In Bizarre Baseball Culture, I take a look at some of the more unusual places where baseball has reared it’s head in pop culture and fiction.
In the last years of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st, there existed a company called “Ultimate Sports Force”. It is gone now, existing only in old websites and undeleted news items, but in it’s day, it was a staple advertisement in things like Sports Illustrated for Kids.
What was “Ultimate Sports Force”, you ask?
Ultimate Sports Force was a comic company that made books in which professional athletes were superheroes, that’s what! They had licenses with MLB, NBA, NFL and others, and they made comics that involved them saving the world. And then, like a shooting star across the sky, they were gone.
But, oh, man, the stuff they left behind. I’ve come into possession of many of their great products, and while their quality varies from “surprisingly good” to “OH-DEAR-GOD-KILL-IT-WITH-FIRE”, they all represent a special point in our history, a time when we could think of our sports heroes as actual superheroes, and not individuals who got into arguments, used PEDs, had tumultuous love lives, politics we disagree with or other flaws. No, Ultimate Sports Force was the last Golden Age before we all became so jaded.
Perhaps the crown jewel of Ultimate Sports Force’s non-team-affiliated content was Shortstop Squad. Truly a marvel of the Bizarre Baseball Culture arts, it paid tribute to those that went before and followed in their traditions, as Cal Ripken led his team of Barry Larkin, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez against a fish-monster that basically is meant to be fish-Godzilla.
You may think I’m being sarcastic, and you are probably right, but, well, this is SHORTSTOP SQUAD, so your logic is irrelevant.
After all, just LOOK at this cover:
So, let’s get started with Shortstop Squad #1 from 1999… after the jump, of course:
First off, the required notes on the people involved with this. If you want to get straight to the story, just jump past these bullet-pointed parts.
- Tommy Lee Edwards pulled triple duty for this comic, doing illustrating, doing the color, and being one of three who worked on the story. Edwards has done a bit of everything, from other comic books to numerous other things like advertising, concept art, other design work and countless other things, while also doing some short films of his own. His wife, Melissa, did the coloring for the comic.
- Paul Fairchild, the book’s publisher, also was involved with the story. Far as I can tell, he’s a Oklahoma-based writer and editor. He wrote an article on Kryptonite for The Atlantic a few months ago.
- Brett Lewis did some of the story as well, and, along with Ultimate Sports Force founder Rick Licht, was given a “Created By” credit. This may be the same person who has done work for Marvel, DC, Image and WildStorm, usually on either self-created titles (such as the WildStorm miniseries “The Winter Men”) or licensed work.
- John Workman is the letterer, and he’s done countless things.
- Kevin McCarthy was the editor, and he primarily has done similar things- he’s listed as an editor for several other Ultimate Sports Force titles, for example.
Okay, now that that is out of the way… to the story!
We begin in “Coast City” (one of those standard “fake city” names, for example, it’s often the home of Green Lantern), where somebody is commencing a “test” near the local stadium that belongs to the Coast City Sharks. And, by the end of very first page, we see a glimpse of some of the awesomely epic madness that this tale will bring us. Words cannot do it justice, so I’m using my fair-use rights to bring you the two panels below:
“What the…” indeed. I mean, wow, it’s not everyday that you are at the ballpark and suddenly a Kaiju* just shows up without warning right outside the stadium, using great stealth skills so it isn’t noticed until a ball is hit towards it.
(*Kaiju: Japanese term for monster, especially your Godzilla-sized types. Go watch Pacific Rim, okay?)
You can probably guess what happens next:
An interesting thing about this page: It makes it look like the monster is attacking not some random stadium, but instead Yankee Stadium- notice the seating arrangement in that mysteriously empty upper-deck and the frieze, which is set up in a way similar to the later years of “old” Yankee Stadium, after it had been renovated in the 70s.
Oh, and shooting down the Goodyear blimp is a dick move, but that’s just a little aside.
Anyway, we now have our stakes: a giant monster has destroyed a baseball stadium. This is important, it ties Shortstop Squad into the many great legends that have come before it. We understand, because of this, that evil exists in the Ultimate Sports Force universe, and that it must be fought. Of course, the question now is who will save us from this great threat.
Will it be the army?
Will it be the navy?
Will it be Green Lantern? I mean, it IS Coast City…
Will it be a team of four Major League shortstops, led by Cal Ripken, who was actually a third-baseman by this time?
So, cut to Ripken working out in Camden Yards and watching news that has very bad judgment on the importance of things. However, he is about to receive what Joseph Campbell would call the “call to adventure”. Yes, his ordinary daily life of being a yearly all-star and beloved idol of millions has to be temporarily put aside so that he can go out and save the world. For Cal, the call comes in the form of a communique from General Grant of the US Army. Cal Ripken, however, is ready for this. He’d been playing in the bigs since 1982, so having a giant monster attack isn’t his first rodeo. His codename in the Shortstop Squad is “Captain”, after all. So instead of telling the government agent to go find the actual Iron Man, he leaps into action, wanting to know only one thing:
And, yes, it is. What is the “Grounder”? Why, it’s the flying super-plane of the Shortstop Squad, of course! Yeah, the Shortstop Squad has an air vehicle called “Grounder”. You may think that is stupid. And you may well be right, until you realize that actually it’s genius. Imagine you are a mad genius. Now imagine that you hear that the Shortstop Squad is coming to stop you and your fiendish plan in the “Grounder”. You no doubt would prepare your defenses expecting a land attack, and that is how the Shortstop Squad gets the advantage, as they attack you not from land but by air.
Also, this is SHORTSTOP SQUAD, so your logical complaints are irrelevant.
Anyway, back in storyland, Cal finds himself following in the footsteps (or making footsteps for others to follow) of Gandalf, Danny Ocean, Nick Fury and the Blues Brothers. Yes, Cal Ripken gets the team together. You may now commence humming the A-Team theme tune.
First off, Cal retrieves Derek Jeter, who is climbing the Rocky Mountains:
Well, want to know what? This is SHORTSTOP SQUAD, so your logical complaints are irrelevant!
Meanwhile, the other senior member of the Squad, Barry Larkin, is undercover as a fisherman not far from Coast City. He was getting intel on what they are going to face. However, Cal (seen in full fighter-ace regalia) needs Larkin to pick somebody up before coming to the Dugout. A new recruit.
That recruit is Alex Rodriguez. I’m not sure whether his reaction is understandable or a bit of a jerk:
Alex Rodriguez, by the way, fills an important role in this tale: that of the newcomer and outsider. Cal, Barry and Derek have already been doing this, so it is only because of Alex’s newness and curiosity that we are able to learn the facts about the Shortstop Squad.
And so, through A-Rod, we learn that there is actually a superhero team made up of shortstops, and we are even given a quick history lesson. This is important, as all great epics, save for perhaps the Book of Genesis, have a backstory, of heroes and villains that have come before. For the Shortstop Squad, that backstory came in WWII. The US Government recruited shortstops to teach soldiers how to “throw grenades farther, charge the field faster and react quickly and decisively.” The players were so good at that that the government kept them active after the war ended, always on stand by, defending us all.
(As an aside, I’m guessing the 1940s Shortstop Squad was made up of Lou Boudreau, Luke Appling, Phil Rizzuto and Joe Cronin. Or maybe Pee Wee Reese would be in there. Sadly, the comic does not elaborate, although I am now disappointed at the fact that there does not exist a Golden Age pastiche of a comic that has Phil Rizzuto yelling out “Holy Cow! It’s the Luftwaffe!”)
So, after the history lesson, they get back to the present and go over Barry Larkin’s reconnaissance and the mission at hand. Larkin has come to the conclusion that normally the creature eats whales and sharks (he shows off a picture of shark with a large hole in it to prove this theory), but something has made them hunger for land animals. By the way, during this sequence, we see two things:
First off, the Coast City Stadium now looks like Dodger Stadium, which makes this about the third configuration we’ve seen of it so far:
Finally, we have Cal Ripken give the plan:
Once again, the comic pays tribute to the great tales that it follows. In this case, Cal is paying tribute to the late-1950s comic-book team, “Challengers of the Unknown”. The “Challs” were created by Jack Kirby and served as something of a template for the Fantastic Four, who Kirby would co-create with Stan Lee a few years later when he moved back to Marvel. However, the Challengers of the Unknown didn’t have powers, so they had to beat off bad-guys using moxie and gadgetry. The Shortstop Squad follows this rich tradition, and it is fitting that the authors would see to it that their predecessor be semi-namechecked.
So, on to the mission! First things first, the team goes to the mayor’s office to talk to them about what happened and warn them that this could well just be the beginning, and all of that. The mayor and his assistant, Mister Kovacs, are having none of it, even when Cal Ripken shows him his badge and the team tells the mayor they need to work together. Nope, they say they have it under control, in fact, Kovacs says that helping the Shortstop Squad is way too expensive when they have a “basketball stadium” to repair. This sequence, too, is a fine homage to tales past, such as Jaws….
…wait, a BASKETBALL stadium? That makes no sense, what is up with this Kovacs guy… could he be… EVIL!?!?!
Yep, he’s evil. An alien! In fact, he was the one doing the test at the beginning. Such treachery! Taking the form of a mayor’s aide and plotting the downfall of humanity without even having the honor to show your face!
Oh, right, the Shortstop Squad. Out on a scouting mission around Coast City searching for the monster, A-Rod (wearing a jetpack) sees the creature, and, what do you know? It’s heading towards Coast City! Shortstop Squad…. ASSEEEEEEEMMMMMBBBBLE!
Cal Ripken, ever the fearless leader, gives out the plan of attack after telling A-Rod why the “Grounder” is able to fly without them:
One may think it’s weird that Cal would have the two young guns go fight the monster while Larkin and himself would do crowd control. You, however, are foolish. After all, this is Cal Ripken. All he’d have to do to get a crowd away from the monster would be to land on the other side of town and start signing autographs. Then, well, the crowd would all go to him, away from the monster. Now, that’s not what the comic shows, but I’m pretty sure how it actually would go down.
Also, this is SHORTSTOP SQUAD, so your logical complaints are irrelevant!
Although, come to think of it, that plan wouldn’t have required Larkin, so he could have been sent to fight the monster, because Jeter and A-Rod don’t do so well. Their grand plan, it turns out, is to shoot the monster with a anesthetic tranquilizer spear. Not surprisingly, this does nothing. Also, the monster swats A-Rod through a building or two:
This is but the beginning of a good few pages where the Shortstop Squad gets beaten up, as all heroes in such an epic story must be. Without these set-backs, their eventual victory is nowhere near as sweet. The creators of Shortstop Squad clearly knew this, as not long after A-Rod gets clobbered and an attempt to rope up the monster fails, the Shortstop Squad finds itself in it’s darkest hour. The “Grounder” is going down, the monster is about to eat Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez is nowhere to be seen.
But wait! It’s always darkest before the dawn! And the dawn does come, as Alex Rodriguez comes to the rescue! He flies in, shouts “ENOUGH!”, and begins to attack the beast:
What’s that, you don’t see A-Rod?
There he is, up in the top right, letting out his battle cry:
Now, to be fair, it’s revealed in the next page that this is A-Rod ripping off the mind-control transmitter and not simply trying to hit the monster with a block. But, well, this is SHORTSTOP SQUAD, so your logical complaints are irrelevant!
With the creature now sedate due to the removal of the mind control device, the story must wind down, like all great stories must. But, wait, what about Kovacs!?!?!
Well, Larkin uses some gadget and pinpoints where Kovacs is, just in time for Cal Ripken to parachute from the sky and land on his car, stopping him!
Alas, Kovacs then uses an alien gadget to escape, never to be seen again. The general in charge of Shortstop Squad chews out the mayor, and then, as required with all great stories, the heroes must return home, back to their ordinary lives.
In this case, it involves the team playing a charity game. But the image of that is boring (although it does involve Cal Ripken inexplicably pitching), so I’ll post this image from the back of the story instead:
Okay, anyway, now that you’ve seen Jeter rock-climbing, Cal Ripken talking on Gordon Gecko’s phone, Barry Larkin with a jetpack and A-Rod in a wetsuit, it’s time to finish this up. And, like all great epics, Shortstop Squad leaves certain threads open, to be picked up by future scribes. And in this case, that thread is Kovacs, who speaks again to his overlord, making this chilling vow:
Prologue: “Rockets on the Mound” (short story)
20. Shortstop Squad (YOU ARE HERE)