Archive for the ‘New York Mets’ Category

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Ron Darling

July 18, 2013

darling houseThere are always people above me. As of this second, which finds me at a table in the basement where I write books or don’t write books, depending on the relative shittiness of my resolve that day or depending on the gods or on whoever or whatever is to blame for my failings, the people above me are my wife and son, still asleep upstairs. I got up in the four o’clock hour and have been doing so for a while to try to write my book before I go to work. As I write I brace myself for sounds of wakefulness above me. Sometimes it stays quiet for a while and I can get some words down. Other times it stays quiet for a while and I waste the time Googling Eugenio Velez. Eugenio Velez is still active in Triple A baseball, which means he has the chance to return to the major leagues and put a stop to his major league hitless at-bat streak, which currently stands at 46 at-bats in a row without a hit, the all-time record for non-pitchers. I don’t want to miss his call-up to the majors, even though it seems increasingly unlikely that such a call-up will come. There are always people above him.

In a short while, I’ll go to work, where the people above me are supervisors and middle managers and directors and vice presidents. I sometimes pass one or another of these personages as we are wending our respective way through the pasteboard cubicle maze. They are outwardly no different from me, especially in the preference to avoid eye contact while afoot within the maze. They are outwardly no happier or secure than me. There are people above them, too. This means, this always means, that decisions could be made somewhere, somewhere above, that result in things ending, by which I mean paycheck, insurance, etc.

This would be terrible. I dread it, the possibility of it. Sometimes it makes me angry that there are people above me, always, always the possibility that a decision will be made above me to send me packing. So I go to work, work all day, do what I can. I come home. My son, almost two, now runs at me when I come home. Not to me but at me. We go down to the basement. He likes it down there. It’s carpeted, i.e., a softer  landing spot for falling, and there are baseball cards and balls and my old guitar, which he likes to strum. Sometimes down there he orders me to participate in one or another of his rudimentary games. He’s above me, the one true boss of my life, so I have to comply. Other times he gets interested, inexplicably, in some random task that happens to be more solitary, such as dropping a pair of earphone buds again and again into the binder of a photo album jutting out from the bookcase. In those rare instances I either lie on the ground, exhausted, or, if I have some shred of life still in me, I fiddle around with his baseball cards, which are usually strewn all over the floor. Lately I’ve been building little houses of the cards. They don’t last long, these houses, because a certain party eventually gets interested and, even if he initially contributes to the house by laying a Dennis Rasmussen or Mike Proly on the roof, inevitably gives in to the joy of demolition.

But I managed to get a picture of one of the houses before it was destroyed. It would be nice to live in such a house forever, I sometimes think. To look up and see nothing above you but numbers, knowable and distinct. Maybe there’d be a faint scent of gum.

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Jason Isringhausen

June 8, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

Morty

Last month I got an email from my friend David, a philosophy professor I used to work with at a liquor store on 8th Street in Manhattan back in the 1990s. I knew what the email was about without opening it. The subject line read “Morty.”

I used some credit card points to fly to New York for a memorial gathering. There were photos of Morty on the wall. Morty out in front of his store, arms crossed over his chest, the bald, fearless 70-year-old World War II combat veteran built like a linebacker from the leather-helmet era. Morty at the back of the store, behind his desk, the retail-business survivor, gnawing ferociously on his pipe and pounding on an adding machine. Morty yelling, Morty screaming, Morty cackling with laughter. Morty standing beside his friend Larry, 8th Street behind them, both of them with chins upraised, unbeatable.

The best photo was a simple close-up of the man. Everyone at the gathering gravitated toward it, had a moment with it. The photo showed just his bald head, his face, his eyes. Beneath all the toughness, the Yiddish insults and obscenities, the screaming, there was always something utterly gentle and watchful in his eyes. This came through in the picture. Morty was there when you most needed him. He took care of us.

“Be good to yourself, Joshua,” he said to me more than once through all those years when my formidable self-pummeling tendencies were at their worst. Morty was the only person who called me by my full first name. “If you won’t be good to yourself, Joshua, who else will?”

Most of the people at the gathering were ex-clerks like me, hired in our twenties, now all middle-aged. Morty’s silver-haired friend Larry came, too. The two of them used to sit in the back of the store together every day. When he saw the close-up of Morty, he said, “I miss you, you old fuck,” and began to cry.

***

I have spent most of the moments of my life wishing I was in some other moment. This affliction may have been at its peak during the slower lulls at the liquor store, when the only thing to do was stare across the counter at the vaguely Mrs. Butterworthian bottle of Frangelico liqueur on the opposite shelf while worrying that a gun-wielding maniac was about to burst in from the street. There was a bell above the entrance, the kind more often associated with the screen doors on general stores in cozy valleys where everyone says “y’all.” I perpetually imagined that the inevitable summons back into the Now would be that homey bell introducing something violent into the limits of my Frangelico trance.

I never did get held up. The worst thing that happened while I was there was when teenage shoplifters swept through the store, shouting and pointing and misdirecting and grabbing. This happened routinely. It was scary and, in the aftermath, enraging. After it was over, every time, I used to grab the Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger we kept behind the counter and imagine smashing heads.

One of the instances struck me worse than the others, maybe because the raids had simply happened one too many times, maybe because one of the shoplifters this time had addressed me directly as he was leaving. He looked me in the eyes. His own eyes narrowed to a squint.

“Ghost,” he said, his mouth a scowl. A bullet hole.

I sat down on a stack of boxes of wine. I sat there for a long time. Ghost. The next morning I took the train in from my apartment in Brooklyn and sat across from Morty at the desk in the back of the store and told him I was quitting. I didn’t have anything else lined up. I was 27, the age when rock stars frequently perish. This seemed significant to me, I guess because I was an idiot.

“Joshua, Joshua,” Morty said.

I didn’t know what to say. Where is the story of my life?

Ghost.

I walked back toward the front of the store, the door.

Ding!

A few months went by. I don’t feel like describing them. I went back to 8th Street, took a deep breath, put my hand to the door.

Ding!

***

Jason Isringhausen made it to the big leagues midway through that year when I quit and then, begging and pleading, unquit. There was a television up front, behind the counter. This sometimes helped pass the time.Jeopardy. Mets games. After I returned to the store, I must have seen some of Isringhausen’s earliest innings with his first team, the Mets. I vaguely remember the hoopla around him and a couple other young pitchers. Generation K, I think they were called.

I could easily look it up, but I worry my writing is deteriorating with my habit of bailing midsentence every sentence to graft Google discoveries onto my porous memory. I’ve already bailed on several sentences so far, most recently to see how Jason Isringhausen did when he was 27, and I found out that age 27 was a better year for him than it was for me, and much better than it was for D. Boon, Pigpen, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, etc.

When Jason Isringhausen turned 27, his narrative changed. Unlike those rock stars, his story changed for the better. His first public narrative, Here Comes a Fireballing Youngster Upon Which We Can Rebuild Our Franchise, had given way to a central role as a luckless brittle disappointment in the second narrative, Here We Go Again With The Fucking Mets. But at 27 Isringhausen landed with a new team and found a new role, that of the guy who gets to enact enthusiastic greeting rituals with the catcher at the end of wins.

***

Baseball was always a part of the store. At the memorial, on a table below the photos of Morty, there were two ticket stubs from the 1986 World Series. There was also a box of 2012 baseball cards. The day after I returned home from the trip to New York, I opened a pack of these new cards while sitting on the floor with my nine-month-old son.

He liked putting the cards in his mouth and gnawing on them. He did the most damage to this Jason Isringhausen card, and it’s the only one I’ve been able to form a bond with. The rest are still too much in their original condition of unreachable slickness. My connection with Now, which has been diminishing since my childhood, seems to be epitomized in my connection, or lack thereof, with the new cards. Everything in this world seems slick and shiny and unfathomable now. Most names I don’t even recognize.

But I do recall the name of the player who, courtesy of my son, now has a small chunk of his head missing. On the back of the card this gap has demolished most of the part where team names are listed. You can make out that his first team was the Mets, and you can see that this was not always true. But here he is, back again with the Mets. He got to return. He got to enact an enthusiastic greeting with a catcher.

He was not the primary catcher-greeter for the Mets last season, but he appears to have been the backup greeter, jumping in when the main guy was all hugged out. In one of his fill-in appearances, he recorded his 300th save. I imagine this is what is being captured in the photo on his 2012 baseball card. It’s a nice moment. A triumphant return. Some glory, some love.

***

Sometimes the bell above the door signaled the return of a friend of the store—a friend of Morty—who had been away for a while. Maybe it was a salesman, maybe it was someone who used to live in the neighborhood, maybe it was a former clerk.

Ding!

The returnee would stand inside the doorway for a moment, hurling obscenities at Morty, who would hurl them back, and then the returnee would gradually proceed down the center of the store, pausing to cast aspersions on the selection of wine in the racks, broadly suggesting that its presence was the product of some unseemly combination of Morty’s cheapness and a proclivity of foreigners to bottle their urination. Reaching the back of the store, the returnee would take a seat on the other side of the desk from Morty, like in a late night talk show. Jokes would be told. Morty would cackle apoplectically and slam the desk with his hand. Eventually, the voices would get quieter. Morty would listen to the returnee tell him about how he had been doing out there in the world.

I always hoped to make a happy return. I’d push open the door, making the bell ring, and start screaming obscenities at Morty from the doorway. I’d make my way down the center of the store. I’d sit down across from him. Somehow I’d have a joke to tell him. I’ve never been very good with jokes, but I once made Morty laugh by describing in painstaking detail how I was, during the ’88-’89 season, officially and mathematically the worst basketball player in America. Morty wouldn’t mind if I pulled that one out of the attic. He’d laugh and pound the table. He’d call me Joshua. Our voices would get quiet. I’d show him a picture of my son.

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Bobby Valentine

February 14, 2012

Between the two of them, Maury Wills and Bill Russell handled the great majority of the shortstop duties for the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise over the first two and a half decades of its existence. Wills arrived in 1959, the team’s second year in Los Angeles, and captained the infield until being traded away before the 1967 season; he returned to the Dodgers in 1969 and remained the starter until 1972, when Bill Russell took over the job for the next twelve years.

Before the 1971 season, the player pictured here arrived in Dodgers camp with the conviction that he would shoulder aside fellow up and comer Russell while wrestling the starting job away from the aging Wills. He mentions both players by name in a February 23, 1971, article titled “Valentine Confident”:

I realize you don’t just step in and move out a star like Maury Wills, but I suspect one of us will be moving to another position. I’m aware that the Dodgers want to make a shortstop out of Bill Russell and move me to third base. Well, no way. I intend to be the Dodgers shortstop for many years.

He can’t be faulted for being confident. He’d been a legendary multisport high school athlete and had just come off a spectacular season at the Dodgers Triple A affiliate where he’d batted .340 with 39 doubles, 16 triples, 14 home runs, and 29 stolen bases. He had also bounced back from two horrific injuries, first from a beaning that came within a quarter inch of killing him and next from an injury to his leg that had doctors seriously wondering whether he’d ever play again. These things didn’t stop him. What chance did Maury Wills or Bill Russell have?

This card from the dusky latter stages of the 1970s makes plain that Valentine’s day never arrived. He’s not wearing Dodgers blue, for one thing, and the “OF” position indicator inside the little baseball icon dangling like a washed-out Christmas ornament from his bat shows that he ended up getting moved as far from shortstop as is humanly possible in baseball without moving a player entirely off the diamond. That latter move is not far away, either, at least going on the diminishing playing time suggested by the meager stream of numbers on the back of the card. The numbers are framed above by personal info, including that Valentine was drafted #1 by the Dodgers, and below by some space-filling prose that has nothing to do with Valentine’s on-field accomplishments: “Bobby’s father-in-law is Ralph Branca, former big league pitcher, 1944–1956.” You might think this gap between great expectations and (at least in terms of his own bold estimations at the start of the career now about end) trivial accomplishment would gnaw at a guy from inside. Valentine does look a little worn on the front of the card, but despite his somewhat forlorn and abandoned surroundings he doesn’t look beaten. By now he knows the drill, so the photographer probably didn’t even have to tell him to pretend he’s waiting for a pitch. He takes his stance and glares out at nothing as if it’s not nothing.

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Mike Vail

November 21, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

V Is for Vail

1.
I have been working on this one for a while but uncertainly. I am no rookie on a hot streak when I write. There is the hesitancy, the fractured focus, the hitches of a struggling veteran player trying to rediscover his swing.

2.
I’m a rookie at parenting. I just got back to my desk from going upstairs toward the sound of crying. The crying of the baby brought me upstairs, and I rocked him in my arms for a long time, longer than usual, and it was looking like one of the many times when he just decides he is not going to go to sleep, ever, but he finally did start drifting off. This is what I root for these days. When his little eyelids start drooping, it’s like I’m watching the beginnings of a late-inning rally. Come on, keep it going.

3.
I’m not a rookie as a fan, that’s for sure. I’ve been channeling my passions into the rooting for groups of strangers to do certain things better than other groups of strangers for my entire conscious life. This is my life, and there’s really no escape from it at this point, but there are certainly times when this tendency on my part seems ludicrous. When I was a young fan, I saw the ball and hit the ball. Simple. Come on, keep it going. Now I seem to see all sorts of things, but none of them very clearly. I don’t even know what it is exactly I’m rooting for. Life is a series of random occurrences. Can I put this on a banner and bring it to the big game?

4.
Before my family moved to Vermont, I lived in New Jersey for the earliest years of my life, and I assumed for a long time that if I’d stayed there I would have become a Mets fan. This is based partly on my first baseball cards, which I got in New Jersey in 1974 and which included most memorably a Cleon Jones card; it is also based partly on my trips in later years to Shea on visits to see my father, during which the hapless late 1970s Mets became my second-favorite team. But I was actually born in Willingboro, New Jersey, which is not too far from the Pennsylvania border, and if my family had never moved from that town I likely would have grown up rooting for Pennsylvania teams, most specifically the Phillies, like my older cousins who also lived in Willingboro. So instead of the Red Sox and Celtics for me it would probably have been the Phillies and the 76ers and on down the line. I never became a raving fan of college sports, but as a kid in Vermont I rooted for the only regional team, Boston College, that ever rose to any national prominence. So I suppose it’s possible that had I never left my birthplace I would have on some fall Saturday afternoon in my childhood realized that one of the two teams on television hurling themselves murderously at one another had a closer connection to me than the other, and so I would have decided to adopt Penn State as one of my teams.

5.
I hold my baby sideways when I rock him to sleep. He faces out, away from me, and he gets a grip on my fingers with his hands. When he falls asleep I have to set him down very gently and have to then carefully pull his fingers off my hands. If I do it wrong he wakes up. It went okay this morning, and I tiptoed out of the room praying.

6.
This 1976 card is Mike Vail’s first. His rookie card. It suggests in the understated style of the 1976 series of Topps cards that a stellar career may have just begun. The previous season, the player shown here with a determined expression on his All-American granite-jawed visage won the International League batting title, and then in a late summer call-up to the big leagues he produced a feat that more than any other came to loom over the Mets’ subsequent late-1970s nosedive back into the National League basement as a haunting specter of promise unrealized. Vail hit in 23 straight games in 1975, tying a rookie record and setting the Mets’ team record. The Mets figured they had found a future star and promptly shipped the anchor of their lineup, Rusty Staub, to Detroit. Vail injured his foot playing basketball in the winter of 1976, and this injury is often cited as the reason Vail never fulfilled the potential suggested by his hitting streak, but it seems more likely, judging from both his minor league stats (he never hit for power or stole many bases, even before the injury) and his record in later years (for a couple seasons with the Cubs, as a part-timer, he put up numbers equal to or superior to his 1975 marks), that Vail just wasn’t the superstar everyone hoped in his first major league moments he would be. He was a decent right-handed platoonist who could, in a good year, dump enough singles in front of the opposing left-fielder to hover near the .300 mark. He was never going to be, as in the wildest dreams of Mets fans watching his streak unfold, the next Joe DiMaggio. But what can you do? Being a sports fan is about having and holding onto wild dreams.

7.
Friday morning I was on my way to dig up some of the factoids about Mike Vail included above, but before doing so I went to check my email and instead detoured to click the link on one of the headlines among the sports headlines that come up on my mail homepage: “Syracuse assistant in molestation probe (AP).” You can read the story yourself if you want. What I found most striking in it was the extremity of denial on the part of a couple Syracuse icons, head coach Jim Boeheim and former star center Rony Seikaly. Both vehemently deny even the possibility that the allegations of child molestation against assistant coach Bernie Fine could be true. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, of course, and the allegations against Fine may not be true. I’m not attempting to make a comment on that, but rather on my own reaction to the fierce denials by Seikaly and Boeheim. The denials reminded me of my own reaction, over 30 years ago, when I heard a rumor that a teammate on my seventh grade basketball team had woken up in the middle of the night during a camping trip with our coach, Mick, to discover that Mick was sucking his dick. I felt something close to outrage that such a rumor was going around about Mick. He could not possibly have done such a thing. He was a pillar in the community, beloved by all. It couldn’t be true! It was many, many years and many, many basketball teams and, presumably, many, many camping trips before a boy finally came forward and spoke out until someone listened, and Mick was arrested and found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison for “lewd and lascivious behavior with a juvenile boy.” I tend to think he got off very easy, and I tend to believe he’d been victimizing children for a long time, and I tend to get angry when I think about his sentence. I tend to believe he’d benefitted greatly from the tendency in people to collude in a denial of the worst. Even the judge who sentenced him admitted she was “impressed” with him.

8.
I don’t watch nearly as much TV as I used to before the baby came. And even when I do watch a little here and there at night I watch it with the sound off so as not to disturb the baby, who spends the first part of his fractured night of sleep in his little portable bassinet in the living room. A few nights ago I watched, with the help of closed-captioning subtitles, a muted version of the interview Bob Costas conducted with Jerry Sandusky. With the toes of my left leg I gently rocked the bassinet, which helps my son fall asleep. That left leg was the one that over thirty years ago featured in a moment with my junior high basketball coach that Jerry Sandusky would likely have identified as “horseplay.” Sandusky denied—with creepy hesitancy—that he is sexually attracted to boys, but he readily admitted that he had showered with boys and that he grabbed their legs “without intent of sexual conduct.” This last part struck a chord in me. I was a mediocre athlete, but one day during a junior high basketball game I scored two baskets in a row, which was for me an unprecedented hot streak, my version of Mike Vail’s 23-game rookie-season tear. I mentioned the moment in my book:

Mick subbed for me after my second basket and sat down next to me as play resumed. He was beaming.

“You’re doing great, Josh, just excellent,” he said, which felt good. I wasn’t exactly amassing a giant stockpile of praise elsewhere in my life. As Mick spoke he let his hand fall on my bare leg. He kept it there after he’d finished talking. While watching the action on the court, he gave my thigh two long, ardent squeezes. (Cardboard Gods, p. 134)

When reading the closed-captioned subtitles of an interview and thinking back to that moment, my left leg, the one that was jiggling my baby in a bassinet, went still, like jelly congealing. I was feeling once again that happy rookie moment curdling, and it stopped me. The bassinet I had been rocking with my toes went still, too. What happens to me happens to my baby. My baby began to stir and show signs that, because I’d stopped rocking him, he was starting to wake up. His sleep is a crystalline stadium, fragile, easily shattered. Already I’m failing to guard it.

9.
I’m not a Penn State fan, but, as I was saying, I could have been. If my family had stayed where I’d been born, near the border to Pennsylvania, who knows? It didn’t happen, and instead I threw myself into being a fan, primarily, of the Red Sox. I grew up in the 1970s, a time of histrionic drama and disappointment for that team, and my fandom during that time developed a millennial fervor in which I dreamt at length of the seemingly impossible day when my team would somehow not blow it in the end and would instead be the champions of the world. Because I was unable to formulate more human and intimate wishes for myself or those around me, because my sole way of emotionally engaging with the world was through sports, my wish for the Red Sox to win it all became far and away my greatest wish. Beyond a wish, it was a fetish, a fantasy I replayed in my mind to trigger a response otherwise inaccessible, tears forming at the corners of my eyes as I imagined running in a jubilant mob through the streets the day the Red Sox won it all. I would finally be on top of the world, and there would be, through my absolute worship of the players responsible for lifting the burden of failure and sadness from all life everywhere forever, a kind of immortality in the triumph. I imagined statues to each and every member of the chosen team, the names of all involved engraved not only in civic stone but as deep as anything could go in my mind and in the collective mind I had joined so many years before as a displaced searching hopeful child.

10.
When considering the news out of Penn State, I noticed that my thoughts go first toward virulently distancing myself from the ugliness. In this I am not alone, I don’t think. It is a monstrous story, and so the first response is to identify a hierarchy of monsters, creatures separated completely by their monstrosities from us, and condemn them to various levels of profound punitive agony. But beyond individual acts of monstrosity the story features the element of apparent collusion, a variously implicit or explicit wish by those invested in and benefitted by an institutional image of purity to keep the ugliness hidden, thus allowing the surface image to remain pristine while the ugliness beneath festers and grows. Even this more general, collective criminality has been viewed most commonly as a monstrosity, as something those of us wishing to remain far on the outside of the issue want to view as completely apart from our own involvement. We may ask, as I have: What do I have to do with it? I’m not a fan of Penn State. I’m not like those idiot college students who rioted not on the part of the many children allegedly victimized by a serial sexual predator but instead on the part of a college coach who did little to stop the victimization. That was my first thought about the campus riot a couple weeks ago that was sparked by the firing of Joe Paterno—these students are fucking idiots, the worst. I have mulled it over since then, and I am not so far off from them, not at all. I’m a sports fan who invested his deepest powers of dreaming into a vision of being in a celebratory mob, my team immortalized in triumph that, because of my dream, had to be for me a vision of perfect purity. As the song goes, we all root for the home team, and if they don’t win it’s a shame. There’s no room in this kind of willful dreaming for any equivocation. This is the deficiency of sports fandom, and maybe of other kinds of collective passion, such as the entity that most closely resembles sports in its worst moments, organized religion: What we love needs to be pure. If I had been an 18-year-old student at Penn State last week, I probably would have been right there with the others, desperate to the point of rage to believe that a deep pure promise remained unbroken.

11.
My father took my brother and me to Mets games in the 1970s. The stands were mostly empty. The team was bad. Mike Vail was there for a while, until in March 1978 he was waived, but I wasn’t enough of a Mets fan to pin any sort of growing feelings of disappointment on him. I wasn’t enough of a Mets fan to take anything too seriously. I wanted them to win the game, but it didn’t kill me if they didn’t. My brother felt the same, and my father didn’t care about the Mets or baseball at all. He saw the whole thing as idiocy and spent the game reading the New York Times and grimacing whenever a plane roared overhead. But his sons wanted to go to the game, so there he was. I was glad to be there, at a game with my brother and my father. I would go there again. I have long thought that if my family had stayed in New Jersey, which also means that I would have stayed in a house where my father lived, I would have been a Mets fan. I wonder now if this is all yet another form of wishful thinking. In a different life, maybe I could have been a fan without the kind of need that can distort and obscure. I’ve thought a lot already about bringing my son to a game, about nudging him toward being a fan. The two of us together, believing. But in what? I don’t even know what it is exactly we should be rooting for. Life is a series of random occurrences. Still, I have that vision, that deep wish, that thing I root for: the two of us walking into a stadium together, his hand in mine so I can keep him safe.

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Jesus Alou

March 1, 2011

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

New York Mets

Judging from this 1976 card, you’d have to think that Jesus Alou led a charmed life. The back showed many years in the major leagues, including some at the beginning of his career with the Giants and in the company of his two brothers, Felipe and Matty. More recently, after a stint with the Astros, he’d returned to the Bay Area to collect two World Series championship rings as a member of the Oakland A’s. In early 1975, the A’s decided they no longer needed his services as a part-time right-handed singles hitter, but the Mets swooped in and signed him. He seems content, even happy, to be in a Mets uniform. This card, in fact, has always stood out to me for the placid, merry look on Jesus’ face. I liked it as a kid, in part because it contrasted so strikingly with the Jesus Alou card from the previous season, which showed in extreme close up a balding, suffering man in the midst of turmoil. By contrast, this photo suggests that in the next moment Jesus Alou will stroll off to partake of one or another of life’s many little pleasures, maybe a pregame snack or some cartoons or a nap or a relaxed, laughing conversation with some grounds crew guys. So what can we take from this card in terms of predicting the fortunes of the 2011 Mets? To be thorough on the matter, it should be noted there are some elements of the card that don’t bode well for this year’s Mets, such as Jesus Alou’s tepid efforts for the 1975 edition of the squad as shown on the back of the card: just 3 extra base hits (all doubles) in 102 at-bats, part of a relatively empty .265 batting average, and you could also mix in the knowledge that the year this card came out, Jesus Alou was no longer on the Mets, or anywhere else in the majors, and that he couldn’t be found anywhere in the league the following year, either. There are signs, in other words, that things might not work out for the 2011 Mets, and these cloud the crystal ball that is this 1976 Jesus Alou card, but it also seems relevant that Jesus Alou, like his more famous namesake, made an improbable return from what seemed to be a permanent oblivion: two years on from seeming to appear on his last baseball card, he resurfaced with spectacular visual flourish in the rainbow uniform of the Houston Astros, and in his quietly miraculous resurrection season of 1978 he batted .324, a career high. It seems clear, with all this evidence of the charmed life of Jesus Alou, not least of which being Jesus Alou’s capability on this 1976 card to calmly rejoice in his own good fortune even as he is on the brink of a major league exile of a length from which few, if any, have ever returned. So have the faith of Jesus and enjoy, Mets fans. Your 2011 Mets will lead a charmed life.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 2 of 30: Approach the game memory by memory (e.g., at the Ultimate Mets Database fan memory page) and number by number (e.g., at Mets By the Numbers)

***

2011 previews so far:
St. Louis Cardinals

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John Stearns

February 24, 2011

There have been some football greats who have dabbled in major league baseball (Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, and Jim Thorpe leap to mind), but who’s the best football player to ever have been identified primarily as a major league baseball player?

I’ve given it a bit of thought, and I can’t come up with a whole lot of candidates. (Among those that occurred to me: Jackie Robinson, Rick Leach, Butch Hobson, Steve Garvey; I also considered Drew Henson and Jeff Samardzija, but they don’t quite fit the parameters of the conversation because of their Danny Ainge-like baseball marginality). Maybe it’s difficult to transfer the brute raging aggression of the gridiron to the more ruminative artisanship of the baseball diamond. And a hefty percentage of football players, the pot-bellied, arms-the-size-of-legs behemoths that toil in the grunting sumo clashes at the line of scrimmage, would seem to be excluded from possible baseball careers on the basis of body type alone (the players named above, and the one considered at more length below, all either played in the defensive or offensive backfield or played quarterback, with one exception, Samardzija, who played wide receiver).

I don’t know a whole lot about the football careers of Robinson, Leach, Hobson, and Garvey, but none of them seem to have been beyond the high level reached by the player pictured here, who is, if his colorful public persona is any guide, seemingly on the brink of wrapping the pinky and ring fingers of his left hand around the barrel of the bat to leave one finger flying free. And John Stearns was not only a standout football player at Colorado University, setting school records for interceptions and interception return yardage, but he also gets some points in this discussion for bringing a football mentality onto the baseball field to a greater degree than any of his fellow former football stars. In short, he seemed to really, really enjoy leveling people. On the ever-enjoyable Ultimate Mets memory page, all of Stearns’ “greatest hits” are mentioned: his takedown of a fan who had run onto the field during a game; his body-slam of Bill Gullickson after the enemy pitcher buzzed a fastball at fellow Met Mike Jorgenson’s head; his literally jaw-breaking hit on Dave Parker as the hulking Pirate baserunner tried to separate the plate-blocking Stearns from the baseball; and, most notably, his flattening of Atlanta Braves mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa.

As Stearns explained in a 2010 New York Post article, the latter incident included an element of premeditation.

I watched him for three or four years and I said, ‘Someday I’m going to clothesline this guy.’ One day I took off, running at him like a defensive back. He looked at me like, “What is this guy going to do?” I didn’t really hit him. I kind of dragged him down. It was just a fun thing but Joe Torre was our manager and he didn’t like it.

Torre’s actual take on the incident, according to an ESPN article about Mets in the All-Star game that touches on Stearns for his propensity for being the Mets’ lone All-Star representative through the team’s dark years of the late 1970s and early 1980s, sounds more like a mix of amusement and weary resignation: “It was just the Dude being the Dude.”

Stearns’ full nickname (lest Torre’s shortening of it lead anyone to believe that Jeff Bridges should be tabbed to play the Mets’ catcher in the long overdue film version of the Mets late-1970s struggles) was “Bad Dude.” The moniker, while aptly illustrative of both his toughness and his confidence (“there’s no hiding the fact that when I was younger, I lacked humility,” he told the Denver Post), has in Stearns’ eyes turned into something that has held him back. “I can’t even get an interview,” Stearns, speaking of his desire to be a major league manager, told the Denver Post. “The Bad Dude thing always pops up. I’m not doing that thing anymore and I’d like to get rid of it.”

Another memorable figure from the 1970s who is no longer living within the confines of the name he was known by back then is Levi Walker, Jr., who John Stearns chased down and tackled while the former was in his full mascot regalia as Chief Noc-A-Homa. Walker, a Native American with roots in the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes, was the third and most famous of the men who played Chief Noc-A-Homa, who in addition to running past the enemy dugout before every game (the part of the mascot’s act that inspired Stearns to the most famous of the Colorado Buffalo legend’s many open-field tackles) “lived” in a teepee in the outfield stands during games and emerged to do a dance whenever a Braves player hit a home run. His list of moments in the public eye reads like a back-and-forth between goofiness and politics that somehow epitomizes the 1970s (and the later fallout traceable back to those years). In 1972 his portrayal of a cartoonish Indian stereotype was dismissed witheringly by Native American rights activist Russell Means; in 1974 he brought a lacrosse stick to the park to better his chances of snaring Hank Aaron’s 715th home run; in 1982 the removal of his teepee to open up more ticketed seating area immediately preceded a hideous team-wide slump that finally led the team to reinstate the Chief in his rightful home in time for the team to right itself and win the division; in 1986, perhaps becoming aware of the problematic nature of employing a mascot who was, unlike other notable mascots with googly eyes and giant baseball heads or anteater snouts or chicken feathers, based on a race of humans, the Braves decided to part ways with the Chief, who responded to a question about what he would do next by saying that he had “no reservations” anywhere; in 1991, Walker reappeared as the Braves entered the World Series to debate American Indian groups who were protesting the Braves, whose team name and other appropriations of Indian culture were seen by the protesters as insensitive and dehumanizing.

Finally, Walker seems to have eased back into a life away from the spotlight. Below is a clip of him at some kind of festival, making an arrowhead. He seems like a nice guy. At any rate, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to tackle him.

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Dwight Gooden

December 28, 2010

Heaven, the idea of it, creeped me out when I began to really think about it for the first time, which was when I was about the age of the player pictured here. I had recently finished college and was working as a truck loader on the overnight shift in the UPS warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen, and during my ten-minute break every day I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, the third part of which, Paradiso, seemed to me to depict heaven as much more static and frozen than the roiling lower realms. You just kind of hung there forever in bright light, free of suffering and sin but with nothing to do and nowhere to go. A celestial meat locker. Better if heaven were a place where we might be capable of inhabiting our most graceful selves. Beyond disappointment and wanting and blundering and wandering, of losing and getting and losing again, we come back to some moment beyond and before results, when it was all beginning.

The year is just about done, but I want to write about one more card before saying goodbye to 2010. My desk is a mess, like my mind. Most prominent is a pile of baseball cards, all new to me. My wife’s aunt gave them to me a couple of days ago, for Christmas, in a big ziplock bag, and I spent parts of the rest of the day leafing through them with curiosity and hope and excitement. Near the pile of cards on my desk is a smaller pile of bills to pay, and next to that pile is a stack of things I have to get to at some point, or throw away, or file. From all the clutter I’ve pulled free this Dwight Gooden card from 1988, hoping for it to inspire something pure.

I don’t know if “pure” is ever possible. Everything is tangled up with everything else, at least a little. But I like dwelling on the idea of a moment when something is just beginning. This card captures that, a 22-year-old phenom lightly rocking back on his left foot to start his windup, which for a little while seemed like just about the purest physical act a human could ever be capable of: balanced, focused, without the slightest tremor of wasted motion or anxiety or doubt.

My UPS loader shift ended in the morning, and I’d leave the building with my clothes and hands and face covered in a thin film of dark gray dust from handling packages all night, and the sun had just come up, and I started my 40-block walk home through the city that Dwight Gooden briefly but toweringly ruled. It was 1990, so his reign was ending. Nobody rules anyway. Once in a while during my walk home, building the relief of quitting time and my exhaustion and the bright morning light into a faint, shaky euphoria, I’d stop worrying about my life and revel just a little in being a 22-year-old dipshit shambling home, where I planned to conk myself unconscious with a couple of beers and sleep all day. I liked to read the box scores as I drank my morning knockout beer. On the mornings after Doc Gooden had pitched, I’m sure I scrutinized the Mets box score for signs of a miraculous return to grace.

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