Monthly archives: January 2007
J.R. Richard, 1978
Conclusion (continued from here)
I don't remember this part, but my friend Bill estimates that I dropped twenty-five or thirty feet before hitting the steep embankment, then I bounced and tumbled another hundred feet or so. When I stopped somersaulting I was in a forward-swaying seated position, a thin ribbon of blood pulsing in what seemed to be slow motion from my head out onto the scree, an image which reminded me, even in the moment, of the way guys bled from mortal bullet wounds in Sam Peckinpah movies.
No clouds in the sky. Some dry desert brush here and there. Bill seemed to arrive at my side almost instantly, more scared than anyone I've ever seen.
"Holy shit, Josh! Holy fucking shit!"
A couple had pulled into the rest area just before I'd flown over the cliff, and the woman drove off to find a telephone so she could call an ambulance while the man made his way down to us to see if he could help. Based on the small number of other cars on the desert highway we'd been on, I'd guess that the rest area we'd stopped at generally went hours or even days without having a visitor. I asked small-talk questions of the man who'd come to my aid as he and Bill each took one of my arms and gently half-lifted, half-dragged me toward the highway. He was an air traffic controller. He and his wife were on their way to Colorado where he was starting a new job.
"Colorado's beautiful," I said.
Bill and the air traffic controller set me down on the ground by a shallow roadside ditch and as we waited for the ambulance I started to go into shock. Unfortunately, I didn't know that I was going into shock. All I knew was that I was beginning to feel very cold on a warm sunny day, and my vision was going white and grainy, like a television tuned to a station losing its signal. I thought I might be dying.
After his failed comeback, J.R. Richard's sizable baseball earnings gradually dwindled closer and closer to zero, eroded by two divorce settlements and some bad business decisions, including an oil-well scam that cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Looking for a job, he approached the team whose cap he would have worn on a plaque in Cooperstown. "I went to [the Astros] to see if I could do some public relations for them," Richard said in a 2004 Houston Press interview with Dave Hollander. "They said, 'Okay, we'll get back to you,' and time passed and passed and passed. Nothing."
The paramedics strapped me on a gurney and carried me into the ambulance, where they hooked me to IVs. According to Bill, who was, against their strong recommendations, tailing them the whole way, we went 100 miles an hour for forty miles or so, which was how far away the closest hospital was. At the hospital, I felt okay with Bill by my side as a kind nurse filled me with painkillers and removed rocks embedded in my knees, knuckles, and head, then sewed up the large rock-eructing gashes. But that quiet fear that I'd felt when I'd been going into shock returned when an orderly wheeled me away from Bill so I could have x-rays taken of my head.
I lay on the stretcher alone in a shadowy metallic room for a while. My thoughts started to wander. Maybe there was hidden internal bleeding. Maybe a massive secret blood clot had formed and was just waiting for the right moment to fatally clog some vital artery. It happened all the time. One minute you're tossing the ball around in the outfield with Wilbur Howard and the next minute men in dark suits are walking toward you to escort you off the Astroturf forever.
Finally a couple x-ray technicians came in. I wanted them to talk to me, to talk me through it, but they were busy bitching about some work-related problem.
"He thinks his crap don't stink," one of them said.
"I pulled enough overtime the last month," the other said, seeming to talk past him. "I got what's known as a life."
"And that big smile on his face all the time?" the first one said. "Lord."
They never acknowledged me at all, even when they were inches away, repositioning the stretcher. It was a chilling little preview. The world is going to keep on going right along just fine when you die. As they x-rayed me, a shred of "Pancho and Lefty" was still echoing around in what I considered at that moment to be my possibly hemorrhaging brain, the haunting part near the end of the song where a ghostly chorus joins in to help tell the doom-limned tale.
All the federales say
They could have had him any day
Those federales, those men in dark suits approaching with orders to remove. Yes, they could have had me that day. Broken neck, shattered skull, subject of a phone call to the next of kin. As it turned out, every inch of my body hurt and I was stitched up like Frankenstein and I could barely move, but I hadn't even broken a single bone, and the x-rays found nothing. I was free to limp out of the hospital, leaning on Bill. Everything seemed to glow. I called people close to me and told them I loved them. I tried to write postcards to say the same thing but it hurt too much to hold a pen.
The next day Bill and I bought flowers for the nurse who'd derocked me. I don't remember the details of the flower transaction, but I have since discovered that there is a possibility, however slight, that we bought the flowers from Chris Barnes, the actor who played Tanner Boyle. According to a Bad News Bears fan site, as the years went by Barnes became extremely uncomfortable with the constricting renown caused by his generation-defining portrayal. Probably every two seconds someone had come up to him and yelled "Let them play!" in his face, causing him ultimately to take it on the melancholy lam like Bill Bixby in the television version of The Incredible Hulk. In a 1998 Los Angeles Times article quoted on the above-mentioned site, Ann O'Neill reported that Barnes had moved to Utah and gotten a job in a flower shop. Though the article didn't specify the exact location of the flower shop, it's easy enough to imagine him gravitating toward a place far from everything except quiet rocky desert and the occasional desert-chewed nurse-thanking dufus.
We headed back toward California, where my plane home to the liquor store and Saturday nights at the International was leaving from, and after several hours of driving we ran out of daylight on the outskirts of Las Vegas. We got a room near the strip at a Motel 6 and decided despite my condition that it would be ludicrous to pass through that city and not gamble a little. I loaded up on codeine and we made our way slowly to Circus Circus.
Inside the casino, I gently lowered my bandaged body down in front of a slot machine. Bill found a spot farther down the row. Trapeze artists and tightrope walkers occupied the spaces high above all the random flashing and chiming and low-lit humans solemnly trying to be lucky. Once in a while you see how singular life is, how virtually impossible, how blessed and inane. "And yet we were always being found innocent for ridiculous reasons," writes Denis Johnson in Jesus' Son. It was a spring night in 1995 in Vegas. I looked as if I'd fallen into a dumpster-sized blender. I started feeding the machine and pulling the lever. It was a spring night in 1995 in Houston. J.R. Richard was homeless, taking shelter under a bridge. Within moments bells were ringing and hundreds of coins were spilling onto my lap.
Part 3 (continued from here)
"We're not finished," Tanner Boyle says.
It's 1977. The sequel to The Bad News Bears appears to be coming to an abrupt close. The Bears have traveled by customized van, unchaperoned, their 12-year-old chain-smoking left-fielder Kelly Leak at the wheel, from their home in California to the Astrodome in Houston to participate in a four-inning exhibition against the best Little League team in Texas. The winner of the exhibition, which is taking place between games of an Astros' doubleheader, will be awarded a trip to Japan to play in an All-World Little League Championship game.
By the top of the third inning, the Texas team has built a seemingly insurmountable five-run lead. As they ready to add to their lead (unaccountably, the Texas squad is being treated as the visiting team in Houston), a man in a dark suit comes onto the field and informs the umpire that time has run out for the exhibition; the second half of the Astros' doubleheader needs to begin. The stunned Bears are reluctant to leave the field. But eventually, perhaps dispirited by the shellacking at the hands of the gigantic Texas players, they begin to abandon their positions.
All except for their shortstop, Tanner Boyle.
In that slim moment, with the rocky world about to vanish from beneath me, was there room in my mind for a thought? I don't know. I don't remember. But if there was, the thought would be a wordless version of that two-word plea.
"Hey, you guys," Tanner Boyle says. All his teammates, even Kelly Leak, are passing him on their way off the field. "Where are you going?"
The Bears' new coach, Kelly Leak's long-estranged father, Mike, argues futilely with the man in the dark suit who declared the game over. The umpire confirms that the Texas team was ahead at the time the game was called, and the man in the dark suit officially declares them the winner. Two more men in dark suits materialize to hover ominously around the now irate Mike Leak, who glares past them for a while at the first dark-suited man before retreating to the dugout. The line score for the game has been wiped from the stadium scoreboard. There's only one obstacle remaining. Tanner Boyle stands alone on the carpeted diamond. His glove has been thrown to the turf in anger.
"We're not finished!" he yells again. "The game isn't over!"
Two men in dark suits walk toward him.
I hadn't done anything yet. I hadn't found love yet, not really. I hadn't written The Novel yet. I hadn't made witty appearances on talk shows yet. I hadn't acquired groupies yet. I hadn't dunked a basketball yet. At least not on a regulation-height rim.
The Astros emerge from the clubhouse, entering the dugout the Bears have been borrowing from them: Bill Virdon, Enos Cabell, Joe Ferguson, Roger Metzger, Bob Watson. The Bears have been watching the men in dark suits advance toward their shortstop but now they cluster around the Astros with a mixture of awe and supplication. The Bears' centerfielder, Ahmad, explains the situation to Bob Watson. Cesar Cedeno has also entered the scene, as has Ken Forsch. In the background, wearing the long-sleeved windbreaker of a man who will soon be taking the mound as a starting pitcher, is J.R. Richard.
Out on the field, Tanner Boyle backpedals away from the two men in dark suits. They close in and he jukes away from them, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
"Hey, look at Tanner," exclaims Toby, the Bears' first baseman.
The Bears' savvy, bespectacled Sabermetrician, Ogilvie, played by the legendary Alfred Lutter, is the first to join Toby at the dugout railing to watch Tanner dart away from the grasping, stumbling men in dark suits. In the short interim between the first Bad News Bears movie and The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, Alfred Lutter has been, more than any of his cast-mates, Pearl-Harbored by puberty. He stands a head taller than Toby at the rail, elongated and pasty, his aviator glasses a little crooked. After The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training Alfred Lutter will never again appear in another movie. His last and greatest character, Ogilvie, pumps a pointy, poorly-formed fist and cheers with a cracking voice for Tanner Boyle to stay alive out there. Everything is ending. Stay alive!
I hadn't learned to touch-type yet. I hadn't learned to drive yet. I hadn't given a tearful acceptance speech yet. I hadn't had ecstatic sex in some beautiful meadow somewhere, or something, yet. I'd barely had any sex at all. I hadn't even taken enough naps. I hadn't been discovered. I hadn't enrolled in a drawing class or studied yoga, mostly because it reminded me of the word yogurt, which I considered repulsive, but still it would have been nice to improve my flexibility and be one of those glowing yoga types who can enjoy the wide bountiful treasures of each moment and also last longer than fourteen seconds while humping. I hadn't fended off child pickpockets in Rome or cheered for the Ham Fighters in Japan or purchased Elvis Presley toenail clippers in Memphis.
"Come on, Tanner!" Ogilvie shouts. Tanner picks up second base and hurls it at the groin of the younger of the two men in dark suits. The man groans and crumples to the ground.
"Go, Tanner, go!" yells the Bears' third baseman, Jimmy Feldman, played by Brett Marx, grandson of Gummo Marx.
The man who crumpled to the ground gets back on his feet but both he and the other man are starting to tire.
"Come back here," the older of the two men in dark suits says, standing and pointing at the Astroturf by his dress shoes. "Come back here right now!"
"No!" Tanner says.
Bob Watson steps forward, smiling but apparently also roused by Tanner Boyle's Last Stand. J.R. Richard is visible in the background. He has risen from the bench. Standing, he's enormous, a rainbow-striped skyscraper. Bob Watson sort of feebly punches his arm in the air, as if he's been taking air-punching lessons from Ogilvie.
"Hey, come on," Bob Watson calls out toward the field. "Let the kids play."
I hadn't gotten roaringly drunk in Dublin, nor attained zen enlightenment while carrying a pail of water or whatever, nor aided the indigent, nor learned Cantonese, nor buoyed the hopeless, nor whipped through War and Peace during some vacation during which I also took long bracing swims in the Atlantic, nor taught convicted felons how to write gritty, redemptive poetry, nor foiled a mugging with nary but my bare fists and perhaps a couple Spidermanly wisecracks, nor had one more really great chocolate chip cookie, nor run weeping with joy up and down confettied avenues hugging strangers because the Red Sox had won the World Series, because the Red Sox had not won the World Series, not in my lifetime, not yet. It was 1995 and I was 27 years old and I hadn't had that feeling yet. I had longed for the feeling abstractly and daydreamed about the feeling in alarmingly intricate detail. In some ways I had even built it into my own personal impotent religion. But I hadn't ever found out what it actually felt like, you know, to win.
Upon hearing Bob Watson's plea to let the kids play, Mike Leak stalks back onto the field and, facing the stands, begins the chant for which The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is known.
"Let them play!" he chants. "Let them play!"
His son, with whom he has fought throughout the movie, is the first to join him. For the first time, father and son stand side by side, chanting and gaveling the air with their right fists with each syllable. Eventually the rest of the Bears surge out onto the field to lend their reedy voices. Rudi. Engelberg. Jose and Miguel. Carmen Ronzonni.
The men in dark suits still can't catch Tanner Boyle.
"Let them play! Let them play!"
Soon the entire stadium is chanting.
I careened aboard my friend's sister's slightly too small white bicycle off the edge of a Utah cliff. I didn't know what was going to happen next, but if I had had time to pray, I would have prayed for the angelic intervention of Tanner Boyle and Bob Watson and the homely, forlornly Matthauless, Jimmy Baio-ified, sequelized Bad News Bears. Not yet, I would have prayed to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. Please, you lumpy heroes. Not yet.
(Next up: The Synapse-Mangling, Soul-Butchering, Spirit-Disemboweling Conclusion.)
J.R. Richard, 1979
Part 2 (continued from here)
Back in those years that included my brother's attempt to learn to play the cello, I often fantasized about lucking into the creation of the perfect opening sentence of a novel. I imagined this sentence would have the power to cause an entire book-length fictional world to gush from my pen like water from the widening hole in a sabotaged dam. By the time the 1990s were half over I had filled up a cello-high stack of notebooks with jagged scribbling, more than a thousand pages blackened and blued with self-lacerating complaints that the magical dam-breaking First Sentence had yet to come and deliver me from my life. On particularly frustrating days I ended up Hulking it up a little, flying into private nearsighted ectomorphic rages that metamorphosed me from a timid high-strung liquor store clerk into a rampaging cat-scaring beast with the gamma-ray-infused strength to rip the Meade "Wireless" college-ruled notebooks I favored into tiny terrified shreds. Then I'd clean up the shreds and go find the cats in their hiding places to apologize profusely for the monster within.
In 1980, at the age of 30 and in the midst of his best season yet, J.R. Richard began noticing stiffness in his back, shoulder, and arm. He mentioned it to team trainers and in June as the problem worsened he began begging out of games early. Nobody could find anything wrong, but judging by the occasional grumblings in Houston that Richard (who hadn't missed a single start in years) was either purposefully dogging it or suffering from some mental phantasm, nobody was really looking very hard.
Besides waiting around in vain for literary genius to strike, I also daydreamed, as did my brother and at least one of my friends, of escaping with violent abruptness from New York City. My brother envisioned only the first step of his escape: driving without the slightest warning to anyone through the Holland Tunnel, away from every last problem, never to return. A friend's more detailed vision of escape involved reversing the path taken by Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy: Instead of leaving a small, scorpion-infested Texas border town to come to New York City, my friend, a lifelong New Yorker, dreamed of leaving New York City for a small, scorpion-infested Texas border town, where he'd get a job washing dishes in a diner, shack up with a divorced, embittered, chain-smoking waitress, and read a lot. My own vision of escape involved taking a map of the U.S., plunking my finger down on it randomly, and then taking a Greyhound to the random spot to get a job somewhere "sweeping up," as the wistfully forlorn Bill Bixby managed to do at the beginning of every episode of the television version of The Incredible Hulk.
J.R. Richard's second to last start in the major leagues was in the 1980 all-star game. He deserved to start the game: he had by then become the best pitcher in baseball. He pitched two scoreless innings, striking out Carlton Fisk, Reggie Jackson, and Steve Stone. His last start was six days later. July 14, 1980. He sailed through the first three innings, giving up no runs and just one hit while striking out four, and in the bottom of the third, in his final major league at-bat, he drilled a double off future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. But with one out in the top of the fourth inning he walked off the mound and into the clubhouse, complaining of dizziness.
He was replaced by Gordy Pladson.
In actuality, I rarely left the city. There was no such thing as vacation time at the liquor store where I worked, but I occasionally took a few unpaid days off every once in a while, usually to go lie around on a parental couch eating cheese and crackers. In earlier years I'd hoped for a life of adventure such as the one featured in the pages of On the Road, but things weren't really working out quite like that. A few years into my long stint selling liquor, and not long after my brother turned in his rented cello, I told the owner of the store that I needed a week to go out west. I met up with my fellow Kerouac-loving former roommate from boarding school, Bill, in Santa Barbara, and the two of us drove to Utah with two mountain bikes on the roof of Bill's car.
We spent a couple days camping and hiking in Zion National Park and then set out across the state, heading for the mountain-biking mecca of Moab. I had never actually mountain-biked before, but I figured it couldn't be that hard. After driving for hours across a desert, and with several more car-bound hours still ahead of us, we seized the chance to stop at a rest area that turned out to be nothing more than a tin outhouse perched at the edge of a long rocky ridge. There was not so much as a telephone there. After I took a leak I came out of the outhouse and saw that Bill was unhitching his bike from the rack.
"Let's take a break from all the driving," Bill said.
"Sounds good to me," I said. I didn't yet know how to drive a car at that time and so Bill had been doing the whole job himself while I performed such vital tasks as unscrewing the cap on the bottle of water for him and manning the volume on the tape player. For the past couple hours we'd fallen into a silence that in retrospect seems a little haunted to me, the unending barren wilderness outside the windows taking away our words. I still had a song stuck in my head from the tape that had been playing when we'd pulled in, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard singing Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty."
"By the end of [July 1980] Richard was back at the Astrodome, playing catch with former Astro Wilbur Howard under the observation of trainer Doc Ewell. After a 10-minute rest in the dugout, Richard returned to the field to try some more throwing--and collapsed.
"Emergency surgery at Houston's Methodist Hospital uncovered the root of Richard's struggles. The branch of his carotid artery that supplied blood to the right shoulder was completely clotted, resulting in a near-fatal stroke. When asked by a reporter if Richard would lose the use of his arm, one doctor replied: 'Hell, they weren't worried about his arm; they were worried about his life.'"
Bill set out first on his bike and I followed behind as soon as I got his sister's bike off the roof. Neither of us bothered to put on our helmets. The ridge was about fifteen feet wide, maybe narrower in parts. It appeared to be relatively flat.
"The stroke had nearly paralyzed the entire left side of Richard's body. A second operation returned much of his strength and speech, but the fearsome right-hander never pitched in the big leagues again. A brief comeback ended in March 1984 after Richard had gone 0-2 with a 13.68 ERA in six starts for Triple-A Tucson. The Astros gave him his release."
By the time I began hurtling down the bumpy, deceptively steep incline, Bill had wrenched his own bike to a skidding halt and was running toward me and shouting at me to try to do the same. I didn't see him, and anyway it was too late. The handlebars had turned into those of a jackhammer. I was going too fast to think. Ten seconds into my mountain-biking career I flew off a cliff.
(To be Hulkinued.)
J.R. Richard, 1977
J.R. Richard spent his twenties taking long loping strides toward Cooperstown. He was 6'8", threw blazingly hard, wore the dazzling colors of the distant, exciting, up and coming Astros, had a cool, mysterious name, and always seemed to be featured by Topps in one of their rare action shots, the photos always making him seem even bigger and more electrifying than the impressive numbers on the back of his card suggested. Back then I sometimes passed entire afternoons wondering who could beat up whom in the Marvel superhero universe, and though I understood that baseball and comics, the two fantasy-infused realms where I spent the bulk of my childhood, did not in actuality overlap, J.R. Richard (last name virtually identical to Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four) was an exception, and I thought of him as if he could be placed somewhere in the penultimate tier of the Marvel rankings, able to trade skyscraper-rocking blows with the likes of Spiderman, Iron Man, or Luke Cage: Power Man. And even the three top Marvel strongmen--The Thing, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk--though perhaps too powerful for J.R. Richard to hold off in a fistfight without the help of some lesser masked functionary such as Hawkeye or The Falcon, could not, if the situation were ever to arise, touch one of the lightning-bolt fastballs that sprang from J.R. Richards's giant superpowered hand.
My older brother was even more mesmerized with J.R. Richard than I was, and modeled his pitching motion on the one shown in this 1977 card: high bent-kneed leg kick, hands held tight to the chest, scowling eyes locked on the catcher's target. He perfected the motion while hurling a tennis ball at the strike zone he'd duct-taped onto our wooden garage door. The sound the tennis ball made when hitting the door got louder as the years passed, my brother amid the seismic epicenter of his puberty seeming to get bigger by the day: 6'1", 6'2", 6'3". By the time he had reached his full height of 6'4" and no longer played organized baseball and was openly longing to leave home for good, the scowling bent-kneed windup and gunshot report of the garage door had become the primary elements in a ritual of imagined escape, each pitch a prayer for an impossible transformation from cornered rural teenager into the pure violent beauty of J.R. Richard throwing heat.
Years later, I meandered through my own twenties as a clerk at 8th Street Wine and Liquor in Manhattan. It was easy enough to imagine I'd be in my twenties forever. I worked the evening shift Monday through Friday and a nine-hour shift on Saturday, earning enough to chip in on the rent for the apartment I shared with my brother and to get drunk on Saturday nights at the International Bar a few blocks east of the store.
My brother and I and our friends generally loitered at the International until last call at 4 a.m., the favorite part of the night occurring near that time, after we'd all released the burden of hoping that someone would walk through the grimy door and change our lives. Some song on the jukebox would hit like novocaine and it no longer mattered that life was sliding past like scenery in a cheap cartoon. In fact it felt pretty fucking good. In an earlier comment on this site, my brother described the feeling:
"Numberless nights at the International Bar began their stretch run thusly: it's 3:52am, I've got a headful of static from drinking cheap swill, and Peggy Lee starts teetering through 'Is That All There Is?' on the ol' Wurlitzer. And through all those painful years, I was comforted each time; I'd feel a crooked, fallen smile take shape, 'Yessir, that's all what she wrote.' Various harpies would leave me be and I'd relax into appreciation of what was. McKenna gesticulating wildly, maybe. Or 'That Guy.' Or just Rose behind the bar, humane and beautiful and flatly real. Who needs the transcendent greener grass, when opening to What Is is so rewarding? (Of course, I'd forget that five seconds later, or at least by the next morning, and shoulder the misery again.)"
A few years into our routine of balancing that thin 3:52 a.m. feeling against the shipwrecked drifting of our lives in general, my brother decided he was going to learn how to play the cello. We were all looking for some detritus to cling to, I guess, and he liked the melancholy sound of the instrument, so he rented one from a music store and signed up for lessons with a recent Julliard grad, a young, stern Asian woman who was openly incredulous about his intentions. He wanted to use the cello to wrest some beauty from his life, but unfortunately he rarely got around to taking the thing out of its case. Eventually another entry was added into the endlessly rich lexicon of euphemisms for masturbation (e.g., Question: "Where's your brother?" Answer: "He's 'practicing the cello.'"). Nonetheless, he lugged his burden to and from work whenever he had a lesson, shoehorning himself and the obese case into the jammed F train at rush hour all the way from our neighborhood in Brooklyn to his job editing travel books on the Upper West Side. This went on for a couple months. One Sunday very near the time when he finally admitted defeat, he roused himself from an "Is That All There Is?" hangover to practice his assigned homework, another lesson and its accompanying scolding from the Asian woman looming. The apartment looked, as usual, as if it had been ransacked. It may have been around the time when we had a rotting jack-o-lantern with carved-out drunken X's for eyes collapsing into itself next to a bottle of Jim Beam on our "dining room" table. Bleary-eyed, unshaven, wearing only his boxer shorts and a wife-beater dotted with Ragu stains, my brother performed his first and last opus, a halting, truncated, off-key rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb.
(To be Hulkinued.)
I love baseball statistics in so far as they are able to separate me from reality. This renders me useless both to baseball analysts and to people who have no need for baseball statistics whatsoever. I dissolve into baseball statistics, hide in them. Sometimes I emerge with half-baked notions and outright distortions. More often I return to my life with nothing at all, the numbers I vanished into themselves vanishing from my mind like the sugary flavor of the gum that used to come with these cards. It's been this way for more than three decades, since even before this 1976 Jim Wynn card came into my 8-year-old hands. That said, I would like to disappear into some numbers for a while so as to explore the notion that Jim Wynn was, as he appears here to be, so very, very tired in 1976.
Yes, Jim Wynn looks like he's just about had enough, doesn't he? In fact, he'd make it through the coming season and then play another season, too, his last exhausted go-round coming in 1977 when he struggled half a season with the title-bound Yankees, was released, and then struggled some more with the 6th-place Brewers. It's his penultimate year I'm interested in, however, which came directly on the heels of this portrait of a man who seems to be, in the oft-uttered words of Danny Glover's character in the Lethal Weapon movies, "gettin' too old for this shit."
I like to think of Wynn wearing this expression throughout the 1976 season. I also try to imagine that he wore the cap pictured here. I know that this is impossible, since this headgear is most likely a Los Angeles Dodger cap subjected to another rushed doctoring job performed by the Topps art department (for more on this process and its existential ramifications, see Dave Cash ), yet I still prefer to think of Jim Wynn wearing a cap that looks as if it has been decorated by first graders just learning to write cursive lowercase letters and color between the lines.
Thusly attired, Jim Wynn authored a season that somehow perfectly expresses the utter exhaustion of a still-talented baseball slugger. His batting average was a mere .207, but in his 148 games played he managed to hit 17 home runs and also amassed a league-leading 127 walks, not that far from a walk a game. Wynn had always had a preternatural knack for drawing the walk (in fact he may have been the greatest right-handed walk-obtainer ever, not quite at the level of lefties Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Barry Bonds but as good or perhaps even slightly better than righties Frank Thomas, Rickey Henderson, and the Three Walkin' Eddies: Yost, Joost, and Stanky), but though he had often approached his 1976 rate of obtaining them, he had only surpassed it once before, in 1969, and in that year he had hit for a much higher batting average than in 1976 while also pounding out nearly twice as many home runs. In other words, in 1969 opposing pitchers had much more reason to pitch carefully to Jim Wynn, which makes his comparable 1976 walk numbers even more astounding. Even though he seemed no longer able or willing to consistently make contact with the ball, he still drew the free pass.
Including his walks, he had 576 trips to the batter's box in 1976. As noted previously, he enabled himself, through his great eye and perhaps through sheer force of will, to exit the batter's box at a relaxed saunter by obtaining a base on balls on 127 occasions. He also followed 111 other at-bats with an even shorter stroll back to the dugout after striking out. Add the 17 short jogs around the bases resulting from his 17 home runs, and you are left with precious few moments when Jim Wynn had to exert himself while his team was on offense. He only had 76 non-homer basehits, about 13 percent of his total plate appearances. There have surely been other guys with a similarly small ratio of non-homer basehits to plate appearance, but I bet none of those other guys led their teams in on-base percentage, home runs, and RBIs, as Jim Wynn did in 1976. Jim Wynn may have been tired (perhaps worn out from years of trying to muscle home runs out of the Astrodome and Dodger Stadium, his previous home ballparks, which so favored the pitcher that they may have cost Jim Wynn a spot in the Hall of Fame), but he still found a way to help his team. In fact, I believe that Jim Wynn in 1976 produced the highest ever positive ratio of offensive production versus physical energy exerted. As a person who intends, one of these days, to do good things in life but who is also, on a much more concrete level, always on the eagle-eyed lookout for his next nap, I view Jim Wynn's 1976 season as a beacon flickering dimly through the haze, suggesting that my limited exertions may amount to something yet.
"I went to a party [in 1988] and there were some girls moving around a little funny after going into the bathroom. I said, 'What are they doing?' and they said they were smoking crack. And I said, 'Won't that bust your heart?' They said, 'No, no, try it.' The high was euphoric, super. It took away the absence of baseball."
-- Sammy Stewart
Sammy Stewart had some euphoric highs. In 1978, in the very first game of his rookie season, he struck out seven Chicago White Sox batters in a row to set a record that still stands: most consecutive strikeouts in a major league debut. Stewart also owns an admirable string of scoreless innings pitched in the World Series, a mark that he did not get the chance to extend late in his career, despite being on the playoff roster of the 1986 Boston Red Sox.
My sole memory of him being on the Red Sox that year involved seeing his name on a disheartening list of available pitchers that flashed on the TV screen as the Red Sox bullpen unraveled in Game 6 of the World Series. Either just before or just after that list flashed, the tragicomedy team of pearshaped Bob Stanley and nearsighted Rich Gedman combined to allow a sloppy sinker free passage to the backstop, which allowed the tying run to score, which allowed Shea Stadium to erupt into a sound that, had I myself been an available reliever in the Boston bullpen, would have caused me to lose control of my bladder.
Before the hobbling, mustachioed man playing first base ever got involved, Game 6 of the 1986 World Series was over. Like every other Red Sox fan, I'd already been feeling pretty doomed the moment that the camera swung away from the image of undone would-be closer and future icon of the notion of "failure face," Calvin Schiraldi, to the image of the bullpen door swinging open to reveal that our fate lay in the hands of Bob Stanley. And once the tying run actually did cross the plate, forget it. I knew there was no way things could possibly end well. Not with that crowd roaring like 50,000 Roman spectators greeting the arrival into the arena of hunger-enraged lions. Not with the ghost of Enos Slaughter leading off first, the ghost of Bucky Dent in the batter's box. Not with our only hope resting on Bob Stanley, Steve Crawford, Joe Sambito, and . . . Sammy Stewart? Since when did we have Sammy Stewart?
The Red Sox had used Crawford and Sambito sparingly in the playoffs, and both had still found ways to hemorrhage runs. The fact that the Red Sox hadn't used Stewart at all suggested to me that he must have been an even worse option than his fellow last resorts. I remembered him in previous years as part of the effective army of relievers the Orioles deployed in their quietly ass-kicking manner, but I figured that he must have lost it, that he was washed up, a has-been. To use a metaphor that at that very moment was yet in its embryonic stage, I just assumed Stewart must have already taken that slow malodorous Greyhound to Schiraldiville.
Sammy Stewart claims that this is not so. He had hurt his arm earlier in the season, but by the World Series he was feeling strong. He believes Red Sox manager John McNamara had it in for him and so avoided using him. There's no telling what would have happened if he had come in with the game still in question, but it's probably safe to say that the man who had not allowed a run in 7 2/3 innings of World Series work with the Orioles would not be overwhelmed by the spotlight.
As the above quote from Sammy Stewart suggests, being away from the spotlight was another story. He lasted one more year in the majors and then, according to "Rock Bottom," a harrowing October 25, 2006, Boston Globe story by Stan Grossfeld, he began compiling a different set of stats: 26 arrests, 43 criminal charges, 6 prison stints. Stewart is currently incarcerated at the Piedmont Correctional Institution in North Carolina for being a habitual felon, felony drug possession, and failure to appear in court on a felony charge.
The baseball card above is from 1980, just after Sammy Stewart's first full season in the majors, during which he helped the Orioles win the 1979 pennant. He led the strong Oriole bullpen in innings pitched, won 8 games, and posted a 3.56 ERA, then added 2 2/3 scoreless innings of work in the World Series. The Orioles lost in seven games to the Pirates that year, but Stewart's expression seems to show that he's not too worried about the defeat. Why should he be? He's got years and years of baseball still to play.
The Orioles returned to the World Series in 1983, and Stewart again took the ball in key spots and again pitched flawlessly, and this time the Orioles won. The following season Stewart received his World Champion ring, which he subsequently relinquished while suffering the absence of baseball.
To me, Lyman Bostock was the first person who ever died. This may explain why I've been trying and failing to write about Lyman Bostock for days. Whenever I can't write I get morose, withdrawn, and self-pitying. Well, I'm always sort of morose, withdrawn, and self-pitying, but when I can't write it's like a slightly enchanting fog around a run-down rustbelt city full of abandoned factories lifts. Yesterday I tried and failed to write about Lyman Bostock, took a subway to a bus to my job, proofread an old version of a test book written in Chinese against the new version of the same test book written in Chinese (I found one error in 60 pages of Chinese text, a leg-like stroke missing on a man-shaped character), took a bus to a subway home, fed the cats, fiddled with my online "Back to the 80's" Strat-O-Matic lineup, Googled the name of an old boarding school friend and found out he now sold real estate in Jersey City for Remax, which alarmed and depressed me, partly because he was a funny, athletic, and charismatic guy seemingly destined for stardom as an action hero and more so because he had become an adult (the only other Google listing for his full name besides his Remax listing was an article from 20 years ago mentioning that he'd played the lead in a summer production of a Shakespeare play, the gap in years between those two Google listings suggesting a transition out of a life of "what if," a transition I have yet to make) and here I was riding public transportation to a building along a strip in the suburbs to my part-time job to proofread a language I couldn't understand. Also, there was a picture of him and he looked like a middle-aged guy, which I'm sure I look like, too, but since I've seen me the whole time I haven't noticed the change as much.
And today I'm back at it, trying to write about Lyman Bostock. In previous days of failing to write about Lyman Bostock I have discovered a lot of stuff on the Internet about Lyman Bostock. There are in fact entire tribute websites devoted to him, or at least one tribute website, plus many other articles and columns, most of them mentioning that his father was a Negro League standout, that he himself became a major league standout with the Minnesota Twins before signing as a free agent for the Angels in 1978, that he tried to return his first month's salary to the Angels' owner, Gene Autry, for getting off to a poor start with his new team, that this humble, selfless act was par for the course for Lyman Bostock, about whom stories of being extremely helpful and of going out of his way to be nice to strangers abounded, that after trying to give his salary back he subsequently rallied to bring his batting average by mid-September of that year to a fine .296, that while riding in the back seat of a car in mid-September he was shot and killed by a man who was apparently aiming for his ex-wife, a woman seated next to Bostock whom Bostock had met 20 minutes earlier, and that the shooter avoided prison time with an insanity plea and was subsequently released from a psychiatric hospital, a free man, seven months after he'd been admitted.
I was 10 when Lyman Bostock was murdered, and prior to that time knew him solely as a name near the top of the list of batting averages printed in the Sunday sports section. I studied those averages religiously, as religiously as I've ever studied anything. I loved the exactness of them. I loved that there was a hierarchy, an order, Singleton and Brett near the top, Kingman and Belanger near the bottom, and I loved even more that at times certain previously unknown players moved into the upper echelon of that hierarchy, sometimes creeping up the list past the sturdy .280 Amos Otis types, sometimes materializing out of nowhere, as Bob Watson did for the Red Sox in 1979 as soon as he had amassed the minimum number of at bats. I don't know which route Lyman Bostock first took, because I don't clearly remember a time before Lyman Bostock was among the batting average leaders and yet I also do recall thinking of him as a new guy, a youngster storming the rarified realm lorded over benevolently by his wondrous teammate Rod Carew. In general, I thought about him this way: Lyman Bostock was rising, each year a little higher. His move to the Angels provided a temporary hiccup in his career's rising motion, but within that last season there was a microcosm of his career, a smaller rising, his batting average going up and up after the first bad month. I looked for Lyman Bostock's name throughout 1978 and was happy to see him rising, a little higher each week.
O'Rourke, who made his professional debut with the Mansfields, fled Middletown after the franchise folded at the conclusion of their one and only season as a professional club (the team, named after a Civil War general, had existed since 1866 as a topflight amateur squad), the gregarious shortstop moving to the league champion Boston Red Stockings who became the Boston Red Caps who became the Boston Beaneaters who became the Boston Doves who became the Boston Rustlers who became the Boston Bees who became the Boston Braves who became the Milwaukee Braves who became the Atlanta Braves. Murnane and Clapp hitched on with the Philadelphia Athletics, who folded in 1876 during their first season as a National League franchise only to be resurrected in 1901, at least in name, by the Philadelphia franchise of the new American League, who eventually moved to Kansas City and then to Oakland, where in 1972, exactly one century after the sole professional campaign of the Middletown Mansfields, the Athletics won the first of three straight World Series with certain key players sporting flamboyant 19th century moustaches.
The only other Mansfields to last beyond the extinction of their team were second baseman Eddie Booth, who kicked around for a few years with the Brooklyn Atlantics, Elizabeth Resolutes, and New York Mutuals, aging pitcher Asa Brainard, who hitched on with the Baltimore Canaries, for whom he went 5-22 in 1874, probably not coincidentally his last season, and outfielder Jim Tipper, who followed up his stint with the 5-19 Mansfields by toiling with the soon-to-be-defunct 16-37 Hartford Dark Blues in 1873 before bottoming out with the soon-to-be defunct 7-40 New Haven Elm Citys. Little is known of the fates of Ham Allen, Frank Buttery, and the rest of the Mansfields who disappeared from the record books after their one season together. Perhaps some continued playing semi-pro or amateur ball while others found different lines of work altogether. As for the first Cy, Cy Bentley, he died on February 26, 1873, at the age of 22.
It would be 18 years before another Cy reached the majors, but that second Cy, born Denton True Young, would retire 21 years later with 509 more major league wins than his predecessor, a deluge of namesakes in his wake. In chronological order depending on their first year in the majors, they are Cy Bowen, Cy Seymour, Cy Swaim, Cy Vorhees, Cy Morgan (not to be confused with Cy Morgan, below), Cy Falkenberg, Cy Ferry, Irv "Cy the Second" Young (career record: 63 wins, 95 losses), Cy Barger, Cy Neighbors, Harley "Cy the Third" Young (career record 0 wins, 3 losses), Cy Alberts, Cy Slapnicka, Cy Williams, Rube "Cy" Marshall (it is taking all my might not to go off on a tangent right now about that other once common but now extinct ballplayer name of yesteryear, Rube; let me just leave it for now with these three points: 1. There have been nearly as many Rubes as Cys in major league history [33 Rubes to 35 Cys, not counting 19th century journeyman Sy Sutcliffe]. 2. There have been no Rubes since Rube Walker retired in 1958. 3. Roy De Verne "Rube" "Cy" Marshall [career record: 8 wins, 10 losses], the sole improbable intersection in baseball of these two peerless monikers, needs to have some kind of mention somewhere in the Hall of Fame, even if it's embedded within a bathroom stall limerick. And if you think that these parenthetical [and parenthetical within parenthetical] remarks are hardly resisting the urge to go off on a tangent, or tangents, please know that it is taking a Herculean effort to avoid broaching the subject of Rube Waddell at this time), Cy Pieh, Al "Cy" Cypert, Cy Rheam, Charlie "Cy" Young (career record: 2 wins, 3 losses), Orie Milton "Cy" Kerlin, Cy Perkins, Cy Warmoth, Cy Wright, Cy Fried, Cy Twombly (whose one year in the majors predated the birth of the famous painter with the same name by 7 years), Cy Morgan (not to be confused with Cy Morgan, above), Cy Moore, Ed "Cy" Cihocki, Cy Blanton, Cy Malis, Cy Block, Cy Buker, and, finally, Cy Acosta.
The gap between the sad passing of Cy Bentley and the arrival of Cy Young was 18 years, which is the third biggest Cyless gap in baseball history. The second biggest gap is the 27 years between the last pitch of Cy Bukor, who played for one year for the Brooklyn Dodgers during World War II, and the first pitch of the man pictured here, Cy Acosta. The longest Cyless span is the one we are currently suffering through. It's now 31 years and counting since Cy Acosta wrapped up his brief and forgettable career with two scoreless innings in an 11-3 loss.
"He didn't look like a professional athlete, and didn't carry himself like one. He was kind of wide-eyed every day about everything. He was always surprised, maybe even amused, by his success. He didn't think he was that good." -- Paul Splitorff, teammate of Dan Quisenberry (from an article by Heather Henderson)
"I have seen the future, and it is like the present, only longer."
-- Dan Quisenberry
In the last full year of my baseball card collecting, 1980, Topps featured a series of cards touting "Future Stars." There was one card for each team, three players per card, seventy-eight can't-miss talents in all. I don't have all the cards in that one-year-only series, but I'm pretty sure that seventy-seven of the seventy-eight can't-misses missed. Here is the sole "Future Stars" card that I know of that didn't turn out to be wildly inaccurate. Whoever it was at Topps who was taking perverse pleasure listing guys such as Ted Wilborn, Dave Geisel, and Joel Finch as Future Stars probably believed that a 27-year-old soft-tossing sidearmer with a name seemingly immune to sporting renown could not possibly endanger the thudding irony of the series. But to paraphrase the great Dan Quisenberry, Dan Quisenberry found a delivery in their flaw. I'm sure that if at the time I got this card I had had to guess the one real star to emerge from among all the Future Stars, I wouldn't have guessed Dan Quisenberry. Even after Quisenberry began grabbing headlines, winning pennants, and breaking records, I had trouble believing in his existence. I was moving away from my pure, single-minded love of baseball, moving away from childhood itself, becoming less wide-eyed about everything, becoming less like Dan Quisenberry, so I guess it's no wonder I had trouble believing he existed. And now, even though it's been almost a decade since his death, I still can't believe he's gone. Anyway, here's the Quiz himself, who published a book of poems just before passing away from cancer in 1998. . . .
By Dan Quisenberry
that first baseball card I saw myself
in a triage of rookies
atop the bodies
that made the hill
we played king of
I am the older one
the one on the right
long red hair unkempt
a symbol of the '70s
somehow a sign of manhood
you don't see
how my knees shook on my debut
or my desperation to make it
the second one I look boyish with a gap-toothed smile
the smile of a guy who has it his way
I rode the wave's crest
of pennant and trophies
I sat relaxed with one thought
"I can do this"
you don't see
me stay up till two reining in nerves
or post-game hands that shook involuntarily
glory years catch action shots
arm whips and body contortions
a human catapult
the backs of those cards
that tell stories of saves, wins, flags, records
handshakes, butt slaps, celebration mobs
you can't see
the cost of winning
lines on my forehead under the hat
trench line between my eyes
you don't see my wife, daughter and son left behind
the last few cards
I do not smile
I grim-face the camera
no more forced poses to win fans
crow's-feet turn into eagle's claws
you don't see
the quiver in my heart
knowledge that it is over
just playing out the end
I look back
at who I thought I was
or used to be
now, trying to be funny
I tell folks
I used to be famous
I used to be good
we thought you were bigger
At the time this picture was taken, Jim Rice had just surpassed his excellent first two full seasons in the major leagues with a third season that established him as the scariest hitter in baseball, bar none. Some players of his day could match his ability to hit for power and some could match his ability to hit for a high average, but nobody in the Cardboard God era could produce in both areas the way James Edward Rice produced. Jim Rice didn't just hit, he mangled. He punished. He destroyed.
In the 1977 season, which perhaps produced the good feelings evident in this photo, Rice led the American League in home runs and slugging percentage, hit .320, drove in 114 runs, and just for good measure ripped 15 triples. And in the season to follow he authored numbers that taken together comprise one of the best single season offensive explosions ever produced: a .315 batting average, 46 home runs, 15 triples, 139 RBI, and 406 total bases, the latter total the best mark in the category in 41 years. He kept at it in 1979, hitting .325 with 39 homers and 130 RBI, and continued producing at a high level throughout the early and mid-'80s. By the time he called it quits, he had compiled, in all, eight all-star appearances, six top-five finishes in MVP voting, and eight seasons with 100-plus RBI.
As newly-minted Hall of Fame inductee Cal Ripken put it yesterday, suggesting that a third player besides himself and fellow inductee Tony Gwynn belonged on the podium in Cooperstown this summer, "Jim Rice was the man."
Some point out that Jim Rice's numbers were inflated by playing in hitter-friendly Fenway Park, an argument aided by the discrepancy between Jim Rice's incredible home numbers and his merely very good road totals. I have to acknowledge this argument, but I also feel inclined to give Rice credit for putting up his outstanding totals in an era that by and large favored the pitchers, especially when compared to the more recent epoch involving baseballs with superballs inside them, a proliferation of homer-friendly ballparks, and, of course, thick-necked pimple-backed men sinking syringes into the asses of other thick-necked pimple-backed men.
Jim Rice played his position well, if not spectacularly, and Jim Rice, named captain of the Red Sox upon Carl Yastrzemski's retirement, was a quiet but powerful leader of a team that for most of his time in the majors was among the best in baseball. His work ethic was exemplary and his physical strength--most often attested to in stories of him breaking his bat merely by checking his swing--was the kind of legendary attribute that instills confidence in teammates and fear in the opposition. For several seasons, the Boston Red Sox knew they were going to contend if for no other reason than that they had Jim Ed Rice and nobody else did.
I'm biased, of course. I was nine years old at the time I got this card, and if there's any better age to be worshipful, I'm not sure what it is. A year later, on a school trip to Boston, I saw Jim Rice get out of a car inside the cramped Fenway Park player parking area. I pressed my face against the chain link fence that separated us. He was no more than twenty feet away.
"Jim Ed!" I shouted.
He turned toward me. I was too shocked to say anything. I could not believe that a God would be able to hear me, that a God could look me straight in the eye. Moreover, I sensed that there was in Jim Rice's quick, almost flinching, squint-eyed glance toward the caller of his name a suggestion that he was haunted by a nervous, even paranoid unease with the world around him. This may have contributed to my silence as well, the possibility that Jim Rice not only was able to hear us mortals but was mortal himself. I could not think of a single thing to say. Words had been uninvented. I stood there gulping at the changed air. Jim Rice turned away and continued on into the ballpark.
Life got more complicated after that. The school trip to Boston occurred during my last days of elementary school. The following year I'd be starting junior high. On the ride home from Boston to Vermont I sat with two other boys and three girls in the roofed back of a pickup truck and refused to participate in a game of Truth or Dare that mostly amounted to taking turns kissing. I couldn't do it, could not kiss a girl. I don't know why I was so terrified of it, but I was. In fact, it would be many long years before I kissed a girl, the threshold not crossed until my freshman year in college, when grain-alcohol-spiked punch enabled me to drunkenly mash faces with and grope the right boob of a plastered coed majoring in hotel and hospitality management. Thank god for alcohol. But I digress from my digression, so allow me to return to the back of the truck in 1978, where my terror at being kissed actually drove the three girls crazy, and by the time we got back to our town all three of them were begging to "go" with me. It was a moment of popularity which I would neither capitalize on ("Go" where? I screamed in abject terror to myself) nor ever come even the slightest bit close to matching.
Several years later, in 1986, when grain alcohol finally enabled me to kiss the hotel and hospitality management major, Jim Rice put up one last ass-kicking season, batting .324 with 110 RBIs, totals good enough to place him third in MVP voting for the year. The Red Sox of course made it to the World Series that October. By then the girl I'd kissed had responded to my clumsy sex-wanting pawings by telling me that her ex-boyfriend, a rugby player named Neil, was probably going to rip me limb from limb when he found out about us. She might have been saying that to gauge my willingness to stick with her through thick and thin, i.e., even after she allowed me to release myself from the crushing bonds of virginity. I didn't want to be ripped limb from limb, however, and so I gave up trying to get her clothes off and in fact began avoiding her altogether.
I retreated to the fetid comfort of the bongwater-scented room I shared with my friend John. The two of us had plastered our pale yellow cinderblock walls with crooked posters of Boston sports legends, the biggest poster being one of Jim Rice smashing a baseball into the stratosphere. There he was, big as life, towering above our flimsy entropic fortress against encroaching adulthood. We rarely left our room, but did go next door to watch Game Six of the World Series with two fellow Red Sox fans who had a television. All four of us had different reactions to the infamous events that concluded that awful evening. Steve from Peterborough, New Hampshire, wept and swore. His roommate, Tom, from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who when the second out of the 10th inning was recorded had wondered aloud where we could get our hands on champagne, smashed empty beer bottle after empty beer bottle against the concrete wall in our suite. John returned to our room and climbed under his covers, where he remained, corpselike, for several days. As for me, I had this painful, utterly joyless, skeletal grin on my face that I couldn't get rid of. God exists, I had realized, and he hates me.
John, Tom, and Steve all dropped out of that college within the year. I stuck around and eventually spent my second-to-last semester before graduation in China, where I finally lost my virginity to a Chinese student who was looking to better her English. Jim Rice played his final game that year. By then Fenway fans had taken to mockingly chanting "6-4-3" whenever he came to the plate, a reference to the scorecard shorthand for the most common variety of a double play, which Rice had, near the end of his career, begun hitting into at league-leading rates. I'd joined in the chant myself once or twice. We mortals seem to enjoy welcoming former Gods down into the familiar muck.
Here is a sepulchral Dick Bosman on the brink of the last of 11 years in the major leagues. The year before, after toiling for several years on cellar-dwellers, Bosman had been traded to the reigning three-time World Champion Oakland A's, who promptly relinquished their hold on league supremacy. It would perhaps make a better story if Dick Bosman had played a significant role in the A's fall, as if he'd become some kind of carrier of the virus of defeat from all his years with the Senators, Rangers, and Indians, but in fact he performed well for the division-winning A's throughout the 1975 regular season, going 11 and 4, and he was an insignificant factor in their playoff defeat at the hands of the Boston Red Sox. His third of an inning pitched in the 1975 playoffs turned out to be a harbinger of things to come, a fact perhaps sensed on some level by Dick Bosman as he posed forlornly for this picture. After this card was shipped, the insignificance of Dick Bosman grew, the former ERA champ and no-hitter hurler reduced to spot-starting and mopup duty for the slowly sinking former champs.
And here is Dick Bosman the following spring, on the brink of a life beyond baseball. He has of course grown a mustache and permed his hair. He stares directly at the viewer instead of, as in the previous year, off into some nauseatingly empty expanse, but there is something in the permed stare that has a hint of the fragility that accompanies the desperate uttering of self-help mantras. Also, there is the placement of the glove. Where the year before Dick Bosman had held his glove to his gut as if stoically applying pressure to a wound, now Dick Bosman is holding his glove up in a defensive posture, betraying his knowledge that all of his pitches, even hypothetical ones in the presence of a Topps photographer, are going to be hammered, possibly right back in the direction of the new and improved Dick Bosman, who was cast out of the world of the Cardboard Gods by the A's on March 29, 1977, presumably before even a single strand of his new artificially curled hair had had a chance to wilt.
Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson
In September of 1985, when I was seventeen, I moved in with my aunt and uncle in Boston. It was the first autumn since I'd been four years old in which my name wasn't on any roll-call sheet. I wasn't expected anywhere. I'd been kicked out of boarding school the previous spring and after getting my GED had spent the summer with my grandfather on Cape Cod, working as a gas station attendant. That fall in Boston I got through a lot of the hours playing solitaire Strat-O-Matic in my room. I don't know what my aunt and uncle thought about the sounds of dice clattering deep into the night from behind my closed door.
Sometimes in the daylight I left the house to supposedly go look for a job. In truth I mostly just wandered around. One day in particular that has always stayed with me for some reason was the day I smoked pot from my little metal one-hitter in Boston Commons, went to a matinee of Teen Wolf, then came home and lied to my aunt that I'd applied for several jobs all over the city. I'm not really sure why I lied, as my aunt and uncle never put any pressure on me to get a job. They may have started doing so eventually, but as it turned out I somehow did finally walk into an ice cream parlor in Harvard Square that had a "Now Hiring" sign. I worked part-time there for a couple months, then quit and went to stay with my father in New York City.
My brother was going to NYU at that time, living in a dorm just a short walk away from my father's apartment. I went over there most evenings and got high with him and his roommate, Eric, while the two of them took turns trying to blow the other's mind with selections from their ridiculously large and ever-growing collection of Jamaican dub music. As the current song was coming to an end, my brother or Eric (depending on whose turn it was) rose in the dim blue light of the room and selected another song, shielding the album from the other so that the song would be a surprise. Not much in the way of conversation occurred, but occasionally my brother or Eric uttered a complementary, drawling, long-voweled "dude" when the other's song choice was exceptionally pleasing to the dude-utterer's bass-hungry senses. After many bong hits and offerings from the likes of Augustus Pablo, Scientist, and King Fatty, I stumbled back to my dad's place, where he would already be asleep, all the lights off. The studio apartment had only one separate room, the bathroom, and since I often came home too high to sleep I spent many a night sitting on the shut lid of the toilet, reading On the Road. I wanted my life to be like the one in the pages of that book, exciting, adventurous, everything hallowed.
The holidays came and went, and in January I applied to a small state college situated on top of a mountain in northern Vermont. It wasn't a hard school to get into, so I got in, and within a few days was there for the start of the spring semester, which began the day the Patriots got annihilated by the Bears in the Super Bowl. I got stoned and drunk that day with a couple fellow new students, and as it turns out one of them was named Fritz. Fritz was gone by the following semester, as were some of my other new partying buddies, and the rest of them were gone within the next couple semesters. It was a college where people who had fucked up elsewhere came and hung out for a little while before moving on.
I stayed, however. Eventually my drug usage tapered off. The last time I tripped on acid was on Halloween 1987, at a Phish show at Goddard College. It was a bad trip, narrow, jittery, alienating, laced with the smell of my own burning synapses, and I spent most of it crashing around alone through limb-scraping brush in the dark woods behind the art building where everyone was having a fantastic time dancing and laughing together, everyone singing about Halley's Comet and the land of lizards, everyone wrapped in colorful costumes, the guitarist and bass player hopping up and down in jester hats, the drummer in a matronly dress. All I had on was my Josh Wilker suit--ripped jeans, T-shirt, army jacket, Converse all-stars, skin--and if I could have I probably would have taken it all off and set it on fire.
What I'm trying to get at here is that I'm haunted by boundless possibilities, and I always have been. My earliest years, the early 1970s, came in a time and place bubbling with the idea that anything was possible. The ecstatic visions of Jack Kerouac seemed less an elegiac psalm to an evaporating world than a prelude to a world yet to come. You could be whoever you wanted to be and each day was going to be a new transformation, the promising light of the present moment giving way to even brighter, warmer, wider light. In the early 1970s, the number of my parents went from the traditional two to three, my mom's new boyfriend Tom coming aboard. It may sound strange, I realize, but this was far from the only commune-like free love experimentation of the time. At least for some, that kind of thing was just sort of in the air.
For example, right around the same time, just before the start of the 1973 baseball season, Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson traded entire families. Much has been written about this swap, most of it in a mocking tone, so I'm not going to say much beyond pointing out that when they did it they meant it. Maybe it was in large part an extension of the fun they were all having together, but they must have believed they weren't merely pulling a pleasurable stunt. Beyond the pleasure of the moment, there must have been a hope for some as yet uninvented republic of joy.
I don't even really want to talk about how they both had career-worst years that season, or that in general they never really were the same as players again, or that Kekich decided after a few weeks that the experiment wasn't working out, a decision that came too late--his wife and Fritz Peterson already having decided they wanted to make the swap permanent. I really just want to shine a light on that slim brilliant moment in time when the world seemed to some to be clay in their hands, moldable to any shape they desired. I chased that moment for a long time. I wanted the sky to crack open and spill all its secrets. I never did see any such thing. I saw Teen Wolf. I saw William "The Refrigerator" Perry score a touchdown. And one day while tripping on low-grade LSD I watched some mountains turn into a pair of old basketball sneakers.
Can someone please tell me what the fuck the Brewers are doing in the National League? When I last looked, I mean really looked, back before I got distracted in the early '80s by the snares of high puberty and the ensuing ceaseless slide down into the ever-increasing ambiguities, ephemera, and obfuscations of adulthood, there was no clearer representative of the American League than the Brewers. They did not steal bases. They did not bunt. They did not send their keg-bellied hungover hurlers to the plate. They did not swat turf-aided fleet-footed triples 'neath the ceiling of the Astrodome. No. They had the beards and long greasy hair of motorcycle thugs. They guzzled beer and slugged long home runs. They gnawed bulging wads of tobacco and struck out swinging. They listened to Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr. on their way to discharge shotguns at wildlife. They smashed into outfield fences and bought mescaline from hippies before pounding them with tire irons. Didn't they? I mean, now that they are in something called the Central Division of the National Fucking League I'm not so sure of anything. But I do know I can at least say this: as much as any team was ever one guy, the Milwaukee Brewers in the late '70s and early '80s were Gorman Thomas. And Gorman Thomas did not ever play in the National League. Until October 1982, that is, and that was only because by then the Brewers had laid waste to all the American League teams in their path and the only thing left for them to conquer was the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League, which they probably would have done if the majority of games in the 1982 World Series were played in an American League park and not upon the artificial National League turf of Busch Stadium. After those four National League games, Gorman Thomas was never the same, and neither were the Brewers, and come to think of it neither was I.
Here are a few more of my all-time most memorable personally witnessed ballpark moments, all but the first occurring within the span of one particular so-called meaningless game and all with Joe Torre lurking heavy-browed and dyspeptic on the periphery:
You Don't Belong Here
As noted elsewhere on this site (see Len Randle), my father usually took my brother and me to one Mets game during each of our yearly visits to see him in New York City. These visits to Shea Stadium all occurred during the Joe Torre era, a string of years in the late '70s and early '80s in which the Mets never finished above 5th place in the NL East. Needless to say, the word "crowd" was an inaccurate way to describe the sparse scattering of torpid bodies we always found ourselves among in the stands in Flushing. One day, my dad, spotting wide swaths of unoccupied seats in the levels below where our cheap tickets had placed us, led us down closer to the field.
Whatever that feeling is of moving down closer to the field, into seats you could never afford, close enough to speak without raising your voice to the right fielder or hear the slap of the third baseman's fist hitting the pocket of his mitt, that excitement of being close to the world that has always been built up in your mind as a kind of heaven, gleaming and unreachable, that great expectant feeling mixed with feelings of guilt and shame, a cringing premonition that you are about to be caught, found out, asked not only to leave the close-to-heaven area but leave the whole arena, whatever that whole complicated feeling is, it's kind of how I feel in general in life. I think I'm probably not the only one. Whenever some guy leaps the railing and runs onto the field the broadcasters always go on at great length in profoundly condescending tones about the idiocy of the maniac, but to me it's just an example of a guy who couldn't take the weight of that feeling anymore, the feeling of wanting so close he was a part of it, and of simultaneously being ashamed of wanting it, and so he just gets drunk enough to try to smash through all barriers for one shining moment of maniacal sprinting across the impossibly green grass.
But anyway, this is not about maniacs on the field but about the day my dad led my brother and me down to the good seats. They weren't even the best seats, but just some empty spaces in an almost completely empty row near the back of a largely vacant box along the right field line. We sat there just long enough for my dad to reopen his New York Times and resume reading about something that had nothing to do with baseball, at which point an usher came over and tapped him on the shoulder and asked to see our tickets. My dad snapped his paper shut and motioned angrily and, as it turned out, impotently at the empty seats all around us. The usher shrugged, perhaps waiting for a bribe, a hint my dad probably missed (or if he didn't miss it he rejected it on grounds of his Marxist leanings). As he led us back up to the cheap sets I felt ashamed and wished we'd never even tried.
The Upper Deck At The Last Game Ever
Many years later, in 1993, I went with my brother and a couple of our friends to a game we had dubbed The Last Baseball Game Ever. I can't quite reenter the mindset that led us to come up with that title, but I think we laid most of the impetus for it at the feet of our disenchantment with Major League Baseball. The fact that there was something deeper beneath that idea is attested to by the fact that all four of us have attended baseball games since then, even though in that time MLB has had a World-Series-canceling strike, the ever-widening taint of steroid use, and a level of mercenary behavior among players and owners alike that exceeds or at least equals whatever it was we were so bitter about in 1993. The real truth of the matter probably lies in the fact that we were all in our late twenties and our lives had as yet not shown any promise whatsoever. We were all suffering through varying degrees of loneliness and either unemployed or lashed to repetitive menial jobs of one stripe or another (I can't remember in which of those two sinking boats I was at that time) and so I suppose were trying to kill off the haunting, painful hopes of childhood by declaring that centerpiece of our younger years, baseball, forever null and void.
Anyway, we went to the last Mets home game of the 1993 season, a season that outstripped even the worst of the campaigns from the Joe Torre years. (Joe Torre, though long gone from the Mets, had done his part in ensuring the meaningless nature of the game by piloting the visiting St. Louis Cardinals to a middle-of-the-pack, and thus long-eliminated, finish.) Even though I'm sure there were tickets available all over the stadium, we bought the cheapest seats we could get, upper deck, behind home plate, a few rows in from the chain-link fence keeping would-be self-maimers from throwing themselves down onto the parking lot concrete below.
In hopes of further limiting the amount of money we'd give to the condemned beast of baseball, we'd smuggled in our own booze, a pint of Wild Turkey, I think, and passed it around to cut the damp chill of the foggy late September evening. A black guy in a hooded sweatshirt appeared from nowhere and asked if we wanted to buy some hash. One of the more assertive members of our foursome bartered "a couple swigs" of Wild Turkey for a little round ball of hash, a deal which sounded good on paper but which resulted in the guy in the sweatshirt chugging down with almost supernatural speed all but a couple sips of the whiskey and leaving us with something that looked like hash but that had no more ability to get us out of our present disenchanted reality than the fog, which seemed to swallow up the fake-hash dealer as quickly as it had spit him out.
The Man Who Yelled At Bucky Dent
Hashless, Wild Turkeyless, we ventured on into what turned out to be the longest and most uneventful game I've ever seen. Not even a single run was scored for 16 innings, and while 16 innings of scoreless ball might seem a likely home for one after another of pressure-packed clutch pitching performances, game-saving fielding gems, and fascinating managerial moves, it was in fact a game in which nothing whatsoever seemed to happen. Batters grounded softly to second and popped out to left field a lot, maybe. I'm not sure. But it went on and on.
After the 8th inning, they closed the concession stands. Sobriety really set in, coupled with gnawing hunger. The zeroes kept growing across the digital scoreboard. I began to hope that they'd stretch on forever.
This hope combined with our ever-increasing mobility throughout the stadium to make me feel as if some sort of state of damp, cold, mediocre grace had descended upon our sorry asses. At some point late within the regulation nine innings we'd ventured down from the upper deck to tentatively test out the empty seats in the loge boxes. Nobody said anything, the ushers apparently too deadened by the abject misery of the Mets' season to even try for bribes anymore. And as the game edged into extra time we moved even closer, until by the 12th or 13th inning we were mere rows from the home dugout on the third base side.
We were surrounded for the first time all night by other fans, and there was mixed into the hundred-loss malaise a feeling of giddy excitement--none of us belonged here, and yet, here we were! The people who usually sat in these seats were rich fucks who were far, far away that night, at soirees or something, and we finally had our chance to See What It Was Like.
Perhaps emboldened by that feeling, one of the people in that crowd half-stood from his fog-dampened seat and loudly and clearly addressed the St. Louis Cardinal third base coach, a figure, judging from the fan's pronouncement, from the fan's tormented past.
"Bucky Dent!" the fan yelled. "You ruined my life!"
And that fan, ladies and gentlemen, grew up to be President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The Guy Who Appeared Out Of Nowhere
OK. OK. The fan who yelled at Bucky Dent was me.
I like to believe that Bucky Dent's shoulders tensed a little at the clearly audible mention of his name, but I don't know if that's true. I also like to tell myself people around me laughed at the outburst, but that's not true either. How can you laugh at something so pathetic? It was a terrible thing to yell out, really, as it so completely diverged from the general thrust of fan taunts and imprecations.
Well, it turned out we didn't really belong on the third base side anyway. Not long after I yelled at Bucky Dent a statement that suggested we'd been homosexual lovers and he'd shattered my heart irreparably by leaving me for, say, Dick Tidrow, we morphed over to a sparser gathering of fans on the first base side. It was at this point that the game really seemed to begin verging on infinity, and I stopped shivering in the damp fog as a kind of calm came over me, as if I was about to drift into fatal hypothermial slumber. The zeroes kept mitosising across the scoreboard. I was happy.
Unlike my brother and me, the two friends who had come along with us were Mets fans, and so they couldn't as easily embrace my vision of an everlasting game without a winner. Because of that, they eventually struck up a rendition of the old Mets song that starts out
Meet the Mets, meet the Mets,
step right up and greet the Mets.
When I was a kid I misunderstood the words to the song. It seemed impossible to me, perhaps, that the songwriters could be so lazy as to rhyme "Meet" with "meet" in the very first line of the song, and so whenever I heard the song being sung on telecasts of Mets games viewed in my father's apartment I sang along thusly:
Meet the Mets, greet the Mets,
step right up and beat the Mets.
I wasn't attempting to lampoon the song; I really thought that's how it went, and I couldn't understand why a team would invite other teams to beat them, especially considering their capabilities or lack thereof in the Joe Torre years.
Anyway, by the time of the Last Baseball Game Ever, I knew that my version of the song was incorrect, but I still didn't have a handle on the correct version. So I couldn't join in, but I was able to more fully listen to the song as it was sung with tuneless gusto by first two voices by my two friends and then, suddenly, by a third shaky voice that seemed to be coming from the thin damp fog itself. For a brief moment, there seemed to be no one connected to that other voice, but then this thin gray-pallored guy in a dirty Atlanta Braves cap appeared on the fringes of our ragged congregation.
He spent the last moments of the game in our company, a guy about our age with lank dirty hair down almost to his shoulders and an aura about him of either being someone who lived in his parents' basement or, perhaps more likely, someone who had recently been evicted from his parents' basement, leaving with a broken-zippered duffel bag containing a couple changes of clothing and the tattered edition of the baseball encyclopedia from his childhood.
This guy faded back into the ether moments after the Mets finally pushed across a run in the bottom of the 17th inning. (Eddie Murray was the winning run, but I recall that he stopped his trot home a step in front of home plate, fucking with both weary teams, and the on-deck hitter, Joe Orsulak, actually ended up having to shove him across the plate.) I think we would have remembered this third Meet the Mets singer even if we didn't see him again periodically around the city in the months and years following the almost endless game. He always appeared as if from nowhere and remembered us from the game and acted briefly like he was part of our group before wandering off. He always materialized on nights when the directionlessness of our lives seemed even more pervasive than usual. The last time I saw him was years ago, but I'm still not sure I won't see him again. He briefly wandered into a bar on 2nd Avenue near Houston Street dressed in a replica of Michael Jordan's short-lived number 45 Bulls jersey and matching Bulls shorts, vaguely acknowledged us, and then wandered back out into a night that was way too cold to be dressed in a remaindered basketball uniform.
In no particular order, here are a few of my favorite all-time personally witnessed instances of baseball fan behavior:
Yankee Stadium opening day brawls
I attended this early 1990s opening day game between the Yankees and the Red Sox with my brother (a fellow Red Sox fan) and our friends, the Yankee-loving Dolan brothers. I wore my brother's grimy, decade-old Yaz painter's cap into the stadium but by the second or third inning had quietly wadded it up and slipped it into my pocket after witnessing huge roiling brawls all around us in the vertiginous Yankee Stadium upper deck.
The biggest brawl, which seemed to last for several innings and which featured bodies periodically tumbling down the steep concrete aisle steps, climaxed, I swear to Yaz, in the draping of a gigantic blood-stained United States flag across the entire expanse of the brawl-infested section. OK, it's possible that it wasn't blood-stained, but I believe my brother and the Dolans, who were, along with me, stunned into silence for all but the first few moments of the game, would concur that the flag was in almost all respects not a hallucination.
The only other memories I have from the game are that the Yankees won, that Randy Velarde somehow contributed significantly to the win, and that just before the eighth or ninth inning I ventured from my cringing position in my seat to the bathroom. I was badly in need of a urinal, but when I got to a urinal I found that something in the surrounding drunken violent simian throng in the bathroom made me unable to release even the tiniest sprinkle from my bladder. I ended up mimicking "the shake" and returning to my seat, irreparable urethral damage undoubtedly ensuing.
Fathers and Sons and Baseball
In one of my mid-80s trips to the Fenway Park bleachers, I ended up sitting next to a friendly guy who'd driven up from Baltimore with his young son to see the Red Sox home field for the first time. Before the game began, the guy went on at some length about how much he was enjoying the classic old ballyard. Meanwhile, right behind him, a fat sunburned teenager in matching bruise-purple Hawaiian shirt and shorts drunkenly screamed Jim Rice's name over and over. This teenager grew ominously silent just moments before the first pitch. He swayed back and forth a little, as if he was silently praying, and his sunburned face grew at first even redder before abruptly draining of all color but a pasty newspaper-gray. Then he of course spewed bruise-purple Fenway puke all over the Baltimore dad and son and was escorted from the grounds before seeing a single pitch.
The Sacred Green Cathedral
At another Yankee-Red Sox tilt at Yankee Stadium in the '90s, my brother and I went down close to the field to watch batting practice and were within earshot of a guy in a Red Sox hat, round glasses, and a long, ex-hippieish, philosophy-teacherish gray-flecked beard going on at length to his luckless companion about the eternal verities of the sacred green cathedral of the baseball diamond and, worse, about the classic Aristotelian arc of the glorious tragedy that was the Red Sox continuous failure to capture the golden chalice of baseball immortality. I can't remember if my brother and I were able to remark on the fact that assholes like this gave Red Sox fans a bad name or if we just stared on in mute shock at the appearance of such a pure example of a pretentious baseball blowhard. I do however remember that Mo Vaughn was taking his rips in the batting cage and, as if he were equipped with bionic hearing and a bionic bullshit-detector, pulled a screaming line drive into the stands that struck the bearded philosopher right in the head. Still talking and gesticulating, albeit with some added slowness of speech and limb and albeit confined to a stretcher, the bearded man was escorted from the grounds before seeing a single pitch.
Mike Flanagan, UMASS!
When I was a little kid, eight or nine, a group of beer-lathered louts stood on the walkway at the back of the stands a few rows behind us in Fenway Park and shouted "Mike Flanagan, UMASS!" over and over again, all game long. Mike Flanagan was the opposing pitcher for the visiting Baltimore Orioles and he had attended the University of Massachusetts. The missing piece in the preceding explanatory sentence, of course, is information illuminating why several grown men would take time out of their limited stay on the mortal plane to attend a sporting contest and yell "Mike Flanagan, UMASS!" over and over, but it's exactly that missing piece that prompted my brother and I, and even my mom, to repeat their chant for days and weeks and even years after we'd first heard it emanate from the mysterious Flanaganites. Sometimes I still say it out loud for no apparent reason. It's quite possible it has become embedded in my synapses, and when I finally do perish my last words may well be something about a dimly remembered Baltimore southpaw and the institution at which he metriculated.
Bud Harrelson only played in 53 games for the Phillies in 1979, but I happened to attend one of them. I remember this because a nearby fan at the game in Veterans Stadium screamed his name all game long, even during pregame warmups and even after the game started with Harrelson in his customary position on the bench. This went on inning after inning. Miraculously, as if Bud Harrelson's biggest, loudest, lone remaining fan had willed it, Bud Harrelson actually came into the game, for some now obscure reason replacing Phillies star Mike Schmidt at third base. I don't actually remember that (the info comes courtesy of Retrosheet.com, a site lauded most eloquently for its memory-aiding capabilities in a great essay by Darren Viola), but I do have a hazy recollection of the screams of his fan increasing both when Bud Harrelson entered the game and when, later, Bud Harrelson reached base and then with his wiry, hustling antics began drawing the attention of the opposing pitcher. If I were asked the specifics of what happened without virtue of access via Retrosheet to the box score of the game, I would have guessed that the scrappy former Gold Glove shortstop had used his cagy veteran smarts to swipe second, reach third on a throwing error by the catcher, and scamper home on a sacrifice fly by Greg Luzinski. It's a little disillusioning to see the actual facts:
"PHILLIES 7TH: Harrelson walked; Harrelson was caught stealing second (pitcher to first)"
I like my version better. But maybe it's even better to know that Bud Harrelson's biggest fan did not let something as ignominious as being picked off of first by Stan Bahnsen get in the way of his relentless adulation. He kept on yelling forever for Buddy Harrelson.
Voice of the Mathematically Eliminated
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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About The Author
Email: jawilker68 at yahoo.com