Archive for the ‘Chicago Cubs’ Category

h1

Doug Dascenzo

July 18, 2020

Doug Dascenzo
What’s It Good For?

Two

I used this Doug Dascenzo card to heed my sons’ request to crush a spider a few weeks ago. I kept him on my desk for a while because it seemed like something I might be able to write about, and here I am writing about it, although it took me so long to get around to it that the remains of the spider, which were initially on Doug Dascenzo’s face, have dried up and disappeared. The card moved around over the weeks it was on my desk. What ever stays in one place? It got shuffled to the bottom of a pile of other cards, fell off the desk, came back onto the desk to join a pile of things I didn’t want to deal with, including condolence cards I planned to write and an early draft of my will that I’d filled out using a free online service I accessed through my job. There wasn’t much leeway to do anything fancy with the free online will-writing service, but there was one small text box where I could add directions on what should be done with my remains.

Eventually Doug Dascenzo rose up off the desk to get pinned by a Lagunitas bottle cap magnet to the metal file cabinet beside the desk. Beneath Doug Dascenzo is a piece of printer paper I filled with empty boxes at the beginning of this year, the worst year I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know it was going to be so bad, of course, none of us did, though the horizon had certainly been darkening for a while. That darkening may have been why I resolved at the beginning of this year to push onward with work on the writing of a novel I’d been getting defeated by for a couple years, which is to say working on, a little, but mostly not working on. So each box on the piece of printer paper was an hour, 200 in all. I work full time and have two young children, so not a lot of time to write, but at night when the boys go to bed I write, working on that novel, sometimes for a half hour, sometimes for more, but the point is I darken one of those boxes at least a little.

We’re past the halfway point in the year, and I’ve darkened more than half of the boxes. The process helped me push past the enormous resistance from the blank page and, most nights, get to a place where I’m goofing around a little on the page. That’s all I could ever ask for. Maybe it’ll add up to something. Anyway I won’t stop until it’s something, unless, you know, something swoops down out of nowhere and flattens me.

***

I started writing about Doug Dascenzo last night, and it occurred to me today, while I was with my younger son in the corner of a small park near my house, that I have some sense of what will happen when I die. I don’t mean the part I mapped out in my online-form will, about how whatever I have goes to my wife or if she’s gone too to my sons, which will amount to some clothes and a bunch of old notebooks and a box of baseball cards. I mean what the experience will be like, what it will be like to die.

My son was pretending a thin fallen branch of a tree was some sort of motorcycle that was able to jet us back and forth across the grass, allowing us to travel back and forth across the continent from “home” (our backpacks and water and some cheese popcorn and our masks) to “California” and back and then to to “North California” and back, and then, finally, to “Malifornia.” Each time I got on the back of the vehicle and grabbed onto to his shirt and hung on, and he started running, and I sort of shuffle-ran along behind, making him laugh by losing my grip on his shirt and flying off, never quite making it.

That sounds a little like what death might be like, the feel of my son’s T-shirt slipping out of my fingers as he runs on ahead, laughing, but that’s not what I meant by my getting a sense of what it might be like to die. I’m almost nine years into being a father, and most of what goes on when I’m with them, purportedly playing with them, is in my mind, some manner of discursive thinking and daydreams, and today was no different, the boredom of the kinds of games that please a six-year-old pushing me toward thoughts of Doug Dascenzo, and it hit me that had I not randomly grabbed a Doug Dascenzo card from the mess of the floor to kill a spider a few weeks ago and subsequently pulled him and his Cubs hat and his blank expression into the gauzy orbit of my thoughts I would have not been able to, had I been asked to do so, distinguish in even the slightest way Doug Dascenzo from Gary DiSarcina. I might have been able, at gunpoint, to have blurted out that one of them had something to do, at some point, with the Angels, but that’s about it. Maybe one of them broke up a no-hitter? Or maybe they both seem to fit the stereotype of no-hitter foilers. Anyway, all of this is besides the point. The point is I might have once known the difference between the two of them, and I even may be able, with the writing of this and, yes, the inevitable Googling of both of them, to build them back into distinct entities in my mind, but this won’t last for long. I will lose any ability to tell Doug Dascenzo from  Gary DiSarcina. And that’s how it’ll go. Just as those two completely different people essentially become one indistinct journeyman in my mind, so will I in the vastness of the indifferent living eternity become one and the same with the sound of the cicadas, or my son’s smile, or the guts of a spider, or the beaten clover from here to Malifornia.

(continued)

 

h1

Jerry Morales

February 5, 2019

Jerry Morales

Kingdom Come

Four

Tonight instead of watching the State of the Union address I looked for my father and for Jerry Morales’s basket catch. First I skimmed some of the emails my father sent me, each including a few words from him at most and then a link to sobering news. Sometimes it was just a link. I didn’t read the whole articles tonight, just as I hadn’t when he’d first sent them to me. Still, fragments lodged somewhere in my brain.

. . . rate of climate change now may be as fast as any extended warming period over the past 65 million years, and it is projected to accelerate in the coming decades . . .

. . . abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes in the earth’s climate system with massively disruptive impacts . ..

. . . the continuing acidification of the oceans (killing off the basis of the food web: coral, phytoplankton and shellfish) and more climate disruptions, an increased number of hotter days and extreme weather events . . .

. . . loss of polar ice, leading to sea level rise . . . will threaten the existence of low-lying island nations as well as major cities . . .

. . . mass extinctions . . .

I turned to a search for Jerry Morales’s basket catch. It’s what he was known for. He’s not the only player to ever use the basket catch—two immortals, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, also used it, for example—but Jerry Morales doesn’t have a whole lot else to fix him in time, so it seems like a bigger deal for him. I figured that everything is available now, digitally, that nothing is ever fully blown to kingdom come, but the truth is some things are just gone. All there is are some words, some memories.

There are no photos or videos of Jerry Morales making a basket catch, at least not that I could find. I took a few different angles in my search, Googling various combinations of his name and “basket catch.” At some point, I Googled Jerry Morales’s hometown, Yabucoa, and “baseball.” I learned that Yabucoa was hit the hardest of any place in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. I found a before and after photo of the Yabucoa baseball stadium. I gave up on Jerry Morales’s basket catch and turned back to searching for my father. I read some of a note he scrawled with a pen in tiny handwriting on note paper and folded into a book he was reading.

It is clear that the capitalist world system is coming to an end. The only question is whether the transformation to another system can be realized through a collectively democratic, pragmatic, gradual process resulting finally in the constitution of a democratic world system or in catastrophic destruction, possibly leading to the end of humanity.

(continued)

h1

Cubs Future Stars

November 8, 2016

cubs-future-starsWhat can last? Even stars blink out. Everybody knows this. But what about future stars? How do they come to be? I was wondering about this today, and so I learned that stars form in nebulas. I learned that nebulas are clouded spots on the cornea that make it hard to see. That’s one meaning anyway. Nebulas are also enormous galactic clouds of gas and dust. Either version of the word comes from a Latin root meaning mist, the same root of the word nebulous. The same root of everything. We never know. Geisel, Macko, Pagel? How could these names ever indicate that the future would lead to a third baseman stumbling and falling and smiling as he threw to first for an out to obliterate all old failings? We’re fans, all of us, which means we hope without knowing, love without seeing. Stars are born in the blooming regions of our blindness.

***

We got Wally a few months after we got our first cat, Marty. Wally was always Number Two. The number one cat, Marty, had shiny black fur and a gleam in his eye and charisma. He was smart, scheming, at times an out and out dick. Often he wanted nothing to do with you, but other times he reached out to you gently with his paw and purred, wanting attention, and he got it. If he was a baseball player he’d have been a Great, the kind of guy you remember unveiling in a pack of new cards. Marty even died spectacularly, suddenly plummeting from decent health into a terrifying series of increasingly violent seizures. Wally? Here’s Wally: Many times I’d be sitting on the couch and would look down in my lap and see that Wally had at some point arrived there and was purring in his ragged, drooly, number-two cat way. I was in the midst of petting him, but I didn’t remember starting.

“Wally, when’d you get here?” I’d ask him.

***

I have no memory of most of these baseball cards coming into my life. In a way it feels like they’ve always been with me, that I’ve always been touching them, looking at the faces on one side, the words on the other, or not even looking at them at all, just touching them, feeling the cardboard soften over the years. This sense of a beginingless beginning is strongest with the nobodies, like these Cubs Future Stars from 1980.

I’ve been holding this card in my hands a lot in the last few days.

***

Wally began losing weight a few months ago. We figured it was because his teeth, which were always terrible, had begun falling out, leaving him unable to vacuum up his usual daily mountain of dry food. His departure from a life of feline obesity seemed for the most part to revitalize him. He’d been an awkwardly fat cat for most of his life, unable to do the athletic things his more dashing brother Marty could do, but as he got thinner we started seeing him in places he’d never been before.

“Wally, when did you get up there?” we’d say, marveling at him up on the mantle.

***

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more beautifully mortal baseball game than the last contest of 2016. There were several physical errors by the Cubs fielders, who all season long had been among the best defensive units in baseball; there was an instance of over-managing by the highly respected Cubs leader that seemed as the game wore on to look more and more like it would be etched in baseball history as a tragic misstep; there was an All-Star pitcher, Jon Lester, stricken and helpless on the mound, unable to perform the first skill any little leaguer masters, namely making a short throw across the diamond to a teammate; and there were two previously unhittable relievers hollowed out by exhaustion and hittable and themselves abundantly in need of relief. Even the final out, immediately after which all the human frailty and failings of the game and of the preceding 108 years seemed to vaporize like dust in the face of a brilliant new star, was made by the gangly Cubs third baseman as he stumbled and fell, as if he’d slipped on a banana peel, one last echo of a century of doomed Cubs slapstick.

***

Recently the rate of weight loss increased. Wally kept nibbling at his wet food, but he just got thinner. A little over a week ago Wally became unable to jump up onto the counter, let alone the mantle. He stayed in the corner near his food, even though he wasn’t eating much, and he meowed at me whenever I was near. I kept giving him new food. I even started heating it up in the microwave because I’d heard somewhere that that might make food more appetizing to an old cat whose senses were weakening. He ate a little of each new offering and then stopped and crouched down again and looked out toward me unsteadily, as if his vision was starting to fail. Sometimes he lay all the way down for a while, and sometimes he got up and sat in a strangely contorted way, his thin legs splaying out to the side as they never had before.

***

The mortality of Game Seven crested for me somewhere in the middle, with David Ross splayed out awkwardly, near supine and momentarily immobile, as a wild pitch from his bedeviled battery mate, Lester, that had bounced off the catcher’s facemask careened far enough away for two runners to score, an occurrence so rare—it last happened in a World Series in 1911—as to border on the impossible. Ross went on to contribute mightily to the Cubs win by hitting a home run, but I still see him there reeling, tangled in his own splayed limbs, the game reeling away from his command.

***

People talk about baggage, about carrying around burdens, and it’s always a reference to the past, to the past’s ability to drag us down. But of course the past doesn’t exist. It’s gone. The future doesn’t exist either, but it might. The past has no might to it. So that ache you feel, that burden, whatever it is, it’s about facing the future, whether it’s the next day, the next few years, the next second. The day before Game Seven, I took the afternoon off from work and put Wally into a cat carrier and drove him up Clark Street to the only vet we could find that wasn’t booked up. A few miles south of me, people were massing in bars in Wrigleyville to watch Game Six, hoping there’d be a future for the team beyond that night. I got to the vet early and sat in the waiting room. As I waited, the future I was thinking about was just a few minutes up ahead of me. What would I be carrying back out into the street? I unzipped the top of the carrier and stuck my hand in and petted the top of Wally’s head. This was the only place to pet him. Everywhere else you were touching a skeleton. He was purring.

***

When I got home from work on Wednesday, the day of Game 7, my kids were out at a restaurant with their mom and grandma. The house was emptier than it had ever been. I felt it in my shins, which I’ve been conditioned to use as blockers when I open the front door. I heard it in my ears, which are conditioned to hear a friend demanding attention and food. I saw it in what I could no longer see anywhere. I sat down on the couch and turned on Game Seven and nothing gathered unnoticed on my lap.

h1

Dave Roberts

October 21, 2016

dave-robertsCalifornia Sun

III.

I didn’t mean to mislead anyone who’s read this far. Just to be clear: My life didn’t change, or at least not in the way I’d believed it might as the golden rays streamed in that hotel window in San Diego. This all happened several years ago, this California sun visitation, this intimation of California sun immortality, and I’m still here with Dave Roberts in Chicago.

Is Dave Roberts in Chicago? That’s the implication of this well-handled card from my childhood, but of course the blotchy coloring is an indication that the white home uniform and Cubs cap are artificial coverings of reality. Dave Roberts, in reality, is elsewhere.

***

Am I in Chicago? Maybe I am now, now that my two boys are around, both of them, like Augie March, Chicago born. But they arrived some years after I started living here, and for a long time I felt like I was walking around in a doctored world, my real location obscured. What was that real location? I was from the east coast, but I’d worn out the grooves of a habit formed during my childhood in Vermont with a father in New York City. For years and years I boomeranged back and forth between the big city and the Green Mountains, leaving one place for the other for no real reason, or for loneliness, or because I was broke, or because one place had started to feel like a doctored world, or because the other place had started to feel like a doctored world.

And then came the California sun.

***

I don’t know why this Dave Roberts card got so beat up in my childhood. I wasn’t a Cubs fan, and he was no superstar, and the card itself wasn’t anything special, such as a rare action shot that I would have been attracted to. It’s one of those doctored cards, where some Topps functionary had to glob some paint around to account for the player’s recent move from one team to another. Maybe I was drawn for some reason to that, to the feeling of transience and unreality in these kinds of cards, which you never see anymore. Everything is slick and seamless now, and that world of journeymen caught in garish misshapen netherworlds is gone. That was my world, so maybe that’s why I handled this card so much. Or more likely there’s some other reason that I’ll never be able to reclaim from the past. Anyway I did this to cards quite a lot, held onto them until they lost something, that newness, that crisp, bright articulation of possibilities.

***

I held onto the California sun like it was the best card I’d ever gotten, like it was as capable as the greatest treasures of my childhood collecting of rocketing me out of my doctored world. People in the television business—people with sprawling IMDB pages, people with Emmys, people who knew people—wanted to do a show based on my book about growing up in the 1970s. There was an option! A contract! A stunning decision to hand me the reigns to take a crack at writing the pilot! Emails zinging from the far coast to set up teleconferences! Teleconferences!

Oh, sure, after these teleconferences I would always come away cringing about some of the things I’d said, things that struck me in retrospect as so dull-witted or misguided as to be intentionally set forth to telegraph to the successful TV people on the call that there was a laughably incompetent imposter in their midst.

“What I think I’ll really need to get the tone of the show right,” I heard myself saying at one point, “is to just, like, immerse myself in old episodes of H.R. Pufnstuf.”

Still, the teleconferences continued. What felt like an unstoppable momentum continued. The key player in the project, a very nice man who’d directed juggernaut television shows, even went out of his way to meet with me again in person in Chicago. I can’t remember if it was at that in-person meeting or during one of the teleconferences that he said what turned out to be the last words he’d say to me.

“Get ready, Josh,” he said, “because things are going to start happening fast.”

***

Things do happen fast. I’m talking about our time on the planet. For example, this Dave Roberts is dead. He was a boy, a teenager, probably a phenom, a promising rookie in the golden San Diego sunlight, an elite pitcher, at least for one season, when he finished sixth in the race for the Cy Young, then more of a journeyman, bouncing like all Dave Robertses eventually do from one team to the next. Soon enough he’d be out of the league, on to his life in the aftermath of baseball, and how long would that go on until one day, zip, the switch goes off, and he’s gone? Things happen fast, and your life will change. What are you living for? Here he is somewhere in the middle, not really anywhere, oblivious to the nowhere. Here he is smiling.

***

Long after the phone calls and emails petered out I kept holding onto the California sun like it was a baseball card I carried around in my pocket. Whatever I was doing, whatever suffering or disappointment or annoyance or gnawing ache that was upon me, and whatever I wasn’t doing, whatever hopes and dreams were still beyond me, I could fondle that secret card in my pocket and imagine that the call I was waiting for was still to come, that things would start happening fast, that there would be money, enough finally to cancel the unending worry about money, that with the money there’d be time, enough time to build a life of unending creativity, no more days given over to an employer, or, worse, days given over to scrambling and begging to get within the yoke of an employer. Most of all, no more days of thinking that I wasn’t amounting to much. That was part of it too, if I’m really being honest. I always fondled the illusion the most when I was feeling like a nowhere nobody. Just wait, I’d be saying. My life is about to change.

I do this to illusions quite a lot, hold onto them until they lose something, that newness, that crisp, bright articulation of possibilities.

Just wait, I keep saying.

The secret card of California sun in my pocket eventually verged on having no value at all, but still it didn’t disappear. Like a card it just kept softening, and I kept holding on.

Just wait.

To be continued.

h1

Rick Reuschel and Ron Hodges

October 17, 2015

Rick Reuschel 77Ron hodges 78NLCS preview

Predictions are asinine. This probably holds true for everything, but it’s particularly applicable to baseball, in which even the best teams lose forty percent of the time. The nature of the sport resists certainty of any kind. Everyone on the field is in the middle of a baffling slump or an even more inexplicable hot streak, and either direction is subject to change immediately. A great team might have a sixty percent chance of beating an average team on a given day, but put two good teams against one another, and it’s a coin flip.

Or maybe I just don’t want to predict this series. I don’t really want to see either team lose. I have a connection to the Mets that goes back decades, to my once-a-year trips with my brother from our home in Vermont to New York, where our father, with reluctance and without looking away from his New York Times throughout the game except to grimace up at the low-flying air traffic into LaGuardia, took us to a game every summer, where we saw Ron Hodges and the rest of the lackluster late 1970s Mets get trampled. I was a Red Sox fan and will always love that team the most, but somehow the Ron Hodges era will always also reside deep in my psyche. In many ways, those Mets, the echoing malaise of empty Shea, sunshine and loss and a scattering of strangers, reflect my persona much more than the star-studded 1970s Red Sox. And after that childhood orbiting of the Mets I lived in New York for years, through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, and forged my closest adult friendships. Most of these friends are Mets fans. I guess anyone could use a win, but since these people are my friends I know what a win would mean for them. I don’t want the Mets to lose.

****

I live in Chicago. I’ve been here for eleven years now. It’s as long as I’ve ever lived anywhere, at least consecutively, but I still feel like I’m from somewhere else. The again, I’ve always felt that way no matter where I’ve lived. Anyway, last winter I was digging the car out of deep snow and cursing, and a helicopter started hovering loudly above me. It was unpleasant, but it’s not like I was enjoying the task without it. I kept shoveling and cursing. My wife stuck her head out the window of our condo and yelled at me.

“There was a shooting at the McDonald’s on Clark, the gunman’s on the loose,” she yelled. I realize her line of dialogue contains a comma splice, but that’s an appropriate recreation of how the words came out. Gunmen on the loose don’t engender felicitous punctuation.

“You done shoveling, daddy?” my son yelled when I came inside.

“Not exactly,” I said.

“Let’s play!”

Snow and nearby gunplay and awareness of comma splices and my yelling family: that’s my Chicago.

Chicago’s where I got married, where I wrote some books, where I got and kept a job correcting comma splices, where my two kids were born. If one of the stray bullets flying around kills me and you want to do something with my ashes, add them to the gunk in the part of Lake Michigan that laps up against the little sandy area a few blocks away from our place. It’s called Hartigan Beach, and more often than not I’m frazzled and annoyed there, trying to prevent my children from eating sand or drowning, but I’ve also managed to look out at the wide water once in a while and see the world as my boys are seeing it, this their timeless place, what they’ll always be dreaming their way back to. I’ve never loved a place more than that modest chunk of churned-up sand, pocked with cigarette butts and my own persisting anxieties.

Yesterday I asked a Cubs fan I work with if he remembered 1969. I wasn’t sure if he would. He’s older than me, but not by a whole lot.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “When the Mets clinched, I went into the backyard and burned all my Mets baseball cards.”

Now he’s watching the games with his teenage son. He says his son is nervous.

I don’t want to see the Cubs lose either.

****

But this is supposed to be a prediction. I notice that some observers are bringing up the Cubs’ record against the Mets this year: they beat New York in all seven meetings between the teams. To emphasize how pointless I think it is to refer to these games to foretell what’s going to happen in the championship series, I’m instead going to pick a game not long after my tenth birthday instead. It was on April 22, 1978. Rick Reuschel started the game and pitched well. In fact, he held the Mets hitless through five innings in forging a 2-0 lead. In the seventh inning, the Mets finally broke through for a run on a Ron Hodges sacrifice fly. An inning later, in the eighth, with the score now tied, Hodges’ spot in the order came up again. There were two outs and two men on. In his twelve-year career, Hodges’ batting average against Reuschel was a pathetic .148. But he came through this time with a single that drove in Willie Montanez with the go-ahead run. The game wasn’t over there. The Cubs loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth but couldn’t score. Reuschel blanked the Mets in the top of the ninth, and in the last of the ninth they got their leadoff man aboard. After a strikeout, Rick Reuschel’s spot in the order came up. He was a good hitter, but of course in that spot you go to a pinch-hitter. The pinch-hitter grounded into a game-ending double-play.

His name was Bill Buckner.

Edge: Mets

h1

Rick Reuschel and Al Hrabosky

October 9, 2015

Rick Reuschel 77 HraboskyNLDS Preview, part one

Style is a mode of conflict. It doesn’t seem that way to most individuals, I don’t think, but whenever style choices are made—clothing, hairstyle, behavior—they are made within the context of the surrounding society and are therefore always capable of cutting against the norms of the society. In other words, for example, Jonathan Papelbon is going to occasionally strangle Bryce Harper.

The two men shown here offer a contrast not only in style but in the approach to style. One stoically avoided throughout his long career any style choices that would have made him stand out from the prevailing norms, while the other, at an early, tenuous stage of his own much more mercurial career, adopted a strikingly unusual style on the mound, not out of a desire to set himself apart from his peers but out of desperation. Al Hrabosky, dubbed the Mad Hungarian after he began instituting a mid-crisis routine of stalking behind the mound, taking a few cartoonishly deep heaving breaths, slamming the ball into his glove, and spinning back around to face the batter with a menacing, Fu Manchu-enhanced sneer, reflected on the genesis of his routine in a 1986 Sun-Sentinel article entitled “Hrabosky Hreflects”:

“What people forget is that originally, the Mad Hungarian started when I couldn’t get anybody out. I had a 7.00 ERA with no saves. It was a last-ditch effort to gain my concentration.”

It worked—for a while in the mid-1970s Hrabosky was among the best and arguably the most famous reliever in the league—but the style also rubbed opponents the wrong way. I urge you to read Dayn Perry’s recap of the following brawl—which was sparked, predictably, by a batter who also had a nickname starting with “Mad” (Bill “Mad Dog” Madlock) taking exception to the Mad Hungarian pre-pitch ministrations:

1974 Cubs-Cardinals brawl

Hrabosky’s catcher, Ted Simmons, “won” the brawl by landing a Varitekian blow to the face of Mad Dog, and Hrabosky was credited with the win as the Cardinals forged a game and a half lead in their division with eight games to play. A week later, however, the Cubs managed some measure of revenge by winning 8-3 to knock the Cardinals out of first place, and three games later St. Louis would finish the season separated from the playoffs by that one-game margin.

You wouldn’t notice at a glance that the other player shown at the top of this page contributed to that Cubs win, much in the way that the world didn’t really notice that Rick Reuschel, for nearly two decades, was one of the best pitchers on the planet. He’s been handicapped in the traditional estimation of starting pitchers by a wins total that is not as impressive—i.e., decidedly short of the 300 threshold—as some others in the Hall of Fame, and in this his team’s 1974 revenge win is a bit of a microcosm. Reuschel started the game and pitched well for seven innings, having by more modern standards the greatest positive impact on the game, but because the game was decided after he left with a blister on his finger, Reuschel didn’t get the win.

I doubt he complained. It wasn’t his style.

Edge: Cubs

h1

Rick Reuschel and Bob Robertson

October 7, 2015

Rick Reuschel 77Bob Robertson

Here is my preview of the 2015 National League Wild Card game:

There is no ball. No ball thrown, no ball struck. If these two randomly chosen cardboard still lifes are any guide, that’s what at play in tonight’s game: absence.

Both teams involved in the single-elimination Wild Card game this evening have become painfully familiar with absence. Before their recent resurgence, the Pirates racked up twenty losing seasons in a row, which is the major league record. Even more famously, the Cubs have now gone 106 years without winning a World Series, by far the longest drought not just in baseball but in all the major American team sports.

The roles of the two pantomimers shown here are fitting, in terms of what’s been missing. When the Cubs were in their heyday well beyond the memory of anyone alive today, the team was built on the staggeringly effective pitching of men such as Ed Reulbach, Orval Overall, and Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. None of these pitchers, as it turned out, would have as much of a total impact on the Cubs as that of the pitcher shown here, Rick Reuschel, at least according to the most common number used these days to compare players at different positions and from different eras, WAR (short for wins above replacement player); Reuschel was by the estimation of baseball-reference.com worth 49 wins above replacement player for the Cubs, four better than old Mordecai and second among pitchers in Cubs’ history only to Fergie Jenkins. He never won a World Series with the Cubs, of course, but he won a lot of games and got to play on a team with his older brother, Paul, and is shown here smiling, and is something of the epitome of the Cubs’ lasting appeal throughout the many decades of futility, a beefy, likeable everyman not shirking his responsibilities in any way but also not appearing to take anything too seriously.

Bob Robertson represents to me a different, less personal epitome. The Pirates of my childhood—who were in continuous contention of the National League pennant and as such the polar opposite of the record-setting futility of the millennial Pirates—hit. They had hitters coming through the windows and leaping down from the trees. They had plenty of star hitters, Stargell and Parker and, a little before my time, Clemente, but it was their vast second battalion of hitting ferocity that impressed me, and where it became staggering was when it seemed to veer into an almost anonymous infinity. They had a guy named Bill Robinson and another named Bob Robertson and both seemed to be right-handed sluggers capable of belting 20 home runs in mere part-time duty, and this interchangeable pair of bludgeoners was in addition to Zisk, Hebner, Oliver, Garner, Sanguillen, etc., etc. And just for good measure even the infielders seemed capable of going on tears, judging from Rennie Stennett’s seven-hit game, which was immortalized with its own baseball card that showed on the back that the feat started with a double off Rick Reuschel and ended with a triple off of Paul Reuschel.

I don’t know what to make of this last connection, but I suspect that in it is the key to predicting the outcome of tonight’s game. I didn’t venture into this fortune-telling exercise with any foreknowledge that I would end up talking about Rennie Stennett, and that it would in turn lead me to the image of the Reuschel brothers—who I held above all baseball brothers because they played on the same team and because one of them, which I mistakenly thought of as the younger one, Paul, wore, like me, a younger brother, glasses—joined together in a humbling, battering defeat (a “22-0 plastering,” according to the Topps copywriter describing the Stennett game). I actually wanted to predict that the Cubs will win tonight, but the cards, at least as I am reading them, suggest otherwise. And all I’ll say about that is that absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence just hurts.

Edge: Pirates

h1

Terry Francona

January 18, 2015

Terry FranconaImmortality

4.

What do you do when life reveals itself as the opposite of immortality? The dream of living forever falls away and you’re left in the mortal position shown here. A former number 1 draft pick edging into the marginal wanderings of the journeyman lunges with his front foot but holds his hands back. Is it just me or does he seemed to be fooled, guessing again? He might watch the pitch go by, perhaps for a mocking strike, or he might flick at it with his wrists, no power, no significant connection ensuing, no sweet momentary ceasing of the guessing and second-guessing of the little grasping mind, the babble inhabiting our finite days.

Some mirages of promise shimmer on the back of this card, a .321 batting average in one partial season, a .346 mark in another. At the bottom, just below the respectable .286 lifetime average and the contrastingly tepid power numbers (just 9 home runs in over a thousand at-bats, a .367 slugging percentage), there’s one line of text in the place where career highlights might have gone: “Terry and his wife are the parents of one son.”

My own life turned three and a half years ago with the birth of my first son. This is the spot where you might expect to hear a testimonial about how my life has turned for the better with his arrival and the arrival of his brother three years later, how their presence has imbued my days with more meaning and purpose. This is true, certainly, but there’s also this: since I became a parent I’ve lost any touch I ever had at anything. You name it: friendship, civility, washing the dishes. The cupboard is full of plates smeared with soap and bits of food. On my desk is a list of people to thank that I’ve had so long I no longer remember what I was supposed to thank them for, and another list of writing ideas that I’ve had so long I no longer remember what each list entry means.

My days? I rush, fume, mope, guess, worry, lunge, repeat. More generally, I imagine my imperfections filtering down to my kids. It’s inevitable, their pure swing sure to be marred in my care. I also see that I’m here for them and that at some point I won’t be. When I wasn’t here for anyone in particular, it was easier to imagine this just sort of continuing the way it always had indefinitely, immortality some kind of endless narrative digression.

For a long time, during my former life of unending digression, I often dreamed of statues. Win the World Series, I said, just once. Just win it once and there will be statues in celebration forever. I don’t know why this held such an appeal for me. My life of perpetual digression was not without suffering, and I suppose dreaming of some permanent victory served as a kind of salve.

It happened. The journeyman shown here led the way, and it was all I could have ever asked for, but then life went on. He won another World Series, but somehow even that helped break the spell of immortality, or contributed to it breaking, along with his departure after a historically severe collapse the year my first son arrived. Now he’s elsewhere, a mortal, a guy on my list to thank if I ever get around to it.

h1

Frank Castillo

March 21, 2011

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

Chicago Cubs

I’ve lived in Chicago for seven years now, and it feels like nothing, like I just got here. Conversely, the roughly equvalent span of seven years of my childhood during which my baseball cards came to me seems immense and inexhaustible. The writing at this site is, among other things, my surrender to the idea that it will take the rest of my life to approach saying everything I want to say about those years. Maybe I live an intentionally narrow life in the present to leave myself time and energy to explore the past. Likewise, I don’t collect cards anymore. I don’t have room for them, physically or emotionally. But I can make room for the occasional stray, like this Frank Castillo card that I found a few months ago on Western Avenue, my fourth and probably last Western Avenue baseball card find. I’ve been looking since then and haven’t found any others, on Western Avenue or elsewhere, and I just moved to another neighborhood that’s not very close to Western Avenue. My new neighborhood is on the Red Line, however, so I’ll be a short shot away from Wrigley. I’ll be seeing the 2011 Cubs in person at least a little, so I’ll get to see if this pummeled Frank Castillo card will turn out to bear any resemblance to the Cubs’ fortunes in their 103rd straight season of wanting.

Everybody knows what wanting is. It’s very close to the feeling of being alive, or else it’s so often present that you come to believe it’s the feeling of being alive. I go through most days wanting and not even knowing what it is I want, and this feeling only rarely goes away. It doesn’t go away with the seemingly logical counterpart to wanting: getting. But sometimes it dissipates if I can surrender to a kind of purposelessness, a way of wandering open-hearted through the world. Going for a walk can bring this to me, especially in a city, where the world seems to show its randomness more readily. Yesterday on a walk I stopped wanting when I spotted a cheap, dark masquerade-ball type mask lying on the sidewalk. A couple days ago I stopped wanting when a disheveled young man who looked he had a lot on his mind walked by me on Chicago Avenue, dragging a golf club behind him like a stiffened, dogless leash.

One of my favorite memories so far of my seven years in Chicago is from when I was sitting in the bleachers for a Cubs game, which is somewhat like surrendering up your individual body in exchange for a much drunker, louder collective with thousands of limbs. A guy sitting in front of me who had been keeping score as he pounded beer after beer rose for a mid-inning bathroom break, inevitably, and without thinking shoved his scorecard into my hands. “You know how to do this, right?” he muttered, and for the next inning and a half I kept track of the game for him until he staggered back to his seat with two more overflowing beers for himself. I don’t remember whether the Cubs won or lost that day. Somewhere maybe there’s a scorecard with my notes mixing together with someone else’s notes, though my guess is that the drunk guy likely was unable to hold onto the scorecard for very long beyond the end of the game. Maybe sometime after it slipped out of his benumbed fingers someone noticed it lying on the street and noticed a different style of handwriting for a couple frames. Maybe not. All this is to say the 2011 Cubs will provide moments of purposelessness and wanting and will be discarded, only to be happened on later by accident, maybe, an artifact of a presiding random indifference, capable of nothing or wonder.

***

How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 17 of 30: Check out the Scott Simkus’ Outsider Baseball Bulletin for fascinating explorations of the lesser-traveled paths of baseball history. (Additionally, with the recent repurposing of his blog to be one that follows the current trials and tribulations of the Cubs, Simkus has conceded, reluctantly, that baseball also exists in the present.)

***

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

h1

Jerry Martin

April 22, 2010

What could possibly be better than to be a starting centerfielder for a major league team? And yet, Jerry Martin, who held just such a position for the Chicago Cubs at the time of this 1980 card, wears an expression that makes it seem like he’s counting the hours left in his shift at the circus, where he’s employed to brush the teeth of tigers and give elephants enemas.

According to the back of this card, life was getting better and better for Jerry Martin. The son of a major leaguer, Barney Martin (who pitched briefly for the Reds in the 1950s), Jerry had broken in with the Phillies in 1974, playing just 13 games, and then had gotten more and more chances at bat with each succeeding year as the Phillies developed into a National League powerhouse. The card suggests that he played an important supporting role for the Phillies as they won three division titles in a row from 1976 through 1978. In the first of those seasons he appeared in 130 games despite logging just 121 at-bats, evidence of his usefulness as a late-inning defensive replacement for lead-footed fly-ball mangler Greg Luzinski. In 1977 he got nearly a hundred more at-bats, occasionally platooning with Bake McBride, and hit a respectable .260 with some power, and in 1978 he got even more playing time and responded with new career highs in homers and batting average while, as the bullet points at the bottom of the back of the card relate, also hitting three pinch-hit home runs during the regular season and a fourth in the playoffs. Finally, in 1979, he got his chance to be an everyday player upon being traded to the Chicago Cubs, and he upped his career singe-season high in batting average to .272 while smacking 19 home runs and 34 doubles.

But on the front of the card, he seems to be considering his life and saying, I want out. 

In fact, that’s exactly what he said, publicly, just before the start of the 1980 season, according to a 2006 story on The Baseball Think Factory about that year’s putrid edition of the Cubs. Martin had been promised a five-year contract if he proved himself capable of handling a regular centerfielder gig. His 1979 season, though not the stuff of legends, certainly seemed a decent showing for a regular centerfielder, and yet Cubs brass did not come through with the contract they’d promised. Worse, the Cubs general manager, Bob Kennedy, publicly denigrated Martin, saying that his disgruntled player “was not even a center fielder. He’s a left fielder playing center.” 

The Cubs did not comply with Martin’s demand to be traded, and Martin manned centerfield for another season as the Cubs lost 98 games. Martin managed to hit 19 homers again, but slumped to a .227 batting average. After a season back in part-time duty with the Giants in 1981, Martin got one more year as a regular, with the Kansas City Royals in 1982, but his time in Kansas City powder blue would be much more widely associated with his arrest the following year for attempting to buy cocaine along with Willie Wilson, Willie Mays Aikens, and Vida Blue. All four players spent ninety days in prison and were suspended from baseball for the 1984 season by manager Bowie Kuhn. The suspensions were reduced on appeal, and Martin hooked on with the New York Mets. It would be his last season in the majors. Considering the following two anecdotes stemming from that season, from the Jerry Martin memory page at the great Ultimate Mets Database site, you have to conclude that life’s glum eventualities are unavoidable, even for gods:

vemmerf: I grew up 30 minutes from Shea. [Martin] rented a house in my neighborhood for the summer . . . and my buddy and I looked in the yearbook and found the name of some assistant to the PR director and called Martin, saying we were that guy. We told him we were shooting a commercial for Banner Day and we wanted him to be a part. He fell hook line and sinker. Feel kinda bad about it, but it was better than egging his house.

Shari: I remember this poor shnook getting the call to pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth . . .  he struck out, and he got booed the whole way back to the dugout. That was the last time I think I ever saw him as a Met. He was trying to make a comeback after being in re-hab. I was at the game, and I just remember feeling really sorry for him, as he hung his head in shame and took the slow stroll back to the dugout.

***

Couple of book-related things: Josh Spilker (not a lazily conceived pseudonym, I swear) has a feature at Impose Magazine on my recent reading list. Elsewhere, Tom Hoffarth of the L.A. Daily News reviews Cardboard Gods (and Dave Jamieson’s book Mint Condition).

h1

Rick Reuschel in . . . The All-Time Franchise All-Stars

March 11, 2010

I, like the Chicago Cubs, have much that remains undone. First and foremost, in addition to and inclusive of the completion of this smaller undone project of starting a conversation about the all-time franchise all-stars of every team that was around when I was a kid, I need to write about every single baseball card that ever came to me, something that I’ve done with only a fraction of the cards in my shoebox even though I’ve been chugging away at things pretty constantly for three and a half years. For almost the entire time this project has been in motion, I’ve intended to write about this Rick Reuschel card. It’s one of my all-time favorites, which has made the task of writing about it daunting. I have stopped and started many times, failing to get it right, and already this current attempt, in true Cubs fashion, is beginning to feel like another failure in the making. It’s a card that seems at a glance to be just another static pregame still-life, but I don’t know, there’s something about it. First of all, it’s Rick Reuschel, which is one of those names of the gods from my childhood that somehow burrowed farther down into my subconscious than most, the alliteration of the R’s balancing the complicated unpronounceable muck in the middle of the last name to make the moniker both mysterious and familiar. It didn’t hurt that he had a brother who for a little while played on the same team as he did, enacting perhaps the greatest fantasy this worshipful younger brother ever had as a baseball- and brother-loving boy. (And it also didn’t hurt that the two of them, when featured together in a Topps “Big League Brothers” card, were the second-funniest brother-related sight gag of the 1970s after the Guinness Book of Records-featured minibike-riding twins.) Rick Reuschel’s prominent place in the pantheon in my mind was also probably bolstered over the course of time as he managed to remain a major leaguer far beyond the end of my childhood and my singular attachment to baseball, and did so in a way that was prominent enough to remain in my increasingly substance-hazed consciousness yet not so prominent as to break the lingering, childhood-holding spell his name had on me. All through the 1980s, as the alliterative likes of Bake McBride and Dick Drago and Jay Johnstone disappeared, Rick Reuschel endured, even at times excelled, many of his upswings accompanied by stories about the improbable nature of his success that, with a mixture of mockery and fondness, always seemed to go down a checklist of his apparent drawbacks: he was old; he was lumpy; he didn’t throw very hard.

But he got the job done, year after year. Unfortunately for him, his apparent superficial drawbacks seem to have cost him a higher place in history in terms of generally held perceptions. He was, when he played, a kind of polar opposite to his contemporary, Nolan Ryan, and while Ryan sailed into the Hall as easily as anyone ever has on the strength of his charismatic on-field persona and his charismatic assault on the record books (the all-time single-season and career strikeout record, the record for most no-hitters, 300+ wins), Reuschel, unassuming in his persona and his deeds, quickly vanished from Hall of Fame consideration without so much as a whimper—he got just two votes in his single year of eligibility before dropping off the ballot. (For an interesting take on Rick Reuschel’s credentials that contradicts the lack of support from Hall voters, see the 2009 article on Cy Morong’s blog Cybermetrics; as with many of these studies, my tiny brain shuts off when the math gets even slightly complicated, but I like scanning for the gist of the argument, which in this case places Rick Reuschel surprisingly high on the list of standout pitchers.)

You may be thinking, based on the title of today’s blog post, that I’m going to insert Rick Reuschel as the starting pitcher on my personally selected roster of all-time Cubs. I’m afraid I can’t take my connection to Rick Reuschel that far, much as I’d like to. He was good, but he wasn’t Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown good. But I would like to argue for his inclusion on the all-time Cubs squad nonetheless. It’s been a while since an installment on this site of The All-Time Franchise All-Stars, but you may recall that there is a “wild card” spot on every franchise’s team. I have a feeling that the Cubs may have had more lovable wild cards than any other team in history, since their history, more or less, has been of yearly collections of lovable wild cards flailing away at the never-ending fog of disappointment that hangs metaphorically and constantly over Wrigley. And though I now live in Chicago I can’t at all say I am an expert on which wild card is most worthy of inclusion on the all-time team. But for me, it’s Rick Reuschel, and more than anything I’m saying that because of this card, which has fascinated and entertained me since it came into my hands 34 years ago. I love the way Rick Reuschel is leaning forward a little, as if he’s just realized he’s stepped in something, and I love how the bulge in his cheek makes it seem as if earlier in the day he clipped off the left side of his mustache while shaving, and I love his small, suspicious eyes, and I love that he is wearing a batting helmet, despite being identified by his pose and by the icon in the lower left as a pitcher, seemingly suggesting that he’d either rather be doing something else than what he’s been called on in his life to do or that he’s preparing himself for the screaming line drives he suspects might be coming back through the box as soon as he makes one of his unimposing pitches. Good old Rick Reuschel. I’d want him on my team.

Here’s the rest of the all-time Cubs, as I see it. Who’s on your all-time Cubs squad? (See baseball-reference.com for the franchise’s all-time batting and pitching leaders.)

C-Gabby Hartnett
1B-Cap Anson
2B-Ryne Sandberg
SS-Ernie Banks
3B-Ron Santo
LF-Billy Williams
CF-Hack Wilson
RF-Sammy Sosa

SP-Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown
RP-Bruce Sutter

Wild Card: Rick Reuschel

h1

Joe Wallis

February 2, 2010

Joe Wallis made his first appearance on Cardboard Gods early on, thirty or so cards into the imposing task of writing about every card that ever came into my hands as a child (and some cards that have found their way to me since then). I often miss those early days of—what should I call it? The project? The compulsion? The flowering of mental illness? Anyway, I miss it, even as I realize that I’m prone to romanticizing anything as long as it belongs to the past. When I was just starting to write regularly about my baseball cards, the touch of childhood was still crackling on the surface of the cardboard.

I’ve been reading J.D. Salinger stories the last few days, and many of them center on the threshold between childhood and adulthood. In Salinger’s fictional worlds, childhood holds life and liveliness and imagination and unaffected sincerity, while adulthood offers nothing but fakery and the keeping up of appearances and the cruelty embedded in social hierarchies. Many of the stories reveal Salinger’s stinging, sardonic masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, to be, by comparison, his most hopeful work. In Holden Caulfield, Salinger found a lasting, if compellingly tenuous, bridge between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. In the short stories, on the other hand, there are no lasting bridges, only harrowing gaps. The man (“see more glass”) in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” can’t endure life on the adult side of that gap; Eloise in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” seems ruined by the gap, too; the narrator in “The Laughing Man” survives, but his childhood on the yonder side of the gap does not. “For Esmé with Love and Squalor” offers a hint of a bittersweet bridge across the gap, in the form of the story itself, which is a loving stretch across the gap by a traumatized veteran to a young girl who stands alone among the uncorrupted entities of the world. Holden is more than the hint of a bittersweet bridge, of course. He’s a living and breathing bad-postured avatar that millions have poured themselves into as if into a second skin, and it’s because he bridges that universally felt gap between childhood and adulthood in a way that feels truer to that element of the human experience than any artistic creation ever has.

When I opened up the box of baseball cards from my childhood and started writing about them, I was trying to follow Holden’s footsteps and bridge that gap, and in those first few weeks, there was an immediate charge in the cards as I held them. But everything gets old, especially rituals, so sometimes, especially if I’m in a writing slump, I get nostalgic about the days when I could pick up a Joe Wallis card and imagine a baseball player who (somewhat like J.D. Salinger, now that I think about it) could not abide in the civilized world and so took to the woods to be wild and malodorous and hairy and free.

But anyway, here I am again, and here I’ll be. In religion, there’s the thrilling moment of epiphany or conversion or enlightenment or whatever, I guess. You “see the light.” After that: well, you try to be sincere with your prayers. You try to find ways to connect to the mystery.

The first mystery of this Joe Wallis card is his batting stance. On first glance, I thought this card might be a strange mistake, for the Joe Wallis card I am more familiar with shows him in a right-handed batting stance, while this card shows him bemusedly following through on a left-handed swing. When I looked at the back of this card, I thought that a piece of information included there—“Bats: Left”—proved that the card here was correct and that the later and hairier Joe Wallis card from 1980 was a mistake. But on baseball-reference.com Joe Wallis is listed as being a switch-hitter. I’m not sure why he is listed on the back of this card as only hitting left-handed, but it may have something to do with his career .199 batting average against left-handed pitchers (compared to his .263 average versus right-handers). Maybe before this card came out the Topps people called him to confirm his status as a switch-hitter, and at that point he was considering forgetting about being a switch-hitter and just sticking to being a lefty. In that light, it’s interesting that his later card with the A’s, the one I am more familiar with and that is his last card, shows him from his weaker side. He was determined, I guess, to prove that a debilitating dooming weakness could be turned into a strength.

The second mystery was pointed out some time ago on the original Joe Wallis post by a commenter who goes by the name Champ Summers. Champ linked to an article that describes a minor league baseball game in which Joe Wallis hit a fly ball that never came down.

How do you survive a mysterious and beautiful event such as that? How do you not slowly unravel and grow increasingly less able to exist in the mystery-stripped world of adulthood? How do you not take to the hills? A ball went up and never came down. People will tell you that only a child would think that such a thing was possible, but you were there. You hit the ball that never came down. Don’t let anyone ever tell you differently. 

h1

Bill Madlock in . . . The Nagging Question

May 1, 2009

bill-madlock-77

On this date in 1980, Bill Madlock shoved a glove in an umpire’s face. He was suspended for fourteen days, the harshest punishment the oft-reprimanded Madlock ever endured in the major leagues. (Once, in the minor leagues, Madlock was suspended for an entire season for apparently using a bat as a weapon—or at the very least as a menacing prop to help illustrate his dark mood—to spark what a long-time scout on hand later called “the best fight I’ve seen in my many years in baseball,” but upon appeal Madlock was allowed to return to the field after a couple weeks.)

I would not normally begin a post on Madlock by focusing on his history of flying into on-field rages, and would instead begin by marveling over the lifetime batting average on the back of the card shown here: .337. My lord! Now that I think about it, this card features the highest lifetime batting average of any card in my collection. In other words, in terms of the most celebrated and worshipped statistic of my childhood, batting average, Bill Madlock reigns supreme. In at least one significant way this underrated card of an underrated player is the holiest of my cardboard gods!

He deserves to be celebrated for this, but I’m going to have to turn over that celebration to you, dear reader, because in honor of Bill Madlock’s May 1, 1980, suspension, I am suspending myself on this day, May 1, 2009, from writing posts on Cardboard Gods.

The duration of this suspension is in relation to an upcoming deadline (or perhaps oncoming would be a better adjective, as when it is used to describe the progress of a train) to produce a book-length manuscript that interweaves the tale of an anonymous, nondescript guy with considerations of that guy’s old baseball cards. I actually planned to temporarily stop writing on this site a little while ago, but I discovered that even the thought of not writing on this site was very difficult to absorb, so I didn’t stop, and the oncoming manuscript deadline hurtled closer, and now, with time growing short, I feel I have to act stridently against myself, as if I were the kind of scofflaw who only understands the harshests of punitive measures. So I am banning myself from writing posts on this site for one month.

I will return from this suspension to full active duty. (I may also make the occasional appeal to myself to shorten the suspension, but I’m hoping to channel my inner Kenesaw Mountian Landis when considering these appeals.) 

Also, I am not banned from being in the stadium, so to speak, and so I’ll often be hanging around and very possibly even yelling my two cents from the cheap seats if any of the hundreds of open conversations on this site flicker with any life.

With that (and Bill Madlock) in mind, I hand this conversation over to you. Have you ever been suspended?

***

Oh, and one more thing. I’ve been meaning to pass along this link for a while: check out The Baseball Chronicle (created by former Baseball Toaster writer Phil Bencomo) for excellent baseball writing and photography designed to push beyond the well-worn ruts of the genre.

h1

Greg Maddux in . . . the Nagging Question

December 9, 2008
 Untitled 
Who is the greatest pitcher of your lifetime?

I’m tempted to go with Tom Seaver, because I marveled at his feats as a kid and count a game I saw him pitch at Fenway in his last season among the most memorable games I’ve ever attended.

I was 18 that year, 1986, and I am pretty sure I went to the game alone, the only time I’ve ever done that. I must have taken a bus in from my grandfather’s house on the Cape, where I was spending the summer pumping gas. I could look up the game on retrosheet, but I prefer to just rely on my memory, which has me in the centerfield bleachers and Seaver on the mound in a duel with a young flamethrower named Mark Langston, a guy who is not exactly a household name now but who at that time, because the pitches springing from his left hand were as fearsome as a snapped and writhing power line, seemed to be at the beginning of a splendid career, dawn to Seaver’s dusk.

While the whip-thin youngster racked up the strikeouts, the stocky old-timer craftily navigated through occasional jams, never allowing his calm claim on the game to be disturbed. My strongest memory from the game has to do with this last thing, his calmness. I remember getting the sense, even from the centerfield bleachers, that as Seaver stood on the mound looking in for the sign and drawing in a slow breath he was as calm as the Buddha, aware of and at peace with the fact that he was the center of the game, the center of the world. The game finally swung his way late, when Langston came undone. As I recall it, an error played a part in the go-ahead rally, just enough of a tremor to push Langston off his center, something that did not happen to Seaver that day. I couldn’t imagine it happening to Seaver any day.

The young ace of the Red Sox staff that year, on the other hand, as great as he was, proved in the coming years capable of coming undone from time to time. Still, I think many people around my age would have, up until some fairly recent events, argued that Roger Clemens was the best pitcher of their lifetime. His reputation has taken a hit of late because of revelations about his use of performance-enhancing drugs, and I guess the general belief is that his career numbers, especially those compiled late in his career, should be downgraded with the caveat that he may have gained an unfair competitive advantage by going on the juice. Even before all that came to light, I don’t think I would have been able to embrace Clemens as a choice for the best pitcher of my lifetime, because, fairly or unfairly, I see him in my memory allowing the occasional big moment to overwhelm him, to turn him into an unfocused raging bull falling off his axis at the center of the game.

His successor as ace of the Red Sox, Pedro Martinez, fares better in my memory. My first memory of him is always the performance he turned in against the Indians in the playoffs in 1999. Unable because of arm trouble to throw fastballs, Pedro nonetheless pitched several innings of no-hit relief by masterfully baffling the Cleveland hitters with an assortment of off-speed junk. Even stripped of his most fearsome weapon, the mound was his. For that, and for all the games I watched him pitch when he did have his full arsenal, I would say that no one in my lifetime has reached the level of dominance that Pedro performed at during his prime.

However, while Pedro was dominating the American League throughout the steroid era, another master was putting up similarly jaw-dropping numbers while dominating the National League. And he had been pitching at a high level for several years before Pedro ever reached the major leagues, and in the last few seasons, while Pedro has struggled mightily to stay off the disabled list, this pitcher who predated him has continued to log big innings and win his share of games.

I never got to see much of this latter pitcher, Greg Maddux, in his prime, but he did return to his first team, the Cubs, the same year I moved to Chicago, so I got to watch him a few times in his sunset years. Some games went well, some not so well, but either way he always remained unflappably poised, like that 1986 version of Seaver. He also had a springy looseness all his own that I found inexplicably enjoyable to watch. In fact my most vivid memory of Maddux in his second go-round with the Cubs is the way he covered first base on a grounder. To be more specific, I see him just after he has expertly executed the play to end the inning, flipping the ball straight from his glove to the first base ump with an almost playful nonchalance. It’s often been said of Maddux, because of his stocky frame and nondescript features, that he looks more like an orthodontist or an accountant than an elite athlete. But I think you would only need to have watched him moving around his workplace for a couple minutes to see that Maddux, who yesterday announced his retirement, was as much at home on a baseball diamond as Seaver or Clemens or Pedro or anyone else who has ever lived.

h1

Darold Knowles

October 8, 2008
 Untitled 
“Get ready; ninety-nine years . . . The wait is over. This IS the year!!” – Quote by the sponsor of the baseball-reference.com Cubs page

OK, let’s start at the top of the card for answers. Maybe it’s the name. The sound of it. Cubs. The hard C collapsing immediately into the short glum “uh,” which gives way to the stubbing, stunting B sound, which reduces whatever power might have been the sound of the name of the long-suffering team to a sibilant, trailing-off S sound, a weak hissing like the last gasp of a broken radiator in a car on the side of a highway, other cars flying past, the drivers of those cars all thinking the same thing as they notice the poor sap peering into the smoldering open hood of his car: Glad that’s not me, stranded, fucked. Yes, maybe it’s the name. Cubs.

Or maybe it’s the cap, represented here not by a photographed image but in a version imagined by a Topps artist and superimposed on a photograph. The imaginary version of it is in a certain way more real than the real version in that it highlights a certain key aspect of the Cubs cap, a cap that has been the same for as long as I have been alive. It looks, atop the head of Darold Knowles, more like somewhat sloppily applied cake icing than a cap. It looks like you could eat it, like you could dip your finger into the blue and red and get yourself a nice quick sugar high. Their real caps don’t look like this, not exactly, but maybe there is something in the cap, in the mild, friendly blue, in the taming of the racier red by restricting it to the confines of the basic spelling-block C, that invites a kind of metaphorical dipping of the finger into the icing. Maybe other teams, without even knowing it, look across the diamond at the Cubs and assume the attitude of a guy walking through an empty break room at work and noticing a cake just sitting there, waiting to be violated.

Or maybe, going lower on the card, to Darold Knowles’ face, it’s the feeling of doom. I don’t believe that teams are ever cursed, but I do think, and actually know from my own experience as a Red Sox fan, that year after year of disappointment and defeat tends to make one worry whenever victory seems close at hand. How is it going to go sour this time? What new unscarred section of my heart is going to get ground to bits this time? The nervous murmuring in the stands, along with the constant references to curses and droughts in the media, filters down to the members of the team. How could it not? How could it not in their weaker moments make them feel like Darold Knowles seems to be feeling now? He seems to be aware that something gloomy and horrible is descending, big and invisible, impossible to stop.

To turn back the tide on all that, the name, the cap, the feeling of doom, you need to face it head on, I think. Lou Piniella, current manager of the Cubs, seemed to explode whenever asked about the last sad century of the Cubs. I think this strategy, trying to ignore the elephant in the room, getting angry whenever anyone mentions the elephant, is only going to make things worse. When the New York Rangers toppled their Cub-like demons in 1994 they did so by following the lead of Mark Messier, who embraced, rather than turned away from, the burden of history. They also did so by having a fantastic team, which of course is the first prerequisite to slaying curses, but the Cubs had a fantastic team going into these 2008 playoffs, possibly the best all-around team in baseball, and they got bounced in three games, playing tight, as if they had all seen the dark cloud that Darold Knowles seems to be seeing.