Archive for the ‘Philadelphia Phillies’ Category


Harrelson, Brusstar, Luzinski

March 28, 2017

Bud Harrelson

Three cards fell to the floor the other day. My younger son was tearing open some protective plastic sheeting around them, and they’d fallen together into a group. The cards hadn’t been mine as a kid. I’d never owned any Hostess cards, for one thing, let alone the card featuring the player most likely to have enjoyed several Hostess products after a day of blasting homers and mangling fly balls, and I’d never put my cards into protective plastic sheets. My mother-in-law had found the sheets of cards at a second-hand store and gotten them for me. I looked at them in the sheets a bit, but they had to be freed from the sheets for me to really see them. The first thing I noticed was Bud Harrelson’s eyes. Really all of Bud Harrelson, his thin lips, slight frame, sparse mustache, choked-up grip, everything about him radiating the feeling that he’s just hanging on. But especially the eyes. And just beside him, Brusstar, a hardened character. And then Luzinski, young blank-eyed Hostess strongman incarnate. A scenario began to unfold in my mind, a late 1970s film about amoral desperation, one last gasp from the decade of movies about losing before the candy-colored John Hughes years began.

Excerpts from Run Down (1979)

Scene 1 (interior, motel room)

One more score and I’m out.

Baby, I don’t want you to get hurt, not now that I’ve finally got you back.

I’m telling you, this one can’t miss.

[Walks to window, stares out at traffic on the highway]

This one . . . there’s no way I can lose.

Scene 5 (exterior, downtown)

Warren walks along a sidewalk in a mostly deserted downtown. He picks up a brick and throws it through a window. He takes some records out of the window. One of them is Saturday Night Fever, which he tosses into the gutter and then spits on top of it. The rest he takes with him. A cat crosses his path and he tries to kick it but misses and stumbles, falling into a puddle, spilling the rest of the records. A sound comes out of him like that of an animal pinned in a bear trap.]

Warren Brusstar

Scene 12 (interior, Extra Innings Bar)

I suggest you shut the fuck up and get the fuck away from me, Bud.

This is a. Is that any way to? Look, I’m doing you a favor here.

You still owe me for the last fucking favor you did me.

[Both men drink, smoke. The rock song on the jukebox ends and a disco song begins.]

Who put on this shit?!?

Female bar patron
[reacting to music]
Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Yeah!

[Warren stares murderously into his drink as the disco plays. Bud stares at Warren for a long time, until Warren finally looks up.]

How do you do that?


Not fucking blink.

[smiling now, but only with his mouth]
Life is short, Warren. I don’t want to miss anything.

[after a long beat]
Fuck it. The fuck I care.

You won’t be sorry, Warren.

I’m always sorry.

We’re gonna win this time, Warren.

We’re still a man short.

Opportunities will arise, Warren. Opportunities will arise.

Greg Luzinski

Scene 15 (exterior, motel)

As Bud watches, smoking, from the railing outside his second story motel room, a large man on the ground level, Greg, dressed only in a small white motel towel, holds the small towel around him with one hand while pushing the buttons on a vending machine with his other hand. He waits. The vending machine does not produce any product. Greg pushes the buttons again. Scratches his head. Taps on the glass. Pounds on the glass. He moves methodically—he is not getting angry but wants what he is not getting. Finally he brings his other hand free and the towel falls to the pavement. He grabs the large machine with both hands and begins to rock it. The rocking increases until it looks as if the machine will rock forward and crush the large naked man, but instead he hefts the machine onto his back, swivels, and hurls it to the ground, where the machine bursts with a clattering of glass and crumpling metal. Coins and candy and bags of chips spill out. Greg ignores the money and picks through the broken glass and other packages for one package of Hostess Chocolate Cup Cakes, which he removes from the packaging and shoves into his mouth, one after the other as he crosses the parking lot back to his room, still naked. Camera closes in on Bud, who is smoking and watching Greg without blinking.


Marvin Freeman

November 16, 2016


The morning of our first protest march, Jack and Exley pretended to be big trucks pushing garbage around. The role of garbage was played by a big pile of baseball cards from the late 1980s and onward. I keep my childhood cards in a couple of boxes in the closet but let my boys do whatever they want with the ones that have come to me since then. They pummeled them for a while and then Jack wanted to pretend we were all Rescue Bots saving people from volcanoes.

“We have to clean this up first,” I said. This statement, which is on a constant loop from my mouth, can often make the ensuing passage of time unpleasant, conflictive, but for some reason this time Jack just said OK.

“I’ll bulldoze them over to you and Exley and you put them in.” This is what we did. Jack stopped at one point.

“Who’s this?” Jack asked. He held up the card you see here.

“Can you tell me?” I said.

Lately he’s been showing some signs that he’s ready to start reading. I don’t push him much with this kind of stuff because it seems to me childhood is already under siege by adults drilling their kids unceasingly, worried that the kids, no matter how young, are “falling behind,” and in this frantic worry passing along no love of learning at all but just frantic worry. The philosophy I try to adhere to is summed up best by the chant that climaxes The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training: Let Them Play. But still, we’re talking about my son being on the brink of humanity’s greatest skill. I can’t help myself sometimes.

“Look at the letters,” I said.

“Muh,” Jack began. “Muh aah . . .”


Later that day we took our homemade sign and met up with some other families at a park a few blocks north of our home. People stood around eating donuts for a while, the whole thing seeming more like a neighborhood parent meetup than a march, but more people kept arriving, and then eventually what could reasonably be called a small crowd started walking in a line out onto the sidewalk.

Exley, our two-year-old, rode with my wife in a carrier, and Jack, five, rode on my back in something called a toddler carrier. We figured it might be difficult to have a bulky stroller in a march, and we knew that neither boy would make it if we made them go on foot the whole way. And as it turned out the march was a long one, down Clark from Jarvis all the way to Morse and then over to Sheridan and back up to Jarvis and west again. I carried our sign: “THIS IS A SAFE PLACE FOR EVERYONE.” Other people had signs too. Some tried to get a chant going—“no space for hate”—but everyone was too self-conscious about it and maybe not used to being in marches. Everyone had spent the previous few days, since Tuesday night, stunned and scared. It was the first time I’d ever been in a march, and outside of baseball games, where I’d joined in on such things of massive import as “we need a hit” (or one time in a movie theater when I was ten and shouted “Let them play” over and over along with all the other kids in my town and, up on screen, Kelly and Ogilvie and the rest), I’d never chanted anything before. I felt like a fool but not as big a fool as I’d have felt like if I’d not done anything, and not as big as fool as I feel like for going so long without doing anything.


“Muh aah rrrvvv ell nnn,” Jack read.

Marvelin. He misread the capital I for an l. He kept going.

“Fff rrr ee eeee mmm aaahh nnn,” he said.

Marvelin Freeman.

For a second I said nothing. Marveling. That would be just about the exact right word for how I felt for a moment on the morning of our first protest march.


We walked through our neighborhood, maybe a hundred of us, more or less, everyone with kids along. Some cars passing by honked their horns in support. A police car stopped and asked us how far we planned to go and followed us to our stopping point. On Clark, where the sidewalk was narrow, I got the distinct impression that we—a bunch of white people, with a few exceptions—were inconveniencing the people we were trying to include in our benevolent collective gaze: a couple of stocky Hispanic guys walking north as we walked south, a Muslim woman pushing a stroller through us north as we walked south. I thought I detected bemusement on some black people we passed. I was very self-conscious about my sign at these junctures. The sign was intended to be an affirmation, a pledge. But what power do I have to back up that pledge?

The figure serving as a sickening inspiration for our march had been using the city we marched through, Chicago, all through his campaign as shorthand for the lack of safety everywhere, promising that he had the answer for this. He never provided specifics, but other aspects of his rhetorical bluster suggests that the answer will involve bias and brutality, a combination that never leads to any lasting safety. And yet his implications seemed keenly attractive to those who pulled the lever for him. The sign I carried was thin cardboard, maybe not as thin as the cardboard shown at the top of this page but not a whole lot thicker. What will it do against what seems to be coming our way?


“Marvin Freeman,” I said. “You said it! You read his name!”

“Marvin Freeman,” Jack said.

“You want to put it in your box?” I said.

“You were thinking what I was thinking,” he said.

Jack has his own box of cards now, with Dustin Pedroia and Big Papi on the top for easy access. I pulled the box down from the top of the bookcase and we put Marvin Freeman inside.

Today I borrowed his Marvin Freeman card for a while. I read the name on the front, and it occurred to me that the last name was taken on upon emancipation, an ancestor of the pitcher not wanting to carry the name with him of his oppressor. I turned the card over and discovered one of the greatest bits of back-of-the-card text I’d ever seen.

I can’t wait until Jack can read it all. It’s the kind of thing that I read when I was first starting to read, like when I read that Richie Hebner was a grave-digger in the offseason.

You learn when something pulls you forward. For me, with reading, the thing pulling me forward was the ability to decipher messages on thin little rectangles of cardboard just like this one.

“While attending Chicago Vocational High School, Marvin was employed by a violin bow-making company hand-shaping and finishing concert-quality violin bows.”

I want everyone to feel safe and free in a world of such marvels.


Milt Thompson

June 13, 2013

milt thompsonConversations

These days most conversations happen between people who aren’t face to face. You’ll see people typing conversations while they drive. Go to a playground and you’ll see it filled with parents typing conversations into their phone while their kids are playing. Everyone is stretched pretty thin, I guess, so thin that’d it’d be easier to just eliminate conversations altogether, but since we’re social beings we need to keep up these connections with one another, and the only way to do it seems to be to converse while doing something else at the same time.

The image shown here shows a conversation with my wife in which I tried to express my frustration with a long delay in the bus that I sometimes take to work. When you’re in your own head, you can often come to the conclusion that things are fucked. Sometimes what you need is a little levity, a little sense of connection to someone else, a little talk about the hazards of being a late 1980s baseball card lying around the house of a toddler.

More recently, I had what I believe to be my first conversation with my son. Words have been said back and forth between us for some time, but this exchange seemed to have within it the give and take of ideas and concepts, of clarifications and exclamations, that constitute a conversation. It went as follows:

Jack: Puke
Me: Yes, puke.
Jack: Marny? [his word for Marty, one of our cats]
Me: Yes, Marty pukes.
Jack: Puke.
Me: Yes.
Jack: Waddy? [his word for our other cat, Wallly]
Me: Yes, Wally pukes.
Jack: Waddy. Puke.
Me: Yes, Wally goes hwleeeaahh.
Jack: [smiling] Puke! Waddy! Marny!
Me: Yes, yes, my son. Puke.


Kent Tekulve

December 12, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

T Is for Tekulve

Writing while parenting a newborn is like working an inning here and an inning there, loping in from the bullpen without much preparation and heaving some pitches and hoping not to get shelled. I write in little bursts, and I can’t really connect one appearance to any previous appearances. I know the hook is coming, too. It’s a quick hook. This post will not be the equivalent of a complete game but a patchwork of incomplete innings. This is the lot of the reliever.


Parenting a newborn is itself like relief pitching. That is, it bears some similarities to a weary bullpen protecting an endless series of endangered leads. Like a chain of relievers passing the burden of a collapsing lead to one another, my wife and I hand the baby back and forth, trying to stem the momentum toward whining then full-on spittle-choke sobs. I’m the marginally useful hurler constantly tinkering with an ineffective array of junk, called into action in situations unsuitable for the staff ace, my wife, possessor of a devastating out pitch (her boobs).


According to an excellent biography on the SABR bio website, Kent Tekulve’s “first exposure to baseball was playing catch with his father.” I didn’t play catch with my father. He has no interest in baseball. He did tell me, when I was a boy, to try to write something every day. I’m trying, I’m trying. I’m always trying and always will.


Tekulve did not develop his unusual pitching style until years after playing catch with his father. It wasn’t until his pro career began that he decided to pattern a submarining style after what he could recall about the approach of Ted Abernathy, who had pitched effectively for the Reds while Tekulve was growing up in Cincinnati. Tekulve in turn handed down the unusual style to Dan Quisenberry during spring training of 1980. Quisenberry quickly became a star, eclipsing his mentor throughout most of the 1980s, though Tekulve continued to be an effective, tireless, and remarkably consistent reliever in his own right. Tekulve had turned 41 by the time the 1988 card at the top of this post came out, yet in the previous season he led the major leagues in games pitched, with 90, while managing an ERA of 3.09, a very good mark for the home-run-hitting extravaganza that was 1987. He had another useful season in 1988, then finally came to the end of his remarkable and remarkably underrated career in 1989 with a few subpar appearances for the team of his youth, the Reds. Discounting his first brief call-up in 1974 and his last brief go-round in 1989, Kent Tekulve never had a bad year. Relievers almost as a rule go up and down, their numbers the most difficult to predict from one year to the next. Kent Tekulve was that most admirable thing in a reliever. He was steady.


My dad went to work every day, no matter what. This was somewhat unusual in the 1960s and 1970s, an era in America when relative prosperity combined with (and probably contributed to) a powerful cultural trend toward self-exploration most commonly referred to back then as “finding oneself.” Everyone was always setting off to find him or herself back then. Not my dad, so far as I know. He either didn’t want to find himself or he already knew where he was. I think of him at a desk. A guy with glasses sitting at a desk. That’s where he still is much of the time, actually. So am I, come to think of it. I’m at a desk right now. Every day, even if for just a third of an inning, or less if I can’t even so much as record a single out or complete a single thought.


Kent Tekulve was a hero of mine around the time when my dad told me to try to write something every day. I was a skinny bespectacled kid on the brink of stumbling out of a warm albeit somewhat peculiar childhood into a much grayer awkward adolescence, and as the specter of the lonely era to come loomed, Tekulve, the rail-thin relief ace of the mighty late 1970s Pirates, offered some hope that I could, like Tekulve, find an unlikely place in the middle of the action. In the 1988 card at the top of this post Tekulve, sporting some wrinkles and the beginnings of a pear shape, is unquestionably a member of the adult realm, an adult like all the adults, a guy who would blend into a crowd, but in the cards that I collected in the 1970s he was much thinner and shadowy and more distant from the rest of the world around him and because of that distance closer to my own world of growing distances.


Kent Tekulve doesn’t get enough credit as an elite practitioner of his craft. There’s a stat now in use called adjusted ERA (ERA+) that siphons a player’s earned run average through some machinations to account for league and park factors. Basically, it’s a way of showing that, for example, Larry Dierker’s 3.31 earned run average in 1968, when pitching in the cavernous Astrodome during the “year of the pitcher,” was quite a bit less impressive than, say, Francisco Cordova’s 3.31 earned run average in the steroidal homerfest that was 1998. Kent Tekulve is tied for 31st all-time on the career ERA+ list. A few relievers are ranked ahead of him on the list, but not one of them (besides Hoyt Wilhelm, who also pitched for several seasons as a starter) has more innings pitched.


I guess if you are a reliever and aspire to immortality you need a gimmick. Tekulve did not really have one. He threw underhanded, more or less, and had glasses, which I guess could be considered gimmicks, but Hall of Fame voting has an element of the channeling of male childlike fantasies of comic-book power (this is, I believe, the subconscious core of the “gut” feeling some “old school” voters talk about when brusquely explaining their Hall of Fame picks), and the elements of Tekulve’s game that might come into the mind of a voter point more toward the flaccid powerlessness of a Clark Kent than to the soaring phallic omnipotence of a Superman. Think of the relievers who have gotten into the Hall of Fame thus far. They all had comic-book superhero attributes. Wilhelm had the baffling uncanny knuckler, like something that would have spiraled forth from the spell-setting fingers of Dr. Strange; Goose Gossage’s fastball and persona raged and rampaged, Hulk-style; Bruce Sutter had an awe-inspiring mad-scientist forkball; Rollie Fingers coupled his excellent but by no means inimitable achievements with a spectacular cartoon mustache and cartoon name. These guys all had good numbers, but Tekulve’s numbers are comparable, and, to use the term for reliever in use in his day, “fireman,” he entered more burning buildings than any of them.


I’ve always been drawn to Tekulve because I was a thin bespectacled kid, but I think it’s not necessarily the Clark Kentian eyewear that has brushed him to the side in talk of great relievers as it is his submarine pitch. The pitch, it’s . . . girly. Consider Tekulve’s protégé, the great Dan Quisenberry. I mentioned ERA+ above; the Quiz’s career ERA+ ranks fifth all-time, behind only Lefty Grove, a short-tenured 19th Century pitcher named Jim Devlin, Pedro Martinez, and Mariano Rivera. The Royals ace did not pitch for that long—not anywhere near as long as Tekulve—but neither did Bruce Sutter, who is in the Hall of Fame. The difference? Quiz threw the submarine pitch. I’m telling you, Hall of Fame voting is done with the imagination to some extent, and it’s generally a very strongly Neanderthalic male imagination that values things that crush and smash and are “feared”; it would naturally shy away from things that are somehow vaguely womanly, even if those things are effective. I mean, there was a kid in my little league who threw sidearm. I felt embarrassed for him. I felt embarrassed for anyone who couldn’t fire a good overhand pitch. My father couldn’t. I always worried that this would come to light.


My dad throws ideas at me. The gist of them is that, as things stand now, and until we bring about changes, we—as in we the people—don’t have our hands on the reins. We are in many ways dominated by a microscopically tiny percentage of the population. I don’t really understand how this works, and besides studying some of my father’s chosen field, sociology, in college 20 years ago I haven’t done much to learn about it and don’t do anything to fight it. I have a job at a corporation. It helps me and my family get by and provides us with some health insurance. I go to work, come home from work, do what I can to help my wife take care of our baby, write when I can, maybe go for a run. With any other spare time, I generally think about or read about or cheer for sports. Why? I ask this question periodically, and most recently I found myself asking it in regard to the current term for a team’s standout reliever: “dominant closer.” This wasn’t always the term used. I often find myself recoiling from new developments in the lingo of sports, and this is no exception. Compare the term “dominant closer” to a term applied with great accuracy to Kent Tekulve in his day: “reliable fireman.” The 1970s populism reflected most stridently in the theme song, “We Are Family,” of Tekulve’s 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates champs also comes through in “reliable fireman,” a term suggesting a sense that that we can count on one another even in tough times, that we are all in this together. Or, we were all in this together. Things appear to be different now, at least according to the current terminology used for an effective relief pitcher. The noun in this term, “closer,” conjures cutthroat Glengarry-Glen-Ross victimization, and the adjective, “dominant,” adds to it a testosterone whiff of subjugating simian brutality. It’s sort of sickening, if you think about it. I don’t want to dominate anyone. But, if I’m being honest, I sure do like it when my sports teams win. Following sports is a way, I guess, to fantasize guiltlessly about being, for once, the one with the hands on the reins, the dominant victimizer.


Kent Tekulve was my passageway from childhood into what came after it, and what came after it lasted all the way until this past July, when my own son was born. Now I’m no longer a loner on the outside of things. I’m the guy my son will first look to. Will I be steady? Will I be reliable? I don’t know. I do know I’ll no longer primarily be the uninspired star of my own tedious story but a supporting player in another new story. I’ll be the guy with glasses sitting at a desk.


Barry Foote

March 2, 2011

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

Philadelphia Phillies

In 1973, Montreal Expos manager Gene Mauch, quoted in a Baseball Digest article on the league’s best catchers, referred to Barry Foote as “the next Johnny Bench.” Foote appeared in his first few games that season, then made the Topps all-rookie team the following year, logging promising stats for a 22-year-old rookie catcher in a pitching-dominated era: 11 home runs, 61 RBI, .262 batting average. But that’s about as far as things went toward a realization of Gene Mauch’s foray into fortune-telling. In his second full season, Foote’s average dipped to .194. His numbers climbed from disastrous to mediocre in 1976, but in 1977 Gary Carter took over the Expos’ catching duties, and Foote was shipped to the Phillies, where he hung around on the bench behind the starter, Bob Boone, and also behind Steve Carlton’s personal backstop, Tim McCarver. He got a post-season at-bat with the Phillies in 1978 (he struck out), then in 1979 after a trade to the Cubs he got one more chance as a regular, and he did pretty well, smacking a career-best 16 home runs. Two years later, with the Yankees, he got an at-bat in the World Series (he struck out). All in all, not a bad career, the kind of thing, really, that most of us can only approach in our wildest dreams: an entire decade in the major leagues. And he wasn’t just standing around in a warmup jacket with a bat on his shoulders the whole time. He hit some dingers, got a taste of the post-season, logged an admirably thick, full entry into the swinging ’70s parade of baseball mustaches. And in the midst of it, as shown in this 1978 card, Barry Foote even seemed to be enjoying himself, despite his recent fall in status to third-string catcher. So, in terms of what all this means for the purposes of using a randomly selected piece of cardboard from the past to see into the flesh and blood of the future, I predict that there will be good moments and enjoyment for the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, but the sky-high hopes for the team, predictions of historical greatness abounding, will make those shoulders slump a little off to the side, like The Next Johnny Bench in this 1978 card, as if in an attempt to casually shuck the weight of almost impossible expectations. Weight like that, no matter what you do, tends seep under the skin and harden into disappointment.


How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 3 of 30: Read Peter Schilling Jr.’s 2008 novel, The End of Baseball. The book, the best baseball novel I’ve read in a long time, brilliantly imagines an alternative history in which Bill Veeck, during World War II, purchases the Philadelphia Athletics and stocks the team entirely with Negro League stars such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Martin Dihigo. 


2011 previews so far:
St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets


Charlie Hayes

December 2, 2009

I found this card on the sidewalk the weekend before a Thanksgiving trip to see my mom, dad, brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew, who all live in a pretty city in the hills of North Carolina now. It was a good visit. I ate a lot of food, got drunk one night with my wife and my brother and his wife while my mom babysat their kids, played games with and read stories to my sweet, boisterous four-year-old niece, laughed at the comedic stylings of my two-year-old nephew, went on a nice walk with my dad, and spent a lot of time with my mom and the new love of her life, a tender little chunk of fur named Shaggy that she rescued from the dog pound a few months ago. 

“It’s nice to have something to take care of,” my mom said at one point, petting Shaggy, who doesn’t ever like to be apart from her for even a few minutes. My mom also helps take care of my niece and nephew now, and I got to witness some of this care, which brought back to me the way she was with my brother and me when we were little. It brought it back in a visceral way, something about the way she leaned down to help my niece and nephew color some pages with crayons. I could see it all happening years before, the soft voice encouraging my brother and me. She has always been a superstar of care, reaching out and holding tight to her loved ones.   

So I’m thinking of that today as I return to my daily life, which of course often includes a stop at my baseball card collection to try to make sense of this world. The collection continues, by little inexplicable miracles, to grow. I keep finding cards! I found this 1991 Charlie Hayes card just after I had finished one of my morning jogs up and down the streets of my neighborhood. I was walking up Western Avenue to get some quarters from the machine in the laundromat on Thomas. I noticed a little flash of muted color and looked down. The card was wet and had almost fused itself to the ground. If I hadn’t noticed it and carefully pried it up it would have disintegrated soon. It’s supposed to snow tomorrow here in Chicago, signaling the start of a winter that this card would not have survived.

I don’t have any deep feelings toward Charlie Hayes, beyond that he makes me smile for his involvement in a comedic riff by a friend that I’m not capable of transferring to the page. (Also, I see him catching the last out of the 1996 World Series, but the angst I have over that moment, which signaled the Yankees’ return to league dominance, centers more on Wade Boggs, who soon followed the Hayes putout with some nauseating on-field equestrianism, and Graig Nettles, whose 1978 one-game playoff-ending catch of a pop fly was vaguely but painfully echoed by Hayes in 1996.)

Nonetheless, I’m glad to have rescued the card from the world’s relentless all-encompassing road to ruin. All cards will disintegrate. Cover them in plastic if you want. Shield them from the elements. Pray for them morning, noon, and night. It’s only a matter of time. It makes you wonder why you hold on at all. Last night, in bed, I dropped into and then out of a shallow sleep, then I guess I started thrashing around a little, a physical manifestation of some mental anguish that had seized me like an owl snatching a vole in its talons.

“Are you OK?” my wife asked.

“I don’t want to die,” I said.   

She tried to calm me down, and her touch actually did help. She tried words too, but words only go so far. Words, at best, are like the plastic covering protecting cards. Plastic won’t hold back the inevitable.

“That won’t happen for a long time,” she said.

“Ah,” I said. (It was sort of a muted scream.) My thoughts were: But it might happen at any time and, more powerfully, But it will happen. There aren’t any words to stave off that fact, especially at certain times of the night when the veil of day-to-day life drops.

It will happen. So what do we do with our time here? What do we do with this thin disintegrating gift? 


Danny Ozark

October 29, 2009

Danny Ozark 78

At one point during last night’s first game of the 2009 World Series, Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was shown in the dugout wearing a batting glove. Leaving aside for a moment the greater absurdity that baseball managers wear uniforms at all (picture a basketball or football coach doing the same) let’s consider the possible reasons why Manuel was dressed to take some cuts.

1. The one-glove look was a marketing ploy to promote the new Michael Jackson concert movie.

2. Manuel was a little chilly. Just judging from what I could see on television, it looked pretty raw out there. The man is sixty-five years old. Maybe the conditions were making the joints in his fingers ache, and a batting glove was the only thing around to add some extra insulation.

3. It was a tribute to Marlon Brando’s classic bit of physical improvisation in On the Waterfront. In that movie, there’s a scene in a playground in which Eva Marie Saint drops her glove, and Brando picks it up  (at least I think that’s how Brando gets his hand on her glove—it’s been a while since I saw the movie). Instead of handing it back to her, he plays with it as they continue to talk, putting the tiny thing on his hand as he sits on a swing. In some ways, it’s the most moving moment in the film for me, this tragic battered fighter momentarily playful and innocent as a child. Manuel seemed to be as loose in the dugout last night as Brando was during the glove scene, and you can’t help but wonder if such a playful approach to a pressurized moment helped bolster the ridiculous poise of Phillies ace (and stunt-fielder worthy of the Indianapolis Clowns, the King and His Court, and his namesake and fellow lefty Bill Lee) Cliff Lee as he mowed down the previously unstoppable Yankees.

4. Charlie Manuel was, is, and always will be a hitter. This was the theory put forth by color commentator Tim McCarver as he noticed the glove. I tend toward this explanation, too. If you had ever had a period in your life when you bashed balls over the fence, you’d probably feel that power was always inside you, somewhere, no matter how old you got.

Charlie Manuel did his slugging in the minors (in his second-to-last year as a pro he pounded 30 homers and drove in 102 runs at Albuquerque), as did the man shown here, Danny Ozark, arguably the most successful manager in Phillies history before Manuel’s time. As the back of the 1978 card above relates, before Ozark led the Phillies to two 100-plus win seasons and three division titles during the 1970s, he played for twenty years in the minor leagues, hitting 238 home runs, including 31 as a 23-year-old in Abiline, and 32 as a 33-year-old in Wichita Falls.

The undeniable success of Ozark and Manuel, neither of whom ever got any buzz as a baseball genius (Manuel seems most often to be portrayed as a bumpkin, while Ozark gained far less attention for his winning ways than for his hilarious baseball-related utterances), raises the question of whether a slugger might make an inherently good manager. If so, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom on the matter, which tends to celebrate former scrappy infielder types, such as Leo Durocher and Billy Martin, the idea being that because they couldn’t smash a ball several hundred feet they had to learn how to use their mind to get an advantage during their playing days, and so they developed a better overall sense for the game. (Former catchers are also the beneficiaries of this kind of positive stereotyping. Three of the final four managers in the playoffs this year were catchers, Manuel being the exception–and the one who has gotten the least consideration as a brainy managerial maestro.)

The slugger, on the other hand, knows how to slug. And isn’t that the rarest thing in baseball to know about? Someone who has bashed home runs on a professional level must have some advantage that isn’t much talked about when discussing the factors that make up a good manager. Maybe they know that staying loose helps. Maybe it’s that they simply value the importance of slugging: They let their sluggers slug. Along those lines, I heard recently—I think it was during the radio pregame of an NLCS game—that Billy Beane, the Moneyball-inspiring general manager of the A’s, once played for Manuel during Beane’s minor league playing career, and that Beane has said that Manuel is the best manager he’s ever been around. I wish I could find a quote to confirm this, but I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard. It makes some sense. Manuel’s teams don’t bunt much, and though they steal bases, they make sure to do so in optimal situations, their success rate well above the level needed to make the stolen base a useful tool.

Don’t bunt. Don’t take unnecessary risks on the basepaths. Never take the batting glove off a slugger’s hand.