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Gil Flores

July 2, 2010

1. “Has blazing speed.”

I took my first steps as a solitary reader by reading the backs of baseball cards. By the time this 1978 Gil Flores card came out I was a few years along in terms of being able to read. Most of what I read was baseball books. But I still read the backs of cards, too.

The more obscure the player, the more words there would have to be on the back of the card. The longtime superstars had no room on the backs of their cards for anything but high stacks of small numbers, each year of their splendid careers laid out in inarguable arithmetic. The marginal players, the ones who would only be around for a little while, did not have enough numbers to fill a card. When there are blanks to fill, words are needed.

I’ve been writing about my childhood baseball cards for years now, churning out thousands of words. What is the blank I’m filling? I don’t know. But the day always feels a little less empty if I find some flicker of life in a card that I held in my hands as a kid. I felt a flicker as soon as I picked up this Gil Flores card. I remember thinking as a kid that it was different. No card ever showed a guy displaying his leg in that fashion. There he was, reclining in the dugout, possibly injured, but if so not seriously, perhaps trying to work the kinks out of his leg so that he could gain entry into the game. He is watching something out on the field and he wants in.

Because he is Gil Flores and not Pete Rose or Rod Carew, there are space-filling words on the back of the card. They augment the leg-centric photo on the front by pointing out in the rushed, truncated back-of-the-card grammar that is to me the voice of life loved if not of god: “Has blazing speed.” There are no stolen base numbers among the statistics above the words, so the idea of the blazing speed of Gil Flores, left to the imagination, spills beyond the borders of the card.

I started writing about this card yesterday morning, before work, and carried it with me in my knapsack to and from work, and it made me feel like I had something with me valuable and alive.      

2. The dugout

For most of the years that I collected cards, I was playing little league baseball, and so I was spending the happiest part of my life, then and forever, in a dugout. Is there a better thing than to be in a dugout, waiting for your turn in the order to come around again? When I got this Gil Flores card, it was only my second year of playing baseball in little league, and it was my brother’s final year, and he was a star, our best hitter and our best pitcher, and so I had the joy of sitting in a dugout cheering for him. Once, during one of his at bats, I was next to a teammate named Chris.

“Hey, hit a home run, Ian!” Chris shouted.

“Hey, great idea,” I said as the pitcher went into his windup. “Hit one outta here!”

We were just being goofy in the dugout, but my brother swung, and there it fucking went, high and deep. Chris and I looked at each other, our mouths wide open. We poured out of the dugout with everybody else to greet Ian at home, then moved in one big laughing mass back to the dugout, where me and Chris and Ian and everyone sat and stood and giggled and shouted and practically shivered from head to toe with the feeling of being in a dugout, which is the same as the feeling of having special powers.

3. Third pitch

That’s actually the best part about this Gil Flores card, not his odd caress and display of his leg or the blazing speed in the words on the back but the photo of being inside the dugout. You are right there, just down the bench from Flores, close enough to see him and to see the player just beyond him, a guy staring at a baseball, gripping it.

What pitch is he considering? And who is he? I can’t find the grip he’s using on a web page that describes various grips, and there’s no glimpse of a uniform number to provide a clue to who the player is. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, one card leads to another. I dug back into my shoebox to look first at the team picture on the 1978 Angels team checklist card. I identified only one white guy with a thin mustache. Digging deeper, I found the individual card of a white guy on the Angels with a thin mustache, my 1978 Paul Hartzell. Paul Hartzell had even fewer numbers on the back of his card than Gil Flores, so the great majority of the card contained space-filling words. Among those words was this thrilling clue: “Worked on 3rd pitch after 1976 season. . .”

Is this 3rd pitch the one he is tinkering with in the background of Gil Flores’ card? And is there some kind of story behind everything, linking one card to the next, one day to the next, all to all forever?

4. The last out

I intended to finish writing about Gil Flores yesterday, but he kept spreading beyond my control. I examined his major league statistics, read some online memories of fans who’d watched him briefly flit across their consciousnesses before disappearing, thought about being in a dugout, thought about pitching grips, thought about how I could never learn how to throw a curveball even after my curveballing brother tried to teach me, thought about Paul Hartzell, noticed that he was never as good after his rookie season in 1976, before he added his third pitch. I learned that he was successful after baseball, a smart guy who figured things out and worked hard. Maybe he saw even while succeeding in his rookie year that he’d need more to be able to stick around in the dugout for a while. Or maybe we all make things more complicated than they need to be.

As the morning drained away yesterday, I kept veering farther and farther from a simple consideration of this card of Gil Flores, which if I were keeping things simple I would just say I loved. But love is so deep and mysterious that sometimes you start thinking you need more than just one way of grappling with it. You start to think you need a new grip, a new pitch. I ended up reading about Dennis Eckersley, who is the featured figure in the piece of baseball lore in which Gil Flores most often comes up. In 1977, things were just about to get really complicated for Dennis Eckersley. Before the next season, he would be traded from his original team, and he would learn that his wife was leaving him for a teammate, Rick Manning. But before that happened, he still had a little more time in an uncomplicated world. This world peaked on May 30, 1977, when he squared off against fellow young flamethrowing ace Frank Tanana in a pitching duel for the ages. Tanana lowered his ERA that day to 2.08 and struck out 6 while allowing just 5 hits and 1 run. The Eck was a little better. Through 8 and 2/3 innings, he’d walked 1, struck out 11, and allowed no hits. All that remained was Gil Flores. Flores, though a major league rookie, was in many ways already an old pro. He had been playing in the highly competitive Puerto Rican winter leagues for years and had been knocking around in the minors since 1971, hitting over .300 at almost every stop. He attempted to complicate the young pitcher’s mind by taking a long time between pitches to get settled in the box. The cocky Eckersley was, at least for a little while longer, immune to complication. From baseballlibrary.com:

“I was ready, but Gil kept on stepping out of the [batter’s box],” Eckersley later told the Contra Costa Times. “I pointed at him, ‘Get in there. They’re not here to take your picture. You’re the last out.’”  

5. Must’ve loved the game

Eckersley struck out Flores to complete the no-hitter. He went on to pitch well for his new team the following year, despite the gnawing blank inside.  

“He was so down,” teammate Luis Tiant recalled for the Boston Globe. “It made me feel so bad, watching him. He was in a tough position. We tried to calm him down, tell him he had a life to live. . . ”

Eckersley eventually descended into alcoholism, which seemed as if it would derail his once promising career. But he kept pitching even throughout some disappointing years in the 1980s with the Red Sox and Cubs. He got sober in 1986 after seeing a video of himself drunk while with his 10-year-old daughter. A trade to the Oakland A’s followed, where he was demoted to the bullpen. The rest, as you probably know or can find out if you ever visit the Hall of Fame, is history.

You have to think that Eckersley would not have been able to persevere in the game if he hadn’t loved it deeply. The same seems to have been true for the so-called “last out.” Gil Flores didn’t ever let himself become just the last out, even after his brief time in the majors came to a close. As a commenter on the Gil Flores memory page on the Mets Ultimate Database site points out: “Five years after his last game as a Met he was still with them in AAA. Must’ve loved the game.”

***

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

15 comments

  1. I remember Flores. Primarily because he played center next to Bobby Bonds (The Pride Of Riverside) in right. Bonds was just a few home runs short of being the first 40/40 guy ever in 1977. Other than Ryan and Tanana, everyone else pretty much sucked. Half the position players were in platoon situations. The Angels even “platooned” the manager. 1977 was their last totally suck ass season before they started making the playoffs. Ah, memories.


  2. Loved this card when it came out and this was a terrific post.


  3. Flores has the dubious distinction of being an alumnae of the 1979 Mets. I’ve been following the team since 1973 and ’79 was one of the 2 or 3 worst seasons I’ve seen.

    Flores was one of those guys that’s called a quadruple A level player. He was a very good Triple A level player but not quite good enough to stay in the majors.

    Flores was also one of the last players to wear #17 on the Mets before Keith Hernandez came. I think Ellis Valentine and Alex Trevino also wore #17.


  4. I remember being thrilled when the Mets got Flores in mid-’78 because I knew he had a decent rookie year and had great speed. In ’79, I was at a game in which Flores took a pitch for strike three to end a game. That is my lasting impression of him.


  5. I believe the last player of significance to wear #17 before Keith was Felix Millan. This was before Ed Ott pile-drove him into the artificial turf at Three Rivers.

    Side note: Baseball was more fun when players like Millan choked up on the bat half-way up to the trademark.


  6. Shelives,

    Millan started out as #16 and then switched to #17. My bad, it was Jerry Morales who wore it after Gil Flores not Alex Trevino.

    Here’s a list of all the #17 in Mets’ history:

    http://mbtn.net/number/17


  7. Hey, cool, traffic from Cardboard Gods! Keith of course wanted 37 with the Mets but that was retired, and 7 (Hubie Brooks), 27 (Craig Swan) and 47 (Jesse Orosco) were already issued. Some fans get upset that the Mets keep re-issuing 17 to nobodies but really, that’s the tradition and Keith is the exception. You have to wonder whether this injury to Tatis means 17’s up for grabs again, I can’t imagine they won’t be looking for a better RH pinch-hitter/infield backup at the deadline.

    All that though is beside the point of my clicking here in the first place: To say, great post. That Flores stretching card was a favorite of mine growing up too.


  8. Wow! great post! So much to comment on…..i’ll stick to your original thought about his position in the dugout.

    Certainly it was a late inning situation and he was warming up to be a pinch runner to show off that blazing speed.

    I just checked baseball reference and that blazing speed yielded 12 SB, 10 CS in 104 games in 1977. That blazing speed didnt get him into many games afer that. Apparently the Mets wanted a piece of that whirlwind runner. Eleven games in 1978 with 1 SB and 70 games in 1979 with 2 SB.

    Apparently the same guy who wrote the topps card added an entry on baseball ref biographical section: “Gil was an excellent runner. He played for the Ponce Lions in the Puerto Rico Winter Baseball League.”

    After doing the requisite research, I am going to assume he was stretching some leg cramp/torn ligament that must have slowed down this lightning quick runner and shortened his career.

    Teammate Paul Hartzel should have been consoling Gil instead of working on that 3rd pitch that probably ended his career. Could that picture really have captured the definitive moment when 2 players had the turning point in their career where it was all downhill?


  9. I never thought in life I would ever write about Gil Flores. Yet here I am following in my new hero, Josh’s footstep. I can follow Josh. Gil was wayyyyyyyyyy to fast for me to follow.

    Anyway it is mildly amusing to me to see baseballreference.com has him listed at the top of the page as Outfield and Pinch Hitter!!
    Really?
    Is Gil Flores the guy you want coming up to bat in the late innings??

    There are some interesting statistics on baseballreference.com. Imagine if they were packed on the cardboard gods cards when we were kids.

    There is a stat Rbase (runs from baserunning). He is listed as -3 which to me seems to be below average (i am assuming 0 is the baseline)
    What the heck! All that zoom yielded a -3?????

    Sadly, he wasnt even traded to the mets….the mets picked him off waivers…….


  10. I cant stop thinking about gil flores now…….forget the gil hodges story…it’s the gil flores story that has me intrigued.

    Digging deeper, he continued to play minor league ball for the tidewater tides till 1984. My thoughts about an injury must be incorrect for i see he was burning the basepaths with sb’s at tidewater:
    1980 -21 .275BA
    1981 -43 .296
    1982 -23 .332
    1983 -17 .312

    WTF? The Mets had so much talent they couldn’t bring him up? Who was on the mets in those days that prevented Gil from showing his stuff?

    Who was using him as pinch hitter instead of a pinch runner??

    Oh Giberto, what you may have become if weren’t jinxed that fateful day in the Angels dugout sitting next to Paul Hartzell learning that ‘3rd pitch’.


  11. Wow, but did I love this post. Nothing grandiose or anything, just a great expansion of thoughts sprung from a baseball card.

    What a great memory to have: cheering for your brother to hit a home run and then he hits one and you celebrate as a team with him!

    What a terrific lesson to articulate, talking about loving the game kept two very different players tied to it through tough times!

    Thanks, Josh. Great work.


  12. Thanks, bldxyz. Much appreciated.


  13. Whoa… this entry was like a total card collecting acid flashback. Mind you, I didn’t do any acid when I was seven years old… and even in my early twentysomething “experimenting” phase I doubt I did enough to trigger any flashbacks… But seeing this card brought me right back to 1981.

    I traded 1981Champ Summers and Dave Rozema that allowed my buddy to complete his Tigers team. For whatever reason, my seven year old self was completely fascinated with the 1978 set, and I know one of the cards I got in return was Gil Flores because I was actually close to a complete 78 Angels team… I believe Jamie Quirk and Geoff Zahn were the others snagged in the trade.

    And yea, I was probably 13 or 14 years old before I learned that it was “Jeff” and not “GEE OFF”…. and if I recall correctly, Quirk had one of those great posed shots where he is “swinging” the bat and the barrel comes down straight towards the camera. Now that I think a little more about it… it might have been Johnny Wockenfuss and not Champ Summers… but after 30 years… thanks for the flashback regardless.


  14. I am sorry, but that is NOT Paul Hartzell back there. It is 18 year old shortstop, Rance Mulliniks! I can confirm it. Look at Rance’s card, then look at this card again. It took three years of sleepless nights, but we figured it out!

    Thanks for the great blog Josh!


  15. I see what you mean, youngjohn2013. If anyone wants to take a look and compare, here’s the ’78 Rance Mulliniks card: http://tinyurl.com/osr9owg



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