Archive for the ‘Kansas City Royals’ Category


Tommy Helms and Vada Pinson

October 8, 2015

Tommy Helms Vada PinsonALDS preview, part two (see part one here)

First of all, before we get to any predictions, can we take a moment to imagine the World Series that never was? I’m talking about 1980, when the two most exciting teams of my childhood came within a couple Del Unser base hits from meeting in what would have been a blazing festival of speed. In 1980 the Astros and Royals both led their leagues in triples and amassed a combined 379 stolen bases. Nothing against the long-suffering Phillies, whose first-ever World Series triumph that year clinches that season of end-to-end thrills as one of the greatest ever (in Benchwarmer I describe how for several feverish weeks during the panicked early days of fatherhood I grasped for sanity by imagining penning a Pulitzer-worthy Halberstamian ode to 1980 to be titled The Highest Season: Racing for the Pennant, Chasing .400, Philly Soul, Super Joe, and Blow), but some part of me mourns the loss of a World Series that would have been an exhilarating blur of rainbow and sky-blue racers.

There’s a decidedly muted version of the excitement of the Royals and Astros of that era in the two cards shown here. With Tommy Helms, the excitement is embedded in the uniform, which seemed altogether of a piece with Jose Cruz smashing a liner into the gap and flying around the bases but that seems a bit at odds with the worldly resolve in Tommy Helms’s creased expression. His perm somehow also cuts against the grain of the space-age threads; both are wholly of their era, of course, but the hairstyle seems to point away from the action on the diamond to a time in the near future when Tommy Helms is going to be out of baseball altogether and renting you a canoe.

Helms’s erstwhile Reds teammate, Vada Pinson, presents his own muted version of excitement by predating the Royals heyday slightly while also being in the twilight of his own career, which at its pinnacle showcased dynamic talents that would have fit in perfectly with the dynastic Royals. He could have been the prototypical Royal—imagine swift, impeccable fielding coupled with 200 slashing hits a year, doubles, triples, homers, steals, Amos Otis and George Brett somehow joined in the version of Vada Pinson suggested by the statistics of his early years—had he only been able to carry his youth with him into the professional athlete’s version of old age.

Of course, both of the wizened veterans here are, in real-world terms, still young men. But in sports the end comes earlier and as such begins to loom not that long before the beginning. Just as my cards suggested that the other ALDS series is about beginnings, the cards here seem to imply that the series at hand is about endings. So which of the estimable 1960s Reds shown here is venturing more gracefully toward the end? Tommy Helms will make it OK to the other side, surely, and will hobble on through the rest of his life just fine, but Vada Pinson seems like he’ll be able to bring with him across that border into our leaden everyday life a small, singing note of buoyancy and repose. We all hope to continue on that way somehow.

Edge: Royals


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.”


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.


George Brett

December 16, 2012

brett and roe

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)


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.


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 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.


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


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

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.


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


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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