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