Archive for the ‘New York Mets’ Category

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Ed Kranepool

August 14, 2019

Ed Kranepool

Ed Kranepool looks like he’s probably having fun, and why wouldn’t he be? He’s leaning on a batting cage with a bat tucked under his arm, a sign that he’ll soon be getting a turn to take some cuts. He’s been playing major league baseball for a while, and at this point he’s near the end of the road, but he’s not there yet, and even though at the time of this photo he’s in the midst of a down year he’s recently put in his best string of seasons of his career, batting .300, .323, .292, and .280 over a four year span from 1974 through 1977. What a hitter! So why wouldn’t he be happy by the batting cage? This is what he lives for.

***

This is what you lived for and why you lived.

I read that line this morning, not for the first time, but for the first time since I became a father. It’s in the Alfred Slote young adult novel Hang Tough, Paul Mather. I wrote about that book on this site over eleven years ago, which is probably the last time I reread the book. I read it several times when I was a kid and several more times as an adult, but this time a moment in the book hit me in a way that made me realize I hadn’t before experienced the novel as a father.

The book’s narrator, Paul Mather, utters the line about what you live for and why you live after touching a baseball for the first time in over a year, feeling it, throwing it, slowly at first, and then, once he’s warmed up, finally doing what he loves best in the world: pitching. At this early point in the novel all that’s known is that Paul Mather is seriously ill, so ill that he’s been ordered by his doctors and parents to avoid physical activity, including baseball, and so when he begins firing fastballs, changeups, and curves to Monk Lawler, a fellow 12-year-old in a town he’s just arrived in to get treatment for his illness, I always get a lump in my throat. It was that way the first time I ever read the book, when I was a 12-year-old who lived for baseball. I could imagine that taking baseball away would be like taking life away.

It was no different this time. I’ll always root for Paul Mather as much as I’ve ever rooted for anyone on a baseball field, real or imagined. But on this reading, the tail end of the scene of Paul Mather holding and feeling and pitching a ball hit me in a new way. Paul’s exhibition is stopped by his father telling him to come inside. Paul notes that his father doesn’t sound mad, and that there’s something about his voice that made him think that his father had been watching for some time. I had to put the book down to stop the lump in my throat from getting bigger. I looked to my right, where my two sons were giggling at Spongebob Squarepants.

This is what I live for, I was thinking.

***

Ed Kranepool could be doffing his cap. I salute you. I thank you. That’s what I thought he was doing for the past few weeks. Night after night after my sons went to bed I came downstairs and looked at Ed Kranepool and imagined he was a talisman of gratitude. Why wouldn’t I? Earlier this year he received a kidney transplant, without which he wouldn’t be able to still be among the living. On a more personal level, why wouldn’t I want to find through him some way of expressing my own gratitude for my life, my family. For you too. When I was Paul Mather’s age, baseball was mostly what I lived for and why I lived. But when baseball slipped from my fingers, I started grasping for words, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Words without a reader are OK, like holding a baseball and feeling the potential of it, the faint hint of a pulse. But words only really come alive when they’re read, like when Paul Mather went from holding the ball to pitching it to Monk Lawler. Thank you for reading these words. This must also be what I live for. I’ve been doing it ever since I stopped living to throw a baseball, and I’ve never been able to stop throwing words.

Yes, Ed Kranepool could be doffing his cap. That’s what I believed for weeks. But tonight for whatever reason that view fell away. He seems now to merely be holding his cap up to shield the sun. Maybe someone has just directed his attention to someone or something out on the field that he was unable to see without angling his cap in such a way. Whatever, who knows? Ed Kranepool is simply passing the time, looking around, shooting the shit. Waiting for another chance to get in the cage and spray a few line drives all over the sunny field.

***

This afternoon at a park down the street from our house I pitched a few underhanded tosses to Jack, my older son. My wife was nearby on the playground with my younger son, which was allowing Jack and me to concentrate a little more than when both boys are with me, and the two of them end up fighting for turns. Jack hacked at the first few with an axe-wielding motion that he favors, and I decided to try to coach him a little. I didn’t do much, just got him to put his hands together on the bat and to bend his knees and balance his weight on both feet and swing more or less level.

“And watch the ball,” I said. “Watch it all the way.”

He missed a few while getting used to this new approach but finally connected and sent the ball flying over my head, farther than he ever had in his whole short beautiful life.

This is what you live for and why you live.

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Howard Johnson

April 21, 2019

Howard Johnson

Dazzler

Two

In the 1920s, a debt-ridden small business owner in Quincy, Massachusetts, doubled the butterfat in the ice cream he sold at the soda fountain in the back of his pharmacy. The ice cream quickly began to sell so well it was almost as if some supernatural magic were involved. Soon enough, the pharmacy as such ceased to exist, as the ice cream became the building block of a restaurant that the man named after himself, which was in turn so successful he opened another restaurant of the same name a few towns over. The two restaurants were recognizable as reproductions of one another not just by name and identical culinary offerings. Each restaurant had a bright orange roof. Over the next few decades, the number of orange-roofed restaurants grew. The concept of a franchised restaurant was not unknown at that time, but the level of national success of this new chain was unprecedented. The franchise blazed a bright orange trail across the land.

***

When the player shown here arrived in the majors, the orange-roofed restaurant empire built on doubled butterfat was nearing its twilight phase, its great growth over the previous fifty years slowing, not too far from being driven out of business altogether by the monstrous fast food chains in its wake. But in 1982, when this player debuted, Howard Johnson’s restaurants were still everywhere, a ubiquitous bright orange American repetition, and so when I heard there was a guy in the majors named Howard Johnson, it seemed ridiculous. I don’t think I was alone with that reaction, and even though after a few years people got somewhat used to his presence, his sudden leap in 1987 from an uneven platoon player to a dynamic superstar with a rare combination of power and speed was greeted with suspicion. Why the suspicion? He had been a number 1 draft pick; he’d shown ample glimpses of power and speed in the minors and in his part-time stints in the majors; and in 1987, when he was finally given the opportunity to find the rhythm of the game as an everyday player, he was 26, which is a common age at which promising players hit their prime. My theory is that if he’d had a name that didn’t remind everyone of ice cream and bright orange roofs, he would have been hailed more quickly as a blossoming talent, instead of the more dubious treatment he got, which peaked with several overt in-game accusations that he was, as it were, illegally doubling the butterfat in his bat. His bat was X-rayed six times throughout the season, each time with the intent of finding cork inside. The photo shown on this card is from the following season, 1988, his smile like that of a man found innocent, which is indeed what happened, each time. No butterfat in the recipe, no cork in the bat. He was not ridiculous but for real. Like his namesake before him, he had simply found an answer, and at least for a little while, he was full of possibilities. He was on the rise.     

***

Sometimes it feels like you’ve got your hands on the dazzling answer. I don’t often feel that way. More often I feel like I’m weighted down in one or another kind of debt. Or I feel like I’m not getting the chance to figure out a rhythm to life. Or I feel like I’m a fraud, a wielder of something doctored, altered, corked. But today, another Sunday, it got warm again, and this time the rain stayed away, and I stood in the alley next to our building beside my older son and held the handlebars of his bike in one hand and the back of his bike seat in the other. We’d just taken his training wheels off.  “We can give this a try, but remember,” I said, “if it doesn’t happen today, we can try again another time.” As a father, I favor this style of preemptive capitulation. (I’m a lot like Cyril’s dad in Breaking Away.) I fully expected the attempt to end with pronounced discouragement, if not a trip to the emergency room. But of course you probably already know that somehow, through nothing I did, despite my doubt, by the sheer grace of the universe, I touched magic today. We went up and down the alley a couple of times together, my hands on his bike, and then, still sure he was destined for swift defeat, I let go, and he wobbled and pedaled and . . . flew. I know that’s how it felt to him, because that’s how it had felt to me forty-five years before, and in my dreams of flying ever after I always pedaled up into the air, and now my boy Jack was doing it too, biking away from me past all the garbage bins I’d been sure he’d bash into, and he was on his way, and my empty hands sizzled as if they weren’t now suddenly after seven years empty but instead full of something ridiculously dazzling.

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Rusty Staub

March 30, 2018

Rusty Staub

After a specialist removed the breathing apparatus, it took my father about an hour and fifteen minutes to die. He was lying on a hospital bed in the critical care unit. His eyes were closed, and his swept-back hair and tipped back head made it look like he was flying, or like something invisible inside of him was flying out and casting his body back down to earth. My brother and I spoke later and discovered we were both watching images from our father’s life flash through our mind, as if the invisible ascension was passing through us as it rose. The images were vivid and quick, one giving way to another and another, a whole life compressed in a quickening kaleidoscope of light and love and loss. How can we even say we belong here? How we can we say this when we’re bound to leave?

***

I got this card not that long after my family moved away from my father. I was eight, in my second full year of collecting. I was in a new place. I wanted to belong. I was drawn to these cards.

The sun is shining on Rusty Staub, on his pale face, on his wavy pale orange hair, on all the colors of his bright uniform, the white and the blue and the hint—as if his personality filtered into the very fabric of the franchise—of orange. This moment of genuine happiness and ease was it, what baseball was for me: fun, sun on my face, some kind of belonging.

***

There were no last words at the bedside; the stroke had taken care of that. The night before the stroke was just a normal night. My mother made my father a meal he liked, and after it he refrained from his usual quick retreat back into his room. My mom finally realized what was going on.

“Are you waiting to hear me rehearse my lecture?” she asked.

He said something to the affirmative.

She had been preparing to teach a course on the history of printmaking and must have mentioned that she wanted to run it by him, just like she’d been running things like that by him for years.

“Oh, I’m too tired,” she said, “let’s just do it tomorrow.”

He probably then said OK and shuffled off to his room.

He was always there to listen, my father. He was there for my mom and for my brother and for me and for his few close friends, all big talkers and dreamers who needed a guy like my dad to listen. So it’s fitting that the last words of a listener were about the act of listening and an implicit affirmation that he would be available another time, any time, forever, to listen.

***

Rusty Staub never stayed in one place for long. A few years in Houston, a few in Montreal, a few in New York, a few in Detroit, back to Montreal for a moment, then Texas for another, then back to New York, to where my father too always returned. But everywhere Rusty Staub went he belonged. Everywhere he went, he emanated openness, friendliness, familiarity, somehow reaching out into the stands and out of a piece of cardboard to make you feel like you belonged.

***

I have always held these baseball cards between myself and death. How could there be death if someone could be a grown-up and play baseball really well and enjoy it like a kid and could also be named Rusty? How could there be death if Rusty, who already seemed like he had been around forever when I first met him in these cards, could outlast my own childhood in the 1970s? How could there be death if Rusty was still somehow miraculously lurking in the dugout into the mid-1980s, still ready to grab a bat and pinch hit. What a beautiful thing it was to see Rusty Staub amble out of the dugout to pinch hit! Who else would you rather see? Who could communicate the core message of this game and this life better than Rusty Staub? The message is not, it turns out, that there’s no death. Life is fleeting, life is suffering, life is to be enjoyed.

***

In the last minutes of my father’s life we were standing around his dying body and talking, my brother and me and my mother, about the restaurants he took my brother and me to on our visits. Mom remembered the “place with the round tables.”

“The Knickerbocker!” I said.

I used to get chicken in a basket at the Knickerbocker. I loved going there with Dad and Ian and getting chicken in the basket. I thought about that as Dad lay there unconscious, struggling for breath. I thought of all the restaurants he took us to in the 1970s and early 1980s. Our lives intersected with Rusty Staub’s for a little while as he went from restaurant to restaurant and we went from restaurant to restaurant. Life is fleeting, life is suffering, life is to be enjoyed. My favorite restaurant that Dad took us to occurred to me, an Italian place on MacDougal with pictures of actors and athletes on the walls. The last words spoken around my dad in his life were a restaurant I’m hoping tonight Rusty Staub, now also gone, enjoyed.

“And Monte’s,” I said.

They had a thing they did at Monte’s: they greeted you as if they knew you. After I left childhood it dawned on me that they couldn’t possibly remember us from one summer to the next, but as a kid I believed it. I believed.

My father took his last breaths as I thought about that place of warmth and happiness and belonging.

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Sergio Ferrer

February 27, 2018

Sergio Ferrer

Where is my father?

My father is in a box of ashes in Asheville. My father is at Shea. I am at Shea too. It’s 1979. There’s hardly anyone in the stands. The planes headed to and from Laguardia roar over the field every few minutes, causing my father to press his fingers in his ears. “Let’s go, Mets!” I shout every once in a while. My brother does too. My father grimaces down at the New York Times. My father buys us hot dogs and soda. He buys me a miniature plastic bullpen cart, the kind shaped like a baseball with little bats in front propping up a roof shaped like a Mets cap. I love it. I vow to hold onto it forever. But where is it? Where is Shea Stadium, for that matter? Where is Sergio Ferrer?

Sergio Ferrer spent the entire 1979 season with the New York Mets, the first time in his nine years in professional baseball that he didn’t spend some or all of the season in the minor leagues. And yet he only appeared in 32 games, and most of those appearances were so brief that they didn’t include a trip to the plate. He faced a pitcher only 9 times all year. I never noticed him, or if I do I don’t remember, so it’s like he was never there.

My father is in my bones and muscles and organs and blood and in the bones and muscles and organs and blood of my two sons. My father is in my gentleness with my sons and in my brooding desire to be left alone by my sons and in my periodic explosions of frustration with my sons and in my desire above all for happiness in my sons.

In 1979 Sergio Ferrer had 0 hits. All year long: nothing, and when it was over his major league career was over too. He got into some games that year as a defensive replacement, others as a pinch runner. In others he warmed up the pitcher if the catcher was busy switching into his gear. He sat. He perhaps occasionally held a bat, remembering what it felt like to connect. He waited.

My father is in the tiny scribbles of his handwriting on small white pieces of note paper in virtually every one of his books in his bookcase, his writing so tiny that it’s virtually unreadable, except you can always read enough to know that he was grappling deeply with what he was reading, all his life long wrestling like Jacob with the biggest ideas, the unknowable and unknown, wrestling for understanding, illumination, blessings. My father is in the tiny scribbles on pages in two folders now in my possession, one of the folders titled “My Jottings” and the other titled “My Musings.” Last year he ushered me into his room and showed me where he kept these folder. He knew it was getting near the end of the line, and he wanted me to know about his musings and jottings. The musings are handwritten and thus difficult to decipher, but the jottings were transferred at some point to a computer file that he then printed out on a dot matrix printer that makes all the lines faint and every third line seem italic, randomly emphasized. These jottings are his diary, starting in 1970 and running to 2011. It’s a slim folder. The entries themselves are usually short, and months and even sometimes years go by without an entry. The heaviest period is in 1979. The flurry of entries start with this one:

6-24-79
On June 24, upon getting up with her rocker mom fell and broke her hip.

Two days (and two entries) later, there’s this entry:

6-26-79
I am witnessing the unraveling of personhood, of the sweet and loving soul that is my mother. How she fights its dissolution, increasingly obsessed with her few possessions—her book with the names and addresses, birthdates, etc., her sweater, photographs. . . .

I weep uncontrollably . . . . 

I still haven’t wept uncontrollably. I haven’t really wept at all. I stare at baseball cards. In this one the distinct outline of the player’s worrying face stands in stark relief against a ghostly background. This creates a sense that Sergio Ferrer is not even really there at all but instead is a cardboard cutout. He could be lifted directly out of the purgatorial blur. Who would be left? There seem to perhaps be some figures in the background, but you can’t be sure. And anything happening here at this stadium that no longer exists in a year of losing and nothingnness might just as well not be happening at all.

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Ed Kranepool

October 23, 2017

Ed Kranepool

I’m just going to hang out a little with Ed Kranepool here. It’s just after 9 at night on a weekday. My kids are asleep. I worked all day, worked pretty hard, I guess, but my bike ride home lifted the work off my shoulders, and I was happy when I walked in the door and saw my family. I made dinner while my wife, exhausted from the work of dealing with two young boys all day, drew a bath for herself. Exley, my three-year-old, was really tired from getting up too early this morning, and he didn’t want to let her out of his sight. He cried inconsolably for a while. I held him and murmured to him, to no effect. My wife came out of the bathroom while the tub was filling.

“Look, I’ll be right back, Exley,” she said. She was naked. I’ve been with this woman for sixteen years now and I still want to construct a towering cathedral and spend the rest of my life kneeling inside it in a prayer of thanks every time I see her naked. Anyway, she left to submerge herself below the surface of some scalding water and away from all our needs for a few minutes, and Exley kept wailing. I finally got him to ratchet down to sob-sniffles, and then he laughed a little when I started trying to lob some little oval veggie chips up and into my mouth.

He helped me make tacos, and by helped me I mean he mangled some tomatoes, ate a few fistfuls of shredded cheese, and spilled some lettuce on the floor. I completed the tacos eventually, even though I was the only one who ate them, or, to be more accurate, shoved them in. Abby shoved down mostly lettuce and hot sauce, Exley took one bite of one taco, spilled the rest everywhere, and then began careening up and down the hall like a frat pledge at the end of a grain alcohol party, while Jack, who’s repulsed by food that’s mixed together in any way and would never eat tacos, picked a little at some plain noodles and broccoli. Why do I make tacos? Later, after dinner, or whatever you want to call our nightly collective ridicule of food-centered togetherness, I went downstairs for a while with Jack while Abby wrestled Exley into some pajamas.

“What if there’s a monster in the other room?” Jack asked.

“What if I have a bad dream tonight?” Jack asked.

“What if I’m dreaming right now?” Jack asked.

I told him some things: it’s OK to be scared of the dark. I used to be scared of the dark, I added, and then I added that, honestly, I’m still scared of the dark.

“But not here in my home,” I said. “I feel safe here.” This was mostly true, but just this morning, when I was first up with the boys and sitting at the table near our windows that look out on the street, I was visited by a horrible scenario, or revisited, I should say, as it comes to me every once in a while. I imagine a stray drive-by bullet piercing a window and killing one of my boys. We live in a neighborhood with shootings. That is to say, we live in America, where everyone is packing and either desperate or a maniac.

“It’s OK to be scared,” I told my son, “but everything is going to be OK.” I told Jack this, and then later I told it to Exley too. After my alone time with Jack, Jack goes up and reads books with Abby, and I play downstairs with Exley and then read him to sleep in the rocking chair. Tonight we played with a chess set and Exley scattered the pieces around, and then when we couldn’t find two pawns, Exley started to get upset.

“Me scared,” he said.

“Don’t worry, Sweet,” I said, using the nickname I’d given him. Actually what I most often call him is Kissy Sweet. How much longer is that going to last? He has already sternly and repeatedly instructed me to stop calling him a baby. And how much longer am I going to be able to feel his body go heavy and soft in my arms with oncoming sleep as I read about Curious George and the Man with the Yellow Hat?

Ed Kranepool, each and every one of these words is dedicated to you. Ed Kranepool, have you ever read to your children or maybe grandchildren about Curious George and the Man with the Yellow Hat and wondered, as I have after reciting so many of those stories again and again, whether the Man with the Yellow Hat has a heroin addiction? Why else, Ed Kranepool, would he continue disappearing, time and again, for wide unaccountable swaths of time while his pet monkey, clearly incapable of being left alone, wreaks havoc to such an extent as to be symbolic of havoc itself?

But I digress, Ed Kranepool, and really, Ed Kranepool, what I want to say to you because I don’t have anyone else to say it to is thanks. Thanks for that feeling of my younger boy falling asleep in my arms, and for the blue eyes of my older boy as he stares somehow both at me and through me and wonders for the first time in his life aloud if this is all a dream, and for that feeling of seeing my wife without any clothes on, and for that feeling of riding through Chicago streets and flying, almost, with the joy of exertion and release and anticipation and being alive.

What if this is all a dream, Ed Kranepool? And are you still dreaming it, Ed Kranepool? It’s a few months now since the stories came out that you were in dire need of a kidney, that you had auctioned off your World Series ring, that were on a waiting list, that time was running out. I know you felt what I felt. That connection, that bliss. I feel it, and I don’t fully know why, when I say your familiar, friendly, evaporating name.

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Vada Pinson and Ron Hodges

October 26, 2015

Vada PinsonRon hodges 78World Series preview

Tonight after my wife and I got our two boys to sleep I came down to our carpeted basement and cleared out a space in the thick tangle of baby toys and toddler toys and flipped these two baseball cards at the wall, best four out of seven.

Earlier, while I was dancing the younger boy to sleep, I was wondering about baseball, specifically about whether there’s any other player in history besides Bret Saberhagen who, arguably, centered one franchise’s best moment and another franchise’s worst moment. I was seventeen years old and living in Boston when that first moment occurred, Saberhagen’s shutout victory as a 21-year-old in Game Seven of the 1985 World Series. I’d gotten my GED earlier that summer, and a few months later, in January, I’d realize I hated working and start college. Boy, those were some in-between days. I was working a few hours a week in an ice cream store, playing solitaire Strat-O-Matic, smoking resin shavings, going to matinees of Teen Wolf and Fletch. Sometimes I’d write in my journal. It was starting to dawn on me that this, writing, was really the only thing I’d want to do with myself upon my expulsion from childhood. Saberhagen’s win inspired a column by a Boston Globe writer, probably Bob Ryan, that I really liked. I cut it out and put it in my journal, something I never did before and haven’t done since. I carried it with me for some time, but I don’t have it anymore. I’m not sure why I cut out the article. I loved to read about sports, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a sportswriter. I wanted to write The Catcher in the Rye or On the Road. Still, something about the article—I think it was probably an ode to how baseball keeps us young forever, something like that—spoke to me. I was pretty fucking lost right about then, and yet not that far from when life had made sense, back when I was a kid collecting these cards.

Anyway I went off to college and studied writing, avoiding writing about sports because it didn’t seem, I don’t know, literary. I think most young writers are dumb assholes in this way, avoiding who they are in hopes of being someone else altogether. When college was over, sports edged its way onto my pages as I wrote a novel about kids playing basketball in Tompkins Square Park. I finished it in the fall of 1991, and I spent quite a while hoping I could get it published and begin immediately living entirely off my writing. By 1993, this dream had pretty much run its course, and I was back to another long round of in-between days, this time in New York City. I worked some hours a week in a liquor store, read Dostoyevsky and the sports pages, watched late afternoon Charles in Charge reruns with religious constancy, if not fervor, and every few days drank cheap beer with my friends at the International Bar for hours, through the night, until the sun started pushing up over the gray buildings in the east like a bruise.

I went to Mets games periodically. Somewhere in there Bret Saberhagen threw bleach at some sportswriters. It epitomized the depths of one of the most miserable seasons ever by any team, not just in terms of how bad they were or even how disappointing they were (this was the high-salaried team that inspired a book titled The Worst Team Money Could Buy) but in just how unhappy they all seemed to be, the absolute opposite of the idyll of joy captured, to my young hungering ear, at least, by the Globe column on Saberhagen’s World Series heroics.

My baby fell asleep in the carrier I wear on my chest as I was thinking about all this. I sing to him as I’m getting him to sleep, mostly stuff I make up off the top of my head. Today’s song was pretty bad, insufferable treacle, but true.

I’m so glad you’re my baby
I’m so lucky you’re my baby
I’m so grateful you’re my baby
You’re my little sweet baby boy

A few refrains of that and he was zonked out on my chest. There was a time when I didn’t think I’d ever escape the feeling of wanting to throw bleach on the world. To sting it, harm it. To get it to back off. To wipe it clean, drain it of color. How is it even possible that the world didn’t listen?

When my baby was asleep I handed him to his mother, who went to lay him down, and I came downstairs to figure out who was going to win this year’s World Series. The problem was, I was now thinking about all those Mets game, not just the ones I saw as a kid that may or may not have featured Ron Hodges but all those games in the ’90s when I was in-between this and that.

Once I rode the subway to Shea with my friend Pete. We’d gotten our hands on free tickets to a rainout-generated single-admission doubleheader that was already in progress between the Mets, who were nearing the end of another bad season, and some other team whose identity escapes me now. Nothing was left to be decided. Rosters had expanded to include players who’d never played in the majors before and never would again. We arrived as the doubleheader opener was in its last innings. Pete asked a security guy near the entrance the score. We had been hurrying. I don’t know why.

“Losing,” the guard told us.

“Yeah?” Pete said. The three of us stood there. It seemed like someone should say something.

“Who’s pitching?” Pete said.

The security guard shrugged. A few people were leaving.

“Some guy,” the security guard said.

Some teams win for a fallen teammate, such as, most famously, the Gipper. I want the Mets to win this World Series for Some Guy. Whoever he was.

And because I want them to win I’m going to have to recuse myself from any sort of rational or even irrational prediction. Instead, I’m going to bring this all the way back to the beginning, to when I was a boy alone in my room with my cards.

So I flipped these two cards, best of seven. It went back and forth. I admit I was trying to will Ron Hodges to a win without sabotaging my Vada Pinson throws. But you are looking at Game 7. Hodges made it tough, but Pinson swooped past him, graceful to the last, and stood up tall against the wall.

Edge: Royals, in seven

hodges and pinson

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Rick Reuschel and Ron Hodges

October 17, 2015

Rick Reuschel 77Ron hodges 78NLCS preview

Predictions are asinine. This probably holds true for everything, but it’s particularly applicable to baseball, in which even the best teams lose forty percent of the time. The nature of the sport resists certainty of any kind. Everyone on the field is in the middle of a baffling slump or an even more inexplicable hot streak, and either direction is subject to change immediately. A great team might have a sixty percent chance of beating an average team on a given day, but put two good teams against one another, and it’s a coin flip.

Or maybe I just don’t want to predict this series. I don’t really want to see either team lose. I have a connection to the Mets that goes back decades, to my once-a-year trips with my brother from our home in Vermont to New York, where our father, with reluctance and without looking away from his New York Times throughout the game except to grimace up at the low-flying air traffic into LaGuardia, took us to a game every summer, where we saw Ron Hodges and the rest of the lackluster late 1970s Mets get trampled. I was a Red Sox fan and will always love that team the most, but somehow the Ron Hodges era will always also reside deep in my psyche. In many ways, those Mets, the echoing malaise of empty Shea, sunshine and loss and a scattering of strangers, reflect my persona much more than the star-studded 1970s Red Sox. And after that childhood orbiting of the Mets I lived in New York for years, through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, and forged my closest adult friendships. Most of these friends are Mets fans. I guess anyone could use a win, but since these people are my friends I know what a win would mean for them. I don’t want the Mets to lose.

****

I live in Chicago. I’ve been here for eleven years now. It’s as long as I’ve ever lived anywhere, at least consecutively, but I still feel like I’m from somewhere else. The again, I’ve always felt that way no matter where I’ve lived. Anyway, last winter I was digging the car out of deep snow and cursing, and a helicopter started hovering loudly above me. It was unpleasant, but it’s not like I was enjoying the task without it. I kept shoveling and cursing. My wife stuck her head out the window of our condo and yelled at me.

“There was a shooting at the McDonald’s on Clark, the gunman’s on the loose,” she yelled. I realize her line of dialogue contains a comma splice, but that’s an appropriate recreation of how the words came out. Gunmen on the loose don’t engender felicitous punctuation.

“You done shoveling, daddy?” my son yelled when I came inside.

“Not exactly,” I said.

“Let’s play!”

Snow and nearby gunplay and awareness of comma splices and my yelling family: that’s my Chicago.

Chicago’s where I got married, where I wrote some books, where I got and kept a job correcting comma splices, where my two kids were born. If one of the stray bullets flying around kills me and you want to do something with my ashes, add them to the gunk in the part of Lake Michigan that laps up against the little sandy area a few blocks away from our place. It’s called Hartigan Beach, and more often than not I’m frazzled and annoyed there, trying to prevent my children from eating sand or drowning, but I’ve also managed to look out at the wide water once in a while and see the world as my boys are seeing it, this their timeless place, what they’ll always be dreaming their way back to. I’ve never loved a place more than that modest chunk of churned-up sand, pocked with cigarette butts and my own persisting anxieties.

Yesterday I asked a Cubs fan I work with if he remembered 1969. I wasn’t sure if he would. He’s older than me, but not by a whole lot.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “When the Mets clinched, I went into the backyard and burned all my Mets baseball cards.”

Now he’s watching the games with his teenage son. He says his son is nervous.

I don’t want to see the Cubs lose either.

****

But this is supposed to be a prediction. I notice that some observers are bringing up the Cubs’ record against the Mets this year: they beat New York in all seven meetings between the teams. To emphasize how pointless I think it is to refer to these games to foretell what’s going to happen in the championship series, I’m instead going to pick a game not long after my tenth birthday instead. It was on April 22, 1978. Rick Reuschel started the game and pitched well. In fact, he held the Mets hitless through five innings in forging a 2-0 lead. In the seventh inning, the Mets finally broke through for a run on a Ron Hodges sacrifice fly. An inning later, in the eighth, with the score now tied, Hodges’ spot in the order came up again. There were two outs and two men on. In his twelve-year career, Hodges’ batting average against Reuschel was a pathetic .148. But he came through this time with a single that drove in Willie Montanez with the go-ahead run. The game wasn’t over there. The Cubs loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth but couldn’t score. Reuschel blanked the Mets in the top of the ninth, and in the last of the ninth they got their leadoff man aboard. After a strikeout, Rick Reuschel’s spot in the order came up. He was a good hitter, but of course in that spot you go to a pinch-hitter. The pinch-hitter grounded into a game-ending double-play.

His name was Bill Buckner.

Edge: Mets

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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

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Bobby Valentine

April 21, 2015

BobbyValentineMustacheGlassesDisguiseYou Are the Eyes of the World

Three

Yesterday I wore a tail for a few hours. It started in the morning when my older son, Jack, not wearing any clothes, as is his wont, walked out of the bathroom with a long strand of toilet paper hanging out of his butt. He’s a couple months shy of four.

“This is my tail,” he said. “You get a tail too, Daddy.”

“I’m not sticking anything in my butt right now,” I said.

“My tail! My tail!” Jack hollered. It had fallen out. “Mommy, stick my tail back in!”

“OK,” she said. She was dazed from being sick for the past few days. Halfway through the process, kneeling, she said, “Why am I always dealing with butts? This is my whole life now. Jack, things aren’t supposed to go up your—”

“Daddy, put a tail up your butt!”

“No more putting things up butts!”

“Mommy!”

You have to also picture throughout this exchange the high-pitched yowling of a screechy woodland ogre. This is the general conversational style of my younger son, Exley, who’s a little over ten months old.

“But, Mommy!” Jack said.

“Eeeyyaaooowl!” Exley said.

“Holy God!” I yelled.

“I’ll give everyone tails!” my wife yelled. “But not up butts! That’s it!”

She tied a rope around Jack’s waist and fastened another rope to it. She looped the belt from a bathrobe around a belt loop above my butt. Jack and I ran up and down the hall a few times with our tails flying around. The younger boy crawled after us yowling. Eventually the yowling turned to crying and I picked him up. Jack got bored without me in pursuit and took off his tail. After a lot of bucking and crying, Exley fell asleep. I eased him down into the bassinet. I noticed that I still had a tail on. I started taking it off and then I stopped. I would be walking to the beach with my family later, then to the grocery store. I’m 47 years old. I was going to do all that with a tail? Out there in society?

“Why are you wearing a tail still?” my wife asked as we walked to the beach.

It was a fair question. I looked like an idiot, surely.

I can’t really explain it. I’m losing my mind, probably? More specifically, I’m excited about my book coming out in a couple of weeks, but I’m also terrified. I don’t remember being this scared when Cardboard Gods came out. Maybe I was. All I know is I’m overwhelmed by anxiety. The process of writing a book for me is one saturated almost perpetually with doubt, but then right at the end, aided by exhaustion, the doubt abates a little and I get this feeling that what I did was OK, that I did the best I could, that I wrestled with whatever was inside me and got it down onto the page in some kind of an artistic form or whatever. This feeling goes away, and the words that were once so close to me go cold on the page, and I can’t make heads or tails of what I’ve done. So I worry that this book will be the door I’ve always worried about, the one that opens to the suggestion that even my best effort is the work of a fraud.

This is the general feeling of fatherhood, too, I’ve found: continual fakery. This is perhaps why yesterday for several hours I wore a tail. On the beach, on a playground, waiting in line to buy bread and beer and wintergreen Trident at the grocery store. Fuck it: Here I am world, the fool, the fraud. For the first time in weeks I felt great.

Which brings me to this great moment in bench-sitting. It was in June 1999. Bobby Valentine was tossed out of a game as the manager of the Mets and shortly after the expulsion reappeared on the bench in the most ludicrously flimsy disguise imaginable.

There are days when you can’t lose. When just sitting on the bench is a victory, even if on the bench you’re a fool, a fraud. Yesterday was one of these days. I sat on the bench by Lake Michigan with my son for a few minutes and watched the swift little waves bash into the shore and beyond that the wide water stretching to the horizon and felt no pain and when I got up to follow Jack to a playground my tail, just briefly, got stuck in a gap between metal slats. One little tug before I was able to go on, a grown man wearing a tail, free.

To be continued.

10423636_782189281889044_7247900153861283942_n

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Ron Darling

July 18, 2013

darling houseThere are always people above me. As of this second, which finds me at a table in the basement where I write books or don’t write books, depending on the relative shittiness of my resolve that day or depending on the gods or on whoever or whatever is to blame for my failings, the people above me are my wife and son, still asleep upstairs. I got up in the four o’clock hour and have been doing so for a while to try to write my book before I go to work. As I write I brace myself for sounds of wakefulness above me. Sometimes it stays quiet for a while and I can get some words down. Other times it stays quiet for a while and I waste the time Googling Eugenio Velez. Eugenio Velez is still active in Triple A baseball, which means he has the chance to return to the major leagues and put a stop to his major league hitless at-bat streak, which currently stands at 46 at-bats in a row without a hit, the all-time record for non-pitchers. I don’t want to miss his call-up to the majors, even though it seems increasingly unlikely that such a call-up will come. There are always people above him.

In a short while, I’ll go to work, where the people above me are supervisors and middle managers and directors and vice presidents. I sometimes pass one or another of these personages as we are wending our respective way through the pasteboard cubicle maze. They are outwardly no different from me, especially in the preference to avoid eye contact while afoot within the maze. They are outwardly no happier or secure than me. There are people above them, too. This means, this always means, that decisions could be made somewhere, somewhere above, that result in things ending, by which I mean paycheck, insurance, etc.

This would be terrible. I dread it, the possibility of it. Sometimes it makes me angry that there are people above me, always, always the possibility that a decision will be made above me to send me packing. So I go to work, work all day, do what I can. I come home. My son, almost two, now runs at me when I come home. Not to me but at me. We go down to the basement. He likes it down there. It’s carpeted, i.e., a softer  landing spot for falling, and there are baseball cards and balls and my old guitar, which he likes to strum. Sometimes down there he orders me to participate in one or another of his rudimentary games. He’s above me, the one true boss of my life, so I have to comply. Other times he gets interested, inexplicably, in some random task that happens to be more solitary, such as dropping a pair of earphone buds again and again into the binder of a photo album jutting out from the bookcase. In those rare instances I either lie on the ground, exhausted, or, if I have some shred of life still in me, I fiddle around with his baseball cards, which are usually strewn all over the floor. Lately I’ve been building little houses of the cards. They don’t last long, these houses, because a certain party eventually gets interested and, even if he initially contributes to the house by laying a Dennis Rasmussen or Mike Proly on the roof, inevitably gives in to the joy of demolition.

But I managed to get a picture of one of the houses before it was destroyed. It would be nice to live in such a house forever, I sometimes think. To look up and see nothing above you but numbers, knowable and distinct. Maybe there’d be a faint scent of gum.

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Jason Isringhausen

June 8, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

Morty

Last month I got an email from my friend David, a philosophy professor I used to work with at a liquor store on 8th Street in Manhattan back in the 1990s. I knew what the email was about without opening it. The subject line read “Morty.”

I used some credit card points to fly to New York for a memorial gathering. There were photos of Morty on the wall. Morty out in front of his store, arms crossed over his chest, the bald, fearless 70-year-old World War II combat veteran built like a linebacker from the leather-helmet era. Morty at the back of the store, behind his desk, the retail-business survivor, gnawing ferociously on his pipe and pounding on an adding machine. Morty yelling, Morty screaming, Morty cackling with laughter. Morty standing beside his friend Larry, 8th Street behind them, both of them with chins upraised, unbeatable.

The best photo was a simple close-up of the man. Everyone at the gathering gravitated toward it, had a moment with it. The photo showed just his bald head, his face, his eyes. Beneath all the toughness, the Yiddish insults and obscenities, the screaming, there was always something utterly gentle and watchful in his eyes. This came through in the picture. Morty was there when you most needed him. He took care of us.

“Be good to yourself, Joshua,” he said to me more than once through all those years when my formidable self-pummeling tendencies were at their worst. Morty was the only person who called me by my full first name. “If you won’t be good to yourself, Joshua, who else will?”

Most of the people at the gathering were ex-clerks like me, hired in our twenties, now all middle-aged. Morty’s silver-haired friend Larry came, too. The two of them used to sit in the back of the store together every day. When he saw the close-up of Morty, he said, “I miss you, you old fuck,” and began to cry.

***

I have spent most of the moments of my life wishing I was in some other moment. This affliction may have been at its peak during the slower lulls at the liquor store, when the only thing to do was stare across the counter at the vaguely Mrs. Butterworthian bottle of Frangelico liqueur on the opposite shelf while worrying that a gun-wielding maniac was about to burst in from the street. There was a bell above the entrance, the kind more often associated with the screen doors on general stores in cozy valleys where everyone says “y’all.” I perpetually imagined that the inevitable summons back into the Now would be that homey bell introducing something violent into the limits of my Frangelico trance.

I never did get held up. The worst thing that happened while I was there was when teenage shoplifters swept through the store, shouting and pointing and misdirecting and grabbing. This happened routinely. It was scary and, in the aftermath, enraging. After it was over, every time, I used to grab the Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger we kept behind the counter and imagine smashing heads.

One of the instances struck me worse than the others, maybe because the raids had simply happened one too many times, maybe because one of the shoplifters this time had addressed me directly as he was leaving. He looked me in the eyes. His own eyes narrowed to a squint.

“Ghost,” he said, his mouth a scowl. A bullet hole.

I sat down on a stack of boxes of wine. I sat there for a long time. Ghost. The next morning I took the train in from my apartment in Brooklyn and sat across from Morty at the desk in the back of the store and told him I was quitting. I didn’t have anything else lined up. I was 27, the age when rock stars frequently perish. This seemed significant to me, I guess because I was an idiot.

“Joshua, Joshua,” Morty said.

I didn’t know what to say. Where is the story of my life?

Ghost.

I walked back toward the front of the store, the door.

Ding!

A few months went by. I don’t feel like describing them. I went back to 8th Street, took a deep breath, put my hand to the door.

Ding!

***

Jason Isringhausen made it to the big leagues midway through that year when I quit and then, begging and pleading, unquit. There was a television up front, behind the counter. This sometimes helped pass the time.Jeopardy. Mets games. After I returned to the store, I must have seen some of Isringhausen’s earliest innings with his first team, the Mets. I vaguely remember the hoopla around him and a couple other young pitchers. Generation K, I think they were called.

I could easily look it up, but I worry my writing is deteriorating with my habit of bailing midsentence every sentence to graft Google discoveries onto my porous memory. I’ve already bailed on several sentences so far, most recently to see how Jason Isringhausen did when he was 27, and I found out that age 27 was a better year for him than it was for me, and much better than it was for D. Boon, Pigpen, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, etc.

When Jason Isringhausen turned 27, his narrative changed. Unlike those rock stars, his story changed for the better. His first public narrative, Here Comes a Fireballing Youngster Upon Which We Can Rebuild Our Franchise, had given way to a central role as a luckless brittle disappointment in the second narrative, Here We Go Again With The Fucking Mets. But at 27 Isringhausen landed with a new team and found a new role, that of the guy who gets to enact enthusiastic greeting rituals with the catcher at the end of wins.

***

Baseball was always a part of the store. At the memorial, on a table below the photos of Morty, there were two ticket stubs from the 1986 World Series. There was also a box of 2012 baseball cards. The day after I returned home from the trip to New York, I opened a pack of these new cards while sitting on the floor with my nine-month-old son.

He liked putting the cards in his mouth and gnawing on them. He did the most damage to this Jason Isringhausen card, and it’s the only one I’ve been able to form a bond with. The rest are still too much in their original condition of unreachable slickness. My connection with Now, which has been diminishing since my childhood, seems to be epitomized in my connection, or lack thereof, with the new cards. Everything in this world seems slick and shiny and unfathomable now. Most names I don’t even recognize.

But I do recall the name of the player who, courtesy of my son, now has a small chunk of his head missing. On the back of the card this gap has demolished most of the part where team names are listed. You can make out that his first team was the Mets, and you can see that this was not always true. But here he is, back again with the Mets. He got to return. He got to enact an enthusiastic greeting with a catcher.

He was not the primary catcher-greeter for the Mets last season, but he appears to have been the backup greeter, jumping in when the main guy was all hugged out. In one of his fill-in appearances, he recorded his 300th save. I imagine this is what is being captured in the photo on his 2012 baseball card. It’s a nice moment. A triumphant return. Some glory, some love.

***

Sometimes the bell above the door signaled the return of a friend of the store—a friend of Morty—who had been away for a while. Maybe it was a salesman, maybe it was someone who used to live in the neighborhood, maybe it was a former clerk.

Ding!

The returnee would stand inside the doorway for a moment, hurling obscenities at Morty, who would hurl them back, and then the returnee would gradually proceed down the center of the store, pausing to cast aspersions on the selection of wine in the racks, broadly suggesting that its presence was the product of some unseemly combination of Morty’s cheapness and a proclivity of foreigners to bottle their urination. Reaching the back of the store, the returnee would take a seat on the other side of the desk from Morty, like in a late night talk show. Jokes would be told. Morty would cackle apoplectically and slam the desk with his hand. Eventually, the voices would get quieter. Morty would listen to the returnee tell him about how he had been doing out there in the world.

I always hoped to make a happy return. I’d push open the door, making the bell ring, and start screaming obscenities at Morty from the doorway. I’d make my way down the center of the store. I’d sit down across from him. Somehow I’d have a joke to tell him. I’ve never been very good with jokes, but I once made Morty laugh by describing in painstaking detail how I was, during the ’88-’89 season, officially and mathematically the worst basketball player in America. Morty wouldn’t mind if I pulled that one out of the attic. He’d laugh and pound the table. He’d call me Joshua. Our voices would get quiet. I’d show him a picture of my son.

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Bobby Valentine

February 14, 2012

Between the two of them, Maury Wills and Bill Russell handled the great majority of the shortstop duties for the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise over the first two and a half decades of its existence. Wills arrived in 1959, the team’s second year in Los Angeles, and captained the infield until being traded away before the 1967 season; he returned to the Dodgers in 1969 and remained the starter until 1972, when Bill Russell took over the job for the next twelve years.

Before the 1971 season, the player pictured here arrived in Dodgers camp with the conviction that he would shoulder aside fellow up and comer Russell while wrestling the starting job away from the aging Wills. He mentions both players by name in a February 23, 1971, article titled “Valentine Confident”:

I realize you don’t just step in and move out a star like Maury Wills, but I suspect one of us will be moving to another position. I’m aware that the Dodgers want to make a shortstop out of Bill Russell and move me to third base. Well, no way. I intend to be the Dodgers shortstop for many years.

He can’t be faulted for being confident. He’d been a legendary multisport high school athlete and had just come off a spectacular season at the Dodgers Triple A affiliate where he’d batted .340 with 39 doubles, 16 triples, 14 home runs, and 29 stolen bases. He had also bounced back from two horrific injuries, first from a beaning that came within a quarter inch of killing him and next from an injury to his leg that had doctors seriously wondering whether he’d ever play again. These things didn’t stop him. What chance did Maury Wills or Bill Russell have?

This card from the dusky latter stages of the 1970s makes plain that Valentine’s day never arrived. He’s not wearing Dodgers blue, for one thing, and the “OF” position indicator inside the little baseball icon dangling like a washed-out Christmas ornament from his bat shows that he ended up getting moved as far from shortstop as is humanly possible in baseball without moving a player entirely off the diamond. That latter move is not far away, either, at least going on the diminishing playing time suggested by the meager stream of numbers on the back of the card. The numbers are framed above by personal info, including that Valentine was drafted #1 by the Dodgers, and below by some space-filling prose that has nothing to do with Valentine’s on-field accomplishments: “Bobby’s father-in-law is Ralph Branca, former big league pitcher, 1944–1956.” You might think this gap between great expectations and (at least in terms of his own bold estimations at the start of the career now about end) trivial accomplishment would gnaw at a guy from inside. Valentine does look a little worn on the front of the card, but despite his somewhat forlorn and abandoned surroundings he doesn’t look beaten. By now he knows the drill, so the photographer probably didn’t even have to tell him to pretend he’s waiting for a pitch. He takes his stance and glares out at nothing as if it’s not nothing.

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Mike Vail

November 21, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

V Is for Vail

1.
I have been working on this one for a while but uncertainly. I am no rookie on a hot streak when I write. There is the hesitancy, the fractured focus, the hitches of a struggling veteran player trying to rediscover his swing.

2.
I’m a rookie at parenting. I just got back to my desk from going upstairs toward the sound of crying. The crying of the baby brought me upstairs, and I rocked him in my arms for a long time, longer than usual, and it was looking like one of the many times when he just decides he is not going to go to sleep, ever, but he finally did start drifting off. This is what I root for these days. When his little eyelids start drooping, it’s like I’m watching the beginnings of a late-inning rally. Come on, keep it going.

3.
I’m not a rookie as a fan, that’s for sure. I’ve been channeling my passions into the rooting for groups of strangers to do certain things better than other groups of strangers for my entire conscious life. This is my life, and there’s really no escape from it at this point, but there are certainly times when this tendency on my part seems ludicrous. When I was a young fan, I saw the ball and hit the ball. Simple. Come on, keep it going. Now I seem to see all sorts of things, but none of them very clearly. I don’t even know what it is exactly I’m rooting for. Life is a series of random occurrences. Can I put this on a banner and bring it to the big game?

4.
Before my family moved to Vermont, I lived in New Jersey for the earliest years of my life, and I assumed for a long time that if I’d stayed there I would have become a Mets fan. This is based partly on my first baseball cards, which I got in New Jersey in 1974 and which included most memorably a Cleon Jones card; it is also based partly on my trips in later years to Shea on visits to see my father, during which the hapless late 1970s Mets became my second-favorite team. But I was actually born in Willingboro, New Jersey, which is not too far from the Pennsylvania border, and if my family had never moved from that town I likely would have grown up rooting for Pennsylvania teams, most specifically the Phillies, like my older cousins who also lived in Willingboro. So instead of the Red Sox and Celtics for me it would probably have been the Phillies and the 76ers and on down the line. I never became a raving fan of college sports, but as a kid in Vermont I rooted for the only regional team, Boston College, that ever rose to any national prominence. So I suppose it’s possible that had I never left my birthplace I would have on some fall Saturday afternoon in my childhood realized that one of the two teams on television hurling themselves murderously at one another had a closer connection to me than the other, and so I would have decided to adopt Penn State as one of my teams.

5.
I hold my baby sideways when I rock him to sleep. He faces out, away from me, and he gets a grip on my fingers with his hands. When he falls asleep I have to set him down very gently and have to then carefully pull his fingers off my hands. If I do it wrong he wakes up. It went okay this morning, and I tiptoed out of the room praying.

6.
This 1976 card is Mike Vail’s first. His rookie card. It suggests in the understated style of the 1976 series of Topps cards that a stellar career may have just begun. The previous season, the player shown here with a determined expression on his All-American granite-jawed visage won the International League batting title, and then in a late summer call-up to the big leagues he produced a feat that more than any other came to loom over the Mets’ subsequent late-1970s nosedive back into the National League basement as a haunting specter of promise unrealized. Vail hit in 23 straight games in 1975, tying a rookie record and setting the Mets’ team record. The Mets figured they had found a future star and promptly shipped the anchor of their lineup, Rusty Staub, to Detroit. Vail injured his foot playing basketball in the winter of 1976, and this injury is often cited as the reason Vail never fulfilled the potential suggested by his hitting streak, but it seems more likely, judging from both his minor league stats (he never hit for power or stole many bases, even before the injury) and his record in later years (for a couple seasons with the Cubs, as a part-timer, he put up numbers equal to or superior to his 1975 marks), that Vail just wasn’t the superstar everyone hoped in his first major league moments he would be. He was a decent right-handed platoonist who could, in a good year, dump enough singles in front of the opposing left-fielder to hover near the .300 mark. He was never going to be, as in the wildest dreams of Mets fans watching his streak unfold, the next Joe DiMaggio. But what can you do? Being a sports fan is about having and holding onto wild dreams.

7.
Friday morning I was on my way to dig up some of the factoids about Mike Vail included above, but before doing so I went to check my email and instead detoured to click the link on one of the headlines among the sports headlines that come up on my mail homepage: “Syracuse assistant in molestation probe (AP).” You can read the story yourself if you want. What I found most striking in it was the extremity of denial on the part of a couple Syracuse icons, head coach Jim Boeheim and former star center Rony Seikaly. Both vehemently deny even the possibility that the allegations of child molestation against assistant coach Bernie Fine could be true. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, of course, and the allegations against Fine may not be true. I’m not attempting to make a comment on that, but rather on my own reaction to the fierce denials by Seikaly and Boeheim. The denials reminded me of my own reaction, over 30 years ago, when I heard a rumor that a teammate on my seventh grade basketball team had woken up in the middle of the night during a camping trip with our coach, Mick, to discover that Mick was sucking his dick. I felt something close to outrage that such a rumor was going around about Mick. He could not possibly have done such a thing. He was a pillar in the community, beloved by all. It couldn’t be true! It was many, many years and many, many basketball teams and, presumably, many, many camping trips before a boy finally came forward and spoke out until someone listened, and Mick was arrested and found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison for “lewd and lascivious behavior with a juvenile boy.” I tend to think he got off very easy, and I tend to believe he’d been victimizing children for a long time, and I tend to get angry when I think about his sentence. I tend to believe he’d benefitted greatly from the tendency in people to collude in a denial of the worst. Even the judge who sentenced him admitted she was “impressed” with him.

8.
I don’t watch nearly as much TV as I used to before the baby came. And even when I do watch a little here and there at night I watch it with the sound off so as not to disturb the baby, who spends the first part of his fractured night of sleep in his little portable bassinet in the living room. A few nights ago I watched, with the help of closed-captioning subtitles, a muted version of the interview Bob Costas conducted with Jerry Sandusky. With the toes of my left leg I gently rocked the bassinet, which helps my son fall asleep. That left leg was the one that over thirty years ago featured in a moment with my junior high basketball coach that Jerry Sandusky would likely have identified as “horseplay.” Sandusky denied—with creepy hesitancy—that he is sexually attracted to boys, but he readily admitted that he had showered with boys and that he grabbed their legs “without intent of sexual conduct.” This last part struck a chord in me. I was a mediocre athlete, but one day during a junior high basketball game I scored two baskets in a row, which was for me an unprecedented hot streak, my version of Mike Vail’s 23-game rookie-season tear. I mentioned the moment in my book:

Mick subbed for me after my second basket and sat down next to me as play resumed. He was beaming.

“You’re doing great, Josh, just excellent,” he said, which felt good. I wasn’t exactly amassing a giant stockpile of praise elsewhere in my life. As Mick spoke he let his hand fall on my bare leg. He kept it there after he’d finished talking. While watching the action on the court, he gave my thigh two long, ardent squeezes. (Cardboard Gods, p. 134)

When reading the closed-captioned subtitles of an interview and thinking back to that moment, my left leg, the one that was jiggling my baby in a bassinet, went still, like jelly congealing. I was feeling once again that happy rookie moment curdling, and it stopped me. The bassinet I had been rocking with my toes went still, too. What happens to me happens to my baby. My baby began to stir and show signs that, because I’d stopped rocking him, he was starting to wake up. His sleep is a crystalline stadium, fragile, easily shattered. Already I’m failing to guard it.

9.
I’m not a Penn State fan, but, as I was saying, I could have been. If my family had stayed where I’d been born, near the border to Pennsylvania, who knows? It didn’t happen, and instead I threw myself into being a fan, primarily, of the Red Sox. I grew up in the 1970s, a time of histrionic drama and disappointment for that team, and my fandom during that time developed a millennial fervor in which I dreamt at length of the seemingly impossible day when my team would somehow not blow it in the end and would instead be the champions of the world. Because I was unable to formulate more human and intimate wishes for myself or those around me, because my sole way of emotionally engaging with the world was through sports, my wish for the Red Sox to win it all became far and away my greatest wish. Beyond a wish, it was a fetish, a fantasy I replayed in my mind to trigger a response otherwise inaccessible, tears forming at the corners of my eyes as I imagined running in a jubilant mob through the streets the day the Red Sox won it all. I would finally be on top of the world, and there would be, through my absolute worship of the players responsible for lifting the burden of failure and sadness from all life everywhere forever, a kind of immortality in the triumph. I imagined statues to each and every member of the chosen team, the names of all involved engraved not only in civic stone but as deep as anything could go in my mind and in the collective mind I had joined so many years before as a displaced searching hopeful child.

10.
When considering the news out of Penn State, I noticed that my thoughts go first toward virulently distancing myself from the ugliness. In this I am not alone, I don’t think. It is a monstrous story, and so the first response is to identify a hierarchy of monsters, creatures separated completely by their monstrosities from us, and condemn them to various levels of profound punitive agony. But beyond individual acts of monstrosity the story features the element of apparent collusion, a variously implicit or explicit wish by those invested in and benefitted by an institutional image of purity to keep the ugliness hidden, thus allowing the surface image to remain pristine while the ugliness beneath festers and grows. Even this more general, collective criminality has been viewed most commonly as a monstrosity, as something those of us wishing to remain far on the outside of the issue want to view as completely apart from our own involvement. We may ask, as I have: What do I have to do with it? I’m not a fan of Penn State. I’m not like those idiot college students who rioted not on the part of the many children allegedly victimized by a serial sexual predator but instead on the part of a college coach who did little to stop the victimization. That was my first thought about the campus riot a couple weeks ago that was sparked by the firing of Joe Paterno—these students are fucking idiots, the worst. I have mulled it over since then, and I am not so far off from them, not at all. I’m a sports fan who invested his deepest powers of dreaming into a vision of being in a celebratory mob, my team immortalized in triumph that, because of my dream, had to be for me a vision of perfect purity. As the song goes, we all root for the home team, and if they don’t win it’s a shame. There’s no room in this kind of willful dreaming for any equivocation. This is the deficiency of sports fandom, and maybe of other kinds of collective passion, such as the entity that most closely resembles sports in its worst moments, organized religion: What we love needs to be pure. If I had been an 18-year-old student at Penn State last week, I probably would have been right there with the others, desperate to the point of rage to believe that a deep pure promise remained unbroken.

11.
My father took my brother and me to Mets games in the 1970s. The stands were mostly empty. The team was bad. Mike Vail was there for a while, until in March 1978 he was waived, but I wasn’t enough of a Mets fan to pin any sort of growing feelings of disappointment on him. I wasn’t enough of a Mets fan to take anything too seriously. I wanted them to win the game, but it didn’t kill me if they didn’t. My brother felt the same, and my father didn’t care about the Mets or baseball at all. He saw the whole thing as idiocy and spent the game reading the New York Times and grimacing whenever a plane roared overhead. But his sons wanted to go to the game, so there he was. I was glad to be there, at a game with my brother and my father. I would go there again. I have long thought that if my family had stayed in New Jersey, which also means that I would have stayed in a house where my father lived, I would have been a Mets fan. I wonder now if this is all yet another form of wishful thinking. In a different life, maybe I could have been a fan without the kind of need that can distort and obscure. I’ve thought a lot already about bringing my son to a game, about nudging him toward being a fan. The two of us together, believing. But in what? I don’t even know what it is exactly we should be rooting for. Life is a series of random occurrences. Still, I have that vision, that deep wish, that thing I root for: the two of us walking into a stadium together, his hand in mine so I can keep him safe.

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Jesus Alou

March 1, 2011

According to the Gods: a 2011 Team-By-Team Preview

New York Mets

Judging from this 1976 card, you’d have to think that Jesus Alou led a charmed life. The back showed many years in the major leagues, including some at the beginning of his career with the Giants and in the company of his two brothers, Felipe and Matty. More recently, after a stint with the Astros, he’d returned to the Bay Area to collect two World Series championship rings as a member of the Oakland A’s. In early 1975, the A’s decided they no longer needed his services as a part-time right-handed singles hitter, but the Mets swooped in and signed him. He seems content, even happy, to be in a Mets uniform. This card, in fact, has always stood out to me for the placid, merry look on Jesus’ face. I liked it as a kid, in part because it contrasted so strikingly with the Jesus Alou card from the previous season, which showed in extreme close up a balding, suffering man in the midst of turmoil. By contrast, this photo suggests that in the next moment Jesus Alou will stroll off to partake of one or another of life’s many little pleasures, maybe a pregame snack or some cartoons or a nap or a relaxed, laughing conversation with some grounds crew guys. So what can we take from this card in terms of predicting the fortunes of the 2011 Mets? To be thorough on the matter, it should be noted there are some elements of the card that don’t bode well for this year’s Mets, such as Jesus Alou’s tepid efforts for the 1975 edition of the squad as shown on the back of the card: just 3 extra base hits (all doubles) in 102 at-bats, part of a relatively empty .265 batting average, and you could also mix in the knowledge that the year this card came out, Jesus Alou was no longer on the Mets, or anywhere else in the majors, and that he couldn’t be found anywhere in the league the following year, either. There are signs, in other words, that things might not work out for the 2011 Mets, and these cloud the crystal ball that is this 1976 Jesus Alou card, but it also seems relevant that Jesus Alou, like his more famous namesake, made an improbable return from what seemed to be a permanent oblivion: two years on from seeming to appear on his last baseball card, he resurfaced with spectacular visual flourish in the rainbow uniform of the Houston Astros, and in his quietly miraculous resurrection season of 1978 he batted .324, a career high. It seems clear, with all this evidence of the charmed life of Jesus Alou, not least of which being Jesus Alou’s capability on this 1976 card to calmly rejoice in his own good fortune even as he is on the brink of a major league exile of a length from which few, if any, have ever returned. So have the faith of Jesus and enjoy, Mets fans. Your 2011 Mets will lead a charmed life.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 2 of 30: Approach the game memory by memory (e.g., at the Ultimate Mets Database fan memory page) and number by number (e.g., at Mets By the Numbers)

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2011 previews so far:
St. Louis Cardinals

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John Stearns

February 24, 2011

There have been some football greats who have dabbled in major league baseball (Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, and Jim Thorpe leap to mind), but who’s the best football player to ever have been identified primarily as a major league baseball player?

I’ve given it a bit of thought, and I can’t come up with a whole lot of candidates. (Among those that occurred to me: Jackie Robinson, Rick Leach, Butch Hobson, Steve Garvey; I also considered Drew Henson and Jeff Samardzija, but they don’t quite fit the parameters of the conversation because of their Danny Ainge-like baseball marginality). Maybe it’s difficult to transfer the brute raging aggression of the gridiron to the more ruminative artisanship of the baseball diamond. And a hefty percentage of football players, the pot-bellied, arms-the-size-of-legs behemoths that toil in the grunting sumo clashes at the line of scrimmage, would seem to be excluded from possible baseball careers on the basis of body type alone (the players named above, and the one considered at more length below, all either played in the defensive or offensive backfield or played quarterback, with one exception, Samardzija, who played wide receiver).

I don’t know a whole lot about the football careers of Robinson, Leach, Hobson, and Garvey, but none of them seem to have been beyond the high level reached by the player pictured here, who is, if his colorful public persona is any guide, seemingly on the brink of wrapping the pinky and ring fingers of his left hand around the barrel of the bat to leave one finger flying free. And John Stearns was not only a standout football player at Colorado University, setting school records for interceptions and interception return yardage, but he also gets some points in this discussion for bringing a football mentality onto the baseball field to a greater degree than any of his fellow former football stars. In short, he seemed to really, really enjoy leveling people. On the ever-enjoyable Ultimate Mets memory page, all of Stearns’ “greatest hits” are mentioned: his takedown of a fan who had run onto the field during a game; his body-slam of Bill Gullickson after the enemy pitcher buzzed a fastball at fellow Met Mike Jorgenson’s head; his literally jaw-breaking hit on Dave Parker as the hulking Pirate baserunner tried to separate the plate-blocking Stearns from the baseball; and, most notably, his flattening of Atlanta Braves mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa.

As Stearns explained in a 2010 New York Post article, the latter incident included an element of premeditation.

I watched him for three or four years and I said, ‘Someday I’m going to clothesline this guy.’ One day I took off, running at him like a defensive back. He looked at me like, “What is this guy going to do?” I didn’t really hit him. I kind of dragged him down. It was just a fun thing but Joe Torre was our manager and he didn’t like it.

Torre’s actual take on the incident, according to an ESPN article about Mets in the All-Star game that touches on Stearns for his propensity for being the Mets’ lone All-Star representative through the team’s dark years of the late 1970s and early 1980s, sounds more like a mix of amusement and weary resignation: “It was just the Dude being the Dude.”

Stearns’ full nickname (lest Torre’s shortening of it lead anyone to believe that Jeff Bridges should be tabbed to play the Mets’ catcher in the long overdue film version of the Mets late-1970s struggles) was “Bad Dude.” The moniker, while aptly illustrative of both his toughness and his confidence (“there’s no hiding the fact that when I was younger, I lacked humility,” he told the Denver Post), has in Stearns’ eyes turned into something that has held him back. “I can’t even get an interview,” Stearns, speaking of his desire to be a major league manager, told the Denver Post. “The Bad Dude thing always pops up. I’m not doing that thing anymore and I’d like to get rid of it.”

Another memorable figure from the 1970s who is no longer living within the confines of the name he was known by back then is Levi Walker, Jr., who John Stearns chased down and tackled while the former was in his full mascot regalia as Chief Noc-A-Homa. Walker, a Native American with roots in the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes, was the third and most famous of the men who played Chief Noc-A-Homa, who in addition to running past the enemy dugout before every game (the part of the mascot’s act that inspired Stearns to the most famous of the Colorado Buffalo legend’s many open-field tackles) “lived” in a teepee in the outfield stands during games and emerged to do a dance whenever a Braves player hit a home run. His list of moments in the public eye reads like a back-and-forth between goofiness and politics that somehow epitomizes the 1970s (and the later fallout traceable back to those years). In 1972 his portrayal of a cartoonish Indian stereotype was dismissed witheringly by Native American rights activist Russell Means; in 1974 he brought a lacrosse stick to the park to better his chances of snaring Hank Aaron’s 715th home run; in 1982 the removal of his teepee to open up more ticketed seating area immediately preceded a hideous team-wide slump that finally led the team to reinstate the Chief in his rightful home in time for the team to right itself and win the division; in 1986, perhaps becoming aware of the problematic nature of employing a mascot who was, unlike other notable mascots with googly eyes and giant baseball heads or anteater snouts or chicken feathers, based on a race of humans, the Braves decided to part ways with the Chief, who responded to a question about what he would do next by saying that he had “no reservations” anywhere; in 1991, Walker reappeared as the Braves entered the World Series to debate American Indian groups who were protesting the Braves, whose team name and other appropriations of Indian culture were seen by the protesters as insensitive and dehumanizing.

Finally, Walker seems to have eased back into a life away from the spotlight. Below is a clip of him at some kind of festival, making an arrowhead. He seems like a nice guy. At any rate, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to tackle him.