pitchbacks and buddies

by

If this blog entry came with a warning (which it may), it would be that it is best read while simultaneously listening to Chicago’s “Old Days” via a spare tab on your favorite web browser. (No, not THIS version!)

The setting is an unseasonably warm, late winter Saturday afternoon in Anytown, Illinois (or Iowa, Indiana, or perhaps even parts of Ohio for that matter). A small group of boys playing touch football in the street adjacent to the grade school combine to create a din that can be heard throughout the town as shouts reverberate off two-story wood houses that surround a three block-long island of sturdy brick structures that compose the community’s economic hub. Grand hibernating oaks, elms and maples do little to help deaden the voices before they ricochet off the town water tower in need of a fresh painting by anyone besides vandals.

The year is 1975. Two other boys playing a game of “pitch” remain oblivious to the shouting and arguments that flow down the street and pass them by at approximately the same rate of the poorly constructed floats during the local high school’s annual homecoming parade.

A much younger and wiser version of myself stomps on a fragment of a fat stick that serves as an impromptu pitching “mound,” while my buddy Joel squats behind an upside-down Wham-O Frisbee that represents home plate.

The game of “pitch” is nearly as perfect as it is simple in that it allows two players to alternate between pitching an entire 9-inning baseball game and catching the other player’s performance. Incidentally, the catcher also serves as the umpire- and just like in the “bigs,” his word is final. The idea is to throw strikes. Nothing fancy, just get the ball over the dish within the seemingly ever-diminishing strike zone. The only way the opposing team can score runs is if you give up four (or more) walks in any inning. I enjoyed playing this game with Joel because he always provided the best play-by-play accounts and managed the most unlikely batting orders.

The only other “rule” of the game requires that you have a player’s baseball card before you can add him to your roster, and no player can exist on both teams. In this particular game, we had decided to only use 1974 Kellogg’s 3-D cards. Mmmm… Frosted Flakes! With that in mind, I stare at the Jim Palmer card located on the ground near the pitching mound and wonder where the hell Earl Weaver is when I need him. The situation is this: bottom of the ninth inning, score tied at two, and a single out. The count against Dick Allen (Joel’s designated hitter) stands at three balls and a strike. But that isn’t the bad news! I’ve also managed to walk a pair of batters (according to Joel anyway- who keeps track of the ghost runners by positioning cards of his players in a stylistic diamond on top of home plate, flipping through his lineup as appropriate). Joel has Nate Colbert on second, and Rod Carew on first. Luckily, neither is a threat to steal within the rules of our game. Similarly, Allen, cannot drive them in since there are only walks and strikeouts. There is no way around the issue; I simply MUST deliver two consecutive strikes.

Adjusting the Orioles cap that I’d been known to sleep in, I draw a deep breath of chilly air and look up to locate my target. Attempting to make as small of a target as possible, Joel peers over the top of his Johnny Bench catcher’s mitt and dangles two fingers below as if he’s trying to attract the attention of a near-sighted catfish. “Stop calling for a curve ball you sonofabitch!” I shout. Joel lowers his mitt to reveal an ear-to-ear grin and a booger that has been hanging from his left nostril since his starting pitcher, Bob Gibson, allowed the two tying runs to score after he uncharacteristically lost control in the top half of the inning. Joel knew me well enough to anticipate if I attempted to throw a curve ball on even my best day, it would likely hit the ground several feet shy of the intended destination.

I deliver an admittedly borderline pitch- but one that I would have swung at. “Ball FOUR!” umpire Joel shouts. Then, standing up to throw the ball back to the mound, “Bases loaded!”

“Awwww…. go pick your damn nose,” was my only reply. Pausing to look under my Jim Palmer card, I consider trying to change my luck by bringing Tom Seaver in from the bullpen. After readjusting both his grundy and the cards on top on home plate, Joel announces that he is sending Greg Luzinski to pinch hit for Willie Horton.

My distraction is broken by the unmistakable sound of a riderless Schwinn bicycle crashing onto the lawn behind me. By the time I turn around, my pal Smokey is already standing there, looking down at my card. “Jim Palmer!” he scoffs, “Why aren’t you using a real pitcher?”

Before I can even offer an argument, Smokey reaches into a pocket on the front of his sweatshirt and pulls out an unopened pack of baseball cards. “Here, this is for you. Did you know the new cards are in?” Forget about the song of the robin… THIS was the tune we had been waiting to hear all winter to indicate the beginning of spring!

We had five gas stations and two grocery stores in the town of 1,200 where I grew up. Of those seven retail locations that sold candy and soda pop, only one, the Sunoco station, carried baseball cards. My friends and I had been circling that establishment like a ravenous pack of vultures for the past three weeks, hoping to be the first customer to nose up to the candy display case after the cards had been delivered.

It is a strange day that is neither Christmas nor your birthday, yet somehow seems like a combination of the two multiplied by the promise and hope of Opening Day. A moment so significant that I would never forget it- even later in my life when it became obvious that my ability to remember things correctly had become compromised due to the sheer volume of information I had managed to store away inside my brain. I tore open the pack with all the caution and composure of a deranged demolition derby driver. Six eyes looked on as I fanned through the stack of cardboard rectangles. The grey winter sky weakened, and a bolt of sunlight flashed onto the face of the cards resulting in a double rainbow arching across the sky- perhaps visible to anyone within the tri-county area.

Enis Cabell… “Oh brother!”

Don Kessinger… “Hey,” said Smokey, “I’ll trade you an Orioles team card for that.” Once again reaching into his sweatshirt pocket, this time pulling out a fist full of loose cards, while wax wrappers spilled onto the ground.

“Done!” I answered, handing him the card without hesitation. (“Cubs fans!” I chuckled to myself.) I hadn’t even finished opening my first pack of the season, and had already completed my first trade. All indications were that this was going to be a great season.

Rusty Staub… “KOOL!”

The rest of the pack exists only as a blur, but I’m pretty sure that I also pulled a Lou Brock card. As soon as I got to the bottom card of the pack, Joel screamed, “Rain delay!” and took off across the yard towards home and his piggy bank stuffed fat with money from shoveling snow.

By the time we got to the Sunoco station, there were less than 20 packs of cards left in the box, which meant that we had enough money to buy them all and walk out with the box, and everyone else would be out of luck until the next box arrived “in a week or two.”

Joel and I never finished that game of pitch. Instead, we spent the rest of the afternoon opening our packs, sorting cards and making trades with Smokey and his pal Mike Krough. I didn’t know Mike all that well, but I liked that he would trade any two cards for any one card from the Phillies or a stick of gum.

I’m not really sure why those cards from the 1975 set have remained my favorite over all these years, but they have. Perhaps it is because they were so different from the 1973 and 1974 sets that were pretty much all white, and I was still young enough to appreciate change. Possibly it is because I still can’t pick one favorite card from that set. From Joe Rudi’s card that makes me think Topps designed the entire concept to fit with the Oakland A’s uniforms, to Oscar Gamble’s striking pose that leaves me speechless – they are all fantastic!

rudi_joe_1975_topps_45.jpg

gamble_oscar_1975_topps_213.jpg

And then there was George Scott’s fabulous card where he appeared to be inspecting the barrel of his bat for splinters. Scott’s card was appropriately numbered “360,” as he had earned the reputation for being able to turn even the best pitcher’s day around with a single swing of his mighty lumber.

scott_george_1975_topps_360.jpg

Ah, the good old days before the high dollar inserts, prism refractors and game-used memorabilia cards became the rage. No, life wasn’t simpler or easier to wrap your mind around, but baseball cards were. And that’s why they were better. I prefer baseball cards that have flaws, just like the players depicted on them. Don’t get me wrong… I do buy the new glossy products, but they often leave me feeling a bit foiled. I suspect that I’m probably going to remain a loyal fan of the retro style cards (Allen & Ginter, 52 Rookies, Tradition, Heritage, and whatever else they produce along those lines) for a very long time.

– Kris

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