Archive for the ‘Houston Astros’ Category

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Bob Gallagher

March 7, 2009

bob-gallagher-74

You wouldn’t know it from Bob Gallagher’s expression, which seems to suggest that he is trying to decide if it is in fact his rusty car that is, off in the distance, in the process of being stolen, but this card signals the pinnacle of Bob Gallagher’s major league career. In the season to come he would hit just .172 in limited play, and in the season after that, mercifully his last, he fared even worse, hitting .133 in 15 at-bats. But here he stands, having batted a respectable .264 in 148 at-bats while playing, as the patch on his left shoulder attests, in one of the worst ballparks for a hitter that has ever been built.

***

But before I consider Bob Gallagher some more I have to confess that I got the goldpanning story I told in relation to Orel Hershiser wrong. In the story I guessed that my brother and I had set out to find riches in the stream near my house because we’d seen someone do something similar on television. But after I posted the story I spoke to my stepfather, and he gently suggested that my brother and I had first panned for gold with him during a camping trip somewhere in or around Middlebury, a Vermont town an hour or so west of where we lived. The funny thing is, I still couldn’t remember this trip after he mentioned it, but then he began explaining that he’d panned for gold himself during the time that he’d lived in Alaska fighting forest fires. He also reminded me that his own grandfather (or maybe great-grandfather; clearly, my mind is a Bermuda Triangle for all information that ventures within its reach) had set out for Alaska to find gold many years before. Suddenly it all became so plausible that my brother and I would learn of panning for gold, and not from some random TV show but from a much closer source, from the lessons and stories of one of the adults raising us.

***

The back of the card improves upon this respectable campaign by presenting Gallagher’s full minor league records, during which he hit above .300 twice, just below .300 once, and in his other season, his first, batted a promising .270. This portrait of a man who has been traveling in a straight line toward the incredibly rare fate of being a true major league hitter is completed with a cartoon and two lines of bulleted text. The caption in the cartoon states, “Bob’s grandfather, Shano Collins, was active in the majors.” One line of bulleted text relates his 1967 Winter League batting average (.437), and the other points out that he “helped lead Alaska Goldpanners to 3 straight state titles in semi-pro competition.”

***

When people speak of memory I think they are mostly thinking of visual data, as if memory is a rack of old videos that we can play on the grainy screens of our remembering minds. But other senses may provide a stronger conduit to the worlds we’ve left behind. For example, one bite of a piece of pastry got Proust going for nine billion pages of undying backward-gazing literature, apparently (I tried to start reading his remembrances but kept falling asleep on the bus with the tome in my hands, which was actually sort of pleasant, if a hopeless way to ever get through a book). For another example, the visual perusal of any single baseball card will not, for most readers of this site, be as effective a transport back into childhood than the remembrance of the smell and feel and taste of the hard, powdered gum from a pack of baseball cards.

I still don’t remember the camping trip when I learned to pan for gold; that is, I can’t “see” it. But when my stepfather started describing the process of panning for gold the other day, a process he’d learned in Alaska, the same place where his grandfather had learned it, the same place where Shano Collins’ grandson had gathered the gold of championships with the semi-pro Goldpanners, I remembered it in my body. This is what happens when you’re taught something by somebody who loves you. You remember it in your fingers, your limbs. In your blood.

***

I wonder if Bob Gallagher was taught to hit by his major league grandfather, Shano Collins, a champion with the 1917 White Sox (and an untainted pennant winner with the disgraced 1919 club). It seems likely that he had at least some part in it; what grandfather wouldn’t want to play with his grandson? Gallagher was only seven years old, just edging into little league readiness, when his grandfather passed away, so he may not have clear memories of his grandfather’s batting advice, but even if his mind can’t remember, his body will. When he was at his peak as a player, winning those championships with the Alaska Goldpanners, Bob Gallagher must have felt as if there were flecks of gold in his veins. He had learned how to hit, perhaps learned so well he forget where he’d learned it. It all felt as natural as water running down a stream, as blood flowing from the heart.

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Cesar Cedeno

November 4, 2008
 Untitled

I have to go early to my job today and stay late. I couldn’t sleep last night, worrying about all the things I have to get done. Eventually that worry expanded into a metaphysical reckoning, something that should never be entered into at two in the morning. I got out of bed and went to the room with the computer and sat there on the edge of the futon in my underwear holding my stomach. The small blue circle of light around the on-button of the computer monitor flashed. I got more and more upset. Felt trapped. I did some push-ups. I punched myself a few times in the head, even though I swore I’d never do that again. I pondered existence, panicking. The Big Question: What is this shit? I took deep breaths. I fucking prayed. I pray sometimes. In fact that’s what I’m doing now, what I’ve been doing all my life with the Cardboard Gods. I was able to go back to sleep for a couple hours. Now I’m up and have to go do my job, which has gradually become the job of three people. Everyone in the cubicles around me is doing the job of three people, too. This has something to do with the increasing number of empty cubicles. At night we watch the news of the economy collapsing, jobs disappearing. I’ll never be a father. I wish I was mildly brain-damaged, free of responsibility and expectation. Only an asshole would say such a thing. My stomach hurts now, and my back, and my eyes have that gauzy feel from lack of sleep. My shoulders are tight. None of the things I will do today will be memorable. If I get old and look back at my life this day will not be there, even though it’s a potentially historic day. Where were you the day Obama was elected? Where were you the day Obama was shockingly defeated? What did you do? This is what my grandchild would ask, presumably, if I were to live a life that included children and grandchildren. Anyway I’d have no answer. I worked. I went to my job and did the shit you do to stay clothed and fed.

The future curdles. This is a thing only an asshole would say on a day that many are feeling hopeful about. Change, great. I voted for “change” and did so happily. (I voted early, in some kind of old municipal hall that was also hosting a Halloween dance. No one was at the dance yet. “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang was playing. There was a skeleton and skulls and a Darth Vader head hanging over the door to the building.) Will it impact my life? I doubt it. The future used to be one thing, and now it’s something else. It’s clearer, less vague, narrower. I’m 40. I will work until my heart ceases, most days squares to put a line through when completed. Cesar Cedeno, shown here around the time it had become clear that he was after all never going to be the next Willie Mays, seems to be both safe and irrelevant. The play is happening somewhere else. He has lost his helmet. He has been moved from centerfield to first base. He has aged. He is looking toward the play going on without him. In a few years he’ll be altogether gone from the scene.

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Skip Jutze, 1976

September 23, 2008
 

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One Continuous Mistake: The Cardboard Gods Story (So Far)

Part 1 of 3

I.
“Wilker, you got it wrong.” – sg schier, 5.30.08

I have written about Skip Jutze before. But as sg schier pointed out in a May 30 comment attached to that first Skip Jutze post, I got it wrong. But how could I get it right? How could I ever hope to say all there is to say about Skip Jutze?

And I feel that tingling, excited sensation again, the one I get when I know I’m about to get it wrong. It’s not a bad feeling. In fact, it makes me feel alive. I get it when I’m holding one of my baseball cards from my childhood and starting to glimpse the glittering possibilities embedded like a lode of diamonds all over in the card. It’s like that Beatles song. It’s all too much for me to take. The love that’s shining all around you. I know I’ll get it wrong. I can’t possibly say it all. Skip Jutze!

Here he is, a couple years before his appearance on the card I’ve already written about, younger than that doleful sky-gazing mustachioed journeyman on the Mariner card, the younger Skip Jutze looking directly into the camera with the adamantine confidence of an athlete who has been second to none for almost all of his life, a superstar in every sport he played, a hometown legend. The confident look prevails despite the data on the back of the card, the birth date acknowledging that he’ll be turning 30 in May, the .226 lifetime average, the lack of even a single career home run. The front of the card is no different: The lopsided layout cheapens what already must be a card nearly devoid of worth. The empty stands hint at Skip Jutze’s status as a guy to be gotten out of the way early by the Topps photographer, before the regulars swagger onto the field. The polyester rainbow of his uniform seems cheap and desperate, especially since the number on Skip Jutze’s pants, 9, does not match the number, 23, on the bottom of the bat in Skip Jutze’s hands. He is a spare part, just passing through, briefly flickering between the minors and the majors, tossed a leftover uniform and a random bat. And yet, taken all together, the confident look, the paltry stats, the garish uniform, above all the name, Skip Jutze, immune to renown, it all speaks to me not of failure or success but of something beyond that false duality, the sweet stinging tension of life itself, our moment alive, holding with all our might to might, to if, to maybe, to the brink of another bright uncertain day sparkling and sharp with the diamonds of possibilities and mistakes.

II.

“When we reflect on what we are doing in our everyday life, we are always ashamed of ourselves. One of my students wrote to me saying, ‘You sent me a calendar, and I am trying to follow the good mottoes which appear on every page. But the year has hardly begun, and already I have failed!’ Dogen-Zenji said, ‘Shoshaku jushaku.’ Shaku generally means ‘mistake’ or ‘wrong.’ Shoshaku jushaku means ‘to succeed wrong with wrong,’ or one continuous mistake. According to Dogen, one continuous mistake can also be Zen. A Zen master’s life could be said to be many years of shoshaku jushaku. This means so many years of one single-minded effort.”    – Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

I started Cardboard Gods a little over two years ago when I randomly grabbed from my shoebox full of aging cards my one and only Mark Fidrych card, an amazing stroke of luck considering the fact that there’s probably no other player who embodies for me the dreams and joys and disappointments of childhood and its endless shadow than the ebullient curly-haired nutjob rookie, the Bird, who ruled the American League for one slim beautiful year before breaking his wing and dropping almost instantly out of sight. Holding his card, I got that tingling, excited sensation. I was very glad to be feeling it. The worst thing in the world is if you start feeling like you’ve somehow got to a point in your life when you can’t make any more mistakes. For one reason or another you’ve marginalized yourself, removed yourself from the game. I had spent the previous years working on a novel and upon the messy uncertain completion of the book had been unable to publish it. I felt worn out, empty, demoralized, buried, removed. I needed to get back the feeling that I was still alive, that mistakes were still possible. Enter the Cardboard Gods.

After only a week or so of profiles I found myself writing what seemed to be a particularly dull ode to Otto Velez. I wondered if things had run their course. For months after that I’d periodically circle around to that Otto Velez feeling. Certainly, on any rational level the whole project was ludicrous. OK, write a few things about your baseball cards and then move on with real life. But dedicate yourself to it indefinitely?

I have been doing this for a couple of years and I have only covered a fairly small percentage of the baseball cards from my childhood. There are still so many mistakes to be made! I want to infect every card I own with my failings. I want to make a single-minded effort, one continuous mistake. I want to get every single Cardboard God wrong.

(continued in Rowland Office, 1976)

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Mike Cosgrove

June 10, 2008
 

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Here we see a young man oozing easy confidence, immune to the effects of what seems to be a banishment to a far field where the grass is patchy and brown and there are only the faintest hints (a pale blip that might be a base, an even fainter distant structure that might be a chain-link backstop) that this fallow ground could be baseball-related. Most others in his situation freeze into corpselike stiffness but he overcomes the usual limitations of the awkward wax figure baseball card pose by letting his body communicate looseness and ease, the natural balanced grace of a lefty. He stares directly at the viewer, a trace of a small, confident smile on his unblemished face. The back of the card contains the story of his quick rise through the minors, including the year he fanned 231 batters in 172 minor league innings. After that year he began splitting time between the minors and the majors, finally spending the majority of the year in the big leagues during the final season listed, 1974. Below the line for that year is a statement that reads, “Mike became lefty ace of Astros’ bullpen in 1974 & may be starter in 1975.”

                                                       *  *  *

 Untitled 
And here we see the same man just one year later, no longer able to look directly at the viewer, no longer young. The brim of his cap is misshapen, as if mangled by bullies or forgotten in the rain. He wears badges of desperation, a perm, a dust-thin mustache. Behind him is the unmistakable high stands of a major league stadium, simultaneously claustrophobic and vast. He has made it; there is no joy. On the back of his card there is no trace of his minor league successes, just the thin gruel of numbers of a big league mop-up man. Instead of an encouraging personalized line of text below the numbers, there is this non-sequitur: “At the turn of the century the Chicago Cubs were known as the Colts.” It’s tempting to think the scattered figures in the distance are heckling the man in the extreme foreground, that scorn from strangers is the cause of the complicated expression on Mike Cosgrove’s face. But they are just as likely to be talking about how the Cubs used to be known as the Colts as they are to be talking about, let alone expending the effort to mock, Mike Cosgrove. They really have nothing to do with the likes of Mike Cosgrove. Whatever vague repulsion or sour apprehension rippling his pasty features is his alone, the light from the dirty neon of the pawnshop within.

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Brad Ausmus

May 5, 2008
 

                                                        Golf Road
                                                     Chapter Two 
                                      (continued from Brandon McCarthy)

I lurched around grabbing up all the shreds I could find. After reading the name on the first piece I’d noticed—Brad Ausmus—I didn’t waste any more time looking at names. I just wanted to gather up everything I could before the bus came.

The pieces were light and jagged. They weren’t weather-beaten, but they were slightly curled, like old photographs. They were distributed over a fairly wide area, implying that they had either been tossed up into a breeze, like confetti, or had been moved more gradually by intermittent gusts after having been flung down. Either way, the lack of any further weather-related markings or discoloration made it seem likely that the cards had been abandoned just a few hours before my arrival on the scene.

As I gathered the fragments I noticed that they were physically different from the baseball cards from my childhood. The material seemed cheaper, flimsier, sharper-edged. They surely were easier to rip into pieces than a similar stack of cards from the 1970s would have been. It probably felt good, at least for a second, to shred them. To so easily say I don’t need you.

                                                       * * *

The first and third jobs I ever had were at East Dennis Shell, on the inside part of Cape Cod’s elbow. My second job, before I begged to pump gas again, was with a Greenpeace office based in Hyannis that sent me and other young people all over the Cape to knock on doors and ask for money. At one house a balding Jehovah’s Witness waved off my environmentalist spiel and lectured me at length about how the world was going to end soon.

“There’s nothing you can do to stop it,” he said.

On another day a middle-aged woman in a gray nightgown stared past me and spoke of all the cars going and going, always, all the time, just going and going everywhere. After repeating this assertion for a while she finally leveled her watery gaze at me.

“Where are they all going?” she asked.

                                                      * * *

When I was done gathering, I stood at the edge of the bus stop shelter. I held the small mass of ripped cards to my chest lightly, as if I was protecting a storm-damaged bird’s nest. The traffic of Golf Road flew by.

People aren’t really meant to witness that kind of traffic so closely. If you ever do, you’ll sense a meanness in it. Everyone wants to get to what they imagine is their real life. Everyone wants to get through the places that are neither here nor there. Everyone roars past in a blur. Everything they roar past is a blur. This place is no place. This moment is no moment.

                                                    * * *

Where are they all going? Where is America? If you listen to the patriotic songs it’s in a brave battle for freedom and in God-blessed natural beauty and bounty. The prevailing cultural mythology of America extends these themes into a vision of a promised land of individual conquest and celebration. The American tames the wilderness. The American goes from rags to riches in the vibrant city. The American mows a flawless lawn behind the white picket fence of an alarm-secured suburban home. The American swats a home run in the bottom of the ninth to loose the democratic yawp of the masses across the sun-splashed green.

                                                   * * *

I could not field a very good team with the 22 players featured in the torn cards from Golf Road. Like many of the cards themselves, the roster has glaring holes, as there are no outfielders, no shortstops, and just one first baseman. Most of all: there are no stars. Brad Ausmus, the aging, light-hitting catcher, is probably the most well-known player in the pile.

                                                  * * *

Nowhere in the collective dream of America is there a pedestrian blurred into invisibility on a four-lane road, cars flying past in both directions, a drab brown nature preserve on one side, a string of bland corporate office buildings on the other, a cluster of chain restaurants off on one flat horizon, the opposite horizon dominated by the concrete overpass of an Interstate highway, traffic so thick it barely moves.
                                                 
                                                 * * *

I imagine the original owner of the cards growing impatient as he waits on Golf Road. 

When will this nothing moment end?

There’s no store anywhere around. He must have bought the cards at some earlier time, looked at them, brought them along with him to his job, put in a day’s work in a cubicle, and looked at them again to try to fight the monotony and meaninglessness of the moment that is not a moment. He must have leafed through the cards looking for meaning in them, looking for some connection to that persistent American dream of triumph. Looking for a star. Looking for somebody.

Nobody, nobody, nobody, is what he heard as a reply, in the cars flying past, in the faces of the cards in his hands, in the life he was leading, in the absence of the gods. It must have felt good, at least for a second, to tear all the slick bright nobodies to shreds.

(to be continued)

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Gene Pentz (flipped)

March 10, 2008
  
I.
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.

II.
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.

III.
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.

IV.
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.

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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.

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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?

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Randy Niemann

December 18, 2007
 

 
I decided to start the day by writing about Randy Niemann because of his mustache and his expression and his pose and his uniform and my indecisiveness and my lack of any other plan and my inability to make a plan or if a plan is made to stick to it and because over a year ago I started writing about baseball cards and when I started I did it every day and wrote about cards chosen at random and over the months stopped writing every day and wrote not at random but after long consideration and with thought toward big pretentious far-ranging essays and now I just want to get back to the basics and also on top of that I wonder almost every day and have wondered almost every day even since the beginning if I was done with all this, if it had run its course, if I was utterly out of things to say about baseball cards. But writing about a baseball card is just like anything else. It is like getting out bed in the morning. It is like going to a job. It is repetitive. It is boring. Existence, man, fuck. Yes, but still we go on. We have pebbles in our pockets. We have scraps of paper. We have nothing. We have Randy Niemann. I have been writing about this for 4 minutes. I wanted to write without stopping for 10 minutes. I do that sometimes when I have really reached the end of inspiration, when I just sit and stare and find myself waiting around for lunch and then dinner and then death but I don’t really want to die. I want to live! I like life. I love life. I do not want life to end. I want to keep writing about Randy Niemann forever. There is a Russian novel in me about Randy Niemann, I swaear. I mean swear. I cannot spell but there is no time! The mustache is well groomed and contributes to a face that seems to hold some anxiety and some irony too. You want me to throw that pitch? That pitch will not succeed but what the hell I will try.

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Joe Niekro/Red Sox-Indians Game 4 Chat

October 16, 2007
  
Life is a knuckleball, a jagged, ridiculous path with no guarantees. Maybe things will work out OK, maybe things will work out horribly, but most likely they’ll be a mixture of the two, your beleaguered catcher unable to handle strike three, which will bound to the backstop and allow mounting adversity another baserunner and more chances to whale on the knucklers that don’t knuckle. And there will be plenty of knucklers that don’t knuckle.

But though the ability to throw good knuckleballs seems to come and go almost without reason, there is also something about knuckleballs, and about life, that gives a late-blooming nobody such as myself hope. Consider Joe Niekro, seen here with a pensive look altogether appropriate for a 33-year-old 10-year veteran with a losing lifetime record. Perhaps Joe Niekro is wondering if the end is near. In fact, Joe Niekro at the time of this 1978 card was attempting to reinvent himself from a mediocre fastball-curveball pitcher to a pitcher who could, like his older brother Phil, rely on the most unreliable phenomenon in the baseball world, the knuckleball. And Joe Niekro did end up mastering the pitch as few others have, going on to win 221 major league games, most of them coming after the time when most major league pitchers have traded in their baseball cleats for golf shoes. The knuckleball offers the possibility of redemption.

Consider Tim Wakefield, who starts for the Boston Red Sox in Game 4 of the A.L. Championship Series tonight (8:07 ET, FOX). Wakefield was a washed-up light-hitting minor league first baseman when he first decided his path to the majors was going to have to follow the flight of the knuckleball. He made it to the majors at age 25, hardly a phenom, but pitched brilliantly in his rookie season to help the Pittsburgh Pirates win their division. The knucklegods abandoned him the following season, and in the season after that he pitched poorly again, this time in Triple A. In the offseason he sought the help of Phil and Joe Niekro, and by 1995 he was back in the majors, pitching well for the Boston Red Sox. Though he has been for some time the longest-tenured current player on the Red Sox, and by all accounts a steadying clubhouse influence and a beloved pillar of the community, his fortunes have continued to rise and fall as if tied to the transitory, unpredictable qualities of the pitch he relies on. One month he is unhittable, the next the sweating maestro of wild pitches and beachball lobs, the next a maddening combination of the two.

Even in his worst moments, as in the 2003 playoffs when an unknuckling knuckler was Bucky-Dented by Aaron Boone over the left field fence to eliminate the Red Sox, Wakefield is never far from his best (before that pitch Wakefield had been so brilliant that if the Red Sox had hung on to win he probably would have won the series MVP); and even at his best, such as his fearless and stupendous 3 frames of extra-inning shutout ball to win Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees, he is never far from hideous disaster, his pitches moving so much in that game that the Yankees nearly grabbed a lead on the following “rally”:

Top of the 13th, Yankees Batting, Tied 4-4, Tim Wakefield facing 3-4-5
            6  G Sheffield    Strikeout Swinging, Passed Ball; Sheffield to 1B
   O      1–  5  H Matsui     Groundout: 2B-SS/Forceout at 2B
   O      1–  3  B Williams    Flyball: RF
          1–     J Posada       Passed Ball; Matsui to 2B
          -2-  5  ” ”               Intentional Walk
          12-     R Sierra        Passed Ball; Matsui to 3B; Posada to 2B
   O      -23  7  ” ”             Strikeout Swinging

And so now, as they have so often in recent seasons, the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox rest on that metaphor for the transitory and uncontrollable nature of life itself, the knuckleball. I’ll be wearing my treasured Tim Wakefield T-shirt and praying.

And probably also drinking fairly heavily.

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Terry Puhl

August 7, 2007
 

 
There’s no way to pinpoint the moment depicted in this 1980 card, but it seems that Terry Puhl is considering whether to try for the next base or return to the one he’s already crossed. His body language seems to suggest that he’s leaning toward a cautious return rather than a gutsy, barreling, Enos Slaughteresque assault on the extra base. Why take chances? Proceed with caution, avoid mistakes: It’s the proofreaderly way of Terry Puhl, who years after the last of his many error-free games is still the all-time major league leader in fielding percentage for an outfielder.

When I was a kid Terry Puhl was my favorite Astro, which was particularly significant because in the late 1970s and early 1980s the Astros were one of the three National League “mistress” teams that I rendezvoused with periodically in my mind to ease the pain of my marriage to the Boston Red Sox, a marriage that was going through a particularly sour and disillusioning period. The other two teams were the Expos, who played as close to my Vermont home as the Red Sox, and the Mets, who I got to see every summer during visits to see my dad in New York. The relative proximity of the Expos and the familiarity of the Mets explained those two extramarital dabblings. As for the Astros, I suppose I was drawn to them because in their blindingly bright uniforms, in their faraway location, and most especially in their style of play they offered the complete opposite of the gray, slow, plodding, fatally flawed, all-hit, no-pitch, Last Days of Yastrzemski Red Sox.

But for some reason among all the rainbowy tripling Astros I liked the somewhat colorless Terry Puhl the best, and I’m not at all sure why. He hit for a good, but not great, average. He had some power, but not really that much. He stole some bases, enough to have easily led the trudging Red Sox but not nearly enough to make a mark on the league leaders, or even to put him past the top two or three guys on his own team. In 1980 I got my first set of Stratomatic cards, so I began to appreciate that he was also a good, but not great fielder (an above-average “2” in both left and right field, an average “3” in center, with a decent but unspectacular “0” throwing arm), and that he of course hardly ever made an error. He was, I don’t know, the epitome of being pretty good. I don’t know why I would have gravitated toward that. Don’t most kids idolize either superstars or oddball Shlabotnikian benchwarmers? I’m not saying Terry Puhl was my favorite player in the world, because even though my love for the Red Sox had become at best complicated and at worst a joyless march of obligation I still loved them above all else, but in the buoyant fantasy where the entire Red Sox franchise from the remnants of the Yawkey family on down to Gary Allenson and the batboys tragically crash-landed into the Himalayas, leaving me a sports-team widower, Terry Puhl and the Astros would be there to help me learn to live again.

It’s possible I gravitated toward Terry Puhl because I was a very cautious kid. Maybe I’ll write another novel about my childhood someday and call it Portrait of the Proofreader as a Young Man. In it you’ll see me on family downhill skiing outings where my older brother skis fast and wipes out often while I avoid the expert slopes and snowplow down the intermediate hills, crouched and stiff like Terry Puhl on the brink of deciding not to press his luck, as in the above photo. You’ll see my brother at school and elsewhere getting into arguments and fistfights and occasionally even talking to girls and beyond that once in a great while getting to kiss them while I stick to the fringes and gradually master invisibility. The book will open when my brother and I are both very young, the day my brother gets hit by a car and breaks both his legs while running for an ice cream truck. I’m told I was there watching, but I don’t remember this. Maybe it’s one of those repressed memories. If that’s true it may explain in part why I have often retreated to the safe base to wait for someone else to make something happen.

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J.R. Richard, 1978

January 30, 2007
 

Ode to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

Conclusion (continued from here)

I don’t remember this part, but my friend Bill estimates that I dropped twenty-five or thirty feet before hitting the steep embankment, then I bounced and tumbled another hundred feet or so. When I stopped somersaulting I was in a forward-swaying seated position, a thin ribbon of blood pulsing in what seemed to be slow motion from my head out onto the scree, an image which reminded me, even in the moment, of the way guys bled from mortal bullet wounds in Sam Peckinpah movies.

No clouds in the sky. Some dry desert brush here and there. Bill seemed to arrive at my side almost instantly, more scared than anyone I’ve ever seen.

“Holy shit, Josh! Holy fucking shit!

A couple had pulled into the rest area just before I’d flown over the cliff, and the woman drove off to find a telephone so she could call an ambulance while the man made his way down to us to see if he could help. Based on the small number of other cars on the desert highway we’d been on, I’d guess that the rest area we’d stopped at generally went hours or even days without having a visitor. I asked small-talk questions of the man who’d come to my aid as he and Bill each took one of my arms and gently half-lifted, half-dragged me toward the highway. He was an air traffic controller. He and his wife were on their way to Colorado where he was starting a new job.

“Colorado’s beautiful,” I said.

Bill and the air traffic controller set me down on the ground by a shallow roadside ditch and as we waited for the ambulance I started to go into shock. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that I was going into shock. All I knew was that I was beginning to feel very cold on a warm sunny day, and my vision was going white and grainy, like a television tuned to a station losing its signal. I thought I might be dying.

After his failed comeback, J.R. Richard’s sizable baseball earnings gradually dwindled closer and closer to zero, eroded by two divorce settlements and some bad business decisions, including an oil-well scam that cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Looking for a job, he approached the team whose cap he would have worn on a plaque in Cooperstown. “I went to [the Astros] to see if I could do some public relations for them,” Richard said in a 2004 Houston Press interview with Dave Hollander. “They said, ‘Okay, we’ll get back to you,’ and time passed and passed and passed. Nothing.”

The paramedics strapped me on a gurney and carried me into the ambulance, where they hooked me to IVs. According to Bill, who was, against their strong recommendations, tailing them the whole way, we went 100 miles an hour for forty miles or so, which was how far away the closest hospital was. At the hospital, I felt okay with Bill by my side as a kind nurse filled me with painkillers and removed rocks embedded in my knees, knuckles, and head, then sewed up the large rock-eructing gashes. But that quiet fear that I’d felt when I’d been going into shock returned when an orderly wheeled me away from Bill so I could have x-rays taken of my head.

I lay on the stretcher alone in a shadowy metallic room for a while. My thoughts started to wander. Maybe there was hidden internal bleeding. Maybe a massive secret blood clot had formed and was just waiting for the right moment to fatally clog some vital artery. It happened all the time. One minute you’re tossing the ball around in the outfield with Wilbur Howard and the next minute men in dark suits are walking toward you to escort you off the Astroturf forever.

Finally a couple x-ray technicians came in. I wanted them to talk to me, to talk me through it, but they were busy bitching about some work-related problem.

“He thinks his crap don’t stink,” one of them said.

“I pulled enough overtime the last month,” the other said, seeming to talk past him. “I got what’s known as a life.”

“And that big smile on his face all the time?” the first one said. “Lord.”

They never acknowledged me at all, even when they were inches away, repositioning the stretcher. It was a chilling little preview. The world is going to keep on going right along just fine when you die. As they x-rayed me, a shred of “Pancho and Lefty” was still echoing around in what I considered at that moment to be my possibly hemorrhaging brain, the haunting part near the end of the song where a ghostly chorus joins in to help tell the doom-limned tale.

All the federales say
They could have had him any day

Those federales, those men in dark suits approaching with orders to remove. Yes, they could have had me that day. Broken neck, shattered skull, subject of a phone call to the next of kin. As it turned out, every inch of my body hurt and I was stitched up like Frankenstein and I could barely move, but I hadn’t even broken a single bone, and the x-rays found nothing. I was free to limp out of the hospital, leaning on Bill. Everything seemed to glow. I called people close to me and told them I loved them. I tried to write postcards to say the same thing but it hurt too much to hold a pen.

The next day Bill and I bought flowers for the nurse who’d derocked me. I don’t remember the details of the flower transaction, but I have since discovered that there is a possibility, however slight, that we bought the flowers from Chris Barnes, the actor who played Tanner Boyle. According to a Bad News Bears fan site, as the years went by Barnes became extremely uncomfortable with the constricting renown caused by his generation-defining portrayal. Probably every two seconds someone had come up to him and yelled “Let them play!” in his face, causing him ultimately to take it on the melancholy lam like Bill Bixby in the television version of The Incredible Hulk. In a 1998 Los Angeles Times article quoted on the above-mentioned site, Ann O’Neill reported that Barnes had moved to Utah and gotten a job in a flower shop. Though the article didn’t specify the exact location of the flower shop, it’s easy enough to imagine him gravitating toward a place far from everything except quiet rocky desert and the occasional desert-chewed nurse-thanking dufus.

We headed back toward California, where my plane home to the liquor store and Saturday nights at the International was leaving from, and after several hours of driving we ran out of daylight on the outskirts of Las Vegas. We got a room near the strip at a Motel 6 and decided despite my condition that it would be ludicrous to pass through that city and not gamble a little. I loaded up on codeine and we made our way slowly to Circus Circus.

Inside the casino, I gently lowered my bandaged body down in front of a slot machine. Bill found a spot farther down the row. Trapeze artists and tightrope walkers occupied the spaces high above all the random flashing and chiming and low-lit humans solemnly trying to be lucky. Once in a while you see how singular life is, how virtually impossible, how blessed and inane. “And yet we were always being found innocent for ridiculous reasons,” writes Denis Johnson in Jesus’ Son. It was a spring night in 1995 in Vegas. I looked as if I’d fallen into a dumpster-sized blender. I started feeding the machine and pulling the lever. It was a spring night in 1995 in Houston. J.R. Richard was homeless, taking shelter under a bridge. Within moments bells were ringing and hundreds of coins were spilling onto my lap.

 
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Bob Watson

January 28, 2007
 

Ode to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

Part 3 (continued from here)

“We’re not finished,” Tanner Boyle says.

It’s 1977. The sequel to The Bad News Bears appears to be coming to an abrupt close. The Bears have traveled by customized van, unchaperoned, their 12-year-old chain-smoking left-fielder Kelly Leak at the wheel, from their home in California to the Astrodome in Houston to participate in a four-inning exhibition against the best Little League team in Texas. The winner of the exhibition, which is taking place between games of an Astros’ doubleheader, will be awarded a trip to Japan to play in an All-World Little League Championship game.

By the top of the third inning, the Texas team has built a seemingly insurmountable five-run lead. As they ready to add to their lead (unaccountably, the Texas squad is being treated as the visiting team in Houston), a man in a dark suit comes onto the field and informs the umpire that time has run out for the exhibition; the second half of the Astros’ doubleheader needs to begin. The stunned Bears are reluctant to leave the field. But eventually, perhaps dispirited by the shellacking at the hands of the gigantic Texas players, they begin to abandon their positions.

All except for their shortstop, Tanner Boyle.

Not yet.

In that slim moment, with the rocky world about to vanish from beneath me, was there room in my mind for a thought? I don’t know. I don’t remember. But if there was, the thought would be a wordless version of that two-word plea.

Not yet.

“Hey, you guys,” Tanner Boyle says. All his teammates, even Kelly Leak, are passing him on their way off the field. “Where are you going?”

The Bears’ new coach, Kelly Leak’s long-estranged father, Mike, argues futilely with the man in the dark suit who declared the game over. The umpire confirms that the Texas team was ahead at the time the game was called, and the man in the dark suit officially declares them the winner. Two more men in dark suits materialize to hover ominously around the now irate Mike Leak, who glares past them for a while at the first dark-suited man before retreating to the dugout. The line score for the game has been wiped from the stadium scoreboard. There’s only one obstacle remaining. Tanner Boyle stands alone on the carpeted diamond. His glove has been thrown to the turf in anger.

“We’re not finished!” he yells again. “The game isn’t over!”

Two men in dark suits walk toward him.

I hadn’t done anything yet. I hadn’t found love yet, not really. I hadn’t written The Novel yet. I hadn’t made witty appearances on talk shows yet. I hadn’t acquired groupies yet. I hadn’t dunked a basketball yet. At least not on a regulation-height rim.

The Astros emerge from the clubhouse, entering the dugout the Bears have been borrowing from them: Bill Virdon, Enos Cabell, Joe Ferguson, Roger Metzger, Bob Watson. The Bears have been watching the men in dark suits advance toward their shortstop but now they cluster around the Astros with a mixture of awe and supplication. The Bears’ centerfielder, Ahmad, explains the situation to Bob Watson. Cesar Cedeno has also entered the scene, as has Ken Forsch. In the background, wearing the long-sleeved windbreaker of a man who will soon be taking the mound as a starting pitcher, is J.R. Richard.

Out on the field, Tanner Boyle backpedals away from the two men in dark suits. They close in and he jukes away from them, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

“Hey, look at Tanner,” exclaims Toby, the Bears’ first baseman.

The Bears’ savvy, bespectacled Sabermetrician, Ogilvie, played by the legendary Alfred Lutter, is the first to join Toby at the dugout railing to watch Tanner dart away from the grasping, stumbling men in dark suits. In the short interim between the first Bad News Bears movie and The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, Alfred Lutter has been, more than any of his cast-mates, Pearl-Harbored by puberty. He stands a head taller than Toby at the rail, elongated and pasty, his aviator glasses a little crooked. After The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training Alfred Lutter will never again appear in another movie. His last and greatest character, Ogilvie, pumps a pointy, poorly-formed fist and cheers with a cracking voice for Tanner Boyle to stay alive out there. Everything is ending. Stay alive!

I hadn’t learned to touch-type yet. I hadn’t learned to drive yet. I hadn’t given a tearful acceptance speech yet. I hadn’t had ecstatic sex in some beautiful meadow somewhere, or something, yet. I’d barely had any sex at all. I hadn’t even taken enough naps. I hadn’t been discovered. I hadn’t enrolled in a drawing class or studied yoga, mostly because it reminded me of the word yogurt, which I considered repulsive, but still it would have been nice to improve my flexibility and be one of those glowing yoga types who can enjoy the wide bountiful treasures of each moment and also last longer than fourteen seconds while humping. I hadn’t fended off child pickpockets in Rome or cheered for the Ham Fighters in Japan or purchased Elvis Presley toenail clippers in Memphis.

“Come on, Tanner!” Ogilvie shouts. Tanner picks up second base and hurls it at the groin of the younger of the two men in dark suits. The man groans and crumples to the ground.

“Go, Tanner, go!” yells the Bears’ third baseman, Jimmy Feldman, played by Brett Marx, grandson of Gummo Marx.

The man who crumpled to the ground gets back on his feet but both he and the other man are starting to tire.

“Come back here,” the older of the two men in dark suits says, standing and pointing at the Astroturf by his dress shoes. “Come back here right now!”

“No!” Tanner says.

Bob Watson steps forward, smiling but apparently also roused by Tanner Boyle’s Last Stand. J.R. Richard is visible in the background. He has risen from the bench. Standing, he’s enormous, a rainbow-striped skyscraper. Bob Watson sort of feebly punches his arm in the air, as if he’s been taking air-punching lessons from Ogilvie.

“Hey, come on,” Bob Watson calls out toward the field. “Let the kids play.”

I hadn’t gotten roaringly drunk in Dublin, nor attained zen enlightenment while carrying a pail of water or whatever, nor aided the indigent, nor learned Cantonese, nor buoyed the hopeless, nor whipped through War and Peace during some vacation during which I also took long bracing swims in the Atlantic, nor taught convicted felons how to write gritty, redemptive poetry, nor foiled a mugging with nary but my bare fists and perhaps a couple Spidermanly wisecracks, nor had one more really great chocolate chip cookie, nor run weeping with joy up and down confettied avenues hugging strangers because the Red Sox had won the World Series, because the Red Sox had not won the World Series, not in my lifetime, not yet. It was 1995 and I was 27 years old and I hadn’t had that feeling yet. I had longed for the feeling abstractly and daydreamed about the feeling in alarmingly intricate detail. In some ways I had even built it into my own personal impotent religion. But I hadn’t ever found out what it actually felt like, you know, to win.

Upon hearing Bob Watson’s plea to let the kids play, Mike Leak stalks back onto the field and, facing the stands, begins the chant for which The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is known.

“Let them play!” he chants. “Let them play!”

His son, with whom he has fought throughout the movie, is the first to join him. For the first time, father and son stand side by side, chanting and gaveling the air with their right fists with each syllable. Eventually the rest of the Bears surge out onto the field to lend their reedy voices. Rudi. Engelberg. Jose and Miguel. Carmen Ronzonni.

The men in dark suits still can’t catch Tanner Boyle.

“Let them play! Let them play!”

Soon the entire stadium is chanting.

I careened aboard my friend’s sister’s slightly too small white bicycle off the edge of a Utah cliff. I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but if I had had time to pray, I would have prayed for the angelic intervention of Tanner Boyle and Bob Watson and the homely, forlornly Matthauless, Jimmy Baio-ified, sequelized Bad News Bears. Not yet, I would have prayed to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. Please, you lumpy heroes. Not yet.

(Next up: The Synapse-Mangling, Soul-Butchering, Spirit-Disemboweling Conclusion.)

 
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J.R. Richard, 1979

January 26, 2007
 

Ode to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

Part 2 (continued from here)

Back in those years that included my brother’s attempt to learn to play the cello, I often fantasized about lucking into the creation of the perfect opening sentence of a novel. I imagined this sentence would have the power to cause an entire book-length fictional world to gush from my pen like water from the widening hole in a sabotaged dam. By the time the 1990s were half over I had filled up a cello-high stack of notebooks with jagged scribbling, more than a thousand pages blackened and blued with self-lacerating complaints that the magical dam-breaking First Sentence had yet to come and deliver me from my life. On particularly frustrating days I ended up Hulking it up a little, flying into private nearsighted ectomorphic rages that metamorphosed me from a timid high-strung liquor store clerk into a rampaging cat-scaring beast with the gamma-ray-infused strength to rip the Meade “Wireless” college-ruled notebooks I favored into tiny terrified shreds. Then I’d clean up the shreds and go find the cats in their hiding places to apologize profusely for the monster within.

In 1980, at the age of 30 and in the midst of his best season yet, J.R. Richard began noticing stiffness in his back, shoulder, and arm. He mentioned it to team trainers and in June as the problem worsened he began begging out of games early. Nobody could find anything wrong, but judging by the occasional grumblings in Houston that Richard (who hadn’t missed a single start in years) was either purposefully dogging it or suffering from some mental phantasm, nobody was really looking very hard.

Besides waiting around in vain for literary genius to strike, I also daydreamed, as did my brother and at least one of my friends, of escaping with violent abruptness from New York City. My brother envisioned only the first step of his escape: driving without the slightest warning to anyone through the Holland Tunnel, away from every last problem, never to return. A friend’s more detailed vision of escape involved reversing the path taken by Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy: Instead of leaving a small, scorpion-infested Texas border town to come to New York City, my friend, a lifelong New Yorker, dreamed of leaving New York City for a small, scorpion-infested Texas border town, where he’d get a job washing dishes in a diner, shack up with a divorced, embittered, chain-smoking waitress, and read a lot. My own vision of escape involved taking a map of the U.S., plunking my finger down on it randomly, and then taking a Greyhound to the random spot to get a job somewhere “sweeping up,” as the wistfully forlorn Bill Bixby managed to do at the beginning of every episode of the television version of The Incredible Hulk.

J.R. Richard’s second to last start in the major leagues was in the 1980 all-star game. He deserved to start the game: he had by then become the best pitcher in baseball. He pitched two scoreless innings, striking out Carlton Fisk, Reggie Jackson, and Steve Stone. His last start was six days later. July 14, 1980. He sailed through the first three innings, giving up no runs and just one hit while striking out four, and in the bottom of the third, in his final major league at-bat, he drilled a double off future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. But with one out in the top of the fourth inning he walked off the mound and into the clubhouse, complaining of dizziness.

He was replaced by Gordy Pladson.

In actuality, I rarely left the city. There was no such thing as vacation time at the liquor store where I worked, but I occasionally took a few unpaid days off every once in a while, usually to go lie around on a parental couch eating cheese and crackers. In earlier years I’d hoped for a life of adventure such as the one featured in the pages of On the Road, but things weren’t really working out quite like that. A few years into my long stint selling liquor, and not long after my brother turned in his rented cello, I told the owner of the store that I needed a week to go out west. I met up with my fellow Kerouac-loving former roommate from boarding school, Bill, in Santa Barbara, and the two of us drove to Utah with two mountain bikes on the roof of Bill’s car.

We spent a couple days camping and hiking in Zion National Park and then set out across the state, heading for the mountain-biking mecca of Moab. I had never actually mountain-biked before, but I figured it couldn’t be that hard. After driving for hours across a desert, and with several more car-bound hours still ahead of us, we seized the chance to stop at a rest area that turned out to be nothing more than a tin outhouse perched at the edge of a long rocky ridge. There was not so much as a telephone there. After I took a leak I came out of the outhouse and saw that Bill was unhitching his bike from the rack.

“Let’s take a break from all the driving,” Bill said.

“Sounds good to me,” I said. I didn’t yet know how to drive a car at that time and so Bill had been doing the whole job himself while I performed such vital tasks as unscrewing the cap on the bottle of water for him and manning the volume on the tape player. For the past couple hours we’d fallen into a silence that in retrospect seems a little haunted to me, the unending barren wilderness outside the windows taking away our words. I still had a song stuck in my head from the tape that had been playing when we’d pulled in, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard singing Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.”

From BaseballLibrary.com:

“By the end of [July 1980] Richard was back at the Astrodome, playing catch with former Astro Wilbur Howard under the observation of trainer Doc Ewell. After a 10-minute rest in the dugout, Richard returned to the field to try some more throwing–and collapsed.

“Emergency surgery at Houston’s Methodist Hospital uncovered the root of Richard’s struggles. The branch of his carotid artery that supplied blood to the right shoulder was completely clotted, resulting in a near-fatal stroke. When asked by a reporter if Richard would lose the use of his arm, one doctor replied: ‘Hell, they weren’t worried about his arm; they were worried about his life.'”

Bill set out first on his bike and I followed behind as soon as I got his sister’s bike off the roof. Neither of us bothered to put on our helmets. The ridge was about fifteen feet wide, maybe narrower in parts. It appeared to be relatively flat.

It wasn’t.

“The stroke had nearly paralyzed the entire left side of Richard’s body. A second operation returned much of his strength and speech, but the fearsome right-hander never pitched in the big leagues again. A brief comeback ended in March 1984 after Richard had gone 0-2 with a 13.68 ERA in six starts for Triple-A Tucson. The Astros gave him his release.”

By the time I began hurtling down the bumpy, deceptively steep incline, Bill had wrenched his own bike to a skidding halt and was running toward me and shouting at me to try to do the same. I didn’t see him, and anyway it was too late. The handlebars had turned into those of a jackhammer. I was going too fast to think. Ten seconds into my mountain-biking career I flew off a cliff.

(To be Hulkinued.)

 
h1

J.R. Richard, 1977

January 24, 2007
 

Ode to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

Part 1

J.R. Richard spent his twenties taking long loping strides toward Cooperstown. He was 6’8″, threw blazingly hard, wore the dazzling colors of the distant, exciting, up and coming Astros, had a cool, mysterious name, and always seemed to be featured by Topps in one of their rare action shots, the photos always making him seem even bigger and more electrifying than the impressive numbers on the back of his card suggested. Back then I sometimes passed entire afternoons wondering who could beat up whom in the Marvel superhero universe, and though I understood that baseball and comics, the two fantasy-infused realms where I spent the bulk of my childhood, did not in actuality overlap, J.R. Richard (last name virtually identical to Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four) was an exception, and I thought of him as if he could be placed somewhere in the penultimate tier of the Marvel rankings, able to trade skyscraper-rocking blows with the likes of Spiderman, Iron Man, or Luke Cage: Power Man. And even the three top Marvel strongmen–The Thing, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk–though perhaps too powerful for J.R. Richard to hold off in a fistfight without the help of some lesser masked functionary such as Hawkeye or The Falcon, could not, if the situation were ever to arise, touch one of the lightning-bolt fastballs that sprang from J.R. Richards’s giant superpowered hand.

My older brother was even more mesmerized with J.R. Richard than I was, and modeled his pitching motion on the one shown in this 1977 card: high bent-kneed leg kick, hands held tight to the chest, scowling eyes locked on the catcher’s target. He perfected the motion while hurling a tennis ball at the strike zone he’d duct-taped onto our wooden garage door. The sound the tennis ball made when hitting the door got louder as the years passed, my brother amid the seismic epicenter of his puberty seeming to get bigger by the day: 6’1″, 6’2″, 6’3″. By the time he had reached his full height of 6’4″ and no longer played organized baseball and was openly longing to leave home for good, the scowling bent-kneed windup and gunshot report of the garage door had become the primary elements in a ritual of imagined escape, each pitch a prayer for an impossible transformation from cornered rural teenager into the pure violent beauty of J.R. Richard throwing heat.

Years later, I meandered through my own twenties as a clerk at 8th Street Wine and Liquor in Manhattan. It was easy enough to imagine I’d be in my twenties forever. I worked the evening shift Monday through Friday and a nine-hour shift on Saturday, earning enough to chip in on the rent for the apartment I shared with my brother and to get drunk on Saturday nights at the International Bar a few blocks east of the store.

My brother and I and our friends generally loitered at the International until last call at 4 a.m., the favorite part of the night occurring near that time, after we’d all released the burden of hoping that someone would walk through the grimy door and change our lives. Some song on the jukebox would hit like novocaine and it no longer mattered that life was sliding past like scenery in a cheap cartoon. In fact it felt pretty fucking good. In an earlier comment on this site, my brother described the feeling:

“Numberless nights at the International Bar began their stretch run thusly: it’s 3:52am, I’ve got a headful of static from drinking cheap swill, and Peggy Lee starts teetering through ‘Is That All There Is?’ on the ol’ Wurlitzer. And through all those painful years, I was comforted each time; I’d feel a crooked, fallen smile take shape, ‘Yessir, that’s all what she wrote.’ Various harpies would leave me be and I’d relax into appreciation of what was. McKenna gesticulating wildly, maybe. Or ‘That Guy.’ Or just Rose behind the bar, humane and beautiful and flatly real. Who needs the transcendent greener grass, when opening to What Is is so rewarding? (Of course, I’d forget that five seconds later, or at least by the next morning, and shoulder the misery again.)”

A few years into our routine of balancing that thin 3:52 a.m. feeling against the shipwrecked drifting of our lives in general, my brother decided he was going to learn how to play the cello. We were all looking for some detritus to cling to, I guess, and he liked the melancholy sound of the instrument, so he rented one from a music store and signed up for lessons with a recent Julliard grad, a young, stern Asian woman who was openly incredulous about his intentions. He wanted to use the cello to wrest some beauty from his life, but unfortunately he rarely got around to taking the thing out of its case. Eventually another entry was added into the endlessly rich lexicon of euphemisms for masturbation (e.g., Question: “Where’s your brother?” Answer: “He’s ‘practicing the cello.'”). Nonetheless, he lugged his burden to and from work whenever he had a lesson, shoehorning himself and the obese case into the jammed F train at rush hour all the way from our neighborhood in Brooklyn to his job editing travel books on the Upper West Side. This went on for a couple months. One Sunday very near the time when he finally admitted defeat, he roused himself from an “Is That All There Is?” hangover to practice his assigned homework, another lesson and its accompanying scolding from the Asian woman looming. The apartment looked, as usual, as if it had been ransacked. It may have been around the time when we had a rotting jack-o-lantern with carved-out drunken X’s for eyes collapsing into itself next to a bottle of Jim Beam on our “dining room” table. Bleary-eyed, unshaven, wearing only his boxer shorts and a wife-beater dotted with Ragu stains, my brother performed his first and last opus, a halting, truncated, off-key rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb.

(To be Hulkinued.)