Archive for the ‘Detroit Tigers’ Category

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Mark Fidrych and the search for meaning

June 23, 2022

As I was waiting for yesterday’s Strat-O-Matic online results to post, I called one of my oldest friends. He isn’t on Twitter or Facebook or anywhere else where I’ve been narrating for several weeks now about the exploits of an imaginary team, but he has caught wind of my doings. After we talked for a while about various things, a Paul McCartney concert he recently attended, the 1977 New York City blackout, national parks we might visit, there was a slight lull in the conversation.

“All right, man,” he said. “So what’s going on? What’s wrong?”

***

It all ended last night, the whole dream of getting Mark Fidrych 20 wins in an imaginary landscape. He was shaky from the start, allowing multiple baserunners in almost every inning, and after wriggling out of some early jams, the team he was facing started making him pay. The death blow was struck by Jeff Burroughs, who in the 6th inning pounded his second home run of the night with two men on to put Fidrych in a 5-0 hole. He lasted a few more batters and then was sent to the showers by the online game’s computer algorithm, which weighs a pitcher’s endurance against the damage he’s taken.

Earlier that day, as it happened, I’d had a session with my therapist. After many years of avoiding it, I finally started therapy a year or so ago. One area in which I’ve seen progress is in allowing myself to feel some things. Early on, she would ask me how certain things feel, how and where feelings are showing up in my body, and my answer would often be that I didn’t know. I’d numbed myself. Now I’m at least able to sometimes feel some things. It’s not always great, feeling, and I find myself having to guard against my numbness tendencies.

All that to say that when Mark Fidrych was removed from the game, I felt it all through my body, a sour and bristling tightening, like my body was a fist closing. I wrote on Twitter (for I was, as an insane person might do, writing “live tweets” about virtually every moment in the computerized simulation) that I wanted to put my fist through a wall. But the truth was I wanted to smash my whole clenched-fist body through a wall. Or wanted to smash body, wall, everything. I didn’t want to feel what I was feeling. I wanted to feel the other thing, what I’d hoped I’d be feeling. What Mark Fidrych made me feel when I first saw him as an 8-year-old: laughter, connection, happiness, joy. Even love.

If I’d been describing to my therapist the feeling in my body, that clenched fist, that bitter, frustrated drive to smash everything into smithereens, she’d ask me if I could remember the earliest time I’d had that feeling.

I see myself in my room in the house I grew up in, playing Strat-O-Matic alone. I’m edging out of childhood. The law of entropy is at work on my family. We’ll soon all be going our separate ways. And for me, into what? School has started to suck. Suck as in be terrible. Suck as in suck the life from me. I want some life from the dice in my hands.

The dice aren’t cooperating. I keep losing and losing. Powerless, losing. Fuck, fuck, FUCK!

***

A few years before that, I was in New York City with my brother, visiting our father, when all the lights went out: the 1977 blackout.

“That was a good part in your book,” my friend said over the phone yesterday. He meant Cardboard Gods, I think, though I also talked about the blackout a lot in my book on the 1977 movie The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. I come back to it a lot.

“When you and your dad and your brother were going up the pitch black stairwell in his apartment building. You were all holding hands.”

***

My brother and I were about as old in that stairwell as my two sons are now. They’ve never been in a citywide blackout, but they’ve lived through, are living through, a pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, I periodically envisioned what was being lost for them in their one brief childhood by picturing a wooden model car.

From March 2020 on, this wooden model car sat in a Chicago parks district building. It was nearly finished. My older son needed only a couple more sessions of the woodshop class he was taking to finish it up, and then it would be ready for a citywide downhill derby race. That race was cancelled due to the pandemic. And so the car sat in the parks district building for weeks, months, years. If I allowed myself to think about it, it made me want to cry.

A few weeks ago, parks district classes started up again. My son was able to finish off his car. Painting it yellow with black racing stripes. Adding wooden letters on the side: STINGER.

The downhill derby race was rescheduled. This past Friday we all went, the whole family. On the way, I channeled Cyril’s dad in Breaking Away, the one who was always overly ready to comfort Cyril on his apparently inevitable failings.

“There’ll be a lot of other cars there. Who knows how it’ll go,” I said, trying to suggest with my tone that life is mostly about disappointment and losing, so it’s good to be prepared for that. But is it? Is that the attitude Mark Fidrych carried into his major league career? And even after his career was over, and he’d collected a measure of disappointment that few of us can even imagine, did he adopt an attitude of shrinking away from the world and from hope and from joy? It doesn’t seem that he did.

The card at the top of this page is the last of Mark Fidrych’s cards for Topps, not counting special series cards. I was noticing that it seems clearly to be from the same photo shoot as the picture chosen to be on a much later special series card that I used as the card to kick off this whole series. In the more recent card, a photo of a beaming Mark Fidrych is chosen. It more concisely represents Fidrych’s story as a happy one, which it was. But that photo was presumably also available to be used for the 1981 card at the top of this page, and Topps chose instead to use a photo of a more muted Fidrych, which perhaps made more sense to the card creators in the context of the time, as Fidrych at that point was a pitcher who had been struggling mightily for a few years, and who was, after all, about to disappear from the major leagues altogether.

Still, even in the muted 1981 version of Mark Fidrych, he isn’t adopting a stance of numbness or defeat. He isn’t beaming or glowing, but he’s not unhappy. He’s not unhopeful. He’s looking in for the sign. He’s ready to keep trying.

***

Not all the kids who’d made wooden model cars showed up at the citywide downhill derby. My older son’s woodshop teacher, who was one of the adults running the derby, let him know that he’d be needed not only to drive his own car but as a driver of other cars. Then he asked him what his younger brother’s name was.

“We’ll need him too.”

My older son got immediately pulled into the action as a driver of someone else’s car in the lightweight division. There wasn’t much to do as the driver, as the races were all about gravity: the cars were put at the top of a ramp and then set loose. Still, as Jack’s car kept avoiding elimination in the early heats, he and we became more and more excited. You want to win! You want to have that feeling.

At the beginning of each heat, after handing over a car to the adult manning the top of the ramp, the driver then moved to the end of the runway, to the finish line. As Jack’s car kept surviving heats, Jack began skipping or maybe even more accurately dancing from the starting line to the finish line. His body was electrified.

As I was waiting last night for my Strat-O-Matic results to post, waiting to see if Mark Fidrych could notch his 20th win, I rewatched the famous Monday night game in 1976 when he beat the Yankees. Near the end of the game, Fidrych started moving around exactly like my son. Or put another way, as my son neared the possibility of victory, he was moving around with the same electrified jerkiness of Mark Fidrych, hero of my childhood, hero of childhood, hero of joy.

***

The downhill derby turned out to be one of the greatest nights in the life of my family. Jack won the lightweight division, and then in the midweight division both he and his brother made the finals, and this time, as if the gods themselves had decided to shine the light of heaven directly on us, my younger boy won first place while Jack took fourth. And in the final race, the heavyweight division, Jack’s Stinger made it all the way to the finals against a strong field of the fastest, sturdiest wooden model cars in Chicago, and in the finals he added a third-place trophy to his winnings. The organizers called over all the first place winners for a photo, and the literal picture of victory was 67% my offspring, their arms overloaded with ribbons and trophies.

***

I don’t know, despite the title of this post, what any of this means, but I know that just thinking about Mark Fidrych or my son moving around like their veins are full of joy-lightning has swept the clenched-fist feeling from my body. And I know that like Mark Fidrych in the photo at the top of this page I’m going to keep leaning in to look for a sign.

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How to watch Mark Fidrych go for 20 wins

June 22, 2022

As reported last night, the Worcester Birds have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. But one meaningful game remains. Mark Fidrych has won his last 3 starts to push his record to 19 wins and 7 losses, and he will start game 161.

In real life, he fell just shy of 20 games in his dream season of 1976, and injuries scuttled any hopes of his ever getting anywhere close to that again. I’m rooting for the virtual avatar based on his 1977 season to achieve this landmark as hard as I’ve rooted for anything for a while. I want to imagine him mowing them down one last time at the center of the world. I want to imagine him at the end in the middle of a happy pile-on at the mound.

The game will not be available to follow on TV or radio, of course, because it’s not actually happening, but as soon as it’s available to view on the Strat-O-Matic Online site, I’ll be on Twitter (@josh_wilker) relaying the moment-by-moment results as the game unfolds before my eyes. The Strat-O-Matic online games are usually posted around 11 P.M. ET/ 10 P.M. CT. As soon as I see them up there I’ll send out a heads-up tweet that I’ll be cracking open the game-view engine 10 minutes later so that, if you happen to be interested in seeing how this all plays out, you’ll have time to finish up your marathon Wednesday night lovemaking session or clipping your toenails or whatever.

If you’re not up for venturing into the hellscape that is Twitter, I also hope to post a recap on this page tomorrow, if I haven’t wandered off weeping into the wilderness. Either way, thanks for following along this far. It’s made a lifelong solitary compulsion into something closer to joy, which of course only ever exists when shared. For that I thank you, and I thank Mark Fidrych.

Game time (approximate)

  • 11 P.M. ET/10 P.M. CT

Pitchers

  • Mark Fidrych, 19-7, 4.06 ERA
  • Mike Flanagan, 13-15, 4.47 ERA

Lineup, Bronx Dream Team (visitor)

  • Lenny Randle, 2B
  • Steve Ontiveros, 3B
  • Tim McCarver, C
  • Jim Rice, LF
  • Jeff Burroughs, RF
  • Lou Piniella, 1B
  • Alvis Woods, DH
  • Bill Almon, SS
  • Paul Dade, CF

Lineup, Worcester Birds (home)

  • Glenn Burke, DH
  • Joe Morgan, 2B
  • Ken Singleton, RF
  • Eric Soderholm, 3B
  • Thurman Munson, C
  • Lyman Bostock, LF
  • Ron Jackson, 1B
  • César Gerónimo, CF
  • Larry Bowa, SS
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Box score, game 156

June 21, 2022

The Birds got trounced in games 154 and 155 and fell to 2 games behind in their division. Another loss would put them either 2 or 3 games out with just 6 to go. They needed a strong start from their ace to stay alive. Here’s what happened:

Their division rivals lost their own game 156, so Mark Fidrych’s 19th win brings the Worcester Birds back to one game out of the division lead with 6 to play.

***

Worcester Birds game notes:

  • G154: L 5-0
    • The Birds fan 12 times against Jerry Koosman.
  • G155: L 10-4
    • How can this team even be in the race at all with flammable rookie Mario Soto (8 runs in 1.1 innings) starting big games?
  • G156: W 10-1 (Fidrych 19-7)
    • Soderholm hits a grand slam to back a complete game victory for Fidrych. Still alive, but the future is iffy. One game back on the standings, plus Morgan is hurt and will miss game 157. Also, Bird can only start one more game, which means some wins are needed from the other starting pitchers, Tiant, Capilla, Moskau, and Soto, whose salaries are all lower than each of the pitchers they’ll be facing, whose combined salary is lower than two of the six opposing pitchers, and whose “you get what you pay for” ERAs are 5.42, 6.91, 4.98, and 6.83, respectively.

***

Standings after 156 games:

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Mark Fidrych: What If?

June 9, 2022

After stopping a losing streak for my imaginary Worcester Birds squad with his 5th straight win in his last 5 starts, Mark Fidrych’s win-loss record now stands at 15-6. Barring injury (always a distinct possibility  with the brittleness embedded in the Strat-O-Matic card based on his 1977 season), Fidrych will get 9 more starts, i.e., 9 chances to collect the 5 wins needed to reach the 20-win plateau.

Who cares? It’s not real, for one thing, and for another, the 20-win mark isn’t seen the way it used to be. It used to be everything, and now it, or win totals in general, are viewed by many as a somewhat arbitrary echo of a pitcher’s performance, the decibal level of the echo leaning heavily on factors beyond the control of whatever original yawp was made by the pitcher. Jacob deGrom’s exploits in recent years, for example, revealed that judging his performance by his wins, or lack thereof, would be in the same neighborhood of illogical thinking as deeming Buddy Biancalana as a better shortstop than Ernie Banks because the former was, unlike the latter, a “World Series winner.”

But I still care about pitcher wins, at least in the context of this experiment. I want Fidrych to reach the 20-win milestone he fell just short of in 1976, and I think I’m also trying to prove, or at least suggest, that if Fidrych hadn’t gotten hurt, he would have gone on to have a good career.

There are some indications against this, chiefly Fidrych’s low strikeout rate, along with a very low batting average by opponents in 1976 against Fidrych on balls hit in play. Virtually every pitcher who has had a long, productive career has had, at the start of their careers, a significantly higher strikeout rate than Fidrych. (I am almost positive I learned this from the great baseball writer Rob Neyer, but I can’t find the article in which I remember him exploring vividly the disillusioning indications of Fidrych’s strikeout rate.) And batting average on balls hit in play seems to level off into a general average for all pitchers, a fairly clear indication that Fidrych was, in 1976 (and in Strat-O-Matic terms), getting all the rolls, something that surely would have leveled off as the years went on.

That’s why his 1977 Strat-O-Matic card is the better starting point for a “what if” experiment than his 1976 card. In 1977, his great control and his ability to limit the number of home runs he allowed are still in play, but more hits were falling in safely than they had the previous year. He wasn’t blowing anyone away. But could his approach—basically, throw strikes at the knees over the black edges of the plate—have carried him through a productive career if injuries hadn’t intervened?

Indications thus far through my online Strat-O-Matic season are that he just might have pulled that off. Of course, some middle aged schmo’s online fantasy team results hardly rate as compelling evidence, but if you can take a leap of faith into considering them as such, the Strat-O-Matic card at the top of this page adds an interesting extension to that evidence. It’s a Strat-O-Matic representation of Lew Burdette’s 1958 season, one of Burdette’s best in a long, successful career, and it’s virtually identical to Fidrych’s 1977 card: no walks, no home runs, and a fair but not overwhelming number of hits.

Through his career, Burdette generally allowed more hits than innings pitched, didn’t strike out many guys, didn’t walk many guys, and didn’t allow a lot of home runs. He pitched like Mark Fidrych. This isn’t just a statistical mirroring. Burdette was, like Fidrych, exceedingly fidgety on the mound, often to the distraction of batters, and as he navigated his way through games he talked out loud to himself, which is what Fidrych was doing when people thought he was talking to the ball. Burdette stayed healthy, unlike Fidrych, and piled up 203 career wins, including two 20-win seasons.

The most fascinating element in playing “what if” with Mark Fidrych is that when injures were erasing him from the game, a tremendous core of young players was materializing on his team, the Tigers. What’s more, they were exactly what a pitcher who relies heavily on his defense would pray for: gold-glove-level fielding at every position in the middle of the field: Lance Parrish at catcher, Chet Lemon in centerfield, and Hall-of-Fame shortstop Alan Trammell and his (should be) Hall-of-Fame partner at second base, Lou Whitaker. The only up-the-middle defense equal to what Fidrych would have had behind him was that of the Big Red Machine.

Half of that Reds core, Joe Morgan and César Gerónimo, is backing Fidrych on my imaginary team, and they’re joined by fellow gold glove winners Thurman Munson and Larry Bowa. With this core behind him, a core similar to what he would had in Detroit had he been able to stay healthy, Fidrych’s record stands at 15-6.

Based on this, I see an alternative history taking shape, not for my benefit but because I wish it for Fidrych, who deserved more than what he got. I see several seasons, none of them as golden as 1976 but good and full of winning, sometimes deep into October.

Fidrych’s predecessor in statistics and Strat-O-Matic cards and twitches and self-babble, Lew Burdette, once won three games in a single World Series.

What if Mark Fidrych had gotten that far, with Whitaker and Trammell behind him? Is it so hard to imagine him winning and winning and winning?

***

Worcester Birds game notes:

  • G112: L 6-0
    • A reliever I don’t remember, Bruce Taylor, tosses 4 scoreless innings to help Dennis Martinez totally stifle the Birds.
  • G113: L 5-2
    • Another weak offensive showing, and Lee struggles, dropping to 2-7.
  • G114: L 9-0
    • The team follows its return to first in its previous series with its weakest series of the year, getting outscored 20 to 2 (and dropping like a rock out of first). 
  • G115: L 4-1
    • Stagnant hitting (now with 3 runs in 36 innings) wastes a decent start by Tiant. 
  • G116: W 4-3 (Fidrych 15-6)
    • Fidrych stops the losing streak with 1 earned run in 6 innings, notching his 5th win in his last 5 starts. Singleton homers and drives in 2.
  • G117: W 9-5
    • Bostock leads a revived offense with 3 runs, 2 hits, and 4 RBI. Campbell hurls 4 scoreless innings for save.

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Happiness

June 1, 2022

This video clip of a few minutes of a young man playing ball (shared out recently in a tweet by the peerless 1970s baseball raconteur Dan Epstein) is nothing special, and that’s the most amazing thing about it. Mark Fidrych only ever existed to most of us at the center of a glowing, cacophonous cultural phenomenon. You could see within that phenomenon his sincerity, his genuine enthusiasm, his humanity, but you also heard the cheers and chanting surrounding him, crashing down on him, saw the crackling heat lightning of a pop culture explosion, felt in the crowd that you joined instantly and completely something sunny but nonetheless ravenous, something like need. All of that is mostly absent from this clip, save for a few moments during which Fidrych signs a few autographs for kids. For the most part it’s just a guy doing something he loves. If you’re reading this you love it too, most likely, even if you haven’t done it in a while. Waiting your turn, and then taking it, gripping a bat in your hands, the pitch coming in, the crack of connection. What’s better?

You don’t know how much time you’re going to get in the box, and if you’re not careful you waste most of it worrying about things that don’t matter that much. Roger Angell, the great baseball writer, lived to 101. Mark Fidrych’s time was cut a lot shorter, but like Angell he made the most of the time he had. Angell and Fidrych crossed paths occasionally in the 1970s, and in one of those moments, during the Bird’s spectacular 1976 season, Angell did what he did best: he payed attention to what matters. A bunch of writers had surrounded Fidrych, and one of them asked the rookie about endorsements.

“What’s come your way so far, Mark?”

Fidrych thought for an instant and then smiled almost shyly. “Happiness,” he said.

from Five Seasons, by Roger Angell

***

Worcester Birds game notes:

  • G91: L 7-6 (Fidrych 10-6)
    • Staked to a 3-1 lead, Fidrych delivers a stinkbomb, surrendering 12 hits and 5 runs in 4.1 innings
  • G92: W 6-5 (15 innings)
    • Nothing is coming easy anymore. Tekulve pitches 3 scoreless for the win, and Munson collects 5 hits, including the hit that starts a 2-run game-tying rally in the 9th.
  • G93: L 8-2
    • Kucek is injured early and will be out for a while; Campbell is shelled; and Singleton keeps up his specialty of hitting well throughout the team’s tailspin.
  • G94: L 9-4
    • Doug Bird is battered, and he, the injured Kucek, and Larry Dierker are all on the chopping block. But why? Replacing their shitty pitching with other shitty pitching is probably not going to keep this ship from sinking.
  • G95: W 5-4
    • Another rare win, and another of the rare wins that’s a one-run squeaker. The heroes today are Morgan with 3 hits and McClure with 3 scoreless innings for the save.      
  • G96: W 3-0 (Fidrych 11-6)
    • Two wins in a row! And a winning margin of more than one run! And a Fidrych win on top of it! Marring things a little is the decision by the Ostrich to remove the Bird with two outs in the 9th, robbing him of a chance to earn his second shutout. (Geronimo, who collected two hits in the game, secures the last out with a spectacular catch in center field.) After the game, injured Jack Kucek and profoundly ineffective Doug Bird (7.09 ERA) and Larry Dierker (7.97 ERA) are cut and replaced by three other even cheaper options, collectively, all with a significant presence in the Cardboard Gods archives:
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in and out of the garden he goes

May 12, 2022

This image is from an MLB documentary on Mark Fidrych. If you’re familiar with a particular musical terrain, you’ll recognize the band associated with the skull and roses design on his shirt, even if you can’t make out the lettering around the design. As you can see, Fidrych is smiling, if not beaming. You might guess that he’s describing a high point in one of the concerts of this favorite band of his. But in fact at this point in the documentary he’s in the middle of looking back at and describing the spring training injury in 1977 that proved to be the beginning of the end of his time at the very top of major league baseball and American pop culture and some kind of miraculous expression of joy. Those of us who love Mark Fidrych always want this part to have gone differently. We want him to have been able to keep pitching like he did in 1976, keep showing us the way to life as a game to be grateful for and to enjoy. He surely wanted it to go differently too. He was a fierce competitor, for one thing. Also, he knew right from the start the gift he was given, and he didn’t want to squander it. I’ve been trying to bring him back in hopes of extending his moment of pristine excellence, but it’s been more ambivalent than that so far, with glimpses of the untouchable Bird occluded by messy pummelings, and maybe that’s just as well, because it pushes me deeper into the mystery of Mark Fidrych. He was in the garden, pure, perfect, and then he wasn’t. But he kept trying to get back for years, even spending two seasons beyond his last major league game struggling at minor league Pawtucket. More than that, beyond that, he seems to have kept a hold on the gratitude and capacity for love and happiness that he expressed to the world during 1976. How did he continue to push on through? How did he get to the other side? He was in the garden, pure, perfect, and he goofily leapt for a lazy, fungo fly ball and landed somewhere else, outside that garden, somewhere much closer to where most of us spend our days. What’s your secret, Bird? How can you look back on what was lost and still smile?

***

As for the Bird’s imaginary team: I could use some help. In the Strat-O-Matic online league I’m in, you can dump a guy through game 42 and be able to apply 95% of their salary to picking up a free agent. Between game 43 and game 81, you get 90% of a cut player’s salary, and after game 81 you get 80%. The Worcester Birds are through 36 games, so if I’m going to make any moves, I’d be wise to make them now. The team is in first, barely, and they’ve been generally doing what they’ve been designed to do, on a team level: hit well and field well behind Mark Fidrych. Fidrych, for his part, has been up and down, great at home and lousy on the road (see game notes below), and anyway he’s certainly not going anywhere. But I am considering moves involving a couple of the underperforming hitters.

If you want to general manage along with me, the Worcester Birds stats are here.

In addition to the stats, I’m considering if the player has a message to add to this exercise in reading the dice rolls throughout a season to try to figure out my own life. I don’t know if you can help with that, but for example dropping a struggling Keith Hernandez for Ed Kranepool appeals to me not just because it would free up some salary for other trouble spots (such as possibly replacing doomed Dan Thomas in the lineup, possibly with offseason gravedigger and Massachusetts native Richie Hebner, and upgrading run-hemorrhagers Mike Marshall and Bob Stanley on the pitching staff) but also because I don’t have any strong personal associations with Keith Hernandez, while Ed Kranepool pulls me to 1977, Shea Stadium, sitting beside my brother and my father, the latter oblivious to the terrible baseball unfolding on the field below, instead reading the New York Times through the whole game and plugging his ears and grimacing every few minutes as a LaGuardia jet roars overhead.

***

Worcester Birds notes, games 31 through 36:

  • G31: L 12-2
    • Fidrych surrenders 7 hits and 3 runs in 4, earning the loss, and Mingori mops up with a filthy mop (11 hits and 9 runs in 4 innings).
  • G32: L 3-2
    • Lee leaves the game in the 8th with the score 1-1, but the runner he left on second is allowed in by the bullpen, and he gets his third hard-luck loss. He’s 0-3, the only pitcher on the team without a win, despite having the lowest ERA of any starter.
  • G33: L 6-3
    • Marshall gives up 5 runs in 5 innings. Burke with 3 hits in loss.  
  • G34: L 6-4
    •  Tiant extends his scoreless streak to 19 innings but then falters, hitting the showers in the 6th, and Tekulve serves up a gopher ball to Evans in the 8th to decide the game.
  • G35: W 6-4
    • The team stops a season-high 5-game losing streak by rallying furiously with 3 runs in the bottom of the 8th and a game-winning two-run homer by Bostock in the bottom of the 9th. McClure pitches 2 scoreless innings for the win.
  • G36: W 4-0
    • Fidrych and Campbell combine on a 4-hit shutout. Fidrych, now 4-3 on the season, is two different pitchers so far: great at home (2.55 ERA), lost on the road (5.74 ERA).

Standings:

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Through Eight

May 5, 2022

Through eight innings, Mark Fidrych has not allowed a hit.

This breathless moment of anticipation and hope never actually happened in real life. But what even is real life? Everything is always changing, even things that have already happened, so maybe what we think of as “what really happened” is merely a first draft, and there are infinite revisions of that draft. In one revision that’s currently unfolding in a simulated baseball league and in my mind and in these words, Mark Fidrych is through eight innings and has not allowed a hit.

In his actual career, the closest he came to a no-hitter was the first time he started a major league game, on May 15, 1976, when he racked up 6 no-hit innings against the Cleveland Indians before Buddy Bell opened the seventh with a single, and Rick Manning followed with another single, and that was about it for the Indians that day. That 2-hitter that launched the Bird’s magical 1976 run would still be standing at the end of his career as his game with the fewest hits allowed in any of his 56 major league starts. He had a lot of talent as a pitcher, but he wasn’t unhittable. His astounding success in 1976, in which he went from a complete unknown to the best pitcher in baseball, rested on his ability to lock in, to flap and pace and pump himself into a goofy magnetic shamanic trance, which in turn enabled his near flawless execution of the simple impossible Prime Directive of Pitching: keep the ball low and throw fuckin strikes.

He didn’t have Nolan Ryan’s stomach-hollowing 100-MPH fastball, Steve Carlton’s brutal, misanthropic slider, Bert Blyleven’s limb-locking curveball, Phil Niekro’s irrational, decentering knuckleball, Gaylord Perry’s lawless, diving spitter. He didn’t glower and terrify like Goose Gossage or spin and hesitate and obfuscate like Luis Tiant. He didn’t overpower anyone or trick anyone or confuse anyone. He just threw pitch after pitch that traced a sizzling line at the knees of the batter and over the black stripe on one side or another of the plate. And while that was enough for him to pitch better than anyone in the world for one year, it didn’t strip from opposing hitters the ability to make contact with his pitches. He was never unhittable.

That was one of the beautiful things about the summer of the Bird. He knew he couldn’t do it alone. When a teammate made a good play for him he bubbled over with appreciation, pointing, gesturing, smiling, talking. Always talking! Waving to the fans, beaming, amazed—of course he couldn’t do it without us either. Shaking hands with the ump! Shaking hands with the cop! Talking, always talking. Even to the ball, of course to the ball. The most famous thing about him: he talked to the ball! And why not? Isn’t there a beating spirit alive in everything, all things, all beings? Isn’t this world all one thing in a million billion pieces, held together—if it’s held together and not falling apart—by love?

I was a kid when I saw all that, and I’ve never gotten over it, and I never want to. I was a curly-headed boy, eight years old, weird and happy and scared and overpowered and in love with baseball and the world. He was me, I was him. It was the same story for anyone who saw him—he was us, the way we wanted to be and the way we wanted the world to be.

He started flickering out the next year, and soon enough after that he was gone.

Except he’s not gone. That was the first draft, and we’ve been finding new ways to revise him ever since. I found a new way myself the other night, lying in bed. Before going to sleep, I checked to see if the latest three games for my Strat-O-Matic online baseball league had been posted, and they had, so I checked the score of the first game, a 14-inning win, and imagined that the dramatic nature of that win, along with the team’s early sprint toward the top of their division, built extra electricity for the following game, Mark Fidrych’s third start. His first start had gone poorly, and the second start had been decent, good enough for a win. Nothing spectacular yet, no signs of the Bird in full flight. But maybe this game would be different.

Instead of going straight to the box score for the result of the game, I clicked on the replay feature, in which the game unfolds in a gradual, no-frills readout of batters’ and pitchers’ names and at-bat results and the progression of runners around the bases. I lay there in the dark next to my curly-headed younger son, who had fallen asleep between my wife and me. My wife played a Tetris-like game on her phone, her end-of-day ritual. My son was on his stomach, and his back rose and fell slowly with his breathing.

Inning gave way to inning without a hit for the opposing team. I imagined the building din around the frenetic broad-shouldered stalking concentration of the Bird, imagined his appreciation for Geronimo making a running over-the-shoulder grab, for Bowa making a tremendous backhanded stop and throw to a fully-extended Hernandez at first. It wasn’t a flawless game for the Bird. He made an error in the first, surrendered a walk in the sixth. And in the bottom of the eighth, after Hernandez botched a grounder, allowing Paul Blair to reach, he seemed to lose focus altogether and walked two men to load the bases. At this point I was barely breathing at all. I imagined Thurman Munson rising from behind the plate and walking slowly, grumpily, to the mound. Can you see this? I can, or I’m trying to. The lean excitable long-haired smooth-cheeked pitcher jerky, shifty, unspooling, spinning out, the lumpy unshaven catcher not moving at all, glowering, trying to look his pitcher in the eye. Finally he thumps him in the chest with his mitt, and not lightly, to bring the pitcher’s darting gaze to his own. Now he can deliver his message clean and clear: Keep the ball low and throw fuckin strikes.  

And so Fidrych gets the next batter, a soft looper to Bowa, to end the eighth inning, stranding a runner at every base. Can you see it? The Bird applauds Bowa again, points to Munson (who ignores him, or appears to), and bounds toward the dugout in a way that makes it seem that beneath the stadium turf is an enormous trampoline. The whole place is going absolutely berserk.

Through eight innings, Mark Fidrych has not allowed a hit.

***

Part of me wants to leave it there, with the possibility still alive that he’s going to make it all the way, that three more outs will come and go without a hit, that the team will swarm Mark Fidrych and carry him off on their shoulders. But what actually happens is maybe also OK. Maybe it’s more like real life, but still with some magic. He gives up a hit to the lead-off batter, Bob Watson. He gives up a hit to the next guy too, George Foster, and two outs later, he gives up a third hit, to Paul Blair, and once again the bases are loaded. Once again Munson goes to the mound, but this time I see it all differently.

“I got it, Cap,” Fidrych says. “Don’t worry, don’t worry. We got it.”

He gets Jose Cardenal to ground to Bowa to end the game, and that’s that. No ecstatic swarm on the mound, no lifting the hero and carrying him off. The last out doesn’t make the place explode like it might have if there had been no hits at all, but in the moments after the last out the sound from the crowd builds, feeding on Fidrych, who is in the middle of the diamond thanking everyone around him and then turning to the crowd and pointing and waving, thanking everyone, absolutely everyone, and the sound keeps building and building.

We don’t carry him. He carries us.

***

Additional Worcester Birds notes, games 7 through 12:

  • G7: W 10-6
    • Soderholm homers twice; Thomas triples again and drives in 2. Tekulve continues bullpen’s success with 2 scoreless innings.
  • G8: W 8-4
    • Bostock (4 hits) and Hairston (3 hits) lead 17-hit barrage. Campbell and McClure (notching second save) log 4 shoutout innings in relief
  • G9: L 6-3
    • Mike Marshall struggles, but team is in it until Campbell gives up a 3-run blast to Pops Stargell in the 8th (all unearned due to Soderholm lead-off error)
  • G10: W 4-3 (14 innings)
    • Tekulve with 4 hitless innings; Mingori with 4 scoreless innings. Cruz starts comeback with 2-run homer in 6th. Bowa drives in Hairston with a single in 14th
  • G11: W 9-0 (Fidrych 2-1)
    • Fidrych carries a no-hitter into 9th. Glenn Burke with 2 hits, 2 RBI, and a steal. No-hitter broken up by Bob Watson (like Enos Cabell, who ruined the Bird’s first start, Watson is a key figure, perhaps the key figure—given that he’s the one who says, “C’mon, let the kids play!”—of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training) (and his notable hit in this imaginary universe comes on the anniversary of the day he was celebrated by Tootsie Rolls as the scorer of major league baseball’s one millionth run) (what I’m saying is, if it had to be anyone, I’m glad it was Bob Watson), followed by 2 more hits, but Fidrych retires Don Money to leave the bases loaded and preserve the shutout.
  • G12: L 2-1 (10 innings)
    • In the loss, Bill Campbell extends an inexplicably brilliant start to the season for the low-priced bullpen with 1 run scored in 5 innings (through 12 games, the reliever corps of Campbell, Mingori, Tekulve, and McClure have given up 4 earned runs in 44 innings for a 0.82 ERA)
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Mark Fidrych

April 29, 2022

Fidrych

I am building a team around Mark Fidrych. You can do this. You can do everything now. You can bring the Bird back to life. That’s what I’m hoping anyway.

I’m doing this through a portal that I’ve been relying on since 1981 to avoid limitations and endings. That’s the year after the limitations of Mark Fidrych’s often-injured body led to the end of his major league career. Really it ended for him just about as quickly as it began. In 1976, as a rookie, he was the best pitcher in the world (and, as I said on the first-ever post on this ancient blog, the all-time single-season leader in joy), and the following year, 1977, injuries limited him to just 11 starts, and he managed fewer than that in the following three seasons, pitching his last innings on a major league mound in 1980. The next year, when I was 13, I got my first set of Strat-O-Matic cards.

I occasionally, very occasionally, played Strat-O-Matic with others, but almost from the beginning it was a solitary pursuit. I used the game to simulate baseball games and seasons and to dissolve myself out of the world I was living in and into another one. I liked rolling the dice and tracking the action on my handwritten scorecards and adding up the stats and not feeling anything except the buzzing pull of strikeouts and home runs and stolen bases and diving catches and wins. It released some numbing chemical in my brain, I’m sure, except when it didn’t, which it didn’t when the dice didn’t conform to whatever I was hoping to see unfold in the cards and in my mind, or when I simply had been playing too much and it all seemed lifeless and empty. I did this for years, all through my adolescence, and only really let it go when I took on other, stronger methods for numbing myself. Marijuana for a while until it got in the way of my writing, beer for longer. A few years ago I stopped with the beer.

But I have kept on with the Strat-O-Matic, which I started up with again in the early 2000s when the game moved online. The online game doesn’t have the roll of the dice and the handwritten scorecards, but this makes it fit better into the smaller spaces I have available for it now than I did as a teen when I had whole wide aching afternoons to numb. It doesn’t have the dice and the handwritten scorecards, but it’s got enough. I can dissolve into the cards, into compulsive looping thoughts on lineups and platoons and starting rotations and trades and players to waive and other players to add.

I have thought at various times of giving it up. It’s one of those “on your deathbed” things. On your deathbed, are you going to look back on all the hours simulating baseball games as a good use of the preposterous gift of life? Asshole? But then there’s also, life is fucking hard. Take your pleasures where you can. Or actually there’s just: I don’t really want to feel anything right now, so I’m going to check on my Strat-O-Matic team.

For almost exactly as long as I’ve been playing Strat-O-Matic, using Strat-O-Matic, I’ve been writing, filling up journals at first, then writing all kinds of shit, poems, stories, blog posts, books, and always filling up more journals. All of it is a way, imperfectly and haltingly, to try to push back on my compulsion to numb myself. I write to try to feel something, to try to know what it is, and, ultimately, to connect to someone else. To connect with you, whoever you are. Maybe even to find in that connection some joy.

The greatest baseball player I ever saw in terms of making a joyous connection with others was Mark Fidrych. I want to bring him back to life. Recently the Strat-O-Matic online game brought out a 1977 game. They have a 1970s game that I play a lot, but it includes only the players that logged relatively steady playing time for a few seasons, and so the Bird does not exist within it. In the 1977 version, he does exist. And during that season, his performance on an inning by inning basis was not that far off from his legendary 1976 campaign. His limited playing time is reflected in the online Strat-O-Matic game by his being limited to start every fifth day, rather than every fourth day, and he may suffer an injury, but he also may get luckier in that regard than he did in real life.

I ranked him very high in my pre-draft rankings, after only Joe Morgan, and I got him. Immediately after the automated draft, another player in the league offered me a trade for Fidrych, and I explained in my declining of the trade that I was here for the Bird. He said he was too and was hoping to build his team around Fidrych. We got into a conversation where he shared that he had been 9 years old in Detroit in 1976, and I shared that I wrote a book in which the Bird was the brightest-shining hero. The reason I’m telling you this is that in the 18 years I’ve been numbing myself with online Strat-O-Matic, it was the first time I’d ever made a connection with any of the strangers I play against. For once it wasn’t only a solitary numbing. The Bird made this happen.

Like the other Strat-O-Matic online player who wanted him on his team, I built my team around Fidrych. I backed him with excellent fielding, put him in a pitcher-friendly park, and created a lineup that can score him some runs in that park. I don’t care as much what happens in the games he doesn’t start. I care a little though, because the Bird has opened something up for me. Maybe I can write about this lifelong compulsion, this thing that has always felt adjacent to writing but going in an opposite direction, away from actual life rather than toward it. Maybe not just Bird but the other players on my team from 1977 can help me see the world as it was then and the world as it is now.

The best part of a Strat-O-Matic online season is before it begins, when you can dissolve into endless imagining about different shapes your roster could take. I was mostly guided in my own roster creation by my goal of trying to get Mark Fidrych 20 wins, but after a certain point I started making choices of who to drop and who to keep by wondering what it would be like to follow them through the imaginary season and write about them. Thus, El Tiante and Spaceman are among those making up the threadbare pitching staff around Fidrych. Thus, Sundown Danny Thomas and Glenn Burke will see some action.

Thus, Lyman Bostock.

And in the middle of all the stories and all the endings and all the possibilities, there’s Mark Fidrych.

He’s back. And I’ll write about it.

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Mickey Stanley

January 18, 2017

mickey-stanley

Mickey Stanley is pretty much exactly what you would get if you mixed together Mickey Mantle and Fred Stanley.

I can elaborate, but my back hurts so much. All the elaborating is over when you get knifing pains in your back if you so much as try to thumb the like button on any of your various stupid time-wasting virtual platforms.

I think it’s from when I was catching my sons jumping off the couch a few days ago. They climb up onto the back of the couch and take turns jumping toward me, and I catch them and spin them around. The joy of it! The terror! This is their world! What if they fall! But what am I going to do—tell them to cut the shit and sit down and start practicing their looks of disappointment so as to be prepared for when they hit the dog years of adulthood? And so I end up with hernias, back issues. The older, heavier one likes to improvise, and it was probably one of the times he spun around in midair, causing me to lunge to catch him, that crippled me forever.

Well, not forever, hopefully, but these kinds of things really drive home the point that life is an unstoppable deterioration. So why spend so much time pondering baseball players? Why don’t I get into collecting and trading ephemera on old rabbis? Like the one with Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pershyscha, who maybe had among his followers in Poland in the early 1800s some Wilkers, who huddled there in a tenacious multi-generational pogrom-surviving Wilkerean cringe and were pretty big fans of rabbis all through the family tree until it branched out into a young bespectacled fellow, my father, cracking open the works of Karl Marx. To young Lou Wilker, religion, and sports for that matter: opiates! But I followed in neither his nor my older ancestors’ footsteps, neither overthrowing the system or studying rabbis, but somehow I acquired the knowledge that Rabbi Simcha Bunim carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket: bishvili nivra ha-olam (“for my sake the world was created”) was written on one, and “v’anokhi afar v’efer” (“I am but dust and ashes”) was written on the other.

You should see my sons spinning through the air in my arms. They are beaming with this feeling of bishvili nivra ha-olam. This is the feeling of childhood, the part of it we like to hang onto anyway. This is why a fellow such as Bob Costas carries around a Mickey Mantle card, I guess. But anybody who tries to hold onto Mickey Mantle alone might miss some of the picture. For his sake the world was created—how could this not apply in all ways to Mickey Mantle, chiseled sunlit immortal who could do everything on a baseball field as well as anyone else in history and was the blond, Caucasian, high-salaried, handsome star of the most powerful baseball team in history at its absolute peak? Yes, such a thing would indeed make a good talisman, a reminder that even to so much as to be alive in this world, such a rare and beautiful thing considering the black lifeless space stretching out in every direction for light years from this one tiny blue planet, is a blessing as breathtaking as even the most astonishing tape-measure home run. But you need I am but dust and ashes too—personified best by a weak-hitting utility infielder named “Chicken.” It’s a miracle we’re alive, yes, and it will all be over in a flash.

This all comes together in the person of Mickey Stanley. He was an outstanding centerfielder, like Mickey Mantle, but despite his four Gold Glove awards, and perhaps because of his more mediocre batting records, and perhaps even more because of the erasing tendencies of time, he has moved much closer to the anonymity of Fred Stanley than to the lasting renown of Mickey Mantle. His most famous moments on the field, in fact, had him not in sunny centerfield but at Fred Stanley’s jittery domain, shortstop, where Mickey Stanley was moved for the 1968 World Series to make room in the lineup for Al Kaline. He was a nervous wreck the whole time, hoping the ball wouldn’t be hit to him, that he wouldn’t make some huge mistake.

If my back gets better I’ll be a holy idiot again, waiting with arms outstretched to catch my beaming sons above me. I’ll be full of grateful love and worry.

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Hank Greenberg

January 2, 2015

Hank GreenbergImmortality

1.

Hank Greenberg was born on New Year’s Day 1911, 104 years ago yesterday. People have in rare occasions lived that long, but Hank Greenberg wasn’t one of them. He died in September 1986, a few weeks shy of the night when Mookie Wilson hit a groundball up the first base line toward Hank Greenberg’s fellow first baseman Bill Buckner. Bill Buckner played 22 years in the majors and went to an All-Star game and won a batting crown, but one moment will outlive all others for him, and will almost surely outlive him too.

By contrast Hank Greenberg had one of the shortest careers of anyone in the Hall of Fame, logging just seven seasons with more than 500 at bats. He lost most of one year, 1936, to injury, and lost three full seasons and large chunks of two others to World War II. Had his playing career not overlapped with the war, he could have easily flirted with 500 home runs, which for much of baseball history—but no longer; now it’s a conditional number almost as prone to prompt suspicion as admiration, let alone hallowing—has been a mark guaranteeing immortality.

Should I put quotes around that last word? It’s a strange word to use. But it’s bandied about in sports discussions, especially with baseball, which is perhaps one of the reasons why discussions about who should or shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame get so heated. Immortality is at stake. Everything dies; what survives?

The back of this card was not given an effective quality assurance check at the production stage—the block of text beneath Hank Greenberg’s statistics is cut off. The last line reads, “One of his top career thrills was a pennant-clinching grand slam home run against the Browns in the ninth inning of the final game of the 1945” (no end punctuation, no additional text). I know about this moment because of the headline for the 1945 season wrap-up in the Neft and Cohen baseball encyclopedia that I virtually memorized as a child: “Greenberg’s Grand Return.” It is probably the headline most indelibly marked in my memory. I came to understand the notion of time and civilization through that encyclopedia. I thought of the encyclopedia itself as immortal, but a few years ago, perhaps because of all the similar information now available on the internet for free, that encyclopedia was discontinued.

I wonder about the person responsible for the quality of this baseball card, the person, in other words, who didn’t notice that the last line of text was cut off. He or she was probably busy, thinking of other things. I wonder about the two figures lurking in the dugout on this card. You can barely see them, just two blurs for faces, white collars. The rest is already gone.

We’re like these peripheral figures hovering in and around the front and back of a baseball card, our lives a blur, a series of oversights. We want to believe in something towering forever above this.

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Dave Roberts

August 8, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

Diedre

I don’t remember Alaska. I was around two years old. My mother had met a man at a peace march the previous year. Something happened between them. Through life and its unending series of problems, you carry a belief that there’s some true path for you, waiting to be uncovered. Sometimes it feels as if you’ve found this path.

The man from the peace march, Tom, then went to work as a forest fire fighter in Alaska. My mom followed him, taking my brother and me along. My dad stayed in New Jersey. I’ve always known that when I was very young I went to Alaska, but I’d thought it was part of a vacation. My mom told me recently that it wasn’t. She said she wasn’t sure whether we’d ever be coming back.

That was in 1970. I don’t know exactly when. It might have been in April, when second-year pro Dave Roberts, still searching for his first major league win, got called into a game in relief. Mike Corkins started the game but was yanked midway through the second inning. Roberts got Willie Davis to ground into a double play, ending the threat. He breezed through the next inning, and the one after that, and the one after that, and so on. He must have felt good, numb and high and clear and natural, the way you do when it seems you’re walking the path meant only for you.

There’s mention of this game on the back of Dave Roberts’ 1977 card, below several years of statistics showing losses outnumbering wins. The card is on my desk, near a stack of unpaid bills. There are always baseball cards and bills on my desk.

***

In Alaska, we lived in some kind of communal situation among the crew of young drifting men who’d ended up in Alaska to fight forest fires. The place was hazy with pot smoke. There was one other child there besides my brother and me, a little girl my age. Her mother wasn’t around. Her father was one of the firefighters.

Dave Roberts had to leave that perfect moment from 1970 behind. He had to go on, losing more often than he won, surviving, moving from place to place. By 1976, he was with the sixth franchise of his pro career, the Tigers, part of a starting rotation on a hopeless team. He was by this time bracketed and obscured in the baseball encyclopedia by a Dave Roberts from the 1960s and another who as an overall number one draft pick had soared directly into the major leagues in 1972 (the same year, as it happens, that a fourth Dave Roberts was born in Japan—where the first Dave Roberts, no relation, was still playing pro ball—and this fourth Dave Roberts would eventually eclipse all previous players named Dave Roberts by stealing a base). In early May 1976, the Dave Roberts in question experienced arguably his most significant moment in the majors by contracting the flu, which caused him to miss his turn in the rotation, which allowed a Tigers rookie named Mark Fidrych to get his first major league start.

***

I had a dream last night that I’d left my eleven-month-old son in another room by himself. When I realized that I’d left him unattended I rushed back to the room he was in and found him yanking on a rickety bookcase three times his size. Later in the dream my wife asked me to go outside to check whether I could get into the apartment through a window in our basement, a test to see how easily an intruder could enter. Earlier, in the real world, before I’d started this anxiety-dream sleep, our central air conditioning unit had stopped working, the same one we’d spent thousands of dollars on last summer when my wife was very pregnant.

Last fall my wife quit her job to stay home with our baby, and our savings account is eroding. The money I make as a mistake-hunter—proofreading, copyediting—isn’t enough to cover our bills. Occasionally I make some additional money writing, but not much, especially when weighed against actual time spent writing. Spending time writing is, in financial terms, about as sound a decision as spending time throwing rocks into the sea. The long-endangered notion of writing as a way to make a living or even help make a living is now on the brink of extinction. I know this because my dad, who often sends me links to bleak news items, forwarded me a recent column by Scottish novelist Ewan Morrison, who sees a future without professional authors.

Writing has already begun its slide towards becoming something produced and consumed for free. . . . How long have we got? A generation. After that, writers, like musicians, filmmakers, critics, porn stars, journalists and photographers, will have to find other ways of making a living in a short-term world that will not pay them for their labour.

I recently spent a few weeks researching Mark Fidrych’s 1976 season. I was going to write a book about that beautiful summer and was very excited but then found out another biography of the Tigers 1970s supernova of joy was already well in the works, to be published fairly soon. While two concurrent books on, say, a famed American president or Miley Cyrus might have a chance of succeeding, two books on a baseball player who had one good summer thirty-six years ago would just scuttle both projects or at least the second one, mine, so I pulled the plug.

“What are we going to do?” my wife asked last night in the hot room. She meant about the air conditioning but also everything. I just sat there staring at the floor.

***

I’ve been working as a mistake-hunter for a long time. I started many years ago, getting occasional temporary gigs through friends. This was back in New York in the 1990s. When my girlfriend and I left New York in 2003, we didn’t have jobs lined up. I got the first bite on the work-hunting front. A publishing company in the Chicago suburbs needed a part-time proofreader. I was shown a cubicle and given some pages. I started hunting for mistakes. I have stuck with the company like a barnacle. Most every weekday since then has been some version of that first day. In the mornings before work, briefly, I go to my desk of bills and baseball cards and try to wander.

There appear to be palm trees in the background of the photo on Dave Roberts’ 1977 card. Maybe there’s a separating body of water just out of sight, and the palm trees are on an island. Maybe I could go to live on that island. I’d read. Baseball games of no consequence would occur nearby.

While researching Mark Fidrych I got sidetracked frequently. I love being sidetracked. It’s better than any fantasy of palm tree island solitude, even. I was looking at old newspapers from 1976 available in the Google news archives and in those newspapers you can scroll around, looking at old advertisements, the news of the day, TV listings. I kept finding traces of attempts to oppose gravity. There was a guy who wanted to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and another guy who tried to fly across the ocean in a hot-air balloon and disappeared. Out beyond Earth’s atmosphere, Skylab was slowly disintegrating. Evel Knievel came out of a brief retirement, jumped some buses in the Kingdome, then apologized for not being spectacular enough, not flying high and far enough. ABC aired a Happy Days rerun of an episode earlier in the season when Fonzie, worried he was losing his cool, jumped fourteen garbage cans on his motorcycle before smashing into a food stand. There was something in the air that year, a deep cultural urge, a need to oppose the unavoidable awareness that everything was falling back down to earth.

***

My mom told me about Alaska while on a recent visit to see her grandson. She said I spent the afternoons playing in abandoned cars behind the compound, or whatever it was, with the little girl my age whose mother wasn’t around.

Dave Roberts never pitched better than on that spring day in 1970. After relieving Mike Corkins, he recorded 18 outs in a row. In the eighth, he walked Maury Wills and gave up a single to Willie Davis, but then erased the threat with an inning-ending double play and posted a 1-2-3 ninth.

My mom still remembered the name of the girl. Since she told me her name I’ve been carrying it around on my tongue. On the bus to work, staring out at the chain stores. While at work, looking for mistakes. On the bus home, the same. Applebee’s, Best Buy, Jiffy Lube. Diedre.

After a few weeks in Alaska, my mom decided it was too wild, too unstructured, too insecure. My father was still in New Jersey, going to his job, making a paycheck, refusing to stop believing things could work out, that the family could stay together. He turned out to be right, in a way. The family did stay together, for a while anyway, and weirdly. We returned to him, all of us, Tom, too, and all lived together for a couple of years in a house in Hopewell. I’d always thought those years in Hopewell were the peak of the wild living, the experimental open marriage on full display, but the wildest days had been in Alaska.

***

In Alaska, I crawl over and through the rusted husks of abandoned cars. Elsewhere, the last out of Dave Roberts’ near-perfect relief appearance is a pop-up to the second baseman. The ball seems to hang suspended in the air. Dave Roberts is about to win. The sun seems to hang suspended in the sky. The day is enormous. A motherless little girl clambers along beside me, the world corroding, dangerous, bright. Words are new. Diedre, I say. We are wandering.

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Fred Holdsworth

April 18, 2012

For Tax Week, here’s Fred Holdsworth, who after his playing career ended became an accountant and is now a vice president of finance for Comcast. During his playing career, Holdsworth floated around on the fringes of rosters for a while and injured Hall of Famers. In a spring training game, one of his pitches broke Carlton Fisk’s forearm. A couple of years later, he ran into Jim Palmer while the two were jogging around the outfield, the collision causing problems with Palmer’s delivery, according to Palmer. In a late August game in 1980, he did not injure George Brett (Brett had already been plunked in the knee earlier in the game by another pitcher) but perhaps Holdsworth’s injurious aura cowed the future Hall of Famer just enough to stop Brett’s streak of 8 hits in 8 at-bats. In the following weeks, Brett’s torrid pace fell off just a bit, causing him to narrowly miss batting .400, and during the playoffs and World Series he developed a painful case of hemorrhoids, but it wouldn’t be fair to blame either of these setbacks on Fred Holdsworth. That said, I am now tempted to research causes of hemorrhoids; perhaps I could discover that certain poor eating and drinking habits contribute to the malady, and a hypotheses could be formed that Brett, confused by his inability to include the eminently hittable Fred Holdsworth (who admitted after stymieing Brett, “Heck, I’m just happy to get anybody out”)  in his steamrolling domination of American League pitching, drowned his sorrows in a post-game bacchanalia of hemorrhoid-causing consumables. But I don’t want to digress. This is my affliction, digressing, the thing by which I am undone. When did I start digressing? Maybe it goes back to 1975, when I was seven and began collecting baseball cards. The cards that year digressed. The main subject of the cards was featured in most places on the front and back, but each card contained a riddle unrelated to the player on the card. You start thinking about Fred Holdsworth, and soon enough, via a riddle, you’re thinking about something else. The riddle on the back of Holdsworth’s card asks, “Which Phillie has a Las Vegas night club act?” The answer is upside down below a cartoon of a baseball player strumming a guitar: Tom Hutton. A few weeks ago, while working on a piece about Alan Foster, I ran across a newspaper article from spring training 1969 about the friendship between teammates Foster and Hutton. The two had been playing together for years in the Dodgers’ minor league system and had been deemed by their current minor league manager, identified in the article as “Tommy LaSorda,” as “the first Siamese twins in the history of organized baseball.” The two friends, who according to the article were on the cusp of becoming major league mainstays for the Dodgers, are shown playing guitar and singing. Hutton jokingly boasts at one point, “And when we get through they’re gonna be saying Simon and Garfunkel who?” By 1975, Hutton was on the Phillies and Foster was a Padre. Hutton, despite the implications of the riddle on the back of Fred Holdsworth’s card, was not currently performing in Las Vegas in 1975, but he had indeed played there. At the Thunderegg blog, Hutton is asked about the baseball card lore (repeated on more than one occasion in back of the card cartoons) identifying him as Vegas performer. Hutton, now a broadcaster calling games for the Marlins, replied that he “played guitar & sang with Maury Wills in the winter of 1971 at the old Las Vegas Hotel in downtown Vegas. Maury invited me to be part of his show and we did 3 shows a nite for 6 wks.” None of this has anything to do with Fred Holdsworth.

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Mark Fidrych

August 14, 2011

Today would be Mark Fidrych’s 57th birthday. At left is the autograph of the 1976 Rookie of the Year, a great gift sent along to me recently by Carl A., a fan of my book. Carl’s father got him the autograph one early spring at a motor inn in Lansing, Michigan, along with a few other Tigers autographs. In all but one of the other Tigers autographs, the players mentioned the father’s son by name and included a brief message:

To Carl
My Best Regards
Always
Ron LeFlore

To Carl
BEST Wishes!

Benjamin Oglivie

To Carl,
Best Always
Gates Brown

In addition to those signatures, all written on Hospitality Motor Inn stationery, Carl’s dad also got Al Kaline’s autograph (no message) on a smaller slip. But the scrawl of a Tiger all-time great could not have had more impact than the sideways scribble of Mark Fidrych. I imagine he and Kaline were unable to include personal wishes because their tables were besieged by fans, and if they were to personalize every message they would have been there all night. The presence among the signers of Ben Oglivie suggests that the signing occurred in 1977, Oglivie’s last with the Tigers, and a spring 1977 sighting of Fidrych, the reigning Rookie of the Year, must have caused quite a stir. He wouldn’t have had time to write the name of every father’s son on a slip of paper or to wish them the best, but he didn’t have to. Every father’s son from those days knew that the Bird was pitching for us and sending us his best. He was our way into the center of the action because he was exactly like us, a boy in love with the game.

This morning I roamed the Internet a bit in search of stories about meeting Mark Fidrych. There were glimpses of him long after his playing days were over, giving himself over to charity work, and glimpses of him crossing over into the world of comic books, and glimpses of him gazing backward with some hurt and confusion but also humility and gratitude.

The best glimpse of him that I found on this day, his birthday, was one taken by a photographer, Joe McNally, who—like most who ever seemed to spend even a little time with Fidrych—came to think of the big-hearted pitcher as his friend. Check out McNally’s touching tribute if you’ve got a second, and raise a glass today to the Bird.

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John Knox

July 26, 2011

Lately, I’ve added a check of baseball-reference.com’s “players born on this day” page to my morning rituals. Today, July 26, now four days beyond my wife’s due date, offers some interesting baseball birthdays. Perhaps the most peculiar career to ever lead to induction into the baseball Hall of Fame got its start on this date in 1922 when knuckleballing journeyman reliever-turned-starter-turned-reliever Hoyt Wilhelm was born. Wilhelm did not even reach the majors until he was 29, surely the oldest rookie besides Satchel Paige to ever wind up in Cooperstown. He lasted until he was 49. If any prediction about the life of someone born on this date could be gleaned from the most accomplished baseball player to be born today, it would be that life is strange and beautiful.

On Sunday my wife and I went to the beach near our house. There was some kind of large Hare Krishna gathering going on in the park bordering the beach. We walked past it and put down our folding chairs on the sand. Oddly, no one else was around. I walked over to ask the lifeguard, a teenage girl, what was going on, and she said that heavy rains a couple days earlier had caused raw sewage to spill into the lake, and she was waiting to hear if the beach would be closed or not. I walked back, and Abby and I sat there and watched a seagull pick at something slick and rubbery that once was alive. The music of the Hare Krishnas wafted intermittently over the beach, along with the groans of a garbage truck and the sound of the little waves of Lake Michigan.

A couple other notables born on this day were known by adjectival nicknames: Sad Sam Jones and Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons, a couple of 200 game winners from the Ruth era. To get one of these memorable adjectival nicknames, you have to have a personal trait that can be described with a word that shares the same first letter as your first name. I have never attained such a nickname. Maybe there’s still time. Jumpy Josh Wilker? Jittery Josh Wilker? Jaundiced Josh Wilker? I actually did come out jaundiced when I was born, and the nonmedical definition of the term might also apply: “exhibiting or influenced by envy, distaste, or hostility.” Unfortunately, none of these words is as elemental and catchy as “Fat” or “Sad.”

Eventually, a green flag was raised on a pole beside the lifeguard chair, and people here and there began appearing on the beach and wading out into the water. “My dream was to sit with my feet in the water,” Abby said. This is the kind of dream that seems manageable. Other dreams have side effects. But this one: easy. We picked up our chairs and moved down to the water and sat and let the ends of the little waves wash over our feet. The sound of the water was now all we heard. We ate Pringles and stared out at the water and made each other laugh. Jumpy Jittery Jaundiced Josh Wilker relaxed.

Other notables born on July 26 include Norm Siebern, the date’s leading hitter, key part in the trade that brought Roger Maris to the Yankees, and bit player, at the end of his career, with the 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox; Ellis Kinder, tireless country boy Red Sox hurler from the team’s late 1940s-early 1950s excruciating bridesmaid years; and Sibby Sisti, who despite or in part because of his underwhelming hitting skills served as the cleanup batter in one of the greatest baseball books ever written.

On the way back from the beach, I felt very tired, as if instead of sitting in a beach chair with my feet in cool water I had crossed over to Michigan and back doing the Australian crawl. I think most of the time I live as if I’m braced against an invisible but somehow crucial wall that seems as if it will crumble down and let in all manner of ruin if I let up for one second. It’s exhausting. Probably pretty stupid, too. There’s nothing you can do anyway. No wall to hold up I mean. Ruin, chaos, it’ll just come. Other things will come, too, good things, but probably if you’re spending all your time and strength bracing against a nonexistent wall you might miss it.

John Knox is like most of the baseball players born on this date. He played for a little while, didn’t really attach himself to any particularly significant moment in baseball history (though he did appear in a game in which Hank Aaron set the career record for RBI), and then moved on to other things. He was not a bad player, at least as far as his stats show, his .274 lifetime batting average one that most players would be proud of, especially if they were, like Knox, utility infielders, who usually spend their solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short major league existences foraging for enough basehits to push them over the Mendoza line. It’s actually a bit of a mystery why Knox didn’t stick around any longer than he did. He even looks confident in this 1976 card, his last. The Tigers sold him to the Reds early in 1976, but he never cracked the major league roster of the reigning World Champions, who were with Joe Morgan and Pete Rose about as covered at second base and third base, Knox’s two positions, as any team ever has been. Knox knocked around in the minors that year, hitting poorly, and that was that. Occasionally a player who skirts across the margins of the majors will for some reason or another impress himself on the collective memory of the game. But most guys who play the game are just names with dates and numbers attached to them. Still, they had their day. They got to move their chair down close to the water and for a little while live a dream.

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Bill Freehan

March 9, 2011

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

Detroit Tigers

The front of Bill Freehan’s 1977 card projects the feel of an iconic solidity gone slightly out of whack, like an old, eroding statue jarred askew by geologic forces. By the time the card came out, Bill Freehan, an eleven-time all-star, had been released.

In what would be his final season, 1976, the plan seems to have been to go with someone other than Freehan as the team’s primary catcher for the first time since 1962. Detroit’s April 20 road game against the Oakland A’s marked new acquisition Milt May’s sixth start of the season, against just two starts for Freehan. Late in that game, however, May suffered a season-ending injury.

Freehan entered the game in the bottom of the eighth with the Tigers holding a two-run lead. The A’s managed no runs in the eighth, despite pinch-runner Larry Lintz (manning the A’s pinch-runner role once held by Herb Washington) reaching second on a steal, but in the ninth inning the A’s (who would set a modern record for stolen bases that year) began wreaking more havoc with their legs. Bert Campaneris reached on a single and stole second, which may have rattled starter Joe Coleman into walking Phil Garner, especially given that Coleman was then removed from the game for Joe Crawford. The A’s, incredibly enough, carried two players that year that they used primarily to pinch-run, and the second of these players, Matt Alexander, was inserted for Garner. Alexander and Campaneris promptly executed a double steal, putting the tying run in scoring position.

By this point, you’d have to think that Bill Freehan, a former five-time Gold Glove winner who had earlier in his career once led the league in percentage of runners thrown out trying to steal, was feeling sweaty, bewildered, even besieged, having surrendered four stolen bases in the time it would have taken a fan to go get a hot dog. The Tigers got a brief reprieve when Billy North lined out, but then Crawford walked Claudell Washington and Joe Rudi smacked a single to tie the score. Crawford was yanked from the game. And here, on the day when Bill Freehan regained his starting role, another story begins. 

A curly-haired 20-year-old Tiger rookie making his major league debut bounded in from the bullpen.

Bill Freehan must have been at the mound to greet Mark Fidrych to the big leagues. Maybe he even slapped the ball into Fidrych’s glove. All I can tell for sure is that Bill Freehan was behind the plate when Mark Fidrych started what would be one of the most magical individual seasons in major league history on a sour note, surrendering a game-ending single to the first batter he ever faced, Don Baylor.

Bill Freehan caught Fidrych in his next game, too, another brief relief appearance, this one in ninth inning mop-up duty in a loss to the Twins. The appearance went a little better for Fidrych (no runs and two hits in 1 inning of work) but was no highlight reel for Freehan, who let one of Fidrych’s lively offerings get by him for a passed ball.

This would be the end of Freehan’s on-field association with Fidrych, the two Tiger legends–one granite-like, unspectacular, and steady, the other wondrous and fleeting–like two figures from briefly overlapping and wildly different dreams. In Fidrych’s first start of the season, the catcher brought up from the minors to replace the injured Milt May, Bruce Kimm, was tabbed to catch his former minor league teammate, and Fidrych did so well in the complete game 2-1 win that manager Ralph Houk made Kimm into Fidrych’s permanent personal catcher for the rest of the season. (Check out Kimm’s fond reminiscences about his year with the Bird in a Baseball Digest interview following Fidrych’s sad early death.)  

Kimm, Johnny Wockenfuss, and Bill Freehan divvied up the catching duties in something close to an even three-way split, but in the end Bill Freehan once again topped the team in games played behind the plate [update: though Freehan is listed with the starters on baseball-reference.com’s page for the 1976 Tigers, Kimm actually matched him in games caught, 61, with Wockenfuss right behind with 59, accoring to Freehan’s SABR bio]. He hit .270 and added 5 home runs to his lifetime total for an even 200. His entire statistical record is on the back of this 1977 card, and there’s something satisfyingly solid about that even 200 number and about the repetition of one team and one team only, “Tigers,” down the left-hand column of the statistics.

As for the dream that briefly overlapped Freehan’s, the one featuring the 20-year-old rookie with the curly hair, it didn’t last long, as an injury in spring training in 1977 started a chain reaction leading to chronic arm troubles for Mark Fidrych, who would, like Freehan, never be a regular again after 1976.    

Note to the 2011 Detroit Tigers: All that is solid will melt into air.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 10 of 30: Check out the posts of author Joe Bonomo at No Such Thing As Was, who recently added a recollection of the Bird in 1976 to his blog about (among other things) pop culture and memory.

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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