h1

Larry Harlow

February 5, 2009

larry-harlow-801

Somewhere I Lost Connection

(continued from Dave Skaggs)

Chapter Five

Like Dave Skaggs, Larry Harlow came up in the Baltimore Orioles system, that school of baseball craftsmanship renowned above all others throughout the Cardboard Gods era and beyond. While other teams continued to stumble through the unpredictable business of finding and cultivating effective major league players, or abandoned that strategy by heeding the brand new siren call of free agency, the Orioles’ system continued to churn out polished, sturdy cogs for their well-oiled pennant-devouring machine. Every spring a new shipment arrived to replace whatever parts had either moved on to other places or had begun to show wear. The franchise’s tightly knit web of minor league teams, with wise rail-thin coaches preaching identical gospel at every level, always seemed able to produce whatever was needed: Cy Young starting pitchers, sure-handed infielders, fleet slap-hitting leadoff guys, reliable platoon hitters, armies of relievers, even the occasional Hall of Fame slugger. You name it, the Orioles made it. And all the Orioles came into the majors equipped with a grip on “the fundamentals” so firm as to seem something they were all born with. The pitchers threw strikes, the outfielders hit the cutoff man, the infielders turned double-plays as if they shared one mind.

This cohesive diamond artistry was attributed to the implementation of and adherence to something called The Oriole Way. The term carried a quasi-mystical aura to it, as if coming up through the Oriole system was something like training to be a Shaolin master. The multi-championship team based in Baltimore wasn’t merely a system or an organization or a franchise. It was a straight and narrow path through life.

***

Randomness defined my post-college travels in Europe, that short trip that in some ways stands as a microcosm of my life. After a few days of being stranded in the East German version of Lodi known as Schwerin, I got it in my mind that I would bum a ride heading back west with a fellow youth hostel guest who’d mentioned he’d be driving that way. But the night before his departure, just as I was about to ask him, he started talking about his motorbike out in the parking lot. I was traveling pretty light, but not that light.

So instead of curling back west in the direction of some vague notion of home, I wrote the name of the closest big city on a piece of cardboard and headed out to the highway. Because I didn’t know the language of the country I was in, I wasn’t sure which side of the highway I should be on, but after a long time watching the noxious river of cheap Soviet cars flow past me, I stopped caring about the direction I was pointed in. I stuffed my “BERLIN” sign back in my backpack and started hitching the old-fashioned way, no advertisement of a destination, no direction displayed, just a thumb sticking up toward the sky.

Hitchhiking is probably the most religious thing I’ll ever do. You wait and ask and are denied again and again and still you have to stand there waiting and asking. You start to invent your own cloying mantras. All I need is one kind person going my way. You start to believe bullshit such as my thumb is pointing toward heaven. You become intimately acquainted with rejection and failure, with the feeling that you are one high pile of stranded manure. You start having to dig deeper for faith. You start to see gods and angels.

***

I have done a lot of digging in my shoebox over the last few days, looking for Lodi among the gods. From what I can gather, Lodi does not make its mark on the truly blessed. In the earliest part of the 1970s, Lodi was in the San Diego Padres system. Of the Padres cards that I own, the most prominent major leaguer with the word “Lodi” on the back of his card is journeyman platoonist Johnny Grubb. In 1972, Lodi became a part of the Oriole Way, but from what I can see from the admittedly limited data of my baseball cards, the Orioles that would make a significant impact at the major league level were not made to pass through Lodi. The most prominent practitioner of the Oriole Way to be stuck in Lodi was Kiko Garcia. Kiko Garcia got out of Lodi after one season, as did Dave Skaggs.

Larry Harlow played a season in Lodi in 1972 and then in 1973 he got stuck in Lodi again.

***

But really the best way, the purest way, maybe even the most religious way to hitchhike is to not care. To surrender to randomness. I have only approached this unreachable ideal a couple times. The last time I did this was when I stuck out my thumb in Schwerin, not knowing if I was heading east or west. The first time I did this was many years earlier, when I was in my early teens, not long after I’d given up baseball cards. It was the summer. What are you supposed to do in the summer when you no longer care about baseball cards? I got a ride half way to town, and after standing by the road for a long time, waiting for a ride to take me the rest of the way, I started walking back toward home, but then whenever a car would approach I’d stick my thumb out and try once again for that ride. In other words, I was walking one way and hitching the other.

I figured, fuck it. Let the gods and the angels decide.

***

When the Way disappears you keep following the Way. Consider Larry Harlow. Here he sits, removed from the game but alert and ready at any moment to enter. It’s difficult to say if he will be given the chance. In the most recent season, he played sparingly and hit just .234. For someone with that flimsy a purchase on the majors, the specter of Lodi can never be far from the mind. But he seems to be focused on the moment, ready to do things the right way if called upon.

He does not seem at all aware of the ANGELS flag festooning the card at the approximate location of his heart, nor of the halo over the A on his helmet, nor even of the reflection on his helmet of one or even two figures too blurry to identify. Certainly they are Angels. Certainly they are always hovering all around us.

***

A crappy fume-spewing slavic lunchbox on wheels finally dislodged itself from the river of traffic. The driver and I could not understand one another, but after we yelled over the highway noise in our own languages for a few seconds I got in. I showed him my BERLIN sign but he just stared at me with impenetrable Cold War impassivity. I had no idea where we were going. The driver was a big pale guy with a walrus mustache, like that of a mine worker or Polish dissident or aging middle reliever. He steered with one hand and drank from a can of beer with the other. It was the middle of the morning. He smoked continuously. I leafed through my little phrase book. After a long while I finally had enough foreign-language ammo to attempt a sentence.

“I am a poet,” I said.

He took a pull of his beer then gave me his business card, which I couldn’t understand. We kept going. Eventually I started seeing signs for Berlin.

(to be continued)

19 comments

  1. I’ve always been fascinated by the romance of hitchhiking, but I’ve never really done it. Kerouac, the movie SCARECROW, even Gable & Lombard in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT turn it into some kind of intoxicating street poetry.

    Glad to see Al Hrabosky was around to save you.


  2. Love it.

    The best peice of advice I got about hitch-hiking was “they’re more scared of you than you are of them.” So when I did it — quite a bit to visit my ex-high school friends once we’d gone off to different colleges — I remembered to try and look nice. I also had a map, signs and extra cardboard and markers just in case. I had a few strange encounters. One guy insisted at a rest stop that I try on one of the dozens of pair of blue jeans he had piled up in his back seat. I had to lose him inside the rest stop and stayed hidden until I was sure he was gone. The very next vehicle that picked me up was a young hippie couple in a van. They were coasting down hills to save gas asking me for money (I had none) and plotting how to avoid tolls. I didn’t get back in at the their rest stop either.


  3. Yeah, my instructor in the ways of thumbing was my brother, and he was a big proponent of carrying a basketball whenever possible, even if you were really on your way to shoplift from Cumberland Farms and smoke marijuana under a bridge. Who wouldn’t give a ride to a young cleancut fellow on his way to shoot a few jump shots down at the Y?


  4. I am diggin’ this story.

    This card is an easy one. He’s on the home plate side of the visitors’ dugout at Yankee Stadium, in front of the cement divider between bench and runway to clubhouse. (Far end of dugout in this picture.)

    By the way, I am the commenter formerly known as A Red Sox Fan From Pinstripe Territory, if you couldn’t tell.


  5. Didn’t even think to take it one step further–the only day game the Angels played at Yankee Stadium while Harlow was on the team in ’79 was Thursday, July 26th, so it would pretty much have to be that day. Harlow didn’t play in the series.


  6. When I was eleven years old (1963) my buddy and I got the ok from our parents to hitch it 20 miles to Huntington Beach, Ca. This we did just about every day all summer long – until we got our driver’s license five years later. Even then we would occasionally need to supplement with some thumbing if a car wasn’t available for us that day.
    We body surfed from Bolsa Chica down the coast to Laguna Beach.
    We learned all of the shore breaks the hard way – we got pounded and ate alot of sand. We would get four or five rides a day to get us where we wanted to go.
    Getting the rides to and from was just as you described. The lucky thumb, the eager/anxious anticipation as the next ride pulled over and we ran to the waiting driver wondering what we would encounter this time. A mother, a kid, a car full of girls was always the best.
    You have a dollar for gas? We were often asked this by the younger drivers. We would always answer yes, then haul ass when we were let out.
    We had so much fun telling jokes while we waited for a ride. When either of us would whine the other would say, “You fucking crybaby!”, and then we would laugh some more. For us at that time life was all play. We made it that way. Took off from home with about a dollar in our pockets and scavenged the beaches for sustanance all day long.
    Baseball and the beach – and the girls.
    Good times – really good times.
    I’ve been to Lodi, Ca. It ain’t no Huntington Beach baby.


  7. thousand steps in laguna, the last bastion for body surfers. but now there are more surfers and skim boarders there.
    this was one of my favorite posts that you have done josh. it was very poetic. i know a little bit about the oriole way from reading cal ripken jr.s book “get in the game.” right on with the new site!


  8. I loved this 1980 Topps set. It was my fifth year of collecting cards, and I bought the set whole for $15, which seemed an impossibly high number at the time. The orgy of buying the set all at once diminished the magic, needless to say, and I knew 1981 wouldn’t be as fun, and it wasn’t, but I continued to buy packs in 1980 anyway.

    Look at the signature on this card, by the way. It took me a few moments to convince myself the last name was correct. What sort of way is that to sign “Harlow”?


  9. That is an odd-looling signature. It almost looks like Harlow’s future teammate Daryl Sconiers showed up a couple years early to sign the card.


  10. gedmaniac:

    “By the way, I am the commenter formerly known as A Red Sox Fan From Pinstripe Territory, if you couldn’t tell.”

    Ha! No, I don’t think there are too many guys who could have looked at this seemingly nondescript card and called it an “easy one.”

    68elcamino427:

    Thanks for those recollections. They remind me a little of Tim Winton’s book Breath, about a couple Australian teenage surfer dudes, or of the early parts of the book anyway (the book gets pretty dark).

    baddude22:

    Thanks for the good word. Not surprising that The Oriole Way comes up in the Ripken Jr. book; his dad was perhaps its primary architect. Junior was the apotheosis of The Way.

    sb1902 and sansho1:

    I was noticing the signature, too. The last name is the real train wreck, but he really gets off to a horrendous start in the first name with that lame stab at an L. I guess penmanship was not part of the Oriole Way.


  11. By the way, I am the commenter formerly known as A Red Sox Fan From Pinstripe Territory, if you couldn’t tell.

    I believe you’ve expressed your Gedman love at your own blog before. That combined with your George Michael Jr. analysis of these holy cards gave you away.


  12. Yeah, I’m possibly the world’s only Gedman memorabilia collector. Zuvella files? As in Paul Zuvella? I’ll never forget him starting out with the Yanks 0-for-26 or something.


  13. “Oh, no-

    I’m stuck in Lodi again.”


  14. gedmaniac, the handle does refer to Paul Zuvella. It’s for a blog that hasn’t got off the ground yet. I killed Ennui Willie Keeler off during the changeover.

    PS – I read a couple of chapters of your book so far. Looks promising.


  15. zuvellafiles:

    If you want to resurrect Ennui, here’s Ken’s directions from a comment in the Reggie post a couple days ago:

    “…you can change your screen name in the comments. If you edit your profile, and save your First Name/Last Name/Nickname, you’ll get more options in the “Display name publicly as” drop-down list.”


  16. Thanks, Josh. I’m not sure what I’ll do. I haven’t really been filled with ennui as much lately.


  17. Ennui Willie Keeler gets my vote as one of the great nom de plumes of all time. Every time I read it I grin as hard as I did the first time. Not that there’s a nom-election to vote in or anything, but it even beats Saddam Dimaggio, Lee Harvey Seinfeld, Malcolm Mix, or Pete LaCock (oh yeah, that’s his real name).


  18. I sometimes wish I’d been born in a generation that hitchhiked. By the time I was old enough to do it, it had become a little dangerous, and in case the point needed pounding home, there were always movies like “The Hitcher” and the old film noir “Detour” around to remind you.


  19. Yeah, I can’t remember the last time I saw a hitchhiker. I always wonder if it’s actually dangerous, or if it’s just perceived as dangerous. While I was doing it that growing perception was certainly starting to push the practice onto the dustheap of history.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 124 other followers

%d bloggers like this: