Monday, March 13, 2006
Show of hands, please. How many of you have ever owned a baseball team?
Not too many of you. That’s too bad. I did. Remember the Boston Green Sox?
No? How strange! I mean, after all, they won five World Series in one year, back in 1966, and no other team has ever done that. You’d think people would remember such a feat. Jeez.
During the late summer of 1966, I was sick. I can’t remember now what it was I had; probably one of the childhood illnesses that would be common to a 9-year-old, like measles or the mumps.
(The Mumps. Sounds like a recurring sketch from Saturday Night Live. “Hey, did you see ‘The Mumps’ last night? Damn, that Cheri Oteri is funny! I thought I was going to pee my pants when she said they were from Scotland!”)
Anyway, while I was laid up in bed, a bunch of my friends did one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. They brought me a shoebox full to the brim with 1965 Topps baseball cards. There were probably 500 cards in the box, almost the complete set. Now, I know that they almost certainly fished the boxful of cards out of somebody’s trash, but that didn’t matter to me; it was the thought that counted. All of us kids liked baseball and baseball cards, and there were always card-flipping games going on, so they could just as easily have divvied the cards up between them as given them to a sick kid.
So, I had all of these baseball cards. I spent hours going through them, reading the stats on the back, wondering where such oddly-named places as Duluth-Superior and The Quad Cities were, and marveling at the fact that anyone would actually admit to having played in something called the Sally League.
(I have a pet theory, by the way. I think the reason boys have historically had much better math scores than girls is because girls don’t have any equivalent to baseball cards. Guys learn early on to deal with abstract numbers, fractions and percentages, all through the reading of sports statistics. If girls knew that My Little Pony batted .276 in the Three-I League, or that Barbie had an earned run average of 4.19 while playing for Pawtucket, the world would be a different place altogether. Once you start dealing with things like a third of an inning, two plus two isn’t all that hard.)
Getting back to the story, after I had looked at all of these cards a couple of times, I found that there had been a subtle shift in my boyhood dreams concerning baseball. Whereas before I had wanted to be just a baseball player, now I thought it would be exceedingly cool if I could not only be a player, but also the youngest team owner in the history of the sport. Of course, since I would own the team, I could choose my own manager and what better choice than me? To facilitate this fantasy, I decided to build my own team from out of the 500 or so players at my disposal in the shoebox.
The first thing I decided – and it was a fairly profound insight for a 9-year-old - was that the team couldn’t include players I had heard of before. How could Tony Conigliaro play for both the Red Sox and my team? So, although he was my favorite player in the real world, he couldn’t be part of this fantasy. The same was true for the rest of the Red Sox and for almost all American League players. Any player I had heard of before was eliminated. This cut the field pretty much in half.
Before I chose my roster from the remaining players, I thought about where the team would be located and how they would have come into being. Well, I lived in Boston and I liked Boston. New York had two teams; Chicago had two teams; Los Angeles did, too, so why not Boston? My team would be a National League expansion franchise and, since there were already White Sox and Red Sox, why not some Green Sox? It was my favorite color.
Now I had my ‘expansion draft’. I made up a roster of twenty-five players from out of the shoebox. No doubt a whole tribe of psychiatrists could make a serious living out of explaining why I chose whom I did. However, I’ll tell you that I chose my players based mainly on two factors:
1) They had to have some sort of interesting statistical aberration. In the case of many, it was that they were power hitters. If a guy had a few 20-home-run seasons, he was a leading contender. With some, it was their minor league record and I could enhance this fantasy by pretending that I was the only manager in baseball who saw their true potential! Others were guys who had hit 250 or 300 career home runs, but were old and gray and ready to be put out to pasture. I would be the manager to coax one last great season out of them. For pitchers, perhaps they had an inordinate amount of strikeouts one year, or they had once had one or two really good seasons, but had lost their effectiveness due to injury or age. Again, I was the genius boy manager, motivator of over-the-hill athletes, who would teach them to once again reach the peak of their abilities.
2) Or they had to have a really cool name.
Here’s the roster of the Boston Green Sox. These are all real players, and the links will take you to their pages at baseball-reference.com, where it won’t take you long to figure out that this team probably would have had trouble winning 50 games in a season, let alone any championships, especially with a 9-year-old for a manager.
P – Larry Bearnarth
P – Al Jackson
P – Curt Simmons
P – Chuck Estrada
P – Jack Fisher
P – Carl Willey
P – Bill Wakefield
P – Galen Cisco
P – Bob Bruce
C – Chris Cannizzaro
C – Gus Triandos
C – Jim Coker
1B – Jim Gentile
1B – Roy Sievers
2B – Ron Hunt
2B – Dick Tracewski
SS – Jim Davenport
SS – Julio Gotay
3B – Bobby Klaus
3B - Ozzie Virgil
OF – Hawk Taylor
OF – Chuck Hinton
OF – Gino Cimoli
OF – Frank Thomas
OF – Woody Held
Woody Held. I realize now that his name sounds like the punch line to a juvenile joke. You know the type, where you have a list of fictitious books written by authors with ironically funny names? The Yellow River by I.P. Freely; The Tiger’s Revenge by Claude Balls; The African Princess by Erasmus B. Black; that sort of thing. Perhaps my outfielder would have written The Joy Of Onanism.
The attraction of a couple of the others is less subconsciously explained. Bobby Klaus, for instance, sounded like he might have been Santa’s kid brother. And how could a kid not be fascinated by some guy named “Hawk”? He was the star of the team. I always had him batting clean up and he’d perennially challenge Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs in a season. This was partly a function of how I devised the rules of the games I played with this team.
I used dice to simulate games. Each roll of the dice was a time at bat, and each number rolled corresponded to an action. Here’s how it worked:
If I rolled…
2 – Home Run
3 – Ground Out
4 – Fly out
5 – Ground Out
6 – Fly out
7 – Single
8 – Fly Out
9 – Walk
10 – Strike Out
11 – Double
12 – Triple
There were additional things to be done with the dice in certain situations. If, for instance, there was a man on first and the next batter came up with a ground out, I would then roll the dice again to determine if it was a double play; things like that.
Now, if you do the math (which I don’t expect you to do – I did it myself, a few years after the fact, to see just how closely my rules would have really approximated a baseball game) you’ll find that the team as a whole would hit well over .300 and you could expect about 200 home runs a season. There were a lot of 14 – 11 or 19 - 8 games for the Green Sox. My poor pitchers had hideous ERA’s.
Yes, I was so into this fantasy world that I kept detailed statistics for the team. My softball players of today will tell you that I still keep an ungodly amount of stats for our real seasons. For some reason, I’ve always found the breakdown of numbers in defined categories an interesting way to pass the time. I feel that there are secrets there, waiting for a diligent researcher to come along and uncover them. This is sometimes true, but other times I have to admit that it’s just so much high-level solitaire; a sort of bubblegum for the mathematically inclined mind.
I usually played the games out as honestly as the rolls of the dice would dictate, but sometimes the needs of fantasy are stronger than any sense of morality. Heck, it was my fantasy. If you can’t change the rules at whim now and again, what’s the use of even having a fantasy? You may as well live in the real world all day. So, I have to admit that the Green Sox didn’t win all of their championships strictly on the up-and-up.
Of course, after a while you tire of such things; you grow up, in other words. You realize how silly it is to be spending hours rolling dice, writing down utterly meaningless figures in a notebook and imagining yourself as something wholly unrealistic even under the most insane of circumstances. You realize that you aren’t going to be the miraculous boy manager. Soon after, you understand that more than likely you aren’t going to be a major league ballplayer, either. As a matter of fact, you realize that you aren’t even going to be a minor leaguer and, truth be told, the highest level of competition you’ll probably ever reach after high school is a decent brand of fast-pitch softball. You put away the baseball cards and you shelve a number of dreams along with them. Childhood and fantasy take a backseat to adulthood and real life.
Still doesn’t mean you aren’t pissed when your Mom throws out your cards, though.
I can’t end this on that note, because I’ve given my Mom way too much grief for her having thrown out my baseball cards. I think by now she knows that I’ve totally forgiven her, but just in case she’s still worried about it, she shouldn’t be. She’s gone out of her way to make it up to me, most notably by buying me another big shoebox full of cards one time when she was at someone’s yard sale, and then giving them to me as a birthday present, about ten years ago. That was extremely touching.
Anyway, I probably got the cards originally because someone’s mother threw them out. I like to think that when my Mom threw them out, they ended up giving great pleasure to some other kid.
Here’s the happy ending.
A few years back, when I was on a vacation in New Hampshire, I was strolling through the downtown area of where I was staying and I passed by a sports memorabilia shop. I took a couple more steps, stopped, and then decided to turn around and go back to have a look inside.
There were thousands and thousands of baseball cards, all categorized by year and then sorted alphabetically as well. I decided to see if the 1965 bins contained all of my old players. I’m happy to report they were all there - and in much better shape than when I last saw them, to boot.
I bought all 25 of them and took them home again. The nice thing about my team having been comprised of has-beens and never-weres is that they weren’t all that expensive, even for cards so old. I think I spent about 6 dollars to reacquire the Green Sox. They’re sitting here in front of me now as I write this, suspended in time so that now I’m way older than any of them were when I was the boy manager.
God bless you, Chris Cannizzaro, wherever you really are. You, too, Gino Cimoli. And especially you, Hawk Taylor. In real life, you guys may not be remembered as great players, but in the part of my heart that still belongs to a 9-year-old boy? You’re all in the hall of the fame.