The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “1973 Mets”

Banana Bread and George Theodore’s Sweet Tooth

My grandmother, of Slovak origin, made certain foods I could barely pronounce, let alone digest.  Among these old-world favorites (at least in eastern Slovakia, near the Ukrainian border), were bobalki, halushki and sirecz (pronounced “cidets.”)  I dare you to try to find any of these items on your friendly neighborhood menu.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Even other Slovak-Americans (whom I rarely came into contact with, but they do exist), sometimes hadn’t heard of these foods.  In fact, I’m left wondering if these particular victuals weren’t native to simply one small neighborhood in a hidden quarter of a half-forgotten farm village left over from the Hapsburg Empire.  Kind of like the Mets fan rumored to live on the northern side of Staten Island, just beyond the ferry terminal.  He’d likely also have been a fan of Mets outfielder George Theodore.

George “The Stork” Theodore was a Utah native best remembered perhaps for colliding with Mets center-fielder Don Hahn during their improbable pennant winning season of 1973.  Theodore’s best season came in 1971 when he batted .333 with 28 homer runs and 113 RBI in 507 plate appearances.  He also scored 112 runs, and stole 15 bases in 17 attempts. Unfortunately for the Mets, that performance came in the Single-A California League in Visalia when George was already 24-years old, which is sort of like an 18-year old dating a 9th-grader.

George liked marshmallow milkshakes, or so the back of his 1974 Topps baseball card informs us.  I, on the other hand, loved my grandma’s banana bread.  In fact, from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Portland, Maine and then down to Greenville, South Carolina, I’ve never had banana bread quite the equal of her moist, sweet yellow cake.

She passed away over a decade ago, leaving the world with more apps than they can download while waiting for their tires to be balanced at your local Tire Kingdom, but all the poorer regarding the existence of a nice, satisfying little snack bread. Which, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much sums up the 21st-century.

I’m sure that if George Theodore had visited our house on Bridgeport’s west side in the mid-’70’s, he, too, would surely have enjoyed her banana bread.  In fact, it is even possible that the back of his card would have read “George loves Mets Fan Bill Miller’s Grandma’s Banana Bread.”

It would have been quite the coup for Topps, and Mets fans everywhere would want to know where exactly Colorado Avenue in Bridgeport really was.  A perhaps mythic location akin to the Elysian Fields in New Jersey, or the Schaefer beer brewery  on Kent Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn (which closed down in 1976, a pretty respectable year for the Mets.)

As far as I could tell, Slovaks generally didn’t go in for baseball.  In fact, as a species, Slovaks seem primarily to have thrived on the concept of not being noticed at all, which is what happens when you’ve spent around 500 years having been conquered and pillaged by one invader or another.  My ancestors did try to warn Jonathon Harker, however, away from Dracula’s castle, but who ever listens to a Slovak?  (“The Slav natives Harker meets along the way to the castle likewise incur his disdain.”  Dracula, page 33.  Ouch.)

Ya Gotta Believe! became a popular battle cry in Mets Land in ’73 precisely because Tug McGraw wasn’t mostly Slovak.  Not even a little bit, in fact.  And I’m fairly certain he’d never had bobalki at Easter or Christmas, but that was his loss.  Still, having the American League affiliate of the Hapsburg Empire nearby in the Bronx, led by the despotic Teutonic House of Steinbrenner, we Slovak-American Mets fans knew a thing or two about playing second fiddle to the Yankees while biding our time.  The uprising at Shea Stadium in ’73 wasn’t unlike the Glorious Revolution that swept Europe in 1848, but with slightly less bloodshed, at least if you weren’t seated in the bleachers.

For me, George Theodore represented that unlikely euphoric atmosphere which engulfed much of the Tri-State area that summer.  Yes, Tom Terrific was the valiant warrior, and Bud Harrelson slugging Pete Rose after a hard slide into second base was the iconic moment, but George Theodore was the any-man who’d known mostly nothing but mediocrity or worse suddenly finding himself in a goddamned ticker-tape parade in the canyons of New York City, eating his banana bread and marshmallow milkshakes with a big ear-to-ear grin on his face as he sat in the back seat of a Lincoln Continental filled with confetti.  Or so I’d like to believe.

George is 68-years old now, around the same age that my grandma was when my parents, my brother and I left her and my grandpa behind and moved out to the suburbs.  I think Dante mentioned some sort of appropriate punishment for people like us who did that sort of thing in his “Purgatorio.”

With that move, all remaining Old World smells, tastes and fears were left behind for the stilleto-capitalism of the Reagan ’80’s, by which point Spielberg had almost single-handedly buried the blue-collar ethnic working class under the scrap-heap of American cultural history with his schmaltzy, two-dimensional paeans to paleo-Eisenhower suburbia replete with market-tested hairstyles and product placement marketing.  Even the ’86 Mets, I now have to admit, were a bit more like New Coke than The Real Thing of ’73.

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, and my wife and kids and I will drive on out to my parents’ house and enjoy a nice, unnecessarily gargantuan Sunday meal.  It will taste delicious, and we’ll all have a great time.  I may not remember to take a few moments tomorrow to remember the old ethnic foods my grandma made forty years ago, the foods that are probably built into my DNA, but a 1974 Topps George Theodore baseball card does sit in the glove compartment of our Toyota.

Once, my older son found it in there, and asked me why I keep such an old card just lying around with the gas station receipts and the loose change.  I told him because it helps me remember things I don’t dare forget.

 

 

 

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“Calico Joe” – A Baseball Book Review

You’re probably more familiar with the works of John Grisham than I am.

I’ve seen a couple of movies based on his books — “The Firm” and “The Client” –but I’d never actually read one of his novels.  Based on my experience reading “Calico Joe,” I will have to go back and rectify that mistake.

“Calico Joe” is a 194-page masterpiece of story-telling that has become one of my favorite fictional baseball tales of all time.  I picked it up on a whim at my local public library.  I sat down with it after my kids went to sleep, and stayed up until almost 2:00 a.m. the next morning enraptured by this stunning story.

Let me tell you about it.  Set in the summer of 1973, as well as the present, the story is told to us through the eyes of Paul Tracy, son of fictitious Mets pitcher Warren Tracy.  The Mets and Cubs are locked in a mid-season pennant race.  Young Paul is a huge Mets fan, and, of course, wants badly to root for his dad.

But Paul’s dad has little interest in what his son Paul wants and needs from him.  Warren prefers the nightlife, and is often abusive to Paul and his mom.  Paul’s tenuous loyalty to his dad is then abruptly tested by Joe Castle, a young phenom just called up by the Cubs due to injuries to some of their other players.

“Calico Joe,” as the press begins to call him, is an immediate sensation like nothing baseball has ever seen before.  He breaks rookie record after record, and baseball fans all over the country become virtual Cubs fans overnight as the nation is riveted by the unbelievable on-field exploits of “Calico Joe,” who hails from a small town in the Ozarks.

Warren Tracy, fighting for his career as the Mets fourth starter behind Seaver, Koosman and Matlack, is also suddenly in a fight for his son’s loyalty, if not for his love.  The inevitable on-field confrontation between the young phenom and the journeyman pitcher yields tragic results, expertly handled by an author at the top of his game (no pun intended.)

Unlike other baseball novels in which the story-line revolves primarily around a father-son axis, this one jettisons all saccharine melodrama from the start.  Told in starkly rendered primary colors of love and hate, there is no ambiguity in how this son feels about his dad.  His entire adult life, as is true for many of us, is irrevocably shaped by the history of his relationship, or lack thereof, with his father.

An aging Warren Tracy, later riddled with cancer, is confronted by his angry, uncompromising son who demands that  his father face his sordid past, and  make amends for it.  The emotional storm between them unfolds like a Gulf hurricane, gathering power slowly and deliberately, before unleashing its fury.

Joe Castle himself is the vehicle through which the story is told.  His character is the tragic center of the universe that mirrors all the hope and ultimate despair that confronts humanity in general, and many young ball players in particular.  His archetype, the handsome young man from nowhere who bursts onto the scene and into the hearts of an adoring public, is classic American mythology.  Yet seldom has this archetype been handled as deftly as it has in “Calico Joe.”

For baseball fans, you will delight in the recreation here of the 1973 N.L. East pennant race, and in the recalling of so many stars of that era, including Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays (who has a “cameo”), Catfish Hunter and so many others.  If you’re lucky enough to still have some of your old baseball cards, you may be tempted to pull them out of whatever shoe-box you’ve stored them in all these years to recapture some of the magic of when you first pulled them out of a Topps wax pack.

Keeping in mind that this is a novel, the dates, schedule and scores in the story are not necessarily accurate to real life, nor are they intended to be.  But you can feel the excitement in the batting cage when the rookie takes his first batting practice, and you can practically hear the crowd in your head during the ultimate showdown between protagonist and antagonist in a mid-summer Shea Stadium sell-out.

There are, of course, obvious parallels between actual young players today like Bryce Harper (and Mike Trout), and the fictitious Joe Castle.  Most of us realize what precious commodities they are to baseball, and, freed momentarily from our ever-present, and not always pleasant, real-life responsibilities, to our ability to dream.

Yet sometimes, as in “Calico Joe,” dreams have the life-span of soap bubbles.

The question, then, is how do move on?  And what role, if any, does the act of forgiveness play when life’s tale is nearly spent? In short, can a son ever really forgive a father for his dad’s utter, ugly humanity?

Grisham pushes the reader into some uncomfortable emotional territory, but respects the reader enough to provide his or her own answers to these compelling questions.

If you read just one baseball novel this summer, allow John Grisham’s “Calico Joe” to expertly and efficiently transport you into a time and place as magical as any ballgame you fondly remember, in a world that, for better and worse, looks a lot like our own.

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