Archive for the ‘Oakland A’s’ Category

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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. 

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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 fangraphs.com. (Tolstoy is referenced!)

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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.

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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 ?

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Joe Rudi

March 31, 2009

joe-rudi-75

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 ?

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Reggie Jackson, 1976

February 2, 2009

reggie-jackson-763
(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.

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Todd Van Poppel

December 31, 2008
 Untitled 

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.