Buzz CapraMarch 27, 2009
“There have been a lot of players who have had one good season and then were never heard from again. I don’t want that to happen to me.” – Buzz Capra, April 1975
You can tell from this photo, which was taken during Buzz Capra’s one fantastic season of 1974, that Buzz Capra wants it. He’s amped up, alert, aware, ready to fling himself into battle. Itching for it. Let’s go. Give me the ball. Let me show you what I can do.
My problem? I never wanted it enough. I loved playing baseball as much as I’ve ever loved anything, but when the pitches started coming at my head and then, as I bailed, breaking over the plate for strikes, I quit. By then I’d become interested in basketball, which I loved playing as much as I’d loved baseball. The head coach at the high school had all the teams at the school do a particular drill during practice: put the ball down on the floor and have players in pairs fight for it. Who wants it more? I wasn’t very good at this drill. Soon, I gave up on climbing the ladder of success in basketball, too. When the going gets tough, I curl into a fetal position. I daydream. I eat potato chips and stare out the window.
“One thing I will always remember,” begins a commenter on the Buzz Capra fan memory page on the Ultimate Mets Database, “is seeing Buzz’s dad hitting him ground balls at Chopin park in Chicago when there was still snow on the ground.”
This memory, which comes courtesy of a commenter named Bob L. who played Little League with Capra, is in line with information about Capra that came out in a Sports Illustrated article about the surprising 1974 Atlanta Braves, which describes the undersized Capra spending each morning of his youth, even in the dead of winter, going out to the family garage and hanging from an iron bar to try to grow taller.
The dude fucking wanted it.
I have spent most of my life bracing for loss. At some point, the indifferent steamroller of history will flatten you. So why bother. Why try?
Buzz Capra made it the majors with the Mets in 1971, but he was used very sporadically by the team for the next three seasons, pitching mostly in relief in 3 games in 1971, 14 games in 1972, and 24 games in 1973. In the last of those seasons, the Mets made the playoffs, but Capra didn’t get a chance to pitch in any playoff games. He did, however, get a chance to show once again that he wasn’t afraid to throw himself into the middle of the action by throwing down with Pedro Borbon in an undercard bout during the famous Reds-Mets playoff brawl started by Pete Rose and Bud Harrelson. Capra, who told Sports Illustrated that he leapt into battle when the trouble started “to show that a little guy can take care of himself,” tussled with Borbon until the two were separated and Borbon, discovering that he was somehow now wearing a Mets cap, took it off and ripped it apart with his teeth.
I can’t find confirmation that it was Capra’s cap, but he seems the most likely owner. What happened to that cap? Wouldn’t the Buzz Capra Mets cap gnawed to pieces by Pedro Borbon be a valuable piece of memorabilia? If that was unearthed and put on auction, you’d have to think that there would be someone somewhere who would want it.
I own no memorabilia, no pieces of history, beyond these cards. What are they doing with me anyway? I could have thrown them out or sold them a long time ago. Most everything else in my life has come and gone without me putting up a fight. Why have I chosen to hold onto this?
Buzz Capra deserved to become more than just a colorful footnote in baseball history, the possible owner of the cap half-eaten by Pedro Borbon. When he was sold by the Mets to the Atlanta Braves after the 1973 season, he finally got his chance. He was no longer a rookie, no longer young enough to ever be called a phenom. In this way he differed from the two pitchers who would seem to come out of nowhere to grab a national spotlight in each of the following two seasons, John Montefusco in 1975 and Mark Fidrych in 1976. But like those pitchers he emerged from the margins to perform stunningly well. In fact, by the light of the statistic best able to compare performances from different seasons, Capra did even better than the Count and the Bird, posting not only a league-leading “regular” ERA of 2.28 but a league-leading ERA+ mark of 165, better than Montefusco’s 132 ERA+ in 1975 and Fidrych’s 158 ERA+ in 1976. Both Montefusco and Fidrych captured fans’ imaginations in such a way that they continue to hold a lasting place in the hearts of fans of 1970s baseball, even though (or in part because) the brilliant careers they seemed destined for never materialized. Buzz Capra, on the other hand, seems not to be quite as well remembered. He had his one great season, started having injury problems, and faded from view. Does he show up in “where are they now” features? Are his gems from the 1974 season replayed on the MLB network? Does his phone continue to ring? Is he wanted?
If I was a nicer guy, I could have given my cards away years ago when my young cousin was starting to collect and his mother floated the idea that I could make the little boy happy by passing my little boy artifacts on to him. I let the hint hang in the air without replying. I was a grown man, but I didn’t want to let go. My cousin took much better care of his cards than I ever took care of mine. He had them all under plastic and was aware of their monetary value. If I gave the cards to him he’d have enjoyed assessing their worth. But how much could a Buzz Capra card mean to him, or to anyone? Who would want it? I mean who could possibly want it more than I do?