Suicide Squeeze

"Yeah, really, all those clever little catchphrases," mused onetime National League rookie sensation Dave Knoedler on a sunny April afternoon over a cup of coffee in his Riverside Drive apartment, "like 'Could His New Pitch Make It In the Art Students' League?,' or my former teammate who was quoted as saying, "Sure, -- now he hangs paintings instead of curveballs.'"

"And that one guy who said that Post-Game Show 'represents Soho's latest foray into "Abstract Depressionism",'" I said.

"Yeah, but you know, I realized long ago that by nature most of the people who write about you -- most," he smiled, "never get it straight, be they sportswriters or art critics." Not surprising to hear from a man who in his brief and irreverent pitching career once dashed out from the Seattle dugout during an old-timers' game to snatch the toupee off the head of a famed former first baseman, and used to say things like, "If the people that run this game tried to play it they couldn't beat a team of crippled girls even if they stole their crutches." And shrugging off the critics is a luxury the Noodler can afford these days, now that his Post-Game Show draws thousands weekly to the Gallery of Hard Knocks in Manhattan.

"Besides, I never would have gotten anywhere -- including in baseball -- if I'd listened to every little thing people told me along the way. And in any case I've found the reaction in fact to be mostly positive. It's nice to see things working out," he said, pouring us another cup of coffee, "Backers have been ringing the phone off the hook, the Coplanar Interaction documentary is opening next week, and I'm already at work on some new projects. I'm beginning to appreciate being your own boss." In Dave's case this includes performing daily as the apathetic Umpire in the most controversial, and perhaps, most significant entry in the show, the celebrated It Hurts!.

Five evenings a week, from seven to eleven-thirty P.M., eight shows' worth of onlookers fill up the seats in the loft above the gallery, joining an already seated "audience" of two or so dozen television sets positioned around the room, singly and in groups of from three to seven. These latter "families" of "season ticketholders" typically consist of two color consoles to which cigarette packages and beercans have been taped (a 21-inch set with a companion 17-incher, generally, though they are a few home entertainment centers) and the "kids," black-and-white sets sized from two to fourteen inches, screens smeared with cotton candy and mustard.

As the loft reverberates with the whirring din of the TVs, the lights are dimmed, save for over the aisle running lengthwise down the middle of the room. Faster than you can say "Don Drysdale" a hush falls over the crowd as one of Dave's handpicked former Triple-A aces now ascends the regulation pitching mound built at one end ("I was going to have them play the anthem but I figured that'd be gilding the lily") while sixty feet six inches across the room waits an uneasy batter. For, brave though he may be, the nervous way he fidgets with the superfluous polystyrene bat he is equipped with betrays the consternation of a man who's beginning to sense he's in the wrong line of work; for notwithstanding Dave's assurances that all of his "hitters" (or "hittees," as one of the out-of-work actors employed in the show described his role) wear helmets and protective padding and that he tells his pitchers to take something off it, the moans, groans, and grimaces that the horsehide barrage seems to exact from each batter sure make it look like It Hurts!  

"The audience reactions are fascinating," says Dave, who dons mask, chest protector, and arbiter's "blues," to silently oversee each performance from a crouch behind the catcher. "Occasionally there's lots of screaming and carrying on, and people yelling for us to stop. . . On the other hand we sometimes get the kind that thinks we fake it or that pitcher's not throwing hard enough or something."

Downstairs things are a little quieter. There are a few canvases from Knoedler's relatively early multi-media series, Stadia, done in watercolors, charcoal, and found objects (dirt, ticket-stubs, bottlecaps) and at their best (in "Wrigley Field, 1975," "Candlestick Park, 1975," and "McKeeseport Veterans, 1976" especially) these "evoke a languorous summertime wonder at the world's easy flux," as one critic noted.

Also from the early Playing Period is Dave's witty variation on a theme, the Baseballs. There are baseballs dyed pink and painted plaid; one called "Mine" is six feet in diameter, dwarfing a tiny pea-sized one whose title is too tiny to read. Some have been painted with faces, or to look like fruit, or a globe; one has been bronzed, another is egg-shaped. There is even, white with crimson stitching, a cube. "I started doing them my rookie year for my daughter Lisa. Once in the clubhouse they handed out all these balls for us to autograph and I just took a few and drew faces and stuff on them to give to her as toys. I'm always sketching; it's almost a nervous habit with me that I've had since I was a kid. Anyway, after a while I became intrigued with the possibilities and did the other ones." Curiously, he is not overly fond of them. "No, they're not really my favorite stuff in the show at all. My manager made me include'em," he explains, adding, "to me with the possible exception of the last one, they look like minor-league Jasper Johns."

He completed this set with this "last one" in the summer of 1976. While all the others are droll or facetious, Dave's ultimate statement on the matter -- titled "base Ball" -- stands alone, bleak and despairing, at odds with its companions. Dirty and scuffed, its woolly innards spilling from the deeply gashed horsehide, it bespeaks Dave's agony his sophomore year in the bigs. Even now he doesn't like to talk about it. "You know, after the press does everything from sending you back to Little League to making you into the biggest tragedy since Gehrig, you never really want to talk about the stuff."

[end part one of Suicide Squeeze]