Archive for the ‘Oakland A’s’ Category


Rodney Scott

May 15, 2022

Not much to say tonight, but I want to keep the notes flowing. I’m not even sure why, except to say that writing is the only way I know of wrestling some meaning out of life.

I was out on my bicycle last night, riding home from seeing a band. The moon was nearly full. It was a warm night.

My boys played out back with some other kids from the building today and yesterday. Warm days, blue sky. There were kids of all ages back there. My older boy used to be the little toddler out there, the baby among the big kids. Now he’s the biggest kid, and even my younger boy is one of the big ones, and the toddlers are looking up at them.

I just moved here to Chicago. I always think that way. But I moved here a long time ago. I reconnected with Strat-O-Matic the year we moved here, started playing the online game. The rush of that first online season! I didn’t know anybody except my girlfriend, but I knew those cards, the way they stacked up all the possibilities in clean, orderly rows. The years—they flew. I married my girlfriend in Chicago, saw my sons born in Chicago, saw them go from the toddlers out back to the big boys.

I was thinking all this as I was riding home through Chicago under the near-full moon.

Rodney Scott enters a game as a pinch-runner. He steals second base. He steals third base. These are dice rolls. He could be out, each time, but he’s safe, each time. A fly ball is lifted to centerfield. Rodney Scott tags and runs toward home. Another dice roll. It’s Cesar Cedeno out there. He’s got a powerful arm. That’s what I’ll say, a powerful arm. I almost used the most common figure of speech for an outfielder with a strong arm, but I’m through saying that someone has a gun as if it’s a good thing.

Every moment is a dice roll. You never know when it will end. And it all goes by as fast as Rodney Scott.


Worcester Birds notes, games 40 through 45:

  • G40: W 4-2
    • After team allows 43 runs in three games, Bill Lee halts the skid with 5 shutout innings. After the bullpen coughs up the lead (Lee still winless), Tony Muser gets it back with a 2-out 2-run double in the 9th.
  • G41: W 5-2 (Fidrych 5-3)
    • Fidrych allows 2 runs in 7 innings, and Tekulve clinches win with a hitless 5-out save.
  • G42: W 3-2
    • Ron Jackson with 2 hits, including a home run; Terry Forster (6 IP, 1 run) with the win and Bill Campbell (3 IP, 1 run) with the save.
  • G43: W 6-3
    • Ed Kranepool hits a grand slam, and Tekulve pitches 2 perfect innings for the save.
  • G44: W 11-5
    • Kranepool with 5 RBI and a home run; Al Cowens with 4 hits.
  • G45: W 5-4
    • In the 9th, pinch-runner Rodney Scott steals second and third and scores the winning run on a sacrifice fly; Tekulve earns the win with 2.1 shutout innings.

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?

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.


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.


Dwayne Murphy

May 21, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.) 


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.


Matt Keough

April 3, 2012



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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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


Jim Hunter

May 10, 2010

I’m thinking about perfection today. Have you ever had something perfect? I’m not sure why, maybe because I’m also thinking about grandmothers today, but what comes into my mind is the memory of a pair of boots. On Christmas in 1974, when I was six, I opened a present from my grandmother that was a pair of boots that I’d wanted. I don’t know why I was so crazy about them but I was. It’s the only pair of boots I’ve ever owned in my life. I was amazed that she knew that I’d wanted them. I’d never told her.

“How did you know?” I said. I was ecstatic, and since I was ecstatic she was happy, too.

“We grandmothers have ways,” she said, smiling. She had a low, scratchy voice from a lifetime of smoking Parliaments.

I went to sleep that night with my boots by my bed so I could look at them as I fell asleep. I wore them the next day and kept peeking back at them as I walked.

When I was that young, objects had a kind of magic about them. When I started to collect baseball cards heavily a few months after getting my new boots, I brought to those cards the same ability to be wowed.

This 1975 card of the ace of the Oakland A’s surely wowed me, first pulling me in by the imagined game of catch occurring between the pitcher and the person he was staring in the eyes. The thrill of playing an imaginary game of catch with a major leaguer increased with the intimations of immortality on the back of the card. First, there was the unprecedented focus of the trivia question on the subject of the card. In most, if not all, of the other 1975 back-of-the-card trivia questions, the information did not concern the player on the card, but Jim Hunter rated special treatment, the question asking, “What is Jim Hunter’s nickname?” The answer is upside down below a cartoon of a mustachioed player holding a bewhiskered fish. And after turning the card upside down to learn that Jim Hunter is in fact Catfish Hunter, the perfect baseball name, I turned the card rightside up again and scanned the numbers, the wins piling up in a satisfying repetition of twenties. I didn’t know a lot about baseball yet, but I knew the difference between winning and losing, which was the difference between good and bad, and I learned early on that a pitcher with twenty or more wins in a season had a kind of monumental solidity unmatched by anyone else in the game. And Catfish Hunter won twenty games year after year after year.


My brother and I had a baseball encyclopedia in our room. In it, Catfish Hunter appeared on one of the shortest of the many lists. His entry to that list came a few months after I’d been born, when he threw a perfect game.

Yesterday Hunter was joined on that short list by another member of the A’s, Dallas Braden. After pitching his perfect game, Braden embraced his grandmother, Peggy Lindsay, who had raised him after his mother died of skin cancer when he was in high school.

Braden had been in the news earlier this season for chafing at Alex Rodriguez stepping on the mound that Braden was using. After that game, Rodriguez implied that Braden was a nobody and should keep his mouth shut.

You know who will disagree with the opinion that you’re a nobody? Your grandmother. If anybody tells you you’re nobody, ignore it and go with what your grandmother would say. Your grandmother knows.

After Braden proved yesterday that he never was and never would be a nobody, his grandmother had a message for the Yankee star and his image of a rigid hierarchical world with select celebrities on top, perfect, and everybody else below.

“Stick it, A-Rod!” she said, smiling.  


When you’re very young, you believe there are good things, maybe even perfect things, and you grab onto them with all your might. You don’t want them to change.      

A few days after I got my new boots, the wonder already wearing off, Catfish Hunter signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees, making this card a lie before it ever reached my hands. When I look at this card now, I don’t see myself as part of the game of catch. I see a turning point of sorts. The 1970s turned right here, in this 1975 Catfish Hunter card. The ace of one of the best-ever baseball dynasties is pretending to play catch. He waits for the ball to return. His throwing partner will not return the ball but will point out toward the sky beyond the outfield stands. The game as you’ve known it is over. You’re free to go. It’s a liberation. It’s an erosion of roots. A blessing, a curse. Free to go. 


Glenn Abbott

April 12, 2010

Well, I guess today is the “official” release date for my book, though Amazon has been delivering copies to people for a few days, and over the weekend my aunt and my friend Rick reported seeing the book in stores in Montpelier, VT, and in Boston, respectively. Later today, when I get off work, my wife and I are going to head downtown here in Chicago and see if it’s on a shelf at Barnes & Noble or Borders (I’m not holding my breath), and then we’re going to go somewhere and get a beer and some food and enjoy the moment.

This is not something I do very easily—enjoy the moment, I mean—so I thought I’d enlist the help of smiling Glenn Abbott today. My natural tendency is toward feeling slightly miserable. It comforts me to feel this way, I guess. This past week, I neither enjoyed the moment nor felt slightly miserable but instead just felt wound up and anxious. Things began to turn around over the weekend, first when Abby and I went to a park and played catch, using a baseball I had written on as a moronic gag for her benefit back when we’d first started dating almost ten years ago (“To Josh, You’re the true Sultan of Swat. Love, Babe Ruth.”), and then calming down more yesterday by virtue of a Masters-aided nap, truly one of the great experiences in all of sports fandom. The hushed tones, the intermittent calm-ocean sound of applause, the half-dreaming awareness of players charging up or toppling down the leader board, and the life-affirming rally to consciousness in time for the rousing cheers as the leader strides up the 18th fairway.

Yesterday’s Masters nap may have been among my best ever, rivaled perhaps only by the one punctuated by the missteps of Greg Norman’s inevitable and yet still horrifyingly complete, and somehow in its grandeur even heroic, collapse in 1996. Yesterday I drifted in and out as Phil Mickelson forged ahead of a pack that included—most significantly in terms of napping—Fred Couples, whose aura of profound relaxation long ago made him the greatest golfer of all time, for my purposes, and I was awake in time to watch the finish of another contender, Tiger Woods. I’d never liked Tiger Woods, but his recent public fall from grace made him seem human, finally, and so I found myself rooting for him whenever I was awake enough to focus on the action. This newfound personal investment on my part ended with his post-match interview, when he seemed once again robotic and sour, the personification of ruthless gain. He had a chance in the interview to humbly acknowledge the prowess of his fellow golfers, and also to nod to the generously warm reception he got from fans all through the tournament, but instead he groused about finishing fourth and bristled at a question about his emotions. The guy’s a multinational corporation with some public relations issues, not a person down here with the rest of us (to quote the old Social Distortion song). I won’t be rooting for him anymore.

I think what I was hoping for was an appreciation on Woods’ part for being back at something he loved. This is why we watch sports, right? I mean, we don’t watch them to learn how to be good citizens, contrary to what all the moralizing that accompanied Woods’ return would have you believe. We watch to remember that it’s good to be alive. The guy who beat Woods and everyone else came through on that account: when Phil Mickelson won and tearfully hugged his wife, who has been struggling with cancer, it was plain that we were seeing a man who now understands that everything can be taken away at any time. I don’t know what kind of a guy Phil Mickelson “really” is, and I don’t care. Yesterday he gave me what I come to sports to find: inspiration to hold on tight to this life.   

So anyway, I’ll try to follow that inspiration today, and follow also the smiling lead of Glenn Abbott, who beamed in his 1976 card despite being on an A’s team about to plummet, slowly but completely, into its late-1970s abyss, a decline that Abbot would not see the depths of only because he would be experiencing similar daily humiliation with the expansion Mariners. But, really, even with that on the horizon, what’s not to smile about? Not only did Abbott reach the majors in time to chip in for the A’s in both 1973 and 1974, both championship years, he was also fresh off an appearance in the 1975 Bazooka/Joe Garagiola Big League Bubble Gum Blowing Championship.

Abbott’s participation in the tourney is one of the bigger mysteries of that one and only quest to find the greatest blower of bubbles in the major leagues. He was not originally slated to advance from the individual team championships to the league-wide competition, but as A’s runner-up he took the place of team champion Angel Mangual when Angel Mangual was for some reason unable to participate. What was the reason? Did Mangual sprain his lower lip? Was he found out to be augmenting his bubbles with some kind of elastic epoxy? Was he reluctant to join the tournament because he saw bubble blowing as an art, something that could only be defiled in a public competition? We may never know. But we do know that Glenn Abbott bowed out in a first-round loss to oglin’ Mickey Scott of the Angels. You have to think it didn’t bother Abbott too much. He was just glad to be there.


Finally, some more book buzz: Big thanks to Brian Joura, who has a very kind review of my book up at (Tolstoy is referenced!)


Mark McGwire

January 13, 2010

In the summer of 1989, I got a job with the maintenance crew at my college. Most of the other students I worked with were sent out every morning with dirty plastic goggles and a weed whacker, but I got assigned, with two other guys, George and John, to work with a long-time permanent member of the maintenance staff, a middle-aged man named Lynny. Unlike us, Lynny had a uniform: gray pants and a tan button-down shirt that had a patch over the heart that said “Lynny.”

Lynny’s job was to move stuff around if it needed moving, and every once in a while to drive broken things to the dump. Lynny had a flat-top crewcut and chain-smoked Lucky Strikes. He took his time doing everything. There wasn’t much to do. How to get through a day?

We spent a lot of time riding around in his truck, Lynny at the wheel and the three of us lounging around in the back, the wind rushing through our hair, etc. Whenever we coasted by a sweaty team of fellow student workers hacking away at the roadside weeds like a chain gang, we laid it on extra thick, kicking back as if we were contestants in a tanning competition. We all had mirrored sunglasses.

Once in a while we got called to move a desk or something from one office to another. Lynny would stand off to the side gripping an unlit Lucky as the three of us shoved the thing through a doorway and down the hall and through another doorway. Lynny followed us into the new room, sticking the Lucky into his mouth. He squinted for a couple seconds at the desk sitting cockeyed in the middle of the room.

“Fuck it. Good enough,” he grumbled around his cigarette. Every task ended with these words.

One day Lynny drove us out to a storage barn a mile or so off of campus. He took a long time finding the right key for the padlock on the barn door, leafing through a huge bulge of keys. Lynny had a key for everything on his giant keychain. The trouble was finding the right one.

“By Jesus,” he hissed, starting to sweat.

Finally he found the one that did the trick. We walked through the barn door and stood around for a while in the dark. Gradually we saw that the room was mostly filled with old classroom chairs.

“Shit,” Lynny said, “I guess they want us to take the backs off all these goddamn chairs.”

There was a wooden loading dock type of thing outside the barn door, and we pulled a bunch of the old chairs made of metal and plastic out there as Lynny got a toolbox from his truck. He stuck around for a little while, smoking and watching us sit there and yank on rusty bolts with pliers and wrenches.  

“I’ll be back,” he finally mumbled. We kept wrestling with the chairs for a minute or so after his truck disappeared, but then we stopped and started wandering around the barn. We weren’t looking for anything in particular, but after a while we found a broken-off broom handle and a ragged tennis ball.

There was a pasture next to the barn, and we went out there and took turns at bat. We had a good view of the long curving driveway up to the barn, so when Lynny’s truck appeared at the foot of the drive we hustled back to the barn. By the time he pulled up we were working on the same chairs we’d been working on when he left.

“All right, boys, we got some other thing now,” Lynny said. We left the chairs out on the dock but took the broomstick and tennis ball with us as we piled into his truck.

I don’t remember what the other thing was. It doesn’t matter. In truth, there was hardly ever anything to do.

We began using the broom handle and the tennis ball to fill up all the gaps in the day. A lot of these gaps occurred at the maintenance building, where Lynny returned to periodically.

“Got to check on something,” he said, then he’d disappear into the building.

We set up a diamond in between the maintenance building and the garage that housed all the tractors and back hoes, etc. If you hit the tennis ball in fair territory onto the roof of either the maintenance building or the garage, it was a basehit (either a single, double, or triple, depending on how far away from home plate the ball hit the roof). If you hit it beyond the end of the roofs, it was a home run. Anything else was an out.

We played the game elsewhere, including in the field by the barn with the chairs (where we returned every once in a while to yank at the rusty bolts until Lynny drove away), but it was never as good as at the maintenance building. This is because a home run was a home run there. Everywhere else we argued with each other if a particular long hit was a home run or not, but at the maintenance building it was clear: if that yellow ball disappeared beyond a roof, it was gone.

We all had our hot streaks. I still remember mine, which seemed to go on for days. Every time we got back to the maintenance building it would still be my at-bat and I’d pick up where I left off: drilling the ball far beyond the roof on the left. By then I had developed a straight-backed batting stance and a short, quick stroke, both modeled after a young American League slugger named Mark McGwire. Every time I bashed another moon shot I felt the image of that triumphant green and gold giant coursing through me.

It was all completely meaningless, of course. But how beautiful it was anyway. It was my first great summer in a while. It was my last great summer. By the next summer I had graduated, but I still returned to the maintenance crew. I had no other prospects and wanted to save up money for a trip back to China, where I’d studied for a semester in the fall of ’89. George and John were gone, so instead of being a mirrored-shades-wearing member of “Lynny’s Boys” I was now just the weird already graduated dude who rode around with Lynny. I no longer rode in the back but sat in the passenger seat, beside Lynny. We didn’t have much to talk about. Most days, we sat out the last hour in a parking lot overlooking the soccer fields with the engine of Lynny’s truck ticking. With a few minutes to go before quitting time, Lynny started the truck back up.

“Fuck it. Good enough,” he said.

Once in a while, if something had to be moved, Lynny grabbed a couple guys from the lawn crew, Steve and Geno. They were in between their freshman and sophomore years. Both had played on the college’s baseball team, which somehow added a new note of silliness into my attempts to resurrect the summer waiting-for-Lynny broom-ball league. The game had been meaningless the summer before, but there’s meaningless and then there’s meaningless. During one of my at-bats that second summer, Steve unleashed a real pitch, a fastball that blurred by me in a bolt of yellow. I stood there with the broom handle on my shoulder. I had gotten a Dear John letter from my Chinese girlfriend by then. She’d met someone else. Don’t come back here for me, she said. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.

“Sorry,” Steve snickered. “Just felt the need for a little speed.”

No way am I ever going to cut it, I thought.

But I didn’t even mean to start talking about that second summer. I’m hesitant to even bring up a particular moment from that summer of 1990. But what the hell. Steve and Geno and I were standing around and waiting for Lynny to find out what needed to be moved where. In addition to being the catcher on the school baseball team, Geno was a body-builder and he wanted to show us his “guns” so he did a few pushups in the grass and then ripped off his shirt and pulled a few muscle-man poses. This sounds ridiculous, but Geno was a good-natured kid, and it was all done with at least a hint of self-parody. But he was serious about it, too.

“I want to be huge,” he said. “I want to be as big as I possibly can. I’d do anything.”

“No you wouldn’t. Don’t be an idiot,” I said.

“Why not?” he said. “Why not do anything you can to go as far as you possibly can?”

“Because your balls will shrivel up, maybe? Because you’ll grow tits?”

“That’s all myth,” Geno said. He made a muscle and looked down at it, his lips pursed, like he wanted to kiss it. “You just got to be smart.”

“I don’t know, man,” I said.

“How could you know?” Geno snapped. (Translation: You are a 98-pound weakling.)

“Look, man,” Geno said, softly. “I just mean I’d totally do it.”

But forget about the summer of 1990 and all the summers that came after it. I just wanted to talk about the summer of ’89. Me and John and George and Lynny. Those chairs that we worked on again and again and never did anything with. Riding around in the back of a truck with our mirrored shades on. That broom-stick. That tennis ball. That hot streak! Home run after home run after home run disappearing beyond the aluminum roof shining in the sun. I came back the next year, trying to hold on, and it was gone. Locked away in some room somewhere. If someone had offered me a key to unlock that room, I would have taken it.


Mitchell Page

July 9, 2009

Mitchell Page 79

It’s weird, I just spent the last few months coming increasingly unglued as I labored to finish a book lashing (to use Frederick Exley’s term) “that long malaise, my life” to four packs worth of baseball cards, and the first thing I want to do the day after getting a thumbs-up from my editor on the book is . . . keep writing about baseball cards. It’s like when Corporal Klinger, after spending all that time and energy (and money—a new hairy-leg-baring dress, pumps, and bonnet every week) “bucking for a Section 8,” ended up re-enlisting when his tour of duty (but not Jamie Farr’s contract) was finally up. But the truth is, I have not even begun to scratch the surface of my shoebox full of baseball cards from my childhood in the mid- to late-1970s. For example: Mitchell Page. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned Mitchell Page yet! Not having mentioned Mitchell Page after writing steadily about my baseball cards for nearly three years is like climbing up a trail for a long time and finally coming to a clearing and realizing you aren’t anywhere even close to the top of the mountain. Read the rest of this entry ?


Joe Rudi

March 31, 2009


One great thing about the 1975 set of cards, my favorite set, is that the back of the card provides the player’s full name. None of the cards from the other years in my childhood allowed this intimate a glimpse into who the player really was. I guess this was probably not true of everyone, but when I was a kid my middle name was a tightly guarded secret (as was the middle name of all the other kids in my school), and my middle name was not only more common, thus less obviously mockable, than my first name, but was also given to me in tribute to my grandfather, whom I loved. Still, I held tight to the secret of my middle name, Andrew, as if it was Horatio or Mortimer or Sue, and when it was finally pulled out of me I felt naked and embarrassed, as if I’d been forced to disrobe, revealing that I had a curly tail at the base of my back.

That’s not what I set out to blab about this morning, but in perusing the stats on the back of this 1975 card I got snagged for a while on the beauty of being able to know that this standout’s full name was Joseph Oden Rudi. An era was ending in 1975. On one level, the era that was ending was the Oakland dynasty that, to me, Joe Rudi epitomized. The success of that team on the field, despite its legendary flash and exploding eccentric facial hair and Charlie O. Finley and Reggie “Superduperstar” Jackson, was built on the kind of all-around competence that Rudi quietly displayed while manning left field and knocking in runs in the middle of the batting order. On another level, the era that was ending was an era that offered a more intimate connection to the players in the game. By 1976, “Oden” would be gone, as would “Pasquali,” “Herman,” and “Bartholomew.” Read the rest of this entry ?


Reggie Jackson, 1976

February 2, 2009

(Note: The following was my farewell to the disbanding Baseball Toaster; the ongoing travelogue-in-cardboard “Somewhere I lost Connection” will resume with my next post.)

A god stands in a moment of contemplative reflection. Shadows give way to sun as he readies to move into the center of attention, that bright stage he was born to command. Behind him, the faces in the crowd that will watch his every move have been blurred to something like Monet’s lily pads, those hypnotic omens of the inevitable dusk into which we’ll all dissolve, as if the card was meant to whisper that all names, even those of the greatest among us, will eventually unravel to silence. In fact, the whole card aches with transience: by the time it thrummed in the palms of the boys of America the superduperstar had moved on, traded to Baltimore, the regal joy of the card’s blazing gold uniform a lie. The most magnificent team of the Cardboard God era became an empty golden shell for the remainder of my childhood.


Time dismantles. If the Oakland A’s of the early 1970s couldn’t hold together, what chance do the rest of us have? Indeed, the very platform upon which these words stand is eroding. In other words, Baseball Toaster is coming to an end, all its pieces scattering or dissolving.

I enjoyed it while it lasted, and as my farewell I’m sending Reggie to the plate for my last at-bat here. This is partly because even I, who grew to despise Reggie when he became the self-professed, self-aggrandizing straw that stirred the drink that was the hated Yankees, know that no one was ever better suited for the final at-bat. It’s also partly because I know he’s the favorite player of the straw that stirred the drink of Baseball Toaster, creator Ken Arneson. Unlike Reggie, who seemed to prefer the solo spotlight, Ken is a great believer in the benefits of a chorus of voices. It was the communal effort I enjoyed the most here, and by that I mean not only the feeling of being a part of a team of bloggers but of being part of a wider community of thoughtful, baseball-savvy conversationalists. Last April, Ken spoke to the benefits of that kind of pluralistic exchange of ideas when he offered these thoughts in a comment on a Dodger Thoughts post about the growing divide between old-school newspaper writers and bloggers:

Blog entries are links in a chain. The unit of measurement in blogging is not the article, the unit of measurement is the conversation. . . The picture is painted by everyone who participates in the conversation, across multiple comments and blog entries and blogs. Believe me, if you say something wrong on the web, you will be corrected. Yes, it’s a messy process full of noise, but it also is a process that leads, in the end, to a more complete and accurate picture of the issues than the voice of just one person, no matter how talented.

I hope that the communal feel that has surrounded my forays into the past here at Baseball Toaster continues at the new home of Cardboard Gods. I know I’ll keep trying to fight time’s relentless dismantling, but as Ken implies, one voice can only do so much.


Time dismantles; voices come together. I knew this by the time I first held this card in my hands, in 1976, when I was eight. The year before, I had attended my first major league baseball game, at Fenway Park in Boston, the Red Sox hosting the A’s. You would think such a seminal moment would remain forever vivid in my mind, but because time dismantles I can only remember two things. The first is that I was amazed by my initial view of the glowing green field when we came up the runway to our seats in right field. The second is Reggie. A certain sense of excitement surrounded him throughout the game, and finally, late, the sky darkening and the huge blinding banks of artificial lights flooding the field in something brighter than day, the crowd’s excitement turned to caustic, resentful awe. I can’t even remember what exactly he did in the game’s waning moments to defeat the beloved local nine but I remember the way the crowd reacted. A throng ten times the size of my Vermont town prayed together in anger and disappointment and secret grudging wonder to one strutting spectacular god.


Todd Van Poppel

December 31, 2008

What’d you get?

This is a common question at this time of year among kids, those purest of getters from our getting-crazed society. At a certain point we’re supposed to become givers, I guess, at least for one day a year, but the constant rhythm of getting that riddles the modern world reveals that we’re all still kids at heart, happy and hungry to get.

Me, I got a lot of good and useful stuff from the kind givers in my life, but the gift that may have given me the most pleasure is the stack of baseball cards that my wife’s aunt gave me. She was in a store that had several cellophane-wrapped stacks, and she bought the one that had a Red Sox player on top (some guy from the strike-fouled years of 1994 and 1995 that I actually don’t remember: Carlos Rodriguez). In the stack were cards from 1987, 1990, and 1995, plus a couple basketball cards and several football cards. 

My obsession with my distant personal past has prompted me to be somewhat rigid in my unsaid policy that my baseball card collection is closed, that I’m not making any additions beyond the cards that came to me when I was a child. But if there’s one lesson I can learn from the year that’s about to end, it’s that it’s good to be open to new gifts. Cards keep coming to me, either half-buried in the mud or torn up at a bus stop or from kind readers offering to fill in glaring gaps in my collection. This latest gift was no exception. The cards were all more recent than the cards I collected as a kid, but since I neither collected these newer cards when they came out nor dwelled on them constantly in my writing they seemed to come from a more distant time. Tom Brunansky? Ron Kittle? Juan Berenguer? These names all seemed to be singing to me from a farther and more mysterious remove than the now-familiar names of the more distant past. Each card in the stack gave me something–hilarity, excitement, even joy–but none sent a shiver through me like the card shown here.  


Todd Van Poppel stands out in my memory above all the other hyped prospects that have come and gone in my lifetime. I’m too young to have noticed the similar ambiguous ascension of David Clyde in the early 1970s (though I was around to witness the aftermath), and somehow the explosion of baseball information available through the internet has dulled the impact on me of any noise about talented prospects in most of the years since Van Poppel debuted as a 19-year-old in 1991.

That’s the year I got out of college and entered the so-called real world. I must have read about Van Poppel in the newspapers I plucked off the top of street-corner garbage cans on my way home from the graveyard shift at the UPS warehouse up in Hell’s Kitchen.

I’d get off at eight or nine in the morning, depending on how many packages had to get loaded that day, grab a discarded newspaper, check it for heinous residue, buy some three-for-a-dollar mac and cheese and the cheapest beer and hot dogs I could find, and carry my goods up six flights to the narrow railroad apartment I shared with my brother, who by then had left for his office job, and there I’d wolf down my chemical-glutted feast and guzzle beer in the morning light and read about Todd Van Poppel.

Todd Van Poppel was going to be great. There was no doubt.

When there was nothing left to read or eat or drink, I’d go to the back of the apartment and pull out the futon and pass out for several hours, until it was time for my new work day to begin at dusk with a shower and oatmeal and the 5:30 rerun of Charles in Charge.


There’s nothing like a supremely dominant high school pitcher. I’m talking about myth, the kind of myth that offers the illusion of the obliteration of doubt. Myths can rise up around a dominant high school slugger, but somehow it’s not quite the same, as an observer will be more likely to discount their outrageous statistics as the byproduct of lesser competition. But the image of a pitcher mowing down high schoolers before a scattering of family members on aluminum bleachers seems to transfer more easily to an image of that same pitcher mowing down pros in front of a roaring stadium, probably because a key element of a pitcher’s gifts can be measured: the velocity of his pitches. And if a mere high schooler is already making radar guns short-circuit orgasmically, then it seems a given that he’ll continue to throw unhittable smoke in the majors. But there’s something else about the dominant high school pitcher that makes him more of a mythic figure than any other prospect. Alone out there, standing tall on the mound, unhittable, he’s what we all dream of being. To have that power in our fingers. To have the future seem like something that will only come to life with our powerful touch. To have it waiting for us and us alone.

To be a fan is to dream. Who didn’t want Todd Van Poppel to become a legend? Who didn’t want to dream through Todd Van Poppel?


This 1995 card shows Van Poppel’s first three seasons in the pros, none of them revealing much promise. The amazing thing about Van Poppel, who is generally and cruelly thought of as the gold standard of busts, is that he ended up lasting for a long time in the majors. He even (mysteriously, given his struggles before and after) had two strong seasons as a reliever with the Cubs in 2000 and 2001. In all he logged 11 seasons at the highest level of his supremely competitive profession, his career spanning 14 years, all the way from 1991 to 2004.

I’m tempted to fall into withering comparisons between those years for Todd Van Poppel and those years for me. But on this special day, the last day of the year, I want to try to limit my focus to the card-slim moment between past and future. Today’s a good day for this. Among all the baseball-card-shaped squares on the calendar, the last day of the year is the one most like a baseball card. The past is simplified to a series of lists such as the statistics and highlights on the back of a card, and the future has no more depth than a card-front photo of a figure standing tall, hands on hips, gazing sternly off into the distance.

Who doesn’t at some point on this day hope that somewhere in the back-of-the-card stats there is some subtle upward trend, some sign that the coming year will be better than the ones that have come before?

“After dropping his first three decisions in the Majors,” states the text on the back of the card shown here, “Van Poppel capped the 1993 season with six victories in his last nine decisions.”

There is no mention of the following season, in which Van Poppel went 7 and 10 with a 6.09 ERA. This is a normal omission for baseball cards and last days of the year. You try not to dwell on things like failure, humiliation, disappointment, regret.

Likewise, you think of the future not as a minefield of anxiety and discouragement but as an uncomplicated distance to stride across, a mountain to scale, a series of batters to fan, a line for the back of the card that will make all the lines preceding it seem like a strange, soulful prelude to happiness.