Archive for the ‘Texas Rangers’ Category

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Ramon Vasquez

August 13, 2008
 Untitled 
As with the collecting of baseball cards, my brother preceded me as a clerk at 8th Street Wine and Liquor. He found a listing for the job at the NYU employment center and worked there throughout college, then when he was tapering off at the store I started my ragged tenure. Years later, after I’d come and gone at the store, he needed extra money and started picking up some shifts here and there. One night as he entered the store, which by then was on its last legs and almost always empty of customers, the owner and my brother’s coworker for the night were sitting at the desk in the back, site of almost all the billion bullshitting sessions that made that place into one of the best shelters from the relentless passing of time I have ever known (I feel the urge to digress as I talk about it—even talking about it in the first place is a digression, for I meant to speak only and briefly and pointedly about last night’s Red Sox-Rangers game, but sometimes the passing of time seems too cruel and I digress from the point before I even take one step toward making it and no wonder I end up talking about the liquor store, site of years of digression, of sideways expansion, of ingrown soulnails, not just for me but for many other aimless young men who passed months and years leaning on a broom and pretending to know something about wine, and for that reason it should be a historical landmark, or maybe an anti-historical landmark, a shrine to a place where nothing ever really happened, but instead it closed years ago and after a lingerie store came and went the site is now a Korean manicure joint with no trace of the old store visible), and heard the owner, Morty, a World War II combat veteran, speaking quietly, even tenderly, to the young man across the desk from him. My brother, hearing what was being said, paused with his hand on the open door in the classic gape-mouthed fashion of a lowbrow sitcom.

“Listen, Petey,” the owner was murmuring. He reached one of his combat-toughened mitts across the desk. “I too have shit my pants.”

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Jim Mason

June 27, 2008

 Untitled 

The monotony of it all. Stand up, sit down, eat, sleep, shit. I have to shave again soon. I have to go buy bread. I have to put on my shirt and bent-brim hat and pants. I have to pretend I’m in the middle of something and not failing, getting older, drifting toward the margins. Nearing an inconsequential release. I’ve seen all the episodes. Everything’s a rerun. An infinite loop. No beginning or end. No story at all. And you’re asking me to smile?

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Don Stanhouse

May 23, 2008
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I never picked up a woman in a bar, or anywhere else for that matter. For years I went to bars every weekend, praying something would happen, but I just got drunk and stared. I stared at the jukebox lights, at the bottles behind the bar, at my own reflection in the mirror behind the bottles, at whatever increasingly creeped-out women happened to be within eyeshot. It hadn’t been much different earlier, in high school and college. It’s something of a miracle that I ever escaped virginity. Once in a while I shoved poetry at women, but this only worked once, in China, with a woman who didn’t have a very strong grasp of English.

Maybe I should have, as I am learning to do now, looked to my baseball cards for guidance. This 1975 card would have been a good place to start. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision Don Stanhouse in this same pose in a 1970s nightspot, his bent right elbow not faking a follow-through but leaning on the back of a pleather booth filled with tipsy secretaries.

“Hey ladies,” Don Stanhouse croons, neck medallions dangling, “how you all feelin’ tonight?”

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Dock Ellis

May 18, 2008
  
Dock Ellis seemed to add an exclamation point to every moment he was ever involved in. I just wanted to take a moment on this Sunday afternoon to thank him for all those exclamation points, and to wish him the best. As reported in today’s New York Post (link provided by Baseball Think Factory), Dock Ellis is in a situation his wife calls “a matter of life and death.” Every so often, especially upon hearing somber, sobering news like that, I wonder why my life has come to center around the thin rectangular representations of baseball players from three decades ago. Sometimes I think it’s a strange mid-life crisis. Sometimes I think I’m slowly, publicly losing my marbles. But maybe I just have a need to connect to a time that, thanks to Dock Ellis and all the others, felt as wild and weird as a Jimi Hendrix solo screaming though the acid-dazzled brain of an unhittable major-league pitcher.
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Brandon McCarthy

May 2, 2008
  

                                                    Golf Road
                                                  Chapter One

Sunday I found a Steve Howe card in the mud. Monday, I wrote about it, and while I was doing so I discovered that it was the second anniversary of Steve Howe’s death. The coincidence made me wonder if I was part of some wider, unfathomable plan. Maybe there’s something beyond the self. Maybe there’s a wholeness surrounding all our ripped, scattered pieces. I don’t know. Tuesday I went to work. It takes quite a while to get there. A long walk up Western Avenue, a wait, a train, another wait, a bus, then a short walk to the corporate complex from where the bus lets me off on Golf Road.

I work all day in a cubicle in a large room full of cubicles. I’d say the hours pass slowly, but that’s not quite accurate. I try to do a good job, and I guess I do OK; four years now and they haven’t sent me packing. But even so there’s a part of me that I learned a long time ago to tear off and toss aside on the days I punch a clock. I remember my first job, pumping gas at a Shell station on Cape Cod. There the hours passed slowly, tortuously. I hadn’t learned how to leave pieces of myself behind. That was over twenty years ago. I’ve gotten much better at it since then.

So on Tuesday the hours passed. At quitting time I shut off my computer and bolted for the door. I hustled across the parking lot and through the pack of lazy, malevolent geese that use the wide corporate lawn as their toilet, then I came to a stop at Golf Road. It can take several minutes to cross the four lanes of heavy traffic; many times I’ve been waiting for my chance to cross while my bus flew past in the farthest lane. Sometimes there are brief gaps in the traffic in the two lanes closest to me, but there are usually cars backed up on a smaller road just to my left, waiting at the long light to turn onto Golf, so any attempt on my part to make a dash to the center median would end with me getting shoveled up onto the hood of a car making a white-knuckled right on red. 

But on Tuesday I was lucky. There was both a small gap and an unusual lack of cars stopped at the light, so I scuttled like a light-startled cockroach to the thin strip of concrete separating the eastbound and westbound lanes. You have to stand straight and suck in your gut on this median or risk getting disemboweled by a speeding sideview mirror. While on this median I always find myself thinking about all the many times I’ve let my mind wander while driving, the car drifting beyond the margins of the road. 

I got lucky again with a second gap and scurried the rest of the way. Sometimes there’s someone already at the bus stop. There are no buildings on that side of the road, just a drab, flat nature reserve patronized solely by car-drivers with bikes, so if there’s another person waiting for a bus he or she had to do what you just did to get there, and upon your arrival the two of you exchange the sheepish glances of the hunted.

But on Tuesday I was able to enjoy in solitude my small, lucky feeling of getting across Golf Road without dying or, worse, watching the bus go by without me. I wonder if moments like these ever make it into the court proceedings in the mind of the suicide ponderer. Does the underpaid court-appointed public defender of Life ever rush disheveled in his cheap tan suit through the courtroom doors amid speeches of terrible eloquence by the dark-garbed Prosecutor on cancelled dreams and loveless nights and hopeless endless afternoons to yell “Hey, wait”–his voice cracking–“don’t you remember that time you made it through the subway doors just as they closed? Or the time you got change for a ten when you used a five? Or the time when the freezing drizzle allowed you to move down to the good seats for once in your life, so close you heard the sound of a guy sliding into third?”

Well, I don’t know if these little flickers of light ever make it into the internal To Be or Not To Be conversation. I’ve fantasized as much as the next guy about how my death would cause millions of beautiful women to weep, but for all my chronic gloominess I’ve never really stared down that awful corridor. All I know is that life is pretty much a losing proposition, so it stands to reason you should celebrate the rare victories, however small.

And so on Tuesday I had that tiny extra lift of getting across Golf Road quicker than usual and without missing a bus. I have to think this lift allowed me to look twice at one of the many pieces of trash littering the fume-sickened grass around the bus stop. Most of the time I walk through the world blindly, objects appearing before me without ever registering. But I was feeling lucky, lucky to be at the bus stop, which is not that different, really, from feeling lucky to be alive. So I was able to notice that the piece of trash had somehow, distantly, signaled to some part of my brain that it was not just a piece of trash.

And it wasn’t. It was half of a baseball card. I picked it up. For the first time in all the days I’ve spent waiting at that bus stop I studied the ground all around me. There was another ripped piece of a baseball card a few feet away, and beyond that another, and beyond that another. There were ripped pieces of baseball cards everywhere.

(to be continued)

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Leo Cardenas

November 26, 2007

  

After not having written for a few days, I tried to start the day by writing in my notebook. The pen seemed like a charred log in my hand. I forgot how to write. I pushed the charred log around a while, then stunned myself with lunch, then pounded some instant coffee, then paced around some, then finally left the apartment. A couple days earlier I’d left my house keys in a motel 600 miles away, so I needed to find a place that would copy my wife’s set.

It was a cold gray day today and I walked down Chicago Avenue, which seemed even dingier than usual, grimy yellow signs hanging over dead and dying businesses. I walked for a mile or so and finally found a hardware store on Ashland but stood for several minutes by the counter while a homely pale woman in glasses behind the counter ignored me. When she finally finished fiddling with a pricing gun she looked past me to a guy who had just come in and waved him over to continue a discussion that had apparently begun earlier. I just stood there with my stupid keys, wondering if I’d become invisible. Eventually a homely pale man in glasses appeared and made me copies of my keys, our dealings concluding with no exchange of niceties.

“Pay at the register,” he muttered, not looking up. 

By the time I got back to my apartment building, I had spent over an hour on the errand. The key to the front door of the building didn’t work. I cursed and started thinking about how I could have saved myself all this trouble if I’d not left my stupid keys next to the television in the motel 600 miles away. Why didn’t I put them in my bag? Why didn’t I just keep them in my pocket? Why didn’t I case the room like everybody knows to do before walking out the last time? I stalked down the street getting angrier and angrier, passing ancient Ukrainian women trudging along with their grocery bags.

I started punching myself in the head. I did it a couple times. The first time was sort of a heel to the forehead blow, and then the next was a clenched fist to the side of my head. The heel shot sort of made me see stars. Both punches together made me feel a little dizzy.

I’ve promised my wife I’d stop doing this, hitting myself in the head, but every once in a while when I make a stupid mistake that seems to unlock the door that keeps the infinite snarl of stupid, confusing modern living at bay I start falling into a downspiral of frustration and self-laceration that ends with the utter stupidity of me beating myself about the head. The only thing to be said for this personal tic is that once I do it a couple times I generally stop, as happened today. Woozy, I kept walking past the kerchief-headed Ukrainian octagenarians, wondering if I was going to fall over. I managed to stay on my feet. I found a dollar store run by a warm, jovial Hispanic dude who made me feel like an honored customer even though he only made $1.09 off me. On top of that, his key ended up working, allowing me back into my apartment, where I promptly proceeded to waste the rest of the day. 

Leo Cardenas, here you stand at the twilight of your career, when you should know better, displaying a batting stance like that of a rank beginner, a toddler with a bat, body facing the pitcher full-on. Leo Cardenas, I thought life was going to be different. Leo Cardenas, I haven’t stood like you are standing, the beginner’s stance, in over three decades, and yet I still don’t know shit. I thought I’d fail at first but learn and learn, perfect my stance, start hitting ropes all over the yard. It hasn’t happened that way, and sometimes I wonder if those few times when I really connected are all behind me, the rest of my days echoes of today, when I walked down Iowa Street in the cold gray afternoon punching my head.

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Bert Blyleven

June 28, 2007
 

“I know I’ve got a lock on the Dutch Hall of Fame.” – Bert Blyleven

Bert Blyleven was born in Zeist, Holland, but only lived there briefly before his family emigrated to Canada and then California, where he grew up and where his father got his Hall of Fame caliber career started by taking him to see a game pitched by Sandy Koufax.

I wonder if Blyleven’s father played baseball in Holland. Apparently, America’s national pastime is not as obscure in Holland as it is in other far-off lands: according to The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball by Jonathan Fraser Light, the Dutch have been playing baseball since a gym teacher brought back knowledge of the game after a trip to the U.S. in 1910, and the Dutch have perennially vied with the Italians for the honor of the top baseball power in Europe. My favorite Dutch player would have to be Win Remmerswaal, a pitcher who lived up to his given name three times for the Red Sox in 1979 and 1980, but, alas, I have no Win Remmerswaal baseball card in my collection, and so I turn to the pride of Zeist, Rik Aalbert Blyleven, to help me celebrate my upcoming belated honeymoon to Holland, now just two days away. Excited about this, I haven’t been able to write much all week, and today is clearly not going to provide a breakthrough on that front. Luckily I can merely pass along some of the deluge of great stuff written about Blyleven’s Hall of Fame candidacy in recent years by directing you to Bert Belongs, which features among many other highlights links to articles by Blyleven’s most eloquent and persistent champion, Rich Lederer (see, for example, “The Hall of Fame Case for Bert Blyleven”).

I can’t really supplement any of that commentary except to voice agreement. What do I know? I’m just an aging cipher with a box of old baseball cards. All I can add is that when I got this 1977 Bert Blyleven card I most likely did not get the same immediate thrill I would have gotten had I found a Tom Seaver or Jim Palmer card in the pack. But I’m sure it grew on me. There was the name, first of all, sinuous and even a little hypnotic if repeatedly mumbled several times in the privacy of one’s room—Blyleven, Blyleven, Blyleven. And there were the numbers on the back, excellence partially hidden, camouflaged by the so-so won-loss record, the excellence more rewarding, even joyous, to discover. And last but not least there was the birthplace, more strange syllables to utter—Zeist, Holland, Zeist, Holland, Zeist, Holland—hypnotizing the chewed-gum nowhere day into something strange and wide.

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Bump Wills

May 16, 2007
 

I don’t have a lot of valuables. I thought maybe this 1979 card that erroneously identifies Bump Wills as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, a team for which he never played, might be worth something, but according to an article on TradingCardCentral.com the corrected card, which is rarer (and which I don’t have, naturally), is worth considerably more than this version.

In a “Card Corner” note in a 2004 column by frequent Bronx Banter contributer Bruce Markusen, Topps president Sy Berger claims the error was due to a tip he’d heard that Wills was about to be traded to the Blue Jays. I am skeptical of this explanation because Wills is identified as a Ranger in a large-font heading on the back of the card, because Wills’ name is on the 1979 Texas Rangers’ checklist, and because Topps more often than not did not switch teams for a player even after they’d been officially traded in the off-season. And when they did switch teams to reflect a trade, they doctored the photos, which has not been done here, Wills still clearly wearing the cap and away uniform of the Texas Rangers.

No, as something of an expert in such matters, I feel compelled to offer the opinion that this was just a plain, old fuckup.

I work as a proofreader and dread this kind of mistake. Proofreading is easy if you only have to do a little of it, but when you spend a whole day trying to keep an eye out for errors your mind can wander. It’s frighteningly easily easy (proofreader’s note: the preceding typo was not intentional, and was only noticed several hours after this profile of Maury Wills’ son, the Texas Rangers’ all-time leader in stolen bases, was originally posted) to glide past a can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees mistake such as this one. I worry that some day I’ll inadvertently let a doozy slip through and then be ritualistically dressed down by upper management in a special hastily convened exit meeting.

“Your mistake cost us millions,” I’ll be told with measured corporate scorn.

Stripped of my employee identification card, I’ll ride the bus home at an unusual hour, my wandering mind continuing as ever to pollinate fantasies and mistakes.

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Paul Lindblad

April 5, 2007

 The Mustache Ride, Chapter 3

Paul Lindblad Ponders Growing a Mustache, 1975
 

 

 

Paul Lindblad was a top middle reliever for many years in the American League. He is shown here after helping the A’s win their third straight World Championship by posting the best ERA of his career, 2.06. Just below the stat line with that information is a (somehow fittingly) terse textual note further attesting to Paul Lindblad’s capabilities: “Paul had 0.00 E.R.A. in 1973 series.” For some reason I’m inclined to believe he plied his trade with very little ego. He certainly seems in this photo to be far from displaying the air of complacent self-congratulation that supposedly has a tendency to infect members of a championship squad.

But I really don’t know much about Paul Lindblad. Before becoming fascinated over the last few weeks by his expression on this card, my only connection with him beyond a vague appreciation of his membership in Oakland’s outstanding relief corps was my own tic-like predilection as a child for saying aloud his unusual last name, which probably seemed to my Mad Magazine-devouring mind like one of the spelled-out sound effects in a Don Martin cartoon. To this connection I can only add the fresh shock of just finding out, while casting around for more information on the man with the arrestingly troubled mien, that Paul Lindblad died in 2006 (see Catfish Stew). His page on baseball-reference.com now has a death date, as well as an epitaph in the sponsor section, supplied by someone named Wolfie: “Lindy: Quite simply, one of the best guys ever to put on a uniform.”

I’m inclined to believe those words, but then again you can’t be much more of a baseball outsider than me, so all I can really add to the story of Paul Lindblad is the trivial, groundless, ridiculous belief that in the photo shown above he is trying to decide if he should finally grow a mustache.

The hoopla that such an act might have once created is long gone, this card coming out three years after the A’s broke the baseball facial hair line in 1972. Not coincidentally, Paul Lindblad, after spending several years with the A’s prior to 1972, had been toiling for the Rangers that pivotal year, and by the time he returned to the A’s the hippie-lip revolution had already occurred. In fact, by 1975, players on all teams save for some last holdouts (such as Cincinnati), where conservative grooming codes continued to strain against the grain of the times, were busting out beards and mustaches, muttonchops and fu manchus. To have a mustache was no longer in any way a declaration of independence. It was merely a personal choice.

And this is exactly when the world got confusing. This is exactly when the 1970s truly became the Me Decade. Everyone was on their own to make their own choices about everything. Grow a mustache, don’t grow a mustache. Do your own thing, don’t do your own thing. Who cares? No one. You’re on your own.

 
Paul Lindblad Ponders Growing a Mustache, 1976

Like its immediate predecessor, this 1976 card also has one brief line of text on the back side, at the bottom, below the impressively long block of statistics listing all the years he’s been in the league on the left and all his stingy earned run averages on the right:

“Had 385 straight errorless games.”

While his stalwart professionalism is on display on the back of the card, the front of the card shows that he has yet to decide the quandary that has been on his mind since at least 1975. His upper lip remains bare, suggesting that he decided in the negative, but his expressive eyes overrule this suggestion, making clear that the matter remains unresolved.

If anything, Paul Lindblad seems even more undecided. He is a year older, a fact that seems to register almost imperceptibly in his somehow slightly less ruddy features, and he seems to have grown a little more melancholy. The featureless blue sky behind him, where the year before there had been the sheltering embrace of a ballpark, adds to the feeling that Paul Lindblad is a little more alone this year than he was the year before. Many of the championship A’s are still around, but they won’t be for long. And the biggest, loudest A of all, Reggie, has moved on.

In the ensuing silence, Paul Lindblad continues to ponder.

 
Paul Lindblad Ponders Growing a Mustache, 1977
 

 

 

My father once told me that one thing that helped get him through the 1970s was his work. It wasn’t his happiest epoch. As suggested in the previous chapter’s description of my family’s early-’70s living arrangement, he began the Me Decade by going to unusual lengths to remain part of an “us.” After a couple of years of the ultimately aborted experiment in open marriage, he spent the rest of the decade living in a studio apartment in Manhattan while his family lived several hours away by Greyhound bus, in Vermont. This had to have been painful.

But he had his work. He was a sociologist, for most of that decade a project leader on a research team charged with a massive evaluation of the effects of city services on all levels of the population. He threw himself into his work, as the saying goes, but quietly, selflessly. He was a Paul Lindblad type. He showed up day in and day out in a way that not only benefited the project he was working on but that helped feed much-needed money to the frequently imperiled utopian dream of his distanced immediate family.

He wore a mustache for some of that decade. But this facial hair was never part of some rousing movement, large or small, like the swashbuckling 1972 A’s or the “let that freak flag fly” hippies. I have referred to it elsewhere as hair shrapnel, a piece of the general hairiness of the culture of the time that seemed to have landed randomly on my dad’s face. I don’t know if I got that right, however, for he had indeed made a decision to grow a mustache, and he had made it alone. He had then worn the mustache for some years. And then, in another solitary decision, he had chosen to remove the mustache. I can see him shaving it off one evening in the bathroom of his apartment, then leaving the bathroom to unroll his foam sleeping mat on the floor below the one window, going to sleep, getting up the next day, and going to work.

“I absorbed myself in my work,” he once told me, speaking of the entire 1970s.

As for Paul Lindblad, he is shown here still in the midst of his own increasingly solitary and still unresolved decision. The Topps people, perhaps attempting to dim the increasing pathos of another close-up of Paul Lindblad’s undecided face, have placed him in his workplace. This serves to distance the viewer from his face, but it also seems to lighten the expression ever so slightly, Lindblad not wrapped up quite so much in his unresolved solitary decision, instead able to put himself into the working mind he has been so adept at becoming absorbed in since breaking into the league over a decade earlier. Still, there is ample evidence that Paul Lindblad still has things on his mind. He has by now been left behind by most of the championship A’s. He perhaps senses that the end in Oakland is coming for him too. In fact, by the time I found this card in a 1977 pack, Paul Lindblad had been sold to the Texas Rangers.

In such a world where the very ground can be pulled from beneath you, when your team can be taken away, when your family can be taken away, when the job you throw yourself into can be lost (my father, after spending years on the research project, lost his job near the end of the decade by the abrupt end of funding for the project, all the research halted before any conclusions could be reported), certain personal choices turn out to be all you really have left. They are the only thing you can control. And yet, they are pointless, absurd. To grow a mustache or not to grow a mustache, that is the question. The implied answer—what’s the difference?—lingers on the horizon like some kind of soundless cosmic tornado with the power to strip your world of all meaning.

 
Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
– Peggy Lee
 

 

 

When I found out that Paul Lindblad had died, I also found out that through the last decade or so of his life he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, that gradual, inexorable cosmic tornado.

He is shown here on the brink of the 1978 season, his last in the major leagues. He started the year with the Rangers but was purchased by the surging Yankees late in the season. For what it’s worth, his last official moment in a major league uniform was as a participant in a world championship celebration.

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Jeff Burroughs

March 5, 2007

I don’t know where the Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger we had at the liquor store came from. I also don’t know where it went when the store closed for good in the late 1990s. On the store’s last day, my friend Pete and my brother, Ian, who were both in the employ of the store during the End Times, packed up a rented truck with the remaining inventory. The owner, Morty, oversaw this work and probably ended up zealously pitching in, too, even though he was crowding eighty by then and probably under strict orders from his wife, Goldie, to leave the lifting to the two “boys.” Once the truck was loaded and the store empty, my brother and Pete transported the booze upstate to Morty’s son-in-law’s liquor store.

But I don’t know what became of the non-alcoholic odds and ends, such as the Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger. There were a fair number of odds and ends. In the store’s two-plus decades of existence it had had one constant, Morty, and a long parade of young men who were either aimless by nature or going through an aimless phase in their lives. None of these aimless guys owned much stuff while they were working at the store, but once in a while a piece of their meager collection of possessions dislodged from their porous grasp and accrued in one of the nooks and crannies of the store. One member of the long parade of aimless young men left behind a crate of scratchy, mediocre records in the basement, another a well-thumbed baseball encyclopedia in the back by the stereo, another a half-empty bottle of saline solution on the shelves by the sink, another a book on origami jammed in among Morty’s collection of Beverage Media Guides. The last aimless guy hired to work at the store, i.e., the anchor of the entire twenty-five-year parade of aimless guys, was a pale young divorced mumbling NYU dropout named Dan who took most of his weekly paycheck in vodka. Dan left a collection of little flickable paper footballs behind the champagne rack, residue of his chosen method of time-killing, flicking paper footballs at the bottles of liqueurs above the champagne, each bottle assigned a unique point value, the stumpy, ornate bottle of Chambourd worth 10 points, the Mrs. Butterworth’s-looking Frangelico worth 7, the large Bailey’s gift box worth 5, etc., etc. Dan bestowed intricately layered personalities to each paper football and kept a running log of their exploits, complete with league statistics and player biographies. When one of the paper footballs fell into the unreachable space behind the champagne rack it meant that the player had, like Duk Koo Kim, Ray Chapman, and Dale Earnhardt, passed in a blaze of glory directly from the field of athletic battle to the Great Beyond. A eulogy was inscribed in the commissioner’s notebook and black armbands were imagined onto the fallen hero’s grieving fellow paper footballs left to carry on bravely in their unforgiving gladiatorial clashes.
Anyway, some aimless guy who had preceded me must have one day brought a Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger into the store. Maybe it was his own from earlier days (if memory serves, it was a 28-inch bat, in other words a little league model) or maybe he’d been sent by Morty to buy one from the sporting goods store up near Union Square (I forget the name right now, but the guy who played Tim “Dr. Hook” McCracken in Slap Shot
once worked there). Who knows? Maybe that aimless guy or another aimless guy sank the two nails halfway into the strip of wood behind the counter from which the bat hung from the handle. It’s all a mystery to me, really, which is fitting in a way, because Jeff Burroughs himself, represented solely in my childhood by this one unusually early (1974) card, was himself mysterious to me. All the other guys who had been awarded the Most Valuable Player award in the 1970s came to loom in my mind as ever-present, larger-than-life figures. Once or twice a year I was thrilled to find one of their dynamic action-shot baseball cards in a new pack; I read about them in Sports Illustrated; I saw them repeatedly in the All Star game; I thought about them, imagined them, sometimes even imagined being them. Bench, Reggie, Rose, Lynn, Carew . . . Burroughs? Part of the problem was that after getting this card, one of the few 1974 cards I own, I never got a Jeff Burroughs card again. He also never showed up in the All Star Game (his 1974 appearance had preceded my attentions, and while he was chosen to be a part of the 1978 National League squad he didn’t get into the game). There was, to me, an aura around him. He actually seemed sort of scary. His lone MVP win, coming from what seemed to me to be nowhere, struck me as unpredictably explosive. Who was this Jeff Burroughs, and when was he going to strike again?
He did, I now know, have more than just that one good year, and in all fashioned for himself a respectable power-hitting career before becoming, with the help of his son, Sean, a two-time world champion little league coach. He will also be remembered by some for being a key participant in two of the more famous forfeits in baseball history (interestingly enough, he also was later a part of the most famous forfeit in little league history, the team he coached winning the first of their two World Championships after it was discovered that the team from the Philippines that had thumped them in the Little League World Series final had been stocked with deep-voiced over-aged ringers):
Forfeit #1 (September 30, 1971): The final game of the second edition of the Washington Senators
In this game, Burroughs, who would endure long enough in the majors to be the final active former second-edition Washington Senator (I believe Jim Kaat was the last of the original Washington Senators), was in left field when fans poured onto the field in the top of the 9th inning. Who can blame them? Their team was doomed, gone, not only bound for Texas but bound to be stripped of its name, just as the earlier Senators team that moved to Minnesota had been stripped. They stormed the field to rip up and take home anything they could, clods of dirt, the bases, pieces of the scoreboard, clumps of grass. (I wonder if anybody still has their clump of RFK Stadium grass.)

Forfeit #2 (June 4, 1974): 10-Cent Beer Night

Earlier in the 1974 season, at a game between the Indians and Rangers in Texas, Len Randle took out Jack Brohamer with a hard slide, which prompted Milt Wilcox to throw at Len Randle’s head, which prompted Len Randle to drop a bunt down the first base line, which prompted Wilcox to race over to cover first on the play, where Len Randle rammed into him with a forearm. At this point, a melee ensued. During and after the violence Texas fans showered Indians players with beer.
The rematch between these two teams occurred in Cleveland on 10-Cent Beer Night. Many fans came to the park already well-lathered (a detail that offends my instinct for cheapness–why get drunk somewhere else when you can buy thirty beers for three dollars?) and with pockets full of old batteries, golf balls, rocks, and other assorted throwable items. They also brought smokable items, Jeff Burroughs saying afterward, “the marijuana smoke was so thick out there in rightfield, I think I was higher than the fans.” In the ninth inning, the game-long fan unruliness reached a point of no return when one in a constant trickle of intruders onto the field swiped Jeff Burroughs’ hat. Burroughs slipped and fell as he moved to get his hat back. In the Texas dugout, Burroughs’ manager, Billy Martin, did not have a full view of Burroughs at that moment, and thought that his star player had been chopped down by one of the fans now pouring onto the field. Martin seized a bat and led his team onto the field to fight the entire ballpark.

Here’s a few moments of the call from Indians broadcasters Joe Tait and Herb Score, courtesy of an excerpt of Cleveland Sports Legends quoted on The Sissybar:

Tait: Hargrove has got some kid on the ground and he is really administering a beating.
Score: Well, that fellow came up and hit him from behind is what happened.
Tait: Boy, Hargrove really wants a piece of him–and I don’t blame him.
Score: Look at Duke Sims down there going at it.
Tait: Yeah, Duke is in on it. Here we go again.
Score: I’m surprised that the police from the city of Cleveland haven’t been called here, because we have the makings of a pretty good riot. We have a pretty good riot.
Tait: Well, the game, I really believe, Herb, now will be called. Slowly but surely the teams are getting back to their dugouts. The field, though, is just mobbed with people. And mob rule has taken over.
Score: They’ve stolen the bases.
Tait: The security people they have here just are totally incapable of handling this crowd. They just–well, short of the National Guard, I’m not sure what would handle this crowd right now. It’s just unbelievable. Unbelievable . . .
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Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson

January 8, 2007

In September of 1985, when I was seventeen, I moved in with my aunt and uncle in Boston. It was the first autumn since I’d been four years old in which my name wasn’t on any roll-call sheet. I wasn’t expected anywhere. I’d been kicked out of boarding school the previous spring and after getting my GED had spent the summer with my grandfather on Cape Cod, working as a gas station attendant. That fall in Boston I got through a lot of the hours playing solitaire Strat-O-Matic in my room. I don’t know what my aunt and uncle thought about the sounds of dice clattering deep into the night from behind my closed door.

Sometimes in the daylight I left the house to supposedly go look for a job. In truth I mostly just wandered around. One day in particular that has always stayed with me for some reason was the day I smoked pot from my little metal one-hitter in Boston Commons, went to a matinee of Teen Wolf, then came home and lied to my aunt that I’d applied for several jobs all over the city. I’m not really sure why I lied, as my aunt and uncle never put any pressure on me to get a job. They may have started doing so eventually, but as it turned out I somehow did finally walk into an ice cream parlor in Harvard Square that had a “Now Hiring” sign. I worked part-time there for a couple months, then quit and went to stay with my father in New York City.

My brother was going to NYU at that time, living in a dorm just a short walk away from my father’s apartment. I went over there most evenings and got high with him and his roommate, Eric, while the two of them took turns trying to blow the other’s mind with selections from their ridiculously large and ever-growing collection of Jamaican dub music. As the current song was coming to an end, my brother or Eric (depending on whose turn it was) rose in the dim blue light of the room and selected another song, shielding the album from the other so that the song would be a surprise. Not much in the way of conversation occurred, but occasionally my brother or Eric uttered a complementary, drawling, long-voweled “dude” when the other’s song choice was exceptionally pleasing to the dude-utterer’s bass-hungry senses. After many bong hits and offerings from the likes of Augustus Pablo, Scientist, and King Fatty, I stumbled back to my dad’s place, where he would already be asleep, all the lights off. The studio apartment had only one separate room, the bathroom, and since I often came home too high to sleep I spent many a night sitting on the shut lid of the toilet, reading On the Road. I wanted my life to be like the one in the pages of that book, exciting, adventurous, everything hallowed.

The holidays came and went, and in January I applied to a small state college situated on top of a mountain in northern Vermont. It wasn’t a hard school to get into, so I got in, and within a few days was there for the start of the spring semester, which began the day the Patriots got annihilated by the Bears in the Super Bowl. I got stoned and drunk that day with a couple fellow new students, and as it turns out one of them was named Fritz. Fritz was gone by the following semester, as were some of my other new partying buddies, and the rest of them were gone within the next couple semesters. It was a college where people who had fucked up elsewhere came and hung out for a little while before moving on.

I stayed, however. Eventually my drug usage tapered off. The last time I tripped on acid was on Halloween 1987, at a Phish show at Goddard College. It was a bad trip, narrow, jittery, alienating, laced with the smell of my own burning synapses, and I spent most of it crashing around alone through limb-scraping brush in the dark woods behind the art building where everyone was having a fantastic time dancing and laughing together, everyone singing about Halley’s Comet and the land of lizards, everyone wrapped in colorful costumes, the guitarist and bass player hopping up and down in jester hats, the drummer in a matronly dress. All I had on was my Josh Wilker suit–ripped jeans, T-shirt, army jacket, Converse all-stars, skin–and if I could have I probably would have taken it all off and set it on fire.

What I’m trying to get at here is that I’m haunted by boundless possibilities, and I always have been. My earliest years, the early 1970s, came in a time and place bubbling with the idea that anything was possible. The ecstatic visions of Jack Kerouac seemed less an elegiac psalm to an evaporating world than a prelude to a world yet to come. You could be whoever you wanted to be and each day was going to be a new transformation, the promising light of the present moment giving way to even brighter, warmer, wider light. In the early 1970s, the number of my parents went from the traditional two to three, my mom’s new boyfriend Tom coming aboard. It may sound strange, I realize, but this was far from the only commune-like free love experimentation of the time. At least for some, that kind of thing was just sort of in the air.

For example, right around the same time, just before the start of the 1973 baseball season, Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson traded entire families. Much has been written about this swap, most of it in a mocking tone, so I’m not going to say much beyond pointing out that when they did it they meant it. Maybe it was in large part an extension of the fun they were all having together, but they must have believed they weren’t merely pulling a pleasurable stunt. Beyond the pleasure of the moment, there must have been a hope for some as yet uninvented republic of joy.

I don’t even really want to talk about how they both had career-worst years that season, or that in general they never really were the same as players again, or that Kekich decided after a few weeks that the experiment wasn’t working out, a decision that came too late–his wife and Fritz Peterson already having decided they wanted to make the swap permanent. I really just want to shine a light on that slim brilliant moment in time when the world seemed to some to be clay in their hands, moldable to any shape they desired. I chased that moment for a long time. I wanted the sky to crack open and spill all its secrets. I never did see any such thing. I saw Teen Wolf. I saw William “The Refrigerator” Perry score a touchdown. And one day while tripping on low-grade LSD I watched some mountains turn into a pair of old basketball sneakers.

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Bill Hands (correction)

November 19, 2006

In the last post I claimed the ’75 Bill Hands that I was never able to acquire was the last Bill Hands card ever produced. I wasn’t sure about this but I figured I’d just say it anyway. Turns out I was wrong, and here’s the proof, a 1976 Bill Hands. I also claimed that the guy Bill Hands was traded for, George Stone, didn’t have a 1976 card, but he did. I don’t have the 1976 George Stone card, but I see the name next to a blank box on the Mets’ 1976 team card checklist.

I know all this now because yesterday I turned a corner in my ongoing departure from sanity by taking several hours to sort my entire scrambled collection back into teams, in part so I could begin to investigate the veracity of claims such as that George Stone and Bill Hands, who by then had both played their last major league games, did not have 1976 cards ghosting their respective vanishings. My wife, who as a very young child once organized her grandma’s sprawling “miscellaneous” drawer into neat piles of paperclips and rubber bands, helped me sort for a few minutes before losing interest. When she later saw me sorting the cards of individual teams into different years, she withheld comment, but when still later she looked up from her social-work textbook and saw me subjecting cards for an individual team and individual year to even more sorting, she fixed me with an incredulous stare.

“Are you putting those into alphabetical order?”

“What? No. Of course not,” I said. I forced out a snort of laughter meant to sound dismissive. “Please.”

“Mm hm,” she said. She’d already turned back to her book.

Anyway, I don’t know how I didn’t remember this card. It must have made an impression when I found it in a pack. Finally, I’d acquired a Bill Hands, but it was the wrong Bill Hands, a year too late.

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Bill Hands

November 17, 2006

Here’s the closest I ever got to Cardboard God nirvana. In 1975, my first year of baseball card obsession, I nearly gathered every player for an entire team. From Bibby, Jim to Tovar, Cesar, I slowly but steadily accrued every Texas Ranger except one.

Topps card number 412. Hands, Bill/P

My brother owned this card. I can’t remember clearly, but he may have even had doubles. However, it was not at all customary to simply hand over surplus cards. I understood this and was in a strange way even glad about it. The game had rules, and rules helped create a world with meaning. He proposed to trade me Bill Hands for my one and only 1975 Carl Yastrzemski. I was tempted, but somehow even at age seven I knew that if I made such a deal I’d feel as if I’d been punched in the stomach for months afterward.

I gripped tight to Yaz and decided to take my chances with the random gatherings within each new pack of cards. Probably the first time I ever prayed was in my silent pack-opening pleas for Bill Hands. Bill Hands never did show up, obviously. At some point I did get doubles of Yaz but by then my brother had Yaz, too, so that deal was no longer on the table. Eventually the general store in town stopped carrying the 1975 cards.

Hands, a former 20-game winner, went 6–7 for the Rangers that year and was traded in the offseason to the Mets for George Stone. Neither he nor Stone ever appeared in another major league game or on another baseball card. Many years later my brother sold his Bill Hands or Bill Handses along with all his other cards for money to buy a used pair of downhill skis. He was in his mid-twenties, broke, fleeing the wreckage of a failed relationship. He staved off starvation by getting a job selling lift tickets at a ski area and in his off hours either partied with others in the migrant ski area work force or flung himself at great speeds down the mountain on his baseball card skis.

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Jim Sundberg

September 24, 2006

I love sleeping. I also enjoy, in descending order, napping, resting, lying around, sitting there, staring off into the middle distance, leaning on girders, slouching, standing, and aimlessly walking. It’s possible that my slack physical–or is it moral?–makeup is one of the reasons I have spent such an inordinate amount of my life contemplating baseball. With one notable exception, baseball affords its players significant spans of empty time, outfielders often free to wonder about their disintegrating marriages or what kind of cheese to get on their next cheeseburger, infielders in their more anxious moments between pitches at liberty to polish the tics of their various obsessive-compulsive disorders, relief pitchers able to loaf and laze for most of the game like natives of an imaginary island paradise that smells of tobacco juice and Tiger Balm, starting pitchers buoyed on their occasional work days by the knowledge that they can, if they so choose, spend the following few days reorganizing their record collection or gambling at the dog track or, like the long-successful southpaw Mickey Lolich, becoming morbidly obese without any of these lifestyle choice necessarily having a negative impact on their abilities. And designated hitters, of course, can pass all but a tiny fraction of each game in the clubhouse eating Pringles and watching pornography. Only the catcher, wrapped in heavy pads and armor, involved in every play and busy between plays with the planning of the next play, is barred from taking pause. He is like a drummer in a go-nowhere acid rock band, chained to the beat while his cohorts explore all manner of irrelevancies, or like that one thin pale guy at the hippie commune who washes all the dishes and mails in the zoning-fee checks while everyone else has chant-filled orgies and wanders through the forest to carry on tearful conversations with moss.

Jim Sundberg, winner of seven consecutive Gold Glove awards, caught 90% or more of his team’s games in more seasons (six) than any man in history. In each of these seasons his team played 81 home games in the blast-furnace heat of an undomed stadium in Arlington, Texas. In two of those seasons, 1977 and 1978, he even finished 15th in the MVP voting, despite the fact that he was only slightly more imposing at bat than cartoon-oriole-haunted Rich Dauer. His worth was based almost completely on the fact that he adhered so fully and competently to that most coachly of all exhortations–“keep your head in the game”–(a demand which, because of my consistent failure to follow it, still grates on my ears all these many years after it was repeatedly shouted in my direction) that he was able to prop up his entire team like Atlas supporting the world. His Texas Ranger squads were known to stake early claims on first place only to wilt as the heat continued to pound down throughout the summer. But while the Bump Willses and Jim Umbargers of the world faltered, Jim Sundberg continued to perform his demanding job effectively day in and day out, an Atlas who remained in his world-supporting squat even as his precious burden crumbled to pebbles. With all this in mind, I can’t help thinking that in this card Jim Sundberg’s penetrating squint, which seems to be directed straight at me, betrays a keen premonition on his part that I too will disappoint him, that I haven’t got what it takes, that I am, just as I have often suspected, a fairly tall but mostly worthless pile of shit.

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Jim Bibby

September 15, 2006
 

Jim Bibby began the 1975 campaign on the Texas Rangers but was traded to Cleveland in mid-season along with Jackie Brown, Rick Waits, and $100,000 for Gaylord Perry. A few months later, Cleveland made another deal, shipping a power-hitting part-time outfielder to the New York Yankees for Pat Dobson. What I’m saying–and my hands are shaking as I type this–is that between those two deals, from June 13, 1975, to November 22, 1975, Jim Bibby and Oscar Gamble were teammates.

I am incapable of fully expressing my emotions regarding this stunning discovery. I can only point out that in this picture, a young Jim Bibby’s already sizable afro appears to be annexing a treetop poking up over the top of the stadium in the background. As evidenced by the calm, confident, slightly mirthful expression on his face, Bibby was aware that he was just getting started, that he was deep in the groove of the process of creating one of the most wondrous monuments of his time. Decades later, grown men on high ledges would be coaxed back into resuming their disappointing existences by the seemingly accidental childhood recollection of Jim Bibby’s glorious afro, the embers of awe and glee glowing once more just in the nick of time.

While we were in our 20s, some friends and I sometimes passed the time waiting for our lives to begin by drinking beer and inventing entire discographies and rehab-addled histories of various versions of the rock band we would never start, or even really consider starting, none of us with any initiative or musical talent. One of the band names we came up with was Bigger Than Bibby. I suppose we wanted our narrowing worlds to be more, I don’t know, mythical or something, as they seemed when as children we held a certain piece of cardboard, our mouths clogged with sugary gum, and gazed for the first time upon what Jim Bibby hath wrought. I think we also were drawn to the impossibility imbedded in the band name–on a certain level, a supremely important or perhaps completely unimportant level that I am spending my life trying and failing to define, there was nothing bigger than Bibby.

Except maybe–maybe–Oscar Gamble.