July 14, 1983. When I woke up, I was laying crossways at the foot-end of a double bed in the beach cabin, on my back, uncovered. I had on a pair of Lamar U. gym shorts, once bright red but now faded almost pink – magenta, maybe – with the white piping along the sides and bottoms of the legs fraying and coming loose. The skin along my chest and belly and on the tops of my arms and legs had turned medium to dark brown. I had been out in the sun a lot that summer. After burning off a few layers of skin early on in the spring, I no longer got sunburned. Rather, each subsequent exposure just turned me darker. And, melanoma be damned, I didn’t use sun block; at times I slathered on a coconut-oil based Coppertone product called Savage Tan, something like that, which not only did not block UV rays, but I am fairly certain was formulated to actively attract them.
Anyway, I lay there, admiring my tan, with the white, four-blade ceiling fan whirring clockwise at medium speed overhead. I could smell the sea breeze coming through the open windows on the south side of the room, and hear the waves washing up on the distant beach, faintly. The daylight was bright and streaming in at an angle from the east. Without a clock or anything to look at, I guessed it was about 10:30 a.m.
I glanced to my right, and saw my girlfriend, Diane, in light-blue panties and an oversized Moose Head baseball T-shirt (mine, actually), sleeping in a semi-fetal position on her side and facing toward me, up near the head of the bed. Poor girl. I would nearly kill her in the bed at nights sometimes. I tended to flop around like a fish in my sleep, especially after a lot of drinking; meanwhile, Diane would reactively move around the bed, sort of like a hermit crab, trying to avoid me. I’d met Diane originally at a friend’s party, and we’d been together for nearly a year. I wondered sometimes how she put up with me.
She was goddamn beautiful, Diane was. She was about 5’ 6”, slender but not skinny. Between blonde and brownish hair, I don’t know what you call it, with (she said) natural streaks in it. Physically, she had most of the right things in pretty much all the right places, and I never could decide which of her many assets I liked the most. Which was a nice problem to have, mind you. Even better than that, she was funny, and intelligent, and could and would party her ass off. She could drink most women (and a lot of men) under the table, without being obnoxious about it. And, she liked hanging around with me. Just about a perfect girl. We partied together, laughed together, made love, talked about Thomas Mann and Kafka and Goethe and Herman Hesse – I’d been bogged down in Dostoevsky for quite awhile by that time, the fuckin’ Karamazov brothers and those guys, and Diane was the one who got me off the Russians and into the Germans, bless her.
One other thing Diane had going for her was she could wake up in the morning, first thing – her eyes all swollen, hair going everywhere, no makeup – and still look, well, very desirable. As I lay there that morning, just looking at her for long moments while she slept, all the while suppressing an almost overwhelming urge to get up and go relieve myself, I wondered idly, if I washed my face and brushed my teeth while I was up, could I come back to the bed and maybe wake her up and interest her in a little early morning fun time? Hmmm… I should probably say, I was a bit of a self-centered prick back then. And kind of still am, really. And always sort of will be, I guess.
But don’t get me started going on about Diane, man; or this thing will never get to where it needs to go.
The 1983 MLB season had begun as one holding reasonable hopes for the serious Houston Astros fan. People forget, but the first half of the 1980’s was similar in some ways to the late 1900’s-early 2000’s for the Astros. That team had actually begun its run in 1979. I’ll never forget it, because I cut the standings out of the newspaper and saved the article for some time – on July 4, 1979, Houston was 52-31, in first place in the NL West, ten-and-a-half games ahead of second place Cincinnati. Like most Astros fans, by then I felt certain the team, which had never won anything up to that point, was having a special year. Of course, they immediately went into a tailspin, losing something like 13 of the next 15 games, letting everyone else in the division back into the race. A race the Reds eventually won, besting Houston by a game-and-a-half at the end.
The team recovered to come within an eyelash of going to the World Series in 1980, and made the playoffs as the “second-half” winner in the fucked up 1981 season, the one split in half by a player’s strike. The Astros fell back some in 1982, but were reloading for another run by the beginning of ’83.
Astros’ kismet being what it is, those early hopes for 1983 were dashed quickly. The team stumbled out of the gate, losing its first nine games. They didn’t even get to .500 until the end of June; but from there they played pretty good baseball, finishing the season in third place in the NL West, six games back of Los Angeles. Coincidentally, starting catcher Alan Ashby went down with an injury around the same time in June that the team finally broke even, and shortly thereafter a minor league backstop named George Bjorkman was called up to help Luis Pujols fill in for Ashby (3rd catcher John Mizerock was sent out when Bjorkman was called up.) It was a move that probably went unnoticed by a lot of Astros fans at the time, certainly by me.
My best friend Rocky and I had worked it so we were both off the same week in July. It really wasn’t that hard to do. He was operating heavy equipment for a large local construction company, and had vacation time coming. I was going offshore, working as a deck hand and racking pipe on a big-ass semi-submersible rig about 100 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, off of Grand Chenier, LA. Two weeks on, two weeks off. Rocky and I had also made arrangements to secure a beach cabin down on Bolivar Peninsula for the week. Well, our girlfriends made the arrangements, actually – we couldn’t arrange shit, then or now. But anyway, Rocky and I set it up so we (and our women, and numerous other acquaintances who drifted through the cabin that week) had nine straight days to look forward to, of nothing but drinking, sitting out in the sun, surf fishing, and sleeping late.
Which we proceeded to do. Our basic itinerary for the week was to wake up about 11:00 a.m. or so, mill around, ice down beer in the coolers, eat breakfast, get the girls moving, then be down on the beach – in lawn chairs, oiled up, stereo blaring – by noon at least. I had these 12-foot long fiberglass rods with big open spinning reels we would wind with 20-pound test line. At the end of the line we tied heavy weights that had little flanges on them, like tiny anchors, and about three feet up from that we’d fix our bait, and about three or four feet up from that, a float. Then we’d wade out to chest deep water, and cast out as far as we could. The idea was the weighted anchor would secure the line in the sand on the bottom, the float would keep the line more or less perpendicular to the surface, and meantime the currents and wave action would keep the bait moving around like it was swimming. We would walk back to the beach, playing out line, and then set the drag and put the rods in these holders I’d made out of heavy rebar with plastic tubing wired to it, which we’d hammered down a couple of feet into the sand. From there, it was Forward Drink! If a small shark or hardhead or, hopefully, speckled trout hit one of our lines, the drag would sing out and we could tend to it. Meantime, we were listening to tunes and slamming down cold ones, while the girls talked about whatever, looked for seashells, went for walks on the beach, etc.
Around 3:30 or 4:00 p.m. we’d be “all in,” and would collect our stuff and go back to the cabin. Next up was a shower, something to eat, and a nice long nap. By the time we awoke again it would be dark out, so we’d load up and go back down to the beach and party some more, build a fire if there was enough wood laying around, and so on. And then, sometime much later, we’d go back to the cabin and go to bed. Good times.
When I woke up that morning at the foot of the bed, I didn’t have that draggy hung over feeling like I did most mornings, because I hadn’t gone back out drinking with the others the night before. I did have a bump on the top of my head, though. The previous day, we’d come back to the cabin mid-afternoon after several hours on the beach. After a tepid shower, I was walking around the living room area in my briefs when one of our other friends who was visiting challenged me to show off some of my karate kicks. I didn’t really know karate at all, but after enough beer I could be persuaded that I did. Some of my “friends” liked to take advantage of this from time to time. So, anyway, after awhile I was well into it and was doing my famous flying Bruce Lee spin and kick move for them, but unfortunately I was doing it through an open doorway, and at the apex of my jump I slammed into the underside of the door frame with the top of my head, and then dropped like a rock to the floor. For entertainment value, it was great, I guess – everyone present laughed like hell. But it gave me a serious headache, and a bump on top of my head which was painful to the touch.
I finally got up out of the bed and walked stiffly to the bathroom, where I off-loaded some of the previous day’s beer, and then washed my face and brushed my teeth. Then I crawled back into bed, and “accidentally” woke up Diane. She wanted nothing to do with me, though. She was pissed off at me for kicking her in my sleep the night before. I tried to explain the kicking probably happened during a recurrence of the dream I had intermittently for years, the one where I was playing center field for the Astros in the ‘Dome, and was trying to run down a long drive in the left center gap while simultaneously keeping an eye out for Bob “Bull” Watson, who had got up steam and was careening in my direction from his spot in left field. Diane wasn’t placated, though – “Bob Bull who?” – so I eventually gave up on her and went off looking for something to eat.
Luis Pujols was a nice enough guy, solid defensively, but he never could hit worth a shit. When Alan Ashby went down to injury in late June of 1983, and someone named George Bjorkman was called up from the minors to help out behind the plate, Pujols was chugging along at a .205/.227/.229 clip, actually not too bad for him. One supposes Astros skipper Bob “Flea” Lillis figured, what the hell? So he handed the starting job to Bjorkman upon his arrival. To that point the rookie had zero big league experience.
George Bjorkman went 6’ 2”, 200 lbs. and hit right-handed. Had kind of a modified flat-top haircut. He’d come out of southern California to attend Oral Roberts University and helped lead ORU to its only College World Series appearance, in 1978. That summer, he was drafted in the 4th round by St. Louis. Bjorkman spent the next several years working his way up through the Cardinals’ system. At one point, the Giants had acquired him in the Rule 5 draft, but he was ultimately returned to St. Louis. His breakout year was in 1981 when, at age 25, he led the AAA American Association with 28 home runs. From the comment and statistical record extant, it appears Bjorkman was adequate defensively. Offensively, he was a low average hitter with some power and above average plate discipline. His offense would probably be somewhat more appreciated today than it was in his time.
Bjorkman got to Houston on July 10, and then started the next 13 games at catcher for the Astros. He hit .225/.326/.425 in that stretch, and managed not to mess up too much behind the plate. Ashby returned the last week of July to reclaim his job. Over the next 2 ½ weeks, as Ashby worked himself back in to playing shape, Bjorkman started 5 more games and he caught well, but his hitting began to fall off. He went below the Mendoza line on August 10, and was farmed back out in favor of Mizerock.
Bjorkman was called back up by the Astros on September 1 when the rosters expanded, and got a half dozen more starts behind the plate in the final month of the season, as the Astros – out of the NL West race by then – gave some younger players a look. He hit .304 in those starts (7-for-23) and raised his batting average by 35 points.
Despite the positives at the end of the 1983 season, George Bjorkman never played in the majors again. Spring Training 1984 saw 22-year-old catcher Mark Bailey burst onto the scene for the Astros. Bjorkman, at 27, was past prosepect status, was considered no better than Mizerock or Pujols, the established backups, and he was looked on as a journeyman at best. The Astros sent him to Montreal in late March as the PTBNL in an earlier deal made in February for another 27-year-old journeyman catcher, Tom Wieghaus. Wieghaus appeared in all of six games for the Astros in 1984, going 0-for-10.
Bjorkman moved to the Expos farm system, and was released after 1985. He was last seen at the major league level as a Spring Training NRI by the Cardinals in 1986. However, he failed to make the team.
After I bashed my head on the door frame, and had done my duty as an object of derision for all my closest friends, I went into the other room to lay down for awhile. I was still buzzing from the beach, and my head hurt like hell. So I took a short nap, and it seemed to revitalize me. I woke up with the sudden urge to go watch the Astros game that night. I hadn’t been keeping up with the intricate details of the team that week, needless to say, but I had listened to parts of games here and there over the radio in the midst of us perambulating around the beach. I knew the Expos were in town for a three-game set, and that Nolan Ryan would be pitching on that night. So I asked Rocky, as serious an Astros fan as I was, if he was interested. But The Rock was pretty deep into a terminal trip at the time, in the midst of a serious downward spiral. For one thing, he’d taken to drinking Jack Daniels on the beach at night, mixed with pink grapefruit juice. I’d never seen anyone do that before. He would buy one of those glass half-gallon containers that Tropicana juice used to come in – tall, rectangle-shaped, with a hand grip molded into the side – and he would pour out one-third or more of the juice, and then fill the container back up with Jack Daniels. Shake it up good, and then drink it straight out of the juice bottle the rest of the night. Nasty, nasty.
So, anyway, Rocky wasn’t interested in going. Neither was Diane, really. She humored me in my baseball obsessions, but truth be told, she wasn’t really much of a fan. It was her only serious flaw, as far as I knew. Bottom line, no one wanted to go to the game with me; but my resolve was strong, and I decided to go by myself. I’d made the trip from the beach to the ‘Dome a few times before. If one was used to driving over from Beaumont, the drive from Bolivar wasn’t bad at all – after the ferry, straight up Broadway through Galveston to the causeway, then up 45 to the South Loop, and then in a few miles, the Astrodome. Around a quarter to six that evening, I waved goodbye to my friends, kissed Diane, jumped into the Chevelle, and headed up the beach highway, in the direction of Port Bolivar and the ferry landing.
The drive to Houston was uneventful, and the traffic wasn’t too bad. I had the windows down and the stereo turned up, as usual. As I passed through Dickinson and League City, I thought of some cousins I had living there. I was driving up the infamous “I-45 corridor”, the killing ground for one or several serial killers, from the early 1970’s to the present. 32 bodies recovered in all so far, mostly young women. But I didn’t know from serial killers at the time. I didn’t know a lot of things. I was just heading to the game, man, with hardly a care in the world.
I arrived at the ‘Dome about thirty minutes before game time, and walked right up and bought a ticket for a seat in the mezzanine, first base side. I stopped on the way in to purchase a bucket of popcorn, a large beer (in a waxy Aramark cup), and a game program. The crowd was larger than the usual mid-week ‘Dome crowd of the time, due to Ryan, no doubt. My seat ended up being right in front of some people I knew from Beaumont, which was kind of a long shot, I’d guess. Perhaps, were I the reflective sort back then – and I wasn’t – it would have occurred to me something special might happen that night. Nothing like that registered, though. I sat down, situated my beer and popcorn, and began filling out my scorecard.
By 1983, the Expos had been a good team recently under manager Dick Williams, but then Williams had left in 1981, and successors Jim Fanning and former Astro manager Bill Virdon had seen the team fall off from its 1979-1980 heyday. The 1983 squad, led by Virdon, featured many of the all-time Expo stalwarts – Gary Carter, Andre “Hawk” Dawson, Tim Raines, Steve Rogers – as well as capable baseball vagabonds like Al “Scoop” Oliver and Chris Speier, and some decent starting pitching. But the ‘Spos were destined to be no better than a .500 team that year. Against Nolan Ryan that night, they were sending out righthander Charlie Lea, an unspectacular hurler who was having a good year. He would end up 16-11 with a 3.12 ERA that season.
Filling out the Astros side of the card, I penciled in many familiar names – Puhl, Thon, Garner, Cruz, Doran – but who was this Bjorkman guy? Never heard of him. I briefly thought of Glenn Borgmann, a nondescript backup catcher for the Twins through most of the 1970s, but he’d been retired a few years by then. Bjorkman, hmmm? I resolved to check him out during the course of the game.
A game which moved along smoothly at first. Ryan was pitching well – he would go on to win his eighth straight game that night, raising his record to 9-1 – and Lea was getting the job done. Bjorkman had come up in the bottom of the second (he was hitting eighth), with Bill Doran on second base and two outs, and was intentionally walked by Lea to get to Ryan (who grounded out to end the inning.) The Expos put up a run in the top of the third; but then the home team exploded for five in the bottom half. Jose Cruz drove in two with a triple, and in his second plate appearance Bjorkman got credit for a sacrifice. He bunted Doran to second with Ray Knight on third and one out (the Expos screwed up the play, and Knight was able to score.)
As far as I could tell, Bjorkman was holding his own behind the plate. He was a big guy, but moved around pretty good back there. I was impressed two blocks he made, on a couple of the 58-foot curveballs Ryan would sometimes let loose with. Ryan was calling his own game, obviously; but he and Bjorkman appeared to communicate pretty well. There weren’t many shakeoffs or meetings between the mound and plate or anything like that.
The Expos got one run back in the top of the fifth on a Tim Wallach home run. In the bottom half, Phil Garner led off for Houston and reached on an error. He was balked to second and, two outs later, Bjorkman came up and drilled a single to right, between the first and second baseman, scoring Garner. The Astros were up, 6-2.
Montreal got another run in the top of the sixth, this time on a Dawson jack to deep left center. In the bottom of the seventh, with two out and no one on, Knight doubled, and Doran followed with an infield single. Runners on first and third, two outs, and Bjorkman, after working the count to his favor, drilled a shot high and deep to straightaway left. A three-run ding-dong. The Astros went up 9-3, and the game was officially out of reach. Ryan sailed through the eighth. Montreal scratched out a run against reliever Bill Dawley in the ninth, but the game was well in hand by then, thanks largely to rookie catcher George Bjorkman, playing in just his third major league game.
Bjorkman’s line for the game? Two official at bats, one run, two hits, five RBIs. (1.000/1.000/2.500). Not bad. Apparently he was a modest guy, too. When asked afterward if the three run blast was his biggest baseball thrill, Bjorkman said no, catching Nolan Ryan was.
It was the best game of Bjorkman’s major league career, by far. And by chance, I had been there to see it. Neither one of us realized any of this at the time, I am sure.
There weren’t many other cars on the ferry with me on my ride back across from Galveston to Bolivar that night. And even less people out on the deck, milling around. Most drivers, after they have made that ferry trip a few dozen times, get jaded and just sit in the car for the duration of the crossing. Not me. I’ve made that trip hundreds of times, but I always get out, and either lean against the steel gate on the bow, watching the waves, or go up onto the walkway around the second level. Not so much to see anything, but to feel something. Or, to see and feel something – the wind blowing through my hair, the unique and indescribable smell of the ocean, the heavy night air, the lights of Galveston receding into the distance. I don’t want to go into a swoon about it or anything, but there is no other feeling like that – the sensation of being out, at night, traveling across the water. Not anywhere I have found, anyway. I sure as hell wouldn’t miss it to sit in a hot car for twenty minutes.
On that night, from my spot on the little walkway down in front of the ferry’s wheelhouse, I could look out across the blackness of Galveston Bay and see a few lights on the point at Port Bolivar, and if I squinted hard enough, or perhaps imagined, I could just make out the outline of the Bolivar lighthouse, a black hulk in the night now, which shone light no more. Looking toward the Gulf, I could see the lights stringing out along the horizon from all the merchant ships, waiting at anchor for their turn to travel up the Ship Channel. A little further out, I could see the blinking lights of a platform rig, almost too faint to be discerned, almost over the curve of the horizon itself. Looking up (it was a clear night), I could see a billion million stars, arranged at various unimaginable distances away from me. Would it have been too much for me to think, just for a brief moment then, that those stars were put up there, in just such an arrangement, just for me? The sheer vastness of it all. . . one might think one would be overwhelmed by it. But seeing the firmament at night like that, and all that was laid out underneath it, surrounded by water, never made me feel small or insignificant. Rather, it always made me feel really big. Alive. Important, vital, somebody. Like a ten-ton manta ray, as Hunter Thompson once said. My chest would fill up with pride. Or was it with love? A feeling of contentment? Or perhaps just an extreme sense of well-being, however temporary; and a sense of thankfulness, too, to God, or Allah or Buddha or Albert Einstein, whoever, for laying it all out there for me on this night, just so.
I don’t know what George Bjorkman was feeling that night. I imagine he felt pretty damn good. Maybe he, the major league baseball player, felt something like I felt; me, a relative nobody standing in the dark on a boat, having deluded himself into thinking he was as bad-ass as King Kong or somebody. Maybe, like me, George Bjorkman, in all his fullness of himself at that moment, had a vague sense, too, that the bright shining moment wouldn’t last forever, and resolved to enjoy it while he could. I sure hope so, but I don’t know. Just a brief moment in the sun is all most of us can ask for. To have it, and to also have a sense of how fleeting that moment will almost surely be, is more than almost any of us could ask for, me and George Bjorkman included.
As I got back into my car that night, and the ferry gate lowered down to meet the dock at the land’s edge, I felt like a million dollars, or whatever today’s equivalent of that would be. I was happy. I had just been exhilarated by the ferry ride. I was coming from watching my team pummel the opposition. And I was on my way to a place I knew had a lot of ice cold beer in it, a lot of good tunes in it, a lot of good times in it. A place where there were people waiting up late for me, including a girl who was so fucking beautiful that, even after a year of seeing her at her worst and her best, she still took my breath away, every single time.
I didn’t know then, even if I had a vague sense of it, how brief that time would be, the time of feeling carefree, and happy, and content. I didn’t know any more that night than George Bjorkman knew, his major league career only having about a month-and-a-half left in it. I am pretty sure Bjorkman, in the glow of his achievement, allowed himself to imagine a full time MLB catching job, and several seasons of productivity before a well-earned retirement. I am sure, in my exhilaration, I allowed myself to imagine a long future of partying, of loving Diane, and of doing whatever the hell I wanted, whenever I wanted. Pretty much, anyway. To paraphrase something Joe Ely once sang, I thought the road went on forever, and the party would never end.
I am sorry that it did end, but I am thankful for the moments that I had. And I’ll bet if you asked George Bjorkman today, he wouldn’t give back the two-plus months with the Astros, or the otherwise run-of-the-mill, mid-week game between two non-contenders on a humid July night in Houston in 1983. Not for a million bucks, he wouldn’t.
But none of that mattered to me at that moment. As I drove off the ferry, clattering across the steel gate that, only moments before, I had leaned against to watch the ocean go by, I impulsively decided to put the top down on the Chevelle. So I did, and then I shoved Lou Reed’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal into the tape deck Reed’s live version of the Velvet Underground standard “Rock And Roll” was blaring forth by the time I blasted through Port Bolivar, on my way back to Crystal Beach, down the beach highway. Or, as Joni Mitchell put it once, down the free, free way.
“Hey baby, rock and roll
Despite all the amputations
You can dance to a rock and roll station. . . all night”
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