Archive for the ‘Seattle Mariners’ Category

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John Christensen (played)

December 21, 2018

John Christensen_marker

Played

4.

I’m gonna read every one of these books, I said when I got the box of my father home. I felt the inevitable failure of this vow almost instantly, as I started and then quickly abandoned one of the weightier ones—Michel Foucalt’s Discipline and Punish, an exploration of the ways in which imprisonment serves as the shaping principle at the root of our gruesome civilization. I got only a few pages into it, all of them given over to an excruciatingly specific description of the methodical torture and dismemberment of a criminal in France in the 1700s. Hoping to keep up some measure of momentum, I then opted for the thinnest book in the pile, which I also found impenetrable and fairly quickly abandoned. It was an early work by Erving Goffman about, among other things, the sociology of play. I found within it a printout of a recent email, an indication that my dad had been reading the book within the last few years. I vaguely remember the email, because after Dad wrote it to me, my brother, and my mom, it sat there a while in all our inboxes without a reply. I figured someone should say something, so I replied: “That’s beautiful, Dad.” He printed out my reply and his initial email and saved it. When I cleaned up his room after he died I found versions of the text in his email message in several places. He kept playing with it, trying to get it right.

***

I suppose what I’m trying to do here is describe a transformation. A baseball card that I never cared about or paid any attention to came into my awareness, and a line of text on the back—“John’s brother, Jim, once played minor league ball”—sparked some thoughts about the notion of play, and I decided to try to play with this baseball card with my sons. So I took it and a few others to the kitchen table with some colored pencils and markers and crayons, and I invited my sons to have at it. They lost interest quickly, but not before John Christensen got played with. I like what happened to him. The marker on his face mutes some of what I, upon first discovering the card, initially read as apprehension. Now he seems more like he’s just playing catch. John Christensen was not far from the end here in this 1988 card, but with the thin, crude smear of color across his face he looks to me as if he hasn’t yet moved to the past tense of the word play.

***

In the games my sons prefer playing with me, everyone is always dying. They die, I die. Everyone instantly comes back to new life every time. It’s exhausting. Every time I die I want to stay that way for a little while, but they want there to be no break in the cycle of death to life. I lie there, having, for example, just been smashed to smithereens by a meteor, which is actually a pillow resting on my face. I was Galactus, omnipotent destroyer of worlds! And now for a sweet moment I’m nothing at all. But they squeal at me.

“Daddy, who are you now? Daddy, who are you now?”

***

Exactly thirty years ago today, John Christensen went from being someone playing major league baseball to someone who once played major league baseball. On December 21, 1988, he was released by the Minnesota Twins, bringing his major league career to an end. I can’t find anything about him after his career ended. Most former major leaguers show up somewhere in post-career incarnations on the internet, but John Christensen seems to have existed only insofar as he was actively engaged in play.

***

As long as you’re alive, you’re in play. Even into his nineties my father kept writing and rewriting that brief cluster of words that I found in the Erving Goffman book and all over his room. He kept wrestling with big ideas all the way to the end. Here’s his manifesto:

Life is a metabolic process of transformation of energy into increasingly complex, diverse, self-reproducing and evolving structures of matter-energy.

The meaning of life—a productive/creative activity—is life itself; the goal of life is more life: more diversity, more creativity, more consciousness, more and deeper understanding of life.

 

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John Christensen

December 5, 2018

John Christensen

Played

1.

John Christensen doesn’t look like he’s playing. Maybe he’s being played with. Maybe two other guys keep faking like they’re going to throw to John Christensen and then instead throw to one another, smirking. Even if this wasn’t exactly what was happening, John Christensen, circa 1987, looks hesitant, doubtful. Why wouldn’t he? After being selected in the second round of the 1981 draft by the Mets, he had performed well in the minor leagues throughout his first three years of professional ball, earning extended time in the majors in 1985. But he began to struggle at that point, hitting just .186. In November, the Mets traded him and three other young players to the Red Sox for two similarly marginal young pros and one veteran left-handed pitcher with a mediocre record. The deal seemed destined to rapidly disintegrate in the collective memory: a few leaky ships passing and then sinking in the night. The same could be said for a deal a few months later that also, eventually, included John Christensen. John Christensen wasn’t initially among the names in this second multiplayer deal, which originated in August of 1986 and included a solid but little-known Mariners outfielder and a light-hitting Mariners shortstop coming to Boston for a light-hitting Red Sox shortstop and an unidentified quantity of players to be named later. Two of the players to be named later, Mike Brown and Mike Trujillo, went to Seattle just a few days after the trade, and since these two Mikes created a plurality of players, it could have been fair to assume that the deal was done, but in fact several weeks later, John Christensen was added to the deal as a third player to be named later. Perhaps there had been some protests by the Mariners that since only one first name, Mike, had been named later, there legally needed to be another name involved, and the Red Sox, eager to be done with the whole seemingly meaningless endeavor, reached for the Triple A roster at Pawtucket and grabbed whoever. Here you go, assholes: a John. In most circumstances, both of these multiplayer mosaics of marginalia involving John Christensen in the months leading up to the photo shown at the top of this page would have amounted to nothing of any lasting note, but then in October of 1986 the solid but little-known outfielder in the second deal, Dave Henderson, catapulted to glorious sudden fame with a dramatic home run in the 1986 American League Championship Series, allowing the Red Sox to stave off seemingly certain death, and then added more heroics in the World Series that brought the Red Sox to the brink of a seemingly inevitable World Series victory. This shimmering Valhalla of long-awaited triumph (and with it the crowning measure of Hendu’s glory) was then abruptly demolished in a terrible collapse centered in its critical early stages by the forlorn mien of Calvin Schiraldi, another member of the John Christensen trade club. A few years later, a third member of the John Christensen trades, the aforementioned lefty veteran, Bobby Ojeda, who had merely pitched very well in the 1986 World Series, avoiding any cataclysms of sudden fame or infamy, was the lone surviving member of a boating accident that took the lives of teammates Steve Olin and Tim Crews. I only mention that last part because I don’t know how anyone, anywhere, can have an aura of sureness. I don’t know how anyone can just play.

***

But I still turn to these cards for play. It gets harder and harder. That’s why I barely ever write anything about them anymore! I can’t remember how to play with the cards. Life has turned me into someone who is being played with. But I did remember to look at this card, and to turn it over. And to look at the back. There’s one line of text at the bottom.

“John’s brother, Jim, once played minor league ball.”

I’ve made a living for some years now as a copyeditor, so when I turned over this John Christensen card and read that lone sentence at the bottom of John Christensen’s promising minor league statistics and progressively dubious major league statistics, I did what copyeditors often do: I scrutinized the commas. There are two of them, one on either side of the word “Jim.” They identify that name as something inessential to the core meaning of the sentence; John Christensen has one and only one brother, and the name of this one and only brother is a supplemental bit of information that, had it been fumbled out of the sentence altogether, wouldn’t alter the meaning of the sentence but would merely rob it of some detail. If the commas weren’t there—if the sentence read “John’s brother Jim once played minor league ball”— the implied meaning would be that John Christensen had more than one brother, and that the one named Jim—his name called out as in essential piece of identifying information—is the one brother to John who once played minor league ball.

Curious to see if I could find some way of checking whether the gang at Topps had their copyediting game down, I put on another one of my professional hats and attempted to do some fact-checking. If I could determine that the implied fact—that John Christensen had just one brother—was true I could also verify that the sentence did not contain an error that should have been caught during a copyediting review.

It took a while, as there wasn’t much on the internet about John Christensen beyond his dwindling statistics, but I eventually found what was—considering John Christensen’s relative anonymity—a surprisingly long newspaper article about his struggles as a rookie, and it included the following lines:

“I went golfing with my brother and he asked me if everything was OK because when I’m not doing very well, I get a little more quiet. I said that I haven’t gotten off to this bad a start since I could remember.”

It’s not an ironclad support for the fact implied by the commas—whether John Christensen had just one brother—but absent any other information available on the matter, I choose to interpret John  Christensen’s own decision to leave out an identifying name for his brother as an indication that there was only brother he could have gone golfing with. Had he had several brothers, wouldn’t he have identified the one he had had such an intimate, meaningful moment with? I think he didn’t because John Christensen, like me, and like my two sons, has just one brother.

Once I verified this to my satisfaction, I also verified the larger fact in the lone card sentence on the back of this card: that John Christensen’s brother, Jim, indeed played minor league ball. There are even a couple of baseball cards showing evidence of this fact.

(to be continued)

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Tom Wilhelmsen

May 9, 2016

Tom WilhemsonWhat do you follow?

I used to follow baseball. I mean I used to just follow it anywhere and everywhere. Lyman Bostock. Mario Mendoza. Up, down, whoever, however. I veered away from this undifferentiated, open, curious following in college, thinking at that time that I might instead find some blazing singular path to follow. I was nineteen, twenty, right around the age Tom Wilhelmsen was when he wandered away from baseball. I don’t know what he wanted. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to believe the way to this would reveal itself with great clarity. Like a pitcher hoping to discover an unhittable out pitch, I hoped for one perfect sentence to usher forth and start some masterpiece and furthermore unlock all the songs inside me forever.

Never happened. You follow one day to the next, follow a day of shit writing with another day of shit writing and some days don’t even get that.

Now I follow my two sons around. They’re going to turn five and two this summer, my two sons, Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O. The ideas they have! The physical idiocy! I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and I laugh a lot. Anything else I ever followed has fallen off the edge of the world, more or less.

I do keep tabs on two players. Neither is doing very well this year. One is Eugenio Velez. As I wrote about in Benchwarmer, he’s one of the primary talismans of my life as a father, a life that began in 2011, when Eugenio Velez last appeared in the major leagues. He spent that entire season hitless, an excursion into futility so pronounced as to set two monumental records (most consecutive plate appearances without a hit—a record skein that began in 2010—and most at bats in a single season without a hit). I’ve been keeping tabs on him ever since, hoping that his inspiring persistence as an able minor-league hitter would merit a return to the majors so that he could get a hit. After several productive minor league seasons, he’s now batting just .223 for Quintana Roo of the Mexican League. He’s 34. You have to figure the end is near.

I worry that the same may be true for Tom Wilhelmsen, age 32 and owner of a 7.62 ERA, who also breached my narrowing field of awareness because of fatherhood. I didn’t know about him until I perused the back of this card one day when sitting on the floor with my older son. Occasionally, I dump a bunch of newer cards on the floor and let my offspring do what they will with them. Fling them around, rip them, gnaw them, whatever. The hardest part of parenting is living through the moment at hand, especially when your default mode, as mine is, is to disappear from life. You can’t do it anymore!

“Stop looking at the card!” Jack said.

“OK, OK,” I said.

Never look at the cards,” he said. I promised not to, promised to myself to play with him when I actually had the time to do so, but I’m sure I’ll keep trying to sneak away. How could I not when there are such discoveries as these to be made:

 

Tom Wilhemson back

I’m talking about all the years of pure disappearance. It’s the longest such stretch in history—it must be. DID NOT PLAY for year after year. Two years into his minor league career, Tom Wilhelmsen bailed and stayed gone for six years before circling back. Actually the card seems to be erroneous on this account, as it doesn’t include a sixth DID NOT PLAY for 2009.

He came back when he was ready, I suppose. His nickname is “the Bartender,” a reference to how he spent a significant chunk of his exile. Within a year of deciding to give it another go he was in the majors, debuting in 2011, Eugenio Velez’s hitless nightmare, my debut as a dad.

Something about this gives me hope, and I can’t put my finger on why. We’re meant for something. All the meaningless following, all our detours, our mistakes.

Last night at dinner, after a long day of unstoppable, injurious jackassery so pronounced  that my voice was raw from screaming the word no—a shit day, a day to make you want to disappear—Jack wanted me to tell him all the songs I sang to him when he was a baby, when I used to hold him and sing him to sleep. I sang bits of the songs I could remember from that rocky time, when each day I wanted to disappear, to leap off the edge of the world, following everything else that was going that way, but something kept me around, at least to some extent. Career Opportunities, Rockaway Beach, Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.

“You liked the loud, fast ones,” I said. “They calmed you down.”

“Sing more,” Jack said.

Well it’s been ten years and a thousand tears, and look at the mess I’m in,” I sang, rasping like Mike Ness.

“Sing more,” Jack said.

I kept singing, whatever it took, whatever I knew. Jack was smiling. All the meaningless following, all our detours, our mistakes. Maybe something is gathering within.

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Mario Mendoza

January 24, 2015

Mario MendozaImmortality

5.

The greatest sages from ancient times
Have not shown us life immortal.
What is born must die . . .
-Han Shan

The Chinese poet Han Shan lived over a thousand years ago. No one knows for sure exactly when. He shacked up in the mountains, maybe with a fellow hermit who accompanied him on periodic giggly visits to town, and wrote his poems on rocks, maybe. That’s the lore anyway—if there ever were poems of his on rocks time has smoothed away the words or perhaps turned the rocks themselves to dust. I first read about Han Shan in Dharma Bums, and I hoped to follow in Jack Kerouac’s and Gary Snyder’s footsteps as they followed in the footsteps of Han Shan. I wanted to wade off into some lofty world of mist and visions. I don’t know what my days have ended up amounting to. I don’t carve my poems in rocks or write poems of any kind anymore. Yesterday I worked a long day in a cubicle and then, back at home, taped Buzz Lightyear’s foot back onto his leg. It had fallen off when my son was playing with his action figure from Toy Story. I was able to make it so the toy could still stand up. Work hadn’t exactly made me feel like I was swatting game-winning home runs, so I counted the wobbly new stability of the mass-produced plastic offering as a victory.

***

Mario Mendoza, utility man—everyone knows he’s the man behind the Mendoza Line, right? But he had nothing to do with its creation: it was the doing of teammates Bruce Bochte and Tom Paciorek, cackling over Mendoza’s consistent presence at the bottom of the Sunday newspaper batting average lists, and the doing of George Brett, who heard the term from Paciorek, and Chris Berman, who heard it from Brett and started weaving it into his SportsCenter spiels. We have no power to shape the world; it just takes shape. We have no power to make anything last. Hank Greenberg, the immortal at the beginning of this meditation that I’m now calling to a halt, once racked up 103 RBI by the all-star break. This is two more RBI than Mario Mendoza got in his entire career. And yet there’s a chance the Mendoza Line will outlast Greenberg. Or at any rate it’s the same. Language, plaques: everything in one way or another is a random snaring of language bound to disassemble.

***

I’m rereading Robert Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers. He died a few days ago. I heard an old radio interview with him a day or two after he passed away, and he was talking about the time he and his friends in the Merry Pranksters met the Beats. He said Jack Kerouac was bitter that Neal Cassady, now the speed-addled bus driver of the Merry Prankster’s Furthur bus, was no longer at Kerouac’s side but with this younger crowd. Kerouac, Stone observed, was just generally bitter. Bitter and jealous. He was still handsome at that point, Stone said, but within a year or so his disease, alcoholism, would wreck his fine facial structure, puffing it into a bulbous mess, an attack on the charismatic youthful myth of the man even more severe somehow than when the next stage of his ravaging illness took hold and ended his life. Anyway, it’s a great novel, Dog Soldiers, I mean. In it the promise of the sixties has gone the way of Jack Kerouac’s good looks—everything’s in bitter, smoldering wreckage. The last great novel I’d read before picking up Dog Soldiers again was Jonathan Miles’s 2014 book Want Not, which features a subplot about a group of intellectuals and engineers and specialists from various fields coming together in a project devoted to communicating the danger of toxic waste to future civilizations. The problem the group faces is that toxic waste will, in the estimation of scientists and linguists, outlast any current language. Languages deteriorate and eventually vanish altogether: this seems to be an unavoidable universal rule. Write your words into the internet ether or carve them into rocks and it’s the same. They’ll erode into nothing. No one will understand whatever it was you were trying to say. The linguists in Want Not (whose thoughts reflect linguistic theory that Jonathan Miles studied in researching the book) are certain that even the most basic pictographs will be unable to keep people 10,000 years in the future from blundering past all of our signage and into a murderous cache of our toxic aftermath.

***

For a little while when I was a young man I had a job on the graveyard shift loading trucks at the UPS warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen. I was living in the East Village, miles from the job, but for some reason I used to walk to work, several miles in the middle of the night. Nothing ever happened to me until one night when I was crossing a street on Third Avenue a few blocks south of 42nd Street. It was around two in the morning and there weren’t any other pedestrians around. I was struck by a car. The driver was hurrying to make a left turn before the yellow light changed to red and he didn’t see me crossing with the light. He braked when he saw me but not in time to avoid impact. I was scooped up onto the hood and thrown to the pavement.

The driver opened the door of his car and got one foot out. He was a doughy young Hispanic guy. He was scared.

“Are you OK?” the driver said.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I said. You will always want this to be the truth. Amazingly, it wasn’t that far from the truth. I got to my feet.

“I’m fine,” I said.

I continued on to work. My jeans had a rip in them and were slightly bloody. I performed a version of the task that I’ll be performing my whole life in one way or another, job after job, if I’m lucky enough to stay employed. Boxes came down the conveyer belt, and I sorted them by address into the proper shelves in one of four trucks in my station. During my fifteen minute break I read Dante. I don’t know which part of the Divine Comedy I was on. It doesn’t matter—I only remember one thing from the whole trilogy, which I read in its entirety in fifteen minute breaks from loading trucks: paradise is frightening, stripped of fallible humanity and mistakes. Paradise is lifeless.

***

Mario Mendoza played his twelve final major league games the year this card came out, 1982, and got his last seventeen at-bats, connecting for just two hits. He was released in July with a .118 average for the year, the farthest he’d ever landed below “his” line—a .200 batting average—at a season’s end. His career average fixed itself quite clearly above the Mendoza Line at .215, which is somehow more dispiriting than if he’d somehow lasted as long as he did—nearly a decade—with an average below his own line. I’ve spent my life marveling at shit like the Mendoza Line. That to me is the beautiful stuff, a way to capture the ineffable mediocrity of most of this short rude gift we’re given, this life.

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Mark Langston

June 5, 2012

In an essay of mine that went up today on the Los Angeles Review of Books, I mention a game I went to by myself in the summer of 1986. I wanted to see Tom Seaver pitch. He had recently been acquired by the Red Sox and wouldn’t be in the big leagues much longer. He faced Mark Langston that day. I was eighteen and starting to notice the blurring of the world and wanted the game to stand out from that. I wanted the game to be memorable. I didn’t want it to just come and go.

The presence of Seaver in the middle of the diamond offered some hope that the game would amount to something, but that alone wasn’t enough. The game had to have a story. How often does life feel like a story unfolding? Maybe this is one reason why organized religion is such a draw: it’s a way to impose upon life the feeling of being part of an orderly, urgent narration and not just senselessly adrift.

Anyway, the game answered my prayers, and for a few innings, for an hour or two of my life, I was inside a story. I don’t recall the latter part of the game beyond a sense of relief that Seaver’s efforts—he pitched well through seven innings before tiring—were not squandered by the Boston bullpen. But I remember the building drama of the first six innings, when Tom Seaver and his opponent, 26-year-old lefthander Mark Langston, engaged in a duel.

The box score the next day would obscure this element of the game. In the end, Mark Langston, undone by a little wildness, sloppy fielding, and some timely hitting by the Red Sox, somehow ended up surrendering seven runs before the game was over. But for six innings, he outpitched Seaver, retiring 13 batters in a row, five via strikeout, after spotting the Red Sox a run in the first. For a moment, long enough for the game to stay with me all these years later, he was every bit as effective and almost as mythic in his role as the young flamethrower as Seaver was in the role of cagey twilit legend.

Earlier in his career, Seaver had racked up nine seasons in a row with over 200 strikeouts, a feat that among other things amounted to my favorite thing to stare at in awe on the back of a baseball card. By 1986, he hadn’t approached that mark in eight years, since 1978, when his opponent, Mark Langston, was still in high school. Langston, on the other hand, had led the league in strikeouts as a rookie in 1984 and would do so again in 1986 and 1987. The card at the top of this page, from 1988, captures all of those numbers, showing his league-leading strikeout totals in italics. Langston had only been in the majors for four seasons, so the italics dominate the card, painting Langston as a latter-day Herb Score. In a way, his 1988 card was something of a peak for him. Unlike the star-crossed Score, Langston would go on to have a long and successful career, winning 179 games and recording more strikeouts than all but 32 men in the history of the game, but he’d never quite become the legend he seemed within reach of being as a young lefty ace with an electric fastball and baseball card numbers screaming in italics.

That’s one reason the game has stuck with me. Langston. He seemed for an hour or so of my life unhittable, a legend. It was all the great Seaver could do to just hang with him. Then, so quickly as to be unnoticeable, he lost it, just a little, and joined the human blur.

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Jim Todd

January 27, 2012

I can’t escape the 1970s. I want to live in the present. I can’t escape the present. I want to live in the 1970s. I am trapped somewhere in between, like a guy on a baseball card whose uniform and cap are clumsily morphing from the colors and logo of one team to the colors and logo of another. These baseball cards ended a long time ago, but here I am again, starting another year at the beginning of the end. The end for Jim Todd came on September 28, 1979. Earlier in the year he had gotten cut loose from the terrible Mariners but found a home back on the Oakland A’s, the team with which he’d earlier had a brief moment of muted middle reliever glory. The A’s had been good team during Todd’s previous stint, but they were not good anymore. In fact, they were arguably the worst team of the entire decade and in terms of losses inarguably the worst major league team that has ever been fielded in Oakland. They lost 108 games and probably should have lost even more. They scored fewer runs than anyone in the league and gave up more runs than all but one team in the league. The least effective pitcher on this miserable excursion was Jim Todd, with a team-low ERA of 6.56. But because the team was so bad he kept getting called into games right up until the end, which brings us back to September 28. The A’s starter, Steve McCatty, was torched for eight runs in three innings. Todd was called in with his team behind 8-0. He finished out the game, surrendering eight hits and three runs in five innings of major league baseball that would be called in most places meaningless. But I wish I could have been there. I love games like that. I love them. I’m not trying to be ironic. I love the feeling that nothing whatsoever seems to be happening. It was the A’s 107th loss, and that was it for Jim Todd. Exactly one week earlier, a song titled “Escape” was released. The song would eventually become ubiquitous, a number 1 hit in both 1979 and 1980, but this would not occur for a couple of months after its release, possibly because the song did not initially include the parenthetical subtitle—“(the Piña Colada Song)”—that was soon added to help legions of heretofore confused morons find and purchase the record. With this subtitle in place, the song became what all pop music aspires to be, a hideous epidemic. Soon enough it disappeared and became dated almost instantly but then eventually came back to life as an oldie. I heard it the other day on a station that uses the word “remember” in its promotional jingles. You hear that word a lot on oldies stations, but the songs on oldies stations have been played so often that there is no way anyone could ever connect them anymore to authentic moments from the past. There is some kind of insidious anaesthetization of the masses through the numbing effects of corporatized non-specific nostalgia. Are you remembering anything when you hear an old hit song, or are you covering yourself up and hiding in a warm blanket of the familiar? I want that blanket; I hate that blanket. I wish I could watch television forever and do nothing else besides sleep and eat and sleep and sleep and nothing and nothing and much more nothing. I lack peace. I am always worried. The world as it is now seems unfathomable and fragmented, the shards animated and buzzing toward me from the corners of my vision, from the margin of every moment, every moment a visit to a web page riddled with pleas, attempts to grab my attention and fuel the sense that something is missing, something that will always pull at me from the margins and slip away to new margins in the next moment, the next chattering page. Everything is an ad for something else. Everything is an invitation to escape. There is no escape.

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Joe Simpson

May 25, 2011

The morning I learned for sure my wife was pregnant, I was gazing out the window, putting off getting my day underway. I noticed a man on the sidewalk across the street from my apartment with his hands on his knees, looking down at the concrete between his feet. This was months ago. The kid’s still not here, so I don’t have any stats on what kind of father I’ll be. Probably similar to the kind of everything I’ve been. A little lazy, a little given to staring out windows, procrastinating. Prone to looking for answers in baseball cards.

In 1973, the first stop in Joe Simpson’s professional career was in Albuquerque. After playing in two other minor league cities, he returned to Albuquerque in 1974. In 1975 he played 9 games with the Dodgers and 133 games with Albuquerque. In 1976 he managed to get into 23 games with the Dodgers while also logging 108 games with Albuquerque.

The morning I learned for sure I was going to be a father, a man standing with his hands on his knees across the street started puking. He puked for a few seconds, scattering it on the sidewalk, then he straightened and walked a few steps to a car and leaned on it. I thought he was leaning on whatever object presented itself as handy to him in his efforts to remain relatively vertical at that moment, but after leaning on the car for a moment he took a deep breath, opened the car door, got in, and drove away.

In 1977, when I was nine, I watched a lot of Bugs Bunny. It’s pretty safe to say that Bugs Bunny cartoons on Saturday morning comprised the pinnacle of my week. Oh Saturday morning, nothing to do and all day to do it and cereal with heaping teaspoons of sugar and Bugs Bunny taking a wrong turn at Albuquerque. In 1977, Joe Simpson spent a few days with the Dodgers and the rest in Albuquerque. In 1978, ditto. Joe Simpson, like Bugs Bunny, seemed doomed to forever be undone in his attempts to navigate effectively out of Albuquerque. Finally, the Mariners swooped in to the rescue, purchasing Simpson from the Dodgers, and in 1979 he spent his first Albuquerque-free season in professional baseball. He did pretty well, too, hitting .283 with 17 stolen bases. But judging from the picture on the front of his 1980 card, he still was a little insecure about his place in the majors. He looks a little defensive, as if he’s noticed someone off to his right approaching, and as if such approaches had by this point in his career come to mean one thing only: back to Albuquerque.

An hour or two after I watched a man puke on the street and then drive off for his day, my wife came home from the doctor with medical confirmation that she was pregnant. Last night, months later, while we were watching TV, FedEx showed up with a big cardboard box, a rocking chair sent by my parents, for my wife to sit in while she’s nursing the kid. My wife put it together while I sort of stood around uselessly, then I took a picture of her in the chair holding one of our cats like it was a baby, a gag we’ve trotted out a lot lately and that never fails to annoy the cat. The rocking chair went in the baby’s room, which is filling up with colorful things. I’m excited but nervous, as if this bright new thing might vanish before it ever really arrives, as if someone is going to walk up and say Albuquerque and back I’ll go to the way things have always been, delaying, staring out windows at inexplicable departures.

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Seattle Mariners, 1978

March 19, 2011

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

Seattle Mariners

You can’t predict the future. You can only hope for the best. Here is the first Seattle Mariners squad ever assembled, the 1977 edition, a collection of expansion draft refugees and free agent driftwood, posed outside the Kingdome. Years later, as the Kingdome neared its last fatal crumbling days as a home for big league baseball, it would be spoken of with shame and regret by the team’s president, Ken Behring [update: Ken Behring was in fact an owner of the Seattle Seahawks]. “We have a building here that was poorly designed, that was never well built and that was poorly maintained from day one,” Behring said. “Plus, it’s downright homely. It was outdated at the time it was built.”

But the setting of this team picture suggests that in the beginning the Mariners had some hope for and pride about the Kingdome. If they didn’t, would they have had their picture taken in front of it? The picture is similar to that of a young family posing outside a first house: Here we are, brand new. Home.

The central dream of human life seems to be to find a home. Maybe this dream has its roots in the very earliest days of human life on earth, when our grunting nomadic ancestors first stumbled into the discovery that any kind of shelter from the harrowing elements was an improvement on loitering around outside and getting pelted with sleet or burned by the sun or swallowed in bloody chunks by saber-toothed tigers. You can’t predict the future, but you can try to lessen the terrifying uncertainty of existence by moving into a cave or a mud hut or a wood house or a concrete skyscraper or a dome. A home.

The idea behind playing baseball in a dome is that it will always be the equivalent of a warm spring day inside such a structure. It was supposed to be one of those days for real where I live a couple days ago. That was the prediction, anyway, but after a brief spell of blue sky in the morning gray clouds moved in and the temperature dropped. I went for a walk late in the day and was a little underdressed, still attached to the hopeful prediction for the day. I passed a newspaper vending bin and saw headlines about a possible nuclear meltdown in Japan. This triggered the loop in my mind of images from the earthquake and tsunami. I continued on my walk. Office workers flailing through nightmare snowglobe frenzies of paper and shattered computers. At a drug store I bought a magazine to help me predict the upcoming season in terms of fantasy baseball. Houses and cars riding giant sheets of water like bathtub toys swirling in a draining tub. I walked back toward my new address, where my wife and I just moved. Survivors in surgical masks picking through rubble. I sat down in my new living room with my fantasy baseball magazine and watched my basketball predictions instantly begin to fail miserably as I planned more doomed predictions for baseball and thought about people in surgical masks searching bulletin boards for familiar names and with all that you’d think I’d give up on the future but I can’t help it. The sun broke through the clouds late in the day and lit up the room where I was sitting and I felt hopeful about my new home.

***

How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 16 of 30: Pay close attention while you still can to Ichiro Suzuki. And do what you can to help.

***

2011 previews so far: St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Pittsburgh Pirates; Arizona Diamondbacks; Colorado Rockies; New York Yankees; Cleveland Indians; Detroit Tigers; Milwaukee Brewers; Minnesota Twins; Atlanta Braves; Cincinnati Reds; Oakland A’s

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Ichiro

September 7, 2009

Ichiro 05

Yesterday I went to the third game in the Red Sox’ four-game series against the White Sox, thanks to the kind invite of Joe Stillwell of Stats, Inc. In the first inning, after the first two White Sox batters reached base, Paul Konerko lifted a blooper to short right field. My eyes went to the right fielder, JD Drew, who was racing forward but who clearly would not be able to reach the ball before it landed. The ball hung in the air long enough for me to feel sorry for myself. All season long I’d been looking forward to the Red Sox lone visit to the city where I live, and they had lost the first game of the series 12-2, had gone down with barely a whimper in the second game, a 5-1 loss, and now this: first inning, bases loaded and nobody out. But as I was going through this litany of self-pity, Dustin Pedroia appeared as if from nowhere, lunged, and made a spectacular running catch. He then whirled immediately and threw a strike to the shortstop, Alex Gonzalez, doubling off the White Sox leadoff man, Scott Podsednik, who had strayed several yards from second as the blooper neared its seemingly sure resting place in the grass. In an instant too quick to take a breath, what looked to be a disastrous start had quieted to two out and a man on first.

Beside me, Joe remarked on the alertness of the second act of Pedroia’s play, and of baseball players in general. This morning, as I was turning the play over in my mind, I thought about my own athletic history, and how I periodically punctuated my anonymous, generally ineffectual efforts with a stupid play of one sort or another. Again and again, my mind wandered, or got lost in the flurry of activity, or just went into a blind white panic. The next moment, when I would come back to myself, always felt like the stunned and queasy moment after a minor accident. Eyes would be on me, for once, but not in a good way.

Well, nobody’s perfect, and even professional athletes make bonehead plays, but the amazing thing about these athletes is that these mental miscues are the rare exception to the norm. Labor Day seems to be a good time to celebrate this element of the major leaguer’s job skills, so I thought before spending the rest of the day lazing around and watching baseball players work, I’d briefly turn my own wandering focus on a current baseball star who epitomizes the impressive mindfullness of professional athletes.

Yesterday this player got his 2,000th hit, reaching the mark in fewer games than anyone in baseball history besides Al Simmons (Ichiro needed 12 more games than the 1930s basher). Barring some unforeseen calamity, Ichiro will collect his 200th hit of the year in a few days, which will set the record for most consecutive seasons (nine) with 200 or more hits, a record he currently shares with Wee Willie Keeler. I haven’t had the opportunity to watch him much, but I have to think, judging from his hitting and fielding records, which are not only remarkable for their constancy but also as close to flawless as the failure-riddled metrics of a baseball player can allow, that he’s had few, if any, moments when he didn’t know exactly what to do at any given moment in a baseball game.

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Ruppert Jones

August 10, 2009

Ruppert Jones 78

Sundown

(continued from Scott McGregor)

Three

I.
I used to live a few blocks north of a bustling Hasidic neighborhood in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. On Fridays as dusk approached the streets emptied but for a few stragglers who hustled to get where they were supposed to be before it got dark.

I never had anywhere to go on a Friday evening at dusk. Maybe later I’d end up at the International on Seventh Street in Manhattan, and I’d stay there for hours, until last call and beyond, and with a couple other regulars help Rose close and lock the gate, and then after a long wait for a subway and a ride under the East River, where decades earlier my grandfather was found floating, I’d stumble home as the sun rose. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Bill Stein

November 5, 2008
 Untitled 
Contrary to my propensity for angry nihilistic self-hating screeds, I’m not an altogether hopeless guy. For example, today’s a good day, a hopeful day. I feel like I might have a leader. Last night, after the first speech of the new president-elect of the United States, I pointed at the TV and declared to my wife, “I want to run through a fucking wall for that man.” I really meant it, and felt an emotional tremble in my voice as I said it, but in truth as a declaration of intentions it was nice and blustery and vague. I didn’t actually have to commit to anything. I mean, I could have said, “Where’s the nearest Peace Corps induction center?” or “Get me the number to an organization that sends guys into locked wards to teach the criminally insane to square dance.” Since I’m kind of a quitter, and don’t enjoy quitting, I try to avoid commiting to anything. But here it is the day after and I still feel hopeful and like I want to be part of the Yes We Can battalion instead of continuing on with my usual lonely mantra of No I Can’t.

What does this have to do with Bill Stein? Well, not much. But first of all, at the risk of starting the first day of a hopeful new warmly inclusive era on a sour and mean-spirited note: whoo, he ugly. I only say this because I love my baseball cards, every single one of them, but most especially the ones featuring the luckless marginals, the nobodies, the drifters, the inglorious, the big-eared and mush-nosed and chinless and soggily-mustachioed and dim-eyed. The ugly. Hallelujah for the ugly! Today we spread wide our embrace to include every-fucking-body, the excluding myth of the Aryan suburban blond Mr. Joe America fatally punctured, hallelujah. And second of all, I mean the second reason I am talking about Bill Stein on this hopeful Yes We Can day, is that before this day was This Day it was, in the ever-evolving myth of the Cardboard Gods, Expansion Day.

On this day, November 5, back in 1976 (the year in which the country eructed stars and stripes from every pore in celebration of that first expansion into nationhood 200 years earlier), the heaven that has presided over my life expanded. That was the day of the expansion draft that breathed life into two new major league teams, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners, and breathed life into the flagging careers of dozens of men on the professional baseball scrap-heap, and breathed life into the hopes of everyone who has ever felt the world closing in all around them. Life contracts, gets smaller, narrower, more and more hopeless. But life also expands. So today on Cardboard Gods we celebrate that expansion, as we will every November 5 from here until the molecules currently comprising my singular body expand to mingle with the body of all.

Happy Expansion Day, everybody!

* * *

And speaking of expansion, Bronx Banter’s ongoing Lasting Yankee Stadium Memory series recently expanded to include my obscenity-laden ramblings about car wrecks, criminal mischief, and Steve Balboni.

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Mario Mendoza

September 3, 2008
 

Untitled 
I Walk the (Mendoza) Line
(continued from Dan Uggla)

Chapter Five

I.
Some guys just look scary at the plate. Their malevolent body language suggests to me not only the imminent production of screaming line drives but also, somehow, physical agony, as if I owe several grand to a mob boss and the hulking batter has cornered me in an alley to administer my late-fee penalties. Pujols, Sheffield, Bagwell, Belle. I don’t know how pitchers pitch to guys like this. If some nightmarish sequence of events somehow put me on the mound against one of these guys in their prime I’d surely just fling the ball over my shoulder in the general direction of the plate while diving behind the meager cover of the mound.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Tom Paciorek

August 25, 2008
 Untitled 

I Walk the (Mendoza) Line
(continued from Bill Plummer)

Chapter Two
Thanks in part to Tom Paciorek, there’s a term for the borderline between just barely getting by and not getting by at all. Some say Paciorek coined this term, but Paciorek himself claims that he heard the term—which alluded to the .200 batting average that a Mariner teammate always seemed to be either just above or just below—from a third Mariner, Bruce Bochte. Either way it seems to have been Paciorek, a gregarious type, who started spreading the term around, most significantly passing it along to Royals third baseman George Brett, who shared it with ESPN’s Chris Berman, who carried news of The Mendoza Line to the rest of the world. Oddly enough, this seems to have transpired in 1980, the year Brett ended up making the most serious charge toward a .400 batting average since the last time the legendary mark was actually reached, in 1941 by Ted Williams. 

Tom Paciorek, like all but two or three living human beings (Brett, Gwynn, Carew), never got close to hitting .400. At the time the card pictured here came out, 1979, he had not hit above .300 in a season either. Conversely, he had hit below .200 once in his career, a mark that may have suggested to Paciorek that the end was always near, which may explain why he so enthusiastically latched onto Bochte’s term. Gallows humor. 

The most recent year listed on the back of the card shows that Paciorek hit .299. One more hit in 1978 and the 32-year-old outfielder would have cracked that barrier for the first time in his 8-year career. It’s difficult for me to refrain from associating his troubled expression in the photo on the front of the card with the disappointment of just missing that mark.

Below the stats of that .299 season is a single line of text: “Brother of John Paciorek, outfielder with Houston Colt .45’s during 1963.” In 1979, the year I started seventh grade, I was first and foremost a Younger Brother. So it’s likely that the message on the back of Tom Paciorek’s card sent me to the baseball encyclopedia to look up John Paciorek. Anyone who has ever treated the baseball encyclopedia as something of a bible likewise eventually comes to John Paciorek, for John Paciorek is in a way the greatest hitter, or at least the most perfect, ever to grace the pages of that glowing tome. Because of injury his career ended very early, but not before he played in a single game for Houston, going 3 for 3 for a lifetime batting average of 1.000. (In 2007, Jose Morales—no apparent relation to Jose Morales—matched this perfection, but he is only 24 years old and may well have a chance to mar his record and leave John Paciorek alone in 3-hit perfection.)

Tom Paciorek finally did hit over .300 in 1981, finishing second in the batting race. At the end of that year I started a tradition, which I only kept up for a couple of years, of cutting out the final Sunday batting average list from the paper and taping it to my wall. So Paciorek was right at the top of that list, just under Carney Lansford. That was the year I stopped buying baseball cards. That was the year my brother went away to school. That was the year I started living more inside my head than ever before.

That list yellowed and curled in on itself in the years to come, right up until we sold the house and I threw it away, along with most of the other things on my wall. That sale occurred in 1987, Paciorek’s last year. A professional hitter, he batted .283 that year, one point above his lifetime average. He was 40, the same age I am now. Last night I lay in bed, unable to sleep, feeling as if I had arrived at my age via a high-speed train that I had moments earlier boarded as a 24-year-old. 

(to be continued)

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Stan Thomas

July 25, 2008
 Untitled 
It’s still a few months away, but I’m already looking forward to my religion’s biggest holiday: Expansion Day. The truth is I just invented this holiday a few minutes ago, just as I have been for the last couple years on this site gradually and half-assedly inventing an indecipherable tangle of fallible deities and contradictory beliefs so as to, among other vague purposes, fill the decades-old irreligious void located roughly where I stuff all the potato chips and beer. (The gut thickens; the void remains.) Yesterday was one of those days that circle around inevitably to fall on me like a sour mist, depressing and slack for no apparent reason, boredom and uselessness attaining the level of a physical ache. I dropped into fantasies of contracting some sort of exotic incurable illness that would not kill me or even hurt that much but that would somehow make it necessary for me to spend the last several decades of life in or near a comfortable bed. There I would sleep a lot and watch episodes of old television shows too obscure to have ever been released on DVD but somehow made available to me by the powerful pity-charged network of affectionate well-wishing that added further cushioning to my stress-free invalid life.

“How are you doing?” each visitor would say, smiling sadly, as he or she entered my room.

“Oh,” I’d say, adding a very slight wince to my brave smile. “I can’t complain.”

“You’re so brave,” the loving visitor would say. “And hey, I brought you a bootleg video of all eight episodes of Quark.”

As fantasies go, it’s probably not as alarming as, say, fantasizing about going one step further and offing oneself, but it’s not exactly a sign of robust mental and spiritual well-being. I mean, consider that oft-mentioned and supposedly motivational notion of a deathbed, as in “When you are on your deathbed, how are you going to look back on your life?” (It’s supposed to inspire you to seize the day, I guess.) But in my fantasy, when I’m finally on my deathbed and looking back at my life, I’ll be looking back at a life spent on a deathbed. Which is a pretty narrow way to go through life. And so when things start to seem narrow, from now on, I will try to remember Expansion Day.

As Expansion Day approaches I’ll have more to say about it, maybe, about what it means to me, about the rituals involved in such a day, about the many legends and miracles intertwined with that day, but for right now I will just pass along the date of this holy day, November 5, and take a stab at the core of its importance to me and my ridiculous religion: It is about possibilities.

Lame as it is, there is a certain purity to my religion, in that I am its only adherent. This will always be the case, but if instead it followed the path of development of other religions fissures and splits would inevitably occur. Take Expansion Day. The cleancut, success-oriented BlueJayists would emphasize the day as one in which seeds of future glory were wisely planted, while the more fatalistic Marinerites would find complicated klezmeresque celebration among the inescapable solemnity of life. Joy in the tears. The list of names would be at issue, the Holy List of the Expanded, and among the names of the Blue Jays would be some, Whitt, Clancy, Iorg, who would one day rise up from the ignominy of being deemed unnecessary to appear in the miraculous baseball version of the afterlife called the postseason, whereas among the Mariners listed there seem to be only years of neither rising nor falling, none of the Holy Names ever offering any readily apparent deliverance.

But still, even though you are marginal, unimportant, unprotected, cut loose, drifting, possibilities dwindling or gone, there is Expansion. You are chosen.

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Larry Cox

April 4, 2008
  
My conscious hours are featureless, my sleep ragged, unearned. I’m a proofreader. Misunderstandings and hurt riddle my dreams. I’m served food I can’t eat, take vague transcontinental airplane voyages with people I haven’t seen in decades. I wake feeling clammy. I ride with strangers, each of us walled off by personal electronic devices. I arrive on time. I sit in a cubicle. I eliminate mistakes. My mind wanders. Mistakes slip through.

Huron, Spart’nb’g, Tidewater, Spart’nb’g, Ral.-Durham, Reading, Eugene, Eugene, Reading, Hawaii, Reading, Eugene. Litany of a nobody. Putrid averages, few games played. Larry Cox kept slipping through.

When I was 19 I tried to follow in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac but was too timid and just rode a bus the whole way, his hallowed continent reduced to a stock footage scroll across the Greyhound window, mountains giving way to plains giving way to mountains, everything leaden with brown pot and boredom. By the time he was the age I am now the dew of his writing had evaporated and he stayed at home with his mother and watched television drunk.

When Larry Cox was 19 the Phillies signed him to a professional contract. Was it a mistake? He hit .219 his first minor league season, which he wasn’t able to improve upon, and then only slightly, until five years later. He eventually had a few at-bats in the majors, but by his late 20s seemed on the way back down, spending an entire year in Tacoma. But instead of disappearing he was bought by a team that did not yet really exist. When he heard the news did he even know of this team which had yet to play a game? Did he wonder if the whole thing was some kind of a mistake?

When Jack Kerouac was 29, the same age as the blurred figure in the imaginary hat at the top of this page, he sat down and out of the desperation of not ever being able to say what he truly wanted to say started hammering words down onto a long scroll of teletype paper. The first line he wrote contained a mistake, a stutter, an inadvertent repetition of the word met, the kind of thing that, had he been typing on a computer, would have produced a squiggly line beneath it, an automated alert that already rules had been broken, but he was saved this niggling indignity and anyway there was no time for corrections, life too short, death too close, the only thing to do just move on, a hungering heartbeat:

“I first met met Neal not long after my father died…I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it really had to do with my father’s death and my awful feeling that everything was dead.”

Kerouac wrote those words April 2, 1951, by chance exactly fifty-seven years to the day before I read them in my new copy of On the Road, The Original Scroll. From there he did not stop but gripped the story in his mind as fiercely as a story has ever been gripped and got it all down in a rush, barely sleeping, pouring everything he had onto the scroll from April 2, 1951, to April 22, 1951. I once hoped for similarly immediate deliverance. All through my twenties I ruined days by sitting down at a desk with the hope that I would just start writing and not stop until I emerged from a trance three weeks later looking gaunt and Dostoyevskian and holding a glowing work of genius in my hands. It never happened. I got jobs to get by. I kept trying. I stopped trying. I kept trying. I stopped trying. I stopped trying to stop. I pray for mistakes.