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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