Archive for the ‘Detroit Tigers’ Category

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Phil Mankowski

September 20, 2008
 Untitled 
The Two Freaks
(continued from Johnny Sutton)

Chapter Five

Johnny Sutton wasn’t the only figure featured in Topps’ notably drab 1979 series to receive a wadded-up handwritten message from the Two Freaks. Check the slight bulge—the exact size of a wadded-up page—in Phil Mankowski’s back pocket. Now check the troubled look on his face. While Johnny Sutton’s expression of 89% muted trepidation and 11% dim hope implies that the letter balled up in his glove was unread at the time of his photograph, the face of the player in the card shown here speaks of enigmatically haunting information freshly received. Phil Mankowski, who should be snarling with confidence, a young, promising player on a young, promising team, instead appears to be in the earliest stages of a comprehensive existential cringe, as if he has just been shown the few seasons of stats on the back of his baseball card in the context of a detailed timeline of the 4.54 billion year history of the planet. We don’t amount to much.

***

Dear Fellow Marginal,

Before we embark on our urgent message to you, please allow us to introduce ourselves. We were born and one day will die. In between those two points there has been disappointment, but not nearly enough of it. Oh to be so disappointed that all points are dispersed, disassembled, dissolved, linear narrative forever undone. There is no story! There is only Right Now!

But until that day we live in a hierarchical age where everyone is enslaved by the linear story that goes “we were born and one day will die,” so to communicate we must temporarily conform and speak in those terms. We have been roaming the land for some years. Long ago, while taking our first awkward bony-kneed steps out of childhood, we were savagely beaten by a small informal collective of muscular peers from fractured, economically disadvantaged families. After that one of us developed a gift for silence, which was referred to by most as a stutter, while the other developed a gift for staying in the present, thought of by most as a damaged memory. At first we struggled with what we saw as our afflictions, seeing that they would make it difficult for us to live normal lives. At the same time, we kept our distance from one another, despite our history of being close childhood friends. We each saw the other as weak, a magnet for further victimization. Odd that we were brought together again by those supposed afflictions one day in the parking lot of our local military induction center. Instead of being shipped to a faraway land to kill and be killed, we were rejected for our afflictions. We laughed together in the parking lot, finally reunited, and wondered what to do with our ridiculous freedom.

Roam the land, we decided. Roam the land and be as pointless as humanly possible, spread the garbled word as quietly as possible, so quietly it is only ever caught in a flicker, to seep past conscious thought, to be immune to memory, to exist only as a seed for dreams. We have been public figures with no publicity. We are the winners of the contest to see who can throw the softest punch. We are the sound of one hand clapping. We are the tree that falls in the forest with no one around to hear.

Do we make a sound?

The only way to know is to join us. This is our urgent request. In fact you already have joined us. Embrace your fate as one easily forgotten. Marginals of the World Unite! The epoch of chemically-aided hope that weirdness and wide open spaces might one day reign is nearing an end. The 1960s eructed Technicolor puke all over the 1970s but the puke has almost completely dried. It’s 1979. Everyone is depressed, divorced, precariously employed. What is the point of your meaningless flailing? There is no escape from this profound inconsequentiality. There is no escape from this brief gift. What to do with these entwined incarcerations. What to do in this life?

We urge you, when next you are called upon to perform your duties, to refuse. Accompany the refusal with silence, or nod to our fictional forerunner, Bartleby, and say that you would prefer not to. We have contacted several just like you and implored them to do the same, to do nothing, to refuse. Think of the effect on the world! All us supposedly desperate ledge-clingers letting go of the ledge. Refusing to pinch-hit, refusing to mop up, refusing to act as a late-game defensive replacement in lopsided blowouts. If we marginals could all fall together the enslaving story that ends in death would be undone. When there is no up or down, falling becomes flying.

Please do something senseless.

Sincerely (And We Mean That),

The Two Freaks

***

Phil Mankowski did not, as far as I know, follow any of the garbled collective suggestions of the freak with the stutter or the freak with the faulty, clouded memory. He did, however, change upon the release of this card from a young, promising player with .275 career batting average (high for a third baseman of that era, especially compared to the anemic hitting totals produced by the aging Tigers regular at the position, Aurelio Rodriguez) into a prototypical major league marginal. After hitting .271, .276, and .275 in his first three seasons, Mankowski plummeted to .222 in 1979, causing the Tigers to paperclip him to a deal that sent journeyman Jerry Morales to the Mets for famed digger of graves Richie Hebner. Mankowski hit .167 in 12 at-bats in 1980, didn’t play in the majors in 1981, and called it a career with a .229 mark in 35 at-bats in 1982. Never much of a power hitter, he had managed a respectable 8 home runs in 593 at-bats prior to appearing on a baseball card with the letter from the Two Freaks in his back pocket. He would never go deep again.

(to be continued)

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Willie Horton in . . . the All-Time Franchise All Stars

July 18, 2008
 

Untitled
A couple days ago, after hurling web-scenities at Wade Boggs, I got on an airplane, worrying that bad vibes from the vulgar, spiteful post would cause some sort of Old Testament-style high-altitude smiting. Yesterday in the hippie-thick city where a lot of my family has recently relocated to, I came out of a grocery store and some bearded dude was sitting near the carts and playing a sitar. And I thought to myself, yeah, a sitar, why the hell not? Gotta spread those good cosmic vibes, man. Ain’t no time to hate. (At least until my return flight safely lands.)

So on that note here’s Willie Horton, one of the more beloved figures in baseball history. As I see it, Willie does not quite make the cut for the all-time Tigers team, even if a designated hitter spot is added, because the Tigers have no less than four Hall of Fame outfielders ahead of him on the depth chart, plus one other candidate for the DH position, Norm Cash, whose numbers seem to be a bit better than Horton’s estimable career record.

Cash, by the way, a first baseman who gets sent to the bench by Hank Greenberg, might also have a case for the wild-card position that I have included in these lists as a way of including the one player who can’t find a spot in the starting lineup but who needs to be on the team anyway. I’m no expert on how Tigers fans generally feel about Cash, but he played for the team for a long, long time, and if the incident in which he went to bat carrying a table leg late in a game against an unhittable Nolan Ryan is any guide, his personality was surely the kind that would endear him to the fans.

But I don’t think there’s a statue of Norm Cash at the Tigers’ current ballpark, and there is one of Willie Horton. I hope that some Tigers fans can chime in about this subject, but it seems from my distant viewpoint that Willie was not only a great player for a long time but was also one of those rare players with a special knack for letting the fans know that the love they are showering down is reciprocal. In a way it’s very dumb that we fans put so much emotion into this game, but the truth is, right or wrong, we do. And we want to get the feeling that the players we are cheering for hear us and appreciate it. I think Willie Horton was able to do that.

So he’s a member of the All Time Tiger team to me, in the extremely important wild-card spot. As for the other members of the team, I’m going to leave that open for debate in hopes of encouraging smarter fans than me to chime in with their picks. I’ll eventually add my own ballot and then tally up the results.

Here are the Tigers batting and pitching leaders.

And here’s the ballot:
C:
1B:
2B:
SS:
3B:
LF:
CF:
RF:
DH:
Wild card:
SP:
RP:

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Johnny Wockenfuss

June 6, 2008
 Untitled 
The first year my world expanded beyond my house and yard, I got a bully. He intercepted me in the afternoons after kindergarten, stepping in front of me when I was on my way home. One day he showed me a little pen knife and said he was going to carve me up if I didn’t find a way to climb through a small tree that had split at the trunk into two thick, tightly entwined branches. I spent what seemed like a very long time trying to climb through the nonexistent space between the branches. For most of that time I was afraid to look up from the task, and even when I finally did and saw that my bully was gone I kept trying for a while, afraid that he’d somehow know that I had defied him.

Another day he was starting to menace me with a fallen branch bigger than either of us. My best friend Nick happened to come by.

“Hey, get out of here,” Nick shouted at my bully. He stepped toward him. Nick was a big kid, a year older than me. “Go on! Beat it!”

The bully beat it. From that point on I lingered after school every day for a little while, waiting for Nick’s class to get out so we could walk home together.

When does a person’s life begin to separate itself from other lives? There are a few years there, after the womb, after the cutting of the umbilical cord, of glowing unconscious preverbal attachment to others, to those holding you and feeding you. Then things start getting a little more complicated.

The first lie I ever told was to Nick. One day my next-door neighbor dragged a little plastic wading pool out into the grass between our houses and I discovered that Nick had abnormal feet. His toes were all melted together. This upset and disturbed me tremendously. Another day, maybe the next day, he came over and asked if I wanted to play in the wading pool again. He was standing outside our open front door like a salesman.

“I have a TV show I have to watch,” I said. “Bye.”

I shut the door on him and went and turned on the TV. I have imposed onto this memory that I then watched Lost in Space, a show I watched a lot in that house in New Jersey, but I’m not sure if that’s what was on. It didn’t matter what was on. Nick never asked me to play in the wading pool again.

Lost in Space was my first favorite show. In it a standard clean-cut Eisenhower era television family augmented by a perpetually angry young hothead, a safety-conscious robot, and an aging flamboyant narcissist drifts through the universe, unable to get back to the world they know. At that time, my own family was in an early 1970s experimental open marriage phase that must have made the unusually configured clan of Lost in Space seem comfortingly familiar. My mother and her boyfriend shared a room, and my dad had a room of his own. My brother and I watched a lot of TV.

There was this recurring character on one of the shows we watched, Sesame Street, a big droopy pachyderm-like creature named Snuffleupagus, whom only Big Bird could see. I remember him as always being a little depressed that the adults didn’t believe he existed. After every appearance he’d galumph off just before an adult happened by, and Big Bird’s claims that they’d just missed Snuffleupagus would be met with skepticism. Of course, besides Big Bird, all the children watching at home could also see Snuffleupagus.

“You don’t understand!” we would say.

I guess the idea was that one of the beauties of childhood, and one of its hardships, was that as you grow up and out of the crawling and sucking stage you start seeing and living a different life than the lives of your guardians. You start separating, becoming an individual. The adults can’t see what you’re seeing.

Sesame Street still features Snuffleupagus, but in the mid-1980s they got rid of what had been the key element of his story. Someone at the show noticed that having adults disbelieve stories of what happened in their absence came dangerously close to the historical tendency of adults—of society in general—to disbelieve children’s claims of molestation. So I can see the reason behind revising the Snuffleupagus story, but I’m also glad I got to see it in its original form. It makes me better able to understand why I have put so much undue importance on a baseball player who was not anywhere near my favorite player and never played for my favorite team.

There are plenty of differences between Snuffleupagus and Johnny Wockenfuss, of course. For one thing, I don’t think Snuffleupagus could rake left-handed pitching like Johnny Wockenfuss could. For another, I’m sure if I’d told my mom or dad or stepfather about Johnny Wockenfuss, they would have believed that someone called Johnny Wockenfuss existed. But as they then turned back toward whatever they’d been doing before being interrupted, I would feel that the most important thing about Johnny Wockenfuss had been ignored, had been lost somewhere between my young tongue and the adults’ ears.

“You don’t understand!” I would say.

And how could they? It’s thirty years later and I still can’t explain it myself. All my Cardboard Gods matter to me, but there’s a little extra magic about Johnny Wockenfuss, and I’m not sure why.

When I first found this card in a pack I’m sure I felt compelled to say the words aloud. Johnny Wockenfuss. The sound was mine alone, a droopy galumphing imaginary companion. Every once in a while I still say Johnny Wockenfuss aloud. It’s a habit that may bloom into full flower someday, as I lie bald and decrepit in a stiff metal-railed bed in an underfunded institution.

“He keeps saying Johnny Wockenfuss,” one staff member will say. “Who the hell’s Johnny Wockenfuss?”

“Nobody,” another staff member will reply. By then my tongue won’t be able to form any other words. So only groans will come out when I try to protest.

“You don’t understand!” I’ll try to say.

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John Hiller/Red Sox-Rockies Game 4 Chat

October 28, 2007
 

 
If you tune into the fourth game of the World Series between the Colorado Rockies and the Boston Red Sox tonight (FOX, 5:29 MT), you’re sure to hear a couple subjects hammered into the ground, namely 1) both teams have recent experience battling back from seemingly insurmountable deficits and 2) both starting pitchers have recent experience battling back from serious health issues. The Rockies, in an 0-3 hole, a deficit that only the 2004 Red Sox have ever been able to overcome, will presumably gird themselves tonight with the knowledge that they staved off almost certain elimination from playoff contention by going on an epic winning jag that began in mid-September and didn’t end until they saw Josh Beckett standing on the mound in the first game of the World Series. As for the other of tonight’s plotlines, Boston’s starter Jon Lester was diagnosed with cancer at the end of last season, and Colorado’s starter, Aaron Cook, who has been sidelined since August of this season with a strained side muscle, had his 2004 season end when blod clots were discovered in his lungs.

Their inspirational comebacks (which caused Clint Hurdle to gush in an article today by AP reporter Jimmy Golen that “God’s fingerprints are all over a lot of things”) follow in the footsteps of a hurler from the Cardboard Gods era, John Hiller. Hiller was sidelined for the entire 1971 season after suffering a heart attack, but in 1973 he authored perhaps the greatest season any bullpen hand has ever had (his 31 Win Shares is the single-season record for a reliever).

We never know when we’re going to be struck down, so I guess we should never believe we’re doomed, no matter what the circumstances, because, you know, who knows?

                                                     *    *    *

The lineups (courtesy of Extra Bases):

Red Sox
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
Dustin Pedroia, 2B
David Ortiz, 1B
Manny Ramirez, LF
Mike Lowell, 3B
J.D. Drew, RF
Jason Varitek, C
Julio Lugo, SS
Jon Lester, LHP

Rockies
Kazuo Matsui, 2B
Troy Tulowitzki, SS
Matt Holliday, LF
Todd Helton, 1B
Garrett Atkins, 3B
Ryan Spilborghs, CF
Brad Hawpe, RF
Yorvit Torrealba, C
Aaron Cook, P

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Dick Sharon

September 18, 2007
 

When I was a kid I hated that I had Jew blood in me. My brother often checked out large library books about World War II and left them lying around open to photos of concentration camp corpse-mounds. He also bought a lot of comics set in World War II: Sgt. Rock, Sgt. Fury and His Howlin’ Commandos, Weird War Tales. Every so often the Jews would make an appearance in the panels as background for the tales of heroic American conquest, and they’d be emaciated and hollow-eyed, penned up in filthy cells or jammed like cattle into train cars or lined up meekly for the gas chamber. That’s what the Jews were, as far as I knew. Thin gray prison-clothed victims.

Why didn’t they fight back? I wondered. It made me angry. How could they just line up to die?

My father had been raised in a strict Orthodox home, but by the time he met and married a shiksa, my mom, he had become completely irreligious (unless you’re a big fan of irony and want to count his passionate adherence to the theories of religion’s most famous critic, Karl Marx, as religion). There were no traces of Jewish life in my upbringing, and even if my father had lived with us I don’t think it would have been different. There were no traces of Jewish life in his tiny apartment in Manhattan, either, though I subconsciously came to think of everything in the apartment as Jewish, from the relative lack of furniture to the fact that he kept his small black-and-white television in the closet, rarely watching it, to his crude cinder block and board bookcases, to the yellowing Ellis Island photos in the hollow of a cinder block of his mother and father, to the persistent smell of garlic, to the giant jar of wheat germ in the refrigerator.

Occasionally my father would take my brother and me to see his mother, our grandma, and it was like venturing to the very source of the garlicky strangeness and unfamiliarity that permeated everything in my father’s apartment, like going to the very heart of Jewness. I was frightened of her. She had a strange accent and was tiny and hunched and impossibly old. My father, perhaps wary of revealing to my brother and me that he was a good deal older than my mother, had always tried to evade our questions about his age by saying he was “a googol” (which he explained was a number far larger than a billion). It was one of those slippery pieces of childhood info that you neither fully believe nor disbelieve. But if he was a googol, his mother, the stooped woman who constantly forced mysterious and complicated Old World food on me, must have been infinity.

“Eat! Eat!” she implored. The bowl of homemade soup in her ancient veined hands roiled with thick gray noodles and gristle. I clamped my lips tight and shook my head no. No, no, no.

When I was around her I wanted to go back home. Back to my Chips Ahoys and Spaghettios. Back to television sit-coms and baseball. Back to my painless solitary hours in my room. Back to the nerf-soft confines of my daydreams. Back to the Cardboard Gods.

I had no idea that the one Cardboard God who seems to have made the most visits to me, with five, had a Jewish father. Just like me. (Just like Skip Jutze, too, according to Baseball Almanac. And just like Ryan “The Hebrew Hammer” Braun.) I doubt I paid much mind to any of the five 1975 Dick Sharon cards that came into my life, except perhaps to become mildly annoyed that the guy kept clogging up my new packs with his repeating self. (I doubt I even noticed the shadow of the Topps photographer visible in the picture, possibly the only time one of the medievally anonymous artisans responsible for creating the Cardboard God universe appears in any form in one of their images.)

As far as I knew there were not, nor never had been, Jewish baseball players. I knew from studying the baseball encyclopedia who Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg were, but I didn’t know they were Jewish. From what I’d seen from my father Jews couldn’t even throw a baseball. They were also generally uncoordinated and pale. You’d hear them from time to time slipping and falling in the bathtub. They drove cars slowly and jerkily, their citified shoulders tensed. They listened to classical music and wore thick glasses and button down shirts and ties. They had jobs with titles so long they were impossible to understand.

They were certainly not the dashing figure presented above in quintuplet. Dick Sharon’s chiseled jaw, his drooping Marlboro Man stache, his steely gaze and swaggering body language and smile: they all exude dashing athletic aptitude and confidence. On the back of the card, Sharon is described as a “sure-handed flyhawk.” I doubt I even really understood what this meant, but it probably sounded to me like something that could have been used to describe one of Sgt. Rock’s brave men or one of Sgt. Fury’s colorful and able Howlin’ Commandos. I focused my twisted attention on imagined heroes battling for victory and glory. In these imaginings the Jews were barely there at all, just figures in the background, weak and capitulatory. I tried to believe I had nothing to do with them.

Why didn’t they fight back? I still wondered sometimes, unable to completely get them out of my mind. How could they just line up to die?

I’ve learned some things since then. I learned my father’s oldest brother, Joe, joined the Navy soon after Pearl Harbor and saw heavy combat in the South Pacific. I learned my father’s other brother, Dave, joined the Navy too, as soon as he was old enough, and when my father was old enough he also joined, all three of my grandma’s sons away from her embrace, prepared to fight. There is a picture from that time of her with my father and my Uncle Joe, both home on leave. My uncle looks Dick Sharon-dashing in his tailored combat-used sailor uniform, while my daydreaming scholar father, barely out of his teens, looks in his baggy ill-fitting standard issue sailor uniform like he is moments away from inadvertently tripping over something. In between them stands my grandma, low and thick, indestructible. She had raised the family by herself, her husband unable to contribute even before he wound up floating in the East River. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to experience the hardships she had to go through, losing one of her children in infancy, leaving her parents and the whole world she grew up in to come to a strange country, toiling long hours as a housecleaner to keep her family from starving, her husband gone silent and strange, living through the grisly death of her husband, soldiering on with love. Fighting back. In the photo she exudes pride and also this overwhelming sense that she would make you very, very sorry if you ever messed with her family.

As for my dad, the war ended before he ever saw combat, but he tells a story about a camp boxing match in which he was pitted against the largest man on the base. He suspects that anti-Semitism was behind the obvious mismatch, the match-makers hoping to enjoy a nice quick Jew-beating. He says he never even saw the first punch. One moment he was standing there and the next moment he was on the ground. He got up. Soon he was on the ground again. He got up. Then he was staring at the lights above the ring again. He got up. Then he was kissing canvas again. He got up. Finally officials had to step in and end the match because of my father’s refusal to stop fighting.

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Ben Oglivie

September 10, 2007

   
I.
Here are some 1975 Ben Oglivies enacting the Cardboard God version of the myth of Sisyphus, that Greek guy who was condemned to roll a rock up a hill again and again forever. For Albert Camus, the repetitive plight of Sisyphus epitomized the fundamental futility and absurdity of human existence, and he used it to wonder whether we should we all just off ourselves and get it over with. I read Camus’s essay on this subject, and I recall that he decided against suicide, but I was never really clear on how he came to that decision, and by now I have even forgotten any half-notions I might have gleaned. I do remember the essay coming up one late night several years ago in the International Bar as I complained to a woman about my life.

“You should read ‘The Myth of Sisyphus,'” she said.

“I already read it,” I said. “It didn’t help. Nothing helps.” Incredibly, I was still clinging to the same hope I always clung to on the rare occasions when I found myself in a conversation with a woman who had somehow wandered into the International, that dim, narrow corridor of cigarette smoke and male self-pity where I preferred to spend my leisure time. I was hoping she would have sex with me, save me, shield me from woe, etc., etc.

“You should read it again,” she said. “I think you’re ready for it now.”

She fixed me with a cheerful, distancing smile, then turned and started talking to someone else. Alone with my drink, I sat there resenting being told I was “ready” for something. It seemed belittling. I was a bitter guy, of course. Bitter guys often feel belittled. Bitter guys have spiraling phantom conversations that pick up where the real conversations left off.

“What I mean is, I’m up here and you’re down there,” the woman said to me in the phantom conversation in my head. “But maybe, just maybe, you’re ready to start approaching my level of enlightenment.”

“I don’t need you,” I imagined replying. “I don’t need anyone.”

II.
Life is as tedious as a story told over and over. Believe it or not, this sentiment was expressed on a slip of paper inside a fortune cookie cracked open by my brother one evening back in the early 1990s, somewhere around the time the woman in the bar told me I was ready for Camus. My brother tacked the message to an ever more crowded bulletin board in our apartment, taking its place with other relics such as a loving transcription of Derrick Coleman’s words to half-live by, “Whoop de damn do”; an article about the escape of a giant rat from a Coney Island sideshow; napkin drawings by Ramblin’ Pete Millerman of the impish, heavy-browed hockey marauder Tie Domi and one of his predecessors in on-ice intimidation, the scarred, hirsute, consonant-riddled Harold Snepsts; a photo of the troublingly glaze-eyed countenance of Darryl Strawberry, who had just joined the Dodgers and was pronouncing that he was Born Again and that his days of trouble and suffering were behind him (the quote below the photo from former Mets teammate David Cone related something along the lines of “It’s like the lights are on but nobody’s home”); and another fortune cookie fortune that said “Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life” (note the loophole created by the use of the word “tomorrow”: what seems like a call to action is actually permission to put any self-improvement aside today; ours was a monotonous life resistant to change, beaten to the fringes, parentheses-glutted so that [in the parentheses, the obscure irrational digressions from the monotony, we found our wonder: a Giant Rat on the loose, Tie Domi unleashed, Albert Camus reincarnated as a low-paid scribe for a fortune cookie concern, life itself unstrung, revealed, whoop de damn do, nothing matters] nothing matters): nothing matters.

III.
So anyway, here are some doubles. By September every year the packs would be full of doubles. You’d be in school again, time beaten down, corralled, summertime’s meandering borderless sprawl reduced to repeating calendar rectangles. On the weekends you’d go to the store to buy a couple more packs, searching for summer, and the message was the same: repeating rectangles. Ben Oglivie. Ben Oglivie. Ben Oglivie. Ben Oglivie.

The Myth of Ben Oglivie shows me a man forever trapped in a pose, waiting for a pitch that will never arrive. There is a figure in the distance, anonymous, too far away to be of any assistance. We’re on our own inside our repeating rectangle. It’s Monday and tomorrow will be Tuesday but the situation won’t change. If the quartet of Ben Oglivies above is any guide, on some days the sky will appear a little lighter, other days a little darker, and once in a while everything might seem a little tilted, slightly out of whack, part of the border around the day obliterated, as if there might be some escape.

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Ron LeFlore (update)

May 8, 2007

Current events rarely impinge on the constant whining sound of the musty squandered past here on Cardboard Gods, but I thought I should pass along the news that the recently featured Ron LeFlore is headed back behind bars.

My first thought on hearing this, I have to admit, was “Hm, what kind of comic material can I generate?” I’m not alone, I guess: I learned the news about LeFlore from a link on Baseball Think Factory, where the accompanying conversation was an exchange of one-liners (my favorite, from a poster named Wilson AlphaMeat, was “Maybe he’ll be discovered again.”). To salve my conscience over this, I am also providing a link to “The American Prison Nightmare,” a New York Review of Books article surveying some recent books that shed disturbing new light on our failing prison system. According to the article, things don’t look too good for Ron LeFlore:

 

[Confronting Confinement: A Report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons] tells us that America’s prisons are dangerously overcrowded, unnecessarily violent, excessively reliant on physical segregation, breeding grounds of infectious disease, lacking in meaningful programs for inmates, and staffed by underpaid and undertrained guards in a culture that promotes abuse. What is more, prisoners’ ability to legally challenge their living conditions has been curtailed by a congressional roadblock called the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, which has cut in half the number of inmates filing civil rights complaints.

And things don’t look too good for any of us, really, the article pointing out that the failing prison system hurts the entire society:

Bruce Western makes a crucial point at the start of his important book, Punishment and Inequality in America: “If prisons affected no one except the criminals on the inside, they would matter less.” But with more than two million Americans behind bars, the impact of mass incarceration is impossible to contain. Their fate affects the taxpayers who support them, the guards who guard them, the families they leave behind, and the communities to which they return. Not even the war in Iraq escapes the reach of prison culture; Sergeant Charles Graner, the villain of Abu Ghraib, worked as a Pennsylvania prison guard.

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Ron LeFlore

April 30, 2007

Happy

Conclusion

This morning, while trying and failing to find an eloquent way to finally wrap up “Happy,” which is surely the least focused, most digressive multipart Cardboard Gods series yet, I came upon an amusing site called Baseball Heckle Depot, which generously provides material for broadening one’s repertoire for yelling things at baseball guys, such as “Do you want my autograph?” and “You’ve got less hits than an Amish website!” The “True Stories” link brings you to a page that includes, among many other anecdotes featuring the beered-up and seated hurling invective down upon the standing, the following fan’s-eye view of the All-Star pictured in this 1977 card:

Ron LeFlore was a member of the Detroit Tigers back in the 70’s, and he was discovered by the late Billy Martin while in prison playing semi-pro ball. LeFlore could steal bases with the best of them, and had some pop in his bat, but wasn’t much of a fielder, which was no small source of frustration for Tigers fans. When a fairly routine grounder rolled through Ronnie’s legs in a tight game one night, the guy behind me yelled “Hey LeFlore, why don’t you pretend you’re still in the prison leauges [sic], and bend over!!”

I wonder what my conception of prison was before I read Ron LeFlore’s 1978 autobiography. When I was a kid, I developed my reading skills by reading very little else but baseball books, so whatever knowledge I had of the world beyond baseball and my rural Vermont town came to me through the comic book exploits of Spiderman and The Fantastic Four and television shows such as Happy Days, Lost in Space, Batman, Kung Fu, The Waltons, Wonder Woman, and Welcome Back, Kotter. With that in mind I probably viewed prison in my pre-LeFlore era as a barred room where exotically colorful villains or stoic, wrongfully accused heroes would occasionally be placed until they could escape to wreak more havoc or exonerate themselves, respectively. This conception, along with the fact that the idea of prison did not exist in the great majority of the shows I watched (unless I missed an early Happy Days episode in which Richie’s older brother was sent away to the Big House for life for something unspeakably heinous, which would have explained Stretch’s abrupt, final, never-mentioned absence from the show after Season One), must have made prison vague and safely distant to me. I had plenty of things to worry about as a kid, as all kids do, but prison was not one of them. At least until I read Ron LeFlore’s autobiography, that is.

I really don’t remember much about the book, but I certainly do recall the author describing the inmate practice that served as the punchline of the above heckling anecdote (and of the great majority of all prison-based humor). If I recall correctly, LeFlore himself managed to avoid the culture of ass-rape, but even so his description was enough to alter my idea of what it might be like if I was ever tossed in prison. Worse, LeFlore’s tale came in the context of baseball, which made up more of my world than anything else you could name. It was a baseball story, and since my life was built on baseball stories, it was a story about my life. Hence, prison—and not the kind of prison where Burgess Meredith’s Penguin might waddle around squawking for a few minutes before knocking out the guard with sleeping gas from his umbrella and escaping, but the kind of prison where a baseball player saw ass-rapers running across the yard with shit on their dicks—became a part of my life, or at least a new thing to fear.

So far, knock wood, I’ve managed to avoid prison. I’ve even avoided prison’s more temporary, booze-scented cousin, jail. I have been briefly handcuffed twice, but in the manner of practically every episode of Kung Fu, each of the apprehensions by authorities was wrongful (I only wish I could have had the presence of mind in each case to utter a couple pause-filled, soft-voiced Kwai Chang Caine-isms, something like “The Way . . . forgives . . . the sad cruelties . . . of man” or “The gentle reed . . . bends . . . in even the very strongest . . . wind.”). In one instance, after a Red Kross show in Hoboken, two of my friends had gone through a New Jersey Path Train turnstile together, and cops staking out the station who thought I was one of the fare-beaters also thought I was resisting arrest when I continued to walk down the train platform after they had yelled at me to stop. A few years earlier, while living in a house in the woods with four other students, I’d been yanked out of my bed late one night and cuffed when a very odd girl who lived at the house, and who believed she was alone in the house that night, called 911 to report what she thought was an intruder.

Other than that, I guess my experience that most closely resembled the kind of thing that might lead to incarceration was when I got busted at boarding school for participating in one of the joyous bong sessions described earlier in this four-part exploration. This bust led to my expulsion and to the expulsion of the one other person in the room who, like me, had committed an earlier suspension-worthy transgression at the school. This other person was my friend Happy Al Raymond.

I only saw Happy Al once after the day we were both sent packing. It was the following year, when some of us returned to the school during the homecoming weekend to get plastered together in a room at an Econo Lodge near the school. Al had thickened just a little around the middle by then, the slight alcogut the most easily visible element of his embrace of a new persona, that of the superficially and generically merry frat boy. He had a beer mug in his hand the whole weekend, and his standard reply to everything was a polished bark of laughter and little else.

And that was it. No more Happy Al. Nobody saw him again, nobody heard from him. I embarked on a largely aimless existence built around a vague desire to live a life that included writing, naps, and respite from loneliness. It turns out that while I was groping in my half-assed way toward my lazily conceived idea of happiness, Al was becoming an extremely successful Republican Party campaign operative. I don’t know if this made him happy, but I have always assumed that highly successful people are driven to their success in part by the happiness they find in doing their job.

By 2002, he had apparently become the go-to guy when a certain kind of campaign business needed to be done. His most celebrated or notorious exploit to that point (depending on your political leanings) had been when he’d engineered the mass blanketing of New Jersey households with calls right near kickoff of the Super Bowl. The calls, which were meant by virtue of their timing to be an annoyance to everyone who received them, were negative attacks on one rival candidate sent (it was ingeniously and fraudulently implied) by another rival candidate, smearing both. With this and other campaign triumphs on his resume, Al’s political campaign consulting firm was contacted in 2002 with a job that other similar firms had turned down. They’d all wanted no part of it.

A high-ranking Republican Party member, James Tobin, contacted Al, as related by the back and forth between Al and a questioner in court transcripts from Tobin’s trial:

Q: What does he say?
A: He says—he tells me that he’d like to talk to me about a phone project in New Hampshire and then explains the project to me as to what it would entail.
Q: And what does he tell you?
A: He tells me that it would entail jamming, essentially disrupting, democratic party and affiliated democratic organizations’ efforts to Get-Out-The-Vote on Election Day.
Q: And after he says that, what, if anything, do you say next?
A: My response is that anything can be done.

(Next: The riveting, all-encompassing, elegaic epilogue!)

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Lerrin LaGrow

October 11, 2006

The Detroit Tigers are currently battling the Oakland A’s in a playoff series for the first time since Bert Campaneris spiced up an otherwise forgettable 1972 series by tomahawking his bat in the direction of Lerrin LaGrow’s head. The incident prompted Tigers manager Billy Martin, long renowned for his gentlemanly demeanor and even-keeled temperament, to calmly step onto the field of play and politely interview Campaneris on his reasons for taking such an unusual course of action. After a period of spirited but highly respectful discussion, Campaneris and Martin agreed to accept their differences as invigorating evidence of the world’s rich tapestry of cultural and intellectual diversity. Some reports of the incident went to great lengths to capture Martin’s enthusiasm for this debate and all suchlike debates in general by stating in highly exaggerated and clearly figurative terms that he had to be “dragged screaming” from the presence of his esteemed conversational partner.

While there is no official consensus on the impact of this incident on the pitcher who sparked it by drilling Campaneris in the ankle, this 1976 card seems to suggest that the gradual but relentless impact of having narrowly avoided being brained by a Louisville Slugger may have edged Lerrin LaGrow in the direction of the black arts. As one who was simultaneously bored, confused, and creeped out by the Dr. Strange comics that Lerrin LaGrow apparently fell under the spell of, I am not qualified to comment on this with any authority, but my guess is that he has just uttered something along the lines of “By the hoary hosts of hoggoth” and is now attempting by hypnosis to shatter the mind of the photographer who hath deigned to try to capture his image with his mechanism of nefarious modernity.

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Ed Brinkman

September 14, 2006

The style used by Topps in 1975 often seemed to produce cards that were off-center, the bordering almost always thicker on one side than the other, as if the process of making the cards was not standardized and mechanized at all but instead one that relied on the judgment and dexterity of a 19-year-old Coast Guard dropout named Smitty who just spent his break smoking a joint out by the dumpster. In general, the mistakes riddling the 1975 set made the universe captured by the cards seem to my seven-year-old self to be homely, disheveled, approachable, as if my personal Mount Olympus was barely less tangible than a bake sale advertised by a mimeographed page tacked to a bulletin board at the Price Chopper. The off-balance layout is apparent in this card, which further lessens the feeling of distance between the viewer and the realm of major league baseball by presenting a figure who seems to have called in sick to his job as an instructor of remedial math and driver’s ed at the vocational high school to sneak onto the grounds of the Detroit Tigers’ training complex. The distance lessens further still with the discovery that this bespectacled ectomorph turns out not to be an imposter at all but a starting major league shortstop; moreover, he has been a starting major league shortstop for well over a decade. He even has his own crudely personalized bat, which he presumably used in the just-concluded season to launch 14 home runs, his career high. I have to go right now if I’m going to catch the commuter train that drags me to my job proofreading educational testing materials; otherwise, I might be tempted to engage in the vice of making nostalgic claims, such as that the world seemed wider back in the days when Ed Brinkman was possible.

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Mark Fidrych

September 10, 2006

In this picture, taken in 1980, Mark Fidrych attempts to simultaneously hide and caress a baseball in his hands as if cradling a beloved and terminally ill pet in a veterinary waiting room. He is four years and several trips to the disabled list removed from giving the world, in terms of sheer joy, the greatest single-season performance in baseball history. The marginalia on the back of this card clings desperately to that year, 1976, like a profoundly lonely middle-aged man still masturbating to the image of a beautiful woman he somehow lucked into a brief fling with the summer after college ended. Fidrych’s rookie of the year award for 1976 is mentioned, as is his 2 innings pitched in the 1976 all-star game, and the space-filling cartoon along the left-hand border features a baseball player, generic except for the curly Fid-fro billowing out from under the hat, holding a giant trophy entitled “1976 MAJOR LEAGUE MAN OF THE YEAR,” an award I’ve never heard of (and I’ve wasted much of my life poring over the baseball encyclopedia like a rabbi reading the Torah). The statistics alone are left to tell about the other years: in 1977 he pitched in only 11 games; the next year he pitched in only 3; and in 1979, the last season listed on the back of this card, Fidrych pitched his fewest innings yet, just 15, losing three games, winning none, and getting battered for 17 runs, all earned. In this picture, taken in 1980, it is over. I was 12 years old when I first looked at this card, in which the fallen god, the all-time single-season leader in joy, seems to have literally signed his name as “Mush.”