Calling All Benchwarmers

May 19, 2016

basketball card frontHere are some things I must tell you:

  1. I wrote an encyclopedia of sports failure.
  2. It’s also a memoir and enabled me to process becoming a father, which has been the best thing that has ever happened to me and also caused me to lose my marbles.
  3. It’s called Benchwarmer.
  4. It makes a great gift for fathers; sports fans; fans of anecdotes about fellows who warmed the bench for forlornly inept northern New England NAIA basketball squads; aficionados of tales involving the ghostly facsimile of Calvin Schiraldi as some sort of oblique harbinger of encroaching insanity; nickname buffs who might be pleased by an inordinate amount of text given over to early NFL nonentity Walter “Sneeze” Achiu; or people who like things organized alphabetically.
  5. It’s available at book stores, theoretically, and also via the magic of online shopping.
  6. I had night terrors as a child.
  7. Sometimes I would halfway wake up and feel myself on the border of these night terrors. Usually this would be followed by the night terrors. But occasionally I was able to ward them off by reading copies of Sports Illustrated.
  8. Years later, Sports Illustrated said that my encyclopedia of failure was “funny, enchanting and lyrical. Painfully familiar.”
  9. Between now and Father’s Day, I will be giving a limited amount of free copies away, which I will sign and personalize to whatever extent you would enjoy such a magnificently generous service.
  10. I will not give them away arbitrarily, which would only support the disquieting notion that ours is a wholly random universe, bereft of the comfort of order, upon which all religions of the world are built.
  11. Instead, I will require that you follow one of two paths, which will be active routes to a copy of my book as long as supplies last:
    1. If you are perhaps a fan of my earlier book Cardboard Gods, you could express your appreciation in the form of an online review at this obscure website. There is some urban lore that fifty reviews of a book will put in motion secret inexorable processes on the website in question that will lift the book far above the infinite sea of luckless books with fewer than fifty reviews and thus catapult the author of said book to certain riches and fame beyond his wildest dreams. As of this writing, the book is on the cusp of this transcendent plateau with 49 reviews, most of them favorable, although there are also a couple of one-star stinkers that really hurt my feelings.
    2. If you would rather not enable this ethically dubious groveling for online reviews, you may also enter the running for a free book by trading me a story for it, specifically a story about sports failure. Please make it the worst sports failure you ever participated in, either as an athlete yourself or as a fan. I will send you a book and, if you’re willing, post your story on this site. If you prefer this route, please see my contact info in the sidebar of this site, right near the threatening words flung at me by Don Stanhouse.

Tom Wilhelmsen

May 9, 2016

Tom WilhemsonWhat do you follow?

I used to follow baseball. I mean I used to just follow it anywhere and everywhere. Lyman Bostock. Mario Mendoza. Up, down, whoever, however. I veered away from this undifferentiated, open, curious following in college, thinking at that time that I might instead find some blazing singular path to follow. I was nineteen, twenty, right around the age Tom Wilhelmsen was when he wandered away from baseball. I don’t know what he wanted. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to believe the way to this would reveal itself with great clarity. Like a pitcher hoping to discover an unhittable out pitch, I hoped for one perfect sentence to usher forth and start some masterpiece and furthermore unlock all the songs inside me forever.

Never happened. You follow one day to the next, follow a day of shit writing with another day of shit writing and some days don’t even get that.

Now I follow my two sons around. They’re going to turn five and two this summer, my two sons, Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O. The ideas they have! The physical idiocy! I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and I laugh a lot. Anything else I ever followed has fallen off the edge of the world, more or less.

I do keep tabs on two players. Neither is doing very well this year. One is Eugenio Velez. As I wrote about in Benchwarmer, he’s one of the primary talismans of my life as a father, a life that began in 2011, when Eugenio Velez last appeared in the major leagues. He spent that entire season hitless, an excursion into futility so pronounced as to set two monumental records (most consecutive plate appearances without a hit—a record skein that began in 2010—and most at bats in a single season without a hit). I’ve been keeping tabs on him ever since, hoping that his inspiring persistence as an able minor-league hitter would merit a return to the majors so that he could get a hit. After several productive minor league seasons, he’s now batting just .223 for Quintana Roo of the Mexican League. He’s 34. You have to figure the end is near.

I worry that the same may be true for Tom Wilhelmsen, age 32 and owner of a 7.62 ERA, who also breached my narrowing field of awareness because of fatherhood. I didn’t know about him until I perused the back of this card one day when sitting on the floor with my older son. Occasionally, I dump a bunch of newer cards on the floor and let my offspring do what they will with them. Fling them around, rip them, gnaw them, whatever. The hardest part of parenting is living through the moment at hand, especially when your default mode, as mine is, is to disappear from life. You can’t do it anymore!

“Stop looking at the card!” Jack said.

“OK, OK,” I said.

Never look at the cards,” he said. I promised not to, promised to myself to play with him when I actually had the time to do so, but I’m sure I’ll keep trying to sneak away. How could I not when there are such discoveries as these to be made:


Tom Wilhemson back

I’m talking about all the years of pure disappearance. It’s the longest such stretch in history—it must be. DID NOT PLAY for year after year. Two years into his minor league career, Tom Wilhelmsen bailed and stayed gone for six years before circling back. Actually the card seems to be erroneous on this account, as it doesn’t include a sixth DID NOT PLAY for 2009.

He came back when he was ready, I suppose. His nickname is “the Bartender,” a reference to how he spent a significant chunk of his exile. Within a year of deciding to give it another go he was in the majors, debuting in 2011, Eugenio Velez’s hitless nightmare, my debut as a dad.

Something about this gives me hope, and I can’t put my finger on why. We’re meant for something. All the meaningless following, all our detours, our mistakes.

Last night at dinner, after a long day of unstoppable, injurious jackassery so pronounced  that my voice was raw from screaming the word no—a shit day, a day to make you want to disappear—Jack wanted me to tell him all the songs I sang to him when he was a baby, when I used to hold him and sing him to sleep. I sang bits of the songs I could remember from that rocky time, when each day I wanted to disappear, to leap off the edge of the world, following everything else that was going that way, but something kept me around, at least to some extent. Career Opportunities, Rockaway Beach, Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.

“You liked the loud, fast ones,” I said. “They calmed you down.”

“Sing more,” Jack said.

Well it’s been ten years and a thousand tears, and look at the mess I’m in,” I sang, rasping like Mike Ness.

“Sing more,” Jack said.

I kept singing, whatever it took, whatever I knew. Jack was smiling. All the meaningless following, all our detours, our mistakes. Maybe something is gathering within.


Team Spaceman

April 21, 2016

team shaqbox

When I was a kid I used to put my cards into teams sometimes. I usually bought two packs from the store, so I’d pit one pack against the other. Or did I? Who even remembers. It sounds like something I might do. Anyway, I know I played with my cards. I still play with my cards. It always helps. When you’re feeling anxious, or depressed, or whatever—when you feel like you can’t fucking deal—stop and play with your cards a little.

I got ten cards in the mail recently, from Jesse Spector, who has a podcast built around talking to people about baseball cards. While I was waiting to talk to him I divvied up the cards we were going to talk about. Some guys were out of position—specifically in the outfield, though Yaz did log 165 games in center over his career; and Bill Lee, who loves to play—that word again, play—all phases of the game, surely has logged at least ten times that many games in the field in his post-major-league career as a world-traveling semi-pro ecstatic (and in this clip, at about the 20-second mark, he describes the way he wants to die, and it is as a right-fielder); and Mark Fidrych, who considered himself an outfielder as much as a pitcher when he first turned pro and had to be convinced otherwise.

I don’t know how this team would do. Better than some. Yaz, Grich, John Valentin: pretty strong up the middle. A team with the Bird and the Spaceman would be in good spirits, you’d think. The team could unravel of course, what with futility-magnet Eugenio Velez and the lifetime leader in bad luck, Anthony Young. The team would have a spastic, hesitating backbone in poor Mackey Sasser, owner of arguably the saddest of all baseball yips (in that it was the only one to rear its head outside of an action moment). But who know, maybe Balboni would go yard. With Balboni, there’s always hope.

To listen to my conversation with Jesse Spector about these cards, go here. You can follow along and look at the cards discussed here.


Ray Fosse

March 30, 2016

Ray Fosse_77The sun is always shining. The sky is always boundless.

I worked today, same as yesterday, same as the day before. Tomorrow: same. I get a little sliver of time in the morning with my boys. The younger one said “Daddy” this morning. He’s been slow to get rolling with the words. He’s a year and a half, a little past that, but he still gets what he needs by pointing, pantomiming, groaning. He’s kind of like Frankenstein, groaning and bashing his way through life. His few words, though, they slay me.

“Ball,” he says.

“Daddy,” he says.

When I left for work he and his brother climbed onto the couch to look out the window and watch me go. I drive to work, listening to Buddhist lectures. I work all day and drink enough coffee to reanimate the deceased. I drive home listening to podcast interviews with comedians. I’ve listened to hundreds of these things. I now know what it means to “middle.” Why the fuck do I know that?

I get a little sliver of time with my boys in the evening.

“What’s that word for measuring volcanoes?” the older one said. He’s four and a half.

“Volcanoes?” I said.

“A seismic monitor?” he asked. A second ago he was a tiny groaning Frankenstein too.

“Jesus Christ,” I said.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. I don’t care. It’s nine p.m. and both boys are asleep and I’m going to spend this last little sliver of the day in gratitude, with the hopes that this 1980 Ray Fosse card, the image surely a product of wide blue sky psalmist Doug McWilliams (a disciple of Ozzie Sweet), can help me express this.

Ray Fosse was near the end with this one. You may know the story with him. Promising young catcher steamrolled by Pete Rose in the all-star game, injured, never the same. I think I’ve read about him expressing anger over the incident. If so, he’s not the only one ever to get angry at Pete Rose. I hope this anger, though certainly understandable, doesn’t completely cloud his memories of the big leagues. This is the danger all of us face, I guess: bitterness. We fall into a pattern of perpetually forgetting the sun is always shining, the sky is always boundless.

On the back of this card, below the mortality-aping list of dwindling numbers, there’s one line of text, referring to the very All-Star Game in which the most-told narrative of Ray Fosse was born, but the text makes no mention of the collision. It’s like a textual brother to the most basic tenet of Doug McWilliams’s photographic aesthetic: remove all clouds.

Had RBI in 1970 All-Star Game

Thank you, gods, for this one life.



White Shadow memories: #1

March 24, 2016


In tribute to the late, great Ken Howard, and his fictional counterpart Ken Reeves, I’m spending the day counting down my ten favorite White Shadow memories (previous memories: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2).

1. The guys go golfing.
This one eventually got into a serious issue—racism, specifically the racism of a country club attempting to get the coach to join—but up to that point the show was pure pleasure, featuring the coach and my three most favorite players just goofing around. This is why I watched the show, to hang out with these characters. The scene I remember the most is in the clip below and contains Thorpe’s explanation of the difference between the course at hand and “the course I usually play”—my favorite line in the history of television.



White Shadow memories: #3, 2

March 24, 2016


In tribute to the late, great Ken Howard, and his fictional counterpart Ken Reeves, I’m spending the day counting down my ten favorite White Shadow memories (previous memories: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4).

3. Phil the trainer on angel dust
The more commonly circulated White Shadow team picture shows the coach and only the players played by cast members featured in the opening credits: Coolidge, Thorpe, Salami, Hayward, Reese, Jackson, Goldstein, Gomez. I love this photo, but it’s always bothered me that Phil the trainer wasn’t in there. I did find a more representative photo, which shows Phil in the top row, far left. (Also pictured are three players who never had a line, so far as I remember; they’re the two guys to Phil’s left and the guy at Phil’s feet.) Phil rarely had a line on the show, which made the episode when he tried angel dust stand out all the more strikingly. The formerly meek wallflower goes berserk and tries (or perhaps succeeds—I can’t remember) to jump off a roof. I experimented with a pretty wide array of drugs in my day, but I steered clear of angel dust, thanks to Phil.

2. Jackson slain/state champs
Angel dust, VD, crushed dreams: The White Shadow pulled no punches. (Hayward, not featured in any of these memories, deserves a special mention for being not only the most often featured player in episodes set on “the streets” but in bringing to those episodes a believable, appealing mixture of toughness and big-brother warmth.) The hard edge of the show hit its pinnacle with the wrenching twist involving the team’s flashiest player, Jackson. The thing I remember about the episode the most, besides the shock of one of the guys getting murdered in a liquor store, is the dissolve-edit from Coolidge claiming the opening tap of the championship game to a shot of the state champ trophy. Not a second of the championship game was included. It belonged to the guys.


White Shadow memories: #6, 5, 4

March 24, 2016

nick9In tribute to the late, great Ken Howard, and his fictional counterpart Ken Reeves, I’m spending the day counting down my ten favorite White Shadow memories (previous memories: 10, 9, 8, 7).

6. Goldstein undergoes primal scream therapy.
The guys attend a late-’70s party in L.A., and while wandering around there the team’s benchwarmer, Goldstein, somehow gets involved with people practicing primal scream therapy. I cried with laughter when Goldstein whole-heartedly puts the practice to use.

 5. Thorpe’s crushed dreams
This one always haunted me. I think it was because at the time The White Shadow was on, I revered the older basketball players in my town, the high school stars, far beyond anything I felt for NBA players. I enjoyed thinking that my school’s star players would keep rising all the way to the NBA. This episode put that dream into Thorpe’s head as one he held for himself, and throughout the episode facts mounted up that killed that dream. Beautifully, Thorpe’s skills as an artist surfaced, giving him alternative, more tangible path into a good future. Even better, the episode climaxed with Thorpe winning a game with a Gerald Henderson-esque steal and score. Kevin Hooks was always brilliant as Thorpe. Like Vince Van Patten (and Thomas Carter, who played Hayward), he went on to become a successful director. I think this speaks well of the culture of the show—it seems to speak of an empowerment similar to that seen with the 1960s Celtics, who saw an inordinate number of players go on to become championship and/or award-winning coaches (Bill Russell, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Don Nelson, K.C. Jones, John Thompson).

4. Coolidge gets an agent/Coolidge becomes a TV star.
Coolidge was my favorite. He was funny, cool, and human. I can’t distinguish in my memory between these two episodes, but I think the basic gist was the same: Coolidge’s abundant talents push him outside the circle of the team. He gets fancy clothes, a fancy car, and begins addressing his peers as if from an Olympian remove. Have I ever been as satisfied by a show as when Coolidge, abashed, returns to the team? Doubtful.