Archive for the ‘Pittsburgh Pirates’ Category

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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.”