Archive for the ‘Teams’ Category

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Ken Boswell

February 16, 2017

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Ken Boswell was for some reason sent out to his photo shoot for the 1976 Topps set in a generic orange helmet. I don’t recall ever seeing this on any other baseball card that came to me back in those days. The Astros’ regular batting helmet had a white H on top of a black star. Where did this plain orange helmet come from? Why was Ken Boswell wearing it?

On the back of the card you can see Ken Boswell’s lifetime numbers, which are unremarkable, but at the bottom of them there’s a note: “Ken has a .667 average in World Series play. Had 3 pinch-hits in 1973 Classic to tie all-time mark.”  The note in relation to the career numbers is something of a negative image of the front of the card, a dash of miraculous color in an otherwise mundane expanse.

The absence of a signifier on the crown of the helmet on the front of the card is so odd that it opens up a door in my mind. My memory of those days has been so trampled by all my attempts to remember, to put it all down in words, that it’s now unusual for me to have a vivid sense memory from my childhood. But this batting helmet is bringing back the batting helmets we had in little league. They were much like the helmet shown here but were dark blue. They had thick padding on the inside. Unlike this helmet, there were ear coverings for both ears. This is what I’m remembering now, the feel of the helmet as I pulled it onto my head, over my ears. There were a few different helmets in the dugout, some larger than others, and so the best part of the experience was finding one that fit snugly over my head. No, wait, that was not the best part. The best part was why I was putting the helmet on my head. It was happening soon: my turn.

I moved out of the dugout with that helmet on and stood behind the chain link fence next to the dugout. Now I was on deck. I picked up a bat and held it, tapped it against the brim of the helmet, took a few swings, watched the pitcher, the batter. When it was my turn I walked toward the plate. I felt excited, a little nervous, protected. My turn!

Ken Boswell had his turn. The note on the back of his card doesn’t mention the World Series teams for which he came through when it mattered most, but of course he was part of both the Miracle Mets of 1969 and the “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets of 1973. Those days are behind him in this photo, but he looks here like he doesn’t so much mind that things come and go.

I sat with my son tonight and told him about “yoiks and away,” the scene in the Daffy Duck cartoon in which Daffy, in Robin Hood mode, keeps trying to swing himself heroically through the forest on a rope and keeps slamming into a tree. That one killed my brother and me. We laughed until tears came out of our eyes. And as I acted it out for my son I got him laughing too. Then he started acting it out.

“Yikes and away—slam!” he said.

“Yoiks,” I said.

“Yoiks?”

How can I ever complain? I love my boys so much and I get to come home every day from work and see them, a five year old and a two year old. When I walk through the door both of them squeal. It won’t always be this way. Life will go on into ever stranger vanishings. But this is my turn. This is my miracle.

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Doug Konieczny

February 10, 2017

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“I think it’s one of the real gifts that art has for us as human beings . . . it gives us a channel to connect with each other that regular life doesn’t give us.”
– Wayne Kramer

All I do is work. Well, I get the weekends off. I get to go home at night. But during the day on weekdays, it’s just work. It gets busier and busier at my job with each passing year, as if the whole goal is too gradually take everything from me a little at a time.

Here’s the part where I should probably say, lest the gods strike me down, that I’m grateful to have a job. The only thing that’s worse than having a job is not having a job.

On the weekends, I play with my sons. That’s good. But this doesn’t leave much room for art. I get a little time every night after we get them to bed. I’m exhausted by then, but I sit down on a cushion and meditate for twenty minutes, and some of the garbage that’s accumulated in my head all day dissolves. Then I go to my notebook. I’m trying to write a novel. I write a little every day. It’s all disjointed now, and the fragments that come out are absurd. There’s no bright blazing path carrying me through the act of narration, as I always hoped there would be. Writing is not like I thought it would be when I was a youth high on marijuana and reading On the Road. You never get lifted up into some kind of ecstasy. No, you have to just fucking sit down and insist on a reality, again and again.

Who knows if it’ll amount to anything. I’ll keep insisting, I guess. The alternative, just letting my life be work and brief blank periods away from work, makes me want to leap into a wood chipper.

What does this have to do with Doug Konieczny (pronounced kuh-NEEZ-ny)? I don’t fucking know. Maybe only that he probably had to join the workforce like the rest of us when his brief rainbow-bright days in the majors ended. Also: among all baseball players in history he was the most likely to have been at a particular 1970 concert of note that was staged near a highway on the Wayne State University campus in Detroit. Konieczny was up until a few years ago the only graduate of Wayne State to make it to the majors, and in July 1970 he was nearing his final months at the college. Of course, school isn’t in session in the middle of the summer, but Konieczny was a Detroit native, so maybe he heard the big noise and wandered over to see what it was all about.

The band playing was the MC5. Featuring brilliant guitarist (and arguably the best guitar-playing dancer this side of Chuck Berry and Prince) Wayne Kramer, the MC5 wanted to blow up the whole bullshit system that sends us all marching to the beat of our corporate overlords until the day we get blown up by a landmine or succumb to asbestos poisoning or simply keel over from heart disease or dive into a wood chipper. They believed this could be done: a revolution.

After the band broke up, Kramer landed in prison for a while, and this has informed his work of late in which he goes into prisons and gives guitars and songwriting instruction to prisoners. He knows that revolutions may or may not occur, but art is always capable of transforming you.

I know this post hasn’t amounted to art. But that’s where I’m always trying to go. I know I’m not alone. As a matter of fact, I found while trying and failing to find much at all about Doug Konieczny that a painter had transformed this very card into what its brilliant colors intimated. Below is the possible attendee of the July 19, 1970 MC5 concert as rendered by painter John Kilduff. May we all feel that swirl of brilliance once in a while.

konieczny-transformed

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Milt May

February 3, 2017

milt-mayThis is important. It is my all-alliterative M team, featuring both Milt May and his father, who went by the name Pinky while with the Phillies from 1939 through 1945 but whose given name was Merrill:

P) Mike McCormick
C) Milt May
1B) Mark McGwire
2B) Marty McManus
SS) Marty Marion
3B) Merrill May
LF) Minnie Minoso
CF) Mickey Mantle
RF) Manny Mota

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got to say. What use are words anyway?

Well OK, one other thing: I find it interesting that after Milt May was traded from the Pirates to the Astros, he was swiftly replaced on the Pirates’ roster by a fellow catcher with an even briefer name: Ed Ott. It seems cruel on the part of the Pirates, as if they wanted Milt May to feel like the extra two characters in his first name were a pretentious extravagance. Maybe this was even a negotiation point between the team and May before the team decided to sever ties.

Pirates: Look, we might be able to keep you around if you shortened things up to Mi.

May: Mi?

Pirates: Or Lt [pronounced ult, like you’re cartoonishly displaying gulping trepidation]. Mi, Lt. Whichever you want.

May: I’m not sure how this—

Pirates: Look, cards on the table time: We’ve got this bruiser down at triple A who doesn’t need to be sashaying around with a lot of extra letters in his first name like some eighteenth century dandy.

And so that, I assume, is how Milt May came to be wearing brilliant, ridiculous clothing on this 1976 card. He seems distinctly unsure about his technicolor dreamsuit, or perhaps about some other inexplicable cultural eruction of the era. That’s the thing about the past. For us it’s all over and done, but when people were living through it they couldn’t see how it was going to turn out. We’re always thinking we’re living through the most difficult, most doubtful time. It’s true, but it’s always been true.

February is usually for shit, is what I’m getting at. This one fits the bill. It rained on Inauguration Day and was sunny the next, when we took a CTA bus downtown and wedged into the middle of 250,000 people fused together by an idea along the lines of Fuck. This., and since then it’s been for the most part like a cold gray lid has come down over everything. So for the sake of keeping my own beleaguered inner light from extinction, I’m going all Astros all month. Whatever happens, I’m making it through to the other side and will be doing so by carrying an Astro in my pocket. If you see me, know there’s a rainbow on my person and disjointed digressions from reality in my mind. That’s what I’m carrying.

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all Family

January 25, 2017

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I’m the youngest of eleven grandchildren of a man named Charles Wilker who in the early part of the twentieth century left a region in central Europe called Galicia to come to this country with nothing because nothing in America was better than the constant threat of pogroms and the certainty of conscription as cannon fodder into the Austro-Hungarian army. He left behind a wife and two young children to find work and send for them later. He didn’t know the language of his new world.

I’m the youngest of eleven grandchildren of a woman named Lillian Wilker who gave birth to three children in Galicia, one of whom died. She eventually followed her husband to America and didn’t know the language either and found that her husband hadn’t established much of a footing. At some point either before or not long after her arrival, he sustained a head injury that either contributed to or was the basis altogether of mental illness that prevented him from gaining steady employment. A couple of decades into his life in the new world, he was found floating in the East River, dead. The children, who now numbered four living souls and two dead, were raised alone by Lillian, who also worked, as did the two eldest children, leaving school for work while barely into their teens. There was one girl, my Aunt Helen, and three boys, my Uncle Joe, my Uncle Dave, and the baby, my father.

This fatherless family made it through the Great Depression while living in Lower East Side tenements. All three boys served this country in World War II. My uncles saw grisly combat in the South Pacific. I like to believe my father, who was rejected the first few times he tried to enlist, was kept safely on land, stateside, throughout his Navy tour with a battalion of similarly spindly aesthetes who had been sorted into a “last resorts” pile. The point is: the Wilker boys served. They were exemplary American citizens, as was my aunt. All four went on to raise beautiful families of children, many of whom who now have their own children, all of us Americans.

I’m the father of the two youngest great-grandchildren of Charles and Lillian Wilker. The youngest great-grandchild, Exley, is the sculptor of the fragment at the top of this page. You can probably guess from the clues—the team name, the one clearly visible number on the jersey, the word “Family”—that this is a card featuring Cal Ripken Sr. and his two sons, Cal and Billy. The full text of the front of the card is probably something like “A Baseball Family.”

I like the fragment better: all family.

We’re all in this together, is the point of my story of my grandfather and grandmother. I love this country for that story and for every other story like it. You’re more than likely the product of a story just like this one. Some people were here before Columbus, but the rest of us came from somewhere else. Here’s another of those stories, from a September 4, 1995, article in The Baltimore Sun by Mike Klingaman:

[Cal] Ripken’s father, Cal Sr., is the grandson of 19th-century German immigrants, Frederick Peter Ripken and Affena Lubina Wychgram. They settled in Harford County and opened a general store in Stepney, a crossroads three miles south of Aberdeen. There, in a tiny room above the store, Cal Sr. was born, the third son of Arend Frederick Ripken and Clara Amelia Oliver Ripken, an Irishwoman whose farming family also immigrated to America in the mid-1800s. Arend Ripken was the first of the clan to play baseball, taking part in sandlot games on weekends.

If you don’t love these stories, you don’t love America. If you build a wall between yourself and these stories, you don’t love America.

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Mickey Stanley

January 18, 2017

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Mickey Stanley is pretty much exactly what you would get if you mixed together Mickey Mantle and Fred Stanley.

I can elaborate, but my back hurts so much. All the elaborating is over when you get knifing pains in your back if you so much as try to thumb the like button on any of your various stupid time-wasting virtual platforms.

I think it’s from when I was catching my sons jumping off the couch a few days ago. They climb up onto the back of the couch and take turns jumping toward me, and I catch them and spin them around. The joy of it! The terror! This is their world! What if they fall! But what am I going to do—tell them to cut the shit and sit down and start practicing their looks of disappointment so as to be prepared for when they hit the dog years of adulthood? And so I end up with hernias, back issues. The older, heavier one likes to improvise, and it was probably one of the times he spun around in midair, causing me to lunge to catch him, that crippled me forever.

Well, not forever, hopefully, but these kinds of things really drive home the point that life is an unstoppable deterioration. So why spend so much time pondering baseball players? Why don’t I get into collecting and trading ephemera on old rabbis? Like the one with Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pershyscha, who maybe had among his followers in Poland in the early 1800s some Wilkers, who huddled there in a tenacious multi-generational pogrom-surviving Wilkerean cringe and were pretty big fans of rabbis all through the family tree until it branched out into a young bespectacled fellow, my father, cracking open the works of Karl Marx. To young Lou Wilker, religion, and sports for that matter: opiates! But I followed in neither his nor my older ancestors’ footsteps, neither overthrowing the system or studying rabbis, but somehow I acquired the knowledge that Rabbi Simcha Bunim carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket: bishvili nivra ha-olam (“for my sake the world was created”) was written on one, and “v’anokhi afar v’efer” (“I am but dust and ashes”) was written on the other.

You should see my sons spinning through the air in my arms. They are beaming with this feeling of bishvili nivra ha-olam. This is the feeling of childhood, the part of it we like to hang onto anyway. This is why a fellow such as Bob Costas carries around a Mickey Mantle card, I guess. But anybody who tries to hold onto Mickey Mantle alone might miss some of the picture. For his sake the world was created—how could this not apply in all ways to Mickey Mantle, chiseled sunlit immortal who could do everything on a baseball field as well as anyone else in history and was the blond, Caucasian, high-salaried, handsome star of the most powerful baseball team in history at its absolute peak? Yes, such a thing would indeed make a good talisman, a reminder that even to so much as to be alive in this world, such a rare and beautiful thing considering the black lifeless space stretching out in every direction for light years from this one tiny blue planet, is a blessing as breathtaking as even the most astonishing tape-measure home run. But you need I am but dust and ashes too—personified best by a weak-hitting utility infielder named “Chicken.” It’s a miracle we’re alive, yes, and it will all be over in a flash.

This all comes together in the person of Mickey Stanley. He was an outstanding centerfielder, like Mickey Mantle, but despite his four Gold Glove awards, and perhaps because of his more mediocre batting records, and perhaps even more because of the erasing tendencies of time, he has moved much closer to the anonymity of Fred Stanley than to the lasting renown of Mickey Mantle. His most famous moments on the field, in fact, had him not in sunny centerfield but at Fred Stanley’s jittery domain, shortstop, where Mickey Stanley was moved for the 1968 World Series to make room in the lineup for Al Kaline. He was a nervous wreck the whole time, hoping the ball wouldn’t be hit to him, that he wouldn’t make some huge mistake.

If my back gets better I’ll be a holy idiot again, waiting with arms outstretched to catch my beaming sons above me. I’ll be full of grateful love and worry.

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Willie McCovey

January 10, 2017

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I believe in mistakes. I believe they will be made, and you can’t stop them, but more than that I believe they may even be the hand of God, though I’m not sure I believe in God.

I believe in gods. That is to say I believe in the feeling of connection to something more than this world. You feel it once in a while. I felt it in 1975, the year I started collecting cards, when I pulled this Willie McCovey card out of a wax pack. I may not have recognized the name from my budding study of the baseball encyclopedia, but even if I didn’t I would have realized I was holding something amazing in my hands when I turned the card over and saw that the card number ended in an even number—the sign of a superstar—and that the home run totals added up to a towering pillar of awe.

I believe even the gods will be humbled. It happened to Willie McCovey. Some would say it happened as a result of the mistake by the San Francisco Giants, who traded him away, leading to his appearance on this 1975 Topps offering, which my friend Pete calls the “You want fries with that?” card, a reference to the unsettling image of a god suddenly transfigured into fast-food serfdom, wrapped in the brown and yellow garb of the Padres, the team owned from 1974 to 1984 by the creator of McDonald’s, Ray Kroc. The first time McCovey played a home game for the Padres, on April 9, 1974, he committed an error on an attempted pick-off throw. It was the Padres’ third error of the game. The team’s new owner, who built his empire on a vision of sameness, of no mistakes, of a cheeseburger in Portland, Maine, tasting exactly like a cheeseburger in Portland, Oregon, took the public address microphone and yelled to the crowd (and at his players, and most directly, intentionally or not, at the player who had made the most recent mistake): “This is the most stupid baseball playing I’ve ever seen.”

I believe people want to be free. Just before Ray Kroc took the PA microphone, a streaker ran across the field. A streaker! Youngsters: time was you couldn’t cross the street without a naked ecstatic blurring past you. And now? Forget it. Now any intrusions on the field of play are—because of the armored context of these times—acts of violence. But streakers—how could they be violent? They have freed themselves of everything. Where have you gone, streakers?

I believe the urge for freedom, for the casting off of hierarchical uniformity, is met pretty harshly with in this world, either overtly or otherwise. Streakers, dreamers: how far do they ever get? “Throw him in jail” was actually the first thing Ray Kroc bellowed into the PA, meaning the streaker. He would later apologize for calling his players stupid but wouldn’t mention the streaker, who probably did get locked up. At any rate it’s a pretty sure bet that he’s not still out there somewhere, freely streaking.

I believe that when you run up against your limitations in this cruel hierarchical illusion of a world, you have to just try to keep going. When I was 32, a collection of debt and mistakes, I was lucky enough to get a job at a bookstore. I had no money and throbbing credit card, student loan, and tax debt. All the mistakes and some luck and the good word of my friend Pete, who was already working there, equaled me at the bookstore. I was glad to be there, making some money. One day I found myself looking across the floor of the store to one of the cashiers who had a streak of bright pink in her hair.

I believe you’re a shining star no matter who you are. Those words to live by, authored by Kool and the Gang Earth, Wind, and Fire, ushered into the world in 1975, the same year I got this Willie McCovey card. Many years later, the cashier with the bright pink streak in her hair screamed out our first boy, and then when she forgot that ordeal enough she did it again, and both times I held the new naked being in my arms. Both times I wondered how anyone could not know beyond any doubt that there is no such thing as original sin. How could anyone not know that we’re all born superstars, unique, singular mistakes straight from heaven?

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Mike Hargrove

January 3, 2017

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The Human Rain Delay was first captured in cardboard in this 1975 Topps offering. He’s not mentioned as such anywhere on the card. I’m guessing this nickname wasn’t yet in existence but rather gathered momentum gradually as the player’s approach in the batter’s box became more familiar to everyone. Obviously someone had to first coin the term at a particular moment in time, but the coining surely came after an accrual of moments over the years, everyone becoming more aggrieved by Hargrove’s deliberate batting box routine, the touching of this and the tugging of that, everyone finding themselves wishing, with growing exasperation, that he just get on with it, but Hargrove himself holding fast to the conviction that this is the one and only moment there is. What’s the rush?

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The other night I woke up from sleep and looked straight into death. There’s some kind of a chemical in your brain that keeps you from staring straight into death most of the time, but it’s in short supply in the middle of the night. Every so often throughout my whole life, all the way back to when I was the kid first looking at these cards, I’ve woken to the unmitigated reality that in a short while this will be gone forever. There’s nothing to be done to ward it off.

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I never liked Superman. Have I ever mentioned that? Probably. I’ve mentioned everything at least once in this ongoing attempt to ward off with words what can’t be warded off. I don’t get the appeal, honestly. He’s impervious to everything and can do anything. The whole scenario seems to be without any frailty, a fascist daydream of inhuman invulnerability. Give me instead the Human Rain Delay. Now there’s a superhero I could get behind. He’d be a somewhat somber, cerebral cousin of the Storms, that brother-sister duo forming half of the Fantastic Four, the combination of the mortal world and the elements in his name similar to The Human Torch, and his dubious collection of relatively flimsy “superpowers” most closest in the superhero world to Sue, the “Invisible Girl,” who—presumably due to her origin in the mind of a fantasizing misogynist—didn’t possess any strength or the ability to shoot fire or lasers or harm any man in any way but could turn invisible and create invisible shields and cushions for the fellows should they be, say, blasted out of the sky by Dr. Doom. He probably would never rate his own series but might get called into the fray occasionally and in marginal ways during the sprawling ongoing saga of the Marvel foursome as they continually faced down total global annihilation. His only power would be to cause some minor annoyances. He’d have, I don’t know, keen eyesight, good judgment. He and the Thing would have some kind of a running dialogue, the latter always wanting to roll into calamitous action with his trademark bellow, “It’s clobbering time!” and his rock-hands balled into building-crushing fists, and The Human Rain Delay, on the other hand, quietly but in an enervating adenoidal monotone, advocating patience. Ultimately, his counsel would be ignored, and his modest collection of tics and mannerisms, his so-called powers, would prove as irrelevant as words in the seemingly unstoppable wave of destruction hurtling toward the Fantastic Four and by extension all of humanity. But maybe for a little while he could sort of slow things down a little.

***

A few days before I woke up and stared straight into death, I went down a hill backwards on a sled. It was Christmas Day. I’d been going down a hill in a blue plastic sled with my older son, Jack, for an hour or two, him in front and me in the back. My other son and my wife and her family were back at my wife’s parents’ house.

“It’s getting to be time to go,” I said. “One more.”

“Seven more,” Jack said. He’s five. He never wants anything to end.

“How about two more?”

We haggled for a while, finally settling on four, with the requirement, per Jack, that each one be “crazy.” We went down the hill with me lying down on my stomach and him on top of me; with our eyes closed; on our knees; and, finally, backwards. The last one was my favorite. The laughs whooped up out of me like they haven’t since childhood, and then I was in a snowy heap, and then I was staring into my son’s beaming, laughing face. Time stopped.