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Stephen Ellsesser

Obscurity is Topps in My Book

This sounds horribly misguided, but the driving force in my life is a horde of anonymous baseball players. No, Iím not stuck in the pits of fantasy baseball; I am just wrapped in fandom. Gary Redus is a bad motherfucker. Take the cue from Redus, a journeyman first baseman/outfielder. He has been retired since 1994.

Nick Esasky kicks ass. Bud Black is a helluva guy, and Herm Winningham is tougher than a Krupp Howitzer. Rafael Belliard packs much more power than his two career home runs would otherwise indicate. What do they all have in common? They are obscure baseball players who played sometime in the 1980s or 1990s. Those are the ground rules for this game, this battle of wits.

Luke (my roommate) and I have been in a seesaw battle of seeing who can name the most obscure baseball players (quality and quantity). Calling it a game trivializes it, though. I prefer to think about it as the greatest ongoing conversation ever, or a life-or-death banter that will result in one of us tying on a blindfold before some firing squad.

"Brooks Jacoby."

"Kelly Gruber."

"Tim Wallach."

"Kal Daniels."

And so the conversation goes -- no dialogue, just names.

Esasky started it all. When we were naming the starting lineup for the 1990 Reds, Luke and I began to think of as many obscure Reds as possible. Esasky, who was traded, didnít win a World Series with the Reds, or with anyone else. But when his name popped up, it ignited a fire that has raged throughout Blue Line Drive, the Convocation Center and the Yun Palace in Athens, Ohio.

First, some background. As a 7-year-old, I must have spent 75 cents of every dollar I earned on baseball cards. It wasnít just a hobby, but a passion. I was mad about the Oakland Aís, and damn it all if I wasnít going to pull a 1989 Topps Jose Canseco. Thatís right, life was wild in Sciotoville, Ohio. (This coming from the guy who started wearing Hawaiian shirts in 1998 to make life more exciting. I should have seen it coming.)

There were other brands: Donruss, Score, Upper Deck, and Bowman, among others, but Topps was just that, tops. It was the most readily available, and it was the cheapest. Why buy a pack of Upper Deck cards when you could get six packs of Topps?

In my neighborhood, three of us collected cards. It was Eric, B.J. and I. We bought cards daily and traded almost hourly. It was two blocks to the Corner Market, our haven for baseball cards. Wrappers never made it out of the store, and the brittle bubble gum had lost its flavor before we were back on our bikes. It never failed. If one of us got a good card, the rest of us were screwed. Never did we go to buy cards and get the players we all wanted. That would have required the finger of God.

What didnít require divine intervention was Mike Marshall. Or Teddy Higuera. Or Melido Perez. You could always count on Topps to make sure we kids had enough Stan Belinda cards to make us three inches taller. Little did I know I would be reaping the benefits of the common-player plague some 14 years later.

My roommate Luke is one of a dying breed, namely one of those people who still holds an undying devotion to baseball. He missed some 30 Reds games this year out of 162. As for the rest, he attended them, watched them on television or listened to them on the radio. It is that kind of commitment that will make him more dangerous in this competition as the years go by.

His claim to fame is ruining one of Boomer Hutchinsonís no-hitters in 1996, the year Hutchinson (an absolute murderer) led Wheelersburg to a State Championship. Not that it means shit to anyone reading this, but Boomer was a bad motherfucker (much like Gary Redus). Boomer and the Pirates were riding a 20-0 lead into the fifth inning of a game about to end by mercy rule. Luke defied the odds and got a hit off the fireballer.

Now, you know the opposition.

I know that most baseball players these days are eccentric, egocentric, xenophobic goons, but you canít blame that on Carney Lansford. He looked like he was 150-years-old from his first year in the league, but he still won a World Series with my beloved Oakland Aís in 1989. Donít call him a freak. All he did was come to play third base until he actually was 150. Thank heavens, Lansford is also retired.

I see this game -- my duel with Luke, I mean -- as the said competition, but it transcends that. It is also proving that more Eric Davis cards should have been circulated in 1989 Topps packs. If a Major League player knew then what I know now, I can only imagine finding more than three of his cards in a box of 36 packs would give him a heart attack.

"Shit," he would grumble to himself. "Shit, thereís the fifth one of me. Iím not even halfway through. Iíd better invest well."

Yes, multiple appearances in a single box of Topps cards apparently condemned one to a life of obscurity. Plus, it meant your cards would be worth dick. Unfortunately, Carney Lansfordís cards are also worth dick.

Little did I know, but when Nick Esasky stepped into the picture, I was hooked. Luke was drawn in as well. When my boss came up to visit, even he was pulled in. This bizarre chain reaction of guys who spend more time riding John Deere tractors (a favorite activity of Milt Thompson) than they ever did riding the pine has panache. The best part? Some of these guys didnít spend much time on the bench.

Take the 1990 Pittsburgh Pirates, for example. From Zane Smith to John Smiley and from Orlando Merced to Jose Lind -- virtually the entire team was obscure. Overlook Bobby Bonilla and the svelte, non-mechanical Barry Bonds, and the most high-profile person on the team was manager Jim Leyland. That team lost in the National League Championship Series. Now, Bonds lives on in history, Bonilla lives on in infamy and everyone else lives on in this grand conversation (yes, even you, Sid Bream).

Also, on some subconscious level, the obscure baseball players dialogue serves as a tribute to the common man. Most probably wonít ever see the Hall of Fame (Hell, some of these guys never saw the postseason.). After all, how else does Kurt Stillwellís career live on?

Of course there are guys like Danny Tartabull, who Seinfeld kept in the spotlight and guys like Jesse Orosco, who are so damn old, it is legendary. Those guys have their glory train. This game caters to a different crowd. I found a place online where I can buy Gary Redusí address. I havenít yet checked out pricing, but I think it would be a good investment of, my new pet project. I prefer to find the information myself, though. It makes me appreciate how tough it really is to break the barriers imposed by obscurity.

Thus far, Luke and I have been faked out many times. Every time one of us struggles to come up with a Dave Valle, all of the sudden a Pete Incaviglia will come out, showing us that a gold mine of untapped obscurity still exists out there.

David Justice could only hope to be so obscure.

©2004 by Stephen Ellsesser

Stephen Ellsesser is a senior at Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. Ellsesser, a staff writer for the Portsmouth Daily Times, is also a freelance fiction writer.

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