Archive for the ‘Loose in the Shoebox’ Category

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World Series–1974, Game 3

November 2, 2009

74 world series game 3

I don’t know what kinds of pitches Rollie Fingers threw. I saw him pitch a few times in All-Star game play, and I’m sure I’ve read about his repertoire at some point, but the information from both of those sources has receded back behind the fiction I’ve had in my mind about him since I was a young kid, one that combined his unusual name, his curly mustache, and the heavy influence on my worldview of Saturday morning cartoons that toyed with the rules of physics. In my mind, it’s simple: Rollie Finger’s goofy bamboozling pitches came with their own clownish slide-whistle soundtrack.

Here he is in one of the handful of cards in my collection that make reference to World Series play, looking as if he’s about to unleash another corkscrewing dipsy-doodle to tie Steve Garvey or Jim Wynn into a bow. The back of the card offers little in the way of the kind of illustrative data that might have dampened my imaginary version of Rollie Fingers. There’s no text recounting the game, just a box score in the style used back in the days of Tinkers to Evers to Chance. There is a line score but no pitching statistics, and the efforts of each hitter are represented in terms of AB, R, H, PO, A, and E. I doubt that when I first got this card at the age of seven I knew what all these abbreviations referred to, and when I did figure them all out I probably was disappointed that so much space had been given over to fielding statistics that did little to suggest how the game was won and lost. Who was the hero of the game? Who had the key hit? It’s impossible to tell.

The pitcher who was awarded the win is identified in the primitive box score, his name in capital letters (HUNTER) and the initials “w.p.” after his name. (There is no corresponding designation for the losing pitcher.) Fingers’ name is also on the card, but it has only zeroes in the batting and fielding columns beside it.

A few names above Fingers: “H. Washington, pr.” He’s the only other A besides Fingers with nothing but zeroes after his name. This was Herb Washington, the sprinter who was the “designated pinch runner” for the team. I’m somewhat shocked that Oakland’s brief experiment of carrying a player on the regular season roster who couldn’t pitch, hit, or field extended into postseason play. In fact (and by this point in my imagining of October 1974 I have moved beyond the limitations of my cards and begun checking baseball-reference.com), Herb Washington got into two games in the 1974 American League Championship series (he was caught stealing both times) and three games in the World Series (perhaps cowed by his results in the ALCS, he didn’t attempt a steal and did not score a run).

Rollie Fingers got into one more game than Herb Washington in the 1974 World Series, and his pitching in each of his four appearances, all A’s wins, was seen as the key contribution of any player: he won the series MVP award. Despite ending in just five games, the series was a tightly contested one (four of the five contests ended in a 3-2 score), so the work of an effective and tireless reliever stood out more than it would have if the teams had taken turns crushing one another. Fingers was credited with two saves and a win, and it seems to me that he should have earned another save in the game commemorated by the card at the top of this post. He entered that game with one out in the eighth inning with a two-run lead and closed things out despite surrendering a solo home run in the ninth to Willie Crawford. I was thinking that saves were accounted for differently in those days, but in the very next game Fingers entered with one out in the eighth inning with two men on and an even bigger lead (5-2) and upon closing out the game was credited with the save. The only thing I can think of is that maybe in those days they stripped you of a save if you gave back any of the inherited lead. But the entry on the history of the save statistic at BR Bullpen doesn’t seem to offer any evidence that this was the case. Am I missing something obvious? Or does Rollie Fingers deserve to be awarded an additional World Series save? [Update: See comments below for an explanation of why Fingers didn’t get a save.] 

Anyway, back to the card. In the absence of any defining data, the picture has to carry all the weight of any questions about how the game was won and why. The game was won because in the otherwise murky shadows of that game, the A’s had bright yellow shirts, yellow socks, and white shoes. The A’s had Rollie Fingers.

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William Perry

October 14, 2009

William Perry 91

I don’t feel like talking about baseball again just yet, so let’s talk about something else. This William Perry card is one of a few football cards I own. They all came as a group, along with some basketball cards, at the end of a stack of random baseball cards given to me as a gift last Christmas. In the card, from 1991, the Fridge is midway through his storied career, looking relatively svelte, though his too-small helmet does look as if at any moment it may fly off his bulging head like a popped champagne cork.

The last two weekends I’ve probably watched more regular season football than I’ve watched in any two consecutive weekends since I was a kid, the first weekend because I was badly hungover and could not focus on anything else, and the more recent weekend because I had just watched my favorite baseball team go down in flames for the year and so stared at the television in a kind of shocked torpor. I don’t remember much of what I saw. Large middle-aged guys in suits behind a counter flirting with one another, followed by large young guys in uniforms wrestling. A debilitating injury or two.

Football players don’t stick out to me, but the Fridge was an exception. He was a good defensive tackle for a while, and in his first couple seasons, when I was a teenager, he was a pop culture sensation. (In the years since then he saw periodic aftershocks of his moment in the spotlight, though his days of TV appearances and boxing matches against Manute Bol may be over, sadly, as he now battles a debilitating disease.) In his brief, entertaining prime he appeared in national ads and TV shows in addition to his role in the Bears’ Super Bowl season and in their “Super Bowl Shuffle” video. His fame, which seems to have derived from his preposterous size (which wouldn’t stick out quite so much in the today’s game of ever-more gargantuan bone-crushers, I don’t think), his colorful nickname and boyish, bubbly personality, and his occasional hilarious but fairly effective cameos as a short-yardage rusher, climaxed with a rushing touchdown in the Bears’ Super Bowl rout of the Patriots. Who didn’t love the Fridge?

Actually, I didn’t love him at that moment, being a Patriots fan, but I’ve never cared enough about football to really generate any hate for anyone. That’s probably why I spent last weekend staring at the sport—it’s not riddled with any lacerating emotions for me. It’s not life versus death, good versus evil. I don’t know why baseball is. A few days ago I was talking about baseball with a friend of mine who has never been a big sports fan.

“Why does it matter to you that the Red Sox win?” he asked.

I couldn’t come up with a reason besides the circular proposition that it matters to me because it’s always mattered to me. I’ve been trying to imagine that it doesn’t matter to me when they lose. I’ve been reading more. I’ve been watching more football. Last night I rented a movie. I played my guitar a bit when the movie was over, and I haven’t done that in a while. Then, before I went to bed, I responded to an email from a friend of mine who is a Red Sox fan, and in the email I found myself arguing that the team was going to come back stronger next season, hopefully with the addition of a young, potent bat to the arthritic lineup. I found myself looking forward to next season.

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Love versus Hate, 7th inning stretch

September 24, 2009

love v hate

With Steve Staggs presiding over the latest increment of action in the slowest baseball game, real or imaginary, ever enacted, Hate has gone down without scoring in the top of the seventh inning, leaving the score deadlocked at 5–5. The game, which began a year and a half ago and which sped along through the first few innings due to a backlog of game pieces on the backs of 1978 cards I’d already written by that time, has long since slowed to the pace of continental plates shifting. We may not find out if Love is stronger than Hate until I’m too old and feeble to remember why I started playing the game in the first place, unless I get hit by a bus or crushed by a falling piano, in which case the game will have to be considered a rain-shortened affair or something, which right now, the score knotted, would leave everything completely inconclusive.

Anyway, I thought I’d take a moment and consider the action thus far, and stretch, and maybe go take a leak, get a beer, sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” etc. I wanted to pass along an internet radio broadcast of the first few innings of the fake game, performed hilariously by Jere (aka gedmaniac) of A Red Sox Fan from Pinstripes Territory, but the broadcast on YouCastr seems to be no longer available. So, unless that can somehow be resurrected, a visit to the original, ongoing post for the game will have to suffice for anyone curious to see what’s happened so far (and why I started the game in the first place). But if you don’t feel like the long version, here’s the line score and the heroes thus far:

           123 456 789    r  h e
HATE   021 101 0       5 12 0
LOVE   200 300          5 9 0

Hate heroes
Garry Templeton (2-run HR)
Darrell Evans (RBI single)
Brian Downing (RBI single)
Alan Ashby (solo HR)

Love heroes
Pete LaCock (leadoff triple, run scored)
Len Randle (RBI double)
Bill Buckner (RBI single)
Jim Colborn (3-run HR)

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Chris Gust

August 12, 2009

Chris Gust 88

Sundown

(continued from Ruppert Jones)

Conclusion

A few days ago, before work, before another pre-work attempt to write about a baseball player named Dan Thomas, I went for a run. It wasn’t long after sunup. I zigged and zagged up and down the streets of my Chicago neighborhood for a while. As I was rounding the corner of Oakley and Walton I spotted the larger of these two fragments on the ground. It had rained hard the night before, and I had to carefully pry the wet piece of cardboard from the pavement.

I finished my run while holding the floppy card gently in my fingertips, trying not to cause it any further damage, then I slowed to a walk and returned to the corner of Leavitt and Oakley to look for more ripped up baseball cards. I was hoping at the very least for the top of this card, but all I found was the smaller fragment shown here.

Now my baseball card collection includes doubles, or pieces of doubles, of a minor league player named—according to the back of the larger fragment—Christopher Lazarus Gust.

***

I can’t tell you much more than I’ve already told you about Dan Thomas, the Sundown Kid. I’ve told you about him earning a half-season suspension for punching a minor league umpire, and of his minor league Triple Crown award the following season, and of his promising major league call-up, and of his hot start with the Brewers the following spring, and of his refusal to play on Friday nights or Saturday, and of the mounting losses of the Brewers, and of his mid-May slump, and of the demotion that would prove to be the end of his major league career, and of the jail cell in Mobile, Alabama, three years later, where he would spend the last moments of his life.

After his demotion by the Brewers to their Triple A affiliate in Spokane, he continued to follow the dictates of the Worldwide Church of God, and he continued to struggle. The Brewers tried to send him down even farther, to Double A Holyoke, but he refused to report. He decided to stay in Spokane, and according to an article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle he got a job building “highway trailers.”

He tried to hook on with any baseball team that would have him the next season but found no takers among big league franchises. The best he could do was an unaffiliated pro team, the Boise Buckskins. You couldn’t get much lower. The Buckskins were by a considerable margin the worst team in the Northwest League, a short-season A ball circuit. According to the league history page on baseball-reference.com, the Buckskins existed in the league for just that one year, as if they had materialized out of sheer mercy so as to give Dan Thomas a place to be.

When you peruse the roster of a minor league team on baseball-reference.com, you will sometimes see a player’s name in bold. The bold is to denote that the player has a major league record. On a Triple A squad, such as the Spokane Indians team Thomas played on in 1978, many names are in bold, including those of soon-to-be regulars such as Lary Sorensen, Lenn Sakata, Jim Gantner, and Gorman Thomas. On the Boise Buckskins roster, only one name is in bold: Dan Thomas, who in his last season in professional baseball won the batting title of the Northwest League.

***

I can’t tell you much about Christopher Lazarus Gust, but I know from my newest shreds of baseball cards that he has not played professional baseball for quite some time. The two seasons listed on the back of his card are from 1986 and 1987. He started where Dan Thomas ended, in the Northwest League.

***

Yesterday, after work, I hurried home. It being August, sundown was still a ways off, but my sundown ritual pulled me along nonetheless: After work, I like to have a beer and some food and watch a rerun of The Simpsons. Well, like may not be the right word. I recently read an interview in the Chicago Reader with Bob Odenkirk (whose brother, incidentally, is an executive producer of The Simpsons) and was struck by his description of the medium in which his brilliant co-creation, Mr. Show, had an ambivalent, temporary foothold: “People get older, and they just don’t want to hear a new idea. They want to sit back and watch the same people do the same thing they did last week. That’s what TV exists for—it exists to be a mild sedative.”

So anyway, as I was hurrying home for my mild sundown sedative, I passed a man who was in some kind of trouble. He was in his early sixties, a little pudgy, balding, with a slight facial resemblance to Mikhail Gorbachev. He held onto a metal gate with one hand to keep from falling and held a cell phone in his other hand, which he reached toward me, groaning. He didn’t speak much English, not that unusual in my neighborhood, Ukrainian Village, but somehow I understood he needed me to call for help. I dialed 911 for the first time in my life and described to the dispatcher our location, the corner of Leavitt and Walton (one block east of where I found Chris Gust), and then described the situation.

“He’s clutching his chest and stomach and seems dizzy,” I said. “He needs an ambulance.”

When I got off the phone I tried to get the man to describe what was happening to him. His vocabulary was very limited. He stammered stray words but only managed one complete sentence.

“I think I am dead,” he said.

***

Christopher Lazarus Gust didn’t win any batting crowns, in the Northwest League or anywhere else, but according to a website about baseball in Madison he led the Muskies in steals in 1988. This was his last year in pro baseball. Presumably when the sun went down on his dream, a dream many of us have but very few are able to realize, he moved back to the hometown listed on the back of this card. Chicago. You’d have to think that he took with him a few keepsakes. His glove. His cap. A couple baseball cards with his name and likeness. You’d have to think he might have pulled one of the cards out from time to time to remember his brief day in the sun, the card raising that day from the dead.

***

Just before we first heard the sirens in the distance, I asked the Ukrainian man his name and told him mine. He was glad for this exchange and reached out the hand that wasn’t clinging to the metal gate and clasped my hand.

The last I saw of him, he was sitting on the back fender of a fire truck as firemen tried to get him to explain what the trouble was. I thought about going back and looking him in the eye and telling him he’d be all right. Because of our exchange of names I was the least strange of the strangers surrounding him. But I didn’t go back. I rationalized that the firemen had it all under control. I went home.

What can I tell you? If they can, people hurry home at sundown.

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1971-Most Valuable Players

April 29, 2009

1971-mvps

The only way the images shown here could be more alive would be if the baseball Joe Torre just swatted ricocheted off the wall to your right and smacked you upside your head, or if Vida Blue took one more step out of the frame and into your life.

When I was a kid, that’s basically how I experienced these cards anyway, especially the Vida Blue card. Was he waving at me? Was he flashing a peace sign? Was he about to saunter just a little closer, out of the card and into my room, and touch me on the forehead with the two upraised fingers of his left hand, like he was some kind of blessing-giving pope of happiness and cool? Read the rest of this entry ?

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1972-Most Valuable Players

April 21, 2009

1972-mvps1I am a citizen of the 1970s. I have resided in other decades, but I have always felt like a foreigner within them, or have mostly ignored them altogether, an expatriate with no interest in participating in the local customs.

Some of my favorite parts of my native land, which I can visit only in my mind, are the sections out by the decade’s yonder borderline. My personal memories of these early years of the 1970s are scant, narrow, low to the ground and close at hand, the hazy nearsighted glimpses of a toddler. Colored chalk on sidewalk. George of the Jungle and Ultra Man. A wooden giraffe and a soft yellow blanket. Mommy.

But as I got older I found myself being drawn to various ways to return to the early 1970s. I grew to love the movies of that time, recognizing the origins of my own imagination in the bleak, shabby, sprawling realism. I grew to love the music, too, so much so that I see it in its entirety as the highest peak rock ever reached with its strung-out odes to fading joy; its achingly beautiful Back-to-the-Land idylls; its ecstatic improvisational blues; its savage proto-punk freakouts; its nightmarish metallic dirges; and even, if you allow the decade to include some spill-over from 1969, its ass-shaking world-embracing funk. Read the rest of this entry ?

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1973 Most Valuable Players

April 13, 2009

1973-mvps

The 1973 cards featured here within this 1975 card are both familiar and excitingly foreign to me. I don’t own any cards from that year but they are closer both in time and in style to the cards I do have, especially the 1974 and 1976 cards, than any of the other older cards featured in this celebratory subgroup of Topps’ 1975 set. Also, this glimpse into the 1973 style features two supremely iconic players who continued to be a huge presence throughout my childhood, allowing me to make a personal connection with the cards that I wouldn’t be able to make when considering, for example, the card from this series featuring the 1963 versions of Sandy Koufax and Elston Howard.

The immediately accessible, classically simple design features a couple of unfamiliar flourishes that I love, including the way the names are presented at the bottom left of the card, the last name larger than the first, and, more significantly, the silhouette fielder at the bottom right, which may be my favorite feature in any Topps design. The 1976 cards also had fielder icons, but in being more detailed than the 1973 icons they actually lose a little something in comparison, lacking the gravity of the 1973 silhouettes.

The action photos in these 1973 offerings seem somehow different from the photos featured in later years, adding an additional note of strangeness to these cards. The Watergate hearings occurred the year these Reggie Jackson and Pete Rose cards came out, and there seems, coincidentally, to be an echo in the cards of the anomie that must have been seeping from sea to shining sea as the evidence of corruption from the top down began to mount. Instead of capturing the superstars in heroic poses, the Watergate-era edition shows Reggie Jackson and Pete Rose in moments that seem oddly inconsequential at best, and perhaps even tinged with failure. Read the rest of this entry ?

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1974 Most Valuable Players

April 2, 2009

1974-mvps1

Through a special series celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Topps company’s baseball card production, collectors of the 1975 set were able to view samples of all the sets that had come before. I only have a few of the cards from that series, including this one, which features the 1974 set, the only cards I had any previous familiarity with, having bought a few packs the year before my first baseball card deluge of 1975. All the other sets from the past were new to me, as history itself was new to me. This sense of history, of there being a whole colorful, knowable world of facts and heroes that had preceded me, was part of the reason I fell so hard for baseball. I’m sure other sets before and since have found various ways to include the past, but I doubt it has ever been done with such brightness and immediacy and gravity as in 1975, when the biggest stars of each of the last twenty-five years were shown at the height of their powers, as cardboard gods. Read the rest of this entry ?

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All-Time Record Holders Runs Batted In

October 17, 2008
 Untitled 
“They just came back and beat us. That happens sometimes.” – Joe Maddon

I.
Hank Aaron was born in 1934, grew up in the Depression, lived through World War II, started his professional baseball career in the Negro Leagues, lived through the Korean War, lived through the Civil Rights movement, lived through the Vietnam War, broke the long-standing major league record for lifetime home runs while receiving racist death threats (and while also setting the record shown here, which has withstood all assaults, chemically-aided and otherwise), lived through the entirety of the Cold War, lived to see his major league record for lifetime home runs broken amidst an aura of cynicism and disbelief, and is currently living through the Iraq War and the possible collapse of the worldwide economy into the kind of economic crisis that hasn’t been seen since his earliest years. He has lived though the most tumultuous three-quarters of a century in human history, yet until last night he had never lived to see (or to sleep through, depending on how late he’s staying up these days and his level of interest in the American League) the thing that prompted Joe Maddon to say “That happens sometimes.” In the phenomenal lifetime of Hank Aaron, a playoff team had never rallied to win after falling behind by seven or more runs.

II.
I do not have cable television, but I subscribe to XM radio, so my connection to my favorite team in their playoff run has been an oddly old-fashioned one. I can either go out to a saloon (OK, a bar) and watch, which I have done a couple times, both to ill effect, or I can stay at home and listen to Red Sox radio announcer Joe Castiglione tell me what’s happening. For most of their playoff games I have enhanced my vision of the game by keeping score in my writing journal, trying not to think about the crushing line from the Vin Scully-esque announcer for the Springfield Isotopes, who ends a description of a play by saying “. . . if you’re scoring at home. And if you are, you’re loneliness saddens me.” So last night I wrote out all the names and within minutes of the opening pitch I was again darkening in rectangles for the Rays, my way of signifying that the batter in question had rounded the bases and scored. By the middle of the game I had flung my notebook across the room, leaving my scoring of the game unfinished. I still listened, but found myself nodding off a couple times on the couch. Joe Castiglione’s voice had turned sour. There was no crowd sound behind him.

“This is a fucking funeral,” I said to my wife.

“It is completely 100% over, done,” my old friend Matt, from Greenfield, MA, said at about the same time, in an email.

III.
The Depression began with the stock market crash in 1929, the same month we’re in now as the stock market again careens and plummets. October. A couple weeks before the crash in 1929, the Cubs forged a seemingly insurmountable 8–0 lead over the Philadelphia A’s by the seventh inning of game 4 of the World Series, virtual locks to knot the series at two games apiece.

But a lot can happen in an inning. It was a sunny day. The man in the above card, to Hank Aaron’s left, a man who would go on to become a member of the Hall of Fame, lost two fly balls in the sun in the bottom of the seventh, nurturing an A’s comeback so improbable and unusual in its magnitude that it would not need to be referenced for 79 years.

IV.
My wife has been very busy lately with graduate school, an internship, and a demanding job. There hasn’t been much time for . . . relations. Even on the rare occasion when she hasn’t been at or traveling to or from one of her many responsibilities she’s either been exhausted or stressed out or, most often, both. But last night, as the awful top of the seventh inning was drawing to a close and I was throwing dirt on the moribund Red Sox and wondering how the Celtics were going to do this year, my wife let me know that there was an unusual lull in her schedule.

“Do you want to sit here and listen to them lose or . . . , ” she said.

There are very few things that I would choose over the “or . . . ” option, but one of those things, most of the time, would be to follow the Red Sox in the playoffs. But a loophole in that system of prioritization occurred to me. I am, in general, a short pitch-count kind of guy.

“What the hell,” I thought. “The most I’ll miss is an inning.”

As I rose off the couch, Pedroia knocked in the first run of the game for the Red Sox. We have a small apartment, so I could still sort of hear the radio call while “or . . . ” was happening in the bedroom. I could not hear words, but I could hear Joe Castiglione’s voice rising again and again. Either the Red Sox were rallying or Joe Castiglione had abandoned the call of the game to pay tribute, for my benefit, to fellow broadcaster Phil Rizzuto’s work midway through “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.”

I got back to the actual words, and not merely the music, of the radio call by the ninth inning, the score knotted, and heard Masterson get out of a jam by inducing a double-play. I heard Youkilis reach on a two-out two-base error. I heard Bay get intentionally walked, just like the left-fielder who he replaced would have been. I heard Drew send one over the head of Gross, Joe Castiglione’s voice cracking orgasmically, as if he’d never seen such a thing in all his years.

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Brendan Harris (So You’re Thinking of Jumping on the Tampa Bandwagon)

October 10, 2008
 Untitled 

Dear Cardboard Gods,

I am a baseball fan of a team whose season has come to an end. I am considering transferring my rooting interests for the duration of the 2008 playoffs to the Tampa Bay Rays. They seem to be a scrappy low-budget band of likable underdogs who only a bitter societal misfit with crackpot ideas and a psychotically narrow agenda could dislike. Are they not every bit as strong a testament to the human spirit as the team that is held up as the sporting world equivalent to the first moon landing that occurred during that earlier team’s miraculous push toward a championship, the 1969 Miracle Mets? If the Tampa Bay Rays can go from nowhere to a championship in a single season with a team of nobodies who collectively earn as much as one or two of the celebrity superstars from the domineering money-laden title-hogging franchise they are facing in the American League Championship Series, then couldn’t you begin to argue that anything is possible? We will walk on Mars! We will have world peace! We will all get laid by swimsuit models constantly! Why, I ask you, should I not root for that?

Sincerely,

About To Leap Onto The Tampa Bay Bandwagon

Dear About To Leap,

I am probably the wrong person to ask this question, since I would root against any team opposing the Boston Red Sox, the team I have rooted for my whole life, even if that opposing team included Gandhi, my mother, several 9/11 firefighters, and my cats. But since you asked, I will provide my thoughts on the matter.

First of all, the Tampa Bay Rays should not be considered the underdog in this series. They not only finished ahead of the Red Sox in the American League East, they beat them in the season series 10 games to 8. When the Red Sox had a chance to apply pressure to them with a series at Fenway Park late in the season, the Rays took two out of three. Furthermore, the Rays come into the series with key players who earlier sustained injuries, such as Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria, now healthy, while the Red Sox are limping, reigning World Series MVP Mike Lowell out for the series and ace Josh Beckett iffy.

Of course, no season occurs in a historical vacuum. The Red Sox have been a prominent playoff presence since 2003, and are the only team this decade to win two World Series. On the other hand, the team they are facing has been so bad for the entirety of their existence until now that it is almost like they have not even existed. My response to that line of thinking is that they haven’t existed until this season. This is the first season of the Tampa Bay Rays. And this is not just me saying it. Last November, the owners of the team disowned any connection to anything previous to this season by throwing the original name of the team, the one that had suffered a losing record every year of its life, into the dumpster. (After the name change, the next move by the team was to ship the member of my Golf Road collection pictured here, Brendan Harris, to Minnesota along with Delmon Young, a move that identifies Brendan Harris as one of the last true Devil Rays.) The Red Sox have been in the playoffs five out of the last six years, which is pretty good, but it’s not as good as the one hundred percent success rate of the Tampa Bay Rays.

So they are not the same team that endured all that suffering. Why are they not the team that endured all that suffering? Why did they change their name? Apparently, some market research was done that found that the name “Devil Rays” was less marketable than “Rays.” Even if this decision to change the name was not due to pressure from religious groups objecting to the word “Devil,” a scenario that seems highly likely to me in this age of rampant fundamentalist idiocy, the name change would still rub me the wrong way. If market research had been done on the name “Mets” before the 1969 season, it surely wouldn’t have “tested” very high either, but part of the reason that season has caught the imagination of so many sports fans is because it was the New York Mets that won it all that year, the exact same team that had been so bad for all of its existence, and not the New York Thunder or New York Rage or New York Conquering Black-Clad Charismatic Sharp-Fanged Predators.

But even if you swallow the premise that the Tampa Bay Rays are a continuation of the version of the team they tried to revise into invisibility, I ask you: just how much did they and their fans suffer? First of all, what fans? The team couldn’t even pack them in for most of this year, let alone in previous years, so it’s not exactly like they have a legion of deeply-scarred devotees who are on the weepy brink of finally seeing all their wildest dreams come true. Second of all, it’s not as if there are a lot of guys on this year’s team who have endured year after year after year of defeat in a Tampa Bay uniform. These guys, by and large, are newcomers, unburdened by history. Most of them are young and have been leaping from triumph to triumph throughout their lives. What suffering?

In fact, these guys, the Tampa Bay Rays, are more of a collection of “chosen ones” than the team they are facing for the American League pennant. Out of their regular nine-man lineup, the four-man pitching rotation they will use for the series, and the six bullpen pitchers most likely to get called on to record crucial outs (i.e., their nineteen key players for the series), they have ten former number one draft choices. The Red Sox, by comparison, have five former number one draft choices manning those corresponding spots, and two of the five, Drew and Lowrie, didn’t even start all four games of the recently concluded ALDS against the Angels, while a third, Varitek, was pinch-hit for in a big spot, showing his diminished role on the team, and a fourth, Beckett, has been reduced by injury questions from an exclamation point to a big question mark.

I realize, of course, that it would be preposterous to argue that the Red Sox, a giant-market juggernaut with virtually limitless financial resources, are at some kind of a fundamental disadvantage against the tiny-market, inexperienced Rays. But when I think about the Rays I think about standing around the sidelines before a pickup game as a kid. Two big kids are choosing up sides. They pick the best players first, the cool kids, the handsome kids, the kids without glasses or braces or odd personality quirks. Meanwhile, most of us have to stand there and wait to get picked, our worth in the eyes of our peers on graphic display for everyone. If you’ve ever had to stand there waiting and waiting to get picked, you have felt the sting of disappointing life. So why would you be so eager to jump onto the bandwagon of a team full of young elites who have never had to deal with that devil?

***

Note: The Griddle will be carrying the Baseball Toaster game thread for tonight’s first game of the American League Championship series between the Red Sox and the Rays.

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Dan Uggla

August 29, 2008
   
Untitled I Walk the (Mendoza) Line
(continued from Mark Corey)

Chapter Four
I.
You can’t walk the (Mendoza) line without knowing about slumps. I know about slumps. Hot streaks, not so much. But lately I’ve been experiencing a certain familiar variety of cheap luck that’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to a hot streak. It’s nothing to go crazy about. I’ve been finding things on the ground.

As you may recall, I had a similar phase a couple months ago that led me to the discovery on Golf Road of a scattering of shredded 2008 baseball cards, including the above fragment of Dan Uggla. This time I haven’t found any baseball cards, just 40 cents on an elevated train platform, then another dime later in the day on the carpet near the bathroom at my job, then on my walk home after work a beaten-up small white business card on the sidewalk that read, in its entirety, DR. REAM IT IN AND OUT.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Rookie Infielders

May 19, 2008
 

Yesterday at Fenway featured considerable fireworks from the two reigning rookies of the year, the A.L. award-winner Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox going 3 for 5 with a home run while N.L. award-winner Ryan Braun pounded two home runs amid talk of his lucrative new contract. But neither of these players generated the excitement of the contender for this year’s award in the A.L., Jacoby Ellsbury. 

Whenever Ellsbury’s name is announced the cheers are very loud and a little shrill, as if the stands are suddenly full of lovestruck pubescent girls. To be a fan is to lose yourself in a dream of flight, a vicarious practice that is never easier than when the object of absorption is a rookie who can fly. The rookies that get the most love are the ones, such as Ellsbury, who are blank slates for us to impose our imagination upon. They are good young men, full of the joy of life, giving their all for the good of the team. They have had no nagging injuries, no crippling slumps, no contract disputes, no ugly personal revelations, no run-ins with the law, no clubhouse tirades. The back of their baseball cards belong to us, to our imagination, and we fill in the blank as if we’re filling in some absence in our hearts, the vision of season after season of untroubled glory like the score of an impossible song.

Everyone loves a rookie, but no one loves a rookie more than little kids, who see themselves in the young newcomers. I was just waking up to baseball in 1975, during perhaps the most celebrated season for rookies in major league history, when not just one but two members of the Red Sox burst into the everyday lineup and posted ridiculously good numbers while leading the Red Sox to the World Series. Jim Rice would have won the rookie of the year in most any other year, but his teammate Fred Lynn was even better, winning not only the Rookie of the Year award but also the league Most Valuable Player award. His numbers were indeed a bit better than Rice’s, but he also had a quality that made him the prototypical rookie—he seemed like an utter natural, as if he was born to play baseball. He could do everything—hit for high average and for power, run, throw, make breathtakingly spectacular catches in centerfield.

By the year the above card came out, 1977, the gravity-defeating qualities of Fred Lynn’s rookie season had been undercut by a decent but unspectacular, injury-riddled 1976 season. Lynn would show signs of brilliance again, especially in a 1979 season that rivaled his rookie campaign, but for the most part his 1976 season proved to be the blueprint of his good but not great career. In 1977 I was still hoping for Lynn to once again become the Golden Boy, but the presence of the need to hope, which can’t exist without its flip side, doubt, was the beginning of the end of the dream of a career of pure flight.

So my view on rookies in 1977 had matured beyond blind faith in limitless possibilities. Still, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice had taught me to be on the lookout for budding superstars, so I’m sure when I opened a new pack and found the card shown at the top of this page I tried immediately, hungrily, to identify the next vehicle for my vicarious dreams. And I’m also pretty sure that this attempt thunked dead in a nanosecond, as soon as my eyes were drawn to the upper lefthand corner of the card.

I’m sure after I stared at Juan Bernhardt for a few seconds I pried my glance away from him and tried to muster some enthusiasm for the other players. But even if the ominous specter of Juan Bernhardt hadn’t been looming over everything else in the card I don’t think I would have been able to shepherd a dream of the brilliant rookie through an inspection of the other pictures on the card. In the lower left, Jim Gantner looks doughy and bored, as if he’s just watched the team bus leave without him and doesn’t really care. Beside him is the alarming image of a fabrication of paint identified as Bump Wills, whose frozen visage is somehow overshadowed by the frighteningly unreal backdrop, which suggests a world stripped of every living thing, every note of every song, every breath. The name and the boyish good looks of the player above Bump Wills offers some promise, but his awful brown and yellow Padres cap taints the dream, dragging the name Mike Champion down into the realm of sarcasm.

Which brings things back to Juan Bernhardt, whose severe, deeply-lined face instantly tainted with irony the promise of the rookies card. Ethnicity aside, he looks old enough to be Mike Champion’s father. (For the record, the back of the card lists Juan Bernhardt as being born in 1953, which would make him 24 at the time of the picture, but it also lists his birthplace as being in the Dominican Republic, which has been known to produce players who are not always completely honest about their year of birth.) But more ominous than the sour, aged expression on Juan Bernhardt’s face is his black cap. I’m pretty sure I had never seen such a thing on a baseball card, and I’m pretty sure that it shook me up. I suppose, judging from the pinstripes still visible in Bernhardt’s uniform, that the Topps people only had an image of Bernhardt on the Yankees, and rather than going to the trouble of imposing a Mariners logo—which in 1977 was still a theoretical entity—they just smeared out the interlocking NY. But the result is so bleak and funereal that I think it may have harmed me in some barely perceptible but fundamental way. I was no longer a rookie.

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Tim Redding

May 12, 2008
 

 
Golf Road
Chapter Four
(continued from Byung-Hyun Kim)

Today I’m not going to the actual Golf Road, because today is the day of the week that I have arranged to be my big writing day, my day where I better be brilliant because I’m sacrificing a day’s pay to get it. In effect I am paying money I could really use just to have this day.

Earlier I punched myself in the head as I screamed obscenities. I was trying to write. My head is OK now but my throat is still a little raw. After that I stuffed food down my throat and took a shallow, awful nap. This day away from Golf Road has turned into Golf Road. I am nowhere, waiting for something that will never come. I feel like ripping a notebook in half or shredding some baseball cards. But I already did something like that a long time ago and it didn’t make any difference. I was trying and failing to write, just like right now. I was twenty years old and had filled up a few notebooks by then. I knew I didn’t know how to do anything and was scared of everything and so my only way out was to write, but I couldn’t. I gathered up all my notebooks and threw them in a dumpster. I felt OK for a moment, lighter, but in the end nothing changed. I started the whole process all over by opening a new notebook and writing a shitty poem, then I spent the rest of the day eating chocolate chip cookies and putting golf balls at a table leg.

Most days I’m waiting in a place no one wants to know, least of all me. Golf Road. That moment, that long moment in the polluted dusk, waiting, the day chewed. How many days do you get? Stranded on Golf Road. A whole life leading to it. Things you could have done differently. But you didn’t. Anyway the past is gone. It doesn’t exist. You find some ripped pieces. You have lived such a life that you happen to recognize that these pieces go together. You don’t know much else but you know this. You gather them up and take them home. You tape the pieces together and add them to the pile. Next day you search for more pieces. You find a couple. The day after that you don’t find any. You keep looking every day for more but that chapter is over and you’re back where you started, nothing to gather, nothing to rescue, nothing to hold in your hands.

(to be continued)

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Byung-Hyun Kim

May 8, 2008

                                                          Golf Road
                                                       Chapter Three
                                             (continued from Brad Ausmus)

There wasn’t a lot to do in my town. You waited for winter to end. When spring came you walked half a mile down Route 14 to the general store to buy a couple packs of baseball cards. A few days later you did it again. The years went by. I stopped buying baseball cards. Instead, I extended my walk just beyond the general store, to the road that branched off Route 14 and led up out of the valley. My brother had showed me what to do. You stand there and when a car comes along you stick out your thumb. Maybe they stop, probably not. Very few cars come along.

                                                       * * *

In 2003, I found myself getting excited when the Red Sox picked up Byung-Hyun Kim. He’d authored two horrific collapses in the 2001 World Series. Few if any players had ever failed as spectacularly or as publicly as he had. In the moments after that double-collapse, he’d seemed broken, a ghost of a man. But the following year he’d bounced back to save 36 games, with 92 strikeouts in 84 innings. And he was still only 24. Most of all, he still threw a hundred miles an hour. I tried to ignore the image of the ghost of a man and focused on imagining Byung-Hyun Kim to be exactly what my favorite team had always lacked. In this life you learn to gnaw on the spent, faintly narcotic cud of hope. Sometimes it numbs the pain of waiting.

                                                       * * *

Once, while I waited for a ride up out of my town, a pickup truck turned off of Route 14 and zoomed past my upraised thumb.

“Get a car!” the driver yelled. As the pickup disappeared the horn sounded. Like the General Lee, it had been rigged to play Dixie.

I’ve never really put that moment behind me.

                                                       * * *

Kim had switched to the starting rotation at the beginning of 2003 with Arizona, and for his first month with the Red Sox he remained a starter, but in July he moved into the closer’s role, which had been Boston’s biggest weakness that year. In fact, it had been Boston’s biggest weakness for most of their existence, ineptitude in that area a perfect Schiraldi-faced symbol of their long history of repeatedly getting close to winning it all only to blow it at the end. In half a season as the closer, Kim saved 16 games, but he started looking shaky near the end of the season. His shoulder was bothering him, but his inability to get the ball over the plate seemed to the fans, and to his manager (who started yanking him at the first sign of trouble), to be signs of cowardice, the pressure of the looming postseason causing him to wilt. In his one brief appearance in the playoffs, at a game in Oakland, his ineffectiveness contributed to a Red Sox loss. The next game, back in Boston, the fans showed their disappointment during pregame introductions. It wasn’t fair, but it seemed to the fans that a guy who could throw harder than all but a few human beings who ever lived didn’t have the stomach to throw strikes. So the boos rained down on the 24-year-old far from his home. What would you have done in that moment if you were him?

                                                       * * *

I wait on Golf Road, holding the damaged nest of baseball cards against to my chest. Minutes ago what was trash is now the newest addition to my most prized possession. Cars fly by. There’s always a small part of me braced for one of the drivers to yell something at me, to mock me for being carless. For once I don’t care. I found a bunch of ripped baseball cards. I feel rich. I feel lucky. If anybody said anything I’d just laugh. But the problem is that on Golf Road nobody says anything. The sound of traffic is like the roar of some foreign tongue you’ll never be able to learn. Even so, the message is clear: You don’t belong. You’ll never belong.

(to be continued)

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Turn Back the Clock

April 25, 2008
 

“The commercial overproduction of souvenirs means that you’re inculcated with nostalgia before you’re even old enough to feel nostalgic.” 
                                         – Svetlana Boym

I.
In the seventeenth century, a 19-year-old Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer constructed the word nostalgia out of Greek root words meaning “return home” and “sickness.” For the next two centuries, the term held a tenuous foothold in the medical lexicon, doctors sporadically diagnosing patients with this homesickness disease and treating them with, among other things, opium, leeches, and trips to the Alps. On Wikipedia, the page for nostalgia includes the assertion, backed up by sounding like the truth if not by a scholarly citation, that this malady was particularly prevalent among soldiers in foreign-based armies experiencing defeat. Nobody yearns like a loser.

II.
I came out of the womb ass-first, a breech birth, and have continued living my life looking backward ever since. I wrote my first autobiography when I was seven. Its thesis was that life is boring. I reminisced about places where I’d once lived. The longest scene in the manuscript detailed one of my earliest memories, from my first home, a unit in a horseshoe of identical connected units in Willingboro, New Jersey. I must have been about two years old. I had gone outside to play and when I tried to come back inside I couldn’t figure out which of the identical doors was my own. They all looked exactly the same. Where is my home?

III.
The use of the term nostalgia to refer to a disease tapered off in the late 1800s. Industrialism and imperialism were in full steely bloom by then, which inspired in the powerful and their aspirants an embrace of a utopian future where looking backward would be laughable, if not punishable. Why look back when the future is so bright? Meanwhile, most everyone else got in motion, crossing oceans, crossing continents, massing in slums, disappearing into mines and factories and mills before dawn and coming out filthy after dusk, moving when company profit margins slipped too low, moving when hungry, moving when forced, moving by conscription, moving in a winding, wounding search for home. Maybe for too many to any longer call it an anomaly, a disease, the idea of home began to seem illusive, impossible, disappeared. Just a door no different from any other in a utopian infinity of doors.

IV.
I mark the beginning of my baseball card collection with a change of homes. I started collecting cards in late 1974, when we moved from Hopewell, New Jersey, to Randolph Center, Vermont. Since then I’ve been back to all the places where I lived growing up. To Willingboro, to Hopewell, to Randolph Center, to East Randolph. It’s always the same. I stand there looking at the house, the street, and maybe there’s an ache, but it’s not big enough to make me cry or write a poem, and nothing happens, and I get bored, and I go buy something.

V.
Nostalgia lost any lingering associations with homesickness in the twentieth century, as it became commodified on a mass scale. It had long been possible to buy things that had, for the buyer, associations with the past, but in the twentieth century the mass production of pop culture artifacts, and the aggressive marketing of those artifacts, helped the meaning of the word nostalgia complete its maturation from a disease of homesickness to a general longing for the past, an aching treatable not by leeches or opium but by oddly similar modern equivalents. For the last few decades the nostalgic have self-medicated by buying records and clothing and movie tickets and artifacts such as Fonzie lunchboxes if they have a little money or Fonzie’s leather jacket if they have a lot or Fonzie trading cards if they are the type to salve the ache of modern life, that long homeless losing streak, by holding and staring at and, most importantly, having flat rectangles of cardboard with photos on the front and text on the back. You can make a purchase. You can turn back the clock. You can have all you lost.

VI.
For a while now most of my days involve a search for home through the obsessive inspection of one after another of my childhood baseball cards. The latest of these cards to center my attention is the one pictured at the top of the page. It’s the only one in Topps’ 1977 “Turn Back the Clock” series that I own. There are others available on eBay. I know this because I checked eBay while, with another web page opened, I listened to the famous Grateful Dead show from the same year as the card, at Barton Hall in Ithaca, New York, the band in a groove as deep as any they’d ever found, the music so good it almost makes me weep, as if I’m returning to the golden center of a time that I can idealize as a perfect past even though I never experienced it. In these incredible times you can access practically anything you want. You can metastasize the nostalgia built on your experiences into a nostalgia that overflows the borders of your own memory. You can be nostalgic for places you’ve never seen, times you’ve never lived through, music you did not share in the creation of but which, now, due to the miracle of technology, you may well be able to have.

VII.
The other players with feats featured in the “Turn Back the Clock” series were either still playing or had been retired for a while at the time the cards came out. Nate Colbert, on the other hand, had just finished a two-city, sixteen at-bat, .178-hitting stinker of a final season in the major leagues. I wonder if seeing this card caused him to soak his famous muttonchops with the bittersweet tears of nostalgia, like a guy just given the boot by his true love looking at a picture of the two of them on their happiest day.

VIII.
The first thing that came to my mind when I wrote the above simile about a couple’s happiest day was the first long day I spent with a woman I met a few years ago, when I was working in a bookstore. She worked at the bookstore too. There wasn’t anything overtly special about that day. We poked around an aquarium store, spending a long time petting a black cat who was lounging around on top of one of the tanks. We went to a couple shoe stores looking for and not finding a pair of suede sneakers of a particular kind that I like to wear because they remind me of the 1970s. She bought sunglasses at an outdoor bazaar. We got something to eat at an Italian place, then sat and drank some coffee in a narrow, empty nook in the back of a small cafe. We walked to the subway station, and she kissed me goodbye as her train to Queens was rolling into the station.

IX.
A few years later we moved to Chicago. I wanted to go somewhere I’d never called home. After a couple weeks in our new apartment we went to an animal shelter just before it was due to close for the day. The woman volunteer who took us back to the cages told us she had one really special cat left. She opened the cage and the cat, black like the one from the aquarium store, got up and looked at us. Abby picked him up, and he reached over her shoulder for me, already purring. It was, for me, love at first sight. We took him back to our apartment, which on his arrival became our home. Sometimes, thinking of that moment when we first met, I pick him up and squeeze him and say to him, “Remember?”