Archive for the ‘California Angels’ Category

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Rusty Torres

July 1, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

The Dugout

The happiest moment of my childhood? That’s easy. I’m in a little league dugout just after my one perfect at-bat. I’m still seeing the at-bat: the meaty fastball over the middle of the plate, the swing, the ball clearing the chain-link fence in left field. I’d floated around the bases, floated from home plate back to the dugout in a scrum of shouting teammates. Now I sit on the bench in the dugout, beaming out at the field, my limbs still buzzing from that perfect connection. I want the moment to last, and it does. The other team is bad, and we keep reaching base. We bat around.

“You’re up again, Josh,” someone says.

I rise, put on a batting helmet, and leave the dugout for another at-bat. The huge smile on my face feels permanent. It’s like a joke has been told that will never stop being funny. It’s like my happiness has overthrown time. 

***

I have a Yahoo email account, and before I get to the inbox I go past a page that includes sports headlines. I always hope for sports to serve as an escape, a safe place away from the world. The top sports headlines lately have featured the Penn State coach found guilty of sexually abusing several boys over many years. His face accompanies the headline. I don’t want to see his face anymore.

You’ll hear people hoping that his punishment will include the unofficial component of fellow prisoners doing to him what he did to children. But no one can do to him what he did to those boys. They were safe, and then they weren’t and never would be again. Each one had the face of a child and this face was taken.

***

Last night my wife and I went for a walk with our eleven-month-old son. He was nestled in a carrier on my wife’s chest. We’d gone on a walk the night before, after hours of the baby raging and wailing with teething pain, and on the walk he had eventually rested his head on my wife’s chest and gone to sleep. We were hoping for a repeat of that last night, but we walked and walked and walked and he kept staring out wide-eyed at the darkening world. He’s hungry for the world. Fireflies kept appearing in brief shin-high arcs in our path, as if part of some mysterious sanctification.

***

I have some Xeroxed pages from a newspaper on my desk. I got them a couple of years ago at my publisher’s request. They’re from the paper in the town I grew up in, and they back up a claim in my memoir that a coach in my town, Mick, was imprisoned for sexually abusing boys. Mick coached little league and seventh and eighth grade basketball. I didn’t play for him in little league (though at the time I wished I had since he was widely considered to be “the best”), but I played on his basketball teams. I was lucky, I realize now, to never go on a fishing trip with him. That’s where he did his thing. There were rumors about it when he was my coach, and I didn’t believe the rumors.

The article about his sentencing is difficult to read, full of disgusting, enraging details of a world oriented—as I had been—toward downplaying and ignoring the crime. Mick’s sentence was only one year in prison, and the judge who handed down the sentence said she was “impressed” with Mick and at the end of the sentencing wished him luck. The two brothers who came forward about the sexual abuse had been in recent weeks “suspected by classmates of being victims [and had] become the object of taunting and namecalling at school.” While on bail, and in violation of a specific provision of the bail that he not contact the victims, Mick sent a letter and a Christmas card, a fucking Christmas card, to the boys who reported him. There’s a description in the article of the impact of this contact.

The boys’ mother later testified that whatever the intentions, the effects were not good. She said when her son first received the letter, he took it to his room to read alone. Then he came into the living room, very upset, and slammed the letter down on the table. She quoted him as saying, “If he cares about me so damn much why doesn’t he leave me the hell alone?” (“Lewis Is Sentenced to Year in Jail,” White River Valley Herald, March 1987)

Mick was oblivious to this. He believed that contacting the boy was the right thing to do. His “impressive” courtroom demeanor seemed to imply some understanding on his part that he had done something wrong, or at least that his actions had brought him to the brink of being cast out of the community that he’d had a central role in, but the fact that he’d sent a letter to the two boys shows that he really had no idea what he did to the boys, and to all the other boys he victimized.    

***

The card at the top of this page was intact, with a face, when I pulled it out of my shoebox of old cards at random few days ago. I always hope that by selecting from my shoebox blindly I’ll see the card drawn as if for the first time. I stuck with this hope for about a minute, lost focus, and then compulsively typed the player’s name into an internet search window.

Before typing in the name, I’d noticed the unusual setting of the photo on the card. Few photos on the baseball cards from my childhood are set in the dugout, which may be why this 1977 card is so well-handled despite the player’s marginality. I must have been drawn to the dugout. That was my first year in little league, the first year I got to sit in a dugout with a uniform on. I felt safer in the dugout than anywhere in the world. I loved that boy hive. Everyone sitting and standing and milling around and laughing, getting ready to bat or getting ready to go out into the field or looping fingers through the chicken wire and leaning close to chant no batter no batter no batter. The dugouts were where I most wanted to be even before I was old enough to play little league. My older brother played little league, so for two years I’d been at the edge of the dugout, looking in, waiting. Seven years old. Eight years old.

That was the age—eight years old—of the victim in the stories that clogged the first several pages of search results for Rusty Torres. An eight-year-old girl was playing on a pull-up bar. Torres himself supplied further details about the incident, as reported in the New York Daily News of May 12, 2012:

Torres said he and the girl “had a lot of physical contact” as he helped her down from the bar.

“Body to body, over and over,” he said. “I brought her to the back of my van and I don’t want to talk about what happened there but at one point I accidentally exposed my erect penis.”

The 63-year-old Torres said the girl never touched him, and he “stopped myself before anything bad happened to her.”

That last part, Torres believing that taking an 8-year-old girl into a van and showing her his erection constituted the behavior of someone stopping himself “before anything bad happened” is the most disturbing part of the article, especially when coupled with a later sentence: “Torres has spent the last decade working as a baseball coach on the Oyster Bay payroll, interacting with thousands of children.”

***

But I was telling you about the happiest moment of my childhood, that inning that wouldn’t end. I’m walking to the plate for another turn at bat, smiling like I’ll never stop. I hear someone calling my name.

“Josh! Josh!”

I look over. Mick is the coach of the other team. He is grinning out at me from inside the opposing dugout, his fingers looped through the chicken wire. He has those pro-style flip-up outfielder sunglasses. They’re in the up position, revealing his eyes. He’s the best coach in town. He’s never said my name before.

“Hey Josh,” he says, “no batter here, huh?”

It makes me feel good. I just hit a home run, so I know that he’s being gently sarcastic, that he’s saying there is a batter here. Mick is saying it. The best coach in town.

He had to get my attention in the middle of that game. He needed to imprint his face on my happiness.

***

Last night my wife and son and I walked up and down the firefly-graced streets until it was altogether dark out. My son still wouldn’t fall asleep.

“Should we just keep walking?” my wife asked.

“Sure,” I said. I thought she was asking whether I was tired of walking.

“I mean is it safe?” she said.

When is the answer to this question ever an unequivocal yes? We walked a few minutes more then came home and bolted and chained the door. I used the pointed tip of a nail file to alter a card from my childhood.

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Angels Future Stars

February 10, 2012

How Strange the Design

Five

I am looking for a pitch to hit. I get an at-bat every day, in the early morning before work, while the baby is still asleep. I sit at my desk. I take my stance, so to speak. I wait. Most of the time, I can’t even see the pitch. It has come and gone and my at-bat is over. Other times, I swing wildly. I want to connect. I want to, well, I’ll just say it, I wish I could make a living writing. I hope someday it will happen, but I’m not a fucking rookie anymore, so the notion of “someday,” which I’ve been addicted to for many years, should probably be avoided. Fuck someday. This present life, its contours and limitations, this is what exists. I’m not bitching. I mean I’m not ungrateful for the life I’ve got, the love, my family, my health, some employment, sporadic doses of good old television and booze to ease the pain. But the writing, well, this is probably it: one at-bat a day if I’m lucky, or maybe not even an at-bat, and not in a professional game either but for free, for nothing but the chance to connect. I am doing this for free. I am doing this for freedom. Like Bukoswki said in “Death Is Smoking My Cigars”:

wanted the word down
and they wanted me at a punch press,
a factory assembly line
they wanted me to be a stock boy in a
department store.

well, death says, as he walks by,
I’m going to get you anyhow
no matter what you’ve been:
writer, cab-driver, pimp, butcher,
sky-diver, I’m going to get
you . . .

o.k. baby, I tell him.

we drink together now
as one a.m. slides to 2
a.m. and
only he knows the
moment, but I worked a con
on him: I got my
5 god-damned minutes
and much
more.

When the at-bat ends, I haul my bike out onto the street and ride it to a bus that takes me to work. I try to ride my bike carefully. I say a little prayer for safety before getting on. Still, there is a heightened awareness when riding a bike in a city, buses and trucks and texting-while-driving minivans careening all around you, that in life you are on one path and whatever it is that will end you is on another path, and one day these two paths will intersect. I am hoping to be very old when this intersection occurs, lying on a bed tired of life and satisfied and with my family still healthy all around me. I don’t want to say goodbye to anyone. I don’t want this to end.

Have I mentioned baseball yet in this post, besides the hackneyed “at-bat” conceit? Okay then, here: Ray Chapman had the habit of diving into pitches, I guess. Or maybe I’m confusing him with some other batter who famously caught one in the head. Chapman was a very good young shortstop, and one day his path intersected with the path of Carl Mays, or more specifically his head intersected with one of Mays’ pitches. Mays had a history of pitching inside. Also, it was getting dark. Chapman apparently never saw the pitch. You’ll never see it coming. It’ll just end. That’s how this game is designed.

But back to at-bats: I waste a lot of them. I get up and dick around here and there, looking on the internet, browsing decades-old newspapers in the Google archives for news about Sweathogs and bench-clearing brawls and Kurt Bevacqua. Lately I’ve been poring over a book I basically stole from my brother, A Donald Honig Reader. Whenever my life is overwhelming me I read it and read it. It is falling apart from this persisting need. It belongs to my brother, this book, but we lived together for a long time and our stuff intersected and so it seemed not implausible to me to think that the book could get mixed up in my stuff when we went off on our own paths, finally, but in truth I think I was entirely conscious of taking the book and only thought about the plausibility of a mix-up to soothe my conscience. I am not even a very good person, really. For example, yesterday I got home from work and was trying to rock my son to sleep in my arms and he was getting there, finally, when one of our cats came in the room and tried to get my attention by meowing and my kid’s eyes snapped open and I shoved the cat off a bureau and sort of kicked him a little to get him to sprint out of the room. I didn’t hurt him but I scared him, and I was angry at him. I love him, this cat, and I felt like a piece of shit for acting this way, a piece of shit, a piece of shit, but I was frustrated that it was taking so long to rock my son to sleep, and I was tired from working all day, and my legs were beat from biking to and from the bus with the heightened awareness that someday a Carl Mays beanball will end me, so to speak, and my brain was mushed from the long bus ride, and life was just catching up to me, my hopes and dreams and blah bah fucking blah. Fuck. Anyway, I stole this Honig book from my brother and sometimes don’t write in the mornings but read it obsessively, repeatedly. It is a massive book containing many first-person oral histories of old ballplayers. It is a beautiful thing, in quality equal to Lawrence Ritter’s more well-known and (deservedly) revered book The Glory of Their Times and in sheer quantity dwarfing Ritter’s work. Anyway, not too long ago I was reading the story of the guy who replaced Ray Chapman after Chapman died from the beaning, Joe Sewell. Some words near the end of Joe Sewell’s story hit a chord, and since then I’ve been trying to write toward those words with these cards. I have this card and one more and then I’ll leave this meandering nonstory and move on to some other cardboard investigation if I don’t get beaned or felled by disease or stray-bulleted or bushwhacked or broken or blasted to smithereens, sweet Yaz almighty bless this tenuous life.

So then anyway on to this fucking card. This card is from 1980, the last year I collected cards. All the cards that came to me up to then were something to count on, and the center of each year’s collection was the team I loved, the Red Sox. But immediately after the 1980 season ended, the Red Sox changed drastically, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Butch Hobson, and Rick Burleson all departing—half of the eight regulars (George Scott was already gone) who remained from the superb 1978 squad that had been undone by (if you believe in horoscopes) the trend toward the unusual and bizarre. This was jarring. Suddenly everything was different. Burleson and Hobson were the first to go, in a December trade that brought Mark Clear, Carney Lansford, and Rick Miller to the Red Sox. The arrival of Burleson in California effectively ended any chance that this 1980 Angels Future Stars card had of telling the exact truth. The Angels figured they were set at shortstop with Burleson and, badly needing pitching, shipped the player on the far right of this card to Houston for Ken Forsch. All three Future Stars had played for the Angels, sparingly, in 1980 (along with Bruce Kison, who had come over from the Pirates). Thon had played the most, performing decently as a middle infield backup to aging starters Bobby Grich and Freddy Patek. Thon held down a similar role for the Astros in 1981, then took over as the starting shortstop in 1982 and moved to the glowing edge of stardom in 1983. So this 1980 card was almost right: Thon really was a future star, but just not for the Angels.

The future, the past: you can’t pin them down. They are too strange. This moment: typing rapidly on some keys with letters on them, hoping to get some feeling in my flesh before shoving off to work. Work. That started for me for real in the summer 1985, after I’d been expelled from boarding school. I got a job pumping gas. I remember the slow moments at the Shell station, time transformed into torture. My life since then has mostly been getting through time, making up little games to preoccupy myself. Work means giving yourself over to some other entity for some money, enough to keep the wheels turning. Before the summer of 1985, I was still in the kid’s world. In the summer of 1984: no job except throwing bales every few days at a nearby farm. Otherwise, I was still on my own to waste time. I played a lot of solitary games all over the house that summer. I was sixteen. I should have been, well, who knows. I probably shouldn’t still have been throwing a tennis ball off the roof and making up games. I remember Dickie Thon from that summer, not anything he did—I don’t remember noticing he was absent from the box scores that summer—but the image of him suggested by his promising 1983 numbers. I used those numbers—the steals, the homers, the triples—to create an imaginary character in my solitary games. Thon. In my games this Thon was taller than in real life (I had no idea how tall he was and see now from this card that he was 5’11”; in my imagination he was 6’3” at least), tall and thin and fast, powerful enough to smack home runs but just as prone to sting line drives deep into the corners of the Astrodome and wind up in a flash on third with a triple. I saw him in my mind out at shortstop, too, standing tall and possessing a cannon arm, a little like Cal Ripken but faster, making everything look easy. His name was sort of futuristic, maybe because it was similar to “Tron,” and there was permanence in it, too, simple and elemental, a piece of the ancient word marathon and somehow the piece that made the word ring. The Asros uniform was part of it; Thon would not have been this last pillar in the mansion of imagination of my childhood had he worn any other uniform but that last blazing rainbow flare from the 1970s. By then, the summer of 1984, Dickie Thon had already intersected with a Mike Torrez pitch that ended his season and his stardom. He would struggle all the way back eventually, working, working, but he was never the same. I don’t care about that. I still see him as beautiful and brilliant in my mind, the way I did that last wide summer my time was my own.

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Bob Allietta

March 25, 2011

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

[California] Angels

The 1975 California Angels led the American League West in losses. They also led the entire circuit in striking out opposing batters and led all of baseball in shutouts pitched, two distinctions that, along with all the losing, seem to offer some insight into another league-topping mark: catcher injuries inflicted. The team featured one of the most fearsome flamethrowing duos in history, Nolan Ryan and 21-year-old Frank Tanana, that season’s strikeout king. The pair racked up nearly half of the team’s strikeouts and over half of the team’s shutouts. I’m not sure who or what was responsible for all the catcher injuries, but it’s not hard to imagine that the broken fingers suffered by Andy Etchebarren and the fellow picture here, Bob Allieta, came as the result of the terrifying lightning bolts from the arms of Ryan or Tanana.

Etchebarren, who already had several years of service as a solid cog in the Orioles’ dynastic machine, recovered to become the team’s regular backstop the following season, but the shattered digit suffered by Bob Allietta seems to have brought his one glimpse of the big time, itself partially the product of the epidemic of Angels’ catcher injuries, to a close. This 1976 Topps card would be Bob Allietta’s first, last, and only appearance as a cardboard god.

Despite some distinct structural limitations in the card—he’s not shown in the midst of game action or even within the confines of a big league stadium—Allietta managed to make this singular appearance a good one (in turn shining a modest positive light in the context of these predictions on the 2011 version of the Angels). He radiates warmth and friendliness. He seems like he’s probably a sunny chatterbox. On the back of the card, his sparse collection of stats is filled out with some text that notes, among other things, that he “was voted El Paso’s most popular player, 1973.”

I also like that he has his name written on his glove, especially as it seems like he started out writing his name in boisterous capitals and then, after three letters, realized he was going to run out of room and had to cram in the remaining letters in lower case. If you can make anything out of such a detail, you’d have to guess that Bob Allietta was that kind of guy, someone who would blunder loudly and affably forward rather than timidly planning everything out in advance or spending time regretting what had already occurred. At first glance, I misread the word along the lower edge of his glove as “ALL STAR,” something he likely hadn’t been since his senior year in high school, but I think it’s not an entirely inaccurate distortion of the situation. Bob Allietta had made it to the promised land, at least for a second.

***

How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part of 19 of 30: Read Rob Neyer, the guy who, when he walks down the street, people say, “There goes the best baseball blogger who ever lived” (don’t they?); in his most recent question of the day, Rob looks into the actual (rather than cardboard-flimsy and imaginary) prospects of the 2011 Angels, who share with the 1975 squad a dynamic duo of starting pitchers

***

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; Atlanta Braves; Cincinnati Reds; Oakland A’s; Seattle Mariners; Chicago Cubs; Baltimore Orioles

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Mickey Rivers

August 17, 2010

By the time I came into possession of this 1976 card of Mickey Rivers bracing for the impact of a falling piano, he had been traded to the Yankees along with Ed Figueroa in exchange for Bobby Bonds. I guess you could say that the falling piano was the fate of continuing to toil with the Angels. Mickey Rivers darted away and let Bobby Bonds take the hit. Rivers lasted three and a half seasons with the Yankees, and in each of his three full seasons the Yankees played in the World Series, winning it in 1977 and 1978. Rivers got plenty of credit for that run, in part because of a lack of understanding in the baseball world at that time that the most important element in scoring runs is getting on base. Rivers was considered the dynamic catalyst of the Yankees’ offensive attack because he generally produced a high batting average and stole bases. However, despite batting at the top of one of the better lineups in the league, Rivers never topped 100 runs scored for a season for the Yankees (and in two of his three seasons he didn’t even get close), an outgrowth of his inability or perhaps unwillingness to draw walks. The sportswriters of the day didn’t notice this deficiency, voting him third in league MVP balloting in 1976, eleventh in 1977, and (most incredibly of all, considering his .265 batting average and .302 on-base percentage that year, numbers that were inferior that season to those of, for example, Duane Kuiper, Bob Bailor, and Mario Guerrero) twenty-fifth in 1978.

The other night ESPN Classic replayed the game that got Rivers and the Yankees to the first of the three straight World Series: the fifth game of the 1976 American League championship series with the Royals. Before the famed riot-sparking home run by Chris Chambliss in the bottom of the ninth, Rivers keyed an early rally by slapping a base hit into centerfield. I’d forgotten how unusual Rivers looked and moved.

“What’s wrong with him?” my wife asked.

We were watching him strut-limp back to first after rounding the bag. He seemed like he’d been assembled in a rush from spare parts, long bow legs springing from a tiny torso, a weird jaunty lean to his body, as if he was suffering from a running cramp. His mouth was motoring.

“He’s a character,” was all I could say to my wife by way of explanation.

While my ill will toward the Yankees hasn’t abated since I was a kid (with the possible exception of the benign Steve Balboni years), I do find that time, along with that always questionable eroder of clarity, nostalgia, has allowed me to become less specifically resentful of some of the Yankee players on the 1970s teams. I loathed Mickey Rivers, for example, mainly for the possibly apocryphal parts he played in two terrible Red Sox moments (somewhere, somehow, I got the idea that A: he teamed up with Graig Nettles to separate Bill Lee’s shoulder during a 1976 brawl, and B: in a late October game two years later, the 163rd contest for the two teams playing, he produced and passed along a bat of dubiously powerful qualities to one weak-hitting Yankees shortstop just after said shortstop had broken his own bat and just before he popped an improbable home run over the Green Monster). Now, however, I can’t help but get a chuckle out of Mickey Rivers. My 10-year-old self would glare at me as a traitor for saying this, but the 1970s would have been a little poorer without a guy willing to comment on the physical appearance of another major leaguer (Danny Napoleon) by saying, “He’s so ugly, when you walked by him, your pants wrinkled. He made fly balls curve foul.” (For more Riversisms, check out the quote page on his website.)

***

A couple of book notes: Thanks to Steve Buckley of the Boston Herald for featuring Cardboard Gods in his celebration of some recent baseball books. Thanks to Deadspin for posting an excerpt of the book yesterday. Also: the book is now available for Kindle and the iPad. An audio version of the book should also be available now (I haven’t gotten my copy yet, but the page for it is up on Amazon). 

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Gil Flores

July 2, 2010

1. “Has blazing speed.”

I took my first steps as a solitary reader by reading the backs of baseball cards. By the time this 1978 Gil Flores card came out I was a few years along in terms of being able to read. Most of what I read was baseball books. But I still read the backs of cards, too.

The more obscure the player, the more words there would have to be on the back of the card. The longtime superstars had no room on the backs of their cards for anything but high stacks of small numbers, each year of their splendid careers laid out in inarguable arithmetic. The marginal players, the ones who would only be around for a little while, did not have enough numbers to fill a card. When there are blanks to fill, words are needed.

I’ve been writing about my childhood baseball cards for years now, churning out thousands of words. What is the blank I’m filling? I don’t know. But the day always feels a little less empty if I find some flicker of life in a card that I held in my hands as a kid. I felt a flicker as soon as I picked up this Gil Flores card. I remember thinking as a kid that it was different. No card ever showed a guy displaying his leg in that fashion. There he was, reclining in the dugout, possibly injured, but if so not seriously, perhaps trying to work the kinks out of his leg so that he could gain entry into the game. He is watching something out on the field and he wants in.

Because he is Gil Flores and not Pete Rose or Rod Carew, there are space-filling words on the back of the card. They augment the leg-centric photo on the front by pointing out in the rushed, truncated back-of-the-card grammar that is to me the voice of life loved if not of god: “Has blazing speed.” There are no stolen base numbers among the statistics above the words, so the idea of the blazing speed of Gil Flores, left to the imagination, spills beyond the borders of the card.

I started writing about this card yesterday morning, before work, and carried it with me in my knapsack to and from work, and it made me feel like I had something with me valuable and alive.      

2. The dugout

For most of the years that I collected cards, I was playing little league baseball, and so I was spending the happiest part of my life, then and forever, in a dugout. Is there a better thing than to be in a dugout, waiting for your turn in the order to come around again? When I got this Gil Flores card, it was only my second year of playing baseball in little league, and it was my brother’s final year, and he was a star, our best hitter and our best pitcher, and so I had the joy of sitting in a dugout cheering for him. Once, during one of his at bats, I was next to a teammate named Chris.

“Hey, hit a home run, Ian!” Chris shouted.

“Hey, great idea,” I said as the pitcher went into his windup. “Hit one outta here!”

We were just being goofy in the dugout, but my brother swung, and there it fucking went, high and deep. Chris and I looked at each other, our mouths wide open. We poured out of the dugout with everybody else to greet Ian at home, then moved in one big laughing mass back to the dugout, where me and Chris and Ian and everyone sat and stood and giggled and shouted and practically shivered from head to toe with the feeling of being in a dugout, which is the same as the feeling of having special powers.

3. Third pitch

That’s actually the best part about this Gil Flores card, not his odd caress and display of his leg or the blazing speed in the words on the back but the photo of being inside the dugout. You are right there, just down the bench from Flores, close enough to see him and to see the player just beyond him, a guy staring at a baseball, gripping it.

What pitch is he considering? And who is he? I can’t find the grip he’s using on a web page that describes various grips, and there’s no glimpse of a uniform number to provide a clue to who the player is. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, one card leads to another. I dug back into my shoebox to look first at the team picture on the 1978 Angels team checklist card. I identified only one white guy with a thin mustache. Digging deeper, I found the individual card of a white guy on the Angels with a thin mustache, my 1978 Paul Hartzell. Paul Hartzell had even fewer numbers on the back of his card than Gil Flores, so the great majority of the card contained space-filling words. Among those words was this thrilling clue: “Worked on 3rd pitch after 1976 season. . .”

Is this 3rd pitch the one he is tinkering with in the background of Gil Flores’ card? And is there some kind of story behind everything, linking one card to the next, one day to the next, all to all forever?

4. The last out

I intended to finish writing about Gil Flores yesterday, but he kept spreading beyond my control. I examined his major league statistics, read some online memories of fans who’d watched him briefly flit across their consciousnesses before disappearing, thought about being in a dugout, thought about pitching grips, thought about how I could never learn how to throw a curveball even after my curveballing brother tried to teach me, thought about Paul Hartzell, noticed that he was never as good after his rookie season in 1976, before he added his third pitch. I learned that he was successful after baseball, a smart guy who figured things out and worked hard. Maybe he saw even while succeeding in his rookie year that he’d need more to be able to stick around in the dugout for a while. Or maybe we all make things more complicated than they need to be.

As the morning drained away yesterday, I kept veering farther and farther from a simple consideration of this card of Gil Flores, which if I were keeping things simple I would just say I loved. But love is so deep and mysterious that sometimes you start thinking you need more than just one way of grappling with it. You start to think you need a new grip, a new pitch. I ended up reading about Dennis Eckersley, who is the featured figure in the piece of baseball lore in which Gil Flores most often comes up. In 1977, things were just about to get really complicated for Dennis Eckersley. Before the next season, he would be traded from his original team, and he would learn that his wife was leaving him for a teammate, Rick Manning. But before that happened, he still had a little more time in an uncomplicated world. This world peaked on May 30, 1977, when he squared off against fellow young flamethrowing ace Frank Tanana in a pitching duel for the ages. Tanana lowered his ERA that day to 2.08 and struck out 6 while allowing just 5 hits and 1 run. The Eck was a little better. Through 8 and 2/3 innings, he’d walked 1, struck out 11, and allowed no hits. All that remained was Gil Flores. Flores, though a major league rookie, was in many ways already an old pro. He had been playing in the highly competitive Puerto Rican winter leagues for years and had been knocking around in the minors since 1971, hitting over .300 at almost every stop. He attempted to complicate the young pitcher’s mind by taking a long time between pitches to get settled in the box. The cocky Eckersley was, at least for a little while longer, immune to complication. From baseballlibrary.com:

“I was ready, but Gil kept on stepping out of the [batter’s box],” Eckersley later told the Contra Costa Times. “I pointed at him, ‘Get in there. They’re not here to take your picture. You’re the last out.’”  

5. Must’ve loved the game

Eckersley struck out Flores to complete the no-hitter. He went on to pitch well for his new team the following year, despite the gnawing blank inside.  

“He was so down,” teammate Luis Tiant recalled for the Boston Globe. “It made me feel so bad, watching him. He was in a tough position. We tried to calm him down, tell him he had a life to live. . . ”

Eckersley eventually descended into alcoholism, which seemed as if it would derail his once promising career. But he kept pitching even throughout some disappointing years in the 1980s with the Red Sox and Cubs. He got sober in 1986 after seeing a video of himself drunk while with his 10-year-old daughter. A trade to the Oakland A’s followed, where he was demoted to the bullpen. The rest, as you probably know or can find out if you ever visit the Hall of Fame, is history.

You have to think that Eckersley would not have been able to persevere in the game if he hadn’t loved it deeply. The same seems to have been true for the so-called “last out.” Gil Flores didn’t ever let himself become just the last out, even after his brief time in the majors came to a close. As a commenter on the Gil Flores memory page on the Mets Ultimate Database site points out: “Five years after his last game as a Met he was still with them in AAA. Must’ve loved the game.”

***

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

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Tom Griffin

June 9, 2010

Has Tom Griffin ever been mellow? It would appear so. Today I offer apparently mellow southern Californian Tom Griffin as a little mellow prayer for smooth passage today to California. I’m headed to the airport shortly and if all goes smooth and mellow I’ll be seeing a game in Dodger Stadium tonight for the first time in my life.

So why not feature a Dodger today? Well, for one thing, I didn’t want to leave the Angels out of my embrace of all matters baseball in that sunny region. Also, after a couple days in Los Angeles, I’ll be headed down to San Diego, where Griffin toiled for a couple years just after several years with the Astros and just before joining the Angels.

Griffin was born in Los Angeles and attended Grant High School (where he must have been a superstar—his showing there got him taken fourth in the first round of the 1966 MLB draft) in Van Nuys, California.

Van Nuys has been a place of some mystery for me lately, as it is the core of an enigmatic utterance by Kelly Leak in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. The boys have just made their getaway from their parents in the customized van, and someone has asked Kelly if he “really knows how to drive this thing.” I don’t have time to check Kelly’s exact reply, but I believe all he says is, “Relax, I’m from Van Nuys.”

What the hell does this mean? I’m not sure, but the implication seems to be that in Van Nuys it is customary for a newborn baby to drive itself home from the maternity ward. If this is the case, I am from the opposite of Van Nuys, in that I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 30, and only then with great reluctance and trepidation, and even now after over a decade of tense-shouldered practice behind the wheel, I’m still generally terrified in the driver’s seat.

And yet, later today, after picking up my rental from Thrifty, I will be grappling with Los Angeles traffic, which in American mythology is to traffic what Moby Dick is to creatures of the sea.

But if all somehow goes smooth and mellow and Tom Griffin-y, and maybe if I can channel my inner Kelly Leak and pretend I’m from Van Nuys, I’ll be watching a Dodger game tonight and tomorrow will be doing the first of a couple Southern California appearances for my book. Below are the details on those appearances. Hope to see you there.

THURSDAY, JUNE 10, 7 PM PACIFIC
Baseball Reliquary, South Pasadena Public Library Community Room, 1115 El Centro St., South Pasadena, CA
Author appearance, reading and book signing.
Free and open to the public.
For more info call: 626.791.7647

SATURDAY, JUNE 12TH, 11 AM PACIFIC
Upstart Crow Bookstore, 835C West Harbor Drive, Seaport Village, San Diego, CA
Author appearance and book signing.
Free and open to the public.
For more info call: 619.232.4855

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Mickey Scott

January 8, 2010

I don’t publicly ogle very much anymore. In the privacy of my apartment I ogle my wife quite a bit, but it’s different from the old days, when I was a youthful rapscallion who did my daring, swashbuckling ogling out on the lawless streets. I’m still out on the streets a lot, and on public transportation a lot, both favorite locales for avid oglers, but on the streets I find myself staring at the ground looking for old, discarded baseball cards, and in buses and subways I’m usually reading something or other or staring out the window and thinking about death or Kevin Youkilis.

It’s not as if I’ve evolved into some more mature being who has transcended ogling. Really, I’m as creepy as ever, believe me, and if a comely oglee happens to enter the path of my thousand-yard commute-stare, I will revert instantaneously to the mode of behavior that has been with me since just about the time when I loosened my grasp on my childhood baseball cards, such as this one of Mickey Scott. Perhaps to amuse myself, or perhaps as a way to diminish the inherent and profound loneliness of ogling, that practice which defines itself as something beyond mere looking by the establishment of an ache rooted in the unbridgeable distance between subject and object, I at some point developed the habit of talking silently to myself as I ogle. Like Mickey Scott appears to be doing in this 1976 card, I imagine myself remarking to a fellow ogler something along the lines of “oooo-weee” or, lingering over each word, “not . . . too . . . shabby” or, if I’m feeling nostalgic for a time that I never lived through, “hey mac, how ya like the gams on that dame?”

I doubt I realized when I got this 1976 card that Mickey Scott was clearly, lecherously reacting to the sudden appearance at the fringe of the field of a scantily clad blonde spilling over all the edges of her skimpy ensemble. Back then I was still three or four years away from my life of ogling. I ogled through junior high, high school, and college, then in my first job of any length, as a clerk at a liquor store on 8th Street in Manhattan, I went pro in terms of ogling. The store had seen better days, business-wise, so a fairly large amount of time-killing was necessary to survive each shift without guzzling from the inventory out of sheer boredom. One of the primary time-killers was to stand in the doorway of the store and ogle. There were two display windows that jutted out into the street at an angle from the doorway, and you and whoever you were working with (except if it was the owner, Morty, who preferred to remain in the back of the store and pound ferociously on the keys of his adding machine and yell) could each lean against one of the slanted display windows with your arms crossed, casually, like you had all the time in the world to ogle. And then you ogled. And you commented on your ogling, in murmurs, after the oglees had passed beyond range of hearing.

Men are slime. If I had a daughter I’d want to strangle creeps hanging around in doorways staring and murmuring. I didn’t really see things that way back then, however. Back then I was just lonely and angry about it. Women wanted nothing to do with me—why would they? I was a silent, glowering leerer—and I reacted to this gulf between my solitary island and their magical realm where all pain and suffering ceases by fiercely, greedily ogling.

If it’s any consolation to anyone repulsed by ogling and its practitioners, I was once kicked in the nuts. No, it didn’t happen while I was ogling, but before I’d ever started ogling, but perhaps we can imagine that it was proactive punishment of one who clearly showed all signs of becoming a world-class ogler. It was when I was in fifth grade, a couple years after I got this Mickey Scott card but still within the span of that safe uncreepy sanctuary of the Cardboard Gods. A girl named Lara liked me, I guess, but my ignorance and disinterest in that fact hurt and angered her until, finally, she lashed out in reaction to my uttering of some kind of a sarcastic comment directed her way. I can’t remember what I said, but I remember her face darkening, and then the quick upward bolt of her sneaker. And oh my god I remember the pain, which sent me to the ground and made tears roll down my face. By the time I’d risen to my feet, shakily, Lara had disappeared.

I saw her around here and there over the next few years, but she never truly reappeared to me until the day, in tenth grade, when she showed up in English class in a tight cotton dress that revealed that she had suddenly grown big boobs. She had liked me, long before, and now I liked her, if “liked” can also have the following meaning: looking at her filled me with a desire that made me want to smash my head against concrete or chew through metal. Oh my lord did I ogle. But she who had once kicked me in the nuts from hurt was now far beyond me. By then she had gotten a boyfriend who drove a Camaro. The last time I remember seeing her was before I went away to a boarding school for eleventh and most of twelfth grade. It was outside the town movie theater, and she was sitting in the passenger seat of the Camaro with a cool, lidded-eyed look on her face. I was pierced to the heart, as a 19th-Century Romantic ogler might put it.

I’ll never own a Camaro, I thought. I’ll never, ever touch those boobs.