Archive for the ‘San Diego Padres’ Category

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Randy Jones

July 15, 2008
 Untitled 
This card, featuring the awesome cap-obliterating power of Randy Jones’ Eurfro, celebrates the pinnacle of Jones’ career: his starting assignment in the 1976 All-Star Game. Later that year he was awarded the National League Cy Young award, capping a two-year period in which he was the best pitcher in the league (he’d finished second in the Cy Young voting the year before), but that award was based primarily on his staggering achievements prior to the All-Star break. In other words, the pale junk-tossing star known as Randy Jones never shined brighter than when he took the mound to start the 1976 All-Star Game with more victories, 16, than any pitcher had ever had at the time of the midsummer classic.

Aside from the All-Star Game matchup ten years later between dueling phenoms Doc Gooden and Roger Clemens, I don’t think there has been an All-Star Game starting pitching matchup with as much juice to it as the one in 1976. On the one hand, you had Jones, who though perhaps generally forgotten now was at that moment thought to be both an elite pitcher and, more specifically, in stunningly good shape for a run at the already seemingly unreachable plateau of 30 wins for the season. And on the other hand, of course, you had another curly-haired pitcher who just happened to be the most exciting, entertaining, charismatic, and infectiously joyful rookie who ever lived.

That was the first All-Star Game I ever watched, and though I was amazed by Randy Jones’ 16-3 midseason record my attention was focused more intensely on his opponent, Mark Fidrych, whom I’d watched for the first time a couple weeks earlier, on Monday Night Baseball, talking to the baseball and mowing down the Yankees as 47,000 Tigers fans laughed and roared.

Jones ended up faring better in the All-Star Game than Fidrych, but it didn’t really matter to me. When I was a kid the All-Star Game meant a chance to see the stars from my baseball cards basking in the bright lights, laughing, happy to be there. It was about the moment itself, free of consequences. My brother and I got to stay up past our bedtime to watch the whole game, and it was always the best night of the summer, no matter what happened.

Apart from such rare moments, life tends toward disappointment as surely as water tends to run downhill. Randy Jones compiled a 6-11 won-loss record after the All-Star Game, falling well short of 30 wins, and went 43-69 after 1976. Fidrych cooled to 10-7 after the break, narrowly failing to win 20 for the year, and after 1976 went 10-10 during the sporadic appearances that comprised the remainder of his career. The divebombing career arcs of Jones and Fidrych, though by virtue of their brief high peaks more pronounced than most, are still closer to the rule than to the exception. Things fall apart.

But when Jones and Fidrych faced off in 1976 they did so in a game that was outside the schedule, outside the standings, outside the inevitable progression toward disappointment. The players wanted to do well, but the result of the game did not matter. It was meaningless. It was a sanctuary. Randy Jones will always be 16-3. Mark Fidrych will always be 21 years old.

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Danny Frisella

February 22, 2008
  

Elysium

(continued from Bob Moose)

Chapter Three

Wouldn’t It Be Nice stops, chopped at the first word. That word, wouldn’t, echoes sharp and short like if you clapped once in an empty room. I’m somewhere bright and cold, the sky the color of old sidewalk ice. The overgrown dirt road I’m walking slopes and curves, another downward spiral. I’m taller now, older, just past my baseball card years. This place is familiar, but I don’t know why. Thin bare trees to the right, a graveyard to the left. No sign of Richie Hebner, but Jupiter’s still with me. He keeps his head down, doesn’t bound ahead like he always used to. In fact he keeps lagging every few feet and glancing over at me as if to see if I’ll lag, too. But I keep going. I know this place.

I know this place. And those aren’t grave markers. They’re stumpy posts with electrical outlets, hookups for RVs, one post for each empty rectangular lot. The lots stretch into the distance, all of them empty except one nearby, where someone has parked a dune buggy. The dune buggy confuses me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person. There are a few things on the front seat. A baseball glove, a brown and yellow baseball cap, a white uniform with brown and yellow piping. The shirt has the word Frisella on the back.

I don’t know what the dune buggy is doing in the empty RV lot but other than that this place is familiar. We used to come here. It was a town away. This is Lake Champagne, shut down for the season.

First the whole family came, then just my brother and me, then when I got old enough, just past my baseball card years, just me, hitchhiking the few miles to get here. There was a rec room with pinball machines and air hockey and a jukebox with a lot of songs by bands named after places. But that’s back up the dirt road, behind us, and since I first followed Richie Hebner away from the world I haven’t been able to go backward, only forward and down, forward and down.

The thin dirt road empties out to the small grassy area that everyone pretended was a beach. There’s a sagging volleyball net, a basketball hoop nailed to an old telephone pole. Past that the beach slopes down to the small manmade pond with a wooden dock anchored in the middle of it. There was never any place to go but Lake Champagne, and once you were there the only thing to do was swim out to the wooden dock.

As I start moving toward the lake I see something out of the corner of my eye. Beyond the basketball hoop, near some picnic tables, a boy is throwing a frisbee up into the air and trying to catch it. Jupiter has already started trotting toward the boy. I follow him. The boy isn’t very good at throwing a frisbee. He throws and chases, throws and chases, the disc thudding down beyond him each time. He notices Jupiter first, then looks past him to me. He was about to make another solitaire throw but instead he tries to toss it to me. The disc wobbles and dives to the ground before I can reach it, but in trying to get to it I get closer to the boy.

He looks familiar. I’m just past the baseball card years and so is he. Twelve, maybe thirteen. He’s got short hair and is wearing jeans and a too-small blue Cub Scout shirt with the yellow kerchief knotted in front. He’s barefoot.

I pick up the frisbee. It’s one of the small cheap kinds, with spaceship contours and no thin grooves at the edges. It’s the color of lemonade and looks like if you held it up to the light for a while then took it into a closet it would glow. I throw it back to the kid. Jupiter chases it. The throw slips through the boy’s hands and hits him in the chest.

He picks it up off the ground and I edge a little closer so he can reach me. This try is a little better. Jupiter chases it. I can’t quite get to it but I snap it up before Jupiter can grab it. I’m even closer to the boy now. He has pale skin, a few freckles. I just stand there holding the frisbee. Jupiter stares at me, waiting. He makes a little sound. Hrf.

The boy claps his hands once and the sound of it echoes sharp and short like we’re in an empty room. He wants me to throw it. I throw it as gently as I can and it dies halfway. I remember this boy now. Brian is his name. Jupiter chomps up the frisbee and starts to dart off with it, but Brian claps his hands once and the sound again echoes short and sharp. Jupiter stops. He looks over at Brian, then trots toward him and drops the frisbee at his feet. He sits, leans into Brian’s legs. Brian picks up the Frisbee and stares at me. I’ve been edging a little closer but his stare stops me.

I didn’t really know him. He was just this other kid in seventh grade. He didn’t play little league. One day here at Lake Champagne we shot baskets together at the hoop nailed to the old telephone pole. I wasn’t that good but he was so bad I felt sorry for him. The way he dribbled with both hands was the first thing I thought of, some time later, when my mom told me why he hadn’t been in school for a while (I hadn’t noticed his absence). He was sick. Really sick. The same sick my friend Glenn’s mother had, the lady who always wore hats or kerchiefs on her head.

Now Brian is staring past me. He twists his body to throw the frisbee again and I edge closer but this time the throw blasts straight and high, way over my head and beyond. The surprising show of strength reminds me of the day Glenn got mad at me for razzing him about something and he started strangling me. I’d always been sure Glenn was a bigger weakling than I was, but I couldn’t budge his arms until a teacher yelled his name.

I chase after Brian’s throw for a few steps but then just watch it sail against the darkening sky and out over the still brown water of Lake Champagne. An impossible throw, a perfect throw. It arcs toward the wooden dock anchored in the middle of the pond and clatters down with a faraway echo. As it wobbles to a stop it seems to be glowing, making it seem as if a tiny spiral of light is boring down into the dock.

I turn back to Brian. He and Jupiter are walking away, back in the direction I’d come, toward the dirt road.

Hey, I try to say. Jupey. Hey

They can’t hear me. I turn back toward the dock. Evening has come on. Richie Hebner is standing on the dock now, smoking his silver one-hitter, glowing.

(to be continued)

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The Cardboard Conversation, vol. 1

October 11, 2007
 

 
According to Baseball Almanac, Gene Locklear of the Lumbee tribe was the only Native American among the players featured on the cards from my childhood. He played sparingly for a handful of seasons, his best campaign by far coming just prior to this card, which features him seeming to slump a little under the burden of an aluminum bat, his uncharacteristically high .321 batting average suggesting that his profound anonymity somehow allowed him to repeatedly sneak the illegal metal bat up to the plate and turn his customary soft infield liners into outfield gap shots. The following year he was traded to the Yankees, and a year after that was gone from the majors. The Yankees would not have another Native American player on their team for thirty years, until the thunderous debut this season of Winnebago tribe member Joba Chamberlain. It seemed for most of Chamberlain’s near-legendary rookie season that nothing could stop him, yet the Yankees’ season ended up turning south on the truck-sized manchild’s inability to cope with a swarm of tiny insects called midges. Although I was rooting hard against Chamberlain, as I root against all Yankees, even I have to admit that it seems a cruel twist that the Winnebago rookie’s strange undoing came against a team known as the Indians.

The truth is, as my beloved Boston Red Sox prepare for what is shaping up to be a brutally tough fight in the American League Championship series, I’ve been thinking about little else besides Indians. So I decided to call on an expert. In the following interview, the first edition of the Cardboard Conversation, I ask Akim Reinhardt, author of the critically acclaimed study of the political history of the Lakota reservation, Ruling Pine Ridge, about Yankees, Indians, and the possible spiritual implications of a plague of midges. The Bronx-born Reinhardt, currently associate professor of history at Towson University, grew up playing little league baseball in Van Cortlandt Park and going to Yankees games with his father.

He has absolutely no recollection of Gene Locklear.

Cardboard Gods: Can you describe the most memorable game you attended at Yankee Stadium as a child?

Akim Reinhardt: It was such an impression that I tried to write a short story based on the event when I was in high school, but it never panned out. Might as well dish it here. One day my dad showed up at the little league game in the Fall of 1977, which was unusual because he worked a lot of Saturday mornings back then, running his own business as a general contractor. And then out of the blue, after the game, he tells me and my best friend Dirk that he’s taking us to the Stadium. It was the second to last game of the year and they were playing the Tigers on Fan Appreciation day. We all got a big, plastic coffee mug with a team photo wrapped around it, encased in clear plastic. We sat up in the nosebleeds and near us some dirtbag (tix were cheap enough for dirtbags to go to games back then) was pounding beers out of his free coffee mug. In retrospect, it makes a lot more sense than the paper cups they gave you; there were no plastic bottles back then.

Well, there was a rain delay, lasted over an hour I think, and two memorable things happened. First, me and Dirk went down to the empty front row seats behind the Yankees first base dugout. We were awed by it. Neither of us had ever been so close and taken in such a view of a major league park before, much less The Stadium. We slid over to the outfield side of the dugout and I was cautiously leaning over the fence, reaching to touch the sacred dirt when I heard furious angry mumbling to my right. It was the same dirtbag from the upper deck, still clutching his free mug, still quaffing liberally, and now talking under his breath:

“Fuck them! Fuckers. Fuck it, I’m gonna do it. Fuck it!”

He knocked back the last of his beer, flung the mug to the side, hopped over the fence, and ran across the field.

Out of nowhere, several security guards emerged and honed in on him. Everyone converged somewhere around the pitcher’s mound and three guys hit him simultaneously from three different angles, driving their shoulders into him, like Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, and L.C. Greenwood all finding the QB at the same time on a blitz. It was short and ugly. The guy was crumpled up like Beetle Bailey after the Sarge gets pissed at him. Me and Dirk were so shocked, we just stared a bit and then scooted away for fear of the violence and law breaking somehow rubbing off on us by proximity.

The second memorable event from that game was near the end of the rain delay, Dirk and I walking through the bowels of the stadium and it came on the P.A. system: Boston had just lost, to Cleveland I think [editor’s note: the 8-7 Red Sox loss–to Baltimore–was described recently on Cardboard Gods by Jon Daly]. It was official: The Yankees had won the division. Dirk, a Boston Red Sox fan, had turned 9 six weeks earlier. I was 6 weeks away. He turned to me solemnly, extended his hand, and congratulated me.

Where was my dad during all this, you might ask? It was the ’70s. Parenting was a little more relaxed back then. Besides, he had his own Fan Appreciation Day mug to attend to.

C.G.: Who was your favorite Yankee?

A.R.: Thurman Munson. Loved his mustache, his gruffness, his stance, his little routine between pitches in the batter’s box, the way he handled his pitchers, his clutch play, his ornery attitude, and even his ’Lectric Shave commercial with George. Mickey Rivers was a fairly close second, and it must be mentioned that in 1977 for Halloween I went as Billy Martin. They’d just won their first Series in my lifetime. It was a homemade costume, which was kind of the fun of Halloween back then, though the trend was already well under way for kids to buy pre-made costumes. We cut the heels and toes off of a pair of my dad’s brown socks for the stirrups and drew pinstripes and a 1 on a shirt and pants. We didn’t even buy a Yankees’ cap; my grandmother cutout a NY logo from white felt and sewed it on a blank, navy blue cap.

C.G.: What was your favorite baseball card?

A.R.: Whichever one I didn’t lose flipping.

I did have Munson’s 1976 card on my wall for a while. If memory serves, it had a red banner at the bottom which said All Star. The Munson baseball card is long gone, but I still have a matted poster of Munson on the back door of my old room in my mom’s place. It’s about the only thing left in the room from my childhood.

C.G.: When did you decide to devote your life to the study of Native American history?

A.R.: It was after college. I went to Michigan, studied East Asian History, and bombed. I graduated with under a 2.5, but did manage to get out in four years despite having read virtually nothing and taking no notes. I didn’t skip classes though; I’d go to each one and listen intently, unless the prof. was boring, in which case I’d write poetry.

After Michigan I kicked around for a few years. Without professors telling me what to read, I just started reading on my own. I came across a couple of Chestnuts about the Plains Indian Wars of the mid 19th century: Ralph Andrist’s The Long Death and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, neither of which are very good from a scholarly point of view, but quite readable. Brown’s was actually a bestseller in the early ’70s but leans heavily on Andrist’s work.

But the book that really did it for me was Vine Deloria’s Custer Died For Your Sins. That book holds up well. It’s still a classic, and Deloria’s one of the true pioneers of modern Native American Studies. A few years later I moved back to New York and got my Master’s at Hunter College. By that time I knew what I wanted to do.

C.G.: Why have there been so few Native Americans in the major leagues?

A.R.: The short answer is that there are so few Native Americans period. They only comprise about 1% of the country’s population. But beyond that, basketball has really taken center stage in reservation sporting culture, along with rodeo in many places and lacrosse in upstate NY. Baseball’s kind of a distant second. Of course since the 1970s, the majority of Indians live in cities, not on reservations. But again, basketball typically thrives, particularly in poor and working class urban neighborhoods.

But another thing to keep in mind is this. Baseball is no longer the sport of the poor. Once upon a time, MLB players were mostly the children of immigrants, tenant farmers, and other hardworking poor people. It offered modest pay and little respectability, but was an easy choice over jobs like coal mining, sharecropping, and factory work, even if you did have to pick up an extra job during the offseason. More recently, however, it is the domain of white suburbanites, both on the field and in the stands. Major League players often grow up in suburbs that have the land and resources to build local diamonds in public parks as well as schools. Latin America of course has countless poor kids scrapping their way up the minor league chain, but most white American players are middle class suburbanites, and blacks have almost completely abandoned baseball altogether in favor of football and basketball. Unfortunately, Indigenous people are still near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in this country; it’s not a cause, but there is a strong correlation.

C.G.: Any thoughts on why two young and talented Native Americans, Joba Chamberlain and Jacoby Ellsbury [of the Boston Red Sox and the Navajo tribe], have been able to break into the majors this year?

A.R.: I’m no statistician, but I know that if you run a Chi Square, you’ll find that 2 is not a representative sample in this case. In other words, Chamberlain and Ellsbury probably do not augur some changing trend; most likely they just represent the randomness of demographic statistics over time.

But in reference to the above question, Native peoples are beginning to see improvements in their economic situation, slowly but surely. Whether that will translate into more baseball players, it’s hard to say. Though it’s probably worth noting that Chamberlain grew up not on the rez, but in Lincoln, Nebraska, ironically while I was there getting my Ph.D. And Lincoln is a typical, modern American town with a suburban settlement pattern and lots of diamonds. I played a ton of city league softball on public parks when I was there, Summer and Fall. Some Summers we had two different teams going, with basically the same players.

C.G.: Why is the economic situation in the reservations so problematic, and is that all changing with gambling?

A.R.: Every reservation is different today. Originally they were set up as prison camps, and the emphasis was on controlling and containing the Indian population so whites could settle nearby lands. Needless to say, a prison camp isn’t a good economic model and all reservations were mired in deep poverty during the late 19th – mid 20th century. In my book, Ruling Pine Ridge, I show how life on one reservation during the mid-20th century was been hampered by the legacy of the prison camp model.

Gambling casinos have proved to be a viable economic engine for some reservations, but typically only those near big cities that can supply lots of customers. However, most reservations are in isolated rural areas, and the casino model of economic development isn’t very viable. Most reservations are still quite poor.

C.G.: Can you offer any thoughts on what kind of hurdles a talented Native American athlete such as Ellsbury and Chamberlain might have to face in an attempt to rise to the major leagues?

A.R.: In addition to the regular hurdles? Either you’ve got the talent or you don’t. No one with half a basket full of skills gets as far as they have.

I don’t think we currently live in a time where baseball coaches and front office people will put up any hurdles, though I do have my theories about why there are so few Black pitchers as opposed to Black position players, but that’s probably for a different blog entry.

I think the hurdles most Native players face come before reaching the farm system. Are they growing up in a place that has public park diamonds? Are they growing up in a place with a viable high school program? Are they growing up in areas where scouts will show up? But beyond that, I’m not Indian, and I don’t want to speak for Indians in any way. It would be interesting to see what Ellsbury and Chamberlain have to say about it.

C.G.: Are there any Native American traditions that you know of that might ascribe spiritual significance to the swarm of bugs (such as the one that descended on the Yankees last week at Jacobs Field)?

A.R.: Not to a swarm, at least not that I know of. But there are over 300 Indigenous languages and dialects just in what is now the U.S., and thousands in the Western Hemisphere, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there were something somewhere. Remember, when you’re talking about Native America, particularly before 1500, you really are talking about half of the world.

My research has focused on Lakota history, and in their tradition, Iktome the Spider is a very prominent figure. He’s a trickster who teaches valuable lessens by fooling people and sometimes getting fooled himself as his plots are often foiled by heroes with less greed and more courage,.

You know, maybe Iktome did have something to do with it. Hard to say.

C.G.: Is the name of the Cleveland baseball team (and their logo, Chief Wahoo) racist? If so, why?

A.R.: The word “Indian” of course is not racist in and of itself, and indeed it’s the word most Indians I know use, as opposed to Native American, though “Indigenous” is gaining a lot of late. It’s certainly nowhere near the derogatory epithet that “Red Skin” is. In fact, the Washington football club is in danger of losing copyright protection on Red Skin because federal law prohibits copyright protection of racists epithets. The case is working its way through the courts as we speak. But using the word as a team name is still disrespectful. It would be like naming your team The Jews, the Blacks, or The Chinese. It just doesn’t make any sense, and is emblematic of how most Americans continue to view Indian people: as characters in movies and images in art instead of as actual people. It is also indicative of how little political muscle Indigenous people have in this society. We would never see in the 21st century a professional team named the Cleveland Jews, the Cleveland Blacks, or the Cleveland Chinese, much less the Washington Hook Noses, the Washington Fat Lips, or the Washington Slanted Eyes, which really are the corollaries to Red Skins.

The Chief Wahoo Logo is patently racist. Again, just imagine what that logo would look like if it were similarly representing a Jewish, Black, or Chinese person in a similarly cartoonish vain. I don’t think I need to draw it out for you, pun intended.

C.G.: Who will you be rooting for in the American League championship series?

A.R.: You have no idea how tough this is for me. On one side is the team with a racist logo who just beat my beloved Yankees. On the other is the Red Sox.

I think I’m gonna short circuit this one and say Go Rockies!

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Rollie Fingers

April 3, 2007

The Mustache Ride, Chapter 2

In 1969, my mother met a young man with facial hair. She was riding by herself on a bus to a peace march, her clean-cut husband at home with my brother and me. I think the facial hair on the young man amounted to a scruffy week-old growth, but that fledgling beard, along with his round wire-rim glasses (like those made notorious at that time by John Lennon) and other similarly-themed sartorial details that I am not exactly sure of (but that I have, in my endless compulsive imagining and reimagining of the moment, nonetheless guessed at: shoulder-length hair, a bristly wool poncho, a lopsided homemade corduroy cap, maybe some sort of necklace medallion purportedly imbued with shamanic powers) communicated membership in that loose-knit tribe of young, predominantly white men and women that was either (depending on your viewpoint) breathing joyous new life into a stagnating, death-bent, unjust world or trampling the norms and values of common decency and traitorously undermining the stability of American democracy.

In other words, my mom met a hippie.

Previous to the peace march, while chained to a toddler and a fat, wailing baby in a generic suburban housing unit, my mom had begun romanticizing the exploits and lifestyles and passions of these young people. She was not alone. Today the idea of the hippie has been reduced to a comical stereotype: the unshowered space cadet in the broken-down Day-Glo VW bus, the starry-eyed, sloganeering peace-and-love simpleton, the brain-fried anachronistic acid casualty, confused by and/or oblivious to any cultural or technological advances occurring after the deaths of Janis, Jim, and Jimi. But in 1969 hippies were a potent cultural force that seemed capable—to both those who romanticized them and those who feared and loathed them—of changing the world. For my mother, I think they also represented the life she had always hoped to live, a life of meaning, community, significance, and, most of all, passion. She signed up to ride the charter bus to the peace march because she wanted the Vietnam War to end, but also because she wanted to become part of the colorful world she was romanticizing. In my novel, The Kappus Experiment Sings, the fictional character inspired by my mother talks about this growing desire to "get on the bus" in the months leading up to the peace march: 

I caught glimpses on TV, read articles in the wrinkled copies of the New York Times Max brought home on the commuter train. I felt like I was watching the violent birth of a new galaxy through a cheap telescope. The Human Be-In, campus takeovers, the riots in Chicago. Woodstock. We are stardust, we are golden. And then there was the brand new image of the world, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts while orbiting the moon. Here for the first time was the whole fragile blue earth, one world, our world. And in all the other images: here were the people singing in millions of different voices the clear single note of that vision: This is our fragile blue moment. Ours!

I wanted my voice to be part of that song.

So that was 1969. Let’s jump ahead to 1972, the year the Oakland A’s, with Reggie Jackson in the lead, shattered baseball’s long-held clean-cut look. I was four years old, still oblivious to baseball, and living in a house with my brother, mother, father, and Tom, the man my mother had met on the bus to the peace march. 

My father now wore a mustache, albeit somewhat incongruously, and Tom’s scruffy beard and shoulder-length hair had bloomed into something worthy of a man who had been shipwrecked on an unmarked island for a decade. I imagine that his appearance (which consistently attracted the attention of members of the New Jersey police force), combined with his undefined status in our family to make him the focal point of scrutiny by outsiders of his and my parents’ strident experiment in open marriage. (For more on the open marriage experimentations of the early 1970s, see the Cardboard God profile on Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson.) The experiment had been based on the idea that maybe the family, challenged by the new love that had first sparked on the bus to the peace march, could not only hold together but could perhaps even grow into something capable of embracing a bigger, wilder love than previously imagined possible within the traditional model of the family.

(Hippies. Love them or hate them, it seems to me you have to at least admit they swung for the fences.)
Now let’s jump ahead some more, to 1978. That’s the year this card became property of my 10-year-old self. By now the family, which had moved from New Jersey to rural Vermont four years earlier, had morphed back into something approximating the nuclear family norm, albeit with Tom in the father slot and my dad an occasional visitor from his apartment in Manhattan. The family, minus Dad, had moved to Vermont with hopes (at least among the two attending adults) of attaining a utopian rural self-sufficiency. My mom was going to grow all our food, and Tom was going to be a roving blacksmith. He installed a small forge in a used Dodge van, cutting a hole in the roof of the van for a peaked metal chimney. The kids of East Randolph, Vermont, thought this implied the van ran by the burning of wood, an idea that they worked into the arsenal of mockery they aimed at us. I imagine the farmers Tom was hoping to have as clients had a similarly withering view of the unorthodox van, if not also of the unorthodox longhaired, long-bearded blacksmith; either way, he was never able to drum up much business. After a few years the back-to-the-land dreams faltered substantially in the face of one small disheartening crisis after another, like a dead-of-winter car repair bill overmatching a paltry bank account built on the occasional sale of a fireplace poker that Tom had hammered into shape on his blacksmith anvil. By 1978, both Tom and my mother had given up on total self-sufficiency and gotten regular jobs.
I imagine the late 1970s for Mom and Tom and other former hippies and weary back-to-the-landers as a somewhat anticlimactic, diasporic time. Because I relate everything to baseball, I see this miasma as something akin to what the scattered members of the ’72–’74 championship A’s were experiencing at the same time. The early ’70s had been a turbulent, exciting time in which they had banded together against a hated authority figure (Charlie O. Finley), and come out on top for what was one of the most extended periods of triumph (and undoubtedly the most colorful of such periods) in baseball history. Similarly, Mom and Tom and the people they identified with felt that they were rejecting the idiotic edicts of a corrupt despot named Nixon to stake their own claim to a golden life. And while they never quite got there, in retrospect it always seemed that those woozy, careening, love-drunk years were something of a championship run.
And now there was a feeling of being spread out and scattered. For Mom and Tom this feeling was hard to define, more just a sense that they were on their own now, not part of some movement with great uplifting momentum. For the A’s the scattering was literal: Bando to Milwaukee, Campaneris to Texas, Reggie, after a stop in Baltimore, fittingly reunited with the limelight in New York, Catfish there with him but fading into the polluted sunset, Rudi on the Angels, Blue on the Giants, etc., etc. The most symbolic exile of all, for both the way he symbolized the strident zeitgeist-embracing look of the dynastic A’s and for the nauseously drab brown and yellow anonymity of his new surroundings, was Rollie Fingers, shown in the 1978 card at the top of this page displaying a pitching grip with what seems to be an expression of tentative, nervous supplication, as if he is hoping the expert grip will somehow gain him a release from the exile of toiling onward in obscurity with the 93-loss Padres.
But of course this is not the first thing you notice about the photograph. The first thing you notice is the very thing that Rollie Fingers had most in common in 1978 with the man my mother had met on a peace march almost ten years earlier.
The mustache. 

Of all the A’s, only Rollie Fingers fully carried his essential A-ness with him into the wandering years. The A’s had been an excellent, superbly well-rounded team, but they had also been an iconoclastic emblem of the times. Rollie, who would gain entry into the hall of fame on the strength of his pitching, remained a living monument to both aspects of the Swingin’ A’s. As for Tom, his entry into the 9-to-5 world signaled the final goodbye to the long hair and the wildman beard, which had been in remission for some time, but in their place now was a Rollie Fingersesque handlebar mustache. "The times are never so bad that a good man cannot live in them," St. Thomas once said. And the times are never so deflated and drab that a spirited man cannot fight against them with a mustache that curls up at both ends.

Go forward some more to 1982. Tom’s job in the company had changed from customer service to dealer rep, and he had begun traveling all over the country to visit stores that sold his company’s wood stove. I’m not really sure why there was a wood stove store in San Diego (maybe there was an industry conference there), but on a trip out there Tom brought back a San Diego Padres cap for me that closely resembled the one on Rollie Fingers’ head in the 1978 card. Rollie Fingers himself had moved on by then to the Milwaukee Brewers, and my family was on the brink of going its separate ways. 

One day I wore the cap into the high school where I was a freshman with bad grades and no extracurricular activities besides participating sparingly in brutal junior varsity basketball defeats. The varsity basketball coach, Viens, saw me wearing the cap in the hall. He’d never said anything to me before. He stopped me and squinted up at the cap. He wore a tie and a short-sleeve button-down shirt.

"The Padres?" he said, his upper lip curled. 

He had short hair. A clean-cut face. 

"Why in hell would you want to wear something from the Padres?"

"I don’t know," I said. I took the cap off and looked at it. It was different. It was from somewhere far away. And Tom had gotten it for me. 

I wasn’t able to verbalize any of this.

"Losers," Viens said and walked away.
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Ozzie Smith

December 15, 2006

I’m guessing that it wasn’t long before Ozzie Smith became The Wizard. The greatest fielding shortstop ever is featured here in his 1979 rookie card (which I have taken my usual exemplary care of, judging from the prominent crease running diagonally through his quizzical, slightly mournful expression), and I’m thinking that even by the time this card came out his Padre teammates were looking up to him. There was undoubtedly something about him–related but not wholly confined to his spectacular defensive play–that suggested his future greatness. I imagine his Padre teammates gravitating to him for support, for here was a man who, though only 5’10”, was able to stand up tall in the sinking quicksand of Padreness.

The below excerpt from Taxi Driver
features a conversation between Travis Bickle, played by Robert DeNiro, and The Wizard, played by the great Peter Boyle, who, sadly, passed away a couple days ago. But it’s fairly easy to imagine a somewhat similar conversation occurring between The Wizard of the Padres and any of a number of his struggling teammates, such as, oh, Derrel Thomas, whose utilityman career at the point of his chat with Ozzie had consisted entirely of being repeatedly shuttled back and forth, positionless, between the vague, ill-defined Giants and the vague, ill-defined Padres.

Wizard: Things uh, things got ya down?

Travis: Yeah.

Wizard: Yeah, it happens to the best of us.

Travis: Yeah, it’s got me a real down, real…I just wanna go out and, and you know like really, really, really do somethin’.

Wizard: The taxi life you mean?

Travis: Yeah, well. Naw, I don’t know. I just wanna go out. I really, you know, I really wanna, I got some bad ideas in my head, I just…

Wizard: Look, look at it this way, you know uh, a man, a man takes a job, you know, and that job, I mean like that, and that it becomes what he is. You know like uh, you do a thing and that’s what you are. Like I’ve been a, I’ve been a cabbie for seventeen years, ten years at night and I still don’t own my own cab. You know why? ‘Cause I don’t want to. It must be what I, what I want. You know, to be on the night shift drivin’ somebody else’s cab. Understand? You, you, you become, you get a job, you you become the job. One guy lives in Brooklyn, one guy lives in Sutton Place, you get a lawyer, another guy’s a doctor, another guy dies, another guy gets well, and you know, people are born. I envy you your youth. Go out and get laid. Get drunk, you know, do anything. ‘Cause you got no choice anyway. I mean we’re all fucked, more or less you know.

Travis: Yeah, I don’t know. That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard.

Wizard: I’m not Bertrand Russell. Well what do ya want. I’m a cabbie you know. What do I know? I mean, I don’t even know what the fuck you’re talkin’ about.

Travis: Yeah I don’t know. Maybe I don’t know either.

Wizard: Don’t worry so much. Relax Killer, you’re gonna be all right. I know. I seen a lot of people and uh, I know.

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Dave Winfield

December 13, 2006

The company I work as a proofreader for recently moved its headquarters from one suburban highwayside location to another. The old location was in what was termed a Corporate Campus, a collection of low brick buildings with some paved walkways and a couple man-made ponds thrown in. At the edge of this Corporate Campus was a McDonald’s. I walked there for lunch once every couple weeks, stepping around the droppings from Corporate Campus geese. I bought a cheapskate lunch, the dollar double-cheeseburger and dollar fries, no drink. Sometimes if I happened to be feeling sort of hollow about the manner in which my life was unfolding, however, I also sprung for a small chocolate shake. Because, you know, I deserved it.

The new location of my company is in a gigantic building located in a snarl of crowded, high-speed roadways that are approximately as welcoming to pedestrian traffic as is the surface of Jupiter. In other words, there will be no more hollow-souled milkshake-longing strolls to McDonald’s. There is a Starbucks within the square-mile building, however, so maybe I can cultivate a new affinity for that relative newcomer to the brand-name malignancy game.

Let’s say just to make myself feel better that I am rambling in large part now out of sheer anti-capitalist spite, as if my incoherent flimsy associative style could be a stinging reply to the worldwide trend toward branding and sameness and cancerous, capitalist, pointed endeavors. Let’s say I want to be different. Let’s say I want to no longer weep with nostalgia for the pure loneliness and longing of childhood when I see McDonaldland images of white bags of French fries growing from green stalks like ears of corn (see yesterday’s digressions loosely centering on poor Willie McCovey). Just as my parents tried to walk away from that trend in the early 1970s, I am trying to walk away from it now, at least in this moment, by digressing ever further from any semblance of a point.

When I was in my early 30s, nearly the age of my mother when she tried to lead us away from McDonaldland, I spent a year in a cabin in the woods in northern Vermont with no electricity and no running water. As I have mentioned previously, this year was not nearly as Thoreauvian as it might seem on first mention. I did love it there, most of the time, but often I felt a gnawing longing for a point. My year at the cabin had been an attempt, in part accidental or merely an extension of the aimlessness that preceded it, to refuse to go from point A to point B, to refuse to acknowledge that there was a point at all, and the moments that gnawed at me were those in which I found myself wishing for someplace to go. A destination. A point.

Once in a while this undefined ache got so bad I had to leave the cabin. On one of these days I drove around aimlessly for quite a while, then finally stopped to buy a newspaper to read box scores. If I had acted immediately on the information that I found on the sports page–that a couple hours north of me, in Montreal, the Padres were going to play the Expos and, more importantly, that Padre great Tony Gwynn was one measly hit away from the majestic immortal plateau of 3,000–things might have turned out differently, but as I remember it I sat with the information for a while, unable to decide a course of action, unable despite the gnawing inside me to incorporate the idea of a point into my generally pointless mode of existence. But slowly the idea grew. “The days go on and on . . . they don’t end,” observed Travis Bickle. “All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go.”

Goddamnit, I thought, someplace to go. I had let several precious minutes slip away, but I decided that I still had time to drive up to Montreal to see . . . history. For once I was going to be at a historical game! Until that time, probably my biggest claim to being witness to a notable baseball event was that I’d been at a game in Fenway when the legendary Seaver racked up win number 308, which allowed him to pull into a tie on the all-time list with some old-timer named Mickey Welch. But nobody talks about that game–I mean, Seaver won three more games that year anyway. So this was my first real chance to for once be at one of those games that cannot be paved over, a game to be protected in the collective memory. A historical landmark.

My sense of having someplace to go infused most of my solitary charge north on I-89 and across the border into Quebec with a feeling that resembled in many ways the jittery breathless excitement of falling in love. Insipid pop songs on the radio made me laugh out loud with happiness, the road seemed downright Kerouacian, and the sky kept getting bigger and bluer as I left the claustrophobic green mountains for the wide flat plains of Canada. Tony Gwynn was coming to town, 2,999 hits to his name!

Above and beyond any numerical accomplishments, Tony Gwynn had already done the seemingly impossible. Willie McCovey had arrived too late in his career to do it. Ozzie Smith had left too soon to do it, as had Dave Winfield, pictured here in the nauseating late-’70s uniform of Ray Kroc’s McDonaldland warriors. But Tony Gwynn had stuck around, year after year, the greatest hitter for batting average since San Diego native Ted Williams, and in doing so had turned what seemed like a lifetime sentence on the Padres into an inspirational tale of triumph for these ignoble times. He had brought dignity to the Padres. In other words, he had brought dignity to McDonaldland. In other words, he had brought dignity to this carcinogenic drive-thru monotony we all call home sweet home.

But I got hung up in traffic on the outskirts of Montreal. As my progress slowed to a jerking crawl, I found the pregame show on the radio. When the game started with me still miles from the stadium I gripped tightly to the steering wheel and to the knowledge that even the greatest hitters, such as Tony Gwynn, only reach base via a hit roughly three times out of ten. I also recalled that the only other time I’d been intimately interested in a player’s 3,000th hit was back in the Cardboard God era with my thoroughly fallible, popping-out-to-Nettles hero, Yaz, who, as soon as he reached 2,999, seemed to begin aging at the same alarming rate as beleaguered President Jimmy “Malaise” Carter while going hitless game after game after game. Gwynn was due up in the first inning, but I figured he’d likely make an out, or draw a walk, or get hit by a pitch, or reach on an error, and then it would be a couple more innings before he came to the plate again, by which time I’d be seated in the clattering echo chamber of Olympic Stadium with a big plastic cup of 5 % Molson in my hands.

When the broadcaster described Gwynn lacing a clean first-inning single to centerfield, I turned off the radio, guided my car down the closest exit ramp, and pulled into a shopping center parking lot. I sat in silence in my car in the parking lot for a while. Eventually I steered out of the lot and found the onramp for the highway heading back south.

The border guard didn’t really understand why the duration of my stay in Canada had been so brief. I kept trying to explain, but after a while his eyes just kind of glazed over, and he waved me back into my country.

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Willie McCovey

December 12, 2006

Drinkin’ man listens to the voice he hears
In a crowded room full of covered up mirrors
Lookin’ into the lost forgotten years
For dignity

–Bob Dylan

Oddly enough, while the departure of the great Willie McCovey from San Francisco ushered in the aura of vagueness that engulfed the Giants for years to come (at least as I perceived it from my distortingly distant perch), his arrival in San Diego did nothing to pull the Padres out of a similarly obscure miasma. A few years later, McCovey returned to the Giants, but it was too late. They remained to me as they had been in his absence, a kind of grayness in which, as Travis Bickle might describe it, “one day [is] indistinguishable from the next, a long continuous chain.”

Nonetheless, the Giants always seemed to retain some semblance of dignity in their trudge from nowhere to nowhere, something that could not really be said for the Padres. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the Padres were an expansion team, unlike the legend-rich Giants, and did not have a history to draw on beyond the futile muttonchopped one-man RBI barrages of slugger Nate Colbert. The rest of it has to do with the uniforms. Although I can’t find confirmation of this anywhere, it’s probably no accident that Willie McCovey is dressed here in colors that resemble those worn by McDonald’s wage slaves of that era. The year McCovey came to the Padres, 1974, was the same year they were bought by Ray Kroc, who’d made hundreds of millions of dollars developing McDonald’s from a small southern California restaurant chain into a shiny nationwide yellow and red clown-haunted malignancy.

Strangely enough, 1974 was also the year my family moved from the McDonald’s-heavy suburbs of New Jersey to rural Vermont, in large part to escape the encroaching paved-over sameness of strip-malling America. My mother and stepfather, high on the back-to-the-land visions in books such as Living on the Earth (“When we depend less on industrially produced consumer goods, we can live in quiet places. Our bodies become vigorous; we discover the serenity of living with the rhythms of the earth. We cease oppressing one another.”), were, symbolically speaking, fleeing from the Golden Arches. Ironically, if either I or my brother had been asked in the following years to provide an example of our agonized belief that we had been moved against our will by soy-loving hippies away from actual America to the middle of an unreachable nowhere, I feel pretty certain that we would have whiningly replied that there wasn’t even a McDonald’s within 40 miles of our house.

While drifting around the Internet with a vague hope that I could latch onto something that would lend coherence to this rambling tribute to Willie McCovey, I happened upon an article that includes links to and comments on McDonald’s commercials through the ages. The first ad features Ronald McDonald leading children through a wonderland where hamburgers and white bags of French fries grow in special hamburger and French fry patches. I had seen the ad years before, many times, and had longed to be one of those children, free to harvest bags of French fries at will. Seeing the ad again, especially the moment when the French fry patch comes into the view and then the reach of the smiling, skipping, throroughly untroubled children, actually made me emotional. People say stuff like “stay true to the dreams of your youth,” but the dreams of my youth were all about imagining weeping with joy at the discovery in my otherwise boring rustic surroundings of a thriving McDonald’s French fry patch.

In other words, yes, Willie McCovey. Yes, I want fries with that. Hold the dignity.

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Vicente Romo

November 13, 2006

I have been staring at this Vicente Romo card for over an hour and I still don’t know where to start. With his giant head? With his puzzling pose, which seems to suggest any number of scenarios such as that he’s playing air piano or putting a hex on the opposition or leeringly blocking a ball girl from exiting the field? With the fact that by the time this card made its way to my 7-year-old hands in East Randolph, Vermont, Vicente Romo had already been released from the San Diego Padres?

The release is puzzling, due to the fact that Romo had been a fairly effective relief pitcher for some time–as the back of the card puts it in the customary caveman syntax of baseball card text, Romo was “one of club’s top firemen.” I guess the lesson here is that no one really knows what’s going to happen from one day to the next. One minute you could be horsing around during one in a seemingly endless succession of yearly Topps photo shoots, and the next minute you could be packing up your locker.

When Romo was released, he had a perfectly even won-loss record of 31 and 31. He wasn’t that great, but he wasn’t that bad either. He had just completed a season in which he had gone 5 and 5, proving that he had mastered this kind of reliable albeit somewhat dubious consistency. But is there not a place for us Vicente Romo types who maybe don’t continuously find innovative ways to widen the profit streams of our employers a hundredfold but who also don’t accidentally burn company headquarters down after a negligently concluded cigarette break?

Well, apparently not. Romo did not latch on with another major league club in 1975. Perhaps word had gotten around that his best days were behind him. After all, he was 31 years old (a year for each win and for each loss), no longer young enough to be counted among the developing guys who might suddenly blossom into something better than what they were. He did not play in the majors in 1976, either, or in 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, or in the strike-marred season of 1981.

But in 1982 Vicente Romo returned. The incredible, improbable comeback of a man who had been out of the majors for exactly as long as he’d been in the majors was only slightly overshadowed by the fact that Romo finished the season with a 1 and 2 record. He vanished from whence he came when the season ended, and did not reappear on a major league roster in the next year, or the one after that, or the one after that, or ever. But even to this day there are those of us who believe that Vicente Romo will return once again to even his record and to prove that anything that is gone can return.

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Bobby Valentine

October 9, 2006

This 1976 card pays tribute to the fact that Bobby Valentine, though generally ineffective during actual at-bats, was widely regarded as the greatest on-deck hitter of his generation.

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Paul Dade

September 17, 2006

Someone has just called Paul Dade’s name. Let me offer an explanation for why the calling of his name seems to have produced this mixture in his expression of apprehension, anxiety, resentment, and perhaps a slight residue of muted curiosity. At the time of this picture, Paul Dade had shuttled back and forth between different major and minor league franchises 16 different times in 9 years. He’d been promoted, demoted, waived, claimed, released, signed, released again, and then, worst of all, had ended up on the Padres, oblivion’s vestibule. Paul, I’ve got some news. Paul, step into my office. Paul, we have to talk. This picture catches Paul Dade on the brink of a 1980 season in which he would bat .189 and make an error on roughly every 8th ball hit his way. There are no records for Paul Dade beyond that season. Whoever just called his name will eventually call yours and mine.