Tim FoliApril 9, 2007
I. Ideal Versus Real
The Mustache Ride crashes to a stop here with this fascinatingly awkward 1980 action photo featuring Tim Foli, Tim Foli’s no-frills “Shop Teacher” mustache, Tim Foli’s flat-topped Stargell-starred cap, and a sliding Joel Youngblood keeping the number 18 Mets jersey warm for Darryl Strawberry. Neither player is shown in a particularly good light. Foli, perhaps having flashbacks to the 1973 play when Bob Watson slid hard to disrupt Foli’s double-play relay throw and ended up breaking the shortstop’s jaw, recoils like a man about to be crushed by a teetering vending machine. Meanwhile, in pulling his right hand out of the way of a potentially harmful thrown ball, Joel Youngblood has inadvertently assumed a frightened, prone, unmistakenly effeminate pose worthy of Fay Wray.
In all, the tableaux the two men create serves as a striking contrast to the idealized image of the leaping middle infielder gracefully completing the double-play relay (seen, for example, in the drawing in the lower-left corner of Kurt Bevacqua’s 1976 card). This play, in its ideal form, encapsulating all the skill and tension and suspense and ferocity and elegance of the game itself, is perhaps the single most emblematic image in all of baseball. I don’t know if they still do this, but when I was little Sports Illustrated seemed to always use a shining example of the play for the cover of their mid-World Series issue (which means it’s entirely possible that just a few months before this card came out Foli himself was, in a more acrobatic moment, the magazine’s cover boy).
So this photo, with its homely, bruise-producing, real-world corollary to the utopian baseball ideal, is a perfect place for the Mustache Ride to come to an end. Facial hair had entered baseball in 1972 as a symbol of a societal embrace of wider possibilities for individual freedom. My own family resided very near the psychic epicenter of the most hopeful, utopian leanings of that cultural trend, and by the time mustaches had spread onto the upper lips of major leaguers everywhere I was spending most of my days in a Sumerhill-inspired free school learning that I was “Free to Be” anything I wanted to be. Life, it seemed, was going to be a leaping dance move, a balletic double-play relay, a twirling kinetic ripple of bliss.
But by 1980 I entered a standard junior high school and life started looking a lot more like the picture of Foli and Youngblood here: awkward, ugly, imminently painful. I did poorly in all my classes, but the one that I remember having the most trouble with was a shop class taught by a man with a mustache very similar to the one modeled above by Tim Foli. The final project was to build a metal tool box. I kept procrastinating, having little interest in the task and absolute certainty that I lacked the skills necessary to complete it. I didn’t want a toolbox. I didn’t need a toolbox. But soon the idea of the unbuilt toolbox filled my life with dread. This was what life was going to be like from now on. You are going to be asked to do things you don’t want to do and won’t know how to do.
II. The Little Things
Tim Foli compiled a .283 career on-base percentage and a .309 career slugging percentage, numbers bested by, among many, many others, utility infielder Mickey Morandini, utility infielder Mickey Klutts, and left-handed pitcher Mickey McDermott. Foli did however frequently rank among the league leaders in sacrifice hits and most at-bats per strikeout, traits that qualified him in the logic of the day (still currently in vogue in some quarters) as a prototypical “number two” hitter. (Note: though his numbers would suggest otherwise, the term “number two” is not in this context the well-known euphemism for the more redolent of the two standard bathroom excretions, but rather is a reference to the second position in a batting order.) The fact that the Pittsburgh Pirates became league champions in 1979 while using a lineup that most commonly began its assault on the opposition with the tepid one-two punch of Omar Moreno and Tim Foli is a testament to good fortune (both Moreno and Foli turned in career years at the plate with decent if nowhere near optimal on-base averages of .333 and .335, respectively) and to the redoubtable talents of the other Pirates.
On the other hand, runs were harder to come by in those days, so I suppose Moreno’s blazing speed and Foli’s ability to bunt and hit behind the runner probably scratched out fiercely important runs once in a while in tense, low-scoring battles. Moreover, the estimable length of Foli’s career rebuts with great vehemence any arguments made by a superficially analytical stat-gazing ectomorph such as myself who wouldn’t be able to contribute even on the most infinitesimally slight level to a major league win if he had ten thousand years to try. Major league teams valued Tim Foli from the moment he was the first pick in the 1968 amateur draft (just ahead of Pete Broberg) to very near the end of his 15 years in the big leagues. I would guess that the Mets, who drafted him when they could have picked any other high school or college player in the country, were probably hoping for him to be a more potent hitter than he turned out to be, expectations which perhaps led to him being included in a 1972 trade to Montreal, but even after he showed the limits of his abilities as the Expos regular shortstop for years, the Mets chose to reacquire him in 1978, proving that they still saw him as a useful guy to have around.
He was a player who “did all the little things” on both offense and defense. While all the bunts and groundouts to second base probably didn’t end up contributing that much to his team’s ability to win games, Foli was by all accounts (and by the way his fielding percentage and range factor consistently bettered the league average) a very good defensive shortstop. This ability undoubtedly helped the Pirates (who had for many years had the reputation for being a collection of potent sluggers who continually sabotaged themselves by booting the ball all over the field) evolve into a championship squad. He was just what they needed throughout the season, and on top of his fielding prowess he added a .333 batting average in the Pirates’ 10 post-season games.
I don’t know how he fit in with the Pirates’ famously supportive and rousing “We Are Family” clubhouse vibe, but from my own (largely ineffective) athletic experiences I can say that it doesn’t ever hurt to have a guy on your side who’s ready and willing to start swinging whenever the need should arise. I never possessed this ability, but it seems clear that Tim Foli (nicknamed Crazy Horse for his “legendary tantrums,” according to Bruce Markusen) did. One thing the photo in his 1980 card makes clear is that baseball, contrary to the more flowery appreciations by would-be bards of the diamond, is very much a contact sport. It helps to have a tough, ornery cuss in the center of the action.
III. Shoe Store
I started playing basketball in 1980, that year of metal toolbox dread. We lost every game, and the following year we only won twice, both against the same team, which got their vengeance the following year by contributing to our winless freshman team campaign. My coach in my freshman year was a guy in his early 20s who had played at our high school just a few years earlier. We saw him in general as a fairly nice guy who bowed to the dictates of the varsity coach, Viens (last seen in these pages casting aspersions on my Rollie Fingers-style Padres cap). My most vivid recollection of our coach’s Viens-puppeted behaviors is of when he ended one of our practices with a low, mumbling speech about how we weren’t fouling the opposition enough.
He said that he and Viens had gone over the scoresheets from our games and we just weren’t committing enough fouls, a sure sign in their eyes that we weren’t being aggressive enough. Though it seemed even at the time to be an odd way to go about teaching us to be more aggressive, I remember that the speech produced in me the increasingly familiar feeling of dread that I’d experienced a couple years earlier with the metal toolbox project. I knew that if anybody was to blame for our low foul totals, it was me, and I also knew that I was incapable of changing into a careening Kurt Rambis-like human missile on the court: I was a coward when it came to physical pain. And this is what being a man was going to be like. You’re going to be asked to build metal toolboxes and foul guys.
Anyway, that coach had a mustache. He was in the habit of touching the mustache with his lower lip, something I recognized years later in my short, abortive stabs at growing facial hair as the tic of a guy new to the feeling of having an unprecedented bristly mass on his face. He must have grown the mustache just before taking the job as JV and freshman basketball coach and high school gym teacher. I am guessing that he saw it as a symbolic step. He was a college student before, a kid, and now he was something else. Men had mustaches. He had a mustache. He was a man.
His stay in the job was brief, just long enough to coach me and my hapless teammates for two years. Near the end of it he got a job elsewhere, outside the gym teacher racket. A friend had contacted him with an offer to help him run a new shoe store.
As a child raised within the more idealistic currents of the 1970s, I have always had a lot of trouble trying to envision a practical future. Around the time of the toolbox, I gained at least a faint notion that I’d probably have to work for a living someday, but I never really got over the idea that I’d somehow be able to luck into a double-play relay-throw existence, a joyful pirouette. Instead I’ve fallen into one job or another, each one marked by my vague sense that there is something else out there.