For-Real Interview: Josh Wilker

cardboardgods.jpgFor several years, there was a drug store in my neighborhood with a curious trading card vending machine. Half of its contents were of the Pokemon/Yu-Gi-Oh variety. The other half were old baseball cards. The newest ones were from the late 90s, the oldest dating back to 1987. I used to pop in once in a while and buy a pack or two, and the experience was always strange. Invariably, the packs would be filled with no-names, has-beens, and never was-es, the same as they were when I was young. And yet, I’d spent so much time collecting cards as a kid, even the humblest of bench warmers brought back some kind of memory.

I had the cruel misfortune of getting into baseball just as most games were being gobbled up by cable, in a household where getting cable was an unthinkable luxury. We didn’t live close enough to NYC (or have enough disposable income) to see many games in person, either; we’d manage to get to one or two games a year, but that was the limit. Baseball cards were my closest connection to the game.

That’s why it was doubly annoying to spend the little money I did have on a pack of cards, only to get a pile of nobodies. The worst one of all: Doug Sisk. He was easily the most useless member of the 1986 Mets (and, as revealed by The Bad Guys Won, its worst human being), and yet every single pack of 1987 Topps I ever bought had at least one Doug Sisk in it. Some had two. I swear I once purchased a pack with four Doug Sisk cards in it.

I once got into a car accident because some idiot ran a red light, then tried to Gaslight me by insisting I was the one who ran a red light. I don’t think I was as mad the day this happened as I was the day I got four Doug Sisks in one pack.

Looking at cards as an adult is a far different experience. You look at the “heroes” and realize that hitting or throwing a baseball really hard doesn’t exactly make someone a hero. And you look at the quote-unquote scrubs, and you realize that these were all young men who rose to the absolute highest level of their profession, only to flatline there.

That’s my long way of saying that Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods spoke to me in a way that few books ever have. In it, Wilker recounts his unorthodox upbringing in 1970s Vermont in short chapters, each prefaced by a baseball card he collected as a kid, which acts as a Greek chorus to the drama unfolding in his young life.

Cardboard Gods began its life in 2006 as a blog of the same name and quickly distinguished itself from the sports blog pack with its amazing, heartfelt writing. The word “blog” seems inadequate to capture Wilker’s web site, and his book also defies description and categorization. It’s not a mere sports book, or simply a coming-of-age story, or a memoir. It is truly something I’ve never seen in print before.

I have been recommending this book to anyone who will listen, regardless of whether they are baseball fans or not. Simply put, it is one of the best things I’ve ever read. I agree 100 percent with Rob Neyer’s cover blurb: “Josh Wilker writes as beautifully about baseball and life as anyone ever has.”

It’s also one of the best designed books I’ve come across in many a moon. The dust jacket is made of a waxy paper similar to the kind that’s surrounded baseball cards for generations. The section splash pages (the book is divided into four “packs”) use family pictures done up in the style of 1980 Topps cards. And the cover promises “1 stick of bubble gum”, represented opposite the copyright page by a smashed length of crackly gum, the kind that destroyed millions of young tongues over the years (see below for why the real thing was not included).

Thumbnail image for bevacqua_77.jpgBut the real attraction remains the prose itself. For instance, he begins a chapter on the growing distance between himself and his older brother by commenting on a card of Kurt Bevacqua, a utility man best known for setting the Topps-sponsored bubble blowing record, and last seen in baseball card form occupying some Beckett-esque existential wasteland:

The last time I’d seen Kurt Bevacqua was in 1977, in a card that showed him to be adrift in a blurry, ethereal netherworld, wearing, or appearing to wear, the doctored cap and uniform of an expansion team that had yet to officially exist and for whom he would never play a single game. Behind him, the lifeless, bulldozed plain of a landfill, or perhaps a dormant spring training complex stripped of all its accessories. No batting cages, no pitching machines, no stands, no bases. All in all, Kurt Bevacqua seemed to be in the process of passing through some sort of veil separating the Big Leagues from the Great Beyond. He didn’t seem to be pleased.

“What the fuck is going on?” he seemed to be saying.

Josh was kind enough to spare some time for a few questions via email about blogging as an antidote for writer burnout, the decrepitude of post-Seaver Shea in the 70s, and booksellers’ reluctance to sell products with gum included.

You didn’t get too many chances to see games as a kid, either in person or on TV, because of where you lived and how few games were broadcast back then, not to mention the unreliability of broadcast signals in the pre-cable age. Was that difficult to cope with as a fan, or did actually seeing the games not matter to you all that much at that age?

I don’t know if I’d say that it was difficult to cope with not being able to see more than just a few games a year, because that’s all I knew, but I definitely wouldn’t say that not seeing games didn’t matter either. I found ways to happily immerse myself in baseball, but I knew enough to know that if I’d had the chance to see games all the time I would have taken it. Actually getting to a game was huge as a kid. The few times we could see games on TV were exciting, too, particularly the All-Star game, which would bring all these stars we’d never seen before into our house. Man, I sound like an old fogey.

Piggy-backing on that question, do you think your childhood attachment to these cards developed because they were a tangible connection to a game you weren’t able to witness very often?

I think that’s exactly right. I think that’s also part of the reason that the cards continue to have a charge in them for me all these years later. I had to put my imagination into them as a kid to help them come alive, or to help them be a kind of living extension of the few glimpses of the actual game I’d seen, and there’s still some of that spark in them now, as well as quite a bit of residue of that hopeful little kid mind.

I read your post about your Dick McAuliffe glove. Was there any piece of equipment you lusted after, as a kid? Something you saw on TV, or something another kid had?

As far as equipment, I really had everything I needed–a good glove, a decent Easton aluminum bat. Sometimes my brother and I ran out of baseballs by hitting them into the high grass and not being able to find them. I do remember really wanting a shirt that had pinstripes and the word Yankees across the chest, and then below “Yankees,” in lurid red spray paint, the word “Suck!” That was back when the word “suck” still had quite a bit of sting in it. My mother was mortified by this and though she was pretty laissez-faire as a parent in general she put her foot down on allowing her children to dress in obscenities, so I never got my “Yankees suck” t-shirt.

In the book, you talk a lot about your unconventional, Montessori-ish early schooling. In that environment, was it odd to like baseball, or were they too nonjudgmental for that kind of prejudice?

I don’t recall any specific reactions on the part of the teachers to my baseball obsession, but I’m sure they would have been supportive. I do recall one day when I told my best friend in that class that I wasn’t going to play with him at recess one day, doing our usual thing of making up and acting adventure stories, because I wanted to go play kickball with the “regular” kids instead. It felt really weird, and years later I recognized it as being in the same family of human interactions as a romantic breakup.

mets_cart.jpgI was amused by the fact that you picked the Mets as the “adopted team” you rooted for when you visited your dad in New York, because it was a pretty dismal time in the Mets’ history, coming after the trade of Tom Seaver. You talk about it a bit in the book, but is there any particular memory about Shea back then that sticks out for you?

The story in the book, about my dad getting collared by ushers when we tried to move down closer to the action during a sparsely attended blowout loss, is my most vivid memory of Shea in the late 1970s, but I also have a strong recollection of a little trinket my dad bought me at one of those games, a replica of the baseball-headed golf cart that the relievers rode in to make the arduous trip from the bullpen to the mound. I remember rolling that cart up and down my jeans as we sat on the train going home. I don’t know exactly why, but in that moment I loved that little plastic baseball-headed Mets bullpen cart as much as I’ve ever loved any object.

How has your family reacted to the book? Did the Cardboard Gods blog prepare them for these stories being transferred to book form?

The family has been supportive, and, yes, I think the blog did help prepare everybody for how obsessed I was with exploring the past. Actually, the blog and the book are just the latest incarnations of this obsession, as my family has seen short stories and novel excerpts that cover some of the same terrain for many years. They have always been supportive of me trying to be a writer, and I think they also understand that my version of the past is just that, my version, a faulty subjective stab at making sense of my life.

When did you know Cardboard Gods (the blog) had hit a nerve and/or taken off? Was the attention gradual or did it seem to come in one fell swoop?

I’m not sure I ever experienced the blog as hitting a nerve or taking off. In its first location, I didn’t have access to visitor numbers anyway, but I do remember getting the idea that a few people that I wasn’t personally acquainted with had started taking a look at my writing after Darren “Repoz” Viola linked to a post on Mario Guerrero on Baseball Think Factory. I think visits to the site must have started to grow a little after that. The move of my site to the now defunct Baseball Toaster surely got more people taking a look at the site, and Rob Neyer linking to it from time to time helped, too. But it never “exploded.” I mean, it’s not exactly a site bursting with urgency and relevance. Right now, for example, I’m embarking on a card-by-card exploration of the 93-loss 1978 Atlanta Braves, with obligatory detours into my monotonous life.

How difficult was it to take your blog content and turn it into a book?

I think it wasn’t so much a case of me taking blog material and turning it into a book as me being someone who always writes books finding a way to another stab at a book. For nearly twenty years, I’ve been trying and failing and once in a while succeeding to varying degrees to write books, and the blog itself started as a way to let loose and play around after spending several years working on a novel that I was unable to publish. Once the writing about the baseball cards showed signs of life, I pretty immediately started thinking that I’d eventually try shaping the material into a book. But in the past I’d seized on many a seemingly promising idea too early in its gestation and ended up wringing all the life out of it as I tried to wrench it into book form, so I knew enough to for once just let things unfold however they wanted to for a while, which in terms of the blog meant post by post, card by card, playing around and seeing where it went. As the material started to pile up, I began seeing a way in which it might work as a book with the ol’ beginning, middle, and end. I procrastinated doing the heavy lifting involved in creating this book until I got a contract to write said book, and then it was hard work, but good work, and I had a very good ally in the writing, the editor at Seven Footer, Pete Fornatale.

I love the book’s layout, and the slipcover that looks and feels like a pack of baseball cards. Was that your idea? And was any thought given to actually inserting a stick of gum in every book? Because I totally would have eaten that piece of gum.

The cover design was a Seven Footer idea, and they had to do a lot of heroic footwork to make it come to pass, as the “wax pack” material used for the cover was not the customary material for a slipcover. The gum was an idea my friend Fay had quite a while ago, and it was that the book would have actual gum. I initially liked the idea and passed it along, and Seven Footer was looking into trying to do it, but it soon came to seem problematic for many reasons. I don’t even remember them all, but it was just a whole logistical problem in many ways. I went to a couple independent bookstore conventions in the lead-up to the publication of the book, and the general reaction of bookstore owners to the idea featured a lot of weary grimacing.

Is there one card you have in your collection you feel compelled to write about, but you have yet to find the proper personal connection to? Is there any card you feel like you just can’t write about?

I’ve been at it for four years and have only made a fairly small dent in my cards. I’m determined to write about them all. I find that I stumble a lot more on the “big” cards, often writing the most stilted and halting pieces on players I loved the most as a kid. There are a lot of cards in my “on deck” circle that I keep thinking I’ll write about, and I will, though sometimes it takes me a while.

stanhouse.jpgEx-major leaguer Don Stanhouse contacted you via the blog after you wrote about one of his cards. Have any other subjects contacted you? Any fans from the world of baseball?

I haven’t heard much from the gods themselves, though I did get to meet Bill Lee during my book tour. I’ve gotten to be friendly with some other bloggers and authors, mostly in that completely removed Internet-era way in which no one ever has to actually interact with anyone.

How would you describe your current state of baseball fandom? Casual? Fanatical? Or somewhere in between?

I don’t know, it’s pretty much like it was when I was a kid. It’s my favorite thing, my favorite way to cushion myself against the void.

Do you still buy baseball cards at all?

Every once in a while I buy a pack just for old time’s sake.

Best baseball card ever?

I don’t know if I have an answer for that. There are a lot of them that have come to loom very large to me. And even ones I don’t think have much to say to me grow on me if I give them time. One card I wish I still had was a Hank Aaron “home run king” card from 1974. I sold it for a quarter to this older kid, and then almost instantly regretted it. It had a lot going for it. What the hell, I’ll dub it the best card ever, in hopes that it’ll forgive me.

Was there a player you loved as a kid who had terrible baseball cards? Conversely, was there a player who was terrible but had an awesome card?

If I loved a player, I loved his card. I don’t have any memories of, for example, finding a Fred Lynn card in a pack and being anything other than ecstatic, no matter what the card might have looked like. It’s funny, I don’t think I ever though of any card as a terrible baseball card. Some were sort of ridiculous looking, but of course that in itself made them worthy of attention.

Baseball cards seem to be on the decline in popularity. I remember going to a lot of card shows as a kid, but now this market seems as if it’s been supplanted by memorabilia collecting, which is more high end, expensive, and geared toward adults. Is this good, bad, or indifferent?

I don’t know enough about anything beyond my own solipsistic experiments with cards to comment with any authority on collecting in general, but I’m aware of the trend away from the involvement of kids in collecting cards. This seems to me like it’s a sign that the whole notion of kids collecting cards might be going the way of decoder rings and electronic football, and without kids collecting cards, the whole thing will die off eventually. But maybe it’s really not that big of a deal. The cards were important to me, but that doesn’t mean they have to be forced on all future generations of kids. It’s also kind of funny that there’s an air of elegy sometimes in thinking about collecting cards, since they were at their origin and in all stages of development always little useless nodes of pure exploitative consumerism. But I’m as guilty as anyone of treating them like they are something more than that, which of course I believe them to be.

Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods is published by Seven Footer Press and can be obtained from all of the usual bookselling suspects, so go and grab it now. You should also be reading the blog that started it all.