Archive for the ‘Philadelphia Phillies’ Category

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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.

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Tim McCarver

March 17, 2009

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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 ?

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Ryan Howard

October 30, 2008
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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: 

 
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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?

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Nino Espinosa

October 28, 2008
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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.

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

October 23, 2008
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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 baseball-reference.com, 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?

C:
1B:
2B:
SS:
3B:
LF:
CF:
RF:

SP:
RP:

Wild card:

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Jim Lonborg in . . . the Nagging Question

October 20, 2008
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“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. . .

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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.

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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?