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Bob Bailey

March 3, 2017

bob-bailey

I hate, among other things, and in no particular order

  • Bucky Dent
  • fascism
  • football
  • America (the band, not the country, which I love and hate)
  • saying the word “poop” (the way you have to pop your lips at the beginning and the end of the nauseatingly cutesy sound; you wouldn’t think it would come up much, but with young children you’re always having to converse about the subject)
  • having a job
  • not having a job
  • the song “Life in the Fast Lane”
  • fruit (yes, all fruit; this is probably a subject needing expansion at some other time)
  • the practice in Chicago of “dibs” (when it snows more than half an inch people murder the idea of society by hauling out deck chairs to claim a public parking space for after they drive away)
  • baseball cards that show only the most recent five seasons of a player’s career

I could go on, but let’s instead talk about the last item, which reared its hideous head the other day. I was looking with my son at some 2017 Topps cards, the first I’d seen of the new season of cards. I noticed that the numbers on the back of Rick Porcello’s card literally didn’t add up. I checked another card, for Adam Wainright, and determined pretty quickly that his lifetime win total was far beyond the sum of the individual seasons shown. With this confirmation, my blood began to boil. I couldn’t believe that the worst thing I’d ever seen in baseball cards—the presentation by Fleer [ed. note: actually Donruss] in the mid-1980s of “recent major league records”—was being duplicated by Topps.

Oh how I hate those Fleer [ed. note: what can be said to be reliable with this clown’s writing if he can’t even tell Donruss from Fleer?] cards. I’ve got a few of them, and every time I make the mistake anew of looking on the back of them it’s like seeing some vision of the heart of life itself being amputated. And so when I saw it on the new cards by the company that to my certainly less than comprehensive knowledge has never made this hideous mistake before, I became enraged. You may think this is an insane notion on my part. I mean, who cares? But for me baseball cards are and have always been a way toward some completion, a way to search for stories in the numbers, to see and dream of a beginning and a middle and—though there is no end on any card, for every player in theory could have another card the next year—the intimation of an end. Truncating the span of seasons so that the beginning or even the beginning and middle drops out: it kills the card. Kills it.

Maybe another way to explain what I mean is this:

You complete me, Bob Bailey.

It was this way in 1978, when I got this card, and it’s still this way. I’ve always been incomplete and always will be incomplete. When I was ten years old, I couldn’t put any words to what this incompleteness compelled me toward, but surely, Bob Bailey, when I found you in a pack I was drawn in by the color and the familiarity, a player on my favorite team, always the best find in any pack, and also drawn by the jarring unreality of the doctored helmet and uniform, the hardened, sardonic face, the cartoonishly alliterative name, but while the front of the card made the first contact with the wanting incompleteness that was my self, the back of the card was what drew me in.

Bob Bailey was a veteran, and so the most important word on the back of his card—the word “COMPLETE” in “COMPLETE MAJOR LEAGUE BATTING RECORD”—allowed for an impressive sprawl of numbers stretching far back before I was born, all the way to 1962, before my mother had even met my father. That year Bob Bailey, age 19, managed just 7 hits in 42 at bats for an average of .167. Bookending that first line on the card was the last line, his season statistics for the 1977 Red Sox, and these numbers were even more anemic, the closest you could get to nothing without being nothing: 2 at bats, 0 hits. In between the intimations of the nothingness from which we come and into which we go, there was an estimable swell of competence, if not excellence, Bob Bailey logging many years with solid numbers. He was never a superstar but was a regular in the major leagues, and a good one. What more could you ask for? What better story could there be than rising from nothing to that?

If this card came out in 2017 it would leave out the beginning and middle. You’d only have the end. As for his actual end, it came the following season. He had his last at-bat, as a pinch-hitter, in the one game playoff against the Yankees, the first batter Goose Gossage faced. He hadn’t had a hit in weeks, and he was facing mustachioed death incarnate. He struck out looking. He had no chance. A thought occurred to me that day and it’s never really left: I’ll never be complete. I’ll always need to imagine completeness. I’ll never be complete.

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Ken Boswell

February 16, 2017

ken-boswell

Ken Boswell was for some reason sent out to his photo shoot for the 1976 Topps set in a generic orange helmet. I don’t recall ever seeing this on any other baseball card that came to me back in those days. The Astros’ regular batting helmet had a white H on top of a black star. Where did this plain orange helmet come from? Why was Ken Boswell wearing it?

On the back of the card you can see Ken Boswell’s lifetime numbers, which are unremarkable, but at the bottom of them there’s a note: “Ken has a .667 average in World Series play. Had 3 pinch-hits in 1973 Classic to tie all-time mark.”  The note in relation to the career numbers is something of a negative image of the front of the card, a dash of miraculous color in an otherwise mundane expanse.

The absence of a signifier on the crown of the helmet on the front of the card is so odd that it opens up a door in my mind. My memory of those days has been so trampled by all my attempts to remember, to put it all down in words, that it’s now unusual for me to have a vivid sense memory from my childhood. But this batting helmet is bringing back the batting helmets we had in little league. They were much like the helmet shown here but were dark blue. They had thick padding on the inside. Unlike this helmet, there were ear coverings for both ears. This is what I’m remembering now, the feel of the helmet as I pulled it onto my head, over my ears. There were a few different helmets in the dugout, some larger than others, and so the best part of the experience was finding one that fit snugly over my head. No, wait, that was not the best part. The best part was why I was putting the helmet on my head. It was happening soon: my turn.

I moved out of the dugout with that helmet on and stood behind the chain link fence next to the dugout. Now I was on deck. I picked up a bat and held it, tapped it against the brim of the helmet, took a few swings, watched the pitcher, the batter. When it was my turn I walked toward the plate. I felt excited, a little nervous, protected. My turn!

Ken Boswell had his turn. The note on the back of his card doesn’t mention the World Series teams for which he came through when it mattered most, but of course he was part of both the Miracle Mets of 1969 and the “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets of 1973. Those days are behind him in this photo, but he looks here like he doesn’t so much mind that things come and go.

I sat with my son tonight and told him about “yoiks and away,” the scene in the Daffy Duck cartoon in which Daffy, in Robin Hood mode, keeps trying to swing himself heroically through the forest on a rope and keeps slamming into a tree. That one killed my brother and me. We laughed until tears came out of our eyes. And as I acted it out for my son I got him laughing too. Then he started acting it out.

“Yikes and away—slam!” he said.

“Yoiks,” I said.

“Yoiks?”

How can I ever complain? I love my boys so much and I get to come home every day from work and see them, a five year old and a two year old. When I walk through the door both of them squeal. It won’t always be this way. Life will go on into ever stranger vanishings. But this is my turn. This is my miracle.

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Doug Konieczny

February 10, 2017

doug-konieczny

“I think it’s one of the real gifts that art has for us as human beings . . . it gives us a channel to connect with each other that regular life doesn’t give us.”
– Wayne Kramer

All I do is work. Well, I get the weekends off. I get to go home at night. But during the day on weekdays, it’s just work. It gets busier and busier at my job with each passing year, as if the whole goal is too gradually take everything from me a little at a time.

Here’s the part where I should probably say, lest the gods strike me down, that I’m grateful to have a job. The only thing that’s worse than having a job is not having a job.

On the weekends, I play with my sons. That’s good. But this doesn’t leave much room for art. I get a little time every night after we get them to bed. I’m exhausted by then, but I sit down on a cushion and meditate for twenty minutes, and some of the garbage that’s accumulated in my head all day dissolves. Then I go to my notebook. I’m trying to write a novel. I write a little every day. It’s all disjointed now, and the fragments that come out are absurd. There’s no bright blazing path carrying me through the act of narration, as I always hoped there would be. Writing is not like I thought it would be when I was a youth high on marijuana and reading On the Road. You never get lifted up into some kind of ecstasy. No, you have to just fucking sit down and insist on a reality, again and again.

Who knows if it’ll amount to anything. I’ll keep insisting, I guess. The alternative, just letting my life be work and brief blank periods away from work, makes me want to leap into a wood chipper.

What does this have to do with Doug Konieczny (pronounced kuh-NEEZ-ny)? I don’t fucking know. Maybe only that he probably had to join the workforce like the rest of us when his brief rainbow-bright days in the majors ended. Also: among all baseball players in history he was the most likely to have been at a particular 1970 concert of note that was staged near a highway on the Wayne State University campus in Detroit. Konieczny was up until a few years ago the only graduate of Wayne State to make it to the majors, and in July 1970 he was nearing his final months at the college. Of course, school isn’t in session in the middle of the summer, but Konieczny was a Detroit native, so maybe he heard the big noise and wandered over to see what it was all about.

The band playing was the MC5. Featuring brilliant guitarist (and arguably the best guitar-playing dancer this side of Chuck Berry and Prince) Wayne Kramer, the MC5 wanted to blow up the whole bullshit system that sends us all marching to the beat of our corporate overlords until the day we get blown up by a landmine or succumb to asbestos poisoning or simply keel over from heart disease or dive into a wood chipper. They believed this could be done: a revolution.

After the band broke up, Kramer landed in prison for a while, and this has informed his work of late in which he goes into prisons and gives guitars and songwriting instruction to prisoners. He knows that revolutions may or may not occur, but art is always capable of transforming you.

I know this post hasn’t amounted to art. But that’s where I’m always trying to go. I know I’m not alone. As a matter of fact, I found while trying and failing to find much at all about Doug Konieczny that a painter had transformed this very card into what its brilliant colors intimated. Below is the possible attendee of the July 19, 1970 MC5 concert as rendered by painter John Kilduff. May we all feel that swirl of brilliance once in a while.

konieczny-transformed

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Milt May

February 3, 2017

milt-mayThis is important. It is my all-alliterative M team, featuring both Milt May and his father, who went by the name Pinky while with the Phillies from 1939 through 1945 but whose given name was Merrill:

P) Mike McCormick
C) Milt May
1B) Mark McGwire
2B) Marty McManus
SS) Marty Marion
3B) Merrill May
LF) Minnie Minoso
CF) Mickey Mantle
RF) Manny Mota

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got to say. What use are words anyway?

Well OK, one other thing: I find it interesting that after Milt May was traded from the Pirates to the Astros, he was swiftly replaced on the Pirates’ roster by a fellow catcher with an even briefer name: Ed Ott. It seems cruel on the part of the Pirates, as if they wanted Milt May to feel like the extra two characters in his first name were a pretentious extravagance. Maybe this was even a negotiation point between the team and May before the team decided to sever ties.

Pirates: Look, we might be able to keep you around if you shortened things up to Mi.

May: Mi?

Pirates: Or Lt [pronounced ult, like you’re cartoonishly displaying gulping trepidation]. Mi, Lt. Whichever you want.

May: I’m not sure how this—

Pirates: Look, cards on the table time: We’ve got this bruiser down at triple A who doesn’t need to be sashaying around with a lot of extra letters in his first name like some eighteenth century dandy.

And so that, I assume, is how Milt May came to be wearing brilliant, ridiculous clothing on this 1976 card. He seems distinctly unsure about his technicolor dreamsuit, or perhaps about some other inexplicable cultural eruction of the era. That’s the thing about the past. For us it’s all over and done, but when people were living through it they couldn’t see how it was going to turn out. We’re always thinking we’re living through the most difficult, most doubtful time. It’s true, but it’s always been true.

February is usually for shit, is what I’m getting at. This one fits the bill. It rained on Inauguration Day and was sunny the next, when we took a CTA bus downtown and wedged into the middle of 250,000 people fused together by an idea along the lines of Fuck. This., and since then it’s been for the most part like a cold gray lid has come down over everything. So for the sake of keeping my own beleaguered inner light from extinction, I’m going all Astros all month. Whatever happens, I’m making it through to the other side and will be doing so by carrying an Astro in my pocket. If you see me, know there’s a rainbow on my person and disjointed digressions from reality in my mind. That’s what I’m carrying.

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all Family

January 25, 2017

all-family

I’m the youngest of eleven grandchildren of a man named Charles Wilker who in the early part of the twentieth century left a region in central Europe called Galicia to come to this country with nothing because nothing in America was better than the constant threat of pogroms and the certainty of conscription as cannon fodder into the Austro-Hungarian army. He left behind a wife and two young children to find work and send for them later. He didn’t know the language of his new world.

I’m the youngest of eleven grandchildren of a woman named Lillian Wilker who gave birth to three children in Galicia, one of whom died. She eventually followed her husband to America and didn’t know the language either and found that her husband hadn’t established much of a footing. At some point either before or not long after her arrival, he sustained a head injury that either contributed to or was the basis altogether of mental illness that prevented him from gaining steady employment. A couple of decades into his life in the new world, he was found floating in the East River, dead. The children, who now numbered four living souls and two dead, were raised alone by Lillian, who also worked, as did the two eldest children, leaving school for work while barely into their teens. There was one girl, my Aunt Helen, and three boys, my Uncle Joe, my Uncle Dave, and the baby, my father.

This fatherless family made it through the Great Depression while living in Lower East Side tenements. All three boys served this country in World War II. My uncles saw grisly combat in the South Pacific. I like to believe my father, who was rejected the first few times he tried to enlist, was kept safely on land, stateside, throughout his Navy tour with a battalion of similarly spindly aesthetes who had been sorted into a “last resorts” pile. The point is: the Wilker boys served. They were exemplary American citizens, as was my aunt. All four went on to raise beautiful families of children, many of whom who now have their own children, all of us Americans.

I’m the father of the two youngest great-grandchildren of Charles and Lillian Wilker. The youngest great-grandchild, Exley, is the sculptor of the fragment at the top of this page. You can probably guess from the clues—the team name, the one clearly visible number on the jersey, the word “Family”—that this is a card featuring Cal Ripken Sr. and his two sons, Cal and Billy. The full text of the front of the card is probably something like “A Baseball Family.”

I like the fragment better: all family.

We’re all in this together, is the point of my story of my grandfather and grandmother. I love this country for that story and for every other story like it. You’re more than likely the product of a story just like this one. Some people were here before Columbus, but the rest of us came from somewhere else. Here’s another of those stories, from a September 4, 1995, article in The Baltimore Sun by Mike Klingaman:

[Cal] Ripken’s father, Cal Sr., is the grandson of 19th-century German immigrants, Frederick Peter Ripken and Affena Lubina Wychgram. They settled in Harford County and opened a general store in Stepney, a crossroads three miles south of Aberdeen. There, in a tiny room above the store, Cal Sr. was born, the third son of Arend Frederick Ripken and Clara Amelia Oliver Ripken, an Irishwoman whose farming family also immigrated to America in the mid-1800s. Arend Ripken was the first of the clan to play baseball, taking part in sandlot games on weekends.

If you don’t love these stories, you don’t love America. If you build a wall between yourself and these stories, you don’t love America.

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Mickey Stanley

January 18, 2017

mickey-stanley

Mickey Stanley is pretty much exactly what you would get if you mixed together Mickey Mantle and Fred Stanley.

I can elaborate, but my back hurts so much. All the elaborating is over when you get knifing pains in your back if you so much as try to thumb the like button on any of your various stupid time-wasting virtual platforms.

I think it’s from when I was catching my sons jumping off the couch a few days ago. They climb up onto the back of the couch and take turns jumping toward me, and I catch them and spin them around. The joy of it! The terror! This is their world! What if they fall! But what am I going to do—tell them to cut the shit and sit down and start practicing their looks of disappointment so as to be prepared for when they hit the dog years of adulthood? And so I end up with hernias, back issues. The older, heavier one likes to improvise, and it was probably one of the times he spun around in midair, causing me to lunge to catch him, that crippled me forever.

Well, not forever, hopefully, but these kinds of things really drive home the point that life is an unstoppable deterioration. So why spend so much time pondering baseball players? Why don’t I get into collecting and trading ephemera on old rabbis? Like the one with Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pershyscha, who maybe had among his followers in Poland in the early 1800s some Wilkers, who huddled there in a tenacious multi-generational pogrom-surviving Wilkerean cringe and were pretty big fans of rabbis all through the family tree until it branched out into a young bespectacled fellow, my father, cracking open the works of Karl Marx. To young Lou Wilker, religion, and sports for that matter: opiates! But I followed in neither his nor my older ancestors’ footsteps, neither overthrowing the system or studying rabbis, but somehow I acquired the knowledge that Rabbi Simcha Bunim carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket: bishvili nivra ha-olam (“for my sake the world was created”) was written on one, and “v’anokhi afar v’efer” (“I am but dust and ashes”) was written on the other.

You should see my sons spinning through the air in my arms. They are beaming with this feeling of bishvili nivra ha-olam. This is the feeling of childhood, the part of it we like to hang onto anyway. This is why a fellow such as Bob Costas carries around a Mickey Mantle card, I guess. But anybody who tries to hold onto Mickey Mantle alone might miss some of the picture. For his sake the world was created—how could this not apply in all ways to Mickey Mantle, chiseled sunlit immortal who could do everything on a baseball field as well as anyone else in history and was the blond, Caucasian, high-salaried, handsome star of the most powerful baseball team in history at its absolute peak? Yes, such a thing would indeed make a good talisman, a reminder that even to so much as to be alive in this world, such a rare and beautiful thing considering the black lifeless space stretching out in every direction for light years from this one tiny blue planet, is a blessing as breathtaking as even the most astonishing tape-measure home run. But you need I am but dust and ashes too—personified best by a weak-hitting utility infielder named “Chicken.” It’s a miracle we’re alive, yes, and it will all be over in a flash.

This all comes together in the person of Mickey Stanley. He was an outstanding centerfielder, like Mickey Mantle, but despite his four Gold Glove awards, and perhaps because of his more mediocre batting records, and perhaps even more because of the erasing tendencies of time, he has moved much closer to the anonymity of Fred Stanley than to the lasting renown of Mickey Mantle. His most famous moments on the field, in fact, had him not in sunny centerfield but at Fred Stanley’s jittery domain, shortstop, where Mickey Stanley was moved for the 1968 World Series to make room in the lineup for Al Kaline. He was a nervous wreck the whole time, hoping the ball wouldn’t be hit to him, that he wouldn’t make some huge mistake.

If my back gets better I’ll be a holy idiot again, waiting with arms outstretched to catch my beaming sons above me. I’ll be full of grateful love and worry.

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Willie McCovey

January 10, 2017

willie-mccovey

I believe in mistakes. I believe they will be made, and you can’t stop them, but more than that I believe they may even be the hand of God, though I’m not sure I believe in God.

I believe in gods. That is to say I believe in the feeling of connection to something more than this world. You feel it once in a while. I felt it in 1975, the year I started collecting cards, when I pulled this Willie McCovey card out of a wax pack. I may not have recognized the name from my budding study of the baseball encyclopedia, but even if I didn’t I would have realized I was holding something amazing in my hands when I turned the card over and saw that the card number ended in an even number—the sign of a superstar—and that the home run totals added up to a towering pillar of awe.

I believe even the gods will be humbled. It happened to Willie McCovey. Some would say it happened as a result of the mistake by the San Francisco Giants, who traded him away, leading to his appearance on this 1975 Topps offering, which my friend Pete calls the “You want fries with that?” card, a reference to the unsettling image of a god suddenly transfigured into fast-food serfdom, wrapped in the brown and yellow garb of the Padres, the team owned from 1974 to 1984 by the creator of McDonald’s, Ray Kroc. The first time McCovey played a home game for the Padres, on April 9, 1974, he committed an error on an attempted pick-off throw. It was the Padres’ third error of the game. The team’s new owner, who built his empire on a vision of sameness, of no mistakes, of a cheeseburger in Portland, Maine, tasting exactly like a cheeseburger in Portland, Oregon, took the public address microphone and yelled to the crowd (and at his players, and most directly, intentionally or not, at the player who had made the most recent mistake): “This is the most stupid baseball playing I’ve ever seen.”

I believe people want to be free. Just before Ray Kroc took the PA microphone, a streaker ran across the field. A streaker! Youngsters: time was you couldn’t cross the street without a naked ecstatic blurring past you. And now? Forget it. Now any intrusions on the field of play are—because of the armored context of these times—acts of violence. But streakers—how could they be violent? They have freed themselves of everything. Where have you gone, streakers?

I believe the urge for freedom, for the casting off of hierarchical uniformity, is met pretty harshly with in this world, either overtly or otherwise. Streakers, dreamers: how far do they ever get? “Throw him in jail” was actually the first thing Ray Kroc bellowed into the PA, meaning the streaker. He would later apologize for calling his players stupid but wouldn’t mention the streaker, who probably did get locked up. At any rate it’s a pretty sure bet that he’s not still out there somewhere, freely streaking.

I believe that when you run up against your limitations in this cruel hierarchical illusion of a world, you have to just try to keep going. When I was 32, a collection of debt and mistakes, I was lucky enough to get a job at a bookstore. I had no money and throbbing credit card, student loan, and tax debt. All the mistakes and some luck and the good word of my friend Pete, who was already working there, equaled me at the bookstore. I was glad to be there, making some money. One day I found myself looking across the floor of the store to one of the cashiers who had a streak of bright pink in her hair.

I believe you’re a shining star no matter who you are. Those words to live by, authored by Kool and the Gang Earth, Wind, and Fire, ushered into the world in 1975, the same year I got this Willie McCovey card. Many years later, the cashier with the bright pink streak in her hair screamed out our first boy, and then when she forgot that ordeal enough she did it again, and both times I held the new naked being in my arms. Both times I wondered how anyone could not know beyond any doubt that there is no such thing as original sin. How could anyone not know that we’re all born superstars, unique, singular mistakes straight from heaven?