Del Unser

December 6, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

U Is for Unser

One Christmas when I was a kid, my grandmother got me a book called Juggling for the Complete Klutz. I was not then or now prone to mastering skills of any kind, useful or otherwise, but for some reason I applied myself to the book’s lessons, most of which were accompanied by a cartoon of a befuddled bearded fellow amusingly failing. Attached to the book was a small red mesh sack with three square beanbags inside. You started out throwing one beanbag, getting the arc of that toss and catch down, then moved on to practicing the mundane exchange of throwing two at a time, first one and then the other, back and forth from hand to hand. Finally, you moved on to trying to get all three beanbags up in the air at once. In that last stage, I tried and failed many times. There was a faint alluring feeling in the failures of something almost happening, as if the latch of a locked treasure chest was on the brink of giving way. I kept failing. I kept trying.

In this 1978 card, Del Unser has just connected, propelling the ball up into the air. It’s not clear from the photo alone whether the ball will land safely, but the angle of Unser’s head as he follows the path of the ball would suggest that he has hit a fly ball and not a line drive or a grounder. I have determined after considerable study the likely time and place of this moment, and it’s during an inning in which two outs have already been recorded, thus eliminating the possibility of a sacrifice fly, and so the only hope for Unser’s at bat to be considered a useful one is for the ball to carry all the way into the centerfield stands. This is a long shot. It is always a long shot. Most at bats are useless.

I remember I was in my room, alone, once again trying and failing to juggle, when, finally, I got all three beanbags going at once for a couple of seconds. I lost control of my throws almost as quickly as I had all the other times before, but this time the slight difference was unmistakable. I’d juggled. Learning to walk must have felt the same way. Learning to ride a bike. One of those moments when you feel like you’re floating in a brand new way, like the laws of gravity have loosened. I ran downstairs to find someone and tell them the news. I’d juggled!

I’ve been pondering this 1978 Del Unser card for quite some time, and, as I mentioned, I have a theory on the time and place, the particulars of the moment. It took certain skills to be able to place this moment, I suppose. First, you have to be willing and able to look at a baseball card for a long time, to do something, in other words, that most people would consider to be, for an adult, a complete waste of time. You have to know your way around baseball-reference.com. It helps to know that the photographers who took shots at the ballpark in the 1970s most often showed up in New York and the Bay Area. I guess you have to have some powers of deduction. Anyway, I’ll spare you the details, but the key piece of info is that the on-deck hitter is almost surely future Hall-of-Famer Andre Dawson (joined, in the even more remote background, to the right of Unser’s left leg, by fellow Hall of Famer Gary Carter), and Dawson’s presence along with a couple of other indicators and probabilities suggests to me that the photo on this card is from the top of the sixth inning in a game between the Expos and Mets on Monday, May 30, 1977. Most of our efforts in life, let’s face it, amount to the equivalent of a failed at-bat against Bob Apodaca in a game between two also-rans. Moments that turn out like so:

Batter Pitcher Result
D. Unser B. Apodaca Flyball: CF

Everyone in my family enjoyed my new skill, and I was glad to show it to them, especially my grandmother. Warmed and emboldened by my family’s acclaim, I marched off to school with my three square beanbags, envisioning kids chanting my name as they carried me on their shoulders through the hallways; instead, everyone I juggled for smiled briefly, then asked over rapidly encroaching boredom whether I could juggle four things, then turned away to other more interesting matters, such as learning multiplication tables or poking one of the classroom gerbils with a pencil. This reaction was a letdown that could serve as a prototype for all subsequent letdowns in my life. I came to understand, eventually, that I had devoted myself with uncharacteristic tenacity to learning something so gaudily useless that it could, were it necessary, be used to illustrate the very concept of uselessness.

For most of his career, Del Unser played for also-rans, a term seemingly designed primarily to convey uselessness. There are contenders, and games that matter, and moments upon which history hinges, and then there is everything else. Del Unser played for the second edition of the Washington Senators in its death throes, then logged a season with a typically moribund Cleveland Indians outfit, then hitched on with the Philadelphia Phillies for two seasons before, just as they were on the brink of escaping mediocrity, he was shipped to the declining mid-1970s Mets for a year and a half, who then passed him along to the Expos. From the photo on the front of Del Unser’s 1978 card it’s clear, at least in retrospect, that the Expos, armed with young future superstars such as Dawson and Carter, would soon be climbing into contention, but Del Unser’s destiny was to always be on the move, and he wouldn’t be around with the Expos when, in 1979, they finally began to play games that mattered. It must have seemed to Del Unser that he would never find a crucial moment when he might be of use.

I kept juggling. It became a solitary practice, like most of the other things I did or would do or still do, like reading, writing, walking, mulling fantasy sports rosters, jogging, shooting baskets, meditating, beating off. I learned how to juggle bowling pins, big plastic rings, basketballs. I learned to flip tennis balls under my leg and around my back while juggling them. However, as if to highlight the gulf growing between me, the juggler, and a hypothetical audience, a possible connection, I never was able fulfill the inevitable ubiquitous request of anyone who ever saw me juggling—can you juggle four?—with any regularity. I juggled three things, just three things, in seclusion. I tried to imagine that it was some kind of a Zen practice. At my wintry college, where my Zen pretensions were at their most pronounced levels, I sometimes juggled snowballs outside the classroom before big tests “to focus.” I’m sure I secretly hoped that I would be seen doing so, and admired, but no one ever said anything about it, at least not to my face.

Some months ago the birth of my son thrust me into the frazzled center of a rapid unending series of baffling crises. The whole thing started with the birth itself, in which my role was to smile and say “You can do it!” to someone in terrible agony who later confirmed my suspicion that she was looking entirely past my cheerleading to search with animal ferocity the faces of the nurses and doctors for signs that the end of the unbearable pain might be in sight. My efficacy or lack thereof throughout the long ordeal crystallized during one of the terrifying peaks of my wife’s pain, when I was sent out of the room so that my wife could receive an epidural, which she had hoped to avoid back when we imagined that together we could calmly visualize away the rumored pain of labor contractions by believing it would all be like riding rising and falling waves. During the administration of the epidural I sat in a little waiting room alone. It was 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., somewhere in there. I sat and stared at the dim institutional carpeting and hoped and prayed, two activities of limited if not altogether useless impact. I wanted my wife to be all right but couldn’t do anything about it. I was scared that the epidural would lead to some kind of complication. I was also scared it simply wouldn’t work, that we’d have to go on as before, one of us wrenching around on a hospital bed like a fish suffocating at the bottom of a boat, the other standing alongside, useless, hoping and praying.

In 1979, the trend in Del Unser’s career toward less and less playing time continued as the former regular turned fourth outfielder took what most would interpret as a further demotion in role, to that of a pinch-hitter. He had always been a good outfielder (in fact, the moment in the 1978 card at the top of this post testifies to his fielding abilities, as in the game in question he was the centerfielder, chosen to play that key defensive position over Andre Dawson, who would go on to win several Gold Glove awards as a centerfielder), and so he continued to occasionally get playing time as an outfielder, and, proving his versatility, he also logged innings occasionally at first base, but his primary role in 1979 was pinch-hitter. It must have seemed to Unser that this reduction in playing time would be compensated for by an increase in crucial moments, as going into 1979 the Phillies had won the previous three National League East crowns. As it turned out, the 1979 Phillies would finish up the season as also-rans, 14 games out of first behind the Pirates (and 12 behind his contending former teammates on the Expos), but fairly deep into the season there must have persisted the hope that the three-time defending NL East champs might still have a chance to make a charge toward the top. On June 30, the Phillies were trailing the St. Louis Cardinals late and were on the brink of falling to just one game above .500 when Del Unser was called in to pinch-hit. Unser homered to tie the game, which the Phillies would go on to win. Unser homered in his next pinch-hitting appearance, a July 5 loss to the Mets, and was next called in to pinch-hit with two outs and two on in the 9th inning of a July 10 game against the Padres, the Phillies behind 5-3 and future Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers on the mound. No one had ever hit three pinch-hit home runs in a row before. You can tell where this is going, I’m sure, so let’s just say that in that not altogether unimportant moment, the Phillies still within shouting distance of first place, Del Unser proved to be quite useful.

The epidural worked, for a while anyway, probably not because of my prayers, but who knows. It eventually wore off, leading to another long terrible passage of pain that finally ended in the best and weirdest moment of my life, my bloody son riding on the hands of strangers out from between the legs of my wife. Since then, the boy at the center of that moment has centered my life, and my life has been that of a complete klutz. I trip over stuff. I drop things. Sometimes I barely remember how to walk. A few nights ago, I had a dream that I was trying to juggle and couldn’t do it any longer. I kept trying but I’d forgotten how.

Del Unser followed up his 1979 record-setting feat of three pinch-hit home runs in a row by performing multiple off-the-bench heroics for the Phillies in the 1980 postseason, helping the team to its first-ever World Series title. Unser’s efforts on a colorful star-studded Phillies roster including eventual all-time hits king Pete Rose, league MVP Mike Schmidt, Cy Young award-winner Steve Carlton, comically gorilla-armed slugger Greg Luzinski, and the charismatic sloganeering Dionysian relief ace Tug McGraw, among others, provide some guidance to me on how to be father. Being a father, you’re not really the star of the show, the starting pitcher, the cleanup hitter, what have you, but you may be called upon at certain times to step off the bench and into the spotlight. You don’t have the uterus or the boobs or the 500 career home runs or the 300 wins but you still might be called upon to perform a small but necessary duty successfully. You can carry a car seat out to the car. You can change a diaper half-decently. Maybe once in a while you can get the kid to sleep. You are the pinch-hitter.

After my dream about not being able to juggle I searched the house for three tennis balls. It took a while—in step with the new general disorder of things, all three were in different places, and my wife found the last one behind a bureau. She also found what she termed “a hundred-pound wad of dust” behind the bureau, so after she cleaned back there she stomped off to the shower, asking me to watch the baby in her absence. Time to pinch-hit! The baby was sitting and playing in a little high chair thing by the dining-room table. I kept one eye on him while I gathered up the three tennis balls. I hadn’t juggled in a while, but it came right back to me. Three balls in the air. After all these years, it still gave me some pleasure, or maybe even some kind of very quiet joy. This feeling, joy, announced itself as always having been there, in a kind of diminished, hibernating form, as I noticed it rousing itself to something fuller, a whole note, with the awareness that two small blue eyes were now on me. My son, who had been attempting to jam a small furry book about a family of bears into his mouth, had noticed what I was doing. His fierce grip on the book loosened and the book slid to the floor. I kept juggling, turning to him, calling his name and babbling baby sounds. He was watching the worn yellow balls rise and fall, rise and fall. He was watching the pinch-hitter do what he knew how to do and he was smiling.


  1. Perfect! Especially relating to the last half of paragraph 11…

  2. I had the same Klutz juggling book! I can also juggle exactly three objects because of it.

    What do you think about the July 10th, 1977 game? Unser homered, and Sam Mejias would have been on deck. (You can barely see the number starts with 1, both Sam and Andre had a number in the teens.) I had to go to a news article to find the location of the homer and saw “The Expos scored their only run in the fifth Inning when Del Unser drove his sixth home run into the right field bullpen.” Right-center field makes more sense to me than center, because his head is pretty much facing the way he’s running, which would be toward first. This ball looks like it’s going to right field to me. Everything else matches up, Sunday afternoon game, 86 degrees. The May game was 72 degrees and had .08 inches of rain at LaGua. I do see tank tops in the crowd but I guess weather-wise it really could be either day. His July homer would have been around 2 pm, and the May fly out would be more like 4-4:30 since it was game 2, but you still might not see the lights on yet, so again, either game could fit.

  3. gedmaniac: I was hoping you’d swing by to inspect this card for clues. You may well be right, which would certainly make this a better moment for Unser. I still think the ball could be headed toward a centerfielder’s glove, in part because the on-deck hitter seems like he could be looking in a fairly central direction. Also, I found three pics online of Mejias batting (all posed shots, so quite possibly irrelevant) and in none does he wear a batting glove. Pics of Dawson show him wearing a batting glove, like the on-deck hitter here).

  4. Great entry, wondering if someone asked Del Unser if he could do four.

    I also learned to juggle to little recognition as a teen, not with that Klutz book but with “The Juggling Book” by a long-haired hippie named “Carlo” who argued for pursuing juggling as a spiritual pursuit. It turned out Carlo was actually a relative of mine (Uncle Charles), and realizing I had a hippie relative was mind expanding by itself. I also learned to ride a unicycle, and still have it. I in fact changed the tire recently so I could ride it and entertain the boy.

  5. I now covet The Juggling Book by “Carlo.”

  6. Josh,

    I started learning to juggle when I was in 5th grade. It is truly one of the great solitary “arts”. I never progressed past juggling balls, but I did work up to juggling four objects – the way is to learn to juggle two items in one hand, and once you can do that in both your “strong” and “weak” hand, you juggle 2 objects in each hand together (synchronous or asynchronous) to juggle 4.

    My oldest two daughters were impressed with my juggling, but it wasn’t until this past year that my youngest daughter has started to practice and learn for herself. She is good enough now to impress her classmates, but has an odd idiosyncrasy in that she says she can only juggle with her shoes off.

  7. “Also, I found three pics online of Mejias batting (all posed shots, so quite possibly irrelevant) and in none does he wear a batting glove. Pics of Dawson show him wearing a batting glove, like the on-deck hitter here).”

    That’s funny, I also checked the batting gloves thing! But stupidly I only checked Dawson’s other pics. I did notice Dawson WASN’T wearing gloves, or was wearing only one, but they weren’t game shots so it didn’t prove anything.

  8. Been away from this blog for awhile… and this is another great entry… a reason why I should never wander away from regular reading.

    I never tried juggling, but your juggling story still hit home, as my particular useless adolescent skill was magic. I got one of those crappy, toy store magic kits for a birthday… and perfected every lame trick over the next couple weeks. My parents were all very impressed and heaped the requisite parental praise. My classmates were less impressed… and that odd sting of realizing that nobody cared except people that are required to care… that’s something that sticks with you. One of those moments, in hindsight, when you realize you were growing up.

    As far as paragraph 11. You are not the semi-important, aging pinch hitter. You are the young, unproven prospect. Sure, your wife is currently the wily veteran… seemingly much more comfortable in the big show. But trust me, as the father of six year old and four year old sons… you will not remain the unproven, pinch hitting prospect for long. Your son will promote you to full time, everyday player status soon enough… and you’ll be the All-Star… the one that he will look to for consistent production. Mom will be the reliable bullpen arm.. there to apply the band-aids and put out the occasional bases loaded jam… but … ok damn… I think I just gave myself a stroke from too many baseball analogies… couldn’t feel my left side for a minute there… anyways… I think you get my point… babies are all about mom… young boys are all about dad.

  9. Thanks for those fatherhood thoughts, nunyer. I can’t imagine my wife ever being anything but (to switch sports) the Michael Jordan of the whole parenting situation, but interestingly enough the boy has recently started army-crawling, and he only seems to want to do this first of his “athletic” activities when I’m around.

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