All but the Grand Slam

Some flash fiction-comedy follows.

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“Metaphors was as rare for me as things I can’t find anywhere.”—Pop Hinks.

Pop was describing a time when he was stretching, reaching, striving for an easy analogy, a way to convey the idea that one thing led him to thinking about another, second, thing. It eluded his thinking brain like a bird that had flown away from his grasp, though. The whole thing was a moment and a bird and Pop himself. Just those three things and they were themselves complete and entirely themselves.
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A Missing Ingredient

Forty-five years ago today, Dock Ellis, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who would go on to some success and much controversy, threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. No-hitters are headline news but not usually career- or even season-defining.

If you are a baseball fan, you may know why Dock Ellis’ no-hitter is remembered, 45 years later. If you are not, please keep reading, as this is not a post about baseball.
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The Legend of Pop Hinks: A Legend

“Metaphors was as rare for me as things I can’t find anywhere.”—Pop Hinks.

Pop was describing a time when he was stretching, reaching, striving for an easy analogy, yet it eluded his thinking brain like a bird that had flown away from his grasp. It was a moment and a bird and Pop. Just those three things and they were themselves complete and entirely themselves.

The bird alighted and then flew away just past his gripping fingers, but it was still close enough for him to catch a thought about a moment in which he could envision, or so he said, a time when he caught that bird. A starling, he said it was.

Metaphors, analogies, similes could be similarly elusive but in a literal sense. “Slippy eels,” Pop Hinks took to calling them.

He was a blues player, one of the greatest slide guitarists on the north side of Kansas City, but the Kansas side, where there were no blues players. It was long a source of frustration for him that he regularly was ranked the third-greatest slide player even though he was the only one. He did not play with a slide, which may have presented most of his trouble.

Pop Hinks also played professional baseball in that far-long-ago era of the 1930s. He starred in a semipro league that was an imitation of the Negro Leagues, but one that starred white players only.

His baseball days were filled with long nights of transcendent sadness spent daydreaming on the bench about playing baseball, and sometimes his daydreams coincided with the game he was watching and not participating in. His blues nights were spent waiting in the backrooms of the seedless bars he did not play in, waiting eagerly to hear the one name he most wanted to hear called to the stage: his own. He never heard it and it was even more rarely called.

He could never find, not till his dying day, which has not yet come, he could never find the analogy that would match his baseball love with his blues love. One song, “A Grand-Slam,” he never played. Another, “The Walk Off,” was never requested. Yet another, “The One-Four-Five,” describing a little-seen play in which a pitcher fields a hit and inexplicably throws to an out-of-position second baseman who throws to third to catch a confused runner off base, was never written, although we debut it below.

It is difficult, Pop Hinks would say, to find a metaphor that covers all analogies, communicates something about real-life situations like love and baseball and the blues to fit most listeners. There are few walk-off homers in life or art or the blues. But if you asked him about those long-ago nights in Kansas City, he would shake his head and say, “I can take you there. But I’ll have to charge.”

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The Magnificent Glass Pelican (MGP) is a live half-hour radio comedy show that my friends and I have written, produced, and acted in for over two decades. Lately, it has been an improvised half-hour, produced by us and scripted live on-air. The current season is our 23rd consecutive or so.

Each Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. (tomorrow), the MGP half-hour is broadcast on 88.7 FM WFNP (“The Edge”) in the Rosendale-New Paltz, New York, area or is streaming live here: The MGP on WFNP. This is at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, and the broadcasts are not archived, so if you can check us out live tomorrow, thank you.

“Pop Hinks” was a monologue I wrote 15-20 years or so ago, when I had not yet started thinking. Sean Marrinan plays Pop Hinks, and that is Sean with the impressive beard on his face. John Burdick plays the guitar. I wrote the words.

“The One Four Five,” written by John Burdick:

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[Historical note: Before the Brooklyn Dodgers brought Jackie Robinson to the major leagues, white team owners maintained a ban on playing black baseball players, so the black community built a professional baseball league for itself. It was called the Negro Leagues and it existed from the late 1800s till the 1950s, when Major League baseball started integrating. I hate explaining jokes, but there might be readers who may not know this, who might think something called the Negro Leagues was a weird joke. In reality, it was not a joke, which is a sad fact for America. In the joke, which I have now killed utterly dead, I am picturing a world in which white America, upon seeing the success of the Negro Leagues, would create a baseball league to steal black America’s thunder, even while professional baseball was in fact all-white.]

The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 21 asks, “The World Series starts tonight! In your own life, what would be the equivalent of a walk-off home run? (For the baseball-averse, that’s a last-minute, back-against-the-wall play that guarantees a dramatic victory.)”

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Chicago’s Cult of Harry: Harry Caray at 100

When I moved to the Midwest in the summer of 2000, I learned that Phil Rizzuto was not the baseball announcer who had coined the phrase, “Holy cow!” I also learned that there was a controversy about this, and that, as a Yankee fan and native New Yorker—and worse, someone unaware of a controversy—I was on the wrong side of said dispute. Born wrong.

No, I was informed, the recently departed Harry Caray was the first to use the phrase on-air and was the announcer with whom it should be associated. Not the beloved Yankees announcer. For Cubs fans, a long-simmering resentment against all things New York became easy to openly express after a “Seinfeld” episode featuring a Phil Rizzuto keychain that exclaimed “Holy cow!” when its head was squeezed unfairly cemented in popular culture the notion that the saying was Rizzuto’s.

Upon learning that I was from New York and a sports fan, one new friend—in our very first conversation—brought up the issue. “You know who used to say ‘Holy cow,’ right?” As an astute observer of humankind and its many denizens, I picked up that there was only one answer and if I said “The ‘Scooter'” I would be inciting conversational violence. But I was not certain what the correct answer was. From my lofty, ivory tower, New York post, I was oh-so dimly aware that Harry Caray, the voice of several Midwest baseball teams over several decades, who had passed away just two seasons before, had been in a feud with my beloved Yankees announcer. Or that Cubs fans were in a feud. I also “knew” that it was possible that both used a really common euphemistic exclamation, Caray in the broadcast booth and Rizzuto on the field and later in the booth.

When I am confronted with a statement that is either false, uninformed, or ill-informed, but I do not see the value in debating the merits of facts, I will respond to such statements with a nod and say something like, “That is an idea.” Period. No emphasis on any syllable. Or even more aggressively passive-aggressively, “That is a sentence.” As if I am attempting an escape from a hostage-taking situation. I shared my theory about how both iconic baseball figures may have come up with the expression independently, since it is a common euphemistic exclamation, with my new Midwestern friend. He replied with a nod and said, with no emphasis on any syllable, “That is an idea.”

Harry Christopher Carabina was born in St. Louis, Missouri, 100 years ago today, March 1, 1914. For over fifty years he was a mostly regional, sometimes national, baseball and college football announcer. At some point in his career, he realized that as an announcer, he was not only the eyes of the fan in the broadcast booth, he was the fans’ voice, too. He wasn’t their representative, he was one of them, one lucky enough to be paid to watch a game he loved to watch. Thus, even though he had been an official broadcaster for teams that Cubs fans naturally detest—the White Sox and the Cardinals—when he became the voice of the Cubs in 1981, he was embraced as if he had always secretly been a Cubs fan. WGN, the station that broadcast the Cubs, was also one of the first “superstations,” which made him a nationally famous quirky regional personality. (Upstate New York, where I am from, did not have WGN, so Harry Caray was as much a rumor to me as Phil Rizzuto, heard on the non-national non-superstation WPIX, was to my Iowa friend.)

By the late 1990s, Will Ferrell started performing his Harry Caray impression on “Saturday Night Live,” and many other performers followed suit, but really, they are performing an impression of Will Ferrell’s Harry Caray impression. From my lofty ivory tower New York perch, I only knew Ferrell was poking fun at an elderly and much-loved baseball broadcaster, one much like my own beloved ‘Scooter’ Rizzuto. I did not understand why the impression continued after Caray’s death in 1998, but again, I was living in New York.

Former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster is noted for his pretty funny impression of Will Ferrell’s Harry Caray:

Because it is almost the same distance to every major metropolis with a major league sports team, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I lived, is one of the luckiest cities in the country for a sports fan. “Local” television broadcasts include the Cubs, the White Sox, the Cardinals; and the Bears, the Vikings, the Rams. I became a Cubs fan in part, I believe, because of all the day games that they play and that I could listen to while at my job writing instruction manuals. In August 2001, my “That is a sentence” friend and I drove to Chicago for a memorable day: a Friday afternoon loss game against the rival St. Louis Cardinals and dinner at Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse, a day that made me feel like I was finally a Midwesterner. The meal was terrific, and the Harry Caray name is now more associated with the seven establishments bearing his name and caricature (see the photo at the top of this post) than with the memorable broadcaster himself.

Which is too bad. Harry Carabina, born in desperate poverty in St. Louis, authored one of the unique success stories in baseball, in broadcasting, in America, when he invented Harry Caray. The success of those restaurants some sixteen years after his death, the fact that comedians still get gentle laughs at his memory, his long career, all stem from one man’s brilliant and rare talent at becoming beloved.

A last word from Harry Caray himself, from the last day of the 1991 season:

The Hall of Fame Is Not Broken, But It Is Dented

At 2:00 p.m. EST today, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) announced the winners of its Hall of Fame vote, held by mail in December. The official ballot has been growing in length recently, as the writers have failed to elect or have elected only one former player for several years in a row.

This is because some of the players on the ballot, many of them players with marquee names, are associated with on-the-field performances that may have been influenced by the consumption of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).

While they were players, Barry BondsRoger ClemensSammy SosaRafael Palmiero (who will not appear on future ballots after today’s vote), Curt SchillingMike PiazzaJeff Bagwell, and Mark McGwire were often described as “first-ballot Hall of Famers,” which is a compliment bestowed on a player to denote not just ordinary Hall of Fame greatness, but the highest level. “So-and-so won’t have to wait to be recognized, he’ll be elected right away.” (The BBWAA voting rules stipulate that five seasons must have elapsed between a player’s final game and their appearance on the ballot.)

Each of the players named above is making a repeat appearance on the ballot. They can never join the pantheon’s pantheon of first-ballot Hall members. They each have one other thing in common: Each one’s name has appeared in either legal documents concerning matters related to PEDs, at worst, or mere blog posts discussing the issue, more frivolously.

Two problems are colliding with the vote this year: 1. The voters are emphasizing one hazily-defined word in their own voting criteria more than they have in the past, and 2.) The BBWAA set an arbitrary rule that voters can only check off a maximum of 10 names on any year’s ballot. (Not that the Hall will limit inductions to a maximum of 10 in a given year–the controversies should there be a tie for tenth place the one time it might happen needed to be avoided–but that any voter, and there are about 550 of them, is limited to voting for a maximum of 10 former players.)

The second problem first: I just listed eight players who are making repeat appearances on the ballot this year, and about four “first-ballot Hall of Fame” players are making their first appearance on the ballot, players whose names have not been associated with PEDs, except in articles in which it is pointed out that their names are not associated with PED use. (The four, according to me, are Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, and either Mike Mussina or Jeff Kent. Look at that “or” there: if I were a voter, I would not be able to limit myself to 10 names.)

The 10-vote maximum rule is an arbitrary one that can easily be remedied if the BBWAA sees fit, and one or two years of allowing more to be included might clear the backlog. The reason(s) for the backlog are not so easily remedied.

The ballot states and has always stated one criteria for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame:

Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

Which word do I think is the hazily-defined one? Integrity refers to how the player performed in the game on the field. Did he cheat on the field during games? If a player breaks the integrity of the game in this way, not only will he not get into the Hall, he will more than likely earn a lifetime ban from anything to do with professional baseball, like Pete Rose or the 1919 Chicago White Sox players.

“Character.” I am not the first to consider this word and its place in this particular voting rule. Is the ingestion of PEDs off the field to build up physical strength or speed up recuperation from injuries a character issue? If the chemicals were not taken by every major league player, there is the near-certainty that those players who took PEDs created for themselves an advantage over their rival “clean” players. Further, even if it is a character issue, did it have an impact on the integrity of the games they appeared in?

Many of the baseball writers and Hall voters have found their way into some tangled thickets of logic while trying to connect character and integrity. A few have found integrity by issuing blanket denunciations of the entire “Steroid Era” and not voting for anyone who played in the era. Others have found integrity by voting for the entire slate every year with the reason given that if the entire era was tainted than it was an even playing field for all and certain players excelled to a Hall level on that equal field.

The examples of tangled logic come when certain writers decide to use their ballot to draw distinctions between specific players. I have not yet seen a column or blog post in which someone has written, “Player X is alleged to have only used steroids for three seasons but for the rest of his career he is said to have been clean, while Player Y used them for the majority of his career, so he’s not getting into the Hall,” but they do come close with Barry Bonds.

With Bonds, the standard line has become something like, “He was a Hall of Fame-caliber player before he is alleged to have started using steroids, but then he started using steroids. So he’s out.”

What is a Hall of Fame for? The BBWAA has only one other stipulation about qualification under its “Automatic Election” clause: No election can be based on a single or singular performance, like a perfect game or .400 batting average. That is the only limitation. Other than that, it’s on the field performance. Is a player someone who ticket buyers spent money to see play? (I suggest Nolan Ryan as an example here.) For an extended period of time? If not, did teams keep hiring him to play, season after season for an extended length of time? (Like my pet cause, Tommy John.)

I am in the group that sees the steroid era as having been an even field and am inclined to include in the Hall all the players that excelled in the PED-infested era (which we still appear to be in). All things being equal, certain performers excelled and certain others did not, just like in any other era of the game.

The game’s overseers banned the spitball in the 1920s, as the pitch can give an advantage to the pitcher who uses it over the pitcher who does not. But there are spitball pitchers from the spitball era with plaques in the Hall. It was a different era, so the spitball is handled as a artifact from a period in history that we are no longer in. Sort of like steroids may be in the future.

Red Sox Nation in My Living Room

I am a life-long New York Yankees fan, and I am okay with this. (The first step is admitting powerlessness and that life has become unmanageable.) The eternal American desire to root for an underdog or even a lovable loser–the Cubs, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Red Sox until 2004–did not pass me by, even as a fan of the Yankees; this is because when I was growing up in the 1970s, the Yankees gave fans two of the team’s extended stretches of losing: in the early 1970s, when the team was owned by CBS, and then again in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when the team’s owner repeatedly fired managers, signed second-rate free agents to two-year contracts only to see them under-perform in both seasons, or traded young talent for older “talent.” 

My team, which I admit had also shown me some success before I was a teenager–three World Series in a row in the ’70s–was not a “lovable loser,” it was a laughingstock by the early ’90s, and I took a perverse pride in this. “Now I know,” I said to no one ever, “What it is like to root for heartbreak.” Of course, seeing multiple World Series trophies held aloft by various pinstriped “heroes” before and after that dark Stump Merrill-Bucky Dent-Dallas Green era puts my rooting for a laughingstock of a team in perspective: the trophies that starting arriving after 1996 were readily, happily seen as a deserved reward for living through those few tough years. But when Don Mattingly is one’s favorite player and he is the one major Yankee in history to have to buy a ticket to see a World Series game, well, let’s just say I was defensively proud of having stood by those sickeningly bad teams. I like knowing what it is like to root for a heartbreaking team (or thinking that I do) and having sympathy for the “lovable loser” teams; it turns out I like rooting for a juggernaut team even more, though.

My dad in a recent photo.

My father is a New Englander, a Vermonter who now lives on Cape Cod, where New England gazes longingly towards old England. He comes by his rooting for the Boston Red Sox (argh and double-argh!) as honestly as he can, and I do not love him the less for it, nor do I think he ever resented me, his only son, for being a Yankee fan. (Maybe all that family role-play therapy that we never really participated in was worth it, after all.)

He is one of those Red Sox fans for whom 2004 was created: born in 1935, he probably listened to the 1946 team’s World Series loss on the radio, and saw the 1967 and 1975 losses on television. All of them legendary, seven-game World Series, but all losses followed by decade-long postseason droughts.

In 1986, I was almost 18, a college freshman living at home, and another legendary Red Sox World Series was unfolding, this time against the other New York team, the Mets. My sole memory of Game 6 and Mookie Wilson’s slow game-ending dribbler through Bill Buckner’s legs is that I was standing behind my dad, who was sitting in his favorite armchair. When the play unfolded, I saw my dad’s shoulders react. A stoic man by nature, my dad simply silently shuddered, like an evil thought had passed through his mind and he had urgently worked to dismiss it; I am glad to this day that I did not see his face. He stood and said something about one more game in a way that exhibited no confidence and then went to bed.

Eighteen years later, in the fall of 2004, my life had taken a dip in fortune and I was once again living at home with my parents, now residing on Cape Cod. The Red Sox had already done the unthinkable and unforgivable in the postseason and defeated my team in the Championship Series. But when the Red Sox won it all that memorable season, I can say that I was proud to be the son who was with his dad when his beloved lovable loser team finally broke through and he was able to enjoy a championship for the first time in his life.

He has now enjoyed two more to my team’s one more, earned in 2009, and I think this is quite enough.

The article I link to here, from The Atlantic (, considers the existential irony that recent Red Sox history presents the world: that young Red Sox fans have known a very successful team, winner or three World Series in a decade, while fans of my father’s generation still carry the spiritual wound (at first, I wrote that as a minor joke, but I realize it’s only half tongue-in-cheek) … still carry the wary style of love learned from rooting for a lovable loser team for 86 years.

A Tale of Two Red Sox Nations