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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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

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Bill Bonham

November 17, 2009

Bill Bonham 78

There are rules.

A few months ago, my mother-in-law came for a visit and was leafing through some of my cards. She grew up in Cincinnati, a huge Reds fan, and so was particularly drawn to any cards that featured players from her team. When she came upon this Bill Bonham card she immediately declared that the card was wrong.

“He can’t have been on the Reds,” she said. “Look at his hair.”

She was right, of course. The Reds had a strict grooming policy that set them apart from everyone in the league at that time. As afros and mustaches bloomed elsewhere, the Reds demanded all of their players to be clean-shaven and shorn. It’s likely that this doctored Bill Bonham card is the only instance from that hairiest of decades in which someone with long hair wore or seemed to wear a Reds uniform.

***

I follow rules. I am obedient, meek. When the recording comes over the speaker on the city bus asking standing customers to move toward the back, and I’m one of the standing customers, I move toward the back. I want to be a good citizen, and I don’t want any trouble. I drive the speed limit, give or take a few miles an hour. Actually, I prefer not to drive at all. I prefer not to leave my apartment. I’m afraid I’ll go out there in the uncertain world and inadvertently break a rule. I go to work on time and pick up DVDs at the rental place on my way home, the better to hole up inside the apartment with. This weekend I watched the entire first season of Weeds, the show about a suburban housewife turned rule-breaking pot dealer. Whenever big bags of marijuana appeared on screen, I got a nostalgic twinge both for the feeling of being high and for breaking rules. I basically gave up smoking pot years ago, save for the occasional trip to Amsterdam, where it is not against the rules. It doesn’t agree with me like it once did, for one thing, but I’m sure I’d still do it once in a while if it was sold legally at, say, the place on the corner where I buy beer. It’s a rules thing. And since there are legal ways to alter or at least numb my consciousness, I don’t bother any more with the illegal way. I’ve got my beer, my mounds of starchy food, my food-coma naps, my fantasy sports teams, my DVDs. It’s enough to cross the expanse of a day.

I enjoyed Weeds, but the DVD that affected me the most in recent weeks was Little Children, the 2006 film that garnered Jackie Earle Haley an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. The movie opens with an image of Haley in wanted-poster form, his mug shots in profile and straight on shown in a poster asking “Are your children safe?” For me, a baseball and pop-culture loving child of the 1970s, the photos of Haley were jarring. He had been, when I was a kid, the creator of the single coolest figure in a decade in which cool became a mass-market commodity. He was cooler than Han Solo, cooler than Evel Knieval, cooler than Ace Frehley, cooler than the Fonz. His cool was closer than all those other more exotic avatars of cool. He was cool like the tougher, older kids in my town. He was Kelly Leak, outlaw and star of the Bad News Bears.

In The Bad News Bears and, even more pointedly, in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, Jackie Earle Haley’s Kelly Leak displayed a charismatic disregard for rules. He was the kid who would never be tamed into someone capable of following the rigid rules of the adult world. Then, not long after his days as Kelly Leak were over, Jackie Earle Haley disappeared from the public eye. To see him reappear decades later in mug shots, sullen, his rebelliously long hair not only shorn but receding, balding, was not only a shocking reminder of the relentless passage of time but also a symbolic slaying of the previously immortal freedom of Kelly Leak.

Haley’s character in Little Children, Ronnie McGorvey, turns out to be the twisted inverse of Kelly Leak. Instead of the tough, brave boy with the magnetically precocious worldliness of an adult, McGorvey is a craven, repugnant middle-aged man with the brittle purchase on life of a wounded, fearful boy. And where the previously solitary Kelly Leak became heroic by, in the end, choosing to look out for his younger, frailer teammates, McGorvey has forever banished himself from humanity by molesting a child. Haley’s miraculous performance hinges on somehow engendering sympathy for a character who can accurately be called a monster. He struggles to, as his mother writes to him just before she dies, “be a good boy.”

***

It’s fun to imagine that the Reds uniform in Bill Bonham’s 1978 card is real, that the moment is real, that Bill Bonham sauntered knowingly onto the sparkling spring training compound of the conservative National League powerhouse, ready to sneer at the first team functionary who hustled over to him to inform him in a tense whisper that he was breaking the rules.

But one look at Bill Bonham and you can see that he’s no rebel. That was the thing about the 1970s—by then everyone was experimenting with “counterculture” stylings. It’s safe to assume, looking at his bland, good-natured expression, that Bill Bonham complied to the rules.

Who doesn’t?

***

Once, in the summer of 1977, the last summer in which Bill Bonham wore his hair long, I stayed overnight at my friend Mike’s house. He lived in Randolph, which is over the mountain from East Randolph, where I lived. Randolph had a much higher population than East Randolph, maybe four thousand compared to the few hundred people scattered up and down the road I lived on. In the afternoon, Mike took me to a lot near his house and we played a pickup game of baseball with a couple dozen other kids, everyone getting a chance to smack the tennis ball we were using far into the outfield until it started to get too dark to see. There were no adults around. No umpires. No rules.

After that, our bodies buzzing from hours of baseball, we walked to the Playhouse movie theater and saw The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. I distinctly remember a lack of a parental presence. There was an excitement in the theater, the whole place full of boys chattering and laughing up until the lights went dim, when the excitement shifted to a deeper, more hushed register.

A few minutes into the Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, my inherent enjoyment and embracing of the movie went to another, deeper level. I hadn’t seen the original film, with Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal, and I wasn’t familiar with any of the characters in the movie, but for some reason this made it even easier to embrace in its first moments. As the team came together for a practice, there was a familiarity that implicitly included anyone watching the movie. We are all part of this team. We all know each other. I would have enjoyed the movie no matter where it went, as long as it included boys like me playing baseball.

But the movie became more than just an enjoyable night in a temporarily parentless world the moment that Kelly Leak appeared.

His appearance came just after the blustering militaristic new coach of the Bears had climaxed his rant about following rules by throwing the team’s beloved catcher, Engelberg, off the team. So an implicit question precedes Kelly’s arrival: Are the Bears going to be reduced to a roster of bland rule-followers?

Kelly Leak refuses this possibility by using his motorcycle and dark sunglasses and flat, emotionless exression and cool to wordlessly menace and taunt the hoarse-voiced coach until the latter storms off, leaving the team to a fate that he no doubt imagines as dire, the unthinkable chaos beyond rules. The Bears, on the other hand, celebrate. So did I. So did all the boys sitting in the dark all around me.

Now we’re all in our forties, the former boys in that movie theater on that summer night in 1977. Now we follow the rules. At night many of us wonder if our children are safe. In the morning we look at a stunned wan face in the mirror.

But back then, in the summer of 1977, we cheered. Kelly Leak had ridden to the rescue. There are no rules!

***

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

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Tom Hall

August 26, 2009

Tom Hall 75

Football season hasn’t begun yet, but in a way it’s always football season in America. By now, late August, it has already begun to dominate the sports landscape. This depresses and oppresses me. I followed football when I was a kid, loving it as a fan more than any other sport besides baseball, but when I started playing basketball in junior high, football moved into second place, and it’s been falling ever since.

Maybe I gravitated toward baseball and away from football because I have been a skinny weakling most of my life (though a little less skinny now), and whenever I tried to play football, well, I sucked at it and it hurt, so much so that it took away the possibility of even imagining myself into the game, which was, after all, my main port of entry into any sport. There was no place for the likes of me in football.

But baseball? In baseball, you can be short or tall, muscular or doughy, downright fat or so thin that if you pose on a baseball card as if looking in for a sign, your Afro-elongated head tilted forward, you look like a human bobble-head doll. Even I was never quite as thin as the player enacting this pose, Tom Hall (6’0″, 158 pounds, according to the back of the card), and yet here he is, an established major leaguer, so strangely emaciated that he seems to have cleared the stadium of onlookers perhaps frightened away by his habit of turning sideways and disappearing.

Hall, who must be the left-handed relief ace on the All-Time All-Emaciated-Guy team, comes up in Nice Guys Finish Last, Leo Durocher’s 1975 autobiography. While manager of the Cubs, Durocher chafed against the makeup of the club, specifically its over-reliance on aging, plodding sluggers. He couldn’t get permission from club owner Phil Wrigley to even mention the man he most wanted to jettison, Ernie Banks, in trade talks, but after the 1971 season he apparently got very close to dealing the second-most beloved Cub of the time (and of all time), Ron Santo. Durocher rejected the first package put on the table by the Twins, who offered Tom Hall (“a skinny colored relief pitcher,” according to Durocher) straight up for the Cubs’ perennial All-Star third baseman. Durocher turned the deal down, and then for a moment, until the Twins, without warning, went in a different direction (“a man’s word doesn’t mean what it used to,” Durocher grumbled), it looked as if a deal of Santo and pitcher Joe Decker for Cesar Tovar and Tom Hall had been worked out.

Perhaps Durocher should have taken the first offer: In 1972 Tom Hall climaxed a three-year run of bullpen excellence (513 innings pitched, 349 hits, and 551 strikeouts in that span) by helping the Reds to the pennant with a 10–1 record and a 2.61 ERA in the hitter’s haven of Riverfront Stadium.

He stuck around for a few more years after that, but seems to have lost something. (The sponsor of his page on baseball-reference.com, The Human Karaoke Experience, mentions injuries.) This decline would have certainly been more difficult for him had it occurred in Chicago, where every time he surrendered a shot onto Waveland the fans would look at him and feel the gnawing absence of Santo. (Then again, Santo went into his own decline and was shipped south a few miles, to the White Sox, for his final season in 1974.)

But back to this notion of an All-Time All-Emaciated Guy team. Can we put together a squad in honor of Tom Hall and all skinny weaklings everywhere? Who are the greatest ectomorphs in baseball history?

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George Foster, 1979

August 20, 2009

George Foster 79

Yesterday morning on the 606 bus a man sitting next to me began a loud monologue about a series of subjects. He was about my age, maybe a little older, a white guy with a mustache and a faded baseball cap that said “Chicago” in script lettering. The theme he kept circling back to the most was that “God decides.”

“People think they decide, that they’ve got it all figured out. You’re all plugged in. You’ve got it surrounded. You don’t decide. God decides,” he said.

“Net-book him, Shaq,” he added.

He said this a few times throughout his speech, which had pauses now and again as if to make room for the words of a questioner that no one else could see or hear.

I tried to keep as flat a poker face as I could, since he was right next to me and seemed at times to be addressing his speech to me.

“Sylvester always wanted to eat Tweety, but he never did,” the man said. “Yosemite Sam. The coyote. Never get what they wanted. But you’ll never see those cartoons. Too damn educational!

“Net-book him, Shaq,” he added.

None of this has anything to do with George Foster, except that my favorite thing in the world besides baseball during a childhood that coincided exactly with George Foster’s heyday was the Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner hour (or was it an hour and a half?). I never liked the Roadrunner cartoons, however, and because I liked Sylvester and hated Tweety (as does everyone in the entire world) I found those other most common diversions from Bugs Bunny to be profoundly frustrating.

My friend Pete tells of a heroic act by a friend of his many years ago, when he was in college: Pete and his friend, Gavin, were watching a Tweety cartoon and at one point the annoying yellow bird ended up in Sylvester’s mouth. At that moment, Gavin shut off the television. The last image before a blank screen was Sylvester closing his mouth.

“That’s how it ends,” Gavin announced.

“For the next 48 hours,” Pete told me last night, “I was flying.”

In a way, my childhood performed a similar kind of magic for George Foster. I was too young to know George Foster as an expendable young player for the San Francisco Giants, and I stopped collecting baseball cards and worshipping the players in those cards right before George Foster plummeted off of the up escalator to immortality. This card here, from 1979, is my last George Foster card. The impressive stats on the back (92 home runs in the previous two seasons), the ALL-STAR banner on the front, a perpetual element of my George Foster cards, the very look on George Foster’s face, determined, confident, indomitable: That’s how it ends.

As for the disappointments and frustrations of life, the diminishing performance, the boos raining down, faltering playing time, the yellow bird that always escapes: it’s all a lesson a madman knows. You don’t decide. I don’t know who does, but you don’t.

Furthermore: Net-book him, Shaq.

***

For more on George Foster, you can do what I was unable to do (who likes the sound of his or her own voice?) and listen to me read my post on George Foster’s 1978 card on the The Baseball Chronicle podcast.

While you’re at The Baseball Chronicle, check out Jeb Stewart’s article on the Topps’ 1971 set of baseball cards.

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Gary Nolan

June 9, 2009

Gary Nolan 77

A few things about Gary Nolan as I try to work my way back from the blogging disabled list:

1. My wife is from Cincinnati, and her sports-loving parents have three giant posters of Reds hanging in their house: Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, and Gary Nolan. The Bench and Rose posters are in the same classic and timeless style, big understated black and white head shots from the early 1970s that somehow communicate both youth and immortality. The Nolan poster is of a different, later vintage and seems dated and even a little desperate in the way it blares the name NOLAN in big letters below the action photo of a burly veteran hurler huffing and puffing as he follows through on a pitch.  

2. When I was a kid, my shaky understanding of the relative importance of Gary Nolan had its foundation in that last name, Nolan, which was the same as the first name of the most famous pitcher of the era. It was tough to spend any time thinking about Gary Nolan when your mind instantly suggests an alternative, Nolan Ryan.

3. The 1977 series of cards included cartoons on the back that did not have anything to do with the player featured in the card. It seems a little unfair to Gary Nolan that the cartoon on the back of his 1977 card focused on Nolan Ryan. The cartoon shows a frustrated batter walking from the field with a broken bat, the caption reading “Nolan Ryan has pitched four no-hitters in his career.”

4. Nolan Ryan went on to pitch three more no-hitters after this cartoon appeared on Gary Nolan’s card. Gary Nolan, on the other hand, did not add to his total of zero no-hitters after the appearance of this card. In fact, he only won four more games in his injury-hampered career.

5. Gary Nolan recorded all of his 110 career wins with the Cincinnati Reds, though he did pitch briefly in his final season alongside Nolan Ryan on the California Angels, after being traded straight up for a minor league player named Craig Hendrickson.

6. Gary Nolan was not even thirty years old when he called it quits. He had broken into the league as an 18-year-old in 1967 and that season won 14 games while recording a 2.58 ERA with 206 strikeouts. His next stellar season was in 1970, when he won 18 games to help the Reds win the NL pennant, and two years later, when the Reds added another NL championship to their collection, Nolan posted a 15-5 record with a 1.99 ERA. The following two seasons were ruined by injury, as he only pitched in two games in 1973 and none in 1974. He must have begun to wonder if it was over.

7. Nolan Ryan never had to learn a new way to pitch, as far as I know. From the beginning to the end he threw mind-boggling heat. Things were not so simple for Gary Nolan, according to the stats on the back of his 1977 card. The kid who had struck out 206 men in 227 innings in 1967 was long gone after two injury-ruined seasons. But Gary Nolan found a way to come back and be effective. In fact, during 1975 and 1976, while no longer able to blow anyone away, he still found a way to be the pitching anchor of the best team of my lifetime.

8. I don’t think about Gary Nolan when I think of that Reds dynasty. They had arguably the best catcher ever in Johnny Bench, arguably the best second baseman ever in Joe Morgan, and the eventual all-time hits leader in Pete Rose. Then there’s Hall of Fame RBI-machine Tony Perez, multiple all-star team selections Dave Concepcion and Ken Griffey, and budding super-slugger George Foster. Even the least-known of the starting eight, centerfielder Cesar Geronimo, had a barrel of Gold Glove awards to go with his memorably mellifluous name. You might be tempted to think that with a starting eight like that, who needs pitching?

9. In the photo in the dated poster in my in-laws’ house, there’s something of the bulldog in Gary Nolan. He’s not going to saw anyone’s bat in half or throw a no-hitter, let alone seven, but he’s not going to shy away from battle, either. Gary Nolan huffed and puffed and battled his way to more victories than any other Reds pitcher during the team’s glory-drenched two-year reign atop the baseball world. This was nothing new. As Gary Nolan went, so went the Reds, his best years (besides his rookie year) all coinciding with the Reds winning either the NL title or a World Series. Later departures, most notably native son Pete Rose leaving for Philadelphia, surely got more ink as signaling the end of an amazing era in Cincinnati, but in point of fact the team was never the same once Gary Nolan left.

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Sparky Anderson

February 13, 2009

sparky-anderson-78

Somewhere I Lost Connection

(continued from Johnny Grubb)

Conclusion

At some point during my trip to Europe in 1990, the Cincinnati Reds won the World Series, their last such win as of this moment, February 2009, and their first since Sparky Anderson was at the helm. Anderson had led them through their golden age in the 1970s, and since his departure they had struggled, but in 1990 they jumped out to an Opening Day lead in the NL West and held it the entire season. I may have remembered this anyway, but it’s been hammered into my memory by my father-in-law, a Reds fan, who occasionally salves his frustration over the current state of his team by using the phrase “wire-to-wire” to recall the 1990 champions. They never trailed from April to October. They were never losing. And when they got into the World Series against the heavily favored Oakland A’s, they duplicated their doubt-free regular season by annihilating the puffed-up, overconfident A.L. champs in four straight games.

There are seasons like that, I guess. Anderson presided over one such season just a few years earlier: the wire-to-wire cakewalk of the 1984 Detroit Tigers featuring Lodi alum Johnny Grubb. Before that, Anderson had won championships with the Reds in 1975 and 1976, but in both seasons even that Reds juggernaut, among the best teams ever assembled, had to spend some time out of first place. Surprisingly enough, the ’75 squad, which finished with 108 wins, didn’t move into first place for good until June 7; the ’76 edition claimed first slightly sooner, May 29, but went on to have a taste of the wire-to-wire experience by sweeping through the playoffs and World Series undefeated, the only team ever to do so.

But most seasons don’t come close to being wire-to-wire successes. Most seasons end in elimination. Things get bad, and things get worse. I guess you know the tune.

***

It’s been almost twenty years since the November morning that found me shivering on line outside the UPS building on West 43rd Street, wondering how I was going to get through the winter. Somehow I did. Somehow I always do. Somehow we all do until we don’t.

A few days ago the long winter briefly loosened its grip. I started thinking about spring, which means thinking about baseball. Pitchers and catchers. I wrote an email to one of my friends, a fellow Red Sox fan, and told him that I find myself looking forward to spring training more and more every year. The warm sun shining. Everything still to come.

***

In 1978, Topps produced a manager’s card for every team. These cards troubled me. First of all, at that point in my life I wasn’t really ready to consider that managers were people, too, that they had birth dates and hometowns and threw right or left and batted right or left or both just like everyone else. They were part of the heaven of the Cardboard Gods but only in a sort of impotent way, not worthy of their own cards or of the statistics that provided the conduit between me and the real gods, the ones who played the game. But on the back of these 1978 cards the managers were given statistics just like any other god, but their statistics were often disquieting, not only because they were filled with strange minor league towns where anemic batting and pitching figures were produced, but also because they often ended in something other than the unsaid triumph of every other baseball card: current placement in the major leagues. This Sparky Anderson card, for example, features one brief stop in the major leagues, in 1959 with the eight-place Phillies, where Anderson hit .218 with no home runs. That stop is flanked on not just one side but on both sides with several nondescript minor league seasons. It was the seasons after the brief stop in the majors that haunted me. I’d never seen cards like these before, cards that tailed off into obscurity. Cards that rose from Lodi and fell back to Lodi. Cards that came to an end.

***

I consider all this a failure. These words. I missed it, the core feeling of that trip of mine in October and November of 1990. Instead I sang the only tune I know: things get bad, and things get worse. I never touched the fragile intermittent joy of the trip, perhaps knowing I’d shatter it with my thick fingers if I tried. I was 22 years old. Seeing the world. Everything still to come.

I may never have written so much as I wrote during that trip, scribbling down every thought and impression I could muster the strength to record, some of the writing miserable, lost, angry, some of it garbled prayers of praise, verging on an expression of solitary bliss.

Most of the time I was alone, walking or hitching or writing or staring. But I also met people along the way, friends for a day or an afternoon or an hour.

There was Eugene, fresh out of the Navy, who carried a box-cutter and told me that if anybody tried to mess with him he’d make them regret it. “They’ll have to really fuck with me,” he said, “but if they do, I’ll fuck ’em up. I’ll gladly cut the shit out of them.” He also told me that he tried to learn a new word every day, and as we were climbing an alp he told me the definition of stolid.

There was the thin sad Dutch guy who I played a hand of gin rummy with, and who kept sneaking glances at me, and the Welsh guy who told me later that day, “Yeah, that bloke’s a fruit,” then proceeded to instruct me on all the things that were wrong with American football.

There was the Australian guy who walked through the red light district in Hamburg with me and described the scent of vomit on the breath of the prostitute who approached him. The next day, at a museum together, he told me a story that had us both convulsing with laughter, about being at a zoo a few days earlier when a male lion was humping a female lion. Minutes later, in the Old Masters section of the museum, we got separated, and I never saw him again. I have always wondered if for some reason he gave me the slip. As if to repay that favor, a week or so later, in Amsterdam, I grew tired of walking around the city with a loud young optimist from Arkansas, so I hung back for a second as he forged ahead on the narrow winding street, obliviously continuing his monologue, and then I darted onto a side street and never saw him again.

And, finally, there was the Canadian girl I met in Scotland, as I was running out of time and money. We went out to a bar, got drunk, and on the way back to the youth hostel bought two more bottles of beer, which she opened with her teeth as we stood on a bridge under the stars. I was in love, or something like it. A few minutes later I was getting my first human contact of the whole trip, a drunken and ultimately frustrating clothes-on grope-fest in a room with several other youth hostel guests lying there asleep or awake and listening in their beds.

The next day, after spending the morning walking around in a daze, in something like love, I walked into the common room of the hostel to find the Canadian girl listening to a guy singing and playing his acoustic guitar. He was an American with dark curly hair and the ability to finger-pick while he sang in tune. Dave was his name. Even after I joined the two of them he kept his attention trained on the Canadian girl. Whenever he finished singing one song he asked the girl what song she wanted to hear next. Finally I got sick of being left out of the whole process.

“Do you know any Creedence?” I blurted as he was strumming the last chord of a Canadian-girl request.

“Sure,” Dave said, and before I could ask for the song I wanted to hear he started playing it.

“Just about a year ago, I set out on the road,” he sang. He had a good voice. He smiled as he sang, his brown eyes fixed on the blue eyes of the Canadian girl.

I guess you know the tune. I headed back down south, to London and my unscheduled appointment with the anti-terrorist officers at the airport, and the Canadian girl and Dave traveled north together, to a commune where hippies whispered to the soil, causing magically gigantic vegetables to grow.

***

But since that tune doesn’t tell the whole story, I’m going to play one more, just for the hell of it. Because it’s February, and we’re all still standing, and pitchers and catchers have just reported. Because no story is only about lost connections.

I met a guy in a bar early in the trip, in Frankfurt. I don’t remember what he looked like, but his name was Phil. Phil was loaded, six Guinnesses in him by the time I sat down beside him. It was his first day in Europe. Four years earlier, he’d been the spring training bat boy for the Boston Red Sox. Here’s what I wrote down the next day in my notebook.

Phil the bat boy told me about everybody. Benzinger: “A crazy fucker.” Jim Ed: “A classy guy. Even Wade Boggs called him sir, and he wasn’t joking.” Easler: “One day I touched his bat and said, ‘Since I touched it you’ll do good’ and he fucken hit a homer and said, ‘From now on you touch my bat every time, understand.’ He must have hit 18 home runs that spring!” Buckner: He used to taunt Phil the batboy—”You want to touch my bat? Psych!”—pulling it back and waddling gimpy-legged toward the on-deck circle, cackling. He told me about how the pitchers would get him in the bullpen for “bunt practice,” which meant he stood there with the bat as The Can, Rocket, and Nip threw at him. “They would throw these big bending curveballs that looked like they were gonna hit my head.” He said the nicest guy on the team was Can. The Can would sit on the top step and shoot the shit with him. “Mostly he talked about his wife,” Phil said. “The only guy besides Can who called me by name was Johnny Pesky,” Phil the bat boy told me. “He was a great old guy. He used to have me drive him around in the golf cart—”Come on, Phil, let’s drive through the crowd and see what they’re doing today.”  

He told me about one spring training game, against the Tigers. In the fifth-inning of the game that had featured an unusually high amount of balls being fouled off into the stands, Mike Greenwell approached Phil and told him that he needed to go get the key to the door below the on-deck circle, where additional game balls were stored.

“Apparently this was a gag they pulled all over the league, because everyone I went to said to go to someone else. I was fuckin’ shitting a brick. ‘Oh my god, I got to get some balls!’ So finally they send me to the Tigers dugout, and the players tell me to see Sparky Anderson, who’s in the middle of managing the fuckin’ game. Finally he lets me in on the joke. Oh man, they ragged me so hard for that. A door under the on-deck circle!”

I was laughing. Phil was laughing. What could possibly make me happier? The gods playing pranks. The warm sun shining. Everything still to come.

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Tom Seaver, 1978

December 11, 2008
 Untitled 

“There is actually a good argument that Tom Seaver should be regarded as the greatest pitcher of all time.” – Bill James

I.
Later, I’ll get to the look on the face of the player pictured here, but first I want to talk about the notion—or is it an unassailable fact?—that we are coming to an end of just about the greatest era for elite pitchers that baseball has ever seen.

Degrees of greatness are difficult to define, but baseball analysts have approached these kinds of definitions by devising ways to adjust raw data for different conditions in different eras. The most effective single statistic of this kind, for pitchers, is ERA+. While ERA+ cannot tell the whole story of a pitcher, it seems to do a better job of it than any other single statistic.

Four of the top ten seasons in ERA+ were recorded between the years of 1994 and 2000. Fourteen of the top 52 seasons in ERA+ were recorded between the years 1990 and 2005. By comparison, only three top-52 seasons occurred during a similar span of years directly preceding this recent era, only three in the fifteen years before that, and just two in the fifteen years before that. You have to go all the way back to the deadball era, an era so slanted toward the pitcher that even ERA+ seems unable to adequately adjust for it, to find a similar explosion of otherworldy pitching seasons, as defined by ERA+. Discounting the deadball era, you are left to conclude that, in terms of elite pitching performances, the era we all had the pleasure of recently witnessing was about three times as magnificent as any era preceding it. Three times as magnificent?

Something seems fishy here.

II.
I’m not the person to be making this inquiry into the numbers.

First of all, I don’t know how to make a graph. A graph showing the recent stark jump in the number of astounding single seasons in ERA+ would do a nice job of illustrating the idea that something went wacky in the machine, that some element of ERA+ may not have been able to adjust to all the conditions and factors producing the raw data of the recent era.

Second of all, and more importantly, I’m not so good with numbers.

If you had told me when I was a kid that I’d grow up to make such an admission, I’d have been surprised. Throughout my baseball-card loving childhood, I loved numbers. This is what the backs of baseball cards were all about, after all: numbers. Stacks of numbers, numbers that swelled and waned like the tide, numbers that gleamed, numbers that wheezed, clownish laughable numbers, awe-inspiring numbers, numbers that seemed to tell stories clearer than anything else in the world I was just beginning to wake up to, ambiguous, slippery, forever uncertain.

The 1978 card shown at the top of this page brought to a close what was perhaps the most magnetic running saga-told-in-numbers of my childhood, for the year before this card came out, while being traded from the Mets to the Reds, Tom Seaver fell four strikeouts shy of 200, the first time in a decade he had failed to surpass that plateau. On first glance at the back of the card, it seems he has fallen well short of 200 not once but twice, since there are two lines of statistics for the 1977 season, one for the Mets and one for the Reds. Once that initial disappointment passes, there is the secondary disappointment of adding his strikeout totals for the two teams together, putting those fourth-grade math skills to use, almost but not quite getting to 200. All things must come to an end. Yet still, above those two sums that don’t quite add up to a hundred, there is that pillar of 200s, nothing quite like it in all the world of the Cardboard Gods. Nobody hit over 40 home runs every year, or even over 30, not even Hank Aaron. Nobody drove in over 100 runs every year. But Tom Seaver struck out over 200 every year, again and again and again. But words don’t do the feat justice. You have to have been a kid, holding one of his baseball cards in your hands, looking at that invincible ladder that stretched all the way back to the beginning of time, i.e., to the year you were born.

As I grew up, numbers began to overpower me. Coincidentally or not, at the same time I started reaching for inebriating substances of one sort or another, as if my inability to any longer make sense of the world by using numbers produced a need in me to become as senseless as possible.

I still remember my trigonometry final exam my junior year at boarding school. It was part of a giant testing period for many classes in the gym. After looking over the test, which repelled me like a force field, I spent most of the time until the bell writing an apology to my teacher in one of those blue examination booklets. It may as well have been my suicide note to the world of numbers. Right around that time, a senior drove up over the border, to Vermont (my school was in western Massachusetts), where the drinking age was still 18, and bought so many bottles of booze that when he got back we spread them out on a kid’s bed and took a picture of them. So many bottles you couldn’t even count them all. The giddiness was palpable. We were about to blast all the numbers clean out of our heads.

III.
So was there some weird warp in history that spit out over three times the amount of great pitchers in one era than in the eras preceding it for the previous seventy years? Over three times the amount?

Or is there some flaw in the ERA+ statistic, some nuance that hasn’t yet been accounted for?

I don’t know, man. Let’s face it, I’m way over my head. In fact, this post is more than anything an invitation to one and all to throw a math-dufus a lifeline.

My one thought, and probably it’s elsewhere either been better expressed or eloquently discounted, or both, is that maybe the staggering ERA+ numbers of Pedro and Maddux and Randy Johnson and Clemens and even Kevin Brown (numbers that seem to argue for the superiority of all these pitchers save the last one over such standouts from previous eras as Tom Seaver) have something to do with the expansion of the league during that time.

This explanation has often been used to hypothesize about the reasons for the ballooning numbers of hitters. Talent is thinned out, allowing star hitters to shine all the brighter by all the fat, inexpertly thrown pitches and by comparison to all the lesser batters allowed by expansion to enter into the league. But for some reason this very same line of thinking has not been used, at least not commonly, to try to explain the outrageously good numbers of some pitchers during the 1990s and early 2000s. I don’t see why not. If the town you grew up in suddenly added several more little league teams, wouldn’t the burly early-puberty kids with armpit hair not only hit more home runs but, when on the mound, garner more strikeouts and scoreless innings? And wouldn’t those pitching numbers look even more breathtakingly dominant when compared to the pitching numbers of a skinny bespectacled feeb forced, because of the thinning of the league’s talent, to leave the safety of deep right field to take repeated tear-laced beatings on the mound?

Some support for this line of thinking is that Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez all had higher career ERAs in the playoffs, where there are fewer skinny bespectacled feebs filling out rosters. (By way of comparison, and this probably means nothing, but Tom Seaver’s career playoff ERA was actually lower than his career regular season ERA.)

IV.
But I don’t know. How can anyone ever be certain of anything?

After all, Tom Seaver was known as the Franchise when he was on the Mets, a nickname that of course ties him to the identity of the team, a nickname that says that if anything in this world is certain, it is that Tom Seaver is the Mets.

And yet, here he is, in a Cincinnati Reds uniform. And not only that, but on the back of the card, his string of 200-strikeout seasons, that towering pillar of numerical certainty, has finally reached its end.

When I got this card I probably gazed for a while at the odd spectacle of the Reds jersey on Tom Seaver, and then I probably gazed for a while at the back of his card, adding two sums to make a number less than 200. Then I probably looked back at the front of the card and stared into Tom Seaver’s eyes.

It doesn’t matter, he is saying. The numbers, the uniform. None of it. What matters, what is certain, is this: Give me the fucking ball and I’ll get you a win.

***

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

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Will McEnaney

December 2, 2008
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I.
When you were a kid, did you dream of an ideal life for yourself in the future? I guess I did, but most of the time only very vaguely. I must have known instinctively that keeping such visions foggy and only partially imagined helps numb the pain when they fail to materialize. I can think of a couple exceptions to this general rule, both having to do with my team, the Red Sox. One dream was actually more of a vow, which perhaps explains why I made sure to make it come true: I decided that no matter where I was when it happened, I would make it to Boston for the victory parade if the Red Sox ever won it all. It was a good dream for me to have, it turns out, for it allowed me to be anything and anywhere, and in fact even implied that my adult life would be one that included rootlessness and drifting. The other dream was in this regard a polar opposite, as its success rested on a sturdy, rooted adult life: I dreamed that one day I would be a season-ticket holder at Fenway.

The dream was born in joy. Do you remember the first time you ever came up the tunnel into the stands at a major league baseball game and caught your first glimpse of the green diamond? I’d guess that most baseball fans hold tight to the magic in that memory. My dream of being a season-ticket holder may not have flickered to life in that moment, but when I learned that such a thing as going to every single home game was possible I’m sure my enjoyment in fantasizing about doing so was based in part on that first dose of glowing green. A life built on top of that joy: how could it fail to be a good life?

II.
I only took one philosophy class in college, Philosophy 101, and I remember only three things about it: it was taught by an extremely tall man, it occurred so early in the morning that you could never be entirely sure you weren’t dreaming, and once, either in a dream of the class or in the actual class, the extremely tall man climbed up onto a table and while towering over us and gesticulating frantically with his elongated corduroy-covered limbs called the existence of the table into question. I think Plato came up. Something about an ideal table. I don’t know. Years later, after I’d circled back again to an institution of higher learning to obtain my ticket to guaranteed preposterous riches, a master’s degree in writing, one of my teachers, Francois Camoin, added to my spotty knowledge of Plato by, I think, disparaging the Greek’s take on the world. As I understood it, or quite possibly misunderstood it, Francois did not like the dualistic idea of an ideal version of the world, an idea that makes this world into a faded echo. There’s only this world, so you might as well spend your brief time focusing on its actual concrete details, the nouns and the verbs, the garbage, the stink, the talismans, the doubt.

III.
My childhood imagining of an ideal adult existence, being a season-ticket-holder at Fenway, has never even remotely approached coming true. If my 12-year-old self were here to ask me why this is, I’d have some explanations, I guess. First of all, besides a three-month stay as a directionless 17-year-old at my aunt and uncle’s house in Auburndale, I have never lived in the Boston area. And even if I did live in Boston, I have never been able to and almost certainly never will be able to produce the kind of money needed to pay for season tickets.

“As it is,” I’d say to my 12-year-old self, “I can barely afford my usual couple tickets in the nosebleeds when the Red Sox make their annual visit to the city where I reside, Chicago. Face it, kid, you are doomed to grow up to be an anonymous guy far, far away from the action.”

My 12-year-old self would be unnerved by this news, the pain in his eyes gradually turning to panic.

“But if I’m not going to be a fan when I grow up,” he’d ask, “then who the hell will I be?”

IV.
I woke up yesterday morning feeling old. After four days off it was back to work with my 40-year-old carcass. I was dragging. I tried to write something before work, an appreciation of a book I just finished, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, about the season-ticket holding author’s lifelong life-defining connection with his favorite team, Arsenal. But I could only go on and on about how I had dreamed of being a season-ticket holder when I was a kid (as Hornby had dreamed when he was a kid) and how it had never come true. I was unable to get past my ritualistic self-flagellation to an appreciation of the book before I had to go to work.

I started this morning with a baseball card, a 1976 Will McEnaney. In the lower left of the card is an icon of a pitcher. The 1976 cards all had these icons showing an ideal version of the player’s position—left-handed pitcher, right-handed pitcher, catcher, first base, second base, shortstop, third base, outfield. I would venture to guess that few, if any, of the cards from that year featured the real player so closely aping the ideal player as the Will McEnaney card. In fact, Will McEnaney appears to be someone here who knows nothing about pitching (and, judging from his pained, ironic expression, cares even less) and is inexpertly contorting his body into a pantomime of a pitcher by imitating some idealized version of a southpaw.

This is no way to go through life, twisted toward some ideal.

V.
But if I’m not going to be a fan when I grow up, then who the hell will I be?

Kid, you’ll be a fan. Just not quite the kind of fan you thought you might be. In fact, you’ll be very much the kind of fan you are now. Far away from the action. Riddled with distance and solitude and doubt and nauseating boredom and self-absorption. Your fandom will involve the radio and gaps in information and your imagination attempting to fill the gaps. It will involve baseball cards. It will involve holding these cards in your hand and trying to make sense of the actual world. It will at times resemble a quiet strain of mental illness. It will at times resemble prayer.

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Tony Perez

October 24, 2008
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I.
If the Phillies are going to win the World Series this year, they are almost certainly going to need a well-pitched game or two from the oldest player in the major leagues, Jamie Moyer.

How old is Jamie Moyer, you ask?

II.
Last night I dreamed of baseball cards. I dreamed I found cards I hadn’t known I’d owned, or that had belonged to my brother, and I was back in my childhood room looking at them, discovering them, many of the cards strange oddities. The only one I can specifically remember was emblazoned on the front with the line “Vincente Romo is a bodyguard in the offseason,” a line that was wrong, almost certainly, for being inaccurate, wrong for being on the front of the card, wrong for misspelling Vicente Romo’s name, and wrong for not even being on Vicente Romo’s card at all but on the card of some previously unknown relative of Jose and Hector and Tommy Cruz. All the mistakes made the card seem to pulse with value, with life, the way cards felt in my fingers when I was young. I didn’t want the dream to end.

III.
Jamie Moyer is so old that he provides an active link to the veteran superstar pictured at the top of this post in a real baseball card from 1976, a card I held in my hands as an 8-year-old, a card from a world that despite all my constant backward-gazing efforts on this site and elsewhere, including in my dreams, still seems, most of the time, dead and gone.

IV.
When I was pulled from my dream of the card of the fourth Cruz brother I felt sad. My ESPN-tuned radio alarm clock was blaring. It was cold in the room, still dark outside. Time to get up. The kingdom of childhood, of endless discovery, had risen again in full, only to vanish instantly in the timely meaningless squalling of Mike and Mike.

V.
But maybe that world, or some shred of it, is not gone as long as Jamie Moyer is around. Statistically speaking, he is a contemporary of Tony Perez, the star player in the card that pulsed in my young fingers back in 1976. In his final season a few years later, Tony Perez went 0 for 3 against a rookie named Jamie Moyer.

VI.
And maybe, to take it a little farther by using a time-traveling exercise pioneered by Bill James in his Historical Baseball Abstract, worlds even more distant than my childhood are still with us as long as Jamie Moyer is around. Moyer, who tomorrow night will start arguably the most important game to date of 2008, faced Tony Perez in 1986, and Tony Perez, in his first full year in the league, 1965, faced Warren Spahn in his last, and when Warren Spahn broke into the majors in 1942, he was a teammate of the oldest player in the league, batsman Johnny Cooney, and Johnny Cooney broke into the league as a pitcher in 1921, when he faced a Philadelphia Phillies squad that featured a 47-year-old pitcher/manager named Kaiser Wilhelm, and Kaiser Wilhelm broke into the league in 1903, when the oldest player was Chief Zimmer, and Chief Zimmer debuted in 1884, when the oldest player was “Old Reliable” Start, and Old Reliable Start began excelling at the Sporting Pursuit of Base Ball before the first shots were fired in the Civil War. For those keeping score at home, that’s just six degrees separating the Lincoln era from what seems to be the dawn of the Obama era, thanks to the baffling, time-defeating junk still springing, hallelujah, from the fingers of Jamie Moyer.