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.