Archive for the ‘Loose in the Shoebox’ Category

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Pork Chop Pough

August 30, 2013

Exif_JPEG_422660 days until my next book comes out.

I have a lot of work still to do before my next book comes out. That’s why it’s 660 days from coming out and not about 365 days fewer than that, as was originally planned. Earlier this summer I officially missed the original deadline for turning in the manuscript of my book.

“Maybe I can still get everything together soon,” I said to my editor. My mental state was a little bit like that of the Henry Hill character in the latter stages of Goodfellas. Helicopters were following me. Still, I did not yet quite see that everything was falling apart.

“It sounds like you’re not that close,” he said. “Why don’t we just take our time?”

Is this exactly what he said? Probably not. But something like that. He was the reasonable person in the conversation, and I was the desperate one.

Writing a book in desperation doesn’t work so well with me. I have a lot of shredded notebooks dating back over the years to prove this. It’s better if I approach the writing playfully. The book I’m working on has grown only when I’ve been able to do this, and then whenever I try to force it forward, it stalls. It goes silent. I go silent. I start counting the days, as if I’m in prison.

It’s no way to go through life. Better to take notice of the here and now.

So here on the first day of my official countdown of the days, and before I turn to my manuscript, and as a way to try to turn to my manuscript in a playful mood, is Pork Chop Pough, who never quite made it to majors. He played in the minors for a long time. Near the end of his career he was a big part of an ESPN article on the Nashua Pride. He is asked in the article why he continues to chase a dream that appears to have expired.

“I still love the game,” he says.

In the background of the photo is my son dropping baseball cards into my guitar. The picture is a few months old. He used to do this more. My guitar was always full of baseball cards. He hasn’t done it much since. It was a little annoying to always be shaking baseball cards out of my guitar, but someday I’ll miss it, I’m sure. I’ll miss making a pork chop for him and cutting it into small pieces, like I did yesterday evening. He was out in the back of our building, playing with his grandma, my mother-in-law. He didn’t eat any of the pork chop chunks. He was too interested in wandering over to parked cars and touching the tires so that his hands turned black with tire grime. All he had on was a diaper and some sandals. He smeared his hands on his stomach.

“Good god, you’re growing up in a parking lot,” I said. I still had the plate of chopped-up pork chops in my hands.

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The Last Airbender

June 2, 2012

I have always walked a lot, and though my life has changed considerably since my son was born last year I still walk a lot, now with him strapped to my chest. I wish I could say I spend the entirety of each walk marveling down at him, and though there is always at least a little marveling, the truth is I continue for the most part to spend my walks now as I have spent them for some time: scrutinizing one glimpse of trash after another in hopes that one of these pieces of trash is actually a baseball card. As I wrote recently in an essay for Chicago Side, I’ve found a few baseball cards lying in the street over the years, but I haven’t found any in quite a while, and the actual ratio of pieces of trash scrutinized to pieces of trash that turned out to be baseball cards is so infinitesimally small as to be statistically nonexistent, similar in that regard to the ratio of planets in the universe versus the planets that support human life. So far there’s been just one and we’re on it, ruining it I guess, what with all the littering and Happy Meals. I found this card some time ago and since it was a card, albeit not a baseball card, I picked it up and brought it home. I suppose it came in a Happy Meal or something, if they still have Happy Meals. Happy Meals sprung up after I was done with childhood, so I don’t recall ever getting one. Anyway, this movie looks fucking stupid. I vaguely remember it coming out but I can’t say when. Sometime in the vague slab of years that occurred and continues to occur after the more delineated progress of time in childhood. The character featured here can bend all four elements, according to the back of the card. I can’t bend elements. But I can break wind. Ha ha ha ha ha! Right? Oh, man. Where was I? Oh yeah, walking, looking. I wish I had spent my writing time this morning working on a prize-winning short story, but this is my one life, an absurd blue miracle: walking, looking, cardboard, fart jokes.

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1976 wrapper

January 12, 2012

Here’s a little prayer to a wrapper. There was a moment a long time ago when this wrapper was fastened around a stack of brand new cards and a rectangular shard of gum. The cards were unknown. They could be any cards. Most likely the moment of possibilities was sped past, the wrapper torn open at the first touch.

Here’s a little prayer to the idea of slowing down, of waiting and listening and wondering. Days are marked inconsequentially with short bursts of shared babble. Most of this babble makes no impact before dissolving in thin air. Other babble has a narcotic hook that catches and tears at the attention momentarily. My mind is full of babble. The days go by.

Here’s a little prayer to the life behind all the babble. Here’s a little prayer to the hope that a wrapper torn open long ago might somehow enclose itself once again around a world of possibilities.

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Carl Crawford

April 8, 2011

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

Tampa Bay Rays

I intended to finish these oblique predictions by Opening Day, but my persistent failure to ably navigate the technological complexity of the modern world kicked that intention in the nuts a while ago, dropping it to the sidewalk in some pain, and so this project drags on into the first days of the 2011 season, carrying with it, inevitably, an unavoidable sense on my part of how the season is actually proceeding. When, before the season started, I first blindly pulled this shiny 2008 Carl Crawford card from a “miscellaneous” rubber-band packet in my shoebox that includes puny clumps of Diamondbacks, Rockies, Marlins, Nationals (who I keep separated from my Expos), and Devil Rays/Rays, I figured that to write about the card and about the poor bereft Rays I’d have to wrestle a partial muzzle onto my own insufferable smugness as a Red Sox fan on the brink of Without A Single Doubt What Will Be The Most Dominant Season In Red Sox History, this vision of omnipotence most concentrated in thoughts of the new left fielder, surely (so the vision went) the greatest combination of speed, competitiveness, and extra-base-smashing batsmanship to rip a gaping swath through the major leagues since Ty Cobb. On the morning of Opening Day, I predicted to my fellow Red Sox fan friend Matt that the first inning of this season of can’t-miss glory for the Red Sox would be highlighted by a sizzling Carl Crawford RBI triple. That night, I ended my periodic day-long back and forth with Matt by saying “Ah god damn it.” The Red Sox lost the next game, too, and the next and the next and the next and the next and now stand 0-6, and Carl Crawford is batting .174 with 1 run scored and no extra-base hits. Carl Crawford’s former team isn’t doing any better. They’re 0-6, too, the only other major league team besides the Red Sox without a win. The Rays’ pitching has been better than that of the generally run-hemorrhaging Red Sox’ staff, but the Rays can’t score. Two aging former Red Sox stars, Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, are at the epicenter of the ineptitude, sporting batting averages, respectively, of .053 and .059. One has to wonder if Damon and Ramirez are nearing the end, and also if the brief golden age of the Rays, forced to scavenge for fading sluggers to prop up their offense, really did vanish into thin air with the exit of the greatest player in their short history. This latter musing is roughly the gist of the prediction I’d originally intended to suggest by way of this card, but now that the season has begun with a long skein of losing for both the team Carl Crawford left and the team Carl Crawford joined, I don’t know what to say beyond the general prediction that everybody is in motion and everybody will decline and everybody can and most likely will fall more or less short.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part of 23 of 30: Read Russel Banks’ 1985 novel Continental Drift, which features a New Englander in a severe downward spiral toward rock bottom in Florida; though the book is not at all a baseball novel, it features one of the greatest “baseball cameo” scenes in literary history when the novel’s unraveling protagonist, a lifelong Red Sox fan, has an awkward and fleetingly holy chance encounter in a bait shop with Florida resident Ted Williams.

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

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Mike Kingery

March 6, 2011

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

Colorado Rockies

Mike Kingery toiled in the minor leagues for six and a half years before he got called up by the Kansas City Royals midway through the 1986 season. The Royals traded him to the Mariners, and in 1987 Mike Kingery played his first season of professional baseball entirely outside the minor leagues. The outfielder would log 10 seasons in the majors, and most players who manage to stick around that long don’t have to bother with the minor leagues after their earliest years, but after 1987 Kingery kept getting sent back down to the bushes, splitting time between there and the majors in 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992. In 1993, at the age of 32, he spent the entire season in Omaha, the Triple A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, whom Kingery had circled back around to after stints in San Francisco and Oakland. He hit .263 for Omaha with a .325 on-base percentage and a .411 slugging percentage. It was the last of his 13 seasons in the minor leagues, and if you had to guess what happened next based only on Kingery’s lifetime minor league stats, you’d have to assume that it was the last of his seasons in professional baseball anywhere. Instead, he hooked on with the Colorado Rockies and, in 1994, the year just before this card came out, Mike Kingery suddenly was able to hit practically everything thrown to him. He started showing signs that he was locked in during limited plate appearances in April, became more or less a regular in May and saw his numbers start to tail off, but then he caught fire in June and stayed blistering hot the rest of the summer. On August 11, 1994, Kingery was batting .349, behind only Tony Gwynn and Jeff Bagwell in the National League batting title race.

In this 1995 card that spotlights the outfielder’s career year, some anxiety seems to be ingrained in Mike Kingery’s face. He’s digging for an extra base, clearly, and he carries with him in this effort all his many years of experience as a journeyman clinging to the edges of major league rosters. You get thrown out trying to dig for an extra base and maybe you get a “nice hustle” from the manager, and then again maybe you get a bus ticket back to Tacoma. There’s not a lot of margin for error. There’s no way to know whether Kingery made it safely to the base he was trying for in the photo on the front of the card, but if his stunning 1994 effort could be thought of as being encapsulated by the electric moment of tenuous gain on the front of his 1995 card, then it can be said that he would never arrive at the base he was trying for, not officially, anyway. Hands would be thrown in the air, time called, and everyone on the field who had been running and whirling and throwing would suddenly slacken, looking around confused. This was, of course, the season that never really occurred, or occurred in truncated form, like an apparent triple in which time was called and the game was ended while the runner was rounding second and digging for third. It was a season that ceased with a labor disagreement, no playoffs, no World Series, the usual end punctuation for the season not an exclamation point but a question mark. The question mark attached itself to the season itself and to everyone and everything in it. Some of the individual uses of this traveling question mark are more well-known than others. Would the Montreal Expos have won the World Series and maybe then never left Montreal? Would Matt Williams have broken the single-season home run record? Would Tony Gwynn have hit .400? I doubt many people have wondered about Mike Kingery’s career year, but because it came during 1994 it has a question mark clinging to it, too, just like everything else that occurred that year.

Applying the enigmatic doubt-flecked career apex caught on this card to the fortunes of the 2011 Colorado Rockies, I’ll say that the Rockies will sail most of the way through the season on a wondrous roll, and then, in August, it will be as if a plug is pulled, all the electricity of the hot streak instantly gone. Digging for third, they will be thrown out.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 7 of 30: take some baseball instruction from Mike Kingery   

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2011 previews so far: St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Pittsburgh Pirates; Arizona Diamondbacks

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Eric Byrnes

March 5, 2011

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

Arizona Diamondbacks

I went for a run this morning. It was still kind of dark out, and it was windy and drizzling. I usually run with my Sirius-XM radio pouring the Howard Stern show into my ears, but lately I’ve been running with no babble or music (I’m trying, in general, to pay a little more attention to my life as it’s flying by; ironically, I may also have been influenced in this new way of running by Howard Stern, who practices and preaches not listening to anything while running). This morning I noticed, of all things, a small brown rabbit darting up the opposite sidewalk. A few minutes and blocks later, I saw another rabbit bolting and then freezing to a quick-breathing halt on the crushed brown grass outside an apartment complex. I didn’t know there were rabbits living in Chicago. I wonder what their life is like. They seem pretty frightened all the time. When I was a kid, I had a pet rabbit for a little while, a soft white one. He was constantly terrified, it seemed, and I didn’t feel anything for him but pity and didn’t do a very good job of keeping his cage clean. Luckily for him, he got out of his cage one day and never came back, hopefully going on to live a life of carrot-eating and wisecracking and eluding large-headed hunters with speech impediments, but more likely getting crushed by a gravel truck or macerated by coyotes. I still feel guilty for failing my rabbit. Compounding my guilt: I don’t even remember his name. I can tell you all sorts of things about the inert baseball cards I collected as a kid, but I can’t tell you the name of my rabbit.

And now all things fall away from me almost as soon as they enter my consciousness. My first instinct when looking at this card, and the reason why I started this post with a complete digression from forecasting the 2011 baseball season, is that I have nothing to say about it or the Arizona Diamondbacks at all. The card is shiny and slick, professionally rendered, soulless. If it did not feature Eric Byrnes, I would have no connection to it at all, and if Eric Byrnes had not done a couple of things over the years to make my wife laugh, repeatedly, each time the incidents were replayed getting the same laugh out of her, her laughter among my favorite things in the world, I wouldn’t have a connection to Eric Byrnes, either. But I guess I do have a connection to Eric Byrnes. I just showed this card to my wife as she was putting something into the filing cabinet next to my writing desk.

 “Recognize the guy?”

“No.” (The silver lettering of his name would be difficult to read from where she was standing.)

“Eric Byrnes?” I said.

My wife started smiling.

“The guy that slid into first?”

She was referring to the moment when the Rockies won the 2007 pennant. The focus of the moment is Todd Helton making the catch for the out at first, exulting, then centering the Rockies’ scrum, but my wife has always loved how the runner, Eric Byrnes, after his fruitless and somewhat asinine headfirst slide, remains prone for a long moment face-down in the dirt, adding a sulkingly toddler-like accent to the otherwise standard issue victory moment. Years earlier, she’d gotten the same kick out of a similar toddler moment from Byrnes, when he gave Jason Varitek a shove during a weird homeplate play in the 2003 playoffs. Anybody remember this play? Varitek was tagging Byrnes out, I think, but the disoriented Byrnes thought that he’d already been called out and that Varitek was messing with him, but the key to the humor of the play was in the harmless, petulant nature of Byrnes’ shove, the kind of thing you might see in a playground sandbox when two three-year-olds have a dispute about a shared toy.

What all this says about the fate of the 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks is a little beyond me, but I guess if I have to trust in the images that come to me while holding a baseball card and pondering the featured team’s immediate future I guess I’d have to say that the Diamondbacks’ season will be a little like the short, frightened life of a rabbit, but that maybe at the end there will be some moments that, on reflection, stand out for one reason or another, a laugh here or there, and in these slick, disappearing days you can’t ask for a whole lot more than that.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 6 of 30: take a little break from all the baseball and read Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit from the Goon Squad. This novel, my favorite work of fiction to have come out in the last couple of years, indeed has nothing whatsoever to do with baseball, but it does explore memory and the passage of time, two things that I’m often wondering about while I’m thinking about baseball (or about anything).   

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2011 previews so far: St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Pittsburgh Pirates

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Finally, here’s a video with Eric Byrnes and some laughter in it. After being released from the Mariners last year, Byrnes joined a slow-pitch softball team with his buddies. This is his first home run in his new laughing life beyond the bigs:

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Don Mossi

June 15, 2010

The concept of the muse suggests that artistic inspiration is a soaring rendezvous with some sort of personification of perfection. I’d guess that more often art struggles to its feet as a messy, necessary reply to either the grueling sameness of everyday life or to jarring, terrible deviations from that sameness. Somehow, when encountered in cardboard form, Don Mossi embodied both of these crucibles, a man whose haunting mien threw the children who gazed upon it out of the dream of a flawless baseball heaven and back into their imperfect everyday solitudes, where they would be troubled forever after by Mossi, that bringer of the news that life will not be beautiful.

The first to wrestle this specific burden of knowledge into art were Brendan Boyd and Fred Harris, who used their gifts for figurative language and hypothetical riffs to sing of Don Mossi. In their seminal 1973 work, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubblegum Book, Mossi is discussed in terms of his bullpen partnership with fellow Cleveland relief ace Ray Narleski, as if even years after his retirement the world was not quite ready to look upon Don Mossi alone: 

[Narleski and Mossi] always reminded me of two small-town undertakers who, having found the world at large a particularly cold and hardhearted place to do business in, have banded together in a desperate and distrustful partnership for the purposes of mutual self-preservation. Narleski with his sly little-boy grin and the darting, fishy eyes of the small-time criminal handles the customer relations, and Mossi with his loving-cup ears and the dark hulking presence of one newly dead or resurrected does all the dirty work. (p. 64)

 

The card used to illustrate the passage features Mossi looking particularly sepulchral in a Tigers uniform. Many years later, cartoonist Daniel Clowes recreated the card in his Eightball comic along with a caption that seemed to give voice to the most common reaction of having an image of Mossi in mind.

The most well-known rendering of Don Mossi, which includes the notion that Don Mossi was “the complete, five-tool ugly player,” comes from Bill James’ short article on the subject in his Historical Abstract, but while the “five-tool ugly” passage is hilarious, I prefer some earlier sentences in James’ piece, when he simply peers directly into the face of Mossi and describes what he sees:

Mossi’s ears looked as if they had been borrowed from a much larger species, and reattached without proper supervision. His nose was crooked, his eyes were in the wrong place, and though he was skinny he had no neck to speak of, just a series of chins that melted into his chest. An Adam’s apple poked out of the third chin, and there was always a stubble of beard because you can’t shave a face like that. He looked like Gary Gaetti escaping from Devil’s Island. (p. 245)

 

There’s just something about that face. It stays with you. It makes you want to do something. There’s no way around it: it inspires. Mike Shannon, in his book Tales from the Dugout, relates how the image of Don Mossi’s face on a baseball card led to new life and new connections, a cult of Mossi arising around a wild Cincinnati party thrown every year on his birthday and climaxing in a phone call to the man himself.

Out of all the cultural growth spawned by Don Mossi, the party related by Mike Shannon is the most touching, in that, as the co-creator of the party, Tom Jackson, relates, the party “started out mocking Mossi, but as it went on year after year he became a hero, sort of a folk hero. We found out he is a very decent guy, a real dedicated family man.”

Mossi was a good pitcher, too, which often seems to get overlooked when he’s mentioned (he’s been mentioned before on this very site, in an early post I did on Andy Etchebarren, and I neglected to mention Mossi’s pitching prowess, instead going for the cheap shot of calling him “the Babe Ruth of ugly”). Bill James, always on the money with this sort of thing, does call Mossi “pretty darned good,” but the praise is like a quick glimpse of the back of a card soon forgotten amid all the hours of staring queasily and with strangely tenacious fixation at the front of the card.

I for one have been staring at the front of the 1966 Don Mossi card at the top of this page for days, ever since it was very kindly given to me by a fellow baseball card fanatic named Bruce at my book-signing in San Diego this past Saturday. (Bruce does not shy away from the face of Don Mossi but, perhaps like some sort of medieval penitent believing that subjecting oneself to horrors daily might bring one closer to a holy life, has made the collecting of Don Mossi cards the center of his continuing forays into baseball card collecting.) The 1966 card is Mossi’s last, and it is Bruce’s favorite. I can’t remember Bruce’s exact thoughts on why it was his favorite, but I think part of it had to do with him being in baseball nowhere with the Kansas City A’s. He had, in his earlier years, been a member of good and, in 1954, his first year, even great teams, and now here he was, on the brink of oblivion with a team that would soon cease to exist in its current form. The theme of imminent dissolution extends to his features, which all seem to be straining to escape the general parameters of what it means to be a part of a face. Only the context of a baseball card would fix the mass in the background as the blurred image of a stadium; taken on its own, the mass seems much more like a polluted cresting wave. In moments, Don Mossi will be no more, the cubist collage that is his face swept away in a grimy riptide.

Enough, no more. Turn the card over. Go back to the beginning. To things that can be measured and understood. In 1954, Don Mossi helped win a pennant. He went 6 and 1 with a 1.94 ERA. Just above the stats for that first season of Don Mossi’s major league career is some text, including this sentence: “The vet reliever retired 27 straight batters in 8 relief appearances in 1954.”

That’s right. In his own way, and quietly, and long ago, and in lumpy fits and starts, Don Mossi set down an entire nine innings worth of batters in a row. Don Mossi was perfect.

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Honus and Hanley

May 12, 2010

I’m hitting the road this morning, bound for the east coast, so I won’t be doing any posts for the next week and a half. My first stop will be a reading at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Honus Wagner’s baseball homeland of Pittsburgh. Before I go, I wanted to quickly finish up the story I started yetserday about my trip onto the field at Wrigley.

After I got down to the field, I waited around for a while, taking a seat in a folding chair in the photographer’s section. I watched some Marlins in the cage hit rope after rope into the outfield.

Here I am, I thought. Inches away.

It was terrifying, actually, being that close to the action and thinking that in a few minutes I’d be on live TV. Eventually, the Marlins’ pregame broadcaster, Craig Minervini, appeared and chatted me up for a few seconds before rushing off to continue his preparations. He was a friendly motormouth, and within seconds somehow communicated that he loved baseball cards, loved Strat-O-Matic, and loved the same Cheryl Tiegs fishnet bathing suit photo that ruled my fantasy life in the late 1970s.

A few more minutes passed, and I watched Craig race through the first segments of his pregame show. Everybody was so blasé all around me. The guys behind the TV cameras, the photographers next to me, setting up, the giant-haunched baseball players sauntering around on the green grass like vaguely immortal minotours. This happened every day for all of them. Brad Stevens, the boy genius who coached Butler to the NCAA finals, threw out the first pitch. I was the only one in my vicinity of bored pros who clapped for him. Finally Craig waved me over, and I sat in a folding chair so close to him that if I were any closer I’d be behind him, and for a few minutes Craig carried me along on a tidal wave of polished cheerful banter. I don’t remember much. I think I called Joe Wallis a hippie. Then it was over. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Craig thanked me for coming on and wished me luck on the book, then he rushed off. I asked the sound guy, a genial, slightly bedraggled young man named Pogo, what happens next.

“Where do I go?” I said.

“Hm, man, I don’t know,” he said, scratching his head.

At that exact ambiguous moment the PA system asked everyone to stand, which when translated to people already standing on the field means “everybody freeze.” A moment of silence for Ernie Harwell and Robin Roberts was held. The Marlins, knowing the drill, had emptied their dugout and were standing in a line, facing the flag.

I was the last guy in this line. All the players standing with their caps over their hearts, and then me, disheveled and bug-eyed, holding a copy of my book like I’d somehow daydreamed so severely through a usual Josh Wilker day that I’d ended up mistaking the Florida Marlins for a library checkout line. I hadn’t recognized most of the Marlins, but I certainly recognized the player directly in front of me, an arm’s length away.

The moment of silence ended, and then a guitarist and saxophone player performed the national anthem. I was loving America and feeling weird, standing at awkward attention right behind Hanley Ramirez, one of the five or ten best baseball players on the globe.

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Please have fun with the archives on this site while I’m gone, or better yet, curl up with a nice book!

Also, I’ve got a guest post up at my old writing friend Dory’s blog, In This Light, that wonders if all good things begin by goofing around. And there should be interviews with me going up at soon at Bronx Banter and This Week In New York.

Welp, as my friend Bill used to say, see in the future or see you in the pasture. Or maybe I’ll see you at a reading. Please check out the book tour page for details, and note that the start time for the May 13 reading in Manhattan has moved from 7:00 to 7:30.  Here’s a flyer for the event:

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1970-Most Valuable Players

December 22, 2009

The most popular movie of 1970 was Airport, a star-studded disaster film, and the biopic Patton was the most honored film at the Oscars, but to me the most interesting movies that came out that year, in terms of understanding the time, are Woodstock, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Joe. The first movie, Woodstock, is the most well-known, a concert film that presented the hippie subculture for public consumption. The Age of Aquarius was also near the center of the Peter Boyle vehicle Joe, which follows the story of a reactionary proto-Archie Bunker blue collar worker who turns into a hunter of hippies. As for Beneath the Planet of the Apes: it was about a horrific world in its last thrashing moments before complete annihilation. A disturbing toxic landfill of a movie, Beneath fell well short of the critical and popular success of its predecessor, Planet of the Apes, but somehow with its disfigured mutants and atomic terror and narrative disorientation it manages to offer an acute portrait of the spiraling uneasiness of that first year of the decade, which saw the breakup of the Beatles, the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and the Kent State Massacre. In 1970, the world felt a little shaky to everyone.

In 1970 I was still a few years away from balancing uncertainty and nightmares with a worship of baseball players, but if I had been old enough I would have taken comfort in the rocklike solidity of Boog Powell and Johnny Bench. I did take solace in both of those individuals anyway by the mid-1970s, when I started buying cards, in part because a bit of their history came to me in this card celebrating their 1970 MVP awards. They had been around for a while by the time I came along, and this felt good. There was gravity in their names. Boog. Bench. They made the world seem sturdy, durable.

Years later, when I was a young man, I watched Beneath the Planet of the Apes for the first time, on video, then stepped out onto the seventeenth story balcony of the apartment where I’d watched the movie and felt a powerful wave of vertigo. The movie, which ends with the white light of atomic bombs, had tapped into some deep insecurities I’d always had about the essential flimsiness of life, and the balcony seemed small and unsafe, though in truth at that moment I would have felt unsafe anywhere.

The moment of panic abated but never fully disappeared, not really. When I was a kid I had an inherent belief that the world was well-made and ably steered by adults who knew what they were doing. Now that I’m an adult I know all too well the potential for mistakes in everything.

It extends everywhere, even to the world of greatest solidity, my baseball cards. Take this card for the 1970 MVPs. Did they even deserve the MVP awards? In the American League, Powell had very good year, but it was decidedly less productive offensively than that of Carl Yastrzemski, and Yaz even stole some bases that year and aided his team by being flexible and splitting his estimable fielding skills between left field and first base as the team needed. Over in the National League, Bench finished behind Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez in slugging percentage and was not among the top ten in on-base percentage. (Bench was arguably the greatest fielding catcher who ever lived, which coupled with his significant offensive production lends legitimacy to his award, but the stat-heads among us might think that his glovework and leadership did not entirely make up for a tenth-place league finish in adjusted OPS.)

Anyway, my unease in the world, my adultness, even my vague understanding of “adjusted OPS,” has its repercussions. I’m a tentative, cautious cipher. Sometimes in the morning I say something to myself that’s vaguely related to a prayer. I wonder if something unusual and amazing will happen during the day. It feels as if it never does. Each day for me is sealed shut somehow. Within the confines of it I have my pleasures, and even once in a while experience something like joy, but is there ever the sense of shattering newness?

I think I used to be closer to a kind of life that would let in the strange light I seem to be lacking. When you’re younger, you stumble into adventures. The truth is, I don’t want adventures. I don’t want to have to rescue someone from a building or invite an unshowered wino to sleep on my couch. I barely even want to have a conversation with anyone. I like my bubble. Leave me alone.

But still, there’s that wondering about newness. It’s partly a request for it and partly a request that it stays away. The train I ride travels along the highway for a while, and yesterday it came to a station stop right next a woman crying inside a car stopped on the shoulder beside the passing lane, the front of the car caved in. I don’t want that kind of newness. But it’s coming. One way or another, it’s coming. This bubble will burst.

I first started writing about this card a couple months ago, believe it or not, after hearing Boog Powell mentioned during a radio broadcast of the Phillies’ pennant-clinching win over the Dodgers. Chase Utley, the Phillies second baseman, had tied with Boog Powell for the record of consecutive playoff games in which he had gotten on base. Utley then got on base in the first game of the World Series and now has the record all to himself, which means we’ll all have less of a chance of hearing the name Boog Powell as we go about our daily rounds.

I for one was glad to hear the name. I always have been, ever since I first read it on a baseball card, the newness of it sending a thrill through my body, a message that new things are OK, that everything will be OK, that the world yet to come will be—ah, you know what? I probably didn’t think any of those things, not really. I’m just trying to reach for something literary and elevated before trudging off through the snow to a train that I hope doesn’t derail. But it’s true: the name Boog did once comfort and thrill me. Still does, just a little. Boog.

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James Stewart

November 19, 2009

It’s been a while since I’ve seen the first Bad News Bears movie, but I believe that in both The Bad News Bears and The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, Kelly Leak first appears on screen while operating a motorcycle. That’s how I remember it anyway, though I can’t be certain that there’s not an earlier scene in the first one in which he displays some evidence of immense baseball skills—I think he unleashes a Dwight Evans-caliber throw from beyond the outfield—and in that instance he’s not on a motorcycle, or maybe it’s the same scene and he dismounts the bike to make the throw. (Guess I need to watch that flick again.)

(But speaking of that throwing arm: why is this arm never considered for use on the pitcher’s mound? In both films, the team’s primary on-field crisis centers on a glaring lack of pitching depth, the face of this crisis being the horrifically inept efforts of lob-balling mopup man and nap aficionado Rudi Stein. What, it never occurred to anyone to ask Kelly to burn a few in there? Any kid who ever spent a moment playing little league could tell that Kelly belonged to the species of little leaguers who were just bigger and stronger than everyone else, and those kids always pitched, and threw hard, and either struck you out or hit you in the knee and made you cry as you limped to first because it hurt so much.)

Anyway, the point is, Kelly Leak, the coolest of all charismatic brooding loner heroes, announces early on, by being astride a motorcycle, that he comes directly from the heart of the rebellious, questing version of the American Dream. Brando in The Wild One. Hopper and Fonda in Easy Rider. Even, in decidedly tamed form, the Fonz in Happy Days.

Kelly, with his flat expression and apparent outsider status, showed himself to be among those older heroes of youthful adventurousness and alienation, but to that he added an element that expanded the range of the motorcycle rebel icon: he could do stunts. The stunts furthermore showed both that he was an athlete of almost mystical powers and that he had a daring disregard for his own safety. In this way he merged a bit of the flash and spectacle of real-life 1970s motorcycle icon Evel Knievel with counterculture cool, and he also foretold a growing trend in youth sports and in the greater culture: the rise of “extreme” action sports.

Which brings us to today’s card, which I found on the sidewalk a few months ago as I was hoofing it up Western Avenue to catch the Blue Line train. It appears to have come as an insert in a Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine. I doubt it somehow slipped from the grasp of a loving collector of Motocross Rider cards, because, for one thing, I doubt there are very many devoted collectors of any kind of cards anymore, and for another, any kid interested in Motocross Riders is probably more likely to want to actually do sports than to be a spectator and collector and dreamer of sports.

In addition to being a spectator and collector and dreamer of sports, I always liked to play sports, too, but despite being a loner (or maybe in part because I was a loner who otherwise didn’t have much of a social life outside of sports) I preferred team sports. The only solitary sport I participated in was cross-country skiing, which I liked more than downhill skiing in large part because of my inherent cautiousness. I never could have been like Kelly Leak or the “Supercross” champion shown here, James Stewart. Once, the Kelly Leak of my grade, Mike Heyder, came over to my house with his minibike, and I was too terrified of it to even try going ten feet across the soft grass of our side yard. Another brush with “action sports” came when I begged and pleaded for a birthday gift of “The Shark,” a yellow plastic skateboard in the Sears catalogue, but when I got it, after the surging thrill of holding the mysterious object in my hands and listening to the ball-bearing whir of the red rubber wheels as I spun them, I was barely able to stand on the thing for fear of flying off of it and shattering my skull.

(Ironically, years later, after a childhood and young adulthood of assiduously avoiding physical risks, I’d fly off a cliff while ten seconds into my first attempt at mountain biking, but that’s a whole other long story that also relates tangentially to Kelly Leak et al.)

They made a remake of The Bad News Bears a few years ago, which I saw with my friend Pete, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a single thing about it beyond a sense that it was not awful and that it was utterly unnecessary. Also, I recall that it was set in the present day, which makes the involvement of a Kelly Leak character highly improbable. These days, if Kelly Leak got the urge to participate in organized sports, he could apply his talent and daring to any number of “extreme” pursuits. He could be Tony Hawk (who, I believe, loved baseball but quit it to devote himself to riding structural cousins of The Shark). He could be James Stewart, Motocross Rider. He could be the Kelly Leak that existed before the beginning of the first Bad News Bears movie, never venturing inside the confines of the little league field.

I guess more athletic options for kids can’t be a bad thing, but in light of the above discussion it saddens me nonetheless. How can baseball survive the loss of Kelly Leak?

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1979 Stolen Base Leaders

November 3, 2009

Stolen Base Leaders 1979

I wonder if Willie Wilson will pop some champagne during game six of the World Series tomorrow night when floundering Phillies slugger Ryan Howard inevitably flails at his next third strike like a drowsy man trying to kill a bumblebee with a sledgehammer. For twenty-nine years, Wilson has held the World Series record for strikeouts, with twelve, a record that Howard tied last night, in one fewer game than it took Wilson to amass his ignominious dozen. Howard’s record-tying failure came just moments after another World Series record was tied, the incredible, Pat-Riley-haired, oddly robotic Chase Utley matching Reggie Jackson’s exalted mark of five home runs in a single series. The adjacent placement of Utley and Howard in the Phillies batting order has to give a huge edge to Howard in the race to see which Phillie is able to set a World Series benchmark. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Chase Utley sees a pitch within several acres of the strike zone, what with the tall pile of swing-and-miss looming behind him in the batter’s box.

Of course, Howard is no slouch, and there’s always the possibility that he’ll snap out of it. I am hoping that he does, and not only because I’m rooting for the Phillies. I have always had a soft spot for guys who go into huge, sad-faced slumps in the World Series with everyone watching. Baseball is a game of slumps and streaks, and everyone goes through them, but in the heightened atmosphere of the World Series these slumps summon the sullen gravity of tragedy, forever defining the poor mortal who has lucklessly stumbled into them. The first time I remember having a sharpened awareness of one of these slumps was in 1980, with Willie Wilson, who kept feebly waving at pitches all the way up until the final out, when his feckless lunge at a Tug McGraw offering sparked the first World Series celebration in Phillies history.

Though in some ways Wilson will forever be frozen in that moment of futility, the truth is that he could never be frozen anywhere. The man is not known primarily for striking out but for his almost superhuman speed. Wilson, forever the fastest man in the baseball universe inside my skull, if not in the baseball universe itself, used that speed to keep running long after the 1980 series, playing for several more seasons, including a 1985 campaign that ended with Wilson performing well during the Royals seven-game victory over the Cardinals. He played for almost two decades in all, was a good hitter and a great fielder, and stole more bases than all but a few men in baseball history.

Also, you could argue that he was the greatest hitter of triples the world has ever seen.

First of all, he led the league in triples four times, more than anyone besides all-time triples king Sam Crawford, who also led the league four times. Also, the only player who ranks higher than Wilson on the career triples list who played as late as the 1970s was Roberto Clemente, and Clemente had 166 triples in 10212 plate appearances while Wilson had 147 triples in 8317 plate appearances. (If Wilson had kept up his rate of tripling and had gotten Clemente’s amount of plate appearances, he would have hit 180 triples.) Besides Clemente and the long-lasting line-drive smasher Stan Musial, all of the other players ahead of Wilson on the career triples list were done playing well before the color line was broken, and most of the massive triples-amassers did their damage in the years before the Ruthian era of the longball ensued.

Why was there so much tripling going on back in the spike-gashing days of Cobb and Speaker? I understand why the dead ball reduced the number of homers, but I don’t quite get why it increased the number of triples. But whatever the reason, it was a lot easier to hit a triple when Honus Wagner ruled the earth than it was in the Age of Steve Balboni. A quick glance through my baseball encyclopedia shows that the teams Crawford played on hit on average (very roughly speaking) about 80 triples a year. Wilson’s Kansas City teams—despite playing in a relatively large stadium with Astroturf, i.e., a good place for triples—generally hit half or, at most, three-quarters as many triples per year as Crawford’s teams. In 1985, for example, the Royals hit 49 triples. Willie Wilson hit 21 of them! By comparison, when Wilson’s namesake, Owen “Chief” Wilson, set the single-season record for triples in 1912, with 36, his Pirates team hit 126 triples. My math skills and handle on logic are laughable at best, but it seems to me that had Willie Wilson been on that Pirates team and carried the same proportional triples load that he did with the ’85 Royals, he would have finished the 1912 season with 6,847 triples. Well, maybe not, but I believe that had he played in the Era of the Triple he would now hold both the single-season and the career mark for triples, rather than just his soon-to-be-relinquished record for fanning in the World Series.

(And Omar Moreno was no slouch either.)

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World Series–1974, Game 3

November 2, 2009

74 world series game 3

I don’t know what kinds of pitches Rollie Fingers threw. I saw him pitch a few times in All-Star game play, and I’m sure I’ve read about his repertoire at some point, but the information from both of those sources has receded back behind the fiction I’ve had in my mind about him since I was a young kid, one that combined his unusual name, his curly mustache, and the heavy influence on my worldview of Saturday morning cartoons that toyed with the rules of physics. In my mind, it’s simple: Rollie Finger’s goofy bamboozling pitches came with their own clownish slide-whistle soundtrack.

Here he is in one of the handful of cards in my collection that make reference to World Series play, looking as if he’s about to unleash another corkscrewing dipsy-doodle to tie Steve Garvey or Jim Wynn into a bow. The back of the card offers little in the way of the kind of illustrative data that might have dampened my imaginary version of Rollie Fingers. There’s no text recounting the game, just a box score in the style used back in the days of Tinkers to Evers to Chance. There is a line score but no pitching statistics, and the efforts of each hitter are represented in terms of AB, R, H, PO, A, and E. I doubt that when I first got this card at the age of seven I knew what all these abbreviations referred to, and when I did figure them all out I probably was disappointed that so much space had been given over to fielding statistics that did little to suggest how the game was won and lost. Who was the hero of the game? Who had the key hit? It’s impossible to tell.

The pitcher who was awarded the win is identified in the primitive box score, his name in capital letters (HUNTER) and the initials “w.p.” after his name. (There is no corresponding designation for the losing pitcher.) Fingers’ name is also on the card, but it has only zeroes in the batting and fielding columns beside it.

A few names above Fingers: “H. Washington, pr.” He’s the only other A besides Fingers with nothing but zeroes after his name. This was Herb Washington, the sprinter who was the “designated pinch runner” for the team. I’m somewhat shocked that Oakland’s brief experiment of carrying a player on the regular season roster who couldn’t pitch, hit, or field extended into postseason play. In fact (and by this point in my imagining of October 1974 I have moved beyond the limitations of my cards and begun checking baseball-reference.com), Herb Washington got into two games in the 1974 American League Championship series (he was caught stealing both times) and three games in the World Series (perhaps cowed by his results in the ALCS, he didn’t attempt a steal and did not score a run).

Rollie Fingers got into one more game than Herb Washington in the 1974 World Series, and his pitching in each of his four appearances, all A’s wins, was seen as the key contribution of any player: he won the series MVP award. Despite ending in just five games, the series was a tightly contested one (four of the five contests ended in a 3-2 score), so the work of an effective and tireless reliever stood out more than it would have if the teams had taken turns crushing one another. Fingers was credited with two saves and a win, and it seems to me that he should have earned another save in the game commemorated by the card at the top of this post. He entered that game with one out in the eighth inning with a two-run lead and closed things out despite surrendering a solo home run in the ninth to Willie Crawford. I was thinking that saves were accounted for differently in those days, but in the very next game Fingers entered with one out in the eighth inning with two men on and an even bigger lead (5-2) and upon closing out the game was credited with the save. The only thing I can think of is that maybe in those days they stripped you of a save if you gave back any of the inherited lead. But the entry on the history of the save statistic at BR Bullpen doesn’t seem to offer any evidence that this was the case. Am I missing something obvious? Or does Rollie Fingers deserve to be awarded an additional World Series save? [Update: See comments below for an explanation of why Fingers didn't get a save.] 

Anyway, back to the card. In the absence of any defining data, the picture has to carry all the weight of any questions about how the game was won and why. The game was won because in the otherwise murky shadows of that game, the A’s had bright yellow shirts, yellow socks, and white shoes. The A’s had Rollie Fingers.

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William Perry

October 14, 2009

William Perry 91

I don’t feel like talking about baseball again just yet, so let’s talk about something else. This William Perry card is one of a few football cards I own. They all came as a group, along with some basketball cards, at the end of a stack of random baseball cards given to me as a gift last Christmas. In the card, from 1991, the Fridge is midway through his storied career, looking relatively svelte, though his too-small helmet does look as if at any moment it may fly off his bulging head like a popped champagne cork.

The last two weekends I’ve probably watched more regular season football than I’ve watched in any two consecutive weekends since I was a kid, the first weekend because I was badly hungover and could not focus on anything else, and the more recent weekend because I had just watched my favorite baseball team go down in flames for the year and so stared at the television in a kind of shocked torpor. I don’t remember much of what I saw. Large middle-aged guys in suits behind a counter flirting with one another, followed by large young guys in uniforms wrestling. A debilitating injury or two.

Football players don’t stick out to me, but the Fridge was an exception. He was a good defensive tackle for a while, and in his first couple seasons, when I was a teenager, he was a pop culture sensation. (In the years since then he saw periodic aftershocks of his moment in the spotlight, though his days of TV appearances and boxing matches against Manute Bol may be over, sadly, as he now battles a debilitating disease.) In his brief, entertaining prime he appeared in national ads and TV shows in addition to his role in the Bears’ Super Bowl season and in their “Super Bowl Shuffle” video. His fame, which seems to have derived from his preposterous size (which wouldn’t stick out quite so much in the today’s game of ever-more gargantuan bone-crushers, I don’t think), his colorful nickname and boyish, bubbly personality, and his occasional hilarious but fairly effective cameos as a short-yardage rusher, climaxed with a rushing touchdown in the Bears’ Super Bowl rout of the Patriots. Who didn’t love the Fridge?

Actually, I didn’t love him at that moment, being a Patriots fan, but I’ve never cared enough about football to really generate any hate for anyone. That’s probably why I spent last weekend staring at the sport—it’s not riddled with any lacerating emotions for me. It’s not life versus death, good versus evil. I don’t know why baseball is. A few days ago I was talking about baseball with a friend of mine who has never been a big sports fan.

“Why does it matter to you that the Red Sox win?” he asked.

I couldn’t come up with a reason besides the circular proposition that it matters to me because it’s always mattered to me. I’ve been trying to imagine that it doesn’t matter to me when they lose. I’ve been reading more. I’ve been watching more football. Last night I rented a movie. I played my guitar a bit when the movie was over, and I haven’t done that in a while. Then, before I went to bed, I responded to an email from a friend of mine who is a Red Sox fan, and in the email I found myself arguing that the team was going to come back stronger next season, hopefully with the addition of a young, potent bat to the arthritic lineup. I found myself looking forward to next season.

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Love versus Hate, 7th inning stretch

September 24, 2009

love v hate

With Steve Staggs presiding over the latest increment of action in the slowest baseball game, real or imaginary, ever enacted, Hate has gone down without scoring in the top of the seventh inning, leaving the score deadlocked at 5–5. The game, which began a year and a half ago and which sped along through the first few innings due to a backlog of game pieces on the backs of 1978 cards I’d already written by that time, has long since slowed to the pace of continental plates shifting. We may not find out if Love is stronger than Hate until I’m too old and feeble to remember why I started playing the game in the first place, unless I get hit by a bus or crushed by a falling piano, in which case the game will have to be considered a rain-shortened affair or something, which right now, the score knotted, would leave everything completely inconclusive.

Anyway, I thought I’d take a moment and consider the action thus far, and stretch, and maybe go take a leak, get a beer, sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” etc. I wanted to pass along an internet radio broadcast of the first few innings of the fake game, performed hilariously by Jere (aka gedmaniac) of A Red Sox Fan from Pinstripes Territory, but the broadcast on YouCastr seems to be no longer available. So, unless that can somehow be resurrected, a visit to the original, ongoing post for the game will have to suffice for anyone curious to see what’s happened so far (and why I started the game in the first place). But if you don’t feel like the long version, here’s the line score and the heroes thus far:

           123 456 789    r  h e
HATE   021 101 0       5 12 0
LOVE   200 300          5 9 0

Hate heroes
Garry Templeton (2-run HR)
Darrell Evans (RBI single)
Brian Downing (RBI single)
Alan Ashby (solo HR)

Love heroes
Pete LaCock (leadoff triple, run scored)
Len Randle (RBI double)
Bill Buckner (RBI single)
Jim Colborn (3-run HR)

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Chris Gust

August 12, 2009

Chris Gust 88

Sundown

(continued from Ruppert Jones)

Conclusion

A few days ago, before work, before another pre-work attempt to write about a baseball player named Dan Thomas, I went for a run. It wasn’t long after sunup. I zigged and zagged up and down the streets of my Chicago neighborhood for a while. As I was rounding the corner of Oakley and Walton I spotted the larger of these two fragments on the ground. It had rained hard the night before, and I had to carefully pry the wet piece of cardboard from the pavement.

I finished my run while holding the floppy card gently in my fingertips, trying not to cause it any further damage, then I slowed to a walk and returned to the corner of Leavitt and Oakley to look for more ripped up baseball cards. I was hoping at the very least for the top of this card, but all I found was the smaller fragment shown here.

Now my baseball card collection includes doubles, or pieces of doubles, of a minor league player named—according to the back of the larger fragment—Christopher Lazarus Gust.

***

I can’t tell you much more than I’ve already told you about Dan Thomas, the Sundown Kid. I’ve told you about him earning a half-season suspension for punching a minor league umpire, and of his minor league Triple Crown award the following season, and of his promising major league call-up, and of his hot start with the Brewers the following spring, and of his refusal to play on Friday nights or Saturday, and of the mounting losses of the Brewers, and of his mid-May slump, and of the demotion that would prove to be the end of his major league career, and of the jail cell in Mobile, Alabama, three years later, where he would spend the last moments of his life.

After his demotion by the Brewers to their Triple A affiliate in Spokane, he continued to follow the dictates of the Worldwide Church of God, and he continued to struggle. The Brewers tried to send him down even farther, to Double A Holyoke, but he refused to report. He decided to stay in Spokane, and according to an article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle he got a job building “highway trailers.”

He tried to hook on with any baseball team that would have him the next season but found no takers among big league franchises. The best he could do was an unaffiliated pro team, the Boise Buckskins. You couldn’t get much lower. The Buckskins were by a considerable margin the worst team in the Northwest League, a short-season A ball circuit. According to the league history page on baseball-reference.com, the Buckskins existed in the league for just that one year, as if they had materialized out of sheer mercy so as to give Dan Thomas a place to be.

When you peruse the roster of a minor league team on baseball-reference.com, you will sometimes see a player’s name in bold. The bold is to denote that the player has a major league record. On a Triple A squad, such as the Spokane Indians team Thomas played on in 1978, many names are in bold, including those of soon-to-be regulars such as Lary Sorensen, Lenn Sakata, Jim Gantner, and Gorman Thomas. On the Boise Buckskins roster, only one name is in bold: Dan Thomas, who in his last season in professional baseball won the batting title of the Northwest League.

***

I can’t tell you much about Christopher Lazarus Gust, but I know from my newest shreds of baseball cards that he has not played professional baseball for quite some time. The two seasons listed on the back of his card are from 1986 and 1987. He started where Dan Thomas ended, in the Northwest League.

***

Yesterday, after work, I hurried home. It being August, sundown was still a ways off, but my sundown ritual pulled me along nonetheless: After work, I like to have a beer and some food and watch a rerun of The Simpsons. Well, like may not be the right word. I recently read an interview in the Chicago Reader with Bob Odenkirk (whose brother, incidentally, is an executive producer of The Simpsons) and was struck by his description of the medium in which his brilliant co-creation, Mr. Show, had an ambivalent, temporary foothold: “People get older, and they just don’t want to hear a new idea. They want to sit back and watch the same people do the same thing they did last week. That’s what TV exists for—it exists to be a mild sedative.”

So anyway, as I was hurrying home for my mild sundown sedative, I passed a man who was in some kind of trouble. He was in his early sixties, a little pudgy, balding, with a slight facial resemblance to Mikhail Gorbachev. He held onto a metal gate with one hand to keep from falling and held a cell phone in his other hand, which he reached toward me, groaning. He didn’t speak much English, not that unusual in my neighborhood, Ukrainian Village, but somehow I understood he needed me to call for help. I dialed 911 for the first time in my life and described to the dispatcher our location, the corner of Leavitt and Walton (one block east of where I found Chris Gust), and then described the situation.

“He’s clutching his chest and stomach and seems dizzy,” I said. “He needs an ambulance.”

When I got off the phone I tried to get the man to describe what was happening to him. His vocabulary was very limited. He stammered stray words but only managed one complete sentence.

“I think I am dead,” he said.

***

Christopher Lazarus Gust didn’t win any batting crowns, in the Northwest League or anywhere else, but according to a website about baseball in Madison he led the Muskies in steals in 1988. This was his last year in pro baseball. Presumably when the sun went down on his dream, a dream many of us have but very few are able to realize, he moved back to the hometown listed on the back of this card. Chicago. You’d have to think that he took with him a few keepsakes. His glove. His cap. A couple baseball cards with his name and likeness. You’d have to think he might have pulled one of the cards out from time to time to remember his brief day in the sun, the card raising that day from the dead.

***

Just before we first heard the sirens in the distance, I asked the Ukrainian man his name and told him mine. He was glad for this exchange and reached out the hand that wasn’t clinging to the metal gate and clasped my hand.

The last I saw of him, he was sitting on the back fender of a fire truck as firemen tried to get him to explain what the trouble was. I thought about going back and looking him in the eye and telling him he’d be all right. Because of our exchange of names I was the least strange of the strangers surrounding him. But I didn’t go back. I rationalized that the firemen had it all under control. I went home.

What can I tell you? If they can, people hurry home at sundown.

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