Archive for the ‘Kansas City Royals’ Category

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George Brett, 1978

January 16, 2009
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Reality #1

It is fucking cold here in Chicago, Illinois. Twelve degrees below zero as of this moment. I haven’t been outside since yesterday, when I put on two pairs of socks, long underwear, my thickest pair of jeans, three shirts and a sweater, a parka, hiking boots, gloves, two wool hats, and a scarf the size of a blanket and walked a few blocks to slide the DVD of Pineapple Express through the return slot at the video store. The digital bank clock by the video store reported that it was minus five. The walk there wasn’t so bad, but on the way back I was walking against a stiff wind, which I swore at through my unraveling scarf-blanket as the few inches of exposed skin on my face became increasingly painful.

But worse, really, is the oppressive monotony of being inside all the time, especially in an apartment with very poor insulation. I’m in the apartment’s office right now, which is above the unheated stairwell. The wood floor feels like chilled metal, and cold air pushes through the two windows. I’m wearing a wool hat, long underwear, flannel pants, two pairs of socks, slippers, two shirts, a sweatshirt, a sweater, and a gortex vest, and I’m still chilly, especially in my hands, which I have to rub and blow on pretty constantly, like Bob Cratchit. The heat comes on every couple minutes, producing images of cartoon dollar bills flying from my wallet. Our heating bills are going to put us into the poor house, which is probably even more poorly insulated. Or worse, we’ll be out on the street. My god.

I’m glad I’ve got a roof over my head during times like these.

Fantasy #1

But I wish I was in a place as warm and sunny as the one on this 1978 baseball card of George Brett. Of course, it’s hard to know for sure that it’s warm wherever Brett was when the picture was snapped, but it is inarguably sunny, and he is without a hat and doesn’t seem to be cringing against a stiff wind or wearing anything thicker than the thin blue polyester Royals uniform designed for the brutally hot Kansas City summers. I guess you could argue that some manner of wind is blowing Brett’s tousled golden locks, but I really think it must be more of a gentle spring breeze than a stiff chilly gust.

So that’s where I want to be. Bathed in sunlight. The sounds of the game echoing across the warm green fields. I think what I’d do is lean back and close my eyes and angle my face right up at the sun and just listen.

Reality #2

The worst cold snap I experienced occurred in Vermont in January 2000, the year I lived in a cabin with no electricity. I went to visit my aunt and uncle near the beginning of the cold snap, and couldn’t leave for a couple days during the worst of it because my car refused to start. Finally it coughed to life one morning when the temperature rose from instantly crippling cold to merely really, really cold, and I drove back to my cabin, first stopping at a K-Mart to buy thick opaque sheets of plastic to put up over my windows and another wool hat to add to the bulky collection on my head. When I got back to the cabin I discovered that everything I owned had frozen solid, including things that I didn’t know could freeze, such as toothpaste. I got a sputtering fire going in the little wood stove, using the shitty green wood that the owner of the cabin, a tense hippie with a reputation for fucking people over, had sold me, then I inexpertly plastered the plastic all over the windows using duct tape. I spent the remainder of the winter huddled over the wood stove, practically hugging it, because it never generated enough heat to warm up the whole cabin. I couldn’t really see anything through the plastic, but I had a vague idea of whether it was night or day, and I could tell by the wind rattling the birches and moaning through pines that it was cold out there, the kind of cold that would seem almost predatory if it weren’t so completely indifferent.

Fantasy #2

I was ostensibly working as a teacher during that era, but by January 2000 my course load as an adjunct professor had dissolved to next to nothing, my only task being the sporadic tutoring in essay writing of a Vietnam vet with severe post-traumatic stress disorder who eventually stopped showing up for our meetings. But I still went onto campus every couple of days to the office I shared with several other adjuncts so that I could check the progress of my fantasy basketball team. It gave at least the tiniest shred of a shape to a life that had become almost utterly shapeless.

I guess my life has more of a shape now, but I still start every day with a check of my fantasy team or teams. Right now all I’ve got going is a basketball squad in second-place in a thirteen-team league, but I think I did see some article just this morning on my way to check on my roster about B.J. Upton’s prospective slot in upcoming fantasy baseball drafts. I was excited by this, because this meant it is almost time for me to put together a pre-draft ranking list, which always proves to be an enjoyable way to kill some time.

I’m not really sure why I find such things enjoyable. I do know that ever since I was a boy I’ve tried to dream my way out of my life and into a fantasy life revolving around sports, especially baseball. In 1978, the year I first held this sun-drenched George Brett card in my hand, I was well into a childhood consumed with imaginary baseball-related games around the house, games in which I would become someone else, or actually whole worlds of someone elses. I’d be every player on both teams and the crowd and the announcers, too. At the moment of victory I’d pitch to my knees in the back yard holding a whiffle ball bat or tennis ball or whatever else I’d been using and imagine I was the victorious long-suffering star, finally basking in the warm light of winning, and I’d pretend to cry.

Reality #3

But the coldest I’ve ever been was not here in Chicago or in Vermont but one night while I was drifting randomly around Europe the year after I finished college. I had been in Essen, Germany, lazing around a youth hostel while I waited for the Grateful Dead to arrive in town for a concert. Unfortunately, the day before the concert I was told I had to leave the hostel because it had been reserved months before to house several teams of acrobatic teenagers from all around the globe coming to Essen to compete in an international youth trampolining contest. Evicted, I took a train to Cologne, arriving in the late afternoon. Both of the youth hostels I tried in Cologne were full. I guess I could have shelled out for a room in a hotel, but I don’t think I even considered that. I didn’t have much money, and more importantly I was obsessed with the idea that my money equaled time, as in the longer I could keep my little roll of bills alive the longer I could delay my return to the utter blank of my post-college life in America. So I went down to a park along the river with my backpack. Though it was November I didn’t think it was that cold, at least while the sun was still above the old-world steeple-marked skyline. I think I even imagined it might be peaceful. A night out under the stars! But as the night went on it got colder and colder. Pretty soon into it I had emptied my backpack of every last article of clothing I owned and wrapped it around my shivering body. I figured if I could fall asleep I could make the night go by faster, but I was never able to even so much as fall into a shallow ditch of unconsciousness for more than a couple minutes, at which point I’d wake up trembling and have to get up and do jumping jacks and wind-sprints. I also whooped and hollered, as if by using my voice I could somehow push back against a world that kept telling me I had to move.

Fantasy #3

If I had lived a certain kind of life maybe by now I would have enough money in the bank to get the hell out of town when it gets really fucking cold. Perhaps I could even go to Fantasy Camp. This is where middle-aged dudes pay a bundle to exit the winter and play baseball in the warm sun against each other and against some of the major leaguers who showed up on the baseball cards and in the fantasies of the campers back when they were basking in the summertime glow of youth.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m mocking such a thing, because, really, if I had money how better could I spend it than on such a thing as this? That’s the thing with these baseball cards I write about day in and day out. When I was a boy I fantasized about being a 24-year-old A.L. ALL STAR, a red, white, and blue shield on my card, the sun lighting my tousled golden locks, and now that I’m a middle-aged guy I fantasize about being a 24-year-old A.L. ALL STAR, a red, white, and blue shield on my card, the sun lighting my tousled golden locks. These cards are the unchanging fantasy at the center of the unraveling spiral of my years.

So, yeah, more power to the Fantasy Camps, which feed into perhaps the single most enduring fantasy of American men that doesn’t involve a cheap funk soundtrack and grateful moaning. I don’t know exactly when the first Fantasy Camp opened, but I feel like I first started hearing about them around the time I was gripping onto my little wood stove for dear life during the year in the cabin.

But in fact the first Fantasy Camp occurred several years earlier than that, in the sunny year of 1978, under the visionary leadership of none other than the late great Mr. Roarke. Turns out George Brett was on hand, along with fellow Cardboard Gods Fred Lynn, Tommy Lasorda, and Steve Garvey. Gary “Radar” Burghoff was there, too, on one of his last stops on his way out of the public eye and into the oblivion beyond Fantasy Island guests spots. As Mr. Roarke explains, Burghoff’s character is a guy named Richard Delaney who wants to be a baseball superstar. (Fittingly, at least from where I’m sitting, Richard Delaney has come to the warm, sun-drenched island of fantasies from that undoubtedly cold-as-fuck city of reality: Chicago, Illinois.) To get a peek at Delaney’s fantasy, which is really all our fantasies, or even just to take a break from the cold and see some sunshine and warmth and to hear Ricardo Montalban demonstrate his greatness by the way he recites the words “baseball superstar,” click here (thanks to Dodger Thoughts for the link).

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

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Frank White

December 8, 2008
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A long time ago I read an article about Frank White that had some information that has stuck with me. White described a time in his playing career when the stress of holding down a major league job began to overwhelm him. He was unable, during down time away from the park, to focus on any one thing. Instead, he would have a magazine open and the TV on and the radio blaring and a record spinning on the turntable, his attention like a hummingbird trapped in an electronics store, flitting from one barren babbling source to the next, never landing anywhere, instead only becoming more and more exhausted. I may be remembering the article incorrectly, but I think Frank White saw that earlier way of living as a time when he was bordering on mental illness. Unfortunately, I can’t recall how he pulled himself out of that habit, or even be a hundred percent sure that he was recalling the everything-all-at-once episodes from a remove or rather still trying to find a way out of them. All I know for sure is that Frank White was, as this 1980 baseball card reports, an All-Star. In my mind he was as constant a presence in that annual game as anyone from his era, and since he was not a magnetic superstar such as Pete Rose or Reggie Jackson there was something even more solid about his presence in the midsummer classic than other more well-known perennial all-stars. Superstars weren’t always super, year-in and year-out, instead rising and falling and rising in magnitude and magnificence, but Frank White was always Frank White, kind of in the background, no national commercial endorsements or magazine cover spreads, a constant presence in the exalted exhibition, his prominence or role never changing. I think the reason I still remember that article that described the way he unraveled into a powerless mess at the mercy of his in-home sources of entertainment is because I am still a little disturbed that the solidity of Frank White was a mirage. Everyone, even Frank White, is clinging to the ledge by their fingernails.
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Freddie Patek

November 19, 2008
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In 1971, Bobby Murcer hit .331 with a .427 on-base percentage. He was the most effective offensive performer in the league, evidenced by the statistical measure that best adjusts for league and park conditions, OPS+; Murcer posted a league-high 181 in that category. He also manned one of the game’s most important defensive positions, centerfield, and presumably did so at a level close to that which would earn him a Gold Glove the following season. Despite all these accomplishments, Murcer finished seventh in the MVP voting. The player directly in front of him in sixth place in the voting, Freddie Patek, hit .267 with a .323 on-base percentage and six home runs. Patek did play one of the only positions on the field arguably more important than centerfield, but he didn’t win a Gold Glove at that position in 1971 or in any other year. So how did voters determine that he was more valuable to his team than Bobby Murcer?

Well, I wasn’t old enough to be paying attention in 1971, but I do know that when I did get old enough to know who Freddie Patek was, I associated him with one thing, his size. More specifically, as a baseball fan I absorbed and reflected the prevailing attitude of faintly patronizing awe and admiration toward Freddie Patek. Little Freddie Patek! Not even tall enough to ride the carnival rides! But still out there bravely turning double plays with the likes of Don Baylor and Reggie Jackson hurling their hulking frames at the second base bag!

I’m travelling a well-beaten path blazed by Bill James here, but the key to understanding such things as the 1971 MVP voting that ranked Freddie Patek higher than Bobby Murcer is that baseball has levels of varying visibility, and just about everything Freddie Patek did well or even competently was abundantly visible and cause for celebration by the fans. He was a good bunter. He was a good base-stealer. He was a good fielder. All three of these things can be noticed from the cheap seats and cheered for. In a sense, the fans are cheering not only for the player who executed the play but in at least some small way cheering for themselves as knowledgeable, observant baseball fans; this element is at its height in the moment after a guy grounds out to second to move a runner to third. (A walk, on the other hand, can only be clapped for politely, at best, even though it is in almost all situations more valuable than a bunt and in most situations more valuable than a steal.)

And if the guy performing well on the visible level (which also includes the even more dubious or at least impossible to measure value of, for example “being fiery” or “being a good teammate”) is 5’4″ tall (as Freddie Patek is listed as being on the back of this 1978 card), then the applause will have an added spark to it. Call it happiness. I mean, let’s face it, it’s just fun to watch a little guy mix it up out there with the hulking behemoths. I know I certainly always liked Freddie Patek.

And now, similarly, I find myself drawn to Dustin Pedroia. (In fact, earlier this year I talked about him so much that my wife accused me of being in love with him.) I was thrilled when I heard yesterday that Pedroia had been awarded the A.L. MVP. As a Red Sox fan, I followed the team closely this year, and he certainly seemed to contribute a daily spark that the often injury- and controversy-beleaguered team would have been lost and joyless without. Beyond his excellence in the “visible” realm as a fiery double-smashing, base-stealing, dirty-uniformed little guy, he also had inarguably good offensive numbers, and impressed enough observers with his fielding to win a Gold Glove at a very important position.

But was he more valuable than his teammate Kevin Youkilis? It’s an interesting question, and one Tony Massoratti does a great job of exploring in today’s Boston Globe.

But I ain’t complaining. Pedroia’s a deserving winner, and I’m just glad a Red Sox player got the trophy. I would have been just as happy, if not moreso, if Youkilis had become the first Jewish A.L. MVP since Al Rosen. But today should be about congratulating the winner, so I think I’ll just wrap things up with something of a tribute to Pedroia (and Freddie Patek): my hastily thrown-together all-time small guy team, featuring a Hall of Famer at every position…

C: Yogi Berra, 5’7½”
1B: Buck Leonard, 5’10″
2B: Joe Morgan, 5’7″
SS: Phil Rizzuto, 5’6″
3B: Ray Dandridge, 5’7″
OF: Wee Willie Keeler, 5’4½”
OF: Kirby Puckett, 5’8″
OF: Hack Wilson, 5’6″
P: Bullet Joe Rogan, 5’7″

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

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Al Cowens

August 19, 2008
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Baseball was something of a caste system during the Cardboard God era. Here are the winners of the division races during those baseball-obsessed years of my childhood:
Year AL East AL West NL East NL West
1975 Red Sox A’s Pirates Reds
1976 Yankees Royals Phillies Reds
1977 Yankees Royals Phillies Dodgers
1978 Yankees Royals Phillies Dodgers
1979 Orioles Angels Pirates Reds
1980 Yankees Royals Phillies Astros

There’s a bit of variation, with four one-time division winners among the 24 possible division crowns, but for the most part the teams heading to the playoffs each year had been there before recently and/or would be there again soon. The years that were my most formative baseball years, 1976 through 1978, highlighted the overall static nature of the era, with only one team, the peaking dynastic Reds in 1976, marring the stranglehold on the divisions of the Phillies, Yankees, Royals, and Dodgers.

Those were the years, for me, that seemed to go on and on. Now the years go by like nothing. It seems to me now that back then each year was an immense expanse, and that the division winners had been the division winners forever and always would be. Because of my hatred for the Yankees this was wrenching to me in terms of the AL East. And judging by my enthusiastic embrace of upstart teams in the NL West (Astros) and NL East (Expos) in the latter stages of this era, I must have found the Phillies and Dodgers dominance stultifying. But I think there was on some level a kind of comfort in having the same teams win every year. I allowed myself to celebrate this comfort in my feelings for the Royals. The Royals could be counted on to kick ass and look cool doing it.

For some reason Al Cowens epitomizes this comforting aspect of my childhood. He was always there, a good player with no discernible weakness on a team loaded with good players with no discernible weaknesses. He could play good defense and fly around the bases and smack sizzling bases-clearing doubles. The entire Royal roster seemed to be like this. They came at teams like a powder blue electrical storm. I didn’t like them when they were beating my team, the Red Sox, but other than that I admired them and didn’t at all begrudge their stranglehold on the AL West.

In the most static years of the era, the playoffs reinforced the caste system feel, the Royals and Phillies always getting bounced. Finally, in 1980, the Royals and Phillies signaled the teetering of the caste system that would crumble in the coming decade by finally beating their respective torturers, the Yankees and Dodgers. But by then, Al Cowens had moved on from the Royals. I was somewhat stunned to find out just now that Cowens played more years in the majors away from the Royals than he had played with the Royals. To me he’ll always be a Royal, just as, strange as it may seem now, after years of franchise irrelevance, the Royals will always be for me a team of stylish, fleet, Cowensesque ass-kickers. The news that Cowens had drifted around for years and years for the Tigers, Angels, and Mariners was almost as jarring to me as the news that this symbol of one of the more stable aspects of my childhood passed away back in 2002. He was only 51.

The years are going by too fast.

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Doug Bird

June 19, 2008
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One of Allen Ginsberg’s more well-known poems is “A Supermarket in California,” in which he imagines himself side by side with Walt Whitman. “Where does your beard point tonight?” he asks his imaginary companion at one point. I also once wrote a poem about Walt Whitman, during college, and it was published in the campus newspaper, The Basement Medicine. That was during the one year I served as a benchwarmer on the college’s pathetic basketball team. The center on the team, a Laimbeer-shaped freshman named Sean, complimented me on the poem. I don’t know if it was then that I noticed he had pretty putrid breath, or maybe it was another time. A couple years later, I was in the stands when he was on the brink of scoring his thousandth point. I had a camera with me and when he scored his milestone bucket on a short jumper in the lane I caught it on film. I kept meaning to give the photo to him, as it was the only visual record of his feat, but I never got around to it. I still have the picture somewhere. I suppose I could try to Google him, but he has a common last name and would probably be pretty difficult to find. I was always grateful to him for his compliment about my Whitman poem, and also grateful to him for a pickup game that pitted the two of us and three other guys on the basketball team against five guys from the college’s championship soccer team. We were more skillful at basketball, having devoted much of our lives to playing it, but we were losers and the soccer guys were winners. I once overheard the athletic director, who was also the soccer coach, say as much one day around the time of the pickup game.”The basketball guys just don’t know how to win,” he boomed. He always boomed whatever he had to say. By contrast our coach, a disheveled English teacher, most often muttered. (Sometimes he whined.)

During the pickup game the soccer guys looked like they might be able to prove the athletic director’s point. I started to get flashbacks to similar semi-official demoralizing basketball contests from my youth. Twice the guys from the grade younger than my grade challenged us to a game, once when I was in 8th grade and once when I was in 10th grade, and both times they beat us. During a battle for a rebound in the grim late stages of the second game, my last contest before I went away to boarding school, my hand inadvertently landed on the face of their best big man and out of frustration I yanked down, throwing him to the ground. The varsity coach was watching from the risen stage behind the basket. He started screaming at me. Luckily the guy I threw down, who could have ripped me limb from limb if he’d wanted to, was one of those genial, slow-to-anger behemoths, and he just stared at me, stunned, as he got to his feet.

“Get out of the game, Wilker!” the varsity coach yelled. “Go cool down!” I went into the locker room and I think I cried a little. It was shameful to get beat by younger guys, especially since the beating was implicitly sanctioned by the varsity coach, who looked down on us with disgust. It made me feel like I was nothing.

So here we went again a few years later, the soccer champions matching us basket for basket even though basketball was just something they did once in a while when they weren’t winning soccer tournaments, raising championship banners, and having sex with all the prettiest coeds. But eventually we just started feeding our bad-breathed center the ball. Sean was considerably bigger than any of their players, and he had a nice turnaround jumper, which he hit several times in a row to give us a victory that, though it didn’t wipe the smirks off the soccer guys’ faces, at least spared us total humiliation.

Anyway, I guess that’s where Doug Bird’s beard is pointing today. I didn’t think that’s where it would lead but I’m like a saxaphone that’s been run over by a pickup truck. Everything comes out crooked, wheezing. I thought I would be able to capture my many feelings about the expression on Doug Bird’s face. His mirthful, somewhat unhinged expression and his unruly hair exploding from every available pore makes him look like one of the backwoods guys who used to sail past our house once a year in pickup trucks to get to the nearby Tunbridge Fair. They had girlie shows there in one of the tents that wasn’t being used for livestock displays, and though I never went I imagine the audience was full of guys who looked like Doug Bird, drunk, cackling, wearing jeans and red checkered hunting jackets and John Deere hats, stomping their dirty shitkickers on the sawdust to the rhythm of the music accompanying the disrobing dancers, the air laced with the rural carnival aromas of smoke and cotton candy and manure. I guess some people know how to win; the rest of us follow a more crooked path, taking our pleasures where we can.

“Yeehaw!” Doug Bird shouts, his beard pointed up at the show.

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Jim Colborn

April 21, 2008
  
What’s your story? This seems like something a woman might have said to me at some point in my life, a sort of rhetorical question intended to serve as a flat palm in my chest, pushing me away, backing me off. Why are you so weird? Why are you so desperate? God, why are you the way you are?

But I can’t really think of any instance where these actual words were said to me, except for once when the question was posed by a teammate on a hastily thrown together ultimate frisbee tournament team. We had gone from Brooklyn up to some fields on a military base in Massachusetts to play a bunch of games, and actually we ended up getting brutally annihilated in all of them, each loss worse than the one before it because we were short-handed, disorganized, and running ourselves into exhaustion. I had had misgivings about going to the tournament because I wasn’t in great shape and hadn’t been playing much ultimate for a while, and as it turned out I should have listened to those misgivings. I was the worst player on the team that weekend, and by the end of the first day I could barely move. I was lying on the bed in one of the hotel rooms we’d rented. For a while a bunch of guys were hanging out there, then I guess some of them went to get food. I was unable to move and stayed.

One other guy stayed, too, sitting in a chair by the television, and after chattering for a while he asked me the question.

“So what’s your story?” he said.

I didn’t understand. The question wasn’t asked in a hand-in-chest, “what’s your problem” kind of way, but sincerely, as if he wanted to know, so I thought he was inquiring curiously about my unusually aimless existence. (All of the guys on the team but me had professional careers of one sort or another.) I started muttering something, but before I could get many words out he blurted his own answer for me.

“Just hanging out, huh?” he said.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, not really sure what he meant by either the words themselves or the dismissive abruptness with which he’d said them.

He was an intense fellow. I remember once, during a pickup game in Prospect Park, some guy’s kite had plummeted from the sky and hit him in the head. He snatched up the kite and stormed toward its owner, and he probably would have jammed that classic symbol of peaceful lazy summer days down the kite owner’s throat had both teams not intervened to stop him. Anyway, he stomped in a similarly intense way from the “what’s your story” question to other matters, burying it, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized he was asking if I, like he, was gay.

The second day of the tournament went even worse than the first. At one point during one of our second-day defeats a teammate yelled at me for failing to run down a fluttering pass. I still have fantasies of feeding that guy to sharks or dropping a piano on him. He was a graduate of the hippie college Hampshire and knew how to fix the engine of his car and he didn’t even know me except to yell at me. Who the fuck are you to yell at me? I wanted to ask. I never did. I also thought, Who needs this? I was in my late twenties by then and certainly had no desire to be yelled at by anyone, especially able, resourceful, self-reliant Hampshire engine-fixing fucks. God how I hate that guy. Had we been somewhere where I could get home on my own I would have walked off the field right then, but quitting in that situation was problematic. I could have stormed off, but I would have had to come back and get a ride from one of the teammates I’d abandoned. So I stuck it out, feeling physically and mentally miserable.

At the end, I got a ride back to Brooklyn with the intense gay guy because he was leaving right away while the guys I’d ridden to the tournament with were staying to watch the tournament championship game. During the ride I found myself talking about girls a lot. Girls I’d dated, relationships I’d had. Girls, girls, girls! Did I mention girls? I sounded like an idiot, but I couldn’t help myself. By then I’d realized the nature of my teammate’s question the day before and I guess I wanted to convince him—and more importantly, myself—that I was, as the asinine saying goes, “all man.”

So that’s my story, or part of it anyway. I can’t tell you why I ended up digressing down that uncomfortable avenue, but the reason I’m pondering the question “what’s your story” is that I’ve been wondering lately about the essentials of my story. I’ve been trying to find the line through all these baseball cards. What’s the story here? How would I boil it down to what I guess they are calling these days an “elevator pitch”? Or is it, my life, my story, all just a big mess, just a box of unsorted cards?

I’ve really been trying to answer this question most of my life, and most of the time the answer comes out in a minor key, my story one of shadows and confusion and uncertainty and loss. But why can’t the story also have sunlight? I know it’s there. I know there have been times when I’ve felt it shining down.

Which leads me, finally, to the smiling, sun-drenched visage of Jim Colborn.

Colborn had been playing a while at the time of this card and had before now one season of what looked like unusual, inexplicable success, winning 20 games for a bad Milwaukee Brewers team. It must have come to seem to him as if that season had been an aberration, that he’d always play mediocre baseball for mediocre teams, but then he was traded to the Royals and chipped in 18 wins—one of them a no-hitter, the ultimate moment in the sun—for an outstanding team, a team that had everything: speed, some power, great defense, good pitching, all of it good for 102 wins for the Royals that sunny glorious summer.

It all ended abruptly soon after, the next season, with a midseason trade to the Mariners and beyond that nothing, no more major league games. Done! One minute you’re pitching no-hitters and smiling in the sun and the next minute you drop out of the record books. But why does the end always have to be the story? Why can’t the moment in the sun be the story?

Speaking of endings, that ultimate frisbee tournament was the last organized sporting event I ever took part in. It was a bad way to go out: The worst player on a terrible team, by the end my body so beaten I couldn’t even move to catch a throw even a few feet away and got yelled at by a prick. That haunted me for a while, the fact that I went out a loser, but by now enough time has passed that I can sort it into its place. Just because it was the last time doesn’t mean it has to be the whole story. There were other, better days.

I even caught the tourney-winning pass once. It was the lesser “B” division wing of a minor tournament in a sport few take seriously, but by god we still won when I snatched that disc out of the air in the end zone for the clincher. My teammates even sort of swarmed me for a couple seconds. It was the second and last time I’d ever been surrounded by teammates, the first since years earlier, in little league, when I’d somehow driven a ball just barely over the left-field fence, the greatest memory of my childhood. The game-winning catch wasn’t on the same level as the little league home run, but it was still pretty good. I held onto that frisbee for quite a while, long after the ragged victory scrum had dissipated, even after most of my teammates had started the long walk across the fields to the parking lot.

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(Love versus Hate update: Jim Colborn’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest. It’s a sunny moment for love!)

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Jim Wohlford

April 2, 2008
 

If Jim Wohlford’s itinerant 15-year, 4-team career was a series of romantic relationships, the first of these affairs, with the Kansas City Royals, was The One. He met the Royals while still practically a kid, full of promise, and they’d grown up together. According to the back of this card, the California-born Jim Wohlford had even relocated to Kansas City permanently. Likewise, a profession of love and devotion had been made to him by the trade of fellow young suitor Lou Piniella so that he, Jim Wohlford, could claim left field for his own.

But he did not flourish under the strains of this commitment, and had he been paying close attention he could have noticed that the club, blooming from youthful prettiness to mature division-winning beauty, was growing distant, benching him more and more against righties, beginning to rely on him only occasionally, maybe to pinch-run for John Mayberry, maybe to pinch-hit against Tom Burgmeier. Finally, perhaps just before the photo for this 1977 card was snapped, the Royals, looking better than ever, looking stunningly good, walked up to Jim Wohlford and told him, “Jim Wohlford, sit down. We have to talk.”

From then on, if this card is any guide, Jim Wohlford led the league in forlornness, loosing demoralizing sighs as he drifted from one doomed, lackluster relationship to another, his unreliable bat on his shoulder like a hobo’s bindle. He tried first to salve the pain of being dumped by the Royals by consorting for a while with a young ripening barroom beauty, the Brewers, before leaving the Brewers just as the club was on the brink of blooming into boozy glory. Maybe any sweet days with the Brewers just reminded him of the Royals, and so were more pain than pleasure, which would explain the embrace, via free agency, by Jim Wohlford of a rainy, joyless three-year numbness with the San Francisco Giants, who eventually jettisoned him for someone named Chris Smith, a name so generic as to suggest the fictional. Last came the sad lingering rendezvous with the fallen foreign-accented former bombshell, the mid-1980s Montreal Expos, who returned Jim Wohlford’s forlorn muttering with cognac-addled rants about Mike Schmidt and Rick Monday and secession. That ended too, of course, as all things will, not long after Jim Wohlford watched from afar in 1985 as the only royal blue heaven he’d ever known won it all without him.

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Marty Pattin

January 4, 2008
 

 
I’ve never really been from anywhere. I was born in New Jersey, but my family moved out of there before I’d forged any significant connection to that place. In central Vermont, where I spent most of my childhood, people who weren’t born in Vermont, especially ones with long hair and foreign cars cluttering their driveway and half-Jew kids in hippie school and no freshly shot venison clogging their meat freezers, were considered outsiders, flatlanders. Later, I lived in New York City for a long time as a young man, where I felt sort of like a goy from Vermont, and drifted back to Vermont for a couple years, where I felt sort of like a Jew from New York. Now I live in Chicago, where I don’t really feel like I’m from anywhere except somewhere else. 

Marty Pattin, on the other hand, was one of the guys whose “Born” town was the same as his “Home” town on the back of his card, in his case a place called Charleston, Illinois. I always noticed the same-Born-and-Home guys and considered them more solid than me, more rooted. I always imagined the houses they’d lived in their whole lives had white pillars in front and a tire swing hanging from an old oak in back.

But by the time of this card Marty Pattin had been drifting around the American League for nine years, from Anaheim to Seattle to Milwaukee to Boston to Kansas City. If you trace these places on a map you will make something that looks a bit like the outermost curl of a spiral. Southwest, Northwest, upper Midwest, Northeast, lower Midwest. The only thing left to do to make the curl a complete spiral is to give it a center, and the center point, one would imagine, would be slightly north and slightly east of its most recent stop of Kansas City. In other words: Charleston, Illinois.

I don’t know if Marty Pattin is actually on the brink of spiraling home in this photo. I could look it up of course, but sometimes I like to rely only on these cards and my memory. The card says he is 33 years old and that he has just gone 8 and 14 for the 1976 Royals. The memory says the 1976 Royals were really good, maybe too good to retain a 33-year-old 8 and 14 pitcher for too much longer. The memory is unclear on whether Marty Pattin endured throughout the Royals’ impressive run of division titles or conversely whether he vanished. He kind of morphs into Mark Littel a little in memory, a long reliever type far from the frontline status of Gura, Splitorff, and Leonard.

The card also presents a photographic portrait of Marty Pattin, of course. He is enacting the familiar still-life-of-pitcher pose, which makes him look like a weary, aging mouthbreather bending down to reach for a doorknob. I wonder what’s behind that door.

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Clint Hurdle

October 23, 2007
 

 
If the Red Sox had won their one-game divisional playoff with the New York Yankees in 1978, there’s certainly no guarantee that they would have beaten the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship series. They had a better record than the Royals that year, but the fleet Royals often seemed to give the Red Sox fits, especially on the artificial turf in Kansas City. In 1978, the Red Sox won three of their first four games against the Royals, but the Royals struck back to batter the Red Sox in five of their last six meetings. The turning point in the season series between the two teams came in late July when Royals rookie Clint Hurdle drove in six runs in a dominating 9-0 beating of the Red Sox. Though Hurdle didn’t have a chance to inflict further damage on the Red Sox in the playoffs, he provided evidence that he may well have done so by hitting .375 in the Royals’ four-game loss to the pitching-rich Yankees. Two years later, Hurdle again performed admirably in a postseason defeat by hitting .417 in the Royals’ six-game loss in the World Series to the Phillies. By the time Kansas City finally broke through and won a World Series in 1985, Hurdle was still only 27 years old, but he was already two teams removed from the Royals, a fading journeyman who had been expected to be a superstar. He played in a few games that year for the up-and-coming Mets, who barely lost out in the divisional race to the St. Louis Cardinals. After that season he was drafted by the Cardinals in the 1985 rule 5 draft, which caused him to miss out on the Mets’ 1986 World Series campaign, then he signed back on with the Mets as a free agent just in time to watch the Cardinals leapfrog the Mets in the standings and win the 1987 pennant. At that point Hurdle called it a career, his 32 career homers and .259 lifetime batting average far short of the numbers predicted by the many pundits who upon his major league debut pegged Hurdle as the next Mickey Mantle.

I haven’t yet quite figured out how to deal with disappointment. Though I can’t really complain (I’m relatively healthy and have people to love, plus the team I routinely disappear into has made it to the World Series, so like any junkie in possession of good shit I really don’t care about anything else right now), I’d have to say my adult life has been characterized by some disappointment. Certainly no one ever thought I was going to be the next Mickey Mantle of anything, and on one level I didn’t ever really believe I’d amount to much either, but in the daydreamy realm where I have spent much of my life I believed that at some point I’d be writing and publishing novels, that I’d find a way to give back to the world the kinds of books that have kept me going as I stumble and nap and cringe through the days and weeks and years. It’s disappointing to me that this hasn’t happened, and I’m not that young anymore, definitely not young enough to ever be considered promising, so some days I wonder if I’m just swinging at pitches I can’t possibly hit. Clint Hurdle, like all athletes, must have come to a point in his career when he asked himself this question. It must have been a difficult question, especially for someone who was supposed to have creamed those pitches but who except for a few sweet days never did.

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George Brett

May 28, 2007
 

I Need You

Chapter Three

I.
Who is the greatest third baseman in baseball history?

Here are the candidates, as I see it:

Pie Traynor

You don’t hear his name mentioned in the third baseman debate anymore, but when I was a kid in the 1970s Pie Traynor was the one most frequently mentioned in the baseball history books I was constantly checking out of the library. According to Bill James, “the idea that Traynor was the greatest third baseman of all time originated in the mid-1950s, about 20 years after Traynor retired.” I wonder how much James himself had to do with Traynor falling out of that top spot. In James’ Historical Abstract, Traynor is ranked 15th, below several guys who have, unlike Traynor, not made the Hall of Fame (such as Al Rosen, Ken Boyer, Sal Bando, Graig Nettles, and Darrell Evans). And in general, of course, James has led the revolution in statistical analysis that has revealed the once almighty hitting statistic, batting average, to be a frequently misleading representation of a player’s offensive worth. Traynor’s .320 lifetime average, which seemed at one time to cast him as the Rogers Hornsby of the hot corner, has gradually been downgraded in light of the facts that A) it came in an era when batting averages were at their historical peak (most famously illustrated by the 1930 season, when the entire National League hit over .300), and B) it was not augmented by a particularly high secondary average, meaning that he neither drew many walks nor hit for a lot of power. Still, part of the fun of imagining a team of all-time greats is envisioning a bunch of grizzled hard-bitten old-timers kind of emerge from the mist to retake the field on more time with their spikes sharp to gash guys with. In that respect, it’s hard to vote against a guy named Pie Traynor.

Eddie Mathews

“I’ve only known three or four perfect swings in my time. This lad has one of them.” – Ty Cobb on Eddie Mathews

The implication on the BR Bullpen profile of Pie Traynor is that Eddie Mathews is the player who bumped Traynor out of the top spot: “Pie Traynor was widely considered the top third baseman in the history of baseball prior to the time when Eddie Mathews became a star.” If this was the case, I feel that I would have seen it reflected in all the books I took out of the library in the 1970s, but I don’t ever remember any book ranking Mathews as the top third baseman. And when Traynor finally did lose his top spot, which I would guess occurred sometime in the late 1970s, it wasn’t to Mathews but to the next man down on this list. So Mathews, at least as far as I know, never really got a chance to be the top guy at the hot corner, and that’s too bad, because from what I’ve read he was a decent fielder and was without question one of the greatest power hitters ever at any position. When thinking about devising the greatest lineup of all-time, it’s certainly tempting to fill the third baseman’s spot with a left-handed slugger who for the bulk of his career, until his body started to give out, seemed the best bet among all active players (including Mathews’ teammate, a guy named Hank Aaron) to break Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record. Maybe Aaron’s gradual ascendancy to superstardom helped cast Mathews into the shadows. Maybe he also lacked a moment when the whole baseball world centered around a display of his prodigious skills at their peak. He played in two World Series early in his career and was a pinch-hitter in another one late in his last season, with Detroit, but only managed one home run and ten hits in 50 World Series at bats. I mention this only by way of a possible explanation of his being somewhat overlooked in the greatest third baseman debate. Maybe what he needed was to have taken over a World Series, as the next guy on this list once did.

Brooks Robinson 

Robinson persisted on some Greatest Team of All-Time lists even after his lifetime numbers began to look a little meager in comparison to two third baseman who came into the majors just as he was winding up his long career with the Orioles. That was probably due in large part to the general discrimination against the present moment in such list-making. When baseball fans dream up these lists, part of the fun is the dreaming, and a guy who is still out there grounding into double plays and offering up drab cliches to the beat reporters just does not encourage dreaming like some legendary figure from the past. And as the years went by Robinson’s unmatched prowess as a fielder, highlighted by his dominant, electrifying play in the 1970 World Series, seemed to find especially fertile soil in the dreaming minds of nostalgic baseball fans. Though Robinson’s fine offensive numbers don’t match up to those of the other top choices for the all-time third baseman, I think some list-makers still want to rank him first because A) they value fielding above offense at that position and B) there’s just something unutterably cool about the kind of dazzling fielding plays Robinson could make. I actually can only vouch for myself on that second point, for though I personally don’t have Robinson pencilled in as my all-time third baseman, I do bring the same thinking to my choice for shortstop: you can have Honus or Ripken or A[pril]-Rod, I’m taking the Wizard of Oz.

Judy Johnson and Ray Dandridge

Speaking of my all-time team . . . I have one player from the Negro Leagues among the starters on my 25-man roster (Satchel Paige is in the starting rotation, but I’m leaning toward Lefty Grove as my opening day starter): Josh Gibson, catcher. As for third base, Judy Johnson and Ray Dandridge were for many years (up until 2006, when Jud Wilson joined them) the only two Negro League third basemen in the Hall of Fame. I honestly don’t know that much about them, but it appears that though they were both stellar players (Johnson a high-batting-average man from the Pie Traynor era and Dandridge considered one of the best fielders ever to play the position) they seem not to have been as dominant as Gibson was at his position in his day, nor as dominant as the two third basemen below were during their day. Still, as the best third basemen in Negro League history, they certainly deserve to be in the conversation about the best third basemen ever.

Mike Schmidt  and George Brett

Over the last few years, one of the above men seems to have gained an edge over the other in most people’s minds as the best third baseman ever. It’s hard to argue with this general consensus. After all, leading the charge to crown Mike Schmidt the king of all third sackers is Bill James himself, who as a devoted Kansas City Royals fan probably spent as much time studying the play of Schmidt’s chief rival, George Brett, as anyone. Other observers have followed James’ lead, citing Schmidt’s superior power (548 lifetime home runs to Brett’s 317), on-base percentage (.380 to Brett’s .369), fielding (ten Gold Glove awards to Brett’s one), and number of MVP awards (three to Brett’s one). In his excellent book Clearing the Bases, Allen Berra provides ample evidence to back up his suggestion that one could make a case for Mike Schmidt as not only the best in history at his position, but the best player at any position, ever.

Who am I to argue with these experts? Well, nobody, obviously, except a guy who has spent, or I guess wasted might be a more accurate term, many, many hours daydreaming about such things. As the sands in the hourglass of life have trickled away I’ve imagined again and again choosing up sides against some other all-time team daydreamer. And when it comes time to pick a third baseman I’ve always imagined selecting the guy I’d most want to have up at bat for my team in a big spot with the game on the line. I’m not saying it’s the right call, but whenever I’ve imagined being the GM of baseball eternity I’ve always chosen George Brett to be my third baseman. 

II.
Brett, it should be noted, has fantastic lifetime numbers, better than anyone on the above list save for Schmidt. He could hit for average, for power; he was a good fielder and an excellent baserunner. There’s really nothing he couldn’t do. Unfortunately for my argument, all of the above could be said of Schmidt, except perhaps regarding his ability to produce high numbers in the batting average statistic, which, as mentioned above, has been shown to be of increasingly negligible worth on its own.

But there is one key lifetime stat in which George Brett thoroughly bested Mike Schmidt (by a two to one ratio):

Times kissed by Morganna the Kissing Bandit.

Morganna the Kissing Bandit was a significant part of what made my childhood years the greatest and most ridiculous era in the history of the planet. She was this giant-breasted blonde who vaulted the fence and ran across the field in the middle of games, her increasingly famous chest cha-chonging wildly, to plant kisses on the faces of star players such as Pete Rose, Nolan Ryan, and Freddy Lynn. George Brett, as far as I can figure, was the only man to have his work interrupted twice by the affectionate interloper, one of these occasions serving as Morganna’s most ballyhooed feat: invading the 1979 All-Star game (which Brett seemed to take in stride, his unflappable nature surely another mark in his favor in the debate of the greatest third basemen).

Morganna had enormous breasts. I know I’ve already made this point but it bears repeating. Her measurements were 60-23-39. 60! Now let me also remind you that her heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s coincided exactly with my transformation from a talkative baseball-crazy Ogilvie-esque child to a sullen, inward, reedy-voiced contender for World’s Most Prolific Onanist. I’m not saying she featured heavily in my fantasies. Considering the fact that I could name 50 other women off the top of my head ranking ahead of her on my “most thought-about” list (Cheryl Tiegs in the see-through fishnet bathing suit at the top of that list, always and forever, Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, the oft-mentioned WKRP ladies, 75% of the girls in my grade, etc.), I actually doubt that I ever fantasized about, you know, getting Morganna into one of my town’s magical shirtlessness-inspiring gravel pits that I mentioned earlier in this multipart puberty-alogue. And yet, in a certain way she epitomized a key element of my entire unsavory fantasy life: the idea that somehow all these women would run right at me and smother me with their giant-breasted affections without my having to do anything. The ache of puberty for me was the feeling that I existed at an impossible remove from any deshirting, and my fantasies were as much about imagining the erasure of this infinite gap as they were about the brief guilt-laced physical euphoria they helped bring about. The image of Morganna galloping across a baseball field, of all places, to benevolently suffocate a player with her exploding sexuality served me as a sturdy concrete foundation for a whole mansion of impossible fantasies of being swept away by a tidal wave of voluptuous sex-crazed femininity.

The passivity imbedded in these fantasies has often characterized my fantasy life, if not my life itself. For example, when not up in my bedroom imagining some steamy gravel pit scenario I was often playing basketball by myself in the driveway, fantasizing that for some reason Dr. J would be riding by in a limousine, and fascinated by my jump shot form would command his driver to stop, and I would then be whisked away from rural Vermont to NBA stardom. I wish I could say I’ve left these fantasies of passivity and undeserved deliverance far in the past, but the fact is I still sit around eating chocolate chip cookies and wishing a Publisher of Great Books would kick down my door and tell me that, as it turns out, all my creepy egomaniacal and self-lacerating notebook scribblings comprise in their entirity a work of undying and highly sellable genius.

Get up, young man, this enthusiastic invader will say, you are necessary.

Get up, get up! You are needed!

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Hal McRae

April 22, 2007
 

  
Happy

Chapter 2

After the first time I got busted at boarding school, for stumbling around plastered on rum at a school dance, I was put on probation and forced to attend a weekend encounter group with other students who had run afoul of the section of the campus code of conduct pertaining to drugs and alcohol. The group was run by the campus counselor, whose purpose, I suppose, was to try to get us to understand why we were engaging in behavior that had led us to the group.

We did some “drug-free” stress reducing exercises such as lying on the rug of the classroom with the lights out and tensing and untensing various parts of our bodies while imagining ourselves lying by some quiet generic placid lake with strong zoning against jet-skis and whatnot. When that was over we got up and sat in the metal and formica chairdesks of the classroom, which happened to be the same classroom in which I was failing American History, and the counselor tried to get us to talk about our feelings especially vis a vis getting drunk or high. I participated far less than any other student, having none of the polished insights that the other students were able to flawlessly unleash like country-club-taught tennis court backhands. In that way it just seemed an extension of all other public life at that school: the other students there all seemed more sophisticated, mature, and intellectually advanced than me.

The one insight I still recall from that weekend encounter group was from this bleary-eyed red-headed kid who saw part of the allure of smoking bong hits as deriving from its ritualized aspects. Smoking pot at boarding school certainly was ritualized, much more so than in any other pot-smoking context I’ve been in since: You get the lights in the room just right. You put on the right record. You roll up a towel and put it in the crack between the door and the floor. You remove the bong from its hiding place in the closet. You roll up another towel to use as your “hit towel.” You pack a hit in the bowl of the bong. You remove from the top of the bong the odor-trapping device known in the typical homoerotic slang of the school as the “dick” (some “dicks” were fashioned out of big wads of masking tape; others were simply objects that happened to be the perfect size to stop up the head of the bong, such as the upside down—and depantsed—Mr. T doll we used in our bong). You light the bowl. You take the hit. You hold it. (Here’s where things usually start to go wrong. Guys start coughing or guys bust out laughing. The room fills with incriminating smoke amid accusations and, because everyone’s getting stoned, hilarity. This is known as “blowing” the hit.) If you are able to hold the hit without “blowing” it, you exhale into the hit towel, leaving a brown marijuana kiss on the fabric.

I see all this now but at the time of the drug-free weekend I had never once thought of it that way. The red-headed kid used as an illustrative metaphor for his theory the ritual of eating a piece of Bazooka Joe. A big part of the fun of eating a piece of Bazooka Joe, he explained, is the ritualistic unwrapping of the gum and the reading of the comic and the fortune. In that sense I had been exhibiting the behavior that would lead me to the encounter group for years and years, ever since participating chronically in the ritual of opening baseball cards: You buy the cards and before opening the pack you carry the pack home, feeling the bump of gum inside and the stack of brand new cards, that moment of wide open possibilities in some ways the best moment of all. Once you are in the perfect place for unveiling the new pack, you slide your forefinger under the lightly glued flaps, opening them, releasing the gum scent into the room. I always blurred my vision at this point, not wanting to know the identity of the first card visible below the flap. That card was always face down, and I had it in my head that the first card I learn the identity of should be face-up. As I flipped the stack of cards the plastic wrapper fell away and I slipped the stick of hard gum in my mouth and broke it up and chewed, releasing the sugar just as I began to look to see which Cardboard Gods were a new glowing part of my own little solitary world.

But even when the red-headed kid had presented his theory I had partially disagreed with him for what I intuitively felt was missing from the theory. I didn’t actually voice any disagreement, and wasn’t even able to put the disagreement into words in my own mind. I think, at the time, my first thought was: “That’s it? That’s all getting high is? Chewing Bazooka Joe?”

Basically, the pale red-headed kid had offered a perceptive but completely joyless explanation. To me, getting drunk and getting high were huge. I mean they were these experiences that dwarfed the everyday happenings that made me feel small and useless. They were openings into whole other worlds. His theory left out that feeling, and more than that left out the fact that when we got high we laughed so hard tears rolled down our cheeks. If he’d been talking about the ritual of opening packs of baseball cards, he would have described the process as I did above, and he would have stopped there, leaving out a description of the revelations and visitations the ritual led to. He would have left out, for example, the feeling of finding this beamingly happy 1976 Hal McRae card in a brand new pack. This is why I bought cards. This is why I smoked pot and drank alcohol with my friends at boarding school. It made me happy. It threw open the shutters. It let in the sunlight.

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U.L. Washington

February 8, 2007

At the time Ozzie Smith and Garry Templeton were exchanging teams and destinies, I was probably more aware of a third young speedy promising African American switch-hitting shortstop, U.L. Washington. This idiosyncratic focus stems partly from the fact that I didn’t know as much about the National League in general, especially the teams (besides the Joe Torre Mets) that never got into the playoffs, such as the Cardinals and Padres. By the same token (whatever that means), I knew U.L. Washington in part because his team practically lived in the playoffs, but also because his name was U.L. Washington and U.L. stood for U.L. Of course, the main reason U.L. Washington had imprinted his name and image on my adolescent mind was that U.L. Washington played every inning while chewing on a toothpick.

A major leaguer playing baseball with a toothpick in his mouth is just the kind of thing that fascinates a child. At least this child. And since I was edging my way out of childhood when he came along, U.L. Washington seemed something like a parting gift from the Cardboard Gods to me, the last miniature Krackle bar at the last house the last time trick-or-treating. Fittingly enough, I took my last candy-gathering round as a 12-year-old wearing the laziest of all costumes, a sheet with eyeholes, in 1980, just a couple weeks after watching U.L. Washington gnaw on his toothpick while playing in the World Series. I liked him instantly and rooted for him and, like thousands of other American boys, I walked around with a toothpick in my mouth for a little while.
Unlike his two young speedy promising African American switch-hitting shortstop National League counterparts, U.L. Washington was not traded in his early years. I’m not sure who he could have been traded for, since there weren’t any other young speedy promising African American switch-hitting shortstops in the American League. Maybe the Royals could have worked out a deal with the Toronto Blue Jays for switch-hitting shortstop Alfredo Griffin (who was not African American but who was a young switch-hitting shortstop and who more importantly would have enabled the Kansas City newspaper to print the headline “Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Griffin!”) with weak-hitting Danny Ainge as a throw-in who would in turn bring them speedy African American Terry Duerod from the Celtics. When, four years after the Ozzie Smith-Garry Templeton trade, U.L. Washington finally did make his debut on the transaction page, he was swapped for a 27-year-old pitcher, Mike Kinnunen, whose sole brief and ineffective stint in the majors to that point had occurred back when Garry Templeton was still an All-Star for the Cardinals. U.L. Washington was in decline by then, but even so, the question must be asked: Mike Kinnunen? It seems an unnecessarily cruel mirror to hold up to the fading toothpick-gnawing infielder who’d brought so much joy to the youth of America. The Royals, who never once made use of Mike Kinnunen nor ever made it back to the playoffs after parting with U.L. Washington, should be ashamed of themselves, but not as ashamed as the Topps baseball card company should be for this blatantly toothpickless photo. It’s like depicting Paul Bunyan without an axe.
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Dan Quisenberry

January 12, 2007

“He didn’t look like a professional athlete, and didn’t carry himself like one. He was kind of wide-eyed every day about everything. He was always surprised, maybe even amused, by his success. He didn’t think he was that good.” — Paul Splitorff, teammate of Dan Quisenberry (from an article by Heather Henderson)

“I have seen the future, and it is like the present, only longer.”
— Dan Quisenberry

In the last full year of my baseball card collecting, 1980, Topps featured a series of cards touting “Future Stars.” There was one card for each team, three players per card, seventy-eight can’t-miss talents in all. I don’t have all the cards in that one-year-only series, but I’m pretty sure that seventy-seven of the seventy-eight can’t-misses missed. Here is the sole “Future Stars” card that I know of that didn’t turn out to be wildly inaccurate. Whoever it was at Topps who was taking perverse pleasure listing guys such as Ted Wilborn, Dave Geisel, and Joel Finch as Future Stars probably believed that a 27-year-old soft-tossing sidearmer with a name seemingly immune to sporting renown could not possibly endanger the thudding irony of the series. But to paraphrase the great Dan Quisenberry, Dan Quisenberry found a delivery in their flaw. I’m sure that if at the time I got this card I had had to guess the one real star to emerge from among all the Future Stars, I wouldn’t have guessed Dan Quisenberry. Even after Quisenberry began grabbing headlines, winning pennants, and breaking records, I had trouble believing in his existence. I was moving away from my pure, single-minded love of baseball, moving away from childhood itself, becoming less wide-eyed about everything, becoming less like Dan Quisenberry, so I guess it’s no wonder I had trouble believing he existed. And now, even though it’s been almost a decade since his death, I still can’t believe he’s gone. Anyway, here’s the Quiz himself, who published a book of poems just before passing away from cancer in 1998. . . .

BASEBALL CARDS
By Dan Quisenberry

that first baseball card I saw myself
in a triage of rookies
atop the bodies
that made the hill
we played king of
I am the older one
the one on the right
game-face sincere
long red hair unkempt
a symbol of the ’70s
somehow a sign of manhood
you don’t see
how my knees shook on my debut
or my desperation to make it

the second one I look boyish with a gap-toothed smile
the smile of a guy who has it his way
expects it
I rode the wave’s crest
of pennant and trophies
I sat relaxed with one thought
“I can do this”
you don’t see
me stay up till two reining in nerves
or post-game hands that shook involuntarily

glory years catch action shots
arm whips and body contortions
a human catapult
the backs of those cards
cite numbers
that tell stories of saves, wins, flags, records
handshakes, butt slaps, celebration mobs
you can’t see
the cost of winning
lines on my forehead under the hat
trench line between my eyes
you don’t see my wife, daughter and son left behind

the last few cards
I do not smile
I grim-face the camera
tight lipped
no more forced poses to win fans
eyes squint
scanning distance
crow’s-feet turn into eagle’s claws
you don’t see
the quiver in my heart
knowledge that it is over
just playing out the end

I look back
at who I thought I was
or used to be
now, trying to be funny
I tell folks
I used to be famous
I used to be good
they say
we thought you were bigger
I say
I was

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Willie Wilson

October 26, 2006

In this 1980 card, Willie Wilson demonstrates that it’s possible to look fast even when standing still. Wilson epitomized the great Royals teams of the late ’70s to mid-’80s, even though he only became a regular in 1979, after the Royals had already taken three divisional titles. He did help them win the last of those three titles as a 23-year-old bench player unleashed in close games to unnerve the opposition with his alarming speed. The first time I became aware of him was while listening to a game at my aunt and uncle’s that year.

The Red Sox had been mutilating everyone in their path, but as usual they seemed to be having trouble on the fast artificial turf in Kansas City. While the Sox always tried and failed to muscle home runs out of the sparkling, spacious facility, the Royals bunted for hits, executed double steals with swat-team precision, and slapped clutch triples into the gaps. Even before Wilson’s arrival, the Red Sox’ attempts to subdue the Royals often resembled a weary gorilla throwing uppercuts at a battalion of malarial gnats. And in that game in 1978, maybe because I was listening to it and not watching it, radio allowing for the wider horizons of folklore, Wilson seemed not so much a promising prospect as a perfect essence of Royalness, the sum of the happiest baseball dreams of Freddy Patek and Amos Otis and Hal McRae.

He entered the game as pinch-runner when the outcome was still in doubt. The announcers, Ned Martin and Jim Woods, instantly began speaking of him in almost hushed tones, and Wilson obliged their fearful and laudatory testimonials by stealing second, sprinting to third on a groundout, and flying home on a popup to shallow center by The Next Mickey Mantle, Clint Hurdle. Not incidentally, in retracing the details of this 7/21/78 Red Sox-Royals game at retrosheet.com, I was surprised to discover that Clint Hurdle had what may well have been his first, last, and only great day in the major leagues, knocking in six runs against an eventual 99-game-winning team. I have absolutely no memory of Clint Hurdle in this game, perhaps because he fades into his customary inconsequentiality next to Wilson, who seemed that day almost like a superhero, especially with his alliterative first and last names that recalled other superhero alter egos such as Peter Parker, Clark Kent, Bruce Banner, and Reed Richards. Willie Wilson. A lightning bolt in white and blue.

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Dick Pole and Peter LaCock

October 15, 2006



The single reason these two are yoked in the minds of many baseball fans is because they were exactly the same height (6’3″) and weight (210 pounds). Though they each played in the American League throughout the 1977 and 1978 seasons, the sole instance in which they enacted the pitcher-batter swordfight was in the first inning of a game on May 28, 1978, between Dick Pole’s Seattle Mariners and Peter LaCock’s Kansas City Royals. The Seattle manager, whose name happened to be Johnson, yanked his Pole after Dick was abused for 4 hits and 5 runs in only 1 inning of work. The game was essentially decided by the time LaCock finally got his chance to further beat the spent Dick, but, for the record, the shriveled Pole teased LaCock into lining flaccidly to left.