Archive for the ‘Cincinnati Reds’ Category

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Nick Esasky

November 9, 2018

esasky

Nobody owns anything. Not your helmet or anything else that you might use for protection. Not your uniform or whatever else that might fix you for a while in a specific identity. Not your identity. Not your legs, your arms, your movements, your embraces. Not your eyes or reflexes or timing or swing or anything else that might bring you that fleeting feeling of connection. Not any feeling, not any connection.

My four-year-old, Exley, held this card in his hands a few weeks ago. It was still in one piece. Earlier that day, he and my older son, Jack, had asked me to get out a freezer bag of cards from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. They’d dumped out the cards, scattered them around, and pretended to bulldoze them across the carpet in imitation of bulldozers at a landfill. They used to play this game more, but they’ve mostly moved on to other games, and this time around they lost interest pretty quickly, an indication that they probably wouldn’t be asking to play the game again.

Anyway, we cleaned up most of the cards, but we missed a few. It’s always gone that way: some get stuck in the corners of the room, and we come upon them later.

Nobody owns these cards. They’re not mine. I have my box of cards from my childhood, and my older son, Jack, in imitation of me, has a smaller box of his cards, and Exley, in imitation of Jack, has an even smaller box of his cards. All three of us now mostly ignore these possessions. For quite a few years, the cards from my childhood, my first and most persistent possessions, had a lot to say to me, but they’ve grown quiet over the last few years. What more can they possibly say? The only cards saying anything at all to me lately are the ones from the freezer bag, the nobody cards, the cards touched by my boys.

Nick Esasky was one of the cards we found in the corners this time, maybe our last time playing with these cards. Exley found Nick Esasky and held him. I knew what he was thinking. He was grinning and tightening his grip.

“Don’t,” I said to Exley.

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Nick Esasky owned a strong home run swing. He was in turn owned for several years by the Cincinnati Reds. I know this from memory and also from looking at the back of this sundered card. I know from memory that he came to the Red Sox and had his best year. I don’t remember if he then moved on from the Red Sox or if he was with the Red Sox when he started struggling with the vertigo that would make it difficult for him to move around in the world safely, let alone hit major league pitching. He was out of baseball as quickly as if some greater power had reached down and ripped him in half.

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This morning I was late leaving the house for work. Exley had decided that he needed to wear the Batman costume he’d worn trick-or-treating, and I helped him step into the main part of the costume, but we couldn’t find his cape. My wife was in another room with Jack, and she could take up the search, but I didn’t want to walk away from Exley while he was standing there capeless. Ultimately I had to leave anyway, so that’s how I left him.

It was cold outside and the wind was blowing against me the whole way as I rode my bike up Clark Street. There was a flyer in the elevator at the building where I work:

Safety presentation today, Suite 427

Topics:

  1. Fire
  2. Active Shooter

***

The pieces don’t go together, not really. Capes go missing and then reappear but are ignored, forgotten. I thought about going to Suite 427 but got busy with work and forgot what time the presentation was anyway. The flyer was gone by the time I rode the elevator back down. I biked home in the dark, the light on my handlebars blinking don’t kill me don’t kill me to the traffic.

I wanted to get to my home, to my wife, to my boys.

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Johnny Bench

February 23, 2018

Johnny Bench

It’s my father’s birthday. I would call him. He would begrudgingly accept the call. “We didn’t celebrate such things when I was a child,” he would say. “We didn’t have gifts.” Then he would turn the conversation away from himself. He never really had anything, not as a kid, not as a young man, not as a middle-aged man, not as an old man. He lived more or less like a monk, except monks don’t have a closet with five identical blue button-down shirts to wear to work in the office of a city agency. Up until his retirement he worked, always. When I was a kid the other adults in my family were often “finding themselves,” which is a term from the 1970s meaning “not making much money,” but my father worked. Picture his years as having the year-to-year repetition of what you see here in the 1979 and 1980 baseball cards of Johnny Bench. You fall into a line of work. One year gives way to the next. There’s a repetition of tasks, a constraint of motions. All the money my dad made grinding out a modest living as a researcher went to his family. What did he ever spend any money on? Wheat germ? He barely even owned any cups. When I called my old high school friend Bill to tell him my dad had died Bill remembered my dad serving him some milk in a bowl. He had plenty of books, but most of them were bought on the cheap from the Strand. At some point before my memories started up he bought a huge desk that he hunkered over until the day he died. I went through that desk a few weeks ago. There were a lot of toothpicks and hearing aid batteries. He was a wealthy man in terms of toothpicks and hearing aid batteries. Also: vitamins. In his bathroom there was an arsenal of vitamins, enough vitamins to bury a hippo. He must have spent several thousand dollars on vitamins throughout his life. He wanted to live. He wanted to keep living. In the end his life was taken from him quickly, which was a mercy, because a few years ago when it looked like he might be teetering on the edge, I flew down to rush to his hospital bedside and saw terror in his eyes. And why not? Death steals everything, even when all you have is some toothpicks and the collected works of C. Wright Mills. It steals every memory, every thought, every touch. What the fuck is all this about anyway? This senseless coming and going? One year gives way to the next. You fall into a line of work. Johnny Bench slugged home runs and gunned down baserunners. Johnny Bench knew glory, maybe even transcendence. My father went to work in an office every day. I go to work in an office every day. There’s a repetition of tasks, a constraint of motions. I sit down on the couch at night after the boys are asleep and try to think of something to tell my wife that happened that day that seems worth telling, but the last thing I want to do is talk about work. I have books, most of which I got on the cheap. I’m reading a book about William Blake right now. My father liked William Blake. He used to come up to visit us in Vermont when I was a kid and look at our sheep and quote William Blake: “Little lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee?” William Blake had visions. I don’t have visions, not anymore. When I was a kid I had night terrors. It was like seeing through the flimsy facade of this world into what lies beyond. You might think you’d want to get a glimpse of something like that but you don’t, at least not when you’re a child. These glimpses started when I was six or so, right after we moved away from my father, right before I started collecting baseball cards. I still have those baseball cards in my possession, and I guess I will until I die, two shoeboxes of fragmented cardboard scaffolding over the absence of my father and the terrifying face of God.

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Manny Sarmiento

February 23, 2016

Manny Sarmiento 80“That summer feeling’s gonna haunt you the rest of your life.” -Jonathan Richman

Spring 1982: Manny Sarmiento mentions his history with acute anxiety in this article from 1982. It’s a family thing—his mother suffered similarly and at the time of this article his older brother had not left his house in a year and a half. Sarmiento’s own issues—“I lost my confidence. I used to worry too much. I was always thinking. I wouldn’t sleep well when I went to bed at night”—led to a nervous breakdown and got him jettisoned from his first team, the Cincinnati Reds, for whom he was a significant contributor on the 1976 World Championship squad. In the article he expresses hope that his problems are behind him and that he’ll be able to make some more major league money to help pay for treatment for his house-bound brother.

Spring 1985: Manny Sarmiento did indeed make it onto the Pirates’ roster in 1982 and held onto his major league job for a few more seasons. Injuries derailed him in 1984, setting the stage for another comeback in 1985. Buried in this article—which focuses on Sarmiento’s struggles, the long odds against him making the major league roster, and his determined avowal to beat the long odds—is a reference to the family member he’d been hoping in an earlier spring to help: in the off-season of 1984 Sarmiento’s brother committed suicide.

Fall 1985: Manny Sarmiento did not make it back to the big leagues but surfaced in the news in September in an article about Pirates’ slugger Dave Parker’s testimony in the trial against a caterer named Curtis Strong charged with selling cocaine to National League players:

Parker named three players who had not been previously named in the trial [including] former Pirate Manny Sarmiento, who now pitches for the Pirate farm team in Hawaii . . .

So that’s where it ended for Manny Sarmiento: in Hawaii in the fall. But if Jonathan Richman is right, it’s not the fall or the spring that are gonna haunt you. So here’s the headline from one last article about Manny Sarmiento, from the summer of 1978, when the pitcher was still just 22 and the ball was flying off his fingers and the Reds were showing signs of being able to reclaim their place atop the National League West: “The Reds find a savior.” Sarmiento, full of belief, opined: “We’re hot, and we’re going to catch the Giants. We might win 20 in a row.” (In the 20 games following this statement the Reds went 8 and 12, but they did eventually catch the Giants; unfortunately, the Dodgers leapfrogged both teams.)

Why I’m still drawn to the baseball cards that came to me through the summers of my childhood is beyond me. I’m an anxious person who would benefit from much more help than I’ve ever been able to ask for. There aren’t many things that calm me down. Thinking about my cards and the players on my cards is one of those things. That summer feeling. You wound up and threw the ball to the target. You were full of belief.

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Joe Nuxhall

August 3, 2011

My wife gave birth to our first kid a few days ago on July 30. The boy is a few feet away, sleeping. I have no idea how to write about how he makes me feel. So here’s a baseball card. It features Joe Nuxhall, who was also born on July 30. Joe Nuxhall was nearing 37 and had played his last game when this card of him as a gray-haired hurler in what looks to be a rubber undershirt came out. It appeared the year before I was born, so I wasn’t familiar with it until I got it along with some other old cards as a gift from my wife’s mother a few years ago. But when I was a kid I knew about Joe Nuxhall as the youngest to ever play in a major league game, making his debut as a 15-year-old. I remember holding on to that image of him as he was on his first day in the majors, everything in front of him, even as I learned about his actual career, a good one and a long one but one without that purity of a boy standing on a big league mound, readying to fire his first pitch.

After his playing career ended, Joe Nuxhall served as a broadcaster for many years, becoming arguably the most beloved figure in the world of the Cincinnati Reds. My boy has some Reds blood in him, his mother born in Cincinnati to a large clan of rabid Reds fans. His first live baseball game, which he snuck into inside his mother’s belly, was a Reds victory over the Cubs at Wrigley earlier this year. Below is a picture of his first contact with baseball outside the uterus. The Red Sox were in town, so the hospital room picked up the local coverage. I whispered into my son’s tiny ear. Youk, I whispered. Yooooouuk.

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Clay Carroll

May 10, 2011

Clay Carroll turned 70 last week. In other relentless-march-of-time news, my back hurts. I’ve got a heating pad on it right now, as I did yesterday and the day before, plus I’m popping Advil, which is about as close as I’ll get these days to being able to relate to the section I’m currently reading in Life, Keith Richards’ biography, in which he says, referring to his heyday, “I used drugs like gears.” I nod knowingly, washing down my Advil with tap water and reading on about John Lennon puking in Keith Richards’ bathroom after mixing smack with wine (the bespectacled Beatle was a lightweight, in his host’s estimation). Keith Richards isn’t seventy quite yet, but he’s closing in on it. My mom just turned seventy last month and is plowing along like she could fill in for Ron Wood for a few tour dates if the Stones needed her to. I tried calling her pretty early this past Mother’s Day and she was already out working in the community garden near her house. She called me back a little later, but I was in the grocery store, so she said, “I’m going back out there again right now for the rest of the morning but try calling me around lunchtime.” I did, and she told me, among other things, that she has recently learned how to clog-dance.

Clay Carroll, Clay Kirby, Ken Clay. By extension, Ken Brett, a little. For a while, when life is just getting started, things all kind of blur together into one big related mess. I went to Wrigley Field later in the day on Mother’s Day after calling my mom and popping some more Advil for my old-guy lower back, and there were a lot of mothers there and a lot of little kids, too, the game to them more of an exciting kaleidoscope than it was to me, who snapped most to the upper limits of my lukewarm attention whenever Jay Bruce came to bat because he happens to be on my fantasy baseball team. I’m saying it’s sort of fun when Clay Carroll and Clay Kirby and Ken Clay are all the same guy. Eventually, I figured out that Clay Carroll was a distinct individual, and in fact one of the premier bullpen guys in the National League for a while, and on top of that one of the great subjects of a baseball card, namely this one, the gnarled Southern veteran jammed inside the ludicrous Ye Olde Tyme Taverne garb of the Veeck-as-in-wreck 1970s White Sox. There’s something about the photo that makes it clear that, ridiculous as he looks in his giant lapels, Clay Carroll would be tough to face. He seems like someone who started drinking backwoods moonshine and killing wildlife with a crossbow at the same age when I was still blissfully unaware of the distinct differences between Clay Carroll, Ken Clay, and Clay Kirby (and Ken Brett, a little).

I have good feelings about the days when my life was a kaleidoscope. At the end of my phone call with my mother, I tried to tell her how great she was as a mother, bracing myself for the inevitable argument.

“Oh, god, I was terrible,” my mother said before I was even done with the first sentence.

I can never quite get across what I’m trying to say during these disagreements in which my position is that my mother was a good mother and my mother’s position is roughly that it’s a wonder my brother and I did not end up by our junior high days hooked on airplane glue or shifting for ourselves in a hobo shantytown down by the railyard. Lately I feel more compelled than ever to say that I felt taken care of and safe and loved because, bad back and all, I’m a few weeks away from becoming a parent, if all keeps going okay. Such a thing has made me start thinking about my own parents and how things were from their perspective. It seems like a difficult, daunting thing to have a kid to take care of.  

For example, I just sneezed while writing the previous sentence and a jolting pain went through my back. How am I going to be a father with a back like this? Do I start mainlining Advil? What would Keith Richards do?

Anyway, I’ve got to wrap this up and head off to work, which means getting on a bicycle to ride to where I catch a bus. I wonder how it’ll be on a bike with this back. And how did my mom learn how to clog dance? I don’t even know how to regular dance yet. And how many unrelated sentences can I clog into one paragraph? Will I be able to continue writing when the kid comes? What about Clay Carroll? I imagine my writing will become more disjointed, but let’s pretend it’ll be less like the unrelated eructions of a mentally unstable psyche and more like, I don’t know, free jazz. You know, like everything is related, a kaleidoscope, claycarrollclaykirbykenclay. I like going to baseball games. At the last one I went to, featuring Clay Carroll’s old team, the Reds, I sat next to my wife, who is about seven months pregnant. Late in the game I leaned down and yelled at her bulging stomach, “Hey! How are you liking your first game?”

Leaning down made my back hurt.

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Terry Crowley

March 14, 2011

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

Cincinnati Reds

Terry Crowley was drawn to winning like a sliver of metal is drawn to a magnet. He played on both of the two most dominant regular-season teams from the 1970s, the 1970 Baltimore Orioles and the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, who each won a decade-best 108 games. When the dynastic Boog/Brooks Orioles started to fade, Crowley drifted away from them and to the surging Reds, and when the Orioles started to build toward another pennant-winning team in the late 1970s, Crowley returned in time to be once again loitering on the bench, bat in hand, for the last of the decade’s dominant regular-season campaigns, that of the 102-win 1979 Orioles.

His magnetic pull toward championships waned in the early 1980s, and in 1983, his final season, he was not with the Orioles as they won the World Series but was instead having his worst season to date, batting .182 in 44 at-bats for a Montreal Expos squad in the process of slipping from perennial contender to perpetual also-ran. But by then Terry Crowley and his bat had hung around the major leagues for fifteen seasons, and when the Expos released him only five players in baseball history had amassed more pinch hits.

Baseball is, obviously, a tremendously difficult profession, and of all its many individual failure-tending tasks, the task of pinch-hitting (as explained in this Baseball Digest article from the 1990s) is probably the trickiest, or at least the most likely to end in disappointment (and in the long run, for its practitioners, in oblivion; if you’re a pinch-hitter, you’ll probably fail in any given pinch-hitting appearance, and if you fail as a pinch-hitter enough times in a row, there’s nowhere else you can go but out the exit door). Terry Crowley managed to stick around in this treacherous doubt-riddled role for a long time and for elite teams embroiled in tense, spot-lit pennant races. You could say he was lucky, and maybe he was, but there must have also been a stubborn yet careful tenacity in his approach to the game. All those innings holding a bat and not using it, it must have been tempting to either start gripping the bat too tightly or let it go altogether, and Crowley did neither, and when he was called on, finally, to do his odd, crucial job, he did it pretty well, which means he did it as well, over the long haul, as just about anyone ever has.

With a few exceptions, the cards guiding this 2011 team-by-team preview are from the 1970s, so you’d have to think the Reds, with their star-studded rosters from that era and with first place clubs in the first year of the decade and the last year of the decade and a peak in the middle of the decade that some believe to be the highest point any team has ever reached, would be almost guaranteed to have a good omen centering the forecast for their coming season. At first glance, then, a Terry Crowley card would seem to be a disappointment, a mild popup off the bat of a career reserve with a .250 lifetime average. But if you think about all the winning he was around for and all the years he existed at the nerve-wracking outer fringe of the profession, Terry Crowley is like a rabbit’s foot tied to a horseshoe in a field of four-leaf clovers.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 14 of 30: dig around the Baseball Digest archives, which brings back the game of yore article by article, list by list, letter by letter, cigarette ad by cigarette ad, in a way somehow deeper and more intimate than even the crispest video footage ever could

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

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Mario Soto

March 15, 2010

I saw a great film this past weekend that, among other things, gave me a newfound appreciation of the back story behind this 1977 Mario Soto card, the future All-Star pitcher’s first appearance among the cardboard gods.

Sugar, a 2008 film, follows the story of a pitcher from Mario Soto’s homeland, the Dominican Republic, who comes to America to try to make it to the big leagues. The pitcher, Miguel “Azucar” (“Sugar”) Santos, played by Algenis Perez Soto (no relation to Mario), is not yet out of his teens, and the only English he knows are baseball phrases he learned at the baseball academy that he dropped out of high school to join.

Because the actors in the film are all legitimate baseball players (many, including the star, Soto, were literally plucked from a baseball field by the film’s directors), the baseball action has a documentary-level authenticity. Also, the baseball shown in the film is never exploited for the heightened (i.e., fake) drama that so many baseball films have relied on and suffered from. Baseball has never been treated so respectfully and truthfully in a fictional film, and baseball has rarely, if ever, meant as much. For much of the film, baseball is the only familiar aspect in Sugar’s life as he tries to cope with a life of loneliness, alienation, and racial tension in a minor league town in Iowa. It also seems as if it is the only way he will be able to support his struggling family back home. While he is getting batters out, these burdens do not appear to be too heavy, but when he begins to experience the kinds of setbacks that he fears might lead to the end of his dream, the weight Sugar carries becomes so heavy that anyone who ever watches the film will feel as if they’re carrying a piece of it as an ache in the pit of their stomach.

The day after I saw the movie I started looking at this Mario Soto card. I hadn’t looked at it since childhood, and if I’d done so before seeing Sugar I probably would have taken note of his confident expression and paired it with my knowledge that within a few years Soto would be among the best pitchers in the game. I would have assumed that Soto was simply blessed with a gift, and he knew it, and doubt or pain never entered into his inevitable rise to the top. But then I flipped over this card yesterday and saw that the first line of statistics contained no statistics at all but the capital letters “On Disabled List.” I thought of Sugar limping around with a foot injury, banished from the game, watching from the stands as his team played. I imagined Mario Soto as a seventeen-year-old, unable to pitch. The following season, in Eugene, Oregon, he finally could take the mound, but just a little, 5 games and 30 innings pitched, suggesting that he was still struggling with injuries. (In later years, Soto shied away to a great extent from throwing any breaking pitches, fearing that doing so would cause another arm injury.) Besides physical problems, Soto had another less visible kind of difficulty that first season.

“My first year at Eugene, I remember being in tears after a clubhouse meeting because I didn’t understand a word,” he recalled in a 1984 Sports Illustrated article. A scan of the roster of the 1975 Eugene Emeralds suggests that Soto’s experience may have been even more difficult than Sugar’s. In the movie, which is set in the present day, Sugar has fellow Dominicans as teammates. In Mario Soto’s day, there were far fewer Dominicans playing in the U.S., and while the Cincinnati Reds were ahead of the curve with the scouting and development of Latin American players (when Soto reached the major league level, he joined fellow Dominicans Santo Alcala, Angel Torres, Pedro Borbon, and Cesar Geronimo), it appears that Soto was the lone player from his country while struggling through his first year in pro ball as an 18-year-old boy. I wonder if Soto could communicate with anyone that year—the only other player with a Hispanic name on the roster was a 20-year-old outfielder named Gabriel Rodriguez, and Rodriguez wasn’t even from a Latin American country, but from Louisiana, so who knows if he even spoke Spanish, and anyway he played so sporadically that it’s likely he was only around for a short while.

I wouldn’t have been able to hack it. So far away from home, so isolated, injuries making time away from the game much greater than time in the game. No one to even talk to. I couldn’t have done what Mario Soto did. But Mario Soto stuck it out. In the 1984 Sports Illustrated article on Soto, his manager, Vern Rapp, while justifying and disputing Soto’s reputation as a hothead, offered what can now be seen as an explanation of Soto’s ability to face down the crushing doubt and isolation of his earliest days in pro ball:

“Think of him as someone who grew up in the Depression, when things were tough and you had to be strong to become somebody. . . . When he was 14 he worked for 10 cents an hour in construction to support his family. Of course he’s going to fight to protect what’s his.”

Still in his teens in his second year of active duty in the minors, Soto’s body began to fill out, and he found several more miles per hour on his fastball, which enabled him to go 13 and 7 with a 1.87 ERA in Tampa. The following year, after proving himself at another higher level in the minors, he got the call up to the Reds, and the year after that, this card came out. He continued to shuttle back and forth from the majors to the minors for a couple more seasons, however, and only punched his ticket to the Show to stay when he became the first major leaguer to master the circle change, a pitch taught to him by Reds’ minor league pitching instructor Scott Breeden. (In this there is another echo in Sugar of Mario Soto’s story; Sugar begins to set himself apart from other players at his Dominican baseball academy when a visiting American scout shows him how to throw a spike curve.) With the circle change, which came out of a pitching motion identical to the one that unleashed a formidable fastball but was twenty miles per hour slower and had a sharp downward dip, Soto began blowing batters away. For the first five years of the 1980s he struck out more batters than any other pitcher in the majors, including Nolan Ryan.   

In 2001, Soto was elected into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. He reflected on how far he’d come. “We didn’t have gloves, spikes, nothing,” he said of his boyhood in the Dominican Republic. “We played with bare hands and bare feet. To have come from that to making three All-Star teams is really something.”

It’s the kind of quote that generally drifts past my ears. Of course it’s tough to make the majors, I think, yawning. But after getting a better sense, from Sugar, of the road Soto travelled, I actually hear what he’s saying. To be a cardboard god, you have to go a long, long way, farther than most would be able or willing to go.

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