Archive for the ‘Kansas City Royals’ Category


Vada Pinson and Ron Hodges

October 26, 2015

Vada PinsonRon hodges 78World Series preview

Tonight after my wife and I got our two boys to sleep I came down to our carpeted basement and cleared out a space in the thick tangle of baby toys and toddler toys and flipped these two baseball cards at the wall, best four out of seven.

Earlier, while I was dancing the younger boy to sleep, I was wondering about baseball, specifically about whether there’s any other player in history besides Bret Saberhagen who, arguably, centered one franchise’s best moment and another franchise’s worst moment. I was seventeen years old and living in Boston when that first moment occurred, Saberhagen’s shutout victory as a 21-year-old in Game Seven of the 1985 World Series. I’d gotten my GED earlier that summer, and a few months later, in January, I’d realize I hated working and start college. Boy, those were some in-between days. I was working a few hours a week in an ice cream store, playing solitaire Strat-O-Matic, smoking resin shavings, going to matinees of Teen Wolf and Fletch. Sometimes I’d write in my journal. It was starting to dawn on me that this, writing, was really the only thing I’d want to do with myself upon my expulsion from childhood. Saberhagen’s win inspired a column by a Boston Globe writer, probably Bob Ryan, that I really liked. I cut it out and put it in my journal, something I never did before and haven’t done since. I carried it with me for some time, but I don’t have it anymore. I’m not sure why I cut out the article. I loved to read about sports, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a sportswriter. I wanted to write The Catcher in the Rye or On the Road. Still, something about the article—I think it was probably an ode to how baseball keeps us young forever, something like that—spoke to me. I was pretty fucking lost right about then, and yet not that far from when life had made sense, back when I was a kid collecting these cards.

Anyway I went off to college and studied writing, avoiding writing about sports because it didn’t seem, I don’t know, literary. I think most young writers are dumb assholes in this way, avoiding who they are in hopes of being someone else altogether. When college was over, sports edged its way onto my pages as I wrote a novel about kids playing basketball in Tompkins Square Park. I finished it in the fall of 1991, and I spent quite a while hoping I could get it published and begin immediately living entirely off my writing. By 1993, this dream had pretty much run its course, and I was back to another long round of in-between days, this time in New York City. I worked some hours a week in a liquor store, read Dostoyevsky and the sports pages, watched late afternoon Charles in Charge reruns with religious constancy, if not fervor, and every few days drank cheap beer with my friends at the International Bar for hours, through the night, until the sun started pushing up over the gray buildings in the east like a bruise.

I went to Mets games periodically. Somewhere in there Bret Saberhagen threw bleach at some sportswriters. It epitomized the depths of one of the most miserable seasons ever by any team, not just in terms of how bad they were or even how disappointing they were (this was the high-salaried team that inspired a book titled The Worst Team Money Could Buy) but in just how unhappy they all seemed to be, the absolute opposite of the idyll of joy captured, to my young hungering ear, at least, by the Globe column on Saberhagen’s World Series heroics.

My baby fell asleep in the carrier I wear on my chest as I was thinking about all this. I sing to him as I’m getting him to sleep, mostly stuff I make up off the top of my head. Today’s song was pretty bad, insufferable treacle, but true.

I’m so glad you’re my baby
I’m so lucky you’re my baby
I’m so grateful you’re my baby
You’re my little sweet baby boy

A few refrains of that and he was zonked out on my chest. There was a time when I didn’t think I’d ever escape the feeling of wanting to throw bleach on the world. To sting it, harm it. To get it to back off. To wipe it clean, drain it of color. How is it even possible that the world didn’t listen?

When my baby was asleep I handed him to his mother, who went to lay him down, and I came downstairs to figure out who was going to win this year’s World Series. The problem was, I was now thinking about all those Mets game, not just the ones I saw as a kid that may or may not have featured Ron Hodges but all those games in the ’90s when I was in-between this and that.

Once I rode the subway to Shea with my friend Pete. We’d gotten our hands on free tickets to a rainout-generated single-admission doubleheader that was already in progress between the Mets, who were nearing the end of another bad season, and some other team whose identity escapes me now. Nothing was left to be decided. Rosters had expanded to include players who’d never played in the majors before and never would again. We arrived as the doubleheader opener was in its last innings. Pete asked a security guy near the entrance the score. We had been hurrying. I don’t know why.

“Losing,” the guard told us.

“Yeah?” Pete said. The three of us stood there. It seemed like someone should say something.

“Who’s pitching?” Pete said.

The security guard shrugged. A few people were leaving.

“Some guy,” the security guard said.

Some teams win for a fallen teammate, such as, most famously, the Gipper. I want the Mets to win this World Series for Some Guy. Whoever he was.

And because I want them to win I’m going to have to recuse myself from any sort of rational or even irrational prediction. Instead, I’m going to bring this all the way back to the beginning, to when I was a boy alone in my room with my cards.

So I flipped these two cards, best of seven. It went back and forth. I admit I was trying to will Ron Hodges to a win without sabotaging my Vada Pinson throws. But you are looking at Game 7. Hodges made it tough, but Pinson swooped past him, graceful to the last, and stood up tall against the wall.

Edge: Royals, in seven

hodges and pinson


Vada Pinson and Jim Mason

October 16, 2015

Jim MasonVada PinsonALCS Preview

This one is pretty simple. The two cards here, representing the American League teams poised to vie for a spot in the World Series, both feature players who got one chance to play at that very pinnacle of their sport. Vada Pinson did so in 1961, when he was 22. He had a spectacular season, the best of his splendid career, and helped the Reds win the National League pennant. In the World Series, the Reds faced one of the greatest teams in history, the 1961 Yankees, and got smoked four games to one. Pinson played poorly, managing only 2 base hits in 22 at bats.

Fifteen years later, the teams met again in the World Series, only this time it was the Reds, not the Yankees, in the role of legendary collective steamroller. Pinson was no longer on the Reds, or anywhere in the majors, but Jim Mason was on the Yankees team that the Reds blasted in four straight. Unlike Pinson, he’d not been a central factor in his team making it to the World Series, hitting .180 in 217 at-bats as one half of a punchless shortstop platoon. In the World Series, the platoon approach seems to have gone out the window, and Mason’s counterpart, the immortal Fred “Chicken” Stanley, got the start in each of the four games. In game 2, Stanley was pinch-hit for early, and Mason replaced him in the field and got a turn at bat later in the game. It would be his only World Series at bat. In his entire career he would have 1756 plate appearances and would homer just 12 times, but he made his one World Series at bat count by lining one over the right-field fence.

It was the only home run by the Yankees in the series. In the ninth inning, Mason’s turn at bat came up again, and manager Billy Martin pinch-hit for him, bringing in righty Otto Velez to face lefty Will McEnaney. Velez struck out. A few weeks later, Velez would follow Mason to the Blue Jays in the expansion draft. Mason didn’t last long as a Blue Jay, but Velez established himself as one of the most prominent of the early Blue Jays—by the time he left Toronto, he was second on the Blue Jays career home run list to only John Mayberry, who is best known as a member of the team on which Vada Pinson finished up, the Kansas City Royals.

Is life a swirling web of interconnected strands, Pinson to Mason to Velez to Mayberry to Pinson, everything tying together with everything else in a dizzying and ultimately infinite everlasting wholeness? Or is it just an absurdity of random occurrences? Who knows? All you can do is break things down into measurable data. And on that level, the level of percentages, Jim Mason, the only player to homer in his only World Series at bat, is—despite his inferiority to, among others, Chicken Stanley—the greatest World Series performer in the history of human civilization.

Edge: Blue Jays


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.


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