, as if convinced that Jesus Christ himself had relied on a menagerie of terror, adrenaline, and suicidal impulses to feed the 5,000, and thus, Patrick might use the same recipe to stretch his double-digit bank statements to cover both monthly rent and delinquent student loans.
Today, instead of choosing by which financial default to obliterate his credit score, Patrick debated between an authentic Clemente jersey and an Andrew McCutchen autographed bat in the Clubhouse Store. The men from Reprise stepped in and bought him both. They are physically and economically superfluous creatures who are dressed, not for sports, but depositions. Their eyes have scarcely left their phones. Their Yuengling's have gone flat, untouched in their armrest cupholders.
Some no-name AAA journeyman goes down swinging at a wicked curve that dances under his bat like a butterfly. He lumbers back to the dugout where the other seven chumps that pitcher Corbin Burnes has just finished castrating slap him on the ass and remind him that his humiliation is basically private because, although this game is being broadcast as far west as Youngstown, Ohio and as far south as Wheeling, West Virginia, almost no one is watching. A 6-run top of the seventh prompted even half the season ticket holders to depart their seats in disgust and join the city's general wildcat strike.
Reynolds knocks the doughnut off his bat and strides to the plate with two out, nobody on, and nobody interested. He kicks the batter's box chalk line back an inch. He is sculpted to the proportions of a tennis player -- tall and wiry -- but his violent swing could fell a Redwood. He always takes the first strike just to get his adrenaline circulating. He prefers pitcher's counts, favors lulling the opponent into the illusion of his premature demise because he fights best cornered and on his back like a badger slashing at a Dachshund's throat.
"Mr. Wilson," One of the men from Reprise tugs at Patrick's sleeve. "Sorry to bother you during the game, but Mr. Rivers-White was wondering why there have to be so many references to Das Capital on the new album."
True to form, Reynolds takes a called strike, though the ball is at least four inches off the plate.
"I have a B.A. in poli sci, and nothing else to do with it."
The man from Reprise punches something into his phone, pauses for a beat, and looks back up. "He wants you to balance things out with equal mentions of God and Man at Yale."
Rivers-White is CEO at Warner Records. Accordingly, he knows nothing of music. He thinks any song under three and a half minutes is incomplete and anything over four is interminably self-indulgent. He wants all his choruses to rhyme. If he ruled the world, Jello Biafra and Kory Gregory would be forcibly autotuned. "Sure. Maybe we can title the record 'Great in Theory, Bad in Practice'," Patrick says.
Reynolds hacks at the second pitch and fouls it straight back into the netting.
"He also thinks you play too fast. Except for that reggae track. He thinks that one's too slow. He says he'll send over some Bruno Mars cuts for you to use as a tempo guide."
"I'd sooner kill myself than listen to a full-length Bruno Mars song." Patrick isn't kidding, but on the other hand, he is the front man of an alternative rock band, so he's more predisposed to suicide than the average jobber.
The man from Reprise laughs nervously because Rivers-White is famous for discovering and developing Bruno Mars. Patrick wants to tell him that Alfred Nobel was once best known for inventing dynamite, but now he's most closely associated with an international peace prize -- there's still time for Rivers-White to remedy his mistakes.
Back on the diamond, Burnes winds up and throws a pitch low and outside, off-speed, impossible to nip. Reynolds goes around too soon but adjusts his bat angle mid-swing and freezes his momentum as coolly as Superman stopping a barreling train. He taps the ball foul and stays alive.
"Um ..." the man from Reprise has more to say. "Mr. Rivers-White also isn't so sure about titling a song 'Who Shot the Governor?'"
"Is it the assassin's anonymity that bothers him?"
Burnes twice shakes off the catcher. This time, he fires a 98 mile per hour four-seamer at shoulder level. Reynolds is fooled again, but part of what makes him special is that even a permanently fooled Bryan Reynolds would compete for the batting title. His bat, a lithe whip, an extension of his body, tightens and drives the ball into a sea of empty, blue seats down the first base line.
"I think the fear is that, if somebody did shoot the governor, we could catch liability."
"Which governor would they have to shoot for me to be liable?"
"I think any of them."
"So I'm responsible anytime a governor gets shot?"
"What about calling it 'Who Bought the Governor?' Same syllables. Still subversive."
"And I assume no one has standing to sue me when someone buys the governor?"
Burnes twists off a breaking ball that plunges suddenly at home plate like a hawk divebombing its prey. Reynolds squats, recalibrates in nanoseconds, and pulls a groundstroke, slapping the pitch back over the home plate umpire's skull.
Through the medium of television, Reynolds with two strikes is a borderline religious experience. But that experience is to watching Reynolds live as masturbation is to sexual intercourse. Patrick rubs his mustard stain and recalls observing a glob of the yellow condiment squirt out the backend of his hotdog and onto his new jersey in slow motion. For Reynolds, the entire sport of baseball occurs at that speed. To him, the ball appears as a watermelon. Even if he misses, he can't miss.
"I do hope you're taking this seriously," the other man from Reprise finally chimes in and interrupts Patrick's moment of frisson. "We've invested an enormous amount of time and money in you."
All Patrick hears is, We own you. Of course, they never sounded like this before he signed the contract. Now, every day, someone from Reprise mentions their investment, like they own a controlling share in Patrick Wilson, can unilaterally dictate his tastes and circadian rhythm. What will they tell Bryan Reynolds after he signs on the dotted line? 'Always swing at the first pitch. Mr. Nutting insists.'
"Music is just like any other business," the other man from Reprise continues, "only I swear it exclusively attracts the obstinate and immature." For some reason, those insults make Patrick want to prove him right. He is obstinate; he is immature. And the dopes at Reprise gave him $1,000,000 for it. Did they expect obscene compensation to disincentivize the behavior that earned it in the first place? "See those boys on the field? They all put on the uniform every day and go to work. If you wanna make it in this industry, you'll do the same."
Burnes plants his right foot against the rubber. Patrick digs his fingernails into his palms.
"You kids all think you're irreplaceable, but I've got bad news for you: half the people in America can strum three chords and sing out of tune. And most of them can do it without quoting Karl Marx and making us look stupid."
The sun breaks through a lode of gloomy clouds, and Patrick feels the spotlight burn holes in his retinas. The entire playing field, save Burnes and Reynolds, has diverted its attention from the game at hand to the commotion above the Pirates' dugout. Can that young kid Patrick Wilson fend off any more of the other man from Reprise's nastiest stuff? Is this his 'Welcome to the Show' moment?
"I don't care if we have to bring in Bruno Mars to rewrite the entire album. You'll deal with it, and when the press asks you how you feel about your new record, you'll tell them it's the best thing you've ever made. Got it?" Burnes lifts his knee just as the other man from Reprise does his eyebrows.
For a moment, Patrick joins Reynolds in a state of suspended animation. The world pauses, and the other man from Reprise's head swells to the size of a giant pumpkin. What happens next feels supernaturally predetermined.
Patrick's fist connects with the other man from Reprise's upturned nose at the same time Reynold's Maple wood bat meets the ball. Crack! in stereo. Reynolds takes a banana-shaped route to first with an eye for extra bases. Patrick huffs it up the cement stairs, ballpark security in pursuit. Reynolds rounds second; Patrick passes the Federal Street Grille Stand, both making Sir Roger Bannister time. Garcia's throw from right beats Reynolds to third. He slams on the brakes midway between bases. Escobar chases him back toward second. He throws the ball to Wong, who holds it up like a police badge as he follows Reynolds to third. Reynolds slides headfirst into the bag, and Wong's throw gets away from Burnes, who is covering. Two dumpy rent-a-cops wearing clip-on ties block Patrick's escape from either end of an escalator. Both mumble into radios connected to earpieces by coiled wires that wind down the spine and disappear into some hidden pelvic outlet. The policeman planted on the lower landing platform fails to notice the legless Gulf War vet in the runaway scooter barreling toward him. The double amputee plows into the back of the pudgy peace officer's knees and provides Patrick an avenue for escape. Reynolds leaps up and heads for home. Patrick jukes a ticket checker, hurdles the turnstile, and high fives the bronze Willie Stargell. Inside-the-parker and outside-the-parker. The star who will soon sellout and the kid who already has.