Archive for the ‘Cleveland Indians’ Category

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Larvell Blanks

May 2, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.) 

Sugar, Sugar

Ah sugar

Baseball cards existed for decades on the fringes of the game. Few cared.

Ah honey honey

A core imperative of capitalism is to create demand where there is none. Rhetorical dismissals, however rational, such as “Why would anyone want to purchase cardboard rectangles featuring photographic and statistical portraits of strangers?” are ignored in favor of pragmatic, profit-driven inquiries such as “What can be done to make someone want to purchase cardboard rectangles featuring photographic and statistical portraits of strangers?”

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

These cards bring me back to the beginning. I’m a kid. Each of my days as a kid begins with the only childhood love that rivals my love of baseball. The imaginary-character cereals—Cap’n Crunch, Frosted Flakes, Lucky Charms, Super Sugar Crisp—are not allowed in my house, but I make my own version by sneaking heaping teaspoons from the sugar bowl into my Cheerios or Total or Corn Bran or Rice Chex. For my love of sugar I lie and steal. It feels good. The morning brightens, larval gray giving way to the fluttery winging shimmer of cartoons.

***

Ah sugar

When sugar was added to baseball cards, via a slab of hard bubble gum, baseball cards metastasized from a marginal curiosity to an American institution.

Ah honey honey

For most of human history, sugar was not in demand. But as capitalism took root worldwide during the colonial expansion of European powers, sugar came to be known as “white gold” for its desirability and tremendous profit-making properties. The world tilted murderously toward it.

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

Afternoons as a kid I devour whatever is available, sometimes Chips Ahoy, sometimes Oreos, sometimes Nutter Butters. Sometimes there’s nothing sugary in the cupboards but Quik, which I eat dry in heaping teaspoons. If I still have my small weekly allowance in hand, I go to the general store with enough of my own money to buy one thing for me alone. The one thing differs. Could be Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or a Nestle Crunch bar or a $100,000 Bar or M&Ms or Rolos or a fistful of Bazooka Joe or a Charleston Chew or a Snickers or Bubble Yum or a Mars Bars or Sugar Babies. Could be a pack of baseball cards.

***

Ah sugar

Interest in baseball cards has been considered for some time to be waning. Every so often there is an article or a blog post or a book or a TV special that wonders whatever happened to baseball cards. It’s fucking obvious what happened.

Ah honey honey

The cultivation and manufacture of sugar in colonial times was extremely labor-intensive, so Europeans enslaved indigenous populations (referenced in the customary generic misnomer on the uniform of the player in the card at the top of this page) to do the work needed to make sugar. What else were the Indians doing? What other use did they have in this sweet new tilted world?

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

In 1977, a nine-year-old boy in the most powerful nation the world has ever known discovers this card in solitude, the sugar coursing through his body causing his heart to pound as if he is in love. He is not in love. He doesn’t know about girls. He doesn’t know how sweet a kiss can be. A kiss? He doesn’t even like to be touched. Here is the boy at the pinnacle of the corrosive arc of capitalism through human history: don’t touch me; gimme sugar.

***

Ah sugar

The most common explanation for the current downturn in interest in cards is that “the bubble burst.” The bubble that is being referenced is figurative, an investment bubble, the vast and idiotic speculating done on baseball cards in the late 1980s and 1990s creating an imaginary fragile orb filled with emptiness. But the real cause in the decline of baseball cards is much simpler. Think bubble, but be literal.

Ah honey honey

When the Indians being forced to work on sugar plantations began dying in great numbers from European diseases, the Europeans looked to Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people of the same color as the player in the card at the top of this page were captured, enslaved, shipped across the Atlantic, and forced to provide the labor needed to produce sweetener.

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

A nine-year-old boy with sugar coursing through his body chews the bubble gum that came with the pack of cards. He chews, gulps, exults, keeps chewing. The gum is not yet ready for bubbles. Some cards stop him, others don’t. This one does, the first name something to be worked over in the mouth like gum, like the contagiously empty syllables of a pop song, like the declensions of a word for forms of life. Larva, larvae, Larvell. The second name is for the things beyond names, a bubble with nothing in it, expanding. The gum is ready now. Breathe-slow, blow, a nothing day in a loveless larval year. Sugar fills the blanks.

***

Ah sugar

When the sugary bubble gum was removed some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s from packs of cards—presumably to protect the cards, those idiotic objects of investment, from damage—it was the beginning of the end. Kids drove the industry and the nostalgia and the joy of baseball cards. Nowadays, with no sugar involved, kids don’t give a shit about baseball cards. Nowadays baseball card conventions are, so I’ve heard, largely childless, instead sparsely populated by middle-aged men like me meandering around and remembering how sweet it all used to be.

Ah honey honey

Sugar causes a fleeting increase in serotonin levels in the body. Sugar makes you fat, gives you diabetes, rots your teeth. Sugar is stupid. Sugar is irresistible. Sugar snares children, topples empires. America was able to gain its independence from Great Britain in part because the British were devoting much of their military might to protecting their sugar-making territories in the Caribbean, weakening themselves in the fight against the colonies. One empire staggered, another began to rise.

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

Sugar stops time. Time has been stopped. The player gazing out at the nine-year-old boy during this stoppage is known as Sugar Bear. The player has explained that this nickname came to him during his first professional season, 1969: “In the months of August and September, while I was in the Arizona Instructional League, there was a hit single being played on the radio called ‘Sugar, Sugar.’ Ralph Garr, Darrell Evans and others started calling me ‘Sugar Bear.’”

***

Ah sugar

Taking sugar away from baseball cards? The only business decision that could compare would be if the music industry equivalent of bubble gum, bubblegum pop songs, attempted to remain a profit-generator in spite of removing from its product the insipid insidious sweetness, the hooks, the groove.

Ah honey honey

The bubblegum pop songs that ruled the air in the late 1960s and 1970s were aimed at me, which is to say they were aimed at children, mass-produced, written by company writers and performed by company musicians, everyone involved in the assembly line production ordered to keep it simple and shiny and contagious. The apotheosis of the genre was the 1969 song “Sugar, Sugar” that was not only its biggest hit but the most direct expression of its aesthetic: sugar and nothing else, a sweetened larval blank. The song was disseminated through cross-platform marketing before that hideous term even existed, and it started its viral sweep around the world by preying on those with the least resistance, appearing first in a cartoon program, The Archies, and coming as a prize in certain sugar cereals so that children could get hooked on it as they crested the first sugar wave of the day. Though children were targeted, many others were struck, stricken, addicted. “Sugar, Sugar” is reportedly a favorite song of George W. Bush. Presumably he first heard it in 1969, his first year out of college, as his privileged class status was likely allowing him to avoid going to Vietnam. Years later, he danced with his daughter at her wedding to “Sugar, Sugar.” He was nearing the end of his two terms as president by then, during which he had blandly fronted the continuing transformation of the United States into a faltering obese diabetic overextended colonial empire that is always at war.

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

I have only ever wanted one thing, the impossible thing, the sweet stoppage of time. Stop the world. Just once. At nine I already know the deal, and sometimes in the middle of the night it springs me awake and upright like a half-broken trap. Time always goes forward, leads to when there will be no more sweetness, no gum, no card to hold, no me. Why wouldn’t I love that sugar has seized me, that time has been called, that play has halted, that there is still a me to be gazed at by a stranger named Larvell Blanks for one sweet American moment alone?

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Ron Pruitt

March 8, 2011

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

Cleveland Indians

To churn out all these predictions by Opening Day I can’t really take time to think, which is not necessarily a bad thing given that I am not a good thinker, so here go a few random thoughts on this 1979 Ron Pruitt card.

1. What was it with masked professional-athlete Pruitts in Cleveland in the late 1970s? I’ve never come upon the name Pruitt anywhere else, yet in 1979 the Cleveland sports landscape was lousy with Pruitts in helmets, current star Mike Pruitt and former star Greg Pruitt running the ball for the Cleveland Browns while Ron Pruitt filled in once in a while wherever he was needed by the Cleveland Indians. None of the Pruitts were related, which seems somehow unfair.

2. The word Pruitt has always reminded me of the body music sound effect words used by Mad Magazine cartoonist Don Martin. (It would have been slotted into the Don Martin Dictionary between “PRAWK!!!” and “PSSSSH” and would be defined, I believe, thusly: “PRUITT!: seated pear-shaped pinhead shifting to the side to emit a one-cheek sneak.”)

3. This past weekend my wife and I started packing up our apartment to get ready for a move. As we were putting books into boxes, we had half an eye on Major League, which had presumably been rushed onto the air to grab a piece of the Charlie Sheen mania sweeping the land. The movie features Charlie Sheen as a flamethrowing rookie phenom leading the Cleveland Indians to a dream season. I have seen it before and experienced most of it this time as background babble while working on clearing my shelves. It’s a strangely exhausting task to pack up my books, as each one of them seems to exert a pull on me, similar in some ways to how my cat reaches up and paws at me, purring, wanting my attention. It doesn’t matter whether the book is one I’ve already read or one I’ve been meaning for a while to read, if I so much as touch the cover the book will beg me to drop everything and sit down and read the entire contents, and after a while these unheeded pleas take a psychic toll. So I took a lot of breaks while packing up my books, collapsing on the couch not to read but to watch a young, skilled Charlie Sheen throw the most plausible fictional heaters ever to grace the big screen.

4. The movie version of the Cleveland baseball team echoes the actual version in being mired in decades of losing. Ron Pruitt was on hand for some of that losing by the real baseball Indians, who were of course named after another beleaguered group long familiar with losing. Even before those first Indians started losing great swaths of land and people, before they were given the dubious misnomer used to identify collectively the many indigenous tribes that occupied the continent, those tribes had, I believe, an awareness and even an acceptance of losing being a natural part of life. Because of this, they lived on the land in a more sustainable way, more in tune with the necessary balance between losses and gains, than the Americans who would crowd them out with a hungering expansionist need to always be gaining and winning.

5. Charlie Sheen is the ultimate American. And no matter how much maniacally focused conviction this ultimate American (whose primary catchphrase—“winning”—centers either the most public nervous breakdown yet or an improvised straightfaced multimedia comedic performance that would have made Andy Kaufman writhe in admiration and envy) can pour into the message that his life from now on will only be about gaining and sustaining victory, he will lose, because we all will lose, because at a certain point we will run out of time to do all the things we wanted to do and go all the places we wanted to go and read all the books we wanted to read, and we can feel this certainty tugging at us at various times, such as when we pack books into boxes in a dress rehearsal for the packing chore that will happen eventually, somewhere down the line, without us. Winning only solidifies into permanence in the movies. In real life, it comes and goes.

6. Ron Pruitt seems to be watching it go in this 1979 card, from behind his protective mask. He was paying attention throughout his career, it seems, and like another major leaguer who learned to exist at the margins, Mike Kingery, Ron Pruitt now teaches the game to anyone who wants his instruction.

7. The 2011 Cleveland Indians will ramble like these thoughts, and stumble through occurrences as unrelated as the Cleveland trio of Pruitts, and continue their long relationship with that certainty of the human experience, losing.

***

How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 9 of 30: read Eric Nusbaum’s Pitchers and Poets, a site that, as Howard Cosell once said admiringly of Frank Sinatra, “knows what losing means.” Nusbaum’s “Death of a Pitcher” post was included in the 2010 Best American Sports Writing collection. More recently, the site has been imbibing in the drug called Charlie Sheen, noting his unabashed love of baseball and admiring his ability to hit home runs.    

***

2011 previews so far: St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Pittsburgh Pirates; Arizona Diamondbacks; Colorado Rockies; New York Yankees

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Wayne Cage

July 29, 2010

I’ll resume regularly writing about my childhood baseball cards next week, but until then a couple quickies:

1. The infielder crouch. By 1980, the year of this Wayne Cage card, the stiff poses that had dominated the earlier years of my childhood were beginning to dwindle. By then this was a rare sight, a guy in the ol’ infielder crouch. I channeled Wayne Cage and others, most specifically master of the genre Denny Doyle, during a photo shoot last week for the Chicago Tribune. The photographer came over to my apartment and we went out behind my apartment building where he took several shots of me. This put my knowledge of baseball card poses to the test. (The shoot also put my creaky 42-year-old body to the test: while doing the ol’ “pitcher follow-through” pose I almost fell over and while jerkily trying to stop the fall I pulled a muscle in my shoulder.)  The crouching infielder was the one the Chicago Tribune went with in the story they did on me in today’s paper. You can access an online version of the story (and also get a “behind the story” wrapup from the folks at the Tribune), but the version in the printed paper looks better, as in the print version they were able to do a bunch of formatting to make the story really look like the front and back of a card.

2. An event! Next week on August 4, I’ll be part of the Reading Under the Influence series at Sheffield’s in Chicago. The details:

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 4TH, 7 PM CENTRAL
Reading Under the Influence
Theme: The Gods
Sheffield’s
3258 N. Sheffield Ave., Chicago, IL
Reading and trivia contest (also reading: Marc Paoletti, Simon Smith, and Alex Bonner)
$3 cover charge

3. Luke Cage, Power Man. Wayne Cage, whose brief time in the majors concluded with this 1980 card, his last, stood out to me among the scores of more nondescript short-timers primarily because of the possibility that he was related to Luke Cage, Power Man. Luke Cage, Power Man looked cool with his giant metal Afro-creasing headband and metal wristbands and battle-tattered yellow shirt. God, I wish I could spend the rest of the day today lying around reading old Luke Cage, Power Man comic books from the 1970s, but I no longer have comic books or anything except my baseball cards from those days, so Wayne Cage will have to suffice, and only for a few more minutes because I have to go to work. Such is life.

Still, can I just linger for a second longer on Luke Cage, Power Man, god damn it? Why, I wonder, did I like him so much? Not too many others seemed to, judging from his spotty series history and the inability, suggested by his eventual prolonged pairing with fellow B-lister Iron Fist, to carry his own title. I guess with superheroes I was drawn to characters who had complex and difficult daily lives and comparatively simple superpowers who fought battles that did not veer too far from the recognizable troubles of the “regular” world. I loved the ever-angsty Spider Man, for example. As for the Fantastic Four, whose powers, besides those of the negligibly important, aptly named Invisible Woman, were also pretty basic and elemental: I liked them so long as their ongoing family soap opera didn’t veer too deeply and confusingly into the far reaches of, say, the Negative Zone. But nobody was simpler in their powers or more tangled in the brambles of the everyday world than Luke Cage, Power Man. Luke Cage, Power Man couldn’t fly or shoot rays out of his fingertips or read people’s thoughts or cast spells. Luke Cage, Power Man even had trouble paying rent. But there was this, and I loved it: Luke Cage, Power Man could punch shit real good.

And then again, my love for Luke Cage, Power Man may have derived in part from his status as the only superhero saddled with a comma in the middle of his name, and I was thus drawn to him both because of the inherent pity-invoking belittlement in that mealy-mouthed element of his sobriquet and because I knew, deep down, that I’d grow up to be someone paid to notice commas, a quiet, cubicle-bound proofreader, surely the polar opposite of a wall-smashing street-smart brute with a steel Afro-creasing headband.

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Duane Kuiper

March 18, 2010

Have you ever met one of your gods face to face? I haven’t, not really, unless you count the time when I was eleven and I shouted to Jim Rice through the fence separating fans from the Red Sox players’ parking lot at Fenway, or the time I rode in an elevator a couple feet away from Tom Seaver. But I know how a face to face meeting would probably go. I’ve had the chance to meet a couple writers that have meant a lot to me, and I gushed at them in an unintelligible torrent of overwraught praise, unable to stop even as a stricken look crept across the face of the person I was accosting. “I don’t know what you want from me,” the look said, “but I can’t help you.”

When I was a kid it would have been among my greatest dreams to have one of the players from these little cardboard rectangles walk into my world, big as life. What I didn’t realize is that I’m the kind of fan who needs distance. My fandom was born out of distance and it feeds on distance. If Carl Yastrzemski or Bernie Carbo ever pulled into the driveway of the house where I grew up, interrupting me to ask for directions as I built a make-believe universe out of throwing a tennis ball against the garage door, my world would have been diminished. They would have driven off no wiser (I didn’t know how to get anywhere back then except for the places in my own dream worlds), and I would have stood there watching them go, holding what was now just a ratty tennis ball instead of the game ball in the urgent latter stages of a championship game, and I’d be feeling ashamed for the words that had vomited out of me, and hurt by the stricken looks that had crept across the faces of my formerly benevolent gods.

And let down. I would have felt let down. 

***

“Duane Kuiper has never let me down.” – Joe Posnanski

When I watched the movie Sugar the other night, it was actually the first part of a living room DVD double-feature with another recent movie, Big Fan. The two movies, though very different in tone and story and subject matter, were on a certain level two sides of the same coin. Sugar delved with great empathy and sensitivity into the world of the professional athlete, and Big Fan positioned itself far outside that world, focusing on the psychology—or perhaps more accurately the religiosity—of the literal outsider: the fan.

It should come as no surprise which side of this coin I’m on. I mean, I’m a middle-aged man who has spent the last several years writing about his childhood baseball cards. I don’t know what it’s like to strike a guy out with a crowd watching, unless you go back three decades, to the one afternoon in my life when I recorded a couple strikeouts, and allow me to designate the small gathering of bored parents sprawled across the bleachers at the little league field a crowd. I have a much better sense of what it means to cheer for and agonize over and idolize and revile. I have a much better sense of what it means to live through strangers.

Two sides of another coin, call it the fan coin, could be Paul Aufiero, the character Patton Oswalt plays in Big Fan, and Joe Posnanski’s great blog post on Duane Kuiper. The latter is a customarily entertaining and illuminating piece of writing from one of the best sportswriters around, and among other things it offers a portrait of balanced, lively sanity. Posnanski seems to be, at least in the abundance of the personality he is able to share in his writing, that rarest of things in this shaky world: a sane man. This sanity comes across in the Duane Kuiper piece with his characterization of his bond to Duane Kuiper, which is as fiercely loyal as any bond forged by a raving lunatic, but which is grounded in a decidedly human realm. Joe Posnanski has never been disappointed by Duane Kuiper because all he ever expected from Duane Kuiper was what Duane Kuiper readily offered: hustle, humor, humility. He did not lean on Duane Kuiper to fix jagged holes in his psyche. He did not make Duane Kuiper into a rescuing god.

In Big Fan, on the other hand, there is a sense that the central character, Paul Aufiero, may be placing the entire burden of his life at the feet of a team, and most especially a certain favorite player. He is relying on his gods for salvation. In Paul Aufiero’s room, above his bed, hangs a poster of his favorite player, a hulking defensive lineman whose specialty is sacking quarterbacks. Where the sane man Joe Posnasnki chose a hero who was closest to him among the gods, a decidedly unimposing regular guy (“[Kuiper] was the one who said that you don’t have to be supremely gifted and impossibly strong and touched by God in order to get where you want to go”), the dumpy downcast cipher Paul Aufiero seems to have chosen to worship someone who is everything he’s not: tall, handsome, muscular, powerful, fearless, seemingly unstoppable.

The film, drawing on Martin Scorsese’s great and harrowing movie King of Comedy for inspiration, pushes deep into an investigation of the implications of the relationship between worshipper and worshipped by allowing for an actual meeting between the two. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the meeting does not go well; you’ll be able to tell from very early on in the movie that the so-called real world, where the meeting takes place, is not a world where Paul Aufiero meets a lot of triumph.

Instead, he looks for triumph exclusively in the internal world he’s created. Some—including his family in the movie—would argue that he’s not much different from an insane person in an asylum carrying on dialogues with figures invisible to anyone but himself. But I wonder if he’s that much different from a monk alone in his cell, removed from the world, praying for salvation all day long. I also wonder if he’s that much different from me.

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Jim Bibby

February 19, 2010

The Blue Jacket

(continued from Burt Hooton)

Two

I hadn’t planned to include thoughts on Jim Bibby, who died on Tuesday, in this story of a blue jacket, but as the Yiddish saying goes: man plans, god laughs.

Jim Bibby is wearing a blue jacket, but it’s not the blue jacket I was planning to tell you about. I was going to start talking about the latter blue jacket yesterday, but I didn’t have any time to write because I had to take my cat Marty to the vet. He’s doing better today, but you never know how these things are going to go. While I sat alone in the vet examination room, Marty out of my sight in a back room getting various shots, I thought about a quote from a Zen guy named Shunryu Suzuki. I’d happened upon Suzuki’s words a few days ago while leafing through a book by another Zen practitioner. I can’t find the quote now, but it went something like this: Renunciation is not giving up all things but realizing that all things go away.

It’s the type of shit you can swallow with calm piety while lazing around your cozy beer-stocked apartment, but if you’re sitting on a metal chair in a vet examination room alone, wondering if you might have to take an empty cat carrier home, well, forget it. I had cat hair all over my coat from when Marty had climbed all over me, purring, the second I’d opened his cat carrier so that the technician could weigh him. As another Zen master once said, this one of the Yiddish-inflected variety, “It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be.”

Man plans, god laughs. I wonder if I first heard that saying at the liquor store where I worked during my twenties. It’s possible, and there’s even a slight chance I heard the Yiddish version, which from the looks of it may have the added zing that comes from rhyming: Mann traoch, Gott Lauch. Scraps of the language were periodically bazooka-ed from my boss Morty’s loud mouth as he sat behind his desk at the back of the store, his lexicon rarely venturing from the extensive Yiddish subcategory of insults. Schliemel, schmendrick, putz, gonif, schmutz-boy (one of his terms, along with “asshole,” “prick,” and, simply, “boy” for me and the other slumping young clerks), and schnorrer were among his favorites, but none could hold a candle to schmuck, which he relied on in his verbal interactions like Nolan Ryan relied on a fastball. When the word needed added emphasis, Morty would refer to someone as a “schmuck with ears.”

I believe he, like my dad, grew up hearing Yiddish in the house, so he probably retained some of the language beyond the various words that could be used to compare an offensive or idiotic person to part or all of a male reproductive organ. He was also, on rare occasions, given over to philosophizing, so it wouldn’t shock me if he ever tried to tell me, during one of the lengthy lulls in the day’s business at the struggling store, that man plans and god laughs.

But really, Morty, despite his deserved reputation as an all-day-long yeller, was actually at his core a watcher. He sat at the back of the store and watched what went on. He had seen the rise and fall of things all through his life. When he saw someone riding high, he watched, and when he saw them guttering, he watched. Over the years, I felt him watching, and the watching hit me for what it was: kindness.

Once in a while, he broke from merely watching to speak to me. I mean beyond all the yelling and insults, which was of course also a way to speak to me and to let me know he was watching.

“May that be the worst thing that happens to you,” he said to me once. It was after a particularly low point in my twenties, and it’s the point I’m planning to get to, eventually, in this story of a blue jacket.

It’s a risky thing to say to a person who’s hurting, but coming from Morty to me it worked, lightening the weight on my shoulders just a little, releasing some of the tension on the knot in my gut. The message was twofold: one, things feel bad right now, but at least it’s already happened and behind you, and two, all things considered, things aren’t so bad. They could be much worse. I was in my early twenties. I was untouched.

When Morty was in his early twenties, he’d been to war. So had Jim Bibby, who served for two years in Vietnam. Bibby didn’t reach the major leagues until he was 28 years old, despite having, according to Whitey Herzog, the best fastball in the Mets’ organization besides the aforementioned Nolan Ryan. Like Burt Hooton, Bibby pitched a no-hitter very early in his major league career (his 25th game), and came close to repeating the feat several other times in a rollercoaster career in which, as Joe Posnanski put it in his recent requiem for the talented, mercurial Bibby, it “seemed like most days when he went out there to pitch, a team would say ‘Oh man, we don’t stand a chance tonight.’ Trouble is, you never knew which team.”

He stood at the pinnacle of the sport in 1979, earning the Game 7 start in the World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He pitched well for four innings before being pulled for a pinch-hitter (and the Pirates’ dominant bullpen) with the Pirates down 1-0. He didn’t get the win in the game that the Pirates came back to win, but he may have deserved it, carrying the heaviest load for the night with his four strong innings. He finished the 1979 postseason with a 2.08 ERA. The following year he made the All-Star team.

I’ve written about Bibby before on this site, right near the beginning of my efforts here to hold on to all the things I’ve ever touched and felt and heard and seen. I feel like I failed to get down the happiness embedded in the mere idea of Jim Bibby, but how could I not? You can never say all you want to say. Then, as now, I wanted to simply say that there was something about Jim Bibby. The name, the size, the Afro. He helped anchor some key, ineffable part of childhood. Still does.

So here he is again, his Afro bulging from below his Indians’ cap, a smile on his face. Underneath his uniform: a blue jacket. Not the blue jacket I originally planned to talk about, but a blue jacket nonetheless. He looks happy in his blue jacket. It’s the earliest days of spring training, everything still to come.

(to be continued)

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Don Hood

October 15, 2009

Don Hood 77

This 1977 card frightened me a little when I was a kid. In most baseball cards from those days, the subject looked directly at the viewer, or else was engaged in some sort of action on the field. More often than not, blue sky was visible. None of these norms are present in this representation of Don Hood. In fact, his pants provide the only evidence that he might be a baseball player, but even those could be part of the haphazard outfit of, well, a hood, an emaciated coke-frazzled hood, perhaps, who is waiting to issue threat-backed demands in a dank alley outside a rundown disco. I mean, what could be in his left hand behind his back? When I ponder this question, the possibility of the answer being a baseball ranks far behind such other possibilities as a broken beer bottle, a switchblade, or even a switchblade comb.

I always wanted a switchblade comb. (What, would you rather I delve into the subject of Don Hood? Don Hood had a lifetime 34-35 record after recording a loss [upon giving up two unearned runs due to a Buddy Biancalana error] in his last appearance in the very last game of the very last season of his decade in the majors.) They sold switchblade combs in comic books, but for some reason I never got my act together to send away for one. I didn’t have a pile of money lying around, I guess, and what money I did have I spent on purchasing Don Hood’s likeness in cardboard, along with thousands of others cards. Maybe I understood that somehow if I did send away for a switchblade comb, the reality of the object, as opposed to the unassailable hypothetical notion of it, would be weighted with disappointment. I can see how it would have gone: I’d have whipped it out a couple times at home, in front of my brother and parents, making like I was a tough guy with a blade and then using it to comb my hair (something I actually never did and in fact which was sort of impossible—I had snarled, curly, hippie-kid hair, and probably the teeth of the cheap switchblade comb would have started snapping off pretty rapidly), then I would have taken it to school and tried the gag there too, but both at home and at school the bit would be taken in by onlookers with glaze-eyed boredom. It wouldn’t have gotten any laughs. Then the device would have probably stopped opening or, more likely, would have stopped closing, thus nullifying its purpose, and it would have sat on a shelf until it fell behind a shelf or under a couch and maybe on the last day of our family’s life in the house someone would have found it and thrown it away.

So maybe it’s better that I never sent away for a switchblade comb. But why did I never save up for another of the comic book wonders for sale, the hover craft? Oh, how I would have soared.

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Dan Spillner

February 9, 2009

dan-spillner-79

Somewhere I Lost Connection

(continued from Larry Harlow)

Chapter Six

Dan Spillner was stuck in Lodi in 1971, his second season in professional baseball, but by 1979 the back of his baseball card no longer carried any evidence of that season, or any other minor league season. This was a common development in the world of the Cardboard Gods. At a certain point, if you were able to hang on long enough in the majors, your minor league records, no longer necessary as a space-filler, disappeared from the back of your card. Gone was any evidence of anonymity and strife, of any kind of a past that may have seemed to be leading nowhere.

Memory is supposed to work this way, at least in this land where the narrative of triumph reigns supreme. You are supposed to go from rags to riches. You are supposed to remember the good times and forget all the moments of painful aimless wandering, or at least reframe them as rungs in the golden ladder that has delivered you to the high cloud upon which you presently stand.

I have a feeling that we are entering into an age where the narrative of triumph is no longer possible to sustain. Everyone is losing. The stories we tell will be more about communal survival than solitary triumph. Memory might start working differently to serve this purpose. The forgotten stops, the shipwrecks, the sojourns in Lodi, all the passages that may have dropped off the back of the ideal untroubled rectangle of cardboard might start to reappear. The type on the backs of our cards will grow smaller to include more and more memories returning from erasure as we remember, out of need, all the times and places we thought we might never escape from, yet somehow we did.

***

I don’t know how it is now, but in 1990 when I hitched a ride into Berlin the city was like the kind of baseball card I’m most drawn to, slick and thrumming with life on one side, riddled with evidence of complicated history on the other, the elements of the two sides feeding into one another until the whole card feels as if you could hold it to your ear, like a conch shell, and hear the moaning howl.

My first steps in Berlin were taken on that back side, among the gray bullet-riddled walls of the half of the city that less than a year earlier had been beyond the world’s most notorious divider. The driver with the Lech Walesa mustache hadn’t understood that I’d wanted to stop in Berlin, so we plowed all the way through the west side and deep into the east side before I somehow convinced him to stop his car long enough for me to throw myself and my backpack out onto the cracked concrete. He grumbled something and sped away.

Who knows how far he would have driven me? Maybe I should have stayed in the car just to see. I’ve never gone far enough. I’ve always turned back, always eventually started groping blindly for the imagined safety of home.

***

Dan Spillner was born in 1951, the sweet spot of the baby boom, when all boats were rising in the west. Will there ever be a higher water mark for capitalism than the span of Dan Spillner’s years from his birth in 1951 to end of his major league career due to owner collusion in 1985? The west got slicker and ever more lively and strong, while the east trudged in place stolidly like an elephant strapped with powerful explosives. The contrast between east and west was never clearer to me than while I was drifting around Berlin, east to west and back again, the winning side in rich, autumnal designer-label color, the losing side in shades of breadline gray.

The east side made me homesick, just as I’d been the previous year in China, for the numbing amnesiac diversions of the west. Communism, even in its aftermath stage, made me long to forget myself in Hershey bars and box scores and beer. My first dusk in Berlin, after I fled the east side and found a place to stay on the west side, I sat on a bench and drank warm beer and ate chocolate and stared at the ruins of a bombed-out church. On the east side the ruin would have been just part of the scenery, something on an endless list of things that would never be fixed, but on the west side the ruin was maintained in its ruined state intentionally, as a historic landmark, complete with a bronze plaque explaining its significance in many languages. Fashionably-dressed people walked fast past the ruin, their lives pulled taut with appointments, while bums lounged on other benches all around me, nowhere to go. As I caught my beer and chocolate buzz I silently counted the dwindling number of travelers checks I knew I had in my wallet, which was just another way of counting the days that separated me from bumdom.

***

I could throw as hard as anyone. I could stand on the mound, and you knew what was coming, and it was, “Here it is, now try and hit it.” It got me into professional baseball. I was in the big leagues for three years before I threw a curve. – Dan Spillner

***

I was 22. When Dan Spillner was 22 he had put Lodi behind him and was on the brink of a major league career that would last twelve years. He could feel his power in his fingers. He knew where he was going: Forward. Upward. I didn’t know where I was going. I wanted to go backward. I always want to go backward.

(to be continued)

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Rick Manning

January 5, 2009
 Untitled
We all live for a while in the land of might. We might go anywhere. We might become anything. When do you realize you’ve been cast out of this land? When does your what if congeal into what is? That moment seems to be happening in this 1979 card, as a melancholy Rick Manning in extreme close-up seems unable to look straight at the viewer, as if in fear that the viewer will start grilling him about why he hasn’t become the next Tris Speaker, or at the very least a less hilarious version of Mickey Rivers.

A few years earlier, in his rookie season of 1975, Rick Manning hit .285, which along with his spectacular fielding in centerfield would have earned him the rookie of the year award in most seasons. Unfortunately, he made his debut the same season as 1975 MVP Fred Lynn (not to mention Lynn’s teammate Jim Rice). The following season, Manning won a Gold Glove, upped his average to .292, and doubled his home run output from 3 to 6. Visions of even better seasons, spangled with a .300 average, 40-50 steals, and double-digit home runs, seemed not only possible but likely. “He’s the most exciting ballplayer the Indians have had in many years,” his manager Frank Robinson said in 1976, in the June issue of Baseball Digest. “I think his potential is unlimited.”

Manning stumbled in 1977, hitting just .227. At the end of that season the Indians traded away his teammate Dennis Eckersley, apparently fearing clubhouse dissension over the fact that Manning had been having an affair with Eckersley’s wife. It stands to reason that before the trade the Indians evaluated both players on what lay ahead for them, and decided that despite his disappointing 1977 campaign 22-year-old Rick Manning still owned more acreage than 22-year-old Dennis Eckersley in the land of might.

In 1978, while Eckersley was winning 20 games for his new team, the Red Sox, Rick Manning edged his average back up to .263, but in 1979, the year this card came out, he slid back a little, to .259, which turned out to be the most accurate portrait of his talents he’d ever produce in a single season, considering the .257 lifetime average he ultimately finished with after 13 quiet seasons at or near the basement of the American League East.

As Rick Manning’s career was drawing to a close, Dennis Eckersley also seemed to be just about through playing professional baseball. In 1987, Manning’s final season, Eckersley was traded with someone named Dan Rohn to the A’s for three minor leaguers. It wasn’t the kind of deal that had any might in it. Just bodies replacing other bodies. But as most baseball fans know, in Oakland Eckersley was moved to the bullpen, and he proceeded to have a promising season, his first in years. The A’s must have thought, correctly as it turned out, “Hey, we just might have something here.” This is the haunting thing about the land of might. Even after we’ve been cast out we’re never sure when to stop hoping we might be able to return.

***

(These thoughts on Rick Manning began when I noticed him on the cover of the aforementioned June 1976 Baseball Digest while perusing the complete Baseball Digest archives. Thanks to John Rosenfelder at earbender for giving me a heads-up about this amazing new online baseball time machine.)

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Jeff Torborg

May 20, 2008
  
How much does a catcher contribute to a pitcher’s success? There was an attempt to quantify the answer to this with a statistic called catcher ERA, but the numbers for catchers varied too much from year to year for the stat to be trusted as an accurate statistical tool. If anything, the statistic suggested that catchers are pretty much going along for the ride, and catcher ERAs merely mirror the relative merits of pitchers.

If that’s the case, Jeff Torborg was a particularly lucky guy, but not as lucky as Jason Varitek, who last night surged ahead of Torborg and eleven other catchers to become the all-time leader in no-hitters caught. (As Gordon Edes points out, one of the other catchers with three no-hitters caught, Ray Schalk, was for many years credited with being a part of four no-hitters, but one of those was a game in which his pitcher lost his no-hit bid in extra innings; in 1991 such games were no longer considered no-hitters.) I was actually surprised to hear that there were so many catchers who had been a part of three no-hitters, since the first and only guy I think of when I think of multiple no-hitters caught is Jeff Torborg. This may be because of this card, which includes, on the back, Torborg’s tepid major league statistics (.214 lifetime batting average with 8 home runs in 1391 at bats) along with a couple lines of text at the bottom: “Jeff caught 3 no-hitters in his career . . . by Sandy Koufax (1965), Bill Singer (1970), and Nolan Ryan (1973).” I didn’t know much about Bill Singer, but I did know that there were no more impressive names from the pitching world than Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax, and Jeff Torborg had been on hand to collaborate with them at their most superhuman. Though this did rescue Torborg in my mind from total anonymity, I doubt I gave him much credit for his feat. All he had to do was catch immortal fastballs.

I’m sure it’s bias that makes me want to give Jason Varitek credit where I gave Jeff Torborg none. But bias aside, Varitek does have the list of names of the no-hitter pitchers he’s worked with (a fading Hideo Nomo, an erratic Derek Lowe, and two talented but very young pitchers in Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester) as a mark supporting the claim that he had something to do with their success. Also, throughout his career both pitchers and coaches have remarked at length about Varitek’s ability to positively influence pitching performance. Maybe everyone saying it has made it a fact. All I know is that as I sweated out the last few outs of the game last night I was glad the captain was behind the plate.

As for Torborg, shown here at the beginning of his long and mostly featureless managerial career, I no longer think first of him as an extra in stories of no-hitter greatness. This changed for me around the time Ray Schalk was dumped back into the pile of three no-hitter catchers, in the early 1990s, when Torborg became the manager of the New York Mets. He ended up presiding over a colossal Mets failure that season, but what I remember most is the defining moment of his bright and hopeful first press conference. The phrase he uttered, about a newcomer to the team, came to loom over the ruin of the season like a curse.

“Just wait’ll you see Bill Pecota,” Torborg proclaimed.

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Bo Diaz

February 24, 2008
 

Elysium

(continued from Danny Frisella)

Chapter Four

“I was golden,” Richie Hebner is saying.

“Drafted in the first round. Right out of high school. Same age as you.”

I’m lying on the dock in the middle of the lake beside Richie Hebner, both of us staring up at the stars. The stars look like glow-in-the-dark decals.

Same age as me? I try to say. Nothing but a groaning sound comes out, maybe not even that. I’m in the middle of my life. I’m lost. Or I’m a boy saying goodbye to a broken dog lying in a backyard pit. Or I’m just past the baseball card years shooting baskets with a pale kid who dribbles with both hands. Or maybe Richie Hebner is right. Maybe I’ve changed again, grown a little taller and older still. Maybe I’m just out of high school. Lying on the dock beside Richie Hebner.

“My sole purpose in life was to hit a baseball,” Richie Hebner says. “Stand at the plate, wait for my pitch, take a rip.” He sits up. The silver one-hitter he’d been holding is gone. Now he’s holding a silver shovel. He gets to his feet and walks to the edge of the dock. I sit up and look around. I don’t quite remember how I got out here. I don’t remember swimming. The surface of the water is a dim gray. Richie Hebner jabs his shovel at the surface and produces a cracking sound. Ice.

“People think purposelessness equals innocence,” Richie Hebner says. “They think kids have no purpose and that’s what saves them from an awareness of the affliction that is the human condition.” He continues jabbing at the surface with the shovel. I can hear the cracks spreading. The dim gray of the surface seems to shimmer as if coursing with a thin, uneven current. I think I see a figure in the shadows along the dark far shore, but maybe it’s just a bush shuddering in the wind. Except there’s no wind.

“But watch a little kid some time,” Richie Hebner says. He keeps jabbing down at the water, holding the handle with both hands, the motion of his arms each time he jabs down like that of someone checking their swing. “They’re all purpose, man. Their purpose might shift a lot from one thing to another but they’re always locked into whatever it is when they’re doing it. Locked in! Then when they get hauled off to school they get purpose shoved onto them. If they go along with it they’re golden with purpose, and if they fight against it they’re still golden because they’re full of their own invented purpose.”

The dock begins to shudder, starting to move. I always thought it was anchored. The surface of the water around us seems to have begun breaking into pieces. The figure at the edge of the far shore has gotten free of the ice and has begun to move, slowly, haltingly. The pieces of ice breaking loose are gray shimmering rectangles, the widening spaces in between them just darkness.

“After high school, man, that’s when it could happen,” Richie Hebner says. “But not to me, man. I was golden. Like the picture of the guy in the card you’re holding.”

I don’t know how it got there but I now have Bo Diaz’s 1981 card in my hand. A few years after that card came out, in the offseason, his skills in decline, another season of being golden in doubt, Bo Diaz was crushed to death while trying to install a television satellite dish. There’s enough light from Richie Hebner and the glow-in-the-dark stars and the gray shimmering from the rectangles of ice to see that in the card I’m holding Bo Diaz is at bat, waiting for a pitch, determined, locked in, nothing else in the world of any concern. The end of his career is far off, and satellite dishes are still years away from being available to the public.

“Pure purpose,” Richie Hebner says, as if reading my thoughts. “Waiting for that pitch. Knowing it’s gonna be a bitch. Using everything you’ve got to lock in and just fucking connect.” We have begun moving through the water, the blocks of ice thumping against the wood. There seems to be a hissing sound now, as if of wind through trees, but there still is no wind here. We’re moving toward the figure on the shore. Judging from the slowness with which he moves, it’s an old man. He’s pushing something.

“As long as you’re in the batter’s box,” Richie Hebner says. “As long as you, uh, as long. Um. Shit.” He uses the shovel as a paddle. The dock has narrowed to a raft. The shape of the lake seems to be changing as well, narrowing and pushing forward.

“Forgot what I was going to say,” Richie Hebner says. “Always happens on the downslope of the high from this shit. Get all brilliant for a second then it’s Flowers for . . ., for . . . Shit. What was the name of that book about the mouse and the retard?”

Richie Hebner’s glow begins to fade. This makes it easier to see beyond him, to the surface of the lake, which I realize is made up not of rectangular blocks of gray ice but of television sets, hundreds of them piled all around our wooden raft and all the way to the shore, which continues to dissolve, opening out into a narrow extension of the lake. All of the TV screens are hissing with snow, though some of them also flicker with brief glimpses of faces, each glimpse only long enough to make it seem that the figure on screen is in the middle of howling.

“You come to the end of the road,” Richie Hebner says. “That’s when. That’s when the shit gets real.”

We are close enough to the shore to see that the old man is pushing a grocery cart. He is wearing a red uniform with blue piping and a matching short-billed policeman-style cap, cocked a little to the side. Jauntily. It’s my grandfather. The grocery cart has a French horn lying in it. He’s whistling tunelessly with each of his exhalations, something he did when I lived with him near the end of his life. He wanted to hide that he was out of breath.

I lived with him after I got kicked out of high school. You come to the end of the road. No institutionally imposed purpose anymore, no purpose rising up from within. No skills. No specific wants, nobody wanting.

The two of us, my grandfather and I, we drifted though that summer like we were on a rudderless raft. We watched a lot of TV. We went to a nearby pond sometimes. It wasn’t that much bigger than Lake Champagne. He circled the edge of it, as he’s doing now, except then he swam the whole way in a very slow elementary backstroke.

Richie Hebner is barely visible now, and he rows us into the curving river that the lake has given way to. The borders of all the television sets have given way, too, as if melting together, their snow-filled screens all merging, and we drift forward and down as if on a slow river of static. We are drawing closer to my grandfather.

Up until the summer we lived together my grandfather had played in a brass band that gave oompahing concerts at the town band shell every Friday night. He wore the uniform he’s wearing now. But that summer his lungs weren’t up to it anymore. He lost his last scheduled activity.

I try to call out to him now, but nothing comes out.

One day that summer we went to the giant new Stop & Shop. He was amazed. We walked up and down the aisles slow as reverent monks. He pushed the cart, his portable oxygen tank in the upper basket, the tubes from it snaking into his nose. He kept saying the store was the damnedest thing he’d ever seen.

We’re close enough now that Richie Hebner could reach out and touch him with the tip of his shovel, but Richie Hebner doesn’t seem to notice him, and he doesn’t seem to notice us.

When we got home from the Stop & Shop, I’m sure we watched TV because we always watched TV. TV had a schedule, specific start times and end times. The TV was in my grandfather’s bedroom. He sat in his La-Z-Boy and I sat on his mechanized bed, periodically raising and lowering my head and legs with a remote control. My grandmother’s bed lay empty beside me. One show ended and another began.

I try to call out to my grandfather again. We’re past him. He is walking along the shore in the direction we came. He whistles tunelessly with each exhalation. I try to call out to him one last time. He stops, and I think for a moment that he’s heard me. But I understand, because I know him, that he’s stopping to look around at everything, to marvel at everything, as if the darkness and the static and the star-shaped glow-in-the-dark decals are all the damnedest things he’s ever seen.

(to be continued)

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Larry Andersen/Indians-Red Sox Game 6 Chat

October 20, 2007
 

 

Who is the most famous middle reliever ever? For the entirety of baseball history this has been an unanswerable question, for no middle reliever has ever really attained any kind of fame whatsoever.

Middle relievers ride unrecognized on the Green Line to Fenway Park, slump in the shadows during the cheers of starting lineup introductions, and, even if they manage to get into a game, are already in the showers by any climactic moments of victory. By contrast, their pine-riding brethren in the dugout, non-starting positional players, such as Bernie Carbo, occasionally have moments of great renown. Middle relief, like the bulk of life, doesn’t really lend itself to special moments.

In recent years especially it has become abundantly clear that winning a World Series requires strong middle relief work, yet no middle reliever has ever won a postseason award (or a regular season award, for that matter). This could all change today, if the team featured in this preposterously titled Future Stars card from 1980 manages to close out the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series (FOX, 8:23 ET): the Indians’ best and most important player so far has been middle reliever Rafael Betancourt. By contrast, the Red Sox’ middle relievers have been frighteningly shaky. This disparity in the area of middle relief does not bode well for the Red Sox, especially considering that their starting pitcher for today seems no longer capable of going deep into a game against a top-notch lineup like the Indians. That bullpen door is going to swing open at some point today and Red Sox fans are going to wish they’d spent more time praying to the underappreciated gods of middle relief.

Here are three of those gods, Future Stars that foretell of a future that will never escape the abundant limitations of the present. None of the men are that young, each with several seasons in the minors under their belt. One, Bobby Cuellar, had surfaced in the majors three years earlier but would never surface again. Another, Sandy Wihtol, would briefly seem the most successful of the three, appearing in 17 games in 1980 while his fellow Future Stars continued riding minor league buses, but Wihtol would be back in the minors the following year. The third Future Star, Larry Andersen, after seeming at first to be bound for the same oblivion as his cohorts, instead caught that long, steady wave that middle relievers sometimes catch, their major league careers stretching on and on for one franchise after another, their longevity finally imprinting some awareness of their name of the minds of casual fans, who are always surprised when these riders of the long, steady wave, who they thought had been jettisoned from the majors years ago, appear in a game.

Larry Andersen’s renown has increased beyond that of the usual long-tenured itinerant middle reliever, mainly because the Boston Red Sox once acquired him for the stretch run by trading away a minor league first baseman who had yet to show any signs of being able to hit for power. Since the Red Sox had another minor league first baseman, Mo Vaughn, who had shown ample signs of being able to hold down the middle of a lineup, it didn’t seem like a bad gamble to trade Jeff Bagwell away. 

Many jokes have been made about the trade, some of them by the witty Andersen himself, but the truth is, as a Red Sox fan, if I could have just one of the two players in their prime on my team for today’s game, based on the relative strengths and (glaring) weaknesses of the 2007 team, I’d pick Larry Andersen over Bagwell.

I’d pick the middle reliever.

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Bernie Carbo/Red Sox-Indians Game 5 Chat

October 18, 2007
 

“Bernie is the only man I know who turned fall into summer with one wave of his magic wand.”
                                                  – Bill Lee

Summers are never the same once your days as a student come to an end, so in a way my last real summer came in 1990, just after I graduated from college. That last summer ended with a thin rice-paper letter from China.

I’d been planning to return to Shanghai to teach and to live with the young woman I’d fallen in love with during a recent semester abroad, but the letter from the woman let me know I’d have to make other plans. She’d met another guy. I’d been working on the college campus maintenance crew to save up money for a ticket to China, and when I got the fractured-English Dear John letter I used the money to meander around Europe instead.

The Red Sox were battling for a playoff berth as I left, and the first time I bought a Herald-Tribune to check on them I read about Tom Brunansky extending summer a little longer by making a spectacular game-winning, division-clinching catch in the very last moment of the regular season. The magic-wand catch made me wonder if this was going to be the year when summer finally lived forever for the Red Sox. But by the second time I checked a Herald-Tribune, which seems in my memory to have been the next day, but which must have been at least a few days later, the Red Sox had already been dumped from the playoffs by the Oakland A’s. Summer was gone for good, and all I could do was wander around until the money ran out.

Another summer may soon be over for the Red Sox, but you never know. They’ve been in worse spots. In 1975, for example, the Red Sox trailed the Cincinnati Reds three games to two and were losing by three runs with two outs in the 8th inning when the man pictured here was sent in to pinch hit. He fell behind in the count, barely fouled off a pitch to stay alive, then drilled a three-run home run over the centerfield fence. Summer was back. Not only that, Carbo ensured that the summer of 1975 was one of those rare seasons that would live forever; as Boston’s native son Jonathan Richman might have put it: “That summer feeling’s gonna haunt you the rest of your life.”

No telling if there’s any summer feeling left in the 2007 Red Sox. But they’ve been told in other years that summer was over and have refused to listen. Even some of the players who weren’t around in 2004 have experience turning sure fall back into summer, chief among those being relative newcomer Josh Beckett, tonight’s starting pitcher, who started the Marlins improbable comeback in the 2003 NLCS by beating the Cubs with his team down three games to one, just like his team is tonight (Game 5 set to start at 8:21 ET on FOX). Though the Indians seem to want to obscure that memory of Beckett’s with a memory more redolent of endings tonight (they have hired Beckett’s ex-girlfriend as their National Anthem singer), I’m hoping Beckett has one more day of sizzling summer in his right arm.

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Welcome to the Red Sox-Indians Game 3 Chat, Broham

October 15, 2007
 

 
When did the surfer/frat-boy slang term broham come into existence? I feel as if I may have heard it back in 1987 when I spent a summer in California, but I’m not sure. Anyway, I wonder if utility infielder Jack Brohamer would have been more well-known if the term had been around in his day. 

As it was, Brohamer came and went without leaving much of a trace. He played for a few years in Cleveland, his only departure from anonimity coming in his role as the unwitting Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the 10-Cent Beer Night riot (as mentioned previously on Cardboard Gods, Len Randle’s hard slide into Brohamer at second base in Texas led to a beaning of Randle, which led to a fight and the pelting of Indians players by Texas fans, which led to a night for the ages on the Rangers’ next trip to Cleveland). He went on to play two years for the White Sox, the most stunning legacy from that era the fact that in 1976 Brohamer was intentionally walked 9 times (the player who most often followed him in the lineup was named Bucky Dent), then played for the Boston Red Sox for a couple years before returning to Cleveland for one more brief and inconsequential go-round.

The closest he ever got to the playoffs was when he started at third base for the Red Sox in the 1978 one-game divisional play-in game against the Yankees. Brohamer had been having an excellent season as a part-time player for most of the year, his batting average over .300 as late as July 9, then after a slump climbing back to .270 by August 28, when the Red Sox held a 7½-game lead over the second-place Yankees. From that point on, however, Brohamer, forced into playing nearly every day by injuries to second baseman Jerry Remy and third baseman Butch Hobson, collected just 10 hits in 69 at bats for a sickly .145 batting average.

But nobody blames Jack Brohamer for the collapse. In some ways I’ve always aspired to this level of culpability in my life. I don’t want to be held responsible. I don’t want anyone cursing my name. Better to just stick to the sidelines, the shadows, and let someone else get the glory or take the fall. Better to just Brohamer it.

Meanwhile, I live vicariously through game-playing strangers, drawing as close as possible to them in my imagination in their times of triumph, and distancing them as much as possible from me with curses and even hatred when they stumble.

With that in mind, here are the lineups for today’s Game Three of the deadlocked American League Championship Series (7:10 ET, FOX), courtesy of Ameile Benjamin’s Boston Globe blog:

Red Sox
1. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
2. Kevin Youkilis, 1B
3. David Ortiz, DH
4. Manny Ramirez, LF
5. Mike Lowell, 3B
6. J.D. Drew, RF
7. Jason Varitek, C
8. Coco Crisp, CF
9. Julio Lugo, SS

SP – Daisuke Matsuzaka

Indians
1. Grady Sizemore, CF
2. Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B
3. Travis Hafner, DH
4. Victor Martinez, C
5. Ryan Garko, 1B
6. Jhonny Peralta, SS
7. Kenny Lofton, LF
8. Trot Nixon, RF
9. Casey Blake, 3B

SP – Jake Westbrook

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Rick Wise/Indians-Red Sox Game 2 Chat

October 13, 2007
 

 
“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.” – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

Here is a portrait of a man on the brink of oblivion. Like all great art, this piece expands the conventional bounds of its genre, transcending the strictly figurative representation that was the function of late twentieth century baseball card portraiture with both the abstract wash of colors in the background and the apparent slight but jarring distortion of the body in the foreground. The figure, “Wise,” seems to have unusually long legs and wide hips in relation to the short torso and short arms, this distortion of the human form a seeming allusion to the powerful-legged, spindly-armed Tyrannosaurus Rex, which in turn gives the portrait overtones of great, fearsome power nullified by the certainty of extinction. This theme of extinction is furthered in the blurring in the background of what viewers at the time of the artwork would understand contextually to be the crowd, a gathering assembled for the purpose of cheering for and cursing and exalting and even in a crude way praying for and thus making sacred game-playing participants such as the one pictured here, “Wise.” The blurring of all faces in the crowd, coupled with the look of apprehension on the face of Wise and the aforementioned anatomical distortion of his features, creates a sense of ending, of things once solid melting into air. No faces can be seen in the crowd, only here and there among the shapeless colors small soft-edged spheres, the motif perhaps an attempt on the part of the artist to contradict the allusions to the famous quote above with intimations of an afterlife, as if the orbs were souls able to carry something of the individual beyond the inevitable cessation of earthly life, of flesh. Less ambiguous than the mysterious orbs is the fate of the central figure, Wise, whose allegorical name in this context, coupled with his obvious inability to cease the dissipation of the crowd (and, by extension, the dissipation of meaning, for what is a game with no crowd?) seems to offer a bracing commentary on the limitations of the rational mind, of human wisdom. There will come a moment when all we know won’t mean anything. Wise seems to be verging on this moment. He is either looking around to see if there is anywhere where things are still solid or he is looking back, trying to find a place and time he can cling to, something that will never melt into air.

If he is looking back, what is the object of his gaze? What can we cling to in our last moment? The portrait offers no clue, but on the back of this card (where artisans who created these works supplemented the portraits on the front of the cards with intricate numerology and text), there is a cartoon of a ballplayer without thick glasses and with a broad smile (free of limitations and sadness), looking at a scoreboard that tells the tale of a victory. Above the cartoon is the following line of text, which according to experts in the interpretation of the back of the card numerology is exceedingly far-fetched, the stuff of a fairy tale, suggesting that all we have in the end are fairy tales, slim, brilliant moments that are too good to ever have been true:

“Rick hurled no-hitter for Phillies vs. Reds, 6-23-71, and hit 2 homers in the game.”

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Dennis Eckersley (Indians-Red Sox Game 1 Chat)

October 12, 2007

 

Game time is still quite a ways away (7:07 ET, FOX), but I couldn’t sleep much last night and now I’m up and all I can think about are Indians.

One of the first things I saw this morning after not sleeping was an article in the Boston Globe entitled “They’ve had some chief concerns,” in which Dan Shaughnessy wonders what Jacoby Ellsbury thinks of Chief Wahoo. It might be an interesting follow-up to readers of yesterday’s interview with historian Akim Reinhardt. A high point for me is when the customarily pompous and oblivious Shaughnessy seems to dismiss all cultural controversies over sports team names by concluding a listing of some of the controversies with the declaration, “For all I know, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are offended by the Minnesota Twins.”

Anyway, here’s Chief Wahoo himself riding on the shoulder of the Eck, shown here in the first of his many lives in major league baseball (those lives being, in order, young flamethrower for the lackluster Indians, ace and would-be savior of the powerful but pitching-desparate Red Sox, washed-up meatballer for the Cubs, Hall of Fame-caliber bullpen ace of the A’s, and, finally, journeyman reliever-for-hire). On the back of this card I see that he played his first season of pro ball in Reno at the age of 17. The following year, also in Reno, he struck out over 200 batters, and by the age of 20 was in the major leagues. In this photo he is 21 or maybe 22, and he already has 26 big league wins and is months away from pitching a no-hitter. His storied early success with the Indians makes his trade to the Red Sox seem, in retrospect, a bit like the more recent coming of Josh Beckett to Boston. In Eck’s first season with the Red Sox, 1978, he seemed to be the final huge piece of the World Series Championship puzzle, the brilliant young ace they needed to complement their aging resident Big Game Pitcher (in this analogy, Beckett is Eck and Curt Schilling is Luis Tiant). In the end Eckersley’s worthy efforts–he won 20 games in 1978–were not quite enough to win the division for the Red Sox, who fell in a one-game playoff to the Yankees, just as they had 30 years earlier in a one-game playoff against, who else, the Indians. That year the Indians went on to beat their partners in questionable baseball team names, the Braves, in the World Series, their last such triumph. They came close in the 1990s but always seemed to lack that dominating ace, their hitting-rich teams resembling the pre-Eck Red Sox of the 1970s. Now they have not one but two aces every bit as good as Eck ever was or Josh Beckett is, C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. The Red Sox, on the other hand, have, after Beckett, an old man who has lost his fastball, a knuckleballer with a bad back, and a rookie from Japan who seems to have run out of gas months ago.

It’s no wonder I couldn’t sleep much last night.

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