Archive for the ‘Toronto Blue Jays’ Category


Dave Hilton

October 18, 2016

dave-hiltonCalifornia Sun


I once had a meeting at Sony Pictures Studios. I was out in California to do some readings and signings for Cardboard Gods. I drove over in a rental car from Pasadena, where my wife and I were staying, to Culver City. Afraid I was going to get lost and be late, I got to the studio very early and wandered around a little. I got a green tea at a Starbucks on the lot, or whatever it’s called, and peered around in vain for people I’d seen on television and got more nervous. I felt tired and nauseous and burned my tongue on the tea.

Dave Hilton never played for the Toronto Blue Jays. In fact, in 1977, the year this card appeared, he was in the organization of the Blue Jays’ 2016 ALCS opponent, the Cleveland Indians, though he never appeared in a major league game for the Indians either. The 1977 Blue Jays—the first edition of the team, with a roster built with expansion draftees and other even more marginal odds and ends, such as Dave Hilton, who was purchased, along with one of a small but baffling series of fellows in baseball history named Dave Roberts, from the Padres—were like this, a collection of phantoms and rumors, as if their main purpose was to illustrate the more mysterious properties of the word expansion. Hilton somehow carried some of this mystery with him beyond 1977 and beyond the Blue Jays and across the ocean to Japan, where he played a role in the launching of the literary career of Haruki Murakami, who once reflected in a New Yorker essay on this turning point in his life:

The crack of bat meeting ball echoed through the stadium. Hilton easily rounded first and pulled up to second. And it was at just that moment that a thought struck me: You know what? I could try writing a novel. I still remember the wide-open sky, the feel of the new grass, the satisfying crack of the bat. Something flew down from the sky at that instant, and, whatever it was, I accepted it.

Marukami went on, of course, to write a lot of great books, I guess. I’ve always meant to give them a whirl but haven’t gotten to it yet. Most of us have these things we mean to do. In the end, what’s it all going to mean? We’re passing through, registering in a soft wash of blue for a moment before disappearing without much left behind to mark that we were ever here.

On the Sony lot, when it was time, I rose and tossed my cup in a garbage bin and moved in the direction of a building that housed the office where my meeting was scheduled. It was the office of a person whose name appeared in shows I’d seen, one of those names that came right before the beginning of the story. Was I moving toward something? Was my name going to be one of those names? Was my story about to begin? The sun was shining, the California sun, and I was wondering if I’d later talk about this day as if it were a turning point, when the sky cracked open and I was grabbed by the collar and led into some permanent golden light.

To be continued.


Dave Stieb

February 16, 2016


Here are, I don’t know, ten things about Dave Stieb:

  1. I associate Dave Stieb with Ivan Lendl. They were around at the same time, inhabiting the tops of their professions right around the time that I was drifting away from childhood and magic and into something steeper and more tedious. In the place of the dashing, colorful comic book heroes of the 1970s were these two colorless, methodical grinders, known for steely endurance and for tireless work ethics that had produced, from sheer will, formidable “best in the world” weapons: Stieb with his slider, Lendl with his forehand. They’d made it to the top on hard work, it seemed, which I found demoralizing. I don’t think I’ve ever realized it, but the other thing that ties them together in my mind—neither quite getting to the very top circle of the history of their games—pleased me. I didn’t want Lendl to ever win Wimbledon, and when Stieb kept losing no-hitters in the ninth I exulted, just a little.
  2. Stieb finally did get his no-hitter, the year this 1990 card came out. Before that, he’d lost four of them in the ninth inning, three of those with two out, one of those one-out-away instances a would-be perfect game. If he’d converted all four of those plus the one that he actually did complete, he’d have five no-hitters, more than anyone but Ryan, and maybe that glittering bauble would have spirited him into the Hall of Fame. The statistic of WAR, which I don’t understand but generally buy as a legitimate contextual estimation of a player’s overall worth, finds Dave Stieb to be the 69th most useful pitcher in baseball history, ahead of such pitchers as Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, and Mariano Rivera. Those guys all had a lot of glittering baubles. Stieb? Not so much.
  3. There are three red heart-shaped balloons floating around my house. My wife got them for Valentine’s day for me and my two sons. It’s cold here in Chicago, so the heat is running constantly, blowing warm air up out of the floor vents, causing the balloons to drift around the house. My wife and the boys are out of the house right now. I would never be able to notice the movement of the balloons if they were here. When they’re here it’s all chaos, and I lose my composure constantly in the unending series of annoyances and crises and fits of wailing and whining. In the brief quiet, I can see how full my life is with love.
  4. Dave Stieb had a very small mustache and never wore long sleeves. Maybe he did wear long sleeves once in a while, but I only remember his bare arms, which I associate with the trim, punctilious mustache that was an affront to me somehow, again a reminder that my Rollie Fingers childhood was over. Also, I like a pitcher to wear the sleeves. Bill Lee wore sleeves. It made pitchers seem somehow more cerebral and fragile, and less likely to challenge you to a humiliating arm-wrestling contest, which always seemed like what might happen if I ever ran into Dave Stieb.
  5. Dave Stieb went 8 and 8 in his rookie season with the 1979 Toronto Blue Jays, which is like _____. What is it like? The Blue Jays lost 109 games that year, and it was their third season in existence, and they were getting worse as they went on. Danny Ainge, arguably the worst baseball player in history, was a regular player. No pitcher finished with a winning record, and Stieb was the only pitcher whose losses didn’t outnumber his wins. So what is this like? I used to be able to whip off the similes. I think I’m losing control of my pitches.
  6. Whatever happened to Cardboard Gods? You know, that website that churned out the baseball card celebrations in bunches every week? Guy must have just lost it, right? Did he ever have it?
  7. My wife and sons are back from their outing. I hear crying (the baby) and whining (the boy) and my wife’s voice rising, exasperated. So better make these last three quick.
  8. Dave Stieb came up recently on an episode of the Pop Culture Happy Hour. Is this entire post just an excuse to bring this up? Well, mostly, but I also always want most of all to connect with my writing, and this doesn’t happen a whole lot these days. I’m writing another book, but that’s entirely a solitary endeavor at the moment, so I want to write some words and have them be read, and Dave Stieb is as good a subject as any. Anyway, one of the guests on Pop Culture Happy Hour, Sarah Bunting, mentioned that Cardboard Gods (the book) was making her happy (near the end of the episode, if you are interested), and a key point of connection for her was when the book went into the phenomenon of getting one player’s card again and again and again in seemingly every pack. For me it was Dick Sharon, for her father it was Reno Bertoia, and for her it was Dave Stieb.
  9. Baseball cards are my hobby, but not in the same way that they are to most who use that word. I haven’t collected them since 1980, when I was twelve, and I don’t take good care of the cards I have from then and from sporadic, random acquisitions and gifts since then. They’re all in a couple of cardboard boxes, the post-1980 cards loose and the cards from my childhood still sorted into thick stacks, teams, wrapped in rubber bands, the teams themselves piled into the four divisions that existed back then. I didn’t get this card back then. Dave Stieb is from the great, long aftermath of my life, which stretched from puberty on into my twenties, thirties, forties. I’ve been alive so long I’ve outlived that aftermath! I’m into a whole new unsortable mess, fatherhood, which has cast everything from the past into a kind of evaporating preamble, a rickety, no longer useable bridge that brought me to my boys.
  10. Dave Stieb had one of the most prolonged hiatuses in baseball history. For four years he “did not play.” In the eyes of the world he was retired, but there must have been for him some unfinished business, some nagging voice calling him back to the game. In 1998, after not playing since 1993, he returned for a few games for the Blue Jays. It doesn’t seem like he did so well, but maybe it felt good to be out there again, and maybe he’d needed that feeling. I wish I had an eleventh item on the list so that I could talk about how much I love the idea of the hiatus. I like fantasizing about some hiatus that will lift me up and out of my life like the heat vent lifting one of the red heart-shaped balloons. Up I would rise for a while, a long time, and then at some point I’d come back. That’s the key—you’re just on hiatus, not gone.

Vada Pinson and Jim Mason

October 16, 2015

Jim MasonVada PinsonALCS Preview

This one is pretty simple. The two cards here, representing the American League teams poised to vie for a spot in the World Series, both feature players who got one chance to play at that very pinnacle of their sport. Vada Pinson did so in 1961, when he was 22. He had a spectacular season, the best of his splendid career, and helped the Reds win the National League pennant. In the World Series, the Reds faced one of the greatest teams in history, the 1961 Yankees, and got smoked four games to one. Pinson played poorly, managing only 2 base hits in 22 at bats.

Fifteen years later, the teams met again in the World Series, only this time it was the Reds, not the Yankees, in the role of legendary collective steamroller. Pinson was no longer on the Reds, or anywhere in the majors, but Jim Mason was on the Yankees team that the Reds blasted in four straight. Unlike Pinson, he’d not been a central factor in his team making it to the World Series, hitting .180 in 217 at-bats as one half of a punchless shortstop platoon. In the World Series, the platoon approach seems to have gone out the window, and Mason’s counterpart, the immortal Fred “Chicken” Stanley, got the start in each of the four games. In game 2, Stanley was pinch-hit for early, and Mason replaced him in the field and got a turn at bat later in the game. It would be his only World Series at bat. In his entire career he would have 1756 plate appearances and would homer just 12 times, but he made his one World Series at bat count by lining one over the right-field fence.

It was the only home run by the Yankees in the series. In the ninth inning, Mason’s turn at bat came up again, and manager Billy Martin pinch-hit for him, bringing in righty Otto Velez to face lefty Will McEnaney. Velez struck out. A few weeks later, Velez would follow Mason to the Blue Jays in the expansion draft. Mason didn’t last long as a Blue Jay, but Velez established himself as one of the most prominent of the early Blue Jays—by the time he left Toronto, he was second on the Blue Jays career home run list to only John Mayberry, who is best known as a member of the team on which Vada Pinson finished up, the Kansas City Royals.

Is life a swirling web of interconnected strands, Pinson to Mason to Velez to Mayberry to Pinson, everything tying together with everything else in a dizzying and ultimately infinite everlasting wholeness? Or is it just an absurdity of random occurrences? Who knows? All you can do is break things down into measurable data. And on that level, the level of percentages, Jim Mason, the only player to homer in his only World Series at bat, is—despite his inferiority to, among others, Chicken Stanley—the greatest World Series performer in the history of human civilization.

Edge: Blue Jays


Jim Mason and Len Barker

October 8, 2015

Jim MasonLen Barker 78ALDS preview, part one

So the playoffs begin today for the Blue Jays and Rangers. Beginnings are often romanticized as capacious fountains of possibility, but in actuality beginnings are messy, fraught with disorientation, flailing, clumsy masquerades, mistakes. Jim Mason would be distinctly qualified to verify this, as he’s the only player to play for both the Texas Rangers in their first season, 1972, and the Toronto Blue Jays in their first season, 1977. The Rangers and Blue Jays began life with 100 and 107 losses, respectively, and Jim Mason epitomized both efforts by hitting .197 for the Rangers and .187 for the Blue Jays. You could interpret the repulsed grimace shown on his face here as his reaction to being pulled back into his second formative morass. He’s shown as a Blue Jay, but at the time the card was produced there was really no such thing as a Blue Jay, so Topps staffers had to take their best guess and doctor this blind approximation atop whatever photo they had available, in this case a shot of Mason on his 1976 team, the Yankees, who punctuated their profound distance from stumbling beginnings by winning yet another pennant in 1976, their fucking thirtieth.

Mason didn’t last long on the Blue Jays, which is probably a pretty demoralizing thing to go through—being unwanted on one of the worst teams in history. His old team wanted him, however, or at least wanted him and Steve Hargan more than Roy Howell, who they shifted to the Blue Jays along with some cash, and so in 1977 and 1978 he teamed with his counterpart here, Len Barker.

While Mason, a utility infielder on new and terrible teams, suggested the reality of beginnings, Barker was of the species of baseball player most prone to being glimpsed through the romantic notion of beginnings as daydreams of dazzling, boundless possibilities: a big young pitcher who throws smoke. In 1976 at age 20 he tossed a shutout in his second start, and the following year, at age 21, while teaming with Jim Mason, he posted in limited duty the best numbers, by percentages, of any pitcher on the 94-win squad. Things were looking up for the Rangers! But as it turned out the Rangers sank back into the swamp of losing for many more years, and Barker never really became the next Nolan Ryan, as was hoped, though he continued to show flashes throughout the years.

That’s the reality of life: bright flashes and long, dim slogs. So what’s the right way to think about beginnings? Do you grimace in knowing revulsion or smile? In practice I tend toward the former, but I always hope to at least lean toward beaming idiotic dreams.

Edge: Rangers


Butch Edge

October 1, 2012

(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)

Butch Edge Sent Me

1980, Vermont

Nada. That was the word on the license plate of our VW Camper. It means nothing. It means Mexico. It means love. But it’s gone. The Camper, the license plate. Now we have a new blue Toyota Corolla with a license plate that doesn’t mean anything.

This morning,Mom drove the Toyota Corolla to her job, and Tom drove his old black Saab to his job. My brother is at basketball camp. Little League ended a few weeks ago, my last season. The tennis ball I’m holding doesn’t have any stories in it. Some days it helps me make whole other worlds. I throw it at the duct-tape strike zone on the garage. It hits a rut on the way back to me and caroms into the front yard, rolling to a stop in the grass. I could go get it, try again. Instead I start walking down Route 14 toward Race’s.

I buy a couple of packs and walk home. I open the packs in my room. Nada. No Red Sox, no Superheroes. Mixed in among the doubles and the checklists and the nobodies is one of the Future Stars card, for the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays are still brand new and still lose all the time.

“Butch Edge,” I say out loud.


2012, Chicago

I have a few small notebooks scattered around, each about the size of a pack of baseball cards. One on a table near some bills, one in a bureau near the bed, one in a drawer with my wallet and keys, one on a file cabinet next to a Future Stars card from 1980 featuring Butch Edge. I used to carry the notebooks around and jot down observations. I planned to channel all the notes at some point into Chekhovian masterworks. For a long time I lived for some vague life to come.I would be a Man of Letters, tirelessly churning the concrete details of everyday life into literature. This future hasn’t arrived. Now there’s the job, chores, a baby. The baby doesn’t sleep. At night my wife and I take turns trying to rock him into letting go of the waking world, but he keeps clinging to it fiercely, the misery of exhaustion amassing on his tiny shoulders but never completely overtaking his insatiable curiosity. Tonight after one of my failed attempts, I gather up all my little notebooks and rip out all the scribbled-on pages so as to salvage the notebooks for making grocery lists. The baby begins to cry. It’s late. I stand there in the kitchen with my hands full of disconnected observations. I feel a little tingly, disintegrating, like a Star Trek redshirt on a malfunctioning transporter pad.

1980, Vermont

Tom gets home from work first and meditates, and then he practices walking across the tightrope he strung across the inside of the garage. On my way out to the backyard, I catch a glimpse of him up there, teetering. I know he’s going to fall off because that’s what always happens, but I look away quick so the last thing I see is him still balanced a few feet above the ground, wavering, his arms straight out.

In the backyard, the sheep, Virginia, is munching grass on her side of the electric fence. Near one of the wooden fence posts, there are some of the long-stemmed wheat-looking weeds I like to pluck and chew on like a toothpick. I yank one up out of the ground. If you touch one of these stems to the electric fence you will get a jolt.

I take a deep breath, tense myself, and touch the stem to the fence.


The fence must be shorted out again. Everything’s half-broken nowadays.

I break off a toothpick-sized stem and stick it in my mouth and pretend I’m U.L. Washington, the toothpick-gnawing shortstop for the Royals. All their guys are fast. That’s who they are. Fast and fierce and great. Who are the Blue Jays? Nada, light blue. brand new nada.

2012, Chicago

I stand at the kitchen counter, disintegrating. My baby’s crying. I look down at the little scribbled pages in my hands. What am I holding onto? As I flip them into the trash I catch glimpses. Fragments of dreams. Overheard conversations on the train. One page has some notes that I must have made while talking on the phone to Tom. The notes are about Tom’s tightrope walking. He learned to tightrope walk in 1980 as part of the skills he needed to play the lead role in the town’s production of Barnum, which climaxed with a walk across a tightrope suspended a few feet above the stage. He told me that while preparing for the role, the turning point was when he learned how he could incorporate a fall into the performance. I was going to make a big deal of this provision in my writing somehow, build a whole metaphor around it, but I never did.

He’s not with my mom anymore, and when they were together they weren’t married, but I call him my stepfather. He was there every day. I used to have night terrors as a kid. Books that cover the subject often say that these episodes featuring screaming on the part of the child are not remembered by the child, but I always remembered them. One of the ones I remember most was a later one, when they weren’t happening quite as often. Edging into the mid-’80s. The house was empty except for me and Tom. My brother must have been away at school by then, and my mom must have been on some trip. Usually, no one knew what to do with my screaming. No one could help. But Tom held my hand. It helped.

1980, Vermont

I hold out my cupped hand to Virginia across the top of the shorted-out electric fence, pretending I have a handful of grain. It’s a bad trick, but I want Virginia to come over. She does. She doesn’t complain when my palm turns out to be full of nada. She lets me scratch her forehead. She likes it. She can’t purr like a cat or lick you like a dog and her eyes are just dim black nada but she likes it and I love her.

My mom will be home soon. Lately the backseat of the Toyota Corolla is full of the bulbs of white flowers. That’s what it looks like for a second, like the car is slowly filling up with flowers, especially if I blur things by taking off my glasses. But put the glasses back on and they’re the tissues my mom cries into all the way home from her job.

2012, Chicago

My mom told me the other day over the phone that I’m a good father. But I don’t know what I’m doing. I guess she sees me being affectionate to the boy. I must have picked that up somewhere, from her, from my father, from my brother, from Tom, how it’s good to be cared for. But in general I feel like most decisions I make are mistakes. Also, my mind wanders. Earlier today, I was watching him at a playground and my mind wandered and the next thing I knew he was holding a bubonically ashen rodent carcass in his hands. I batted it away and carried him to my wife, who scoured his hands and arms with Purell. Even so, she stayed nervous the rest of the day. I was nervous too. How can you have a kid and not be ruined with anxiety every second? On the way out of the park we saw a lividly decaying bird corpse in the grass.

“That’s not a good sign, is it?” my wife said. “Things dying all over the place?”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” I said, but my mind was reeling with visions of a mean, imminent future. The future used to be new blue nada, but now? Dead mice, dead birds, poverty, scarcity, epidemic disease. The world on a tightrope, wavering.

And tonight, my son can’t fall asleep. Midnight has come and gone, 1 a.m. has come and gone, 2 a.m. has come and gone. This happens all the time. I’ve started falling asleep on my feet, leaving this world for some other for seconds at a time before partially returning, bits and pieces left behind. Waking is now a new way of disintegrating, the present a provisional intersection of fictions.

Vermont, 1980

I stop scratching Virginia on the forehead and turn to go back to the house. A man is standing there on the lawn. He looks very tired. There’s the sound, somewhere nearby, of a baby crying.

“Butch Edge sent me,” he says to me. This man has glasses. He looks a little like my father, a little like my mother.

“Butch Edge?” I say.

“Butch Edge has glasses that look like your glasses,” he says. This is true.

“Your glasses!” he says, looking just above my head and speaking louder, like Tom up on stage booming out lines from a script. “The arm of them will break off during a fight for a rebound in an eighth grade basketball game!”

“Eighth grade?” I say. That’s in the future.

“You will get other pairs of glasses,” the man says,his voice back down to a mutter like my muttering dad. Now he’s looking down at the grass like he dropped something.

“I always come back here,” he mutters, like he’s talking to himself. “I always come back to this place.”

“I’ve never seen you,” I say. He looks back up at me. The baby is still crying somewhere.

“What I can tell you about the future is that all your glasses will break, actually, one after the other, or else will just not work after a while because your eyes will keep getting worse. Your glasses will get thicker and thicker.” He looks past me. His eyes widen. “Oh. Virginia,” he says. The way he says it, softly but with his voice going squiggly, wavering, it’s like my mom.

That crying baby. I want to do something about it, but I don’t know anything about babies. I try to think about something that I know about.

“I have to go sort my cards,” I say.

I can hear the Toyota Corolla pulling into the drive. There’s a little mist of sadness over everything.

“Butch Edge,” the man says,fading into the nada, the crying.

Chicago, 2012

And the crying gets louder and I’m back at the kitchen counter in front of several small narrowed notebooks with blank pages.

“Butch Edge,” I say.

In 1979, his only major league year, Butch Edge notched three wins. The last was a complete game 3–2 victory over Hall of Famer Jim Palmer and the eventual American League champ Baltimore Orioles. For a moment, the future through thick glasses: not bad. Butch Edge.

I go into the bedroom and take the baby from my wife. I can’t get him to sleep but after a while, through nothing I’m doing or not doing, he stops crying. He loves life, hates to sleep. He reaches for my glasses and pulls them from my face and goes blurry. One of his favorite comedy routines: He takes my glasses, I call him a bully, he laughs. In my arms this being of pure laughing light, free of the future and the past, nada light blue brand new nada. I’ll never know what I’m doing. Blind I hold on.


Alvis Woods

November 9, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

W Is for Woods

In 1979, the year this card came out, the Iran Hostage Crisis began. I came to this thought recently, when realizing that the era of parenting in my home had passed Day 100, and realizing that I had thought of it that way, as if it were being reported on the nightly news, e.g., “Day 100: Still No Sleep.”

The Iran Hostage Crisis went on through the end of 1979 and through 1980 and into 1981. It was one of my first experiences in following a news story for an extended period of time, though earlier in 1979 I had also been aware that Skylab was plummeting to the earth in chunks and that the Three Mile Island nuclear plant was oozing deadly radiation.

The best moment of Alvis Woods’ professional career had already come and gone in a flash by 1979. You can sense this in his 1979 card. He is being surrendered back into the gray from which he came.

He’d been a minor leaguer for some years when he was selected with other odds and ends in the November 1976 expansion draft that breathed mediocre life into the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays. He was the eighth player taken by the Blue Jays, who had already nabbed another outfielder named Woods (Gary) with their fourth pick. Alvis Woods didn’t get a start in the team’s first game, but he entered as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning and homered. This first big league at-bat for Alvis Woods, in the first game of a brand new team, must have passed by like lightning. I wonder what is left of the moment. Woods played for a few more seasons for Toronto, toiled back in the minors for a few more, then resurfaced for a brief stint with the Twins in 1986. He was a decent hitter, but he didn’t seem to have had any moments that would have topped that first one. What does he remember of it?

I don’t know what I’ll remember of these first months as a father. A few nights ago at dinner we set the baby down in a high chair. It was a first. To this point we have had to eat in shifts designed so that the parent who isn’t shoveling down food can hold the baby and attempt to keep him from becoming loudly and heart-breakingly unhappy, but last night we realized he was okay with sitting in his little chair even though he’s too young to really sit up on his own but okay with the slanted back of the chair propping him, so we sat at the table like humans and ate and he looked at a book made of soft cloth about bears. It was a peaceful moment. It made me want to aim my gratitude somewhere. I’ll aim it now, while thinking again of the moment, at Alvis Woods. These are the only gods I’ll ever worship, I guess. It’s been this way since I was a kid. So thank you, Alvis Woods.

A couple weeks earlier, I took the boy on a walk in his stroller to a park by the lake. Sometimes he falls into one of his exceedingly rare naps in the stroller, but this time he cried the whole way there, louder and louder. I walked faster and faster until I was trotting, then jogging, then running maniacally, because sometimes the extra jiggling calms him down, but on this day it wasn’t working. By the time we got to the park he was wailing and I wanted to tie a cinder block to my ankle and dive off the pier that extends out into where the lake gets deep. Instead, I took the baby out of the stroller and walked him around on some grass below some trees. He started to calm down and look around at the branches of the trees and some little birds hopping around from branch to branch. I sat down on a bench and got a bottle and fed it to him. It was a nice day, blue sky, mild. I was feeding my son on a bench below some trees.

I grew up surrounded by woods, but I never thought about them. Hallucinogens ingested in my late teens finally made me aware of the woods in a worshipful way. You know, like, “Wow, dude, check out those trees.” Now I stand by the window in my apartment in a city and hold my son and point at the trees on our street and say, “tree.” He stares out at them and at everything. His eyes are pure. Sometimes I feel like a hostage or like a flaming chunk of Skylab is about to fall on my head. Sometimes I want to tie a cinder block to my leg and leap into Lake Michigan. Sometimes I hold my baby and feel like it is the best moment of my life, my first at-bat, my first moment in the majors, my first game with a brand new team, my hands feeling some kind of perfect connection that will haunt me the rest of my lucky fucking days.


Jose Canseco

April 18, 2011

Maybe it’s okay when things stop coming together. Who knows? Either way, here are some of my disappointing attempts over the last several days to write about this loaded Jose Canseco card. Nothing has really felt like it was coming together, but I have to put something down and try to move on. 

From 4/17:
Eras personified
1900-1919: Ty Cobb
1920-1945: Babe Ruth
1946-1968: Jackie Robinson
1969-1985: Reggie Jackson
1986-200?: Barry Bonds or Jose Canseco?

From 4/16:
Everything is provisional, faulty, impure. Every day I try to find a true sentence. Every day I feel conquered. I wish I knew what to do with this feeling. Sisyphus at least knew the particulars of his punishment. A rock, a hill. I can’t put my back into anything. No true sentences exist (not even this one). 

From 4/15:
I thought this morning I might start keeping track of my mistakes. This would only be fair for someone who spends so much time scrutinizing and exploiting the stats on the backs of baseball cards, those merciless numerical narratives of how far each player falls short of perfection. I made my first mistake today when I failed to spring out of bed when my alarm clock rang. I always set my alarm for very early in the morning so that I can write before I have to go to work. If I don’t write every day my days lose color and meaning, and I begin to feel like a prisoner in a pointless, exhausting life, so I try to fight it by getting up very early, thus my first mistake today, the first of my intentional or accidental diversions from my intentions, when instead of springing out of bed early I just lay there in the dark. Days begin in the cold dark and with dread, and it seems while lying in bed that the only escape from the dread is back into the warmth and oblivion of sleep. I made my second mistake when I finally did get out of bed and, while reaching for my glasses, knocked a thick biography of Charles Schulz onto the floor. This was not my intention, and it caused my wife to stir. She didn’t wake up, I don’t think, but still I didn’t intend to knock the book over, so you’d have to say it was a mistake to have done so. I don’t know if I made any mistakes with my breakfast. Probably I spilled crumbs and ate too much butter on my bread and even now cockroaches are on their way to a takeover of the kitchen and arteries are clogging in my heart, but these mistakes will have to remain unofficial for I didn’t specifically notice them. But I did notice another mistake as it was happening while I spent a long time after eating breakfast reading the Charles Schulz biography. This again came at the cost of what little writing time I have every day. But I was near the end of the book, which is 566 pages long, and so I kept reading until Charles Schulz died. I didn’t have much time left to write.    

From 4/14:
The Jose Canseco baseball card pictured here seems ludicrous now, the subject looking less like a human being than a misshapen and overinflated Macy’s Day parade balloon, but at the time it came out, 1998, baseball was luring droves of disenchanted fans back to the game with record-smashing barrages of the long ball, at the center of the cyclone of power several unnaturally massive bat-wielding hulks, all following in the footsteps of the Johnny Appleseed of steroids pictured here in smug repose, and few among us so much as blinked. Baseball, that pure land at the center of America, was back.

From 4/13:
We the people, weak, conniving, greedy, diseased in body and mind, in order to force a pure land into being will use force to trample anything in our path. We the people, addicted to purity, forever scour the land of apparent impurities, the godless and savage and monstrous, and we the people expand and enslave, never satisfied, purity forever elusive. Splits and fissures everywhere, we the people are fractured, atomized. We the people dream of the pastoral idyll of green fields and inalienable truths and baseball, every new transgression seen not as evidence of an imperfect world but as a sin against the pure ideal that, in reality, never was and never will be.


Mike Willis

January 19, 2010

Mike Willis spent three seasons climbing the lower rungs of the Baltimore Orioles minor league system, and then he spent three more seasons stuck at the team’s Triple A affiliate in Rochester. He was a good minor league pitcher. The textual highlights on the back of this 1979 card point out that he notched a no-hitter during his first professional season, in 1972 at Bluefield, and that he led the International League in shutouts in 1974. His best season came the following year, when he went 14-8 with a 2.57 ERA for a Rochester squad that finished nearly 30 games above .500.

The success of that Rochester squad suggests the major reason for Mike Willis’ extended minor league limbo: the Orioles of that era were loaded with talent above, below, and beside him, especially in the pitching department. On the big club from 1974 through 1976, when the team finished second, first, and fourth in the A.L. in team ERA, the Orioles featured 20-game-winners Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Wayne Garland, and Mike Torrez as well as long-time star Dave McNally and 18-game-winner Ross Grimsley. All of those pitchers save for Palmer were on their way out with the Orioles, but unfortunately for Mike Willis the Orioles’ system was stocked with potential replacements. As he continued to win games in front of the Rochester faithful, he was passed over for promotion to the big club by three fellow (and younger) starting pitchers who would, with Palmer, form the core of a rejuvenated Orioles staff in the late 1970s and early 1980s: Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez, and Scott McGregor. Willis’ numbers at Rochester were good enough that you have to think that he began to wonder what those guys had that he didn’t have.

Perhaps doubt began to creep in. In 1976, for the first time in his professional career, his ERA edged above 4, though he still managed to win twice as many games as he lost (12-6). In November of that year, the Orioles left him unprotected for the Blue Jays/Mariners expansion draft. In this draft of guys that other teams could live without, Mike Willis went 55th, right before Puchy Delgado.

He lasted a handful of seasons with the Jays, splitting time between the majors and the minors. On the big club, he racked up three times as many losses as wins, which isn’t surprising given that the Blue Jays’ winning percentages during the Mike Willis Era were .335, 366, .327, .414, and .349. This 1979 card captures him in the midst of these years of constant defeat. His contorted face and body do not give off an aura of power or confidence (unlike, say, a similar moment in a Nolan Ryan card from a year later) but rather of great effort and limitations and a gnarled and irreducible cyst of hope. The world passes you by. The world lambasts your ineffective junk. You wind and twist and try again, your stuff thin smoke and fractured mirrors, magic and luck all but gone. You keep throwing. As long as they put a ball in your hand, you throw.

In 1982, Mike Willis, apparently no longer wanted by the Blue Jays, got work with the Oklahoma City 89ers, a Phillies affiliate. His ERA that season was an even 7.00, and the 89ers, a collection of fading veterans surrounding prospect Julio Franco, went 43-91. Astoundingly—considering the ERA and the help around him, or lack thereof—Mike Willis finished the season with a winning record of 7-6. This last morsel of luck proved to be of little use: It was over. As several of his former Rochester teammates were rolling to the 1983 World Series title in Baltimore, Mike Willis was beginning life out here with the rest of us, empty-handed.


Steve Staggs

September 23, 2009

Steve Staggs 78

Not much going on in the way of a race for the pennant in 2009, save for a late surge by the Minnesota Twins that has narrowed the Detroit Tigers’ lead in the A.L. Central to 2.5 games. Barring the always possible total collapse by any of the other playoff frontrunners, the schedule for October is pretty much set, which leaves the drama of the last couple weeks of the season to individual races and the possible setting of seasonal records. In the National League, the likelihood of a Triple Crown by the best player in the game, Albert Pujols, seems remote considering Hanley Ramirez’ 22-point lead in the race for the batting title. Meanwhile, the player who should be as much as a shoo-in for MVP honors in the A.L. as Pujols is in the N.L., Joe Mauer (.373), seems to be in good position to surpass Bill Dickey and Mike Piazza’s shared mark for the highest batting average ever recorded by a catcher (.362).

And at the other end of the spectrum from budding All-Time greats Pujols and Mauer chasing down the accomplishments of legendary figures from baseball’s past, there is Brent Lillibridge attempting to free himself from the clutches of the ghosts of obscurity and impotence on the following list:

1. Steve Staggs, 1978 Oakland A’s 97
2. Mike Fischlin, 1978 Houston Astros 95
3. Eddie Lake, 1941 St. Louis Cardinals 92
4. Brent Lillibridge, 2009 White Sox 90
5. Lou Camilli, 1971 Cleveland Indians 89

The numbers at the right of the list refer to the players’ plate appearances in the listed season, and inclusion on the list rests solely upon the persisting inability throughout the season to push a single teammate across home plate via a base hit, walk, hit-by-pitch, fielder’s choice groundout, sacrifice bunt, or sacrifice fly (thanks to Joe Stillwell of STATS for passing the list along to me). Lillibridge’s latest chance to alter the zero under “RBI” in his season totals came several days ago, on Friday, when he pinch-hit late in an 11-0 loss to the Kansas City Royals. He struck out looking. The effort, or lack thereof, nudged him past Lou Camilli and into fourth place on the all-time list of RBI-less guys.

Lillibridge at least has the memory of driving in a run in a major league game, something that the player he just passed did not have at the time of his record-threatening season in 1971 (which actually did set the American League mark at the time). In 1969 and 1970, Camilli had preceded his 1971 haplessness with 15 and 17 plate appearances, respectively, without an RBI. In 1972, in his 151st career plate appearance, he finally broke through by grounding into a forceout of Ray Fosse at second base in such a dynamic, powerful way that the runner at third, Alex Johnson, was able to lumber across the plate for a run. Camilli added two more RBI to his career record before passing from the major league veil.

Eddie Lake, whom Lillibridge seems to have a decent chance of surpassing, was, like all the others on the list, primarily an infielder, but perhaps because he was not only an infielder but an infielder in the middle of the century named Eddie, he seems to have escaped the defining fecklessness of the list. If you were an infielder in the middle of the century named Eddie, you by law had to make yourself useful by drawing a prodigious number of walks. A few seasons after Eddie Lake’s 1941 campaign without an RBI, he fell in line with serial-walking, infielding contemporaries Eddie Yost, Eddie Stanky, and Eddie Joost and recorded three straight seasons of over 100 bases on balls.

While Lillibridge seems unlikely to follow in Eddie Lake’s jogging-toward-first footsteps, he could do worse than Mike Fischlin, who after having a start to his career that was almost as unproductive as Lou Camilli’s (he knocked in a run in his 126th career plate appearance) kicked around for several more seasons (he lasted ten years in all) as a utility infielder.

All things considered, the one player Brent Lillibridge most wants to avoid mimicking is the player pictured at the top of this post, Steve Staggs, who in his 1978 card seems to not only have some preternatural awareness of the season to come, but of the darkness beyond that dusk. After failing to drive in a run throughout 1978, Steve Staggs’ major league career ceased.

*     *     *

(Love versus Hate update: Steve Staggs’ back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)


Doug Ault

December 19, 2008

Middle row, fifth from the right. I think that’s Doug Ault. It’s the only trace I have of him in my collection besides his name on the back of this card. It’s one of the few names with a blank box next to it. As the summer of 1978 went on and all the other boxes on the back of this card started to fill, I must have begun dwelling on Doug Ault’s name and the empty box next to it.


Four years ago this Monday, Doug Ault left a note for his wife in their kitchen. It’s the kind of note you never want to find.

“Look in my car. Doug.”


If my brother didn’t have doubles of a Doug Ault card that I could try to trade for, then the only other method I could employ to try to fill in the box next to Doug Ault’s name was to wish for him, to believe that he existed even though I couldn’t see him, to believe he somehow knew he was needed, to believe he was somehow being pulled in the direction of that need, to the middle of nowhere where I was.


Doug Ault was the first Toronto Blue Jay to homer, doing so in the first inning of the team’s inaugural game. Two innings later, he hit the second home run in franchise history. What must it have felt like to connect that second time? Ault had played a few homerless games in the major leagues the year before, with the Texas Rangers, but they’d left him unprotected for the expansion draft. After his Opening Day barrage, he would hit only fifteen more home runs in his career and be out of the majors by 1980.

But forget what came before and what followed.

Doug Ault is rounding the bases, a member of a team that had not even existed the year before, that had come into existence wanting him, naming his name in the expansion draft, and he’d hit two home runs in his first two at-bats. His whole body must have been buzzing as he rounded first, then second, then third, as he reveled in the roar, as he stomped on the plate. Here I am, motherfuckers! Doug Ault! Home!


Why did I wish for cards I didn’t have when I was a kid? Why do I hold on so tightly even now, thirty years later, to the cards that I do have?

I don’t really know. But I know there are good moments, moments of connection, moments of feeling at home in this world. I also know there are moments that aren’t even moments but empty boxes next to your name. The emptiness within the borders of that box is bottomless. You feel your name being pulled toward it. You feel like you don’t have the strength to fight the pull.

If you have something, anything, to hold on to, hold on.


Alan Ashby

December 17, 2008
I was born into losing. This may seem like a particularly glum and self-pitying thing to say, but facts are facts: I was the younger sibling of an athletically able boy who would always be older, bigger, and stronger than me. This may not have had such an impact on my sporting won-loss record had my family remained throughout my childhood in kid-glutted suburban New Jersey, where I was born, but just as I was getting old enough to be able to perform sports-related tasks, such as throwing and catching a ball, my family moved to rural Vermont, where the great majority of the time the only game in town was the one that pitted me against an older, bigger, stronger boy.


During the Cardboard Gods era, i.e., the heavy card-collecting years of my childhood, i.e., 1975–1980, the 100-loss plateau was surpassed nine times. The Tigers, Expos, Braves, and A’s all had a season during that span in which they suffered over 100 losses; the Seattle Mariners had two such seasons; and the team of the player featured here, the Toronto Blue Jays, lost over 100 games not once, not twice, but thrice. And they weren’t even in existence for the first two years of the era.


Perhaps because I was born into losing, I spent a lot of time fostering fantasies of victory. I was willing and able to do this on my own, but I loved when my brother joined me, either as we rooted for the same team to win or as we bounded around our big side-yard pretending to be key members of the same winning team. Our baseball team was the Boston Red Sox, but when the weather started getting cold and the trees turned skeletal we shifted our attention to football. The only channel we got reception for that showed football was CBS, which featured the Dallas Cowboys nearly every week. They usually won. After those wins, we’d go out into the cold fading day and for a little while pretend to be Roger Staubach and Drew Pearson connecting for touchdown after touchdown.


A look at the Toronto Blue Jays’ 1977 roster might lead one to believe that the team’s executives decided to field a team of players that just happened to fall to them, like a collection of damaged drifters who all end up in the same run-down coastal outpost, drinking tequila shots at tables for one and nervously keeping an eye on the door. But in fact the team was built with a conscious plan and not by mere apathetic passivity. The plan may well have had a long-term element to it, especially considering that within a decade of their birth the Blue Jays would be contending for division titles, a development their fellow 1977 expansionists, the Mariners, fell far short of attaining. But whether there was a long-term element to the plan or not, the existence of trades made by the team in its early moments shows that the franchise was not merely naming players when forced to by the expansion draft but was seeking out players on other rosters and actively devising ways to bring those players onto their own roster. It seems, through this lens, that the Blue Jays decided that if they were going to have any structural integrity at all they would have to make sure to have able catchers, those players often referred to as “backbones” of teams. The first trade they ever made, for a player to be named later, was to acquire veteran catcher Phil Roof. The first trade they ever made where they actually had someone on hand to offer in return came about a week later in an Expansion Day trade of Al Fitzmorris for Doug Howard (who would never play a game for the Blue Jays) and Alan Ashby. Ashby would serve as the team’s first regular catcher, the first backbone, the first rock upon which the tower of the franchise would be built.


Ashby became an official member of the team just as it was starting to get cold, in November, the time of year that found my brother and me pretending to be Staubach and Pearson. My brother always eventually grew bored with that shared side-yard fantasy. He either quit to go climb deep into one of his science fiction books or decided it was time we played against one another. Our one-on-one matches went the same way in every sport we played, but they were stripped to their grimmest essence in the wake of the Staubach-to-Pearson fantasies. I’d punt the ball to my brother and he’d Robert-Newhouse through me for a touchdown, then he’d punt the ball to me and I’d have it for a few seconds before he grabbed me, ripped the ball from my hands, tossed me aside like a candy bar wrapper, and ran for another touchdown under the cold gray sky.


Alan Ashby went on to play for seventeen years in the major leagues, most of those seasons as the on-field shepherd of the often-dominating Houston Astros pitching staffs of the early 1980s. But he never caught more games or logged more at-bats than in that first long season with the Blue Jays. As mentioned earlier, the catcher is often thought of as the backbone of a team, but the catcher is also a team’s most intimate witness. The catcher can see all the other players on the field at all times, and unlike the three outfielders who also have a comprehensive view the catcher is involved in every play at close range. All season long Alan Ashby had the best view of the daily pummeling the team was sustaining, run after run stomping down on the plate in front of him as he held his mask in his hand, doing nothing because there was nothing to do. The photo shown in the 1978 card at the top of this page shows this witness to monumental failure looking a little guarded, a little sad. An aura of powerlessness emanates from his bunched shoulders and placid, introspective features. But there must be in this photo evidence of a tenacious will, too. A full ten years after presiding over the 107-loss season, a 35-year-old Ashby recorded career highs in home runs, RBI, batting average, and just about every other offensive category. Everyone’s born into losing. Can you bear witness to the losing and continue to show up, year after year?


(Love versus Hate update: Alan Ashby’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)


Balor Moore

November 17, 2008
“People ask me if I would go back to the game if I was offered a position, and I don’t think that I would, because I wouldn’t want the insecurity.” – Balor Moore, “No Moore regrets for first Montreal pick”

Balor Moore is shown here throwing a pitch that clearly has very little chance of reaching the mitt of his catcher. I wonder if the catcher’s body language is similar to that of the figure partially visible at the left border of the photograph. This must be the third baseman, and from the look of it he has no intention of readying himself for a positive conclusion to Balor Moore’s attempt. As Balor Moore pitches, the third baseman seems prepared only to amble a few steps to his right to cover the bag once the ball is stung on a line deep into an outfield gap, or better yet prepared to not move at all except to turn his head and watch the soundly hit ball arc high above everyone’s head before disappearing into the left field stands.

You could argue, as I have tried to argue to myself, that the third baseman’s hopeless slackness is due to this not being a photo of an official pitch at all but simply a picture snapped of Balor Moore as he is tossing the ball to the umpire in exchange for a new ball. I believe this argument fails on the grounds of two bits of evidence: the bulging muscles in Moore’s right forearm and the intense, albeit somewhat battered, look of concentration on Moore’s face. These elements suggest that despite the overall impression that no power whatsoever is being generated by Balor Moore, that the pitch by Balor Moore will loop toward the plate as big and soft as a multicolored beach ball, that Balor Moore may in the next second have to duck to save his own life, Balor Moore is trying as hard as he possibly can.

Balor Moore once possessed a gift about as rare as any that these brief lucky lives of ours can contain. He was a high school legend, his left arm a bazooka, his teenage bat-gripping opponents little more than trembling props in a prodigy’s tour de force. In 1969, the brand new Montreal Expos sought to build the future of their franchise on his shoulders by making him their first-ever number one draft pick. Just two months after that draft, according to a cartoon on the back of this card, the 18-year-old Moore pitched a no-hitter for an Expos’ minor league affiliate in West Palm Beach. The following year he was in the majors, the second-youngest player in the league after Cesar Cedeno. He was raw that year, and appeared in only six games, but after spending 1971 in the military, Moore seemed to attain the security of being a legitimate major leaguer that had been preordained by the sizzling life in his pitches. He posted a 3.47 ERA and struck out 161 batters in just 148 innings. The following year produced similarly promising signs that he was warming up for a long and successful stay in the major leagues, as he finished tenth in the league in hits per nine innings and second in the league, behind only Tom Seaver, in strikeouts per nine innings.

His body betrayed him the following year with a string of injuries that ultimately led to elbow surgery. He appeared in just eight games in 1974, and then was out of the major leagues altogether for the following two seasons. He managed to get into seven games for the California Angels in 1977, his meager contributions part of the tearful element of the Angels’ lament in those years: Tanana and Ryan and two days of cryin’. It must have been difficult to be a faceless addition to the two days of cryin’ for a guy who not that long before that appeared destined for the kind of power-pitching success of his two dominant Angel teammates. In 1978 he moved on to the Blue Jays, perhaps the only player in history to debut for the two Canadian major league expansion teams in their second years of existence. (He also bridged the Bob Bailey-Bob Bailor continuum as sturdily as anyone ever has, considering his first name and his status as teammates of both of the similarly-named early members of the Canadian expansion teams [Bailey the second acquisition of the Expos, after Don Bosch, Bailor the second pick in the 1976 expansion draft, after the Mariners took Ruppert Jones, who went 0 for 6 against Balor Moore, but I digress], but I digress, but what else is there to do but spiral from digression to digression [happily, I might add] when considering the entropic career of Balor Moore [and thank the gods for Balor Moore, for in his meandering insignificance there is the gateless gate to the interconnectedness of all]?)

Anyway, Moore set his career-high in games pitched in his first season with the Blue Jays, but the team’s reliance on him was more a testament to their general ineptitude than any return to promise by Moore. They had no Tanana or Ryan. All they had was day after day after day of cryin’.

The back of this card tries to put a happy face on the coming irrevocable doom of Balor Moore’s career. Is there anything more unshakably cheerful than the back of card text on a baseball card? The statistics and even the picture might hint at sheer desolation, but the text will always seek out the one thing that escaped the leveling storm of failure:

  • Threw Complete Game Victory as Blue Jays won their first game ever in Metropolitan Stadium in 5-1 Toronto Triumph, 7-26-78
  • Had 1.69 ERA vs. Twins in 1978.


You’ll notice that the second of the two nice things the Topps writer could think to say about Balor Moore overlaps the first nice thing. In fact, Balor Moore only pitched twice against the 73-89 Twins in 1978, and he lost the game not mentioned in the first point. The undertone of desperation becomes even more apparent in the text when the reader notices that the year mentioned in both bullet points is the year before the most recent season on the card, implying that nothing at all positive, not even one good game against a mediocre team, occurred in 1979.

But 1979 probably seemed like a golden age compared to 1980, in which Moore posted his highest ERA yet, not counting his brief callup in 1969. Before the season was over, he was released, ending his major league career. I wonder if in some ways, deep down, the release was a relief. The previous decade had been spent worrying that the rapid and mysterious erosion from within of his rare, glowing, almost supernatural gift would cause him to be cast out of the only adult life he’d ever known. When it finally happened, for good, maybe Balor Moore was glad to be able to move on, to start trying to find more solid ground to stand upon than the fault-riddled earth of a major league pitching mound.


John Scott

June 30, 2008

Exactly one week before his eighteenth birthday, John Scott was selected by the San Diego Padres with the second pick of the 1970 amateur free agent draft. Only one unsigned player in the world, Chris Chambliss, was deemed more promising at that moment. I wonder what it felt like to be John Scott at seventeen, failure a stranger.

It took him four years to make it to the majors, and then only as a late-season callup who got into just 14 games. In 15 at-bats, he hit .067. The next season he got into more games, 25, but had even fewer at-bats, just 9, all outs. He didn’t make an appearance in the major leagues in 1976, but just after the World Series the Padres, abandoning hope that he’d ever deliver on his prodigious promise, sold him along with Dave Hilton and Dave Roberts to a team that didn’t even quite exist yet. The expansion draft that would stock the roster of that team had yet to occur, and only Phil Roof, who had been acquired the day before, preceded the erstwhile Padres trio as members of the Toronto Blue Jays. In fact, you could make a case that John Scott was the very first Toronto Blue Jay, as he batted lead-off in their first ever regular season game, April 7, 1977, against the Chicago White Sox. This first-ever Toronto Blue Jays at-bat ended in a strikeout. Scott went 1 for 5 in that game, a fairly accurate preview of a season in which he logged 233 at-bats and hit .240 with 2 home runs and a .266 on base percentage. And that was it for John Scott and the majors.

At some point during his lone extended chance to prove that he could cut it as a major leaguer, this photograph was taken of John Scott staring directly at his bat.

Why have you abandoned me? Where have you gone? I’m begging you. I’m ordering you. I’m begging you. I’m ordering you. I’ll turn you into ash. I’ll build you a shrine. I love you. Don’t leave me. I hate you. Don’t leave me.

Failure is never a stranger for long.


(Love versus Hate update: John Scott’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)


Tony Solaita and Craig Kusick

April 20, 2008

It’s Sunday and I haven’t written in long enough that I’m starting to worry if I’m done so the thing to do is go straight into the silence and start thrashing. This is what I would tell someone I cared about if they were in the same predicament: just write and let it flow and don’t worry if it comes out stupid, for you as everyone is are full at all times with the immensity of the universe, etc, etc, and all that remains is the practice of opening to it so open to it with sincerity and love and in the name of Jack Kerouac and his tenets of spontaneous prose just go. OK. So. The men pictured here. The two men pictured here are done. I mean they played no major league baseball the season these cards came out or ever after. Also, they have both passed away, Kusick at the age of 59 and just months after his wife died and Solaita even younger, shot to death in his native American Somoa. They had somewhat similar careers, both playing sparingly for a few years in the early 1970s before becoming semi-regulars in 1974. Solaita was a left-handed batter who had trouble hitting lefties, and Kusick was a right-handed batter who had trouble hitting righties. Neither was ever a full-time player, but for a few years they were productive part-timers. They both came to the Toronto Blue Jays at the end of July 1979. The Blue Jays were well on their way to their third 100-loss season in their three years of existence. In fact, they would end up losing more games in 1979 than in either of the previous two seasons, which must have made it seem that they would never get any better, that they would languish forever in the basement. Kusick and Solaita did little to contribute either way. Maybe this was the plan all along, just bide time while the young guys slowly mature. The Blue Jays did get better eventually, becoming a good young team throughout the 1980s and then a championship team in the early 1990s. Maybe in 1979 they just needed bodies, and it didn’t matter if you were half a ballplayer or a whole ballplayer. Together, Kusick and Solaita made a whole ballplayer. On their own, they were aging, limited, slow, flawed. They were backup designated hitters. They sat behind two other aging slow sluggers, Rico Carty and John Mayberry. But I have not written for days. This bothers me. The less I write the more I wonder if I’ll never write again. I can’t think of anything to say and also have everything to say. I wasted my day yesterday and I worry that I’m wasting my life. How long can I last? I just read Pete Maravich’s biography and he died when he was my age, 40. John Marzano, who I remember as a hero in the only bench-clearing brawl I’ve ever witnessed in person, died a couple days ago, not much older than me. He had a heart attack and fell down the stairs. Back in 1991, my brother and I made a trip up to Boston just to see the Red Sox, and Clemens was pitching, and he got taken deep a couple times early and took out his frustration on the next batter, John Shelby, drilling him. Shelby rushed the mound, bat in hand. Who knows what he would have done with the bat? Had Marzano not gotten one of his rare starts at catcher that day we might have found out, and maybe Roger Clemens would be living in a 24-hour care facility, his brain sluggered, John Shelby buried in some prison somewhere. But Marzano tackled Shelby from behind just feet from Clemens. The picture in the Boston Globe the next day brought tears to my eyes for some reason. It was all there—Shelby, the bat, Clemens, Marzano heroically taking Shelby down. The hero! I have this need for heroes, I guess. As I’ve made abundantly clear, repetitively clear, probably, my first hero was my brother. My favorite times playing in the yard with him were when we pretended to be a team together. He’d throw the passes and I’d catch them, or vice versa. Touchdown! But this was boring to him. Music was the same way. I listened to what he listened to, for the most part, always lagging a little behind and then at times inhabiting the just-abandoned step of his path with an intensity that outstripped his own, making it my own only by means of skewed worship. This is bullshit! Why can’t I be coherent? The thing is in 1979, the year Kusick and Solaita became one whole ballplayer between them on one of the worst major league baseball teams in history, disco was dead. We had listened to disco together, my brother and me, together. We owned the Saturday Night Fever record jointly, as I recall. Also we once had a dispute over who would get to buy Leif Garret’s single “I Was Made For Dancin’.” But by 1979 my brother had moved on to Rock with a capital R. His blue three-ring notebook was covered with Rock names. That summer we went to New York City to visit our dad, as we always did, and the highlight of the visit for my brother was a Ted Nugent show at Madison Square Garden. Somehow he convinced our dad to take us to the concert. I didn’t know any Ted Nugent. I went along. It was terrifying. There were these older guys sitting in the seats behind ours, and they were resting their booted feet on our seats. They moved their legs slowly, reluctantly. One of them wore a cowboy hat and dark shades. I felt very awkward and scared and out of my element. There were disco sucks signs. There was one sign that two guys carried around that said “Disco Is Dead But Rock Is Rolling.” The band came out. It was deafeningly loud. It was painfully loud. I couldn’t fathom how loud it was. Worse, each loud sound pained me in a way I can’t quite explain but that had to do with my father. I knew he was suffering immensely. Also, I don’t know, I didn’t… I’ve never really figured out why it pained me so much. We went into the bathroom, my dad and I, while the show was still going on. The bathroom was completely empty. I told him I was sorry. He didn’t hear me. I repeated myself a couple more times. He finally nodded as if he’d heard me, but I think now that he was just sick of trying to decipher my mumblings. He had cotton stuffed into his ears through the whole concert anyway. But why was I apologizing? I mean, I was really mortified by the whole thing. I really did feel sorry. But why was I so guilty about his presence at the concert? I hadn’t even been the driving force on the thing anyway. I was just going along with my brother. It was torture, the whole thing. I remember a couple things about the show. I remember one longhaired young dude of Rock turning to another in front of us and giving an appreciative, “these guys are not bad at all” nod. This only really made sense afterward, when we found out the details of what exactly we were seeing. I remember that the one scrap of lyrics that I could pull out of the general painful noise was “sin city.” The singer kept repeating those words, sin city. And at the end, or near the end, the shorts-wearing guitarist got up on the singer’s shoulders and they waded out into the crowd, the guitarist soloing. As soon as they finished their set my dad stood and marched us out of the Garden. No one else seemed to be heading for the exits; in fact, some people seemed to still be straggling in. I remember crossing the mostly empty avenue and asking my brother, my voice sounding weird and small after all the shrieking decibels, “So which one was Ted Nugent?” I didn’t know Ted Nugent very well, but I recalled from one of my brother’s album covers that he carried a guitar and also seemed to be singing, or at least screaming, into a microphone. The act we had just seen, which we assumed was Ted Nugent, had a singer who did not play guitar and a guitarist who didn’t sing. I think my brother and I exchanged a couple thoughts along these lines and then fell silent. The next day we went to Crazy Eddy’s on Sixth Avenue and thumbed through records by AC/DC. I guess we didn’t really understand how concerts worked, because for some reason we were holding out hope that we hadn’t missed the very act we had been trying to see even as we understood, I guess probably by looking at our tickets, that there was an additional act somehow involved with the concert. Anyway our foolishness didn’t become official until I located the song “Sin City” on one of AC/DC’s albums. Of course, pictures of the shorts-wearing guitarist were all over their albums too. We were the stupidest motherfuckers in the history of the planet. My brother ended up writing an essay about the concert for an English class that fall. He didn’t let on that we hadn’t seen Ted Nugent, not to his friends and not in the essay. He got a lot of praise for the level of detail in the early parts of the paper and was criticized for his vague description of the Ted Nugent part of the paper. As for me, I never really did get into Ted Nugent beyond buying a cassette by him that included Wango Tango and Terminus Eldorado. But within a year or so I had become a huge AC/DC fan. They got big right around then anyway, Highway to Hell’s big success giving way to Back in Black’s monstrous status as one of the biggest, greatest albums in all of the history of capital R Rock, but I think part of my interest in them was due to seeing them in concert, not because the concert had been enjoyable but because it had been huge and frightening and painful, and by learning all their music by heart I mastered that chaos, brought it inside myself, made it my own. Interestingly enough, my brother never really got into AC/DC as much. His music tastes changed, shifting toward new wave and punk, and while I followed him into that I did so taking AC/DC along. AC/DC was mine alone. I was 11 that year, 1979, and in a way I was done. Tony Solaita and Craig Kusick were done that year and so was I, done with grade school, done with childhood. Puberty followed, AC/DC the perfect soundtrack. It was dim-witted, the music, and straightforward, pulsating, angry, explosive. Uncertainty and shame and guilt and fear all dissolved in the span of one of their 4-minute three-cord stomps. Angus Young, the shorts-wearing guitarist, became a new hero, the schoolboy gone wrong, expelled for bad behavior, unrepentant. On the cover of Highway to Hell the band looked like cavemen. The two-guitar attack was the best part of the music, the older brother Malcolm Young laying down the riff and sticking with it unwaveringly like a starving Neanderthal bashing a rock on ice, Angus following the riff until a crack formed and then stealing though the crack to a wilder wider life with his incendiary solos. God they were good. God they were idiots. My two favorite bands when I started getting hardons and learning new forms of loneliness were AC/DC and the Ramones, bands of brotherly impassioned idiocy and stomp, riffs to burn your brain clean. The seventies were done. I was done. Touchdowns in the yard with my brother were done. I was half of a whole. And disco was done. And Rock was rolling.


Luis Gomez

January 9, 2008

Is life a battle between good and evil or an inconsequential rest stop between oblivions? Consider Luis Gomez, the benchwarmer, waiting slack-armed for his turn in the batting cage, where he will likely have only enough time to momentarily practice bunting before a Blue Jay regular commands him to step aside. As he waits for this truncated, ignominious turn, two blurry figures hover above his narrow shoulders, each figure perfectly positioned to whisper influence into an ear. But what could these indistinct spirits possibly have to say to Luis Gomez? In his 8-year major league career the utility infielder batted .210 with a .261 on-base percentage and a .239 slugging percentage. He never hit a home run. He stole 6 bases but was thrown out trying to steal 22 times. Once he was called on to pitch in a bullpen-savaging blowout. He gave up three runs in one inning. In his final game he batted 8th in the order, just above the pitcher’s spot, for a lineup that was 1-hit by Mario Soto. The last of Gomez’s fruitless at bats was a popup that whimpered to extinction in the glove of the opposing shortstop. He stands here somewhere in the middle of that featureless career, waiting for a couple weak swings in the cage, and the two entities hovering near his ears seem incapable of making themselves understood. They will only mutter incomprehensibly as they fade, the two voices indistinguishable from one another, no guidance, no angel and devil, no choice between paths, no paths at all, or maybe infinite paths, all of them leading to dissolution.