Rookie Infielders

May 19, 2008

Yesterday at Fenway featured considerable fireworks from the two reigning rookies of the year, the A.L. award-winner Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox going 3 for 5 with a home run while N.L. award-winner Ryan Braun pounded two home runs amid talk of his lucrative new contract. But neither of these players generated the excitement of the contender for this year’s award in the A.L., Jacoby Ellsbury. 

Whenever Ellsbury’s name is announced the cheers are very loud and a little shrill, as if the stands are suddenly full of lovestruck pubescent girls. To be a fan is to lose yourself in a dream of flight, a vicarious practice that is never easier than when the object of absorption is a rookie who can fly. The rookies that get the most love are the ones, such as Ellsbury, who are blank slates for us to impose our imagination upon. They are good young men, full of the joy of life, giving their all for the good of the team. They have had no nagging injuries, no crippling slumps, no contract disputes, no ugly personal revelations, no run-ins with the law, no clubhouse tirades. The back of their baseball cards belong to us, to our imagination, and we fill in the blank as if we’re filling in some absence in our hearts, the vision of season after season of untroubled glory like the score of an impossible song.

Everyone loves a rookie, but no one loves a rookie more than little kids, who see themselves in the young newcomers. I was just waking up to baseball in 1975, during perhaps the most celebrated season for rookies in major league history, when not just one but two members of the Red Sox burst into the everyday lineup and posted ridiculously good numbers while leading the Red Sox to the World Series. Jim Rice would have won the rookie of the year in most any other year, but his teammate Fred Lynn was even better, winning not only the Rookie of the Year award but also the league Most Valuable Player award. His numbers were indeed a bit better than Rice’s, but he also had a quality that made him the prototypical rookie—he seemed like an utter natural, as if he was born to play baseball. He could do everything—hit for high average and for power, run, throw, make breathtakingly spectacular catches in centerfield.

By the year the above card came out, 1977, the gravity-defeating qualities of Fred Lynn’s rookie season had been undercut by a decent but unspectacular, injury-riddled 1976 season. Lynn would show signs of brilliance again, especially in a 1979 season that rivaled his rookie campaign, but for the most part his 1976 season proved to be the blueprint of his good but not great career. In 1977 I was still hoping for Lynn to once again become the Golden Boy, but the presence of the need to hope, which can’t exist without its flip side, doubt, was the beginning of the end of the dream of a career of pure flight.

So my view on rookies in 1977 had matured beyond blind faith in limitless possibilities. Still, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice had taught me to be on the lookout for budding superstars, so I’m sure when I opened a new pack and found the card shown at the top of this page I tried immediately, hungrily, to identify the next vehicle for my vicarious dreams. And I’m also pretty sure that this attempt thunked dead in a nanosecond, as soon as my eyes were drawn to the upper lefthand corner of the card.

I’m sure after I stared at Juan Bernhardt for a few seconds I pried my glance away from him and tried to muster some enthusiasm for the other players. But even if the ominous specter of Juan Bernhardt hadn’t been looming over everything else in the card I don’t think I would have been able to shepherd a dream of the brilliant rookie through an inspection of the other pictures on the card. In the lower left, Jim Gantner looks doughy and bored, as if he’s just watched the team bus leave without him and doesn’t really care. Beside him is the alarming image of a fabrication of paint identified as Bump Wills, whose frozen visage is somehow overshadowed by the frighteningly unreal backdrop, which suggests a world stripped of every living thing, every note of every song, every breath. The name and the boyish good looks of the player above Bump Wills offers some promise, but his awful brown and yellow Padres cap taints the dream, dragging the name Mike Champion down into the realm of sarcasm.

Which brings things back to Juan Bernhardt, whose severe, deeply-lined face instantly tainted with irony the promise of the rookies card. Ethnicity aside, he looks old enough to be Mike Champion’s father. (For the record, the back of the card lists Juan Bernhardt as being born in 1953, which would make him 24 at the time of the picture, but it also lists his birthplace as being in the Dominican Republic, which has been known to produce players who are not always completely honest about their year of birth.) But more ominous than the sour, aged expression on Juan Bernhardt’s face is his black cap. I’m pretty sure I had never seen such a thing on a baseball card, and I’m pretty sure that it shook me up. I suppose, judging from the pinstripes still visible in Bernhardt’s uniform, that the Topps people only had an image of Bernhardt on the Yankees, and rather than going to the trouble of imposing a Mariners logo—which in 1977 was still a theoretical entity—they just smeared out the interlocking NY. But the result is so bleak and funereal that I think it may have harmed me in some barely perceptible but fundamental way. I was no longer a rookie.


  1. 1.  The ancient Juan actually hit the first home run for the Mariners in the Kingdome. It was all downhill from there.


  2. 2.  Bump Wills appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated that spring, if I recall correctly. I so admired how his name was written on his glove: WILLS on the ring finger, BUMP on the pinky, I wrote my name on my glove the same way.

    Wills didn’t turn out to be much of a player, but neither did I.

    Jim Gantner… was he known as “The Birdman” or did I make that up based on a future baseball card of his?

  3. 3.  1 : Nice find.

    Bernhardt was, for his one and only time, a semiregular the year this card came out, and Champion was, for his one and only time, a regular. Wills played every day, too, and finished third in the ROY voting (behind Eddie Murray and Mitchell Page). He played pretty well for a few years, but then things came to an abrupt end after a decent year with the Cubs, maybe because Ryne Sandberg was ready to take over. Gantner was the only guy here not to play a lot in ’77, but when all was said and done he was by far the most accomplished major leaguer (63rd best second-baseman of all time, according to Bill James). (I don’t remember the “Birdman” nickname.)

  4. 4.  Shea Hillenbrand was the first rookie I obsessed over. The guy was a catcher in the minors with no hope of getting up to the bigs. Then he was there, as the third baseman. You’re so right about the blank slate. As he became a veteran and bounced around, he managed to ruin the wholesome image I had created within my own mind. Ah well, can’t win em all 🙂

  5. 5.  4 : Other Bosox “blank slate” phenoms/surrenderers to gravity that jump immediately to mind:

    Tim Naehring (injuries, so many injuries)
    Phil Plantier (man, could he rake for a little while there)
    Nomar Garciaparra (took him a while, but gravity got him; I still remember the first time I saw him, during a late-season callup: I thought, “Good lord, this young eagle-beaked lad like a winner.”)

  6. 6.  As an O’s fan, the first rookie to dash my hopes was Jeffrey Hammonds. 4th overall draft pick out of Stanford (which had already given us Mike Mussina), picked two slots ahead of a high school shortstop named Jeter, big smile, five tools. He was in Baltimore by midseason 1993, and was hitting .323 in early August, at which point he went on the DL with a herniated disk. It would be the first of many injuries for Jeffrey, who had one ridiculously good year in the rarified air of Colorado in 2002 but finally retired last year as a .272 career hitter who never played as many as 130 games in a year.

  7. 7.  5 The most efficient version of that phenomenon was Ted Cox. He created quite a hubbub in Boston by getting 6 hits in his first 6 major-league at-bats (with a walk, no less). And that was pretty much it for Ted Cox…

  8. 8.  ahh Tim Naehring! Though Cam Neely had more success, I always though Naehring was the Sox version to Neely. the guy couldn’t stay healthy!

  9. 9.  Perhaps the ultimate blank slate:

  10. 10.  9 How’s that for pressure? Would you want the mantle of “future star”? I mean, it is as if to say, “not now, but one day, man, this guy’s gonna be awesome”.

    What I love about this site is how often Josh looks at these cards with completely fresh eyes. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would not have noticed the expressions on the faces of the four players pictured, or the backgrounds…

    Oh, and after the Dodgers posted five consecutive ROYs in the early 90s, and then went on to miss the playoffs each of the next seven years, any thought that I had that having great rookies was connected to winning went away. No more blank slates, just a sense of knowing it takes more than one (or five)

  11. 11.  Jim Gantner looks a little like Harpo Marx there while Bump Wills is obviously standing in front of a Jon Schuler painting.

  12. 12.  Errr, Schueler. As for the other two rooks, I don’t recall them at all.

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