Archive for the ‘Kansas City Royals’ Category

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Bob Hamelin

August 29, 2013

hamelin from slate articleJosh Levin from Slate emailed me last week with this card attached to the email. I wrote back the following response:

This is a terrible thing to see at 5 in the morning in my underwear. I don’t know where to start. It’s so jarring and awful, a collision of unpleasant forms and surfaces. I fear for anyone dwelling too long on this card. There should be contests to see who can last the longest staring at it before screaming into the night. I fear for Bob Hamelin, too, that he will incur a massive paper cut on his jawline, that he suffers from amnesia and so carries not only his name under the brim of his cap but also on a large paper sign stapled to his chest. I pity him. I hate him. Is it his huge face crowding the frame? Is it his air of mournful need? The hint of a mullet on one possessing such a broad, smooth face and such clean, featureless glasses seems to speak of an age in which there is no rhyme or reason, no up or down. A mullet on Jose Canseco or Rod Beck I understand, but this? It makes me want to move my family immediately to a rural fastness far from any TGI Fridays. Oh, beauty, truth, where are you anymore?

Levin wrote a great article on the card, titled “The Worst Baseball Card Ever.”

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Brayan Pena

March 12, 2013

brayan pena 001My son’s baseball cards reside, in theory, in a small wicker basket downstairs. My wife found this one in a completely different part of the house and brought it to me.

“It’s a baseball card, I guess?” she said dubiously, handing me the two larger pieces.

“Here’s his head,” she added.

Sometimes in the evening when my wife takes a brief break from her 24-hour-a-day job, I take my son downstairs and dump his cards onto the carpet. Sometimes I read the backs of the cards, which often prompts him to grab the card out of my hand and then look at me, grinning. Sometimes he handles some of the cards while I try to flip them one by one across the room and back into the basket. Eventually, he gets bored with the cards. Check that, I don’t know whether you can ascribe the feeling of boredom to him. He gets restless, interested in seeing something else. He’s walking now, so there’s always something around the next corner as well as a way to get around that corner. Sometimes he takes a baseball card with him when he goes, and sometimes he chews on it until it falls to pieces.

I pieced this chewed card back together and then poked around on the Internet in search of some details about the photo. I figured out it was taken during a moment that the subject of the photo hoped would change the fortunes of his struggling team for the better. In a game the Royals would end up losing anyway, Royals catcher Bryan Pena blocked Chase Headley of the Padres from scoring.

“I hope that that little thing will turn it around for us,” Pena was quoted as saying in the San Diego Union Tribune. “It’s for us to try and figure out and turn our luck around.”

The play didn’t really turn anything around. The Royals were a sub-.500 team before it happened, and continued to play sub-.500 ball the rest of the year. But maybe life isn’t so literal, so linear. Maybe everything is scrambled, a plaything, and we’re lucky just to hold on.

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George Brett

December 16, 2012

brett and roe

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

Evidence

Three: Rocky Roe

Beside the Donnie Moore card and the fragment of Mr. October is a 1994 George Brett card featuring an unusual photo (for the genre). The card’s perspective is from behind the plate, its subject, George Brett, following through on a swing that has resulted in the ball bounding toward second base. In the background, the scoreboard is clearly visible, providing plenty of clues to allow the moment to be identified.

In an uncertain world, it’s nice to come upon hard evidence, even if the evidence doesn’t matter. Maybe this is what’s behind my lifelong attraction to meaningless baseball occurrences. Despite the complete lack of societal or personal need for any illumination whatsoever about the photo shown in George Brett’s 1994 baseball card, I found myself researching details about the moment it occurred. The card lent itself well to this wasting of time. That’s probably part of the draw. To waste time. To squander. But sometimes it also feels good to know something, anything.

I found the game (an 8–7 Royals win), and the result of the play (groundout, Brett’s last at-bat of the day; on an earlier pitch in the at-bat, Brett had fouled a pitch off his foot, injuring it), and the identity of the pitcher (Jaime Navarro, now a coach with the Mariners) and catcher (Joe Kmak, now a high school math teacher). The umpire is Rocky Roe. Roe’s prominence in the card, no less than the last card of an inner circle Hall of Famer, is unusual if not unprecedented in terms of baseball card portraiture. Based on the composition of the shot, the card could easily be for Roe, not Brett. But what could possibly go on the back of a card for an umpire? And who would want such a card?

Roe got his start as a major league umpire in 1982, as a replacement for Lou DiMuro. DiMuro had ascended above the general anonymity of his profession a couple of times in his long career, once for being smashed into and injured by the gigantic Cliff Johnson, and once a few years earlier for his role in a famous World Series moment. He was the umpire behind the plate in Game 5 of the 1969 World Series. After ruling that a pitched ball had not hit Cleon Jones in the foot, he changed his ruling when presented with evidence: shoe polish on the ball. This keyed a Mets’ rally, and the Mets won the World Series, arguably the most improbable World Series win ever, evidence to many of miracles, of magic. Thirteen years later, after umpiring a game in Texas, DiMuro was hit and killed by a car. Rocky Roe got a call, filled a void.

Roe was the home plate umpire in Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS. As far as I can remember or recover through my compulsion to do pointless, time-consuming research, he did not make any controversial calls during the crucial moments of that game. One of his rulings during the fateful ninth inning, when it still seemed the Angels were going to surge into their first World Series, was that Boston batter Rich Gedman had been hit by a pitch thrown by Gary Lucas. It was not a disputed call.

Gary Lucas still feels guilty about the pitch. He was brought in specifically to face Gedman, lefty on lefty. After hitting the Boston catcher, Lucas gave way to Donnie Moore, who gave up a two-run home run to Dave Henderson. All these years later, Lucas still wonders about his role in Donnie Moore’s subsequent suicide. “If I do my job that night,” he told Los Angeles Times reporter Jerry Crowe in 2010, “perhaps he’s still with us.”

Guilt is one way to create a thread connecting one event to the next. Shouldering the world this way, as a burden, is an excruciating way to live, but the deep vein of guilt running through the collective human narrative suggests that we prefer suffering fictions to the alternative, a world without evidence, beyond our control.

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Paul Splittorff

May 26, 2011

I’ve always been prone to repetition, comforting unsurprising unchanging repetition. Time cannot move forward, can it, if everything stays exactly the same? I first felt the relentless progress of time and change when I was a kid and tried to ignore it and fight it with these cards, with the ritual of getting them and sorting them and studying them. The names and faces repeated year to year, and this helped build the illusion that I and everything around me would remain the same forever. Even as I changed, growing taller, getting glasses, getting braces, smiling less, getting boners, many elements of the cardboard world stayed the same. I was the same as always, at least deep inside, as long as Paul Splittorff was Paul Splittorff was Paul Splittorff.

This morning, after spotting some news on the Internet about Paul Splittorff, I looked for him in my collection and found the three cards at the top of this page. At first brief glance I wondered if Topps had reused a photo of him for more than one card, as they’d done once in a great while with other players. But on a closer look it became clear by the variations in backgrounds behind Paul Splittorff and by the variations in clothing worn under the uniform of Paul Splittorff that the while the world around him changed, Paul Splittorff remained as unchanging as humanly possible, a still point, or maybe more accurately—judging from the arresting similarity from year to year in the shadow he cast—some kind of human sundial, a way to know time.

The transactions section of Paul Splittorff’s page on baseball-reference.com is notably brief, especially considering the left-handed pitcher played for fifteen seasons during an era in which player movement from team to team exploded, splintering many players’ identity through the years, as reflected in my baseball cards, into a garish Technicolor fashion show, everyone changing uniforms every year, everything in flux, everyone on the move, even faces changing with the arrival of mustaches and sideburns and wildman fu manchus. Paul Splittorff, by contrast, stayed put, the only transactions of his career almost apologetic in their brevity, one noting his drafting by the Royals in 1968, a second several years later, in November 1982, noting that he had been granted free agency, and the third and final entry a quick December 1982 reply to the previous transaction, Paul Splittorff quietly re-signing with the Royals. Paul Splittorff retired after the 1984 season as the all-time franchise leader in victories (a mark he still holds), and soon after that began working as a Royals’ broadcaster, a job he held for 24 years, from 1987 through May of this year even as he battled the cancer that took his life yesterday at the age of 64.

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For more on a man who knew time, be sure to check out Joe Posnanski’s tribute to Paul Splittorff.

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George Brett

May 2, 2011

Stephen Siller was a firefighter with Squad 1 in Park Slope in Brooklyn. A little less than a decade ago, he worked the late shift from the night of September 10 into the early morning of September 11. After work, he was on his way to play golf with his brothers. When he heard on his scanner that a plane had hit the Twin Towers, he went back to the firehouse to get his gear and drove toward Manhattan. The Battery Tunnel into Manhattan had already been shut down by then. He started running through the tunnel with all his gear. A fire truck from another company picked him up near the other side of the tunnel and dropped him off near what would soon enough become known as ground zero, so that he could try to join up with the firefighters in his squad, and that was the last anyone ever saw of him.

A Tunnel to Towers run that followed Siller’s footsteps was created to honor Siller’s memory. I ran in the first of the annual runs in 2002. They shut down the Battery Tunnel and firefighters lined the walls of the tunnel, standing at attention. I got a t-shirt from the run that I don’t wear much, not wanting to wear it out, but yesterday for whatever reason I decided to put it on, so I happened to be wearing it last night when I watched President Obama declare “justice has been done.”   

This morning I have been trying to write but I can’t manage a whole lot. One reason, maybe the biggest, that I write about baseball cards is because it’s the one part of life that I have at least a slight grasp of, at least in the very literal sense that I can hold a card in my hands. Everything else is more or less beyond me.

I was nine when this 1977 George Brett card came out. Stephen Siller was eleven. The year before, he had become an orphan. He was raised after that by his older siblings. It’s easy enough to imagine him looking to baseball like many of us did when we were kids, for something solid, something to rely on, something bathed in sunlight and fun. Siller grew up playing baseball and cheering for the Mets, but it seems that he may have reserved his most passionate enthusiasm for the All-Star pictured here. On the website for the Tunnel to Towers foundation, there are some notes about Stephen Siller’s life, and one note in particular brought him to life for me. If I’d ever been lucky to meet this guy, I would have liked him: 

  • Drove straight to Kansas City for George Brett’s last game, drove straight back, went to work
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Amos Otis

April 12, 2011

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

Kansas City Royals

The Kansas City Royals have not been good for a long time, so when I first saw that this 1977 Amos Otis card was going to suggest the fortunes of the 2011 edition of the team, I figured it meant that, at long last, the team was finally going to begin changing from bad to good. Now, after giving the card and Amos Otis some more thought, I’m not so sure of that word: good

The numbers on the back of Amos Otis’s cards were always comforting to me. He was good. The numbers said so. He was not bad. He was not great. He was good.

After Amos Otis’s career ended, the numbers on the backs of his baseball cards were shown to be incomplete: they didn’t show Amos Otis’s ability to draw walks or steal bases or that he was a brilliant centerfielder or that he played in a pitchers’ era and in a spacious ballpark that adversely affected power-hitting stats. No less an expert on interpreting statistical data than Bill James advocated for the abilities of Amos Otis, naming him the 22nd best centerfielder in baseball history and describing him as “strong, quick, fast, extremely graceful, and smart. He was the best percentage player on that team.”

Otis, in light of all this, began to seem as if he might be beyond good. Very good? Great? What centerfielders had more of a positive impact throughout the 1970s? Cesar Cedeno, maybe? I know it’s arbitrary to block off a particular span of time and rank players within it, but I also know that for better or worse I pretty much live in the 1970s, so it’s important to me to know who in that era was bad, and who was good, and who was great.

The funny thing is, I find myself as reluctant to move Amos Otis up a level from my long-held belief in him as good, exactly good, as I would be if called upon to move him down a level. For me, for whatever reason, Amos Otis has to be good. He was good way back when I began to discern good from bad, and I’m not talking just about numbers. There was something else I affixed to Amos Otis. I always felt drawn to him, as if he was a version of the person I wanted to be: solid, unassuming, good. Amos Otis, I believed, was good at baseball and just an all-around good person. Bill James notes in his appreciation of Otis that “about once a year or so it would break into the letters to the editor that he had been caught secretly performing some unusual act of good citizenship—stopping on the interstate to pick up a fan having car trouble or something.” I didn’t know about those letters to the editor, but there was something about Amos Otis as I knew him—almost entirely through baseball cards, that is—that communicated this goodness. Maybe it was his kid-friendly, slant-rhyming, cartoonish name, or his knack for blending politely into the background behind more spectacular talents such as George Brett and Hal McRae, or his mild, benevolent facial expressions, or his quietly groovy sideburns. All these things probably fed into my image of him—my faith in him—as an embodiment of good, but above all those things were his numbers. I already knew as a kid that some things were true and some things were false and most things fell into the hazy gap between the two, and to navigate or at least endure such an uncertain world I looked to the numbers.

I look to the numbers on the back of his 1977 card again today, and the numbers are what they always were, the same now as they were when I was a kid, but then I turn the card back around and look at the picture of Amos Otis on the front. He is holding a bat. It is a bat, presumably, that helped build the numbers. Some years after his retirement, Otis spoke candidly about his bats and his numbers, saying “I had enough cork and superballs in there to blow away anything.” 

He made this revelation many years ago, but it was during a time when I wasn’t paying as much attention to baseball as I had previously or would again in later years, so I just found out about it now, this morning, while trying to move back toward my first beliefs about Amos Otis and the world. I’ve circled back around to baseball, and to Amos Otis, and I find that the numbers I thought would never change, that would stand as a singular still point in a world of change, have changed. I don’t even know if Amos Otis is good, but I still want to believe that he is.

Eventually, you come to find there aren’t any absolutes. You take from this game what you need.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part of 24 of 30: Check in with Craig Calcaterra, whose tirelessly obsessive chronicling of all things large and small in the world of baseball does not keep him from digging deep for new, thoughtful perspectives on the game

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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; Detroit Tigers; Milwaukee Brewers; Minnesota Twins; Atlanta Braves; Cincinnati Reds; Oakland A’s; Seattle Mariners; Chicago Cubs; Baltimore Orioles; [California] Angels; Texas Rangers; Boston Red Sox; San Diego Padres; Tampa Bay Rays

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George Brett

April 26, 2010

Does George Brett remember that he won his first-round match in the 1975 Bazooka/Joe Garagiola Big League Bubble Gum Blowing Championship? So much came after that. Batting titles, kisses from Morganna, division titles, the flirtation with .400, pennants, hemorrhoids, MVP awards, pine tar, a World Series title, 3,000 hits, enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. How are you going to remember every victory? Still, it would be a shame if all the drama and glory in his career obliterated any recollection by Brett of when his bubble bested that of his first-round competitor, White Sox infielder Lee Richard. I can see it now. Richard’s bubble springs a small hole, its growth stalling, while Brett’s bubble continues to expand. He’s a young man. I imagine him finding it hard not to laugh.

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I find myself nostalgic for moments in my own life that are inconsequential enough to seem to be bordering on vanishing. Driving home from work years ago, when I first moved to Chicago. The radio is on, sports radio babble. It’s an instance of being neither here nor there, but I remember that feeling, being in a new place, driving, not feeling particularly bad or good, the sky growing dark, and I want to hold onto it, and I don’t know why. Years before that, I took a short trip with my friend Charles to Montreal. We were walking around, and I saw a guy sail past on a bicycle. I wanted to be that guy, some guy who lived in Montreal and rode around on his bicycle. There are these moments that seem like nothing but in retrospect seem like you were close to the edge of the veil.

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Brett was one of three future Hall of Famers to participate in the one and only major league bubble-blowing tournament. (A fourth standout, Bert Blyleven, seems to have a chance to push the number of enshrined bubble-blowers to four.) The other two Cooperstown-bound players, Johnny Bench and Gary Carter, bowed out in the first round of the tournament, to Jerry Johnson and Johnny Oates, respectively. But Brett notched the win over Lee Richard to advance into a three-man second-round match with Blyleven and Mickey Scott, which Scott won, making the final six in the three-man semifinal matches free of guys whom the casual fan would be able, just a few years later, to remember.

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When I was a kid, my conception of my future adulthood was very vague, with one exception. Generally, I imagined that adulthood meant finally being free of the kinds of worries that tied my stomach in knots. I assumed that adult me would have it all figured out. I’d have a house and kids, too, because that’s what adults had. That’s about as specific as it got. But I did imagine one specific eventuality: some day, I would make a killing by selling my baseball cards. All my stars would be worth millions. Even the nobodies would be somebody because I’d held on to them.

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There were some good players involved in the bubble-blowing tournament (besides the Hall of Famers: Bill Madlock had been on the all-star team that season, and John Stearns, Doug DeCinces, and Rick Rhoden would be all-stars later in their careers), but the majority of players able to rack up bubble-blowing wins in the tournament came from the ranks of the relative unknown. It’s odd to think that George Brett was at that time a member of the lesser-known of the bubble-gum competitors. But he was once merely a guy with just one card in his likeness, a young man staring out into the unknown.

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I wouldn’t want to sell my cards now, but if I did, I’d probably only get enough to buy a suitcase of Miller Lite to haul back to my apartment. This George Brett rookie card would theoretically be my most valuable card, I would guess, though I don’t know that much about the relative worth of various cards. But as you can probably tell, the card has been handled a lot, all its corners dinged up and parts of the card worn down to flecks of white. It’s also off-center, as a lot of 1975 cards were. But I like it. It’s mine, worthless to anyone else but me. It seems to be before anything has happened. Brett has an erect batting stance that he would soon jettison to become the foremost warrior in the crouching cult of Lau. His shoulders are even bunched a little so that he looks like an eight-year-old worried about being drilled by a pitch. But besides that suggestion of anxiety, there is no urgency in the moment. Off in the distance, some guy is walking around holding a windbreaker in his hands. Who is that guy? Where is he going? Can I go with him?

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Cookie Rojas

April 20, 2010

You don’t hear about Cookie Rojas so much anymore, but at the time this 1977 card came out (in what would turn out to be Rojas’ last year in the majors), you could argue for his inclusion in the starting lineup of two franchises’ all-time rosters. He’s kind of like a poor man’s Carlton Fisk that way. For the Philadelphia Phillies, with whom he played throughout the 1960s, his main competition for the second base spot on the all-time squad would have been fellow Cuban Tony Taylor, and though Taylor had a longer tenure with the club and is more often mentioned as a Phillies all-timer than Rojas, when Rojas’ promotion to the majors gave the team a choice between Rojas and Taylor at second base, the Phillies chose Rojas and moved Taylor to third. In Rojas’ first full season at second, in 1965, he made the all-star team, matching Taylor’s one career selection to the midsummer classic.

Rojas became an all-star mainstay for his next team, the Kansas City Royals, earning a spot on the team four years in a row from 1971 through 1974. Nonetheless, history began nudging Rojas into the shadows pretty quickly in Kansas City, when the brilliant glovework and, eventually, the surprising power of Rojas’ successor, Frank White, elevated White to a clear choice as the best second baseman the club had ever had.

Back in Philly, the pretty good second baseman club that Rojas was in with Taylor swelled to include Dave Cash, Manny Trillo, Juan Samuel, and Mickey Morandini, and by the time Chase Utley came along to settle the second base argument, Cookie Rojas seems to have dropped out of that argument altogether. (He’s not even listed as a choice in a fairly recent poll asking fans to choose the all-time Phillies team.)

I started avidly collecting cards in 1975, just as Cookie Rojas was beginning what could have been a total fade from history if not for a couple things: his glasses and his name. Out of all the glasses ever worn by any major leaguer ever, the ones seen here really were the nerdiest. You winced for Cookie Rojas. You admired Cookie Rojas. You never forgot Cookie Rojas, the professional baseball player with the glasses of a small-town spinster librarian from 1952. As for his name, it could not have been more appealing to a kid unless perhaps it was Hostess Cupcakes Rojas.  

The name had much to do with a third reason why I’ll never forget Cookie Rojas. Though you might get the idea, what with all the verbiage about it these past few years, that I was an extremely attentive lover of baseball cards back when I was a kid, in truth I was the same dufus then that I am now, given to gaps of comprehension that were (and are) so glaring as to seem intentional, willful, as if I am someone who prefers being sort of stupid about the world. It kind of added a certain mystery, not knowing everything very well. And this is how I confused, for the entirety of my childhood, Cookie Rojas with Cookie Lavagetto.

I read baseball books all the time, so I had come upon the story of Cookie Lavagetto breaking up Bill Bevens’ bid to throw the first no-hitter in World Series history in 1947. I added to my knowledge of that dramatic anecdote my glancing sense, from looking at the back of Cookie Rojas’ card, that Cookie Rojas had been around for a long time, from several years before I had even been born, and once you got several years beyond when I was born you might as well have been around since Moses parted the Red Sea. And so through stupidity and perhaps some sort of need for magic Cookie Rojas became in my mind the longest-tenured player in the majors, by far, an amazing feat considering his fairly modest stats. It was somehow a life-affirming story, this tale of Cookie Roja-getto, who after becoming an unlikely World Series hero in the immediate wake of World War II stuck around decade after decade without ever really being noticed very much, just sticking on the sidelines and enduring in his horn-rimmed glasses. As a fellow marginal type with glasses, I aspired to such a tenacious if barely visible purchase on the world. But I knew it was magical, impossible, so I didn’t look too closely into the matter, knowing that to do so would be to disperse the myth that a relative nobody could last and last. 

***

And:

Turns out I wasn’t the only one with Cookie Rojas visitations in my youth. The bespectacled second-sacker comes up in a conversation I had with Will Carroll on Will’s Baseball Prospectus podcast.

Thanks to long-time haunter of these posts “spdurph” for his very generous review of Cardboard Gods at his site, Innocents and Accidents, Hints and Allegations.

For those wishing to chime in on this site about my book, I’ve opened the comments section for that purpose here. If you have read the book and want to talk about it, please feel free, and please also consider posting a review on the page for the book on Amazon and/or on the page for the book on Goodreads. (And big thanks in advance for that.)

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1979 Stolen Base Leaders

November 3, 2009

Stolen Base Leaders 1979

I wonder if Willie Wilson will pop some champagne during game six of the World Series tomorrow night when floundering Phillies slugger Ryan Howard inevitably flails at his next third strike like a drowsy man trying to kill a bumblebee with a sledgehammer. For twenty-nine years, Wilson has held the World Series record for strikeouts, with twelve, a record that Howard tied last night, in one fewer game than it took Wilson to amass his ignominious dozen. Howard’s record-tying failure came just moments after another World Series record was tied, the incredible, Pat-Riley-haired, oddly robotic Chase Utley matching Reggie Jackson’s exalted mark of five home runs in a single series. The adjacent placement of Utley and Howard in the Phillies batting order has to give a huge edge to Howard in the race to see which Phillie is able to set a World Series benchmark. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Chase Utley sees a pitch within several acres of the strike zone, what with the tall pile of swing-and-miss looming behind him in the batter’s box.

Of course, Howard is no slouch, and there’s always the possibility that he’ll snap out of it. I am hoping that he does, and not only because I’m rooting for the Phillies. I have always had a soft spot for guys who go into huge, sad-faced slumps in the World Series with everyone watching. Baseball is a game of slumps and streaks, and everyone goes through them, but in the heightened atmosphere of the World Series these slumps summon the sullen gravity of tragedy, forever defining the poor mortal who has lucklessly stumbled into them. The first time I remember having a sharpened awareness of one of these slumps was in 1980, with Willie Wilson, who kept feebly waving at pitches all the way up until the final out, when his feckless lunge at a Tug McGraw offering sparked the first World Series celebration in Phillies history.

Though in some ways Wilson will forever be frozen in that moment of futility, the truth is that he could never be frozen anywhere. The man is not known primarily for striking out but for his almost superhuman speed. Wilson, forever the fastest man in the baseball universe inside my skull, if not in the baseball universe itself, used that speed to keep running long after the 1980 series, playing for several more seasons, including a 1985 campaign that ended with Wilson performing well during the Royals seven-game victory over the Cardinals. He played for almost two decades in all, was a good hitter and a great fielder, and stole more bases than all but a few men in baseball history.

Also, you could argue that he was the greatest hitter of triples the world has ever seen.

First of all, he led the league in triples four times, more than anyone besides all-time triples king Sam Crawford, who also led the league four times. Also, the only player who ranks higher than Wilson on the career triples list who played as late as the 1970s was Roberto Clemente, and Clemente had 166 triples in 10212 plate appearances while Wilson had 147 triples in 8317 plate appearances. (If Wilson had kept up his rate of tripling and had gotten Clemente’s amount of plate appearances, he would have hit 180 triples.) Besides Clemente and the long-lasting line-drive smasher Stan Musial, all of the other players ahead of Wilson on the career triples list were done playing well before the color line was broken, and most of the massive triples-amassers did their damage in the years before the Ruthian era of the longball ensued.

Why was there so much tripling going on back in the spike-gashing days of Cobb and Speaker? I understand why the dead ball reduced the number of homers, but I don’t quite get why it increased the number of triples. But whatever the reason, it was a lot easier to hit a triple when Honus Wagner ruled the earth than it was in the Age of Steve Balboni. A quick glance through my baseball encyclopedia shows that the teams Crawford played on hit on average (very roughly speaking) about 80 triples a year. Wilson’s Kansas City teams—despite playing in a relatively large stadium with Astroturf, i.e., a good place for triples—generally hit half or, at most, three-quarters as many triples per year as Crawford’s teams. In 1985, for example, the Royals hit 49 triples. Willie Wilson hit 21 of them! By comparison, when Wilson’s namesake, Owen “Chief” Wilson, set the single-season record for triples in 1912, with 36, his Pirates team hit 126 triples. My math skills and handle on logic are laughable at best, but it seems to me that had Willie Wilson been on that Pirates team and carried the same proportional triples load that he did with the ’85 Royals, he would have finished the 1912 season with 6,847 triples. Well, maybe not, but I believe that had he played in the Era of the Triple he would now hold both the single-season and the career mark for triples, rather than just his soon-to-be-relinquished record for fanning in the World Series.

(And Omar Moreno was no slouch either.)

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Steve Mingori

April 19, 2009

steve-mingori-75

We all have a birthday and a deathday, though the latter is never part of a baseball card, which may well be why I spend so much time imagining myself into the worlds the cards seem to suggest. I not only don’t want to die, I want, even need, to imagine a place where death doesn’t exist.

So with that in mind what say we talk about birthdays? The back of this card makes reference to Steve Mingori’s birthday twice, once in the usual listing after “Born” and again in the feature that was on the back of every 1975 card, the trivia question and cartoon answer above the yearly statistics.

“Which pitcher was born on Leap Year Day?” the question asks. Read the rest of this entry ?

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George Brett, 1978

January 16, 2009
 Untitled 

Reality #1

It is fucking cold here in Chicago, Illinois. Twelve degrees below zero as of this moment. I haven’t been outside since yesterday, when I put on two pairs of socks, long underwear, my thickest pair of jeans, three shirts and a sweater, a parka, hiking boots, gloves, two wool hats, and a scarf the size of a blanket and walked a few blocks to slide the DVD of Pineapple Express through the return slot at the video store. The digital bank clock by the video store reported that it was minus five. The walk there wasn’t so bad, but on the way back I was walking against a stiff wind, which I swore at through my unraveling scarf-blanket as the few inches of exposed skin on my face became increasingly painful.

But worse, really, is the oppressive monotony of being inside all the time, especially in an apartment with very poor insulation. I’m in the apartment’s office right now, which is above the unheated stairwell. The wood floor feels like chilled metal, and cold air pushes through the two windows. I’m wearing a wool hat, long underwear, flannel pants, two pairs of socks, slippers, two shirts, a sweatshirt, a sweater, and a gortex vest, and I’m still chilly, especially in my hands, which I have to rub and blow on pretty constantly, like Bob Cratchit. The heat comes on every couple minutes, producing images of cartoon dollar bills flying from my wallet. Our heating bills are going to put us into the poor house, which is probably even more poorly insulated. Or worse, we’ll be out on the street. My god.

I’m glad I’ve got a roof over my head during times like these.

Fantasy #1

But I wish I was in a place as warm and sunny as the one on this 1978 baseball card of George Brett. Of course, it’s hard to know for sure that it’s warm wherever Brett was when the picture was snapped, but it is inarguably sunny, and he is without a hat and doesn’t seem to be cringing against a stiff wind or wearing anything thicker than the thin blue polyester Royals uniform designed for the brutally hot Kansas City summers. I guess you could argue that some manner of wind is blowing Brett’s tousled golden locks, but I really think it must be more of a gentle spring breeze than a stiff chilly gust.

So that’s where I want to be. Bathed in sunlight. The sounds of the game echoing across the warm green fields. I think what I’d do is lean back and close my eyes and angle my face right up at the sun and just listen.

Reality #2

The worst cold snap I experienced occurred in Vermont in January 2000, the year I lived in a cabin with no electricity. I went to visit my aunt and uncle near the beginning of the cold snap, and couldn’t leave for a couple days during the worst of it because my car refused to start. Finally it coughed to life one morning when the temperature rose from instantly crippling cold to merely really, really cold, and I drove back to my cabin, first stopping at a K-Mart to buy thick opaque sheets of plastic to put up over my windows and another wool hat to add to the bulky collection on my head. When I got back to the cabin I discovered that everything I owned had frozen solid, including things that I didn’t know could freeze, such as toothpaste. I got a sputtering fire going in the little wood stove, using the shitty green wood that the owner of the cabin, a tense hippie with a reputation for fucking people over, had sold me, then I inexpertly plastered the plastic all over the windows using duct tape. I spent the remainder of the winter huddled over the wood stove, practically hugging it, because it never generated enough heat to warm up the whole cabin. I couldn’t really see anything through the plastic, but I had a vague idea of whether it was night or day, and I could tell by the wind rattling the birches and moaning through pines that it was cold out there, the kind of cold that would seem almost predatory if it weren’t so completely indifferent.

Fantasy #2

I was ostensibly working as a teacher during that era, but by January 2000 my course load as an adjunct professor had dissolved to next to nothing, my only task being the sporadic tutoring in essay writing of a Vietnam vet with severe post-traumatic stress disorder who eventually stopped showing up for our meetings. But I still went onto campus every couple of days to the office I shared with several other adjuncts so that I could check the progress of my fantasy basketball team. It gave at least the tiniest shred of a shape to a life that had become almost utterly shapeless.

I guess my life has more of a shape now, but I still start every day with a check of my fantasy team or teams. Right now all I’ve got going is a basketball squad in second-place in a thirteen-team league, but I think I did see some article just this morning on my way to check on my roster about B.J. Upton’s prospective slot in upcoming fantasy baseball drafts. I was excited by this, because this meant it is almost time for me to put together a pre-draft ranking list, which always proves to be an enjoyable way to kill some time.

I’m not really sure why I find such things enjoyable. I do know that ever since I was a boy I’ve tried to dream my way out of my life and into a fantasy life revolving around sports, especially baseball. In 1978, the year I first held this sun-drenched George Brett card in my hand, I was well into a childhood consumed with imaginary baseball-related games around the house, games in which I would become someone else, or actually whole worlds of someone elses. I’d be every player on both teams and the crowd and the announcers, too. At the moment of victory I’d pitch to my knees in the back yard holding a whiffle ball bat or tennis ball or whatever else I’d been using and imagine I was the victorious long-suffering star, finally basking in the warm light of winning, and I’d pretend to cry.

Reality #3

But the coldest I’ve ever been was not here in Chicago or in Vermont but one night while I was drifting randomly around Europe the year after I finished college. I had been in Essen, Germany, lazing around a youth hostel while I waited for the Grateful Dead to arrive in town for a concert. Unfortunately, the day before the concert I was told I had to leave the hostel because it had been reserved months before to house several teams of acrobatic teenagers from all around the globe coming to Essen to compete in an international youth trampolining contest. Evicted, I took a train to Cologne, arriving in the late afternoon. Both of the youth hostels I tried in Cologne were full. I guess I could have shelled out for a room in a hotel, but I don’t think I even considered that. I didn’t have much money, and more importantly I was obsessed with the idea that my money equaled time, as in the longer I could keep my little roll of bills alive the longer I could delay my return to the utter blank of my post-college life in America. So I went down to a park along the river with my backpack. Though it was November I didn’t think it was that cold, at least while the sun was still above the old-world steeple-marked skyline. I think I even imagined it might be peaceful. A night out under the stars! But as the night went on it got colder and colder. Pretty soon into it I had emptied my backpack of every last article of clothing I owned and wrapped it around my shivering body. I figured if I could fall asleep I could make the night go by faster, but I was never able to even so much as fall into a shallow ditch of unconsciousness for more than a couple minutes, at which point I’d wake up trembling and have to get up and do jumping jacks and wind-sprints. I also whooped and hollered, as if by using my voice I could somehow push back against a world that kept telling me I had to move.

Fantasy #3

If I had lived a certain kind of life maybe by now I would have enough money in the bank to get the hell out of town when it gets really fucking cold. Perhaps I could even go to Fantasy Camp. This is where middle-aged dudes pay a bundle to exit the winter and play baseball in the warm sun against each other and against some of the major leaguers who showed up on the baseball cards and in the fantasies of the campers back when they were basking in the summertime glow of youth.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m mocking such a thing, because, really, if I had money how better could I spend it than on such a thing as this? That’s the thing with these baseball cards I write about day in and day out. When I was a boy I fantasized about being a 24-year-old A.L. ALL STAR, a red, white, and blue shield on my card, the sun lighting my tousled golden locks, and now that I’m a middle-aged guy I fantasize about being a 24-year-old A.L. ALL STAR, a red, white, and blue shield on my card, the sun lighting my tousled golden locks. These cards are the unchanging fantasy at the center of the unraveling spiral of my years.

So, yeah, more power to the Fantasy Camps, which feed into perhaps the single most enduring fantasy of American men that doesn’t involve a cheap funk soundtrack and grateful moaning. I don’t know exactly when the first Fantasy Camp opened, but I feel like I first started hearing about them around the time I was gripping onto my little wood stove for dear life during the year in the cabin.

But in fact the first Fantasy Camp occurred several years earlier than that, in the sunny year of 1978, under the visionary leadership of none other than the late great Mr. Roarke. Turns out George Brett was on hand, along with fellow Cardboard Gods Fred Lynn, Tommy Lasorda, and Steve Garvey. Gary “Radar” Burghoff was there, too, on one of his last stops on his way out of the public eye and into the oblivion beyond Fantasy Island guests spots. As Mr. Roarke explains, Burghoff’s character is a guy named Richard Delaney who wants to be a baseball superstar. (Fittingly, at least from where I’m sitting, Richard Delaney has come to the warm, sun-drenched island of fantasies from that undoubtedly cold-as-fuck city of reality: Chicago, Illinois.) To get a peek at Delaney’s fantasy, which is really all our fantasies, or even just to take a break from the cold and see some sunshine and warmth and to hear Ricardo Montalban demonstrate his greatness by the way he recites the words “baseball superstar,” click here (thanks to Dodger Thoughts for the link).

***

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

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Frank White

December 8, 2008
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A long time ago I read an article about Frank White that had some information that has stuck with me. White described a time in his playing career when the stress of holding down a major league job began to overwhelm him. He was unable, during down time away from the park, to focus on any one thing. Instead, he would have a magazine open and the TV on and the radio blaring and a record spinning on the turntable, his attention like a hummingbird trapped in an electronics store, flitting from one barren babbling source to the next, never landing anywhere, instead only becoming more and more exhausted. I may be remembering the article incorrectly, but I think Frank White saw that earlier way of living as a time when he was bordering on mental illness. Unfortunately, I can’t recall how he pulled himself out of that habit, or even be a hundred percent sure that he was recalling the everything-all-at-once episodes from a remove or rather still trying to find a way out of them. All I know for sure is that Frank White was, as this 1980 baseball card reports, an All-Star. In my mind he was as constant a presence in that annual game as anyone from his era, and since he was not a magnetic superstar such as Pete Rose or Reggie Jackson there was something even more solid about his presence in the midsummer classic than other more well-known perennial all-stars. Superstars weren’t always super, year-in and year-out, instead rising and falling and rising in magnitude and magnificence, but Frank White was always Frank White, kind of in the background, no national commercial endorsements or magazine cover spreads, a constant presence in the exalted exhibition, his prominence or role never changing. I think the reason I still remember that article that described the way he unraveled into a powerless mess at the mercy of his in-home sources of entertainment is because I am still a little disturbed that the solidity of Frank White was a mirage. Everyone, even Frank White, is clinging to the ledge by their fingernails.
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Freddie Patek

November 19, 2008
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In 1971, Bobby Murcer hit .331 with a .427 on-base percentage. He was the most effective offensive performer in the league, evidenced by the statistical measure that best adjusts for league and park conditions, OPS+; Murcer posted a league-high 181 in that category. He also manned one of the game’s most important defensive positions, centerfield, and presumably did so at a level close to that which would earn him a Gold Glove the following season. Despite all these accomplishments, Murcer finished seventh in the MVP voting. The player directly in front of him in sixth place in the voting, Freddie Patek, hit .267 with a .323 on-base percentage and six home runs. Patek did play one of the only positions on the field arguably more important than centerfield, but he didn’t win a Gold Glove at that position in 1971 or in any other year. So how did voters determine that he was more valuable to his team than Bobby Murcer?

Well, I wasn’t old enough to be paying attention in 1971, but I do know that when I did get old enough to know who Freddie Patek was, I associated him with one thing, his size. More specifically, as a baseball fan I absorbed and reflected the prevailing attitude of faintly patronizing awe and admiration toward Freddie Patek. Little Freddie Patek! Not even tall enough to ride the carnival rides! But still out there bravely turning double plays with the likes of Don Baylor and Reggie Jackson hurling their hulking frames at the second base bag!

I’m travelling a well-beaten path blazed by Bill James here, but the key to understanding such things as the 1971 MVP voting that ranked Freddie Patek higher than Bobby Murcer is that baseball has levels of varying visibility, and just about everything Freddie Patek did well or even competently was abundantly visible and cause for celebration by the fans. He was a good bunter. He was a good base-stealer. He was a good fielder. All three of these things can be noticed from the cheap seats and cheered for. In a sense, the fans are cheering not only for the player who executed the play but in at least some small way cheering for themselves as knowledgeable, observant baseball fans; this element is at its height in the moment after a guy grounds out to second to move a runner to third. (A walk, on the other hand, can only be clapped for politely, at best, even though it is in almost all situations more valuable than a bunt and in most situations more valuable than a steal.)

And if the guy performing well on the visible level (which also includes the even more dubious or at least impossible to measure value of, for example “being fiery” or “being a good teammate”) is 5’4″ tall (as Freddie Patek is listed as being on the back of this 1978 card), then the applause will have an added spark to it. Call it happiness. I mean, let’s face it, it’s just fun to watch a little guy mix it up out there with the hulking behemoths. I know I certainly always liked Freddie Patek.

And now, similarly, I find myself drawn to Dustin Pedroia. (In fact, earlier this year I talked about him so much that my wife accused me of being in love with him.) I was thrilled when I heard yesterday that Pedroia had been awarded the A.L. MVP. As a Red Sox fan, I followed the team closely this year, and he certainly seemed to contribute a daily spark that the often injury- and controversy-beleaguered team would have been lost and joyless without. Beyond his excellence in the “visible” realm as a fiery double-smashing, base-stealing, dirty-uniformed little guy, he also had inarguably good offensive numbers, and impressed enough observers with his fielding to win a Gold Glove at a very important position.

But was he more valuable than his teammate Kevin Youkilis? It’s an interesting question, and one Tony Massoratti does a great job of exploring in today’s Boston Globe.

But I ain’t complaining. Pedroia’s a deserving winner, and I’m just glad a Red Sox player got the trophy. I would have been just as happy, if not moreso, if Youkilis had become the first Jewish A.L. MVP since Al Rosen. But today should be about congratulating the winner, so I think I’ll just wrap things up with something of a tribute to Pedroia (and Freddie Patek): my hastily thrown-together all-time small guy team, featuring a Hall of Famer at every position…

C: Yogi Berra, 5’7½”
1B: Buck Leonard, 5’10″
2B: Joe Morgan, 5’7″
SS: Phil Rizzuto, 5’6″
3B: Ray Dandridge, 5’7″
OF: Wee Willie Keeler, 5’4½”
OF: Kirby Puckett, 5’8″
OF: Hack Wilson, 5’6″
P: Bullet Joe Rogan, 5’7″

*******

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

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Al Cowens

August 19, 2008
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Baseball was something of a caste system during the Cardboard God era. Here are the winners of the division races during those baseball-obsessed years of my childhood:
Year AL East AL West NL East NL West
1975 Red Sox A’s Pirates Reds
1976 Yankees Royals Phillies Reds
1977 Yankees Royals Phillies Dodgers
1978 Yankees Royals Phillies Dodgers
1979 Orioles Angels Pirates Reds
1980 Yankees Royals Phillies Astros

There’s a bit of variation, with four one-time division winners among the 24 possible division crowns, but for the most part the teams heading to the playoffs each year had been there before recently and/or would be there again soon. The years that were my most formative baseball years, 1976 through 1978, highlighted the overall static nature of the era, with only one team, the peaking dynastic Reds in 1976, marring the stranglehold on the divisions of the Phillies, Yankees, Royals, and Dodgers.

Those were the years, for me, that seemed to go on and on. Now the years go by like nothing. It seems to me now that back then each year was an immense expanse, and that the division winners had been the division winners forever and always would be. Because of my hatred for the Yankees this was wrenching to me in terms of the AL East. And judging by my enthusiastic embrace of upstart teams in the NL West (Astros) and NL East (Expos) in the latter stages of this era, I must have found the Phillies and Dodgers dominance stultifying. But I think there was on some level a kind of comfort in having the same teams win every year. I allowed myself to celebrate this comfort in my feelings for the Royals. The Royals could be counted on to kick ass and look cool doing it.

For some reason Al Cowens epitomizes this comforting aspect of my childhood. He was always there, a good player with no discernible weakness on a team loaded with good players with no discernible weaknesses. He could play good defense and fly around the bases and smack sizzling bases-clearing doubles. The entire Royal roster seemed to be like this. They came at teams like a powder blue electrical storm. I didn’t like them when they were beating my team, the Red Sox, but other than that I admired them and didn’t at all begrudge their stranglehold on the AL West.

In the most static years of the era, the playoffs reinforced the caste system feel, the Royals and Phillies always getting bounced. Finally, in 1980, the Royals and Phillies signaled the teetering of the caste system that would crumble in the coming decade by finally beating their respective torturers, the Yankees and Dodgers. But by then, Al Cowens had moved on from the Royals. I was somewhat stunned to find out just now that Cowens played more years in the majors away from the Royals than he had played with the Royals. To me he’ll always be a Royal, just as, strange as it may seem now, after years of franchise irrelevance, the Royals will always be for me a team of stylish, fleet, Cowensesque ass-kickers. The news that Cowens had drifted around for years and years for the Tigers, Angels, and Mariners was almost as jarring to me as the news that this symbol of one of the more stable aspects of my childhood passed away back in 2002. He was only 51.

The years are going by too fast.

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Doug Bird

June 19, 2008
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One of Allen Ginsberg’s more well-known poems is “A Supermarket in California,” in which he imagines himself side by side with Walt Whitman. “Where does your beard point tonight?” he asks his imaginary companion at one point. I also once wrote a poem about Walt Whitman, during college, and it was published in the campus newspaper, The Basement Medicine. That was during the one year I served as a benchwarmer on the college’s pathetic basketball team. The center on the team, a Laimbeer-shaped freshman named Sean, complimented me on the poem. I don’t know if it was then that I noticed he had pretty putrid breath, or maybe it was another time. A couple years later, I was in the stands when he was on the brink of scoring his thousandth point. I had a camera with me and when he scored his milestone bucket on a short jumper in the lane I caught it on film. I kept meaning to give the photo to him, as it was the only visual record of his feat, but I never got around to it. I still have the picture somewhere. I suppose I could try to Google him, but he has a common last name and would probably be pretty difficult to find. I was always grateful to him for his compliment about my Whitman poem, and also grateful to him for a pickup game that pitted the two of us and three other guys on the basketball team against five guys from the college’s championship soccer team. We were more skillful at basketball, having devoted much of our lives to playing it, but we were losers and the soccer guys were winners. I once overheard the athletic director, who was also the soccer coach, say as much one day around the time of the pickup game.”The basketball guys just don’t know how to win,” he boomed. He always boomed whatever he had to say. By contrast our coach, a disheveled English teacher, most often muttered. (Sometimes he whined.)

During the pickup game the soccer guys looked like they might be able to prove the athletic director’s point. I started to get flashbacks to similar semi-official demoralizing basketball contests from my youth. Twice the guys from the grade younger than my grade challenged us to a game, once when I was in 8th grade and once when I was in 10th grade, and both times they beat us. During a battle for a rebound in the grim late stages of the second game, my last contest before I went away to boarding school, my hand inadvertently landed on the face of their best big man and out of frustration I yanked down, throwing him to the ground. The varsity coach was watching from the risen stage behind the basket. He started screaming at me. Luckily the guy I threw down, who could have ripped me limb from limb if he’d wanted to, was one of those genial, slow-to-anger behemoths, and he just stared at me, stunned, as he got to his feet.

“Get out of the game, Wilker!” the varsity coach yelled. “Go cool down!” I went into the locker room and I think I cried a little. It was shameful to get beat by younger guys, especially since the beating was implicitly sanctioned by the varsity coach, who looked down on us with disgust. It made me feel like I was nothing.

So here we went again a few years later, the soccer champions matching us basket for basket even though basketball was just something they did once in a while when they weren’t winning soccer tournaments, raising championship banners, and having sex with all the prettiest coeds. But eventually we just started feeding our bad-breathed center the ball. Sean was considerably bigger than any of their players, and he had a nice turnaround jumper, which he hit several times in a row to give us a victory that, though it didn’t wipe the smirks off the soccer guys’ faces, at least spared us total humiliation.

Anyway, I guess that’s where Doug Bird’s beard is pointing today. I didn’t think that’s where it would lead but I’m like a saxaphone that’s been run over by a pickup truck. Everything comes out crooked, wheezing. I thought I would be able to capture my many feelings about the expression on Doug Bird’s face. His mirthful, somewhat unhinged expression and his unruly hair exploding from every available pore makes him look like one of the backwoods guys who used to sail past our house once a year in pickup trucks to get to the nearby Tunbridge Fair. They had girlie shows there in one of the tents that wasn’t being used for livestock displays, and though I never went I imagine the audience was full of guys who looked like Doug Bird, drunk, cackling, wearing jeans and red checkered hunting jackets and John Deere hats, stomping their dirty shitkickers on the sawdust to the rhythm of the music accompanying the disrobing dancers, the air laced with the rural carnival aromas of smoke and cotton candy and manure. I guess some people know how to win; the rest of us follow a more crooked path, taking our pleasures where we can.

“Yeehaw!” Doug Bird shouts, his beard pointed up at the show.

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