Archive for the ‘St. Louis Cardinals’ Category

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Jack Heidemann

February 28, 2011

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

St. Louis Cardinals

Today I’m going to begin counting down the days until the opening of the 2011 baseball season by predicting the fortunes of each major league team on the basis of a card chosen at random from that team’s rubber-band-wrapped pack in my shoebox of baseball cards.

First up, the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, a team whose season already seems to be in big trouble, what with an all-world slugger seemingly eying the exits and a top-flight pitching ace out for the year and beyond. What information can a 1975 Jack Heidemann card add to our understanding of the seemingly perilous season to come for the Redbirds?

First, the last name: I’m guessing it is pronounced, more or less, as “hide a man.” This does not seem to be a good omen for abundant success, instead suggesting the 2011 Cardinals will spend the year either fading into invisibility against their will or purposefully courting it, fugitive style, in order to avoid being apprehended, found guilty, and punished. Also, Albert Pujols is sometimes referred to as El Hombre, i.e., The Man, so maybe there’s a third interpretation of this harbinger: the Cardinals and their fans trying (impossibly, like a little boy attempting to turn invisible by clamping  his eyelids shut) to hide a man from the outside interests that will, it seems, swoop in and take him away. For his part, Albert Pujols has said that he doesn’t like the nickname El Hombre, believing that there is only one Man in St. Louis, Stan “The Man” Musial, now in his tenth decade, arguably the greatest hitter still walking the planet (in terms of the adjusted statistic best able to provide a mathematical way of comparing hitters across eras, Stan Musial ranks behind only three other men still alive in career OPS+; two are the players most commonly and scornfully associated with the dubiously inflated stats of the steroid-era, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, and the third is Albert Pujols).

I can’t say for sure if this Jack Hide-A-Man card is trying to tell us something about Stan the Man or El Hombre, but I can say that the 1970s, when this card came out, were a rare decade of Cardinals irrelevance, the first decade since the 1930s to not feature Stan the Man and the first since the 1910s that didn’t include at least one pennant winner [update: see comments below for correction of this latter point]. Is the second decade of the 21st Century going to be the first since the Jack Heidemann era to feature this kind of prolonged hiding? I know from my mid- to late 1970s Cardinals cards that though the team had some stars—Lou Brock; Ted Simmons; Reggie Smith, briefly—it more generally was made up of a generally drab collection of guys just kind of passing through, holding bats on their shoulders and gazing off into the distance, vaguely distracted.

Jack Heidemann certainly fit this bill of a typical 1970s Cardinal journeyman, at least as I understood the nature of things from gazing at baseball cards. He had had just one season as a regular, years before displaying an admirably flashy droopy mustache/bushy sideburns combo as a Cardinal in this 1975 card (he, for one, wasn’t trying to hide). His one full season had been in 1970 for the mediocre Indians, when he was only 21. He led the league in sacrifice flies despite tallying only 37 total RBI for the year. Was this oddly skewed sacrifice flies to RBI ratio evidence of a job well done, or of a job that could have been done better?

I don’t know, but the next season, during a game in May, reigning Sacrifice Fly King Jack Heidemann raced into the outfield in an attempt to chase down a blooping popup hit by Tom McCraw of the Washington Senators, showing an admirable hustle that was, unfortunately (considering the troublesome trajectory of the blooper), being duplicated with mathematically exact precision in terms of the end point of each player’s sprint, by both left-fielder John Lowenstein and centerfielder Vada Pinson. All three Indians came together in a chain-reaction collision: Heidemann kicking into and tripping over the diving Lowenstein (who would have to be carried from the field on a stretcher), Heidemann then flipping end-over-end into the air, his metal cleats gashing the jaw of Pinson (who would require eight stitches), the timidly struck ball bounding a little ways on into the outfield and dying, no one vertical anywhere near it. McCraw clambered all the way around the bases for one of the shortest home runs ever hit in major league history, his manager in the Senators’ dugout, Ted Williams, presumably looking on with at least a hint of derision for McCraw’s hitting effort amounting to the same as one of Williams’ own bygone heroic fence-clearing laser shots of yore. There are men and there are men: Ted Williams, Albert Pujols, Stan Musial on one side, the rest of us connecting less completely and less forcefully in our endeavors and thus forced to just reach and lurch and hope for the best. I see Jack Heidemann, and, by extension, the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, as among the latter group. I see Jack Heidemann coming up onto his elbows on the outfield grass just after windmilling through the air. He’s dazed and disoriented. Who am I? Where am I? What’s this blood? And why is everyone screaming?

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 1 of 30: Read the recent soulful book on baseball and family ties by Cardinals fan Will Leitch, Are We Winning?: Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball

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Harry Rasmussen

March 23, 2010

I’m drawn to insignificant moments in my past, when I was neither here nor there. Empty afternoons in childhood, leafing through my cards. Shooting baskets as a teenager on the hoop at my grandfather’s house. Sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park, the sun shining down, nothing to do, nowhere to go. I don’t really have moments like that anymore, except when I dig around through my cards.

I was digging around in my cards yesterday, empty of ideas, when I came upon this Harry Rasmussen card. There was something about it, some trace that I couldn’t identify or place, something more than just the faintly melancholy aura of the player and his droopy eyes and droopy mustache and apprehensive skyward gaze. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I don’t want to be erased. But there are times when I come upon evidence that this is bound to happen. Some flicker of that eventuality emanates from Harry Rasmussen.

I searched for more traces of Harry Rasmussen and discovered that if you search for Harry Rasmussen, you won’t find him. He’s the only cardboard god you can say that about, the only one able to exist and then disappear without leaving a trace, except for this one card from 1976.

This card relates that Harry Rasmussen was born in Racine, Wisconsin. As of 1976 he still resided in Racine. On one of the empty afternoons in my childhood, when I sat around on the floor of my room and leafed through my cards, I must have noticed that a player in cards I owned from 1978 and 1980 looked a lot like Harry Rasmussen but wasn’t named Harry Rasmussen. The later figure, Eric Rasmussen, was born in Racine but had moved on to reside in St. Louis.

I’ve never lived in St. Louis, but there were a few months in my life when I lived in Racine. I stayed with my future wife at her parents’ house. We had decided to set out for a new life together, but we didn’t have jobs or a place of our own to live. We took turns looking for work on the computer. Every afternoon I went over to the public library and then to a driving range and bought a bucket of balls. I’d never done much golfing before. I drove the golf balls one by one out into a stubbly field. Eventually I stared down at the empty bucket and wondered who I was.

Eventually I found some temp work in Chicago, and we moved to an apartment in that city. After some months as a temp I was hired on a more official basis and a placard with my name on it appeared outside my cubicle. There are these placards outside everyone’s cube. Occasionally the placards are removed and the cubicles are emptied. Sometimes a placard with a different name appears. You walk by the cubicle and feel a flicker of an eventuality.

You may already know all this. After the 1976 season, Harry Rasmussen decided he no longer wanted to be Harry Rasmussen. Harry Rasmussen will not come up in a search on baseball-reference.com. The person he became, the one on the 1978 and 1980 cards in my shoebox, Eric Rasmussen, is there, and he inherited the losing records Harry compiled in 1975 and 1976. Eric Rasmussen lasted several more years in the majors, including stints both before and after a two-year detour to the Mexican Leagues, then he went into coaching. Harry Rasmussen? Harry Rasmussen looked up into the sky above the stands in a bright red cap and disappeared.

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Jim Dwyer

January 25, 2010

Jim Dwyer spent most of the 1970s bouncing around the National League, never really getting the hang of things in any one place before being swapped for Larry Lintz or shipped across the border with Pepe Mangual or, in his most pornographic-sounding transaction, clustered into a three-way featuring Peter LaCock. By 1978, when this card came out, Jim Dwyer would have been a very unlikely candidate for lasting 18 seasons in the major leagues. If you go on the evidence provided by this card, he was dangerously close to disappearing altogether. Since entering the league in 1973, he had produced just one passable season, and that was in very limited action (a .279 average in 86 at-bats in 1974), and other than that had as many seasons below the Mendoza Line as above it. His existence in cardboard form at this stage was, in fact, bordering on the inexplicable. He was not a slick-fielding infielder or a squat, cannon-armed backup catcher, the two most likely species of position players to persist in the majors despite being unable to hit. Dwyer logged innings in centerfield, but he was basically a corner outfielder, a would-be left-handed hitting specialist, at least until the inevitable moment when someone connected with whatever team he was on noticed his anemic batting stats and wondered why this guy was on the payroll. At that point, Dwyer was then swapped or, as in the case of the late-season transaction that led to this hasty, nausea-inducing job of card-doctoring, simply released.

And isn’t this everyone’s fear? That one day someone will tap you on the shoulder, you will turn, and the question you’ve long been dreading will be asked of you. So, uh, why are you here? And that the stammering answer to this question will be followed by your release?

But Jim Dwyer seems unmarked by any such dread in his 1978 card. Let the world go through its changes, morphing from one thing to the next. What can you do but smile beneath your droopy caterpillar of a mustache and keep swinging?

Also, Jim Dwyer must have believed that, contrary to the evidence on his baseball card, he had what it took to stick in the majors. His itinerant journey through the 1970s had taken him to several minor league towns, too, and in those towns he had been The Man (career minor league average: .334).

But I wonder if his smile finally started to falter in 1978. Halfway through that season, while struggling once again (his batting average at .215), his litany of transactions hit a new low as he became, for the first time, The Player to be Named Later. Thusly completing an earlier deal for someone named Frank Ricelli (who by then had already been dumped by the Cardinals for the immortal Bob Coluccio), Dwyer joined the Giants for their improbable 1978 pennant drive and “hit” .225 as they faded from contention.

By that point I had not paid a moment of attention to Jim Dwyer, except for possibly being briefly hypnotized by the blobs of colors that comprised the cap in this 1978 card. I wasn’t even aware that the Giants were in a pennant race that season, focusing instead on the dire collapse of my own team, the Red Sox, who died at the hands of the Yankees in a one-game playoff at year’s end for many, many reasons, including the absence of both God and Bernie Carbo. Late in the game, when someone needed to come off the bench and get a hit off of Goose Gossage, the best the Red Sox had to offer was a corroded right-handed-hitting statue named Bob Bailey. Nothing against Bob Bailey, who definitely had some fine moments in a long career, but at that place and time he was never going to get a hit off of Goose Gossage. No, what the Red Sox needed at that moment was Bernie Carbo, left-handed hitting specialist and undying hero of just such a moment three years earlier, when his three-run homer had revived the cemetery-bound Red Sox in the 8th inning of Game Six of the 1975 World Series; unfortunately, Carbo had been sold midway through the season by the geniuses running the team. (In case you’re wondering, Goose fanned Bob Bailey on three pitches, ending the latter’s career.)

Perhaps reacting to this need for a left-handed hitting replacement for Bernie Carbo, the Red Sox purchased Jim Dwyer for the 1979 season. His arrival and two-year stay with the team could not stem a descent into relative irrelevancy by the franchise. That descent coincided for me with the first notes of that disorienting atonal symphony, puberty, and I associate my entry into the world of frustration and loneliness with Red Sox teams that carried an autumnal aura of trauma and doom. They were haunted. But despite that, or maybe because of it, I formed an attachment to Jim Dwyer. He was new to the team and so had not been a part of the failures I wanted to think as little about as possible, and also he was, suddenly, a pretty good hitter.

Back then I loved studying the Red Sox stats in the Sunday Boston Globe. Jim Dwyer’s name was always somehow comforting to me in that context. He wasn’t ever right at the top of the list of names that were ranked according to batting average, but he was always far from the bottom. He hit .265 in 1979 and .285 in 1980. I don’t know why, but I loved that latter mark. It wasn’t volatile and rare like, say, .337, and it wasn’t a stinker like .229. It was right there in the B+ range. Solid. If .285 was a person it would be someone you could rely on to come over and help you move a couch. Though I didn’t think it through to this extent at the time, this kind of unassuming .285 steadiness was just what I needed as I turned 12 and started noticing how distant I was from that which I desired. Without even really realizing I was doing it, I leaned on Jim Dwyer.   

And then he was gone, off to Baltimore. But everyone else was gone, too. Fisk, Lynn, Hobson, Burleson. I’m sure it was several weeks into the 1981 season before I even noticed that the stinging mist of absence hovering over the team included the lack of my old reliable .285-hitting pal Jim Dwyer, and then before I could form any thoughts about this development the lengthy 1981 strike occurred, and puberty really took over, and baseball suddenly didn’t seem to mean as much.

As it turned out, Dwyer’s two seasons with Boston proved to be a turning point not just for me but for Jim Dwyer, too, the moment he changed from subpar 1970s National League wanderer to capable 1980s American League left-handed hitting specialist. From the Red Sox he went to the platoon-crazy Baltimore Orioles, peaking with a Lowensteinian effort (.286/.382/.505 in 229 at-bats) for the 1983 champions. He posted his career high in homers (15) four years later, at the age of 37, and avoided his final release all the way until 1990.

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

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Keith Hernandez

November 23, 2009

This is what it looks like to want the ball to be hit to you. I have never been able to strike a similar attitude of passionate readiness and willingness to engage, either in baseball or any other sport or life itself. I do come to the desk pretty much every day to write or try to write, but even a good writing day starts out with me taking my position with trepidation, afraid that the ball is going to take a bad bounce and punch me in the mouth.

This photo is no fluke, either. Keith Hernandez played first base as well as anyone ever has, and a key part of that excellence was his unusually aggressive style of manning what has for most of baseball history been the most passive position on the field, the place where large, slow sluggers are pastured to stand around until it’s time to lumber a few feet to their left to catch throws from other more able fielders. By contrast, Hernandez, as can be seen here, played first with an itchy impatience, as if he wanted to sprint forward and throw himself on line drives fresh off the bat like a Green Beret hurling himself on the barrel of a grenade launcher.

The odd thing about this card is that, absent the crackling aura of intense attack-readiness, I’d be tempted to theorize that the Topps people put the wrong player photo on Keith Hernandez’ card. The iconically mustachioed future household figure (“I’m Keith Hernandez”) seems to have nothing to do with the lean-faced thin-lipped mouth-breather here. If his shoulder-length hair and vaguely neanderthalic features had been presented in a pose less suggestive of the spectacular fielding talents of Keith Hernandez, I would have wondered if the otherwise drab mid-1970s Cardinals had embarked on some sort of experiment to clone their top player, Ted Simmons, the lank-haired catcher who throughout the 1970s looked like he’d come for his Topps baseball card photo shoot directly from huffing carbona and listening to Black Sabbath eight-tracks out by the abandoned paper mill, if not from killing a saber tooth tiger with a spear.

If the Cardinals did try such an ungodly experiment, they abandoned it by the early 1980s, not only ridding themselves of the thick-browed (but highly able and surprisingly erudite) Simmons and his somewhat suspect glove but also stripping Keith Hernandez and the rest of the team of any physical attributes that would have made them seem at home in animal-skin togas in a natural history museum diorama. Thusly purged, the Cardinals became one of the great fielding teams of all time, anchored by the man shown here.

Would it be stretching things too much to say that Hernandez was an innovator at first base? My sense is that some other earlier players manned the position with great quickness and agility (Hal Chase, Vic Power, Wes Parker, etc.), and they may have even shared Hernandez’ aggressive strategy of attacking grounders. But since I’ve been paying attention, Hernandez certainly stands out (though during Hernandez’ career Don Mattingly eventually joined him as a slick, attacking first baseman).

I think that a lot of the greatest fielders have been innovators, playing the position a different way than it had been previously played. The innovation most often seems to be to play the position less passively than whatever norm was current. To charge forward and attack rather than waiting and reacting. I can think of three other all-time great fielders who also are considered to have brought something unusual to the playing of their position, and the innovation was always aimed at getting to the action quicker. Anybody got any thoughts about these initial choices for the all-innovator team? Anybody got any other choices for other positions? Think of somebody who not only played the position better than most, but played it differently than it had previously been played. (Players in italics have been suggested by readers in the comments below.)

C-Johnny Bench; Tony Pena
1B-Keith Hernandez
2B-Frank White
SS-Dave Concepcion; Cal Ripken; Rey Ordonez
3B-Jimmy Collins. Regarded as the first guy to start charging bunts; Brooks Robinson; Graig Nettles
LF-Carl Yastrzemski. Before him, it was unusual for an outfielder to charge in and grab grounders with just the glove (i.e., not with two hands).
CF-Tris Speaker. Positioned himself very shallow, daring hitters to try to hit it over his head; Willie Mays
RF-Ichiro

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Pedro Guerrero

November 13, 2009

Pedro Guerrerro 92

I found another card on the street yesterday, my second in the last week. What is the universe trying to tell me? Now I walk around staring at the ground, looking for more cards. Maybe I’ll quit my job and take up card-scavenging full-time. Maybe then I could figure out what this life is all about. My thinning wiry hair would grow long and unruly, and because of poverty I’d lose the couch-and-beer ten pounds that settled upon me in recent years as I neared forty. Forty! Last night as I walked home from the train, this card in my backpack along with several notebooks from work and my work laptop and some health plan information that baffles and overwhelms me, I kept hearing footsteps behind me, scuttling through the fallen leaves on the sidewalk. But when I finally snuck a look back there was no one. Then I started imagining a scenario in which my ten-year-old self was following me around. Eventually I’d catch a glimpse of him when I looked back, and then I’d ask him why he was here, and he wouldn’t really know but would start asking me about my life, i.e., his future, and I’d frighten and sadden him with a droning report of tedium, uncertainty, frustration, diminishment. I’m always ten, looking at myself with ever-growing disbelief. And I’m the person causing the disbelief, a pale cipher searching for messages in street detritus.

The message lately, judging by the two cards I’ve most recently found, seems to be something about highly accomplished Latin players who seem to have a lower general historical profile than they deserve. First it was long-time effective reliever Roberto Hernandez. Now it’s Pedro Guerrero. Judging by the statistic of OPS+, which in adjusting for historical context is the most accurate single measure of a player’s relative worth as a hitter, Pedro Guerrero was a more potent offensive force throughout his career than, among many others, George Brett, Al Simmons, Ken Griffey, Jr., David Ortiz, and Joe Morgan. He didn’t stick around long enough to rack up Hall of Fame-caliber career counting stats such as home runs and hits, and he also had an iron glove at all of the many fielding positions where teams tried to hide him. But he could hit like few have.

I don’t know how this could relate to my own life, but I do know that in the moments after I find a card on the ground I feel lucky. It’s a buzzing feeling in my head and limbs, like I just connected with a pitch. Yesterday I had been rushing to catch the bus up Western to start my long commute to work, but with the card the moment opened up a little. I started looking everywhere for more treasures where before I hadn’t really been looking at anything. I hadn’t been listening. I hadn’t been anything. For a second I could see. Next time I hear footsteps behind me, I’ll try to remember this feeling.

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Lynn McGlothen

June 1, 2009

Lynn McGlothen 75

I’m still working on my book, so I’ve got to make this quick. (I begged and wheedled for an extension on my original June 1 deadline.) But, since I set today as the end of my suspension from the playing field of Cardboard Gods, here are four quick things about Lynn McGlothen, more or less:

1. I thought Lynn was a girl’s name. The first girl who ever liked me was named Lynn. I didn’t like her. I liked a girl I thought was prettier. Her name was Kim. Kim didn’t like me but liked a boy she thought was cuter named Jamie. I found it confusing that there was a male quarterback (Lynn Dickey) and a male pitcher (Lynn McGlothen) named Lynn and that the bionic woman was a woman named Jamie. And wasn’t there a basketball playing dude named Kim? Or am I imagining it? I don’t have time to investigate.

2. Lynn McGlothen is happy. Who wouldn’t be? Your picture on a baseball card! Not only that, the back of the card tells a happy tale, a long gradual climb through the minors, a taste of the majors with one team, then a midseason trade to another team and finally, a staff-leading 16 wins in the season just concluded.

3. I’ve been working hard on my book in an attempt to trace the path of my own happiness or lack therof by using baseball cards as markers. It’s the same thing I’ve been doing on this site for quite a while, but I guess I’m sort of trying to add up all the numbers on the back of my own card. What’s it all add up to? Does it add up to happiness? While doing some research on the book, trying to make sure I had some facts straight, I came across some sobering news about a Cardboard God I’d yet to write about, Lynn McGlothen. (See below.) What’s it all mean in the end?

4. Lynn McGlothen died in a fire. He was only 34. I’ve lived a few years past that and I’m still waiting for someone to say “On your mark.” Just yesterday I heard a fire truck close by and wondered if maybe my building was on fire. I was wearing boxer shorts. Would I have time to throw on pants? What else would I have time for? First, before the pants, I’d grab the cats. If I still had time to grab one more thing after the cats were safe and I had pants on, or maybe even before the pants, I’d grab the box that I’ve carried with me so far, the one that contains this picture of Lynn McGlothen happy.

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Lou Brock, ’77 Record-Breaker in . . . (Yet Another) Nagging Question

January 14, 2009
 Untitled 

For you youngsters out there, here’s a checklist you can use to gain quick, enthusiastic entry into the baseball Hall of Fame:

  • Surpass one or more of the long-established career statistical benchmarks equated with greatness
  • Have a pleasing, compelling, uncomplicated narrative component to your career

If you have the first item checked off but have neglected to ensure the achievement of the second, you will not be greeted with open arms by Immortality. Consider Don Sutton, who had to wait through a few years of rejection by voters before getting into the Hall even though he had surpassed the magic number of 300 wins, his problem being a lack of a story with a hook (beyond, perhaps, his underreported status as a brave pioneer in the eroding of baseball’s unsaid yet staunch and enduring no-perm policy). Or, to address the “uncomplicated” element in the second checklist item, consider Mark McGwire, whose statistics are festooned with garish statistical baubles that would seem to put him on par with the greatest sluggers in the history of the game, yet who has gotten very scarce support from voters because the perception of his story is that it is covered in lurid, nauseating back acne, the kind of thing that most people instinctively turn away from and try to pretend they never saw.

If you have the second item checked off but not the first, you might still be able to sail in on the first vote, but you probably have to be named Jackie Robinson or Sandy Koufax or have a similarly spectacular supernova-bright presence in your relatively short time in the spotlight.

So really it’s safest to have both items checked off, which the man pictured here did with a paradoxical combination of relentlessness and quiet grace. He amassed over 3,000 hits to check off the first item on the above list and checked off the second item primarily by (as noted in this special 1978 baseball card) establishing himself as The Greatest Base Stealer of All Time. (He also deepened the hues of Greatness in his story by performing spectacularly well in World Series play.)

A couple days ago Rickey Henderson, who supplanted Brock as The Greatest Base Stealer of All Time, also sauntered into the Hall on his first try, and many of the stories about his easy election mentioned his status as The Greatest Leadoff Man of All Time. I don’t know if Brock was also given that distinction upon his election, but I suspect that it at least came up in some retrospective reporting about his career. The prevailing perception of Brock was that he was one of the greatest of the greats (Bill James points out while compiling his own top 100 that Brock had a composite ranking of 63rd best player of all-time on the lists he consulted—The Sporting News; SABR poll; Total Baseball; Maury Allen; Honig and Ritter; and Faber), so it stands to reason that many would have ranked him as the Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time until the coming of the long and storied career of Rickey Henderson.

With this in mind, I thought I’d play around with a few simple numbers of the guys that sprung to my mind as being among baseball’s greatest leadoff hitters. Be warned: None of the lists below account for era and park factors, and the lists, since they are based on statistical records, also exclude any leadoff hitters from the Negro Leagues (Cool Papa Bell probably foremost among them). Please don’t hesitate to be the first to bring up the name of some should-have-been-obvious guy I left off the list. (Some all-time greats, such as Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Joe Morgan, who would seem to be perfectly suited for the leadoff role, were excluded from the lists because they were more often—or in Morgan’s case at least throughout his prime—used as middle-of-the-lineup hitters.) Consider the following then as just a bit of superficial numbers-related playtime, perhaps its only merit being that it happened to stumble into further illustrating how high Rickey Henderson towers over other leadoff-hitting greats.

With Henderson’s spot at the top as a given, then, and with the numbers below as mildly relevant party favors, I offer today’s nagging question:

Who was the second-greatest leadoff hitter of all time?

Games (The most underrated of all counting stats, in my opinion)
1. Pete Rose 3562
2. Rickey Henderson 3081
3. Craig Biggio 2850
4. Eddie Collins 2826
5. Paul Molitor 2683
6. Lou Brock 2616
7. Tim Raines 2502
8. Richie Ashburn 2189
9. Billy Hamilton 1591
10. Jackie Robinson 1382

Runs (What it all boils down to for a leadoff guy)
1. Henderson 2295
2. Rose 2165
3. Biggio 1844
4. Collins 1821
5. Molitor 1782
6. Hamilton 1690
7. Brock 1610
8. Raines 1571
9. Ashburn 1322
10. Robinson 947

Runs/game (A chance for short-timers such as Hamilton and Robinson to make up ground)
1. Hamilton 1.1
2. Henderson .74
3. Robinson .69
4. Molitor .66
5. Biggio .65
6. Collins .64
7. Raines .63
8. Brock .62
9. Rose .61
10. Ashburn .60

OBP (The list that might have benefited the most from adjustment for era)
1. Hamilton .455
2. Collins .424
3. Robinson .409
4. Henderson .401
5. Ashburn .396
6. Rose .375
7. Raines .385
8. Molitor .369
9. Biggio .363
10. Brock .343

Stolen bases (The leadoff-man list with all the bells and whistles)
1. Henderson 1406
2. Brock 938
3. Hamilton 912
4. Raines 808
5. Collins 744
6. Molitor 504
7. Biggio 414
8. Ashburn 234
9. Rose 198
10. Robinson 197

Stolen base percentage (And here’s where the great Tim Raines makes his move. Also, players with incomplete caught-stealing numbers were ranked by estimated place on the list; the deadball guys are near the bottom, cushioned only by the relentless out-maker, Rose, because I think anecdotal evidence points to high caught-stealing rates during those olden days.)
1. Raines 85%
2. Henderson 81%
3. Molitor 79%
4. Biggio 77%
5. Robinson ? (76% in ’51–’56)
5. Brock 75%
7. Ashburn ? (66% in ’51–’62)
8. Collins ?
9. Hamilton ?
10. Rose 57%

Stolen base titles (I don’t know, I added this category thinking it might benefit guys from low-stolen-base eras, such as Robinson and Ashburn. It didn’t end up doing this, but I kept it in here so as to throw the likable Lou Brock a bone. . . . Believe me, I understand how far this whole exercise is from actual useful analysis.)
1. Henderson 12
2. Brock 8
3. Hamilton 5
4. Collins 4
4. Raines 4
6. Robinson 2
7. Biggio 1
7. Ashburn 1
9. Molitor 0
9. Rose 0

Total score (This is the sum of the rankings, low score first; as alluded to before, I like how the biggest gap between any of the players is between Rickey and his closest pursuer. I think Jackie Robinson gets majorly shafted by my little game; because of his excellent OBP, plus his reputation as a ferocious competitor and smart, fast, and disruptive baserunner, I’m tempted to pick Robinson as the second-best leadoff man of all time. It’s a tough call, though, because his career was so short. And speaking of short careers, I really don’t know much about Billy Hamilton, but I think he’s getting a distorted boost here by virtue of the relatively high OBP and steal numbers of his era. Eddie Collins also comes off well here, as the guy Bill James ranks as the 18th best player of all-time should, but you could argue that his numbers benefit from the fact that he played during an era diluted by segregation. Next on the list is a two-man tie including Craig Biggio, but Biggio’s OBP and runs scored numbers were recorded during a long league-wide offensive explosion. With all that in mind, I think I’m still leaning toward the guy I was rooting for all along to finish second to Rickey in this exercise, Tim Raines, a man apparently lacking both of the checklist items mentioned at the top of this post, and the only man on the list who isn’t in the Hall of Fame, or ensured of someday being in the Hall of Fame, or currently banned from entering the Hall of Fame.)
1. Henderson 13
2. Hamilton 32
3. Collins 33
4. Biggio 38
4. Raines 38
6. Brock 41
7. Molitor 45
8. Rose 46
9. Robinson 47
10. Ashburn 54

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Lou Brock

January 13, 2009
 Untitled 
Years ago, back when I lived in Brooklyn, I was staring at the ceiling, listening to the radio, and wondering if it was too early in the day to masturbate. The usual. It must have been a slow news day, because the radio hosts, a short-lived pairing of Suzyn Waldman and Jody MacDonald, started comparing current players to players from the past. I was roused from my torpor by the claim, made by Waldman, that Bernie Williams could hold his own in a comparison to Carl Yastrzemski. Enraged, I dialed the number that had been ingrained into me from years of lying around and staring at the ceiling and listening to the Fan. Unfortunately, the line was busy. I tried back a couple times. Each time my desire to actually get through waned a little more. Eventually my anger dissipated so much that all I needed to do to spend the remainder of it was to turn the radio off, which I did. Then I lay back down and stared at the ceiling, listening to the traffic out on Metropolitan Avenue.

But then yesterday, I made my second try to join the sprawling, neverending facsimile of a conversation. I turned on the radio to hear the announcement of the new inductees into the Hall of Fame, and after pumping my fist for Jim Rice and whooping a little, I kept the radio on for the rest of the afternoon, tuned to the XM all-baseball station, attempting to bask in the moment as long as possible. Ironically, I first started thinking about calling into the afternoon show (hosted by Rob Dibble and the very same Jody MacDonald from years earlier) when I found myself disagreeing with the hosts’ comparison of Jim Rice to Reggie Jackson. When I was a kid, I hated Reggie Jackson as much as I loved Jim Rice, but when either Dibble or MacDonald (I forget which one, but they were in agreement on the subject) pointed out as an argumentative trump card that Jim Rice’s career slugging average was ten points higher than Reggie Jackson’s, I sort of wanted to punch the wall. How can you make your living talking about baseball and not be compelled to add when offering this stat that Rice benefited from playing in a great hitter’s park while Reggie toiled for years in Oakland, one of the worst hitter’s parks in the league?

But I didn’t seriously consider calling in on that subject, because the last thing I wanted to do on a happy day for a childhood hero was to start using him as ballast in an attack on the hosts. Besides, I’m a non-confrontational guy. But something about the way the two hosts were talking throughout the afternoon made me want to put in my two cents. Basically, they both had the familiar “I know a Hall of Famer when I see one” attitude coursing through all their comments. As you may know, this attitude always comes with a statement along the lines of “statistics are fine up to a point, but ‘basement-dwelling number crunchers’ [an actual phrase from today’s vintage offering from Dan Shaughnessy] go way too far.” What the holders of this attitude are saying is that they will accept the stats that they understand, but when you start going beyond batting average and hits and RBI, you are the kind of guy who lies around all day staring at the ceiling, wondering if it’s too early in the day to masturbate. While they happen to be right about at least one of us, I still find myself upset by their arrogance and ignorance. They are like guys with a magnifying glass deriding the arrival on the scene of a guy with a microscope. Instead of being curious about the microscope, they mock the duct tape on the microscope-weilder’s glasses and give him a swirly. Or worse, they use their platform (a column, a radio show) to reduce the microscope-wielder to insignificance, to the size of an ant, and then of course they try to use their outdated tool to melt the ant. (For a less feverishly metaphor-driven rant about this general subject, see King Kaufman’s recent column.)

But since I am not a confrontational guy, I wanted to shoehorn some apparently unconventional thinking into the conversation in a positive manner, so I decided for my call-in subject I would pick the guy in yesterday’s vote who I thought was most criminally underrepresented in the voting and make a case for him. I consulted baseball-reference.com, wrote down some numbers that though verging on a microscope were still firmly in the realm of a magnifying glass, and I made the call. Unlike years earlier, I actually got through to a producer, who asked me my name and where I lived, then asked me why I was calling. This turned out to be as far as I ever got. But for a while there, I thought I was going to have my say. I had numbers that showed my guy as the equal to recent “no-brainer” inductee Tony Gwynn, and as substantially superior to the guy, shown at the top of this post, who prior to yesterday’s induction of Rickey Henderson was generally thought to be the standard bearer for leadoff men in the Hall of Fame. Oh, what a case I was going to make! But after fielding calls for a while the hosts then turned to a long interview with a sportswriter, and I gave up and went back to my life in the basement (note: I actually live on the second floor). However, I imagine that even though I didn’t get through, I was still for a brief time a small part of the show, a possibility, a someone, a glowing line on the hosts’ computer screen: Josh from Chicago. Wants to talk about Tim Raines.

***

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

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Ted Simmons

November 12, 2008
 Untitled 

I.
Last week on the bus a guy in a Cubs hat sitting near me eyeballed my Red Sox hat and we started talking baseball. It’s a pretty long ride, and after a while we ran out of things to say. I waited a few minutes to turn to the book I’d had on my lap, and not long after that the bus emptied enough for him to move a couple seats away and spread out and stare out a window. He was big guy with a mustache. He wore a windbreaker of a championship 16″ softball team (the kind of softball I’d never seen until I moved to Chicago). I’d thought he was a little older than me, but he was probably the same age. From our conversation I’d learned that he’d grown up loving baseball players from the 1970s.

II.
There’s something malevolent about Ted Simmons in this 1976 baseball card. It’s his long, lank hair, his narrow eyes and vaguely Cro-Magnon jaw and bunched shoulders. He reminds me of the older guys in my high school who drove loud cars and got in fistfights with each other over thin pale girls who smoked cigarettes and wore tight jeans and perpetual sneers.

III.
After the baseball conversation on the bus ended, I read my book for a while, a novel by a great Australian writer named Tim Winton. I put the book away as I neared my stop, and I looked around. Only two other people remained in the back area of the bus besides me and the Cubs fan. One was a middle-aged Hispanic man mouthing the words in a book entitled Ingles facil para todos. The other was a young slender guy staring at a book called Now, Discover Your Hidden Strengths. Everyone wants to be better than they are. I looked to the Cubs fan just as he was pulling a half-pint of liquor from the pocket of his championship windbreaker. He stared out at the nondescript corporate office buildings of Golf Road and took a swig. When I got up for my stop a couple minutes later he said, “Be good.” I could smell the booze. It was a little after nine in the morning.

IV.
What’s hidden in your pockets? At the time the guy in the Cubs hat was slipping the half-pint back into the pocket of his championship windbreaker I had a few baseball cards in the front pocket of my knapsack, including this Ted Simmons card. They are the cards I’m trying to get reacquainted with, so I can write about them. But I also carry them around as something to lean on, something to take a swig of when I think no one is looking. I like the odd cards, the cards of the forgotten players, but sometimes the only thing that’ll calm me down is a pull on the hard stuff of a real player, a star, like Ted Simmons. On the back of this card, even though Ted Simmons is still a young man, just starting out, there are numbers that ease the pain. A .332 average in the season just completed. Already two 100-RBI seasons. A lifetime .298 average. What other catchers from my childhood had a batting average that high? Ted Simmons stood alone in that regard, and yet he was also something of a secret, a superstar who wasn’t considered a superstar. In the American League there was Fisk and Munson. In the National League there was only room for one catcher, Bench.

V.
“I got a friend, an older guy, said he’d seen Berra play and that he was the best catcher of all time, but I told him, hey, I saw Bench.”

I nodded. This was early in my conversation on the bus with the Cubs fan with the flask of liquor in his pocket.

From there we started talking about the Hall of Fame. The All Time Greats. I said Ron Santo deserved to be in the Hall of Fame.

“December 10,” he said. (I think that’s the date he mentioned.)

“That’s when they vote?” I asked. (“They” are a committee of Hall of Fame inductees who may or may not finally agree to let Ron Santo join their ranks.)

He nodded.

We bitched about Joe Morgan for a little while, singling him out for blame in keeping Santo on the outside looking in, then the guy started telling me about the posters in his room. I’ve ridden a lot of buses, but no one has ever told me about the posters in their room.

“I’ve got three. Robin Yount. Pete Rose. Thurman Munson. They played the game the way it was supposed to be played.”

VI.
The Hall of Fame Veterans Committee chooses whether to induct former players into the baseball Hall of Fame once every couple of years. Ted Simmons will get his first chance at entering the realm of immortality through this doorway in 2011. My guess is that he won’t get in, at least not on that try. The numbers shown on the back of this 1976 card expanded into similar numbers for years afterward, and Simmons became one of the greatest hitting catchers in baseball history. As pointed out by Bill James, who ranks Simmons 10th among all catchers in his Historical Abstract, Simmons’ oft-maligned defense was actually OK, at least in the earlier stages of his career. But he doesn’t have that indefinable (and at least partially bullshit) “aura” of greatness about him. No one rides buses proclaiming to strangers that Ted Simmons played the game the way it was meant to be played. No one has a poster of him on the wall of his room, helping him get out of bed in the morning to face the day.

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John Curtis

September 8, 2008
 Untitled 
The Two Freaks
(continued from Ken McMullen)

Chapter Two

The Two Freaks roamed the land. No one remembers them now. How could they? Even when they were around very few ever noticed them, and then only in fleeting glimpses that could easily be dismissed as a trick of the eye, a second glance always finding them gone. They stuck to the shadows, the margins, the fringes. Occasionally they showed up at gatherings, but only the sparsely-attended ones and only for a moment. There are no records that they ever existed, but if you ask me there are traces. Here, there, and everywhere: traces. Through all the years of my 1970s childhood, the Two Freaks roamed the land.

They showed themselves to John Curtis just moments before this picture was snapped, though by the time his own less-elusive image was captured they were gone, leaving the bespectacled journeyman hurler to wonder if they’d ever been there at all. He’d been taking a pregame nap in the bullpen when summoned by the baseball card people, and while still half asleep, stumbling through the bullpen gate, he’d heard the thin flat tooting of a wooden wind instrument and saw whirling longhaired figures rushing by him, close.

“Security!” someone had yelled.

John Curtis had staggered backward, blinking, and when he’d regained his balance the blurry figures had disappeared.

He continued walking until the photographer told him to stop, then performed his guarded, flat-smiling pose, the slight wince underlaying his facial expression hinting of his growing doubts about the whole strange encounter.

“Say cheese,” the Topps photographer said.

“Just a synapse misfiring,” reasoned the college-educated lefty to himself as he pretended to be ready, glove-up, to field a screaming liner through the box.

“Got it. Beautiful. Couldn’t have been better,” the Topps photographer intoned, distractedly. He was already scanning his clipboard for the next forgettable 1976 Cardinal.

“Just a trick of the mind,” thought Curtis, meandering away.

But as John Curtis moved back toward the bullpen to await a situation hopeless enough for his long-relieving services to be necessary, he noticed that what he’d already decided was a dream had somehow left some tangible residue. The sky clouded over and it started to rain, and John Curtis went to stick his pitching hand into his back pocket and jog for cover, but as he did so he found that a big red umbrella was jutting from the rear left compartment in his pants. He hadn’t put it there. Why would he? It had to have come to him from the Two Freaks.

He pulled the umbrella from his pocket and opened it. The sudden shower beat down, making everyone else on the field scatter. John Curtis just stood there, laughing, temporarily invincible beneath the small yet inarguable miracle of shelter.

(to be continued)

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Ken Reitz

July 23, 2008
 Untitled 
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by what I thought was the nickname of the man shown here making one of his frequent outs (this particular out perhaps stemming from his failure to don the batting glove sticking out of his back pocket, or perhaps due to a batting grip seemingly modeled on a tableside waiter grinding a pepper mill):

I remember Ken Reitz’s nickname as being The Big Zamboni.

I don’t know where I got that idea. Maybe it’s on the back of another of my Ken Reitz baseball cards. More likely I made it up by somehow combining the actual nickname for Reitz listed on Baseball-Reference.com, Zamboni, with the nickname of the song-and-dance-prone Laverne and Shirley character, Carmine “The Big Ragu” Ragusa, whose name sounds like the ace of the post-Tatum O’Neal Bad News Bears, Carmen Ronzonni, whose last name sort of sounds like Zamboni. I’m pretty sure that when I did get it in my head that Ken Reitz was The Big Zamboni I didn’t know what a Zamboni was, but even though a Zamboni is a pretty colorful thing to be named after I think my version made Ken Reitz seem even more colorful than he would have seemed if I’d known he was named after a steamroller that smoothed ice. Sometimes things that don’t really mean anything mean more than things that mean something specific. A little magic is lost whenever something gets unequivocally defined. So I imagined The Big Zamboni as a booming friendly guy liked by everyone, the kind of guy who burst into rooms loudly, causing everyone to turn and smile and call his name. Hey, look who it is! The Big Zamboni!

From perusing the internet for more info about Reitz, specifically trying and failing to find an article I once read about a famously demon-haunted minor league team in the mid-1980s stocked with former major leaguers trying to climb back up from rock bottom, including Reitz and Steve Howe, I have gotten the idea that Reitz was something like what I’d imagined him to be when I was a kid and knew only his baseball cards and my version of his nickname. I can’t cite any reliable sources on this, so I hope people more knowledgeable on the subject will confirm or deny the sketch I got of Reitz from various message board comments floating in the cyber-ether, but from what I can gather Reitz was a life-of-the-party kind of guy during his time with his primary team, the Cardinals, and the fans loved him and he loved them back, and furthermore loved playing for the Cardinals.

For their part, the Cardinals seemed to have trouble making up their mind about Reitz. They traded him away twice, the first time only in effect loaning him to the Giants for a year, the second time packing him off for good along with Leon Durham to snatch Bruce Sutter from the Cubs. He’d been an All-Star a few months before the trade, but Whitey Herzog had decided that he didn’t fit in with plans for the team of speed-burners that would win pennants in 1982, 1985, and 1987. As Herzog put it (quoted by Joe Posnanski), “I used to shave before games. And once Reitz was up at the plate, and he hit the ball, and by the time he got to first base I had to shave again. That’s when I told him he wasn’t going to play.”

Herzog, for his part, was known as The White Rat. What nicknames! I’ve never really had a nickname. In boarding school for a little while some people called me Beaker, a hated nickname based on my weakling build and general bug-eyed look of terror. Earlier, at basketball camp, I briefly was known as “I’m Out,” a nickname based on my habit of meek capitulation in the nightly poker games. That’s about it. I’m not the kind of guy who barges into rooms with loud, charismatic jollity. Homeless dudes invariably address me as “Big Guy” before asking me for money. Does that count?

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Reggie Smith in . . . The Nagging Question

March 3, 2008
 

A few weeks ago on this site, during the conversations about the best everyday player of the 1970s (see Pete Rose for the posing of the question and Joe Morgan for the consensus answer), there was some pondering about who was the most underrated player of that decade. Among the players mentioned were Ken Singleton, Bobby Murcer, Ted Simmons, and Reggie Smith. Bobby Grich and Darrell Evans also probably deserve to be part of the discussion, though a significant part of their quietly effective work was done in the 1980s. 

My own opinion on who was the most underrated player of the 1970s may seem to be telegraphed by the card featured today. The truth is, I’m not sure. (I almost went with the card of Ted Simmons, who I believe—mainly because of the position he played—has a stronger Hall of Fame argument than Singleton, Smith, or Murcer.) Of course, “underrated” is a shadowy concept, as it not only judges performance but also judges recognition of that performance. With that in mind, here’s my case for Reggie Smith:

1. He was a great player.

  1. He was an outstanding hitter. He hit for power and average and drew a lot of walks, posting lifetime batting/on-base/slugging averages of .287/.366/.489, strong numbers that are even stronger when you consider that he spent the prime of his career in pitcher’s ballparks, and all of his career during a pitcher-friendly era. His lifetime OPS+ was 137, better than the career marks not only of Singleton, Simmons, and Murcer, but also of Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Carl Yastrzemski, to name four Hall of Famers from Reggie Smith’s era.
  2. He was an outstanding fielder. Murcer also gets points in this area, and though Simmons wasn’t considered a strong defensive catcher he rates special mention for manning that demanding and vital defensive position while still anchoring his team’s offense. The slow-footed Singleton, on the other hand, could not compare to Smith as a fielder. Smith was a Gold Glove-winning centerfielder early in his career, and was an excellent rightfielder throughout his prime. Singleton is very close to Smith as a hitter, and you could argue that he has an edge in offensive contribution to his team simply because he was able to appear in more of his team’s games than Smith, who often struggled with injuries. But Smith’s fielding, in my mind, at least brings him even with Singleton as a player.

2. He is an underrated player.

  1. He was always in the shadows, even on his own teams. When he first came up to the majors, with the Red Sox, he was in Carl Yastrzemski’s shadow, and during his prime on the Dodgers I don’t think he was ever considered the star of the team. I know when I was a kid I would have named Steve Garvey and Ron Cey ahead of him, Garvey because he was among the four or five biggest stars in the game, and Cey because he had a gigantic April one year that was featured in Sports Illustrated. Plus he had that nickname, The Penguin. Reggie Smith’s only nickname, as far as I knew, was “The Other Reggie.”
  2. My guess is that, unless you are a Cardinals fan, you may have been a little surprised by the card featured today, either not knowing or forgetting that Reggie Smith was ever on the Cardinals. In fact, he played well for them for more than two seasons (the only time he ever drove in 100 runs in a season was with the Cardinals). I guess my point is that recognized superstars don’t generally have forgotten stops in the middle of their careers.
  3. His own general managers didn’t really recognize his worth. He was traded twice in his career. The first trade was by the Red Sox, who sent him and a cooked Ken Tatum to the Cardinals for Rick Wise and Bernie Carbo. It wasn’t a terrible trade—Wise was a decent starting pitcher, and Bernie Carbo offered a facsimile of Smith’s offensive output, at least against righthanders—but it doesn’t reflect that Smith was a player with elite skills. The second trade was worse: the Cardinals handed Smith to the Dodgers for decent catcher Joe Ferguson and two career minor leaguers named Bob Detherage and Fred Tisdale.
  4. He was the “Other Reggie.” I know I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating. No matter what he did, he could never become more than a whisper beside the constant neon scream that was the guy simply known as Reggie. I believe you could make a case that the Two Reggies were close to equal as players, and that there were facets of the game in which The Other Reggie was clearly superior, but I know that when I was a kid, i.e., when I was immediately and passionately involved with the baseball era in question, I would have ranked The Other Reggie far below Reggie in the hierarchy of baseball stars. I saw him as an echo of the real thing.
  5. His page on baseball-reference.com is not sponsored. This is not the case with any of the other players mentioned above. 

I wonder if this last part is due in part to the fact that he moved around during his career. Maybe he never quite belonged to any particular fan base, so no one is around to sing his praises. So I’m singing his praises. Whose praises would you like to sing? In other words, the Nagging Question:

Who is the most underrated player of the 1970s?

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John Urrea

December 21, 2007
 

 
Have you ever experienced or are you now experiencing one or more of the following symptoms?

—Slumping posture

—Declining performance

—A feeling that the world around you is growing blurrier

—Wincing, grimacing, or any other facial affect seeming to reflect a sense of disgust and/or regret, as if you are still breathing in the fumes of a turd you just heaved to Steve Swisher, or as if you are bracing for Steve Swisher to hurl the turd back at you, or, worse, as if you no longer have the likes of even so much as Steve Swisher around and are instead staring from your demoted location into nothing but the blurred, uncertain future

—A persistent burning sensation

—A tendency to drift, passively, i.e., not by choice, i.e., as if you are constantly getting put on a bus and shipped to a realm of ever-lowering expectations

—A sense that your mounting failures are being recorded and will, ironically enough, be used to explain your imminent removal from the ranks of those whose efforts are worthy of being recorded

—A sense of being haunted by the promise of the past, as if you were drafted in the first round five years ago, or as if you led the Florida League in wins four years ago, or even as if you were your franchise’s Farm Team Pitcher of the Month three years ago, but now you are no longer rising but at best are treading water, but more likely you are sinking, and this haunts you, because it wasn’t supposed to be like this, you and Steve Swisher staring at one another at the edge of the abyss, the residue of turd on your hand, or even worse, Steve Swisher and the hurled turd itself a fading memory of better times as you and your decaying posture and persistent burning sensation and sense of accruing losses watch the blurred world outside your bus window scroll past like the hiccuping loop of anonymous landscape in a cheap cartoon

—An increasing feeling of needing to go

If you find any or all of these symptoms familiar, you may be suffering from Urrea.

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Mike Tyson

November 14, 2007

A few years ago, while I was making a not-quite-living writing nonfiction young adult books for a small flat fee, an editor I knew mentioned that he might have a job for me. I don’t really remember the conversation, but I do recall that it was low-paying, per usual, and that the subject of the book was sports gambling. I probably expressed some interest, but then the job never came about. Maybe I said I’d get back to him about it and never did, or maybe he said he’d get back to me and never did. I don’t know. It was around the time when I started teaching college freshman composition classes, a job I’d never done before and that instantly consumed all my time, mostly either in abject terror over what might happen in an upcoming class or in abject shame and embarrassment about what actually had happened in a recent class. With a schedule like that I had to set aside the nonfiction young adult books for a while. But later I discovered a young adult book about sports gambling had been written by “Joshua D.G. Willker.”

I knew enough about the low-paying young adult nonfiction book racket to know that sometimes hard-working editors that had received unusable manuscripts from contracted authors had to hurriedly ghostwrite entire books without getting any authorial credit. Maybe my name had gotten pencilled in and the editor I knew or some other editor had scrambled to hit the deadline by throwing the book together and then, while racing with the manuscript to the local FedEx, had slightly altered the pencilled-in author name by adding an “ua” to the first name, a couple middle initials, and an extra “l” in the last name.

The discovery of this Other (did D.G. stand for “DoppelGanger”?) gave me a sort of sour feeling. I wonder if former Cardinals utility infielder Mike Tyson, shown above in a creased, smeared 1974 card, felt something similar to that when he started to understand that his own name was being eclipsed. If he did, it’s possible, oddly enough, that the feeling wasn’t altogether new. Note the cartoon on the back of his 1974 card:

In other words, it seems likely, given the overwhelming popularity of a certain 1976 Sylvester Stallone film, that—long before the other Mike Tyson—the chipmunk-cheeked Mike Tyson shown here was ribbed by his Cardinals teammates for sharing a name with a boxer.

Or maybe not. Who knows? All I can really say for sure about any of this is that if there actually is someone out there named Joshua D.G. Willker, I hope I never meet him. He sounds like a douche.

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Bake McBride

May 7, 2007
 

Has Cardboard Gods jumped the shark? I am constantly wondering about this. I actually first considered the possibility many months ago, just a couple weeks into the whole project, when I posted what seemed to me to be a passionless, desultory profile of Otto Velez. Since then I’ve revisited thoughts of an unredeemable demise on an almost weekly basis, most recently in the form of a sinking feeling that I had let the great Boog Powell down.

This sinking feeling is not new. I’ve always sort of felt like I’m living within an aftermath. I’m like Ted McGinley, star of the Love Boat just before it sank and of Happy Days at its glummest, always arriving too late for all the excitement, always incapable of creating a new thrilling epoch on my own. All the cool shit had already happened by the time I was old enough to take part, it seemed. I was too late to huff carbona with Richard Hell and Dee Dee Ramone, too late to drop acid with Ken Kesey and Ram Dass, too late to smoke “tea” and guzzle cheap port with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. By the time I was the age these guys were in their frontier-exploring heydays it was the early 1990s, and though I guess there were probably new exciting movements going on somewhere, I had no idea where they were, and even if I had known I’d probably have thought the people involved were pretentious assholes.

So instead of blazing new pathways of creativity within an invigorating collective of the best young minds of my generation I got a job on the night shift at the UPS warehouse on 42nd street by the Hudson River and got sort of drunk after work every day in the morning while reading a newspaper I’d pulled out of the garbage and eating three-for-a-dollar macaroni and cheese with chopped-up generic hot dogs. I’d fall unconscious for a while and wake up at dusk feeling like I’d been regurgitated, and then I’d watch the 5:30 episode of Charles in Charge. After a few months of showing up at work at 3 A.M. to take boxes off a conveyer belt and put them in a truck, I abruptly quit, phoning in one evening to tell a preposterous lie about the sudden death of my grandfather (who had actually died a few years earlier) necessitating my immediate departure from the city to help run “the family farm.” I went to Vermont and lounged around my stepfather’s condo in Montpelier and wrote a young adult novel about basketball, taking copious breaks to run imaginary tournaments involving the putting of a golf ball at various targets around the condo. At the end of the summer I had a complete manuscript, and returned to New York planning to sell it and begin a fabulous career of swinging from one joyous literary conquest to the next like Tarzan swinging on vines.

I never did sell the thing. While I was sort of trying to sell it I got an “in the meantime” job at the liquor store where my brother had worked while going to NYU (that particular “in the meantime” job of mine ultimately lasting the better part of a decade). My shift there started at 6 P.M. on most days, and though it was only a five-minute walk from the small apartment I shared with my brother, the start time meant that I always missed the last few moments of Charles in Charge. Each episode always followed the same basic three-part pattern, the first and last parts being relatively brief: Part one: Charles is in charge; Part two: Charles is no longer in charge; Part three: Charles is in charge again. I always had to leave the apartment with the situation in chaos.

I don’t know what any of this has to do with Bake McBride, except that I started the day today with some observations about him that were so lackluster and uninspired that I quickly fell to thoughts that I had really blown it for good, that I was through as a writer, that if I couldn’t get a good lather going for Bake McFucking McBride I might as well hang it up and let the shark Fonzie jumped tear me and my metaphorical leather jacket of imagined coolness to shreds. I mean, this is Bake McBride we’re talking about! If I was a beatnick I’d have already chanted a rolling, incantatory three-page Bake McBride ode at the Six Gallery with Sal Paradise yelling “wail!” in the background; if I was a hippie I’d have already run naked across the Pentagon lawn out my mind on mescaline, convinced I was Bake McBride ecstatically legging out a world-peace-bestowing triple; and if I was a New York Punk I’d have already ruined my eardrums forever with the sheer velocity and volume of a two-minute aural assault entitled “Bake McBride” that would have helped free music from the skeletal clutches of corporate rock. But I’m none of those things, and I’m not even an odd solitary miner of the gruesome and beautiful unconscious like Kafka, spinning out a tale of waking one morning metamorphosed into Bake McBride’s disembodied afro. No, all I could manage was that Bake McBride hung up his spikes one hit shy of a lifetime average of .300.

His batting average rounded up to .300 as late as the 10th-to-last game of his career, when as a member of the Cleveland Indians he went 2 for 4 on September 10, 1983, against the Red Sox. He managed only 2 hits in his next 17 at bats, however, dooming to failure a subsequent 5 for 10 flurry in his last major league at-bats.

I don’t know why Bake McBride stopped playing then. He was 34 years old, but he had hit .291 for the year and just one year earlier in limited action had hit .365. The speed that had been one of his strikingly distinguishing features in his prime—along with his large afro (seen here below a Cardinals flat-topped “old-tyme” cap in an admirable but still only penultimate stage of magnificence) and his incomparable name—may have been on the wane, but he still stole 8 bases in 10 attempts in ’83 and, even more tellingly, made his final major league appearance as a pinch runner in his team’s second to last game of the year. He could still hit, and he could still run. So why stop?

I don’t know why. I’ve quit a lot of things in my life, so I guess I can imagine how he might have just got sick of doing what he was doing, especially considering it must have gotten harder and harder as the years went on. 

As for me, even though I’ve quit a lot of things, I never have quit writing, not yet. So I guess even if my lifetime average keeps falling farther and farther below .300 I’m going to keep going up there and hacking.

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