There’s one thing you can’t lose, it’s that feel.
Your hat, your shirt, your shoes, but not that feel.
–Tom Waits and Keith Richards
Mike Beard lasted parts of four seasons in the majors. This card may be his high-water mark. After being drafted in the first round of the secondary phase of the 1971 June amateur draft (I don’t really understand the “secondary phase” part of it, but it definitely didn’t translate to dregs: several other players drafted in that phase that year went on to the majors), Beard had reached the majors during a September call-up in 1974 and then had spent most of the season with the Braves in 1975, compiling a 3.21 ERA out of the bullpen, a performance that led to text on the back of this card proclaiming, in perhaps a bit of a stretch, that Beard was “one of NL’s top rookies.” His ERA jumped just over a full run in 1976, and his innings were chopped in half, and in 1977 he lost it altogether, allowing 14 hits and three home runs in just 4.2 innings of work. In his last appearance, he came on in the fifth inning with two outs and the Braves losing 6-1. He allowed a stolen base and a run-scoring single before retiring Al Oliver to end the inning. It was the last major league out he would record. In the sixth inning, before he was sent to the showers, he gave up a leadoff home run to Willie Stargell, singles to Rennie Stennett and Phil Garner, and a run-scoring double to Frank Taveras.
I never pitched much in my brief but all-consuming childhood baseball career, but I got to try it a couple times. One time, against the bottom of the order of the worst team in the league, I struck out the side to end a game. A tough kid from my school who was watching the game told me the next day, sneering, “You got lucky.” In a later game, as if to prove his point, I surrendered hit after hit. By the time the coach came out to the mound I was crying and begging to go back to a less central and humiliating position. I wish this weren’t true, but that’s what happened. I mention this only to try to use my tiny sliver of experience of getting knocked around on the mound as a way to understand what it might have been like to have been Mike Beard at the very end. But pitching was not my life. Pitching was not something that got me attention in the world and made me feel like I knew what I was doing. I imagine that someone such as Mike Beard who was good enough to get drafted in the first round by a major league team and good enough to make it to the majors and even good enough to retire major league batters for a while has a completely different experience of that moment when outs suddenly seem impossible to come by. For most of his life, for as long as he could remember, the ball felt good in his hand, like something alive and connected to him, an extension of him, something he could make jump and dance. Mike Beard had devoted his life to that feeling. That feeling abandoned him, left him right out there in the middle of everything all alone.
He looks in this card like he was probably able to handle that devastating abandonment when it came. He looks tough. He looks mature too, appearing older than 25, the age he must have been when the photo was snapped. The set of his jaw and the Clint Eastwood squint in his eyes make the goofy 1970s Braves cap on his head seem much more provisional than the man wearing it. (How could anyone have been expected to stomp the competition with that cartoonish and somehow apologetically meek lower-case “a” on the crown of their heads?) The recurring Cardboard God-era theme of players wearing warmup jackets beneath their uniforms is also present here, and in this context it makes the Braves uniform shirt also seem particularly temporary, as if Mike Beard has just pulled the jersey on for a moment before ripping it and the cap off to go to a job interview in an industry that offers more stable employment.
But we never know how stable any situation is. We never know when our pitches will disobey our wishes, or when the ball will be taken from our hands, or when the cap and shirt will be taken from our body, leaving us without any particular allegiance as we enter some new unknown. I have been writing about my baseball cards for about a decade, starting with some handwritten journal entries scrawled by kerosene lantern light in the primitive cabin I lived in for a year back in 1999 and 2000. In 2006 I started writing about the cards consistently and posting the writing on the first location of this site. I don’t know how many cards I’ve written about, a few hundred anyway, but I’ve still only scratched the surface in terms of profiling all the cards in my shoebox. I still have a lot of baseball cards to write about.
But I only have a couple Atlanta Braves left from my childhood. Besides this Mike Beard card, I’ve got a team card from 1980, a 1976 Darrell Evans card, and a 1978 Dick Ruthven card. I think that’s it. I’m sure I had more Braves as a kid than I do now, and I don’t know what happened to them, or to my similarly decimated store of Phillies and Dodgers cards. It doesn’t really matter. I’m coming to the first of many ends.
From very early on in this experiment, within the first week of posts, I began worrying that I’d said all I could possibly say about my cards, about 1970s baseball, and about my own timid, monotonous life. But writing is about as close as I’ll get to being a pitcher, I mean in terms of doing something I love and want to always do and hope never to be stripped of, and it’s also about as close as I’ll get to something like a religion.
As one of the high priests of that religion, Samuel Beckett, once said, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” The sky is clearing this morning, and the cold snap is easing off just a little. In a little while I’ll start work, my job, grateful I’ve got one, always wary that the corporation’s cubicle-emptying sweep that happened a few months ago might happen again and send me to the street. Everything is always ending. So before I let go of the keyboard for the day I want to imagine Mike Beard in the summer this card came out, June 15, 1976, to be exact, a Braves’ lead evaporating as starter Dick Ruthven falters and relievers Adrian Devine and Max Leon prove incapable of stopping the bleeding. In the ninth inning the tying run reaches first. In comes Mike Beard. He gets the outs. He gets his one and only major league save. I imagine that the ball gets back to him, the ball that perennial all-star Ted Simmons was unable to make good contact with. Mike Beard holds this ball in his hands, the game ball, and feels something he can’t lose.