Archive for the ‘Cleveland Indians’ Category


Rick Waits

October 27, 2016


California Sun


I once rode an elevator inside a mansion. I was a boy. I remembered this today when I got on the elevator at work. I’m not sure why. The elevator at my building is nothing like that elevator that I rode nearly forty years ago. I rode that elevator in a mansion in the fall, the days getting shorter and colder. I rode the elevator today in the fall, the days getting shorter and colder, and when I pushed the button for my floor my finger touched that other elevator button, the one in the elevator in the mansion.

It was in 1978, November. My grandparents had wrangled a deal to serve as housesitters from the fall through the winter for the Cape Cod residence of some Johnson or another in the Johnson & Johnson empire. I’m not sure why. My grandmother was a painter who specialized in seascapes, so my best guess is that she sold something to a Johnson and then became acquainted with her or him. Also, my grandfather was one of these gifted blabbers who befriended people wherever he went, so he might have had something to do with the whole deal too.

November 1978 was right around when I truly started waiting, waiting in the way that the fans of the two teams currently playing in the World Series know better than anyone. Just wait. The Red Sox had a few weeks earlier lost a one-game playoff that had somehow centralized any and all nameless hurt in my young life, all the gnawing loneliness and stomachache worry and throaty grief. I’m not sure why. Fandom is silly, meaningless, but what else are you going to use to pin things down?

Just a few weeks earlier, I’d had one last sunburst of hope, and it had come courtesy of Rick Waits. Say the words “Rick Waits” to graying Red Sox fans, and they’ll be visited by that noblest of feelings, gratitude, thinking of the Fenway scoreboard on October 1, 1978:


Waits’ victory allowed the Red Sox to tie the Yankees on the final day of the 1978 season. I’m not going to go into what happened the following day, which I’m sure has been covered once or twice by someone somewhere. I want to hang a little longer with that feeling of Rick Waits, that feeling of hope coming from his random if not divine intervention.

You can’t do any of this yourself. I’ve known that for a long time, but I’ve also leaned too heavily on the idea of external assistance. When I was kid I dreamed Carl Yastrzemski would show up at my house to solve all my problems, and for years throughout my twenties and thirties my go-to daydream was an only somewhat refined version of this, involving people of influence and agency literally pounding on my door to tell me that I was talented and needed and would from then on live a life of full-throated song (plus there’d be money, blow jobs, awards).

This is why I started telling this story a few days ago. To try to be rid of it. I actually don’t think it’s possible to ever be fully rid of any of the habitual narrations in your mind, but you’ll never get anywhere close to getting free of them if you keep them entirely inside. And for the last few years I kept the story inside that begins “I once had a meeting at Sony Pictures Studios.” In fact, even inside my own head, I didn’t allow that word “once” to be a part of the story, because that “once” casts it into the past, seals it up, makes it singular, once in a lifetime.

But getting rid of the story is not really the reason I started telling the story, or not the only reason. I also wanted it to be part of my story. Everything I’ve lived and touched and wanted and failed to get. It should all be a part of it. I once had that meeting! It was just like in the movies—there was a security booth with a guardrail at the entrance, and after I explained my reason for needing to be on the lot the security guard pushed a button, and the guardrail started, slowly, to rise.

I don’t think life is a form of rising. For example, I don’t think my cat is going to get better. He’s all bones now. He still likes to be petted though, still purrs when you rub your hand over his thinly-covered skeleton. He’s been my friend for a long time. You wait and you wait for some kind of life of unending sunshine, and at the end of all the waiting is nothing more and nothing less than the frail rumble of gratitude in your bones.

I don’t think I’ll ever again ride an elevator inside a mansion. But I once rode an elevator inside a mansion. I got in and pulled a rickety wicker gate closed, and then I pressed a button and started, slowly, to rise.


Larvell Blanks

May 2, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.) 

Sugar, Sugar

Ah sugar

Baseball cards existed for decades on the fringes of the game. Few cared.

Ah honey honey

A core imperative of capitalism is to create demand where there is none. Rhetorical dismissals, however rational, such as “Why would anyone want to purchase cardboard rectangles featuring photographic and statistical portraits of strangers?” are ignored in favor of pragmatic, profit-driven inquiries such as “What can be done to make someone want to purchase cardboard rectangles featuring photographic and statistical portraits of strangers?”

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

These cards bring me back to the beginning. I’m a kid. Each of my days as a kid begins with the only childhood love that rivals my love of baseball. The imaginary-character cereals—Cap’n Crunch, Frosted Flakes, Lucky Charms, Super Sugar Crisp—are not allowed in my house, but I make my own version by sneaking heaping teaspoons from the sugar bowl into my Cheerios or Total or Corn Bran or Rice Chex. For my love of sugar I lie and steal. It feels good. The morning brightens, larval gray giving way to the fluttery winging shimmer of cartoons.


Ah sugar

When sugar was added to baseball cards, via a slab of hard bubble gum, baseball cards metastasized from a marginal curiosity to an American institution.

Ah honey honey

For most of human history, sugar was not in demand. But as capitalism took root worldwide during the colonial expansion of European powers, sugar came to be known as “white gold” for its desirability and tremendous profit-making properties. The world tilted murderously toward it.

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

Afternoons as a kid I devour whatever is available, sometimes Chips Ahoy, sometimes Oreos, sometimes Nutter Butters. Sometimes there’s nothing sugary in the cupboards but Quik, which I eat dry in heaping teaspoons. If I still have my small weekly allowance in hand, I go to the general store with enough of my own money to buy one thing for me alone. The one thing differs. Could be Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or a Nestle Crunch bar or a $100,000 Bar or M&Ms or Rolos or a fistful of Bazooka Joe or a Charleston Chew or a Snickers or Bubble Yum or a Mars Bars or Sugar Babies. Could be a pack of baseball cards.


Ah sugar

Interest in baseball cards has been considered for some time to be waning. Every so often there is an article or a blog post or a book or a TV special that wonders whatever happened to baseball cards. It’s fucking obvious what happened.

Ah honey honey

The cultivation and manufacture of sugar in colonial times was extremely labor-intensive, so Europeans enslaved indigenous populations (referenced in the customary generic misnomer on the uniform of the player in the card at the top of this page) to do the work needed to make sugar. What else were the Indians doing? What other use did they have in this sweet new tilted world?

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

In 1977, a nine-year-old boy in the most powerful nation the world has ever known discovers this card in solitude, the sugar coursing through his body causing his heart to pound as if he is in love. He is not in love. He doesn’t know about girls. He doesn’t know how sweet a kiss can be. A kiss? He doesn’t even like to be touched. Here is the boy at the pinnacle of the corrosive arc of capitalism through human history: don’t touch me; gimme sugar.


Ah sugar

The most common explanation for the current downturn in interest in cards is that “the bubble burst.” The bubble that is being referenced is figurative, an investment bubble, the vast and idiotic speculating done on baseball cards in the late 1980s and 1990s creating an imaginary fragile orb filled with emptiness. But the real cause in the decline of baseball cards is much simpler. Think bubble, but be literal.

Ah honey honey

When the Indians being forced to work on sugar plantations began dying in great numbers from European diseases, the Europeans looked to Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people of the same color as the player in the card at the top of this page were captured, enslaved, shipped across the Atlantic, and forced to provide the labor needed to produce sweetener.

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

A nine-year-old boy with sugar coursing through his body chews the bubble gum that came with the pack of cards. He chews, gulps, exults, keeps chewing. The gum is not yet ready for bubbles. Some cards stop him, others don’t. This one does, the first name something to be worked over in the mouth like gum, like the contagiously empty syllables of a pop song, like the declensions of a word for forms of life. Larva, larvae, Larvell. The second name is for the things beyond names, a bubble with nothing in it, expanding. The gum is ready now. Breathe-slow, blow, a nothing day in a loveless larval year. Sugar fills the blanks.


Ah sugar

When the sugary bubble gum was removed some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s from packs of cards—presumably to protect the cards, those idiotic objects of investment, from damage—it was the beginning of the end. Kids drove the industry and the nostalgia and the joy of baseball cards. Nowadays, with no sugar involved, kids don’t give a shit about baseball cards. Nowadays baseball card conventions are, so I’ve heard, largely childless, instead sparsely populated by middle-aged men like me meandering around and remembering how sweet it all used to be.

Ah honey honey

Sugar causes a fleeting increase in serotonin levels in the body. Sugar makes you fat, gives you diabetes, rots your teeth. Sugar is stupid. Sugar is irresistible. Sugar snares children, topples empires. America was able to gain its independence from Great Britain in part because the British were devoting much of their military might to protecting their sugar-making territories in the Caribbean, weakening themselves in the fight against the colonies. One empire staggered, another began to rise.

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

Sugar stops time. Time has been stopped. The player gazing out at the nine-year-old boy during this stoppage is known as Sugar Bear. The player has explained that this nickname came to him during his first professional season, 1969: “In the months of August and September, while I was in the Arizona Instructional League, there was a hit single being played on the radio called ‘Sugar, Sugar.’ Ralph Garr, Darrell Evans and others started calling me ‘Sugar Bear.’”


Ah sugar

Taking sugar away from baseball cards? The only business decision that could compare would be if the music industry equivalent of bubble gum, bubblegum pop songs, attempted to remain a profit-generator in spite of removing from its product the insipid insidious sweetness, the hooks, the groove.

Ah honey honey

The bubblegum pop songs that ruled the air in the late 1960s and 1970s were aimed at me, which is to say they were aimed at children, mass-produced, written by company writers and performed by company musicians, everyone involved in the assembly line production ordered to keep it simple and shiny and contagious. The apotheosis of the genre was the 1969 song “Sugar, Sugar” that was not only its biggest hit but the most direct expression of its aesthetic: sugar and nothing else, a sweetened larval blank. The song was disseminated through cross-platform marketing before that hideous term even existed, and it started its viral sweep around the world by preying on those with the least resistance, appearing first in a cartoon program, The Archies, and coming as a prize in certain sugar cereals so that children could get hooked on it as they crested the first sugar wave of the day. Though children were targeted, many others were struck, stricken, addicted. “Sugar, Sugar” is reportedly a favorite song of George W. Bush. Presumably he first heard it in 1969, his first year out of college, as his privileged class status was likely allowing him to avoid going to Vietnam. Years later, he danced with his daughter at her wedding to “Sugar, Sugar.” He was nearing the end of his two terms as president by then, during which he had blandly fronted the continuing transformation of the United States into a faltering obese diabetic overextended colonial empire that is always at war.

You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you

I have only ever wanted one thing, the impossible thing, the sweet stoppage of time. Stop the world. Just once. At nine I already know the deal, and sometimes in the middle of the night it springs me awake and upright like a half-broken trap. Time always goes forward, leads to when there will be no more sweetness, no gum, no card to hold, no me. Why wouldn’t I love that sugar has seized me, that time has been called, that play has halted, that there is still a me to be gazed at by a stranger named Larvell Blanks for one sweet American moment alone?


Ron Pruitt

March 8, 2011

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

Cleveland Indians

To churn out all these predictions by Opening Day I can’t really take time to think, which is not necessarily a bad thing given that I am not a good thinker, so here go a few random thoughts on this 1979 Ron Pruitt card.

1. What was it with masked professional-athlete Pruitts in Cleveland in the late 1970s? I’ve never come upon the name Pruitt anywhere else, yet in 1979 the Cleveland sports landscape was lousy with Pruitts in helmets, current star Mike Pruitt and former star Greg Pruitt running the ball for the Cleveland Browns while Ron Pruitt filled in once in a while wherever he was needed by the Cleveland Indians. None of the Pruitts were related, which seems somehow unfair.

2. The word Pruitt has always reminded me of the body music sound effect words used by Mad Magazine cartoonist Don Martin. (It would have been slotted into the Don Martin Dictionary between “PRAWK!!!” and “PSSSSH” and would be defined, I believe, thusly: “PRUITT!: seated pear-shaped pinhead shifting to the side to emit a one-cheek sneak.”)

3. This past weekend my wife and I started packing up our apartment to get ready for a move. As we were putting books into boxes, we had half an eye on Major League, which had presumably been rushed onto the air to grab a piece of the Charlie Sheen mania sweeping the land. The movie features Charlie Sheen as a flamethrowing rookie phenom leading the Cleveland Indians to a dream season. I have seen it before and experienced most of it this time as background babble while working on clearing my shelves. It’s a strangely exhausting task to pack up my books, as each one of them seems to exert a pull on me, similar in some ways to how my cat reaches up and paws at me, purring, wanting my attention. It doesn’t matter whether the book is one I’ve already read or one I’ve been meaning for a while to read, if I so much as touch the cover the book will beg me to drop everything and sit down and read the entire contents, and after a while these unheeded pleas take a psychic toll. So I took a lot of breaks while packing up my books, collapsing on the couch not to read but to watch a young, skilled Charlie Sheen throw the most plausible fictional heaters ever to grace the big screen.

4. The movie version of the Cleveland baseball team echoes the actual version in being mired in decades of losing. Ron Pruitt was on hand for some of that losing by the real baseball Indians, who were of course named after another beleaguered group long familiar with losing. Even before those first Indians started losing great swaths of land and people, before they were given the dubious misnomer used to identify collectively the many indigenous tribes that occupied the continent, those tribes had, I believe, an awareness and even an acceptance of losing being a natural part of life. Because of this, they lived on the land in a more sustainable way, more in tune with the necessary balance between losses and gains, than the Americans who would crowd them out with a hungering expansionist need to always be gaining and winning.

5. Charlie Sheen is the ultimate American. And no matter how much maniacally focused conviction this ultimate American (whose primary catchphrase—“winning”—centers either the most public nervous breakdown yet or an improvised straightfaced multimedia comedic performance that would have made Andy Kaufman writhe in admiration and envy) can pour into the message that his life from now on will only be about gaining and sustaining victory, he will lose, because we all will lose, because at a certain point we will run out of time to do all the things we wanted to do and go all the places we wanted to go and read all the books we wanted to read, and we can feel this certainty tugging at us at various times, such as when we pack books into boxes in a dress rehearsal for the packing chore that will happen eventually, somewhere down the line, without us. Winning only solidifies into permanence in the movies. In real life, it comes and goes.

6. Ron Pruitt seems to be watching it go in this 1979 card, from behind his protective mask. He was paying attention throughout his career, it seems, and like another major leaguer who learned to exist at the margins, Mike Kingery, Ron Pruitt now teaches the game to anyone who wants his instruction.

7. The 2011 Cleveland Indians will ramble like these thoughts, and stumble through occurrences as unrelated as the Cleveland trio of Pruitts, and continue their long relationship with that certainty of the human experience, losing.


How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 9 of 30: read Eric Nusbaum’s Pitchers and Poets, a site that, as Howard Cosell once said admiringly of Frank Sinatra, “knows what losing means.” Nusbaum’s “Death of a Pitcher” post was included in the 2010 Best American Sports Writing collection. More recently, the site has been imbibing in the drug called Charlie Sheen, noting his unabashed love of baseball and admiring his ability to hit home runs.    


2011 previews so far: St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Pittsburgh Pirates; Arizona Diamondbacks; Colorado Rockies; New York Yankees


Wayne Cage

July 29, 2010

I’ll resume regularly writing about my childhood baseball cards next week, but until then a couple quickies:

1. The infielder crouch. By 1980, the year of this Wayne Cage card, the stiff poses that had dominated the earlier years of my childhood were beginning to dwindle. By then this was a rare sight, a guy in the ol’ infielder crouch. I channeled Wayne Cage and others, most specifically master of the genre Denny Doyle, during a photo shoot last week for the Chicago Tribune. The photographer came over to my apartment and we went out behind my apartment building where he took several shots of me. This put my knowledge of baseball card poses to the test. (The shoot also put my creaky 42-year-old body to the test: while doing the ol’ “pitcher follow-through” pose I almost fell over and while jerkily trying to stop the fall I pulled a muscle in my shoulder.)  The crouching infielder was the one the Chicago Tribune went with in the story they did on me in today’s paper. You can access an online version of the story (and also get a “behind the story” wrapup from the folks at the Tribune), but the version in the printed paper looks better, as in the print version they were able to do a bunch of formatting to make the story really look like the front and back of a card.

2. An event! Next week on August 4, I’ll be part of the Reading Under the Influence series at Sheffield’s in Chicago. The details:

Reading Under the Influence
Theme: The Gods
3258 N. Sheffield Ave., Chicago, IL
Reading and trivia contest (also reading: Marc Paoletti, Simon Smith, and Alex Bonner)
$3 cover charge

3. Luke Cage, Power Man. Wayne Cage, whose brief time in the majors concluded with this 1980 card, his last, stood out to me among the scores of more nondescript short-timers primarily because of the possibility that he was related to Luke Cage, Power Man. Luke Cage, Power Man looked cool with his giant metal Afro-creasing headband and metal wristbands and battle-tattered yellow shirt. God, I wish I could spend the rest of the day today lying around reading old Luke Cage, Power Man comic books from the 1970s, but I no longer have comic books or anything except my baseball cards from those days, so Wayne Cage will have to suffice, and only for a few more minutes because I have to go to work. Such is life.

Still, can I just linger for a second longer on Luke Cage, Power Man, god damn it? Why, I wonder, did I like him so much? Not too many others seemed to, judging from his spotty series history and the inability, suggested by his eventual prolonged pairing with fellow B-lister Iron Fist, to carry his own title. I guess with superheroes I was drawn to characters who had complex and difficult daily lives and comparatively simple superpowers who fought battles that did not veer too far from the recognizable troubles of the “regular” world. I loved the ever-angsty Spider Man, for example. As for the Fantastic Four, whose powers, besides those of the negligibly important, aptly named Invisible Woman, were also pretty basic and elemental: I liked them so long as their ongoing family soap opera didn’t veer too deeply and confusingly into the far reaches of, say, the Negative Zone. But nobody was simpler in their powers or more tangled in the brambles of the everyday world than Luke Cage, Power Man. Luke Cage, Power Man couldn’t fly or shoot rays out of his fingertips or read people’s thoughts or cast spells. Luke Cage, Power Man even had trouble paying rent. But there was this, and I loved it: Luke Cage, Power Man could punch shit real good.

And then again, my love for Luke Cage, Power Man may have derived in part from his status as the only superhero saddled with a comma in the middle of his name, and I was thus drawn to him both because of the inherent pity-invoking belittlement in that mealy-mouthed element of his sobriquet and because I knew, deep down, that I’d grow up to be someone paid to notice commas, a quiet, cubicle-bound proofreader, surely the polar opposite of a wall-smashing street-smart brute with a steel Afro-creasing headband.


Duane Kuiper

March 18, 2010

Have you ever met one of your gods face to face? I haven’t, not really, unless you count the time when I was eleven and I shouted to Jim Rice through the fence separating fans from the Red Sox players’ parking lot at Fenway, or the time I rode in an elevator a couple feet away from Tom Seaver. But I know how a face to face meeting would probably go. I’ve had the chance to meet a couple writers that have meant a lot to me, and I gushed at them in an unintelligible torrent of overwraught praise, unable to stop even as a stricken look crept across the face of the person I was accosting. “I don’t know what you want from me,” the look said, “but I can’t help you.”

When I was a kid it would have been among my greatest dreams to have one of the players from these little cardboard rectangles walk into my world, big as life. What I didn’t realize is that I’m the kind of fan who needs distance. My fandom was born out of distance and it feeds on distance. If Carl Yastrzemski or Bernie Carbo ever pulled into the driveway of the house where I grew up, interrupting me to ask for directions as I built a make-believe universe out of throwing a tennis ball against the garage door, my world would have been diminished. They would have driven off no wiser (I didn’t know how to get anywhere back then except for the places in my own dream worlds), and I would have stood there watching them go, holding what was now just a ratty tennis ball instead of the game ball in the urgent latter stages of a championship game, and I’d be feeling ashamed for the words that had vomited out of me, and hurt by the stricken looks that had crept across the faces of my formerly benevolent gods.

And let down. I would have felt let down. 


“Duane Kuiper has never let me down.” – Joe Posnanski

When I watched the movie Sugar the other night, it was actually the first part of a living room DVD double-feature with another recent movie, Big Fan. The two movies, though very different in tone and story and subject matter, were on a certain level two sides of the same coin. Sugar delved with great empathy and sensitivity into the world of the professional athlete, and Big Fan positioned itself far outside that world, focusing on the psychology—or perhaps more accurately the religiosity—of the literal outsider: the fan.

It should come as no surprise which side of this coin I’m on. I mean, I’m a middle-aged man who has spent the last several years writing about his childhood baseball cards. I don’t know what it’s like to strike a guy out with a crowd watching, unless you go back three decades, to the one afternoon in my life when I recorded a couple strikeouts, and allow me to designate the small gathering of bored parents sprawled across the bleachers at the little league field a crowd. I have a much better sense of what it means to cheer for and agonize over and idolize and revile. I have a much better sense of what it means to live through strangers.

Two sides of another coin, call it the fan coin, could be Paul Aufiero, the character Patton Oswalt plays in Big Fan, and Joe Posnanski’s great blog post on Duane Kuiper. The latter is a customarily entertaining and illuminating piece of writing from one of the best sportswriters around, and among other things it offers a portrait of balanced, lively sanity. Posnanski seems to be, at least in the abundance of the personality he is able to share in his writing, that rarest of things in this shaky world: a sane man. This sanity comes across in the Duane Kuiper piece with his characterization of his bond to Duane Kuiper, which is as fiercely loyal as any bond forged by a raving lunatic, but which is grounded in a decidedly human realm. Joe Posnanski has never been disappointed by Duane Kuiper because all he ever expected from Duane Kuiper was what Duane Kuiper readily offered: hustle, humor, humility. He did not lean on Duane Kuiper to fix jagged holes in his psyche. He did not make Duane Kuiper into a rescuing god.

In Big Fan, on the other hand, there is a sense that the central character, Paul Aufiero, may be placing the entire burden of his life at the feet of a team, and most especially a certain favorite player. He is relying on his gods for salvation. In Paul Aufiero’s room, above his bed, hangs a poster of his favorite player, a hulking defensive lineman whose specialty is sacking quarterbacks. Where the sane man Joe Posnasnki chose a hero who was closest to him among the gods, a decidedly unimposing regular guy (“[Kuiper] was the one who said that you don’t have to be supremely gifted and impossibly strong and touched by God in order to get where you want to go”), the dumpy downcast cipher Paul Aufiero seems to have chosen to worship someone who is everything he’s not: tall, handsome, muscular, powerful, fearless, seemingly unstoppable.

The film, drawing on Martin Scorsese’s great and harrowing movie King of Comedy for inspiration, pushes deep into an investigation of the implications of the relationship between worshipper and worshipped by allowing for an actual meeting between the two. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the meeting does not go well; you’ll be able to tell from very early on in the movie that the so-called real world, where the meeting takes place, is not a world where Paul Aufiero meets a lot of triumph.

Instead, he looks for triumph exclusively in the internal world he’s created. Some—including his family in the movie—would argue that he’s not much different from an insane person in an asylum carrying on dialogues with figures invisible to anyone but himself. But I wonder if he’s that much different from a monk alone in his cell, removed from the world, praying for salvation all day long. I also wonder if he’s that much different from me.


Jim Bibby

February 19, 2010

The Blue Jacket

(continued from Burt Hooton)


I hadn’t planned to include thoughts on Jim Bibby, who died on Tuesday, in this story of a blue jacket, but as the Yiddish saying goes: man plans, god laughs.

Jim Bibby is wearing a blue jacket, but it’s not the blue jacket I was planning to tell you about. I was going to start talking about the latter blue jacket yesterday, but I didn’t have any time to write because I had to take my cat Marty to the vet. He’s doing better today, but you never know how these things are going to go. While I sat alone in the vet examination room, Marty out of my sight in a back room getting various shots, I thought about a quote from a Zen guy named Shunryu Suzuki. I’d happened upon Suzuki’s words a few days ago while leafing through a book by another Zen practitioner. I can’t find the quote now, but it went something like this: Renunciation is not giving up all things but realizing that all things go away.

It’s the type of shit you can swallow with calm piety while lazing around your cozy beer-stocked apartment, but if you’re sitting on a metal chair in a vet examination room alone, wondering if you might have to take an empty cat carrier home, well, forget it. I had cat hair all over my coat from when Marty had climbed all over me, purring, the second I’d opened his cat carrier so that the technician could weigh him. As another Zen master once said, this one of the Yiddish-inflected variety, “It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be.”

Man plans, god laughs. I wonder if I first heard that saying at the liquor store where I worked during my twenties. It’s possible, and there’s even a slight chance I heard the Yiddish version, which from the looks of it may have the added zing that comes from rhyming: Mann traoch, Gott Lauch. Scraps of the language were periodically bazooka-ed from my boss Morty’s loud mouth as he sat behind his desk at the back of the store, his lexicon rarely venturing from the extensive Yiddish subcategory of insults. Schliemel, schmendrick, putz, gonif, schmutz-boy (one of his terms, along with “asshole,” “prick,” and, simply, “boy” for me and the other slumping young clerks), and schnorrer were among his favorites, but none could hold a candle to schmuck, which he relied on in his verbal interactions like Nolan Ryan relied on a fastball. When the word needed added emphasis, Morty would refer to someone as a “schmuck with ears.”

I believe he, like my dad, grew up hearing Yiddish in the house, so he probably retained some of the language beyond the various words that could be used to compare an offensive or idiotic person to part or all of a male reproductive organ. He was also, on rare occasions, given over to philosophizing, so it wouldn’t shock me if he ever tried to tell me, during one of the lengthy lulls in the day’s business at the struggling store, that man plans and god laughs.

But really, Morty, despite his deserved reputation as an all-day-long yeller, was actually at his core a watcher. He sat at the back of the store and watched what went on. He had seen the rise and fall of things all through his life. When he saw someone riding high, he watched, and when he saw them guttering, he watched. Over the years, I felt him watching, and the watching hit me for what it was: kindness.

Once in a while, he broke from merely watching to speak to me. I mean beyond all the yelling and insults, which was of course also a way to speak to me and to let me know he was watching.

“May that be the worst thing that happens to you,” he said to me once. It was after a particularly low point in my twenties, and it’s the point I’m planning to get to, eventually, in this story of a blue jacket.

It’s a risky thing to say to a person who’s hurting, but coming from Morty to me it worked, lightening the weight on my shoulders just a little, releasing some of the tension on the knot in my gut. The message was twofold: one, things feel bad right now, but at least it’s already happened and behind you, and two, all things considered, things aren’t so bad. They could be much worse. I was in my early twenties. I was untouched.

When Morty was in his early twenties, he’d been to war. So had Jim Bibby, who served for two years in Vietnam. Bibby didn’t reach the major leagues until he was 28 years old, despite having, according to Whitey Herzog, the best fastball in the Mets’ organization besides the aforementioned Nolan Ryan. Like Burt Hooton, Bibby pitched a no-hitter very early in his major league career (his 25th game), and came close to repeating the feat several other times in a rollercoaster career in which, as Joe Posnanski put it in his recent requiem for the talented, mercurial Bibby, it “seemed like most days when he went out there to pitch, a team would say ‘Oh man, we don’t stand a chance tonight.’ Trouble is, you never knew which team.”

He stood at the pinnacle of the sport in 1979, earning the Game 7 start in the World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He pitched well for four innings before being pulled for a pinch-hitter (and the Pirates’ dominant bullpen) with the Pirates down 1-0. He didn’t get the win in the game that the Pirates came back to win, but he may have deserved it, carrying the heaviest load for the night with his four strong innings. He finished the 1979 postseason with a 2.08 ERA. The following year he made the All-Star team.

I’ve written about Bibby before on this site, right near the beginning of my efforts here to hold on to all the things I’ve ever touched and felt and heard and seen. I feel like I failed to get down the happiness embedded in the mere idea of Jim Bibby, but how could I not? You can never say all you want to say. Then, as now, I wanted to simply say that there was something about Jim Bibby. The name, the size, the Afro. He helped anchor some key, ineffable part of childhood. Still does.

So here he is again, his Afro bulging from below his Indians’ cap, a smile on his face. Underneath his uniform: a blue jacket. Not the blue jacket I originally planned to talk about, but a blue jacket nonetheless. He looks happy in his blue jacket. It’s the earliest days of spring training, everything still to come.

(to be continued)


Don Hood

October 15, 2009

Don Hood 77

This 1977 card frightened me a little when I was a kid. In most baseball cards from those days, the subject looked directly at the viewer, or else was engaged in some sort of action on the field. More often than not, blue sky was visible. None of these norms are present in this representation of Don Hood. In fact, his pants provide the only evidence that he might be a baseball player, but even those could be part of the haphazard outfit of, well, a hood, an emaciated coke-frazzled hood, perhaps, who is waiting to issue threat-backed demands in a dank alley outside a rundown disco. I mean, what could be in his left hand behind his back? When I ponder this question, the possibility of the answer being a baseball ranks far behind such other possibilities as a broken beer bottle, a switchblade, or even a switchblade comb.

I always wanted a switchblade comb. (What, would you rather I delve into the subject of Don Hood? Don Hood had a lifetime 34-35 record after recording a loss [upon giving up two unearned runs due to a Buddy Biancalana error] in his last appearance in the very last game of the very last season of his decade in the majors.) They sold switchblade combs in comic books, but for some reason I never got my act together to send away for one. I didn’t have a pile of money lying around, I guess, and what money I did have I spent on purchasing Don Hood’s likeness in cardboard, along with thousands of others cards. Maybe I understood that somehow if I did send away for a switchblade comb, the reality of the object, as opposed to the unassailable hypothetical notion of it, would be weighted with disappointment. I can see how it would have gone: I’d have whipped it out a couple times at home, in front of my brother and parents, making like I was a tough guy with a blade and then using it to comb my hair (something I actually never did and in fact which was sort of impossible—I had snarled, curly, hippie-kid hair, and probably the teeth of the cheap switchblade comb would have started snapping off pretty rapidly), then I would have taken it to school and tried the gag there too, but both at home and at school the bit would be taken in by onlookers with glaze-eyed boredom. It wouldn’t have gotten any laughs. Then the device would have probably stopped opening or, more likely, would have stopped closing, thus nullifying its purpose, and it would have sat on a shelf until it fell behind a shelf or under a couch and maybe on the last day of our family’s life in the house someone would have found it and thrown it away.

So maybe it’s better that I never sent away for a switchblade comb. But why did I never save up for another of the comic book wonders for sale, the hover craft? Oh, how I would have soared.