Chris GustAugust 12, 2009
(continued from Ruppert Jones)
A few days ago, before work, before another pre-work attempt to write about a baseball player named Dan Thomas, I went for a run. It wasn’t long after sunup. I zigged and zagged up and down the streets of my Chicago neighborhood for a while. As I was rounding the corner of Oakley and Walton I spotted the larger of these two fragments on the ground. It had rained hard the night before, and I had to carefully pry the wet piece of cardboard from the pavement.
I finished my run while holding the floppy card gently in my fingertips, trying not to cause it any further damage, then I slowed to a walk and returned to the corner of Leavitt and Oakley to look for more ripped up baseball cards. I was hoping at the very least for the top of this card, but all I found was the smaller fragment shown here.
Now my baseball card collection includes doubles, or pieces of doubles, of a minor league player named—according to the back of the larger fragment—Christopher Lazarus Gust.
I can’t tell you much more than I’ve already told you about Dan Thomas, the Sundown Kid. I’ve told you about him earning a half-season suspension for punching a minor league umpire, and of his minor league Triple Crown award the following season, and of his promising major league call-up, and of his hot start with the Brewers the following spring, and of his refusal to play on Friday nights or Saturday, and of the mounting losses of the Brewers, and of his mid-May slump, and of the demotion that would prove to be the end of his major league career, and of the jail cell in Mobile, Alabama, three years later, where he would spend the last moments of his life.
After his demotion by the Brewers to their Triple A affiliate in Spokane, he continued to follow the dictates of the Worldwide Church of God, and he continued to struggle. The Brewers tried to send him down even farther, to Double A Holyoke, but he refused to report. He decided to stay in Spokane, and according to an article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle he got a job building “highway trailers.”
He tried to hook on with any baseball team that would have him the next season but found no takers among big league franchises. The best he could do was an unaffiliated pro team, the Boise Buckskins. You couldn’t get much lower. The Buckskins were by a considerable margin the worst team in the Northwest League, a short-season A ball circuit. According to the league history page on baseball-reference.com, the Buckskins existed in the league for just that one year, as if they had materialized out of sheer mercy so as to give Dan Thomas a place to be.
When you peruse the roster of a minor league team on baseball-reference.com, you will sometimes see a player’s name in bold. The bold is to denote that the player has a major league record. On a Triple A squad, such as the Spokane Indians team Thomas played on in 1978, many names are in bold, including those of soon-to-be regulars such as Lary Sorensen, Lenn Sakata, Jim Gantner, and Gorman Thomas. On the Boise Buckskins roster, only one name is in bold: Dan Thomas, who in his last season in professional baseball won the batting title of the Northwest League.
I can’t tell you much about Christopher Lazarus Gust, but I know from my newest shreds of baseball cards that he has not played professional baseball for quite some time. The two seasons listed on the back of his card are from 1986 and 1987. He started where Dan Thomas ended, in the Northwest League.
Yesterday, after work, I hurried home. It being August, sundown was still a ways off, but my sundown ritual pulled me along nonetheless: After work, I like to have a beer and some food and watch a rerun of The Simpsons. Well, like may not be the right word. I recently read an interview in the Chicago Reader with Bob Odenkirk (whose brother, incidentally, is an executive producer of The Simpsons) and was struck by his description of the medium in which his brilliant co-creation, Mr. Show, had an ambivalent, temporary foothold: “People get older, and they just don’t want to hear a new idea. They want to sit back and watch the same people do the same thing they did last week. That’s what TV exists for—it exists to be a mild sedative.”
So anyway, as I was hurrying home for my mild sundown sedative, I passed a man who was in some kind of trouble. He was in his early sixties, a little pudgy, balding, with a slight facial resemblance to Mikhail Gorbachev. He held onto a metal gate with one hand to keep from falling and held a cell phone in his other hand, which he reached toward me, groaning. He didn’t speak much English, not that unusual in my neighborhood, Ukrainian Village, but somehow I understood he needed me to call for help. I dialed 911 for the first time in my life and described to the dispatcher our location, the corner of Leavitt and Walton (one block east of where I found Chris Gust), and then described the situation.
“He’s clutching his chest and stomach and seems dizzy,” I said. “He needs an ambulance.”
When I got off the phone I tried to get the man to describe what was happening to him. His vocabulary was very limited. He stammered stray words but only managed one complete sentence.
“I think I am dead,” he said.
Christopher Lazarus Gust didn’t win any batting crowns, in the Northwest League or anywhere else, but according to a website about baseball in Madison he led the Muskies in steals in 1988. This was his last year in pro baseball. Presumably when the sun went down on his dream, a dream many of us have but very few are able to realize, he moved back to the hometown listed on the back of this card. Chicago. You’d have to think that he took with him a few keepsakes. His glove. His cap. A couple baseball cards with his name and likeness. You’d have to think he might have pulled one of the cards out from time to time to remember his brief day in the sun, the card raising that day from the dead.
Just before we first heard the sirens in the distance, I asked the Ukrainian man his name and told him mine. He was glad for this exchange and reached out the hand that wasn’t clinging to the metal gate and clasped my hand.
The last I saw of him, he was sitting on the back fender of a fire truck as firemen tried to get him to explain what the trouble was. I thought about going back and looking him in the eye and telling him he’d be all right. Because of our exchange of names I was the least strange of the strangers surrounding him. But I didn’t go back. I rationalized that the firemen had it all under control. I went home.
What can I tell you? If they can, people hurry home at sundown.