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The semi-professional

A few hundred words about a man defined by his inadequacies.

ray oyler
ray oyler
pilots mug shot

Across the lake they were burning draft cards, wearing bellbottoms and snaggletooth necklaces, drinking and smoking and copulating in dorm rooms. Across the lake a stadium was torn down, and another, greater one built. They were rebuilding Pioneer Square, saving Pike Place Market, expanding, growing rich. Across the lake they were living.

Ray Oyler wasn’t across the lake. Ray Oyler, who spent half a dozen years in the major leagues, who had an ironic unironic fan club of thousands that cheered him wildly before his first at bat as a Seattle Pilot, who had hit a home run off Luis fucking Tiant, stood on a pebble-strewn infield in a municipal park in Redmond, pounding his glove like he had in front of forty thousand, playing slow-pitch softball with grocery store clerks and gas station attendants.

He played softball for years, working as a bowling alley manager, at a Safeway, at Boeing. When the Tigers came to town after the Kingdome was built, he’d head down after work and pitch batting practice to his old team.

Oyler’s name still comes up sometimes. He hit .175 in his six-year career. In 1968, the Tigers won the World Series, but Oyler never got a start. His manager, Mayo Smith, put his Gold Glove centerfielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop, with seven whole games of experience, to keep Oyler’s bat out of the lineup. He pinch hit once.

Oyler didn’t complain. He never complained, never stopped trying to make adjustments, to improve. He didn’t improve. But even when the fans booed yet another weak grounder to second, his teammates loved him. He played hurt, he played hung over. He was both those things, a lot of the time. In Seattle, Jim Bouton memorialized him: "Ray Oyler contributed a key ninth-inning error to the loss and spent a long time after the game facing his locker, drinking beer and playing genuine sorrow." The word "genuine" is no accident; Bouton railed against the clubhouse culture that stated a ballclub had to mourn each of a hundred losses. But Ray Oyler’s pain was true.

Later on, Ray kept playing softball but his life was catching up to him. He tried to clean himself up just as he had tried to clean up his swing, so many times. But his condition grew worse, and the former defensive wizard had to slide over from shortstop to third. Years of alcohol had worn away his edges, the ones people could and couldn’t see. He died of a heart attack at his home at the age of 42.

His tombstone at Sunset Hills reads: "He achieved his dream." And so early.