Steve MingoriApril 19, 2009
We all have a birthday and a deathday, though the latter is never part of a baseball card, which may well be why I spend so much time imagining myself into the worlds the cards seem to suggest. I not only don’t want to die, I want, even need, to imagine a place where death doesn’t exist.
So with that in mind what say we talk about birthdays? The back of this card makes reference to Steve Mingori’s birthday twice, once in the usual listing after “Born” and again in the feature that was on the back of every 1975 card, the trivia question and cartoon answer above the yearly statistics.
“Which pitcher was born on Leap Year Day?” the question asks.
Steve Mingori is the answer. It’s the only time I can think of that the 1975 trivia question centered on the player featured in the card.
I wonder if I understood Leap Year by then. If so, the news about Steve Mingori’s birthday would have sent a shiver through me, as it would have reminded me that I missed having that birthday by just a few hours. What could be a worse thought to a seven-year-old than that he wasn’t going to have a birthday every year? Even worse than the unthinkable prospect of only getting presents once every four years would be the thought that I would be so slowly advancing in age. When you’re young, you want to be older. But if I had been unable to cling to the womb as long as I did—I was so against leaving that I had to be yanked out backwards—I wouldn’t even be two years old by the time I got this Steve Mingori card. This would have been particularly painful in terms of my relationship to the most important person in my life at that time, my brother. As it was, I was always struggling to keep pace with him, always frustrated that no matter what I did I always remained smaller and younger. If I’d been a Leap Year Day baby, he’d just keep pulling farther and farther away.
The year I got this card was the year my brother started playing little league, and so it was the year I started fantasizing about playing little league, pained by the fact that I had to wait until my 9th birthday. My god, if I’d been a Leap Year Day baby, I wouldn’t have been able to start little league until the year 2004! This would have been intolerable, but the payoff would have been that I probably could have done pretty well, even though by then my athletic activity had been reduced to taking out the trash and occasionally pulling my hamstring while running for a bus. Not only that, I’d still be eligible for little league right now! I’d only be ten! Oh, the pain and suffering I would bestow!
In a way, of course, I have lived my life as if I was a Leap Year Day baby. After all, here I am writing about a baseball card that was important to me when I was a kid, writing as if it is still every bit as important to me, if not somehow more. Many people play little league and collect baseball cards when they are kids, but then by the time they are ten years old in Leap Years they have long since moved on to something else. They understand how blatantly ridiculous—as ridiculous as a grown man with a receding hairline, bad knees, and a thickening beer gut competing on a little league field with boys—it would be for them to focus such a prodigious amount of attention on childhood and its flimsy detritus. They may even understand much better than I have ever been able to that we are only here for a short time whether measured in Leap Years or regular years. What are you going to make of that short time? Are you going to hang around the little league field forever? Or are you going to venture into the unknown beyond its chain-link borders?
Steve Mingori did not stay a child, though he did make his living if not his mark on the world playing what many refer to as a child’s game. (The figures in the background of his 1975 card seem to underscore that notion of it being a child’s game, seeming to be less like professionals preparing for a greuling season than like two boys in a backyard, one lobbing easy pitches, the other swatting looping, easy-to-catch liners.) But it was far from a child’s game, from what I understand, and something in Steve Mingori’s mournful expression seems to suggest as much: it’s a grown-up world he’s in, troubling, uncertain, full of stress. He’s going to be called on to get big outs in tough spots in important games. His ability to last in this so-called child’s game, and to make a living to support himself and his family, will rely on his ability to get those outs. No one will be able to do it for him. He will be alone.
There’s a certain defining loneliness to this life, whether you try to hide from it or not. There will come a day when you can’t get anyone out anymore and will be forced to leave the game. There will come a day that will be added to your personal data, below your birthday. It comes to everyone, even those who age in the inching increments of Leap Years. Even those who hide in the fallow landfill of childhood. Even those who hide in their baseball cards. For Steve Mingori, it came too early no matter how you slice it. Technically, he had had only 16 birthdays when his deathday came last July. In truth he was like everyone, eventually. Gone too soon, gone forever.