Archive for the ‘Milwaukee Brewers’ Category

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Tim Johnson

July 7, 2011

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it.” – Tim O’Brien, “How to Tell a True War Story”

Here’s what seems beyond dispute:

1. Tim Johnson was born on July 22. I’ve been thinking about that date lately because it’s my wife’s due date. It’s close enough that the baby could come any day. Babies come out all slippery, so I’ve heard. I’ve built my life for over four decades on maybes, and now there will be this slippery, vulnerable annihilator of maybes, an unavoidable fact. I feel less than entirely ready. I have a pair of shaky hands and a lot of bullshit stories.

2. Tim Johnson was sure-handed, able to play any position in the infield. Despite a relatively weak bat (lifetime batting average of .223 with 0 home runs), he stuck around in the majors for seven seasons. Once his major league career ended, he continued on in baseball as a scout, coach, and manager. This phase of his career peaked in 1998, when he led the Toronto Blue Jays to an 88-74 record in his first season as a big league manager.

3. Tim Johnson was born in 1949. American men born that year or in the adjacent years would come to be defined, in one way or another, by the Vietnam War. This is ironic, given that the baby boom they were a part of has been attributed to post-war prosperity, a feeling that the days of war and suffering were over, and better days lay ahead. I guess we’re never very far away from war. I was born in 1968, right in the middle of the Vietnam War, but I reached eighteen long after that war was over, and the draft was over, and America wasn’t shipping thousands of boys anywhere to shoot at people and get shot. Tim Johnson wasn’t so lucky, but right around when he reached draft age he was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Though some players from the Cardboard Gods era fought in Vietnam, teams seemed in most cases to be able to keep their players who were drafted into the military stateside, in reserve duty, so that the players could continue climbing up through the system. This is what seems to have happened with Tim Johnson, who served as a reserve in the Marine Corps, and who many years later said, “Friends of mine were going to Vietnam when I was going to spring training. While they were off fighting and getting killed, I was playing baseball. I’ve dealt with the guilt for 30 years.”

4. Tim Johnson was fired by the Toronto Blue Jays after his lone year at the helm. He admitted that during his stint as manager he had told his players war stories, casting himself in these stories as a hardened Vietnam vet. It’s not a crime to do what he did, but apparently at least some of his players felt as if they had been duped. It seems there were morals to Johnson’s stories. He told them to inspire and instruct. After being fired, Tim Johnson continued his life in baseball, the only life he’s known. He managed in Mexico and in the minors. He’s currently the manager of the Lake County Fielders, a Northern League team.

5. In this 1978 card, Tim Johnson is backed by a blue sky I am tempted to modify with the word “pure.” This past weekend, one of my last in my life of maybes, I went running in the park over by the lake, and at the end of the run I kicked off my shoes and shirt and went for a swim. I floated on my back and looked up into the blue. I felt pretty good. Everything is in question.

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Tom Murphy

June 20, 2011

I saw the Brewers play the other day, back in the American League where they belong. The day I saw them, they were apparently so excited to have a designated hitter again they batted him leadoff, and he promptly launched a home run over the Green Monster. One pitch later, the next batter homered, too. I had barely pretzeled myself down into my seat. It was disorienting yet somehow vaguley familiar. For a moment it seemed like an old-fashioned American League Brewers rout might ensue. The Brewers came into focus for me in the late 1970s with the rise of the core that would become known, in their 1982 pennant-winning year, as Harvey’s Wallbangers, after the team’s tobacco-leaking manager, Harvey Kuenn, and the team’s ability to send batted balls hurtling toward, through, and over outfield barriers. Gorman Thomas, Sixto Lezcano, Ben Oglivie, Ted Simmons, Cecil Cooper, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount. A team like that tends to imprint itself pretty vividly on the mind, and it’s still the team I think of when I hear the words “Milwaukee Brewers.” The Brewers this year look pretty good, but I guess I’ll only ever really relate to that one Brewers era from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, and everything else before and after will pale in comparison.

Tom Murphy is from the shadowy Brewers years just before their golden era. They were neither here nor there. He was pretty decent, especially in the year just before this card came out, when he posted a 1.90 ERA out of the bullpen, but who remembers? I can barely keep my focus on him even while I’m staring at his card. Most of the time, my mind wanders.

According to baseball-reference.com, Tom Murphy is among 41 major league Murphys. The first Murphy surfaced in 1884, and that season boasted no less than five Murphys. There was Cornelius B. Murphy, known more commonly as Con Murphy or by his seemingly mutually exclusive nicknames “Monk” and “Razzle Dazzle”; John Murphy, who split time in 1884 between two short-lived teams in the Union Association, Altoona Mountain City and the Wilmington Quicksteps; Tony Murphy, who appeared in one game with the New York Metropolitans, champions of the American Association; Gentle Willie Murphy of the Cleveland Blues and Washington Nationals; and a player known in the baseball record books only as Murphy.

The Murphy who is listed only as Murphy played one major league game, on August 16, 1884. That day, for the Boston Reds, Murphy had four plate appearances and reached base once, by a walk. At catcher, he made 2 errors, perhaps prompting a switch to left field, where no balls were hit his way. He might be my favorite character in my favorite narrative, the one I first started to study back in 1975 through the Neft and Cohen Baseball Encyclopedia. That first baseball encyclopedia in my life didn’t actually venture in detail back far enough to include Murphy in its story of the game. It wasn’t until my twenties that I discovered Murphy. I was sharing an apartment with my brother, who got his hands on a copy of the MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, which included the name of everyone who ever made it into a major league game. I was leafing through it one day, losing myself in the vast story I’d been exploring since 1975. The story never exhausts itself. New mysteries are always opening. I was surely a little bored, flipping through the pages, and I came upon Murphy. He was anyone and no one. In a few hours I’d go to my job on the evening shift at a liquor store. It was one of those nameless days. The short entry for Murphy made me happy. After the discovery, I got on with my day: shower, subway ride, ring up some liquor sales, lock the gates, subway ride home. I wanted to be a writer, and the idea I had for my life at that time was that before each day at the liquor store I’d work diligently in the service of that dream. Some days took the shape of that intention, but more often I sat around in my underwear eating toast and engaging in what most people would classify as wasting time. But is it a complete waste of time if on one of those days you discover Murphy? I got this feeling every once in a while back then, sometimes when I thought I was in love, sometimes when a particular song had a hold on me, that there was something so beautiful in the world that it made me want to yelp out loud, an illiterate Whitman yawp I guess, this desire to sing crowding out all the words I might ever be able to say. Murphy was here.

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Jim Gantner

March 10, 2011

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

Milwaukee Brewers

Not much is built to last. I’ve been going through all my possessions, packing them up for a move, and though everything seems to be in varying states of disrepair, not many of the things are that old. Besides these baseball cards and a few yellowing books, the only things I’ve had with me for more than a decade or so are a guitar and a backpack I got in college. They’re both holding up okay. The backpack has come in handy often over the years. I used it on a post-college trip around Europe and on hiking trips on the Long Trail and around Isle Royale. When I lived in a cabin with no electricity or running water for a year, it was my way of carrying everything I needed up the long hill from where I parked my car, including one day when I nearly broke both the backpack and my back lugging up a large tank of propane. I played the guitar a lot in that cabin, too, more than ever before or since, mostly strumming and singing Hank Williams songs because I was lonely and maybe because those songs were built to last.

The cabin had been made from scavenged building supplies by a tightly wound hippie carpenter who owned several acres of land and hoped one day to develop a commune on the land. I don’t know what happened later on, but at that early stage I was the only one occupying his future forest community, which made it the opposite of a community. Anyway, the cabin was well-made and had good acoustics, and when I played my guitar and sang I imagined I was inside the wooden body of a larger guitar, a song flowing out and starlight flowing in, a higher kind of breathing.

But while I really did have these lofty thoughts, they themselves were not built to last, and soon scattered in the wake of my gnawing insecurities about dwindling money and growing debts and estrangement from other humans and waning employment as a glaring, terrified adjunct professor who reeked of the smoke from the woodstove I had to practically give mouth-to-mouth to every night and morning to get going because the shitty wood the tense hippie carpenter sold me at the beginning of the year was so green it actually sizzled whenever it first came into contact with flames.

Oh the long demoralizing sentences that spooled inside my brain that cold smoky year! There were moments of peace, as deep as any I’ve had, like when the light from millions of stars was filtering down through the birch trees, etc., etc., but because these moments were built from my own faulty, faltering awareness, they were not built to last, and back I always went down into aching loneliness and doubt, but the guitar helped get me through, as did the backpack. I’ve never really known how to use a tool, even one as simple as a hammer, but I suppose someone who does know how to build things will come to have a feeling of gratitude about certain tools. I imagine it’s kind of like how I feel about my guitar and backpack, though in neither case have I ever used these things with anything that could be described as expertise. But I’ve used them, and they’ve helped me, and they’re still here to help if I need it.

And all this is to say that Jim Gantner was built to last. He wasn’t the first thing you would have noticed at any time during his long tenure with the Brewers, but he was always there, always coming in handy. Since his heyday, the Brewers have been as provisional and transitory as any team in baseball. Players have come and a gone, no version of the team built to last, even the team itself changing leagues. I could have pulled any number of Brewer cards from the team’s golden age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it wouldn’t have been as good an omen for the team’s 2011 chances as this Jim Gantner card. Even stars, like starlight, like moments of peace, come and go. Is there something in your ever-shifting world built to last? I predict on the basis of this Jim Gantner card that for the 2011 Brewers there is.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 11 of 30: Read the baseball-obsessed smile factory that is Wezen-Ball, in which Milwaukee’s Larry Granillo investigates such things as where Duke Snider rates in terms of “The Charlie Brown Coefficient,” what game Ferris Bueller went to on his day off, and which baseball players best correspond to famous comic book superheroes (and that’s all just in the last month)

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2011 previews so far: St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Pittsburgh Pirates; Arizona Diamondbacks; Colorado Rockies; New York Yankees; Cleveland Indians; Detroit Tigers

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Sal Bando

May 4, 2010

If I were an Oakland A’s fan, I would have realized it was all over for good with this 1977 Sal Bando card. The exodus of stars from the Green and Gold had already been in progress for a couple seasons, and things had been going downhill, but the A’s had still managed to remain competitive. Catfish Hunter had been the first to leave, signing with the Yankees before the start of the 1975 season; in his absence, Oakland’s three-year run of championship titles came to an end. The following year, Reggie Jackson was gone, and the A’s, battling the up and coming Royals to the end, finally relinquished their half-decade rule of the American League West.

Then, this: Sal Bando ensnared in some sort of half-real, half-cartoon world, the cartoon encroaching upon the real, asserting its dominance, despite Bando’s confident fuggedaboudit smirk. Bando was an A, just like the blurry figure in the background of the card, but now he’s part of something else a lot flimsier, and if Bando can be seized by absurd cartoon reconfigurations of the world, then none of us are safe.

The other A’s who had been part of this scattering hadn’t been as troubling. Catfish and Reggie were colorful and cartoonish themselves, the kind of larger than life characters who could have had their own Saturday morning cartoon without anyone blinking an eye, like other real-life figures of the time such as the Harlem Globetrotters and the Jackson Five. But Bando was different. He didn’t have a colorful nickname or an outlandish personality. He even seemed to prefer to go without the customary Oakland A’s mustache.  

So when he showed up on this card clumsily doctored into Brewer garb, the Oakland kids my age must have suffered a gut punch that they would never be able to fuggedaboud. Sal Bando, the steadiest and realest of the A’s, had vanished in the decade’s perpetual and meaningless cartoonish migrations.

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A couple more Bando thoughts. First, has there ever been a greater era for third basemen than the epoch of the Cardboard Gods? Arguably the three best to ever play the position, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, and Brooks Robinson, appeared during that time, in addition to several very good players just below that legendary echelon in Bando, Santo, Cey, Madlock, and Nettles. Second, has there ever been a less celebrated second banana among position players on a dynasty than Sal Bando? Ruth had Gehrig, Foxx had Simmons, Gehrig had DiMaggio, DiMaggio had Berra, Mantle had Maris . . . and Reggie had some guy named Sal.

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I did some live radio yesterday for the first time since I was a college DJ mumbling in between playing “Legalize It” by Peter Tosh and the king of all “let me slip outside the studio and see if my one-hitter still works” songs, “Mountain Jam” by the Allman Brothers (in other words, possibly my first-ever moments of live radio that I may remember). Click here to listen to me talking with RC McBride and Jim Fitzpatrick on their afternoon show yesterday on WJBC.

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Finally, as mentioned in a recent comment by “Lonnie Smith for president,” the current issue of Entertainment Weekly has a review of my book, and also mentions it on their “Must List” for the week (note: these things seem available only in the actual magazine, and not on EW’s website). Here’s a Cardboard Gods “collage” from the magazine stuff:

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Darrell Porter

December 15, 2009

During my four years of little league, I played every position on the field. In my first year I logged most of my innings in right or left field, then in my second year I played a lot of center, which was probably my favorite position, in part because I got to stand directly behind and cheer for our pitching ace, my big brother. In my third year I started bouncing around the infield, and in my final year while mostly playing third base I also pitched a few innings and, in one game, donned the tools of ignorance.

I understood that it was unusual for me to be a catcher—I wore glasses. No catchers wore glasses that I knew of, except for a couple major leaguers who sported glasses on top of heads that had superhero contours, their jaws seemingly chiseled from granite: Brian Downing and Darrell Porter.

I knew I wasn’t muscular and hard as granite. In fact, I even understood that I was kind of a sissy. In this as in all things I defined myself against my brother, and unlike him I shied from fistfights and other pursuits that seemed dangerous to me, such as skateboarding or downhill skiing or even sledding down really steep icy hills. Also, unlike me, he didn’t burst into tears every couple seconds. Even in baseball, my main defense against sissification, I had occasionally allowed a my true self to shine through, such as when I was in my first season and began weeping as I limped to first after being hit in the shins by a fastball from a 12-year-old with 5 o’clock shadow.

But I liked how it felt to wear the catching equipment. I liked how the mask fit over my glasses, canceling their customary vulnerability. The rest of the catching armor performed similar magic, making me feel unusually protected against the world. I remember being happy behind the plate, or happy and a little disoriented, or maybe happily disoriented. The equipment restricted my vision and my movements, but I also had a full view of the field, and this vision, coupled with the invulnerability from the armor, gave me a fleeting feeling of ownership over the game. Cutting against this feeling was my unfamiliarity with the demands of the position. But I was happy nonetheless, like a youthful invincible ruler stumbling through an inspection of his kingdom while just a little drunk.

Speaking of being drunk, I drank too much this past Friday night and wasted the whole next day as a groaning invalid. You’d think I’d know better by this point, now that I’ve put in 28 years of recreational inebriation since I acquired my first hangover when I was fifteen by getting drunk with a couple buddies on rum and coke, in a dark little league dugout a few feet away from where I’d had my brief moment as a bespectacled catcher. But Friday I got a chance to see a punk legend, Grant Hart, perform at a place right around the corner from my house, and it was fun to be blasted by the great loud heartbreaking melodies and the whiskey. Drinking, loud music: it’s a little like being a little league catcher to me. For a while, you’re wrapped in armor, surveying your kingdom, able to withstand anything.

During the winter of 1979, as I was waiting to play my final season of little league (and as a teenaged Grant Hart was beginning to play with Bob Mould and Greg Norton as Husker Du), Darrell Porter’s means of feeling invulnerable off the field was showing its grim limitations. Porter, who by then had established himself as one of the best catchers in the game, became paranoid due to increasingly heavy use of cocaine, and he began sitting by his front window with a shotgun, waiting for the arrival of the commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, whom Porter was convinced would arrive at any minute and ban him from baseball.

Porter checked into rehab that spring. How do you replace the feeling of fake invulnerability? Porter became a born-again Christian. It’s unclear how long this allowed him to withstand the deep pull of addiction, but he seems to have led an admirably charitable and giving life throughout the rest of his baseball career and beyond. His good deeds seem even more impressive when considered against his enduring affliction, which ultimately claimed him in 2002, when an autopsy on his body found that he had cocaine in his system at the time of his death. High, he’d driven his car into a tree, then he’d stumbled from his car and down to a river where he soaked his leg, and he was struggling back toward his car when his heart stopped.

I knew even as I was enjoying myself behind the plate that I wasn’t really a ruler. I was no catcher. I understood enough about baseball to know that catchers were the toughest players in the game, and I understood enough about myself to know that I wasn’t tough. Bench, Fisk, Munson: those guys were tough. Even the rare catchers with glasses were tough. You could tell just from looking at their cards. Look at Darrell Porter in this 1977 card. Invulnerable. Tough. Like he didn’t even need any armor at all.

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Paul Molitor

September 29, 2009

Paul  Molitor 79

At the Midwestern Booksellers Association trade show in St. Paul over the past weekend, while talking with people about my forthcoming book, I had several conversations about the worth of baseball cards. Mostly, people told me about valuable cards they either still had or somehow lost along the way. Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays. Occasionally I was asked if I had any doozies.

“What’s your most valuable card?” I was asked a couple times.

I didn’t have any cards with me, but I had a proof copy of the book close at hand, so I pointed to the photo of the Rickey Henderson rookie card that is among the sixty cards propping up my life story in the book. It’s the same card I’ve displayed on this site, and as you can see, it’s taken something of a beating in my loving hands, decreasing its value to the general level of all my other cards, which in total is priceless to me but to the world of commerce is worth no more than a pair of used downhill skis (i.e., what my brother sold his slightly larger collection to buy several years ago).

To me the cards are a way to catch at least some shreds of my life as it slips by. Every single card has traces. They are not done catching these shreds, either. This Paul Molitor card is catching them right now, at 7 in the morning on a gray cold Tuesday in late September 2009. It’s propped up on my keyboard, where all the cards go when it’s their turn to speak. I’m wondering about the traces in the card, and I’m imagining the first time I saw it. It was 1979 and I was 11, my first year in little league without my brother, a sunny year despite that change because I had baseball surrounding me, shining down like the sun lighting up Paul Molitor, a young shortstop (at least according to the card—in truth he had played more games at second the previous season and in all played only 57 of his 2683 career games at the position) in a scuffed helmet that had traces of its own, battles lost and won in the sun, Paul Molitor looking down at something and smiling. What’s not to smile about? There’s baseball to be played! On the flip side of the card is more sunshine, including Molitor’s status as a number 1 draft pick, the comforting duplication of his birthplace and current residence (both St. Paul, Minnesota), the one spectacular minor league season (a .346 average and 52 runs and 50 RBI in 64 games), the promising major league rookie campaign, and the dense paragraph of text describing an all-American hero of an athlete, a high school star in three sports (baseball, basketball, and soccer), a champion at every level so far, in high school, American Legion, and college with his home state university, the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

I was never above wondering if one or another of my cards was worth money. I had a prominent fantasy that one day I’d sell my cards for a fortune. (That day, in my childhood mind, was impossibly far in the future. I’d be an adult, which meant to me at that time that I’d be about as old as the adults in the house. In other words, I’m now older than I could ever imagine myself being, the sale of my cards for a pile of money as far as I ever ventured into the future.) The Brewers started to get good when Paul Molitor came aboard, and as the team and Molitor himself continued to rise I may have wondered if his 1979 card would be one of the cornerstones of my future wealth.

By 1987, these cards had moved into a storage facility, out of my sight, but they were still capable of catching traces of the world. I know this because when I look at the 1979 Paul Molitor card on my keyboard I remember his 39-game hitting streak that summer. I was spending the summer in California pumping gas and reading about Zen and dropping the occasional hit of acid, but I still remember getting excited as Molitor continued to keep the streak alive. Is there anything better in the day to day life of a baseball fan than a hitting streak? The whole game is weighted toward failure just as much as life is weighted toward dying, and yet every once in a while there is this fantastic suspension of weight while a player keeps finding ways to collect a hit, game after game. I rooted for Paul Molitor that summer, and a little air went out of me when near the end of August I fished a sports page from an Isla Vista trash can and saw that he had finally failed.

Molitor went on, of course, to surpass 3,000 hits and breeze into the Hall of Fame, a distinction that added even more value to his rookie card, which I learned some time ago is not this card but a card that came out a year earlier and which I do not own. That rookie card is one of the greatest cards ever produced, featuring not only the Hall of Famer Molitor but also a player who should be alongside him in the Hall of Fame, Alan Trammell, and as if that weren’t enough it also features two figures—toothpick-chomping U.L. Washington and doomed-by-name infielder Mickey Klutts—with places of great honor in the minds of any kid who grew up loving baseball in the 1970s.

Even that, the lack of something, in this case the lack of a card I wish I had (and not because it’s worth a little money but because I’d like to hold it in my hands and prop it on my keyboard), becomes another trace of life accruing to my sunny 1979 Paul Molitor card. If you hang onto something long enough you start seeing traces everywhere, even in the places where there seems to have been an absence.

In a few minutes I’ll put this Paul Molitor card back in my shoebox, where it’ll wait for its turn at bat again. I don’t know what’s in the future, but I’d like it if I got another chance, some years on, to pick up this card and see what traces it whispered up to me. I’m thinking I’ll remember this weekend just gone by, when at a St. Paul place called Shamrock’s I ate a burger called The Paul Molitor that had melted pepper jack cheese not on top of the burger but inside it. Is there no end to Paul Molitor’s greatness?

Perhaps the memory of a blissful volcano of cheese might spiral into other memories of the weekend, little things that otherwise might be lost if not for this card, like the moment on the drive from Chicago to St. Paul when my wife and I stopped for gas in Wisconsin and walked into an obscenity-laced shouting match between a pale, slouching adolescent and the Indian guy behind the counter—”Go back to Iraq, you fucking [pausing to find the word] towel-head!” “Fuck you, white trash!” (apparently, the kid had gone on the attack immediately after he was asked to produce I.D. to buy cigarettes); like the discovery that I had to stop looking at the new proof version of my book, the first time I’d seen the work in something like book form, because it tampered with my ability to breathe; like the sight, in an area of the conference center adjacent to the bookseller’s trade show, of a huge room full of little girls in curly wigs Irish step-dancing in front of stern-looking judges who sat at tables taking notes; like the karaoke night occurring Friday night in the lounge in the hotel where we were staying, most of the participants over 70, crooning old standards, the best of them among the oldest: a bearded guy with a walker who had a way of hoarsely croaking the line in “Unchained Melody” that goes “I need your touch” that somehow made me glad to be alive in this imperfect doomed world; a black guy in a very sharp three-piece suit and a fedora who waited through several other singers, swaying to the beat on a stool at the bar, then absolutely nailed “Mack the Knife” and left immediately, breezing past us our table (I told him how much I enjoyed it) and out into the lit-up lobby of the St. Paul Best Western, a nondescript building along I-94 that is now home to yet another stubborn trace in my life as long as Paul Molitor remains within my grasp.

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Mike Hegan

August 18, 2009

mike hegan 76

I went to a White Sox game three weeks ago and saw Melky Cabrera hit for the cycle. The feat, nearly as rare as a no-hitter—287 cycles and 263 no-hitters in major league history—has been accomplished twice since then, by Felix Pie and Troy Tulowitzki, bringing the number of cycles for the year to seven, more than in any season since 1933, in which a record eight players hit for the cycle. Here’s that list of eight:

05/05/1933 Pepper Martin SLN NL PHI PHI Baker Bowl
05/26/1933 Chuck Klein PHI NL SLN SLN Sportsman’s Park III
06/24/1933 Arky Vaughan PIT NL BRO BRO Ebbets Field
08/02/1933 Mickey Cochrane PHA AL NYA NYA Yankee Stadium
08/06/1933 Pinky Higgins PHA AL WS1 WS1 Griffith Stadium
08/14/1933 Jimmie Foxx PHA AL CLE CLE League Park II
08/17/1933 Earl Averill CLE AL PHA CLE League Park II
09/30/1933 Babe Herman CHN NL SLN SLN Sportsman’s Park III

Quite a list! Besides five Hall of Famers, you’ve got three other renowned baseball figures (Pepper Martin for epitomizing the Gas House Gang; Babe Herman for epitomizing the lovable, hapless “Dem Bums” era of the Brooklyn Dodgers; and Pinky Higgins for reputedly being, while manager of the Red Sox, a racist) who all had very good playing careers.  

The jury is still out on whether the cycle-hitting class of 2009 can match 1933’s collection of stars and superstars. See any future Hall of Famers in the list below? (I count one can’t-miss, as long as he stays healthy.)

04/13/2009 Orlando Hudson  LAN NL SFN LAN  Dodger Stadium
04/15/2009 Ian Kinsler  TEX AL BAL TEX  Rangers Ballpark in Arlington
04/17/2009 Jason Kubel   MIN AL ANA MIN  Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome
05/22/2009 Michael Cuddyer   MIN AL MIL MIN  Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome
08/02/2009 Melky Cabrera   NYA AL CHA CHA  U.S. Cellular Field
08/10/2009 Troy Tulowitzki  COL NL CHN COL  Coors Field
08/14/2009 Felix Pie  BAL AL ANA BAL  Oriole Park at Camden Yards

As for the Cardboard Gods era, the one year when the cycles came the most frequently was 1976.

04/21/1976 Tim Foli  MON NL CHN CHN  Wrigley Field       
06/04/1976 Larry Hisle   MIN AL BAL BAL  Memorial Stadium   
06/25/1976 Mike Phillips  NYN NL CHN CHN  Wrigley Field      
07/24/1976 Lyman Bostock  MIN AL CHA CHA  Comiskey Park I             
08/09/1976 Cesar Cedeno  HOU NL SLN SLN  Busch Stadium II               
09/03/1976 Mike Hegan  MIL AL DET DET  Tiger Stadium

No Hall of Famers here. The closest to Cooperstown would be Cesar Cedeno, an unsurprising member of the list. (In fact, the slugging speedster hit for the cycle twice in his career.) On the other hand, infielders Tim Foli and Mike Phillips, who had a career 36 home runs between them, seem very unlikely cycle-hitters. Mike Hegan is perhaps an even more inexplicable member of this club, as the triple he legged out that day on his 33-year-old wheels was the last of the 18 triples he managed in his career. Amazingly enough, he did all his damage against arguably the best pitcher in the league that year, Mark Fidrych. Because the Bird started the game, Hegan had a much greater audience than a late-season matchup between the Tigers and Brewers would have otherwise drawn.

I wonder if there was much, if any, of a fuss made over Hegan when he had completed his feat. If my experience of being at a game where an opposing player hits for the cycle is any guide, I doubt it. When Cabrera slid into third for a triple, few at the game even knew this was all he had needed to add his name to the list of cycle-hitters. I saw a guy in a Yankees cap a few rows ahead of me say the word “cycle” to his buddy, but I didn’t know for sure what was happening until they put it up on the big screen. The game was already all but over for the White Sox, who were getting blown out, so there was no reason to hold back on acknowledging a little bit of history, but I would characterize the applause for Cabrera as somewhere between “polite” and “a smattering of.” Certainly there had been a much bigger roar when “fries” edged “Big Mac” and “Egg McMuffin” in the between-innings McDonalds race on the big screen.

Anyway, here’s some belated applause for Mike Hegan, whose career had some high points (a World Series appearance at age 21; the distinction of being the one and only All-Star for the one and only edition of the Seattle Pilots), but who never matched the perennial all-star status of his father, Jim, considered by some to have been the greatest fielding catcher in baseball history.

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Gary Beare

August 5, 2009

Gary Beare 78

Sundown

One

This card seems like it might be a mistake, and I’m not merely referring to the off-center P inside the baseball icon in the upper right corner. When I discovered it a few days ago in my box of cards, and realized that I had no memory of anyone named Gary Beare, I had to start poking around on the internet for facts that might disprove my hunch that someone affiliated with either the Brewers or Topps had, as a gag, grabbed the pudgy middle-aged guy who had come to check the gas meter, got him to pull a Brewers jersey on over his utility company windbreaker, and thrown him in front of the camera of a baseball card photographer. Maybe just before the shot was taken a suberball was offered to the subject to place in his cheek to make it look like he was gnawing a chaw of tobacco, just like a real player. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Jerry Augustine

September 22, 2008
 Untitled 
The Two Freaks
(continued from Phil Mankowski)

Chapter Six

This is the last of the Two Freaks. You can see evidence of their strange, flickering, barely consequential presence in Jerry Augustine’s sideways double-take. As the pitcher lifted his hands above his head and prepared to look straight into the camera the Two Freaks darted one last time across the edges of the playing field, one last time across my childhood.

Like most of those visited by the Two Freaks, Augustine began drifting toward the margins in the aftermath of the visitation. He was still young in this 1980 card, still seemingly capable of becoming a notable figure in the baseball world. He hadn’t set the world on fire, but he’d had his moments, winning 13 games two years earlier and making a successful shift from the rotation to the bullpen one year earlier, with nine wins and five saves. But after the Two Freaks infused his card with hints of other, stranger worlds beneath this one, Jerry Augustine gradually drifted toward the fringes, as if following the hints. Appearances dwindled, earned run averages ballooned. Though still logging some innings here and there as a lefty reliever in both of the Brewers playoff seasons of 1981 and 1982, Augustine was never called on to pitch in the post-season in either year. He was granted free agency by the Brewers at the end of 1984, but no one picked him up.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Bill Travers

July 9, 2008
Untitled

Since I have always lived more in my mind than in the geographical location where I receive my mail, and since that mind has more often than not focused itself on baseball, it’s accurate to say I grew up not in any particular state or county but in the American League East. The Brewers were there, for the first few years a blurry, negligible presence, like a quiet, nondescript kid in the back of the class, the kind who never seemed to change from year to year (not that anyone was ever really looking, not even the teacher). Then gradually as the ’70s waned that kid hit a testosterone-heavy growth spurt and hair exploded from his face and he got suspended for bringing a switchblade to school and suspended again for knocking his vocational arts teacher unconscious and in general made you feel uneasy when you passed him in the high school parking lot as he leaned on his dented Camaro with his eyes hidden behind mirror shades and his hands on the Wrangler-bejeaned ass of his raspy-voiced world-weary girlfriend.

Ah, the Brewers of my puberty years. I didn’t realize I’d miss them when they followed that brief loud prime by receding into anonymity again, hair disappearing, muscles liquefying, bravado reduced to the occasional impotent beer-drunk rant against the many encroaching borders of life. I imagine as they first moved into this anticlimactic phase of their lives they resembled Bill Travers, still young, cleanshaven in accordance to employee rules, the only change from one year to the next the slight shift of facial expression from confused and questioning to confused and blurrily, sadly resigned.

Who even knows when they moved out of the American League East? One day you drove past their trailer where they’d spent the last several useless years, and the weeds spouting up through the engine of the dented Camaro up on blocks seemed even more overgrown than usual, no sign of the Brewers or the no longer scrawny but still world-weary woman or the couple’s several nondescript towheaded quietly crying kids.

I still live in the American League East for the most part, i.e., in my mind, but I get my mail in a region affiliated most heavily with the National League Central. Turns out this is where the Brewers moved, like a factory worker who decided when the factory relocated that instead of taking severance pay he’d move the whole wreck of his life to another state entirely and take his chances there. Nothing really changed. Year after year the Brewers punched the clock. If a baseball card were produced to personify each of these years, the series of cards would again resemble the 1975 and 1976 cards of Bill Travers, as if the meek unchanging anonymity of childhood was the inescapable fate of their life.

Last night I listened to the end of the Milwaukee Brewers game on the radio. The crowd was roaring. Their newest acquisition, a towering, charismatic beefster, got the win, one of their two great young sluggers, an obese vegetarian, drove in a run, and their other great young slugger, The Hebrew Hammer, blasted a three-run homer. In other words, for the first time in many years, I looked straight at the Brewers, and it turns out the Brewers seem to have a glimmer in their eye like they might just throw a bowling ball through a plate glass window or put a guy in a headlock in the parking lot of a Molly Hatchet concert or find that long-missing part for their dented Camaro. In other words, lock up your daughters. Here come the long lost Brewers.

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Gorman Thomas, 1975

March 30, 2008

  
Wisconsin Public Radio is airing my Cardboard God essay (minus a couple angst-ridden expletives) on my 1980 Gorman Thomas card on Monday morning at 7:35 A.M. local time (Central). The station has a live stream (there are two options for live stream at this page; the essay will be on the NPR News and Classical Music network). The show should be in the WPR archives by Monday afternoon. (Update: The piece is now in the archives. If you click on the link entitled “6am-8am Monday, March 31, 2008″ a realplayer window should open. The
host, Terry Bell, segues into an intro of my essay at 1:34:34.)

Here we see Gorman Thomas in something of a “before” picture, not yet featuring his drooping, malevolent horseshoe mustache. He still looks like a pretty rough customer, though. According to the back of this card, during the previous season, in Sacramento, he launched 51 home runs in just 474 at bats. This being a 1975 card, there is also a trivia question on the back, a pretty easy one: “What was Mickey Mantle’s uniform number?” But the front of the card seems to suggest a trivia question about uniform numbers, too. Anybody want to take a stab at what that question might be?

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Bob Coluccio

March 14, 2008
  
I should have swung.

I should have tried harder.

I should have paid more attention.

I should have gotten laid more in college.

I should have been a beginner more often.

I should have not been so serious all the time.

I should have gotten over my fear of ostriches.

I should have struck up more conversations with strangers.

I should have brushed more thoroughly and flossed once in a while.

I should have made enough money to buy my aging parents a house.

I should have made enough money not to have to hit up my aging parents for a loan that one time when my year in the cabin came to an end with me in abject poverty.

I should have made better use of my year in the cabin, becoming pure or something instead of just a little lonelier and poorer and maybe a little more aware of the silence at the heart of everything.

I should have given up the world of what if, the world of someday, and worked as hard as I could every day, like my immigrant ancestors, those short gray toilers who sacrificed themselves for the future of their family, i.e., dreaming, lazing, napping me.

I should have just started writing whatever came to mind and pushed it as far as I could and discovered undiscovered lands within or something instead of trying to mimic my literary heroes with every timid word.

I should have volunteered at the homeless shelter or participated in voter registration drives or taught some fatherless kid to shoot a jump shot.

I should have become a teacher early on and taken my lumps and hung with it.

I should have just left Marv Albert alone that time at the airport.

I should have not said all the stupid things I said.

I should have said other things.

I should have said nothing.

I should have sung.

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Von Joshua

October 4, 2007

When I was a kid I looked for reflections of some greater undiscovered part of myself in my baseball cards, but in the 1970s the only guy anywhere close to sharing my name and giving me hope that I might someday belong in the world I spent all my solitary hours glorifying was Von Joshua. Von Joshua wasn’t that great, and even though I wasn’t sure if the Joshua in his name was a last name or part of a single official title (like Count Dracula), I knew it didn’t really match my own. Also, my grasp on his identity was slippery: for some reason I always thought of him as the hazy fourth Alou. And then when his disappearance from baseball coincided with the appearance of Von Hayes the fog just increased, distancing any connection between my name and baseball.

As far as I knew there never had been a major league Josh and never would be. On closer inspection now I see that there were a few Joshes in baseball’s earlier eras, but none since a couple journeymen named Josh Billings in the 1920s and no one at all of note besides Josh Devore, who had a brief career as a speedy outfielder for the pennant-winning Giants of the early teens.

Now, however, baseball is lousy with Joshes. So is everything. After taking a victory lap around my apartment to celebrate Josh Beckett’s dominating game 1 shutout of the Angels (i.e., going to the kitchen to look for chocolate, finding none, and stuffing a piece of rye bread with cream cheese into my face instead) I came back to the living room and watched a couple minutes of a show my wife had just switched to, in which the parents of a young tan mousse-haired douchebag were subjecting a woman with fake breasts to a lie detector test. The mousse-haired douchebag’s name was Josh.

“I’m getting together with the rest of the Joshes and voting this douchebag out of our name!” I fumed. But there are so many Joshes now, many of them probably moussed douchebags, that if there ever was a global meeting convened the expulsion votes might end up purging any lingering unmoussed solitary oddballs left over from the earlier less-Josh-heavy days of yore, like me. Banished, I’d have to change my name to some extinct moniker such as Festus or Mortimer or Increase.

But until that day comes when I’m forced to roam the land, a name-exile, I can balance the pain of seeing more and more idiots named Josh with the singular pleasure, the boyhood dream, of watching the most important player on my favorite baseball team turn in performances like the one he had last night.

Go, Josh, go!

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Sixto Lezcano

September 12, 2007
 

 
I’m sure I’ll soon start droning on at length again about various moments of defeat and longing from my past, but right now I’m kind of sick of the word I. It happens sometimes. It happened in a primordial form all the time when I was a kid, and I escaped my I-ness in various ways, including deep plunges into my baseball cards, especially those that included names so cartoonishly exotic that they could never be confused with being from the same world as my own. 

So here’s the king of those names, Sixto Lezcano, 23 years old, looking young and confident, as if he has never in his life gotten sick of being the person inside the word I. He has just completed a 1977 season in which he swatted 21 home runs in just 109 games. He seems to sense that he and the Brewers are poised on the brink of a breakthrough season.

In 1978, with Lezcano providing stellar defense in right field and a .292 average at bat, the Brewers recorded not only the first winning season in the history of their previously nondescript franchise but a blistering 93-win campaign that would have catapulted them into the playoffs in many other years (or even in the same year had they been a member of the American League West). But this 1978 season by the Brewers has pretty much been lost to history, eclipsed by the battle royale that year between the 99-win Red Sox and 100-win Yankees. The Brewers got even better the next year in what would be Lezcano’s finest season (he drove in 101 runs and finished 15th in league MVP voting), tallying 95 wins, enough to pass both the Red Sox and the Yankees in the standings. Unfortunately, the Brewers’ excellent 1979 season is also obscure, as they finished a distant second in the division behind a Baltimore Orioles squad that won 102 games. It was a tough time to get noticed in the AL East: the following year the Orioles would tally 100 victories and have to settle for second behind the Yankees. The Brewers, still good, still unnoticed, finished far behind both with 86 wins, a dropoff for them that could be attributed to the dip in play of Sixto Lezcano, whose average plummeted from .321 in 1979 to .229 in 1980. 

He was traded in December 1980 and so wasn’t around when the Brewers finally broke through with half of a division win in the strike year, then a trip to the World Series in 1982. In the World Series the Brewers fell to the Cardinals, the team Sixto Lezcano had been traded to, but he wasn’t on that team either, having been traded again to the Padres. The Padres made it to the World Series a couple years later, but by then Sixto Lezcano had been traded to the aging, fading Phillies. The Phillies, composed mostly of geriatric former members of the Big Red Machine, made an improbable run, or walker-limp, to the World Series the year Lezcano joined them, but even though he played well in limited action during the regular season he seems to have been left off the postseason roster (correction: as pointed out in the comments below, Lezcano actually played several playoff games that year). He contributed the next year as a competent part-timer (from playing Strat-O-Matic I know that he generally raked left-handed pitching) but within a year was out of the league for good.

It’s now 30 years since the time of the photo in the card above, 30 years since the dawn of the single golden age of the Brewers. Robin Yount and Paul Molitor and the 1982 pennant-winners are remembered, but who remembers all the wins in the preceding years, years when the charisma of newness and promising youth on the team emanated most strongly from the rightfielder with the cannon arm and mesmerizing name. Who remembers the Age of Sixto Lezcano?

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Clyde Wright

August 10, 2007
 


Adrift

Chapter 1

Sometimes I can barely tell if I’m awake or sleeping. I get up early and try to grip each day like I’m gripping a baseball but my focus falters and the day swells beyond my grasp, a helium balloon escaping, too big and slippery to hold, floating up and away into the blue or out toward the edge of the blurry horizon. Going, going, gone.

I woke up early this morning and the first thing I focused on was this 1975 Clyde Wright card, its background familiar: a world for directionless wandering. It looked less like a baseball field than a deadened seaside heath creased with sandy meandering paths. The presence of the uniformed player in the foreground made me think that the background was actually some special field designed for a strange mutation of baseball that features several diverging basepaths instead of the familiar unequivocal diamond.

In this mutation baserunners must decide which basepath to run down, some runners by chance choosing a route bringing them back home while others branch off into wider and ever more hopeless digressions. The games never officially end, not really, their box scores always marked with multiple asterisks to signal all the runners still spiraling deeper and deeper into an almost surely inescapable maze of bad choices. These games would only be played in natural light and would end when the sun went down, some runs in, some outs recorded, the voices of the unaccounted echoing back toward the half-empty dugouts in the dusk.

Clyde Wright seems to have some familiarity with the game of shadows and fog apparently set to commence on the field behind him. He has just finished a season in which he won only 9 games and lost 20, and by the time this image of him will appear in packs of baseball cards he will already have been shipped off to the Rangers in exchange for fellow Cardboard God netherworld wanderer Pete Broberg, missing by mere months the chance to be a teammate of a third denizen of the era’s ethereal marginalia, Kurt Bevacqua. In fact, due to a mistake, this card relates the erroneous news that Clyde Wright has never yet officially been a Brewer, his statistics listing all of his seasons including the most recent one as being in the employ of the Angels. In truth he had turned in his fresh 20-loss season for the Brewers, but in the world of this card he is only theoretically a Brewer, and when this conditional status is combined with his impending trade to the Rangers the Clyde Wright of this card becomes someone who is neither here nor there, not an Angel, not a Brewer, not a Ranger. He is nowhere.

You can see by the expression on his face that he doesn’t like this. It will only get worse. Within a year he will be out of the majors, then he will play for a while in Japan, where a predilection for alcohol will bloom into fullblown addiction, that eroding realm where one wrong turn gives way to the next and the next and the next until getting back to where you started begins to seem impossible.

But there is some resolve in Clyde Wright’s face, too. This is after all the first Angel to ever pitch a no-hitter (Correction: As pointed out in the comments below, the great Bo Belinsky actually pitched the first Angels no-hitter.), and the team’s second ever 20-game winner, and still the holder of the franchise record for most wins in a season by a lefty. And this is the man who did in fact fight his way back out of all the wrong turns and spiraling, waning cul de sacs, who eventually got sober (he now runs the Clyde Wright Pitching School back in Anaheim). So even though in the nowhere moment of this card he is on the brink of slipping off into oblivion there is something in his tense features that hints of his unwillingness to quietly disappear. And this troubled battler seems to be pointing.

When I woke up this morning, early, teetering between dream-weighted sleep and an unholdable helium day, my gaze drifted past Clyde Wright toward the background of this card. Clyde Wright was trying to point back into my life.

“Don’t come this way,” he seemed to be saying.

But then again he had his glove hand open and nothing in it, as if he required me to grab hold of the day as if it were a baseball and throw it at his target, as if he required me to not turn around and walk away but rather to join him in his world. The day ended up swelling and slipping from my grasp and here I am, once again, inside another Cardboard God landscape, wandering the labyrinth of paths that all eventually dissolve into infinity beyond the falling Angel.

(continued in Ed Crosby)

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