Archive for the ‘Philadelphia Phillies’ Category


Larry Bowa

May 20, 2022

I’ve spent thousands of hours playing Strat-O-Matic alone. Many, many thousands of hours alone. I’ve experienced only a few hours of playing the game with others. In one of the rare exceptions, early on in my Strat-O-Matic career, I played against a farm boy who was three years older than me and who lived up the road from my family’s house. I don’t want to be coy about the identity of this kid, but I also have been conscious since mentioning him in my Cardboard Gods book of appearing to “dine out on his name,” as the saying goes. But the truth is, and as I tried to make clear in that book, I owe a deep debt to that farm boy, Buster Olney, the baseball writer. In the book I describe how important his magnetic passion for baseball and baseball cards was in getting my brother and me into those things. He had the same influence on us with Strat-O-Matic. As with his massive baseball card collection in comparison to ours, so did Buster’s Strat-O-Matic knowledge dwarf our own. In a league he and my brother were in during their high school years, Buster regularly annihilated everyone by snatching up unsung walk machines such as Gene Tenace while everyone else, wowed by batting average, wrestled over the likes of Enos Cabell and Mickey Rivers. I didn’t get a chance to play Strat-O-Matic against him until a few years later, when, one summer when he was home from college, he and I were both marooned in our tiny central Vermont town. He had nothing better to do than play Strat-O-Matic with his friend’s younger brother. I knew I didn’t stand a chance against him, but that whole summer, inexplicably, I got the rolls, which, as he wrote many years later in his ESPN column, enraged him.

Whenever I got one of my uncommonly friendly dice rolls, he had a saying: “what a chunk of shit.” But calling it a saying doesn’t really do it justice. It was volcanic, operatic, a white-hot roar.

For example:

Josh’s team is down by a run with two out in the bottom of the ninth and one man on. Goose Gossage is on the mound and Dámaso García is at the plate. Goose Gossage has nothing on his card but strikeouts, while Dámaso García has a few singles but not much else. He hit three home runs all season. There’s virtually no way he’ll hit a home run. Josh rolls the dice. Dámaso García homers.

[long, smoldering beat]

Buster [roaring]: What a CHUNK! OF! SHIT!

I wish you could have heard him say this. The passion, the gravitas, the authority. One thing feeding into this was that he was the most competitive person I’ve ever known. Another thing feeding into that particular turn of phrase: he was a farm boy. I don’t know if you really know what being a farm boy means, but what I witnessed was that it meant he learned from very early on what hard work was. I worked on his farm a few times helping to throw bales of hay onto a wagon (during one afternoon doing this we worked out a Strat-O-Matic trade involving Fred Lynn; I can’t remember all the details but I’m sure he fleeced me), and those afternoons haying with Buster still stand as by far the most physically taxing work I’ve ever done. And he started every day at the crack of dawn doing that kind of work. But the other thing you need to know, as it relates to his standard exclamatory protestation of the unfair rulings of chance, is that his work—as it was on a dairy farm, with, you know, lots of cows—often involved shit. Actual shit in unending supply. He knew a chunk of shit when he saw one. And his friend’s little brother lucking out with Dámaso García home runs was a Chunk. Of. Shit.

He had two other verbal tics that came out while he was playing Strat-O-Matic that have stayed with me over the decades. One was the sound effect he provided when one of his pitchers recorded a strikeout. I don’t think he did it for every pitcher and in every situation, but he definitely used this when his closer, Goose Gossage, was on the hill, and the rolls were in line with overwhelming probabilities and not veering into the realm of chunks of shit:


That’s what he’d yell, imitating an umpire’s third-strike bleating, when Goose was mowing them down. One day, we were over at the high school playing one-on-one on a basketball hoop in the parking lot, and a karate class was taking place nearby. The instructor kept going “HUAAA!” We were unable to continue our game. Yes, I owe Buster a debt for a lot of things, including that he’s the reason for at least one of the times in my life I literally fell over in a paralyzing seizure of laughter.

And the last of his Strat-O-Matic verbal tics that I remember was a fricative sound effect he made with a burst of air through his teeth:


This was an imitation of a hard-hit ball being snagged in a fielder’s glove. But not any fielder’s glove. He may have used the sound effect for other fielders, but I only remember him doing it for one. It was a player that he always had on his team and that, if I remember correctly, he related to and held in high esteem as a fellow hard worker, a fellow grinder, a fellow ferocious competitor.

Life is uncertain enough. Even if you get everything set up for a seemingly ironclad win, you could still end up with a chunk of shit. So you’d better have at least one thing locked down.

You’d better have Larry Bowa at shortstop.


I wrote yesterday about how my 1977 Strat-O-Matic online team is built for Mark Fidrych and built around Joe Morgan. After Joe Morgan, the player I most wanted on the field behind Mark Fidrych was Larry Bowa. In the Strat-O-Matic game, a dice roll on a pitcher’s card will often result in an additional 20-sided dice roll based on a given fielder’s ratings, and in a reflection of the relative frequency that balls are hit to a shortstop, the shortstop is the most frequent object of this secondary roll (as can be seen in Fidrych’s card, where a 6-9 and 6-10 roll will bring the shortstop’s abilities into play). I wanted Larry Bowa in place when these rolls came up.

The guiding principle for my team, in terms of run prevention, was “bend but don’t break.” To save money for everyday players who could hit well and field well, I loaded up on cheap pitchers who gave up a lot of hits but kept the ball in the ballpark (Fidrych himself being a mid-priced and slightly less batting-average-friendly version of this type) and hoped that my team would limit the damage invited by the mushballers by giving up fewer home runs than the league average, by not giving away runs with errors, and by leading the league in double plays. So far, so good: the Worcester Birds have given up six fewer home runs than the league average; are tied for the league lead for fewest errors; and lead the league in double plays. The team is eighth in a twelve-team league in runs allowed, but because the offense is second in the league in scoring runs, the mediocre run prevention, bolstered by spectacular fielding at every position, has been good enough so far to keep the team in first place.

That’s the spot in the standings to which Larry Bowa was most accustomed. He’s presumably somewhere in the team photo at the top of this page. Something mysterious happened to a few teams from my childhood collection of cards, including the Phillies, and I don’t have a single Larry Bowa card. It’s fitting perhaps that my only relic of him in my collection makes him indistinguishable from his teammates, as Bowa seems to not have cared about individual achievements but only about winning as a team, which the Phillies started doing in the middle of the decade and didn’t stop doing until Bowa was traded away (to the Cubs, who started winning as soon as Bowa was aboard). In an enjoyable recent episode of the Lost Ballparks podcast, Bowa says, “I didn’t care about any of that stuff [individual achievements]; I just wanted to get a ring. . . . Everyone can take everything away except for the World Series. That’s what I played for.”


Worcester Birds notes, games 58 through 60:

  • G58: W 8-2
    • Bowa leads lineup from the 9 hole with 3 hits; Campbell gives up 1 run in 4 innings in relief for the win
  • G59: L 4-2
    • Lee struggles but saves the bullpen to fight another day by logging 6.1 innings
  • G60: W 8-3
    • Bowa goes 2 for 2 with 2 RBI (including a suicide squeeze); after Tiant is injured, Campbell allows 1 run in 5 innings for another win

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.


Jay Johnstone

October 27, 2009

Jay Johnstone 76

A few years after this card joined my childhood collection, Jay Johnstone posed on a 1983 card wearing a Budweiser umbrella hat. I don’t have that card, but I understand that if one card had to be chosen to represent Jay Johnstone, one of the game’s more renowned pranksters, it would be the one that shows him to be sympathetic to the practice of imbibing intoxicants and ridiculously safe against accruing moisture on any part of his head or neck. But this 1976 card actually provides a better representation of Jay Johnstone the player, who found a way to endure in the majors for 20 seasons, something that wouldn’t have occurred if all he could offer a team was the propensity to don giant sunglasses with windshield wipers on them. Here he kneels, gagless but still clearly relaxed and jovial, the bat he referred to as his “business partner” resting on his shoulder. Jay Johnstone: Have bat, will travel.

Philadelphia was the fourth of eight franchises for this roaming left-handed bat-for-hire, and he reached the peak of his career in that city, blooming into a .300 hitter with some power. Phillies fans campaigned for Johnstone, a career platoonist, to be put into the lineup all the time (the slogan for this movement was “Play Jay Everyday”), but Johnstone never became a full-fledged regular in Philadelphia or anywhere else (in his 20 big league seasons he logged 3,999 at bats against right-handers and just 704 against left-handers). Furthermore, the Phillies got rid of him as soon as he seemed to show signs of slowing down, shipping him to the Yankees in the middle of 1978 as he struggled with a .179 batting average.

It’s been a long time since I read The Bronx Zoo, Sparky Lyle’s hilarious account of the Yankees 1978 season, and I can’t remember if Jay Johnstone figures in the book. He didn’t make a big impact on the field as the Yankees stormed from far behind in the standings to win the division (he got just 73 at-bats), but I wonder if Lyle, the Yankees’ reigning practical joker (his go-to move being the ruination of birthday cakes by sitting on them with his bare buttocks), sized up Johnstone as a kindred spirit and deputized him in the service of clubhouse shenanigans.

The two left-handed goofballs, Lyle and Johnstone, are the only players who immediately come to mind as I try to think of guys who have logged time with both of the teams preparing to square off in the 2009 World Series. I may well be forgetting someone or something, but it seems that there’s not a whole lot of history between the two long-tenured franchises. They’ve met just once before in the World Series, in 1950. It went quickly: four Yankee wins in four days. The Yankees, then in the midst of a record five consecutive World Series titles, boasted five future Hall-of-Famers, a future Hall of Fame manager, and several other perennial All-Stars. The Phillies countered with Granny Hamner and Putsy Caballero. The undermanned NL champs battled admirably, each of the first three games a one-run affair, and the last game, a 5-2 loss, featured a never-say-die two-run rally by the Phillies in the ninth inning.

After that, the Phillies quickly receded back to their habitual absence from postseason play, while the Yankees went on to win several more World Series over the following decade and a half before sinking into their first franchise slump since before the purchase of Babe Ruth in 1920. In the mid-1970s, the Phillies and Yankees both got very good at the same time, and in retrospect it seems unlikely that they didn’t ever meet in the postseason during that era. But while the Yankees were able to get to the World Series three times in a row in the 1970s, the Phillies kept getting dumped in the NL playoffs, first by the Reds and then by the Dodgers two years in a row.

The Phillies have gained revenge against the Dodgers for those 1970s failures by jettisoning the Los Angeles team two years in a row. Now they finally get another chance, fifty-nine years after their first, to see if they can measure up against the Yankees, who seem to be playing with a looseness and ease that hasn’t been seen in the Bronx since the days when Sparky Lyle sat on cakes. The Yankees, whose most recent dynasty, in the late 1990s, was characterized by dour, kohl-eyed professionalism, have this year begun the practice of smashing a shaving cream pie into the face of the hero of the game. I don’t know if recently deceased comedian Soupy Sales, the king of the pie in the face, would approve (the author of a recent article in Newsday thinks not), but I suppose Jay Johnstone would understand the effort, if not its relative dearth of imagination. Johnstone knew that to stay loose, to survive, it helps to laugh.


Tim McCarver

March 17, 2009


Very few men have ever spanned four decades in their major league baseball playing careers, and of those few I would hazard to guess that Tim McCarver is the least renowned. The two besides McCarver that I can think of off the top of my head, Nolan Ryan and Ted Williams, are of course both legends. Minnie Minoso actually appeared in major league games in five decades, but when he surfaced in the 1970s for 8 at-bats and again in the 1980s for 2 at-bats he was largely taking part in a publicity gimmick. But Minoso, while not in the league of Williams or Ryan, is in many expert eyes, including those of Bill James, a Hall of Fame caliber player. Tim McCarver on the other hand . . . not so much.

But McCarver was actually pretty damn good for a while, especially in his early days with the stellar Cardinals teams of the 1960s. McCarver even led the league in triples one year, the first catcher to ever do so, and batted .295 in the Cardinals’ World Championship season of 1967. By the time this 1979 card of him giving someone the stink eye came out, he had long since been removed from every day duty, but had lingered on and on because he continued to have value as a guy who could catch once in a while and also swing a decent bat from the left side of the plate. In 1977, for example, a 35-year-old McCarver helped the Phillies win a division title by hitting .320 in a backup role to Bob Boone. His average tapered off to .247 the next year, but he continued to hold down a spot on the Phillies roster because he had by then become the personal receiver for the most valuable pitcher on the team, if not the league, future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton. Read the rest of this entry ?


Ryan Howard

October 30, 2008
The most common form of communal victory celebration in baseball these days is the roiling many-bodied bounce, in which several triumphant players converge and make loud happy noises while hugging and jumping up and down, everyone remaining vertical. These happen near the pitcher’s mound after the last out has been recorded or at home plate to greet the scorer of the winning run or near first base to swarm the author of the game-winning hit or sometimes in two places at once until the two many-bodied bounces converge into one big many-bodied bounce that seems, at least for a little while, capable of lasting forever, of perhaps even morphing into a new kind of everyday being with its own library card and many arms and legs, forever roaring with disbelieving joy even while going to the post office or waiting for a bus.

Last night, however, the Philadelphia Phillies, proving themselves once again a team for the ages, punctuated their four games to one victory over the Tampa Bay Rays by eschewing the many-bodied bounce, instead breaking out the old-school suffocating bone-crushing mound-centered pileup, in which laughing bodies thump down horizontally one on top of the other until the guy in catcher’s gear at the bottom is dead or at least a little scared.

The man pictured here played a key role in turning what could have become a many-bodied bounce into a pileup. Jesus Christ played a role too, probably the most important role, as He may or may not do in all things, depending on your understanding of the world, but in this case He worked in ways not quite so mysterious, or at least not mysterious to an amateur aficionado of sports celebrations such as myself. The pitcher who recorded the last out, Brad Lidge, dropped to his knees and stayed there, pointing and looking skyward, silently giving thanks to his personal lord and savior, as he did in a TV interview a few minutes later. This made the all-important first embrace between pitcher and catcher one that occurred with both men very close to the ground. They were not flat on the ground, however, until the third man in, the first baseman Ryan Howard, steamrolled the moment with the arrival of his hulking happiness (video courtesy of Josh Barron) . . .

As you can see, once Howard clinched the mode of celebration with a hug so massive that it acted as a two-man tackle, everything else fell into line. A few seconds after the pileup starts, a windbreaker clad reveler stands outside the pile with arms outstretched for a hug from a figure sprinting in from left field, probably Shane Victorino, but the Flying Hawaiian chooses (or perhaps in such moments there really is no such thing as choice) to bypass the mere vertical embrace and instead flies onto the pile, arms and legs wide like a freefalling skydiver.

I watched the celebration happily, thinking about my cousin Jamie and my friend David, both huge Phillies fan fans, thinking about how for the first time since the glory days of Andrew Toney there would be a victory parade down Broad Street, thinking, as I always do, of victory celebrations in general. My day had been a normal day, a long commute in the morning and evening, hours in between those two blank passages spent how I usually spend them in my professional life as a proofreader and editor: looking for mistakes. If I find a mistake there’s no celebration. If I find ten thousand mistakes there’s no celebration. There are only more mistakes, meaning that eventually (and it usually doesn’t take that long) I’ll miss one, and feel stupid, and worry about losing my job and going broke and going hungry, etc. Mistakes are everywhere. See if you can find the somewhat glaring one on the back of the Ryan Howard card: 


So I guess I follow sports in part to imagine an escape from this life’s samsaric wheel of mistakes, an escape that peaks with the vicarious thrill of watching grown men celebrate. Sometimes, much more often than is healthy, I fantasize vaguely about enjoying a similar moment as a participant and not simply a watcher. When I was a kid I put these imagined celebrations in the context of sports, but I no longer do that. What could I win? What would it change? Everything, somehow. I’d laugh and curse and weep. I’d get down on my knees and give thanks. Or I’d plow into the moment like a building-levelling wrecking ball. Or I’d sprint in from left field and fly spread-eagle onto the pile.

What would you do?


Nino Espinosa

October 28, 2008
The few cards I have from 1981, the year I turned my back on the Cardboard Gods, are an accidental monument to a moment so empty it was likely gone from my mind within hours after it happened, if not sooner. I must have a bought a couple packs, opened them, leafed through them. I must have been so far removed from feeling the magic of receiving brand new cards that I didn’t even notice the magic was no longer there, didn’t even remember there had ever been any magic. The cards from that year were as drab as the tile floor of a subbasement government waiting room, no sun anywhere, the color drained from the world that had been throughout the previous few years a brilliant synthetic rainbow.

Nino Espinosa stands in opposition to 1981’s dull extinction of joy. I probably missed this while numbly leafing through the cards in the pack he came in. If I focused on anything, it was probably the backdrop behind him, a wall the color of nausea. Maybe I briefly noted his afro, the size of it by that diminishing year already an anachronism, but who was I going to tell about it? My brother was away at boarding school by 1981, and even before he’d gone away he’d been showing less and less interest in the things I wanted to show him. So into my shoebox of cards went Nino Espinosa with barely a glance from me, and a few years later, 1987, the house I grew up in was sold and into storage went the shoebox of cards.

That year, 1987, I didn’t think that much about baseball or my baseball cards. I missed the news near the end of that year, Christmas Eve, that Nino Espinosa, member of the lovable and useless late 1970s Mets, member of what as of this moment remains the only World Series championship team in Philadelphia Phillies history, member of my sad tiny collection of 1981 cards, died of a heart attack at the age of 34.

In fact I didn’t find out about his early death until this morning. We are all headed that way. The best we can do is stand in opposition to the fading of the magic, as Nino Espinosa does here in an ugly, off-center card, his loose, limber body exuding the feeling that things are just starting, that he’s just getting warmed up, that the whole day is still ahead of him, waiting to be explored, waiting to bloom. Life, like the bulging preposterous afro of Nino Espinosa, will not be denied.


Mike Schmidt (and Dick Allen) in the All-Time Franchise All-Stars

October 23, 2008

Most people’s lives are like the history of the Philadelphia Phillies. Not all. Some lives are choked with triumph, I guess, and I guess other lives may seem to be so loaded with dramatic, wrenching failure as to be cursed. But if we are lucky enough to live a long life it’ll probably seem to most of us at the end as if there were long decades that went by without much happening at all beyond a slow, unstoppable accrual of losses. Who the hell were we all those years?

And on that note, I present for your perusal and discussion the ballot for the Philadelphia Phillies All-Time Franchise All-Stars. As with the last time I presented this derivative feature (for the real deal, see Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups), I’ll leave the ballot blank, in hopes of encouraging everyone to take a stab at filling out a lineup card.

Before checking out the Phillies’ all-time pitching and hitting leaders at, try coming up with a list off the top of your head. That’s what I did, and it’s what made me realize I know far less about most of Phillies history than I know about any other major league team. I can name a couple guys from the 1915 pennant winners (Pete Alexander, Granny Hamner [author update: as pointed out in the comments below, Granny Hamner, despite his old timey name, somehow escaped existing in the deadball era and was instead a member of the 1950 Whiz Kids]) and a couple guys from the 1950 pennant winners (Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts) and a couple guys from the 1964 team that collapsed in the pennant race (Johnny Callison, Richie Allen) and the rest of my knowledge about the Phillies is restricted to the team’s 1976–1980 golden age during my baseball-obsessed childhood, along with some vague recollections of players that came afterward, mostly those now suspiciously misshapen uglies from the 1993 pennant-winning team.

With the above thoughts about the vagaries of Phillies history in mind, Mike Schmidt stands out more than any other player would in a consideration of an all-time franchise all-star team. Interestingly enough, however, he may not have been considered the best third baseman in franchise history until he’d been around for a while. First he had to surpass the feats of his 1974 home run leader counterpart, Dick (aka Richie) Allen, who while playing third base for the Phillies mangled National League pitching for several years during the very difficult hitter’s era of the 1960s. Apparently Allen was not a good fielder, however, while Schmidt was the best in his league for many years, and anyway Schmidt stuck around long enough to lead the Phillies to their only World Series victory and to pass Allen, and everyone, on most of the Phillies career record lists. (But the ever-underrated Allen does hold a lead over Schmidt in adjusted OPS+ in games played with the Phillies, 153 to 147.)

The current edition of the Phillies, who took a 1–0 lead in the 2008 World Series last night, seem almost certain to fill out the other infield spots beside Schmidt on the franchise all-time all-star team before they’re done. Do they already deserve to be placed on the team? (Bonus infielder trivia: which now-retired Phillies shortstop once finished third in the MVP voting despite a .689 OPS?) And who’s your Phillies catcher? (Bonus catcher trivia: which two Phillies catchers represented the team the most times at the all-star game?) And which Phillies rightfielder (the one with the gun for an arm or the one who in some ways epitomized the hitters era of the early 1930s) ranks higher in Bill James’ rankings? And, most of all, is there a place for the Bull and Nails and One Nut?



Wild card:


Jim Lonborg in . . . the Nagging Question

October 20, 2008

“I tell you folks, it’s harder than it looks. It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.” — Bon Scott

What is your general policy of rooting once your team has been eliminated? I think some people go with the thinking that if the team that beats them goes on to win it all, it makes their own team look better, so they root for their conqueror. Back in 2005, the last time the Red Sox were dethroned as World Series champions, I think I did actually pull for the team that dumped them, the White Sox, in the World Series, but not with much passion and mostly because I found something unpalatable about the Astros’ funhouse home ballpark. This year I certainly will not be rooting for the Rays, but that’s only partly out of bitterness. In truth over the course of their seven-game victory over my team (and the team the Phillies player pictured here is most often associated with), the Boston Red Sox, I came to understand that the Rays are just the better team, with more pitching weapons and a balanced, speedy, powerful, resourceful lineup. But then again bitterness may well have something to do with it, bitterness overlapping with my prejudice against young phenoms to whom success seems to come easily. This prejudice usually rears its ugly envious head when I read about some novelist in his early 20s getting a six-figure book deal and, it is implied (at least in my mind), more literary ass than a Breadloaf toilet seat, but I can also resent a team full of number one draft picks in their early 20s who have yet to really get stung by life, or so it seems. So I probably wouldn’t be rooting for them even if they hadn’t bounced my team or weren’t playing against a team that I have long had a soft spot for, in part because I have some Philly area cousins who love them, in part because my parents lived in Philadelphia for a few years, in part because, as in 1993, the last time they made it to the World Series, they seem stocked with likable, fun-to-watch characters: Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, the Flyin’ Hawaiian, 90-year-old Jamie Moyer, etc. Also, unlike Rays fans, Philadelphia sports fans know what it’s like to suffer. For them, as for most of us (but not for Rays fans in their brand-new finery), Bon Scott’s words of wisdom ring true. . .


Steve Carlton in . . . The Nagging Question

April 22, 2008

By way of contrast to the Jim Colborn card I posted yesterday, which featured a sun-drenched photo that stands as one of the most aesthetically pleasing displays in my entire shoebox of messages from the gods, here is what may well be the ugliest card I own.

Centering the ugliness is the bright red blob mushing down one of history’s more ill-advised perms while also somehow (the cap seems brimless and even hyper-real, as if it’s a smudge of card-doctoring Day-Glo paint) shadowing the unappealingly sharp, avian features of the subject’s ashen face, his smile strangely off-putting, verging on an acidic grimace, his neck wrinkled, the top of his chest appearing clammy, clinging uncomfortably (one can’t help but imagine) to the chafing polyester of the cheap candy-striped uniform.

From there it just gets worse. The blur of gray sky behind him, such an awful contrast to the spring blue most often seen in my other cards, seems less like sky than hardened Kaopectate. The green border of the card furthers the dismal effect. The drab block lettering along the top of the border somehow sucks all the joy out of the all-star distinction it proclaims, and the yellow block lettering of the player’s name along the bottom turns what could have been a moment of gleeful recognition of a superstar into a vague but visceral yellow-green unease. The bulbous, crudely-rendered cap icon on the lower left, a leaden image made even less appealing by the joyless block lettering jamming the crown, helps drag the overall impression of the card into that of a senseless dumping ground. This impression is clinched by the presence of the baseball icon in the lower right, a brand new lawyerly blight on the cards that season, 1981, when Topps by court order relinquished its benevolent monopoly on baseball cards, the icon signaling that everything—even baseball cards, those potent symbols of innocence—is a fight, a grab for power, that the noise and clutter of the real world is going to start encroaching on the realm of the Cardboard Gods.

And though I’m sure the odd ugliness of the card surely undermined any excitement I might have had at finding an all-star in a pack—it may be no accident that it was the last all-star card I would ever receive, my buying of cards dropping off precipitously that year—the ugliness has increased over the years with further knowledge about the reclusive man pictured in the card. As reported in a 1994 article by Pat Jordan, Steve Carlton believed, among other things, that world events were heavily influenced by “12 Jewish bankers meeting in Switzerland” and that the AIDS virus was created “to get rid of gays and blacks.” Carlton denied that he made these claims, but because of Jordan’s journalistic reputation it’s hard not to add at least a dash of execrable wing-nut seasoning to the rancid stew presented in this card.

                                                 *     *     *

Today the promising new Virile Lit website is featuring my review of the great recent Pete Maravich biography by Mark Kreigel. In the review I pose the following question: If you could have the skills for one day of any athlete from any time in history, which athlete would you choose?

My answer, given the subject of the review, will not surprise you. But it got me thinking about limiting the question to baseball. And while nobody from the world of baseball sprung immediately to my mind upon reshaping the question, my first thought on the subject rendered one certainty:

Left-handed. I’d want to be left-handed.

This fascination with the southpaw has been with me since I started following and playing baseball. Many a time I went into a windup in front of a mirror just so I could watch myself as a lefty. Lefties were different from me. Lefties were more graceful and smooth, their bodies seeming to more fully and deeply hew to the demands of whatever motion the game they were involved in required. I saw this in the whipcrack serve of John McEnroe, in Fred Lynn’s ability to in one smooth motion catch a flyball over his shoulder on the run and whirl to throw it back to the infield, in the fast, balanced, lethal swing of Ted Williams. But nowhere was the uncommon grace of the left-hander more apparent than on the pitching mound.

Oddly enough, though I don’t have a distinct memory of Steve Carlton’s windup, I do not associate it with the symmetrical poise and balance of, say, a Ron Guidry windup. When I think of Carlton the pitcher I recall first his brutal training regimen, which included most notably him churning his arm around for hours in a vat of rice, then I think of his most renowned pitch, a nasty slider, and the general impression in my mind is not of effortless grace but of grunting herky-jerky exertion leading to the stinging pain of a bat sheared off at the handle. And even though in the terms of today’s Nagging Question I’m not imagining myself into the batter who would feel that pain (and failure) in his palms, I still don’t want to dream myself into a situation including that pain.

In other words, I’d want to be a lefty, just not the permed Lefty pictured above, even though he’s probably the second-best Lefty in the history of Lefties (after Grove). I considered choosing Sandy Koufax, but there, too, is pain, all those stories of him having to slather himself with scalding balm before games and plunging his throbbing arm in ice for hours after games. Grove himself might be a good choice, but I associate him with ferocious intensity that at times boiled over into locker-wrecking post-game tirades, so as good as he was I’d want to avoid spending my one day with legendary skills in a fugue of blinding, volcanic anger.

Instead, I’ll go back even further, to the very first great lefty, one who didn’t clutter up his prodigious gift with any apparent anger or even much effort. He just wound up and fired and blazed pitches past batters at a rate so far above that of other pitchers of his time that even without looking I feel fairly certain that, in a historical context, he was the greatest strikeout pitcher who ever lived. And by what little I’ve read about him, he was not an unhappy fellow, and certainly would never have thought to spend hours gruntingly churning his arm around a vat of rice or devising Jew-related world conspiracy theories. He’d rather run after firetrucks! Yes, if I could be any baseball player from history for one day, I’d be that long gone simple-minded left-handed marvel Rube Waddell.

And now, finally, I’ll pass the question on to you:    

If you could have the skills for one day of any baseball player from any time in history, which baseball player would you choose?