Archive for the ‘New York Yankees’ Category

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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.

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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.

Sincerely,
Josh Wilker

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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   

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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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:

SATURDAY, JUNE 5TH, 3 PM CENTRAL
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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Chris Chambliss

May 6, 2010

Discussion of the recent tasering of a seventeen-year-old who ran on the field at a Phillies game has included mention of such past infringements of the spectator-athlete divide as the career-derailing stabbing of Monica Seles and the nauseating father-and-son beating of a Kansas City Royals first base coach, these examples being used as hard-to-refute “what ifs” to justify the tasering. But I found myself venturing farther back in my mind, beyond those two attacks, to my favorite world, the 1970s, when a different relationship between fans and the professional playing field prevailed.

Namely, I thought about Chris Chambliss. I’ve seen the video many times of him swatting a pennant-winning home run in 1976, but when I watched it again, I was once more stunned by it. One thing I don’t remember noticing before: the second the ball reaches the stands, a panel in the right field wall swings open and an already frenzied-looking pack of policeman spills out. It’s already too late. The next shot shows the flood of humanity pouring onto the infield, and the next shot after that shows Chambliss being tackled down to the ground in the middle of a trampling mob after rounding second base. The clip I watched (linked to above) ends before Chambliss makes his way to home plate, and considering the roiling electrified mass he has to get through, the logical assumption would be that he never made it but was instead torn limb from limb by the throng, who took pieces of the sacrificial hero home as souvenirs.

Incredibly enough, this moment was not exactly an anomaly at the time, though I think it was the most striking example of fans instantly seizing control of the field. A couple other smaller but notable and telling fan incursions of the decade included the serial benign game-interrupting done by giant-chested Morganna the Kissing Bandit, and the moment in 1974 when two young yahoos bounded onto the field to pat poor Hank Aaron on the back as he rounded third during his record-setting 715th home run trot (Aaron had been getting an avalanche of racist hate mail and death threats as he approached Babe Ruth’s record, so having two white guys rushing out of the stands at him could not have been a pleasant experience).

As the sun set on the 1970s, the fans’ claim on the field, to be exercised during moments of mania and exultation, seemed to wane. The last hurrah, in the summer of 1979, was a climax of sorts of this feeling, Disco Demolition Night. If the young, stoned mob expressed anything that night beyond the extent to which disco sucked, it was this: This field is ours.

The next year, the field was no longer ours. Ronald Reagan was elected, signaling the end of the chaotic populism of the 1970s and the beginning of a decade in which the economic distance between the haves and the have-nots in America would increase exponentially. Just a couple weeks before Reagan was elected, the last moments of the first World Series of the 1980s occurred with police in riot gear lining the field: One false move and you’ll be beaten with a nightstick or mauled by attack-trained German shepherds. When the Phillies recorded the final out, the field stayed clear of paying customers.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s bad to want to try to discourage people from charging the field. When the Phillies won that 1980 title, everybody stayed in their seats, safe, cheering and crying with joy. What could be wrong with that? But on purely symbolic terms, it seems telling that when the wide-open decade of my youth ended, the boundaries between my personal versions of heaven and earth increased.

One final thought: Watching the seventeen-year-old Phillies fan gambol around with his towel, eluding security, brought to mind another on-field eluder from bygone years, Tanner Boyle. The 1977 film The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training seemed to sense that the field, the symbolic center of American life, was closing off to all us regular irregulars. The time to play is over, so leave the field to the real professionals. Only Tanner stays out on the field, in defiance of this order, and he is able to elude taserless authorities long enough for a chant to rise up from all the rest of us (Let them play! Let them play!). I remember chanting right along in the theater as a nine-year-old. As I got swept up in the moment, I felt like I had never been closer to a major league field. When the authorities bowed to the unshakeable will of the people and the Bears were allowed to retake the field, I cheered with every other kid in the theater. We felt like we were all running onto that field. 

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Some book news: Fellow former Baseball Toasterite Bob Timmerman has an interview with me at LA Observed; Patricia at Dinged Corners offers a take on the book from a passionate card collector’s perspective; and Dick Friedman has a short but sweet review of Cardboard Gods in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated.

Also, a May 13 New York City reading has been added to the “book tour events” page.

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Sparky Lyle

January 28, 2010

Somebody check on Sparky Lyle. All the writers that helped lead me to writing are dying off, so I’m starting to get worried about the author of The Bronx Zoo, Lyle’s hilarious recounting of the 1978 season in diary form that inspired me, at the age of 11, to first start writing down words to describe my life. After Lyle got me started, the next two writers to take me by the hand were Jim Carroll, author of The Basketball Diaries, who died this past September, and J.D. Salinger, who died today.

I first read Salinger’s book in 10th grade, for school. Our assignment was to read a book and produce a book cover for it, with jacket copy that described the story. I hadn’t done shit for the class all year, so when I turned in a semi-coherent assignment the teacher ended her speech to the class about the evils of plagiarism by saying, “Yours was one of them,” and handing me back my book cover with an F on it. I stammered some kind of a denial (I was on the verge of tears), and she snapped, “Oh yeah? Then define the word ‘prestigious.’” I knew what the word meant but I couldn’t explain it to her. I think she eventually changed the F to a C because of the suicidal look on my face. At around the same time, in my French class, I was also accused of plagiarism for an assignment in which we were asked to translate the English words on a music album of our choice. I translated Rush’s Moving Pictures. The teacher believed I’d gotten my hands on a French-Canadian version of the album. Anyway, by then teachers didn’t believe I was capable of much except cheating, I guess. The next year I went off to boarding school and within a year and three-quarters was tossed out, just like ol’ Holden getting the heave ho from Pencey Prep, and that summer, with GED in hand and no clue what to do with myself, I reread The Catcher in the Rye and decided I wanted, when not smoking bong hits, masturbating, watching television, and staring off  into the distance, to try to make something as beautiful as that book. It’s an impossible aspiration, in my opinion, especially for a lazy person like me. (The closest anyone has ever come is Peter J. Smith in his great and underappreciated novel Highlights of the Offseason.) But I wouldn’t have wanted any other life than one at least half-assedly dedicated to chasing after that book.

As for Sparky Lyle: may he live for many more years. I choose to hold it as a good omen that even as early as 1975, as attested to by this 1976 card, he was wearing the ridiculously high-waisted pants of a nonagenarian.

And as for J.D. Salinger, I suggest avoiding the obituaries, which will spend an inordinate amount of time pointing past the work he did as a young man to revel in the odder details of his later life as an unrelenting recluse. In lieu of that, here’s a thoughtful 2001 article on his greatest creation.

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1977 World Series

November 5, 2009

1977 World Series

Not to be disturbingly self-centered or anything, but last night my team, the Boston Red Sox, lost a big one, in part because their old hero Pedro Martinez wasn’t up to the task of holding back a steamrolling Yankees lineup. (How do you say “daddy” in Japanese?) I’m talking about the designation of being Team of the Decade. Had the Phillies somehow won last night and in a Seventh Game tonight, only they and the Red Sox would have two World Series titles during the first decade of the twenty-first century, and the Red Sox would trump the Phillies, in my opinion, with their heavier playoff presence throughout the decade. The Phillies made it to the postseason three times, all in the last three years, while the Red Sox made it six times, and on top of that they made four appearances in the league championship series to the Phillies’ two appearances.

But that’s all moot: the fucking Yankees won, bookending the decade with titles in ’00 and ’09. And if you compare the accomplishments of the two teams with two World Series trophies in the decade, it’s not really that close. The Yankees won the division eight times to the Red Sox’ one division crown, and the Yankees added four more pennants to their gluttonous collection while the Red Sox won two. You could certainly argue that the Red Sox, in ending their 86-year title drought, deserve the distinction of being the story of the decade, and I’d also hold that in their two monumental ALCS clashes with the Yankees their comeback from an 0-3 hole in ’04 trumps the Boone home run in ’03. Really, the story of the decade comes down to the following message, written by a Yankees fan friend of mine in an email chain among friends a few days ago, as he described his mindset with his team holding a commanding three games to one lead:

“i’m permanently scarred from 2004.  i’m convinced we’re gonna blow it.  you happy now, red sox fans?”

I’m sure there aren’t any Yankees fans feeling any scars this morning, but at least the seed of doubt has been planted in their minds, and I guess that’s the best those of us who live under the basically eternal Yankees reign can hope for.

I say basically eternal because as I was thinking about this whole team of the decade thing during the series, I started going back over baseball history to see who would be the team of each decade, starting in 1900. I discovered that the Red Sox had a chance to become the first team ever besides the Yankees to repeat as team of the decade. How can anyone else repeat when they never get a chance to win the distinction in the first place?

Below is how I see it, decade by decade. I stick to the basics here, which is that I judge a team’s claim on a decade by championships. It may not necessarily be the best barometer of a team’s worth over the course of a decade, but championships are what we fans want.

1900s: Chicago Cubs
1910s: Boston Red Sox
1920s: New York Yankees
1930s: New York Yankees
1940s: New York Yankees
1950s: New York Yankees
1960s: New York Yankees
1970s: Oakland A’s
1980s: Los Angeles Dodgers
1990s: New York Yankees
2000s: New York Yankees

A couple notes on the list: I think it speaks to the game played during my childhood and teen years as a golden age of baseball that the 1970s and 1980s are the hardest for which to crown a Team of the Decade. (The 1960s are also a little iffy, since the Cardinals won as many titles as the Yankees and beat the Yankees head-to-head, but the Yankees won five pennants to the Cardinals’ three.) The 1970s are tough because there were so many dominant teams, the Yankees, Orioles, and especially the Reds all having strong claims for supremacy over the A’s, who followed their dynasty with a dive into putridness by the end of the decade. The 1980s are even tougher because it was the only decade we’ve ever seen without a dynasty, the Dodgers the only team with two titles, the first in a strike year and the second several years later by a squad that is often brought up as a “team of destiny,” which is a nice way of saying they somehow won even though they weren’t exactly bulging with Hall of Fame talent.

One thing you can say for certain about the first of the two Golden Age decades, the 1970s, is that the man pictured in the card above was the Player of the Decade, in terms of championships: he won five. Here’s my stab, without researching it beyond leafing through the jumbled mass of facts and fictions in my mind, at choosing the championship player of the decade since 1900:

1900s: Frank Chance
1910s: Harry Hooper
1920s: Babe Ruth
1930s: Lou Gehrig
1940s: Joe Dimaggio
1950s: Yogi Berra
1960s: Mickey Mantle
1970s: Reggie Jackson
1980s: Lonnie Smith (that’s right; look him up)
1990s: Mariano Rivera
2000s: Derek Jeter

The last two decades have come down to the last year to determine a decade champion. Had the Braves beat the Yankees in 1999 they would have been gotten the distinction, and if the Phillies had won this year the nod would have gone to the Red Sox. Now we’ll all have to wait around another ten years, if we’re lucky enough to last that long, to see if anyone else can sneak onto the list for a change. For now, as the card at the top of this page puts it, let’s just face it: the Yankees reign supreme.

I’ll leave it to Artie Lange to have the last word on the matter. I’m currently reading the recent book, Too Fat to Fish, by the comedian and compellingly self-destructive, big-hearted Howard Stern show personality, who is a raging Yankees fan, and the high point of his life is the moment memorialized by the card at the top of this page. He was there that day. Though he misspells Mike Torrez’ name (and earlier misidentified the yielder of Reggie’s third home run as Bob Welch, who wouldn’t have his famous showdowns with Reggie until 1978), he does a good job of describing the way childhood joy can turn into something almost haunting as the years go on:

Torres caught the ball easily to end the game, and he and Thurman Munson embraced at the mound and started the celebration. When I saw that they’d won, I practically went numb. I started screaming and jumping up and down uncontrollably; it was such an overwhelming feeling of elation that I was incapable of containing myself in any way. To this day, I have never been as happy as I was at that moment. I think that deep down, subconsciously, I have been chasing that feeling ever since. That type of rush, the kind that overcomes every bit of your being, is the same rush you get when you first chase money and gamble. And heroin? Don’t even get me started. I’ve done both of those over and over again, and even at their best they don’t measure up to a fraction of what I felt that night. I think most people’s happiest times occur when they’re children. Whether you’re rich or poor, we’re all kids for a while; we are basically carefree . . . the only time in life when anyone can ever be 100 percent happy. Not to sound like a negative prick, but once you become an adult, particularly if you do not have money, life becomes just one stressful, unending parade of depressing bullshit.

I didn’t put all this together as a ten-year-old. I was too busy losing my mind with joy. (p. 34)

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Rich Coggins

September 18, 2009

Rich Coggins 76

Yesterday on the train home I looked around at my fellow riders and wondered which of us was closest to death. Nobody looked particularly sickly, and the oldest guy was probably only in his fifties, not really that much older than me. I don’t know why the thought came into my head.

I have a pile of loose cards in my shoebox that works as my “on deck” circle. These are the cards that I have considered writing about on this site but haven’t yet gotten around to doing so. This Rich Coggins card has been in that pile longer than any other card. It’s a card that I remember from my childhood and that, upon first looking at it as an adult, after years of these cards being out of my sight, gave me the same jolt that it had given me as a kid. It’s a jarring thing to stare at Rich Coggins as he appears on his 1976 Yankees card. It always has been. Many times in the last three years I’ve picked up the card and felt that jolt, but I was never able to put that feeling into words. Why do I feel the need to bury everything with words?

I started Cardboard Gods just a little over three years ago (first post on 9.10.06, to be exact), and I often pine for the what seems to me now to be the simplicity of that start. At that time my cards had been disentangled from the rubber bands that had kept them sorted into teams when I was a kid, and so everything was loose in the box. My plan was to start every single day by blindly dipping my hand into the box and pulling out a card at random and writing about it. This method, coupled with the fact that I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time looking at my cards in years, lent an exciting freshness to my first attempts to attach my own words to the cards that had centered my childhood. It was as if I had found a way to once again look at the cards for the first time.

As the odd practice progressed, I found my thoughts stretching out, making it difficult to post something once a day (plus: I am lazy), and I also found myself wanting to come at the cards from many different angles beyond just jotting my impressions of looking at the randomly chosen card. Often I’d find myself thinking about a certain player and how he related in some strange way to a story opening up in my head, but then to find that player I had to dig through my whole box of unsorted cards. Eventually I decided to sort all my cards back into teams, again retracing the steps of my younger self, and with that the element of randomness was diminished. I still sometimes try to pick a card at random, but by now I know generally where each stack is located in the shoebox (I have them piled by division) and I know the relative thickness of each team. I can no longer fake my way past the sobering fact that almost all of my cards have already come to me.

A certain sense of aftermath has presided over things here at Cardboard Gods for the last few weeks, a feeling that it’s all been done, all been said. I suppose this is only natural. In addition to writing about my cards on a regular basis for three years, I have also spent the last several months expending all my energy and heart on focusing my baseball card prayers into a full-length book (due out April 2010) that tells the story of my life and of the life of these gods and how the two have always been intertwined. In certain ways it’s a book that I have been working on for many, many years. Little wonder that I feel a little played out right now.

A little cross-eyed. A little disheveled, with buttons undone. A little like I’m staggering through the dusk. A little closer to the end. A little like Rich Coggins. Indeed, Rich Coggins, erstwhile Bumbryesque speedster and singles-swatting Orioles outfielder, was not long for the game at the time of this disquieting photo. He played in just seven games for the Yankees in 1976 before they tossed him into a Ken Brett for Carlos May deal that landed him on the White Sox, where he batted a funereal .156. When a batter hits .156, the sun has set for good. Rich Coggins had to wander out into that darkness beyond the heaven in which he had existed for a handful of years. He joined all the rest of us. All the acolytes. All the fallen gods.

Since I started this site, some of the gods have slipped away altogether, including most notably the very first player I wrote about, Mark Fidrych (who, after Yaz–may he live forever–is the second-most-featured player on this site). But Rich Coggins is still around. And I’m still around. I don’t know how Rich Coggins is handling the aftermath, but I plan to keep on finding ways to pray my way through these cards to the cross-eyed heaven of this one brief life.

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Ron Blomberg

April 9, 2009

ron-blomberg-761

For me, this day is not really that different from any other day. Like a lot of days, I’m going to try to start it with a prayer of sorts, which basically means I’m going to pay attention to one of my old baseball cards. Then I’m going to go to work, put in my hours, and come home and eat and watch television.

***

I wonder where Ron Blomberg is on this day. When last I heard, back in 2007, he was managing in a fledging professional baseball league in Israel. The Designated Hebrew had made it to the promised land.

***

Some years on this day I worked a double-shift at a liquor store on 8th Street in Manhattan. I usually pulled this shift with my Chinese co-worker, Ngai, but one time Ngai was unavailable and my brother had to come out of liquor-store-clerking retirement and the two of us minded the store while the owner, Morty, and the night manager, Dave, took Passover off. In a way, the two of us together made up one full (and fully nonobservant) Jew. It was usually pretty quiet on those days. We had a kosher wine display up front, near the counter. On the counter itself, on the opposite side of it from the cash register, there was a small television. If we were lucky, there’d be a baseball game on in the evening. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Ed Figueroa in . . . the Nagging Question

March 15, 2009

ed-figueroa-78

Let’s sneak in a conversation about baseball before the yearly sickness descends upon me, changing me from a guy who does not care at all about college basketball into a fanatic whose entire existence depends upon it. This malady, which is not altogether unpleasant despite the overwhelming outward appearance of suffering in all its many subcategories, such as disappointment, frustration, anger, dyspepsia, insomnia, helplessness, self-loathing, and shame. Ah, March Madness! But more on this later in the week, when I throw myself onto the tines of that 24-hour-a-day bracket-shaped mania. For now, let’s talk some baseball. The sun is shining in my window as I write this, spring edging closer. You might think I’d want to celebrate that development with something other than a mustachioed crater-faced sourpuss in a Yankees uniform, but, firstly, I have to admit some grudging respect for the unsung achievements of this key figure in the Yankees dynasty that soured my childhood, and, secondly, he’s a good illustration for the Nagging Question that’s been on my mind. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Dock Ellis, 1977

December 22, 2008
 Untitled 
“As a human being they really don’t come any better.” – former teammate Al Oliver on Dock Ellis

Dock Ellis got sober in 1980, the year after his notable major league career came to an end. From what I can gather, he spent his remaining years helping others. In fact he had already begun reaching out to help others during his career, often going into prisons to talk to inmates, where he learned not only that he could get through to people in difficult situations but that it was for him something of a calling.

In a 1989 epilogue to Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, author Donald Hall provides a glimpse into Dock’s post-baseball career:

“Dock’s desire remains clear and passionate, or it remains passionate and turns clearer. He wants to work with addicts from the ghetto who, in support of their addiction, turn to crime and are slammed away. . . . He works with young, mostly black, who never had anything, by talking. Dock has always been a talker; now it is his profession and moral duty. ‘The first thing they tell you, they didn’t have anybody to talk to. No one to talk to.’ In order to talk to them, he is prepared to settle down after a lifetime of jetting around. ‘If I’m working with kids, I’m doing what I want to do.’” (pp. 333-334)

Dock always had the guts to do what he wanted to do. During his years as a high profile major league star, this kind of bravery made him an outspoken, polarizing character, vilified by some but honored by others, including Jackie Robinson, who near the end of his own life personally reached out to Ellis to encourage him to continue taking stands when he saw fit.

Ellis’ exploits could fill a book, as indeed they did in the aforementioned classic by Ellis and the future United States Poet Laureate. It’s certainly worth it to spend some time today remembering Dock, who passed away on Friday, as he was in the 1970s spotlight, and the links below are provided toward that end, but think also of the Dock who existed out of the spotlight, away from the game, where his life could be an illustration of the line in the Wailers “Pass It On”: “Live for yourself, and you live in vain. Live for others and you live again.”

Check out Jay Jaffe’s Futility Infielder for an excellent retrospective of Ellis’ career. Be sure to follow the link Jaffe provides for a great rock song inspired by Ellis.

Click on this link to hear audio (below a slide show) of Ellis describing the no-hitter he pitched while on acid. At the end of the audio there is the actual radio call of the final out.

Visit the Griddle’s post on Ellis’ passing (this is where I learned the sad news) to read a story by commenter Eric Enders about a friendly and memorable meeting with Dock Ellis at the site of old Forbes Field.

And, finally, check out some video about Ellis’ appearance as an All-Star game starter in 1971:

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’77 Record Breaker (Reggie Jackson)

October 22, 2008
 Untitled 

“By this time next week, B.J. Upton may have broken every playoff hitting record in existence.” Jonah Keri, “This World Series is must-see TV

B.J. Upton’s homer-hitting pace in the 2008 playoffs—seven in eleven post-season games—has been astonishing, a pace that would net him 103 home runs in a 162-game season. But even if he somehow manages to keep up that pace during the World Series he still wouldn’t break the record depicted in this 1978 baseball card, not even if the series goes seven games, one longer than the 1977 World Series that Reggie Jackson owned.

Has anyone ever owned a World Series more? Off the top of my head I can think of a couple other World Series characterized by the transcendently dominant play of a single player: Brooks Robinson’s 1970 World Series, and Roberto Clemente’s 1971 World Series. But when I run the blurry highlight reel in my head of those players leading their team to a championship I see them in a wider focus that includes at least one or two other players on the field. I see, for example, an Oriole first baseman receiving Robinson’s throw after another miraculous hot-corner stop, or a Pirate player scoring after a laser line drive off the bat of Clemente. On the other hand, when I think of the 1977 World Series, I think of Reggie, alone, reveling in the inarguable glory of Reggie.

Good lord, what must it have been like to be Reggie at the moment captured by this card? [Author update: as noted repeatedly in the comments below, the moment captured in the card is clearly not from the World Series. D'oh!] You could argue that no one on a baseball diamond has ever been higher. Deciding game of the World Series. Biggest stage in baseball. Biggest city in America. Three pitches, three thunderous home runs. Certainly no one had ever been so high while also possessing the presence of mind—and the hulking ego—to pause magnificently and take in all the many details of the kingdom he’d just claimed: Reggie the conqueror, admiring the view from his unprecedented pinnacle at the top of the world. God, I hated him. But the world would have been flimsier without him.

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Wade Boggs

July 16, 2008
 Untitled 

We carried you
in our arms
on Independence Day.
And now you throw us all aside
and put us all away.
– “Tears of Rage,” Richard Manual and Bob Dylan

I’ve had this propensity to weep for aging male athletes waving to crowds since I was ten years old. That year I got choked up watching the long ovation for John Havlicek during his last game, even though to that point I hadn’t really followed basketball very closely. It didn’t matter, I guess. I was still moved by all the gratitude and sadness of the roaring mob’s goodbye. As the years went by I began to anticipate these moments—last games, retirement ceremonies, the hanging in the rafters of numbers, limping arthritic reunions—the way some other person might anticipate going to a sappy movie to “have a good cry.”

And so I was looking forward to last night, when dozens of Hall of Famers would be introduced prior to the All-Star Game. And things were looking good. I was taking it slow, working myself up to a nice happy wet-eyed moment in which I would stand there in my living room alone, clapping and croaking hoarsely “Yeah! Yeah!” In fact, I had already risen from the sofa and was pacing around the room by the time they got to the third basemen, so I think I looked away from the screen before getting a good look at all four Former Greats standing there. All I saw, besides the unmistakable figures of Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, and George Brett, was some bearded guy in a Yankees cap.

“Graig Nettles?” I wondered. That didn’t seem right, but who else could it be?

Turned out it was the guy pictured here.

I’m pretty sure he was the only Former Great on the field who chose not to wear the cap that is on his head in his Hall of Fame plaque. Shortly after Boggs’s introduction, Dave Winfield was introduced wearing a Padres cap, but he acknowledged his bond to the Yankees by producing a second cap and holding the two caps up together. Gary Carter did something similar a bit later. This seemed the classy thing to do, the only way to pay tribute to both fan bases that had supported those players for many years.

Of course, it would have taken a bit more courage to stand there in Yankee Stadium in a Red Sox cap than in a Padres or Expos cap. Before I describe a few of my immediate reactions to Boggs’ failure to display such courage, let me just say that I hate it when the ritualistic sentimental fugues I lapse into during Former Great moments get marred by baser emotions. Spite. Hurt. Anger.

Gutless, I said. You’re dead to me, I said. You’re a nauseatingly sycophantic ass-kisser, I said. Nobody thinks you’re cool, I said, tears of rage starting to form.

We carried you in our arms, Wade Boggs. It was on Independence Day, as a matter of fact, right there in Yankee Stadium, and a real Yankee, Dave Righetti, struck your ass out to clinch a no-hitter. It was humiliating for this Red Sox fan to see, salt in deep wounds, but I stuck with you. I stuck with you when they started to write that you weren’t a team player. I stuck with you despite your robotic lack of flair, despite your abundantly obvious self-absorption, despite your embarrassing involvement in the Margo Adams mess, despite the hints of cowardice in your “pulling a hamstring” to protect your batting title lead over a real Yankee, Don Mattingly. When you wept in the dugout in 1986, I wept too. And if you’d had the guts to wear the cap that is on your plaque in the Hall of Fame, I’m sure I would have wept again, but happily, joyfully.

It took a while, but I had finally become able to accept the existence of the harrowing image of you up on a goddamn horse in pinstripes. You got yours, I could finally say (though it took a World Series win or two for me to be able to say it; I don’t deny that I’m a small man). After all, you deserve it. You were a fantastic hitter, a scientist so devoted and pure that you turned science into art. You came along during a rough stretch in my life and the life of my team, my awkward adolescence coinciding with the dreary, lonely Last Days of Yaz, an era that would have been devoid of hope and light without your yearly assault on the summit of the Sunday batting averages. I want to see you in my mind in a Red Sox uniform, peppering doubles off the Monster. But now all I see is you in pinstripes, up on that horse. So Wade Boggs, here’s my response to your appearance last night: Fuck you and that horse you rode off on.

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