Archive for the ‘New York Yankees’ Category

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’77 Record Breaker (Reggie Jackson)

October 22, 2008
 Untitled 

“By this time next week, B.J. Upton may have broken every playoff hitting record in existence.” Jonah Keri, “This World Series is must-see TV

B.J. Upton’s homer-hitting pace in the 2008 playoffs—seven in eleven post-season games—has been astonishing, a pace that would net him 103 home runs in a 162-game season. But even if he somehow manages to keep up that pace during the World Series he still wouldn’t break the record depicted in this 1978 baseball card, not even if the series goes seven games, one longer than the 1977 World Series that Reggie Jackson owned.

Has anyone ever owned a World Series more? Off the top of my head I can think of a couple other World Series characterized by the transcendently dominant play of a single player: Brooks Robinson’s 1970 World Series, and Roberto Clemente’s 1971 World Series. But when I run the blurry highlight reel in my head of those players leading their team to a championship I see them in a wider focus that includes at least one or two other players on the field. I see, for example, an Oriole first baseman receiving Robinson’s throw after another miraculous hot-corner stop, or a Pirate player scoring after a laser line drive off the bat of Clemente. On the other hand, when I think of the 1977 World Series, I think of Reggie, alone, reveling in the inarguable glory of Reggie.

Good lord, what must it have been like to be Reggie at the moment captured by this card? [Author update: as noted repeatedly in the comments below, the moment captured in the card is clearly not from the World Series. D’oh!] You could argue that no one on a baseball diamond has ever been higher. Deciding game of the World Series. Biggest stage in baseball. Biggest city in America. Three pitches, three thunderous home runs. Certainly no one had ever been so high while also possessing the presence of mind—and the hulking ego—to pause magnificently and take in all the many details of the kingdom he’d just claimed: Reggie the conqueror, admiring the view from his unprecedented pinnacle at the top of the world. God, I hated him. But the world would have been flimsier without him.

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Wade Boggs

July 16, 2008
 Untitled 

We carried you
in our arms
on Independence Day.
And now you throw us all aside
and put us all away.
– “Tears of Rage,” Richard Manual and Bob Dylan

I’ve had this propensity to weep for aging male athletes waving to crowds since I was ten years old. That year I got choked up watching the long ovation for John Havlicek during his last game, even though to that point I hadn’t really followed basketball very closely. It didn’t matter, I guess. I was still moved by all the gratitude and sadness of the roaring mob’s goodbye. As the years went by I began to anticipate these moments—last games, retirement ceremonies, the hanging in the rafters of numbers, limping arthritic reunions—the way some other person might anticipate going to a sappy movie to “have a good cry.”

And so I was looking forward to last night, when dozens of Hall of Famers would be introduced prior to the All-Star Game. And things were looking good. I was taking it slow, working myself up to a nice happy wet-eyed moment in which I would stand there in my living room alone, clapping and croaking hoarsely “Yeah! Yeah!” In fact, I had already risen from the sofa and was pacing around the room by the time they got to the third basemen, so I think I looked away from the screen before getting a good look at all four Former Greats standing there. All I saw, besides the unmistakable figures of Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, and George Brett, was some bearded guy in a Yankees cap.

“Graig Nettles?” I wondered. That didn’t seem right, but who else could it be?

Turned out it was the guy pictured here.

I’m pretty sure he was the only Former Great on the field who chose not to wear the cap that is on his head in his Hall of Fame plaque. Shortly after Boggs’s introduction, Dave Winfield was introduced wearing a Padres cap, but he acknowledged his bond to the Yankees by producing a second cap and holding the two caps up together. Gary Carter did something similar a bit later. This seemed the classy thing to do, the only way to pay tribute to both fan bases that had supported those players for many years.

Of course, it would have taken a bit more courage to stand there in Yankee Stadium in a Red Sox cap than in a Padres or Expos cap. Before I describe a few of my immediate reactions to Boggs’ failure to display such courage, let me just say that I hate it when the ritualistic sentimental fugues I lapse into during Former Great moments get marred by baser emotions. Spite. Hurt. Anger.

Gutless, I said. You’re dead to me, I said. You’re a nauseatingly sycophantic ass-kisser, I said. Nobody thinks you’re cool, I said, tears of rage starting to form.

We carried you in our arms, Wade Boggs. It was on Independence Day, as a matter of fact, right there in Yankee Stadium, and a real Yankee, Dave Righetti, struck your ass out to clinch a no-hitter. It was humiliating for this Red Sox fan to see, salt in deep wounds, but I stuck with you. I stuck with you when they started to write that you weren’t a team player. I stuck with you despite your robotic lack of flair, despite your abundantly obvious self-absorption, despite your embarrassing involvement in the Margo Adams mess, despite the hints of cowardice in your “pulling a hamstring” to protect your batting title lead over a real Yankee, Don Mattingly. When you wept in the dugout in 1986, I wept too. And if you’d had the guts to wear the cap that is on your plaque in the Hall of Fame, I’m sure I would have wept again, but happily, joyfully.

It took a while, but I had finally become able to accept the existence of the harrowing image of you up on a goddamn horse in pinstripes. You got yours, I could finally say (though it took a World Series win or two for me to be able to say it; I don’t deny that I’m a small man). After all, you deserve it. You were a fantastic hitter, a scientist so devoted and pure that you turned science into art. You came along during a rough stretch in my life and the life of my team, my awkward adolescence coinciding with the dreary, lonely Last Days of Yaz, an era that would have been devoid of hope and light without your yearly assault on the summit of the Sunday batting averages. I want to see you in my mind in a Red Sox uniform, peppering doubles off the Monster. But now all I see is you in pinstripes, up on that horse. So Wade Boggs, here’s my response to your appearance last night: Fuck you and that horse you rode off on.

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Tommy John, 1980

June 26, 2008
 Untitled Tommy John was on ESPN radio this morning, and was asked by his co-host for the day about the Hall of Fame credentials of some current pitchers. Maddux, Glavine, and Johnson got a thumbs-up, but Smoltz, Schilling, and Pedro did not. It was clear that John believed the latter three had to get in line behind him. When his cohost tried to float the idea that Smoltz’s many saves should in effect be added to his win total, John pointed out that he had saved a few games himself, implying that such arithmetic would still find him to be Smoltz’s superior (in actuality John compiled only 4 saves). When Schilling’s postseason heroics were mentioned, John said “There’s more to baseball than the postseason.” The last John-rejected pitcher, Pedro, didn’t merit further discussion beyond the stunning one-word denial: Nope.

Not long after Tommy John (who as far as I can remember was never the unquestioned ace on his own team) implied that he was a better pitcher than Pedro Martinez, his cohost tried to give him the chance to exhibit a more magnanimous side by asking him what retired player not named Tommy John he would give entry to the Hall of Fame if he could. He chose Bert Blyleven, noting his 287 wins. “One fewer than me,” he couldn’t help adding.

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Steve Howe

April 28, 2008
 

I.
What do you do when you feel like there’s something missing? When I was a kid my answer to that question often had a lot to do with baseball. Say it was a late Sunday morning, nothing on TV, the sports section read, the Sunday list of batting and earned run averages all but memorized, the older brother distantly ensconced in a science fiction tome, the parental figures weeding in the garden or working on the never-quite-done house or living in a faraway New York City apartment. I’d get this vague Sunday ache, this feeling like something was missing. I had two ways to numb it. Either I used a tennis ball and various outside surfaces of the house to disappear into the alternate universe of one of the solitaire baseballesque games I’d invented, or I walked the half a mile to the general store and bought more baseball cards.

II.
I stopped collecting baseball cards in 1981, when I was thirteen. The Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series that year, aided in no small part by the work of Steve Howe, who performed brilliantly out of the bullpen in the regular season, pitched shutout ball in the two rounds of National League playoffs, and won one game and saved another in the World Series. The season before, he had won the Rookie of the Year award. As I did buy a few last packs that year, there is a chance that I would have gotten a 1981 Steve Howe card, providing with its spectacular stats and gleaming Rookie of the Year trophy icon one final joyfully numbing glimmer of promise. But if I had had a Steve Howe card in my collection, I guarantee you I would have written about it by now.

III.
Maybe I stopped collecting baseball cards in 1981 because around that time I discovered another way, popular with many pubescent boys, to numb the feeling that something was missing. I augmented this new practice by continuing to serve as commissioner, press corps, fans, management, and players of all my solitaire baseball leagues. When I went away to boarding school at fifteen the constant presence of peers meant that I was able to (or had to) drop the latter practice; I continued the former practice, as I’m sure the rest of my peers were also doing, in hurried secrecy, performing the necessary ablutions in showers or bathroom stalls or when the roommate stepped out for a while. This was apparently not enough for me, however. Maybe I always need a couple means of escape from the feeling that something is missing. Anyway in my second year at boarding school I began getting high.

IV.
The handful of bullpen aces who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame have all been right-handed. Add the still-active Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, and the question of who is the best right-handed reliever in history has plenty of worthy candidates. The question of the best left-handed reliever to ever play major league baseball is much murkier. There have been some, such as Cy Young award-winners Sparky Lyle and Mark Davis and one-time single-season saves leader Dave Righetti, who have produced great seasons or a great but somewhat brief span of seasons, and others, such as John Franco and Jesse Orosco, who have produced admirable career stats while never really dominating. The closest a left-handed closer has come to producing a career including both dominance and relative longevity comparable to those of the right-handed firemen in the Hall of Fame is Randy Myers, but Myers received just one vote in his lone year of Hall of Fame eligibility. And any lingering claim Myers might have had to the title of best left-handed reliever was likely obliterated when Billy Wagner passed him on the career saves list in 2007. Wagner probably only needs to likewise pass the workmanlike John Franco, which he could do with two more productive seasons, to stake an inarguable claim to the title of best lefty reliever ever. But one has to think there could have been another, more imposing body of work standing in Wagner’s way if only Steve Howe could have figured out a way to deal with the feeling that something was missing.

V.
I don’t get high anymore. It tapered off in college when I started finding that it clouded up the thinking I needed to do to write. But I still sometimes feel that there’s something missing. Say it’s a late Sunday morning, nothing on TV, no work to go to, the books in the shelves all seeming in that moment unreadable, no fantasy sports managing left to do, no tin roofs or garage doors to build with the help of a tennis ball into alternate baseball universes. I get this ache. I got it yesterday and did what I usually do if I’m able to. I go for a walk. I walked all the way downtown and back, picking up a couple books at the main branch of the public library. On these walks the aching feeling that something is missing dissipates, but sometimes it never quite fully disappears. Yesterday was one of those times, so even after I’d been walking for seven or eight miles I still felt it. Then finally, as the walk was nearing its end, I finally started noticing things. This is it: when I’m gripped with the feeling that something is missing I don’t see the world around me. I want to disappear to other worlds, yet though the disappearing numbs the ache it does not get rid of it, only temporarily buries it in gauze. Finally near the end of my walk I felt the gauze falling away from my eyes. There was blue in the sky. After a long, punishing winter the leaves were budding on the trees.

VI.
The back of the card at the top of this page is barely readable, the stats and text faded and covered in dirt. Some fragments are readable: “not pitched in the major leagues for three years . . . personal problems . . . scintillating 1.52 ERA.” By squinting I can make out the years he pitched, gaps between years like missing cards in a baseball card collection. He kept getting suspended for using cocaine, then kept getting reinstated because he had what may have been the best left-handed arm to ever grace a bullpen. This card, from 1992, was by the time it appeared already outdated in its politely oblique recounting of his travails, as Howe had been busted once again at the end of 1991 for cocaine possession, a misstep that would earn him a lifetime ban from commissioner Fay Vincent. The ban didn’t stick, and Howe returned the following year, then in 1994 posted yet another of his astonishingly effective seasons (1.80 ERA, 0.875 WHIP). It was his last hurrah, and after two relatively ineffective campaigns he was dumped by the Yankees, and two days after that was arrested at JFK airport for carrying a loaded .357 Magnum. While driving drunk he got in a bad motorcycle accident the next year, and a couple years later was suspended from coaching his daughter’s softball team. Howe stayed out of the news for several years after that, a gap that implied that he finally found a way to deal with the feeling that something was missing. But two years ago today, while under the influence of crystal meth, Steve Howe flipped his pickup truck and died.

VII.
Just a couple blocks from my apartment, my long walk nearly over, I finally noticed that birds were singing. They had been singing the whole time, but I hadn’t heard them. While listening to this new sound, I noticed something, a piece of trash, embedded in the snow-beaten mud of a sidewalk rectangle of would-be grass. I took two steps past before backtracking. It was a baseball card. I couldn’t tell who it was but my first guess was that it was the card of a recent player, someone that I would not have any significant connection to. I kneeled down and pried it free from the mud.

When I saw the name I got the same feeling, not felt by me for decades, that my collection was built upon, that excitement of finding a desired new card, a name that I knew but that was not yet part of the collection, that feeling that a hole was being filled, that what was missing had been found. I brought the card home and added Steve Howe to the Cardboard Gods.

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Gene Michael

April 16, 2008
  
Gene Michael became general manager of the Yankees in 1990, the same year I left college and moved to New York City. In those days, my brother and I occasionally rode the subway from Brooklyn up to Yankee Stadium, sometimes to quietly and uneasily root for the Red Sox, sometimes just to see some baseball featuring any random visiting team. At that time the Yankees were bad enough to allow a guy to spread himself across three seats and sit in the sun and watch a game and not have to worry whether the Beast was going rise up and stomp out every cringing nonbeliever in its path. Of course, this did not apply to the games against the Red Sox, which were always packed no matter how irrelevant either team was at the moment, and in those games the Beast was always present, at the very least a grumble, a tremor, a tip of a vast presence waiting to avalanche down on our heads.

The Yankees hadn’t been mediocre for an extended period of years since the days when they employed none other than Gene Michael as their regular everyday shortstop. Of course, neither era (the only two extended spans of also-ranness since the arrival of Babe Ruth nearly a century ago) was the fault of Gene Michael. It’s true that as a player he couldn’t really hit, and unlike some other weak-hitting shortstops of the time, such as Mark Belanger, he doesn’t seem to have a widely acknowledged reputation as a particularly good fielder, either. But the Yankees had plenty of other problems. As for Michael, all I personally know him for as a player, besides the vaguely simian, imaginary-giant-phallus-wielding association the photo on this card has ingrained into my subconscious, is that he was once pummeled by one of Carlton Fisk’s fists while Fisk used his other arm to strangle Thurman Munson. Or did Fisk strangle Michael while pummeling Munson? I can never keep that story straight. Either way, Michael played the vital part of the feckless weakling in the tableau that gave us Red Sox fans one of our rare moments of temporary superiority amid all those decades of abject subservience.

My brother and I were hoping for another one of those moments when we made our way to Yankee Stadium one sunny Memorial Day in the early 1990s. We watched from high above the leftfield foul line in the upper deck as Red Sox pitcher Danny Darwin gradually surrendered most of a big early cushion by giving up one soaring solo blast after another. The Beast, quieted by the early deficit, grew a little louder with every moonshot. Finally Jeff Reardon was summoned from the bullpen in the bottom of the ninth, and Mel Hall ripped Reardon’s meaty offering high and deep. The shrinking white pill disappeared into the rightfield bleachers stands like a catalytic tablet into a witch’s cauldron. The Beast erupted, its closest tendril, a cackling blond woman, pummeling the two of us amid the thunderous noise as Mel Hall slowly frolicked from base to base.

Though perhaps no one but Gene Michael knew it at the time, Hall was something of a vanishing breed among those Yankees. Spared the dictates of the infinitely impatient George Steinbrenner, who was suspended for several key years during Michael’s reign,  Michael was able to avoid the twin Steinbrennerian habits of jettisoning prospects and stockpiling fading veterans such as Mel Hall. And Michael’s well-guarded prospects ended up forming the foundation of one of the most dominant runs in baseball history, an (insufferable) era when the Beast hardly ever stopped roaring and devouring.

In my mind the long roar started that Memorial Day in the early 1990s. After Hall finally touched home plate it took so long for my brother and me to get out of there that I’m not entirely sure I’m not still there, insane, dreaming all subsequent events. We took a wrong turn upon exiting the stadium and had to circle the whole giant palace of horrors through an endless circling thicket of the Beast before we got to a subway. Ashen-faced, our Red Sox caps stuffed in our pockets, my brother and I said nothing, just trudged. I remember seeing one young sunburned and well-lubricated Red Sox fan flailing against the Beast.

Fuck Bucky Dent!” he kept shouting as he stumbled through the heckling throng. Veins stood out in his forehead and his voice cracked. “Bucky Dent sucks!

You poor crazy bastard, I remember thinking, not without some admiration. It was like watching someone try to start a fistfight with an oncoming train.

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Luis Tiant

April 1, 2008
 

Say you were ten years old. Say your house was robbed. Your Chips Ahoys, your money, your television, your Kiss records, your baseball cards: all stolen. Say the robber kicked you in the nuts and left laughing. Say as you were curled on the floor in pain your mom looked down and told you she had decided to leave to go live in the robber’s glittering house of riches. You would not believe it. You would never believe it. And so this uniform, this cap, this team name on both the front and back of the card, the transactional note on the back that noted the signing by this team of this player in November 1978, a mere month after this team kicked childhood in the nuts, it’s all just an elaborate April Fool’s Day joke. I don’t believe it. I’ll never believe it.

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Ron Guidry

March 25, 2008
  
When I was a boy I was afraid to bicycle past a Doberman pinscher who was, according to the kid who owned him, so fierce that it often chewed through its chain and went on bloodthirsty rampages. I was afraid of the night terrors that tore me from sleep and sent me screaming through the house. I was afraid of ending up in a situation where I would be forced to eat fruit. I was afraid of death. I was afraid of bullies. I was afraid of girls. I was afraid of our basement. After I saw The Shining I was afraid of our bathtub. I was afraid of the three-note Duracell ditty that ended with the sectioned battery slamming together. I was afraid of nuclear bombs. You could be sitting there on the floor of your room, sorting your newest baseball cards into their respective teams, and it could all vanish in one bright flash. I was afraid of everything ending. In light of all those fears, I can’t really say that I was afraid of Ron Guidry. I mean, I wasn’t afraid Ron Guidry was going to leap out from behind a snowbank and bash me with a rock. I wasn’t afraid Ron Guidry was going to force me to touch my tongue to a frozen metal pole. I wasn’t afraid Ron Guidry was going to burn our house down. And yet, when I hold this 1979 Ron Guidry card in my hand, even thirty years after he went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERAnumbers so astounding they seem inhuman, merciless, obsidian, obsceneto lead the 100-win Yankees past my team, the 99-win Red Sox, it’s as if I’m holding a small box made of thin, fragile glass, a scorpion inside.
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Billy Martin

September 13, 2007
 

 
Late in his disappointing life, Confucius was sitting with his two most loyal disciples. His two closest friends. Together the three of them had been down every road. What was there left to say? What was there left to teach?

“Suppose you tell me your innermost wishes?” the old master finally said.

His two companions gave their answers, the brash and extroverted Zilu wishing he could share bountiful material wealth with his friends, the more inward Yan Hui wishing for profound, unshakable humility. Confucius may have sensed that both were trying to impress their long-time teacher with their answers. When they returned the question to him he kept it simple, embodying rather than merely reaching for both the spirit of generosity and the spirit of humility.

“I wish the old may enjoy peace, friends may enjoy trust, and the young may enjoy affection,” he said.

Tomorrow the last regular season series of the year between the Red Sox and Yankees begins. Whenever I had a chance to wish for something as a child (birthday candles, wishbone, coins in a fountain, etc.) I wished deeply and sincerely for the Red Sox to Win. To Beat the Yankees. To Win Everything. Years came and went and the wish did not come true. Maybe it’s because nobody—not me, certainly not beady-eyed Red Sox manager Don Zimmer, not even Confucius—ever wished for something as deeply and ferociously as the wish Billy Martin willed true thirty years ago this October: to manage the New York Yankees to a World Series championship.

In other words, the above card, from 1978, shows a man who has achieved his innermost wish. As Paul Westerberg might put it: Look him in the eyes and tell him that he’s satisfied.

Then tell me, what is your innermost wish?

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Sparky Lyle in . . . The Nagging Question

June 15, 2007

  Cheers for Mark Harris, Part 2

My favorite baseball book is The Southpaw, but it wasn’t always that way. For a while there, before I knew of Henry Wiggen, the tale of a different lefty topped the list. And I still owe a big debt to him.

Sparky Lyle got me writing.

His diary-style recounting of the tumultuous 1978 season, The Bronx Zoo (written with the help of Peter Golenbock), came out in 1979 when I was 11. I bought it that summer, when my brother and I were in New York City for our annual visit to see our dad. The cover featured a picture of a baseball festooned with a walrus mustache. The mustache bulged up above the otherwise flat surface of the cover, like the raised letters on the front of a Harlequin Romance. I practically went into cardiac arrest from laughing while reading the book on the busride home.

My brother and I had always seemed to find a way to laugh our asses off on that 8-hour ride. In earlier years we’d done it by filling in all the blank spaces in Mad Libs with swear words, or coming up with obscenity-laced versions of common acronyms such as FBI and CIA (this latter riff beginning with the two of us inventing “blue” versions for the UFP acronym on my brother’s official United Federation of Planets Star Trek T-shirt). I don’t remember anything particularly funny from the homeward busrides in the years after the Bronx Zoo hilarity, however, which suggests that Lyle’s descriptions of clubhouse pranks and dugout fueds provided our last Greyhound hurrah. By the summer of 1979 my brother had become a teenager, while I was still a kid, the two-year gap between us never wider, and so by then in most settings he reacted to my pestering demands for his attention by, first, totally ignoring me, then if that didn’t work fixing me with a brief glowering stare, and finally if I still kept at it unleashing a spring-loaded backhand punch to my upper arm. But I guess the regular rules were-up to and including that summer but not beyond it-suspended for our busride home from seeing our father. In that moment of suspension between parents it was the two of us against the world, laughing.

And in that last laughing busride we had Lyle’s book open between us, painting a graphic picture of grown men acting like children: bickering, playing baseball, cursing, playing baseball, getting in fistfights, playing baseball, and, in the most memorable running gag, perpetrated repeatedly by the book’s narrator upon a string of teammates, sitting bare-assed and ruinously on birthday cakes. All this must have been reassuring to me. If they haven’t grown up, maybe I don’t have to grow up, I thought. Baseball can go on, laughing my ass off can go on, feeling like I’m part of a team can go on. All these things had buoyed my childhood, and though I didn’t consciously note their imminent departure from my life, the fact is they were all on the brink of diminishing, and on some level I must have sensed this. So I seized on Lyle’s book, which is another way of saying I loved it.

And when the following year’s little league season came around, my final little league season, I decided to emulate Sparky Lyle. My father had recently given me a diary and had implored me to write something in it every day. The cover of the diary was denim. It had gnomes on it. In fact, it was called a Gnome Gnotebook. It took all my strength not to beat my own ass for owning it. But the evening after my team’s first little league practice of the year I ignored the gnomes and began to write, hoping that my increasingly mundane life would instantly burst into side-splitting hijinx. A few years later, during my college years and in a tantrum of frustration at still not being able get down on the page anything close to resembling what was inside me, I tossed all my writing notebooks (including the Gnotebook) into a dumpster. But I still remember the sentence that started my lifelong attempt to write down my life. I was trying to be sardonic and weathered, a crusty self-deprecating veteran. I guess I was probably trying to sound like Sparky Lyle. And I was trying to tell the truth.

“I couldn’t lay my glove on anything today, much less my bat,” I wrote.

II.
My ten most favorite baseball books:
The Southpaw, by Mark Harris
Hang Tough, Paul Mather
, by Alfred Slote
Bill James’ Historical Abstract
Bang the Drum Slowly
, by Mark Harris
The Donald Honig Reader
Five Seasons
, by Roger Angell
The Bronx Zoo
, by Sparky Lyle with Peter Golenbock
The Great American Baseball Card Flipping Trading and Bubble Gum Book
, by Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover

III.
On to The Nagging Question:

What is your favorite baseball book?

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Lou Piniella

June 7, 2007
 

Tantrum 1:

I was a real tantrum-thrower as a kid. My most public tantrum came at the end of a little league game. We were playing the Twins, one of the two or three teams in the league we had a chance to beat, and were leading by three runs in the bottom of the last inning. They loaded the bases for their best hitter, a short, stocky kid named Tom Soule.

My mom was watching the game from the metal bleachers behind our dugout. I was playing third base. Tom Soule swung and sent the ball sailing.

 “It was such a nice moment watching little Tommy Soule bounce around the bases with a big smile on his face,” my mom told me afterward. “Then I look up and see you. Kicking your glove across the field. Swearing. Crying. It was awful.”

My punishment was going to be that I’d have to miss my next game, but no doubt because punishments were pretty foreign to my hippie-influenced family this never came to pass. I think Mom just had me stack firewood instead, which I would have had to do anyway. Usually when I stacked firewood there was a Red Sox game on the radio, so it was actually a decent way to pass the time.

Tantrum 2:

My most elaborate tantrum also was little-league related. In Vermont, winter never ends. This is how it feels when you’re an 11-year-old kid getting angrier and angrier as each new April snowstorm cancels another stab by your team to have their first practice. Finally when yet another sleet- and snowstorm cancelled practice I decided that the only thing there was to do was go try to get in a fistfight with the weather. I put on a thin windbreaker over a T-shirt—probably what I’d been planning to wear to practice—and set out into the howling storm. Having already watched too much television in my life, I imagined with some intensity the following scene centering on my departure: as I was about to exit the house some parental figure would ask me where I was going.

Out,” I planned to say, toughly, before opening the door and slamming it behind me.

But nobody asked me anything, or even noticed I was about to go Ahab it up a little against the northern New England squall, so I just left. I ended up walking 8 miles in my sneakers through sleet and snow, all the way up the winding dirt road from East Randolph to Randolph Center. My friend Glenn lived in Randolph Center, so I went there and called home. My grandfather, who happened to be visiting, came and picked me up, unsure what to make of me.

“Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” he murmured.

By then my anger had kind of receded behind the encroaching hypothermia.

Tantrum 3:

Just yesterday, in my cubicle, I was having great difficulty figuring out how to change the color of the text in these tiny text boxes we use to signal edits in a PDF document. This is the kind of thing that really gets to me these days, the conundrums that make me feel like I’m a stranger in a strange land, and that it’s only going to get worse as I get older and less able to adapt to the constant technological “upgrades” all around me. I hate upgrades. I loathe them. Soon death itself will be referred to as an upgrade, for isn’t an upgrade a wiping away of one world in favor of a whole new world with no memory of the old? Anyway, that’s not really what gets me wound up in those moments. It’s the feeling of helplessness and stupidity. So instead of calmly trying to figure out a solution to a problem, I throw a quiet masochistic tantrum.

So yesterday if you happened to be in my sector of the corporate headquarters where my name hangs on a cubicle you would have seen a 39-year-old man pulling his hair and punching himself in the head. Well, you probably wouldn’t have seen this, because whenever I am about to deliver blows to my head I take a quick look to see that no one is within witnessing range of my cubicle. But maybe there are hidden security cameras.

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Alex Johnson

February 19, 2007

Here is the third 1975 Yankee card in a row to be featured on Cardboard Gods, the fourth if you include the upper-left section of the Bobby Bonds Man of Constant Sorrow collage. Prior to this current streak, I’ve posted images of Yankee players just twice, once to hurl obscenities at Reggie Jackson and the other time to admit (not without some guilt and shame) that as a young child I reacted gleefully to the news of Thurman Munson’s death. It may then seem strange that I have been spending the last week or so meditating on Yankee players to such a level of autohypnosis that I eventually went so far as to imagine the infamous Yankee cap insignia as being a doomed couple’s last perfect dance. In general, the interlocking NY insignia has an effect on me akin to that of Beethoven on Alex DeLarge after he undergoes his “treatment” in A Clockwork Orange. But the truth is I wasn’t born with this revulsion. Not until 1976, when Graig Nettles and Mickey Rivers ganged up on Bill Lee and maimed his pitching arm during a Piniella-the-Gorilla-instigated bench-clearing war with my team, the Red Sox, did I begin to hate the New York Yankees. This hatred grew exponentially over the next couple years, and, on October 2, 1978, became just about as permanent a part of the much-doctored Josh Wilker baseball card as anything can be.

But I am rediscovering that there was a brief time when the Yankees were just another team to me. I was seven years old when I obtained this Alex Johnson card, just beginning to get into baseball, and had not even been alive the last time they’d won anything. I had begun perusing a baseball encyclopedia given to me and my brother by my uncle, but, too young even to know about the Fisk-Munson melee in 1973, I hadn’t yet been driven by any wounding or enraging current event to meticulously study the long history of Yankee domination over the Red Sox. I didn’t hate the Yankees. I didn’t hate anybody.

I certainly didn’t hate Alex Johnson. Why would I? He was just some guy on some team. Everything about Alex Johnson’s 1975 card, from his sloppily doctored uniform and cap to the background of blurry inconsequentiality to his expression of slightly bemused resignation, seems to sigh the words “just passin’ through.” Like Rudy May and Cecil Upshaw, Alex Johnson had come to the Yankees in the middle of the previous season, and, like his two just passin’ through
teammates, he’d move on to another team by the time the Yankees started winning pennants again. For the Yankees he’d make no impact, leave no mark.

I wonder who will remember Alex Johnson. Though he won a batting title, in 1970, he may have been the most anonymous player ever to have done so. The year-by-year statistics on the back of his card show that batting title year as well as a handful of other good and even very good years, but they also reveal constant movement–two seasons with the Phillies, two with the Cardinals, two with the Reds, two with the Angels, one with the Indians, one season and most of the second with the Rangers, then 28 at-bats with the Yankees. After this card came out, he lasted one more season with the Yankees then spent his final year in Detroit.

I envision baseball nostalgia as something like a baggage claim carousel. At the baggage claim carousel of baseball nostalgia for the years in which Alex Johnson was just passin’ through, Phillies fans grab Johnny Callison, Cardinals fans snag Dal Maxvill, Reds fans snap up Vada Pinson, Angels fans corral Jim Fregosi, Indians fans and Rangers fans fight over Buddy Bell and Toby Harrah, Yankee fans deposit Bobby Bonds in the lost-and-found while looking for Bobby Murcer, and Tigers fans gleefully snare The Bird.

Meanwhile, a sturdy, duct-taped, well-traveled Hefty bag keeps going round and round on the conveyer belt untouched. Who will claim Alex Johnson, right-handed line-drive-smasher-for-hire?

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Cecil Upshaw

February 17, 2007

As drink gave way to drink, the slow
Unfathomable voices of luncheon made
A window of ultraviolet light in the mind,
Through which one at last saw the skeleton
Of everything . . .
— Denis Johnson, “The Veil”

When last we left off, a drunkard suggested by the listing, woozy N on Rudy May’s cap had just had a door slammed in his face. Let’s call this man Mr. N.

Mr. N stares at the door that he once had a key for before the locks were changed. He sways a little. His face feels raw from shaving with cold water and a Bic in a gas station bathroom. He’s still holding the decaying flowers up by his chest. He looks down at them and notices that he’s buttoned his shirt wrong. His fingers are shaking. He can smell his own sweat. He starts thinking about where he can get a quart of vodka. He’s looking down at the carpet the flowers will soon fall to. He says “please” one more time, but softly.

Though I wasn’t there to witness this moment, which I believe to have happened in 1975, I have decided that I know this man, having had repeated interactions with him years later, throughout the early- to mid-1990s. He was a man known to me and my fellow employees at 8th Street Wine and Liquor as Mr. Nikoff, so named by us for his consistent and prodigious consumption of Nikoff Vodka, the cheapest brand we sold in the liter and half-gallon size. He didn’t seem to have very good hearing, but even so we didn’t want him to know that he had been named after his booze. It’s possible, though I can’t recall for sure, that we referred to him at times as Mr. N for short and by way of a code while he was in the store.

Through the doors of that store shuffled a steady string of the alcohol-destroyed, dirty-faced men who signaled their desire for a 9 A.M. half-pint of blackberry brandy or vodka with voices like metal scraping on stone, who paid with sticky, greasy nickels tapped out onto the counter from a styrofoam cup, who exited mumbling or cackling or cursing, who left livid ghosts of stink in their wake. But among this parade of ruination Mr. N stood out as the man who had not only fallen most completely into putrefaction but who had also fallen from the greatest height. Though you could barely understand what he was saying through his rotted teeth and tangled beard and through the tears in your own eyes that his piercingly awful stench produced, you knew that he was intelligent and educated, or he had been at one time. Sometimes all we could do after he staggered away with the help of a metal cane, his new liter of vodka secreted in his filthy trench coat, was repeatedly wave the door open and closed, spray the entire place with Lysol, breathe through our mouths, and gasp obscenities. But sometimes after all this we also wondered how he’d gotten to his current state. He knew arcane facts about the history of the labor movement, had informed opinions on the mayoral record of Abe Beame, lauded the abilities of the Gashouse Gang, seemed at times to speak with the trace of an English accent, even hinted once or twice that he’d been involved in some significant way with the University of Chicago. And he smelled like the aftermath of a funeral home fire extinguished with urine. And his fingers shook so badly that even on the days when he said nothing it took him several minutes to complete a transaction that took even our second-most ruined client a half a minute at most.

For the last few days I have been thinking about Mr. N as I knew him and Mr. N as I imagine him as a younger man, outside the slammed door of his former one and only. With the help of this 1975 Cecil Upshaw card, which I have been looking at for days, studying it on the commuter train to work, on my lunch breaks, on the train ride back home, and during commercial breaks in my evening ingestions of foodstuff and television, I have also begun trying to imagine Mr. N’s last perfect moment, long before I ever knew him but not that long before he stood staring down at the hallway carpet holding flowers and whispering the word please.

If I was a religious person, I might define a perfect moment as one in which the individual is in total harmony with the divine. So let’s say the Cardboard Gods comprise my religion. Let’s say this photograph of Cecil Upshaw was taken before the doctoring of Rudy May’s card from the same year, and let’s say the much more graceful N and the Y on Cecil Upshaw’s dark cap are Mr. N and his beloved dancing together in an unlit room in the middle of the night. It’s a few weeks before Mr. N will have the door slammed in his face.

The room is not lit because earlier that day the electric company shut off the power. Mr. N’s beloved was first to discover that the electricity had been shut off and she took the flicking of the impotent light switch as a sign, even decided that she would end things with Mr. N, that it was just too hard, that it seemed too often that she was carrying him, dragging him, rather than that they were walking together. But he had come home that day with news of a new job, only temporary but with possibilities to become more than that. He was substitute teaching, a high school English class, and the regular teacher would be out for a while, so he would, he explained with his contagious excitement, not merely be babysitting but would actually be teaching great books. Mr. N’s beloved, who had earlier resolved to tell him it was over, softened not at the news that he would finally once again have an income but with the light in his eyes, the optimism, the hope. Before long he would be discovered at the school with alcohol on his breath and be dismissed. He just had a little, he explained to his beloved, to calm his nerves before facing those animals. I can’t, Mr. N’s beloved said to herself. I just can’t anymore. But before that there was this one perfect night, when both of them believed for the last time in a future together, and so their dark room changed from a curse to a blessing, for it showed that the light in the world came from the two of them together, dancing, in love, not even any music, and fuck everything else.

In a perfect moment you won’t even know the divine except to sense that beneath you and above you and all around you is an invisible world of infinite wonder and absurdity. You won’t know the pinched bespectacled expression of the fading god of decent to mediocre relief pitching below you, nor the harmonious union of his tired arms above you in a gesture that paradoxically seems at once one of victory and surrender. You will not know that the intimations of triumph embedded in the uniform he wears will elude him, his time with the most successful branch of the Cardboard Gods brief and forgettable, nor will you know that the enmity-provoking aspects of this uniform are at this time dormant, the Yankees just another team to any creator of the divine under the age of 11 in 1975, your moment bathed in an innocence before hate. You will sense that there are worlds within worlds, that everything is connected and so everything is divine, but you won’t know the particulars, such as, as the back of this Cecil Upshaw card states, the faltering pitcher pictured here, who will pitch just one more year, and not for the team named in this card, is the cousin of another faltering pitcher, George Stone, who is also on the cusp of his last go-round. You won’t know that Cecil Upshaw came to the Yankees for, among others, the visionary alternative marriage experimenter Fritz Peterson, nor that Cecil Upshaw would leave the Yankees in a straight-up one-for-one trade for the most inspiringly accessible Cardboard God of them all, Eddie Leon.

Or maybe you will know, but it will be beyond words. Beyond saving. As Denis Johnson puts it in “The Veil”:

. . . you’d know. You would know goddamn it. And never be able to say.

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Rudy May

February 14, 2007

Like Bobby Murcer, Rudy May had two tours of duty with the Yankees that lucklessly came just before and just after the team’s 1977 and 1978 World Series triumphs. This perplexing card signals Rudy May’s initial arrival in New York, though it actually came out after he’d already played half a season for the Yankees. The fact that he’d already appeared in games with the Yankees, wearing a real Yankee uniform and a real Yankee cap, makes it difficult to understand why Topps had to resort to what may be the poorest bit of card doctoring I’ve ever seen. The uniform shirt looks like a piece of college-ruled notebook paper that sat out in the Topps parking lot all through a snowy winter and sun-drenched spring, and the interlocking NY on the cap appears to have been rendered by a distracted gorilla brandishing a tube of Crest toothpaste. The N in particular seems to have a sordid, malodorous life all its own, the part of the letter on our left like the staggering in-buckling leg of a drunkard, the letter-ending flourish on the right like the drunkard’s wilted flowers, offered in an ill-fated attempt to gain reentry to the apartment of his beleaguered erstwhile mate who hurled him out onto the street after ten or twelve too many booze-related fuckups.

“Puh-pleaz . . . sweedard,” the drunken N begs, wheezing, his drooping crocuses clutched to his chest. “I. I loveyou and. And I can change. I swear. I . . . I broughtcha these . . . Honey?”
Slam.
(Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody!)
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Reggie Jackson

October 20, 2006
 

Polar bears will be extinct by the end of this century. I read that yesterday in an article by Peter Matthiessen on the Alaskan wilderness that is in danger of being obliterated for the short-term benefit of a few already impossibly wealthy oil men. I was on a Metra commuter train, cringing low on the upper level in hopes that the conductor below might not see me so I could save three bucks. At work earlier in the day I’d been in a meeting where the constant change of the company I’m employed by was discussed in light of a quote about gazelles getting eaten by lions. Be the lion, it was implied, or at least not the weakest gazelle.

Anyway, here’s that fuckhead Reggie Jackson, in another of Topps’ doctored cards. Like Dave Cash, Reggie switched teams too soon before the start of the year for Topps to have a picture of him in a Yankee uniform on file, so they sprung for some Wite-Out and a black Bic and within moments, voila, what once was a wealthy Oriole is now an even wealthier Yankee. Unlike Dave Cash, Reggie doesn’t seem to give a shit. Why should he? Doubt is for panting polar bears and introspective gazelles.

I find it somehow comforting, in an impotently nostalgic way, that it’s possible to see the crude residue of change in these cards. Undoubtedly when a similar situation arises today the cards are altered digitally, seamlessly, the wheels of change invisible. Every day I half expect to show up at my job to find that the nameplate on my cubicle has been removed. It wouldn’t even surprise me that much if the whole building was gone.

 
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Thurman Munson

October 5, 2006

Finding a Yankee in a pack of cards was like finding a mold-blackened orange in your trick-or-treat bag. I valued the never realized (nor even approached) goal of completing the year’s collection too much to throw the offending cardboard in the garbage, as I would the orange, but I tried to get the Yankee cards away from the others as soon as possible and out of sight so I could engage in my time-dissolving card-aided daydreams without the sharp sliver of festering resentment in my nostrils. Some of the cards were less offensive than others, the mushroom-cloud hair of Oscar Gamble, the innocuousness of Roy White, the hilarious storytelling ability of Sparky Lyle, and the mere name of Mickey Klutts among the few effective truce-making offerings from the world of my enemies. On the other hand, some Yankees were capable of making the whole pack they came in feel tainted, including perennial asshole-of-the-year Reggie Jackson, simian brawl-instigator Lou Piniella, the bat-corking duo of shoulder-maimer Graig Nettles and sucker-puncher Mickey Rivers, and a certain weak-hitting prettyboy shortstop whom I’m not quite ready to mention by name.

I counted Thurman Munson in that latter group. Yankee captain, leader of the bullies, picker of fights with Carlton Fisk. Here he was, befouling my pack with his smile. This smile, as incongruous on Thurman Munson as a note-for-note cover of a James Taylor ballad on a Ramones record, was probably interpreted by me as connoting the fact that the Yankees had just won the 1976 pennant, their first since I had been paying attention. I had already begun my lifelong search for answers in the baseball encyclopedia and knew that this turn of events was a return to the status quo, and so this smile struck me as that of a wealthy unshowered aristocrat learning that his prodigious fortune had just been doubled by sheer chance. Things only got worse. In 1977, the Yankees beat out the Red Sox in a close division race on their way to their 21st World Series championship, then in 1978 humiliated the Red Sox by obliterating a gigantic late-season deficit and thumping them in a one-game playoff before tallying championship number 22. What can I say? It hurt. The following winter, I looked to my baseball encyclopedia for solace and studied freakishly similar failures stretching into the past as far as the eye could bear to see.

All this is merely to explain that by the summer of 1979, when I was 11, I hated Thurman Munson. Now, without further delay, a short ugly story: one day in the summer of 1979 my brother and I were travelling from Vermont on a Greyhound bus to see our dad, who lived in New York City. It must have been crowded because I wasn’t sitting with Ian but with a short, mustachioed guy in his early 20s. He looked a little like Thurman Munson, actually, and he was even a Yankees fan. He was friendly, though, and we talked about baseball all through the first few hours of the ride, before the mid-trip 15-minute break in Springfield, Mass. During that break, everybody got off the bus. I don’t know where the guy sitting next to me went, but my brother and I hit the vending machine that sold the big boxes of M&Ms our dad always showed up with on his Greyhound visits to Vermont. I was back in my seat shoving fistfulls of the candy in my mouth when the guy with the mustache reboarded looking glum. I swung my knees out to let him into his window seat. He lowered himself down and whispered that Thurman Munson had just died.

“Crashed his plane,” the guy explained, but I was already turning and rising to relay the news to my brother, M&Ms clicking against the inside of smile-bared teeth, my voice like a recess bell. When I sat back down my seatmate was staring at me. I offered him some M&Ms, my smile congealing.

“No thank you,” he said. He turned and looked out the window. The bus pulled out of the station. He kept on looking out the window, for hours, all the way to Port Authority.