Archive for the ‘Teams’ Category


Tom Wilhelmsen

May 9, 2016

Tom WilhemsonWhat do you follow?

I used to follow baseball. I mean I used to just follow it anywhere and everywhere. Lyman Bostock. Mario Mendoza. Up, down, whoever, however. I veered away from this undifferentiated, open, curious following in college, thinking at that time that I might instead find some blazing singular path to follow. I was nineteen, twenty, right around the age Tom Wilhelmsen was when he wandered away from baseball. I don’t know what he wanted. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to believe the way to this would reveal itself with great clarity. Like a pitcher hoping to discover an unhittable out pitch, I hoped for one perfect sentence to usher forth and start some masterpiece and furthermore unlock all the songs inside me forever.

Never happened. You follow one day to the next, follow a day of shit writing with another day of shit writing and some days don’t even get that.

Now I follow my two sons around. They’re going to turn five and two this summer, my two sons, Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O. The ideas they have! The physical idiocy! I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and I laugh a lot. Anything else I ever followed has fallen off the edge of the world, more or less.

I do keep tabs on two players. Neither is doing very well this year. One is Eugenio Velez. As I wrote about in Benchwarmer, he’s one of the primary talismans of my life as a father, a life that began in 2011, when Eugenio Velez last appeared in the major leagues. He spent that entire season hitless, an excursion into futility so pronounced as to set two monumental records (most consecutive plate appearances without a hit—a record skein that began in 2010—and most at bats in a single season without a hit). I’ve been keeping tabs on him ever since, hoping that his inspiring persistence as an able minor-league hitter would merit a return to the majors so that he could get a hit. After several productive minor league seasons, he’s now batting just .223 for Quintana Roo of the Mexican League. He’s 34. You have to figure the end is near.

I worry that the same may be true for Tom Wilhelmsen, age 32 and owner of a 7.62 ERA, who also breached my narrowing field of awareness because of fatherhood. I didn’t know about him until I perused the back of this card one day when sitting on the floor with my older son. Occasionally, I dump a bunch of newer cards on the floor and let my offspring do what they will with them. Fling them around, rip them, gnaw them, whatever. The hardest part of parenting is living through the moment at hand, especially when your default mode, as mine is, is to disappear from life. You can’t do it anymore!

“Stop looking at the card!” Jack said.

“OK, OK,” I said.

Never look at the cards,” he said. I promised not to, promised to myself to play with him when I actually had the time to do so, but I’m sure I’ll keep trying to sneak away. How could I not when there are such discoveries as these to be made:


Tom Wilhemson back

I’m talking about all the years of pure disappearance. It’s the longest such stretch in history—it must be. DID NOT PLAY for year after year. Two years into his minor league career, Tom Wilhelmsen bailed and stayed gone for six years before circling back. Actually the card seems to be erroneous on this account, as it doesn’t include a sixth DID NOT PLAY for 2009.

He came back when he was ready, I suppose. His nickname is “the Bartender,” a reference to how he spent a significant chunk of his exile. Within a year of deciding to give it another go he was in the majors, debuting in 2011, Eugenio Velez’s hitless nightmare, my debut as a dad.

Something about this gives me hope, and I can’t put my finger on why. We’re meant for something. All the meaningless following, all our detours, our mistakes.

Last night at dinner, after a long day of unstoppable, injurious jackassery so pronounced  that my voice was raw from screaming the word no—a shit day, a day to make you want to disappear—Jack wanted me to tell him all the songs I sang to him when he was a baby, when I used to hold him and sing him to sleep. I sang bits of the songs I could remember from that rocky time, when each day I wanted to disappear, to leap off the edge of the world, following everything else that was going that way, but something kept me around, at least to some extent. Career Opportunities, Rockaway Beach, Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.

“You liked the loud, fast ones,” I said. “They calmed you down.”

“Sing more,” Jack said.

Well it’s been ten years and a thousand tears, and look at the mess I’m in,” I sang, rasping like Mike Ness.

“Sing more,” Jack said.

I kept singing, whatever it took, whatever I knew. Jack was smiling. All the meaningless following, all our detours, our mistakes. Maybe something is gathering within.


Ray Fosse

March 30, 2016

Ray Fosse_77The sun is always shining. The sky is always boundless.

I worked today, same as yesterday, same as the day before. Tomorrow: same. I get a little sliver of time in the morning with my boys. The younger one said “Daddy” this morning. He’s been slow to get rolling with the words. He’s a year and a half, a little past that, but he still gets what he needs by pointing, pantomiming, groaning. He’s kind of like Frankenstein, groaning and bashing his way through life. His few words, though, they slay me.

“Ball,” he says.

“Daddy,” he says.

When I left for work he and his brother climbed onto the couch to look out the window and watch me go. I drive to work, listening to Buddhist lectures. I work all day and drink enough coffee to reanimate the deceased. I drive home listening to podcast interviews with comedians. I’ve listened to hundreds of these things. I now know what it means to “middle.” Why the fuck do I know that?

I get a little sliver of time with my boys in the evening.

“What’s that word for measuring volcanoes?” the older one said. He’s four and a half.

“Volcanoes?” I said.

“A seismic monitor?” he asked. A second ago he was a tiny groaning Frankenstein too.

“Jesus Christ,” I said.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. I don’t care. It’s nine p.m. and both boys are asleep and I’m going to spend this last little sliver of the day in gratitude, with the hopes that this 1980 Ray Fosse card, the image surely a product of wide blue sky psalmist Doug McWilliams (a disciple of Ozzie Sweet), can help me express this.

Ray Fosse was near the end with this one. You may know the story with him. Promising young catcher steamrolled by Pete Rose in the all-star game, injured, never the same. I think I’ve read about him expressing anger over the incident. If so, he’s not the only one ever to get angry at Pete Rose. I hope this anger, though certainly understandable, doesn’t completely cloud his memories of the big leagues. This is the danger all of us face, I guess: bitterness. We fall into a pattern of perpetually forgetting the sun is always shining, the sky is always boundless.

On the back of this card, below the mortality-aping list of dwindling numbers, there’s one line of text, referring to the very All-Star Game in which the most-told narrative of Ray Fosse was born, but the text makes no mention of the collision. It’s like a textual brother to the most basic tenet of Doug McWilliams’s photographic aesthetic: remove all clouds.

Had RBI in 1970 All-Star Game

Thank you, gods, for this one life.



Fernando Valenzuela

March 11, 2016

Fernando Valenzuela

This is of course the moment in Fernando Valenzuela’s indelible windup when he has first come out of his brief sky-trance. We all should approach our life’s work with this mixture of focus and mysterious surrender.

What is my life’s work? I still don’t know. Not this, surely, this hobby. Collecting. What does it even mean to collect?

When I was a little boy about the same age my oldest son is now, four and a half, I rode in a VW Camper with my brother, mother, and her boyfriend, Tom, down through all the states from New Jersey to Texas and on into Mexico. We were there all summer in Fernando Valenzuela’s country.

It was 1973. Tom had long hair and a big beard, and my brother and I had unruly curls that the women in Mexico all wanted to touch. I didn’t want to be touched.

At some point we picked up two fellow American longhairs who were hitchhiking, a young man and woman who clambered into the back with my brother and me and started making out, their writhing bodies colliding with us in the small space. I didn’t want to be touched. They weren’t with us for that long, a few hours at the most, and yet here it is over forty years later and they’re still riding with me, those groping hippies.

My father had a job, but he got a week or so off and flew down to meet up with us for a while. We were all in it together, sort of, but of course things were more complicated than I could fathom. I stuck to my brother as much as I could. I ate ham sandwiches everywhere we went. Jambon. I think that’s what they were called. It was one piece of the world that was the same.

There were towering ruins everywhere. That’s what I’ll carry with me the longest I guess. This sense of an ancient vanished world. I worry that in my own timid adult existence I won’t ever give to my sons the same sprawling awe I apprehended in childhood by virtue of being raised by people who believed a new era of joy was upon us, just up around the next bend.

I brought back from Mexico a small stone replica of a ruin. I can’t even remember what it was, maybe a miniature version of some god or goddess. What doesn’t erode in our minds? What I remember was the feel of it, how soft the stone was, how it was almost wearing away as I touched it but at the same time seemed to have a solidity that would outlast everything else in my room, all those bright plastic American toys. But I lost it somewhere on the way.

I’m still coming out of the trance of childhood. I’m looking for some target, I guess, though much of the time I’m also still trying to find my way back into the trance.

I don’t know where I got this card. It appeared well after my years of voraciously buying packs. I didn’t seek it out. Collecting to me doesn’t mean pursuing. Some stuff ends up in my possession, most of it disappears, I try to oppose this disappearing sometimes.


Mike Miley

March 8, 2016

Mike Miley

I probably didn’t linger very long on this card when I got it in 1977. But every card got at least a little look. Surely I flipped to the back and saw that this player never cracked .200 in his two partial years in the majors. There was a note beneath the anemic numbers about him winning a game against the Brewers with a home run in bottom of the 15th inning. But so what? And I probably didn’t register that this player had been taken in the first round of the 1974 draft. I was looking for superstars and didn’t consider that the best was still to come for Mike Miley. This was not anyone to exult over, to hold onto tightly.

I was nine that year and didn’t read the papers. I didn’t know what had happened to Mike Miley in January, that he flipped his car and died. I didn’t know much about death. I knew a little. By 1977 we’d lost our first dog, a beautiful Irish Setter-Golden Retriever mix named Jupiter. He got hit by a car. It was cold out, and the ground was frozen, and Tom had to use a pick-axe to break up the ground for a grave. He was out there for hours, hacking, grieving. When he was done Mom and my brother and I all went out into the back yard to join Tom and stare down at our red and golden dog lying in the shallow crater.

Now is when you say something. What is there to day?

According to a January 14, 1977, AP news report, Mike Miley had a blood alcohol level of .23 when he died in a one-car accident while driving his sports car. The accident occurred close to the LSU football stadium where just four years earlier Mike Miley had quarterbacked LSU to nine straight wins and a berth in the Orange Bowl. He threw bombs. He bootlegged around the line for daring last-second game-winning touchdowns. His nickname was Miracle Mike.

Jupiter was a blazing river of fire up through the woods. We’d go on hikes into the Green Mountains and free of the leash and choke collar he’d sprint way ahead, disappearing, and then sprint back, checking on us, and then he’d sprint out ahead again, climbing the mountain ten times for our one slow human ascent. On the way home, on the floor of our VW camper, Jupiter’s chest rose and fell as he slept, unbothered by pot holes, frost heaves, anything, the breath coming in deep and whistling out through his wet black nose. I reached down and stroked his soft red and gold fur again and again as he breathed. Sometimes his legs jerked. He was still running up the mountain.

Look at the eyes of Miracle Mike. Is there any doubt that life will continue? That the glory of winning games with last-minute touchdowns as 60,000 adoring fans roar is merely a preview of the bliss to come? The future will be a long, untroubled rise.


Manny Sarmiento

February 23, 2016

Manny Sarmiento 80“That summer feeling’s gonna haunt you the rest of your life.” -Jonathan Richman

Spring 1982: Manny Sarmiento mentions his history with acute anxiety in this article from 1982. It’s a family thing—his mother suffered similarly and at the time of this article his older brother had not left his house in a year and a half. Sarmiento’s own issues—“I lost my confidence. I used to worry too much. I was always thinking. I wouldn’t sleep well when I went to bed at night”—led to a nervous breakdown and got him jettisoned from his first team, the Cincinnati Reds, for whom he was a significant contributor on the 1976 World Championship squad. In the article he expresses hope that his problems are behind him and that he’ll be able to make some more major league money to help pay for treatment for his house-bound brother.

Spring 1985: Manny Sarmiento did indeed make it onto the Pirates’ roster in 1982 and held onto his major league job for a few more seasons. Injuries derailed him in 1984, setting the stage for another comeback in 1985. Buried in this article—which focuses on Sarmiento’s struggles, the long odds against him making the major league roster, and his determined avowal to beat the long odds—is a reference to the family member he’d been hoping in an earlier spring to help: in the off-season of 1984 Sarmiento’s brother committed suicide.

Fall 1985: Manny Sarmiento did not make it back to the big leagues but surfaced in the news in September in an article about Pirates’ slugger Dave Parker’s testimony in the trial against a caterer named Curtis Strong charged with selling cocaine to National League players:

Parker named three players who had not been previously named in the trial [including] former Pirate Manny Sarmiento, who now pitches for the Pirate farm team in Hawaii . . .

So that’s where it ended for Manny Sarmiento: in Hawaii in the fall. But if Jonathan Richman is right, it’s not the fall or the spring that are gonna haunt you. So here’s the headline from one last article about Manny Sarmiento, from the summer of 1978, when the pitcher was still just 22 and the ball was flying off his fingers and the Reds were showing signs of being able to reclaim their place atop the National League West: “The Reds find a savior.” Sarmiento, full of belief, opined: “We’re hot, and we’re going to catch the Giants. We might win 20 in a row.” (In the 20 games following this statement the Reds went 8 and 12, but they did eventually catch the Giants; unfortunately, the Dodgers leapfrogged both teams.)

Why I’m still drawn to the baseball cards that came to me through the summers of my childhood is beyond me. I’m an anxious person who would benefit from much more help than I’ve ever been able to ask for. There aren’t many things that calm me down. Thinking about my cards and the players on my cards is one of those things. That summer feeling. You wound up and threw the ball to the target. You were full of belief.


Manny Sanguillen

February 22, 2016

Manny Sanguillen 77I have been given a genius grant. That’s a lie based on a daydream, that daydream just a version of a type of daydream I’ve been having at least since 1977 when I got this card; back then instead of a genius grant the outlandish daydream was for not merely a major league baseball scout acting on behalf of the Boston Red Sox but Carl Yastrzemski himself in the role as team emissary pulling up to my house in central Vermont via limousine to offer me a lucrative multiyear contract to join him in his quest to topple the Yankees in the American League East. But let’s ignore the sprawling desperation of the second sentence of this paragraph. Onward: I am going to channel the funds of my genius grant into the staffing of a research team charged with investigating inane propositions and hypotheses. Here are three.

  1. Did players who appeared on the doctored cards of my youth generally find these appearances to be followed by diminishing glories and hopes? That’s my guess—that careers went downhill, that the end was nigh—based on the visceral collective memory of these cards as perversely magnetic talismans of disquieting transience, of things becoming unfixed, and into this decentralizing mist the individual hero, the idea of the individual hero, vanishes. We’re all just figures on the move, or so I propose.
  2. Is there a soul? If so it’s so smudged by the conflict between the desire for such and the random splinterings and humiliations of everyday life that it grows ever more impossible to see. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a soul. Terrifying as it is to me, it makes more sense that we’re all just on a brief hiatus from complete nonexistence. This occurred to me when I was pondering the reasons why Manny Sanguillen was beglobbed with a facsimile of Oakland green when he had to that point been (and after a brief hiatus in Oakland would be again) cloaked in Pittsburgh Pirate black and white and gold. I discovered that Sanguillen had been shipped to Oakland with $100,000 cash in exchange for Oakland manager Chuck Tanner, Tanner replacing Danny Murtaugh, who had retired at season’s end and then, a month after his replacement arrived, died. Murtaugh been alive for 59 years, which is not very long compared with all the years before that and after that in which he was not alive. This state we’re in right now is not our natural state. Our natural state has nothing to do with identifiable names or specific places. In our natural state we’re not even figures on the move but insensate scattered atoms. That’d be the working hypothesis of this one.
  3. What day had the most transactions? My guess is that it was 11/5/76. I’ve written about this day quite a lot and have even attempted for a while to make it a personal holiday—Expansion Day. I couldn’t stick with it, but who knows, maybe I will yet. It was the day of the expansion draft to populate the rosters of the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays. There were a few other transactions that day too, including the unusual player-for-manager trade that brought Manny Sanguillen to Oakland. Maybe the Pirates figured that if they didn’t move Sanguillen they’d have to leave him unprotected and lose him anyway. They had a couple of other catchers, both younger than him, and maybe they figured they were set. There’s nothing really to gain from researching which day had the most transactions. Is there anything to gain by any of this? For some reason I am fucking compelled to write. Even if there’s no identifiable point to it, no money in it, no hopes. I’ll write until I’m shipped off via some binding, irreversible transaction into a smudged, doctored vestibule to oblivion of my very own. I am not stopping.

Dave Stieb

February 16, 2016


Here are, I don’t know, ten things about Dave Stieb:

  1. I associate Dave Stieb with Ivan Lendl. They were around at the same time, inhabiting the tops of their professions right around the time that I was drifting away from childhood and magic and into something steeper and more tedious. In the place of the dashing, colorful comic book heroes of the 1970s were these two colorless, methodical grinders, known for steely endurance and for tireless work ethics that had produced, from sheer will, formidable “best in the world” weapons: Stieb with his slider, Lendl with his forehand. They’d made it to the top on hard work, it seemed, which I found demoralizing. I don’t think I’ve ever realized it, but the other thing that ties them together in my mind—neither quite getting to the very top circle of the history of their games—pleased me. I didn’t want Lendl to ever win Wimbledon, and when Stieb kept losing no-hitters in the ninth I exulted, just a little.
  2. Stieb finally did get his no-hitter, the year this 1990 card came out. Before that, he’d lost four of them in the ninth inning, three of those with two out, one of those one-out-away instances a would-be perfect game. If he’d converted all four of those plus the one that he actually did complete, he’d have five no-hitters, more than anyone but Ryan, and maybe that glittering bauble would have spirited him into the Hall of Fame. The statistic of WAR, which I don’t understand but generally buy as a legitimate contextual estimation of a player’s overall worth, finds Dave Stieb to be the 69th most useful pitcher in baseball history, ahead of such pitchers as Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, and Mariano Rivera. Those guys all had a lot of glittering baubles. Stieb? Not so much.
  3. There are three red heart-shaped balloons floating around my house. My wife got them for Valentine’s day for me and my two sons. It’s cold here in Chicago, so the heat is running constantly, blowing warm air up out of the floor vents, causing the balloons to drift around the house. My wife and the boys are out of the house right now. I would never be able to notice the movement of the balloons if they were here. When they’re here it’s all chaos, and I lose my composure constantly in the unending series of annoyances and crises and fits of wailing and whining. In the brief quiet, I can see how full my life is with love.
  4. Dave Stieb had a very small mustache and never wore long sleeves. Maybe he did wear long sleeves once in a while, but I only remember his bare arms, which I associate with the trim, punctilious mustache that was an affront to me somehow, again a reminder that my Rollie Fingers childhood was over. Also, I like a pitcher to wear the sleeves. Bill Lee wore sleeves. It made pitchers seem somehow more cerebral and fragile, and less likely to challenge you to a humiliating arm-wrestling contest, which always seemed like what might happen if I ever ran into Dave Stieb.
  5. Dave Stieb went 8 and 8 in his rookie season with the 1979 Toronto Blue Jays, which is like _____. What is it like? The Blue Jays lost 109 games that year, and it was their third season in existence, and they were getting worse as they went on. Danny Ainge, arguably the worst baseball player in history, was a regular player. No pitcher finished with a winning record, and Stieb was the only pitcher whose losses didn’t outnumber his wins. So what is this like? I used to be able to whip off the similes. I think I’m losing control of my pitches.
  6. Whatever happened to Cardboard Gods? You know, that website that churned out the baseball card celebrations in bunches every week? Guy must have just lost it, right? Did he ever have it?
  7. My wife and sons are back from their outing. I hear crying (the baby) and whining (the boy) and my wife’s voice rising, exasperated. So better make these last three quick.
  8. Dave Stieb came up recently on an episode of the Pop Culture Happy Hour. Is this entire post just an excuse to bring this up? Well, mostly, but I also always want most of all to connect with my writing, and this doesn’t happen a whole lot these days. I’m writing another book, but that’s entirely a solitary endeavor at the moment, so I want to write some words and have them be read, and Dave Stieb is as good a subject as any. Anyway, one of the guests on Pop Culture Happy Hour, Sarah Bunting, mentioned that Cardboard Gods (the book) was making her happy (near the end of the episode, if you are interested), and a key point of connection for her was when the book went into the phenomenon of getting one player’s card again and again and again in seemingly every pack. For me it was Dick Sharon, for her father it was Reno Bertoia, and for her it was Dave Stieb.
  9. Baseball cards are my hobby, but not in the same way that they are to most who use that word. I haven’t collected them since 1980, when I was twelve, and I don’t take good care of the cards I have from then and from sporadic, random acquisitions and gifts since then. They’re all in a couple of cardboard boxes, the post-1980 cards loose and the cards from my childhood still sorted into thick stacks, teams, wrapped in rubber bands, the teams themselves piled into the four divisions that existed back then. I didn’t get this card back then. Dave Stieb is from the great, long aftermath of my life, which stretched from puberty on into my twenties, thirties, forties. I’ve been alive so long I’ve outlived that aftermath! I’m into a whole new unsortable mess, fatherhood, which has cast everything from the past into a kind of evaporating preamble, a rickety, no longer useable bridge that brought me to my boys.
  10. Dave Stieb had one of the most prolonged hiatuses in baseball history. For four years he “did not play.” In the eyes of the world he was retired, but there must have been for him some unfinished business, some nagging voice calling him back to the game. In 1998, after not playing since 1993, he returned for a few games for the Blue Jays. It doesn’t seem like he did so well, but maybe it felt good to be out there again, and maybe he’d needed that feeling. I wish I had an eleventh item on the list so that I could talk about how much I love the idea of the hiatus. I like fantasizing about some hiatus that will lift me up and out of my life like the heat vent lifting one of the red heart-shaped balloons. Up I would rise for a while, a long time, and then at some point I’d come back. That’s the key—you’re just on hiatus, not gone.