You know what I thought of the other day that hasn’t crossed my mind in months? Night in the Ruts, that’s what.
Trying to figure out if that signals an impending return to my regular life-focus on useless information … or whether it’s just a meaningless lightning-flash from the past, the way an elderly monk might randomly recall the taste of a bottle of bock beer stolen sixty springs before from his uncle’s metal tub.
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I remembered another flash this past weekend, too — the notion that the pandemic might be a great time to finally learn how to play guitar like Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Several film clips of the late Mr. McDowell circulate. My favorite is this one, which clearly shows the work of his right and left hands as he spins a hypnotic take on “John Henry”:
Over the weekend I tuned my $100 homemade Strat copy to one of Fred’s favorite tunings — D-A-D-F#-A-D — dashed to the hardware store for one or two metal tube-bits to play slide with, and set about bashing away.
The good news is, it’s not too hard to set up hypnotic drones in that tuning, and it’s not too hard to create some basic, driving thumb-and-fingers rhythms. Getting to Mississippi Fred’s level, though, doesn’t happen in a weekend, so I’ll have to keep working on my technique with both hands.
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The music of Watts continues to amass, on average, one spin a month on Boston’s city-operated radio station. I check in on it every day to no avail, and just when I’ve figured it for dead, “Salty Dame” or “Presidentials” shows up again, as it did a day or two ago.
I suppose I should be glad that the station’s on the air at all — though if it were 24-hour automated, my crap might have a better chance of slipping into the mix more frequently.
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My post on junk wax a while ago brought an unexpected and delightful bonus.
A Twitter acquaintance named Mark (he does blog-business here) messaged me to say he had a box of a few hundred cards, mostly ’90 Donruss, he was looking to unload. He didn’t want ’em, his kids didn’t want ’em, he didn’t wanna throw ’em out, and they could be mine for the cost of postage. I said sure.
It took the Postal Service 11 days to get the box from San Antonio to the Boston suburbs, including at least three to get it from Springfield, Mass., to my home inside Route 495. (I guess this is the reality of the Postal Service in the year 2020.)
But as of a day or two ago, it is here as promised, and I am enjoying yet another influx of essentially worthless but perfectly charming cardboard.
There’s still other things to do tonight, so I’ll end with one or two stories from the box.
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There are very few major-company baseball cards, to my knowledge, that openly acknowledge the recent death of the person shown on the front.
The ones that come to mind include the black-bordered 1964 Topps Ken Hubbs … the ’65 Topps Jim Umbricht … and the Canadian 1972 O-Pee-Chee Gil Hodges, which delivers its late-breaking news with a singular lack of grace. (That front-of-the-card text works fine when the message is “TRADED TO CARDINALS” or “NOW WITH ORIOLES;” it’s less sufficient to deliver news of life-or-death import.)
There is another such card, from my own lifetime of baseball fandom; and now I own one, as part of my new box of friends.
(I wonder if Donruss gave thought to slapping a black border on this one. Paint splatter does little to connote grief.)
I remember a great outpouring of grief in the sports world at the passing of Bart Giamatti, who was gone far too soon. Baseball loves its intellectual warriors, too, and anyone who could write a passage like “it is designed to break your heart” was bound to find a place of honor.
(I also remember a daft Saturday Night Live skit, one of the ones they wedge on at 12:50 a.m., that parodied grief-stricken baseball types rushing to rename half the features of the baseball diamond in Giamatti’s honor. Why I still remember that and not a thousand other things that might help me in my middle age, I do not know.)
Looking at this from a 2020 perspective, one cannot help but think:
– Baseball could use a “fan’s commissioner” now as opposed to the tone-deaf dolt currently in the job, who appears to have little understanding of what makes people baseball fans.
– I wonder what a guy who could wring such poetry out of the arrival of every fall would have made of this moment in time. (You want heartbreak, Bart? You wanna be left alone when you need it most? Come see a Memorial Day weekend that will pass without a single organized baseball game anywhere in the U.S. I only hope we get the game back sometime this year, before the chill rains descend again.)
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I don’t feel like ending there. So I will end on something marginally more uplifting. I’ll settle for that.
Here we have Kevin Hickey, relief pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles.
He has already lived a most unusual baseball life. Unlike most prospects, he doesn’t even play high school baseball growing up in Chicago. Instead, he plays softball, before being signed by his hometown White Sox at an open tryout day in August 1977.
He makes the big leagues and pitches three years with the White Sox, including 23 appearances in 1983, on the first White Sox team to make the postseason since 1959.
And that’s just where his saga — and one of the most unusual baseball-card backs I can remember seeing — begins.
Following a shoulder injury, Kevin Hickey spends five solid years — one of which isn’t even shown here — in the minor leagues, trying to regain his stuff and make it back to the bigs.
It would be impossible to list his minor-league experience on the back of this card even if Donruss wanted to, because Kevin Hickey bounces through 11 teams in those five years. We can list them here, though, for a litany that would chuff even Johnny Cash: Denver, Columbus, Glens Falls, Appleton, Albany-Colonie, Reading, Portland, Hawaii, Phoenix, Rochester, and Charlotte. There are bus rides.
He spends his age-30 season, in 1986, racking up a 6.51 earned-run average in Triple-A. But he talks the White Sox and San Francisco Giants into chances at the same level the following year. Then he does the same with the Baltimore Orioles in 1988, personally contacting Orioles general manager Roland Hemond, who ran the White Sox in the late ’70s. He finds something, perhaps another pitch, that allows him to post a 1.93 minor-league ERA at age 32.
And the following year, he makes the Orioles out of spring training. He comes in on Opening Day and gets Marty Barrett, the first major-league hitter he’s faced since July 1983, to ground out. He goes on to work 51 games out of the Baltimore bullpen, third-highest on the team, with an excellent 2.92 ERA.
Perhaps it is persistence. Perhaps it is the sort of cantankerous determination the British call bloody-mindedness. Perhaps it is simply a great and sweeping lack of interest in doing anything else with his life besides throwing a baseball. Whatever stokes his fire down below, Kevin Hickey has won. He has earned a baseball rebirth, and he has made the most of it.
Life after 1990 does not smile entirely so broadly on Kevin Hickey. He pitches two more years in the major leagues before the magic recedes again. He works as a used car salesman for a time, and appears in a baseball movie. In 2003, he is hired to pitch batting practice for the White Sox. He remains in that role until April 2012, when he is found unresponsive in a hotel room in Texas before the team’s season opener; after a month of hospitalization, he passes away.
None of this is foreseeable through the paint-speckled frame of 1990 Donruss, though, and none of it matters.
Card #583 shows an unremarkable baseball instant — a pregame warmup toss, perhaps — but it is a moment of victory. Kevin Hickey has been down and doubted, and he has dug out of it and found the capability to succeed.
“It is designed to break your heart”? No. Not always.