Keith Comstock played on four major league clubs as a journeyman reliever, but his professional career is most often remembered for one thing: a ball to the crotch. Thirty years ago -- in what otherwise would have been a forgotten minor league set -- Comstock appeared on one of the most memorable baseball cards ever made. Here's the story of how it came together, in his words.
When I was a kid, being on a major league baseball card was a top-of-the-checklist kind of thing. It was like a life's dream. You'd keep the superstars, and you'd put the other guys in your bicycle spokes. With the career I had, I was the guy you put in the spokes.
I was drafted in 1976, and it took me eight years to reach the majors. I was traded or released so many times, it was hard to keep count. In 1983, the Oakland A's sold me to the Detroit Tigers for $100 and a bag of balls. I had to deliver the balls. For much of my career, I'd get moved to another team and my wife would pack up the Chevy Vega with our kids and they'd follow me. One time, it took my wife three days to reach my next assignment. On the day she arrived, I found out I'd been demoted.
By the late 1980s, I'd been up and down a few times -- with Minnesota, San Francisco and San Diego. I never had a major league baseball card of myself, until 1988. That's when the Topps card company produced my first real card, like the ones I collected when I was a boy. I'm throwing a pitch in the photo. I was so happy when I saw the card, really humbled. When I got that first card, I didn't keep it. I sent it to my mom. It was like validation for everything that I'd gone through, like here was proof I was a major leaguer. The cool part of that 1988 card is it became a sought-after error card within the Topps set. There was something wrong with the coloring of the "Padres," so I got a little notoriety for that. I couldn't wait to show up in another set.
I was demoted again. The same year I got my first Topps card, I was sent to Triple-A Las Vegas, playing for the Stars. I was 32 years old and it was sometime in the late spring when the minor league card photographer showed up. By then, I was just barely hanging onto the game.
I had so many minor league cards of myself that I was getting bored with them. Plus, it was kind of a downer. You didn't want to be in a minor league set. You wanted to have a big league card. And, honestly, another minor league card was a reminder of how my career was going.
There was absolutely zero creativity with minor league cards. You should see my old ones. There was the balance position, where the photographer tells you to raise your leg, like you're ready to throw. There was the one where you extend your throwing hand, like you've just released a pitch. There's the one where you're standing with a ball and glove, doing nothing. Like I said, zero creativity. I'd done so many of those that I was sick of it. So was everyone else.
The photographer who showed up that day was shooting for the 1989 ProCards set, so we were doing this for next year's cards. He had his hat backward, like you might expect from a photographer. While that guy was setting up for the shoot, my teammates started talking about how they wanted to sabotage their own cards.
One by one, they stepped up and posed. Right-handed batters tried to hold the bat like a lefty; left-handed pitchers wore right-handed gloves. They tried everything. The photographer caught every one of them. He had a sheet, or something, that had our numbers and lefty-righty stuff on it. He was really, really strict. He wasn't having any of it.
Finally, it was my turn. The photographer asked me what I wanted to do, expecting I'd do one of the basic poses. I thought about it for a second, and then it came to me: "I want it to look like a comebacker hit me in the nuts," I said. The photographer didn't like that. "Sorry, man," the guy said to me. "I'm under strict rules. I can't take that picture." I pleaded with him, but the photographer wouldn't budge.
I was a veteran on the Stars. Because I'd been to the majors, even for a little while, that was a big thing in the clubhouse. Guys looked up to me because I'd made it, even if it was just for a little while. I did what they dreamed of doing, and that earned me respect.
We had a deep team in Vegas, and we ripped through just about everyone in the Pacific Coast League that year. Sandy Alomar was a kid on the team. I think his brother, Roberto Alomar, was there when we did the shoot. There was Jerald Clark, Joey Cora, Bip Roberts and Shane Mack. Bruce Bochy was our backup catcher. My buddy Kevin Towers was there. There was this guy on the team, another pitcher. His name was Todd Simmons. He was the prankster. He heard my rejected plan for my baseball card, but he loved the idea. He knew it had to be done, and he started egging me on.
"Todd told me, 'You're the veteran,' and said I needed to tell the guys in the clubhouse that they shouldn't sign their card contracts unless this photographer allowed me to get a ball to the crotch." Keith Comstock on the conversation that helped make his baseball card a reality
Understand this: When I got my card idea rejected, not everyone had taken their photos. The photographer got all the regular guys done first, and the potential stars would be shot last. No idea who came up with that, but it worked to my advantage. All those guys were still in the clubhouse, 30 minutes from heading to the field.
Todd said I needed to tell the young guys what I wanted to do. You had to sign a contract to do the baseball card, which covered a bunch of stuff and said you agreed that your photo would show up in the set. Todd told me, "You're the veteran," and said I needed to tell the guys in the clubhouse that they shouldn't sign their card contracts unless this photographer allowed me to get a ball to the crotch. So many of those guys were future major leaguers, and it was pretty obvious the card company needed them in the set.
So I did it. I went to the clubhouse, told the guys my idea about the ball and said they shouldn't sign their contracts unless I got this picture taken. They didn't hesitate. It wasn't like some movie moment, though. I didn't mandate anything from them. I wasn't Mel Gibson in "Braveheart." There was no chanting or cheering. Like I said, these guys were 30 minutes from leaving the clubhouse. They were like, "Go ahead." I'm sure they didn't really care.
I went to the dugout, got some really sticky baseball tape and tried to stick it to the ball and then to my pants' crotch. The ball was too heavy. It kept falling off. I tried to circle the tape around my quad, but the tape blocked out the ball's seams. I went up and down the dugout, looking for anything that was strong enough to hold a ball.
Then I found the Super Glue. Back in the day, we pitchers used it to cover our blisters. The trainer had the glue in his little kit, so I grabbed it. I didn't want to ruin my game pants, so Todd ran to the clubhouse and got a pair of old ones. I squeezed the Super Glue tube over half the ball. I doused it. I put on the pants, pressed the glued-up ball to them, then tried to let go.
The ball was stuck to my hand. I tried to pull it off, but the ball was about to peel off my pants. I moved my hand and the pants moved. I thought, I am not taking this photo with my hand on my crotch. Someone grabbed a tongue depressor from the trainer's kit and slowly started to pry my fingers off the ball. It took a while, but my hand finally got free. Now I just had to get the photographer.
I walked up with the ball stuck to my pants, and the guy was like, "No-no-no." I was expecting that. I told him that I had a clubhouse full of players who weren't going to sign their card contracts unless I got a ball in the nuts. I looked as serious as possible. The photographer stared at me for a second, trying to figure out if I really meant it. "Son of a bitch," he finally said. "Go ahead."
He gave me one shot. I could feel the ball starting to fall off. "Take the picture! Take the picture!" I yelled. I threw up my hands and closed my eyes. That was it.
The guys couldn't believe I pulled it off. I had no idea what the card was going to look like. We won the Pacific Coast League championship that year, then we went into the offseason. I forgot about the card for a bit, but then 1989 rolled around. I couldn't wait to see what the card company did with that photo.
We got the little set of team cards delivered to the clubhouse one day, and we opened them. Sure enough, there I was, taking one to the nuts. The guys thought it was hilarious. I signed the card for any teammate who wanted it. I even signed one for Steve Smith, our manager. That was a great day.
When I finally got a chance to show the card to my wife, I was pretty pleased with myself. I pulled it out. You know what she said? "Why are your eyes closed? That's the best you could do?" She didn't even notice the baseball glued to my crotch. I pointed the ball out to her, thinking it was super funny. She just rolled her eyes. That's all I got, an eye roll.
ProCards must not have been too upset about what I did. Sometime after the set's release, I got an 8-by-10 in the mail from the company. There I am: pinstripe Stars jersey, hat on, eyes closed, mouth open. I framed the photo and for years it hung at my house in Arizona, in a place that I call my Wall of Shame.
I played parts of six seasons in the major leagues, for four teams. I threw my last major league pitch in 1991. I was 35. I got right into coaching, and today I'm the rehab pitching coordinator for the Texas Rangers. I've got three kids and six grandkids. They've all seen that baseball card. Two of my grandsons are 10 and 12. Their mom showed them the card awhile back, and they loved it. Thirty years later and there's Grandpa, getting hit in the nuts.
I love this game, and I have fun with it. It's hard not to when people recognize me from that card. I've had so many conversations with people about it. You're the guy with the ball to the crotch. Fans bring the card to the field and want me to sign it. We have a laugh and then talk baseball. At the end of the day, to a lot of people, this is how I'm remembered as a player. At least I'm remembered.