Monthly archives: May 2007
I Need You
This was in September 1989, just a couple months after the Chinese government sent in the tanks to snuff out the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing. Shanghai had had similar protests, which had come to a similar end. The mood among Chinese students during my time there seemed bleak and desperate. I need you to teach me English. I need you to help get me out of here.
The woman who spoke with Jay and I at the noodle stand didn’t seem to have the same aura of desperation as some other would-be English practitioners who’d accosted me. She was cheerful and quiet, only asking a couple questions before Jay commandeered the conversation, going off on one of his increasingly frequent impromptu civic lectures to Chinese people on What It Means to Be American. Afterward, Jay and I walked back to the dorm room we shared. We were both major league virgins, but I had at least a couple drunken breast-gropings listed among the otherwise blank sex stats on the back of my imaginary baseball card by then. Jay, a guy who back at our college in Vermont had spent most of days making sarcastic remarks in the campus computer lab and most of his nights playing Dungeons and Dragons, was likely even less experienced than me.
"Wow," Jay said, eyes lit up behind his thick bifocals, his acned face flushed. "She was really something."
Jay kept talking about her when we got back to our room, lying on his bed and staring starry-eyed up at the ceiling, his hands clasped behind his head. I kept my mouth shut. I’d liked her too. A lot. What was it about her that I liked? Well, maybe I can explain by way of something Larry Fine once said at the end of a Three Stooges episode, when the famed trio of bumbling sado-masochists was for some reason surrounded by adoring members of the fairer sex.
"You’re my type, baby," Larry said up to his admirer. "A woman."
So what did I like about her? She was a woman. Plus she was decent-looking and acknowledged my existence. And in China I was even lonelier than I’d been in America. Boom, boom, boom went my heart.
I guess we had some plan to meet up again, all three of us, but for some reason before that the woman, Li Hong, asked me to show her how to play guitar. We went into a park near the school and I strummed my cheap acoustic and sang "Blowin’ in the Wind," for god’s sake. Then I went back to my room and wrote her a poem. The three of us met up a day or so later, as planned, and Jay again dominated the conversation, sweating nervously as he boomed explanations of such things as the lyrics of Bob Seger and how a bill becomes a law. But then at the end, as Jay and I were saying goodbye to her, I slipped my sappy ode into Li Hong’s hands. She was stunned. So was Jay.
Jay and I walked together back to our dorm. Jay was just kind of shaking his head and laughing bitterly through his nose. He couldn’t look at me, nor I at him.
"Sorry, man," I mumbled.
Doyle lasted eight seasons in the majors, batting .250 with no power, no speed, and little ability to draw more than the occasional walk, in my mind the perfect record for the world’s greatest baseball card croucher. Even his name seems to contribute to the "unity of effect" (to use Poe’s term) for this particular art form. Denny Doyle. He sounds like the harmless, mild-mannered alter ego of a cut-rate superhero whose only power is the ability to turn into a statue.
Denny Doyle had his career year in 1975, when he helped the Red Sox get to the World Series by hitting .310 in 89 games after being traded to the club from the California Angels. Doyle only managed a .513 OPS in the 1975 World Series, but he did get a hit in every one of the seven games played, a perfect Denny Doyle performance in that it was both steady and of negligible worth.
In the ninth inning of Game Six of that classic series, Doyle was thrown out at home by George Foster after tagging up on a fly to foul territory in shallow left. Doyle claimed he’d heard the third base coach Don Zimmer saying "Go, go, go!" Zimmer’s alibi was that he was in fact shouting "No, no, no!"
Either way, I blame Zimmer for the play, which could have easily cost the Red Sox the game (as it turned out, the game, frequently cited as the best ever played, would be won thanks to Dwight Evans' defensive heroics and Carlton Fisk’s famed foul-pole homer). I have always blamed Zimmer on principle, because I do not like him, but on further inspection it seems there are some actual grounds for this blame. According to a 2005 article by Bruce Markusen, Zimmer had been involved in a similar miscommunication earlier in the series:
In the first inning of Game One, Dwight Evans believed he had heard Zimmer shout "Go!" when the coach had actually yelled "No!" on an infield hit by Fred Lynn. Evans rounded third and ran for home, only to be cut down by Dave Concepcion’s accurate throw to the plate.
This is infuriating to me. Don’t you think a third base coach, after being involved in one key World Series play that went awry via miscommunication, would do everything (or at least something) in his power to see that that same miscommunication was not made again? I mean, how fucking hard would it have been to come up with a word signaling to the baserunner not to run that doesn’t sound amid crowd noise exactly like a word signaling the baserunner to run? What, is third base coaching too demanding a job to allow for such an adjustment? And there seems to have been no owning up by Zimmer to being part of the problem, just an attempt to shuffle the blame off onto Doyle or else just mark it up as "one of those things." But whatever. Don Zimmer didn’t earn his status as a New England pariah for nothing. A college friend of mine, who was from Maine, once told me that when he and his friends went swimming as kids in the late 1970s they used to run toward the water saying "Last one in is Don Zimmer!"
Right after Game Six, Zimmer continued auditioning for the managing job he would eventually earn in time to steer the 1978 Red Sox to one of the biggest collapses in baseball history. In an article by Jim Prime on The Baseball Biography Project, Zimmer nemesis Bill Lee explains:
We were leading 3-0 in Game Seven of the World Series. The Reds had a runner at first in the sixth inning. For some reason, Zimmer waves Denny Doyle a few feet away from second base, making a double play impossible. Sure enough, Johnny Bench hits the ball to Burleson at short and Doyle is out of position to make the pivot. The ball goes by Yastrzemski and Bench is safe at second. I lost it and threw the blooper. Two-run homer. Someone should have come out and calmed me down. No one did. The next inning I get a blister and walk the leadoff man and he scores the tying run. The rest is history, but it should never have reached that point.
"I need you," she added.
I need you? I thought to myself. That’s kind of an alarming thing to say.
The funny thing is, we’d already said "I love you" at this point. Many times. That phrase was pretty cheaply flung around, the Chinese-English exchange rate on it for me about the same as the actual exchange rate, which allowed the two of us to dine at Shanghai’s finest restaurants practically every night for the approximate price of a Cumberland Farms burrito. I mean, rampant utterances of "I love you" were an integral part of our necessarily childish diction, Li Hong’s rudimentary English and my stunted emotional development coalescing into a shared language suitable for fairy tales. But I need you? That wasn’t suitable for fairy tales at all. That would rip a fairy tale apart at the seams.
I felt, hearing the whispered sentence, something like Denny Doyle must have felt when he saw that foul ball flutter down toward George Foster’s glove in the ninth inning of Game Six. The crowd screaming, the third base coach seeming to say "Go, go, go!"
Go, go, go? Are you serious? You mean now?
"I need you," Li Hong said.
I’ve ranged around a lot in this long yarn, so maybe the best thing now is to just say it plainly: by the time I was a 21-year-old virgin sex scared the shit out of me. I had always thought it had been the thing I wanted most in the world, but I guess I wanted it abstractly. I wanted it to be some sort of magical gravel pit scenario in which I wasn’t myself and my partner wasn’t really anything more complicated than an exciting idea.
For the previous ten years I had pleaded in my mind, again and again, I need you, I need you, to everyone from Daisy Duke to my sweatsuit-wearing Dorothy-Hamill-haired 10th grade health teacher. Now someone was saying it to me. Someone real.
I made some mumbling excuse about how Jay was probably going to come bumbling through the door at any minute, so that cut short our grope session and saved me from having to respond immediately to Li Hong’s three-word whisper. But shortly thereafter we planned a trip to an island full of Buddhist temples off the coast of Shanghai. We'd be all alone there, no chance of Jay storming into the room while we were in the middle of something. Just the two of us. My stomach hurt in the days leading up to the trip, worse and worse the closer it got.
Go, go, go.
We arrived in the morning. During the day we visited a bunch of the temples. When the sun went down we went back to the hotel. All it took was a few seconds to undo 21 years of virginity. I had a walkman with me, plus a cassette of some benefit concert that included the song "Show Me" by the Pretenders. That’s what I remember most about that night, the solitary aftermath, listening by myself to Chrissy Hynde.
"Welcome to the human race," she sang.
I Need You
Here are the candidates, as I see it:
You don’t hear his name mentioned in the third baseman debate anymore, but when I was a kid in the 1970s Pie Traynor was the one most frequently mentioned in the baseball history books I was constantly checking out of the library. According to Bill James, "the idea that Traynor was the greatest third baseman of all time originated in the mid-1950s, about 20 years after Traynor retired." I wonder how much James himself had to do with Traynor falling out of that top spot. In James’ Historical Abstract, Traynor is ranked 15th, below several guys who have, unlike Traynor, not made the Hall of Fame (such as Al Rosen, Ken Boyer, Sal Bando, Graig Nettles, and Darrell Evans). And in general, of course, James has led the revolution in statistical analysis that has revealed the once almighty hitting statistic, batting average, to be a frequently misleading representation of a player’s offensive worth. Traynor’s .320 lifetime average, which seemed at one time to cast him as the Rogers Hornsby of the hot corner, has gradually been downgraded in light of the facts that A) it came in an era when batting averages were at their historical peak (most famously illustrated by the 1930 season, when the entire National League hit over .300), and B) it was not augmented by a particularly high secondary average, meaning that he neither drew many walks nor hit for a lot of power. Still, part of the fun of imagining a team of all-time greats is envisioning a bunch of grizzled hard-bitten old-timers kind of emerge from the mist to retake the field on more time with their spikes sharp to gash guys with. In that respect, it’s hard to vote against a guy named Pie Traynor.
"I’ve only known three or four perfect swings in my time. This lad has one of them." – Ty Cobb on Eddie Mathews
The implication on the BR Bullpen profile of Pie Traynor is that Eddie Mathews is the player who bumped Traynor out of the top spot: "Pie Traynor was widely considered the top third baseman in the history of baseball prior to the time when Eddie Mathews became a star." If this was the case, I feel that I would have seen it reflected in all the books I took out of the library in the 1970s, but I don’t ever remember any book ranking Mathews as the top third baseman. And when Traynor finally did lose his top spot, which I would guess occurred sometime in the late 1970s, it wasn’t to Mathews but to the next man down on this list. So Mathews, at least as far as I know, never really got a chance to be the top guy at the hot corner, and that’s too bad, because from what I’ve read he was a decent fielder and was without question one of the greatest power hitters ever at any position. When thinking about devising the greatest lineup of all-time, it’s certainly tempting to fill the third baseman’s spot with a left-handed slugger who for the bulk of his career, until his body started to give out, seemed the best bet among all active players (including Mathews’ teammate, a guy named Hank Aaron) to break Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record. Maybe Aaron’s gradual ascendancy to superstardom helped cast Mathews into the shadows. Maybe he also lacked a moment when the whole baseball world centered around a display of his prodigious skills at their peak. He played in two World Series early in his career and was a pinch-hitter in another one late in his last season, with Detroit, but only managed one home run and ten hits in 50 World Series at bats. I mention this only by way of a possible explanation of his being somewhat overlooked in the greatest third baseman debate. Maybe what he needed was to have taken over a World Series, as the next guy on this list once did.
Robinson persisted on some Greatest Team of All-Time lists even after his lifetime numbers began to look a little meager in comparison to two third baseman who came into the majors just as he was winding up his long career with the Orioles. That was probably due in large part to the general discrimination against the present moment in such list-making. When baseball fans dream up these lists, part of the fun is the dreaming, and a guy who is still out there grounding into double plays and offering up drab cliches to the beat reporters just does not encourage dreaming like some legendary figure from the past. And as the years went by Robinson’s unmatched prowess as a fielder, highlighted by his dominant, electrifying play in the 1970 World Series, seemed to find especially fertile soil in the dreaming minds of nostalgic baseball fans. Though Robinson’s fine offensive numbers don’t match up to those of the other top choices for the all-time third baseman, I think some list-makers still want to rank him first because A) they value fielding above offense at that position and B) there’s just something unutterably cool about the kind of dazzling fielding plays Robinson could make. I actually can only vouch for myself on that second point, for though I personally don’t have Robinson pencilled in as my all-time third baseman, I do bring the same thinking to my choice for shortstop: you can have Honus or Ripken or A[pril]-Rod, I’m taking the Wizard of Oz.
Speaking of my all-time team . . . I have one player from the Negro Leagues among the starters on my 25-man roster (Satchel Paige is in the starting rotation, but I’m leaning toward Lefty Grove as my opening day starter): Josh Gibson, catcher. As for third base, Judy Johnson and Ray Dandridge were for many years (up until 2006, when Jud Wilson joined them) the only two Negro League third basemen in the Hall of Fame. I honestly don’t know that much about them, but it appears that though they were both stellar players (Johnson a high-batting-average man from the Pie Traynor era and Dandridge considered one of the best fielders ever to play the position) they seem not to have been as dominant as Gibson was at his position in his day, nor as dominant as the two third basemen below were during their day. Still, as the best third basemen in Negro League history, they certainly deserve to be in the conversation about the best third basemen ever.
Over the last few years, one of the above men seems to have gained an edge over the other in most people’s minds as the best third baseman ever. It’s hard to argue with this general consensus. After all, leading the charge to crown Mike Schmidt the king of all third sackers is Bill James himself, who as a devoted Kansas City Royals fan probably spent as much time studying the play of Schmidt’s chief rival, George Brett, as anyone. Other observers have followed James’ lead, citing Schmidt’s superior power (548 lifetime home runs to Brett’s 317), on-base percentage (.380 to Brett’s .369), fielding (ten Gold Glove awards to Brett’s one), and number of MVP awards (three to Brett’s one). In his excellent book Clearing the Bases, Allen Berra provides ample evidence to back up his suggestion that one could make a case for Mike Schmidt as not only the best in history at his position, but the best player at any position, ever.
Who am I to argue with these experts? Well, nobody, obviously, except a guy who has spent, or I guess wasted might be a more accurate term, many, many hours daydreaming about such things. As the sands in the hourglass of life have trickled away I’ve imagined again and again choosing up sides against some other all-time team daydreamer. And when it comes time to pick a third baseman I've always imagined selecting the guy I'd most want to have up at bat for my team in a big spot with the game on the line. I'm not saying it's the right call, but whenever I've imagined being the GM of baseball eternity I've always chosen George Brett to be my third baseman.
But there is one key lifetime stat in which George Brett thoroughly bested Mike Schmidt (by a two to one ratio):
Times kissed by Morganna the Kissing Bandit.
Morganna the Kissing Bandit was a significant part of what made my childhood years the greatest and most ridiculous era in the history of the planet. She was this giant-breasted blonde who vaulted the fence and ran across the field in the middle of games, her increasingly famous chest cha-chonging wildly, to plant kisses on the faces of star players such as Pete Rose, Nolan Ryan, and Freddy Lynn. George Brett, as far as I can figure, was the only man to have his work interrupted twice by the affectionate interloper, one of these occasions serving as Morganna’s most ballyhooed feat: invading the 1979 All-Star game (which Brett seemed to take in stride, his unflappable nature surely another mark in his favor in the debate of the greatest third basemen).
Morganna had enormous breasts. I know I’ve already made this point but it bears repeating. Her measurements were 60-23-39. 60! Now let me also remind you that her heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s coincided exactly with my transformation from a talkative baseball-crazy Ogilvie-esque child to a sullen, inward, reedy-voiced contender for World’s Most Prolific Onanist. I’m not saying she featured heavily in my fantasies. Considering the fact that I could name 50 other women off the top of my head ranking ahead of her on my "most thought-about" list (Cheryl Tiegs in the see-through fishnet bathing suit at the top of that list, always and forever, Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, the oft-mentioned WKRP ladies, 75% of the girls in my grade, etc.), I actually doubt that I ever fantasized about, you know, getting Morganna into one of my town’s magical shirtlessness-inspiring gravel pits that I mentioned earlier in this multipart puberty-alogue. And yet, in a certain way she epitomized a key element of my entire unsavory fantasy life: the idea that somehow all these women would run right at me and smother me with their giant-breasted affections without my having to do anything. The ache of puberty for me was the feeling that I existed at an impossible remove from any deshirting, and my fantasies were as much about imagining the erasure of this infinite gap as they were about the brief guilt-laced physical euphoria they helped bring about. The image of Morganna galloping across a baseball field, of all places, to benevolently suffocate a player with her exploding sexuality served me as a sturdy concrete foundation for a whole mansion of impossible fantasies of being swept away by a tidal wave of voluptuous sex-crazed femininity.
The passivity imbedded in these fantasies has often characterized my fantasy life, if not my life itself. For example, when not up in my bedroom imagining some steamy gravel pit scenario I was often playing basketball by myself in the driveway, fantasizing that for some reason Dr. J would be riding by in a limousine, and fascinated by my jump shot form would command his driver to stop, and I would then be whisked away from rural Vermont to NBA stardom. I wish I could say I’ve left these fantasies of passivity and undeserved deliverance far in the past, but the fact is I still sit around eating chocolate chip cookies and wishing a Publisher of Great Books would kick down my door and tell me that, as it turns out, all my creepy egomaniacal and self-lacerating notebook scribblings comprise in their entirity a work of undying and highly sellable genius.
Get up, young man, this enthusiastic invader will say, you are necessary.
Get up, get up! You are needed!
Is this really how Rick Bosetti swung? The complete lack of urgency and electricity in his follow-through (by contrast, see a similar moment modeled by the great Dimaggio) suggest a lifeless JC Penney catalog photo rather than a baseball card action shot. Maybe this shot is taken from the end of the 1979 season, one in which Bosetti finished third in the league in outs made. He’d made so many outs at this point that he’d sort of resigned himself to the whole thing.
"Yup," he seems to be thinking, "there’s another soft useless popup to second base. Guess I’ll trot a few steps toward first to make it look good even though I could just as easily walk back to the dugout right now and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. . . . God, I’m tired."
Maybe it was around this time that Bosetti began to pursue the quest that would bring him some enduring notoriety. In fact, the case could be made that in this photo he is not gazing out at the puny path of his batted ball but past it, to some as-yet unconquered expanse in the outfield grass.
You see, Rick Bosetti, when he began to realize that he wasn’t bound for Cooperstown, decided he wanted to somehow leave some other kind of mark on the game, and so began urinating in the outfield of every park he played in. By his retirement he claims to have urinated in all the American League outfields. He seems to have done most of his damage before games, but there are some reports claiming that once his project gained some renown he began doing it during games, while pitching changes were being made. Some mention is made of his glove being used to shield himself. As I imagine it, maybe he also squatted down or something. I don’t think the fans were privy to these shenanigans, but surely there must have been some awareness among his fellow players. It must have brightened up many a late-season meaningless blowout.
But anyway, here’s Rick Bosetti in his 1980 card. It was the last year in which my cards had the power to be a whole world unto themselves, a world I could get lost in. Something about Bosetti's flaccid disinterest epitomizes my baseball card end times. At some point my attitude toward these little colored and number-riddled rectangles ceased to excite me and draw me in. I bought a few cards the following year, but it must have felt like I was inside the passionless follow-through of a failed Bosetti swing. You know: Who cares?
One of the few cards I got in 1981 happened to be another Rick Bosetti. It must have produced none of the old spark. I was 13 by then. I don't need you, Rick Bosetti.
I needed something else.
(to be continued)
I had a friend in 7th and 8th grade who had thick aviator glasses like those modeled here by Jamie Easterly. Later, after we began drifting apart as friends, he also grew a sparse Jamie Easterly puberty-stache. But before that there were a couple years where I guess he was the closest to me of the homely acquaintances I sat across from in the cafeteria and at the library. In other words, I guess he was my best friend for a while. His name was Jeremy.
Both of us lived far out in the country and took separate buses to school. One day, by prearranged plan, we both brought our boom boxes to school and decided to stay after school to “go upstreet.” This meant trudging about a half-mile from the combined junior high/high school, past the concrete wall with the anti-school graffiti from the Pink Floyd song that unironically misspelled a key word ("We don't need no educatin") to the couple streets in town that had stores on them. I never really figured out what you were supposed to do upstreet. Go into the mini-mart and play asteroids, I guess. Go to the hamburger joint and eat french fries while “Rock and Roll Fantasy” and “Two Tickets to Paradise” played on the juke box. Stand around. Maybe steal some candy from the old mostly blind Italian guy.
Anyway, that day we brought our boom boxes constitutes the sole specifically memorable time I went upstreet, and I only remember the first couple minutes, when we walked with a couple of our other lurching, bespectacled library colleagues and tried to play the title song of each of our new cassettes of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” in synch on our boom boxes. We never were able to time it right, however, so finally I just shut mine off (Jeremy’s boom box was bigger) and just lugged it around the rest of the afternoon uselessly while Jeremy rewound and played “Big Balls” over and over on his superior machine. Eventually I wandered back to school and caught the long and winding late bus home through the dusk. Jeremy didn’t live on the late bus route. Maybe the weird guy who lived with him and his parents came and picked him up.
Jeremy got a girlfriend near the end of our days as a dynamic boom-box carrying, chess-playing duo. He said he was having sex with her, which I believed. I believed everything anyone told me, especially about sex. One day Jeremy went on at some length about how great sex was, how it was his favorite thing on earth, but instead of describing what actually occured during sex he emphasized the need, during a long night of constant sex-having, to take lots of showers. A huge part of the whole allure for him seemed to be getting to clean off at the end of each sexual inning. Jeremy’s other major contribution to my mind's growing museum of hazy conceptions of sex came in an anecdote he told about getting two girls from the grade behind us into one of my town’s many gravel pits one night. He claimed they both insisted on ripping off their shirts, at which point he discovered that the brown-haired girl’s nipples were brown while the blond girl’s nipples were white. I not only believed him completely, from that point on my fantasies often included me coaxing girls from my gym class or the women from WKRP in Cincinnati into a nearby gravel pit, where shirts would fly off and I'd be guided lovingly out of the prison of virginity.
(to be continued)
Bruce Sutter in . . . The Nagging Question
Needless to say, I never got straight which kind of grips were good for throwing different kinds of pitches. That said, I don’t think Bruce Sutter is showing off the grip for his famous forkball here. I may be wrong, but I've always had it that the forkball called for the forefinger and middle finger to be spread wide on the ball.
If I’m right about Bruce Sutter neglecting to reveal his forkball grip here, it’s fitting, for at the time I got this 1979 card, Bruce Sutter’s forkball was to me about the most mysterious and awe-inspiring weapon in all of baseball. It’s just as well I didn’t ever see the grip that produced this devastating pitch. Better to preserve the mystery.
I’d actually only seen the pitch in action once, in the previous year’s all-star game. Once was enough. Back then the all-star game was just about the only time a kid living in rural Vermont would get a chance to see many of the National League stars. I had never seen Sutter before, had not even heard of him, and then suddenly here he was. According to Retrosheet’s play-by-play of the game he came into a 3-3 tie in the 8th inning and got George Brett to ground out. I don’t remember that at-bat, but I distinctly remember the next two, in which he made two of my beloved Red Sox, Jim Rice and Dwight Evans, look like two drunken sailors trying to whack a divebombing sparrow with a barstool. Sutter's utter domination seemed to inspire the N.L. batsmen, who erupted for 4 runs in the bottom of the inning, and Sutter was fittingly credited as the game's winning pitcher.
Anyway, the Nagging Question this week grows out of thoughts of that awe-inspiring forkball, and also out of the still-lingering discussion of beloved Shlabotniks in the previous edition of The Nagging Question. Yesterday a friend of one player, Adrian Garrett, brought up earlier in the conversation posted some information that reminded me that even the guys I am all too often apt to casually refer to as journeymen or drifters or even "nobodies" were all tremendously gifted athletes worthy of praise.*
So for today's edition of The Nagging Question I wanted to momentarily try to set aside my usual predilection for using my old baseball cards as springboards to dive into the polluted canals of personal failure and disappointment.
Instead, I'd like to focus on the jaw-dropping moment. For me it was when Bruce Sutter unleashed a pitch that made guys I'd seen mangle the offerings of other pitchers seem like absolute beginners. I wonder if others can remember having a similar experience as a fan. A spectacular catch, maybe, or a barrage of unhittable fastballs, or a sizzling home run leaving the yard in the time it takes to blink. A moment that not only turned the opposition into seeming beginners but made everyone watching feel like a beginner, too, as if something was happening for the first time, the moment brand new, a gleaming manifestation of the words of the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, who said, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities." In other words:
Who wowed you?
*(note: Bucky Dent is not worthy of praise; in fact, he should either be shunned or put in Pilgrimy shackles at the center of the village and pelted with vegetables, I can't decide which.)
Maybe it’s because the Indians in the 1970s were so forgettable. At least they were to me, which is odd, because the teams I was generally most familiar with were those that played in the American League East (which is where the Indians were from 1969 until the jarring and alienating invention of the Central Division in the mid-1990s). I try to think of the Indians teams from my childhood and all I can come up with is the vague notion that Rick Manning was a good fielder.
They were actually not as atrocious during the mid- to late-1970s as I would have guessed, and maybe that’s another secret of their forgettableness. They just kind of blended in. (Perhaps the red uniforms were a desparate, ultimately futile attempt to demand that the world take notice.) In the season directly preceding this Jackie Brown photograph, the Indians even finished above .500, albeit just barely. According to the statistics on the back of this card, Jackie Brown contributed significantly to this rare post-Rocky Colavito breath of winning baseball: as the Topps people have it, Jackie Brown blitzed the American league that year with a near-spotless 9–1 record. Unfortunately, his actual record was 9–11; somebody lopped off a 1 in the tens place of his loss column.
I wonder if the Montreal Expos brass somehow had access to this card before it even hit the stores in 1977. The idea that he was a 9–1 pitcher seems the only possible explanation I can come up with to explain the trade that occurred in December 1976 that sent Jackie Brown north of the border for budding slugger Andre Thornton. Thornton went on to be a mainstay in the middle of the Indians’ lineup for years, while Jackie Brown put in one more season that was exactly slightly worse (9–12) than the previous season before bidding adieu to the major leagues. The funny thing about the trade is that despite its lopsided nature it seems neither to have hurt the Expos, who began climbing toward the top of the N.L.
“Because," he rasped, "everyone here is just skating on through.”
The ceremony went on for a long time, several students from the graduation planning committee taking turns going on at length about their generic memories. It was in a tent and a light drizzle periodically drummed down on the canvas above our heads. I was hungover and starving. They draped some kind of sash over me when I went up to get my diploma, just as they had done for the others, and there was some tepid applause, as there was for everyone before and after me.
A few days later I started working on the campus maintenance crew for the second straight summer. One of our first jobs was to take down the graduation tent. My plan was to save up money throughout the summer and use it for a plane ticket back to China, where I’d spent my second-to-last semester. I’d finally lost my virginity over there, a miracle that prompted me to wrench my feelings of gratitude and lust into something very much resembling love. I planned to go back and live with the virginity-unburdener, a college student named Li Hong. I even had a job lined up, teaching English at the university where I’d studied during my semester in Shanghai.
This plan ended up falling through, and when it did I had no clue what to do with myself. I used my maintenance job money to travel to Europe for a couple months. I stayed in youth hostels, hitch-hiked some, took trains and buses when the hitching was too hard, ate gyros, beat off once in a while in bathroom stalls, went to many museums, sat around in churches a lot because you could just sit there as long as you wanted for free. Eventually my money ran thin and I started thinking about heading back. To what? I kept thinking.
But at least he made the most of his one baseball card. Generally, players featured in the baseball card still-life of a batting stance convey either a wax museum lifelessness or a cringing uncertainty. On the other hand, the grizzled, faintly mirthful Hansen reminds me of Ernest Borgnine in the Wild Bunch, ready to follow William Holden into a hail of bullets.
More specifically, he’s like Borgnine in that very last slim moment right before the climactic gun battle. Holden’s character, Pike, has just shot El Jefe, and now Pike, Dutch (Borgnine), and the Gorch brothers (Ben Johnson and the incomparable Warren Oates) are about to face off against hundreds of El Jefe’s men. They are doomed. But the last sound you hear before the bullets start tearing into flesh is Borgnine’s giggle.
It's good to be alive.
Greg Luzinski in...The Thursday Haiku (Historic First--and Possibly Last--Installment!!)
Lazy fly to left.
I don’t have a lot of valuables. I thought maybe this 1979 card that erroneously identifies Bump Wills as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, a team for which he never played, might be worth something, but according to an article on TradingCardCentral.com the corrected card, which is rarer (and which I don’t have, naturally), is worth considerably more than this version.
In a "Card Corner" note in a 2004 column by frequent Bronx Banter contributer Bruce Markusen, Topps president Sy Berger claims the error was due to a tip he’d heard that Wills was about to be traded to the Blue Jays. I am skeptical of this explanation because Wills is identified as a Ranger in a large-font heading on the back of the card, because Wills’ name is on the 1979 Texas Rangers’ checklist, and because Topps more often than not did not switch teams for a player even after they’d been officially traded in the off-season. And when they did switch teams to reflect a trade, they doctored the photos, which has not been done here, Wills still clearly wearing the cap and away uniform of the Texas Rangers.
No, as something of an expert in such matters, I feel compelled to offer the opinion that this was just a plain, old fuckup.
I work as a proofreader and dread this kind of mistake. Proofreading is easy if you only have to do a little of it, but when you spend a whole day trying to keep an eye out for errors your mind can wander. It's frighteningly
"Your mistake cost us millions," I’ll be told with measured corporate scorn.
Stripped of my employee identification card, I’ll ride the bus home at an unusual hour, my wandering mind continuing as ever to pollinate fantasies and mistakes.
Bruce Boisclair has for some time represented to me the road not taken. He broke into the majors in September 1974, when I was six years old. I had not yet seized on baseball as my primary life raft, but more significantly my family had just moved to Vermont from the possible Mets fan territory of Hopewell, New Jersey. I have always assumed that if we had stayed in New Jersey I would have grown up a Mets fan rather than a Red Sox fan.
I have put considerable thought into this alternate path. Mainly, I have come to believe that if I had grown up in New Jersey, I would have been chronically beaten by bullies. In Vermont, I was twice menaced by this one kid with putrid breath, Mark, but on both occasions (once in a bathroom at school, once after school when he grabbed my baseball glove away from me) my instinctual defense mechanism—bursting into abject, uncontrollable weeping—managed to disgust and confuse him enough to prevent him from inflicting upon me any bodily harm. Both times he ended up just walking away from me with a look on his face like I was a pile of uncommonly pungent cow manure. I always assumed that New Jersey, more heavily populated in general, would have had a higher density of merciless future violent criminals roaming the sidewalks for victims. I would have been dangled from turnpike overpasses in broad daylight, beaten beneath a pollution-covered moon, and marked by pen knife scars, pellet gun wounds, and various teeth-chipping incidents. Eventually I'd have etched into my features an uneasy, pinched look similar to the one shown here by Bruce Boisclair on the cusp of his final major league season.
By the time I would have purchased this card on one of my danger-fraught New Jersey trips to the corner store, I would have seized on Bruce Boisclair as a hero. In the safety of my room I would have exulted at the discovery of this card in my new pack, for Bruce Boisclair by then would have become for me a conduit to a different reality. Through him I could have imagined another life. I would not have seen myself in the major leagues but would have dissolved myself out of existence altogether to become Bruce Boisclair. There were other, better players on the profoundly lackluster Mets at that time, but even though none of them were really that great, their abilities still were such that they would have seemed beyond the reach of my self-abnegating imaginings. I couldn't dissolve into the dashing Lee Mazzili, for I wasn’t dashing, and I couldn’t dissolve into the fleet and promising Steve Henderson, for I wasn’t fleet or promising.
But Bruce Boisclair would have been a different story for my timid, hunted New Jersey self. I mean, just look at him. He seems to be bracing for a roundhouse left to the ear. Worse, he’s up at bat with a hitting implement that will nullify, by virtue of its illegality, any positive result he might somehow be able to produce. An aluminum bat! Why on earth would there even be an aluminum bat on the Mets’ spring training complex? Perhaps Bruce Boisclair snuck it onto the grounds himself and was considering the possibility of using it (maybe painted to look like a wooden bat) in the upcoming season. As it turned out, he seems to have had to use the same kind of bat as everyone else, with which he hit .184, and he was released the following spring. By 1980, in other words, I would have been on my own, Boisclairless, to face the troublesome world.
Larry Biittner in . . . The Nagging Question
In the interest of plunging ever further into the abyss of bottomless collective nostalgia for a hazy, intangible era full of things that never quite were, I am today introducing a new and (I am hoping) interactive feature on Cardboard Gods…
The Nagging Question
Today’s Nagging Question started forming a couple days ago when I saw a beer-thickened guy about my age in a too-small Larry Biittner Cubs jersey while I was riding the Blue Line home from work. I knew Larry Biittner’s faintly acrid expression from my shoebox of cards, but little else, so I looked into it a bit and found out that he was a part-time player who was something of a Joe Shlabotnikesque favorite in Chicago during the late ’70s. In other words, he seems to have been the guy certain lonely bespectacled kids might most wanted to have found in a pack of baseball cards, despite his lack of widespread stardom, as in this scenario described in the Wikipedia entry for Joe Shlabotnik:
A decent left-handed hitter who lasted 14 years in the majors, Biittner was definitely better than Charlie Brown’s famously inept hero, but his narrow yet impassioned, perhaps even somewhat cultish, popularity (from what I could gather while surfing through Cubs-themed blogs, his name is shorthand for the Cubs’ version of the call of the long-time fan: “I was there, I saw, I hoped, I suffered”) seems to owe more to his Shlabotniky turns than to his respectable .273 lifetime batting average. He described the most famous of these incidents in a 2002 Chicago Sun-Times interview:
If I had grown up in the city where I live now, and not in Vermont, it’s quite possible that Larry Biittner would have been my Joe Shlabotnik. Oddly enough, if my family had stayed in New Jersey, where I was born, and where we moved from before I was old enough to become interested in baseball, my Joe Shlabotnik would probably have been the player who out-Shlabotniked Biittner in the episode described above, the Mets’ immortal Bruce Boisclair.
But I did grow up in Vermont, so my Joe Shlabotnik (who I, like Charlie Brown, never did find in a pack of cards) was Garry Hancock, a Red Sox outfielder in the late ’70s and early ’80s whose playing time was impeded merely by Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, 9-time all-star Fred Lynn, 8-time all-star Jim Rice, 8-time Gold Glove Award winner Dwight Evans, October hero and former Rookie of the Year Bernie Carbo, Gold-Glove winner Rick Miller, and, in the very last throes of the Garry Hancock era at Fenway, by both Joe “Nothin’ Left in the Tank” Rudi and Reid “I Would Have Probably Been Josh’s Joe Shlabotnik If He Was Born a Couple Years Later” Nichols.
Hancock became a favorite of mine just before he stepped into a major league batter’s box for the first time. I was listening to the game in 1978 on the car radio of our VW bus in the driveway of my uncle’s house. As the announcer (either Ned Martin or Jim Woods, I believe) explained that this was his first major league at-bat, the crowd noise grew.
Fenway was giving him a standing ovation.
He had made it to the majors! He was golden! I remember thinking that I’d remember the moment forever, especially on the occasion of Garry Hancock’s enshrinement into Cooperstown. He pulled a nice just-foul line drive down the right field line, then struck out.
Interestingly, I’m not the only one who recalls the standing ovation for Garry Hancock. His page on baseball-reference.com is sponsored by someone named Markf62, who says, “I met Garry just before he debuted with the Red Sox at a flea market where I was buying baseball cards. He was interested in cards because he was playing for the Triple A team in Pawtucket. A week later he made his debut to a standing O at Fenway!” And in an interview on redsoxnation.net, Jerry Spar, editor of Boston Sports Review, says while answering a question about his favorite Red Sox players, “Garry Hancock deserves honorable mention because that standing ovation he got for his first at-bat always stuck with me.”
It’s fairly likely that Garry Hancock never got another standing ovation, though he did manage to stick around in the big leagues until 1984 despite a lifetime .262 on-base percentage. In his final at-bat he grounded into an inning ending 1-6-3 double play.
Anyway, on to the Nagging Question for today. In case you haven't already guessed it, here it is:
Who was your Joe Shlabotnik?
Here is a small, cheaply made cardboard flyer that the punk band Giant Prospects somehow managed to get into a few packs of Topps baseball cards in 1979. (Note characteristic typo—"GIANTS PROSPECTS"—at top.) From what I can deduce, the flyer was an ingenious (though perhaps misplaced) bit of guerilla-punk publicity intended to spread the word about the band’s would-be debut album, 1979, which for a myriad of reasons was never actually released.
That has to be the explanation for this baffling artifact. How else to explain the profound anonymity of the players? How else to explain the unsurpassed graininess of the photographs? How else to explain the eerie look of each of the pairs of eyes, which all seem as if they have been drawn onto the grainy photographs of the faces, or, worse, that the faces themselves are clammy rubber masks with eyeholes? How else, above all, to explain Joe Strain?
No, this is not a trio of baseball players. How could it be? This is a punk rock band. John "Johnny Tomorrow" Tamargo on drums. Greg Johnston on bass. Joe Strain on vocals and guitar.
The following excerpts from Dead on Arrival: The Oral History of Giant Prospects, the Greatest Punk Band No One Ever Heard Of shed some more light on the band, and on the card at the top of this page:
From pages 11–12 :
From page 86:
From page 131:
From pages 247–248 :
Ron LeFlore (update)
Current events rarely impinge on the constant whining sound of the musty squandered past here on Cardboard Gods, but I thought I should pass along the news that the recently featured Ron LeFlore is headed back behind bars.
My first thought on hearing this, I have to admit, was "Hm, what kind of comic material can I generate?" I'm not alone, I guess: I learned the news about LeFlore from a link on Baseball Think Factory, where the accompanying conversation was an exchange of one-liners (my favorite, from a poster named Wilson AlphaMeat, was "Maybe he'll be discovered again."). To salve my conscience over this, I am also providing a link to "The American Prison Nightmare," a New York Review of Books article surveying some recent books that shed disturbing new light on our failing prison system. According to the article, things don't look too good for Ron LeFlore:
[Confronting Confinement: A Report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons] tells us that America's prisons are dangerously overcrowded, unnecessarily violent, excessively reliant on physical segregation, breeding grounds of infectious disease, lacking in meaningful programs for inmates, and staffed by underpaid and undertrained guards in a culture that promotes abuse. What is more, prisoners' ability to legally challenge their living conditions has been curtailed by a congressional roadblock called the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, which has cut in half the number of inmates filing civil rights complaints.
And things don't look too good for any of us, really, the article pointing out that the failing prison system hurts the entire society:
Bruce Western makes a crucial point at the start of his important book, Punishment and Inequality in America: "If prisons affected no one except the criminals on the inside, they would matter less." But with more than two million Americans behind bars, the impact of mass incarceration is impossible to contain. Their fate affects the taxpayers who support them, the guards who guard them, the families they leave behind, and the communities to which they return. Not even the war in Iraq escapes the reach of prison culture; Sergeant Charles Graner, the villain of Abu Ghraib, worked as a Pennsylvania prison guard.
This sinking feeling is not new. I’ve always sort of felt like I’m living within an aftermath. I’m like Ted McGinley, star of the Love Boat just before it sank and of Happy Days at its glummest, always arriving too late for all the excitement, always incapable of creating a new thrilling epoch on my own. All the cool shit had already happened by the time I was old enough to take part, it seemed. I was too late to huff carbona with Richard Hell and Dee Dee Ramone, too late to drop acid with Ken Kesey and Ram Dass, too late to smoke "tea" and guzzle cheap port with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. By the time I was the age these guys were in their frontier-exploring heydays it was the early 1990s, and though I guess there were probably new exciting movements going on somewhere, I had no idea where they were, and even if I had known I’d probably have thought the people involved were pretentious assholes.
So instead of blazing new pathways of creativity within an invigorating collective of the best young minds of my generation I got a job on the night shift at the UPS warehouse on 42nd street by the Hudson River and got sort of drunk after work every day in the morning while reading a newspaper I’d pulled out of the garbage and eating three-for-a-dollar macaroni and cheese with chopped-up generic hot dogs. I’d fall unconscious for a while and wake up at dusk feeling like I’d been regurgitated, and then I’d watch the 5:30 episode of Charles in Charge. After a few months of showing up at work at 3 A.M. to take boxes off a conveyer belt and put them in a truck, I abruptly quit, phoning in one evening to tell a preposterous lie about the sudden death of my grandfather (who had actually died a few years earlier) necessitating my immediate departure from the city to help run "the family farm." I went to Vermont and lounged around my stepfather’s condo in Montpelier and wrote a young adult novel about basketball, taking copious breaks to run imaginary tournaments involving the putting of a golf ball at various targets around the condo. At the end of the summer I had a complete manuscript, and returned to New York planning to sell it and begin a fabulous career of swinging from one joyous literary conquest to the next like Tarzan swinging on vines.
I never did sell the thing. While I was sort of trying to sell it I got an "in the meantime" job at the liquor store where my brother had worked while going to NYU (that particular "in the meantime" job of mine ultimately lasting the better part of a decade). My shift there started at 6 P.M. on most days, and though it was only a five-minute walk from the small apartment I shared with my brother, the start time meant that I always missed the last few moments of Charles in Charge. Each episode always followed the same basic three-part pattern, the first and last parts being relatively brief: Part one: Charles is in charge; Part two: Charles is no longer in charge; Part three: Charles is in charge again. I always had to leave the apartment with the situation in chaos.
I don't know what any of this has to do with Bake McBride, except that I started the day today with some observations about him that were so lackluster and uninspired that I quickly fell to thoughts that I had really blown it for good, that I was through as a writer, that if I couldn’t get a good lather going for Bake McFucking McBride I might as well hang it up and let the shark Fonzie jumped tear me and my metaphorical leather jacket of imagined coolness to shreds. I mean, this is Bake McBride we’re talking about! If I was a beatnick I’d have already chanted a rolling, incantatory three-page Bake McBride ode at the Six Gallery with Sal Paradise yelling "wail!" in the background; if I was a hippie I’d have already run naked across the Pentagon lawn out my mind on mescaline, convinced I was Bake McBride ecstatically legging out a world-peace-bestowing triple; and if I was a New York Punk I’d have already ruined my eardrums forever with the sheer velocity and volume of a two-minute aural assault entitled "Bake McBride" that would have helped free music from the skeletal clutches of corporate rock. But I’m none of those things, and I’m not even an odd solitary miner of the gruesome and beautiful unconscious like Kafka, spinning out a tale of waking one morning metamorphosed into Bake McBride’s disembodied afro. No, all I could manage was that Bake McBride hung up his spikes one hit shy of a lifetime average of .300.
His batting average rounded up to .300 as late as the 10th-to-last game of his career, when as a member of the Cleveland Indians he went 2 for 4 on September 10, 1983, against the Red Sox. He managed only 2 hits in his next 17 at bats, however, dooming to failure a subsequent 5 for 10 flurry in his last major league at-bats.
I don’t know why Bake McBride stopped playing then. He was 34 years old, but he had hit .291 for the year and just one year earlier in limited action had hit .365. The speed that had been one of his strikingly distinguishing features in his prime—along with his large afro (seen here below a Cardinals flat-topped "old-tyme" cap in an admirable but still only penultimate stage of magnificence) and his incomparable name—may have been on the wane, but he still stole 8 bases in 10 attempts in ’83 and, even more tellingly, made his final major league appearance as a pinch runner in his team’s second to last game of the year. He could still hit, and he could still run. So why stop?
I don't know why. I've quit a lot of things in my life, so I guess I can imagine how he might have just got sick of doing what he was doing, especially considering it must have gotten harder and harder as the years went on.
As for me, even though I've quit a lot of things, I never have quit writing, not yet. So I guess even if my lifetime average keeps falling farther and farther below .300 I'm going to keep going up there and hacking.
Some days seem really thin, useless. I drift around in a daze of public transportation and work for hire. I eat my stupid little breakfast, wade through the first swamp of hours, eat my stupid little sandwich, wade through the second swamp of hours, somewhere in there read about the Red Sox and take a couple dumps, then watch television, maybe pick up a player on waivers for one of my imaginary teams, at some point try and fail to write a true sentence, go to bed feeling tired and paradoxically bloated and empty, wishing I was religious so I could swipe the whole vague heavy ache away with prayer, but instead I just fall unconscious and wake up the next day still far from the Wonder of Boog.
What is the Wonder of Boog? I’m not entirely sure, since I just sort of made it up. I mean, in a way I just sort of made it up, but in another way it’s been with me as long as this card’s been with me, 32 years and counting. In fact it’s been with me even longer, but the arrival of the card in my young life concentrated the nameless concept into the image seen here. As with the Rudy Meoli card from the same year, I did not initially understand the literal meaning of this image, and my initial misunderstanding has lasted far beyond the point when I realized Boog Powell was calling for a fly ball, nothing more. The misunderstood view still defines this card and defines, as much as anything can, the concept of the Wonder of Boog: I thought when I first looked at the card that Boog Powell—Boog Powell!—was throwing his gargantuan arms wide to the sky in awe and jubilation.
Here is a happy man, a man immersed in the blissful ache of focusing on something both difficult and ferociously beloved. He seems to have just laced a line drive to left field and is about to sprint toward first base with every fiber of his being. The photo is from the 1978 season, in which he attained the immortality-clinching milestone of 3,000 hits, and then went on to hit safely in 44 straight games, tying an 81-year-old National League record.
Happiness comes and goes. The man pictured here had been born and raised in Cincinnati, and had at the time of this photo played for 16 seasons for his hometown team, winning a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP award, two World Series championship rings, two Gold Glove awards, three batting titles, and 12 National League All-Star team selections. In later years he would win another World Series title with the Philadelphia Phillies; would, while playing for the Montreal Expos, become only the second man to amass 4,000 hits; and would bring his career full cycle by returning to his Reds (I married into a Cincinnati Reds family, and I can tell you that even now the team belongs to nobody so much as to the man pictured here) to break Ty Cobb’s record for career hits, a record long thought impossible to approach, let alone break. But all this seems, in light of this 1979 card, something of an aftermath. An epilogue. He would play for another team the season this card came out, which broke the spell of permanence that Pete Rose had cast, that feeling that he always had been and always would be playing baseball with all his might for the Cincinnati Reds.
Pete Rose’s epilogue continues, of course, defined by his quest for reinstatement to the game he loved as much as anyone ever has, the game that banned him after deciding (rightfully, as Pete Rose himself admitted several years after the fact) that he bet on baseball while managing the Reds. He wants the permanence of a Hall of Fame plaque and the happiness of a job in baseball. It seems less and less likely that he’ll get either. My wife met him last year at a sports memorabilia store. It was a big moment for her, getting to meet the man who had been something like a god in her family’s home when she was growing up. But for him it was just another stop in an endless tour of a world of blurred faces seen from behind a folding table, pen in hand to write the same words over and over:
"Good luck, [your name here]. Pete Rose."
He did not seem happy.
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