Archive for the ‘Pittsburgh Pirates’ Category

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Jim Gott

May 6, 2013

Exif_JPEG_422I had stuffed animals as a kid. The dog shown here isn’t one of them. I don’t have them anymore. My favorite was a stuffed dog named Spot. He and I used to have brawls. I used to punch him and throw him across the room, and I’d pretend he was doing the same to me. The key element of the whole recurring fantasy was that Spot was beating the shit out of me as I was beating the shit out of Spot. I suppose I imagined that in the end I threw the final, decisive punch, but this victory was secondary to the central function of the whole endeavor, which was to pretend that I was in a horrible fight. I don’t know why I was so prone to imagining violence, specifically violence being done to me. There wasn’t any actual hitting of me or anyone else in the house I grew up in, besides my older brother sometimes becoming so exasperated with my incessant needling commentary and questions and need for attention that he’d punch me in a “phaser-set-to-stun” kind of way in the arm.

And yet, I still imagine my face getting smashed in on a fairly regular basis. Life is one fucking invisible worry after another, one thing breaking after another, one long day after another. And now, for me, there’s a small boy in the center of it, not even two years old, and it’s up to me to protect him, as if I could do so by draping my arm around him like the stuffed dog in this photo is doing to Jim Gott, one of the cards my son plays with sometimes. But I can’t protect him. I’m at the mercy of forces far beyond me.

Spot is in a landfill somewhere, I guess, probably all but disintegrated. He was full of white Styrofoam pellets. Because of all the fighting I subjected him to, he sprung several wounds and would bleed the little white pellets everywhere. I imagined bleeding all over the place, too. Then the two of us would lie there together in the wreckage, arm in arm, and make peace.

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Guest post by Ted Anthony: Rennie Stennett

August 21, 2012

Today on Cardboard Gods guest writer Ted Anthony marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of a bad day for Rennie Stennett. Anthony, a journalist for The Associated Press, has been a national and foreign correspondent and has covered, among other things, China, Iraq, Afghanistan and how American culture is changing in the 21st century. He is the author of the cultural history Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song (Simon & Schuster, 2007). A Pittsburgh native, he was deeply traumatized as a boy when his parents dragged him off by the hair to Asia in 1979, the year the Pirates won the World Series. They have not done so since.

Rennie Stennett

by Ted Anthony 

He looks off camera, to the side, as if distracted by something coming toward him. And something was.

Rennie Stennett was one of the best second basemen of the 1970s. That’s saying something, given that Rod Carew spent half of the 1970s at second base and names like Willie Randolph and Joe Morgan were also occupying the bag in those years. 

Stennett could run, he could field, and oh — could he hit in the clutch. On Sept. 16, 1975, as his card trumpets on the back, he went 7 for 7 in a nine-inning game. What it doesn’t say is that his hits were part of one of the most lopsided games in baseball history: The Pirates beat the Cubs, 22-0. We in Pittsburgh don’t have games like that anymore. It would be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Stennett was a thrilling part of the 1976 Pirates, a team that, in retrospect, I loved even more than the 1979 “Fam-a-lee.” This was “The Lumber Company,” a team full of Stargells and Hebners and Zisks and Candelarias and Mooses and Robinsons and a young rightfielder named Dave Parker whose days as a battery throwee were still in the future. We even had Mario Mendoza, he of the now-famous line. I can still hear Milo Hamilton saying our second baseman’s name in a deep voice: “And RENN-ie STENN-ett pulls into third with a standup triple.”

Yet Rennie Stennett is mostly forgotten, because of what happened 35 years ago today.

It was August of 1977, and we had embarked upon the first major cross-country trip of my childhood. The Pirates were well en route to a respectable five-games-out finish in the NL East behind their rival of the time, the Phillies, when my parents poured me into the back of my mother’s powder-blue Maverick. With my father driving, we set out from Pittsburgh to Jacksonville Fla., to see my uncle and many cousins. 

We largely bypassed the interstates and pointed our car toward Plains, Georgia. You’ll recall, of course, Plains, Georgia — home to the freshly minted president, peanut farmer Jimmy Carter, and, perhaps more famously, home to the gas station belonging to his brother, the indefatigable Billy. (Wikipedia enshrines Billy this way: “Carter’s name was occasionally used as a gag answer for a Washington, D.C. trouble-maker on 1970s episodes of The Match Game.”)

Pre-iPod, pre-XM, AM radio was our constant companion. Local stations faded in and out as we passed through West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina. Various iterations of Stuckey’s appeared at the side of the road, then receded. We stopped only if my mother wanted some pecan clusters or if I needed a new pack of Colorforms or a bag of pork rinds. On the morning of Aug. 17, I remember hearing some Southern-accented announcer cut in on a song — was it Alan O’Day’s “Undercover Angel”? — to tell us that someone named Elvis Presley had died the previous day. “The King is dead,” I remember the announcer saying. My mother, generally progressive when it came to the arts, had this to say: “I didn’t much like his music.” I made a mental note to find some and prove her wrong.

And so we proceeded to Plains. We stopped at Billy’s gas station, and he wasn’t there, but we came away with a lot of peanut memorabilia and a few 7-ounce Pabst Blue Ribbons etched with “Billy” and the date in an electric pencil by some forgotten attendant. These would be great traders to build my beer can collection. We vacationed in Florida, saw cousins, went to beaches, sweated. And then, a few days later, we drove back. 

On the way home, an announcer came on during some South Carolina sportscast and told us that Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Rennie Stennett had broken his right leg while sliding into, of all things, second base. He was batting .336 at the time. He was gone for the season and, though we didn’t know it at the time, for good.

We kept hurtling north, back to Pittsburgh. The summer of 1977, fading, was hurtling equally fast toward fourth grade. Rennie Stennett’s ankle was broken, and he would not become the Hall of Fame second baseman I was certain he was destined to be. He would leave the Pirates quietly at the end of 1979, their year of triumph. His career, an asterisk to Pirates history, would peter out early in Reagan’s first term. 

Somehow things weren’t what they should be anymore. Elvis was dead, and I knew that mattered, but I wasn’t quite certain why. I certainly couldn’t drink the PBR from Billy’s gas station, and I didn’t even want to yet. Disco was rotting my brain. And there was Rennie Stennett on his baseball card, gazing off camera a bit warily as if something was hurtling toward him. And something was.

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Ed Kirkpatrick

April 10, 2012

Satori

Three

The smallest communicative symbol on this card, the hyphen joining the positions inside the baseball in the lower right corner, identifies Ed Kirkpatrick as a major league handyman. He crouches in the posture of the second of his two hyphenated roles, but he does so without wearing a chest protector or shin guards, ready at any moment to toss aside his catcher’s mitt for a first baseman’s glove or, perhaps more likely, to walk back to the bench. That’s the implication of the hyphen in a hyphenated cardboard identity. You might be useful but you aren’t terribly important.

I have a job at which I might be useful but I’m not terribly important. My job is to test the suitability of hyphens, among other similar tasks. When not at my job, I write, so when I am presented with the dreaded question “What do you do?” I usually hyphenate that rendition of myself, sometimes putting the “writer” part in front of the hyphen, sometimes after, the hyphen a kind of permanent scar in between the two things. I sometimes attempt a healing of the scar by writing about my job, and whenever I mention this job in my writing it comes off as a complaint, implying that my life should be pure creativity and growth but isn’t. Why must there be cubicles, long bus rides, boredom, upgrades, meetings, processes, layoffs, anxiety? But the truth is I’m glad I have a job, and if I were any kind of a decent honest human being I’d wipe the constant grimace off my face and even smile for the camera about having a job, as Ed Kirkpatrick does in this 1975 card. If I may veer into religious diction for a moment, as a hyphenated Jew-Christian who was raised neither and who just spent the Passover/Easter weekend as if Jesus was only the lesser Alou and Moses was only a hyphenated outfielder-first baseman from the 1980s: thank you Lord Almighty for my job. Life could be a hell of a lot worse. Word of calamity is always so close at hand as to seem inevitable. We took a walk this past weekend, my wife and baby son and I, and near the end we passed a flier for a candlelight vigil. Someone was shot a few blocks from our house last Thursday, a gang thing I guess. Ed Kirkpatrick was the card I picked at random from my shoebox this morning. I knew him only as a hyphenated guy on a card from my childhood, so I checked the internet and learned that soon after his playing career ended he got in a car accident that put him in a coma for five months and left him paralyzed. He kept going for many years beyond that but died of cancer in 2010.

I have to go switch to the other side of the hyphen soon and head for the bus. Throughout the first half of my long ride, the bus fills with community college students about as old as Ed Kirkpatrick was when he first started playing pro ball, a teenage phenom seemingly destined for stardom. By the time of this 1975 card, Ed Kirkpatrick’s first spectacular years in minor league ball were far behind him, as was a sputtering major league start with the franchise he came up, the Angels. He’d moved on to the Royals, where he’d played well, if not superlatively, and by now, on his third team, he’d settled fully into his major league identity, a useful if not essential handyman.

The community college students chatter. They complain about teachers, recite their philosophies, brag that this girl or that girl is “on my balls,” and explain to one another that they soon will be transferring to a better college. This last snippet doesn’t surface every ride but it’s definitely the most common topic of conversation among the students, I’ve noticed. I’m here, yes, but the real me is somewhere better, just a step or two into the future. I’m glad for the extra elbow room when the bus pulls up at the college and the bus discharges all these youth, but the ensuing silence among we few solitaries who remain is always a little sad.

The bus ride goes on for quite a while after the stop at the community college. I could spend it watching my breath, trying to get back to what Shunryu Suzuki called beginner’s mind, but instead I listen to Howard Stern on my satellite radio. Suzuki was a Zen teacher who helped establish the practice of Zen meditation in America. His book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, was an important one for me, but the practice I once believed would grow stronger and stronger until finally I was “enlightened” has instead flickered in and out like a bulb connected to faulty wiring. Unlike the “other” Suzuki who brought Zen to America, D.T. Suzuki, Shunryu Suzuki didn’t stress the idea of satori, of a shattering moment of enlightenment, in his teaching, but he did stress constancy. Watch your breath every day. Watch your posture every day. Straight spine. Beginner’s mind.

It was easy to seize on the idea of beginner’s mind, of being open to each moment, when I was the age of the community college students who ride my bus. It’s a little tougher now. Life is full of tedium, repetition, and I’m complicit in it. I complain about tedium, yet this is the life I’ve built, and I did it for a reason. When the bus empties out at the community college, the few of us left behind are all sitting alone, scattered throughout the bus, older, beyond the years of promise, looking out the windows and worrying.

Ed Kirkpatrick is not worried in this 1975 card. He never attained the satori he seemed as a teenager to be destined for, and by now whatever uniform he wears must certainly seem tentative, but none of this troubles him. Within a couple years he’ll move to another team, then another, then be nudged out of the big leagues altogether. Not long after that, car accident, coma, paralysis. Finally, gone altogether. Here and now, he is everything you would want for yourself or for anyone you love. He is glad to be a part of something. He is glad to have a place. Who knows what transfers will occur a step or two into the future? What can you do but try to take a breath and let it out with a little smile? What can you do but try to assume a solid yet relaxed stance for receiving? Where can you ever be but here and now?

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Bruce Kison

February 8, 2012

How Strange the Design

Four

There’s a trend toward the unusual, even the bizarre. That was the horoscope for Mike Torrez on October 2, 1978. But what use could this information have been? Torrez may or may not have read his horoscope that day, but he did go into the game with a plan, at least for the batter who ended up proving the accuracy of the horoscope.

“I wanted to pitch him in,” Torrez said in a 2001 USA Today article, referring to the Yankees’ light-hitting shortstop, Bucky Dent, “get him off the plate, then go away from him with a good slider, give him an outside pitch down and away. I never got to throw him an outside pitch. I got too much of the plate.”

He wanted to get him off the plate but being human and fallible failed in his attempt to use a plan to stave off the unusual, even bizarre. The day was undone.

Which reminds me, I never finished telling you about Luke Walker. When last seen on these pages, he had just thrown a historic pitch—the first ever in a night game in the World Series—for a strike and was ahead in the count to Orioles leadoff hitter Paul Blair. Things rapidly disintegrated. Blair singled, as did Mark Belanger and Merv Rettenmund, loading the bases with no outs. A passed ball scored Blair, Frank Robinson was walked intentionally, and Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell plated two more runs with back to back sacrifice flies. Down 3-0 in the first inning, Luke Walker was lifted from Game 4 of the 1971 World Series, and a call was made to the bullpen. A tall, thin rookie named Bruce Kison moved toward the center of the diamond.

Kison had started the 1971 season in the minors. While there, he was featured in a Sports Illustrated article by Pat Jordan on bush league life in the Pirates’ system. The piece included this telling sketch of the young unknown:

Kison retires the side in the fifth, but in the sixth he gives up two singles with one out. He gets the fourth batter to pop out to third base and then he fires two quick strikes past the potential third out. [Catcher Woody] Huyke crouches behind the right-handed batter and sticks two fingers beneath his glove. Kison flicks his glove fingers. Huyke responds with one finger and Kison nods slightly. Woody then hunches over the outside corner, but before he can set himself Kison flicks his glove again. Huyke shifts to the inside corner and places his glove at a level with the batter’s knees. Again Kison flicks his glove. The catcher raises his target until it rests inches from the batter’s chin. Kison goes into his motion and fires a fastball directly at the spot where the batter’s head would have been if he had not fallen to the dirt.

Kison was promoted to the majors in July, where he contributed to the Pirates’ pennant drive with 6 victories (and 6 hit batsmen) in 95 innings of work. In relief of the battered Luke Walker in game 4 of the World Series, the Pirates teetering on the brink of a 3-1 series deficit to the defending champs, Kison hurled 6 and a 1/3 innings of one-hit shutout ball, earning the win. The key line from the box score would have to be this one:

HBP: Etchebarren (1, by Kison); F Robinson (1, by Kison); Johnson (1, by Kison).

The three hit-batsmen in one game established a World Series record. An AP article about the game attributed the high-speed assaults to Kison’s “history of wildness.” Pat Jordan revisited Kison in another Sports Illustrated story after the World Series, and the former pro pitcher turned legendary sportswriter provides a more nuanced view of Kison’s propensity for hit batsmen:

Those Orioles were simply being served notice that despite Kison’s virginal appearance he was not one to treat idly. Kison had hit a high proportion of batsmen in his three-year professional career. He hit seven batters in one minor league game, which he won. His difficulty stems from a fastball that breaks sharply in on a right-handed batter at the last second. This break is often misjudged and can result in bruised ribs. Also, because his curveball is such a brief affair and anxious batters tend to lean far over the plate hoping to paste it to the right-field wall, Kison must protect himself by firing an occasional pitch inside. This combination of a batter leaning one way and a fastball breaking the other accounts for the knockdowns. There is a feeling among Kison’s friends that he is not particularly upset when he hits a batter, that he feels it helps compensate for his limited repertoire (two basic pitches) and his boyish appearance. Yet, in the fourth game of the Series, he claimed his youthful wildness was responsible for the three hit batters—Dave Johnson, Andy Etchebarren and Frank Robinson. Strangely enough, he did not walk a single batter during that span.

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“Any pitcher who permits a hitter to dig in on him is asking for trouble. I never deliberately tried to hit anyone in my life. I throw close just to keep the hitters loose up there.” – Carl Mays

“I wasn’t trying to hit anybody. I can’t help it if my fastball runs in on the right-handed batters.” – Bruce Kison

Bruce Kison uttered the above quote in 1974, after a game between the Pirates and the Reds. Kison’s pitches had been sizzling under the chins of Reds’ batters all game, and finally in retaliation Reds pitcher Jack Billingham plunked Kison. Billingham was ejected, and manager Sparky Anderson came onto the field to argue the ejection with home plate ump Ed Sudol. During the argument, Anderson stepped on the foot of Pirates’ catcher Ed Kirkpatrick, who reacted by shoving Anderson. At that point, according to the powerless would-be peacekeeper Sudol, swarms from both teams “ran onto the field like animals.” A prolonged fist-swinging brawl ensued.

Three years later, Kison plunked slugger Mike Schmidt, who took offense and began jawing at Kison. According to Pirates manager Chuck Tanner, the dialogue between Schmidt and Kison proceeded like this:

Schmidt: The next time you do that I’m going to come after you.

Kison: Why don’t you come now?

Within moments, both benches had emptied. Pirates catcher Ed Ott, a former wrestler known for body-slamming and choke-holding fellows during brawls, grabbed Schmidt, and Phillies man-mountain Greg “The Bull” Luzinski grabbed Kison.

Kison, seemingly always ready to send a purpose pitch, remarked of Luzinski afterward, “Boy did he have B.O.”

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Luke Walker

February 2, 2012

How Strange the Design

Two

One day when I was young and stupid, my brother and I walked down the road together. It was a summer day. I wore a green cap with a white felt M on it, the cap from our little league team. We walked toward the general store, as usual, but that day we walked past it, over a short bridge above the river. Just past the bridge, a road split off from our road and climbed up out of the valley. The house at the intersection of the two roads had spilled things onto the lawn, and they were for sale. We found a box with some baseball cards. The cards were all beaten up and featured players we’d never heard of. This 1970 Luke Walker card was among them. I didn’t recognize the name. He was gone from the major leagues by then, and his brief moment in the national spotlight had occurred years earlier, when I’d been too young to notice. The obscurity of his name and of his worn-away face made the card seem strange and ancient, as if it had traveled through centuries to reach me. All the cards were like this. My brother and I thought we had found mysterious, valuable relics selling for pennies a piece. We thought we’d struck it rich.

That was over 30 years ago. Now I wake up early every day while it’s still dark so I can write a little before everything resumes its unstoppable forgettable forward lurch. I usually have about an hour. Sometimes I waste most or all of it. Sometimes I cast around the internet for pieces of the past. Two mornings ago instead of writing I found a newspaper article on Luke Walker from 1971. He’d won 15 games in 1970, and in spring training before the 1971 season he brushed aside a reporter’s suggestion that he was primed to win 20 in the coming year by rhetorically wondering why the reporter was limiting him to that benchmark. Why not 25? This is how you feel when you’re young and stupid. You hold cardboard in your hands and it feels like great riches. You hold a ball in your hands and it feels alive. Luke Walker didn’t remotely approach 25 wins in 1971. He didn’t even reach double figures in wins after 1971, and by 1974 he had thrown his last pitch in the big leagues.

One day when I was young and stupid I walked back home with my brother, my pockets bulging with what seemed to be a fortune in unfamiliar currency from a vanished civilization. It was a summer day. I wore a green cap with a white felt M on it. I don’t have that cap anymore, but I still have the 1970 Luke Walker card that was in my pocket, and yesterday morning instead of writing I found a trace of a moment of great promise in Luke Walker’s life. Most of the video containing this trace is taken up by pregame chatter and player introductions, but the very end includes the historic first pitch of the first night game in World Series history. The camera is set up behind home plate, providing a daunting view of the pitcher, a twitchy, bristling lefthander named Luke Walker. He winds and fires, and the ball comes in fast and with a darting downward snarl to it, catching the low outside corner of the zone for a called strike, an unhittable pitch. The game is halted so that a suited lackey can jog onto the diamond and retrieve the ball for posterity, and at that point the video ends, with Luke Walker on the mound under the lights in the World Series, ahead in the count.

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Richie Zisk

September 16, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

Z Is for Zisk

This morning, the start of my 48th day as a parent, while groping around in my shoebox of cards, exhausted, unmoored, looking for some kind of anchor, I randomly pulled free this Richie Zisk card and started thinking—because of the unusual first letter of his surname—about the alphabet, and at that moment in another room of my home my son began to cry, a sound that spikes the air with barbed invisible question marks, and I began to wonder as I hurried toward the sound what it might be like to know everything I need to know. What if—instead of knowing nothing at all—I knew the terrain of parenting backward and forward? My life has been nothing if not an exercise in palliative fantasies, so why stop now? And so we begin a Cardboard Gods ABCs of parenting at the end, with Z, first things fuckin’ last, to use the phrasing of Nice Guy Eddie in Reservoir Dogs, when he was trying to piece together the details of a situation that had gone completely to shit and was clearly only going to get worse. Am I hinting with this cinematic reference that parenting for me has been like a botched, bloody heist scheme threatening to destroy everyone involved? Are you imagining that me, my wife, and our baby are currently in a Mexican stand-off, weapons drawn and cocked, shirts stained with the liquid of soured internal processes, eyes reddened with fatigue and weeping? Well, it hasn’t been like that, or at least not all the time. It is one moment at a time, some better than others, each a volatile enigma. Yesterday, the boy took a break from a long stint of red-faced grunting unhappiness and smiled up at me for a few minutes. Two days ago, he gnawed on a Red Sox pacifier and seemed content, briefly. Three days ago, when I was almost done with my bike ride home from my commute, I spotted my wife on the sidewalk, carrying the boy in a baby bjorn. I got off the bike and fell in slow step with them, the three of us meandering around the neighborhood for a while on a mild fall evening, an awareness falling down on me that in moments like this I could not be more blessed. (Key detail: just before my arrival, the boy had abruptly stopped screaming and fallen unconscious.)

Anyway, on to today’s lesson, while I still am within this narrow gap of time between tasks that have otherwise banished my writing to regions so distant and hypothetical as to border the hoary regions of frustration in which occurred my long-gone pubescent imaginings of sexual intercourse with the intangible pop culture sex symbols of my youth, such as Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Bailey and Jennifer from WKRP in Cincinnati (yes, the gnawing ache of knowing that in reality I would never be able to fondle Cheryl Tiegs’ boobs has now reentered my life as a yearning for having time to sit down and write, say, a literary ode to Cheryl Tiegs’ boobs): Z is for Zisk. Z is also for zero, as in nothing. When I became a parent, I suffered the feeling of being back at zero, knowing nothing. I suffered unto feelings of despair, no lie, sprinting past fantasies of Cheryl Tiegs or writing about Cheryl Tiegs to imagine scenarios of sheer desperation involving the witness protection program or the foreign legion. And it’s not accurate to put these statements in the past tense. That feeling of zero is with me right now and from now on, probably. I will always be at zero as a parent, always knowing nothing, a tenuous and agonizing way to be when someone is looking to you and depending on you to know what to do.

So Z is for zero but Z is also for Zisk, and in terms of this 1977 Richie Zisk card this can only mean good things, possibilities, unpredictable but not necessarily negative changes. The year this card came out, Zisk, after logging a few years as a prototypical good-hitting, dubious-gloved member of Pittsburgh’s vaunted Lumber Company, shifted over to the city where I now happen to live and where my son was born, Chicago, and had the best season of his career. Sometime during that season, Topps included Zisk in its line of cloth stickers, and in that product the picture shown here has been airbrushed so that Zisk is shown as a member of the White Sox. That year was the best of the decade for the White Sox, as they led the American League West deep into the summer before succumbing to the charge of the dynastic Royals. The team was one of the oddest in history, in that it had been consciously built by owner Bill Veeck as a desperate one-off, the roster fortified through trades for players acquired at bargain prices because they were on the brink of free agency. Veeck knew he would soon lose these players (most significantly Zisk and Oscar Gamble, the heart of the team’s slugging attack), but he apparently figured one brief shot at glory was better than none at all. And it almost worked. The following year, Zisk indeed cashed in on a free agency deal with the Texas Rangers, and White Sox fans had to pack away the bedsheets that they’d carried with them to the ballpark in 1977 festooned with these words: “Pitch at risk to Richie Zisk.” This slogan has stayed with me since I was a boy, and has always imbued the name of the player shown at the top of this page with a sense of sizzling hazardous excitement, all the good qualities of the unknowable and unknown.

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Mike LaValliere

July 19, 2011

The Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place today. Though they spent a few days in first place in 1997, they haven’t really been a first place team—or even finished a season above .500—since 1992, Mike LaValliere’s last full season with the team. He had come to Pittsburgh in 1987 along with Andy Van Slyke in return for Tony Pena. LaValliere won a Gold Glove his first season in Pittsburgh and anchored the Bucs’ defense through three straight division titles from 1990 through 1992. After that last season, the team’s superstar, Barry Bonds, left for San Francisco, and the franchise fell into one of the most dismal droughts in baseball history: eighteen years of unrelenting losing.

It makes for a good, clear story to say that the Pirates were never the same after losing Bonds, one of the greatest athletes to ever play the sport. What couldn’t he do? He stole bases, smashed home runs, gazelled across the outfield to chase down would-be doubles and triples in the outfield. Mike LaValliere, who was released by the team in early April of 1993, was something of a polar opposite to the blazing, explosive Bonds. LaValliere was short and tubby and slow and couldn’t hit for power. But he’s probably the kind of guy you don’t miss until he’s gone. He wasn’t a total black hole on offense. He was a good contact hitter, drew some walks. In a couple of seasons he even hit .300. For what it’s worth, he could lay down a bunt. Mostly though, he could catch. I am not sure what the stats say about the overall worth of having a catcher who can field his position and shut down the opposition’s running game, but as a fan I know that having a catcher who is bumbling and fumbling around behind the plate seems to doom the team, the ineptitude at the center of the action casting a pall of ineptitude over everything.

Speaking of disintegrating situations, the air conditioning in my home is broken, and it’s hot and getting hotter. I can’t write much lately anyway, but the heat is reducing me to barely literate. So how about we end this lackluster congrats to the first-place Pirates with the thought that Mike LaValliere was for the Pirates in their last winning era like the air-conditioning unit in your home. It chugs along quietly and effectively most of the time, allowing you to focus on all sorts of other lofty endeavors, but then when it’s gone, you’re screwed.

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Dale Berra (guest author: the Public Professor)

July 12, 2011

Today’s exploration of old cardboard is courtesy of Akim Reinhardt, a history professor at Towson University and, incredibly enough, given that his laudable academic accomplishments strongly suggest that he is not, or not entirely, a savage illiterate, also a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees. Despite this latter component of his identity, we have been friends for many years, and recently we decided to swap blog posts. Later today, on his blog, The Public Professor, I’ll be sullying with some of my fevered half-thoughts his collection of erudite meditations on art, sports, language, community, and whatever else catches his interest (such as jumping out of airplanes). Below, the Professor tackles the enigma of Berra the Younger. (Update: my guest post on Akim’s blog is now up.)

I. The Crown Prince
When people look at a Dale Berra baseball card, any number of things might strike them.  For starters, he’s the son of New York Yankees legend, American sage, and Hanna-Barbera cartoon namesake Yogi Berra.  Not only is Yogi a Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest catcher to ever play the game, but he’s a cultural icon who transcended sports through decades of witticisms and Yoohoo ads.  For many people then, it is only natural to gaze upon Dale Berra and think of his famous father.

Emerging from behind the colossus of Yogi to grab a spotlight of his own was understandably difficult for Dale.  And when he finally did make a name for himself, it was ignominious.  For some people then, this card is a reminder that Dale Berra was once a poster child for cocaine running amok in pro sports.  In fact, he did so much coke that it landed him a role as star witness at the infamous 1985 drug trials that revealed the Pittsburgh Pirates organization to have been knee-deep in Disco Dust during its late-70s heyday.  Because of this public disgrace, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended Berra for the entire 1986 season, while Steve Howe was barely being punished for spreading the stuff all over his body like it were baby powder.  The sentence was commuted when Berra agreed to pony up some money to an anti-drug program and do a couple hundred hours of community service.  But it was all PR.  In 1989, Dale Berra was indicted for being part of a northern New Jersey drug ring that distributed $15,000-20,000 worth of cocaine every week.

For Yankee fans specifically, this card may stir memories of Dale’s two seasons in New York.  On the field he was lackluster, but off it he was the pivot around which Berra the elder had a brutal falling out with the Bronx Bombers.  In 1985, George Steinbrenner promised Yogi that if he signed on to manage the Yankees, he would have the job for the entire season regardless of how the team performed.  Yogi cherished the opportunity to manage his son Dale, who was nearing the end of an undistinguished career and had been traded to New York during the off-season.  So the elder Berra made the mistake of taking Steinbrenner at his word.  King George fired him after only sixteen games.  The insult was so grave that Yogi Berra, the most beloved of all Yankee greats, swore off the organization so long as Steinbrenner was owner, refusing to even set foot in the cathedral of the Bronx.

When I look at this card, however, I don’t think about Yogi or coke or the infamous Steinbrenner carousel of managers.  What stands out to me is the autograph.  It seems carefully studied.  This signature is far more elegant than the illegible, hurried scribble that typically garnishes a 3.5″ x 2.5″ piece of cardboard.

I imagine Dale Berra surreptitiously practicing on a page of looseleaf paper during 7th grade science class.  Even then he knew a lesson on inert gases held no sway over his fate.  After all, his father had earned three MVPs, ten World Series rings, and a first-class ticket to Cooperstown.  A man like that casts a shadow long enough to blot out the periodic table.  No, Dale Berra was of noble lineage, and he dreamed about growing up to be a New York Yankee, just like his dad.  One day, he too would sign autographs for adoring fans, so he should practice now.  No mere X would mark his spot.  He required a John Hancock that lived up to the family name.  Let the peasants study electrons.

For a while it seemed plausible.  Despite his relatively slight physique, Dale Berra was Pittsburgh’s top draft pick in 1975.  He tore through the minors and was still only 20 years old when he cracked the majors and began forging an 11 year career in the bigs, nine of them with the Bucs.  However, he never lived up to his fabled name or elite draft status, and mostly he rode the pines as a utility infielder.  He was a regular presence in the lineup card for only three seasons, and mustered a paltry .234 lifetime average.  Berra did pick up a ring of his own in 1979 on the much beloved “We Are Family” Pirates team led by Willie “Pops” Stargell.  But he was denied the opportunity to shine when it mattered most.  Manager Chuck Tanner kept him out of the batter’s box during the entire Series.  It would be the likes of Stargell, Dave Parker, and John “The Candy Man” Candelaria whom fans mobbed for autographs.

II. The Artiste
When I was a kid, I too practiced my signature, though it wasn’t about signing for imaginary fans.  I had no royal lineage to live up to.  My dad was captain of his highschool football team, but he lost his chance at a college scholarship in a gambling scandal during his senior year.  And six years of little league revealed my own prospects to be quite dim.  Rather, I worked on my signature because I’ve always been fascinated by penmanship and fonts.  It’s as close as I get to being artistic.

As I’ve previously noted elsewhere, I can’t draw a straight line without a ruler and a stiff drink.  Instead of canvas or stone, my artistic expression is relegated to the pedestrian, prescribed world of letters, and so I always wanted my signature to be unique and interesting.  My first big opportunity came one early Saturday morning when I was about seven and my parents had me sign my Social Security card.  It was a complete disaster.  My hand wasn’t fully awake and it looked pretty bad even for a seven year old.  I still have that original card and keep it in a fireproof lock box, along with other documents that someone will have to comb through should I croak unexpectedly.

By late highschool, I had established an “Akim D. Reinhardt” to my liking, deciding early on that the “D.” needed to be part of it.  I remember feeling certified when I affixed it to a new public library card during my junior year.  That version would last until my mid-twenties, at which point I made some adjustments and came up with my current scrawl.  I now emphasize the big A and R, and kind of back into the final t with an assertive vertical stroke.

III. On the Dotted Line
Despite everything I’d put into building my signature, none of it mattered in 1995 when my friends Ofer and Michelle got married in the Jewish tradition.  As a member of Ofer’s party, I was responsible for appending my signature to their ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract of sorts.  But really, a ketubah is much more than that.  It’s also a beautiful piece of calligraphic art, produced by the hand of a professional scribe who specializes in such matters, and who decorates the broad parchment with elaborate and elegant images.  Signed just prior to the wedding ceremony by the couple and their witnesses, it is destined to be framed and hang on the wall of their home for the rest of their lives, announcing the sacred and loving bonds of their marriage to all who enter.  In Hebrew.

When it came time to sign Ofer and Michelle’s ketubah, I had to get a refresher crash course in writing Hebrew, which I hadn’t done since my bar-mitzvah in 1980.  I told the rabbi my Hebrew name as well as my father’s Hebrew name.  Kenneth Lee Reinhardt of North Carolina, he of the highschool football gambling scandal, hadn’t been born Jewish.  Rather, he converted after marrying my mother, and that is when he was given his Hebrew name.  Of course I had no idea what it is, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not a hundred percent that he even knows anymore.  Mostly he’d converted to placate his in-laws and to raise me Jewish.  I don’t think I had ever heard it uttered.

I wasn’t happy about lying, but I rationalized it.  I could have easily found out ahead of time if someone had told me, but there I was, on the spot, some rabbi asking me my father’s Jewish name.  So I just made something up.  “Mordechai,” I said.  “My father’s Jewish name is Mordechai.”

Here’s hoping Ofer and Michelle don’t read this blog.

As the clock ticked down, I grabbed a pen and practiced writing Chaim ben Mordechai, in Hebrew letters, from right to left, on a piece of scrap paper.  Fifteen years worth of rust showed.  I began to sweat.  This one was for the ages, and it was going to look as bad as that Social Security card.  I took one more practice swing and then stepped into the box.

The rabbi said it was my turn and handed me a strong pen, the kind that would make a pleasant scratching sound on high quality paper.  I was focused.  I was ready.  I was going to overcome the obstacles, clear my mind of the guilt and the lies, and somehow, someway, find it within me to sign Ofer and Michelle’s ketubah with elan and panache.

I found the zone.  I was sitting dead red.  I knocked the mud out of my cleats and dug in.  I was ready: first ball-fastball, goin’ deep baby.  Time slowed down as I moved towards the beautiful, sacred surface, and readied to put pen to paper, the brilliant blue ink on its tip glistening brightly in the sun.

And then suddenly hands from every direction were grabbing my arm forcefully and pulling it backwards.  Men were distressed and shouting.  A blur of bodies grappled with me as if I were Jack Ruby in a Dallas jailhouse, the smoke still drifting upwards from the nozzle of my revolver, and the ketubah were Lee Harvey Oswald clutching his stomach and screaming about being a patsy.

I had been so focused on authoring a beautiful, backwards autograph in foreign letters that I had lost track of what I was doing.  I had nearly signed where the wife’s name goes.  I had been that close to marring their beautiful parchment and, at least in some people’s eyes, marrying Ofer.  No one was amused.

They verbally grabbed me by the lapels, slapped me around, and pointed me in the right direction.  I signed.  It was ugly.

IV. Eternity
All these years later, I finally had a chance to make a amends.  Not to Ofer and Michelle, mind you.  Those profane, chicken scratch lies are permanently displayed on their livingroom wall.  Rather, on June 25th my dear friend Brenda married a wonderful man named Sean at a Quaker meeting house in northern Maryland.  It was a gorgeous setting.  The rich, blue sky was laced with the songs of twittering birds, and love was in the air as they were joined in holy matrimony.  My opportunity for redemption would come at the end of the ceremony, when each person was to sign the large piece of linen paper upon which their wedding vows had been ornately scribed by hand.  I was ready to go.

I had spent much of the actual ceremony, which in the Quaker tradition includes plenty of silence, looking out over the quaint, old cemetery abutting the meeting house, and pondering what extra, little design elements I might use to adorn my signature, which would be permanently enshrined on this sacred testament to Brenda and Sean’s eternal love.  Perhaps I’d add a small, curved tail to the A.  Maybe a slight, upwards tilt to the angle of the R.

As we lined up to sign, I felt good.  It was a time for starting over and getting it right.  After all, this was Brenda’s second marriage.  If she could put the past behind her and promise to make everything beautiful this time around, why couldn’t I?  And there were other good omens as well.

The person overseeing our signing of the vows was taking this as seriously as I was.  She had even placed a piece of clear plastic over the paper, holding it perfectly parallel and just beneath each line as it was to be signed.  The plastic acted as a guard against stray marks from shaky old people, irascible youngens, or anyone who might’ve gotten a jump start on the booze we’d be serving at the reception shortly thereafter in a Baltimore bowling alley.

After standing in line a couple of minutes, my friend Jennifer signed and then handed me the pen.  My heart stopped and my confidence immediately evaporated.  It was a fine point, felt tip.  Did they really still make these things?   They are almost impossible to wield gracefully.  They’re stiff, they’re clumsy, and if you linger too long they blot ink in dark circles that expand slowly like blood from a gunshot wound in a Cormac McCarthy novel.  Trying to write with this thing on thick cardstock would be like scoring glass with a razor blade.

It were as if the scrawny, mustachioed Dale Berra had somehow cracked the lineup during the `79 Series, but stepped to the plate only to find that he had to take his cuts with Willie Stargell’s mighty club.  Stargell, who during his 22 year career hit some of the longest recorded home runs in baseball history, was famous for standing in the on-deck circle and swinging an actual sledge hammer that probably weighed as much as Berra.

I stood there with that dead piece of plastic in my hand and looked at strike three.

When I was done, I briefly stared at my herky-jerky scribble of jagged crooks and misshapen bends, and contemplated the nature of eternity.  Then I turned around, defeated, and handed the pen to the next person.

Dale Berra might have been a light-hitting bench-warmer who couldn’t live up to his heralded family name on the field, and even disgraced it with his coke-riddled escapades off it.  But despite all of that, when the ages beckoned, he knew how to lay it down it with style and flair on the face of a Topps baseball card.  Dale Berra knew how to be immortal.

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Willie Stargell

March 4, 2011

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

Pittsburgh Pirates

In 2011, fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates will ponder great distances. It’s been thirty-two years since Willie Stargell led the team to its last World Series championship, and except for a few years in the early 1990s almost all the seasons since Pops hung up his spikes have been dismal road signs marking the increasing distance from greatness. This 1981 Willie Stargell card, showing the lumbering 40-year-old pondering the ball he has just struck, presumably hoping it has enough distance to add another tally to a career home run total that by then virtually guaranteed the Pittsburgh slugger a plaque in the Hall of Fame. The best bet, judging from Stargell’s steeply declining power numbers (he hit just 11 home runs the previous season, the fewest since his rookie season, and in 1981 not a single one of his 66 plate appearances would end with a trot around the bases), is that the ball will fall short of the fence. But with Willie Stargell there’s always hope. You can’t hold a Willie Stargell card in your hands and not feel at least a flicker of possibilities. So I’m predicting that the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates will once again cause their fans to ponder seemingly unbridgeable distances, but I also see a little yellow spark of hope.

Distance as it applies to the Pittsburgh Pirates is most generally felt in terms of time, that gaping span of years since greatness, but in the following excerpt from a 1999 AP article by Ted Anthony (who would, two year later, post a stirring elegy for Stargell), distance in terms of Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates is felt in its primary sense. In 1979, Anthony was an 11-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates fanatic in the middle of a dream season for his team when he suddenly found himself on the other side of the globe from his team: 

On Aug. 14, 1979, halfway through the baseball season, off we went to be among the first American families to be sent to China in decades. My linguist parents would be teaching in Beijing. . . .

October came, and I felt more distant than ever. The clippings trickled in, and I lovingly pasted each into a scrapbook. I look at it today, and the excitement still surges with each headline: “Stargell Belts HR in 11th As Bucs Top Reds in Opener.” “Pittsburgh Headed Toward First NL Pennant Since 1971.”

And then, a bold Pittsburgh Press headline: “Series-Bound Pirates Sweep Reds.”

It seemed to unfold so quickly from there. Orioles win. Bucs win. Orioles win two more. Bucs even it up. Before I knew it, the Series was deadlocked 3-3, with the seventh game to be played in Baltimore. I was heartsick. The clippings were no longer enough.

I needed to hear it as it happened.

***

Sidney Rittenberg was a man with a history—a history I understood very little of back then. He had circulated in the inner sanctum of Chinese communist power for years—unheard of for an American. And, when things turned sour during the Cultural Revolution, he was imprisoned. I didn’t know then that he had recently been freed from a decade under arrest.

All I knew was that he was a nice older gentleman, a “China hand” whose family had three suites in our Friendship Hotel compound. His son, Li Xiaoming, half Chinese and half American, was my age—a good friend and a cool guy. He looked and spoke Chinese, but could also play a mean game of stickball. For the small group of American kids I hung with, he was a link between our world and the one that surrounded us.

I had been bellyaching about missing each Pirate postseason victory, and word filtered up to his dad, who sent a message back down the kid chain: Would I like to come over and listen to the game on shortwave, on U.S. Armed Forces Radio?

I answered an enthusiastic yes; shortwave radios weren’t easy to come by.

Because of the time difference—Beijing was 13 hours later than Baltimore—I arrived at their apartment just after 7 a.m., was let in and immediately given a cup of jasmine tea. A couple of my American friends, skipping school too, showed up minutes later. We were ushered into a living room, and in the corner sat a gray console about the size of a toaster oven—the most impressive shortwave I had ever seen, with a huge tuning dial. Mr. Rittenberg came out.

“Go ahead,” he told me, and I turned it on.

Together we trolled for the Armed Forces Radio frequency until the static melted into the familiar sound of a cheering crowd, half a planet away.

The voices weren’t my favorite Pittsburgh announcers, Milo Hamilton and Lanny Frattare, but it didn’t matter. This was The Game; I was connected. In a small apartment in a confusing country, I was suddenly able to touch a piece of home.

There it blurs. I remember the Orioles pulling ahead 1-0, but I don’t remember how. I remember sitting on my hands and wishing my eyes could complete the picture my ears were assembling. I remember thinking, as the game went into the sixth, that losing the series on one run would be devastating.

Then came Willie.

I remember Scotty McGregor’s slider. I remember hearing the crack of a bat 7,000 miles away. I remember some of the announcer’s words: “Stargell . . . drive . . . deep . . . warning track . . . home run!”

And, as the final innings crested to the Pirate championship that the boy who used to be me so coveted, I remember thinking this: Somewhere out there, there’s a home for me to go back to. It’s OK; it still exists.

***

How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 5 of 30: read Dan Epstein’s deeply enjoyable book on the greatest decade in baseball history (and one that the Dock Ellis/Willie Stargell/We Are Family Pittsburgh Pirates embodied as much as any team): Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s    

***

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

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Jim Fregosi

March 26, 2010

Back in the 1970s, people went off to find themselves. Where did they go, exactly? And what did they find? I can’t really say. I picture some chanting, some hirsute nudity. I was a kid then, and unlike other fads of that fad-crazed time, such as the Pet Rock or the mood ring or feathered haircuts or Wacky Packages, the idea of going off to find yourself was not kid-friendly. It was something adults did alone. Adults hit a certain point and felt as if whatever game they had been playing had pushed them to the sidelines. They wondered, as they never had before, what could possibly come next. A question hit them with the force of something they’d long been subconsciously avoiding: Who am I?

I imagine that the moment before a guy went off to find himself looked a little like this 1978 card of Jim Fregosi. (Women went off to find themselves just as often as men, but I imagine their pre-departure look as being more weepy and forlorn than the angry male grimace of Fregosi.) Here he is on the margins, bat at the ready, waiting for his name to be called, beginning to understand that his name will probably not be called. More likely, if the manager notices him at all, it will be with surprise, much like the surprise I had when I came upon this card in my pack of Pirates yesterday: When did Jim Fregosi become a Pirate?

He became a Pirate, it turns out, right at the end, riding the bench for half a season in Pittsburgh in 1977 and doing the same in 1978 before they gave him his release so he could pursue a managerial opportunity with the team that both he and Mets fans might agree he never should have left in the first place, the California Angels. This seamless transition from playing to managing made Jim Fregosi an anomaly not just in the baseball world, where retired players don’t generally ascend immediately to major league manager jobs, but in the world of the 1970s as well. Though he looks in this card like he’s realizing that he doesn’t belong in the world he thought he belonged in, and that the next befuddled, disgruntled step in the life of this man approaching middle age might be to relocate for a while to Oregon to learn origami and bluegrass mandolin and try to “figure things out,” the truth is he was still intensely and narrowly focused on the game at hand, plotting his next move. He had, unlike most in that beautifully aimless decade, figured out what he wanted to be when he grew up.

From my own experiences with adults in that decade, I’d put Jim Fregosi in the one-third minority of adults along with one of the three figures in my trio of parents. My dad knew pretty early on in his life that he wanted to be a sociologist. By the time he got to the 1970s, he had been working in that field for a while, and that’s where he stayed. He was beyond the age of those who most often went off to find themselves. He’s a member of the generation that grew up in the depression and served during World War II; that generation did not go off to find themselves, at least not on a broad scale (one member, Jack Kerouac, could be said to be a godfather of the idea of going off and finding yourself). My other parents, my mom and her boyfriend, Tom, were younger, and during the late 1960s and 1970s they, among other things: worked as a firefighter in Alaska (Tom); took painting classes (Mom); went away for a couple months to learn to be a blacksmith (Tom); worked, sporadically, as an elementary school art teacher (Mom); worked, sporadically, as a blacksmith (Tom); worked at a newspaper (Mom); worked in a lab (Tom); started a sign-painting business (Mom); worked at a woodstove company (Tom); took a computer class (Mom).

It always ended, the decade-long search to find oneself, with the taking of a computer class. Maybe it began with a hit of acid or crested with a trip to India or involved “shacking up” for a while with a longhaired ceramics instructor who was into primal scream therapy, but it always ended with the taking of a computer class. Thusly, the 1980s began.

That latter, leaner, meaner decade was the one where I first edged into an adulthood that I still have yet to really embrace, all these years into it. I started working, but never with the commitment that Jim Fregosi brought to his own chosen field. I scooped ice cream, I pumped gas, I sold liquor. Once in a while I went off to find myself and wherever I went I ended up squinting at myself in the mirror. You. Then I came back and started up again with the jobs. This job, that job. I spent enough time dealing with the crushing stress of unemployment to be thankful whenever I had a job, and this drew a certain level of commitment out of me, but I have never gotten free of that feeling of being on the outside looking in, and have never gotten free of the lure of going off to find myself. It’s as if I’ve been trapped in the 1970s all my life, trapped in the moment that I projected onto Jim Fregosi in his 1978 card: Who am I supposed to be now?

***

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

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Enrique Romo

February 19, 2009

enrique-romo-801

Want your team to win big? Gather a horde of worldly, rubber-armed relievers with the ability to make a baseball move like an angry, disoriented hornet. The starting pitchers and flashy speedsters and chiseled-featured sluggers will horde the glory, but deep into each of your team’s defining games the men from the bullpen will carry the season on their shoulders. Will your team break or only bend? It’s up to the shadowy figures who spend most of every game in exile, like denizens of a faraway island colony of convicts, waiting in their dank low hutch beyond the outfield walls for trouble.

The 1979 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates had a bullpen as dominant as it was devoid of accolades and glamour. The closer, Kent Tekulve, despite being durable, effective, and a hero to nondescript thin-wristed bespectacled introverts everywhere, had all the charisma of an algebra textbook. The rest of the relief staff, if gathered together in a dark bar, would give the bar the feeling of a place you shouldn’t have walked into. Everyone had been around. Everyone had seen some things. Everyone had traveled from job to job, gathering scars and losses and, through trial and error, the barbed, shifty skills a journeyman needs to survive.

Enrique Romo epitomized this group. As the photo on this card suggests, he was a man who seems to have come by hard experience to treat each moment as unpredictable, shaky, dangerous. Trouble ahead, trouble behind. Before coming to the major leagues, he had already lived through an entire lifetime in the Mexican Leagues, and it seems to this experienced reader of back-of-the-card runes as if he would have stayed there forever had his consistently good but not great numbers south of the border not suddenly spiked toward the unhittable in 1976, a full ten years after he’d made his Mexican League debut. Year after year, he’d won in the low double-digits and recorded ERAs a bit above or a bit below 3.00. But in ’76 he not only posted an astounding 20 and 4 won-loss record in just 29 games, he also sported an infinitesimal 1.89 ERA and, perhaps most strikingly, he struck out 239 batters in 233 innings. Previously, Romo had never approached having more strikeouts than innings pitched. But suddenly, in 1976, batters couldn’t even touch him.

How did the numbers suddenly verge so close to perfection? Maybe he just figured things out. Maybe all the years of knocking on the door of pitching excellence had finally caused the door to swing wide open. Or maybe it was something else, something hinted at in a 1981 Sports Illustrated article entitled “Tricks of the Trade” (link courtesy of It’s About the Money) that mentions Romo among many other pitchers suspected of doctoring the ball.

In 1977, the Seattle Mariners, on the brink of their first season and desperate for talent, took notice of Romo’s gaudy ’76 numbers, choosing to ignore how they differed from the numbers that had come before, and purchased Romo from his Mexican League team on April Fool’s Day. Just six days later, Romo started and lost the Mariners’ second-ever game. He pitched well, striking out nine in seven innings, and pitched well in his next start five days later, another loss for the doomed team (he got a no-decision). He only lasted a scoreless inning and two-thirds in his third start, apparently sustaining an injury, and when he returned to action a month later he had been moved to the bullpen, where he would stay without exception for the entirety of his major league career (despite his 1.72 ERA in his three starts).

He took to the bullpen like an alligator to a swamp, leading the Mariners in saves in their inaugural season and winning 11 games in relief in their second. In his third season he was included in trade to the Pirates for fellow future member of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame Mario Mendoza and others, and there he became a major contributor to the grizzled bullpen corps that led the Pirates to a World Series title. Romo continued to pitch successfully out of the pen for the next few years, as the Pirates edged into the earliest stages of what has become a long title drought. But at spring training in 1983 Romo was an unexplained no-show. The Pirates tried and failed to reach him. He seems to have simply, and willfully, disappeared.

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Andy Van Slyke

February 17, 2009

andy-van-slyke-90

When this Andy Van Slyke card came out in 1990, Pirates fans must have thought they’d been having a hard go of it for a long, long time. It had been eleven years since the ’79 championship team had climaxed a decade of exciting, winning baseball in Pittsburgh, eleven years in a desert of playoff-bereft seasons that ranged from falsely promising to abjectly awful. Since bottoming out with a 54-107 record in 1985, the team had seemed to have been on a gradual upward climb under new manager Jim Leyland, edging from awful to mediocre in 1987 with the arrival of Andy Van Slyke, and climbing from mediocre to pretty good in 1988 with Andy Van Slyke turning in his finest season, which got him an invite to the All-Star game, a fourth-place finish in the National League MVP voting, and the first of five consecutive Gold Glove awards. But then in 1989, the year chronicled on the back of this card, both team and star player stumbled backward. Van Slyke hit just .237 with 9 home runs, and the team managed just 74 wins.

This Andy Van Slyke card recently came into my mostly ossified collection as part of a Christmas present pack of random cards from my wife’s aunt. I may have looked at it for a few moments when I first discovered it among the Ernie Camachos and Todd Hollandsworths, but I didn’t really start studying it until last night, when it began to dawn on me that I have been neglecting the Pittsburgh Pirates.

***

The recent move of this site from its old location on the now-unplugged Baseball Toaster has made it necessary for me to sift through and categorize all my posts by team and player. In doing so, I realized that I haven’t featured a Pirates player in almost a year, since Richie Hebner and Bob Moose accompanied me on my tour of the underworld.

This was a surprising discovery, since I consider the Pirates to be not just one of the best teams from my childhood but among the richest in character and characters. If you say Pittsburgh Pirates to me I think of a raucous party, Sister Sledge blaring, free-swinging sluggers Al-Olivering line-drive doubles into the gap and speedsters Omar-Morenoing around third and sliding into home safely in a cloud of glittering, vaguely illicit dust, the giddy treble of the disco in the Pirates’ fearsome game supported by the rock-solid morally upright thumping bass of slugging elder statesman Roberto Clemente on one end of the decade and slugging elder statesman Willie Stargell on the other.

In short, I like the Pirates. And not for nothing, but I have been to more than a few major league baseball stadiums and as far as I have seen the only one that incorporates baseball cards into the very structure of their building is the Pirates’ current stadium, which as I recall has baseball cards of former Pirates embedded into the surfaces of walls and/or pillars out in the concourse behind the left-field bleachers.

There may also be other locations of this feature in this park, but the one time I was there I sat beyond the leftfield wall. I had one of the best times I ever had at a game, even though, or maybe partially because, just before the game started an announcement was made that Ted Williams had died. What better place to be than a ballgame when hearing that Teddy Ballgame is no more? We sat in the bleachers to the left of a guy that I have come to think of as The World’s Most Enthusiastic Baseball Fan, a young happy thick-necked drunk who got everyone in the seats surrounding him feeling as if we were all part of one big happy family. (His mom was there, in fact, sitting on the opposite side of us from the guy and passing us beers from the vendor to him while explaining “He’s always been like this.”)

The Pirates fell behind and were seeming every bit the moribund collective their record from that year suggests they were, but then The World’s Most Enthusiastic Baseball Fan really got rolling, starting a wave, starting “we need a hit” chants, and starting, somehow most significantly, a “Pirate Parrot” chant. Over and over he chanted for the Pirates’ mascot until the big-beaked figure finally appeared before him, before all of us, mascot and Superfan embracing to great cheers all around that seemed, somehow, to electrify the heretofore deadened Pirates, who immediately pieced together a game-tying three-run rally and later, in the midst of another round of cheers led by The World’s Most Enthusiastic Baseball fan, went ahead for good on an Aramis Ramirez home run that crashed down in our section like lightning sent from a powerful, responsive god.

So considering all that, I really think I should rectify my nearly year-long neglect and send a prayer the Pirates’ way, and this 1990 Andy Van Slyke seems as good a place as any to start.

***

Andy Van Slyke looks in this 1990 card like someone in an ostensibly rehabilitative yet permanent residential facility. I expect that in the next moment white-clad employees will approach him, gently remove the bat from his loose grip, and coax him back to his room where he can more safely entertain his daze-eyed fantasies of baseball glory.

The funny thing is, Van Slyke was on the brink of the winningest period of his entire career, even considering his early years with Whitey Herzog’s slashing and burning St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates were an elite team for 1990, 1991, and 1992, winning their division each year. In that light the 1990 Van Slyke card must have come to resemble a symbol of triumph, at least during the peak of the Pirates’ early ’90s golden age and its immediate aftermath.

But now it’s 2009, and the Pirates have not only failed to return to the playoffs, they have not even finished with a winning record. Not once. Van Slyke, as he recedes in memory, has become the titular saint of an excellent Pirates blog dedicated, out of necessity, to detailing the Pirates’ ongoing ineptitude. One of the more interesting, if painful, features at Whatever Happened to Andy Van Slyke is a blow-by-blow dissection of each of the failed seasons since the Pirates last tasted winning (there are two archives for these recaps: ’93-’99 and 2000-present). The wrap-up of the 2002 team that I cheered to victory alongside The World’s Most Enthusiastic Baseball Fan is emblematic of the wrenchingly humorous recaps, that year defined before it even started by fading Derek Bell’s decision to respond to what he deemed an unsatisfactory contract offer by getting on his houseboat and sailing away from baseball forever. He didn’t sail away from his guaranteed contract, however, prompting one pundit to note “Derek Bell [has become] the ultimate Pirate: [He] lives on a boat and steals money.” 

In light of what must sometimes seem to be an endless parade of lackluster years, the 1990 card of Andy Van Slyke might be in the midst of a further transformation. He loosely holds his bat in a dreamscape far removed from the present. There are two answers to the question that asks where Andy Van Slyke has gone. One answer is that he is elsewhere, a coach, a guy getting older. The other answer is that he is one of the gods, and gods pass our way once and don’t ever come back.

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Bob Moose

February 19, 2008
  

Elysium

(continued from Richie Hebner)

Chapter Two

The downsloping corridor narrows to a tunnel. I keep going. It begins slightly curving to the left as it descends. I catch glimpses of the back of Richie Hebner’s windbreaker for a while but soon lose sight of him altogether. There’s not much light. The cold clay walls and ceiling continue to constrict. I keep going. I start to hunch down to keep from hitting my head. But instead of hunching down I grow smaller. I grow smaller and lighter and younger. This happens with the same slight but visceral inner effort, a tensing of the stomach muscles, that in dreams of flight precedes liftoff. I start to hunch down and instead grow smaller and lighter and younger. Meanwhile, the leftward curve of the tunnel sharpens. I see in my mind the shape of my route so far. I’m in a spiral. A downward spiral. In dreams when the world is too much we lift up off the ground and fly. Here as I move away from the world the way I always do, in a downward spiral, I keep growing smaller and lighter and younger. And I keep going.

Finally the tunnel narrows to a dead end, the tip of the spiral. I’ve grown as small and light and young as a child. I can barely see anything. I can feel where the tunnel comes to an end. There are clumps of hard cold dirt there, like the replaced chunks of a freshly dug hole. I pull at them and through the cracks that open I see flashes of light. I know these cold hard chunks. I know this hole, this grave. I hear a muffled voice. It comes from the other side, below the chunks.

“The fuck?” the voice says.

The flashes continue, accompanied each time by a quick, flinty sound, like a lock opening. And, closer to me, just on the other side of the piled chunks, there is the faint sound of whimpering. I know this whimpering. I know where I am. This is the fall of 1976. I’m 8. I’m pulling the chunks of earth away. On the other side comes the flinty chk and a flash of light. The hole opens wider and I see I’m not the only one making an opening. This is the fall of 1976 and I’m shivering and the long winter is about to start and the ground is frozen and our beautiful dog Jupiter has just died and my stepfather Tom has spent all afternoon weeping while pick-axing the frozen ground to make a grave and we’ve said our goodbyes and cried in the backyard and he’s gone but he’s not gone he’s pulling away at the chunks right now just like I am and here he is.

Here he is alive again.

Jupiter, Jupiter, I try to say, the words buried, tremors. Hey boy.

He barges his muscular body through the opening and begins licking my wet salty face, his whole self wagging. I kiss his fuzzy muzzle and hug him and pet him. When we moved to Vermont he was the beautiful heartbeat of our family, a big red and black and gold song of pure motion in love with everything alive. The stranger who hit him with a pickup truck carried him to our doorway in tears.

Now he darts in the direction I’ve come but immediately returns when I don’t follow. He was always that way. Is always that way. Darting up ahead and then checking back with everyone one at a time, every hike for him a hundred times longer than for any of us.

“Just bought this piece of shit from the mini-mart,” the voice on the other side of the opening mutters.

I pet Jupiter with one hand and pull away enough of the chunks of his beaten grave to allow my body to pass through. Jupiter whimpers but follows. 

Richie Hebner is there, trying to light something with a lighter that can only seem to throw off sparks. He glances at me.

“Hey, pudlips,” he says. “You pack flame?”

I shake my head. He starts trying the lighter again. In the flashes from the sparks I catch glimpses of the room. It’s the size of the kind of basement I never had, the warm and compact all-American sunken playroom of television-show families. Our basement was always a dark, scary place, one of the parts of my family’s attempt to build a new pure life in the country that remained forever unfinished.

Jupiter takes a seat next to me, leaning his body into mine. I can feel the warmth and weight of him.

Richie Hebner finally gets his lighter to work. For a long time the flame lights up his face and his small silver baseball-bat-shaped one-hitter. It also lights up the room. The walls have been painted like the stands of a baseball stadium during a game, everywhere the blurred shapes and colors of a crowd.

I glimpse a man in the corner in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, looking as if he has just thrown a pitch. His name is written in black letters beneath him.

Bob Moose.

He has a wad of tobacco in his mouth. It’s a moment of pure life, the beat between something and something. Will the pitch be a strike or a screamer through the box? Will the pitch sail past the catcher and roll to the backstop? Will the fielders then walk to the dugout, the season gone, the regal rightfielder moving particularly slow, as if he knows it’s his last time? Anything can happen until it can’t.

The flame of Richie Hebner’s lighter goes out. It’s dark for a while. I feel Jupiter against me and hear him panting. Richie Hebner makes some choking sounds with his throat and then coughs and coughs.

“I knew him,” he says, his voice hoarse. I can’t see anything. “We were teammates.”

What’s going to happen to him? I try to say.

It’s the fall of 1976, winter on the way. Bob Moose, who four years earlier threw a wild pitch that made Roberto Clemente’s last on-field moment a loss, wrecks his car. It’s the fall of 1976, winter on the way. Bob Moose is twenty-nine. He wrecks his car and ends.

What’s going to happen to him? I try to say.

“Man, I’m lit,” Richie Hebner says, still hoarse. There seems to be a chuckle in his voice. The room has grown a little brighter. Richie Hebner isn’t chuckling or smiling. But he is glowing, just a little, like a glow-in-the-dark frisbee. I use his light to find Bob Moose again. Bob Moose is still frozen in the in-between moment, the middle of a heartbeat. 

“He was just a month and a half older than me,” Richie Hebner says. “We were champions.”

What about now? I try to say. I hold onto Jupiter. What’s going to happen to him now?

Richie Hebner just stares at me. Then he turns and walks toward a dugout that has been painted onto the wall below the blurry colors of the crowd. Somehow he walks into the dugout, then through a door to what must be the clubhouse, taking the light with him. I find Jupiter’s collar and hold onto it. In dreams you sometimes find out that you’ve always known how to fly. I find out I can talk to Jupiter, that I have always been able to talk to Jupiter. I don’t even have to use words. I tell him I don’t want to stay here with Bob Moose. I don’t want to stay here in between something and something.

Jupiter stands and starts moving. I keep my hand on his collar. I shuffle along and hold one hand out to feel for a wall but the wall never comes. We descend concrete steps. It must be the dugout. We pass through a doorway into a hallway, Richie Hebner walking a few feet ahead and glowing like a glow-in-the-dark frisbee. There is faraway music now, echoing, the rippling sun-water sounds of the start of Wouldn’t It Be Nice? I let go of Jupiter’s collar. He stays with me. We’re spiraling again, the curve in the hallway opening to a new and growing brightness that the gravedigger walks toward and we follow and he seems to join the light and Wouldn’t It be Nice? and we follow.

(to be continued)

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Richie Hebner

February 17, 2008
 

Elysium

Chapter One

I’m in the middle of my life. I’m lost. Richie Hebner stands before me.

Richie Hebner stands before me in his windbreaker and his old tyme Pirates cap. He gazes right at me, or maybe through me, gaping, vacant. He reminds me of the older guys in my high school, back when I was in the adjoining junior high, the ones who talked in heroically hoarse voices about getting inebriated and took auto shop and occasionally rained ring-spiked blows down upon one another during publicized fistfights “up on the bank.” They had sparse mustaches and interchangeable feathered haircuts and sexually complicit cigarette-smoking girlfriends with interchangeable feathered haircuts. They had part-time jobs that required physical strength and a certain vacancy of gaze.

“You’re Richie Hebner,” I try to say. I recall the most renowned of all back-of-the-card cartoons. “You dig graves. Richie Hebner,” I try to say. “In the offseason. In the offseason you dig graves.” The words amount to no more than vibrations in my body, seismic rumblings.

Richie Hebner just continues to fix me with that gaze that makes it seem he doesn’t quite see me, like he just roasted one in the parking lot with a couple buddies while cranking some Styx on the eight-track. It’s a gaze that makes me feel like I’m the one who’s not quite all here, a junior high nobody, a shade.

It’s still chilly, not spring yet, everything alive seemingly pounded unreachably deep underground. We’re on something like a baseball field, some other shadowy figures in baseball uniforms drifting around.

Richie Hebner turns and walks toward third base. I find myself following. Third base is where they put him when they weren’t benching him against tough lefties. He was a butcher at third base, but he could rake right-handed pitching so they got him into the lineup when they could. Now, he kicks with his cleats at the ground near the third base bag in the familiar chicken scratch dance of the infielder between pitches. His hands are in the pockets of his windbreaker, however, adding to the impression that there isn’t going to be any baseball played on this diamond today, that this place I have come to is not quite a baseball field, but rather some shadowy realm that is neither here nor there, the kind of place where you might end up if you were in the middle of life, lost.

At first the kicking of his cleats only traces what look like almost-decipherable messages in the dust. I feel like if I could only read them I could learn how to make my way back to where I belong. But then his kicking begins to carve out swaths in the earth, the earth yielding to Richie Hebner. The swaths cut deep into the earth and soon form a hole as deep and wide as a grave. I stand nearby on the third base bag as if it’s an island, as if I’m afraid that the earth will give way everywhere. Richie Hebner looks up from his effortless work. He is standing in the hole. All but his head and the top of his torso is hidden from view. He looks at me, or maybe through me, gaping, vacant. Then he turns and seems to duck down, disappearing from view.

From far off come the sounds of baseball, the sounds of spring, the sounds of life. Voices calling, the echoing crack of the bat. I step from the third base bag to peer down into the hole. I expect to see Richie Hebner crouched or even lying flat on the floor of the grave. Instead I see the back of his windbreaker vanishing down into a downsloping corridor. I find myself stepping into the grave. I find myself following Richie Hebner down the corridor into the darkness underground.

(to be continued)

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Ed Ott

November 7, 2007
 

 

The Yazmobile(Continued from Carl Yastrzemski, 1981)

Epilogue

 

Good feeling,
won’t you stay with me
just a little longer.
–Violent Femmes

In 2004, the day after the parade, my brother and I drove from his in-laws’ house in Brookline, where we were both staying, to Fenway. I forget why. Maybe to buy a couple souvenirs, maybe just to bask a little longer together in the glow of victory before we went back to our separate lives. On the way there, another driver passing us on the right lay on his horn and leaned his face out his window. He was about our age.

“Yazmobile!” he shouted, beaming.

I didn’t want the good feeling to end. My brother and his wife had to get back to Brooklyn. It was Halloween, and their route home was back through the Bronx, where anyone in the mood for a little Halloween car-pelting would be sure to enjoy a target festooned with red and blue signs with Red Sox lettering singing the praises of victory and Yaz. My brother’s wife wisely instructed my brother to turn the car back into a nondescript gray sedan. I still have the main Yazmobile banner, folded up and stored in a plastic container with other personal keepsakes. I like to hold onto things like that, especially now that I’m older and have had so many things like that disappear that it makes me wonder if I would still have Carl Yastrzemski’s autograph had he ever written back to me. I think I would still have it, but who knows? Sometimes it seems as if even things you make a point to hold onto slip away when you’re not paying attention.

Maybe this is one reason why my midlife crisis has taken the form of paying an insane amount of attention to my childhood baseball cards. It’s a way to hold on, I guess. The card at the top of the page is one of the very few cards I have from my last season of buying them, 1981. A couple years earlier, during our annual summer visit to see him in New York City, my father had taken my brother and me to Shea to see the Mets get pummeled by the Pirates. Before the game several Pirates ambled over to the stands and signed autographs. My brother and I got in on the action, our very first real contact with the world we’d been worshipping for years. I don’t remember which of us got which autograph, but one of us got Omar Moreno and one of us got Ed Ott. It was a good feeling, holding the pages that held these somewhat random but still godly names. But my point is I don’t know what happened to those pages.

Anyway, the day after the parade, as the former Yazmobile was heading south, I was on a plane bound west, to Chicago. The plane got delayed for a long time on the runway. I had a commemorative Sports Illustrated celebrating the Red Sox, and even though the lights in the cabin were on low I managed to kill some time leafing through it, revisiting the long history of the team from their early successes in the dead-ball era all the way up through the end to the 86-year championship drought. In the magazine, as in almost every printed version of the team’s story, the drought was referred to as a curse, a curse that began when the team sold its star, Babe Ruth, to the Yankees. There was a photo of the Babe in the magazine looking young and thin in a Red Sox uniform. The picture made me happy.

The runway delay went on so long I gave up on finding any unread tidbits in the magazine. I put it back into the holder on the back of the seat in front of me. I don’t remember quite how we started our conversation, but I began talking to the woman beside me. She was a soft-spoken woman in her 40s who worked as a remedial reading teacher. Her name was Anita. We talked about where we were going (we were both going home, she to Nevada by way of Chicago) and about what had brought us to Boston: me for the parade, she to visit her daughter. Eventually the delay went on long enough to allow those facts to expand into deeper stories about our lives. She learned that my trip to see the parade was in some ways a trip to infuse my relationship with my brother with a booster shot of joy. I learned that her daughter was working as an intern for the Red Sox. And then I learned that her daughter had been able to get the internship because she was the great-granddaughter of a certain former Red Sox player.

“My husband is Tom Stevens,” Anita explained. “Babe Ruth’s grandson.”

Ever since I wrote a book called Classic Cons and Swindles, I have been on the paranoid lookout for someone planning to put one over on me. So it occurred to me that the woman was a professional grifter who had seen me leafing through my Red Sox magazine and had then tailored a way to get me awestruck and vulnerable for some sort of fleecing. I held onto this faint suspicion even as the warm feeling between the two of us grew with her family stories of Babe the doting, tender family man. But I didn’t need to have worried about a set-up. Sometimes these nice things just happen, I guess. As it turned out, Anita never asked anything of me. But she did give me her address and urged me to write to her mother-in-law, Babe’s daughter Julia, who lived with Anita and Tom Stevens in Nevada.

“Sometimes it takes her a little while to respond, but she loves getting mail,” Anita said.

A few weeks later I did write to Babe Ruth’s daughter. I told her that I had been moved by her daughter-in-law’s stories of Babe the loving father. I told her that my wife worked in a group home with children who had grown up with little or no parenting, as Babe had, and that his ability to be a caring parent after growing up that way seemed to me as big an achievement as any of his miraculous feats on the diamond. In some ways the letter was like a bookend of the letter I’d written decades before, to Yaz. I’m still waiting for a reply to that earlier letter, but within a few weeks of my letter to Babe Ruth’s daughter I got a brief, gracious letter from Nevada, thanking me for writing and wishing me the best. I framed the autographed picture she enclosed with the letter, and even to this day it has the ability to make me feel as if I’m hanging on to that good feeling just a little longer…

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