Archive for the ‘by Josh Wilker’ Category


Manny Mota and Ron Hodges

October 9, 2015

Mota Ron hodges 78NLDS preview, part two (part one here)

One of the last classes I took as an undergrad, many years ago, was in Chaucer, and the only thing I remember was the tale of the knight concluding with a discordant pratfall, the knight falling off his horse. It seemed to me a brilliant commentary on the myth of heroism, if not on the absurdly random nature of life itself. Nobody is a superstar bound to some shapely, impeccable narrative. Really the best you can hope for is that you stick around for a while, maybe find a place you can call home, figure out a way to make yourself useful, and try to steer clear of trouble.

The two players shown here managed all but the last of these elements in their careers. Both had some trouble. Probably trouble is unavoidable. But there’s trouble and then there’s trouble, and Hodges was lucky enough to run into the lesser of these two gradations. He played 12 years for the Mets as a part-time catcher but is most often remembered, at least if his fan memories page on the Ultimate Mets Fan Database is a guide, for fracturing pitcher Craig Swan’s ribs while trying to throw out a young base stealer named Tim Raines. This is the kind of Chaucerian physical comedy that seems to come up with irresistibly appealing regularity on the fan memories page of the Ultimate Mets Fan Database (along with conflicting eyewitness reports of the Met in question’s treatment of fans—on Hodges’ page he is derided by one fan for grabbing his crotch and saying “right here” to him, and he’s lauded by another fan for tirelessly signing autographs for kids), and for that reason I always have to pry myself away from the site to avoid spending the rest of my days browsing through anecdotes about the stumbling, pockmarked humanity of the likes of Bob Apodaca, Doug Flynn, Bill Pecota, etc., etc., into infinity.

If the worst thing that ever happens to you is you fracture Craig Swan’s ribs, life isn’t so bad. Manny Mota would surely agree. Mota, after some time on the Giants, Pirates, and Expos, stuck for many years with the Dodgers, settling in under blue skies to become arguably the most effective right-handed pinch-hitter ever (he ranks third all-time in career pinch hits, after lefties Lenny Harris and Mark Sweeney). It’s a specialized skill requiring that the practitioner know how to effectively sit and wait, just you and all the spiraling directionless tales in your mind. How Mota did this is a mystery, as he had by then lived through the second kind of trouble, the kind most of us never even want to imagine. In 1970, some years before his shift from part-time starter to pinch-hitting specialist, a foul ball from his bat struck and killed a 14-year-old boy in the stands.

That kind of thing, making sense of it, is beyond me. It’s beyond anyone, surely; there’s no sense to be made of some things. But I don’t even really want to think about it. So:

Edge: Mets


Rick Reuschel and Al Hrabosky

October 9, 2015

Rick Reuschel 77 HraboskyNLDS Preview, part one

Style is a mode of conflict. It doesn’t seem that way to most individuals, I don’t think, but whenever style choices are made—clothing, hairstyle, behavior—they are made within the context of the surrounding society and are therefore always capable of cutting against the norms of the society. In other words, for example, Jonathan Papelbon is going to occasionally strangle Bryce Harper.

The two men shown here offer a contrast not only in style but in the approach to style. One stoically avoided throughout his long career any style choices that would have made him stand out from the prevailing norms, while the other, at an early, tenuous stage of his own much more mercurial career, adopted a strikingly unusual style on the mound, not out of a desire to set himself apart from his peers but out of desperation. Al Hrabosky, dubbed the Mad Hungarian after he began instituting a mid-crisis routine of stalking behind the mound, taking a few cartoonishly deep heaving breaths, slamming the ball into his glove, and spinning back around to face the batter with a menacing, Fu Manchu-enhanced sneer, reflected on the genesis of his routine in a 1986 Sun-Sentinel article entitled “Hrabosky Hreflects”:

“What people forget is that originally, the Mad Hungarian started when I couldn’t get anybody out. I had a 7.00 ERA with no saves. It was a last-ditch effort to gain my concentration.”

It worked—for a while in the mid-1970s Hrabosky was among the best and arguably the most famous reliever in the league—but the style also rubbed opponents the wrong way. I urge you to read Dayn Perry’s recap of the following brawl—which was sparked, predictably, by a batter who also had a nickname starting with “Mad” (Bill “Mad Dog” Madlock) taking exception to the Mad Hungarian pre-pitch ministrations:

1974 Cubs-Cardinals brawl

Hrabosky’s catcher, Ted Simmons, “won” the brawl by landing a Varitekian blow to the face of Mad Dog, and Hrabosky was credited with the win as the Cardinals forged a game and a half lead in their division with eight games to play. A week later, however, the Cubs managed some measure of revenge by winning 8-3 to knock the Cardinals out of first place, and three games later St. Louis would finish the season separated from the playoffs by that one-game margin.

You wouldn’t notice at a glance that the other player shown at the top of this page contributed to that Cubs win, much in the way that the world didn’t really notice that Rick Reuschel, for nearly two decades, was one of the best pitchers on the planet. He’s been handicapped in the traditional estimation of starting pitchers by a wins total that is not as impressive—i.e., decidedly short of the 300 threshold—as some others in the Hall of Fame, and in this his team’s 1974 revenge win is a bit of a microcosm. Reuschel started the game and pitched well for seven innings, having by more modern standards the greatest positive impact on the game, but because the game was decided after he left with a blister on his finger, Reuschel didn’t get the win.

I doubt he complained. It wasn’t his style.

Edge: Cubs


Tommy Helms and Vada Pinson

October 8, 2015

Tommy Helms Vada PinsonALDS preview, part two (see part one here)

First of all, before we get to any predictions, can we take a moment to imagine the World Series that never was? I’m talking about 1980, when the two most exciting teams of my childhood came within a couple Del Unser base hits from meeting in what would have been a blazing festival of speed. In 1980 the Astros and Royals both led their leagues in triples and amassed a combined 379 stolen bases. Nothing against the long-suffering Phillies, whose first-ever World Series triumph that year clinches that season of end-to-end thrills as one of the greatest ever (in Benchwarmer I describe how for several feverish weeks during the panicked early days of fatherhood I grasped for sanity by imagining penning a Pulitzer-worthy Halberstamian ode to 1980 to be titled The Highest Season: Racing for the Pennant, Chasing .400, Philly Soul, Super Joe, and Blow), but some part of me mourns the loss of a World Series that would have been an exhilarating blur of rainbow and sky-blue racers.

There’s a decidedly muted version of the excitement of the Royals and Astros of that era in the two cards shown here. With Tommy Helms, the excitement is embedded in the uniform, which seemed altogether of a piece with Jose Cruz smashing a liner into the gap and flying around the bases but that seems a bit at odds with the worldly resolve in Tommy Helms’s creased expression. His perm somehow also cuts against the grain of the space-age threads; both are wholly of their era, of course, but the hairstyle seems to point away from the action on the diamond to a time in the near future when Tommy Helms is going to be out of baseball altogether and renting you a canoe.

Helms’s erstwhile Reds teammate, Vada Pinson, presents his own muted version of excitement by predating the Royals heyday slightly while also being in the twilight of his own career, which at its pinnacle showcased dynamic talents that would have fit in perfectly with the dynastic Royals. He could have been the prototypical Royal—imagine swift, impeccable fielding coupled with 200 slashing hits a year, doubles, triples, homers, steals, Amos Otis and George Brett somehow joined in the version of Vada Pinson suggested by the statistics of his early years—had he only been able to carry his youth with him into the professional athlete’s version of old age.

Of course, both of the wizened veterans here are, in real-world terms, still young men. But in sports the end comes earlier and as such begins to loom not that long before the beginning. Just as my cards suggested that the other ALDS series is about beginnings, the cards here seem to imply that the series at hand is about endings. So which of the estimable 1960s Reds shown here is venturing more gracefully toward the end? Tommy Helms will make it OK to the other side, surely, and will hobble on through the rest of his life just fine, but Vada Pinson seems like he’ll be able to bring with him across that border into our leaden everyday life a small, singing note of buoyancy and repose. We all hope to continue on that way somehow.

Edge: Royals


Jim Mason and Len Barker

October 8, 2015

Jim MasonLen Barker 78ALDS preview, part one

So the playoffs begin today for the Blue Jays and Rangers. Beginnings are often romanticized as capacious fountains of possibility, but in actuality beginnings are messy, fraught with disorientation, flailing, clumsy masquerades, mistakes. Jim Mason would be distinctly qualified to verify this, as he’s the only player to play for both the Texas Rangers in their first season, 1972, and the Toronto Blue Jays in their first season, 1977. The Rangers and Blue Jays began life with 100 and 107 losses, respectively, and Jim Mason epitomized both efforts by hitting .197 for the Rangers and .187 for the Blue Jays. You could interpret the repulsed grimace shown on his face here as his reaction to being pulled back into his second formative morass. He’s shown as a Blue Jay, but at the time the card was produced there was really no such thing as a Blue Jay, so Topps staffers had to take their best guess and doctor this blind approximation atop whatever photo they had available, in this case a shot of Mason on his 1976 team, the Yankees, who punctuated their profound distance from stumbling beginnings by winning yet another pennant in 1976, their fucking thirtieth.

Mason didn’t last long on the Blue Jays, which is probably a pretty demoralizing thing to go through—being unwanted on one of the worst teams in history. His old team wanted him, however, or at least wanted him and Steve Hargan more than Roy Howell, who they shifted to the Blue Jays along with some cash, and so in 1977 and 1978 he teamed with his counterpart here, Len Barker.

While Mason, a utility infielder on new and terrible teams, suggested the reality of beginnings, Barker was of the species of baseball player most prone to being glimpsed through the romantic notion of beginnings as daydreams of dazzling, boundless possibilities: a big young pitcher who throws smoke. In 1976 at age 20 he tossed a shutout in his second start, and the following year, at age 21, while teaming with Jim Mason, he posted in limited duty the best numbers, by percentages, of any pitcher on the 94-win squad. Things were looking up for the Rangers! But as it turned out the Rangers sank back into the swamp of losing for many more years, and Barker never really became the next Nolan Ryan, as was hoped, though he continued to show flashes throughout the years.

That’s the reality of life: bright flashes and long, dim slogs. So what’s the right way to think about beginnings? Do you grimace in knowing revulsion or smile? In practice I tend toward the former, but I always hope to at least lean toward beaming idiotic dreams.

Edge: Rangers


Dick Pole

October 7, 2015

Dick Pole@midnightWhen I was a little boy living from pack to pack in rural Vermont in the 1970s, I knew my dream would one day come true of having a card from my collection serve as the backdrop for a riff session by three very funny people on a late-night cable television show. The Dick Pole stuff starts at around the sixteen-minute mark here. Particularly gratifying is that the Sklar brothers, arguably the funniest sports-obsessed comedians in the world (and the creators of the hilarious, sadly defunct baseball-card sitcom “Back on Topps”), are leading the Pole-stroking session. (Thanks to Bo Rosny for the lookout on this.)


Rick Reuschel and Bob Robertson

October 7, 2015

Rick Reuschel 77Bob Robertson

Here is my preview of the 2015 National League Wild Card game:

There is no ball. No ball thrown, no ball struck. If these two randomly chosen cardboard still lifes are any guide, that’s what at play in tonight’s game: absence.

Both teams involved in the single-elimination Wild Card game this evening have become painfully familiar with absence. Before their recent resurgence, the Pirates racked up twenty losing seasons in a row, which is the major league record. Even more famously, the Cubs have now gone 106 years without winning a World Series, by far the longest drought not just in baseball but in all the major American team sports.

The roles of the two pantomimers shown here are fitting, in terms of what’s been missing. When the Cubs were in their heyday well beyond the memory of anyone alive today, the team was built on the staggeringly effective pitching of men such as Ed Reulbach, Orval Overall, and Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. None of these pitchers, as it turned out, would have as much of a total impact on the Cubs as that of the pitcher shown here, Rick Reuschel, at least according to the most common number used these days to compare players at different positions and from different eras, WAR (short for wins above replacement player); Reuschel was by the estimation of worth 49 wins above replacement player for the Cubs, four better than old Mordecai and second among pitchers in Cubs’ history only to Fergie Jenkins. He never won a World Series with the Cubs, of course, but he won a lot of games and got to play on a team with his older brother, Paul, and is shown here smiling, and is something of the epitome of the Cubs’ lasting appeal throughout the many decades of futility, a beefy, likeable everyman not shirking his responsibilities in any way but also not appearing to take anything too seriously.

Bob Robertson represents to me a different, less personal epitome. The Pirates of my childhood—who were in continuous contention of the National League pennant and as such the polar opposite of the record-setting futility of the millennial Pirates—hit. They had hitters coming through the windows and leaping down from the trees. They had plenty of star hitters, Stargell and Parker and, a little before my time, Clemente, but it was their vast second battalion of hitting ferocity that impressed me, and where it became staggering was when it seemed to veer into an almost anonymous infinity. They had a guy named Bill Robinson and another named Bob Robertson and both seemed to be right-handed sluggers capable of belting 20 home runs in mere part-time duty, and this interchangeable pair of bludgeoners was in addition to Zisk, Hebner, Oliver, Garner, Sanguillen, etc., etc. And just for good measure even the infielders seemed capable of going on tears, judging from Rennie Stennett’s seven-hit game, which was immortalized with its own baseball card that showed on the back that the feat started with a double off Rick Reuschel and ended with a triple off of Paul Reuschel.

I don’t know what to make of this last connection, but I suspect that in it is the key to predicting the outcome of tonight’s game. I didn’t venture into this fortune-telling exercise with any foreknowledge that I would end up talking about Rennie Stennett, and that it would in turn lead me to the image of the Reuschel brothers—who I held above all baseball brothers because they played on the same team and because one of them, which I mistakenly thought of as the younger one, Paul, wore, like me, a younger brother, glasses—joined together in a humbling, battering defeat (a “22-0 plastering,” according to the Topps copywriter describing the Stennett game). I actually wanted to predict that the Cubs will win tonight, but the cards, at least as I am reading them, suggest otherwise. And all I’ll say about that is that absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence just hurts.

Edge: Pirates


Tommy Helms and Dick Tidrow

October 6, 2015

astros yanks

Here is my preview of the first game of the 2015 playoffs, based on two randomly chosen baseball cards from my childhood collection and their relation to the basic existential question of life.

What are we here for?

No one knows the answer to this question. Dick Tidrow represents the classic American hero’s response to this question, which is to ignore that it even exists, to squint with gunslinger toughness straight into the question, past the question. Why are we here? What kind of pussy question is that? We’re here to win. But of course winning, ultimately, isn’t an option, as attested to by the black circle with 40 in it on Tommy Helms’s jersey, a tribute to Don Wilson, who a few months after pitching a two-hit shutout in his last start of the 1974 season died of smoke inhalation in his garage. (His death was ruled an accident.) Tommy Helms was the hitting star of Wilson’s last game, homering and driving in three runs. The following season, with that somber number on their jersey, was a brutal one for the Astros, who dropped 97 games. Tommy Helms, nearing the end of his career during that loss-filled campaign, seems quizzical, bemused, perhaps a little more aware of life’s sorrowful twists than Dick Tidrow. Tommy Helms is not defeated, but he’s not going around imagining that our whole presence here is not just a little absurd.
Edge: Astros

Coming tomorrow: Preview of the National League Cubs-Pirates Wild Card game


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