Archive for the ‘California Angels’ Category

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Reggie Jackson

December 10, 2012

reggie

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

Evidence

Two: Mr. October

The Donnie Moore card has been on my desk for several days, waiting to be made sense of. Beside it is a small fragment of another baseball card. I recently fished the fragment out of my son’s mouth. He’s fifteen months old, which means I’m fifteen months into a new life, one more splintered and doubtful than what preceded it, more overpowered by love. He has a basket of 2011 baseball cards that we play with in the evenings. Most of the creased, beaten cards are of currently active players, and I’ve been surprised at how many of them I’d never heard of, more evidence that I’m falling away from the times with the slow but irreversible momentum of an untethered spacewalker. But mixed in are some cards featuring older players achieving milestones. Ernie Banks, Willie Mays. When I fished the fragment out of my son’s mouth, it took perhaps a second to process the limited clues available and recognize it as being from one of these “legend” cards. I could tell from the California Angels batting helmet, the wire-rimmed spectacles, and the gaze trained on the far distance that my son had bitten off a piece of Mr. October.

Mr. October got his name for his apparent ability to play spectacularly well when the games mattered the most. The narrative truth of this rests on his iconic three-homer game in the clincher of the 1977 World Series. He had paved the way for this moment to be a mythic apotheosis by anchoring three World Series championships with the A’s, and he added luster to its magic by again performing spectacularly well in a 1978 World Series win. His exploits, and the outsized personality that went with them, seemed to illustrate the notion that some guys are able to rise to a higher level during big moments.

It’s true that Mr. October’s career World Series numbers are phenomenal: In 27 career World Series games, he had a .357 batting average, a .457 on-base percentage, and a .755 slugging percentage). But if his ability to play better in crucial moments was truly unshakeable, why wouldn’t he have also hit well during his appearances in the American League Championship Series? In 45 games with the pennant at stake, he posted these anemic numbers: .227/.298/.380. Overall, his total postseason numbers suggest a slight increase in performance over his career numbers (in 77 postseason games, he had a .278 batting average, a .358 on-base percentage, and a .527 slugging percentage, all a little higher than his regular season splits of .262/.356/.490). The slight superiority of those postseason numbers could easily be attributed to most of his postseason appearances coming during the prime of his career, when his overall regular season numbers were higher, too.

These findings, if you can call them that, are in line with the general conclusions of all inquiries into the notion of “clutch” performance: Basically, as a sample size increases and thus becomes a more fully supported representation of reality, any seeming evidence of clutch performance tends to recede, if not disappear altogether. It seems a decent bet that Mr. October would dismiss this suggestion that his clutch abilities are imaginary, that he believed and still believes that he was in possession of a certain magic unavailable to his peers.

When I think of Mr. October as an Angel, I see him in a moment seemingly designed to demonstrate that magic, if it exists, is so migratory and random in nature as to be entirely beyond the grasp of human hands. He is in the dugout beside Angels manager Gene Mauch in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 1986 American League Championship Series, the Angels seemingly assured a pennant. In my memory, Mauch, who previously presided over the monumental collapse of the 1964 Phillies, is not smiling, but Mr. October beams broadly, winningly. He has removed his glasses, anticipating a pennant-winning victory scrum in which he apparently hopes not to have his glasses damaged. Some events transpire. Mr. October’s smile constricts. The game is once again in doubt. Mr. October puts his glasses back on.

(to be continued)

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Donnie Moore

November 28, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

Evidence

One: Donnie Moore

Lately I keep finding myself in the midst of a routine motion gone strange. What am I doing? How did I get here? In these moments, I imagine I look like Donnie Moore as captured by his 1987 card. You’re doing something you’ve done all your life and suddenly it seems without purpose. You don’t even remember what you were doing or why.

Donnie Moore was an all-star pitcher with a long major league career, but he’s best known for surrendering a late lead in what would have been a pennant-clinching game in the 1986 American League Championship Series and for being so haunted by the failure that he ended his life. This latter point is a garish reduction of the complex reality of Donnie Moore’s life and death, and of the complex causes of suicide. Reductions tend to happen around sports. Playing sports, following sports as a fan, using sports as a way to tell understandable stories about ourselves: All of these things are ways of reducing and managing complexity.

For some years now, I have dealt with a certain mounting sense of powerlessness in the face of the complexity of life by immersing myself in old baseball cards and in information about the players on these cards. At some point in this immersion, I learned of a fly ball that never came down. I was writing about Joe “Tarzan” Wallis, who hit the fly ball in question during a minor league game in Key West, Florida. Several future major leaguers were on hand, including Bruce Sutter, Garry Templeton, and Tito Landrum. The pitcher who surrendered the fly ball was Lon Kruger, then in his one season of professional baseball, now the coach of the University of Oklahoma men’s basketball team. Kruger’s opponent, the game’s eventual winning pitcher, was Donnie Moore.

The right fielder, second baseman, and center fielder all ran toward where they thought the fly ball would come down. Upon each man losing sight of the ball, all ducked, covering their heads. They tried to follow the play from their cringes, and then came out of their cringes. No one saw the ball land. No one could find the ball. Joe Wallis hesitantly rounded the bases. The umpire upheld the notion that Wallis had hit a home run.

The identity of this umpire, the presiding authority on the mysterious disappearance, has been lost. But I found a box score for the game on page 33 of an August 7, 1974, edition of the St. Petersburg Times. Wallis’ name is written as “Wallace” in the box score, and in the short recap of the game, Donnie Moore’s name is written as “Donny” Moore. The mystery fly is not mentioned.

On the cover of that newspaper, the news is about pressure mounting for the presiding authority of the nation to resign and about this figure’s continuing defiance. But in two days, the president would buckle to the mounting evidence of criminal activity arrayed against him. I feel like I remember that day Nixon quit, remember seeing a newspaper headline, but all my memories are suspect.

What are the effects of seeing things of seemingly unimpeachable solidity disappear? It must shake your confidence in the world on some subterranean, tectonic level. There’s no presiding authority, no evidence of a thread from one moment to the next.

(to be continued)

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Joe Rudi

September 13, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

1962

My mom emailed me with the news that my dad’s favorite cat had gone deaf and blind. I was in my cubicle at work when I read the email. I took my cell phone down to the lower level of my office building, where sloping windows two stories high look out onto an expansive parking lot.

“He’s on his walk,” my mom said. “You should try back again later.”

I looked out beyond the parking lot to the raised highway in the distance endlessly ushering heavy traffic north and south.

“I’ll try. I can’t see him wanting to talk a whole lot,” I said.

“You’d be surprised. He went on and on at the vet. He’s changed.”

My mother and I chatted for a few more minutes.

“When you get a pet, you’re in for the long haul,” she said. “I’m 71 and I finally understand that, the long haul.” I forget how she phrased the next part exactly. Something about people, how you throw in with people, you make decisions in the moment binding you to another, not knowing or even really considering the future, the long haul.

***

One day in 1962, when Joe Rudi was sixteen, the greatest baseball players in the world came to his hometown of Modesto, California. Game 6 of the World Series was being delayed several days due to historically relentless rain. During the long delay, the New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants traveled south from San Francisco to work out in Modesto, where it was drier. Joe Rudi watched from beyond the outfield fence, where he was able to collect several home run balls launched by the major leaguers. By the end of the day, the sixteen-year-old had an armful of these World Series souvenirs.

***

In 1962 my mother had just moved to New York City, or perhaps was on the brink of moving to New York City. She was 21, and the world was wide open, unsolved. My dad was a stranger to her, one of millions in the city. He was older, had served in the Navy during World War II, had worked all through the 1950s. The two would meet at a lecture on psychology and art at Cooper Union. My future father went up to my future mother and asked her out for coffee. When I’ve imagined the scene, I’ve always superimposed my own insecurities and awkwardness onto my father, but he was probably pretty impressive in his own way. Not a bad-looking fellow. A gentle guy. An intellectual. He asked a question that was easy enough to say yes to. He didn’t ask her whether in fifty years, when he was 87, she would drive him to the vet because the cat he took in his lap every day to gently brush and brush had started walking into walls.

***

Joe Rudi’s memory of the day in 1962 when the World Series came to Modesto surfaced during a weather-related pause in the 1972 World Series. The A’s had won the first two games of the series, the second of these wins delivered in large part by Rudi, who supplied the winning margin with a home run and then preserved the lead with a leaping, fence-crashing ninth-inning grab. Looking for a story to fill space created by the rainout, reporters had gravitated to the most recent game’s hero, and Rudi had told them about 1962.

“One thing I remember most,” he said, “is that we all waited outside the park for autographs.” Joe Rudi was now himself a World Series hero, but in his recollection he became again the anonymous sixteen-year-old clutching an armful of major league home run balls to his chest.

“The players all walked straight to the bus,” he said.

***

One wall of my cubicle is a whiteboard filled with project schedules scrawled in black marker. When the schedules change I erase dates and replace them with other dates. Recently, during a lull, I used a blue marker to write “card of the day” down near the bottom of the board. Since then I try to remember every day to put a randomly selected baseball card on a shelf just below the “card of the day” title. Joe Rudi was the featured card the day I tried to call my father about his ailing cat. After returning from my first attempt, I did some work, occasionally glimpsing Joe Rudi off to my left, a pale, mustachioed ghost from my childhood, or in this specific case from the later fringes of childhood. The card was from 1981, when I was thirteen and losing interest in cards. I was considering the card when I sensed someone at the entry to my cube.

“Who you got today?” a coworker asked.

I swiveled around from my computer-facing position. A guy who sits a couple of cubes over from me in the accounts department was standing there. Every once in a while he ambles by and remarks on my card of the day. We’ve never had a conversation outside of these exchanges.

I reclined a little in my chair, motioned toward Joe Rudi. My coworker picked up the card.

“Hmm, he ended up with the Angels, huh?” the coworker said. He was looking at the front of the card. I knew what was about to happen. He was going to turn the card over to look at the stats, and in doing so he was going to be momentarily, infinitesimally jarred.

***

The game-winning catch in the 1972 World Series blessed Joe Rudi’s career. All his virtues, whether real or perhaps at times exaggerated, were encapsulated in it: he was clutch, a winner, a sublime fielder, someone who could do everything well and who would do whatever it took to beat you. Had he not made such a spectacular grab—had Denis Menke, who hit the drive, instead lofted an easy fly to Rudi—a fairly similar popular conception of Joe Rudi would probably have been generated anyway, but this collective portrait wouldn’t have had such an arresting and emblematic gathering point. Roger Angell best fixed the moment in time by comparing the leaping catch against the wall to the image of a pinned butterfly. There was something ineffable about Joe Rudi, something to be held gently, carefully.

***

In 1981 Fleer and Donruss disrupted the Topps monopoly on baseball cards. I didn’t get any Donruss cards but bought some Fleer. The photos on the new cards were often drab, dim, even slightly unfocused. But that wasn’t the problem with them. The problem was that the statistics on the back were upside down. Everyone who knew and loved baseball cards would first look at the front of the card, then would flip the card over in a certain way to look at the statistics on the back of the card. Doing this with a 1981 Fleer would result in the statistics being upside down. It’s a small thing, but it’s jarring. You hold a card with care, and this is what happens. The world you want to love will push you away.

***

My parents live far away from me. My infant son can’t ride in the car, not even a few blocks to Target. He instantly starts wailing to the point of gagging suffocation. For now, until he can ride in a car, there is a physical separation between the family I am raising and the family I grew up in. This separation is painful to me, the one part of my life that I would change if I could. I wish we all lived in the same village or something, but such is modern life. Everyone scatters.

***

I went back down to the lower level and stared out at the parking lot and the highway and dialed my phone again. My dad was there. He told me about the cat’s condition, described the sad daily scene of watching her inch across the room to get to her food, her litter.

All my baseball cards came to me when my father was separated from my mother. We lived in Vermont and he lived in New York City. He was a guy who visited. In the summer my brother and I visited him. He lived without a pet in a small studio apartment. During his visits to us he always spent time with our cats. He loved them. I wondered why he didn’t get a cat of his own. He seemed to be living like someone prepared to leave everything behind at a moment’s notice, like he was waiting for a call.

Eventually, that call came. He and my mom got back together in the mid-1990s, when the bleary cat that now teeters into walls was my mom’s rambunctious kitten.

The marriage between my mother and father has been unusual but not without love. Recently, my mom got quite sick. I spoke on the phone with my dad about it after she’d started to get better.

“She’s everything to me,” he said.

My mom was right about him changing. He used to be nice and silent about feelings, like me, but nowadays he says things like this every once in a while. It’s terrifying. When telling me about his cat, he somehow began talking about his own death, which, as he helpfully pointed out, was not too far off.

“I’m not unhappy about it,” he said. “I just hope for happiness for you and your family and your brother and his family. I just want you to be happy.”

***

I went back to my cube and ran out the clock on my day. I didn’t want to think about a blind cat or an 87-year-old father or distance or disappointment or the world pushing you away. I searched the net for traces of Joe Rudi. That’s when I found the story of him as a sixteen-year-old in 1962, running after and gathering home run balls struck by gods. I could see him in my mind, in that moment before he experienced the disappointment of the major leaguers brushing past him to get to their bus. He waited, happy, all still to come. He cradled the baseballs, each one blessed.

I don’t hold onto the gifts of my life with great enough care.

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Rusty Torres

July 1, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

The Dugout

The happiest moment of my childhood? That’s easy. I’m in a little league dugout just after my one perfect at-bat. I’m still seeing the at-bat: the meaty fastball over the middle of the plate, the swing, the ball clearing the chain-link fence in left field. I’d floated around the bases, floated from home plate back to the dugout in a scrum of shouting teammates. Now I sit on the bench in the dugout, beaming out at the field, my limbs still buzzing from that perfect connection. I want the moment to last, and it does. The other team is bad, and we keep reaching base. We bat around.

“You’re up again, Josh,” someone says.

I rise, put on a batting helmet, and leave the dugout for another at-bat. The huge smile on my face feels permanent. It’s like a joke has been told that will never stop being funny. It’s like my happiness has overthrown time. 

***

I have a Yahoo email account, and before I get to the inbox I go past a page that includes sports headlines. I always hope for sports to serve as an escape, a safe place away from the world. The top sports headlines lately have featured the Penn State coach found guilty of sexually abusing several boys over many years. His face accompanies the headline. I don’t want to see his face anymore.

You’ll hear people hoping that his punishment will include the unofficial component of fellow prisoners doing to him what he did to children. But no one can do to him what he did to those boys. They were safe, and then they weren’t and never would be again. Each one had the face of a child and this face was taken.

***

Last night my wife and I went for a walk with our eleven-month-old son. He was nestled in a carrier on my wife’s chest. We’d gone on a walk the night before, after hours of the baby raging and wailing with teething pain, and on the walk he had eventually rested his head on my wife’s chest and gone to sleep. We were hoping for a repeat of that last night, but we walked and walked and walked and he kept staring out wide-eyed at the darkening world. He’s hungry for the world. Fireflies kept appearing in brief shin-high arcs in our path, as if part of some mysterious sanctification.

***

I have some Xeroxed pages from a newspaper on my desk. I got them a couple of years ago at my publisher’s request. They’re from the paper in the town I grew up in, and they back up a claim in my memoir that a coach in my town, Mick, was imprisoned for sexually abusing boys. Mick coached little league and seventh and eighth grade basketball. I didn’t play for him in little league (though at the time I wished I had since he was widely considered to be “the best”), but I played on his basketball teams. I was lucky, I realize now, to never go on a fishing trip with him. That’s where he did his thing. There were rumors about it when he was my coach, and I didn’t believe the rumors.

The article about his sentencing is difficult to read, full of disgusting, enraging details of a world oriented—as I had been—toward downplaying and ignoring the crime. Mick’s sentence was only one year in prison, and the judge who handed down the sentence said she was “impressed” with Mick and at the end of the sentencing wished him luck. The two brothers who came forward about the sexual abuse had been in recent weeks “suspected by classmates of being victims [and had] become the object of taunting and namecalling at school.” While on bail, and in violation of a specific provision of the bail that he not contact the victims, Mick sent a letter and a Christmas card, a fucking Christmas card, to the boys who reported him. There’s a description in the article of the impact of this contact.

The boys’ mother later testified that whatever the intentions, the effects were not good. She said when her son first received the letter, he took it to his room to read alone. Then he came into the living room, very upset, and slammed the letter down on the table. She quoted him as saying, “If he cares about me so damn much why doesn’t he leave me the hell alone?” (“Lewis Is Sentenced to Year in Jail,” White River Valley Herald, March 1987)

Mick was oblivious to this. He believed that contacting the boy was the right thing to do. His “impressive” courtroom demeanor seemed to imply some understanding on his part that he had done something wrong, or at least that his actions had brought him to the brink of being cast out of the community that he’d had a central role in, but the fact that he’d sent a letter to the two boys shows that he really had no idea what he did to the boys, and to all the other boys he victimized.    

***

The card at the top of this page was intact, with a face, when I pulled it out of my shoebox of old cards at random few days ago. I always hope that by selecting from my shoebox blindly I’ll see the card drawn as if for the first time. I stuck with this hope for about a minute, lost focus, and then compulsively typed the player’s name into an internet search window.

Before typing in the name, I’d noticed the unusual setting of the photo on the card. Few photos on the baseball cards from my childhood are set in the dugout, which may be why this 1977 card is so well-handled despite the player’s marginality. I must have been drawn to the dugout. That was my first year in little league, the first year I got to sit in a dugout with a uniform on. I felt safer in the dugout than anywhere in the world. I loved that boy hive. Everyone sitting and standing and milling around and laughing, getting ready to bat or getting ready to go out into the field or looping fingers through the chicken wire and leaning close to chant no batter no batter no batter. The dugouts were where I most wanted to be even before I was old enough to play little league. My older brother played little league, so for two years I’d been at the edge of the dugout, looking in, waiting. Seven years old. Eight years old.

That was the age—eight years old—of the victim in the stories that clogged the first several pages of search results for Rusty Torres. An eight-year-old girl was playing on a pull-up bar. Torres himself supplied further details about the incident, as reported in the New York Daily News of May 12, 2012:

Torres said he and the girl “had a lot of physical contact” as he helped her down from the bar.

“Body to body, over and over,” he said. “I brought her to the back of my van and I don’t want to talk about what happened there but at one point I accidentally exposed my erect penis.”

The 63-year-old Torres said the girl never touched him, and he “stopped myself before anything bad happened to her.”

That last part, Torres believing that taking an 8-year-old girl into a van and showing her his erection constituted the behavior of someone stopping himself “before anything bad happened” is the most disturbing part of the article, especially when coupled with a later sentence: “Torres has spent the last decade working as a baseball coach on the Oyster Bay payroll, interacting with thousands of children.”

***

But I was telling you about the happiest moment of my childhood, that inning that wouldn’t end. I’m walking to the plate for another turn at bat, smiling like I’ll never stop. I hear someone calling my name.

“Josh! Josh!”

I look over. Mick is the coach of the other team. He is grinning out at me from inside the opposing dugout, his fingers looped through the chicken wire. He has those pro-style flip-up outfielder sunglasses. They’re in the up position, revealing his eyes. He’s the best coach in town. He’s never said my name before.

“Hey Josh,” he says, “no batter here, huh?”

It makes me feel good. I just hit a home run, so I know that he’s being gently sarcastic, that he’s saying there is a batter here. Mick is saying it. The best coach in town.

He had to get my attention in the middle of that game. He needed to imprint his face on my happiness.

***

Last night my wife and son and I walked up and down the firefly-graced streets until it was altogether dark out. My son still wouldn’t fall asleep.

“Should we just keep walking?” my wife asked.

“Sure,” I said. I thought she was asking whether I was tired of walking.

“I mean is it safe?” she said.

When is the answer to this question ever an unequivocal yes? We walked a few minutes more then came home and bolted and chained the door. I used the pointed tip of a nail file to alter a card from my childhood.

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Angels Future Stars

February 10, 2012

How Strange the Design

Five

I am looking for a pitch to hit. I get an at-bat every day, in the early morning before work, while the baby is still asleep. I sit at my desk. I take my stance, so to speak. I wait. Most of the time, I can’t even see the pitch. It has come and gone and my at-bat is over. Other times, I swing wildly. I want to connect. I want to, well, I’ll just say it, I wish I could make a living writing. I hope someday it will happen, but I’m not a fucking rookie anymore, so the notion of “someday,” which I’ve been addicted to for many years, should probably be avoided. Fuck someday. This present life, its contours and limitations, this is what exists. I’m not bitching. I mean I’m not ungrateful for the life I’ve got, the love, my family, my health, some employment, sporadic doses of good old television and booze to ease the pain. But the writing, well, this is probably it: one at-bat a day if I’m lucky, or maybe not even an at-bat, and not in a professional game either but for free, for nothing but the chance to connect. I am doing this for free. I am doing this for freedom. Like Bukoswki said in “Death Is Smoking My Cigars”:

wanted the word down
and they wanted me at a punch press,
a factory assembly line
they wanted me to be a stock boy in a
department store.

well, death says, as he walks by,
I’m going to get you anyhow
no matter what you’ve been:
writer, cab-driver, pimp, butcher,
sky-diver, I’m going to get
you . . .

o.k. baby, I tell him.

we drink together now
as one a.m. slides to 2
a.m. and
only he knows the
moment, but I worked a con
on him: I got my
5 god-damned minutes
and much
more.

When the at-bat ends, I haul my bike out onto the street and ride it to a bus that takes me to work. I try to ride my bike carefully. I say a little prayer for safety before getting on. Still, there is a heightened awareness when riding a bike in a city, buses and trucks and texting-while-driving minivans careening all around you, that in life you are on one path and whatever it is that will end you is on another path, and one day these two paths will intersect. I am hoping to be very old when this intersection occurs, lying on a bed tired of life and satisfied and with my family still healthy all around me. I don’t want to say goodbye to anyone. I don’t want this to end.

Have I mentioned baseball yet in this post, besides the hackneyed “at-bat” conceit? Okay then, here: Ray Chapman had the habit of diving into pitches, I guess. Or maybe I’m confusing him with some other batter who famously caught one in the head. Chapman was a very good young shortstop, and one day his path intersected with the path of Carl Mays, or more specifically his head intersected with one of Mays’ pitches. Mays had a history of pitching inside. Also, it was getting dark. Chapman apparently never saw the pitch. You’ll never see it coming. It’ll just end. That’s how this game is designed.

But back to at-bats: I waste a lot of them. I get up and dick around here and there, looking on the internet, browsing decades-old newspapers in the Google archives for news about Sweathogs and bench-clearing brawls and Kurt Bevacqua. Lately I’ve been poring over a book I basically stole from my brother, A Donald Honig Reader. Whenever my life is overwhelming me I read it and read it. It is falling apart from this persisting need. It belongs to my brother, this book, but we lived together for a long time and our stuff intersected and so it seemed not implausible to me to think that the book could get mixed up in my stuff when we went off on our own paths, finally, but in truth I think I was entirely conscious of taking the book and only thought about the plausibility of a mix-up to soothe my conscience. I am not even a very good person, really. For example, yesterday I got home from work and was trying to rock my son to sleep in my arms and he was getting there, finally, when one of our cats came in the room and tried to get my attention by meowing and my kid’s eyes snapped open and I shoved the cat off a bureau and sort of kicked him a little to get him to sprint out of the room. I didn’t hurt him but I scared him, and I was angry at him. I love him, this cat, and I felt like a piece of shit for acting this way, a piece of shit, a piece of shit, but I was frustrated that it was taking so long to rock my son to sleep, and I was tired from working all day, and my legs were beat from biking to and from the bus with the heightened awareness that someday a Carl Mays beanball will end me, so to speak, and my brain was mushed from the long bus ride, and life was just catching up to me, my hopes and dreams and blah bah fucking blah. Fuck. Anyway, I stole this Honig book from my brother and sometimes don’t write in the mornings but read it obsessively, repeatedly. It is a massive book containing many first-person oral histories of old ballplayers. It is a beautiful thing, in quality equal to Lawrence Ritter’s more well-known and (deservedly) revered book The Glory of Their Times and in sheer quantity dwarfing Ritter’s work. Anyway, not too long ago I was reading the story of the guy who replaced Ray Chapman after Chapman died from the beaning, Joe Sewell. Some words near the end of Joe Sewell’s story hit a chord, and since then I’ve been trying to write toward those words with these cards. I have this card and one more and then I’ll leave this meandering nonstory and move on to some other cardboard investigation if I don’t get beaned or felled by disease or stray-bulleted or bushwhacked or broken or blasted to smithereens, sweet Yaz almighty bless this tenuous life.

So then anyway on to this fucking card. This card is from 1980, the last year I collected cards. All the cards that came to me up to then were something to count on, and the center of each year’s collection was the team I loved, the Red Sox. But immediately after the 1980 season ended, the Red Sox changed drastically, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Butch Hobson, and Rick Burleson all departing—half of the eight regulars (George Scott was already gone) who remained from the superb 1978 squad that had been undone by (if you believe in horoscopes) the trend toward the unusual and bizarre. This was jarring. Suddenly everything was different. Burleson and Hobson were the first to go, in a December trade that brought Mark Clear, Carney Lansford, and Rick Miller to the Red Sox. The arrival of Burleson in California effectively ended any chance that this 1980 Angels Future Stars card had of telling the exact truth. The Angels figured they were set at shortstop with Burleson and, badly needing pitching, shipped the player on the far right of this card to Houston for Ken Forsch. All three Future Stars had played for the Angels, sparingly, in 1980 (along with Bruce Kison, who had come over from the Pirates). Thon had played the most, performing decently as a middle infield backup to aging starters Bobby Grich and Freddy Patek. Thon held down a similar role for the Astros in 1981, then took over as the starting shortstop in 1982 and moved to the glowing edge of stardom in 1983. So this 1980 card was almost right: Thon really was a future star, but just not for the Angels.

The future, the past: you can’t pin them down. They are too strange. This moment: typing rapidly on some keys with letters on them, hoping to get some feeling in my flesh before shoving off to work. Work. That started for me for real in the summer 1985, after I’d been expelled from boarding school. I got a job pumping gas. I remember the slow moments at the Shell station, time transformed into torture. My life since then has mostly been getting through time, making up little games to preoccupy myself. Work means giving yourself over to some other entity for some money, enough to keep the wheels turning. Before the summer of 1985, I was still in the kid’s world. In the summer of 1984: no job except throwing bales every few days at a nearby farm. Otherwise, I was still on my own to waste time. I played a lot of solitary games all over the house that summer. I was sixteen. I should have been, well, who knows. I probably shouldn’t still have been throwing a tennis ball off the roof and making up games. I remember Dickie Thon from that summer, not anything he did—I don’t remember noticing he was absent from the box scores that summer—but the image of him suggested by his promising 1983 numbers. I used those numbers—the steals, the homers, the triples—to create an imaginary character in my solitary games. Thon. In my games this Thon was taller than in real life (I had no idea how tall he was and see now from this card that he was 5’11”; in my imagination he was 6’3” at least), tall and thin and fast, powerful enough to smack home runs but just as prone to sting line drives deep into the corners of the Astrodome and wind up in a flash on third with a triple. I saw him in my mind out at shortstop, too, standing tall and possessing a cannon arm, a little like Cal Ripken but faster, making everything look easy. His name was sort of futuristic, maybe because it was similar to “Tron,” and there was permanence in it, too, simple and elemental, a piece of the ancient word marathon and somehow the piece that made the word ring. The Asros uniform was part of it; Thon would not have been this last pillar in the mansion of imagination of my childhood had he worn any other uniform but that last blazing rainbow flare from the 1970s. By then, the summer of 1984, Dickie Thon had already intersected with a Mike Torrez pitch that ended his season and his stardom. He would struggle all the way back eventually, working, working, but he was never the same. I don’t care about that. I still see him as beautiful and brilliant in my mind, the way I did that last wide summer my time was my own.

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Bob Allietta

March 25, 2011

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

[California] Angels

The 1975 California Angels led the American League West in losses. They also led the entire circuit in striking out opposing batters and led all of baseball in shutouts pitched, two distinctions that, along with all the losing, seem to offer some insight into another league-topping mark: catcher injuries inflicted. The team featured one of the most fearsome flamethrowing duos in history, Nolan Ryan and 21-year-old Frank Tanana, that season’s strikeout king. The pair racked up nearly half of the team’s strikeouts and over half of the team’s shutouts. I’m not sure who or what was responsible for all the catcher injuries, but it’s not hard to imagine that the broken fingers suffered by Andy Etchebarren and the fellow picture here, Bob Allieta, came as the result of the terrifying lightning bolts from the arms of Ryan or Tanana.

Etchebarren, who already had several years of service as a solid cog in the Orioles’ dynastic machine, recovered to become the team’s regular backstop the following season, but the shattered digit suffered by Bob Allietta seems to have brought his one glimpse of the big time, itself partially the product of the epidemic of Angels’ catcher injuries, to a close. This 1976 Topps card would be Bob Allietta’s first, last, and only appearance as a cardboard god.

Despite some distinct structural limitations in the card—he’s not shown in the midst of game action or even within the confines of a big league stadium—Allietta managed to make this singular appearance a good one (in turn shining a modest positive light in the context of these predictions on the 2011 version of the Angels). He radiates warmth and friendliness. He seems like he’s probably a sunny chatterbox. On the back of the card, his sparse collection of stats is filled out with some text that notes, among other things, that he “was voted El Paso’s most popular player, 1973.”

I also like that he has his name written on his glove, especially as it seems like he started out writing his name in boisterous capitals and then, after three letters, realized he was going to run out of room and had to cram in the remaining letters in lower case. If you can make anything out of such a detail, you’d have to guess that Bob Allietta was that kind of guy, someone who would blunder loudly and affably forward rather than timidly planning everything out in advance or spending time regretting what had already occurred. At first glance, I misread the word along the lower edge of his glove as “ALL STAR,” something he likely hadn’t been since his senior year in high school, but I think it’s not an entirely inaccurate distortion of the situation. Bob Allietta had made it to the promised land, at least for a second.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part of 19 of 30: Read Rob Neyer, the guy who, when he walks down the street, people say, “There goes the best baseball blogger who ever lived” (don’t they?); in his most recent question of the day, Rob looks into the actual (rather than cardboard-flimsy and imaginary) prospects of the 2011 Angels, who share with the 1975 squad a dynamic duo of starting pitchers

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

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Mickey Rivers

August 17, 2010

By the time I came into possession of this 1976 card of Mickey Rivers bracing for the impact of a falling piano, he had been traded to the Yankees along with Ed Figueroa in exchange for Bobby Bonds. I guess you could say that the falling piano was the fate of continuing to toil with the Angels. Mickey Rivers darted away and let Bobby Bonds take the hit. Rivers lasted three and a half seasons with the Yankees, and in each of his three full seasons the Yankees played in the World Series, winning it in 1977 and 1978. Rivers got plenty of credit for that run, in part because of a lack of understanding in the baseball world at that time that the most important element in scoring runs is getting on base. Rivers was considered the dynamic catalyst of the Yankees’ offensive attack because he generally produced a high batting average and stole bases. However, despite batting at the top of one of the better lineups in the league, Rivers never topped 100 runs scored for a season for the Yankees (and in two of his three seasons he didn’t even get close), an outgrowth of his inability or perhaps unwillingness to draw walks. The sportswriters of the day didn’t notice this deficiency, voting him third in league MVP balloting in 1976, eleventh in 1977, and (most incredibly of all, considering his .265 batting average and .302 on-base percentage that year, numbers that were inferior that season to those of, for example, Duane Kuiper, Bob Bailor, and Mario Guerrero) twenty-fifth in 1978.

The other night ESPN Classic replayed the game that got Rivers and the Yankees to the first of the three straight World Series: the fifth game of the 1976 American League championship series with the Royals. Before the famed riot-sparking home run by Chris Chambliss in the bottom of the ninth, Rivers keyed an early rally by slapping a base hit into centerfield. I’d forgotten how unusual Rivers looked and moved.

“What’s wrong with him?” my wife asked.

We were watching him strut-limp back to first after rounding the bag. He seemed like he’d been assembled in a rush from spare parts, long bow legs springing from a tiny torso, a weird jaunty lean to his body, as if he was suffering from a running cramp. His mouth was motoring.

“He’s a character,” was all I could say to my wife by way of explanation.

While my ill will toward the Yankees hasn’t abated since I was a kid (with the possible exception of the benign Steve Balboni years), I do find that time, along with that always questionable eroder of clarity, nostalgia, has allowed me to become less specifically resentful of some of the Yankee players on the 1970s teams. I loathed Mickey Rivers, for example, mainly for the possibly apocryphal parts he played in two terrible Red Sox moments (somewhere, somehow, I got the idea that A: he teamed up with Graig Nettles to separate Bill Lee’s shoulder during a 1976 brawl, and B: in a late October game two years later, the 163rd contest for the two teams playing, he produced and passed along a bat of dubiously powerful qualities to one weak-hitting Yankees shortstop just after said shortstop had broken his own bat and just before he popped an improbable home run over the Green Monster). Now, however, I can’t help but get a chuckle out of Mickey Rivers. My 10-year-old self would glare at me as a traitor for saying this, but the 1970s would have been a little poorer without a guy willing to comment on the physical appearance of another major leaguer (Danny Napoleon) by saying, “He’s so ugly, when you walked by him, your pants wrinkled. He made fly balls curve foul.” (For more Riversisms, check out the quote page on his website.)

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A couple of book notes: Thanks to Steve Buckley of the Boston Herald for featuring Cardboard Gods in his celebration of some recent baseball books. Thanks to Deadspin for posting an excerpt of the book yesterday. Also: the book is now available for Kindle and the iPad. An audio version of the book should also be available now (I haven’t gotten my copy yet, but the page for it is up on Amazon). 

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