Archive for the ‘Atlanta Braves’ Category

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Pete Smith

March 12, 2011

According to the Gods: a 2011 Team-By-Team Preview

Atlanta Braves

Pete Smith was a lifetime .118 hitter with a .174 on-base percentage and a .147 slugging percentage. He didn’t hit a single home run or steal a single base in his major league career, but he did manage to get down 38 sacrifice bunts. Statisticians don’t keep track of failed attempts to bunt, at least that I know of, so Pete Smith’s 38 sacrifice bunts remain impossible to use as a gauge of Pete Smith’s skill as a bunter. For all we know, all 246 outs Pete Smith made in the big leagues could have been the result of failed bunt attempts. But, that said, he seems to be showing decent form and concentration here, I guess, so maybe he knew what he was doing. One thing that seems clear is that all the bunting didn’t end up helping him or his team very often. At the time of this 1991 card, which appeared midway through Pete Smith’s 11-year career, Smith’s win-loss record stood at 18-37. In his defense, he had been toiling for a moribund Braves club in his first years in the majors, but the abrupt reversal of fortune the team was about to experience didn’t really help Pete Smith turn things around. Besides one brief moment in the sun during the Braves’ second pennant-winning year in a row in 1992, when Pete Smith went 7-0 while splitting time between the majors and minors, Smith continued losing at about the same rate in the second half of his career as he’d done in the first half, going 19-34 from the time of this card until his last appearance in 1998. His spotty performances in the majors kept getting him sent back to the minors, where he managed to fashion a career win-loss record that finally, in 1997, after appearances of varying length in 167 minor league contests, edged just barely above .500. He spent the following year entirely in the majors, but it proved to be his last year at that top level of his profession, and in 1999 he bounced from Triple A Memphis to Triple A Las Vegas, going 2-3 and 4-5, respectively, marks that pushed his minor league win-loss record, which had been one game over .500 going into the season, to 55-56. God damn it. And that year some of his former teammates were still playing for the Braves, who swaggered to their eighth division title and fifth pennant of the decade. So I’m going to go ahead and say that Pete Smith succeeded in the attempt shown on this card to get a fucking bunt down, and it helped lead to a run, and the run proved to be crucial, giving the Braves the lead, and Pete Smith then protected the lead, and afterward in the locker room he basked in the glow of a job well done and that rare sweet feeling of a win.

As for the 2011 Braves, who on the strength of last year’s playoff team seem to perhaps be in the midst of getting back to their winning ways, I’m going to have to say that a Pete Smith card is probably not a sign that the breaks will be falling their way this year.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 13 of 30: spend some time with the greatest Brave of them all, Henry Aaron, in Howard Bryant’s recent Casey Award-winning biography, The Last Hero  

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2011 previews so far: St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Pittsburgh Pirates; Arizona Diamondbacks; Colorado Rockies; New York Yankees; Cleveland Indians; Detroit Tigers; Milwaukee Brewers; Minnesota Twins

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Atlanta Braves, 1978

February 18, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 25 of 25)

(continued from Clarence Gaston)

Years ago the Braves came together in an empty stadium and feigned a smiling togetherness. Afterward, they separated. Some were gone before the season even got underway. Some vanished during the season. By the following year, 1979, about half the men who appeared in cardboard form as the 1978 Atlanta Braves had moved elsewhere, and by 1980 this number was halved again. When the Braves won the 1982 National League West division title, only Phil Niekro, Jerry Royster, Biff Pocoroba, Rick Camp, and Dale Murphy remained from the list of names on the back of this 1978 Atlanta Braves team checklist. Niekro lasted just one more season before the Braves released him, though he returned to the team in 1987 after racking up the last 50 of his 318 career wins in the American League. By Niekro’s brief, winless return in 1987, only Dale Murphy remained from 1978.

Murphy, one of the few players missing from my collection of 1978 Topps Atlanta Braves, may or may not be in the team picture featured here. The picture is grainy and dim, as if the camera used to take the shot was already infected with the pernicious amnesia that would almost immediately pull the team down into an oblivion beyond the recollection of nearly everyone among the relative few humans who ever heard of them in the first place. Could Murphy be in the front row, second from the right? Or is that a bat boy? I don’t know. Anyway, by 1987, when Niekro returned, Murphy had established himself as one of the best players in the league, a two-time MVP seemingly on a secure path to the Hall of Fame. It was his last great season, however, and after that he suddenly tapered off to merely decent for a few years, eventually moving on to the Phillies, but not before a brief reunion with his old manager, Bobby Cox, who returned to manage the Braves in 1990 and continued managing them for the next two decades before stepping down at the end of the 2010 season, his departure the last echo of 1978 finally dissolving.  Everything and everyone separates and dissolves. You have no choice but to be brave.

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Clarence Gaston

February 10, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 24 of 25)

(continued from Rob Belloir)

Most of life is made up of forgettable moments. Clarence Gaston, better known by his childhood nickname Cito, which he earned by bearing a resemblance to a Mexican wrestler with that name, had some moments in his life that towered above the usual range of human moments and even surpassed the reach of most major leaguers. He had some success as a player—for many years, before the arrival of Tony Gwynn, Gaston’s .318 mark in 1970 stood as the San Diego Padres’ team record for batting average—but reached the pinnacle of the sport as a manager, leading the Toronto Blue Jays to back-to-back World Series wins in 1992 and 1993. Only eight managers have ever won more World Series titles than Cito Gaston, who even ranks above his 1978 manager, future Hall of Famer Bobby Cox, in that category.

So it’s hard to imagine that Cito Gaston would remember the moment captured on this 1978 card. It was one of many days in a decade as a player in the big leagues, Gaston complying with the request of a photographer to get in his batting stance but not caring enough about trying to simulate actual game action to so much as shed his warmup jacket. The presence of the jacket, along with Gaston’s bored expression, suggests that Gaston let go of the moment forever the second he sauntered away from the harried photographer’s murmur of thanks, or even that Gaston was never really in the moment at all but was thinking ahead or back to something else, some other hypothetical moment that did not and would never exist in the way he was imagining it.

The past is gone and the future isn’t here, and the present is something we often barely show up for. While traveling from forgettable moment to forgettable moment, we have an air of distraction, like many of the players on the 1978 set of Atlanta Braves cards. Most of these cards are like the one for Clarence Gaston, a desultory quality bordering on some kind of forfeit emanating from the cardboard like a scent of stale gum. Still, maybe there’s a trace of each of us everywhere, a kind of perfection left behind as we stumble forward, losing. I’d like to think this trace can be seen here, stretching out on the grass in dark relief beyond Clarence Gaston. A pure form, waiting.

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Rob Belloir

February 4, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 23 of 25)

(continued from Joe Nolan)

This Rob Belloir card has been sitting face-up on my desk for days. I have turned it over a couple of times, but each time I’ve placed my thumb over the right-hand side of the back of the card to cover the “Play Ball” result. Today, when I’m done writing this post, I’ll turn it over again, this time without using my thumb to cover anything. There are five options for what the “Play Ball” result could mean for the battle between Love and Hate that has been playing out on this site for nearly three years.

1. The result could be yet another Rules explanation. This would be the most disappointing result of all. I have come to like this Rob Belloir card as it’s sat face-up on my desk for days, including the day that turned out to be one of the biggest blizzards of my lifetime, and I’m hoping his role in the game between Love and Hate is not completely insignificant.

2. The result could extend the game as it currently stands, Hate leading Love with two out in the bottom of the ninth. This means that Rob Belloir’s “Play Ball” result is either a Base On Balls, a Single, or a Double (the first two options would keep Hate’s lead at two runs, while the last option would cut the lead to one).

3. The result could tie the game. For this to happen, the result on the back of Rob Belloir’s card would have to be a Triple. A double could conceivably score a runner from first with two outs, and there was even some thought that the runner on first shouldn’t even be on first, since it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for the runners to have each moved up a base on the previous play, a fly out (which, as I imagined it, was to deep right field), but I don’t want Love’s victory, if it comes, to be blurred at the edges in the climactic moment by some kind of guiding, fouling human hand. For the game to be tied, it’s got to be a triple. This is probably the most unlikely result, triples being the beautiful rarities that they are.

4. The result could end the game dramatically with Love winning. The only way for this to occur would be for Rob Belloir’s “Play Ball” result to be a home run. This is also unlikely, though maybe a better bet than the triple, especially since it seems plausible that Topps spiked the “Play Ball” game with offensive fireworks to try to bolster interest in the game (which, as it turned out, few kids ever played).

5. The result could be a game-ending out. A strike out, a fly out, a ground out. If Topps made any reasonable attempt at verisimilitude, there’s over a 70% chance that this will be the case, and the game will end, and Hate will reign victorious.

Anyway, it has all come down to Rob Belloir, a turn of events that I like, or maybe even Love. Every once in a while I experience a recurring dream in which I find baseball cards of players from my youth who I somehow had never heard of. I got a flicker of that feeling when I first placed this Rob Belloir card face-up on my desk a few days ago. I have no memory of this guy, and for better or worse I’ve aimed most of the faltering resources in my memory at his habitat, 1970s baseball. Yet this habitat always finds ways to reveal itself as being more full of life than I imagined. Rob Belloir, born in Heidelberg, Germany. Rob Belloir, 8th-round draft pick of the Indians, then longtime traveler in the minors, including several years in San Antonio, where he appears to have settled down (it’s listed as his Home), his efforts interrupted by one numberless line in his statistics reading “In Military Service” (in 1971, during the downslope of the U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War). Rob Belloir, little-used major leaguer, 166 career at-bats as of 1978 with a .211 average and no home runs. (But one career triple!) So whatever happens when I turn over this card, my world is a little more alive with Rob Belloir.

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

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Joe Nolan

February 1, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 22 of 25)

(continued from Eddie Solomon)

Joe Nolan’s many years of middling minor league numbers fill up the majority of the back of this card. Sprinkled into those numbers are three slim major league entries, a cup of coffee with the Mets in 1972, a cup of coffee with the Braves in 1975, and a full major league season, his first, with the Braves in 1977. There’s still a bit of space below the major and minor league numbers, and this is filled with the following text: “Joe was Braves’ leading lefty pinchhitter in 1977. Gets good wood on ball.”

The picture on the front of the card seems to reflect Joe Nolan’s contentment at finding a place in the world, a useful role. He’s the leading lefty pinch-hitter. He gets good wood on ball.

So it’s fitting that the other significant piece of content on the back of his card is the “Play Ball” result of the pinch-hitter for Love against Hate in the game that’s been playing out on this site for nearly three years and that is finally nearing its conclusion. Two men are on, with one out and Love down by two.

There are no aesthetic details provided in the “Play Ball” game, just the result as you would see it written in a scorecard. We have to imagine the moment. I see this: The pinch-hitter connects and lifts one high and deep into the outfield. The right-fielder sprints back toward the wall. The pinch-hitter is known for getting good wood on ball. Did he get enough?



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

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Eddie Solomon

January 28, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 21 of 25)

(continued from Buzz Capra)

Eddie Solomon was a journeyman, a major league drifter, sometimes able and other times unable to command his pitches. At the time of his 1978 card, Eddie Solomon had played for four teams in the past four years and had during his career compiled a 4.47 ERA and a 7-7 won-loss record. He’d stick with the Braves for a little while, then move on to the Pirates, then the White Sox, then, a little over three years after his career ended, at the age of 34, he would die in a car crash in Macon, Georgia.

The back of Eddie Solomon’s card has an explanation of the rules of “Play Ball” on it, rather than an actual at-bat result, so the Love versus Hate game of “Play Ball” that seems to be nearing its conclusion once again must pause. A batter has just walked, putting the tying run aboard with one out in the bottom of the ninth. It’s easy enough to imagine the card of doomed Eddie Solomon presiding over this tense, fateful stoppage. The sullen manager of Hate, hands jammed in the pockets of his warmup jacket, marches to the mound to gruffly lecture his faltering closer, who after getting the first out of the inning has now surrendered a double and a walk. Due up is the ninth spot in the lineup, a pinch-hitter. A crusty left-handed batsman, a veteran who’s bounced around for years, not a great hitter but a cagey one, never latching on anywhere as an everyday player but continuing to find employment on the margins of one roster after another. He waits in the on-deck circle, attempting to loosen his creaky joints, while Hate’s manager and closer talk past one another in declarative monosyllables and obscenities. As the manager stalks back to the dugout, the pinch-hitter begins, slowly, to move toward the plate.

He’s always been a slow walker on his way to the plate, this fictional character arising from the back of doomed Eddie Solomon’s card. Maybe it started because a coach once told him the struggle between pitcher and batter is all about rhythm, i.e., disrupting his while establishing your own. As his career crystallized into that of a bat for hire, he made this slow walk his would-be trademark (in truth, no one noticed him enough to really care), thinking of himself and his slow walk as an intentional irritant, like he’s a farmer pulling his tractor into traffic for no reason except to make all the drivers behind him late. If nothing else, at least I’ll annoy. But now, late in his underwhelming journeyman passage through the big time, his slow walk has evolved into something else. He has begun to walk slowly everywhere, paying attention to his movement and to the world around him, waking up to an awareness that at any moment the whole big game could end.

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Buzz Capra

January 25, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 20 of 25)

(continued from Vic Correll)

The 1978 Atlanta Braves are a matter of inconsequential record now, all their games played, all their slim possibilities exhausted. But in cardboard form, they stand poised forever on the brink of that season. Most of them in this form are marked by signs—lackluster stats, enervated gazes, ill-advised perms—that the season to come will not go well, or even that they might not be a part of the season at all, but by their very presence in cardboard, as something to be held in the careful hands of boys from sea to shining sea, they are preserved in that slim in-breath of a moment at the center of existence: the moment of rickety hope, the moment of if and maybe. If all things break right, maybe we can contend. If everyone has the one season they were born to have, the Career Year, maybe we can be a team for the ages. If the pulse of something we love comes close enough to mesh with our own, if this feeling extends beyond something fleeting, if it becomes a hot streak such as the one that carried Buzz Capra through his one great season four years before this 1978 card (his last) appeared, if this happens to enough of us at once, maybe the 1978 Atlanta Braves will never be forgotten. If it happened once, as it did for Buzz Capra in 1974, maybe it can happen again. And if it happens again, we’ll hold on this time and never let go, no maybes about it.

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(Love versus Hate update: Buzz Capra’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest, which has reached the bottom of the ninth with Love down two runs and one out and one man aboard.)

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Vic Correll

January 20, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 19 of 25)

(continued from Pat Rockett)

Lately my mind is dry and brittle, like a Christmas tree kept around much too long into a new year. The last few days, a perfect pop song called “Let Her Dance” by the Bobby Fuller Four has been looping in and around the dead branches like a long strand of blinking colored lights. Around and around it goes, pulsing with light, as I work at my job where I check documents for errors, or go to and from work on bus and train, or slouch on the couch and eat too much with the TV on, or sit at my desk to try to write with fingers of cement. Life seems thin sometimes, most of all when I’m between the writing of books. All my halting adult life I’ve worked on books, the majority of them never making it out of my notebooks in one piece but at least pulling me along through the days for a while. It’s my way of loving life.

“Well, I’ll find me a new love,” the narrator in “Let Her Dance” vows, but within the context of the song, within the freezing of a specific moment forever that’s the trademark of a perfect pop song, the singer is forever between loves. The love he thought he had is dancing with someone else “like she don’t even care . . . to our favorite song.” What can you do in these moments? What’s the solution? You were connected, and now you’re back on your own.

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(Love versus Hate update: Vic Correll’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest. The “Play Ball” game on the back of the 1978 Topps baseball cards was designed to be “played by two.” Every 1978 card reiterates this necessity. I ignored it in 1978 and have ignored it during the prolonged experiment with the game on this site. A long time ago I learned to diminish the gnawing passage of time by myself. I find solitary ways to connect until I can’t find these connections.)

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What’s the solution? No solution. Let her dance. 

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Pat Rockett

January 13, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 18 of 25)

(continued from Gary Matthews)

My guess is that Pat Rockett is the prototypical 1978 Atlanta Brave for Braves fans old enough to remember that team. That edition of the Braves, notable for being Bobby Cox’s first squad and for little else, did feature some good individual “man alone” type performances, notably those of Phil Niekro and Jeff Burroughs, and featured also intermittently promising seasons from youngsters Dale Murphy and Bob Horner, key figures in the Braves’ early 1980s upswing, but all in all the 1978 Atlanta Braves pretty much stunk, and when teams stink the fans of that team, when looking back, will single out a player or two to serve as shorthand for suckitude and as a password test to gain or restrict entry into an inner circle of fandom. Do you really know the Braves? Did you travel through the desert? Then all you have to say is Pat Rockett.

This is unfair to Pat Rockett, of course. No one really deserves to be a symbol of futility that in reality took many faltering hands to shoddily build. And Pat Rockett was an elite athlete, a former number 1 draft pick and Texas high school football superstar. But such is fandom, which tends to seize on such symbols when they hit .141, as Pat Rockett did in 1978. In July of that year, after starting a game and walking twice, he was replaced for a pinch-hitter, Darrel Chaney, who would close out his own career with a .217 lifetime batting average. Pat Rockett never played another major league game.

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The 1978 Atlanta Braves will probably end up determining whether Love can beat Hate. The action in that glacially paced contest, which has been carried along by the “Play Ball” results on the backs of all the 1978 cards featured to date on this site, has now reached the bottom of the ninth inning, with Love down by two runs.

As the bottom of the ninth begins, the batting order is toward its nether regions, the six, seven, and eight batters due up. If anyone can get on base, there will be a pinch hitter for the pitcher in the ninth spot. Each player in the game has been anonymous beyond his place in the batting order and the baseball card “spirit” that presides over each at-bat. The spirits hovering over the sixth-place hitter make up a fairly uninspiring mix of marginals and workmanlike vets, and Love’s six-hole guy has not had a good game so far:

6. Ground Out (Dale Murray)
6. Fly Out (Mike Paxton)
6. Fly Out (Chris Speier)
6. Fly Out (Tommy Boggs)

The six hitter seems to have a penchant for the fly out. Perhaps he is trying too hard, wanting to wrench one out of the park, and he gets under it and lofts it softly into the outfield. This seems something a number six hitter might do, as he probably aspires to be a middle of the order hitter.

Well, with Love’s defeat looming on the horizon, especially considering the six-hitter’s woes, perhaps it’s time to start taking solace in whatever it is possible to take solace in. We’re all eventually going to lose anyway, but is there maybe some beauty still to be held to? A fly out is sort of beautiful in itself, when seen live. You have to be at the game to watch it loft up into the air and to maybe also simultaneously check on the progress of the outfielder to see if his speed and grasp of geometry is going to enable him to intersect with the arc of the ball before it hits the ground. Line drives and grounders are too quick to offer any chance to linger as a viewer, and the primary thrill of a home run is the result, which can be communicated just fine through a television. Anyway, I like going to baseball games and watching fly outs, especially if I don’t really give a shit about the game. Do I love it? I don’t know, maybe that’s putting it too strongly. But it would make my list of reasons it’s not too bad to be alive. Sometimes, such as when I am able to appreciate such things as fly outs, it seems like such a list would be a long and happy one. So here’s to the fly out.

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

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Gary Matthews

January 10, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 17 of 25)

(continued from Darrel Chaney)

Whoever decided on the design of the Topps 1978 cards probably began to get a sinking feeling upon the realization that the defining characteristic of the cards, the cursive script used for the name of each player’s team in the lower left-hand corner of his card, mimicked the lettering scrawled across the chests of the 1978 Atlanta Braves. The block lettering that was usually used on baseball cards, though in and of itself without any particular life or charm, contributed to a kind of seriousness and legitimacy that is somehow punctured in the 1978 cards by the flaccid twirling and curlicues of the mechanized cursive in the lower left corner. If I found this card at the top of my first pack of 1978 cards, and I hadn’t already known of Gary Matthews, at least insofar as he was in my mind also his once and future teammate Garry Maddox, I might have wondered if by mistake I had purchased a novelty production of cards for some local factory team that once a week sweated out their hangovers by playing a double-header against some visiting fellow yokels down at the high school field.

But it wasn’t Gary Matthews’ fault that he landed on a flimsily legitimate baseball card in the ill-conceived uniform of a team on the very edge of the major leagues. For his part, the former Rookie of the Year and future National League Championship Series MVP was a veritable prototype of solidity, almost guaranteed throughout his 16-year career to post good but not great numbers in home runs, runs scored, RBI, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and steals. In the 1978 season he would be the Braves’ second-most productive hitter, after Jeff Burroughs, with a prototypical Matthewsian 18-homer, .285 batting average campaign. If you put Matthews on a team with a few more good players, which as it turned out was exactly what happened in 1981, when the Braves traded him to the Phillies for Bob Walk, the team would win games. On the 1978 Braves, however, solid efforts like those of Gary Matthews, and perhaps any kind of solidity, were absorbed without effect into the story of the team, a tale with no more lasting purchase on the world than a name written in loopy yellow cursive in the snow.

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(Love versus Hate update: Gary Matthews’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” piece is a statement of the rules, so no addition has been made to the ongoing contest.)

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Darrel Chaney

December 22, 2010

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 16 of 25)

(continued from Dave Campbell)

Every day for the last week or so has been ruined by this fucking card. For me, a day without writing something with at least a hint of life in it is a useless day. This attitude is defective, I know. I try to start every day with at least a stab at gratitude that I’m still among the living and among my loved ones, the idea in this sort-of prayer to see that everything beyond those basics is gravy. But if I can’t write I get tangled up and thinned out and mean. So fuck you Darrel Chaney and your fucking worried glance perhaps over at the shenanigans of teammates on a team that, unlike your former squad, the Reds, has no hope for victory. I blame you for not pulling anything out of me but the worst self-absorbed spiritually bankrupt tripe day after day. It’s gone on for so long, the slump, that I have given up on ever having a decent idea again. I am through. I have swung and missed so many times in a row that I’m being given my release. I will continue to write out of sheer stubbornness, but the writing will be so horrifically bad that its only use will be to read aloud to torture suspected terrorists. I hate you, Darrel Chaney.

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December is a bad month for writing. November is always the darkest month, maybe not literally, but in terms of getting down about things and feeling like there’s not quite enough oxygen and there’s nothing to write about and there are too many hours in the day and nothing to do and nowhere to go. September is too busy, August too hot, July too loud, June and May too nice outside to stay chained to a desk exploring personal trauma, April maybe the roof is leaking, March marred by a nasty late-winter upper respiratory infection, February second only to November in general gray suckiness, and January perniciously rife with resolutions, the days clogged up with soon to fail plans to get in tip top shape and attain nirvana and read giant tomes and cook complicated meals to ever put anything worth a shit down on the page, which brings us back to December, an awful month for writing, always, the feeling of everything being over clashing with the strains of getting a billion little things done at work and in life, and it gets so bad it begins to increase exponentially, because the worst thing for writing is to start worrying that that’s it, that no more words will be coming out, just pure shit, and that the generator of the pure shit is himself pure shit, and for the rest of life the one thing that intermittently brought joy and clarity is gone and from now on life, that joke with the cruel unavoidable punchline, will have to be faced head on, without any words to cushion it. In other words, I’ve been trying for days to say a single thing that doesn’t make me want to vomit about my stupid life or Darrel Chaney, and everything’s a swing and miss. Chaney: the look on his face, the white helmet, the collar sticking out. Haven’t I written it all a million times before? And what could possibly be left to say about “Josh Wilker”?

***

Last week I got to a meeting room after a couple other coworkers had arrived but before the meeting itself had begun. A conversation was in motion about the holidays, about Christmas trees.

“Do you put up a tree?” I was asked.

When I was a kid, we always had a tree. It was a big part of the escalating frenzy toward the biggest day of the year, by far my favorite day, the long morning orgy of getting. When I moved into my adult life, that was it for trees, at least in the places where I lived. The obtaining of trees was something the grownups were in charge of, not me. Besides, as I edged away from childhood I began to feel increasingly ambivalent about a holiday I’d embraced so ferociously as a kid despite being a half-Jew. One year when I was in my twenties, probably when my mom was living in France to research her PhD thesis, my brother and I spent Christmas day at the movies with our dad the Jew. I liked lounging around in a half-empty matinee at the Film Forum with my brother and father. I felt like I was neither here nor there, which felt exactly right.

***

Life is elsewhere, maybe in the past. But it’s also here. A few days ago my wife and I were sitting on the couch as I surfed through the channels. I stopped for a minute on a panel discussion on the local public station, and a middle-aged Asian guy in a ponytail was railing about the evils of nostalgia. Another member of the panel tried to politely offer a view on nostalgia that wasn’t quite so rigidly negative. The ponytail guy didn’t budge.

“What’s he talking about?” my wife asked.

“He thinks nostalgia is bad because it sentimentalizes the past, I guess,” I said. “You know, it makes things seem better than they were. I guess this is horrible.”

My wife pondered this as the ponytail guy continued to rant and rail against nostalgia.

“I hate people who try to pretend they’re not human,” she said.

A warm feeling came over me. Baby, I love the way you hate.

***

To deal with December and Christmas I’m reading The Catcher in the Rye, starting what I plan to make my Christmas tradition going forward—every year I’ll reread this personal favorite, which is set around Christmas and written by a fellow half-Jew—and I’m noticing that the book is all about, among other things, love and hate, so much so that the two things are tangled up completely into one living consciousness. Holden Caulfield loves and hates, and the things he hates deserve it because they are rigid attempts to counter the messy absurd sprawl of human life. I don’t know what’s the best way to proceed in the tangle of hate and love, dark and light, gone and here, past and now, but it’s probably always a bad idea to try to cut the world in half. I kept trying to find something worthwhile to share about Darrel Chaney, and I kept wanting to toss the computer I was writing with out the window, but instead, here’s my holiday card to everyone who has withstood the torture of this attempt: everything I ever tried to say about the 1978 Darrel Chaney card, and I’m sorry, and thanks, and may the New Year bring you that feeling that the tangle of life is not something you’re trying to trim and prune and denude but that it’s the very heart of the best feeling of all, that there is still life to be lived and good stories left to tell.

***

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

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Dave Campbell

December 15, 2010

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 15 of 25)

(continued from Rick Camp)

Dave Campbell had a good year in 1977. In fact, on the back of this card, Dave Campbell is referred to as an “artist”: “Dave was the Braves’ top bullpen artist of 1977.” All things must pass. If Dave Campbell was called upon at the start of 1978 to continue being the team’s primary reliever, he didn’t last very long in the role and managed to record just one save the entire season. With the season underway, the Braves traded for Gene Garber, who would be one of the few bright spots for the 1978 team. Garber saved 22 games in all, and finished a team-high 36 games. Campbell was right behind him in the latter category, with 35 games finished, and it stands to reason that many of those 35 games finished were lost causes. Dave Campbell, former artist, had been demoted to mopup man. He didn’t pitch in many crucial situations, but because the Braves’ season had fewer such situations than a good or even a mediocre team, Campbell got plenty of chances to pitch, logging the second-most innings (after Garber) of any of the pitchers used strictly in relief. In the last game of the 1978 Braves, an extra-inning slugfest caused the team to cycle through most of their other bullpen options, including Gene Garber, and Dave Campbell entered the action in the thirteenth inning with the score tied.

Whether or not this was a crucial situation is a matter open to some debate, as suggested by a disquieting development in the recounting of the action at baseball-reference.com. Right up until the moment Dave Campbell enters the game, the play-by-play follows the usual baseball-reference.com practice of describing in suitable detail the outcome of every at-bat, whether the batter reaches base safely or not. For example, the outcome of the at-bat immediately prior to Campbell’s entry, is narrated thusly: “Line Drive Double Play: SS-2B.” All seems to be continuing normally in the bottom of the inning for Dave Campbell, whose strikeout of star slugger George Foster is duly noted in the play-by-play, but then Vic Correll comes to the plate—in a spot in the lineup originally manned by Johnny Bench, who earlier in the proceedings called it a season and hit the showers—and the watchfull consciousness usually involved in major league action begins to blur. The only details of the clash between Dave Campbell and his former teammate Correll are these: “Batted Ball: Unknown.”

Dave Campbell seems to have been thrown off his game by the occurrence—he walked the next two batters and then hit a third with a pitch, loading the bases. He managed to escape the inning and prolong the season of the 1978 Atlanta Braves just a little longer, but we can’t really know how he did this. Once again, this time with Rick Auerbach up (Auerbach manning the third base position in place of Pete Rose, who like fellow legend Johnny Bench had exited the increasingly pointless action some innings earlier), the outcome of an at-bat is noted as “Batted Ball: Unknown.” Strangely, the efforts of Dan Dumoulin, the Reds pitcher who faced the Braves in the top of the fourteenth, are not similarly obscured, the play-by-play detailing how he danced around a Jerry Royster double by inducing a fly out to center and two groundballs back to the pitcher. But then when Dave Campbell retook the mound in the bottom of the fourteenth, the mysterious indifference returned, and this time it seemed to knock Dave Campbell completely off his axis. I try to envision the actual events of Dave Collins’ fourteenth inning at-bat against Dave Campbell, described in the play-by-play as “Batted Ball: Unknown” and all I can see is a ball looping up into the air above the fielders’ heads and then dissolving like a grayish pill in dark water. Eventually, another baseball is produced and given to Dave Campbell, but he has begun to sense what we all suspect eventually. The universe is infinite, this earth a speck that will one day dissolve, taking with it everything: bat, ball, gloves, sod, scoresheets, pencils, voices, memories, wins, losses, saves. Who can blame Dave Campbell for coming unglued? He gave up a single to Ron Oester and then, with the last pitch he ever threw in the majors, surrendered a George Foster home run.

***

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

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Rick Camp

December 9, 2010

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 14 of 25)

(continued from Tom Paciorek)

Rick Camp was just getting a foothold in the league at the time this card came out. He didn’t make much of an impact one way or another during the 1978 season, but by the early 1980s he had become a good relief pitcher, in 1981 performing so well in that role that he even garnered some MVP consideration (finishing 20th in the voting). In 1982 he moved to the starting rotation and helped the team win its first division title in thirteen years, putting an end to the franchise’s long malaise that had been at its directionless nadir in 1978. Camp, a Georgia native who never played for anyone other than the Braves, stuck around long enough for the team to recede back into irrelevance. In his final season, 1985, the team lost 96 games, including an epic 6 hour and 10 minute 19-inning 16-13 Independence Day defeat at the hands of the New York Mets. Camp took the loss that day, giving up six runs in three innings, and he also struck out to end the game. But earlier in the marathon, Camp, a terrible hitter, came up with two outs and no one on and the Braves down a run in the 18th inning, promptly went down in the count 0-2, and then, defying all logic, drilled a game-tying home run. There’s no way to really wrestle any definitive meaning out of anything, but sometimes you can slow down time and isolate a moment when everything breaks so right that heaven itself seems to be bubbling over with laughter. I see Rick Camp circling the bases. Years later, he was circling a tiny prison yard track, doing tight laps to augment his daily workout regimen, which also included 500 sit-ups and 500 pushups. After baseball, he’d fallen in with some people who conspired (without Camp’s knowledge, Camp claims) to swindle $2 million from a mental health facility. He spent 21 months behind bars. “Once in a while,” wrote Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Steve Hummer in 2008, when Rick Camp was again a free man, “an old baseball card would get past the prison censors, some fan wanting an autograph.” Maybe a version of this card: a young pitcher with no real worries. Rick Camp in his twenties, holding a ball and a glove; Rick Camp in his fifties, holding a baseball card. You can never circle back to where you were.  

***

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

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Tom Paciorek

December 7, 2010

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 13 of 25)

(continued from Biff Pocoroba)

I haven’t turned this card over yet. It’s been sitting face up on my desk for a few days. I’ve had a long time to wonder about whether the close-up shot was ordered by Topps so that it would be relatively easy to doctor the card should Paciorek get traded to another team in the off-season. It seems so much like one of those doctored card shots that I had to check Tom Paciorek’s baseball-reference.com player page to make sure that he hadn’t joined the Braves in the offseason, a move that would have necessitated an inexplicably masterful changing of a previous team’s cap to the Braves cap featured here. I could have also flipped over the card to check what team he’d played for during the past season, but as I implied above, I have been experiencing quite a bit of trepidation about turning over this card to look at the back, which presumably would tell me what I learned online: that Paciorek had been with the Braves for a couple years. But someone at Topps seems to have anticipated that Paciorek was the kind of guy who might be moving on real soon, and in truth they only missed on this prediction by a few months, as Paciorek was released by the Braves in May of 1978.

This release marked a turning point in his career. Previously, he’d been a fairly mediocre National League reserve outfielder; from that point on, however, he’d be an American Leaguer known for being a real pro as a hitter, first with the Seattle Mariners, where his improving efforts climaxed with .326 batting average and an all-star game appearance in 1981 (he singled in his only at-bat), then with the Chicago White Sox, where he logged his second and third straight season with a .300-plus batting average and helped the 1983 White Sox to the best regular season record in either league. Paciorek’s success in Chicago allowed him to put down roots that are still apparent to this day (just this weekend I heard Paciorek, who worked as a local broadcaster for quite a while after his playing days were over, on a Chicago radio station putting in the good word for one of the station’s sponsors). In all, the guy that Topps seems to have intuited as not being someone with staying power actually stuck around for 17 major league seasons. In a way, the long and steady and unspectacular career of Tom Paciorek can be seen as the polar opposite career of his older brother John, who has some renown as perhaps the greatest single-game-career player in the history of baseball: in 1963, the elder Paciorek, an 18-year-old rookie, went 3-3 with 2 walks, 3 runs scored, and 3 RBI. The perfection of the day was preserved by the inevitable imperfect twists of life: because of chronic back problems, the promising rookie never made it back to the majors. You never know what’s going to happen.

Which is why I have been reluctant to turn over this 1978 Tom Paciorek card and look at the back. For some time now, I’ve been using the 1978 cards featured on my site as the playing cards in a solitaire game of the Topps back-of-the-card feature from that year, “Play Ball,” and the two imaginary teams involved in the contest, Love and Hate, have reached the ninth inning locked in a 5-5 tie. Hate, the visitor, has loaded the bases with just one out. A big hit now could bury Love. But enough stalling, I’m turning over the card . . .

***

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

***

There’s a good post over at Graham Womack’s Baseball Past and Present site presenting the results of a vote on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. I was one of the participants in the voting, so naturally my first order of business in checking the results was to see which of “my guys” got robbed. The two that jumped out at me first for their failure to make the top 50 in the final balloting were a couple slugging switch-hitters, Reggie Smith and Ken Singleton, who featured heavily in a past Cardboard Gods conversation about underrated players. Singleton, who got on only 5 of the 63 voters top 50 lists, seems to have been particularly slighted. On the other hand, some guys that deserved not only to be high on the list of 50 but also deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, in my opinion, did rate high on the list (e.g., Raines, Blyleven, Trammell, Santo), and that was nice to see.

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Biff Pocoroba

December 2, 2010

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 12 of 25)

(continued from Jamie Easterly)

Every name on my baseball cards mattered. I said every name out loud or whispered it or mouthed it, trying it out, feeling its weight on my tongue. But among all these names, Biff Pocoroba ruled. It was a particularly satisfying and even addictive name to say, so I said it a lot, and it ended up traveling with me through life, far beyond the years when I collected cards. I was a teenager high on bong hits and throwing a Frisbee and the name would come into my head: Biff Pocoroba. I was in my twenties slouching behind the counter at the liquor store where I worked and the name would come into my head: Biff Pocoroba. I was in my thirties, proofreading in my cubicle, and the name would come into my head: Biff Pocoroba. I’m in my forties, and here I am again, thinking about Biff Pocoroba. If I grow to be an old man, I’m sure the words Biff Pocoroba will continue bubbling up into my consciousness long after most other things of the darkening world have shucked off their names.

***

According to one particularly influential source, God created everything, but he let the first human handle the creation of words: “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” (Genesis 3:19) This naming separated that first human from everything else in creation, the namer from the named, and also separated the first human from infinity, namelessless, eternity, God. A few lines later in the familiar story quoted above, this mortal separation really gets cooking, and the first guy gets the heave ho from Eden, his intimate connection to the holy world severed. Long story short, humankind then proceeded to suffer and sin and beget and grieve and murder and roam, all along using and creating and developing the names of the world, relentlessly, as if the cause of the first separation from pure holiness could be a way—maybe through commandments, maybe through psalms, maybe through prayers—to somehow return to holiness.

***

I never really connected the name Biff Pocoroba with anything in particular beyond the vague recollection that Biff Pocoroba was a Brave, and that he was, like Bruce Bochte with Bruce Bochy, Garry Maddox with Gary Matthews, and John Montefusco with John D’Acquisto, paired up forever in my mind with Bob Apodaca. But from this point on I may associate him with this 1978 card, which subtly draws the viewer into the charged moment of a big league game as well as any card I’ve seen. It has something to do with Biff Pocoroba’s rugged looks, and his tough ready-for-action squint, and his beaten-up turned-around cap and thin, snug chest protector, and the way his chunky mitt catches the sun, but the intimate sensual pull of the card is centered most on the way Biff Pocoroba is tugging upward, almost gently, on the straps of his mask. He is about to pull that mask on and go to work, and the photo freezing him in the moment just before he does so puts us right there, anticipating the way the mask would feel if we were to pull it onto our own face and look out at the whole field in front of us. Biff Pocoroba, in name and in this card in particular, is a way for me to enter the moment—as holy a moment as I can imagine—of a major league game.

***

Biff Pocoroba’s name must have been announced during the introductions of players before the 1978 All-Star Game. It was part of the one good month for the 1978 Atlanta Braves, both their sole winning month of the season and the month that saw them send three players to the All-Star game: their star slugger, Jeff Burroughs, their ace, Phil Niekro, and Biff Pocoroba. Biff Pocoroba? Yes, Biff Pocoroba. He’d had a strong 1977 campaign (highlighted by his .290 batting average) and carried the reputation for being a stellar defensive catcher (as attested to on the back of this card: “Biff once threw out 11 consecutive runners attempting to steal”). He probably had a certain glow about him, too, because he was young, just 25, and so the sky could still seem to be the limit. It’s not so hard to imagine Tommy Lasorda, the NL manager that year, scanning the Sunday batting averages as he tried to pull together his list of reserves and reacting positively to the name Biff Pocoraba. He was batting .262 at the All-Star break, a decent enough number for a catcher, especially if you are imagining a cannon arm and many years of better things to come. Of course, there weren’t many years of better things to come. Biff Pocoroba finished 1978 batting .242 and, hampered by injuries, was never a regular in the big leagues again. But by the time he started receding into obscurity, his name had already imprinted itself as something nearly holy to many of us American boys of long ago who will be saying Biff Pocoroba until the maker calls us back into the realm beyond names.

***

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

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