Archive for the ‘Houston Astros’ Category


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


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


Craig Biggio

January 5, 2015

Craig BiggioImmortality


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.


Craig Reynolds

February 12, 2012

How Strange the Design


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.


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.


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.


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.)