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.