Del UnserDecember 6, 2011
One Christmas when I was a kid, my grandmother got me a book called Juggling for the Complete Klutz. I was not then or now prone to mastering skills of any kind, useful or otherwise, but for some reason I applied myself to the book’s lessons, most of which were accompanied by a cartoon of a befuddled bearded fellow amusingly failing. Attached to the book was a small red mesh sack with three square beanbags inside. You started out throwing one beanbag, getting the arc of that toss and catch down, then moved on to practicing the mundane exchange of throwing two at a time, first one and then the other, back and forth from hand to hand. Finally, you moved on to trying to get all three beanbags up in the air at once. In that last stage, I tried and failed many times. There was a faint alluring feeling in the failures of something almost happening, as if the latch of a locked treasure chest was on the brink of giving way. I kept failing. I kept trying.
In this 1978 card, Del Unser has just connected, propelling the ball up into the air. It’s not clear from the photo alone whether the ball will land safely, but the angle of Unser’s head as he follows the path of the ball would suggest that he has hit a fly ball and not a line drive or a grounder. I have determined after considerable study the likely time and place of this moment, and it’s during an inning in which two outs have already been recorded, thus eliminating the possibility of a sacrifice fly, and so the only hope for Unser’s at bat to be considered a useful one is for the ball to carry all the way into the centerfield stands. This is a long shot. It is always a long shot. Most at bats are useless.
I remember I was in my room, alone, once again trying and failing to juggle, when, finally, I got all three beanbags going at once for a couple of seconds. I lost control of my throws almost as quickly as I had all the other times before, but this time the slight difference was unmistakable. I’d juggled. Learning to walk must have felt the same way. Learning to ride a bike. One of those moments when you feel like you’re floating in a brand new way, like the laws of gravity have loosened. I ran downstairs to find someone and tell them the news. I’d juggled!
I’ve been pondering this 1978 Del Unser card for quite some time, and, as I mentioned, I have a theory on the time and place, the particulars of the moment. It took certain skills to be able to place this moment, I suppose. First, you have to be willing and able to look at a baseball card for a long time, to do something, in other words, that most people would consider to be, for an adult, a complete waste of time. You have to know your way around baseball-reference.com. It helps to know that the photographers who took shots at the ballpark in the 1970s most often showed up in New York and the Bay Area. I guess you have to have some powers of deduction. Anyway, I’ll spare you the details, but the key piece of info is that the on-deck hitter is almost surely future Hall-of-Famer Andre Dawson (joined, in the even more remote background, to the right of Unser’s left leg, by fellow Hall of Famer Gary Carter), and Dawson’s presence along with a couple of other indicators and probabilities suggests to me that the photo on this card is from the top of the sixth inning in a game between the Expos and Mets on Monday, May 30, 1977. Most of our efforts in life, let’s face it, amount to the equivalent of a failed at-bat against Bob Apodaca in a game between two also-rans. Moments that turn out like so:
|D. Unser||B. Apodaca||Flyball: CF|
Everyone in my family enjoyed my new skill, and I was glad to show it to them, especially my grandmother. Warmed and emboldened by my family’s acclaim, I marched off to school with my three square beanbags, envisioning kids chanting my name as they carried me on their shoulders through the hallways; instead, everyone I juggled for smiled briefly, then asked over rapidly encroaching boredom whether I could juggle four things, then turned away to other more interesting matters, such as learning multiplication tables or poking one of the classroom gerbils with a pencil. This reaction was a letdown that could serve as a prototype for all subsequent letdowns in my life. I came to understand, eventually, that I had devoted myself with uncharacteristic tenacity to learning something so gaudily useless that it could, were it necessary, be used to illustrate the very concept of uselessness.
For most of his career, Del Unser played for also-rans, a term seemingly designed primarily to convey uselessness. There are contenders, and games that matter, and moments upon which history hinges, and then there is everything else. Del Unser played for the second edition of the Washington Senators in its death throes, then logged a season with a typically moribund Cleveland Indians outfit, then hitched on with the Philadelphia Phillies for two seasons before, just as they were on the brink of escaping mediocrity, he was shipped to the declining mid-1970s Mets for a year and a half, who then passed him along to the Expos. From the photo on the front of Del Unser’s 1978 card it’s clear, at least in retrospect, that the Expos, armed with young future superstars such as Dawson and Carter, would soon be climbing into contention, but Del Unser’s destiny was to always be on the move, and he wouldn’t be around with the Expos when, in 1979, they finally began to play games that mattered. It must have seemed to Del Unser that he would never find a crucial moment when he might be of use.
I kept juggling. It became a solitary practice, like most of the other things I did or would do or still do, like reading, writing, walking, mulling fantasy sports rosters, jogging, shooting baskets, meditating, beating off. I learned how to juggle bowling pins, big plastic rings, basketballs. I learned to flip tennis balls under my leg and around my back while juggling them. However, as if to highlight the gulf growing between me, the juggler, and a hypothetical audience, a possible connection, I never was able fulfill the inevitable ubiquitous request of anyone who ever saw me juggling—can you juggle four?—with any regularity. I juggled three things, just three things, in seclusion. I tried to imagine that it was some kind of a Zen practice. At my wintry college, where my Zen pretensions were at their most pronounced levels, I sometimes juggled snowballs outside the classroom before big tests “to focus.” I’m sure I secretly hoped that I would be seen doing so, and admired, but no one ever said anything about it, at least not to my face.
Some months ago the birth of my son thrust me into the frazzled center of a rapid unending series of baffling crises. The whole thing started with the birth itself, in which my role was to smile and say “You can do it!” to someone in terrible agony who later confirmed my suspicion that she was looking entirely past my cheerleading to search with animal ferocity the faces of the nurses and doctors for signs that the end of the unbearable pain might be in sight. My efficacy or lack thereof throughout the long ordeal crystallized during one of the terrifying peaks of my wife’s pain, when I was sent out of the room so that my wife could receive an epidural, which she had hoped to avoid back when we imagined that together we could calmly visualize away the rumored pain of labor contractions by believing it would all be like riding rising and falling waves. During the administration of the epidural I sat in a little waiting room alone. It was 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., somewhere in there. I sat and stared at the dim institutional carpeting and hoped and prayed, two activities of limited if not altogether useless impact. I wanted my wife to be all right but couldn’t do anything about it. I was scared that the epidural would lead to some kind of complication. I was also scared it simply wouldn’t work, that we’d have to go on as before, one of us wrenching around on a hospital bed like a fish suffocating at the bottom of a boat, the other standing alongside, useless, hoping and praying.
In 1979, the trend in Del Unser’s career toward less and less playing time continued as the former regular turned fourth outfielder took what most would interpret as a further demotion in role, to that of a pinch-hitter. He had always been a good outfielder (in fact, the moment in the 1978 card at the top of this post testifies to his fielding abilities, as in the game in question he was the centerfielder, chosen to play that key defensive position over Andre Dawson, who would go on to win several Gold Glove awards as a centerfielder), and so he continued to occasionally get playing time as an outfielder, and, proving his versatility, he also logged innings occasionally at first base, but his primary role in 1979 was pinch-hitter. It must have seemed to Unser that this reduction in playing time would be compensated for by an increase in crucial moments, as going into 1979 the Phillies had won the previous three National League East crowns. As it turned out, the 1979 Phillies would finish up the season as also-rans, 14 games out of first behind the Pirates (and 12 behind his contending former teammates on the Expos), but fairly deep into the season there must have persisted the hope that the three-time defending NL East champs might still have a chance to make a charge toward the top. On June 30, the Phillies were trailing the St. Louis Cardinals late and were on the brink of falling to just one game above .500 when Del Unser was called in to pinch-hit. Unser homered to tie the game, which the Phillies would go on to win. Unser homered in his next pinch-hitting appearance, a July 5 loss to the Mets, and was next called in to pinch-hit with two outs and two on in the 9th inning of a July 10 game against the Padres, the Phillies behind 5-3 and future Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers on the mound. No one had ever hit three pinch-hit home runs in a row before. You can tell where this is going, I’m sure, so let’s just say that in that not altogether unimportant moment, the Phillies still within shouting distance of first place, Del Unser proved to be quite useful.
The epidural worked, for a while anyway, probably not because of my prayers, but who knows. It eventually wore off, leading to another long terrible passage of pain that finally ended in the best and weirdest moment of my life, my bloody son riding on the hands of strangers out from between the legs of my wife. Since then, the boy at the center of that moment has centered my life, and my life has been that of a complete klutz. I trip over stuff. I drop things. Sometimes I barely remember how to walk. A few nights ago, I had a dream that I was trying to juggle and couldn’t do it any longer. I kept trying but I’d forgotten how.
Del Unser followed up his 1979 record-setting feat of three pinch-hit home runs in a row by performing multiple off-the-bench heroics for the Phillies in the 1980 postseason, helping the team to its first-ever World Series title. Unser’s efforts on a colorful star-studded Phillies roster including eventual all-time hits king Pete Rose, league MVP Mike Schmidt, Cy Young award-winner Steve Carlton, comically gorilla-armed slugger Greg Luzinski, and the charismatic sloganeering Dionysian relief ace Tug McGraw, among others, provide some guidance to me on how to be father. Being a father, you’re not really the star of the show, the starting pitcher, the cleanup hitter, what have you, but you may be called upon at certain times to step off the bench and into the spotlight. You don’t have the uterus or the boobs or the 500 career home runs or the 300 wins but you still might be called upon to perform a small but necessary duty successfully. You can carry a car seat out to the car. You can change a diaper half-decently. Maybe once in a while you can get the kid to sleep. You are the pinch-hitter.
After my dream about not being able to juggle I searched the house for three tennis balls. It took a while—in step with the new general disorder of things, all three were in different places, and my wife found the last one behind a bureau. She also found what she termed “a hundred-pound wad of dust” behind the bureau, so after she cleaned back there she stomped off to the shower, asking me to watch the baby in her absence. Time to pinch-hit! The baby was sitting and playing in a little high chair thing by the dining-room table. I kept one eye on him while I gathered up the three tennis balls. I hadn’t juggled in a while, but it came right back to me. Three balls in the air. After all these years, it still gave me some pleasure, or maybe even some kind of very quiet joy. This feeling, joy, announced itself as always having been there, in a kind of diminished, hibernating form, as I noticed it rousing itself to something fuller, a whole note, with the awareness that two small blue eyes were now on me. My son, who had been attempting to jam a small furry book about a family of bears into his mouth, had noticed what I was doing. His fierce grip on the book loosened and the book slid to the floor. I kept juggling, turning to him, calling his name and babbling baby sounds. He was watching the worn yellow balls rise and fall, rise and fall. He was watching the pinch-hitter do what he knew how to do and he was smiling.