Jim SundbergSeptember 24, 2006
I love sleeping. I also enjoy, in descending order, napping, resting, lying around, sitting there, staring off into the middle distance, leaning on girders, slouching, standing, and aimlessly walking. It’s possible that my slack physical–or is it moral?–makeup is one of the reasons I have spent such an inordinate amount of my life contemplating baseball. With one notable exception, baseball affords its players significant spans of empty time, outfielders often free to wonder about their disintegrating marriages or what kind of cheese to get on their next cheeseburger, infielders in their more anxious moments between pitches at liberty to polish the tics of their various obsessive-compulsive disorders, relief pitchers able to loaf and laze for most of the game like natives of an imaginary island paradise that smells of tobacco juice and Tiger Balm, starting pitchers buoyed on their occasional work days by the knowledge that they can, if they so choose, spend the following few days reorganizing their record collection or gambling at the dog track or, like the long-successful southpaw Mickey Lolich, becoming morbidly obese without any of these lifestyle choice necessarily having a negative impact on their abilities. And designated hitters, of course, can pass all but a tiny fraction of each game in the clubhouse eating Pringles and watching pornography. Only the catcher, wrapped in heavy pads and armor, involved in every play and busy between plays with the planning of the next play, is barred from taking pause. He is like a drummer in a go-nowhere acid rock band, chained to the beat while his cohorts explore all manner of irrelevancies, or like that one thin pale guy at the hippie commune who washes all the dishes and mails in the zoning-fee checks while everyone else has chant-filled orgies and wanders through the forest to carry on tearful conversations with moss.
Jim Sundberg, winner of seven consecutive Gold Glove awards, caught 90% or more of his team’s games in more seasons (six) than any man in history. In each of these seasons his team played 81 home games in the blast-furnace heat of an undomed stadium in Arlington, Texas. In two of those seasons, 1977 and 1978, he even finished 15th in the MVP voting, despite the fact that he was only slightly more imposing at bat than cartoon-oriole-haunted Rich Dauer. His worth was based almost completely on the fact that he adhered so fully and competently to that most coachly of all exhortations–”keep your head in the game”–(a demand which, because of my consistent failure to follow it, still grates on my ears all these many years after it was repeatedly shouted in my direction) that he was able to prop up his entire team like Atlas supporting the world. His Texas Ranger squads were known to stake early claims on first place only to wilt as the heat continued to pound down throughout the summer. But while the Bump Willses and Jim Umbargers of the world faltered, Jim Sundberg continued to perform his demanding job effectively day in and day out, an Atlas who remained in his world-supporting squat even as his precious burden crumbled to pebbles. With all this in mind, I can’t help thinking that in this card Jim Sundberg’s penetrating squint, which seems to be directed straight at me, betrays a keen premonition on his part that I too will disappoint him, that I haven’t got what it takes, that I am, just as I have often suspected, a fairly tall but mostly worthless pile of shit.