Archive for the ‘Los Angeles Dodgers’ Category

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Rick Rhoden

August 16, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

The World’s Greatest Athlete

Who is the world’s greatest athlete? In honor of all the recent leaping and flailing and patriotic sobbing, I will venture toward an answer by considering a few cultural figures of varying levels of renown. All of them inhabit not this present world—which is to me a baffling, shadowy place of ever-eroding footholds—but the milieu with which I am much more familiar, the one I traversed in my childhood, specifically the star-spangled bicentennial summer of 1976, when this quiet Rick Rhoden card slipped unnoticed into my budding collection.

***

Nanu

Let’s play the word association game. Ready? Jan-Michael Vincent.

What comes to mind? I’m guessing it’s an image informed by the afflicted former actor’s more recent forays into the public eye, handcuffed appearances in court, bedraggled mug shots, and like that. Decay and ruination. Sort of the opposite of the gleaming ideal of athleticism.

At one time, however, Vincent was the ideal athlete, at least in fictional terms, playing the titular character in the 1973 movie The World’s Greatest Athlete. I never saw the movie but I read the novelization two or three years after the movie came out. Vincent was cast as a long-haired Tarzan type named Nanu who gets pulled out of the African jungle by an American college coach and brought back to campus, where it is confirmed that all the vine-swinging and tiger wrestling has sharpened the ape-raised jungle lad into an indomitable interscholastic athlete capable of shattering pole vault records and reviving the punt return attack.

I don’t remember what could have been the dramatic tension in the story. He won everything. Maybe he gradually got civilized or something, married the college president’s bookish daughter, etc. My copy of the book is long gone, most likely impossible to replace, and I’m not about to order the movie off Amazon and sit through it while looking at a youthful Jan-Michael Vincent and thinking about the crushing desolation of time and substance addiction. But I wish I still had the book, damn it. It was one of those books with a section in the middle with photos, stills from the movie. Born Free was another book from my childhood that had that still-shot section in the middle. I don’t remember that book or movie so well, except to associate it with lions and an almost terrifying level of sadness. Jesus Christ, I never want to know what it was in Born Free that touched my vast early childhood capacity for terrifying sadness.

Sorry, what? Oh yeah, great athleticism. Great athleticism would translate into being able to win any athletic contest, right? This would be impossible for anyone in the real world, but Nanu did it in a make-believe world and in doing so provided an ideal that real athletes could be measured against.

***

Bruce Jenner

The athletic ideal established by Jan-Michael Vincent seemed to materialize in reality in the 1976 summer Olympics in the form of Bruce Jenner. Like Nanu, Jenner was a white fellow with flowing hair who hurled things, leaped obstacles, and rushed toward finish lines. He won the gold medal in the decathlon, the event most frequently associated with the notion of the world’s greatest athlete, and parlayed that success into a monetized cultural ubiquity to rival that of Evel Knievel, i.e. (from a nondenominational pop-culture-addicted child’s viewpoint), God. Jenner could do it all better than anyone.

Or could he? I understood fairly early on that Jenner wasn’t really the greatest at everything, that he was actually generally mediocre when measured against the world’s top specialized athletes in each of the events comprising the decathlon. He was more accurately the world’s most versatile athlete, but only if the realm of athleticism could be stripped down to ten rudimentary track and field events and excluded all other forms of competition.

Jenner fared better, as the years went on, than the oft-arrested man behind Nanu. But like Vincent’s contemporaneous embodiment of virile youth, Jenner is widely considered (by superfluous sporting-minded internet typists such as myself) on the decay-laced cheap-shot prism of “how far they have fallen” rhetoric. We like to point out witheringly that Jenner is now a renowned figure in the world of reality entertainment, famous not for great athleticism but for being a plastic surgery victim and Kardashian empire subordinate. Which reminds me: A few days ago my wife told me that she saw an episode of Dr. Phil featuring several women who received plastic surgery from an unlicensed felonious charlatan who promised to make the women’s unsatisfactory buttocks plump up like those of Kim Kardashian. He instead endangered their lives with injections of, among other toxic substances, quick-setting cement.

I’m no better than anyone else in this demented world. I fully participate in the collective mudslide to oblivion. E.g., I’ve jacked it to images of Bruce Jenner’s step-daughter’s rear end more than once. More than twice. It’s not a contest, though.

***

Kyle Rote Jr.

I should be purer than I am, maybe. I should stop digressing. Stop onanizing. Stop writing about baseball cards, perhaps. Move on to doing good works, helping others, praying to a higher power.

I come to these thoughts of purity frequently, then discard them, or not even discard them, really, for that would require more purposefulness than I am capable of, but instead just kind of blah my way into something else, some other manner of cogitating that allows more meandering and guttering and nowhereness. That’s my life. Others decide to cast such a life aside, or try. Many are successful, I assume.

Kyle Rote Jr. seems to be one of these pious types. He has fared better in later years than the two other mid-1970s paragons of athleticism mentioned so far. He is a successful sports agent. He’s probably pretty wealthy. He’s a devout Christian. Maybe this allowed him to avoid some pitfalls.

I remember Rote from 1976 and thereabouts for being the perennial winner of Superstars. That made-for-TV competition pitted athletes from various sports against one another in several events to determine the greatest athlete of them all. It puzzled and fascinated me that Rote, a nondescript soccer player I’d never heard of, always won. The program itself fascinated me. It was much less formal than the Olympics, which undercut its legitimacy, and yet it featured guys who were the best in each of their sports, and these sports, unlike track and field, were the ones that I followed and loved. If you were going to pick a greatest athlete in the world, how could you not include the superstars of American team sports? That’s what I thought anyway. But then the winner was always Kyle Rote Jr. It was as if Marvel Comics put out a special issue featuring all its superheroes in a free-for-all brawl to decide who was the most powerful, and at the end the winner was some marginal lower-echelon guy not even capable of carrying his own series. Kyle Rote Jr. was like Hawkeye from the Avengers, if Hawkeye ever somehow figured out a way to defeat the Hulk, Thor, Spiderman, and the rest, then went on to be a devoutly Christian multimillionaire sports agent and abstainer from digression and gherkin-jerking.

***

Brian Oldfield

This is preposterous, of course. Hawkeye, weakest of limb of all superheroes save perhaps the Invisible Girl, possessing only one skill—an easily obtained skill shared by pale bespectacled loners in high school archery clubs everywhere—beating the Hulk? No, the winner of the ultimate contest, i.e., the world’s greatest athlete, would have to be someone with immense physical power and speed.

After all, a great athlete is a superhero. This was my thought in 1976, a thought which feels purer than what I am capable now, and thus closer to truth. Often in 1976 I imagined that I had superpowers, and in these imaginings I would more often than not use them to dominate various sports, running faster, throwing harder, jumping higher than anyone else. I could also, as needed, bash in faces and reduce skyscrapers to rubble.

In reality, I wasn’t particularly fast or strong, and I certainly never bashed in a face. Also, even in my imaginings, I understood that having superpowers wouldn’t necessarily translate to mastery of every sport. I could dominate the Olympics and then go into football and rush for touchdowns on every carry, dragging entire teams of would-be tacklers on my back, and then I could move to basketball and Darryl-Dawkins a few backboards, I guess, but then, when I pondered channeling my Hulk-strength into baseball, I usually let the whole fantasy kind of fade into some other scenario. I knew by then that baseball was tricky. You couldn’t just swing in on a vine like Nanu and start drilling sliders into the gap. It took skill.

I’ll get to that idea of skill in a bit, but for now let’s dwell a little longer on Hulk-strength, since in my mind the Hulk would win the imaginary Marvel Comics free-for-all punch-fest. I think there may be some thought out there Thor was stronger than the Hulk, because Thor is a god, but fuck Thor. Thor is full of shit. Hulk smash.

Not that you asked, but here’s my full top-five power rankings list:

1. The Hulk
2. The Thing
3. Luke Cage: Power Man
4. Spiderman
5. Oh, all right, Thor (Note: Sean Howe, author of the forthcoming book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, advised me on seeing this list that Thor should at least be moved up to #3.)

Anyway, the Hulkiest athlete of my childhood was a man named Brian Oldfield. He was a shot-put specialist who went pro in the sport at a time when such a thing was rarely done by track and field athletes in their prime. Because of this, he did not compete in the 1976 Olympics, which occurred when he was at the peak of his powers. For a time, he enjoyed notoriety as something of an outlaw. He was a little like the Hulk in that sense, too, unaffiliated, bounding around the country from place to place. He didn’t fit. And his powers were mind-boggling, feats of strength and speed battling spiritedly for column space with anecdotes from his life as a good-natured, fearless, hard-partying lantern-jawed Dionysus.

A Superstars clip from 1976 includes a mini-feature on the colorful Oldfield. The clip then climaxes in a 100-yard dash in which Oldfield beats all the other Superstars assembled save for Steelers wide receiver (and former track star) Lynn Swann.

In another Superstars clip, Oldfield easily defeats the Hulk.

***

A nameless dog

Everything about the Superstars clips you can find on YouTube speaks to me, synching up with my meandering mind, my personality, my long gone world. The aimless pacing, the random collision of sports heroes, the modest relaxed scale of the event, which seems to have the scope and urgency of a company picnic.

There is something in the 100-yard dash clip I wanted to mention in particular: In the last few moments of the 100-yard dash, Brian Oldfield runs into a dog that has bounded onto the track.

What does this dog have to do with this discussion? In my opinion, every discussion should include the equivalent of this dog.

***

Scooby Doo

The popularity of the 1976 Olympics as well as the success of the Superstars competition inspired a Saturday morning cartoon called the Laff-A-Lympics. The captain of the team that won the most of the weekly competitions was Scooby Doo. Here are the all-time Laff-A-Lympics standings:

The Scooby Doobies – 14 wins
The Yogi Yahooeys – 7 wins
The Really Rottens – 2 wins
One three-way tie

Despite his wondering whether “re really rarromprished ranything,” the most-decorated Laff-A-Lympian was a fearless avenger for justice.

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Gabe Kaplan

The 1970s craze for channeling everything into an Olympics-y competition also inspired The Battle of the Network Stars. There’s no need for me to add anything to Bill Simmons’ pitch-perfect take on this competition’s soaring masterwork moment, except to say that Simmons’ appreciation was written before the recent passing of Robert Heyges, so Gabe Kaplan’s famed win now features a bittersweet note. There’s Epstein at the finish line, alive once again, front and center, the only network star visible for a moment, before Wonder Woman and Richie and Laverne and the rest storm in, just one Sweathog alone, arms raised in triumph and welcome for his teacher.

Those days, god damn it, I miss them.

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Rick Rhoden

Rick Rhoden slipped and fell on scissors as a kid and got sick, had to wear a leg brace, got the brace off at 12, started striking everyone out, and within a few years was drafted number 1 by the Dodgers. He won 151 major league games, more than all but 240 other pitchers in history. Of those pitchers only a dozen or so could claim to be as good a hitter as Rhoden, who won three Silver Slugger awards and was the only pitcher to ever serve as a designated hitter. Since his baseball career, he has become a successful professional golfer (lifetime winnings of over $250,000 and counting), something seemingly every great athlete in the world fantasizes about but can’t accomplish. There’s debate about golf being a sport, but whatever it is, it is fucking hard. (Ask any great athlete.) So in terms of mastering difficult, subtle athletic skills, Rhoden has few, if any, peers. Yes, Hulk smash. But imagine him trying to throw a curveball for a strike, then trying to hit a curveball, then trying to chip a tiny ball from the rough over a water hazard and onto a slippery green in the tense late stages of a pro event. Rrraaorggh! Hulk mad!

So Rick Rhoden had an uncommon mastery of subtle athletic skills. But if all Rick Rhoden ever did was master pitching, hitting, and the club-striking direction of a small white ball toward a series of tiny holes, I wouldn’t have considered him for this discussion. I don’t know what greatness is, but I know for me it resides somewhere in a long-gone Saturday afternoon after a morning of sugared-up Wheaties with Bruce Jenner and the Laff-A-Lympics and an issue of Marvel Teamup featuring Spiderman and the Thing, and a ceaselessly roaming little-kid imagination still capable of being amazed. I was never amazed by Rick Rhoden. But recently I discovered, by useless meandering, that in addition to his other athletic masteries Rick Rhoden also vied for the coveted title of 1975 bubble gum champ. He was not the greatest of all bubble blowers—only he who is called Bevacqua could make this claim—but Rhoden did make it all the way to the semifinals of the hallowed event. In this video, another beautiful piece of the shambling era I love and that made sense to me and that has left me, Rhoden appears at around the 1:40 mark, blowing a large oblong bubble as if the miraculous creation were nothing special, all in a day’s work for the world’s greatest athlete.

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Bill Bene

June 20, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

Harold

I can’t find any information on the internet about Bill Bene’s sentencing, if it has even happened yet. The latest news, that Bene pled guilty and faces up to eight years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, appeared in late March of this year. I don’t know what’s happened to him since then.

If there are still going to be court proceedings in conjunction with Bill Bene’s sentencing, I want to believe that Harold will be brought in as a character witness. The defendant surely will have aged from his appearance in a 1989 Topps card, but Harold will be essentially unchanged after all these years, albeit maybe a little scuffed in places. Maybe his souvenir stand Los Angeles Dodgers batting helmet will be slightly askew.

***

“I fooled them for a while,” Bill Bene said.

This was in 1988, a month before the major league draft. Bene was admitting to a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that his high school career, spent exclusively as an outfielder, had been iffy. He’d known the best he could ever do was bluff and hope.

“I was never a very good hitter,” he said. “I guess I was meant to pitch.”

I guess.

Last week I discovered the 1989 Topps offering featuring Bill Bene in a friend’s box of unwanted cards. I’d never heard of him. A number 1 draft pick? This guy?

I’ve been discovering bits and pieces of Bill Bene ever since. Yesterday I watched a bird thump head-first into one of my windows.

“Jesus,” I said.

“Happens a lot,” my wife said. “We need to put up some stickers.”

It’s a big picture window. The birds are just flying along and wham.

“God, imagine what that’s like,” I said, pitying birds.

But then I thought about it some more. We can only ever guess. Every single step. And sooner or later we’ll smack into something. We’ll be stopped.

***

A couple of years ago, my wife and I drove to St. Paul, Minnesota, to attend a booksellers conference. My memoir was due out in a few months. The publisher sprang for gas money and a hotel room for us. The hope was that giving away bound galleys to conference attendees would drum up some buzz for the book. At the conference, hysteria for my book did not ensue. I wasn’t expecting it to, but even so the concrete affirmation that my book was just another book among hundreds of books, thousands of books, dampened my impulse to engage in fantasies of impossible deliverance. And who even reads anymore anyway? It wasn’t like I’d made a movie or, perhaps even better, a video game. It was great to have a book coming out, the realization of a lifelong dream. But it wouldn’t change anything. I would still be fastened to my life.

Afterward, my wife and I had a couple of drinks at the hotel bar, where a karaoke night was in session. There were maybe twenty people scattered around the bar, watching one another take a turn at the mike. On Words Without Borders, Jean Harris, reviewing Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture, ponders the karaoke singer.

The hallmark of karaoke culture is a preference for faux versions of real things.  So why does this world have a large population that opts for the theme park version every time? Because, according to Ugresic, “the very foundation of karaoke culture lies in the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games.” The denizen of karaoke culture is a cipher addicted to dreaming he’s somebody else: the one whose assertion of ego actually gets him somewhere.

***

Back when I was a kid I used to fantasize about being discovered. It started modestly, when my older brother was in little league. As I watched his games I imagined that a foul ball would bound my way, and I’d scoop it up and fire it back onto the field, wowing everyone with the strength and accuracy of my arm. (I hadn’t yet seen The Bad News Bears, where Kelly Leak’s superpowers as a baseball player are first announced in just this way.) As the years went on, this fantasy of being discovered got more preposterous, until eventually it involved a limousine pulling up at the edge of our driveway as I was throwing a tennis ball at the duct tape strike zone on the garage door. The backseat window would come down, revealing Carl Yastrzemski’s melancholy features creased into a smile.

“Quite an arm, son,” he would say. He’d produce a major league contract, holding it out the window toward me. “It’s just what we need.”

This is a deep American dream: to be discovered. To be seen, truly, and to be told with certainty, beyond any guesswork, that at our core we are aglow. That we have a great gift.

Absurd as it sounds, this is more or less what happened to Bill Bene. Bene was fumbling through the usual descent through baseball that all but the tiniest portion of the population experience, the game becoming harder and harder until it ejects us entirely out of active participation and into passive fandom. For me this occurred when I was fourteen and struggling in Babe Ruth league play. Bill Bene’s expiration date as a baseball player was set for when his passage as a guess-hitting high school outfielder concluded.

Instead, former major leaguer Randy Moffitt noticed Bill Bene had a strong arm and suggested he try pitching. According to a conflicting version of the story, this suggestion was made by Randy Moffitt’s father, Bill; what is indisputable is that Bene was blessed by the divine intervention of a close family member of Billie Jean Moffitt, Bill’s daughter and Randy’s sister, who gained renown beyond even that of my imagined fairy godmother, Yaz, under her married name, Billie Jean King. Billie Jean’s relation pointed the coach at Cal State-Los Angeles toward Bene, and it was at that institution, on a pitcher’s mound, that he would be discovered.

He first took the mound for his college team in 1986. From the beginning, he threw very hard and yet with so much wildness as to be nearly useless to the team. Scouts began to appear, more and more all the time, drawn to his promise, ignoring his flaws, much in the way one falls in love.

His complete college stats are displayed in full on the back of his 1989 “#1 Draft Pick” card. They are not good, as shown most succinctly by a career ERA of 5.62. And there aren’t even any positively suggestive “hidden” numbers below that broad-brush metric. He did not strike out more than a batter an inning, for example. Worse, he walked more batters than he struck out. Still, the scouts swarmed.

“We had 55 scouts at one game,” Bene’s college coach, John Herbold, said, adding for the sake of comedic hyperbole, “and we had so many radar guns going at the same time there was a power shortage.”

Somewhere along the line the fluttery hyperbole surrounding Bene began to coagulate into something more solid. By 1988, Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Fred Claire, who by the estimation of awards-givers at the end of that year would be deemed the keenest executive in all of major league baseball, was saying that Bill Bene had the “best arm of any prospect in the country.”

The Dodgers selected him with the fifth overall pick of the 1988 draft. In the minors, he continued to struggle. The temptation, with this “#1 Draft Pick” card in hand, is to imagine his story as a tragic fall, but where was he falling from? He wasn’t like David Clyde, who’d soared unbeatably through high school baseball, a national sensation, only to smack into an invisible barrier upon his immediate promotion to the major leagues. Bene’s nearly instantaneous ascension to the top of baseball had never been anything but an illusion.

***

I don’t participate in karaoke nights, but I sing sometimes. I once spent a year in a cabin in the woods. Because I had no electricity I had no entertainment beyond what I could cook up myself. I played my acoustic guitar and sang all the time. I wasn’t singing to heaven. I was lonely, going nuts. I hoped that someone might hear me singing and would be drawn to the sound. A woman, specifically. She’d appear from out of the birch trees, a smile creasing her melancholy features.

“Quite a voice,” this beautiful illusion would say. “It’s just what I need.”

If I discovered anything in my year in the woods it was that there’s only one discovery available. There’s no word for it, no voice to sing it.

***

A year or two into Bene’s professional career, he was so wild that he was demoted to remedial instruction outside of official action. In a simulated game, where the only other participant was a teammate standing in the batter’s box, a pitch got away from Bene, unsurprisingly, and broke the wrist of the teammate. The coaches further modified Bene’s remediation, replacing the human batter’s box attendant with a department store mannequin.

Bene drew a mustache on the mannequin. He named it Harold.

His pitching briefly seemed to improve, but this was an illusion. His minor league numbers tell the demoralizing story that sometimes people can’t change. We can dream of being discovered, of being told we have a great gift, and this dream might even come true, but eventually a second discovery will overtake the first. This latter discovery is the one we pray to avoid: our home in the world has been secured erroneously, and in that home we are a fraud, and upon the discovery of our fundamental insufficiency we are cast out.

***

This weekend I was reading an FBI document. It had an ad at the back, an attachment provided to illustrate the case being made that AOL be ordered to turn over all email records for a user with the email address dansternsplace@aol.com. This email address appears in the ad, the only contact info provided for the seller of the product being advertised, which is a hard drive containing 120,000 “Top Quality Karaoke Songs.” According to some information included earlier in the report, the price for this hard drive, $299, is far below the market value for the songs, which are all protected by a copyright that the seller of the product does not have a claim to. In addition to mapping the particulars of the felony of copyright piracy, the document sets out in painstaking detail the failure to pay taxes on any of the dubious earnings. Piracy, tax evasion: the subject of the report was in big trouble. The ad at the back serves as a disjointedly cheerful epilogue that somehow makes everything even bleaker. “Makes a great gift!” the ad copy exclaims.

From 1997, when his minor league career ended, until the appearance online of this 2010 FBI report, the internet does not contain any traces of Bill Bene save for some occasional, inevitable mockery embedded in his inclusion in periodic “biggest draft bust” retrospectives. After 1997, Bill Bene became for a time invisible, anonymous, at least in terms of overt internet traces. At some point he created what was in essence an online avatar, “Dan Stern,” and through that alias made hundreds of thousands of dollars by faking fakery.

I find myself imagining the courtroom. The prosecution will play the music of the victimized karaoke corporations, each song hollowed out by design, a vacuum in the center of it to pull in that hidden part of us that wants to be discovered. In the quiet following these empty songs the defense will turn to Harold. They will adjust his limbs accordingly and prop him in the witness stand. Gaze unwavering, mustache intact. His expression will be the same as it was in those early days, not long after the dreamed-of discovery had been made and before the other discoveries had fully overtaken and obliterated the first. No matter what question Harold is asked, his answer will be the same. He will sing. No one will hear. Life is flight until we strike this invisible song.

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Charlie Hough (by guest author Pete Wingate)

April 11, 2012

The following is a guest article written by Pete Wingate.

The greatest story in Wingate history is from when my older brother faced off against Charlie Hough. (Apparently Charlie’s father was some sort of insane Great Santini-type who would hop the fence and scream at him and his brother when they screwed up. Charlie won as many games as Schilling, and his brother got to the minors. Still, no thanks.) In the ’50s, at Mendes Field in Smithfield, RI, Little League, my brother defeated the flame-throwing future knuckler Charlie Hough as close to single-handedly as possible by winning a 1-0 decision and plating the deciding run on an inside-the-park HR.

That was a little before my time. When I got old enough, my brother took me to Fenway in ’73 to see my first game, and I saw Orlando Cepeda hit one over the net. A few years later, my brother allowed me to tag along to work at Foxboro Country Club one day in ’76 because he knew that a threesome of Lynn, Rice and, somehow, Jim Freakin’ Burton had booked that day.  He wouldn’t let me bother them, which may have been a good thing in Rice’s case. We watched the threesome tee off the 1st hole. First Lynn (grounder), then Rice (laser). Then the crowd dispersed. I remember feeling bad for Burton and sticking around, but I don’t remember his shot. Probably a heartbreaking floating line drive right up the middle . . .

When I was born in ’65, he already had amassed a great collection of Ted, Mantle, Mays and Aaron cards that are in my nephew’s possession now. I started collecting, but used to just play with them (outside of my treasured favorite Willie Mays “in action” card) and they got beat to hell. This was as pissed as he would get with me. He understood that I’d be sorry one day. I wasn’t, at least at the time. I eventually gave what was left to my nephew, too, since he had been thieving them a little at a time anyway. Except Willie.

His reputation as a Hough-killer aside, like 99.9% of us he flamed out in High School. Even though I grew up to be bigger and stronger than him, reaching the Power-Righty optimum of 6′ 4”, I was slurving by 15, more interested in guitars and girls and done a few months later without having met his standard.  It still irks him more than me at this point, I think.  Not that he would ever say it out loud.

He had my father, I didn’t.  Father was handed free Lucky Strikes in Hawaii on his way to the South Pacific, never put them down and died of lung cancer a month before the Impossible Dream was over.

My brother’s been sick for 8 years now but has gotten much worse recently and just opted out of treatment. It’s not that unlikely that even though he didn’t smoke, the Lucky Strikes our dad smoked didn’t help my brother either. Neither do our genes.

Time is all that we really can have, isn’t it? The universe’s single gift to us.  The gift comes in all sizes, but if I had all the time in the world, I’ll never figure out why some of us don’t get more of it.

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Steve Yeager

October 17, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

Y Is for Yeager

Baseball is often used to define fatherhood, and fatherhood is often used to define baseball. Somewhere it was said that baseball is fathers playing catch with sons, or something like that (I don’t know if he coined the phrase, but the great poet—and Dock Ellis collaborator—Donald Hall wrote a book of essays about sports using that title). Feeding into that notion is the familial bond strengthened and even defined through a shared love of the game, the game being passed down from generation to generation, and, last but not least, the literal act of fathers playing catch with sons, an act perhaps as sacramental as any other in secular America. What above that would a new father think of when imagining his relationship with his son? What else could more firmly lock father and son together and lock them both to the most tender and joyful element in the myth of the nation? This notion of fathers playing catch with sons has become an epicenter of sentimentality, too, a way toward weeping hot, nostalgic tears for, depending on the weeper, the distance in time from such a catch, the absence of such a catch, the absence, in part or in full, of the father. This is the myth of the land, too: the absent father, the catch that never was.

The elevated notion of fathers playing catch with sons crested in the popular imagination in Field of Dreams, a movie about a guy named Ray Kinsella hitting middle-age and still looking for that catch with his dad. In the end, the ghost of the long-gone father, John Kinsella, emerges from the corn, and he’s a catcher, that’s his position, his role during his time on earth playing baseball as well as in eternity: he is a father and he catches. The movie climaxes with this exchange between father and son:

John Kinsella: Well, good night Ray.
Ray Kinsella: Good night, John.
[They shake hands and John begins to walk away]
Ray Kinsella: Hey… Dad?
[John turns]
Ray Kinsella: [choked up] “You wanna have a catch?”
John Kinsella: I’d like that.

The second time I saw Field of Dreams I wasn’t having any of this, rejecting it as I would the idea of eating a bucket of sugar. By the time of the climactic catch between father and son, I had already come to this conclusion about and rejection of the movie, and Costner’s phrasing—“have a catch”—put me over the top. I’d never to that point heard of the act of throwing a ball back and forth as “having” a catch, and the term made the act sound all the more precious and sentimental, almost unbearably childish, even though the term my brother and I used when we wanted to do throw a ball around, if we had to use one at all beyond just eye contact and the waggle of a glove—“play catch”—was also childlike. I don’t know, “playing catch” just sounds, still sounds, less like a big production with swelling orchestral strings than “having a catch.” I understand now that it’s probably just a regional thing—in some places this is just what people say when they want to throw a ball back and forth. (But, still, I for one will never use the phrase “have a catch.”) Anyway, that second viewing of Field of Dreams formed my official stance on the movie, but I must admit that my first viewing of the movie went much differently.

I first saw it on an airplane over the Pacific Ocean. I was at one of the more vulnerable moments of my life, as I was on my way to spend a few months in China with the idea that I would study there, but I had no real plan beyond the notion that I was going to meet up with my college writing professor, who was teaching there for a year, and together we would “figure something out.” I had never left the continent before, and I didn’t know a single word of Chinese or anything about Chinese culture. It was a leap into the unknown. And here, during the longest flight of my life, into this unknown, came a soothing story about baseball and the American Dream and fathers playing catch with sons, and I fell into it completely, desperately, and at the end, during the “have a catch” scene, I started to lose it. I was sitting next to a young Japanese guy, and he was starting to lose it, too, and the two of us turned to one another and grinned sheepishly.

Japanese guy: It is nice.
Josh: [choked up] Yes.

So, let’s face it, I’m as deeply snared as anyone in the myth of baseball and America and fathers “having” catches with sons. Now that I’m a father I have already thought repeatedly about such a catch with my own son, even though his command of his hands and limbs is minimal, but it is not nonexistent, and he is able to grip onto my finger, which has more than once made me feel choked up. Anyway, it’s a long way off. In the meantime, however, everything but everything, or so I’ve been told, maybe not in so many words, is fathers playing catch with sons, and in this my role is to be a catcher. I have to catch what he throws. I have to be there. I have to be sturdy and balanced and relaxed but ready. Like Steve Yeager in this 1977 card, an impossible ideal of relaxed readiness, the supreme catcher. Whenever you’re ready, Yeager seems to be saying. I can crouch here all day. Whenever you’re ready, I’ll be here.

***

Previous installments in the Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting:

Z Is for Zisk

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Terry Forster

April 20, 2011

In the beginning, Terry Forster must have seemed like The Natural. He made it to the major leagues as a teenager able to do anything and everything on a baseball diamond. In his first two big league seasons, he averaged better than a strikeout per inning on the mound and went 12 for 24 at the plate. His all-around abilities extended to the basepaths, too, as in 1972 he became the last American League pitcher to steal a base before the institution of interleague play. The designated hitter rule in 1973 took the bat out of Forster’s hands for the next few years, but in 1977 he moved to the National League and racked up 9 hits (including a double and a triple) in 26 at-bats for a .346 average. Because of the role he settled into for the rest of his career—short reliever—he would never again get more than 8 at-bats in a season, but he continued to produce with the bat whenever called upon, and his lifetime batting average reads like a typographical error. Terry Forster was a .397 career hitter.

In 1978, Forster’s first season in Los Angeles, he had a typically stellar year at bat (going 4 for 8). Meanwhile, he had his career-best performance on the mound, recording 22 saves and posting a team best 1.94 ERA for the pennant-winning Dodgers. He added five scoreless innings and a win in the playoffs. He’s on the brink of that dream season in this 1978 card, a doctored artifact that attempts clumsily to obscure the fact that in the photo he was wearing the uniform of another team. It gives the card a blobby, globby, and, yes, gooey feeling, and perhaps it can be viewed as the embryonic beginning of another narrative that would eventually expand (like a midsection) and obscure entirely the initial story of Terry Forster’s career, The Natural disappearing via a David Letterman monologue into “a fat tub of goo.” Forster, ever the natural, took it all in stride, shrugging off Letterman’s remark with one of his own: “A waist is a terrible thing to mind.”

***

As you may or may not have noticed, I decided that to continue posting team predictions deep into April was pretty dumb, plus the team predictions I’d been posting had become increasingly allusive to the point of not really being predictions at all. Still, I’m going to finish out the last few cards in my stack of “team prediction” cards, and if anyone wants to attempt to connect this 1978 Terry Forster card to the fortunes of the 2011 Dodgers (or the Jose Canseco card from Monday to the 2011 Blue Jays, etc.), I am all ears.  

I did want to make sure and direct anyone wishing to enjoy the 2011 baseball season from a Dodger perspective to Dodger Thoughts, a shining light in the baseball blogosphere and one of the great online communities of any stripe.

Finally, a question, in honor of Terry Forster: Who would make up the all-time “goo” team? The pitching staff would be easy to assemble, and I’m sure there’ve been some portly catchers, outfielders, and corner infielders, but I’m drawing a blank for the middle infield spots. If you’ve got any suggestions to fill out the roster below, please let them fly.

Team Goo
C: Mike Lavalliere (1 vote), Hector Villanueva (1 vote), Ramon Castro (1 vote), Henry Blanco (1 vote), Smokey Burgess (1 vote)
1B: Cecil Fielder/Prince Fielder platoon (1 vote)
2B: Ronnie Belliard (1 vote)
SS: Juan Uribe (1 vote)
3B: Pablo Sandoval (1 vote)
LF: Greg Luzinski (2 votes), Kevin Mitchell (1 vote)
CF: Kirby Puckett (1 vote)
RF: Matt Stairs (1 vote), Tony Gwynn (1 vote)
Util: Ty Wiggington (1 vote)
SP: Mickey Lolich (1 vote), LaMarr Hoyt (1 vote), Sid Fernandez (2 vote), CC Sabathia (1 vote), David Wells (1 vote)
RP: Juan Berenguer (2 vote), Rich Garces (1 vote), Joba Chamberlain (1 vote), Charlie Kerfeld (1 vote)

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Tom Lasorda

August 24, 2010

This weekend I caught most of an episode of Silver Spoons that centered on baseball cards. I don’t make a habit of watching episodes of Silver Spoons, but for reasons I am no longer in contact with I watched plenty of episodes of the show when it first came out back in the early 1980s. I was a teenager by then and should have had better things to do than watch a “heartwarming” sitcom about a little rich kid and his “zany” father (the theme song alone should have caused me to sprint screaming into the night), but I guess I didn’t. What was I supposed to do, push-ups? Homework? My evenings then, as now, as ever: television. Hence, at an age when in another time and place adolescent Indian braves of yore were traipsing through the wilderness purified by fasting and prayers in search of life-defining visions, I was watching Silver Spoons.

However, possibly because underage drinking and other mind-altering substances swooped in to spirit me slightly away from television for a while, I missed the episode a few seasons into the show’s five-year run that featured Ricky (Ricky Schroeder) and his grandfather (Academy Award-winner John Houseman a couple roles away from The Final Curtain) scheming to make a killing with baseball cards.

The mention of baseball cards is what stopped me on my tour through the channels. Though the scheme the robber baron grandfather hatched was pretty ludicrous (noticing that his grandson has cornered the market on Tommy Lasorda cards, he drives up the value of the cards by starting a rumor that Tommy Lasorda is about to be voted into the Hall of Fame), it’s interesting to me that the episode aired when the baseball card industry was reaching its peak, and the skyrocketing value of cards was making kids into savvy, merciless businessmen. I had stopped collecting cards by then, so I missed out on being inside the bubble of card prices that seemed for a while as if it would expand forever. It must have been exciting, but I think it would have made baseball card collecting a little nerve-wracking for me. With my cards, I wanted to dissolve away from the world and enter another world. If I was constantly worried about whether to “invest” in, say, Pat Listach or Gregg Jefferies, I think I might not have enjoyed it as much, or found as much comfort in it, because I’d still be present, capable of losing, instead of disappearing altogether into the world of the cards.

This Tommy Lasorda card at the top of the page was from the group of manager cards in the 1978 set. I liked these cards for the long listing of mostly underwhelming minor league stats that is on the back of almost all of them. Lasorda is no exception, toiling for many years in the minors with only enough cups of coffee in the majors to compile an 0 and 4 record with a 6.52 ERA. He did have some big years in the minors, though, mostly with the Dodgers’ affiliate in Montreal, for whom he played for eight seasons. He seems to have been an overachiever as a minor league lifer: He didn’t strike many guys out, and he walked guys a lot, and somehow he usually won more games than he lost. I wonder if he started to get bitter that The Call never really came. It seems particularly cruel that he was shipped to the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate in Los Angeles in 1957 (where he was a teammate of both legendary minor league slugger Steve Bilko and fellow future manager Sparky Anderson), and then when the Dodgers themselves came to Los Angeles the following year they sent Lasorda back across the continent to Montreal. I imagine him on a mound in Montreal in early April, freezing his nuts off, using some colorful language as he dwells on Dodger golden boy Sandy Koufax, who in an earlier season took Lasorda’s place on the major league roster.  

At the end of the Silver Spoons episode, Tommy Lasorda makes an appearance. He has a whole bunch of cards of himself, which will “flood the market” and drive prices back down and make official the restoration of innocence that Ricky already started moving toward when he gave back the money he’d fleeced from his friend. I believe the last line of the episode is Lasorda’s, saying something like, “Hey, did you hear? I’m a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame!” He actually did make the Hall, but it was twelve years after the episode aired. I don’t think he thanked John Houseman in his acceptance speech for getting the ball rolling. I also have to think he refrained from the colorful language that, in this day and age of the ever-present recording device, has given Tommy Lasorda two lives, one being the sunny, wholesome Dodger Great shown on the front of the 1978 card at the top of this page (and in the 1985 episode of Silver Spoons), the other being an incredibly foul-mouthed accidental entertainer of the YouTube generation. I have to admit that the latter is by far my more favorite of his two incarnations, in part because he is clearly one of those people blessed with the ability to use obscenities with operatic gravitas and gusto, and also because the latter Tommy Lasorda persona seems to be the one connected with its vitriol and bitterness and also its vivid life and its unadorned humor to that more interesting personal life story, the one present on the back of his 1978 card, the life of the marginal itinerant far from sunshine and Cooperstown. 

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Burt Hooton

February 16, 2010

The Blue Jacket

One

Morty, the boss of me for a few years in the 1990s at the now defunct 8th Street Wine and Liquor, used to yell at me to laugh. He thought I was too serious and morose, a walking cadaver. Morty was in his seventies. He’d undergone enemy fire on a warship in the Pacific, had buried both his parents, and was on his second marriage and his second liquor store after his first store had burned to the ground. I was in my early twenties. I was untouched.

“I laugh,” I said. “I’m laughing on the inside.”

“Joshua, we could all put our problems in a hat and then pick from the hat and get somebody else’s problems and we’d be begging to have our own problems back,” he said. “Think about that.”

“I have,” I said. “You told me that one before.”

“Be good to yourself, Joshua,” Morty said. “Who else will be if you won’t be?”

He’d told me that one before, too, but I didn’t say anything. I just sat there trying to picture what it would look like, me being good to myself, but all I could see was myself tucking myself in for a nice long afternoon nap, which I did whenever possible anyway, always waking in the dusk with a stomach-wrenching sense that the end was near. Scared and doomed, I’d stagger to the bathroom and look at my face and hate it. Someone else was going to have to be good to me.

***

When Burt Hooton was the age I was as I slumped behind the liquor store counter, he had already gotten his career off to an almost impossibly good start. He had swept into the big leagues as a first round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs after posting a 35-3 record at the University of Texas. Then, in his fourth major league game, he had pitched a no-hitter. After that, the guttering Cubs began to drag him down to their level somewhat, and by the early 1975 his won-loss record, rightly or wrongly the primary yardstick for pitcher evaluation back in those days, stood at 34-44.

He was traded to the Dodgers in May of 1975 and everything changed. He was on a contender. He was winning. At some point in the midst of all this he was asked by a Topps photographer to pose for a picture to be used on the 1976 baseball card at the top of this page.

***

I really didn’t think I was such a sad sack. So I didn’t roll with laughter every two seconds, so what? I’m deep, I thought. My joys are visionary, my sorrows timeless, etc. I considered myself this sensitive soul, a modern-day Rilke, if instead of swooning around the castles of his various benefactors writing immortal poetry Rilke had been employed to sell half-pints of Leeds Vodka to men struggling to inch through the day.

When I think of those early days at the store I think of the greasy nickels those men pulled from their pockets and shoved across the counter to me. I think of a lot of things. I think of a maroon Corvoisier windbreaker, a promotional item a salesman had dropped off years before. My brother, who had preceded me as a clerk at the store, had first inherited the jacket, and then it had been handed down to me. The right pocket had started to rip and the flap hung down. Really, if you thought about it, I needed a new jacket. But I never thought about it.

***

With the Dodgers, Burt Hooton became a top pitcher on an elite team. He finished second in the Cy Young race in 1978 and made an All-Star team in 1981. I don’t know exactly when or where this photo was taken, but some of the improving fortunes of Burt Hooton, nicknamed “Happy” by manager Tommy Lasorda, must have begun to announce themselves by the time the photographer asked the pitcher to pose for his baseball card picture.

Look around you, Burt Hooton. All-Stars everywhere. Starlets in the stands. Wins piling up on your record. Sun shining down. And your young heart is thumping, is it not, Burt Hooton? So give us a smile, Happy Hooton. Say cheese.

***

But it’s always been this way. When the excitement of ripping open the wax wrapper is gone, and the gum has become a tasteless pellet, the blankness of the day begins to loom. You look to the gods, and some of them smile, even beam, and some are in the middle of the action that you are not a part of, but as often as not they stare back, unsmiling. They have been traded. They have lost. They will someday be released. Even if they’re in the midst of a warm blue day, they understand everything is fleeting, everything will be released.

***

I’d concentrated on writing poetry during college, but in the liquor store days I was losing my grip on it. Every poem I tried flattened into monotonous sentences searching for a story in a life that proceeded as if designed to avoid any kind of a narrative thrust whatsoever.

“You just need to get laid,” said another boss of me one evening. This was Dave, the store’s night manager, who worked a few nights a week after logging some classroom hours as an adjunct philosophy professor. He gave me pep talks about women. He kept telling me they were as lonely as guys. I didn’t believe it.

“You just have to talk to them,” he said.

But I didn’t feel like I had it in me to do that. So I just stared at them whenever the opportunity presented itself, hoping that they’d see my Rilkean sensitivities and take things from there. I needed something like that, some kind of rescue.

“You just need some more confidence,” Dave told me more than once.

I didn’t disagree with him, but I saw that any kind of an improvement would have to come from outside myself. I was at the mercy of life. I was waiting to be told I’d been traded to a winning situation.

(to be continued)

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