Archive for the ‘Pittsburgh Pirates’ Category

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Bill Robinson (by guest author Ted Anthony)

January 1, 2019

(The following post is by guest author Ted Anthony.)

The line was huge that afternoon at the old Franklin Federal branch, somewhere south of Pittsburgh. We lived somewhere north of Pittsburgh and rarely traveled this far down. But on this day, this particular bank location had something that was drawing big crowds during that bicentennial summer: an appearance and autograph signing by Dave Parker, the Pirates’ imposing rightfielder and rising star.

My mother would have none of it.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like Dave Parker; she loved him as much as she loved the rest of the Pirates in that National League East contender year, which is to say quite a lot. But the woman who didn’t learn to drive until she was in her 30s, and who let very little intimidate her in this world except for driving her car into unfamiliar terrain, was pulled to this distant bank branch by the undercard of the day: journeyman Pirate infielder-outfielder Bill Robinson.

My mother adored the Pirates in those days. She made sure we were in seats at Three Rivers Stadium for Jacket Day and Visor Day and Batting Glove Day. And though Willie Stargell was her favorite player by far — she won two game tickets on a local radio station that season by making up a rhyming cheer for him — she adored Robinson for his underdogitude, his ability to shine despite the bigger stars around him like Stargell, Parker, Bob Robertson and Al Oliver.

Plus, this was only a couple weeks after he hit three home runs in a heartbreaking extra-innings loss to the Padres. That feat — listened to by her, like so many games, on KDKA-AM on her tiny transistor radio — was the kind of thing that only endeared him to her more: the less noticed utility guy, working hard, claiming the spotlight with style but a minimum of pizzazz and ego.

Robinson went on to have the first of two consecutive career-best seasons that year, batting .303 with 21 homers and paving the way for an even better 1977 (.304/26). It’s hard for a fan to imagine the late-1970s Pirates without summoning an image of his face and his laconic smile.

I remember little from that distant afternoon at Franklin Federal Savings & Loan. But I remember two things: Long after Parker and his entourage departed, Robinson — sans posse — hung around to talk to people and chatted with us for nearly 15 minutes. And I remember, as we were leaving, my mother leaning in to me and whispering, “People like him are why I love baseball.”

Ever the Stargell fan, my mother stopped going to Pirate games after attending his retirement day in 1982. By then, Robinson had been gone for months, headed to our then-rival, the Philadelphia Phillies. As the years passed, she — like many in Pittsburgh — became disillusioned, first by drug scandals and then by long strings of flaccid seasons.

But by 2013, living in an assisted-living facility, she had become a fan once again. Every evening she’d sit in her apartment and watch, sometimes with my father, who was fading from Alzheimer’s, sometimes with her grandsons, sometimes alone.

In September 2013, as she was on the cusp of 89, I arranged to take her to see one final Pirate game. To call the logistics complex would be an understatement. By then, the magic of the Pirates’ 2013 season had become evident to all, and the only seats available were a couple rows beneath nosebleed. It was no small task getting an osteoporotic nonagenarian with a walker to her very vertical seat. But with the help of PNC Park staff, a precision dropoff by my wife and a strategically placed elevator, we made it.

At a Pittsburgh Pirates game, PNC Park, September 2013.

For nine innings, she couldn’t stop grinning and looking out at the ballfield and the Pittsburgh skyline beyond. Andrew McCutchen, she said, was “the new Willie Stargell.” And though by then her memory was fading, she turned to me late in the game and said, “Do you remember Bill Robinson? We went to see him once, at a bank somewhere. Right?”

Exactly a month ago today, my mother died at age 94, a decade after Bill Robinson died at 64. Franklin Federal is long gone, devoured by another bank that was then gobbled up, in turn, by an even bigger bank whose name now adorns the Pirates’ beautiful riverside ballpark. Even as she faded for a final time, she watched the Pirates all through this past season until it ended with a fizzle as the days got shorter and autumn rolled in. Her remote control by then had become her magic wand; toward the end, her brain remembered only two channels: her favorite all-news network and the station that showed the Pirate games.

Our culture loves tales about fathers and sons and baseball, and rightly so. I have many of my own. Less frequently, though, do we hear about mothers and sons and baseball. That’s a pity, and I hope it’s changing. In my own family today, my wife is as big a fan as I am. Our ball-playing sons’ childhood memories, like my own, will be suffused with the sense that both of their parents — not just their father — loved the game in all its strange and wonderful glory.

A couple weeks ago, when the director Penny Marshall died, a meme spread on social media that riffed off a favorite quote from one of her best-known films, “A League of Their Own,” about women playing ball during World War II.

“There’s no crying in baseball,” they wrote. “Except for today.” I kind of get that. I hope Bill Robinson, wherever he is, would, too.

Summer 2018. (Photo ©2018, Ted Anthony)

Ted Anthony, a longtime journalist and essayist from Western Pennsylvania, has reported from more than 30 countries. 

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Dale Berra

January 18, 2018

Dale Berra

The Indo-European root of the word euphoria seems as if it could also be the root of the word Berra. It’s bher. According to my American Heritage Dictionary, it means “to carry; also to bear children.” On October 8, 1956, the player shown here was being carried within Carmen Berra, who was attending a baseball game. The conclusion of this game offered up the template for baseball’s most resonant entry into the language of euphoria. The game was one of those rare instances in which the win itself is so staggering that it doesn’t seem to count until men are leaping on one another.

I’ve watched the end of this game and its aftermath several times. The pitcher, Don Larsen, perhaps still in the state of deep trance that allowed him to suddenly upend a relatively nondescript career with stunning brilliance, with perfection, shows little reaction at the moment of victory. After the final out, he takes two steps toward his dugout and then, as if sensing and wanting to avoid the maelstrom swelling up around him, begins to break into a slow loping jog.

Fortunately, Larsen’s catcher is up to the unique demands of the moment. After bouncing out of his crouch, he quickly motions with both hands, like a conductor or a choreographer, as if he’s trying to direct Larsen to follow the miraculous illogic of the moment and start floating. As he continues bounding toward Larsen he senses that his pitcher will not be capable of the unprecedented manner of rejoicing required, so he’s the one who leaves the earth.

We do this sometimes. We don’t stay up forever. We fly into one another arms.

We are carried.

***

No son can ever be free of the ghost of his father. Consider this 1980 card featuring a confident, handsome young man ready to take on life on his own terms. The back of his card lists a number 1 draft pick distinction alongside some promising minor league stats, but these intimations of future glory are crowded out by a large, artless cartoon sporting the obvious information connecting the young man to his father, who in addition to catching the only perfect game in World Series history and then creating with his leap into Don Larsen’s arms the template for baseball euphoria was also the winningest, most beloved player in major league history.

Dale Berra was himself a World Champion at the time this card came out, the recipient of a full share in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1979 World Series prize money despite being a September call-up who arrived to the team too late to be eligible for postseason play. In fact he was barred from even sitting on the Pirates bench in the playoffs. In the remaining seasons of his decent but unspectacular 11-year career, he wouldn’t get anywhere near a title again. Like the rest of us, he’d never get the chance to catch the final out of a season and leap into a pile of roaring euphoria.

***

My six-year-old and I sit side by side sometimes and yell and laugh and curse and bring one another back to life. We hold devices in our hands that allow us to control the movements of two cartoonish avatars of presumably Italian descent with mustaches not altogether dissimilar to the one worn by the young man shown here.

“Pop me out of a bubble!” my son squeals. And I jump up and free him and together we go on. But really it’s much more often that he’s freeing me. He has a knack for staying alive. I die easy, again and again, and because he’s alive I get to go on.

I thought about the two of us sitting side by side and playing and laughing tonight as I was sifting through the online traces of Dale Berra. Right up at the top of the Google pile for Dale Berra is an ad he’s in for Atari back in the mid-1980s, just when that kind of virtual living and dying was starting to take hold in the world. In the ad Dale Berra’s electronic altar ego, a hungry circle, is ceased by a ghost.

***

Dale Berra’s father was, among other things, a mediocre major league manager, at least by the measure of his lifetime record, in which his failures slightly outnumbered his wins. His final major league win as a manager brought his lifetime record to 292 wins and 293 losses. He went on to lose three more games before, as often happened with people in his position, i.e., the manager of the New York Yankees, he was abruptly fired. That final managerial success by Dale Berra’s father was surely heightened by the contributions of Dale Berra himself, who that year had become only the second player in major league history, after Connie Mack’s son, to play for his father in a major league game. Dale went 2 for 4 at bat and started a key double play in the field.

That was in 1985. Later that season another lasting association would get attached to Dale Berra’s name when he admitted to cocaine usage while he’d been a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. From then on, schmucks such as me with blogs and Twitter feeds and all the other ways in which to disseminate our shallow associations would think Dale Berra? 1. Yogi’s son. 2. Cocaine.

He tried it first as a very young man at a New Year’s Eve party to kick off 1979, a year that would crest with his team at the very top of the world. He liked the feeling. Who wouldn’t?

“It made me feel euphoric,” he explained.

***

My father was a brilliant student and scholar. I heard this from the friends he made in the 1950s and 1960s.

“We were all in awe of him,” his friend Marty said.

He had grown up very poor during the depression. His family had to suffer when his own father was unable to find work. The lack of work itself seemed to eat most deeply at my grandfather, who eventually took his own life, leaving my father without a father before he’d reached his teenage years. Who can say what burdens this puts on a person? All I know is that there were a couple of times along the way when my father came to a fork in the road, and down one road was a life of scholarship and financial uncertainty, and down the other road was a steady job. I believe the last of these forks came with the arrival of my older brother. My father had been in graduate school at NYU, but he stopped short of earning his masters, instead focusing on working full-time to support his new family.

Many years later, after he retired from a long and useful career as a sociological researcher for various state and city agencies, he used his NYU alumni status to get a card that allowed him entry to the NYU library on the south side of Washington Square Park. The card included a certain number of guest passes.

One day we went to the library together. I was gathering information for a young adult biography I was writing about Confucius. My father was researching whatever he was interested in, probably something having to do with Marxism or World Systems Theory. We sat at a table by a window several stories above Washington Square Park, both of us with tall stacks of books beside us, both of us silent, both of us reading. We were up above the trees, side by side, trying to understand, trying to know. We were both very much alive, and as long as I’m able to carry the memory we always will be.

***

The person I’m most drawn toward in the clip of the final pitch and ensuing celebration of Don Larsen’s perfect game is not Larsen or Dale Berra’s father but a figure who disappears almost as soon as the clip starts. It’s the pinch-hitter, who stands there for a moment in disbelief as the pitch is called a strike. It’s a somewhat famously blown call, but it was decided in that instant and forever after that we won’t really care so much about that. But the pinch-hitter does. He looks befuddled. The moment is famous for perfection, for joy, but life is not defined by those things. Life is for us most often what it is for the man at the plate whose name, according to an interview with Dale Berra by the baseball historian Bob Hurte, would be seized on by Yogi Berra’s wife, Carmen Berra, at that moment as just right for the child she was carrying.

Dale Mitchell checks his swing and, knowing the truth of the pitch he’s just let go by, turns toward the authority behind him, the ump, as if to appeal to him, but it’s too late. It’s just the same as if there’s no one there at all to look to, to beseech, to implore. And then this Dale is gone from the clip, leaving behind for the player on the card at the top of this page his name, to be joined with the other much more famous name from that moment, a preposterous combination, as if to be human is to be suspended in a thin bubble in midair somewhere between euphoria and knowing.

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Manny Sanguillen

February 22, 2016

Manny Sanguillen 77I have been given a genius grant. That’s a lie based on a daydream, that daydream just a version of a type of daydream I’ve been having at least since 1977 when I got this card; back then instead of a genius grant the outlandish daydream was for not merely a major league baseball scout acting on behalf of the Boston Red Sox but Carl Yastrzemski himself in the role as team emissary pulling up to my house in central Vermont via limousine to offer me a lucrative multiyear contract to join him in his quest to topple the Yankees in the American League East. But let’s ignore the sprawling desperation of the second sentence of this paragraph. Onward: I am going to channel the funds of my genius grant into the staffing of a research team charged with investigating inane propositions and hypotheses. Here are three.

  1. Did players who appeared on the doctored cards of my youth generally find these appearances to be followed by diminishing glories and hopes? That’s my guess—that careers went downhill, that the end was nigh—based on the visceral collective memory of these cards as perversely magnetic talismans of disquieting transience, of things becoming unfixed, and into this decentralizing mist the individual hero, the idea of the individual hero, vanishes. We’re all just figures on the move, or so I propose.
  2. Is there a soul? If so it’s so smudged by the conflict between the desire for such and the random splinterings and humiliations of everyday life that it grows ever more impossible to see. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a soul. Terrifying as it is to me, it makes more sense that we’re all just on a brief hiatus from complete nonexistence. This occurred to me when I was pondering the reasons why Manny Sanguillen was beglobbed with a facsimile of Oakland green when he had to that point been (and after a brief hiatus in Oakland would be again) cloaked in Pittsburgh Pirate black and white and gold. I discovered that Sanguillen had been shipped to Oakland with $100,000 cash in exchange for Oakland manager Chuck Tanner, Tanner replacing Danny Murtaugh, who had retired at season’s end and then, a month after his replacement arrived, died. Murtaugh been alive for 59 years, which is not very long compared with all the years before that and after that in which he was not alive. This state we’re in right now is not our natural state. Our natural state has nothing to do with identifiable names or specific places. In our natural state we’re not even figures on the move but insensate scattered atoms. That’d be the working hypothesis of this one.
  3. What day had the most transactions? My guess is that it was 11/5/76. I’ve written about this day quite a lot and have even attempted for a while to make it a personal holiday—Expansion Day. I couldn’t stick with it, but who knows, maybe I will yet. It was the day of the expansion draft to populate the rosters of the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays. There were a few other transactions that day too, including the unusual player-for-manager trade that brought Manny Sanguillen to Oakland. Maybe the Pirates figured that if they didn’t move Sanguillen they’d have to leave him unprotected and lose him anyway. They had a couple of other catchers, both younger than him, and maybe they figured they were set. There’s nothing really to gain from researching which day had the most transactions. Is there anything to gain by any of this? For some reason I am fucking compelled to write. Even if there’s no identifiable point to it, no money in it, no hopes. I’ll write until I’m shipped off via some binding, irreversible transaction into a smudged, doctored vestibule to oblivion of my very own. I am not stopping.
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Rick Reuschel and Bob Robertson

October 7, 2015

Rick Reuschel 77Bob Robertson

Here is my preview of the 2015 National League Wild Card game:

There is no ball. No ball thrown, no ball struck. If these two randomly chosen cardboard still lifes are any guide, that’s what at play in tonight’s game: absence.

Both teams involved in the single-elimination Wild Card game this evening have become painfully familiar with absence. Before their recent resurgence, the Pirates racked up twenty losing seasons in a row, which is the major league record. Even more famously, the Cubs have now gone 106 years without winning a World Series, by far the longest drought not just in baseball but in all the major American team sports.

The roles of the two pantomimers shown here are fitting, in terms of what’s been missing. When the Cubs were in their heyday well beyond the memory of anyone alive today, the team was built on the staggeringly effective pitching of men such as Ed Reulbach, Orval Overall, and Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. None of these pitchers, as it turned out, would have as much of a total impact on the Cubs as that of the pitcher shown here, Rick Reuschel, at least according to the most common number used these days to compare players at different positions and from different eras, WAR (short for wins above replacement player); Reuschel was by the estimation of baseball-reference.com worth 49 wins above replacement player for the Cubs, four better than old Mordecai and second among pitchers in Cubs’ history only to Fergie Jenkins. He never won a World Series with the Cubs, of course, but he won a lot of games and got to play on a team with his older brother, Paul, and is shown here smiling, and is something of the epitome of the Cubs’ lasting appeal throughout the many decades of futility, a beefy, likeable everyman not shirking his responsibilities in any way but also not appearing to take anything too seriously.

Bob Robertson represents to me a different, less personal epitome. The Pirates of my childhood—who were in continuous contention of the National League pennant and as such the polar opposite of the record-setting futility of the millennial Pirates—hit. They had hitters coming through the windows and leaping down from the trees. They had plenty of star hitters, Stargell and Parker and, a little before my time, Clemente, but it was their vast second battalion of hitting ferocity that impressed me, and where it became staggering was when it seemed to veer into an almost anonymous infinity. They had a guy named Bill Robinson and another named Bob Robertson and both seemed to be right-handed sluggers capable of belting 20 home runs in mere part-time duty, and this interchangeable pair of bludgeoners was in addition to Zisk, Hebner, Oliver, Garner, Sanguillen, etc., etc. And just for good measure even the infielders seemed capable of going on tears, judging from Rennie Stennett’s seven-hit game, which was immortalized with its own baseball card that showed on the back that the feat started with a double off Rick Reuschel and ended with a triple off of Paul Reuschel.

I don’t know what to make of this last connection, but I suspect that in it is the key to predicting the outcome of tonight’s game. I didn’t venture into this fortune-telling exercise with any foreknowledge that I would end up talking about Rennie Stennett, and that it would in turn lead me to the image of the Reuschel brothers—who I held above all baseball brothers because they played on the same team and because one of them, which I mistakenly thought of as the younger one, Paul, wore, like me, a younger brother, glasses—joined together in a humbling, battering defeat (a “22-0 plastering,” according to the Topps copywriter describing the Stennett game). I actually wanted to predict that the Cubs will win tonight, but the cards, at least as I am reading them, suggest otherwise. And all I’ll say about that is that absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence just hurts.

Edge: Pirates

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Jim Gott

May 6, 2013

Exif_JPEG_422I had stuffed animals as a kid. The dog shown here isn’t one of them. I don’t have them anymore. My favorite was a stuffed dog named Spot. He and I used to have brawls. I used to punch him and throw him across the room, and I’d pretend he was doing the same to me. The key element of the whole recurring fantasy was that Spot was beating the shit out of me as I was beating the shit out of Spot. I suppose I imagined that in the end I threw the final, decisive punch, but this victory was secondary to the central function of the whole endeavor, which was to pretend that I was in a horrible fight. I don’t know why I was so prone to imagining violence, specifically violence being done to me. There wasn’t any actual hitting of me or anyone else in the house I grew up in, besides my older brother sometimes becoming so exasperated with my incessant needling commentary and questions and need for attention that he’d punch me in a “phaser-set-to-stun” kind of way in the arm.

And yet, I still imagine my face getting smashed in on a fairly regular basis. Life is one fucking invisible worry after another, one thing breaking after another, one long day after another. And now, for me, there’s a small boy in the center of it, not even two years old, and it’s up to me to protect him, as if I could do so by draping my arm around him like the stuffed dog in this photo is doing to Jim Gott, one of the cards my son plays with sometimes. But I can’t protect him. I’m at the mercy of forces far beyond me.

Spot is in a landfill somewhere, I guess, probably all but disintegrated. He was full of white Styrofoam pellets. Because of all the fighting I subjected him to, he sprung several wounds and would bleed the little white pellets everywhere. I imagined bleeding all over the place, too. Then the two of us would lie there together in the wreckage, arm in arm, and make peace.

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Guest post by Ted Anthony: Rennie Stennett

August 21, 2012

Today on Cardboard Gods guest writer Ted Anthony marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of a bad day for Rennie Stennett. Anthony, a journalist for The Associated Press, has been a national and foreign correspondent and has covered, among other things, China, Iraq, Afghanistan and how American culture is changing in the 21st century. He is the author of the cultural history Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song (Simon & Schuster, 2007). A Pittsburgh native, he was deeply traumatized as a boy when his parents dragged him off by the hair to Asia in 1979, the year the Pirates won the World Series. They have not done so since.

Rennie Stennett

by Ted Anthony 

He looks off camera, to the side, as if distracted by something coming toward him. And something was.

Rennie Stennett was one of the best second basemen of the 1970s. That’s saying something, given that Rod Carew spent half of the 1970s at second base and names like Willie Randolph and Joe Morgan were also occupying the bag in those years. 

Stennett could run, he could field, and oh — could he hit in the clutch. On Sept. 16, 1975, as his card trumpets on the back, he went 7 for 7 in a nine-inning game. What it doesn’t say is that his hits were part of one of the most lopsided games in baseball history: The Pirates beat the Cubs, 22-0. We in Pittsburgh don’t have games like that anymore. It would be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Stennett was a thrilling part of the 1976 Pirates, a team that, in retrospect, I loved even more than the 1979 “Fam-a-lee.” This was “The Lumber Company,” a team full of Stargells and Hebners and Zisks and Candelarias and Mooses and Robinsons and a young rightfielder named Dave Parker whose days as a battery throwee were still in the future. We even had Mario Mendoza, he of the now-famous line. I can still hear Milo Hamilton saying our second baseman’s name in a deep voice: “And RENN-ie STENN-ett pulls into third with a standup triple.”

Yet Rennie Stennett is mostly forgotten, because of what happened 35 years ago today.

It was August of 1977, and we had embarked upon the first major cross-country trip of my childhood. The Pirates were well en route to a respectable five-games-out finish in the NL East behind their rival of the time, the Phillies, when my parents poured me into the back of my mother’s powder-blue Maverick. With my father driving, we set out from Pittsburgh to Jacksonville Fla., to see my uncle and many cousins. 

We largely bypassed the interstates and pointed our car toward Plains, Georgia. You’ll recall, of course, Plains, Georgia — home to the freshly minted president, peanut farmer Jimmy Carter, and, perhaps more famously, home to the gas station belonging to his brother, the indefatigable Billy. (Wikipedia enshrines Billy this way: “Carter’s name was occasionally used as a gag answer for a Washington, D.C. trouble-maker on 1970s episodes of The Match Game.”)

Pre-iPod, pre-XM, AM radio was our constant companion. Local stations faded in and out as we passed through West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina. Various iterations of Stuckey’s appeared at the side of the road, then receded. We stopped only if my mother wanted some pecan clusters or if I needed a new pack of Colorforms or a bag of pork rinds. On the morning of Aug. 17, I remember hearing some Southern-accented announcer cut in on a song — was it Alan O’Day’s “Undercover Angel”? — to tell us that someone named Elvis Presley had died the previous day. “The King is dead,” I remember the announcer saying. My mother, generally progressive when it came to the arts, had this to say: “I didn’t much like his music.” I made a mental note to find some and prove her wrong.

And so we proceeded to Plains. We stopped at Billy’s gas station, and he wasn’t there, but we came away with a lot of peanut memorabilia and a few 7-ounce Pabst Blue Ribbons etched with “Billy” and the date in an electric pencil by some forgotten attendant. These would be great traders to build my beer can collection. We vacationed in Florida, saw cousins, went to beaches, sweated. And then, a few days later, we drove back. 

On the way home, an announcer came on during some South Carolina sportscast and told us that Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Rennie Stennett had broken his right leg while sliding into, of all things, second base. He was batting .336 at the time. He was gone for the season and, though we didn’t know it at the time, for good.

We kept hurtling north, back to Pittsburgh. The summer of 1977, fading, was hurtling equally fast toward fourth grade. Rennie Stennett’s ankle was broken, and he would not become the Hall of Fame second baseman I was certain he was destined to be. He would leave the Pirates quietly at the end of 1979, their year of triumph. His career, an asterisk to Pirates history, would peter out early in Reagan’s first term. 

Somehow things weren’t what they should be anymore. Elvis was dead, and I knew that mattered, but I wasn’t quite certain why. I certainly couldn’t drink the PBR from Billy’s gas station, and I didn’t even want to yet. Disco was rotting my brain. And there was Rennie Stennett on his baseball card, gazing off camera a bit warily as if something was hurtling toward him. And something was.

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Ed Kirkpatrick

April 10, 2012

Satori

Three

The smallest communicative symbol on this card, the hyphen joining the positions inside the baseball in the lower right corner, identifies Ed Kirkpatrick as a major league handyman. He crouches in the posture of the second of his two hyphenated roles, but he does so without wearing a chest protector or shin guards, ready at any moment to toss aside his catcher’s mitt for a first baseman’s glove or, perhaps more likely, to walk back to the bench. That’s the implication of the hyphen in a hyphenated cardboard identity. You might be useful but you aren’t terribly important.

I have a job at which I might be useful but I’m not terribly important. My job is to test the suitability of hyphens, among other similar tasks. When not at my job, I write, so when I am presented with the dreaded question “What do you do?” I usually hyphenate that rendition of myself, sometimes putting the “writer” part in front of the hyphen, sometimes after, the hyphen a kind of permanent scar in between the two things. I sometimes attempt a healing of the scar by writing about my job, and whenever I mention this job in my writing it comes off as a complaint, implying that my life should be pure creativity and growth but isn’t. Why must there be cubicles, long bus rides, boredom, upgrades, meetings, processes, layoffs, anxiety? But the truth is I’m glad I have a job, and if I were any kind of a decent honest human being I’d wipe the constant grimace off my face and even smile for the camera about having a job, as Ed Kirkpatrick does in this 1975 card. If I may veer into religious diction for a moment, as a hyphenated Jew-Christian who was raised neither and who just spent the Passover/Easter weekend as if Jesus was only the lesser Alou and Moses was only a hyphenated outfielder-first baseman from the 1980s: thank you Lord Almighty for my job. Life could be a hell of a lot worse. Word of calamity is always so close at hand as to seem inevitable. We took a walk this past weekend, my wife and baby son and I, and near the end we passed a flier for a candlelight vigil. Someone was shot a few blocks from our house last Thursday, a gang thing I guess. Ed Kirkpatrick was the card I picked at random from my shoebox this morning. I knew him only as a hyphenated guy on a card from my childhood, so I checked the internet and learned that soon after his playing career ended he got in a car accident that put him in a coma for five months and left him paralyzed. He kept going for many years beyond that but died of cancer in 2010.

I have to go switch to the other side of the hyphen soon and head for the bus. Throughout the first half of my long ride, the bus fills with community college students about as old as Ed Kirkpatrick was when he first started playing pro ball, a teenage phenom seemingly destined for stardom. By the time of this 1975 card, Ed Kirkpatrick’s first spectacular years in minor league ball were far behind him, as was a sputtering major league start with the franchise he came up, the Angels. He’d moved on to the Royals, where he’d played well, if not superlatively, and by now, on his third team, he’d settled fully into his major league identity, a useful if not essential handyman.

The community college students chatter. They complain about teachers, recite their philosophies, brag that this girl or that girl is “on my balls,” and explain to one another that they soon will be transferring to a better college. This last snippet doesn’t surface every ride but it’s definitely the most common topic of conversation among the students, I’ve noticed. I’m here, yes, but the real me is somewhere better, just a step or two into the future. I’m glad for the extra elbow room when the bus pulls up at the college and the bus discharges all these youth, but the ensuing silence among we few solitaries who remain is always a little sad.

The bus ride goes on for quite a while after the stop at the community college. I could spend it watching my breath, trying to get back to what Shunryu Suzuki called beginner’s mind, but instead I listen to Howard Stern on my satellite radio. Suzuki was a Zen teacher who helped establish the practice of Zen meditation in America. His book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, was an important one for me, but the practice I once believed would grow stronger and stronger until finally I was “enlightened” has instead flickered in and out like a bulb connected to faulty wiring. Unlike the “other” Suzuki who brought Zen to America, D.T. Suzuki, Shunryu Suzuki didn’t stress the idea of satori, of a shattering moment of enlightenment, in his teaching, but he did stress constancy. Watch your breath every day. Watch your posture every day. Straight spine. Beginner’s mind.

It was easy to seize on the idea of beginner’s mind, of being open to each moment, when I was the age of the community college students who ride my bus. It’s a little tougher now. Life is full of tedium, repetition, and I’m complicit in it. I complain about tedium, yet this is the life I’ve built, and I did it for a reason. When the bus empties out at the community college, the few of us left behind are all sitting alone, scattered throughout the bus, older, beyond the years of promise, looking out the windows and worrying.

Ed Kirkpatrick is not worried in this 1975 card. He never attained the satori he seemed as a teenager to be destined for, and by now whatever uniform he wears must certainly seem tentative, but none of this troubles him. Within a couple years he’ll move to another team, then another, then be nudged out of the big leagues altogether. Not long after that, car accident, coma, paralysis. Finally, gone altogether. Here and now, he is everything you would want for yourself or for anyone you love. He is glad to be a part of something. He is glad to have a place. Who knows what transfers will occur a step or two into the future? What can you do but try to take a breath and let it out with a little smile? What can you do but try to assume a solid yet relaxed stance for receiving? Where can you ever be but here and now?

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Bruce Kison

February 8, 2012

How Strange the Design

Four

There’s a trend toward the unusual, even the bizarre. That was the horoscope for Mike Torrez on October 2, 1978. But what use could this information have been? Torrez may or may not have read his horoscope that day, but he did go into the game with a plan, at least for the batter who ended up proving the accuracy of the horoscope.

“I wanted to pitch him in,” Torrez said in a 2001 USA Today article, referring to the Yankees’ light-hitting shortstop, Bucky Dent, “get him off the plate, then go away from him with a good slider, give him an outside pitch down and away. I never got to throw him an outside pitch. I got too much of the plate.”

He wanted to get him off the plate but being human and fallible failed in his attempt to use a plan to stave off the unusual, even bizarre. The day was undone.

Which reminds me, I never finished telling you about Luke Walker. When last seen on these pages, he had just thrown a historic pitch—the first ever in a night game in the World Series—for a strike and was ahead in the count to Orioles leadoff hitter Paul Blair. Things rapidly disintegrated. Blair singled, as did Mark Belanger and Merv Rettenmund, loading the bases with no outs. A passed ball scored Blair, Frank Robinson was walked intentionally, and Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell plated two more runs with back to back sacrifice flies. Down 3-0 in the first inning, Luke Walker was lifted from Game 4 of the 1971 World Series, and a call was made to the bullpen. A tall, thin rookie named Bruce Kison moved toward the center of the diamond.

Kison had started the 1971 season in the minors. While there, he was featured in a Sports Illustrated article by Pat Jordan on bush league life in the Pirates’ system. The piece included this telling sketch of the young unknown:

Kison retires the side in the fifth, but in the sixth he gives up two singles with one out. He gets the fourth batter to pop out to third base and then he fires two quick strikes past the potential third out. [Catcher Woody] Huyke crouches behind the right-handed batter and sticks two fingers beneath his glove. Kison flicks his glove fingers. Huyke responds with one finger and Kison nods slightly. Woody then hunches over the outside corner, but before he can set himself Kison flicks his glove again. Huyke shifts to the inside corner and places his glove at a level with the batter’s knees. Again Kison flicks his glove. The catcher raises his target until it rests inches from the batter’s chin. Kison goes into his motion and fires a fastball directly at the spot where the batter’s head would have been if he had not fallen to the dirt.

Kison was promoted to the majors in July, where he contributed to the Pirates’ pennant drive with 6 victories (and 6 hit batsmen) in 95 innings of work. In relief of the battered Luke Walker in game 4 of the World Series, the Pirates teetering on the brink of a 3-1 series deficit to the defending champs, Kison hurled 6 and a 1/3 innings of one-hit shutout ball, earning the win. The key line from the box score would have to be this one:

HBP: Etchebarren (1, by Kison); F Robinson (1, by Kison); Johnson (1, by Kison).

The three hit-batsmen in one game established a World Series record. An AP article about the game attributed the high-speed assaults to Kison’s “history of wildness.” Pat Jordan revisited Kison in another Sports Illustrated story after the World Series, and the former pro pitcher turned legendary sportswriter provides a more nuanced view of Kison’s propensity for hit batsmen:

Those Orioles were simply being served notice that despite Kison’s virginal appearance he was not one to treat idly. Kison had hit a high proportion of batsmen in his three-year professional career. He hit seven batters in one minor league game, which he won. His difficulty stems from a fastball that breaks sharply in on a right-handed batter at the last second. This break is often misjudged and can result in bruised ribs. Also, because his curveball is such a brief affair and anxious batters tend to lean far over the plate hoping to paste it to the right-field wall, Kison must protect himself by firing an occasional pitch inside. This combination of a batter leaning one way and a fastball breaking the other accounts for the knockdowns. There is a feeling among Kison’s friends that he is not particularly upset when he hits a batter, that he feels it helps compensate for his limited repertoire (two basic pitches) and his boyish appearance. Yet, in the fourth game of the Series, he claimed his youthful wildness was responsible for the three hit batters—Dave Johnson, Andy Etchebarren and Frank Robinson. Strangely enough, he did not walk a single batter during that span.

***

“Any pitcher who permits a hitter to dig in on him is asking for trouble. I never deliberately tried to hit anyone in my life. I throw close just to keep the hitters loose up there.” – Carl Mays

“I wasn’t trying to hit anybody. I can’t help it if my fastball runs in on the right-handed batters.” – Bruce Kison

Bruce Kison uttered the above quote in 1974, after a game between the Pirates and the Reds. Kison’s pitches had been sizzling under the chins of Reds’ batters all game, and finally in retaliation Reds pitcher Jack Billingham plunked Kison. Billingham was ejected, and manager Sparky Anderson came onto the field to argue the ejection with home plate ump Ed Sudol. During the argument, Anderson stepped on the foot of Pirates’ catcher Ed Kirkpatrick, who reacted by shoving Anderson. At that point, according to the powerless would-be peacekeeper Sudol, swarms from both teams “ran onto the field like animals.” A prolonged fist-swinging brawl ensued.

Three years later, Kison plunked slugger Mike Schmidt, who took offense and began jawing at Kison. According to Pirates manager Chuck Tanner, the dialogue between Schmidt and Kison proceeded like this:

Schmidt: The next time you do that I’m going to come after you.

Kison: Why don’t you come now?

Within moments, both benches had emptied. Pirates catcher Ed Ott, a former wrestler known for body-slamming and choke-holding fellows during brawls, grabbed Schmidt, and Phillies man-mountain Greg “The Bull” Luzinski grabbed Kison.

Kison, seemingly always ready to send a purpose pitch, remarked of Luzinski afterward, “Boy did he have B.O.”

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Luke Walker

February 2, 2012

How Strange the Design

Two

One day when I was young and stupid, my brother and I walked down the road together. It was a summer day. I wore a green cap with a white felt M on it, the cap from our little league team. We walked toward the general store, as usual, but that day we walked past it, over a short bridge above the river. Just past the bridge, a road split off from our road and climbed up out of the valley. The house at the intersection of the two roads had spilled things onto the lawn, and they were for sale. We found a box with some baseball cards. The cards were all beaten up and featured players we’d never heard of. This 1970 Luke Walker card was among them. I didn’t recognize the name. He was gone from the major leagues by then, and his brief moment in the national spotlight had occurred years earlier, when I’d been too young to notice. The obscurity of his name and of his worn-away face made the card seem strange and ancient, as if it had traveled through centuries to reach me. All the cards were like this. My brother and I thought we had found mysterious, valuable relics selling for pennies a piece. We thought we’d struck it rich.

That was over 30 years ago. Now I wake up early every day while it’s still dark so I can write a little before everything resumes its unstoppable forgettable forward lurch. I usually have about an hour. Sometimes I waste most or all of it. Sometimes I cast around the internet for pieces of the past. Two mornings ago instead of writing I found a newspaper article on Luke Walker from 1971. He’d won 15 games in 1970, and in spring training before the 1971 season he brushed aside a reporter’s suggestion that he was primed to win 20 in the coming year by rhetorically wondering why the reporter was limiting him to that benchmark. Why not 25? This is how you feel when you’re young and stupid. You hold cardboard in your hands and it feels like great riches. You hold a ball in your hands and it feels alive. Luke Walker didn’t remotely approach 25 wins in 1971. He didn’t even reach double figures in wins after 1971, and by 1974 he had thrown his last pitch in the big leagues.

One day when I was young and stupid I walked back home with my brother, my pockets bulging with what seemed to be a fortune in unfamiliar currency from a vanished civilization. It was a summer day. I wore a green cap with a white felt M on it. I don’t have that cap anymore, but I still have the 1970 Luke Walker card that was in my pocket, and yesterday morning instead of writing I found a trace of a moment of great promise in Luke Walker’s life. Most of the video containing this trace is taken up by pregame chatter and player introductions, but the very end includes the historic first pitch of the first night game in World Series history. The camera is set up behind home plate, providing a daunting view of the pitcher, a twitchy, bristling lefthander named Luke Walker. He winds and fires, and the ball comes in fast and with a darting downward snarl to it, catching the low outside corner of the zone for a called strike, an unhittable pitch. The game is halted so that a suited lackey can jog onto the diamond and retrieve the ball for posterity, and at that point the video ends, with Luke Walker on the mound under the lights in the World Series, ahead in the count.

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Richie Zisk

September 16, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

Z Is for Zisk

This morning, the start of my 48th day as a parent, while groping around in my shoebox of cards, exhausted, unmoored, looking for some kind of anchor, I randomly pulled free this Richie Zisk card and started thinking—because of the unusual first letter of his surname—about the alphabet, and at that moment in another room of my home my son began to cry, a sound that spikes the air with barbed invisible question marks, and I began to wonder as I hurried toward the sound what it might be like to know everything I need to know. What if—instead of knowing nothing at all—I knew the terrain of parenting backward and forward? My life has been nothing if not an exercise in palliative fantasies, so why stop now? And so we begin a Cardboard Gods ABCs of parenting at the end, with Z, first things fuckin’ last, to use the phrasing of Nice Guy Eddie in Reservoir Dogs, when he was trying to piece together the details of a situation that had gone completely to shit and was clearly only going to get worse. Am I hinting with this cinematic reference that parenting for me has been like a botched, bloody heist scheme threatening to destroy everyone involved? Are you imagining that me, my wife, and our baby are currently in a Mexican stand-off, weapons drawn and cocked, shirts stained with the liquid of soured internal processes, eyes reddened with fatigue and weeping? Well, it hasn’t been like that, or at least not all the time. It is one moment at a time, some better than others, each a volatile enigma. Yesterday, the boy took a break from a long stint of red-faced grunting unhappiness and smiled up at me for a few minutes. Two days ago, he gnawed on a Red Sox pacifier and seemed content, briefly. Three days ago, when I was almost done with my bike ride home from my commute, I spotted my wife on the sidewalk, carrying the boy in a baby bjorn. I got off the bike and fell in slow step with them, the three of us meandering around the neighborhood for a while on a mild fall evening, an awareness falling down on me that in moments like this I could not be more blessed. (Key detail: just before my arrival, the boy had abruptly stopped screaming and fallen unconscious.)

Anyway, on to today’s lesson, while I still am within this narrow gap of time between tasks that have otherwise banished my writing to regions so distant and hypothetical as to border the hoary regions of frustration in which occurred my long-gone pubescent imaginings of sexual intercourse with the intangible pop culture sex symbols of my youth, such as Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Bailey and Jennifer from WKRP in Cincinnati (yes, the gnawing ache of knowing that in reality I would never be able to fondle Cheryl Tiegs’ boobs has now reentered my life as a yearning for having time to sit down and write, say, a literary ode to Cheryl Tiegs’ boobs): Z is for Zisk. Z is also for zero, as in nothing. When I became a parent, I suffered the feeling of being back at zero, knowing nothing. I suffered unto feelings of despair, no lie, sprinting past fantasies of Cheryl Tiegs or writing about Cheryl Tiegs to imagine scenarios of sheer desperation involving the witness protection program or the foreign legion. And it’s not accurate to put these statements in the past tense. That feeling of zero is with me right now and from now on, probably. I will always be at zero as a parent, always knowing nothing, a tenuous and agonizing way to be when someone is looking to you and depending on you to know what to do.

So Z is for zero but Z is also for Zisk, and in terms of this 1977 Richie Zisk card this can only mean good things, possibilities, unpredictable but not necessarily negative changes. The year this card came out, Zisk, after logging a few years as a prototypical good-hitting, dubious-gloved member of Pittsburgh’s vaunted Lumber Company, shifted over to the city where I now happen to live and where my son was born, Chicago, and had the best season of his career. Sometime during that season, Topps included Zisk in its line of cloth stickers, and in that product the picture shown here has been airbrushed so that Zisk is shown as a member of the White Sox. That year was the best of the decade for the White Sox, as they led the American League West deep into the summer before succumbing to the charge of the dynastic Royals. The team was one of the oddest in history, in that it had been consciously built by owner Bill Veeck as a desperate one-off, the roster fortified through trades for players acquired at bargain prices because they were on the brink of free agency. Veeck knew he would soon lose these players (most significantly Zisk and Oscar Gamble, the heart of the team’s slugging attack), but he apparently figured one brief shot at glory was better than none at all. And it almost worked. The following year, Zisk indeed cashed in on a free agency deal with the Texas Rangers, and White Sox fans had to pack away the bedsheets that they’d carried with them to the ballpark in 1977 festooned with these words: “Pitch at risk to Richie Zisk.” This slogan has stayed with me since I was a boy, and has always imbued the name of the player shown at the top of this page with a sense of sizzling hazardous excitement, all the good qualities of the unknowable and unknown.

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Mike LaValliere

July 19, 2011

The Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place today. Though they spent a few days in first place in 1997, they haven’t really been a first place team—or even finished a season above .500—since 1992, Mike LaValliere’s last full season with the team. He had come to Pittsburgh in 1987 along with Andy Van Slyke in return for Tony Pena. LaValliere won a Gold Glove his first season in Pittsburgh and anchored the Bucs’ defense through three straight division titles from 1990 through 1992. After that last season, the team’s superstar, Barry Bonds, left for San Francisco, and the franchise fell into one of the most dismal droughts in baseball history: eighteen years of unrelenting losing.

It makes for a good, clear story to say that the Pirates were never the same after losing Bonds, one of the greatest athletes to ever play the sport. What couldn’t he do? He stole bases, smashed home runs, gazelled across the outfield to chase down would-be doubles and triples in the outfield. Mike LaValliere, who was released by the team in early April of 1993, was something of a polar opposite to the blazing, explosive Bonds. LaValliere was short and tubby and slow and couldn’t hit for power. But he’s probably the kind of guy you don’t miss until he’s gone. He wasn’t a total black hole on offense. He was a good contact hitter, drew some walks. In a couple of seasons he even hit .300. For what it’s worth, he could lay down a bunt. Mostly though, he could catch. I am not sure what the stats say about the overall worth of having a catcher who can field his position and shut down the opposition’s running game, but as a fan I know that having a catcher who is bumbling and fumbling around behind the plate seems to doom the team, the ineptitude at the center of the action casting a pall of ineptitude over everything.

Speaking of disintegrating situations, the air conditioning in my home is broken, and it’s hot and getting hotter. I can’t write much lately anyway, but the heat is reducing me to barely literate. So how about we end this lackluster congrats to the first-place Pirates with the thought that Mike LaValliere was for the Pirates in their last winning era like the air-conditioning unit in your home. It chugs along quietly and effectively most of the time, allowing you to focus on all sorts of other lofty endeavors, but then when it’s gone, you’re screwed.

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Dale Berra (guest author: the Public Professor)

July 12, 2011

Today’s exploration of old cardboard is courtesy of Akim Reinhardt, a history professor at Towson University and, incredibly enough, given that his laudable academic accomplishments strongly suggest that he is not, or not entirely, a savage illiterate, also a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees. Despite this latter component of his identity, we have been friends for many years, and recently we decided to swap blog posts. Later today, on his blog, The Public Professor, I’ll be sullying with some of my fevered half-thoughts his collection of erudite meditations on art, sports, language, community, and whatever else catches his interest (such as jumping out of airplanes). Below, the Professor tackles the enigma of Berra the Younger. (Update: my guest post on Akim’s blog is now up.)

I. The Crown Prince
When people look at a Dale Berra baseball card, any number of things might strike them.  For starters, he’s the son of New York Yankees legend, American sage, and Hanna-Barbera cartoon namesake Yogi Berra.  Not only is Yogi a Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest catcher to ever play the game, but he’s a cultural icon who transcended sports through decades of witticisms and Yoohoo ads.  For many people then, it is only natural to gaze upon Dale Berra and think of his famous father.

Emerging from behind the colossus of Yogi to grab a spotlight of his own was understandably difficult for Dale.  And when he finally did make a name for himself, it was ignominious.  For some people then, this card is a reminder that Dale Berra was once a poster child for cocaine running amok in pro sports.  In fact, he did so much coke that it landed him a role as star witness at the infamous 1985 drug trials that revealed the Pittsburgh Pirates organization to have been knee-deep in Disco Dust during its late-70s heyday.  Because of this public disgrace, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended Berra for the entire 1986 season, while Steve Howe was barely being punished for spreading the stuff all over his body like it were baby powder.  The sentence was commuted when Berra agreed to pony up some money to an anti-drug program and do a couple hundred hours of community service.  But it was all PR.  In 1989, Dale Berra was indicted for being part of a northern New Jersey drug ring that distributed $15,000-20,000 worth of cocaine every week.

For Yankee fans specifically, this card may stir memories of Dale’s two seasons in New York.  On the field he was lackluster, but off it he was the pivot around which Berra the elder had a brutal falling out with the Bronx Bombers.  In 1985, George Steinbrenner promised Yogi that if he signed on to manage the Yankees, he would have the job for the entire season regardless of how the team performed.  Yogi cherished the opportunity to manage his son Dale, who was nearing the end of an undistinguished career and had been traded to New York during the off-season.  So the elder Berra made the mistake of taking Steinbrenner at his word.  King George fired him after only sixteen games.  The insult was so grave that Yogi Berra, the most beloved of all Yankee greats, swore off the organization so long as Steinbrenner was owner, refusing to even set foot in the cathedral of the Bronx.

When I look at this card, however, I don’t think about Yogi or coke or the infamous Steinbrenner carousel of managers.  What stands out to me is the autograph.  It seems carefully studied.  This signature is far more elegant than the illegible, hurried scribble that typically garnishes a 3.5″ x 2.5″ piece of cardboard.

I imagine Dale Berra surreptitiously practicing on a page of looseleaf paper during 7th grade science class.  Even then he knew a lesson on inert gases held no sway over his fate.  After all, his father had earned three MVPs, ten World Series rings, and a first-class ticket to Cooperstown.  A man like that casts a shadow long enough to blot out the periodic table.  No, Dale Berra was of noble lineage, and he dreamed about growing up to be a New York Yankee, just like his dad.  One day, he too would sign autographs for adoring fans, so he should practice now.  No mere X would mark his spot.  He required a John Hancock that lived up to the family name.  Let the peasants study electrons.

For a while it seemed plausible.  Despite his relatively slight physique, Dale Berra was Pittsburgh’s top draft pick in 1975.  He tore through the minors and was still only 20 years old when he cracked the majors and began forging an 11 year career in the bigs, nine of them with the Bucs.  However, he never lived up to his fabled name or elite draft status, and mostly he rode the pines as a utility infielder.  He was a regular presence in the lineup card for only three seasons, and mustered a paltry .234 lifetime average.  Berra did pick up a ring of his own in 1979 on the much beloved “We Are Family” Pirates team led by Willie “Pops” Stargell.  But he was denied the opportunity to shine when it mattered most.  Manager Chuck Tanner kept him out of the batter’s box during the entire Series.  It would be the likes of Stargell, Dave Parker, and John “The Candy Man” Candelaria whom fans mobbed for autographs.

II. The Artiste
When I was a kid, I too practiced my signature, though it wasn’t about signing for imaginary fans.  I had no royal lineage to live up to.  My dad was captain of his highschool football team, but he lost his chance at a college scholarship in a gambling scandal during his senior year.  And six years of little league revealed my own prospects to be quite dim.  Rather, I worked on my signature because I’ve always been fascinated by penmanship and fonts.  It’s as close as I get to being artistic.

As I’ve previously noted elsewhere, I can’t draw a straight line without a ruler and a stiff drink.  Instead of canvas or stone, my artistic expression is relegated to the pedestrian, prescribed world of letters, and so I always wanted my signature to be unique and interesting.  My first big opportunity came one early Saturday morning when I was about seven and my parents had me sign my Social Security card.  It was a complete disaster.  My hand wasn’t fully awake and it looked pretty bad even for a seven year old.  I still have that original card and keep it in a fireproof lock box, along with other documents that someone will have to comb through should I croak unexpectedly.

By late highschool, I had established an “Akim D. Reinhardt” to my liking, deciding early on that the “D.” needed to be part of it.  I remember feeling certified when I affixed it to a new public library card during my junior year.  That version would last until my mid-twenties, at which point I made some adjustments and came up with my current scrawl.  I now emphasize the big A and R, and kind of back into the final t with an assertive vertical stroke.

III. On the Dotted Line
Despite everything I’d put into building my signature, none of it mattered in 1995 when my friends Ofer and Michelle got married in the Jewish tradition.  As a member of Ofer’s party, I was responsible for appending my signature to their ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract of sorts.  But really, a ketubah is much more than that.  It’s also a beautiful piece of calligraphic art, produced by the hand of a professional scribe who specializes in such matters, and who decorates the broad parchment with elaborate and elegant images.  Signed just prior to the wedding ceremony by the couple and their witnesses, it is destined to be framed and hang on the wall of their home for the rest of their lives, announcing the sacred and loving bonds of their marriage to all who enter.  In Hebrew.

When it came time to sign Ofer and Michelle’s ketubah, I had to get a refresher crash course in writing Hebrew, which I hadn’t done since my bar-mitzvah in 1980.  I told the rabbi my Hebrew name as well as my father’s Hebrew name.  Kenneth Lee Reinhardt of North Carolina, he of the highschool football gambling scandal, hadn’t been born Jewish.  Rather, he converted after marrying my mother, and that is when he was given his Hebrew name.  Of course I had no idea what it is, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not a hundred percent that he even knows anymore.  Mostly he’d converted to placate his in-laws and to raise me Jewish.  I don’t think I had ever heard it uttered.

I wasn’t happy about lying, but I rationalized it.  I could have easily found out ahead of time if someone had told me, but there I was, on the spot, some rabbi asking me my father’s Jewish name.  So I just made something up.  “Mordechai,” I said.  “My father’s Jewish name is Mordechai.”

Here’s hoping Ofer and Michelle don’t read this blog.

As the clock ticked down, I grabbed a pen and practiced writing Chaim ben Mordechai, in Hebrew letters, from right to left, on a piece of scrap paper.  Fifteen years worth of rust showed.  I began to sweat.  This one was for the ages, and it was going to look as bad as that Social Security card.  I took one more practice swing and then stepped into the box.

The rabbi said it was my turn and handed me a strong pen, the kind that would make a pleasant scratching sound on high quality paper.  I was focused.  I was ready.  I was going to overcome the obstacles, clear my mind of the guilt and the lies, and somehow, someway, find it within me to sign Ofer and Michelle’s ketubah with elan and panache.

I found the zone.  I was sitting dead red.  I knocked the mud out of my cleats and dug in.  I was ready: first ball-fastball, goin’ deep baby.  Time slowed down as I moved towards the beautiful, sacred surface, and readied to put pen to paper, the brilliant blue ink on its tip glistening brightly in the sun.

And then suddenly hands from every direction were grabbing my arm forcefully and pulling it backwards.  Men were distressed and shouting.  A blur of bodies grappled with me as if I were Jack Ruby in a Dallas jailhouse, the smoke still drifting upwards from the nozzle of my revolver, and the ketubah were Lee Harvey Oswald clutching his stomach and screaming about being a patsy.

I had been so focused on authoring a beautiful, backwards autograph in foreign letters that I had lost track of what I was doing.  I had nearly signed where the wife’s name goes.  I had been that close to marring their beautiful parchment and, at least in some people’s eyes, marrying Ofer.  No one was amused.

They verbally grabbed me by the lapels, slapped me around, and pointed me in the right direction.  I signed.  It was ugly.

IV. Eternity
All these years later, I finally had a chance to make a amends.  Not to Ofer and Michelle, mind you.  Those profane, chicken scratch lies are permanently displayed on their livingroom wall.  Rather, on June 25th my dear friend Brenda married a wonderful man named Sean at a Quaker meeting house in northern Maryland.  It was a gorgeous setting.  The rich, blue sky was laced with the songs of twittering birds, and love was in the air as they were joined in holy matrimony.  My opportunity for redemption would come at the end of the ceremony, when each person was to sign the large piece of linen paper upon which their wedding vows had been ornately scribed by hand.  I was ready to go.

I had spent much of the actual ceremony, which in the Quaker tradition includes plenty of silence, looking out over the quaint, old cemetery abutting the meeting house, and pondering what extra, little design elements I might use to adorn my signature, which would be permanently enshrined on this sacred testament to Brenda and Sean’s eternal love.  Perhaps I’d add a small, curved tail to the A.  Maybe a slight, upwards tilt to the angle of the R.

As we lined up to sign, I felt good.  It was a time for starting over and getting it right.  After all, this was Brenda’s second marriage.  If she could put the past behind her and promise to make everything beautiful this time around, why couldn’t I?  And there were other good omens as well.

The person overseeing our signing of the vows was taking this as seriously as I was.  She had even placed a piece of clear plastic over the paper, holding it perfectly parallel and just beneath each line as it was to be signed.  The plastic acted as a guard against stray marks from shaky old people, irascible youngens, or anyone who might’ve gotten a jump start on the booze we’d be serving at the reception shortly thereafter in a Baltimore bowling alley.

After standing in line a couple of minutes, my friend Jennifer signed and then handed me the pen.  My heart stopped and my confidence immediately evaporated.  It was a fine point, felt tip.  Did they really still make these things?   They are almost impossible to wield gracefully.  They’re stiff, they’re clumsy, and if you linger too long they blot ink in dark circles that expand slowly like blood from a gunshot wound in a Cormac McCarthy novel.  Trying to write with this thing on thick cardstock would be like scoring glass with a razor blade.

It were as if the scrawny, mustachioed Dale Berra had somehow cracked the lineup during the `79 Series, but stepped to the plate only to find that he had to take his cuts with Willie Stargell’s mighty club.  Stargell, who during his 22 year career hit some of the longest recorded home runs in baseball history, was famous for standing in the on-deck circle and swinging an actual sledge hammer that probably weighed as much as Berra.

I stood there with that dead piece of plastic in my hand and looked at strike three.

When I was done, I briefly stared at my herky-jerky scribble of jagged crooks and misshapen bends, and contemplated the nature of eternity.  Then I turned around, defeated, and handed the pen to the next person.

Dale Berra might have been a light-hitting bench-warmer who couldn’t live up to his heralded family name on the field, and even disgraced it with his coke-riddled escapades off it.  But despite all of that, when the ages beckoned, he knew how to lay it down it with style and flair on the face of a Topps baseball card.  Dale Berra knew how to be immortal.

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Willie Stargell

March 4, 2011

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

Pittsburgh Pirates

In 2011, fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates will ponder great distances. It’s been thirty-two years since Willie Stargell led the team to its last World Series championship, and except for a few years in the early 1990s almost all the seasons since Pops hung up his spikes have been dismal road signs marking the increasing distance from greatness. This 1981 Willie Stargell card, showing the lumbering 40-year-old pondering the ball he has just struck, presumably hoping it has enough distance to add another tally to a career home run total that by then virtually guaranteed the Pittsburgh slugger a plaque in the Hall of Fame. The best bet, judging from Stargell’s steeply declining power numbers (he hit just 11 home runs the previous season, the fewest since his rookie season, and in 1981 not a single one of his 66 plate appearances would end with a trot around the bases), is that the ball will fall short of the fence. But with Willie Stargell there’s always hope. You can’t hold a Willie Stargell card in your hands and not feel at least a flicker of possibilities. So I’m predicting that the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates will once again cause their fans to ponder seemingly unbridgeable distances, but I also see a little yellow spark of hope.

Distance as it applies to the Pittsburgh Pirates is most generally felt in terms of time, that gaping span of years since greatness, but in the following excerpt from a 1999 AP article by Ted Anthony (who would, two year later, post a stirring elegy for Stargell), distance in terms of Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates is felt in its primary sense. In 1979, Anthony was an 11-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates fanatic in the middle of a dream season for his team when he suddenly found himself on the other side of the globe from his team: 

On Aug. 14, 1979, halfway through the baseball season, off we went to be among the first American families to be sent to China in decades. My linguist parents would be teaching in Beijing. . . .

October came, and I felt more distant than ever. The clippings trickled in, and I lovingly pasted each into a scrapbook. I look at it today, and the excitement still surges with each headline: “Stargell Belts HR in 11th As Bucs Top Reds in Opener.” “Pittsburgh Headed Toward First NL Pennant Since 1971.”

And then, a bold Pittsburgh Press headline: “Series-Bound Pirates Sweep Reds.”

It seemed to unfold so quickly from there. Orioles win. Bucs win. Orioles win two more. Bucs even it up. Before I knew it, the Series was deadlocked 3-3, with the seventh game to be played in Baltimore. I was heartsick. The clippings were no longer enough.

I needed to hear it as it happened.

***

Sidney Rittenberg was a man with a history—a history I understood very little of back then. He had circulated in the inner sanctum of Chinese communist power for years—unheard of for an American. And, when things turned sour during the Cultural Revolution, he was imprisoned. I didn’t know then that he had recently been freed from a decade under arrest.

All I knew was that he was a nice older gentleman, a “China hand” whose family had three suites in our Friendship Hotel compound. His son, Li Xiaoming, half Chinese and half American, was my age—a good friend and a cool guy. He looked and spoke Chinese, but could also play a mean game of stickball. For the small group of American kids I hung with, he was a link between our world and the one that surrounded us.

I had been bellyaching about missing each Pirate postseason victory, and word filtered up to his dad, who sent a message back down the kid chain: Would I like to come over and listen to the game on shortwave, on U.S. Armed Forces Radio?

I answered an enthusiastic yes; shortwave radios weren’t easy to come by.

Because of the time difference—Beijing was 13 hours later than Baltimore—I arrived at their apartment just after 7 a.m., was let in and immediately given a cup of jasmine tea. A couple of my American friends, skipping school too, showed up minutes later. We were ushered into a living room, and in the corner sat a gray console about the size of a toaster oven—the most impressive shortwave I had ever seen, with a huge tuning dial. Mr. Rittenberg came out.

“Go ahead,” he told me, and I turned it on.

Together we trolled for the Armed Forces Radio frequency until the static melted into the familiar sound of a cheering crowd, half a planet away.

The voices weren’t my favorite Pittsburgh announcers, Milo Hamilton and Lanny Frattare, but it didn’t matter. This was The Game; I was connected. In a small apartment in a confusing country, I was suddenly able to touch a piece of home.

There it blurs. I remember the Orioles pulling ahead 1-0, but I don’t remember how. I remember sitting on my hands and wishing my eyes could complete the picture my ears were assembling. I remember thinking, as the game went into the sixth, that losing the series on one run would be devastating.

Then came Willie.

I remember Scotty McGregor’s slider. I remember hearing the crack of a bat 7,000 miles away. I remember some of the announcer’s words: “Stargell . . . drive . . . deep . . . warning track . . . home run!”

And, as the final innings crested to the Pirate championship that the boy who used to be me so coveted, I remember thinking this: Somewhere out there, there’s a home for me to go back to. It’s OK; it still exists.

***

How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 5 of 30: read Dan Epstein’s deeply enjoyable book on the greatest decade in baseball history (and one that the Dock Ellis/Willie Stargell/We Are Family Pittsburgh Pirates embodied as much as any team): Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s    

***

2011 previews so far:
St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals

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Jim Fregosi

March 26, 2010

Back in the 1970s, people went off to find themselves. Where did they go, exactly? And what did they find? I can’t really say. I picture some chanting, some hirsute nudity. I was a kid then, and unlike other fads of that fad-crazed time, such as the Pet Rock or the mood ring or feathered haircuts or Wacky Packages, the idea of going off to find yourself was not kid-friendly. It was something adults did alone. Adults hit a certain point and felt as if whatever game they had been playing had pushed them to the sidelines. They wondered, as they never had before, what could possibly come next. A question hit them with the force of something they’d long been subconsciously avoiding: Who am I?

I imagine that the moment before a guy went off to find himself looked a little like this 1978 card of Jim Fregosi. (Women went off to find themselves just as often as men, but I imagine their pre-departure look as being more weepy and forlorn than the angry male grimace of Fregosi.) Here he is on the margins, bat at the ready, waiting for his name to be called, beginning to understand that his name will probably not be called. More likely, if the manager notices him at all, it will be with surprise, much like the surprise I had when I came upon this card in my pack of Pirates yesterday: When did Jim Fregosi become a Pirate?

He became a Pirate, it turns out, right at the end, riding the bench for half a season in Pittsburgh in 1977 and doing the same in 1978 before they gave him his release so he could pursue a managerial opportunity with the team that both he and Mets fans might agree he never should have left in the first place, the California Angels. This seamless transition from playing to managing made Jim Fregosi an anomaly not just in the baseball world, where retired players don’t generally ascend immediately to major league manager jobs, but in the world of the 1970s as well. Though he looks in this card like he’s realizing that he doesn’t belong in the world he thought he belonged in, and that the next befuddled, disgruntled step in the life of this man approaching middle age might be to relocate for a while to Oregon to learn origami and bluegrass mandolin and try to “figure things out,” the truth is he was still intensely and narrowly focused on the game at hand, plotting his next move. He had, unlike most in that beautifully aimless decade, figured out what he wanted to be when he grew up.

From my own experiences with adults in that decade, I’d put Jim Fregosi in the one-third minority of adults along with one of the three figures in my trio of parents. My dad knew pretty early on in his life that he wanted to be a sociologist. By the time he got to the 1970s, he had been working in that field for a while, and that’s where he stayed. He was beyond the age of those who most often went off to find themselves. He’s a member of the generation that grew up in the depression and served during World War II; that generation did not go off to find themselves, at least not on a broad scale (one member, Jack Kerouac, could be said to be a godfather of the idea of going off and finding yourself). My other parents, my mom and her boyfriend, Tom, were younger, and during the late 1960s and 1970s they, among other things: worked as a firefighter in Alaska (Tom); took painting classes (Mom); went away for a couple months to learn to be a blacksmith (Tom); worked, sporadically, as an elementary school art teacher (Mom); worked, sporadically, as a blacksmith (Tom); worked at a newspaper (Mom); worked in a lab (Tom); started a sign-painting business (Mom); worked at a woodstove company (Tom); took a computer class (Mom).

It always ended, the decade-long search to find oneself, with the taking of a computer class. Maybe it began with a hit of acid or crested with a trip to India or involved “shacking up” for a while with a longhaired ceramics instructor who was into primal scream therapy, but it always ended with the taking of a computer class. Thusly, the 1980s began.

That latter, leaner, meaner decade was the one where I first edged into an adulthood that I still have yet to really embrace, all these years into it. I started working, but never with the commitment that Jim Fregosi brought to his own chosen field. I scooped ice cream, I pumped gas, I sold liquor. Once in a while I went off to find myself and wherever I went I ended up squinting at myself in the mirror. You. Then I came back and started up again with the jobs. This job, that job. I spent enough time dealing with the crushing stress of unemployment to be thankful whenever I had a job, and this drew a certain level of commitment out of me, but I have never gotten free of that feeling of being on the outside looking in, and have never gotten free of the lure of going off to find myself. It’s as if I’ve been trapped in the 1970s all my life, trapped in the moment that I projected onto Jim Fregosi in his 1978 card: Who am I supposed to be now?

***

(Love versus Hate update: Jim Fregosi’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)

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Enrique Romo

February 19, 2009

enrique-romo-801

Want your team to win big? Gather a horde of worldly, rubber-armed relievers with the ability to make a baseball move like an angry, disoriented hornet. The starting pitchers and flashy speedsters and chiseled-featured sluggers will horde the glory, but deep into each of your team’s defining games the men from the bullpen will carry the season on their shoulders. Will your team break or only bend? It’s up to the shadowy figures who spend most of every game in exile, like denizens of a faraway island colony of convicts, waiting in their dank low hutch beyond the outfield walls for trouble.

The 1979 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates had a bullpen as dominant as it was devoid of accolades and glamour. The closer, Kent Tekulve, despite being durable, effective, and a hero to nondescript thin-wristed bespectacled introverts everywhere, had all the charisma of an algebra textbook. The rest of the relief staff, if gathered together in a dark bar, would give the bar the feeling of a place you shouldn’t have walked into. Everyone had been around. Everyone had seen some things. Everyone had traveled from job to job, gathering scars and losses and, through trial and error, the barbed, shifty skills a journeyman needs to survive.

Enrique Romo epitomized this group. As the photo on this card suggests, he was a man who seems to have come by hard experience to treat each moment as unpredictable, shaky, dangerous. Trouble ahead, trouble behind. Before coming to the major leagues, he had already lived through an entire lifetime in the Mexican Leagues, and it seems to this experienced reader of back-of-the-card runes as if he would have stayed there forever had his consistently good but not great numbers south of the border not suddenly spiked toward the unhittable in 1976, a full ten years after he’d made his Mexican League debut. Year after year, he’d won in the low double-digits and recorded ERAs a bit above or a bit below 3.00. But in ’76 he not only posted an astounding 20 and 4 won-loss record in just 29 games, he also sported an infinitesimal 1.89 ERA and, perhaps most strikingly, he struck out 239 batters in 233 innings. Previously, Romo had never approached having more strikeouts than innings pitched. But suddenly, in 1976, batters couldn’t even touch him.

How did the numbers suddenly verge so close to perfection? Maybe he just figured things out. Maybe all the years of knocking on the door of pitching excellence had finally caused the door to swing wide open. Or maybe it was something else, something hinted at in a 1981 Sports Illustrated article entitled “Tricks of the Trade” (link courtesy of It’s About the Money) that mentions Romo among many other pitchers suspected of doctoring the ball.

In 1977, the Seattle Mariners, on the brink of their first season and desperate for talent, took notice of Romo’s gaudy ’76 numbers, choosing to ignore how they differed from the numbers that had come before, and purchased Romo from his Mexican League team on April Fool’s Day. Just six days later, Romo started and lost the Mariners’ second-ever game. He pitched well, striking out nine in seven innings, and pitched well in his next start five days later, another loss for the doomed team (he got a no-decision). He only lasted a scoreless inning and two-thirds in his third start, apparently sustaining an injury, and when he returned to action a month later he had been moved to the bullpen, where he would stay without exception for the entirety of his major league career (despite his 1.72 ERA in his three starts).

He took to the bullpen like an alligator to a swamp, leading the Mariners in saves in their inaugural season and winning 11 games in relief in their second. In his third season he was included in trade to the Pirates for fellow future member of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame Mario Mendoza and others, and there he became a major contributor to the grizzled bullpen corps that led the Pirates to a World Series title. Romo continued to pitch successfully out of the pen for the next few years, as the Pirates edged into the earliest stages of what has become a long title drought. But at spring training in 1983 Romo was an unexplained no-show. The Pirates tried and failed to reach him. He seems to have simply, and willfully, disappeared.