Archive for the ‘Oakland A’s’ Category

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Larry Murray

February 11, 2018

Larry Murray

I look and have always looked to these cards for the comfort of facts. Here are some facts:

  1. Hall of Famer Eddie Murray had a brother who played major league baseball, but it wasn’t Larry Murray. Larry Murray was just some guy named Larry Murray.
  2. Larry Murray spent parts of six seasons in the majors, his last coming in 1979, when he recorded career highs in many categories, including home runs, RBI, and batting average. These personal bests were 2, 20, and .186, respectively.
  3. The last time I’ll ever talk to my father was over the phone this past Christmas.
  4. This is Larry Murray’s only baseball card. He takes his stance before a sky of blue, but the heroic blue-sky pose, a signature of the prolific bay area Topps photographer Doug McWilliams, is deflated somehow by the bulky green windbreaker collar jutting out from under Larry Murray’s uniform. Anyway, heroism is beyond the realm of facts.
  5. My father kept talking about the end of the world. I was at my in-laws’ house, and my young sons were downstairs playing with their new toys. I wanted to be with them. I kept looking for an opportunity to wrap things up. My father kept talking about the end of the world.
  6. Ecological ruin
  7. Poverty
  8. Famine
  9. War
  10. 108 losses. That total by the 1979 Oakland A’s would have been the most games lost by any team in the entire decade of the 1970s had not the Toronto Blue Jays amassed 109 losses in that very same year, but the A’s were the inferior of the two outfits, based on the following subset of facts:
    1. The A’s scored 40 fewer runs and allowed only 2 fewer runs than the Blue Jays.
    2. The teams played a weighted schedule with more games against intra-divisional opponents, and the Blue Jays were in a division in which every other team was above .500, including one team with over 100 wins, two teams with over 90 wins, and one two-time defending World Series Champion, the Yankees, who had 89 wins; the A’s, by contrast, were in a division in which the winner, the Angels, would have finished fifth had they been in the AL East.
    3. The Blue Jays beat the A’s 8 out of 12 times they played them in 1979.
  11. I can’t remember with exactitude any of our last words together. But near the end of the long catalog of ruinous facts there was something like this: “Do you, Josh Wilker, pledge to fight injustice and inequality every day for the rest of your life?” Before waiting for an answer, and perhaps sensing that I was on the verge of blurting an annoyed reply, my father continued, “Do I, Louis Wilker, pledge to fight injustice and inequality every day for the rest of my life?”
  12. Larry Murray is a murmuring, comforting sound. Nothing too dramatic is at stake. No great heroism, no great loss. Larry Murray. Larry Murray. Larry Murray.
  13. In 1977 or 1978, my father, who was not a sports fan, saw Reggie Jackson in a ticker tape parade in New York City and was impressed. There was a larger than life sense emanating from Reggie. Most of us are nobody special, at the mercy of historical forces that dwarf us, erase us. Not Reggie, or so he believed with such force that everyone in his path believed it too.
  14. I felt relief when I was finally able to press the hang-up icon on my cell phone.
  15. A couple of years before my father marveled at Reggie, Reggie had been the heart of the glorious Oakland A’s dynasty. That glory left when Reggie left. He was traded after the 1975 season along with Ken Holtzman and minor leaguer Bill VanBommel to the Baltimore Orioles for Don Baylor, Paul Mitchell, and Mike Torrez. Mitchell pitched five games for the A’s and then was purchased by the Seattle Mariners. Baylor played one season for the A’s and then left in free agency for the California Angels. Torrez pitched one full season for the A’s and then early in the following year was traded to the Yankees for Dock Ellis, Marty Perez, and Larry Murray. Ellis pitched seven games for the A’s before being purchased by the Texas Rangers. Perez played a full season for the A’s and then was released part way into the next season. The last echo of Reggie Jackson on the A’s was Larry Murray.
  16. Larry Murray, Larry Murray, Larry Murray.
  17. I still have the record of the call on my phone. It was shorter than I thought it had been.
  18. Dec 25
  19. 1:06 PM
  20. Outgoing call
  21. 29 min 50 sec
  22. Larry Murray’s last appearance on a major league diamond occurred before 2,583 people in late September 1979. Actually there were probably fewer than that number on hand by the time Larry Murray entered the game. It was the bottom of the ninth, and the A’s were losing by two to the Kansas City Royals. Jeff Newman drew a two-out walk. Larry Murray was summoned to pinch run. A Wayne Gross single moved him to second. Jim Essian lined a Dan Quisenberry pitch to left. The left fielder Willie Wilson glided toward it. Larry Murray was running toward home, presumably. But how would I know? And what does it matter?
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Ken Holtzman

January 11, 2018

Ken Holtzman

What lasts? Not mustaches, not dynasties, not childhood, not life. It’s all pretty much like the clouds shown here that disassembled soon after the photo was taken. The sky got bluer or grayer. The sky is always changing. At some point there won’t even be a sky.

I don’t know the names of clouds but I know Ken Holtzman pitched two no-hitters, won three World Series in a row with the A’s, and collected more wins than any other Jewish player in history, including a win over his idol, Sandy Koufax in the latter’s last regular season start.

I know my grandma was born in the 1800s in Austria-Hungary and died in a Jewish nursing home in the Bronx called something like the Daughters of Judea. My dad took my brother and me there once. She tried to foist a banana on me. Eat, eat, she implored. She’d had six children but only four lived beyond infancy. But no fucking way was I eating that banana. I hated and still hate fruit. Someday there won’t be a sky but until I croak, perhaps of scurvy, I’m clinging with all my might to my bizarre childhood aversion to the very symbol of this world’s sweet bounty. My god was I disgusted by that bruised banana thrust at me by my age-crumpled grandmother. She loved me, and all I wanted was to leave and buy several packs of baseball cards and open the packs and jam all the gum into my mouth and never have to look old age or love in the wrinkled face again.

Now, decades too late, I wish I’d realized then how deeply indebted I am to her. She kept my family alive, kept them going. Without her, I’m not here. My boys aren’t here. Someday there’ll be no sky, but that’s nothing in the face of the gratitude and love I feel right here and now for my family, old and new.

I like how in this card Ken Holtzman’s glove is unseen, so you can actually believe that he doesn’t have a glove and is not aping a pitching follow-through but extending his left arm to escort you on a promenade. I wish I could have thought to reach my arm out to my grandma the way Ken Holtzman is reaching his arm out here.

But it’s far too late, so instead I take Ken Holtzman’s arm, just the way I did back in 1975. I’ll always take his arm. Someday perhaps I’ll be as old as my grandma and I’ll have trouble walking and I’ll be lonely and institutionalized. I’ll still have Ken Holtzman. I’ll take Ken Holtzman’s arm. Wispy clouds behind him will remind me of something, but I won’t be able to put a name to it. He’ll be cheerful and respectful and soft-spoken. He’ll be steady. He’ll support me. We will take a long, slow walk out into the day.

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Jim Tyrone

December 19, 2016

jim-tyroneDays up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum
Forget most, remember some
But don’t turn none away
-Townes Van Zandt, “To Live’s To Fly”

 

I’ve let a lot of life slip through my hands. Turned away days? Try years. And even now when I finally get that I’m here for a reason, when I want to be here for my two boys and everyone else I love and who loves me, even now every given day is at least a partial turning away. I’m always looking for the exit at least just a little, that exit-looking tendency one and the same with the very ache that has accompanied life all along, even as far back as 1978, ten years old, hoping some superstar would appear in a pack of cards along with the brief, fizzling rush of the cheap sugar high from the gum and dissolve the ache. Superstars could fix a day, but most days went without them. But even so, even if I then turned the day away, I at least turned none of these cards away. These I collected.

I remember some, but most at this point are like this Jim Tyrone card from 1978: a tangible remnant of a lifelong forgetting. Yesterday I grabbed it at random from my box of cards and couldn’t remember anything. The image itself reinforces the aura of opacity. You can’t see his face very well, and he seems himself to be passing through a moment of uncertainty. The back of the card also passes this feeling along, communicating Jim Tyrone’s spotty purchase in the majors, his major league career a transient flickering, too much like life itself to be the kind of thing that will ring forever in the mind of a kid holding the card.

What was the day when I got this card? Was it hot, sunny? Did I ride my bike down to the general store to buy a pack or two or did I walk? That day did I throw a tennis ball off our roof for hours? Did I play catch with my brother? I would like to think so.

I don’t get to see my brother but once a year these days, but yesterday I saw him in my mind, thanks to my father mentioning him. I had called my mother and father to say hello. I talked with my mom first, and then she handed the phone off to my father. He told me he has enjoyed my recent writing on this site.

“I like that you’re thinking about philosophers and, uh, fascism. I’m thinking about that too.”

My father spends most of his day reading, his mind still sharp at age 91. He was a young man when fascism last came this way on a global scale. He signed up to fight this evil, serving in the Navy, and meanwhile his mother, my grandma, continued working furiously to try to get relatives in Europe out of grave danger. She kept doing what she could after the war too. When my father came home from the Navy and resumed living in a small Lower East Side apartment with my grandma, he shared a bedroom for a while with a previously unknown cousin from Europe, Joe, a concentration camp survivor. You can call it fear mongering if some thoughts leak out of me about fascism. You might be right. I hope you’re right. And I can certainly understand your disappointment if you came here under the assumption that this would be about baseball, only baseball, or even mostly baseball. I’m just trying always to understand where I am in the world, and these cards as always are among the only things I feel like I can hold onto. Anyway, yesterday as I was talking to my dad I asked him about some new treatments he’s been trying for his foot. He has always liked going on walks, but his foot has been a problem recently. He and my mom have been trying whatever they can.

“How do you like the acupuncture?” I asked him. I said it loud because his hearing is not great.

“What?” he said. “You’re doing agriculture?”

I tried again, a little louder, and he laughed, realizing his error. He then talked about the Christmas lights going up all over his neighborhood and how he liked them. He said he was looking forward to my brother, who lives nearby them, bringing over his family’s tree. Every year my brother and his family have a tree at their house until they go up to visit my brother’s in-laws. Just before they leave, my brother brings over the tree.

My brother lugging over a used tree to brighten up my parents’ house! It makes me happy to think of it.

Before my mom handed the phone over to my dad, my younger son Exley talked to her a little, saying “hi” and “bye” as she also said “hi” and “bye.” Later, that night, as I was trying to get Exley to go to sleep, he said, “Phone. Hi. Bye.”

“Yes, we talked to grandma today. You said hi and bye.”

“Me? Come?”

“Yes,” I said. “I wish we could come over more often. They live so far away.”

“Dog,” Exley said.

“Yes! You walked grandma’s dog the last time you were there!”

Exley then lifted his leg.

“Pee,” he said.

“Yes, Shaggy lifted his leg to pee.”

How much of this will I remember? I love so much this little passage, with Exley still just learning words but already telling stories. But it’s already hard for me to remember when my other son, Jack, was at this stage. Having two young kids throws me into an obliterating present the likes of which I haven’t seen since my own childhood. But I remember yesterday, at least for now. There were several rough spots, Jack and Exley battling over various things, Exley loosing blood-curdling screams, Jack crying, Exley crying, me losing my shit and adding to the maelstrom by shouting, which of course was followed by more crying.

Am I ever going to circle this back to Jim Tyrone?

Well, I do remember that yesterday for a long stretch I pitched a big yellow rubber ball to Jack, who smashed it with a foam bat, rocketing line drives all over the basement (and occasionally off my face). That was fun. Exley wasn’t participating much—instead he was putting CDs into the CD player and blasting them at top volume. I am of course hoping that someday both boys will play baseball and play it together. This is probably a hope rooted in the hope I have for any day from childhood lost to memory—that it included me and my brother playing baseball together. Any day that had me playing catch with my brother was a day I didn’t fully turn away.

Jim Tyrone traveled through pro ball with his brother Wayne trailing behind. Both were in the Cubs system, but while Jim made it to the big leagues with the Cubs in 1972, 1974, and 1975, he didn’t spend any time with the big club in 1976, Wayne’s only year in the majors. The two did play together a bit on the Cub’s triple A squad that year, and while Jim had a good year there, it’s easy to see why the Cubs decided to roll the dice with the younger brother, as 1976 saw Wayne smashing 8 home runs in 84 at bats at triple A.

As it turned out, Wayne wasn’t able to stick in the majors beyond that one season, and he never got a baseball card. He and Jim did reunite in the short-lived Inter-American League with the Miami Amigos, where Jim led the league in batting average and Wayne led in homers. Jim went on to star in Japan for a couple of seasons, while Wayne played in Mexico. Both brothers were elected to the University of Texas Pan American Hall of Fame, along with their younger brother, Leonard, who passed away. I’d like to dedicate these ramblings to him. And I’d like to end with some information that I tried and failed to verify last night, the last thing I did yesterday. According to some sources Wayne Tyrone won a car on the Price Is Right in 1983.

I don’t know what to make of any of this.

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Dwayne Murphy

May 21, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.) 

Gaps

In 1980, when I was 12, I started noticing gaps. I’d drifted out of a trio I’d been a part of all through elementary school. Mike, Glenn, and I had played together all the time, goofed, made up games. We’d even co-written a sequel to Star Wars. (It was mostly light-saber fight scenes.) We’d loved school. Mike and Glenn continued to do so as we all moved on to the more regimented junior high. I reacted to the move onward and upward as I still react to all change, resisting it passively and self-destructively, as if it’s trying to erase me, and as if I could somehow protect something essential, some central glowing ember, by doing the erasing myself.

I can’t name this essential ember, if it even exists. I can only pull things toward where I think it might be. That summer after seventh grade, I collected baseball cards solo for the first time, my older brother having moved on to other things. I guess the cards weren’t the same without him: it was my last year of collecting. Still, or maybe because of this, these 1980 cards stand out. A lot of posed shots, a lot of blue sky. As if someone kept saying, Hold it, stand still. One last time.

***

In 1981, the Oakland A’s completed a return from a post-dynastic plummet into oblivion, once again winning the A.L. West led by what was possibly the best defensive outfield in baseball history. I pulled that trio toward me, imagining all the things it had that I lacked: capability, power, togetherness, speed. The centerfielder playing right field, Tony Armas, was blessed with a lightning-bolt arm that he would pass down to his namesake, Tony Armas Jr., a major league pitcher, and the centerfielder playing left field, Rickey Henderson, was as fast as an Olympic sprinter. The best fielder of the three, the centerfielder among centerfielders, was Dwayne Murphy, who had a strong arm, blazing speed, and the decisiveness, tenacity, and vision of a battle-scarred field sergeant. In high school, he had been a great defensive back in football; he believed his mastery of skills for that position enabled him to play very shallow in centerfield and still be able to sprint back and cover the outer reaches of his terrain. The three A’s were perfectly suited as a trio, a six-armed, six-legged creature, all limbs in synch under the leadership of Murphy. Henderson was a left-handed thrower, putting his glove hand in place to guard liners down the left-field line; Armas was a righty, putting his glove hand in place to guard liners down the right-field line. In between stood Murphy. Anything hit in the voluminous zip code he commanded was subject to a miraculous reversal of Murphy’s Law. Whatever can be tracked down, will be.

My brother went away to boarding school that year, and I entered high school. I got farther and farther away from the action of life, like a centerfielder afraid the ball would be hit over his head. If I looked down I would have seen my heels on the warning track. This was no way to defend against the widening gaps, but I didn’t know what else to do but retreat.

I remember realizing sometime around then that the members of my own disbanded trio, Mike and Glenn, weren’t “cool,” that their continued enthusiasm for math and science and Star Trek and their unashamed friendly banter with teachers set them on the wrong side of what I sensed was a merciless culling in progress in the steely locker-lined halls. Perhaps to avoid sticking out like them, I started playing dead. For whatever reason, playing dead or other, I never studied and rarely paid attention, and I lost the thread in almost every class, instead leering at girls and daydreaming mushily about sports. I remember sitting in the back of a math class and watching Glenn, near the front, ham it up with the teacher and a suddenly deep-chested girl who also still liked school. I wasn’t part of any of it anymore. School became a place of tits and confusion.

***

A 1982 article in Sports Illustrated celebrated the greatness of the trio anchored by Dwayne Murphy. My brother’s subscription still brought the magazine to our house every week, even in his absence, his name in the address box on the cover. “The A’s have the best outfield I’ve ever seen,” Don Zimmer observed in the article. He wasn’t alone in this thought. And this valuation wasn’t one of those beliefs that in later years seems to have been a collective hallucination. The numbers back it up, or so it would seem. For three years in the early 1980s, the Dwayne Murphy trio covered the gaps as perhaps no other trio in baseball history has.

How can this be illustrated? I don’t know. WAR? Range Factor? Total Zone Runs? The A’s trio seems to have performed exceedingly well in all sorts of complex statistical metrics that are as lost to me as that math class. It’s a cruel twist of fate that the one thing clogging up my brain, the mountain of relatively simple baseball statistics I memorized as a child, has left no room for me to learn anything else, including the more recent and complicated ways of measuring performance on a baseball diamond. Conversations about baseball continue, but the conversations are laden with baffling terms and mathematic mazes, a language beyond me.

I blew off my homework every night that year, instead playing a lot of solitaire Strat-O-Matic with cards representing the 1981 season. I rolled three dice, looked for the result of the roll on a pitcher’s or a hitter’s card, cross-referenced it if necessary (along with the roll of a twenty-sided die) on a fielding chart, wrote down the outcome of the at-bat in pencil in a hand-drawn scorecard in a notebook, and rolled the dice again. Over the weeks and months I filled up a large carton with all the box scores. I needed to save them all, every last page. When Dave Righetti pitched a no-hitter in one game I tacked the box score to the wall. Something amazing had happened, it seemed, and I wanted it to last and to be known.

I loved playing Strat-O-Matic with the 1981 A’s. When the dice roll pointed toward a fielding chart for one of the three outfielders, there was a kind of certainty that was becoming rarer in my life. This ball is going to be caught. They were able to turn a major league outfield, that vast expanse, into something without gaps. Gaps kept opening wider everywhere. I disappeared into an imagining of wholeness.

***

In 1983, the A’s trio was broken up by the trade of Tony Armas to the Red Sox, where he would almost instantaneously become old and slow, as if proximity to Dwayne Murphy was some kind of cosmic battery charger. Henderson would also seem to change when he left Murphy’s side and joined the Yankees, blooming into a self-aggrandizing mercenary superstar eccentric. I would be changing soon, too, going away to boarding school, where I would add marijuana and alcohol to my modes of disappearance. Before that departure in the fall of 1983, I spent all summer in the backyard throwing a tennis ball off the ridged tin roof of our house.

With this repetitive physical ritual came an intricate internal ritual of imaginary self-abnegating mitosis. First, I split from myself into a player on offense and a player on defense. I’d give each player a name. The player on offense threw the ball at the roof, trying to hit one of the ridges so that the ball would fly off at an angle. The player on defense tried to catch the ball, making routine grabs when the ball missed a ridge, attempting running, tumbling grabs when the ball caught a ridge. I split again into a team of players on offense and a team of players on defense, all of them with names, and then split myself again into an entire league of teams, each with a roster of players with particular strengths and weaknesses, which I committed to memory and then tried to enact with my body, for example laming up my throws for a guy who was “all glove/no hit” and conversely imagining some extra lead in my ass for a slow-footed slugger as he attempted to track down a roof ricochet.

Every afternoon I was the invisible god for a new world, gone from myself. It would always come down to one last play. Often the intricate fantasy would end in an unsatisfying way, with a routine catch. But sometimes the crucial final play, with the title on the line, would require me to sprint full-tilt across the lawn and dive. Sometimes I couldn’t get there in time. Other times I’d just barely make the catch. That feeling, to be like Dwayne Murphy, was what I was aiming for. To be exhausted and completely gone, laid out in the grass and awash in glory, cheers raining down as if the silent mountains all around were packed stands, the feeling from making the spectacular catch one of impossible containment, as if the rule of the world—that gaps appear and expand—was somehow in this one moment of triumph reversed. That there were no gaps at all.

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Matt Keough

April 3, 2012

Satori

Two

Breathe in. You’re a teenager, a talented infielder drafted early right out of high school by the World Series champions, a son of a major leaguer. Breathe out. You stumble your first pro season, hitting .198 as an 18-year-old in the single A Midwest League. Breathe in. You move to another A’s single A affiliate in the California League and blossom, batting .303 with 13 home runs and 81 RBI. Breathe out. At double A the next season, you can’t hit at all, the once-wide path to the majors narrowing to no path. Truth is a pathless land. Breathe in. You start pitching and within two seasons you’re in the majors; within three you’re the A’s representative at the 1978 major league all-star game. Breathe out. In 1979 you do nothing but lose, starting 0 and 14 and finishing 2 and 17, the worst major league pitching record in decades.

***

In all the Zen stories, life seems as uncluttered with the actual concrete pull of life as it is in jokes. Two monks are walking along. One says one thing, the other says another thing, neither thing makes any sense, and that’s that. You’re supposed to ponder the meaning of the inscrutable exchange incessantly until your mind breaks. Thusly shattered, you see the light, I guess. I don’t know. None of those Zen stories—koans—have ever made the slightest impact on me except to produce a mild increase in my general feeling of inadequacy. I am bound to a life of threadbare rationality and disillusionment, a life of suffering.

***

This is how it goes for Matt Keough. Suffering life. Breathe in, breathe out, fall, rise. Fall. Here he is, on his 1980 card, the 2 and 17 record the freshest line of stats on the back, yet he looks straight into the camera. His face is young enough to show signs of pubescent acne, yet his eyes are confident. He’s been down before. He’ll rise.

***

Life is suffering. That’s one of the Billboard Top Four Truths. It’s one I’ve more or less accepted in my own life (though I still reserve the right to complain constantly), but now that I have a kid I am feeling the sting of it for real. I don’t care if I suffer, but now my baby has to suffer? What the fuck is that? He is suffering right now—wailing. My writing desk is in the basement. He’s right above me. I can’t concentrate. To write these words is a supreme act of self-indulgence, really. I should go up there. But no, I have to sit here and ponder enlightenment. Good lord. Okay, fuck it, I’ll go up.

***

And that’s how it goes. You go down, you go up. In 1980 the A’s hire a new manager, Billy Martin, and the haunted Yankee exile, arguably the most desperate man in baseball history, rides the A’s rotation of young starting pitchers as if his life depended on it. The short-term results are good, the A’s climbing from putrid to pretty good, and Matt Keough wins 16 games and the Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year award. Soon enough, however, all the arms of the A’s overtaxed hurlers begin falling off, so to speak. Keough is the first to suffer, feeling pain in his shoulder in early 1981, but he pitches through the pain throughout that season and the next as it worsens and the losses again start to mount.

***

I’m back down. Got the baby to go to sleep. Where was I? Oh yeah, suffering. All weekend long my wife and I tried to deal with the baby’s wailing—he has a cold—and he, or rather, his suffering, has been thrashing us like it is Andre the Giant and we’re a couple of regular-sized tag-team foils. One of us tags in, gets beaten to a pulp, and tags out, and in goes the other one to take a turn getting thrown over the ropes. Our eyes are bloodshot, his cold is our cold, snot streams everywhere, both of our backs are wrenched so badly we grimace if we try to pick up so much as the toothbrush he gnaws on as a chew-toy, and still his suffering rages, huge and undefeated. Two monks walking down the road trying to one-up the other with irrational non sequiturs, what does that do for me? Satori? Who gives a fuck.

***

Battling persisting arm pain through the early to mid-1980s, Matt Keough’s numbers dwindle. Soon, it seems, he will disappear. People disappear all the time. That’s the game. Matt Keough fights this by going east, to Japan. Though American position players by that time have begun to find success in Japan, American pitchers haven’t. It’s a different game, a different culture, a different world altogether, and perhaps the more complex cluster of skills needed to be an effective pitcher make it more difficult to weather all that disorientation and still thrive. Keough proves the exception to that rule. He has the advantage of once being there before, as an adolescent, when his own father capped his major league career with a stint in Japan. The father only lasted one year. The son lasts four. He wins in Japan. He’s big in Japan.

***

Oh, if only I had lived a life of utter seclusion, staring at the wall. If only I’d shipped myself off years ago to a life of privation and koans overseas. I have been to Japan, actually, twice, once for a few hours as a 21-year-old on my way to China, and once for a few hours a few months later on my back. On the way back, I had just said goodbye to a woman I was in love with. I planned to return to her in a few months, but before I could she wrote me a letter on rice paper telling me she’d met someone else. It was another foreign student, a Japanese guy with money. Maybe they’re still together, living in Japan. There’s a certain weight to life, a pull of desire that links you to others inextricably. The root of suffering is desire. I was suffering in Japan, suffering again some months later while reading words on a piece of rice paper, suffering the removal of that pull, that thing that ties one to another, suffering the removal of the insane hope that desire might lead to peace.

***

In 1992, Matt Keough returns from Japan and attempts to find work in the majors again. Who better to carry out an improbable comeback? In the first inning of a preseason game, a foul ball shears off from the bat of leadoff hitter John Patterson. What are you thinking this moment? What will you be thinking when you are struck by the terrible blow of satori? When the world opens up to infinity or ends or who knows? Matt Keough is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to relieve the pressure of a blood clot caused by the impact of the errant line drive. Keough survives, but that’ll do it for the comeback. The ball is taken from his hands, replaced with something lighter, more painful. We all get a rice paper note placed in our hands one way or another, telling us the version of life we had welded to our heart is over.

“He lost all self-respect, his self-esteem,” a man named Rob Harley will say many years later, referring to Keough’s horrific satori, that screaming line drive to the head. “And now,” Harley, an attorney for Matt Keough, will continue, “he’s an alcoholic, a caged animal.” These words will come the day Matt Keough is sent to prison. Because his life at that point will have become ensnared in televised samsara, the mug shot of the suffering reality show personality attracts much more attention than any earlier images of Keough ever had. Breathe in. You are young and pimply-faced and pocked with losses but strong, unbowed, poised to rise. Breathe out. You are chained to the world.

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Sal Bando

June 8, 2011

This morning just before waking up I had a dream about being in an elevator that climbed for a little while before beginning to descend, then plummet. Before impact I woke to a song, generic classic rock, on my alarm clock radio. I used to have it tuned to the sports station but I got sick of waking up to the voices of Mike and Mike. Sometimes, actually, I get sick of sports. All the time with the sports, and for what? Bunch of strangers running around, altering my mood, usually for the worse. (It never lasts long, this swearing off, and back I go like a barfly to his dive.) Anyway, I switched to classic rock as my morning cattle prod. I don’t remember what song was playing this morning. I flicked it off within a second or two, rose to a sitting position, and sat there for a while, feeling like I weighed a thousand pounds.

It’s been hot. Tomorrow, when the heat is due to break with thunder storms, I’ll be getting on a plane and flying up into it, I guess, and to Oakland, where in 1975 Sal Bando fielded this groundball. It was—it had to have been, judging from the umpire stationed in the outfield, a deployment of an umpire only used in the playoffs—the last postseason game of the Oakland A’s dynasty. Sal Bando had played in plenty of them, captaining the team to three World Series titles, but this would be the last for the three-time defending champs, who were dethroned by the Red Sox in three straight in the 1975 ALCS. Bando didn’t go quietly that day, notching 2 hits in 4 at-bats and knocking in 2 of the 3 A’s runs. But he went.

Yesterday, on my way home from work, the bus broke down. After a long time, another bus pulled up behind the broken one, and we herded out into the stiflingly hot day and then crammed into the replacement vehicle, which was much smaller than the original. I got a seat near the back and had it to myself for a moment, but then a man wearing a McDonald’s cap and hauling a large backpack flopped down next to me, his backpack pressing into my arm. I gave up trying to read my book about natural childbirth and jammed headphones into my ears, but two teenage girls behind me yelled to each other so loudly I could barely hear the Howard Stern show. The air conditioning conked out after a few minutes, a prelude to the whole replacement bus failing, and the beleaguered driver steered it the side of the road, where we waited in it for several minutes before a third bus groaned to a stop behind us and we herded into that one. I sat up front this time, and two seats away a guy with a cane dozed so deeply that his head almost came down into my lap with his nodding. An older woman entered the bus and struggled up the steps, and the guy with the cane, who seemed to know her, guided her down into the seat between us, a target she didn’t quite hit, landing instead on my left leg, heavily, where she remained for several slow miles. She smelled of booze.

For most of my life I held out the idea of being a writer as something off in the future that would solve all my problems. I wrote. I write. There are always problems. I’m a proofreader. I’m a rider of crowded, failing buses. I’m a few weeks away from the pages of that book on natural childbirth coming to life. That book is scary enough, and from everything I’ve heard from people who have had kids, the book and all books will be of little help. It will be something else altogether.

For most of my life I figured there was another adjacent life, purer, and that I’d somehow figure out a way to leap from the frame of my own life and into that other life. In this 1976 Sal Bando card you can see—thanks to the shoddy work of someone at the Topps factory, someone whose mind wandered as he or she cut a sheet into individual cards—a glimpse of another card, below, a shred of a bat in the left corner. Maybe birth is just a big colored sheet in heaven getting cut. Maybe I’m one of the cards that has a piece of another card at the fringes, forever suggesting that I could have been, might someday still be, someone else entirely.

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In other Sal Bando-related news: Algonquin Books’ Free Beer Tour is currently in a phase of working backwards through the primary cities of the all-star third baseman’s playing career. Last Thursday, Boswell Books hosted a stop at a bar called Sugar Maple, in Milwaukee, where Sal Bando finished up his 16-year career, and this coming Thursday, June 9, there will be free beer and words at Diesel Books, in Oakland, where Sal Bando not only captained the Swingin’ A’s, but lived among the people, in a regular house, a regular guy. This latter aspect of Sal Bando’s career in Oakland makes for a satisfying bit of texture in David Anthony’s feverishly compelling 1970s-set novel Something for Nothing, in which a man unraveling into a life of desperation and criminal activity occasionally fantasizes about a friendship with his famous neighbor, Sal Bando. Anthony will be reading from his novel at Diesel Books, along with me and Pete Nelson, author of the brilliant and soulful I Thought You Were Dead (which also occasionally references, deftly and touchingly, another power-hitting corner infielder of the Cardboard Gods era, Harmon Killebrew).

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Dell Alston

March 17, 2011

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

Oakland A’s

For three seasons in the late 1970s, the once-great Oakland A’s plummeted into darkness. Of those three seasons, the most lightless was 1978, even though the A’s actually lost fewer games that year than they did in 1977 and 1979. In 1977, however, Vida Blue and Billy North still remained from the A’s dynasty, and the team also boasted a ray of hope in the form of newcomer Mitchell Page (who deserved the Rookie of the Year award); and in 1979 Rickey Henderson arrived, signaling the true beginning of a climb out of one of the franchise’s most dismal eras.

In 1978, the team was in between the end of one good thing and the beginning of another. Mitchell Page was still around, and though he remained the A’s best hitter, his numbers tapered off considerably from what turned out to be his one and only great year in 1977, a hint that he wouldn’t have much to do with the A’s coming revival. (Bruce Markusen at Hardball Times took a look recently at the career and life of Mitchell Page, who died at age 59 on Saturday.) In 1978, there weren’t any traces of former greatness or hints of better days to come. There was Dell Alston.

Which brings us to this 1979 card commemorating the Oakland A’s brief Dell Alston epoch the year before. The uninspired design of Topps’ 1979 baseball cards provided more than a few glum tableaus, but this particular offering seems at first glance to be unusually dim and lifeless. There’s no sky. The stands are empty. The field is abandoned. Even the grass seems exhausted.

In the foreground stands Dell Alston from Yonkers. He hasn’t shaved for a while and his head somehow seems too big for his body, giving the card a slightly jarring effect, like it’s the product of one of those carnival setups where you can stick your head through a hole to get a photograph taken of you as an astronaut or a cowboy. In the last few days, since pulling it and thirty other cards at random from my shoebox of cards, I’ve glanced at this card repeatedly, and until just a few minutes ago I’ve gotten nothing from it beyond that feeling that there may be light and life somewhere in the world but none of it made its way to Dell Alston’s 1979 baseball card.

But just now I noticed Dell Alston’s wrists, which are in sunlight while the rest of his arms are in shadows. And really his whole body but for those arms is in the light, and in contrast to the dimmer background Dell Alston glows. It’s hard to notice it at first because the eye is drawn initially to his grim, grizzled visage, and it’s also hard to notice at first because Dell Alston is one of those guys who is, in the context of major league baseball, a nobody. But Dell Alston glows.

And then, too, in the dark background above and around Dell Alston’s head, there are blurred slivers of light. I guess these are openings in the stands that are showing some of the sky, but it’s hard to tell for sure. The mind eventually wanders to other possibilities. Maybe hovering above our heads are blurry rectangular spirits, enigmatic guardians, mysterious reminders that every last one of us is glowing.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 15 of 30:  Give the 1937 William Carlos Williams novel White Mule a try. I’m reading it now and it is a beauty, a classic work of American fiction from one of the pillars of American poetry. It’s got a whole chapter near the end (“Fourth of July Doubleheader”) where Williams turns his illuminating vision to a game featuring one of John McGraw’s championship Giants squads.

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2011 previews so far: St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Pittsburgh Pirates; Arizona Diamondbacks; Colorado Rockies; New York Yankees; Cleveland Indians; Detroit Tigers; Milwaukee Brewers; Minnesota Twins; Atlanta Braves; Cincinnati Reds