Archive for the ‘Cincinnati Reds’ Category

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Bill Plummer

August 21, 2008
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I Walk the (Mendoza) Line
Chapter One

I.
Imagine a border, outs on one side, hits on the other. One side of this border is impenetrable. Each time an out sidles up to the well-armed border guards and asks to cross, the out is forced to produce voluminous documentation and to undergo both an enervating verbal interrogation and a full cavity search. The outs are almost invariably denied entry to a new life as a hit and return humiliated to the hovel they’d abandoned earlier that day. Conversely, all a hit needs to do to cross over to the land of outs is to walk through a ruined fence past a drooping scarecrow dressed in a fading government uniform. It’s hard to be a hit, and hits unable to deal with the pressure of existing as hits feel the pull toward the land of outs, and stumble across the border toward what they rationalize will be no more than one night of freedom from consequences, one night of blissful inebriation and release, but then of course the next morning when they approach the fortress blocking reentry they are seen as just another hopeless out.

II.
There are many things wrong with me. One of those things is that I often focus on things wrong with me. But even after years of this tendency I never have been able to get at the central thing wrong with me. The search for such a thing is no more fun than picking through a dumpster on a hot August day, yet I often seem to prefer it to the alternative: facing life as it comes, empty-handed. I don’t know what this has to do with either Bill Plummer or the above paragraph or, come to think of it, anything, but I decided not to delete this paragraph, since the large majority of paragraphs I write get deleted. Young paragraphs read of me in their history books: I’m one of the most infamous mass slaughterers of their kind, a Stalin relentlessly ordering sentence-groupings to the execution chambers by the thousands. So this paragraph shall live, like some poor terrified hunchbacked shtetl nobody spared the firing squad at the last minute, his pants already wet, so as to bolster the feeling of godlike potency in the pardoning tyrant. Behold my terrible power! Mwoohahaha!

III.
A certain terse phrase is often hurled at adolescents as the smug answer to all the internal and external attacks on their mental and physical well-being.

“Just be yourself,” they are told.

I am now 40 and only beginning to grasp who I might be. I know I had absolutely no clue about this when I was struggling through seventh grade. I was young for my grade, so I was still in my last year of little league, but the fun of little league, a place where I did actually know who I was, was like a single basehit in an otherwise long hitless streak.

Over the years, I had enjoyed helping my stepfather, an actor, learn lines for his various roles, so I tried out for the seventh grade play. I didn’t get a part but because there were so few people trying out everyone, including me, was at least assigned to be an understudy.

I understood this meant that I should learn the lines for the role I was the understudy for, but I never did, and the approaching date of the play became the source of a growing feeling of dread. On the morning of the performance I pretended I was sick and stayed home, just in case the other kid, the actual cast-member, got sick. Everyone would turn to me and say, “We need you!”

I was in no shape to be needed by anyone.

IV.
Bill Plummer was an understudy for Johnny Bench, perhaps the greatest catcher in the history of the game. Plummer won two World Series rings without playing a moment of post-season baseball.

He never was able to push his career batting average over .200. After several years backing up Bench on the Reds he went to Seattle in 1978, perhaps hoping for a starting gig on the second-year expansion team. He got only 93 at bats. He did hit .215 in limited action to push his lifetime mark up to .188, but that’s where it stayed. The following year he remained in the Mariners organization but did not play in the majors. If he had he would have been a teammate, albeit briefly, of the Mariners newly acquired utility man, Mario Mendoza, at that moment in time a nondescript utility man, not yet known for anything in particular.

V.
What is it called? That feeling inside—partly an ache and partly, strangely, a glow—that something is wrong with you? That you’re not quite cutting it. That you missed some vital meeting early on where everything was explained. That every day is like crossing a border after being blindfolded and spun. You stumble one way wondering if you should be going the other. That feeling. What is it called?

(to be continued)

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

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Bob Bailey

July 7, 2008
 
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Bob Bailey never commanded much of my attention when I was a kid. To be honest, I don’t even remember him coming to bat for the Red Sox as a pinch-hitter during the 1978 one-game playoff against the Yankees, which in general was the most memorable game of my childhood. In that awkward, wounded, sprawling decade, Bob Bailey quietly blended into the background.

Once he disappeared entirely from view I began to confuse him with Bob Bailor, who flickered to marginal life in the majors just as Bob Bailey was fading. I understand now that utility infielder Bailor was nothing like underrated masher Bailey, who for several years held many of the Montreal Expos all-time slugging records. But as the above duo of cards reflects, even the Expos were capable of underestimating Bob Bailey, shipping him to the Reds for Clay Kirby, who in the season prior to the trade, despite pitching in front of four Gold Glove winners, posted a 4.72 ERA, over a run higher than the league average.

Of course, the above duo of cards also suggests that Bailey let nothing, not even a complete change of scenery, affect his approach to the game. Let the rest of the world stumble and panic. Let the rest of the world try out new styles to cope with profound transience, with the widespread crumbling of societal norms. Let the rest of the world grow long hair and beards and mustaches and attend EST meetings and quit their jobs to sell homemade hammocks and get divorced and meditate and learn the Hustle. Bob Bailey is going to keep being Bob Bailey. He is going to stand there, implacable, and wait for his pitch. 

Fittingly, Bailey did his usual thing for the Reds (.298 batting average/.376 on-base percentage/.508 slugging average), albeit in limited duty (227 at-bats), but did not play in the postseason. The Reds shuttled him to the Red Sox near the end of the next season, and the following year he was sent to the plate to bat for Jack Brohamer in the seventh inning of the one-game playoff game against the Yankees. His last career at-bat, as it turned out. He was the potential tying run. Goose Gossage was on the mound. It was a big moment, but he surely stood in the batter’s box the same as he always had. Waiting for his pitch. Waiting for his moment. Three pitches later he was walking back to the dugout. I have a card for him on the Red Sox that year, and he seems in that card too old to still be waiting for his pitch. But I’m older now than he was then and I’m still waiting for my pitch. Waiting for my moment.

I hate Goose Gossage.

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Darrel Chaney

June 2, 2008
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Last night I dreamed a guy on my high school ultimate frisbee team was hitting me grounders. He was a coke-doing senior who liked to cacklingly saddle younger students with annoying, inescapable nicknames. (I think he was behind people calling me Beeker.) I don’t know why he was in my dreams, but I was having trouble getting in front of the grounders he was hitting to me. This was always a problem for me in all sports and in life in general—I am a coward. If the rare chance coming my way takes a bad hop I’d rather it not hit me in the chest or face or nuts. I’ll take a swipe at it, but if that doesn’t work I prefer to deal with the consequences: humiliation, disappointment, being disappointing. Unfortunately I have become an expert at numbing all the things that accompany a squandered chance.On the other hand, Darrel Chaney strikes me as the kind of guy who would stop grounders with his teeth if he had to. It would be difficult to explain his presence for several years in the major leagues otherwise. He lasted for eleven seasons despite batting just .217 with a .288 slugging percentage. Something of a negative image of the best of the all-star Big Red Machine infielders he occasionally spelled, Chaney also augmented a notable lack of power with an inability to steal bases. The back of the card text backs up the theory that his worth resided in his ability to deal effectively with ground balls, describing him as “an outstanding glove man.” (Interestingly, considering a somewhat gruesome aspect of the Mannerist portrait on the front of the card, no mention is made of his throwing arm.)

I don’t know if I would have been able to write about Darrel Chaney if his hard-nosed talents had been better represented by the photo on his card. I realized today that one reason I have written relatively few profiles of Cincinnati Reds players from the 1970s is that I can’t really relate to excellence. So Chaney, a tough, humble, do-anything-to-help-the-team-win utility guy on a couple pennant winners and a World Series champion, would leave me nothing to connect to had he been shown in a photo bravely turning a double play despite the marauding spikes-high efforts of a baserunner. But that is the beauty of my Cardboard heaven. All become strange and failure-laced. Here Chaney stoops like an arthritic amputee with one freakish arm as long as his legs, his eyes mean slits, his skin pale, his lips thin and sour, like those of a corrupt medieval bishop. He reaches for an imaginary grounder, not getting in front of it. He reaches for his shadow. It eludes him. He reaches for his name. He’ll catch a shred of it, the top loop of the D, but no more, as it slides past him and disintegrates. He will remain forever on this side of the white chalk line.

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Dave Concepcion in . . . The Nagging Question

April 10, 2008
 

Dave Concepcion has a special place in my memory because when I was a kid he once appeared on the cover of Boy’s Life, which my brother had a subscription to as part of his membership in the Cub Scouts. This was for me something like finding some Spiderman comic books or a plate of fudge in the socket aisle at a hardware store. The usual contents in Boy’s Life—fixing stuff, building stuff, lighting fires with no matches, performing resourceful courageous rescues, communing healthily with other young capable outdoorsy boys, cataloguing in a manly scientific way the splendor of nature, helping others, etc.—never interested me, so I was pleased to have something in that corner of my brother’s life that I could relate to.

I don’t actually know how much my brother enjoyed the Cub Scouts, and in fact I’m pretty sure he bailed out prematurely, right around puberty, after he’d earned a couple but not all of the hierarchical series of patches. But into adulthood he has retained a level of comfort with the tasks of the outdoorsman that far surpasses my own. He knows how to set up a tent and identify a bird and start a fire, to name but a few of the things that I approach clumsily and stagger from frustrated, my glasses askew. For him the wild is a place to go to shrink the tasks of a difficult everyday world to a manageable level while simultaneously widening a sense of that everyday world beyond the confines of the necessary economic trenches most of us dive down into most of our days. I like going into the woods for the same reasons, but the work that needs to be done there always gives me back a familiar sense of myself as a generally incompetent guy.

Given this, it occurs to me to wonder where I go, if not the woods, to give myself a sense of competence. The answer is the same now as it would have been thirty years ago, when I was the kid who got excited to see Dave Concepcion on the cover of Boy’s Life. I liked at that time to get away from the world by going into baseball universes inside my head, and the same is true today. What I’m driving at here is that while I may not know how to fix a flat or gut a fish or understand what an IRA is or ballroom dance or tell a joke or build a table, I am, by god, a pretty good leader of imaginary baseball teams in the online Strat-o-matic baseball leagues with player pools based in—where else?—the 1970s and 1980s. I am no Panzer Ace, mind you. (In case you were wondering, Panzer Ace is the unfortunate moniker of the guy who wins just about every league he enters. If inflection of voice were possible in such areas, he would be spoken of on message boards in hushed tones.) But my teams manage to get into the playoffs more often than not.

So what’s my secret, you ask? (I am sure this is the first question that comes to your mind, and not, for example, “Doesn’t it ever occur to you that one day you’ll be on your deathbed wondering why you spent so many hours worrying about imaginary batting orders?”) I’m glad you asked. In two words: Dave Concepcion.

Well, not just Dave Concepcion. But in my experience building a team around a great-fielding shortstop and a great-fielding second baseman, especially if either or preferably both of them can also contribute to the offense, is the best way to ensure that your team will be competitive. Centering your team’s defense, they make mediocre pitchers good and good pitchers great by gobbling up everything hit to them. And if they can hit, as Dave Concepcion could (or, in my imaginary worlds, still can), they make it much easier to build a lineup without any holes, other spots on the diamond being much more easy to fill cheaply with effective offensive players. 

I realize that there is nothing more boring than hearing about someone else’s imaginary sports team, so I understand that I may have killed off most readers willing to start off on the trek of this essay by now. But initially my main goal today, believe it or not, was to give my voice a rest and open up a discussion. It’s just taken me a long time to get to the point I intended to make early on: that according to one of my lone areas of expertise, on-line imaginary baseball, the surest way to build a good team is to start with excellence at shortstop and second base.

That said, here’s the question nagging at me today, one which has me leaning toward including in my own answer the player pictured at the top of the page:

With peak performance and long-term effectiveness having equal importance, which two players made up the best second base and shortstop combination in baseball history?

*  *  *

Also, FYI: There’s an interview with me about baseball cards on ephemera today. The fascinating site, which focuses on various types of collecting, is definitely worth a look.

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The Best Everyday Player of the 1970s

January 11, 2008
 

 
Some odds and ends from The New Bill James Historical Abstract on the players discussed in the recent Cardboard Gods poll on Best Everyday Player from the 1970s:

Though Bill James does not designate a best player of the decade, he does identify the winner of our poll, Joe Morgan, as the best player in four straight years, 1973 through 1976. Only Honus Wagner in the first decade of the twentieth century had a longer unbroken string of dominance (in James’ estimation the Dutchman was tops in baseball for seven straight years).

Of the players considered in our poll, Joe Morgan ranks the highest in James’ all-time list of players, at 15. Two players at the tail end of their careers in the 1970s rank higher, Hank Aaron at 12 and Willie Mays at 3. Other players getting votes in our poll were ranked thusly, starting at the back: 82. Willie Stargell (James’ choice for “Most Admirable Superstar”); 64. Rod Carew; 57. Reggie Jackson (James’ choice for “Least Admirable Superstar”); 44. Johnny Bench; 33. Pete Rose. 

Ken Singleton was the only player receiving support in the poll who was not ranked in the top 100 by James, but he is ranked by James as the eighteenth best rightfielder of all time. Singleton and Stargell are the only two of our players who did not make it onto James’ major league all-star team for the decade, passed over in the outfield in favor of Bobby Murcer, Reggie Jackson, and Bobby Bonds. 

Pete Rose is on that all-star team as a utility man, which would seem to make him the most vulnerable member of the squad if not for James’ high estimation of him in the overall rankings. That ranking made me feel a little better about spending so much verbiage lobbying for more consideration for Rose as one of the very best players of the decade. I’m sure part of my inspiration in doing so was reading, on some earlier occasion, the rhetorical question Bill James uses to sum up his thoughts on Pete Rose’s ranking in the pantheon of the game: “Which is better to start a pennant race with, a guy that you think might be the MVP, or a guy that you know is going to hustle every day and get 200 hits?”

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Champ Summers

June 14, 2007
 

Cheers for Mark Harris, Part 1

I.
I’ve been reading as much Mark Harris as I can get my hands on lately. A couple days ago I found myself rapidly nearing the end of my well-worn copy of The Southpaw, so I raced off to the library and grabbed everything else they had by Mark Harris on the subject of baseball. I thought about also lugging home all his non-baseball books too but decided that would have to wait for another time, since I’m due to go to Holland on a belated honeymoon in a couple weeks and won’t have time to plow through everything the man ever wrote before then.

Throughout my life I’ve read The Southpaw several times, Bang the Drum Slowly several times (though not quite as often as The Southpaw), and also Harris’s non-baseball novel Speed, which I liked a lot. Additionally, I sort of read It Looked Like For Ever, the fourth and final Harris novel featuring immortal New York Mammoth hurler Henry Wiggen as narrator, but I’m pretty sure I ended up skimming the last part of it. It was a gift for a friend, but before I gave it to him I had to check it out for myself, and was mostly disappointed by it, probably in part because I was sure a book about Henry Wiggen struggling through his final season could not possibly fail to be immensely enjoyable. Unfortunately, there was hardly any baseball in it at all (or “a-tall,” as Wiggen would say), maybe none, and maybe because of that it amounted to a long and demoralizingly sour death rattle of Wiggen’s formerly ebullient, blistering, hilarious voice.

But I may be remembering it unfairly and am planning to give it another try after I first read some of Diamond, a collection of Harris’s baseball writings (which includes among nonfiction pieces an excerpt from Bang the Drum Slowly—all the library copies of the novel were checked out, which was my biggest library-based disappointment since discovering, years ago, in a severe late-20s puberty relapse, that all the pictures in a nearby college library’s back copies of 1970s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues had been ripped out by some other nostalgic pervert—and the entire screenplay based on that novel, written by Harris) and also after I read Ticket for a Seamstitch, the one Henry Wiggen novel I’ve yet to crack, perhaps because I’m under the impression that most of its fairly slim contents are taken up by a story in which the young eccentric catcher Piney Woods (clubhouse singer of the sad song that gave the previous novel its title), and not Wiggen himself, takes center stage. But I’m ready to devour it all, good and bad, and in a way maybe it’s fitting that my full read of Bang the Drum Slowly will have to come last, instead of second, as I first planned it (wanting initially to read the entire Wiggen chronicles chronologically). Now I’m assured that I’ll end my latest (but with luck not last) foray into the world of Henry Wiggen on a note of brilliance.

And it’s fitting that I’ll be able to end my project on an elegiac note, too, Bang the Drum Slowly one of the saddest and most moving novels I have ever read, baseball or otherwise (and I have been reading novels pretty much constantly for two and a half decades, a habit that began in large part with my first reading of The Southpaw). I’ve cried whenever I’ve read Bang the Drum Slowly, and I’ll probably cry again, except this time I won’t be crying solely for Bruce Pearson but for the man who created not only Bruce Pearson but also Henry Wiggen and Red Traphagen, knarf retrop and Tegwar, and Sam Yale and Sid Yule, to name just a few of the sacred and profane odds and ends and endless beginnings in the pungent and thriving universe of the New York Mammoths.

In other words, as some of you probably already know, the greatest of all baseball novelists has died.

II.
I finished my latest hungry reading of The Southpaw on the train to work yesterday morning, then read a couple pieces from Diamond, including one in which Harris reflected on his first Henry Wiggen yarn as being an unconscious product of two deep strains in American literature: the Horatio Alger success story and the Huckleberry Finn-style American vernacular.

Harris was aware of his debt to Twain, and later became aware of the similar influence of the Twain literary descendent, Ring Lardner, who first brought the American vernacular yarn onto the baseball diamond in 1916 with You Know Me Al. On the other hand, the Alger influence, which had thoroughly permeated baseball fiction by the time Harris began to pen The Southpaw in the early 1950s, was not so clear to Harris at first. He later came to see that his hero, Henry Wiggen, similar to the heroes of the standard stories of baseball triumph, “does succeed, does grow rich, does preserve his moral virtue.” But at the time he was writing the book, he saw The Southpaw as diametrically opposed to the hackneyed conventions of the Algeresque baseball tale. His critique of the conventional “rags to riches” story of uncomplicated good-over-evil victory becomes abundantly clear near the end of The Southpaw, when Henry Wiggen goes to see a baseball film with his slow-witted roommate Bruce Pearson:

…even Bruce could see [the movie, entitled “The Puddinhead Albright Story”] for the usual slop that it was where nobody sweats and nobody swears and every game is crucial and stands are always packed and the clubhouse always neat as a pin and the women always beautiful and the manager always tough on the outside with a tender heart of gold beneath and everybody either hits the first pitch or fans on 3. Nobody ever hits a foul ball in these movies. I see practically every 1 that comes along and keep watching for that 1 foul ball but have yet to see it.

Wiggen would have seen eye to eye with another fictional early 1950s New York-based malcontent, Holden Caulfield. The hero of The Catcher in the Rye (which as a child I figured was a baseball book because of the fielding position named in the title) like Wiggen hated the unrealistic fantasies of Hollywood. Wiggen and Caulfield, whose sardonic, plain-spoken voices sometimes sound similar even though the former is rising up in the world while the latter is plummeting downward, both loathed all manner of “phonies” in general, and each of their coming of ages can be seen as an increasingly desperate quest to escape the suffocating myth, cultivated by phonies everywhere, that we all get to live happily ever after. Henry Wiggen, like Holden Caulfield, wanted to break through the bullshit to something real.

III.
By the time I first heard of Champ Summers I had started to become the sarcastic wiseass who would soon, with the help of puberty, bloom into the alienated loner so ready to embrace the caustic phony-hating words of Henry Wiggen and Holden Caulfield. In other words, I did not like Champ Summers, because I believed with a name like that he must have been the living embodiment of the baseball version of the happily-ever-after tale. What better name could there be than Champ Summers for the hero of a one-dimensional, rags-to-riches, no-foul-balls-allowed tale of glorious victory on the baseball diamond? No pen-wielding phony could have ever dreamed up any better.

Because of that some part of me relished the less than stellar statistics on the back of his baseball card. I assumed because of his name that he was a highly touted “Next Mickey Mantle” (a la Clint Hurdle) who had been rushed to the big leagues after spending his high school years in some golden uncomplicated town single-handedly winning state championships and fornicating with the cream of the cheerleading crop, so I enjoyed his apparent journeyman status as some kind of cosmic comeuppance.

In actuality, after high school Summers tried to play college basketball but wasn’t really cutting it and ended up getting shot at by the Viet Cong for a few years instead. After getting out of the Army, Summers got noticed by a scout while he was playing in a softball league. He was 25 years old when he was signed, 28 when he made the big leagues. By the time of this 1978 card he was a 32-year-old veteran who had played, sparingly, for three teams in four years, getting traded first for Jim Todd and then for Dave Schneck.

Needless to say, heroes in rags-to-riches fantasies don’t go around getting traded for Dave Schneck.

IV.
Henry Wiggen’s loss of innocence is underscored throughout The Southpaw by his changing relation to the iconic images of baseball players he idolized as a child. Chief among these images is a photo of New York Mammoth star Sad Sam Yale. As a child, Henry cuts the photo out of a library book that tells Yale’s story in a way that Horatio Alger would have approved: as a morally uncomplicated rise to the top. Henry keeps the photo over his bed for many years, then begins carrying the photo, folded up, in his wallet. He continues to do this even after becoming the teammate of Sam Yale, whose first words to Henry are “goddamn you” and whose dissolute, vice-filled life, if not his still masterful pitching, is clearly nothing like the life presented to Henry in his once-treasured library biography. But eventually the photo in his wallet, once a beacon showing him where he thought he wanted to go, who he wanted to become, loses all meaning to Henry. It’s nothing more than a piece of paper.

Henry’s changing relationship to iconic images such as the picture of Sam Yale shows up during the climax of the novel, when the southpaw is laboring through the ninth inning of his final regular season start of the year, a game that his team needs to win. Mark Harris could have brought anybody to the plate to face Henry Wiggen, so it’s telling that he introduces a previously unmentioned character to battle his protagonist:

Bob Boyne hit for Fred Nance, a man of near 40 that I bought bubble gum as a kid with a card in every chunk and once had a card for Boyne, his picture and his history.

Henry Wiggen notes this information calmly, dispassionately, just as he goes on to note Boyne’s strengths as a hitter. His opponent is no longer a hero on a bubble gum card, just a man, like him, nothing more, nothing less. 

With that in mind, I doubt Henry Wiggen took much pleasure in seeing his own image on a bubble gum card, as he likely would have at some point during the following season. He’s done with reveling in his own rags to riches fantasy, seeing the emptiness of it, the essential phoniness. For others of us the fall from innocence is never so complete. Our childhood wishes cling to us even in the face of years of disillusionment. We still dream of being the child who dreams: One day I’ll become the object of wonder.

Apparently, even some of the men who live out the mundane, Schneck-laced reality beneath the fables of awe are loath to give up on their innocent dreams. Writer Joe Goddard, working on a piece entitled “What’s Up With Champ Summers?”, asked his subject to name his best moment as a major leaguer.

“The first time I saw my face on a bubble-gum card,” Champ Summers replied.

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Joe Morgan

June 4, 2007
  

I’ve got nothing today. I feel like I’m made out of wet cement and potato chip farts. Friggin’ Monday. I don’t work at my job on Monday, so it’s the day when I’m supposed to take the world by storm, you know, live my dream life, write shattering tales pulsing with the rhythms of undying prose, etc., etc. But I’ve just been stopping and starting all day today, trying and failing to fight through a painful ache that seizes me whenever I try to compose letters of inquiry to literary agents who don’t know me from a begger on the subway.

So just to keep from going nuts I’m going to take a short break from composing tedious, desperate explanations of how my festering unpublished novel is a sellable undiscovered gem. I’m going to look at my baseball cards. I’m going to look at my baseball encyclopedia. I’m going to enwomb my 39-year-old self for a little while in these activities that have soothed me and temporarily walled me from my troubles for most of my conscious life.

More specifically, I’m going to ask this question: Who’s better, Joe Morgan or Rogers Hornsby?

The discussion attached to the previous posting here on Cardboard Gods came to the collective decision that the man shown here burying his hands in his armpits is superior to his rival for the second-base spot on the all-time team. This decision is in line with Bill James’ thinking on the matter, as he related in his Historical Abstract

If you count his walks and steals, Morgan accounted for 6,516 career bases, leading to 1,650 runs scored. Hornsby accounted for 5,885 bases, leading to 1,579 runs scored. Hornsby played in a league where teams scored 4.43 runs per game; Morgan, an average of 4.11. Hornsby was an average fielder and a jackass; Morgan was a good glove and a team leader. (pp. 360-361)

The one factor left out of the above group of numbers is games played. Morgan played in 2649 games to Hornsby’s 2259, and so produced fewer bases and runs per game than Hornsby. Hornsby’s era saw more scoring in general, but unless I’m doing the math wrong (always a possibility), the ratio of his runs per game over Morgan’s runs per game is greater than the ratio of his era’s average runs per game over Morgan’s era’s runs per game. Because of longer seasonal schedules and a slightly longer career, Morgan was able to compile more bases and runs than Hornsby, but I disagree with the claim that he was as potent an offensive force as Rogers Hornsby.

The clincher to this argument, to me, comes from a look at how each player stacked up against other players of his era. Was Morgan the greatest offensive force of his day? For a couple years he probably was, and that’s pretty amazing for a Gold Glove middle infielder. He led the National League in on base percentage four times, in slugging percentage once, and in OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) twice. Not too shabby. But now hear this: Rogers Hornsby led his league in OPS eleven times. Eleven! I just took a look at the records of the top names on the career OPS leader board at baseball-reference.com, and it seems, according to my unscientific perusal, that in the history of the game only Babe Ruth led his league in that most telling offensive statistic more times than Rogers Hornsby.   

Now, I guess Rogers Hornsby was a pretty bad fielder and a dismal teammate. Also, he and all pre-Jackie Robinson major leaguers surely benefitted from competing in a segregated league. With those things in mind, I really can’t say with any certainty that Rogers Hornsby was better than Joe Morgan. But isn’t it tempting to imagine an all-time best lineup that includes a player at second base who is by a certain key measurement the closest anyone has ever come to being Babe Ruth?

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Pete Rose

May 2, 2007
 

Happy

Epilogue

Here is a happy man, a man immersed in the blissful ache of focusing on something both difficult and ferociously beloved. He seems to have just laced a line drive to left field and is about to sprint toward first base with every fiber of his being. The photo is from the 1978 season, in which he attained the immortality-clinching milestone of 3,000 hits, and then went on to hit safely in 44 straight games, tying an 81-year-old National League record.

Happiness comes and goes. The man pictured here had been born and raised in Cincinnati, and had at the time of this photo played for 16 seasons for his hometown team, winning a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP award, two World Series championship rings, two Gold Glove awards, three batting titles, and 12 National League All-Star team selections. In later years he would win another World Series title with the Philadelphia Phillies; would, while playing for the Montreal Expos, become only the second man to amass 4,000 hits; and would bring his career full cycle by returning to his Reds (I married into a Cincinnati Reds family, and I can tell you that even now the team belongs to nobody so much as to the man pictured here) to break Ty Cobb’s record for career hits, a record long thought impossible to approach, let alone break. But all this seems, in light of this 1979 card, something of an aftermath. An epilogue. He would play for another team the season this card came out, which broke the spell of permanence that Pete Rose had cast, that feeling that he always had been and always would be playing baseball with all his might for the Cincinnati Reds.

Pete Rose’s epilogue continues, of course, defined by his quest for reinstatement to the game he loved as much as anyone ever has, the game that banned him after deciding (rightfully, as Pete Rose himself admitted several years after the fact) that he bet on baseball while managing the Reds. He wants the permanence of a Hall of Fame plaque and the happiness of a job in baseball. It seems less and less likely that he’ll get either. My wife met him last year at a sports memorabilia store. It was a big moment for her, getting to meet the man who had been something like a god in her family’s home when she was growing up. But for him it was just another stop in an endless tour of a world of blurred faces seen from behind a folding table, pen in hand to write the same words over and over:

“Good luck, [your name here]. Pete Rose.”

He did not seem happy.

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Dale Murray

March 9, 2007

For my first few years at the liquor store, I worked mostly evening shifts, usually with a guy named Dave who’d been at the store since his undergraduate days at NYU in the mid-1970s. By the time of my arrival in the early ’90s he was also an adjunct philosophy professor in the city college system. On Friday nights Dave gave me a twenty from the register and I went around the corner to get us some Italian takeout. We ate in the back, on Morty’s desk, shoving his adding machine to the side for the food and for a couple chipped coffee cups and a bottle of wine off the rack. Customers weren’t much of an issue, even though it was a Friday night in Greenwich Village in the City That Never Sleeps. If one happened to come in, either Dave or I would walk up front to the register, depending on whose turn it was.

The store had been successful for most of Dave’s tenure, but since two large warehouse-style liquor stores had opened nearby business had been waning. Sometimes people stuck their head in the door just to smugly tell us that we were selling something for considerably more than one or the other of the big warehouses. Sometimes just for something to do we took empty individual-sized boxes of Absolut and used them to cover up large gaps in our shelves. This practice of covering up the empty shelves increased as the years went by, until eventually most of the store was empty boxes.

“Wow, you guys really have a lot of Absolut,” a customer sometimes observed.

When we weren’t filling in empty spaces, we were filling up empty time. I did a lot of reading. I also watched baseball games on the television up front behind the counter. Both New York teams were out of the running in those years, the games usually meaningless. For the Yankees it was something of a return to the days when I’d first followed baseball, their roster full of latter day versions of Rudy May, Cecil Upshaw, and Alex Johnson, guys who were just passin’ through. Fittingly enough, the defining figure of their previous extended pennantless drought, Bobby Murcer, was often the broadcasting voice bringing me the soothing news of the Yankees’ irrelevance.

Anyway, with the general downturn in business, Dave and I didn’t have to get up very often from our Italian food and red wine. Conversation during the first half of the bottle was generally confined to two subjects, either the wine itself (Dave was a connoisseur) or sports. Dave did most of the talking, and he also took care of the refilling of our chipped coffee cups. Once the bottle passed its halfway point, the conversation turned to memory lane, to Dave’s memories, that is, or to be even more specific to the difference between Dave’s girl-glutted past and my gnawingly lonely present.

Dave spun great expansive tales of romantic adventure and seduction that always seemed to begin with him leaving the liquor store with a bottle of wine in his satchel and always seemed to end with him smoking a joint with some beautiful sensuous she-beatnick on a rooftop below the gentle caress of the 3 A.M. night. I wish I could offer more than a general notion about these stories, because I don’t at all want to sound like I’m mocking them, but I can’t really remember any specifics. But the fact is I loved the stories, loved how he told them, loved feeling a little drunk at work on the free wine, loved the way the whole ritual seemed to beckon for a wider world than the one I was experiencing in most of my waking hours. Later, before we locked up the gates for the night, I dutifully tried to follow Dave’s lead, jamming a bottle of wine into my backpack next to the Dostoevsky and the Meade Wireless notebook filled with my rantings. But my nights, instead of ending on a rooftop with a girl, always seemed to end while waiting alone or with my brother in a stink cloud of homelessness urine for the F Train to Brooklyn after last call at the International.

Eventually I tried to believe that I had merely arrived in the world too late. Times were different in Dave’s day, I told myself. It was easy enough to believe in this scenario, since even the store itself seemed to support the theory that everything was humming along on all cylinders right up until the time I showed up. Throughout the 1980s business had been booming, girls were constantly sauntering down 8th Street with love in their eyes (Dave had met his future wife while standing in the doorway and enjoying the voluptuous parade), rich guys with mousse in their hair tipped you on liquor deliveries with lines of coke and with the rolled-up fifty through which you snorted the coke. To hear the tales, it was practically the carry-the-table-through-the-Copa scene of Goodfellas just before I’d gotten there. But now the championship days were over. Now came the meaningless years. Now the schedule of late-season games droned like a dusty conveyer belt in a factory about to be closed. Charlie O’Brien grounded out weakly to second. Mel Hall stared off into space.

This seemed about right. After all, I had always related to, or at least heaped inordinate sympathy upon, baseball players who arrived one year too late.

With that in mind, here is Dale Murray, looking in his 1978 card as if he is about to be blamed for something. He came to the Reds in 1977, just after they’d staked their claim as one of the best teams of all time with a dominating two-year reign as World Champions. That reign came to an end when Dale Murray climbed on board. I can sympathize. I mean, I often wonder: Is it me? Am I the reason that the winning is always being done just over the horizon, out of reach?

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Johnny Bench

December 21, 2006

Johnny Bench may be the best catcher who ever lived. If I was asked to assemble an all-time team I might end up leaning toward Negro League slugger Josh Gibson as my catcher, partly because of his first name and partly because he was regarded as the best hitter in the history of the Negro Leagues and is by many estimations among the top five power hitters of any league, anywhere, ever. But I could make just as strong an argument for Johnny Bench, whose defensive skills were superior to those of Gibson or any other catcher before or since (with the possible exception of Ivan Rodriguez), and whose offensive prowess enabled him to be the hub of The Big Red Machine, perhaps the greatest offensive lineup ever assembled. And not for nothing, but how cool is this picture? With dust rising all around him, Bench is the gunslinger who has just downed one challenger and who is now eyeing the next as if to say, “You really think that’s a good idea? Really?”

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George Foster

October 23, 2006
 

My family, minus my father, moved to Vermont in 1974, when I was six and my brother was eight. We house-sat for a year in a town called Randolph Center for a family spending a year as Christian missionaries in Korea. Randolph Center had many big white houses with immaculate lawns, and a college with brand new tennis courts, and a ski hill that in the summer became a place where hang-gliders launched themselves like bright-colored ponderous birds that seemed somehow simultaneously prehistoric and futuristic, and a big pond called Lake Champagne with a sun-drenched wooden dock in the middle of it and a building nearby with pinball machines and air hockey tables.

Kids were friendly in Randolph Center, a few of them coming by to basically welcome my brother and me aboard. One of these kids was a farmboy named Buster Olney, who even as a preadolescent had contagious enthusiasm for baseball, baseball history, and at that time most especially baseball cards. By the time we met him, or to put it more accurately were swept up in his tornado of baseball mania, his baseball card collection was already the stuff of legend–the rumor was that he kept the collection in a trunk that he’d buried somewhere on the grounds of the Whiffleball stadium he’d built on his family’s lawn to resemble a miniature Fenway Park. When asked about this he would bark laughter then give answers as elusive as his unhittable Whiffleball pitches. My brother and I had bought stray packs of cards before, but under Buster’s influence we began collecting, buying packs whenever possible at the general store in town called Floyd’s, which was owned by Mr. Floyd, a chipper Vermonter with a Santa Claus build and a gray-flecked flattop buzzcut.

When the family who owned the house we were living in came back from jesusing Korea, we moved down into the valley below Randolph Center, to East Randolph. East Randolph consisted of some run-down houses clinging to a section of Route 14 kind of like dried carcasses to a strip of cracking flypaper. There was a farm machinery dealership, a shallow swimming hole bracketed by a rusted car husk and a defunct gravel pit, and a general store called Race’s that was, unsettlingly, not owned by Mr. Race but by a looming, often angry-seeming man from Pennsylvania named Mr. Heyder.

Not long after we’d moved there, my father got my brother a speedometer for his bike, but not a mile was recorded on the odometer before a pack of cackling East Randolph kids mashed some sticky-pus weed-bulbs called wild cucumbers (which I’d never seen growing in Randolph Center) into the shining black face of the speedometer, breaking the needle and fouling the interior mechanisms. My enraged brother whaled on the main instigator until the kid, using his shifty East Randolph know-how, ended the barrage by yanking out a hunk of Ian’s hair. It was the first in a series of fights between my brother and the East Randolph toughs, and the beginning of my lifelong practice of moving around in public as invisibly as possible so as to avoid victimization.

Collecting baseball cards became somehow more solitary than it had been in Randolph Center. In Randolph Center any additions to the collection were discussed, or at least had the potential to be discussed, in a small but palpable community of Randolph Center baseball card collectors that included me, Ian, Buster, Buster’s friend George, and sometimes even some other kids from Ian and Buster’s little league team. In East Randolph it was just my brother and me, a reality that I would have been willing to embrace but that my brother often recoiled from. By the time I purchased the pack that included this 1978 George Foster card, the whole process had become as lonely and compulsive and privately rapturous as religious pilgrimage or addiction.

In that light, this card represents the apex of my solitary obsession, for I remember the precise moment I found this card in a new pack, and it’s the only Cardboard God that I can say that about. I had just bought the pack from the scowling Mr. Heyder and was walking home. I was by the spot on Route 14 where an abandoned general store with an “Esso” sign and dust-covered windows faced, across the road, an empty metal trailer that had briefly been a restaurant called Chez Rene. Sometimes I was able to delay gratification for a while, carrying the packs of cards (I usually bought two) all the way home before opening them, but on this day I must have needed that pain-killing hit just a little bit quicker and slid my finger under the plastic flaps, breaking the infinitesimally thin coat of glue and releasing the scent of the rectangular shard of gum that came in every pack.

I put the shard in my mouth and was shattering it and releasing the first burst of sugar when I found this card amid the others. I saw the N.L. ALL STAR shield and I saw the name that I recognized from following its awe-inspiring march through the previous season’s statistics pages in the newspapers. The broken-pieces phase of the gum gave way to the soft and cohesive sugary phase, and I heightened the all too brief moment, which would soon give way to the texture-of-a-pencil-eraser/flavor-of-spit-and-disappointment phase, by flipping the George Foster card over to affirm that the legend told by the newspaper statistics was true. After all, nothing was an inarguable fact until I saw it on a baseball card, and here it was: George Foster had hit 52 home runs during the 1977 season, the most any player had hit in a single season in my entire lifetime.

In years to come the 50-home-run plateau would be robbed of its glory by steroidal cheaters and new cartoonish ballparks with dimensions barely bigger than Buster Olney’s Whiffleball lawn, but in 1978 it was mythic. Only ancient guys from a black and white world that preceded the epoch of the Cardboard Gods had ever reached that Olympian height. But now George Foster had done it, and as sugar coursed through my body I held in my hands that very same George Foster, or at least a little sliver of George Foster that had fallen like a red and brown and white leaf all the way from the forests of heaven to the gravel-pit valley of East Randolph, Vermont. I paused for a moment to chew the already fading, hardening gum and stare at the ecstatic statistics, then hurried home before anyone could fuck with me.