Archive for the ‘Teams’ Category

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Larry Murray

February 11, 2018

Larry Murray

I look and have always looked to these cards for the comfort of facts. Here are some facts:

  1. Hall of Famer Eddie Murray had a brother who played major league baseball, but it wasn’t Larry Murray. Larry Murray was just some guy named Larry Murray.
  2. Larry Murray spent parts of six seasons in the majors, his last coming in 1979, when he recorded career highs in many categories, including home runs, RBI, and batting average. These personal bests were 2, 20, and .186, respectively.
  3. The last time I’ll ever talk to my father was over the phone this past Christmas.
  4. This is Larry Murray’s only baseball card. He takes his stance before a sky of blue, but the heroic blue-sky pose, a signature of the prolific bay area Topps photographer Doug McWilliams, is deflated somehow by the bulky green windbreaker collar jutting out from under Larry Murray’s uniform. Anyway, heroism is beyond the realm of facts.
  5. My father kept talking about the end of the world. I was at my in-laws’ house, and my young sons were downstairs playing with their new toys. I wanted to be with them. I kept looking for an opportunity to wrap things up. My father kept talking about the end of the world.
  6. Ecological ruin
  7. Poverty
  8. Famine
  9. War
  10. 108 losses. That total by the 1979 Oakland A’s would have been the most games lost by any team in the entire decade of the 1970s had not the Toronto Blue Jays amassed 109 losses in that very same year, but the A’s were the inferior of the two outfits, based on the following subset of facts:
    1. The A’s scored 40 fewer runs and allowed only 2 fewer runs than the Blue Jays.
    2. The teams played a weighted schedule with more games against intra-divisional opponents, and the Blue Jays were in a division in which every other team was above .500, including one team with over 100 wins, two teams with over 90 wins, and one two-time defending World Series Champion, the Yankees, who had 89 wins; the A’s, by contrast, were in a division in which the winner, the Angels, would have finished fifth had they been in the AL East.
    3. The Blue Jays beat the A’s 8 out of 12 times they played them in 1979.
  11. I can’t remember with exactitude any of our last words together. But near the end of the long catalog of ruinous facts there was something like this: “Do you, Josh Wilker, pledge to fight injustice and inequality every day for the rest of your life?” Before waiting for an answer, and perhaps sensing that I was on the verge of blurting an annoyed reply, my father continued, “Do I, Louis Wilker, pledge to fight injustice and inequality every day for the rest of my life?”
  12. Larry Murray is a murmuring, comforting sound. Nothing too dramatic is at stake. No great heroism, no great loss. Larry Murray. Larry Murray. Larry Murray.
  13. In 1977 or 1978, my father, who was not a sports fan, saw Reggie Jackson in a ticker tape parade in New York City and was impressed. There was a larger than life sense emanating from Reggie. Most of us are nobody special, at the mercy of historical forces that dwarf us, erase us. Not Reggie, or so he believed with such force that everyone in his path believed it too.
  14. I felt relief when I was finally able to press the hang-up icon on my cell phone.
  15. A couple of years before my father marveled at Reggie, Reggie had been the heart of the glorious Oakland A’s dynasty. That glory left when Reggie left. He was traded after the 1975 season along with Ken Holtzman and minor leaguer Bill VanBommel to the Baltimore Orioles for Don Baylor, Paul Mitchell, and Mike Torrez. Mitchell pitched five games for the A’s and then was purchased by the Seattle Mariners. Baylor played one season for the A’s and then left in free agency for the California Angels. Torrez pitched one full season for the A’s and then early in the following year was traded to the Yankees for Dock Ellis, Marty Perez, and Larry Murray. Ellis pitched seven games for the A’s before being purchased by the Texas Rangers. Perez played a full season for the A’s and then was released part way into the next season. The last echo of Reggie Jackson on the A’s was Larry Murray.
  16. Larry Murray, Larry Murray, Larry Murray.
  17. I still have the record of the call on my phone. It was shorter than I thought it had been.
  18. Dec 25
  19. 1:06 PM
  20. Outgoing call
  21. 29 min 50 sec
  22. Larry Murray’s last appearance on a major league diamond occurred before 2,583 people in late September 1979. Actually there were probably fewer than that number on hand by the time Larry Murray entered the game. It was the bottom of the ninth, and the A’s were losing by two to the Kansas City Royals. Jeff Newman drew a two-out walk. Larry Murray was summoned to pinch run. A Wayne Gross single moved him to second. Jim Essian lined a Dan Quisenberry pitch to left. The left fielder Willie Wilson glided toward it. Larry Murray was running toward home, presumably. But how would I know? And what does it matter?
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Jim Palmer

February 6, 2018

Jim Palmer

My brother met me at the Asheville airport three Saturdays ago and told me our dad wasn’t going to wake up. We were standing at the back of his running car, breathing in the exhaust. I cried for about as long as it takes to sneeze and my brother put his arm around me and I stopped crying and I haven’t cried since. It was late. We drove to the hospital in the dark and walked past an ER waiting room packed with people coughing into surgical masks and we looked at him on a bed in a brightly lit room full of machinery and tubes. I touched his hand and his leg moved. It was an involuntary thing. The stroke had wiped his magnificent mind clean in the time it takes to sneeze. He was moved to intensive care that night and in the morning a doctor met with us and assured us that the clear choice now was to “move toward comfort.” Maybe I’ll write more about the rest of it later, the last hours, the last breaths snoring out of him, his thin chest rising and falling. I don’t want to get into it right now. The next days, in a kind of trance, I cleaned his room like someone possessed, clearing out the clutter and litter and straightening up his beloved books and excavating diplomas and papers and military records and several pairs of his glasses, which I laid out on his shelves as if to make them available for him should he come back and need to see something more clearly. After a week I flew home, walked into my house and was dazzled by the beauty of my wife and young children, but still I didn’t cry. I went back to work and for a few days it was like carrying a backpack jammed with broken chunks of concrete but gradually the weight seemed to go away, which is somehow worse. So now every night when I’m done with work and the kids are in bed I look at the Jim Palmer card on the top of the stack of cards that I pulled from my box of cards at the beginning of 2018. My intention was to make my way through the year one card at a time. I’m stumped now: can’t cry, can’t write, can’t make it past Jim Palmer. Jim Palmer! When Jim Palmer was born in 1945, my dad was already a man, at least according to the U.S. Navy, which had him among its ranks by that time. Jim Palmer was born in New York City, same as my father, and was adopted at birth by a wealthy Jewish man named Moe Wiesen and his wife, Polly. Moe died when Jim was 9, and Polly remarried a man named Max Palmer. My father was working in advertising by then, in research. His crowning achievement in that field, which he left not long after a young Jim Wiesen, beginning to distinguish himself as an athlete in youth ball, decided he wanted to have the same last name as his stepfather, was an interview-based analysis of the brassiere market. I found it in his belongings. It had the interview questions he asked the subjects about brassiere fit and comfort and appeal, along with statistical analyses of the data. Jim Palmer also had a sojourn in the land of undergarments during his career. That was in the 1970s, when Palmer was considered the best pitcher in the American League as well as the most handsome and became a model of Jockey underwear. By then my father was on his own after a short stint as a man dazzled by the beauty of his wife and young children. After that stint, perhaps the happiest days of his life, his family moved to Vermont and he moved into a small studio apartment in New York City. My father didn’t wear Jockey underwear. When my brother and I visited him in New York City in the summers in the 1970s we would all sleep together on foam mats on the floor of his apartment, and at bedtime our father would lurch around in his boxer shorts. My brother and I didn’t wear boxer shorts. Jim Palmer didn’t wear boxer shorts. But our father the sociologist wore boxer shorts, more evidence somehow that he was beyond our understanding.  Eventually he would turn out the light on his desk and the apartment would go dark except for the lights of the city seeping in through the one window. The sounds of the city would also drift up to us six stories high, the traffic, the sirens, the kinds of sounds that are presented in movies as a signifier of loneliness and vulnerability in the big city, but to me those sounds have always felt like safety. I hear those sounds and I am lying in the dark near my unfathomable father, and I’m so close I can hear him breathing.

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Tim Crews

January 29, 2018

Tim Crews

Someone broke into our car last night. We didn’t realize it until my wife got a phone call from a stranger who said he found an emissions test receipt with our name on it on the sidewalk several blocks away. He said he was coming by our neighborhood and dropped it off. We looked at it on the counter, baffled at how the receipt could have wound up where it did, and then Abby went out to the car and found that the glove compartment had been emptied. A cellphone holder, a charger, and cord that allowed me to play music from my phone through the car stereo had also been taken. A box of tissues had been taken. The hood had been popped.

I started writing about this Tim Crews card a week and a half ago, when all the people I love the most were still alive. I didn’t know exactly what I’d write, but knowing the story of Tim Crews I’d knew I’d probably cook up something about what gets taken, about what disappears, about how there’s this world and then there’s the invisible world, the one you can’t see and that everything comes from and is taken back into. You can’t do anything about it.

A couple days ago, Saturday, six days after my father died, I put on some borrowed hip-waders and lurched around behind my big brother in a river. He tried to teach me how to cast a fly-fishing line out into the water. We didn’t stay out for long, having to get back to our mom’s house for the last night of our improvised half-Jew version of sitting shiva. Right near the end, Ian caught a fish, a brown trout. It took him a while to get the hook out. When he finally did and placed the fish in the water it disappeared instantly.

“He vanished,” I said.

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

I kept scanning the river, but he was gone.

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Dale Berra

January 18, 2018

Dale Berra

The Indo-European root of the word euphoria seems as if it could also be the root of the word Berra. It’s bher. According to my American Heritage Dictionary, it means “to carry; also to bear children.” On October 8, 1956, the player shown here was being carried within Carmen Berra, who was attending a baseball game. The conclusion of this game offered up the template for baseball’s most resonant entry into the language of euphoria. The game was one of those rare instances in which the win itself is so staggering that it doesn’t seem to count until men are leaping on one another.

I’ve watched the end of this game and its aftermath several times. The pitcher, Don Larsen, perhaps still in the state of deep trance that allowed him to suddenly upend a relatively nondescript career with stunning brilliance, with perfection, shows little reaction at the moment of victory. After the final out, he takes two steps toward his dugout and then, as if sensing and wanting to avoid the maelstrom swelling up around him, begins to break into a slow loping jog.

Fortunately, Larsen’s catcher is up to the unique demands of the moment. After bouncing out of his crouch, he quickly motions with both hands, like a conductor or a choreographer, as if he’s trying to direct Larsen to follow the miraculous illogic of the moment and start floating. As he continues bounding toward Larsen he senses that his pitcher will not be capable of the unprecedented manner of rejoicing required, so he’s the one who leaves the earth.

We do this sometimes. We don’t stay up forever. We fly into one another arms.

We are carried.

***

No son can ever be free of the ghost of his father. Consider this 1980 card featuring a confident, handsome young man ready to take on life on his own terms. The back of his card lists a number 1 draft pick distinction alongside some promising minor league stats, but these intimations of future glory are crowded out by a large, artless cartoon sporting the obvious information connecting the young man to his father, who in addition to catching the only perfect game in World Series history and then creating with his leap into Don Larsen’s arms the template for baseball euphoria was also the winningest, most beloved player in major league history.

Dale Berra was himself a World Champion at the time this card came out, the recipient of a full share in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1979 World Series prize money despite being a September call-up who arrived to the team too late to be eligible for postseason play. In fact he was barred from even sitting on the Pirates bench in the playoffs. In the remaining seasons of his decent but unspectacular 11-year career, he wouldn’t get anywhere near a title again. Like the rest of us, he’d never get the chance to catch the final out of a season and leap into a pile of roaring euphoria.

***

My six-year-old and I sit side by side sometimes and yell and laugh and curse and bring one another back to life. We hold devices in our hands that allow us to control the movements of two cartoonish avatars of presumably Italian descent with mustaches not altogether dissimilar to the one worn by the young man shown here.

“Pop me out of a bubble!” my son squeals. And I jump up and free him and together we go on. But really it’s much more often that he’s freeing me. He has a knack for staying alive. I die easy, again and again, and because he’s alive I get to go on.

I thought about the two of us sitting side by side and playing and laughing tonight as I was sifting through the online traces of Dale Berra. Right up at the top of the Google pile for Dale Berra is an ad he’s in for Atari back in the mid-1980s, just when that kind of virtual living and dying was starting to take hold in the world. In the ad Dale Berra’s electronic altar ego, a hungry circle, is ceased by a ghost.

***

Dale Berra’s father was, among other things, a mediocre major league manager, at least by the measure of his lifetime record, in which his failures slightly outnumbered his wins. His final major league win as a manager brought his lifetime record to 292 wins and 293 losses. He went on to lose three more games before, as often happened with people in his position, i.e., the manager of the New York Yankees, he was abruptly fired. That final managerial success by Dale Berra’s father was surely heightened by the contributions of Dale Berra himself, who that year had become only the second player in major league history, after Connie Mack’s son, to play for his father in a major league game. Dale went 2 for 4 at bat and started a key double play in the field.

That was in 1985. Later that season another lasting association would get attached to Dale Berra’s name when he admitted to cocaine usage while he’d been a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. From then on, schmucks such as me with blogs and Twitter feeds and all the other ways in which to disseminate our shallow associations would think Dale Berra? 1. Yogi’s son. 2. Cocaine.

He tried it first as a very young man at a New Year’s Eve party to kick off 1979, a year that would crest with his team at the very top of the world. He liked the feeling. Who wouldn’t?

“It made me feel euphoric,” he explained.

***

My father was a brilliant student and scholar. I heard this from the friends he made in the 1950s and 1960s.

“We were all in awe of him,” his friend Marty said.

He had grown up very poor during the depression. His family had to suffer when his own father was unable to find work. The lack of work itself seemed to eat most deeply at my grandfather, who eventually took his own life, leaving my father without a father before he’d reached his teenage years. Who can say what burdens this puts on a person? All I know is that there were a couple of times along the way when my father came to a fork in the road, and down one road was a life of scholarship and financial uncertainty, and down the other road was a steady job. I believe the last of these forks came with the arrival of my older brother. My father had been in graduate school at NYU, but he stopped short of earning his masters, instead focusing on working full-time to support his new family.

Many years later, after he retired from a long and useful career as a sociological researcher for various state and city agencies, he used his NYU alumni status to get a card that allowed him entry to the NYU library on the south side of Washington Square Park. The card included a certain number of guest passes.

One day we went to the library together. I was gathering information for a young adult biography I was writing about Confucius. My father was researching whatever he was interested in, probably something having to do with Marxism or World Systems Theory. We sat at a table by a window several stories above Washington Square Park, both of us with tall stacks of books beside us, both of us silent, both of us reading. We were up above the trees, side by side, trying to understand, trying to know. We were both very much alive, and as long as I’m able to carry the memory we always will be.

***

The person I’m most drawn toward in the clip of the final pitch and ensuing celebration of Don Larsen’s perfect game is not Larsen or Dale Berra’s father but a figure who disappears almost as soon as the clip starts. It’s the pinch-hitter, who stands there for a moment in disbelief as the pitch is called a strike. It’s a somewhat famously blown call, but it was decided in that instant and forever after that we won’t really care so much about that. But the pinch-hitter does. He looks befuddled. The moment is famous for perfection, for joy, but life is not defined by those things. Life is for us most often what it is for the man at the plate whose name, according to an interview with Dale Berra by the baseball historian Bob Hurte, would be seized on by Yogi Berra’s wife, Carmen Berra, at that moment as just right for the child she was carrying.

Dale Mitchell checks his swing and, knowing the truth of the pitch he’s just let go by, turns toward the authority behind him, the ump, as if to appeal to him, but it’s too late. It’s just the same as if there’s no one there at all to look to, to beseech, to implore. And then this Dale is gone from the clip, leaving behind for the player on the card at the top of this page his name, to be joined with the other much more famous name from that moment, a preposterous combination, as if to be human is to be suspended in a thin bubble in midair somewhere between euphoria and knowing.

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Nelson Santovenia

January 14, 2018

Nelson Santovenia

Every once in a while Nelson Santovenia shows up somewhere unusual. A few years ago, he appeared inside my guitar. And here he is now in my garbage. Why, you may ask, is there a baseball card in my garbage?

There are baseball cards in various places in my home. The cards from my childhood in the 1970s are in a couple of shoeboxes. My sons now each have a shoebox of their own, filled with some cards that have split off from two large plastic bags of random cards from the 1980s onward. Those bags are now buried in a closet, because I’m tired of cleaning them up. My sons aren’t card collectors yet, and I tend to doubt they ever will be. They like to dump the bags of cards out and fling them around the room. They’ll eventually “help” gather the wreckage, but I always get impatient with the pacing and unfocused nature of this effort and end up angrily lurching around and stuffing the cards back into the bags. This will probably loom large in my sons’ associations of baseball cards with their father: a frustrated ogre snarling vows about this being the last time anyone plays with baseball cards.

Inevitably, I miss a card or two. Later I’ll find it stuck under a chair or in the crack between couch cushions. In the past I’ve then most often placed them on a bookshelf, an intermediate step toward getting them back in the plastic bags that usually gets stretched out for quite a while and bugs me on some level. My life is always partially undone. I’m always rushing from one thing to the next, one kid needing food, the other needing help to climb up to a terrifying height atop the treadmill, my face needing a shave before work, work, a novel in unrealized chunks festering in notebooks in my file cabinet, an appointment to make with a doctor to jab his finger up my anus because it’s finally about time for that glorious rite of passage, etc.

So I made a new policy—any baseball cards from those bags that don’t make it back into the bags at the first cleanup are no longer part of my world. What’s the big deal? I have no deep association with any of those cards. They came to me after childhood as thrift-shop gifts or occasional nostalgic purchases of packs at Target or whatever. They didn’t fuse my goddamn psyche. And they certainly aren’t worth anything in a monetary fashion. They’re garbage! Right? No more nor less than the drier sheets, tissues, and packaging for a pair of tension pulley things that my wife is incorporating into her workout regime. But this morning while playing with my sons, I was pretending to be Megatron, who I guess is a foe of the Transformers, and my sons were blasting me off the bed to the ground via various means such as fart blasts and pillow pummelings and pro-wrestling style leg launches, and down there on the carpet, a smoldering and defeated robotic hulk of villainy, I noticed Nelson Santovenia where I’d discarded him, among the trash, and he didn’t seem to fit in with his surroundings. I couldn’t make him fit in with his surroundings. I could not make him mean nothing. So I took him out. He’s on my desk right now, yet another item in that messy, forever unfinished collection, my life.

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Ken Holtzman

January 11, 2018

Ken Holtzman

What lasts? Not mustaches, not dynasties, not childhood, not life. It’s all pretty much like the clouds shown here that disassembled soon after the photo was taken. The sky got bluer or grayer. The sky is always changing. At some point there won’t even be a sky.

I don’t know the names of clouds but I know Ken Holtzman pitched two no-hitters, won three World Series in a row with the A’s, and collected more wins than any other Jewish player in history, including a win over his idol, Sandy Koufax in the latter’s last regular season start.

I know my grandma was born in the 1800s in Austria-Hungary and died in a Jewish nursing home in the Bronx called something like the Daughters of Judea. My dad took my brother and me there once. She tried to foist a banana on me. Eat, eat, she implored. She’d had six children but only four lived beyond infancy. But no fucking way was I eating that banana. I hated and still hate fruit. Someday there won’t be a sky but until I croak, perhaps of scurvy, I’m clinging with all my might to my bizarre childhood aversion to the very symbol of this world’s sweet bounty. My god was I disgusted by that bruised banana thrust at me by my age-crumpled grandmother. She loved me, and all I wanted was to leave and buy several packs of baseball cards and open the packs and jam all the gum into my mouth and never have to look old age or love in the wrinkled face again.

Now, decades too late, I wish I’d realized then how deeply indebted I am to her. She kept my family alive, kept them going. Without her, I’m not here. My boys aren’t here. Someday there’ll be no sky, but that’s nothing in the face of the gratitude and love I feel right here and now for my family, old and new.

I like how in this card Ken Holtzman’s glove is unseen, so you can actually believe that he doesn’t have a glove and is not aping a pitching follow-through but extending his left arm to escort you on a promenade. I wish I could have thought to reach my arm out to my grandma the way Ken Holtzman is reaching his arm out here.

But it’s far too late, so instead I take Ken Holtzman’s arm, just the way I did back in 1975. I’ll always take his arm. Someday perhaps I’ll be as old as my grandma and I’ll have trouble walking and I’ll be lonely and institutionalized. I’ll still have Ken Holtzman. I’ll take Ken Holtzman’s arm. Wispy clouds behind him will remind me of something, but I won’t be able to put a name to it. He’ll be cheerful and respectful and soft-spoken. He’ll be steady. He’ll support me. We will take a long, slow walk out into the day.

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Red Sox Future Stars

January 7, 2018

Red Sox Future Stars

The other night I surfaced into consciousness at 4 or 5 in the morning and worries about my job seized me. I couldn’t shake them—nagging chaotic anxieties about all the thousands of things flying at me on deadline. I’m gonna miss something, I’m gonna fuck up. Eventually I just got out of bed and meditated for a while in a chair in the kitchen. It helped a little. There’s a basic goodness in us, in everything, shining beneath the lacerating illusions. We are stardust, we are golden. When Jack woke up and came out to the kitchen, I was able to listen to him, to see him. He was smiling and looking at me with his bright blue eyes.

“Daddy, I had the craziest dream,” he said. “I was flying.

I remember having a dream that I was flying when I was a kid. I can’t really place it in time, but it could have been in 1980, the year I met this card. I was twelve then. I’ve come to think of that dream, where I bounded up into the sky and flew around my town, as a response to an increase of gravity in my life. The years leading up to 1980 had seen me bounding every morning up the road to a multi-age free-school classroom where we made animated movies and wrote plays and learned Russian and sat in a circle sometimes or lounged around sometimes. By 1980 I’d shifted to a junior high several miles away with desks in rows and time sliced up into anxious chunks. Instead of one warm teacher and a lot of long-haired parent helpers I was now under the glancing authority of a collection of grown-up strangers who identified me in one way or another as a problem.

Meanwhile the Red Sox were also crashing to earth. They’d come close in 1975, 1977, and 1978, but in 1979 they’d finished a distant third, and it would get worse in the years to come, a little worse every year, more or less, throughout the rest of my descent through junior high and high school, where I went from Cs to occasional Fs to, finally, in my senior year at a boarding school, expulsion. That was the year I discovered getting high, thank fucking god. Thank god for marijuana! Getting expelled was no fun, being driven home from that school for two hours by my poor grim mom was no fun, taking the GED was no fun, but getting high with my friends saved my life, if you define life by the notion of having some interest in living it.

When you’re a young child, if you’re lucky, as I was, you get this sense that the future will include stardom. I’m not talking about fame but rather the same feeling you get when you’re a kid and you open a new pack of cards and find a card featuring a player or, in this case, players, from your favorite team. Connection to some kind of brilliant glory. A kind of flying. A high. By 1980 I had probably felt the gravity of the world just enough to not believe the proclamation that the players in my hand were future stars. I knew who they were already, as they’d all made appearances with the Red Sox in 1979, and Chuck Rainey was the only one who’d shown any glimmers of hope, but even his promise seemed subdued, as he seemed no better than a Bob Stanley type, at best. But still, it was a brand new card that I could add to my beloved stack of Red Sox, and I’m sure I felt at least a little of the pulse of the stardom at the core of this life.

I was talking on the phone the other day to my best friend from boarding school, Billy Z, the one with whom I rediscovered that life could have some laughs in it, some highs, some joy. For the last twenty years or so he’s been a Montessori teacher. I was telling him that we’re homeschooling our boys.

“Dude, that’s the best thing you can do for them,” he said. I was glad to hear him say that. I said something about how I love following their lead, seeing where they want to go with their learning.

“That’s the basic idea at Montessori, right?”

“Yeah, the tough part for my kids is when they get to junior high and it’s suddenly all about nothing but punishments and rewards. A lot of them just shut down.”

After I got off the phone I thought about how that was exactly what had happened to me. And I thought about how meeting Billy Z was one of the most important things that ever happened in my life. By the time I met him, in 1983, all the Future Stars featured in this card were gone from the Red Sox, all out or on their way out of forgettable major league careers, and I had completely stopped collecting baseball cards, releasing that habit and joy of childhood as if I didn’t deserve it. I was learning nothing in school except to believe that I was a problem, and I really didn’t have any friends. My mom saw this light going out in me and thought boarding school might help, and though I didn’t rediscover learning there, and in fact became even more buried under a feeling of academic failure, I did make a friend, Billy Z, with whom I laughed like I hadn’t in years. We’d sit there in our dorm room beds in the dark laughing and high, all the failure falling away for a little while. It felt like there was life to be lived. We were flying toward future stars.