Last week on the bus a guy in a Cubs hat sitting near me eyeballed my Red Sox hat and we started talking baseball. It’s a pretty long ride, and after a while we ran out of things to say. I waited a few minutes to turn to the book I’d had on my lap, and not long after that the bus emptied enough for him to move a couple seats away and spread out and stare out a window. He was big guy with a mustache. He wore a windbreaker of a championship 16″ softball team (the kind of softball I’d never seen until I moved to Chicago). I’d thought he was a little older than me, but he was probably the same age. From our conversation I’d learned that he’d grown up loving baseball players from the 1970s.
There’s something malevolent about Ted Simmons in this 1976 baseball card. It’s his long, lank hair, his narrow eyes and vaguely Cro-Magnon jaw and bunched shoulders. He reminds me of the older guys in my high school who drove loud cars and got in fistfights with each other over thin pale girls who smoked cigarettes and wore tight jeans and perpetual sneers.
After the baseball conversation on the bus ended, I read my book for a while, a novel by a great Australian writer named Tim Winton. I put the book away as I neared my stop, and I looked around. Only two other people remained in the back area of the bus besides me and the Cubs fan. One was a middle-aged Hispanic man mouthing the words in a book entitled Ingles facil para todos. The other was a young slender guy staring at a book called Now, Discover Your Hidden Strengths. Everyone wants to be better than they are. I looked to the Cubs fan just as he was pulling a half-pint of liquor from the pocket of his championship windbreaker. He stared out at the nondescript corporate office buildings of Golf Road and took a swig. When I got up for my stop a couple minutes later he said, “Be good.” I could smell the booze. It was a little after nine in the morning.
What’s hidden in your pockets? At the time the guy in the Cubs hat was slipping the half-pint back into the pocket of his championship windbreaker I had a few baseball cards in the front pocket of my knapsack, including this Ted Simmons card. They are the cards I’m trying to get reacquainted with, so I can write about them. But I also carry them around as something to lean on, something to take a swig of when I think no one is looking. I like the odd cards, the cards of the forgotten players, but sometimes the only thing that’ll calm me down is a pull on the hard stuff of a real player, a star, like Ted Simmons. On the back of this card, even though Ted Simmons is still a young man, just starting out, there are numbers that ease the pain. A .332 average in the season just completed. Already two 100-RBI seasons. A lifetime .298 average. What other catchers from my childhood had a batting average that high? Ted Simmons stood alone in that regard, and yet he was also something of a secret, a superstar who wasn’t considered a superstar. In the American League there was Fisk and Munson. In the National League there was only room for one catcher, Bench.
“I got a friend, an older guy, said he’d seen Berra play and that he was the best catcher of all time, but I told him, hey, I saw Bench.”
I nodded. This was early in my conversation on the bus with the Cubs fan with the flask of liquor in his pocket.
From there we started talking about the Hall of Fame. The All Time Greats. I said Ron Santo deserved to be in the Hall of Fame.
“December 10,” he said. (I think that’s the date he mentioned.)
“That’s when they vote?” I asked. (“They” are a committee of Hall of Fame inductees who may or may not finally agree to let Ron Santo join their ranks.)
We bitched about Joe Morgan for a little while, singling him out for blame in keeping Santo on the outside looking in, then the guy started telling me about the posters in his room. I’ve ridden a lot of buses, but no one has ever told me about the posters in their room.
“I’ve got three. Robin Yount. Pete Rose. Thurman Munson. They played the game the way it was supposed to be played.”
The Hall of Fame Veterans Committee chooses whether to induct former players into the baseball Hall of Fame once every couple of years. Ted Simmons will get his first chance at entering the realm of immortality through this doorway in 2011. My guess is that he won’t get in, at least not on that try. The numbers shown on the back of this 1976 card expanded into similar numbers for years afterward, and Simmons became one of the greatest hitting catchers in baseball history. As pointed out by Bill James, who ranks Simmons 10th among all catchers in his Historical Abstract, Simmons’ oft-maligned defense was actually OK, at least in the earlier stages of his career. But he doesn’t have that indefinable (and at least partially bullshit) “aura” of greatness about him. No one rides buses proclaiming to strangers that Ted Simmons played the game the way it was meant to be played. No one has a poster of him on the wall of his room, helping him get out of bed in the morning to face the day.