Archive for the ‘Detroit Tigers’ Category

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Dave Roberts

August 8, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

Diedre

I don’t remember Alaska. I was around two years old. My mother had met a man at a peace march the previous year. Something happened between them. Through life and its unending series of problems, you carry a belief that there’s some true path for you, waiting to be uncovered. Sometimes it feels as if you’ve found this path.

The man from the peace march, Tom, then went to work as a forest fire fighter in Alaska. My mom followed him, taking my brother and me along. My dad stayed in New Jersey. I’ve always known that when I was very young I went to Alaska, but I’d thought it was part of a vacation. My mom told me recently that it wasn’t. She said she wasn’t sure whether we’d ever be coming back.

That was in 1970. I don’t know exactly when. It might have been in April, when second-year pro Dave Roberts, still searching for his first major league win, got called into a game in relief. Mike Corkins started the game but was yanked midway through the second inning. Roberts got Willie Davis to ground into a double play, ending the threat. He breezed through the next inning, and the one after that, and the one after that, and so on. He must have felt good, numb and high and clear and natural, the way you do when it seems you’re walking the path meant only for you.

There’s mention of this game on the back of Dave Roberts’ 1977 card, below several years of statistics showing losses outnumbering wins. The card is on my desk, near a stack of unpaid bills. There are always baseball cards and bills on my desk.

***

In Alaska, we lived in some kind of communal situation among the crew of young drifting men who’d ended up in Alaska to fight forest fires. The place was hazy with pot smoke. There was one other child there besides my brother and me, a little girl my age. Her mother wasn’t around. Her father was one of the firefighters.

Dave Roberts had to leave that perfect moment from 1970 behind. He had to go on, losing more often than he won, surviving, moving from place to place. By 1976, he was with the sixth franchise of his pro career, the Tigers, part of a starting rotation on a hopeless team. He was by this time bracketed and obscured in the baseball encyclopedia by a Dave Roberts from the 1960s and another who as an overall number one draft pick had soared directly into the major leagues in 1972 (the same year, as it happens, that a fourth Dave Roberts was born in Japan—where the first Dave Roberts, no relation, was still playing pro ball—and this fourth Dave Roberts would eventually eclipse all previous players named Dave Roberts by stealing a base). In early May 1976, the Dave Roberts in question experienced arguably his most significant moment in the majors by contracting the flu, which caused him to miss his turn in the rotation, which allowed a Tigers rookie named Mark Fidrych to get his first major league start.

***

I had a dream last night that I’d left my eleven-month-old son in another room by himself. When I realized that I’d left him unattended I rushed back to the room he was in and found him yanking on a rickety bookcase three times his size. Later in the dream my wife asked me to go outside to check whether I could get into the apartment through a window in our basement, a test to see how easily an intruder could enter. Earlier, in the real world, before I’d started this anxiety-dream sleep, our central air conditioning unit had stopped working, the same one we’d spent thousands of dollars on last summer when my wife was very pregnant.

Last fall my wife quit her job to stay home with our baby, and our savings account is eroding. The money I make as a mistake-hunter—proofreading, copyediting—isn’t enough to cover our bills. Occasionally I make some additional money writing, but not much, especially when weighed against actual time spent writing. Spending time writing is, in financial terms, about as sound a decision as spending time throwing rocks into the sea. The long-endangered notion of writing as a way to make a living or even help make a living is now on the brink of extinction. I know this because my dad, who often sends me links to bleak news items, forwarded me a recent column by Scottish novelist Ewan Morrison, who sees a future without professional authors.

Writing has already begun its slide towards becoming something produced and consumed for free. . . . How long have we got? A generation. After that, writers, like musicians, filmmakers, critics, porn stars, journalists and photographers, will have to find other ways of making a living in a short-term world that will not pay them for their labour.

I recently spent a few weeks researching Mark Fidrych’s 1976 season. I was going to write a book about that beautiful summer and was very excited but then found out another biography of the Tigers 1970s supernova of joy was already well in the works, to be published fairly soon. While two concurrent books on, say, a famed American president or Miley Cyrus might have a chance of succeeding, two books on a baseball player who had one good summer thirty-six years ago would just scuttle both projects or at least the second one, mine, so I pulled the plug.

“What are we going to do?” my wife asked last night in the hot room. She meant about the air conditioning but also everything. I just sat there staring at the floor.

***

I’ve been working as a mistake-hunter for a long time. I started many years ago, getting occasional temporary gigs through friends. This was back in New York in the 1990s. When my girlfriend and I left New York in 2003, we didn’t have jobs lined up. I got the first bite on the work-hunting front. A publishing company in the Chicago suburbs needed a part-time proofreader. I was shown a cubicle and given some pages. I started hunting for mistakes. I have stuck with the company like a barnacle. Most every weekday since then has been some version of that first day. In the mornings before work, briefly, I go to my desk of bills and baseball cards and try to wander.

There appear to be palm trees in the background of the photo on Dave Roberts’ 1977 card. Maybe there’s a separating body of water just out of sight, and the palm trees are on an island. Maybe I could go to live on that island. I’d read. Baseball games of no consequence would occur nearby.

While researching Mark Fidrych I got sidetracked frequently. I love being sidetracked. It’s better than any fantasy of palm tree island solitude, even. I was looking at old newspapers from 1976 available in the Google news archives and in those newspapers you can scroll around, looking at old advertisements, the news of the day, TV listings. I kept finding traces of attempts to oppose gravity. There was a guy who wanted to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and another guy who tried to fly across the ocean in a hot-air balloon and disappeared. Out beyond Earth’s atmosphere, Skylab was slowly disintegrating. Evel Knievel came out of a brief retirement, jumped some buses in the Kingdome, then apologized for not being spectacular enough, not flying high and far enough. ABC aired a Happy Days rerun of an episode earlier in the season when Fonzie, worried he was losing his cool, jumped fourteen garbage cans on his motorcycle before smashing into a food stand. There was something in the air that year, a deep cultural urge, a need to oppose the unavoidable awareness that everything was falling back down to earth.

***

My mom told me about Alaska while on a recent visit to see her grandson. She said I spent the afternoons playing in abandoned cars behind the compound, or whatever it was, with the little girl my age whose mother wasn’t around.

Dave Roberts never pitched better than on that spring day in 1970. After relieving Mike Corkins, he recorded 18 outs in a row. In the eighth, he walked Maury Wills and gave up a single to Willie Davis, but then erased the threat with an inning-ending double play and posted a 1-2-3 ninth.

My mom still remembered the name of the girl. Since she told me her name I’ve been carrying it around on my tongue. On the bus to work, staring out at the chain stores. While at work, looking for mistakes. On the bus home, the same. Applebee’s, Best Buy, Jiffy Lube. Diedre.

After a few weeks in Alaska, my mom decided it was too wild, too unstructured, too insecure. My father was still in New Jersey, going to his job, making a paycheck, refusing to stop believing things could work out, that the family could stay together. He turned out to be right, in a way. The family did stay together, for a while anyway, and weirdly. We returned to him, all of us, Tom, too, and all lived together for a couple of years in a house in Hopewell. I’d always thought those years in Hopewell were the peak of the wild living, the experimental open marriage on full display, but the wildest days had been in Alaska.

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In Alaska, I crawl over and through the rusted husks of abandoned cars. Elsewhere, the last out of Dave Roberts’ near-perfect relief appearance is a pop-up to the second baseman. The ball seems to hang suspended in the air. Dave Roberts is about to win. The sun seems to hang suspended in the sky. The day is enormous. A motherless little girl clambers along beside me, the world corroding, dangerous, bright. Words are new. Diedre, I say. We are wandering.

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Fred Holdsworth

April 18, 2012

For Tax Week, here’s Fred Holdsworth, who after his playing career ended became an accountant and is now a vice president of finance for Comcast. During his playing career, Holdsworth floated around on the fringes of rosters for a while and injured Hall of Famers. In a spring training game, one of his pitches broke Carlton Fisk’s forearm. A couple of years later, he ran into Jim Palmer while the two were jogging around the outfield, the collision causing problems with Palmer’s delivery, according to Palmer. In a late August game in 1980, he did not injure George Brett (Brett had already been plunked in the knee earlier in the game by another pitcher) but perhaps Holdsworth’s injurious aura cowed the future Hall of Famer just enough to stop Brett’s streak of 8 hits in 8 at-bats. In the following weeks, Brett’s torrid pace fell off just a bit, causing him to narrowly miss batting .400, and during the playoffs and World Series he developed a painful case of hemorrhoids, but it wouldn’t be fair to blame either of these setbacks on Fred Holdsworth. That said, I am now tempted to research causes of hemorrhoids; perhaps I could discover that certain poor eating and drinking habits contribute to the malady, and a hypotheses could be formed that Brett, confused by his inability to include the eminently hittable Fred Holdsworth (who admitted after stymieing Brett, “Heck, I’m just happy to get anybody out”)  in his steamrolling domination of American League pitching, drowned his sorrows in a post-game bacchanalia of hemorrhoid-causing consumables. But I don’t want to digress. This is my affliction, digressing, the thing by which I am undone. When did I start digressing? Maybe it goes back to 1975, when I was seven and began collecting baseball cards. The cards that year digressed. The main subject of the cards was featured in most places on the front and back, but each card contained a riddle unrelated to the player on the card. You start thinking about Fred Holdsworth, and soon enough, via a riddle, you’re thinking about something else. The riddle on the back of Holdsworth’s card asks, “Which Phillie has a Las Vegas night club act?” The answer is upside down below a cartoon of a baseball player strumming a guitar: Tom Hutton. A few weeks ago, while working on a piece about Alan Foster, I ran across a newspaper article from spring training 1969 about the friendship between teammates Foster and Hutton. The two had been playing together for years in the Dodgers’ minor league system and had been deemed by their current minor league manager, identified in the article as “Tommy LaSorda,” as “the first Siamese twins in the history of organized baseball.” The two friends, who according to the article were on the cusp of becoming major league mainstays for the Dodgers, are shown playing guitar and singing. Hutton jokingly boasts at one point, “And when we get through they’re gonna be saying Simon and Garfunkel who?” By 1975, Hutton was on the Phillies and Foster was a Padre. Hutton, despite the implications of the riddle on the back of Fred Holdsworth’s card, was not currently performing in Las Vegas in 1975, but he had indeed played there. At the Thunderegg blog, Hutton is asked about the baseball card lore (repeated on more than one occasion in back of the card cartoons) identifying him as Vegas performer. Hutton, now a broadcaster calling games for the Marlins, replied that he “played guitar & sang with Maury Wills in the winter of 1971 at the old Las Vegas Hotel in downtown Vegas. Maury invited me to be part of his show and we did 3 shows a nite for 6 wks.” None of this has anything to do with Fred Holdsworth.

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Mark Fidrych

August 14, 2011

Today would be Mark Fidrych’s 57th birthday. At left is the autograph of the 1976 Rookie of the Year, a great gift sent along to me recently by Carl A., a fan of my book. Carl’s father got him the autograph one early spring at a motor inn in Lansing, Michigan, along with a few other Tigers autographs. In all but one of the other Tigers autographs, the players mentioned the father’s son by name and included a brief message:

To Carl
My Best Regards
Always
Ron LeFlore

To Carl
BEST Wishes!

Benjamin Oglivie

To Carl,
Best Always
Gates Brown

In addition to those signatures, all written on Hospitality Motor Inn stationery, Carl’s dad also got Al Kaline’s autograph (no message) on a smaller slip. But the scrawl of a Tiger all-time great could not have had more impact than the sideways scribble of Mark Fidrych. I imagine he and Kaline were unable to include personal wishes because their tables were besieged by fans, and if they were to personalize every message they would have been there all night. The presence among the signers of Ben Oglivie suggests that the signing occurred in 1977, Oglivie’s last with the Tigers, and a spring 1977 sighting of Fidrych, the reigning Rookie of the Year, must have caused quite a stir. He wouldn’t have had time to write the name of every father’s son on a slip of paper or to wish them the best, but he didn’t have to. Every father’s son from those days knew that the Bird was pitching for us and sending us his best. He was our way into the center of the action because he was exactly like us, a boy in love with the game.

This morning I roamed the Internet a bit in search of stories about meeting Mark Fidrych. There were glimpses of him long after his playing days were over, giving himself over to charity work, and glimpses of him crossing over into the world of comic books, and glimpses of him gazing backward with some hurt and confusion but also humility and gratitude.

The best glimpse of him that I found on this day, his birthday, was one taken by a photographer, Joe McNally, who—like most who ever seemed to spend even a little time with Fidrych—came to think of the big-hearted pitcher as his friend. Check out McNally’s touching tribute if you’ve got a second, and raise a glass today to the Bird.

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John Knox

July 26, 2011

Lately, I’ve added a check of baseball-reference.com’s “players born on this day” page to my morning rituals. Today, July 26, now four days beyond my wife’s due date, offers some interesting baseball birthdays. Perhaps the most peculiar career to ever lead to induction into the baseball Hall of Fame got its start on this date in 1922 when knuckleballing journeyman reliever-turned-starter-turned-reliever Hoyt Wilhelm was born. Wilhelm did not even reach the majors until he was 29, surely the oldest rookie besides Satchel Paige to ever wind up in Cooperstown. He lasted until he was 49. If any prediction about the life of someone born on this date could be gleaned from the most accomplished baseball player to be born today, it would be that life is strange and beautiful.

On Sunday my wife and I went to the beach near our house. There was some kind of large Hare Krishna gathering going on in the park bordering the beach. We walked past it and put down our folding chairs on the sand. Oddly, no one else was around. I walked over to ask the lifeguard, a teenage girl, what was going on, and she said that heavy rains a couple days earlier had caused raw sewage to spill into the lake, and she was waiting to hear if the beach would be closed or not. I walked back, and Abby and I sat there and watched a seagull pick at something slick and rubbery that once was alive. The music of the Hare Krishnas wafted intermittently over the beach, along with the groans of a garbage truck and the sound of the little waves of Lake Michigan.

A couple other notables born on this day were known by adjectival nicknames: Sad Sam Jones and Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons, a couple of 200 game winners from the Ruth era. To get one of these memorable adjectival nicknames, you have to have a personal trait that can be described with a word that shares the same first letter as your first name. I have never attained such a nickname. Maybe there’s still time. Jumpy Josh Wilker? Jittery Josh Wilker? Jaundiced Josh Wilker? I actually did come out jaundiced when I was born, and the nonmedical definition of the term might also apply: “exhibiting or influenced by envy, distaste, or hostility.” Unfortunately, none of these words is as elemental and catchy as “Fat” or “Sad.”

Eventually, a green flag was raised on a pole beside the lifeguard chair, and people here and there began appearing on the beach and wading out into the water. “My dream was to sit with my feet in the water,” Abby said. This is the kind of dream that seems manageable. Other dreams have side effects. But this one: easy. We picked up our chairs and moved down to the water and sat and let the ends of the little waves wash over our feet. The sound of the water was now all we heard. We ate Pringles and stared out at the water and made each other laugh. Jumpy Jittery Jaundiced Josh Wilker relaxed.

Other notables born on July 26 include Norm Siebern, the date’s leading hitter, key part in the trade that brought Roger Maris to the Yankees, and bit player, at the end of his career, with the 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox; Ellis Kinder, tireless country boy Red Sox hurler from the team’s late 1940s-early 1950s excruciating bridesmaid years; and Sibby Sisti, who despite or in part because of his underwhelming hitting skills served as the cleanup batter in one of the greatest baseball books ever written.

On the way back from the beach, I felt very tired, as if instead of sitting in a beach chair with my feet in cool water I had crossed over to Michigan and back doing the Australian crawl. I think most of the time I live as if I’m braced against an invisible but somehow crucial wall that seems as if it will crumble down and let in all manner of ruin if I let up for one second. It’s exhausting. Probably pretty stupid, too. There’s nothing you can do anyway. No wall to hold up I mean. Ruin, chaos, it’ll just come. Other things will come, too, good things, but probably if you’re spending all your time and strength bracing against a nonexistent wall you might miss it.

John Knox is like most of the baseball players born on this date. He played for a little while, didn’t really attach himself to any particularly significant moment in baseball history (though he did appear in a game in which Hank Aaron set the career record for RBI), and then moved on to other things. He was not a bad player, at least as far as his stats show, his .274 lifetime batting average one that most players would be proud of, especially if they were, like Knox, utility infielders, who usually spend their solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short major league existences foraging for enough basehits to push them over the Mendoza line. It’s actually a bit of a mystery why Knox didn’t stick around any longer than he did. He even looks confident in this 1976 card, his last. The Tigers sold him to the Reds early in 1976, but he never cracked the major league roster of the reigning World Champions, who were with Joe Morgan and Pete Rose about as covered at second base and third base, Knox’s two positions, as any team ever has been. Knox knocked around in the minors that year, hitting poorly, and that was that. Occasionally a player who skirts across the margins of the majors will for some reason or another impress himself on the collective memory of the game. But most guys who play the game are just names with dates and numbers attached to them. Still, they had their day. They got to move their chair down close to the water and for a little while live a dream.

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Bill Freehan

March 9, 2011

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

Detroit Tigers

The front of Bill Freehan’s 1977 card projects the feel of an iconic solidity gone slightly out of whack, like an old, eroding statue jarred askew by geologic forces. By the time the card came out, Bill Freehan, an eleven-time all-star, had been released.

In what would be his final season, 1976, the plan seems to have been to go with someone other than Freehan as the team’s primary catcher for the first time since 1962. Detroit’s April 20 road game against the Oakland A’s marked new acquisition Milt May’s sixth start of the season, against just two starts for Freehan. Late in that game, however, May suffered a season-ending injury.

Freehan entered the game in the bottom of the eighth with the Tigers holding a two-run lead. The A’s managed no runs in the eighth, despite pinch-runner Larry Lintz (manning the A’s pinch-runner role once held by Herb Washington) reaching second on a steal, but in the ninth inning the A’s (who would set a modern record for stolen bases that year) began wreaking more havoc with their legs. Bert Campaneris reached on a single and stole second, which may have rattled starter Joe Coleman into walking Phil Garner, especially given that Coleman was then removed from the game for Joe Crawford. The A’s, incredibly enough, carried two players that year that they used primarily to pinch-run, and the second of these players, Matt Alexander, was inserted for Garner. Alexander and Campaneris promptly executed a double steal, putting the tying run in scoring position.

By this point, you’d have to think that Bill Freehan, a former five-time Gold Glove winner who had earlier in his career once led the league in percentage of runners thrown out trying to steal, was feeling sweaty, bewildered, even besieged, having surrendered four stolen bases in the time it would have taken a fan to go get a hot dog. The Tigers got a brief reprieve when Billy North lined out, but then Crawford walked Claudell Washington and Joe Rudi smacked a single to tie the score. Crawford was yanked from the game. And here, on the day when Bill Freehan regained his starting role, another story begins. 

A curly-haired 20-year-old Tiger rookie making his major league debut bounded in from the bullpen.

Bill Freehan must have been at the mound to greet Mark Fidrych to the big leagues. Maybe he even slapped the ball into Fidrych’s glove. All I can tell for sure is that Bill Freehan was behind the plate when Mark Fidrych started what would be one of the most magical individual seasons in major league history on a sour note, surrendering a game-ending single to the first batter he ever faced, Don Baylor.

Bill Freehan caught Fidrych in his next game, too, another brief relief appearance, this one in ninth inning mop-up duty in a loss to the Twins. The appearance went a little better for Fidrych (no runs and two hits in 1 inning of work) but was no highlight reel for Freehan, who let one of Fidrych’s lively offerings get by him for a passed ball.

This would be the end of Freehan’s on-field association with Fidrych, the two Tiger legends–one granite-like, unspectacular, and steady, the other wondrous and fleeting–like two figures from briefly overlapping and wildly different dreams. In Fidrych’s first start of the season, the catcher brought up from the minors to replace the injured Milt May, Bruce Kimm, was tabbed to catch his former minor league teammate, and Fidrych did so well in the complete game 2-1 win that manager Ralph Houk made Kimm into Fidrych’s permanent personal catcher for the rest of the season. (Check out Kimm’s fond reminiscences about his year with the Bird in a Baseball Digest interview following Fidrych’s sad early death.)  

Kimm, Johnny Wockenfuss, and Bill Freehan divvied up the catching duties in something close to an even three-way split, but in the end Bill Freehan once again topped the team in games played behind the plate [update: though Freehan is listed with the starters on baseball-reference.com's page for the 1976 Tigers, Kimm actually matched him in games caught, 61, with Wockenfuss right behind with 59, accoring to Freehan's SABR bio]. He hit .270 and added 5 home runs to his lifetime total for an even 200. His entire statistical record is on the back of this 1977 card, and there’s something satisfyingly solid about that even 200 number and about the repetition of one team and one team only, “Tigers,” down the left-hand column of the statistics.

As for the dream that briefly overlapped Freehan’s, the one featuring the 20-year-old rookie with the curly hair, it didn’t last long, as an injury in spring training in 1977 started a chain reaction leading to chronic arm troubles for Mark Fidrych, who would, like Freehan, never be a regular again after 1976.    

Note to the 2011 Detroit Tigers: All that is solid will melt into air.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 10 of 30: Check out the posts of author Joe Bonomo at No Such Thing As Was, who recently added a recollection of the Bird in 1976 to his blog about (among other things) pop culture and memory.

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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

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Tom Veryzer

April 13, 2010

Tom Veryzer was, according to a story that I can’t seem to lift from the haze of the apocryphal, a measuring stick of inconsequentiality. Have you heard this story? It’s of the Bird, Mark Fidrych, who died too soon a year ago today (the Huffington Post has more of my Bird-mourning today). In the story, Fidrych showed up early to Tiger Stadium for a game he was due to pitch during his wondrous one and only healthy season of 1976. Fidrych was amazed by the crowds already present outside the stadium, waiting to get in. According to the story, someone, either Tom Veryzer or some other buddy of the wide-eyed rookie sensation, slapped Fidrych on the back and said, “They’re not here to see Tom Veryzer.”

I searched the Internet for this story and found it only on a couple of blog posts, and neither post listed a source for the story. I revisited a video feature of Fidrych in the early 1980s on youtube, thinking maybe he mentioned it there, but it didn’t turn up. I read a long 1986 Sports Illustrated article by the great sportswriter Gary Smith, who depicts Fidrych as somewhat adrift and rueful about being cast out so abruptly of the wonderful dream that was 1976, but the story wasn’t in that article either. So, in essence, at least as of this moment, Tom Veryzer exists in my mind as a footnote used to define inconsequentiality in a conversational exchange that may not have ever happened.

But while the throng in Detroit may not have come to the ballpark to see a light-hitting shortstop who would soon be shipped to Cleveland to make room for Alan Trammell, I come to these cards to see Tom Veryzer. I come to see every player that ever arrived in my hands as a kid and seemed, by their very presence in the cardboard, to be something better and more lasting than the flimsy uncertainties of everyday life. And while a certain sunny and powerful glow comes off the cards of superstars, the cards of guys like Tom Veryzer exert a quieter but somehow stronger pull on me. You have to lean close to hear what the cards of guys like Tom Veryzer are saying, and that’s when they grab you and don’t let go. To say Tom Veryzer is inconsequential is to say that this life is inconsequential.

One man who would never have made either claim, about life or Tom Veryzer, was Mark Fidrych. At the pinnacle of his fame and on-field dominance, he humbly gave all credit to his defense, which was anchored that year by Tom Veryzer: “My teammates . . . are the ones who count,” Fidrych said in a 1976 Sporting News article. “They’re the ones who are making me. I don’t make them. If I was making myself, I’d be striking out everybody. If they don’t play well behind me, I’m not even here. I can’t believe what these guys are doing for me. I feel so good. I don’t know how to say thanks.”

Years later, long after anyone had come to the park to see Mark Fidrych, the Bird, who could have easily descended into a deep gap of bitterness over how quickly it all ended, continued to be grateful for all he’d seen and to all who’d once thronged to the park to see him and cheer his name.

“Please,” he asked Gary Smith in 1986, “just end this story by saying thank you to the people. Thank you to our society.”

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

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Dan Meyer

February 9, 2010

If the photo on this 1976 card is any guide, I think Dan Meyer may have missed his calling. Replace the bat in his hand with, say, an umbrella, replace the Tigers-related regalia with a cozy-looking turtleneck sweater and a corduroy cap, and airbrush the background from a hazy baseball scene to a misty beach or some leafy trees, slap the photo on an album cover with a title like “Dan Meyer: Feelin’ You Feel” or “Dan Meyer: To Be Your Friend Is What I Wanna Be” or “Dan Meyer: Hold Me Tight Today” and you could stroll up the top 100 on the 1976 charts like Hitler rolling into Czechoslovakia. Years later, instead of being the fodder for some middle-aged creep writing about his childhood baseball cards, Dan Meyer could be featured in a brief clip on an oddly mesmerizing late night infomercial, hosted by two frighteningly mellow members of Air Supply and a large pitcher of never-touched, presumably toxic lemonade, for a several-CD set of Soft Rock love songs. Oh Dan Meyer, had you chosen the path suggested by the photo on this card, insomniacs pushing fifty would now be happening upon the infomercial as they flipped for some safe television haven and would be so moved by the shred of one of your long-forgotten sugary ditties and the memory of it playing on an AM station on the transistor radio as virginity was released beneath the bleachers in the summer of 1976 that installment-based purchase of the set of CDs would be seriously contemplated before being dismissed as a significant and unretractable first step toward doddering senility. 

Alas, Dan Meyer stuck with baseball. It’s not as if he did so without cause. He had begun his pro career with a bang, at 19, tearing up the Appalachian League in 1972 with a .396 average. Within two years, he had reached the majors, swatting three home runs in 13 games during a September 1974 call-up. He became a regular the following year, splitting time between left field and first base on a putrid 102-loss Tigers squad. Meyer’s playing time decreased the following year, as the Tigers showed some signs of life on the wings of All-Star Game starters Mark Fidrych, Ron LeFlore, and Rusty Staub. At the conclusion of the season, the Tigers, along with every other American League team, had to decide which players they wanted to protect from possible selection in the November 1976 expansion draft that would channel bodies onto the rosters of the two brand new AL franchises, the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners.

In this 1976 card, cuddly would-be AM radio mainstay Dan Meyer is of course unaware that he is about to be deemed expendable. As the photo was probably taken sometime in 1975, he wouldn’t have even been able to see the faint writing on the wall that came with the Tigers selecting USC superstar Steve Kemp with the first overall pick of the 1976 amateur draft in January of 1976. Kemp joined a growing stable of young left-handed sluggers that also included Jason Thompson and Ben Oglivie and that made Dan Meyer, who must have seemed a promising part of the Tigers future back in his pro debut season of 1972, into excess baggage. The Tigers left him unprotected and the Mariners snatched him up with the ninth pick of the expansion draft.

Meyer seems to have epitomized the Mariners’ drafting strategy, which produced a plodding first-year team that rode its ability to hit the ball over the fence with some frequency to a finish that left them atop not only their fellow expansionists the Blue Jays in wins but also above the recently mighty Oakland A’s.

(Is it a good sign or a bad sign that I know the 1977 placement in the standings of the three lousiest American League teams the year I was nine years old without looking it up?)

Dan Meyer hit 22 homers and tied for the Mariner lead in RBI that first season (he and Leroy Stanton both had 90). That proved to be the peak of his career, though he did top the 20 home run mark one more time, in 1979, and stuck around in the majors for twelve seasons in all. I don’t know what else to say about him. He didn’t strike out much.

Meanwhile, the Mariners languished for years after the expansion draft, while their fellow newcomers, the Blue Jays, absorbed the blow of a few horrendous seasons while building for the future, which arrived in the mid-1980s, when the team became a contender for the next decade.

So really there are three teams that can be explored through Dan Meyer. The Tigers got rid of him and began a rise to the top of the standings that crested with a World Series championship in 1984. The Blue Jays neglected to take him and generally shied away from reaching for unwanted sluggers and gradually built from within until becoming an AL East powerhouse. And the Mariners took him and scuffled along without a discernable team-building philosophy for many years, and though they’ve had their moments they still have as many World Series appearances today as they had the day that Dan Meyer became a Mariner.

It could have been so different, if  not for the Mariners then at least for Dan Meyer. There could have been a Dan Meyer song stuck in your head right now, driving you slowly and softly insane. 

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Cecil Fielder

January 21, 2010

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of short stories by Raymond Carver. I always circle back around to his stuff, usually when I’m feeling like I can barely get out of bed, and he helps me get out of bed. This latest Carver jag grew out of my reading of a new biography of Carver by Carol Sklenicka. I learned a lot of new stuff about Carver in the bio, including that as a boy he was fat. Maybe that information helped me notice, after all these times reading his stories, that many of them include descriptions of eating, and that these descriptions, in the often harrowing context of a given Carver story, turn the act of eating into something sacramental. Carver’s fictional world is rife with uncertainty, disconnection, loneliness, loss. The concrete act of eating, in relief against these immeasurable hungers, takes on a power that borders on holiness. It’s something to hold onto, an affirmation. One of his most famous stories, “A Small, Good Thing,” ends with a baker offering food to parents whose son has died. Another of his well-known stories, and one that helped launch his career, is simply called “Fat” and centers on a waitress trying and failing and continuing to try to get at what it felt like to serve a man who was enormously obese.

***

“A big fat guy who hit home runs for a few years.” – Bill James’ entry, in its entirety, on Cecil Fielder in James’ Historical Baseball Abstract

“He is fat . . . but that is not the whole story.” – Raymond Carver, “Fat”

***

In “Fat,” there is a muted element of wonder in the waitress’ description of the prodigious amount of food she kept bringing to her customer. Reading it, I was reminded of a book I’d read as a child.

I don’t know if it’s still around, but RIF, which stood for “reading is fundamental,” was a program that visited schools and allowed each kid to choose a book to bring home. I always went for a sports book, something like Basketball’s Big Men or Baseball’s Best Catchers. One of my choices was a dual biography of Nolan Ryan and Reggie Jackson (it had no back cover but two front covers, one featuring Ryan in an Angels uniform and one showing Reggie in his Oakland garb), and in the Reggie bio there was a description of what he ate for breakfast every day. It was like several meals all rolled into one. Eggs and pancakes and sausage and bacon; orange juice and milk and coffee; potatoes and grits and oatmeal and big hunks of bread slathered with butter; and steak, always a big thick slab of steak. I think there might have even been a milkshake. But it was the huge steak that always floored me. For breakfast! I imagined Reggie hunkering down every morning and shoveling it in, and in this vision I was both an amazed watcher of the strapping slugger and the slugger himself, feeding every last alley of hunger inside. Reggie seemed superhuman in many ways, not least because of his ability to devour so much food and turn it into power.

***

Eating was a big deal for me back then. I loved Saturdays for the day-long ritual of eating it offered. I started out with several bowls of cereal, each spiked with heaping spoonfulls of sugar and backed with glasses of milk and buttered toast, all of this downed in front of cartoons: Bugs, Scooby-Doo, Goober and the Ghost Chasers, Fat Albert, Thundarr the Barbarian. At noon I’d switch to lunch and eat Spaghettios, which I’d chase with a tower of Chips Ahoy and more milk as the television programming edged into sports. All these years later, I’m still coming to terms with that first ritualized response of mine to empty time. Now whenever Saturday rolls around I feel that same pull—television to numb and food to provide the illusion of fullness. It’s chiefly a quirk of genetics (along with the limiting of Saturdays to once a week and my eccentric, outdated love of pedestrianism) that I’m not the size of a sofa.

***

If you had to choose a last meal, what would it be? I think this question came up back on Baseball Toaster, though I can’t recall where. I know Scott Long sometimes delved into food on his blog, The Juice, so maybe it was there, but I’m not sure. But I think I joined into the conversation and said I’d choose a Fenway Frank, the implication being that I’d be in Fenway watching the Red Sox as I ate it. I understand now that the hot dogs there are nothing particularly special, but when I was a kid I honestly thought they were the greatest-tasting food I’d ever eaten. I was being fed on every level. I was surrounded by my family, sitting next to my brother, wolfing down a hot dog, talking about baseball statistics, and watching the real-live versions of the Cardboard Gods, right there below me. It was worship.

***

Back then I dreamed of being a season-ticket holder at Fenway, but instead my connection to that place has always remained one that retains a kind of mystical distance. I return when I can. One of my most memorable adult returns came in the early 1990s, when my brother and I traveled up from New York to Boston to stay with our aunt and uncle and catch a couple games in a series against Detroit. Early in one of the games, Roger Clemens gave up back-to-back homers and then drilled the next batter, John Shelby, who charged the mound. Before Shelby could get to the ace, the late, great John Marzano, a backup catcher getting a rare start, made a flying tackle of the charging Tiger. Both benches emptied. My brother and I had never seen a brawl in person before, and this was a pretty good one, even though it didn’t take that long for it to calm down to the usual shoving and holding waltz where everyone on one team partners up with someone of roughly similar size and weight on the other team. This partnering was actually the best part of the brawl, because it offered everyone in attendance a joyous testimonial to the singular sensation that was Cecil Fielder. Since there was no one of equal size on the Red Sox’ roster (or on anyone’s roster), Mo Vaughn and Carlos Quintana, themselves both hefty specimens, combined to form the equivalent of Cecil Fielder, each holding one of his leg-sized arms and looking hilariously tiny as they did so, as if Cecil could send them sprawling with a chuckle and a shrug if he felt like it.

I loved Cecil Fielder that day, and every day of his career thereafter, save for when I had to avert my eyes when he donned pinstripes for a couple years near the end. He was a big fat guy who hit home runs. What’s not to love? And now that the uncertainty of the world has revealed itself to be every bit a part of that one thing I had always held in stark opposition to uncertainty—baseball statistics—I love Cecil Fielder even more. Who knows what the numbers in the single-season home run record list mean anymore? Since Cecil Fielder became, in 1990, the first player since George Foster in 1977 to hit over 50 home runs in a season, the once-rare feat has been achieved at just over a once-a-season rate. When Fielder did it, it seemed to me a thing of wonder, as if it hadn’t been done in a lifetime. I had been a kid when Foster had done it, and by 1990 I was, at least biologically, an adult. Since things are different when you’re an adult, Fielder topping 50 taters didn’t shine as brightly on my life as Foster’s feat, but it was amazing nonetheless. The devaluation of the mark since then has shrunken the significance it might otherwise have, but to me it remains something special. From the big, fat man: a small, good thing. 

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Jack Morris

October 5, 2009

Jack Morris 79

If your team’s season came down to one game, and you could choose your starter from a list including every pitcher who’s ever played for the team, who gets the ball? If that option were open to the respective fans of the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers, tomorrow’s one-game playoff to decide the A.L. Central might just feature Jack Morris facing off against Jack Morris.

This is Jack Morris’ first solo card after being featured the year before along with Tim Jones and others in a “rookie pitchers” card. When I got it, I doubt I had any idea that I was looking at the man who would win more games than anyone else in the coming decade. There’s nothing particularly promising about the card, neither in the somewhat chinless grimace of the thin figure on the front nor in the so-so minor league stats on the back. The speed of his fastball is mentioned (94 MPH), but I doubt it impressed me, since by then I knew such a speed was not on the level of the top flamethrowers in the game, such as Nolan Ryan and Goose Gossage. Two other pitches besides a fastball are mentioned as the Topps copywriter strains to fill out the blank space on the card, but neither of the pitches are the split-finger sinker that Morris became known for. I’d like to think that the grip he’s hiding in the photo on the front of the card is for that revolutionary pitch, and since Morris hadn’t mastered it quite yet he was shy about showing it to the world.

Once he had his pitching repertoire in order, the St. Paul, MN, native settled in for over a decade near the top of list of major leaguer aces. Beyond being the winningest pitcher through the 1980s, he also built a reputation as a guy who could thrive in the pressure of a big game. He pitched well in the 1984 playoffs, and kept his team in the game with 8 innings of 2-run ball in a do-or-die game 161 of the 1987 season (the Tigers won that game in 12 innings, and a Frank Tanana 1-0 shutout the next day in the final game of the year clinched the division).

That actually seems to be the extent of his big game heroics through the 1980s. Morris’ start in Game 2 of the 1987 A.L. Championship Series proved an unhappy homecoming to the Twin Cities, and he got hammered in the Metrodome for 6 runs in 8 innings. The following year, the Tigers finished just one game out of first, but that’s because the division winners, the Boston Red Sox, kept stumbling farther and farther back toward the pack as they neared their eventual playoff annihilation at the hands of the Oakland A’s. Morris did win his last three starts that year, so he deserves credit for that, but the Tigers were all but eliminated from the race during those starts.

However, his status as a big game pitcher became bulletproof in 1991, when he won two ALCS games for his new team, the Twins, won the first game of the World Series, pitched well enough to win in the fourth game (Twins reliever Mark Guthrie took the loss), and got the ball again for the seventh game, back home in the Metrodome.

What he did in that game is for many the cornerstone of the argument that Jack Morris should be in the Hall of Fame. Or maybe not the cornerstone (the win-based “Best Pitcher of the 1980s” claim probably has that distinction), but the shiny, fancy part at the very top of the argument, the thing you’d see first, gleaming in the sun, if you were miles away. And if one game could ever get a guy into the Hall of Fame, it would indeed be that game, a 10-inning 1-0 shutout win, probably the most amazing pitching performance that I’ve ever seen, all things considered.

Both the Tigers and the Twins have more accomplished pitchers in their history to choose from, if they could choose one pitcher to toe the rubber in a do-or-die game (Johan Santana, Bert Blyleven, and Jim Kaat come to mind—not to mention Walter Johnson, if the precursor to the Twins, the Senators, are included in the discussion, and, judging from the voting on this site for the all-time Tigers team, either Hal Newhouser or Mickey Lolich would be the top Tiger), but if you ascribe to the belief that there are certain unique demands on an athlete during the white-knuckle pressure of an elimination game, and that some people are better able to handle, and even thrive on, those demands, then it’s hard to argue with the idea of handing Jack Morris the ball.

Would this be a foolish decision? Is there such a thing, in other words, as clutch pitching? Mathematically, such notions as clutch pitching and clutch hitting have proven to be difficult, if not impossible, to support. But for me it’s hard to discount my own athletic experiences: in crucial moments, it was (and still is, even in a game of miniature golf) harder to concentrate on the game, harder to turn off the shrill narration of trepidation and doubt in my head. And it’s hard to discount my own eyes, which have seen Jack Morris engage in a ten-inning seventh-game staring match with oblivion and win.

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Mark Fidrych, 1978

April 16, 2009

1978-tigers-back

I don’t understand this life. For example, I don’t understand my baseball card collection. For example, I don’t understand why I have a Tigers team card from 1978 with the box next to Mark Fidrych’s name filled in without having a 1978 Mark Fidrych card in my collection.

There hadn’t been a Mark Fidrych card in 1976, the year he suddenly appeared at the center of the baseball world as if from thin air. I must have spent the summer of 1977 hoping for a Mark Fidrych card, but I know I never got one because my 1977 Tigers team card has a blank check box next to his name. The check box on this 1978 Tigers team card suggests that in 1978 I finally got my first Mark Fidrych card. I don’t understand why I no longer have this card.

***

I doubt I’m the only one who has spent the last couple days reading stories about Mark Fidrych, whose funeral will be held tomorrow. (According to MLB.com there will be a visitation today at a church in his hometown; please see the MLB.com story for information on the charities the family is encouraging people to give to in lieu of flowers.) One recurring element of the stories I’ve been reading is that you can’t hang on to anything. Mark Fidrych said it best himself, in a great 2001 Sports Illustrated article by Steve Rushin: “It all goes by so fast.”

When he uttered those words, he was talking not about his fame or his brilliant pitching skills, but about how he was trying to spend as much time with his wife and daughter as possible. He was talking about life. That’s the other element that keeps coming up in the stories about Mark Fidrych. Even though it’s impossible to hang onto anything forever, Mark Fidrych hung on tight as long as he could to the things that mattered. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Mark Fidrych, 1954-2009

April 13, 2009

1978-tigers

This 1978 card and another team card from 1977 are the last possible traces in my incomplete collection of the all-time single season leader in joy. I believe the Bird is in the back row, second from right. I’ve talked about him before on this site, but I don’t feel as if I’ve approached the singular effect he had on my childhood. To me, he was everything good from the 1970s wrapped up into one inimitable package. He’s the Pet Rock, mood rings, Morganna the Kissing Bandit, CB radio, Sasquatch. He’s Saturday morning cartoons and spaghettios and good-natured fun-loving longhaired yahoos piling into a customized van to go to the Foghat concert. He’s the magic of Doug Henning and the bright-colored fantasies of HR Puffnstuff and the glossy neon of Dynamite magazine. He’s Alfred E. Neuman. He’s that moment when you’re a kid and you start laughing about something and you don’t think you’ll ever be able to stop. He’s the moment when you realize you’re no longer a kid. I never knew him but to smile at him on TV and in magazines and, of course, baseball cards, but when I heard he was found dead today, underneath a pickup truck he was apparently trying to fix, I couldn’t breathe. For a couple seconds I couldn’t fucking breathe.

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Aurelio Rodriguez

February 26, 2009

aurelio-rodriguez-77The first man named Aurelio to make it to the major leagues was Aurelio Monteagudo, a partial, inconsequential presence in the margins of seven nonconsecutive major league seasons starting in 1963. A relief pitcher, Aurelio Monteagudo twice faced the second Aurelio to make the major leagues, Aurelio Rodriguez. The first time the two Aurelios faced off, in 1970, Aurelio Monteagudo struck out Aurelio Rodriguez while mopping up in a loss. The second time the two Aurelios faced off, in 1973, Aurelio Monteagudo struck out Aurelio Rodriguez to record the first out of the 11th inning in a 3-3 tie. He then surrendered two singles and a wild pitch, allowing the winning run to score. That was Aurelio Monteagudo’s final season in the majors. Some years later, in 1990, just a few days shy of his 47th birthday, Aurelio Monteagudo was killed in a car accident in Mexico.

***

Tuesday was one of those days. The bus I need to get to work was either delayed or had its schedule recession-slashed, so I had to stand waiting long enough to wonder if this is really the life I am supposed to be living. I had my earphones jammed into my brain, and through them came the voice of Howard Stern and the gang playing a new game that involved asking basic informational questions (“How many legs does a snake have?”; “What animal do kittens come from?”) to two developmentally disabled regulars on the show. I forget what the game was called. Which Retard Is Smarter, maybe. When the bus finally came I lumbered right onto it, foregoing any of the customary looking from side to side to see if I might be able to allow a pregnant woman or octogenarian to board before me. I did this because I was sick of waiting, sick of the whole world, and because the bus that showed was one of the two models used on my line, and it was the model apparently designed by people who would not know how many legs a snake has. It makes terrible use of the interior space of the bus, somehow offering just a few places to sit at all, and making those few spaces into a miserable game of commuter Twister, everyone on top of one another and sitting at angles that make the ride jerky and unpleasant, as if the designer of the bus wanted every rider to have the change shaken out of their pockets. The only two decent seats are way in the back row, on the extreme left and right. I wanted one of those seats and I got one, then I watched the rest of the suckers play that daily game of silent, joyless musical chairs.

***

The third and last Aurelio to play major league baseball, Aurelio Lopez, began his career in 1974, the year after the first Aurelio pitched his last game. Like the first Aurelio, Aurelio Lopez was a relief pitcher. He never faced the second Aurelio, Aurelio Rodriguez, but for one season, 1979, the second and third Aurelios played together on the Detroit Tigers. It would be the last full season on the up and coming Tigers for the second Aurelio, but the third Aurelio would stick around long enough to play a key bullpen role for the 1984 champions, logging a sparkling 10-1 win-loss record. Aurelio Lopez would pitch for eleven seasons in the majors in all. At the time of his final release in 1987 by the Astros, Aurelio Lopez had a .633 career winning percentage, 93 career saves, and a World Championship ring. In 1992, one day after his 44th birthday, Aurelio Lopez was killed in a car accident in Mexico.

***

After the bus had filled up, I saw a transit card tumble from the parka of a guy sitting several feet forward in the bus. By that point I was hemmed in by a thicket of knees to my left and right. I looked around to see if anyone else noticed the fallen card. It seemed that no one else had, or else they didn’t care. I weighed my options. I’d have to fight through human limbs to get to the guy and tell him. Also, he had his own earphones stuffed into his brain, so I’d have to yell at him or shake him to rouse him out of his commuter stupor, which would startle him and otherwise interrupt the general numb haze we were all collaborating on to forget that this was the life we’d fallen into. On one hand, it was the right thing to do, but on the other hand, fuck it. I went back and forth, trying to decide, and the moment passed. Now if I got up and tugged on the guy’s sleeve it would be weird. Hey, a few minutes ago your card fell out, and then I thought about it for quite a while, and now here I am. So fuck it, I said. I wondered if I was going pay for the whole thing, karmically. I began considering that maybe the guy who lost his card was an asshole. Maybe I’m doing the right thing, I tried to convince myself, by doing absolutely nothing at all. A half hour later, when I got off at my stop, I walked right past the guy and his trampled card.

***

Sometimes I think about life, its brevity, and how I’m wasting it. Someone hit me the ball! But why would they? I’m certainly not ready, like Aurelio Rodriguez is at the top of this page in his 1977 card, ready and willing to seize on anything hit to him and to do his part.

Aurelio Rodriguez was the second of the three Aurelios to play in the major leagues, but he was the Aurelio with the longest career, which lasted from 1969 (when his first baseball card appeared featuring not his own picture on the front but the picture of the team bat boy) until 1983. He won a Gold Glove at third base in 1976 and had, perhaps more significantly in the greater scope of things, a skill that qualified as one of those singular talents that fellow players continue to talk about with one another long after they hang up their spikes. He had a cannon for an arm. He is remembered for this. And for being a major league Aurelio. One night in 2002, he was neither in his native Mexico nor driving a car. Maybe he avoided these things when he could, aware of what had happened to the other Aurelios. He was walking around Detroit, his major league town. A car struck and killed him.

***

Are there such things as curses? I don’t really think so, but then again yesterday I couldn’t help but think that I was being punished. Now, a few days later, thinking about the three Aurelios, I see how small-minded I was being. Any day aboveground is a bonus. But I couldn’t really see things like that at the time. All day long I was beset with exactly the kinds of things that make me want to punch myself in the head. As some readers of these words may recall, I have had an ongoing punching-self-in-head problem. I get frustrated, usually with technological glitches that I, an idiot, feel powerless to solve, and the frustration and feelings of powerlessness build into an anger that I long to unleash on myself with a quick stiff jab to the side of my skull. Yesterday, as it happened, I did not punch myself in the head, for just a few days earlier, after a long stretch of restraining myself from that abuse, I had rung my own bell pretty good. That recent punching was enough to get me to take that second before punching and try to talk myself down. So I didn’t punch myself in the head, but neither did I rid myself of the clenched frustration of the day, the anger. That’s one thing about a good punch in the head. It really is the only thing to make me no longer want to punch myself in the head. When I left my cubicle for the day my computer was frozen and my fists were clenched and my earphones were feeding the rest of the radio game show I’d recorded before work–retards getting things wrong–straight into my brain.

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Mark Fidrych, 1979

February 23, 2009

mark-fidrych-79

“Whenever you think you’ve got it made, that you’re irreplaceable, you’re wrong.” – Mark Fidrych

I chose the first baseball card to ever feature on this site by reaching blindly into my unsorted box of old baseball cards. Amazingly, I pulled out the card I might have chosen if I had a lifetime to think about the choice: my one and only Mark Fidrych card. I tried to write about how happy he made me when I was eight years old, in 1976, and about how his card from 1980, the year I edged unwillingly from boyhood to something else altogether, seemed to suggest the feeling that the fleeting joy he’d authored over the course of one beautiful summer had slipped from his fingers for good.

A few weeks ago my old boarding school buddy, Ben, added this 1979 card to my collection. The back of the card leans with less smothering intensity on the player’s lone spectacular season (i.e., there are no cartoons or bullet text lists about 1976), and the card also has no evidence of any loss of effectiveness in the ensuing seasons, just injury troubles: as of 1979, Fidrych, despite being riddled with arm woes that had limited him to 81 and 22 innings in 1977 and 1978, respectively, had yet to post an ERA above 3.00. His lifetime ERA of 2.47 and his age (he was still just 24), gave the back of the card, despite the shrinking yearly stats, a small but undeniable aura of hope.

But the front of the card photo pushes that hope into something closer to desperation. Here is a guy just trying to hang on, banished to the far edge of the field, the screen thrown up to guard him from foul balls seemingly as flimsy and haphazardly placed as the sparse mustache on his face. You can see Fidrych breathing, his furred lips pursed, forcing the breath out instead of letting it come and go naturally, doubts tumbling in his mind.

Imagine being forced to leave it all behind. You’ll cling to the margins. You’ll try to throw a few pitches without wincing, a few pitches that might allow you to move back across that white chalk line, back into the only world you ever loved.

***

As I understand it, Fidrych returned to his home in Massachusetts when it was all over and found a way to make a living and make a life. He always seemed like a good guy, generous of spirit and without a mean bone in his body, and he still seems to be that same good guy. The most recent reference to him I can find in the news is a small Michigan newspaper reporting that Fidrych, all these years after fading from the Tigers’ plans just as they were climbing toward glory, returns every year to Michigan to support the Special Olympics through a charity founded by Vic Wertz called The Wertz Warriors.

His essential good nature shines through in the video clip below, a 1985 interview with him that also shows Fidrych expressing some of the pain and even bitterness he felt upon being forced out of the game. But even when talking of dealing with his first dark days back home after his career had ended by going on chainsaw-weilding tree-massacres, Fidrych still has a gleam in his eyes, as if he knows not to take anything too seriously. He’s still at heart the same frizzy-haired kid shown bounding around the field during the interview in clips from the golden year of 1976.

I wanted to find video that showed more of him during that season, but the only other video clip I could find of Fidrych was from years later, a short recap of a game he pitched in the minor leagues in 1982, still trying to hang on. At first I was disappointed I couldn’t find visual evidence of Mark Fidrych at his best, but then I saw how the video ended, with a man who was no longer young still bounding around in the center of celebrating teammates, still happy, still The Bird. Everyone’s going to have to move from one world to the next eventually, but maybe there are things that can’t be taken from you at the border.

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Phil Mankowski

September 20, 2008
 Untitled 
The Two Freaks
(continued from Johnny Sutton)

Chapter Five

Johnny Sutton wasn’t the only figure featured in Topps’ notably drab 1979 series to receive a wadded-up handwritten message from the Two Freaks. Check the slight bulge—the exact size of a wadded-up page—in Phil Mankowski’s back pocket. Now check the troubled look on his face. While Johnny Sutton’s expression of 89% muted trepidation and 11% dim hope implies that the letter balled up in his glove was unread at the time of his photograph, the face of the player in the card shown here speaks of enigmatically haunting information freshly received. Phil Mankowski, who should be snarling with confidence, a young, promising player on a young, promising team, instead appears to be in the earliest stages of a comprehensive existential cringe, as if he has just been shown the few seasons of stats on the back of his baseball card in the context of a detailed timeline of the 4.54 billion year history of the planet. We don’t amount to much.

***

Dear Fellow Marginal,

Before we embark on our urgent message to you, please allow us to introduce ourselves. We were born and one day will die. In between those two points there has been disappointment, but not nearly enough of it. Oh to be so disappointed that all points are dispersed, disassembled, dissolved, linear narrative forever undone. There is no story! There is only Right Now!

But until that day we live in a hierarchical age where everyone is enslaved by the linear story that goes “we were born and one day will die,” so to communicate we must temporarily conform and speak in those terms. We have been roaming the land for some years. Long ago, while taking our first awkward bony-kneed steps out of childhood, we were savagely beaten by a small informal collective of muscular peers from fractured, economically disadvantaged families. After that one of us developed a gift for silence, which was referred to by most as a stutter, while the other developed a gift for staying in the present, thought of by most as a damaged memory. At first we struggled with what we saw as our afflictions, seeing that they would make it difficult for us to live normal lives. At the same time, we kept our distance from one another, despite our history of being close childhood friends. We each saw the other as weak, a magnet for further victimization. Odd that we were brought together again by those supposed afflictions one day in the parking lot of our local military induction center. Instead of being shipped to a faraway land to kill and be killed, we were rejected for our afflictions. We laughed together in the parking lot, finally reunited, and wondered what to do with our ridiculous freedom.

Roam the land, we decided. Roam the land and be as pointless as humanly possible, spread the garbled word as quietly as possible, so quietly it is only ever caught in a flicker, to seep past conscious thought, to be immune to memory, to exist only as a seed for dreams. We have been public figures with no publicity. We are the winners of the contest to see who can throw the softest punch. We are the sound of one hand clapping. We are the tree that falls in the forest with no one around to hear.

Do we make a sound?

The only way to know is to join us. This is our urgent request. In fact you already have joined us. Embrace your fate as one easily forgotten. Marginals of the World Unite! The epoch of chemically-aided hope that weirdness and wide open spaces might one day reign is nearing an end. The 1960s eructed Technicolor puke all over the 1970s but the puke has almost completely dried. It’s 1979. Everyone is depressed, divorced, precariously employed. What is the point of your meaningless flailing? There is no escape from this profound inconsequentiality. There is no escape from this brief gift. What to do with these entwined incarcerations. What to do in this life?

We urge you, when next you are called upon to perform your duties, to refuse. Accompany the refusal with silence, or nod to our fictional forerunner, Bartleby, and say that you would prefer not to. We have contacted several just like you and implored them to do the same, to do nothing, to refuse. Think of the effect on the world! All us supposedly desperate ledge-clingers letting go of the ledge. Refusing to pinch-hit, refusing to mop up, refusing to act as a late-game defensive replacement in lopsided blowouts. If we marginals could all fall together the enslaving story that ends in death would be undone. When there is no up or down, falling becomes flying.

Please do something senseless.

Sincerely (And We Mean That),

The Two Freaks

***

Phil Mankowski did not, as far as I know, follow any of the garbled collective suggestions of the freak with the stutter or the freak with the faulty, clouded memory. He did, however, change upon the release of this card from a young, promising player with .275 career batting average (high for a third baseman of that era, especially compared to the anemic hitting totals produced by the aging Tigers regular at the position, Aurelio Rodriguez) into a prototypical major league marginal. After hitting .271, .276, and .275 in his first three seasons, Mankowski plummeted to .222 in 1979, causing the Tigers to paperclip him to a deal that sent journeyman Jerry Morales to the Mets for famed digger of graves Richie Hebner. Mankowski hit .167 in 12 at-bats in 1980, didn’t play in the majors in 1981, and called it a career with a .229 mark in 35 at-bats in 1982. Never much of a power hitter, he had managed a respectable 8 home runs in 593 at-bats prior to appearing on a baseball card with the letter from the Two Freaks in his back pocket. He would never go deep again.

(to be continued)

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Willie Horton in . . . the All-Time Franchise All Stars

July 18, 2008
 

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A couple days ago, after hurling web-scenities at Wade Boggs, I got on an airplane, worrying that bad vibes from the vulgar, spiteful post would cause some sort of Old Testament-style high-altitude smiting. Yesterday in the hippie-thick city where a lot of my family has recently relocated to, I came out of a grocery store and some bearded dude was sitting near the carts and playing a sitar. And I thought to myself, yeah, a sitar, why the hell not? Gotta spread those good cosmic vibes, man. Ain’t no time to hate. (At least until my return flight safely lands.)

So on that note here’s Willie Horton, one of the more beloved figures in baseball history. As I see it, Willie does not quite make the cut for the all-time Tigers team, even if a designated hitter spot is added, because the Tigers have no less than four Hall of Fame outfielders ahead of him on the depth chart, plus one other candidate for the DH position, Norm Cash, whose numbers seem to be a bit better than Horton’s estimable career record.

Cash, by the way, a first baseman who gets sent to the bench by Hank Greenberg, might also have a case for the wild-card position that I have included in these lists as a way of including the one player who can’t find a spot in the starting lineup but who needs to be on the team anyway. I’m no expert on how Tigers fans generally feel about Cash, but he played for the team for a long, long time, and if the incident in which he went to bat carrying a table leg late in a game against an unhittable Nolan Ryan is any guide, his personality was surely the kind that would endear him to the fans.

But I don’t think there’s a statue of Norm Cash at the Tigers’ current ballpark, and there is one of Willie Horton. I hope that some Tigers fans can chime in about this subject, but it seems from my distant viewpoint that Willie was not only a great player for a long time but was also one of those rare players with a special knack for letting the fans know that the love they are showering down is reciprocal. In a way it’s very dumb that we fans put so much emotion into this game, but the truth is, right or wrong, we do. And we want to get the feeling that the players we are cheering for hear us and appreciate it. I think Willie Horton was able to do that.

So he’s a member of the All Time Tiger team to me, in the extremely important wild-card spot. As for the other members of the team, I’m going to leave that open for debate in hopes of encouraging smarter fans than me to chime in with their picks. I’ll eventually add my own ballot and then tally up the results.

Here are the Tigers batting and pitching leaders.

And here’s the ballot:
C:
1B:
2B:
SS:
3B:
LF:
CF:
RF:
DH:
Wild card:
SP:
RP:

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