Archive for the ‘Cincinnati Reds’ Category

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Joe Nuxhall

August 3, 2011

My wife gave birth to our first kid a few days ago on July 30. The boy is a few feet away, sleeping. I have no idea how to write about how he makes me feel. So here’s a baseball card. It features Joe Nuxhall, who was also born on July 30. Joe Nuxhall was nearing 37 and had played his last game when this card of him as a gray-haired hurler in what looks to be a rubber undershirt came out. It appeared the year before I was born, so I wasn’t familiar with it until I got it along with some other old cards as a gift from my wife’s mother a few years ago. But when I was a kid I knew about Joe Nuxhall as the youngest to ever play in a major league game, making his debut as a 15-year-old. I remember holding on to that image of him as he was on his first day in the majors, everything in front of him, even as I learned about his actual career, a good one and a long one but one without that purity of a boy standing on a big league mound, readying to fire his first pitch.

After his playing career ended, Joe Nuxhall served as a broadcaster for many years, becoming arguably the most beloved figure in the world of the Cincinnati Reds. My boy has some Reds blood in him, his mother born in Cincinnati to a large clan of rabid Reds fans. His first live baseball game, which he snuck into inside his mother’s belly, was a Reds victory over the Cubs at Wrigley earlier this year. Below is a picture of his first contact with baseball outside the uterus. The Red Sox were in town, so the hospital room picked up the local coverage. I whispered into my son’s tiny ear. Youk, I whispered. Yooooouuk.

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Clay Carroll

May 10, 2011

Clay Carroll turned 70 last week. In other relentless-march-of-time news, my back hurts. I’ve got a heating pad on it right now, as I did yesterday and the day before, plus I’m popping Advil, which is about as close as I’ll get these days to being able to relate to the section I’m currently reading in Life, Keith Richards’ biography, in which he says, referring to his heyday, “I used drugs like gears.” I nod knowingly, washing down my Advil with tap water and reading on about John Lennon puking in Keith Richards’ bathroom after mixing smack with wine (the bespectacled Beatle was a lightweight, in his host’s estimation). Keith Richards isn’t seventy quite yet, but he’s closing in on it. My mom just turned seventy last month and is plowing along like she could fill in for Ron Wood for a few tour dates if the Stones needed her to. I tried calling her pretty early this past Mother’s Day and she was already out working in the community garden near her house. She called me back a little later, but I was in the grocery store, so she said, “I’m going back out there again right now for the rest of the morning but try calling me around lunchtime.” I did, and she told me, among other things, that she has recently learned how to clog-dance.

Clay Carroll, Clay Kirby, Ken Clay. By extension, Ken Brett, a little. For a while, when life is just getting started, things all kind of blur together into one big related mess. I went to Wrigley Field later in the day on Mother’s Day after calling my mom and popping some more Advil for my old-guy lower back, and there were a lot of mothers there and a lot of little kids, too, the game to them more of an exciting kaleidoscope than it was to me, who snapped most to the upper limits of my lukewarm attention whenever Jay Bruce came to bat because he happens to be on my fantasy baseball team. I’m saying it’s sort of fun when Clay Carroll and Clay Kirby and Ken Clay are all the same guy. Eventually, I figured out that Clay Carroll was a distinct individual, and in fact one of the premier bullpen guys in the National League for a while, and on top of that one of the great subjects of a baseball card, namely this one, the gnarled Southern veteran jammed inside the ludicrous Ye Olde Tyme Taverne garb of the Veeck-as-in-wreck 1970s White Sox. There’s something about the photo that makes it clear that, ridiculous as he looks in his giant lapels, Clay Carroll would be tough to face. He seems like someone who started drinking backwoods moonshine and killing wildlife with a crossbow at the same age when I was still blissfully unaware of the distinct differences between Clay Carroll, Ken Clay, and Clay Kirby (and Ken Brett, a little).

I have good feelings about the days when my life was a kaleidoscope. At the end of my phone call with my mother, I tried to tell her how great she was as a mother, bracing myself for the inevitable argument.

“Oh, god, I was terrible,” my mother said before I was even done with the first sentence.

I can never quite get across what I’m trying to say during these disagreements in which my position is that my mother was a good mother and my mother’s position is roughly that it’s a wonder my brother and I did not end up by our junior high days hooked on airplane glue or shifting for ourselves in a hobo shantytown down by the railyard. Lately I feel more compelled than ever to say that I felt taken care of and safe and loved because, bad back and all, I’m a few weeks away from becoming a parent, if all keeps going okay. Such a thing has made me start thinking about my own parents and how things were from their perspective. It seems like a difficult, daunting thing to have a kid to take care of.  

For example, I just sneezed while writing the previous sentence and a jolting pain went through my back. How am I going to be a father with a back like this? Do I start mainlining Advil? What would Keith Richards do?

Anyway, I’ve got to wrap this up and head off to work, which means getting on a bicycle to ride to where I catch a bus. I wonder how it’ll be on a bike with this back. And how did my mom learn how to clog dance? I don’t even know how to regular dance yet. And how many unrelated sentences can I clog into one paragraph? Will I be able to continue writing when the kid comes? What about Clay Carroll? I imagine my writing will become more disjointed, but let’s pretend it’ll be less like the unrelated eructions of a mentally unstable psyche and more like, I don’t know, free jazz. You know, like everything is related, a kaleidoscope, claycarrollclaykirbykenclay. I like going to baseball games. At the last one I went to, featuring Clay Carroll’s old team, the Reds, I sat next to my wife, who is about seven months pregnant. Late in the game I leaned down and yelled at her bulging stomach, “Hey! How are you liking your first game?”

Leaning down made my back hurt.

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Terry Crowley

March 14, 2011

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

Cincinnati Reds

Terry Crowley was drawn to winning like a sliver of metal is drawn to a magnet. He played on both of the two most dominant regular-season teams from the 1970s, the 1970 Baltimore Orioles and the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, who each won a decade-best 108 games. When the dynastic Boog/Brooks Orioles started to fade, Crowley drifted away from them and to the surging Reds, and when the Orioles started to build toward another pennant-winning team in the late 1970s, Crowley returned in time to be once again loitering on the bench, bat in hand, for the last of the decade’s dominant regular-season campaigns, that of the 102-win 1979 Orioles.

His magnetic pull toward championships waned in the early 1980s, and in 1983, his final season, he was not with the Orioles as they won the World Series but was instead having his worst season to date, batting .182 in 44 at-bats for a Montreal Expos squad in the process of slipping from perennial contender to perpetual also-ran. But by then Terry Crowley and his bat had hung around the major leagues for fifteen seasons, and when the Expos released him only five players in baseball history had amassed more pinch hits.

Baseball is, obviously, a tremendously difficult profession, and of all its many individual failure-tending tasks, the task of pinch-hitting (as explained in this Baseball Digest article from the 1990s) is probably the trickiest, or at least the most likely to end in disappointment (and in the long run, for its practitioners, in oblivion; if you’re a pinch-hitter, you’ll probably fail in any given pinch-hitting appearance, and if you fail as a pinch-hitter enough times in a row, there’s nowhere else you can go but out the exit door). Terry Crowley managed to stick around in this treacherous doubt-riddled role for a long time and for elite teams embroiled in tense, spot-lit pennant races. You could say he was lucky, and maybe he was, but there must have also been a stubborn yet careful tenacity in his approach to the game. All those innings holding a bat and not using it, it must have been tempting to either start gripping the bat too tightly or let it go altogether, and Crowley did neither, and when he was called on, finally, to do his odd, crucial job, he did it pretty well, which means he did it as well, over the long haul, as just about anyone ever has.

With a few exceptions, the cards guiding this 2011 team-by-team preview are from the 1970s, so you’d have to think the Reds, with their star-studded rosters from that era and with first place clubs in the first year of the decade and the last year of the decade and a peak in the middle of the decade that some believe to be the highest point any team has ever reached, would be almost guaranteed to have a good omen centering the forecast for their coming season. At first glance, then, a Terry Crowley card would seem to be a disappointment, a mild popup off the bat of a career reserve with a .250 lifetime average. But if you think about all the winning he was around for and all the years he existed at the nerve-wracking outer fringe of the profession, Terry Crowley is like a rabbit’s foot tied to a horseshoe in a field of four-leaf clovers.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 14 of 30: dig around the Baseball Digest archives, which brings back the game of yore article by article, list by list, letter by letter, cigarette ad by cigarette ad, in a way somehow deeper and more intimate than even the crispest video footage ever could

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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

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Mario Soto

March 15, 2010

I saw a great film this past weekend that, among other things, gave me a newfound appreciation of the back story behind this 1977 Mario Soto card, the future All-Star pitcher’s first appearance among the cardboard gods.

Sugar, a 2008 film, follows the story of a pitcher from Mario Soto’s homeland, the Dominican Republic, who comes to America to try to make it to the big leagues. The pitcher, Miguel “Azucar” (“Sugar”) Santos, played by Algenis Perez Soto (no relation to Mario), is not yet out of his teens, and the only English he knows are baseball phrases he learned at the baseball academy that he dropped out of high school to join.

Because the actors in the film are all legitimate baseball players (many, including the star, Soto, were literally plucked from a baseball field by the film’s directors), the baseball action has a documentary-level authenticity. Also, the baseball shown in the film is never exploited for the heightened (i.e., fake) drama that so many baseball films have relied on and suffered from. Baseball has never been treated so respectfully and truthfully in a fictional film, and baseball has rarely, if ever, meant as much. For much of the film, baseball is the only familiar aspect in Sugar’s life as he tries to cope with a life of loneliness, alienation, and racial tension in a minor league town in Iowa. It also seems as if it is the only way he will be able to support his struggling family back home. While he is getting batters out, these burdens do not appear to be too heavy, but when he begins to experience the kinds of setbacks that he fears might lead to the end of his dream, the weight Sugar carries becomes so heavy that anyone who ever watches the film will feel as if they’re carrying a piece of it as an ache in the pit of their stomach.

The day after I saw the movie I started looking at this Mario Soto card. I hadn’t looked at it since childhood, and if I’d done so before seeing Sugar I probably would have taken note of his confident expression and paired it with my knowledge that within a few years Soto would be among the best pitchers in the game. I would have assumed that Soto was simply blessed with a gift, and he knew it, and doubt or pain never entered into his inevitable rise to the top. But then I flipped over this card yesterday and saw that the first line of statistics contained no statistics at all but the capital letters “On Disabled List.” I thought of Sugar limping around with a foot injury, banished from the game, watching from the stands as his team played. I imagined Mario Soto as a seventeen-year-old, unable to pitch. The following season, in Eugene, Oregon, he finally could take the mound, but just a little, 5 games and 30 innings pitched, suggesting that he was still struggling with injuries. (In later years, Soto shied away to a great extent from throwing any breaking pitches, fearing that doing so would cause another arm injury.) Besides physical problems, Soto had another less visible kind of difficulty that first season.

“My first year at Eugene, I remember being in tears after a clubhouse meeting because I didn’t understand a word,” he recalled in a 1984 Sports Illustrated article. A scan of the roster of the 1975 Eugene Emeralds suggests that Soto’s experience may have been even more difficult than Sugar’s. In the movie, which is set in the present day, Sugar has fellow Dominicans as teammates. In Mario Soto’s day, there were far fewer Dominicans playing in the U.S., and while the Cincinnati Reds were ahead of the curve with the scouting and development of Latin American players (when Soto reached the major league level, he joined fellow Dominicans Santo Alcala, Angel Torres, Pedro Borbon, and Cesar Geronimo), it appears that Soto was the lone player from his country while struggling through his first year in pro ball as an 18-year-old boy. I wonder if Soto could communicate with anyone that year—the only other player with a Hispanic name on the roster was a 20-year-old outfielder named Gabriel Rodriguez, and Rodriguez wasn’t even from a Latin American country, but from Louisiana, so who knows if he even spoke Spanish, and anyway he played so sporadically that it’s likely he was only around for a short while.

I wouldn’t have been able to hack it. So far away from home, so isolated, injuries making time away from the game much greater than time in the game. No one to even talk to. I couldn’t have done what Mario Soto did. But Mario Soto stuck it out. In the 1984 Sports Illustrated article on Soto, his manager, Vern Rapp, while justifying and disputing Soto’s reputation as a hothead, offered what can now be seen as an explanation of Soto’s ability to face down the crushing doubt and isolation of his earliest days in pro ball:

“Think of him as someone who grew up in the Depression, when things were tough and you had to be strong to become somebody. . . . When he was 14 he worked for 10 cents an hour in construction to support his family. Of course he’s going to fight to protect what’s his.”

Still in his teens in his second year of active duty in the minors, Soto’s body began to fill out, and he found several more miles per hour on his fastball, which enabled him to go 13 and 7 with a 1.87 ERA in Tampa. The following year, after proving himself at another higher level in the minors, he got the call up to the Reds, and the year after that, this card came out. He continued to shuttle back and forth from the majors to the minors for a couple more seasons, however, and only punched his ticket to the Show to stay when he became the first major leaguer to master the circle change, a pitch taught to him by Reds’ minor league pitching instructor Scott Breeden. (In this there is another echo in Sugar of Mario Soto’s story; Sugar begins to set himself apart from other players at his Dominican baseball academy when a visiting American scout shows him how to throw a spike curve.) With the circle change, which came out of a pitching motion identical to the one that unleashed a formidable fastball but was twenty miles per hour slower and had a sharp downward dip, Soto began blowing batters away. For the first five years of the 1980s he struck out more batters than any other pitcher in the majors, including Nolan Ryan.   

In 2001, Soto was elected into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. He reflected on how far he’d come. “We didn’t have gloves, spikes, nothing,” he said of his boyhood in the Dominican Republic. “We played with bare hands and bare feet. To have come from that to making three All-Star teams is really something.”

It’s the kind of quote that generally drifts past my ears. Of course it’s tough to make the majors, I think, yawning. But after getting a better sense, from Sugar, of the road Soto travelled, I actually hear what he’s saying. To be a cardboard god, you have to go a long, long way, farther than most would be able or willing to go.

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

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Bill Bonham

November 17, 2009

Bill Bonham 78

There are rules.

A few months ago, my mother-in-law came for a visit and was leafing through some of my cards. She grew up in Cincinnati, a huge Reds fan, and so was particularly drawn to any cards that featured players from her team. When she came upon this Bill Bonham card she immediately declared that the card was wrong.

“He can’t have been on the Reds,” she said. “Look at his hair.”

She was right, of course. The Reds had a strict grooming policy that set them apart from everyone in the league at that time. As afros and mustaches bloomed elsewhere, the Reds demanded all of their players to be clean-shaven and shorn. It’s likely that this doctored Bill Bonham card is the only instance from that hairiest of decades in which someone with long hair wore or seemed to wear a Reds uniform.

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I follow rules. I am obedient, meek. When the recording comes over the speaker on the city bus asking standing customers to move toward the back, and I’m one of the standing customers, I move toward the back. I want to be a good citizen, and I don’t want any trouble. I drive the speed limit, give or take a few miles an hour. Actually, I prefer not to drive at all. I prefer not to leave my apartment. I’m afraid I’ll go out there in the uncertain world and inadvertently break a rule. I go to work on time and pick up DVDs at the rental place on my way home, the better to hole up inside the apartment with. This weekend I watched the entire first season of Weeds, the show about a suburban housewife turned rule-breaking pot dealer. Whenever big bags of marijuana appeared on screen, I got a nostalgic twinge both for the feeling of being high and for breaking rules. I basically gave up smoking pot years ago, save for the occasional trip to Amsterdam, where it is not against the rules. It doesn’t agree with me like it once did, for one thing, but I’m sure I’d still do it once in a while if it was sold legally at, say, the place on the corner where I buy beer. It’s a rules thing. And since there are legal ways to alter or at least numb my consciousness, I don’t bother any more with the illegal way. I’ve got my beer, my mounds of starchy food, my food-coma naps, my fantasy sports teams, my DVDs. It’s enough to cross the expanse of a day.

I enjoyed Weeds, but the DVD that affected me the most in recent weeks was Little Children, the 2006 film that garnered Jackie Earle Haley an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. The movie opens with an image of Haley in wanted-poster form, his mug shots in profile and straight on shown in a poster asking “Are your children safe?” For me, a baseball and pop-culture loving child of the 1970s, the photos of Haley were jarring. He had been, when I was a kid, the creator of the single coolest figure in a decade in which cool became a mass-market commodity. He was cooler than Han Solo, cooler than Evel Knieval, cooler than Ace Frehley, cooler than the Fonz. His cool was closer than all those other more exotic avatars of cool. He was cool like the tougher, older kids in my town. He was Kelly Leak, outlaw and star of the Bad News Bears.

In The Bad News Bears and, even more pointedly, in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, Jackie Earle Haley’s Kelly Leak displayed a charismatic disregard for rules. He was the kid who would never be tamed into someone capable of following the rigid rules of the adult world. Then, not long after his days as Kelly Leak were over, Jackie Earle Haley disappeared from the public eye. To see him reappear decades later in mug shots, sullen, his rebelliously long hair not only shorn but receding, balding, was not only a shocking reminder of the relentless passage of time but also a symbolic slaying of the previously immortal freedom of Kelly Leak.

Haley’s character in Little Children, Ronnie McGorvey, turns out to be the twisted inverse of Kelly Leak. Instead of the tough, brave boy with the magnetically precocious worldliness of an adult, McGorvey is a craven, repugnant middle-aged man with the brittle purchase on life of a wounded, fearful boy. And where the previously solitary Kelly Leak became heroic by, in the end, choosing to look out for his younger, frailer teammates, McGorvey has forever banished himself from humanity by molesting a child. Haley’s miraculous performance hinges on somehow engendering sympathy for a character who can accurately be called a monster. He struggles to, as his mother writes to him just before she dies, “be a good boy.”

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It’s fun to imagine that the Reds uniform in Bill Bonham’s 1978 card is real, that the moment is real, that Bill Bonham sauntered knowingly onto the sparkling spring training compound of the conservative National League powerhouse, ready to sneer at the first team functionary who hustled over to him to inform him in a tense whisper that he was breaking the rules.

But one look at Bill Bonham and you can see that he’s no rebel. That was the thing about the 1970s—by then everyone was experimenting with “counterculture” stylings. It’s safe to assume, looking at his bland, good-natured expression, that Bill Bonham complied to the rules.

Who doesn’t?

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Once, in the summer of 1977, the last summer in which Bill Bonham wore his hair long, I stayed overnight at my friend Mike’s house. He lived in Randolph, which is over the mountain from East Randolph, where I lived. Randolph had a much higher population than East Randolph, maybe four thousand compared to the few hundred people scattered up and down the road I lived on. In the afternoon, Mike took me to a lot near his house and we played a pickup game of baseball with a couple dozen other kids, everyone getting a chance to smack the tennis ball we were using far into the outfield until it started to get too dark to see. There were no adults around. No umpires. No rules.

After that, our bodies buzzing from hours of baseball, we walked to the Playhouse movie theater and saw The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. I distinctly remember a lack of a parental presence. There was an excitement in the theater, the whole place full of boys chattering and laughing up until the lights went dim, when the excitement shifted to a deeper, more hushed register.

A few minutes into the Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, my inherent enjoyment and embracing of the movie went to another, deeper level. I hadn’t seen the original film, with Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal, and I wasn’t familiar with any of the characters in the movie, but for some reason this made it even easier to embrace in its first moments. As the team came together for a practice, there was a familiarity that implicitly included anyone watching the movie. We are all part of this team. We all know each other. I would have enjoyed the movie no matter where it went, as long as it included boys like me playing baseball.

But the movie became more than just an enjoyable night in a temporarily parentless world the moment that Kelly Leak appeared.

His appearance came just after the blustering militaristic new coach of the Bears had climaxed his rant about following rules by throwing the team’s beloved catcher, Engelberg, off the team. So an implicit question precedes Kelly’s arrival: Are the Bears going to be reduced to a roster of bland rule-followers?

Kelly Leak refuses this possibility by using his motorcycle and dark sunglasses and flat, emotionless exression and cool to wordlessly menace and taunt the hoarse-voiced coach until the latter storms off, leaving the team to a fate that he no doubt imagines as dire, the unthinkable chaos beyond rules. The Bears, on the other hand, celebrate. So did I. So did all the boys sitting in the dark all around me.

Now we’re all in our forties, the former boys in that movie theater on that summer night in 1977. Now we follow the rules. At night many of us wonder if our children are safe. In the morning we look at a stunned wan face in the mirror.

But back then, in the summer of 1977, we cheered. Kelly Leak had ridden to the rescue. There are no rules!

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

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Tom Hall

August 26, 2009

Tom Hall 75

Football season hasn’t begun yet, but in a way it’s always football season in America. By now, late August, it has already begun to dominate the sports landscape. This depresses and oppresses me. I followed football when I was a kid, loving it as a fan more than any other sport besides baseball, but when I started playing basketball in junior high, football moved into second place, and it’s been falling ever since.

Maybe I gravitated toward baseball and away from football because I have been a skinny weakling most of my life (though a little less skinny now), and whenever I tried to play football, well, I sucked at it and it hurt, so much so that it took away the possibility of even imagining myself into the game, which was, after all, my main port of entry into any sport. There was no place for the likes of me in football.

But baseball? In baseball, you can be short or tall, muscular or doughy, downright fat or so thin that if you pose on a baseball card as if looking in for a sign, your Afro-elongated head tilted forward, you look like a human bobble-head doll. Even I was never quite as thin as the player enacting this pose, Tom Hall (6’0″, 158 pounds, according to the back of the card), and yet here he is, an established major leaguer, so strangely emaciated that he seems to have cleared the stadium of onlookers perhaps frightened away by his habit of turning sideways and disappearing.

Hall, who must be the left-handed relief ace on the All-Time All-Emaciated-Guy team, comes up in Nice Guys Finish Last, Leo Durocher’s 1975 autobiography. While manager of the Cubs, Durocher chafed against the makeup of the club, specifically its over-reliance on aging, plodding sluggers. He couldn’t get permission from club owner Phil Wrigley to even mention the man he most wanted to jettison, Ernie Banks, in trade talks, but after the 1971 season he apparently got very close to dealing the second-most beloved Cub of the time (and of all time), Ron Santo. Durocher rejected the first package put on the table by the Twins, who offered Tom Hall (“a skinny colored relief pitcher,” according to Durocher) straight up for the Cubs’ perennial All-Star third baseman. Durocher turned the deal down, and then for a moment, until the Twins, without warning, went in a different direction (“a man’s word doesn’t mean what it used to,” Durocher grumbled), it looked as if a deal of Santo and pitcher Joe Decker for Cesar Tovar and Tom Hall had been worked out.

Perhaps Durocher should have taken the first offer: In 1972 Tom Hall climaxed a three-year run of bullpen excellence (513 innings pitched, 349 hits, and 551 strikeouts in that span) by helping the Reds to the pennant with a 10–1 record and a 2.61 ERA in the hitter’s haven of Riverfront Stadium.

He stuck around for a few more years after that, but seems to have lost something. (The sponsor of his page on baseball-reference.com, The Human Karaoke Experience, mentions injuries.) This decline would have certainly been more difficult for him had it occurred in Chicago, where every time he surrendered a shot onto Waveland the fans would look at him and feel the gnawing absence of Santo. (Then again, Santo went into his own decline and was shipped south a few miles, to the White Sox, for his final season in 1974.)

But back to this notion of an All-Time All-Emaciated Guy team. Can we put together a squad in honor of Tom Hall and all skinny weaklings everywhere? Who are the greatest ectomorphs in baseball history?

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George Foster, 1979

August 20, 2009

George Foster 79

Yesterday morning on the 606 bus a man sitting next to me began a loud monologue about a series of subjects. He was about my age, maybe a little older, a white guy with a mustache and a faded baseball cap that said “Chicago” in script lettering. The theme he kept circling back to the most was that “God decides.”

“People think they decide, that they’ve got it all figured out. You’re all plugged in. You’ve got it surrounded. You don’t decide. God decides,” he said.

“Net-book him, Shaq,” he added.

He said this a few times throughout his speech, which had pauses now and again as if to make room for the words of a questioner that no one else could see or hear.

I tried to keep as flat a poker face as I could, since he was right next to me and seemed at times to be addressing his speech to me.

“Sylvester always wanted to eat Tweety, but he never did,” the man said. “Yosemite Sam. The coyote. Never get what they wanted. But you’ll never see those cartoons. Too damn educational!

“Net-book him, Shaq,” he added.

None of this has anything to do with George Foster, except that my favorite thing in the world besides baseball during a childhood that coincided exactly with George Foster’s heyday was the Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner hour (or was it an hour and a half?). I never liked the Roadrunner cartoons, however, and because I liked Sylvester and hated Tweety (as does everyone in the entire world) I found those other most common diversions from Bugs Bunny to be profoundly frustrating.

My friend Pete tells of a heroic act by a friend of his many years ago, when he was in college: Pete and his friend, Gavin, were watching a Tweety cartoon and at one point the annoying yellow bird ended up in Sylvester’s mouth. At that moment, Gavin shut off the television. The last image before a blank screen was Sylvester closing his mouth.

“That’s how it ends,” Gavin announced.

“For the next 48 hours,” Pete told me last night, “I was flying.”

In a way, my childhood performed a similar kind of magic for George Foster. I was too young to know George Foster as an expendable young player for the San Francisco Giants, and I stopped collecting baseball cards and worshipping the players in those cards right before George Foster plummeted off of the up escalator to immortality. This card here, from 1979, is my last George Foster card. The impressive stats on the back (92 home runs in the previous two seasons), the ALL-STAR banner on the front, a perpetual element of my George Foster cards, the very look on George Foster’s face, determined, confident, indomitable: That’s how it ends.

As for the disappointments and frustrations of life, the diminishing performance, the boos raining down, faltering playing time, the yellow bird that always escapes: it’s all a lesson a madman knows. You don’t decide. I don’t know who does, but you don’t.

Furthermore: Net-book him, Shaq.

***

For more on George Foster, you can do what I was unable to do (who likes the sound of his or her own voice?) and listen to me read my post on George Foster’s 1978 card on the The Baseball Chronicle podcast.

While you’re at The Baseball Chronicle, check out Jeb Stewart’s article on the Topps’ 1971 set of baseball cards.

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