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Red Sox Future Stars

January 7, 2018

Red Sox Future Stars

The other night I surfaced into consciousness at 4 or 5 in the morning and worries about my job seized me. I couldn’t shake them—nagging chaotic anxieties about all the thousands of things flying at me on deadline. I’m gonna miss something, I’m gonna fuck up. Eventually I just got out of bed and meditated for a while in a chair in the kitchen. It helped a little. There’s a basic goodness in us, in everything, shining beneath the lacerating illusions. We are stardust, we are golden. When Jack woke up and came out to the kitchen, I was able to listen to him, to see him. He was smiling and looking at me with his bright blue eyes.

“Daddy, I had the craziest dream,” he said. “I was flying.

I remember having a dream that I was flying when I was a kid. I can’t really place it in time, but it could have been in 1980, the year I met this card. I was twelve then. I’ve come to think of that dream, where I bounded up into the sky and flew around my town, as a response to an increase of gravity in my life. The years leading up to 1980 had seen me bounding every morning up the road to a multi-age free-school classroom where we made animated movies and wrote plays and learned Russian and sat in a circle sometimes or lounged around sometimes. By 1980 I’d shifted to a junior high several miles away with desks in rows and time sliced up into anxious chunks. Instead of one warm teacher and a lot of long-haired parent helpers I was now under the glancing authority of a collection of grown-up strangers who identified me in one way or another as a problem.

Meanwhile the Red Sox were also crashing to earth. They’d come close in 1975, 1977, and 1978, but in 1979 they’d finished a distant third, and it would get worse in the years to come, a little worse every year, more or less, throughout the rest of my descent through junior high and high school, where I went from Cs to occasional Fs to, finally, in my senior year at a boarding school, expulsion. That was the year I discovered getting high, thank fucking god. Thank god for marijuana! Getting expelled was no fun, being driven home from that school for two hours by my poor grim mom was no fun, taking the GED was no fun, but getting high with my friends saved my life, if you define life by the notion of having some interest in living it.

When you’re a young child, if you’re lucky, as I was, you get this sense that the future will include stardom. I’m not talking about fame but rather the same feeling you get when you’re a kid and you open a new pack of cards and find a card featuring a player or, in this case, players, from your favorite team. Connection to some kind of brilliant glory. A kind of flying. A high. By 1980 I had probably felt the gravity of the world just enough to not believe the proclamation that the players in my hand were future stars. I knew who they were already, as they’d all made appearances with the Red Sox in 1979, and Chuck Rainey was the only one who’d shown any glimmers of hope, but even his promise seemed subdued, as he seemed no better than a Bob Stanley type, at best. But still, it was a brand new card that I could add to my beloved stack of Red Sox, and I’m sure I felt at least a little of the pulse of the stardom at the core of this life.

I was talking on the phone the other day to my best friend from boarding school, Billy Z, the one with whom I rediscovered that life could have some laughs in it, some highs, some joy. For the last twenty years or so he’s been a Montessori teacher. I was telling him that we’re homeschooling our boys.

“Dude, that’s the best thing you can do for them,” he said. I was glad to hear him say that. I said something about how I love following their lead, seeing where they want to go with their learning.

“That’s the basic idea at Montessori, right?”

“Yeah, the tough part for my kids is when they get to junior high and it’s suddenly all about nothing but punishments and rewards. A lot of them just shut down.”

After I got off the phone I thought about how that was exactly what had happened to me. And I thought about how meeting Billy Z was one of the most important things that ever happened in my life. By the time I met him, in 1983, all the Future Stars featured in this card were gone from the Red Sox, all out or on their way out of forgettable major league careers, and I had completely stopped collecting baseball cards, releasing that habit and joy of childhood as if I didn’t deserve it. I was learning nothing in school except to believe that I was a problem, and I really didn’t have any friends. My mom saw this light going out in me and thought boarding school might help, and though I didn’t rediscover learning there, and in fact became even more buried under a feeling of academic failure, I did make a friend, Billy Z, with whom I laughed like I hadn’t in years. We’d sit there in our dorm room beds in the dark laughing and high, all the failure falling away for a little while. It felt like there was life to be lived. We were flying toward future stars.

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Dick Lange

January 1, 2018

Dick Lange

The truth about Dick Lange surfaced in 1970 but like most truth is mostly if not entirely obscured. I certainly never noticed it all the years I’ve been in possession of this unassuming 1975 card. In 1970, while in his first year in professional baseball, pitching for the Angels’ rookie league team in Idaho Falls, Dick Lange was perfect. He went 13 and 0.

Tonight as I was getting my older son ready for bed he started asking me about how he could keep himself from having bad dreams about Bowser, this spike-backed monster who is the last hurdle to clear in his Super Mario video game. My son worries a lot about monsters and guns and bad dreams and meanness. I tried to tell him not to worry about bad dreams, but tears started streaming down his face.

The perfection didn’t last for Dick Lange. He lost about as many as he won throughout the rest of his career, which included parts of four years with the Angels, all of them on the same pitching staff with Nolan Ryan. Ryan, somewhat famously, also did not win that many more than he lost, which of course says more about the dubious nature of win-loss totals than it does about Ryan’s talents, which were the stuff of myth, as evidenced by the first three years he shared a dugout with Dick Lange. In each of those years, Ryan struck out well over 300 batters, a feat equaled at that point by fewer men in the 20th Century than had walked on the Moon (and over twice as many as Dick Lange managed in his entire career). The point is, even Nolan Ryan was a loser, repetitively, constantly, so what chance do mere mortals such as Dick Lange have to hold on to any kind of perfection?

I wiped my son’s tears with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. I read him some Curious George. He went upstairs to his mom and fell asleep. My younger son was still awake, up later than usual because he’d had a nap this afternoon. He’s three and has been moving away from a daily nap, that last echo of infancy. This was the first time the nap happened in weeks. So he was up with me this evening for a while, and the two of us passed the time by, at his request, “playing chess,” which just meant that we pulled the pieces out of this magnetic travel set we have and then tried to put them back into their places. Each piece fits snugly in a felt indentation.

“Do you see one with a horse shape that could go here?” I said.

He tried to put the knight in its place in but had it facing the wrong way.

“How about this way?” I said, gently turning the piece around and handing it back to him. He got it in.

“You make this game fun,” he said. He fell asleep a little while later with me rocking him and singing him Hank Williams’s “Lost Highway” really softly. I kissed him on his curly head and carried him upstairs.

You began perfect. That hasn’t been lost.

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Roy White

December 27, 2017

Roy White

Roy White was a philosophical conundrum: Roy White was a Yankee and Yankees suck so Roy White should suck, but he didn’t. Reggie, Nettles, Gossage, Piniella, Steinbrenner, most especially that feathered-haircut shithead at shortstop: they sucked. But Roy White? He seemed OK. He seemed like the kind of guy who would help you out if you lost your mom in a supermarket. He’d at least take you over to where they could call your mom on the store PA. He’d probably say something fairly reassuring and stand around for a little while as you waited. Anyway, I like this card, which is not nothing. Our world seems pretty messed up these days, a fractured thing, divided, maybe unfixable, so I’ve decided to celebrate the fact that it’s possible to say something positive about a card featuring a Yankee. Honestly I find myself reluctant to say simply that I like this card, as if the meaning I’ve carved out for myself in this life rests to some extent on the duality I embraced as a child that was based in the ineluctable truth that Yankees Suck. But I can at least say that I like some things about this card. I like that Carlton Fisk is on this card. His birthday was yesterday. Roy White’s is today. I like that odd near-connection, as if they almost share something happy and irrelevant and invisible. I like the red helmet on Fisk. I like the look on Fisk’s face, which seems in its relative placidity and the angle of his gaze to suggest that the batted ball is on its way to Rick Burleson at shortstop, no trouble at all. But it’s not only Fisk that I like here. I like the tendons standing out on Roy White’s neck, and his expression too, which is so alert and awake as to suggest that this moment and any moment can transcend hope and whatever is the opposite of hope, that if you’re devoting yourself fully enough to paying attention to what’s unfolding in front of you, the beauty of life can manifest everywhere, even in a routine grounder to short, even on the card of a New York Yankee. I like his footwork, not only in that he is wearing Pumas, to me the coolest brand forever and always, but in that his front foot is cocked and turning toward first and no matter the relative likelihood of reaching base Roy White is about to break into a run. What is more beautiful than that feeling of running as fast as you can to first? Maybe only the possibility itself of reaching first safely, which I would never wish for a Yankee but which I am able to nonetheless ponder in its abstract by virtue of this card and most specifically by the somewhat bulky object in Roy White’s back pocket. I think this must be the soft cap he wore while manning the outfield. Back in those days players could still choose to discard their hard batting helmets once they reached base and replace it with their cap. Roy White was ready for this, and I find myself feeling that readiness too. Good things may yet happen in this world.

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Jerry Hairston

November 7, 2017

Jerry Hairston

Jerry Hairston is smiling here, who knows at what, or why. There’s a gleam of sunshine on his batting helmet, and sunshine too on parts of his away uniform and on the blurry crowd behind him. To me it’s a quietly happy moment, a man thinking about something amusing as he takes a lazy fake swing in the sunshine.

There may be some baseball card detectives who can pinpoint the location of this photo. I can only take a guess that the photograph was taken in Oakland, based on my general sense that a lot of card photos back in those days were taken by a Bay Area photographer named Doug McWilliams.

Jerry Hairston split time between the majors and the minors in 1975, when the photo for this 1976 card was probably taken, and in fact a possible angle for this essay, or whatever it is, could be that Jerry Hairston split time between the majors and the minors every single year of his career from his first call-up in 1973 until 1977, when he split time between two major league teams, and then after that year he dropped out of the majors altogether and played for three years in the Mexican League, a departure from the majors that must have seemed to anyone paying attention, if anyone was paying attention, which they probably weren’t, to be evidence that Hairston’s habit of periodically dropping out of sight throughout the course of a major league season had become permanent, but amazingly he returned to the majors in 1982 and stayed there for several more years, never once during that improbable resurrection suffering another demotion to the minors: the onetime utility infielder became a bit of a fixture, a pinch-hitting specialist, an expert, a pro. Yes, that could have been the point of this appreciation, and maybe it’s part of it, but really all I was going to say was that though Jerry Hairston shuttled between the minors and the majors in 1975, he was with the team during a late-September visit to Oakland, where perhaps this photograph was taken. If it was taken there, Jerry Hairston could conceivably, pun intended, have been aware at this moment that he was about eight months away from becoming a father of a child, boy as it turned out, who would be named Jerry Hairston, Jr.

The awareness of this kind of news is certainly something that can make a guy smile. It made me smile too, when it was my turn with that knowledge. It made me do a lot of other things, too, most of them in the family of panic. But there’s a certain feeling of something taking hold inside you, a more powerful tugging than you’ve felt before, as you walk around through sunshine and darkness, through the unstoppable flickering between major and minor, certainty and doubt, rising and falling. You take your usual swing and it feels empty, strange, unlike anything you’ve felt. But you know, ultimately, that now you have to keep swinging.

That casts a light on Jerry Hairston’s three-year disappearance from the majors that I never thought about before. Most of my words about these cards came years ago, before I became a father, so I’ve never really considered that a lot of the men on the cards in my shoebox were young fathers who were working at a job to support their families. Yes, Jerry Hairston kept swinging—and he must have also kept smiling, because otherwise how do you go on?—as he kicked around in the Mexican Leagues. What else was he going to do? He had a toddler and then, in 1980, another boy, named Scott, to support. And of course Jerry Hairston swung his way all the back to the majors. This is what you do if you’re a Hairston. There have been five members of the Hairston family in the major leagues, which I believe is the record for cross-generational families (there were also five Delahanty brothers in the majors, but that dynasty did not carry over to another generation). First there was Jerry Hairston’s father, Sam, who started out in the Negro Leagues before playing for the White Sox in 1951, and then Jerry’s older brother John, who had a brief stint with the Cubs in 1969, then Jerry Sr., who was followed several years later by his sons, Jerry, Jr., and Scott.

How this all relates to me is hard to say. I too am a younger brother and a father of two boys, so there’s that, I guess. But also, and more directly, Jerry Hairston’s smile made me think of the dance contest scheduled for this weekend at my house. My older son, Jack, had the idea a couple of nights ago.

“Let’s have a dance contest,” he said.

You never know where your life is going to go. Minors, majors, across some far border and back again.

So last night Jack and I made a trophy out of construction paper. It had handles and a support column and everything. The competition will include just the four of us: my wife, Jack, Jack’s brother, Exley, and me. Everyone has been practicing their moves. A few times this week I’ve been at work, in the middle of some problem or other, and I’ve remembered the upcoming dance competition and imagined all of my loved ones and me dancing and I smiled.

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Joe Ferguson

November 1, 2017

Joe Ferguson

When I was a kid I associated Joe Ferguson with my Uncle Conrad and a recurring character on Star Trek named Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd. The three men didn’t look that much alike, but all were jolly, cherubic types with jaunty handlebar mustaches. You had the sense that they knew how to wrestle some joy out of life.

Mudd turned up in at least a couple of Star Trek episodes, though it seemed like more than that due to Captain Kirk’s preexisting revulsion for him every time he saw him again (“you again”). Mudd, a loquacious intergalactic grifter, seemed like he’d always been around, showing up all over the universe with some new scheme. His most memorable appearance came when the gang from the Enterprise stumbled upon him enjoying being the lone human man among a legion of beautiful female robots. I probably first saw the episode around when I got this Joe Ferguson card, which was just before I started caring about girls. As the years went on I continued watching Star Trek compulsively, and gradually, as the growing ache of finding myself on the far side of a vast gulf from real girls grew, I began to imagine what it might be like to have my loneliness absolved by a legion of sexy brainless androids.

***

I like to think of you naked.
I put your naked body
Between myself alone and death.
–Kenneth Rexroth

***

The Joe Ferguson type that I knew the best, my Uncle Conrad, wrote poetry. He still does. He’s the one who gave me my first book of poetry, The Selected Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. But more than that he was the first person I knew who was a writer, and because he was also a warm, familiar part of my life, it was surely a lot easier for me than it is for some to imagine being a writer too. I’ve been grateful to him for a long time, and my gratitude is continuing to grow now that I’ve got a family and a full-time job to support the family. When I was a kid Conrad was supporting his family by working full-time, but he was always writing poetry too. He found a way to carve out moments for beauty.

Joe Ferguson carved out a moment of World Series beauty. It started somewhat discordantly, with Ferguson, pulling a Kelly Leak before there ever was a Kelly Leak, cutting in front of teammate Jim Wynn to snare a fly ball that Wynn had been camped under. In the same motion, Ferguson unleashed a searing missile toward home plate. The ball arrived an instant before the runner, Sal Bando, drove his shoulder into the catcher, Steve Yeager, who went sprawling but held on. It’s the kind of play that feels like life and death, and death is defeated not by any particular outcome but by perfection, by beauty. Joe Ferguson’s throw had to be beautiful, and it was.

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A few years after Joe Ferguson pulled a Kelly Leak, he was among a group of Astros making a cameo in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (he ambles into the dugout at about the 1:35 mark of the clip below). That was a big movie for me, as you may be able to tell by the ad for my book about that movie in the right-hand margin of this blog. I wonder if one of the reasons it was so big for me was that it symbolizes the moment just before my life started getting more complicated. I was ten then and loved baseball, just baseball. I certainly didn’t care about girls. But soon enough I would. The simple primary rainbow of life would get murkier.

The world is not perfect, and no one is going to absolve you of loneliness or stand between you and death. But there are spaces for beauty. There’s a Game Seven of the World Series tonight. Let Them Play.

 

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Ed Kranepool

October 23, 2017

Ed Kranepool

I’m just going to hang out a little with Ed Kranepool here. It’s just after 9 at night on a weekday. My kids are asleep. I worked all day, worked pretty hard, I guess, but my bike ride home lifted the work off my shoulders, and I was happy when I walked in the door and saw my family. I made dinner while my wife, exhausted from the work of dealing with two young boys all day, drew a bath for herself. Exley, my three-year-old, was really tired from getting up too early this morning, and he didn’t want to let her out of his sight. He cried inconsolably for a while. I held him and murmured to him, to no effect. My wife came out of the bathroom while the tub was filling.

“Look, I’ll be right back, Exley,” she said. She was naked. I’ve been with this woman for sixteen years now and I still want to construct a towering cathedral and spend the rest of my life kneeling inside it in a prayer of thanks every time I see her naked. Anyway, she left to submerge herself below the surface of some scalding water and away from all our needs for a few minutes, and Exley kept wailing. I finally got him to ratchet down to sob-sniffles, and then he laughed a little when I started trying to lob some little oval veggie chips up and into my mouth.

He helped me make tacos, and by helped me I mean he mangled some tomatoes, ate a few fistfuls of shredded cheese, and spilled some lettuce on the floor. I completed the tacos eventually, even though I was the only one who ate them, or, to be more accurate, shoved them in. Abby shoved down mostly lettuce and hot sauce, Exley took one bite of one taco, spilled the rest everywhere, and then began careening up and down the hall like a frat pledge at the end of a grain alcohol party, while Jack, who’s repulsed by food that’s mixed together in any way and would never eat tacos, picked a little at some plain noodles and broccoli. Why do I make tacos? Later, after dinner, or whatever you want to call our nightly collective ridicule of food-centered togetherness, I went downstairs for a while with Jack while Abby wrestled Exley into some pajamas.

“What if there’s a monster in the other room?” Jack asked.

“What if I have a bad dream tonight?” Jack asked.

“What if I’m dreaming right now?” Jack asked.

I told him some things: it’s OK to be scared of the dark. I used to be scared of the dark, I added, and then I added that, honestly, I’m still scared of the dark.

“But not here in my home,” I said. “I feel safe here.” This was mostly true, but just this morning, when I was first up with the boys and sitting at the table near our windows that look out on the street, I was visited by a horrible scenario, or revisited, I should say, as it comes to me every once in a while. I imagine a stray drive-by bullet piercing a window and killing one of my boys. We live in a neighborhood with shootings. That is to say, we live in America, where everyone is packing and either desperate or a maniac.

“It’s OK to be scared,” I told my son, “but everything is going to be OK.” I told Jack this, and then later I told it to Exley too. After my alone time with Jack, Jack goes up and reads books with Abby, and I play downstairs with Exley and then read him to sleep in the rocking chair. Tonight we played with a chess set and Exley scattered the pieces around, and then when we couldn’t find two pawns, Exley started to get upset.

“Me scared,” he said.

“Don’t worry, Sweet,” I said, using the nickname I’d given him. Actually what I most often call him is Kissy Sweet. How much longer is that going to last? He has already sternly and repeatedly instructed me to stop calling him a baby. And how much longer am I going to be able to feel his body go heavy and soft in my arms with oncoming sleep as I read about Curious George and the Man with the Yellow Hat?

Ed Kranepool, each and every one of these words is dedicated to you. Ed Kranepool, have you ever read to your children or maybe grandchildren about Curious George and the Man with the Yellow Hat and wondered, as I have after reciting so many of those stories again and again, whether the Man with the Yellow Hat has a heroin addiction? Why else, Ed Kranepool, would he continue disappearing, time and again, for wide unaccountable swaths of time while his pet monkey, clearly incapable of being left alone, wreaks havoc to such an extent as to be symbolic of havoc itself?

But I digress, Ed Kranepool, and really, Ed Kranepool, what I want to say to you because I don’t have anyone else to say it to is thanks. Thanks for that feeling of my younger boy falling asleep in my arms, and for the blue eyes of my older boy as he stares somehow both at me and through me and wonders for the first time in his life aloud if this is all a dream, and for that feeling of seeing my wife without any clothes on, and for that feeling of riding through Chicago streets and flying, almost, with the joy of exertion and release and anticipation and being alive.

What if this is all a dream, Ed Kranepool? And are you still dreaming it, Ed Kranepool? It’s a few months now since the stories came out that you were in dire need of a kidney, that you had auctioned off your World Series ring, that were on a waiting list, that time was running out. I know you felt what I felt. That connection, that bliss. I feel it, and I don’t fully know why, when I say your familiar, friendly, evaporating name.

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Rogelio Moret

October 17, 2017

Rogelio MoretBaseball cards freeze things in place. I guess I first sensed this in 1974. I was six and learning that nothing stays frozen in place. We’d moved to a new state, away from my father. I found I liked baseball cards. I liked things that stayed the same.

Rogelio Moret’s 1974 card freezes him in place at the moment when he was, in teammate Bill Lee’s eyes, “headed for the mountaintop.” He’s just 24 years old here, fresh off his first full season in the majors, in which he went 13 and 2 with a 3.12 earned run average. “Roger had the potential to be a Sandy Koufax,” Lee said. “When he threw the ball over the plate, he was unhittable.”

I never saw Moret play, so he was only a figure frozen in place on a baseball card, and then he was a name that was gone from my favorite team, and then, strangely, changed, as if not even your name can stay the same. He was somewhere else, someone else: “Roger” Moret. With the Red Sox he was Rogelio, but he was only with them through 1975. From then on, as I watched the Red Sox come close but fall short, undone by shoddy pitching, and as I sifted continually through the cards I had, including this one, Rogelio Moret was some fixed idea, frozen in time, the very element the Red Sox were missing. According to his cards, he almost always won. In fact he was the Red Sox all-time career leader in winning percentage until Pedro Martinez surpassed him. I couldn’t understand why they’d let him go.

I also didn’t know until years later what happened to him afterward, when he was on the Texas Rangers. In 1978, before a game, he froze in place in front of his locker. He was naked and holding a flip-flop in one hand. No one could talk him out of his catatonic state, which went on for 90 minutes, until the team medical staff sedated him, and he was taken to the Arlington Neuropsychiatric Center. He rejoined the team later in the year and pitched sparingly, and that was it for his time in the majors. It wasn’t the first time he’d had trouble in the blurrier world outside the clear borders of the diamond, and it wouldn’t be the last.

According a Facebook page for someone who seems to be an older version of the rail-thin young man pictured here, Rogelio Moret now lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He only posted twice on that page, the last time back in 2012, but I also found a photo of him on Twitter from 2015 at a ballgame in San Juan. He looked happy.

I hope he’s OK. I’ve always hoped he was OK, even as far back as 1974 when I got this card and wondered why, despite his poise, his balance, his alert focus, his shimmering, impeccable numbers, he seemed a little sad and lonely.