Archive for the ‘Houston Astros’ Category

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Joe Ferguson

November 1, 2017

Joe Ferguson

When I was a kid I associated Joe Ferguson with my Uncle Conrad and a recurring character on Star Trek named Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd. The three men didn’t look that much alike, but all were jolly, cherubic types with jaunty handlebar mustaches. You had the sense that they knew how to wrestle some joy out of life.

Mudd turned up in at least a couple of Star Trek episodes, though it seemed like more than that due to Captain Kirk’s preexisting revulsion for him every time he saw him again (“you again”). Mudd, a loquacious intergalactic grifter, seemed like he’d always been around, showing up all over the universe with some new scheme. His most memorable appearance came when the gang from the Enterprise stumbled upon him enjoying being the lone human man among a legion of beautiful female robots. I probably first saw the episode around when I got this Joe Ferguson card, which was just before I started caring about girls. As the years went on I continued watching Star Trek compulsively, and gradually, as the growing ache of finding myself on the far side of a vast gulf from real girls grew, I began to imagine what it might be like to have my loneliness absolved by a legion of sexy brainless androids.

***

I like to think of you naked.
I put your naked body
Between myself alone and death.
–Kenneth Rexroth

***

The Joe Ferguson type that I knew the best, my Uncle Conrad, wrote poetry. He still does. He’s the one who gave me my first book of poetry, The Selected Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. But more than that he was the first person I knew who was a writer, and because he was also a warm, familiar part of my life, it was surely a lot easier for me than it is for some to imagine being a writer too. I’ve been grateful to him for a long time, and my gratitude is continuing to grow now that I’ve got a family and a full-time job to support the family. When I was a kid Conrad was supporting his family by working full-time, but he was always writing poetry too. He found a way to carve out moments for beauty.

Joe Ferguson carved out a moment of World Series beauty. It started somewhat discordantly, with Ferguson, pulling a Kelly Leak before there ever was a Kelly Leak, cutting in front of teammate Jim Wynn to snare a fly ball that Wynn had been camped under. In the same motion, Ferguson unleashed a searing missile toward home plate. The ball arrived an instant before the runner, Sal Bando, drove his shoulder into the catcher, Steve Yeager, who went sprawling but held on. It’s the kind of play that feels like life and death, and death is defeated not by any particular outcome but by perfection, by beauty. Joe Ferguson’s throw had to be beautiful, and it was.

***

A few years after Joe Ferguson pulled a Kelly Leak, he was among a group of Astros making a cameo in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (he ambles into the dugout at about the 1:35 mark of the clip below). That was a big movie for me, as you may be able to tell by the ad for my book about that movie in the right-hand margin of this blog. I wonder if one of the reasons it was so big for me was that it symbolizes the moment just before my life started getting more complicated. I was ten then and loved baseball, just baseball. I certainly didn’t care about girls. But soon enough I would. The simple primary rainbow of life would get murkier.

The world is not perfect, and no one is going to absolve you of loneliness or stand between you and death. But there are spaces for beauty. There’s a Game Seven of the World Series tonight. Let Them Play.

 

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Ken Boswell

February 16, 2017

ken-boswell

Ken Boswell was for some reason sent out to his photo shoot for the 1976 Topps set in a generic orange helmet. I don’t recall ever seeing this on any other baseball card that came to me back in those days. The Astros’ regular batting helmet had a white H on top of a black star. Where did this plain orange helmet come from? Why was Ken Boswell wearing it?

On the back of the card you can see Ken Boswell’s lifetime numbers, which are unremarkable, but at the bottom of them there’s a note: “Ken has a .667 average in World Series play. Had 3 pinch-hits in 1973 Classic to tie all-time mark.”  The note in relation to the career numbers is something of a negative image of the front of the card, a dash of miraculous color in an otherwise mundane expanse.

The absence of a signifier on the crown of the helmet on the front of the card is so odd that it opens up a door in my mind. My memory of those days has been so trampled by all my attempts to remember, to put it all down in words, that it’s now unusual for me to have a vivid sense memory from my childhood. But this batting helmet is bringing back the batting helmets we had in little league. They were much like the helmet shown here but were dark blue. They had thick padding on the inside. Unlike this helmet, there were ear coverings for both ears. This is what I’m remembering now, the feel of the helmet as I pulled it onto my head, over my ears. There were a few different helmets in the dugout, some larger than others, and so the best part of the experience was finding one that fit snugly over my head. No, wait, that was not the best part. The best part was why I was putting the helmet on my head. It was happening soon: my turn.

I moved out of the dugout with that helmet on and stood behind the chain link fence next to the dugout. Now I was on deck. I picked up a bat and held it, tapped it against the brim of the helmet, took a few swings, watched the pitcher, the batter. When it was my turn I walked toward the plate. I felt excited, a little nervous, protected. My turn!

Ken Boswell had his turn. The note on the back of his card doesn’t mention the World Series teams for which he came through when it mattered most, but of course he was part of both the Miracle Mets of 1969 and the “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets of 1973. Those days are behind him in this photo, but he looks here like he doesn’t so much mind that things come and go.

I sat with my son tonight and told him about “yoiks and away,” the scene in the Daffy Duck cartoon in which Daffy, in Robin Hood mode, keeps trying to swing himself heroically through the forest on a rope and keeps slamming into a tree. That one killed my brother and me. We laughed until tears came out of our eyes. And as I acted it out for my son I got him laughing too. Then he started acting it out.

“Yikes and away—slam!” he said.

“Yoiks,” I said.

“Yoiks?”

How can I ever complain? I love my boys so much and I get to come home every day from work and see them, a five year old and a two year old. When I walk through the door both of them squeal. It won’t always be this way. Life will go on into ever stranger vanishings. But this is my turn. This is my miracle.

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Doug Konieczny

February 10, 2017

doug-konieczny

“I think it’s one of the real gifts that art has for us as human beings . . . it gives us a channel to connect with each other that regular life doesn’t give us.”
– Wayne Kramer

All I do is work. Well, I get the weekends off. I get to go home at night. But during the day on weekdays, it’s just work. It gets busier and busier at my job with each passing year, as if the whole goal is too gradually take everything from me a little at a time.

Here’s the part where I should probably say, lest the gods strike me down, that I’m grateful to have a job. The only thing that’s worse than having a job is not having a job.

On the weekends, I play with my sons. That’s good. But this doesn’t leave much room for art. I get a little time every night after we get them to bed. I’m exhausted by then, but I sit down on a cushion and meditate for twenty minutes, and some of the garbage that’s accumulated in my head all day dissolves. Then I go to my notebook. I’m trying to write a novel. I write a little every day. It’s all disjointed now, and the fragments that come out are absurd. There’s no bright blazing path carrying me through the act of narration, as I always hoped there would be. Writing is not like I thought it would be when I was a youth high on marijuana and reading On the Road. You never get lifted up into some kind of ecstasy. No, you have to just fucking sit down and insist on a reality, again and again.

Who knows if it’ll amount to anything. I’ll keep insisting, I guess. The alternative, just letting my life be work and brief blank periods away from work, makes me want to leap into a wood chipper.

What does this have to do with Doug Konieczny (pronounced kuh-NEEZ-ny)? I don’t fucking know. Maybe only that he probably had to join the workforce like the rest of us when his brief rainbow-bright days in the majors ended. Also: among all baseball players in history he was the most likely to have been at a particular 1970 concert of note that was staged near a highway on the Wayne State University campus in Detroit. Konieczny was up until a few years ago the only graduate of Wayne State to make it to the majors, and in July 1970 he was nearing his final months at the college. Of course, school isn’t in session in the middle of the summer, but Konieczny was a Detroit native, so maybe he heard the big noise and wandered over to see what it was all about.

The band playing was the MC5. Featuring brilliant guitarist (and arguably the best guitar-playing dancer this side of Chuck Berry and Prince) Wayne Kramer, the MC5 wanted to blow up the whole bullshit system that sends us all marching to the beat of our corporate overlords until the day we get blown up by a landmine or succumb to asbestos poisoning or simply keel over from heart disease or dive into a wood chipper. They believed this could be done: a revolution.

After the band broke up, Kramer landed in prison for a while, and this has informed his work of late in which he goes into prisons and gives guitars and songwriting instruction to prisoners. He knows that revolutions may or may not occur, but art is always capable of transforming you.

I know this post hasn’t amounted to art. But that’s where I’m always trying to go. I know I’m not alone. As a matter of fact, I found while trying and failing to find much at all about Doug Konieczny that a painter had transformed this very card into what its brilliant colors intimated. Below is the possible attendee of the July 19, 1970 MC5 concert as rendered by painter John Kilduff. May we all feel that swirl of brilliance once in a while.

konieczny-transformed

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Milt May

February 3, 2017

milt-mayThis is important. It is my all-alliterative M team, featuring both Milt May and his father, who went by the name Pinky while with the Phillies from 1939 through 1945 but whose given name was Merrill:

P) Mike McCormick
C) Milt May
1B) Mark McGwire
2B) Marty McManus
SS) Marty Marion
3B) Merrill May
LF) Minnie Minoso
CF) Mickey Mantle
RF) Manny Mota

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got to say. What use are words anyway?

Well OK, one other thing: I find it interesting that after Milt May was traded from the Pirates to the Astros, he was swiftly replaced on the Pirates’ roster by a fellow catcher with an even briefer name: Ed Ott. It seems cruel on the part of the Pirates, as if they wanted Milt May to feel like the extra two characters in his first name were a pretentious extravagance. Maybe this was even a negotiation point between the team and May before the team decided to sever ties.

Pirates: Look, we might be able to keep you around if you shortened things up to Mi.

May: Mi?

Pirates: Or Lt [pronounced ult, like you’re cartoonishly displaying gulping trepidation]. Mi, Lt. Whichever you want.

May: I’m not sure how this—

Pirates: Look, cards on the table time: We’ve got this bruiser down at triple A who doesn’t need to be sashaying around with a lot of extra letters in his first name like some eighteenth century dandy.

And so that, I assume, is how Milt May came to be wearing brilliant, ridiculous clothing on this 1976 card. He seems distinctly unsure about his technicolor dreamsuit, or perhaps about some other inexplicable cultural eruction of the era. That’s the thing about the past. For us it’s all over and done, but when people were living through it they couldn’t see how it was going to turn out. We’re always thinking we’re living through the most difficult, most doubtful time. It’s true, but it’s always been true.

February is usually for shit, is what I’m getting at. This one fits the bill. It rained on Inauguration Day and was sunny the next, when we took a CTA bus downtown and wedged into the middle of 250,000 people fused together by an idea along the lines of Fuck. This., and since then it’s been for the most part like a cold gray lid has come down over everything. So for the sake of keeping my own beleaguered inner light from extinction, I’m going all Astros all month. Whatever happens, I’m making it through to the other side and will be doing so by carrying an Astro in my pocket. If you see me, know there’s a rainbow on my person and disjointed digressions from reality in my mind. That’s what I’m carrying.

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Tommy Helms and Vada Pinson

October 8, 2015

Tommy Helms Vada PinsonALDS preview, part two (see part one here)

First of all, before we get to any predictions, can we take a moment to imagine the World Series that never was? I’m talking about 1980, when the two most exciting teams of my childhood came within a couple Del Unser base hits from meeting in what would have been a blazing festival of speed. In 1980 the Astros and Royals both led their leagues in triples and amassed a combined 379 stolen bases. Nothing against the long-suffering Phillies, whose first-ever World Series triumph that year clinches that season of end-to-end thrills as one of the greatest ever (in Benchwarmer I describe how for several feverish weeks during the panicked early days of fatherhood I grasped for sanity by imagining penning a Pulitzer-worthy Halberstamian ode to 1980 to be titled The Highest Season: Racing for the Pennant, Chasing .400, Philly Soul, Super Joe, and Blow), but some part of me mourns the loss of a World Series that would have been an exhilarating blur of rainbow and sky-blue racers.

There’s a decidedly muted version of the excitement of the Royals and Astros of that era in the two cards shown here. With Tommy Helms, the excitement is embedded in the uniform, which seemed altogether of a piece with Jose Cruz smashing a liner into the gap and flying around the bases but that seems a bit at odds with the worldly resolve in Tommy Helms’s creased expression. His perm somehow also cuts against the grain of the space-age threads; both are wholly of their era, of course, but the hairstyle seems to point away from the action on the diamond to a time in the near future when Tommy Helms is going to be out of baseball altogether and renting you a canoe.

Helms’s erstwhile Reds teammate, Vada Pinson, presents his own muted version of excitement by predating the Royals heyday slightly while also being in the twilight of his own career, which at its pinnacle showcased dynamic talents that would have fit in perfectly with the dynastic Royals. He could have been the prototypical Royal—imagine swift, impeccable fielding coupled with 200 slashing hits a year, doubles, triples, homers, steals, Amos Otis and George Brett somehow joined in the version of Vada Pinson suggested by the statistics of his early years—had he only been able to carry his youth with him into the professional athlete’s version of old age.

Of course, both of the wizened veterans here are, in real-world terms, still young men. But in sports the end comes earlier and as such begins to loom not that long before the beginning. Just as my cards suggested that the other ALDS series is about beginnings, the cards here seem to imply that the series at hand is about endings. So which of the estimable 1960s Reds shown here is venturing more gracefully toward the end? Tommy Helms will make it OK to the other side, surely, and will hobble on through the rest of his life just fine, but Vada Pinson seems like he’ll be able to bring with him across that border into our leaden everyday life a small, singing note of buoyancy and repose. We all hope to continue on that way somehow.

Edge: Royals

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Tommy Helms and Dick Tidrow

October 6, 2015

astros yanks

Here is my preview of the first game of the 2015 playoffs, based on two randomly chosen baseball cards from my childhood collection and their relation to the basic existential question of life.

What are we here for?

No one knows the answer to this question. Dick Tidrow represents the classic American hero’s response to this question, which is to ignore that it even exists, to squint with gunslinger toughness straight into the question, past the question. Why are we here? What kind of pussy question is that? We’re here to win. But of course winning, ultimately, isn’t an option, as attested to by the black circle with 40 in it on Tommy Helms’s jersey, a tribute to Don Wilson, who a few months after pitching a two-hit shutout in his last start of the 1974 season died of smoke inhalation in his garage. (His death was ruled an accident.) Tommy Helms was the hitting star of Wilson’s last game, homering and driving in three runs. The following season, with that somber number on their jersey, was a brutal one for the Astros, who dropped 97 games. Tommy Helms, nearing the end of his career during that loss-filled campaign, seems quizzical, bemused, perhaps a little more aware of life’s sorrowful twists than Dick Tidrow. Tommy Helms is not defeated, but he’s not going around imagining that our whole presence here is not just a little absurd.
Edge: Astros

Coming tomorrow: Preview of the National League Cubs-Pirates Wild Card game

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Craig Biggio

January 5, 2015

Craig BiggioImmortality

2.

What if, shortly after this photograph was taken, a baserunner careened into Craig Biggio in the manner in which Pete Rose, in an All-Star Game, separated Ray Fosse’s shoulder and Fosse from his destiny? Fosse was one of the most promising catchers in the league up to the moment of the injurious collision; afterward, he was never the same.

Biggio never relied on luck—no one verging on baseball immortality ever could—but who is beyond the reach of luck? I’m the farthest thing from a daredevil or from someone like Biggio who bravely put himself in the path of hardship and pain (after starting out as a collision-inviting catcher he went on to become the all-time leader in being hit by pitches), but even in my timid wanderings I’ve brushed up against the other side of the random gift of life enough times to sense that other side as a presence. One day as a child when I was riding my bike to the general store to buy baseball cards, I almost got hit by a semi. There were other close calls to follow over the years. I almost got mauled by a snowplow, almost rammed into an oncoming vehicle while daydreaming at the wheel, fell off a mountain bike and bounced for several moments down a steep rocky ridge. That last moment ended with me as something like a lawn-sprinkler spraying blood, and I was in pain for weeks, but somehow nothing was broken.

“You are beautiful,” I told everyone I came into contact with for a couple of days. “I love you,” I told everyone. Soon enough the feeling diminished. I went back to the usual, hiding, lying, worrying.

Such is my life. Was I meant for any other than the one I’m living? Was there some true path I missed? Some decision I should have made that I didn’t? Is there ever anything but pure dumb luck?

This morning my younger son, who’s seven months old, woke up at four a.m. I took him out into the living room so that my wife could get a little sleep. He fell back asleep on my chest as I sat in the recliner. I could feel his weight, his breath coming in and out.

You are beautiful, I was thinking. I love you.

Immortality is always one thin moment away, and it will have nothing to do with who we think we are.

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Craig Reynolds

February 12, 2012

How Strange the Design

Conclusion

There used to be a big bookstore on 57th Street and Broadway, Coliseum Books. It lasted from 1974 until 2002 in that location. Sometime in late 1999 or early 2000, a young woman applied for a job there. She was working toward a criminology degree at John Jay College nearby and needed a job. She applied at a bunch of places around the area. Pounding the pavement. Around that time another young woman stopped in the store to pick up an application for her boyfriend. I was still living a few hundred miles away, in a cabin in the woods with no electricity and no running water. I had essentially run out of money and was running up a credit card bill to buy food and cheap beer, which I would lug up the hill in a backpack. I would then eat and drink and play my guitar and sing and, I don’t know, yearn.

Coliseum Books didn’t call the young woman back for a few months. When they finally did, she barely remembered applying there. She went in and talked to a manager, who asked her what she hoped to do after finishing college, and she said she wanted to work in a prison. The manager laughed. She was hired as a cashier. I left the cabin around then and returned to New York City. I started rooming with my friend Pete, who had also gotten a job at Coliseum, thanks to his girlfriend picking up an application for him. I needed money badly, and Pete put in the good word for me. I talked with the manager, the one who had laughed about the young woman’s desire to go to prison, and he hired me. It was a huge store, and there were a lot of employees there. I worked the closing shift, and so I’d only catch occasional glimpses of the people who worked during the day. One day I was starting my shift with a stint at the information counter, and I noticed across the room a little pink exclamation point, a dyed strand in the hair of a young woman working one of the registers.

***

“It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be.” – Bob Dylan

I am grateful and terrified. I have a kid now. My love for him is beyond my ability to describe. So I will instead describe this 1980 Craig Reynolds card. Is it not an example of something endangered? I stopped collecting cards in 1980 and bought a few in 1981 but was flummoxed by puberty and by my brother’s disinterest in cards and by the 1981 strike and by the rapid dissolution of the Red Sox would-be dynasty of the 1970s and by the proliferation of baseball card companies other than Topps. This last thing hit me as a bit of confusing expansion of what was necessary to have in life. For years I understood that the completion of the collection of one single set of cards (a goal never attained, but that’s besides the point) was something I was aiming for. With two other card companies, there were now other sets to complete, and a decision to be made on which was the most important set, a decision that would be unsatisfactory because there would always be the nagging suspicion that another set had cards that existed and had possibilities in them that were being ignored. Life splits into many different roads, is what I began noticing in 1981, and the upshot of that realization is that no matter which way you go you will lose. I don’t mean that you are bound to fail at whatever you try (though I guess odds are you will, more often than not) but rather that choosing one thing instead of another will leave the other thing unexplored, a loss, and uncertainty will then be your fucking shadow evermore. Welcome to age 13 and the rest of life.

But that’s not what I’m talking about when I mean endangered. I’m talking about the pose. I meant to get to saying that soon I would not be collecting cards, but every once in while I’d have a look at a pack and each pack as the 1980s wore on featured an increasing number of action shots. Now all cards are action photos. The still life with bat featured here:  gone. It frightens me, this knowledge that everything that is will go. I turn to religion sometimes, but it’s a religion of strange design: I hold onto cards. It’s a Sunday and I’m going to spend it playing with and holding my son. He’s asleep right now and so I’m holding onto this card. It feels good in my hands. Solid. Makes me grateful. Let us pray.

***

After a few years with the Pirates organization, Craig Reynolds seems to have been buried deep enough on the organizational depth chart behind starting shortstop Frank Taveras and backup Mario Mendoza that the Pirates dumped him in a post-expansion draft trade with the Mariners. Reynolds started at short for the putrid Mariners for two years (and 202 total losses), but then the Mariners acquired Mario Mendoza and sent Reynolds packing to the Astros, who had been looking for someone to fill the void left by longtime starter Roger Metzger. Reynolds, finally free of Mario Mendoza, held down the starting spot in Houston from 1979 through 1981. Then Dickie Thon took over.

I remember thinking Craig Reynolds was unusual and even kind of cool for being a shortstop who batted only left-handed. I think he was the only lefty-swinging starting shortstop (not counting switch-hitters) during my childhood. They really don’t come along that often. One of the better ones was Joe Sewell, whose major league career began when the Cleveland Indians needed to immediately find a shortstop to replace Ray Chapman, who had been killed by a pitch from Carl Mays.

Craig Reynolds reclaimed the starting shortstop job he’d lost to Dickie Thon when Thon was badly injured by a pitch from Mike Torrez. Thon, a deeply religious man, seems to have leaned on and gained strength from his faith during the long process of coming back from the injury that impaired his vision. Eventually, he got to the point where he was at least somewhat effective, primarily against left-handed pitchers, and the right-handed-batting Thon and the left-handed-batting Reynolds began sharing the position. Shortstop is surely the most unusual position on the field to utilize a lefty-righty platoon, so in a way the presence of Reynolds facilitated the gradual reincorporation of Thon back into baseball. Like Thon, Reynolds was (and is) very religious. He’s a pastor in Houston’s Second Baptist Church, which according to Forbes is the second largest “megachurch” in America. He is certain about his path in life.

“I know for sure that I’ll spend eternity in heaven when I die,” he says.

***

My wife and I were talking about Coliseum Books the other day while sitting at our dining room table. Our baby was asleep in the other room. Our boy. I have never known love like this. What if she hadn’t gone in and asked for an application that day she was wandering around looking for work? What if any of the other places where she applied called her first? What if Pete’s girlfriend hadn’t gotten Pete an application? What if I hadn’t been broke and jobless? What if I had succeeded at anything in my life to that point?

***

Because I don’t know how any of this—beanballs and faith and uncertainty and gratitude and yearning and cardboard and losing and love—can possibly be tied together into a nice bow, here’s Joe Sewell, from A Donald Honig Reader:

Looking back on the years I see how fortunate I was. And sometimes I can’t help thinking how strange the design was. We think we run our own lives according to our own plans. But we don’t. Not always anyway. I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like if a ball hadn’t gotten away from Carl Mays at Yankee Stadium in August 1920 and hit Ray Chapman in the head. Because the moment that ball left Carl Mays’ hand, my life began to change.

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Cliff Johnson

July 6, 2011

Cliff Johnson started his career in the 1970s as a catcher in the Astrodome. He was about as suited for that position in that time and place as a grizzly bear at a chess tournament. He appeared briefly in the big leagues in 1972 and 1973, started to play semi-regularly in 1974, and became a platoon player in 1975. In all, by 1976, the year this card came out, Johnson had smashed 32 homers and driven in 100 runs in 532 at-bats, numbers that amounted to the output of an elite power hitter over the course of a single season. It was understandable that the Astros would want to get that kind of power into the lineup on a regular basis, and so in 1976 Cliff Johnson started 64 games at catcher, his career high. Despite appearing in well under half of the team’s games at catcher, Johnson still nearly managed to win a kind of triple crown of ignominious fielding categories for catchers, finishing fifth in the league in errors committed as a catcher, second in stolen bases allowed, and first in passed balls.

He didn’t last much longer in Houston, and in fact his departure midway through 1977 could be seen as the beginning of the team’s rise toward its rainbow apotheosis of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the collection of fleet, sure-handed, slap-hitting blurs of color became one with the cavernous dome, as effective a pairing of personnel to place as has ever occurred in baseball. Why even try to wrench home runs out of the Astrodome, especially if it means employing the equivalent of a lopsided chest of drawers as your catcher?

So Cliff Johnson shambled over to the American League, his natural home, and promptly won two rings as a platoon player with the Yankees in 1977 and 1978. As out of place as he’d been as a catcher on a team that should have been relying on speed and defense, Johnson fit perfectly into the Yankees attack as a part-time provider of right-handed muscle. Those Yankees teams were deep and could come at you in a lot of ways, and Johnson’s arrival in the middle of that first championship year helped shore up a slight weakness, relatively speaking. The team’s best power hitters—Reggie, Nettles, and Chambliss—were all lefties, and two other regulars (left-handed Mickey Rivers and switch-hitter Roy White) also fared better against righties than lefties, so the team tended to struggle occasionally against left-handed pitching. Cliff Johnson gave them no less than a Hall of Fame caliber slugger against lefties: when facing southpaws, his career OPS—slugging percentage plus on-base percentage—was .905, just a shade below the total lifetime marks of Mike Schmidt and Ken Griffey Jr. and better than those of Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell.

With that kind of talent, it’s not a surprise in retrospect that Johnson seems to not have embraced his role as a part-timer with complete enthusiasm. Many years later, Goose Gossage would grouse in his autobiography about Johnson being a good deal less than cheery and accommodating when called upon to perform the duties of a bullpen catcher, which is where Johnson was apparently stationed while waiting around for his chance to terrorize opposing left-handed pitchers. The tension between Gossage and Johnson erupted in an infamous 1979 clubhouse brawl between the two lumbering, glowering behemoths in what has to be among the contenders for Brawl in Baseball History I’d Least Like to Try to Break Up. Gossage got injured in the fight, which considering his status as a team superstar spelled the end in New York for Johnson, who was soon shipped to Cleveland.

He bounced around for several more years, roaming and pummeling. Some years after his last game in 1986, Bill James wrote in his Historical Abstract that “if somebody had had the sense to make Cliff Johnson a DH/first baseman in a hitter’s park when he was 23 years old, he would have hit 500 homers.” This seems as if it may be verging on hyperbole, given the fact that after those first few years with the Astros, Johnson eventually did become a DH/first baseman, and he still couldn’t ever really crack the lineup on a regular basis. It’s odd that he never did have a full season, playing every day, given his numbers. It’s true that he did fare much better against lefties than righties, but his career righty-lefty splits were no worse than those of Cecil Fielder’s, another immobile slugger who at least had a few seasons as a regular and made the most of them. Cliff Johnson, who will turn 64 on July 22, my wife’s due date, should have had his chance to swing for the fences every day.

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Houston Astros, 1979

May 20, 2011

In the beginning, the Astrodome was a wonder, the epitome of the burgeoning feeling—since dissipated—that humankind, now exploring the stars, was on the brink of mastering the universe. The stadium was also a marvel in itself, a wholly contained world, climate-controlled, the dominion of the gods finally wrested into human hands. The players who called it home didn’t at first add much to the wonder, though things started to change with the introduction of the blazing rainbow-colored uniforms in the mid-1970s. A sign that the Astrodome and the Astros were approaching equal terms as symbols of wonder came in the 1977 film The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (more on this cinematic artifact in a bit), when the quest-like awe the film’s titular little leaguers hold throughout for the mere idea of the Astrodome is equaled in intensity and enthusiasm by their reaction to the entrance into the action of some members of the Astros.

In real life, the Astros were still a couple years away at the time of the film from escaping their mostly unbroken history of mediocrity, but in 1979 they finally burst into full rainbow bloom by entirely embracing—by loving—their home. It’s not an accident that the team photo shown in this 1979 card is the most relaxed-looking team photo I’ve ever seen. The Astros are lounging around outside the Astrodome like brothers and cousins at a family reunion. Though the photo was likely taken in 1978, it telegraphs the fate of the team in 1979, when they would begin a three-year span as one of the elite teams in the National League by completely merging their identity with that of their home. The Astros and the Astrodome became one.

The late Astros of 1979–1981 are one of my favorite teams in baseball history, a rainbow cyclone of slap-hitting, power-pitching, and speed. The equation never worked very well on the road, where the Astros compiled decidedly mediocre records during this golden age of 37–44, 38–44, and (in the strike-shortened 1981 season) 30–29, but in the Astrodome they dominated like a John McGraw deadball-era fever dream, going 52–29, 55–26, and 31–20. No one on the team could hit for power, but virtually everyone could fly, and so a walk became a walk and a steal, a double became a triple, and the winning run on third became a rainbow torpedo blazing for home as the batter squared for the suicide squeeze.

So when I look at this 1979 team card I see a team that loves its home. When I typed that sentence in a Word document, a squiggly line appeared under the word “loves” and the suggested correction—apparently connected by the ham-fisted artificial intelligence of the automatic spell-check to the word “team”—was “loses.” But then again, that correction would make for a true sentence, too, eventually, as the Astros moved out of the Astrodome, losing their home. They still have a ballpark where they play their home games, some structure that used to be named for one corporation and is now named for another, but how can it compare to the Astrodome, which was in name and in spirit an extension of the team? Or was the team an extension of the Astrodome? Really, the borders between the Astros and the Astrodome were like the borders between colors in a rainbow, and any attempt to detach one side of the border from the other would make the rainbow dissolve into something meaningless, gray.

***

Some other news:

My book on The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (part of Soft Skull’s Deep Focus series) will be out on June 7.

Meanwhile, I’m getting ready to do some reading and drinking as part of some events planned by the publisher of the paperback version of Cardboard Gods. The Naperville Sun has an article on the first stop of the “Free Beer Tour”; for info on the other stops, please see my book events page.

Back in my old home state, Dan Bolles has a nice article in Seven Days on me and the writing of Cardboard Gods.

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Enos Cabell

June 7, 2010

I’m no journalist, just a guy trying to stay sane via the dubious, possibly even insane, route of clinging to his childhood baseball cards, so don’t take this or anything else I ever say as unassailable fact, but I believe that at a certain point in his lengthy major league career, well after he had become established as a regular presence in the major leagues, Enos Cabell became a tool used by a then somewhat obscure baseball writer and analyst named Bill James to, first, attack the idea that Enos Cabell should be a regular presence in the major leagues and, more generally, to attack the established parameters for determining the relative worth of a major league player. Enos Cabell, James argued, was, contrary to the general consensus on the matter, in fact pretty worthless. I don’t think James had anything personally against Cabell, but he did have a seething, avenging hatred toward ossified conventional thinking, so he battered Cabell pretty mercilessly as he slammed the idea of the tall, thin infielder against the norm of what, in baseball, and by extension in life, is good. Enos Cabell, James concluded, is not good. The implied big question in this Seige on Enos: What is good? 

I wasn’t aware of Bill James during the years I collected baseball cards, or for several years after I stopped collecting. At the time I got this 1978 card, I would only have been able to draw from a couple of sources in determining where Enos Cabell stood in my world. (I almost wrote “the world” instead of “my world,” but when you’re a kid, the world belongs to you. Even though this thought is occurring as a parenthetical aside, it is probably the thesis of this sloppily conceived essay, if not the thesis of my entire ongoing-until-the-graveyard experiment in baseball card worship and solipsism and nostalgia and anti-nostalgia and the attempt to hold onto joy. When you’re a kid, the world belongs to you, and then little by little you lose it. This is my attempt to reclaim, card by card, my world.) One source in determining where Enos Cabell stood in my world was this card. On the back, the statistics for Cabell’s latest season suggested he was good. He had batted .282 with 36 doubles, 16 home runs, 68 RBI, and 101 runs scored. That, I would have concluded, is good. On the front, he is smiling, happy, a glimpse of the blaring rainbow colors of the Astros visible on his chest. This happy portrait brings me to the next source in determining where Enos Cabell stood in my world: he had appeared before my eyes, on screen, tall as a two-story building, in the very same uniform and with a similar happy expression the summer before in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, a throwaway sequel that I nonetheless and without shame or irony loved and still love.    

I am not going to venture too deeply into that movie at the moment, even though it is on my mind constantly as I work on a short book about it. I have been watching it on a fairly regular loop, and have watched some scenes as if I’m dissecting the Zapruder film. One of those scenes is the appearance of the Houston Astros in the dugout being used by the Bears. Bears’ third baseman Jimmy Feldman (played by Brett Marx, grandson of Gummo and lookalike of grand uncle Harpo) announces the arrival by exclaiming the names of the Astros’ stars, Cesar Cedeno and Bob Watson (the latter the only Astro who gets to speak a line; it’s the most crucial line in the movie, or, if you’re me, in movies in general), but besides Watson and Cedeno there are several other Astros who amble into the scene: Bill Virdon, Ken Forsch, JR Richard, Joe Ferguson, Roger Metzger, and Enos Cabell. Most of the Astros fade into the background, taking a seat on the bench, but Cabell is shown reacting with glee and pointing as he watches Tanner Boyle elude officials trying to grab the Bears shortstop and drag him from the field.

Like I said, I’ve been watching the movie constantly, which has a way of pounding all the enjoyment out of a thing, but I still get choked up by Tanner’s Last Stand. I don’t have the time or inclination to get into that now, but I do want to say that Enos Cabell deserves credit for shepherding that moment along by his enthusiastic reaction. While Ken Forsch, for example, sits idly by and dispassionately watches the little boy fight for his life (for what is life without baseball?), Enos Cabell points and laughs, the first among anyone in the entire Astrodome to become a fan of Tanner’s tenacious elusiveness. Soon enough, buoyed by Bob Watson’s one line (“Hey, let the keeds play,” Watson drawls, accompanying the somewhat stiff line-reading with a mistimed, limp-fisted air punch), Coach Leak will exit the dugout and in his Nam-Vet-suggesting army jacket he will begin exhorting the crowd to also become fans of the spectacle and of what it means. Soon enough, Kelly Leak, that stubborn non-joiner, will stand beside his estranged father outside the dugout, the two of them chanting “Let them play” (goddamnit, I vowed not to get too deep into this today but here I am again in the middle of the greatest fictional political movement of my world) and then soon enough all the Bears will join them, and then soon enough the whole stadium will be chanting, everyone shedding their indifference. It all started with, or was at least nudged forward by, Enos Cabell, rainbow-bright major league athlete and fan.

So in my world, Enos Cabell is good.

This isn’t my world, of course. I’m just passing through. My only claims are those of a fan. I’m a fan of baseball. I’m a fan of homely forgotten movies. I’m a fan of Bill James, but I don’t want to (and never could) follow in his brilliant footsteps. I’m a fan of the statistics on the backs of my old baseball cards, but I know they don’t tell an accurate story of a player’s accomplishments. I’m a fan of fans. Each fan owns the world as much as possible by way of his or her distinct point of view. Each fan remembers. Each fan cares. Each fan sheds indifference with weird, inexplicable love.

***

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

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Wayne Granger

March 1, 2010

It can mean a lot to hold something in your hands. Consider the feeling of being a kid and holding a brand new card in your hands. Say it’s 1976 and the card shows a previously unseen (or even imagined) Technicolor eruption of colors virtually bursting from the two-dimensional limits of the card. That feeling is one I’ve been trying to describe on this site for a few years now, and it’s the feeling that is at the center of my book, due out in about a month.

I just held the finished version of the book in my hands for the first time this past Friday, and it gave me a thrill like being eight years old and seeing the dazzling colors of the Houston Astros for the first time. For almost as long as I’ve been holding these cards in my hands, I’ve been wanting to write a book that, like the books that I’ve loved the most, such as The Basketball Diaries or Stop-Time or The Catcher in the Rye or On the Road or Jesus’ Son or This Boy’s Life or A Fan’s Notes, holds within its covers the story of a life. And in the years that I’ve been writing about my childhood baseball cards on this site, my primary aim has been to pass along the feeling of what it’s like to hold some kind of fleeting magic in your hands. The book, because of some great design work by my publisher, Seven Footer Press, has the look and even the feel of a brand new pack of baseball cards from the 1970s, and within the book are the color images of four packs worth of cards, the next best thing to me being able to hand you sixty of the gods of my childhood so that you too can hold them in your hands.

I already made a link to this above, but in case you missed it, I’ve set up a page on this site with more information about the book, including where and when it can be purchased and what some people have been saying about it.

Lest anyone be tempted to dream that a book called Cardboard Gods might mean that I’ll finally stop droning on incessantly about my childhood baseball cards on this site, please allow me to use this incredible Wayne Granger card to pass along the perhaps demoralizing news that I won’t be shutting up anytime soon, or perhaps ever, not counting debilitating medical problems or death. Put another way: I’ll never say it all, but I’ll keep trying. That’s the feeling I got when I first looked at this Wayne Granger card from 1976 this morning. I opened my shoebox full of cards and took the rubber band off of the stack of Astros cards, and this is the first card I saw upon opening the stack at random. I wanted to post something today that pointed toward this whole project of writing about all my childhood baseball cards, and I figured the Astros would be a good start, since their uniforms say so much about the strange woozy era I grew up in, and also about the hold it will always have on me as the time in which dizzying wonder roamed the land without a map or a compass or even a destination.

Wayne Granger seems to feel it, too, leaning slightly to the left as if a little unsure of his moorings, a look on his face like his catcher is flashing him sign language interpretations of the essays of Umberto Eco. He has been a star in the league, back when things made more sense, back when he was on a team, the Reds, with strict rules about how to dress and how to wear your hair. Those years are behind him now. He has been traded for a player to be named later and has twice been afloat in the strange new ether of free agency. He can grow his hair long and put on vestments that could just have easily been the chosen garments of a 1970s cult dedicated to communal living, past-life regression hypnosis, and chanting at rainbows. Granger (who because I was too young to know him as a star was always confused in my head with that early symbol of the excesses of free agency, Wayne Garland) carried a record of 34 and 35 into the 1976 season. He had not even had a baseball card in 1975, so there may have been some sense that this photo shoot might be his last. (It was, though after the Astros released him he did manage to hook on with the Montreal Expos and win one more game to even his all-time record forever at 35 and 35, perfectly even, a fact that affirms the conviction that I will never exhaust the great and small wonders of this era.) I wonder if he knew to be grateful for that feeling of holding something in his hands, a baseball inside a glove: childhood itself. That feeling ends for everyone eventually. Some of us keep trying to bring it back.

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Cesar Cedeno 1976

August 28, 2009

Cesar Cedeno 1976

After I finished reading Leo Durocher’s Nice Guys Finish Last, I started reading something completely different, a 2005 novel called Prep by a young woman named Curtis Sittenfeld. It is so good I want to carry her around with other acolytes on one of those Egyptian royalty conveyances and chant her name. It is so good that a couple mornings ago I got buried in it and missed my goddamn stop on the train and was late for work, something that has only happened once before in my extremely extensive life of reading on trains, and that previous time, many years ago, was because I happened to be in the midst of a very long girlfriend-less slump and so was particularly attentive to a long fuck scene in Sexus.

Sittenfeld’s book is set in a boarding school in Massachusetts (named Ault in the book; the author went to Groton School), and part of the ache in my gut as I devour her crystalline glimpses of a young life taking shape in that setting comes from the sliver of my own past that took place at a boarding school in Massachusetts. I was only there for two years, or actually less than two years since I didn’t quite make it all the way before being ordered to leave. I’ve covered that before on this site, but in a way I don’t think I’ll ever fully cover it, or recover from it. It’s too much.

It’s an odd thing to long for, a year and a half that I spent feeling like an addle-brained maladapted misfit until I discovered I could pulverize those feelings with bong hits. But there was a certain high concentration of experience there, such a striking contrast to my solitary rural life before and the solitary urban life that has come after, that makes it stand out as more unreachable and haunting than any other of the many unreachable and haunting places in my past. But high concentration of experience isn’t quite the right notion. Sittenfeld may be getting it right when she uses the word possibility:

This was the single best thing about Ault, the sense of possibility. We lived together so closely, but because it was a place of decorum and restraint and because on top of that we were teenagers, we hid so much. And then, in dorms and classes and on teams and at formal dinners and in adviser groups, we got shuffled and thrust together and shuffled again, and there was always the chance you might find out one of the pieces of hidden information. . . . Depending on circumstances, a wild fact could be revealed to you, or you could fall desperately in love. In my whole life, Ault was the place with the greatest density of people to fall in love with. (p. 42)

I think we all must be haunted a little by the times in our lives when we felt a greater sense of possibility. Even that tenacious, focused warrior Leo Durocher seems to have been guided in a certain key way by a persistent attachment to a bygone feeling of boundless possibilities.

I say this because of the way he speaks in the book about Pete Reiser, the great and unlucky Brooklyn Dodger centerfielder whose career was cut short by injuries often brought on by his gung ho fielding style, which led him to crash into many unpadded outfield walls. At one point, and fairly famously, I think, Durocher claims that, if anything, Reiser was more talented than the greatest player Durocher (or anyone) ever managed, Willie Mays. “Might have been better,” Durocher says, comparing Reiser to Mays. After he was done managing these two centerfielders, Durocher was always on the lookout for the next Mays or Reiser, always looking for a way to return to a time bursting with the possibilities that a player of that caliber could bring to a team.

After managing Reiser’s Dodgers and Mays’ Giants, Durocher managed the Cubs, a team that seemed to have bothered him with its lack of a player like Reiser or Mays who could do it all. The possibilities with the Cubs slimmed down to the blunt inelegant flip of a coin that was the plodding center of their attack: the all-or-nothing slugging abilities of Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, and Billy Williams. When he finished with the Cubs he must have believed that he was finished for good. At a certain point you let go of the search to reconnect to that long gone feeling of possibilities.

But then Durocher decided to give it one more try, and the reason was simple: After all these years, he looked out to centerfield and thought he saw the glory of the past coming back to life. He looked out to centerfield and saw Cesar Cedeno.

“Natural talent?” Durocher noted. “Cesar Cedeno has it to burn.”

Unfortunately for Durocher, Cedeno seems not to have possessed the one thing that had connected the athletically limited Durocher (in 17 seasons as a player: 24 home runs and a lifetime batting average—in the batting average Mecca of the 1930s—of .247) to the athletically blessed Reiser and Mays: a burning desire to excel. Cedeno, it should be noted, ended up having a long, good career, but Durocher is certainly not the only observer who thinks that he could have done much better. By the time this card came out, in 1976, Cedeno was still only 25 years old, but his two greatest seasons, 1972 and 1973 (coincidentally or not the two seasons that Durocher served part of or the whole season as manager), were already behind him.

“You spend your life looking for the great talent that comes along about once a decade,” Durocher says while speaking of Cedeno, “and you have to sit there and see it being thrown away.”

You spend your whole life looking for possibilities. You spend your whole life looking for Willie Mays and Pete Reiser. You spend your whole life disappointed.

***

But, on a lighter note, it turns out Durocher wasn’t forever on the lookout only for a do-it-all centerfielder. . . .

Here’s some video footage of Durocher’s scouting attempts to sign a hard-throwing country boy (who in the youtube silent narration is recast as Roger Clemens).

And here’s some more video footage of Durocher’s encounters with a freakishly talented slugger.

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Jose Cruz

July 29, 2009

Jose Cruz 75

I have decided that I will not rest until every single transaction in baseball from 1974 through 1981 is considered, evaluated, and mined for possible answers to the enigma of human existence. OK, I will rest. I’ll rest a lot. I’ll rest at night, naturally, and I’ll probably nod off on the bus if I’m trying to read something sort of difficult, and whenever possible I’ll fall asleep on the couch with a half-open can of beer in my hand, but then I’ll wake up, eventually, and wrestle through the groggy aftershock of awakening and then, by god, if I have nothing better to do with myself, I’ll maybe look at a baseball card and if it alludes to a transaction that seems of interest I will investigate it until I get tired again or feel like watching TV. That is my solemn vow. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Tommy Helms

April 23, 2009

tommy-helms-72

Some of childhood’s confusions:

For a while I thought there was a musician named Bob “Dillon” and another completely different musician named Bob Dylan (first syllable pronounced “die”). I think I understood that they were somehow connected, that they might even maintain some sort of a friendship despite the stark differences in their personalities. Probably keeping with the fact that I knew of the former personage from hearing the word out in the world and that I knew the latter from reading the name silently to myself, I envisioned Bob Dillon as a somewhat grizzled, road-toughened adventurer (when he finally died off in my mind he did so by fading into my growing awareness of that singer of hoarse-voiced odes to the road-going past, Bob Seger), and I envisioned Bob Dylan as a reclusive bookish enigma, a guy who wrote songs for others to sing, perhaps including Bob Dillon. Maybe once in a while the recluse would appear in a club where another musician was performing and they’d beg him to come up to the stage, but he’d wave them off, preferring to stay in the shadows, sipping from a complicated, umbrella-garnished drink.

For a while I thought my father was “a google” years old. I thought this because it’s what he told me when I asked. I guess he didn’t want to tell me his actual age. (By the time I started asking he was in his late forties and early fifties.) I understood on one level that no one could actually be a google years old, but on another level I believed that if anyone could be it would be my father. He didn’t live with us for most of my childhood, and when he came up for visits it was always apparent to me that he was not like the other adults in the Vermont town where I lived, who were either hunting-jacket-wearing natives or gradually aging hippies. A lifelong clean-cut urban intellectual with thick glasses, a button-down shirt, and a tendency to daydream and absent-mindedly trip over things, my father didn’t fit either category. So maybe he was another category altogether, a man who had been around forever. Who would, it followed, always be around. That’s the thing with these childhood confusions. They are on some level at least partially willful.

For a while I believed I could fly. I sometimes had these dreams that were so realistic I was never completely sure, nor did I want to be sure, that they had not actually happened. In them I would be walking around my town and feeling the grit of the day, the weight of the earth, the actual indisputable details of existence, and I would suddenly remember that I could step up into the sky. Part of what made the dreams seem real was that my departures from earth were never seamless liftoffs. Instead they involved some work. It was like getting a bicycle moving from a dead stop on an incline. And then, as altitude increased, it was more like making a bicycle move on a straightaway. I would fly through the sky all over my town, amazed by my freedom, amazed that I kept forgetting that I had access to such unspeakable joy.

For a while I thought Tommy Helms was an immortal. The fact that he didn’t ever show up in lists of other immortals in any of the baseball books I was constantly poring through actually lent even more mystery and magic to his person, though as time went on I had to strain to continue willing this persisting misapprehension of reality. The singular source for this sweet confusion was this 1972 card, my only 1972 card, which I got along with a few other cards from before my time at a tag sale in my town.

I believe the odd combination in the flashy, battered card of sparkling celebratory newness and what seemed to be great age fostered the notion that Tommy Helms somehow existed outside of time altogether. I had never seen a 1972 card, so the design, particularly the brassy three-dimensional letters of the team name, surely wowed me, as it was more spectacular than any of the cards I had, and in my mind the more spectacular something was, the newer it was, so the card must have seemed by some miracle to have come to me from the future. But the extremely weathered condition of the card, which was in worse shape by far than not only all my cards but than any of the other cards I got at the tag sale, along with the plain fact that the player pictured seemed to come from an earlier time than any player I’d ever seen on a baseball card, set the card in a far distant past. The immortals I knew about, such as Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, and Babe Ruth, all stood outside of time, their iconic status immune to the erosion of years, but Tommy Helms achieved immortality by seeming to levitate above time. The card, already deep into the process of fading away, would only increase Tommy Helms’ magic as time went on, his gradual disappearance only widening his vast presence on a timeline stretching far into the distances of the future and the past.

It didn’t hurt that the card was so beaten up that I couldn’t study what were in actuality decent but decidedly mortal numbers. It also didn’t hurt that around the time I got the card at a tag sale Pete Rose made a gripping run at Joe Dimaggio’s unbreakable 56-game hitting streak, and in doing so he broke the estimable National League hitting streak record set by an old-timer named Tommy Holmes, who I immediately assumed, despite the difference in their last names, was the same player as the immortal in my tag sale card.

I eventually admitted to myself that Tommy Holmes and Tommy Helms were two different players altogether, and that even if they were somehow the same guy—if they somehow formed one amazing player who set a hitting streak record in 1945 and then magically stuck around long enough to add several solid seasons in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a slick-fielding middle infielder—I still wouldn’t own a card as priceless as the card that, for a little while, I thought I owned.