The Two Freaks
(continued from John Curtis)
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.)