Archive for the ‘Los Angeles Dodgers’ Category


Ken McMullen

September 5, 2008

The Two Freaks
Chapter One

A perturbed Ken McMullen, fading holdover from an earlier, more cleancut era in baseball, has just noticed a couple of unusual figures in the stands. A couple of freaks.

I can’t know this of course. All I can know is that Ken McMullen, at the time of this 1975 card, had been kicking around the league for twelve years. He started out with the Dodgers in 1962 but was traded to the second incarnation of the Washington Senators after three seasons and 311 at-bats. He had several productive years with that team, establishing himself, most likely (I’m too lazy too research it), as the greatest third baseman in the entire doomed and desultory eleven-season history of the second edition of the Washington Senators.

The Senators shipped McMullen to the California Angels during the first season of the new decade, and in 1973 he came back to the Dodgers, the team of his early major league career and possibly the team of his youth, judging from the fact that he was born in Oxnard, CA, and was still calling it home at the time of this card, suggesting that he had lived there all along and so was there, an impressionable cleancut teen, when the Dodgers relocated from Brooklyn to nearby Los Angeles in 1957. The story told by this card, or by all of this card except the enigmatic expression of the player on its front, could be a comforting one, a story about coming home, the onetime Oxnard-born Dodger an Oxnard-based Dodger once more. Any conjecture about his sour, apprehensive expression, which sends a negating shiver through whatever comfort is offered by the circle-of-life place names on the back of the card, is beyond the borders of the card, and nothing can be affirmed with any certainty about matters that are beyond the borders of the card.  

But nothing can be ruled out, either. Anything is possible. So I’ll say it again, as if it were true, because it might be, and in my always-diminishing world might is just about the only right: Ken McMullen, aging holdover from an earlier, more cleancut era in baseball, has just noticed a couple of unusual figures in the stands. A couple of freaks.

One of them, a bushy-haired guy with glasses, is playing the wooden, flute-like instrument known as the recorder. The other is of ambiguous gender and swaying back and forth, eyes closed, either mumbling valium-inspired nonsense or chanting. Ken McMullen can’t make heads or tails of any of it. His world is changing all around him. Getting stranger, harder to understand, worse. He’ll end his career not as a Dodger but far away, in Milwaukee.

“Goddamnit, what the hell,” he is about to say.

(to be continued)


Ron Cey in . . . The Franchise All-Time All-Stars

July 1, 2008
Be warned: the following further installment of The All-Time Franchise All-Stars is both derivative and ill-informed, probably more so than the earlier installments, which were focused on teams, the Expos and Mets, that I know a little better than the team profiled here. Though I have, in an effort to retain some semblance of originality, lately avoided looking at Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups, which is a multi-acre amusement park compared to the tangled yo-yo of this ongoing feature, it’s a good bet that whatever I get right in my picks for the all-time teams of any franchise owes to earlier readings of that book.

But who knows, maybe all we can ever really claim as our own is what we get wrong. So on that capitulatory note, here’s how I see the Dodgers all-time team. (In parentheses after each player mentioned is their positional ranking, if available, from The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.) If it seems to you at any time that I’m in way over my head, please feel free to throw me a Dodger blue lifesaver.

Read the rest of this entry ?


Steve Yeager

June 4, 2008
Steve Yeager was known for a greater number of things than the usual good major league catcher. For comparison, consider Jim Sundberg, Yeager’s contemporaneous counterpart in defensive excellence in the American League. Sundberg stuck to the usual catcher script: catch games, blend into background. On the other hand, the mention of Yeager’s name conjures many things beyond the usual realm of the anonymous receiver. Here are some of those things, not including his role as Duke Temple in Major League, Major League II, and Major League: Back to the Minors:

1. Being Chuck Yeager’s cousin. Imagine being a longtime starter on one of the marquee teams in major league baseball and still being second banana at the family reunions. “Hey, Chuck, check out my World Series MVP award.” “Hey, that’s great, Steve (even if you did share the award with two other guys). Oh, by the way, here’s a picture of me after I became the first human being to break the sound barrier.”

2. Almost dying in the on-deck circle. A shard from Bill Russell’s broken bat hit him in the neck, puncturing his esophagus. (You know you’re an injury pioneer when your esophagus gets involved.) To protect Yeager’s beleaguered body part the Dodgers trainer created the first throat protector, which soon became part of every catcher’s protective armor. I’m pretty sure Yeager never wore the throat protector in the on-deck circle, which casts an odd light on the invention. It’s kind of like getting hit by a car and then inventing something that protects you from getting hit by trains.

3. Posing in Playgirl. For some reason on the rare occasions when the subject of Playgirl comes up, I always think of a line uttered by Paul Newman’s grizzled player-coach in Slapshot about the relative pulchritude of the male body: “Dicks. They ain’t petunias.”

4. Converting to Judaism. You could make the case that Steve Yeager deserves the starting spot on the all-time Jewish baseball player all-star team. There haven’t been that many nice Jewish boys willing to don the tools of ignorance. There was the colorful, defensively apt but offensively inept Moe Berg, early 1960s Dodger backup Norm Sherry, and current longtime weak-hitting, good fielding catcher Brad Ausmus. Mike Lieberthal is often also mentioned in discussions of Jewish ballplayers, but he seems to be pretty vehement about not wanting to be identified as a Jew. (I believe that, like me, Lieberthal’s father was Jewish. I proudly consider myself a half-breed, embracing neither Lieberthal’s apparent denial of his roots on his father’s side nor the orthodox Jewish belief that if a person’s mother isn’t Jewish that person is not at all Jewish.) I’d say all things considered Yeager tops all those guys, so if you’re willing to overlook the fact that he wasn’t actually Jewish while he was playing and instead concentrate on his willful post-career embrace of Judaism, he gets the starting nod, catching Sandy Koufax and taking his place in the following batting order: Benny Kauff (CF), Rod Carew (2B) (I follow Jonah Keri in including Carew), Hank Greenberg (1B), Sid Gordon (LF), Al Rosen (3B), Sean Shawn Green (RF), Yeager (C), Buddy Myer (SS), and Koufax (P).

5. Being one in a long line of good, if not excellent, Dodgers catchers. A couple days ago, hard on the heels of Manny Ramirez’s 500th home run, Batter’s Box wondered if Red Sox left fielders comprise the single best position of any franchise in baseball history, mentioning Ramirez, Duffy Lewis, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Mike Greenwell. The ensuing conversation there and on the Baseball Think Factory turned up several contenders for the honor, including among many others Yankees centerfielders and first basemen, Cardinals first basemen, Browns/Orioles shortstops, and Giants first basemen. The first thought that came to my mind when I saw the topic was Yankees catchers. I wasn’t the only one to think of this. But no one mentioned the same position for the Dodgers. But consider all the Dodgers catchers named by Bill James as among the 100 best of all time (their ranking follows their names): Roy Campanella (3), Mike Piazza (5) (when the rating came out it was based almost entirely on his time with the Dodgers), Johnny Roseboro (27), Mike Scioscia (36), Steve Yeager (78), Joe Ferguson (79) (the journeyman had a few career-representative seasons with the team in question), and Mickey Owen (88). The Yankees’ list is probably a bit stronger–Yogi Berra (1), Bill Dickey (7), Thurman Munson (14), Elston Howard (15), Wally Schang (20) (see note for Ferguson), and Butch Wynegar (65) (see note for Ferguson)–especially considering that Jorge Posada deserves to be added somewhere pretty near the top, but the Dodgers’ backstops, current star Russell Martin included, are certainly no slouches. You could do a lot worse than a future Jew-embracing thespian willing to injure his esophagus and bare his petunia.


Steve Garvey

February 6, 2008

Born in the USA

(continued from Tom Seaver)

Chapter Five

“In the immediate aftermath of the war, the nation experienced a self-conscious, collective amnesia.” – George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam (1979)

In late March 1975, a CIA operative named Frank Snepp made a report to his superior in Saigon, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin. Martin had been appointed to his post because of his reputation as a hard-liner who would never admit defeat. Snepp told Martin that he had just witnessed, from a plane window, thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers in abject retreat from the advancing North Vietnamese Army, shedding their guns and uniforms and racing into the sea.

The implication was clear to Snepp. It was way too late for heroes or happy endings. Saigon was fucked.

“I don’t believe you,” Graham Martin said.

“He had drifted,” Snepp recalled in Christian Appy’s 2003 book, Patriots, “into a complete dream world.”

A couple weeks before the fall of Saigon, Sports Illustrated featured a picture of a handsome clean-cut man on the cover. The year before, as the American President was being forced from office for criminally subverting democracy, the handsome clean-cut man had become the first baseball player voted onto the all-star team as a write-in candidate. Democracy is dead. Long live democracy!

“Steve Garvey: Proud to be a hero,” the cover caption read.

The magazine was surely still on coffee tables and in waiting rooms when the most desperate images of the fall of Saigon reached home. These images—people crowding rooftops, awaiting rescue that would never come—found an awful echo on American soil, across the East River from me, some twenty-six years later.

Look away. Keep dreaming. Look away.

When I was a kid I used these baseball cards to dream myself into the True America, the one I believed existed somewhere far away. A True American was happy and painless. A True American was clean-cut and handsome. A True American looked you right in the eye, no sarcasm or fear or complicated feelings. No weird hippie food or long hair or unusual family configurations or night terrors or secrets. A True American stood proud and tall. He didn’t skulk through his own town like an outsider when he needed to go buy more baseball cards. A True American played every game and collected two hundred hits every year and a hundred RBI every year and was elected to the all-star team every year and wore red, white, and blue and was proud and was a hero.

Denis Johnson’s 2007 Vietnam War novel Tree of Smoke has no central character, no hero. The titular term comes up at various times in the narrative, first as an apocalyptic biblical reference from the Book of Joel (“there shall be blood and fire and palm trees of smoke”), later as the name for a shadowy rogue operation dreamed up by a CIA operative named Colonel Sands. The Colonel, a charismatic, domineering personality and hero of an earlier heroic American war, is out of sight for most of the novel, his general absence heightening the sense that the world of the novel is one without a center or the hope of some kind of redemptive heroism.

In one of his rare appearances, the Colonel gives a pep talk to some soldiers that may or may not be under his leadership, this characteristic ambiguity mentioned at the beginning of his speech when he says, “I do confer with your lieutenant; I don’t pass orders to him. But I do direct our operations in a general sense.”

He goes on to give a long speech about the 1966 football game between Notre Dame and Michigan State, the so-called “Game of the Century” that ended in a tie when Notre Dame elected to run out the clock instead of trying to go for the win. The point, which eludes the interest of the soldiers, those pioneers of a post-heroic world, is that they shouldn’t leave the enemy battlefield without a victory.

“We will win this war,” the Colonel assures no one.

Steve Garvey was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 1966 but elected to go play baseball and football at Michigan State instead. Freshman were not eligible to play on the varsity in those days, but it seems likely that Steve Garvey was very near the mythic action in the Game of the Century. It would seem likely even if he hadn’t been a budding football star at the university that hosted the game. When I was using these baseball cards to dream myself into the True America, Steve Garvey seemed, more than anyone else, as if he had sprung straight out of myth, as if he hadn’t been born and raised somewhere but instead had gradually come into focus, going from an indistinct figure on the misty margins of older myths of glory to a distinct and gleaming hero in the bright summer sun.

Five years and one day ago, February 5, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke at the United Nations, attempting to strong-arm support for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. The wall behind him held a tapestry version of Pablo Picasso’s famous depiction of the horror of war, Guernica. The work has no central character, no hero, just the wide howl of a living world torn by bombs. But as Colin Powell used the fictions of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaida to justify war, none of Guernica was visible behind him. A blue curtain had been hung to hide the tapestry from view. A few weeks later, bombs started falling far away.

Here are two versions of history. Both could be said to follow the logic of dreams.

Version one: Steve Garvey did not go to Vietnam because he was a star. He had been a star in college and he was drafted in the first round by the Dodgers and one year later he made his debut in the major leagues, and once you were in the major leagues there was no more Vietnam. The year he made his debut, 1969, he played in spring training alongside a struggling minor leaguer named Roy Gleason. Gleason had played briefly for the Dodgers in 1963, doubling in his only at-bat, then in 1967 after failing to further distinguish himself in the minors he was drafted into the army, the only man to serve in Vietnam after logging so much as a single moment in the major leagues. He was sent home on a stretcher, wounded with shrapnel from a blast that killed the man standing beside him, his friend Tony Silvo. He left behind in Vietnam some personal effects, including his 1963 World Series ring.

Version two: Steve Garvey did not go to Vietnam because there was no such thing as Vietnam. Look at the card at the top of this page and tell me there was such a thing as Vietnam. Look at that card at the top of the page and tell me there was a place somewhere full of contradictions and ambiguity and needless suffering. Tell me there was a place where America has been defeated. Tell me there was a place that replaced our innocence with the knowledge that we were capable of unspeakable cruelties, that mutilated or killed our young men, that even stole one of our 1963 World Series rings. If you tell me there was a Vietnam I’ll tell you I don’t believe you.

Some years after I first used this card to dream myself into the dream of America, Steve Garvey left the team with the red, white, and blue uniform. The jarring sight of him in nauseous brown and yellow foreshadowed the coming disillusionment that he was at least as complicated and fallible as anyone else. And the devaluing of the myth of Steve Garvey that accompanied revelations that he, as Bill James put it, “couldn’t keep his underpants off the infield” was followed by a gradual devaluing of his accomplishments on the field, former reverence for his ability to collect hits and RBI replaced by notice of his inability to get on base as often or hit for power as effectively as many of his lesser known peers. History has hollowed Steve Garvey.

The again, history says that Ford and then Carter led this country after Nixon’s resignation. But if a whole country is dreaming, couldn’t it be said that the figure nearest the center of that dream is the leader? Couldn’t you make a case that in the amnesiac years where Vietnam ceased to exist, those years between the faraway intimations of defeat and the coming of the supreme amnesiac American Dreamer, Ronald Reagan, Steve Garvey minded the store? Couldn’t you make a case that Steve Garvey, the people’s choice, the write-in candidate, the proud hero, was the leader of America Dreaming?



The Dodgers in . . . The Nagging Question

September 20, 2007

It’s been a while since the last installment of the Nagging Question here at Cardboard Gods, but I find myself so full of questions today that it’s as if all the question marks for all my nagging questions are like fish hooks digging into the inside of my soured, constricting gut. Why did I not heed my own vow of two nights ago and take the day off from baseball yesterday? Why did I think things might actually turn out all right when another stout performance from young Clay Buchholz seemed to bring the Red Sox to the doorstep of victory, down a run and with two outs but with the bases clogged in the 7th inning and Julio Lugo at the plate? Why did I think Julio Lugo would make up for an entire lackluster season by lacing one into the gap? Why did I assume without even thinking about it that with the Red Sox season on the line Julio Lugo the multimillionaire would at least run hard to first base after failing to rip one into the gap? (He would have been safe had he hustled, the game would have been tied, the rally would have continued, with one of the Red Sox’ few remaining possessers of a pulse, Jacoby Ellsbury, at the plate.) Perhaps most of all, why do I care? I mean, why did I get viscerally angry at Julio Lugo, a man I’ve never met, wishing in that moment that I could punch him in the stomach or hurl rotten tomotoes in his direction?

But I do care. So I add another question mark to the fish hooks in my gut this morning, the one at the end of this flailing inquiry: what the hell is going on? And why?

There are rational answers, sure. The Red Sox are severely banged up. Manny is out, Youk is out, Ortiz has a bum knee, Varitek is looking like a tired, aging catcher, Wakefield hasn’t been the same since a back problem flared up a few weeks ago, and the two Japanese guys are thoroughly cooked. The Red Sox are probably a little tight by now. In stathead terms the good but flawed Red Sox are experiencing the ol’ regression to the mean. The Red Sox are facing good teams, the sizzling Yankees and a pitching rich team sure to make some noise in 2008, the Blue Jays. There are probably other rational explanations, but who cares? To me, the answer is simple:

This is the fault of the Dodgers.

All year long, even when the Red Sox were rolling, the one major misfiring cog was the robotic and exasperatingly ineffective J.D. Drew. He has begun to hit a little better of late, but still has remained strangely inconsequential, a huge money pit not seen in Boston since the Big Dig. Has anyone suggested that as a nickname for him? J.D. “The Big Dig” Drew came from the Dodgers. Julio “Ah, Why Hustle?” Lugo also came from the Dodgers. Serial game-blower Eric “Gags” Gagne came from the Rangers, but surely in every baseball fan’s mind he is a Dodger.

So I have to ask, what did we do to deserve this, Dodgers?

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I don’t believe in curses and never have, except maybe for a few painful moments in 1986. But some days you wake up and just start looking for reasons, for someone or something to blame, and when no rational answer presents itself you start casting about for explanations beyond the rational.

So maybe it started in the 1916 World Series. This was the Dodgers’ first chance to win a World Series, and the Red Sox, led by a young southpaw named Babe Ruth (who would never again surface in any talk of curses), dispatched them in short order, 4 games to 1, for their second straight World Series crown. The Dodgers would not win a World Series for many long hard years. One of the few players who performed well in the 1916 Series was outfielder Casey Stengel, who would go on to beat the Dodgers in several World Series as a manager of the Yankees. The Dodgers finally settled their score with the Yankees in 1955, but perhaps they still harbored a grudge against their 1916 foes, especially considering their heart and soul, Jackie Robinson, was, before joining the Dodgers, subjected to a humiliating dog-and-pony show tryout by the institutionally racist Red Sox (the last team to integrate their roster, with the formidable Pumpsie Green). The grudge, if it ever existed, seems to have dwindled when the Dodgers moved across country to Los Angeles. While some vestiges of it may have surfaced in 1986 with the trojan horse gift to the Red Sox from the Dodgers (via the Cubs) of a 100-RBI man housing an inability to field a key ground ball off the bat of Mookie Wilson, the grudge seemed altogether dead in 2004, when former Dodgers Pedro Martinez and Dave Roberts contributed heroically to creating, among other things, the happiest fan-related moment of my life.

But then the Red Sox had to go and give the Dodgers Grady Little. This seems to have aroused decades-old enmity from the Dodger gods. You give us this Wooderson-voiced nincompoop to run our club, we’ll give you a plague of apathy and incompetence. 

I know this is all nonsense. But someone has to be to blame, right? And so I ask the Nagging Question, and I ask it not with an eye toward the troubles of the Red Sox (though if you can explain those to me, great) but rather with an eye toward anything in the whole wide world that might be bothering you, so please answer this any way you see fit:

Who is to blame?


Bob Welch

April 19, 2007


Chapter 1 (1981)

Bob Welch doesn’t look happy. It’s 1981. I was 13 that year, and though I was withdrawing abruptly from the collecting of baseball cards—this card one of just a few I bought that year—I’m sure I still viewed the life of the major leaguer as the happiest possible existence. And who among major leaguers could be happier than a 24-year-old former number 1 draft pick who threw blazing fastballs, who had just cracked the vaunted Dodger starting rotation with a promising 14-9 record, and who had just a short while before that authored one of baseball’s greatest moments?

Yes, just a short while before this unhappy picture, Welch had been called on to preserve a 1-run lead in the 9th inning of game 2 of the 1978 World Series. As he warmed up by firing a few of his electric fastballs the announcers remarked on the 21-year-old rookie’s lack of experience (just 14 games in the majors thus far) and on his reportedly boundless potential. There was one out, two men on, and two of the most dangerous and fearless hitters in the game due up. Thurman Munson stepped in first and flied out. Then Reggie Jackson strode to the plate.

When the confrontation was over, Dodger outfielder Bill North would tell Time Magazine that it was “the best show I’ve ever seen. The game’s best fastball hitter up against a kid who throws as hard as anybody in baseball.”

The at-bat would take seven minutes to unfold. The count would go to 3 and 2.

“It was like the 15th round of a heavyweight championship fight and you knew both guys had won seven rounds,” North continued. “Bob just aired it out and said, ‘Hey Reggie, here it comes. If you can handle it, you deserve it.’ It had to end in a home run or a strikeout.”

With his home crowd roaring Bob Welch reared back one final time and fired. When Reggie swung ferociously and missed, Bob Welch burst into myth.

Welch began to come back to earth almost immediately, allowing a deciding Yankee rally (including a single by Reggie) in the 10th inning of the very next game and giving up two runs (including a home run by Reggie) in another loss in the Yankees’ series-clinching win in game 6. But like the 1975 Carlton Fisk home run, Welch’s spot in the limelight seems to have shucked off the more prosaic details of his team’s eventual defeat as the years have gone by to take its place among the more treasured moments of baseball lore. I’m glad about this as a baseball fan who likes to sift through the jewels of the collective memory of the game. I’m also glad about this as someone bent on using baseball as a metaphor for my own life, for if eventual defeat obliterated the good moments my past would be a bucket full of ashes.

You can’t take shelter in those good moments. I doubt that Bob Welch ever tried to do so with his legendary strikeout of Reggie, but maybe he wasn’t immune to the very human urge to compare the swampy complexities of existence to the gravity-free clarity of glowing myth. I don’t really know what happiness is, but unhappiness could probably be defined as the painful, disappointing gap between life as it actually unfolds and life as it appears in quick-dissolving moments of exultation, victory, bliss.

Anyway, Bob Welch doesn’t look happy in this 1981 card. He looks like I probably did fairly often that same year, when I was 13. Baseball was shrinking from a happy, all-consuming passion to just one more thing that I wasn’t really that good at. My brother was heading off to boarding school. I drifted away from the close friends I’d made at my deskless hippie elementary school classroom and replaced them with empty space and an ever more complex fantasy life and a few superficial acquaintances. The next couple years were pretty rough for Bob Welch and me, but for different reasons: He drank too much, and I didn’t yet drink at all.

But things change. Welch got himself sober and won a Cy Young award, a World Series champion ring, and retired with 210 lifetime wins. As for me, I went off to boarding school at 15 and made some friends and started drinking booze and smoking pot. This was right around the time when Nancy Reagan was blanketing the airwaves with her message to “Just say no” to drugs, but when we got high we laughed until tears were rolling down our cheeks. Why in the world would I say no to that?

(to be continued)


Johnny Oates

April 17, 2007

Here is Johnny Oates, member of the Virginia Tech Hall of Fame. He was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the first round of the 1967 draft while still enrolled at Virginia Tech but only signed with the Orioles on the condition that he could stay in school long enough to graduate. He was born and raised in North Carolina, and was at the time of this 1978 card spending the majority of his spring, summer, and fall in Los Angeles, but, according to the back of this card, his home was in Virginia. I’m going to go out on a limb and surmise that he enjoyed his time as a baseball superstar at Virginia Tech. He certainly never attained that level of stardom in the major leagues, though he was a decent enough left-handed hitter to find employment as a backup or platoon catcher on 5 different teams in an 11-year major league career, 3 of those seasons ending with his team playing in the World Series. He found greater success as a manager, leading the Texas Rangers to 3 division championships in the 1990s. His number has been retired by Virginia Tech and by the Rangers. He died of brain cancer on Christmas Eve of 2004. I don’t know what you can say about brain cancer taking away a man who should have had many more years on this earth.

And I certainly have no fucking idea whatsoever what you can say about the mass murder of 32 students at Johnny Oates’ alma mater yesterday.

A few years ago I watched from the window of my Brooklyn apartment as the two World Trade Center buildings fell. Not long after there was nothing but the huge black cloud where the buildings had been, my roommate Pete went to see his girlfriend a few blocks south, and I walked several miles to my girlfriend’s house in Queens. I walked against the grain of the thousands and thousands of people who had evacuated Manhattan by foot across the Queensboro Bridge and were then moving from Queens toward their homes in Brooklyn. When I think about words in terms of horrific events, I think of the moment when I was crossing the Pulaski Bridge into Queens against this sea of stunned people in their ash-covered work clothes. A United States fighter plane ripped across the sky above us. I stopped to watch the jet pass, as did a man walking the other way. When it had quickly disappeared from sight I lowered my gaze and my eyes met those of the Brooklyn-bound observer.

“Too late,” the man said.

That’s what I think of any and all words in the aftermath of unspeakable events. Too late. You can look for someone to blame, some way that some or all of the bloodshed could have been avoided. You can psychoanalyze the murderer. You can send in troops or fighter jets or extra security to check everyone for handguns and grenades. You can even make speeches and talk about God. Too late. All of it. Too fucking late.


Davey Lopes

April 7, 2007

The Mustache Ride, Chapter 4

When I was growing up I could never muster much enthusiasm for the Los Angeles Dodgers, even when they were the only thing standing in the way of the hated Yankees and another World Series crown. Their personification, Steve Garvey, struck me as a phony. Tommy Lasorda did too, but at least Lasorda projected, with the shifty unction of a snake oil salesman, the unsaid admission that on some level he knew he was full of shit. Garvey on the other hand actually seemed to believe he represented all that was right and true in the world. I think as an inward, bespectacled, unkempt, half-Jewish, girl-haired, Free to Be You and Me “It’s all right to cry” hippie-mothered dufus I sort of half-expected that at any moment the handsome, clean-cut, chisel-jawed, beamingly optimistic, flag-saluting Steve Garvey types of the world would decide to round up all us defectives and herd us into guarded barracks where we’d be forced to read unbearably boring DC Superman comics and watch Steve Garvey clinics on proper hygiene, obedient citizenship, and hitting the cutoff man.

But on the other hand I always kind of liked Davey Lopes, shown here just moments after being dropped off at the ballpark by Cheech and Chong.

I include Davey Lopes (or “Dave” Lopes as he is referred to here, perhaps as a tribute to the classic “Dave’s Not Here” routine by his addle-pated chauffeurs) as the penultimate chapter in the increasingly aimless, soon to collapse Mustache Ride saga for two reasons. Number 1, he’s one of those guys that I cannot picture without a mustache. And B, the dazed and confused expression he shows in this 1978 card in many ways communicates to me not only the tenor of the times but the particular way in which the vibrant hippie movement of the ’60s had become a burnt cinder by the Carter years.

Throughout the 1970s baseball carried traces of the 1960s counterculture. To name three: the Kekich–Peterson wife swap, the no-hitter hurled by Dock Ellis while on acid (and a night of Jimi Hendrix records), the claim (for both its content and its sardonic, antiauthoritarian tone) by Bill Lee that he sprinkled marijuana on his pancakes every morning. But unlike the NBA, which featured a pony-tailed, bearded, Grateful Dead-befriending 7-foot redheaded vegetarian yeti with rumored connections to the famed Patty Hearst abduction case, major league baseball never provided a paycheck for the kind of fellow you might see hanging out in a Buddhist robe and sandals with Ram Dass and Allen Ginsberg at a Human Be-In reunion. Bill Lee was perhaps the closest thing, but he was really more an eccentric libertarian iconoclast than a member of any explicit or implicit movement; also, the closest he ever came to looking like a hippie was during the latter stages of his tenure with the Expos, when his gray-flecked beard made him resemble the 30-something former hippies he would soon be living among in his retirement in rural Vermont.

But what baseball did have in the 1970s, especially during its Carterian dregs, was a lot of guys who, as with Davey Lopes here, looked as if they might have a couple “lids” of “grass” back at their “pad.” All across America young men with mustaches were stumbling through their lives with cannabis in their bloodstream and corporate Rock songs stuck in their head. Gone were the days when the drugs and the music seemed to herald the opening of heaven on earth. Now it was all about trying to hold down a job to make payments on the customized van and, whenever possible, getting fucked up. “Don’t look back,” went one of the corporate Rock songs stuck in the heads of these young mustachioed hearty-partying men. “All we are is dust in the wind,” went another.


Tommy John, 1978

February 26, 2007

Mes·mer (mĕz’mer), Franz or Friedrich Anton 1734–1815. Austrian physician who sought to treat disease through animal magnetism, an early therapeutic application of hypnotism.

mes·mer·ize (mĕz’me-rīz’) tr.v. –ized, -iz·ing, iz·es 1. To spellbind; enthrall: “he could mesmerize an audience by the sheer force of his presence” (Justin Kaplan). 2. To hypnotize.

Wil·ker (wĭ­l’ker), Josh. Born 1968. American proofreader who rode public transportation a lot.

wil·ker·ize (wĭ­l’ke-rīz’) tr.v. –ized, -iz·ing, iz·es 1. To mar or erode the value of, paradoxically as a result of both neglect and an overly needy sense of attachment: “I have tons of wilkerized [baseball] cards” (Anonymous). 2. To damage by way of ineptitude or overly crude handling: “Too much cursing. The posting was wilkerized” (Earl Fibril). 3. To squander: “But, alas, I had spent the entire evening smoking marijuana resin through a punctured Sprite can and watching old episodes of Kung Fu. My chances of graduating had been wilkerized.” (Butch Pixis III)

Of the four definitions listed above, only two of them are actually to be found in either of my two dictionaries, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition. OK, yes, wilkerize has not yet found its way into the official records of language, which I suppose should not be surprising since I only began to push for its wider usage three days ago in this extremely obscure forum while ruminating on the greatness of Harmon Killebrew.

A more surprising exclusion from my two fairly recent dictionaries (both published since the year 2000) is the term Tommy John surgery, which in both tomes should be but isn’t tucked in between tommy gun (or Tommy gun) (“a Thompson submachine gun”) and tommyrot (“utter foolishness”).

By comparison, Lou Gehrig’s disease is listed in both books, leading me to believe that, even though Gary Cooper, or even Gary Coleman, never starred in a movie about Tommy John, Tommy John surgery has a chance to someday make it into the dictionaries. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the term Tommy John surgery is currently used more often than the term Lou Gehrig’s disease. I don’t know how these things are decided, but maybe there’s a word counter somewhere, a guy with a big blackboard who makes a mark each time a nondictionaried word (such as “nondictionaried”) is used, then when the predetermined limit is reached he rings a bell or sends a message via suctioned pneumatic tube to some more influential cog in the high-stakes dictionary racket and the higher-up in turn adds the word to the canon.

It won’t be long for this to happen to the term Tommy John surgery, I think. The annual late-February, early-March spike in the usage of the term has become a herald that winter is on its last legs: every year at this time, news reports on the recovery of hurlers who have recently undergone Tommy John surgery abound. What baseball fan doesn’t enjoy such stories? It’s always a pleasant read, because it’s always about guys you sort of forgot about who are coming back. You may have even assumed they were through, but here they are again, possibly even stronger than ever, thanks to good old Tommy John surgery.

Anyway, the inclusion of the term in the dictionaries will of course immortalize the man it is named after, Tommy John, pictured here in 1978 at the very crest of what was at the time a miraculous comeback from arm trouble. In 1974 he had been the first athlete to get the now famous surgery, and he had then sat out the 1975 season with the odds of his ever pitching again placed at a hundred to one by his surgeon, Dr. Frank Jobe. In his early thirties during his recovery, not a young man in terms of athletic life, Tommy John must have had thoughts throughout the long exile that he might never come back. But come back he did, compiling a decent 10-10 record in his first year with a reconstructed arm (at the time, due to the popularity of the Six Million Dollar Man television show, Tommy John’s repaired appendage was often referred to as being “bionic”), then in 1977 helped lead the Dodgers to a pennant with a 20-7 record that would have been a shining accomplishment for anyone and was downright astounding for a man who had just a couple years earlier been basically marked for athletic death.

More amazing still, Tommy John went on to play for a total of 26 seasons in the major leagues, racking up even more post-surgery than pre-surgery victories. He hasn’t yet made it into the Hall of Fame (in the most recent voting he was named on 22.9% of the ballots, far short of the required 75%), but even if he never does his name will certainly live on after him. As befitting a man who had his most, well, mesmerizing moments in sunny, optimistic Dodger blue, Tommy John will soon enough become enshrined in our lexicon as part of a term that has come to signify a kind of all-American nexus of can-do medical acumen, athletic prowess, and never-quit regenerative spirit. Here in America we can do it! We can fix what is broken! We can come up with a solution! We can return from the disabled list! We can heal the sick! We can feed the hungry! We can maybe even purify and renew the seemingly hopelessly wilkerized!


Derrel Thomas

December 16, 2006

From 1975 through 1980, the years of my heaviest interest in baseball, i.e., my childhood, the San Diego Padres always finished just behind the San Francisco Giants:

1975: The Giants finished third and the Padres fourth.
1976: The Giants finished fourth and the Padres fifth.
1977: The Giants finished fourth and the Padres fifth.
1978: The Giants surged back up to third, the Padres barnicled to their hull in fourth.
1979: The Giants fell back into fourth, shoving the Padres into fifth.
1980: The Giants plummeted to fifth, using the sixth-place Padres to cushion their fall.

(Incidentally, the Padres did not break out of the pattern of having their view of the upper reaches of the N.L. West blocked by the Giants’ ass until the arrival of Tony Gwynn.)

I figure this season-in, season-out, caste-system clumping of the two mediocre teams is one reason why I have always associated them, others lesser reasons probably including the fact that they were both about as far away from me as possible and both began with the word “San.” Because of this association, I have long had the belief that players were constantly shuttling back and forth between the two teams. This belief gained strength in the late 1980s, when, because of hallucinogenic drugs, literary pretensions, and certain painful events occuring in Shea Stadium in October of 1986, I was at a particularly pronounced remove from my former childhood religion of baseball, and so had trouble keeping track of whether Craig Lefferts was a Padre or a Giant. One minute he seemed to be on the Padres, the next the Giants, and the next back where he’d seemed to have been in the first place, my confusion based in part on the actual trade that brought him from one team to the other but also because I was mixing him up at various times with Scott Garrelts, Greg Harris, the other Greg Harris, or Greg Minton.

Anyway, despite whatever the actually reality of the situation was, I have for many years dimly pictured a glum brown and yellow bus with orange stripes dedicated primarily to the constant plodding movement of players up and down the California coastline from one fairly desolate N.L. West situation to another slightly less desolate N.L. West situation, or vice versa. This conceit may have been given fuel by the unfolding story in my baseball card collecting days of Derrel Thomas, who was among my earliest cards as a Padre, then was a Giant for some years, then was a Padre again before briefly disappearing from view. In truth I had just failed to get his card in any of the packs I bought that disappeared year, but if I’d thought about the absence, which I probably didn’t, I might have hypothesized that Derrel Thomas had opted to retire rather than take yet another ride on the brown and yellow and orange bus. Instead, he had found an even better way to free himself from being the square blip drifting back and forth across an otherwise blank screen in the Sisyphusian Padre-Giant game of Pong. I imagine that such a scenario of escape as his–to the sky blue Dodgers, perennial chisel-jawed contenders for the N.L. West crown–had been spoken of often but without much hope on the brown and yellow and orange bus, like Ratso Rizzo wheezing and coughing and dying as he impotently dreams aloud of someday making it to Florida.

Well, Ratso Rizzo may have never made it to his land of milk and honey, but Derrel Thomas did. Here he is in one of the last cards of my collecting days, on the brink of being a 1981 strike-year (hence at least partially asterisked) champion. He seems alert, slightly apprehensive, and a bit haggard, as if he’s spent most of the last decade sleeping lightly on long, seedy busrides with his duffel bag on his lap and a boxcutter gripped in his fist. This expression and the odd combination of positions listed on his card–“OF-2B”–suggests to me that part of the reason he was able to escape the brown and yellow and orange abyss was that he made absolutely sure the Dodgers knew he’d do whatever it took for them to give him a chance. If Derrel Thomas’s escape from the Padres-Giants suggest an alternate, happy ending to Midnight Cowboy, the events that must have enabled that escape suggest the beginning of another film from Hollywood’s golden age, a film I for some reason keep returning to whenever I meditate for long on the Padres and Giants of the 1970s . . .

Personnel Officer: Wanna work uptown nights? South Bronx? Harlem?

Travis Bickle: I’ll work anytime, anywhere.

Personnel Officer: Will you work Jewish holidays?

Travis Bickle: Anytime, anywhere.

In his first two seasons on the Dodgers, Derrel “Anytime Anywhere” Thomas proved he was a man of his word, logging hours at every position on the field except pitcher, including five games as a catcher. As Travis Bickle put it, “It’s a long hustle, but it keeps me real busy.”


Steve Garvey

October 6, 2006

“The formula ‘two and two make five’ is not without its attractions.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

The perfect all-American asphyxia-blue two-plus-two-makes-four symmetry of this 1976 card is broken only by the reaching out of the 1974 NL MVP’s glove hand, an aesthetic disturbance that seems to call on the viewer to complete some larger symmetrical pattern. An honorable, well-adjusted, Garveyesque man would respond to this beckoning with a fittingly direct rock-jawed all-American reply. A firm handshake. A straight brisk overhand strike. A logical balancing of the equation. Why does the only answer that appeals to me involve dropping a hefty deuce in the webbing of Steve Garvey’s mitt?