Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sunday Existential Crisis: Why are we fans?

Friday on Minnesota NPR they spent an hour chatting about why people follow sports, being fans of one team in particular. The radio hosts were a little smug about the whole thing, and the callers were the typical assortment of armchair intellectualdom that calls in to shows on NPR. Don't get me wrong, plenty of sports fans called in, but most everyone who did so addressed the topic with a mixture of pity and disdain, the tone in their voices reflecting their sympathy for the poor uneducated rabble who do things like root for the Cubs or will spend 2 hours at a rain-delayed game eating hotdogs and drinking beer while knowing that the game will, in all likelihood, be called off.

I've thought about this question a lot over the past few days, particularly because I am a grown man who both checks off the highest level of education box on employment forms and collects pieces of cardboard with pictures of baseball players on them. These two facets of my life seemingly contradict each other as, objectively speaking, anyone with a basic understanding of economics could tell you that spending money on baseball cards is lower down on the investment hierarchy than buying lottery tickets, an act that one journalist once referred to as "a tax on the stupid." 

The baseball cards are meaningless without the game, and I am a fan of the game. So this, I guess, is the bigger question tapped into by NPR. Why is anyone a fan? I honestly have no idea and could only give, at best, incomplete and sentimental answers. 

I can say, however, that collecting and fandom have ebbed and flowed together throughout my life. From roughly 1985 until the spring of 1994 I lived and died with the Braves and had a passing affinity for the Mets (mostly Doc Gooden). The strike put my fandom on hiatus until the past few years when my spouse and I started attending Durham Bulls games with friends of ours. Shortly thereafter I started collecting again. Oh, I'd occasionally bought packs over the years, maybe even a box here and there, but "collect," no, I didn't do that and I was hardly a fan. But here I am, again, and I have no idea why.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Saturday Rummage Special--Roger Maris

One of the cultural events of the town I just moved to is the yard sale. I know, they have yard sales everywhere. However, I am willing to bet that their are more yard sales per capita in the upper midwest, and that most yard sales in the US are run by folks who themselves are transplants from this area. So, when I say that they are a cultural event I mean that seriously, as in today there were no less than 10 yard sales within walking distance of my house and that, in a town with a population no greater than 50,000, there were at least 100 yard sales. 

Like everywhere else these things are a mixed bag given that most people are only willing to sell stuff they no longer need or no longer want. To my surprise someone was willing to part with the bobblehead at right for fairly cheap ($5). As they say, "I don't do bobbleheads," but this one gave me pause. 

Roger Maris is from Fargo, ND, right near where 
I live, and folks up here are rightly proud of the guy who broke the Babe's single season HR record. Originally drafted by Cleveland, he played a short-time for his hometown club and the Indians' C farm team, the Fargo-Moorhead Twins of the Northern League. 

Today Fargo-Moorhead has an independent team, the Redhawks, and this bobblehead was a stadium giveaway in 2002. Roger sports his hometown F-M Twins uniform and looks every bit the midwestern boy.

He was a great player, though perhaps not HOF great, and even in the '61 season when he broke the Babe's record a lot of people felt that Mantle, the golden boy and mid-century Mr. Yankee, should have been the one to break it. Maris really never got his due in his own lifetime, as evidenced by the asterisk that accompanied his breaking of the record (Babe hit 60 HR in 1927 during a 154 game season, Maris hit 61 in a 162 game season). When you think that Ford Frick put an asterisk next to Maris's mark for having had the misfortune of playing a longer schedule than the Babe, can you really make a solid case for Bud Selig looking the other way during the era of McGwire and Bonds?

Anyway, when I was looking to move for work one of the things I was most excited about was moving to an area with an MLB team. As it turns out, the closest team to me right now is 5+ hours away and there is no minor league ball up the street as there was in NC.

Despite being almost 1700 miles away from where he had his finest moments as a player, it's pretty awesome to think that the the folks in Fargo-Moorhead have maintained an intense connection with Maris. We have this Redhawks's giveaway (team site here), the Roger Maris Museum, and of course the gravesite. All cool stuff and proof, I guess, that baseball's always out there, you just have to look for it. I may not live near an MLB team like I had envisioned, but I call Roger Maris's state home and that, I think, is pretty awesome.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Game Over the Player

It's obvious that baseball is a team sport. At any given moment in the game there are at least 10 players on the field, batter plus fielders. When you think about it, the concept of a baseball card, a snapshot or portrait of a single player, in that sense runs counter to the spirit of the game. We are invited to contemplate one player, if not to the exclusion to, then at least over and above, all the others. He is the center and the others are, at best, footnotes or references. 

Most tobacco cards solve this dilemma by giving us studio portraits, eschewing game action all together (the triple folders are a noted exception). The focus is all on the player.

Current cards tend to combine that notion of portraiture with our desire for action, honing in on one face among the other players, reducing these to blurs and anonymous limbs. The drama of the game is likewise a passing reference, a presence implied but not necessarily represented in any recognizable way. Catches are already made, the home run clearing the outfield wall, or the post-K celebration commenced. Nothing is left to chance or speculation: the man on the card is, in this moment, a hero. 

Which brings me back to this card. The game itself is in the balance up until the final out, so why should our representations of the game and its players be any different? The card lacks the absolute certainty we desire of our idols. The ball, I am guessing, is out of reach, which makes this card a representation of failure. The pitcher's. Crawford's. A metaphor for that of humanity in general. But none of that stops anyone from moving on to the next batter, the next pitch, the next day. 

The photo on the card is not a portrait. The ball absorbs Crawford's focus and he is turned away from us. His focus is on the game, not the players or even himself. There are larger things at stake on which this moment plays a crucial part. And we know that, at this moment, there are nine other men on the diamond with their attention turned, like us, towards Crawford and the inscrutable, descending ball. We are in their company, watching.

A Break from Carl...

to post the news about Fielder's Choice. If you follow card blogs at all, then you follow Fielder's Choice. I never traded with the Dave, but he is obviously a great guy. And he also follows the Rays and Durham Bulls, so he gets a few extra points in my book right there.

All the best, man, the blog will be missed!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Baseball in general has an uneasy relationship with the past and the stars of other generations. For example, one of the better ongoing bar debates these days centers on what the accomplishments of Major Leaguers and Negro Leaguers alike would have been if these two groups of ballplayers had played together in the same league. People often refer to players like Ruth and Cobb as "legendary" or legends of the game" despite the fact that their lifetime stats are readily accessible, box scores from every game they ever played in published and republished as the years go by. If they are legends then Gibson, Charleston, and other Negro Leaguers are "mythic" in the sense that many of their greatest accomplishments were passed down from word of mouth, many times  recorded after the fact or not recorded at all. Comparing the two groups of players according to stats is pretty useless and all we are left with is what might have been. Steroids and the contemporary era open up similar problems of comparison, a problem made all the worse by the MSM's decision to drop the ball on the issue. 

Anyway, all of this is to say that the current game is always measured against the backdrop of what the game has been in the past. Fans try to reconnect with this past, or to connect with it if they are younger, in a variety of ways. Baseball card companies have capitalized on this nostalgic impulse by releasing throwback sets (Heritage, Goudey, etc.) and including any number of old timers in their products. Occasionally these cards will sell for more than original issues of those old timers, which is pretty odd when you think about it. Some of these are nice, some are poorly done, but none really connect the game's present to its past quite like the photo in this card. Recycling a card design from the 50's or 30's does little to show how these players relate to the game's past or how they situate themselves in relation to it. Rather, recycled card designs just feed or desire for nostalgia. 

Here we have Crawford with his left foot on the outfield wall at a Yankee Stadium (the old one or a spring training facility?) going up after a long fly ball (a home run? a ball he pulls back?) in the shadow of monument park. The Rays are still the Devil Rays: a forlorn group of nobodies created to give the larger market teams in the AL East someone to kick around repeatedly thanks to the unbalanced schedule. The Yankees, the photo reminds us, are the Yankees. If you are a fan the larger numbers beyond the outfield wall say it all: 1 Billy Martin, 44 Reggie Jackson, 23 Don Mattingly. And there, clearing a space for himself, is number 13, Carl Crawford. We need the name on the jersey to know who he is (he began his career as number 8), but one day we might not. His face is turned away from us, completely focused on the ball, which looks to be out of reach. But he is going after it anyway, over the fence if he has to. The attempt must be made. As laughable as it was in 2005, the Rays DID chase down the Yankees and win the pennant. Crawford is chasing down myths and legends.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Best Photo Ever (or since I've been alive)

This is the best photo on any baseball card of the mass-produced, post-1976 era. Period, Over the next few days I'll get into the multiple narratives the photo brings together. For the moment it's enough to say that this photo shows us what baseball cards could/should be, and underscores the utter laziness and indifference that overtake most companies when they are putting together their cards. Overemphasis on "new" design, postage stamp size swatches of jerseys and bats, million-to-one odds autos of marginal players on marginal teams, chrome parallels, etc. Not enough attention paid to, say, the photo on the front. Or, for that matter, the stats on the back, but that's for another day. There are enough great photos out there one could use for cards (the work done by the folks over at Goose Joak comes to mind) that it's obvious that the card companies are asleep at the wheel most of the time. However, I guess great work can and does slip through. This card proves it. 

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Why I am here

Of course, another blog, etc. 

There are a ton of really great baseball card blogs out there, and I aspire to be one of the middling, semi-mediocre ones. In other words, I want to play Mark Lemke to the Glavines and Smoltzs represented by folks at places like Wax Heaven, Sportcards Uncensored, Punk Rock Paint, Fielder's Choice, and Dinged Corners. I spend my days reading things way too closely, so the blog will be a space where grammar, common sense, and orthography go to die.

Topics will be mostly baseball, baseball cards, and politics. I followed the Braves as a kid. In recent years I've been following the Rays, mostly because their farms clubs were in two town I frequented (Charleston, SC and Durham, NC) and I got to watch a lot of their players develop from A to AAA. Seeing them get their due now in the big leagues is pretty sweet.

The two players I am interested in/collect with regards to baseball cards are Carl Crawford and David Price. I have a nice sized Crawford Collection that I'll be posting eventually. I also have a few Prices, but the prospectors have inflated his card values to the point I've bowed out of chasing down his cardboards. 

Finally, and just for fun, I'll occasionally go all political, because political discourse in this country has been swirling down the toilet since before I was born and I can't possibly imagine things could get any worse. Only then they do get worse, and this causes me no small degree of angst. 

All are welcome, so enjoy!