Day 10 of (at least) 30 baseball book reviews for spring/summer 2020: We’ll take our coffee bleak

ca-times.brightspotcdn.com
In 2013, the Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Baxter did a piece titled “For baseball’s one-hit wonders, the magic can last a lifetime.” He interviewed Jeff Banister, Joe Hietpas, Philip Barzilla and Dustin Bergman. https://www.latimes.com/sports/la-xpm-2013-mar-12-la-sp-moonlight-graham-20130312-story.html

“The Cup of Coffee Club:
11 Players and their Brush with Baseball History”

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The author:
Jacob Kornhauser

The publishing info:
Rowman & Littlefield
$29.95
216 pages
Released March 11

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com
At Powells.com
At IndieBound.org

The review in 90 feet or less

We’ll try to make this quick, efficient and caffeinated.

It’ll be sort like the single-day MLB careers of:
jeff_banister_autograph= Charlie Lindstrom (Sept. 28, ’58)
= Roe Skidmore (Sept. 17, ’70)
= Larry Yount (Sept. 15, ’71)
= Gary Martz (July 8, ’75)
= Rafael Montalovo (April 13, ’86)
= Jeff Banister (July 23, ’91)
= Stephen Larkin (Sept. 15, ‘98)
= Jon Ratliff (Sept. 15, 2000)
= Ron Wright (April 14, ’02)
= Sam Marsonek (July 11, ’04)
= and Matt Tupman (May 18, ’08).

They’re the Moonlight Grahams of their time without a “Field of Dreams” context to evoke bittersweet nostalgia — they made it the big leagues, played once, then something weird happened.

The Baseball Encyclopedia is full of them, and it’s where many first learned of Graham, and fell for the nickname. The BaseballReference.com lists 535 pitchers and nearly as many batters (which seem to add up to 999) as a reference point. There are about 150 of them in the last 50 years alone, writes Kornhauser, tet, the 11 above is who the Chicago native and current  producer at Fox Sports digital in L.A. decided to go after. They were available to still talk about what, the author calls, their “heartache of never making it back.”

Well, for some of them.  Exhibit A: Yount.

IMG_9971The older brother of eventual Hall of Famer Robin Yount, and both from Taft High in Woodland Hills, says he rarely thinks about that day he was called in from the bullpen to pitch for the Houston Astros, hurt his arm while warming up, and never faced the Braves lineup of Felix Millian, Ralph Gahr and Hank Aaron in that ninth inning.
Thus, the 21-year-old is the only one in MLB history to officially enter a game and never perform.
He went back to Triple A for two lousy seasons, was traded to Milwaukee in 1974 — just as Robin was signing to play there as an 18-year-old out of high school.

Heartache? He became a fabulous real estate developer in Arizona, and still gets some credit for helping convince former MLB commissioner Bud Selig to finally put a team in Phoenix.

“My life couldn’t have been any better (after baseball,” he says. “I overachieved so much. All of that was just a moment in time.”

Others do lament their one-and-only shot.

Charlie Linstrom, a catcher in the Chicago White Sox organization, the youngest son of former Dodgers utility player and Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom, says on page 12: “The truth of the matter is once I got into professional baseball, I really didn’t like it that well.”

Bad example. How about Gary Martz, who had nine years in pro ball but just one MLB game. “Financially, even family-wise, it really took a toll on me. Overall, I’d probably have to say it wasn’t worth it. … I always said I wanted to be the next Mickey Mantle … He was a helluva a drinker and I think I might have been able to outdrink him.”

Some handle adversity differently.

Bannister overcame cancer and went onto manage the Texas Rangers. Larkin, nine years younger than his eventual Hall of Fame brother Barry, still enjoys the thrill of talking about the day he was called up to be in the same lineup with his sibling, on the last day of the 1998 season with the Cincinnati Reds, while Aaron and Brett Boone played the other two infield positions.

Rafael Montalovo came up in the Dodgers organization, got his one game in with Houston, then tried to come back nine years later as a Dodgers’ Replacement Player during the 1995 spring training season. (Which Mike Piazza writes about later in his autobiography: “Some of the replacement players — mainly, a pitcher named Rafael Montalovo, who pitched one inning for the Astros back in 1986 and hadn’t played organized ball in the States for three years — were saying things like they were going to have us five games in first place by the time we got back and we’d probably want to thank them … Does someone really think we’ll be rooting for these guys?”)

Fame comes in many forms. How could you not root for all them, all things considered, to at least reached the top of the mountain.

How it goes in the scorebook

Rest in peace, Eddie Gaedel.

On a scale of 1-to-11, compatible with the lineup presented here, we had hopes of cranking this up to an 11. If all you have time to do here is pour yourself a mug of Joe, skim the names, try to connect with any of their stories, and then shake your head, count it an above-average success.

Or, “if you take nothing else from the interesting stories of these one-game wonders, take with you the knowledge that baseball doesn’t hand you anything,” Kornhauser writes in the end. “Players earn what they get and sometimes they are afforded even less than what it appears they deserve.”

Kinda like life, eh?

Perhaps we’re caught up in how we would have tackled this project, so less offense to Kornhauser and more on a vision we had for this when we saw the title and were aware of others who tried this.

John_Paciorek_Debut

71EVbJqNWGLFor us, a collection of stories like this begins and ends with the confounding story about John Paciorek.

He went 3 for 3 with two walks in his only game with the Houston Colt .45s Astros as an 18-year-old on Sept. 29, 1963.

We had the pleasure of catching up with him on the 50th anniversary of that feat. He’s alive and living well in San Gabriel, and loves to talk.

Yet, here, he only gets seven paragraphs worth of attention in the introduction. It could be because there’s been an entire book done about him — Steven Wagner’s 2015 piece entitled “Perfect”? 

41SA48ZJFRLSo what instead reads like 11 magazine pieces and is capped off with a 12th chapter that sums up some of the older stories of players who are no longer with us , there is surprisingly less than 170 pages, excluding notes and index. A quick read, and there is true value in that. When Rob Trucks did his “Cup of Coffee: The Very Short Careers of Eighteen Major League Pitchers” in 2003, he poured out 420 pages.

It’s more than just finding the subjects. It’s crafting the stories. The chapters for each of these players are somewhat flat. The chapter headings look more like tombstones than trying to draw us in with something unique that happened in their situations.

Instead of “Ron Wright/April 14, 2002” why not lure us in with “How do you hit into a 1-6-2-5-1-4 triple play?” That’s what Wright did, the only time it happened in baseball history. He also did the remarkable: Accounted for six outs in three at bats. Sending him back seemed more efficient perhaps.

Going back to the Larry Yount account — there are the words his brother, Robin, said at his Hall of Fame induction: “My brother Larry. He taught me how hard work and dedication to the game was the only way to make it.” What more would Robin have said about Larry if contacted? If Larry Yount’s cup of coffee could be better expressed, maybe it’s more like a “teaspoon of espresso,” as Steve Elling writes in an L.A. Times look back at Yount in 1994. He talked  to his former Taft High coach and his wife Gail (another Taft grad). The Baseball-Almanac.com even includes a story the Associated Press wrote at the time, and a faux baseball card of him.

Heck, at The Baseball Project website, someone even wrote a song about him. With the lyrics:

My name is Larry Yount
And my story doesn’t rise
Like a ripple on the tide
Late at night I think what might have been
What might have been

The material is there to ponder over, and we’re always looking for new insights. We got that with the story about how he was supposed to throw out the first pitch of the Dodgers’ 1963 World Series Game 5 based on an honor bestowed upon him for his Pony League team’s national success. Then the Dodgers won the ’63 Series in four games. He got to do Opening Day of ’64. He was drafted by the Astros just four years later.

We’re thinking back to what Brad Balukjian did with “The Wax Pack,” and how maybe this “Cup of Coffee Club” seems less rich and robust. Balukjian said it about how he wanted to avoid the one-trick premise of a book that was only all about him tearing open a pack of cards and then visiting each one: If I just wrote about the baseball lives of these guys, it would be a fun idea, but the book dies with the gimmick. The only way I could see it working, and the only way I was interested in it frankly, was to have a narrative arc.”

That’s what “Coffee” seems to leave in the grinder. What did outsiders see about the subject that the subject didn’t? What’s missing than just a exit interview?

Wantz.Dick.ObitIf anything, the one story we wish could have been fleshed out more is one told in the introduction that we never heard about: A 25-year-old named Dick Wantz who pitched for the Angels on Opening Day 1965 at Dodger Stadium against Cleveland.

65 wantz fHe gave up two runs in his only inning of relief. A few days later he complained of headaches. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and died a month after that MLB debut during surgery. There’s a footnote to the story found in The Sporting News. He left a wife and a young son. Are they still around?

52083520_68752a1a-e47d-49a7-b0c0-3b9b441f8edbLook at the story above. He played at Artesia High and Cerritos College, as well as Cal State L.A. He was a home-grown player, signed out of a tryout camp. It made us go right out, find his Topps card, and get a copy of it, to make a connection, to honor him. The story seems too rich to just let fade away.  When it comes to the reputed curse of the Angels’ franchise — chapters added recently by Nick Adenhart and Tyler Skaggs — this fits right into the mythology.

51CfhnPluyLOne other missing links in all this: We revisited a 2010 book by Doug Gladstone called “A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players Association threw 874 Retirees a Curve.” This extra innings edition came out in 2019.

The focus is on those MLB players who came and went from 1947 to 1979 but didn’t qualify for an MLB pension. A rule adopted in 1980 finally gave anyone with one day of service credit for health benefits and 43 days of service credit to be eligible for a retirement allowance. If you were to take this working list, Lindstrom, Skidmore, Yount and Martz would have fallen into that black hole and haven’t been compensated. Same with Paciorek, the brother of former Dodgers outfielder Tom Paciorek. But not much of, if anything, went down that provocative path. It led us to track down Carmen Fanzone, a former Chicago Cubs player who also fell into this category and ended up as a local Los Angeles musician. What a joy to stumble upon that.

We smile when we look at the back cover and see blurbs offered by ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian “one of my favorite topics”), George Will (“the title is inspired”) and ESPN’s John Anderson (we’re not sure he read it based on what he actually said).

No doubt it’s always a fascinating topic to tackle. The subjects have to play along as well. If they don’t, it only leads to a bunch of bleak coffee rings on the napkin.

An author post-review Q&A

Note: We’d have planned to do this before the review posted, but were not able. After the review posted, we connected with Kornhauser via email exchange. Here’s the meat of that:

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QQQQQTell me about the process you put together to decide who would be included?

AAAAThe whole point of the book was to let the main players in the book (the 11 individual chapters) tell their stories in their own words. Therefore, the main players had to be players who were still alive. In doing background research, I found about 40 or so players whose stories and careers might warrant consideration. From that group, I whittled it down to roughly 25. From the 25, I started reaching out to players with the most interesting stories first. Many players I never heard back from, others told me they didn’t want to be included. I knew at the start I wanted to end up with 10-12 players for the project. Of course, timing and circumstances worked out that I ended up with 11. 

There were a few guys I either hit a dead end with or who told me they didn’t want to be involved. The top three I wish I had gotten are Kevin Morgan, Francisco “Frank” Estrada, and Curtis Brown. Morgan was an executive with the Mets at the time I contacted him and he told me he didn’t want to be involved. I was never able to get ahold of Estrada because he lives in Mexico, but I have since found someone who knows Estrada, so he will definitely be in a Volume II if there ever is one. I was in contact with Brown’s nephew, but Brown was traveling around the country in his RV without a phone and didn’t want to be bothered. 

I’m definitely not ruling out a Volume II, although I have no timetable on when I’d like to start a new project. There are 5-6 names right now I could probably get, so if I double that number, I’d be in business. We will see how well these stories resonate with readers the first time around. 

QQQQQHow did the timeline work for you in this process?

AAAAThis was done in relatively distinct stages. It took several months to build up enough research to be able to adequately interview these players and then tell their stories. After research, I reached out to players for another several months and I’d say it took about 10 months to interview all the players + other professional sources I talked to for the book. The writing and revisions stages took another six months or so … All told, the project was about a two-year journey with another nearly year-long journey from when it was signed to a deal to when it was actually published. 

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QQQQQWhat story resonated most with you?

 

AAAASam Marsonek. Talk about a 180-degree turn in life. I thought Sam most embodied the idea of the book: playing in just one MLB game defines your baseball career, but it doesn’t have to define your life. He sort of blew his chance at the big leagues, but ended up turning his story into a positive and I think that’s something we can all learn from. He said reading the book brought back memories he hadn’t felt in 10 years and made him feel like he was back reliving those moments. 

QQQQQ

How have you been able to promote it in these times of pandemic isolation?

AAAA

I’ve been doing lots of radio and podcast interviews lately. Another successful avenue I’ve had is pitching some of the individual stories to local and national writers, so they have content and give the book a plug as sort of the “lead” they had in tracking down this particular story. I had not heard of the Pandemic Baseball Book Club, but I will check it out. Thanks!

QQQQQWhat other things are worth knowing about?

AAAAYou say this topic has been “tackled before” when really it hasn’t. There have been books about players with short careers, but never a book about players who played just one game. There’s a big difference. That’s the reason I pursued the project. The narrative structure for the story of a one-game player is so much more interesting because it’s more applicable to other areas of life. People can envision themselves reaching the mountaintop in their chosen profession or field of interest on just one single day and never getting back. It’s easy to imagine just how hard that would be on them. Therefore, comparing this project to other similar projects really is missing the point. 

John Paciorek wasn’t interviewed for the book because many people already know his story and I didn’t want to rehash a story that’s already been told through an entire book. Any baseball fan in tune with history knows he’s generally regarded as the most successful one-game player of all time. I wanted to tell stories people hadn’t heard before and with Paciorek, that just wasn’t going to happen to the degree of some of the other stories — i.e. Matt Tupman, a New England kid, missing out on getting to play at Fenway Park on the night Jon Lester threw his no hitter and having to watch from the stands. 

Why Dick Wantz’s story wasn’t expanded upon: his story is told in the opening chapter. The entire idea of the opening chapter is to set the stage for the phenomenon of one-game players and place the following individual chapters into context. I wanted to provide examples throughout the opening chapter to keep readers engaged and tell real-life stories while not getting bogged down in any single story. Fleshing out Wantz’s full story in the opening chapter would have felt out of place. Perhaps it could have been placed at the end in the “other stories” section. 

You quote Balukjian as saying “If I just wrote about the baseball lives of these guys, it would be a fun idea, but the book dies with the gimmick. The only way I could see it working, and the only way I was interested in it frankly, was to have a narrative arc.” — I’m not sure where this is missing in the book. The entire point of the book is that it’s not a gimmick. It’s how I sold these one-game players on talking to me in the first place. This was about telling their entire story both in baseball and in life afterward — the arc you refer to. For many of them, their journeys in and out of baseball end up coming full circle — that was especially the case with Charlie Lindstrom’s lighting business that ended up providing the lights at Comiskey. Every single player has his post-baseball story told. 

John Anderson is one of my most prized mentors and we’ve discussed the book at length, so to suggest he didn’t read the book based on his blurb is a little unnecessary not to mention inaccurate. 

The point of this entire project was to help baseball fans appreciate the fleeting nature of life in professional baseball and just how precious each game, each at bat really is. When looking at it through that lens, I hope you feel it achieved its goal more than the goals you imagined and the expectations you had going into it. 

More to drink up

== We always thought Charles Victor Faust was a one-and-done guy. Instead, he played in two games, or two more than he should have:

== The ScrewballTimes.com mentions it in its 18 best baseball books to read in 2020.

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