Archive for the ‘California Angels’ Category

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Gary Lucas

October 20, 2009

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Midway through yesterday’s third game of the ALCS, veteran starting pitcher Andy Pettitte was sailing along, and then New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi decided that the game could not progress a moment longer without visual evidence of his masterful influence over the proceedings. He exited the dugout and jogged out to the mound to give the four-time champ Pettitte some advice on how to pitch to Vladimir Guerrerro, who to that point in the series had been a glaring failure. With Girardi’s voice now lodged in his head, Pettitte promptly surrendered a two-run bomb to Guerrerro. Later, in the eleventh inning, Girardi’s heavy hand on the action proved the Yankees’ final undoing yesterday, as he removed one completely effective reliever for another reliever who then yielded two quick hits and the game.

I’m no expert on Anaheim Stadium or Angel Stadium or whatever it’s called, but I am guessing that it was the most questionable pitching change on the site since the one that occurred twenty-three years earlier and involved another renowned over-manager, Gene Mauch, and the fellow shown here in a 1987 card. The autumn before this card came out, the Angels were on the brink of a first trip to the World Series. Their ace, Mike Witt, had been gliding through what looked more and more like a thoroughly dispirited Red Sox lineup. In the ninth, with a 5-2 lead, Witt gave up a leadoff single to Bill Buckner (a hit that describes Buckner much more accurately than a more infamous event involving the gutty first baseman that occurred a couple weeks later), recovered to fan Jim Rice, allowed a two-run homer to Don Baylor, and then put the Angels one out away by inducing a Dwight Evans popup.

In 2009, when starting pitchers get standing ovations if they are able to get through six innings without getting bludgeoned, no one would complain if a manager gave his starter the hook after he surrendered two runs in the ninth inning. But in 1986 pitchers still turned in complete games, and aces especially such as Witt were generally given the opportunity to finish what they started. Thus, Gene Mauch has been vilified for removing Witt one out from what could have been the pennant, because the hurler he brought in, Gary Lucas, put Rich Gedman on first by hitting him with a pitch, and the next batter, Dave Henderson, facing doomed Donnie Moore, homered to give the Red Sox a grip on the series that they’d never relinquish.

I highly doubt Joe Girardi will end up in the same boat, historically speaking, as Gene Mauch. The Yankees are so loaded with talent that they could win it all this year with a tranquilized lemur at the helm. But I am a small man, a spiteful man, a man reduced to rooting against, now that his own team has been unceremoniously jettisoned, and I am hoping that Girardi’s heavy hand on the controls proves somehow to be the team’s undoing. Maybe when you treat players like puppets, they start to get a little rigid, a little wooden. Gary Lucas, as Angels catcher Bob Boone pointed out after the crushing Angels loss in 1986, “hadn’t hit a guy with a pitch in 100 years.” Maybe, if we rooter-againsters are lucky, the Yankees will start feeling the tightness of puppet-strings in their shoulders. 

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Dave LaRoche

July 23, 2009

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In college, I lived for a year in a trailer with a guy on the soccer team named Smitty. Smitty had been a conference all-star the year before, but in the year I lived with him he fell into a season-long goal-scoring slump. Maybe it was the trailer’s proximity to the Long Trail Tavern right across Route 100. Maybe it was the series of keg parties we had at the trailer. Maybe it was the trailer itself. The year before, Smitty and I had both lived on campus, within the comforting institutional embrace of the college, and now here we were subsisting on three-for-a-dollar boxes of macaroni and cheese in a narrow thin-walled rectangle on wheels, exactly the kind of place that I kept encountering in my study of contemporary fiction as a site of things going terribly wrong. Nothing went terribly wrong in our trailer that I was aware of, but I was always partially braced for it, and then after I moved on to other living arrangements I retained that half-braced posture toward life, even on up to the present moment. Maybe something similar happened to Smitty, and it affected his goal-scoring abilities. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Vada Pinson

April 27, 2009

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Soon enough, I’ll resume using my remaining 1975 MVP cards to continue moving back through the past, beyond the usual narrow scope (1975–1980) of my collection, but I wanted to linger a little longer on the subject of the 1972 cards. For most of my life, I only had one 1972 card, the faded Tommy Helms shown on this site last week. But a couple years ago my mother-in-law, Patty, made a gift to me of some 1972 cards that were all in better shape than any of my own cards.

Vada Pinson was the best player in the new mother-in-law wing of my collection, but I don’t know if I can say that I understood this immediately. I had a notion about the kind of player Pinson was, but it was a distorted notion, based in large part on when I started collecting baseball cards. Before I got this card, I had spent most of my life with just one card for Pinson, a bland 1975 card showing him as a mostly anonymous Royal mixed in between Cookie Rojas and Tony Solaita. He did have an unusual, even dashing, name, but at that time there were other similarly unusual names that allowed me to lose whatever grasp I might have had on the distinct character of Vada Pinson. He existed in an exotic but blurry continuum along with Vida Blue and Von Joshua and all the Alous and even Tony Oliva and by extension Tony Solaita and, at the far fringes, Orlando Cepeda. This is generally a pretty good batch of players, of course, but because of when I was born and when I became savvy about baseball I was able to pull only Vida Blue completely free from that scrum, and that had to be largely because he continued to be a baseball star throughout the 1970s (plus he was the only pitcher, and moreover his name featured in the title of a year in the baseball encyclopedia that I studied incessantly: “Fast and Blue and Wait ’til Next Year”), whereas all the others either remained comparatively marginal or had slipped out of view by the time I started paying really close attention. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Orlando Pena

March 11, 2009

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I turned 41 a few days ago, the same age as Orlando Pena was in 1975 when he was the oldest player in the American League. It’s an age when most people have already moved on to the next stage in earthly existence, the one that comes after the early dreams of what life might be have rusted or collapsed or dissolved. If you’re still living in that first stage, you won’t be for much longer. That first stage began for me as Pena’s was ending, my conscious life dawning as I began to become aware of the Cardboard Gods. I don’t remember getting Pena’s 1975 card, one from the very first series of cards I collected, but I’m sure I thought I would never grow as old as the wizened coot shown here. He would only appear in a few games in 1975. By early May he would be released.

I never did have to face the public microcosm of dying that is the end of a long career in professional sports, but I think I may have gotten a small insight into the sadness of that ending yesterday afternoon, when I read what my brother wrote about our old cat Rumpus’ last hours. What made me wet-eyed in my cubicle was seeing the dates of the big guy’s life written down, 1994-2009. It’s a span that could have been that of a veteran who had found a way to stick around in the majors for a while but eventually just got too old to stay on the field. In fact, if I had been one of the chosen few with the athletic ability and will to get to the pros and stay there, it could have been my career span, though it would have been one with a fairly lengthy prelude in the minors, given that I was 26 in 1994. But that sounds about right. Even in the realm of fantasy I’d have to be kind of a low-rent palooka who somehow figured out a way to survive. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Larry Harlow

February 5, 2009

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Somewhere I Lost Connection

(continued from Dave Skaggs)

Chapter Five

Like Dave Skaggs, Larry Harlow came up in the Baltimore Orioles system, that school of baseball craftsmanship renowned above all others throughout the Cardboard Gods era and beyond. While other teams continued to stumble through the unpredictable business of finding and cultivating effective major league players, or abandoned that strategy by heeding the brand new siren call of free agency, the Orioles’ system continued to churn out polished, sturdy cogs for their well-oiled pennant-devouring machine. Every spring a new shipment arrived to replace whatever parts had either moved on to other places or had begun to show wear. The franchise’s tightly knit web of minor league teams, with wise rail-thin coaches preaching identical gospel at every level, always seemed able to produce whatever was needed: Cy Young starting pitchers, sure-handed infielders, fleet slap-hitting leadoff guys, reliable platoon hitters, armies of relievers, even the occasional Hall of Fame slugger. You name it, the Orioles made it. And all the Orioles came into the majors equipped with a grip on “the fundamentals” so firm as to seem something they were all born with. The pitchers threw strikes, the outfielders hit the cutoff man, the infielders turned double-plays as if they shared one mind.

This cohesive diamond artistry was attributed to the implementation of and adherence to something called The Oriole Way. The term carried a quasi-mystical aura to it, as if coming up through the Oriole system was something like training to be a Shaolin master. The multi-championship team based in Baltimore wasn’t merely a system or an organization or a franchise. It was a straight and narrow path through life.

***

Randomness defined my post-college travels in Europe, that short trip that in some ways stands as a microcosm of my life. After a few days of being stranded in the East German version of Lodi known as Schwerin, I got it in my mind that I would bum a ride heading back west with a fellow youth hostel guest who’d mentioned he’d be driving that way. But the night before his departure, just as I was about to ask him, he started talking about his motorbike out in the parking lot. I was traveling pretty light, but not that light.

So instead of curling back west in the direction of some vague notion of home, I wrote the name of the closest big city on a piece of cardboard and headed out to the highway. Because I didn’t know the language of the country I was in, I wasn’t sure which side of the highway I should be on, but after a long time watching the noxious river of cheap Soviet cars flow past me, I stopped caring about the direction I was pointed in. I stuffed my “BERLIN” sign back in my backpack and started hitching the old-fashioned way, no advertisement of a destination, no direction displayed, just a thumb sticking up toward the sky.

Hitchhiking is probably the most religious thing I’ll ever do. You wait and ask and are denied again and again and still you have to stand there waiting and asking. You start to invent your own cloying mantras. All I need is one kind person going my way. You start to believe bullshit such as my thumb is pointing toward heaven. You become intimately acquainted with rejection and failure, with the feeling that you are one high pile of stranded manure. You start having to dig deeper for faith. You start to see gods and angels.

***

I have done a lot of digging in my shoebox over the last few days, looking for Lodi among the gods. From what I can gather, Lodi does not make its mark on the truly blessed. In the earliest part of the 1970s, Lodi was in the San Diego Padres system. Of the Padres cards that I own, the most prominent major leaguer with the word “Lodi” on the back of his card is journeyman platoonist Johnny Grubb. In 1972, Lodi became a part of the Oriole Way, but from what I can see from the admittedly limited data of my baseball cards, the Orioles that would make a significant impact at the major league level were not made to pass through Lodi. The most prominent practitioner of the Oriole Way to be stuck in Lodi was Kiko Garcia. Kiko Garcia got out of Lodi after one season, as did Dave Skaggs.

Larry Harlow played a season in Lodi in 1972 and then in 1973 he got stuck in Lodi again.

***

But really the best way, the purest way, maybe even the most religious way to hitchhike is to not care. To surrender to randomness. I have only approached this unreachable ideal a couple times. The last time I did this was when I stuck out my thumb in Schwerin, not knowing if I was heading east or west. The first time I did this was many years earlier, when I was in my early teens, not long after I’d given up baseball cards. It was the summer. What are you supposed to do in the summer when you no longer care about baseball cards? I got a ride half way to town, and after standing by the road for a long time, waiting for a ride to take me the rest of the way, I started walking back toward home, but then whenever a car would approach I’d stick my thumb out and try once again for that ride. In other words, I was walking one way and hitching the other.

I figured, fuck it. Let the gods and the angels decide.

***

When the Way disappears you keep following the Way. Consider Larry Harlow. Here he sits, removed from the game but alert and ready at any moment to enter. It’s difficult to say if he will be given the chance. In the most recent season, he played sparingly and hit just .234. For someone with that flimsy a purchase on the majors, the specter of Lodi can never be far from the mind. But he seems to be focused on the moment, ready to do things the right way if called upon.

He does not seem at all aware of the ANGELS flag festooning the card at the approximate location of his heart, nor of the halo over the A on his helmet, nor even of the reflection on his helmet of one or even two figures too blurry to identify. Certainly they are Angels. Certainly they are always hovering all around us.

***

A crappy fume-spewing slavic lunchbox on wheels finally dislodged itself from the river of traffic. The driver and I could not understand one another, but after we yelled over the highway noise in our own languages for a few seconds I got in. I showed him my BERLIN sign but he just stared at me with impenetrable Cold War impassivity. I had no idea where we were going. The driver was a big pale guy with a walrus mustache, like that of a mine worker or Polish dissident or aging middle reliever. He steered with one hand and drank from a can of beer with the other. It was the middle of the morning. He smoked continuously. I leafed through my little phrase book. After a long while I finally had enough foreign-language ammo to attempt a sentence.

“I am a poet,” I said.

He took a pull of his beer then gave me his business card, which I couldn’t understand. We kept going. Eventually I started seeing signs for Berlin.

(to be continued)

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Bob Grich

September 30, 2008
 Untitled 
Baseball cards and comic books. Those were the two imaginary-world pillars that my inward childhood was built on. The two worlds come together here in this 1977 Bob Grich card, which always has and always will remind me of Marvel comics artist Jack “King” Kirby’s lantern-jawed, dimple-chinned heroes, who often paused amid dire intergalactic battle to fill the entire comic frame with their chiseled heads and deliver clear-eyed pronouncements of urgent courageous purpose, just as Bob Grich seems to be doing now. Most baseball cards imply that the next moment beyond the moment of the photo will be a few batting cage swings or a saunter to the outfield to snag some flies. But here it seems more likely that Bob Grich—as soon as he is done uttering something along the lines of “He has gone mad with power and MUST BE STOPPED!”—will in the next rectangular frame chronicling his adventures leap high into the sky on superpowered legs to collide jarringly with a dark muscular otherworldly destroyer with dead eyes and ornate Aztec-inspired headgear.

As far as I know Bob Grich never tangled with Galactus or Modok or The Red Skull or even, I don’t know, chin music enthusiast of the Cardboard God era, Ed Farmer. I think Grich did once scream at Earl Weaver for pinch-hitting for him too often when he was a rookie, but no blows were thrown by either man. Instead, Grich just fairly quietly went about his job, over the course of his career creating a body of work bettered by only a couple handfulls of second basemen in major league history (Bill James, a longtime advocate of the underrated Grich’s estimable worth, ranked Grich as the 12th-best second baseman of all-time).

This card heralded the beginning of Grich’s stay with the Angels. Interestingly, I have no memories of Grich beside this card until a moment at the very end of his Angels sojourn, which also happened to be the end of his career. The reason the latter moment, which came during the Angels’ 1986 American League championship series against the Red Sox, stands out in my memory is that once again Bob Grich seemed like a character who’d be at home in the pages of a superhero comic. I don’t recall exactly when the moment occurred, but it was either after the Angels’ third win, which put them up three games to one, or after the Angels took a commanding lead in the next game. The California sun was shining down, the home fans were screaming joyously, and Grich leapt into the air to give a seismic high five with a teammate, who in my memory was the Angel with the bulging comic book musculature, Brian Downing. Both Angels, but especially Grich, seemed larger than life, as if with a couple uncanny Hulk-like leaps he could bound all the way across the continent to New York to finally participate in his first World Series.

He shrank back down to human size soon enough, I guess. In fact, I don’t remember seeing him during the Angels’ ensuing collapse. He became like the rest of us once again, who are only ever superpowered in our dreams.

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Mike Barlow

June 16, 2008
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In 1979, Mike Barlow pitched more innings in relief than all but one of his teammates on the division-winning California Angels, but he recorded no saves and was involved in only two decisions, winning one and losing the other.

Barlow did not get into any of the first three hotly contested games of the best-of-five American League Championship series, watching from the bullpen as the Baltimore Orioles took Game One on a John Lowenstein home run in extra innings and watching the teams trade one-run victories in Games Two and Three. In the top of the ninth inning of Game Four, with the Orioles ahead 8-0 and just a few moments from wrapping up the pennant, Mike Barlow got the call. He pitched a scoreless frame as seats emptied and exits filled. Had the Angels been able to stage what would surely have been the greatest comeback in post-season history in the bottom of the inning, he would have been the winning pitcher, perhaps the answer to a trivia question, but the Angels went down meekly. Significant things tended not to happen when Mike Barlow was involved. He’s not the answer to anything.

                                                         *  *  *

I watch a lot of sports. When you watch sports you end up watching a lot of advertisements. These advertisements often call my inner strength into question. I am asked if “it” is in me. I am urged to kill the coward within. I can’t remember at the moment any of the other current slogans. But I know that I need a more muscular body than the one I have, and a more competitive nature, and a faster car, and less self-doubt, actually no self-doubt. But fuck all that. If there’s a coward within I’m not killing it. I’m not killing anything. The whole idea seems kind of fascistic, actually. If there’s a coward within me I’m inviting it out to join me on the couch and watch sitcom reruns. I caught part of one yesterday, a Seinfeld where George initially recoils from the opportunity to have an affair with a married woman.

“An affair?” he says, wincing. “That’s so . . . grown-up.”

Who wants to grow up?

                                                        *  *  *

Later, I called my dad to ask him about Moshiach. I’d just finished reading The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and I wanted to know more about this figure that most of the people on my dad’s side of my family tree spent the last few thousand years waiting for.

“Yes, my mother and father spoke about Moshiach when I was growing up,” my dad said. “The idea is he’ll come and there will be peace on earth, a return to Eden.”

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union features a figure being looked to with unendurable need as Moshiach. This man can’t bear the pressure of everyone’s hopes for redemption. He desires more than anything to disappear, to be insignificant.

                                                       *  *  *

Who wants to be in the middle of the action? Not me. I want to be a mop-up man. If I’m ever officially involved, I want the announcers to be telling stories that have no connection to the action on the field. I want to hear the sound of foul balls clattering around vacant sections of seats. I don’t want to hear the roar of the crowd. Most of the time I’d rather just watch, leaning on a fence, daydreaming, drowsy, a towel around my neck like the towel draped around a fighter as he’s being led away from a fight, the trainer reassuring the fighter that it’s over, that there’s no more need to punch and get punched.

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Bob Jones

January 30, 2008
 

Born in the USA

(continued from Garry Maddox, 1975)

Chapter Two

I.
What do I know about war or soldiering? Nothing. But I’ve seen the movies. So a couple years ago at a New Year’s Eve party at my wife’s uncle’s house, I asked my wife’s seventeen-year-old cousin if he was worried about going to basic training. He’d recently decided to enlist in the Marines.

“Actually, I’m looking forward to it,” he said.

I think he’d been working out a little, doing some pushups. I’d never met him before, and my wife hadn’t seen him since he was a little boy. He was polite and soft-spoken, a really nice kid.

“He’s so sweet,” my wife said.

A few months later we saw him again at a big family reunion picnic. He had just gotten out of basic training and was in uniform, on a brief home leave before going to advanced training and then Iraq. He stood ramrod straight the entire time, several hours, the most incredible display of good posture I’ve ever seen. He also seemed a little jumpy. My wife recalls that when she said hello to him he flinched.

The main activity of the picnic, besides eating and talking and drinking beer, was a tournament involving a horseshoes-like game in which a beanbag was tossed underhand at a small hole in a low triangular wedge of wood on the ground. You may know the game, which is referred to by different names but which is most commonly referred to, believe it or not, as cornhole. Members of the picnic paired off and played other pairs in elimination games. An early match pitted my wife and me against my wife’s cousin and his younger sister.

“How was basic training?” I asked. The two of us stood by one of the wooden cornholes and took turns tossing beanbags at the other cornhole, where his sister and my wife were standing.

“Hated it,” he said.

He didn’t say much else except to occasionally try to fire insults back at another cousin of my wife’s who had been in the Navy a few years earlier and who was slouching nearby, beer in hand, and languidly razzing my opponent for being a Marine. The few rejoinders that the eighteen-year-old could muster were hesitant, clawless. Meanwhile, his cornhole tosses got worse and worse. You have to kind of toss the thing in a soft arc to land it on the wooden wedge and get points, but as the game neared its conclusion my wife’s cousin’s throws kept getting lower and harder, the beanbag ricocheting off the wood and landing in the grass beyond. I don’t know anything about war or soldiering, but I know quite a lot about unraveling during a sporting contest, and it seemed to me that the young Marine was wilting in the pressure of a family picnic game of cornhole.

I didn’t get an inkling of what he might have actually been going through that day until just a few days ago, when I was reading Denis Johnson’s 2007 novel Tree of Smoke. The novel is about the Vietnam War. One of the characters, James Houston, decides at the age of seventeen with nothing else on the horizon that he might as well follow his older brother into the armed services. The first passage below describes his experience at basic training. The second describes him being home on leave just after basic training.

The first two weeks of basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina were the longest he’d experienced. Each day seemed a life entire in itself, lived in uncertainty, abasement, confusion, fatigue. These gave way to an overriding state of terror as the notions of killing and being killed began to fill his thoughts. He felt all right in the field, in the ranks, on the course with the others, yelling like monsters, bayoneting straw men. Off alone he could hardly see straight, thanks to this fear. (pp. 139-140)

In South Carolina they’d treated him like a beast, and he’d survived. He’d grown bigger, stronger, older, better. But having returned to the world he’d grown up in, he had no idea how to sit in a room with his mother, or what to say to a sixteen-year-old girl, no idea how to get through a few days in his life until he shipped to Louisiana for Advanced Infantry Training, until he got back where people would tell him what to do. (p. 151)

II.
What do I know about Bob Jones? Not much. He was drafted by the Washington Senators in 1967. He was eighteen. He was not a phenom. The Senators took him in the 36th round of the June 6 amateur draft, according to retrosheet.org, just after Jack Brohamer and Gary Ignasiak and just before Rimp Lanier and Dave Schneck. That year he hit .217 in 19 games at Geneva. The following year, 1968, he hit .246 at Salisbury. In 1969 he struggled at Burlington, hitting .198, but then moved to Shelby (a demotion?) and batted a sturdy if unspectacular .270. He was certainly not rocketing toward stardom, but maybe he was hanging in there, just barely.

Just about all I know about the next year is what I learned over thirty years ago when I first turned over the 1977 card at the top of this page, that in 1970 Bob Jones was “In Military Service.” I’d seen the terse line before on other cards, such Garry Maddox’s 1975 card, but only very occasionally, so it was rare enough to send a chill through me. One of the things that I loved so much about the Cardboard Gods was their invulnerable clarity. The statistics on the back of each card told you where each player had been and what each player had done, the place names and numbers in solid black ink, inarguable. Some numbers told a story of a player who was rising, others told a story of a player who was falling, but the key thing was that all of them told a story. Everywhere else was ambiguity, and where there was ambiguity there was the possibility of diminishment, change, loss, pain. In the numbers there was no ambiguity, but instead a clarity that allowed me to imagine a haven of invulnerability. I dissolved into this haven, leaving all dangers behind. But there’s really no perfect safety anywhere. Even the numbers on the backs of the Cardboard Gods can be interrupted. On Bob Jones’ card for 1970 there is no place name and no numbers, just that phrase. In Military Service. Where was he? What numbers was he compiling? Where they good numbers or bad numbers? Was he rising or falling? Was he safe?

According to baseball-reference.com, Bob Jones “served in Vietnam from August, 1969 to February, 1971 and became deaf in one ear as the result of a combat injury.” I didn’t know that when I looked at this card as a kid. All I knew was that he’d had a gap in his pro baseball career, that he’d come back and had starting slowly rising, hitting .321 at Anderson in 1971, driving in 91 runs in Spokane in 1974, hitting .355 at Sacramento in 1976, that last lofty number leading to his first extended stay in the majors after two brief cups of coffee with the Rangers: 78 games with the 1976 California Angels, enough to gain him entry into the realm of the Cardboard Gods. But on the front of Bob Jones’ first-ever baseball card there seems to be no acknowledgment of his triumphant arrival. There is instead the hint of some other story that will remain obscure. Bob Jones knows the story. Bob Jones looks right through me.

III.
What do I know about how my wife’s cousin is doing in Iraq? Very little. The news coming to us has been scant. It seems he’s been there for a long time. The tours of duty are longer than they were in Bob Jones’ day, which is one way that the U.S. Military addresses the strains of acting as a global police force. Another way is making some soldiers stay on past their original release dates, a practice officially referred to as a Stop Loss Program but dubbed by critics as a backdoor draft, an issue which got some attention during the 2004 presidential election. I can’t find much recent news about the issue, so either the practice has slowed or the criticism about the practice has died down. Like most things, I really don’t know much about it. I don’t know much about anything.

I don’t know what my wife’s cousin is going through. At the end of the picnic I had the urge to tell him something. I didn’t want to say good luck. As a follower of the gospel of Holden Caulfield (“I’m pretty sure he yelled ‘Good luck!’ at me. I hope not. I hope to hell not. I’d never yell ‘Good luck!’ at anybody. It sounds terrible, when you think about it.”), I try never to tell anyone good luck. I didn’t have anything patriotic to say, either. I was born in the U.S.A., but though I’ve occasionally had my moments of patriotism—such as the day Jim Craig draped himself in a flag and looked through the Lake Placid crowd for his father, and such as the day I returned from spending several months in post-Tiananmen-Square-Crackdown China (that day I got wet-eyed, I swear to the God that blesses America, when I came through customs and saw a flag-backgrounded portrait of President George H.W. Bush), and such as the period a little over six years ago when I spent a few months wearing a small American flag pin over my heart—I’ve generally shied away from waving the flag, mainly out of a fear that by waving the flag I’d be participating in some kind of a sanctioning prelude to a beating. I didn’t understand why there was a war going on in Iraq. I still don’t. A recent study found that the entry of the United States into the war was facilitated by a long string of lies. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There was no link to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. There was no clear reason for us to be in Iraq. Yet my wife’s eighteen-year-old cousin was going to Iraq.

So I’m standing there at the end of the picnic, everyone saying their goodbyes, and I want to tell him that I’m grateful that he’s willing to make such a brave sacrifice, even though I don’t understand the need for the sacrifice. More than that, I want him to be safe.

“Take care of yourself,” is the best I can muster. His reaction is like that of someone with damaged hearing. That is, he doesn’t react. He’s someplace I know nothing about. As we shake hands, he looks right through me.

(to be continued)

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Ken Brett (Red Sox-Angels Game 3 Chat)

October 7, 2007
 

 
“When life looks like easy street there is danger at your door.” -Grateful Dead, “Uncle John’s Band

A little over a year after his legendary career as a California high school athlete concluded, Ken Brett became the youngest pitcher ever to appear in a World Series, posting 1.1 scoreless innings for the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 fall classic against the St. Louis Cardinals. The 1966 number 1 draft pick of the Red Sox could throw hard, run fast, and hit as well or better than many major league position players, plus by all accounts he was unflappable, oblivious to the pressure of the big moment. My guess is that in 1967 the future seemed very bright for the 19-year-old Ken Brett.

As it turned out his Hall of Fame destiny fell to his less ballyhooed younger brother, George, a 1971 second-round draft pick of the Royals. As George played his entire career for one team, Ken roamed from city to city, leaving the Red Sox after four partial seasons to play with the Brewers for one season, the Phillies for one season, the Pirates for two seasons, the Yankees for two games, the White Sox for most of one season and part of a second, the Angels for a season and a half, the Twins for nine games, the Dodgers for thirty games, and finally two seasons as a seldom-used reliever on his younger brother’s squad in Kansas City. This morning I balanced the shock of learning that Ken Brett is dead (he passed away of brain cancer in 2003) with the image of him in his first appearance as a teammate of his brother, who recalls in a 2003 Spokesman Review article by John Blanchette that Ken, to entertain George and their good friend, Royals catcher Jamie Quirk, sprinted in from the bullpen like a kid making believe he was an airplane, slaloming through the outfield with his arms straight out at his sides.

This makes me happy, as it seems to suggest that Ken Brett was not bitter that the golden path he seemed born to walk down turned into a series of potholed roads, the purposeless route of a journeyman. If we’re lucky, if we’re loved, we get the idea as children that life will be a golden path. But maybe if we’re even luckier we’re able to keep laughing when the path gets complicated.

So far in the 2007 playoffs the path has been golden for the first of Ken Brett’s ten teams, and it’s tempting to think that it will continue to be so as the series resumes this afternoon in California (TBS, 12:07 PT). But you never really know what’s going to happen. The best you can do is follow the lead of Ken Brett. Whether it was a World Series game in 1967 that seemed to foretell a long career of glory or a late season mopup appearance in a 1980 blowout loss that signalled the end of a career of nondescript drifting, Ken Brett enjoyed the moment.

The lineups for today, courtesy of the box score on Yahoo.com:

Red Sox
Pedroia, 2b
Youkilis, 1b
Ortiz, dh
Ramirez, rf
Lowell, 3b
Drew, rf
Varitek, c
Crisp, cf
Lugo, ss

Schilling, p

Angels
Figgins, cf
Cabrera, ss
Guerrero, rf
Anderson, lf
Morales, 1b
Izturis, 3b
Kendrick, 2b
Rivera, dh
Napoli, c

Weaver, p

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Jerry Remy (Angels-Red Sox Game 2 Chat)

October 5, 2007
 

 
Jerry Remy, who threw out the first pitch prior to Game 1 Thursday night, was recently elected “President of Red Sox Nation” or some such nonesense. I cringe at the term Red Sox Nation, frankly. So bombastic. Why can’t we just be Red Sox fans? But whatever, I guess if anybody’s going to be president of us Red Sox fans it should be Jerry Remy, who grew up one of us in Fall River, Massachusetts, who was among the euphoric yahoos storming the field in Fenway after Petrocelli caught the popup to clinch the 1967 pennant (Remy was 14 years old at that moment), who after logging three good seasons with the California Angels was traded along with his mustache to the Red Sox (for Don Aase and his mustache), who then immediately had probably his best all-around season in helping his hometown team almost get to the point they are now, the playoffs, who in fact got the last basehit of that painful 1978 season, singling off Goose Gossage to push Rick Burleson and his mustache to third, 90 feet from tying the do-or-die one-game playoff game against the Yankees, who though often bedeviled by injuries after 1978 went on to become one of the top five second basemen in Red Sox history, and who now is a beloved TV announcer for the Red Sox, a welcome guest in the homes of New Englanders who recognize his love of the game (and his unvarnished New England accent) as their own. 

Here are the lineups for tonight’s game (8:37, TBS):

Angels
C. Figgins cf
O. Cabrera ss
V. Guerrero rf
G. Anderson lf
M. Izturis 3b
C. Kotchman 1b
K. Morales dh
H. Kendrick 2b
J. Mathis c 

K. Escobar p

Red Sox 
D. Pedroia 2b
K. Youkilis 1b
D. Ortiz dh
M. Ramirez lf
M. Lowell 3b
J.D. Drew rf
J. Varitek c
C. Crisp cf
J. Lugo ss

D. Matsuzaka p

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Rick Miller (Angels-Red Sox Game 1 Chat)

October 3, 2007
 

While there has never been a salary cap in baseball, I’m beginning to suspect that in the mid- to late-1970s, as a reaction to the dominance of the early 1970s Oakland A’s, American League owners instituted a secret Mustache Cap that restricted the amount of total facial hair each team was allowed to carry on its roster. Consider:

1. After winning three World Series titles in a row, the roster of the overwhelmingly hirsute A’s was almost completely dismantled within a couple years, as if some secret and severe penalties for over-mustaching had been levied.

2. When Charlie Finley tried to hasten the dismemberment of his A’s dynasty by selling two of his stars to the Boston Red Sox, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn disallowed the transaction, citing the damage it would do to competitive balance; however, I believe this justification was a screen to cover the real reason: Rudi and (especially) Fingers would have put the Red Sox, already fairly well-mustached, far over their facial hair allowance. Supporting this point is the fact that Rudi later came to the Red Sox anyway, sporting his modest gun-shop-cashier ’stache, while Fingers, the facial-hair-cap-wrecking A-Rod of the Mustache Years, had to spend some years with the smooth-cheeked Padres of Enzo Hernandez and Randy Jones until the apparent lifting of the Mustache Cap in the early 1980s allowed him to join the malodorous unshaven rabble known as the Milwaukee Brewers.

3. The California Angels and Boston Red Sox constantly shuttled similarly-mustached guys back and forth, as if the deals depended on the equal exchange of facial hair. The unremarkable mustaches of guys such as Jerry Remy and Joe Rudi came east, and the unremarkable mustaches of guys such as Dick Drago and Rick Burleson went west. Even when cleancut guys such as Denny Doyle passed between the two teams the transaction seemed to come with hidden “facial hair to be named later” clauses that impacted (and explained the seeming imbalance of) later trades whose principles, such as cleancut Butch Hobson and walrus-faced Carney Lansford, did not balance out on the facial hair ledger.

I’m not quite sure how Rick Miller fits into all this, but when I was a kid he seemed to drift back and forth between the Angels and Red Sox like a Mustache Years version of a Cheshire cat. Because he was obscure to me in each place for different reasons (on the Angels because they were so far away and on the Red Sox because he was always buried on the outfield depth chart), I was never completely sure which of the two teams he was on at any given moment, and so there always seemed at least a shred of him in both places, a brown medium-sized mustache hanging in the clubhouse air, waiting for the rest of him to appear and collect a pinch hit or make a diving grab in the outfield just when you thought for sure he was on the other side of the continent.

Anyway, Game 1 is still a few hours away (6:30 P.M. ET, TBS; Gameday info to come if I can figure it out; update: I can’t figure out how quite to link to that Gameday box, but you can go to the MLB.com scoreboard and click on the Gameday option above the Red Sox-Angels line score), but I thought I’d open up the conversation about all things Red Sox and Angels a little early. I can’t help it. I’m excited, and worried, and also excited, plus a little worried. Will the Red Sox be all right without My Favorite Red Sox, Tim Wakefield, to turn to in times of trouble? Why if there is no knuckleballer would we need Mirabelli and Cash? Will the Red Sox be bedeviled and undone by the speed and daring of the Angels on the basepaths? Will John Lackey’s lack of success at Fenway find its regression to the statistical mean at the worst possible time with him twirling a stunning shadow-aided three-hitter? And, most importantly, should I start growing a Rick Miller playoff mustache?

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Mike Paxton and Don Aase

September 26, 2007
 

Don Aase made his major league debut for the Boston Red Sox on July 26, 1977. I don’t think it would be accurate to say he was a phenom. Five years earlier, he’d been drafted on the sixth round by the Red Sox, who shipped the 18-year-old to their Williamsport affiliate in the low minors, where he went 0 and 10 with a 5.81 ERA. After that demoralizing start he began a solid, gradual, unspectacular rise through the Red Sox system. The records on the back of the card pictured here seem to indicate that in the first half of 1977, while pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket, Aase slid back toward the ineffectiveness that had plagued his first pro season, his ERA over 5 again for the first time since his Williamsport days. Why then would the Red Sox choose to rush him to the big leagues to start a game in the middle of what was turning out to be a white-knuckle three-team pennant race?

I was nine years old by then, and had listened to many of the Red Sox games so far that season on the radio. They all seemed to be the same game. As the signal rose and fell through static, the Red Sox surged to a huge lead with a barrage of home runs, then allowed the lead to erode as their pitchers crumpled. By July 26 the Red Sox had fallen out of first by losing three games in a row by the following scores: 9-8, 9-6, and 9-7, a pace capable of yielding them a record-breaking number of runs in a season and a perversely spotless 0-162 record. It was clear that they could not win a pennant this way. In short, they needed help. A lot of help. But all they had was Don Aase.

The youngster instantly exceeded expectations, tossing a complete game 4-3 win. The following day the Red Sox returned to their recent script by getting bludgeoned 14-5, their bullpen again getting chewed like a speed freak’s hunk of Bazooka. They needed someone to at least give them some innings in the finale of their three-game series with Milwaukee, and turned to another unheralded rookie who had started the season in Pawtucket, Mike Paxton. Paxton had been called up from the minors earlier in the season and to that point seemed the prototypical Red Sox hurl-inducing hurler, compiling a 6.16 ERA as a mopup man and spot starter.

But something was in the air. Whatever pixie dust had landed on Aase on the Peter Pan Lines busride from Pawtucket to Boston must have rubbed off on Paxton, who tossed a sparkling 12-0 shutout. Aase then blanked the Angels 1-0, and two games later Paxton topped Seattle, 12-4, then Aase kept the Red Sox rolling with his next start, a 2-1 win over Oakland. Powered by the rookie aces, the Red Sox won 11 games in a row and reclaimed the division lead.

Yes, for just a little while, a thin breathless era that remains one of the more golden strands of my childhood, it seemed that Mike Paxton and Don Aase were going to carry the Boston Red Sox to the pennant.

It didn’t quite turn out that way in the end, as they weren’t able to quite continue their blistering midsummer pace, nor in general fully counteract the serious flaws in the Red Sox pitching corps. But Aase and Paxton both turned in admirable rookie years, going 6-2 with a 3.13 ERA and 10-5 with a 3.83 ERA, respectively. More than that, for me anyway, Paxton and Aase will forever be among the most exciting duos in baseball history. I was nine when they arrived, and to that point few things had caught my imagination as much as their sudden transformation from complete nonentities to season-rescuing heroes. They were young. I was young. They had been unknown. I was unknown. They seemed to have arrived in the spotlight from the middle of nowhere. I lived in the middle of nowhere. The sky was the limit, for them, for me.

As it turned out, the sky was the limit, but that sky was the leaden, unbreathable blue seen in the Mike Paxton card above. Neither player went on to stardom with the Red Sox. In fact, neither player was even on the Red Sox roster the following year. By the time I got the 1978 Mike Paxton card featuring his lifeless putty-like skin and oddly bulbous cap I had noticed that Mike Paxton no longer seemed to exist in the games I listened to on the radio and in the box scores I read in the paper. I didn’t know he’d gone to Cleveland as part of the deal to bring Dennis Eckersley to Boston. I only knew he was no longer around. This card, arriving amid Paxton’s troublingly sudden disappearance, must have made me wonder if Mike Paxton had ever been there at all. I’d never actually seen him, after all, but had just heard his name on the radio, and beyond that had only fervently, maybe even desperately, imagined him. And now here he was on his card, not quite real, looking starkly different from the players in any of my other cards (with the disturbing exception of the sepulchral Greg Minton). The question arose: Was there ever really a Mike Paxton? There seemed to be no inarguable proof of the affirmative to that question, which gave rise to another question with ripples deep enough to stretch from 1978 to right now: If there never really was a Mike Paxton, how can I be sure of anything?

As for the even briefer and brighter-burning comet of 1977, Don Aase, his only appearance in my collection came two years later, in 1980, during my last real year of collecting. I was older by then. I understood that guys who burst onto the scene with great initial success don’t always become superstars. Hopes fade, dreams gutter. Life goes on. Don Aase was just another guy on a baseball card, just another guy with a mustache, just another guy halfheartedly pretending to throw a baseball.

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Frank Tanana

June 19, 2007
 

Cheers for Mark Harris, Conclusion 

(Note: The following is by guest blogger/New York Mammoth Immortal Henry Wiggen, with punctuation freely inserted and spelling greatly improved by Josh Wilker)

“Pure Heat”

By Henry Wiggen

As my grandchildren would surely complain to you for days if they had the chance, I am constantly screeching about the importance of recycling nowadays. So leave me begin by recycling some old words that I saw as fairly crooked when I first read them many years ago: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Southpaw.”

That’s from Mark Twain of course, except with a different title switched in there, my first book instead of Tom Sawyer, and here is what I have said about that starting of Huckleberry Finn previously on page 25 of the book I already mentioned and which is still available at Bison Books in case some money is burning a whole in your pocket: “I told Aaron that was a dirty trick to start a book that you no more opened then the writer was telling you to read another as well. He laughed, though probably I flung the book at him. I was a terrible kid for flinging things at people. I once knocked Holly unconcious with a sour apple. [Note: The Aaron mentioned was not the Immortal Hammering Hank Aaron but Aaron Webster that used to live next to Pop and me. Also Holly was not at that time of the sour apple but is now my long suffering wife as many know though we split up for some time and have only recently reconciled with a human bridge made out of grandchildren.]”

Leaving aside the fact that this above quotation is yet even more recycling, as you may have noticed, I am only mentioning these things so as to give you some idea of who I am if you have possibly forgot not only my four books in title The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly, Ticket for a Seamstich, and It Looked Like For Ever but perhaps also my two league MVP awards and many All Star appearances and several heroic World Series exploits plus my 247 career lifetime wins and also a few key saves in my final season before getting drilled in the eyeball with a scorcher back though the box that made me move into a loving embrace of my golden years. Many of these things are matters of some renown I suppose but I see no harm in mentioning them. Especially with the fact that my youngest daughter Hilary’s latest man she drug home could only say with Cheese Doodles on his lips recently “Hey are you not the guy got drilled in the eyeball in Most Awful Sports Injuries Volume Three?” (I am not the only fellow withstanding this treatment. I once saw Joe Theismann who won a Super Bowl as no one seems to recall at a card show and he said the same clucks are also always coming up to him laughing about the joy of a shattered body that needs to be carried off the field in a stretcher. Why this is so enjoyable for the clucks I do not know. Who can figure out clucks?)

In fact speaking of clucks I was not at first the least bit interested in participating in this blog, which I do not even really understand the meaning of, blog I mean, though the word sounds like something unhealthy that might show up on a X-Ray that means it’s time to get the bullpen warmed because chances are you are a few pitches away from Hitting the Showers, if you understand my meaning. As I understand it a blog is mostly clucks trying to pretend they are sportswriters like old gigantic hogwash expert now many decades in a grand-piano packing case in the ground, Krazy Kress. Clucks pretending to be Krazy Kress? (Or as I also understand exists Krazy Kresses pretending to be clucks!) When contacted by this fellow Josh Wilker who explained his blog my first response was “I am too busy doing many other things instead such as recycling to save the globe and watching Magnum P.I. while eating my Cheese Doodles which are mine and not for the general consumption of Hilary’s latest man she drug home who wolfs them by the fistful as if he has been starving in a desert.”

But then he told me about Mark Harris. I did not know my old spelling and punctuation checker had passed away and it made me sad just as it has always made me sad hearing about old teammates and friends. I had not talked to him in a long time, since he added a few commas here and there into my last book It Looked Like For Ever (also available at Bison Books if you are in the mood to throw another reasonable chunk of money around for a book described by the Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin as “a warm, funny, touching book without a trace of sentimentality”). He was a nice fellow, an older guy who loved Carl Hubbell who some compare me to in the anals of the game and he also said he played baseball too though this is something practically everyone with a pulse tells me so who knows how deep the truth goes. Anyway I always liked him and I always thought he believed in my novels that he polished as much as anybody ever done, maybe even more than me sometimes.

But what can I say about him really, I asked this fellow who owns this blog you are reading now even though as far as I can tell there’s no money in it. I have not spoken to him in almost 30 years and never once cracked open any of the books he wrote himself and sent me besides checking to see if I was mentioned, which I wasn’t except sometimes on the back cover.

“Well,” said this Josh Wilker fellow, who to his credit did not ever yell through the phone to check if I was the guy that got drilled in the eyeball in Most Awful Sports Injuries Volume Three but instead asked me about Red Traphagen and Sid Goldman and Sad Sam Yale and others until the answers started collecting into a big pile of gloom.

“Well,” he said after getting me going about recycling for a while to get away from the gloomy pile of dead teammates. “You can write whatever you want. Anything you write will be a way to honor the memory of Mark Harris because Mark Harris did so much to help you get your story out.”

“He didn’t do that much,” I snapped, forgetting to not speak ill of the dead for a moment, if saying that they didn’t do that much is speaking ill. “I mean, he was a wonderful fellow and loved baseball but I done most of the heavy lifting in those books.” I got aholt of myself before saying more but thought: How much does it take to put in a few commas and meanwhile my hand was always a claw after writing one of those books all winter?

“Oh, I know, I know,” this blog half-cluck/half-want to be Krazy Kress Josh Wilker hurries to say. “I merely meant that he was always there when you wrote your books, like a trusty bullpen catcher throughout your career getting you warm for every 1 of your wins.”

I thought about that for a while. One thing that was always big to me was my catcher, from Red Traphagen to Bruce Pearson who I roomed with to Piney Woods who I roomed with after Bruce died all the way to Tom Roguski, Coker’s son, who I also roomed with for a few seconds my last season before my starring role in Most Awful Sports Injuries Volume III.

“Maybe you can write something about one of my baseball cards,” Josh Wilker said in a voice already halfway out the door and defeated.

“I rather tell about the necessity of recycling,” I said.

“Yes, certainly, that would be amazing!” he yelled, back in the door. “The only thing is Mr. Wiggen is it’s got to somehow connect even on a very small level to one of my baseball cards.”

So he sent me through the computer a photo of the card you see here which Holly had to remove from the email to the computer itself so I could look at if I want to for I do not know how to do such minor things anymore that everyone knows how to do such as even turn on the damn TV to watch Magnum P.I. I looked at it a little, the card, and also looked at what Josh Wilker sent me about the player there. Here is what he sent me:

Dear Mr. Wiggen,

Thank you SO MUCH for doing this! You don’t know how much I appreciate it as a huge fan of you and also of your trusty bullpen catcher Mark Harris.

Attached is a card of Frank Tanana that I thought you might have some thoughts about. He was selected straight out of high school by California with their number one pick in the June 1971 draft, the same month and year your career abruptly ended. As you may well know (I am actually hoping you may have continued to have some dealings with the California franchise after your retirement), Frank Tanana was an extremely hard-throwing left-hander who reached the big leagues as quickly and as young as you did and had quite a lot of early success (though not as much as you). He lasted a long time in the league, even a little bit longer than you, and had almost as many career wins (240 to your 247), though he did not enjoy any 20-win seasons or World Series victories, as you did. I’m not at all trying to make the case that he was your equal, but out of all my cards (which are largely from my childhood years of 1975 through 1980) he seemed like the one that had the most connections to you. He even started his career with California and ended it with New York, just as you started yours with New York and ended it with California. He was also born on July 3, exactly one day before your patriotic birthday.

But actually the one main reason I sent along this card as the one that might give you something to talk about is that Frank Tanana and you are among a very select few in history who have ever been able, at least for a little while, to reach back and throw PURE HEAT. In the season just before the photo on the card I sent you (Tanana was just 21 years old through the first half of the season, just one year older than you in The Southpaw, Tanana went 16 and 9 with a 2.69 ERA and 269 strikeouts in 259 innings. In one game alone he fanned 17 men.

There are more men who have walked on the moon than there are southpaws who know what it feels like to throw that kind of heat. Frank Tanana’s one of these few, and of course you are another. Also, Frank Tanana knows as well as anyone what it’s like to lose that fastball, having arm trouble by his mid-20s that turned him into a junkballer for the rest of his career. This seems like something you might be able to talk about too.

Anyway, thanks again for doing this, Mr. Wiggen. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it.

–Josh Wilker

Well, in answer to his questions I did not have much to do with California or with baseball a-tall after retiring. It wasn’t easy walking away but when I finally did it was like a door shut and I tossed away the key. I still watched a game from time to time but I cannot recall ever seeing this fellow Frank Tanana throwing either heat or slop. I do recognize something of course from the photo itself here and it is the look on Frank Tanana’s face. That is the look of someone like I used to be and maybe still am though now it means I am a old fool. That look is pure and unshakeable confidence. He is of course just standing there not even on a mound when the photo is being took but even there he is got his hands up and ready for his motion and his fingers on the ball and that is waking the feeling of pitching, of being ready to pitch. And when that feeling awakes in the body of a fellow who can reach back for the smoke and the smoke is always there then there is not a better feeling in the world for you cannot be beat. That is what I see in this card, a young man like I once was a thousand decades ago before such things as hips started crumbling who believed from head to toe he could not be beat.

I will end by recycling one more thing and pleading that you all recycle too for the world is no longer young with a blazing fastball to get out of every jam. No we are all one big old junkballer who better learn to think things through every step of the way and be extra careful at all times or we are all going to get shelled and hit the showers for good. This following is from my book The Southpaw (which the New York Times called “a distinguished and unusual book”) because it is a part I think of when I think of this young Frank Tanana and also of myself and also of my old trusty bullpen catcher of many years Mark Harris, may he rest in peace. It is from page 147 and spring training before my first full year in the majors and if I do say so myself it is not half bad, though it makes me feel a little sad now to read it:

I guess I was really in the best shape of my life. I could of shouted and sung, for I felt so good. Did you ever feel that way? Did you ever look down at yourself, and you was all brown wherever your skin was out in the sun, and you was all loose in every bone and every joint of your body, and there was not a muscle that ached, and you felt like if there was a mountain that needed moving you could up and move it, or you could of swam an ocean, or held your breath an hour if you liked, or you could run 2 miles and finish in a sprint? And your hands! They fairly itched to hold a baseball, and there was not a thing you could not do once you had that ball. You could fire it like a cannon and split a hair at 300 feet, and you could make it dance and hop, and the batter could no more hit your stuff then make the sun stand still.

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Nolan Ryan

June 11, 2007
 

Life is not like a box of chocolates. When I’m left alone with a box of chocolates I puncture a few with my thumb to see if they have anything inside them that would make me gag, such as coconut or the lurid red guts of sugar-lacquered fruit. You can’t really do this with life. You’ve pretty much got to taste everything that comes your way and then either swallow it down past the rising bile or go hungry.

But maybe life is like a pack of baseball cards, specifically a pack of baseball cards purchased with September looming, the sweet myth that summer will last forever disintegrating. You have been buying cards for months already, the thrill of seeing the year’s new card style long gone. You’re sure to get mostly doubles in the pack, guys you’ve already picked up in previous packs, one monotonously recognizable personage after another posing like zombies in infielder crouches or with bats outstretched. Disappointment, monotony, the taste in your mouth a quick burst of sugary gum then back to what it was before you opened the pack, the gum already a hard rubber pebble. Ah, life: Each new day a low-quality xerox of its predecessor.

But if I had one message to impart in all these many cardboard prayers it would be that there’s always the chance in the late-summer baseball card pack called life that you might find a card like the one pictured here mixed in with all the doubles.

I was 12 when I found this electrifying 1980 card among all the repeating Thad Bosleys and Steve Muras. At that time there was no bigger star in baseball than Nolan Ryan. He had already begun rewriting the record books, but more than that he seemed to have superpowers. Other pitchers such as Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver seemed to have more success winning ballgames and Cy Young awards, but only Nolan Ryan had the power to crack open the hard lid of the late summer sky and let a little of the dreamworld come leaking in. He threw the ball fast, faster than anyone ever had, faster than anyone ever would. A 12-year-old kid who had played his final year of little league and gone through his first demoralizing year of junior high could walk home from the store where he bought this card and hold this card and feel like he was holding a little piece of lightning from another world.

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Lyman Bostock

January 18, 2007

To me, Lyman Bostock was the first person who ever died. This may explain why I’ve been trying and failing to write about Lyman Bostock for days. Whenever I can’t write I get morose, withdrawn, and self-pitying. Well, I’m always sort of morose, withdrawn, and self-pitying, but when I can’t write it’s like a slightly enchanting fog around a run-down rustbelt city full of abandoned factories lifts. Yesterday I tried and failed to write about Lyman Bostock, took a subway to a bus to my job, proofread an old version of a test book written in Chinese against the new version of the same test book written in Chinese (I found one error in 60 pages of Chinese text, a leg-like stroke missing on a man-shaped character), took a bus to a subway home, fed the cats, fiddled with my online “Back to the 80’s” Strat-O-Matic lineup, Googled the name of an old boarding school friend and found out he now sold real estate in Jersey City for Remax, which alarmed and depressed me, partly because he was a funny, athletic, and charismatic guy seemingly destined for stardom as an action hero and more so because he had become an adult (the only other Google listing for his full name besides his Remax listing was an article from 20 years ago mentioning that he’d played the lead in a summer production of a Shakespeare play, the gap in years between those two Google listings suggesting a transition out of a life of “what if,” a transition I have yet to make) and here I was riding public transportation to a building along a strip in the suburbs to my part-time job to proofread a language I couldn’t understand. Also, there was a picture of him and he looked like a middle-aged guy, which I’m sure I look like, too, but since I’ve seen me the whole time I haven’t noticed the change as much.

And today I’m back at it, trying to write about Lyman Bostock. In previous days of failing to write about Lyman Bostock I have discovered a lot of stuff on the Internet about Lyman Bostock. There are in fact entire tribute websites devoted to him, or at least one tribute website, plus many other articles and columns, most of them mentioning that his father was a Negro League standout, that he himself became a major league standout with the Minnesota Twins before signing as a free agent for the Angels in 1978, that he tried to return his first month’s salary to the Angels’ owner, Gene Autry, for getting off to a poor start with his new team, that this humble, selfless act was par for the course for Lyman Bostock, about whom stories of being extremely helpful and of going out of his way to be nice to strangers abounded, that after trying to give his salary back he subsequently rallied to bring his batting average by mid-September of that year to a fine .296, that while riding in the back seat of a car in mid-September he was shot and killed by a man who was apparently aiming for his ex-wife, a woman seated next to Bostock whom Bostock had met 20 minutes earlier, and that the shooter avoided prison time with an insanity plea and was subsequently released from a psychiatric hospital, a free man, seven months after he’d been admitted.

I was 10 when Lyman Bostock was murdered, and prior to that time knew him solely as a name near the top of the list of batting averages printed in the Sunday sports section. I studied those averages religiously, as religiously as I’ve ever studied anything. I loved the exactness of them. I loved that there was a hierarchy, an order, Singleton and Brett near the top, Kingman and Belanger near the bottom, and I loved even more that at times certain previously unknown players moved into the upper echelon of that hierarchy, sometimes creeping up the list past the sturdy .280 Amos Otis types, sometimes materializing out of nowhere, as Bob Watson did for the Red Sox in 1979 as soon as he had amassed the minimum number of at bats. I don’t know which route Lyman Bostock first took, because I don’t clearly remember a time before Lyman Bostock was among the batting average leaders and yet I also do recall thinking of him as a new guy, a youngster storming the rarified realm lorded over benevolently by his wondrous teammate Rod Carew. In general, I thought about him this way: Lyman Bostock was rising, each year a little higher. His move to the Angels provided a temporary hiccup in his career’s rising motion, but within that last season there was a microcosm of his career, a smaller rising, his batting average going up and up after the first bad month. I looked for Lyman Bostock’s name throughout 1978 and was happy to see him rising, a little higher each week.