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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