Tommy Helms and Vada Pinson

October 8, 2015

Tommy Helms Vada PinsonALDS preview, part two (see part one here)

First of all, before we get to any predictions, can we take a moment to imagine the World Series that never was? I’m talking about 1980, when the two most exciting teams of my childhood came within a couple Del Unser base hits from meeting in what would have been a blazing festival of speed. In 1980 the Astros and Royals both led their leagues in triples and amassed a combined 379 stolen bases. Nothing against the long-suffering Phillies, whose first-ever World Series triumph that year clinches that season of end-to-end thrills as one of the greatest ever (in Benchwarmer I describe how for several feverish weeks during the panicked early days of fatherhood I grasped for sanity by imagining penning a Pulitzer-worthy Halberstamian ode to 1980 to be titled The Highest Season: Racing for the Pennant, Chasing .400, Philly Soul, Super Joe, and Blow), but some part of me mourns the loss of a World Series that would have been an exhilarating blur of rainbow and sky-blue racers.

There’s a decidedly muted version of the excitement of the Royals and Astros of that era in the two cards shown here. With Tommy Helms, the excitement is embedded in the uniform, which seemed altogether of a piece with Jose Cruz smashing a liner into the gap and flying around the bases but that seems a bit at odds with the worldly resolve in Tommy Helms’s creased expression. His perm somehow also cuts against the grain of the space-age threads; both are wholly of their era, of course, but the hairstyle seems to point away from the action on the diamond to a time in the near future when Tommy Helms is going to be out of baseball altogether and renting you a canoe.

Helms’s erstwhile Reds teammate, Vada Pinson, presents his own muted version of excitement by predating the Royals heyday slightly while also being in the twilight of his own career, which at its pinnacle showcased dynamic talents that would have fit in perfectly with the dynastic Royals. He could have been the prototypical Royal—imagine swift, impeccable fielding coupled with 200 slashing hits a year, doubles, triples, homers, steals, Amos Otis and George Brett somehow joined in the version of Vada Pinson suggested by the statistics of his early years—had he only been able to carry his youth with him into the professional athlete’s version of old age.

Of course, both of the wizened veterans here are, in real-world terms, still young men. But in sports the end comes earlier and as such begins to loom not that long before the beginning. Just as my cards suggested that the other ALDS series is about beginnings, the cards here seem to imply that the series at hand is about endings. So which of the estimable 1960s Reds shown here is venturing more gracefully toward the end? Tommy Helms will make it OK to the other side, surely, and will hobble on through the rest of his life just fine, but Vada Pinson seems like he’ll be able to bring with him across that border into our leaden everyday life a small, singing note of buoyancy and repose. We all hope to continue on that way somehow.

Edge: Royals


Jim Mason and Len Barker

October 8, 2015

Jim MasonLen Barker 78ALDS preview, part one

So the playoffs begin today for the Blue Jays and Rangers. Beginnings are often romanticized as capacious fountains of possibility, but in actuality beginnings are messy, fraught with disorientation, flailing, clumsy masquerades, mistakes. Jim Mason would be distinctly qualified to verify this, as he’s the only player to play for both the Texas Rangers in their first season, 1972, and the Toronto Blue Jays in their first season, 1977. The Rangers and Blue Jays began life with 100 and 107 losses, respectively, and Jim Mason epitomized both efforts by hitting .197 for the Rangers and .187 for the Blue Jays. You could interpret the repulsed grimace shown on his face here as his reaction to being pulled back into his second formative morass. He’s shown as a Blue Jay, but at the time the card was produced there was really no such thing as a Blue Jay, so Topps staffers had to take their best guess and doctor this blind approximation atop whatever photo they had available, in this case a shot of Mason on his 1976 team, the Yankees, who punctuated their profound distance from stumbling beginnings by winning yet another pennant in 1976, their fucking thirtieth.

Mason didn’t last long on the Blue Jays, which is probably a pretty demoralizing thing to go through—being unwanted on one of the worst teams in history. His old team wanted him, however, or at least wanted him and Steve Hargan more than Roy Howell, who they shifted to the Blue Jays along with some cash, and so in 1977 and 1978 he teamed with his counterpart here, Len Barker.

While Mason, a utility infielder on new and terrible teams, suggested the reality of beginnings, Barker was of the species of baseball player most prone to being glimpsed through the romantic notion of beginnings as daydreams of dazzling, boundless possibilities: a big young pitcher who throws smoke. In 1976 at age 20 he tossed a shutout in his second start, and the following year, at age 21, while teaming with Jim Mason, he posted in limited duty the best numbers, by percentages, of any pitcher on the 94-win squad. Things were looking up for the Rangers! But as it turned out the Rangers sank back into the swamp of losing for many more years, and Barker never really became the next Nolan Ryan, as was hoped, though he continued to show flashes throughout the years.

That’s the reality of life: bright flashes and long, dim slogs. So what’s the right way to think about beginnings? Do you grimace in knowing revulsion or smile? In practice I tend toward the former, but I always hope to at least lean toward beaming idiotic dreams.

Edge: Rangers


Dick Pole

October 7, 2015

Dick Pole@midnightWhen I was a little boy living from pack to pack in rural Vermont in the 1970s, I knew my dream would one day come true of having a card from my collection serve as the backdrop for a riff session by three very funny people on a late-night cable television show. The Dick Pole stuff starts at around the sixteen-minute mark here. Particularly gratifying is that the Sklar brothers, arguably the funniest sports-obsessed comedians in the world (and the creators of the hilarious, sadly defunct baseball-card sitcom “Back on Topps”), are leading the Pole-stroking session. (Thanks to Bo Rosny for the lookout on this.)


Rick Reuschel and Bob Robertson

October 7, 2015

Rick Reuschel 77Bob Robertson

Here is my preview of the 2015 National League Wild Card game:

There is no ball. No ball thrown, no ball struck. If these two randomly chosen cardboard still lifes are any guide, that’s what at play in tonight’s game: absence.

Both teams involved in the single-elimination Wild Card game this evening have become painfully familiar with absence. Before their recent resurgence, the Pirates racked up twenty losing seasons in a row, which is the major league record. Even more famously, the Cubs have now gone 106 years without winning a World Series, by far the longest drought not just in baseball but in all the major American team sports.

The roles of the two pantomimers shown here are fitting, in terms of what’s been missing. When the Cubs were in their heyday well beyond the memory of anyone alive today, the team was built on the staggeringly effective pitching of men such as Ed Reulbach, Orval Overall, and Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. None of these pitchers, as it turned out, would have as much of a total impact on the Cubs as that of the pitcher shown here, Rick Reuschel, at least according to the most common number used these days to compare players at different positions and from different eras, WAR (short for wins above replacement player); Reuschel was by the estimation of baseball-reference.com worth 49 wins above replacement player for the Cubs, four better than old Mordecai and second among pitchers in Cubs’ history only to Fergie Jenkins. He never won a World Series with the Cubs, of course, but he won a lot of games and got to play on a team with his older brother, Paul, and is shown here smiling, and is something of the epitome of the Cubs’ lasting appeal throughout the many decades of futility, a beefy, likeable everyman not shirking his responsibilities in any way but also not appearing to take anything too seriously.

Bob Robertson represents to me a different, less personal epitome. The Pirates of my childhood—who were in continuous contention of the National League pennant and as such the polar opposite of the record-setting futility of the millennial Pirates—hit. They had hitters coming through the windows and leaping down from the trees. They had plenty of star hitters, Stargell and Parker and, a little before my time, Clemente, but it was their vast second battalion of hitting ferocity that impressed me, and where it became staggering was when it seemed to veer into an almost anonymous infinity. They had a guy named Bill Robinson and another named Bob Robertson and both seemed to be right-handed sluggers capable of belting 20 home runs in mere part-time duty, and this interchangeable pair of bludgeoners was in addition to Zisk, Hebner, Oliver, Garner, Sanguillen, etc., etc. And just for good measure even the infielders seemed capable of going on tears, judging from Rennie Stennett’s seven-hit game, which was immortalized with its own baseball card that showed on the back that the feat started with a double off Rick Reuschel and ended with a triple off of Paul Reuschel.

I don’t know what to make of this last connection, but I suspect that in it is the key to predicting the outcome of tonight’s game. I didn’t venture into this fortune-telling exercise with any foreknowledge that I would end up talking about Rennie Stennett, and that it would in turn lead me to the image of the Reuschel brothers—who I held above all baseball brothers because they played on the same team and because one of them, which I mistakenly thought of as the younger one, Paul, wore, like me, a younger brother, glasses—joined together in a humbling, battering defeat (a “22-0 plastering,” according to the Topps copywriter describing the Stennett game). I actually wanted to predict that the Cubs will win tonight, but the cards, at least as I am reading them, suggest otherwise. And all I’ll say about that is that absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence just hurts.

Edge: Pirates


Tommy Helms and Dick Tidrow

October 6, 2015

astros yanks

Here is my preview of the first game of the 2015 playoffs, based on two randomly chosen baseball cards from my childhood collection and their relation to the basic existential question of life.

What are we here for?

No one knows the answer to this question. Dick Tidrow represents the classic American hero’s response to this question, which is to ignore that it even exists, to squint with gunslinger toughness straight into the question, past the question. Why are we here? What kind of pussy question is that? We’re here to win. But of course winning, ultimately, isn’t an option, as attested to by the black circle with 40 in it on Tommy Helms’s jersey, a tribute to Don Wilson, who a few months after pitching a two-hit shutout in his last start of the 1974 season died of smoke inhalation in his garage. (His death was ruled an accident.) Tommy Helms was the hitting star of Wilson’s last game, homering and driving in three runs. The following season, with that somber number on their jersey, was a brutal one for the Astros, who dropped 97 games. Tommy Helms, nearing the end of his career during that loss-filled campaign, seems quizzical, bemused, perhaps a little more aware of life’s sorrowful twists than Dick Tidrow. Tommy Helms is not defeated, but he’s not going around imagining that our whole presence here is not just a little absurd.
Edge: Astros

Coming tomorrow: Preview of the National League Cubs-Pirates Wild Card game


Darryl Dawkins

August 29, 2015

DawkinsIn memory of Darryl Dawkins

In 1979, the world was divided thusly:

  1. Those who could graze the bottom of the net.
  2. Those who could grab the net.
  3. Those who could touch the rim.
  4. Those who could grab the rim.
  5. Those who could dunk through the rim relatively small round objects such as a tennis ball or a volleyball.
  6. Those who could dunk.
  7. Darryl Dawkins.

I was eleven at that time, and this hierarchy coursed from my feet to my fingertips with wonder and need. I was in the first group, occasionally, sometimes able with all my might to jump and just barely feel the soft, puffy threading of the net hanging from one of the hoops in the junior high gym in Randolph, Vermont. I started playing basketball that year for a seventh grade team that would lose every one of its games, and so it was the year when I began to identity myself with the bottom of hierarchies. Accompanying that identification was an intensification of a fantasy life built on various notions of power and flight.

That hierarchy gave way over the years to other, more nebulous ensnarements. I never did get to the sixth level. I got close. Once I even sort of pushed one through on an outdoor rim, but because I was never able to duplicate the feat anywhere else I’ve come to believe that the rim was slightly lower than regulation, or that I was dreaming.

Dreams come and go. I’m pushing fifty now, an age when it’s not really possible to envision life as a rising. But life will always be astounding. Think of barely being able to touch the bottom of the net and then discovering that elsewhere in the world someone was able to leap up and dunk with such force that the whole backboard shattered to pieces. The counterpoint to the feeling of losing isn’t winning, exactly. It’s imagining what Darryl Dawkins could do.


The Benchwarmer Interview

August 25, 2015

Benchwarmer cover finalThe Benchwarmer Interview

The following is a roundtable discussion about my new book, Benchwarmer, with a series of versions of Josh Wilker. (This was inspired by David Ebenbach’s post about his new book of poetry.)

Seventeen-year-old me: You wrote a book? Is it like On the Road? [lights bong]

Current me: No, it’s not really like that. It’s off the road. It’s about when I became a dad. The first year or so of that, kind of losing my shit and whatnot.

Twelve-year-old me: Whatnot? What is whatnot? And when did you become a dad? No way you were as old as Dad when it happened. That was one thing I never wanted to have happen, be a dad that old.

Current me: I was even older! It took me a long time to, I don’t know, get my shit together. Not that my shit was together when the baby came. In fact, that’s when I realized how far from having my shit together I really was.

Eighty-two-year-old me: You wasted your life. It’s right there in the book—getting so upset with yourself that you punched yourself in the head. Who does that? Nutjobs, that’s who. And you know who’s paying for all the blows to the head?

Current me: Who?

Eighty-two-year-old me: What?

Current me: Who is paying for all the blows to the head?

Eighty-two-year-old me: What are you talking about? Where . . . where am I?

Twenty-four-year-old me: Wait, is this your first book?

Current me: No, I’ve written a few. Two “real” ones, and by real I mean they are both intended to be—sorry for the pretentiousness—literary, plus they also have the theoretical element of one day involving royalties, plus another short one that’s also real and that I love but it’s really short so I hesitate to count it, and I know all this talk about counting is ludicrous. Anyway, there were also a bunch of nonfiction children’s books that I wrote for practically nothing when I started getting sick of dealing with belligerent gangs of teenage shoplifters at the liquor store.

Twenty-four-year-old me: Yeah, tell me about it. I’m surprised to see you, actually. I figured we’d be shot in a holdup by now. But so why are you punching yourself in the head? What the fuck are you complaining about? And the kid—he’s your biological kid? Yeah? So you got laid at least once and possibly even with at least some regularity and are maybe even married, yes? Happily? Yes? Jesus Fucking Christ. You got laid, you’re in love with your wife, you’ve written books, and you’ve got a kid to, you know, love and everything and—

Current me: Two kids now.

Twenty-four-year-old me: Two kids! To stand there by your bedside when you’re this guy [uses a thumb jerk to indicate eighty-two-year-old me as the latter is meandering blearily out of the conference room] and about to check out. So what’s the problem? Do you know how lonely it is to be me, and how fucking frustrating to be filling up notebooks day after day with pure shit that no one will ever read? I’m the guy who should be punching himself in the head.

Current me: You did punch yourself in the head. If memory serves—and my memory is already going—you were the one who started the whole practice. Or somebody did. Maybe it was even earlier. Did you start doing that?

Twelve-year-old me: I don’t know. Last year I almost got hyperthermia walking in the ice storm for six miles the day I was so mad that little league team practice was cancelled.

Current me: Yeah, that’s the same basic idea. I don’t know why we want to punish ourselves.

Seventeen-year-old me: [blows out bong hit, coughs for several seconds] So the whole book is, uh, you punching yourself? That’s where I end up? What about beauty, dude?

Current me: No, it’s not just me punching myself. But the few people who’ve read the book seem to seize on that as its defining aspect. I just wanted to honestly show what that first year was like. The thing I wanted to get across more than anything was the beauty. It was way beyond anything I’d ever seen, and it almost wrecked me.

Twelve-year-old me: Ugh. I like funny stuff. Is it funny? Does it have sports? If it doesn’t have funny and sports I’ll just stick with my stacks of Mad Magazine and Sports Illustrated.

Current me: It’s actually all about sports—it’s an encyclopedia of sports failure. It was the only way I could think of to talk about that first year, to use losses large and small to talk about my life. To get through it. Some people think it’s funny. Some people think it’s sad. I laughed while I was writing it.

[Eighty-year-two-old me re-enters the room. He seems surprised that there are people in the room.]

Eighty-two-year-old me: I thought this was the way back outside.

Current me: No, uh. But I think we’re wrapping up, so—

Eighty-two-year-old me: I must tell you in all honesty that I seem to have defecated in my pants.


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