Brian Downing

January 24, 2008


Wrap Party

(continued, sort of, from Ron Schueler (4))

When I obtained this 1978 card I was 10 years old and as extroverted as I’d ever be. The world was small and warm most of the time, a roaming comfort zone of home and the hippie classroom that I’d been in for a few years and, of course, the little league field, and in that comfort zone I was a chatterbox and a joiner and a doer, all elements of my personality that fell away in years to come as I gradually donned the ashen costume of the apprehensive cipher. At home my brother and I talked so much about baseball that the weary adults of the house eventually decreed a moratorium on all baseball talk at the dinner table; I also talked so much in general that my sometime baseball-talking partner, as he edged into the silence-filled vales of puberty, had to institute his own unofficial policy of threatening glares and occasional arm-punches to get me to shut up. At school I was either talking with my friends or making (no doubt tiresome and unfunny) wisecracks to the teacher or plunging into projects like co-writing and directing a theatrical sequel to Star Wars that we put on for our classmates (I played Darth Vader and got to kill off Princess Leia) or overseeing (or at least pretending to oversee) the staging for a general public audience of the Broadway musical You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.  

The small local paper, which was run by my aunt’s brother Dickie, even published a small write-up about me on the eve of the latter performance. It was a short paragraph in the back pages, wedged in between local notes relating that some village octogenarian or other was recently visited by relatives. I don’t remember the content of the article but recall that it mentioned that I was 10 in the context of a general appreciation for all I was accomplishing at such a young age. Here was a kid bound for big things! It was all sort of downhill from there. I peaked at 10.

The slide from that peak may have begun with the performance itself, which must have been an excruciating, incomprehensible mess to watch. I had hacked the script to bits for a couple ridiculous reasons. First, because I didn’t know how to sing and didn’t like to sing, I got rid of all the songs, just deleted them. A musical without music! Then, upon realizing that no one was going to be able to remember all their lines, I chopped off the entire second half of the play. I guess we stumbled through a few musicless scenes and at the abrupt, inconclusive end all the surely bewildered parents in folding chairs applauded, but the whole experience left me feeling a little shaky. Apprehensive. Like maybe center stage wasn’t the greatest place to be.

I got glasses around that time, big girly-framed plastic jobs that combined with my unruly long curly hair and weakling body to make me a pretty easy target of scorn outside my comfort zones, such as when I walked to the general store to buy baseball cards. I tried in such situations to be as invisible as possible. As the years went by my courting of invisibility increased as all my comfort zones eroded. At home my parents were no longer around much, letting go of their dreams of back-to-the-land self-sufficiency to take regular (and poverty-averting) jobs, and my brother became less and less willing to waste his time with me; and the hippie school tossed me out of its embrace and into regular junior high; and little league ended. The year after little league, I took a small part in the 8th grade play. Maybe I was casting around for something to fill the void. Maybe I was trying to reconnect with my former, outgoing, happier self.

The terror I felt in the hours leading up to the one and only performance of that play were extremely intense, and when the play was over the euphoria I felt was only that I wouldn’t have to go through such an ordeal again, which I didn’t. From that point on, I avoided situations whenever possible in which I would be center stage. The one aberration in this lifelong policy was during the two years when I was an adjunct professor. The terror and dread that preceded every class never really abated during that time, and since then, I haven’t tried to teach again, even though it was, at least sporadically, the most meaningful job I ever had. Surely part of the reason I haven’t is that being in any kind of spotlight scares me. And now I wonder if I’ve grown addicted to invisibility, to retreat.

So I turn today to Brian Downing for a little help. Here he is, in his tinted aviator shades and mesh, the same partially obscured Brut billboard in the background that was in the background of Ron Schueler’s card. Even though the viewer of both cards would assume from the identical backdrop and team name on the cap that Brian Downing and Ron Schueler shared the same moment with a Topps photographer, the two were never teammates. While newly acquired White Sox pitcher Ron Schueler was wrapping up the last two years of his career as a roaming adjunct, Brian Downing, now of the California Angels, was beginning to shuck off the costume of invisibility that had cloaked him throughout his years with the White Sox. It happened gradually. In 1978 he seemed the same innocuous weak-armed part-time backstop he’d always been, then in 1979 he batted .326 and made the all-star team, which seemed like a once in a lifetime aberration over the next two seasons, during which he hit .258 with 11 home runs.

And then, suddenly, a whole new guy. I’m wary of inadvertently copying the great writing Bill James did on this very subject in his New Historical Abstract, but it’s sort of hard to tell the Brian Downing story without marveling Jameslike at the way Brian Downing suddenly transformed himself from the marginal regular-looking guy seen in the card at the top of the page into a bulging specimen worthy of the nickname listed for him on his page at baseball-reference.com, “The Incredible Hulk.” Anyone looking at his 1978 card and at the stats on the back of the card would have predicted that he’d have vanished from the league by the early 1980s, but instead he spent the entire decade swatting home runs (20 or so every year) and clogging the bases by virtue of his good batting average and ability to both draw walks and get hit by numerous pitches, the latter feat somehow a defining trait in that each of the errant throws, at least in memory, seemed to bounce impotently off his muscle-bound frame like punches off a brick wall.

I think the famous turnaround has been the subject of scrutiny in recent times, these days when nobody can grow a muscle or hit a home run without raising suspicion. But I’m going to leave all that aside and not only give Brian Downing the benefit of the doubt but turn to him, as I turn to all these cards, for strength. In this life song gives way to song unless you edit the songs out, and weakness gives way to weakness unless you find a way to draw on strength from somewhere. I think now of one particularly desperate point in The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden Caulfield is crossing a street in the city and he starts convincing himself that he’s going to disappear before he reaches the other side. He calls out in his mind to his dead younger brother, Allie, the one who used to write poems all over his baseball glove so he’d have something to read in the outfield between pitches.

Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear.


  1. 1.  I used to go that old, enclosed concrete castle known as “The Big A” when I was a kid and will always remember an Amtrak adviretisement that said “We have as many round trips to San Diego as Wally Joyner and Brian Downing hit last year. Congratulations guys!” Brian Downing was my favorite player. I thought I was similar to him because here was this small guy who hit these moonshot homeruns. He had a long, majestic homerun swing, batted leadoff and played a lot of center field. Those were the Angels that I loved and hated and who were always man handled by the A’s.

  2. 2.  Hey, I have that card! That’s always a thrill; it feels like I’m an insider.

    It’s funny that you mention your ill-fated non-musical today. I was a drama major in college, and I’ve been onstage dozens of times since high school. I crave attention, as I suppose most actors do. I’ve also taken part in student (and now community) theatre because of the friends I’ve met there. It’s a great way for someone who’s generally socially awkward to get himself out there.

    Last night I watched a friend’s student film for the first time. I was the lead actor, and I just can’t get used to watching myself act. I’m always acutely aware of my inadequacies when observing myself: the repetitive hand gestures, the flat tones in my voice, the gangly, dangling limbs. For some reason, this little 10-minute project was the worst I’ve ever felt watching my own performance.

    It’s a humbling thing, getting some measure of yourself as others might see you.

  3. 3.  1 Amendment: The California Angels.

  4. 4.  1 *advertisement. sorry for the horrendous spelling guys.

  5. 5.  I have the same memory of Downing getting hit by pitches, except all the ones I remember hit him in the bicep and bounced most of the way back to the pitcher. Then the umpire would tell Downing to take his base. He’d do so, seemingly not noticing he’d been hit.

  6. 6.  Downing was on the receiving end of one of the most memorable HBPs in baseball history, at least in my mind, when he completed a 3-run ninth-inning rally by getting in the way of a ball to drive in the tying run in game 4 of the ’86 playoffs (the Angels went on to win in extra innings, taking a seemingly commanding 3 games to 1 lead):

    Hit by pitches figured hugely in the following game, the Red Sox’ Rich Gedman getting plunked by the only pitch Gary Lucas threw to set the table for Hendu’s historic two-run shot off Donnie Moore. That homer put the Red Sox ahead, the Angels came back to tie in the bottom of the inning, and then eventual winning run Don Baylor keyed an extra-inning rally by getting–what else?–hit by pitch. The Angels last hope to tie the game was Brian Downing, who popped out to a first base (where Bill Buckner had been replaced by Dave Stapleton some innings before). Here’s that game, too:

    Now here’s my question: Besides injurious or controversial beanings (Chapman, Conigliaro, Thon, etc.; Clemens-Piazza, Ryan-Ventura, etc.), what is the most famous HBP in baseball history? Maybe the shoe polish HBP in the ’69 series? (Cleon Jones?)

  7. 7.  6 I think you nailed it with Cleon Jones. What should have been a notorious beaning never took place (and technically isn’t a beaning…); I’ll never understand why Javy Lopez didn’t let at least one pitch get by him and brain Eric F***ing Gregg in game five of the 1997 NLCS…that strike zone was too big for Andre the Giant.

  8. 8.  I think it would have to be Simpson’s walk-off HBP to lead the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant to victory over hated Shelbyville.

  9. 9.  2 It sure is funny to back and watch yourself. I was taking French Conversation a few years ago at the Community College (for no good reason) and we did a group-presentation/skit for our “final”. Someone video-taped it, and the one time I watched it, I had this feeling of removal that one shouldn’t have, given how it was only a few years. But there I was, playing a game-show host, speaking French (which I can’t really understand anymore, already), seeming like it was someone else entirely…

  10. 10.  8 : I was just “researching” that very moment. Here’s the description from The Simpsons Archive(http://www.snpp.com/episodes/8F13.html), action picking up just after Darryl Strawberry has been removed for a pinch-hitter after homering nine times in the game:

    “Homer steps to the plate. Marge and the kids cheer. Everyone else boos. Monty goes into a totally bizarre sequence of signs from the third base coach’s box, and while Homer merely stares, confused, the pitch hits him in the head, knocking him unconscious. But the good news, is that by getting hit by the pitch, Homer wins the game. ‘I guess he’ll be happy when he comes to,’ notes Marge. The runner from third has to push Homer’s body aside to step on the plate. The team carry Homer’s unconscious
    body off the field on their shoulders.”

  11. 11.  8 OK, you’ve got my vote.

  12. 12.  Sort of combining the two experiences described here: when I was in graduate school, there was a required course in teaching for first time Teaching Assistants, and part of it involved having yourself videotaped while teaching and watching it with an instructor (in my case, an older graduate student in my department).

    More than a dozen years later I still have that tape somewhere, even though being forced to watch it again would pretty much be my idea of hell. As I remember, it begins as people are arriving in the classroom, and I chat with the TA who had been in there for the previous hour about having a stapler for the students to use for their homework, and how much I had paid for a box of staples to refill it. Absolutely fascinating (riveting?). And it ends, as most of the students are leaving, with a prolonged discussion between me and a student who felt like he deserved more partial credit for some problem on his midterm. I don’t remember anything in between but a blur of stammering, sweating and chalk dust.

    As you say, teaching can be very rewarding on those all too rare occasions when you see something really click with a student and feel like you’ve made a difference. But even after several years I still felt uncomfortable in front of a class, and it’s not something I have much desire to do again. The best teachers, like actors, really need to enjoy performing.

  13. 13.  Shout-outs should also go to Nippy Jones (who, 12 years before Cleon, became the first Jones to memorably use the shoe-polish trick in the World Series) and Dick Dietz (who technically was not hit by the pitch, even though the pitch hit him).

    If Jones had lived to see the headline on his New York Times obituary, he probably would have been depressed:
    “Nippy Jones, 70, A Baseball Footnote”

  14. 14.  Actually, Dietz’ HBP also ended up in the headline of his New York Times obit:

    “Dick Dietz, 63, Who Didn’t Try to Avoid a Drysdale Pitch, Dies”

    Someone needs to start compiling a list: HBPs so famous they end up as the headline on one’s obituary.

  15. 15.  Ernie “Read” Pantuso’s ability to get hit by the ball was legendary.

  16. 16.  That’s odd, I don’t remember that Brian Downing at all (he was with the ChiSox & was a former backstop?) I only remember the muscle bound stud with a weird stance & from everything I’ve read a truly classy guy.

  17. 17.  I my version of a Star Wars remake in grade school, Boba Fett was the true leader of the Dark Side, and Darth Vader was just a puppet.

    Thanks for the great memories of Brian Downing — either he was made of steel or the baseball was actually a Nerf ball.

  18. 18.  This is great stuff as always, Josh.

    Downing’s proclivity for the HBP would seem to be incompatible with his severely open stance. I, like a lot of kids in Southern California apparently, identified with Downing, no doubt because the glasses made him seem less jock-like. Every Little League season, I would start out with the ridiculous Brian Downing stance before some coach talked me out of it. Hey, I thought it helped me to see the pitch better.

    Don Baylor, discussed in reference to the 86 ALCS, is the all time leader in HBP, is he not? Or did he get passed by Biggio?

  19. 19.  12 : Thanks for sharing those thoughts. Man, just thinking of having to watch a video of myself teaching makes me shudder.

    13 : I vaguely recall hearing of Nippy Jones, but why isn’t that as big a moment as Cleon’s shoe-polish HBP?

    15 : I’d like to add to the fictional HBP heroics of Homer and “Coach” the rally-extending HBP sustained by a wincing Rudy Stein in The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training. Rudy came around to score the tying run on Jimmy Baio’s inside-the-park game-winner.

    17 : Boba Fett. I remember being so confused about that guy. Who was this action figure next to all the action figures of characters I knew well?

    18 : From Bill James on Brian Downing (38th best left-fielder of all time): “he addressed the pitcher with a wide-open stance, almost as if he intended to sell him some life insurance.”

  20. 20.  Don’t forget the time Dock Ellis got pissed off at the Reds for disrespecting the Pirates, and decided to teach them a lesson.
    He deliberately nailed the first three Cincinnati batters (including Wilker’s favourite everyday player of the 1970s) and tried several times to hit the fourth before Danny Murtaugh came and took him out.


    The absolute earliest baseball memory I have is watching Goose Gossage bean Ron Cey with a pitch during the ’81 WS.
    (Not an epochal moment, I know; just a personal one.)

  21. 21.  MESH!

  22. 22.  Every time I read Cardboard Gods, I am deeply, nauseatingly envious. You are so talented it isn’t fair.

  23. You’re the man Brian Downing. Congratulations on your entry into the Angels Hall of Fame tonight.


  25. I think he’s baseball’s patient zero.

  26. Eleven years since the last comment, but I need to ask. Why no essay on Downing’s 1977 card? It is one of the stranger ones. It just came up on Joe Posnanski’s podcast.

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