Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mo Vaughn didn’t stand in the batter’s box, he wedged his big body into it, hunching his shoulders and dipping his head under what I always assumed was an imaginary door frame. It’s too bad I was born right-handed. I would’ve spent my Little League years imitating his swing, which cut through the strike zone like a pendulum and finished high in the air. I loved watching him golf opposite-field homers over the Green Monster, a decade before David Ortiz made his bones doing the same thing.
Pete Segall lives in Chicago. His fiction has appeared in Epoch.
I think about Frank Thomas and I think about the very end of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Be assured, this has nothing to do with the book itself, this will not be about sociopathic Texas lawmen, I will not be attempting to channel anyone’s unsettlingly clear inner voice as they commit acts of savagery. There are only a couple of lines I keep coming back to. Not even a complete sentence, just a plainitive fragment, a fleeting elegiac.
It’s not total coincidence that I mention Thomas and Thompson in the same breath. For years Jim Thompson belonged to the legion of writers who, despite dedicated readers and a powerful reputation, was out-of-print and generally ignored. He died in 1977 in not very good shape. Then came a couple of well-received screen adaptations – After Dark, My Sweet, The Grifters – and interest reignited. Vintage republished his books. The first one I found was The Killer Inside Me, with the orange print, the uncomfortable closeup of some grizzled fellow, the superlative-of-crazy blurb from either Stanley Kubrick or Stephen King. The year was 1991. That was also Frank’s first full year with the White Sox. So the two are both residents of the same substrata of memory, the mucky shale of adolescence. They are dredged together, heaped into the sunlight and perhaps their years in a dank and psychically red-lined place have caused a bit of conjoining or fusing.
“All of us that started the game with a crooked cue,” go the lines, and don’t worry, this is not spoilerage of any kind, “that wanted so much and got so little, that meant so good and did so bad.”
No, Big Frank never did bad, not especially bad, not until the dimming conclusion, at least, when he was with finished with the White Sox and had moved on to the A’s and Blue Jays, when I suppose that simply failing to be great was a form of doing bad for Frank. And at first base he was graceless, mechanical, Golemy; demon of grounders, arrythmic of glove. I won’t begrudge him that. It’s the wanted so much and got so little that won’t stop ringing for me.
Obviously the White Sox got more than so little from Frank Thomas. To imply that he was anything approaching disappointing is absurd. At best it’s self-girding contrarianism. I won’t even get into what it is at worst. I don’t think that’s what I’m saying. No, it isn’t. Frank was, quite possibly, the best pure hitter of the 1990s. Barry Bonds belongs in the conversation. Tony Gwynn and Ken Griffey Jr., too. You could make the prima facie argument that Thomas was the best of them all and not get too many weird looks.
He is 21st all-time in home runs and tenth in walks; Baseball Reference has him at 21st in runs created and 47th in Offensive Wins Above Replacement. In 1994 his Adjusted OPS+ was 211 – that’s tied for the 25th best OPS+ in a single season. Those with season numbers better than that fall into one of three categories: people named Ruth, Williams, Mantle, Hornsby or Gehrig; people born during the Fillmore administration; and people generally associated with the use of performance enhancers. He was easily the franchise’s best hitter since Shoeless Joe Jackson.
What’s getting Frank for me is history. Not his but his team’s. The unfairness of expectation. Being put in the miserable role of redeemer on a club where defeat was normal.
There are many ways one could describe the experience of following the White Sox in the 20th Century. I’ll go with Stultifying. They were a team that lost a lot, and in the blandest ways. The outlying awfulness of the 1919 Black Sox team needn’t be rehashed here. Listen to the nicknames our guys had: Ol’ Aches and Pains, No Neck, Shoeless. They sound more likely to bum a freight to the Big Rock Candy Mountain than win games. The White Sox were baseball afterthoughts, schedule ballast, a place to play between Kansas City and Milwaukee.
A recap of the Sox’ postseasons post-1919 business, ante-Frank, might help with context. It won’t take long.
There was the ’59 team, the Go-Go Sox, as they were known, that lost the World Series to the Dodgers and the ’83 team that won the AL West by 20 games and then managed to score all of three runs in the ALCS against the Orioles.
Nelson Algren compared loving Chicago to loving a woman with a broken nose. The all of us who started the game with a crooked cue, that’s being a White Sox fan. Algren, it should be noted, spent his career chronicling the downtrodden and was a lifelong White Sox fan.
I turned six the summer of the Winning Ugly team in ’83. You grow up, a flash in your awareness of that one season where it felt like they were going to win but then everything just turned blank, and anything similar seems utterly unfathomable. Just not possible. Sure, the way time is doled out at the ages of six, seven, eight has something to do with that. From 1984 until the year Frank arrived there was one winning season for the White Sox. Six years is epochs when you’re that young. But losing 90 games a season with some frequency also does something to what you come to expect.
It seemed like Frank had been promised to us. That he would arrive to make some tectonic difference. That years of mediocrity, not out and out suffering, not a championship lost through an opposing act of God, not a dislodged franchise (though it almost came to that), no heroics or disasters or things in the highlight reels, just regular, unremarkable, catalepsy-inducing mediocrity, would be redeemed by our grinning behemoth.
He was drafted in 1989. The Tribune calls him “slugging Auburn first baseman.”
“I was hoping Chicago got me,” says the draftee.
“They’re not doing well at first base and they’re not doing well as a team.” You wonder about the expression on his face when he adds, “I’m excited about that.”
Is that just reflexive politeness coming out, a rhetorical pardon me to maybe not bloviate a few grand off his signing bonus? Or maybe he’s smiling. Maybe there’s that grin. That wide, easy smile we’d come to love, effortless, guileless, pleased. He is going to lift this club up. He’s going to make them do well as a team. He wants to do this. He knows that he can.
So the draft is in June. July 1’s Tribune gamer has the hed: Sox ‘future’ gets view of sad present. They’d lost 6-3 to the Royals with Frank in attendance. They finish 69-92.
He hits .529 in Spring Training the next year and is assigned to Double-A Birmingham. On March 30 of the next year the Trib calls him “a phenom.” On April 20 the Tribune starts a “Thomas watch” to track his performance. The reports come every couple of days. Most of them mention massive home runs, multiple runs driven in, “onslaughts,” “assaults,” “power;” a piece on July 20 exults in the 104 walks he’s drawn in 97 games. On August 3 he makes his major league debut in the first game of a double-header against the Brewers and drives in the winning run with a groundout.
It seemed like Frank had been promised to us. That he would arrive to make some tectonic difference.The team somehow wins 94 games. It’s still nine games behind the A’s but they’d get swept by the Reds in the World Series anyway. 94 wins. Things look bright and it isn’t just Frank. There’s a stretch of young talent, recent kids drafted out of college and ready to play: Robin Ventura (Oklahoma State), Alex Fernandez (Miami). Plus the haul from dealing Harold Baines to the Rangers: Sammy Sosa and Wilson Alvarez. Your closer, Bobby Thigpen, has just saved 57 games. That’s a record. This is quite a core. It’s advertising campaign stuff, cover of the preview magazines, bold names in Beckett’s. And finally, it was ours.
What Frank became was the face of a franchise that had essentially been faceless. We had been noise, for sure, we forfeited games and wore shorts; our entrenchment in the psyche of certain Chicago demographics was leagues deep. But Frank mattered in baseball, not just Chicago. He was put in the movies to banish Tom Selleck to Japan.
Frank’s first season slash line: .318/.453/.553. The technical term is yowza. He walks 138 times but he also strikes out 112. Two years later that number is down to 54. His ability to guard the plate was uncanny. A man who’s 6’5” tends to engender a sizeable strike zone but Frank learned to parry, deflect, use his wingspan to protect himself against expeditions to the outside of the plate, his strength to slap away anyone working the inside.
It’s the booming home runs to left field I remember most, where his arms seem to jerk down over the middle of the plate. The motion is smooth and violent. On the especially bludgeoned balls to dead center or right-center he hops onto his toes a bit, the shifting of his energy bumping around his entire body. But you can see him above (around the 50 second mark) taking out a Randy fastball to right at the Kingdome. He’s practically flatfooted, he barely has time to raise his back foot. The shoulders dip slightly, the trunk torques. He simply whips the ball out of the park.
If you want a real demonstration of how pure a hitter Frank was, you can find on YouTube a video of his appearance on the David Letterman program from 1994, during the strike that would end the season. Frank, pursuer of the Triple Crown that year, is acting as an emissary of the players. Letterman quizzes him on the strike (probably the easiest pitches he looked at all year); Frank, in a roomy suit approximately the color of a smoothie (the quality of the video is poor) seems comfortable more or less. The grin is on fantastic display throughout. Frank’s relationship with the tetchy Chicago sports media corps was never an amicable one and the writers took it out on Frank by painting him as surly, self-absorbed, petulent. But the Frank being interviewed here is open and warm, growing gradually more at ease as he adjusts to Letterman’s pogo-stick presence.
To close the interview out Letterman has Thomas take swings at pieces of fruit on a makeshift tee. He doesn’t seem to be into the gag initially. “It’s all about bat speed?” Letterman asks and Frank nods, unconvincingly. He’s busy taking practice swings, loosening up. He’s thorough enough that Letterman actually grows impatient, tells him to get on with it. His first swing, at an apple, is a little disorganized. But when it’s finished Frank is laughing pretty heartily. His second swing, at a grapefruit, is a little more in character; bits of exploded fruit come down on the first rows of the audience. It’s the third swing when he looks like he really means it. It might as well have been Charles Nagy throwing out there, not a canteloupe on a piece of plastic. Even Letterman can appreciate the power and exactitude he’s bringing. Watch where the canteloupe hits the plastic shield on the slow motion replay. That thing was headed for the bleachers over the bullpen in left center.
He couldn’t even let joke swings be a joke. That’s the kind of hitter Frank was.
By 1993 he was MVP; the Sox won their first division title in a decade. He won the award again the next season.
The greatest World Series never played, of course, was that ’94 Series between the White Sox and Expos. It was inevitable. The Yankees were a few games better than the Sox but I’m doing away with any ALDS/CS uncertainty. The Expos were 34 over .500. It was going to happen. The team whose owner was instrumental in creating the work stoppage against the team whose future in their original city was probably doomed permanently by not playing in a World Series they never could have. The Flying Dutchman vs. the Wandering Jew. The Damned vs. The Bereft.
Frank was featured (albeit with Ken Griffey Jr.) on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August as “a powerful reason to keep playing ball.”
Would this niggling got so little not be here if Frank had done what baseball heroism means unless you’re a 38 year old journeyman for whom merely getting your name on the official scoresheet counts as salvation and just won the World Series? But he did. He did win a World Series. He was on the 2005 team. I forget that sometimes, it seems at such a far remove from the times I associate him with. The White Sox won the World Series and history ended. Frank didn’t play after July of that year, suffering a stress fracture in his right foot, which had been injured the year before as well. The closest he got to the playoff run was throwing out the first page for Game 1 of the ALDS.
So why’s it there? Why do I think about Frank and then think about unmet expectations? There are four baseball players with a career .300 average, 500 home runs, 1500 RBI (bad metric but whatever), 1000 runs and 1500 walks: Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Ted Williams and Frank. We saw it. We got to be there for this. Did he descend upon a franchise so benighted – “All of us that started the game with a crooked cue” – that individual brilliance gets a little duller next to collective disappointment?
The Sox went to the playoffs twice with Frank, in ’93 and 2000. He did hit .353 the first time, with a home run and a staggering 10 walks in 27 plate appearances, but that was against Joe Carter’s Mitch Williamsing Blue Jays. Footnote to the miracle. In 2000 the Sox were swept by the Mariners. Frank went 0 for 13.
But what about his regular season numbers that year? .328 (good for a batting title), 43 home runs, 143 RBI. He won the AL Comeback Player of the Year award, finished second in MVP voting to Jason Giambi.
(Giambi and Frank are linked in other quarters as well: they were the only active players to be interviewed by the commission headed for former senator George Mitchell on the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball. Giambi, of course, confessed to steroid use. Frank spoke voluntarily about the expansiveness of the problem. Given how broad PED use turned out to be this would seem to be the equivalent of standing up in a brothel and bragging about not having syphillis, but Frank’s actions never came across as grandstanding or self-aggrandizement or score-settling [would Frank, for instance, still be buried in memory and statistically behind Bonds or McGwire if the latter two had been clean?]. His stance in favor of regular PED testing is not popular with the Players Association and is endlessly sensible.)
His final seasons with the Sox were injury-riddled and/or disappointing. His 42 home run season in 2003 came with 115 strikeouts (to just 100 walks) and a .267 batting average. An OPS of .952 would be impressive by most standards. It was below average for Frank. When he left the team before the 2006 season he expressed disappointment at being jettisoned so brusquely from the team he openly wished to retire with. General Manager Kenny Williams responded by calling him “an idiot.” When he did retire in 2010 the press conference was at US Cellular Field. The air was cleared. He wept when the Sox retired his number 35 last August. This July a statue of him will be unveiled at US Cellular. He does spot duty for the studio portion of the local cable coverage. He is eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2014 and will be elected on his first ballot.
Again then: why so little? Well maybe it has less to do with Frank and more to do with us, who wanted so much. There isn’t a lot else we could have asked for. We got our public figure, our stratospheric stats, our notoriety. We got our World Series – something I, as a legally competent adult citizen, did not believe I would ever see. Frank was there in the locker room and the champagne and half a year later he’s in Oakland on an incentive-heavy contract.
I have never enjoyed watching a baseball player as much as I enjoyed Frank. Nor appreciated nor marveled. He brought a fineness to power. His swing was a subtle action of muscle. Seamless and brutal. A sullen and sulky adolescent, between his Thompson and Carver books and gloomy German movies he doesn’t really understand except for their gloominess, could still sit and admire any one of his at-bats. But now that he’s receded it kills me nine different ways but there just isn’t any way I can get away from asking even though the rational zones of my brain tell me this is assinine and the parts yoked to memory are already answering yes, it’s plenty: is that it? Is that all we got?
The Sox lost 4-0 last night. They’re ten games out. They might make a run when the weather turns better.
David Segui is how I learned what a switch-hitter was. He is how I learned that it is considered advantageous to throw left-handed if you are a first baseman; and, more basically, he is how I learned that if a player has his glove on one hand, he throws with the other; and, more confusingly, he is how I learned that if a player is facing you on television–say, if the camera was on David Segui, back leg touching the bag, body splayed, and front, gloved arm stretched out toward the mound, holding a runner close–then if a player’s glove is on your left, it is really on his own right, and he is a left-hander (this part, admittedly, remains confusing).
In 1991, when Segui was the Orioles’ better-than-average young first baseman, I believed that teams only had one starting pitcher, because I was six and whenever my father took me to Memorial Stadium, invariably Ben McDonald was pitching, because, despite Cal Ripken, Jr.’s MVP season, the O’s weren’t very good and my dad only considered it worth the schlep from our Washington, D.C. suburb if McDonald, one of the highest-rated prospects in history, was throwing.
By ’92, I was reading the paper after every game and could imitate Cal Ripken’s bizarre stance that led him to have one of his worst seasons to date; by ’93, between television and radio–usually migrating from television to radio as I was forced to my bed, the lights shut out–I never missed a game. David Segui is how I learned that sometimes your team trades players, and that you could even trade them from one league to another (Segui went to the Mets). Segui’s successor, Rafael Palmeiro, is how I learned that the steroids scandal wasn’t some distant thing but something that would affect me personally. But only today, looking up Segui, did I learn that, having begun his career in Baltimore and then spent the better part of a decade shuttled among six different teams, he ended his career as a back-up DH also in Baltimore–on a team I no longer cared about (thanks to owner Peter Angelos) in a sport I no longer cared much about (thanks to steroids).
Originally from Kentucky, JL Weill lives and writes in Washington, DC, and his work has appeared at The Awl and Rush the Court, as well as in print. His take on sports, culture and politics can be found @AgonicaBoss.
It certainly shows my age, but when I think of a first baseman, I don’t usually think of your hulking muscle-bound jock with a goatee and thorny tattoos encircling his Thor arms. Instead, I think instead a skinny spray hitter with a funny-looking batting stance who you’d be unsurprised also had an MBA. He probably wears glasses off the field, and likely he does his own taxes. He definitely doesn’t drive in many runs, but you love him because what he does he does really well. Yes, I think of Hal Morris.
Growing up like I did in central Kentucky, nearly every kid I knew was either a Reds fan or, because of TBS, a Braves fan. I loathed the Braves mostly because every swirlie-giving jackass at my school was a Braves fan and I just never really much cared for the cut of Dale Murphy’s jib. While the Braves were being touted fictitiously as “America’s Team,” the Reds were decidedly un-sexy. Seemingly every year of my mid-teens, they kept finishing in second place with Pete Rose Bettor- Managing and Marge Schott puffing away on cheap smokes while draining the team of scouting funds. But there was something likable about the guys who finished second despite everything. They were a group that had talent but always played hard and overachieved, a reflection of Rose’s best qualities.
In the winter of 1989, the Reds made what seemed a pretty innocuous throwaway trade over the offseason, acquiring a promising 17-win minor league pitcher named Rodney Imes and a utility infielder-outfielder with no power named Hal Morris for a garbage starter and change. Well, as those trades tend to work out more often than you’d think, the centerpiece for the Reds never made it to the big leagues, but Morris, after logging a middling 38 at-bats in two seasons with the Yankees, came aboard a team that – while no one really knew it yet – was about to tear it up and blossomed.
Morris was the definition of a role player. Platooning with fellow cog Todd Benzinger, the light hitting lefty Morris posted a .340 average in his rookie year, but only 36 RBIs. Still, on a team that was built on pitching, defense, flexibility and, more than anything, a killer bullpen, having a guy who got on base, didn’t strike out and didn’t boot grounders was more than adequate. Oh, and Morris even took a few games in the outfield to boot.
That Morris was also a quiet sort, workmanlike and consistent, only added to his value, both to his team and to Cincinnati’s principally blue collar and middle class fanbase. And as a Reds fan, at least the Reds got something of value from the Yankees, considering in two years they’d be trading a future Yankees legend for the inimitable Roberto “Call me Bobby” Kelly.
Personally, I prefer to live in the halcyon days of the batter’s box-dancing Morris. It may not make you think of fireworks, but sometimes a good 50 cent sparkler gets the job done just fine.
Some years ago, my friend Ted’s lung collapsed. He sent me a text from the emergency room waiting area, but he didn’t tell me about his lung, or that he was struggling to breath, or even that he was at the hospital. Instead he watched the Yankees game and wroteonly, “Don Mattingly shaved his mustache?!?!”
Ted, like me, was born in the early 80s and grew up near New York City. Before we knew anything else about baseball – before we realized that these particular Yankees might not be the best team there was, before I had figured out whether Yogi Berra was indeed named after Yogi Bear, before Ted had ever heard of Joe DiMaggio – we knew that Don Mattingly was awesome.
And he was, of course… even if he wasn’t quite so surpassingly awesome as I assumed as a seven-year-old in 1989. He is not in the Hall of Fame and probably should not be, although I still feel guilty typing that. I would not call Mattingly’s career a tragic one by any stretch, but there is a tinge of sadness to it that the superstars on either side of him didn’t have – Reggie Jackson, say, or Derek Jeter. His back betrayed him, cut his career short, and kept him out of the Hall – or so I’ll insist to this day. (Every time that he struggled after his peak, every failed at-bat, I never once chalked it down to anything besides his back). Meanwhile, his one playoff series ended in a crushing loss, and he retired just before the Yankees’ ring-a-palooza kicked off in 1996. That’s what I was sad about, in 1995: “we” had let Mattingly down. He was supposed to go out in a well-deserved blaze of glory, not tearing up in the Kingdome. I still view this as a major script-writing failure on somebody’s part. On top of that, though Mattingly never said a word about it during or after his career, a few years ago it became clear that he must have been dealing with some tough issues off the field as well. You never would have known.
Still, there was that sense with Mattingly, which there mostly isn’t with today’s Yankee stars, that you needed to defend or protect him – it wasn’t his fault, I was sure, not anything that went wrong, and I was very concerned that he he knew that. Other fans felt the same way. Don Mattingly’s back went out for our sins.
Some correspondents in this quiltwork book of saints have made a case for why their particular hero was particularly representative of the genus of 90s first baseman. I can’t do that with anything like an intellectual straight face for my chosen dude. Jim Thome is my chosen dude, and Jim Thome isn’t really a first baseman. He’s a designated hitter, and always has been, even back when he played third base and masqueraded as a non-stationary object. But if you’ll waive your right to object, I will explain why Jim Thome and his metaphysics tell us a great deal about the non-linear nature of emotional time.
But first, I have to introduce a concept: ruin porn.
Ruin porn is a multivalent genre unto itself, according to me. The literal term “ruin porn” as it is used refers to the trend of slideshows and coffee table books inspired by photographers like Camilo Jose Vergara (and his many imitators). I propose that ruin porn is actually much more than a medium-length trend in lazy online photojournalism, but in fact a new genre of Americana. Ruin porn will probably never develop a grammar and a history like noir or Westerns or country music, but not for a lack of complexity and practitioners (knowing ones or naïfs).
Just a few of ruin porn’s constituent parts: the inevitable human tendency toward nostalgia, the birth and death of punk, the early, hardscrabble days of hip-hop, downtown/heroin chic, Bukowski, Taxi Driver, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, The Outsiders, steeping in a stock of history: white flight, urban blight and renewal, crime, deferred maintenance of both the physical and notional infrastucture. All of this has been fermented by grunge ironicism, neoliberal economics and attitudes, and the post-everything present mindsets of journalists and artists. At its worst, ruin porn traffics in curdled sarcasm—the Pabst tall boys and trucker hats of Gen-Y hipsters (I use that word under duress; the correct classification is “gutter yuppie”). I can make a case for Napoleon Dynamite as failed ruin porn. Cormac McCarthy’s dodgier novels dabble with the genre—I classify The Road as young-adult ruin porn. But at its best, ruin porn can be breathtaking: The Wire’s second season is quintessential RP, and the entire series is at least partially about how our systems are failing us.
I would like to spend the rest of the day developing a unified field theory of ruin porn, but I need to talk about Cleveland. As befits a city that never wins at anything, Cleveland isn’t even the Seattle of ruin porn. That would be Detroit, the briar patch that brought us Devil’s Night, Iggy Pop and the MC5, and Eminem and his 8 Mile, which is basically The Grapes of Wrath denuded of the communitarian socialism of the Depression era and reformatted to a post-union economy where you only get one chance (if you get a chance at all). But enough about Detroit—we’re not Detroit. It’s difficult to question Cleveland’s credentials as an expression of this particular brand of American weltschmerz—if only because Harvey Pekar spent his entire life there, and turned the civic bathos into a character in its own right.
The city that Moses Cleaveland (sic) founded in 1797 had a census population of 914,808 in 1950, two years after the Indians last won the World Series. Cleveland in 2010 clocked in at 396,815 souls—roughly the same size that it was in the year 1900. The city’s trademark is a reputation as a town full of losers—both economically and competitively. I don’t mean this as a knock—there is so much to love about Cleveland. Though the city has likely seen its best days in terms of industry and population, Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs comprise a real place, filled with art, culture, great food, and true beauty. The economic zeitgeist that made Cleveland competitive seems to have disappeared over the horizon. That’s not any fault of Cleveland’s but a slow-moving natural disaster—a fifty-year Katrina, as one resident ably put it in an elegiac ESPN feature last year. Cleveland will always be with us.
But back to that reputation—the subtle terrain of actual reality isn’t good soil for this story. Cleveland’s reputation for losing, for lack of a better word, comes from a lot of places. Our river caught on fire (many times—it’s just the one from the 1960s that help get the Clean Water Act passed). The Browns were very good for the first twenty years of their existence (they joined the NFL in 1946), and have largely sucked since. When not sucking, they have a fondness for dramatic post-season defeats. The team moved to Baltimore in 1995, and was replaced with an expansion team that isn’t quite the same (the dissociation has to do with the new stadium’s lack of intimacy and personality more than the team itself, but one playoff game in twelve seasons isn’t helping). The NBA Cavs also historically suck, although their greatest contribution to Cleveland’s ruin-porn resume didn’t come until 2010.
There were far more serious problems afoot apart from sports: the city’s economic base has been bleeding jobs for decades. The economic crises of the 70s pounded Cleveland; the lowest point came in 1978 when the city defaulted on $14 million in loans from local banks (not really anyone’s fault—young mayor Dennis Kucinich had tried to take a stand against local big business and lost out; the default was the business leaders punishing Kucinich for his insolence). Suburbs undercut the city on taxes, middle-class residents fled to the fringe or a different region altogether, and the formerly bustling neighborhoods of Cleveland proper were hit hard by blight.
But the real geniuses of failure in Cleveland were the Indians. In the twenty-four seasons (1969 to 1983) of original American League East play, the Indians finished above fifth place (out of seven teams) just four times. All four of those finishes were fourth place. The team played in the cavernous Municipal Stadium, a rotting prison hulk of a ballpark that had a capacity in the mid-70,000s, but usually hosted crowds in the mid-7,000s. The Tribe’s big stars in the late 1980s were non-legends like Brett Butler, Cory Snyder, Joe Carter (before the World Series walk-off), Brook Jacoby, Tom Candiotti and Gregg Swindell. When even those B+ talents proved too rich for Cleveland, things got ugly. In 1991, the Indians posted a guttural 57-105 mark, the worst in team history. Jim Thome made his major-league debut on September 4 of that season.
So where am I going? What does ruin porn have to do with Jim Thome?
Jim Thome is ruin porn.
None of what I’ve told you about Cleveland is news. Cleveland’s status as a national punchline existed long before Jose Mesa in November of 1997, or LeBron’s hegira to South Beach. Major League was made way back in 1989—a profane, ultra-genial comedy about an MLB team full of misfits. Screenwriter David S. Ward chose the Indians—why settle for the New York Knights when you can use an actual shitty team? (Incidentally, the MLB of 2011 most certainly would not have given approval to use team logos and uniforms after seeing the fuck-spattered script for Major League—making the movie itself a meta-artifact of ruin porn).
One joke at Cleveland’s expense really nettled me as a kid. It’s from the thirteenth episode of Saved by the Bell. Zack decides to run for class president against Jessie, mostly for venal reasons (something about a free trip to Washington DC). Jessie, who actually wants to be class president, loses her shit a little, and has to be counseled by Slater and Kelly. Kelly, on whom I had a rather ardent second-hand crush, tries to make Jessie realize what’s at stake in the election. The big joke—judging from where the canned laughter crescendos—comes when Kelly announces that Jessie is going down in history with George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and the Cleveland Indians as one of the all-time great losers.
All the mostly good-natured shit that got flung Cleveland’s way didn’t hurt much, except when it was true. And what Kelly Kapowski said was very true—the Indians lost, a lot.
It’s been documented how the Indians were, even in the dark days of 1991, building a plan to compete as a small-market club. GM John Hart was assembling a core of high-ceiling prospects through trades and scouting, and inking the most promising guys to long-term deals, avoiding arbitration fights and sewing up the early free-agent eligibility of talented players in exchange for immediate financial security. Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, a punky OF then named Joey Belle, Charles Nagy, a super-prospect named Manny Ramirez, Sandy Alomar Jr. and more. First base was manned by a castoff from the Twins, a big, beefy Boston Italian guy named Paul Sorrento.
It’s been said that perpetual, unrelenting losing can skew one’s perspective. These were the unfortunate circumstances under which I entered into my first baseball debate.
When my Mets obsession began in 1991, they were beginning a three-year bottoming out after their successes in the 1980s. Of course, the Mets’ 1991-93 seasons turned out to be a garden-variety run of ineptitude, certainly not an historically bad one, but perspective and patience are uncommon virtues among 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds, so my indoctrination into life as a Mets fan was not always a smooth one.
One of the few highlights, though, was Eddie Murray, who became the Mets’ first baseman prior to the 1992 campaign. Murray was in the midst of one of those awkward, late-career mercenary tours after a successful 12-year stay in Baltimore, having played with the Dodgers from 1989-91 before signing on with the Mets. He was one of the few marginally useful, respectable players on Mets teams that went a putrid 60 games under .500 over the next two seasons, which included the 1993 Mets, The Worst Team Money Could Buy.
In retrospect, it’s not especially lofty praise to have been a rock of professionalism and adequate production for one of the laughingstocks of the modern era, but seeing as some of the other boys in Flushing were busy throwing firecrackers at children and spraying reporters with bleach, Murray was a welcomed exception, and I came to like him quite a lot. What else was there to root for?
My good friend and fellow baseball rat Brian, however, was a Yankees fan and a devout worshipper at the Church of Donnie Baseball. Mind you, these were the final days before the birth of the Yankees dynasty, when the Yanks were just beginning to emerge from their own doldrums. So, Don Mattingly was the only True Yankee in an era short on them, and his zealots were very protective of him and continue to be. He’s the patron saint of Yankee martyrdom, the very idea of which could make the rest of us sick were Donnie himself not so likable and deserving of his reverence.
Nonetheless, we had the fodder for my first baseball debate: Is Murray or Mattingly the better player? The lumbering switch-hitter or the slick-fielding sweet swinger? The quite, underrated loner or the long-locked, mustachioed rebel? Admittedly, this was not akin to whether you preferred Willie, Mickey or the Duke in the 1950s. After all, Murray was as much a Met as was Mays a generation earlier, which is to say not at all, and Mattingly, sadly, was a shadow of his former self, and it was obvious that he wasn’t for long with his back seemingly killing him with each cut he’d take. But it’s all we had, and it was a good-natured, if not an especially well-informed, debate.
Since-developed analysis shows that Mattingly was actually the better player by two wins in 1992-93. My thanks, however, to the Baseball Writers Associate of America, which has furnished me with the ultimate trump card: Steady Eddie’s induction into the Hall of Fame in 2003. Let that one burn, Brian.
It’s one thing for new fans to discover the wonders of baseball in good or even OK times, and another entirely to do so in lean years. At least Murray gave me something to argue.
Tino Martinez is by no means the consummate 1990s first baseman. Though he did rank ninth among his peers with 213 home runs in the decade, he never carried the fearsome aura of McGwire, of Thomas, of Bagwell, of Vaughn. He did, however, replace one of the definitive 1980s first basemen, Don Mattingly. After a slow start to his career Tino rose to prominence in 1995 when he swatted 31 home runs for the AL West winning Mariners. That winter they traded him to the Yankees and, a month later, signed power flash in pan Paul Sorrento. The New York fans did not take kindly to beloved Mattingly’s replacement, showering Martinez with boos early in his pinstriped tenure. Some fine hitting, and a World Series title, helped calm the Bronx natives. In 1997 they witnessed the best he had to offer, a season in which he hit 44 home runs and, for the first half at least, battled Ken Griffey Jr. for the AL home run crown. Tino also hit one of the most memorable postseason home runs of the Yankees dynasty, a grand slam that capped a late-inning comeback in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series. By decade’s end he wore three rings.
Steve Weddle is an editor, short story writer, and novelist. His fiction has appeared in numerous literary and crime/noir journals, he is the editor of Needle, and he blogs at DoSomeDamage.
Think of “First Basemen of the 1990s” and you’re picturing Frank Thomas of the White Sox. Jeff Bagwell of the Astros. Mark Grace of the Cubs. Mark McGwire of the Cardinals. Rafael Palmeiro.
Those big sluggers you could count on, and not just at the plate. For the most part, you could count on these guys to be in the same place from one year to the next. Not a one of these guys was a “journeyman.”
Cordero played for the Expos (twice), Red Sox, White Sox, Indians (twice), Pirates, Marlins, and Nationals. (Does that last one make three times for the Expos?) He’d move to a new team in the offseason, just to show up on a new injury report for the next season. Or the waiver wire. But he was always around somewhere.
Much like David Segui, who played here and there (mostly there) throughout the 1990s. He came up with the Orioles in 1990, then moved to the Mets, Expos, Mariners, Blue Jays, Rangers, Indians, and finally back to the Orioles for a few seasons in the 2000s. Segui may be remembered, not for the 15 years he played with nearly as many clubs, but for appearance in the Mitchell Report. Segui reportedly had a doctor’s note allowing him to take HGH, but no doctor gave anabolic steroids. He had to get those in the Mets clubhouse. Still, his .291 career average meant that he was able to find work as a slugger – on many, many teams.
And that brings us to John Olerud. Blue Jays. Mets. Mariners. Yankees. Red Sox. Twice a World Champ. Twice an All-Star. Thrice a Gold Glove winner. Often a Rickey Henderson teammate.
Olerud had a brain aneurysm when he was playing for Washington State University. Because of that, he would wear a batting helmet even when playing the field, which led to the great story involving Rickey Henderson. When Henderson and Olerud were standing around the batting cage, the story goes, Rickey said to John that he’d played with another dude who also wore a helmet in the field, just like Olerud. To which Olerud replied, “That was me.” Turns out, according to someone who had to go and do “research” on it, that the story is an urban legend.
Olerud fought for playing time with Joe Carter and Carlos Delgado when he was with the Jays, so they shipped him off to the Mets for someone called Robert Person.
Olerud, along with infielders Edgardo Alfonzo, Rey Ordonez, and Robin Ventura, provided a fantastic core for the Mets team for a few years.
Thinking back to the 1990s, it seems Olerud was always on first base – whether playing in the field with the Mets or Jays or taking a 3-2 count and drawing a walk or scraping out a single.
Olerud was a great defensive first baseman who batted .295 for his career. He’d go on in the 2000s to play in Seattle with a kid named Griffey, where Olerud would win three Gold Gloves.
So while you’re thinking of the Big Hurt for the White Sox, of the Killer B in Houston, of McGwire, and Grace, and all the other stud first basemen that you only had to buy one jersey for, don’t forget Segui and Cordero and Olerud.
Cecil Fielder should’ve worn baggy pants. He used to be able to dunk a basketball. He named his son Prince (does he think he’s a king?). He struck out three more times than he hit. I only remember him from a flimsy Detroit Tigers card I got in a cereal box and a season-and-a-half with the Yankees. But I think he was good sometimes, and I know his name makes no sense. Nothing, really, about Cecil Fielder makes any sense. That’s why he’s the first baseman of the 90s.