The mustachioed first basemen of 1980s New York

The mustachioed first basemen of 1980s New York

Robert Siegel is the former editor of The Onion and the writer/director of Big Fan, a new movie about sports obsessives. 

When I was a teenager, I used to go to a lot of Mets games. After one game in 1987, as I was walking to the Long Island Railroad platform, I noticed this guy over by a chain-link fence selling oil paintings of Mets players. There was a crowd gathered around him, checking out the portraitures of Lenny Dykstra and Mookie Wilson. He was asking $35 apiece. People were buying. A thought popped into my head.

Shit, I could do that.

As a 15-year-old, about the only thing more exciting to me than baseball was making money. So this chance to combine my two great interests was too awesome to pass up. As for the question of artistic ability, that wouldn’t be an issue. I was a strong painter, one of the best in Mr. Gifford’s sixth-period class.

When I got off the LIRR train, I biked right over to Abco Art on Merrick Road to pick up some fresh canvas boards and a few tubes of paint. I went back home and, that same night, I set out to make my first painting. It didn’t take long to decide who to paint first. Keith Hernandez. I picked him not because he was a slick-hitting, coke-snorting, silky-smooth-fielding All-Star. Although that was definitely a plus. The main reason? He had a moustache.

As every mediocre artist knows, it’s way easier to paint people with moustaches. No matter how shitty a job you do, it’ll still vaguely resemble the guy. Especially if it’s a distinctive moustache. Just try drawing a picture of Adolf Hitler that doesn’t look like Adolf Hitler. It’s very hard. Same thing with Rollie Fingers. Slap a Brewers cap and a handlebar moustache on there, no way anybody’s going to think it’s Moose Haas.

The Hernandez painting further affirmed this theory. Take a look. It clearly isn’t great. But it’s clearly Keith Hernandez.

When I went to bed that night, I could hardly sleep. My head was filled with thoughts and plans. How much should I charge for the paintings? Should I undercut Chainlink Fence Guy? Where should I set up shop? Would the Shea cops hassle me? Eventually, despite all these pressing concerns, I somehow fell asleep.

The next day, I did my second painting. Don Mattingly.

Don Mattingly wasn’t the most obvious choice. Among Mets fans, Mets tended to be more popular than Yankees. But Mattingly was a hugely popular sports star, arguably the biggest in 1987 New York. And, most important, he had a distinctive, hearty ‘stache. You couldn’t say that about Gary Carter or Darryl Strawberry. Deep down, I must have recognized my shortcomings as an artist. I must have known I wasn’t yet ready to paint a clean-shaven player. That was something to ease into as my skills grew.

So I started to paint Mattingly. The plan was to make it similar to the Hernandez. I wanted all of my paintings to be of a piece, the work of an artist with a recognizable style. People would view them as a series and, as such, want to collect (buy) them all. What better way, then, to establish this than with two lip-broomed Gold Glove first basemen with bats to match?

I set out to the task at hand. I penciled in Mattingly’s number 23, just as I had Keith’s 17. Again, the main bust-like image would be complemented by a smaller in-the-field action pose. A fluttering banner touted Donnie Baseball’s career highlights. I was off and running with a strong, clear vision. Then, something happened. I stopped.

I can’t remember why I didn’t finish the Mattingly. I must have lost interest. Or realized that my paintings were mediocre at best and that it’d be depressing to stand in front of a bunch of them spread out on a bedsheet on the ground outside Gate C as throngs of people in Gooden jerseys walked past without stopping. Or maybe I realized that making baseball-player paintings was something typically done by developmentally disabled adults.

Anyway, there they are, the complete, collected works of Robert Siegel Adolescent Sports Portraiture, all one and a half of them. If anyone out there is interested, it’s $35 for the Hernandez and $20 for the Mattingly.

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