Archive for the ‘Montreal Expos’ Category

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The Tao of Expo

March 5, 2013

expo in guitarFor most of my life, when baseball cards came to me, I sorted them into teams. The majority of my baseball cards from my childhood are sorted by teams right now, each team wrapped in a rubber band. The exception to this general rule is in the cards that I’ve written about, which have been removed from their teams and are loose in the shoebox, as if the process of writing about the cards is a way to offer them back into the originating randomness of life. I vowed early on to write about every single card that remains from my childhood, and I still plan to keep that vow, but right now the shoebox with all my old cards is in a closet, out of my immediate reach for the first time in many years. There are a few reasons for this. One is that I’m using whatever small pockets of time I have for writing to work on a new book (that’s not about baseball cards). Another is that I don’t want my 19-month-old son to get his hands on those cards just yet. Finally, after writing about my baseball cards for several years, there’s something appealing to having them go away, get a rest from my exhausting attention, gain strength in silence, like they did all those years when they were in a storage facility.

But baseball cards are still in my life, more actively now than at any time since my childhood. They belong to my son, a heaping pile of loose cards, some new ones from 2012 and 2013 and some older ones that came as a gift to me from my wife’s aunt, who found the cards in a binder at a garage sale. They’re all from the late 1980s and early 1990s. My wife helped me remove them all immediately from the protective plastic of the binder, and we piled them on the living room rug like leaves, where our son Jack started doing something very much like the breaststroke through them. Then, the diaspora: the cards were gradually scattered all over the house. This is how things get sorted now, through play. I find a card in the bathroom, another on the cat scratch pad. A favorite site for cards is my guitar. Jack likes dropping them in there. He can’t say guitar yet, but he makes a sound that approximates the sound of a guitar being strummed. “Dao,” he says when he wants to play with the guitar, the same way you’d pronounce the Chinese philosophy of embracing the randomness and transience of life. He said this the other day, and when we got to the guitar a backup catcher from a defunct team was inside. Oh, to live inside music, holiness itself. Oh to be an Expo forever, free of the sorted world.

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Mike Torrez

January 31, 2012

How Strange the Design

One

The few 1974 cards I own have aged more gently than my cards from later years. I wonder why. Is this difference a result of a change in the materials and processes being used to create cards after 1974, or is it just a trick of my own mind, some kind of deeper, more distorting nostalgia for the longest-tenured cards in my collection? The edges of my 1974 cards have all been rounded to thin furry shoulders with the years, while the edges of the cards from the following years seem stiffer, more rigid, less personal, or less prone to allowing the personal to merge with the impersonal.

The 1974 cards remind me of my brother. All my cards do, but the cards from this year most of all, simply because as the years went on I separated from him a little more all the time; in the beginning, I didn’t know or want to know where I ended and he began. In a way, my possession of my own 1974 cards was a way to begin possessing a sense of a self independent from him. He had his cards and I had mine, but since the 1974 cards were the first in this separation they have the strongest air of being shared, not mine but ours.

It’s all one song. The past and the present and the future, the objects we’re drawn to, the people we’re drawn to, the people we drift from, the distances, the absences, the erosion, the softening, the blurring, the converging. One day this Mike Torrez card will disappear altogether. It is in the process of disappearing right now. It is itself the process of disappearance posing as a solid object. The worn-soft edges, the feel of love, it will give way and give way and finally be gone. I’ll be ashes long before that happens, but it’ll happen, and when it does it means this card and I will be everywhere and nowhere, all one song.

Mike Torrez is poised as perfectly as humanly possible at the center of the disappearing. He kicks one leg high, balanced, alert, focused, the potential of the moment at its peak. Everything is still to come, for me and for Mike Torrez. He will become a 20-game winner in 1976 and a World Series hero in 1977. There will be more beyond 1977 for Mike Torrez, but for now let’s stop right there with thoughts of what will be. That’s the year I’ll be starting little league. I’ll be standing in centerfield with a baseball uniform on, pounding my glove and cheering on my brother. He’ll be on the mound, wearing the same uniform, pivoting in his pitching motion and kicking his leg high.

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Del Unser

December 6, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

U Is for Unser

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One Christmas when I was a kid, my grandmother got me a book called Juggling for the Complete Klutz. I was not then or now prone to mastering skills of any kind, useful or otherwise, but for some reason I applied myself to the book’s lessons, most of which were accompanied by a cartoon of a befuddled bearded fellow amusingly failing. Attached to the book was a small red mesh sack with three square beanbags inside. You started out throwing one beanbag, getting the arc of that toss and catch down, then moved on to practicing the mundane exchange of throwing two at a time, first one and then the other, back and forth from hand to hand. Finally, you moved on to trying to get all three beanbags up in the air at once. In that last stage, I tried and failed many times. There was a faint alluring feeling in the failures of something almost happening, as if the latch of a locked treasure chest was on the brink of giving way. I kept failing. I kept trying.

2.
In this 1978 card, Del Unser has just connected, propelling the ball up into the air. It’s not clear from the photo alone whether the ball will land safely, but the angle of Unser’s head as he follows the path of the ball would suggest that he has hit a fly ball and not a line drive or a grounder. I have determined after considerable study the likely time and place of this moment, and it’s during an inning in which two outs have already been recorded, thus eliminating the possibility of a sacrifice fly, and so the only hope for Unser’s at bat to be considered a useful one is for the ball to carry all the way into the centerfield stands. This is a long shot. It is always a long shot. Most at bats are useless.

3.
I remember I was in my room, alone, once again trying and failing to juggle, when, finally, I got all three beanbags going at once for a couple of seconds. I lost control of my throws almost as quickly as I had all the other times before, but this time the slight difference was unmistakable. I’d juggled. Learning to walk must have felt the same way. Learning to ride a bike. One of those moments when you feel like you’re floating in a brand new way, like the laws of gravity have loosened. I ran downstairs to find someone and tell them the news. I’d juggled!

4.
I’ve been pondering this 1978 Del Unser card for quite some time, and, as I mentioned, I have a theory on the time and place, the particulars of the moment. It took certain skills to be able to place this moment, I suppose. First, you have to be willing and able to look at a baseball card for a long time, to do something, in other words, that most people would consider to be, for an adult, a complete waste of time. You have to know your way around baseball-reference.com. It helps to know that the photographers who took shots at the ballpark in the 1970s most often showed up in New York and the Bay Area. I guess you have to have some powers of deduction. Anyway, I’ll spare you the details, but the key piece of info is that the on-deck hitter is almost surely future Hall-of-Famer Andre Dawson (joined, in the even more remote background, to the right of Unser’s left leg, by fellow Hall of Famer Gary Carter), and Dawson’s presence along with a couple of other indicators and probabilities suggests to me that the photo on this card is from the top of the sixth inning in a game between the Expos and Mets on Monday, May 30, 1977. Most of our efforts in life, let’s face it, amount to the equivalent of a failed at-bat against Bob Apodaca in a game between two also-rans. Moments that turn out like so:

Batter Pitcher Result
D. Unser B. Apodaca Flyball: CF

5.
Everyone in my family enjoyed my new skill, and I was glad to show it to them, especially my grandmother. Warmed and emboldened by my family’s acclaim, I marched off to school with my three square beanbags, envisioning kids chanting my name as they carried me on their shoulders through the hallways; instead, everyone I juggled for smiled briefly, then asked over rapidly encroaching boredom whether I could juggle four things, then turned away to other more interesting matters, such as learning multiplication tables or poking one of the classroom gerbils with a pencil. This reaction was a letdown that could serve as a prototype for all subsequent letdowns in my life. I came to understand, eventually, that I had devoted myself with uncharacteristic tenacity to learning something so gaudily useless that it could, were it necessary, be used to illustrate the very concept of uselessness.

6.
For most of his career, Del Unser played for also-rans, a term seemingly designed primarily to convey uselessness. There are contenders, and games that matter, and moments upon which history hinges, and then there is everything else. Del Unser played for the second edition of the Washington Senators in its death throes, then logged a season with a typically moribund Cleveland Indians outfit, then hitched on with the Philadelphia Phillies for two seasons before, just as they were on the brink of escaping mediocrity, he was shipped to the declining mid-1970s Mets for a year and a half, who then passed him along to the Expos. From the photo on the front of Del Unser’s 1978 card it’s clear, at least in retrospect, that the Expos, armed with young future superstars such as Dawson and Carter, would soon be climbing into contention, but Del Unser’s destiny was to always be on the move, and he wouldn’t be around with the Expos when, in 1979, they finally began to play games that mattered. It must have seemed to Del Unser that he would never find a crucial moment when he might be of use.

7.
I kept juggling. It became a solitary practice, like most of the other things I did or would do or still do, like reading, writing, walking, mulling fantasy sports rosters, jogging, shooting baskets, meditating, beating off. I learned how to juggle bowling pins, big plastic rings, basketballs. I learned to flip tennis balls under my leg and around my back while juggling them. However, as if to highlight the gulf growing between me, the juggler, and a hypothetical audience, a possible connection, I never was able fulfill the inevitable ubiquitous request of anyone who ever saw me juggling—can you juggle four?—with any regularity. I juggled three things, just three things, in seclusion. I tried to imagine that it was some kind of a Zen practice. At my wintry college, where my Zen pretensions were at their most pronounced levels, I sometimes juggled snowballs outside the classroom before big tests “to focus.” I’m sure I secretly hoped that I would be seen doing so, and admired, but no one ever said anything about it, at least not to my face.

8.
Some months ago the birth of my son thrust me into the frazzled center of a rapid unending series of baffling crises. The whole thing started with the birth itself, in which my role was to smile and say “You can do it!” to someone in terrible agony who later confirmed my suspicion that she was looking entirely past my cheerleading to search with animal ferocity the faces of the nurses and doctors for signs that the end of the unbearable pain might be in sight. My efficacy or lack thereof throughout the long ordeal crystallized during one of the terrifying peaks of my wife’s pain, when I was sent out of the room so that my wife could receive an epidural, which she had hoped to avoid back when we imagined that together we could calmly visualize away the rumored pain of labor contractions by believing it would all be like riding rising and falling waves. During the administration of the epidural I sat in a little waiting room alone. It was 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., somewhere in there. I sat and stared at the dim institutional carpeting and hoped and prayed, two activities of limited if not altogether useless impact. I wanted my wife to be all right but couldn’t do anything about it. I was scared that the epidural would lead to some kind of complication. I was also scared it simply wouldn’t work, that we’d have to go on as before, one of us wrenching around on a hospital bed like a fish suffocating at the bottom of a boat, the other standing alongside, useless, hoping and praying.

9.
In 1979, the trend in Del Unser’s career toward less and less playing time continued as the former regular turned fourth outfielder took what most would interpret as a further demotion in role, to that of a pinch-hitter. He had always been a good outfielder (in fact, the moment in the 1978 card at the top of this post testifies to his fielding abilities, as in the game in question he was the centerfielder, chosen to play that key defensive position over Andre Dawson, who would go on to win several Gold Glove awards as a centerfielder), and so he continued to occasionally get playing time as an outfielder, and, proving his versatility, he also logged innings occasionally at first base, but his primary role in 1979 was pinch-hitter. It must have seemed to Unser that this reduction in playing time would be compensated for by an increase in crucial moments, as going into 1979 the Phillies had won the previous three National League East crowns. As it turned out, the 1979 Phillies would finish up the season as also-rans, 14 games out of first behind the Pirates (and 12 behind his contending former teammates on the Expos), but fairly deep into the season there must have persisted the hope that the three-time defending NL East champs might still have a chance to make a charge toward the top. On June 30, the Phillies were trailing the St. Louis Cardinals late and were on the brink of falling to just one game above .500 when Del Unser was called in to pinch-hit. Unser homered to tie the game, which the Phillies would go on to win. Unser homered in his next pinch-hitting appearance, a July 5 loss to the Mets, and was next called in to pinch-hit with two outs and two on in the 9th inning of a July 10 game against the Padres, the Phillies behind 5-3 and future Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers on the mound. No one had ever hit three pinch-hit home runs in a row before. You can tell where this is going, I’m sure, so let’s just say that in that not altogether unimportant moment, the Phillies still within shouting distance of first place, Del Unser proved to be quite useful.

10.
The epidural worked, for a while anyway, probably not because of my prayers, but who knows. It eventually wore off, leading to another long terrible passage of pain that finally ended in the best and weirdest moment of my life, my bloody son riding on the hands of strangers out from between the legs of my wife. Since then, the boy at the center of that moment has centered my life, and my life has been that of a complete klutz. I trip over stuff. I drop things. Sometimes I barely remember how to walk. A few nights ago, I had a dream that I was trying to juggle and couldn’t do it any longer. I kept trying but I’d forgotten how.

11.
Del Unser followed up his 1979 record-setting feat of three pinch-hit home runs in a row by performing multiple off-the-bench heroics for the Phillies in the 1980 postseason, helping the team to its first-ever World Series title. Unser’s efforts on a colorful star-studded Phillies roster including eventual all-time hits king Pete Rose, league MVP Mike Schmidt, Cy Young award-winner Steve Carlton, comically gorilla-armed slugger Greg Luzinski, and the charismatic sloganeering Dionysian relief ace Tug McGraw, among others, provide some guidance to me on how to be father. Being a father, you’re not really the star of the show, the starting pitcher, the cleanup hitter, what have you, but you may be called upon at certain times to step off the bench and into the spotlight. You don’t have the uterus or the boobs or the 500 career home runs or the 300 wins but you still might be called upon to perform a small but necessary duty successfully. You can carry a car seat out to the car. You can change a diaper half-decently. Maybe once in a while you can get the kid to sleep. You are the pinch-hitter.

12.
After my dream about not being able to juggle I searched the house for three tennis balls. It took a while—in step with the new general disorder of things, all three were in different places, and my wife found the last one behind a bureau. She also found what she termed “a hundred-pound wad of dust” behind the bureau, so after she cleaned back there she stomped off to the shower, asking me to watch the baby in her absence. Time to pinch-hit! The baby was sitting and playing in a little high chair thing by the dining-room table. I kept one eye on him while I gathered up the three tennis balls. I hadn’t juggled in a while, but it came right back to me. Three balls in the air. After all these years, it still gave me some pleasure, or maybe even some kind of very quiet joy. This feeling, joy, announced itself as always having been there, in a kind of diminished, hibernating form, as I noticed it rousing itself to something fuller, a whole note, with the awareness that two small blue eyes were now on me. My son, who had been attempting to jam a small furry book about a family of bears into his mouth, had noticed what I was doing. His fierce grip on the book loosened and the book slid to the floor. I kept juggling, turning to him, calling his name and babbling baby sounds. He was watching the worn yellow balls rise and fall, rise and fall. He was watching the pinch-hitter do what he knew how to do and he was smiling.

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Scott Sanderson

July 22, 2011

When I was younger I assumed that human history was like a ladder, leading upward. But the whole span of it from cave paintings to internet porn is an illusion, at least when you consider the temporary nature of the sun, which will implode or whatever eventually and sweep everything that’s ever been done, every word, every kiss, back into the void from which it came. Even if you kind of shield your eyes from that obliterating eventuality and focus on human history as if it were somehow indelibly real, you can see that we more often disintegrate than advance.

My wife has two shelves of books about the space program. On our first big road trip together, nine years ago, when Abby was in the full bloom of her obsession with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, we digressed from the primary focus of the trip—attending a series of baseball games in different cities—to spend a day at the Neil Armstrong museum in Ohio, where the narrative of a Midwestern boy intensely interested in flight gradually connected with a collective central human quest to explore the unknown and then, more specifically, to perhaps the greatest or at least most iconic moment of that quest, when Neil Armstrong walked on the fucking moon.

He took that giant leap 42 years ago Wednesday. I was rooting for our first kid to arrive on that date, July 20, but no dice. On the bright side, our busted air conditioner was working again, so the pretty miserable last mile of my wife’s pregnancy was not as bad as it could be that day. The air conditioner worked yesterday, too, and then last night it conked out. Oddly enough, it may or may not be working again this morning, but even if it is it seems to be laboring like a shopping cart with a busted wheel, cockeyed, groaning. Maybe that’s what history is, a half-broken thing, haltingly moving.

Scott Sanderson was born 55 years ago today, on July 22, 1956. Today is my wife’s due date. Today I’m waiting for the air conditioning repairman, Maurice, to come back and try to figure out why it keeps breaking, which seems as if it will be particularly difficult to determine now that it’s sort of working again.

In the last room of the Neil Armstrong museum, nine summers ago, Abby and I each played in a simulator booth in which you could pretend to steer a lunar landing module down onto the surface of the moon. The simulator piped in a voice as if from Mission Control that reacted encouragingly to the progress of the landing. I believe on one of my successful moon landings I was told that NASA would be calling me soon. There were kids behind us in line, waiting to use the simulators, so after helming a couple last miraculous leaps forward in human progress we exited the simulators and left the museum to get back into the Dodge Neon we had rented for the trip.

Landing on the moon in a simulator is as close as anyone is going to get to the real thing for a long, long time, or maybe ever. Yesterday, the space shuttle Atlantis landed, ending the space shuttle program. When we got to the moon a little over 42 years ago, it seemed like we were stepping onto a rung that would only lead higher. Mercury to Gemini to Apollo to who knows? But Apollo turned out to be the pinnacle, and after it came Skylab, then as Skylab was falling in flaming chunks back to earth in 1979, the year the photo on this Scott Sanderson card was taken, the space shuttle program was underway. The space shuttle program is over, and there’s not really anything lined up to replace it. No money, no vision. No ladder. Makes me think, perversely, of a Bob Dylan song: “May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung/and may you stay forever young.”

Or maybe it’s not so perverse. The song is a prayer Dylan wrote to his newborn child. I know how to strum the song on my guitar and probably will when the kid finally gets here. I’m not religious but I find ways to pray. So here’s one to Scott Sanderson, or at least to the cardboard version of him from 1980, when I was 12 and thought life would be a ladder to the stars, and here’s a thank you to the world that made me feel that way back then, and to my loved ones, and to the kid on the way from the stars, a reminder.

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Woodie Fryman

March 3, 2011

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

Washington Nationals

By the time Woodie Fryman joined the Expos for the first time, he’d been around a while and was no longer a young man. Had he ever been a young man? It seems like he may have somehow sprang from the womb already equipped with a paunchy full-grown build and melancholy eyes and the ability to change a tire, chip adequately out of a sand trap, and itemize federal tax deductions. This card doesn’t do a whole lot to dispel that notion, what with the information on the back that he was not signed to his first contract to play professional baseball until the uncommonly ripe age of twenty-five. By the time he arrived on this 1977 card, he was thirty-seven and had played for the Pirates, the Phillies, the Tigers, and, for the previous two seasons, the Expos, and before anyone but Topps employees had a chance to consider this offering from the 1977 series, Fryman would be moved once again, to Cincinnati, who would in turn, before 1977 was done, ship him to the Chicago Cubs. By the following season, 1978, Woodie Fryman had become so transient and anonymous in the baseball world—the opposite of his life away from baseball, where the lifelong farmer stayed rooted to the land in Ewing, Kentucky, where he was born—that he was bestowed the ultimate honor for anonymous transients: he was traded for no one in particular, i.e., a player to be named later. Then, just as it seemed that Woodie Fryman might never find a place in baseball that he could truly call his own, he switched from his long-time role as a decent, unspectacular starting pitcher with a 117-137 lifetime record to the role of an uncannily effective reliever whose ERA kept growing infinitesimally smaller the older he got. And because this quiet golden moment of Woodie Fryman’s long career came during the historical peak of the Montreal Expos, there would, so it seemed, forever be an association of Woodie Fryman and the Montreal Expos. He had finally found his place in the baseball world. So what happens when that place disappears?

No future can be told for the Montreal Expos because the Montreal Expos don’t have a future. They don’t even have a present. There is only a past. Does any of this past seep into the present? I was thinking about this the other day in connection with Woodie Fryman, who died in Ewing, Kentucky, last month. If the Expos still existed, would they have taken the field in 2011 with a black armband to honor Woodie Fryman? I don’t know how these things work, but my guess is that you’d have to be a former superstar or else a current member of the team at the time of death to be remembered with a black armband, and though Woodie Fryman had some good years with the Expos, it would not be accurate to call him a superstar. From what I can gather, however, he loved his time with the Expos, and he made a connection with the fans there. If the Montreal Expos still existed, they might not wear a black armband to remember Woodie Fryman, but there would certainly be some kind of official remembrance of the man at some point during the season, especially considering the backward-gazing motto of the province that contained the Expos: “Je me souviens.” It’s sad to think that, because the Montreal Expos no longer exist, there will be no team around to remember Woodie Fryman. But what about the team that paved over the Expos and, with it, the Expos’ past? The Expos have no future, but what can be said about the future of the Washington Nationals? By virtue of this Woodie Fryman card, in which the pitcher holds only the ghost of a baseball in the glove above his head, I see for the Washington Nationals a 2011 season that will soon enough be lost to the ages, a fading echo, a ghost.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 4 of 30: read Bruce Markusen’s informative backward glances, as in this recent recollection of Woodie Fryman

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2011 previews so far:
St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies

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Jose Canseco

January 4, 2011

Here is a slugger miraculously, awe-inspiringly oblivious. He is at the end of the road, clad in the uniform of a team he just joined and will within a matter of days be released from. His surroundings seem barren, bush league, speaking of the silences we all try to avoid and obscure. The tale in numbers on the back of the card is one of encroaching decay, early years of sturdy cohesion giving way to the spindly, fractured records of a faltering itinerant. The slugger is beyond even the faintest awareness of his apparent demise. Give him a bat and a uniform to leave jauntily untucked and some object to prop one foot up on and he will strike a biceps-displaying pose and project an aura of complete calm certainty. Jose Canseco, at the time of this photo, is finished. There would not be another card in his likeness, or another major league game in his future, and all the numbers on the back of his card, which by the time of the card had already begun to seem pretty iffy, would soon enough in the minds of many be rendered as insubstantial as the promised riches in a collapsed Ponzi scheme. Even the team whose uniform he is modeling for likely the one and only time would soon be erased from the face of the earth. Jose Canseco is finished. The Expos are finished. Everything is finished. But Jose Canseco remains utterly free of doubt.

I can’t say the same. I always get the new year off to an enervating start by trying and failing to bring time itself to a halt, and my inevitable failure to do so always delivers me back to real life in a particularly agitated, fearful state. I attempted the impossible task of stopping time this past weekend, as I usually do when one year collapses into another, by moving as little as humanly possible and eating mounds of salted fatty starch and watching various television marathons depicting the end of the world. As I went back and forth between Twilight Zone episodes, a plodding 1994 miniseries version of The Stand, and, most terrifyingly, a Jersey Shore marathon to which my previously uninitiated eyes were drawn as if to a flaming multicar wreck on the highway, everything eventually blurred into one seemingly endless meandering narrative shifting back and forth from black-and-white to color and from lonely cold war paranoia to leaden post-pandemic Christian fable to a particularly hideous nightmare vision of the End Times in which leather-faced 20-year-olds with the rigid cartoon-hideous builds of plastic 1980s action figures are incarcerated in a brutish Sisyphean loop of teeth-baring, preening, slap fights, and grunting zoological copulation. The latter dystopia, identified periodically as “Season Two,” seemed to be situated in Miami, Florida, which as it happens is the place listed on the back of this Jose Canseco card as “Home.” Canseco’s self-satisfied smirk, his tan, his necklace, and his unnaturally bulging musculature all mark him as a prototypical member of the race of orange dim-eyed humanoids doomed to survive into the senseless mutant aftermath beyond the apocalypse.

Anyway, the reentry into everyday life after my year-opening orgy of ominous television marathons is always difficult, but this year seems particularly tough. The defining thread of this year’s narrative of global collapse was, after all, a “reality” show, set not in the future but in the present, suggesting that we may already be living through the apocalypse. Put another way, this does indeed seem to be Jose Canseco’s world.

The card at hand suggests as much, and it also implies that the best way to endure the insistent idea that everything is finished is to ignore it completely, as Jose Canseco did the day he was asked to pose in the uniform of the Montreal Expos. Jose Canseco continues to smirk in the face of doom to this day, this new year, nine years after he took his last muscular cuts. He has not appeared in a major league game since the photo for this card was snapped, and for most of that time it seemed certain that this would be his last baseball card. But lately the 46-year-old has been campaigning to get a spring training tryout from any team that will have him. The slugger ensures all prospective employers that he can still, as he last did twenty years ago, “lead the league in home runs.”

May we all imagine such preposterous glory forever.

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Don DeMola

August 3, 2010

In 1970, at the age of seventeen, Don DeMola won the Carl Yastrzemski award, given to the best high school baseball player in Suffolk County, Long Island. The Yankees drafted him and shipped him to their Rookie League farm club in Johnson City, Tennessee, the first of three minor league stops in two years before the Yankees released him in April of 1972. This 1975 card doesn’t offer any reasons for this decision, which is illustrated by the use in the 1972 line in DeMola’s career major and minor league record by the always mysterious stat-less listing: Not In Organized Ball. 

It took exactly nine months beyond the reach of numbers, like some kind of second embryonic passage, before Don was signed in January 1973 by the Montreal Expos. Back among the organized, Don sped up through the Expos system and within a couple years reached the big leagues and made it onto a baseball card, this 1975 offering, his first and second-to-last cardboard incarnation, which references Don’s rare skill: “Don’s best pitch is a fastball which ‘smokes.’” His minor and major league strikeout totals, which in most years hovered near the elite one-strikeout-per-inning mark, also attest to the wonders inside the seemingly normal arm he holds out toward the viewer on the front of the card. His small smile and the reaching arm ending in a loose fist make Don DeMola seem like a friendly, generous guy, someone who wants to share a handful of M&Ms with you.

Others among the upper echelon of smoke-throwers do not generally give off such an approachable aura, but Don DeMola seemed like somebody who wouldn’t mind if you just called him up one day to chat. This approachability, if it ever was fiction and not fact, has become a reality in the present, at least in terms of Don DeMola’s online presence. On Don DeMola’s website, you can contact Don, who proudly identifies himself as a Montreal Expos pitcher, to receive baseball skills instruction. Also, if you live in Suffolk County, you can have Don come over to your house to install an entertainment system. And that’s not all. When arm trouble curtailed Don’s career as a flamethrowing major leaguer, Don went into the fur business, and this facet of his life is also represented on his website in the form of an offer by Don to get you up to speed on the most effective strategies in the fur-buying and fur-care game. Finally, Don offers tips on how to get rich and live your dream life. “I’d like to share a few secrets with you,” Don says. “Simple truths that have helped many people create a life of wealth, freedom and abundance.”

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Guest author: Ben Henry of The Baseball Card Blog

January 20, 2010

From Josh: Please enjoy the following rare respite from (as Travis Bickle would call it) “morbid self-attention” here at Cardboard Gods and welcome guest author Ben Henry, who after a hiatus has recently resurrected The Baseball Card Blog. Nobody knows baseball cards like he does, and today he turns his keen attention to the 1978 set as a whole. (Note: This card, which is from Ben’s collection, not mine, will note “count” in the still-ongoing “Love versus Hate” battle being played out using the Play Ball game on the back of all 1978 cards.) (Further note: please pardon my one editorial intrusion in Ben’s fine piece; I am addicted to morbid self-attention and can’t help myself. If you notice that I’ve befriended a young Jodie Foster and bought a Kris Kristofferson album for Cybil Shephard, you’ll know I’ve gone too far.)  

Ellis Valentine

By Ben Henry

A few years back I put the finishing touches on the 1978 Topps set. It was a labor of love, and not because it was my birth year (I was born in 1979) or because 1978 was a year of any real significance to my childhood (see the aside about me not yet being born)—I went all out and put this set together because Eddie Murray was my favorite player as a kid. Let me clarify. Eddie Murray was my favorite non-Red Sox player. Dwight Evans was my favorite Red Sock.

I had got Murray’s rookie at a card show at the Watertown Mall when I was 12 or 13, purchased in a dealer-assembled pack of rookies. Murray was smirking on one side and Mark McGwire’s awesome 1987 Donruss Rated Rookie was on the other. I remember I paid $14 for it, dumped the other cards in a box at home and sat mesmerized by Murray’s glare.

In the course of putting together the set, I spent money on about 50 commons it turned out I already had, and many fruitless hours trying to pry my beat-up Murray rookie out of its seal-tight plastic case so that it could take its rightful place in the binder next to Sparky Lyle. I also remained two cards shy of a complete set for a long time because I couldn’t find either the Royals or the Dodgers team cards for under 50 cents apiece (turns out I wasn’t looking hard enough in the right places).

The set’s really a beauty (for some reason that scripty letterman’s jacket team name font gets me somewhere between the throat and the gut), full of comically bad portraits, atrocious airbrushing, multiple cards of Hall of Famers, and, like all the other late Seventies sets, chock a block with stars history has somehow forgot (like Ellis Valentine).

If you have no idea who Valentine is, you’re not alone. I had to read “The Year the Expos Finally Won Something!”, a horrible clip job by Brodie Snyder about the star-crossed Expos of 1981 to find anything out about him. Valentine was a power-hitting All-Star, a fan favorite, and most importantly, a shadow of himself after injuries in his prime. That the Expos were able to pluck Jeff Reardon from the Mets in a trade for Valentine is a testament to his talent on the field. What’s also interesting about Valentine is that he and Andre Dawson were the same age, came up through the same organization, and were both incredibly and similarly talented. If you compare their stats from 1978 and 1979, they’re practically identical (Dawson had more speed, while Valentine had more plate discipline). Had he not been repeatedly injured, the Expos of the early 1980s could have fielded one of the best outfields of the last 30 years in Dawson, Raines, and Valentine.

There are other overlooked stars who shine in the 1978 set. Ray Knight’s rookie floats in there somewhere, as do Warren Cromartie’s and Bob Stanley’s, and practically the entire roster of the 1984 Detroit Tigers. Ron Guidry is in full effect on card #135, en route to one of the best post-Koufax/pre-Pedro years of pitching dominance. Ruppert Jones, coming off his All-Star season in 1977, looks pensive on card #141, and Dwight Evans—perhaps the most-overlooked star of the 1970s and 1980s—quietly stands pre-mustache in the far corner of the set at card #695.

Could 1978 Topps itself be overlooked? Could that be why I like it so much? Well, for one thing it’s hardly unpopular. It’s a low-priced mecca for cards of Hall of Famers and other timeless superstars (the Pete Rose was double-printed, for crying out loud). For another, you can find these cards everywhere, so it’s not as if it were somehow erased and forgotten like that betamax tape collecting dust in your storage unit. No, I like it because it’s a talisman, an inroad to learn about the game during a forgotten, overlooked time. Seriously, can you name an important feat that occurred between Reggie Jackson’s three World Series home runs in 1977 and George Brett’s pine-tar incident in 1983? [Editor’s note: Yes!] I consider myself something of an amateur baseball historian, and only two things immediately come to mind: Bucky Dent’s homer in the playoff game between the Yankees and Red Sox in 1978; and the Pirates winning the World Series in 1979. Oh, and the short-lived brilliance of Ellis Valentine.

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Andre Dawson

January 4, 2010

In a couple days the results of the 2010 Hall of Fame ballot will be announced. It’s a compelling ballot, filled with a host of interesting newcomers and long-suffering ballot near-misses such as Bert Blyleven and the player shown here in a card I must have left in my pants pocket for a trip through the washer and drier.

Where are those pants now? I was thirteen and had graduated from Toughskins to Levis by then, I think. I remember how much I revered Levis as a talisman of cool. My brother and I even had Levis posters on our wall, crowding the older posters of Hank Aaron, Jim Rice, and David Thompson. The posters featured worlds made entirely out of Levis. The one on my side of the room was of a Mississippi River scene. The river, the dock, the steamboat paddles: everything was made out of Levis. The coming of Levis into my life coincided with the exit of baseball cards from my life, with a bit of a cross-over between the two eras in 1981, when I purchased a few packs. Some things were cool and some things weren’t, and Toughskins and baseball cards were receding to the latter category. This 1981 Andre Dawson card probably resisted my efforts to push it away. He was the star of my second-favorite team at that time, the exciting and seemingly up-and-coming Expos. They had contended for a division title in 1979 and 1980, and in 1981 when I got this card they would finally claim that title before falling to the Dodgers in the National league Championship Series.

That would, it turned out, be as close as they ever got to a World Series title, and now they’re fading from memory altogether, like a card that keeps going through the wash. I have a winter cap with the Expos “M” (or “ELB”) on the crown, and every once in a while it gets a quizzical look, which I take comfort in since it suggests that the person looking is not, like most, completely unaware of the defunct franchise but is instead wondering what kind of a clown would be walking around Chicago in an Expos tuque. I’ll be sad when the quizzical looks disappear, and that’s one reason why I’ll be happy if Andre Dawson gets a plaque in Cooperstown: The more enbronzed fellows with that M/ELB on their cap in the Hall, the better. (Right now there is only one: Gary Carter.)

Which brings us back to the ballot. Aside from helping keep alive the memory of Les Expos, does Dawson deserve mention on the required 75% of ballots? Rather than approach this question by naming my own hypothetical ballot and then asking for yours, I’m going to try coming at the enjoyable yearly quandary from a different perspective: a pre-draft list. If you could have any player to build a team around, whom would you choose? You will get them for their whole career, for their peak and their decline and even for all their various on- and off-field controversies. For example, say you are considering Mark McGwire for your list. His statistical credentials are monstrous. He would also bring you, as a fan of the team, a summer that would seem as it happened to be a once-in-a-lifetime joy. But then you’d also have to live through the diminishing complication of that joy, if not a feeling that the whole thing had been a lie. Knowing all that, would you put him at the top of your list?

Below is my own top ten pre-draft list, with some notes. If I had to make out a HoF ballot, I’d probably go with the first five names.  

1. Bert Blyleven. A bona fide top-of-the-rotation ace who stayed productive for 22 years? Not a bad start to build a team around, I say.

2. Roberto Alomar. My preferred hypothetical team-building strategy is to start from the middle out, first finding guys who can field the crucial middle infield and centerfield positions well while hitting as productively as corner players. I actually had Alomar ranked first, but the incident in which he spit on an umpire sours the idea of him as my franchise player just enough for Blyleven to sneak by him into first.

3. Tim Raines. Around this time last year, I took a stab at advocating for Tim Raines. More recently, much brighter baseball analysts (namely, Neyer and Posnanski) have weighed in on arguably the second-best leadoff hitter of all-time and the man most deserving of joining Gary Carter as an enshrined Expo.

4. Alan Trammell

5. Barry Larkin. Bill James has Barry Larkin ranked ahead of Alan Trammell in his Historical Abstract (Trammell is ninth and Larkin is sixth—behind only Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughan, Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, and Ernie Banks and just ahead of Ozzie Smith). I went with Trammell ahead of Larkin here because of my impression that Larkin fairly frequently limped through parts of a given season. For my team, I’d rather be able to know with some certainty that I’d be looking out every game at the ninth best shortstop of all time than having to hope from game to game that the sixth best shortstop would make his way out there. (But both deserve to be in the Hall, I think; I also think that only Larkin will make it on the strength of the writers’ vote, which may be another reason why I ranked Trammell higher.)

6. Edgar Martinez. Hit like Joe Dimaggio, fielded like a fire hydrant until, early on, the Mariners took the glove out of his hand altogether. If you were building a hypothetical team around him, you’d have to be an American League team, I guess. But man could he rake.

7. Andre Dawson

8. Dale Murphy. Bill James ranks Murphy as the eleventh-best centerfielder in history and ranks Andre Dawson as the nineteenth best right-fielder. I’m still going with Dawson over Murphy, though, mostly because of his longevity. Murphy had a higher peak, but Dawson’s peak wasn’t too shabby, and he remained productive for considerably longer.

9. Jack Morris. He’s a distant second to Blyleven among the pitchers, but second nonetheless. I think a solid starter who showed an ability to rise to the big occasion is worth inclusion on my list.

10. Dave Parker. Like Alan Trammell, Parker seems to be on the brink of fading out of sight altogether in the yearly balloting. He deserves better. When I was a kid, in the late 1970s, Parker looked like a sure Hall of Famer in the making, and while he stumbled a little after his late 1970s peak, he came back and had a few more very good years.

So who’s on your top-ten list? If I get enough lists I’ll tally them up by assigning ten points to the number one pick, nine points to the number two pick, and so on, and see who gets the most points. (Here’s a link to the 2010 ballot again.)

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Larry Parrish

November 25, 2009

If this card is any guide, Larry Parrish did not enjoy fielding. Compare his posture in this 1977 card to the previous card featured on this site. While Keith Hernandez seems as if he can’t wait to strangle the life out of the opposition’s run-scoring attempts, Larry Parrish exudes a stolid, lantern-jawed apprehension and confusion. He seems to have a dim understanding that he’s about to be baffled, frustrated, stung.

Probably nothing will happen next. That’s the torturous part. Most of the time the ball isn’t even put into play, and if it is it likely won’t be hit to you. You wait, brace yourself, get nothing, wait some more. Then when something finally does come your way it happens too fast. You stand there rubbing the bruise and watching it bound away, past you already, already part of the past.

Larry Parrish had a strong arm. There’s something in his posture here that speaks to that asset.

If I can only get my hands on the thing, I can do good.

In fact, he did do good. Several years in the league, some very good seasons with the bat, if not the glove. The best years were in a foreign land, with an up and coming team that never quite arrived. From there he went to the Rangers, where many a cement-legged slugger has gone to bash line drives into the sweltering, futile Texas summer. In 1988, his final season, he joined the Red Sox, which I don’t recall, even though that’s my team and that year they won the division. I had a sociology class the day of the first game of the playoffs, and I remember racing up the hill after class to get to a television. My memory and the Red Sox’ extremely quick exit from the playoffs that season collapse that moment of racing up the hill to stand for my entire experience of that year’s dashed dream of baseball joy: I ran up the hill but by the time I got anywhere Wade Boggs was fanning on a pitch from the Eck and the season was over. This isn’t actually what happened, of course, but it’s how I remember it now. That’s how I remember everything. I was always trying to get my hands on something. It was always by me before I could grab hold.

***

Well, that’s about all I got for today, but since I’m addicted to gnawing on imaginary rosters of all kinds I think I’ll throw another one out there for your consideration and input. It’s inspired by Larry Parrish, but in all fairness Larry Parrish was not awful with the glove, certainly not as bad as some other candidates for the good-bat, no-glove Cardboard God Iron Glove All Stars. (I’ll have to come up with a no-bat, good-glove team some other time, but my guess is that the to-be-named Roger Metzger All-Stars, for all the praise they’d garner for their gumption, grace, and grit, would be pulverized by the plodding manglers listed below…)

C-Cliff Johnson
1B-Dave Kingman
2B-Rod Carew
SS-Toby Harrah
3B-Richie Hebner
LF-Greg Luzinski
CF-Jimmy Wynn
RF- Richie Zisk

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Dave Cash

November 20, 2009

“You got a no-no goin’.” – Dave Cash to Dock Ellis, June 12, 1970

Since I started Cardboard Gods back in ought six, certain players from the era of my childhood have surfaced repeatedly. They are the highest gods in my cardboard heaven (even if, in the case of at least one of them—starts with an R and ends with an eggie—I’m determined to hold onto a coal of childhood hatred): Jackson, Yastrzemski, Fidrych, Aaron, Seaver…

It’s not just that they attained great heights on the field during the 1970s; there’s also something iconic about them, something that connects to me on a vital level, the mere mention of the name strong enough to make me feel the flicker of the kind of engagement with the world that I felt most strongly as a child.

That engagement waned as I grew older, but it always flared up again whenever I considered another player who has made numerous appearances on this site: Dock Ellis. Something about the late great Dock always brings back the primary colors of my childhood, brings back a feeling like anything could happen.

He was an adventurous soul, something recently attested to in brilliant fashion by No Mas and artist James Blagden, who created the animated video below that tells, with the help of Dock Ellis himself, one of baseball’s greatest stories.

I would have featured a Dock Ellis card today, but it seems that I’ve already exhausted my collection of its Dock Ellis cards. Fortunately, I have a 1978 card that shows Dave Cash yapping away on the Montreal Expos bench, something he apparently did since he entered the league a few years earlier as a teammate of Dock Ellis on the Pirates. Cash plays a small but key part of Dock’s story, jabbering in a mocking way at the pitcher throughout his historic effort, and in doing so stridently flaunting one of the most strongly held superstitions in a game rife with superstitions. In Dock’s retelling, Cash comes off as a likable, extroverted fellow iconoclast, someone who may actually have defused the building tension throughout the game by talking about the elephant in the room. If something is happening, why not talk about what’s happening? And if something has happened, why not tell the tale? Dock Ellis told the tale, and now, thanks to No Mas, the tale is being experienced by a whole lot of people in a great, new way.

(Apparently, major league baseball has the game on video, but has neglected to air it. There is a petition to get the game aired. I gladly signed it.)

Anyway, onto Dock Ellis and a misty June day in 1970:

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

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Gene Mauch

August 24, 2009

Gene Mauch 75

In Leo Durocher’s Nice Guys Finish Last, which I just finished tearing through this morning, Durocher concludes by bemoaning the state of the modern game. The gist: Players aren’t what they used to be, and managers no longer have the authority to tell them what to do. (Durocher’s highly entertaining and historically rich autobiography, often cited as among the best baseball books ever published, first came out in 1975, the same year this team card came to me via a pair of scissors and some cardboard packaging for a product whose identity is lost to me now. Was it the back of a cereal box? That’s my guess, but I can’t be sure.)  Read the rest of this entry ?

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Steve Renko

April 7, 2009

steve-renko-751One of the stories I followed throughout spring training this year was the attempt by Brad Wilkerson to hook on as a bench guy with my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox. No one with my last name has ever played for the Red Sox, or for any team in the major leagues, but Brad Wilkerson would have been pretty close, or as close as it’ll likely ever get unless perhaps my brother allows me to begin mixing human growth hormone into my young nephew’s spaghettios. Interestingly, the news that Wilkerson would not be breaking camp with the Red Sox was somehow somberly ambiguous enough to widen my self-centered disappointment to a more general consideration of Things Ending. Here’s how it was reported in the Boston Globe:

Before yesterday’s 3-1 win over the Phillies, Sox manager Terry Francona acknowledged that Wilkerson has left the club to ponder his options leading up to an April 1 contract deadline. At that time, Wilkerson has the right to opt out of his deal, though it remains unlikely he will have better options elsewhere.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Don Stanhouse, 1977

December 4, 2008
 Untitled 
My fandom has been and most likely always will be one defined in large part by substantial distance. When I was a boy, I used to fantasize that one day the great gap between me and the players I idolized would be closed. The central fantasy in what was actually a foggy cluster of vague fantasies was the one that began when I sent a letter to Carl Yastrzemski, asking for his autograph. As the months and years went by without a reply, I came to accept that a reply would never come while simultaneously fantasizing about a preposterously familiar reply: a long personal letter from Yaz, or a phone call, or even a visit.

As I got a little older, edging into my teen years, my prevailing fantasy shifted to a bizarre hope that one day while shooting baskets alone on the hoop in my family’s driveway in rural Vermont, a passing limousine would slow to a stop so that its passenger, Dr. J, could (depending on how deeply I wanted to escape my life at that moment) ask me over to chat for a few minutes or go have some Burger King with him or sign me up to an NBA contract. I’m not really sure why I imagined Dr. J in the limousine and not a member of my favorite team, the Celtics, but it might have something to do with the mythic aura that surrounded the Doctor in my youth. He was a storybook figure, magical and legendary, and slipped easily (much more so than the pasty grunting lurching figures clad in Celtic green) into the realm of fantasy.

I wish I could say I long ago surrendered this kind of fantasizing about the gap closing between me and my gods, but when I got married in Chicago a couple years ago I included several members of the Boston Red Sox (who I had learned would be in town that day to play the White Sox) on the invite list. I am not insane, at least not yet the kind of insane that requires a padded cell, so I did not actually expect any one of them to attend the wedding or respond to the invitations, but still I found myself at times in the customarily stressful lead-up to the Big Day imagining myself at some point during the reception leaving the spotlit side of my bride to share a few private edge-of-the-room man-to-man words with the Red Sox’ captain, Jason Varitek.  

Anyway, Manny and Youk and the rest of the gang were not among the loved ones at my wedding, so I have still never had any contact with the athletes I root for or mock or look to for guidance. All my life I’ve been talking to the gods with no response. But recently, on this site, one of the gods spoke back. Below are the two messages from the world I’ve never known except from far, far away (and given the enigmatic and/or threatening nature of the messages, far, far away is where I’ll stay unless perhaps the gap is bridged by a punch in my face). Preceding the two messages is a comment that the Cardboard God seems to be referring to when he mentions “votes.” (No one else had mentioned any voting, but there had been other disparaging comments from disgruntled Dodgers fans.)

19. 68elcamino427
Stanhouse gets my vote for most “spaced out” Dodger of all time. 

20. FULLPACK
Thank you for all of the votes! I have been booed by 55,000 drunk, angry, rain soaked Yankee fans and there is not much you can say that will hurt my feelings. YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN ME…….BAM! 

21. FULLPACK
HEY JOSH WILKER….BALLS ENOUGH TO WRITE ABOUT ME…WHERE CAN I FIND YOU!

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Bob Bailey

July 7, 2008
 
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Bob Bailey never commanded much of my attention when I was a kid. To be honest, I don’t even remember him coming to bat for the Red Sox as a pinch-hitter during the 1978 one-game playoff against the Yankees, which in general was the most memorable game of my childhood. In that awkward, wounded, sprawling decade, Bob Bailey quietly blended into the background.

Once he disappeared entirely from view I began to confuse him with Bob Bailor, who flickered to marginal life in the majors just as Bob Bailey was fading. I understand now that utility infielder Bailor was nothing like underrated masher Bailey, who for several years held many of the Montreal Expos all-time slugging records. But as the above duo of cards reflects, even the Expos were capable of underestimating Bob Bailey, shipping him to the Reds for Clay Kirby, who in the season prior to the trade, despite pitching in front of four Gold Glove winners, posted a 4.72 ERA, over a run higher than the league average.

Of course, the above duo of cards also suggests that Bailey let nothing, not even a complete change of scenery, affect his approach to the game. Let the rest of the world stumble and panic. Let the rest of the world try out new styles to cope with profound transience, with the widespread crumbling of societal norms. Let the rest of the world grow long hair and beards and mustaches and attend EST meetings and quit their jobs to sell homemade hammocks and get divorced and meditate and learn the Hustle. Bob Bailey is going to keep being Bob Bailey. He is going to stand there, implacable, and wait for his pitch. 

Fittingly, Bailey did his usual thing for the Reds (.298 batting average/.376 on-base percentage/.508 slugging average), albeit in limited duty (227 at-bats), but did not play in the postseason. The Reds shuttled him to the Red Sox near the end of the next season, and the following year he was sent to the plate to bat for Jack Brohamer in the seventh inning of the one-game playoff game against the Yankees. His last career at-bat, as it turned out. He was the potential tying run. Goose Gossage was on the mound. It was a big moment, but he surely stood in the batter’s box the same as he always had. Waiting for his pitch. Waiting for his moment. Three pitches later he was walking back to the dugout. I have a card for him on the Red Sox that year, and he seems in that card too old to still be waiting for his pitch. But I’m older now than he was then and I’m still waiting for my pitch. Waiting for my moment.

I hate Goose Gossage.

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