Me, quoted in the Times

Topps card

A number of years ago, I would travel for work on a regular basis. The usual destination was Seattle, and to take the edge off of that long flight I would treat myself to a copy of the New York Times. It would help me to pass the time, whether waiting in the terminal or up in the air. The Times writes stories nobody else would write, and uses words nobody else would use. That’s why they’re the one newspaper everyone knows about, whether you live in New York or New Delhi or anyplace in between.

So when I recently got a call from Stuart Miller, a writer for the Times, for a baseball card story he was working on, I gladly shared my thoughts with him. The nine year-old kid who once spent all of his allowance money on baseball cards was awestruck at the situation playing out for the middle-aged man I have become.

The story is here, and I’m referred to by my pen name of R.Lincoln Harris. Most importantly of all, the blog that I started almost two years ago is now cited in the Paper of Record. I hardly know where to begin with that.

I’m grateful to Stuart Miller for writing the story, to Josh Wilker for suggesting that he call me up, and to the Topps Company for giving me an entry into following baseball. It’s been a big part of my life over the years, and without baseball cards it wouldn’t have happened.

I hope that everyone reading this eventually does something their inner kid would be impressed with. I can assure you it’s amazing feeling.

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An act of American Appeasement

Three-quarters of a century ago, Jesse Owens thought his work at the Summer Olympics was done. He had gone to Berlin and beaten Hitler’s athletes, and everybody else’s, in three events: the 100 meter dash, the long jump, and the 200 meter dash. He had spoiled Hitler’s planned demonstration of Aryan superiority, and had one-upped the man who would soon plunge the world into a long and bloody war. I’m sure that Hitler never forgot about the Berlin Olympics.

Someone else who never forgot, and with good reason, was Marty Glickman. Glickman was a college freshman at the time, and a member of the 4 x 100 meters relay team. The competition was scheduled for August 9, 1936, but on the day before the race, Glickman and another Jewish athlete named Sam Stoller were removed from the team and replaced by Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, two African American runners.

The reason for this was as clear as it was shameful. The Jewish runners were removed to avoid offending Hitler. These two runners missed out on the chance of a lifetime, in order to keep Hitler from being displeased. Marty Glickman was mad, and with good reason. When he returned to the stadium in Berlin in 1985, he had this to say:

“…I began to get so angry. I began to get so mad. It shocked the hell out of me that this thing of 49 years ago could still evoke this anger. I mean I was fucking mad. I was cussing – I was with people, colleagues of mine, and I was cussing. I was really amazed at myself, at this feeling of anger. Not about the German Nazis, that was a given. But anger at (U.S. Olympic officials) Avery Brundage and Dean Cromwell for not allowing an 18-year-old kid to compete in the Olympic Games just because he was Jewish.”

Marty Glickman later became the radio voice of the New York Knicks and the New York Giants for many years. Anyone who has heard “the key” and “the lane” to describe a basketball court has him to thank for those terms. His imprint on the sporting world has been very large, indeed. But what could have been his first brush with sports glory, nearly eight decades ago today, ended in a way that hardly anyone knows about. This is a small attempt at telling this man’s story, as the current version of the Summer Olympics is still unfolding.

Thanks to Josh Wilker at Cardboard Gods for providing me with a link to Glickman’s story

Quarterly Report #4

Picture from The Greenville, SC Blog

How quickly the time flies! This report, in keeping with the tradition I established after beginning this blog a year ago, is meant to take stock in what I’ve done, and where I see things heading in the months ahead.

First things first. The blog celebrated its first year in existence last month, and I see no sign of slowing down. I think about writing in this space a lot, and when big things happen in the baseball world, or in the real world, commenting on it here my first instinct. Telling my blog, and anyone who may ever happen upon it, what’s on my mind at such moments–and all moments, if I’m being honest about it–really is therapeutic for me.

With that said, my level of baseball writing in this space has fallen off lately. The horrible Cubs team that we’ve seen for half a season now is undoubtedly one reason, and another is that I’ve found other outlets for my baseball writing. And, to top it off, I have discovered that writing about life experiences wholly unrelated to baseball can be pretty fun, too.

I’m toying with the idea of dropping out of the BBA, so that their tweets of new postings on my blog won’t disappoint someone who wants news on the latest draft results or thinks that baseball can best be understood through stats like BABIP. Any changes in this regard will probably be made over the coming few months.

I also got to do some fun things like present my daughter’s poetry to the world, collaborate (in a sense) with Josh Wilker, who is the best writer I know of on the Internet, and pat myself on the back for making a much-needed lifestyle change. None of these would have been possible a year ago, so I’m happy that I can do all these things now. I recommend having your own blog to everybody I know, even though few will ever take the necessary steps to make it happen.

A story I haven’t written about yet might be instructive for where things are heading. I was in the Old North Church in Boston recently, and I stumbled upon a pew (or maybe it was a box) with a nameplate on it that read “Capt. (my name), 1724.” I told my children they can refer to me as “The Captain,” but they haven’t yet taken me up on this offer.

But the idea of being the captain of this space appeals to me a great deal. I set the course, I determine where this is going, and I achieve a degree of control that I never have had in everyday life. Things might go great, or things might go badly, and it’s all up to some combination of my efforts and things that I have no control over. And I get do what I love doing along the way. It sounds like exactly what I’m looking for.

Whether this new sense of things leads to a redesign of the blog, a renaming so as to set up a concurrent Twitter account (@BlueBattingHelmet is a few characters more than what is presently allowed), or a spin-off of the baseball content from everything else is still to be determined. But everything changes in life, and the old ‘Helmet won’t escape this truism, either.

So as Year Two begins in these parts, I’ll hope that this enterprise continues to be a source of good things for the Captain that runs it.

Avast, ye good readers! Thar’s some good sailing up ahead!

Finding Joe Strain

I love the name Joe Strain, and I love the story about him told by Josh Wilker on his website CardboardGods.net  It made me wonder if I could play any part in proving that Joe Strain really did exist and, sure enough, I was able to find a crucial piece of the puzzle in the form of a baseball card. I don’t write a baseball card blog, but I have got more than a few of them in my possession, and they do inspire me on some level, so here we go:

First of all, we need to address the optics. The Joe Strain pictured above is just scary. The only other word for it is possessed-by-some-dark-force-that-I-don’t-want-to-know-about. Clearly, the Joe Strain above could freeze you in your tracks with his demonic gaze. That must explain how he was drafted and worked his way up to the major league level. His managers and coaches were probably afraid to put him on the bench or cut him, for fear that the locker room would mysteriously ignite.

But the actual Joe Strain–which I dug out of my collection of Cubs baseball cards– looked like this:

Talk about a contrast. The back of the card lists this guy as being 28 years old, but he doesn’t look a day over 15 here. He looks like the kid who wants to mow your lawn, or who wheels his aged grandmother down the sidewalk so she can get some fresh air. And the freckles that show up so well on this card only reinforce that image. Unlike the 1979 Joe Strain, there’s nothing the least bit scary or threatening about the 1982 Joe Strain. What a relief.

Joe Strain was indeed a prospect in the Giants organization, as indicated by the stats on the back of his card. Here they are, in case anyone is truly interested:

The card reveals that Strain was signed by the Giants in 1976 as a free agent. He would have been 22 at the time, so I’m guessing he played college ball somewhere. He then spent one season in Great Falls, another in Fresno, and still another in Phoenix. That might explain the P on his cap in the Prospects card above, if it is really him. But that seems doubtful, in light of the color image of him from three years later.

In 1979, the year of the Giants Prospects card, he played another 75 games for Phoenix and then got “the call” that all minor leaguers are playing for. So he came up for the rest of the ’79 season, hit a respectable .241, and slugged his only home run in the majors. But that’s one more than I’ll ever hit, so I can’t make light of it.

By 1980, at the age of 26, Joe Strain was in the majors for good. No return trips to Phoenix for him, at least as far as his baseball card is concerned. The trouble was that he played in only 77 games that year, and hit a surprisingly strong .286. The Giants’ everyday second baseman that year was Rennie Stennett, who has shown up in a previous post on this blog.

Of the 54 hits that Strain had in 1980, only 6 went for extra bases. Second basemen in those days, except for Joe Morgan, weren’t expected to put up power numbers, though. In fact, Strain had a higher batting average and on base percentage than Stennett did, but for some reason Giants’ manager Dave Bristol gave Stennett more playing time than Strain. While lots of bad plays on words come to my mind at this point, I’ll hold off on using any of them.

If you can’t get extra base hits, perhaps you can steal lots of bases to help your team that way. Not so for Joe Strain. Only one base was stolen by him in 1980 which, again, is one more stolen base than I’ll ever have. But I’m not seeing the kind of an impact player that the Giants might have wanted to have on their roster. So, on December 12, 1980–less than one week after John Lennon was killed–the Chicago Cubs decided to give Strain a chance. But just barely.

During the 1981 season, Strain appeared in 25 games for the Cubs and hit .189. I probably watched some of those 25 games on WGN, even. But I have no recollection of a guy named Strain. My guess is that he was sent down to Iowa after that, since he appeared in 11 games for them as well.

Clearly, by the end of 1981, his major league career was on life support. In fact, it was already over, since he walked and scored a run in his final big league game on June 2, 1981. This would appear to make the existence of a 1982 card for him somewhat inexplicable. But nevertheless, his career stat line of 169 games, 520 at bats, 60 runs, 130 hits, and so on are ones that almost any grown man–myself included–wishes that he had. It was probably the best three years of his life, playing in the big leagues.

I don’t know what happened to Joe Strain after 1982, but I hope that he’s  sitting at a bar somewhere, possibly in Colorado, telling his buddies about the time he stood in against Nolan Ryan. I’d buy him a drink just to hear him tell it, too. But for now I’ve proved that there really was a Joe Strain, and he really was a Giants prospect, and he really did set foot on major league turf three decades ago. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

Garza deserved better than this

This is not a baseball card blog. Josh Wilker writes a baseball card blog, and a very fine one at that. So I’m not intentionally treading into his end of the swimming pool. I just think this is interesting, and this space only exists for that reason, anyway. So here goes:

The Topps trading card company is, for all intents and purposes, the only game in town for baseball cards. They know this, and are very good at putting out multiple variations of the same product. The two cards above are an example of this. On the left, Matt Garza of the Chicago Cubs in the 2011 Cubs team set (I’m calling this the Fauxgarza because I like how it sounds). On the right, Matt Garza of the Tampa Bay Rays, from the 2011 Opening Day set (I’m calling this the Realgarza from here on). Matt Garza was actually on the Cubs’ roster on opening day, but never mind about that.

The runner leading off of first base was the giveaway that the same picture was used for both cards. The umpire was too, but I had to cover him up on the Realgarza card to make them both fit side by side. But you can see him on the left of the Fauxgarza card.

What Topps did–with the help of a computer program, I’m sure–is turn the Realgarza’s light blue jersey and cap (on the right) into the Fauxgarza’s dark blue jersey and cap (on the left), add a Cubs “C” on both places, and then (you can’t see this in the picture unless you look really close) add some blue stripes to the Fauxgarza’s pants (because the Realgarza’s pants are solid white). And nobody will ever know the difference, right?

This is the equivalent of green screen technology in the movies. Yes, I know dinosaurs weren’t really in Jurassic Park, and that Forrest Gump didn’t really meet JFK. They play visual tricks on the viewer all the time, and I have no problem with that. But the last Indiana Jones movie was just ridiculous, because I knew it was all greenscreened. I guess you just have to draw the line somewhere, even if it is on Matt Garza’s pants.