Baseball Toaster Cardboard Gods
Monthly archives: August 2008


Dan Uggla
2008-08-29 14:38
by Josh Wilker
Untitled I Walk the (Mendoza) Line
(continued from Mark Corey)

Chapter Four
You can't walk the (Mendoza) line without knowing about slumps. I know about slumps. Hot streaks, not so much. But lately I’ve been experiencing a certain familiar variety of cheap luck that’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to a hot streak. It’s nothing to go crazy about. I’ve been finding things on the ground.

As you may recall, I had a similar phase a couple months ago that led me to the discovery on Golf Road of a scattering of shredded 2008 baseball cards, including the above fragment of Dan Uggla. This time I haven’t found any baseball cards, just 40 cents on an elevated train platform, then another dime later in the day on the carpet near the bathroom at my job, then on my walk home after work a beaten-up small white business card on the sidewalk that read, in its entirety, DR. REAM IT IN AND OUT.

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Mark Corey
2008-08-27 13:25
by Josh Wilker
I Walk the (Mendoza) Line
continued from Tom Paciorek

Chapter Three
Things started moving too fast for me in 1981, the same year I loosened my grip on the Cardboard Gods. I was 13. I bought a few packs of cards that year, no more, so I didn’t get the 1981 Orioles Future Stars card featuring Mike Boddicker, Floyd Rayford, and Mark Corey. It was the third year in a row in which Mark Corey appeared for Topps in a group portrait with other hopefuls. Had I seen the 1981 version of the card I might have wondered if Mark Corey had somehow found a way to make time stand still, to remain forever in a hypothetical world, the future always far off and golden. But even perpetual Future Star Mark Corey couldn’t find the stop button on this ride. We all are carried forward. In September of 1981 Corey got the last of his three brief tastes of the major leagues, going 0 for 8 and bringing his career batting average down to .211, perilously close to the Mendoza Line. Me, I entered ninth grade.

One of my classes was biology, which included a mix of ninth and tenth graders. The ninth graders were supposed to be the smart kids, the ones able to skip the earth science class the rest of the ninth graders were taking and go straight to the hard stuff. But though I liked the teacher, a gentle bearded former hippie named Mr. Brukhardt, I found the work both uninteresting and baffling and started falling farther and farther behind. I sat in front of two Bubble Yum-popping tenth grade girls who said I looked funny because my feet were too big. The class, in my memory, is a blur of incomprehensible concepts and the guts of upturned pickled frogs. In the end I passed the class, but with the worst mark I’d yet received, that most leaden of grades, a D.  

My mother suggested I take it again. By then it had been decided that I’d go away to boarding school in 11th grade, where things were sure to start moving even faster. My mom reasoned that I would do well to build a strong foundation in science knowledge before I had to face the major league fastball of a science class in boarding school. It sounded OK to me. I was intuitively attracted to anything that resembled the stopping of time. I regretted the decision on the first day, when Mr. Brukhardt started taking role. My name was near the end of the alphabet. By then my stomach had started to hurt.

“Josh?” Mr. Brukhardt said, looking up, surprised. “What are you doing here?”

Throughout elementary school, I had been a promising student, a kid with potential. A Prospect. Maybe even a Future Star. But as Mr. Brukhardt looked up at me, baffled, I felt the last of that promise crumble. I felt big and clumsy, a dunderhead.

Halfway through the semester I was reminded again of my status as a repeater when we started a class-wide investigation of a hypothetical problem involving a pond where all the fish were dying. We’d done the investigation the year before. It was one of the few things I’d enjoyed about the class. A mystery! Mr. Brukhardt had the presence of mind to pause in his introduction of the project. He looked at me. I sat in the back with a couple of my academically mediocre 10th-grade buddies. At the end of the year I’d get drunk for the first time with them, guzzling rum and coke in the little league dugouts.

“Now Josh," Mr. Brukhardt said, "don’t give the answer away."

It's not a good feeling, knowing the answer. You’d think it might be but it isn’t.

(to be continued)

Tom Paciorek
2008-08-25 14:12
by Josh Wilker

I Walk the (Mendoza) Line
(continued from Bill Plummer)

Chapter Two
Thanks in part to Tom Paciorek, there's a term for the borderline between just barely getting by and not getting by at all. Some say Paciorek coined this term, but Paciorek himself claims that he heard the term—which alluded to the .200 batting average that a Mariner teammate always seemed to be either just above or just below—from a third Mariner, Bruce Bochte. Either way it seems to have been Paciorek, a gregarious type, who started spreading the term around, most significantly passing it along to Royals third baseman George Brett, who shared it with ESPN's Chris Berman, who carried news of The Mendoza Line to the rest of the world. Oddly enough, this seems to have transpired in 1980, the year Brett ended up making the most serious charge toward a .400 batting average since the last time the legendary mark was actually reached, in 1941 by Ted Williams. 

Tom Paciorek, like all but two or three living human beings (Brett, Gwynn, Carew), never got close to hitting .400. At the time the card pictured here came out, 1979, he had not hit above .300 in a season either. Conversely, he had hit below .200 once in his career, a mark that may have suggested to Paciorek that the end was always near, which may explain why he so enthusiastically latched onto Bochte's term. Gallows humor. 

The most recent year listed on the back of the card shows that Paciorek hit .299. One more hit in 1978 and the 32-year-old outfielder would have cracked that barrier for the first time in his 8-year career. It's difficult for me to refrain from associating his troubled expression in the photo on the front of the card with the disappointment of just missing that mark.

Below the stats of that .299 season is a single line of text: “Brother of John Paciorek, outfielder with Houston Colt .45’s during 1963.” In 1979, the year I started seventh grade, I was first and foremost a Younger Brother. So it’s likely that the message on the back of Tom Paciorek’s card sent me to the baseball encyclopedia to look up John Paciorek. Anyone who has ever treated the baseball encyclopedia as something of a bible likewise eventually comes to John Paciorek, for John Paciorek is in a way the greatest hitter, or at least the most perfect, ever to grace the pages of that glowing tome. Because of injury his career ended very early, but not before he played in a single game for Houston, going 3 for 3 for a lifetime batting average of 1.000. (In 2007, Jose Morales—no apparent relation to Jose Morales—matched this perfection, but he is only 24 years old and may well have a chance to mar his record and leave John Paciorek alone in 3-hit perfection.)

Tom Paciorek finally did hit over .300 in 1981, finishing second in the batting race. At the end of that year I started a tradition, which I only kept up for a couple of years, of cutting out the final Sunday batting average list from the paper and taping it to my wall. So Paciorek was right at the top of that list, just under Carney Lansford. That was the year I stopped buying baseball cards. That was the year my brother went away to school. That was the year I started living more inside my head than ever before.

That list yellowed and curled in on itself in the years to come, right up until we sold the house and I threw it away, along with most of the other things on my wall. That sale occurred in 1987, Paciorek’s last year. A professional hitter, he batted .283 that year, one point above his lifetime average. He was 40, the same age I am now. Last night I lay in bed, unable to sleep, feeling as if I had arrived at my age via a high-speed train that I had moments earlier boarded as a 24-year-old. 

(to be continued)

Bill Plummer
2008-08-21 13:58
by Josh Wilker

I Walk the (Mendoza) Line
Chapter One

Imagine a border, outs on one side, hits on the other. One side of this border is impenetrable. Each time an out sidles up to the well-armed border guards and asks to cross, the out is forced to produce voluminous documentation and to undergo both an enervating verbal interrogation and a full cavity search. The outs are almost invariably denied entry to a new life as a hit and return humiliated to the hovel they’d abandoned earlier that day. Conversely, all a hit needs to do to cross over to the land of outs is to walk through a ruined fence past a drooping scarecrow dressed in a fading government uniform. It’s hard to be a hit, and hits unable to deal with the pressure of existing as hits feel the pull toward the land of outs, and stumble across the border toward what they rationalize will be no more than one night of freedom from consequences, one night of blissful inebriation and release, but then of course the next morning when they approach the fortress blocking reentry they are seen as just another hopeless out.

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2008-08-19 10:42
by Josh Wilker

Here's a little prayer that the most important Cardboard God of them all is OK. He's been hospitalized with chest pains.

Update: According to the Boston Globe, Yaz will be undergoing bypass surgery.

Al Cowens
2008-08-19 06:22
by Josh Wilker
Baseball was something of a caste system during the Cardboard God era. Here are the winners of the division races during those baseball-obsessed years of my childhood:

Year AL East AL West NL East NL West
1975 Red Sox A's Pirates Reds
1976 Yankees Royals Phillies Reds
1977 Yankees Royals Phillies Dodgers
1978 Yankees Royals Phillies Dodgers
1979 Orioles Angels Pirates Reds
1980 Yankees Royals Phillies




There’s a bit of variation, with four one-time division winners among the 24 possible division crowns, but for the most part the teams heading to the playoffs each year had been there before recently and/or would be there again soon. The years that were my most formative baseball years, 1976 through 1978, highlighted the overall static nature of the era, with only one team, the peaking dynastic Reds in 1976, marring the stranglehold on the divisions of the Phillies, Yankees, Royals, and Dodgers.

Those were the years, for me, that seemed to go on and on. Now the years go by like nothing. It seems to me now that back then each year was an immense expanse, and that the division winners had been the division winners forever and always would be. Because of my hatred for the Yankees this was wrenching to me in terms of the AL East. And judging by my enthusiastic embrace of upstart teams in the NL West (Astros) and NL East (Expos) in the latter stages of this era, I must have found the Phillies and Dodgers dominance stultifying. But I think there was on some level a kind of comfort in having the same teams win every year. I allowed myself to celebrate this comfort in my feelings for the Royals. The Royals could be counted on to kick ass and look cool doing it.

For some reason Al Cowens epitomizes this comforting aspect of my childhood. He was always there, a good player with no discernible weakness on a team loaded with good players with no discernible weaknesses. He could play good defense and fly around the bases and smack sizzling bases-clearing doubles. The entire Royal roster seemed to be like this. They came at teams like a powder blue electrical storm. I didn't like them when they were beating my team, the Red Sox, but other than that I admired them and didn't at all begrudge their stranglehold on the AL West.

In the most static years of the era, the playoffs reinforced the caste system feel, the Royals and Phillies always getting bounced. Finally, in 1980, the Royals and Phillies signaled the teetering of the caste system that would crumble in the coming decade by finally beating their respective torturers, the Yankees and Dodgers. But by then, Al Cowens had moved on from the Royals. I was somewhat stunned to find out just now that Cowens played more years in the majors away from the Royals than he had played with the Royals. To me he'll always be a Royal, just as, strange as it may seem now, after years of franchise irrelevance, the Royals will always be for me a team of stylish, fleet, Cowensesque ass-kickers. The news that Cowens had drifted around for years and years for the Tigers, Angels, and Mariners was almost as jarring to me as the news that this symbol of one of the more stable aspects of my childhood passed away back in 2002. He was only 51.

The years are going by too fast.

Jason Varitek
2008-08-15 11:27
by Josh Wilker

Here is a fighter. The captain of my team. Lately he's been going through some tough times on and off the field. I imagine he's not crumpling in the face of his challenges but trying to battle through them.

But me? I’m not a fighter. Here’s my annotated lifetime record of confrontational fiascoes:

1972: A fellow four-year-old shot me with a suction cup dart gun. I wanted to kill him. My mom intervened. I have never gotten over this injustice.

1977: A fellow nine-year-old from my rural town came over to play one day. He was the coolest kid in my class, a rider of minibikes and snow machines, a beebee gun murderer of birds. At my nonviolent back-to-the-land house, boredom quickly set in for him. To break it up he started calling me dufus.

“Don’t call me that,” I said.

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Ramon Vasquez
2008-08-13 09:41
by Josh Wilker
As with the collecting of baseball cards, my brother preceded me as a clerk at 8th Street Wine and Liquor. He found a listing for the job at the NYU employment center and worked there throughout college, then when he was tapering off at the store I started my ragged tenure. Years later, after I’d come and gone at the store, he needed extra money and started picking up some shifts here and there. One night as he entered the store, which by then was on its last legs and almost always empty of customers, the owner and my brother’s coworker for the night were sitting at the desk in the back, site of almost all the billion bullshitting sessions that made that place into one of the best shelters from the relentless passing of time I have ever known (I feel the urge to digress as I talk about it—even talking about it in the first place is a digression, for I meant to speak only and briefly and pointedly about last night’s Red Sox-Rangers game, but sometimes the passing of time seems too cruel and I digress from the point before I even take one step toward making it and no wonder I end up talking about the liquor store, site of years of digression, of sideways expansion, of ingrown soulnails, not just for me but for many other aimless young men who passed months and years leaning on a broom and pretending to know something about wine, and for that reason it should be a historical landmark, or maybe an anti-historical landmark, a shrine to a place where nothing ever really happened, but instead it closed years ago and after a lingerie store came and went the site is now a Korean manicure joint with no trace of the old store visible), and heard the owner, Morty, a World War II combat veteran, speaking quietly, even tenderly, to the young man across the desk from him. My brother, hearing what was being said, paused with his hand on the open door in the classic gape-mouthed fashion of a lowbrow sitcom.

“Listen, Petey,” the owner was murmuring. He reached one of his combat-toughened mitts across the desk. “I too have shit my pants.”

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2008-08-11 08:53
by Josh Wilker
This Ed Kranepool card is softer now than it was a week ago. It still feels pretty sturdy though. In fact, in some ways it seems tougher, as if it would be harder to rip in half than the other 1976 Ed Kranepool card I have, the one that stayed in my shoebox while I kept this Ed Kranepool in my pocket for the entirety of my just concluded week-long trip east. Maybe what seems like damage is something else altogether. Jack Kerouac pointed out that while the word beat in Beat Generation started out meaning "poor, down and out, deadbeat, on the bum, sad . . ." it came to accrue many more meanings, most notably beatific, as if the defeats of life, the beatings, could transform the loser, the beat, into the humble indestructible holy fool of god.

I can’t tell you if that’s true, about beatings leading to adamantine bliss. In fact right now I just feel beat, in the original sense of the slang phrase uttered by smalltime criminal and poet Herbert Huncke to Jack Kerouac (the first time the latter heard the phrase) in Times Square some sixty years ago. I feel a little ill, tired, maybe on the verge of a nasty summertime cold. I sort of deserve it, I guess. On Friday I got only a couple hours sleep after drinking many beers and seeing the Stooges in New York City, then Saturday drove a lot then rode on an airplane then on a train then a shuttle bus then a train then a bus and spent the rest of the day moaning on the toilet from maybe a bad pre-Stooges free hot dog at Rudy’s on 9th Avenue, then yesterday it being August I went to a baseball game back here in Chicago in only a T-shirt and shorts and shivered in the upper deck shade and wind for a long time as my team, the visiting Red Sox, proved that they might not have enough this year, their starting pitcher for the day, Clay Buchholz, beat in the sense of utterly defeated, lost (from today’s Boston Globe: "Once [Buchholz] was dressed yesterday [after the loss], he sat for a few beats, staring into his locker. He got up, missed while trying to kick a towel into a basket, and wandered off toward the back of the clubhouse. He seemed lost, in many ways . . ."). My team is beat, I'm beat, and now it’s back to the daily grind, which for all its unavoidable virtues (roof over head, food in stomach) is very rarely, if ever, going to bloom into the beatific. Whatever, big deal: I went on a vacation and now it’s that steroidal first Monday back. As Iggy might say, boo hoo.

But I still have this Ed Kranepool souvenir of my beatific, or at least interesting, week away. In its creases and fades are a hike up Camel’s Hump in Vermont, some mucky golf some miles south of Camel’s Hump, some mini golf a few hundred yards or so from doomed Shea Stadium, one last trip before the mini golf to Shea Stadium, that old undemanding friend, for a perfect sunny sweaty day drinking beer and cheering for the Mets yet not giving a shit when they lost their lead late and cheering again when they got it back in the bottom of the ninth on a David Wright two-run home run. In the creases of this card also the Stooges show and maybe also all the good moments with loved ones I don’t get to see that often in Vermont and New York, and (I’m rushing now because it's time to go to work) also most of all for the water damage or on the other hand beatitude inflicted or bestowed on this card by a massive flash downpour on me and Ed Kranepool and a friend of mine who has been depressed, the downpour occuring as we walked over the Williamsburg Bridge, no shelter anywhere in sight. As it rained down my friend, who has been getting crushed lately in his mind by the beatings of the past, woke up fully to his old and real and alive road-going self for the first time all day, reveling in the rain beating down.

Ed Kranepool
2008-08-02 02:51
by Josh Wilker
I've been to Shea Stadium many times, and I've never left unhappy. Unlike at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, the other two places where I've witnessed many major league baseball games, the stakes were never very high for me at Shea. Although I rooted for the Mets there, it never mattered that much to me if they didn't get the job done. I was only ever there to get out of the day. In that way it's a special place to me, a friend who never demanded anything but who was always there if you needed someone to hang out with. A mensch. I'll be sad to see it go.

You don't hear that much about this being the last year of Shea, at least not compared to the bombast of the extended elegaic farewell being offered to the other stadium in New York. They call that other place The House That Ruth Built, a moniker that communicates the deep aura of history and legend surrounding that structure. They don't call Shea anything and never have, at least as far as I know. But maybe in this its last few weeks, to parallel the more well-known stadium in the Bronx, it can become known as The Building Where Ed Kranepool Resided for Quite a While. 

For many, many years, Shea Stadium did not exist without Ed Kranepool, a member of the original Mets in 1962. He is shown here in 1976, fourteen years later and still with a ways yet to go in his Mets career as a part-time first baseman. He has just completed his best year, batting .323 in 325 at-bats, but one gets the sense from his expression that he is not putting much stock in the sizzling batting average. Some days you do OK, some days you don't. This is the unflappable credo of Kranepool, the tough, humble survivor, the reliable friend, the mensch.

Anyway, I'm going to be taking the next week to travel. No work, no writing. Part of the trip will be one last happy baseball game at Shea. I'm bringing this card of ol' Ed Kranepool with me.