h1

Chris Gust

August 12, 2009

Chris Gust 88

Sundown

(continued from Ruppert Jones)

Conclusion

A few days ago, before work, before another pre-work attempt to write about a baseball player named Dan Thomas, I went for a run. It wasn’t long after sunup. I zigged and zagged up and down the streets of my Chicago neighborhood for a while. As I was rounding the corner of Oakley and Walton I spotted the larger of these two fragments on the ground. It had rained hard the night before, and I had to carefully pry the wet piece of cardboard from the pavement.

I finished my run while holding the floppy card gently in my fingertips, trying not to cause it any further damage, then I slowed to a walk and returned to the corner of Leavitt and Oakley to look for more ripped up baseball cards. I was hoping at the very least for the top of this card, but all I found was the smaller fragment shown here.

Now my baseball card collection includes doubles, or pieces of doubles, of a minor league player named—according to the back of the larger fragment—Christopher Lazarus Gust.

***

I can’t tell you much more than I’ve already told you about Dan Thomas, the Sundown Kid. I’ve told you about him earning a half-season suspension for punching a minor league umpire, and of his minor league Triple Crown award the following season, and of his promising major league call-up, and of his hot start with the Brewers the following spring, and of his refusal to play on Friday nights or Saturday, and of the mounting losses of the Brewers, and of his mid-May slump, and of the demotion that would prove to be the end of his major league career, and of the jail cell in Mobile, Alabama, three years later, where he would spend the last moments of his life.

After his demotion by the Brewers to their Triple A affiliate in Spokane, he continued to follow the dictates of the Worldwide Church of God, and he continued to struggle. The Brewers tried to send him down even farther, to Double A Holyoke, but he refused to report. He decided to stay in Spokane, and according to an article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle he got a job building “highway trailers.”

He tried to hook on with any baseball team that would have him the next season but found no takers among big league franchises. The best he could do was an unaffiliated pro team, the Boise Buckskins. You couldn’t get much lower. The Buckskins were by a considerable margin the worst team in the Northwest League, a short-season A ball circuit. According to the league history page on baseball-reference.com, the Buckskins existed in the league for just that one year, as if they had materialized out of sheer mercy so as to give Dan Thomas a place to be.

When you peruse the roster of a minor league team on baseball-reference.com, you will sometimes see a player’s name in bold. The bold is to denote that the player has a major league record. On a Triple A squad, such as the Spokane Indians team Thomas played on in 1978, many names are in bold, including those of soon-to-be regulars such as Lary Sorensen, Lenn Sakata, Jim Gantner, and Gorman Thomas. On the Boise Buckskins roster, only one name is in bold: Dan Thomas, who in his last season in professional baseball won the batting title of the Northwest League.

***

I can’t tell you much about Christopher Lazarus Gust, but I know from my newest shreds of baseball cards that he has not played professional baseball for quite some time. The two seasons listed on the back of his card are from 1986 and 1987. He started where Dan Thomas ended, in the Northwest League.

***

Yesterday, after work, I hurried home. It being August, sundown was still a ways off, but my sundown ritual pulled me along nonetheless: After work, I like to have a beer and some food and watch a rerun of The Simpsons. Well, like may not be the right word. I recently read an interview in the Chicago Reader with Bob Odenkirk (whose brother, incidentally, is an executive producer of The Simpsons) and was struck by his description of the medium in which his brilliant co-creation, Mr. Show, had an ambivalent, temporary foothold: “People get older, and they just don’t want to hear a new idea. They want to sit back and watch the same people do the same thing they did last week. That’s what TV exists for—it exists to be a mild sedative.”

So anyway, as I was hurrying home for my mild sundown sedative, I passed a man who was in some kind of trouble. He was in his early sixties, a little pudgy, balding, with a slight facial resemblance to Mikhail Gorbachev. He held onto a metal gate with one hand to keep from falling and held a cell phone in his other hand, which he reached toward me, groaning. He didn’t speak much English, not that unusual in my neighborhood, Ukrainian Village, but somehow I understood he needed me to call for help. I dialed 911 for the first time in my life and described to the dispatcher our location, the corner of Leavitt and Walton (one block east of where I found Chris Gust), and then described the situation.

“He’s clutching his chest and stomach and seems dizzy,” I said. “He needs an ambulance.”

When I got off the phone I tried to get the man to describe what was happening to him. His vocabulary was very limited. He stammered stray words but only managed one complete sentence.

“I think I am dead,” he said.

***

Christopher Lazarus Gust didn’t win any batting crowns, in the Northwest League or anywhere else, but according to a website about baseball in Madison he led the Muskies in steals in 1988. This was his last year in pro baseball. Presumably when the sun went down on his dream, a dream many of us have but very few are able to realize, he moved back to the hometown listed on the back of this card. Chicago. You’d have to think that he took with him a few keepsakes. His glove. His cap. A couple baseball cards with his name and likeness. You’d have to think he might have pulled one of the cards out from time to time to remember his brief day in the sun, the card raising that day from the dead.

***

Just before we first heard the sirens in the distance, I asked the Ukrainian man his name and told him mine. He was glad for this exchange and reached out the hand that wasn’t clinging to the metal gate and clasped my hand.

The last I saw of him, he was sitting on the back fender of a fire truck as firemen tried to get him to explain what the trouble was. I thought about going back and looking him in the eye and telling him he’d be all right. Because of our exchange of names I was the least strange of the strangers surrounding him. But I didn’t go back. I rationalized that the firemen had it all under control. I went home.

What can I tell you? If they can, people hurry home at sundown.

23 comments

  1. Another lovely series, Josh. Most baseball careers follow a familiar pattern — the rise, the peak, the fall, with some variation thrown in. The same pattern we presume our lives will take. Which makes of Dan Thomas, seen in full, jarring to behold. He remains an enigma.

    Speaking of enigmas, thanks for pointing me to the Boise Buckskins, who to my surprise featured the only professional baseball player ever to share my name — Samuel Bass. That was his only season playing ball, and not a single other biographical fact seems to be known about him. An anonymous outfielder on an independent team that was the worst in its league in its only year of existence. I now feel a little more connected to the career of Josh Wilker, basketball player!


  2. oops…”the career of Dan Thomas” etc


  3. Chris Gust has his own Baseball Reference page… http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=gust–001chr …tho some stats are missing. Still, I’d love to have MY OWN page on BR. That would make my decade.

    So this guy in Chicago you helped…did you try lookin’ for him in the paper to see if he died or not? I’m curious. I’m in the medical field, so this kind of story bit is awesome to me and makes me want to know the ending!


  4. …and a 21 yr old Scott Brosius was on that same ’88 Madison team


  5. Devon:

    I didn’t think to look, but I don’t know that such a thing would make the papers. I don’t know what I’d look for anyway–he just told me his first name, and I’m not sure I even heard it correctly (it sounded like “Wally” but probably has some complicated Old World spelling).


  6. If Chris Gust was indeed from Chicago, I imagine him as the one who tore up his old baseball card and threw it in the gutter as he angrily gave up his own life for good and stopped thinking of himself as the guy who could have been somebody in the game.


  7. sb1902:
    It’s a good theory. Who else would own two Chris Gust cards (besides me, now, partially)?


  8. Whitepages.com lists a Christopher L. Gust just a short 3-4 miles away from the scene of the “crime”. Coincidence – I think not. Great writing, Josh! Glad to have you back from your hiatus.


  9. Wow, if tscastle is serious about the Gust listing in whitepages.com, maybe Gust really IS the guy who tossed them aside. Josh, you live nearby, you know what you have to do: Go knock on Christopher Gust’s door and get the story. Seriously.

    (BTW, I meant to type “old life,” not “own life” above.)


  10. Or maybe it was his son – angry and disgruntled after an 0-fer in a little league game. Might want to tread lightly here – but a follow-up interview with Gust would be an awesome post-script to this story!


  11. tscastle, it wouldn’t be awesome, it is necessary! Josh, change your jogging route and head on down there!

    I picture Gust Jr. being the repository of the frustration from a not-realized dream of big league ball. Senior decides to mold Junior into a perfect major league prodigy, but Junior comes up short, causing a simmering, unspoken resentment and eventually, permanent estrangement. Reflecting on a childhood lost, Junior tears the card up in fury and discards the pieces like so many dreams. Josh comes jogging along while musing on a melancholy reflection of one sort or another, picks them up and gives a sort of belated baseball immortality to Senior after all, not unlike the ancient Greeks seeing heroes in the sky in the form of the stars.

    Or something along those lines. Then again, maybe not.


  12. In a weird and touching way, Josh, this may be your best post ever. Also, based on my experience with some ex-Rice players, (and I repeat, some), they may not be the most introspective or interested in what they “used” to be able to do…


  13. Another great series Josh. I always enjoy these multi-part postings; they never end up quite where I thought they would when they began. I vaguely remember hearing about Dan Thomas and his religious conversion (my maternal grandmother was a Brewers fan), but I remember nothing about his sad end. I’m also definitely in the camp of those who would like to hear about your (future?)meeting with Christopher L. Gust of the Chicagoland area. I’ve never had the opportunity to really converse with someone who had their own baseball card. I’d like to hear your take on what it’s like.


  14. Vintage CG, Josh, really loved it… I missed this when you were away.

    You absolutely got to find Gust.


  15. Strange, I had the same experience of dialing 911 for the first time yesterday. I was biking home in Vancouver on a side street designated for bike traffic (though open to cars) when a girl whizzed by me on her moped. When she got to the intersection, she swerved left to avoid a pothole and I guess didn’t see the other girl on a moped whizzing towards her from the other direction. They ran head on into each other and kinda smacked/flew to the ground in the middle of the intersection, 20 feet in front of me. They both started yelling at each other for about 10 seconds before the shock wore off. I could see the changes in their faces, from angry to really really hurt and scared. It was clear at least one had broken her ankle and as I was telling her not to get up while dialing 911 at the same time, six firefighters appeared around me and took over. Turns out the firehouse was on that block and they’d hear the accident. I left both girls with the firefighters on the curb, I imagine with the same sense of leaving a moment of temporary connection that you felt Josh. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.


  16. Josh: it is kind of awe-some (in the literal sense) to save a man’s life. Think about that. On another note, do you think the girls were happy to be surrounded by all that fireman?


  17. I played on the same T-ball team as Chris Gust. Not that Chris Gust, a different one. My Chris Gust didn’t make it too much further than that in his baseball career. But I just randomly ran into his brother last weekend–he lives hundreds of miles away but was visiting my town unbeknownst to me–and I asked about Chris. He’s still in one piece.


  18. Another wonderful post Josh. Really enjoyed this series. Now, please go interview Gust . . .

    Here are a few other things I saw on the Internet about Dan Thomas:

    Thomas was also outspoken in criticizing pitchers who hit batters, saying, “I think they ought to make a rule that if a guy gets hit and is able to get up, they should tie the pitcher’s hands behind his back and let the hitter smack him in the face.”

    Sports columnist John Blanchette of the Spokane Spokesman-Review described him that same year as a “troubled soul”, saying, “no one was more haunted than Danny Thomas”


  19. According to Business Week:
    Mr. Christopher Lazarus Gust is a Co-Managing Partner at Wolverine Trading, LP. He is also a Managing Director and Portfolio Manager at Wolverine Asset Management, LLC.

    Wolverine is on West Jackson in Chicago.


  20. Apparently Gust was a College World Series star for Michigan, which must be where his company got its name.


  21. Years ago, as I was packing up ready to head home at sundown, a small plane crashed into the building next door to where I was working. After crashing, the plane was hanging off a small roof. I took a tremendous risk and climbed onto the roof to try to get the two passengers out of the plane. After paramedics arrived and carted the two passengers to the hospital, there was talk amongst the gathered crowd that I had done something heroic. A little while later, we all heard that both passengers had died on the way to the hospital. I guess you’re only a hero if the victim lives.


  22. Roger Angell talks briefly about the Sundown Kid in one of his essays-the long one written, I think, during the 1981 strike, about the independent league guy in Vermont.


  23. I fail to see the correlation between the “Sundown Kid”, Chris Gust, and the Ukranian man…I would greatly urge you to research your subjects before posting your “literary take”.(Middle school language arts C- at best..Needs improvement!) I did enjoy a few of the posted responses, however. (esp. sb1902) Do persons like you really exist? I mean, can you actually read and write? Oh…forgot…computers have voice command and spellcheck now. But DAMN…those Chicago winters must be cold on your bare feet…and to (tscastle)…an interview with Gust would be great… I suggest you bring someone with teeth to speak for you when you go!



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