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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.