Archive for the ‘Houston Astros’ Category


Craig Reynolds

February 12, 2012

How Strange the Design


There used to be a big bookstore on 57th Street and Broadway, Coliseum Books. It lasted from 1974 until 2002 in that location. Sometime in late 1999 or early 2000, a young woman applied for a job there. She was working toward a criminology degree at John Jay College nearby and needed a job. She applied at a bunch of places around the area. Pounding the pavement. Around that time another young woman stopped in the store to pick up an application for her boyfriend. I was still living a few hundred miles away, in a cabin in the woods with no electricity and no running water. I had essentially run out of money and was running up a credit card bill to buy food and cheap beer, which I would lug up the hill in a backpack. I would then eat and drink and play my guitar and sing and, I don’t know, yearn.

Coliseum Books didn’t call the young woman back for a few months. When they finally did, she barely remembered applying there. She went in and talked to a manager, who asked her what she hoped to do after finishing college, and she said she wanted to work in a prison. The manager laughed. She was hired as a cashier. I left the cabin around then and returned to New York City. I started rooming with my friend Pete, who had also gotten a job at Coliseum, thanks to his girlfriend picking up an application for him. I needed money badly, and Pete put in the good word for me. I talked with the manager, the one who had laughed about the young woman’s desire to go to prison, and he hired me. It was a huge store, and there were a lot of employees there. I worked the closing shift, and so I’d only catch occasional glimpses of the people who worked during the day. One day I was starting my shift with a stint at the information counter, and I noticed across the room a little pink exclamation point, a dyed strand in the hair of a young woman working one of the registers.


“It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be.” – Bob Dylan

I am grateful and terrified. I have a kid now. My love for him is beyond my ability to describe. So I will instead describe this 1980 Craig Reynolds card. Is it not an example of something endangered? I stopped collecting cards in 1980 and bought a few in 1981 but was flummoxed by puberty and by my brother’s disinterest in cards and by the 1981 strike and by the rapid dissolution of the Red Sox would-be dynasty of the 1970s and by the proliferation of baseball card companies other than Topps. This last thing hit me as a bit of confusing expansion of what was necessary to have in life. For years I understood that the completion of the collection of one single set of cards (a goal never attained, but that’s besides the point) was something I was aiming for. With two other card companies, there were now other sets to complete, and a decision to be made on which was the most important set, a decision that would be unsatisfactory because there would always be the nagging suspicion that another set had cards that existed and had possibilities in them that were being ignored. Life splits into many different roads, is what I began noticing in 1981, and the upshot of that realization is that no matter which way you go you will lose. I don’t mean that you are bound to fail at whatever you try (though I guess odds are you will, more often than not) but rather that choosing one thing instead of another will leave the other thing unexplored, a loss, and uncertainty will then be your fucking shadow evermore. Welcome to age 13 and the rest of life.

But that’s not what I’m talking about when I mean endangered. I’m talking about the pose. I meant to get to saying that soon I would not be collecting cards, but every once in while I’d have a look at a pack and each pack as the 1980s wore on featured an increasing number of action shots. Now all cards are action photos. The still life with bat featured here:  gone. It frightens me, this knowledge that everything that is will go. I turn to religion sometimes, but it’s a religion of strange design: I hold onto cards. It’s a Sunday and I’m going to spend it playing with and holding my son. He’s asleep right now and so I’m holding onto this card. It feels good in my hands. Solid. Makes me grateful. Let us pray.


After a few years with the Pirates organization, Craig Reynolds seems to have been buried deep enough on the organizational depth chart behind starting shortstop Frank Taveras and backup Mario Mendoza that the Pirates dumped him in a post-expansion draft trade with the Mariners. Reynolds started at short for the putrid Mariners for two years (and 202 total losses), but then the Mariners acquired Mario Mendoza and sent Reynolds packing to the Astros, who had been looking for someone to fill the void left by longtime starter Roger Metzger. Reynolds, finally free of Mario Mendoza, held down the starting spot in Houston from 1979 through 1981. Then Dickie Thon took over.

I remember thinking Craig Reynolds was unusual and even kind of cool for being a shortstop who batted only left-handed. I think he was the only lefty-swinging starting shortstop (not counting switch-hitters) during my childhood. They really don’t come along that often. One of the better ones was Joe Sewell, whose major league career began when the Cleveland Indians needed to immediately find a shortstop to replace Ray Chapman, who had been killed by a pitch from Carl Mays.

Craig Reynolds reclaimed the starting shortstop job he’d lost to Dickie Thon when Thon was badly injured by a pitch from Mike Torrez. Thon, a deeply religious man, seems to have leaned on and gained strength from his faith during the long process of coming back from the injury that impaired his vision. Eventually, he got to the point where he was at least somewhat effective, primarily against left-handed pitchers, and the right-handed-batting Thon and the left-handed-batting Reynolds began sharing the position. Shortstop is surely the most unusual position on the field to utilize a lefty-righty platoon, so in a way the presence of Reynolds facilitated the gradual reincorporation of Thon back into baseball. Like Thon, Reynolds was (and is) very religious. He’s a pastor in Houston’s Second Baptist Church, which according to Forbes is the second largest “megachurch” in America. He is certain about his path in life.

“I know for sure that I’ll spend eternity in heaven when I die,” he says.


My wife and I were talking about Coliseum Books the other day while sitting at our dining room table. Our baby was asleep in the other room. Our boy. I have never known love like this. What if she hadn’t gone in and asked for an application that day she was wandering around looking for work? What if any of the other places where she applied called her first? What if Pete’s girlfriend hadn’t gotten Pete an application? What if I hadn’t been broke and jobless? What if I had succeeded at anything in my life to that point?


Because I don’t know how any of this—beanballs and faith and uncertainty and gratitude and yearning and cardboard and losing and love—can possibly be tied together into a nice bow, here’s Joe Sewell, from A Donald Honig Reader:

Looking back on the years I see how fortunate I was. And sometimes I can’t help thinking how strange the design was. We think we run our own lives according to our own plans. But we don’t. Not always anyway. I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like if a ball hadn’t gotten away from Carl Mays at Yankee Stadium in August 1920 and hit Ray Chapman in the head. Because the moment that ball left Carl Mays’ hand, my life began to change.


Cliff Johnson

July 6, 2011

Cliff Johnson started his career in the 1970s as a catcher in the Astrodome. He was about as suited for that position in that time and place as a grizzly bear at a chess tournament. He appeared briefly in the big leagues in 1972 and 1973, started to play semi-regularly in 1974, and became a platoon player in 1975. In all, by 1976, the year this card came out, Johnson had smashed 32 homers and driven in 100 runs in 532 at-bats, numbers that amounted to the output of an elite power hitter over the course of a single season. It was understandable that the Astros would want to get that kind of power into the lineup on a regular basis, and so in 1976 Cliff Johnson started 64 games at catcher, his career high. Despite appearing in well under half of the team’s games at catcher, Johnson still nearly managed to win a kind of triple crown of ignominious fielding categories for catchers, finishing fifth in the league in errors committed as a catcher, second in stolen bases allowed, and first in passed balls.

He didn’t last much longer in Houston, and in fact his departure midway through 1977 could be seen as the beginning of the team’s rise toward its rainbow apotheosis of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the collection of fleet, sure-handed, slap-hitting blurs of color became one with the cavernous dome, as effective a pairing of personnel to place as has ever occurred in baseball. Why even try to wrench home runs out of the Astrodome, especially if it means employing the equivalent of a lopsided chest of drawers as your catcher?

So Cliff Johnson shambled over to the American League, his natural home, and promptly won two rings as a platoon player with the Yankees in 1977 and 1978. As out of place as he’d been as a catcher on a team that should have been relying on speed and defense, Johnson fit perfectly into the Yankees attack as a part-time provider of right-handed muscle. Those Yankees teams were deep and could come at you in a lot of ways, and Johnson’s arrival in the middle of that first championship year helped shore up a slight weakness, relatively speaking. The team’s best power hitters—Reggie, Nettles, and Chambliss—were all lefties, and two other regulars (left-handed Mickey Rivers and switch-hitter Roy White) also fared better against righties than lefties, so the team tended to struggle occasionally against left-handed pitching. Cliff Johnson gave them no less than a Hall of Fame caliber slugger against lefties: when facing southpaws, his career OPS—slugging percentage plus on-base percentage—was .905, just a shade below the total lifetime marks of Mike Schmidt and Ken Griffey Jr. and better than those of Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell.

With that kind of talent, it’s not a surprise in retrospect that Johnson seems to not have embraced his role as a part-timer with complete enthusiasm. Many years later, Goose Gossage would grouse in his autobiography about Johnson being a good deal less than cheery and accommodating when called upon to perform the duties of a bullpen catcher, which is where Johnson was apparently stationed while waiting around for his chance to terrorize opposing left-handed pitchers. The tension between Gossage and Johnson erupted in an infamous 1979 clubhouse brawl between the two lumbering, glowering behemoths in what has to be among the contenders for Brawl in Baseball History I’d Least Like to Try to Break Up. Gossage got injured in the fight, which considering his status as a team superstar spelled the end in New York for Johnson, who was soon shipped to Cleveland.

He bounced around for several more years, roaming and pummeling. Some years after his last game in 1986, Bill James wrote in his Historical Abstract that “if somebody had had the sense to make Cliff Johnson a DH/first baseman in a hitter’s park when he was 23 years old, he would have hit 500 homers.” This seems as if it may be verging on hyperbole, given the fact that after those first few years with the Astros, Johnson eventually did become a DH/first baseman, and he still couldn’t ever really crack the lineup on a regular basis. It’s odd that he never did have a full season, playing every day, given his numbers. It’s true that he did fare much better against lefties than righties, but his career righty-lefty splits were no worse than those of Cecil Fielder’s, another immobile slugger who at least had a few seasons as a regular and made the most of them. Cliff Johnson, who will turn 64 on July 22, my wife’s due date, should have had his chance to swing for the fences every day.


Houston Astros, 1979

May 20, 2011

In the beginning, the Astrodome was a wonder, the epitome of the burgeoning feeling—since dissipated—that humankind, now exploring the stars, was on the brink of mastering the universe. The stadium was also a marvel in itself, a wholly contained world, climate-controlled, the dominion of the gods finally wrested into human hands. The players who called it home didn’t at first add much to the wonder, though things started to change with the introduction of the blazing rainbow-colored uniforms in the mid-1970s. A sign that the Astrodome and the Astros were approaching equal terms as symbols of wonder came in the 1977 film The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (more on this cinematic artifact in a bit), when the quest-like awe the film’s titular little leaguers hold throughout for the mere idea of the Astrodome is equaled in intensity and enthusiasm by their reaction to the entrance into the action of some members of the Astros.

In real life, the Astros were still a couple years away at the time of the film from escaping their mostly unbroken history of mediocrity, but in 1979 they finally burst into full rainbow bloom by entirely embracing—by loving—their home. It’s not an accident that the team photo shown in this 1979 card is the most relaxed-looking team photo I’ve ever seen. The Astros are lounging around outside the Astrodome like brothers and cousins at a family reunion. Though the photo was likely taken in 1978, it telegraphs the fate of the team in 1979, when they would begin a three-year span as one of the elite teams in the National League by completely merging their identity with that of their home. The Astros and the Astrodome became one.

The late Astros of 1979–1981 are one of my favorite teams in baseball history, a rainbow cyclone of slap-hitting, power-pitching, and speed. The equation never worked very well on the road, where the Astros compiled decidedly mediocre records during this golden age of 37–44, 38–44, and (in the strike-shortened 1981 season) 30–29, but in the Astrodome they dominated like a John McGraw deadball-era fever dream, going 52–29, 55–26, and 31–20. No one on the team could hit for power, but virtually everyone could fly, and so a walk became a walk and a steal, a double became a triple, and the winning run on third became a rainbow torpedo blazing for home as the batter squared for the suicide squeeze.

So when I look at this 1979 team card I see a team that loves its home. When I typed that sentence in a Word document, a squiggly line appeared under the word “loves” and the suggested correction—apparently connected by the ham-fisted artificial intelligence of the automatic spell-check to the word “team”—was “loses.” But then again, that correction would make for a true sentence, too, eventually, as the Astros moved out of the Astrodome, losing their home. They still have a ballpark where they play their home games, some structure that used to be named for one corporation and is now named for another, but how can it compare to the Astrodome, which was in name and in spirit an extension of the team? Or was the team an extension of the Astrodome? Really, the borders between the Astros and the Astrodome were like the borders between colors in a rainbow, and any attempt to detach one side of the border from the other would make the rainbow dissolve into something meaningless, gray.


Some other news:

My book on The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (part of Soft Skull’s Deep Focus series) will be out on June 7.

Meanwhile, I’m getting ready to do some reading and drinking as part of some events planned by the publisher of the paperback version of Cardboard Gods. The Naperville Sun has an article on the first stop of the “Free Beer Tour”; for info on the other stops, please see my book events page.

Back in my old home state, Dan Bolles has a nice article in Seven Days on me and the writing of Cardboard Gods.


Enos Cabell

June 7, 2010

I’m no journalist, just a guy trying to stay sane via the dubious, possibly even insane, route of clinging to his childhood baseball cards, so don’t take this or anything else I ever say as unassailable fact, but I believe that at a certain point in his lengthy major league career, well after he had become established as a regular presence in the major leagues, Enos Cabell became a tool used by a then somewhat obscure baseball writer and analyst named Bill James to, first, attack the idea that Enos Cabell should be a regular presence in the major leagues and, more generally, to attack the established parameters for determining the relative worth of a major league player. Enos Cabell, James argued, was, contrary to the general consensus on the matter, in fact pretty worthless. I don’t think James had anything personally against Cabell, but he did have a seething, avenging hatred toward ossified conventional thinking, so he battered Cabell pretty mercilessly as he slammed the idea of the tall, thin infielder against the norm of what, in baseball, and by extension in life, is good. Enos Cabell, James concluded, is not good. The implied big question in this Seige on Enos: What is good? 

I wasn’t aware of Bill James during the years I collected baseball cards, or for several years after I stopped collecting. At the time I got this 1978 card, I would only have been able to draw from a couple of sources in determining where Enos Cabell stood in my world. (I almost wrote “the world” instead of “my world,” but when you’re a kid, the world belongs to you. Even though this thought is occurring as a parenthetical aside, it is probably the thesis of this sloppily conceived essay, if not the thesis of my entire ongoing-until-the-graveyard experiment in baseball card worship and solipsism and nostalgia and anti-nostalgia and the attempt to hold onto joy. When you’re a kid, the world belongs to you, and then little by little you lose it. This is my attempt to reclaim, card by card, my world.) One source in determining where Enos Cabell stood in my world was this card. On the back, the statistics for Cabell’s latest season suggested he was good. He had batted .282 with 36 doubles, 16 home runs, 68 RBI, and 101 runs scored. That, I would have concluded, is good. On the front, he is smiling, happy, a glimpse of the blaring rainbow colors of the Astros visible on his chest. This happy portrait brings me to the next source in determining where Enos Cabell stood in my world: he had appeared before my eyes, on screen, tall as a two-story building, in the very same uniform and with a similar happy expression the summer before in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, a throwaway sequel that I nonetheless and without shame or irony loved and still love.    

I am not going to venture too deeply into that movie at the moment, even though it is on my mind constantly as I work on a short book about it. I have been watching it on a fairly regular loop, and have watched some scenes as if I’m dissecting the Zapruder film. One of those scenes is the appearance of the Houston Astros in the dugout being used by the Bears. Bears’ third baseman Jimmy Feldman (played by Brett Marx, grandson of Gummo and lookalike of grand uncle Harpo) announces the arrival by exclaiming the names of the Astros’ stars, Cesar Cedeno and Bob Watson (the latter the only Astro who gets to speak a line; it’s the most crucial line in the movie, or, if you’re me, in movies in general), but besides Watson and Cedeno there are several other Astros who amble into the scene: Bill Virdon, Ken Forsch, JR Richard, Joe Ferguson, Roger Metzger, and Enos Cabell. Most of the Astros fade into the background, taking a seat on the bench, but Cabell is shown reacting with glee and pointing as he watches Tanner Boyle elude officials trying to grab the Bears shortstop and drag him from the field.

Like I said, I’ve been watching the movie constantly, which has a way of pounding all the enjoyment out of a thing, but I still get choked up by Tanner’s Last Stand. I don’t have the time or inclination to get into that now, but I do want to say that Enos Cabell deserves credit for shepherding that moment along by his enthusiastic reaction. While Ken Forsch, for example, sits idly by and dispassionately watches the little boy fight for his life (for what is life without baseball?), Enos Cabell points and laughs, the first among anyone in the entire Astrodome to become a fan of Tanner’s tenacious elusiveness. Soon enough, buoyed by Bob Watson’s one line (“Hey, let the keeds play,” Watson drawls, accompanying the somewhat stiff line-reading with a mistimed, limp-fisted air punch), Coach Leak will exit the dugout and in his Nam-Vet-suggesting army jacket he will begin exhorting the crowd to also become fans of the spectacle and of what it means. Soon enough, Kelly Leak, that stubborn non-joiner, will stand beside his estranged father outside the dugout, the two of them chanting “Let them play” (goddamnit, I vowed not to get too deep into this today but here I am again in the middle of the greatest fictional political movement of my world) and then soon enough all the Bears will join them, and then soon enough the whole stadium will be chanting, everyone shedding their indifference. It all started with, or was at least nudged forward by, Enos Cabell, rainbow-bright major league athlete and fan.

So in my world, Enos Cabell is good.

This isn’t my world, of course. I’m just passing through. My only claims are those of a fan. I’m a fan of baseball. I’m a fan of homely forgotten movies. I’m a fan of Bill James, but I don’t want to (and never could) follow in his brilliant footsteps. I’m a fan of the statistics on the backs of my old baseball cards, but I know they don’t tell an accurate story of a player’s accomplishments. I’m a fan of fans. Each fan owns the world as much as possible by way of his or her distinct point of view. Each fan remembers. Each fan cares. Each fan sheds indifference with weird, inexplicable love.


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


Wayne Granger

March 1, 2010

It can mean a lot to hold something in your hands. Consider the feeling of being a kid and holding a brand new card in your hands. Say it’s 1976 and the card shows a previously unseen (or even imagined) Technicolor eruption of colors virtually bursting from the two-dimensional limits of the card. That feeling is one I’ve been trying to describe on this site for a few years now, and it’s the feeling that is at the center of my book, due out in about a month.

I just held the finished version of the book in my hands for the first time this past Friday, and it gave me a thrill like being eight years old and seeing the dazzling colors of the Houston Astros for the first time. For almost as long as I’ve been holding these cards in my hands, I’ve been wanting to write a book that, like the books that I’ve loved the most, such as The Basketball Diaries or Stop-Time or The Catcher in the Rye or On the Road or Jesus’ Son or This Boy’s Life or A Fan’s Notes, holds within its covers the story of a life. And in the years that I’ve been writing about my childhood baseball cards on this site, my primary aim has been to pass along the feeling of what it’s like to hold some kind of fleeting magic in your hands. The book, because of some great design work by my publisher, Seven Footer Press, has the look and even the feel of a brand new pack of baseball cards from the 1970s, and within the book are the color images of four packs worth of cards, the next best thing to me being able to hand you sixty of the gods of my childhood so that you too can hold them in your hands.

I already made a link to this above, but in case you missed it, I’ve set up a page on this site with more information about the book, including where and when it can be purchased and what some people have been saying about it.

Lest anyone be tempted to dream that a book called Cardboard Gods might mean that I’ll finally stop droning on incessantly about my childhood baseball cards on this site, please allow me to use this incredible Wayne Granger card to pass along the perhaps demoralizing news that I won’t be shutting up anytime soon, or perhaps ever, not counting debilitating medical problems or death. Put another way: I’ll never say it all, but I’ll keep trying. That’s the feeling I got when I first looked at this Wayne Granger card from 1976 this morning. I opened my shoebox full of cards and took the rubber band off of the stack of Astros cards, and this is the first card I saw upon opening the stack at random. I wanted to post something today that pointed toward this whole project of writing about all my childhood baseball cards, and I figured the Astros would be a good start, since their uniforms say so much about the strange woozy era I grew up in, and also about the hold it will always have on me as the time in which dizzying wonder roamed the land without a map or a compass or even a destination.

Wayne Granger seems to feel it, too, leaning slightly to the left as if a little unsure of his moorings, a look on his face like his catcher is flashing him sign language interpretations of the essays of Umberto Eco. He has been a star in the league, back when things made more sense, back when he was on a team, the Reds, with strict rules about how to dress and how to wear your hair. Those years are behind him now. He has been traded for a player to be named later and has twice been afloat in the strange new ether of free agency. He can grow his hair long and put on vestments that could just have easily been the chosen garments of a 1970s cult dedicated to communal living, past-life regression hypnosis, and chanting at rainbows. Granger (who because I was too young to know him as a star was always confused in my head with that early symbol of the excesses of free agency, Wayne Garland) carried a record of 34 and 35 into the 1976 season. He had not even had a baseball card in 1975, so there may have been some sense that this photo shoot might be his last. (It was, though after the Astros released him he did manage to hook on with the Montreal Expos and win one more game to even his all-time record forever at 35 and 35, perfectly even, a fact that affirms the conviction that I will never exhaust the great and small wonders of this era.) I wonder if he knew to be grateful for that feeling of holding something in his hands, a baseball inside a glove: childhood itself. That feeling ends for everyone eventually. Some of us keep trying to bring it back.


Cesar Cedeno 1976

August 28, 2009

Cesar Cedeno 1976

After I finished reading Leo Durocher’s Nice Guys Finish Last, I started reading something completely different, a 2005 novel called Prep by a young woman named Curtis Sittenfeld. It is so good I want to carry her around with other acolytes on one of those Egyptian royalty conveyances and chant her name. It is so good that a couple mornings ago I got buried in it and missed my goddamn stop on the train and was late for work, something that has only happened once before in my extremely extensive life of reading on trains, and that previous time, many years ago, was because I happened to be in the midst of a very long girlfriend-less slump and so was particularly attentive to a long fuck scene in Sexus.

Sittenfeld’s book is set in a boarding school in Massachusetts (named Ault in the book; the author went to Groton School), and part of the ache in my gut as I devour her crystalline glimpses of a young life taking shape in that setting comes from the sliver of my own past that took place at a boarding school in Massachusetts. I was only there for two years, or actually less than two years since I didn’t quite make it all the way before being ordered to leave. I’ve covered that before on this site, but in a way I don’t think I’ll ever fully cover it, or recover from it. It’s too much.

It’s an odd thing to long for, a year and a half that I spent feeling like an addle-brained maladapted misfit until I discovered I could pulverize those feelings with bong hits. But there was a certain high concentration of experience there, such a striking contrast to my solitary rural life before and the solitary urban life that has come after, that makes it stand out as more unreachable and haunting than any other of the many unreachable and haunting places in my past. But high concentration of experience isn’t quite the right notion. Sittenfeld may be getting it right when she uses the word possibility:

This was the single best thing about Ault, the sense of possibility. We lived together so closely, but because it was a place of decorum and restraint and because on top of that we were teenagers, we hid so much. And then, in dorms and classes and on teams and at formal dinners and in adviser groups, we got shuffled and thrust together and shuffled again, and there was always the chance you might find out one of the pieces of hidden information. . . . Depending on circumstances, a wild fact could be revealed to you, or you could fall desperately in love. In my whole life, Ault was the place with the greatest density of people to fall in love with. (p. 42)

I think we all must be haunted a little by the times in our lives when we felt a greater sense of possibility. Even that tenacious, focused warrior Leo Durocher seems to have been guided in a certain key way by a persistent attachment to a bygone feeling of boundless possibilities.

I say this because of the way he speaks in the book about Pete Reiser, the great and unlucky Brooklyn Dodger centerfielder whose career was cut short by injuries often brought on by his gung ho fielding style, which led him to crash into many unpadded outfield walls. At one point, and fairly famously, I think, Durocher claims that, if anything, Reiser was more talented than the greatest player Durocher (or anyone) ever managed, Willie Mays. “Might have been better,” Durocher says, comparing Reiser to Mays. After he was done managing these two centerfielders, Durocher was always on the lookout for the next Mays or Reiser, always looking for a way to return to a time bursting with the possibilities that a player of that caliber could bring to a team.

After managing Reiser’s Dodgers and Mays’ Giants, Durocher managed the Cubs, a team that seemed to have bothered him with its lack of a player like Reiser or Mays who could do it all. The possibilities with the Cubs slimmed down to the blunt inelegant flip of a coin that was the plodding center of their attack: the all-or-nothing slugging abilities of Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, and Billy Williams. When he finished with the Cubs he must have believed that he was finished for good. At a certain point you let go of the search to reconnect to that long gone feeling of possibilities.

But then Durocher decided to give it one more try, and the reason was simple: After all these years, he looked out to centerfield and thought he saw the glory of the past coming back to life. He looked out to centerfield and saw Cesar Cedeno.

“Natural talent?” Durocher noted. “Cesar Cedeno has it to burn.”

Unfortunately for Durocher, Cedeno seems not to have possessed the one thing that had connected the athletically limited Durocher (in 17 seasons as a player: 24 home runs and a lifetime batting average—in the batting average Mecca of the 1930s—of .247) to the athletically blessed Reiser and Mays: a burning desire to excel. Cedeno, it should be noted, ended up having a long, good career, but Durocher is certainly not the only observer who thinks that he could have done much better. By the time this card came out, in 1976, Cedeno was still only 25 years old, but his two greatest seasons, 1972 and 1973 (coincidentally or not the two seasons that Durocher served part of or the whole season as manager), were already behind him.

“You spend your life looking for the great talent that comes along about once a decade,” Durocher says while speaking of Cedeno, “and you have to sit there and see it being thrown away.”

You spend your whole life looking for possibilities. You spend your whole life looking for Willie Mays and Pete Reiser. You spend your whole life disappointed.


But, on a lighter note, it turns out Durocher wasn’t forever on the lookout only for a do-it-all centerfielder. . . .

Here’s some video footage of Durocher’s scouting attempts to sign a hard-throwing country boy (who in the youtube silent narration is recast as Roger Clemens).

And here’s some more video footage of Durocher’s encounters with a freakishly talented slugger.


Jose Cruz

July 29, 2009

Jose Cruz 75

I have decided that I will not rest until every single transaction in baseball from 1974 through 1981 is considered, evaluated, and mined for possible answers to the enigma of human existence. OK, I will rest. I’ll rest a lot. I’ll rest at night, naturally, and I’ll probably nod off on the bus if I’m trying to read something sort of difficult, and whenever possible I’ll fall asleep on the couch with a half-open can of beer in my hand, but then I’ll wake up, eventually, and wrestle through the groggy aftershock of awakening and then, by god, if I have nothing better to do with myself, I’ll maybe look at a baseball card and if it alludes to a transaction that seems of interest I will investigate it until I get tired again or feel like watching TV. That is my solemn vow. Read the rest of this entry ?


Tommy Helms

April 23, 2009


Some of childhood’s confusions:

For a while I thought there was a musician named Bob “Dillon” and another completely different musician named Bob Dylan (first syllable pronounced “die”). I think I understood that they were somehow connected, that they might even maintain some sort of a friendship despite the stark differences in their personalities. Probably keeping with the fact that I knew of the former personage from hearing the word out in the world and that I knew the latter from reading the name silently to myself, I envisioned Bob Dillon as a somewhat grizzled, road-toughened adventurer (when he finally died off in my mind he did so by fading into my growing awareness of that singer of hoarse-voiced odes to the road-going past, Bob Seger), and I envisioned Bob Dylan as a reclusive bookish enigma, a guy who wrote songs for others to sing, perhaps including Bob Dillon. Maybe once in a while the recluse would appear in a club where another musician was performing and they’d beg him to come up to the stage, but he’d wave them off, preferring to stay in the shadows, sipping from a complicated, umbrella-garnished drink.

For a while I thought my father was “a google” years old. I thought this because it’s what he told me when I asked. I guess he didn’t want to tell me his actual age. (By the time I started asking he was in his late forties and early fifties.) I understood on one level that no one could actually be a google years old, but on another level I believed that if anyone could be it would be my father. He didn’t live with us for most of my childhood, and when he came up for visits it was always apparent to me that he was not like the other adults in the Vermont town where I lived, who were either hunting-jacket-wearing natives or gradually aging hippies. A lifelong clean-cut urban intellectual with thick glasses, a button-down shirt, and a tendency to daydream and absent-mindedly trip over things, my father didn’t fit either category. So maybe he was another category altogether, a man who had been around forever. Who would, it followed, always be around. That’s the thing with these childhood confusions. They are on some level at least partially willful.

For a while I believed I could fly. I sometimes had these dreams that were so realistic I was never completely sure, nor did I want to be sure, that they had not actually happened. In them I would be walking around my town and feeling the grit of the day, the weight of the earth, the actual indisputable details of existence, and I would suddenly remember that I could step up into the sky. Part of what made the dreams seem real was that my departures from earth were never seamless liftoffs. Instead they involved some work. It was like getting a bicycle moving from a dead stop on an incline. And then, as altitude increased, it was more like making a bicycle move on a straightaway. I would fly through the sky all over my town, amazed by my freedom, amazed that I kept forgetting that I had access to such unspeakable joy.

For a while I thought Tommy Helms was an immortal. The fact that he didn’t ever show up in lists of other immortals in any of the baseball books I was constantly poring through actually lent even more mystery and magic to his person, though as time went on I had to strain to continue willing this persisting misapprehension of reality. The singular source for this sweet confusion was this 1972 card, my only 1972 card, which I got along with a few other cards from before my time at a tag sale in my town.

I believe the odd combination in the flashy, battered card of sparkling celebratory newness and what seemed to be great age fostered the notion that Tommy Helms somehow existed outside of time altogether. I had never seen a 1972 card, so the design, particularly the brassy three-dimensional letters of the team name, surely wowed me, as it was more spectacular than any of the cards I had, and in my mind the more spectacular something was, the newer it was, so the card must have seemed by some miracle to have come to me from the future. But the extremely weathered condition of the card, which was in worse shape by far than not only all my cards but than any of the other cards I got at the tag sale, along with the plain fact that the player pictured seemed to come from an earlier time than any player I’d ever seen on a baseball card, set the card in a far distant past. The immortals I knew about, such as Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, and Babe Ruth, all stood outside of time, their iconic status immune to the erosion of years, but Tommy Helms achieved immortality by seeming to levitate above time. The card, already deep into the process of fading away, would only increase Tommy Helms’ magic as time went on, his gradual disappearance only widening his vast presence on a timeline stretching far into the distances of the future and the past.

It didn’t hurt that the card was so beaten up that I couldn’t study what were in actuality decent but decidedly mortal numbers. It also didn’t hurt that around the time I got the card at a tag sale Pete Rose made a gripping run at Joe Dimaggio’s unbreakable 56-game hitting streak, and in doing so he broke the estimable National League hitting streak record set by an old-timer named Tommy Holmes, who I immediately assumed, despite the difference in their last names, was the same player as the immortal in my tag sale card.

I eventually admitted to myself that Tommy Holmes and Tommy Helms were two different players altogether, and that even if they were somehow the same guy—if they somehow formed one amazing player who set a hitting streak record in 1945 and then magically stuck around long enough to add several solid seasons in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a slick-fielding middle infielder—I still wouldn’t own a card as priceless as the card that, for a little while, I thought I owned.


Bob Gallagher

March 7, 2009


You wouldn’t know it from Bob Gallagher’s expression, which seems to suggest that he is trying to decide if it is in fact his rusty car that is, off in the distance, in the process of being stolen, but this card signals the pinnacle of Bob Gallagher’s major league career. In the season to come he would hit just .172 in limited play, and in the season after that, mercifully his last, he fared even worse, hitting .133 in 15 at-bats. But here he stands, having batted a respectable .264 in 148 at-bats while playing, as the patch on his left shoulder attests, in one of the worst ballparks for a hitter that has ever been built.


But before I consider Bob Gallagher some more I have to confess that I got the goldpanning story I told in relation to Orel Hershiser wrong. In the story I guessed that my brother and I had set out to find riches in the stream near my house because we’d seen someone do something similar on television. But after I posted the story I spoke to my stepfather, and he gently suggested that my brother and I had first panned for gold with him during a camping trip somewhere in or around Middlebury, a Vermont town an hour or so west of where we lived. The funny thing is, I still couldn’t remember this trip after he mentioned it, but then he began explaining that he’d panned for gold himself during the time that he’d lived in Alaska fighting forest fires. He also reminded me that his own grandfather (or maybe great-grandfather; clearly, my mind is a Bermuda Triangle for all information that ventures within its reach) had set out for Alaska to find gold many years before. Suddenly it all became so plausible that my brother and I would learn of panning for gold, and not from some random TV show but from a much closer source, from the lessons and stories of one of the adults raising us.


The back of the card improves upon this respectable campaign by presenting Gallagher’s full minor league records, during which he hit above .300 twice, just below .300 once, and in his other season, his first, batted a promising .270. This portrait of a man who has been traveling in a straight line toward the incredibly rare fate of being a true major league hitter is completed with a cartoon and two lines of bulleted text. The caption in the cartoon states, “Bob’s grandfather, Shano Collins, was active in the majors.” One line of bulleted text relates his 1967 Winter League batting average (.437), and the other points out that he “helped lead Alaska Goldpanners to 3 straight state titles in semi-pro competition.”


When people speak of memory I think they are mostly thinking of visual data, as if memory is a rack of old videos that we can play on the grainy screens of our remembering minds. But other senses may provide a stronger conduit to the worlds we’ve left behind. For example, one bite of a piece of pastry got Proust going for nine billion pages of undying backward-gazing literature, apparently (I tried to start reading his remembrances but kept falling asleep on the bus with the tome in my hands, which was actually sort of pleasant, if a hopeless way to ever get through a book). For another example, the visual perusal of any single baseball card will not, for most readers of this site, be as effective a transport back into childhood than the remembrance of the smell and feel and taste of the hard, powdered gum from a pack of baseball cards.

I still don’t remember the camping trip when I learned to pan for gold; that is, I can’t “see” it. But when my stepfather started describing the process of panning for gold the other day, a process he’d learned in Alaska, the same place where his grandfather had learned it, the same place where Shano Collins’ grandson had gathered the gold of championships with the semi-pro Goldpanners, I remembered it in my body. This is what happens when you’re taught something by somebody who loves you. You remember it in your fingers, your limbs. In your blood.


I wonder if Bob Gallagher was taught to hit by his major league grandfather, Shano Collins, a champion with the 1917 White Sox (and an untainted pennant winner with the disgraced 1919 club). It seems likely that he had at least some part in it; what grandfather wouldn’t want to play with his grandson? Gallagher was only seven years old, just edging into little league readiness, when his grandfather passed away, so he may not have clear memories of his grandfather’s batting advice, but even if his mind can’t remember, his body will. When he was at his peak as a player, winning those championships with the Alaska Goldpanners, Bob Gallagher must have felt as if there were flecks of gold in his veins. He had learned how to hit, perhaps learned so well he forget where he’d learned it. It all felt as natural as water running down a stream, as blood flowing from the heart.


Cesar Cedeno

November 4, 2008

I have to go early to my job today and stay late. I couldn’t sleep last night, worrying about all the things I have to get done. Eventually that worry expanded into a metaphysical reckoning, something that should never be entered into at two in the morning. I got out of bed and went to the room with the computer and sat there on the edge of the futon in my underwear holding my stomach. The small blue circle of light around the on-button of the computer monitor flashed. I got more and more upset. Felt trapped. I did some push-ups. I punched myself a few times in the head, even though I swore I’d never do that again. I pondered existence, panicking. The Big Question: What is this shit? I took deep breaths. I fucking prayed. I pray sometimes. In fact that’s what I’m doing now, what I’ve been doing all my life with the Cardboard Gods. I was able to go back to sleep for a couple hours. Now I’m up and have to go do my job, which has gradually become the job of three people. Everyone in the cubicles around me is doing the job of three people, too. This has something to do with the increasing number of empty cubicles. At night we watch the news of the economy collapsing, jobs disappearing. I’ll never be a father. I wish I was mildly brain-damaged, free of responsibility and expectation. Only an asshole would say such a thing. My stomach hurts now, and my back, and my eyes have that gauzy feel from lack of sleep. My shoulders are tight. None of the things I will do today will be memorable. If I get old and look back at my life this day will not be there, even though it’s a potentially historic day. Where were you the day Obama was elected? Where were you the day Obama was shockingly defeated? What did you do? This is what my grandchild would ask, presumably, if I were to live a life that included children and grandchildren. Anyway I’d have no answer. I worked. I went to my job and did the shit you do to stay clothed and fed.

The future curdles. This is a thing only an asshole would say on a day that many are feeling hopeful about. Change, great. I voted for “change” and did so happily. (I voted early, in some kind of old municipal hall that was also hosting a Halloween dance. No one was at the dance yet. “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang was playing. There was a skeleton and skulls and a Darth Vader head hanging over the door to the building.) Will it impact my life? I doubt it. The future used to be one thing, and now it’s something else. It’s clearer, less vague, narrower. I’m 40. I will work until my heart ceases, most days squares to put a line through when completed. Cesar Cedeno, shown here around the time it had become clear that he was after all never going to be the next Willie Mays, seems to be both safe and irrelevant. The play is happening somewhere else. He has lost his helmet. He has been moved from centerfield to first base. He has aged. He is looking toward the play going on without him. In a few years he’ll be altogether gone from the scene.


Skip Jutze, 1976

September 23, 2008


One Continuous Mistake: The Cardboard Gods Story (So Far)

Part 1 of 3

“Wilker, you got it wrong.” – sg schier, 5.30.08

I have written about Skip Jutze before. But as sg schier pointed out in a May 30 comment attached to that first Skip Jutze post, I got it wrong. But how could I get it right? How could I ever hope to say all there is to say about Skip Jutze?

And I feel that tingling, excited sensation again, the one I get when I know I’m about to get it wrong. It’s not a bad feeling. In fact, it makes me feel alive. I get it when I’m holding one of my baseball cards from my childhood and starting to glimpse the glittering possibilities embedded like a lode of diamonds all over in the card. It’s like that Beatles song. It’s all too much for me to take. The love that’s shining all around you. I know I’ll get it wrong. I can’t possibly say it all. Skip Jutze!

Here he is, a couple years before his appearance on the card I’ve already written about, younger than that doleful sky-gazing mustachioed journeyman on the Mariner card, the younger Skip Jutze looking directly into the camera with the adamantine confidence of an athlete who has been second to none for almost all of his life, a superstar in every sport he played, a hometown legend. The confident look prevails despite the data on the back of the card, the birth date acknowledging that he’ll be turning 30 in May, the .226 lifetime average, the lack of even a single career home run. The front of the card is no different: The lopsided layout cheapens what already must be a card nearly devoid of worth. The empty stands hint at Skip Jutze’s status as a guy to be gotten out of the way early by the Topps photographer, before the regulars swagger onto the field. The polyester rainbow of his uniform seems cheap and desperate, especially since the number on Skip Jutze’s pants, 9, does not match the number, 23, on the bottom of the bat in Skip Jutze’s hands. He is a spare part, just passing through, briefly flickering between the minors and the majors, tossed a leftover uniform and a random bat. And yet, taken all together, the confident look, the paltry stats, the garish uniform, above all the name, Skip Jutze, immune to renown, it all speaks to me not of failure or success but of something beyond that false duality, the sweet stinging tension of life itself, our moment alive, holding with all our might to might, to if, to maybe, to the brink of another bright uncertain day sparkling and sharp with the diamonds of possibilities and mistakes.


“When we reflect on what we are doing in our everyday life, we are always ashamed of ourselves. One of my students wrote to me saying, ‘You sent me a calendar, and I am trying to follow the good mottoes which appear on every page. But the year has hardly begun, and already I have failed!’ Dogen-Zenji said, ‘Shoshaku jushaku.’ Shaku generally means ‘mistake’ or ‘wrong.’ Shoshaku jushaku means ‘to succeed wrong with wrong,’ or one continuous mistake. According to Dogen, one continuous mistake can also be Zen. A Zen master’s life could be said to be many years of shoshaku jushaku. This means so many years of one single-minded effort.”    – Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

I started Cardboard Gods a little over two years ago when I randomly grabbed from my shoebox full of aging cards my one and only Mark Fidrych card, an amazing stroke of luck considering the fact that there’s probably no other player who embodies for me the dreams and joys and disappointments of childhood and its endless shadow than the ebullient curly-haired nutjob rookie, the Bird, who ruled the American League for one slim beautiful year before breaking his wing and dropping almost instantly out of sight. Holding his card, I got that tingling, excited sensation. I was very glad to be feeling it. The worst thing in the world is if you start feeling like you’ve somehow got to a point in your life when you can’t make any more mistakes. For one reason or another you’ve marginalized yourself, removed yourself from the game. I had spent the previous years working on a novel and upon the messy uncertain completion of the book had been unable to publish it. I felt worn out, empty, demoralized, buried, removed. I needed to get back the feeling that I was still alive, that mistakes were still possible. Enter the Cardboard Gods.

After only a week or so of profiles I found myself writing what seemed to be a particularly dull ode to Otto Velez. I wondered if things had run their course. For months after that I’d periodically circle around to that Otto Velez feeling. Certainly, on any rational level the whole project was ludicrous. OK, write a few things about your baseball cards and then move on with real life. But dedicate yourself to it indefinitely?

I have been doing this for a couple of years and I have only covered a fairly small percentage of the baseball cards from my childhood. There are still so many mistakes to be made! I want to infect every card I own with my failings. I want to make a single-minded effort, one continuous mistake. I want to get every single Cardboard God wrong.

(continued in Rowland Office, 1976)


Mike Cosgrove

June 10, 2008

Here we see a young man oozing easy confidence, immune to the effects of what seems to be a banishment to a far field where the grass is patchy and brown and there are only the faintest hints (a pale blip that might be a base, an even fainter distant structure that might be a chain-link backstop) that this fallow ground could be baseball-related. Most others in his situation freeze into corpselike stiffness but he overcomes the usual limitations of the awkward wax figure baseball card pose by letting his body communicate looseness and ease, the natural balanced grace of a lefty. He stares directly at the viewer, a trace of a small, confident smile on his unblemished face. The back of the card contains the story of his quick rise through the minors, including the year he fanned 231 batters in 172 minor league innings. After that year he began splitting time between the minors and the majors, finally spending the majority of the year in the big leagues during the final season listed, 1974. Below the line for that year is a statement that reads, “Mike became lefty ace of Astros’ bullpen in 1974 & may be starter in 1975.”

                                                       *  *  *

And here we see the same man just one year later, no longer able to look directly at the viewer, no longer young. The brim of his cap is misshapen, as if mangled by bullies or forgotten in the rain. He wears badges of desperation, a perm, a dust-thin mustache. Behind him is the unmistakable high stands of a major league stadium, simultaneously claustrophobic and vast. He has made it; there is no joy. On the back of his card there is no trace of his minor league successes, just the thin gruel of numbers of a big league mop-up man. Instead of an encouraging personalized line of text below the numbers, there is this non-sequitur: “At the turn of the century the Chicago Cubs were known as the Colts.” It’s tempting to think the scattered figures in the distance are heckling the man in the extreme foreground, that scorn from strangers is the cause of the complicated expression on Mike Cosgrove’s face. But they are just as likely to be talking about how the Cubs used to be known as the Colts as they are to be talking about, let alone expending the effort to mock, Mike Cosgrove. They really have nothing to do with the likes of Mike Cosgrove. Whatever vague repulsion or sour apprehension rippling his pasty features is his alone, the light from the dirty neon of the pawnshop within.


Brad Ausmus

May 5, 2008

                                                        Golf Road
                                                     Chapter Two 
                                      (continued from Brandon McCarthy)

I lurched around grabbing up all the shreds I could find. After reading the name on the first piece I’d noticed—Brad Ausmus—I didn’t waste any more time looking at names. I just wanted to gather up everything I could before the bus came.

The pieces were light and jagged. They weren’t weather-beaten, but they were slightly curled, like old photographs. They were distributed over a fairly wide area, implying that they had either been tossed up into a breeze, like confetti, or had been moved more gradually by intermittent gusts after having been flung down. Either way, the lack of any further weather-related markings or discoloration made it seem likely that the cards had been abandoned just a few hours before my arrival on the scene.

As I gathered the fragments I noticed that they were physically different from the baseball cards from my childhood. The material seemed cheaper, flimsier, sharper-edged. They surely were easier to rip into pieces than a similar stack of cards from the 1970s would have been. It probably felt good, at least for a second, to shred them. To so easily say I don’t need you.

                                                       * * *

The first and third jobs I ever had were at East Dennis Shell, on the inside part of Cape Cod’s elbow. My second job, before I begged to pump gas again, was with a Greenpeace office based in Hyannis that sent me and other young people all over the Cape to knock on doors and ask for money. At one house a balding Jehovah’s Witness waved off my environmentalist spiel and lectured me at length about how the world was going to end soon.

“There’s nothing you can do to stop it,” he said.

On another day a middle-aged woman in a gray nightgown stared past me and spoke of all the cars going and going, always, all the time, just going and going everywhere. After repeating this assertion for a while she finally leveled her watery gaze at me.

“Where are they all going?” she asked.

                                                      * * *

When I was done gathering, I stood at the edge of the bus stop shelter. I held the small mass of ripped cards to my chest lightly, as if I was protecting a storm-damaged bird’s nest. The traffic of Golf Road flew by.

People aren’t really meant to witness that kind of traffic so closely. If you ever do, you’ll sense a meanness in it. Everyone wants to get to what they imagine is their real life. Everyone wants to get through the places that are neither here nor there. Everyone roars past in a blur. Everything they roar past is a blur. This place is no place. This moment is no moment.

                                                    * * *

Where are they all going? Where is America? If you listen to the patriotic songs it’s in a brave battle for freedom and in God-blessed natural beauty and bounty. The prevailing cultural mythology of America extends these themes into a vision of a promised land of individual conquest and celebration. The American tames the wilderness. The American goes from rags to riches in the vibrant city. The American mows a flawless lawn behind the white picket fence of an alarm-secured suburban home. The American swats a home run in the bottom of the ninth to loose the democratic yawp of the masses across the sun-splashed green.

                                                   * * *

I could not field a very good team with the 22 players featured in the torn cards from Golf Road. Like many of the cards themselves, the roster has glaring holes, as there are no outfielders, no shortstops, and just one first baseman. Most of all: there are no stars. Brad Ausmus, the aging, light-hitting catcher, is probably the most well-known player in the pile.

                                                  * * *

Nowhere in the collective dream of America is there a pedestrian blurred into invisibility on a four-lane road, cars flying past in both directions, a drab brown nature preserve on one side, a string of bland corporate office buildings on the other, a cluster of chain restaurants off on one flat horizon, the opposite horizon dominated by the concrete overpass of an Interstate highway, traffic so thick it barely moves.
                                                 * * *

I imagine the original owner of the cards growing impatient as he waits on Golf Road. 

When will this nothing moment end?

There’s no store anywhere around. He must have bought the cards at some earlier time, looked at them, brought them along with him to his job, put in a day’s work in a cubicle, and looked at them again to try to fight the monotony and meaninglessness of the moment that is not a moment. He must have leafed through the cards looking for meaning in them, looking for some connection to that persistent American dream of triumph. Looking for a star. Looking for somebody.

Nobody, nobody, nobody, is what he heard as a reply, in the cars flying past, in the faces of the cards in his hands, in the life he was leading, in the absence of the gods. It must have felt good, at least for a second, to tear all the slick bright nobodies to shreds.

(to be continued)


Gene Pentz (flipped)

March 10, 2008
In 1974, Gene Pentz did not play. It’s unclear why. During my recent series of posts on Vietnam War veterans who played in the major leagues I came across several cards with a similarly statistics-free line adorned with the message “IN MILITARY SERVICE.” I feel as though I’ve seen, on other cards, a message that says “ON DISABLED LIST.” So I’m thinking that when Gene Pentz DID NOT PLAY he was neither in the military nor injured. So why didn’t he play?

For that matter, why was he listed as being on Evanston Evansville when he played no games for them that year nor the year before? And what did he do instead of playing? And come to think of it, isn’t the word “PLAY,” even in the negative, or maybe especially in the negative, an odd word to use as a way to describe a grown man’s existence? Or then again is it perhaps the most apt word that could be used? What could be more of a waste than a whole year without play?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I do know that if I had a baseball card, the back of it would be riddled, no matter what statistics it measured, with inexplicable gaps. There have been plenty of seasons of spotty employment, plenty of seasons of fetid isolation, plenty of seasons that slid by in a gray haze, plenty of seasons of numbness, plenty of seasons without play.

My last season in the house I grew up in was the summer between my first lackluster year at boarding school and the year I was expelled from boarding school. The summer before, I had passed the time alone, inventing vast imaginary leagues for several solitary games I invented around the house and yard. I was prepared and perhaps even looking forward to doing the same again, and I did end up getting plenty of alone time anyway, but I was saved from total isolation by the decision of an old friend of my brother’s to take a year off from college. This guy, who I’ve mentioned before on this site, was the most driven, single-minded person I’ve ever known. He was also the most competitive, and had he possessed even modest physical gifts he would have been an elite athlete, but he was short, scrawny, slow, and as graceless as an arthritic octogenarian. He was also, when playing sports, relentless, fearless, and completely self-sacrificing, the kind of guy who would dive headlong for a loose ball during otherwise lackadaisical pickup basketball games on hard blacktop. It’s fitting that though he loved baseball and basketball, he only made varsity in high school in cross-country running, where his runty bow-legged stride could be compensated for by an unsurpassed willingness to endure pain.

When my brother and I first met him he was a 10-year-old farm boy whose life revolved around baseball and baseball cards (a love that he passed on to us), and as he got older his love of baseball and sports in general fed into a burning desire to become a sportswriter. He was the editor of his high school’s newspaper and a writer on his college’s newspaper and after college got a job on a newspaper in San Diego. By the last time my brother and I saw him, years ago, chatting with him for a few minutes outside the press box during a rain delay at Shea, he had bounded from the San Diego job to a job covering the Orioles to a job as the beat reporter following the Mets for the New York Times. He soon switched over to the Yankees and we haven’t spoken to him since, though I hear his voice practically as much as I hear the voice of anyone I know, given my habit of squandering my finite hours on earth listening to sports talk radio and given the ubiquitous presence on such radio of this baseball-crazy figure from my childhood, Buster Olney.

In 1977 1978 all Topps cards included, on the right-hand side of the back of the card, game pieces in something called “PLAY BALL.” I never played the game that I can remember, which is surprising given the fact that I filled many otherwise empty hours playing imaginary solitaire baseball games of every variety, using dice, using Nerf, throwing a tennis ball against the garage or off the roof, whacking a whiffle ball around the yard, even setting up marbles in fielders’ positions on the floor of my room and knocking the “pitcher” marble against the “hitter” marble. In all this time that I’ve been scrutinizing and writing about these cards, many of them from 1977 1978, I have barely noticed the game, and I only gave it a second look on this Gene Pentz card because the game occurrence mentioned—base on balls—seemed a particularly cruel choice by either the gods of randomness or the employees of Topps, given Gene Pentz’s chronic and ultimately career-truncating inability to consistently throw strikes.

What I have decided to do is use all the cards from 1977 1978 that I’ve written about so far to play, for the first time, the game of “PLAY BALL.” I will share the results of that game in a separate post, but for now I’ll just remark on the fact that with my first moment of play I will violate the primary rule of the game, the rule that is included as a subtitle of the game itself: PLAYED BY TWO. In that violation I will return to the summer before the summer before I got kicked out of school, i.e., the summer before the summer of Buster.

Sometimes, as part of my vast collection of rituals of self-laceration, I compare the imaginary back of my baseball card to the imaginary back of Buster’s card. The back of my card has a lot of transience, a lot of aimlessness, a lot of dumb, useless toil, a lot of DID NOT PLAYs. The back of Buster’s card shows a steady climb toward hard-won glory. But there is also, even on his card, maybe on everyone’s card, one season where he DID NOT PLAY. Perhaps not coincidentally, this blank passage of his included the summer when he and I were basically one another’s sole companion.

Since he’d gone off to college Buster had not returned home for the summer, but he came home the summer before I got kicked out of school, and as I remember it he was unsure if he’d ever go back. I never knew why he’d decided to take a year off, but I seem to recall that for whatever reason he was seriously considering, for maybe the first time in his life, that he wasn’t going to become a sportswriter. Taken in the long view, this pause of his is almost comical in light of the eventual resumption of his relentless rise to the pinnacle of the sportswriting world (kind of like the old Saturday Night Live skit in which a key-pounding Stephen King stops typing for a few seconds and calls it “writer’s block”), but at the time Buster really did seem to be wrestling with the question of what to do next. After the summer was over and I’d gone back to boarding school, he got a job in a bank and grew a mustache. He’d never had a mustache before and as far as I know he’d never have a mustache again. Ever since then a mustache will occasionally seem to me as a visible trace of an otherwise invisible thrashing against the void.

There’s probably some lesson to be learned in the fact that mustachioed Buster was tortured by the lack of an answer to the question of what to do next while I was happy to reside as long as possible in the fantasy of inconsequentiality that I always create whenever I’m neither here nor there. I have good memories of that summer. We did a lot of haying for his stepfather, then played a lot of basketball if there was daylight left and Strat-O-Matic if there wasn’t. I didn’t want it to end. But I’m guessing that Buster, if he remembers that time at all, remembers it as something he used every fiber of his considerable will to pull himself free from, as if it was quicksand.


Astros, 1978

March 7, 2008
I can’t stop thinking about Gene Pentz. 

At left is the only other card I own, besides the Pentz I displayed a couple days ago, that features the mustachioed obscurity. Can you spot him?

I have spent so much time thinking about Gene Pentz that I am tempted to wonder if I have become the biggest fan he’s ever had. I would be wrong in that assumption. During Gene Pentz’s brief career there was a Gene Pentz Fan Club.

Darren Viola knew the founder and sole member of the Gene Pentz Fan Club. Viola, better known to baseball fans as Repoz (the name he uses in his tireless gathering and hilariously skewed presenting of baseball news at The Baseball Think Factory), was a “friend of a friend” of the fan of Pentz, and wishes when trying to recall him that his “mind wasn’t so alchohazingly damaged from those years.” Still, a vivid portrait of Pentz and Fan of Pentz comes through in Viola’s recollections. . .

He was one strange kid . . . muy intense and singleminded in his adoration of all things Pentz!

I remember asking him WHY GENE FUCKING PENTZ? And he told me that he liked the way he threw and he felt bad about his record and how he wasn’t appreciated or something. I was shocked that Pentz would even give him the time of day, but they used to correspond regularly . . . and when the Tigers/Stros would come to town he would visit this kid and his loony parents for dinner in North Bergen, N.J.

My friend (Fester) did get invited over for a glorious Pentz dinner with the nutty kid/family and he told me that Pentz sorta welled up over the love shown by this derango. Of course, Pentz would give them freebie tickets at Shea.

Gene Pentz made his major league debut at Shea Stadium. (In 1975, when Pentz was called up to the Detroit Tigers, the Yankees were playing their games in Shea.) I wonder if the future founder of the Gene Pentz Fan Club was one of the 13,410 in attendance on July 29, 1975, when Gene Pentz was brought in to start the sixth inning, the Tigers down 4-2. I’m a romantic, so I’m going to say that he was there, that he was somehow made aware that he was witnessing a player’s first moment in the major leagues, the moment that put Gene Pentz officially in the record books for all time, the moment that would make him, Gene Pentz, immortal. And when Gene Pentz struck out the first man he faced (Chicken Stanley) and went on to pitch three innings of no-hit ball, albeit to no effect (the Tigers were unable to rally), it’s easy to envision a weird kid in the mostly empty stands deciding to follow every step of the brand new major leaguer’s journey. It’s easy to envision a weird kid in the mostly empty stands falling in love.

Pentz made one more appearance at Shea as a Tiger, giving up four hits, a wild pitch, and two runs in one inning of a 9-6 loss (attendance: 7,240), then appeared twice at Shea as an Astro, once in 1976 and once in 1977. It makes me happy to imagine the founder of the Gene Pentz Fan Club in the stands at these two games. In the first of these games (attendance: 13,303) Pentz recorded an old-fashioned when-men-were-men three-plus-inning save, squelching a rally in the 6th inning and keeping the Mets scoreless the rest of the way. In Pentz’s last appearance at Shea Stadium, he pitched two scoreless innings and picked up one of his eight career major league victories. That game, oddly, was played before 52,784 people, possibly the largest audience ever to witness the artistry of Gene Pentz. I’m not really sure why there were so many people at the game. It was a Saturday game, but a quick glance at other Saturday games at Shea that season shows low attendance figures in line with other Gene Pentz appearances at Shea. Maybe there was a big promotion that day. Or maybe the one-day spike was due to the fact that just three days before the Mets had traded away Tom Seaver. This was the first weekend game since the trade, so perhaps Mets fans flooded the stadium to voice their profound displeasure with management for trading away their beloved star. If fans were ever going to root, root, root for the away team, it would be Mets fans angrily mourning the loss of Tom Seaver. So if this was the case, then maybe when the founder of the Gene Pentz Fan Club rose to his feet to cheer Gene Pentz as Gene Pentz walked off the mound after his second and last inning of scoreless work, his efforts allowing the Astros to tie the game (they would forge ahead in the next half-inning), maybe, just maybe, 52,000 people followed the lead of the founder of the Gene Pentz Fan Club. Maybe for one slim strange beautiful moment everyone was a member of the Gene Pentz Fan Club.


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