' ' Cinema Romantico: Let's Remember a Guy

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Let's Remember a Guy

Let’s Remember Some Guys was a series started at (real) Deadspin by David Roth in which he would, to quote the baseball podcast Effectively Wild, “nostalgically recall players from years past, primarily those who are relatively unremarkable.”

As mentioned before on the blog, I have been gradually winding my way through Rob Harvilla’s aptly titled Ringer podcast 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, since upgraded to 90 Songs That Explain the ’90s, even as it seems like any day now he might up-upgrade to 120 Songs That Explain the ’90s, so many songs, are there, that explain the 1990s. I only just recently made it to Episode 84, dropped all the way back in January, a deep dive into Hootie and the Blowfish’s “Only Wanna Be With You.” As is Harvilla’s pleasingly discursive tendency, he began not by talking about, like, Hootie or the Blowfish or, you know, “Only Wanna Be With You” but by imagining his youth as a series of mid-to-late ’80s Topps Baseball Cards (and one Upper Deck Baseball Card). I am not an exact peer of Harvilla’s, but we are close, and I am familiar with mid-to-late ’80s Topps Baseball Cards too. Indeed, when he cited the wood-grain colored bordering of the 1987 version of Topps, I was overwhelmed by my Pavlovian response, one baseball card in particular immediately springing to mind, so clear in my memory, I felt like I was holding it.

Leon “Bip” Roberts played for six Major League Baseball teams during a 12-year career that spanned from 1986 to 1998, from Buckner to The Maris Sweepstakes, seven teams, though, if you count the San Diego Padres twice, which is where he began his MLB odyssey and then returned in 1994 after a two-year stint with the Cincinnati Reds. (He also played for Kansas City, Cleveland, Detroit, and Oakland.) He was quite successful in the Queen City, turns out, making the All-Star game in 1992, even if to me, in my heart, for all of eternity, Bip Roberts is a San Diego Padre, simply because of that 1987 Topps Card. Not that I saw him play that year. I lived in central Iowa. You didn’t see the Padres play in central Iowa in 1987 unless they made the playoffs and they very much did not, finishing last in the NL West. In fact, I do not recollect seeing him play for anyone, ever, and yet, just as Bip makes an unexpected appearance in the middle of Joe Posnanski’s piece about Derek Jeter becoming Mr. November, so is Bip as integral to my baseball memories as any Hall of Fame titan notwithstanding my never having seen him, a cosmic linchpin, like how I would put mid-’80s DePaul forward Dallas Comegys on my all-time college basketball team (a subject for another post) even though I can’t rightly claim to remember having seen him play. 

This is all because Bip Roberts is the platonic ideal of my favorite baseball player, a switch-hitter who generally batted lead-off, good for base hits more than power, and even better for speed, an excellent base-stealer, and I love stolen bases more than I love home runs, not least because base stealers, a la track & field sprinters, tend to have “a little mustard on (them),” to quote the man himself in a Sports Illustrated preview from his rookie year. And yet unlike some of my other faves in the same vein, centerfielders Jerome Walton and Kenny Lofton, he was short, 5'7", living out that Bip name, which makes me love him a little more, imagining him, in an alternate existence, despite being born in Berkeley, as an option quarterback for the Air Force Academy. 

Of course, it’s also the name. Bip. Bip Roberts. It’s a name for a guy born to help turn the double play and his career .976 fielding percentage bore that out. It’s as good a baseball name as John Kruk, Tom Brunansky, Andrés Galarraga, Chipper Jones, or Ozzie Albies, such a good baseball name that as relief pitcher cut-up Sean Doolittle once cheekily pointed out, a real baseball sabermetric, BABIP, is unwittingly sort of named for him. The origin of his nickname is easily Googleable, and I’m torn as to whether the genesis is fun and sweet or a little disappointing, like how football defensive back Sauce Gardner acquired his moniker, which was definitely not ingesting a whole bottle of Old Bay Hot Sauce before a game in which he had three interceptions. I’ll let you look up the backstory of Bip’s nickname and decide for yourself. No, I’m more fascinated by how there is no entry on the history of his nickname in Wikipedia, suggesting Bip is inextricable from Leon, as William F. Reed’s Sports Illustrated article on the 1992 Reds does, writing that Bip was known among Reds fans as the Bipster, as if Bip is the given name and Bipster the nickname. That’s lucid. Indeed, much like Kamaal Ibn John Fareed has for all intents and purposes settled into the historical record as Q-Tip, nicknamed The Abstract, so has Leon settled as Bip.

In a manner possibly befitting a Bip, he turns out to have a famous baseball card, or maybe just infamous, from the Score 1996 collection in which he is sporting a sombrero, looking toward the camera with eye black and an expression that might make you think the headwear was photoshopped if you didn’t already know it wasn’t. A Sports Illustrated article explains that it happened to be Mexican Heritage Night at the ballpark, and so Bip asked a dancer participating in the festivities if he could borrow their sombrero. There’s a card shop a few blocks from my home, and I suspect if I went in there and asked for the Bip Roberts, they’d pull out the Score 1996, not the Topps 1987, which is what I’d want, that wood paneling framing him as exquisitely as the wood cabinet framed our RCA TV set, evincing an air that evokes insouciant card without the aid of a prop. The previously mentioned Joe Posnanski has written that everyone’s favorite baseball season is the one when they are 10, and as it turns out, it might just be the season of your favorite baseball card too. 

No comments: