Archive for the ‘Gene Pentz’ Category


Gene Pentz (flipped)

March 10, 2008
In 1974, Gene Pentz did not play. It’s unclear why. During my recent series of posts on Vietnam War veterans who played in the major leagues I came across several cards with a similarly statistics-free line adorned with the message “IN MILITARY SERVICE.” I feel as though I’ve seen, on other cards, a message that says “ON DISABLED LIST.” So I’m thinking that when Gene Pentz DID NOT PLAY he was neither in the military nor injured. So why didn’t he play?

For that matter, why was he listed as being on Evanston Evansville when he played no games for them that year nor the year before? And what did he do instead of playing? And come to think of it, isn’t the word “PLAY,” even in the negative, or maybe especially in the negative, an odd word to use as a way to describe a grown man’s existence? Or then again is it perhaps the most apt word that could be used? What could be more of a waste than a whole year without play?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I do know that if I had a baseball card, the back of it would be riddled, no matter what statistics it measured, with inexplicable gaps. There have been plenty of seasons of spotty employment, plenty of seasons of fetid isolation, plenty of seasons that slid by in a gray haze, plenty of seasons of numbness, plenty of seasons without play.

My last season in the house I grew up in was the summer between my first lackluster year at boarding school and the year I was expelled from boarding school. The summer before, I had passed the time alone, inventing vast imaginary leagues for several solitary games I invented around the house and yard. I was prepared and perhaps even looking forward to doing the same again, and I did end up getting plenty of alone time anyway, but I was saved from total isolation by the decision of an old friend of my brother’s to take a year off from college. This guy, who I’ve mentioned before on this site, was the most driven, single-minded person I’ve ever known. He was also the most competitive, and had he possessed even modest physical gifts he would have been an elite athlete, but he was short, scrawny, slow, and as graceless as an arthritic octogenarian. He was also, when playing sports, relentless, fearless, and completely self-sacrificing, the kind of guy who would dive headlong for a loose ball during otherwise lackadaisical pickup basketball games on hard blacktop. It’s fitting that though he loved baseball and basketball, he only made varsity in high school in cross-country running, where his runty bow-legged stride could be compensated for by an unsurpassed willingness to endure pain.

When my brother and I first met him he was a 10-year-old farm boy whose life revolved around baseball and baseball cards (a love that he passed on to us), and as he got older his love of baseball and sports in general fed into a burning desire to become a sportswriter. He was the editor of his high school’s newspaper and a writer on his college’s newspaper and after college got a job on a newspaper in San Diego. By the last time my brother and I saw him, years ago, chatting with him for a few minutes outside the press box during a rain delay at Shea, he had bounded from the San Diego job to a job covering the Orioles to a job as the beat reporter following the Mets for the New York Times. He soon switched over to the Yankees and we haven’t spoken to him since, though I hear his voice practically as much as I hear the voice of anyone I know, given my habit of squandering my finite hours on earth listening to sports talk radio and given the ubiquitous presence on such radio of this baseball-crazy figure from my childhood, Buster Olney.

In 1977 1978 all Topps cards included, on the right-hand side of the back of the card, game pieces in something called “PLAY BALL.” I never played the game that I can remember, which is surprising given the fact that I filled many otherwise empty hours playing imaginary solitaire baseball games of every variety, using dice, using Nerf, throwing a tennis ball against the garage or off the roof, whacking a whiffle ball around the yard, even setting up marbles in fielders’ positions on the floor of my room and knocking the “pitcher” marble against the “hitter” marble. In all this time that I’ve been scrutinizing and writing about these cards, many of them from 1977 1978, I have barely noticed the game, and I only gave it a second look on this Gene Pentz card because the game occurrence mentioned—base on balls—seemed a particularly cruel choice by either the gods of randomness or the employees of Topps, given Gene Pentz’s chronic and ultimately career-truncating inability to consistently throw strikes.

What I have decided to do is use all the cards from 1977 1978 that I’ve written about so far to play, for the first time, the game of “PLAY BALL.” I will share the results of that game in a separate post, but for now I’ll just remark on the fact that with my first moment of play I will violate the primary rule of the game, the rule that is included as a subtitle of the game itself: PLAYED BY TWO. In that violation I will return to the summer before the summer before I got kicked out of school, i.e., the summer before the summer of Buster.

Sometimes, as part of my vast collection of rituals of self-laceration, I compare the imaginary back of my baseball card to the imaginary back of Buster’s card. The back of my card has a lot of transience, a lot of aimlessness, a lot of dumb, useless toil, a lot of DID NOT PLAYs. The back of Buster’s card shows a steady climb toward hard-won glory. But there is also, even on his card, maybe on everyone’s card, one season where he DID NOT PLAY. Perhaps not coincidentally, this blank passage of his included the summer when he and I were basically one another’s sole companion.

Since he’d gone off to college Buster had not returned home for the summer, but he came home the summer before I got kicked out of school, and as I remember it he was unsure if he’d ever go back. I never knew why he’d decided to take a year off, but I seem to recall that for whatever reason he was seriously considering, for maybe the first time in his life, that he wasn’t going to become a sportswriter. Taken in the long view, this pause of his is almost comical in light of the eventual resumption of his relentless rise to the pinnacle of the sportswriting world (kind of like the old Saturday Night Live skit in which a key-pounding Stephen King stops typing for a few seconds and calls it “writer’s block”), but at the time Buster really did seem to be wrestling with the question of what to do next. After the summer was over and I’d gone back to boarding school, he got a job in a bank and grew a mustache. He’d never had a mustache before and as far as I know he’d never have a mustache again. Ever since then a mustache will occasionally seem to me as a visible trace of an otherwise invisible thrashing against the void.

There’s probably some lesson to be learned in the fact that mustachioed Buster was tortured by the lack of an answer to the question of what to do next while I was happy to reside as long as possible in the fantasy of inconsequentiality that I always create whenever I’m neither here nor there. I have good memories of that summer. We did a lot of haying for his stepfather, then played a lot of basketball if there was daylight left and Strat-O-Matic if there wasn’t. I didn’t want it to end. But I’m guessing that Buster, if he remembers that time at all, remembers it as something he used every fiber of his considerable will to pull himself free from, as if it was quicksand.


Astros, 1978

March 7, 2008
I can’t stop thinking about Gene Pentz. 

At left is the only other card I own, besides the Pentz I displayed a couple days ago, that features the mustachioed obscurity. Can you spot him?

I have spent so much time thinking about Gene Pentz that I am tempted to wonder if I have become the biggest fan he’s ever had. I would be wrong in that assumption. During Gene Pentz’s brief career there was a Gene Pentz Fan Club.

Darren Viola knew the founder and sole member of the Gene Pentz Fan Club. Viola, better known to baseball fans as Repoz (the name he uses in his tireless gathering and hilariously skewed presenting of baseball news at The Baseball Think Factory), was a “friend of a friend” of the fan of Pentz, and wishes when trying to recall him that his “mind wasn’t so alchohazingly damaged from those years.” Still, a vivid portrait of Pentz and Fan of Pentz comes through in Viola’s recollections. . .

He was one strange kid . . . muy intense and singleminded in his adoration of all things Pentz!

I remember asking him WHY GENE FUCKING PENTZ? And he told me that he liked the way he threw and he felt bad about his record and how he wasn’t appreciated or something. I was shocked that Pentz would even give him the time of day, but they used to correspond regularly . . . and when the Tigers/Stros would come to town he would visit this kid and his loony parents for dinner in North Bergen, N.J.

My friend (Fester) did get invited over for a glorious Pentz dinner with the nutty kid/family and he told me that Pentz sorta welled up over the love shown by this derango. Of course, Pentz would give them freebie tickets at Shea.

Gene Pentz made his major league debut at Shea Stadium. (In 1975, when Pentz was called up to the Detroit Tigers, the Yankees were playing their games in Shea.) I wonder if the future founder of the Gene Pentz Fan Club was one of the 13,410 in attendance on July 29, 1975, when Gene Pentz was brought in to start the sixth inning, the Tigers down 4-2. I’m a romantic, so I’m going to say that he was there, that he was somehow made aware that he was witnessing a player’s first moment in the major leagues, the moment that put Gene Pentz officially in the record books for all time, the moment that would make him, Gene Pentz, immortal. And when Gene Pentz struck out the first man he faced (Chicken Stanley) and went on to pitch three innings of no-hit ball, albeit to no effect (the Tigers were unable to rally), it’s easy to envision a weird kid in the mostly empty stands deciding to follow every step of the brand new major leaguer’s journey. It’s easy to envision a weird kid in the mostly empty stands falling in love.

Pentz made one more appearance at Shea as a Tiger, giving up four hits, a wild pitch, and two runs in one inning of a 9-6 loss (attendance: 7,240), then appeared twice at Shea as an Astro, once in 1976 and once in 1977. It makes me happy to imagine the founder of the Gene Pentz Fan Club in the stands at these two games. In the first of these games (attendance: 13,303) Pentz recorded an old-fashioned when-men-were-men three-plus-inning save, squelching a rally in the 6th inning and keeping the Mets scoreless the rest of the way. In Pentz’s last appearance at Shea Stadium, he pitched two scoreless innings and picked up one of his eight career major league victories. That game, oddly, was played before 52,784 people, possibly the largest audience ever to witness the artistry of Gene Pentz. I’m not really sure why there were so many people at the game. It was a Saturday game, but a quick glance at other Saturday games at Shea that season shows low attendance figures in line with other Gene Pentz appearances at Shea. Maybe there was a big promotion that day. Or maybe the one-day spike was due to the fact that just three days before the Mets had traded away Tom Seaver. This was the first weekend game since the trade, so perhaps Mets fans flooded the stadium to voice their profound displeasure with management for trading away their beloved star. If fans were ever going to root, root, root for the away team, it would be Mets fans angrily mourning the loss of Tom Seaver. So if this was the case, then maybe when the founder of the Gene Pentz Fan Club rose to his feet to cheer Gene Pentz as Gene Pentz walked off the mound after his second and last inning of scoreless work, his efforts allowing the Astros to tie the game (they would forge ahead in the next half-inning), maybe, just maybe, 52,000 people followed the lead of the founder of the Gene Pentz Fan Club. Maybe for one slim strange beautiful moment everyone was a member of the Gene Pentz Fan Club.


Gene Pentz

March 5, 2008
How to Write about Baseball Cards

Step One: Select a card. This step may be done intentionally or at random. If you have sorted your cards into rubber-band-bound teams, this may somewhat inhibit your attempt to be random, especially if you have sorted each team by year and also have a general sense of which teams are thick bundles and which are thin. Still, it may be possible to select a card that you did not anticipate selecting, such as the Gene Pentz card shown at left. How could you ever have anticipated selecting Gene Pentz?

Step Two: Try and fail to produce brilliant witticisms at the expense of the fellow pictured on the card. This was done time and again by the authors of The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, the equivalent of the Collected Works of Shakespeare for the baseball card writing genre. Those gentlemen could come up with something hilarious to say about Gene Pentz. You are not them. Almost all your sentences veer toward pretension, and by you I mean me, not you, so feel free to disregard this step, or more specifically to disregard the “and fail” part.

Step Three: Google Gene Pentz. Find out things like that he threw a lot of wild pitches and walked a lot of guys and once even threw a strike while attempting to intentionally walk a guy.

Step Four: Carry around the card in your wallet, go to work, come home, go to work, come home, etc., go out to a nearby bar on Friday, have a few beers, order a cheeseburger, while waiting for a cheeseburger start to go on a rant about this editor guy who showed some interest in a book idea but then stopped returning your politely seldom and unobtrusive email inquiries, build the rant into an unhinged self-pitying screed about the bloodsucking nature of every single editor and agent in the universe and beyond that, fuck it, everyone in the universe, the whole globe one giant vicious knife fight and all you’ve got is a plastic spork, then when the food comes become enraged about how slow the ketchup comes out of the glass bottle and about glass ketchup bottles in general—“the plastic squeeze bottle solved this fucking problem!”—until you are so worked up you feel you are moments away from smashing the ketchup bottle against the wall, then willfully ignore the attempts by your wife to calm you down, instead picking a fight with her, you complete asshole, then eat your stupid cheeseburger and fries in frosty post-fight silence.

Step Five: Consider attempting a whole “He looks like Thurman Munson” thing. Abandon it.

Step Six: Consider attempting a whole “He kind of looks like my brother’s JV basketball coach, who my brother saw years after high school, both of them driving delivery trucks, neither in the mood for conversation, nothing more passing between them than a couple grunts of delivery truck guy recognition” thing. Abandon it.

Step Seven: Go to work, come home, go to work, etc.

Step Eight: Go off on a whole pretentious tangent about how great it is to discover the card of a player that, even though these are your cards, you did not know existed. How wide is the world if it includes Gene Pentz! The fact that not only was there a Gene Pentz, but also that he played major league baseball, seems at such a far edge of the spectrum of the possible as to be impossible, so in a way his grizzled mug staring back at you from somewhere inside the chain link cage they put him in to guard the rest of the team from his complete inability to control the path of his pitches is evidence that the impossible, or near impossible, is possible. That kind of thing. Abandon it.   

Step Nine: Look for some other card to write about. Become discouraged.

Step Ten: Why on earth would you want to write about baseball cards?