Saturday, October 01, 2011

Catcher of the Future, Groupie of the Past (The Real Real Joel Skinner Story) by Dr. Nancy Golden

Sometimes it’s telling to reach back and revisit how things started. Sometimes…not so much.

This one started between classes, beside my locker, 11th grade. We were just a few weeks into the baseball season and the guy with the locker next to me, a Red Sox fan, was systematically going through the Yankee lineup relating to me how each of them sucked. I, in turn, would counter each accusation with an anecdote of their awesomeness. It was trash talking at its purist: a declaration of the sucking of one team or player by Party A, followed by a refutation with supporting evidence by Party B. We sparred like this all the way around the bases until we got to the catcher, Joel Skinner. Joel Skinner? I had never heard of him. Nevertheless, I defended his honor as if he were Don Mattingly or Dave Winfield, or hell, even Mike Pagliarulo.

“His hitting will pick up,” I countered. “And besides, he’s a great defensive catcher.” It was easy to make shit up. Anyone practiced in trash talking can do this.

That night at home, I looked up the stats on Joel Skinner. And not on Google or Back then we opened the Sports Section of the New York Times and checked the stats box. And the next day we checked the stats box again to see if anything changed. And, wow, this guy really couldn’t hit. I wondered how long the Yankees would let this go on, let a guy hit below .100. Here in New York, in the major leagues. But then these weren’t the Yankees of Joe Torre and Derek Jeter and fistfuls of championship rings. These were the Yankees of my youth, of their long pennant-free draught that was the 80’s. Perhaps this was all they could come up with.

As it turned out, Joel Skinner really was a great defensive catcher. I learned this as I began following him, watching his at-bats, listening to the announcers try to accentuate the positive as they simultaneously spoke of his batting average in terms of Bingo (O-74!) or, in better days, the interstate (I-95!). I really began to pull for this guy. And he wasn’t too harsh on the eyes either. Thus he became not only my guy, but “Joel Skinner—Catcher of the Future,” a way for me to firmly establish my belief in his potential with the team, while fully acknowledging his current lack of hitting skills. The guys at school brought me Joel Skinner baseball cards, all too willing to cast off their extras to the kid with the unexplained obsession. And fearing that I was his only fan, I lugged an old sheet spray-painted with his future superstar status to games in the Bronx, just in case the other fans were unaware. I even took the time to craft elaborate scenarios every time he got sent down to the AAA affiliate in Columbus. None, of course, mentioned his poor batting skills, rather they fingered Rick Cerone, who competed for the Yankees catching position that year, for trying to sabotage Joel’s career. (At its extreme, I authored an episodic soap opera while working the slow shifts at the local movie theater, starring my best friend and me. In the series finale, Joel is killed by a wayward ice cream truck, later revealed to be driven by a disguised Cerone. The story was written in flashback and chronicled the development of a film—Passion: The Real Joel Skinner Story—intended to replace an earlier exploitative made-for-TV biopic starring Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth. It was very meta.)

Eventually Joel Skinner got traded away to the Indians, his playing time lessened, and well, I became an adult and lost track of him. The Yankees of my youth were replaced by teams with winning records and no one ever questioned the selection process that produced future favorites like Paul O’Neill, David Wells, or Robbie Cano. Come game time, the ragged bed sheet with crooked blue letters explaining why you should like these guys was no longer in tow, as there was no longer need to explain. With their widely revered talent and all. In a dark blue t-shirt with my guy’s name and number written in white, from behind, the grown-up me had turned into any fan.

But Joel Skinner’s story didn’t end with my ascent into adulthood—for either of us. Years later during a visit with my brother, we reminisced about my fangirl days and wondered what had become of him. Thinking back to how we received letters from a retired Bud Harrelson on behalf of the local Chevy dealership while growing up, I was sure Joel would be a used car salesman by now. But he wasn’t. Instead of turning to the noble ranks of vehicular barter, Joel continued on with his baseball career without even telling me. After retiring as a player, he managed for six seasons in the Indians minor league system and earned numerous accolades for his five trips to the playoffs, including Minor League Manager of the Year in 2000, when he led the AAA Buffalo Bisons to the best record in the International League. In 2001, Joel returned to the majors and coached most of eight years for the Cleveland Indians at third base, with one year on the bench. During that time, he served as Interim Manager for the second half of the 2002 season, replacing the outgoing Charlie Manual, and compiling a 35-41 record.

And with this discovery, my fandom was reborn. Only not quite as public. The advent of Ebay saved me from having to explain my sudden interest in a retired catcher with a .228 career batting average, as I could work to complete my Joel Skinner baseball card collection from the comfort and anonymity of my home. I’d receive cards purchased for a dollar (including shipping) at my doorstep in unmarked yellow envelopes like others might receive porn. It didn’t take long until I expanded my collection to include Joel’s father Bob Skinner, who covered the Pittsburgh outfield alongside Roberto Clemente and Bill Virdon, and went on to manage the Phillies. Joel’s 76 games helming the Indians would make them only the second father/son managing duo in major league history. My favorite collectible—the Bob and Joel Skinner card from the Topps 1985 father/son collection, signed by each under their respective photos—pays homage to them both. But even more fun than the clandestine amassing of widely available and easily attained artifacts of a middling career is rooting for Joel again. Especially on the days when it means you’re the only one at the ballpark pulling for the third base coach instead of the cleanup hitter. To do what in that particular game, I’m not sure. Maybe wave someone home with particular vigor and finesse.

I’ve thought about trying to meet him, to wait for him after an Indians game or now an Oakland Athletics game, where he’s currently bench coach. Having stalked future Hall of Famers (sorry about that, Jeter), I imagine that I’d barely even have to flex my skills. But what would I say? I prefer the kind of celebrity encounter where no explanation of my presence is necessary—an author at a book signing or that astronaut that posed for pictures after his lecture. With Joel I’d always felt as if I’d need to provide the details of why I passed up, say Grady Sizemore, for a shot to talk to the third base coach. I’d find myself justifying why I killed off his character to provide a European ending to my story but how it was okay because I had kept the baby anyway. Or explaining how I was too cheap to shell out the $20 for his Triple A card in grad school but stuck the picture from Ebay in my album instead. Or how my favorite fake pickup line involves a sultry invitation back to my place to see my Bob and Joel Skinner baseball card collection. No, that wouldn’t do. None of it. This fandom was born of my youth, of the days before the compulsion to justify every action took hold. Maybe when Joel gets his major league team to manage and ushers them to the playoffs, I’ll wait for him outside the players’ entrance and get him to sign that old minor league card. And perhaps post a picture of us on Facebook that will make a couple of old high school friends smile. But for now, I think I’ll stick to quietly keeping tabs and anticipating my next brown paper wrapper delivery. And rooting from the sidelines. Because….because somebody 25 years ago said he was no good? Nah, not really. Just because.

Dr. Nancy Golden roots for the Yankees and the Nationals, yet we at Zisk still like her.

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