Friday, April 22, 2011


Roy Hofheinz, trapped in a silly
sixties layout
Forty years ago this season Brock Hanke and I dreamed up a baseball travesty and invited our friends to be its cast of characters.

This conflation of silliness and pre-sabermetric savvy was centered around a fictional team that displaced the Houston Astros due to some obtuse impropriety of their owner Roy Hofheinz (who, despite being a Judge, was a good bit more like Frank McCourt than anyone is likely to admit).

For Bowie Kuhn, this decision to not only take over a franchise (and yes, that does echo in the wake of Bud Selig's pre-emptive strike on the Dodgers as he does everything he can to cover up the much bigger mess that is the New York Mets) but to award it to two smart-aleck kids would change the face of the game in ways that can't be measured even with the most robust set of regressions at the disposal of today's hyper-geeks.

This team--called, for no good reason, the San Antonio Trotters, and who played their first nine seasons inside a jack-legged, reconfigured Alamo ("there is no sacrilege too egregious," Hanke intoned with his trademark rhetorical flourish, "that we won't attempt to twist around the necks of those who are mindless lockstep with tradition")--was supposed to be a laughingstock.

What the Trotter brain trust did to the Alamo was almost as
unconscionable as the folks who strip-mined the banking system
in 2008, but at least in doing so we created an interesting ballpark
with more crazy angles than a pinball machine...
In a fit of infantile cheek, the brash young owners of the Trotters assembled an improbable collection of has-beens, never-weres, and strictly-unmentionables to populate their roster, and settled down to see if they could "top" the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, a team they'd only recently become acquainted with via their access to the first edition of the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia

Hanke, who likes to downplay his math whizzery, was quickly able to construct a baseball simulation game that used a deck of playing cards to drive it, and we were off to the races.

At first, all seemed to be proceeding according to plan--the Trotters lost sixteen of their first twenty games.
Charles Oscar Mule, when finally freed from the hand that fed him,
proceeded to terrorize the National League for fifteen years

What we didn't know, of course, was that our youthful commitment to the execrable was subject to corruption--and the agent of that apostasy would be our most absurd addition to the roster: Charley Finley's mule, who was shipped to us by the maverick owner in what now can be seen more clearly as a passive-aggressive act of fealty (Hanke always surmised that Finley, a notoriously cheap type, had simply tired of buying oats for the beast).

As we kept playing, we discovered that the Mule was turning into a four-legged version of Babe Ruth. And that the two of us, thrust onto the field via Hanke's varation on Strato-matic cards in deference to our youthful ballyard fantasies, were starting to resemble solid major league hitters.

Jerry May, for whom we were willing to defy logic
Several of my favorite suspect players who'd been appropriated to fill out the roster, catcher Jerry May and second baseman Dick Green, began to mysteriously defy the odds of the "factors" created for them (May hit over .300 for the first half of the season, and Green was matching the Mule homer for homer). We added a couple of fictional pitchers who projected to be something other than the rag-armed has-beens and AAAA players we'd previously collected.

Before we knew it, the Trotters had won 54 of their next 86 games and they were actually in the pennant race.

It all fell apart on us in August. When I came back a couple of weeks early for school, we had a marathon weekend session in the steamy kitchen of my new off-campus apartment where we played a month's worth of games. Despite our desire to see the Trotters take it to the NL West, the cards betrayed us: the team went 6-24 for the month. We were forced to admit that we were neither fish nor fowl--while the Trotters were colorful and crazy, in the end they were just mediocre.

1972 WOULD BE different, but no less improbable. The Trotters would have a youth movement unlike any seen before or since. Two impossibly young and talented middle infielders arrived to displace the detritus we'd been playing, and we carved out a respectable bullpen that would not repeat its unbelievable 8.18 ERA over the final two months of '71. Yours truly would become a version of Ty Cobb who could walk like Ted Williams. The Mule remained the Mule (and we survived a series of lawsuits from Finley, who wanted to get the beast back and put him in center field for the A's. The Mule's reply was short, but eloquent: "Nay!").

Possibly our favorite unintended excursion into surrealism began in '72, as the Trotters simply tore the heads off their opponents and cruised to a 102-51 record (capped off by sweeping the A's in the World Series). One of our more eccentric friends, Abb Vaughn, sat in with us as we played several games one evening early on in the season. Abb was a young African-American whose circumstances had left him far removed from the "ghetto" culture that had begun to take hold; we loved having him around, because he confounded everyone who encountered him. He paid a heavy price attempting to find a place to fit in over the subsequent course of his life, but for a time he'd found a welcoming group of misfits.

Once he saw the infantile glee that surrounded our ongoing travesty, Abb decided that he wanted in. We turned him into a pitcher--not one who would a starter, but one of those middle relievers who twenty years later would spread like crabgrass across the rosters of major league teams.

Abb made his debut on April 22, 1972 (exactly thirty-nine years ago today, for all you hysterians out there). It was the fifth inning, with one out. The score was 4-2 in favor of the San Francisco Giants. Abb got the first man (Willie Mays, who would shortly be traded to the Mets) to pop out, but Bobby Bonds doubled in a run, making in 5-2. The next batter, Dave Kingman, hit one to deep center, but the Mule (a four-legged version of the young Andruw Jones), galloped back to the fence and hauled it in--a sight that everyone should see for themselves at least once in their lives.

In the top of the sixth, the Trotters scored five runs (the scoresheet preserved for this game shows three consecutive doubles from Hanke, Malcolm and the Mule as the centerpiece of the inning) to take a 7-5 lead. Abb retired Ken Henderson to start the bottom of the sixth, but gave up a double to Fran Healy (!) and a triple (!!) to Dirty Al Gallagher (!!!) and was promptly yanked from the game.

The Trotters managed to strand the tying run, however, and held on to win, 7-6, giving Abb the victory in his very first appearance.

And an odd sequence kicked in. Abb would win each of his next two appearances in a similar manner, being the beneficiary of the Trotters' ability to rally from deficits. Three relief appearances: three wins. He was present for the third one, and we joked that it would be all downhill from here, and that he should consider retiring.

What was interesting, however, is that Abb never lost a game that year. A mop-up man on a good offensive team has a little seam in things where he can vulture wins. Abb seemed to inhabit that seam. We never decided to take him out of the middle relief role, though we did have him start a few games now and then--he started five games for the Trotters in 1972, including a memorable (and improbable) 4th of July complete game win over the defending World Champs--the Pittsburgh Pirates.

He wound up the year 6-0.

The Big Red Machine: not able to survive the Trotters' spin cycle...
The next year he did one better, and went 7-0. As we added a more sophisticated scheme for injuries to the game, Abb became one of its casualties. He would appear in fewer games in '74 and '75 combined than he had in his first season, but he continued to avoid taking a loss.

Still, he won five more games in those seasons, most memorably a one-hit shutout against the Cincinnati Reds in August of '75, when the Trotters were actually in a real dog-fight for the NL West. (As you might surmise, the impact of the Trotters on the history of baseball would have been to erase that Big Red Machine from existence. We didn't miss them much, of course.)

So over the course of four seasons, pitching in the shadows of a Ponzi scheme masquerading as a baseball dynasty, Abb Vaughn was 18-0. You can imagine what a curiosity such a situation would have been, how sportswriters and fans, pundits and pipsqueaks would have lapped up this archest of anomalies like so much bread pudding.

Abb wasn't spending much time with us by 1976, and we didn't find time to play out the next seasons for a couple of years, as love lives and other, more serious projects took up our time. When we got back to it, however, we found it odd that Abb's own personal demons in those years were matched by the fate the game had dealt out to him--injuries and exile to Japan.

And that's where the story gets strange. Brock decided to create a program that could simulate and summarize the game results so that we wouldn't have to play out all the games if it wasn't convenient. (These were the days of mainframe computers, big honking things that have about one-millionth of the computing power that the average laptop has today.) He decided to test the program by creating a Japanese League populated with the Americans who were over there at the time--Americans real and otherwise (which, of course, included Abb). Naturally, we had visions of Abb setting the Japanese League on its ear: his best pitch, described by Hanke as an "invisible nothing ball," would surely prevail over there. After all, the guy was 18-0.

When we got the computer printout of the results, however, we were stunned. Over the course of two simulated, summarized seasons, Abb had a) been injured three times and b) had posted a combined record of 1-13!

It got weirder. Brock used a revised version of the same program to recreate stats for the Trotters' minor league teams (we wanted to have the minor league numbers for the growing gaggle of players we'd run through the Trotter grinding machine, as there was some talk of putting out a book about them). When we looked at Abb's minor-league numbers, we discovered that though he'd pitched pretty well in the minors (3.22 ERA), he had compiled a won-loss record of 2-18!

So, essentially, the deck of cards that we'd used to play the game loved Abb, and wouldn't let him lose; the computer, however, loathed him and wouldn't let him win!

King Carl, wondering why silly upstarts such as
Brock Hanke and myself can't leave well enough alone
We decided to stick with the deck of cards.

Abb returned to the Trotters in 1980. He didn't pitch very well, and he was the last man on the pitching staff. But he didn't lose, and somewhere in the midst of yet another dominant Trotter season (the team would frequently put up seasons resembling those achieved by the '98 Yankees and the '01 Mariners), he was again in the right place at the right time--twice.

He was now 20-0.

We then recalled that the record for the most consecutive wins over multiple seasons was 24 (set by Carl Hubbell in 1936-37). Brock suddenly ran into Abb, whom neither of us had seen for a couple of years. He told him about the anomaly. Abb, at what might have been his lowest ebb, said that he thought it best to retire rather than lose. But we were headstrong: we wanted him to go after Hubbell's record.

Of course, the next season (1981), the preseason injury screening took yet another bite out of Abb, landing him on the disabled list until early June. He made one mop-up relief appearance on June 8th--and was promptly on the outside looking in, because the players went on strike a couple of days later. As we sweated out baseball's first protracted work stoppage, Brock and I decided that we were going to put Abb into the starting rotation--spotting him against lesser opponents--in an attempt to get him past Hubbell.

Warren Cromartie
In late August, we resumed the season, but the injury screening again hammered Abb and put him on the fifteen-day DL. "How can a deck of cards be haunted?" Hanke wondered. "These cards are haunted!"

"Guess they don't want Abb to lose," I replied.

He came off the DL in early September, and we decided that he was going into the rotation for the rest of the year--or, at least, until he lost.

First up, the Montreal Expos. (Remember them?) They were a good team in 1981, headed for what proved to be an aberrrant preview of the present-day post season. Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Warren Cromartie (probably the major league player who looks most like Abb).

Fittingly, Bill (Spaceman) Lee was Abb's mound opponent.

A reasonable approximation of
how Jill Lorenz looked when we
saw her playing softball in 1972:
the girl was a gamer...
Abb gave up two hits in the first, three in the second, but the Trotters' sleek DP combo of Rick Scott and Jill Lorenz (yes, a girl--er, woman: we saw her play softball as an 18-year-old and were smitten in more ways than one) got him out of both jams without any scoring. The Trotters, coasting a bit due to the fact that they (and not the Dodgers) had "won" the first half of the season, were slow to get started against Lee, but they still had the Mule: he flicked his front fetlocks (just how does a Mule hit, you ask? If you have to ask, you're probably better off not knowing...) and deposited one over the left-field wall at Stade Olympique. (Yep, a switch-hitting Mule, to boot.)

Abb has given up six hits in five innings but has a 2-0 lead. The Expos make their move in the sixth: the top of the order racks him up for four hits and three runs. We bat for him in the top of the seventh, sweating bullets. Is it too late? Have we done in the streak?

Two outs in the top of the ninth, still down 3-2. Catcher Chris Byrd facing Woody Fryman. Byrd's been in a terrible slump, just two hits in his last thirty at-bats. The gods smile down again on Abb: Chris jacks his first homer since the resumption of play. Tie game. The Trotters eventually win in the twelfth. Abb is still undefeated.

Home on 9/11 (of course, it would be another twenty years before that date would have its fatal resonance) against the Giants. Vida Blue is on the mound against Abb. The Giants have an interesting collection of players (Joe Morgan, Jeff Leonard, Jack Clark, Darrell Evans) but they're back in their Jekyll-Hyde personnel syndrome, surrounding these guys with the likes of Enos Cabell and Johnnie LeMaster.

The cards are hot--Abb has them nine up, nine down--and the Trotters score three in the third and two more in the fourth, knocking Blue out. Our overactive imaginations conjure a scene at the Alamodome (of course we had the city build it--how can you not be tainted by the company you keep?) where the fans have nicknamed Abb "Blackjack" Vaughn as he goes for #21. (So what if it took him parts of eight seasons to do it? Records are made to be made up!)

Abb goes seven, gives up just three hits and no runs. Stefanie Band (yes, another girl--who else is going to room with Lorenz?) and Jeff Ellwood, long-time stalwarts in the Trotter pen, close it out. Blackjack!

Five days later, we're in San Diego (Abb's rotation slot has been set up to get him a couple of starts against the lowly Padres, a team he's always handled well). There are no butterflies in anyone's stomach when the Trotters knock Steve Mura out in the first inning. Abb's "disappearing nothing ball" again proves elusive, with only Gene Richards making solid contact (three out of the Padres' six hits). Abb lowers his lifetime ERA against the Padres to 1.95 with a six-hit shutout; Hanke and I hallucinate headlines, beginning with "22 AND COUNTING" (and going downhill from there).

An extra day off slips Abb in against Atlanta back at home. The Braves counter with Gaylord Perry, still in the hunt for his 300th win.

Jimmy Rollins: what Rick Scott would be like if he actually existed...
The Braves reach Abb for two runs in the first as his control deserts him (two walks in one inning, after just three in 24 IP previously). San Antonio knots the score in their half of the first--a two-run shot from the aging-but-still-magnificently-improbable Mule. Double plays bail Abb out in the third and fifth. But in the sixth he gives up consecutive doubles to Claudell Washington, Bob Horner, and Chris Chambliss, and he's again out of the game, down 4-2. Sweat and bullets back in play, right on schedule. Jaws are tight at the card table...

Yes, we just love to put these two guys' faces in front of you.
Bottom of the ninth, one out, still 4-2 Braves. Gene Garber on the mound. Speedster Al Lewis pinch-hits and bunts for a hit. Hanke goes to the bench again and puts himself up to hit. He draws a walk. Star shortstop Scott (think Jimmy Rollins as a lefty swinger but a notch or two better) comes up and hits a Texas leaguer down the right field line. Washington swoops over and tries to backhand it--and misses, crashing heavily to the ground. The ball takes a funny hop and bounces down the right field line. Washington has trouble getting up to chase after it, and Scott is off to the races. He scores on an inside-the park homer. Another win for the Trottskys and Abb, who once mockingly sang a song about Joe Stalin's intimate member, is off the hook again, spared from the gulag of defeat.

Two starts left, and there's still a shot to tie the consecutive wins record. Five days later, it's the Padres again. Hanke has a gleam in his eye as he flips the cards the way he did when he turned them in 1973 for Don Lee, the old broken-down fastballer who we'd demothballed and turned into an unlikely ace. Abb retires the first twelve in order--but so does Padre starter Juan Eichelberger. The Trotters get a hit in the fifth, loading the bases, but can't score. Abb walks Broderick Perkins in the fifth and Ozzie Smith in the sixth, but after seven innings he still has not allowed a hit. (The deck still loves him.)

The Trotters' fiery leftfielder, Jean-Claude (Base) Canard, slashing away in pursuit of his second batting title, triples in two runs in the bottom of the seventh. Will it hold up?

The tension is palpable as Hanke shuffles the cards. He turns them over with a steely grimace. Eighth inning. One out. Two out. Jerry Turner bats for Tim Flannery. Strike three!

Crissakes, you can't lift a guy when he's throwing a no-hitter! But I suggest it to Brock anyway, if only to break the tension. The Trotters go out 1-2-3. Still just a two-run lead.

Joe Lefebvre, the Padres' leading HR hitter (with eight--it's been a bleak little year down in San Diego) bats for Eichelberger. He reaches for a pitch and chips one out into no-man's land between Scott, Canard and the Mule. Canard makes a last-ditch dive--no! He can't make the catch. By the time he scrambles up to get it, Lefebvre has hustled into second. Hanke frowns. "Should've shuffled 'em one more time," he says.

Abb gets Ozzie on a strikeout, but Juan Bonilla singles to left. "Time to pull him?" I ask. Today, the answer is surely yes, but this was 1981. Abb pitches to Gene Richards--who slaps out an opposite-field double. Only Canard's speedy cutoff keeps Bonilla from scoring the tying run.

Abb is yanked, and Jeff Ellwood--the Trotters' version of Mariano Rivera--comes in. The winning--and streak-breaking--run is at second base. Ellwood, who hasn't changed expression since he first appeared for the Trotters on April 22, 1971, proceeds to fan Ruppert Jones and induce a pop-up from Terry Kennedy.

Abb is now 23-0.

We almost skipped the last start: it was getting a bit too freaky. As reality and fantasy merged, parted, and merged again, we finally relented: both of us tethered around the wacky argument that it would "look bad in the press" if Abb was held out. Of course, we didn't consult Abb--why should we let a real person get in the way?

So, with King Carl in his gun sights, Abb did a Daffy Duck-like doubletake and found himself on the mound at Dodger Stadium on October 3rd. The two teams were neck-and-neck in the second half standings: unlike what happened in real life, the Dodgers needed to win in order to secure a playoff slot.

It didn't start well at all. Ken Landreaux, Dusty Baker, Steve Garvey, Rick Monday and Pedro Guerrero all got hits off Abb and took a 3-0 lead after the first. Abb settled down after that, giving up only one hit over the next four innings, but the Trotters were stymied by Bob Welch and it was still 3-0 after five.

But the Trotters load the bases in the sixth and Hanke brings himself off the bench to pinch-hit. He hits a bases-clearing double to the alley in left-center, tying the score at 3-3. Woo-hoo! But we leave Abb in to hit for himself (as it turns out, in addition to defying the won-loss odds, Abb is an improbably good hitter, with a lifetime average just under .250). Welch, glaring back at Hanke, snaps off two nasty curves and Abb is out on strikes.

"Take him out NOW?" I say. "Nope" Hanke says back. "Would've batted for him if we were gonna do that." I remind him that he's the one who wanted to "let things lie until 1982." He replies that I convinced him otherwise and there'd be no going back, no cop outs.

Bottom of six. Abb makes a good play on Steve Sax' bunt, just nipping him at first base.

Landreaux walks.

Dusty Baker steps up, takes a ball, then whacks one up the middle. Out of the deck follow two deadly cards--the ones that when they occur in such a sequence bring forth a strange note of panic, as both of us contemplate the eerie connection between The Game As We Play It and the bizarre mythopomorphism in Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association, a novel too close to our own mindspace for comfort whenever we have gone into "The Trotter Zone."

Two jokers, appearing in the precise order that spells catastrophe.

As it gets laid out by the cards, Baker's line drive hits Abb on the knee and ricochets wildly. The ball is actually retrieved (as the last sequence of cards spells out) by catcher Chris Byrd, in foul territory near the third-base dugout). Abb goes down in a heap and has to be carried off the field with a broken kneecap.

The normally reliable Stefanie Band comes in and gets Steve Garvey (whose baby she never carried, despite rumors to the contrary), but Rick Monday picks out one of her stiff-hipped sliders and sends it over the right field wall. It's suddenly 6-3 Dodgers, Abb is on a stretcher, and his win streak is on life support.

But these are the Trotters, and before you can say "Aw s**tf**k" third baseman Paul Yamada clubs a homer to make it 6-4. They load the bases with two out in the eighth: Lorenz slaps a liner to left, but Baker--who's already done enough damage--runs it down.

Steve Howe comes in to close things out for the Dodgers in the ninth. With one out, the Mule walks. Howe picks him off, but Garvey botches the throw in a rundown and the Big Guy (507 lbs.) is safe at second. Tommy Lasorda throws out the rule book and intentionally walks Canard. Incredibly, Howe picks him off and the Mule whinnies in disgust. I say to Hanke: "you and that deck are a dangerous combination..."

The Trotters send up a young farmhand named Kerry Willerton, yet another "girl" who would soon enough be the Mule's replacement in center field but who was just getting her feet wet in the big leagues.  (Strangely enough, no one thought to give the Trotter gals any drug tests: the results might have been surprising.) Kerry took a couple of pitches; swinging 2-0, she lifted a foul fly that Guerrero could not hold onto at the railing. Thus reprieved, she then proceeded to smash Howe's next pitch into the Dodger bullpen to tie the score.

Off the hook--one more time! Relief cascaded like a waterfall around the card table.

The Trotters eventually lost the game, 7-6, but Abb's streak remained intact. In 1982, the cards were merciful. They told us that Abb's knee injury was serious enough to affect his pitching motion. Our gentle, borderline bipolar friend took his "invisible nothing ball" and disappeared.

When Abb Vaughn was told this story some twenty years later, he smiled and said: "How many times did you guys have to turn over the cards to get it to work out that way?"