Archive for the ‘Atlanta Braves’ Category

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John Smoltz

November 5, 2019

John Smoltz

My father’s books fall apart as I read them. The one I’m reading now, The World of Our Fathers, by Irving Howe, crumbled into two pieces at the page 92–93 spread, in which Howe talks about Lillian Wald, a nurse who started the Henry Street Settlement and helped impoverished new immigrants like my grandparents, and perhaps did help my grandparents, or even my father. I don’t know. I saw this massive book on his shelf for years and wanted to read it, knew I should read it, knew that it would open up the mostly closed book of his childhood. I wish I had. I can’t ask him any questions now.

I tried to read, on yellowing pages folded into the book, his tiny notes. He dated the notes, so I know he read and thought about the book, and maybe about the history and trajectory of his own family, in 1985, the year I was expelled from boarding school for using alcohol and drugs. As was his habit, he crossed out most of his writing, second-guessing himself and his own ideas. He did turn over the crossed-out page and take some more notes and didn’t cross those out, but his handwriting is so cramped, another reflection of his unconscious attempt to minimize himself as much as possible, that I find it nearly impossible to read. I can pull out fragments—

Social construction of the Jew in western culture . . .

Jew as conscience of society . . .

Shaping of Jewish roles and self-definitions from [illegible] . . .

—but only enough to want to be able to ask him what his thinking, though even if he was still around and I could show him his notes, he probably would have waved them away. Or maybe he wouldn’t—who knows? That’s the thing: all he is now is a construction in my mind, growing ever farther from whoever he actually was.

My father also clipped and tucked into the back cover of the book the 1993 obituary of the Irving Howe. The large text pulled up as a mid-column excerpt—“His passion was ideas, his lifetime cause democratic socialism”—could have been my father’s epitaph. Howe was born a little earlier than my father, in 1920, and grew up in the Bronx rather than in the main setting of Howe’s book that’s been falling apart in my hands, the Lower East Side, where my father was born in 1925 and where, according to Howe, the newest, poorest immigrants massed before being able to venture father out into the outer boroughs, deeper into America.

There are other ways in which the obituary suggests that Howe may have had a somewhat firmer childhood footing in this land than my father. Howe’s father ran a grocery store, and even though the store failed, the mere fact of there being at least a brief period of ownership points to a relationship with America that was stronger than the one experienced by my grandfather, who worked in sweatshops before either receiving a head injury or succumbing to debilitating, if undiagnosed, mental illness, or both, and either way no longer being able to work, and finally, late in the Great Depression, dying by suicide.

Another obituary detail that paints Howe as a more strongly rooted American than my father is the mention of “occasional trips to Yankee Stadium to see Babe Ruth (‘the greatest man in the Bronx’) play.”

The quote, apparently taken from Howe’s own writing, reveals a reverence for baseball, and so could never have come from my father. My father was more squarely situated on the other side of the Old World/New World divide about that subject, which I read about this morning and took my own notes on a yellow post-it, which is also slipping out of the pages and will slip out of the grasp of my own sons, if they ever feel the urge to search for me as I’ve been searching for my father. You can see my notes in the photo at the top of this page, next to my baseball card bookmark.

The notes refer to some mentions Howe makes to baseball. He’s not focusing in his book on baseball, but it comes up as he talks about the rift between the immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the children they were raising in America. Many of those children gravitated to baseball, a first step into something joyous and physical and free in the new world. Their parents didn’t understand it, dismissed it, feared it. My Uncle Joe, who was several years older than my father and grew up on the streets, fit this model, learning the game and following it all his life. My father was the youngest in the family, relatively protected, pointed with all the force of his mother’s love toward study, and so it’s not surprising that he internalized the view of baseball surely held by his immigrant parents, who no doubt held a view similar to the one Howe unearthed in a letter from a worried immigrant parent to the daily Yiddish newspaper, The Forward. It’s something I can imagine my father saying, something I can see myself absorbing unconsciously as his dismissive, distancing response to the all-consuming passion of my childhood:

What is the point of this crazy game?

***

For most of my life this crazy game was very near the center of who I am, and so when the recent World Series seemed to come and go at such a distance from me, I had to consider that I don’t know who I am anymore.

I skipped even trying to see the first two games altogether. I can’t say that I was organized enough in my thinking to call this avoidance a boycott, but it wasn’t totally unrelated to that sort of a stance. I catch snippets of the happenings in the world, mostly from glancing encounters with social media, and those snippets generally cause me to view the world in a dimming light and, in turn, to withdraw to an ever-farther remove from the happenings. One of those snippets—a member of Astros management proudly taunting female journalists about the presence of a perpetrator of domestic violence on the Astros roster—caused me to say, and not for the first time, Jesus, why do I even bother with this shit?

But who am I without baseball? A couple weeks ago, when the World Series was still unfolding, my older son happened to ask me what it is I know best. I knew the answer instantly but fought it, because, first of all, what good does it do me, or anyone? Second of all, where can I go from here? I’m not going forward with this area of knowledge. I’m not going to become more engaged with the current version of the game, an increasingly stagnant narrowing into the monotonous all-or-nothingness of home runs and strikeouts, each of those outcomes once among the most exciting moments in the game but now grimly radiating the actuarial inevitability of corporate strategy, each punctuated more often than I care to see by the momentary victor aggressively grabbing his penis and testicles. The game, the business, belongs more or less to horrible billionaires assholes and post-pubescent millionaire dunderheads. But what am I going to do? It’s too late for me to be a geography whiz or potter or know the names of birds.

“Baseball,” I told him, sort of miserably.

And so that night I tried to tune into the World Series telecast, which I assume still features the fellow partially pictured at the top of this page, John Smoltz, in the color-commentator role offering (as I am here) sour, self-aggrandizing denouncements of the present state of the game. But we don’t have cable, and one of the tendrils in the antennae contraption we use to pick up regular network TV broke off a while back, and it’s getting harder to pull in any of the stations. I waved it around, held it over my head, moved it to a couple slightly different spots, and then, after two or three minutes of this, I gave up and streamed an episode of a TV show about fictional horrible billionaire assholes. A few nights later, for Game Five, I more or less repeated the process of attempting reception, again to no effect. When the series reached Game Seven, I did what I usually do when there are problems I can’t solve, but even the resolver I married couldn’t get it to work. If the Red Sox had been involved, or—because of my friends who are fans and my old connection to the Steve Henderson teams that my father used to, despite his deep-seated distaste for sports, take my brother and me to see—the Mets, I would have kept trying, or bought a new antennae, or gone to a bar, or something. This time, it being Game Seven, the best I could do was pause for a few minutes in my streaming of the show about the billionaire assholes and listen to the Nationals radio broadcast on my phone for the last three outs.

There, I thought. I in some way paid attention to the World Series. I haven’t disappeared from this world altogether. Not yet.

***

My grandfather never played with my father. I’m sure of that. They had very few interactions at all. There was a walk to a park, which may have been on the same day as a walk to a synagogue that my father remembers as having beautiful stained glass windows. There was a strange conversation very near the end when my grandfather asked my father about school and implored him to keep studying hard. My father, at that point so used to considering my grandfather as a silent stranger in their tiny tenement apartment, says he didn’t respond to this apparent last attempt to connect. He was too shocked. And then my grandfather was gone.

My father didn’t play with me. Or if he did I don’t remember it. He must have at least tried to participate at some point, because I somehow absorbed the awful understanding that he didn’t really know how to throw a ball. He was for the most part a gentle, if sporadic, presence and tried to be there for my brother and me when he could, and he did take us to those games at Shea Stadium every summer when we visited him. But he was, I understand now, primarily a reader of books, and at most moments in his life it would have been his preference to be reading.

It’s the same with me. I even have a T-shirt, from the bookstore where I met my wife: I’d rather be reading. But I want to play with my kids, or rather want for them to have a father who plays with them. And I try. But there’s always that “I’d rather be reading” ache, and I suppose my boys pick up on it, absorb it as their legacy in a family line of fathers and sons who have trouble with the mess and chaos of play, who prefer the apparent, illusory order of words.

But every once in a while I hit on some way in which I can find some game we all like. A few weeks ago it happened when they were hurling some of my old baseball cards all over the room. I got the idea to adapt the simple card game War to baseball cards. We’d all gather a stack of cards and put down a card one at a time, and whoever presented the best player at each turn would win the turn and the other two cards. I made the decision in each case, using what it is I know best. My younger son got bored quickly and went back to hurling cards around, but my older son loved it. He especially loved the 1989 Donruss John Smoltz rookie card in his stack, as each time it came around it allowed him to win a card from me.

“He’s the best. Can anyone beat him?” he asked.

“Not yet,” I said.

“I don’t want to lose him,” he said.

“I know what you mean,” I said.

***

At a playground today, I sat on a bench and watched my sons play with two other boys. They are slowly learning that this is more fun than dragging me onto the playground. I felt a wave of relief and gratitude for this development and for them and for everything I’ve been given in my life and suddenly imagined my father sitting beside me. His thin legs crossed, his backpack on his lap, his long, bony fingers resting on top of the backpack. Inside the backpack, what? Vitamins, pens, a case for his hearing aid, a thick book fattened by some folded pages containing his tiny illegible handwritten notes. I imagined asking him about the book he was reading, and telling him about the book I was reading, and the two of us both watching my boys run and laugh and swing sticks around like swords, authoring imaginary worlds that arose and dissolved as quickly as the windy eddying of the dry, fallen leaves all around them. And for a second he was there beside me so palpably that I started to cry.

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Pete Smith

March 12, 2011

According to the Gods: a 2011 Team-By-Team Preview

Atlanta Braves

Pete Smith was a lifetime .118 hitter with a .174 on-base percentage and a .147 slugging percentage. He didn’t hit a single home run or steal a single base in his major league career, but he did manage to get down 38 sacrifice bunts. Statisticians don’t keep track of failed attempts to bunt, at least that I know of, so Pete Smith’s 38 sacrifice bunts remain impossible to use as a gauge of Pete Smith’s skill as a bunter. For all we know, all 246 outs Pete Smith made in the big leagues could have been the result of failed bunt attempts. But, that said, he seems to be showing decent form and concentration here, I guess, so maybe he knew what he was doing. One thing that seems clear is that all the bunting didn’t end up helping him or his team very often. At the time of this 1991 card, which appeared midway through Pete Smith’s 11-year career, Smith’s win-loss record stood at 18-37. In his defense, he had been toiling for a moribund Braves club in his first years in the majors, but the abrupt reversal of fortune the team was about to experience didn’t really help Pete Smith turn things around. Besides one brief moment in the sun during the Braves’ second pennant-winning year in a row in 1992, when Pete Smith went 7-0 while splitting time between the majors and minors, Smith continued losing at about the same rate in the second half of his career as he’d done in the first half, going 19-34 from the time of this card until his last appearance in 1998. His spotty performances in the majors kept getting him sent back to the minors, where he managed to fashion a career win-loss record that finally, in 1997, after appearances of varying length in 167 minor league contests, edged just barely above .500. He spent the following year entirely in the majors, but it proved to be his last year at that top level of his profession, and in 1999 he bounced from Triple A Memphis to Triple A Las Vegas, going 2-3 and 4-5, respectively, marks that pushed his minor league win-loss record, which had been one game over .500 going into the season, to 55-56. God damn it. And that year some of his former teammates were still playing for the Braves, who swaggered to their eighth division title and fifth pennant of the decade. So I’m going to go ahead and say that Pete Smith succeeded in the attempt shown on this card to get a fucking bunt down, and it helped lead to a run, and the run proved to be crucial, giving the Braves the lead, and Pete Smith then protected the lead, and afterward in the locker room he basked in the glow of a job well done and that rare sweet feeling of a win.

As for the 2011 Braves, who on the strength of last year’s playoff team seem to perhaps be in the midst of getting back to their winning ways, I’m going to have to say that a Pete Smith card is probably not a sign that the breaks will be falling their way this year.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 13 of 30: spend some time with the greatest Brave of them all, Henry Aaron, in Howard Bryant’s recent Casey Award-winning biography, The Last Hero  

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2011 previews so far: St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Pittsburgh Pirates; Arizona Diamondbacks; Colorado Rockies; New York Yankees; Cleveland Indians; Detroit Tigers; Milwaukee Brewers; Minnesota Twins

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Atlanta Braves, 1978

February 18, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 25 of 25)

(continued from Clarence Gaston)

Years ago the Braves came together in an empty stadium and feigned a smiling togetherness. Afterward, they separated. Some were gone before the season even got underway. Some vanished during the season. By the following year, 1979, about half the men who appeared in cardboard form as the 1978 Atlanta Braves had moved elsewhere, and by 1980 this number was halved again. When the Braves won the 1982 National League West division title, only Phil Niekro, Jerry Royster, Biff Pocoroba, Rick Camp, and Dale Murphy remained from the list of names on the back of this 1978 Atlanta Braves team checklist. Niekro lasted just one more season before the Braves released him, though he returned to the team in 1987 after racking up the last 50 of his 318 career wins in the American League. By Niekro’s brief, winless return in 1987, only Dale Murphy remained from 1978.

Murphy, one of the few players missing from my collection of 1978 Topps Atlanta Braves, may or may not be in the team picture featured here. The picture is grainy and dim, as if the camera used to take the shot was already infected with the pernicious amnesia that would almost immediately pull the team down into an oblivion beyond the recollection of nearly everyone among the relative few humans who ever heard of them in the first place. Could Murphy be in the front row, second from the right? Or is that a bat boy? I don’t know. Anyway, by 1987, when Niekro returned, Murphy had established himself as one of the best players in the league, a two-time MVP seemingly on a secure path to the Hall of Fame. It was his last great season, however, and after that he suddenly tapered off to merely decent for a few years, eventually moving on to the Phillies, but not before a brief reunion with his old manager, Bobby Cox, who returned to manage the Braves in 1990 and continued managing them for the next two decades before stepping down at the end of the 2010 season, his departure the last echo of 1978 finally dissolving.  Everything and everyone separates and dissolves. You have no choice but to be brave.

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Clarence Gaston

February 10, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 24 of 25)

(continued from Rob Belloir)

Most of life is made up of forgettable moments. Clarence Gaston, better known by his childhood nickname Cito, which he earned by bearing a resemblance to a Mexican wrestler with that name, had some moments in his life that towered above the usual range of human moments and even surpassed the reach of most major leaguers. He had some success as a player—for many years, before the arrival of Tony Gwynn, Gaston’s .318 mark in 1970 stood as the San Diego Padres’ team record for batting average—but reached the pinnacle of the sport as a manager, leading the Toronto Blue Jays to back-to-back World Series wins in 1992 and 1993. Only eight managers have ever won more World Series titles than Cito Gaston, who even ranks above his 1978 manager, future Hall of Famer Bobby Cox, in that category.

So it’s hard to imagine that Cito Gaston would remember the moment captured on this 1978 card. It was one of many days in a decade as a player in the big leagues, Gaston complying with the request of a photographer to get in his batting stance but not caring enough about trying to simulate actual game action to so much as shed his warmup jacket. The presence of the jacket, along with Gaston’s bored expression, suggests that Gaston let go of the moment forever the second he sauntered away from the harried photographer’s murmur of thanks, or even that Gaston was never really in the moment at all but was thinking ahead or back to something else, some other hypothetical moment that did not and would never exist in the way he was imagining it.

The past is gone and the future isn’t here, and the present is something we often barely show up for. While traveling from forgettable moment to forgettable moment, we have an air of distraction, like many of the players on the 1978 set of Atlanta Braves cards. Most of these cards are like the one for Clarence Gaston, a desultory quality bordering on some kind of forfeit emanating from the cardboard like a scent of stale gum. Still, maybe there’s a trace of each of us everywhere, a kind of perfection left behind as we stumble forward, losing. I’d like to think this trace can be seen here, stretching out on the grass in dark relief beyond Clarence Gaston. A pure form, waiting.

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Rob Belloir

February 4, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 23 of 25)

(continued from Joe Nolan)

This Rob Belloir card has been sitting face-up on my desk for days. I have turned it over a couple of times, but each time I’ve placed my thumb over the right-hand side of the back of the card to cover the “Play Ball” result. Today, when I’m done writing this post, I’ll turn it over again, this time without using my thumb to cover anything. There are five options for what the “Play Ball” result could mean for the battle between Love and Hate that has been playing out on this site for nearly three years.

1. The result could be yet another Rules explanation. This would be the most disappointing result of all. I have come to like this Rob Belloir card as it’s sat face-up on my desk for days, including the day that turned out to be one of the biggest blizzards of my lifetime, and I’m hoping his role in the game between Love and Hate is not completely insignificant.

2. The result could extend the game as it currently stands, Hate leading Love with two out in the bottom of the ninth. This means that Rob Belloir’s “Play Ball” result is either a Base On Balls, a Single, or a Double (the first two options would keep Hate’s lead at two runs, while the last option would cut the lead to one).

3. The result could tie the game. For this to happen, the result on the back of Rob Belloir’s card would have to be a Triple. A double could conceivably score a runner from first with two outs, and there was even some thought that the runner on first shouldn’t even be on first, since it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for the runners to have each moved up a base on the previous play, a fly out (which, as I imagined it, was to deep right field), but I don’t want Love’s victory, if it comes, to be blurred at the edges in the climactic moment by some kind of guiding, fouling human hand. For the game to be tied, it’s got to be a triple. This is probably the most unlikely result, triples being the beautiful rarities that they are.

4. The result could end the game dramatically with Love winning. The only way for this to occur would be for Rob Belloir’s “Play Ball” result to be a home run. This is also unlikely, though maybe a better bet than the triple, especially since it seems plausible that Topps spiked the “Play Ball” game with offensive fireworks to try to bolster interest in the game (which, as it turned out, few kids ever played).

5. The result could be a game-ending out. A strike out, a fly out, a ground out. If Topps made any reasonable attempt at verisimilitude, there’s over a 70% chance that this will be the case, and the game will end, and Hate will reign victorious.

Anyway, it has all come down to Rob Belloir, a turn of events that I like, or maybe even Love. Every once in a while I experience a recurring dream in which I find baseball cards of players from my youth who I somehow had never heard of. I got a flicker of that feeling when I first placed this Rob Belloir card face-up on my desk a few days ago. I have no memory of this guy, and for better or worse I’ve aimed most of the faltering resources in my memory at his habitat, 1970s baseball. Yet this habitat always finds ways to reveal itself as being more full of life than I imagined. Rob Belloir, born in Heidelberg, Germany. Rob Belloir, 8th-round draft pick of the Indians, then longtime traveler in the minors, including several years in San Antonio, where he appears to have settled down (it’s listed as his Home), his efforts interrupted by one numberless line in his statistics reading “In Military Service” (in 1971, during the downslope of the U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War). Rob Belloir, little-used major leaguer, 166 career at-bats as of 1978 with a .211 average and no home runs. (But one career triple!) So whatever happens when I turn over this card, my world is a little more alive with Rob Belloir.

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(Love versus Hate update: Rob Belloir’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)

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Joe Nolan

February 1, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 22 of 25)

(continued from Eddie Solomon)

Joe Nolan’s many years of middling minor league numbers fill up the majority of the back of this card. Sprinkled into those numbers are three slim major league entries, a cup of coffee with the Mets in 1972, a cup of coffee with the Braves in 1975, and a full major league season, his first, with the Braves in 1977. There’s still a bit of space below the major and minor league numbers, and this is filled with the following text: “Joe was Braves’ leading lefty pinchhitter in 1977. Gets good wood on ball.”

The picture on the front of the card seems to reflect Joe Nolan’s contentment at finding a place in the world, a useful role. He’s the leading lefty pinch-hitter. He gets good wood on ball.

So it’s fitting that the other significant piece of content on the back of his card is the “Play Ball” result of the pinch-hitter for Love against Hate in the game that’s been playing out on this site for nearly three years and that is finally nearing its conclusion. Two men are on, with one out and Love down by two.

There are no aesthetic details provided in the “Play Ball” game, just the result as you would see it written in a scorecard. We have to imagine the moment. I see this: The pinch-hitter connects and lifts one high and deep into the outfield. The right-fielder sprints back toward the wall. The pinch-hitter is known for getting good wood on ball. Did he get enough?



***

(Love versus Hate update: Joe Nolan’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)

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Eddie Solomon

January 28, 2011

What Is the Meaning of the 1978 Atlanta Braves? (card 21 of 25)

(continued from Buzz Capra)

Eddie Solomon was a journeyman, a major league drifter, sometimes able and other times unable to command his pitches. At the time of his 1978 card, Eddie Solomon had played for four teams in the past four years and had during his career compiled a 4.47 ERA and a 7-7 won-loss record. He’d stick with the Braves for a little while, then move on to the Pirates, then the White Sox, then, a little over three years after his career ended, at the age of 34, he would die in a car crash in Macon, Georgia.

The back of Eddie Solomon’s card has an explanation of the rules of “Play Ball” on it, rather than an actual at-bat result, so the Love versus Hate game of “Play Ball” that seems to be nearing its conclusion once again must pause. A batter has just walked, putting the tying run aboard with one out in the bottom of the ninth. It’s easy enough to imagine the card of doomed Eddie Solomon presiding over this tense, fateful stoppage. The sullen manager of Hate, hands jammed in the pockets of his warmup jacket, marches to the mound to gruffly lecture his faltering closer, who after getting the first out of the inning has now surrendered a double and a walk. Due up is the ninth spot in the lineup, a pinch-hitter. A crusty left-handed batsman, a veteran who’s bounced around for years, not a great hitter but a cagey one, never latching on anywhere as an everyday player but continuing to find employment on the margins of one roster after another. He waits in the on-deck circle, attempting to loosen his creaky joints, while Hate’s manager and closer talk past one another in declarative monosyllables and obscenities. As the manager stalks back to the dugout, the pinch-hitter begins, slowly, to move toward the plate.

He’s always been a slow walker on his way to the plate, this fictional character arising from the back of doomed Eddie Solomon’s card. Maybe it started because a coach once told him the struggle between pitcher and batter is all about rhythm, i.e., disrupting his while establishing your own. As his career crystallized into that of a bat for hire, he made this slow walk his would-be trademark (in truth, no one noticed him enough to really care), thinking of himself and his slow walk as an intentional irritant, like he’s a farmer pulling his tractor into traffic for no reason except to make all the drivers behind him late. If nothing else, at least I’ll annoy. But now, late in his underwhelming journeyman passage through the big time, his slow walk has evolved into something else. He has begun to walk slowly everywhere, paying attention to his movement and to the world around him, waking up to an awareness that at any moment the whole big game could end.