For 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).
But 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.
Continue reading For-Real Interview: Josh Wilker