Monthly archives: September 2007
It is named after Rick Waits, obviously, for the performance he turned in at Yankee Stadium on the final game of the season in 1978 as the starting pitcher for a 90-loss Cleveland Indians team on a seven-game losing streak. While the Yankees came into the game one win (or a Red Sox loss) from clinching a division title, the game was without significance for the Indians, who had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention a few moments after the singing of the anthem on opening day. Yet Waits, who to that point had been (and from that point would be) obscure, pitched as if his life depended on it, defeating future Hall-of-Famer and renowned "Big Game Pitcher" Catfish Hunter and the eventual World Champion Yankees, 9-2. At Fenway Park, where Luis Tiant was putting the finishing touches on a characteristically clutch 2-hit shutout, the crowd roared for the scoreboard message celebrating the feat of the heretofore unknown southpaw: "Thank You, Rick Waits!"
I've been thinking about Rick Waits all week, as I wondered if another division title was going to come down to the final day for the Red Sox and Yankees, and as I read about fans at Wrigley Field doing the Tomahawk Chop in tribute to the faraway Brewer-beating Atlanta Braves, and as I listened on the radio as fans at Shea Stadium cheered for a change in the score of the Nationals-Phillies game. Today is the last day of the regular season, and there are four teams vying for two remaining spots in the National League playoffs, so the chances for a Rick Waitsesque feat seem high. The tireless Bob Timmermann at The Griddle has figured out all the many playoff permutations for today, but since my brain shuts down instantly when I start trying to figure these things out, I am keeping my focus for today narrow, searching only for possible Rick Waits Award winners. One of the teams in the playoff hunt is the hard-charging Colorado Rockies, but they are playing the Arizona Diamondbacks today, and since the Diamondbacks are bound for the playoffs they do not possess the level of meaninglessness on their roster necessary for producing a winner of the Rick Waits Award. The gasping Mets play the eliminated Florida Marlins, but the Marlins send Dontrelle Willis to the mound, and Dontrelle Willis is a charismatic star with a World Championship ring. If the Rick Waits Award were one of these run of the mill awards that get handed out every year without fail, perhaps the jaunty Willis could win it with an altogether unsurprising Phillies-helping defeat of the Mets, but the Rick Waits Award is like the Nobel Peace Prize: if there is no one worthy of the award in a given year then the honor is bestowed to no one. It's unclear whether the rigorous Rick Waits Award selection committee will similarly disqualify the pitcher opposing the contending San Diego Padres today, Jeff Suppan, who has harmed his otherwise viable candidacy by starting games in two of the last three World Series. This leaves only one pitcher with a clear route to the coveted award.
Jason Bergmann takes the mound today for the Washington Nationals against the seemingly unstoppable Philadelphia Phillies. I have never heard of Jason Bergmann. This bodes well, as does the fact that he plays for a team that used to be another team that is now extinct. Jason Bergmann went 2 and 0 in his first major league season and 0 and 2 in his second. So far in this season, his third, he is 6 and 5, which considering the symmetry of his first two seasons seems to suggest that he will lose his final decision to make things perfectly even and perhaps then disappear into the ether from whence he came. On the other hand, he is but one good day away from getting his name engraved for the ages on a meticulous bronze recreation of the slumping, fatigued, blank-faced man shown in the 1979 card above.
George Scott's name has come up a lot this year in Boston during celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Red Sox, but for me he will always be the free-swinging, tater-blasting centerpiece of a team that fell just short of the pennant ten years after the "Impossible Dream." Today on Cardboard Gods, guest writer Jon Daly celebrates that incomparably entertaining 1977 Red Sox team. Daly, known here and on The Baseball Think Factory as Ennui Willie Keeler, has published biographies at the Society for American Baseball Research's Baseball Biography Project on Tacks Latimer and Jim Willoughby.
Seventy Times Seven
By Jon Daly
1977 was a watershed year of baseball for me. It was the first time I played in an organized league. I was on the Vikings in the Farm League in Ellington, Connecticut. Farm League was for nine year olds and ten to twelve year olds who weren’t playing in Little League. We went 10-0, no thanks to me. I got two hits all year both in the first game. One was a well-stroked liner that I pulled to right field. I rounded first and took second. The throw was way offline, so I was able to wind up on third. Later that night, I hit a popup that died in no man’s land somewhere in short center. The rest of the year, like a lot of kids. I was the master of two true outcomes. I either walked or struck out. I played leftfield mainly, but hitting was more fun for me, even with my limited success.
Like the Minnesota Vikings, we had parties, but they didn’t involve pillaging on a boat (a rather apropos celebration for a band of vikings, no?). We’d go to Moser’s Dairy farm for ice cream or some pizza joint across the street from there. I remember one teammate playing KC and the Sunshine band on the jukebox and another playing Ricki Lee Jones’s "Chuck E.’s In Love." It was a good time with a good set of fathers coaching us. They were better than my next coach on the Cardinals, a chain-smoking Walter Matthau wannabe who taught me more four-letter words than I would’ve learned on a tour of duty with the Seventh Fleet.
But I’m not here to talk about the Ellington Farm League. I’m here to talk about one of the more underrated pennant races in my living memory. The 1977 AL race that year may have been just as good as the one in ’78, if not better. Now, I could crunch some numbers, but that really isn’t my forte. I’d probably come across as a third-rate Bill James in a bus station. As it is, this may be weak Simmonsesque drivel, but it’s a lot easier to write. Japanese baseball guru Jim Albright came up with a formula to rate baseball pennant races. It takes into consideration the records of the contenders and how far apart they are at the end of the season. The AL East that year had three contenders that finished over .600. And the race lasted until the last Saturday as the Red Sox and Orioles finished each other off and the Yankees won the crown.
It was the first real year of the Free Agent Era. The Yankees signed Reggie Jackson and Don Gullet in the offseason. The Red Sox countered by signing reliever Bill "Soup" Campbell, a Vietnam vet that the Minnesota Twins found a few years back in some factory league. As a kid, this blew my mind. I was still under the impression that the world was pretty much a steady-state world. North central Connecticut is pretty much equidistant between New York and Boston, so we got to hear a lot about the Red Sox and Yankees, and read about them in the Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer. There was a smattering of news about the Mets, but their Big Story that year was off the field when they traded Tom Seaver to the Reds. They were barely on my radar screen (and wouldn’t be until a few years later when I started hanging out with The Wig and Admiral Will). I grew up in a Red Sox family in a Yankees neighborhood. It was like Alsace-Lorraine in a sense.
Reggie. I was sick of the other kids in the neighborhood like Skeeter talking about him all the time. I dunno, maybe my perceptions were colored by the media, but he was probably the first or second player that I didn’t like. The other one who vied for that honor was Graig Nettles, thanks to a fight against the Red Sox in ’76. The one where Bill Lee separated his shoulder. I didn’t care for the rest of the Yankees (except Lou Piniella for some reason) but I really didn’t like Jackson or Nettles.
That Red Sox team was sometimes called the Crunch Bunch. They hit a ton of home runs for a team from the 1970s. Now this has nothing to do with nothing, but that ’77 O’s team was the one that Eddie Murray and Brooks Robinson played together on. That’s 42 years of baseball history right there. The teams were ably skippered by their three managers. Don Zimmer was having a good year, and I think he’s underrated. One of these days I’ll get into more detail about this (he had Mario Mendoza as his starting shortstop one year and the Rangers still had a winning record!). Billy Martin managed to stay gainfully employed the whole year. Son of Sam didn’t get to him. Neither did the looters during the great blackout that year. And Earl Weaver, well, he may be the best manger I remember (although La Russa and Howser may have overtaken him by now. But neither of them had a perm like Earl’s).
What is Daly doddering about? I’m doddering about this game. It was the last Saturday of the season and the Orioles (eliminated by the Red Sox the day before) paid the Red Sox back and eliminated them. I still remember that ninth inning. I was in my grandparents’ living room watching it. The Sox were down three and Bernie Carbo hit a clutch two run homer, plating Fred Lynn. I think that there was a Marlboro billboard in Fenway near where the ball went. There was still hope for a few minutes, until the game ended on a Jim Rice fly ball to center. I cried. I really expected the Red Sox to come back and win the game and make the playoffs somehow that year. But it wasn’t meant to be. I’m pretty sure that was the last time that I cried tears of sorrow over a sporting event. After that, 1978 wasn’t as disappointing. I was numb by 1986. They were supposed to finish the season on Sunday, but it rained. It was just as well.
Mike Paxton and Don Aase
Don Aase made his major league debut for the Boston Red Sox on July 26, 1977. I don’t think it would be accurate to say he was a phenom. Five years earlier, he’d been drafted on the sixth round by the Red Sox, who shipped the 18-year-old to their Williamsport affiliate in the low minors, where he went 0 and 10 with a 5.81 ERA. After that demoralizing start he began a solid, gradual, unspectacular rise through the Red Sox system. The records on the back of the card pictured here seem to indicate that in the first half of 1977, while pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket, Aase slid back toward the ineffectiveness that had plagued his first pro season, his ERA over 5 again for the first time since his Williamsport days. Why then would the Red Sox choose to rush him to the big leagues to start a game in the middle of what was turning out to be a white-knuckle three-team pennant race?
I was nine years old by then, and had listened to many of the Red Sox games so far that season on the radio. They all seemed to be the same game. As the signal rose and fell through static, the Red Sox surged to a huge lead with a barrage of home runs, then allowed the lead to erode as their pitchers crumpled. By July 26 the Red Sox had fallen out of first by losing three games in a row by the following scores: 9-8, 9-6, and 9-7, a pace capable of yielding them a record-breaking number of runs in a season and a perversely spotless 0-162 record. It was clear that they could not win a pennant this way. In short, they needed help. A lot of help. But all they had was Don Aase.
The youngster instantly exceeded expectations, tossing a complete game 4-3 win. The following day the Red Sox returned to their recent script by getting bludgeoned 14-5, their bullpen again getting chewed like a speed freak’s hunk of Bazooka. They needed someone to at least give them some innings in the finale of their three-game series with Milwaukee, and turned to another unheralded rookie who had started the season in Pawtucket, Mike Paxton. Paxton had been called up from the minors earlier in the season and to that point seemed the prototypical Red Sox hurl-inducing hurler, compiling a 6.16 ERA as a mopup man and spot starter.
But something was in the air. Whatever pixie dust had landed on Aase on the Peter Pan Lines busride from Pawtucket to Boston must have rubbed off on Paxton, who tossed a sparkling 12-0 shutout. Aase then blanked the Angels 1-0, and two games later Paxton topped Seattle, 12-4, then Aase kept the Red Sox rolling with his next start, a 2-1 win over Oakland. Powered by the rookie aces, the Red Sox won 11 games in a row and reclaimed the division lead.
Yes, for just a little while, a thin breathless era that remains one of the more golden strands of my childhood, it seemed that Mike Paxton and Don Aase were going to carry the Boston Red Sox to the pennant.
It didn’t quite turn out that way in the end, as they weren’t able to quite continue their blistering midsummer pace, nor in general fully counteract the serious flaws in the Red Sox pitching corps. But Aase and Paxton both turned in admirable rookie years, going 6-2 with a 3.13 ERA and 10-5 with a 3.83 ERA, respectively. More than that, for me anyway, Paxton and Aase will forever be among the most exciting duos in baseball history. I was nine when they arrived, and to that point few things had caught my imagination as much as their sudden transformation from complete nonentities to season-rescuing heroes. They were young. I was young. They had been unknown. I was unknown. They seemed to have arrived in the spotlight from the middle of nowhere. I lived in the middle of nowhere. The sky was the limit, for them, for me.
As it turned out, the sky was the limit, but that sky was the leaden, unbreathable blue seen in the Mike Paxton card above. Neither player went on to stardom with the Red Sox. In fact, neither player was even on the Red Sox roster the following year. By the time I got the 1978 Mike Paxton card featuring his lifeless putty-like skin and oddly bulbous cap I had noticed that Mike Paxton no longer seemed to exist in the games I listened to on the radio and in the box scores I read in the paper. I didn’t know he’d gone to Cleveland as part of the deal to bring Dennis Eckersley to Boston. I only knew he was no longer around. This card, arriving amid Paxton’s troublingly sudden disappearance, must have made me wonder if Mike Paxton had ever been there at all. I’d never actually seen him, after all, but had just heard his name on the radio, and beyond that had only fervently, maybe even desperately, imagined him. And now here he was on his card, not quite real, looking starkly different from the players in any of my other cards (with the disturbing exception of the sepulchral Greg Minton). The question arose: Was there ever really a Mike Paxton? There seemed to be no inarguable proof of the affirmative to that question, which gave rise to another question with ripples deep enough to stretch from 1978 to right now: If there never really was a Mike Paxton, how can I be sure of anything?
As for the even briefer and brighter-burning comet of 1977, Don Aase, his only appearance in my collection came two years later, in 1980, during my last real year of collecting. I was older by then. I understood that guys who burst onto the scene with great initial success don’t always become superstars. Hopes fade, dreams gutter. Life goes on. Don Aase was just another guy on a baseball card, just another guy with a mustache, just another guy halfheartedly pretending to throw a baseball.
I have spent all morning looking at this baseball card from my long gone youth. I spent parts of the past weekend, too, and even several sessions of varying lengths over the past year. My life is absurd. Again and again I have returned to this card, which appears to have been rendered by the general employment of the crude techniques of card doctoring usually reserved for uniform and cap. The whole world is doctored, from the strangely lifeless flesh to the impossibly white buck teeth to the lifeless taxonomy eyes to the hazy green and brown beyond. The days come and go. The blank canvas beneath it all, the silence, abides.
The Dodgers in . . . The Nagging Question
But I do care. So I add another question mark to the fish hooks in my gut this morning, the one at the end of this flailing inquiry: what the hell is going on? And why?
There are rational answers, sure. The Red Sox are severely banged up. Manny is out, Youk is out, Ortiz has a bum knee, Varitek is looking like a tired, aging catcher, Wakefield hasn't been the same since a back problem flared up a few weeks ago, and the two Japanese guys are thoroughly cooked. The Red Sox are probably a little tight by now. In stathead terms the good but flawed Red Sox are experiencing the ol' regression to the mean. The Red Sox are facing good teams, the sizzling Yankees and a pitching rich team sure to make some noise in 2008, the Blue Jays. There are probably other rational explanations, but who cares? To me, the answer is simple:
This is the fault of the Dodgers.
All year long, even when the Red Sox were rolling, the one major misfiring cog was the robotic and exasperatingly ineffective J.D. Drew. He has begun to hit a little better of late, but still has remained strangely inconsequential, a huge money pit not seen in Boston since the Big Dig. Has anyone suggested that as a nickname for him? J.D. "The Big Dig" Drew came from the Dodgers. Julio "Ah, Why Hustle?" Lugo also came from the Dodgers. Serial game-blower Eric "Gags" Gagne came from the Rangers, but surely in every baseball fan's mind he is a Dodger.
So I have to ask, what did we do to deserve this, Dodgers?
Now, don't misunderstand me, I don't believe in curses and never have, except maybe for a few painful moments in 1986. But some days you wake up and just start looking for reasons, for someone or something to blame, and when no rational answer presents itself you start casting about for explanations beyond the rational.
So maybe it started in the 1916 World Series. This was the Dodgers' first chance to win a World Series, and the Red Sox, led by a young southpaw named Babe Ruth (who would never again surface in any talk of curses), dispatched them in short order, 4 games to 1, for their second straight World Series crown. The Dodgers would not win a World Series for many long hard years. One of the few players who performed well in the 1916 Series was outfielder Casey Stengel, who would go on to beat the Dodgers in several World Series as a manager of the Yankees. The Dodgers finally settled their score with the Yankees in 1955, but perhaps they still harbored a grudge against their 1916 foes, especially considering their heart and soul, Jackie Robinson, was, before joining the Dodgers, subjected to a humiliating dog-and-pony show tryout by the institutionally racist Red Sox (the last team to integrate their roster, with the formidable Pumpsie Green). The grudge, if it ever existed, seems to have dwindled when the Dodgers moved across country to Los Angeles. While some vestiges of it may have surfaced in 1986 with the trojan horse gift to the Red Sox from the Dodgers (via the Cubs) of a 100-RBI man housing an inability to field a key ground ball off the bat of Mookie Wilson, the grudge seemed altogether dead in 2004, when former Dodgers Pedro Martinez and Dave Roberts contributed heroically to creating, among other things, the happiest fan-related moment of my life.
But then the Red Sox had to go and give the Dodgers Grady Little. This seems to have aroused decades-old enmity from the Dodger gods. You give us this Wooderson-voiced nincompoop to run our club, we'll give you a plague of apathy and incompetence.
I know this is all nonsense. But someone has to be to blame, right? And so I ask the Nagging Question, and I ask it not with an eye toward the troubles of the Red Sox (though if you can explain those to me, great) but rather with an eye toward anything in the whole wide world that might be bothering you, so please answer this any way you see fit:
Who is to blame?
Why didn’t they fight back? I wondered. It made me angry. How could they just line up to die?
My father had been raised in a strict Orthodox home, but by the time he met and married a shiksa, my mom, he had become completely irreligious (unless you’re a big fan of irony and want to count his passionate adherence to the theories of religion’s most famous critic, Karl Marx, as religion). There were no traces of Jewish life in my upbringing, and even if my father had lived with us I don’t think it would have been different. There were no traces of Jewish life in his tiny apartment in Manhattan, either, though I subconsciously came to think of everything in the apartment as Jewish, from the relative lack of furniture to the fact that he kept his small black-and-white television in the closet, rarely watching it, to his crude cinder block and board bookcases, to the yellowing Ellis Island photos in the hollow of a cinder block of his mother and father, to the persistent smell of garlic, to the giant jar of wheat germ in the refrigerator.
Occasionally my father would take my brother and me to see his mother, our grandma, and it was like venturing to the very source of the garlicky strangeness and unfamiliarity that permeated everything in my father’s apartment, like going to the very heart of Jewness. I was frightened of her. She had a strange accent and was tiny and hunched and impossibly old. My father, perhaps wary of revealing to my brother and me that he was a good deal older than my mother, had always tried to evade our questions about his age by saying he was "a googol" (which he explained was a number far larger than a billion). It was one of those slippery pieces of childhood info that you neither fully believe nor disbelieve. But if he was a googol, his mother, the stooped woman who constantly forced mysterious and complicated Old World food on me, must have been infinity.
"Eat! Eat!" she implored. The bowl of homemade soup in her ancient veined hands roiled with thick gray noodles and gristle. I clamped my lips tight and shook my head no. No, no, no.
When I was around her I wanted to go back home. Back to my Chips Ahoys and Spaghettios. Back to television sit-coms and baseball. Back to my painless solitary hours in my room. Back to the nerf-soft confines of my daydreams. Back to the Cardboard Gods.
I had no idea that the one Cardboard God who seems to have made the most visits to me, with five, had a Jewish father. Just like me. (Just like Skip Jutze, too, according to Baseball Almanac. And just like Ryan "The Hebrew Hammer" Braun.) I doubt I paid much mind to any of the five 1975 Dick Sharon cards that came into my life, except perhaps to become mildly annoyed that the guy kept clogging up my new packs with his repeating self. (I doubt I even noticed the shadow of the Topps photographer visible in the picture, possibly the only time one of the medievally anonymous artisans responsible for creating the Cardboard God universe appears in any form in one of their images.)
As far as I knew there were not, nor never had been, Jewish baseball players. I knew from studying the baseball encyclopedia who Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg were, but I didn’t know they were Jewish. From what I’d seen from my father Jews couldn't even throw a baseball. They were also generally uncoordinated and pale. You'd hear them from time to time slipping and falling in the bathtub. They drove cars slowly and jerkily, their citified shoulders tensed. They listened to classical music and wore thick glasses and button down shirts and ties. They had jobs with titles so long they were impossible to understand.
They were certainly not the dashing figure presented above in quintuplet. Dick Sharon's chiseled jaw, his drooping Marlboro Man stache, his steely gaze and swaggering body language and smile: they all exude dashing athletic aptitude and confidence. On the back of the card, Sharon is described as a "sure-handed flyhawk." I doubt I even really understood what this meant, but it probably sounded to me like something that could have been used to describe one of Sgt. Rock’s brave men or one of Sgt. Fury’s colorful and able Howlin’ Commandos. I focused my twisted attention on imagined heroes battling for victory and glory. In these imaginings the Jews were barely there at all, just figures in the background, weak and capitulatory. I tried to believe I had nothing to do with them.
Why didn’t they fight back? I still wondered sometimes, unable to completely get them out of my mind. How could they just line up to die?
I’ve learned some things since then. I learned my father’s oldest brother, Joe, joined the Navy soon after Pearl Harbor and saw heavy combat in the South Pacific. I learned my father’s other brother, Dave, joined the Navy too, as soon as he was old enough, and when my father was old enough he also joined, all three of my grandma’s sons away from her embrace, prepared to fight. There is a picture from that time of her with my father and my Uncle Joe, both home on leave. My uncle looks Dick Sharon-dashing in his tailored combat-used sailor uniform, while my daydreaming scholar father, barely out of his teens, looks in his baggy ill-fitting standard issue sailor uniform like he is moments away from inadvertently tripping over something. In between them stands my grandma, low and thick, indestructible. She had raised the family by herself, her husband unable to contribute even before he wound up floating in the East River. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to experience the hardships she had to go through, losing one of her children in infancy, leaving her parents and the whole world she grew up in to come to a strange country, toiling long hours as a housecleaner to keep her family from starving, her husband gone silent and strange, living through the grisly death of her husband, soldiering on with love. Fighting back. In the photo she exudes pride and also this overwhelming sense that she would make you very, very sorry if you ever messed with her family.
As for my dad, the war ended before he ever saw combat, but he tells a story about a camp boxing match in which he was pitted against the largest man on the base. He suspects that anti-Semitism was behind the obvious mismatch, the match-makers hoping to enjoy a nice quick Jew-beating. He says he never even saw the first punch. One moment he was standing there and the next moment he was on the ground. He got up. Soon he was on the ground again. He got up. Then he was staring at the lights above the ring again. He got up. Then he was kissing canvas again. He got up. Finally officials had to step in and end the match because of my father’s refusal to stop fighting.
We will be let go. We will be exchanged for other nonentities, or for no one yet named, or left unprotected, or designated for assignment, or cut, or waived. It will happen sooner than we expect.
The seats behind us are empty. We take a swing through the empty air. We look to the empty sky.
Any records left behind will show us as unphenomenal, late to the game, rarely necessary, transient.
Maybe we will have had our day in the sun. We will have hit the first grand slam home run in the history of an expansion team. We will have tagged out a man at home to complete a rare 6-4-3-2 triple play.
But in the end we will be unable to hold back elimination. We will grow a mustache. It will do as much as anything else, which is nothing. We will finish 38 games behind the team that hit into the triple play. We will then be called into an office.
"It is over," we will be told. "You've been released."
We will wait for a phone call to refute this claim. The phone will not ring.
"Suppose you tell me your innermost wishes?" the old master finally said.
His two companions gave their answers, the brash and extroverted Zilu wishing he could share bountiful material wealth with his friends, the more inward Yan Hui wishing for profound, unshakable humility. Confucius may have sensed that both were trying to impress their long-time teacher with their answers. When they returned the question to him he kept it simple, embodying rather than merely reaching for both the spirit of generosity and the spirit of humility.
"I wish the old may enjoy peace, friends may enjoy trust, and the young may enjoy affection," he said.
Tomorrow the last regular season series of the year between the Red Sox and Yankees begins. Whenever I had a chance to wish for something as a child (birthday candles, wishbone, coins in a fountain, etc.) I wished deeply and sincerely for the Red Sox to Win. To Beat the Yankees. To Win Everything. Years came and went and the wish did not come true. Maybe it’s because nobody—not me, certainly not beady-eyed Red Sox manager Don Zimmer, not even Confucius—ever wished for something as deeply and ferociously as the wish Billy Martin willed true thirty years ago this October: to manage the New York Yankees to a World Series championship.
In other words, the above card, from 1978, shows a man who has achieved his innermost wish. As Paul Westerberg might put it: Look him in the eyes and tell him that he’s satisfied.
Then tell me, what is your innermost wish?
So here's the king of those names, Sixto Lezcano, 23 years old, looking young and confident, as if he has never in his life gotten sick of being the person inside the word I. He has just completed a 1977 season in which he swatted 21 home runs in just 109 games. He seems to sense that he and the Brewers are poised on the brink of a breakthrough season.
In 1978, with Lezcano providing stellar defense in right field and a .292 average at bat, the Brewers recorded not only the first winning season in the history of their previously nondescript franchise but a blistering 93-win campaign that would have catapulted them into the playoffs in many other years (or even in the same year had they been a member of the American League West). But this 1978 season by the Brewers has pretty much been lost to history, eclipsed by the battle royale that year between the 99-win Red Sox and 100-win Yankees. The Brewers got even better the next year in what would be Lezcano's finest season (he drove in 101 runs and finished 15th in league MVP voting), tallying 95 wins, enough to pass both the Red Sox and the Yankees in the standings. Unfortunately, the Brewers' excellent 1979 season is also obscure, as they finished a distant second in the division behind a Baltimore Orioles squad that won 102 games. It was a tough time to get noticed in the AL East: the following year the Orioles would tally 100 victories and have to settle for second behind the Yankees. The Brewers, still good, still unnoticed, finished far behind both with 86 wins, a dropoff for them that could be attributed to the dip in play of Sixto Lezcano, whose average plummeted from .321 in 1979 to .229 in 1980.
He was traded in December 1980 and so wasn't around when the Brewers finally broke through with half of a division win in the strike year, then a trip to the World Series in 1982. In the World Series the Brewers fell to the Cardinals, the team Sixto Lezcano had been traded to, but he wasn't on that team either, having been traded again to the Padres. The Padres made it to the World Series a couple years later, but by then Sixto Lezcano had been traded to the aging, fading Phillies. The Phillies, composed mostly of geriatric former members of the Big Red Machine, made an improbable run, or walker-limp, to the World Series the year Lezcano joined them, but even though he played well in limited action during the regular season he seems to have been left off the postseason roster (correction: as pointed out in the comments below, Lezcano actually played several playoff games that year). He contributed the next year as a competent part-timer (from playing Strat-O-Matic I know that he generally raked left-handed pitching) but within a year was out of the league for good.
It's now 30 years since the time of the photo in the card above, 30 years since the dawn of the single golden age of the Brewers. Robin Yount and Paul Molitor and the 1982 pennant-winners are remembered, but who remembers all the wins in the preceding years, years when the charisma of newness and promising youth on the team emanated most strongly from the rightfielder with the cannon arm and mesmerizing name. Who remembers the Age of Sixto Lezcano?
"You should read 'The Myth of Sisyphus,'" she said.
"I already read it," I said. "It didn’t help. Nothing helps." Incredibly, I was still clinging to the same hope I always clung to on the rare occasions when I found myself in a conversation with a woman who had somehow wandered into the International, that dim, narrow corridor of cigarette smoke and male self-pity where I preferred to spend my leisure time. I was hoping she would have sex with me, save me, shield me from woe, etc., etc.
"You should read it again," she said. "I think you’re ready for it now."
She fixed me with a cheerful, distancing smile, then turned and started talking to someone else. Alone with my drink, I sat there resenting being told I was "ready" for something. It seemed belittling. I was a bitter guy, of course. Bitter guys often feel belittled. Bitter guys have spiraling phantom conversations that pick up where the real conversations left off.
"What I mean is, I'm up here and you're down there," the woman said to me in the phantom conversation in my head. "But maybe, just maybe, you're ready to start approaching my level of enlightenment."
"I don't need you," I imagined replying. "I don't need anyone."
The Myth of Ben Oglivie shows me a man forever trapped in a pose, waiting for a pitch that will never arrive. There is a figure in the distance, anonymous, too far away to be of any assistance. We're on our own inside our repeating rectangle. It's Monday and tomorrow will be Tuesday but the situation won't change. If the quartet of Ben Oglivies above is any guide, on some days the sky will appear a little lighter, other days a little darker, and once in a while everything might seem a little tilted, slightly out of whack, part of the border around the day obliterated, as if there might be some escape.
And note the look on Garry Maddox's face. Does he seem to care that he is to serve as one of the figures in my ever-expanding pantheon of gods? No, he clearly has his mind on other things. Gods will not be thinking of you.
And note the empty seats. There are just a few figures in the stands behind Garry Maddox, but even they seem more likely to have their minds on anything but the random moment unfolding in the foreground. This is a realm where nobody cares. A mass-produced image of a disinterested man taking a phantom swing in his warmup jacket in front of empty seats and apathetic soltaries. The back of his card should include the koan about a tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear, but instead it shows years stretching backward (years always stretching backward with my gods) to his time with the Giants, when he was on the same team with the confusingly similar Gary Matthews, as if the Giants in the days before I was really paying attention were a primordial ooze where one god merged into the next. Note that as the years went on I learned the difference between Garry Maddox and Gary Mathews, so much so that I forgot I'd ever confused them, and in doing so lost some of the connection to the mystery of the gods.
But also note, above all, Garry Maddox's muttonchops. Thanks and praises for Garry Maddox's muttonchops. If a man swings in a ballpark and nobody cares, does it matter? That's the koan for the day. My answer: muttonchops.
Conclusion (continued from Dock Ellis)
"Losers live in the past." – Denis Waitley (Member of the Motivational Speaker Hall of Fame)
The house is dark and mostly empty. My brother is gone, off to boarding school for the second year in a row, and for some reason my mother is gone too. I don’t know where she is. Within a few years she’ll leave the house for good. I’ll leave too. Everyone will leave, going separate ways. Tom will be the last one, my stepfather. He is the only one except for me in the house right now, my nightmare taking hold.
They’ve been happening for years. They started when we moved to Vermont, away from my father. Sometimes I have sought help when I can feel one coming on, but no one has ever known what to do. Once, when my brother and I were in the house alone, he saw the look on my face and started reading to me from one of his Star Trek novelizations. His voice uttering names from the painless world of television, Spock, Kirk, Chekhov, McCoy, somehow it calmed me. But that time I was only just verging on the first unstoppable feelings of the nightmare (or night terror, as I later learn it is called). And other than that, nothing has ever helped. I always end up terrified. Every wall, every chair, every inch of everything looking wrong, so wrong I run through the house screaming.
But on this night as my heart starts to pound and the walls begin to bend away from me, I go into the room where the only other person left in the house is sleeping. I’ll remember for the rest of my life what happens. Tom acts instinctively, barely awake, eyes wide, startled. I’ve come close enough for him to reach out, and he does. He holds my hand, strokes it, speaks softly. My heartbeat slows. My breathing gets deeper.
Maybe this time I’ll be OK, I start thinking. Tom’s hands holding mine.
"Blackout!" we exclaim.
By then my dad has been living apart from us for three years. He is becoming a stranger. Maybe to avoid feeling this estrangement, we go to a lot of movies. We see movies almost every day, once in a while going from one movie to the next. Disaster movies are big. The Towering Inferno. Earthquake. When the lights go out the idea dawns: Maybe we’ve landed in a disaster movie!
"Blackout!" we squeal.
The lights are out for a long time. Maybe they’ll be off forever! We go to Central Park and are interviewed by a Times reporter doing a story on kids during the blackout. I tell the reporter that now my dad won't have to yell at my brother anymore to turn off the bathroom light. We get the paper the next day, see our names, see my quote. We aren’t three strangers anymore, but a family inside an adventure!
The next day Times Square gets power and to escape the sweltering heat we go to an air-conditioned double-feature in wondrous Sensurround: Midway and Rollercoaster. For hours every time a bomb explodes or a roller coaster roars the Sensurround-rigged seats shake. When it's over we stumble into the street, blinking in the sunlight, our legs trembling.
By the next day the power has come back all over the city. We go to Shea for a doubleheader. The young man pictured in the 1979 card above bats third in the opener, and for reasons that are mostly obscure to me now he instantly becomes my most favorite player on my most favorite team in the alternate universe of our short visits to New York. Somehow I must have gleaned that Steve Henderson is the future of the Mets, their brightest young star, and I latch onto him. He is known at this time as "Stevie Wonder." In 1977 I know, dimly, who the actual Stevie Wonder is, but I mostly ignore that association. Instead, Steve Henderson’s nickname conjures images of a superhero, a magic man, someone capable of turning the usual boredom of life fantastic.
But I remember Stevie Wonder.
I also remember the day before I discovered Stevie Wonder. It was the evening following our afternoon in Sensurround. The electricity was still out in my dad’s neighborhood. We had to climb the six flights up to his apartment. No elevator. No lights in the stairway. We held on to one another going up. That’s how I remember it anyway, the wonder of it, my brother, my father, and me hand in hand, rising through the dark.
A couple years earlier my mother met a man on a bus to a peace march. They fell in love. Eventually, my father was told. Divorce loomed, but the three adults agreed to instead experiment with a new kind of family. Why not try for more love, not less? It's 1972. Many are experimenting. Many are trying for more love, not less. We move to a bigger house and a man with long hair and a long beard joins us. Tom. Tom shares a room with my mother, my father in the guest room down the hall. In later years I’ll come to learn how unusual this is. I’ll also decide that as a small child I probably sponged up, as only a small child can, many of the unsaid tensions the unusual situation created. But at the time all I knew was that I had a mom and a dad and a brother and a Tom, and they all loved me. It was a golden age of sorts, all of us together for the first and last time. Within a couple years it would be over, and I would begin a life adrift, taking refuge in the Cardboard Gods.
Chapter 7 (continued from Tom Burgmeier)
Where do you see yourself five years ago?
Five years ago I was living in Brooklyn. It was less than a year after 9/11. I’d been in New York, New York for most of a decade. If you can make it there you’ll make it anywhere. I hadn’t made it there. I wanted to leave, try somewhere new.
My girlfriend and I had spent two weeks that summer on a road trip, in many ways the best trip I’ve ever been on: I was in love and I was loved, and we went to baseball game after baseball game. In Chicago we also went to the Art Institute and spent a lot of time looking at the museum’s large collection of Joseph Cornell boxes. You have to bend down close to look at Cornell’s work, like you’re leaning in to hear the words of a person whose voice is almost gone. Below the glass tops of the wooden boxes are miniature dream worlds built from thrift store objects, sand and glass, shreds of newspaper, maps. These little worlds whispered to me. I said to myself: there’s life here, and everywhere, everywhere a mystery, the future wide open. I said to myself: I could live here.
Where do you see yourself five years before that?
In 1997 I was in my first year of grad school, writing stories, essays, going into loan debt that I still haven’t dug myself out of. I was paying my share of the rent on an apartment I shared with my brother in Brooklyn by writing young adult books. I wrote Revenge and Retribution and Confucius. I think my brother was still working as a travel book editor. Before long he would quit that job in order to write a travel book about adventure sports (kayaking, mountain climbing, etc.) in the mid-Atlantic region. I learned years later that the months he spent writing and more significantly not writing that book (he never finished it) made up what he considered to be the "rock bottom" period of his life. I didn’t think he was having a great time or anything, but I had no idea it was that bad. My brother and I had been sharing apartments, with a couple short interruptions, for about seven years, and on face level were closer than most other adult brothers. But we never really talked about anything. We talked about sports. Basketball, baseball. It had been that way all our lives. Sports was what bound us together. As we got older this connective tissue seemed more and more incidental to our increasingly separate albeit adjacent lives.
I have few specific memories of 1997, but I do remember watching the Yankees get eliminated in the playoffs with my brother. When the Yankees were champions, as they had been the year before and as they would be in the following three years, New York, New York seemed even more than usual like the city where we weren’t making it. In our beleaguered imaginations New York, New York was a food chain with happy successful world-smashers in Yankee caps on top, and the useless and lonely on the bottom. Guys like us. In the ninth inning with two outs Paul O’Neill got thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double, and that was that, the Yankees were done. My brother and I exhaled.
"Thank god," I said.
"Amen," he said.
We clinked our Budweiser tall boys together, finished them. A few minutes later, no more sports to discuss, my brother got up and went into his wreckage-filled room, his rock bottom, and closed the door.
Where do you see yourself five years before that?
1992. Our first apartment in Brooklyn, my brother and I. We’d been priced out of Manhattan, having to leave an apartment on Second Avenue and Ninth Street. The apartment in Brooklyn was so close to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that the floor shook. Because our mom was in France working on her PhD dissertation we had inherited her cats, two sweethearts, one thin and gray and the other an older fat black and white longhair. They lay together a lot, sleeping in one another’s arms. My mom had gotten the gray one, Alice, in 1988, which I am able to recall because I remember the Red Sox going on their long "Morgan Magic" winning streak after the All-Star break when she was a kitten. The older one, Annie, dated all the way back to my childhood. I’d been in seventh grade, working on a report on lions, when a friend of the family had come to the door with a black and white kitten in his arms. He was trying to give the kitten away. Nobody else was at home.
"She’s real cute," he said. He held her out to me. "What do you say?"
"OK," I said.
She was wild at first, darting all over the house, hiding, almost unpettable, but over the years she got sweeter and sweeter and fatter and fatter. In that apartment where the floor shook I didn’t have a bed, just a thin roll-up mattress on the floor. Every morning Annie would come over and lie on my chest, waiting for me to get up and feed her. She was heavy by then, but it felt good. I was 24 years old, had nothing going on in my life, a man just floating nowhere. So it felt good to be pinned down once in a while by love, or at least a purring facsimile of love.
But at some point that year she started puking and shitting all over our highway-shook floor. We took her to the vet. He gave her steroids. It slowed things down for a while but eventually she started shitting and puking again everywhere. I was young, wound-up, frustrated. I mean in general. Given to tantrums. Screaming at myself, punching walls. One day I got mad at Annie for shitting on the floor. Screamed at her. She scuttled under the couch, frightened.
The next day my brother and I grabbed her, stuffed her in a cat box, and took her to the vet. He told us there wasn’t much else he could do.
I held her. The doctor inserted the needle. My brother petted her on the head with just his thumb. She was purring.
When it was done we walked out onto Carroll Street with the empty cat box. Two grown men in the bright afternoon, the younger one weeping.
Where do you see yourself five years before that?
1987. The end of summer. I was barefoot and tan.
And like Dock Ellis in the story most often associated with him, I was tripping my brains out.
My brother and his friend Dave had picked me up in Santa Barbara, the two of them at the halfway point of a boomeranging cross-country road trip. They’d driven out together and I was going to join them on the way back. To this point we’d just traveled a few hours north, to Calaveras County, to see a concert, Santana and the Grateful Dead. The line getting into the parking lot was immense, neverending, long enough for us to purchase three hits of acid from some guy, long enough for us to talk it over, weigh the options--we didn’t have tickets to the show that day, but did for the next day, so it made sense to wait to take the hits just before the concert, but it also was true that at the present moment we were bored out of our skulls, inching along at a mile an hour if we were moving at all. Finally we decided, fuck it, we’d just go ahead and drop the acid while still paralyzed in traffic.
It was a long night devoid of stories. Dave had a particularly bad trip and he kept saying that he was cold, so cold. Even after we got into the parking lot we spent a lot of the night in or very near the car. For an eternity I sat on the ground against the car, leaning on a tire, and stared at my pant leg. I remember feeling happy when the pant leg finally began to reflect the light of dawn. As the sun started to rise my brother and I left Dave in the car still shivering under all his clothes and went to an open area and threw a frisbee.
To be alive is to be adrift. Before you are born you are one with the universe, after you die you’re one again, but when you’re alive you’re like a piece of the whole that’s come loose and is falling. That's how I felt for most of that acid trip: A chunk of flesh plunging through the dark. But when I played catch with my brother I no longer felt that way. There was just a connection, the disc a bright shared pulse in the dawn.
(continued in Steve Henderson)
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