1. “Has blazing speed.”
I took my first steps as a solitary reader by reading the backs of baseball cards. By the time this 1978 Gil Flores card came out I was a few years along in terms of being able to read. Most of what I read was baseball books. But I still read the backs of cards, too.
The more obscure the player, the more words there would have to be on the back of the card. The longtime superstars had no room on the backs of their cards for anything but high stacks of small numbers, each year of their splendid careers laid out in inarguable arithmetic. The marginal players, the ones who would only be around for a little while, did not have enough numbers to fill a card. When there are blanks to fill, words are needed.
I’ve been writing about my childhood baseball cards for years now, churning out thousands of words. What is the blank I’m filling? I don’t know. But the day always feels a little less empty if I find some flicker of life in a card that I held in my hands as a kid. I felt a flicker as soon as I picked up this Gil Flores card. I remember thinking as a kid that it was different. No card ever showed a guy displaying his leg in that fashion. There he was, reclining in the dugout, possibly injured, but if so not seriously, perhaps trying to work the kinks out of his leg so that he could gain entry into the game. He is watching something out on the field and he wants in.
Because he is Gil Flores and not Pete Rose or Rod Carew, there are space-filling words on the back of the card. They augment the leg-centric photo on the front by pointing out in the rushed, truncated back-of-the-card grammar that is to me the voice of life loved if not of god: “Has blazing speed.” There are no stolen base numbers among the statistics above the words, so the idea of the blazing speed of Gil Flores, left to the imagination, spills beyond the borders of the card.
I started writing about this card yesterday morning, before work, and carried it with me in my knapsack to and from work, and it made me feel like I had something with me valuable and alive.
2. The dugout
For most of the years that I collected cards, I was playing little league baseball, and so I was spending the happiest part of my life, then and forever, in a dugout. Is there a better thing than to be in a dugout, waiting for your turn in the order to come around again? When I got this Gil Flores card, it was only my second year of playing baseball in little league, and it was my brother’s final year, and he was a star, our best hitter and our best pitcher, and so I had the joy of sitting in a dugout cheering for him. Once, during one of his at bats, I was next to a teammate named Chris.
“Hey, hit a home run, Ian!” Chris shouted.
“Hey, great idea,” I said as the pitcher went into his windup. “Hit one outta here!”
We were just being goofy in the dugout, but my brother swung, and there it fucking went, high and deep. Chris and I looked at each other, our mouths wide open. We poured out of the dugout with everybody else to greet Ian at home, then moved in one big laughing mass back to the dugout, where me and Chris and Ian and everyone sat and stood and giggled and shouted and practically shivered from head to toe with the feeling of being in a dugout, which is the same as the feeling of having special powers.
3. Third pitch
That’s actually the best part about this Gil Flores card, not his odd caress and display of his leg or the blazing speed in the words on the back but the photo of being inside the dugout. You are right there, just down the bench from Flores, close enough to see him and to see the player just beyond him, a guy staring at a baseball, gripping it.
What pitch is he considering? And who is he? I can’t find the grip he’s using on a web page that describes various grips, and there’s no glimpse of a uniform number to provide a clue to who the player is. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, one card leads to another. I dug back into my shoebox to look first at the team picture on the 1978 Angels team checklist card. I identified only one white guy with a thin mustache. Digging deeper, I found the individual card of a white guy on the Angels with a thin mustache, my 1978 Paul Hartzell. Paul Hartzell had even fewer numbers on the back of his card than Gil Flores, so the great majority of the card contained space-filling words. Among those words was this thrilling clue: “Worked on 3rd pitch after 1976 season. . .”
Is this 3rd pitch the one he is tinkering with in the background of Gil Flores’ card? And is there some kind of story behind everything, linking one card to the next, one day to the next, all to all forever?
4. The last out
I intended to finish writing about Gil Flores yesterday, but he kept spreading beyond my control. I examined his major league statistics, read some online memories of fans who’d watched him briefly flit across their consciousnesses before disappearing, thought about being in a dugout, thought about pitching grips, thought about how I could never learn how to throw a curveball even after my curveballing brother tried to teach me, thought about Paul Hartzell, noticed that he was never as good after his rookie season in 1976, before he added his third pitch. I learned that he was successful after baseball, a smart guy who figured things out and worked hard. Maybe he saw even while succeeding in his rookie year that he’d need more to be able to stick around in the dugout for a while. Or maybe we all make things more complicated than they need to be.
As the morning drained away yesterday, I kept veering farther and farther from a simple consideration of this card of Gil Flores, which if I were keeping things simple I would just say I loved. But love is so deep and mysterious that sometimes you start thinking you need more than just one way of grappling with it. You start to think you need a new grip, a new pitch. I ended up reading about Dennis Eckersley, who is the featured figure in the piece of baseball lore in which Gil Flores most often comes up. In 1977, things were just about to get really complicated for Dennis Eckersley. Before the next season, he would be traded from his original team, and he would learn that his wife was leaving him for a teammate, Rick Manning. But before that happened, he still had a little more time in an uncomplicated world. This world peaked on May 30, 1977, when he squared off against fellow young flamethrowing ace Frank Tanana in a pitching duel for the ages. Tanana lowered his ERA that day to 2.08 and struck out 6 while allowing just 5 hits and 1 run. The Eck was a little better. Through 8 and 2/3 innings, he’d walked 1, struck out 11, and allowed no hits. All that remained was Gil Flores. Flores, though a major league rookie, was in many ways already an old pro. He had been playing in the highly competitive Puerto Rican winter leagues for years and had been knocking around in the minors since 1971, hitting over .300 at almost every stop. He attempted to complicate the young pitcher’s mind by taking a long time between pitches to get settled in the box. The cocky Eckersley was, at least for a little while longer, immune to complication. From baseballlibrary.com:
“I was ready, but Gil kept on stepping out of the [batter’s box],” Eckersley later told the Contra Costa Times. “I pointed at him, ‘Get in there. They’re not here to take your picture. You’re the last out.’”
5. Must’ve loved the game
Eckersley struck out Flores to complete the no-hitter. He went on to pitch well for his new team the following year, despite the gnawing blank inside.
“He was so down,” teammate Luis Tiant recalled for the Boston Globe. “It made me feel so bad, watching him. He was in a tough position. We tried to calm him down, tell him he had a life to live. . . ”
Eckersley eventually descended into alcoholism, which seemed as if it would derail his once promising career. But he kept pitching even throughout some disappointing years in the 1980s with the Red Sox and Cubs. He got sober in 1986 after seeing a video of himself drunk while with his 10-year-old daughter. A trade to the Oakland A’s followed, where he was demoted to the bullpen. The rest, as you probably know or can find out if you ever visit the Hall of Fame, is history.
You have to think that Eckersley would not have been able to persevere in the game if he hadn’t loved it deeply. The same seems to have been true for the so-called “last out.” Gil Flores didn’t ever let himself become just the last out, even after his brief time in the majors came to a close. As a commenter on the Gil Flores memory page on the Mets Ultimate Database site points out: “Five years after his last game as a Met he was still with them in AAA. Must’ve loved the game.”
(Love versus Hate update: Gil Flores’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)