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