Archive for the ‘Alan Ashby’ Category

h1

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?

***

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 125 other followers