Archive for the ‘Baltimore Orioles’ Category

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Mike Flanagan

August 29, 2011

When I got this card in 1978, I would have had no wish for my life above being a major league baseball player. Back then I would have envisioned myself as a member of my favorite team, which was not the Orioles, but now, in my early 40s, looking back on that purposeful team and on my own often purposeless life, looking also at this card of a young focused left-hander throwing free and easy, a year from winning the Cy Young award and the first game of the World Series, I am thinking that if I could have been a baseball player, someone with a rare and beautiful gift, and I could have chosen an organization to come up in as a player, I would have been an Oriole during the golden years of that franchise.

I would have learned the right way to do things, the Oriole Way, and I would have learned what my place was in the world, my role, and I would have learned how to play that role. I would have been surrounded by others with rare and beautiful gifts doing the same thing, all of us coming together instead of pulling apart. Life is in constant disintegration, but to be an Oriole during those years must have felt like something close to that opposite of that, as if a life could be led, at least for a while, as an integral part of a song.

Some years after the Orioles fell from that grace into a more familiar kind of perpetual disintegration, I spent four seasons in a primitive cabin in the woods. I’ve been thinking about that cabin lately. Sometimes, at dusk, there was a symphony. I don’t want to romanticize it: more likely than not, I would have been depressed, aching with loneliness, guilty for wasting another day, angry at my inability to write anything worthwhile, wishing not that I was part of a song but that I had more batteries for my handheld battery-powered television so that I could watch sitcom reruns on the screen the size of a baseball card. That is, I was not in a lotus position peacefully drinking in the majesty of the forest. But now, many years later, I can discard the fetid personal demons fouling the moment and remember that there were two main parts of the symphony: frogs and a wood thrush. The frogs honked along dumbly, one-note simpletons, and then every once in a while the wood thrush would let loose with that watery many-noted call that I wish I could describe but can only say that whenever I heard it I loosened up just a little on the chronic grip that held me to my misery.

I thought about that symphony a few days ago when I heard that Mike Flanagan had been found dead, that he’d done himself in with a shotgun. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site, one of my more memorable trips to the ballpark was when I saw the Red Sox play the Orioles and a pack of drunk guys behind us spent the whole game honking at the opposing pitcher, “Mike Flanagan: UMASS!” They were fellow UMASS guys, I guess, trumpeting their pride, but what I was thinking about a few days ago was how their drunken monotonous croaking was to the graceful pitching of the victorious Flanagan like the frogs’ guttural belching to the song of the wood thrush. Those guys were fans, like I am a fan, and we fans are of this earth, simple and dull, limited, unblessed by the rare and beautiful gift that inspires our croaking, and all we can do is call out to those we believe are part of something higher.

And if there’s such a thing as prayer, let me send mine into the sky like a frog croaking at dusk, and let the words of the prayer be “Mike Flanagan: UMASS!” and let the prayer find Mike Flanagan somewhere with the wish that such a thing, blunt and absurd, but sincere, could help spirit him back into the center of the harmony he once knew, a blessed note in the center of a swinging, indestructible song.

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Tim Nordbrook

March 23, 2011

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

Baltimore Orioles

The first thing I notice when I look at this card is the sweatband on Tim Nordbrook’s left wrist. I probably noticed it as a kid and it fed into my desire to own sweatbands. The card came out in 1976, which was relatively early in my childhood, before I had fully absorbed the lesson that style is a tricky thing, much more likely to hurt you than help you. Clothes, haircuts, language, music: all these things, handled without the certain ineffable core coolness of a select few, could turn into the exact opposite of their intended usage, becoming flashing billboards advertising chronic and inescapable awkwardness and undesirability. After a few hesitant forays into attempting to handle the volatile elements of style, I more or less began my lifelong courtship of invisibility. I aspire to stylelessness.

But in childhood, for a while, I loved style and wasn’t as cowed by it. For example: sweatbands. Sweatbands seemed really cool to me. But some kids who wore them seemed tough and athletic, while other kids who wore them seemed dorky and idiotic. I can’t explain why except to follow the same line of thinking I had, without consciously acknowledging it, as a kid: some people were just inherently cool.

Tim Nordbrook looks pretty good with his sweatband. Part of it is that he’s got just one, the accessory providing a dashing asymmetry. Also, the dark colors work better than some sort of more garish yellowy sweatband would. And he seems like he knows what he’s doing, a comfortable look on his face, a guy at home in the world, his world. Nordbrook’s confident, relaxed demeanor is even more impressive and more suggestive of an unflappable inner calm considering the emaciated hitting statistics on the back of his card. You’d think, looking at his numbers, that he’d more likely be a jumpy, skeletal wraith with sunken, darting eyes open wide for the inevitable coming of someone with news of his release.

But Nordbrook was at home in his skin and in his uniform. Baltimore is listed as both his birthplace and home on the back of the card, and, even more importantly, in terms of being at home on a baseball field, he was entirely a product of the Orioles’ hallowed minor league system that built the team’s long reign at or near the top of the standings from the 1960s to the 1980s. The “Orioles’ Way,” as it was called, taught all the players in the system the most efficient process for performing every necessary skill on the diamond. I don’t know what it would feel like to be armed with this knowledge in any walk of life, but I am guessing it would be approximately the opposite of how I felt as a kid, not knowing the Way to do anything or even that there might be such a thing as a Way.

I’d have to guess that Nordbrook, given that he played a crucial middle-infield position and that he had made it to the majors despite never hitting particularly well anywhere in the minors, excelled at the schooling provided by the Oriole Way. He always knew where to be on the field, and when called upon to execute a task he knew how to do it. This has to breed confidence and ease, though I can only guess about that. When I finally got sweatbands as a kid I could tell that something was off. They weren’t as cool as I’d imagined they might be. They seemed okay when I wore them around the house or out in the driveway to shoot baskets, but when I wore them in public they turned into clumsy, bulky shackles at the end of my weakling arms. They made me wonder, as I do to this day (and as the current Baltimore Orioles, long ago cut off from the path to winning, must wonder), if there’s something out there that other people know about that makes life less of a graceless stumble.

***

How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part of 18 of 30: Keep an eye on Baltimore-based historian, professor, and author Akim Reinhardt’s blog Public Professor, which focuses on the many aspects of the idea of community; Akim delves into sports periodically, most recently to weigh in with admirable vitriol on the yearly tradition going on right now in the sporting world—hating Duke

***

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; Atlanta Braves; Cincinnati Reds; Oakland A’s; Seattle Mariners; Chicago Cubs

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Ross Grimsley

June 25, 2010

Two nights ago, I punched a bag of pretzel nuggets. I needed to punch something but the thing I really wanted to punch, an air conditioning control box, would have broken if I’d punched it, and then I would have had to explain to my wife and then the landlord that I had punched and broken an electronic device, and then I would have had to pay for its costly repair. It was a very hot, humid evening, and I just wanted to turn on the air conditioning, but this device, my nemesis, is extremely complicated. You can’t just turn on the air conditioning but have to program it to turn on; however, all the options for programming make no sense to me: wake, return, sleep. Return? Which one gets the thing to turn on? I could not figure it out and eventually resorted to pushing all the buttons randomly in hopes that I’d luck into turning it on, but that didn’t work, so I stalked around the apartment sweating and hurling obscenities until I came upon the bag of pretzel nuggets sitting on the counter and I punched the shit out of it. Goddamn bag, fuck you! And oh, it knew it had been punched. Many of the nuggets inside the bag were instantly pulverized into dust upon impact with the human TNT encased in my right fist, and the structural integrity of the entire bag was also ruptured significantly, so much so that I had, while tidying up the mess from the incident, heart still pounding from battle, to move the surviving pretzel nuggets into a Tupperware container. Even the surviving pretzel nuggets felt my wrath. They were traumatized crumbling versions of their former selves. I know this because yesterday evening when I got home from work I ate a few of the pretzel nuggets out of my cupped hand and my wife chastised me for scattering pretzel crumbs all over the floor. I hadn’t told her that I’d punched a bag of pretzel nuggets. She wouldn’t necessarily get a thrilling charge out of imagining her 42-year-old husband stomping around our apartment assaulting snacks. But the point is this: don’t fuck with me, pretzels.

***

The point is this: I have been trying and failing all week to write something about this 1974 Ross Grimsley TRADED card. I had six pages of really shitty material even before getting into it about the pretzel nuggets, which, in case you were wondering if you missed something, do indeed have nothing whatsoever to do with the 1974 Ross Grimsley TRADED card except maybe that I bought both of them, one item a few days ago and the other thirty-six years ago.

***   

The point is this: I started buying packs of baseball cards when I was six. It was near the end of the summer of 1974. A high percentage of those first cards I ever obtained were from this disquieting 1974 TRADED cards series, those first packs rife with these indelible testaments to transience and rejection. Maybe Topps slapped together the cards late in their production cycle that year. This makes some sense—the cards depicted relatively late-breaking events from the previous year. Or maybe the gods were trying to tell me something. It was, after all, a summer of trades. You could say that I had been traded from New Jersey to Vermont, or that my New Jersey friends had been traded for Vermont strangers, but the biggest transaction involved my dad. He had been with the club from before I’d joined via the family’s expansion draft in 1968, but just before the move to Vermont he’d been traded elsewhere. There was no TRADED card explaining the trade.

***

The point is this: During this week’s failed attempt to use words for some clear purpose, I read a fair amount about Ross Grimsley. He was known as Scuz and Crazy Eyes. He believed a witch helped him win games. He refrained from bathing while on winning streaks. He is shown here just before he was allowed, upon being freed from the constrictive, conservative Reds, to grow a mustache and let his hair bloom into a big greasy bush in which, some argued, he secreted ball-altering substances. The back of the card has a fake newspaper story from a fake newspaper, “The Baseball News”:

GRIMSLEY TRADED TO ORIOLES

“The Baltimore Orioles, shopping for another starting pitcher, today obtained Ross Grimsley . . .,” the story begins. It then notes some highlights from Grimsley’s time with the Reds and mentions that he’d be joining two other lefties in the Orioles’ rotation. If things were going a little smoother inside my mind or soul or whatever, maybe I could find a way to connect Ross Grimsley’s interesting story (related entertainingly in a good recent post by crack baseball historian Bruce Markusen) to my own life. I don’t know, it has been one of those weeks when things don’t really come together. I have gone to my job and come back from my job. My interaction with other humans has been minimal. I have a portable satellite radio with ear bud headphones. I jam the buds into my ears as I am walking out the door and take them out when I get to my cubicle, then several hours later I shut off my computer and leave my cubicle and shove the buds back into my ear and don’t take them out until I get home. Were birds singing? Did anyone call my name? I don’t know.

***

The point is this: I can picture a 1974 TRADED card for my father. I can see the headline on the back:

DAD TRADED TO NEW YORK  

“New York added another solitary today,” the story would begin. The image on the front of his card would feature some doctoring, as all the traded cards did. Of course, my dad did not wear a baseball cap, then or ever, so it’s unclear what could be doctored in or out. Maybe a pair of large headphones, which he began to use extensively as soon as he moved into his studio apartment in Manhattan. He listened to Bach. He shut himself off from the sounds of the present to envision patterns of perfection beyond time.

***

I shut myself off from the sounds of the present but am mostly just looking for distraction. I listen mostly to chatter, Howard Stern or sports talk. Sometimes I mix in some music, too. Yesterday on the way home from work to my wife and my terrorized Tupperware container of pretzel nuggets I listened to some “classic alternative” music from the 1980s and thought about myself from that time and my friends from that time and the feelings from that time, which seemed in retrospect, backed by the poufy-haired British music in my ears, to mostly amount to a sort of swelling romantic melancholy. I started missing the way I was sad in the 1980s. It was somehow larger and more heroic than the measly lowgrade glumness I often slog around in these days. Plus I was thinner. Such is the way of the world. We get older and softer and weaker and fade. There are no TRADED cards marking the changes. There are no stats to analyze. There aren’t even any words. The point is this:

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Doug DeCinces

April 2, 2010

It’s ironic that the shadow that’s so prominent in Doug DeCinces’ 1978 card belongs to Doug DeCinces and not to the man he replaced. At that time, the story of DeCinces was that he was living in Brooks Robinson’s shadow. For as long as anyone had ever been on one team, Brooks Robinson had been on the Orioles, an all-star game fixture, a mythic October hero, and the most sublime fielder to ever play the position. Then, finally, it was over, and a young player named Doug DeCinces trotted out to take The Legend’s place. You can’t look at Doug DeCinces’ career numbers, even in his earliest years, and say that the changing of the guards in Baltimore was a disaster. But certain players cast shadows so long that they are inescapable, so the story of Doug DeCinces in those years, and even to this day, is that he wasn’t Brooks Robinson.

When he first became the Orioles’ starter at third, he did not yet have the mustache he displays here. In earlier cards it is a thin, scraggly thing, making him look like the haggard, unsmiling, slightly corrupt, sneaky deputy of a more corrupt sheriff in a small southern town. The deputy knows some things he doesn’t necessarily want to know, but what is he going to do about it but go along and try to siphon off a little piece of the illicit pie for himself?

Had he not increased the size and magnificence of his mustache, the shadow would have engulfed him. He would have gotten more and more nervous-looking and beady-eyed, as if the feds had been called in to investigate a case that was tangled up in the small town racket he and the sheriff had going. He would have started grounding into more double plays and sailing more throws into the stands and snapping at reporters and pulling his hamstring more and more because of how tightly wound he and his scraggly mustache were. He would have drifted to an expansion team for a couple unremarkable seasons, then he and the paltry first version of his mustache would have disappeared.

Instead, DeCinces bloomed into a very good third baseman, and I would argue that the staggering improvements he made to his mustache contributed mightily to this. I applaud this mustache as much as I would an MVP season or a Gold Glove award, two honors that narrowly eluded DeCinces in his fine career. It takes guts to sport such a specimen on the middle of your face. It certainly takes someone who is willing to step out from behind someone else’s shadow and start casting shadows of one’s own. Without his mustache, which is, after Rollie Fingers’ creation, the second greatest mustache of the entire unprecedentedly hairy decade, he would have stayed in that shadow, dissolved in that shadow, and the heaven of the cardboard gods would have been a dimmer, more shadowy place.

The present was so disjointed in the 1970s that the past became a craze. The surging Now of the 1960s guttered to the question “what now?” It’s a sparse and scraggly and beady-eyed question. A haunted, hunted question. The answer: escape backward. Happy Days, the Bicentennial, Grease, the 19th Century flat-topped caps of the Pirates, Little House on the Prairie, the Back to the Land movement, The Waltons, and, not least of these things, the mustache of Doug DeCinces, a mustache so rich and entertaining and historical that it seemed to come with a soundtrack of old-timey “pianny,” the kind of thing playing during cowboy fistfights in which guys suffering the immediate effects of haymakers go sliding down the bar or topple backwards through swinging doors and into horse troughs. It’s a mustache with laughs and gravitas. It’s a mustache of wonder. It’s a mustache that will forever cast a majestic shadow all its own.

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

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Ellie Hendricks

February 26, 2010

The Blue Jacket

(continued from Dave Rader)

Four

It’s easy to see, looking at Ellie Hendricks, that one’s time in the big leagues is a state of grace. It’s not always so easy to see that the same can be said about one time’s here on earth.

February, the winter starts getting long. You slog through the slush. You stare out dirty windows. You get sick. You worry. You get older.

You try to imagine that first sunny day far away. Ellie Hendricks putting on his big league uniform once again. Ellie Hendricks grabbing a bat. Ellie Hendricks pausing for a moment, bat on shoulder. Ellie Hendricks smiling in the sun.

***

Earlier in this meandering piece I mentioned the feeling of being 22 and 23 and not knowing if it’s all still to come or all already gone. I thought when I wrote those words that the one concrete detail that I imagine as the center of these current ramblings, the blue jacket, came into my life when I was 22 and 23. But this morning when I checked a cultural event that I loosely associate with the blue jacket—the day Kurt Cobain blew his head off—I see that I was actually 26. Everything else was pretty much the same. Still working at the liquor store. Still wondering if it was all already gone. Still staring out dirty windows, waiting, trying to imagine.

***

When Ellie Hendricks was 22 and 23, he was not far removed from being released by the major league organization that had signed him (the Atlanta Braves).  Before that release, he had played minor league ball with, among others, Pat Jordan, the highly touted pitching prospect who would never reach the major leagues and who would brilliantly recount that failure in his book A False Spring. Jordan, who has gone on to become one of the best sportswriters of his time, got down on the page better than anyone ever has the wrenching heartbreak of having the dream of a big league career crash. Though Ellie Hendricks seems by all accounts (including Jordan’s in A False Spring) to have been someone in possession of a much more unshakably upbeat disposition than the smoldering, angst-ridden Jordan, you have to assume that Hendricks also felt the sting of being cut loose from the dream.

But while Jordan reacted to this in a way similar to my own reaction to being kicked out of childhood—by starting to try to get the words down—Ellie Hendricks kept playing. He played in the Puerto Rican leagues and became, for several years, a power hitter of such renown in those parts that he was known (for reasons I don’t quite understand, given the location of the leagues and Hendricks being a native of the Virgin Islands) as “The Babe Ruth of Mexico.” When he was 26, presumably in some ways still waiting and imagining, the big leagues finally took notice. The next season he was playing for the Baltimore Orioles, basking in the glow of that rare state of grace.

***

You wait for the call. Hey, I need you. You wait to hear those words. When I was just about to turn 26 and slouching through another February at the liquor store, I got such a call, it seemed. The woman on the other end had an English accent. She was friends with an English woman I’d met at a short story workshop. The woman on the phone worked for a publisher in London, and they put out books on popular American culture.

“Are you familiar with Pearl Jam?” she asked in a thrillingly refined accent.

I had a vague and faintly sour conception of the band she mentioned. A pack of stout longhaired galoots moaning and yowling. They were relatively new and huge, of course, and at that time I had adopted a general philosophy that anything that hadn’t already happened—in music, in movies, in books, in life—was (not counting a few exceptions) part of a hopeless, hackneyed, annoying aftermath.

“Yes, I know Pearl Jam,” I said.

“How would you feel about writing a book about Pearl Jam?” the English woman asked.

If you wait long enough, you can make a call seem like the call.

“I’d feel. I’d feel great,” I said.

***

Ellie Hendricks leaned on love. Surely it was his dream to reach the big leagues, but he didn’t put the dream before his love of the game and of, one has to believe, life itself.

“But one must look beyond the field to get the full measure of this giving man,” writes Rory Costello in an excellent installment on Ellie Hendricks in the inexhaustible, ever-growing wonder that is the Baseball Biography Project.

“He was warm-hearted, always beaming, with a rumbling (often colorfully profane) voice and laugh. Ellie made a personal connection with thousands of fans—especially the young.”

Hendricks played for several years in the big leagues, and continued on as an Orioles coach for several more. Once he got to put on that big league uniform, he never wanted to take it off, becoming for the Orioles what Johnny Pesky is to the Red Sox, a common denominator across the years, a human heart beating at the center of an organization. When he died in 2005, he had been soaking up the sunshine in an Orioles uniform for 37 years.

***

There was no big league uniform for me to slip into when I began working on a book about Pearl Jam. But on my 26th birthday my mother, who had apparently deemed the torn Corvoisier windbreaker I’d been shivering in as an unworthy guard against the weather for her son, got me (yes, finally we have come to it) a blue jacket.

It was, unlike childhood birthday gifts, not an immediately thrilling present to receive, but it played a key role in the fantasy I was about to enact for the next month. A second key part of the fantasy was the book on Pearl Jam, which I began researching by reading articles about them on file at the public library at Lincoln Center. A third part of the fantasy was a woman whom I somehow began to date. 

I don’t fully remember how I got that last ball up in the air, so to speak, but it’s not important for this story. What’s important is that I hadn’t dated a woman in years, and that I seized on this woman as if she were a vital key to gain entry to some state of grace.

For a couple weeks there, with my new blue jacket, and my Pearl Jam book, and my girl, I was, I tried to believe, in the big leagues. I was still pulling my regular shifts at the liquor store, but in my free time I was striding around town in my blue jacket with Pearl Jam blasting in my ears. 

I was going to do it. I was going to change into someone else. Some guy in a blue jacket with a girlfriend and the members of Pearl Jam on speed dial.

I’ll save most of the grisly details of the sudden and near-total collapse of this fantasy. I’ve droned on long enough anyway. Basically, there came a point when I had to try to make actual contact with Pearl Jam. I got the number of a publicist and called her.

“But who are you?” she asked me. “You see what I mean? Who are you?”

Not long after that, in a cab with the woman I was dating, in lieu of telling her how much I wanted her and needed her now, more than ever, I quoted one of my favorite lines from a Woody Allen movie.

“You’re so beautiful I can hardly keep my eyes on the meter,” I said.

“Josh, we need to talk,” she said.

Then Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. I somehow used this as a reason to back out of my verbal agreement to write the Pearl Jam book, sending a letter to the English woman in which I professed great emotional turmoil about “working in an industry” in which such a bright talent might be tortured to the point where he decided to remove his brains from inside his own head. The letter must have read like the cousin of a suicide note, like a note, in other words, in which the author vows to no longer be a part of waking life if he can help it.

And the next day I went back to the liquor store. No Pearl Jam in my ears. No upcoming dates on the calendar. But I still had my blue jacket. And spring had begun.

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Scott McGregor

August 7, 2009

Scott McGregor 80

Sundown

(Continued from Gary Beare)

Two

In 1972, Scott McGregor was chosen by the New York Yankees with the 14th pick of major league baseball’s amateur draft. Only a little over half the players picked in the first round of that draft made it to the majors. This surprises me. I haven’t spent a lot of time evaluating major league drafts, but I always assumed that the Chosen Ones who have their names called in the first round had by virtue of their athletic abilities wrested a greater level of certainty from the world than the rest of us. Turns out there’s uncertainty everywhere.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Tim Stoddard

March 19, 2009

tim-stoddard-80

I started becoming aware of baseball about thirty-five years ago, in 1974, when I was six. Basketball lagged behind baseball in that regard, only edging onto my personal radar when my brother, who I followed almost everywhere and into almost everything, began to play on his junior high team in the late 1970s.

My attachment to basketball became official in or around 1980, when a large poster of David Thompson went up on my wall. Thompson’s nickname was Skywalker, and the poster did the name justice, making it seem that he was not simply leaping but that he was in possession of some kind of magic that allowed him to stroll in midair until all mortals attempting to stop him clattered back to earth, at which point Thompson would punctuate the moment with a ferocious tomahawk slam. Read the rest of this entry ?

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