Archive for the ‘Minnesota Twins’ Category

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Harmon Killebrew (1st row, 2nd from right)

May 18, 2011

“I think I should take the hardest swings I can every time I’m at the plate.” – Harmon Killebrew

A while ago I wrote about how much Harmon Killebrew’s 1975 baseball card meant to me, but I don’t think I mentioned that one of the reasons I was drawn to it so much was that it was my only Harmon Killebrew card, a singular tangible connection to the unusual, powerful name and the staggering statistics reaching back toward the dawn of time, or at least to the pre-expansion days of the original Washington Senators. I saw Killebrew, towering in my mind among the whippet-thin, polyester-clad, Astroturf-skittering rank and file of the mid-1970s, as some kind of miraculous survivor from a prehistoric age of giants.

Just this morning I discovered that I had one other trace of Killebrew in my collection, and it seems to suggest the other side of the man who was both a giant and a regular guy, a mensch. He’s off to the side in the first row, number 3, looking like he could just as likely be an older fellow on the coaching staff as the greatest player in the history of the franchise.

He didn’t hold himself above anybody else on his team or in life, and he made the most of his at-bat.

***

The Sports Illustrated archive offers some excellent glimpses of Killebrew through the years.

Below is an excerpt from a 1959 piece on Killebrew as a young slugger:

Killebrew’s swing is designed for the home run. He stands deep in the batter’s box. He grips his 33-ounce bat at the end and holds it high. When he swings, it is a brutal stroke. His home runs are long ones. But he also strikes out a lot. In the past he has often been attracted to the chin-high fast ball that sends so many promising hitters back to the minors. This year he has been trying to wait for strikes, but even so he has struck out frequently. One night against Cleveland, he struck out three times, then hit a 430-foot home run.

A few years later, he had matured into a Buddha of the long ball:

Killebrew has grown into a proud, private man whose approach to hitting, he says, is a good reflection of his life-style. Killebrew puts on his hard hat one turn before he is due in the on-deck circle and stands motionless next to the bat rack, staring at the pitcher. When his time comes, he moves to the on-deck area, takes three or four bruising swings and then kneels motionless, again staring at the pitcher. In the batters’ box he makes one cursory swish with his bat between pitches. Then he simply stands, again stock still, with the bat resting on his shoulder. He waits to cock his bat until the pitcher, whose hands Killebrew has been concentrating on, begins his windup. The whole process is done with a let’s-get-down-to-it air. “That’s pretty much the way I am,” says Killebrew. “I’m not a fidgety person. I try to stay as calm and relaxed as I can. It helps me concentrate, which I think is the most important thing about hitting.”

And then, in 1999, many years after his playing days were over, he got so sick that doctors believed there was nothing to be done and that he should go home to die. He went into hospice care but recovered, miraculously, and this glimpse of what comes next for all of us caused him to respond with kindness and compassion:

“Hospice is such a tremendous thing,” Killebrew says. “Patients seem to reach an inner peace. Society doesn’t like to deal with death, but it’s a natural part of living.” Never a big talker, Killebrew, 63, developed excellent listening skills, which helped him conduct a pregame radio interview show for 12 seasons while he was playing for the Twins. Now he listens to patients, providing happy memories for them in their final days.

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Larry Hisle

March 11, 2011

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

Minnesota Twins

The center of my identity is my childhood, and the center of my childhood was baseball, and the happiest time of my childhood in terms of baseball were the two years when my brother and I played on the same little league team while our favorite big league team, the Red Sox, had their best two-year run in franchise history in terms of games won, with 97 in 1977 and 99 and 1978, and during those years I deepened my attachment to baseball statistics, as if they could be a way to hold onto the happiness, and I held above all other statistics the triple crown categories of home runs, RBI, and batting average. There was something comforting about believing that if a player, such as Jim Rice, was able to consistently rank high in these three statistics, it was inarguable proof of that player’s greatness. In terms of a high ranking in those categories, Rice towered above baseball in 1977, 1978, and 1979, but for the first of those two years, the two years at the center of my identity, a player named Larry Hisle was right there with him. There was something mysterious about this triple-crown rival of Jim Rice, even before he vanished from the leader boards in 1979. While Rice stayed with the Red Sox and would,  I assumed (as I did with all the 1970s Red Sox stars, though as it turned out only Yaz and Rice would stick around for the duration), stay with the Red Sox forever, Hisle played for one team in 1977 and another team in 1978, both teams somewhere out there in the middle of the country and the middle of the standings, far away and never seen by me, this hint of transience in association with Larry Hisle blooming into his complete disappearance from the leader boards in 1979.

This morning I learned that Hisle’s disappearance was caused by a rotator cuff injury in early 1979 that effectively ended his career as a regular. I also learned that Larry Hisle became an orphan at age 11 and that he mentors at-risk children in Milwaukee. He is thought of by those who know him as an extraordinarily nice and generous man. I didn’t know any of this back when I was a kid, of course, so Larry Hisle, Jim Rice’s vanishing rival, will always have to me an aura of mysterious greatness. If you could take a picture of the center of my identity, that picture would show a kid with glasses and a baseball cap studying the list of league leaders in the paper, and the kid would mostly be reveling in the seemingly immortal presence of Jim Rice, but the kid would also be wondering, just a little, what happened to Larry Hisle.

This 1975 card predates that moment, of course. I wonder if I ever pulled this card from my pack of Twins in hopes of discovering why Larry Hisle and not Jim Rice (or I) had suddenly been removed from the visible world. With his furrowed brow, he looks old in this card, older than Rice, none of the sense of crackling power in Hisle’s card that seemed to emanate from the photos of Rice. The back of the card shows that he’d already kicked around for some years as a moderately successful regular before 1975, the year Jim Rice sprung into the league as an instant rookie sensation. At this remove, decades after the years at the center of my identity, Larry Hisle’s card looks more like what I would come to know as life: Some ups, some downs, some moves from here to there, some signs of the inexorable march of time.

The 2011 Twins will be human, which doesn’t mean they can’t be great but only that the greatness won’t last.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 12 of 30: Check in with Aaron Gleeman for passionately gathered Twins news, keen baseball analysis, and dizzyingly prolific pop culture links/appreciations; Gleeman’s current well-researched series counting down the best Twins of all time is up to number 21 (Larry Hisle showed up at number 27

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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; Milwaukee Brewers

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Jerry Terrell

August 11, 2010

Jerry Terrell made the Topps rookie all-star team in 1973, then began experimenting the following year with switch-hitting, taking up batting from the left side. This card provides some rare evidence of that brief, doomed experiment, both in the photograph on the front and in the listing on the back (“Bats: Both”). By midseason, a prolonged slump prompted Terrell to junk switch-hitting and go back to the way he was before, a right-handed hitter.

That season, Terrell’s chances at the plate dwindled, but he made himself useful by playing several positions and appearing more times as a pinch-runner than anyone ever had before in a major league season. Unfortunately, in terms of his legacy, if such a thing as the record for most pinch-running appearances in a single season can be considered a legacy, 1974 was to pinch-running what 1998 was to home runs, and in 1974 both Larry Milbourne (Astros) and the Lord of All Pinch-Runners, Herb Washington (A’s), surpassed Terrell on the all-time single-season list. A look at Brandon Isleib’s interesting 2007 Baseball Prospectus article on the history of pinch-running suggests that the cardboard gods era (which dawned in 1974 and which is an absurdly demarcated span of time in that it derives solely from the intersection of baseball and my childhood) was the golden age of pinch-running. The plethora of 1970s fast guys on the list of all-time appearances as a pinch-runner is of course propped up to a large extent by Oakland’s attempt to elevate pinch-running to a level of importance in the game equal to relief pitching (the latter an element of the game that the A’s also leaned on with uncommon gusto but that, in contrast to pinch-running, actually led both to wins and to changing how the game was played). But the presence of non-A’s on the all-time pinch-running list—Terrell, Willie Wilson, Miguel Dilone, Mike Jorgenson, Ted Martinez—suggests that managers in the 1970s were more willing to yank a slow guy for a faster guy to try to eke out a run.

Runs were a little tougher to come by back in those days, and I’m glad that lately things seem to be trending back closer toward the average runs-scored-per-game marks of the 1970s. It’s better when a guy like Jerry Terrell can make a difference, and it stands to reason that he has a better chance to do that during a tight 3-2 game than in an 11-6 slugfest. He can fill in defensively all over the diamond, he can pinch run, and he can—I have no evidence of this but I am as sure of it as I am of my name—lay down a good bunt. He had a mind trained on the little things that could possibly provide the winning edge in a game, as shown by his later career as an advance scout (he helped the Royals win the 1985 World Series in this capacity) and by a rule-breaking incident that occurred during his lone season of switch-hitting, 1974. From a 2002 Baseball Digest article by Rich Marazzi:

Umpires are also given the authority to be mind-readers to determine intent via 4.06(a) that stipulates a batter cannot call “Time” or employ any other word or phrase or commit any act while the ball is alive and in play for the obvious purpose of trying to make the pitcher commit a balk.

Minnesota’s Jerry Terrell snubbed his nose at the rule and beat the system on the night of May 29, 1974, when the Twins hooked up with the Red Sox in Boston.

The score was tied 4-4 in the top of the 13th inning. Minnesota had runners at the corners and one out with Terrell at the plate. Red Sox pitcher Diego Segui became confused while in his delivery and balked when he noticed Terrell reaching down in the batter’s box for some dirt. Terrell had learned the trick when he played amateur baseball and admitted so. Because of the balk, both runners advanced one base, giving the Twins a 5-4 victory.

Although the thinking among many umpires is that big league pitchers should know enough not to stop their windups and balk in such situations, Terrell’s deceitful act created an unfair advantage and the balk should have been nullified. The umps could have also ejected Jerry from the game.

 

Terrell never tried such a thing again, as far as I can tell, possibly because of a change that occurred in his life the year this card came out. “The Lord has been in control of my life since 1975,” Terrell said in a 2002 “where are they now” article. A few years later, in 1980, Terrell’s religious devotion was cited as the reason for his decision to cast the one dissenting vote in the leaguewide ballot proposing a player strike. (The other players did not resent Terrell’s decision, respecting the sincerity of Terrell’s beliefs, according to an entry on Terrell in the always excellent Baseball Biography Project series.)

By the time the players acted on their vote and went on strike, in 1981, Terrell had been released from his last major league team, the Royals. His biggest moment with the Royals had been a testament to his greatest skills—his versatility and his willingness to do whatever the team needed: During a blowout loss in 1979, he pitched the ninth inning and retired the Yankees on three pitches (grabbing what has to be a share of the all-time record for fewest pitches thrown in a complete inning). The Royals fans gave him an ovation for that effort, and in the bottom of the inning, when he drove in a meaningless run, they gave him another ovation.

We’re all mathematically eliminated. The game is already lost. Why not cheer utility man?

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Butch Wynegar

October 7, 2009

Butch Wynegar 80

The Cardboard Gods era was a golden age in baseball for guys named Butch. Gracing my baseball cards in those years were Butch Hobson, Butch Metzger, and Butch Edge (furthermore, Butch Benton and Butch Alberts also played during that time, but I don’t think I have any cards featuring them), along with arguably the greatest baseball player to ever be saddled with the name: Butch Wynegar. You could make a case that Ken Keltner, whose nickname is listed on baseball-reference.com as Butch, deserves that honor, but in all the many times I’ve heard mention of Keltner (for his role in stopping Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak), I’ve never heard him referred to as anything other than Ken. Conversely, I’ve never heard the player here referred to as anything other than Butch, so I think, considering that and his 13-year career and his two All-Star team berths (the first gaining him the distinction of being the youngest All-Star ever), he’s got to be considered the all-time best Butch.

Why did the number of Butches in the majors spike so much in the 1970s? I don’t really know, but as can be seen on the list on Baseball-Reference.com, no player was ever given the name Butch at birth, so each Butch must have picked the name up somewhere along the way, probably pretty early on, in childhood. And the guys who played in the 1970s pretty much all grew up in the Eisenhower era, which seems particularly fertile ground for the development of such a nickname: too late for a moniker like Babe or Rube, too early for nickname-repelling given names like Sunshine or Moon Unit. Think Leave it to Beaver. Think suburban tract housing. Think freckle-faced, crew-cutted, pug-nosed boys with slingshots sticking out of their back pockets.

So here’s to one of those All-American slingshot boys, Butch Wynegar, who I’ve elected to toss out the first pitch of the cardboard version of the 2009 playoffs. Wynegar has dual citizenship in the Twins and Yankees franchises that will face off today, less than 24 hours after the end of the Twins’ electrifying extra-inning one-game playoff win last night. Wynegar never did get into a playoff game himself, despite playing on some pretty good Twins and Yankees squads. He had some big moments as a Yankee (he caught Dave Righetti’s July 4 no-hitter), but I’ll always think of him as a Twin, and as a young Twin, part of a promising switch-hitting duo with Roy Smalley that was going to eventually lead the Twins to glory. I actually can’t believe he was ever a Yankee, or even that he is no longer in his early 20s. The idea of time’s relentless march seems ridiculous, even unfair, and particularly when applied to boys named Butch.

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Pete Redfern

September 25, 2009

Pete Redfern 78

This’ll have to be a quick one because this morning my wife and I are driving up to St. Paul, MN, to the Midwestern Booksellers Association trade show. My publisher, Seven Footer Press, wants to start drumming up interest in my book, Cardboard Gods (due out April 2010). I guess I’ll be signing some advance review copies of the book on Saturday (according to page two of the conference schedule).

Anyway, since this is my first ever visit to the Twin Cities, I wanted to pay tribute to the first-ever Twins pitcher to start a game in the Metrodome, which the Twins will be vacating forever in less than two weeks, after 28 memorable seasons there. Pete Redfern, a highly touted prospect who ascended very quickly to the majors after being taken first overall in the January 1976 draft, lost that first game in the Metrodome in 1982, to Floyd Bannister, and didn’t do much better the rest of the year, which would prove to be the last in a career that didn’t quite live up to the sky-high expectations that naturally attach themselves to the distinction of being chosen number one. But everything is relative. For example, after all, for several years, he was in the major leagues, one of the chosen few. For another example, the year after his career ended, he was paralyzed in a diving accident.

As can be seen (not really) and heard (sort of) in a fan-shot video on youtube, Redfern recently returned to the Metrodome with his son, Chad, also a talented athlete who played professionally in the Atlanta Braves system. It’s difficult to get a read on the elder Redfern in the video, but he comes across as loving and tough and wise in articles about his accident and about his son.

For some reason this doesn’t surprise me. When I was a kid growing up far from Minnesota in the 1970s I always assumed, for reasons I can’t place beyond the perception of a certain aura of gentleness emanating from Rod Carew, that the roster of the powder blue Minnesota Twins was populated entirely by nice guys.

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(Love versus Hate update: Pete Redferns’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)

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Terry Bulling

January 22, 2009
 Untitled 

Somewhere I Lost Connection

Chapter One

This was Terry Bulling’s first baseball card, and it probably seemed for quite a while as if it would be his last, since he dropped back out of the majors for several years after his short stint in The Show in 1977. But he resurfaced in 1981 with the Mariners, and in 1982 caught Gaylord Perry’s 300th win. In the blog of cheating-in-baseball expert Derek Zumsteg, Bulling is featured prominently in an anecdote that, if accurate, sheds further light on the extent of Bulling’s famed battery-mate’s desire to gain a competitive edge. According to the anecdote, Bulling reported that “Gaylord coats his entire body with Ben-Gay before the game, and when he sweats during the game his entire uniform becomes a big greaseball. He can touch any part of his uniform to throw a greaseball. The umpires can check him all they want, but Ben-Gay isn’t illegal and there’s nothing they can do about it.”

I imagine that Terry Bulling, or Bud Bulling as he was apparently more commonly known, was the perfect guy to catch Perry’s 300th win. For one thing, he seems to have felt at worst neutral and more likely even a little amused by Perry’s unorthodox methods. Also, as a little-known journeyman he presumably didn’t have the authority to impose any kind of a plan on the game, having to defer to the slippery gray foul-smelling eminence on the mound. According to the Sports Illustrated article about Perry’s 300th win, the pitcher shook off Bulling’s signals constantly, something that I imagine was done by Perry more than anything to add even more ambiguity to his pre-pitch ritual stew of tics and shrugs and scratching and licking and rubbing, thus further crawling into the mind of the batter, who was already jittery over the prospect of loaded pitches dipping and diving in all directions. But I can’t see Perry constantly denying the choices of, say, Carlton Fisk or Johnny Bench. If he did, they’d eventually come out and slug him, or at least try to. (I’m not sure happens when you try to punch a guy covered in slime.) But Bulling just went with the flow, the perfect receiver for Perry’s unpredictable junk. Who better to roll with whatever comes his way than a journeyman? A journeyman knows you’re never anywhere very long, and even if you try to imagine something connecting one fleeting moment to the next the only path you’ll be able to trace will be irrational, spasmodic, inane, the ungodly flight of a doctored pitch.

Furthermore, a journeyman knows that even when you stand still you’re part of a greater unstoppable movement. This phenomenon underscores the Creedence song “Lodi,” one of my favorites, in which the singer laments the disintegration of his dreams while stranded in a nowhere town. I thought of that song when I perused the back of this Terry Bulling card. Bulling spent his first three years after college in one minor league town, something I don’t think I’ve seen on any other card. He didn’t even split a season and spend some time elsewhere, just stayed in a place abbreviated on the back of this card as “Wisc. Rapids.” It’s a place-name that implies swift movement, yet there Bulling stayed, year after year on the lowest rung, and at a time in his young life when years must have seemed long instead of the quick blurs they become as you get older.

Those are hard years, the first years after school. They were for me, anyway. There certainly weren’t any major or minor league teams of any kind, literal or figurative, knocking on my door. I had no skills, no connections, not even much ambition beyond a hazy collection of vague, ridiculous, impossible hallucinations about a future involving writing, some shattering moment of lasting spiritual enlightenment, rooms full of people cheering for me, and fucking.

My first year out of college was going to be spent in Shanghai, teaching English, but then I got a rice paper letter from my girlfriend over there, saying that she’d met somebody else, so I spent the money I’d saved up for my ticket to China on a trip to Europe. I tried to do the trip as cheaply as possible so I could make it last. The first step in that strategy was to use a service that got you onto random flights that had empty seats. You couldn’t pick the city you wanted to go to, just a general region, then you’d go to the airport and hang around until they could shove you onto an unpopular flight.

This was just after the Berlin Wall came down, so I had a sketchy idea that I’d eventually make my way beyond the vanished Cold War divider to the Central European region my paternal grandparents fled from in the early 1900s, Galicia. The closest I could get using my mode of cheap air travel was Frankfurt, Germany. I didn’t know anyone there or speak the language or have any plan on where I was going to spend the night. The plane landed in the early morning, and as I was walking down an airport hallway after exiting the plane my transcontinental daze slowly gave way to a mixture of terror and self-hatred. I was about to start punching myself in the head as inconspicuously as possible. But then, in one of those rare times when the absurd illogic of dreams spills over into waking life, one of those moments when you can almost see the gleam of some beyond-law substance on the doctored pitch of your life, I ran right into someone I knew.

(to be continued)

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(Love versus Hate update: Terry Bulling’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the
ongoing contest.)

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Johnny Sutton

September 12, 2008
 Untitled 
The Two Freaks
(continued from Greg Gross)

Chapter Four

Contrary to what you might guess, a baseball is not hidden inside the glove of Johnny Sutton, but rather a crumpled wad of lined notebook paper the approximate size of a baseball. The wad struck Johnny Sutton in the head with a barely noticeable impact just moments before this off-center picture was taken. He was stepping across the foul line and felt something tap him. He picked it up and looked around but saw nothing. Whoever had tossed it at him had somehow almost instantly disappeared. Johnny Sutton noticed writing on the wad’s inner folds but didn’t have time to open the wad before the photographer brusquely and distractedly waved him into position and snapped the photo with an apathy that would result in the finished product we see here:

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Rod Carew

June 23, 2008
 

Untitled 
As I guess I’ve mentioned before, I somehow never got Rod Carew’s baseball card growing up. A couple months ago a reader of this blog, Brent Topping, read that this was so and kindly decided to rectify the situation. Since then I’ve tried and failed to shape my reverence for the inimitable style and astounding results of the man pictured here. Thinking about Rod Carew, trying to come up with something to say, I find I’m overpowered by the pitch.

Rod Carew was never overpowered by a pitch. Whatever it was, wherever it was aimed, whatever its nasty spin or ungodly hop, he adjusted, flipping the power of the pitch on its ass with the brevity and grace of a martial arts master. Is there any doubt that the plan the catcher pictured here and his unseen battery mate have concocted to foil Carew will fail? Carew will wait in his coiled yet serene praying mantis stance until the very last moment, then use his lightning-quick wrists to strike, lacing the pitch into some unguarded patch of the grass.

Who was a more constant part of my internal life when I was a child than Rod Carew? He was always there, at the top of the Sunday averages, the list that meant more to me than any religion. The greatest day of every summer was when my brother and I got to stay up past our bedtime to watch the entire all-star game, and Rod Carew was always among the sparkling selections. Since he had been an all-star before I was born, it seemed to me that he had always been an all-star.

It seemed as the years continued to roll by that he somehow would always be an all-star. But in 1985 an all-star game was finally played without him. I was seventeen that summer. I had a freshly earned GED, a job pumping gas, and no plans for the future. What was I supposed to do? Leaving childhood is like having a hole in your swing that continues to get bigger and bigger. The alarming absence in the midsummer classic of Rodney Cline Carew, the owner of a swing with no holes, was the last stage of erosion. How am I supposed to hit when I’m more hole than swing?

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Ken Landreaux

April 7, 2008
 

They are tearing up my street. There is a big hydraulic crane ripping up concrete, and it’s really loud and it makes it hard to come up with anything worthwhile to say about Ken Landreaux. Also, my wife is in the bathroom puking. She woke up with some kind of stomach virus and even though she was puking she had to appear in court for her social work job. She’s back now, in the bathroom, steering the bus. I looked up stomach viruses on the Internet. I wanted to see if there was anything I could do. But what can I do? I’m pretty powerless. So I sit here trying to write about Ken Landreaux and when the roar of the crane two inches from my head abates every once in a while I can hear the sound of retching.

Actually, since I stared writing the crane has moved up the street a little. I just got up to check on their progress. The crane has carved a swath in the concrete that I swear they just recently put down. They’ve been tearing up and paving and tearing up and paving the street for months. Anyway the sound has quieted a little but as it abates I discover new kinds of resistance, new anxieties, new ways in which I’m unable to connect to today’s rectangular fragment from my past. There are no names for these anxieties, at least none I can identify right now.

Maybe some of it has to do with spring finally arriving. I feel like running around or weeping with laughter or sitting at an outdoor cafe in some faraway place with nothing to do and all day to do it as the gentle warmth melts me. But I also feel apprehensive. It’s been a long winter. I’ve been bracing against the cold for most of my life. So when the warm air comes I can feel all that melting and I can feel the fragile green tendrils of memory, the up-push of tenderness, and it pains me. Better to just stay numb. Better just to continue trying and failing to think about Ken Landreaux.

Maybe some of it has to do with Jack Kerouac, who I’ve been reading lately. Whenever I read him I brace myself for the effect. I’m going to start wondering if my life is too narrow. I’m going to start wondering why right this second I’m not napping in the sun after riding the rails down the California coast, a book of Buddhist scripture open on my chest, or why I’m not this second participating in a raucous epochal poetry reading with “the best minds of my generation,” or why I’m not feverishly writing the sincerest wishes from the depths of my soul in the form of a novel that will be published to great acclaim and change the course of American Literature instead of trying and failing to think about Ken Landreaux.

I can’t think of Ken Landreaux without thinking of Landru, the computer that dictatorially ruled an alien planet in an episode of Star Trek, brainwashing the creativity, individuality, and spirit out of all the inhabitants and making them a part of one “Body” until Kirk, Spock et al beam down and shake things up, Kirk eventually setting everyone free, as he is wont to do, by riddling the computer into smoldering self-destruction by feeding it an unanswerable contradiction. He did this on several other occasions, including in the tedious “Nomad” episode that seemed to be aired every other night when I was a kid. Anyway, maybe I’m just part of some Landru mind control and don’t even quite know it. This would explain the lack of creativity. Also, I watch a lot of television and spend a lot of pretty useless hours on the Internet, passive pursuits in which I am willingly subservient to one machine or other. Even when I take walks I have headphones in my ear feeding me stupid chatter, usually about sporting contests, i.e., surrogate dramas to take the place of any confrontations or contests in my own life. I am ruled by Landru, limp and docile, wordless and weak, marching in an acquiescent daze.

A few years ago I was playing guitar with this guy I knew, Paul, who was an excellent guitarist. We were in his room, noodling around with two of his electric guitars. He said, “Doesn’t it suck when it seems like every solo you play seems like something you’ve already played?” I still pull out my guitar from time to time and play blues licks, but it’s true: I’ve played all the blues licks I know. It’s stagnant, my playing. I remember there was an old poster on Paul’s wall that read “Let go and let God.” I wonder what would happen if I let go and let God.

Probably nothing. I just tried it for a few seconds, and still couldn’t come up with anything to say about Ken Landreaux, but then again maybe I was doing it wrong. Or maybe my problem is Ken Landreaux. I know this is out of line, blaming the subject. If you had Rembrandt paint anything on this earth, it would still be a Rembrandt. It would still be alive with all his pain and wisdom and gloomy reverence for this life. So it can’t be Ken Landreaux’s fault. But all I can think of is that he was traded for Rod Carew.

He was traded for Rod Carew. He and a couple other guys, actually, but he was the key element of the trade. He had been a first-round draft pick, had been a minor league player of the year, was still young, and could play centerfield. But the point is I do not have a single Rod Carew card in my collection. I don’t know how this happened. He may have been the best player of the decade, and in some ways he was the most prominent, especially to me, since my religion as a child was baseball and my most concentrated time of devotion was on Sunday morning as I studied the batting averages, and Rod Carew was always at the top.

Rod Carew was always at the top but for a couple of years after the trade Ken Landreaux was up there, too, and so it looked for a while like the trade was going to work out for the Twins, especially halfway through the season when the card at the top of the page came out, 1980, the previous season one in which he batted .305, just 13 points lower than Carew, the current season highlighted by a 31-game hitting streak (still the Twins’ record) that would send him to the all-star game and send his batting average skyrocketing as high as .366, surely so high that when I prayerfully studied the Sunday averages I envisioned a future in which Ken Landreaux would take over for Rod Carew as a steady presence in my life, someone who would remain at the top of the list that gave my life a sense that there was a structure to the universe, but instead Ken Landreaux spent the rest of the 1980 season floundering and was traded to the other league where he surfaced as a part-time player on a World Series-winning team, but by then I’d stopped caring so much and Ken Landreaux meant very little, if anything, to me, just a name that used to be a name that was going to be a name. What is there to say? Life unravels.

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Ray Corbin

December 19, 2007
 

 
“…it seems I might have stumbled onto [Cardboard Gods] just as the author has reached a fork in the road, and rather than take it, it appears to be taking him…” Exploded Views, 12/18/07

I can certainly understand how someone could get the impression that I have hoisted myself upon the fork of life, cooked. I’ve always given off that impression. I remember one time, long ago, when I was sharing a small apartment with my brother in Manhattan, on Second Avenue and Ninth Street. I was working part-time at the liquor store, which meant most days I had nothing in particular to do until my shift started in the evening. Some days I’d write, some days I’d try to write, some days who the hell knows what I’d do. Watch TV, sleep, pace, channel Onan, worry, do a few pushups, stare out the window. Anyway on one of those days I spilled out of the apartment building door a few minutes before my shift began. (Oh, how good I had it and I didn’t even know it, work a five minute walk away.) A couple young tough-looking Hispanic guys were sauntering past.

“Damn,” one of them said to me. “Look like you getting your ass kicked by life.”

Another night I was moping down Ninth Street after work, and a woman from the bar I hung out at happened to walk by. I didn’t notice her, since I was staring at the ground, but she stopped me and told me that I looked like I was on my way to find a corner to curl up and die in.

“Really? I’m fine,” I said.

A few years later I quit the liquor store the day after a particularly confrontational encounter with a gang of shoplifters. I’d been ambivalent about the liquor store job for a while, and getting involved in another in a long line of racially charged, violence-fringed encounters with a pack of teenagers trying to steal Alize was the straw that broke me. When I told the owner I was quitting he was disappointed, not just that he was losing an employee but that I was admitting defeat. By this point I had come to consider the owner, Morty, like a member of my family. I think he felt the same way about me.

“I feel sorry for you, Joshua,” Morty said quietly. “Backing down like this. It’s not good. You’re setting yourself up for a hard life, Joshua.”

I don’t remember how I replied to him, but in my revisions of the moment I explain to him (or to myself) that fighting off teenagers trying to steal bottles of sickly sweet liqueur isn’t my battle. After I quit I spent the summer in Vermont going slowly nuts. I hoped to write a novel, but had no ideas and instead inched through each day by reading old issues of Sports Illustrated in a nearby college library until the evening, when sitcom reruns and beer took me the rest of the way. At the end of the summer I went back to New York City and begged for my ex-girlfriend to take me back and begged Morty to give me my job back. They both agreed, but after a few months my girlfriend showed up one night at my apartment, handed me a Budweiser tall boy, and told me that we had to talk. For a couple months after that I took my liquor store pay in bottles of Maker’s Mark and listened to a lot of Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, but then when that got old I quit the liquor store, this time for good. I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I had no skills, no prospects. I didn’t see a fork in the road. I didn’t see any road at all.

But yet on I went, so to speak. I kept writing, fell into significant debt going back to grad school, taught a little, kept writing, lived for a year in a cabin in the woods, came back to the city, kept writing, worked various low-skill jobs, fell in love, kept writing, got married, got a scanner, started scanning pictures of the baseball cards I grew up with, kept writing.

I still don’t really see a fork in the road. I guess I never really have. Maybe this is the reason people occasionally tell me I seem to be in the final stages of an irreversible capitulation. But perhaps writing every day is a way to strike a pose as if there is a fork in the road, and as if there is some idea of how to deal with that fork in the road.

As usual my Cardboard Gods offer a model for this notion. Here stands Ray Corbin, forgotten hurler of yore. He is at a crossroads of life, though he may not be fully aware or at all aware of it. He is four seasons into what will be a five year major league career. In his first season, 1971, he won 8 games and struck out 83 batters. In his second season he won 8 games and struck out 83 batters. In his third season he won 8 games and struck out 83 batters. An incredible feat! Yet here he stands after his first season in which he did not win 8 games nor strike out 83 batters. But if Ray Corbin is aware of any omens of uncertainty and transience in the ending of his unusual streak of comforting sameness he does not show it. Similarly, his beaming upward-looking gaze shows no cognizance that the end is near. Instead he stands there, striking his pose with the assured solidity of a bronze statue. It doesn’t matter to him if there is a fork in the road or not, or even if there is a road. If there is a mountain in front of him, so be it: On he will go, cutting a path through with his indestructible chin.

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Tom Burgmeier

August 28, 2007
  

 
Adrift

Chapter 6 (Continued from Bob Stanley)

I.
So for a couple weeks in 1987 I had this job canvassing door to door for CalPirg. One day my supervisor was driving me and some other canvassers to our dropoff spots. She was a girl my age who was home for the summer from Macalester College. She asked us to say where we envisioned ourselves in five years. I sunk down as low as possible in the backseat. Another canvasser volunteered to start the round of answers. My stomach began to hurt.

The future to me had always been vague, millennial. I hadn’t ever envisioned anything specific happening but had occasionally daydreamed about enormous, shattering transformations, figuring eventually I’d somehow stumble from the lonely prison of virginity to acrobatically sex-drenched romantic love, from lazy self-absorption to saintly buddhistic enlightenment, and from the scribbling of impotent notebook ramblings to the mastering of some kind of volcanic artistic inspiration like the visionary fugue state that seized my hero Jack Kerouac throughout the three-week period in which he pounded out On the Road. I didn’t include any of these notions in my answer. I don’t remember what I said. I think I mumbled something about how I hoped I would still be alive. The Macalester coed looked at me in the rearview mirror, I guess waiting for more.

“Okay,” she finally said, cheerfully.

Later that day I was wandering around my assigned turf, a neighborhood in the town of Lompoc. I was terrible at getting contributions from people, but the day in Lompoc was worse than usual. Near the end of my shift I knocked on a door and a thin guy with aviator glasses answered. I began reciting the official CalPirg spiel in my customary hesitant monotone.

“Hello, my name’s Josh, and I’m with CalPirg. We’re in your neighborhood today talking to people about our urgent work advocating for the people of Calif—”

“Hey, let me ask you something,” the guy said.

“Okay,” I said.

“How would you like to experience something a thousand times better than any acid trip?”

II.
I always liked Tom Burgmeier, an unassuming lefty specialist who held up his end of the deal for otherwise ineffective Boston Red Sox pitching staffs in the early 1980s. He had a somewhat rough first campaign for the Red Sox, in 1978, posting a 4.40 ERA, but then as the Red Sox began to sink toward irrelevancy he posted ERAs of 2.74, 2.00, 2.87, and 2.29, respectively, impressive numbers especially considering he earned them while laboring in Fenway, commonly considered a left-handed pitcher’s worst nightmare.

I think in some ways I wish I was Tom Burgmeier. He always seemed so competent, so useful, even when—or especially when—the rest of his team seemed adrift in the aftermath of an unredeemable shipwreck. Again and again he’d trot in briskly from the bullpen to relieve a sweaty, imploding Steve Renko or Chuck Rainey, hold off the opposition for an inning and a third or so, then hand things over to Mark Clear or Bob Stanley, who would then cough up a couple more runs, rendering a late-inning rally by the still-fearsome Boston offense useless. The world was doomed, but it wasn’t Tom Burgmeier’s fault. He knew what he was doing. He knew where he was going.

III.
The thin guy with the aviator glasses was staring at me, waiting for an answer. I looked down at my CalPirg clipboard, at my watch. I looked back up at the guy.

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Why not?”

He ushered me into his house. He pointed to a pile of shoes by the door. I noticed then that he was barefoot. I kicked off my sneakers and followed him into an adjoining room. A thin Asian woman was there. She was barefoot, too. There were a lot of Buddha statues and candles on the mantle.

“I was like you,” the guy said. In those days people were always starting off their stories to me by saying “I was like you.”

“I was into drugs, booze, anything I could get my hands on,” the guy continued. “Always looking for the biggest buzz, the highest high. Well, let me tell you, there is no higher high than what you’re about to experience.”

“Please,” the Asian woman said, motioning toward a plain brown mat she’d just spread onto the floor. I kneeled down, then they kneeled down onto fancier, more colorful mats on either side of me. They both closed their eyes. Incense was burning. They started chanting.

“Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. . . .”

I joined in, keeping my eyes half-open. The three of us chanted for a few minutes, then they stopped.

“Nam—,” I said, still going. “Oh.”

“Wow, huh?” the guy said. He was smiling now. He put on his glasses and looked at me.

I felt all right, nothing amazing. Saying the same thing over and over does get kind of hypnotic. But mostly I just felt compelled to give the guy a positive response. I always wanted to tell people what I thought they wanted to hear, like the time I was hitchhiking and assured the enthusiastic Born Again Christian who’d picked me up that I would in the very near future be declaring Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior.

“Wow,” I said to the guy in the aviator glasses. We were all still kneeling there on our mats.

“That was really . . . really something,” I said.

IV.
Tom Burgmeier was born August 2, 1943, in St. Paul, Minnesota (home of Macalester College). He signed his first pro contract in 1962, when he was 18. I suppose when I first obtained the 1978 card at the top of this page I may have read that information and vaguely envisioned a similar future for myself, a future which resembled my baseball-crazy present. But more likely I neither read that information nor foresaw myself signing a pro contract at 18. I didn’t really dream of being a baseball player when I grew up, because I never really thought I’d grow up. I’ve always held this evasive attitude toward the future, and I am always surprised when I notice that weeks, months, years have gone by. This may explain my stunned expression in photographs.

My childhood was not very structured. My mother believed that children should be given as much freedom as possible. I had countless hours to myself to do whatever I wanted. And even when I went to school my days meandered to a significant extent in the direction of my choosing, my multiage classroom founded on the free-school idea that children grow best when given the opportunity to learn (and not learn) whatever and whenever they wanted.

I don’t think many children growing up now have days that resemble my childhood days. Today the norm for a child seems to be that any spare moment outside school is to be clogged with structured activities, scheduled play dates and soccer practice and music lessons and courses designed to improve scores on standardized tests. Not much time for daydreaming. Not much time for wandering around or staring at baseball cards or just making shit up out of thin air.

There have been times when I’ve wondered if I would have been better off with more structure. Maybe the structure could have helped me learn early on to envision life unfolding in plannable five-year chunks of goal-attainment. The structure wouldn’t have gotten me to the major leagues, because I didn’t have any talent, but maybe I could have approached grownup life the way Tom Burgmeier approached baseball, with clear eyes and a firm sense of my place in the world, a sense of who I was and where I was going.

V.
After thanking the Asian woman and assuring the guy in the aviator glasses that he’d changed my life I got my clipboard and put my sneakers back on and walked out into the Lompoc evening. But before leaving the porch I mounted a half-assed attempt to get a contribution to CalPirg from the guy. He was leaning in his doorway. He waved a hand around like he was shooing a bug.

“We’ve moved beyond all that,” he said.

I spent the rest of my shift wandering through Lompoc chanting. It really was kind of pleasantly trance-inducing. I didn’t knock on any more doors and when the day was done I was through with CalPirg. A few days later I got a job at a gas station, just like I had the previous summer after quitting Greenpeace.

VI.
A couple years earlier, during my senior year at boarding school, I’d told my mother I’d applied to Macalester College. The catalog made the place sound pretty good, a small liberal arts college full of intellectually adventurous young people expanding their minds in every direction. On some level I wanted to go there, but on another level I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want to do anything that would make the present turn into the future. I got what had to have been a tepid letter of recommendation from my JV basketball coach, filled out the application, wrote my essay, packed everything into an envelope, then just let it sit there for a few days and then a few weeks, and then I guess at some point long after the deadline for application had passed I threw the thing in the trash. But I told my mom I applied there and to a few other places that I can’t recall (Macalester was my “first choice” while the other places I didn’t apply to were my “fallbacks”). In fact the only place I actually applied to was Boston University. It doesn’t really make sense that I applied to any school, but maybe I’d made an exception for BU because it was a short walk from Fenway Park. This exception almost sabotaged my attempt to make time stand still, as BU accepted me. But soon after getting the acceptance letter I was expelled from the boarding school for smoking pot. That summer I was 17. I got my GED and worked at a gas station. The next summer I was 18. I worked at a gas station. The next summer I was 19.

VII.
I worked at a gas station. I wore a blue Chevron shirt. The Santa Barbara sky was the color of my shirt every single day. I quit with a few weeks left in the summer. No longer employed, I went jogging on a nearby beach barefoot every morning with the dog who’d met me at the beginning of the summer at the bus station, Luna. Every afternoon I hung out at a secluded beach, barefoot, meditating on rocks and reading books with the word Zen in the title. By the end of the summer I resembled the natives:

I was barefoot and tan.

(continued in Dock Ellis)

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Steve Braun and Steve Brye

April 24, 2007
 

Happy

Chapter 3

If you Google the word “happy,” you get 484,000 results. At the very top of the first page of results is a listing for “Happy Harry’s,” the name a national drug store chain uses to distinguish—and, judging from the drawing of the kindly, smiling man who appears in the Happy Harry’s logo, to humanize—that most lucrative section of their countless identical franchise branches. The slow-moving line at a chain store pharmacy has never struck me as a happy place, the day leaking away as you wait interminably amid moaning soft rock behind the depressed, the aching, the phlegm-ridden, the venereally diseased, but according to Google it’s the top place for happy in all the cyber-accessible world. Also topping the Google search page for the word happy is a Japanese pop band, a Wikipedia entry for “happiness,” the movie Happy Feet, a couple different incomprehensible tech-related pursuits, the “Happy Tree Friends” (“cute, cuddly animals whose daily adventures always end up going horribly wrong”), something called HappyNews.com (“All the news that’s fun to print”), which is running as its top story today a piece about good reviews for a new book about the genocidal Khmer Rouge (good times!), a USA Today article that passes on a psychological study revealing what makes people happy, and two different websites that claim to have the answer to the question of how to be happy.

If you Google “Steve Braun,” you get 59,900 results, the majority having nothing to do with the man apparently poking at a dead alligator carcass with his bat in the baseball card on the above left. But his page on baseball-reference.com does come up, and there you can view the 15-year veteran’s admirable .371 career on-base percentage. Two sites down on the Google search page is a link to Steve Braun Baseball, an organization determined to pass on the ballpark wisdom of Steve Braun.

If you Google “Steve Brye,” you get 3,730 results. Unlike the Steve Braun search, which quickly yields up words from the mouth of Steve Braun, or at least from the mouth of the baseball guru entity known collectively as Steve Braun Baseball (“Our mission is to ensure every player builds confidence and comprehends what it takes to reach their full potential”), the Steve Brye search requires the user to scroll several pages in before coming to an entry that gives Steve Brye a voice. It’s an article about a game between the Royals and Twins on the last day of the 1976 season that decided an usually tight race for the batting title between four of the game’s participants: Rod Carew, Lyman Bostock, George Brett, and Hal McRae. Brett ended up winning the race for highest batting average, but only after Steve Brye badly misjudged a seemingly catchable fly off the bat of the eventual champion’s bat. The goof-up, which was officially scored as an inside-the-park home run and which allowed Brett to edge into the lead by a hundredth of a percentage point, did not sit well with Brett’s teammate, McRae, who accused the Twins of conspiring, at manager Gene Mauch’s command, to hand the batting title to the white man, Brett, instead of letting the black man, McRae, win it fair and square, which from this remove at least seems an odd accusation, given that the two Twins contenders for the title, Carew and Bostock, were black. According to the article, Steve Brye was equally mystified, and even saddened, by McRae’s claim: 

Brye was told later, at the airport, that McRae had inferred that the play was racially motivated.

“Whew,” he said, exhaling slowly and sadly. “No way . . . If any error was involved it was mine. Gene Mauch had nothing to do with it. Gene told me to play in shallow. The last couple of innings I played deep not to allow a ball to get over my head and keep alive the possibility of a double play if a man got on base. I was indecisive. I didn’t get a good jump on the ball. All during the series balls I thought would fall in front of me were going over my head. Cookie Rojas was jammed and hit one over my head once. It’s tough to pick up the ball here because there’s a gray background, plus you don’t hear the ball off the bat that well. It’s a very dead sound. When I play center field, which I usually do, I follow the pitch and the sound of the bat has a lot to do with the way I react. Then after I ran in I stopped because I didn’t think I could get to the ball.”

It should be pointed out that funny business involving late-season batting races was not unheard of in baseball history, most notably in the 1910 race between Nap Lajoie and Ty Cobb (to read about the “chicanery” in that race scroll down to page 6 of the May ’01 issue of The Inside Game). And McRae was joined by black teammates Amos Otis and Dave Nelson in casting aspersions on Steve Brye’s supposed misplay (meanwhile, two of Brye’s black teammates, Rod Carew and Larry Hisle, were quick to dismiss the possibility of an anti-McRae conspiracy). I guess the only thing that could be said without any equivocation about the controversy was that nobody really came away from it (here’s that word again) happy.

If you Google the name of the least happy of that game’s participants, “Hal McRae,” you get 45,700 results. The second listing (after a Wikipedia entry) is entitled “Coach McRae Goes Nuts.”

Before I post the link to that site, and to the vivid portrait of enraged unhappiness offered by the YouTube clip on the site, however, I want to offer, free of charge, my personal four-point answer to the question of How to Be Happy:

1. Digress. Whenever life calls you to go from point A to point B, go to point C or point J or even Point Break, the ridiculous extreme sports action movie starring meatheads Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, the latter’s early films including The Outsiders, which was a favorite of a girl I daydreamed about incessantly in the pubescent years directly following my baseball card collecting years, which had brought the shabby but beautiful symmetry of these Steve Brye and Steve Braun cards into my life. Where is that girl now? Let me see. Hold on. From Google: “Your search – ‘maureen gaidys’ – did not match any documents.” Ah, the sweet sad lost ungoogleable lands of youth!

2. Procrastinate. This is really just an extension of point 1, above. And I actually had what I thought was a better idea for point 2, but first I really should go clip my nose hair. That will bring me sort of close to the kitchen, and there’s some chocolate in there that isn’t going to eat itself. It’s early yet. Is it too early in the day to take a nap? I read that naps are good for your heart. Maybe just a quick one then…

3. Oh, god. What time is it? Christ, coming out of naps is like trying to crawl out from under a giant wet carpet. Give me a few minutes here . . . OK, on to point 3: Don’t finish what you start. Who has the energy to anyway? And even if you did have the energy, why would you want to finish something? Who wants things to end? You? Then how happy are you going to be when the sun goes supernova eventually? Hey, it’s just finishing what it starts, happy completely-obliterated-in-a-cosmic-explosion guy. Enjoy!

4. Yeah, uh, about point 4: See number 3, above.

Now where was I? Who cares, really, at this point. Before I started weaving all over the road today I had it in mind that I was going to talk about the most aesthetically pleasing platoon in baseball history, that of Steve Brye and Steve Braun, and how the platoon and the mirroring 1975 cards which so aptly represent it make me wonder if being part of a platoon is the key to happiness in this annihilation-bound solar system. You do your part, someone else does their part, and together you make up a whole.

When I was writing in very loose relation to Hal McRae a couple days ago about the happy feeling of getting high at boarding school, I neglected to get across the huge part the communal feeling played into creating the happiness. Just prior to those couple years at boarding school, I’d been an isolated, lonely kid, filling up the hours playing solitaire Stratomatic and dreaming about the ever unreachable, ungooglable Maureen Gaidys. Then at boarding school I was suddenly part of a group, part of a team with the goal of communal inebriation and flight and deep wild laughter. Suddenly there was a Steve Braun to my Steve Brye, a Steve Brye to my Steve Braun.

Anyway, now, finally, three chapters into this longwinded saga, I’m finally going to get around to mentioning the titular subject: a boarding school friend of mine who I haven’t seen in over 20 years, Al Raymond. The title of this piece is based on his nickname: Happy Al.

A Google search for “Happy Al” yields 27,100 results. A Google search for “Al Raymond” yields 12,500 results. A Google search for “Alan Raymond” yields 21,800 results. None of the results for any of these searches seems to reference the friend who helped bring to my time at boarding school some of the highest, happiest, laughingest hours of my life.

But the top result of a Google search for “Allen Raymond” is a Washington Post article entitled “Former GOP Consultant Sentenced to Prison.”

The second result is a political watchdog webpage entitled “Who Is Allen Raymond?” I’ll report what I found out about who Allen Raymond is in the next and final chapter of Happy, but for now I just want to tell you who Happy Al is. Or was. Specifically I wanted to pass on the origin of his nickname, which stemmed from an event that occurred the year before I arrived at the school. I’m going to let another friend from those days tell the story as he told me in a recent email in response to the theory that he was called Happy Al because of the merry slit-eyed facial expression that he displayed when stoned:

Happy Al Raymond was named happy Al not because of smoking herbs. He was named Happy Al Raymond because he used to have phenomenal temper tantrums. We would wait outside his room and he would be in there freakin trashing his own stuff. He would really go off too.

At this point I want to offer as a visual aid the aforementioned and promised Hal McRae video. For a look at what one of my friend Al’s tantrums looked and sounded like, approximately, please click on this link of Hal McRae going berserk.

OK, have you put that in your [expletive] pipe and smoked it? You really owe it to yourself to do so, but if not, just imagine somebody ranting and screaming and throwing things around. Now with that in mind, back to the eyewitness account:

One day we were outside his room [during one of his tantrums] and Wags was like “we should call him Happy Al.” I cried laffing and that was that – HAPPY AL RAYMOND FROM NOW ON.

It kills me that he went to prison – for the GOP no less.

(to be continued)

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Dave Johnson

March 30, 2007

The Hall of Anonymity: An Introduction and First Nomination

I.
From the transactions section on Dave Johnson’s page on Baseball-Reference.com:

October 1, 1976: Purchased by the Seattle Mariners from the Baltimore Orioles. 

This may not seem like a significant piece of information (and it turns out it really isn’t), but according to the 1976 transactions listed at Retrosheet.org, it is the very first mention of the Seattle Mariners in any major league transaction. It predates the November 5, 1976, expansion draft that provided most of the players (such as Pete Broberg) making up the primordial Seattle Mariner ooze that directly preceded the team’s first season, and also predates the piecemeal acquisition of a handful of players (among them Kurt Bevacqua) who became property of the Mariners on October 22.

In other words, Dave Johnson was the first Seattle Mariner.

Or he would have been.

He would have had this claim to historical significance if he hadn’t found a fate similar to Broberg and Bevacqua. All three of these Cardboard Gods ended up never actually wearing a Seattle Mariner uniform in an official major league game. Bevacqua was released in March, Broberg was traded for a player to be named later in April, and Dave Johnson was sold in May before ever cracking a Seattle Mariner box score. He pitched a few games for the Twins that year, posed for this picture, went 0 and 2 in 1978, and was released at the end of the year, his major league won-loss record fixed forever after at 4 wins and 10 losses.

II.
Yesterday I started copying comments attached to the older Cardboard God profiles that originated on my old site and pasting them as a block into one comment on each of the identical versions of those profiles here at Baseball Toaster. I wanted to do this because the old profiles felt bare to me without the memories and observations supplied by readers in the comments. I haven’t really gotten very far yet (still not on Baseball Toaster, for example, is the moving Seattle Pilots elegy posted by Ramblin’ Pete Millerman in a comment attached to a Gorman Thomas profile), but, working backward, I was able to at least reach a February 19 post about Alex Johnson. My claim that Johnson stands as one of the more anonymous of all batting champions and my imagining him now (because of his inability to stay in one place long enough to form a bond with fans of any particular team) as an unclaimed item in the baggage claim carousel of baseball nostalgia, prompted a whisper of mild disagreement in the comments over whether or not Alex Johnson was, in fact, anonymous. This innocuous debate ended up making me giddy with pleasure even as it was petering out from lack of momentum and interest. I gushed my appreciation:

There’s not really enough chatter here to actually call it a discussion, but I just have to say that even to have a fraction of a discussion develop regarding the relative anonymity of baseball players of the mid- to late-1970s (e.g., Cecil Upshaw vs. Alex Johnson) is very, very pleasing to me. Even the fact that there’s not that much chatter, that it’s not really a discussion, is pleasing. It suggests a near-empty stadium, a few lone figures scattered throughout the stands, a game of no import, players few if any will remember.

It feels like home to me.
I am inspired by this feeling, and am now considering the establishment of the negative image of the Hall of Fame (cue the heraldic kazoos)…
The Hall of Anonymity.
III.
Dave Johnson broke in with the Baltimore Orioles in 1974, a couple years after the departure from the Orioles of Davey Johnson, a three-time all-star. In 1990, a little over a decade after Dave Johnson’s soundless exit from baseball, a pitcher named Dave Johnson led the Orioles in victories with the modest sum of 13, the highlight of a brief and generally unremarkable career. 

In other words, when the name Dave Johnson is mentioned in the context of baseball, it seems likely to draw three responses:

1. Who?
2. You mean Davey Johnson?
3. You don’t mean Davey Johnson? Oh. Hm. Let’s see. Dave Johnson. Dave Johnson. Did he pitch for the Orioles for a couple years in the early ’90s, maybe? Or am I thinking of Jeff Ballard?

In other words, the Dave Johnson pictured here is by virtue of his generic moniker and short, highlight-bereft tenure in the majors obscured on both sides of history by two other players with nearly identical given names. 

IV.
I picture the Hall of Anonymity as being located somewhere in the suburban sprawl surrounding the central metropolitan area of a medium-sized city with a nickname that refers either to somewhere else ("The Paris of the Iron Belt!") or to a historical significance that no longer applies ("We Make. The World Takes."). It does not have its own ivied building but has a suite in a corporate center. If you do not own a car you have to take a commuter train to a bus to get there, and from the closest bus stop you will have to walk along the highway briefly before cutting across the kind of corporate lawn that one almost never sees a human figure on unless they are weilding the implements of lawn care. Once you arrive with lawn-dampened sneakers at the low, nondescript building that houses the Hall of Anonymity, you will have to sign in at a security desk before going up to the suite. Your time viewing the exhibition will be rushed slightly by the uncomfortable feeling of being the only person there besides an aging male attendent who oozes loneliness from beneath a thin veneer of desperate cheer. Trying to lessen the uncomfortable feeling, you will attempt to engage the attendent in conversation about baseball. You will point to one of the Etch-A-Sketch renderings that serve as plaques for each of the inductees.

"Boy," you’ll say, "I thought I knew baseball, but I never heard of this guy!"

"Oh, well, I might as well tell you," the attendent will say. "I never much cared for baseball."

"Oh," you’ll say.

"My wife, Etty," the attendent will go on. "Why, she said once to me . . . rest her soul . . . she said . . . "

And he won’t be able to finish, overcome with thoughts of his deceased wife. He’ll weep quietly into his hands. You’ll leave a few minutes later, grabbing one of the cheaply-made Hall of Anonymity brochures for a souvenir on your hurried way out, mumbling "thanks" to the devastated attendent, who by now has resumed displaying his desperate smile. Later you will eat a Twix bar from a candy machine you come upon while trying to find the building’s exit. It will take you a long time to find a gap in the traffic on the four-lane road suitable for you to cross over to catch the bus going back in the direction you came. While waiting for that gap, wondering if it will ever come, your stomach will start to hurt. 

V.
But the question remains: who is worthy of induction into this majestic Hall of Anonymity? There are no fixed criteria, no benchmark numbers, no award-winner lists to consult. I suspect this lack of concrete details (along with a lack of interest) will curtail debate on the relative merits of prospective nominees. Yet still I feel compelled to offer my first nominee, while offering little else by way of support for his candidacy than the notes I have included above (his short indistinct career, his never having played for the Mariners undercutting his possible distinction as the first Mariner, his generic name among similar names like a muffled echo among echoes) and an undefined feeling that Dave Johnson just seems right for the Hall of Anonymity. I want to see the photo from this card rendered in Etch-a-Sketch lines and shadings, everything from the word "BRUT" over his left shoulder to the look of slightly mournful but not despairing resignation on his face. It is the face of a man who is neither placidly accepting his fate in the world nor railing angrily against it. I want that face to be on display at the "HOA" for years and years to come.

Or at least until a daydreaming night janitor inadvertently bumps against the plaque and shakes the Etch-A-Sketch screen blank, thus releasing Dave Johnson from the paradoxical celebration of anonymity and back to the pure anonymity from whence he came.

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Harmon Killebrew

February 24, 2007

I don’t know much about baseball card collecting, but I am familiar with the term mint, which is used to describe cards that have been held to the greatest degree possible away from life and its universal slant toward deterioration. I think there are other gradations below this topmost designation, but I doubt there are any so far removed from mint that they could be applied to this 1975 Harmon Killebrew card. My incessant childhood pawings have pushed it beyond the limits of the language of commerce. In a monetary sense, it has been ruined. Handled too much, clung to too tightly. It’s now the opposite of mint. I fear leaving nothing behind when I pass from this earth, so please allow me to offer a new term to serve as the baseball card collecting omega to the alpha of mint: Wilkerized. If this term catches on, maybe years from now, after I myself am deteriorating in a potter’s field grave, perhaps I will live on in a conversation something like the following:

Young man hoping to sell his baseball cards to buy some weed: So, how much can I get for this Ken Griffey the Fourth (With I-Tunes) card?

Sports Memorabilia Store Owner: Are you shitting me? Look at it. I mean, the fucking thing’s been completely wilkerized. (Author’s note: I don’t even require that the word be initial-capped.)

Young man hoping to sell his baseball cards to buy some weed: God damn it.

Anyway, while the specific contours of most of my long ago baseball card daydreams are lost to me, I do remember the draw this wilkerized 1975 Harmon Killebrew had on me. There were three reasons why I kept going back to it, handling it, memorizing it, gradually making it begin to disappear:

1. The name. Every good religion needs a way to move toward the ecstatic unsayable via the pathways of sound. Chanting, singing, speaking in tongues, rhythmic prayer: all these things help take a person out of their everyday self and into another state of being. Not having a religion of my own, I unknowingly invented certain quasi-religious elements around my fascination with baseball cards. In the case of the Harmon Killebrew card, I not only seized on the fascinatingly unusual name but eventually began chanting it to myself at times, pronouncing it not as Harmon Killebrew himself probably did but in such a way that every syllable was stressed: Har! Mon! Kill!Eh!Brew! Har! Mon! Kill!Eh!Brew! I chanted it again and again in my head, the name like drums going faster and faster.

I was an odd little boy.

2. A sense of greatness. I was just learning the basic language of baseball statistics in 1975, and so took in Harmon Killebrew’s long litany of 40-homer, 100-plus RBI years with the pure and enthusiastic fascination of the true beginner. I have an attraction to anonymous players, to failure and ignominy, to the fallen and the wilkerized, but I am as drawn to the players whose feats stand in bold opposition to the general entropy of the universe as any other baseball fan. I am sure that I found this card soothing. There is greatness in the world. There are things that won’t be forgotten.

3. A sense of age. This may have been the most important of all the elements that drew me to this card. The picture on the front of the card hints of what struck my seven-year-old self as great age, in both the gray hair poking out from the cap and in the name that I probably figured must have only existed in a time long before the current era. But it is on the back of the card that this sense of time and history has its most powerful expression. Unlike most other cards, which fill up the empty spaces on the back left by the brief list of years in the major leagues with minor league stats and large-type bullet-item lists containing such information as “Tommy led Eastern League First-Sackers in Putouts,” this Harmon Killebrew card only had room to list in unusually small type a line for each of Harmon Killebrew’s many, many seasons in the major leagues. Harmon Killebrew had basically been playing baseball forever. The first few years, which occurred long before I’d even been born, were spent on a team, the Senators, that no longer even existed. They were, like the wooly mammoth and tyrannosaurus rex, long extinct. And yet, here was one of them, an Original Senator, alive and well and still grayly slugging home runs. I was drawn to this not only for its mysteriousness but also for the odd feeling of comfort it gave me. I sensed at times that I was an infinitesimally small speck, inconsequential and frail in an unfathomably large expanse not only of space but of time. The universe went on forever and time stretched forward and backward forever and I was an almost-nothing within it. But Harmon Killebrew was something, and I could hold onto Harmon Killebrew.

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Vic Albury

October 8, 2006

The following is from the transactions section of Vic Albury’s page on baseball reference.com:

“Before 1969 Season: Sent from the Cleveland Indians to the San Diego Padres in an unknown transaction.”

This photo, taken six years after the mysterious deal and mere seconds after the toking of what I am certain Vic Albury referred to as “some primo shit,” suggests that the last person who would know or care why and how Vic Albury went from the Indians to the Padres was Vic Albury.

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