George Brett, 1978

January 16, 2009

Reality #1

It is fucking cold here in Chicago, Illinois. Twelve degrees below zero as of this moment. I haven’t been outside since yesterday, when I put on two pairs of socks, long underwear, my thickest pair of jeans, three shirts and a sweater, a parka, hiking boots, gloves, two wool hats, and a scarf the size of a blanket and walked a few blocks to slide the DVD of Pineapple Express through the return slot at the video store. The digital bank clock by the video store reported that it was minus five. The walk there wasn’t so bad, but on the way back I was walking against a stiff wind, which I swore at through my unraveling scarf-blanket as the few inches of exposed skin on my face became increasingly painful.

But worse, really, is the oppressive monotony of being inside all the time, especially in an apartment with very poor insulation. I’m in the apartment’s office right now, which is above the unheated stairwell. The wood floor feels like chilled metal, and cold air pushes through the two windows. I’m wearing a wool hat, long underwear, flannel pants, two pairs of socks, slippers, two shirts, a sweatshirt, a sweater, and a gortex vest, and I’m still chilly, especially in my hands, which I have to rub and blow on pretty constantly, like Bob Cratchit. The heat comes on every couple minutes, producing images of cartoon dollar bills flying from my wallet. Our heating bills are going to put us into the poor house, which is probably even more poorly insulated. Or worse, we’ll be out on the street. My god.

I’m glad I’ve got a roof over my head during times like these.

Fantasy #1

But I wish I was in a place as warm and sunny as the one on this 1978 baseball card of George Brett. Of course, it’s hard to know for sure that it’s warm wherever Brett was when the picture was snapped, but it is inarguably sunny, and he is without a hat and doesn’t seem to be cringing against a stiff wind or wearing anything thicker than the thin blue polyester Royals uniform designed for the brutally hot Kansas City summers. I guess you could argue that some manner of wind is blowing Brett’s tousled golden locks, but I really think it must be more of a gentle spring breeze than a stiff chilly gust.

So that’s where I want to be. Bathed in sunlight. The sounds of the game echoing across the warm green fields. I think what I’d do is lean back and close my eyes and angle my face right up at the sun and just listen.

Reality #2

The worst cold snap I experienced occurred in Vermont in January 2000, the year I lived in a cabin with no electricity. I went to visit my aunt and uncle near the beginning of the cold snap, and couldn’t leave for a couple days during the worst of it because my car refused to start. Finally it coughed to life one morning when the temperature rose from instantly crippling cold to merely really, really cold, and I drove back to my cabin, first stopping at a K-Mart to buy thick opaque sheets of plastic to put up over my windows and another wool hat to add to the bulky collection on my head. When I got back to the cabin I discovered that everything I owned had frozen solid, including things that I didn’t know could freeze, such as toothpaste. I got a sputtering fire going in the little wood stove, using the shitty green wood that the owner of the cabin, a tense hippie with a reputation for fucking people over, had sold me, then I inexpertly plastered the plastic all over the windows using duct tape. I spent the remainder of the winter huddled over the wood stove, practically hugging it, because it never generated enough heat to warm up the whole cabin. I couldn’t really see anything through the plastic, but I had a vague idea of whether it was night or day, and I could tell by the wind rattling the birches and moaning through pines that it was cold out there, the kind of cold that would seem almost predatory if it weren’t so completely indifferent.

Fantasy #2

I was ostensibly working as a teacher during that era, but by January 2000 my course load as an adjunct professor had dissolved to next to nothing, my only task being the sporadic tutoring in essay writing of a Vietnam vet with severe post-traumatic stress disorder who eventually stopped showing up for our meetings. But I still went onto campus every couple of days to the office I shared with several other adjuncts so that I could check the progress of my fantasy basketball team. It gave at least the tiniest shred of a shape to a life that had become almost utterly shapeless.

I guess my life has more of a shape now, but I still start every day with a check of my fantasy team or teams. Right now all I’ve got going is a basketball squad in second-place in a thirteen-team league, but I think I did see some article just this morning on my way to check on my roster about B.J. Upton’s prospective slot in upcoming fantasy baseball drafts. I was excited by this, because this meant it is almost time for me to put together a pre-draft ranking list, which always proves to be an enjoyable way to kill some time.

I’m not really sure why I find such things enjoyable. I do know that ever since I was a boy I’ve tried to dream my way out of my life and into a fantasy life revolving around sports, especially baseball. In 1978, the year I first held this sun-drenched George Brett card in my hand, I was well into a childhood consumed with imaginary baseball-related games around the house, games in which I would become someone else, or actually whole worlds of someone elses. I’d be every player on both teams and the crowd and the announcers, too. At the moment of victory I’d pitch to my knees in the back yard holding a whiffle ball bat or tennis ball or whatever else I’d been using and imagine I was the victorious long-suffering star, finally basking in the warm light of winning, and I’d pretend to cry.

Reality #3

But the coldest I’ve ever been was not here in Chicago or in Vermont but one night while I was drifting randomly around Europe the year after I finished college. I had been in Essen, Germany, lazing around a youth hostel while I waited for the Grateful Dead to arrive in town for a concert. Unfortunately, the day before the concert I was told I had to leave the hostel because it had been reserved months before to house several teams of acrobatic teenagers from all around the globe coming to Essen to compete in an international youth trampolining contest. Evicted, I took a train to Cologne, arriving in the late afternoon. Both of the youth hostels I tried in Cologne were full. I guess I could have shelled out for a room in a hotel, but I don’t think I even considered that. I didn’t have much money, and more importantly I was obsessed with the idea that my money equaled time, as in the longer I could keep my little roll of bills alive the longer I could delay my return to the utter blank of my post-college life in America. So I went down to a park along the river with my backpack. Though it was November I didn’t think it was that cold, at least while the sun was still above the old-world steeple-marked skyline. I think I even imagined it might be peaceful. A night out under the stars! But as the night went on it got colder and colder. Pretty soon into it I had emptied my backpack of every last article of clothing I owned and wrapped it around my shivering body. I figured if I could fall asleep I could make the night go by faster, but I was never able to even so much as fall into a shallow ditch of unconsciousness for more than a couple minutes, at which point I’d wake up trembling and have to get up and do jumping jacks and wind-sprints. I also whooped and hollered, as if by using my voice I could somehow push back against a world that kept telling me I had to move.

Fantasy #3

If I had lived a certain kind of life maybe by now I would have enough money in the bank to get the hell out of town when it gets really fucking cold. Perhaps I could even go to Fantasy Camp. This is where middle-aged dudes pay a bundle to exit the winter and play baseball in the warm sun against each other and against some of the major leaguers who showed up on the baseball cards and in the fantasies of the campers back when they were basking in the summertime glow of youth.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m mocking such a thing, because, really, if I had money how better could I spend it than on such a thing as this? That’s the thing with these baseball cards I write about day in and day out. When I was a boy I fantasized about being a 24-year-old A.L. ALL STAR, a red, white, and blue shield on my card, the sun lighting my tousled golden locks, and now that I’m a middle-aged guy I fantasize about being a 24-year-old A.L. ALL STAR, a red, white, and blue shield on my card, the sun lighting my tousled golden locks. These cards are the unchanging fantasy at the center of the unraveling spiral of my years.

So, yeah, more power to the Fantasy Camps, which feed into perhaps the single most enduring fantasy of American men that doesn’t involve a cheap funk soundtrack and grateful moaning. I don’t know exactly when the first Fantasy Camp opened, but I feel like I first started hearing about them around the time I was gripping onto my little wood stove for dear life during the year in the cabin.

But in fact the first Fantasy Camp occurred several years earlier than that, in the sunny year of 1978, under the visionary leadership of none other than the late great Mr. Roarke. Turns out George Brett was on hand, along with fellow Cardboard Gods Fred Lynn, Tommy Lasorda, and Steve Garvey. Gary “Radar” Burghoff was there, too, on one of his last stops on his way out of the public eye and into the oblivion beyond Fantasy Island guests spots. As Mr. Roarke explains, Burghoff’s character is a guy named Richard Delaney who wants to be a baseball superstar. (Fittingly, at least from where I’m sitting, Richard Delaney has come to the warm, sun-drenched island of fantasies from that undoubtedly cold-as-fuck city of reality: Chicago, Illinois.) To get a peek at Delaney’s fantasy, which is really all our fantasies, or even just to take a break from the cold and see some sunshine and warmth and to hear Ricardo Montalban demonstrate his greatness by the way he recites the words “baseball superstar,” click here (thanks to Dodger Thoughts for the link).


(Love versus Hate update: George Brett’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)


  1. 1.  Josh, seeing Radar blow those Bugs Bunny-like tantalizers by Brett, Garvey, and Lynn right there on a green diamond nested between hills looking very much like the 4077th, well, it pleased me. Well done. As for the Tates, there may be something to be said for broken-down morality after all. Was that the village where Barry Bonds’s trial is being held…? It also looked familiar.

    Good luck and godspeed with your cold snap there. It’s as cold as it’s been in Memphis this morning in eight years, single digits on the commute in, thanks to that bulging Canadian air mass. Stupid bulging Canadians…

  2. 2.  So glad to see Brett make it to the Cardboard Gods. He was my God growing up. I saw his second to last game played at Tiger Stadium. He hit two home runs and received a standing ovation and came out for a curtain call. The Tiger fans loved to hate Brett. Sparky Anderson probably intentionally walked Brett more than any other player while managing the Tigers. The only player I think the Tiger fans respected as much Brett, was Yaz. Seeing this card warmed my -7 day here in Detroit. Thanks again!

  3. 3.  I liked this one, Josh, BTW, wherever George is, it has red seats.

  4. 4.  1 : Good to hear from you, Lonnie. Great observation that Radar seems to be throwing his junk in “Korea.”

    2 : There’s also a George Brett ’79 card on this site that gets into his dalliances with Morganna the Kissing Bandit.

  5. 5.  I turned eleven when Brett’s challenge of .400 was peaking (in August), and since RBIs and batting average were the dominant stats, he became the greatest god of all, so I became obsessed by all things Brett, like a lot of eleven year olds.

    I was kind of disappointed later to find out that Mike Schmidt– Brett’s greatest rival– was the superior player, and lately I’ve come to found out that Brett is still stuck in looking at players through pre-James dark age tools like batting average. Disappointed maybe isn’t the right word, but I felt I wasn’t a kid any longer and couldn’t be any longer when I realized Mike Schmidt was better.

    Like many people here, baseball is the prism through which I see life. Sometimes I can’t remember what year things happened in my life, but I’ll remember, “That was the year the A’s played the Giants; that was 1989, so it must have been 1989.”

  6. 6.  I was in Chicago earlier this week and was freezing. From what I’ve seen it’s only gotten colder since I left. Stay as warm as you can.

  7. 7.  5 : I can’t argue against the claim that Schmidt was better, but if you could together an all-time dream team of HoFers, and then have that team play out a 162-game schedule, I think Brett would end up getting more ABs than Schmidt. I mean, if I was the manager I’d platoon ’em, so Brett would get the starts against most righties, Schmidt handling the lefties and coming in for defense. (I spend my time thinking about such things…)

  8. 8.  Schmidt was indeed the better overall player in retrospect. But there was something more to Brett. He seemed smooth with the media and smooth with the ladies. He was the guy I always wanted to be. Mike Schmidt always seemed like a jerk. With his mustache and robotic movements. Awesome player…but I lump him in the Steve Garvey and Jeff Kent as players I hate for no valid reason.

  9. 9.  I found the Doug Rau-Lasorda argument online and sent it to a Dodger fan friend of mine a couple of years ago. We looked up Rau’s stats and saw he was a pretty good pitcher for a while, but we’d never heard of him. Then a couple of days later I turned it over to a Fantasy Island rerun during a break in whatever game we were watching, and Radar mentioned Rau’s name. That’s as close to Fantasy Island as I will ever get.

    The SF Chronicle obit says Billy Crystal did the “Quien es mas macho?” sketch, but it was Bill Murray. They confused their Lamas sketches.

  10. 10.  GB5HOF, I felt the same way you did as a kid. Something about Schmidt’s moustache and low batting average really turned me off (wasn’t a billboard with Schmidt on it shown in the background was shown during the riot scene in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”?) and you’re right, if you wanted to be somebody in that time, you wanted to be George Brett. When I was 12 I even had a powder blue Royals shirt in Brett’s honor.

    In any case, as the years went by, I started to change my position on Brett and Schmidt. Then last year came the final straw. I was reading an interview here in Boston wherein Brett was STILL professing a non-belief in Dustin Pedroia, saying something along the lines that he wouldn’t last with his big swing– which was an absurd thing to say the year after Pedroia won ROY and was on his way to a tight MVP race win. Hearing Brett dismiss all the Sabermetric Revolution as blithely as tossing away an empty tube of hemorrhoid cream, I couldn’t help but think of the YouTube of him talking about crapping his pants (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6403VV2oyu0), the abortions he casually paid for and thought, “I don’t like this guy, he’s a dumb jock.”

    It was one of those “Wonder Years” sort of moments where you realize things can’t ever be the same again.

  11. 11.  10 : I didn’t see Brett bash Pedroia, but I wonder if his criticism of the big swing derives less from SABR-hating and more from his devotion to the (Charlie) Lau-ist religion. Nobody, not even Dwight Evans, adhered more than Brett to the level-swinging, one-handed follow-through, Charlie Lau (and Walt Hrniak) batting style, which differs strikingly from Dustin’s swing-from-the-heels uppercut.

  12. 12.  I absolutely couldn’t stand George Brett growing up. The main reason for my pure hatred for the man was that he absolutely killed my team, the Brewers, seemingly at will. It didn’t matter who was pitching, he always seemed to be able to hit a double off the wall of old county stadium right when the Royals needed it the most.

    But, it’s funny how your memories are. Through the “miracle” of the internet, I see he really wasn’t any better against the Crew than he was against, say, the lowly Mariners of the same era.

    The Brett/Schmidt comparison above I saw in a totally different light. Brett was a smug pretty boy to me. Always smiling. Had the world by the tail. Model perfect wife and 2.5 kids. Tons of money. Lots of media fawning all over him. I hated him and his sky blue jersey.

    Schmidt on the other hand quietly smacked out 35+ dingers a year, walked about 100 times, and played a great 3rd base.

  13. 13.  I can’t believe I just watched that whole Brett video.

    I always liked Brett because of how pure his rage was against the Yankees in the pine-tar thing. I’d have probably gone with Schmidt because I was an NL guy, but I liked ’em both well enough.

  14. 14.  13 : You’ve got to watch it all to see:

    A) Fred Lynn’s commitment to the role. The dude screws himself into the dirt fanning on Burghoff’s loop-de-loo, then still has the presence of mind to recite his line: “I thought Nolan Ryan was tough.”

    B) Leslie Nielson, perhaps the only Fantasy Island guest star ever whose career improved in the years after his appearance on the show. And don’t call him Shirley.

  15. 15.  1993 in Plieningen, Germany, a little burg just outside of Stuttgart where they have the big Mercedes factory, and I’m stuck on a babysitting mission. It’s April, and the snow is long gone, but for some reason I get back late from work at the base and I can’t find my hotel keys (really, more like an apartment block with maids) and nobody’s at the front desk.

    I slept in my car that night, which overstates it by quite a bit because I quickly discovered how cold it gets at night.

    After the sun came up, I found the hotel key.

    I caught a cold that lasted the next week.

  16. 16.  Burghoff also get to K the immortal Ellis Valentine in that Fantasy Island episode.

  17. 17.  I’d like to reclaim a line now that it has achieved its purpose elsewhere: Brett was the most feared hitter of his generation. (Obviously the following is skewed by who was hitting behind him, but Brett did have more intentional walks than any of his contemporaries.)

  18. 18.  I know there is almost universal hatred for Hawk Harrelson at the Toaster, but one of my favorite things about him is his complete man-crush on George Brett. Hawk loves Catfish Hunter almost as much, but when he discusses Brett, you can almost hear his boner growing. Hawk might not understand Moneyball, but he could really write a great baseball book discussing the people and things that have swirled around him during his time in the game. I would love to see a piece you would do on him. Love him or HATE him, he always has been an original…and I say that about few people in life.

  19. 19.  18 : Just yesterday I was listening to Hawk getting interviewed by Chet Koppick (sp?) on the radio, a format that lessened his customary supreme-homer bluster, and he was saying some interesting things. He obviously knows a lot about the game and has a lot of great stories. I think he might actually be growing on me. When I first moved to Chicago five years ago I wanted to strangle him and bury him in a shallow grave with a marker engraved with two words–“he gone.” But now I’d miss him if he actually was gone. And I wish I had a card of him during his playing days to do a post about him, but he hung up the spikes a few years before I started collecting cards.

  20. 20.  Harrelson and Stockton were the Red Sox TV team when I was introduced to the game. I don’t really remember what they were like, but the only sportscaster from that era I recall people complaining about was Howard Cosell. I was looking at an old book recently. There was a pic of the Hawk in an outfit that was straight out of Austin Powers.

  21. 21.  I agree that while I mainly want to strangle Hawk, he can be good in rare situations. During the 40th anniversary of the Impossible Dream Team stuff in ’07, he was in the booth with the Red Sox announcers–when he fawns over your team and park it makes everything okay. Also, when I get White Sox-Yanks coverage on mlb.tv and it’s the Chicago feed, it’s fun to hear the announcer rooting as hard as you are against the Yanks. My intro to Hawk was actually when he was a Yanks announcer on MSG for a little while.

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