Has Cardboard Gods jumped the shark? I am constantly wondering about this. I actually first considered the possibility many months ago, just a couple weeks into the whole project, when I posted what seemed to me to be a passionless, desultory profile of Otto Velez. Since then I’ve revisited thoughts of an unredeemable demise on an almost weekly basis, most recently in the form of a sinking feeling that I had let the great Boog Powell down.
This sinking feeling is not new. I’ve always sort of felt like I’m living within an aftermath. I’m like Ted McGinley, star of the Love Boat just before it sank and of Happy Days at its glummest, always arriving too late for all the excitement, always incapable of creating a new thrilling epoch on my own. All the cool shit had already happened by the time I was old enough to take part, it seemed. I was too late to huff carbona with Richard Hell and Dee Dee Ramone, too late to drop acid with Ken Kesey and Ram Dass, too late to smoke “tea” and guzzle cheap port with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. By the time I was the age these guys were in their frontier-exploring heydays it was the early 1990s, and though I guess there were probably new exciting movements going on somewhere, I had no idea where they were, and even if I had known I’d probably have thought the people involved were pretentious assholes.
So instead of blazing new pathways of creativity within an invigorating collective of the best young minds of my generation I got a job on the night shift at the UPS warehouse on 42nd street by the Hudson River and got sort of drunk after work every day in the morning while reading a newspaper I’d pulled out of the garbage and eating three-for-a-dollar macaroni and cheese with chopped-up generic hot dogs. I’d fall unconscious for a while and wake up at dusk feeling like I’d been regurgitated, and then I’d watch the 5:30 episode of Charles in Charge. After a few months of showing up at work at 3 A.M. to take boxes off a conveyer belt and put them in a truck, I abruptly quit, phoning in one evening to tell a preposterous lie about the sudden death of my grandfather (who had actually died a few years earlier) necessitating my immediate departure from the city to help run “the family farm.” I went to Vermont and lounged around my stepfather’s condo in Montpelier and wrote a young adult novel about basketball, taking copious breaks to run imaginary tournaments involving the putting of a golf ball at various targets around the condo. At the end of the summer I had a complete manuscript, and returned to New York planning to sell it and begin a fabulous career of swinging from one joyous literary conquest to the next like Tarzan swinging on vines.
I never did sell the thing. While I was sort of trying to sell it I got an “in the meantime” job at the liquor store where my brother had worked while going to NYU (that particular “in the meantime” job of mine ultimately lasting the better part of a decade). My shift there started at 6 P.M. on most days, and though it was only a five-minute walk from the small apartment I shared with my brother, the start time meant that I always missed the last few moments of Charles in Charge. Each episode always followed the same basic three-part pattern, the first and last parts being relatively brief: Part one: Charles is in charge; Part two: Charles is no longer in charge; Part three: Charles is in charge again. I always had to leave the apartment with the situation in chaos.
I don’t know what any of this has to do with Bake McBride, except that I started the day today with some observations about him that were so lackluster and uninspired that I quickly fell to thoughts that I had really blown it for good, that I was through as a writer, that if I couldn’t get a good lather going for Bake McFucking McBride I might as well hang it up and let the shark Fonzie jumped tear me and my metaphorical leather jacket of imagined coolness to shreds. I mean, this is Bake McBride we’re talking about! If I was a beatnick I’d have already chanted a rolling, incantatory three-page Bake McBride ode at the Six Gallery with Sal Paradise yelling “wail!” in the background; if I was a hippie I’d have already run naked across the Pentagon lawn out my mind on mescaline, convinced I was Bake McBride ecstatically legging out a world-peace-bestowing triple; and if I was a New York Punk I’d have already ruined my eardrums forever with the sheer velocity and volume of a two-minute aural assault entitled “Bake McBride” that would have helped free music from the skeletal clutches of corporate rock. But I’m none of those things, and I’m not even an odd solitary miner of the gruesome and beautiful unconscious like Kafka, spinning out a tale of waking one morning metamorphosed into Bake McBride’s disembodied afro. No, all I could manage was that Bake McBride hung up his spikes one hit shy of a lifetime average of .300.
His batting average rounded up to .300 as late as the 10th-to-last game of his career, when as a member of the Cleveland Indians he went 2 for 4 on September 10, 1983, against the Red Sox. He managed only 2 hits in his next 17 at bats, however, dooming to failure a subsequent 5 for 10 flurry in his last major league at-bats.
I don’t know why Bake McBride stopped playing then. He was 34 years old, but he had hit .291 for the year and just one year earlier in limited action had hit .365. The speed that had been one of his strikingly distinguishing features in his prime—along with his large afro (seen here below a Cardinals flat-topped “old-tyme” cap in an admirable but still only penultimate stage of magnificence) and his incomparable name—may have been on the wane, but he still stole 8 bases in 10 attempts in ’83 and, even more tellingly, made his final major league appearance as a pinch runner in his team’s second to last game of the year. He could still hit, and he could still run. So why stop?
I don’t know why. I’ve quit a lot of things in my life, so I guess I can imagine how he might have just got sick of doing what he was doing, especially considering it must have gotten harder and harder as the years went on.
As for me, even though I’ve quit a lot of things, I never have quit writing, not yet. So I guess even if my lifetime average keeps falling farther and farther below .300 I’m going to keep going up there and hacking.