Archive for the ‘Loose in the Shoebox’ Category


Rich Camarillo

January 29, 2016

Rich Camarillo

Even in a 46 to 10 thrashing there is hope. It doesn’t seem that way in retrospect, but as you’re living through it—and this goes for life too—you’ll constantly be buoyed by possibilities, even as they transform more and more into preposterous myths.

For example, the Patriots took a lead in Super Bowl XX, and after they relinquished it a few minutes into the game they clung to a tie for a few minutes more, and then when the lead was given up it was only by a margin of another field goal. With the first quarter almost complete, the Patriots were down just 6 to 3.

It was my first day of college, and I was out of my mind on throat-shredding hits of potent marijuana from my new friend Tom’s chest-high Graphics bong by that point, so I can’t tell you exactly how much I believed the Patriots could scratch out an improbable win, but knowing my general approach to life—which despite all my complaining is actually pretty hopeful—I’m sure I still believed such a win could happen.

I do remember believing in Steve Grogan. The swashbuckling Grogan—whose specialty in my memory was faking handoffs and then bootlegging for big yardage before either being demolished by angered defenders or, occasionally, scooting all the way in for thrilling touchdowns—had been the Patriots quarterback for as long as I’d been a fan of the Patriots, but by the time of Super Bowl XX he was backing up the functional uninteresting football bureaucrat Tony Eason. I had envisioned before the game that the Patriots would fall behind and that the old pro would then enter the fray to lead a stirring comeback. I got teary-eyed even imagining it, such was my love for stories of stirring old-guy comebacks.

So judging from when Grogan entered the game. I still had hope in a Patriots’ victory even after the Bears had upped their lead to 20 to 3 and, furthermore, had shown ample evidence that the Patriots moving the ball even inches forward would be hard to do. Tony Eason’s last series underscored this perfectly, even suggesting that keeping from moving backwards would be a tall order:

James run left, no gain (Dent).

Collins sweep right, loss of 2 (Marshall).

Eason sacked, loss of 11 (Wilson).

And for a moment, there really was some hope. The Patriots recovered a fumble and Steve Grogan ambled onto the field and, after getting his first pass batted down, completed two passes in a row, for eight and six yards, respectively, achieving a New England first down, which in the context of the game at that point was something like me now, at age forty-seven, dunking on Bill Russell in his prime. The legendary Bears defense quickly shut down any further progress on that drive, and then the Bears scored a field goal on the next possession, upping the lead to 23 to 3.

Grogan completed another 8-yarder to set up another first down on his team’s next possession, and then came a sack, a penalty against the Patriots, and another sack to set up a third and 33. The notion of a third down with 33 yards needed to make a first down pretty much sums up the feel of that Super Bowl in retrospect, but as it unfolded I’m sure I took heart in Grogan’s next play, a 24-yard pass completion, even if it didn’t really do any good.

I probably took even more heart in the following play, a 62-yard punt from the fellow shown at the top of this page, Rich Camarillo. As it turned out, the punt set a new Super Bowl record. More crucially, it pinned the Bears down at their own 4-yard-line. Just stop them now, I prayed, or whatever it is you do when you are hoping life works out despite your current status as a pot-addled seventeen-year-old boob starting college halfway through the year on a mountain in Vermont, just stop them now, and Grogan is within bootlegging distance from the end zone, and after that maybe the team gets on a roll and the Bears start to get tight, etc. This was an incredibly short-lived series of thoughts, as I was reminded of today while perusing the play-by-play:

Camarillo 62 punt downed at Chicago 4-yard-line.

McMahon 60 pass to Gault deep right (Marion).

Soon after that historic-punt nullifier, the Bears punched it in for another touchdown, and it was 30 to 3, the kind of score that has an insurmountable steepness to it. Hope settled down inside me, losing itself in the more generalized tangle of inebriation and confusion. Those were some aimless days.

Sometimes I miss them. But for the most part I guess I have to admit that I’m now in a stage of my life where every day I’m consciously flooded with thoughts of gratitude. I’ve got two kids, four and a half and one and a half, and every day they make me think of Bill Murray’s line about having kids from Lost in Translation:

Your life, as you know it . . . is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk . . . and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.

Even with that in mind, or perhaps especially with that in mind, I still believe life is more or less like being on the short end of a 46 to 10 thrashing. I’m not trying to be gloomy, but how else could it be otherwise when the deal is that you suffer (everyone agrees on this—Jesus, Buddha, etc.) and then it’s over (and what happens after that point isn’t the subject of this essay)? This is not to say that life is not without hope or delight or not to be clung to with deep gratitude. The problem isn’t finding things to be grateful for but finding a way to voice that gratitude. This is why I took some time today to thank Rich Camarillo, record-setting punter, one-rung-helmet aficionado, beacon of hope in the face of the relentless sacking that is life.


Rolf Benirschke

January 21, 2016

Rolf Benirschke

Three things about this card that I love:

The single bar on his helmet. You still saw these when I was a kid. I think Billy Kilmer, the Washington quarterback, was the last non-kicker to wear one. When he was gone it was just the kickers who wore them. What was the point of them? I guess I love things that are pointless and gone.

The rain gear. Can it even be called a coat? I remember these too from my childhood, slightly modified garbage bags draped over the shoulders of kickers and quarterbacks, giving them a brooding, melancholy air as they stood there on the sidelines, waiting. Really the air that they gave off was of impending defeat. You don’t imagine a player flinging one off to charge onto the field for a winning play but instead to watch time run out, powerlessly, and then to move with a slight, lurching limp out of sight.  I don’t know what this says about the things I love.

The name of the player. Kickers all seemed to be from some far off land in my childhood, such completely separate entities from their hulking teammates that it seemed almost a requirement that they speak a different language and hew to odd, Old World customs. This was not the case with Rolf Benirschke, who was born in America, but I don’t think I knew that. I lumped him with all the other guys named Garo and Efren and Fuad and figured he sat aloof in the locker room at halftime eating pickled herring and reading Kierkegaard.

He almost perished in 1978, did Benirschke, but Raiders’ All-Pro Lester Hayes apparently saved his life by tackling him with such customary savagery that it caused the kicker’s ribs to shatter. He was rushed to the hospital where it was discovered that, unrelated to the hit from “the Molester,” Benirchke’s colon was in an advanced state of distress due to Crohn’s Disease. Benirschke nearly died despite the lucky medical intervention, losing 57 pounds to drop down to 123 pounds, perhaps attaining the status of the NFL player closest in weight to nothing since the days of Walter “Sneeze” Achiu. He regained his health and went on to set all kinds of Chargers’ records for scoring and, just after his football career came to an end, briefly hosted Wheel of Fortune. Vanna White turned the letters for him.

What a day I had, is all I really wanted to tell you. It was like any other day, which means I worried about dying, marveled at the beauty, hilarity, and exasperating qualities of my two boys, four and a half and one and a half, felt guilty about not staying in close enough touch with other loved ones, worked pretty hard at my job, and got involved in an email thread with some friends in which the discussion focused on what rock star deaths have affected us the most over our lives but then evolved into an argument about the precise level to which the Eagles (the band, not the football team) suck. Near the end of the day I bought some gum from a vending machine. It had gotten hard from sitting in the machine a long time, a little like the gum that used to come with these cards.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 135 other followers