Archive for the ‘New York Yankees’ Category


Tommy Helms and Dick Tidrow

October 6, 2015

astros yanks

Here is my preview of the first game of the 2015 playoffs, based on two randomly chosen baseball cards from my childhood collection and their relation to the basic existential question of life.

What are we here for?

No one knows the answer to this question. Dick Tidrow represents the classic American hero’s response to this question, which is to ignore that it even exists, to squint with gunslinger toughness straight into the question, past the question. Why are we here? What kind of pussy question is that? We’re here to win. But of course winning, ultimately, isn’t an option, as attested to by the black circle with 40 in it on Tommy Helms’s jersey, a tribute to Don Wilson, who a few months after pitching a two-hit shutout in his last start of the 1974 season died of smoke inhalation in his garage. (His death was ruled an accident.) Tommy Helms was the hitting star of Wilson’s last game, homering and driving in three runs. The following season, with that somber number on their jersey, was a brutal one for the Astros, who dropped 97 games. Tommy Helms, nearing the end of his career during that loss-filled campaign, seems quizzical, bemused, perhaps a little more aware of life’s sorrowful twists than Dick Tidrow. Tommy Helms is not defeated, but he’s not going around imagining that our whole presence here is not just a little absurd.
Edge: Astros

Coming tomorrow: Preview of the National League Cubs-Pirates Wild Card game


Sabathia Crushed by Dump Truck

February 28, 2013

sabathia crushed by dump truck

It’s not my habit or talent to break news, and what’s more I don’t even care about news. I’m an “olds” guy, more interested in say, Ralph Garr’s batting average in 1974 against righties and articles about Mark Fidrych’s consultations with a hypnotist in 1979 than I am with anything whatsoever to do with the upcoming baseball season, or, for that matter, with any current events at all. But I figured it’d be irresponsible of me to not pass along a report of the event pictured in the photo to the right. It is difficult to make out the identity of the player in question, but I happened to have been an eyewitness and can confirm that it is New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia who is being crushed by a dump truck full of sliced apples. So, you know, you might want to cut him from your fantasy squad or whatever.


Dick Tidrow

March 26, 2012

Dear Dick Tidrow,

I hate your guts. I don’t hate your guts like I hate some guts. There are guts I hate more than your guts. The guts of your teammate Reggie, for example. God, how I hate his guts. Your guts, though, well, there really is something about your guts that I hate, and not just because of the pinstripes and the word in the lower left of your 1978 card. Some guts I hate out of duty, for example Roy White, who has guts that are pretty unhateable, but still, rules are rules, so consider his guts thoroughly hated, too. But you, well, years will pass, empires will rise and fall, puberty will arrive, giving way to a young adulthood spent stumbling backwards, eyes trained on the past, the young adulthood gradually eroding into just plain adulthood, the stumbling less pronounced, replaced in essence by a less readily perceptible but deeper, more existentially disorienting uncertainty, which brings us to now, to me, a middle-aged man writing a letter to a baseball card after spending last night realizing that the monthly bills have edged beyond the monthly income, and there’s a baby involved now, and I always thought as a child I’d just be able, worse comes to worse, to sell my baseball cards and in so doing become unutterably wealthy, free of care, but as everyone knows the value of baseball cards was an absurd mirage, and you, Dick Tidrow, are the valueless card I pull out of my shoebox this morning and your name resonates across the years in a way beyond that of most others, a name I’ll always associate with the Yankees, with the deep and focused professionalism that allowed that team to beat my team, a myth that shaped my world—there are winners and losers and the winners have a cohesive swarm of assassins like Dick Tidrow, fiercely adept role-players, while we losers have some bright spots but nothing that holds together in the end. Life is fun here and there but doesn’t work out. But there’s more, Dick Tidrow. I feel like your name, Dick Tidrow, is one of those upper echelon names in terms of being able to be used as a password to let someone know I know that he knows that I know that he knows that I know. Larry Gura is another. Biff Pocoroba. Jim Wohlford. There are more. You say the name and the name means my life and—if the name raises a flicker in your mind, a click like that of the flap of a pack of cards coming open—your life, too, our shared stupid life as 1970s boys with nothing better to do than fill our mouths with gum and our brains with names, Larry Gura and Jim Wohlford and Biff Pocoroba and Dick Tidrow. The name Dick Tidrow means nothing to most but it means to me this dumb losing life I hate and love.

Josh Wilker


Mickey Mantle

March 2, 2012

Tour Guide

Batter and Sky

You know the old saying by comedian Joe E. Lewis that rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel? For all of us who have suffered at the hands of the Yankees, it’s an irresistibly savory putdown of Yankees fandom, to be sure—though those most likely to use it, i.e., the staunchest Yankee-haters, namely Red Sox fans like me, also follow a team that is now a gigantic worldwide corporation with a payroll that towers over most other franchises—but it doesn’t quite get to the qualitative difference between rooting for the Yankees and rooting for any other team. Rooting for most teams is like hoping for one sweet day in the sun. Rooting for the Yankees is like knowing there is an eternity of blue sky.

I’m not suggesting that rooting for the Yankees doesn’t have many other levels and subtleties, or that it doesn’t involve pain and humor and longing and familial bonding and worry and nostalgia and all the other countless shadings of joy and woe that draw us into sports. But compare, say, a San Diego Padres Padres fan to a Yankees fan. Imagine you’re a Padres fan from way back. In your youth you held in your hands the baseball cards of the likes of Alan Foster and Rich Folkers. You tried to believe these innings-moppers, itinerant, nondescript, heretofore untouched by any measure of major league glory, shrouded in homely, vaguely humiliating fast-food yellow and brown, would somehow lead your team to its first championship. It’s 36 years later, and you’re still waiting. Meanwhile, your hypothetical Yankees fan contemporary spent his 1970s youth learning of Berra and DiMaggio and Ruth and a string of championships going back as far as a young mind could conceive, and living through back-to-back World Series titles in 1977 and 1978, then racking up several more championships a few years later, including one in which his team set a franchise record with a staggering 114 wins before stomping the National League entry in the World Series, the San Diego Padres.

These two hypothetical fans can’t help but differ. First of all, the hypothetical Padres fan has a much smaller chance of existing. I’ve been to a game in San Diego. The Padres were in first place and it was a Friday night and there was even the mild novelty of it being an interleague game featuring Ichiro Suzuki. Despite all that, the hypothetical fans still strongly outnumbered the actual paying customers, and throughout most of the game the sound of the scattered, atomized gathering was anemic. Even when the division-leaders won in highly dramatic fashion with two runs in the bottom of the ninth, the reaction, at least in my memory, less resembled a thunderous stadium yawp than the thin, ragged soufflé of boozy yells, whistles, and clapping you might hear at last call upon the final crashing cymbal of a bar band’s stomp through “Freebird.”

And then there’s the sound that Yankees fans make when massed together in their home stadium, specifically when a crucial game that had been in doubt teeters to the brink of turning in the Yankees favor. I’ve been in the middle of this sound, quietly praying for the opposing team, and it’s like being dissolved by stomach acid inside the belly of whale. It’s a roar unlike that made by any other fans. Other roars are as deafening and hungry, but none have that serrated edge of absolute certainty. We win, it says, devouring. We will always win. There will always be a hero. There will always be blue sky.


When a young man named Doug McWilliams started taking photos for Topps baseball cards in the early 1970s, he was looking beyond the standard existing parameters of baseball card photography. He was looking to the blue sky. His work, displayed so far in our tour in the gleaming, statuesque photos of Alan Foster and Rich Folkers, followed the lead of a boyhood idol. As McWilliams told Carl Steward in 2010, “When I was a kid, I got a subscription to Sport magazine in 1948. I fell in love with Ozzie Sweet, a photographer who shot photographs of athletes and celebrities with brilliant colored backgrounds and they were more like portraits. I really liked what he did and I tried to emulate him throughout my career.”

Ozzie Sweet’s photographs have the gravity and chiseled solidity of great sculpture. According to a 2001 article by John Breneman, Sweet had himself idolized the creator of the Mount Rushmore monument and had begun his own artistic life as a sculptor before turning to photography. His painstakingly composed shots, which earned him praise from Newsweek photo editor Thomas P. Orr as “the Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth of the magazine cover business,” create a sense of heightened, often heroic reality filtering through a moment that in lesser hands would feel stiff, forced, but that in Sweet’s care is natural, graceful, human. Sweet got his start with posed photos of soldiers during World War II and went on to create portraits of titanic public figures such as Albert Einstein and John Wayne, but his talent found perhaps its greatest and most suitable playground when he turned his lens to the world of sports. In his work for Sport magazine in the 1950s and 1960s he defined a key aspect of that surging post-war era, his sunny, iconic images of star athletes, such as the one at the top of this page, as bright and striking as the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night,” as brimming with youthful assurance and hope as John F. Kennedy’s claim that “the torch has been passed to a new generation.”


The certainty of Yankees fans is a streamlined version of the certainty of the most powerful nation in the history of the world. This certainty peaked in both cases during the post-war boom years of the 1950s and early 1960s, those days of heroes and blue sky. The Yankees had been strong before, as had America, but a kind of undefeated and undefeatable mindset set in during the 1950s, as the Yankees ripped off a string of championship wins unprecedented even in their already luminous history. The key figure, in that championship run if not, symbolically speaking, in all of America, was the young man Ozzie Sweet’s mythologizing camera loved most of all, Mickey Mantle. With Mickey Mantle, we not only win. We will always win.

American certainty began diminishing at some point. Compulsively, repeatedly, attempts are made to pinpoint a moment when this certainty was first shaken. It happened in Dallas in 1963. It happened in Memphis in 1968. It happened in Altamont in 1969. It happened in 1980 on the Upper West Side, outside the Dakota. It happened in 2001, on a morning when the sky was, well, you know what color the sky was that morning. But maybe it didn’t really happen anywhere, or happened everywhere, a little or sometimes a lot at a time, and kept happening, and keeps happening, and will go on happening. Maybe it was all an illusion anyway, or if not an illusion then a fleeting reality, here for a while then gone. A hero arrives, the embodiment of America, all flawless strength and innocence, but he can’t stay that long. By 1976, the year the cards featuring Doug McWilliams’ portraits of members of the San Diego Padres appear, the hero has been gone from the field for a while. In McWilliams’ images, the blue sky remains, but it is juxtaposed by the unremarkable journeymen in the foreground. The result is a vivid glimpse of the core national irony of we the people, we of the blue sky, we the defeated.


Thurman Munson

February 3, 2012

A Brother’s Voice

for Sean Dolan

I followed my big brother everywhere he would allow me to follow. This went on long after childhood. After college, utterly clueless about what to do, I crowded into the narrow railroad apartment my brother was living in on 9th Street in Manhattan. I spent weeks huddled there as if taking shelter from bombings, drinking beer and eating entire boxes of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies and watching television. The whole world terrified me. I understood I needed to make some money somehow, but I had no skills and only one vague, impossible goal: to be a writer of books.

Because my brother had once worked for UPS, I felt slightly less paralyzed with fear when considering applying for work there than I would anywhere else in the overpoweringly daunting megalopolis. I got hired as a temporary driver’s helper, and then after the holidays I shifted over to loading packages at the UPS warehouse in the middle of the night. I often got home from work as my brother was leaving for his job with a publisher of nonfiction books for young readers.

Incapable of making friends on my own, I had no social life beyond what I could siphon off from my brother. I got to know some of his friends from the publishing house. Unlike my job at the warehouse, where I spent my ten-minute break alone in the back of a truck scowling into my paperback copy of Dante’s Inferno, the place where my brother worked seemed to have a lot of shared weird hilarious life spilling over the margins of the daily grind. My brother was in a lunchtime Strat-O-Matic league there, and reports on the games in that league and on other real and imaginary doings were filed periodically by one of the editors in the persona of a crusty besotted Runyanesque sportswriter named Pokerchips Munson. My brother showed me some of the works of Pokerchips Munson, and they always made me laugh. More importantly, they gave me a sense when I needed it most that it was possible for someone to write for the sheer joy of it, and though I would and will always have a tough time remembering it, I got a sense that this impulse—writing for the fuck of it and the fun of it—was the key to bringing some real human life to the page. I was reading Dante every day, hoping for genius to somehow seep into my package-smudged fingers, but in the end Pokerchips Munson ended up meaning much more to me than Dante.

The creator and caretaker of Pokerchips Munson was a senior editor named Sean Dolan. He was a little older than my brother and me, and he didn’t come out for drinks as much as some of my brother’s other co-workers, including Sean’s brother Terrance. Like Sean, Terrance was a brilliant storyteller, and some of my best memories of those years include sitting in the back of the International bar in the wee hours of the morning as Terrance told us tales from his life of violence and inebriation and hilarity and mayhem and wonder growing up in the toxic mysterious wastelands of Long Island. I didn’t hang out as much with Sean, but even so he came to have a significant place in my lfie. There was something calming and encouraging about him. The adult world seemed to me to be a place where you of necessity gradually narrowed yourself down to nothing, but here was a guy who had been at it for a while and had found a way to keep his world wide.

The place where my brother worked seemed to be riddled with battles and upheavals, my brother and his friends  pitted against various solitary backstabbers out for personal advancement. That’s how it came to me in my brother’s stories anyway, or at any rate how it stands now in my poor and entirely suspect memory. It’s been a long time. My favorite story from those days involves Sean and his brother Terrance. They were a meeting in which one of the backstabbers was pushing an agenda that adversely affected the Dolans. The younger, hotter-tempered Dolan rose to his feet, fists clenched.

“I was going to kill him,” Terrance told us late one night at the International. “And then I heard Sean. His voice.”

“Terrance,” Sean had said. Just that, his name. But it was enough, that voice that had always been with him, a steadying hand on his shoulder. A brother’s voice. Terrance came back to himself. He sat back down.

Sean was the reason I wrote my first book, a young adult novel. He had remarked to me and my brother that there seemed to be a lack of young adult novels about basketball. Someone else could have said this and it wouldn’t have made any impact, but for some reason his voice triggered something. It was calm encouragement and was just what I needed. I quit my job at UPS and spent the summer back in Vermont, sleeping on couches and writing every day. I never sold the novel, but that doesn’t change that the writing of it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. To be writing a novel, waking up every day and pushing it forward a little more and a little more. It was a glimpse of my dreamed-of impossible life.

When I finished the book I went back to New York and resumed living with my brother. Sean read my book and praised it, which thrilled me, and though the publisher he and his brother and my brother worked for didn’t publish fiction, on the strength of my novel Sean offered me a gig writing one of their nonfiction titles. It didn’t pay much, maybe enough to live on for a month of three-for-a-dollar mac and cheese, but I didn’t give a shit. Because of Sean, I was a writer of books.

Sean eventually left that publisher, as did Terrance and my brother and all our other friends there. Everyone went their separate ways, as is the way of the world. I ended up in Chicago. I had gone on from writing that first book for Sean to writing several others, all nonfiction books for young readers, but my dream of getting a book out into the world that had my own voice in it, a book worthy of Pokerchips Munson, had proven elusive. In the summer of 2006, I was at a low in my writing, having spent several years working on a novel that I was finding impossible to get published. One of my chosen methods of anesthetizing the pain of disappointment, of life, is to immerse myself in an on-line version of the game Pokerchips Munson used to report on, Strat-O-Matic. It is an extremely solitary pursuit, for the most part, and I generally have no interaction whatsoever with the other managers in my on-line leagues, the point for me being the dissolving of my actual social being into the particulars of the game. But at that low point of my writing life in the summer of 2006 I turned to a newly begun Strat-O-Matic online league and noticed that one of my fellow managers had a familiar name. I sent him a message titled “Pokerchips Munson.” He wrote back instantly: “Josh, is it really you?”

That was in late August, 2006. Within a few weeks, for the fuck of it and the fun of it, and quite possibly also for the simple reason that I could tell Sean about it, I started posting on a blog my thoughts about baseball cards I randomly pulled from my old shoebox. Sean was one of the first people I told about the blog. He was immediately appreciative. Yesterday and today, I’ve been looking back at his messages to me in the Strat-O-Matic league message system and in my email archives, and it’s amazing how often he took time to tell me he liked what I was doing. More than that, he told me what I was doing in such an informed way that it seemed he knew where I wanted to go with the entire project better than I did. Years later, when I started trying to sell a book that told a story of me and my brother and my baseball cards, the center of my proposal was a something Sean said just a little over a month after the start of my blog, back when I’d barely begun. He knew where I was trying to go, and he encouraged me to get there.

He kept encouraging me over the years. I never encountered him again in the Strat-O-Matic leagues, but I exchanged messages with him periodically over email or through facebook, and I got to know him a little better through his voluminous and wonderful writings on his Lonesome Coyote blog. Not too long ago, he posted something on facebook about how Jerry Garcia helped him get through his long runs on cold days. I don’t do a whole lot of facebook chattering, but I chimed in on that post to join Sean in singing the praises of Jerry. Sean replied, “Josh—damn, man, did I know you were a Deadhead?” I didn’t have a chance to reply to that in a timely way, and these online conversations quickly move on to other ones and so his question was left hanging, an open invitation for more talk some other time. Like all the interactions I ever had with Sean, it seemed like there would be no end to the conversation we could have on the subject at hand, whatever it was—Bob Dylan or the Dead or old San Antonio Spurs point guards or Frederick Exley or anything and everything beautiful and ridiculous and alive under the sun.

Baseball, too, sure. He loved baseball. His favorite player was Thurman Munson. I wish I could ask him his thoughts on this 1978 Thurman Munson card, but earlier this week, Sean died in his sleep.

His voice was a hand on my shoulder, calming me and telling me to go on, go deeper and wider and farther. In an email to me in the fall of 2006, when I was starting to write for the first time in my life really just for the fuck of it and the fun of it, Sean wrote, “Proceed fearlessly, heeding no voices but your own.” A hand on my shoulder. A brother’s voice.


Lou Piniella

March 7, 2011

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

New York Yankees

There may have been a brief time when this card did not repulse me, depending on whether I came into possession of it before the 1976 brawl between the Red Sox and Yankees that began when Piniella plowed into Carlton Fisk at home plate. I started hating Lou Piniella as soon as I became aware of that brawl (via a Sports Illustrated article), and from that point whenever I had the misfortune of catching a glimpse of this card barely able to contain Lou Piniella’s big fat face, it wrenched my stomach into knots. Things only got worse, Piniella hitting a career high .330 in 1977 to help the Yankees to a narrow division win over the Red Sox (and a second pennant in a row, and a World Series title), then in 1978 topping the .300 mark again and performing heroics (more on this later) in the Yankees’ season-ending one-game playoff win over the Red Sox, which catapulted the Yankees to their third pennant and second World Series title in a row. The following year, the Yankees didn’t win, for the first time in what seemed like an eternity (years being much longer, clearer units of time in my childhood than the quick muffled arrhythmia produced by the passing years now), but the tendency of Lou Piniella to jam his big fat face into my life continued by way of Sparky Lyle’s description in the 1979 book The Bronx Zoo of Piniella’s nervous, constant habit of twirling a finger in his hair and then smelling his finger. I found the detail vaguely, intimately disturbing. It was more than I wanted to know. In fact, I would have been fine if my knowledge of Lou Piniella had stopped with what was available on this 1976 card, specifically the back of the card, which features a portrait in numbers of a pretty good hitter who had played for several second-division teams, including his current team, the Yankees, who hadn’t amounted to anything since long before I was born (so it seemed to me then). Piniella had hit just .196 with 0 home runs in his most recent year, and at age 31 entering the 1976 season these meager stats would seem to imply that Piniella would soon go away altogether and the Yankees would continue on indefinitely as also-rans.  

Instead, of course, the opposite occurred. In the Yankees’ 1970s dynasty, the most visible figure and self-appointed leader was Reggie Jackson, and the actual team leader was Thurman Munson, but Lou Piniella was, at least to me, the definitive Yankee. Consider his game-saving play in the bottom of the ninth of the one-game playoff in 1978. After a one-out single by Rick Burleson, Jerry Remy hit a fly to right that Piniella lost in the sun. Instead of panicking, he pretended that he was preparing to make a routine, nonchalant catch, then when the ball came down in front of him, he happened to be close enough to it to stick out his glove and snare it on one bounce. Burleson, fooled along with everyone into thinking that Piniella would make easy work of Remy’s fly ball, had stayed close to first and was only able to make it to second base, unable to score on the long fly out produced by the following batter, Jim Rice. The Bucky Dent home run from earlier in the game has always gotten far more attention as the pivotal moment in the game, but Piniella’s play was vital, too, and was more representative of the Yankees for its infuriating combination of smarts, skill, guts, and good luck (Dent’s improbable gust-lifted pop-up leaning much more heavily on the last of those elements).

It’s always a good sign to Yankee haters when the Yankees as an organization seem to be straying from the dynastic blueprint of augmenting their high-priced superstar players not with other high-priced superstars but with legions of Lou Piniella types. Of course, the superstar-choked Yankees won the World Series just a couple years ago after shoveling the biggest free agents on the market onto their already loaded roster, so who knows if the presence or lack thereof of “gritty” Scott Brosius types actually amounts to anything. I do know that it’s a bad sign in the context of using old baseball cards to predict the 2011 season that I randomly pulled from my shoebox the Lou Piniella card that always made me cringe, shudder, and then want to go punch something. You can sit around hoping that this won’t be true, but let’s face it: in 2011 the big fat face of the Yankees will be all up in your grill.


How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 8 of 30: read Bronx Banter, where you can get thoughtful takes on what the Yankees are up to and also read about art, music, food, Doris from Rego Park, and whatever else piques the curiosity of Alex Belth and his fellow contributors   


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


Ed Figueroa

June 4, 2010

“I didn’t know what the heck I was doing [in Vietnam], but I was there. I learned that life, it’s beautiful to be alive. I saw a lot of people dead there. When I got out of there, I was happy I was out, happy I was alive.”  -Ed Figueroa

That quote, from a 2008 Daily News article by Anthony McCarron, fleshes out the stat line for 1969 on the back of this card. (The card merely states “IN MILITARY SERVICE” for that year.) Figueroa had already spent three years in the minors before that year, and when he got home from serving with the Marines in Vietnam, he spent several more years in the minors. In all, it took him eight years, with nine minor league teams, to reach the majors, and he didn’t spend an entire season in the majors until 1976, a full decade after signing his first professional contract. I’ve written some before about Figueroa’s short, quiet span of excellence with the dynastic Yankees, so all I’ll add here is the added appreciation for him (grudging, of course, since he is a Yankee) that I got this morning upon looking at the long, winding road on the back of this card. (The back of the card also features a retroactively ironic trivia cartoon relating that “Fergie Jenkins was 1st Canadian pitcher to win 20 games in a season”; the year after this card came out, Figueroa became the first, and still only, Puerto Rican pitcher to win 20 games.)

As for the front of the card: For some reason he looks to me like he’s about to break into a stiff sales pitch for one of those ads you might see just after returning home from a night at the bar and just before falling into boozy unconsciousness. I don’t know if he ever got any endorsement deals, but if he did, considering his low profile on a team of loud, colorful characters, don’t you think that they’d have to have been the kind that aired late at night? “Oh . . . hello. I did not see you come in. Hey, now that you are here, let me tell you about this really groovy new mustache-sculpting tool that has changed my whole outlook on life.”


Well, maybe I’m prone to imagining versions of Ed Figueroa because he made some headlines yesterday in the imaginary world over at Play That Funky Baseball, the site currently replaying the 1977 season in serial novel form. The biggest story of the resurrected season so far has been Rod Carew’s 46-game hitting streak, which came to an end yesterday at the hands of Figueroa and the Yankees.


And speaking of baseball replay, I have an article up on the Huffington Post that bloviates with varying degrees of coherence about the current Joyce-inspired clamor for the expansion of the use of instant replay for umpiring decisions.


Finally, just a reminder that I’ll be sitting behind a table, or perhaps standing periodically, at a bookstore in Chicago tomorrow. Here are the details:

Barbara’s Bookstore @ Macy’s, 111 North State Street, Lower Level, Chicago, IL
Author appearance and book signing.
Free and open to the public.
For more info call: 312.781.3033

Please see my “book tour events” page for more details about other upcoming events, including a June 10 appearance in South Pasadena, a June 12 appearance in San Diego, and a June 13 appearance at the Printer’s Row festival in Chicago. 


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