Baseball Toaster Cardboard Gods
Monthly archives: November 2006


Mario Guerrero, 1980
2006-11-30 06:13
by Josh Wilker

This 1980 card is probably not the last Mario Guerrero card ever produced, since he was officially a major leaguer until April 1981, when the Seattle Mariners released him, but it's the last Mario Guerrero card I own. My card buying dropped off precipitously in 1981, a fact I rediscovered a couple weeks ago when I spent several of my limited hours here on earth sorting my entire collection into alphabetically ordered players within years within teams. Some teams had a couple cards from 1981, some had one, some had none. From the looks of it, I bought two or three packs of cards for the whole year, a buying rate that I often approached on a weekly basis in the preceding years. Suddenly what had for years been of central importance to me was no longer the least bit important. Maybe someday in the not too distant future I'll talk at greater length about the neutron bomb of puberty, but for now I'm going to set aside any discussions on why I suddenly had no interest in baseball cards. Today the focus is on the baseball player whose major league career spanned almost exactly the fully conscious (i.e., aware of baseball) years of my childhood. When Mario Guerrero was released, so was my childhood. While I can't verify this, I believe it's very possible that April 1, 1981, the day the Mariners traded Mario Guerrero for the absence of Mario Guerrero, was the first warm day of spring in Central Vermont, and as such provided the opportunity for a certain bespectacled, increasingly awkward 8th grade soon-to-be former collector of baseball cards to notice for the first time that all the girls in his grade had suddenly grown breasts.

So this card is really the last hurrah for better or worse of a breastless world. It's possible that this may be why I find some aspects of the card a little strange. For example, Mario Guerrero doesn't really look like Mario Guerrero. Besides being bearded, he also appears to have a puffier face, lighter skin, less distinct features, and cloudier eyes than the dark, rugged-featured man beaming with eagle-vision from the earlier Mario Guerrero cards. If not for the matching statistics on the back, I might have thought that another Mario Guerrero had infiltrated the league. Another discordant note sounded by the card is in the fact that Mario Guerrero is on the A's. I had always resisted evidence contrary to the idea that he was still and forever a member of the Red Sox, but somehow his previous appearances on the Cardinals and especially the Angels (where Red Sox players were constantly ending up or coming from) were not as injurious to this fantasy as seeing him clad in the bright white shoes and seasick green and yellow piping of the A's. Possibly a part of the unease at seeing Mario Guerrero as an A derived from the perception of that franchise that I got from the collecting of baseball cards throughout the latter half of the 1970s, a period of dismal decline for the A's, as pointed out recently in a comment by Pete Millerman. I regained this perspective on the A's recently while sorting my A's cards into years. In 1975, many of the players were still around that had formed, in terms of consecutive World Series titles, the greatest non-Yankee dynasty ever. Rudi, Jackson, Hunter, Bando, Blue. Even in 1976, there are still vestiges of the dynasty in my collection. Fingers, Holtzman, Campaneris. By 1977 Bill North was the only one left, and in 1978 and 1979 the last place A's were a wasteland of Jim Tyrones and Jerry Tabbs. The 1980 set of A's seems, in retrospect, split between members of the scrapheap A's and members of the young Billy Martin-led A's squad that would end up playing exciting, winning baseball throughout 1980 and 1981. If I sensed this split at the time between the promising young players, such as Tony Armas, Mike Norris, and Rickey Henderson, and the has-beens and never-weres, such as Dave Chalk, Craig Minetto, and Larry Murray, I would have had no choice but to rank the aging reserve Mario Guerrero, with his 5 career home runs and his 39 career sacrifice bunts, among the latter. In other words, the once-proud A's were about to make the climb back toward respectability, and Mario Guerrero would only be symbolic of the swamp of mediocrity they were climbing up out of.

With all that said, let us now praise Mario Guerrero. In his eight-year career he belonged to seven major league franchises, three of whom he never played for while the rest never seemed to care much whether he played for them or not. He was, due to circumstances beyond his control, a major league drifter, and as such could have been forgiven for allowing a drifting, degenerative quality into his professional habits. This appears not to be the case, however. He was consistent, and by most accounts a reliable fielder at second and short, and, at least as utility infielders go, not a terrible hitter either. He did his job as best he could. I know this because of all my Mario Guerrero baseball cards, especially this one. In this 1980 card, even though he does not even look like himself anymore, Mario Guerrero shows perfect form in completing what may be the most difficult common play in baseball, the double-play relay. The runner has barreled into him, trying to break his concentration, but it seems even death personified could not jar the focus of this unflappable journeyman. And here comes Mario Guerrero's throw, straight as an arrow, right on target. Right at anybody with eyes to see.

Mario Guerrero, 1979
2006-11-29 06:19
by Josh Wilker

I don't have a 1979 Mario Guerrero card. To address this gap, I've decided to insert a painting my wife and I just received as a wedding present from the painter, a family friend named Barbara who also happened to be my guidance counselor when I was in grade school. My most memorable moment of her as my guidance counselor occurred in the Mario Guerreroless year of 1979, when she plucked me and the other older kids out of my multiage class and walked us down to Mr. Stewart's big sixth grade class of regular kids, then took all the multiage girls and Mr. Stewart girls with her while all the boys stayed and watched a movie about how hair was soon going to start exploding out of our bodies in unusual places. Mr. Stewart flicked on the lights when it was over and asked if there were any questions. We all just sat there blinking.

This is not to say that I associate that troubling, confusing day with Barbara. Actually, when I think of the liveliest times in the house I grew up in, parties in which the house filled up with my parents' longhaired back-to-the-land friends, I usually think first of Barbara's whooping laughter. She was practically a party unto herself. Her painting is of that house she lit up with her laughter. I don't think the photo reproduction fully does justice to the painting. It is a beautiful piece of work. It makes me realize that I am often full of shit when I write about the past.

I've always been wary of lapsing into nostalgic fantasies of a joyful past that never existed, but the fact is I've often leaned on anti-reveries that are every bit as artificial and misleading, the past in my timid hands a succession of ritualistically humiliating failures set in a landscape of rusted car parts and athletic fields riddled with drunken longing and omens of imminent pederasty. I make East Randolph, the town of the house pictured here, into a grimy hollow of bullies and barbed wire and deer carcasses and sighing aging hippies and winters without end and mangy growling Dobermans chained to sagging aluminum trailers. And maybe East Randolph did have all those elements, but it was also, when viewed in a different way, a small, quiet village cradled within rolling green mountains, capable of receiving the tender light seen in this painting.

It's always been harder for me to remember joy. Maybe this is because joy is something you can't appreciate, or even name, until it's fading. In the 1800s, the spectacular nature paintings of the Hudson River School celebrated the American landscape when that landscape was starting to vanish. The painters wanted to remember what had until that point always been taken for granted. My personal moment of seeing the parts of East Randolph that I would miss when they were out of my life came just after I'd been expelled from boarding school. I came home for what would turn out to be my last extended stay--soon the house would be sold and all its less essential but not completely disposable contents, such as my baseball card collection, would be packed into a storage unit. I'd been kicked out with very little time left in my senior year, and after an unsuccessful trip with my mom to the local high school to beg for admittance in time to graduate with the local seniors, the only thing that remained for me in Vermont was to wait for the next administration of the general equivalency diploma (GED) exam in the state capital.

This waiting period benefited from the aftermath of a weekend visit by some of my boarding school buddies. At one point I'd taken them down to the swimming hole that I'd always thought of as dismally small and boring, and one of my friends, a Kenyan-born Muslim kid who had in typically incongruous boarding school fashion been tagged with the nickname of Buddha, planted himself in the middle of the waist-high stream for a long time, glowing buddhistically, ignoring the defunct gravel pit on his right, the car skeleton on his left.

"Man, if I lived in this town," he finally declared, "I'd be here every day."

I filled the gnawing absence created by the departure of my friends with the ritual of not just going to the swimming hole every day but staying there until I convinced myself that I was actually hearing and seeing what the Buddha heard and saw. And the trip to the swimming hole was just one element of a larger effort on my part to drink in for the first (and last) time the bucolic splendor of my surroundings. The day I finally took the GED was probably the first day I'd worn shoes in weeks. Too late, my franchise already long eliminated from contention, I'd caught fire as the hippie nature boy the whole move to rural Vermont by my parents had been intended to create.

The test took place in a room in the courthouse building in Montpelier. There was only one other test-taker besides me, a 16-year-old kid hoping to join the air force. He chewed on his lip while we were waiting to get underway.

"Shit, you think there's gonna be algebra on this fucker?" he asked me.

"I don't know," I said.

I don't remember if there was algebra, but the test in general turned out to be pretty easy. I finished while the air force kid was still laboring away. I went out and stood on the steps of the courthouse, waiting for my mom to pick me up and pretending not to notice the guy on the other side of the steps who was pretending not to notice me.

His name was Mike and he was the son of the man who owned the general store in East Randolph where I bought all my baseball cards. He'd been the Coolest Kid for a while, his charisma peaking in grade school when he was the only local youngster to pepper his speech with the word "whore." We'd been friends, sort of, in grade school, Mike hanging out with me when there wasn't anything better to do, luckily for me a fairly frequent occurrence in our small town, but I hadn't spoken to him in years. The silence between us had grown out of the general silence of victimhood that gradually engulfed all the members of our terrible 7th and 8th grade basketball teams as the losses continued to mount. By 9th grade, Mike had had enough of basketball. I kept playing and losing. We took different classes. Mike probably spent his Friday nights getting wasted and fornicating in cars while I was home watching The Incredible Hulk. If I hadn't gone away to boarding school for my junior and senior years I probably would have finally had some contact with him again, either buying shitty brown pot from him or handing him the dribbling spout of a beer keg at a cold, drizzly party in the woods.

Anyway, by the time I took my GED test, Mike had become a fat glowering man smoking a cigarette outside a courthouse. I'd heard that he'd been arrested for some drug charge, and probably his presence at the courthouse had something to do with that. I stared down for what seemed like hours at the boarding school in-joke phrases I'd scrawled with a magic marker all over my Converse All-Stars. Finally my mom pulled up.

Her expression was still the weary stone-face she'd worn when she'd picked me up from boarding school the day of my expulsion. On the way home on that earlier day, I'd broken the first of many long, painful silences by saying "I'll make you proud someday, Mom!" Believe it or not, it sounded even more overwrought and overdramatic at the time than it seems in the retelling, and my mom, who would be saddled for years to come with the large loan she'd taken out to send me to the school, let my bombastic vow hang in the air for a while before replying in a flat monotone, "That's not the point." I'd backed off any further pronouncements in the following weeks, but the moment after the GED test seemed to demand at least some sort of stab at ceremonial verbiage. I thought about the test itself, and then about the lip-gnawing air force kid, who was probably still flailing away at "the fucker."

"Well, looks like I'm gonna be the valedictorian of my class," I said. My mom wasn't in a big laughing mood, but she did later pass on the line to her friend Barbara, the creator of the painting shown here, and Barbara filled our home for perhaps the last time with whooping laughter.

Mario Guerrero, 1978
2006-11-28 06:39
by Josh Wilker


Mario Guerrero has suddenly begun to look a little old. He is no longer a guy who could be mistaken as a promising youngster. The dissolving of the faint aura of potential around Mario Guerrero strikes me as the flip side of the solidity he gained by carving out a niche for himself as a decent utility infielder. He chose a path and made his way down the path as best he could. The years have gone by and now here he is, a veteran bench guy, no more, no less.

I am several years older than Mario Guerrero was at the time of this picture, but I still find myself trying with all my meager might to hold onto some sense that my life is yet to come, that I still have some yet unrealized potential. If I had a baseball card, it wouldn't have much on the back. A remote birth date, height and weight suggesting the expanding midsection of middle age, a birthplace unrelated to the listed residence, a space-filling cartoon with a caption reading "Josh wants to be a writer some day." The years reserved for my official record would be blank. I've mostly avoided an actual life, always hoping for some impossible call-up to the big leagues and instant all-star status. The picture on the front of the card would show a 38-year-old guy who has never really gotten his hands dirty with life, never really thrown himself fully into anything, never really chosen a path, a look on his face like a few seconds and rigid steps earlier he'd set off the hidden security system alarm at the front of a mall store. Even though he's guilty of swiping something small and juvenile--a chocolate bar, a pack of baseball cards--it appears he might not be apprehended, he might get away free this time, once again, but he's not quite sure. He's still bracing for the clap of a hand on his shoulder.

Anyway, I don't know why Mario Guerrero is shown as an Angel in this 1978 card. In December of 1977 he left the Angels to sign as a free agent with the San Francisco Giants. If Mario Guerrero felt good to be in control, for once, of yet another changing of teams, the feeling must not have lasted very long. Before he reported to spring training for his new team, the Giants sent Gary Alexander, Gary Thomasson, Dave Heaverlo, Alan Wirth, John Henry Johnson, Phil Huffman, and $300,000 (which at the time was a fairly prodigious sum of money to be thrown into a deal already including several players) to the Oakland A's for ace pitcher Vida Blue. As you will notice, Mario Guerrero's name is not listed in the battalion dispatched to fetch Vida Blue, but the Giants did agree to include in the deal a promise to also send the A's a player to be named later. Certainly Mario Guerrero must have been particularly attuned to the possibility of intimate change suggested by the addition of this clause. Having been a player to be named later and also traded twice in part or in whole for a player to be named later, Mario Guerrero surely sensed that his life might once again be about to change. I guess everybody's bracing for the clap of a hand on their shoulder, one way or another. On April 7, 1978, the Giants completed the Vida Blue deal by adding Mario Guerrero to the pile of bodies they'd already shipped across the bay to Oakland.

I don't know what Mario Guerrero's expression was when informed of this deal. I doubt he was smiling, as he is here, but if the numbers he put up after the deal are any indication, the tough, weathered resolve beneath this smile remained: in 1978, Mario Guerrero posted career highs in games, at bats, runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, and RBI.


Mario Guerrero, 1977
2006-11-27 07:59
by Josh Wilker

This 1977 card signals the passing of the halfway point of both my childhood and Mario Guerrero's itinerant career. Early in the preceding season, Mario Guerrero was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the California Angels for a minor leaguer named Ed Jordan and a player to be named later. The player to be named later turned out to be another minor leaguer named Ed Kurpiel. So by the time he posed for this picture, Mario Guerrero had been a player to be named later, had been traded for a player to be named later ultimately named Willoughby, and had been traded for two minor leaguers, one named Ed right at the start, the other also named Ed, but later. Still, Mario Guerrero seems happy and hopeful here. This makes sense, in a way. Despite his constant involvement in trades seemingly designed to highlight his insignificance, he had proven himself to be a useful major leaguer, averaging well over 200 at bats a year while playing ably at second base and shortstop, arguably the two most important defensive positions on the field. He had, in fact, just completed his best season to date, leading the anemic, league-worst offense of the Angels in batting average with an admirable .284 mark while also somehow swatting his first major league home run.

This hopeful card first lit up my collection right in the middle of my years in the hippie multiage class I mentioned in the last post. When writing of that class I often resort to cheap satire, probably due to a lack of imagination. But the truth is I mostly loved that class, especially the middle years, the Mario Guerrero as an Angel years. All day long, more or less, I was encouraged to make up stories. It occurs to me now that most if not all of the stories--told in the form of comic books, scrolls made to unfurl inside television-like cardboard boxes, animated movies of crash-marred car races, theatrical sequels to Star Wars featuring light sabers made of colored plastic sheets and flashlights, even my autobiography--were about wisecracking ectomorphs surviving disaster. The prototype for all these stories was an early crudely rendered serial drama about a character named Ribad the Rabbit, who was constantly having trees fall on him and other woodland creatures open fire in his direction with automatic weaponry as he tried to go about his day. Why me? asked Ribad the Rabbit again and again. There was never an answer, but on he went, inexplicably indestructable.

Mario Guerrero, 1976
2006-11-22 07:34
by Josh Wilker

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
-- Mark Strand, "Keeping Things Whole"

So who is the all-time greatest player to be named later? That is, who most fully embodies the disembodied nameless faceless procrastinating essence of human driftwood embedded in the term player to be named later? The Harry Chiti transaction pointed out by my esteemed colleague, Pete Millerman, in the comments section attached to yesterday's post certainly bears repeating in any attempt to determine the answer to this question. The Harry Chiti page on (sponsored, somehow touchingly, by someone named Jo Chiti) summarizes the infamous boomeranging of Harry Chiti with brutal brevity:

April 26, 1962: Purchased by the New York Mets from the Cleveland Indians.
June 15, 1962: Returned to the Cleveland Indians by the New York Mets following previous purchase.

Man. That's tough to beat, especially since the team, the 1962 New York Mets, that preferred the absence of Harry Chiti to the presence of Harry Chiti is often celebrated as the worst team in the history of major league baseball. Add to that the fact that Harry Chiti had earlier in his career been a player to be named later in a deal to a team, the New York Yankees, that stashed him like a stack of old magazines in the cellar of the minor leagues for a couple years before allowing him to be scavenged in the Rule V draft by the awful 1957 Kansas City A's, and I think we may be talking about the Babe Ruth of players to be named later.

However, I believe Mario Guerrero also deserves consideration. I realize I have a personal bias in this matter, as I derived comfort throughout my often solitary childhood from the near-continuous, albeit transitory, presence of Mario Guerrero. But it has become clear to me in retrospect that Mario Guerrero's continuous presence at my side was haunted every step of the way by the specter of the player to be named later. Guerrero, shown here in his 1976 card, had been traded from the Red Sox to the Cardinals before the previously considered Mario Guerrero card, from 1975, ever reached my hands. He did not come to the Cardinals as the player to be named later, but was instead traded straight up for a player to be named later.

I find this somewhat chilling. You see, the player to be named later clause is generally added to a deal with other principles, other named players going back and forth between teams, but in this case there were no other principles. There was only Mario Guerrero, who though seemingly a useful, spirited reserve was offered to the Cardinals for nobody. Here, take him, the Red Sox said. Just take him. Maybe later sometime you can send us somebody. Or not. Whatever. We don't really care.

By the time this card came into my possession, my family had made another move, which I've described in further detail elsewhere, from bucolic Randolph Center, Vermont, to the bully-glutted unofficial northeastern United States' capital of defunct gravel pits, East Randolph, Vermont, and I had begun attending a hippie-run multiage class based on the experimental free-school philosophy of learning what you want to learn when you want to learn (but only if you want to learn). Right now I don't feel like getting into who broke whose glasses and who called who a pansy, a faggot, a tard, a pussy, a queerbate, and, somehow worst of all, a dufus, but suffice it say that the regular kids in the school, the ones with their desks in straight rows, did not lend full support to our utopian experiment.

Anyway, in the summer after that first school year, the Cardinals completed the Mario Guerrero deal. There was the possibility, of course, that Mario Guerrero could have joined Harry Chiti at the very pinnacle of dubious transactions by being the player the Cardinals sent to the Red Sox to complete their acquisition of Mario Guerrero. This did not occur; instead, the player to be named later turned out to be a man named Willoughby.

As anyone who has ever gotten a new year off to a roaring start by staring at hour after hungover hour of a New Year's Day Twilight Zone Marathon knows, the word Willoughby carries an especially disquieting resonance, particularly when used in terms of some sort of tradeoff. In the episode entitled "A Stop at Willoughby," a town with the same name as the player to be named later in the 1976 Mario Guerrero deal shimmers into existence as the final impossible refuge of a man who, according to Rod Serling (who would understand as well as anyone the existential implications of the concept of the player to be named later), is "protected by a suit of armor held together by one bolt.

"Just a moment ago," Serling continues, "someone removed the bolt, and [his] protection fell away from him and left him a naked target. He's been cannonaded this afternoon by all the enemies of his life. His insecurity has shelled him, his sensitivity has straddled him with humiliation, his deep-rooted disquiet about his own worth has zeroed in on him, landed on target, and blown him apart."

This man, who at thirty-eight happens to be exactly my age, ends up becoming more and more enamored of exchanging everything he has for what seems to be the long-sought completion of a trade he actually made long ago, subconsciously, pummeled by the slings and arrows of this world, for a yearning to be named later, a wondrous refuge of "sunlight and serenity," a town of kindness and calm. Willoughby.

I won't spoil the ending of the episode, but I do want to point out Mario Guerrero's expression of unsinkable cheer in the photograph on this 1976 card. Here is the man who was traded for either nothing or for the inhabited malignant phantasm of nothing known as Willoughby. The position on his card--third base--is not even really his position. But he's not throwing in the towel. Let others give up and get off the train at Willoughby. Mario Guerrero still has some more years to appear on baseball cards to comfort the solitary bespectacled youth of America. Mario Guerrero endures.

Mario Guerrero, 1975
2006-11-21 06:46
by Josh Wilker

I have always been drawn to the concept, in baseball transactions, of the "player to be named later," but the truth is I've never really understood it. How much later is later? Are there parameters set in place for the quality (or, as anecdotal evidence suggests, the lack thereof) of the player? Does the giving team or the receiving team name the player? If it's the giving team, why wouldn't they just throw a baseball uniform on the crotchety one-legged Korean War veteran who folds their towels and give him train fare to get to the receiving team, and if it's the receiving team, why wouldn't they just name the guy leading the giving team in slugging percentage? Or is there some specialist in the employ of the league commissioner whose sole job is to fairly and justly assess each trade involving the "player to be named later" clause and to then balance the scale of each deal by aptly identifying and, yes, naming the player to be named later? And if so, how can I get this job?

I don't have the answer to any of these questions, but perhaps some progress toward illumination on this matter can be made in further consideration of my cardboard childhood companion Mario Guerrero, shown here in his 1975 card in the ol' Topps hold the bat straight out in front of you and gaze with wistful regret into the middle distance pose.

Mario Guerrero slipped quietly into the major leagues a couple years after coming to the Red Sox organization as a player to be named later. Specifically, he was the player to be named later in one of the worst deals in Red Sox' history. So "later" in this case turned out to mean a couple of things. In a strictly literal sense, later meant 100 days, from March 22, 1972, when the first players involved in the deal were exchanged, to June 30, 1972, when the identity of the player to be named later was finally revealed. But in this particular deal, which prior to the involvement of Mario Guerrero featured the Red Sox sending future Cy Young award-winner Sparky Lyle to the Yankees for fading mediocrity Danny Cater, "later" also (and more accurately) meant "too late." Mario Guerrero's arrival to the Red Sox in the context of this deal was akin to the arrival at a thoroughly burglarized home of a somewhat interesting seashell sent from the private beach connected to the brand new Caribbean retirement mansion of the burglar. Under other circumstances, perhaps the recipients would have appreciated the quiet, unassuming beauty of the seashell, but in this case they could only hold the seashell to their ear and listen to a facsimile of the ol' Matthew Arnold unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.

Mario Guerrero, 1974
2006-11-20 10:21
by Josh Wilker

This weekend I went on a 13-mile run, kayaked the length of the Chicago river while sighting and cataloging four rare species of birds, wrote eleven new songs for my forthcoming album, incorporated my many investment and charitable interests into a robust crossplatform transnational web of proactive revenue-generating synergies, kept up a constant string of brilliant witticisms, cobbled my own shoes, performed life-saving CPR not once, not twice, but thrice, punched a guy, weighed a run for public office, rebuilt the engine of an automobile, aided the bereft, oozed rugged, manly charisma, won a javelin-hurling competition, translated a volume of ancient Sanskrit poetry, and took out the garbage.

Actually, all but one of the above things may be an exaggeration. What I really spent most of my time doing this weekend was thoroughly organizing my baseball cards and then searching through them ceaselessly (to the point where I actually began to develop some sort of dust- and obsession-related migraine) for a single set of six cards of the same guy (any guy) from the six years, from 1975 to 1980, in which I spent all my allowance on baseball cards. Why did I do this? What did I hope to gain? In the end I didn't succeed in my "quest"; I kept getting close but ultimately all I found were gaps.

(I've also just been informed on this early Monday morning after my weekend of futile searching that I do not smell very good.)

I do have a few cards from the border years of 1974 and 1981, and eventually I responded to my failure to find a complete set of six by idiotically expanding my hopes to that of finding a miraculous run of eight cards of the same guy. This just led to even more gaps. But it also led me to Mario Guerrero. Mario Guerrero was a presence for much, if not all, of my childhood.

This 1974 Mario Guerrero is among the first cards I ever owned. The year I got it my father moved to a small apartment in New York City and the rest of my family moved from New Jersey to Vermont. That was also the year I got a baseball encyclopedia from my uncle for Christmas and the year I began having what we called nightmares at the time but which I found out many years later are known as night terrors. When I learned what night terrors were I did a little research on them and discovered that they most often occurred to children from ages six to twelve (exactly the range of my baseball card collecting years), and though they haven't been identified as being caused by any particular psychological trauma they often seem to occur to children involved in significant familial changes.

I've tried and failed for years to describe these night terrors from a first-person point of view (contrary to the claims in some of the research books on the subject, which state that the child experiencing night terrors will not recall them in the morning, I remembered all but one or two of these nights in vivid detail). Here's the third-person view: the boy wakes up in the middle of the night and runs through the dark house wide-eyed and screaming at the top of his lungs. Nobody can do anything to help him.

I just spent the last several minutes trying to augment the above third-person view with yet another in my endless stabs at a first-person account of the experience. I deleted the text because as usual it didn't get anywhere near it. But I'm sure I'll try again some other time. All I can say now is that the world looked wrong and this terrified me. Part of the fear was that I was never going to get back to seeing things "normally," that the wrongness was infinite.

It's probably not a coincidence that I began filling my days more and more with the memorizing of concrete, finite statistical information from my brand new baseball encyclopedia and with the collection and perusal of cards such as this 1974 Mario Guerrero. Topps placed Mario Guerrero (I mispronounced his name--unintentionally at first but then intentionally as well, then as ever after grasping at the shreds of the infantile--as a rhyme: "Mario Guh-rario") in a classic middle infielder pose. Topps often seemed to enjoy humiliating the light-hitting utility infielder types by making them pose this way, as if the subjects were in the woods trying to take a dump while simultaneously preparing to ward off the advances of a porcupine or a wild boar.

Bill Hands (correction)
2006-11-19 07:47
by Josh Wilker

In the last post I claimed the '75 Bill Hands that I was never able to acquire was the last Bill Hands card ever produced. I wasn't sure about this but I figured I'd just say it anyway. Turns out I was wrong, and here's the proof, a 1976 Bill Hands. I also claimed that the guy Bill Hands was traded for, George Stone, didn't have a 1976 card, but he did. I don't have the 1976 George Stone card, but I see the name next to a blank box on the Mets' 1976 team card checklist.

I know all this now because yesterday I turned a corner in my ongoing departure from sanity by taking several hours to sort my entire scrambled collection back into teams, in part so I could begin to investigate the veracity of claims such as that George Stone and Bill Hands, who by then had both played their last major league games, did not have 1976 cards ghosting their respective vanishings. My wife, who as a very young child once organized her grandma's sprawling "miscellaneous" drawer into neat piles of paperclips and rubber bands, helped me sort for a few minutes before losing interest. When she later saw me sorting the cards of individual teams into different years, she withheld comment, but when still later she looked up from her social-work textbook and saw me subjecting cards for an individual team and individual year to even more sorting, she fixed me with an incredulous stare.

"Are you putting those into alphabetical order?"

"What? No. Of course not," I said. I forced out a snort of laughter meant to sound dismissive. "Please."

"Mm hm," she said. She'd already turned back to her book.

Anyway, I don't know how I didn't remember this card. It must have made an impression when I found it in a pack. Finally, I'd acquired a Bill Hands, but it was the wrong Bill Hands, a year too late.

Bill Hands
2006-11-17 06:18
by Josh Wilker

Here's the closest I ever got to Cardboard God nirvana. In 1975, my first year of baseball card obsession, I nearly gathered every player for an entire team. From Bibby, Jim to Tovar, Cesar, I slowly but steadily accrued every Texas Ranger except one.

Topps card number 412. Hands, Bill/P

My brother owned this card. I can't remember clearly, but he may have even had doubles. However, it was not at all customary to simply hand over surplus cards. I understood this and was in a strange way even glad about it. The game had rules, and rules helped create a world with meaning. He proposed to trade me Bill Hands for my one and only 1975 Carl Yastrzemski. I was tempted, but somehow even at age seven I knew that if I made such a deal I'd feel as if I'd been punched in the stomach for months afterward.

I gripped tight to Yaz and decided to take my chances with the random gatherings within each new pack of cards. Probably the first time I ever prayed was in my silent pack-opening pleas for Bill Hands. Bill Hands never did show up, obviously. At some point I did get doubles of Yaz but by then my brother had Yaz, too, so that deal was no longer on the table. Eventually the general store in town stopped carrying the 1975 cards.

Hands, a former 20-game winner, went 6--7 for the Rangers that year and was traded in the offseason to the Mets for George Stone. Neither he nor Stone ever appeared in another major league game or on another baseball card. Many years later my brother sold his Bill Hands or Bill Handses along with all his other cards for money to buy a used pair of downhill skis. He was in his mid-twenties, broke, fleeing the wreckage of a failed relationship. He staved off starvation by getting a job selling lift tickets at a ski area and in his off hours either partied with others in the migrant ski area work force or flung himself at great speeds down the mountain on his baseball card skis.

'78 Checklist
2006-11-16 07:09
by Josh Wilker

"Thus the power of souls is increased by all that men attribute to them, and in the end men find themselves the prisoners of this imaginary world of which they are, however, the authors and the models." -- Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

My father was raised as an Orthodox Jew but traded religion for sociology as soon as he was old enough to live on his own. And only the faintest traces of the childhood Protestantism of my mother and stepfather survived the 1960s, Jesus showing up once a year in some Christmas carols sung by my Mom's extended family while my brother and I played Mattel electronic football and wolfed down holiday peanut brittle.

So for me there was no church, no temple, no formal rites of passage, no fables of the afterlife, no prayers to the enrobed and sandal-clad Bee Gee. I was left to make it all up on my own. So here's what I came up with, I guess: a half-assed worship of the names and statistics and mostly imagined capabilities of baseball players that I turned into deities. To fill in a box next to a name on a checklist such as the one pictured here was to take a tiny step out of this world and into the other world I was creating.

Some names were more important than others (as can be seen here, Topps had a numbering system that reflected a hierarchy of importance, the better players commanding the tens and the best players--such as number 400, Nolan Ryan--placed at the hundreds) but ultimately they were all of equal importance because they all were part of the Complete Set that I hoped to someday assemble. As suggested by the scant number of crudely filled-in boxes on this checklist, I never got anywhere near that imagined promised land, every box filled in, every name possessed, my own flimsy name gone, dissolved into gods.

Bucky Dent
2006-11-15 07:01
by Josh Wilker

Here is the tragic figure of Bucky Dent, the mildly promising albeit light-hitting young Chicago White Sox shortstop who after being named to the Topps all-rookie team in 1975 was killed in a horrific wood chipper accident. Though some are of the opinion that this accident is a myth, and that Bucky Dent actually went on to play for several more years in the American League, at times even excelling as a power-hitter in key late season moments (a preposterous claim given his slight frame and complete lack of power-hitting skills), I offer as primary countering evidence the fact that this is the only Bucky Dent card in my entire collection, and if he had indeed played beyond this year the only way to explain his absence from my collection would be to say that I assiduously removed and destroyed any later Bucky Dent cards, as if for some reason the very sight of them caused me revulsion. But why on earth would I or anyone waste time doing something like that? Clearly, the stronger Bucky Dent theory is the one in which, tragically, Bucky Dent was thoroughly minced or possibly even pureed by a wood chipper before he was ever able to make any significant impact on major league baseball history or on the innocence of, say, a 10-year-old Red Sox fan in East Randolph, Vermont, on October 2, 1978.

Ed Herrmann
2006-11-14 08:11
by Josh Wilker

Ed Herrmann looks to have just hit one into the gap. He will now toss the bat away and run with all his might. In his 11-year career, Ed Herrmann stole six bases and hit four triples, but even these meager testaments to the ability to move fast enough to capitalize on occasional freakish circumstances were far in the past at the time of this snapshot. All his might will still not make Ed Herrmann move very fast.

As I understand it, the type of baseball card that is generally worth the most money is the one in which a future superstar makes his first appearance: the rookie card. This 1979 Ed Herrmann card is from a set at the opposite end of that spectrum: a card showing a well-traveled, forgettable part-timer who has already played his last game. (Other examples of this shown previously on this site include, among others, thousand-yard-staring David Clyde and off-the-grid yeti Joe Wallis.) These would seem to me to be the more rare, hence more valuable, hobbyist specimens. They are, in a certain light, mistakes, in that a baseball card is not meant as a tribute to the season just past but rather as a companion for the current season. The proof of this principle is in the doctoring of the cards of players (such as Dave Cash and Reggie Jackson) who have switched to new teams just before the start of the season. If Topps went to such lengths to underscore the fact that Dave Cash, for example, was no longer a Phillie, you would think that they would also take similar pains to try to doctor Ed Herrmann out of the picture altogether.

But somehow, even though Ed Herrmann was released at the end of 1978, giving Topps plenty of time to stop the presses on the 1979 Ed Herrmann card, the 1979 Ed Herrmann card slipped through. Maybe only a few made it to the stores before quality control realized the error. Maybe the card is as rare as the 1952 Mickey Mantle card or even the 1909 Honus Wagner card. If so, the scarcity of the card has done nothing for its value among collectors--a cursory glance on Google shows the 1979 Ed Herrmann card selling for between 25 and 50 cents (compared to the Honus Wagner card, which is worth over a million dollars).

But I value this rare card, this beautiful mistake, for it has allowed Ed Herrmann one more moment of baseball life, that ball bounding into the gap with double written all over it for anyone with even below average speed. Unfortunately, as noted earlier, Ed Herrmann has speed even below below average. His expression here shows doubt, concern, even regret in the placement of his well-struck hit. He knows that he will be expected to end up on second base, and he knows that this is going to be a difficult if not impossible feat. He'll probably get thrown out and have to lumber back to the dugout beneath the wilting gaze of incredulous fans and teammates alike. How could you have turned that success into failure, Ed Herrmann?

But then again, maybe he has a chance. That's what this card that shouldn't even exist in the first place says to me. If this card can exist, maybe the lumbering picture of doom upon it has a chance to beat the throw to second.

Maybe there's hope for all us mathematically eliminated.

Haul ass, Ed Herrmann, haul ass.

Vicente Romo
2006-11-13 08:31
by Josh Wilker

I have been staring at this Vicente Romo card for over an hour and I still don't know where to start. With his giant head? With his puzzling pose, which seems to suggest any number of scenarios such as that he's playing air piano or putting a hex on the opposition or leeringly blocking a ball girl from exiting the field? With the fact that by the time this card made its way to my 7-year-old hands in East Randolph, Vermont, Vicente Romo had already been released from the San Diego Padres?

The release is puzzling, due to the fact that Romo had been a fairly effective relief pitcher for some time--as the back of the card puts it in the customary caveman syntax of baseball card text, Romo was "one of club's top firemen." I guess the lesson here is that no one really knows what's going to happen from one day to the next. One minute you could be horsing around during one in a seemingly endless succession of yearly Topps photo shoots, and the next minute you could be packing up your locker.

When Romo was released, he had a perfectly even won-loss record of 31 and 31. He wasn't that great, but he wasn't that bad either. He had just completed a season in which he had gone 5 and 5, proving that he had mastered this kind of reliable albeit somewhat dubious consistency. But is there not a place for us Vicente Romo types who maybe don't continuously find innovative ways to widen the profit streams of our employers a hundredfold but who also don't accidentally burn company headquarters down after a negligently concluded cigarette break?

Well, apparently not. Romo did not latch on with another major league club in 1975. Perhaps word had gotten around that his best days were behind him. After all, he was 31 years old (a year for each win and for each loss), no longer young enough to be counted among the developing guys who might suddenly blossom into something better than what they were. He did not play in the majors in 1976, either, or in 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, or in the strike-marred season of 1981.

But in 1982 Vicente Romo returned. The incredible, improbable comeback of a man who had been out of the majors for exactly as long as he'd been in the majors was only slightly overshadowed by the fact that Romo finished the season with a 1 and 2 record. He vanished from whence he came when the season ended, and did not reappear on a major league roster in the next year, or the one after that, or the one after that, or ever. But even to this day there are those of us who believe that Vicente Romo will return once again to even his record and to prove that anything that is gone can return.

Vic Harris
2006-11-10 09:40
by Josh Wilker

The first time I ever got drunk was in the very same dugout I'd staggered back to in a mob of my teammates at the tail end of the happiest moment of my childhood. It was three years later, the first spring I'd spent without playing baseball--without eating, drinking, and breathing baseball, without wearing the green cap of my little league team to bed and waking up thinking about baseball--since I'd been old enough for little league. In fact, it was my first spring without baseball since even before I'd entered little league, baseball becoming the center of my life when we'd moved to Vermont in 1974 and my brother had started little league and we'd both started collecting cards such as this one of the apparently good-natured baseball temp worker Vic Harris.

After four years of little league I'd played Babe Ruth league for a year and a half. The first year I rode the bench and once in a while during blowouts batted against what suddenly seemed to be grown men throwing a hundred miles an hour when they weren't terrifying me with curveballs that hurtled toward my head before dropping harmlessly over the plate. After a while I just started bailing out of the batter's box as soon as the pitch was thrown, even if it ended up being a soft, fluttering changeup two feet outside, tossed by the chuckling Larry-Bird-mustached fifteen-year-old on the mound who was wasting a pitch solely to highlight my abject cowardice.

The second year wasn't much better, my only decent day at the plate during the entire season coming against the co-ed team of a Central Vermont town so infested by aging hippies and their sexually ambiguous offspring that we couldn't tell which soft-tossing longhairs were the boys and which were the girls. Our coach that year was a minister of some sort of small, vaguely cultish church that he'd founded after becoming ordained through the mail. He had also been my coach my last two years of little league (his son Steve was on both teams), but since little league the church had grown into an entity capable of having constant small, vaguely cultish crises that demanded the coach's immediate attention. In his absence we were "led" by a loud, easily distracted member of his congregation who had a huge black mountain-man beard and wore a railroad engineer's cap, overalls, and mud-caked shitkickers to our games. He seemed to know very little about baseball.

I guess one of the things I liked about playing organized baseball was that it was organized. In a world of 1970s-colored uncertainty and blurred borders--the nucleus of which was the three-year experiment in open marriage by my parents and the guy who basically became my second father, Tom, which gave way to a prolonged period where my dad no longer lived with us but was still for reasons unknown to me married to my mom--I suppose I found solace in the fact that games started at a certain time on certain days and lasted a certain amount of innings, barring rain, snow, darkness, or ties, and that everything that happened during the game was theoretically marked down in a scorecard to become part of the comfortingly concrete world of statistics. In my second year of Babe Ruth this illusion of organization disintegrated, practices either cancelled or sparsely attended, games featuring several guys on my team dressed in jeans or even corduroys instead of baseball uniform pants, the bearded guy not only not marking anything down in a scorecard but most often not even sitting on the bench as we came undone in a shambling tornado of errors and strikeouts, instead in the parking lot working on one problem or another with his ancient piece-of-shit truck, which always seemed in danger of coughing up its last lung and leaving us stranded at the site of awful, unrelenting away-game losses. I don't remember quitting halfway through the season but somehow I did. I guess somewhere during that last spring of baseball I had purchased that nonrefundable entropic realization that in life it's frighteningly easy to just not show up.

Anyway, one night during my first spring without baseball, I ended up drinking from a two-liter jug of rum-spiked coke with a couple of friends in the little league dugout where I'd spent my first and only moments as a Home Run King. The brief, inexplicable triumph of that day seemed farther away to me when I was fifteen than it does to me now. Shocked by the smallness of the field, and particularly by the closeness of the outfield fence, I ached with the knowledge that I could never go back, that I couldn't somehow transport my fifteen-year-old body and fifteen-year-old brain, which were both proving useless in their current milieu, into the past to rule a simpler, easier twelve-year-old world.

The ache dissolved into the feelings of my very first drunk, which began to announce itself as a slow motion floatiness while I was running with my friends from the dugout toward an older kid's truck in the parking lot. We ended up riding around shitfaced and laughing and talking about girls' tits for the rest of the night in the covered back of the truck, the bumps in the road seeming to lift me up into the air like I was an astronaut in zero gravity. It was one of the best feelings I've ever felt.

Yesterday, after writing about the happiest day of my childhood, I went to work and spent most of the day verifying that the written script for the audio directions of an online educational test matched the actual audio directions word for word. I found a handful of discrepancies--a word missing here, a sentence repeated there--and noted them with a date and my initials in an Excel spreadsheet. When I got home I drank a couple beers and watched some TV. This morning on my way to doing the same thing all over again I noticed some text on the back of this Vic Harris card that reads, among other things, "Vic is most comfortable at second base." As you can see by the "OF" (signifying "outfielder") in the upper right-hand corner of the card, the San Francisco Giants did not seem to care about providing Vic Harris with his maximum comfort. If I had a baseball card I guess the front-of-card identifier would read "PR" (for proofreader) while the back-of-the-card text would report that "Josh is most comfortable droning on at great length about the past and then going on long aimless walks." I doubt I would be able to muster the same good-natured albeit weary expression that Vic Harris is displaying. Having a job, for most of us anyway, means having your life split into two sides of a baseball card, hints of our deeper wishes on the back.

The first kid I knew who had a job was one of the friends I got drunk with that night at the little league dugout. He was a quiet, good-natured Vic Harris type, and for that and for another reason that I'll get to in a second I'm going to call him Vic instead of his real name. Vic was not only the first kid I knew who had a job but also the first kid I knew who seemed to have his life split into a front side and back side, and the job seemed to have something to do with the split. He was a shy, soft-spoken, skinny kid who loved to draw and paint. I'd met him two years earlier while working on my one and only school play. I had a small role as Dr. Furbalow, a blowhard psychiatrist brought in by a family to talk to their daughter, who had been claiming to be friends with a Martian, and Vic had been cast as the sweet, wide-eyed, friendly Martian. Vic lived with his mother in a small apartment near the high school, his father nowhere around. He had a watch that he loved: when you pressed a button, it played "Hey Jude." And he had a job at a small advertising company in town run by a man named Fred Hill. Years after it would have done Vic any good, Fred Hill was imprisoned on charges (if memory serves) of child molestation and child pornography. He got boys to have sex with one another and filmed it.

The night I discovered drunkenness, I asked Vic what he did at his job. The booze was making us spill all sorts of secrets all over the back of the truck, but to this question Vic grew even more reticent than he usually was.

"Oh, you know. I sweep up and stuff," was all he would say.

We kept drinking and watching the road unspool behind us and floating up into the air with the bumps.

Hank Aaron
2006-11-09 06:40
by Josh Wilker


The happiest moment of my childhood came during a game between my little league team, the Mets, and the usually dominant Yankees, coached by aforementioned future convicted pederast Mick Lewis. Mick's Yankees had won the league title the first three years I'd been in little league while my team had gone 9-6, 6-9, and 6-9, two of the losses each year horrific blowouts at the hands of the Yankees. There was no such thing as a mercy rule back then, so they beat the shit out of us until it got too dark to see, final scores usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 37-2.

Mick was revered as a great teacher of the game. His team was always getting the jump on everybody else, having preseason training camps inside gymnasiums during those neverending weeks in Vermont when the calendar says spring but snow and freezing rain keep pounding down. Mick was dedicated, even umpiring all the games his team wasn't playing in, which probably also allowed him to probe for weaknesses among the opposition. Contrary to the cliched image of the dominant, red-faced, win-at-all-costs little league dictator, Mick was actually quite soft-spoken and mild, though he also was able to carry an air of authority about him. All the kids who weren't on his team wished they were.

But the real key to his success, at least in the commonly held view, which mixed admiration with envy, was that unlike other little league managers who just picked names out of a hat when it came time to draft new 8-year-olds every year, Mick "scouted." I was never exactly sure what this scouting entailed, but of course it creeps me out to recall my vague conception of it: Mick pulling up to playgrounds and parking, his car idling as he looked out from beneath his cool flip-down sunglasses in hopes of spotting some "natural talent." And of course it creeps me out even further to remember that on numerous occasions I'd wished that I'd been one of his "finds."

Anyway, in my fourth year, which would turn out to be another 6--9 trudge for the Mets, Mick's team suddenly got terrible, though somehow even this got framed in professional-seeming terms, the Yankees "rebuilding" instead of just sucking. I guess Mick's scouting had temporarily failed him. Who knows, maybe he had tried to break certain habits for a while, vowing to himself to stay away from playgrounds. All I know is we finally got our chance to kick their ass. The happiest moment of my childhood occurred during the first of these whuppings.

I hit a ball over the leftfield fence.

In my little league, to hit a home run was to become a made man. Every year, only a handful of guys managed it, each of them instantly becoming little league famous. My hallowed older brother had hit two in his final year on the Mets two years earlier, but since he was a lot bigger and better than me at sports and since I wore glasses (nobody who hit home runs wore glasses) I always assumed such a thing was beyond my reach. Though I was an OK hitter for batting average, I'd never even hit a ball off the fence. But I guess that at-bat against the sucking Yankees provided the perfect storm--a straight medium-fast pitch right down the middle from a talented but spindly 8-year-old, Mike LaRoque, a good swing by me, and about an inch clearance both over the chain-link leftfield fence and to the right of the short metal foul pole. The more mythic little league heroes pounded their homers into the river a hundred feet beyond the centerfield fence, but so what? If I knew anything from my baseball cards it was that a home run was a home run.

I remember not really understanding what had happened until I saw the first-base ump circling his finger in the air, the sign for the runner to "touch them all." I staggered around the bases with a huge dumb grin on my face, and at home plate all my teammates mobbed me.

We pounded the Yankees so badly that I came up again that same inning. As I was about to dig in for the first pitch I heard someone calling to me from the shadows behind the chicken wire covering the opposing dugout. It was Mick.

"Josh," Mick said. "Hey, Josh." I turned toward the Yankee dugout.

"No batter here, right, Josh?" Mick said, showing me his in-joke, only-for-the-made-guys smile.

I promptly popped out to the second baseman, ending the inning.

In Pagan Kennedy's new novel, Confessions of a Memory Eater, a disgruntled 40-year-old history professor experiments with a new drug that allows him to return with total clarity to any moment in his past. I have no doubt that if I ever got a chance to use this drug my first stop would be the day I hit a home run. I'd start the memory as I was walking to the plate and end it before my next at-bat, before my name was on Mick Lewis's tongue, before my life of mostly popping out to second base resumed. I'd end it with me stomping on home plate as my teammates laughed and screamed and pummeled me.

In other words, I'd go back to the one slim beautiful moment when I was somehow miraculously Hank Fucking Aaron.


Bob Davis: Part 4 of 4
2006-11-07 05:58
by Josh Wilker


(continued from here)

"People are gonna tell you you're no good. Don't listen." -- Jack Kelson to Nick Kelson, American Heart (dir. Martin Bell)

I laughed off Basheer's advice, politely took my institutional ass-reaming at the judicial, waited a day or two, then when summoned went to see the campus dean, Jacqueline Smethurst, to hear the verdict. She told me I was expelled. I stood up to leave.

"Where do you think you're going?" Jacqueline Smethurst exclaimed incredulously. "I'm not done with you.

"Sit down," she ordered.

I sat down.

I wish I didn't but I did. I hesitated a little, I think, but basically when she said sit down I sat down. Bruce Springsteen's "Growin' Up" this isn't.

Many years of sitting down when asked to sit down went by. In 1999, I moved into a cabin in the woods of northern Vermont. The cabin had no electricity, no running water, a small woodstove for heat, and a big plastic lime-coated barrel for my excrement. I'd found an ad for the cabin-for-rent in a laundromat just as I was realizing that the living situation that I'd recently arranged was going to entail sharing space in a very narrow house with a friendless, jobless man who believed a local health food restaurant was trying to poison him and who began to glare at me with the same vengeful resentment he reserved for his suspected poisoners after I declined his creepily doe-eyed offer to take me to a dowsing convention. In other words, I didn't enter into My Year in the Woods with quite the same idealistic purposefulness as Thoreau.

But it did appeal to me. I was a fan of Thoreau, after all, and also I guess I hoped the move might stem the slow erosion of meaning in my life. I wanted to live within an adventure. I wanted to once and for all finally figure out The Answer, to have it crashingly bloom in my mind in a spectacular epiphany, and like all addicts of this illusion of future enlightenment I was drawn to the idea that if I could just get away from all the snares of the world I might be able to finally understand the sound of one hand clapping. Or, to switch koans, when that fucking tree falls in the forest and no one's around to hear it, I'd be there to hear it. I'd be no one, nothing but light, and so I would know whether or not that falling tree makes a sound, and the answer would free me finally to a life of calm, clear-eyed bliss.

My friend Charles sent me off to my year of solitary purity with a gag gift of a battery-powered television about the size of two decks of cards. I ended up going through a lot of batteries that year, the television one of my links to the life I could not let go of. I'm not talking about not being able to let go of a connection to the news of the world or to pop culture, but rather not being able to let go of my vices, those little tics and repetitions and brain-numbings that allow me to cross the expanse of a day.

Another vice I cultivated had to do with a small orange plastic propeller toy, also a gift from Charles. You use both your hands to spin the stem of the propeller and it flies through the air for fifteen or twenty feet. It's the type of thing that a normal person might try a couple times before moving on with their lives, but during my year in the woods I created a golf-like game that involved trying to hit a series of trees around the cabin with the flying propeller in the fewest "strokes" possible. Then, reverting to a practice that devoured huge tracts of empty time in my childhood, I populated the game with an ever-growing catalog of intricately conceived imaginary personalities revered by millions of imaginary fans for their prowess in the hallowed, physically taxing, mentally punishing, spiritually grueling sport of Twirly Propeller.

Instead of writing the novel that ulcerously festered inside me unsaid, or taking assiduous egoless note of the natural phenomena all around me, or resolving to pretzel my stiff, inflexible body into a straight-spined lotus position and chant sutras until the top of my head split open to guzzle nirvana, I enacted Twirly Propeller tournament after Twirly Propeller tournament, each a grueling marathon with several elimination rounds that gradually built to the breathless white-knuckle tension of the Championship Match. I kept in my head the entire history of the sport, all the single-match, yearly, and lifetime records, all the famous rises and falls, all the improbable limping heroic Comebacks from Complete Oblivion. It's all gone now, of course, that world I Godded. I left that cabin a year after I'd arrived, packing out everything I'd packed in except a very full barrel of shit.

But anyway, finally, here is Bob Davis with a big wad of tobacco in his right cheek. My final time-wasting pursuit in the cabin was to occasionally randomly select and study a baseball card from the collection of mine that had been recently unearthed during the emptying of my family's storage unit. This card was one of the first and for some reason among the most haunting of my random selections. I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe it's because Bob Davis's expression seems like that of a man who's trying to remain cheerful in spite of the tiny constant ringing noise that's made his sanity into a thin, fraying, tightly stretched rubber band. Or maybe it's because of the clammy gray catacomb-like background, such a stark contrast to the overwhelmingly predominate baseball card backdrop of blue sky as to suggest something about Bob Davis's extremely peripheral, ogre-like isolation on the far fringes of major league baseball. Or maybe it's because of the discovery I made that Bob Davis shares my birthday.

The impact of that last discovery was initially jarring because of the implication that I was in some deep, psychic way connected to the man shown here clinging to the thin pleasure of his tobacco cyst as if the faint buzz it provides is a small fragment of a shipwreck on the wide sea. Such a connection made sense in a lot of ways, really, especially in light of the fact that I probably followed the discovery of Bob Davis's birthday by clinging to one of my own jagged shards of driftwood, maybe authoring some third round Greater Omaha Open Twirly Propeller action, maybe watching insect-sized Jennifer Aniston and insect-sized David Schimmer cavort across my tiny TV screen until that horrible, inevitable moment when the batteries died.

But a secondary impact of the discovery has crept up on me in the following years. I wonder more and more why it took me until I was a thirty-two-old man shitting in a barrel in the woods to find out that there was a Cardboard God who shared my birthday. I'd always believed that as a child I'd spent hour upon hour scrutinizing every detail of every card. But this is obviously not so. Even my baseball cards are strangers. Even my childhood is expelling me.

Maybe life is just a series of expulsions. You get expelled, you start to rise and move onto the next thing, and then something like doubt starts in, a voice aiming to corrode, to diminish.

Where do you think you're going?

Sit down.

I'm not done telling you all the things you don't know, all the many ways you're powerless.

For 38 years I've sat back down. From here on out I say Suck my fucking dick.

I'm standing up.



Larry Milbourne: Part 3 of 4
2006-11-06 06:58
by Josh Wilker


(continued from here)

Here is Larry Milbourne with a big wad of tobacco in his left cheek. Larry Milbourne had the first game-winning hit in Seattle Mariners history, doubling home pinch-runner Jose Baez in the bottom of the ninth of the team's second game ever.

This career highlight found an oddly discordant, bittersweet echo several years later when Milbourne's career as an itinerant switch-hitting utility infielder came to a close. In the last game of the 1984 season, the aging Milbourne, called on to pinch hit with no outs in the 7th inning of a game the Mariners were losing 4--2, came through just as he had when he'd been younger, lacing a double to centerfield.

Unfortunately, the pinch-runner this time, Darnell Coles, was gunned down at home on the play. Having pinch-hit for the catcher, Milbourne must have known as he stood out there at 2nd base that this was it for him for the year. No taking the field the next inning, no more at-bats later in the game. But I wonder if it occurred to him, loitering with one foot up on the bag between pitches, Spike Owen and Jack Perconte his only hope for prolonging his present moment of baseball life (which is like having a sheet of notebook paper and a mesh tank-top as your only hope against stopping a bullet), that this might be it for good. Not only for the inning, not only for the game, not only for the season, but forever.

My guess is probably not. Though he never did play in another game, the date of an item from the transaction section of Larry Milbourne's page on"August 2, 1985: Released by the Seattle Mariners."--suggests that at the end of 1984 Milbourne probably still had hopes of living a while longer in the blue sky realm of the Cardboard Gods.

I guess it's hard to know when you're doomed. In the spring of 1985, as a new season was getting underway, Milbourne probably still thought he'd get the call one more time. Likewise, during that very same spring, I was thinking I still had a chance to avoid expulsion going into that judicial hearing I mentioned a couple days ago in extremely loose conjunction with Gordy Pladson. I even thought I had a chance after listening politely to the red-faced math teacher's enraged litany of my transgressions. But it was directly before the hearing that it would have really behooved me to realize I was doomed, so as to open myself up to the possibilities that such a realization would have created.

My character witness/stoner friend Matt and I arrived early to the judicial and were standing outside the building in the dark, I guess waiting for the weasel-faced faculty member who had caught me smoking bong hits to finish giving his testimony, and this hulking pock-faced Middle Eastern student, Basheer, whose nickname was Bashit, shambled out of the shadows. I remember thinking that it was a strange time for a student to be walking around. Probably it was "study hours," where you're either supposed to be quietly studying in your room or quietly studying at the library, with no movement from one to the other allowed.

It was not unheard of, of course, to break these rules (in fact it was during study hours that the bong session leading to my bust had occurred), but it was customary to accompany any rule-breaking with a tense, giggly, whispering, hunted sense that rules were being broken, that risks were being taken. If I and not Basheer had been the one to emerge out of the shadows, for example, I would have been moving quickly, shiftily, my eyes darting around and nervous snickering leaking from my clenched teeth like steam from a cracked radiator. But the big foreigner had an air of complete nonchalance as he walked halfway past us and then, noticing with mild pleasure that there were others out and about, sauntered over to us.

"What the fuck are you two shitheads doing here?" he bellowed. He had an accent that made "the" and "shitheads" sound like "thee" and "sheetheads." I probably cringed, rabbit-like, at the volume of his voice. He pulled out and lit a cigarette (another rule broken) as I gravely murmured to him what was going on, that I was about to go into a hearing that would decide my future. He took a long drag, eyeing me, before finally replying.

"Listen to me," he said, his voice still booming. "You must fucking do as I say. You must go in there. You must go in there and tell them. " He took another long drag, his eyes boring into mine.

As I waited to hear more, a nervous prep-school snicker escaped me.

"Tell them what?" I finally asked.

He exhaled slowly and flicked his cigarette butt off into the darkness. He knew Spike Owen and Jack Perconte were not going to keep the inning alive. He knew 1985 wasn't my year. He drew closer.

"You must go in there," he said quietly. "And you must tell them.

"To suck. Your fucking. Dick."


(to be continued)

Mitch Cohen: Intermission
2006-11-04 08:06
by Josh Wilker


(continued from here)

I will return soon to my hard-hitting four-part expose on wads of chewing tobacco in the right or left cheeks of journeymen baseballers and the morose tangents of remembered adolescent alienation the images of these brown-spitting baseballers inexplicably inspire, but an email from a friend convinced me that it might not be a bad idea if I take a day or two to . . . "rest." In honor of this decision, I am posting a photo of the harrowing Mitch Cohen album that carries the same title as my friend's email to me. The contents of said email are as follows:

"I must say, Joshua, that your blog is making me a bit uncomfortable lately.

"No, no, it's very interesting. No, the writing is uniformly excellent, and it's quite funny, and consistently entertaining as well.

"We're just all a little worried about y....well, what ever happened to that nice therapist you were starting to go see?

"I never even heard of Grady Paulson [sic]. But this multi-installment updating of 'A Seperate Peace,' or 'Lord of The Flies' or 'Take your pick of ANY disturbing piece of fiction dealing with savage, remorseless, entitled, boarding school students, the institutions themselves, the employees, the "traditions," the behavior of the students, and their travails' (huff-puff) has been leaving me with a nausea-inducing taste of vomit caking the inside of my gullet.

"I think you maybe, uh, could, uh, benefit from maybe, uh, speaking with someone.

"After rambling on about this hellish prep school you also never got back to Grady Paulson [sic], though I guess that's not really such a loss."

"Just a little worried is all, pal."

(to be continued



Gordy Pladson: Part 2 of 4
2006-11-03 05:33
by Josh Wilker


(continued from here)

Here is Gordy Pladson with a big wad of tobacco in his right cheek. The wad may be contributing to his genial mouth-breather facial expression, which seems to combine with the slightly capitulatory set of his shoulders and the somehow flaccid, Edselesque sound of the words "Gordy Pladson" to create a portrait of a guy born to placidly groove fat pitches and surrender leads.

All I can tell you besides that about Gordy Pladson is that he was Canadian. The first Canadian I met was at the boarding school I started telling you about in conjunction with Bob Bailor. It was this kid in my dorm who told everyone his name was Jason but whose real name, it turned out, was Dirk. Since he'd hidden the real name, it immediately became a means of derision. Hey, Dirk. What's up, Dirk. His Canadianness was also fair game. I wish I could say that since I was primarily an awkward failure at that school that I refrained from making fun of other people's shortcomings and weak spots but in fact it seems the opposite was true. There was a tradition in my dorm, Wilson Hall, of giving good-natured gag gifts to one another at a ceremony near Christmas. The dorm parents, the Schwingles, talked glowingly of past examples of gifts that perfectly fit this bill, such as when the proud Wilson Hallite Buster Olney presented Saul Bellow's son, Dan, with a gift of an elaborate mock "Wide World of Sports" recap, complete with stirring music, simulated crowd noises, and apoplectic fake broadcasters (Buster providing the screams of both the play-by-play announcer and color commentator), of the eccentric Dan's spastic performance at the start of the annual school-wide distance run known as the Pie Race. Sweet gentle teasing from a future nationally known baseball columnist to the son of a world famous author. Perfect. But though this gift only predated my arrival at the school by three years, it seemed to have come from a different time when Wilson Hall was full of famous offspring and bright young men with excellent posture and clear-eyed visions of useful, exciting futures. By contrast, the dorm in my senior year primarily became a place where drug busts occurred. Anyway, one year for the Christmas gift exchange I drew Jason-Dirk and responded by creating a mean-spirited, humorless "Dumb Canadian" joke book, which I read aloud in front of everybody while Jason-Dirk's stiff grin gradually eroded from interior structural damage.

But we were friends, Jason-Dirk and I. I mean, I wasn't always an asshole. We talked, laughed together. I don't know, I guess there was a compulsion at that place to look for weakness and seize on it. It was especially good if the mockery could be done anonymously. There was this one prank invented by two cooler kids in our dorm that my friend Bill and I took over when one of them dropped out of school and the other lost interest. It involved kneeling by the window of our dorm room and waiting for a girl from the neighboring dorm to walk by below. We'd shout at them--"Hey! Hey!!!"--and then as they started to look up, a half-smile of expectation on their face, we'd dive down out of sight and unpause the boombox that we'd set up in the window and Elvis Presley would scream down "You ain't nuthin' but a hound dog!" Jesus Christ, imagine if your daughter had to hear something like that while crossing that intimidating campus? But we screamed with laughter, spasming on the floor like boated fish. Jason-Dirk was a big fan of this prank, I remember.

As it turned out, both Jason-Dirk and one of the hound-dog girls--by coincidence, she actually was sort of pooch-faced--were members of what they called the "judicial" that heard my case after I, while on probation for being plastered on rum at a dance, got caught smoking bong hits in my dorm room. It was up to the judicial to decide if I deserved to stick around a few more weeks until graduation. I'd actually asked Jason-Dirk to be my character witness, and he'd declined, saying he could help more "on the inside," but during the judicial he didn't say a word and didn't ever even look me in the eye. Most of the proceeding was comprised of one of the judicial's faculty members, a red-faced math teacher who was sitting directly to my right, angrily berating me for being a pathetic fuckup, an embarrassment to the school.

"My friends like me," I replied at one point, lamely, as if my relationship with the small group of guys I smoked pot with was going to contribute to the greater glory of the school. I think I also noted that I briefly had a radio show on the campus station.

(to be continued



Bob Bailor: Part 1 of 4
2006-11-02 06:41
by Josh Wilker

Here is Bob Bailor with a big wad of tobacco in his left cheek. Bailor was acquired by the Blue Jays in the glorious ritual of detritus-sifting known as the expansion draft. Just prior to an expansion draft, the established teams in a league reserve all the players they want and haul a couple peripheral guys out to the curb like one of them is a milk crate full of burnt-out Christmas lights and the other's a knobless television with a "FREE" sign taped to the screen.

In fact, Bailor was the very first pick of the Blue Jays in the 1976 expansion draft, the best of the entire flea market heap except for Ruppert Jones, who was the first pick of the other expansion team, the coin-flip-winning Seattle Mariners. This photo, adorned with the rookie-team trophy, shows Bailor just after he has ridden the slow, low-tide, styrofoam boogie-board wave of expansion draft acceptance to a mildly successful season, the utility man somehow amassing enough bloop singles to hit .310, a mark he would never again come close to. The faintly troubled expression on his face seems to imply that he may on some level understand that his best days are already behind him.

He did stick around for several more years, however. Not that I noticed at the time, having loosened my grip on the Cardboard Gods, but by 1983 he was still barnicled to the leaky hull of some lousy team or other when I followed in the footsteps of my brother and went away at age 15 to Northfield Mount Hermon, a boarding school in western Massachusetts. This change for me was severe. One day I was the sole inhabitant of a rural, socially retarded kingdom of daydreams, solitaire Strat-o-matic baseball, and WKRP in Cincinnati-based masturbation, and the next day I was stiffly traversing a rolling green campus of solemn ivied buildings and sharp-witted upper-middle-class Izod-clad sophisticates in Spandau Ballet haircuts who had long ago lost their virginity on the sunsplashed decks of Nantucket sailboats. Initially, my only way of dealing with the terror of the situation was to seize hold of the strong resemblance I had at that time to my brother. You're just like your brother, I was told repeatedly, often as a filler for the uncomfortable silences that seemed to follow me around like a force field.

I wasn't crazy about being an echo, but I think I realized that being an echo was better than being nothing at all, especially if it was the echo of the brother I had always idolized. He had done well at the school, or so I thought, playing on the varsity basketball team, acing English papers, serving as an official Student Leader of his dorm. Years later, I found out he carried an ineffably deep loathing of the memory of himself at that school. During his two years there, he had forced his unruly collection of adolescent hurt, yearning, and anger inside the borders of a desperate impersonation of a well-adjusted high-achieving paragon of old-money virtue. So it turns out I was impersonating an impersonation, and probably the thinness of such an endeavor is part of whatever gnawed at me from the inside out at that school.

I gradually moved from mimicking a mimic to my second and final way of dealing with my identity or lack thereof at the boarding school: inebriation. It's tempting to identify the first step along this path (which ultimately led to my expulsion) as the night some 18-year-old classmate got a ride with a day student across the border into Vermont to buy booze and some friends and I all got ecstatically smashed. But actually my first experience with a substance-caused rush at the school was earlier than that, and it was with Bob Bailor's drug of choice, chewing tobacco. My friend Bill and I tried some Copenhagen one night at the library during "study hours" and it made us stumble around and giggle and nearly vomit. Bill, perhaps with an eye toward one day bridging the wide chasm that seemed to divide us from the hundreds of dazzlingly pretty girls of the campus, didn't cultivate the nauseating habit, but for some reason I did, at least for a couple years. That first year of the lip-bulging, cup-full-of-brown-spit vice must have been the most disgusting to onlookers, in large part because I still wore braces.

(to be continued)