Baseball Toaster Cardboard Gods
Monthly archives: August 2007


Tom Burgmeier
2007-08-28 16:19
by Josh Wilker


Chapter 6 (Continued from Bob Stanley)

So for a couple weeks in 1987 I had this job canvassing door to door for CalPirg. One day my supervisor was driving me and some other canvassers to our dropoff spots. She was a girl my age who was home for the summer from Macalester College. She asked us to say where we envisioned ourselves in five years. I sunk down as low as possible in the backseat. Another canvasser volunteered to start the round of answers. My stomach began to hurt.

The future to me had always been vague, millennial. I hadn’t ever envisioned anything specific happening but had occasionally daydreamed about enormous, shattering transformations, figuring eventually I’d somehow stumble from the lonely prison of virginity to acrobatically sex-drenched romantic love, from lazy self-absorption to saintly buddhistic enlightenment, and from the scribbling of impotent notebook ramblings to the mastering of some kind of volcanic artistic inspiration like the visionary fugue state that seized my hero Jack Kerouac throughout the three-week period in which he pounded out On the Road. I didn’t include any of these notions in my answer. I don’t remember what I said. I think I mumbled something about how I hoped I would still be alive. The Macalester coed looked at me in the rearview mirror, I guess waiting for more.

"Okay," she finally said, cheerfully.

Later that day I was wandering around my assigned turf, a neighborhood in the town of Lompoc. I was terrible at getting contributions from people, but the day in Lompoc was worse than usual. Near the end of my shift I knocked on a door and a thin guy with aviator glasses answered. I began reciting the official CalPirg spiel in my customary hesitant monotone.

"Hello, my name’s Josh, and I’m with CalPirg. We’re in your neighborhood today talking to people about our urgent work advocating for the people of Calif—"

"Hey, let me ask you something," the guy said.

"Okay," I said.

"How would you like to experience something a thousand times better than any acid trip?"

I always liked Tom Burgmeier, an unassuming lefty specialist who held up his end of the deal for otherwise ineffective Boston Red Sox pitching staffs in the early 1980s. He had a somewhat rough first campaign for the Red Sox, in 1978, posting a 4.40 ERA, but then as the Red Sox began to sink toward irrelevancy he posted ERAs of 2.74, 2.00, 2.87, and 2.29, respectively, impressive numbers especially considering he earned them while laboring in Fenway, commonly considered a left-handed pitcher’s worst nightmare.

I think in some ways I wish I was Tom Burgmeier. He always seemed so competent, so useful, even when—or especially when—the rest of his team seemed adrift in the aftermath of an unredeemable shipwreck. Again and again he’d trot in briskly from the bullpen to relieve a sweaty, imploding Steve Renko or Chuck Rainey, hold off the opposition for an inning and a third or so, then hand things over to Mark Clear or Bob Stanley, who would then cough up a couple more runs, rendering a late-inning rally by the still-fearsome Boston offense useless. The world was doomed, but it wasn’t Tom Burgmeier’s fault. He knew what he was doing. He knew where he was going.

The thin guy with the aviator glasses was staring at me, waiting for an answer. I looked down at my CalPirg clipboard, at my watch. I looked back up at the guy.

"Yeah, sure," I said. "Why not?"

He ushered me into his house. He pointed to a pile of shoes by the door. I noticed then that he was barefoot. I kicked off my sneakers and followed him into an adjoining room. A thin Asian woman was there. She was barefoot, too. There were a lot of Buddha statues and candles on the mantle.

"I was like you," the guy said. In those days people were always starting off their stories to me by saying "I was like you."

"I was into drugs, booze, anything I could get my hands on," the guy continued. "Always looking for the biggest buzz, the highest high. Well, let me tell you, there is no higher high than what you’re about to experience."

"Please," the Asian woman said, motioning toward a plain brown mat she’d just spread onto the floor. I kneeled down, then they kneeled down onto fancier, more colorful mats on either side of me. They both closed their eyes. Incense was burning. They started chanting.

"Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. . . ."

I joined in, keeping my eyes half-open. The three of us chanted for a few minutes, then they stopped.

"Nam—," I said, still going. "Oh."

"Wow, huh?" the guy said. He was smiling now. He put on his glasses and looked at me.

I felt all right, nothing amazing. Saying the same thing over and over does get kind of hypnotic. But mostly I just felt compelled to give the guy a positive response. I always wanted to tell people what I thought they wanted to hear, like the time I was hitchhiking and assured the enthusiastic Born Again Christian who’d picked me up that I would in the very near future be declaring Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior.

"Wow," I said to the guy in the aviator glasses. We were all still kneeling there on our mats.

"That was really . . . really something," I said.

Tom Burgmeier was born August 2, 1943, in St. Paul, Minnesota (home of Macalester College). He signed his first pro contract in 1962, when he was 18. I suppose when I first obtained the 1978 card at the top of this page I may have read that information and vaguely envisioned a similar future for myself, a future which resembled my baseball-crazy present. But more likely I neither read that information nor foresaw myself signing a pro contract at 18. I didn’t really dream of being a baseball player when I grew up, because I never really thought I’d grow up. I’ve always held this evasive attitude toward the future, and I am always surprised when I notice that weeks, months, years have gone by. This may explain my stunned expression in photographs.

My childhood was not very structured. My mother believed that children should be given as much freedom as possible. I had countless hours to myself to do whatever I wanted. And even when I went to school my days meandered to a significant extent in the direction of my choosing, my multiage classroom founded on the free-school idea that children grow best when given the opportunity to learn (and not learn) whatever and whenever they wanted.

I don’t think many children growing up now have days that resemble my childhood days. Today the norm for a child seems to be that any spare moment outside school is to be clogged with structured activities, scheduled play dates and soccer practice and music lessons and courses designed to improve scores on standardized tests. Not much time for daydreaming. Not much time for wandering around or staring at baseball cards or just making shit up out of thin air.

There have been times when I’ve wondered if I would have been better off with more structure. Maybe the structure could have helped me learn early on to envision life unfolding in plannable five-year chunks of goal-attainment. The structure wouldn’t have gotten me to the major leagues, because I didn’t have any talent, but maybe I could have approached grownup life the way Tom Burgmeier approached baseball, with clear eyes and a firm sense of my place in the world, a sense of who I was and where I was going.

After thanking the Asian woman and assuring the guy in the aviator glasses that he’d changed my life I got my clipboard and put my sneakers back on and walked out into the Lompoc evening. But before leaving the porch I mounted a half-assed attempt to get a contribution to CalPirg from the guy. He was leaning in his doorway. He waved a hand around like he was shooing a bug.

"We’ve moved beyond all that," he said.

I spent the rest of my shift wandering through Lompoc chanting. It really was kind of pleasantly trance-inducing. I didn’t knock on any more doors and when the day was done I was through with CalPirg. A few days later I got a job at a gas station, just like I had the previous summer after quitting Greenpeace.

A couple years earlier, during my senior year at boarding school, I’d told my mother I’d applied to Macalester College. The catalog made the place sound pretty good, a small liberal arts college full of intellectually adventurous young people expanding their minds in every direction. On some level I wanted to go there, but on another level I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want to do anything that would make the present turn into the future. I got what had to have been a tepid letter of recommendation from my JV basketball coach, filled out the application, wrote my essay, packed everything into an envelope, then just let it sit there for a few days and then a few weeks, and then I guess at some point long after the deadline for application had passed I threw the thing in the trash. But I told my mom I applied there and to a few other places that I can’t recall (Macalester was my "first choice" while the other places I didn’t apply to were my "fallbacks"). In fact the only place I actually applied to was Boston University. It doesn’t really make sense that I applied to any school, but maybe I’d made an exception for BU because it was a short walk from Fenway Park. This exception almost sabotaged my attempt to make time stand still, as BU accepted me. But soon after getting the acceptance letter I was expelled from the boarding school for smoking pot. That summer I was 17. I got my GED and worked at a gas station. The next summer I was 18. I worked at a gas station. The next summer I was 19.

I worked at a gas station. I wore a blue Chevron shirt. The Santa Barbara sky was the color of my shirt every single day. I quit with a few weeks left in the summer. No longer employed, I went jogging on a nearby beach barefoot every morning with the dog who’d met me at the beginning of the summer at the bus station, Luna. Every afternoon I hung out at a secluded beach, barefoot, meditating on rocks and reading books with the word Zen in the title. By the end of the summer I resembled the natives:

I was barefoot and tan.

(continued in Dock Ellis)

Bob Stanley
2007-08-26 06:49
by Josh Wilker


Chapter 5

(continued from Big League Brothers)

Years after my brother was apprehended trying to steal an Elvis Costello cassette, I finally followed his footsteps into shoplifting, stealing easily pocketable items from a small grocery store in Santa Barbara, California. This was in 1987, a decade removed from the heart of my childhood, which had been located somewhere not far from this 1978 baseball card of a young man with everything still in front of him. By 1987, of course, whatever promise Bob Stanley once possessed had been pummeled to microscopic dust.

That summer Greyhound announced a deal allowing passengers making a purchase a month in advance to travel anywhere in the country, one way, for $29.99. I happened to be poor and aimless, so I bought a ticket from Vermont to California, where my old boarding school friend Bill was going to college. The ticket was the size of a James Michener novel, its pages filled with the names of cities I’d never been to: Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Cheyenne, Boulder, Provo, Sacramento, San Francisco. At that point, besides a family trip to Mexico when I was five, I hadn't seen anything beyond the northeastern United States. But in the previous couple years, ever since getting the boot from boarding school, I’d become a disciple of Jack Kerouac, whose writing made me believe that even a life adrift could have beauty and meaning, that if you wandered far and wide enough you'd eventually find a mythic heartbeat centering the scattered days.

I brought a couple books with me for the long ride that reflected this Kerouackian bent, Woodie Guthrie’s Bound For Glory and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. I finished the first breezy, enjoyable tale within a few hours, before I’d even crossed into Pennsylvania, which left me alone for the ensuing days and nights and nights and days of spine-eroding bus seat monotony with nothing but some cheap brown marijuana and the latter book’s anti-narrative nightmare of unrelated scenes always seeming to eventually work their way around to the strangulation of pubescent lads shooting cum from their penises as they died. After I spent the majority of a week in this manner, Bill met me at the bus station in Santa Barbara. He was barefoot and tan. He had a friend with him, Tex, who was also barefoot and tan. They had brought along a dog, Luna, who though not tan was also of course barefoot and contributed to the general feeling of untroubled health and cheer, her nails clicking happily on the grimy bus station linoleum as she jogged closer to smell the stench of alienation radiating off of me. I was pale. My coordination and balance seemed irrevocably damaged. My inability to converse must have made it seem to the tan barefoot fellows swarming me that I’d spent the previous several years in a cave.

In the ensuing days and weeks I had trouble finding work. I probably gave people the creeps. Finally I took a job canvassing for CalPirg. They took anybody, but the catch was you only made money on commission, taking a percentage of whatever contributions you could wheedle out of people. I’d done a similar job the summer before for Greenpeace and had both loathed it and been terrible at it, so I guess I must have been desperate.

There were some lean days in Santa Barbara, both before and after I started not making any money with CalPirg. So I started stealing from a grocery store near Bill's apartment. I mostly swiped rectangular packages of cream cheese. The store had security mirrors everywhere, but there was one blind spot near the back. News of this blind spot had spread. Sometimes there was a line to the blind spot, shoplifters queuing up with their pocket-sized items.

Occasionally on the way back from the store I spotted a newspaper in a trashcan. I'd fish it out, find a bench somewhere, and read the sports page while dipping flour tortillas into my stolen cream cheese. Baseball seemed a million miles away that summer, farther away than it ever had. Baseball had ended. Everything had ended. The sky was blue. The Red Sox sank in the standings, a little farther with each garbage-tainted sports page. Days passed. I stole some more cheese. The sky remained blue. The Red Sox sank lower. Bob Stanley's name showed up in the box score from time to time, an L beside his name.

(continued in Tom Burgmeier)

Big League Brothers
2007-08-22 04:46
by Josh Wilker


Chapter 4

(continued from Father & Son Big Leaguers)

I learned baseball from my brother. He started playing the year we moved to Vermont, away from our father. He wasn't very good at first. After every one of his little league games in his first year I asked him the same question:

"Did you get a hit yet?"

The answer, no, was eventually rendered in the form of a malevolent I-Am-Going-To-Punch-You glare. By the end of the season I'd stopped asking. But by the time I joined him on the team, the Mets, two years later, he was one of the bigger and better kids in the league. Because I'd had him to practice with for two years, I was much more prepared to play than he'd been, and got a hit in my first game--a line single off the end of the bat, up the first base line. The following year, his last in little league, he was a superstar, one of the three or four best players in the league along with the neanderthalic Stu Townsend, the mustachioed Tony Russo, and the seeming can't-miss future major leaguer Bob Chase. I'd always idolized my brother, but that year I actually got to watch him clobber high-arcing shots over the outfield fence, got to pour out of the dugout with all my teammates to meet him at homeplate cheering. Just like I've never really gotten over the strange power of these baseball cards, such as this Forsch brothers entry into the 1977 Big League Brothers series, I guess I've never really gotten over the summer when my big brother was a conquering hero.  

We played one more season together, two years later, in Babe Ruth League, but it wasn't really the same. I was worse, relatively speaking, than I'd ever been in little league, and my brother, even though he was in his final year of Babe Ruth, had been reduced to being an emergency starter (behind the regular starters Stu Townsend and Bob Chase). He had one notable moment, nearly pitching a no-hitter, but the game was against a coed team of thin, easily distractible hippie children, and anyway he lost the no-hit bid in the last inning when one of the boys or girls stopped daydreaming long enough to loop a single into left in front of the mediocre leftfielder, me.

Somewhere around that time, maybe that year or the next, my brother and I were in a record store in a mall in Hyannis, Massachusetts. It was the day after Thanksgiving, which we'd spent at my maternal grandparents' house in nearby East Dennis. After we'd looked around for a while, my brother started walking out of the store. He was walking fast, purposefully. I called his name but he didn't acknowledge me. I kept saying his name, he kept walking. I was a few paces behind him but I started slowing down. It was like watching a train pull away, or like my voice had been removed. Like my brother didn't know me. A man in a light-colored suit jacket passed me, walking briskly, and clapped my brother on the shoulder. The two of them went back into the store and disappeared behind a door in the back. I went back there. There was a small window in the door. I could see my brother sitting in a metal chair, staring down at a table. There was a rack of posters near the door on my side and I hid my face in there, pretending to look at the posters. I was crying. I wanted my brother to be the big kid in the same uniform as mine, jogging down the third base line toward home, smiling, toward the cheering team, toward me. But he was just some stranger in a jeans jacket, a copy of a cassette called "Get Happy" on the table in front of him as evidence.

(continued in Bob Stanley)

Father & Son -- Big Leaguers
2007-08-16 14:02
by Josh Wilker


Chapter 3

(continued from Ed Crosby)

My father never learned how to throw a baseball. His father was a tailor from a shtetl in central Europe, where baseball didn’t exist. The tailor married an innkeeper’s daughter sometime during the first decade of the 20th Century. I think it was an arranged marriage. Their first child died in infancy. My grandmother had been holding the baby when Cossacks stormed into the house demanding food, one of them threatening my grandmother with a bayonet. The baby became ill and died soon after. My grandmother always believed the boy died of fright. Two more children were born, my Uncle Joe and Aunt Helen, then at the start of World War I my grandfather fled to America to avoid conscription into the Austria-Hungarian army. Had he stayed, he would have been sent to the front lines as machinegun fodder along with all the other young men of limited means.

He lived alone in the strange new country for several years, working in Manhattan sweat shops. He couldn't speak the language. At some point he sustained a serious head injury. He was hit in the head during a labor struggle, either assaulted by union goons who took exception to his desire to work or by company goons trying to squelch a strike. It was a long time ago and subsequently seldom mentioned with any detail by anyone in my father’s family. The one certainty is that by the time my grandmother and Joe and Helen arrived in America, my grandfather was not well. He worked sporadically if at all and was profoundly withdrawn from the rest of the family, a looming, largely silent presence in the middle of a series of cramped Lower East Side tenement apartments. The living spaces became more crowded with the arrival of two more children: my uncle Dave and the baby of the family, my father. My father remembers very few times in which his father spoke to him. When my father was 13 his father was found floating in the East River. My Uncle Dave thinks my grandfather was murdered; my father believes it was suicide.

I didn't know any of this at the time I got the 1976 card shown above, part of a series that year featuring the various father-son duos whose younger halves were currently active in the Majors: the Smalleys, the Hegans, the Boones, the Bells. Each card featured a cheery note on the back from the son detailing the guidance and inspiration he'd received from his father.

“We’d work out together frequently,” writes Joe Coleman, Jr., of Joe Coleman, Sr., on the back of the above card. “He taught me how to grip a ball and advised me to throw it straight and not worry about curves until later.”

By that time my father lived far away. He came to visit sometimes, always arriving with two movie theater-style boxes of M&Ms, peanut for my brother and plain for me. When I think of those visits now I imagine him watching my brother and me play catch in the yard. If my brother and I talked at all we talked about baseball, conversations my father could not have understood. Even if we didn't talk, the zinging of the baseball back and forth between us must have seemed to my father like the indecipherable language of a strange new country.

(continued in Big League Brothers)

Ed Crosby
2007-08-14 09:08
by Josh Wilker


Chapter 2 (continued from Clyde Wright)

Utility infielder Ed Crosby seems here to be displaying the slumping body language and sardonic facial expression of a man on the brink of declaring the official pledge of allegiance of the adrift: "Ah, who gives a shit."

Then again, I’m probably projecting. When I was in my mid-twenties, as Crosby is here, the general tension of many a dumb useless week often collapsed as if through a rotted trapdoor into boozy ease at 3 A.M. Sunday morning in the International Bar, my elbow propped along the bar much like Crosby’s elbow on his knee, my expression finally melting from its customary angsty, apprehensive glare into Crosby’s somewhat wobbly, bleary-eyed smile, an internal monologue rising through the loosening in my chest to the accompaniment of Ain't Got No Home by Clarence Frogman Henry on the jukebox:

Who gives a shit? Who gives a shit I work a go-nowhere job battling shoplifting teenagers and selling half-pints to ruined men? Who gives a shit I haven’t gotten laid in years? Who gives a shit I still live with my brother, my bedroom a converted closet with a toddler's glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling? Who gives a shit my dream of being a writer is nowhere, a con game I run on myself? Here’s a toast, my friends: Who gives a shit about any of it?

Yes, I'm probably projecting. After all, a man such as Crosby who clung to the major leagues with few discernable skills (no career home runs, a lifetime .219 batting average, one career stolen base in nine attempts) must have been a passionate, focused, and tenacious practitioner of his chosen vocation, the polar opposite of a man adrift. But who knows? By 1976 Crosby had been clinging for six years to a transient, marginal major league existence, and perhaps in this moment he is seeing the encroaching inevitability of the game of baseball going on without him, completely indifferent to his absence. Maybe he can sense the truth, that he’s got just two more at-bats left before the end. Maybe he can feel it and instead of railing against it he’s taking one long last look at a world with clear lines and definite rules.

Crosby's son is in the major leagues now, the promising but injury-prone Bobby Crosby. Not knowing anything about their family situation, I’d guess it’s a safe bet that Ed Crosby taught a love of the game to his son. Likewise, I suppose Clyde Wright must have passed some of the game down to his own son, Jaret, who has won 68 major league games. Both Bobby Crosby and Jaret Wright made auspicious debuts in the majors, the former winning the 2004 Rookie of the Year award, the latter starring as a 21-year-old rookie for the pennant-winning Cleveland Indians. These debuts suggested that both would easily eclipse the efforts of their fathers, but both have been slowed by injuries since their shining breakthroughs, the setbacks piling up enough by now to surely give them a view of the moment Ed Crosby seems to be in the midst of here, the end of the line, the end of the game, the beginning of the rest of life with all its possibilities for drifting.

(Continued in Father & Son--Big Leaguer)

Clyde Wright
2007-08-10 14:29
by Josh Wilker


Chapter 1

Sometimes I can barely tell if I’m awake or sleeping. I get up early and try to grip each day like I’m gripping a baseball but my focus falters and the day swells beyond my grasp, a helium balloon escaping, too big and slippery to hold, floating up and away into the blue or out toward the edge of the blurry horizon. Going, going, gone.

I woke up early this morning and the first thing I focused on was this 1975 Clyde Wright card, its background familiar: a world for directionless wandering. It looked less like a baseball field than a deadened seaside heath creased with sandy meandering paths. The presence of the uniformed player in the foreground made me think that the background was actually some special field designed for a strange mutation of baseball that features several diverging basepaths instead of the familiar unequivocal diamond.

In this mutation baserunners must decide which basepath to run down, some runners by chance choosing a route bringing them back home while others branch off into wider and ever more hopeless digressions. The games never officially end, not really, their box scores always marked with multiple asterisks to signal all the runners still spiraling deeper and deeper into an almost surely inescapable maze of bad choices. These games would only be played in natural light and would end when the sun went down, some runs in, some outs recorded, the voices of the unaccounted echoing back toward the half-empty dugouts in the dusk.

Clyde Wright seems to have some familiarity with the game of shadows and fog apparently set to commence on the field behind him. He has just finished a season in which he won only 9 games and lost 20, and by the time this image of him will appear in packs of baseball cards he will already have been shipped off to the Rangers in exchange for fellow Cardboard God netherworld wanderer Pete Broberg, missing by mere months the chance to be a teammate of a third denizen of the era’s ethereal marginalia, Kurt Bevacqua. In fact, due to a mistake, this card relates the erroneous news that Clyde Wright has never yet officially been a Brewer, his statistics listing all of his seasons including the most recent one as being in the employ of the Angels. In truth he had turned in his fresh 20-loss season for the Brewers, but in the world of this card he is only theoretically a Brewer, and when this conditional status is combined with his impending trade to the Rangers the Clyde Wright of this card becomes someone who is neither here nor there, not an Angel, not a Brewer, not a Ranger. He is nowhere.

You can see by the expression on his face that he doesn't like this. It will only get worse. Within a year he will be out of the majors, then he will play for a while in Japan, where a predilection for alcohol will bloom into fullblown addiction, that eroding realm where one wrong turn gives way to the next and the next and the next until getting back to where you started begins to seem impossible.

But there is some resolve in Clyde Wright’s face, too. This is after all the first Angel to ever pitch a no-hitter (Correction: As pointed out in the comments below, the great Bo Belinsky actually pitched the first Angels no-hitter.), and the team's second ever 20-game winner, and still the holder of the franchise record for most wins in a season by a lefty. And this is the man who did in fact fight his way back out of all the wrong turns and spiraling, waning cul de sacs, who eventually got sober (he now runs the Clyde Wright Pitching School back in Anaheim). So even though in the nowhere moment of this card he is on the brink of slipping off into oblivion there is something in his tense features that hints of his unwillingness to quietly disappear. And this troubled battler seems to be pointing.

When I woke up this morning, early, teetering between dream-weighted sleep and an unholdable helium day, my gaze drifted past Clyde Wright toward the background of this card. Clyde Wright was trying to point back into my life.

“Don’t come this way,” he seemed to be saying.

But then again he had his glove hand open and nothing in it, as if he required me to grab hold of the day as if it were a baseball and throw it at his target, as if he required me to not turn around and walk away but rather to join him in his world. The day ended up swelling and slipping from my grasp and here I am, once again, inside another Cardboard God landscape, wandering the labyrinth of paths that all eventually dissolve into infinity beyond the falling Angel.

(continued in Ed Crosby)

Hank Aaron
2007-08-08 08:31
by Josh Wilker

"I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball's career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment which requires skill, longevity and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams." -Hank Aaron, 8/07/07

I just finished reading The Soul of Baseball, Joe Posnanski's excellent book about a year spent traveling around America with a 94-year-old Buck O'Neil. I highly recommend the book (as well as Posnanski's brilliant, enjoyable blog). One section in the book covers O'Neil's reactions to the congressional hearings on steroids in baseball in 2005. O'Neil, who as many know was an excellent player and manager in the Negro Leagues, the first African American coach in the major leagues, a renowned scout whose signings included Lou Brock, Joe Carter, and (most importantly for myself and other children of the '70s) the awe-inspiring Oscar Gamble, and an unmatched storyteller, historian, and ambassador for the game, was both drawn to and pained by the congressional hearings. In his mind, no one was being asked in those hearings to speak for baseball. O'Neil's life was a glowing illustration of his belief that baseball was religion, but his views on steroid use were far from preachy; he knew that baseball players had always looked for an edge any way they could, and the only reason steroids hadn't been used back in his day was because they hadn't been available. Still, he found the steroid hearings wrenching, as if his beloved game had been thrown in a stockade at the center of town and was now being pelted with stinking, rotten fruit. 

Many people still sense a rotten stink on the game. Many people are bitter about the game they once loved. Buck O'Neil had as much opportunity to be bitter about baseball as anyone. He was not given the chance to be a major league player even though he was good enough. He was not given the chance to be a major league manager even though he was good enough. In his last year of life he was shockingly left out of a large collection of Negro Leaguers who were at long last enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame. But he was never bitter, choosing instead to focus on finding and nourishing life and love, two rivers which to him kept intersecting again and again in his favorite game. Buck O'Neil was a great man.

My first thought when I found out this morning that the home run record had been broken was "so what?" Then I watched the video of the home run and was a little repelled by the record-breaker's home-plate-touching moment, when he seemed almost oblivious to his son, who was hugging him. (Instead of hugging back, the record-holder focused on pointing with his bulging arms at the sky. I guess I hate religion if it means sons go unhugged.) (Author note/update: as pointed out by a couple readers in the comments below, he was actually pointing toward and thinking about his dad.) But anyway the bitterness dissolved when I saw the words of a man who, like Buck O'Neil, might have real cause to be bitter. They are noble words, classy words, and they're true words, too. As unappealing as you or I might find the current record-holder, he did show a ton of "skill, longevity and determination." He is also, 'roids or not, the most fearsome hitter I've ever seen. Barry Bonds is a great baseball player. 

Hank Aaron is a great man.

Terry Puhl
2007-08-07 06:05
by Josh Wilker

There’s no way to pinpoint the moment depicted in this 1980 card, but it seems that Terry Puhl is considering whether to try for the next base or return to the one he’s already crossed. His body language seems to suggest that he’s leaning toward a cautious return rather than a gutsy, barreling, Enos Slaughteresque assault on the extra base. Why take chances? Proceed with caution, avoid mistakes: It’s the proofreaderly way of Terry Puhl, who years after the last of his many error-free games is still the all-time major league leader in fielding percentage for an outfielder.

When I was a kid Terry Puhl was my favorite Astro, which was particularly significant because in the late 1970s and early 1980s the Astros were one of the three National League "mistress" teams that I rendezvoused with periodically in my mind to ease the pain of my marriage to the Boston Red Sox, a marriage that was going through a particularly sour and disillusioning period. The other two teams were the Expos, who played as close to my Vermont home as the Red Sox, and the Mets, who I got to see every summer during visits to see my dad in New York. The relative proximity of the Expos and the familiarity of the Mets explained those two extramarital dabblings. As for the Astros, I suppose I was drawn to them because in their blindingly bright uniforms, in their faraway location, and most especially in their style of play they offered the complete opposite of the gray, slow, plodding, fatally flawed, all-hit, no-pitch, Last Days of Yastrzemski Red Sox.

But for some reason among all the rainbowy tripling Astros I liked the somewhat colorless Terry Puhl the best, and I’m not at all sure why. He hit for a good, but not great, average. He had some power, but not really that much. He stole some bases, enough to have easily led the trudging Red Sox but not nearly enough to make a mark on the league leaders, or even to put him past the top two or three guys on his own team. In 1980 I got my first set of Stratomatic cards, so I began to appreciate that he was also a good, but not great fielder (an above-average "2" in both left and right field, an average "3" in center, with a decent but unspectacular "0" throwing arm), and that he of course hardly ever made an error. He was, I don’t know, the epitome of being pretty good. I don’t know why I would have gravitated toward that. Don’t most kids idolize either superstars or oddball Shlabotnikian benchwarmers? I’m not saying Terry Puhl was my favorite player in the world, because even though my love for the Red Sox had become at best complicated and at worst a joyless march of obligation I still loved them above all else, but in the buoyant fantasy where the entire Red Sox franchise from the remnants of the Yawkey family on down to Gary Allenson and the batboys tragically crash-landed into the Himalayas, leaving me a sports-team widower, Terry Puhl and the Astros would be there to help me learn to live again.

It's possible I gravitated toward Terry Puhl because I was a very cautious kid. Maybe I’ll write another novel about my childhood someday and call it Portrait of the Proofreader as a Young Man. In it you’ll see me on family downhill skiing outings where my older brother skis fast and wipes out often while I avoid the expert slopes and snowplow down the intermediate hills, crouched and stiff like Terry Puhl on the brink of deciding not to press his luck, as in the above photo. You’ll see my brother at school and elsewhere getting into arguments and fistfights and occasionally even talking to girls and beyond that once in a great while getting to kiss them while I stick to the fringes and gradually master invisibility. The book will open when my brother and I are both very young, the day my brother gets hit by a car and breaks both his legs while running for an ice cream truck. I’m told I was there watching, but I don’t remember this. Maybe it’s one of those repressed memories. If that’s true it may explain in part why I have often retreated to the safe base to wait for someone else to make something happen.

Sid Monge
2007-08-05 13:13
by Josh Wilker

In 1979, Sid Monge became the first Mexican-born pitcher to make a major league all-star team. This is according to my always potentially faulty research, which entailed the persual of the list of Mexican-born major leaguers at (Bobby Avila seems to have been the first from the list to make an all-star team as a position player.) 

Monge did not play in the 1979 All Star Game, the American League manager choosing to look elsewhere for pitchers to finish out the game after starter Nolan Ryan got touched up for 3 runs in his only 2 innings. According to, the American League manager that year was Bob Lemon, which seems fitting since Lemon had been at the helm of the Yankees the previous October when the New Yorkers had claimed their second straight World Series title. But Lemon had been fired by George Steinbrenner a month prior to the 1979 All Star Game. I would have thought his replacement on the Yankees, Billy Martin, would then have been summoned to manage the American League, but apparently Bob Lemon was called back into active duty to fulfill the final obligation of a pennant-winning manager. What did Bob Lemon wear for this game, I wonder? His town's slo-pitch softball uniform? A too-tight Indians jersey from his long-ago playing days? Shorts and a T-shirt?

Perhaps his month away from the game prevented Lemon from gaining any direct knowledge of Sid Monge's surging skills as a left-handed relief ace, and perhaps this lack of knowledge made Lemon shy away from attempting to utter the mysterious word Monge into the phone that connected the dugout to the bullpen (while also shying away from Monge's American League teammate and companion in pronunciation ambiguity, Dave Lemanczyk) to instead order up guys listed on his roster whose names could be easily enunciated without fear of embarassment: Stanley, Clear, Kern, and, finally, the Yankee ace Lemon had relied on the previous year, Guidry. None of the pitchers called on instead of Monge came through; only Guidry escaped without being charged with a run, but he surrendered a bases-loaded walk before recording his only out. Still, judging from this photo Sid Monge harbored no bitterness over not getting a chance to pitch in the midsummer classic. He stands tall and proud, a man who has gone farther than any of his countrymen in his chosen field.