Archive for the ‘Teams’ Category


Vada Pinson and Ron Hodges

October 26, 2015

Vada PinsonRon hodges 78World Series preview

Tonight after my wife and I got our two boys to sleep I came down to our carpeted basement and cleared out a space in the thick tangle of baby toys and toddler toys and flipped these two baseball cards at the wall, best four out of seven.

Earlier, while I was dancing the younger boy to sleep, I was wondering about baseball, specifically about whether there’s any other player in history besides Bret Saberhagen who, arguably, centered one franchise’s best moment and another franchise’s worst moment. I was seventeen years old and living in Boston when that first moment occurred, Saberhagen’s shutout victory as a 21-year-old in Game Seven of the 1985 World Series. I’d gotten my GED earlier that summer, and a few months later, in January, I’d realize I hated working and start college. Boy, those were some in-between days. I was working a few hours a week in an ice cream store, playing solitaire Strat-O-Matic, smoking resin shavings, going to matinees of Teen Wolf and Fletch. Sometimes I’d write in my journal. It was starting to dawn on me that this, writing, was really the only thing I’d want to do with myself upon my expulsion from childhood. Saberhagen’s win inspired a column by a Boston Globe writer, probably Bob Ryan, that I really liked. I cut it out and put it in my journal, something I never did before and haven’t done since. I carried it with me for some time, but I don’t have it anymore. I’m not sure why I cut out the article. I loved to read about sports, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a sportswriter. I wanted to write The Catcher in the Rye or On the Road. Still, something about the article—I think it was probably an ode to how baseball keeps us young forever, something like that—spoke to me. I was pretty fucking lost right about then, and yet not that far from when life had made sense, back when I was a kid collecting these cards.

Anyway I went off to college and studied writing, avoiding writing about sports because it didn’t seem, I don’t know, literary. I think most young writers are dumb assholes in this way, avoiding who they are in hopes of being someone else altogether. When college was over, sports edged its way onto my pages as I wrote a novel about kids playing basketball in Tompkins Square Park. I finished it in the fall of 1991, and I spent quite a while hoping I could get it published and begin immediately living entirely off my writing. By 1993, this dream had pretty much run its course, and I was back to another long round of in-between days, this time in New York City. I worked some hours a week in a liquor store, read Dostoyevsky and the sports pages, watched late afternoon Charles in Charge reruns with religious constancy, if not fervor, and every few days drank cheap beer with my friends at the International Bar for hours, through the night, until the sun started pushing up over the gray buildings in the east like a bruise.

I went to Mets games periodically. Somewhere in there Bret Saberhagen threw bleach at some sportswriters. It epitomized the depths of one of the most miserable seasons ever by any team, not just in terms of how bad they were or even how disappointing they were (this was the high-salaried team that inspired a book titled The Worst Team Money Could Buy) but in just how unhappy they all seemed to be, the absolute opposite of the idyll of joy captured, to my young hungering ear, at least, by the Globe column on Saberhagen’s World Series heroics.

My baby fell asleep in the carrier I wear on my chest as I was thinking about all this. I sing to him as I’m getting him to sleep, mostly stuff I make up off the top of my head. Today’s song was pretty bad, insufferable treacle, but true.

I’m so glad you’re my baby
I’m so lucky you’re my baby
I’m so grateful you’re my baby
You’re my little sweet baby boy

A few refrains of that and he was zonked out on my chest. There was a time when I didn’t think I’d ever escape the feeling of wanting to throw bleach on the world. To sting it, harm it. To get it to back off. To wipe it clean, drain it of color. How is it even possible that the world didn’t listen?

When my baby was asleep I handed him to his mother, who went to lay him down, and I came downstairs to figure out who was going to win this year’s World Series. The problem was, I was now thinking about all those Mets game, not just the ones I saw as a kid that may or may not have featured Ron Hodges but all those games in the ’90s when I was in-between this and that.

Once I rode the subway to Shea with my friend Pete. We’d gotten our hands on free tickets to a rainout-generated single-admission doubleheader that was already in progress between the Mets, who were nearing the end of another bad season, and some other team whose identity escapes me now. Nothing was left to be decided. Rosters had expanded to include players who’d never played in the majors before and never would again. We arrived as the doubleheader opener was in its last innings. Pete asked a security guy near the entrance the score. We had been hurrying. I don’t know why.

“Losing,” the guard told us.

“Yeah?” Pete said. The three of us stood there. It seemed like someone should say something.

“Who’s pitching?” Pete said.

The security guard shrugged. A few people were leaving.

“Some guy,” the security guard said.

Some teams win for a fallen teammate, such as, most famously, the Gipper. I want the Mets to win this World Series for Some Guy. Whoever he was.

And because I want them to win I’m going to have to recuse myself from any sort of rational or even irrational prediction. Instead, I’m going to bring this all the way back to the beginning, to when I was a boy alone in my room with my cards.

So I flipped these two cards, best of seven. It went back and forth. I admit I was trying to will Ron Hodges to a win without sabotaging my Vada Pinson throws. But you are looking at Game 7. Hodges made it tough, but Pinson swooped past him, graceful to the last, and stood up tall against the wall.

Edge: Royals, in seven

hodges and pinson


Rick Reuschel and Ron Hodges

October 17, 2015

Rick Reuschel 77Ron hodges 78NLCS preview

Predictions are asinine. This probably holds true for everything, but it’s particularly applicable to baseball, in which even the best teams lose forty percent of the time. The nature of the sport resists certainty of any kind. Everyone on the field is in the middle of a baffling slump or an even more inexplicable hot streak, and either direction is subject to change immediately. A great team might have a sixty percent chance of beating an average team on a given day, but put two good teams against one another, and it’s a coin flip.

Or maybe I just don’t want to predict this series. I don’t really want to see either team lose. I have a connection to the Mets that goes back decades, to my once-a-year trips with my brother from our home in Vermont to New York, where our father, with reluctance and without looking away from his New York Times throughout the game except to grimace up at the low-flying air traffic into LaGuardia, took us to a game every summer, where we saw Ron Hodges and the rest of the lackluster late 1970s Mets get trampled. I was a Red Sox fan and will always love that team the most, but somehow the Ron Hodges era will always also reside deep in my psyche. In many ways, those Mets, the echoing malaise of empty Shea, sunshine and loss and a scattering of strangers, reflect my persona much more than the star-studded 1970s Red Sox. And after that childhood orbiting of the Mets I lived in New York for years, through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, and forged my closest adult friendships. Most of these friends are Mets fans. I guess anyone could use a win, but since these people are my friends I know what a win would mean for them. I don’t want the Mets to lose.


I live in Chicago. I’ve been here for eleven years now. It’s as long as I’ve ever lived anywhere, at least consecutively, but I still feel like I’m from somewhere else. The again, I’ve always felt that way no matter where I’ve lived. Anyway, last winter I was digging the car out of deep snow and cursing, and a helicopter started hovering loudly above me. It was unpleasant, but it’s not like I was enjoying the task without it. I kept shoveling and cursing. My wife stuck her head out the window of our condo and yelled at me.

“There was a shooting at the McDonald’s on Clark, the gunman’s on the loose,” she yelled. I realize her line of dialogue contains a comma splice, but that’s an appropriate recreation of how the words came out. Gunmen on the loose don’t engender felicitous punctuation.

“You done shoveling, daddy?” my son yelled when I came inside.

“Not exactly,” I said.

“Let’s play!”

Snow and nearby gunplay and awareness of comma splices and my yelling family: that’s my Chicago.

Chicago’s where I got married, where I wrote some books, where I got and kept a job correcting comma splices, where my two kids were born. If one of the stray bullets flying around kills me and you want to do something with my ashes, add them to the gunk in the part of Lake Michigan that laps up against the little sandy area a few blocks away from our place. It’s called Hartigan Beach, and more often than not I’m frazzled and annoyed there, trying to prevent my children from eating sand or drowning, but I’ve also managed to look out at the wide water once in a while and see the world as my boys are seeing it, this their timeless place, what they’ll always be dreaming their way back to. I’ve never loved a place more than that modest chunk of churned-up sand, pocked with cigarette butts and my own persisting anxieties.

Yesterday I asked a Cubs fan I work with if he remembered 1969. I wasn’t sure if he would. He’s older than me, but not by a whole lot.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “When the Mets clinched, I went into the backyard and burned all my Mets baseball cards.”

Now he’s watching the games with his teenage son. He says his son is nervous.

I don’t want to see the Cubs lose either.


But this is supposed to be a prediction. I notice that some observers are bringing up the Cubs’ record against the Mets this year: they beat New York in all seven meetings between the teams. To emphasize how pointless I think it is to refer to these games to foretell what’s going to happen in the championship series, I’m instead going to pick a game not long after my tenth birthday instead. It was on April 22, 1978. Rick Reuschel started the game and pitched well. In fact, he held the Mets hitless through five innings in forging a 2-0 lead. In the seventh inning, the Mets finally broke through for a run on a Ron Hodges sacrifice fly. An inning later, in the eighth, with the score now tied, Hodges’ spot in the order came up again. There were two outs and two men on. In his twelve-year career, Hodges’ batting average against Reuschel was a pathetic .148. But he came through this time with a single that drove in Willie Montanez with the go-ahead run. The game wasn’t over there. The Cubs loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth but couldn’t score. Reuschel blanked the Mets in the top of the ninth, and in the last of the ninth they got their leadoff man aboard. After a strikeout, Rick Reuschel’s spot in the order came up. He was a good hitter, but of course in that spot you go to a pinch-hitter. The pinch-hitter grounded into a game-ending double-play.

His name was Bill Buckner.

Edge: Mets


Vada Pinson and Jim Mason

October 16, 2015

Jim MasonVada PinsonALCS Preview

This one is pretty simple. The two cards here, representing the American League teams poised to vie for a spot in the World Series, both feature players who got one chance to play at that very pinnacle of their sport. Vada Pinson did so in 1961, when he was 22. He had a spectacular season, the best of his splendid career, and helped the Reds win the National League pennant. In the World Series, the Reds faced one of the greatest teams in history, the 1961 Yankees, and got smoked four games to one. Pinson played poorly, managing only 2 base hits in 22 at bats.

Fifteen years later, the teams met again in the World Series, only this time it was the Reds, not the Yankees, in the role of legendary collective steamroller. Pinson was no longer on the Reds, or anywhere in the majors, but Jim Mason was on the Yankees team that the Reds blasted in four straight. Unlike Pinson, he’d not been a central factor in his team making it to the World Series, hitting .180 in 217 at-bats as one half of a punchless shortstop platoon. In the World Series, the platoon approach seems to have gone out the window, and Mason’s counterpart, the immortal Fred “Chicken” Stanley, got the start in each of the four games. In game 2, Stanley was pinch-hit for early, and Mason replaced him in the field and got a turn at bat later in the game. It would be his only World Series at bat. In his entire career he would have 1756 plate appearances and would homer just 12 times, but he made his one World Series at bat count by lining one over the right-field fence.

It was the only home run by the Yankees in the series. In the ninth inning, Mason’s turn at bat came up again, and manager Billy Martin pinch-hit for him, bringing in righty Otto Velez to face lefty Will McEnaney. Velez struck out. A few weeks later, Velez would follow Mason to the Blue Jays in the expansion draft. Mason didn’t last long as a Blue Jay, but Velez established himself as one of the most prominent of the early Blue Jays—by the time he left Toronto, he was second on the Blue Jays career home run list to only John Mayberry, who is best known as a member of the team on which Vada Pinson finished up, the Kansas City Royals.

Is life a swirling web of interconnected strands, Pinson to Mason to Velez to Mayberry to Pinson, everything tying together with everything else in a dizzying and ultimately infinite everlasting wholeness? Or is it just an absurdity of random occurrences? Who knows? All you can do is break things down into measurable data. And on that level, the level of percentages, Jim Mason, the only player to homer in his only World Series at bat, is—despite his inferiority to, among others, Chicken Stanley—the greatest World Series performer in the history of human civilization.

Edge: Blue Jays


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


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