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Dan Spillner

February 9, 2009

dan-spillner-79

Somewhere I Lost Connection

(continued from Larry Harlow)

Chapter Six

Dan Spillner was stuck in Lodi in 1971, his second season in professional baseball, but by 1979 the back of his baseball card no longer carried any evidence of that season, or any other minor league season. This was a common development in the world of the Cardboard Gods. At a certain point, if you were able to hang on long enough in the majors, your minor league records, no longer necessary as a space-filler, disappeared from the back of your card. Gone was any evidence of anonymity and strife, of any kind of a past that may have seemed to be leading nowhere.

Memory is supposed to work this way, at least in this land where the narrative of triumph reigns supreme. You are supposed to go from rags to riches. You are supposed to remember the good times and forget all the moments of painful aimless wandering, or at least reframe them as rungs in the golden ladder that has delivered you to the high cloud upon which you presently stand.

I have a feeling that we are entering into an age where the narrative of triumph is no longer possible to sustain. Everyone is losing. The stories we tell will be more about communal survival than solitary triumph. Memory might start working differently to serve this purpose. The forgotten stops, the shipwrecks, the sojourns in Lodi, all the passages that may have dropped off the back of the ideal untroubled rectangle of cardboard might start to reappear. The type on the backs of our cards will grow smaller to include more and more memories returning from erasure as we remember, out of need, all the times and places we thought we might never escape from, yet somehow we did.

***

I don’t know how it is now, but in 1990 when I hitched a ride into Berlin the city was like the kind of baseball card I’m most drawn to, slick and thrumming with life on one side, riddled with evidence of complicated history on the other, the elements of the two sides feeding into one another until the whole card feels as if you could hold it to your ear, like a conch shell, and hear the moaning howl.

My first steps in Berlin were taken on that back side, among the gray bullet-riddled walls of the half of the city that less than a year earlier had been beyond the world’s most notorious divider. The driver with the Lech Walesa mustache hadn’t understood that I’d wanted to stop in Berlin, so we plowed all the way through the west side and deep into the east side before I somehow convinced him to stop his car long enough for me to throw myself and my backpack out onto the cracked concrete. He grumbled something and sped away.

Who knows how far he would have driven me? Maybe I should have stayed in the car just to see. I’ve never gone far enough. I’ve always turned back, always eventually started groping blindly for the imagined safety of home.

***

Dan Spillner was born in 1951, the sweet spot of the baby boom, when all boats were rising in the west. Will there ever be a higher water mark for capitalism than the span of Dan Spillner’s years from his birth in 1951 to end of his major league career due to owner collusion in 1985? The west got slicker and ever more lively and strong, while the east trudged in place stolidly like an elephant strapped with powerful explosives. The contrast between east and west was never clearer to me than while I was drifting around Berlin, east to west and back again, the winning side in rich, autumnal designer-label color, the losing side in shades of breadline gray.

The east side made me homesick, just as I’d been the previous year in China, for the numbing amnesiac diversions of the west. Communism, even in its aftermath stage, made me long to forget myself in Hershey bars and box scores and beer. My first dusk in Berlin, after I fled the east side and found a place to stay on the west side, I sat on a bench and drank warm beer and ate chocolate and stared at the ruins of a bombed-out church. On the east side the ruin would have been just part of the scenery, something on an endless list of things that would never be fixed, but on the west side the ruin was maintained in its ruined state intentionally, as a historic landmark, complete with a bronze plaque explaining its significance in many languages. Fashionably-dressed people walked fast past the ruin, their lives pulled taut with appointments, while bums lounged on other benches all around me, nowhere to go. As I caught my beer and chocolate buzz I silently counted the dwindling number of travelers checks I knew I had in my wallet, which was just another way of counting the days that separated me from bumdom.

***

I could throw as hard as anyone. I could stand on the mound, and you knew what was coming, and it was, “Here it is, now try and hit it.” It got me into professional baseball. I was in the big leagues for three years before I threw a curve. – Dan Spillner

***

I was 22. When Dan Spillner was 22 he had put Lodi behind him and was on the brink of a major league career that would last twelve years. He could feel his power in his fingers. He knew where he was going: Forward. Upward. I didn’t know where I was going. I wanted to go backward. I always want to go backward.

(to be continued)

14 comments

  1. That pic looks like it was taken at the Mistake on the Lake.


  2. If memory serves, when we were kids, my friend Mike went to Chicago with his family to visit his uncle (we lived in Staten Island). They went to a White Sox game and Dan Spillner came within 2 outs of pitching a no-hitter. It was broken up by a single by Leo Sutherland.


  3. Wasn’t it Spillner who pitched to Yastrzemski in his final at-bat? We were all hoping for a sensational farewell a la Ted Williams, but as I remember it Spillner–nerves?–had trouble throwing a strike. Yaz let the count go to 3-0 before popping out on what would have been ball 4. The Sox radio announcers at the time (Ken Coleman, I think, and was Joe Castiglione already on the job?) were upset that Spillner was unable to just lay one over the plate.


  4. Yes, Spillner pitched to Yaz in the Captain’s last AB:

    Yaz’s last game.

    According to wikipedia, Castiglione did start that year (’83). I was watching the game on TV, though. I can’t remember who was at the mike on TV. The three-ball count sounds familiar, but all I can remember with any certainty is exactly where I was and how it felt to see Yaz pop out to second in his last hurrah.


  5. “The forgotten stops, the shipwrecks, the sojourns in Lodi, all the passages that may have dropped off the back of the ideal untroubled rectangle of cardboard might start to reappear. The type on the backs of our cards will grow smaller to include more and more memories returning from erasure as we remember, out of need, all the times and places we thought we might never escape from, yet somehow we did.”

    Well, thanks to Facebook, all the minor league memories are indeed coming back, as people from grade school and high school re-collect everyone, posting yearbook photos like individual baseball cards (and class pictures like team photos), then adding comments of what life in Lodi (or Valley Stream) was like way back when, trying to bring back those stat lines that had long since disappeared (from card and memory).


  6. Could there be a more generic card, right down to the simple, plain “C” on the hat?


  7. Spillner missed a no-hitter by 2 outs in 1980. Leo Sutherland of the White Sox broke it up with a single. My friend Mike was visiting his family in Chicago (we lived in Staten Island) and was at the game.


  8. http://flickr.com/photos/mightyjc/22882229/

    is that the bombed out church? There is so much of it in Berlin that has sort of stopped time in its tracks. They’ve just built around some of the ruins without altering them at all. It’s quite a city.


  9. seaver41: Interesting point about facebook changing the way people remember.

    sb1902: Those ’79 cards always look washed out and exhausted to me, like they’d all been laboring in the Carter administration for the previous three years.

    redsoxeveryday: That’s the ruin alright.


  10. *Everyone is losing*

    ” … still I wonder … yes I wonder … Who’ll stop the rain? … ”

    Creedence


  11. If you’re perusing the comments and notice that there are two similar comments from “thunderfan24″, it’s because the comments were marked as spam by an automated WordPress program. I approved both comments in hopes that it might send the message to the robot world that thunderfan24, a regular at the old Baseball Toaster site (under a different name), is good people.

    If anyone runs into any problems commenting, or has any other issues/suggestions about the new site, please email me at the address near the upper right corner of this page.


  12. on second thought, in light of the events today, Dan Spillner’s expression looks like one that ARod probably had the second after the reporter told him he failed a drug test.


  13. In 1974, the Dodgers went 16-2 against the Padres. The Dodgers were extremely good that year and the Padres were awful. The Padres only two wins were both by Spillner late in the year.


  14. “I have a feeling that we are entering into an age where the narrative of triumph is no longer possible to sustain”

    I am a grad student in theology and I must say that this sentiment is thankfully being shared by many.



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