Chewing on my baseball history, complete with bursting bubbles.
This story is about a piece of gum.
I have a new editor this month, and once she reads the previous sentence, I may be the previous humor columnist. I don’t think they brought her in to revitalize The Chronicle with hard-hitting Hubba Bubba journalism. However, I hope she (and you) will hear me out.
The gum, of the baseball-card-bubble variety, is on the desk in front of me, but not wadded up and stuck to the bottom. It’s not ABC Gum, which you may know stands for “Already Been Chewed.” It’s NBC (Never Been Chewed). But like these acronyms, the gum is from my childhood. Specifically, 1986.
I didn’t always want to be a humor writer. When I was a kid, I was going to be a Major League Baseball player. In my wealth of spare time, I was also going to be a Marvel Comics artist and a fireman.
But I digress. I was talking baseball, which was a huge part of my life until 1986.
No, Red Sox fans, it’s not Bill Buckner’s fault. It’s Billy Martin’s.
I’m a Yankee fan, and I realize that telling you that may cause enough Boston people to walk away from this article that it will look like a trade to the Dodgers. I technically should have been a Mets fan, but I moved from Long Island to Connecticut in the mid-1970s, in the midst of some great Red Sox/Yankees battles, to the midpoint between Boston and New York.
While Carlton Fisk and Lou Piniella were brawling on the field, my schoolmates and I were brawling at the bus stop over which team was better. We were also starting to play Little League and collect baseball cards.
You’ve heard the romantic baseball card stories: mothers blindly throwing away fortunes in shoeboxes, kids flipping baseball cards into hats or putting them in their bicycle spokes. I’ll admit, I never did that, but you can’t have a conversation about baseball cards without somebody speaking about spoking.
I was more of a Rain Man with my collection, alphabetizing cards by player within teams – five rows of five stacks plus one special row for the Yankees (alphabetically last, just like me).
The teams have changed, but I can still recite them like I was 15: Angels, A’s, Astros, Blue Jays, Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Expos…. To this day I still don’t know who’s on first alphabetically, Reds or Red Sox. But don’t tell me Astros comes before A’s! Nobody calls them the Athletics.
I collected cards throughout my all-star Little League career. But in 1986, everything changed thanks to Billy Martin. Not the Billy Martin, the legendary hot-tempered player and manager. Billy Martin, the local coach who cut me from the freshman baseball team that year. My classmates can confirm whether that was his real name or whether I suffered memory loss from the psychological trauma.
I not only stopped playing organized baseball; I stopped collecting cards and I stopped watching baseball. I played in gym class and casually with friends, but the game accepted a utility role in my life. I switched to basketball.
But I digress; this story is supposed to be about baseball. Or gum, I forget now.
In college, baseball came back to me. I played intramural softball, I played baseball video games, and I played John Kruk one Halloween, wearing a wig under my cap and a pillow under my shirt (in the days when I needed a pillow to look fat). Kruk’s Phillies were a great media story, and I even found myself watching baseball again.
My TV-on-again, TV-off-again relationship with baseball continued for decades. In the fall of 1994, I stopped watching baseball again, along with everybody, thanks to the strike that eventually led to the cancellation of the World Series. Also thanks to that strike, the fall of 1994 found me turning my attention to a girl. I was still with her by the time the strike ended in 1995, when I discovered that she had never seen a Major League Baseball game.
The Yankees came back with a vengeance. A vengeance, and a new shortstop named Derek Jeter.
So not only did I start watching baseball again; so did the girl. Together, we watched the Yankees win the World Series, which they hadn’t done since I was diving around Little League fields pretending to be Graig Nettles. Inspired, I started diving around adult softball league fields pretending to be Graig Nettles.
Soon, we were married and had a baby. [Me and the girl, not me and Nettles. He already had several rings.] I stopped playing softball. One kid became two. (Not by genetic mutation, we just had a second child.)
Life got even busier, and you can probably guess that I stopped watching baseball for a few years, except when my kids were playing it. Now that they’re both a little older, sometimes they watch with me. Sometimes I sneak away by myself for a few innings.
For today’s game, I had company. I pulled out some “friends” that had been in attics and crawlspaces for 20 years. [Stop dialing 9-1-1, this is an analogy.] I dusted off my plastic bins full of baseball cards and sat down on the couch with Nettles, Piniella, and an infinite supply of Jamie Quirk, the journeyman catcher whose card seemed to be in every Topps wax pack I ever opened.
At the bottom of a bin, I found one pack still sealed, as if I had just laid it down on the counter of Morton’s Pharmacy next to a Reggie bar. When I picked it up, the baseball gods opened it for me. The adhesive had dried away and the cards peeked out of the slightly open wrapper.
I held the open pack up to my nose and inhaled it like Afrin. It still had that distinctive bubble gum powder fragrance, but it also smelled like green grass and hot dog vendors and glove oil and Wiffle ball games in the driveway with the lawn-chair-strike-zone and the garage door halfway up so we wouldn’t break the glass panes and the hot tar underneath the tires of the ice cream truck where I used to buy baseball cards with my Bomb Pop money.
There were no priceless rookie cards in the pack, but I did get one Yankee (yes!) and this lonely, ½ inch by 2-inch piece of bubble gum that sits on the desk before me.
In looking back on my storied baseball career – and the tale that you’re reading now is the only story about it – I realize that I digress, not only in words, but also in life. I don’t tend to focus on one thing too long.
But the one constant through all the years, (Ray), has been baseball. Work stoppages couldn’t kill my love of the game, nor could steroid users, injuries or family responsibility. And neither could a list posted in a locker room that didn’t go alphabetically to Z.
Sometimes we don’t realize our childhood dreams. Instead of a Major League Baseball player, I ended up becoming a minor league “card.” To paraphrase Mr. Nettles, my baseball aspirations went “from Cy Young to sayonara.” But I’m old enough now not to blame Other Billy Martin. Life, like Topps wax packs, is full of quirks.
Who would have thought that one little piece of gum could bring back memories so vivid I could almost taste them? Of course, I wouldn’t dare taste the gum. That would be stupid. I mean, the gum was never all that good in the first place, and this particular piece is two decades old.
Ah, what the hell! You can start dialing 9-1-1 again. I’m chewing the gum. When the ambulance arrives, I’ll either be dead … or watching baseball.