Archive for the ‘George Foster’ Category

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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.

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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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George Foster

October 23, 2006
 

My family, minus my father, moved to Vermont in 1974, when I was six and my brother was eight. We house-sat for a year in a town called Randolph Center for a family spending a year as Christian missionaries in Korea. Randolph Center had many big white houses with immaculate lawns, and a college with brand new tennis courts, and a ski hill that in the summer became a place where hang-gliders launched themselves like bright-colored ponderous birds that seemed somehow simultaneously prehistoric and futuristic, and a big pond called Lake Champagne with a sun-drenched wooden dock in the middle of it and a building nearby with pinball machines and air hockey tables.

Kids were friendly in Randolph Center, a few of them coming by to basically welcome my brother and me aboard. One of these kids was a farmboy named Buster Olney, who even as a preadolescent had contagious enthusiasm for baseball, baseball history, and at that time most especially baseball cards. By the time we met him, or to put it more accurately were swept up in his tornado of baseball mania, his baseball card collection was already the stuff of legend–the rumor was that he kept the collection in a trunk that he’d buried somewhere on the grounds of the Whiffleball stadium he’d built on his family’s lawn to resemble a miniature Fenway Park. When asked about this he would bark laughter then give answers as elusive as his unhittable Whiffleball pitches. My brother and I had bought stray packs of cards before, but under Buster’s influence we began collecting, buying packs whenever possible at the general store in town called Floyd’s, which was owned by Mr. Floyd, a chipper Vermonter with a Santa Claus build and a gray-flecked flattop buzzcut.

When the family who owned the house we were living in came back from jesusing Korea, we moved down into the valley below Randolph Center, to East Randolph. East Randolph consisted of some run-down houses clinging to a section of Route 14 kind of like dried carcasses to a strip of cracking flypaper. There was a farm machinery dealership, a shallow swimming hole bracketed by a rusted car husk and a defunct gravel pit, and a general store called Race’s that was, unsettlingly, not owned by Mr. Race but by a looming, often angry-seeming man from Pennsylvania named Mr. Heyder.

Not long after we’d moved there, my father got my brother a speedometer for his bike, but not a mile was recorded on the odometer before a pack of cackling East Randolph kids mashed some sticky-pus weed-bulbs called wild cucumbers (which I’d never seen growing in Randolph Center) into the shining black face of the speedometer, breaking the needle and fouling the interior mechanisms. My enraged brother whaled on the main instigator until the kid, using his shifty East Randolph know-how, ended the barrage by yanking out a hunk of Ian’s hair. It was the first in a series of fights between my brother and the East Randolph toughs, and the beginning of my lifelong practice of moving around in public as invisibly as possible so as to avoid victimization.

Collecting baseball cards became somehow more solitary than it had been in Randolph Center. In Randolph Center any additions to the collection were discussed, or at least had the potential to be discussed, in a small but palpable community of Randolph Center baseball card collectors that included me, Ian, Buster, Buster’s friend George, and sometimes even some other kids from Ian and Buster’s little league team. In East Randolph it was just my brother and me, a reality that I would have been willing to embrace but that my brother often recoiled from. By the time I purchased the pack that included this 1978 George Foster card, the whole process had become as lonely and compulsive and privately rapturous as religious pilgrimage or addiction.

In that light, this card represents the apex of my solitary obsession, for I remember the precise moment I found this card in a new pack, and it’s the only Cardboard God that I can say that about. I had just bought the pack from the scowling Mr. Heyder and was walking home. I was by the spot on Route 14 where an abandoned general store with an “Esso” sign and dust-covered windows faced, across the road, an empty metal trailer that had briefly been a restaurant called Chez Rene. Sometimes I was able to delay gratification for a while, carrying the packs of cards (I usually bought two) all the way home before opening them, but on this day I must have needed that pain-killing hit just a little bit quicker and slid my finger under the plastic flaps, breaking the infinitesimally thin coat of glue and releasing the scent of the rectangular shard of gum that came in every pack.

I put the shard in my mouth and was shattering it and releasing the first burst of sugar when I found this card amid the others. I saw the N.L. ALL STAR shield and I saw the name that I recognized from following its awe-inspiring march through the previous season’s statistics pages in the newspapers. The broken-pieces phase of the gum gave way to the soft and cohesive sugary phase, and I heightened the all too brief moment, which would soon give way to the texture-of-a-pencil-eraser/flavor-of-spit-and-disappointment phase, by flipping the George Foster card over to affirm that the legend told by the newspaper statistics was true. After all, nothing was an inarguable fact until I saw it on a baseball card, and here it was: George Foster had hit 52 home runs during the 1977 season, the most any player had hit in a single season in my entire lifetime.

In years to come the 50-home-run plateau would be robbed of its glory by steroidal cheaters and new cartoonish ballparks with dimensions barely bigger than Buster Olney’s Whiffleball lawn, but in 1978 it was mythic. Only ancient guys from a black and white world that preceded the epoch of the Cardboard Gods had ever reached that Olympian height. But now George Foster had done it, and as sugar coursed through my body I held in my hands that very same George Foster, or at least a little sliver of George Foster that had fallen like a red and brown and white leaf all the way from the forests of heaven to the gravel-pit valley of East Randolph, Vermont. I paused for a moment to chew the already fading, hardening gum and stare at the ecstatic statistics, then hurried home before anyone could fuck with me.

 
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