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Enos Cabell

June 7, 2010

I’m no journalist, just a guy trying to stay sane via the dubious, possibly even insane, route of clinging to his childhood baseball cards, so don’t take this or anything else I ever say as unassailable fact, but I believe that at a certain point in his lengthy major league career, well after he had become established as a regular presence in the major leagues, Enos Cabell became a tool used by a then somewhat obscure baseball writer and analyst named Bill James to, first, attack the idea that Enos Cabell should be a regular presence in the major leagues and, more generally, to attack the established parameters for determining the relative worth of a major league player. Enos Cabell, James argued, was, contrary to the general consensus on the matter, in fact pretty worthless. I don’t think James had anything personally against Cabell, but he did have a seething, avenging hatred toward ossified conventional thinking, so he battered Cabell pretty mercilessly as he slammed the idea of the tall, thin infielder against the norm of what, in baseball, and by extension in life, is good. Enos Cabell, James concluded, is not good. The implied big question in this Seige on Enos: What is good? 

I wasn’t aware of Bill James during the years I collected baseball cards, or for several years after I stopped collecting. At the time I got this 1978 card, I would only have been able to draw from a couple of sources in determining where Enos Cabell stood in my world. (I almost wrote “the world” instead of “my world,” but when you’re a kid, the world belongs to you. Even though this thought is occurring as a parenthetical aside, it is probably the thesis of this sloppily conceived essay, if not the thesis of my entire ongoing-until-the-graveyard experiment in baseball card worship and solipsism and nostalgia and anti-nostalgia and the attempt to hold onto joy. When you’re a kid, the world belongs to you, and then little by little you lose it. This is my attempt to reclaim, card by card, my world.) One source in determining where Enos Cabell stood in my world was this card. On the back, the statistics for Cabell’s latest season suggested he was good. He had batted .282 with 36 doubles, 16 home runs, 68 RBI, and 101 runs scored. That, I would have concluded, is good. On the front, he is smiling, happy, a glimpse of the blaring rainbow colors of the Astros visible on his chest. This happy portrait brings me to the next source in determining where Enos Cabell stood in my world: he had appeared before my eyes, on screen, tall as a two-story building, in the very same uniform and with a similar happy expression the summer before in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, a throwaway sequel that I nonetheless and without shame or irony loved and still love.    

I am not going to venture too deeply into that movie at the moment, even though it is on my mind constantly as I work on a short book about it. I have been watching it on a fairly regular loop, and have watched some scenes as if I’m dissecting the Zapruder film. One of those scenes is the appearance of the Houston Astros in the dugout being used by the Bears. Bears’ third baseman Jimmy Feldman (played by Brett Marx, grandson of Gummo and lookalike of grand uncle Harpo) announces the arrival by exclaiming the names of the Astros’ stars, Cesar Cedeno and Bob Watson (the latter the only Astro who gets to speak a line; it’s the most crucial line in the movie, or, if you’re me, in movies in general), but besides Watson and Cedeno there are several other Astros who amble into the scene: Bill Virdon, Ken Forsch, JR Richard, Joe Ferguson, Roger Metzger, and Enos Cabell. Most of the Astros fade into the background, taking a seat on the bench, but Cabell is shown reacting with glee and pointing as he watches Tanner Boyle elude officials trying to grab the Bears shortstop and drag him from the field.

Like I said, I’ve been watching the movie constantly, which has a way of pounding all the enjoyment out of a thing, but I still get choked up by Tanner’s Last Stand. I don’t have the time or inclination to get into that now, but I do want to say that Enos Cabell deserves credit for shepherding that moment along by his enthusiastic reaction. While Ken Forsch, for example, sits idly by and dispassionately watches the little boy fight for his life (for what is life without baseball?), Enos Cabell points and laughs, the first among anyone in the entire Astrodome to become a fan of Tanner’s tenacious elusiveness. Soon enough, buoyed by Bob Watson’s one line (“Hey, let the keeds play,” Watson drawls, accompanying the somewhat stiff line-reading with a mistimed, limp-fisted air punch), Coach Leak will exit the dugout and in his Nam-Vet-suggesting army jacket he will begin exhorting the crowd to also become fans of the spectacle and of what it means. Soon enough, Kelly Leak, that stubborn non-joiner, will stand beside his estranged father outside the dugout, the two of them chanting “Let them play” (goddamnit, I vowed not to get too deep into this today but here I am again in the middle of the greatest fictional political movement of my world) and then soon enough all the Bears will join them, and then soon enough the whole stadium will be chanting, everyone shedding their indifference. It all started with, or was at least nudged forward by, Enos Cabell, rainbow-bright major league athlete and fan.

So in my world, Enos Cabell is good.

This isn’t my world, of course. I’m just passing through. My only claims are those of a fan. I’m a fan of baseball. I’m a fan of homely forgotten movies. I’m a fan of Bill James, but I don’t want to (and never could) follow in his brilliant footsteps. I’m a fan of the statistics on the backs of my old baseball cards, but I know they don’t tell an accurate story of a player’s accomplishments. I’m a fan of fans. Each fan owns the world as much as possible by way of his or her distinct point of view. Each fan remembers. Each fan cares. Each fan sheds indifference with weird, inexplicable love.

***

(Love versus Hate update: Enos Cabell’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)

20 comments

  1. Enos Cabell was one of the worst players in major league history. It’s just mind-boggling in retrospect that he was able to amass 6300 big league plate appearances. And to compound thing he was 20th in the majors in plate appearances from 1978-1980.

    I don’t know who it was that turned him into a 3b because he was a horrible fielder. The decision to give him 630 plate appearances in 1979 cost the Astros the Western Division, probably cost J.R. Richard a Cy Young award as well. Here’s Cabell’s 1979 line: .272/.299/.368, ops+ 87 with horrible defense at third. With Art Howe full time at third, they win the division. They also gave Alan Ashby 370 plate appearances for some bizarre reason, here’s Ashby’s 1979 line: .202/.262/.277????

    The Astros won in 1980 despite playing Cabell at third, he may have cost them a trip to the WS with his .238/.273/.286 while getting 25 plate appearances (most on the Astros).

    Here’s a list of players with 6000+ plate appearances with 7 or fewer WAR (Wins Above Replacement):

    Alfredo Griffin (-2.4)WAR, 7330 PA
    Willie Montanez (0)WAR, 6407 PA
    Bill Wambsganss (.8)WAR, 6101 PA
    Tim Foli (1.2)WAR, 6573 PA
    Luke Sewell (1.3)WAR, 6041 PA
    Dante Bichette (2.0)WAR, 6855 PA
    Ivy Olson (3.1), 6630 PA
    Cookie Rojas (4.0), 6871 PA
    Howie Shanks (4.3), 6414 PA
    Jose Guillen (4.4), 6081 PA
    Dave Philly (4.4) 7000 PA
    Don Kessinger (5.0) 8529 PA
    Deron Johnson (5.1) 6620 PA
    Doc Cramer (5.4) 9933 PA
    Ed Brickman (6.4) 6640 PA
    ENOS CABELL (6.9) 6304 PA

    Most of them are players that should have been bench/reserve/platoon players but for some strange reason were made starters for year after year.

    Some of them had one or two decent years but then continued playing full-time for far too long. Some of them were vastly overrated defensively.


  2. I didn’t give much thought to analysis until my card-collecting days were over, and for me it wasn’t James but Palmer/Thorn’s “Hidden Game of Baseball” — along with Thomas Boswell’s “Total Average” which Palmer/Thorn would basically argue as bogus.

    When we used to play whiffleball out back we’d choose to “be” any player we wanted, which for my crowd generally meant Kingman, Jackson, Rose, etc. My cousin Kevin, a Navy brat with no regional rooting interests, chose Enos Cabell.

    Let them play!


  3. Speaking from roughly four months of experience watching the 1977 Strat-O-Matic Enos pop out or ground into one force play after another in clutch situations, I can say without any due restraint that yes, Cabell blows.


  4. I seem to recall that after several years of harping on Enos Cabell in his early Baseball Abstracts, Bill James wrote that he and Cabell had mutual friends, who had relayed some message to him from Enos. I can’t remember the details of the interaction and there’s currently an ocean between me and my copies of those old Abstracts, so I can’t look it up.

    Thanks for the ongoing writing, Josh. It’s always a treat to re-enter the baseball world of the late 70s. As you say, that cardboard universe sometimes feels more real than the world we wander around in.


  5. hudsongs: That story sounds familiar. I wonder if it was in the anthology of James’ writing that came out some years ago.

    I just checked my copy of James’ Historical Baseball Abstract, and the only mention of Cabell is James’ listing of him as the 116th best third baseman of all time. It was a pretty surprising place to find him, considering my sense that he was among James’ favorite early targets. I mean, he’s not exactly among the Schmidts and Bretts down there in 116th place, but he’s farther up than many, many others who made it to the majors at the “hot corner.”


  6. Enos Cabell may have only hit .255 in 1981, but he led the league (unofficially) in goofy smiles.


  7. As a lurker who finally was able to log in (a major achievement for me) I will leave these two inane thoughts. Enos was the second best player with that first name to play in the major leagues and he shares the same birthplace (Ft.Riley,Kan) with another of my favorites, i.e. Mr.John Damon.


  8. I should amend that Enos Cabell post. I should have said Enos Cabell was one of the worst players to amass over 6000 P.A. Some of those players had some decent years but were kept as full time starters way too long.

    When you talk about the worst players of all-time it all depends on where you want to put the cut/off.

    If your talking about 4000 P.A. Doug Flynn was one of the worst players of all time (-12)War, 4000 P.A., Dan Meyer was also among the worst ever with 9.3WAR, with 4000 P.A.

    But if you take it down to 3000 P.A. then the Worst all time without a doubt was Bill Bergen, A catcher during the early 1900’s hit .170/.194/.201 ops+21, in 3000 P.A. Those are his actual numbers.


  9. Dan Meyer had a negative (-9.3) career War, Bill Bergen had a negative (-17.6) career WAR.


  10. OK, Josh, because I read your book a couple of weeks ago and thought it was fabulous, I’ve started to frequent your blog. And I must say, I’ve found the blog entries to be as fascinating as the book.
    During this, I’ve read of your desire to write a book of the movie Bad News Bears Breaking Traning, which I’ve never saw, although the original BNBears is one of my all time favorites. So I ordered the DVD and, after reading your Cabell entry today, I felt tonight it was time to watch the movie that is inspiring your book.
    After watching the movie, my only response is that: I’ll never forgive you for this.


  11. Ruthven: My apologies for your lousy evening. I think maybe with that movie you might have had to have been there, and by “there” I mean nine years old in 1977 in a crowded theater full of other nine year old boys. It has definitely got its flaws. But I even love the flaws. Such is love, I guess.


  12. Ruthven,

    I think “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” only works if you were a 8-13 year old boy living in late 70’s. And you have to have watched the film when it originally came out sometime between 1977-1982.

    If you watch it as an adult today, you can’t see past the plot holes and the basic absurdity of the premise and the general lack of basic logic. But in a kid’s mind, the story seems completely plausible.

    It’s kind of the ultimate late-70’s boy fantasy. Fire your A-hole little league coach, steal a van, drive across country to Houston without Parental supervision, Get into adventures with your little league team along the way, stay in a motel, eat fast-food, stay up all night watching t.v., See the “Astrodome”, And Play an actual game in the “Dome”.

    In reality how the heck did the Bears become “California Champs”??? What happened to Buttermaker and Amanda? Even though they’re the same kids, how the heck are they all still on the same team? Wouldn’t some of the parents travel to Houston to watch their kids play? Wouldn’t Dolph Sweet’s character report what happened? Wouldn’t someone report the van stolen? Wouldn’t the parents file missing persons reports? Wouldn’t the parents be somewhat concerned that their children are travelling in a stolen van?

    But if you’re in junior high, all that goes out the window.

    I remember watching this movie when it came out on HBO during the spring of ’79. back in those days, HBO would replay movies over and over so I have these memories of watching this film 8-10 times and then going to my little league games right afterward.

    I think my fondness for the movie comes from the memory of being 12 years watching the movie and my biggest concern at the time was whether my 2 pieces of Bubble Yum would last an entire little league game.


  13. Haha…..I guess if you look at it as a mindless-fun movie for 10 year old kids to enjoy, it makes more sense…….but the original Bad News Bears was such a smart adult-themed comedy, that maybe its my love for the original and hoping this first sequeal was similiar, is why I was so disappointed. Anyway, after a good night’s sleep, I am over it. And on the positive side, never again will I have to wonder what I was missing by never having seen Bad News Bears sequel.


  14. Ruthven,

    The original was an excellent film that was smart and funny and worked on so many levels. Not only was it a funny film that a kid could enjoy but it was also an excellent social critique on what we value in American Society.

    I guess they could have made a sequel that was smart and adult-themed but that would have been harder and would have taken more money and time, etc.

    They could have come up with a premise that was a little more plausible though.

    A “California Champs” team would have been an all-star team made up of players from that league not just the “Bears” and Kelly Leak would have been the only player good enough to make an All-Star team. And Kelly Leak in reality would be playing Senior League baseball at that point.

    So I just look at it like a kid’s fantasy film. I actually haven’t seen the film in about 25 years so I’m going to have to look for it on DVD.


  15. I was at Big Lots this weekend, and standing in line to pay for crap I didn’t want, there on the Display of Misfit DVDs was BNBIBT — for one dollar. Each. I don’t even own a TV, but I bought three and put them in the mail to soon-to-be very grateful friends. I should have known this was how the cosmos was telling me you had a little more to say about our mutually favorite topic, Josh. Thanks.

    And yes, thinking about the original as a genuinely great movie and the sequel as for one for the 5th grade boys, that’s just right.

    Thinking about the film that completes the trilogy is not, however, recommended. For completists only.


  16. Enos Cabell is good. When I was 12, when he was playing for the Orioles, he was a guest speaker at the Towson State All-Sports Day Camp. I can’t remember anything he said, but I do remember he happily signed everything that was thrust in his face, including my Rawlings Brooks Robinson model glove. Behind that goofy grin is a great guy.

    Who did the Orioles get for him?


  17. I watched the “Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” over the weekend and boy was I disappointed. I hadn’t seen the movie in about 25-30 years so I had never really seen in it in the eyes of an adult. I loved the movie when I was a kid when it came out in the late 70’s but I couldn’t get over all the plot holes, the lazy writing and just a general lack of any kind of logic in the film. It was kind of like going back to your grammar school and being surprised at how small it is.

    Where the first film was an honest, smart, funny, and scathing indictment of what we value in the U.S., this film was just a a 30’s-40’s era kid fantasy with all logic thrown out the window.

    I was also surprised in re-watching it at how lazy and weak the writing and acting was in this sequel.

    Here’s some thoughts and problems I had with the film:

    *ENGLEBERT 2: I totally forgot they had a different Engelbert in this film. Supposedly the original grew 3 inches and lost 40 pounds so he couldn’t be used as a joke. Also this Englebert is so unathletic that it looks like he can’t even swing a ball or run. Also, about the only “jokes” in this film revolve around Englebert going to the toilet.

    *THE HIDDEN BALL TRICK: It’s a somewhat pivotal scene in the movie but it shouldn’t have happened. First off, you can’t take a lead in little league. Secondly, it was a BALK anyway because you can’t go to the mound with your foot on the rubber without the ball.

    *STEIN, OGILVIE, AND LEAK Reach PUBERTY: Little league baseball ends at age 12. Stein looks like he’s about 35 years old in this film, Ogilvie looks like he’s a Junior on the High School Chess team, and Leak looks like a high school kid sneaking out of wood-shop for a smoke. All their voices have changed and there’s no illusion that they’re anywhere near 12 years old. Kelly even says that Mike Leak gave him a bike when he was 5 and that was 8 years ago so that would make Kelly at 13, ineligible for little league play anyway.

    *CALIFORNIA CHAMPS: Champs of what?? They lost to the Yankees. And why would a second place little league team from Van Nuys go all the way to play in the Astrodome?? It’s never made clear in the film.

    *BATTING ORDER: Leak bats fourth in the line-up. He hits a 2 run home run in 3rd inning, the inning ends and yet he comes up magically in the 4th inning as the third batter down 5-3?? Mike Englebert was batting third? but in the 4rth, Ogilvie bats in front of Leak. Why would the coach pinch hit Ogilvie for Englebert? and Why would you bat the slowest player on the field ahead of Kelly Leak? and they win on a sloppy error induced inside the park home run by Carmin Ronzonni??

    *SLIGHTLY RACIST: They included an Italian-American kid named Carmin not Carmine with the last name of “Ronzonni” who’s from “Back East” and steals a van somehow. Ahmad keeps worrying about “Going to the Joint” and only requires $15 dollars where the white player require $20-25 dollars. The two Mexican boys only require $2 apiece.

    *Sloppy/Lazy editing: It seems like the film was made during the fall/winter of 1976-1977. There’s a scene after Mike Leak takes over as the coach that’s supposed to be filmed in Houston when in reality it’s filmed in California. You can clearly see a sign for a Bellair California bank in the supposedly Houston suburb outfield.

    Also, it seems like the Houston scenes were filmed after the California scenes so Kelly seems to get “younger” AFTER he meets Mike Leak when they’re playing in the park.

    *REGGIE TOWER: Where’s Reggie?

    *What Happened to Amanda & Buttermaker?

    *WHERE ARE THE ADULTS: Where’s Councilman Whitewood? The parents are always around in the first movie are never around in this one. The Parents would just let their kids go to Texas in a van with a mentally challenged grounds-keeper?

    *Are they even in a little league anymore or are they just an independent team that plays pick-up games?

    *What was the whole point of “Calling El Paso”.

    *What the hell are those Texas kids chewing? Tobacco?

    *Why is Anheiser Bush sponsoring a little league baseball game?

    *How do a bunch of 12 year olds get a motel room?

    *Why are the Bears the HOME team, when they’re the ones coming from California?

    *Once the Houston police takes the van why doesn’t the fact that it’s STOLEN ever come up?

    *Wouldn’t the parents be notified if the Police found a bunch of 12 year olds in a motel? And wouldn’t Mike Leak contact the parents to tell them of the situation?

    *Mike Leak is also somewhat surprised that Kelly would be somewhat “Upset” at him. Also, by the end of the film, they’re relationship is somehow magically repaired after 8 years.


  18. Breaking Training was one of the first movies we rented when we got our first VCR. That would have been around 1985, when I was about 10. I remember pausing the credits to find out which Astros were in the film. I also remember liking the movie, but, at the time, whenever I saved up enough money to rent a video, I usually rented something involving Gallagher.


  19. gkbond: The O’s traded Cabell and 2b Rob Andrews to Houston for a 31 year old Lee May and minor league outfielder Jay Schlueter. Andrews was the kid brother of Red Sox 2b Mike Andrews, and another in the long line of highly touted infield prospects groomed in the “Oriole way” (think Bobby Grich, or the somewhat less successful Bob Floyd and Bob Bailor). Apparently, back in the late 60s and 70s if your given name was Robert and you could field ground balls, the Orioles could turn you into a phenom.

    With this trade, Astros management must have been thinking they had locked down half of their infield spots for the next decade, sacrificing little since they needed to make way for Bob Watson to move from outfield to first base. Or maybe they were just thinking “Hey, we’ll let the kids play!”


  20. Enos Cabell is always “good” in my teenage baseball fan and card collector’s book. Excellent name: CHECK. Cool card: CHECK. Played for a team with a cool uniform: CHECK. Got some key hits against my Phillies: CHECK. Made one of the most memorable boners I’ve ever witnessed in person: CHECK. The Astros were playing the Phillies at Veterans Stadium. Cabell was in rightfield. Someone hit a line drive to him. He took it on one hop and geared up to throw home to catch a Phillies’ player turning third. He must have lost his grip. The ball went right into the ground, about 5 feet in front of him. It rolled into the infield. When you’re a kid entranced by all the unexpected things that make baseball special, what’s better than a guy named Enos Cabell dressed like a fast-food employee, throwing a hard grounder from right?



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