Archive for the ‘Toronto Blue Jays’ Category

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Butch Edge

October 1, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

Butch Edge Sent Me

1980, Vermont

Nada. That was the word on the license plate of our VW Camper. It means nothing. It means Mexico. It means love. But it’s gone. The Camper, the license plate. Now we have a new blue Toyota Corolla with a license plate that doesn’t mean anything.

This morning,Mom drove the Toyota Corolla to her job, and Tom drove his old black Saab to his job. My brother is at basketball camp. Little League ended a few weeks ago, my last season. The tennis ball I’m holding doesn’t have any stories in it. Some days it helps me make whole other worlds. I throw it at the duct-tape strike zone on the garage. It hits a rut on the way back to me and caroms into the front yard, rolling to a stop in the grass. I could go get it, try again. Instead I start walking down Route 14 toward Race’s.

I buy a couple of packs and walk home. I open the packs in my room. Nada. No Red Sox, no Superheroes. Mixed in among the doubles and the checklists and the nobodies is one of the Future Stars card, for the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays are still brand new and still lose all the time.

“Butch Edge,” I say out loud.

 

2012, Chicago

I have a few small notebooks scattered around, each about the size of a pack of baseball cards. One on a table near some bills, one in a bureau near the bed, one in a drawer with my wallet and keys, one on a file cabinet next to a Future Stars card from 1980 featuring Butch Edge. I used to carry the notebooks around and jot down observations. I planned to channel all the notes at some point into Chekhovian masterworks. For a long time I lived for some vague life to come.I would be a Man of Letters, tirelessly churning the concrete details of everyday life into literature. This future hasn’t arrived. Now there’s the job, chores, a baby. The baby doesn’t sleep. At night my wife and I take turns trying to rock him into letting go of the waking world, but he keeps clinging to it fiercely, the misery of exhaustion amassing on his tiny shoulders but never completely overtaking his insatiable curiosity. Tonight after one of my failed attempts, I gather up all my little notebooks and rip out all the scribbled-on pages so as to salvage the notebooks for making grocery lists. The baby begins to cry. It’s late. I stand there in the kitchen with my hands full of disconnected observations. I feel a little tingly, disintegrating, like a Star Trek redshirt on a malfunctioning transporter pad.

1980, Vermont

Tom gets home from work first and meditates, and then he practices walking across the tightrope he strung across the inside of the garage. On my way out to the backyard, I catch a glimpse of him up there, teetering. I know he’s going to fall off because that’s what always happens, but I look away quick so the last thing I see is him still balanced a few feet above the ground, wavering, his arms straight out.

In the backyard, the sheep, Virginia, is munching grass on her side of the electric fence. Near one of the wooden fence posts, there are some of the long-stemmed wheat-looking weeds I like to pluck and chew on like a toothpick. I yank one up out of the ground. If you touch one of these stems to the electric fence you will get a jolt.

I take a deep breath, tense myself, and touch the stem to the fence.

Nada.

The fence must be shorted out again. Everything’s half-broken nowadays.

I break off a toothpick-sized stem and stick it in my mouth and pretend I’m U.L. Washington, the toothpick-gnawing shortstop for the Royals. All their guys are fast. That’s who they are. Fast and fierce and great. Who are the Blue Jays? Nada, light blue. brand new nada.


2012, Chicago

I stand at the kitchen counter, disintegrating. My baby’s crying. I look down at the little scribbled pages in my hands. What am I holding onto? As I flip them into the trash I catch glimpses. Fragments of dreams. Overheard conversations on the train. One page has some notes that I must have made while talking on the phone to Tom. The notes are about Tom’s tightrope walking. He learned to tightrope walk in 1980 as part of the skills he needed to play the lead role in the town’s production of Barnum, which climaxed with a walk across a tightrope suspended a few feet above the stage. He told me that while preparing for the role, the turning point was when he learned how he could incorporate a fall into the performance. I was going to make a big deal of this provision in my writing somehow, build a whole metaphor around it, but I never did.

He’s not with my mom anymore, and when they were together they weren’t married, but I call him my stepfather. He was there every day. I used to have night terrors as a kid. Books that cover the subject often say that these episodes featuring screaming on the part of the child are not remembered by the child, but I always remembered them. One of the ones I remember most was a later one, when they weren’t happening quite as often. Edging into the mid-’80s. The house was empty except for me and Tom. My brother must have been away at school by then, and my mom must have been on some trip. Usually, no one knew what to do with my screaming. No one could help. But Tom held my hand. It helped.


1980, Vermont

I hold out my cupped hand to Virginia across the top of the shorted-out electric fence, pretending I have a handful of grain. It’s a bad trick, but I want Virginia to come over. She does. She doesn’t complain when my palm turns out to be full of nada. She lets me scratch her forehead. She likes it. She can’t purr like a cat or lick you like a dog and her eyes are just dim black nada but she likes it and I love her.

My mom will be home soon. Lately the backseat of the Toyota Corolla is full of the bulbs of white flowers. That’s what it looks like for a second, like the car is slowly filling up with flowers, especially if I blur things by taking off my glasses. But put the glasses back on and they’re the tissues my mom cries into all the way home from her job.

2012, Chicago

My mom told me the other day over the phone that I’m a good father. But I don’t know what I’m doing. I guess she sees me being affectionate to the boy. I must have picked that up somewhere, from her, from my father, from my brother, from Tom, how it’s good to be cared for. But in general I feel like most decisions I make are mistakes. Also, my mind wanders. Earlier today, I was watching him at a playground and my mind wandered and the next thing I knew he was holding a bubonically ashen rodent carcass in his hands. I batted it away and carried him to my wife, who scoured his hands and arms with Purell. Even so, she stayed nervous the rest of the day. I was nervous too. How can you have a kid and not be ruined with anxiety every second? On the way out of the park we saw a lividly decaying bird corpse in the grass.

“That’s not a good sign, is it?” my wife said. “Things dying all over the place?”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” I said, but my mind was reeling with visions of a mean, imminent future. The future used to be new blue nada, but now? Dead mice, dead birds, poverty, scarcity, epidemic disease. The world on a tightrope, wavering.

And tonight, my son can’t fall asleep. Midnight has come and gone, 1 a.m. has come and gone, 2 a.m. has come and gone. This happens all the time. I’ve started falling asleep on my feet, leaving this world for some other for seconds at a time before partially returning, bits and pieces left behind. Waking is now a new way of disintegrating, the present a provisional intersection of fictions.


Vermont, 1980

I stop scratching Virginia on the forehead and turn to go back to the house. A man is standing there on the lawn. He looks very tired. There’s the sound, somewhere nearby, of a baby crying.

“Butch Edge sent me,” he says to me. This man has glasses. He looks a little like my father, a little like my mother.

“Butch Edge?” I say.

“Butch Edge has glasses that look like your glasses,” he says. This is true.

“Your glasses!” he says, looking just above my head and speaking louder, like Tom up on stage booming out lines from a script. “The arm of them will break off during a fight for a rebound in an eighth grade basketball game!”

“Eighth grade?” I say. That’s in the future.

“You will get other pairs of glasses,” the man says,his voice back down to a mutter like my muttering dad. Now he’s looking down at the grass like he dropped something.

“I always come back here,” he mutters, like he’s talking to himself. “I always come back to this place.”

“I’ve never seen you,” I say. He looks back up at me. The baby is still crying somewhere.

“What I can tell you about the future is that all your glasses will break, actually, one after the other, or else will just not work after a while because your eyes will keep getting worse. Your glasses will get thicker and thicker.” He looks past me. His eyes widen. “Oh. Virginia,” he says. The way he says it, softly but with his voice going squiggly, wavering, it’s like my mom.

That crying baby. I want to do something about it, but I don’t know anything about babies. I try to think about something that I know about.

“I have to go sort my cards,” I say.

I can hear the Toyota Corolla pulling into the drive. There’s a little mist of sadness over everything.

“Butch Edge,” the man says,fading into the nada, the crying.


Chicago, 2012

And the crying gets louder and I’m back at the kitchen counter in front of several small narrowed notebooks with blank pages.

“Butch Edge,” I say.

In 1979, his only major league year, Butch Edge notched three wins. The last was a complete game 3–2 victory over Hall of Famer Jim Palmer and the eventual American League champ Baltimore Orioles. For a moment, the future through thick glasses: not bad. Butch Edge.

I go into the bedroom and take the baby from my wife. I can’t get him to sleep but after a while, through nothing I’m doing or not doing, he stops crying. He loves life, hates to sleep. He reaches for my glasses and pulls them from my face and goes blurry. One of his favorite comedy routines: He takes my glasses, I call him a bully, he laughs. In my arms this being of pure laughing light, free of the future and the past, nada light blue brand new nada. I’ll never know what I’m doing. Blind I hold on.

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Alvis Woods

November 9, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

W Is for Woods

In 1979, the year this card came out, the Iran Hostage Crisis began. I came to this thought recently, when realizing that the era of parenting in my home had passed Day 100, and realizing that I had thought of it that way, as if it were being reported on the nightly news, e.g., “Day 100: Still No Sleep.”

The Iran Hostage Crisis went on through the end of 1979 and through 1980 and into 1981. It was one of my first experiences in following a news story for an extended period of time, though earlier in 1979 I had also been aware that Skylab was plummeting to the earth in chunks and that the Three Mile Island nuclear plant was oozing deadly radiation.

The best moment of Alvis Woods’ professional career had already come and gone in a flash by 1979. You can sense this in his 1979 card. He is being surrendered back into the gray from which he came.

He’d been a minor leaguer for some years when he was selected with other odds and ends in the November 1976 expansion draft that breathed mediocre life into the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays. He was the eighth player taken by the Blue Jays, who had already nabbed another outfielder named Woods (Gary) with their fourth pick. Alvis Woods didn’t get a start in the team’s first game, but he entered as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning and homered. This first big league at-bat for Alvis Woods, in the first game of a brand new team, must have passed by like lightning. I wonder what is left of the moment. Woods played for a few more seasons for Toronto, toiled back in the minors for a few more, then resurfaced for a brief stint with the Twins in 1986. He was a decent hitter, but he didn’t seem to have had any moments that would have topped that first one. What does he remember of it?

I don’t know what I’ll remember of these first months as a father. A few nights ago at dinner we set the baby down in a high chair. It was a first. To this point we have had to eat in shifts designed so that the parent who isn’t shoveling down food can hold the baby and attempt to keep him from becoming loudly and heart-breakingly unhappy, but last night we realized he was okay with sitting in his little chair even though he’s too young to really sit up on his own but okay with the slanted back of the chair propping him, so we sat at the table like humans and ate and he looked at a book made of soft cloth about bears. It was a peaceful moment. It made me want to aim my gratitude somewhere. I’ll aim it now, while thinking again of the moment, at Alvis Woods. These are the only gods I’ll ever worship, I guess. It’s been this way since I was a kid. So thank you, Alvis Woods.

A couple weeks earlier, I took the boy on a walk in his stroller to a park by the lake. Sometimes he falls into one of his exceedingly rare naps in the stroller, but this time he cried the whole way there, louder and louder. I walked faster and faster until I was trotting, then jogging, then running maniacally, because sometimes the extra jiggling calms him down, but on this day it wasn’t working. By the time we got to the park he was wailing and I wanted to tie a cinder block to my ankle and dive off the pier that extends out into where the lake gets deep. Instead, I took the baby out of the stroller and walked him around on some grass below some trees. He started to calm down and look around at the branches of the trees and some little birds hopping around from branch to branch. I sat down on a bench and got a bottle and fed it to him. It was a nice day, blue sky, mild. I was feeding my son on a bench below some trees.

I grew up surrounded by woods, but I never thought about them. Hallucinogens ingested in my late teens finally made me aware of the woods in a worshipful way. You know, like, “Wow, dude, check out those trees.” Now I stand by the window in my apartment in a city and hold my son and point at the trees on our street and say, “tree.” He stares out at them and at everything. His eyes are pure. Sometimes I feel like a hostage or like a flaming chunk of Skylab is about to fall on my head. Sometimes I want to tie a cinder block to my leg and leap into Lake Michigan. Sometimes I hold my baby and feel like it is the best moment of my life, my first at-bat, my first moment in the majors, my first game with a brand new team, my hands feeling some kind of perfect connection that will haunt me the rest of my lucky fucking days.

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Jose Canseco

April 18, 2011

Maybe it’s okay when things stop coming together. Who knows? Either way, here are some of my disappointing attempts over the last several days to write about this loaded Jose Canseco card. Nothing has really felt like it was coming together, but I have to put something down and try to move on. 

From 4/17:
Eras personified
1900-1919: Ty Cobb
1920-1945: Babe Ruth
1946-1968: Jackie Robinson
1969-1985: Reggie Jackson
1986-200?: Barry Bonds or Jose Canseco?

***
From 4/16:
Everything is provisional, faulty, impure. Every day I try to find a true sentence. Every day I feel conquered. I wish I knew what to do with this feeling. Sisyphus at least knew the particulars of his punishment. A rock, a hill. I can’t put my back into anything. No true sentences exist (not even this one). 

***
From 4/15:
I thought this morning I might start keeping track of my mistakes. This would only be fair for someone who spends so much time scrutinizing and exploiting the stats on the backs of baseball cards, those merciless numerical narratives of how far each player falls short of perfection. I made my first mistake today when I failed to spring out of bed when my alarm clock rang. I always set my alarm for very early in the morning so that I can write before I have to go to work. If I don’t write every day my days lose color and meaning, and I begin to feel like a prisoner in a pointless, exhausting life, so I try to fight it by getting up very early, thus my first mistake today, the first of my intentional or accidental diversions from my intentions, when instead of springing out of bed early I just lay there in the dark. Days begin in the cold dark and with dread, and it seems while lying in bed that the only escape from the dread is back into the warmth and oblivion of sleep. I made my second mistake when I finally did get out of bed and, while reaching for my glasses, knocked a thick biography of Charles Schulz onto the floor. This was not my intention, and it caused my wife to stir. She didn’t wake up, I don’t think, but still I didn’t intend to knock the book over, so you’d have to say it was a mistake to have done so. I don’t know if I made any mistakes with my breakfast. Probably I spilled crumbs and ate too much butter on my bread and even now cockroaches are on their way to a takeover of the kitchen and arteries are clogging in my heart, but these mistakes will have to remain unofficial for I didn’t specifically notice them. But I did notice another mistake as it was happening while I spent a long time after eating breakfast reading the Charles Schulz biography. This again came at the cost of what little writing time I have every day. But I was near the end of the book, which is 566 pages long, and so I kept reading until Charles Schulz died. I didn’t have much time left to write.    

***
From 4/14:
The Jose Canseco baseball card pictured here seems ludicrous now, the subject looking less like a human being than a misshapen and overinflated Macy’s Day parade balloon, but at the time it came out, 1998, baseball was luring droves of disenchanted fans back to the game with record-smashing barrages of the long ball, at the center of the cyclone of power several unnaturally massive bat-wielding hulks, all following in the footsteps of the Johnny Appleseed of steroids pictured here in smug repose, and few among us so much as blinked. Baseball, that pure land at the center of America, was back.

***
From 4/13:
We the people, weak, conniving, greedy, diseased in body and mind, in order to force a pure land into being will use force to trample anything in our path. We the people, addicted to purity, forever scour the land of apparent impurities, the godless and savage and monstrous, and we the people expand and enslave, never satisfied, purity forever elusive. Splits and fissures everywhere, we the people are fractured, atomized. We the people dream of the pastoral idyll of green fields and inalienable truths and baseball, every new transgression seen not as evidence of an imperfect world but as a sin against the pure ideal that, in reality, never was and never will be.

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Mike Willis

January 19, 2010

Mike Willis spent three seasons climbing the lower rungs of the Baltimore Orioles minor league system, and then he spent three more seasons stuck at the team’s Triple A affiliate in Rochester. He was a good minor league pitcher. The textual highlights on the back of this 1979 card point out that he notched a no-hitter during his first professional season, in 1972 at Bluefield, and that he led the International League in shutouts in 1974. His best season came the following year, when he went 14-8 with a 2.57 ERA for a Rochester squad that finished nearly 30 games above .500.

The success of that Rochester squad suggests the major reason for Mike Willis’ extended minor league limbo: the Orioles of that era were loaded with talent above, below, and beside him, especially in the pitching department. On the big club from 1974 through 1976, when the team finished second, first, and fourth in the A.L. in team ERA, the Orioles featured 20-game-winners Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Wayne Garland, and Mike Torrez as well as long-time star Dave McNally and 18-game-winner Ross Grimsley. All of those pitchers save for Palmer were on their way out with the Orioles, but unfortunately for Mike Willis the Orioles’ system was stocked with potential replacements. As he continued to win games in front of the Rochester faithful, he was passed over for promotion to the big club by three fellow (and younger) starting pitchers who would, with Palmer, form the core of a rejuvenated Orioles staff in the late 1970s and early 1980s: Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez, and Scott McGregor. Willis’ numbers at Rochester were good enough that you have to think that he began to wonder what those guys had that he didn’t have.

Perhaps doubt began to creep in. In 1976, for the first time in his professional career, his ERA edged above 4, though he still managed to win twice as many games as he lost (12-6). In November of that year, the Orioles left him unprotected for the Blue Jays/Mariners expansion draft. In this draft of guys that other teams could live without, Mike Willis went 55th, right before Puchy Delgado.

He lasted a handful of seasons with the Jays, splitting time between the majors and the minors. On the big club, he racked up three times as many losses as wins, which isn’t surprising given that the Blue Jays’ winning percentages during the Mike Willis Era were .335, 366, .327, .414, and .349. This 1979 card captures him in the midst of these years of constant defeat. His contorted face and body do not give off an aura of power or confidence (unlike, say, a similar moment in a Nolan Ryan card from a year later) but rather of great effort and limitations and a gnarled and irreducible cyst of hope. The world passes you by. The world lambasts your ineffective junk. You wind and twist and try again, your stuff thin smoke and fractured mirrors, magic and luck all but gone. You keep throwing. As long as they put a ball in your hand, you throw.

In 1982, Mike Willis, apparently no longer wanted by the Blue Jays, got work with the Oklahoma City 89ers, a Phillies affiliate. His ERA that season was an even 7.00, and the 89ers, a collection of fading veterans surrounding prospect Julio Franco, went 43-91. Astoundingly—considering the ERA and the help around him, or lack thereof—Mike Willis finished the season with a winning record of 7-6. This last morsel of luck proved to be of little use: It was over. As several of his former Rochester teammates were rolling to the 1983 World Series title in Baltimore, Mike Willis was beginning life out here with the rest of us, empty-handed.

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Steve Staggs

September 23, 2009

Steve Staggs 78

Not much going on in the way of a race for the pennant in 2009, save for a late surge by the Minnesota Twins that has narrowed the Detroit Tigers’ lead in the A.L. Central to 2.5 games. Barring the always possible total collapse by any of the other playoff frontrunners, the schedule for October is pretty much set, which leaves the drama of the last couple weeks of the season to individual races and the possible setting of seasonal records. In the National League, the likelihood of a Triple Crown by the best player in the game, Albert Pujols, seems remote considering Hanley Ramirez’ 22-point lead in the race for the batting title. Meanwhile, the player who should be as much as a shoo-in for MVP honors in the A.L. as Pujols is in the N.L., Joe Mauer (.373), seems to be in good position to surpass Bill Dickey and Mike Piazza’s shared mark for the highest batting average ever recorded by a catcher (.362).

And at the other end of the spectrum from budding All-Time greats Pujols and Mauer chasing down the accomplishments of legendary figures from baseball’s past, there is Brent Lillibridge attempting to free himself from the clutches of the ghosts of obscurity and impotence on the following list:

1. Steve Staggs, 1978 Oakland A’s 97
2. Mike Fischlin, 1978 Houston Astros 95
3. Eddie Lake, 1941 St. Louis Cardinals 92
4. Brent Lillibridge, 2009 White Sox 90
5. Lou Camilli, 1971 Cleveland Indians 89

The numbers at the right of the list refer to the players’ plate appearances in the listed season, and inclusion on the list rests solely upon the persisting inability throughout the season to push a single teammate across home plate via a base hit, walk, hit-by-pitch, fielder’s choice groundout, sacrifice bunt, or sacrifice fly (thanks to Joe Stillwell of STATS for passing the list along to me). Lillibridge’s latest chance to alter the zero under “RBI” in his season totals came several days ago, on Friday, when he pinch-hit late in an 11-0 loss to the Kansas City Royals. He struck out looking. The effort, or lack thereof, nudged him past Lou Camilli and into fourth place on the all-time list of RBI-less guys.

Lillibridge at least has the memory of driving in a run in a major league game, something that the player he just passed did not have at the time of his record-threatening season in 1971 (which actually did set the American League mark at the time). In 1969 and 1970, Camilli had preceded his 1971 haplessness with 15 and 17 plate appearances, respectively, without an RBI. In 1972, in his 151st career plate appearance, he finally broke through by grounding into a forceout of Ray Fosse at second base in such a dynamic, powerful way that the runner at third, Alex Johnson, was able to lumber across the plate for a run. Camilli added two more RBI to his career record before passing from the major league veil.

Eddie Lake, whom Lillibridge seems to have a decent chance of surpassing, was, like all the others on the list, primarily an infielder, but perhaps because he was not only an infielder but an infielder in the middle of the century named Eddie, he seems to have escaped the defining fecklessness of the list. If you were an infielder in the middle of the century named Eddie, you by law had to make yourself useful by drawing a prodigious number of walks. A few seasons after Eddie Lake’s 1941 campaign without an RBI, he fell in line with serial-walking, infielding contemporaries Eddie Yost, Eddie Stanky, and Eddie Joost and recorded three straight seasons of over 100 bases on balls.

While Lillibridge seems unlikely to follow in Eddie Lake’s jogging-toward-first footsteps, he could do worse than Mike Fischlin, who after having a start to his career that was almost as unproductive as Lou Camilli’s (he knocked in a run in his 126th career plate appearance) kicked around for several more seasons (he lasted ten years in all) as a utility infielder.

All things considered, the one player Brent Lillibridge most wants to avoid mimicking is the player pictured at the top of this post, Steve Staggs, who in his 1978 card seems to not only have some preternatural awareness of the season to come, but of the darkness beyond that dusk. After failing to drive in a run throughout 1978, Steve Staggs’ major league career ceased.

*     *     *

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

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Doug Ault

December 19, 2008
 
Untitled

Middle row, fifth from the right. I think that’s Doug Ault. It’s the only trace I have of him in my collection besides his name on the back of this card. It’s one of the few names with a blank box next to it. As the summer of 1978 went on and all the other boxes on the back of this card started to fill, I must have begun dwelling on Doug Ault’s name and the empty box next to it.

***

Four years ago this Monday, Doug Ault left a note for his wife in their kitchen. It’s the kind of note you never want to find.

“Look in my car. Doug.”

***

If my brother didn’t have doubles of a Doug Ault card that I could try to trade for, then the only other method I could employ to try to fill in the box next to Doug Ault’s name was to wish for him, to believe that he existed even though I couldn’t see him, to believe he somehow knew he was needed, to believe he was somehow being pulled in the direction of that need, to the middle of nowhere where I was.

***

Doug Ault was the first Toronto Blue Jay to homer, doing so in the first inning of the team’s inaugural game. Two innings later, he hit the second home run in franchise history. What must it have felt like to connect that second time? Ault had played a few homerless games in the major leagues the year before, with the Texas Rangers, but they’d left him unprotected for the expansion draft. After his Opening Day barrage, he would hit only fifteen more home runs in his career and be out of the majors by 1980.

But forget what came before and what followed.

Doug Ault is rounding the bases, a member of a team that had not even existed the year before, that had come into existence wanting him, naming his name in the expansion draft, and he’d hit two home runs in his first two at-bats. His whole body must have been buzzing as he rounded first, then second, then third, as he reveled in the roar, as he stomped on the plate. Here I am, motherfuckers! Doug Ault! Home!

***

Why did I wish for cards I didn’t have when I was a kid? Why do I hold on so tightly even now, thirty years later, to the cards that I do have?

I don’t really know. But I know there are good moments, moments of connection, moments of feeling at home in this world. I also know there are moments that aren’t even moments but empty boxes next to your name. The emptiness within the borders of that box is bottomless. You feel your name being pulled toward it. You feel like you don’t have the strength to fight the pull.

If you have something, anything, to hold on to, hold on.

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Alan Ashby

December 17, 2008
 Untitled 
I was born into losing. This may seem like a particularly glum and self-pitying thing to say, but facts are facts: I was the younger sibling of an athletically able boy who would always be older, bigger, and stronger than me. This may not have had such an impact on my sporting won-loss record had my family remained throughout my childhood in kid-glutted suburban New Jersey, where I was born, but just as I was getting old enough to be able to perform sports-related tasks, such as throwing and catching a ball, my family moved to rural Vermont, where the great majority of the time the only game in town was the one that pitted me against an older, bigger, stronger boy.

***

During the Cardboard Gods era, i.e., the heavy card-collecting years of my childhood, i.e., 1975–1980, the 100-loss plateau was surpassed nine times. The Tigers, Expos, Braves, and A’s all had a season during that span in which they suffered over 100 losses; the Seattle Mariners had two such seasons; and the team of the player featured here, the Toronto Blue Jays, lost over 100 games not once, not twice, but thrice. And they weren’t even in existence for the first two years of the era.

***

Perhaps because I was born into losing, I spent a lot of time fostering fantasies of victory. I was willing and able to do this on my own, but I loved when my brother joined me, either as we rooted for the same team to win or as we bounded around our big side-yard pretending to be key members of the same winning team. Our baseball team was the Boston Red Sox, but when the weather started getting cold and the trees turned skeletal we shifted our attention to football. The only channel we got reception for that showed football was CBS, which featured the Dallas Cowboys nearly every week. They usually won. After those wins, we’d go out into the cold fading day and for a little while pretend to be Roger Staubach and Drew Pearson connecting for touchdown after touchdown.

***

A look at the Toronto Blue Jays’ 1977 roster might lead one to believe that the team’s executives decided to field a team of players that just happened to fall to them, like a collection of damaged drifters who all end up in the same run-down coastal outpost, drinking tequila shots at tables for one and nervously keeping an eye on the door. But in fact the team was built with a conscious plan and not by mere apathetic passivity. The plan may well have had a long-term element to it, especially considering that within a decade of their birth the Blue Jays would be contending for division titles, a development their fellow 1977 expansionists, the Mariners, fell far short of attaining. But whether there was a long-term element to the plan or not, the existence of trades made by the team in its early moments shows that the franchise was not merely naming players when forced to by the expansion draft but was seeking out players on other rosters and actively devising ways to bring those players onto their own roster. It seems, through this lens, that the Blue Jays decided that if they were going to have any structural integrity at all they would have to make sure to have able catchers, those players often referred to as “backbones” of teams. The first trade they ever made, for a player to be named later, was to acquire veteran catcher Phil Roof. The first trade they ever made where they actually had someone on hand to offer in return came about a week later in an Expansion Day trade of Al Fitzmorris for Doug Howard (who would never play a game for the Blue Jays) and Alan Ashby. Ashby would serve as the team’s first regular catcher, the first backbone, the first rock upon which the tower of the franchise would be built.

***

Ashby became an official member of the team just as it was starting to get cold, in November, the time of year that found my brother and me pretending to be Staubach and Pearson. My brother always eventually grew bored with that shared side-yard fantasy. He either quit to go climb deep into one of his science fiction books or decided it was time we played against one another. Our one-on-one matches went the same way in every sport we played, but they were stripped to their grimmest essence in the wake of the Staubach-to-Pearson fantasies. I’d punt the ball to my brother and he’d Robert-Newhouse through me for a touchdown, then he’d punt the ball to me and I’d have it for a few seconds before he grabbed me, ripped the ball from my hands, tossed me aside like a candy bar wrapper, and ran for another touchdown under the cold gray sky.

***

Alan Ashby went on to play for seventeen years in the major leagues, most of those seasons as the on-field shepherd of the often-dominating Houston Astros pitching staffs of the early 1980s. But he never caught more games or logged more at-bats than in that first long season with the Blue Jays. As mentioned earlier, the catcher is often thought of as the backbone of a team, but the catcher is also a team’s most intimate witness. The catcher can see all the other players on the field at all times, and unlike the three outfielders who also have a comprehensive view the catcher is involved in every play at close range. All season long Alan Ashby had the best view of the daily pummeling the team was sustaining, run after run stomping down on the plate in front of him as he held his mask in his hand, doing nothing because there was nothing to do. The photo shown in the 1978 card at the top of this page shows this witness to monumental failure looking a little guarded, a little sad. An aura of powerlessness emanates from his bunched shoulders and placid, introspective features. But there must be in this photo evidence of a tenacious will, too. A full ten years after presiding over the 107-loss season, a 35-year-old Ashby recorded career highs in home runs, RBI, batting average, and just about every other offensive category. Everyone’s born into losing. Can you bear witness to the losing and continue to show up, year after year?

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

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