All right, I’m up, showered, fed; the kid is asleep, the dishes are all clean, and I’ve got a half hour to write before I have to climb on my bicycle and pedal to the bus stop and ride to work. This is it from here on out for a while, more or less, so I am not going to mess around with craft too much. Jack Kerouac, who my kid is named after, said that craft in writing is a kind of subterfuge, a way of avoiding honesty anyway. Then again, well, I don’t totally believe that and see that it can be a way out of doing the work needed to make a piece of writing be more than just someone’s spit-up. (Sorry, I have spit-up on my mind.) Also, Jack Kerouac’s writing lost momentum as the years went on, his writing lost life I mean, and his greatest book was written and rewritten many times and suffered for despite the myth that he spontaneously created the whole thing in a few weeks with no forethought or even any effort beyond what it took to crack open a bottle of benzedrine. Still, there is a time for carefully crafting stuff, maybe, and a time to just report from the bunker as fast as possible so as to keep a semblance of sanity and the human voice alive. This situation I am in is not—is actually the farthest thing from—holing up in a bunker. But it is relentless, dealing with a newborn. Of course, I am far from the front lines on this one (back to the battle metaphors again, I know) and am more like a guy running supplies to the ranks on the front lines, those ranks being my wife, a beleaguered army of one who nonetheless is all softness and love with the baby, and when he’s sleeping and giving her a chance to think, her mind is racing with worries that something might happen to him, to his tiny fragile life. As for me (I almost stopped writing to consider my next thought instead of just slamming it down first thought best thought beatnik style) I am coming down from the first high of the kid being born, when I thought I would be a different guy altogether forever, someone able to give myself over totally to complete holy sacrifice all the time, like fucking Gandhi or something, transformed by my love of the boy. Turns out I am the same as always, just more tired. I live for the kid now though. But when I get a little time here and there, I want to figure out what the hell is the shape of my mind. So here I am, staring at the third and final Steve Foucault card in my collection. My three Steve Foucault cards form a progression through the years, the 1975 card showing him looking in for a sign, the 1976 card showing him coming to a set position, and this 1977 card showing him just after delivering a phantom pitch. No ball is visible in any of the cards. Foucault wears a Texas Rangers uniform in various combinations, a long-sleeve undershirt disappearing then reappearing. His right pointer finger pokes out of his glove in all the photos. He has the same long mustache and thick sideburns every year. He looks off to his left in the first picture, off to his right in the second picture, and in the last picture he gazes straight at the viewer. The imaginary ball is out of his hands now and out in the world. Your turn now. He is looking at me, and looking at you. His right hand is in a fist, but it is loosening just a little, his middle finger itching to unfurl. The days are long and exhausting. The years fly by. You can’t touch this pitch. You can grow a splendid walrus mustache and sideburns but you can’t know what’s next. You can’t ever know.
Archive for the ‘Texas Rangers’ Category
Just under a month ago, Steve Foucault peered in for a sign. Now he is coming set. He’s in a different uniform—the away ensemble—and it seems as if his hair may be longer. He’s still working away on a big chaw in his right cheek, and he’s still got the walrus facial hair. In both cards, trees line the horizon, and in this card there also seem to be members of the Oakland A’s in the distance.
This weekend my very pregnant wife and I went for a walk. The doctor said going on walks would help get the baby in position, or something along those lines. I forget the specifics. I am finding it more and more difficult to process information with any accuracy. I’ve been reading books on pregnancy and labor and all the facts and instructions seem to partially or completely disintegrate on contact with my mind. Anyway, the walk was good. We ended up over by the lake, where there’s a small sandy beach. It was a gray day, not that warm, but some kids were still splashing around and playing Frisbee in the water. We sat on a bench on a concrete slab up above the beach, next to another bench that had a pair of women’s shoes sitting on it. One early morning a few weeks earlier, I’d been running on this beach when two young deer appeared around the corner of the abandoned-looking building at the edge of the beach. There’s nothing but big rocks around that corner, so their appearance seemed inexplicable to me. They followed me for a while. I kept looking back and there they were, clambering on their spindly legs up the beach, stepping unsurely on the sidewalk leading away from the beach, moving toward Sheridan Road. Sheridan Road is a busy street with a McDonald’s and a red line El station and homeless people and, on rusted racks, the bones of half-pilfered bicycles. I lost sight of the fawns when I turned the corner onto this street, and I don’t know what became of them. When my wife and I sat on a bench this weekend at that beach I thought of them and thought of this kid on the way.
When a pitcher comes set after getting the sign he most commonly focuses his gaze downward, or perhaps even inward, gathering himself, gathering resolve. In this photo Steve Foucault seems instead to be gazing off into the distance.
Sometimes I find myself kind of praying.
I studied poetry in college. That was my primary focus. I also played a lot of pickup basketball, wrote fiction fragments and long-winded essays, got a combined “anthropology/sociology” minor, drank a lot of beer and smoked a lot of pot, though less so as the years went on, and was often fairly lonely, an emotion I channeled into poems, I guess, though I don’t remember ever writing anything directly and honestly about my own daily life. Instead I tried to write chiseled nature odes like Gary Snyder or yowling apocalypse rags like Allen Ginsberg. As I neared the end of college, a panic set in. I went around to different teachers I’d had and asked them what I should do with myself. They had no answers, at least none that I can remember, and the basic gist of the conversations was as follows:
Me: Um, well . . . help me?
Teacher: It was great having you in class.
Me: I don’t really want to leave.
Teacher: Have a nice summer!
I don’t blame them. In fact even moments after the conversations I’d feel ashamed of myself for trying to corner them into giving me an answer to something I couldn’t even frame as a distinct question. What were they supposed to do? I’m older now than most of them were then, and I certainly couldn’t give anybody any answers, and anyway it’s not the kind of thing someone can resolve for someone else. You can look in for a sign, like Steve Foucault is doing in his 1975 card, and you might even get one, but then you’ve got to straighten up, take a deep breath, and throw the pitch. And most likely things will be exactly as they are for Steve Foucault in this 1975 card: in truth there’s no one to provide a sign. You have to fake it.
I was 22 then and am nearly twice that age now, and I haven’t changed that much, in that I still would prefer to be—the crux of my problem then and now—somehow exempted from having to work. Can’t I just read and shoot hoops and occasionally turn in a paper on Zen meditation or the Deep Imagists? Last night my pregnant wife and I were talking about labor, how it’s brutal on the mother yet even more wrenching for the kid, though thankfully none of us remember this first trauma. Everything’s just fine in the womb, nice and warm, all the sustenance you need, then, wham, you start getting shoved downward toward a tiny tunnel, then through the tunnel and out into the cold and a blinding brightness. Life begins, and forever long as you’re alive that pattern is repeated, each moment or passage of time ending in an ejection to another transitory interlude until, finally, that one last ejection into some other world, or nothing, or who knows.
Steve Foucault seems to be without a black eye as he pretends to look in for a sign, suggesting that this photo was not taken around the time of the 1974 10 Cent Beer Night promotion in Cleveland, which ended in an on-field brawl/riot pitting players from the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians against a mob of drunken fans that had spilled onto the field. Steve Foucault was punched in the face during the brawl and got a black eye.
Moments don’t ever go the way you plan them. The Cleveland Indians front office did not intend to cause a riot when they came up with 10 Cent Beer Night. I don’t really know exactly what they were thinking, but promotions seem generally to be rooted in a sense of what people like, the basic question behind each promotion being, How do we help get people to the ballpark by giving them something they like? Following that logic, it would seem to be a no-brainer to seize on beer sold extremely cheaply, since many people who like baseball also like beer and the cheaper the better.
This same thought is behind the gimmick of the upcoming reading events I’ll be participating in over the next few weeks. It’s being called the Free Beer Tour. I’m not sure what exactly this will entail, but I’m pretty sure if you come to one of the events you will be able to get some free beer. I am hoping to drink some beer, meet some people, sell some books, and avoid getting my eye blackened by a punch in the face.
My thing lately, or really whenever life seems to be slipping out of my grasp, is to make to do lists and then to more or less ignore them. The latter part of that routine is not intended. My intention when making lists is to instead transform into the kind of fellow who soberly and calmly faces up to all responsibilities and moves through to do lists with ease and relentlessness, marking each completed task done with a single clean line through the task. My to do lists always have a few deep scribbles across the stray items that I manage to get done—usually these are the easy ones that I put on the list just to get myself going, to make it seem like I’m getting things done, in hopes that by marking off something like “take a shower” I will set myself in unstoppable motion, but in the end my series of little notebooks scattered around my home are full of incomplete lists, only the easy things marked out. Anyway, I made a whole list of what I want to do on this site over the next couple of months, probably because in the next couple of months I’m going to get on a plane several times, go to a lot of new places, and, near the end of the two months, if all goes according to schedule, become a father. I don’t know anything about how to do that last thing, so a lot of my difficult list items are pointed toward that looming eventuality. I guess it’ll be good to cross “Steve Foucault 1975″ off my list, so I’m steamrolling ahead through this post. You have to steamroll ahead sometimes. I tried to be a poet and kept revising and revising my attempts until I revised myself clean out of poetry altogether.
Poetry fell away from me. Several years after it did so, my last burst of poetry came when I wrote some poems to my wife when we first met, most of them attempts to get her to laugh. This worked better than the scary and obscurely self-aggrandizing works reeking of desperation I’d occasionally foisted on puzzled girls when I was in college. I kept writing, but not the kind of sculpted heightened lines I’d aspired to while in college but the kind of writing I guess a guy does when he’s trying to get by from day to day. Which brings us to today and work. I have to leave in a few minutes. A baby on the way: need money, gotta work. It’s not my dream job, but I never had a dream job. I never thought that way. I did want to be a poet though, a guy who wrote poems, and for the first years out of college I wrote poems in my notebooks, but none of them ever came made it out of a notebook, and more and more I wrote stories and long prose rants and prayers in my notebooks. Looking for a sign.
According to the Gods: a 2011 Team-By-Team Preview
The Texas Rangers won the American League pennant last year, and a rational prediction of their chances this year would have to take that recent success into account. But rational is not how things work here. Here the idea, based on nothing, is that the 2011 Rangers squad will resemble the thoughts that arise from the consideration of 1987 card of someone named Mike Loynd.
I got this Mike Loynd card last year in a pack that came with a copy of the book Mint Condition that the book’s author, Dave Jamieson, sent to me. Near the beginning of the book’s entertaining exploration of the history of baseball cards, Dave locates the center of his own personal connection to baseball cards in the 1987 set, his favorite from childhood. My own childhood came a little earlier, so my first look at the 1987 set occurred when I opened the pack that came with Dave’s book. The pack had a piece of ancient gum inside it. I had never opened a pack of baseball cards with gum inside and not chewed the gum, but since the gum in question was over twenty years old, I hesitated. Generally speaking, food that old doesn’t do wonders for the human body. The thought occurred to me, What if I eat this gum and it kills me? Paradoxically enough, this question is what prompted me finally to put the decrepit gum on my tongue. I figured if I was going to die, I might as well die from gum in a pack of baseball cards.
The gum crumbled instantly from the slightest chewing pressure, and then, instead of reforming from crumbles into a chewable wad, it just dissolved. The jolt of sugar from baseball card gum is to me the primal accompaniment to the stretched moment of discovery of leafing for the first time through a new pack of cards, but in this case the gum was gone but for a stale, pasty aftertaste before I’d looked at more than a couple cards. When I got to this Mike Loynd card, I was vaguely thankful that I wasn’t convulsing on the floor like a poisoned medieval courtesan, but I was also a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to blow one last baseball card gum bubble. This is life, right? Most of the time you have to admit you’d rather be alive than not, but even so there’s a powdery residue on your tongue of some idealization of long gone sweetness. There’s a taste of disappointment.
With that taste on my tongue, I wondered, Mike Loynd?
How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part of 20 of 30: Revel in cardboard by reading the aforementioned Mint Condition and by watching MLB Network’s celebration of baseball cards tonight (3/29 at 10 p.m. EST): Cardboard Treasure (I was interviewed for this special, so if MLB TV’s editors are miracle workers you might see shreds of my aimless mumblings from that interview)
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
After a bit of a return to my normal life as a couch-bound shut-in, I’ll soon be leaving my house again to try to use my corporeal presence and astonishing ability to sign my own name to politely strongarm civilians into buying my book. On Saturday I’ll be sitting at a table with a stack of hardcovers and a Sharpie in the Barbara’s Bookstore on the lower level of Macy’s in downtown Chicago. A few days after that, at the request of the great Baseball Reliquary, my wife and I will fly to Los Angeles for a reading and signing at the South Pasadena library, and on Saturday we’ll be at the Upstart Crow Bookstore in San Diego. The following day, I’ll be back in Chicago, on a panel with novelist Billy Lombardo at the Printer’s Row Festival. (Please see my “book tour events” page for more details on those and other upcoming appearances.)
If you’re around for any of those events, I’d love to meet you. I honestly would! I don’t think of myself as a people person, but I really did like meeting people on my trip through the northeast. At a lot of stops, I saw people I hadn’t seen in decades, including some old high school buddies in Manhattan and one of my elementary school teachers in Vermont. I also got to meet people who are readers of the blog, and to talk with them and others about the joys of old cardboard.
One of my favorite meetings occurred with a fellow baseball card lover in my old hometown, East Randolph, where I hung out for a couple hours at the general store that had provided most of my childhood cards. Halfway through my visit, the son of Amy and Joel Messier, who now own the store, showed up, home from a little league game, and he and I spent a while digging through a lovingly protected selection from his baseball card collection. (Both of us were in uniform—Darrin in his little league Dodger duds and me in a Papelbon jersey.) He had some older cards of superstars and, being a fellow Red Sox fan, he also had several Red Sox cards from different eras. One card in this penthouse of his collection might not have seemed to fit in with such lofty company, but being from East Randolph, that little town that is really only a few houses along Route 14 in Central Vermont, I knew why there was a Pat Putnam card mixed in among the likes of Yogi Berra and Willie Mays and Wade Boggs and Dustin Pedroia.
Baseball was the center of my world growing up, just as it seems to be now for Darrin. I understood on some level how far from the action I was in East Randolph. East Randolph was not Mobile, Alabama, or some sun-drenched hotbed of talent in Florida or California, or San Pedro de Macoris. Baseball players did not come from East Randolph, Vermont. They rarely came from Vermont at all. Even Carlton Fisk, born in Bellows Falls, which was a long way from my town anyway, stridently defined himself as a native of New Hampshire, and not of Vermont, where he’d been born only because that’s where the closest hospital was located.
But Pat Putnam, somehow, some way, was born just down the road a few miles from East Randolph, the next small town over: Bethel.
“Bethel!” I said upon spotting Pat Putnam’s card in Darrin’s collection. Darrin’s father, Joel, said it, too.
“I couldn’t believe he was from Bethel,” Joel said, shaking his head and smiling.
Putnam had not, as far as I could ever tell, stayed in Bethel long. There were no local legends of his exploits as a child and teen titan of baseball prowess. I assumed early on that he and his family had quickly moved away to somewhere more populated and warm, and from there he’d begun his ascension to the big leagues. But he’d been there, in Bethel, at least for a second. And by making it to the big leagues, and making it onto a card, his birthplace immortalized on the back, he’d brought my faraway part of the world within reach of the gods.
I didn’t think to look at the odometer of my rental car when I started on my east coast book tour a couple weeks ago, so I don’t know how many miles I travelled. A lot. I drove from Chicago to Pittsburgh, then from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn, then out to Huntington, Long Island, back to Brooklyn, up to Boston, then to northwestern Vermont, then central Vermont, then southern Vermont, central Vermont again, and then back to Chicago. My wife met me in Boston, so we shared the driving from that point on, and she was at the wheel of our regular car as we drove home from dropping off the rental car. We were both exhausted. A sedan spun out in front of us, the byproduct of a near-collision with a minivan. The sedan swerved onto a spit of land separating the highway from an off-ramp, a cyclone of dust kicking up. The car then swerved back into traffic, coming right at us.
A kind of complacency sets in while you travel all your miles. The monotony, hypnotic, lures you into believing that you’ll always be traveling this road. On the trip east, desperate to break up the boredom, I had listened to a speech on a religious radio station from ex-major leaguer Frank Pastore, who related how an injury to his pitching arm had led him to a religious conversion. Somehow this conversion ended up involving inflammatory anti-Semitic asides (during his speech he made sure to implicate “a Jewish tribunal” in the death of the central figure in his religion, exactly the kind of vitriol that catalyzed deadly pogroms for centuries leading up to the Holocaust). But I understand the need to search for some solid ground when the ground you thought was solid disintegrates. Later on in my long drive, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “You will meet God.” We all will live to see moments when the monotonous, comforting pattern of life suddenly gives way to a terrifying chaos. The defining quality of this chaos is that it will seem to have always been there, below the flimsy veil of everyday life.
The out-of-control car on the expressway came within a few feet of spearing us in the passenger side, where I was sitting. Somehow, it didn’t hit any cars at all, and as we drove on toward home the only aftermath was the sound of other cars honking to protest the disruption in the illusion that we will all go on forever. After a while, I told my wife I felt like Samuel Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction after he’d lived through a hail of bullets. It was actually the crystallization of a grateful feeling that had been building throughout the trip. I’ll try to write some more about the trip throughout this week, but even before the near accident at the end, I had already begun to get the feeling, repeatedly, that my life was passing before my eyes. People from all parts of my past reappeared in front of me wherever I went: friends from my twenties and early thirties, friends from college, friends from high school, friends from junior high, even one of my elementary school teachers. Even a couple of real-life Cardboard Gods. The fast pace of the tour blurred this procession into one long joyful and also faintly melancholy farewell parade, like you see in movies when someone is breathing last breaths and seeing everything ever seen and loved one more time before going. This life is a short, sweet blessing. Things will change.
Doyle Alexander surely began learning this lesson around the time of this singularly odd 1977 card, the only card I can remember seeing in which an attempt was made to doctor the cap and uniform of a player in the midst of an action shot of sorts. In all other cases that I know of, the practice of altering the cap and uniform to place a player on a team he’d moved to in the offseason was restricted to posed shots, which were certainly easier to manipulate into a new version of reality without creating as much of a profound sense of a figure being divorced from his environment as is shown here on Alexander’s card. I guess it’s the smudgy altered cap against the Rembrandtian darkness in the background at the top of the picture that goes the farthest in making Alexander into a flimsy provisional interloper in this mortal coil. Before the previous year, Alexander had played for several years with one team, the Orioles, but from that point on he became noted for being a well-traveled guy, often going (at least in my memory) from one team to the next during pennant pushes, his veteran steadiness called on to shore up fraying starting rotations. He became a traveler. It started around the time of this card, in which he seems easily removable, as if you could flick him loose from the picture with one fingernail, and then he’d flutter to the ground like a feather, still locked in his ambiguous open-mouthed pose.
Of the eighteen men in major league history who have thrown a perfect game, four have a lifetime losing record: Lee Richmond (75-100), who threw the first-ever major league perfect game in 1880; Charlie Robertson (49-90), the only White Sox player to hurl a perfect game before Mark Buehrle’s masterpiece yesterday; Don Larsen (81-91), author of the most famous pitching performance in baseball history, his 1956 World Series perfect game; and the fellow shown here, Len Barker (74-76). Barker’s was not the first perfect game of my lifetime, but it was the first one I was aware of. (Catfish Hunter, one of six Hall of Famers to have pitched a perfect game—Monte Ward, Cy Young, Addie Joss, Jim Bunning, and Sandy Koufax are the others; a seventh, Randy Johnson, is a shoo-in for the honor as soon as he’s eligible—was perfect a couple months after I was born.) I can’t give you any specific memories of Barker’s historic performance—I didn’t watch it or it listen to it on the radio (in fact, yesterday was the first time in my life I ever got to follow any part of a perfect game as it happened; after overhearing a co-worker say to another co-worker, “Buerhle is perfect through seven,” I checked the box score on my computer and then went outside to listen to the bottom of the ninth on my XM radio as I stared out at the cars in the parking lot and tried to imagine DeWayne Wise’s catch in my head). But I do know that my perception of Barker changed. Read the rest of this entry ?
(Note: Posts are going to continue to come at a trickle for a little while longer here at Cardboard Gods as I work some more on a book. I should be working on said book right now, actually, but I couldn’t help myself from wasting the morning with the following tangent…)
I don’t get the paper much anymore, so gone for the most part is my perusal of the transactions section of the sports page. That always came last, after I’d read the columns and the game recaps and the personal interest features and scanned all the box scores and studied the league leader list. On a good day, a sports page could take me through most of an otherwise blank afternoon: through a big heavy lunch, through the last sweet moments of carb-induced anesthesia before a post-lunch nap, through the nap itself (the newspaper face down on my chest like some sort of child-sized security blanket), through the first horrible leaden anxious moments of post-nap awareness, and through the inevitable product of poor diet and lassitude, an extended grunting sporadically unpleasant seat on the throne, my transitory afternoon kingdom dwindling to small AP reports on sports I didn’t even like that much. By the time the light started to fade, all I had left was the transactions. Sometimes, even given the gnawing ache of dusk on a day when nothing has happened, the transactions were enough. Little bullet points, sentence fragments, no adjectives whatsoever, just proper nouns and verbs, people in motion, teams transforming. One career could be ending, another could be beginning. Who was waived? Who was claimed? Who got the better of whom?
I started noticing the transaction section when I was a kid, but I don’t know if I saw the mind-bending multidirectional transfer of lives, including that of Tommy Boggs, on December 8, 1977 (info courtesy of baseball-reference.com):
[Tommy Boggs was] traded as part of a 4-team trade by the Texas Rangers with Adrian Devine and Eddie Miller to the Atlanta Braves. The Atlanta Braves sent Willie Montanez to the New York Mets. The Texas Rangers sent a player to be named later and Tom Grieve to the New York Mets. The Texas Rangers sent Bert Blyleven to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pittsburgh Pirates sent Nelson Norman and Al Oliver to the Texas Rangers. The New York Mets sent Jon Matlack to the Texas Rangers. The New York Mets sent John Milner to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Texas Rangers sent Ken Henderson (March 15, 1978) to the New York Mets to complete the trade.
If I had noticed such a transaction, it would have fascinated and confused me. I have spent an inordinate amount of time throughout my life, if not my life altogether, trying to untangle the fascinating and confusing mysteries of youth, and I’ve never really discovered any definitive answers to anything, but maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong place all the time. Maybe I should have been trying to understand the transactions of the gods. Read the rest of this entry ?
Somewhere I Lost Connection
(continued from Dan Spillner)
I ran out of time and money. The last of the money went to a plane ticket. I was sitting in Heathrow airport in London, waiting for a flight to New York City, when I was taken into custody.
I’d been roaming around Europe for a couple of months by then, the last of my dwindling courage to enact my plan to voyage deep beyond the Iron Curtain vanishing in Berlin, at which point I drifted back westward, to Holland, then London, then Scotland, and back to London. I hadn’t had a haircut in a long time, hadn’t shaved in days. I was wearing a grease-stained army jacket I’d bought years before for ten bucks at a surplus store. In other words, I looked to alert, seasoned British authorities like someone who might blow up a plane. Two large officers led me by the arms to a windowless interrogation room.
Who are you? Where have you been? Where are you going? Why?
According to the flat colored rectangles in my shoebox, only one of the Cardboard Gods whose path led through Lodi ever went on to become an All-Star, and only one of the Cardboard Gods whose path led through Lodi ever went on to play on a World Series championship team. In both cases, it was Johnny Grubb.
Grubb was an unusual denizen of Lodi in that he went there after being drafted in the first round of the amateur draft. He was seen, one would think, as a sure thing, not a maybe or a probably not. He didn’t disappoint in Lodi, hitting an even .300 with 12 home runs in 408 at-bats. By the end of the next year, which he mostly spent in Alexandria, he was in the major leagues as a late-season call-up, and the following season he established himself as a bonafide major leaguer by hitting .311 in 389 at-bats. In the middle of the year after that, Johnny Grubb appeared in the major league all-star game. Lodi was bound to vanish from the back of his card. It was only a matter of time. And by the time of the 1979 card shown here, that erasure had occurred. Johnny Grubb had never been stuck anywhere. Johnny Grub could flat-out hit.
And yet there was a certain itinerant element to Johnny Grubb’s career. This card shows him on the third of his four major league teams, the doctored photo reflecting the fact that Johnny Grubb was sometimes forced to move fast, in mid-season, forced to have the particulars of his life rearranged quickly and haphazardly.
He spent a while in Texas, just as he had in San Diego and Cleveland, but by 1983 it was looking as if it was time for him to be moving again. In a two-part interview with Grubb at Daily Fungo (part one and part two), Grubb described his frame of mind at that time, when the writing was on the wall that his time was coming to an end with a particular franchise once again.
“If you can hit,” he said, “they will find a place for you somewhere.”
The guts of my knapsack lay spilled across the tile floor of the interrogation room. Some dirty clothes. Two paperbacks, one by Dostoevsky, one by Kerouac. Two notebooks full of my ravings. One of the officers picked up one of the notebooks and leafed through it, squinting, as the other continued to grill me.
As I stammered answers back at the interrogator I stole glances at the officer looking through my writing. I had grown more and more inward in my writing as the trip had gone on, barely noticing the new worlds I was passing through as I invented descriptions of fictional characters and droned on about angels and concocted creepy erotic fantasies. The interrogation went on longer than it might have because although the officers could find nothing physically dangerous on my person or ideologically dangerous in my spoken responses, they couldn’t help notice the stench of something like shame emanating from my slumping figure.
“I’m nobody,” I said.
It was the answer to one of the questions and the answer to a question that hadn’t been asked. It was a plea of innocence and an admission of guilt.
Johnny Grubb passed through Lodi, but instead of losing connection there or elsewhere he went on to find connection, eventually, because he could hit. Because he could hit, he found a place on the 1984 Detroit Tigers, one of the best teams of my lifetime, and quite possibly the best sum-is-greater-than-the-parts team in baseball history. Because of that aspect of the 1984 Tigers, the team is epitomized in my mind by Johnny Grubb. I’m sure most baseball fans (besides the journalist/Tigers fan who started a blog in Johnny Grubb’s name) think of someone other than Johnny Grubb when the subject of the mighty 1984 Detroit Tigers is raised. The team had two should-be Hall of Famers in Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker, two of the more renowned “gritty winners” of the 1980s in Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris, an MVP-winning reliever in Willie Hernandez, and other longtime major league stalwarts such as Lance Parrish and Chet Lemon. But to me the team was defined by the bit players who surrounded the core guys mentioned above, such as Dave Bergman, Barbaro Garbey, Tom Brookens, and Ruppert Jones. All these guys played their bit parts well, teaming up with one or more of the other bit parts to create an excellent hybrid player at every position. It wasn’t the first time multiple platoons had been used to win a championship, but I would guess that it is the pinnacle of the use of that strategy. Sixteen players had over 100 at-bats, and twelve of those sixteen had over 200. More importantly, the great majority of that bat-wielding horde had what was for them a very good year. I imagine Johnny Grubb as the mythical captain of the bit-part players, because by 1984 he had already been a platoon player for over a decade. He turned 36 that season and had certainly given up thoughts, if he’d ever had them, of being a full-time superstar. He’d stopped seeking his fame and fortune, looking for a pot of gold. He seems to have been a guy who learned that you play your role, however small, and you play it well. Maybe that way you find connection.
I was released from custody in time to join the line of people waiting to board the plane to New York City. That line dissolves in my memory into another line, one I stood on the very next day, outside a UPS office in Hell’s Kitchen. A cold November wind was blowing off the Hudson. The rest of the people on the line were like me, a little shabby, shivering, jobless. All of us had seen a notice in the paper that UPS was hiring temporary holiday help.
College was over. My shot at a post-college adventure was over. I stood there in a line that stretched around the corner, still wearing my grease-stained 10-dollar army jacket, waiting for someone to open the door.
(to be continued)
I have no memory of anyone named Jeff Terpko. You’d think a baseball player from the 1970s who never registered in the mind of someone obsessed with 1970s baseball might be somewhat inconsequential, but it turns out this is not the case. In fact, if I had to boil down to one sentence this endeavor of looking for inspiration and amusement in my shoebox of childhood cards, I might say “No one is inconsequential.” Everyone has a story. Jeff Terpko, for example, had been around for quite a while at the time of this 1977 card, many years and small cities listed in his complete major and minor league pitching record. Right in the middle of Jeff Terpko’s long meandering story, after the listings of his stops in Geneva, Buffalo, Pittsfield, Burlington, Greenville, and Burlington again, is a line at Spokane that has no numbers but just the words “DID NOT PLAY.” I’ve seen this before and have never understood what it means, exactly, and have only wondered what life must have been like for those going through years like that. Terpko was 23 in that year, six years into a pro baseball career and without a taste of the majors, six years of making just enough to eat gas station sandwiches during spine-numbing bus rides. But on he went the next year, going in one year from Pittsfield to Spokane to, as the front of the uniform shown here would have it spelled, TexaS. He spent the year after that entirely in Spokane, but then in 1976 seemed to stake his claim on a major league career by pitching solely for the Rangers, appearing in 32 games and posting an admirable 2.38 ERA. That promising number is at the lower right of the back of the card. At the upper left of the card is an enigmatic line that could be interpreted as the opposite of unequivocal promise:
“Acq: Traded Player, Ret’d by Phillies. 4-10-71″
Here’s the full transaction, courtesy of Jeff Terpko’s page on baseball-reference.com:
November 3, 1970: [Jeff Terpko was] traded by the Washington Senators with Greg Goossen and Gene Martin to the Philadelphia Phillies for a player to be named later and Curt Flood. The Philadelphia Phillies sent Jeff Terpko (April 10, 1971) to the Washington Senators to complete the trade.
So finally, through the seemingly inconsequential and absurd figure of a player to be named later turning out to be a player already named, we reach the realm of history, or at least what could be considered a footnote to history. I am referring to that most notable player involved in the Terpko for Terpko trade: Curt Flood. Before being involved in the trade that featured two teams treating Jeff Terpko like a bad luck charm, Curt Flood was involved in arguably the most important transaction in baseball history, a trade between the Cardinals and the Phillies that Curt Flood refused to accept. His refusal to report to the Phillies set in motion the end of the reserve clause in major league baseball, a clause that had allowed teams to treat players like chattel (or like Jeff Terpko) for decades. Flood’s good major league career was basically brought to an end by his taking a stand, but the trade listed above did allow him to have a few final largely ineffective at-bats with the Senators in 1971, a season that proved to be a footnote to what eventually came to be seen, because of his brave and self-sacrificing stand, as a historic career.
A footnote to that footnote to that footnote shows that Terpko had a knack for ghosting peripherally at the edges of careers of guys taking stands. Later he was traded for Rodney Scott, who in turn, some years later, was released by the Montreal Expos, which caused Expos teammate Bill Lee to stage a one-man strike against the team. If I remember correctly, Lee first bolted from the stadium before a game to drink beer and play pool for a few innings, though I think he did return when he thought he might be needed in relief. I think the next day he went into the general manager’s office and sat there chanting in a lotus position until the general manager arrived and told him his services would no longer be needed.
Terpko’s exit from the majors happened a few years earlier and was more conventional. He entered a June 2, 1977, game in the sixth inning against the New York Mets. His team, the Expos, was down 6-3. He walked Len Randle, allowed Len Randle to steal second, got Felix Milan to fly out, then walked the bases full and was yanked from the game and never called on again.
As with the collecting of baseball cards, my brother preceded me as a clerk at 8th Street Wine and Liquor. He found a listing for the job at the NYU employment center and worked there throughout college, then when he was tapering off at the store I started my ragged tenure. Years later, after I’d come and gone at the store, he needed extra money and started picking up some shifts here and there. One night as he entered the store, which by then was on its last legs and almost always empty of customers, the owner and my brother’s coworker for the night were sitting at the desk in the back, site of almost all the billion bullshitting sessions that made that place into one of the best shelters from the relentless passing of time I have ever known (I feel the urge to digress as I talk about it—even talking about it in the first place is a digression, for I meant to speak only and briefly and pointedly about last night’s Red Sox-Rangers game, but sometimes the passing of time seems too cruel and I digress from the point before I even take one step toward making it and no wonder I end up talking about the liquor store, site of years of digression, of sideways expansion, of ingrown soulnails, not just for me but for many other aimless young men who passed months and years leaning on a broom and pretending to know something about wine, and for that reason it should be a historical landmark, or maybe an anti-historical landmark, a shrine to a place where nothing ever really happened, but instead it closed years ago and after a lingerie store came and went the site is now a Korean manicure joint with no trace of the old store visible), and heard the owner, Morty, a World War II combat veteran, speaking quietly, even tenderly, to the young man across the desk from him. My brother, hearing what was being said, paused with his hand on the open door in the classic gape-mouthed fashion of a lowbrow sitcom.
“Listen, Petey,” the owner was murmuring. He reached one of his combat-toughened mitts across the desk. “I too have shit my pants.”
The monotony of it all. Stand up, sit down, eat, sleep, shit. I have to shave again soon. I have to go buy bread. I have to put on my shirt and bent-brim hat and pants. I have to pretend I’m in the middle of something and not failing, getting older, drifting toward the margins. Nearing an inconsequential release. I’ve seen all the episodes. Everything’s a rerun. An infinite loop. No beginning or end. No story at all. And you’re asking me to smile?
I never picked up a woman in a bar, or anywhere else for that matter. For years I went to bars every weekend, praying something would happen, but I just got drunk and stared. I stared at the jukebox lights, at the bottles behind the bar, at my own reflection in the mirror behind the bottles, at whatever increasingly creeped-out women happened to be within eyeshot. It hadn’t been much different earlier, in high school and college. It’s something of a miracle that I ever escaped virginity. Once in a while I shoved poetry at women, but this only worked once, in China, with a woman who didn’t have a very strong grasp of English.
Maybe I should have, as I am learning to do now, looked to my baseball cards for guidance. This 1975 card would have been a good place to start. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision Don Stanhouse in this same pose in a 1970s nightspot, his bent right elbow not faking a follow-through but leaning on the back of a pleather booth filled with tipsy secretaries.
“Hey ladies,” Don Stanhouse croons, neck medallions dangling, “how you all feelin’ tonight?”
Dock Ellis seemed to add an exclamation point to every moment he was ever involved in. I just wanted to take a moment on this Sunday afternoon to thank him for all those exclamation points, and to wish him the best. As reported in today’s New York Post (link provided by Baseball Think Factory), Dock Ellis is in a situation his wife calls “a matter of life and death.” Every so often, especially upon hearing somber, sobering news like that, I wonder why my life has come to center around the thin rectangular representations of baseball players from three decades ago. Sometimes I think it’s a strange mid-life crisis. Sometimes I think I’m slowly, publicly losing my marbles. But maybe I just have a need to connect to a time that, thanks to Dock Ellis and all the others, felt as wild and weird as a Jimi Hendrix solo screaming though the acid-dazzled brain of an unhittable major-league pitcher.
Sunday I found a Steve Howe card in the mud. Monday, I wrote about it, and while I was doing so I discovered that it was the second anniversary of Steve Howe’s death. The coincidence made me wonder if I was part of some wider, unfathomable plan. Maybe there’s something beyond the self. Maybe there’s a wholeness surrounding all our ripped, scattered pieces. I don’t know. Tuesday I went to work. It takes quite a while to get there. A long walk up Western Avenue, a wait, a train, another wait, a bus, then a short walk to the corporate complex from where the bus lets me off on Golf Road.
I work all day in a cubicle in a large room full of cubicles. I’d say the hours pass slowly, but that’s not quite accurate. I try to do a good job, and I guess I do OK; four years now and they haven’t sent me packing. But even so there’s a part of me that I learned a long time ago to tear off and toss aside on the days I punch a clock. I remember my first job, pumping gas at a Shell station on Cape Cod. There the hours passed slowly, tortuously. I hadn’t learned how to leave pieces of myself behind. That was over twenty years ago. I’ve gotten much better at it since then.
So on Tuesday the hours passed. At quitting time I shut off my computer and bolted for the door. I hustled across the parking lot and through the pack of lazy, malevolent geese that use the wide corporate lawn as their toilet, then I came to a stop at Golf Road. It can take several minutes to cross the four lanes of heavy traffic; many times I’ve been waiting for my chance to cross while my bus flew past in the farthest lane. Sometimes there are brief gaps in the traffic in the two lanes closest to me, but there are usually cars backed up on a smaller road just to my left, waiting at the long light to turn onto Golf, so any attempt on my part to make a dash to the center median would end with me getting shoveled up onto the hood of a car making a white-knuckled right on red.
But on Tuesday I was lucky. There was both a small gap and an unusual lack of cars stopped at the light, so I scuttled like a light-startled cockroach to the thin strip of concrete separating the eastbound and westbound lanes. You have to stand straight and suck in your gut on this median or risk getting disemboweled by a speeding sideview mirror. While on this median I always find myself thinking about all the many times I’ve let my mind wander while driving, the car drifting beyond the margins of the road.
I got lucky again with a second gap and scurried the rest of the way. Sometimes there’s someone already at the bus stop. There are no buildings on that side of the road, just a drab, flat nature reserve patronized solely by car-drivers with bikes, so if there’s another person waiting for a bus he or she had to do what you just did to get there, and upon your arrival the two of you exchange the sheepish glances of the hunted.
But on Tuesday I was able to enjoy in solitude my small, lucky feeling of getting across Golf Road without dying or, worse, watching the bus go by without me. I wonder if moments like these ever make it into the court proceedings in the mind of the suicide ponderer. Does the underpaid court-appointed public defender of Life ever rush disheveled in his cheap tan suit through the courtroom doors amid speeches of terrible eloquence by the dark-garbed Prosecutor on cancelled dreams and loveless nights and hopeless endless afternoons to yell “Hey, wait”–his voice cracking–”don’t you remember that time you made it through the subway doors just as they closed? Or the time you got change for a ten when you used a five? Or the time when the freezing drizzle allowed you to move down to the good seats for once in your life, so close you heard the sound of a guy sliding into third?”
Well, I don’t know if these little flickers of light ever make it into the internal To Be or Not To Be conversation. I’ve fantasized as much as the next guy about how my death would cause millions of beautiful women to weep, but for all my chronic gloominess I’ve never really stared down that awful corridor. All I know is that life is pretty much a losing proposition, so it stands to reason you should celebrate the rare victories, however small.
And so on Tuesday I had that tiny extra lift of getting across Golf Road quicker than usual and without missing a bus. I have to think this lift allowed me to look twice at one of the many pieces of trash littering the fume-sickened grass around the bus stop. Most of the time I walk through the world blindly, objects appearing before me without ever registering. But I was feeling lucky, lucky to be at the bus stop, which is not that different, really, from feeling lucky to be alive. So I was able to notice that the piece of trash had somehow, distantly, signaled to some part of my brain that it was not just a piece of trash.
And it wasn’t. It was half of a baseball card. I picked it up. For the first time in all the days I’ve spent waiting at that bus stop I studied the ground all around me. There was another ripped piece of a baseball card a few feet away, and beyond that another, and beyond that another. There were ripped pieces of baseball cards everywhere.
(to be continued)