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.

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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

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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.