I always end years this way, doing nothing. I eat a lot, mostly starch and fat. I sit a lot, on cushioned sofas and chairs and toilets. I even watch a lot of a particular kind of television programming, popular at this time of year, that centers on an interminable series of video reviews broken up occasionally by the homoerotic grappling of helmeted behemoths. At times I dream up an image of an improved version of myself. This New and Improved Josh Wilker will spring seamlessly into existence on the first morning of the new year. He will go on brisk jogs and teach creative writing classes in high-security prisons and learn how to play bluegrass guitar and remedy his decaying posture and lobby for federal funding for alternative energies and write novels brimming with fistfights and fornicating and timeless beauty and do a lot of sit-ups and pay more attention to life as it flies by and eat more salads and write a poem once in a while and volunteer at the animal shelter and radiate calm.
I wonder if it’s the same way for a baseball player playing out the string. I mean I wonder if in the dregs of the schedule in a season that long ago collapsed into meaninglessness a player will just sort of mail in his efforts and start thinking about next season, about how next season is going to be different, full of good habits and sustained effort and thrilling results and, above all, meaning. That’s always been the thought about those inhabiting the realm of the mathematically eliminated, that they don’t play with the same intensity as those in the middle of a pennant race.
That may indeed be true of mediocrities. (Take it from a mediocrity.) But Rickey Henderson’s 1980 rookie card suggests it is not true of the greats. The photo in this card was taken during his rookie season in 1979. He made his debut that year in a midseason double-header that the A’s lost, part of Henderson’s career-opening seven-game losing streak. Henderson finally played in a major league win, then the A’s promptly lost Henderson’s next three games, won one, lost five more, won one, lost five more, won one, and lost five more. Overall, the A’s record in Henderson’s first 29 games was 4-25. This was, incredibly enough, not that far off par for the course for a putrid team that went 54-108 on the year. If anyone was going to start mailing in their efforts it would have been a player finishing out that dismal campaign.
And yet here is Henderson, the rookie, locked in, ready to battle. I didn’t know when I got this card that it would one day become, in theory anyway, my most valuable card. (In practice the scratches below his cocked elbow surely strip this legend’s rookie card of its value; near the end of my collecting days I started sorting each team into batting orders by year, and since none of my few last 1981 cards were A’s the 1980 Rickey had to take the brunt of the elements for the decades in which my cards and I were estranged.) But I have to believe that I liked the card at first sight, that the rookie’s odd crouch differed not only from most of the posed wax figure stances that had populated my cards to that point but differed also from the feeling that mathematical elimination was unavoidable, that life itself was a losing season. Here was an electric moment, full of possibility, a young man who’d so far known nothing but losing in the majors but who despite that was about to treat the next pitch, the next moment, as if it could not be more important.
I meant to share this card earlier, my first thought being that I’d pass it along on Christmas Day, which also happens to be Rickey Henderson’s birthday. But I’m the kind of guy who lets things slide, who daydreams through pitches and at-bats and games. Let’s face it, entire seasons have gone by without me ever really leaving the fetid cycle of impossible thoughts inside my skull. But anyway, here it is, a few days late, a Happy Rickey Henderson’s Birthday to all, and hopes for a Rickey Henderson New Year. Here’s hoping we let all the bad pitches pass and that when a good pitch comes along we jump on it.