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Jim Gott

May 6, 2013

Exif_JPEG_422I had stuffed animals as a kid. The dog shown here isn’t one of them. I don’t have them anymore. My favorite was a stuffed dog named Spot. He and I used to have brawls. I used to punch him and throw him across the room, and I’d pretend he was doing the same to me. The key element of the whole recurring fantasy was that Spot was beating the shit out of me as I was beating the shit out of Spot. I suppose I imagined that in the end I threw the final, decisive punch, but this victory was secondary to the central function of the whole endeavor, which was to pretend that I was in a horrible fight. I don’t know why I was so prone to imagining violence, specifically violence being done to me. There wasn’t any actual hitting of me or anyone else in the house I grew up in, besides my older brother sometimes becoming so exasperated with my incessant needling commentary and questions and need for attention that he’d punch me in a “phaser-set-to-stun” kind of way in the arm.

And yet, I still imagine my face getting smashed in on a fairly regular basis. Life is one fucking invisible worry after another, one thing breaking after another, one long day after another. And now, for me, there’s a small boy in the center of it, not even two years old, and it’s up to me to protect him, as if I could do so by draping my arm around him like the stuffed dog in this photo is doing to Jim Gott, one of the cards my son plays with sometimes. But I can’t protect him. I’m at the mercy of forces far beyond me.

Spot is in a landfill somewhere, I guess, probably all but disintegrated. He was full of white Styrofoam pellets. Because of all the fighting I subjected him to, he sprung several wounds and would bleed the little white pellets everywhere. I imagined bleeding all over the place, too. Then the two of us would lie there together in the wreckage, arm in arm, and make peace.

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Brayan Pena

March 12, 2013

brayan pena 001My son’s baseball cards reside, in theory, in a small wicker basket downstairs. My wife found this one in a completely different part of the house and brought it to me.

“It’s a baseball card, I guess?” she said dubiously, handing me the two larger pieces.

“Here’s his head,” she added.

Sometimes in the evening when my wife takes a brief break from her 24-hour-a-day job, I take my son downstairs and dump his cards onto the carpet. Sometimes I read the backs of the cards, which often prompts him to grab the card out of my hand and then look at me, grinning. Sometimes he handles some of the cards while I try to flip them one by one across the room and back into the basket. Eventually, he gets bored with the cards. Check that, I don’t know whether you can ascribe the feeling of boredom to him. He gets restless, interested in seeing something else. He’s walking now, so there’s always something around the next corner as well as a way to get around that corner. Sometimes he takes a baseball card with him when he goes, and sometimes he chews on it until it falls to pieces.

I pieced this chewed card back together and then poked around on the Internet in search of some details about the photo. I figured out it was taken during a moment that the subject of the photo hoped would change the fortunes of his struggling team for the better. In a game the Royals would end up losing anyway, Royals catcher Bryan Pena blocked Chase Headley of the Padres from scoring.

“I hope that that little thing will turn it around for us,” Pena was quoted as saying in the San Diego Union Tribune. “It’s for us to try and figure out and turn our luck around.”

The play didn’t really turn anything around. The Royals were a sub-.500 team before it happened, and continued to play sub-.500 ball the rest of the year. But maybe life isn’t so literal, so linear. Maybe everything is scrambled, a plaything, and we’re lucky just to hold on.

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The Tao of Expo

March 5, 2013

expo in guitarFor most of my life, when baseball cards came to me, I sorted them into teams. The majority of my baseball cards from my childhood are sorted by teams right now, each team wrapped in a rubber band. The exception to this general rule is in the cards that I’ve written about, which have been removed from their teams and are loose in the shoebox, as if the process of writing about the cards is a way to offer them back into the originating randomness of life. I vowed early on to write about every single card that remains from my childhood, and I still plan to keep that vow, but right now the shoebox with all my old cards is in a closet, out of my immediate reach for the first time in many years. There are a few reasons for this. One is that I’m using whatever small pockets of time I have for writing to work on a new book (that’s not about baseball cards). Another is that I don’t want my 19-month-old son to get his hands on those cards just yet. Finally, after writing about my baseball cards for several years, there’s something appealing to having them go away, get a rest from my exhausting attention, gain strength in silence, like they did all those years when they were in a storage facility.

But baseball cards are still in my life, more actively now than at any time since my childhood. They belong to my son, a heaping pile of loose cards, some new ones from 2012 and 2013 and some older ones that came as a gift to me from my wife’s aunt, who found the cards in a binder at a garage sale. They’re all from the late 1980s and early 1990s. My wife helped me remove them all immediately from the protective plastic of the binder, and we piled them on the living room rug like leaves, where our son Jack started doing something very much like the breaststroke through them. Then, the diaspora: the cards were gradually scattered all over the house. This is how things get sorted now, through play. I find a card in the bathroom, another on the cat scratch pad. A favorite site for cards is my guitar. Jack likes dropping them in there. He can’t say guitar yet, but he makes a sound that approximates the sound of a guitar being strummed. “Dao,” he says when he wants to play with the guitar, the same way you’d pronounce the Chinese philosophy of embracing the randomness and transience of life. He said this the other day, and when we got to the guitar a backup catcher from a defunct team was inside. Oh, to live inside music, holiness itself. Oh to be an Expo forever, free of the sorted world.

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Sabathia Crushed by Dump Truck

February 28, 2013

sabathia crushed by dump truck

It’s not my habit or talent to break news, and what’s more I don’t even care about news. I’m an “olds” guy, more interested in say, Ralph Garr’s batting average in 1974 against righties and articles about Mark Fidrych’s consultations with a hypnotist in 1979 than I am with anything whatsoever to do with the upcoming baseball season, or, for that matter, with any current events at all. But I figured it’d be irresponsible of me to not pass along a report of the event pictured in the photo to the right. It is difficult to make out the identity of the player in question, but I happened to have been an eyewitness and can confirm that it is New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia who is being crushed by a dump truck full of sliced apples. So, you know, you might want to cut him from your fantasy squad or whatever.

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Opening

February 20, 2013

Exif_JPEG_422

My son has been a little melty lately. As in, he is prone to melt downs. I think it has something to do with his being at the cusp of language. Something in his world isn’t how he wants it to be, or some feeling wells up that he doesn’t quite know how to manage. He can say a few words and knows the meanings of several more, but there is an infinite number of things beyond his grasp. It’s beyond anyone’s grasp, forever, but eventually we learn to make some kind of truce with our inability to translate the world into words. He hasn’t gotten there yet. When there’s something that needs to be said and no way to say it, he gets upset. When this happens, I try to get him thinking about something else. This photo is from a few days ago, when I handed him a pack of the new 2013 baseball cards. He got quiet, attentive, interested in what was in his grasp. I had to get the flap open a little, but he took it from there. We’ve opened packs before. Thanks to Jack, baseball cards, present tense—baseball cards for pure fun—are back in my life for the first time since childhood. When Jack got the wrapper off, he took it over to the sink and pointed to the cupboard below, where we keep the garbage bin. I opened the child lock on the cupboard and he put the wrapper in the trash. He had the baseball cards in his other hand, but he knew that the wrapper and the cards were different. The cards mean something. He started handing them to me, and I read aloud the names of the guys we got.

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George Brett

December 16, 2012

brett and roe

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

Evidence

Three: Rocky Roe

Beside the Donnie Moore card and the fragment of Mr. October is a 1994 George Brett card featuring an unusual photo (for the genre). The card’s perspective is from behind the plate, its subject, George Brett, following through on a swing that has resulted in the ball bounding toward second base. In the background, the scoreboard is clearly visible, providing plenty of clues to allow the moment to be identified.

In an uncertain world, it’s nice to come upon hard evidence, even if the evidence doesn’t matter. Maybe this is what’s behind my lifelong attraction to meaningless baseball occurrences. Despite the complete lack of societal or personal need for any illumination whatsoever about the photo shown in George Brett’s 1994 baseball card, I found myself researching details about the moment it occurred. The card lent itself well to this wasting of time. That’s probably part of the draw. To waste time. To squander. But sometimes it also feels good to know something, anything.

I found the game (an 8–7 Royals win), and the result of the play (groundout, Brett’s last at-bat of the day; on an earlier pitch in the at-bat, Brett had fouled a pitch off his foot, injuring it), and the identity of the pitcher (Jaime Navarro, now a coach with the Mariners) and catcher (Joe Kmak, now a high school math teacher). The umpire is Rocky Roe. Roe’s prominence in the card, no less than the last card of an inner circle Hall of Famer, is unusual if not unprecedented in terms of baseball card portraiture. Based on the composition of the shot, the card could easily be for Roe, not Brett. But what could possibly go on the back of a card for an umpire? And who would want such a card?

Roe got his start as a major league umpire in 1982, as a replacement for Lou DiMuro. DiMuro had ascended above the general anonymity of his profession a couple of times in his long career, once for being smashed into and injured by the gigantic Cliff Johnson, and once a few years earlier for his role in a famous World Series moment. He was the umpire behind the plate in Game 5 of the 1969 World Series. After ruling that a pitched ball had not hit Cleon Jones in the foot, he changed his ruling when presented with evidence: shoe polish on the ball. This keyed a Mets’ rally, and the Mets won the World Series, arguably the most improbable World Series win ever, evidence to many of miracles, of magic. Thirteen years later, after umpiring a game in Texas, DiMuro was hit and killed by a car. Rocky Roe got a call, filled a void.

Roe was the home plate umpire in Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS. As far as I can remember or recover through my compulsion to do pointless, time-consuming research, he did not make any controversial calls during the crucial moments of that game. One of his rulings during the fateful ninth inning, when it still seemed the Angels were going to surge into their first World Series, was that Boston batter Rich Gedman had been hit by a pitch thrown by Gary Lucas. It was not a disputed call.

Gary Lucas still feels guilty about the pitch. He was brought in specifically to face Gedman, lefty on lefty. After hitting the Boston catcher, Lucas gave way to Donnie Moore, who gave up a two-run home run to Dave Henderson. All these years later, Lucas still wonders about his role in Donnie Moore’s subsequent suicide. “If I do my job that night,” he told Los Angeles Times reporter Jerry Crowe in 2010, “perhaps he’s still with us.”

Guilt is one way to create a thread connecting one event to the next. Shouldering the world this way, as a burden, is an excruciating way to live, but the deep vein of guilt running through the collective human narrative suggests that we prefer suffering fictions to the alternative, a world without evidence, beyond our control.

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Reggie Jackson

December 10, 2012

reggie

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

Evidence

Two: Mr. October

The Donnie Moore card has been on my desk for several days, waiting to be made sense of. Beside it is a small fragment of another baseball card. I recently fished the fragment out of my son’s mouth. He’s fifteen months old, which means I’m fifteen months into a new life, one more splintered and doubtful than what preceded it, more overpowered by love. He has a basket of 2011 baseball cards that we play with in the evenings. Most of the creased, beaten cards are of currently active players, and I’ve been surprised at how many of them I’d never heard of, more evidence that I’m falling away from the times with the slow but irreversible momentum of an untethered spacewalker. But mixed in are some cards featuring older players achieving milestones. Ernie Banks, Willie Mays. When I fished the fragment out of my son’s mouth, it took perhaps a second to process the limited clues available and recognize it as being from one of these “legend” cards. I could tell from the California Angels batting helmet, the wire-rimmed spectacles, and the gaze trained on the far distance that my son had bitten off a piece of Mr. October.

Mr. October got his name for his apparent ability to play spectacularly well when the games mattered the most. The narrative truth of this rests on his iconic three-homer game in the clincher of the 1977 World Series. He had paved the way for this moment to be a mythic apotheosis by anchoring three World Series championships with the A’s, and he added luster to its magic by again performing spectacularly well in a 1978 World Series win. His exploits, and the outsized personality that went with them, seemed to illustrate the notion that some guys are able to rise to a higher level during big moments.

It’s true that Mr. October’s career World Series numbers are phenomenal: In 27 career World Series games, he had a .357 batting average, a .457 on-base percentage, and a .755 slugging percentage). But if his ability to play better in crucial moments was truly unshakeable, why wouldn’t he have also hit well during his appearances in the American League Championship Series? In 45 games with the pennant at stake, he posted these anemic numbers: .227/.298/.380. Overall, his total postseason numbers suggest a slight increase in performance over his career numbers (in 77 postseason games, he had a .278 batting average, a .358 on-base percentage, and a .527 slugging percentage, all a little higher than his regular season splits of .262/.356/.490). The slight superiority of those postseason numbers could easily be attributed to most of his postseason appearances coming during the prime of his career, when his overall regular season numbers were higher, too.

These findings, if you can call them that, are in line with the general conclusions of all inquiries into the notion of “clutch” performance: Basically, as a sample size increases and thus becomes a more fully supported representation of reality, any seeming evidence of clutch performance tends to recede, if not disappear altogether. It seems a decent bet that Mr. October would dismiss this suggestion that his clutch abilities are imaginary, that he believed and still believes that he was in possession of a certain magic unavailable to his peers.

When I think of Mr. October as an Angel, I see him in a moment seemingly designed to demonstrate that magic, if it exists, is so migratory and random in nature as to be entirely beyond the grasp of human hands. He is in the dugout beside Angels manager Gene Mauch in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 1986 American League Championship Series, the Angels seemingly assured a pennant. In my memory, Mauch, who previously presided over the monumental collapse of the 1964 Phillies, is not smiling, but Mr. October beams broadly, winningly. He has removed his glasses, anticipating a pennant-winning victory scrum in which he apparently hopes not to have his glasses damaged. Some events transpire. Mr. October’s smile constricts. The game is once again in doubt. Mr. October puts his glasses back on.

(to be continued)

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