Category Archives: For-Real Interviews

For-Real Interviews: Craig Robinson

In America, baseball is, sadly, often seen as the brussels sprouts of sports: something that must be consumed because it’s good for you. Many people view the sport as obligation rather than entertainment, something you are required to take your kids to during the summer because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Those who wax poetic about the game’s virtues can sound a bit like enthusiasts of quaint hobbies, like scrimshaw or silhouetting. The game is so fraught history and tradition and baggage that it seems impossible to say anything new about it.

Or maybe it just someone with a fresh perspective to say them. Enter Craig Robinson, an English illustrator whose love affair with the game was kindled by a trip to Yankee Stadium while in New York on business back in 2005. Not long after that, as his baseball fandom grew, he began to ponder questions that may not have occurred to someone who grew up with the game. Like, what is the actual monetary value of all the bases “stolen” during a major league season? Or how would A-Rod’s salary look if dispensed in pennies and stacked on top of one another? Or how long did it take to assemble, then disassemble, the 1986 Mets? Or what would the box score look like in a playoff game between the Wu Tang Clan and the E Street Band?

Robinson decided to answer these questions and many more at his site, Flip Flop Fly Ball, in gorgeously streamlined infographics. They are elegantly simple, packing enormous amounts of information into their space while not appearing remotely cluttered. They are works of art that beg to be seen write large, and that’s just what’s happened with the release of Flip Flop Fly Ball, a fantastic book that collects some of Robinson’s best work from the site, along with new items and essays on his evolution as an unlikely baseball fan. It is the kind of book that justifies the invention of the coffee table.

The author was kind enough to answer a few of my queries about his path to baseball fandom, the Mexican League, and what he would do with his favorite team. Answers to those questions and more after the jump.

Continue reading For-Real Interviews: Craig Robinson

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.

Continue reading For-Real Interview: Josh Wilker

For-Real Interview: Dan Epstein

bighair.jpgAs a kid, I was fascinated by 1970s baseball. The huge afros, the amazing facial hair, the retina-burning uniform designs–it seemed like such an insane, colorful era, particularly when compared to the heavily moussed 80s, where I spent most of my kid-dom. (Of course, there were some colorful characters then, too, but that’s a tale for another time.)

Whenever I had some disposable income (which was not often), I would spend it at a baseball card convention or store, usually on a large plastic box filled with completely worthless cards from 1977 or 1975, just so I could savor such sartorial majesties as Willie McCovey’s sideburns. My elementary school library had these slim books on each major league team, all published in the mid-’70s, which I borrowed repeatedly. And whenever my grampa took me to Cooperstown, I’d seek out the unbelievable mini-exhibit on the technicolor uniforms from those years (sadly, no longer there).

While there are some chronicles of players and teams from the 1970s (The Machine and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning are great, recent examples), there haven’t been many (if any) retrospectives about the decade in total. When people speak of a Golden Age of Baseball, they usually save such mythologizing for the 1950s and its stainless, sepia-tone heroes.

But now there is finally an evangelist for game as played in the Me Decade. Journalist Dan Epstein has penned a love letter to 1970s baseball entitled Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride through Baseball and America in the Swinging 70s. ESPN’s Rob Neyer has said of this tome, “What the 1960s were to America, the 1970s were to baseball, and Dan
Epstein has finally given us the swinging book the ’70s deserve.” The book drops May 25 from Thomas Dunne Books, and there will be a big ol’ release party at the Bell House in Brooklyn on May 26 (I for one am excited to try the Oscar Gamble hot dog that will be served there).

Dan was generous enough to take some time out of his busy schedule and answer some questions via email about Astroturf, day-glo erseys, the best Topps card designs, and the worst promotions of all time. Read all about it after the jump.
Continue reading For-Real Interview: Dan Epstein