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I know what it is to be a junkie. I used to steal nickels out of parking meters at the train station to feed my habit. Can't remember what a pack of baseball cards cost back then, but the meters would usually cough up enough nickels for a few packs here and there.
I spent legitimate money on 'em, too. Birthday checks, paper route profits, allowances. And the cards piled up, thousands of 'em from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s. They have since been boxed and banished to the basement -- some categorized by year, others by team, still others by the whimsical filing techniques of a 12-year-old. One shoe box is labeled "Guys who suck."
It's probably 15 years since I bought a baseball card. I can't even recall seeing more than a handful of new ones over that time. I expect that cards in 2004 are like something out of a Harry Potter movie -- live-action holograms on the front, sortable statistics and an interactive fantasy game on the back.
Then again, maybe not. There's a certain timelessness in baseball cards, certain constants like those cheesy forced poses, easy trivia questions and strange factoids. A baseball card can embrace the game's past, present and future simultaneously. The secrets of the baseball universe are on these cards. It's the DiMaggio Code, if you will, passed from generation to generation.
So it was a pleasant surprise the other day to unearth a long-forgotten plastic bag filled with cards, tucked away in a box of other childhood things. There were only 300 to 500 cards in it, a drop in the ocean compared to the plastic bin in the basement. But as I thumbed through this random collection, I discovered that almost every card meant something to me. Names I hadn't heard in years came flooding back, as did memories of games and countless hours arranging and rearranging piles of cards. It was like going to some sort of metaphysical reunion ... only everybody else was still sporting pork chop sideburns and hideous uniforms.
So I spent a few hours poring over these cards, just like old times. Here are a few of the memories, thoughts and observations that streamed through my consciousness:
The Good -- Max Venable, 1981, Topps No. 484:
This card was virtually unbeatable in an all-day scaling competition that took place in my buddy Joe Ciotoli's basement. We called him "The Incredible Edible Max Venable" in deference to the popular TV ad of the day that boasted of the nutritional value and unsurpassed taste of "the incredible edible egg."
The real Max Venable had a career .241 average and never played more than 108 games in any of his 12 major league seasons, but he'll always be a Hall of Famer to the boys of Port Washington who saw him dominate all that one long rainy day. He was the Sargeant York of card scaling, single-handedly reaping dozens of consecutive victories -- leanies, touchies, wallies, topsies ... this card could do it all. His dented corners and faded gloss are honorable battle scars. Today, The Incredible Edible Max Venable is the hitting coach for the Dayton Dragons of the Midwest League. That would be the last-place Dayton Dragons, who are hitting .236 as a team.
The Bad -- Ed Ott, 1977, Topps No. 197:
A lot of people remember it as the Summer of Sam, but I remember it as the Summer of Ott. Between the blackout, the serial killings and the Tom Seaver trade, there wasn't much emotion left over for the mugging of Felix Millan on Aug. 12, 1977. It didn't help that Elvis died a few days later.
Yes, you might think of Ed Ott merely as the man with the shortest name in major league history (tied with Ed Hug, who played one game for the 1903 New York Giants), but I'll always think of him as the man who ended the career of my favorite player. Finding Ott's ugly mug in a stack of cards today is like walking down a crowded city street and passing the schoolyard bully from years ago. The rage. The indignation. It all comes boiling up to the surface.
It's the second game of a doubleheader in the dog days at Shea Stadium. Pirates catcher Ott, this anvil of a man, barrels into the wispy Millan at second base to break up a double play. A scuffle ensues and Ott picks Millan up and body-slams him, breaking his collarbone.
I saw what you did, Ed Ott! I saw the whole thing! And I swore on that day that should I ever have an Internet sports column, I would use it to call you out. And should I ever actually come across you on a city street somewhere ... well, I'll probably just make belittling comments behind your back; because from what I understand, you're still pretty big and tough at 53.
The Ugly -- Willie Montanez, 1981, Fleer No. 506:
Long before Barry Bonds and Ricky Henderson were doing the "snatch catch" in the outfield, there was Willie Montanez, the ultimate showboat. This dude was a hot dog with everything. Unfortunately, Montanez played first base and wasn't snatch-catching can-of-corn pop-ups. He was trying to snatch-catch 100 mph lasers from his third baseman and shortstop. And every now and again, he'd get a little too dramatic and send the ball sailing over his head and into the stands behind first. For you Little Leaguers reading this at home: Just remember that you can hit a respectable .275 over 14 seasons if you want, but all anybody's going to remember about you are the 104 errors.
You Got the Look: You apparently needed three things to be a major leaguer in 1979: big hair, porn-star-quality facial hair and huge wire-rim glasses. Terry Humphrey hit the trifecta in Topps No. 503. Humphrey reportedly caught a good game, but he hit just .211 in parts of nine seasons. Oh, and by the way, the card tells me that today is his 55th birthday. At least he's paying less at the movies now.
Meet You at the Regal Beagle? You are lookin' FINE, Mr. Steve Stone! Nothing says future Cy Young winner like a hairy chest and gold chains peeking out of a wide-collared V-neck jersey (1979, Topps, No. 227). And, why, oh, why did they cut the photo at the waist? Because I gotta know if you're wearing the shorts!
From the "We Got Nothin'" Department: "Chico was an All-Star Little League shortstop," reads Chico Walker's 1987 Topps card, No. 695. I feel like I know the man.
Multi-tasking: Ruppert Jones' 1987 Topps card, No. 53, tells us that "Ruppert enjoys both karate and racquetball." What it doesn't tell us is whether he enjoys them concurrently.
From the "Let's Leave Out the Interesting Stuff" Department: Robin Yount's Topps card from 1980 (No. 265) offers up the fact that his older brother Larry Yount "pitched with the Astros in 1971." What it doesn't tell us is that Larry Yount owns the shortest career in major league history. Brought in to pitch the ninth inning of a game toward the end of the '71 season, Larry felt some discomfort in his arm while warming up and never threw a pitch in his major league debut. He was shelved for the rest of the season and never made it back to The Show. However, the Yount brothers still combined to play 2,857 games.
More Interesting Omissions: Tom Paciorek's Topps card from 1979 (No. 141) similarly mentions a less-famous sibling without mentioning why that sibling is even a little famous. The card says Tom is the "Brother of John Paciorek, outfielder with the Houston Colt 45's during 1963." What it doesn't say is that John Paciorek, like Larry Yount, played only one game in the major leagues before an injury ended his career prematurely. But, not only did John Paciorek play that one game on the last day of the '63 season, he went 3-for-3 with two walks that day to claim the highest career batting average and on-base percentage in baseball history.
Swing and Amish: Jim Kern's Topps card from 1981 (No. 197) tells us that he "often wears a black, wide-brimmed Amish hat." Hmmm. It doesn't exactly say he's Amish ... but it doesn't exactly say he isn't, either. From his gaunt face and scraggly beard, you might assume he is. But he isn't. In fact, the flaky Kern, also known as "The Emu," was about as un-Amish as it gets. He was Sparky Lyle's partner in crime in Texas, where they terrorized batters out of the bullpen and terrorized teammates in the clubhouse. Kern's best year was 1979, when he went 13-5 with 29 saves and a 1.57 ERA to earn Fireman of the Year honors. He didn't do much after that, but he did grow the beard back later in his career just to rock the boat and force a trade out of the "no facial hair" zone in Cincinnati.
American Idol: I wanted to like Lee Mazzilli. I really did. He was the best player on some heinous Mets teams during my youth. But as far as I was concerned, he was hurting my chances with the ladies. And that was an issue. All the fourth- and fifth-grade chicks were in love with this guy. They were in love with his Chachi-like presence and his pants that were about three sizes too small. Oh, how they swooned! And when he hit that home run in the '79 All-Star Game! Suddenly, the girls were no longer impressed by a 4-foot-7 dude who could hang upside down on the monkey bars for a really, really long time.
This is Mazzilli's card from '79 (Topps No. 355) when he was on top of the world, hitting .303 with 16 home runs and 79 RBI. Just wait, I thought to myself, this guy will get old and fat and the girls will come running back. Of course, here's Mazzilli 20 years later, managing in The Show with a bunch of World Series rings on his fingers, pushing 50. And he's still got a better ass than me.
Because You're Mine, I Walk the Mendoza Line: He became a punch line, a man whose name is synonymous with bad hitting, thanks to BMOC George Brett's lunchroom hazing. Had Brett never introduced us to The Mendoza Line, Mario Mendoza would have taken his .215 career average back to Chihuahua, Mexico, anonymous to you and me. In four of his nine big-league seasons, Mendoza couldn't break .200. When he stepped to the plate, he might as well have been carrying a sprig of parsley because his bat was nothing more than garnish.
And yet, there is the curious case of his 1979 Topps card, No. 509, which lists his career average at .278, seemingly impossible for a guy who never hit higher than .221 in any of his five seasons to that point. So how did he do it? Simple. The folks at Topps divided his hits by his games played instead of by his at-bats, which is the more conventional and, unfortunately, accurate calculation. Do it that way and you find that Mendoza was hitting .204 for his career as of 1979. The silver lining: He raised that average by 11 points over the next four seasons. As a footnote, if batting averages really were determined by hits divided by games played, Ted Williams would have hit 1.158 for his career.
Lucy in the Skybox with Diamonds: The colorful career of Dock Ellis came to a close in 1979. His final card was a 1980 Topps No. 117 with Dock in a Mets uniform -- one of three he wore during that last woeful 4-12 season. The back of that card, however, trumpets his triumphant early days, in particular his 1970 no-hitter. Of course, Ellis would later claim in his book that he pitched that no-no while tripping on acid. In keeping with the spirit of that revelation, I amended the little cartoon on the back of his card. Where once there was just a drawing of a pitcher smiling and pumping his fist, I have added a batter -- a clown with a goat's head holding a big hoagie instead of a bat.
Mary Tyler Moore Moment: Former Mets pitcher John Pacella is captured in all his glory in 1981 Topps card No. 414, which shows his cap flying to the ground in the middle of the pitch ... which it did on every single pitch of his otherwise forgettable career. The back of the card describes it as a "unique habit." Unique habit? What's that? A euphemism for "the single most aggravating thing we've ever seen in sports?" This guy was unwatchable. It was like watching a lab rat refusing to learn that the pellet dispenser was attached to a car battery. Learn, dammit, learn! Put your hat on right! I always wanted to staple the thing to his head. I mean, Allen Iverson wears shorts that would be big on Yao Ming, but they're not dropping around his ankles every time he takes a foul shot.
Out of Body Experience: Is this the Cubs' team photo from '79, or a seating chart at Alcor's cryogenics lab?
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Benny Distefano (but were afraid to ask): In 1985, Topps No. 162 informed us that Pirates rookie outfielder Benny Distefano's first major league at-bat came against Pete Falcone, "brother of his high school friend." Two years later, Topps No. 651 gets us a little further into the life of Benny Distefano by citing, "Benny's leisure activities include dancing."
You know what I always say: Any dancin' friend of Pete Falcone's little brother is okay by me.
Amazingly, however, I can tell you three MORE things about Benny Distefano. 1.) He caught three games for the Pirates in 1989, making him the last left-handed catcher to play in the majors. 2.) Dan Patrick's now-infamous "You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him" catch phrase made its debut after a three-hit night by Distefano in 1992. And 3.) My friend Christine Destefano, a former ESPN.com producer who now wiles away in some ivory tower on the West Coast, has Benny's 1990 Fleer card taped to her mirror "next to Joe Strummer and Che Gueverra." Their names are slightly different, but Christine says her ancestors in the old country did, in fact, spell their name "Distefano."
The 1987 New York Yankees: These cards are dedicated to everyone who has been frustrated by George Steinbrenner's bottomless wallet and pathological need to sign, trade for or shang-hai every available superstar. We read gushing columns ad nauseam about The Boss' insatiable appetite for victory, how he refuses to let Yankee tradition be mired by mediocrity. Am I and Don Mattingly the only ones who laugh when we read this? Donnie Baseball played 1,785 games for Steinbrenner's Yankees between 1982 and 1995 without ever sniffing a World Series game. Of course, the Yankees bookended Mattingly's career with World Series appearances in 1981 and 1996 ... so maybe it was him?
Um, no. As I come across a pocket of 1988 Topps Yankees cards, I rattle off the following members of Mattingly's supporting cast from '87: Lenn Sakata, Steve Trout, Gary Ward, Joel Skinner, Cecilio Guante, Tim Stoddard, Wayne Tolleson, Rick Rhoden and Jerry Royster. Each of these cards are in "mint condition" and preserved for maximum face value. I look up that value in a collector's book to find that I'd have to pay somebody $38.50 to take these cards from me. I try to burn them, but they seem to repel the flames.
How 'Fro Can You Go: Oscar Gamble was, is, and always will be the king of tremendous 'fros in professional sports. This is his 1979 card (Topps No. 263), but I'm pretty sure there's another one out there (maybe his Yankees card from '77) where the hair takes up about three-fourths of the card and his hat is just kind of sitting on top of it.
The Great White Hope: Of course, Don Stanhouse (Topps No. 119) won the White Man's League before losing to Gamble in the Afro World Series.
Name Game: The 1987 Topps card No. 734 for four-time batting champ Bill Madlock tells us that "Bill is affectionately known as 'Mad Dog.'" However, Topps card No. 538 of his Dodgers teammate Tom Niedenfuer neglects to inform us that Tom was affectionately known as "Buffalo Head."
Beware the Wockenfuss! His name haunted me from the moment I opened a pack of cards in 1976 to find Topps No. 13. Johnny Wockenfuss. Of the West Virginia Wockenfusses. Or is it the Wockenfuss-i? It was like a name out of the Jabberwocky or Beowulf, something Dr. Seuss might have come up with in his wildest moments, something to be feared like the Zelf on my shelf or the Jertin in my curtain.
Somehow, almost miraculously, I come across not one, but TWO Johnny Wockenfuss cards: the Topps No. 13 from '76, when he was a strapping young lad with a perm looking to reach The Bigs after nine long years in the minors; and Topps No. 39 from 1985 with grey hair and a face weathered by 11 years in The Show. Two Johnny Wockenfuss cards separated by nine years and almost 1,900 at-bats. Now in my mid-30s and no longer scared of the Wockenfuss, I actually work up a measure of admiration for a man who persevered through three years in Pittsfield to keep chasing his dream.
Crummy business: According to Jim Wohlford's 1985 card (Topps No. 787), the light-hitting outfielder owns the Cowboy Cookie & Grub Co. bakery in Atascadero, Calif. Always a fan of a good "Cowchip," I e-mailed the place to see if Wohlford is still slinging dough. Turns out he's not. The bakery's current co-owner of four years -- one Kamber Doucette -- says she can't recall ever hearing Wohlford's name or meeting him, but has heard that the place was owned by a ballplayer many years ago. You can order online, by the way.
Kent Tekulve, 1985, Topps No. 125: Before there was the Eck, before there was Mariano ... there was Tekulve, racking up 83 saves in the three years from 1978 to 1980 en route to 158 for his career. And what's more, he apparently was blind.