Archive for the ‘Los Angeles Dodgers’ Category


Tim Crews

January 29, 2018

Tim Crews

Someone broke into our car last night. We didn’t realize it until my wife got a phone call from a stranger who said he found an emissions test receipt with our name on it on the sidewalk several blocks away. He said he was coming by our neighborhood and dropped it off. We looked at it on the counter, baffled at how the receipt could have wound up where it did, and then Abby went out to the car and found that the glove compartment had been emptied. A cellphone holder, a charger, and cord that allowed me to play music from my phone through the car stereo had also been taken. A box of tissues had been taken. The hood had been popped.

I started writing about this Tim Crews card a week and a half ago, when all the people I love the most were still alive. I didn’t know exactly what I’d write, but knowing the story of Tim Crews I’d knew I’d probably cook up something about what gets taken, about what disappears, about how there’s this world and then there’s the invisible world, the one you can’t see and that everything comes from and is taken back into. You can’t do anything about it.

A couple days ago, Saturday, six days after my father died, I put on some borrowed hip-waders and lurched around behind my big brother in a river. He tried to teach me how to cast a fly-fishing line out into the water. We didn’t stay out for long, having to get back to our mom’s house for the last night of our improvised half-Jew version of sitting shiva. Right near the end, Ian caught a fish, a brown trout. It took him a while to get the hook out. When he finally did and placed the fish in the water it disappeared instantly.

“He vanished,” I said.

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

I kept scanning the river, but he was gone.


Ron Cey

October 20, 2016


California Sun


While I was attempting to write something poetic about the California sun, my elderly cat here in Chicago made a strangulated sound nearby. I got up from my desk and discovered that he’d just taken a shit on the carpet, actually our new carpet, which we recently had installed at notable expense to replace the old one, which had incurred sewage damage from a broken ejector pump. I rushed to pick my cat up and move him to his litter box around the corner—why I did this I don’t know; the shit was already out of the cat, to coin a phrase—and he started puking. I cleaned up all his excretions as best I could, wondering what the hell we were going to do with this cat, this carpet, this unending series of costs and disappointments and defilements and declines, and then I sat back down here at my desk to try to write about the California sun again.

O California sun!

Is this the California sun reflecting off of Ron Cey’s helmet? Could be stadium lights, I guess, but what good are facts when you’re trying to channel your lifelong longing and dissatisfaction through a baseball card? Anyway I think of him in the context of the California sun (though he too eventually found himself in Chicago). I’m blinded by, bathed in, swept away by, and finally cast out of the California sun once every few years.

It all began with Ron Cey.

There he was one day, on This Week in Baseball, in April 1977, as freezing rain came down outside my window in Vermont. I was locked inside, my favorite thing, baseball, impossible, but there on the television was Ron Cey racking up a record-breaking barrage of home runs and RBI to lead the Dodgers to an astounding start, catapulting them to another apparent impossibility: dethroning the Big Red Machine. Pellets of ice drilled the windows of my house as Ron Cey blasted home runs and waddled around the bases and beamed as he reached and then stomped home plate and then disappeared into a roiling jumble of teammates also beaming with wide white smiles and crisp white uniforms. Ron Cey was somewhere else, somewhere better.

“Wally shit again?” my wife just said.

I got up from my desk again to tell her the story, to show her where the deed had been done. Now she is down on her hands and knees cleaning the areas more thoroughly than I did. Now I’m looking at this Ron Cey card and thinking of the California sun one late afternoon in San Diego, the day after my meeting at Sony Pictures Studios. My wife and I had driven south from Pasadena earlier in the day and were in the room of a nice hotel walking distance from the baseball stadium where we were going to see a Padres game later that day. What could be better? The California sun was streaming in through the windows. I got a call from an agent who’d talked to the other attendees of my meeting at Sony Pictures Studios. His usually ebullient manner was ratcheted up beyond ebullience. When the phone call was over I looked at my wife. To her I surely looked crazy, but it felt to me like the California sun was beaming out of me from within.

“Our life is going to change,” I said.

To be continued.


Fernando Valenzuela

March 11, 2016

Fernando Valenzuela

This is of course the moment in Fernando Valenzuela’s indelible windup when he has first come out of his brief sky-trance. We all should approach our life’s work with this mixture of focus and mysterious surrender.

What is my life’s work? I still don’t know. Not this, surely, this hobby. Collecting. What does it even mean to collect?

When I was a little boy about the same age my oldest son is now, four and a half, I rode in a VW Camper with my brother, mother, and her boyfriend, Tom, down through all the states from New Jersey to Texas and on into Mexico. We were there all summer in Fernando Valenzuela’s country.

It was 1973. Tom had long hair and a big beard, and my brother and I had unruly curls that the women in Mexico all wanted to touch. I didn’t want to be touched.

At some point we picked up two fellow American longhairs who were hitchhiking, a young man and woman who clambered into the back with my brother and me and started making out, their writhing bodies colliding with us in the small space. I didn’t want to be touched. They weren’t with us for that long, a few hours at the most, and yet here it is over forty years later and they’re still riding with me, those groping hippies.

My father had a job, but he got a week or so off and flew down to meet up with us for a while. We were all in it together, sort of, but of course things were more complicated than I could fathom. I stuck to my brother as much as I could. I ate ham sandwiches everywhere we went. Jambon. I think that’s what they were called. It was one piece of the world that was the same.

There were towering ruins everywhere. That’s what I’ll carry with me the longest I guess. This sense of an ancient vanished world. I worry that in my own timid adult existence I won’t ever give to my sons the same sprawling awe I apprehended in childhood by virtue of being raised by people who believed a new era of joy was upon us, just up around the next bend.

I brought back from Mexico a small stone replica of a ruin. I can’t even remember what it was, maybe a miniature version of some god or goddess. What doesn’t erode in our minds? What I remember was the feel of it, how soft the stone was, how it was almost wearing away as I touched it but at the same time seemed to have a solidity that would outlast everything else in my room, all those bright plastic American toys. But I lost it somewhere on the way.

I’m still coming out of the trance of childhood. I’m looking for some target, I guess, though much of the time I’m also still trying to find my way back into the trance.

I don’t know where I got this card. It appeared well after my years of voraciously buying packs. I didn’t seek it out. Collecting to me doesn’t mean pursuing. Some stuff ends up in my possession, most of it disappears, I try to oppose this disappearing sometimes.


Manny Mota and Ron Hodges

October 9, 2015

Mota Ron hodges 78NLDS preview, part two (part one here)

One of the last classes I took as an undergrad, many years ago, was in Chaucer, and the only thing I remember was the tale of the knight concluding with a discordant pratfall, the knight falling off his horse. It seemed to me a brilliant commentary on the myth of heroism, if not on the absurdly random nature of life itself. Nobody is a superstar bound to some shapely, impeccable narrative. Really the best you can hope for is that you stick around for a while, maybe find a place you can call home, figure out a way to make yourself useful, and try to steer clear of trouble.

The two players shown here managed all but the last of these elements in their careers. Both had some trouble. Probably trouble is unavoidable. But there’s trouble and then there’s trouble, and Hodges was lucky enough to run into the lesser of these two gradations. He played 12 years for the Mets as a part-time catcher but is most often remembered, at least if his fan memories page on the Ultimate Mets Fan Database is a guide, for fracturing pitcher Craig Swan’s ribs while trying to throw out a young base stealer named Tim Raines. This is the kind of Chaucerian physical comedy that seems to come up with irresistibly appealing regularity on the fan memories page of the Ultimate Mets Fan Database (along with conflicting eyewitness reports of the Met in question’s treatment of fans—on Hodges’ page he is derided by one fan for grabbing his crotch and saying “right here” to him, and he’s lauded by another fan for tirelessly signing autographs for kids), and for that reason I always have to pry myself away from the site to avoid spending the rest of my days browsing through anecdotes about the stumbling, pockmarked humanity of the likes of Bob Apodaca, Doug Flynn, Bill Pecota, etc., etc., into infinity.

If the worst thing that ever happens to you is you fracture Craig Swan’s ribs, life isn’t so bad. Manny Mota would surely agree. Mota, after some time on the Giants, Pirates, and Expos, stuck for many years with the Dodgers, settling in under blue skies to become arguably the most effective right-handed pinch-hitter ever (he ranks third all-time in career pinch hits, after lefties Lenny Harris and Mark Sweeney). It’s a specialized skill requiring that the practitioner know how to effectively sit and wait, just you and all the spiraling directionless tales in your mind. How Mota did this is a mystery, as he had by then lived through the second kind of trouble, the kind most of us never even want to imagine. In 1970, some years before his shift from part-time starter to pinch-hitting specialist, a foul ball from his bat struck and killed a 14-year-old boy in the stands.

That kind of thing, making sense of it, is beyond me. It’s beyond anyone, surely; there’s no sense to be made of some things. But I don’t even really want to think about it. So:

Edge: Mets


Rick Rhoden

August 16, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

The World’s Greatest Athlete

Who is the world’s greatest athlete? In honor of all the recent leaping and flailing and patriotic sobbing, I will venture toward an answer by considering a few cultural figures of varying levels of renown. All of them inhabit not this present world—which is to me a baffling, shadowy place of ever-eroding footholds—but the milieu with which I am much more familiar, the one I traversed in my childhood, specifically the star-spangled bicentennial summer of 1976, when this quiet Rick Rhoden card slipped unnoticed into my budding collection.



Let’s play the word association game. Ready? Jan-Michael Vincent.

What comes to mind? I’m guessing it’s an image informed by the afflicted former actor’s more recent forays into the public eye, handcuffed appearances in court, bedraggled mug shots, and like that. Decay and ruination. Sort of the opposite of the gleaming ideal of athleticism.

At one time, however, Vincent was the ideal athlete, at least in fictional terms, playing the titular character in the 1973 movie The World’s Greatest Athlete. I never saw the movie but I read the novelization two or three years after the movie came out. Vincent was cast as a long-haired Tarzan type named Nanu who gets pulled out of the African jungle by an American college coach and brought back to campus, where it is confirmed that all the vine-swinging and tiger wrestling has sharpened the ape-raised jungle lad into an indomitable interscholastic athlete capable of shattering pole vault records and reviving the punt return attack.

I don’t remember what could have been the dramatic tension in the story. He won everything. Maybe he gradually got civilized or something, married the college president’s bookish daughter, etc. My copy of the book is long gone, most likely impossible to replace, and I’m not about to order the movie off Amazon and sit through it while looking at a youthful Jan-Michael Vincent and thinking about the crushing desolation of time and substance addiction. But I wish I still had the book, damn it. It was one of those books with a section in the middle with photos, stills from the movie. Born Free was another book from my childhood that had that still-shot section in the middle. I don’t remember that book or movie so well, except to associate it with lions and an almost terrifying level of sadness. Jesus Christ, I never want to know what it was in Born Free that touched my vast early childhood capacity for terrifying sadness.

Sorry, what? Oh yeah, great athleticism. Great athleticism would translate into being able to win any athletic contest, right? This would be impossible for anyone in the real world, but Nanu did it in a make-believe world and in doing so provided an ideal that real athletes could be measured against.


Bruce Jenner

The athletic ideal established by Jan-Michael Vincent seemed to materialize in reality in the 1976 summer Olympics in the form of Bruce Jenner. Like Nanu, Jenner was a white fellow with flowing hair who hurled things, leaped obstacles, and rushed toward finish lines. He won the gold medal in the decathlon, the event most frequently associated with the notion of the world’s greatest athlete, and parlayed that success into a monetized cultural ubiquity to rival that of Evel Knievel, i.e. (from a nondenominational pop-culture-addicted child’s viewpoint), God. Jenner could do it all better than anyone.

Or could he? I understood fairly early on that Jenner wasn’t really the greatest at everything, that he was actually generally mediocre when measured against the world’s top specialized athletes in each of the events comprising the decathlon. He was more accurately the world’s most versatile athlete, but only if the realm of athleticism could be stripped down to ten rudimentary track and field events and excluded all other forms of competition.

Jenner fared better, as the years went on, than the oft-arrested man behind Nanu. But like Vincent’s contemporaneous embodiment of virile youth, Jenner is widely considered (by superfluous sporting-minded internet typists such as myself) on the decay-laced cheap-shot prism of “how far they have fallen” rhetoric. We like to point out witheringly that Jenner is now a renowned figure in the world of reality entertainment, famous not for great athleticism but for being a plastic surgery victim and Kardashian empire subordinate. Which reminds me: A few days ago my wife told me that she saw an episode of Dr. Phil featuring several women who received plastic surgery from an unlicensed felonious charlatan who promised to make the women’s unsatisfactory buttocks plump up like those of Kim Kardashian. He instead endangered their lives with injections of, among other toxic substances, quick-setting cement.

I’m no better than anyone else in this demented world. I fully participate in the collective mudslide to oblivion. E.g., I’ve jacked it to images of Bruce Jenner’s step-daughter’s rear end more than once. More than twice. It’s not a contest, though.


Kyle Rote Jr.

I should be purer than I am, maybe. I should stop digressing. Stop onanizing. Stop writing about baseball cards, perhaps. Move on to doing good works, helping others, praying to a higher power.

I come to these thoughts of purity frequently, then discard them, or not even discard them, really, for that would require more purposefulness than I am capable of, but instead just kind of blah my way into something else, some other manner of cogitating that allows more meandering and guttering and nowhereness. That’s my life. Others decide to cast such a life aside, or try. Many are successful, I assume.

Kyle Rote Jr. seems to be one of these pious types. He has fared better in later years than the two other mid-1970s paragons of athleticism mentioned so far. He is a successful sports agent. He’s probably pretty wealthy. He’s a devout Christian. Maybe this allowed him to avoid some pitfalls.

I remember Rote from 1976 and thereabouts for being the perennial winner of Superstars. That made-for-TV competition pitted athletes from various sports against one another in several events to determine the greatest athlete of them all. It puzzled and fascinated me that Rote, a nondescript soccer player I’d never heard of, always won. The program itself fascinated me. It was much less formal than the Olympics, which undercut its legitimacy, and yet it featured guys who were the best in each of their sports, and these sports, unlike track and field, were the ones that I followed and loved. If you were going to pick a greatest athlete in the world, how could you not include the superstars of American team sports? That’s what I thought anyway. But then the winner was always Kyle Rote Jr. It was as if Marvel Comics put out a special issue featuring all its superheroes in a free-for-all brawl to decide who was the most powerful, and at the end the winner was some marginal lower-echelon guy not even capable of carrying his own series. Kyle Rote Jr. was like Hawkeye from the Avengers, if Hawkeye ever somehow figured out a way to defeat the Hulk, Thor, Spiderman, and the rest, then went on to be a devoutly Christian multimillionaire sports agent and abstainer from digression and gherkin-jerking.


Brian Oldfield

This is preposterous, of course. Hawkeye, weakest of limb of all superheroes save perhaps the Invisible Girl, possessing only one skill—an easily obtained skill shared by pale bespectacled loners in high school archery clubs everywhere—beating the Hulk? No, the winner of the ultimate contest, i.e., the world’s greatest athlete, would have to be someone with immense physical power and speed.

After all, a great athlete is a superhero. This was my thought in 1976, a thought which feels purer than what I am capable now, and thus closer to truth. Often in 1976 I imagined that I had superpowers, and in these imaginings I would more often than not use them to dominate various sports, running faster, throwing harder, jumping higher than anyone else. I could also, as needed, bash in faces and reduce skyscrapers to rubble.

In reality, I wasn’t particularly fast or strong, and I certainly never bashed in a face. Also, even in my imaginings, I understood that having superpowers wouldn’t necessarily translate to mastery of every sport. I could dominate the Olympics and then go into football and rush for touchdowns on every carry, dragging entire teams of would-be tacklers on my back, and then I could move to basketball and Darryl-Dawkins a few backboards, I guess, but then, when I pondered channeling my Hulk-strength into baseball, I usually let the whole fantasy kind of fade into some other scenario. I knew by then that baseball was tricky. You couldn’t just swing in on a vine like Nanu and start drilling sliders into the gap. It took skill.

I’ll get to that idea of skill in a bit, but for now let’s dwell a little longer on Hulk-strength, since in my mind the Hulk would win the imaginary Marvel Comics free-for-all punch-fest. I think there may be some thought out there Thor was stronger than the Hulk, because Thor is a god, but fuck Thor. Thor is full of shit. Hulk smash.

Not that you asked, but here’s my full top-five power rankings list:

1. The Hulk
2. The Thing
3. Luke Cage: Power Man
4. Spiderman
5. Oh, all right, Thor (Note: Sean Howe, author of the forthcoming book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, advised me on seeing this list that Thor should at least be moved up to #3.)

Anyway, the Hulkiest athlete of my childhood was a man named Brian Oldfield. He was a shot-put specialist who went pro in the sport at a time when such a thing was rarely done by track and field athletes in their prime. Because of this, he did not compete in the 1976 Olympics, which occurred when he was at the peak of his powers. For a time, he enjoyed notoriety as something of an outlaw. He was a little like the Hulk in that sense, too, unaffiliated, bounding around the country from place to place. He didn’t fit. And his powers were mind-boggling, feats of strength and speed battling spiritedly for column space with anecdotes from his life as a good-natured, fearless, hard-partying lantern-jawed Dionysus.

A Superstars clip from 1976 includes a mini-feature on the colorful Oldfield. The clip then climaxes in a 100-yard dash in which Oldfield beats all the other Superstars assembled save for Steelers wide receiver (and former track star) Lynn Swann.

In another Superstars clip, Oldfield easily defeats the Hulk.


A nameless dog

Everything about the Superstars clips you can find on YouTube speaks to me, synching up with my meandering mind, my personality, my long gone world. The aimless pacing, the random collision of sports heroes, the modest relaxed scale of the event, which seems to have the scope and urgency of a company picnic.

There is something in the 100-yard dash clip I wanted to mention in particular: In the last few moments of the 100-yard dash, Brian Oldfield runs into a dog that has bounded onto the track.

What does this dog have to do with this discussion? In my opinion, every discussion should include the equivalent of this dog.


Scooby Doo

The popularity of the 1976 Olympics as well as the success of the Superstars competition inspired a Saturday morning cartoon called the Laff-A-Lympics. The captain of the team that won the most of the weekly competitions was Scooby Doo. Here are the all-time Laff-A-Lympics standings:

The Scooby Doobies – 14 wins
The Yogi Yahooeys – 7 wins
The Really Rottens – 2 wins
One three-way tie

Despite his wondering whether “re really rarromprished ranything,” the most-decorated Laff-A-Lympian was a fearless avenger for justice.


Gabe Kaplan

The 1970s craze for channeling everything into an Olympics-y competition also inspired The Battle of the Network Stars. There’s no need for me to add anything to Bill Simmons’ pitch-perfect take on this competition’s soaring masterwork moment, except to say that Simmons’ appreciation was written before the recent passing of Robert Heyges, so Gabe Kaplan’s famed win now features a bittersweet note. There’s Epstein at the finish line, alive once again, front and center, the only network star visible for a moment, before Wonder Woman and Richie and Laverne and the rest storm in, just one Sweathog alone, arms raised in triumph and welcome for his teacher.

Those days, god damn it, I miss them.


Rick Rhoden

Rick Rhoden slipped and fell on scissors as a kid and got sick, had to wear a leg brace, got the brace off at 12, started striking everyone out, and within a few years was drafted number 1 by the Dodgers. He won 151 major league games, more than all but 240 other pitchers in history. Of those pitchers only a dozen or so could claim to be as good a hitter as Rhoden, who won three Silver Slugger awards and was the only pitcher to ever serve as a designated hitter. Since his baseball career, he has become a successful professional golfer (lifetime winnings of over $250,000 and counting), something seemingly every great athlete in the world fantasizes about but can’t accomplish. There’s debate about golf being a sport, but whatever it is, it is fucking hard. (Ask any great athlete.) So in terms of mastering difficult, subtle athletic skills, Rhoden has few, if any, peers. Yes, Hulk smash. But imagine him trying to throw a curveball for a strike, then trying to hit a curveball, then trying to chip a tiny ball from the rough over a water hazard and onto a slippery green in the tense late stages of a pro event. Rrraaorggh! Hulk mad!

So Rick Rhoden had an uncommon mastery of subtle athletic skills. But if all Rick Rhoden ever did was master pitching, hitting, and the club-striking direction of a small white ball toward a series of tiny holes, I wouldn’t have considered him for this discussion. I don’t know what greatness is, but I know for me it resides somewhere in a long-gone Saturday afternoon after a morning of sugared-up Wheaties with Bruce Jenner and the Laff-A-Lympics and an issue of Marvel Teamup featuring Spiderman and the Thing, and a ceaselessly roaming little-kid imagination still capable of being amazed. I was never amazed by Rick Rhoden. But recently I discovered, by useless meandering, that in addition to his other athletic masteries Rick Rhoden also vied for the coveted title of 1975 bubble gum champ. He was not the greatest of all bubble blowers—only he who is called Bevacqua could make this claim—but Rhoden did make it all the way to the semifinals of the hallowed event. In this video, another beautiful piece of the shambling era I love and that made sense to me and that has left me, Rhoden appears at around the 1:40 mark, blowing a large oblong bubble as if the miraculous creation were nothing special, all in a day’s work for the world’s greatest athlete.


Bill Bene

June 20, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)


I can’t find any information on the internet about Bill Bene’s sentencing, if it has even happened yet. The latest news, that Bene pled guilty and faces up to eight years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, appeared in late March of this year. I don’t know what’s happened to him since then.

If there are still going to be court proceedings in conjunction with Bill Bene’s sentencing, I want to believe that Harold will be brought in as a character witness. The defendant surely will have aged from his appearance in a 1989 Topps card, but Harold will be essentially unchanged after all these years, albeit maybe a little scuffed in places. Maybe his souvenir stand Los Angeles Dodgers batting helmet will be slightly askew.


“I fooled them for a while,” Bill Bene said.

This was in 1988, a month before the major league draft. Bene was admitting to a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that his high school career, spent exclusively as an outfielder, had been iffy. He’d known the best he could ever do was bluff and hope.

“I was never a very good hitter,” he said. “I guess I was meant to pitch.”

I guess.

Last week I discovered the 1989 Topps offering featuring Bill Bene in a friend’s box of unwanted cards. I’d never heard of him. A number 1 draft pick? This guy?

I’ve been discovering bits and pieces of Bill Bene ever since. Yesterday I watched a bird thump head-first into one of my windows.

“Jesus,” I said.

“Happens a lot,” my wife said. “We need to put up some stickers.”

It’s a big picture window. The birds are just flying along and wham.

“God, imagine what that’s like,” I said, pitying birds.

But then I thought about it some more. We can only ever guess. Every single step. And sooner or later we’ll smack into something. We’ll be stopped.


A couple of years ago, my wife and I drove to St. Paul, Minnesota, to attend a booksellers conference. My memoir was due out in a few months. The publisher sprang for gas money and a hotel room for us. The hope was that giving away bound galleys to conference attendees would drum up some buzz for the book. At the conference, hysteria for my book did not ensue. I wasn’t expecting it to, but even so the concrete affirmation that my book was just another book among hundreds of books, thousands of books, dampened my impulse to engage in fantasies of impossible deliverance. And who even reads anymore anyway? It wasn’t like I’d made a movie or, perhaps even better, a video game. It was great to have a book coming out, the realization of a lifelong dream. But it wouldn’t change anything. I would still be fastened to my life.

Afterward, my wife and I had a couple of drinks at the hotel bar, where a karaoke night was in session. There were maybe twenty people scattered around the bar, watching one another take a turn at the mike. On Words Without Borders, Jean Harris, reviewing Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture, ponders the karaoke singer.

The hallmark of karaoke culture is a preference for faux versions of real things.  So why does this world have a large population that opts for the theme park version every time? Because, according to Ugresic, “the very foundation of karaoke culture lies in the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games.” The denizen of karaoke culture is a cipher addicted to dreaming he’s somebody else: the one whose assertion of ego actually gets him somewhere.


Back when I was a kid I used to fantasize about being discovered. It started modestly, when my older brother was in little league. As I watched his games I imagined that a foul ball would bound my way, and I’d scoop it up and fire it back onto the field, wowing everyone with the strength and accuracy of my arm. (I hadn’t yet seen The Bad News Bears, where Kelly Leak’s superpowers as a baseball player are first announced in just this way.) As the years went on, this fantasy of being discovered got more preposterous, until eventually it involved a limousine pulling up at the edge of our driveway as I was throwing a tennis ball at the duct tape strike zone on the garage door. The backseat window would come down, revealing Carl Yastrzemski’s melancholy features creased into a smile.

“Quite an arm, son,” he would say. He’d produce a major league contract, holding it out the window toward me. “It’s just what we need.”

This is a deep American dream: to be discovered. To be seen, truly, and to be told with certainty, beyond any guesswork, that at our core we are aglow. That we have a great gift.

Absurd as it sounds, this is more or less what happened to Bill Bene. Bene was fumbling through the usual descent through baseball that all but the tiniest portion of the population experience, the game becoming harder and harder until it ejects us entirely out of active participation and into passive fandom. For me this occurred when I was fourteen and struggling in Babe Ruth league play. Bill Bene’s expiration date as a baseball player was set for when his passage as a guess-hitting high school outfielder concluded.

Instead, former major leaguer Randy Moffitt noticed Bill Bene had a strong arm and suggested he try pitching. According to a conflicting version of the story, this suggestion was made by Randy Moffitt’s father, Bill; what is indisputable is that Bene was blessed by the divine intervention of a close family member of Billie Jean Moffitt, Bill’s daughter and Randy’s sister, who gained renown beyond even that of my imagined fairy godmother, Yaz, under her married name, Billie Jean King. Billie Jean’s relation pointed the coach at Cal State-Los Angeles toward Bene, and it was at that institution, on a pitcher’s mound, that he would be discovered.

He first took the mound for his college team in 1986. From the beginning, he threw very hard and yet with so much wildness as to be nearly useless to the team. Scouts began to appear, more and more all the time, drawn to his promise, ignoring his flaws, much in the way one falls in love.

His complete college stats are displayed in full on the back of his 1989 “#1 Draft Pick” card. They are not good, as shown most succinctly by a career ERA of 5.62. And there aren’t even any positively suggestive “hidden” numbers below that broad-brush metric. He did not strike out more than a batter an inning, for example. Worse, he walked more batters than he struck out. Still, the scouts swarmed.

“We had 55 scouts at one game,” Bene’s college coach, John Herbold, said, adding for the sake of comedic hyperbole, “and we had so many radar guns going at the same time there was a power shortage.”

Somewhere along the line the fluttery hyperbole surrounding Bene began to coagulate into something more solid. By 1988, Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Fred Claire, who by the estimation of awards-givers at the end of that year would be deemed the keenest executive in all of major league baseball, was saying that Bill Bene had the “best arm of any prospect in the country.”

The Dodgers selected him with the fifth overall pick of the 1988 draft. In the minors, he continued to struggle. The temptation, with this “#1 Draft Pick” card in hand, is to imagine his story as a tragic fall, but where was he falling from? He wasn’t like David Clyde, who’d soared unbeatably through high school baseball, a national sensation, only to smack into an invisible barrier upon his immediate promotion to the major leagues. Bene’s nearly instantaneous ascension to the top of baseball had never been anything but an illusion.


I don’t participate in karaoke nights, but I sing sometimes. I once spent a year in a cabin in the woods. Because I had no electricity I had no entertainment beyond what I could cook up myself. I played my acoustic guitar and sang all the time. I wasn’t singing to heaven. I was lonely, going nuts. I hoped that someone might hear me singing and would be drawn to the sound. A woman, specifically. She’d appear from out of the birch trees, a smile creasing her melancholy features.

“Quite a voice,” this beautiful illusion would say. “It’s just what I need.”

If I discovered anything in my year in the woods it was that there’s only one discovery available. There’s no word for it, no voice to sing it.


A year or two into Bene’s professional career, he was so wild that he was demoted to remedial instruction outside of official action. In a simulated game, where the only other participant was a teammate standing in the batter’s box, a pitch got away from Bene, unsurprisingly, and broke the wrist of the teammate. The coaches further modified Bene’s remediation, replacing the human batter’s box attendant with a department store mannequin.

Bene drew a mustache on the mannequin. He named it Harold.

His pitching briefly seemed to improve, but this was an illusion. His minor league numbers tell the demoralizing story that sometimes people can’t change. We can dream of being discovered, of being told we have a great gift, and this dream might even come true, but eventually a second discovery will overtake the first. This latter discovery is the one we pray to avoid: our home in the world has been secured erroneously, and in that home we are a fraud, and upon the discovery of our fundamental insufficiency we are cast out.


This weekend I was reading an FBI document. It had an ad at the back, an attachment provided to illustrate the case being made that AOL be ordered to turn over all email records for a user with the email address This email address appears in the ad, the only contact info provided for the seller of the product being advertised, which is a hard drive containing 120,000 “Top Quality Karaoke Songs.” According to some information included earlier in the report, the price for this hard drive, $299, is far below the market value for the songs, which are all protected by a copyright that the seller of the product does not have a claim to. In addition to mapping the particulars of the felony of copyright piracy, the document sets out in painstaking detail the failure to pay taxes on any of the dubious earnings. Piracy, tax evasion: the subject of the report was in big trouble. The ad at the back serves as a disjointedly cheerful epilogue that somehow makes everything even bleaker. “Makes a great gift!” the ad copy exclaims.

From 1997, when his minor league career ended, until the appearance online of this 2010 FBI report, the internet does not contain any traces of Bill Bene save for some occasional, inevitable mockery embedded in his inclusion in periodic “biggest draft bust” retrospectives. After 1997, Bill Bene became for a time invisible, anonymous, at least in terms of overt internet traces. At some point he created what was in essence an online avatar, “Dan Stern,” and through that alias made hundreds of thousands of dollars by faking fakery.

I find myself imagining the courtroom. The prosecution will play the music of the victimized karaoke corporations, each song hollowed out by design, a vacuum in the center of it to pull in that hidden part of us that wants to be discovered. In the quiet following these empty songs the defense will turn to Harold. They will adjust his limbs accordingly and prop him in the witness stand. Gaze unwavering, mustache intact. His expression will be the same as it was in those early days, not long after the dreamed-of discovery had been made and before the other discoveries had fully overtaken and obliterated the first. No matter what question Harold is asked, his answer will be the same. He will sing. No one will hear. Life is flight until we strike this invisible song.


Charlie Hough (by guest author Pete Wingate)

April 11, 2012

The following is a guest article written by Pete Wingate.

The greatest story in Wingate history is from when my older brother faced off against Charlie Hough. (Apparently Charlie’s father was some sort of insane Great Santini-type who would hop the fence and scream at him and his brother when they screwed up. Charlie won as many games as Schilling, and his brother got to the minors. Still, no thanks.) In the ’50s, at Mendes Field in Smithfield, RI, Little League, my brother defeated the flame-throwing future knuckler Charlie Hough as close to single-handedly as possible by winning a 1-0 decision and plating the deciding run on an inside-the-park HR.

That was a little before my time. When I got old enough, my brother took me to Fenway in ’73 to see my first game, and I saw Orlando Cepeda hit one over the net. A few years later, my brother allowed me to tag along to work at Foxboro Country Club one day in ’76 because he knew that a threesome of Lynn, Rice and, somehow, Jim Freakin’ Burton had booked that day.  He wouldn’t let me bother them, which may have been a good thing in Rice’s case. We watched the threesome tee off the 1st hole. First Lynn (grounder), then Rice (laser). Then the crowd dispersed. I remember feeling bad for Burton and sticking around, but I don’t remember his shot. Probably a heartbreaking floating line drive right up the middle . . .

When I was born in ’65, he already had amassed a great collection of Ted, Mantle, Mays and Aaron cards that are in my nephew’s possession now. I started collecting, but used to just play with them (outside of my treasured favorite Willie Mays “in action” card) and they got beat to hell. This was as pissed as he would get with me. He understood that I’d be sorry one day. I wasn’t, at least at the time. I eventually gave what was left to my nephew, too, since he had been thieving them a little at a time anyway. Except Willie.

His reputation as a Hough-killer aside, like 99.9% of us he flamed out in High School. Even though I grew up to be bigger and stronger than him, reaching the Power-Righty optimum of 6′ 4”, I was slurving by 15, more interested in guitars and girls and done a few months later without having met his standard.  It still irks him more than me at this point, I think.  Not that he would ever say it out loud.

He had my father, I didn’t.  Father was handed free Lucky Strikes in Hawaii on his way to the South Pacific, never put them down and died of lung cancer a month before the Impossible Dream was over.

My brother’s been sick for 8 years now but has gotten much worse recently and just opted out of treatment. It’s not that unlikely that even though he didn’t smoke, the Lucky Strikes our dad smoked didn’t help my brother either. Neither do our genes.

Time is all that we really can have, isn’t it? The universe’s single gift to us.  The gift comes in all sizes, but if I had all the time in the world, I’ll never figure out why some of us don’t get more of it.