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Bob Stanley

May 24, 2022

Worcester Birds notes, games 61 through 72.

  • G61: L 8-5
    • Decent start by Fidrych squandered with bullpen implosion by McClure and Tekulve. This whole thing is about Fidrych. If I can’t make it work out for him, what’s the point?
  • G62: W 5-4
    • Bostock with triple, single, and 2 RBI supports good start by Dixon. On the night of this game, I said good night to my older son and walked our dogs, and when I came back in my son was crying. My wife was comforting him. “What’s wrong?” I said. “He’s worried about death,” my wife said. I told him I knew how he felt, thinking about Lyman Bostock, who died when I was the same age as my son and when he seemed immortal, perched near the top of the Sunday batting averages.
  • G63: L 8-5
    • Forster pummeled. I’m in therapy now. Finally. I started a couple of years ago. I want to be as healthy as I can to be there for my family.
  • G64: L 5-2
    • Stanley ineffective; Lee with 4.1 scoreless in relief. I started writing in notebooks when I was 12, in imitation of Sparky Lyle’s The Bronx Zoo. I wanted my life to seem that funny. It wasn’t, or not very often. Much more often it was just me, wrestling, flailing. My first stack of notebooks became such a burden by the time I was 19 that I threw the whole stack in a dumpster. I have all the notebooks from that point on. Open up any one of them and you’ll see someone who could have used therapy. But I avoided it. Found other ways to keep going, most of those ways different forms of numbness.
  • G65: L 5-2
    • Tiant pitches pretty well but Mingori is a gas can (3 runs in 2 innings). Three losses in a row. In therapy I have not bloomed into some magnificent creature able to fly above pain. In fact it’s been the opposite. The numbness is starting to thaw. I am feeling things. I am feeling pain. I am learning to track that pain.
  • G66: W 1-0 (Fidrych 9-3)
    • Fidrych with 6.1 scoreless innings; Morgan with two key defensive plays and two walks, including the one that starts the game-winning rally.
  • G67: L 4-2
    • Offense stays cold. When I was a teenager and diving deep into solo Strat-O-Matic to numb myself with the buzz of imagined winning and the winning wasn’t coming I kept rolling the dice and rolling the dice, hoping to will the home runs back into the bats of the guys who were my psychic avatars. The spiraling of the dry, clicking impotence of that, those dice rolling across the plywood shelf I used in my room as a desk (though never for schoolwork—I kept falling farther and farther behind in everything), the buzz never coming. The anger rising. I can still feel it now. It’s in my throat, my jaw, my teeth.
  • G68: L 6-4
    • Forster authors another sloppy mess. My only significant point of connection outside that room and that desk and my notebooks and those dice rolls was on my sports teams. I kept playing baseball in the Babe Ruth league, but I was overmatched at that level as I’d never been in little league, and near the end of a losing season I quit. I kept playing basketball for my school team. In 7th grade we lost all our games, In 8th grade we lost all but 2 games. In 9th grade we lost all our games. In 10th grade we lost all our games. I wasn’t exactly friends with the players on those teams. We’d see each other in the halls and say hey but there wouldn’t be eye contact.
  • G69: L 3-2
    • Bill Lee continues to shine with nothing to show. Bob Stanley, after a strong 3.2 innings in the previous game, is unavailable for middle relief, and the available pitchers struggle. Back when I was losing with my own sports teams I kept rooting for the Red Sox, hoping to find the numbing buzz of winning in fandom. Bill Lee was gone by then, but Bob Stanley was still there. He would come in and give up a lot of hits and sometimes wriggle out of trouble and other times not, and he carried the weight of a poor performance in the 1978 playoff game, and then in 1986 he was the man on the mound when it all went completely to shit.
  • G70: L 5-3
    • McClure and Tekulve blow a 2-run lead in the 9th, squandering a strong Tiant start. Thank god for alcohol. Thank god for marijuana. Thank god for that feeling of rising above it all. That’s how I felt for a while, sincerely, but then for a long time I didn’t feel that way but kept rolling the dice and rolling the dice, waiting for the feeling to return.
  • G71: L 7-3 (Fidrych 9-4)
    • The Bird struggles, and his 6-game winning streak comes to an end. I’ve got to make changes with this team! But I can’t gut the strong defense behind Fidrych, and the team is already struggling to score. The bullpen was performing over its head for a while, allowing the mirage of a first place finish to materialize for a while. Now McClure and Tekulve are coming back to earth. But there are no relievers available who would be an upgrade. The only possibility is to recycle some of the midlevel shitty handymen on the staff such as Forster, Mingori, Dixon, and, especially, in terms of allowing me to imagine grabbing hold of the painful feeling that’s been inside me all my life, in my throat, my teeth: Bob Stanley. He’s as good as gone. Dumping him and the others will probably only steepen the slide of my team, as the only way to trade in players in my league is by picking up more cheaply priced players in return. Worse players, probably. But there will at least be the tiny little buzz of destruction, of quitting, of dumping, along with the tiny little buzz of stupid hope that the new slightly different collections of probabilities will bring the dice rolls back into my favor.
  • G72: L 3-0
    • I am a loser. I have always been a loser. My therapy isn’t merely an exploration of struggles but an attempt with the help of a professional to identify and question the thoughts in my head. Are they true? And why do they come up? And are there other thoughts that I might bring more to the fore, any things that are going OK, any things I’m thankful for? This is part of it too. I’m dumping Bob Stanley today, but I know I’m not dumping the burden of my past, the feeling in my throat, my jaw, my teeth. I’ve still got a lot of work to do with that. And I’m thinking of how Bob Stanley used to attack beachballs at Fenway with a rake. They used to fly and bounce around the bleachers on fists and boozy cheers and eventually they would land out on the outfield grass or in the bullpen and he would stalk them with a rake and pounce and swing down and puncture them. Bob Stanley was never a loser. Bob Stanley made me smile.

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Larry Bowa

May 20, 2022

I’ve spent thousands of hours playing Strat-O-Matic alone. Many, many thousands of hours alone. I’ve experienced only a few hours of playing the game with others. In one of the rare exceptions, early on in my Strat-O-Matic career, I played against a farm boy who was three years older than me and who lived up the road from my family’s house. I don’t want to be coy about the identity of this kid, but I also have been conscious since mentioning him in my Cardboard Gods book of appearing to “dine out on his name,” as the saying goes. But the truth is, and as I tried to make clear in that book, I owe a deep debt to that farm boy, Buster Olney, the baseball writer. In the book I describe how important his magnetic passion for baseball and baseball cards was in getting my brother and me into those things. He had the same influence on us with Strat-O-Matic. As with his massive baseball card collection in comparison to ours, so did Buster’s Strat-O-Matic knowledge dwarf our own. In a league he and my brother were in during their high school years, Buster regularly annihilated everyone by snatching up unsung walk machines such as Gene Tenace while everyone else, wowed by batting average, wrestled over the likes of Enos Cabell and Mickey Rivers. I didn’t get a chance to play Strat-O-Matic against him until a few years later, when, one summer when he was home from college, he and I were both marooned in our tiny central Vermont town. He had nothing better to do than play Strat-O-Matic with his friend’s younger brother. I knew I didn’t stand a chance against him, but that whole summer, inexplicably, I got the rolls, which, as he wrote many years later in his ESPN column, enraged him.

Whenever I got one of my uncommonly friendly dice rolls, he had a saying: “what a chunk of shit.” But calling it a saying doesn’t really do it justice. It was volcanic, operatic, a white-hot roar.

For example:

Josh’s team is down by a run with two out in the bottom of the ninth and one man on. Goose Gossage is on the mound and Dámaso García is at the plate. Goose Gossage has nothing on his card but strikeouts, while Dámaso García has a few singles but not much else. He hit three home runs all season. There’s virtually no way he’ll hit a home run. Josh rolls the dice. Dámaso García homers.

[long, smoldering beat]

Buster [roaring]: What a CHUNK! OF! SHIT!

I wish you could have heard him say this. The passion, the gravitas, the authority. One thing feeding into this was that he was the most competitive person I’ve ever known. Another thing feeding into that particular turn of phrase: he was a farm boy. I don’t know if you really know what being a farm boy means, but what I witnessed was that it meant he learned from very early on what hard work was. I worked on his farm a few times helping to throw bales of hay onto a wagon (during one afternoon doing this we worked out a Strat-O-Matic trade involving Fred Lynn; I can’t remember all the details but I’m sure he fleeced me), and those afternoons haying with Buster still stand as by far the most physically taxing work I’ve ever done. And he started every day at the crack of dawn doing that kind of work. But the other thing you need to know, as it relates to his standard exclamatory protestation of the unfair rulings of chance, is that his work—as it was on a dairy farm, with, you know, lots of cows—often involved shit. Actual shit in unending supply. He knew a chunk of shit when he saw one. And his friend’s little brother lucking out with Dámaso García home runs was a Chunk. Of. Shit.

He had two other verbal tics that came out while he was playing Strat-O-Matic that have stayed with me over the decades. One was the sound effect he provided when one of his pitchers recorded a strikeout. I don’t think he did it for every pitcher and in every situation, but he definitely used this when his closer, Goose Gossage, was on the hill, and the rolls were in line with overwhelming probabilities and not veering into the realm of chunks of shit:

“HUAAA!”

That’s what he’d yell, imitating an umpire’s third-strike bleating, when Goose was mowing them down. One day, we were over at the high school playing one-on-one on a basketball hoop in the parking lot, and a karate class was taking place nearby. The instructor kept going “HUAAA!” We were unable to continue our game. Yes, I owe Buster a debt for a lot of things, including that he’s the reason for at least one of the times in my life I literally fell over in a paralyzing seizure of laughter.

And the last of his Strat-O-Matic verbal tics that I remember was a fricative sound effect he made with a burst of air through his teeth:

“Kssh!”

This was an imitation of a hard-hit ball being snagged in a fielder’s glove. But not any fielder’s glove. He may have used the sound effect for other fielders, but I only remember him doing it for one. It was a player that he always had on his team and that, if I remember correctly, he related to and held in high esteem as a fellow hard worker, a fellow grinder, a fellow ferocious competitor.

Life is uncertain enough. Even if you get everything set up for a seemingly ironclad win, you could still end up with a chunk of shit. So you’d better have at least one thing locked down.

You’d better have Larry Bowa at shortstop.

***

I wrote yesterday about how my 1977 Strat-O-Matic online team is built for Mark Fidrych and built around Joe Morgan. After Joe Morgan, the player I most wanted on the field behind Mark Fidrych was Larry Bowa. In the Strat-O-Matic game, a dice roll on a pitcher’s card will often result in an additional 20-sided dice roll based on a given fielder’s ratings, and in a reflection of the relative frequency that balls are hit to a shortstop, the shortstop is the most frequent object of this secondary roll (as can be seen in Fidrych’s card, where a 6-9 and 6-10 roll will bring the shortstop’s abilities into play). I wanted Larry Bowa in place when these rolls came up.

The guiding principle for my team, in terms of run prevention, was “bend but don’t break.” To save money for everyday players who could hit well and field well, I loaded up on cheap pitchers who gave up a lot of hits but kept the ball in the ballpark (Fidrych himself being a mid-priced and slightly less batting-average-friendly version of this type) and hoped that my team would limit the damage invited by the mushballers by giving up fewer home runs than the league average, by not giving away runs with errors, and by leading the league in double plays. So far, so good: the Worcester Birds have given up six fewer home runs than the league average; are tied for the league lead for fewest errors; and lead the league in double plays. The team is eighth in a twelve-team league in runs allowed, but because the offense is second in the league in scoring runs, the mediocre run prevention, bolstered by spectacular fielding at every position, has been good enough so far to keep the team in first place.

That’s the spot in the standings to which Larry Bowa was most accustomed. He’s presumably somewhere in the team photo at the top of this page. Something mysterious happened to a few teams from my childhood collection of cards, including the Phillies, and I don’t have a single Larry Bowa card. It’s fitting perhaps that my only relic of him in my collection makes him indistinguishable from his teammates, as Bowa seems to not have cared about individual achievements but only about winning as a team, which the Phillies started doing in the middle of the decade and didn’t stop doing until Bowa was traded away (to the Cubs, who started winning as soon as Bowa was aboard). In an enjoyable recent episode of the Lost Ballparks podcast, Bowa says, “I didn’t care about any of that stuff [individual achievements]; I just wanted to get a ring. . . . Everyone can take everything away except for the World Series. That’s what I played for.”

***

Worcester Birds notes, games 58 through 60:

  • G58: W 8-2
    • Bowa leads lineup from the 9 hole with 3 hits; Campbell gives up 1 run in 4 innings in relief for the win
  • G59: L 4-2
    • Lee struggles but saves the bullpen to fight another day by logging 6.1 innings
  • G60: W 8-3
    • Bowa goes 2 for 2 with 2 RBI (including a suicide squeeze); after Tiant is injured, Campbell allows 1 run in 5 innings for another win
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Joe Morgan

May 19, 2022

I built my Worcester Birds roster not only to bring Mark Fidrych back to life but to right the one disappointing element of his 1976 season: that he fell one shy of 20 wins for the season. I should say that I no longer mark that or anything else about Mark Fidrych’s career or life a disappointment, as in his brief playing career he gave us all more than we could ever hope to ask for from a baseball player, and in his life he figured out a way to overcome his own disappointment at the truncation of his ability to do the thing he did better than all but a few people in the world and live a meaningful, happy life that brightened the lives of his family, his town, and his fans. In both his career and his life, the end came too soon, but he made the most of his time and made the world a better place. All that said, when I was a kid I definitely was disappointed that he fell one short of 20 wins in 1976. To say I loved the round numbers and numerical milestones in baseball is putting it too lightly. When I was a kid those numbers gave shape to my life in a way that nothing else did. I wanted the Bird to come back and win 20 in 1977, and when that didn’t happen I wanted him to do it in 1978, and then 1979, and then 1980, and even after he disappeared from view at the major league level I knew he was at Pawtucket, and I kept hoping for what I understood was an impossible return to form. And now, decades later, I’m trying to give him the 1977 season I’d hoped for. It’s a tall order, as his 1977 Strat-O-Matic card is good but not great, and he can only take the ball once every five days, rather than every four days. He’s got to make his starts count, and he’s got to have help from his fielders and his offense.

All this to say that when I was building a team to bring the Bird back to life and make things right, I started with Joe Morgan. I put him first on my list for the league’s automated draft. This was a bigger gamble in terms of getting Mark Fidrych, but I didn’t want to send Fidrych out there without Joe Morgan. It was also probably an unnecessary gamble, as Joe Morgan’s salary in the league is outlandishly high, the highest in the game, $13.2 million a year, requiring a devotion of 16.5% of a team’s $80 million salary cap. Realistically speaking, most other managers in the online game would not be willing to cripple all the other aspects of their team by paying so much to one guy.

But I wanted to build a team with great defense at every position and with a balanced lineup that could score runs in different ways, and the key to all that was Joe Morgan. Without him, I’d either have to have a subpar fielder at one of the two most important positions (the other being shortstop), or have a fielder who still wasn’t as good as Morgan at second and who was a gaping hole in the lineup. The other element in play with Morgan is something that seems to have had some study in baseball’s statistical analysis: position scarcity. I don’t pretend to understand any of the mathematics in those studies, but I am keenly familiar with the concept from my thousands of hours playing Strat-O-Matic, which is that it matters not only how good a player is but how good he is in relation to the other players at his position.

I just reread Joe Posnanski’s great book The Machine, and in that book there’s an emphasis on the Reds’ four superstars, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and Joe Morgan. Sparky Anderson drew a circle around those four guys as his superstars and announced to everyone on the team not only that he was doing so, but that everyone on the team who was outside the circle was “a turd.” (One of the most interesting aspects of the book was how this management style played out in creating justifiably volcanic bitterness with one player in particular, Ken Griffey, and in Griffey’s story Joe Morgan comes out looking pretty bad. Morgan never took Griffey under his wing, which Griffey had hoped he would, and he also essentially took away a spectacular asset of the blazingly fast Griffey by forbidding him to steal bases while Morgan, who batted behind Griffey, was at the plate.) There are circles within that four-player circle, of course. Perez is a Hall of Famer, but he’s not at the level of the other three. Rose was an incredible and at this point underrated player (and his willingness to move midseason to a position where he’d previously struggled was an incredible sacrifice that allowed the Big Red Machine to settle into its groove as an all-time great team), but he is not in a league with Bench and Morgan, who are arguably the best players ever to play their positions (and if you like someone else for their spots on the field, Bench and Morgan have to be at least in your top two or three). And I can’t tell you who’s better between Bench and Morgan, but for whatever it’s worth I’ll say that I’d pick Morgan first for my Strat-O-Matic team 100% of the time before I’d pick Bench, because in the league during their time there were several other good if not great options at catcher (e.g., Fisk, Munson, Simmons, Tenace, Ferguson), while at second base there was, across the whole league, Bobby Grich a fair distance behind Joe Morgan (and in the 1977 game Grich is not even able to play second base, as he spent that season at shortstop), and the distance between those two and the rest of the second basemen of the league makes all the Duane Kuipers and Doug Flynns of the league look, from Morgan’s perch, as tiny and inconsequential as ants.

Anyway, Morgan so far has done what he was supposed to do. He has had another good stretch of games, as can be suggested in the notes below, and in addition to stealing bases and drawing walks and hitting home runs and, most of all, scoring runs, he has played the whole season so far without an error. The team is doing better than I expected, as I was bracing for overall mediocrity resulting from my lopsided Bird-centric philosophy because of the reliance of that philosophy on a pitching staff populated, besides Fidrych, by cheaply-priced batting-practice lobbers. But the team continues to cling to its narrow hold on first place in the division. More importantly, the Bird has 8 wins through 57 games, on track for a number that I am hoping will give some shape to this ever baffling world.

***

Worcester Birds notes, games 52 through 57

  • G52: L 7-1
    • Stanley battered again; lineup stymied by Ken Brett
  • G53: W 7-5
    • Morgan homers, doubles, and scores 3 runs (and is still without an error); McClure hurls 2 perfect innings for the save
  • G54: L 3-1
    • Nothing doing against Gaylord Perry (11 Ks, 4 hits)
  • G55: W 10-4
    • Cowens leads hit parade with 3; Bowa adds two hits while contributing to 4 more double plays, adding to team’s league-leading total
  • G56:W 9-2 (Fidrych 8-3)
    • Cowens with 3 hits again; Fidrych strong through 9.
  • G57: W 3-1
    • Stanley gains win with his first good outing (5.2 IP, 0 runs); Morgan does a little of everything (1 run, 1 hit, 1 BB, 1 RBI) and is still without an error through 57 games and 326 chances
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Bullpen Buggy

May 17, 2022

What’s your favorite souvenir? Mine was probably what you see here, or a version of it: a cheap plastic replica of the bullpen cart used in the 1970s by the New York Mets.

I wish I still had it. I’m drawn to the toys I played with as a kid. They helped me then, and I’m still looking to them now. That’s I guess what’s going on with the Worcester Birds, my ongoing attempt to cope with life, with stress, anxiety, grief, white nationalist terrorism, fascism, climate failure, etc.

Fun!

Anyway, I’ve placed the Worcester Birds in Shea Stadium, in part because it was, in 1977, a very tough place to get a hit, which I hoped would be a help to Mark Fidrych (it has: he’s been good at home, shaky on the road), and in part because it was where my father took my brother and me to see baseball, and where he once bought me a plastic bullpen buggy toy. I’ve written plenty about those days at Shea. Here’s a bit from an old article I wrote about it and some other stuff on Baseball Prospectus:

When I think of my own father beside my brother and me, the three of us in the predominantly empty stands of Shea Stadium during a Mets game in the 1970s, I see an uncomfortable bespectacled sociologist suffering in his blue, long-sleeve, button-down shirt through a day of things he disliked or even despised: subway rides, baseball, crowds, mid-summer humidity, sunburn, gross profiteering, noise pollution, air pollution, garbage, stenches, drunkards, dolts, loudmouths, slobs, the masses, the various and sundry opiates of the masses, and, last but not least, presumably, the idea, supported by the ample evidence of his offspring’s contrarily enthusiastic orientation toward many of these miseries, that one or both of his sons might grow up to live a life of meaningless escapist diversion.

During our once-a-year visits to see him in his book-glutted studio apartment in Manhattan, he dragged us to museums and subtitled foreign films, hoping we’d take to the finer creations of the human mind, but we generally saw them as crucibles to labor through so that we could get to the payoff of huge greasy slices at Ray’s on 11th Street and whatever installment of The Pink Panther was in theaters and, most of all, a trip on the groaning 7 Train to Shea. Our father complied with this arrangement. At Shea, besides grimacing and jabbing his fingers into his ears every time one in the unending stream of screaming LaGuardia jets passed just above our heads, Dad didn’t complain. He let us be fans . . .

At Shea in the late 1970s, a pitching change by the home team was facilitated by the use of a small electric cart that was shaped like a giant baseball with a giant Mets cap. The cart moved slowly across the outfield grass carrying the likes of Skip Lockwood or Bob Apodaca as meandering organ music played. I loved it. During one of our visits to Shea, my father bought me a palm-sized plastic replica of this bullpen cart. Even when the game was still going on, I could barely take my eyes off of it. I remember riding the subway home from Shea that day, rolling the little plastic baseball-cap cart up and down my Toughskins lap. Of all the things that ever came to me, it might have been my favorite souvenir.

https://www.baseballprospectus.com/news/article/13672/baseball-proguestus-baseball-boyhood-and-bullpen-carts/

***

Worcester Birds game notes:

  • G46: W 4-3 (Fidrych 6-3)
    • Fidrych hangs tough through 8, and Soderholm gets key hit in comeback rally in 5th
  • G47: L 19-8
    • The Crash Test Dummies, Stanley and Mingori, take a beating (combining to allow 25 baserunner and 16 runs in 7.1 innings)
  • G48: L 5-1
    • Lineup baffled by Rudy May; Forster takes the loss
  • G49: W 7-3
    • Tiant allows 3 in first but holds opposing lineup (featuring Schmidt, Foster, and Bench) scoreless for the following 8 innings for a complete game win; Soderholm stars again (3-3 with HR and 3 RBI); Boisclair also homers
  • G50: L 13-9
    • Dixon is battered, wasting a big outing from the offense
  • G51: W 9-5 (Fidrych 7-3)
    • Bostock homers twice, Boisclair goes 4 for 4 for his third straight multihit game, and Fidrych soldiers through all 9 for a complete game win. 

***

Standings:

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Rodney Scott

May 15, 2022

Not much to say tonight, but I want to keep the notes flowing. I’m not even sure why, except to say that writing is the only way I know of wrestling some meaning out of life.

I was out on my bicycle last night, riding home from seeing a band. The moon was nearly full. It was a warm night.

My boys played out back with some other kids from the building today and yesterday. Warm days, blue sky. There were kids of all ages back there. My older boy used to be the little toddler out there, the baby among the big kids. Now he’s the biggest kid, and even my younger boy is one of the big ones, and the toddlers are looking up at them.

I just moved here to Chicago. I always think that way. But I moved here a long time ago. I reconnected with Strat-O-Matic the year we moved here, started playing the online game. The rush of that first online season! I didn’t know anybody except my girlfriend, but I knew those cards, the way they stacked up all the possibilities in clean, orderly rows. The years—they flew. I married my girlfriend in Chicago, saw my sons born in Chicago, saw them go from the toddlers out back to the big boys.

I was thinking all this as I was riding home through Chicago under the near-full moon.

Rodney Scott enters a game as a pinch-runner. He steals second base. He steals third base. These are dice rolls. He could be out, each time, but he’s safe, each time. A fly ball is lifted to centerfield. Rodney Scott tags and runs toward home. Another dice roll. It’s Cesar Cedeno out there. He’s got a powerful arm. That’s what I’ll say, a powerful arm. I almost used the most common figure of speech for an outfielder with a strong arm, but I’m through saying that someone has a gun as if it’s a good thing.

Every moment is a dice roll. You never know when it will end. And it all goes by as fast as Rodney Scott.

***

Worcester Birds notes, games 40 through 45:

  • G40: W 4-2
    • After team allows 43 runs in three games, Bill Lee halts the skid with 5 shutout innings. After the bullpen coughs up the lead (Lee still winless), Tony Muser gets it back with a 2-out 2-run double in the 9th.
  • G41: W 5-2 (Fidrych 5-3)
    • Fidrych allows 2 runs in 7 innings, and Tekulve clinches win with a hitless 5-out save.
  • G42: W 3-2
    • Ron Jackson with 2 hits, including a home run; Terry Forster (6 IP, 1 run) with the win and Bill Campbell (3 IP, 1 run) with the save.
  • G43: W 6-3
    • Ed Kranepool hits a grand slam, and Tekulve pitches 2 perfect innings for the save.
  • G44: W 11-5
    • Kranepool with 5 RBI and a home run; Al Cowens with 4 hits.
  • G45: W 5-4
    • In the 9th, pinch-runner Rodney Scott steals second and third and scores the winning run on a sacrifice fly; Tekulve earns the win with 2.1 shutout innings.
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Transactions

May 13, 2022

I’ve made a huge mistake. That’s what the data says so far about the flurry of cuts and acquisitions I made yesterday afternoon, altering the original roster of the Worcester Birds, while my kids were in their karate class. The class was being held outside, in a nice park near our house. My wife and I were both there, sitting in folding chairs, and I could have just enjoyed myself, breathing deeply and looking at trees waving around in the breeze, or whatever it is people do when they’re enjoying nature. Instead, I went nuts with a rash of imaginary baseball moves.

I made these moves after my wife and I talked about how exhausted we both were by the puppy we’d decided to add to the mix of our family a few days ago. We have two kids, two cats, and now, two dogs, one of them apparently a diabolical genius of mayhem. You make moves in life. Are they for good reasons? Are they for more love, not less? That was the thinking with the puppy, who lay at our feet trying to eat our feet, and we couldn’t help it. We were in love with the asshole.

The driving force of all my imaginary baseball moves was not too far from love. Or what the hell, I can say it: I love Ed Kranepool. It was all for Ed Kranepool. How do I add Ed Kranepool to my team and not weaken the support Mark Fidrych will get for each of his starts? Well, I better make sure to make up the defense deficit in moving from a young, quick Keith Hernandez to an Ed Kranepool who had been galumphing around at first since the Kennedy presidency. So I swapped in Al Cowens, winner of a 1977 Gold Glove in right field, for the good but not great fielder Jose Cruz. I also grabbed good glove, no-hit Tony Muser as a late-inning defensive replacement for both Ed Kranepool and his right-handed platoon counterpart, Ron Jackson. Bruce Boisclar was picked up for essentially the same salary as Dan Thomas, who had been struggling, and I figured adding another Shea Stadium denizen in addition to Ed Kranepool would help create the kind of magic fusing of computer algorithms and personal memories that I’m hoping for. Mike Marshall had a lousy season in 1977 in real life, and it has been going even worse for him in this virtual universe, and I imagined that the abrasive personality he reportedly displayed throughout his career might also be affecting my team, so I decided to try improving morale with charming David Letterman guest Terry Forster, but to do I had to free up a little more salary, which I was able to do by dumping Glenn Burke for Joe Zdeb.

This last shift may have been the move that dooms the season, as Glenn Burke, in real life, was valued by his 1977 Dodgers teammates as a hugely important clubhouse presence. In Andrew Maraniss’s Singled Out, opponent Tito Fuentes described Burke “as like a glistening mirror ball at a discoteque when the light hits it and all of these different reflections and colors flash all over room.” What happens when you remove that kind of light from a team?

Well, so far, what has happened is that the aged Ed Kranepool got injured almost instantly. The other new acquisitions have played well, except for Terry Forster, who immediately got the new version of the team off to a shaky start. But something else seems to have come completely undone, and if there’s such a thing as team morale with an imaginary team, it is surely guttering with Glenn Burke’s departure and with the unwarranted punishment of Bill Campbell, who prior to the series described in the notes below was leading the team in innings pitched and leading the entire league in ERA.

I’m still hoping the team will get it turned back around. There are still signs of life. The team has been good at home, and Mark Fidrych is has been good at home, and he is scheduled to pitch the next game, at home. Also, as you can see at the bottom of this post, the new puppy ruining our lovestruck lives has David Bowie eyes. Everything will always be a beautiful collapsing mess.

Worcester Birds notes, games 37 through 42:

  • G37: L 13-3
    • New acquisition Terry Forster struggles, and bullpen mopper Steve Mingori pushes a lopsided loss into an embarrassment.
  • G38: L 14-11
    • Putrid Bob Stanley records only two outs before getting the hook (allowing 5 runs); Bill Campbell’s league-leading ERA goes the way of the dodo bird after he is, for some reason unknown to the team, forced to go the whole rest of the way with nothing working (7.1 IP, 8 H, 7 BB, 9 ER). Team is grumbling.
  • G39: L 16-3
    • Tiant rocked for 10 runs; Campbell brought in again to finish up with humiliating batting practice (2 IP, 8 H, 6 ER). Team on brink of outright revolt.

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in and out of the garden he goes

May 12, 2022

This image is from an MLB documentary on Mark Fidrych. If you’re familiar with a particular musical terrain, you’ll recognize the band associated with the skull and roses design on his shirt, even if you can’t make out the lettering around the design. As you can see, Fidrych is smiling, if not beaming. You might guess that he’s describing a high point in one of the concerts of this favorite band of his. But in fact at this point in the documentary he’s in the middle of looking back at and describing the spring training injury in 1977 that proved to be the beginning of the end of his time at the very top of major league baseball and American pop culture and some kind of miraculous expression of joy. Those of us who love Mark Fidrych always want this part to have gone differently. We want him to have been able to keep pitching like he did in 1976, keep showing us the way to life as a game to be grateful for and to enjoy. He surely wanted it to go differently too. He was a fierce competitor, for one thing. Also, he knew right from the start the gift he was given, and he didn’t want to squander it. I’ve been trying to bring him back in hopes of extending his moment of pristine excellence, but it’s been more ambivalent than that so far, with glimpses of the untouchable Bird occluded by messy pummelings, and maybe that’s just as well, because it pushes me deeper into the mystery of Mark Fidrych. He was in the garden, pure, perfect, and then he wasn’t. But he kept trying to get back for years, even spending two seasons beyond his last major league game struggling at minor league Pawtucket. More than that, beyond that, he seems to have kept a hold on the gratitude and capacity for love and happiness that he expressed to the world during 1976. How did he continue to push on through? How did he get to the other side? He was in the garden, pure, perfect, and he goofily leapt for a lazy, fungo fly ball and landed somewhere else, outside that garden, somewhere much closer to where most of us spend our days. What’s your secret, Bird? How can you look back on what was lost and still smile?

***

As for the Bird’s imaginary team: I could use some help. In the Strat-O-Matic online league I’m in, you can dump a guy through game 42 and be able to apply 95% of their salary to picking up a free agent. Between game 43 and game 81, you get 90% of a cut player’s salary, and after game 81 you get 80%. The Worcester Birds are through 36 games, so if I’m going to make any moves, I’d be wise to make them now. The team is in first, barely, and they’ve been generally doing what they’ve been designed to do, on a team level: hit well and field well behind Mark Fidrych. Fidrych, for his part, has been up and down, great at home and lousy on the road (see game notes below), and anyway he’s certainly not going anywhere. But I am considering moves involving a couple of the underperforming hitters.

If you want to general manage along with me, the Worcester Birds stats are here.

In addition to the stats, I’m considering if the player has a message to add to this exercise in reading the dice rolls throughout a season to try to figure out my own life. I don’t know if you can help with that, but for example dropping a struggling Keith Hernandez for Ed Kranepool appeals to me not just because it would free up some salary for other trouble spots (such as possibly replacing doomed Dan Thomas in the lineup, possibly with offseason gravedigger and Massachusetts native Richie Hebner, and upgrading run-hemorrhagers Mike Marshall and Bob Stanley on the pitching staff) but also because I don’t have any strong personal associations with Keith Hernandez, while Ed Kranepool pulls me to 1977, Shea Stadium, sitting beside my brother and my father, the latter oblivious to the terrible baseball unfolding on the field below, instead reading the New York Times through the whole game and plugging his ears and grimacing every few minutes as a LaGuardia jet roars overhead.

***

Worcester Birds notes, games 31 through 36:

  • G31: L 12-2
    • Fidrych surrenders 7 hits and 3 runs in 4, earning the loss, and Mingori mops up with a filthy mop (11 hits and 9 runs in 4 innings).
  • G32: L 3-2
    • Lee leaves the game in the 8th with the score 1-1, but the runner he left on second is allowed in by the bullpen, and he gets his third hard-luck loss. He’s 0-3, the only pitcher on the team without a win, despite having the lowest ERA of any starter.
  • G33: L 6-3
    • Marshall gives up 5 runs in 5 innings. Burke with 3 hits in loss.  
  • G34: L 6-4
    •  Tiant extends his scoreless streak to 19 innings but then falters, hitting the showers in the 6th, and Tekulve serves up a gopher ball to Evans in the 8th to decide the game.
  • G35: W 6-4
    • The team stops a season-high 5-game losing streak by rallying furiously with 3 runs in the bottom of the 8th and a game-winning two-run homer by Bostock in the bottom of the 9th. McClure pitches 2 scoreless innings for the win.
  • G36: W 4-0
    • Fidrych and Campbell combine on a 4-hit shutout. Fidrych, now 4-3 on the season, is two different pitchers so far: great at home (2.55 ERA), lost on the road (5.74 ERA).

Standings:

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in another time’s forgotten space

May 10, 2022

What are your ways into joy? I’ve had a few. Mark Fidrych was one. Another was the world he came to me from, baseball. Another was the main way that world came to me, baseball cards. Then as I got older, left childhood, there was music. And then certain drugs became a part of it, until the openings they helped create formed rusty, serrated edges. I kept trying to push myself through the openings for some time after all they did was snag me, cut me.

Joy flowed in childhood, yelped and gasped in my younger adult years. Now I mostly see it in murmurs, echoes. It’s also there in moments with my kids, deep and fleeting, pulsing with love and ruined by worry. Always with them: what next? So sometimes I miss the illusions from my young and stupid years of some more permanent joy. Baseball flowing through me, or music. Yesterday, nothing stronger in me than coffee, I walked my dog around the block while listening to “Franklin’s Tower” from the Grateful Dead’s 4/23/77 show in Springfield, Massachusetts. It’s a version where you can hear the crowd going berserk, in whoops and scuffed-up hand-clap rhythm, and the band rides that wave. I started skipping a little as I listened. Skipping! Or maybe sort of a stiff-limbed skip-jog. Imagine what this looked like. I’m 54, tall, pale, beady-eyed: an ostrich. If I looked out the window of our building and saw someone doing something similar, I’d mock them. “Hey, family,” I’d say to my family, “check out this hideous display coming down the sidewalk.” But I had no visible witnesses. So I indulged joy’s echo.

That Springfield show was part of the band’s renowned spring 1977 run. The dates of that tour ring out among the fans of the band as if written on large white signs, none more prominent than 5/8/77, the Barton Hall show at Cornell University. If you’re not a fan of the band, it’ll no doubt seem like the same unpalatable tangle of overcooked wheatgrass linguine as everything else these hippies have produced. But for those who count the band as one of their portals into joy, this 5/8/77 show presents the musicians at one of their nimble peaks. But the prominence of the show in the band’s mythology also stems from some random dice rolls of community and technology. No one would have known about the show beyond those who attended it if not for the practice that had grown around the band in which fans taped the shows and then traded (like baseball cards) the tapes, and that show in particular would not have risen to legendary status over the years had it not been one of the vibrant, crisp recordings captured by Grateful Dead sound engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson. Even if you weren’t there, you can go there, again and again. I’ve been going there a lot lately. I keep burrowing back to these fragments of the past. Listening to 45-year-old recordings. Imagining baseball based on a 45-year-old season. Imagining the Bird.

Is there joy in this burrowing? I don’t know. There’s breaking into a brief skip-jog, there’s a half smile. There’s compulsion, a slight numbing, maybe a brief abating of worry. Sometimes I think of this burrowing again and again into the past as wormlike, an aimless tunneling through dead matter, around and around to no purpose but to remain within the familiar, eating it, shitting it, tunneling then through the shit. And then sometimes I think of it like I’m an ostrich. Jamming my head down into the ground to avoid the present, the future. What now, what next? I don’t want to know. I don’t want to see.

***

Fuckin Ostrich, Bill Lee is thinking. He’s just given up a 3-run first inning home run to Larry Parrish. It’s the day after he, Mark Fidrych, and Dan Thomas ended up, on a whim, taking a hitchhiker all the way from outside their team’s home stadium in Worcester to Cornell University, through a fucking snowstorm no less, and after making a wrong turn and going through Cooperstown with the spirit of Rube Waddell whistling through the goddamn pines, so that the whole thing started to take on a mythic edge, especially after the introduction of some small cardboard tabs that the glaring weirdo hitchhiker provided to the baseball players as he was leading them into the concert. They were circular and tiny, no bigger than the head of a small nail, and with a design on them of a clock centered by the many-armed Indian deity Krishna, which Lee figured, as he placed the tab on his tongue, meant that fairly soon the time was, finally, after all these years, going to be ABSOLUTELY NOW. And it was for the duration of the concert, that birthing galactic cataclysm, a now that was past and present and future all at once, and this lasted also through the drive back, though starting to singe at the edges, and all through the rest of the night and into the next day, crumbling, crumbling, until, as game time neared, a more customary presentation of space and time finished accruing itself around Lee, and it was at that point that he found himself in his team’s clubhouse, sitting on a bench, looking into the pale, beady-eyed face of his manager, Josh Wilker, who was informing him that he, Lee, was going to be the starting pitcher in that day’s game.

“I’m what?” Lee said.

“You’re up. You’re the guy,” announced this incompetent. “Or is there a problem?”

“Problem?” Lee said. You’re the problem, he had thought. I can fall out of a helicopter into a volcano and be ready to pitch. You’re the mumbly know-nothing of this operation.

“Just give me the ball,” Lee said.

But now, watching Larry Parrish lumber around the bases, Lee is fuming. The Ostrich doesn’t look my way but once or twice the whole goddamn season and then the one day when I’m trying to sort out my ass from my elbow just a little after seeing into some Truths that, if he ever pulled his head up out of the ground and got a peek at them, would have him shitting his pants, THAT day he’s gotta send me out to the hill? When maybe I could have used a minute to reflect and realign my cosmic navigational system just a little?

But fuck it, Lee says. You can’t count on management.

So he settles down and, despite having to steer around periodic after-flashes of the night before (it’s a little like pitching during a lightning storm), Lee authors four scoreless innings to keep his team in the game. When Parrish gets to him again, this time just with a bloop single, Lee reluctantly glances over at the dugout, and, goddamn it, sees signs that his day is ending. As usual Wilker is refraining from entering the field of play and is instead, the bureaucratic coward, sending out one of the flunkies on his coaching staff, who all seem so devoid of personality as to be flat, computerized extensions of the manager, who is himself not exactly Sammy Davis Jr. wowing them at the Sands. Lee gets one final aftershock from the Krishna acid, and it makes him shudder, as if he’s seeing a final bleak flash of the future, the last thing we’ll all ever see in this screen-glow burrowing we now think of as life: the robotic pitching coach approaching the mound to take the ball from Bill Lee’s hands is revealed to be a humanoid swirl of 0s and 1s.

***

Worcester Birds notes, games 25 through 30:

  • G25: L 3-2
    • Lee surrenders only a 3-run homer in first but team can’t recover. They leave the tying run in scoring position in 6th, 7th, and 9th. Campbell with another strong, wasted stint (3 scoreless innings)
  • G26: L 5-4 (16)
    • Crushing loss; after Fidrych has nothing (13 hits in 4.1 innings) heroic bullpen effort (10 2/3 innings, 1 run) wasted; Morgan, Munson, Soderholm all injured; would-be go-ahead run stranded in scoring position in inning 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 15. Lopes scores on a grounder in 16th after singling and stealing two bases off of beleaguered backstop Ed Kirkpatrick 
  • G27: L 12-4
    • A shit show. Garbage man Mike Marshall is battered (12 hits and 7 runs in 4 IP); Ed Kirkpatrick allows 6 stolen bases and commits 2 errors 
  • G28: W 9-5
    • Munson returns, restores order (2 hits, 1 HR, 3 RBI), McClure with 3.2 scoreless innings and a win 
  • G29: W 3-0
    • Tiant with 6 shutout innings (now with no runs allowed in his last 16.1 innings), Campbell with 2.1 scoreless (and Tekeulve with 2 outs for the save)  
  • G30: L 6-2
    • Stanley gets swatted around. Campbell strong again in relief

Standings:

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5/8/77

May 7, 2022

Three members of the Worcester Birds are speeding along in a large American car. It’s after a day game, a 1-0 win highlighted by six scoreless innings by the team’s aging maestro, Luis Tiant. The three players are headed home, or to what will always be home for one of them and what will be home for just this one strange season for the other two. They’re headed to Northborough, just outside Worcester. They come upon a figure on the side of the road. He holds a large white sign that has on it nothing but that day’s date:

5/8/77

“What kind of a way to hitchhike is that?” the front seat passenger asks.

This is one of the team’s pitcher’s, Bill Lee. Despite pitching well throughout the first few weeks of the season, he’s been used sparingly, which has often put him in a caustic mood, especially when the team’s manager is under discussion. Lee refers to this person, Josh Wilker, as The Ostrich, frequently explaining at some length the idiocy, lack of fortitude, and repulsive appearance of this flightless animal.

“Who’s ever getting a ride with that ridiculous sign?” Lee says now. But the driver, Mark Fidrych, is already slowing the vehicle to a stop.

“He needs a lift,” Fidrych says.

“Christ, you can’t catch a ride to today,” Lee says. “If you aren’t here yet, you never will be.”

The passenger in the back, Dan Thomas, remains silent. The team has been up and down with its pitching, but nearly everyone has been hitting well. The exception is Thomas. He’s been getting quieter and more removed from other team members as his slump persists. Fidrych insisted he ride with him and Lee back to Northborough. Fidrych has been struggling as well, but he seems determined to keep after it until he gets to whatever is on the other side.

“Roll down your window,” Fidrych says to Lee. “Hey there,” he says to the hitchhiker.

“A miracle,” the hitchhiker says. He’s a young, thin man with an intense gaze.

“So where are you headed there, Chief?” Lee asks. There’s a sardonic edge to the question. He eyeballs the sign.

“I was just at 5/7/77,” the hitchhiker says. The flat intensity of his gaze shifts to a glassy-eyed smile.

“You were what?” Lee says.

“Back there.” He motions with the sign toward a nearby road that leads to Boston. “It was . . . “

The hitchhiker’s glassy-eyed smile increases its intensity. He doesn’t finish his thought, or else he’s too busy thinking it to put anything to words.

“Well, get in,” Fidrych says.

“Where are we supposed to take this character?” Lee says.

Fidrych leans closer to his teammate and keeps his voice at a respectful murmur.

“He probably just needs some grub,” he says. “Some rack time.”

“Negative,” the hitchhiker says. “I don’t require sleep. Anyway it is I who will be leading you to the next stop.”

“Yeah? How do you figure that?” The sardonic tone has dropped from Lee’s voice, or most of it has. He’s curious.

“Why else would you have stopped?”

The slumping hitter in the backseat, Thomas, mutters something. Fidrych looks up into the rear view mirror.

“What was that, Sundown?” he says.

“The sign of God is that we will be led where we did not plan to go,” Thomas says.

***

***

Worcester Birds notes, games 19 through 24:

  • G19: L 5-3
    • Tiant roughed up over 5; Geronimo with two hits
  • G20: W 6-4
    • Morgan 2 hits and a home run; Campbell with 2 scoreless innings for the win
  • G21: L 6-3
    • Fidrych shaky; Campbell with 2 more scoreless innings
  • G22: W 8-3
    • Soderholm with 2 home runs; Munson with 2 hits and a homer
  • G23: W 4-3
    • Munson with 3 hits and a homer; Dixon with a strong 7 innings for the win
  • G24: W 1-0
    • Tiant 6 scoreless innings; Morgan home run is his 5th in 7 games

h1

“I could not feel my feet hitting the ground”

May 6, 2022

Through 18 games, the Worcester Birds are 12 and 6 and are leading their division in the hallowed “Auto League 460121” of the Strat-O-Matic online game. Mark Fidrych has pitched spectacularly well in one start and has scuffled otherwise, but with help from a potent lineup and an unexpectedly effective bullpen, he’s notched 3 wins, keeping him on pace at this very early stage to surpass 20 wins. He’ll be the main point of interest for me over the next few weeks as this simulated reconfiguring of the past unfolds, but you can’t say he’s been the story of the team’s hot start thus far.

If I were following this team the way I followed baseball in 1977, the story of the season so far would ring out loud and clear, as my main point of contact with the action back then was studying the batting averages and league leaders in the newspaper. Studying is not even the right word. Using, maybe? But to what purpose? I’m not really sure, but if a player for my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, was near the top of the list in any of the major statistical categories of the day, I would fixate on that name. I might go find the player’s card in my collection. I would imagine being that player. And the ritual, or whatever it was, didn’t actually restrict itself to merely a search for Red Sox players. I felt compelled to memorize everyone, or to try to, from the very bottom to the top. Especially the top. I think that’s why I reacted to Lyman Bostock’s death when I was a kid by tacking to my wall a clipping of the Sunday averages with his name near the top. He had become a part of my mind, and not just any part but some aspirational euphoric pinnacle, part of a personal Sistine sky I was painting on the roof of my brain to replace the dark and inexplicable with fixed, glowing stars.

I’ll tell you more later about the brightest current star in this new fabrication of reality. For now I just wanted to capture a glimpse of Eric Soderholm riding high. His 1976 and 1977 seasons were something of a reverse echo of those same two years for Mark Fidrych. As Fidrych struggled with injuries in 1977 after his brilliant 1976 season, Soderholm posted a career-best season in 1977 after sitting out the entire 1976 season with injuries. Soderholm experienced a more extreme break from baseball in 1976 than Fidrych did in 1977, and similarly Soderholm didn’t achieve the heights in 1977 that Fidrych did in 1976 (because nobody ever got that high).

Still, Soderholm got pretty close. Closer than most of us ever get. As I fixate on his name at the top of the leaders lists, I imagine that feeling. In a great interview with oral historian Mark Liptak, Eric Soderholm reports about what it was like at the pinnacle in 1977:

Mark Liptak: Perhaps your greatest personal moment that year was on July 30, a nationally televised game on NBC. The Sox had come from behind to beat the Royals on Friday night. In this game the Sox trailed 3-2 in the 7th when you came up against Doug Bird. Bird was a tough pitcher because he threw almost sidearm, yet you drilled a three run shot in the lower left center field deck to give the Sox a 5-3 lead. It ended with the Sox winning 6-4. Talk me through the at-bat, what you were feeling, especially when you hit the pitch.

Eric Soderholm: That was the most powerful, impacting moment I had in my career. As you were asking the question, I was thinking about it and I still get goose bumps. When I hit the ball I thought it had a chance. When it went in the seats the energy that came from the fans shook the park. It was a magical moment, the park was electric. As I was running the bases I could not feel my feet hitting the ground. I mean that. The place was up for grabs. I remember that I took a big jump to touch home plate and then I was mobbed by the guys. Incredible.

from Eric Soderholm interview with Mark Liptak

***

Additional Worcester Birds notes, games 13 through 18:

  • G13: W 8-4
    • Munson 5 for 5 with 2 home runs and 4 RBI. Dixon earns win with 1 run in 5 innings. Cruz with 2 hits, including a homer.
  • G14: L 3-2
    • Lee now two for two in wasted, strong starts (5 innings, 1 run), and Soderholm blasts his 6th home run.
  • G15: W 13-7
    • Cruz 3 for 5 with 3 runs scored; Bowa 3 for 5 with 2 RBI
  • G16: W 6-4 (Fidrych 3-1)
    • Bowa with a game-tying 2-run homer; Soderholm with 2 hits and a homer; Tekulve with 2 scoreless innings for the save
  • G17: W 11-7
    • Soderholm with 3 hits and a homer; Hernandez with 3 hits and 2 RBI; Bostock with 3 hits
  • G18: L 5-4   
    • Morgan with 3 hits and a homer; Campbell with 3 scoreless innings

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Through Eight

May 5, 2022

Through eight innings, Mark Fidrych has not allowed a hit.

This breathless moment of anticipation and hope never actually happened in real life. But what even is real life? Everything is always changing, even things that have already happened, so maybe what we think of as “what really happened” is merely a first draft, and there are infinite revisions of that draft. In one revision that’s currently unfolding in a simulated baseball league and in my mind and in these words, Mark Fidrych is through eight innings and has not allowed a hit.

In his actual career, the closest he came to a no-hitter was the first time he started a major league game, on May 15, 1976, when he racked up 6 no-hit innings against the Cleveland Indians before Buddy Bell opened the seventh with a single, and Rick Manning followed with another single, and that was about it for the Indians that day. That 2-hitter that launched the Bird’s magical 1976 run would still be standing at the end of his career as his game with the fewest hits allowed in any of his 56 major league starts. He had a lot of talent as a pitcher, but he wasn’t unhittable. His astounding success in 1976, in which he went from a complete unknown to the best pitcher in baseball, rested on his ability to lock in, to flap and pace and pump himself into a goofy magnetic shamanic trance, which in turn enabled his near flawless execution of the simple impossible Prime Directive of Pitching: keep the ball low and throw fuckin strikes.

He didn’t have Nolan Ryan’s stomach-hollowing 100-MPH fastball, Steve Carlton’s brutal, misanthropic slider, Bert Blyleven’s limb-locking curveball, Phil Niekro’s irrational, decentering knuckleball, Gaylord Perry’s lawless, diving spitter. He didn’t glower and terrify like Goose Gossage or spin and hesitate and obfuscate like Luis Tiant. He didn’t overpower anyone or trick anyone or confuse anyone. He just threw pitch after pitch that traced a sizzling line at the knees of the batter and over the black stripe on one side or another of the plate. And while that was enough for him to pitch better than anyone in the world for one year, it didn’t strip from opposing hitters the ability to make contact with his pitches. He was never unhittable.

That was one of the beautiful things about the summer of the Bird. He knew he couldn’t do it alone. When a teammate made a good play for him he bubbled over with appreciation, pointing, gesturing, smiling, talking. Always talking! Waving to the fans, beaming, amazed—of course he couldn’t do it without us either. Shaking hands with the ump! Shaking hands with the cop! Talking, always talking. Even to the ball, of course to the ball. The most famous thing about him: he talked to the ball! And why not? Isn’t there a beating spirit alive in everything, all things, all beings? Isn’t this world all one thing in a million billion pieces, held together—if it’s held together and not falling apart—by love?

I was a kid when I saw all that, and I’ve never gotten over it, and I never want to. I was a curly-headed boy, eight years old, weird and happy and scared and overpowered and in love with baseball and the world. He was me, I was him. It was the same story for anyone who saw him—he was us, the way we wanted to be and the way we wanted the world to be.

He started flickering out the next year, and soon enough after that he was gone.

Except he’s not gone. That was the first draft, and we’ve been finding new ways to revise him ever since. I found a new way myself the other night, lying in bed. Before going to sleep, I checked to see if the latest three games for my Strat-O-Matic online baseball league had been posted, and they had, so I checked the score of the first game, a 14-inning win, and imagined that the dramatic nature of that win, along with the team’s early sprint toward the top of their division, built extra electricity for the following game, Mark Fidrych’s third start. His first start had gone poorly, and the second start had been decent, good enough for a win. Nothing spectacular yet, no signs of the Bird in full flight. But maybe this game would be different.

Instead of going straight to the box score for the result of the game, I clicked on the replay feature, in which the game unfolds in a gradual, no-frills readout of batters’ and pitchers’ names and at-bat results and the progression of runners around the bases. I lay there in the dark next to my curly-headed younger son, who had fallen asleep between my wife and me. My wife played a Tetris-like game on her phone, her end-of-day ritual. My son was on his stomach, and his back rose and fell slowly with his breathing.

Inning gave way to inning without a hit for the opposing team. I imagined the building din around the frenetic broad-shouldered stalking concentration of the Bird, imagined his appreciation for Geronimo making a running over-the-shoulder grab, for Bowa making a tremendous backhanded stop and throw to a fully-extended Hernandez at first. It wasn’t a flawless game for the Bird. He made an error in the first, surrendered a walk in the sixth. And in the bottom of the eighth, after Hernandez botched a grounder, allowing Paul Blair to reach, he seemed to lose focus altogether and walked two men to load the bases. At this point I was barely breathing at all. I imagined Thurman Munson rising from behind the plate and walking slowly, grumpily, to the mound. Can you see this? I can, or I’m trying to. The lean excitable long-haired smooth-cheeked pitcher jerky, shifty, unspooling, spinning out, the lumpy unshaven catcher not moving at all, glowering, trying to look his pitcher in the eye. Finally he thumps him in the chest with his mitt, and not lightly, to bring the pitcher’s darting gaze to his own. Now he can deliver his message clean and clear: Keep the ball low and throw fuckin strikes.  

And so Fidrych gets the next batter, a soft looper to Bowa, to end the eighth inning, stranding a runner at every base. Can you see it? The Bird applauds Bowa again, points to Munson (who ignores him, or appears to), and bounds toward the dugout in a way that makes it seem that beneath the stadium turf is an enormous trampoline. The whole place is going absolutely berserk.

Through eight innings, Mark Fidrych has not allowed a hit.

***

Part of me wants to leave it there, with the possibility still alive that he’s going to make it all the way, that three more outs will come and go without a hit, that the team will swarm Mark Fidrych and carry him off on their shoulders. But what actually happens is maybe also OK. Maybe it’s more like real life, but still with some magic. He gives up a hit to the lead-off batter, Bob Watson. He gives up a hit to the next guy too, George Foster, and two outs later, he gives up a third hit, to Paul Blair, and once again the bases are loaded. Once again Munson goes to the mound, but this time I see it all differently.

“I got it, Cap,” Fidrych says. “Don’t worry, don’t worry. We got it.”

He gets Jose Cardenal to ground to Bowa to end the game, and that’s that. No ecstatic swarm on the mound, no lifting the hero and carrying him off. The last out doesn’t make the place explode like it might have if there had been no hits at all, but in the moments after the last out the sound from the crowd builds, feeding on Fidrych, who is in the middle of the diamond thanking everyone around him and then turning to the crowd and pointing and waving, thanking everyone, absolutely everyone, and the sound keeps building and building.

We don’t carry him. He carries us.

***

Additional Worcester Birds notes, games 7 through 12:

  • G7: W 10-6
    • Soderholm homers twice; Thomas triples again and drives in 2. Tekulve continues bullpen’s success with 2 scoreless innings.
  • G8: W 8-4
    • Bostock (4 hits) and Hairston (3 hits) lead 17-hit barrage. Campbell and McClure (notching second save) log 4 shoutout innings in relief
  • G9: L 6-3
    • Mike Marshall struggles, but team is in it until Campbell gives up a 3-run blast to Pops Stargell in the 8th (all unearned due to Soderholm lead-off error)
  • G10: W 4-3 (14 innings)
    • Tekulve with 4 hitless innings; Mingori with 4 scoreless innings. Cruz starts comeback with 2-run homer in 6th. Bowa drives in Hairston with a single in 14th
  • G11: W 9-0 (Fidrych 2-1)
    • Fidrych carries a no-hitter into 9th. Glenn Burke with 2 hits, 2 RBI, and a steal. No-hitter broken up by Bob Watson (like Enos Cabell, who ruined the Bird’s first start, Watson is a key figure, perhaps the key figure—given that he’s the one who says, “C’mon, let the kids play!”—of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training) (and his notable hit in this imaginary universe comes on the anniversary of the day he was celebrated by Tootsie Rolls as the scorer of major league baseball’s one millionth run) (what I’m saying is, if it had to be anyone, I’m glad it was Bob Watson), followed by 2 more hits, but Fidrych retires Don Money to leave the bases loaded and preserve the shutout.
  • G12: L 2-1 (10 innings)
    • In the loss, Bill Campbell extends an inexplicably brilliant start to the season for the low-priced bullpen with 1 run scored in 5 innings (through 12 games, the reliever corps of Campbell, Mingori, Tekulve, and McClure have given up 4 earned runs in 44 innings for a 0.82 ERA)
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Week 1: Ed Kirkpatrick

May 2, 2022

Mark Fidrych’s new imaginary team, the Worcester Birds, has played its first six games and is holding its own, despite some tough breaks and despite the lack of any unmitigated heroics by its ace pitcher/reason for being. Below are thumbnail sketches for each game so far, followed by some more general notes on themes, signs, hallucinations. For each win, I’m going to bold the two stars of the game and see at the end of the year who showed up in that tallying the most. As of right now, Joe Morgan and Eric Soderholm are the early frontrunners with two mentions each, a fair reflection of their play so far, as Morgan leads the league in batting average and steals and Soderholm in RBI. But the story so far, in a strange way, has been Ed Kirkpatrick. That is to say, I’m approaching this whole endeavor with a belief that it is trying to tell me something. And in this first week of simulated games, the message has something to do with Ed Kirkpatrick.

  • G1: L 5-3 (Fidrych 0-1)
    • Early exit for Mark Fidrych, early exit for Thurman Munson (HBP, injured). Randle gets Bird teetering in the first, and Cabell finishes him off in the third.
  • G2: W 9-4
    • Luis Tiant with a solid start. Joe Morgan homers. Kent Tekulve notches a win. Ed Kirkpatrick HBP by Lyle but stays in
  • G3: W 5-3
    • Eric Soderholm homers. Tom Dixon pitches 3.2 1-hit shutout innings before injury. Tekulve notches another win after recording a single out
  • G4: W 13-6
    • Steve Mingori with 4 shutout innings in relief for win; Soderholm grand slam; Kirkpatrick HBP again (by Ken Brett) but stays in, tying the score (he also has 2 hits in the game)
  • G5: L 4-3
    • Another instant exit for Munson (HBP, injured); Bill Lee’s good start wasted; Rodney Scott scores on a Larry Bowa suicide squeeze to tie game in 8th, then Cesar Geronimo botches one, Lee is lifted, and Bob Stanley allows go-ahead hit
  • G6: W 5-4 (Fidrych 1-1)
    • Morgan with 3 hits; Dan Thomas with a huge triple; Fidrych with win after another very rocky first inning but recovery with no earned runs (and 1 unearned) over next 5 innings

OK, before getting to Ed Kirkpatrick, a little on that first game, and on Strat-O-Matic itself, and on the ongoing random gamble of life. To tie all these preamble thoughts to a name and an exasperated interrobang: Enos Cabell?!? That’s the guy, or to be realistic for a second, the series of unique mathematical outcomes, who ultimately ruined Mark Fidrych’s chances of getting off to a magical start to the season. The Bird had already struggled through a rough first inning, but he’d followed that by retiring five guys in a row, and while he ran into another threat in the third, things looked good for him to get out of it when Enos Cabell came to the plate with two outs. Here’s what the matchup looked like in terms of the cards:

To explain how good things looked at this point, it’s probably helpful to know a little about how Strat-O-Matic works. Strat-O-Matic gameplay involves three regular dice and a twenty-sided die. The first of the three regular dice determines the column of the batter or pitcher card to refer to for the result, and the second and third regular dice combine to determine the result in the given column. In the 1977 cards for Mark Fidrych and Enos Cabell above, you can see that there is virtually no possibility for a hit for the situation of a right-hand batter facing a right-handed pitcher if that initial dice roll is a 5, a 6, a 1, or a 2. The results on the pitcher’s card ending in X–e.g., “GB(SS)X”—are probable outs because I loaded my team with gold-glove-level fielders to help the Bird. The result with a > sign next to it (column 2, number 4) is also a probable out, as I placed the Bird in Shea Stadium for personal reasons but also because the ballpark factors are favorable to pitchers: on those > rolls the 20-sided die comes into play and hitters have only a 1 in 20 chance of getting a single at Shea. The rolls with the pound sign beside them (3-11 and 3-12) are “ballpark factor home run” rolls, and those are a little more friendly to the batter at Shea. Lefty batters have a decent chance of homering—they will do so on rolls of 1 through 10 on the 20-sided die, and righty batters will homer on rolls of 1 through 7. And column 3, which appears to have several hits on it, is actually another probable dead zone for Enos Cabell, as the dollar signs in that column indicate that if those apparent hits are landed on when there are two outs and a runner in scoring position, they turn into outs, a reflection of that batter’s 1977 struggles “in the clutch.” (Other players have those dollar signs next to outs, and in those same situations the out turns to a hit.)

So for Cabell, his chances rested mostly on rolling a 3-8, a 3-9, or one of the rolls in the middle of Bird’s one shaky area, column 4. But even in the unlikely event that those rolls came up, it would just further bend the back of Firdrych’s start, not break it. Fidrych will give up some singles here and there, but he keeps the ball in the ballpark, an amazing feat in homer-happy 1977. And with the outstanding defense behind him, that should be enough to keep him in games.

Anyway, Enos Cabell, one of the stars of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (he can be seen in the Astros dugout, putting in the thespian effort to point out at the field at Tanner Boyle making his stand), rolled a 3-11 with the first three dice and then got a number between 1 and 7 on the 20-sided die, and the Bird’s chances of a game 1 win were over. I don’t know math enough to tell you precisely how unlikely a result that devastating for the Bird was, but from playing Strat-O-Matic all my life I can tell you it makes me want to punch a hole in the wall, which I did when I was a kid playing Strat-O-Matic alone in my room and the dice kept landing weirdly and against my needy wishes. “Punched a hole in the wall” is a little misleading. I was and am a weakling! The walls of my childhood room were flimsy sheetrock, and it wasn’t so much a hole as a dent. I covered it up with something, possibly moving over the newspaper clipping of the Sunday batting averages that had Lyman Bostock’s name near the top and that I tacked to my wall somewhere because it felt like something I should do.

Which brings us, does Lyman Bostock’s name, to the topic of death. This post is already way too long for me to go very deep into it now, but it will hover over the season of the Worcester Birds. For one thing, nine of the 24 members of the team have, in real life, passed away. Some went early, others were able to hang around a little longer. It looked like Ed Kirkpatrick was going to be among the former; in 1981, he went into a coma after a series of compounding events. He was in a car accident that seemed minor, but then doctors found a blood clot traveling toward his brain and performed surgery, and during that surgery he had a heart attack that put him in a coma for six months. He came out of the coma and lived on until 2010, but he was paralyzed. I don’t know much about his life, but I think that Kirkpatrick, whose nickname was Spanky, naming his wheelchair Sparky was a sign that he showed the same dogged, sparkling resilience after baseball that he showed during his playing days.

And during this Strat-O-Matic afterlife, or so it appears. Kirkpatrick is the lowest-paid member of the Worcester Birds, and he was not expected to play in any of these first six games, but he’s played in all of them. The starting catcher, Thurman Munson, was hit by a pitch and injured for three games in his second at-bat of the season, and then in the first at-bat of his first game back from that injury, he was hit by a pitch and injured again. After this second drilling, a brawl ensued. Right? Your starting catcher and grizzled field general, already burdened by an air of impending tragedy hanging over him, comes back from an injury and is hit in the very same spot where he was injured? Fists are gonna fly. And I just read in Singled Out that Glenn Burke once decked two guys during a wild minor league brawl in Quebec, so I see him flying into the on-field melee to drop, I don’t know, Reggie Smith and Jim Tyrone. I’m starting to see a lot of things. In my usual Strat-O-Matic compulsiveness I don’t take time to imagine the events related to any of the game’s algorithms with any depth, but with the Worcester Birds I’m going to take my time. I’m getting a second chance to see Mark Fidrych, so why wouldn’t I try to slow everything down?

So I see Ed Kirkpatrick, who in 1977 is at the very end of his long career. In between Munson’s first and second injury, Ed Kirkpatrick himself was hit by pitch twice, in both cases injuriously, according to the dice roll and his card, but in the Strat-O-Matic online game there’s an override in which a team catcher can’t be injured if there are no other healthy catchers on the roster. Usually I don’t think too much about this unrealistic immortalizing of the backup catcher, but here, to make it real, maybe because for whatever reason right now I need it to be real, I see Ed Kirkpatrick grimacing in pain, even buckling a little, but then he peers into the dugout and all the players there, non-catchers all, wear a wide-eyed “what do we do now?” look on their faces. Ed Kirkpatrick has no choice. He has to keep going.

He entered the majors at age 17, a phenom. Though he never attained stardom, he played for 16 years at the highest level of his profession. He found ways to make himself useful, playing for 6 teams and logging games at 6 of the 8 positions on the field (all but pitcher and shortstop). In his last season alone, 1977, he played 5 of the 8 positions while bouncing from the Pirates to the Rangers to the Brewers. Keep going until you can’t. That’s the message I’m getting from Ed Kirkpatrick.

When Ed Kirkpatrick was first entering the action for the Birds, in the team’s very first game, there was a scene in the clubhouse that may or may not prove to be central to the team’s message to me. In the top of the third inning, Mark Fidrych had entered that clubhouse after getting the hook. Despite all the high hopes for him this season, and despite a roster and a ballpark designed to help him win games, and despite my need for him to instantly be the same indomitable miracle he was in 1976, he wobbled badly in the first inning and then was finished off altogether in the third by an improbable blast by Enos Cabell. He didn’t have to wait long for company in the clubhouse, as Thurman Munson was hit by a pitch and injured in the bottom of the fourth. At this point in the season the two men would not know each other well, and I imagine that one in particular, Munson, would be suspicious of the other’s ebullient manner on the diamond, so contrary to his own. But I see this: Munson enters a clubhouse that has been torn apart. Dents in the lockers (like the dent in my childhood room’s wall). Chairs and tables overturned. The author of this mayhem in the corner, still breathing hard, still steaming that Enos Cabell somehow flicked out his bat and caught a perfect low and outside fastball just right. Munson, gripping his throbbing wrist, sees Fidrych’s fierce disappointment and for the first time recognizes himself in the pitcher he’s thought of to this point as a weirdo, a flake. This kid wants to win.

“Was a good pitch,” Munson grumbles. “Fucking guy got lucky.”

“Jeez, what happened to you?” Fidrych says.

“Nothing. I’ll be ready for your next start. We’ll get ’em.”

But by Fidrych’s next start Munson had been hit again and shelved, and Ed Kirkpatrick was back behind the plate. Things started out pretty badly for the emergency battery. As seen above, Fidrych has a good Strat-O-Matic card, one with no walks and no home runs, but he does give up some hits, and he’s not great at holding runners on. Add Ed Kirkpatrick’s bargain-basement catcher skills and some tough rolls, and you get a first inning with four singles, three stolen bases, and three runs scored.

But Fidrych hangs in there, and so does Kirkpatrick. Fidrych gets his first win. Kirkpatrick, for his part, sees the team win in each of his four unscheduled starts. It’s a strange, unpredictable world. Each of the players mentioned most frequently in this post, Fidrych, Munson, and Kirkpatrick, have some bad dice rolls looming over them. I guess we all do. So what do you do?

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Final cuts

April 30, 2022

I made a few last cuts to my 1977 Strat-O-Matic team. The pitching staff after Mark Fidrych is even weaker than it had been, but the offense and fielding is a little better, I think, increasing the chances for every fifth game to end with the Bird bounding off the mound like a happy kid, a vision at the center of my reasons for venturing into this simulation in the first place. I have other reasons. Maybe one of those can be seen in the biggest of my final cuts: dropping Fisk for Munson. The kid I was in 1977 would never have done this. Never. He loved Fisk and hated all Yankees. But I have my reasons. For one, the Start-O-Matic game has an $80 million dollar salary cap, and Munson fit into that a little more easily than the very expensive Fisk, and Munson is still very good at everything. For another, I remember Munson grousing about Fidrych’s mound antics in 1976, and I like thinking about him growing to respect the Bird, his passion, his fire. And I’ve got some things to work out with Munson, which you may know about if you read my Cardboard Gods book. Finally, I feel like this whole fantasy I’m embarking on might be about the tangle of joy and death.

Last night my older son couldn’t sleep because he was worrying about death. He’s a little older than I was when Lyman Bostock died, a little younger than I was when Munson died. I told him I knew how he felt, that I felt that way too, that my brother read me Star Trek books in the middle of the night to keep me from freaking out. I told him things always seem better in the morning. In the morning he’ll have his Lego figures, his Star Wars books, just like in the morning when I was a kid I had my baseball cards, my Strat-O-Matic scorecards and dice.

So the season starts tomorrow. I’ll be letting you know how it goes. I’ll also be reading a lot about that era and these players. My reading list thus far: Stars and Strikes and The Captain and Me, authored and, respectively, co-authored (along with Ron Blomberg) by my friend Dan Epstein (who will figure into an upcoming post on why I’ve set the Bird’s return in Shea Stadium); Singled Out by Andrew Maraniss (who wrote a great book on basketball at the 1936 Olympics); South Side Hitmen, by Dan Helpingstine; The Negro Leagues Are Major Leagues, edited by Sean Forman and Amy Tan (I’m looking for insight into the experiences of, among others, the fathers of three players on my team: Luis Tiant Sr, Lyman Bostock Sr., and Sam Hairston), Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, by Jonathan Mahler; and, for the billionth time, The Wrong Stuff, by the great Bill Lee.

What else should I read?

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Mark Fidrych

April 29, 2022

Fidrych

I am building a team around Mark Fidrych. You can do this. You can do everything now. You can bring the Bird back to life. That’s what I’m hoping anyway.

I’m doing this through a portal that I’ve been relying on since 1981 to avoid limitations and endings. That’s the year after the limitations of Mark Fidrych’s often-injured body led to the end of his major league career. Really it ended for him just about as quickly as it began. In 1976, as a rookie, he was the best pitcher in the world (and, as I said on the first-ever post on this ancient blog, the all-time single-season leader in joy), and the following year, 1977, injuries limited him to just 11 starts, and he managed fewer than that in the following three seasons, pitching his last innings on a major league mound in 1980. The next year, when I was 13, I got my first set of Strat-O-Matic cards.

I occasionally, very occasionally, played Strat-O-Matic with others, but almost from the beginning it was a solitary pursuit. I used the game to simulate baseball games and seasons and to dissolve myself out of the world I was living in and into another one. I liked rolling the dice and tracking the action on my handwritten scorecards and adding up the stats and not feeling anything except the buzzing pull of strikeouts and home runs and stolen bases and diving catches and wins. It released some numbing chemical in my brain, I’m sure, except when it didn’t, which it didn’t when the dice didn’t conform to whatever I was hoping to see unfold in the cards and in my mind, or when I simply had been playing too much and it all seemed lifeless and empty. I did this for years, all through my adolescence, and only really let it go when I took on other, stronger methods for numbing myself. Marijuana for a while until it got in the way of my writing, beer for longer. A few years ago I stopped with the beer.

But I have kept on with the Strat-O-Matic, which I started up with again in the early 2000s when the game moved online. The online game doesn’t have the roll of the dice and the handwritten scorecards, but this makes it fit better into the smaller spaces I have available for it now than I did as a teen when I had whole wide aching afternoons to numb. It doesn’t have the dice and the handwritten scorecards, but it’s got enough. I can dissolve into the cards, into compulsive looping thoughts on lineups and platoons and starting rotations and trades and players to waive and other players to add.

I have thought at various times of giving it up. It’s one of those “on your deathbed” things. On your deathbed, are you going to look back on all the hours simulating baseball games as a good use of the preposterous gift of life? Asshole? But then there’s also, life is fucking hard. Take your pleasures where you can. Or actually there’s just: I don’t really want to feel anything right now, so I’m going to check on my Strat-O-Matic team.

For almost exactly as long as I’ve been playing Strat-O-Matic, using Strat-O-Matic, I’ve been writing, filling up journals at first, then writing all kinds of shit, poems, stories, blog posts, books, and always filling up more journals. All of it is a way, imperfectly and haltingly, to try to push back on my compulsion to numb myself. I write to try to feel something, to try to know what it is, and, ultimately, to connect to someone else. To connect with you, whoever you are. Maybe even to find in that connection some joy.

The greatest baseball player I ever saw in terms of making a joyous connection with others was Mark Fidrych. I want to bring him back to life. Recently the Strat-O-Matic online game brought out a 1977 game. They have a 1970s game that I play a lot, but it includes only the players that logged relatively steady playing time for a few seasons, and so the Bird does not exist within it. In the 1977 version, he does exist. And during that season, his performance on an inning by inning basis was not that far off from his legendary 1976 campaign. His limited playing time is reflected in the online Strat-O-Matic game by his being limited to start every fifth day, rather than every fourth day, and he may suffer an injury, but he also may get luckier in that regard than he did in real life.

I ranked him very high in my pre-draft rankings, after only Joe Morgan, and I got him. Immediately after the automated draft, another player in the league offered me a trade for Fidrych, and I explained in my declining of the trade that I was here for the Bird. He said he was too and was hoping to build his team around Fidrych. We got into a conversation where he shared that he had been 9 years old in Detroit in 1976, and I shared that I wrote a book in which the Bird was the brightest-shining hero. The reason I’m telling you this is that in the 18 years I’ve been numbing myself with online Strat-O-Matic, it was the first time I’d ever made a connection with any of the strangers I play against. For once it wasn’t only a solitary numbing. The Bird made this happen.

Like the other Strat-O-Matic online player who wanted him on his team, I built my team around Fidrych. I backed him with excellent fielding, put him in a pitcher-friendly park, and created a lineup that can score him some runs in that park. I don’t care as much what happens in the games he doesn’t start. I care a little though, because the Bird has opened something up for me. Maybe I can write about this lifelong compulsion, this thing that has always felt adjacent to writing but going in an opposite direction, away from actual life rather than toward it. Maybe not just Bird but the other players on my team from 1977 can help me see the world as it was then and the world as it is now.

The best part of a Strat-O-Matic online season is before it begins, when you can dissolve into endless imagining about different shapes your roster could take. I was mostly guided in my own roster creation by my goal of trying to get Mark Fidrych 20 wins, but after a certain point I started making choices of who to drop and who to keep by wondering what it would be like to follow them through the imaginary season and write about them. Thus, El Tiante and Spaceman are among those making up the threadbare pitching staff around Fidrych. Thus, Sundown Danny Thomas and Glenn Burke will see some action.

Thus, Lyman Bostock.

And in the middle of all the stories and all the endings and all the possibilities, there’s Mark Fidrych.

He’s back. And I’ll write about it.

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Tom Seaver

September 4, 2020

I’ve never seen God, but I once saw Buddha.

I was eighteen, and I’d hitchhiked from my grandfather’s house in East Dennis to Hyannis to catch a bus into Boston, to Fenway, where I bought a bleacher seat ticket. It was July 6, 1986, and Tom Seaver, in what would turn out to be his last season, was making his second start as a member of the Boston Red Sox.

It was the first time I ever went to a baseball game by myself. That might be one reason it sticks out among all the other games I’ve ever gone to. It felt like an adult thing to do. It felt solemn and lonely, but also like something that suited me. My childhood at its heart, which is to say at its most joyous, had been about togetherness, both real and imagined—the flickering togetherness between my older brother and me, the brief flashes of togetherness every spring from being on a little league team with other baseball-loving kids, the fabricated togetherness within these baseball cards, a whole universe of heroes surrounding and protecting me—and it was dawning on me that adulthood was going to be defined by a dissolution of togetherness. Maybe a need to hold on to some feeling of togetherness was what drew me to Fenway that day.

***

Last night I dug around for a long time in my chaotic box of baseball cards for one featuring Tom Seaver, who died earlier this week. The cards had once been sorted into teams, and some of this sorting still persists in diminished ways within the chaos, but for a long time I had trouble finding even a single vein of Mets cards. Dust was rising into my eyes, and my back started hurting. The process felt like my past was repelling me, like whatever order I’d been able to impose on my life through my baseball cards has dissolved. I started to feel exhausted by it all. But finally I found this card, a 1975 team checklist with uneven edges. I believe I scissored this card, and some other 1975 team checklists, out from the back of a box of cereal. I’m not sure anymore if that’s true. Details like this used to be so clear to me that they became a kind of orthodoxy at the center of my ad hoc spiritual orientation: the clarity of my memories was my morality, my sense of what was true and what was false. This was an extension of my vow as a child to remember everything about my childhood when I was older, so that I wouldn’t be an adult who didn’t understand childhood, or an adult who was disconnected from the truest self, the one that manifested in childhood. But my memories are dissolving, becoming increasingly less reliable. If they retain any substance at all that substance is akin to water-color paint, no more than something to use to make a diaphanous illusion, and then to use again to make a different illusion.

I’m glad, in the end, that I ended up with this card. It’s not like the Seaver cards I have, or think I have, where he’s either in the middle of his beautiful, powerful delivery or in a posed shot, glowering out at the viewer with the face of one of the sport’s most determined competitors. He’s not the star of the card. But he can be clearly seen, second row, third from right, and he’s smiling. He’s happy. This is the team that he came to define more than any player has ever defined any team. He’s together with them. A massive collection of players, it should be noted, far more than the number of players that would be on the active major league roster, as if the card’s other world-famous man, the one with the benevolently homely mug shown both in the inset and three figures to Seaver’s right, didn’t have the heart to dim anybody’s dreams of playing in the major leagues, and so for this moment there’s room for everybody, and this is OK with Tom Seaver, a pillar of winning and togetherness, and the seven-year-old holding this uneven card in his fingers got to bask in this togetherness that manifests with no other team more than this one, in the franchise for whom Tom Seaver earned one of his nicknames, The Franchise. As my friend Pete, a lifelong Mets fan, put it, when talking about Seaver’s death and more specifically about all the condolence calls he was fielding from friends about it: “It’s like a death in the extended family. And what are the Mets but one very big, very dysfunctional family?”

***

I might have grown up a Mets fan had my family stayed in New Jersey, where I was born, but we moved to Vermont just before baseball entered my life, the year before I got this 1975 card, and I fell in love with that state’s favorite team, the Boston Red Sox. But the Mets always remained like an extended family member to me, especially given that my father, who’d lived with us in New Jersey, moved to New York City when we moved to Vermont, and on our summer visits to see him he took us—begrudgingly, given his distaste for sports—to see the Mets. I never saw Seaver on those first couple of visits, and after June 15, 1977, he was gone, traded away.

So in 1986, when I was meandering through a lonely summer at my grandfather’s house and saw the chance to see him pitch, I grabbed it.

He was matched up that day against a left-handed flamethrower named Mark Langston. I’m not sure how much he gets mentioned these days, but at that time Langston was among the most electrifying young pitching talents in baseball. He had led the league in strikeouts as a rookie in 1984, and after an injury-shortened season in 1985 was on his way to leading the league in strikeouts again, and in starting a string of four years in a row in which he topped 200 strikeouts, an astonishing feat of power and consistency except when brought up in comparison to the pitcher he was facing that day, Tom Seaver, who had done it nine years in a row (and came within four strikeouts in 1977 of doing it eleven years in a row).  

I remember the game as a pitching duel between the canny, aging legend and the flame-throwing youngster. The final result, a 7-4 victory for the Red Sox, casts some shade on that memory, but a closer look at how things unfolded backs up my memory. Seaver held the Mariners scoreless for the first five innings, and Langston, after yielding a run in the first, was even better, recording fourteen outs in a row against the best team in the American League. In the bottom of the sixth, after the Mariners had tied the score at 1-1, Langston had a failure of concentration, surrendering a leadoff walk, and two batters later he compounded his self-made problems by bungling a sacrifice bunt attempt, which allowed the Red Sox to load the bases, and in he pressure of this situation—the bases loaded with slugger Jim Rice at bat—the phenom’s focus plummeted further, and he walked the normally free-swinging Rice to force in the go-ahead run. At that point the entropy swirling out from the talented left-hander on the mound spread to his teammates, third baseman Jim Presley muffing an inning-ending opportunity and allowing another run to score. Langston had been expelled from the duel, and though he finished out the game he was no longer linked up with a legend in a moment of grace but merely ordinary, allowing one home run to Tony Armas in the seventh and another to Marc Sullivan in the eighth.

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One of my two most distinct memories from that game is not anything I can place exactly but is of Seaver at his center, Seaver on the mound. It was, I’m sure, a few innings in but before Langston blinked, when some elements of the game—flashes of threats from the opposing batters, flashes of Langston’s seemingly impenetrable brilliance, flashes of the unbeatable progression of time itself—had manifested as being in opposition to the goals of the 41-year-old man on the mound. None of us are going to last forever. Everything is coming over the mountain to undo us, sooner or later. So what do you do? Seaver, in the moment I hold in my mind as a guide for life, brought the ball and his glove hand together near the center of his body and set himself, and his shoulders rose up and down as he took a deep breath. I was hundreds of feet away but could feel him breathing, could feel it as if it was the whole world breathing. He had, it seems to me, complete possession of the moment. This was a person at the center of a togetherness spreading out beyond the bounds of the field, beyond even the bounds of time. This was Buddha.

Seaver, who said afterward that by the seventh inning he was “very wobbly,” came out for one more frame after his foe had come undone and retired the Mariners in order. The last out was a ground ball to second. From the bleachers I would have been able to see up close that the Red Sox bullpen had started to stir in earnest, and so it would have been clear that the great man was walking off the field for the last time that day. We all rose to our feet and cheered. It would be, as it turned out, the last time Tom Seaver would win a game in front of a home crowd. But what I remember more than standing up and into my new adult solitude with 20,000 others and yelling my throat hoarse was Seaver himself, walking slowly and steadily, neither rushing nor lingering, walking away, inevitably away, from the point at which he’d been, as much as anyone ever has, the center of the universe.