Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Orioles Open Up a Can of Whoop Ass on Derek Jeter Love Fest at Yankee Stadium by Charlie Vascellaro
Zisk Book Review by Mark Hughson
Johnny Bench: Rat Bastard by Adam Berenbak
The Meaning of Commitment by David Lawton
Turn Back the Clock: 1980s Baseball Card Memories by Mark Hughson
They Are Vista Blue by Mark Hughson
Yea and Nay on the Hall of Fame: Ten Who Do, and Ten Who Don't, Belong by Abby & Jesse Mendelson
Cincinnati: Yor With Us, or Against Us by Shawn Abnoxious
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
“Start spreading the news…” Their season’s over today.
It sure was fun watching the Orioles mathematically eliminate the Yankees from post-season play right in the middle of Derek Jeter’s going away party at Yankee Stadium. Now if only he would just go away. I was explaining the phenomena of the season-long, prolonged farewell to some relative laypersons in graphic detail, when the Yankees were here for Jeter’s last games in town a couple of weeks ago. “They’re lining up from the statue of the Babe all the way to Pickles to kiss his ass,” I said, and then I heard two women walking in the opposite direction having the exact same conversation. I’m not sure if anyone actually kissed Jeter’s ass while he was in town but Boog Powell did give him the crabs and an oversized mallet made out of Louisville Slugger wood in an on-field presentation before his last game here in town. While I do think the ongoing celebration has been a bit over the top I couldn’t resist the temptation of going to New York to see the Orioles play the Yankees in Jeter’s final home series at the Stadium and to exorcise some two-year-old demons.
I don’t like the Yankees and I don’t like Yankee Stadium, the last time I was there I had such a bad time that I never wanted to go back. It was game three of the American League Championship Series; the “Rauuuuuul” game. The upstart 2012 Os were on a roll enjoying the team’s first winning season in 15 years and appeared poised to finally slay their rival beast of the American League East. And so with a trepidatious swagger I sauntered into Yankee Stadium in full Orioles regalia, accompanied by my girlfriend Shannon also wearing an Orioles cap and orange scarf and my friend and upstairs neighbor Damien, a Yankees fan who got us the tickets. On the subway ride from Manhattan and upon entering the Yankees dungeonesque concrete fortress, I was well aware that I had broached hostile territory. My sexuality was questioned because of the briefcase I carried over my shoulder and three old guys sitting behind us at the game kept hitting the top of my hat with the metal button on top of theirs anytime a Yankee batter reached base or a fielder recorded an Orioles out. It was a tense and close affair with the Orioles clinging to a 2-1 lead through eight-and-half innings and when Raul Ibanez hit a moon shot off Jim Johnson to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth (which was the beginning of the end for Johnson) and another majestically arced, gut-wrenching, walk-off blast off Brian Matusz to end the game in the bottom of the twelfth. It fucking sucked. The walk of shame back to the subway was like being in an eternal nightmare; heckled and ridiculed to the tune of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York,” from the moment the game ended until we finally disembarked the train in New Jersey. I took it all quite personally and felt nothing but contempt and rage for Yankee Stadium and Yankee fans, (except for my buddy Damien). I never wanted to hear that song again.
But what a difference a couple of years make.
Arriving at Yankee Stadium the Orioles were already champions of the American League East, a fact which I proudly displayed on my t-shirt. I wore a bright orange and white printed long-sleeve, button-down shirt over the top and fluorescent orange Brooks sneakers stopping first for a beer at the Dugout bar across the street from the ballpark. I was one of two or three Orioles fans in a crowd of about 400 people in the room and was booed when I approached bar, but there was no wind behind it and it lacked luster. This season has been a humbling experience for the Yankees, more of a farewell tour for Jeter than a pennant race for the team.
Jeter received a standing ovation and everyone was snapping pictures of him on their cell phones before he grounded out to short in the first inning and again before he struck out in the third. The Yankees moved out to a 3-0 lead after three innings, knocking two home runs off Orioles starter Bud Norris but as it has gone for the team this year I knew it was just a matter of time before we would catch up with their starter, Shane Greene, which happened when the Orioles batted around the order scoring six runs in the top of the fourth, it was very therapeutic and relaxing. During the lengthy rally I began to acknowledge the comfort of the cushiony $90 seat I was sitting in just to the fair side of the foul pole on the lower level in the right field corner and the $15, 25-ounce of can of Becks was still icy cold in my souvenir New York Yankees 3-D cup. The Orioles scored three more runs in the top of the eighth, the last on a beautifully placed run-scoring bunt single by Adam Jones. When the Yankees scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth and Jeter grounded out weakly to first base in his final at-bat of the game going hitless in four at-bats, it was all over but the gloating. This time when “New York, New York” started pumping through the P.A. system I started singing along and a stayed until the ushers started ushing me from my section and I pleaded with them to let me take just one more picture. I really didn’t want to leave. I puffed out my chest to reveal my AL East Champions t-shirt and sought out the few other Orioles fans on the concourse for high fives. I proceeded to get drunk and shat my pants on the train ride home (actually it was more of a shart). But overall it was a great day and I’m looking forward to going back the next time the Orioles open up a can of whoop ass on the Yankees at the Stadium.
Author Charlie Vascellaro has written three books, including a biography of Hank Aaron, a young reader’s biography of Manny Ramirez, and a limited edition historical volume commissioned by the U.S. Department of Commerce called Baseball in America. His writing on spring baseball training has appeared on MLB.com, in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Sun Times, and annually in the U.S. Airways in-flight magazine since 2005. He is invited regularly to speak in regional and national forums about the history and lore of America’s pastime. His next book is At the Ballpark: A Fan’s Companion, an interactive and engaging hardball handbook for young and new baseball fans.
Baseball Lives by Mike Bryan
This was a nice find. Baseball Lives was published in 1989, but it reads like an "internet wormhole" where you just keep going deeper into obscure tangents of the original subject. The entirety of baseball, as a game, as a business, as a way of life, is told by the people who live it: Owners, managers, scouts, trainers, PR people, bus drivers, equipment managers, bat makers, groundskeepers, statisticians, ushers, beer vendors, broadcasters, gamblers— ANYONE you could think of. (And yes, some players as well—Dennis Eckersley, Andre Dawson, and Bruce Bennedict all get to tell their story).
Baseball Lives is full of minutia, and for the most part the details are behind-the-scenes, rather than typical baseball trivia. There was a grounds crew guy who had to facilitate the burying of ashes in left field where Enos Slaughter played. There was a scout who traveled to see how well Ty Gainey fielded the ball, only to have the pitcher pitch a perfect game and Gainey didn't touch the ball once. Fun anecdotes like these help one appreciate the game a bit more.
You get a lot of different perspectives on the game. The director of marketing for the Padres didn't want to talk about his job at all. He wanted to tell the story of his childhood and being a Yankee Stadium rat and how he befriended Roger Maris. The director of media relations for the Twins was quite busy in 1987. So busy that he didn't even see his team win the World Series. He was right there, but he was working his job, not watching the game. Those that work directly within the MLB organization obviously love/fear for their jobs, others can afford to keep things interesting and spill a little dirt.
With over fifty mini-chapters it's a great book for subway rides or plain old bathroom lit. Some might find it ultimately skimmable/surfable, others might dive into the abyss.
Mark Hughson lives in Syracuse, NY and (still) roots for the Oakland Athletics. His favorite headline about Pat Venditte is "Amphibious Pitcher Makes Debut."
“No rumors of the fix had yet reached us by midsummer of 1920. The White Sox were still white. Swede Risberg was still my favorite player. I began to walk pigeon-toed because Risberg was pigeon-toed. I did this for a full year before my mother asked me why I was walking ‘like that.’ I couldn’t explain. I still walk like that.” –Nelson Algren So Long, Swede Risberg
Fly Creek is situated on Rt. 28, heading west from the Otsego Lake on the way to Canadarago Lake, in Otsego County, NY. It was here, just under three miles from Cooperstown, where the dusty attic of Abner Graves’s imagination spawned the idea that would give rise to the Hall of Fame, and where his dusty attic contained the ball that would serve as its centerpiece. And it was in Fly Creek that I learned the lessons of a broken heart, and the failings of the archetypal sports hero.
Graves’ letter to the Mills Commission in 1905 sparked not only the Doubleday myth, but the industry of Cooperstown, that would provide me with a setting for that lesson. A century later I was fortunate enough to become an intern at the Hall of Fame. As I walked the streets, a flood of memories washed over me, almost like returning home.
Though I had visited several times before, Cooperstown was still a new and mysterious place. Aside from the card and memorabilia shops, there was layer after layer of baseball history to discover, disseminate, and absorb. As before, it was overwhelming, but not as much as on my first visit. On that first visit I was aided by a unique happenstance—my sister’s grade school friend was the granddaughter of a Cooperstown local, and we were invited to stay with them only two blocks from the center of town and baseball heaven.
From a very early age, my passion had always been baseball history—spending time with my Aunt, who lived near a baseball card store, stoked a love for vintage cards. My favorite teams were historical, and so were my favorite players, a sort of ‘anti-nostalgia.’ Cooperstown, more than any other baseball landmark, steeped in, and founded upon, history, was my Mecca.
In 1989 Johnny Bench was elected to the Hall of Fame along with Carl Yastrzemski, Red Schoendienst, and Harry Caray. My acquisition of a 1969 Topps Bench card had fueled a dedication to what can be described as my hero at the time—though not a Reds fan I became a Bench fan, swayed by the classic heroic traits he embodied, as well as the early 70s Reds aesthetic, the last holdover of the post-war modern still untouched by 60s revolution, and a powerhouse team soaked in baseball history. I became a catcher. A bad catcher, but a dedicated one.
All of this fell into place that summer of ’89, and we all traveled the winding roads through upstate New York to Cooperstown.
Our hosts were longtime Cooperstown residents – with the institutional knowledge of the heart of the town, cradle of baseball myth, to send a Johnny Bench fan to the right places in order to meet a hero, get an autograph, and ultimately to discover what heroes are made of.
Sports heroes, athletes in general, seem to always let you down. As we get older we admire people for their actions, which creates an ideal, or someone we hope to be—but less sophisticated hero worship tends to embody those simple traits of strength, fame, talent or power, and style. “Hero-hunger,” said Fess Parker of his Davy Crocket days, “[is] a children’s ailment. It’s like a vitamin deficiency, only it affects the development of character rather than body.”
Working in a convenience store in late fall 2000 as a night manager, I listened to the entire Subway Series on the radio as I worked, and regained my interest and passion in the day-to-day minutia of the game that had been lost to rock and roll and everything else. The revelation of steroids, and the bursting of the home run-hero bubble a few years later, came with little shock. It’s not that I was aware of the problem (in fact, I had been all but oblivious to the ’98 home run chase until I saw the record had been broken, at which point I incredulously spited Mark McGwire), but more that I was prepared for the disappointment and heartache. Like Bart Giamatti said, baseball is designed to break your heart. So are heroes. As an adult, I understand that heroes and villains are necessary for the drama and entertainment of sport. In Fly Creek I learned, thanks to Mr. Bench, that the building up of heroes was not a lost cause, but part of that drama. Yet, while good vs. the bad is necessary for the entertainment, a child can’t separate himself from it and see the drama for what it is. It turns into a lesson well learned, that of respect without worship.
“Our love of the game was not shaken by the exposure that followed. But we stopped pitching baseball cards and took to shooting dice. The men whose pictures we had cherished were no longer gods.” –Nelson Algren So Long, Swede Risberg
The patriarch of the family with whom we stayed in downtown Cooperstown that week in the summer of 1989 had made it clear where to go to meet Hall of Famers, and the Fly Creek Inn was the place. Nestled into the tiny town of Fly Creek, southwest of the lake, the steak and potatoes restaurant was a favorite of new and returning Hall of Famers. We were told that the best chance to meet Bench, who, as a new inductee, would be hesitant to be part of many of the autograph assemblies across town, would be to linger at the steakhouse as long as possible.
I wish I could remember the food, but I was too excited throughout the entire week to notice anything but baseball heroes. I’m sure it was delicious. We were seated at a round four top in one of the three or four dining rooms, carved out of what must have been, at one point, a downstairs living space.
The first night went by slowly, with no sighting of Bench or anyone else through the first part of the meal. Then, as I was finishing up the food I can never remember, in walked a large party headed for the “dining room.” I recognized Yastrzemski at once. However, unlike the entourage that often accompanies such luminaries, the crowd that followed seemed much more like family. An older, well dressed man, two attractive young women, and another man in a suit.
I can only imagine that our stares were felt at once; yet, for this family, the stares must have not stopped throughout their stay in upstate NY, and I can only guess that they were used to it. I can’t remember what I whispered, but, before long, it was obvious to anyone within a quarter mile that I was (very visibly) building up my courage to swim across that old room and ask for an autograph. I didn’t have to.
The old man next to Yaz must have been the least desensitized to the attention, and very quickly realized my intentions. He put up a hand and signaled to us (sister included) to come over to the table.
The old man introduced himself and asked, with a twinkle in his eye, if I knew who his son was. I mumbled out an answer the must have both offended and reassured the Yastrzemski family familiar with generations of butchering names.
Yaz asked if I had anything to sign, while his father pointed to the large, “50th Anniversary of the HOF” books in the possession of the two women. I sheepishly shrugged my shoulders—my embarrassment at carrying around my autograph book now seemed to be coming back to haunt me. Luckily, my mother had some scrap paper, and Yaz signed a sheet for my sister and me, while explaining how his children (the other family members at the table) had been carrying around their books the whole time, reveling in autograph hunting and having a great time. It stuck with me, and I was resolved to never leave the house again without a similar book.
I don’t remember the rest of dinner, or the car ride home. Consuming the food as I had consumed everything else baseball—the memorabilia, statistics, and even the players themselves.
The next night, needless to say, we were back in Fly Creek. At the same damn table. I would have eaten there every night for eternity.
All great sports stories blend myth and memory, like Doubleday or Cartwright. If I’m the Abner Graves in this story, then the bartender at the Fly Creek Inn is the Abner Doubleday. We only knew him that one night, but his role in the evening has evolved from that of friendly bartender into that of witness, hot dog and hero. It just so happened that Kahn’s Hot Dogs (the same Kahn’s who had made a rookie card of Bench in 1968), was sponsoring an event held in the lounge next to the dining room. A hot dog celebration is always the stuff of dreams.
On recommendation, once again, of our host, we kept an eye on the Kahn’s celebration. We must have just sat down to dinner when we were summoned to the next room. I don’t remember by who, but I would like to think it was that bartender.
We got up, I with my glossy-photo book in hand, walked up the ramp (I remember that slightest of inclines feeling like Mt. Olympus), and through the door into the lounge. There, at the bottom of another ramp, was Johnny Bench, in a sport coat, holding a rocks glass, chatting with another man. The room was empty otherwise. As we slowly descended the ramp, I remember Bench looking at us, looking over at the bartender, then back at us. Then he remarked to his companion as I came up next to him, “Oh, look, he’s even got a book.” His smirk and sarcastic tone at once sent to my face a burning rush of blood, accompanied by a stomach sinking nervous ache.
I don’t remember much after that. He signed the book smugly. He was rude and condescending but his comments are lost in my memory. Just a signature and a dismissal. But he did sign it. I am still not sure what I was expecting, but maybe Yaz’s warmth had built up my expectation, and maybe the fact that every other Hall of Famer I met was gracious and kind, and didn’t treat me like a 40-year-old autograph hawk.
And this is the point in the story where fact definitely blurs to myth.
Later that evening, I was with my family, walking in a haze along Main Street, crowded with induction attendees all there to be a part of the annual Hall of Fame parade. The streets were crowded, and shop owners, food vendors, and all of the other Cooperstown natives dependent on summer tourist money were out in abundance looking to prepare for the winter hibernation.
What happened next…in my mind’s eye a giant hot dog, drunk and angry, hot, a steaming caricature of conspicuous capitalism, appeared before us. In reality, it was the bartender from the Fly Creek Inn. He had been dressed, at some point after the Bench incident, as a giant hot dog, the foam, Kahn’s hot dog man, at the event. But now he was in street clothes, calm and collected. Seeing him in three different guises only added to my melancholy haze and, I guess, allowed them to meld together in my memory. Either way, I will remember him saying “I see you met that rat bastard Bench.” It couldn’t have been stated more aptly if I had imagined the entire scenario.
I remember feeling nothing but pain as I thanked the giant hot dog for his drunken empathy. A hero in a hot dog outfit and a hero in a sport coat. I was unable to see them for what they were then just as I am unable to see them for what they are now, both in time and memory. The Bench I wanted to be there wasn’t, just like the hot dog bartender I see in my memory wasn’t there either.
There was no right or wrong, though, only hurt feelings, and, to this day, I feel that Bench, in snubbing me in my hero worship, only helped me grow. I developed an appreciation for the underdog, a kind of antihero worship to go with my anti-nostalgia.
On Sunday, I watched the induction ceremony alone, from a small hill on the grounds just south of the Library, outside of which the speeches used to take place. Chris Berman was perched high above, partially obscured by his ESPN banner on the platform, but I don’t remember anything memorable. In fact, aside from Red Schoendienst’s speech, and the Cub Fans appreciation of Harry Caray (and, of course, “Take Me Out To the Ball Game”), I don’t remember anything else of that ceremony that had been the reason for making the trek through New York.
The Fly Creek Inn is long gone. That weekend 25 years ago I had consumed baseball entirely: as collector, hero worshiper, hot dog enthusiast. It had consumed me as well. Yaz had not been my hero, and Bench had. The villain, the heel, is needed in sports as in entertainment, the two being virtually indiscernible. Good vs. Bad only enriches the story, and the difference between vilifying the persona vs. the individual only helped me to understand that. So, I’m still not sure whether to despise Bench for hurting me, thank him for helping me to understand the nature of heroes and to root for the underdog, or just call him a rat bastard and leave it at that.
Adam Berenbak is an archivist in the National Archives Center for Legislative Archives. He earned a master of library science degree with a focus in archives from North Carolina Central University and was a 2008 Frank and Peggy Steele Intern at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center in Cooperstown, New York. He has previously published “Congressional Play-by-Play on Baseball” in Prologue (Summer 2011 edition), and "“Henderson, Cartwright, and the 1953 US Congress" in the SABR Baseball Research Journal (Fall 2014 edition).
Of course I was going to make her a fan. When you get married, you are supposed to share everything. And if you marry someone from Boston, you become part of Red Sox Nation. Simple as that. I could never understand why she had been indifferent to baseball anyway. She came from Pittsburgh. Had seen the great Clemente play. The guy who first made me appreciate the game even when the Sox weren’t playing. That 1971 series. The guy hustled like he was bursting out of his skin. Never mind that cannon of an arm.
But whatever reason she missed the boat on the Bucs would not impede her from jumping on the Red Sox bandwagon. And she was taking the leap at a most opportune time. The 2003 club was loaded with skill and personality. After a shaky start, the Sox had jelled into a powerhouse offensive team, with Johnny Damon leading off, Nomar and Manny hitting three-four, and Manny protected in the line-up by a big bear of a DH, a reclamation project off the scrap heap of the Minnesota Twins, David Ortiz. Throw in Bill Mueller on his way to a batting title, and you had a line-up that broke all kinds of records. The starting rotation starred Derek Lowe and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, but was anchored by the legendary Pedro Martinez. Though Pedro was a little more fragile than in years past, for the first seven innings or so, he was as great as any pitcher ever was.
The team had battled away through the summer chasing the hated Yankee juggernaut in the American League East, and we followed them together. There were lots of slugfests and comebacks, and the first baseman Kevin Millar became a cult figure in the Nation with his “Cowboy Up!” catchphrase and his lip-synched videos psyching up the Fenway Faithful on the Jumbotron.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, the wife was hooked, but good. When the Sox inevitably matched up with the Yanks in the second round, things got epic. Momentum shifted back and forth a couple of times. In the first match-up between Pedro and former Sox ace Roger Clemens, some hit batters led to the benches clearing and Pedro dropping eighty-year-old Yankee coach (and former Sox manager) Don Zimmer to the ground. The Yanks took a 3-2 advantage in the series back to the Stadium. But the Sox evened things up in the sixth game, leading to another Clemens-Pedro match-up to decide it all.
We watched the seventh game as we had watched all of them, in the living room of our New York apartment. I was in my recliner. She was propped up on the couch. The Sox jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead, knocking Clemens out of the game early, which was pretty sweet. But the Yanks brought Mussina in out of the bullpen, who kept them in the game. Meanwhile, Pedro was cruising, other than giving up a pair of homers to Giambi that brought the Yankees within two. Until Ortiz homered off David Wells, giving us the breathing room of another run with only two innings to go before everything in my life might change. I know it was only the League Championship, but beating the Yankees seemed like the sign that me and my family and everybody back in Boston had been looking for that this Curse thing might finally end. That’s the part that I didn’t think the wife quite got. How lucky she was going to be to have arrived at this time.
When the bottom of the eighth began, she commented on how surprised she was to see Pedro back out on the mound. It was true that the rule of thumb that season was that once he had reached one hundred pitches his fastball became hittable, and should come out of the game. And the team had groomed specialists, Timlin and the lefty, Embree, to handle that part of the game and set up the closer. But you don’t vocalize that kind of negativity at a point like this. We had to trust that Pedro had something special left in the tank. Then, just like that, Jeter doubled and Bernie knocked him in with a single. They had good swings off Pedro, too. The tension in the room was thick, and the wife suddenly got up in a huff and began to do the dishes as the Sox manager Grady Little went to the mound. I didn’t like that she did that. Everything had been going right with us sitting where we were sitting. Making a sudden change like that was dangerous. My hands were gripping the arms of my chair tightly to keep me in place.
Then, even more surprisingly, Little left Pedro out on the mound to work his way out of the jam. I couldn’t believe it, as the bullpen guys were ready, but I wasn’t going to say anything. My wife started yelling at the TV, saying he was doing the wrong thing. That was sending the wrong message. You were supposed to keep the faith.
Matsui was the next one up, and he pulled a ground rule double down the right field line, keeping Bernie at third. The wife started banging things around in the sink. I wanted to yell at her to stop, but that would just increase the jinx energy. I managed to shush her and held onto my chair for dear life. Posada was next up and he hit a bloop that fell in for a double. The score was tied. We ended up getting out of the inning, but the score was tied. The wife was frustrated with the game, and I was frustrated with her. But I kept on trying to believe. Rivera came out of the Yankee bullpen and pitched three shutout innings. The Sox ended up having to bring in Wakefield, their pitching hero of the series, to pitch the extra innings. And it was Wakefield who had the indignity of serving up the home run ball that lost the series for the Sox, and basically ended my marriage.
By the time the 2004 playoffs rolled around, she had left me. She had learned what real commitment was, and she couldn’t hack it. When the Sox got the Yanks in the playoffs again, it did not start out so promisingly. In fact, it appeared they might get swept. But I hung in there, watching the series alone in my tightly gripped recliner daze. They managed to win a game, then a second, and then a third. Playing for pride. I went into game seven like a man with nothing left to lose. Breathed deeply. Stayed calm. When the Boston Red Sox pulled off the greatest comeback in sports history, my phone started to ring. From the caller ID, I could see that it was her. But you can be sure that I was not going to pick it up and let her ruin everything. We still had a World Series left to win, and a new life to begin with it.
David Lawton is the author of the poetry collection Sharp Blue Stream (Three Rooms Press) and serves as an editor for greatweatherforMEDIA. He believes in Brock Holt.