Category Archives: Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter

Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: Sega World Series Baseball 1999

A few years back, when I revealed I was getting hitched, my cousin insisted on organizing my bachelor trip. He kept the destination a secret for as long as humanly possible, but since we’ve know each other literally our whole lives, I trusted his judgment.

The day we left, he revealed that we (meaning he, my two brothers and I) were going on a trip much like the ones we took when we were kids. Every few years, my grandparents would herd all of us and our parents upstate, either to Cooperstown or Niagara Falls. This trip would combine the two. Maybe that’s not your idea of bachelor trip craziness, but it was exactly what I wanted. Nostalgic, silly, and awesome.

The first night of the trip, we stayed in a small town a few miles outside of Cooperstown, in the same strip motel we stayed in as kids (which we did some serious damage to the first time around; I’m surprised we didn’t check in under aliases). If you’ve never been to the area, know that Cooperstown itself is pretty small, in both size and temperament. Being a suburb of Cooperstown is like being a suburb of Hooterville.
Continue reading Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: Sega World Series Baseball 1999

Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: MVP Baseball and Revisionist History

For most of video game history, any ol’ company could make a baseball game. (The same was true for most sports, but we’ll concentrate on America’s pastime here.) At first, these games rarely attempted to use real players or even real teams, except for those cases in which one player lent his face to said game.

(This is where I would link to the (in)famous Sammy Sosa High Heat baseball ad, but the video has been removed from the interwebs. Killjoys.)

This was perfectly acceptable by the standards of the day. Technology did not yet allow video games to remotely resemble The Real Thing, so it was okay to play as teams like the Los Angeles Swervers and the Chicago Bear-Children. Verisimilitude was not even a desired trait in sports video games–NBA Jam was a smash hit in the early 90s, but it’s llikely the young’uns of today would not accept a hoops game where basketballs burst into flames.

Then, two things happened: Graphics improved, and the post-strike collective bargaining agreement allowed for all teams and players to share in formerly nebulous revenue streams like video games. In football, the Madden franchise emerged, set the standard for realism in sports games, and raised it with each subsequent edition. Baseball tried to follow suit, but by the late 90s/early 00s, when there were a plethora of baseball games for every platform, of varying degrees of quality.

mvp05.gifEventually, one titan emerged: EA Sports’ MVP Baseball series. I own several incarnations of this game, and remember thoroughly enjoying the realistic gameplay and graphics, and all the extras. The 2005 edition allowed you to accumulate MVP “points”, which you could cash in to “buy” retro uniforms, old ballparks, and legendary players. I used to love playing games at the Polo Grounds or Forbes Field, which were either shown in sepiatone or at dusk, because I’m a dork like that.

It had a fun Owner’s Mode, which allowed you to create your own stadium and even control the minutiae of a franchise like setting concession prices and scheduling promotion dates. It was also one of the first (if not the first) game to allow you to not only call up players from the minors (many of whom were real prospects), but actually play games for your minor league franchise.

Unfortunately, the 2005 edition was the last one EA Sports produced. Beginning in 2006, MLB awarded the exclusive cross-platform rights to 2K Sports. The hardware companies themselves (Sony, Nintendo, etc.) could make their own games for their own systems, but only 2K could make a game for all consoles. It was neither the first nor last time MLB made a dumb, shortsighted decision.

So while every other sport gets an annual game from EA, the top sports game producer by far, baseball gets a rarely-well-received treatment from 2K. Scour gaming sites, and reviews are rarely more enthusiastic than “it’s decent”. By all accounts, last year’s edition was full of problems.

I say “by all accounts” because I haven’t played too many of these games. I have a Playstation, and they produced a pretty good alternative of their own, MLB:The Show. I bought these for a couple of years until the rigors of fatherhood left a lot less time to waste in getting good at video games (because the modern video game involves an enormous time investment to attain competence).

The Show was pretty good, and the newer versions for Playstation 3 border on amazing. The 2009 edition allowed you record your own cheers and taunts and customize them on a player-by-player basis, an option that has a world of mean-spirited possibilities. But I always felt like baseball games hadn’t advanced beyond the last installment of MVP. I was not alone in this opinion, if interweb grumbling is any indication (for instance, see the shout out MVP receives in this sneak peek of the impending release of MLB 2K10 at IGN).

So this past weekend, I blew the dust off my copy of MVP Baseball 2005 and gave it a spin. I expected to be blown away, or at least get the same twinge of nostalgia I receive when I play old Nintendo games. Sadly, I was disappointed on both fronts.

It turns out, video games had progressed in the 5 years since (weird, I know). Load screen times that were once acceptable seemed painfully drawn out to me. The game had only about 9 songs on it, only a few of which were any good, and repeated themselves with annoying frequency. Once upon a time, a game with 9 real songs would have been mind blowing, but the rules have changed.

“Annoying frequency” could also describe the broadcast announcements, voiced by Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow. They call games for the San Francisco Giants, and not every well. But even a great broadcast team would be affected by the limited number of announcements they could actually make in this game. Again, the mere fact that such announcements were sort-of customized for game situation was once a wonder. No longer.

I also found the gameplay a bit clunky, particularly throwing and fielding. Catching a routine fly ball in the outfield was far too risky. The batting and pitching interactions were decent, but that was about as much as I could say about it.

I looked forward to enjoying the retro uniforms and stadiums, but since I had deleted my profile from on overloaded memory card a long time ago, I couldn’t access any of them. And the thought of putting in all the time to acquire them, just so I could play the Nationals in powder-blue Expos uniforms, was too frightening to contemplate.

Granted, I think what most people really lamented (at least initially) was that EA Sports was no longer allowed to make a baseball game. Obviously, if they’d been allowed to do so, they would have progressed just as the other video game firms did. But over time, I think the wish for EA Sports to reenter the field devolved into a fetishization for the last game they did make.

Ironically, it is this relatively new desire for a REAL sports video game that dates MVP 2005 so much. That was as real as it got back then, but now it’s aged in dog years. If the game was more fantastical or wacky (a la the aforementioned NBA Jam), it would probably have aged better. But it didn’t.

The moral of this story? Sometimes, the passing of time, and less than ideal modern conditions, can lead you to romanticize the past. But chances are, either things are not as good as you remember, or the present isn’t as hideous as you think, either.

Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: City of Glass

new-york-trilogy.jpgPaul Auster is one of my favorite fiction writers. He’s also a Mets fan. The latter fact has nothing to do with the former–his work would be just as good if he liked the Red Sox, or the Rockies, or no baseball team at all. Then again, his novels are very New York, and they have a very Mets-ian cast to them, as Brandon Stosuy pointed out in this 2005 review for the Village Voice:

His hard-luck, Mets-loving characters wouldn’t work as fans of the Yankees … In Hand to Mouth, Auster admits that in his late twenties and early thirties, “everything I touched turned to failure,” including his marriage, his bank account, and his writing. That’s OK, though–his best characters are dealt the same lot and still make sure to check box scores that add up to another losing season.

Auster’s books are often about psychic torture, the longing to capture things which can not be captured, and pursuit of insane goals that can never be realized. If that’s not what it’s like to be a Mets fan, it’s damn close.

The Mets exist at the peripheries of many of his stories, mentioned in passing, usually by the narrator/main character. A reader unfamiliar with the team’s history or mythos might see these details as mere window dressing. But a Mets fan will recognize them for the touchstones they are.

My favorite examples are in City of Glass, the first book of Auster’s New York Trilogy. A man named Quinn, who writes mysteries under the pseudonym William Wilson (more on that later), gets drawn into a bizarre mystery of his own when a wrong number leads to him being hired as a private detective (despite not being one). Early in the story, he ducks into a diner to get a late night meal.

As the counterman swung into action, he spoke over his shoulder to Quinn.

“Did you see game tonight, man?”

“I missed it. Anything good to report?”

“What do you think?”

For several years, Quinn had been having the same conversation with this man, whose name he did not know. Once, when he had been in the luncheonette, they had talked about baseball, and now, each time Quinn came in, they continued to talk about it. In the winter, the talk was of trades, predictions, memories. During the season, it was always the most recent game. They were both Mets fans, and the hopelessness of the passion had created a bond between them.

The counterman shook his head. “First two times up, Kingman hits solo shots,” he said. “Boom, boom. Big mothers–all the way to the moon. Jones is pitching good for once and things don’t look too bad. It’s two to one, bottom of the ninth. Pittsburgh gets men on second and third, one out, so the Mets go to the bullpen for Allen. He walks the next guy to load them up. The mets bring the corners in for a force at home, or maybe they can get the double play if it’s hit up the middle. Pena comes up and chicken-shits a little grounder to first and the fucker goes through Kingman’s legs. Two men score, and that’s it, bye-bye New York.”

“Dave Kingman is a turd,” said Quinn, biting into his hamburger.

“But watch out for Foster,” said the counterman.

“Foster’s washed up. A has-been. A mean-faced bozo.” Quinn chewed his food carefully, feeling with his tongue for spare bits of bone. “They should ship him back to Cincinnati by express mail.”

“Yeah,” said the counterman. “But they’ll be tough. Better than last year, anyway.”

“I don’t know,” said Quinn. “It looks good on paper, but what do they really have? Stearns is always getting hurt. The have minor leaguers at second and short, and Brooks can’t keep his mind on the game. Mookie’s good, but he’s raw, and they can’t even decide who to put in right. There’s still Rusty, of course, but he’s too fat to run anymore. And as for the pitching, forget it. You and I could go over to Shea tomorrow and get hired as the two top starters.”

“Maybe I make you the manager,” said the counterman. “You could tell those fuckers where to get off.”

“You bet your bottom dollar,” said Quinn.

I scoured through Retrosheet to see if I could find this game–given the players mentioned and when the book was written, it would have to have been in 1982. Near as I can tell, Auster’s description is not of an actual game, but a conflation of any number of hideous Mets losses in the awful days of the early 80s, of which there were plenty.

(I also discovered Neil Allen was not a very good closer. In 1982, he was responsible for seven losses in relief and four blown saves for a team that didn’t have many late-inning leads to protect. He gave up three runs twice and four runs once to hand the opposition a win. Three times, he snatched victory from the hands of Mike Scott, who didn’t have many good starts when he was a Met.)

Later in the book, after a labyrinthine mystery drives Quinn insane, he finds himself in a strange apartment, trying to make sense of what’s become of his life:

…So many things were disappearing now, it was difficult to keep track of them. Quinn tried to work his way through the Mets’ lineup, position by position, but his mind was beginning to wander. The centerfielder, he remembered, was Mookie Wilson, a promising young player whose real name was William Wilson. Surely there was something interesting in that. Quinn pursued the idea for a few moments, but then abandoned it. The two William Wilsons canceled each other out, and that was all. Quinn waved good-bye to them in his mind. The Mets would finish in last place again, and no one would suffer.

I found this passage particularly chilling, as I often perform similar mental exercises to make sure my brain is sharp and I’m not insane–despite the fact that being able to recite a team’s lineup off the top of your head is a form of insanity.

Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: The Walrus Game

Two years ago, as Shea Stadium counted down its last days, I wrote a few posts on some of the best games I attended there. However, I never quite got around to writing about my absolute most favorite game ever at Shea. Let me remedy that error now.

The year is 1991. The Mets are in the midst of their first losing, uncompetitive season in many a year (and the first of many, until Bobby Valentine righted the ship). They would end the year 77-84, which, in a few years, would seem like Shangri-la in comparison. They’re on their last homestand of the year, playing a series against the Pirates, who have already clinched the division (yes, 1991 was indeed a long, long time ago). Manager Buddy Harrelson would be fired with seven games left in the season. The outcome of these games mean virtually nothing to anyone.

My older cousin was going to college near where I lived in upstate New York. Said college had a big block of tickets for the last game in this series. Would I be interested in attending with him, even though it was on raw, rainy September night? Yes, I would be, because I hadn’t been to a baseball game in a very long time. Also, I was 14 years old and hating junior high with a deathly dread, and I hoped that I would get home so late from Queens that my mom would take pity on me and let me stay home from school the next day (though I knew she probably wouldn’t).

We traveled down to the city in a school bus, no lights or anything. I brought a book or two to read on the trip, but that quickly proved pointless. I also finagled some dough from my mom to buy a scorebook, which was no small feat, because we had no money for such frivolities. But my mom knew that I scored every game I went to and indulged me this one luxury.

However, I didn’t have any money for food or drink. Mom plied me with a sandwich and probably a Capri Sun (shut up) in a paper bag. Only in retrospect does this seem vaguely sad to me. At the time, it was a state of affairs I was used to–i.e., being dirt poor and just happy to be doing anything out of the house, even if it meant I had to bring my own food and drink.

91mets_cover.jpgThe state of the Mets at the time should be apparent by the cover story on the aforementioned scorebook: Rick Cerone, a pudgy Newark native and ex-Yankee catcher who was just keeping the dish warm for up-and-coming prospect Todd Hundley (a September callup that year who himself was profiled briefly in the same scorebook).

I’ve scanned a few other gems from this scorebook for your viewing pleasure. Here’s a page dedicated to the Mets Radio Network, with a pic of a young Gary Cohen possessing a full head of hair. Here’s a page on the Mets’ minor leaguers of note, led by Jeromy Burnitz, Butch Huskey, and Fernando Vina; the Rookie League Sarasota Mets were paced in batting average and RBIs by a young’un reffered to as “Ed Alfonzo”. And here’s a saucy ad for WFAN, featuring a painting by Mad Magazine artiste Mort Drucker. Mr. Drucker rendered Don Imus a bit like John C. Reilly, and was a bit too flattering to Mike Francesa (ie, didn’t make him look like a house), though he nailed Chris “Mad Dog” Russo’s cockeyed stupidity.

Our seats were in the upper deck, which at Shea was a steep, intimidating place. You could look down the stairways toward the field and feel as if the whole deck was getting more and more vertical every second, like the steps would collapse into a ramp a la some James Bond villain trap. You were always one wind gust away from plunging to your death.

You especially felt this way if the upper deck was not well populated, which it was not this evening. In fact, other than the group from the college (which couldn’t have been more than 25 people), there was nobody in the upper deck. I don’t mean there were very few people there. I mean there was literally nobody there. If you were looking at it from field level, it would have seemed even odder, since this one populated patch was halfway between home and left field.

The rest of the stadium was not exactly jam packed, either, nor should it have been. The two teams didn’t exactly trot out their A squads for this game, as my scorecard will attest. (It will also attest to my insane desire to chronicle every bit of the game. I know if you read this site, it’s hard to believe I can be obsessive, but it’s true.)

Then again, the game I attended was actually the second half of a day-night doubleheader. The first game–a rainout makeup from the previous day–was a four hour and twenty minute, 15-inning slog that must have exhausted and angered every single person involved in it. The Mets rallied in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game at 2, then, after the Pirates took a brief lead in the top of the 14th, tied the game again in the bottom half thanks to Todd Hundley’s first major league home run (which I also made note of on my scorecard). But the Pirates scored again in the top of the 15th. The Mets couldn’t rally a third time, and lost 4-3.

In other words, nobody wanted to be on the field, and anyone in attendance would have been some stripe of insane.

Slowly, the other folks who’d come down on the trip (who I don’t think my cousin knew well, if at all) drifted away from their seats, either to get beer or hot dogs or relocate. By the time the second inning ended, my cousin and I were the only people in the upper deck. We didn’t notice it happening, but all of sudden we realized we’d been abandoned. We had an entire tier of Shea to ourselves. It was awesome and terrifying, as if we’d been made captains of a ship that was just about to go careening over a waterfall.

My cousin suggested we travel downstairs. There were clearly plenty of seats to be had. I reluctantly agreed. I was totally happy to be one of two people in the upper deck, as scary as it felt. Because at this time in my life, I was as play-by-the-rules as Hank Hill. I would not break rules under any circumstances, and felt extremely guilty even contemplating doing so, even for a victimless crime such as this.
Continue reading Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: The Walrus Game

Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: “1986: A Year to Remember”

One year, for my grandfather’s birthday, my brothers and I “bought” him (despite not having any money at all) “1986: A Year to Remember”, an hour-long highlight video of the newly minted world champion Mets. Grampa–who lived next door to us–had a VCR, and we did not. So we invited ourselves over to watch it with him. Even if he wasn’t home. Every day. For two years. That is not hyperbole. I will swear on the holy book of your choice that this is true.

I can probably recite every word in this video, from beginning to end. I acquired a not-at-all legitimate copy on DVD a few years back, and I still watch it every now and then. It is wall-to-wall awesome, pure and simple. Watching it over and over again at an early age did permanent damage. It is probably the biggest reason why I became such a huge baseball fan.

Why? It’s hard to say, because it’s ingrained in my consciousness so much. I can’t identify why this video is so great any more than I can comment on the greatness of The Beatles or a sunset. But maybe we should start with the musical montages. They are many and varied. This video contains:

  • A segment about the team’s hotfoot pranksters, like Roger McDowell, to the tune of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s “Karn Evil 9”
  • The leadership of Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, as exemplified by
    Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” (a good decade before it was adopted as
    Chevy’s anthem)
  • A montage of “partners in grime” Wally Backman and Lenny Dykstra set to Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys”

As you might expect, the video does not allude to the Mets’ hard partying ways, and it glosses over controversies like the Houston bar fight and George Foster’s carcinogenic clubhouse presence (though a doc about 1986 produced by SNY a few years ago does). But who wants downers like those when you can watch a chock full of unbelievable clips from an insane season?

Though not commercially available, a body can track down this video in one form or another on the interwebs. If you just want to view it, it’s still available in streaming chunks on the Mets’ official web site. Just point your browser here and pick a month from the drop-down menu in the lower right corner.

Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: “The Numbers Game”

The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz is on my shortlist for best baseball books of the last 10 years. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of any that can beat it. The main reason: while so-called traditionalists deride or dismiss the sabermetric approach to baseball, Schwarz’s book shows that stat obsession has existed as long as the game has. He even makes a convincing argument that baseball’s number-rich nature is the main reason it became America’s pastime in the first place.

The book is a brief history of baseball statistics: how they began, how they evolved, and who pioneered what. Schwarz points in particular to one largely unsung founder of baseball as we know it, Henry Chadwick. As early as the 1840s, newspapers published rudimentary “abstracts” about baseball games. It took Chadwick to refine these abstracts and turn them into the box score that we still use today.

In Schwarz’s estimation, the simple comprehensiveness of the box score meant that it could (a) be printed in the newspapers without taking up too much real estate, and (b) give the reader a concise but thorough sense of what happened in the game. So the average working stiff (who lacked the money and free time to go to a ballgame) could follow a team even if he could never attend a game in person. It is probable the biggest factor in turning baseball from a game to a sport.

Chadwick also became an evangelist for baseball, and tried to develop and perfect the way it understood itself through stats. Some metrics he developed caught on, others never did, and still others would wait 100-plus years until the game understood their merit.

Schwarz also shows that every era has had its own Nerds vs. Jocks debate. He traces the roots of fantasy sports all the way back to the 1940s, and highlights a few lonely Bill Jamesian figures throughout the game’s history who have, for the most part, been completely ignored by the MLB establishment and statheads alike. And he also shows that Billy Beane and his methods of team construction didn’t appear out of thin air.

In short, Schwarz shows that the history of baseball’s stats are really the history of the game itself. It is a thousand times more interesting than a book about math has any right to be. You can easily plow through this book in a day or two, and you’ll wish it lasted longer.

Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: Stadium Statues

Does anyone make statues anymore? Chances are if you’re wandering through a park and you see a statue, it’s a good 50 years old. I don’t know if the blame lies with Vietnam or the soaring cost of bronze, but at some point, the idea of immortalizing a HERO in art form became passe. If you do see a more recently completed piece of public artwork, it’s likely a large cube or abstract figure, with a purposefully vague one-word title like FREEDOM or PRIDE.

Well, there is one place where you can still see a freshly constructed, representational statue: a baseball stadium. All sports refer to its stars as “heroes” when what they really mean is “guys who play good”, but only baseball backs up that ethical confusion by literally putting its “heroes” on pedestals.

According to this post at Wezen-Ball, all but five MLB teams have at least one statue in their home park. Admittedly, the definition of “statue” is stretched pretty wide in some cases, as in this bizarre thing seen at Toronto’s Rogers Centre (entitled “The Crowd”), or this outfielder that patrols the Tropicana Field bathrooms.

There are also a few “scene” statues with anonymous figures, like this one outside Whatever They’re Calling The Place Where The Diamondbacks Play Now. (A cute idea, but the D’Backs logo on the player’s uni is already outdated. Ooops!) Or this one outside Miller Park, saluting the hard working (and presumably hard drinking) workers of Milwaukee. However, the vast majority of stadium statuary are depictions of legendary baseball players.

The Tigers’ Comerica Park has the most statues of all–seven–and all of them are dedicated to former Detroit greats. (The Phillies also have seven statues, but two of them are generic depictions of baseball action that used to live outside the now-demolished Veteran’s Stadium.) The White Sox run a close second with six, and have the statue portraying the most recent event: their 2005 World Series title. Click here to see not-yet-disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich unveil the statue and get the shit booed out of him by a South Side crowd that had him pegged as a Cubs fan.

Surprisingly, the Yankees only have two (unless you count the plaques in Monument Park, which I do not). And they’re really one large, detached statue: a rather bland depiction of Don Larsen tossing to Yogi Berra during his perfect game in the 1956 World Series. But I’m sure one day there will be a bronze recreation of when Derek Jeter drove all the snakes out of the Bronx.

The Nationals have three statues, despite only existing for five years. Two are of old Senators (Walter Johnson and Frank Howard) and one is of Josh Gibson, a Negro League legend who played for the DC-based Homestead Grays. These statues tried to be adventurous and capture “movement”. An admirable experiment, but the results are kind of terrible. They all wound up looking like multi-limbed cement monsters.

George Brett’s statue gets my vote as the most picturesque, as it looks over the waterfalls of Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium. A close second would be Roberto Clemente’s statue outside PNC Park, which greets fans as they cross the Pittsburgh bridge named after him. Juan Marichal’s statue in San Francisco is an eyeful, as it captures his unique, super-high kick delivery. Stan Musial’s statue is also impressive, although his name on the pedestal, chiseled in huge letters and adorned with gold leaf, makes it look like the title of a musical.

The worst? There’s none that are horrible, honestly, but a few that tip the Weird Scale. The dead, hollow eyes of Steve Carlton’s statue in Citizen’s Bank Park will haunt my dreams forever. Red Schoendienst’s statue outside Busch Stadium is pretty great, showing him turning a double play. But in order to portray that motion in statue form, the sculptor supported him on a column of hardened Play-Doh.

harrycaray.jpgBut for pure WTFness, nothing beats Harry Caray’s statue outside Wrigley Field. If this piece of art just stopped at his torso, it wouldn’t be that bad, although his arm gestures make him look like he’s trying to imitate the redesigned Jesus in Dogma. But the sculptor’s acid must have kicked in when he reached the belt, because all of a sudden, Harry’s pants start MORPHING INTO OTHER HUMANS. AAAAAAAAH!

I don’t know what this is is supposed to convey. Harry rose to the heights (?) of announcerdom because of his fans? Or he stepped in a still wet, small-scale proletarian version of Mount Rushmore? Or he absorbed multiple twins in the womb, and they are just now asserting themselves? I really don’t know how to explain this, but whatever the real story is, I think David Cronenberg should make a movie about it.

Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: Topps’ Photo Retouching Skills

A recent post at Mets Guy in Michigan concentrated on what may be the worst Mets-related baseball card of all time (and perhaps the worst baseball card of all time, period): a Hostess-produced card for Rusty Staub in which the photo retouching is abysmal. I won’t recount the story here; just click on this link and marvel at how horrible it is (and the interesting hypothesis forwarded to explain its hideousness).

The post also touched on a longtime feature of baseball cards: the hastily altered player photo. Back in the days of no Photoshop and longer production schedules, it wasn’t always possible for the baseball card people to get a picture of a player in his new duds if he was traded in the offseason. Or even if he was traded the year before, since back then, most baseball card photos were taken during the previous season. And by my own amateur sleuthing, most of them were taken in either New York or LA. So if were swapped midseason and never made another trip to either coast, there might be no pics of you in your current uni.

69_rusty.jpgFor a good chunk of the 1960s, Topps (the biggest baseball card producer) didn’t much care for verisimiltude. If a player was suddenly traded before the cards were made, they just used a generic, hatless picture, or blacked out his hat entirely, as evidenced by Rusty Staub’s 1969 Topps card (seen to your right). Rusty went from the Astros to the Expos in a very late offseason trade (January 22), and since Montreal had yet to play a game, Topps–rather than find out what the Expos’ uniforms might look like–scraped away the Houston logo on his helmet and called it a day.

Beginning in the early 1970s, Topps either decided this method was not worthy of their standards or hired some very ambitious/anal art directors. Because at this time, they began to document a player’s new home to the best of their abilities–as ham-fisted and transparent as those efforts might appear.

When I was a kid and mired in a baseball card obsession, I bought a whole box of cards from 1977 for like five bucks. Why 1977? Because (a) that’s the year I was born, and (b) it was the first year the Blue Jays and Mariners played, which at the time was the last MLB expansion. This historical fact fascinated me for dumb little kid reasons.

Topps wanted to document the freshman year for those two teams, of course. But since neither had yet taken the field, they had to improvise. In some cases, they did so admirably. In others, not so much.

Even as a young’un, I could tell something was off about some of these cards. I even recognized bad paint jobs on some of these unfortunate players. It was necessary for the aforementioned Toronto and Seattle squads, since this was their inaugural year, but they weren’t the only teams treated to some paintbrushery.
Continue reading Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: Topps’ Photo Retouching Skills

Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: Bullpen Carts

mets_cart.jpgYesterday, I wrote about stadium organists, a feature of the game that is quickly dying out. Another aspect that’s already dead is one that probably shouldn’t have lived to begin with: bullpen carts. Yes, once upon a time, relievers were shuttled from the bullpen to the mound in vehicles of varying size–sometimes a full-sized automobile, but more often golf cart-type contraptions.

In a weird way, the bullpen cart feels like it should be a more recent innovation. After all, today’s athlete is supposed to be spoiled rotten, so it would stand to reason they would insist on being chauffeured to the mound like the fancy boys they are. But no, it was the supposedly blue collar relievers of yesteryear who were slowly puttered onto the field in embarrassingly tiny go-carts.

Paul Lukas of Uni-Watch wrote an exhaustive history of the bullpen cart a few years ago. My favorite tidbit:

1986: With happy fans spilling onto the field after the Mets’
division-clinching victory on Sept. 17, Mets fan and former Shea
Stadium vendor Eric Bennett heads straight to the bullpen, where he hijacks the team’s bullpen buggy. He takes it for a brief outfield joyride before the engine conks out.

Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: Organ Music

janejarvis.jpgLast week, Jane Jarvis passed away at the age of 94. Jarvis was Shea Stadium’s first organist, from 1964 all the way through 1979. She’s still remembered by fans who heard her as a delightful and witty practitioner of that uniquely American art form, stadium organ music. Marty Noble wrote a remembrance of her, and shared the tidbit that during the 1977 blackout, Jarvis entertained the sweltering Shea crowd with such ironic song selections as “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells”

I’m not old enough to have enjoyed Ms. Jarvis’ stylings, but I do miss ballpark organists. Most MLB teams still have an organist, but their playing time has reduced significantly in favor of prerecorded music instead, which is a shame. Both New York teams still have organists, but I can not tell you the last time I actually heard one play at either stadium.

I’m not too old school when it comes to most things in baseball; I think the game is more often hurt by its emphasis on tradition than it is helped. But there are two points where I see eye-to-eye with the Get Off My Lawn crowd: the DH is an abomination, and stadium organists are vastly superior to any other form of in-game entertainment.

In the long history of baseball, organs are a relatively recent feature of the game experience. The first stadium organ didn’t appear until 1941, when the Cubs installed one in Wrigley Field, and they didn’t really catch on elsewhere until after World War II. But the organ has become a sound as associated with the game as the crack of a bat. Playing “charge!” on an organ is musical shorthand for “there is a baseball game being played right now”.

I have a feeling that the almost exclusive use of prerecorded music is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that crept slowly into the game in the last 15 years or so. While compiling The 1999 Project, I listened to and watched a whole bunch of games from that season, and noticed that Shea was still very organ-centric back then. Pitchers and batters entered the game to their own hand-picked tunes, but all other musical cues came from an organ.

In that spirit, please enjoy this video about Lambert Bartak, the man who has manned the organ for the college world series for the last 50+ years.