Archive for the ‘Chicago Cubs’ Category


Frank Castillo

March 21, 2011

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

Chicago Cubs

I’ve lived in Chicago for seven years now, and it feels like nothing, like I just got here. Conversely, the roughly equvalent span of seven years of my childhood during which my baseball cards came to me seems immense and inexhaustible. The writing at this site is, among other things, my surrender to the idea that it will take the rest of my life to approach saying everything I want to say about those years. Maybe I live an intentionally narrow life in the present to leave myself time and energy to explore the past. Likewise, I don’t collect cards anymore. I don’t have room for them, physically or emotionally. But I can make room for the occasional stray, like this Frank Castillo card that I found a few months ago on Western Avenue, my fourth and probably last Western Avenue baseball card find. I’ve been looking since then and haven’t found any others, on Western Avenue or elsewhere, and I just moved to another neighborhood that’s not very close to Western Avenue. My new neighborhood is on the Red Line, however, so I’ll be a short shot away from Wrigley. I’ll be seeing the 2011 Cubs in person at least a little, so I’ll get to see if this pummeled Frank Castillo card will turn out to bear any resemblance to the Cubs’ fortunes in their 103rd straight season of wanting.

Everybody knows what wanting is. It’s very close to the feeling of being alive, or else it’s so often present that you come to believe it’s the feeling of being alive. I go through most days wanting and not even knowing what it is I want, and this feeling only rarely goes away. It doesn’t go away with the seemingly logical counterpart to wanting: getting. But sometimes it dissipates if I can surrender to a kind of purposelessness, a way of wandering open-hearted through the world. Going for a walk can bring this to me, especially in a city, where the world seems to show its randomness more readily. Yesterday on a walk I stopped wanting when I spotted a cheap, dark masquerade-ball type mask lying on the sidewalk. A couple days ago I stopped wanting when a disheveled young man who looked he had a lot on his mind walked by me on Chicago Avenue, dragging a golf club behind him like a stiffened, dogless leash.

One of my favorite memories so far of my seven years in Chicago is from when I was sitting in the bleachers for a Cubs game, which is somewhat like surrendering up your individual body in exchange for a much drunker, louder collective with thousands of limbs. A guy sitting in front of me who had been keeping score as he pounded beer after beer rose for a mid-inning bathroom break, inevitably, and without thinking shoved his scorecard into my hands. “You know how to do this, right?” he muttered, and for the next inning and a half I kept track of the game for him until he staggered back to his seat with two more overflowing beers for himself. I don’t remember whether the Cubs won or lost that day. Somewhere maybe there’s a scorecard with my notes mixing together with someone else’s notes, though my guess is that the drunk guy likely was unable to hold onto the scorecard for very long beyond the end of the game. Maybe sometime after it slipped out of his benumbed fingers someone noticed it lying on the street and noticed a different style of handwriting for a couple frames. Maybe not. All this is to say the 2011 Cubs will provide moments of purposelessness and wanting and will be discarded, only to be happened on later by accident, maybe, an artifact of a presiding random indifference, capable of nothing or wonder.


How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 17 of 30: Check out the Scott Simkus’ Outsider Baseball Bulletin for fascinating explorations of the lesser-traveled paths of baseball history. (Additionally, with the recent repurposing of his blog to be one that follows the current trials and tribulations of the Cubs, Simkus has conceded, reluctantly, that baseball also exists in the present.)


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


Jerry Martin

April 22, 2010

What could possibly be better than to be a starting centerfielder for a major league team? And yet, Jerry Martin, who held just such a position for the Chicago Cubs at the time of this 1980 card, wears an expression that makes it seem like he’s counting the hours left in his shift at the circus, where he’s employed to brush the teeth of tigers and give elephants enemas.

According to the back of this card, life was getting better and better for Jerry Martin. The son of a major leaguer, Barney Martin (who pitched briefly for the Reds in the 1950s), Jerry had broken in with the Phillies in 1974, playing just 13 games, and then had gotten more and more chances at bat with each succeeding year as the Phillies developed into a National League powerhouse. The card suggests that he played an important supporting role for the Phillies as they won three division titles in a row from 1976 through 1978. In the first of those seasons he appeared in 130 games despite logging just 121 at-bats, evidence of his usefulness as a late-inning defensive replacement for lead-footed fly-ball mangler Greg Luzinski. In 1977 he got nearly a hundred more at-bats, occasionally platooning with Bake McBride, and hit a respectable .260 with some power, and in 1978 he got even more playing time and responded with new career highs in homers and batting average while, as the bullet points at the bottom of the back of the card relate, also hitting three pinch-hit home runs during the regular season and a fourth in the playoffs. Finally, in 1979, he got his chance to be an everyday player upon being traded to the Chicago Cubs, and he upped his career singe-season high in batting average to .272 while smacking 19 home runs and 34 doubles.

But on the front of the card, he seems to be considering his life and saying, I want out. 

In fact, that’s exactly what he said, publicly, just before the start of the 1980 season, according to a 2006 story on The Baseball Think Factory about that year’s putrid edition of the Cubs. Martin had been promised a five-year contract if he proved himself capable of handling a regular centerfielder gig. His 1979 season, though not the stuff of legends, certainly seemed a decent showing for a regular centerfielder, and yet Cubs brass did not come through with the contract they’d promised. Worse, the Cubs general manager, Bob Kennedy, publicly denigrated Martin, saying that his disgruntled player “was not even a center fielder. He’s a left fielder playing center.” 

The Cubs did not comply with Martin’s demand to be traded, and Martin manned centerfield for another season as the Cubs lost 98 games. Martin managed to hit 19 homers again, but slumped to a .227 batting average. After a season back in part-time duty with the Giants in 1981, Martin got one more year as a regular, with the Kansas City Royals in 1982, but his time in Kansas City powder blue would be much more widely associated with his arrest the following year for attempting to buy cocaine along with Willie Wilson, Willie Mays Aikens, and Vida Blue. All four players spent ninety days in prison and were suspended from baseball for the 1984 season by manager Bowie Kuhn. The suspensions were reduced on appeal, and Martin hooked on with the New York Mets. It would be his last season in the majors. Considering the following two anecdotes stemming from that season, from the Jerry Martin memory page at the great Ultimate Mets Database site, you have to conclude that life’s glum eventualities are unavoidable, even for gods:

vemmerf: I grew up 30 minutes from Shea. [Martin] rented a house in my neighborhood for the summer . . . and my buddy and I looked in the yearbook and found the name of some assistant to the PR director and called Martin, saying we were that guy. We told him we were shooting a commercial for Banner Day and we wanted him to be a part. He fell hook line and sinker. Feel kinda bad about it, but it was better than egging his house.

Shari: I remember this poor shnook getting the call to pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth . . .  he struck out, and he got booed the whole way back to the dugout. That was the last time I think I ever saw him as a Met. He was trying to make a comeback after being in re-hab. I was at the game, and I just remember feeling really sorry for him, as he hung his head in shame and took the slow stroll back to the dugout.


Couple of book-related things: Josh Spilker (not a lazily conceived pseudonym, I swear) has a feature at Impose Magazine on my recent reading list. Elsewhere, Tom Hoffarth of the L.A. Daily News reviews Cardboard Gods (and Dave Jamieson’s book Mint Condition).


Rick Reuschel in . . . The All-Time Franchise All-Stars

March 11, 2010

I, like the Chicago Cubs, have much that remains undone. First and foremost, in addition to and inclusive of the completion of this smaller undone project of starting a conversation about the all-time franchise all-stars of every team that was around when I was a kid, I need to write about every single baseball card that ever came to me, something that I’ve done with only a fraction of the cards in my shoebox even though I’ve been chugging away at things pretty constantly for three and a half years. For almost the entire time this project has been in motion, I’ve intended to write about this Rick Reuschel card. It’s one of my all-time favorites, which has made the task of writing about it daunting. I have stopped and started many times, failing to get it right, and already this current attempt, in true Cubs fashion, is beginning to feel like another failure in the making. It’s a card that seems at a glance to be just another static pregame still-life, but I don’t know, there’s something about it. First of all, it’s Rick Reuschel, which is one of those names of the gods from my childhood that somehow burrowed farther down into my subconscious than most, the alliteration of the R’s balancing the complicated unpronounceable muck in the middle of the last name to make the moniker both mysterious and familiar. It didn’t hurt that he had a brother who for a little while played on the same team as he did, enacting perhaps the greatest fantasy this worshipful younger brother ever had as a baseball- and brother-loving boy. (And it also didn’t hurt that the two of them, when featured together in a Topps “Big League Brothers” card, were the second-funniest brother-related sight gag of the 1970s after the Guinness Book of Records-featured minibike-riding twins.) Rick Reuschel’s prominent place in the pantheon in my mind was also probably bolstered over the course of time as he managed to remain a major leaguer far beyond the end of my childhood and my singular attachment to baseball, and did so in a way that was prominent enough to remain in my increasingly substance-hazed consciousness yet not so prominent as to break the lingering, childhood-holding spell his name had on me. All through the 1980s, as the alliterative likes of Bake McBride and Dick Drago and Jay Johnstone disappeared, Rick Reuschel endured, even at times excelled, many of his upswings accompanied by stories about the improbable nature of his success that, with a mixture of mockery and fondness, always seemed to go down a checklist of his apparent drawbacks: he was old; he was lumpy; he didn’t throw very hard.

But he got the job done, year after year. Unfortunately for him, his apparent superficial drawbacks seem to have cost him a higher place in history in terms of generally held perceptions. He was, when he played, a kind of polar opposite to his contemporary, Nolan Ryan, and while Ryan sailed into the Hall as easily as anyone ever has on the strength of his charismatic on-field persona and his charismatic assault on the record books (the all-time single-season and career strikeout record, the record for most no-hitters, 300+ wins), Reuschel, unassuming in his persona and his deeds, quickly vanished from Hall of Fame consideration without so much as a whimper—he got just two votes in his single year of eligibility before dropping off the ballot. (For an interesting take on Rick Reuschel’s credentials that contradicts the lack of support from Hall voters, see the 2009 article on Cy Morong’s blog Cybermetrics; as with many of these studies, my tiny brain shuts off when the math gets even slightly complicated, but I like scanning for the gist of the argument, which in this case places Rick Reuschel surprisingly high on the list of standout pitchers.)

You may be thinking, based on the title of today’s blog post, that I’m going to insert Rick Reuschel as the starting pitcher on my personally selected roster of all-time Cubs. I’m afraid I can’t take my connection to Rick Reuschel that far, much as I’d like to. He was good, but he wasn’t Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown good. But I would like to argue for his inclusion on the all-time Cubs squad nonetheless. It’s been a while since an installment on this site of The All-Time Franchise All-Stars, but you may recall that there is a “wild card” spot on every franchise’s team. I have a feeling that the Cubs may have had more lovable wild cards than any other team in history, since their history, more or less, has been of yearly collections of lovable wild cards flailing away at the never-ending fog of disappointment that hangs metaphorically and constantly over Wrigley. And though I now live in Chicago I can’t at all say I am an expert on which wild card is most worthy of inclusion on the all-time team. But for me, it’s Rick Reuschel, and more than anything I’m saying that because of this card, which has fascinated and entertained me since it came into my hands 34 years ago. I love the way Rick Reuschel is leaning forward a little, as if he’s just realized he’s stepped in something, and I love how the bulge in his cheek makes it seem as if earlier in the day he clipped off the left side of his mustache while shaving, and I love his small, suspicious eyes, and I love that he is wearing a batting helmet, despite being identified by his pose and by the icon in the lower left as a pitcher, seemingly suggesting that he’d either rather be doing something else than what he’s been called on in his life to do or that he’s preparing himself for the screaming line drives he suspects might be coming back through the box as soon as he makes one of his unimposing pitches. Good old Rick Reuschel. I’d want him on my team.

Here’s the rest of the all-time Cubs, as I see it. Who’s on your all-time Cubs squad? (See for the franchise’s all-time batting and pitching leaders.)

C-Gabby Hartnett
1B-Cap Anson
2B-Ryne Sandberg
SS-Ernie Banks
3B-Ron Santo
LF-Billy Williams
CF-Hack Wilson
RF-Sammy Sosa

SP-Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown
RP-Bruce Sutter

Wild Card: Rick Reuschel


Joe Wallis

February 2, 2010

Joe Wallis made his first appearance on Cardboard Gods early on, thirty or so cards into the imposing task of writing about every card that ever came into my hands as a child (and some cards that have found their way to me since then). I often miss those early days of—what should I call it? The project? The compulsion? The flowering of mental illness? Anyway, I miss it, even as I realize that I’m prone to romanticizing anything as long as it belongs to the past. When I was just starting to write regularly about my baseball cards, the touch of childhood was still crackling on the surface of the cardboard.

I’ve been reading J.D. Salinger stories the last few days, and many of them center on the threshold between childhood and adulthood. In Salinger’s fictional worlds, childhood holds life and liveliness and imagination and unaffected sincerity, while adulthood offers nothing but fakery and the keeping up of appearances and the cruelty embedded in social hierarchies. Many of the stories reveal Salinger’s stinging, sardonic masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, to be, by comparison, his most hopeful work. In Holden Caulfield, Salinger found a lasting, if compellingly tenuous, bridge between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. In the short stories, on the other hand, there are no lasting bridges, only harrowing gaps. The man (“see more glass”) in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” can’t endure life on the adult side of that gap; Eloise in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” seems ruined by the gap, too; the narrator in “The Laughing Man” survives, but his childhood on the yonder side of the gap does not. “For Esmé with Love and Squalor” offers a hint of a bittersweet bridge across the gap, in the form of the story itself, which is a loving stretch across the gap by a traumatized veteran to a young girl who stands alone among the uncorrupted entities of the world. Holden is more than the hint of a bittersweet bridge, of course. He’s a living and breathing bad-postured avatar that millions have poured themselves into as if into a second skin, and it’s because he bridges that universally felt gap between childhood and adulthood in a way that feels truer to that element of the human experience than any artistic creation ever has.

When I opened up the box of baseball cards from my childhood and started writing about them, I was trying to follow Holden’s footsteps and bridge that gap, and in those first few weeks, there was an immediate charge in the cards as I held them. But everything gets old, especially rituals, so sometimes, especially if I’m in a writing slump, I get nostalgic about the days when I could pick up a Joe Wallis card and imagine a baseball player who (somewhat like J.D. Salinger, now that I think about it) could not abide in the civilized world and so took to the woods to be wild and malodorous and hairy and free.

But anyway, here I am again, and here I’ll be. In religion, there’s the thrilling moment of epiphany or conversion or enlightenment or whatever, I guess. You “see the light.” After that: well, you try to be sincere with your prayers. You try to find ways to connect to the mystery.

The first mystery of this Joe Wallis card is his batting stance. On first glance, I thought this card might be a strange mistake, for the Joe Wallis card I am more familiar with shows him in a right-handed batting stance, while this card shows him bemusedly following through on a left-handed swing. When I looked at the back of this card, I thought that a piece of information included there—“Bats: Left”—proved that the card here was correct and that the later and hairier Joe Wallis card from 1980 was a mistake. But on Joe Wallis is listed as being a switch-hitter. I’m not sure why he is listed on the back of this card as only hitting left-handed, but it may have something to do with his career .199 batting average against left-handed pitchers (compared to his .263 average versus right-handers). Maybe before this card came out the Topps people called him to confirm his status as a switch-hitter, and at that point he was considering forgetting about being a switch-hitter and just sticking to being a lefty. In that light, it’s interesting that his later card with the A’s, the one I am more familiar with and that is his last card, shows him from his weaker side. He was determined, I guess, to prove that a debilitating dooming weakness could be turned into a strength.

The second mystery was pointed out some time ago on the original Joe Wallis post by a commenter who goes by the name Champ Summers. Champ linked to an article that describes a minor league baseball game in which Joe Wallis hit a fly ball that never came down.

How do you survive a mysterious and beautiful event such as that? How do you not slowly unravel and grow increasingly less able to exist in the mystery-stripped world of adulthood? How do you not take to the hills? A ball went up and never came down. People will tell you that only a child would think that such a thing was possible, but you were there. You hit the ball that never came down. Don’t let anyone ever tell you differently. 


Bill Madlock in . . . The Nagging Question

May 1, 2009


On this date in 1980, Bill Madlock shoved a glove in an umpire’s face. He was suspended for fourteen days, the harshest punishment the oft-reprimanded Madlock ever endured in the major leagues. (Once, in the minor leagues, Madlock was suspended for an entire season for apparently using a bat as a weapon—or at the very least as a menacing prop to help illustrate his dark mood—to spark what a long-time scout on hand later called “the best fight I’ve seen in my many years in baseball,” but upon appeal Madlock was allowed to return to the field after a couple weeks.)

I would not normally begin a post on Madlock by focusing on his history of flying into on-field rages, and would instead begin by marveling over the lifetime batting average on the back of the card shown here: .337. My lord! Now that I think about it, this card features the highest lifetime batting average of any card in my collection. In other words, in terms of the most celebrated and worshipped statistic of my childhood, batting average, Bill Madlock reigns supreme. In at least one significant way this underrated card of an underrated player is the holiest of my cardboard gods!

He deserves to be celebrated for this, but I’m going to have to turn over that celebration to you, dear reader, because in honor of Bill Madlock’s May 1, 1980, suspension, I am suspending myself on this day, May 1, 2009, from writing posts on Cardboard Gods.

The duration of this suspension is in relation to an upcoming deadline (or perhaps oncoming would be a better adjective, as when it is used to describe the progress of a train) to produce a book-length manuscript that interweaves the tale of an anonymous, nondescript guy with considerations of that guy’s old baseball cards. I actually planned to temporarily stop writing on this site a little while ago, but I discovered that even the thought of not writing on this site was very difficult to absorb, so I didn’t stop, and the oncoming manuscript deadline hurtled closer, and now, with time growing short, I feel I have to act stridently against myself, as if I were the kind of scofflaw who only understands the harshests of punitive measures. So I am banning myself from writing posts on this site for one month.

I will return from this suspension to full active duty. (I may also make the occasional appeal to myself to shorten the suspension, but I’m hoping to channel my inner Kenesaw Mountian Landis when considering these appeals.) 

Also, I am not banned from being in the stadium, so to speak, and so I’ll often be hanging around and very possibly even yelling my two cents from the cheap seats if any of the hundreds of open conversations on this site flicker with any life.

With that (and Bill Madlock) in mind, I hand this conversation over to you. Have you ever been suspended?


Oh, and one more thing. I’ve been meaning to pass along this link for a while: check out The Baseball Chronicle (created by former Baseball Toaster writer Phil Bencomo) for excellent baseball writing and photography designed to push beyond the well-worn ruts of the genre.


Greg Maddux in . . . the Nagging Question

December 9, 2008
Who is the greatest pitcher of your lifetime?

I’m tempted to go with Tom Seaver, because I marveled at his feats as a kid and count a game I saw him pitch at Fenway in his last season among the most memorable games I’ve ever attended.

I was 18 that year, 1986, and I am pretty sure I went to the game alone, the only time I’ve ever done that. I must have taken a bus in from my grandfather’s house on the Cape, where I was spending the summer pumping gas. I could look up the game on retrosheet, but I prefer to just rely on my memory, which has me in the centerfield bleachers and Seaver on the mound in a duel with a young flamethrower named Mark Langston, a guy who is not exactly a household name now but who at that time, because the pitches springing from his left hand were as fearsome as a snapped and writhing power line, seemed to be at the beginning of a splendid career, dawn to Seaver’s dusk.

While the whip-thin youngster racked up the strikeouts, the stocky old-timer craftily navigated through occasional jams, never allowing his calm claim on the game to be disturbed. My strongest memory from the game has to do with this last thing, his calmness. I remember getting the sense, even from the centerfield bleachers, that as Seaver stood on the mound looking in for the sign and drawing in a slow breath he was as calm as the Buddha, aware of and at peace with the fact that he was the center of the game, the center of the world. The game finally swung his way late, when Langston came undone. As I recall it, an error played a part in the go-ahead rally, just enough of a tremor to push Langston off his center, something that did not happen to Seaver that day. I couldn’t imagine it happening to Seaver any day.

The young ace of the Red Sox staff that year, on the other hand, as great as he was, proved in the coming years capable of coming undone from time to time. Still, I think many people around my age would have, up until some fairly recent events, argued that Roger Clemens was the best pitcher of their lifetime. His reputation has taken a hit of late because of revelations about his use of performance-enhancing drugs, and I guess the general belief is that his career numbers, especially those compiled late in his career, should be downgraded with the caveat that he may have gained an unfair competitive advantage by going on the juice. Even before all that came to light, I don’t think I would have been able to embrace Clemens as a choice for the best pitcher of my lifetime, because, fairly or unfairly, I see him in my memory allowing the occasional big moment to overwhelm him, to turn him into an unfocused raging bull falling off his axis at the center of the game.

His successor as ace of the Red Sox, Pedro Martinez, fares better in my memory. My first memory of him is always the performance he turned in against the Indians in the playoffs in 1999. Unable because of arm trouble to throw fastballs, Pedro nonetheless pitched several innings of no-hit relief by masterfully baffling the Cleveland hitters with an assortment of off-speed junk. Even stripped of his most fearsome weapon, the mound was his. For that, and for all the games I watched him pitch when he did have his full arsenal, I would say that no one in my lifetime has reached the level of dominance that Pedro performed at during his prime.

However, while Pedro was dominating the American League throughout the steroid era, another master was putting up similarly jaw-dropping numbers while dominating the National League. And he had been pitching at a high level for several years before Pedro ever reached the major leagues, and in the last few seasons, while Pedro has struggled mightily to stay off the disabled list, this pitcher who predated him has continued to log big innings and win his share of games.

I never got to see much of this latter pitcher, Greg Maddux, in his prime, but he did return to his first team, the Cubs, the same year I moved to Chicago, so I got to watch him a few times in his sunset years. Some games went well, some not so well, but either way he always remained unflappably poised, like that 1986 version of Seaver. He also had a springy looseness all his own that I found inexplicably enjoyable to watch. In fact my most vivid memory of Maddux in his second go-round with the Cubs is the way he covered first base on a grounder. To be more specific, I see him just after he has expertly executed the play to end the inning, flipping the ball straight from his glove to the first base ump with an almost playful nonchalance. It’s often been said of Maddux, because of his stocky frame and nondescript features, that he looks more like an orthodontist or an accountant than an elite athlete. But I think you would only need to have watched him moving around his workplace for a couple minutes to see that Maddux, who yesterday announced his retirement, was as much at home on a baseball diamond as Seaver or Clemens or Pedro or anyone else who has ever lived.


Darold Knowles

October 8, 2008
“Get ready; ninety-nine years . . . The wait is over. This IS the year!!” – Quote by the sponsor of the Cubs page

OK, let’s start at the top of the card for answers. Maybe it’s the name. The sound of it. Cubs. The hard C collapsing immediately into the short glum “uh,” which gives way to the stubbing, stunting B sound, which reduces whatever power might have been the sound of the name of the long-suffering team to a sibilant, trailing-off S sound, a weak hissing like the last gasp of a broken radiator in a car on the side of a highway, other cars flying past, the drivers of those cars all thinking the same thing as they notice the poor sap peering into the smoldering open hood of his car: Glad that’s not me, stranded, fucked. Yes, maybe it’s the name. Cubs.

Or maybe it’s the cap, represented here not by a photographed image but in a version imagined by a Topps artist and superimposed on a photograph. The imaginary version of it is in a certain way more real than the real version in that it highlights a certain key aspect of the Cubs cap, a cap that has been the same for as long as I have been alive. It looks, atop the head of Darold Knowles, more like somewhat sloppily applied cake icing than a cap. It looks like you could eat it, like you could dip your finger into the blue and red and get yourself a nice quick sugar high. Their real caps don’t look like this, not exactly, but maybe there is something in the cap, in the mild, friendly blue, in the taming of the racier red by restricting it to the confines of the basic spelling-block C, that invites a kind of metaphorical dipping of the finger into the icing. Maybe other teams, without even knowing it, look across the diamond at the Cubs and assume the attitude of a guy walking through an empty break room at work and noticing a cake just sitting there, waiting to be violated.

Or maybe, going lower on the card, to Darold Knowles’ face, it’s the feeling of doom. I don’t believe that teams are ever cursed, but I do think, and actually know from my own experience as a Red Sox fan, that year after year of disappointment and defeat tends to make one worry whenever victory seems close at hand. How is it going to go sour this time? What new unscarred section of my heart is going to get ground to bits this time? The nervous murmuring in the stands, along with the constant references to curses and droughts in the media, filters down to the members of the team. How could it not? How could it not in their weaker moments make them feel like Darold Knowles seems to be feeling now? He seems to be aware that something gloomy and horrible is descending, big and invisible, impossible to stop.

To turn back the tide on all that, the name, the cap, the feeling of doom, you need to face it head on, I think. Lou Piniella, current manager of the Cubs, seemed to explode whenever asked about the last sad century of the Cubs. I think this strategy, trying to ignore the elephant in the room, getting angry whenever anyone mentions the elephant, is only going to make things worse. When the New York Rangers toppled their Cub-like demons in 1994 they did so by following the lead of Mark Messier, who embraced, rather than turned away from, the burden of history. They also did so by having a fantastic team, which of course is the first prerequisite to slaying curses, but the Cubs had a fantastic team going into these 2008 playoffs, possibly the best all-around team in baseball, and they got bounced in three games, playing tight, as if they had all seen the dark cloud that Darold Knowles seems to be seeing.


Steve Ontiveros and Doug Capilla

September 26, 2008

                    One Continuous Mistake: The Cardboard Gods Story (So Far)
                              Part 3 of 3 (Continued from Rowland Office, 1976)

As the playoffs approach there’s been a lot of talk of the 2008 Chicago Cubs, the class of the National League, and of the 1908 Chicago Cubs, the last team in franchise history to win a World Series, and of certain disappointing Cubs teams from the century of waiting between Johnny Evers and Ryan Theriot, such as the 1969 Cubs and the 1984 Cubs and the 1989 Cubs and the 2003 Cubs. Lost in the litany of Cubs teams that Did Not Win It All is the 1979 Cubs, who nearly perfected mediocrity but ultimately failed at that, too, just barely, losing their final game of the season to finish 80 and 82 instead of 81 and 81, with 706 total runs scored and 707 allowed. History tends to shuck such inconsequentialities, which saddens me. Maybe it’s my purpose in life to push back against the obliterating tide. I don’t know. But I do know that the 1979 Cubs deserve to be remembered because, if nothing else, they set the all-time single season record for nostrils.

The Cubs’ Gehrig-Ruth combo in nostrilness, shown above, came together in midseason with the acquisition of Doug Capilla, who became to the pitching staff what Steve Ontiveros had already been to the everyday players: someone capable of moving staggering quantities of oxygen and carbon dioxide, respectively, into and out of his nose. Cubs management may have been motivated to make the move by the strong play in the 1979 season of the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose alert, inspired, electrifying play and ebullient disco-laced camaraderie have been associated with and even partially explained by their ingestion via nasal canals of prodigious amounts of cocaine; Cubs brass may have reasoned that to compete with the Pirates they needed to get more “oomph” running through the bloodlines of their sluggish, lackluster squad, and saw the giant-nostrilled Doug Capilla as the means to this end.

It’s not enough for me to end here, however, with this tribute to one of history’s forgotten collective achievements. I find myself wondering about Steve Ontiveros, who is like a forgotten entity within a forgotten entity. Not only is the 1979 Cubs’ nostril record uncelebrated, but the man who laid the foundation for the record, who brought his sizable nostrils to the ballyard every day, was likely cast aside by the Windy City’s top nostril groupies as soon as the massive twin circular canyons in the middle of Doug Capilla’s face hit town. Worse, once Capilla took center stage on the team, Ontiveros became expendable, playing 31 games the following season before being released on June 24. He did not play major league baseball again.

But in 1985 Steve Ontiveros debuted as an Oakland A’s reliever, only it wasn’t the Steve Ontiveros shown here. It was a different Steve Ontiveros. When you type the search terms “Steve Ontiveros” into Google, the first listing is for a page on It is for the second Steve Ontiveros. In that way, the first Steve Ontiveros has been usurped once again, paved over by history. I’ve seen this kind of thing before while writing about my childhood baseball cards, seen guys named Dave Johnson and Dave Roberts dissolve into other guys named Dave Johnson and Dave Roberts. But, as names, Dave Johnson and Dave Roberts seem much more generic to me than Steve Ontiveros. I mean, I’ve lived a few decades and lived in two big cities and read a lot and I’ve never met or heard of anyone with Ontiveros as a last name. Are there two Kurt Bevacquas? Are there two Biff Pocorobas? Why must there be more than one Steve Ontiveros?

I don’t know. But my disillusionment in this matter reminds me of when I was a kid and discovered that there was not just one Ray’s Pizza in New York but dozens of Ray’s Pizzas. This shook me up a little. Every summer, my brother and I would come down from Vermont and see our father in Manhattan, and our visit would always include at least one trip to Ray’s Pizza on Sixth Avenue and 11th Street, just a couple blocks from Dad’s apartment. It was, I believed, the best pizza that has ever been made. As I remember it, there were times when the line for their giant cheesy slices was out onto the street, as if a piece of Ray’s was perpetually like a smash hit on Broadway. At some point, probably during solo visits from boarding school or college, when long pot-driven walks took me on my own through the city for the first time, I started seeing places that called themselves Ray’s Pizza everywhere. Worse, many of them claimed to be “The Famous Ray’s Pizza” or “The Original Ray’s Pizza” or even “The Famous Original Ray’s Pizza.” Being that I was still the kind of neophyte pot enthusiast who “got the munchies” I occasionally found myself far from the village and hungry, and, feeling traitorous, I was forced to patronize some of these imposters, their uninspired triangular groupings of crust, sauce, and cheese always confirming my belief that there was only one Ray’s Pizza, and it was the one my father had taken me to. I of course don’t actually know which Ray’s Pizza came first; they don’t have their histories printed on handbills near the napkins and hot pepper shakers. But I know emotionally, and it galls me, a little. Why must there be more than one Ray’s Pizza?

Which brings us back to Cardboard Gods. As I mentioned earlier in this series, I started Cardboard Gods a little over two years ago with some words on Mark Fidrych. Before that posting I had come up with the name and had typed the two words into Google to see if anyone else had beaten me to it. A handful of listings came up, but none of them had anything to do with baseball or baseball cards, so I had a name for my endeavor. If you type those two words into Google now you’ll find listings that differ quite a bit from the sparse listings I found back in the summer of 2006. I’m not encouraging anyone to perform such a search. Why would you? But if you do ever happen to find yourself wandering around and wondering about Cardboard Gods, I just wanted to get it down in writing that this is the original Cardboard Gods. The one that was here first. The one with the extra cheese. The one with the record-breaking nostrils.


Greg Gross

September 10, 2008
The Two Freaks
(continued from John Curtis)

Chapter Three

In the 1970s everyone looked toward the sky with amazement and consternation and wonder and fear. Nuclear bombs might fall any second, hangliders and hot-air balloonists might rise. One nut strung a tightrope across the World Trade Center buildings and did his highwire act up there, and a few years later another nut climbed up the side of one of those giant doomed towers. Jonathan Livingston Seagull ruled the bestseller list with its laxative-soft tale of a noncomformist bird who flew in odd ways, outside the flock, and later in the decade the author of that book further fattened his bank account with another enormous smash entitled Illusions, a pamphlet-thin tract about a magical guru who roamed from town to town giving enlightening platitude-heavy rides in his small magical propeller airplane. Oh to fly free and easy far above all the ungroovy problems of the earth! But how free and easy was it? Bald eagles grew scarce, their endangerment symbolic in the flagging Age of Malaise. Gunpoint skyjackings and fiery crashes made even larger claims on the public imagination than usual, as evidenced by the decade-long franchise of a particular wing of the then-booming disaster movie genre (Airport, Airport 1975, Airport ’77, and The Concorde . . . Airport ’79). Meanwhile Skylab was falling, big chunks of it raining down, the once-gleaming American space program impoverished and in shambles. The sky was full of danger! Even standing around outside gazing up at the thing might get you brained by shards of flaming metal.

Greg Gross was not a guy you’d think of as being a sky-gazer. He was welded to earth, neither a guy who could “fly” on the basepaths (like two of the guys who kept him on the bench in his many years with the Phillies, Garry Maddox and Bake McBride) nor a guy (like the other fellow who kept Greg Gross on the bench, Greg Luzinski) who could hit “towering moonshots.” His combination of a complete lack of power and an utter lack of speed was as rare among outfielders then as it would be now. In seventeen seasons, he hit just seven home runs, but he erupted for five of them in the year just prior to this card. I imagine him allowing the keen focus that would allow him to compile a .287 lifetime average and a .372 lifetime on-base percentage to wander momentarily after that power barrage.

Maybe I could become one of those guys, he thinks for a second. He holds a bat in his hands as he thinks this, imagining for one second that he might yet author majestic drive after majestic drive and thus become a creature not of the earth but of the lordly sky.

But just as he thinks this the Two Freaks appear right in the center of his vision. That is to say they are flying. Or falling. It all happens very fast. There is always the whisper of doom around the Two Freaks, a sense somehow communicated even in glimpses that they can’t keep on doing what they are doing for very long. How will they eat? How will they pay the rent? For that matter how will any of us keep ourselves above the greedy pull of the ground? This all flashes past Greg Gross’s eyes in an instant to end his visions of a bevy of slugging percentage crowns. One of the Two Freaks, the curly-haired one seen elsewhere tooting a recorder, is pedaling an ungainly bicycle-powered contraption with wings, and the other, the thin longhaired one, is lashed to a giant yellow kite attached by thin string to the rear of the bike-plane.

Flying? Falling? Hard to tell. It all happens so quickly.

It always happens quickly. Greg Gross lasted 17 seasons as an earthbound hitter of singles. A long time as baseball careers go, but surely a blip in his mind by now. It all goes by quickly. It flies.

Such was the case with each ambiguous and unsettling visitation by the Two Freaks. A blink of the eye, here then gone. This must have been by design, the two figures seeking to define their doomed and beautiful decade as if whispering inaudibly the curses and praise of an institutionalized angel.

(to be continued)

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


Oscar Zamora

April 8, 2008

A few days ago my wife and I were talking about what to do with the ashes when one of us keels over.

“You don’t have to do anything with mine,” she said.

“What are you talking about?”

“I don’t want to be sitting around in some stupid urn.”

“What? No, they have to be sprinkled on something.”

“Sprinkled?” She laughed at the word. We were both laughing, actually. Sprinkled. The word seemed better suited to a sunny tableau involving laughing children and a Good Humor truck.

“Just burn them,” she said.

“You can’t burn ashes.” We started laughing some more. What a hilarious topic!

“I don’t know. I don’t care,” she said. “Who needs it?”

We went back and forth for a while. I finally harangued her into agreeing that I’d take her to Amsterdam and throw her at the door of the place that used to be the club where she danced through her adolescent and young adult years. I’ll keep my own specific requests to myself, but if all goes according to plan my extinction will result in my widow being led away in handcuffs by the Fenway Park police.


Oscar Zamora toiled in the minor leagues for nine seasons before making the major leagues at the age of 29. He was decent his first season in the big leagues, quite a bit worse the following season, worse still the season after that, and demoted to the minors the next year. At the end of that year he was sold to another team, who brought him back up for one more chance, which he squandered, posting a 7.20 ERA in 10 games, an effort that cast him into the oblivion beyond any back of the card stats.

What remains of him in the collective memory is a ditty either written by a sportswriter or sung by Cubs fans or both, depending on which of the various sketchy versions of the past lingering in the ether of the Internet you choose to believe. It was sung to the tune of “That’s Amore” and went like this:

When the pitch is so fat, that the ball hits the bat, that’s Zamora.


What traces will you leave? To date I’ve had a couple things named after me, but both fell into disuse long ago.

The first was something called The Wilker, and it was a punishment invented by my high school ultimate frisbee coach. His name was Buzz and he was a surfer dude from Santa Barbara who was getting his phys ed degree from a nearby college, UMass, which he helped lead to the college ultimate frisbee national championship one year. He was probably the best coach I ever had both because he taught me a lot about the sport and because he was a nice guy and with his van and surferly ways made us all feel cooler by extension. But one day I just ditched practice to go to a pizza place and play the Star Wars video game with my friend Julian. I guess I figured that since I thought of myself as invisible then the whole world thought the same, and so no one would notice I was gone. But Buzz noticed, and the next day he gathered up all our frisbees and had me chase down his long throws one after another, which basically amounted to fifteen or sixteen wind sprints in a row. From then on, if anybody did anything out of line or stupid or lazy the team would clamor for them to be given The Wilker. The tradition, such as it was, only lasted the season.

The other time I had something named after me was when I was a part-time liquor store clerk in my early twenties with no money and an aura of glowering desperation, and yet I somehow briefly dated a successful, attractive woman. She was, it was later determined, way out of my league. Somehow the whole improbable situation got wrapped up in me getting a $10,000 deal from a British publisher to write a book about Pearl Jam, a band I knew nothing about and didn’t particularly like. I raced around for a while thinking that my life was going to change completely, that I was going to be an exciting, successful, unlonely guy.

“You’re so beautiful I can hardly keep my eyes on the meter,” I told the woman one night, quoting Woody Allen. We were riding in a cab to her apartment.

“Josh, we need to talk,” she said.

“Who the hell are you?” a member of Pearl Jam’s publicity team demanded of me the next day. I was trying to request an interview with the band for the book.

“I’m a nice guy,” I think I said. I felt like crying. Kurt Cobain blew his brains out right around then, and once I heard the news I worked it into a gloomy letter of resignation to the nice woman at the British publishing house who had wanted to give me $10,000. I went back to peddling booze and glowering alone. Anyway, from then on the notion of somehow connecting with someone or something out of your league became known among my small group of friends, at least for a little while, as “pulling a Wilker.”


Ivan DeJesus

March 29, 2008
I was twice ordered to bunt in what turned out to be the final game of my baseball career. I was 14 and on a terrible Babe Ruth team that got worse as the season wore on. But we eventually found a team even worse than us, probably the same ragged collection of hippie teens that my brother almost no-hit the year before. We got a good lead early, yet when I came to bat our coach gave me the sign from the third base coach’s box to lay down a bunt. In retrospect I think he was trying to let me know that my opinion of myself as a baseball player, which I’d formed while doing pretty well in Little League, was outdated. I was a scrub now, a bench guy. I wasn’t as happy to throw away my at-bat as Ivan DeJesus appears to be, but I followed orders and laid down a good bunt. The coach never acknowledged it. By my next time up we were really pounding them. Everyone had gotten into the fun but me. I looked up the third base line to the coach and he touched his belt again, the bunt sign. I couldn’t figure out if he was an idiot or if he was punishing me. Either way, I was through with baseball. I lashed a double, probably my only solid hit since Little League. As I stood on second base I didn’t look at the coach. My body tingled from making good contact. The first true love of my life had ended.

                                                        *    *    *

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


Geoff Zahn

January 11, 2008

No angels, no devils. Maybe some celestial functionaries, two of them, sitting together a little ways away, slightly elevated. But these figures, if they even exist at all, can only peruse the goings-on below, powerless to influence them in any way, the world of the beyond a bureaucratic morass, reports compiled and filed away unread. So there is only this, this life in the foreground, this wall close at our backs. This wall! Some find it quaint. But it’s so close it tenses your shoulders, tightens your features, subtly riddles your cheer. It even sours the prayer hidden in your hands. You are on the brink of bursting out laughing. No joke has been told.


Cubs, 1977

October 2, 2007
I will not be good for much for the next few days, or next couple weeks, or next month, depending on how far the Boston Red Sox can advance in the playoffs (or, taken from a darker angle, how physically and mentally debilitating a premature exit by the Boston Red Sox might prove to be). Starting tomorrow, Cardboard Gods will begin serving as Baseball Toaster’s headquarters for Open Game Thread chatter for each of the Red Sox games versus the California Angels. While I may be able to enhance that coverage with some stray memories about the past, I doubt I’ll be launching any wrenching multipart excursions into the wistful days of yore anytime soon. It’s the playoffs, and my concentration is already a little spotty. My primary goal for October is to not get hit by a bus.  

Anyway, I wanted to kick off the playoff coverage here at Cardboard Gods by mentioning the team that has the potential to be the biggest story of October 2007. As all baseball fans know, the Cubs have not won a World Series in 99 years, a drought that has gained some added sting in recent years with the long-awaited World Series wins of the Red Sox and, worse, the Cubs’ crosstown rivals, the White Sox. For many years the Red Sox, White Sox, and Cubs sat together at the loser table at lunch, duct tape on their glasses, acne on their faces, making each other snicker joylessly by spelling out “boobs” and “hELL” on their calculators as the cool guys sat at the Champions table with all the pretty girls. Now the Cubs are all alone at the loser table, nothing to keep them company but their stale peanut butter sandwich and their disappointing memories. As Merle Haggard might have put if he was a Cubs fan: “The only things I can count on now are my failures.”   

The Cubs had many years when they didn’t even sniff the playoffs, which in some ways is a less painful fate than getting so close you can taste it and then caving (if you don’t believe me, just ask a Mets fan or a Padres fan today how they’re feeling and then compare the response to the feelings of a Baltimore Oriole fan who long ago turned his attention to building a ship in a bottle or porn or whatever one does when not obsessed with baseball). But there have been some awful Cubs moments, especially in recent years. Before the hideous 2003 playoff collapse and the 2004 end-of-season el foldo there were playoff disappointments in 1998, 1989, and, most painfully, 1984, as well as a monumental implosion in 1969 that turned a mid-August World Smashing 9-game lead into a pitifully meek 8-game deficit by the end of the season. 

Eight years after the 1969 flop, the Cubs authored another lesser-known season of disillusionment. In 1977, the heads pictured in the card above combined with their unpictured necks, torsos, limbs, and other below-the-jaw bodily parts to race to a first-half lead in their division that grew as large as 8.5 games by June 28. They went 34-59 the rest of the way, however, finishing 20 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies. They say that when you get beheaded you are aware of what’s going on for a few seconds. You remember that you were once whole and realize that you are no longer. I wonder if that feeling is anything like being 20 games out of the money by season’s end, dead as a doornail, and thinking back for one brief second before the final out of the year, remembering how sweet life was in the middle of summer.


Bruce Sutter in . . . The Nagging Question

May 22, 2007

I was never much of a pitcher. In fact, I only took the hill three times, all in my last year of little league, once when I somehow struck out the side in the last inning of a blowout against a team of asthmatic 8-year-olds, once when I walked seven guys in a row, and then finally once when my straight slowballs got so repeatedly hammered that I actually began to cry.

Needless to say, I never got straight which kind of grips were good for throwing different kinds of pitches. That said, I don’t think Bruce Sutter is showing off the grip for his famous forkball here. I may be wrong, but I’ve always had it that the forkball called for the forefinger and middle finger to be spread wide on the ball.

If I’m right about Bruce Sutter neglecting to reveal his forkball grip here, it’s fitting, for at the time I got this 1979 card, Bruce Sutter’s forkball was to me about the most mysterious and awe-inspiring weapon in all of baseball. It’s just as well I didn’t ever see the grip that produced this devastating pitch. Better to preserve the mystery.

I’d actually only seen the pitch in action once, in the previous year’s all-star game. Once was enough. Back then the all-star game was just about the only time a kid living in rural Vermont would get a chance to see many of the National League stars. I had never seen Sutter before, had not even heard of him, and then suddenly here he was. According to Retrosheet’s play-by-play of the game he came into a 3-3 tie in the 8th inning and got George Brett to ground out. I don’t remember that at-bat, but I distinctly remember the next two, in which he made two of my beloved Red Sox, Jim Rice and Dwight Evans, look like two drunken sailors trying to whack a divebombing sparrow with a barstool. Sutter’s utter domination seemed to inspire the N.L. batsmen, who erupted for 4 runs in the bottom of the inning, and Sutter was fittingly credited as the game’s winning pitcher. 

Anyway, the Nagging Question this week grows out of thoughts of that awe-inspiring forkball, and also out of the still-lingering discussion of beloved Shlabotniks in the previous edition of The Nagging Question. Yesterday a friend of one player, Adrian Garrett, brought up earlier in the conversation posted some information that reminded me that even the guys I am all too often apt to casually refer to as journeymen or drifters or even “nobodies” were all tremendously gifted athletes worthy of praise.*

So for today’s edition of The Nagging Question I wanted to momentarily try to set aside my usual predilection for using my old baseball cards as springboards to dive into the polluted canals of personal failure and disappointment. 

Instead, I’d like to focus on the jaw-dropping moment. For me it was when Bruce Sutter unleashed a pitch that made guys I’d seen mangle the offerings of other pitchers seem like absolute beginners. I wonder if others can remember having a similar experience as a fan. A spectacular catch, maybe, or a barrage of unhittable fastballs, or a sizzling home run leaving the yard in the time it takes to blink. A moment that not only turned the opposition into seeming beginners but made everyone watching feel like a beginner, too, as if something was happening for the first time, the moment brand new, a gleaming manifestation of the words of the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, who said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities.” In other words: 

Who wowed you? 

*(note: Bucky Dent is not worthy of praise; in fact, he should either be shunned or put in Pilgrimy shackles at the center of the village and pelted with vegetables, I can’t decide which.)


Larry Biittner in . . . The Nagging Question

May 11, 2007
In the interest of plunging ever further into the abyss of bottomless collective nostalgia for a hazy, intangible era full of things that never quite were, I am today introducing a new and (I am hoping) interactive feature on Cardboard Gods…

The Nagging Question

Today’s Nagging Question started forming a couple days ago when I saw a beer-thickened guy about my age in a too-small Larry Biittner Cubs jersey while I was riding the Blue Line home from work. I knew Larry Biittner’s faintly acrid expression from my shoebox of cards, but little else, so I looked into it a bit and found out that he was a part-time player who was something of a Joe Shlabotnikesque favorite in Chicago during the late ’70s. In other words, he seems to have been the guy certain lonely bespectacled kids might most wanted to have found in a pack of baseball cards, despite his lack of widespread stardom, as in this scenario described in the Wikipedia entry for Joe Shlabotnik:

One memorable 1960s Peanuts comic strip (which to this day . . . is still on display at the Topps Company) shows Charlie Brown buying five dollars worth of baseball cards (in 500 one-card penny packs) to get a card of Shlabotnik. Charlie Brown frantically rips open all the packs and does not get one. Lucy then buys one penny pack and much to Charlie Brown’s dismay, finds Shlabotnik in her one and only pack. To add insult to injury, he offers her every card he owns in trade, but Lucy, knowing nothing about baseball, refuses to trade and maintains, “He’s kind of cute.” After Charlie Brown leaves in obvious misery, Lucy throws the card into a dumpster, claiming, “He wasn’t as cute as I thought.”

A decent left-handed hitter who lasted 14 years in the majors, Biittner was definitely better than Charlie Brown’s famously inept hero, but his narrow yet impassioned, perhaps even somewhat cultish, popularity (from what I could gather while surfing through Cubs-themed blogs, his name is shorthand for the Cubs’ version of the call of the long-time fan: “I was there, I saw, I hoped, I suffered”) seems to owe more to his Shlabotniky turns than to his respectable .273 lifetime batting average. He described the most famous of these incidents in a 2002 Chicago Sun-Times interview

Bruce Boisclair hit a sinker at my feet. I caught it, but my glove opened up when it hit the ground, the ball rolled out and my cap covered it up. Jerry Martin came running over from center field. He’s laughing into his glove and yelling, “It’s under your bleeping cap.” The Bleacher Bums are shouting, “Hat! Hat! Hat!” Boisclair must have been confused, too, because he hesitated rounding second. That gave me time to pick the ball up and throw him out at third. [Laughter] I’ll bet no one remembers that, huh?

If I had grown up in the city where I live now, and not in Vermont, it’s quite possible that Larry Biittner would have been my Joe Shlabotnik. Oddly enough, if my family had stayed in New Jersey, where I was born, and where we moved from before I was old enough to become interested in baseball, my Joe Shlabotnik would probably have been the player who out-Shlabotniked Biittner in the episode described above, the Mets’ immortal Bruce Boisclair.

But I did grow up in Vermont, so my Joe Shlabotnik (who I, like Charlie Brown, never did find in a pack of cards) was Garry Hancock, a Red Sox outfielder in the late ’70s and early ’80s whose playing time was impeded merely by Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, 9-time all-star Fred Lynn, 8-time all-star Jim Rice, 8-time Gold Glove Award winner Dwight Evans, October hero and former Rookie of the Year Bernie Carbo, Gold-Glove winner Rick Miller, and, in the very last throes of the Garry Hancock era at Fenway, by both Joe “Nothin’ Left in the Tank” Rudi and Reid “I Would Have Probably Been Josh’s Joe Shlabotnik If He Was Born a Couple Years Later” Nichols.

Hancock became a favorite of mine just before he stepped into a major league batter’s box for the first time. I was listening to the game in 1978 on the car radio of our VW bus in the driveway of my uncle’s house. As the announcer (either Ned Martin or Jim Woods, I believe) explained that this was his first major league at-bat, the crowd noise grew.

Fenway was giving him a standing ovation.

He had made it to the majors! He was golden! I remember thinking that I’d remember the moment forever, especially on the occasion of Garry Hancock’s enshrinement into Cooperstown. He pulled a nice just-foul line drive down the right field line, then struck out.

Interestingly, I’m not the only one who recalls the standing ovation for Garry Hancock. His page on is sponsored by someone named Markf62, who says, “I met Garry just before he debuted with the Red Sox at a flea market where I was buying baseball cards. He was interested in cards because he was playing for the Triple A team in Pawtucket. A week later he made his debut to a standing O at Fenway!” And in an interview on, Jerry Spar, editor of Boston Sports Review, says while answering a question about his favorite Red Sox players, “Garry Hancock deserves honorable mention because that standing ovation he got for his first at-bat always stuck with me.”

It’s fairly likely that Garry Hancock never got another standing ovation, though he did manage to stick around in the big leagues until 1984 despite a lifetime .262 on-base percentage. In his final at-bat he grounded into an inning ending 1-6-3 double play.

Anyway, on to the Nagging Question for today. In case you haven’t already guessed it, here it is:

Who was your Joe Shlabotnik?


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