Childhood often walks the fine-line between the blissful and boring, and Big League Chew was an integral part of the blissful “baseball experience” that my friends and I so desperately wanted to be part of as young boys. We would scan our stacks of baseball cards and see players like Lenny Dykstra and Tony Gwynn with a not-so-subtle, chipmunk-like slab of tobacco stuck in their cheeks as they posed, bat skillfully wielded in the lazy, sun bleached spring training summer–and we wanted to emulate that with pink, shrouded shreds of sugar-coated goodness. We were hip to the insider culture that only the pros knew about; at least in our own minds.
My parents were insanely cheap; and this didn’t seem to be strange at all as most parents of the 80’s seemed to adhere to this doctrine. My friends and I decided that we would have to be enterprising, so we would knock on doors and ask the neighborhood psychos if we could have the pleasure of raking their lawns for 5 dollars. The riches would be immediately spent a mere four blocks away at the appropriately named Happy Market for some Big league Chew and a couple of packs of baseball cards. The leftover dough would be used to rent a movie that was skillfully chosen in VHS form from the Movie Hut down the street for 1.99 a day, and if we were lucky had the name Schwarzenegger or Van Damme on the box. The solitary zit-faced teen wearing an Iron Maiden shirt at the counter would look up my mom’s rental information on the ancient IBM computer and oblige out of boredom or indifference.
I recently walked around the old neighborhood for the first time in over 20 years. The houses still looked the same, as if time had never happened. There’s where I used to wait for the bus. That’s where I got into a fight with Tim Crumrine. There’s where I used to shoot hoops for hours. That’s where a kid’s dad told another kid to “fuck off” and ran over his skateboard. It was a quiet neighborhood and I was hoping my younger self would walk out of my old house so I could tell him about all the wonderful adventures he would have in the future and warn him about all the mistakes he was going to make. I would tell him to forget his anxieties concerning adulthood and to enjoy the simplicity, lack of corruption and absolute wonder of his life at that moment.
Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” poured out of the Mustang in the driveway as Pete and Nick sat on the front porch. They had just torn open a few packs of baseball cards and decided to make a few swaps before the cards were relegated to a rubber band and the back pocket of faded dungarees.
“Ok, you like the A’s right? I’ll give you a Dave Hamilton for George Brett.”
“Are you kidding me! You must think I’m a fucking idiot. That’s not a fair trade; and besides, it looks like he’s taking a shit!”
Pete’s older brother, Craig, stopped washing his black treasure and walked over with kinked hose in hand.
“You turds need to shut the hell up before I hose you down. Besides, I got Amy coming over and you two dumbasses aren’t gonna ruin my chance at getting some trim.”
“You haven’t got a chance in hell,” Pete spat, shoving a brick-hard powdered slab of gum in his mouth.
“Keep talking big mouth and I’ll give both you and your stupid friend knuckle sandwiches. You’ll be spittin’ out teeth for a week”
Craig continued washing his car, alone with the hose, the suds, the black beauty and the privacy of his own young and perverted mind.
“He thinks he’s such a big shot.”
“Yeah, I can’t wait until I get older so I can kick his ass…so Dave Hamilton for George Brett?”
Carmen was destined to become an A’s fan from birth, born and raised in Oakland, the child of a 60’s era, black leather jacket clad Huey Newton revolutionary/Berkeley professor and a teenage beauty pageant queen and Cuban refugee. The professor met Zoe at a small community theatre in Palo Alto where his future wife was performing as “Bianca” in Othello. He loved her adaptation and asked her to dinner where they proceeded to eat oysters and wash them down with a dry Cabernet. The oysters must have worked as Carmen was thrust into the world soon thereafter, not even a year later.
The girl became an A’s fan at a young age and would hang out at the Coliseum often on weekends with her high school clique. They would sneak in alcoholic lubricant, snacks and a transistor radio while loitering in the bleachers on lazy Indian summers; sunbathing while listening to the Talking Heads and giving the bleacher creatures something to gawk at between innings. Her favorite player was first baseman Chris Carter because “he was this absolute monstrous, beautiful black man blessed with a pleasant expression on his face and an easy, almost lackadaisical ambiance.”
In the unfit roads of adolescence there are bound to be a few bumps on the way, and Carmen felt these at the hands of the Oakland police. “I had a malleable mind at the time and some friends had influenced me to steal clothing and such. I got busted stealing some door-knockers (earrings) that had my name in the middle. It was so obvious.” When she was busted a second time for stealing art books it was “time for a re-examination of the program.”
Hard work and diligence paid off in 2008 as Carmen graduated with a degree in economics from SF State. She now works as an editor at the San Francisco Weekly. “The Weekly is often given to smart-ass editorializing that seems more geared to getting a reaction than making a concrete point, but it’s fun.”
“I’ve learned that we can be one person’s saint, another person’s genius, and someone else’s imbecile; and this is exactly why I do whatever I feel like doing every day without even an inkling of what anyone else thinks about it.”
As I pull this baseball card from the pile it takes me on a long forgotten trip back to the 1990’s and the bottomless pit of purgatory known as Jr. High School. Everyone was growing into themselves, girls were getting boobs, fashion was suddenly important, and guys were suddenly sporting the haircut that concocted the term “business in the front, party in the back.”
The mullet was a popular hairstyle in the early 90’s as it was worn by everyone from rock stars, movie stars, wrestlers and even baseball players. With the 90’s being the cultural dreg that it was, it seemed the perfect time for the white-trash aesthetic to finally be embraced by the mainstream. Celebrities who rocked the hairstyle included John Stamos, David Bowie, Billy Ray Cyrus and George Clooney. My cousin had his mullet for YEARS complete with an army style flat-top. I still give him shit for it to this day.
I remember a friend of mine from Jr. High, Michael, would constantly run a comb through his dirty blond mullet while wearing his ever-present Guns N Roses t-shirt complete with naked girl on the back. (seems a bit extreme for a Jr. High kid today, seemed normal then before Generation X started having children and treating them like snowflakes.) Michael was sort of known as the dick of the neighborhood and would always try to steal other people’s “valuable” baseball cards. He lived in a ramshackle house, his mom was slutty with a new biker boyfriend every other week, and his baby sister always looked dirty with a bunch of dried food on her face. It was depressing. I soon outgrew baseball cards and Michael.
The 1990 Oakland A’s were no exception to the rule as Storm Davis and Jose Canseco had flowy, rockstar-esque mullets. Back up catcher Ron Hassey and second baseman Glenn Hubbard had their weird, curly, seemingly permed neck-fro’s. I’ve got to believe thet the most famous baseball mullet of all time goes to the great pitcher and ultimately most white-trashy looking player of all time…Randy Johnson. Today’s players, being forever trendy yet always a step or two behind hip fashion sport the hairstyle in a “post-ironic” way; these including Nick Swisher and Tim Lincecum.
Junior High was a crazy, fucked up, depressing and confusing time for me. I got into my second fight (and third), added the first girlfriend to my repertoire and discovered heavy metal, porn and keg parties. Thank you Storm Davis for bringing it back. I had almost forgotten.
It is a cold December night in 1972, and I am with Mike Epstein and his wife. We are exiting his cherry-red Ford Thunderbird and about to enter the Marshmallow Disco. The “Marshmallow” as it is called is in a dingy, industrial block of Manhattan. There are a group of homeless folks staring at us as we exit the car–a unwordly group with distorted faces that would make one either question their drug intake or the group’s relativity to the planet Earth. I feel safe as I am with a man who has a hulking presence and once kicked the shit out of Reggie Jackson in the locker room. Some would say that this dust-up has even overshadowed Mike’s baseball oeuvre. A drunk Puerto Rican woman approaches Mike and his wife shouts,
“Look, bimbo, he’s with me.”
The “bimbo” skulks off in a fit of hysterics and Mike growls,”Look, man, I don’t have time to hassle with that shit. I got my old lady with me.”
Mike steers his wife in the general direction of the VIP door. There are smokers gathered, sitting on high school cafeteria scratched iron chairs–their legs crossed, casting appraising glances every which way with primal, reptilian eyes. You can hear the O’ Jays and Sly and the Family Stone bumping inside. There is American dissolution in the parking lot as American decadence flails away in a cocaine-induced dopamine explosion inside. The alcohol turning once happy groups into an imminent decent of after-hours grotesque buffoonery. A woman grabs a man on the way inside.
“Every damn time we fuck I gotta listen to your bullshit after we’ve finished. Why don’t you let me enjoy my afterglow for a change?”
At present, I am particularly excited by “bad taste.” I have the deep feeling that there exists in the very essence of bad taste a power capable of creating those things situated far beyond what is traditionally termed “The Work of Art.” I wish to play with human feeling, with its “morbidity” in a cold and ferocious manner. —Yves Klein
The 1981 Topps baseball card isn’t a particularly exciting visual affair. The most prominent feature of the card front is the ball cap that’s at the bottom of the card. Player photos have a color outline that gives way to a thin white border with the Topps logo placed in a small baseball in the right corner. Of course, it’s just a baseball card. Most people see them as worthless pieces of cardboard for children. I always get a kick out of people who say, “well, where’s the art in that?” Despite the term “art” being static and self-appointed to each individual, I believe if you have an iota of intelligence and an active imagination, you can find art and emotion in almost ANYTHING.
Jeff Jones had a rather unremarkable career with the Oakland Athletics, playing 5 seasons and ending with a 9-9 record. There is nothing remarkable about this card from a baseball standpoint, (beside the fact that it’s an Athletic) but what really struck me was the marvelous blue background; reminding me of Yves Kleins’ painting “IKB 191.” (right) This color makes me feel a myriad of emotions: the lapis lazuli reminding me of my Catholic school upbringing (Mary’s robes were almost always painted this color because of the brilliance of it; the stone also was semi-precious making it a “must have” for artists of the Renaissance and Baroque period.)
Long ago, in fourth grade Catholic church, my pal David K. told me not to swallow the thin, wafer-like “Body of Christ,” but to keep it still in my mouth so we could satisfy our boyhood curiosity and inspect it. I eventually brought the specimen back to the pew only to drop the now mushy wafer on the ground because of haste and overall blood rushing to the brain nervousness. Some busy-body ratted me out, and the congregation was stopped as I was dragged to the front of the altar and berated by the priest in a back room. There was a closet full of priest robes and between thoughts of the robes looking like Batman’s closet and me getting my ass kicked by my parents, I was just simply embarrassed. Nothing was said to my parents in the end, and I came out of the situation relatively unscathed….. ah, the life of a day dreamer…and the thoughts keep crashing into the shore as one wave leads to another.
Thank you Jeff Jones 1981 Topps.
The following was taken from Jessica Canseco’s book, “Juicy: Confessions of a former baseball wife.”…we kissed for awhile and I relaxed a little, but then I looked down and saw his weiner. It didn’t look like any weiner I had seen before. It was big and uncircumcised, and I thought it was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. But as soon as it got hard all the skin pulled back and it looked pretty magnificent. I don’t remember much about the sex. We made love in the standard position. I’m from a farm in Middle America. We didn’t get a lot of Latinos with uncircumcised wieners there. I also thought about his testicles, but it seems Jose’s were unusually small. (editors note: this is called testicular atrophy and can be linked to steroid use)
I am in the far-flung recesses of my mind, probably contemplating throw-away culture or how the scope of time is too vast for humans to comprehend when I stumble upon the fly strewn corpse of a baby raccoon. My eyes immediately shift too a rather large, honey sweet black woman in stained sweatpants; a mother, and she is giving her child a tongue lashing for being a malcontent. She has a beautiful smile and a confident demeanor, she transcended simple tackiness and wore it well.
“The world needs structure! Without structure there would be chaos!”
Why was this profound? Is baseball chaos, structure or both? I’ve heard arguments for both the former and latter but I can’t seem to argue the contrary– and how did this short walk turn into mental digressions and glorious abstractions? Do I need to see a pharmacologist to ease this mental psycho-babble?
I suddenly trip on the curb, my modus-operandi quickly shifting from faux-philosopher into incoherent boob. The mother chuckles. “You need to look where you’re going kemo sabe, it’s not good to look like a klutz.” I appreciated her simple candor, and she had no idea how profoundly I connected with her simplistic berating of a young ankle-biter. I made sense of the fog for a moment–I was a “klutz.”
“I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms and Isadora Duncan… The only Church that truly feeds the soul, day in and day out, is the Church of Baseball.” —Annie Savoy in the film “Bull Durham.”
Those who’ve paid any attention perceive that taste, values, ideas, style and behavior are dispensable criteria of class. Donald Trump is an instructive specimen in this regard. Overall, class structure is one hell of a thing. It defines who we are from the cars we drive, the television shows we watch, the clothes we wear, the neighborhoods we live in, even the food we eat. I thought nothing about these things as a child, hell, who does? You wake from a slumber, go to school, come home, eat some macaroni and cheese, play baseball until the sun goes down, and then repeat…ad infinitum. ( you can throw a few ass whippings in there for good measure; i was a rebellious spirit)
And like every other red-blooded American boy, I idolized baseball players, never questioning the ethics or morals of my heroes. How could they be so “bad?” I knew nothing about drug use, (Darryl Strawberry, Josh Hamilton) D.U.I.’S, ( Miguel Cabrera, Coco Crisp, Adam Kennedy) wife-beating, ( Milton Bradley, Alberto Callaspo, Brett Myers) tax evasion ( Darryl Strawberry, Pete Rose) or even murder ( Julio Machado, Ugueth Urbina) These things were done by OTHER people who weren’t associated with me and my family, and never the twain shall meet. I learned quite quickly through the buying and trading of baseball cards about the true nature of the human condition. (of which my parents weren’t exempt) These little pieces of cardboard had taught me deceit, unfair business practices, price manipulation, collusion, restraint of trade, extortions, pay- offs, bribes, plagiarism, and false hype. Soon thereafter, as I entered my early teens I started to understand privilege, advantage and wealth as the Yankees had started to define it in ways that were bigger than the world of baseball: my life consisted of old, out of style clothes, pot pies for dinner and late night parental arguments over bills.
I would like to thank baseball for teaching me these valuable lessons. The beautiful game is rich with juxtapositions and historical aspects that go beyond stats, OBP’s, WHIPS, and World Series titles. It is a game that teaches you to slow down, as it can be played in the mind as well as on the field. It is a game of anticipation, a game that erupts in a sudden explosion of action, then slows down again, giving us time to savor what we have seen, and to give us time to think about what we are going to see. It shows you that you are not perfect, and that you don’t have to be. It also teaches you to enjoy your lot in life whether you be a HOF er or a .220 hitter. It teaches you that no matter how much you think you know, you should always learn MORE. It teaches you to love and cherish something that was loved and cherished by a father or grandfather, and that you love and cherish in return. I have long since stopped putting these guys on a gold pedestal, and it has enriched my life in ways no home run ball, autograph, or season ticket could ever match.