Last night I dreamed a guy on my high school ultimate frisbee team was hitting me grounders. He was a coke-doing senior who liked to cacklingly saddle younger students with annoying, inescapable nicknames. (I think he was behind people calling me Beeker.) I don’t know why he was in my dreams, but I was having trouble getting in front of the grounders he was hitting to me. This was always a problem for me in all sports and in life in general—I am a coward. If the rare chance coming my way takes a bad hop I’d rather it not hit me in the chest or face or nuts. I’ll take a swipe at it, but if that doesn’t work I prefer to deal with the consequences: humiliation, disappointment, being disappointing. Unfortunately I have become an expert at numbing all the things that accompany a squandered chance.On the other hand, Darrel Chaney strikes me as the kind of guy who would stop grounders with his teeth if he had to. It would be difficult to explain his presence for several years in the major leagues otherwise. He lasted for eleven seasons despite batting just .217 with a .288 slugging percentage. Something of a negative image of the best of the all-star Big Red Machine infielders he occasionally spelled, Chaney also augmented a notable lack of power with an inability to steal bases. The back of the card text backs up the theory that his worth resided in his ability to deal effectively with ground balls, describing him as “an outstanding glove man.” (Interestingly, considering a somewhat gruesome aspect of the Mannerist portrait on the front of the card, no mention is made of his throwing arm.)
I don’t know if I would have been able to write about Darrel Chaney if his hard-nosed talents had been better represented by the photo on his card. I realized today that one reason I have written relatively few profiles of Cincinnati Reds players from the 1970s is that I can’t really relate to excellence. So Chaney, a tough, humble, do-anything-to-help-the-team-win utility guy on a couple pennant winners and a World Series champion, would leave me nothing to connect to had he been shown in a photo bravely turning a double play despite the marauding spikes-high efforts of a baserunner. But that is the beauty of my Cardboard heaven. All become strange and failure-laced. Here Chaney stoops like an arthritic amputee with one freakish arm as long as his legs, his eyes mean slits, his skin pale, his lips thin and sour, like those of a corrupt medieval bishop. He reaches for an imaginary grounder, not getting in front of it. He reaches for his shadow. It eludes him. He reaches for his name. He’ll catch a shred of it, the top loop of the D, but no more, as it slides past him and disintegrates. He will remain forever on this side of the white chalk line.