Archive for the ‘San Diego Padres’ Category

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Bill Greif

March 20, 2012

The Tour Guide

Pitcher and Sky #5

In this last piece, we see the completion of a motion that has so far in this series been shown only at an early stage. In this card there is blue sky, as in the others, but there’s also one shred, finally, of the everyday world: in the lower left, just behind the icon of a pitcher, what appears to be the top of a metal fence or a backstop. The pitcher icon in the lower left reveals the larger human figure to be an off-rhyme of an ideal. The real version is slightly ahead of the icon in the motion, his right leg settled. Forward momentum has ceased.

When I can’t write, when I can’t see anything, I feel like I’m imitating existence instead of actually living. I’m going through a motion, pitching without a ball. It has been this way for a few days. It always comes back around to this. It is like this more often than not, yet the other life I see in brief glimpses, when I’m curious, interested, working, always feels real, while this way, though inescapable, feels fake, the milieu of a fraud.

Bill Greif has hope. I would venture to say that he believes that his authentic self as a pitcher is one who succeeds. Yet in the three seasons leading up to when this photo was taken in the spring of 1975, Bill Greif lost a total of 52 games, the most over that span in the National League. His American League counterpart, Wilbur Wood, lost even more games during that time, 57, but Wood also won 64 games, while Greif won just 24.

It’s difficult to know what’s authentic. The distortion of limb in this portrait of Greif—the right arm seems elongated, exaggerated, while the left arm is thin, small, barely visible—reminded me of Mannerism, a movement in the visual arts during the renaissance. A blog called Beauty in Distortion includes this quote from Montaigne in its discussion of Mannerism: “Since our state makes things correspond to itself and transforms them in conformity with itself, we can no longer claim to know what anything truly is: nothing reaches us except as altered and falsified by our senses.”

This morning, I did a search on Daumier and Montaigne, hoping to find some connection that might tie this meandering tour together. All I found was that they both commented on the crinoline. The crinoline was that giant frame of a house kind of thing women wore under their dresses in olden times. Out of all the endless series of torture chambers women have been forced to wrestle themselves into in the name of fashion, the crinoline seems to me to be the most pronounced and absurd, yet at the time I’m sure it seemed like a good idea. It idealized and codified and disempowered the most powerful form in human culture, that of the human female. It distanced everyone from everyone, including themselves.

The moment in history I keep coming back to is the era when I was a child, the 1970s, when Bill Greif was losing and yet had hope and a droopy, elongated Mannerist mustache. Bras and draft cards had recently been burned. The distorting virtual crinoline below the nation’s idea of itself, that postwar blue sky Mickey Mantle America, had disintegrated from within as if gnawed by termites. Mickey Mantle was out of his uniform, red-nosed and limping. There was defeat overseas, fraud at home. My mother painted her loved ones backed by blue sky. I moved toward blue sky captured in cardboard rectangles. No one is leading the tour.

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Dave Freisleben

March 6, 2012

Tour Guide

Pitcher and Sky #4

I’m going to try to get out of the way for once, so I’ll keep this brief. Take a moment with this Dave Freisleben card, another 1976 offering of a long-sleeved San Diego Padres pitcher backed by blue sky. Your day is hectic, imperfect, a snarl of worries and frustrations. Step out of all that for one moment. That’s what these cards are for.

Now, let’s have a look at the moment behind this moment of blue sky. Go to the Fantography™ website homepage and click on the second photo from the top in the far left-hand column of photos. When you click on the photo, it will expand, and you’ll be able to see it along with this 1976 Dave Freisleben card and a caption: “This is the exact moment that Topps’ photographer Doug McWilliams shoots Dave Freisleben’s baseball card photo.”

So many things could have made it into the baseball card photo but didn’t. So many possible deflations and detractions. The blotchy brown grass, the measly bleachers, the empty field, the cages and fences and light tower and even any number of lesser versions of Dave Freisleben, whose lifetime record when the shutter clicked stood at 14 wins and 28 losses. McWilliams transforms a blotchy world. McWilliams transforms a young losing pitcher. Take one moment and attend transformation.

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Rich Folkers

February 28, 2012

Tour Guide

Pitcher and Sky #3

Ours is an age of mockery. An impotently diffuse irony has descended, a haze of tiny hooks, imperceptible quotation marks settling over everything. Consider this sentence: I love this 1976 Rich Folkers card. Air quotes want to pincer the verb and drag it toward some shading of mockery. I should know. I’ve spent over five years writing about these cards nearly every day, and in the process have written thousands and thousands of mocking words. I need look no further than Rich Folkers himself for an example of this mocking tendency in my writing. Consider my post on his spectacularly hideous 1975 card. I wrote that post very early on in this endless tour of mockery and life. In that post I can recall consciously attempting to emulate the concise witticisms that animate The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book. If I were funnier, wittier, I would have been able to continue approaching every card that way, each card the occasion for a short zinger. Soon enough, however, my long-winded ponderous digressive nature took over, and I started roaming farther and farther from that first delectable sting of irony, that rush of feeling you get when a card reappears in your hands after an absence of decades and all you can do is laugh. In the expanding posts a certain tendency of mine toward attempts at achingly sincere quasi-poetical conceits became part of the proceedings. I remember once early on when a post of mine was linked by The Baseball Think Factory; a commenter in the thread below the link pulled one of my more ambitious beatnik flower-child sentences, put quotes around it, and supplied a devastating monosyllabic response: “Ugh.” I felt it like the syllable had been propelled into my flesh with an air rifle. I’d been quoted, I’d been mocked.

What can you do? This is the world. Keep going. Try every day to see these cards with new eyes. Try to see everything with new eyes. It is a ridiculous thing for me to say. My life is monotonous, my courage meager and probably like everything else eroding. Most days I feel ridiculous, and those are the good days. Bad days I’m entirely enclosed in air quotes, product of a cosmic mocking. “Josh Wilker” rides the bus. “Josh Wilker” eats his lunch. “Josh Wilker” gazes at a 1976 Rich Folkers card and tries to shake the quotation marks, those sardonic hooked spores, off of his conviction that it is a thing of beauty.

So on to the card. There are some differences between this image and the first image in this series, that of Alan Foster. The sky here is entirely cloudless and has deepened in color. A shadow from the figure’s upraised arms is falling on his chest. The icon in the lower left corner is a reverse of the icon in the previous card. We are looking at a left-handed pitcher. He does not have a mustache or sideburns. He has aviator-style glasses. There is some damage to the card, along the top border, possibly the 36-year-old residue of gum. The damage makes this card worthless, I suppose, but also unique, one-of-a-kind. And personal. The gum that fucked it up—I chewed that gum as an 8-year-old boy.

There are also qualitative differences between the two Padres cards from 1976 and the 1957 Dave Sisler card featured most recently on this tour. The Dave Sisler card is washed out, drab; the color of the sky not as deep, producing a weak ineffectual contrast with the figure in the foreground, a compositional problem compounded by the unintentional cluttering of other shapes intruding haphazardly in the background. The photos on the 1976 cards evidence a much more focused and sensitive artistic sensibility than the photo on the Dave Sisler card. On the next stop on this tour, I will talk some more about the artist behind many of the photos on the cards that have come to center my ridiculous life. But for now, let’s linger for one last moment on Rich Folkers. Rich Folkers, journeyman reliever, bespectacled ectomorph, remembered if at all not for any heroic feats but for a Jerry Coleman malapropism (“Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen”), is in his 1976 card transported beyond the deflating ironies of this world, his form natural but somehow purified, a sculpted undeniable presence lit by the sun, encased in cheap gum-flecked cardboard but haloed in a beatified cerulean emptiness. Imagine yourself in such a card. Can you see it? Maybe that’s you for once, for real.

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Alan Foster

February 23, 2012

Tour Guide

Pitcher and Sky #1

Note how the blue deepens as it rises, as if to suggest an unutterable perfection beyond the frame, just above the human figure’s clasped hands, that makeshift steeple. I love the idea of blue sky. I don’t know what to do with my life.

When my mother was just about the age I am now, edging into the mid-40s, she quit her job and left her home. She had been working as an editor and writer of technical manuals for a synthesizer company. This was in the mid-1980s. She had raised two kids, my brother and me, and we were both safely away at school. She was accepted into the NYU graduate program for art history and found a room to rent in a duplex in Manhattan owned by a woman who lived there with her daughter. She had use of the kitchen but tended to stay away. She studied art textbooks in her little room eating takeout, a nervous new life, cheap deli soup and centuries of beauty.

The figure in this card would seem almost sculpted, adamantine, if not for the entirely human facial expression, that uncertainty and self-consciousness, however slight, that cuts against the otherwise iconic nature of the portrait. The history of art is a history of disenchantment, of gods stumbling to earth, of humans in heroic poses reckoning that no moment is eternal, that the next moment, inevitable, will be some sort of undoing.

My mom was older than most of her fellow students, many of whom had not yet ventured out into the working world, as my mother had many years earlier. The department also reflected the tradition in that field of attracting members of the upper class, the future curators of major museums, those who had been practicing all their lives on Nantucket yachts and the slopes of Vail to float with grace and magnetic charm through gatherings of deep-pocketed donors. My mom didn’t have much in common with them. She had just gotten through two decades of raising children and getting by. She had been a painter herself, filling our house with colorful pop-art portraits of friends and family, and she had moved from that passion, when her family needed money, to the more stridently commercial artistic endeavor of opening and running a sign-painting business, and when that also didn’t bring in enough money she had edged away from art altogether for a while to just work and make a steady living, editing and writing the technical manuals. But art was always calling. Maybe because she had intimately experienced the pressure that needing money can exert on the creation of art, she was drawn in her new life to the study of popular art forms. Cartoons, prints, caricatures, comics: so-called low art. The kind of thing made to sell and sell cheap. The kind of thing everyone can get their hands on.

This particular example of low art appeared in 1976, selling for 25 cents with 14 other cards and a piece of gum in a waxy plastic wrapper. That year would turn out to be Alan Foster’s last in the major leagues, though he was also featured in a card in 1977. Here he wears the brown and yellow of the Padres, a homely juxtaposition to the backing blue sky, but he had come up in the system of the Los Angeles Dodgers, seemingly destined for a career entirely in blue, the life of a Dodger superstar. In 1967, with the Dodgers’ top minor league club, Foster had thrown two no-hitters, the first to ever do so in the history of the Pacific Coast League. This level of achievement did not transfer to the majors. In 1969 Foster surrendered a 506-foot blast to Willie Stargell, the first home run ever hit out of Dodger Stadium. The next year he was shipped to the Indians. He went from the Indians to the Angels to the Cardinals and finally to this last stop, the Padres.

After completing her master’s level course work, my mother spent several years researching a PhD thesis on a 19th century French caricaturist named Honoré Daumier. She spent most of a year in a small apartment in Paris. Every day she went to the national library and requested materials from the archives in her timid but capable French and worked. I visited her for a week or so in the spring, taking an unpaid break from my job at a liquor store. I walked around a lot. I looked at a lot of art. I played basketball with some French guys in a park near my mom’s apartment. They were fairly skilled but soft and didn’t know or care about boxing out, so I kept grabbing offensive rebounds and finally, after otherwise playing terribly all game, I scored the winning basket on a tip-in. It’s ridiculous what stays with you, what haunts you. Later that day I took a tour of some underground catacombs filled with thousands of human bones and skulls. Ever since then I have periodically thought of my skull below the skin of my face, just waiting there for the temporary covering to fall away.

Here in Topps 1976 card number 266 there is a covering of homely yellow and brown. Everything goes from one thing to another to another, declining, and everything goes from one thing to another and another, on up to a vanishing into blue. One day during my visit to Paris my mother took a day off from researching and we went to Chartres. We took a tour with a British tour guide famous for his illuminating spiels and erudition and learned devotion to the cathedral. He had based his whole life on one thing, that cathedral. I remember wondering how anyone could limit themselves like that. I don’t remember anything specific about the tour except that the guide was entertaining in describing the years of anonymous human toil that went into the creation of the cathedral, and that at the end of the tour he deftly let us all know that he needed our tips to survive. We all looked down at the ground and dug in our pockets for bills and coins as the cathedral beside us pointed unequivocally upward, toward an unutterable idea, the perfection of blue.

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Ekim Xuddam

October 27, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

X Is for Xuddam

After a few weeks of being a father, I have everything pretty much figured out and am certainly among the world’s foremost experts on the subject, but I am as yet undecided on which of the following theories should become the central pillar in my philosophy of fathering:

1. The Theory of Cancellation: To be a father, one must accept a large X across the version of oneself that existed up to the point of becoming a father.

2. The Theory of Total Upheaval: To be a father, one must accept that everything has been so completely upended that one’s anus is now one’s brain and vice versa, and in this upheaval nothing will really seem to work, and it will be as if one has been a right-handed pitcher all one’s life and is now being asked to escape late-inning jams while pitching left-handed.

Let me hasten to add that these theories, now that they are written out and not merely thoughts in my mind, both strike me as repugnant in that they focus self-pityingly on the father and not on the child or even the fathering of the child. I can’t help it, it seems. I have to complain, it seems. Acquaintances, friends, family members all ask about the baby, and while I may be able to briefly mouth a platitude about the child’s well-being and my genuine loving feelings for him, I then can’t help myself from trying to channel at least some of my darker thoughts into a conversational exchange set up to bear only platitudes.

“He doesn’t sleep,” I say.

Depending on my mood at the moment and on how well I know the person I’m speaking to, I might say this cheerfully, as if it’s just “one of those things,” or I might say it more weightily, like I’m trying to communicate over the phone that I am in a dire hostage situation, my captor pressing the barrel of a gun to my head.

My actual captor would not be able to hold a gun yet, but if you place a rattle near his fingers he’ll grab hold of it and grip it in his fist. He can’t control the rattle, but he’ll hold onto it pretty tightly. He usually ends up flailing his arm and bopping himself in the head with the thing. And yet, despite his inability to control a rattle or wield a gun, he’s got me wrapped up as securely as if I were mummified to a chair with several yards of duct tape. He doesn’t sleep, he wails, all day, all night, I hold him and stand and bounce and rock him in my arms and go “shhh” until my legs ache and I’m covered in sweat and I’m so low on saliva that my “shhh” sound is no more impactful than the scrape of a dry leaf on concrete several blocks away, and he’s still there, staring wide-eyed at the wall or up at me.

Here I am, he is saying.

It’s a statement that I am able to appreciate at certain times as the greatest gift of my entire life. The statement takes on a different meaning when I’ve been rocking him uselessly for a long time and my poor wife—who bears an exponentially larger amount of the brunt of the ravages of this sleepless hostage situation than I do—is staring at the wall like she just got carted home after storming the beach at Anzio. In those moments, which are so plentiful as to suggest themselves as the norm, my son’s “here I am” is more like the living, breathing embodiment of the kind of math problem that shows up in nightmares, an unsolvable complexity designed expressly to confound, frustrate, and defeat.

And another problem is that everything I try to write on this subject misses the mark. For example, just as I was finishing off the above paragraph, I heard my son making “talking” sounds upstairs with my wife, and I stopped writing and went upstairs and played with him on a blanket on the floor and took a video of him using his legs to push off his mom’s hands and slide across the blanket and smile. He has been trying to laugh lately, but he doesn’t quite know how to do it. He smiles and goes “uuuuh,” not getting how to break the sound up into laughs. Whenever he does this I laugh so hard my face hurts. I came back downstairs from that and the words I’ve written so far make me want to carve a big X over the writing. This is how the writing has been going lately—everything I say seems within moments like it deserves cancellation. Whatever used to work or appeared to work doesn’t work anymore. Parenting is like that for me. Whatever worked the day before doesn’t work today, so you have to write a big X through it and start over. One moment doesn’t seem to offer much relation or support to the next.

I had a moment on the bus a few days ago, coming home. I can’t really access it now, but the whole world seemed to be glowing and I was thinking about writing, thinking about how the way to do it is like Van Gogh and approach form in a siege of messy feeling instead of caution and hesitating care. I was thinking about my son, hoping and praying for him to have moments when the world is all possibility, a sunflower the same as a creator deity’s cupped hands full of brand-new stars. The bus groaned past a guy standing in a sandwich board in the growing dusk outside a muffler shop, advertising $10 off something, and even that or especially that in conjunction with an inexplicable burst of a memory of watching the sun set in China at dusk when I was 21 years old moved me almost to tears, to think that my son will have the feel of life inside him, the weight of a sandwich board on his shoulders, maybe, or the glow of a sunset in a faraway place, the memory of his mother’s soft words, all of it, the highs and lows, and I wanted to find words for this and started wondering whether I could find a way to use it in this post about Ekim Xuddam, left-handed unassuming pencil-mustached journeyman and representative of a world turned upside down.

The X in the surname of this player, Xuddam, is pronounced as an “sh” sound, as if it is an X in pinyin, the pronunciation system used for the rendering of the Chinese language into our alphabet. Also in keeping with the upside down nature of the player, and in line with the Chinese custom, this surname is listed first on the player’s card. I studied Chinese for a few months in Shanghai when I was 21, and this study pinnacled one day in a public park with a conversation I was able to hold, barely, with a Chinese toddler. Almost all the words I learned are gone from my mind now, cancelled like most things that come and go in a life. I sometimes worry about my memory, my purchase on life, my lack of expertise about anything, even baseball, that primary lifelong means of escape from life, but in a way it is good to be—at least in terms of baseball fandom—in possession of a porous, faulty memory, because it allows the game to retain the vastness and mystery it had when I was first discovering it. The day before my glowing bus-ride moment, when still trying to figure out who I could possibly write an “X is for” essay about in the world of baseball, I started casting around baseball-reference.com, and for several minutes I lingered on the player with the most X’s in his name in baseball history, plus a nickname (“Double X”—one of two nicknames, along with “The Beast”) that made reference to the X’s. As I was studying Jimmie Foxx’s page on baseball-reference.com I was remembering the particular pleasure or even joy in first discovering his numbers, back when I was a little boy just beginning to explore baseball history. I knew Ruth and Aaron and Dimaggio, but in those early days there was actually a moment when I loved baseball yet still didn’t know Jimmie Foxx, who was tucked away just a little, a surprise for the young baseball explorer to find. And what a find.

The game never stops offering up these surprises, though in different ways, no monumental icons like Foxx left to discover but plenty of other discoveries to be made, even in the recent past. I drift into and out of the game. Years go by where it seems in retrospect that I was hardly paying attention at all. I don’t know what the fuck else I was doing but somehow I couldn’t even get it together to grasp the details of whatever baseball season was unfolding somewhere beyond my personal fog. For example, after I left Jimmie Foxx’s page in order to search for more candidates for the “X is for” post, my search brought me to Xavier Nady, and though I then searched my shoebox for cards for this player and found I had none (and none for Xavier Hernandez, either), I lingered on the Xavier Nady page because I guess I don’t want to entirely cancel my former self in these strange new sleepless days and instead want to linger and digress and waste time, just a little, please, and I poked around Xavier Nady’s page until I got to his first at-bat, which turned out to be against a pitcher whose first name, incredibly, was Onan. What is incredible about this is that I had never heard of this Onan, despite his presence in box scores for a couple of years and despite Onanism being very near the foundation of the cluster of practices and habits and compulsions that have ferried me haphazardly through 43 years and that more or less make up the self that is known as Josh Wilker and that seem now under the duress and angst and joy of parenthood in need of either cancellation or total upheaval, depending upon which of my self-pitying theories of fatherhood is holding sway at any given time.

Oh Onan, I can’t believe I missed you. What am I missing now? I guess I never catch much on the first go-round anyway but only ever find anything in the detritus after the fact, little treasures left behind and forgotten. Onan was born in Hawaii but the name suggests Japanese descent. I was in Japan once, but only for a night, a stopover on my trip to Shanghai, the night after I wept in a weakened state at the in-flight movie Field of Dreams while thousands of feet above the Pacific. The next day I arrived in China and knew no words at all, not even hello. One of the words I learned early on, and one of the few that haven’t been X-ed out in the acid-bath barrel of my memory, is the word for thank you, which is written as “xie xie” in pinyin and is pronounced with the same “sh” sound that begins Xuddam, so the word to express gratitude sounds like waves or like the sound I use to try to get my son to sleep.

Here I am, he keeps telling me, eyes wide open.

Xie xie, I say. I’ll keep saying it. I’ll say it to him the rest of my life. I’ll never forget what it means.

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Previous installments in the Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting:
Z Is for Zisk
Y is For Yeager

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Gene Richards

April 6, 2011

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

San Diego Padres

At a certain point, you learn that you aren’t very powerful. You start choking up, just a little at first, hoping to retain a shred of the primal illusion of willful potency. You choke up some more, and then some more. Results are dubious. There’s no right way. What can be done? You keep choking up. Dreams of long ball glory recede beyond reach. In the end, you cling only to a hope for continued survival and, at most, tepid sporadic connection. Your posture is suggestive of a cringe. There’s no way to avoid the moment, sooner or later, of complete usurpation. To exist is ridiculous. You exist, you exist.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part of 22 of 30: Consider the fate of Mascots Who Have Come and Gone Leaving Nary a Trace, for example (via Gaslamp Ball), Bluepper

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2011 previews so far: St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Pittsburgh Pirates; Arizona Diamondbacks; Colorado Rockies; New York Yankees; Cleveland Indians; Detroit Tigers; Milwaukee Brewers; Minnesota Twins; Atlanta Braves; Cincinnati Reds; Oakland A’s; Seattle Mariners; Chicago Cubs; Baltimore Orioles; [California] Angels; Texas Rangers; Boston Red Sox

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Willie Davis

October 19, 2009

Willie Davis 76

In college I lived for a year in a house on a steep dirt road a couple miles from campus. In the morning, I walked down the dirt road toward the town, and as I walked I chanted “om mane padme hum,” which I think means “jewel in the heart of the lotus.” That was the year I stopped taking LSD, because my experiences with the substance kept getting narrower and narrower, but I wanted to find a way to hold on to a sense of elevated reality that the hallucinogens had offered. After about twenty minutes of walking and chanting, I reached the place where the dirt road turned to asphalt, by a lumber yard at the edge of town. I stopped chanting. Often, a morning mist was still hanging over the stacks of wood and parked forklifts. I felt high and awake and had no thoughts in my head for a little while.

After I passed through the small town I climbed another hill for a while and arrived among the complex of brick buildings. Often I got to the library just as it was opening. I’d been a bad student through high school, but in college I was interested in everything. I read and wrote in the library until it was time to go to my first class, and then during free periods I went back to the library, or else went to the gym to play pickup basketball. One evening after classes were done for the day I was walking back up the steep dirt road toward home and I looked up at the stars and prayed silently to Jack Kerouac. I don’t remember what I said or what exactly I was thinking. We had been reading the Dharma Bums in one of my classes, and at one point I’d blown up at the teacher (the poet Neil Shepard, one of the great teachers of my life) for allowing a few criticisms of Kerouac to seep into his lecture on the book. But the prayer wasn’t about that. It was more like an imitation of the yearning plea for meaning woven through that book.

Jack Kerouac: What am I supposed to do with myself in this life here on earth?

And then a comet streaked across the sky, going almost from one horizon to the other, the longest shooting star I’ve ever seen.

I thought of that dirt road this morning, twenty years after those mornings and evenings, as I read that Willie Davis, underrated centerfield standout of the pitching-dominated 1960s, took up Buddhist chanting in the early 1970s. He didn’t use the chant I used but used the one that I’ve been encouraged by strangers to use on a couple of occasions, long ago, when I was young and walked around with the open, searching look of the pilgrim or rube on my face: Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. This chant is supposed to enable you to get whatever it is you want. In a 1975 article in Ebony, Willie Davis implies that the chant was going to allow his team at the time, the Texas Rangers, to “win it all.”

They didn’t, of course, and neither did any of his subsequent teams as he finished up his long pro career, but this didn’t stop him from chanting. In Japan, where he went to play after a year with the team he is beatifically depicted as a member of in the 1976 card above, he expected that his chanting would be welcomed and celebrated, but instead his teammates hated it, thinking that it made the clubhouse resemble the rite most likely in Japan to include Buddhist chanting: a funeral. (To put yourself in the cleats of those Japanese teammates of Davis, imagine if Ichiro hung around the Seattle clubhouse in a black suit and dark sunglasses singing “Amazing Grace” and weeping all the time. It’d kind of sap your will to go out and crisply hit the cutoff man.)

I live in the city now, and so I can’t walk around chanting like I did on that empty dirt road unless I want to attract the kind of attention crazy people attract. And I feel sort of stupid just sitting around in my apartment chanting, plus when I’m in my apartment I am more often than not shoving food in my mouth and staring at the television. I don’t know if that’s what the Kerouackian shooting star had in mind for me. But Keroauc died fatly watching TV, so who knows? [Correction: He died in a hospital; I may have been thinking of Kerouac's poem about Charlie Parker, in which Bird is described as dying laughing while watching a juggler on TV.] Anyway, there’s a jewel in the heart of the lotus. No matter what. There’s a gleaming answer in the sky. There’s a stillness below everything, and morning mist everywhere. There’s a big shining smile on the face of Willie Davis.

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Fred Kendall

September 16, 2009

Fred Kendall 77

I’ve spent some time on this site wondering about the 1976 Expansion Draft that breathed life into the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays, largely because it’s the first league expansion I ever consciously witnessed, but I have yet to explore the machinations of the league expansion of 1969, which necessitated not one but two expansion drafts in 1968, the same year, as it happens, that I joined my own family as an expansion franchise.

I was a few months old when the drafts occurred over two days in mid-October, the first just four days after the conclusion of the Detroit Tigers’ seven-game victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. The National League draft came first, on October 14, and the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos built their rosters with the likes of Billy McCool, Larry Jaster, Remy Hermoso, and Mike Corkins, among others. One day later, an odd element of off-rhyme characterized the otherwise random unspooling of names called by the brand new Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots: Joe Foy following Ray Oyler, Jack Aker echoing Steve Whitaker, and a late-round multi-name flourish sounding more like the obsessively rhythmic expressions of a madman than a litany of athletic elites: Dick Bates, Dick Drago, Larry Haney, Dick Baney.

Fred Kendall was the fourteenth name called on the first day, and he must have among the very youngest of the players gathered that day or the next. He had been drafted into professional baseball only the year before, a 1967 fourth-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds, and he was just twenty when the Padres selected him. He got into 10 games during the team’s inaugural campaign, batting .154, and played just 4 games the following season, going 0 for 9. He starting playing more after that, and in 1973 became the team’s regular backstop, posting his career high in just about every offensive category.

From there came a gradual slide back toward the relative irrelevancy captured in the card shown here. He goes about his business with an air of glum resignation, the lack of a chest protector evidence that he will not be seeing any action in the game itself but will only warm a series of anonymous Padres relievers before they trudge into the action and allow the runners on second and third to jog across home plate after a series of events too dispiriting to elaborate upon.

I’d be able to withstand the demoralizing undertones embedded in the front of Fred Kendall’s card if the 1977 Topps series been one of the yearly sets that eschewed the tendency to try to embroider a player’s lackluster statistical record with a line or two of overly cheerful praise. However, on the back of this card, below Fred Kendall’s statistics, is this line of text: “The only original Padre remaining on club’s roster, Fred ranks high in almost all of San Diego’s offensive categories.” Fred Kendall: All-Time Padre Great. I don’t know, something about it makes me want to walk along the shore of an empty beach in late November and weep.

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Larry Hardy

January 28, 2009
Untitled

Somewhere I Lost Connection

(continued from Tom Brunansky)

Chapter Three

As I experienced it, the Red Sox were swept out of the 1990 playoffs instantaneously. I barely had time to dry my eyes from my emotional envisioning of the Brunansky catch before buying another Herald Tribune to find that they had been flicked aside in four quick games by the Oakland A’s.

Whatever seems like it might be something is really just nothing in a cheap, unraveling disguise. But don’t grip too tightly to that glib shard of nihilism, because the opposite is also true. Or neither is true. Who knows? A few days after my team’s disappointing el foldo, I ended a long passage in my battered travel notebook this way: There is a holy hum that runs through everything, I am trying to believe.

***

This is Larry Hardy’s only baseball card. The back of his card shows that he progressed in a straight upward line through the Padres system, with just one exception, one tiny and seemingly insignificant hiccup that ended up being a much more accurate harbinger of things to come than the otherwise upward-pointing line of his minor and major league stats as of 1974. This hiccup occurred in 1971, his second year as a pro player, when he was sent back to the Padres lowest-level minor league team after moving up and away from that team at the very tail end of the previous season.

The low-level team he was sent back to was located in Lodi.

***

I don’t know where I lost connection. I can tell you that as my years in college went on, I had fewer and fewer friends, mainly because all of the guys I’d started with in a cloud of bong smoke had eventually dropped out or been asked to leave or, in a couple rare cases, had continued their nondescript education by transferring to another anonymous diplomatorium. With them gone, I spent more and more time in the library. I became a passionate student. Perhaps the best path for me to have taken right after college would have been to continue straight on into grad school, to keep wrasslin’ those books. But I had it in mind that I needed to go out beyond the walls of the library and experience life like the heroes of all the stories I loved. I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to travel up out of this world to the world of the gods and return with the holy hum coursing through my body and springing from my fingers.

***

In his debut season of 1974 Larry Hardy set a major league record. It was not a negligible, trivial mark, either, no mere accident or oddity, but a significant single-season achievement that at the very least illustrates that Larry Hardy mattered, at least for one year: He pitched in more games than any rookie ever had. His name, which had never been called by a major league manager, was suddenly called more than anyone in the league aside from the name of another reliever, Mike Marshall, who was in the midst of appearing in more games than anyone ever has, rookie or otherwise.

“What’s the kid’s name? Right, he’s not really a kid anymore, but you know who I mean. Hardy? Get him warm.”

“Well, this one’s out of reach. Get me Hardy.”

“Guess things can’t get any worse. Might as well get Hardy going.”

“Who’s left out there. Just Hardy? Christ. [Long pause.] Get him up.”

Yes, Larry Hardy wasn’t particularly effective, getting knocked around to the tune of a 4.69 ERA that was over a run higher than the league average, but he did get credit for 9 wins against just 4 losses, and this for a team that won just 60 games while losing 102. Larry Hardy mattered. Larry Hardy won. Things were looking up for Larry Hardy.

Why then the expression of apprehension and mute alarm, as if Hardy was watching nothing shed the last of its cheap disguise?

(to be continued)

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Gaylord Perry

July 29, 2008
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In hopes of compensating for a recent summertime slowing of output here at Cardboard Gods, I offer this spectacular specimen, a card that has for some days now rendered me speechless with its boundless magnificence. Where do I start? Should I attempt to reconnect to that giddy feeling from childhood (long since faded as such things always do with the tendency to take things for granted) that derived from learning that there was a person, and not just any person but a major leaguer, and not just any major leaguer but a superstar, named Gaylord?

Or should I try to start a discussion about cheating? Though it has quieted down a bit since last year’s revelation of The Mitchell Report and Barry Bonds’ breaking of the all-time home run record, the issue of cheating still seems to be one of the dominant themes in baseball today. Bonds can’t get a job this year, even though he wants to play and surely can still hit better than all but a few people on earth. I suppose this is mostly due to teams not wanting the headache of the media circus sure to erupt upon Bonds’ arrival with the team. Part of that circus would certainly include the copious use of the word cheater. At the recent Hall of Fame induction ceremony, this issue was also present, in the form of an absence. By now, Mark McGwire’s prodigious numbers would have certainly gained him entry into the Hall of Fame, but it looks instead that he may never get in, voters unwilling to elect someone who is roundly assumed to have cheated by using performance enhancing drugs. The obvious hypocrisy that I’m driving at with all the finesse of a bulldozer is that in that very Hall of Fame is a plaque for the man pictured here, who rather openly admitted to cheating whenever possible. The thing is, while I see intellectually that this is a double standard, I feel on a gut level that I’m OK with this double standard. The baseball world at large seems to agree. I wonder why? Maybe it has to do with romance. Gaylord’s an Old West cardsharp, crafty and skillful. McGwire, Bonds, and Clemens, on the other hand (to name the three most prominent figures in the ongoing issue), seem to be greedy, inelegant brutes. How much skill does it take to jam a needle in your ass?

And speaking of ass, we finally come to the subject I most want to address in terms of this card. The photo, which on first glance appears to be a great action shot of a crafty gray-haired veteran in the midst of a wily offering sure to reduce the batter to a frustrated obscenity-laden tirade, on closer look appears in fact to offer the secret to the hurler’s long-running and otherwise somewhat difficult-to-explain success. Please look closely, and without the prejudical knowledge of both baseball pitching mechanics and the usual placement of body appendages. Do you see what I see? That Gaylord Perry was able, with some exertion showing plainly on his well-lined face, to excrete, from his anus, a third hand.

This would explain a lot, wouldn’t it? I mean, of all the many entertaining instances of a player getting caught red-handed (Joe Niekro trying to toss away a file as an umpire approached him on the mound, cork exploding from Sammy Sosa’s bat, etc.), the most notorious rule-stretcher of them all, Gaylord Perry, who even entitled his 1974 mid-career autobiography Me and the Spitter, eluded authorities for his first 21 years in the majors, not earning his first suspension for rule-bending until his second-to-last go-round in 1982. Everyone agreed he made baseballs do ungodly things. But how?

Probably this card shows nothing but the fact that he had a way of keeping his right arm close to his side in the middle of his delivery to add to his prodigious arsenal of deceptions. But maybe it shows, like those rare photos of Bigfoot or Nessie, something more monstrous and wondrous. I mean, maybe, just maybe, we are glimpsing Gaylord Perry’s uncanny assball.

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Oscar Gamble

July 22, 2008
 Untitled 
I feel I should only approach Oscar Gamble, one of the most memorable figures for us baseball-loving children of the 1970s, in a state of absolute clarity, ready to script transcendent odes to his afro. But since I’ve been at this project of writing about all my childhood baseball cards for quite a while and have yet to write about Oscar Gamble I can only deduce that such states of absolute clarity never exist. No matter how I try to capture Oscar Gamble in words I’m going to blow it, so I might as well get it over with on a nothing morning, a Tuesday after a short vacation, no inspiration or even curiosity in my mind, just a low-level sense of unease that the delayed work week is about to fall on top of me like a collapsing abandoned circus tent. It’s a day without possibilities, a day without magic, a day to remain silent, reaching for nothing.

But there’s Oscar Gamble. There’s always Oscar Gamble. In the five heaviest years of my baseball card collecting Oscar Gamble played for six different major league teams. You could never tell for sure where he was at any given moment, so there was always a chance he could appear from anywhere. Maybe even a nothing day has the possibility of his appearance in it. No matter where you are or what you are doing, Oscar Gamble might appear, his swing wicked, jagged, able to wrench pinch-hit homers into the right field seats, his afro billowing below his crushed-down batting helmet as he circles the bases, unfurling to its full magnificence when the batting helmet is removed on the walk from home plate to the dugout, big enough to blot out entire dying galaxies in the sky. His afro! There is hope! Here the caretaker of that famous life-affirming coiffure is shown in two places at once, his doctored home Padre uniform suggesting San Diego while the Brut (by Faberge) sign behind him declares the location of his home stadium as Chicago’s Comiskey Park (update: as pointed out by astute readers in the comments below, it is actually Yankee Stadium). If Oscar Gamble can be both here and there then maybe he’s everywhere. Even when I’m nowhere.

                                                    *     *     *

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

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Randy Jones

July 15, 2008
 Untitled 
This card, featuring the awesome cap-obliterating power of Randy Jones’ Eurfro, celebrates the pinnacle of Jones’ career: his starting assignment in the 1976 All-Star Game. Later that year he was awarded the National League Cy Young award, capping a two-year period in which he was the best pitcher in the league (he’d finished second in the Cy Young voting the year before), but that award was based primarily on his staggering achievements prior to the All-Star break. In other words, the pale junk-tossing star known as Randy Jones never shined brighter than when he took the mound to start the 1976 All-Star Game with more victories, 16, than any pitcher had ever had at the time of the midsummer classic.

Aside from the All-Star Game matchup ten years later between dueling phenoms Doc Gooden and Roger Clemens, I don’t think there has been an All-Star Game starting pitching matchup with as much juice to it as the one in 1976. On the one hand, you had Jones, who though perhaps generally forgotten now was at that moment thought to be both an elite pitcher and, more specifically, in stunningly good shape for a run at the already seemingly unreachable plateau of 30 wins for the season. And on the other hand, of course, you had another curly-haired pitcher who just happened to be the most exciting, entertaining, charismatic, and infectiously joyful rookie who ever lived.

That was the first All-Star Game I ever watched, and though I was amazed by Randy Jones’ 16-3 midseason record my attention was focused more intensely on his opponent, Mark Fidrych, whom I’d watched for the first time a couple weeks earlier, on Monday Night Baseball, talking to the baseball and mowing down the Yankees as 47,000 Tigers fans laughed and roared.

Jones ended up faring better in the All-Star Game than Fidrych, but it didn’t really matter to me. When I was a kid the All-Star Game meant a chance to see the stars from my baseball cards basking in the bright lights, laughing, happy to be there. It was about the moment itself, free of consequences. My brother and I got to stay up past our bedtime to watch the whole game, and it was always the best night of the summer, no matter what happened.

Apart from such rare moments, life tends toward disappointment as surely as water tends to run downhill. Randy Jones compiled a 6-11 won-loss record after the All-Star Game, falling well short of 30 wins, and went 43-69 after 1976. Fidrych cooled to 10-7 after the break, narrowly failing to win 20 for the year, and after 1976 went 10-10 during the sporadic appearances that comprised the remainder of his career. The divebombing career arcs of Jones and Fidrych, though by virtue of their brief high peaks more pronounced than most, are still closer to the rule than to the exception. Things fall apart.

But when Jones and Fidrych faced off in 1976 they did so in a game that was outside the schedule, outside the standings, outside the inevitable progression toward disappointment. The players wanted to do well, but the result of the game did not matter. It was meaningless. It was a sanctuary. Randy Jones will always be 16-3. Mark Fidrych will always be 21 years old.

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Danny Frisella

February 22, 2008
  

Elysium

(continued from Bob Moose)

Chapter Three

Wouldn’t It Be Nice stops, chopped at the first word. That word, wouldn’t, echoes sharp and short like if you clapped once in an empty room. I’m somewhere bright and cold, the sky the color of old sidewalk ice. The overgrown dirt road I’m walking slopes and curves, another downward spiral. I’m taller now, older, just past my baseball card years. This place is familiar, but I don’t know why. Thin bare trees to the right, a graveyard to the left. No sign of Richie Hebner, but Jupiter’s still with me. He keeps his head down, doesn’t bound ahead like he always used to. In fact he keeps lagging every few feet and glancing over at me as if to see if I’ll lag, too. But I keep going. I know this place.

I know this place. And those aren’t grave markers. They’re stumpy posts with electrical outlets, hookups for RVs, one post for each empty rectangular lot. The lots stretch into the distance, all of them empty except one nearby, where someone has parked a dune buggy. The dune buggy confuses me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person. There are a few things on the front seat. A baseball glove, a brown and yellow baseball cap, a white uniform with brown and yellow piping. The shirt has the word Frisella on the back.

I don’t know what the dune buggy is doing in the empty RV lot but other than that this place is familiar. We used to come here. It was a town away. This is Lake Champagne, shut down for the season.

First the whole family came, then just my brother and me, then when I got old enough, just past my baseball card years, just me, hitchhiking the few miles to get here. There was a rec room with pinball machines and air hockey and a jukebox with a lot of songs by bands named after places. But that’s back up the dirt road, behind us, and since I first followed Richie Hebner away from the world I haven’t been able to go backward, only forward and down, forward and down.

The thin dirt road empties out to the small grassy area that everyone pretended was a beach. There’s a sagging volleyball net, a basketball hoop nailed to an old telephone pole. Past that the beach slopes down to the small manmade pond with a wooden dock anchored in the middle of it. There was never any place to go but Lake Champagne, and once you were there the only thing to do was swim out to the wooden dock.

As I start moving toward the lake I see something out of the corner of my eye. Beyond the basketball hoop, near some picnic tables, a boy is throwing a frisbee up into the air and trying to catch it. Jupiter has already started trotting toward the boy. I follow him. The boy isn’t very good at throwing a frisbee. He throws and chases, throws and chases, the disc thudding down beyond him each time. He notices Jupiter first, then looks past him to me. He was about to make another solitaire throw but instead he tries to toss it to me. The disc wobbles and dives to the ground before I can reach it, but in trying to get to it I get closer to the boy.

He looks familiar. I’m just past the baseball card years and so is he. Twelve, maybe thirteen. He’s got short hair and is wearing jeans and a too-small blue Cub Scout shirt with the yellow kerchief knotted in front. He’s barefoot.

I pick up the frisbee. It’s one of the small cheap kinds, with spaceship contours and no thin grooves at the edges. It’s the color of lemonade and looks like if you held it up to the light for a while then took it into a closet it would glow. I throw it back to the kid. Jupiter chases it. The throw slips through the boy’s hands and hits him in the chest.

He picks it up off the ground and I edge a little closer so he can reach me. This try is a little better. Jupiter chases it. I can’t quite get to it but I snap it up before Jupiter can grab it. I’m even closer to the boy now. He has pale skin, a few freckles. I just stand there holding the frisbee. Jupiter stares at me, waiting. He makes a little sound. Hrf.

The boy claps his hands once and the sound of it echoes sharp and short like we’re in an empty room. He wants me to throw it. I throw it as gently as I can and it dies halfway. I remember this boy now. Brian is his name. Jupiter chomps up the frisbee and starts to dart off with it, but Brian claps his hands once and the sound again echoes short and sharp. Jupiter stops. He looks over at Brian, then trots toward him and drops the frisbee at his feet. He sits, leans into Brian’s legs. Brian picks up the Frisbee and stares at me. I’ve been edging a little closer but his stare stops me.

I didn’t really know him. He was just this other kid in seventh grade. He didn’t play little league. One day here at Lake Champagne we shot baskets together at the hoop nailed to the old telephone pole. I wasn’t that good but he was so bad I felt sorry for him. The way he dribbled with both hands was the first thing I thought of, some time later, when my mom told me why he hadn’t been in school for a while (I hadn’t noticed his absence). He was sick. Really sick. The same sick my friend Glenn’s mother had, the lady who always wore hats or kerchiefs on her head.

Now Brian is staring past me. He twists his body to throw the frisbee again and I edge closer but this time the throw blasts straight and high, way over my head and beyond. The surprising show of strength reminds me of the day Glenn got mad at me for razzing him about something and he started strangling me. I’d always been sure Glenn was a bigger weakling than I was, but I couldn’t budge his arms until a teacher yelled his name.

I chase after Brian’s throw for a few steps but then just watch it sail against the darkening sky and out over the still brown water of Lake Champagne. An impossible throw, a perfect throw. It arcs toward the wooden dock anchored in the middle of the pond and clatters down with a faraway echo. As it wobbles to a stop it seems to be glowing, making it seem as if a tiny spiral of light is boring down into the dock.

I turn back to Brian. He and Jupiter are walking away, back in the direction I’d come, toward the dirt road.

Hey, I try to say. Jupey. Hey

They can’t hear me. I turn back toward the dock. Evening has come on. Richie Hebner is standing on the dock now, smoking his silver one-hitter, glowing.

(to be continued)

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The Cardboard Conversation, vol. 1

October 11, 2007
 

 
According to Baseball Almanac, Gene Locklear of the Lumbee tribe was the only Native American among the players featured on the cards from my childhood. He played sparingly for a handful of seasons, his best campaign by far coming just prior to this card, which features him seeming to slump a little under the burden of an aluminum bat, his uncharacteristically high .321 batting average suggesting that his profound anonymity somehow allowed him to repeatedly sneak the illegal metal bat up to the plate and turn his customary soft infield liners into outfield gap shots. The following year he was traded to the Yankees, and a year after that was gone from the majors. The Yankees would not have another Native American player on their team for thirty years, until the thunderous debut this season of Winnebago tribe member Joba Chamberlain. It seemed for most of Chamberlain’s near-legendary rookie season that nothing could stop him, yet the Yankees’ season ended up turning south on the truck-sized manchild’s inability to cope with a swarm of tiny insects called midges. Although I was rooting hard against Chamberlain, as I root against all Yankees, even I have to admit that it seems a cruel twist that the Winnebago rookie’s strange undoing came against a team known as the Indians.

The truth is, as my beloved Boston Red Sox prepare for what is shaping up to be a brutally tough fight in the American League Championship series, I’ve been thinking about little else besides Indians. So I decided to call on an expert. In the following interview, the first edition of the Cardboard Conversation, I ask Akim Reinhardt, author of the critically acclaimed study of the political history of the Lakota reservation, Ruling Pine Ridge, about Yankees, Indians, and the possible spiritual implications of a plague of midges. The Bronx-born Reinhardt, currently associate professor of history at Towson University, grew up playing little league baseball in Van Cortlandt Park and going to Yankees games with his father.

He has absolutely no recollection of Gene Locklear.

Cardboard Gods: Can you describe the most memorable game you attended at Yankee Stadium as a child?

Akim Reinhardt: It was such an impression that I tried to write a short story based on the event when I was in high school, but it never panned out. Might as well dish it here. One day my dad showed up at the little league game in the Fall of 1977, which was unusual because he worked a lot of Saturday mornings back then, running his own business as a general contractor. And then out of the blue, after the game, he tells me and my best friend Dirk that he’s taking us to the Stadium. It was the second to last game of the year and they were playing the Tigers on Fan Appreciation day. We all got a big, plastic coffee mug with a team photo wrapped around it, encased in clear plastic. We sat up in the nosebleeds and near us some dirtbag (tix were cheap enough for dirtbags to go to games back then) was pounding beers out of his free coffee mug. In retrospect, it makes a lot more sense than the paper cups they gave you; there were no plastic bottles back then.

Well, there was a rain delay, lasted over an hour I think, and two memorable things happened. First, me and Dirk went down to the empty front row seats behind the Yankees first base dugout. We were awed by it. Neither of us had ever been so close and taken in such a view of a major league park before, much less The Stadium. We slid over to the outfield side of the dugout and I was cautiously leaning over the fence, reaching to touch the sacred dirt when I heard furious angry mumbling to my right. It was the same dirtbag from the upper deck, still clutching his free mug, still quaffing liberally, and now talking under his breath:

“Fuck them! Fuckers. Fuck it, I’m gonna do it. Fuck it!”

He knocked back the last of his beer, flung the mug to the side, hopped over the fence, and ran across the field.

Out of nowhere, several security guards emerged and honed in on him. Everyone converged somewhere around the pitcher’s mound and three guys hit him simultaneously from three different angles, driving their shoulders into him, like Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, and L.C. Greenwood all finding the QB at the same time on a blitz. It was short and ugly. The guy was crumpled up like Beetle Bailey after the Sarge gets pissed at him. Me and Dirk were so shocked, we just stared a bit and then scooted away for fear of the violence and law breaking somehow rubbing off on us by proximity.

The second memorable event from that game was near the end of the rain delay, Dirk and I walking through the bowels of the stadium and it came on the P.A. system: Boston had just lost, to Cleveland I think [editor’s note: the 8-7 Red Sox loss--to Baltimore--was described recently on Cardboard Gods by Jon Daly]. It was official: The Yankees had won the division. Dirk, a Boston Red Sox fan, had turned 9 six weeks earlier. I was 6 weeks away. He turned to me solemnly, extended his hand, and congratulated me.

Where was my dad during all this, you might ask? It was the ’70s. Parenting was a little more relaxed back then. Besides, he had his own Fan Appreciation Day mug to attend to.

C.G.: Who was your favorite Yankee?

A.R.: Thurman Munson. Loved his mustache, his gruffness, his stance, his little routine between pitches in the batter’s box, the way he handled his pitchers, his clutch play, his ornery attitude, and even his ’Lectric Shave commercial with George. Mickey Rivers was a fairly close second, and it must be mentioned that in 1977 for Halloween I went as Billy Martin. They’d just won their first Series in my lifetime. It was a homemade costume, which was kind of the fun of Halloween back then, though the trend was already well under way for kids to buy pre-made costumes. We cut the heels and toes off of a pair of my dad’s brown socks for the stirrups and drew pinstripes and a 1 on a shirt and pants. We didn’t even buy a Yankees’ cap; my grandmother cutout a NY logo from white felt and sewed it on a blank, navy blue cap.

C.G.: What was your favorite baseball card?

A.R.: Whichever one I didn’t lose flipping.

I did have Munson’s 1976 card on my wall for a while. If memory serves, it had a red banner at the bottom which said All Star. The Munson baseball card is long gone, but I still have a matted poster of Munson on the back door of my old room in my mom’s place. It’s about the only thing left in the room from my childhood.

C.G.: When did you decide to devote your life to the study of Native American history?

A.R.: It was after college. I went to Michigan, studied East Asian History, and bombed. I graduated with under a 2.5, but did manage to get out in four years despite having read virtually nothing and taking no notes. I didn’t skip classes though; I’d go to each one and listen intently, unless the prof. was boring, in which case I’d write poetry.

After Michigan I kicked around for a few years. Without professors telling me what to read, I just started reading on my own. I came across a couple of Chestnuts about the Plains Indian Wars of the mid 19th century: Ralph Andrist’s The Long Death and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, neither of which are very good from a scholarly point of view, but quite readable. Brown’s was actually a bestseller in the early ’70s but leans heavily on Andrist’s work.

But the book that really did it for me was Vine Deloria’s Custer Died For Your Sins. That book holds up well. It’s still a classic, and Deloria’s one of the true pioneers of modern Native American Studies. A few years later I moved back to New York and got my Master’s at Hunter College. By that time I knew what I wanted to do.

C.G.: Why have there been so few Native Americans in the major leagues?

A.R.: The short answer is that there are so few Native Americans period. They only comprise about 1% of the country’s population. But beyond that, basketball has really taken center stage in reservation sporting culture, along with rodeo in many places and lacrosse in upstate NY. Baseball’s kind of a distant second. Of course since the 1970s, the majority of Indians live in cities, not on reservations. But again, basketball typically thrives, particularly in poor and working class urban neighborhoods.

But another thing to keep in mind is this. Baseball is no longer the sport of the poor. Once upon a time, MLB players were mostly the children of immigrants, tenant farmers, and other hardworking poor people. It offered modest pay and little respectability, but was an easy choice over jobs like coal mining, sharecropping, and factory work, even if you did have to pick up an extra job during the offseason. More recently, however, it is the domain of white suburbanites, both on the field and in the stands. Major League players often grow up in suburbs that have the land and resources to build local diamonds in public parks as well as schools. Latin America of course has countless poor kids scrapping their way up the minor league chain, but most white American players are middle class suburbanites, and blacks have almost completely abandoned baseball altogether in favor of football and basketball. Unfortunately, Indigenous people are still near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in this country; it’s not a cause, but there is a strong correlation.

C.G.: Any thoughts on why two young and talented Native Americans, Joba Chamberlain and Jacoby Ellsbury [of the Boston Red Sox and the Navajo tribe], have been able to break into the majors this year?

A.R.: I’m no statistician, but I know that if you run a Chi Square, you’ll find that 2 is not a representative sample in this case. In other words, Chamberlain and Ellsbury probably do not augur some changing trend; most likely they just represent the randomness of demographic statistics over time.

But in reference to the above question, Native peoples are beginning to see improvements in their economic situation, slowly but surely. Whether that will translate into more baseball players, it’s hard to say. Though it’s probably worth noting that Chamberlain grew up not on the rez, but in Lincoln, Nebraska, ironically while I was there getting my Ph.D. And Lincoln is a typical, modern American town with a suburban settlement pattern and lots of diamonds. I played a ton of city league softball on public parks when I was there, Summer and Fall. Some Summers we had two different teams going, with basically the same players.

C.G.: Why is the economic situation in the reservations so problematic, and is that all changing with gambling?

A.R.: Every reservation is different today. Originally they were set up as prison camps, and the emphasis was on controlling and containing the Indian population so whites could settle nearby lands. Needless to say, a prison camp isn’t a good economic model and all reservations were mired in deep poverty during the late 19th – mid 20th century. In my book, Ruling Pine Ridge, I show how life on one reservation during the mid-20th century was been hampered by the legacy of the prison camp model.

Gambling casinos have proved to be a viable economic engine for some reservations, but typically only those near big cities that can supply lots of customers. However, most reservations are in isolated rural areas, and the casino model of economic development isn’t very viable. Most reservations are still quite poor.

C.G.: Can you offer any thoughts on what kind of hurdles a talented Native American athlete such as Ellsbury and Chamberlain might have to face in an attempt to rise to the major leagues?

A.R.: In addition to the regular hurdles? Either you’ve got the talent or you don’t. No one with half a basket full of skills gets as far as they have.

I don’t think we currently live in a time where baseball coaches and front office people will put up any hurdles, though I do have my theories about why there are so few Black pitchers as opposed to Black position players, but that’s probably for a different blog entry.

I think the hurdles most Native players face come before reaching the farm system. Are they growing up in a place that has public park diamonds? Are they growing up in a place with a viable high school program? Are they growing up in areas where scouts will show up? But beyond that, I’m not Indian, and I don’t want to speak for Indians in any way. It would be interesting to see what Ellsbury and Chamberlain have to say about it.

C.G.: Are there any Native American traditions that you know of that might ascribe spiritual significance to the swarm of bugs (such as the one that descended on the Yankees last week at Jacobs Field)?

A.R.: Not to a swarm, at least not that I know of. But there are over 300 Indigenous languages and dialects just in what is now the U.S., and thousands in the Western Hemisphere, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there were something somewhere. Remember, when you’re talking about Native America, particularly before 1500, you really are talking about half of the world.

My research has focused on Lakota history, and in their tradition, Iktome the Spider is a very prominent figure. He’s a trickster who teaches valuable lessens by fooling people and sometimes getting fooled himself as his plots are often foiled by heroes with less greed and more courage,.

You know, maybe Iktome did have something to do with it. Hard to say.

C.G.: Is the name of the Cleveland baseball team (and their logo, Chief Wahoo) racist? If so, why?

A.R.: The word “Indian” of course is not racist in and of itself, and indeed it’s the word most Indians I know use, as opposed to Native American, though “Indigenous” is gaining a lot of late. It’s certainly nowhere near the derogatory epithet that “Red Skin” is. In fact, the Washington football club is in danger of losing copyright protection on Red Skin because federal law prohibits copyright protection of racists epithets. The case is working its way through the courts as we speak. But using the word as a team name is still disrespectful. It would be like naming your team The Jews, the Blacks, or The Chinese. It just doesn’t make any sense, and is emblematic of how most Americans continue to view Indian people: as characters in movies and images in art instead of as actual people. It is also indicative of how little political muscle Indigenous people have in this society. We would never see in the 21st century a professional team named the Cleveland Jews, the Cleveland Blacks, or the Cleveland Chinese, much less the Washington Hook Noses, the Washington Fat Lips, or the Washington Slanted Eyes, which really are the corollaries to Red Skins.

The Chief Wahoo Logo is patently racist. Again, just imagine what that logo would look like if it were similarly representing a Jewish, Black, or Chinese person in a similarly cartoonish vain. I don’t think I need to draw it out for you, pun intended.

C.G.: Who will you be rooting for in the American League championship series?

A.R.: You have no idea how tough this is for me. On one side is the team with a racist logo who just beat my beloved Yankees. On the other is the Red Sox.

I think I’m gonna short circuit this one and say Go Rockies!

h1

Rollie Fingers

April 3, 2007

The Mustache Ride, Chapter 2

In 1969, my mother met a young man with facial hair. She was riding by herself on a bus to a peace march, her clean-cut husband at home with my brother and me. I think the facial hair on the young man amounted to a scruffy week-old growth, but that fledgling beard, along with his round wire-rim glasses (like those made notorious at that time by John Lennon) and other similarly-themed sartorial details that I am not exactly sure of (but that I have, in my endless compulsive imagining and reimagining of the moment, nonetheless guessed at: shoulder-length hair, a bristly wool poncho, a lopsided homemade corduroy cap, maybe some sort of necklace medallion purportedly imbued with shamanic powers) communicated membership in that loose-knit tribe of young, predominantly white men and women that was either (depending on your viewpoint) breathing joyous new life into a stagnating, death-bent, unjust world or trampling the norms and values of common decency and traitorously undermining the stability of American democracy.

In other words, my mom met a hippie.

Previous to the peace march, while chained to a toddler and a fat, wailing baby in a generic suburban housing unit, my mom had begun romanticizing the exploits and lifestyles and passions of these young people. She was not alone. Today the idea of the hippie has been reduced to a comical stereotype: the unshowered space cadet in the broken-down Day-Glo VW bus, the starry-eyed, sloganeering peace-and-love simpleton, the brain-fried anachronistic acid casualty, confused by and/or oblivious to any cultural or technological advances occurring after the deaths of Janis, Jim, and Jimi. But in 1969 hippies were a potent cultural force that seemed capable—to both those who romanticized them and those who feared and loathed them—of changing the world. For my mother, I think they also represented the life she had always hoped to live, a life of meaning, community, significance, and, most of all, passion. She signed up to ride the charter bus to the peace march because she wanted the Vietnam War to end, but also because she wanted to become part of the colorful world she was romanticizing. In my novel, The Kappus Experiment Sings, the fictional character inspired by my mother talks about this growing desire to "get on the bus" in the months leading up to the peace march: 

I caught glimpses on TV, read articles in the wrinkled copies of the New York Times Max brought home on the commuter train. I felt like I was watching the violent birth of a new galaxy through a cheap telescope. The Human Be-In, campus takeovers, the riots in Chicago. Woodstock. We are stardust, we are golden. And then there was the brand new image of the world, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts while orbiting the moon. Here for the first time was the whole fragile blue earth, one world, our world. And in all the other images: here were the people singing in millions of different voices the clear single note of that vision: This is our fragile blue moment. Ours!

I wanted my voice to be part of that song.

So that was 1969. Let’s jump ahead to 1972, the year the Oakland A’s, with Reggie Jackson in the lead, shattered baseball’s long-held clean-cut look. I was four years old, still oblivious to baseball, and living in a house with my brother, mother, father, and Tom, the man my mother had met on the bus to the peace march. 

My father now wore a mustache, albeit somewhat incongruously, and Tom’s scruffy beard and shoulder-length hair had bloomed into something worthy of a man who had been shipwrecked on an unmarked island for a decade. I imagine that his appearance (which consistently attracted the attention of members of the New Jersey police force), combined with his undefined status in our family to make him the focal point of scrutiny by outsiders of his and my parents’ strident experiment in open marriage. (For more on the open marriage experimentations of the early 1970s, see the Cardboard God profile on Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson.) The experiment had been based on the idea that maybe the family, challenged by the new love that had first sparked on the bus to the peace march, could not only hold together but could perhaps even grow into something capable of embracing a bigger, wilder love than previously imagined possible within the traditional model of the family.

(Hippies. Love them or hate them, it seems to me you have to at least admit they swung for the fences.)
Now let’s jump ahead some more, to 1978. That’s the year this card became property of my 10-year-old self. By now the family, which had moved from New Jersey to rural Vermont four years earlier, had morphed back into something approximating the nuclear family norm, albeit with Tom in the father slot and my dad an occasional visitor from his apartment in Manhattan. The family, minus Dad, had moved to Vermont with hopes (at least among the two attending adults) of attaining a utopian rural self-sufficiency. My mom was going to grow all our food, and Tom was going to be a roving blacksmith. He installed a small forge in a used Dodge van, cutting a hole in the roof of the van for a peaked metal chimney. The kids of East Randolph, Vermont, thought this implied the van ran by the burning of wood, an idea that they worked into the arsenal of mockery they aimed at us. I imagine the farmers Tom was hoping to have as clients had a similarly withering view of the unorthodox van, if not also of the unorthodox longhaired, long-bearded blacksmith; either way, he was never able to drum up much business. After a few years the back-to-the-land dreams faltered substantially in the face of one small disheartening crisis after another, like a dead-of-winter car repair bill overmatching a paltry bank account built on the occasional sale of a fireplace poker that Tom had hammered into shape on his blacksmith anvil. By 1978, both Tom and my mother had given up on total self-sufficiency and gotten regular jobs.
I imagine the late 1970s for Mom and Tom and other former hippies and weary back-to-the-landers as a somewhat anticlimactic, diasporic time. Because I relate everything to baseball, I see this miasma as something akin to what the scattered members of the ’72–’74 championship A’s were experiencing at the same time. The early ’70s had been a turbulent, exciting time in which they had banded together against a hated authority figure (Charlie O. Finley), and come out on top for what was one of the most extended periods of triumph (and undoubtedly the most colorful of such periods) in baseball history. Similarly, Mom and Tom and the people they identified with felt that they were rejecting the idiotic edicts of a corrupt despot named Nixon to stake their own claim to a golden life. And while they never quite got there, in retrospect it always seemed that those woozy, careening, love-drunk years were something of a championship run.
And now there was a feeling of being spread out and scattered. For Mom and Tom this feeling was hard to define, more just a sense that they were on their own now, not part of some movement with great uplifting momentum. For the A’s the scattering was literal: Bando to Milwaukee, Campaneris to Texas, Reggie, after a stop in Baltimore, fittingly reunited with the limelight in New York, Catfish there with him but fading into the polluted sunset, Rudi on the Angels, Blue on the Giants, etc., etc. The most symbolic exile of all, for both the way he symbolized the strident zeitgeist-embracing look of the dynastic A’s and for the nauseously drab brown and yellow anonymity of his new surroundings, was Rollie Fingers, shown in the 1978 card at the top of this page displaying a pitching grip with what seems to be an expression of tentative, nervous supplication, as if he is hoping the expert grip will somehow gain him a release from the exile of toiling onward in obscurity with the 93-loss Padres.
But of course this is not the first thing you notice about the photograph. The first thing you notice is the very thing that Rollie Fingers had most in common in 1978 with the man my mother had met on a peace march almost ten years earlier.
The mustache. 

Of all the A’s, only Rollie Fingers fully carried his essential A-ness with him into the wandering years. The A’s had been an excellent, superbly well-rounded team, but they had also been an iconoclastic emblem of the times. Rollie, who would gain entry into the hall of fame on the strength of his pitching, remained a living monument to both aspects of the Swingin’ A’s. As for Tom, his entry into the 9-to-5 world signaled the final goodbye to the long hair and the wildman beard, which had been in remission for some time, but in their place now was a Rollie Fingersesque handlebar mustache. "The times are never so bad that a good man cannot live in them," St. Thomas once said. And the times are never so deflated and drab that a spirited man cannot fight against them with a mustache that curls up at both ends.

Go forward some more to 1982. Tom’s job in the company had changed from customer service to dealer rep, and he had begun traveling all over the country to visit stores that sold his company’s wood stove. I’m not really sure why there was a wood stove store in San Diego (maybe there was an industry conference there), but on a trip out there Tom brought back a San Diego Padres cap for me that closely resembled the one on Rollie Fingers’ head in the 1978 card. Rollie Fingers himself had moved on by then to the Milwaukee Brewers, and my family was on the brink of going its separate ways. 

One day I wore the cap into the high school where I was a freshman with bad grades and no extracurricular activities besides participating sparingly in brutal junior varsity basketball defeats. The varsity basketball coach, Viens, saw me wearing the cap in the hall. He’d never said anything to me before. He stopped me and squinted up at the cap. He wore a tie and a short-sleeve button-down shirt.

"The Padres?" he said, his upper lip curled. 

He had short hair. A clean-cut face. 

"Why in hell would you want to wear something from the Padres?"

"I don’t know," I said. I took the cap off and looked at it. It was different. It was from somewhere far away. And Tom had gotten it for me. 

I wasn’t able to verbalize any of this.

"Losers," Viens said and walked away.
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