Archive for the ‘Milwaukee Brewers’ Category

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Clyde Wright

August 10, 2007
 


Adrift

Chapter 1

Sometimes I can barely tell if I’m awake or sleeping. I get up early and try to grip each day like I’m gripping a baseball but my focus falters and the day swells beyond my grasp, a helium balloon escaping, too big and slippery to hold, floating up and away into the blue or out toward the edge of the blurry horizon. Going, going, gone.

I woke up early this morning and the first thing I focused on was this 1975 Clyde Wright card, its background familiar: a world for directionless wandering. It looked less like a baseball field than a deadened seaside heath creased with sandy meandering paths. The presence of the uniformed player in the foreground made me think that the background was actually some special field designed for a strange mutation of baseball that features several diverging basepaths instead of the familiar unequivocal diamond.

In this mutation baserunners must decide which basepath to run down, some runners by chance choosing a route bringing them back home while others branch off into wider and ever more hopeless digressions. The games never officially end, not really, their box scores always marked with multiple asterisks to signal all the runners still spiraling deeper and deeper into an almost surely inescapable maze of bad choices. These games would only be played in natural light and would end when the sun went down, some runs in, some outs recorded, the voices of the unaccounted echoing back toward the half-empty dugouts in the dusk.

Clyde Wright seems to have some familiarity with the game of shadows and fog apparently set to commence on the field behind him. He has just finished a season in which he won only 9 games and lost 20, and by the time this image of him will appear in packs of baseball cards he will already have been shipped off to the Rangers in exchange for fellow Cardboard God netherworld wanderer Pete Broberg, missing by mere months the chance to be a teammate of a third denizen of the era’s ethereal marginalia, Kurt Bevacqua. In fact, due to a mistake, this card relates the erroneous news that Clyde Wright has never yet officially been a Brewer, his statistics listing all of his seasons including the most recent one as being in the employ of the Angels. In truth he had turned in his fresh 20-loss season for the Brewers, but in the world of this card he is only theoretically a Brewer, and when this conditional status is combined with his impending trade to the Rangers the Clyde Wright of this card becomes someone who is neither here nor there, not an Angel, not a Brewer, not a Ranger. He is nowhere.

You can see by the expression on his face that he doesn’t like this. It will only get worse. Within a year he will be out of the majors, then he will play for a while in Japan, where a predilection for alcohol will bloom into fullblown addiction, that eroding realm where one wrong turn gives way to the next and the next and the next until getting back to where you started begins to seem impossible.

But there is some resolve in Clyde Wright’s face, too. This is after all the first Angel to ever pitch a no-hitter (Correction: As pointed out in the comments below, the great Bo Belinsky actually pitched the first Angels no-hitter.), and the team’s second ever 20-game winner, and still the holder of the franchise record for most wins in a season by a lefty. And this is the man who did in fact fight his way back out of all the wrong turns and spiraling, waning cul de sacs, who eventually got sober (he now runs the Clyde Wright Pitching School back in Anaheim). So even though in the nowhere moment of this card he is on the brink of slipping off into oblivion there is something in his tense features that hints of his unwillingness to quietly disappear. And this troubled battler seems to be pointing.

When I woke up this morning, early, teetering between dream-weighted sleep and an unholdable helium day, my gaze drifted past Clyde Wright toward the background of this card. Clyde Wright was trying to point back into my life.

“Don’t come this way,” he seemed to be saying.

But then again he had his glove hand open and nothing in it, as if he required me to grab hold of the day as if it were a baseball and throw it at his target, as if he required me to not turn around and walk away but rather to join him in his world. The day ended up swelling and slipping from my grasp and here I am, once again, inside another Cardboard God landscape, wandering the labyrinth of paths that all eventually dissolve into infinity beyond the falling Angel.

(continued in Ed Crosby)

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Hank Aaron

August 8, 2007
 

“I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball’s career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment which requires skill, longevity and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.” -Hank Aaron, 8/07/07

I just finished reading The Soul of Baseball, Joe Posnanski’s excellent book about a year spent traveling around America with a 94-year-old Buck O’Neil. I highly recommend the book (as well as Posnanski’s brilliant, enjoyable blog). One section in the book covers O’Neil’s reactions to the congressional hearings on steroids in baseball in 2005. O’Neil, who as many know was an excellent player and manager in the Negro Leagues, the first African American coach in the major leagues, a renowned scout whose signings included Lou Brock, Joe Carter, and (most importantly for myself and other children of the ’70s) the awe-inspiring Oscar Gamble, and an unmatched storyteller, historian, and ambassador for the game, was both drawn to and pained by the congressional hearings. In his mind, no one was being asked in those hearings to speak for baseball. O’Neil’s life was a glowing illustration of his belief that baseball was religion, but his views on steroid use were far from preachy; he knew that baseball players had always looked for an edge any way they could, and the only reason steroids hadn’t been used back in his day was because they hadn’t been available. Still, he found the steroid hearings wrenching, as if his beloved game had been thrown in a stockade at the center of town and was now being pelted with stinking, rotten fruit. 

Many people still sense a rotten stink on the game. Many people are bitter about the game they once loved. Buck O’Neil had as much opportunity to be bitter about baseball as anyone. He was not given the chance to be a major league player even though he was good enough. He was not given the chance to be a major league manager even though he was good enough. In his last year of life he was shockingly left out of a large collection of Negro Leaguers who were at long last enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame. But he was never bitter, choosing instead to focus on finding and nourishing life and love, two rivers which to him kept intersecting again and again in his favorite game. Buck O’Neil was a great man.

My first thought when I found out this morning that the home run record had been broken was “so what?” Then I watched the video of the home run and was a little repelled by the record-breaker’s home-plate-touching moment, when he seemed almost oblivious to his son, who was hugging him. (Instead of hugging back, the record-holder focused on pointing with his bulging arms at the sky. I guess I hate religion if it means sons go unhugged.) (Author note/update: as pointed out by a couple readers in the comments below, he was actually pointing toward and thinking about his dad.) But anyway the bitterness dissolved when I saw the words of a man who, like Buck O’Neil, might have real cause to be bitter. They are noble words, classy words, and they’re true words, too. As unappealing as you or I might find the current record-holder, he did show a ton of “skill, longevity and determination.” He is also, ‘roids or not, the most fearsome hitter I’ve ever seen. Barry Bonds is a great baseball player. 

Hank Aaron is a great man.

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Bob Hansen

May 18, 2007
 

 
I.
In the spring of 1990 I graduated from a small state college in northern Vermont, Johnson State. All the friends I’d partied with for my first couple years had dropped out or transferred by then. One of them, a short blond burnout named Iggy, had in his brief drug-addled tenure occasionally referred to the college as Johnson Skate.

“Because,” he rasped, “everyone here is just skating on through.”

The ceremony went on for a long time, several students from the graduation planning committee taking turns going on at length about their generic memories. It was in a tent and a light drizzle periodically drummed down on the canvas above our heads. I was hungover and starving. They draped some kind of sash over me when I went up to get my diploma, just as they had done for the others, and there was some tepid applause, as there was for everyone before and after me.

A few days later I started working on the campus maintenance crew for the second straight summer. One of our first jobs was to take down the graduation tent. My plan was to save up money throughout the summer and use it for a plane ticket back to China, where I’d spent my second-to-last semester. I’d finally lost my virginity over there, a miracle that prompted me to wrench my feelings of gratitude and lust into something very much resembling love. I planned to go back and live with the virginity-unburdener, a college student named Li Hong. I even had a job lined up, teaching English at the university where I’d studied during my semester in Shanghai.

This plan ended up falling through, and when it did I had no clue what to do with myself. I used my maintenance job money to travel to Europe for a couple months. I stayed in youth hostels, hitch-hiked some, took trains and buses when the hitching was too hard, ate gyros, beat off once in a while in bathroom stalls, went to many museums, sat around in churches a lot because you could just sit there as long as you wanted for free. Eventually my money ran thin and I started thinking about heading back. To what? I kept thinking.  

II.
This is Bob Hansen’s only baseball card. After several years in the minors he had gotten the callup the season before, 1974, and had done well, hitting .295 and, as the back of the card puts it, “time and time again [coming] through with key pinch-hits in clutch situations for Brewers.” He didn’t get back to the big club again until 1976, his .164 average in just 61 at-bats prompting neither the Brewers to give him any further looks nor the Topps company to produce any more cards in his likeness.

But at least he made the most of his one baseball card. Generally, players featured in the baseball card still-life of a batting stance convey either a wax museum lifelessness or a cringing uncertainty. On the other hand, the grizzled, faintly mirthful Hansen reminds me of Ernest Borgnine in the Wild Bunch, ready to follow William Holden into a hail of bullets.

More specifically, he’s like Borgnine in that very last slim moment right before the climactic gun battle. Holden’s character, Pike, has just shot El Jefe, and now Pike, Dutch (Borgnine), and the Gorch brothers (Ben Johnson and the incomparable Warren Oates) are about to face off against hundreds of El Jefe’s men. They are doomed. But the last sound you hear before the bullets start tearing into flesh is Borgnine’s giggle.

It’s good to be alive.

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Kurt Bevacqua

March 27, 2007
kurt-bevacqua-76Prayer for Expansion, Part 1

So last night I woke up suffocating. I bolted upright in bed as I gained consciousness, my lungs empty and my nose and mouth unable to suck in any air, as if my body had forgotten how to do its most basic work. I finally broke the spell by gasping in a shred of breath as if pulling in syrup through a narrow straw, but not before thinking I might be through.

It happens once in a while. I guess it’s sleep apnea, not that I really know much about that. But thoughts about what it is, or might be, don’t occur to me during the moment of panic, nor do they help during the unsettling aftermath, when I lie awake in the dark breathing greedily and worrying about death.
It’s much easier to push such thoughts to the side in broad daylight, but at 3 in the morning the eventuality of someday not being anything forever seems as concrete and present as the pulsing colon in the digital readout on my bedside alarm clock. Near and getting nearer with each pulse.
Maybe I need a religion, a way to come to terms with these thoughts. In some ways this whole project of mine, writing about my childhood baseball cards, has been a meandering effort in that direction all along, ever since I kicked things off with an attempt at an ode to the joy and heartbreak of Mark Fidrych.
If anything’s going to give me solace or guidance or support in this life, if anything’s going to serve as my religion, however flimsy, it’s going to be these rectangles of cardboard, which I’ve carried with me in a shoebox for decades, far longer than anything else I’ve ever owned, all the way into a stunned middle age, the present defined in rougher moments by the shock of having lived past the statistical halfway marker while still feeling as if life has barely begun, the past a ragged riddle of failure, the future a TV Guide grid of reruns with a fixed end, a scheduled and unchangeable time when the station will go off the air and the screen will go blank.

These moments are thin, airless, a kind of suffocation. So I’m fighting for more air, more breath, more life. I’m trying to bring about a feeling of wider horizons and greater possibilities. I’m trying to encourage expansion. But I need help.

So I’m calling on the Cardboard Gods.

Help me, Mark Fidrych. Help me, Tom Hutton. Help me, Rich Dauer.

Help me, Kurt Bevacqua.

The first thing that comes to mind when I say the words Kurt Bevacqua is that he was the winner of a contest among major leaguers to blow the biggest bubble using Bazooka bubble gum. This feat, celebrated in a special 1976 Topps card  that I do not own but that I was intimately familiar with (my brother must have owned it), could not possibly have loomed larger in my 8-year-old mind. It was an event that existed at the nexus of practically everything I loved most at that time: baseball; sugary candy; the 1970s Guinness Book of World Records craze for transforming nonsensical trivialities (The longest fingernails! The fattest motorbike riding twins! The most weight pulled by a man using only his teeth!) into celebrated, even somehow numinous, significance; and even the whole 1970s proliferation of crazes (the pet rock, mood rings, streaking) that the Guinness Book of World Records mania seemed a part of, as did, at least in my mind, the 1975 Topps bubble gum contest. And not least among the factors feeding into my infatuation with the event was the name of the event’s winner. The name was unknown to me, but at that time any and all major leaguers were gods, and the gods that were unknown were no less powerful and if anything more mysterious. More than that, the unusual collision of consonants in Kurt Bevacqua’s name was to my still-growing reading abilities like a difficult but not impossible new move to an eager karate student. It did not immediately roll off my tongue, but after a few times practicing it, I had it, and its whipping double hard-K sound cracked out loud in the changed air of my bedroom.
And Kurt Bevacqua’s feat did not fade from my mind in subsequent years but rather served as a seemingly reachable level of immortality. (The allure of records was that they would fix your name into the books forever.) His bubble was big, but it wasn’t that much bigger than the bubbles I could blow, and as the years went on I blew bigger and bigger bubbles, using more and more gum and whispering breaths with more and more subtlety into the fragile, pendulous globe that grew like a second featureless head from my own kissing lips, until I was verging on thinking that I was almost the equal, at least in blowing bubbles, to this Cardboard God.
By the time I’d come to this point, however, the feat had lost most of its magic. In the beginning, the attempt to match Kurt Bevacqua had been something I’d done in tandem with my brother. If either of us had a good bubble going, and the other was in another room in the house, the bubble blower would carefully make his way to the room where the other was and alert them to the possible Bevacqua-defeating extrusion of Bazooka with an urgent, if necessarily soft, moaning sound in the throat. The other would look up from the comic book or TV show he was absorbed in and honor the possibly earth-shaking significance of the moment with a rapt gaze and an almost prayerful silence. But as the years went by my brother’s interest in such things waned, then disappeared altogether, and so I was left to pursue Bevacqua in solitude, understanding even as I did so that I was childish, uncool, an understanding that made the ritual seem even more solitary than it already was, stripping it even of the illusion of being something the world might still be interested in.
This anticlimactic phase emptied into the wider anticlimax of the figures in my baseball cards ceasing, at some point during the spasms of puberty, to be godlike. Kurt Bevacqua was a prime example of this, my stronger understanding of the facts of baseball combining with my growing disinterest in baseball to reduce the major league careers of journeymen such as Kurt Bevacqua to inconsequentiality. By the time the persistent Bevacqua, who lasted 15 seasons in the major leagues despite the apparent accuracy (considering Bevacqua’s career BA/OBP/SLG averages of .236/.305/.327) of Tommy Lasorda’s semi-famous claim that “fucking Bevacqua couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a fucking boat,” had his one big moment in the limelight, hitting a game-winning three-run home run in a 1984 World Series game, I was barely even paying attention. Bevacqua’s thin-membraned bubble of a career finally popped the following year. I doubt that this happened with any fanfare. I sure as hell didn’t care.
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Gorman Thomas

January 5, 2007

Can someone please tell me what the fuck the Brewers are doing in the National League? When I last looked, I mean really looked, back before I got distracted in the early ’80s by the snares of high puberty and the ensuing ceaseless slide down into the ever-increasing ambiguities, ephemera, and obfuscations of adulthood, there was no clearer representative of the American League than the Brewers. They did not steal bases. They did not bunt. They did not send their keg-bellied hungover hurlers to the plate. They did not swat turf-aided fleet-footed triples ‘neath the ceiling of the Astrodome. No. They had the beards and long greasy hair of motorcycle thugs. They guzzled beer and slugged long home runs. They gnawed bulging wads of tobacco and struck out swinging. They listened to Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr. on their way to discharge shotguns at wildlife. They smashed into outfield fences and bought mescaline from hippies before pounding them with tire irons. Didn’t they? I mean, now that they are in something called the Central Division of the National Fucking League I’m not so sure of anything. But I do know I can at least say this: as much as any team was ever one guy, the Milwaukee Brewers in the late ’70s and early ’80s were Gorman Thomas. And Gorman Thomas did not ever play in the National League. Until October 1982, that is, and that was only because by then the Brewers had laid waste to all the American League teams in their path and the only thing left for them to conquer was the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League, which they probably would have done if the majority of games in the 1982 World Series were played in an American League park and not upon the artificial National League turf of Busch Stadium. After those four National League games, Gorman Thomas was never the same, and neither were the Brewers, and come to think of it neither was I.

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Hank Aaron

November 9, 2006
 

The happiest moment of my childhood came during a game between my little league team, the Mets, and the usually dominant Yankees, coached by aforementioned future convicted pederast Mick Lewis. Mick’s Yankees had won the league title the first three years I’d been in little league while my team had gone 9-6, 6-9, and 6-9, two of the losses each year horrific blowouts at the hands of the Yankees. There was no such thing as a mercy rule back then, so they beat the shit out of us until it got too dark to see, final scores usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 37-2.

Mick was revered as a great teacher of the game. His team was always getting the jump on everybody else, having preseason training camps inside gymnasiums during those neverending weeks in Vermont when the calendar says spring but snow and freezing rain keep pounding down. Mick was dedicated, even umpiring all the games his team wasn’t playing in, which probably also allowed him to probe for weaknesses among the opposition. Contrary to the cliched image of the dominant, red-faced, win-at-all-costs little league dictator, Mick was actually quite soft-spoken and mild, though he also was able to carry an air of authority about him. All the kids who weren’t on his team wished they were.

But the real key to his success, at least in the commonly held view, which mixed admiration with envy, was that unlike other little league managers who just picked names out of a hat when it came time to draft new 8-year-olds every year, Mick “scouted.” I was never exactly sure what this scouting entailed, but of course it creeps me out to recall my vague conception of it: Mick pulling up to playgrounds and parking, his car idling as he looked out from beneath his cool flip-down sunglasses in hopes of spotting some “natural talent.” And of course it creeps me out even further to remember that on numerous occasions I’d wished that I’d been one of his “finds.”

Anyway, in my fourth year, which would turn out to be another 6–9 trudge for the Mets, Mick’s team suddenly got terrible, though somehow even this got framed in professional-seeming terms, the Yankees “rebuilding” instead of just sucking. I guess Mick’s scouting had temporarily failed him. Who knows, maybe he had tried to break certain habits for a while, vowing to himself to stay away from playgrounds. All I know is we finally got our chance to kick their ass. The happiest moment of my childhood occurred during the first of these whuppings.

I hit a ball over the leftfield fence.

In my little league, to hit a home run was to become a made man. Every year, only a handful of guys managed it, each of them instantly becoming little league famous. My hallowed older brother had hit two in his final year on the Mets two years earlier, but since he was a lot bigger and better than me at sports and since I wore glasses (nobody who hit home runs wore glasses) I always assumed such a thing was beyond my reach. Though I was an OK hitter for batting average, I’d never even hit a ball off the fence. But I guess that at-bat against the sucking Yankees provided the perfect storm–a straight medium-fast pitch right down the middle from a talented but spindly 8-year-old, Mike LaRoque, a good swing by me, and about an inch clearance both over the chain-link leftfield fence and to the right of the short metal foul pole. The more mythic little league heroes pounded their homers into the river a hundred feet beyond the centerfield fence, but so what? If I knew anything from my baseball cards it was that a home run was a home run.

I remember not really understanding what had happened until I saw the first-base ump circling his finger in the air, the sign for the runner to “touch them all.” I staggered around the bases with a huge dumb grin on my face, and at home plate all my teammates mobbed me.

We pounded the Yankees so badly that I came up again that same inning. As I was about to dig in for the first pitch I heard someone calling to me from the shadows behind the chicken wire covering the opposing dugout. It was Mick.

“Josh,” Mick said. “Hey, Josh.” I turned toward the Yankee dugout.

“No batter here, right, Josh?” Mick said, showing me his in-joke, only-for-the-made-guys smile.

I promptly popped out to the second baseman, ending the inning.

In Pagan Kennedy’s new novel, Confessions of a Memory Eater, a disgruntled 40-year-old history professor experiments with a new drug that allows him to return with total clarity to any moment in his past. I have no doubt that if I ever got a chance to use this drug my first stop would be the day I hit a home run. I’d start the memory as I was walking to the plate and end it before my next at-bat, before my name was on Mick Lewis’s tongue, before my life of mostly popping out to second base resumed. I’d end it with me stomping on home plate as my teammates laughed and screamed and pummeled me.

In other words, I’d go back to the one slim beautiful moment when I was somehow miraculously Hank Fucking Aaron.