Category Archives: childhood baseball memories

Gibberish, Nonsense, and Baseball Cards

Every night, around 10:00, I swallow melatonin and then turn off my phone. Soon after, I jump in the shower so the melatonin has some time to set in. After the shower, I lay in bed and do some light reading–nothing that requires active thought or making difficult conceptual connections (in this case it was Stephen King’s son who goes by the nom de plume Joe Hill) as the goal is to wind down. Yet despite this fickle routine, sleep eluded me and I tossed and turned all night before finally deciding that it just wasn’t going to work out. I resolved to watch some Japanese baseball and it was a moment of perfection as the Chunichi Dragons and the Yomiuri Giants were headed into extra innings. Watching baseball seems to liberate me from the emotional tangle of subdued melancholy and the long-ago forgotten past that is so scratched up that it skips when played, always materializing to haunt me in the witching hour when one should be dead to the world and swimming in the abstract. Ultimately, the Dragons pulled it out 3-2 in 10 innings as the players felt compelled to run choreograph routines while clutching stuffed animals and bowing to the fans in a light-hearted and victorious fashion. What’s the point of all this? Nothing. Just….nothing.

My buddy Mark over at the impeccable Retro Simba sent me a bunch of 1970s Oakland A’s baseball cards in the mail, and I had the right mind to send one out to Darold Knowles to be autographed before receiving the cardboard beauty back 3 weeks later. The highlight of Mr. Knowles’ career would probably be the World Series in 1973 against the Queens borough Mutts (I can still hear the echo of esteemed baseball writer Roger Angell in my head, resentful about Willie Mays’ exit from the Giants and condemning him in a NY pinstriped, double-knit polyester uni) in which he became the first pitcher to appear in all 7 games and had a sparkling ERA of zero. That’s pretty good stuff right there.

Knowles was on the mound for the last out, (retiring Wayne Garrett on a looper to Campaneris–his only batter–with the tying runners on) relieving Rollie Fingers and earning the save. Other notables: Clint Eastwood threw out the first pitch, Lou Rawls sang the National Anthem, and the number one hit was Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia.” In another strange twist– while researching this piece, I was jolted into remembering that I met the loser of this game, John Matlack, 30 years earlier when he was a pitching coach for the now-defunct Las Vegas Stars. I still have that autograph, permanently pressed onto a flimsy 1981 Fleer, stashed away somewhere.

An Ode To The Coliseum

“As a friend once said to me about getting old: what a strange thing to happen to a little boy.”–Paul Auster

The soon-to-be-extinct “piss trough.”

My grandfather took me to my first baseball game at the tender age of 10. There was no literal hand-holding, strategic explanations, or silver-spoon procurement. That just wasn’t his style. If I wanted to figure out the game I had to do it myself. If I wanted some food, well, here’s some money and go fetch it. There was Darwinian Law in effect here, and as far as I know, no child had ever been abducted at a baseball game. The law of averages were on my side, however, as I was left to my own devices, fortuitously discovering a piece to the puzzle while creating soon-to-be-clouded, timeworn memories in that long-ago foreign land known as the 1980’s. 

There was very little small talk and every so often the solitude would be broken by the snap of a Bic lighter touching a Marlboro cigarette. This was a time before the fancy new novelty stadiums with their retractable roof, craft beer, gourmet food, and yuppies making corporate deals in skyboxes. One afternoon a woman was nailed in the head by a foul ball and a group of freedom-loving, scurrying, rat-children (who would hang around the opposing bullpen before games to brutally heckle the starting pitcher while the ushers smiled with approval) gathered around what resembled a murder scene. She was battered and bloodied in the aisle, and it looked as if she had been shot in the forehead. There’s nothing to see here, said her husband. 

When I eventually had to go to the bathroom I was astonished as men were herded in like cattle to a room that smelled like beer, cigarettes, and vomit, all the while whipping out their dongs publicly to pee in what can only be described as a “large rectangular sink.” I would rather die than make a side-glance. Your very life depended on staring at that tiny pin fragment of wall in front of you. You had to embrace yourself in the warmth of your own microcosm for a moment before the vigorous shake, shiver, and hasty exit. Never acknowledge another’s hose/existence while in this slippery and pungent world that seemed to encapsulate the sporting event as a proletarian undertaking.

I’m going to miss the Oakland Mausoleum when it’s gone. It’s exactly what I look for in a baseball stadium. A classic feeling, a potent memory, and a working-class nostalgia. A piss trough in a dirty bathroom, hustlers selling unlicensed knockoffs in the parking lot, a hotdog on a stale bun, overpriced Budweiser, the faint smell of marijuana, broken plastic seats, and a field open to the high blue sky and blazing Northern California sun. 

Just as my grandfather used to watch games.

The First World Pit of Hell

It has many stories

I wasn’t close to my father, who was a rather opaque person. He wasn’t unkind — I mean, he didn’t have any malicious thoughts toward me, just a kind of a vague indifference. Eventually, I started to feel the same, even forgetting for years at a time that even he existed. One day, out of tremendous boredom, I decided to stalk him on the internet, and there was only one thing: a news interviewer asking him why he thought the water in the port near his home was so green. He didn’t really know, but remembered swimming in the muck as a small boy, thinking nothing of it. I was instantly regretful and ashamed of this action, as he was never even slightly concerned if my life was filled with laughter, love, or deep purpose–a few moments of internet searching constituted too much effort on my part.

Many hours later I was a little (majorly) tipsy and tired of swimming in the salty sea of regret and memories when I did what anybody in that situation does–I turned to internet consumer therapy. I have been a Nordstroms credit card holder for several years now and have always had good standing on my account, so I decided to buy a brand new A’s cap since I had worn the same one since 2010. I spent nearly 30 minutes placing an order only for it to be canceled 5 minutes later. I then spent 30 minutes on the phone with an operator who decided I should restart the entire process again. In conclusion, I decided to stick with the soiled, banged-up cap I’ve had since 2010. I had a guy spill an expensive, local, craft-brewed, 15 dollar beer on it in Seattle trying to catch a foul ball in what could be called a mosh pit within a legion of outstretched hands, and you can’t replicate those types of lovely memories. (In the end, yours truly caught that ball)

Please accept our apology for the inconvenience.” At times that feels like a representation of what I feel about the world and how I’ve observed the mechanics of reality: but it was only a baseball cap they were speaking of. I decided to rate them 1 star and thought it was amusing how we are constantly rating things on a five-star scale: from movies, hotels, Uber drivers, Amazon gift cards, and even The Statue of Liberty. (How do you rate her?) This has just been one of those days. It feels like a game of MadLibs where you are sort of blindly filling in the blanks and hoping it makes sense in the end. There is a keen sense of raw honesty and ironic detachment filling me as the sun beats down like a goofy friend with a Peter Tosh record, a pat on the back, and some words of encouragement.

Goodbye Sacramento

A nice, quiet place for a drink.

“One of the most endearing things about baseball history is that it’s so packed with bullshit.” –John Thorn, MLB official historian

Joe Marty’s is a small-ish little bar and grill stuffed to the gills with baseball memorabilia located on a hobo-strewn, dusty section of Broadway in Sacramento, California. It isn’t uncommon to see a few meth needles lying around; the old Chinese ladies with shopping carts and straw hats are oblivious to the nefarious items as they go about their business of poking stray cans from garbage bins in filth infested alleys. This street was the hip place to be at one time, high school kids would cruise in low riders up and down the street trying to hook up with a hot girl or guy, but that was 40-some odd years ago.

There used to be a P.C.L. ballpark a few blocks away, but a wayward cigarette caught fire with a peanut and, poof, up it went in a ball of flames in 1948: a metaphor for a city that can, like a petulant child, never seem to take care of the nice things that it gets. Today, a Target store sits where the ballpark used to be, with the bodies of the forefathers of the city neatly tucked away in the earth for over 150 years in the cemetery across the street.

I was at Joe’s for Game 7 when the Cubbies finally kicked the billy goat in the face and won their first World Series in over 100 years– not the first American institution to be seemingly forever mired in a curse, as this seems to be the lot in life for the rich just much as the poor in a heartless, money-hungry mechanism such as ours. Erstwhile, they say every dog has their day, and I had a shit-eating grin on my face as the swarms of Cubs fans jumped around me in transcendent jubilation: as someone who enjoys seeing a rarity such as pure and unadulterated glee, I was also enjoying it historically as something more rare than Haley’s Comet or a sober Irishman. I felt that I was a kindred spirit to the ghosts that had suffered with this team and were no doubt sleeping more peacefully even though their lives had been long forgotten. I drunkenly kissed an Indians fan clad in Chief Wahoo amid the fracas although she was too young too know Albert Belle and didn’t seem too be broken up about the game. Do you think she was from Cleveland?

 

Anyone Remember the 90’s?

Ah, the vivid and interlocking web of life.

Around 1993-1995 I completely lost interest in baseball. Being in my early 20’s, my childhood interests waned and became passé–as they tend to do–and in my delusional mind, my new interests were a bit more sophisticated and engaging in an era that offered no safe landings. My interests in music and punk rock chiefly were blossoming into a near obsession. In addition to joining a garage band,  I was also delving into the often knotty literary and modern art worlds: doing my duty as a young person trying to “figure it all out” with a speculating, cynical and sometimes critical mind.  And as much as I loved to scan the box scores and catch a game or two, I just didn’t have time anymore with my band-mates, job, and girlfriend needing my immediate and rapt attention while I was learning how to piss standing up as a screwed-up human being in the paint-by-numbers slacker jungle I had created for myself. 

***

F. Scott Fitzgerald thought that one of his pals had invested too much time writing about baseball. “A boys game,” Fitzgerald said, “with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bounded by walls which kept out novelty or danger, change or adventure.” I couldn’t stomach Fitzgerald’s stuffy writing and disagreed vehemently with this statement. (I valued Descartes’s opinions much more, and wasn’t his vocation to think about thinking?…the absolute essence of the game)

So after reading a tiny smattering of the classics: Genet, Hemingway, Hesse, Didion, Auster (yes, and even that Post-Burroughs/Warhol/Patti Smith deluge we all overdosed on in our late teens/twenties) –I decided one day through a haze of mar-eee-wanna smoke that baseball was indeed a cerebral sport more suited to a literary rather than pictorial culture and returned to it for the ’96 season. The A’s were still the same pile of dung that I had flushed 3 years earlier, finishing 3rd in the West with a 78-84 record, but the game was interesting to me again, even fun. It was a catharsis that I hadn’t needed before as my identity was becoming more complex and fluid. 

***

This was to be Mark McGwire’s last full year with the “Elephants” (his trade the next year was devastating and truly the end of my childhood) and he finished with 52 homers. This was also Jason Giambi’s first full year and he finished with a pathetic (for that time) 20 round-trippers. I attribute this to youth and the lack of steroids–a reputation that would turn out to haunt both players. Terry Steinbach was typically solid behind the dish; and a fan favorite with a funny name, Geronimo Berroa was coming into his own. There was also a curious player, Ernie Young, who hit 19 homers that season, never to hit more than 5 in any other season in his career.

***

As I enjoyed another season of watching my lovable losers, I decided that baseball not only doesn’t acknowledge the passage of time, it ignores it. Then began my post-adolescent and lifelong obsession with the game that has taken over my daily existence with mind-boggling statistics and a mystifying yet comfortably unorthodox visual affair. I find that the more I know about this game, the less I know about this game. It keeps unfolding in ways I could never imagine, offering the viewer roller-coaster emotions, knee-jerk reactions, blissful states, and unadulterated anger in the vile pits of hell. This cruel game can also make an atheist recite prayer and a logical individual superstitious without apology or regret. Time seems to stand still and then speeds up again, with the changing of the seasons in the forefront amidst implied mortality–and shaping a world in which play seems vital. 

Canseco and Cap’n Crunch

I was standing in the queue at the local health food store with my basket full of over-priced, organic, local, vegan, cage-free crap when suddenly I was struck by a haze of fog known as boredom reminiscing. This phenomenon, where synapses are sparked by everyday mundane activities, usually inwardly projects me back to the 80’s and a much more simple time before parents became enlightened helicopters and kids started bringing guns to school to solve their commonplace problems.

While in this haze I’m begging my mother to buy me Cap’n Crunch, if only because of the 2 free baseball cards inside. She obviously isn’t very modern, (alas, this is the 80’s, stick with me here) so the term organic isn’t part of her everyday verbiage, and her idea of a “healthy snack” would be a syrupy granola bar with chocolate chips or a sludgy, faux-cherry fruit cup. The only reason she’s debating this is because she can buy the very same, generic version at a much, much cheaper price by the hideously uninspired name of Crispy Crunch. Well, this was a complication of epic proportions for a 12 year old. There was no chance of getting a fucking Jose Canseco or Mark McGwire card in a box of Crispy Crunch. What to do?

I’m startled out of this mini psychedelic trip by the impatient, too-cool-for-school checker with dreadlocks and a Nirvana t-shirt. She had been calling out to me, and like an idiot I was standing there, in a daze, thinking about the time I wanted to eat a box of sugar- laden crap in order to obtain pieces of cardboard with the likeness of guys who injected steroids in their ass so they could look like Greek Gods, break a bunch of records and hit the ball out of the goddamn stratosphere.

Wasn’t it great?

Even more self indulgent childhood memories

Childhood often walks the fine-line between the blissful and boring, and Big League Chew was an integral part of the blissful “baseball experience” that my friends and I so desperately wanted to be part of as young boys. We would scan our stacks of baseball cards and see players like Lenny Dykstra and Tony Gwynn with a not-so-subtle, chipmunk-like slab of tobacco stuck in their cheeks as they posed, bat skillfully wielded in the lazy, sun bleached spring training summer–and we wanted to emulate that with pink, shrouded shreds of sugar-coated goodness. We were hip to the insider culture that only the pros knew about; at least in our own minds.

My parents were insanely cheap; and this didn’t seem to be strange at all as most parents of the 80’s seemed to adhere to this doctrine. My friends and I decided that we would need to be enterprising, so our destiny was to knock on doors and sheepishly ask the neighborhood psychos if we could have the pleasure of raking their lawns for 5 dollars. The riches would be immediately spent a mere four blocks away at the appropriately named Happy Market for some Big League Chew and a couple of packs of baseball cards. The leftover dough would be used to rent a movie that was skillfully chosen in VHS form from the Movie Hut down the street for 1.99 a day, and if we were lucky had the name Schwarzenegger or Van Damme on the box. The solitary zit-faced teen wearing an Iron Maiden shirt at the counter would look up my mom’s rental information on the ancient IBM computer and oblige out of boredom or indifference.

I recently walked around the old neighborhood for the first time in over 20 years. The houses still looked the same, as if time had never happened. There’s where I used to wait for the bus. That’s where I got into a fight with Tim C. There’s where I used to shoot hoops for hours. That’s where a kid’s father told another kid to “fuck off” and ran over his skateboard.

It was a quiet neighborhood and I was hoping my younger self would walk out of my old house so I could tell him about all the wonderful adventures he would have in the future and warn him about all the disasterous mistakes to avoid. I would tell him to forget his anxieties concerning adulthood and to enjoy the simplicity, lack of corruption and absolute wonder of his life at that moment.

Some thoughts about the game.

“I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms and Isadora Duncan… The only Church that truly feeds the soul, day in and day out, is the Church of Baseball.” —Annie Savoy in the film “Bull Durham.”

Those who’ve paid any attention perceive that taste, values, ideas, style and behavior are dispensable criteria of class. Donald Trump is an instructive specimen in this regard. Overall, class structure is one hell of a thing. It defines who we are from the cars we drive, the television shows we watch, the clothes we wear, the neighborhoods we live in, even the food we eat. I thought nothing about these things as a child, hell, who does? You wake from a slumber, go to school, come home, eat some macaroni and cheese, play baseball until the sun goes down, and then repeat…ad infinitum. ( you can throw a few ass whippings in there for good measure; i was a rebellious spirit)

And like every other red-blooded American boy, I idolized baseball players, never questioning the ethics or morals of my heroes. How could they be so “bad?” I knew nothing about drug use, (Darryl Strawberry, Josh Hamilton) D.U.I.’S, ( Miguel Cabrera, Coco Crisp, Adam Kennedy) wife-beating, ( Milton Bradley, Alberto Callaspo, Brett Myers) tax evasion ( Darryl Strawberry, Pete Rose) or even murder ( Julio Machado, Ugueth Urbina) These things were done by OTHER people who weren’t associated with me and my family, and never the twain shall meet. I learned quite quickly through the buying and trading of baseball cards about the true nature of the human condition. (of which my parents weren’t exempt) These little pieces of cardboard had taught me deceit, unfair business practices, price manipulation, collusion, restraint of trade, extortions, pay- offs, bribes, plagiarism, and false hype. Soon thereafter, as I entered my early teens I started to understand privilege, advantage and wealth as the Yankees had started to define it in ways that were bigger than the world of baseball: my life consisted of old, out of style clothes, pot pies for dinner and late night parental arguments over bills.

I would like to thank baseball for teaching me these valuable lessons. The beautiful game is rich with juxtapositions and historical aspects that go beyond stats, OBP’s, WHIPS, and World Series titles. It is a game that teaches you to slow down, as it can be played in the mind as well as on the field. It is a game of anticipation, a game that erupts in a sudden explosion of action, then slows down again, giving us time to savor what we have seen, and to give us time to think about what we are going to see. It shows you that you are not perfect, and that you don’t have to be. It also teaches you to enjoy your lot in life whether you be a HOF er or a .220 hitter. It teaches you that no matter how much you think you know, you should always learn MORE. It teaches you to love and cherish something that was loved and cherished by a father or grandfather, and that you love and cherish in return.  I have long since stopped putting these guys on a gold pedestal, and it has enriched my life in ways no home run ball, autograph, or season ticket could ever match.

Victor French and the A’s cap in the pantheon of popular culture.

French’s beat-up, snap-backed “dad hat,” may be the most famous Athletics cap of all time.

As a child who grew up in the seventies, I’m flabbergasted at the degree of generational differences in health, medicine, food, safety, and general well-being of children. We had no internet, cell phones, computers or video games…but let’s get down to the brass tacks about something really important that we did have…television.

Highway to Heaven was a television show that ran from 1984-1989. At that time, I was just coming into my own as an imaginative, shy, and loner pre-teen who hadn’t even learned how to bop his bologna yet. Television was sort of a meditative time for me as I didn’t watch it very often, (we entertained ourselves through peer interaction and physical activity.) and one of my favorite shows was Highway to Heaven.

The synopsis of the show was that Michael Landon (right) is an angel sent down to earth to help the downtrodden and oppressed.  The angel picks up a scuzzy-looking human partner along the way (Victor French, left) to help him out and generally be his driver and to give cynical advice. (these two were also co-stars on the insanely popular, Little House on the Prairie, a show that confused and baffled me as a small child while watching it with my aunt.) French was rarely seen without his old, beat-up A’s cap on the show, and I remember thinking that it was so strange that an A’s fan would be helping an angel. As in, the (then) California Angels, who are the A’s divisional rival. The show was sappy and didn’t stop shoving life lessons at you, in turn, a squeaky clean inspirational series that doesn’t tend to get much airplay anymore in a TV world clogged with police beat-downs, reality shows, and Kardashians. Landon’s angel wants us to believe in the goodness of people. Most of the episodes dipped into a rich, creamy schmaltz which was pretty good stuff for a young idiot in the 1980s.

French was a heavy smoker who died in 1989 at 54 of lung cancer. The two were close, and when French died Landon was so devastated that he stopped producing the show. Landon died in 1991 of pancreatic cancer, a sad day in Hollywood as he was seen as one of the more charming and good-hearted actors in a world of phonies and narcissists.

 

Jack Kerouac and baseball.

“Writers are a different breed of lonely and resistant re-arrangers of things; anxious malcontents,  children afflicted at birth with some presentiment of loss.” –Joan Didion

 Before I turn this entry into a slander against greedy owners, bitchy players, or “literary” based baseball blogs whose editors couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag, I  would like to take a short walk down memory lane….

Jack Kerouac was a “be-bop” writer in the 1950s and one of my heroes as a teenager. I tried to dress like him, (khakis, newsboy hat, white t’s) and even did funny things like taking hallucinogenic mushrooms in cemeteries and writing introspective poetry. Although my admiration had waned for “Ti Jean” by the time I had reached my 30’s, I was astounded when I had learned Kerouac had devised a fantasy baseball game as a child. The game was based on a set of cards that had precise verbal descriptions of various outcomes (“slow roller to SS or 2B,” for example), depending on the skill levels of the pitcher and batter. The game could be played using cards alone, although sometimes Kerouac determined the result of a pitch by tossing some sort of projectile at a diagramed chart on the wall. In 1956 he switched to a new set of cards, which used hieroglyphic symbols instead of descriptions. He collected their stats, analyzed their performances, and wrote about them in homemade newsletters and broadsides.

I, too, had played a similar game as a child, using baseball cards, dice, and statistics; (this was how I figured out the E.R.A., an arduous task as a boy) keeping track of careers (this involved ungodly amounts of paper), sending players to the minors (yes, I had minor league systems too!) and conducting drafts. It was sort of therapeutic to find out that one of my idols had done something so cerebral and individualistic with the same obsessive quality that I had.  This was a testament to my love for the game and a secret I had held close until now.