Sunday, August 9, 2009

Hardball Heart Guest:
Hall of Fame Trapper &
GM of the NECBL Sanford Mainers
Neil Olson

If you haven’t realized by now, I’ve been extremely spoiled in my life when it comes to baseball. However, at no point in my life was I spoiled more than in the summer of 2004. St. John’s pitching coach Scott Brown offered me a summer internship with the Sanford Mainers, a team he coached in the New England Collegiate Baseball League(NECBL) and I said yes without thinking twice. Days after St. John’s Baseball had been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in Stanford; I was on my way to Sanford, Maine to become the Mainers’ Media Relations Intern. I was lucky enough to meet one of the best baseball men I’ve ever known. Neil Olson, the team’s general manager, took me under his wing and taught me even more about the game that I love. The summer wouldn’t have been the same without him and winning the championship was all the more sweeter seeing how much it meant to Neil. He was kind enough to spend some time answering my questions while in pursuit of championship number three.

Dan: I would be remiss not to start off by asking you about the baseball camp you attended run by Ted Williams. Tell me about your experiences and what affect they had on your baseball life.

Neil: At an early age, I attended Ted William’s camp for 13, 14 and 15 year olds. We had a core group of about 15 kids who just simply loved to play the game of baseball. The camp played quite a few Jimmy Fund games in various parts of the country. We had an absolute blast.

The camp also had a team in the Twilight League. New Bedford, Massachusetts and Tiverton, Rhode Island also had teams. We were playing against men much older. We held our own as two of out pitchers on our team would later pitch in the big leagues; Joe Coleman Sr. and Stan Thomas.

Ted Williams had been retired about five years when I first came to the camp. He actively attended the camp and enjoyed watching Jimmy Fund games as he could sense out love for the game. One particular Jimmy Fund game Joan Joyce, the famous softball pitcher pitched to both Dom DiMaggio and Williams. She let DiMaggio get a hit, but not Williams. She blew him away. He spent time in our dugout that night and you could feel his competitive spirit. He was pissed. (The opposing pitcher in that game night was Dave Wallace. He later was my teammate at New Haven College and after a brief major league career as a pitcher he became a general manager for the Dodgers and pitching coach for the Red Sox).

Williams only wanted to be a regular guy and became annoyed when drulled on for his autograph. I observed him having a gold ole boy conversation with my father one game and that’s a great memory. Williams was the last true American hero. He fought two wars and didn’t complain. John Wayne spent his whole life trying to play Ted Williams.

Dan: What got you into baseball originally? What did the game mean to you growing up?

Neil: I got into baseball after hearing some kids talk about the game. I became obsessed with batting rocks all day. I would practice ground balls in the basement all winter. It gave me a reason for being.

Dan: What kind of player were you? After watching you take some batting practice during my time in Maine, it looked like you had a really good swing and could hit the ball well.

Neil: I was a very good contact hitter! I had a good glove and came to play every night. My down fall was speed. Basically, I had none. I made the All-Star Team in a Valley Summer Wooden Bat League and led my college team in hitting two different years. I took batting practice once at R.F.K. Stadium with the Washington Senators. You guessed it; Ted Williams was their coach.

Dan: You’re now a hall of fame trapper. How did you get started trapping and were there any qualities that you possessed on the baseball field that helped you in the woods?

Neil: I got into trapping when I was just a kid. The competition is similar to baseball. It’s you against the animal you’re after. In baseball, it’s the batter against the pitcher. It’s all about the competition.

Dan: I know you keep stats on everything that you trap. What do you think is your most impressive or favorite statistic?

Neil: Lifetime I’ve harvested over 9,000 beavers!

Dan: You published a few books on trapping as well. What’s one of your favorite trapping stories?

Neil: Trapping canines in a beautiful back pasture in Colebrook, New Hampshire one fall day turned out to be a real ego buster. Colebrook has what I call ideal coyote habitat. Plenty of small game and some back pastures, big by England standards. These pastures have coyotes written all over them. This area was one of the first to have large populations of coyotes. Driving into one of these back pastures, I could see I had captured a coyote. I drove over the rise on the further end to have a look.

I stopped my truck on the top of the steep rise and walked down to dispatch my catch. Having a camera hooked to my belt, I said to myself, “What a great picture!” I snapped a picture making sure to get my truck setting on top of the knoll. Having done this I removed my revolver and dispatched the coyote. The second I pulled the trigger, I heard a noise behind me.

I turned around and in sheer horror, watched my truck roll down the knoll. When it came to the edge of the woods, it snapped off a six-inch fur tree like it wasn’t even there. Luckily, a large grey birch bent out at about a 45 degree angle was next. My truck slammed into it, driving the hood and radiator back. If the birch hadn’t been there, it would have plunged into a deep ravine and probably would still be there.

I went from the great white hunter into an idiot in a split second. I had failed to put the truck in park correctly. A tow truck was needed and my day was ruined, or smashed I should say.

Dan: How did you get involved in the Mainers?

Neil: I was looking for a way to give back to the game and this was my way of doing it. I was lucky that the commissioner of the NECBL got involved with Sanford.

Dan: You and I did a couple games for the local television station when I was up there in 2004. I also rode with you in the Sanford Mainers mobile during a Fourth of July parade. I can recall numerous baseball chats we had during long road games. I was wondering what were some of your favorite memories from that summer and what made that championship year so special.

Neil: Memories are always enhanced by winning! Both Scott and Joe (Mainers head coach in 2008) Brown had the desire to win. I learned a lot from both of them. It became us against the rest of the league and we prevailed.

Doing the commentary during those televised games with you was very special because not everyone has the chance to do something like that. I think we did a very job together.

Dan: How do you find time to run your own business, work with the Mainers and spend time with your family?

Neil: Scheduling is tough, but you make it happen if you want it enough.

Dan: You actually won your second championship last year. What was that experience like and how was it different from 2004?

Neil: Two championships in five years is pretty darn good in our league. Last year had a lot in common with 2004 since both Browns knew how to show players how to win (I call it Brownie points). The most talented teams don’t always win; it’s the teams that want it most that do.

The best series I’ve ever been involved with was a semi-final series against the Vermont Mountaineers in 2007. We lost in three games, but every game was decided on the last play of the game. The intensity was amazing.

Dan: I hear that you’re coaching third base now. What has that experience been like? You’re grandsons are playing now and I was wondering what its like to watch the next generation.

Neil: Being on the same field with my grandsons and watching them achieve is very, very rewarding! Because their father built his own field and Frozen Ropes indoor facility, they have played more baseball than any other kid their age in Maine. Stay tuned and remember their names: Garrett, Connor and Griffin Aube!

Dan: Last question: Honestly, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rank me as a worker putting up tents?

Neil: Keep your night job.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Lord's Prayer

Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...

Most Americans will be hard pressed to remember a more trying time in our history than the fall of 2001. The World Trade Center was in ruins, a Pennsylvania field was scarred with the aftermath of a heroic plane crash and smoke was pouring out of a hole in the Pentagon. The Western world looked toward the East with anger and revenge in its eyes. I remember my mother coming home from work that otherwise beautiful September day and staring at the television for hours with tears continually pouring down her cheeks. Firefighters, police officers and nameless volunteers became our heroes who did their best to put the pieces of a broken city back together again. Even during our bleakest hour, we held onto hope.

Day by day, moving forward required constant adjusting to a new normalcy while at the same time mourning the loss of close to 3,000 of our brethren. Six days after the attacks, Major League Baseball returned to action and helped us to find the strength to carry on. Baseball teams in every city in the country honored the men and women taken for granted before but now were symbols of everything we hoped and believed in. When the games got under way, Americans were able to temporarily put aside everything that was going on around them and indulge in the calming rituals of our nation’s pastime. People could cheer on a game-winning hit, boo an opposing pitcher, or question a manager’s decision. Like times past, such as during the Great Depression and World War II, baseball was right there when we needed it.

Since the season had been delayed because of 9/11, the baseball playoffs were still in progress during the last week of October. In fact, the Yankees were returning home to New York after losing the first two games of the World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Little did any of us know, but it was going to be an October that New York and my family wouldn’t soon forget.

Days before the Series moved back to New York, my dad’s brother, Uncle Stephen, passed away. He was mentally handicapped and had been fighting an illness. He was a big guy, with a deep voice who always displayed a keen interest my schooling. He was eager to give out hugs to his nieces and nephews, loved ripping into his presents before anyone at Christmas and could often be found sprawled out on the couch watching an Elvis concert.

Maybe what I remember most is how much my father loved his brother. He lit up whenever he was around him. For some time my dad worked at a grocery store in Deep River not far from my uncle’s home. At least once a week, they would go out to lunch where they would debate whether the Red Sox or Yankees were the better team. (My uncle strayed from the family pack a little when it came to baseball.) Whenever my dad mentions those times now, a smile never fails to crease his face.

Game Three of the World Series offered us a glimpse into the drama that was going to unfold in the next couple of days. President Bush (in what to me was the high water mark of his presidency) stood on the mound defiantly and fired a strike to the Yankees’ backup catcher to start the game. We could almost feel Yankee Stadium shaking from our living room in Connecticut. The cheers and cries of “USA! USA! USA!” not only buoyed the spirit of a nation, but gave my parents, who had spent much of the day planning my uncle’s wake and funeral, a much needed spiritual boost. The game itself was a close one, but we hoorayed loudly as Mariano Rivera nailed down the final out of the 2-1 victory.

The Yankees hopes were still alive and so were ours.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven...

I remember sitting quietly in the pale light of the viewing room in the funeral home when residents of my uncle’s long term care facility walked through the door. The family’s sadness lifted slightly. We couldn’t help but be encouraged by this group of extraordinary individuals. Despite their handicap, they did their best to sit respectfully with solemn faces. Their true light shined through however and we were all the better for it.

I’ll never forget one resident as long I live.

He had been helped up to my uncle’s casket by one of the facility’s aides. He had continued to carry on a conversation as if the two were sitting across a lunch table. He suddenly got a serious look on his face and seemed to notice my uncle for the first time. He got very quiet.

“Okay, I’m going to pray for Stephen now,” he said out loud getting everyone’s attention. “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...”

He continued to recite the Lord’s Prayer loudly. His voice was steady, clear and without the slightest hint of disability. There was not a dry eye in the place. Everyone seemed to be smiling and crying at the same time.

“The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” he said crossing himself. He bent down close to my uncle and whispered loud enough for everyone to hear, “Good bye Stephen.”

Toward the end of calling hours, everyone from the home came up and gave their condolences to my grandmother, my father and my aunts. One resident in particular made a lasting impression.

“I’m so sad about Stephen,” he told my dad.

“I am too, but it’s okay to be sad right now,” he replied.

“I still look good though, don’t I?” the resident said showing off his suit and shined shoes.

My dad couldn’t help but start laughing. I’ve only seen my father upset a handful of times in my life and this was certainly one of them, but this is the story that he mentions the most when he talks about my uncle’s wake.

My family got home from the funeral home mentally and emotionally exhausted. We took up positions in the family room and watched the Yankees as they went into the ninth inning down by two runs and facing a three games to one deficit in the Series. We got bummed out even more when they went down to their final out with a slumping Tino Martinez coming to the plate. With a man on first, he slammed the first pitch he saw from Diamondbacks’ closer Byung-Hyun Kim out of the park to tie the game. My father bounded out of his seat and yelled out in celebration. The rest of us quickly followed suit.

All of the tire and emotional strain miraculously vanished from our bodies. We hung on to each other with nervous anticipation after Rivera quickly put down the Diamondbacks in top of the 10th and the first two batters for the Yankees in the bottom half of the inning flew out. Again with two outs, Derek Jeter, who had just one hit in 15 at-bats thus far in the Series, came to the plate. After falling behind early, Jeter battled back to a full count. Kim’s next slider was right in Jeter’s wheelhouse and he didn’t miss it. Just minutes after the stroke of midnight, the ball cleared the right field fence and the Yankees were back in the Series.

That night, we could feel the entire city of New York shaking; this time it was in celebration instead of mourning.

Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us...

The next day, my younger brother and I stood next to our mother in the rear of the viewing room. My grandmother, my father and my aunts were saying their final goodbyes to their son and brother. My father never looked stronger than he did on that fall morning. It seemed like he was holding the rest of his family together with his bare hands. I can’t think of any other moment where I was more proud of my dad and proud to be his son.

After a moving funeral service, during which Tom and I delivered readings from the Bible, my brothers and I helped the other pallbearers carry him to his finally resting place next to my grandfather. Knowing how much that meant to my father and my family, it will remain one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life.

Game Five was waiting for us when we got home. I didn’t think it possible that any of us would be able to survive another Yankee nail biter. Win or lose, we were all rooting for a quick decision. As always, the baseball gods had other plans.

Mike Mussina, who had been shellacked in Game One, only gave up two solo homeruns in his eight innings of work. Miguel Batista matched him pitch for pitch and left the game in the eighth with his 2-run lead intact. Once again, the Yankees found themselves facing their final out and a near insurmountable hole in the Series. Byung-Hyun Kim gave up a double to Jorge Posada to start the inning, but then quickly retired the next two batters. The Yanks’ hopes rested with third baseman Scott Brosius, a past postseason hero. It didn’t take long for him to further cement his reputation as a clutch performer. Brosius launched a long fly ball to left and immediately raised his hands up in celebration. Kim crumpled on the mound like he had been shot. Yankee Stadium, as well as my living room, went indiscriminately crazy. Two nights of miracles in the House that Ruth Built washed away a month’s worth of pent up frustration, sorrow and distress and unleashed unadulterated exuberance, relief and spirit. Even though the game went into extra innings, Yankee fans everywhere felt the end result was now preordained. Sure enough, Alfonso Soriano laced a base hit to score the winning run in the 12th inning giving the Yankees a 3-2 advantage headed back to Arizona.

The Diamondbacks ended up winning the Series in Game Seven by staging a comeback of their own in the bottom of the ninth. At that point, it didn’t matter. The Yankees had won every game on New York soil and did much to fortify the resilience of the city. They had also given the Ford family a few hours of peace and even more reason to believe that miracles were possible.

Whenever somebody asks me why I love a simple game so much, I think of my Uncle Stephen and that incredible week in October. Baseball wasn’t just a game when Derek Jeter hit the walk-off and turned the calendar over to November. It wasn’t just a game for all the people at the Stadium, and throughout a wounded New York, who cried out in celebration when Brosius cracked his homerun. They hadn’t just breathed life into the Yankees’ World Series hopes; they had reminded a beleaguered city and a family it was okay to smile and to hope.

I go back and forth on whether or not there is a God watching over our lives. What I have come to believe is that there are indeed angels, many of them among us everyday, including all the residents of my uncle's former long term care facility.

Whoever is up there, it seems like some of them are baseball fans, just like me.

And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.

To donate to The Arc, an organization devoted to promoting and improving supports and services for all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, click here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Adventures of the Noreasters:
Softball Spud and the Vow of Silence

The long, humid afternoon is over and a group of tired Noreasters are kicking back a few frozen margaritas at Arriba, Arriba. It doesn’t take many drinks before the conversation turns to making fun of my buddy Chris. He took his verbal bashing graciously, but we decided that he hadn’t taken enough abuse. As a public service (and under orders from my manager Trish), I am devoting this Sunday’s blog to the colorful highlight reel he has blessed us with the last three weeks. For all of you with children participating in sports, this is your warning to make sure your son or daughter doesn’t turn out like Softball Spud.

Saturday, July 11th

Game One: Noreasters 7, Fusion 14
Game Two: Noreasters 11, Fusion 23

After getting rained out pretty much every weekend in June, we finally took the field at Roosevelt Island against the best team in the league. For Chris, it got ugly early. In the first inning, he popped up weakly to the infield. Running out to the outfield, he asked me if he had dipped his shoulder.

“You just hit the ball like shit,” I replied.

“Well, did I…” he started to ask again.

“You just hit the ball like shit,” I said cutting him off.

“Yeah, you’re right. Okay.”

I may come off as sounding mean, but if you indulge him by answering his questions about his form, then he just thinks about it the rest of the game and ends up popping everything up to the pitcher. It’s better to say just enough to shut him up and answer his question at the same time. I have perfected the art, but it took several years and heavy dependence on alcohol.

While the first game was still close, I went from first base to third on a base hit. Let’s just say that I’m not….ahem….quick. However, after starting to run regularly during the week, I’ve gained a few MPHs around the base paths. Chris was nice enough to notice.

“Hey, you finally got the piano of your back!” he said excitedly.

“Thanks man, I’ve been running a lot.” I said.

“See, I can be a good teammate.”

Those were probably the last words anyone heard out of Chris that afternoon. After we lost the first game by a respectable seven runs, things got out of hand in Game Two. This was in large part to the stellar outfield play of Softball Spud. It seemed like every ground ball hit to him went past him and started on an unending roll. Even when he tried to get his body in front of the ball (that maybe only happened once), it always seemed to find a way past him. I knew it was getting out of control when my teammates started to come up to me and tell me to have a talk with Chris about what he was doing wrong. It’s not a good sign when I’m the only person that can approach him without him exploding into a rage of defense and self pity. My girlfriend, who had stuck around despite the hellish disaster that was our commute to the island, even got into the act by telling me he was letting groundballs go by him like it was his job. I decided to give him one more inning before I said anything.

That was a mistake. A fly ball was hit to right field and Chris (playing left center), decided it would be a good idea to drift over about 100 yards, cut off our right center fielder (who was too surprised to call him off) and then drop the ball that would have easily been caught by someone other than him. He followed this up by letting 90-100 more hits go by him.

“I hate the outfield! I’m horrible out here! I shouldn’t be in the outfield!” I heard him screaming to himself. It would have been funny if he hadn’t sounded like he was going to cry. Because of that it was HILARIOUS.

The line of the day went to Trish at the end of a particularly bloody inning. “We gave up nine runs with two outs in that inning,” she said matter of fact. It sounded like she wanted to add something else, but she ended up just sighing and slouching on the bench.

Needless to say, I never had my chat with Chris and we lost by double digits. In fact, no one else had a conversation with him. Toward the end of the game, he took a vow of silence. We found him at the end laying down in the grass slamming his cell phone into the ground. He looked like someone had killed his dog right in front of him. I asked him if he was taking the F train and he nodded sadly. On our walk to the train, he disappeared into what I’m assuming was a giant black rain cloud of depression.

(Note: Chris’ fiancĂ© called him a baby and told him to go whine someplace else after he came home trying to find some sympathy. Just throwing that in there to further prove I’m not making any of this up.)

Saturday, July 18th

Game One: Noreasters 5 (5!), Ball Breakers 20
Game Two: Noreasters 14, Ball Breakers 10

I waited until Tuesday after the Roosevelt Island Massacre to text Chris and see if it had been a decent interval so that I could start making fun of him. Okay, I didn’t ask it that nicely. My exact words were “when can I start making fun of you for making Bill Buckner look good?” He said he was open to all jokes. Here are some of the highlights:

“You’re E.R.A. as an outfielder is higher than Chien Ming Wang’s. Against the Fusion, your E.R.A. is the infinity sign.”

“Dan (our right center fielder) said he’s suing you for stealing his fly ball. He’s also suing you for dropping it.”

His response to that: “I really thought it was my ball. When I saw it drop, I wanted to run away.”

My response to his response: “You mean run after all the balls that went by you?”

We put all that behind us when we stepped unto the field against the second place team in our division. Chris got his wish and was not playing in the outfield. He was playing shortstop, a position where he once maimed a female softball player during a scrimmage thanks to an errant throw. We put the proper medical authorities on standby and hoped for the best.

Softball Spud did not disappoint. He indeed let a few balls go by him and his first several throws to first base took routes not seen since the times of Ferdinand Magellan. I can’t quite describe his throwing motion. I admit that I don’t have a release point or a strong arm, but at least my motion doesn’t resemble a cartoon character (well, anymore). Imagine a bear fielding a ground ball down on one knee (pretty much every time for reasons he can’t even explain), taking a few baby steps forward to get some momentum and throwing the ball side arm toward first with both legs in the air pointed straight out in front of him. Then picture the ball flying over the first baseman’s head and then that bear start to swear profusely, hit himself viciously in the hip and tug his hat over his eyes. Let’s just say this guy has better mechanics than Chris:

To his credit, he eventually straightened out his throws and played a very serviceable shortstop. After suffering another disaster in the first game, we played well enough to earn our first win in months in the second. Chris even hit a legit home run over the rocks that he had no trouble bragging about.

Saturday, July 25th

Game One: Noreasters 11, Firebirds 3
Game Two: Noreasters 12, Firebirds 16

The Noreasters were back in action and Softball Spud was back at shortstop. It was a miracle he got to the game at all though. Usually, I’m the one with the worst commute, but he had me beat this time around. I was able to keep track of his progress through text messages:

“I am on a 6 train right now being pulled by lame donkeys.”

“I missed the M35 by a minute. Have to wait for the next one at 2:15 which will of course be late. I will be at the field around 4.”

“Did I mention I lost my bank card this morning? Yeah, it’s gone.”

He finally made it and it was my hope that Chris would learn by osmosis after watching me play a sparkling short during batting practice. The trick with him is to try and train him without him really knowing you’re doing it (kind of like a golden retriever or a gerbil). If a ground ball was hit his way during the game, I would shout from the outfield some of the following:

“You have time!”

“Step and throw!”

“Nice and easy!”

“Nice play! Good boy! Who’s a good boy?!”

After one of Chris’ errors, one of our outfielders turned to me after shouting encouragement and said, “Isn’t it kind of interesting that the whole team goes on “Console Spud Duty” after he screws up?”

That’s what is so great about Chris. You want to get upset at him for making a dumb play, but he beats himself up so badly that you end up pitying him and trying to cheer him up. I can’t lie; it’s a brilliant strategy by him.

In the second game, a ground ball was hit to Trish who quickly flipped the ball to Chris to get a force out at second. He turned to throw the ball to finish the double play, but the runner was practically there, so he held onto it. The umpire called time and Chris threw the ball to our pitcher Bob. Much to everyone’s surprise, he let out the loudest F-bomb we’ve ever heard walking back to his position. I immediately started laughing out loud in left field. He is the only person in the world that was angry about making an out. The best part was the umpire thought the curse had been directed at him and Chris took it upon himself to apologize at the end of the inning.

We had one calamitous inning early during the second game, so we were playing catch up the rest of the way. We finally got some runners on and Softball Spud stepped up to the plate. I was on first base. He took the first pitch for a strike and then dropped his shoulder to the point where it almost touched the ground and popped it up in foul territory near first base. Luckily, the first baseman wasn’t quite quick enough to make the catch.

Before Trish, who was coaching first base, could say anything, I screamed out, “Get out of your head! Get out of your head!” Trish simply replied, “Thank you. Thank you. Listen to Dan.”

He did, sort of. He hit a towering pop up to center that wasn’t caught because all the outfielders were playing so deep. We ended up scoring some runs that inning, but not quite enough. We ended up losing by four runs.

(Note: the real MVP of the doubleheader was Bob. In unbelievable humidity, the ageless wonder pitched every single inning. You could tell he was out of gas, but he never complained and gave us every opportunity to win the game. Cheers to you Bob!)

The comfy confines of Arriba, Arriba allowed us to unwind and gave Chris a chance to launch a defense of….well….himself.

“I can’t see the ball. I am going blind,” he told us.

He claims that his eyesight has been getting worse, so that he wasn’t seeing the ball well in the outfield, but he can see it better in the infield. Last year it had been his wrist, the year before that his ankle, so blindness was the next logical step I guess. I mentioned that it looked like he was seeing the ball going past him just fine.

Toward the end of the evening, we were watching the Mets play the Astros on the television. A player on one of the teams roped a single and raised his hands and eyes to God after reaching first base.

“Hey Chris, why don’t you do that when you get a base hit?” Dan (again, our right center fielder) said.

“It’s because he has to go back and play the infield and screw up,’ I said without missing a beat.

Softball Spud glared at me, but ended up shaking my hand, admitting that it had been a good zinger.

I doubt I’m going to get the same reaction when he reads this blog.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Every Baseball Has A Story

According to, a regulation baseball “shall be a sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two stripes of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together. It shall weigh not less than five nor more than 5 1/4 ounces avoirdupois and measure not less than nine nor more than 9 1/4 inches in circumference.” It’s hard to believe that something I’ve devoted most of my life loving and obsessing over fits into the palm of my hand. In the words of Roger Angell, “any baseball is beautiful…no other small package comes as close to the ideal in design and utility.” In the spirit of that notion, I took a closer look at some of the baseballs I’ve collected over the years and the memories they brought with them. Every baseball indeed has a story and each one is as special as the one before it. Today I offer three from my collection that are very dear to my heart and serve as reminders of why I love the game as much as I do.

First Hit, June 25th, 1998

Watching baseball as a kid, I always loved how when a player laced his first base hit, the opposing team would flip the ball into his dugout for a keepsake. After not playing Little League and going hitless my first season and a half in Pony League, I figured that I would never be able to have that first hit experience. On a hot summer day in June against the Bees, I came to plate pretty angry after making an error in the field. The pitcher wound up and heaved the ball toward the plate. I remember taking a step and swinging as hard as I could. I made contact and the ball dropped in front of the right fielder. I made the turn around first base for the first time in my life with my legs shaking. I remember feeling like a huge weight had just been lifted off my life. I had something other than a zero in my hit column (not to mention I had pulled the ball for maybe the only time in my career). The best part came after the game. I was waiting patiently for my older brother (who was my coach at this point) to unlock the doors of his baby blue Buick when I saw a ball dart through the air toward me. I caught it easily and looked up at my brother. “Nice hit,” he said simply. I’ve had the ball ever since.

Little League Phillies 2000

I tried my best to be as involved as possible in my younger brother’s Little League career since I never had one of my own. I always helped out his coaches during practice or games from the time he was in tee-ball to his first year in the “majors”. In 2000, I was cut from my high school team after the tryouts and was disillusioned, miserable and desperate to at least remain apart of the game. Luckily, my neighbor had become coach of the Phillies and offered me the chance to be his assistant coach. I said yes without even thinking about it. One of the best parts of the experience, other than watching my younger brother become one hell of a ballplayer, was meeting and coaching a young kid named Chris Collins. He wasn’t the best player and I used to kid him that we could time him running around the bases with a sundial. His smile never wavered, his jokes never seemed to run out (some of which at his own expense and his undying optimism was infectious to every one on the team. Now out of baseball for good, I was proud that there were other players like me out there giving it their best despite not having the skills others possessed. He really proved that baseball is first and foremost a game about heart. It’s nice to be able to check out all the young signatures on this ball and remember those times every now and again.

St. John's Red Storm vs. #1 ranked Stanford Cardinal
2004 NCAA Palo Alto Regional

“You’ve been awfully spoiled this year, Danny,” my friend (and former team manager) Derek told me after we found out St. John’s Baseball had been selected to participate in the 2004 NCAA College World Series Tournament. I couldn’t argue with him. Before the season started, I had never been on an airplane, never mind seen the West Coast. Now, with trips to Texas, Arkansas and Notre Dame under my belt, I was headed to beautiful Palo Alto, California to watch my guys play in postseason baseball. My mother had a different reaction when she got the news. She cried. I hadn’t been home in months and with a summer internship in Maine looming, it now looked like I would be away even longer. I remember buying new shorts, washing my lucky polo shirts I had been wearing all year and buying a brand new pair of Oakley sunglasses in the airport to try to look as cool as possible for the televised games. Seeing California for the first time did not disappoint. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky the entire time we were there and the temperature was consistently 80 degrees. Also exciting was the fact that owing to a scheduling fluke, I got my own room at the hotel. I’ll probably never know what it feels like to work in the Major Leagues, but I have to think that this experience came close. We were playing at Sunken Diamond Field, which is one of the prettiest ballparks I’ve ever since at any level.

As the for baseball part of it, we held our own against Long Beach State (a team led by Jered Weaver, who’s now pitching well for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) in Game One, but eventually lost to a bases loaded single in the bottom of the ninth. We beat the UNLV Rebels in our second game, setting us up to play the #1 ranked team in the country to stay alive in the tournament. The Stanford Cardinal were led by John Mayberry Jr., who was a first round draft pick by the Texas Rangers the next year. We started Matt Tosoni, a freshman from Canada who had already beaten Notre Dame on his way to racking up an impressive five wins that season. What we didn’t know then was that he had been battling ulcerative colitis and this would be his last start until 2006. He went six strong innings and was let down by his defense’s five errors. He also gave up a homerun to Mayberry that I think still hasn’t landed. We fought hard all game, but couldn’t find a way to get to Stanford’s freshman pitcher. After the last out was recorded, I realized that it wasn’t only the end of our season, but for some of our seniors, it was their last game in collegiate baseball. I remember looking at our senior shortstop Mike Rozema gazing out at the field with his hands on his hips. He had one of the best pair of hands I’ve ever seen for an infielder and he carried himself with a grace and class off the field that some major leaguers don’t have. I remember his eyes were red as he gathered up his stuff and headed for the bus. I made it a point when we got back to tell him that it had been a real honor to work for him and that I appreciated how nice he had been to me in my rookie year as manager and how hard he played the game. He was drafted by the Atlanta Braves soon after and got all the way through AAA before retiring in 2008.

Player Spotlight: Neal Ball

I found three other major leaguers with the last name Ball (Art, Jeff and Jim), but Neil beat them all out for the spotlight this week. His full name is Cornelius Balland he was born in 1881. Ball played seven seasons as an infielder for the New York Highlanders, Cleveland Naps and Boston Red Sox from 1907 to 1913.

He batted .247 in his first full year with the Highlanders in 1908, including 110 hits, 16 doubles and two triples. He also stole 32 bases. His best season came in 1911 playing for the Naps. Ball batted .296, with 122 hits, three homeruns (a career high) and 45 RBI. He also stole 21 bases and finished with 14 doubles and nine triples. He finished his career with the Red Sox and ended up with a lifetime average of .251, including 56 doubles, 151 RBI and 92 stolen bases.

Ball also has the distinction of being the first player in Major League history to turn an unassisted triple play exactly 100 years ago today. He was playing shortstop for the Naps behind Cy Young and there was a line drive hit toward him. There were runners on first and second who were on the move because the Red Sox coach had called for a hit and run. After making a leaping catch, all Ball had to do was step on second and wait to tag out the runner coming from first base.

The glove Ball used and a picture of him with the three men he got out are on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. For more details, read this great article written by Ball’s great niece Kathia Miller for You can buy a tee-shirt with Neal Ball’s image on it here. You can also buy an old newspaper from July 19, 1909 with details of the game here.

Summer Reading List:
A Walk in the Woods & Life of Pi

If you’ve never read anything by the travel writer Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods is the perfect place to start. In this book, Bryson tackles the 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail along with a bumbling overweight sidekick. It is sidesplitting funny and is written in a clear and direct style that makes it perfect to bring along on a vacation or beach day. In between fretting over bear attacks, searching for his wandering companion and navigating hills, mountains and weather, Bryson sheds the spotlight on one of our national treasures and the people that make it so. It’s a wonderful read and will make you want to raid EMS and buy out Trader Joe’s trail mix section and hit the trail!

Life of Pi by Yann Martel is just a beautiful novel. The story about a shipwrecked boy all alone on the open seas with only a tiger as his companion is a remarkable tale of survival at all costs. You can’t help but turn the pages rapidly to see who wins this battle of wits with death as the only consolation prize. The end might have you scratching your head, but in my opinion, only makes the novel all the more memorable and inspiring. Also, the beginning of the novel will give the reader an interesting perspective on zoos and how they fit into our society. This is a couple days read at the most and will leave a lasting impression.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

From the Archives:
Summer Poetry

Earlier this morning, I was looking through some old notebooks and folders which hold just about everything I've ever written. In the pages worn by time and age, I came across a few things that seemed appropriate to share on this cloudless, blue sky summer day in New York City. Enjoy!

Summer Legs
The heat of summer brushes off the cold of winter,
standing upon new legs, sturdy and strong.
They’re bumped and bruised from
slips and dives in the tall, green grass.
Their tan tone clashes with the
splashes of mud and dirt,
that threaten the useless bandage out of place.

Summer legs run in and our of trouble,
dodging the buzzing bees and stepping on a
poor ant along the way.
They pause only for a short while
to admire at a newly formed cut or bug bite.
They’re off again at the mere indication
that the game they had abandoned long before
suddenly decided to grab their itchy attention.

The summer sun sets and still
strong and sturdy new legs splash through
the puddles that spring left behind.
Just when the time has come to finally lay them to rest,
a shout fills the humid air,
the mud and ache are long forgotten,
as they sprint away into the setting sun.

At- Bat
That tall terror on the mound
grinds his hand in his glove,
where his pitch of choice is found.

I lean obnoxiously over the plate,
and watch the pitcher’s eyes
go from collected to completely irate.

The pitch barrels into the catcher’s mitt,
as if launched from a World War II tank,
not one I could hit.

Old Blue behind the plate yells,
“Strike Two”, at the next
and the crowd’s boos swell.

My mind fills again,
not with fear or pressure,
but with the smell of franks and pretzels roasting on the grill.

Those who long to see me be king,
hold their breath and gasp,
as the pitch is thrown with some gas
and I take a step and swing!!

Rain Delay
The field transforms into a labyrinth of puddles,
where ground balls splash their way
into the fielder’s glove.

The players, clad in sweat and mud,
struggle to grasp the slippery sphere,
as raindrops drip off the ends of their caps.

The umpire calls them in a shivering shout,
as he watches the white chalk lines drown
into the base line lagoon.

The day is over.
The game is done without a single pitch thrown,
giving the storm- laden clouds their
rain soaked victory.

A Saturday Morning with Dad
Back and forth
does the rusty blade sway,
sweeping the rest of
the tall grass away.

The mower strays behind me,
with good ol’ Dad,
who wants to do nothing more
than run and flee.

We trudge silently along
with the sound of
the mower and the blade
as our only song.

Our muscles begin to fade
and we pause to
stare out on what
has become the Everglades.

After a stout cough
and a little chat,
we bravely set up our plan of attack
to finish it off.

Player Spotlight: Hall of Famer Al Kaline

Today’s spotlight centers on one of my dad’s favorite players when he was growing up. Al Kaline was an outfielder for the Detroit Tigers for 22 years and was a 15 time All-Star.

His numbers are more than impressive. In 1955, he led the league with a .340 batting average and 200 hits. He smacked 24 doubles that year with 120 RBI. In 1961, 41 of his 190 hits were doubles, also a league best. He won a World Series with the Tigers in 1968 over the St. Louis Cardinals who were led by Hall of Famer Bob Gibson (who had posted a 1.12 ERA that year). He batted .379 in the Series with two homeruns and eight RBI.

Kaline finished his career with a .297 batting average and 3,007 hits. He ended with 498 doubles, 399 homeruns and 1,583 RBI. He also won 10 Gold Gloves and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980.

Summer Reading/Viewing List: East of Eden and Truman

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden was recommended to me last summer by Next Magazine’s dining editor Peter Sherwood (whose blog Evenings with Peter is a MUST read). I devoured the novel in short order and it instantly became one of my favorite novels of all time. The story revolves around the lives of the Trask and Hamiliton families set in California. Steinbeck’s beautiful prose not only seamlessly marries the lives of both families, but also assaults your senses with astonishing sights, colors and smells of scenic Salinas Valley. Steinbeck also introduces one of the most depraved, intrinsically evil characters of all time in the person of Cathy Ames. I assure you that this novel does not disappoint and should be in your hands as you sun on the beach with some of Peter’s fella’s Sangria!

David McCullough is one of the nation’s most celebrated historians and with good reason. Truman is not only a riveting look at my favorite President, but also a masterpiece of historical writing. Highlights include Truman’s decision to drop the first (and only) atomic bombs on Japan, his firing of General Douglas McArthur, his hard fought re-election upset and his lifetime struggle with poverty. There are times in our country where seemingly ordinary men are capitulated in extraordinary situations and Truman proved he was beyond exceptional coming from humble roots. His deep and lasting love for his wife Bess and his irascible personality makes you admire him even more, especially after reading his famous fiery letter to a reviewer who panned his daughter Margaret’s operatic debut. The book is over 1,000 pages long, but I could have easily read thousands more. It's probably not something you want to lug to the beach, but is perfect reading for a cool, lazy summer evening.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Summer Reading/Viewing List Part 1

Summer to me has always been a time where my appetite for devouring any book, movie or television show put in front of me knows no bounds. In that spirit, during the next couple of months I'll offer up my recommendations for your lazy, summer days and nights. This inaugural list is mostly baseball related, but I plan on highlighting a wide range of diverse genres to satisfy as many people as I can. If you have any suggestions for me, feel free to send them my way. Long live summer!

Summer Game and Five Seasons by Roger Angell

I read Summer Game and Five Seasons by Roger Angell late last February and doing so made me crave the start of the baseball season like never before. Angell’s writing made me feel like I was sitting next to him in a bar having a conversation over watered down light beer.

Summer Game chronicles the years 1962 through 1971, an era that saw the demise of the great Yankee championship teams, rise of the Baltimore Orioles and two former New York teams in sunny California. One of my favorite chapters is the one in which he goes into statistical detail on 1968’s “Year of the Pitcher”. In a year in which the great Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals pitched to a record 1.12 ERA, the two leagues combined batting average was .232 and there were 340 shutouts recorded.

Angell’s heart though lies with the woeful infancy of the New York Mets which is sweetly apparent in every chapter devoted to New York’s second team. At a game early their inaugural 1962 season (in which the Mets lost a record 120 games), Angell struggles to figure out why the Mets fans surrounding him are cheering and rooting on such an inept team. He realizes that the Mets symbolize the antithesis of the mighty Yankees; that “there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us”.

Five Seasons picks up right where Summer Game left off in 1972. Some of the highlights include the greatest World Series every played in 1975 between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, three faithful Detroit Tigers fans and the three year dynasty of the Oakland A’s. Like Summer Game, the Yankees are strangely absent from the scene (until the 1976 season detailed toward the end of the book). It was refreshing to read about a time in which my favorite team couldn’t just demand the center of attention. I liked reading about characters such as Vida Blue, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Brooks Robinson, none of whom donned the Yankee pinstripes.

The Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mahler

I caught bits and pieces of the eight-part ESPN special a couple years ago, but not enough to really understand what happened in the sultry summer of 1977 in New York City. I picked up the book by Jonathan Mahler in a bargain section of a bookstore and blew through it in little over a week. Intertwined with the Yankees impressive World Series run is the story of a much different city than the one I live in now. Crime was rampant, a blackout inflamed the ghettos in Brooklyn and the Bronx and there was a serial killer on the loose terrorizing young couples for a year. The city was decaying and being fought over during a bitter mayoral race won eventually by Ed Koch. Also interesting was Mahler’s detailing of Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the New York Post and how it set off a newspaper war the likes of which not seen in decades. He makes the larger than life persona of appear more human, well, until his three World Series homeruns made him a hero to New Yorkers who had vilified him all season long. Mahler lets the facts of that year speak for themselves, hardly adding any of his own dramatizations. Even non-Yankee fans will appreciate how far the city has come since those dark days and how our problems now are not insurmountable.

ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia

This is my Bible. It’s where I get all of my stats whenever I do a Player Spotlight. Currently, I’m using ESPN’s fourth edition which came out after the 2006 season, but I was weaned on my older brother’s 1980’s edition. I used to lug that tome around to both of my brother’s practices and ask my dad a million questions about players he watched as a kid. After complaining for years that I didn’t have an updated copy, I finally walked down to the Barnes and Noble near St. John’s and picked one up. I could barely afford my rent at that point, but it didn’t seem to matter because fresh statistics from the past ten years were now at my finger tips. Now I know that Mike Gallego has a lifetime batting average of .239, Jim Abbott won 87 games with only one hand and Ron Karkovice hit 96 career homeruns. It’s been an invaluable tool and if there are fans as nerdy and opposed with meaningless stats as I am out there, this book is for you.

Baseball, directed by Ken Burns

Baseball, directed by Ken Burns, is a masterpiece. There is no other way to describe it. Each decade of baseball’s history is detailed in Burns’ signature style and highlights the changes in the country during baseball’s rise as the national pastime. More importantly, however, is the treatment that Burns gives to the Negro Leagues. He does not shy away from the truth that the best ball players might not have been playing in the white Major League. Players such as Josh Gibson, who was characterized as a “black Babe Ruth” and the great pitcher Satchel Paige finally get their due as integral parts of baseball’s history. With more enlightened background information, I was able to even more fully appreciate the heroism of Jackie Robinson.

As a New York fan, I was impressed with Burns’ portrayal of the great New York Yankees, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the 1950s. For a decade, all three teams were great and were seemingly always battling each other for a championship. I’ve heard some criticism that Burns is too New York centric, but there is no way to separate the city from baseball’s history and I think he does more than an admirable job of balancing everything.

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

This book in no way shape or form has anything to do with baseball, but I felt it necessary to include it on my first list. This book should be required reading for all Americans. This is one of the first books I read when I started to gain a passion for our nation’s past. Expecting to find the same stories that I had learned throughout my schooling, I quickly found out that this wasn’t my father’s history book. After reading it, you’ll never think the same way about race relations, labor unions or Christopher Columbus. Zinn sheds light on side of history that has for too long been obscured. Our rise to being a superpower has not been easy or preordained and was done primarily on the backs of the people the Constitution and Declaration of Independence claimed to protect. This book affirmed my belief that lessons for the future can indeed be learned from the past and that history does not need to repeat itself. It may not be good beach reading, but it should be a book that finds its way into your hands sooner rather than later.

Happy Fourth of July!

Being a patriotic fellow, the Fourth of July has always been one of my favorite holidays. As a kid, I remember fondly the barbeques my aunt would host every summer without fail in which she made enough hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salads and Whoopee pies to feed most of Southern Connecticut. Not so fond are the memories of me clinging to the side of the pool in the shallow end while all the “big” kids were having fun in the deep end. Of course, no Fourth of July is complete without fireworks and my cousins always put on quite a show despite the cringing from my aunt and my mother.

That being said, the Fourth gives us pause to remember not only how our great country came to be, but also the men and women who have given their lives to ensuring our democratic freedoms. My undying gratitude and hearty well wishes go out to all the service men and women who are stationed across the globe and here at home in the United States; especially one Airman in particular who is upholding a proud Ford tradition in the armed services. Patrick, we miss you, we’re proud of you and we look forward to your graduation in August.

Wishing everyone and their families a happy, healthy and safe Fourth of July weekend!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Go Daniel Go!

“Go Daniel Go!”

Are you %$&*-ing kidding me?

That was the only thought going through my head as I started to sprint toward second base. I put my head down and pumped my arms as fast as I could. I could feel the dirt kicking up under my cleats and hitting the back of my legs. I heard the ball hit the catcher’s mitt. The umpire barked a call I couldn’t make out. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the catcher stand up and heave the ball to the shortstop who was covering the bag. I accelerated again the best I could and then pushed my legs out from under me. My outstretched foot hit the white bag before the fielder swiped his glove across it.

“Safe!” the umpire bellowed.

I raised my hand up to call timeout. I stood up and shook off the brown earth off my black T-shirt and gray baseball pants. I took my helmet off and wiped the sweat from my forehead. While the pitcher readied for his next pitch, I glared at Coach Tim who was cracking up along the first base line. I hadn’t reached first base all that often in the last couple of years, never mind steal a base.

“Daniel, the pitcher was in his windup, I had to send you,” he explained as I trotted in after the inning had ended. “Your wheels still made it a close play.”

I grabbed my glove without saying anything and ran back out to my position in left field. I was able to pick up my heart that had fallen out of my chest around first base on my way there.

I was in my third, and as it would turn out my final, year playing organized baseball with the Bristol Park and Recreation Pony League. I was a member of the Phantoms in the Scott Division. I had been drafted by my older brother out of pity and necessity after a horrendous tryout which I will go into more detail at some point (let’s just say it was the last time I ever played an infield position). I went hitless my first season, going an impressive 0-17 with 15 strikeouts. My last two at-bats were ground outs and you would have thought from the fans’ reaction that I had laced a hit to win the World Series. The next year I improved to 2-17, with only 5 strikeouts. No one, including myself, expected the year I was about to have under Coach Tim (my cousin-in-law who had taken over the team after my older brother became a league director).

The first practice pretty much set the tone for the kind of summer we were in for.

I was the first player to arrive and Coach Tim’s buddy and assistant coach Scott asked if I had a hose once he found out I was an outfielder. I stood there like a dead fish with its mouth gaping open for several minutes not having any idea what the hell he was talking about.

“Your arm, man,” he replied. “Do you have a good arm?”

“Oh. Yeah, of course,” I lied.

Unlike my older brother, who went over basic fielding/throwing/running drills the first practice, Coach Tim had everyone take their positions right away and started smacking balls off his fungo bat. It seemed like the extended infield/outfield routine went on for hours with none of the drudgery that usually defined a first practice. Despite my weaker arm, I had turned into a decent outfielder and had no trouble making plays and getting the ball into the infield. There really is no better feeling then tracking a white baseball sailing through bright blue summer sky and feeling it settle abruptly into the leather webbing of your glove.

The highlight though came when we started to do base running drills to finish off the day. All the players lined up behind home plate. Instead of just barking directions on the sideline, Coach Tim went to the front of the line to run with us.

“Alright guys, we’re going to run out a base hit. Give the guy in front of you a minute before you start,” He instructed us. I watched him get into a running stance and then heard Scott yell out “Go!”

I was one of the first people in line, so I got a great view of our new head coach trip over his own two feet, fall to the ground in a heap and then roll violently away to avoid being stampeded by the rest of the team. Needless to say, it wasn’t the best omen for how our season was going to start. I don’t remember Coach Tim running with us after that either.

The Phantoms started 0-4. And it was an ugly 0-4.

It didn’t take long to realize we had some real characters on the team. Our shortstop thought he was God’s gift to creation even after making error after error. We had two brother outfielders, one who got tossed from a game early on for calling an umpire a “bitch” and the other who cried if you looked at him wrong. We had one of the most talented players in the league playing at second base, but he wasn’t hitting a lick. We had several players who were playing their first season of baseball ever and it showed.

The real gem was an outfielder named David who had barely seen a baseball field, never mind set foot on one. At our first game, he strode up to the plate for his first at-bat in the tightest baseball pants Connecticut has ever seen. To complete the mental image, he wasn’t wearing a cup. My cousin, also Coach Tim’s girlfriend and future wife, tried her best to point all this out to him.

Caryn: “David, there are bigger pants available.”

David: “Naw, I like these, they feel good.”

Caryn: “David, you’re not wearing a cup!”

David: “Huh?”

It was hard to push the subject any further than that with his entire family sitting at the end of our bench cheering him on. Eventually, to the relief of everyone, he started to wear baggier pants, but unfortunately for the team, that didn’t help him hit the baseball any better.

Coach Tim actually made some pretty good coaching moves to get us out of our funk. Our best player on the team, the third baseman Joe, asked if he could pitch and he was given a shot. It saved our season. He ended up being our best pitcher down the stretch. Coach Tim also moved our shortstop to centerfield after getting fed up over his awful play the first four games. He turned into a different player and started running down deep fly balls and throwing runners out at home on a consistent basis.

There was also something very strange happening. I was hitting. Not only that, but I was hitting in bunches. The game that really stands out is a four hit game I had against the Cardinals. I had a shot up the middle and then three balls through the hole between the first and second basemen. The last one was bobbled by the outfield and I was raced toward second base to take advantage. I felt euphoric as I approached the bag and started into my slide. My foot didn’t hit anything. I realized that I had slid too early and was still a couple feet away from the base. Before I could get up and do anything about it, the second baseman tagged me on top of my head with the ball in his glove. The good news is I was credited with the RBI. I don’t think that helped with the embarrassment at the time.

I was also finding my voice on the field. I was one of the “veterans” on the team and did my best to keep everyone pumped up and focused. I never shut up in the outfield. I was constantly giving the pitcher support and yelling out directions after the ball was hit. All the excitement and passion I had for the game just came pouring out. I was the first one to high-five a teammate after scoring a run or making a good play in the field, I always stayed positive even when we were losing and I worked as hard as I could to have as much fun as possible. I must have known somewhere in my mind that this was it and I wanted to get as much out of it as possible.

Of course, it was hard not to have a good time when you’re head coach was providing unintentional comedy on a consistent basis. We were all over him one practice, cracking jokes left and right about anything and everything.

“Coach, what do you do for a living?” our second baseman asked him.

“I’m a baker.”

“You’re a what?”

“I’m a baker.”

“Coach, isn’t that, you know ‘women’s work’?”

“Hey, how about you run some laps and ask me that again.”

“I want to be a baker when I grow up!”

(Ironically enough, he ended up becoming a chef).

Not so funny was the tirade Coach Tim had during our last practice before the playoffs. After a pretty spirited water fight after a good workout, the emotional brother outfielder started to whine and complain about playing time and how disrespected he had been the whole year. I have never seen a face turn the shed of red that Coach Tim’s did. A season worth of anger and frustration came pouring out. He must have used every curse word ever uttered in the history of mankind. The rest of the players and I stood wordlessly at our positions as we watched our crying comrade take it. After a good five minutes, Coach Tim grabbed his trusty fungo.

“Daniel, the plays at second base,” he yelled.

I started running before he hit the ball. I heard the ping of the bat and looked up. Sure enough, the ball was traveling miles over my head. I was out of breath when I finally caught up with it. I’ve never seen a longer cut off line to the infield when I turned and threw the ball. Each outfielder had the same experience and Coach Tim swore until practice ended. At least we were finishing like we started.

My last game in a baseball uniform came against the Eagles in the first round of the playoffs. It was a pitcher’s duel between Joe and a good buddy of mine Tony. I actually helped Joe out of a jam early in the game when I made a diving catch on a weak fly ball. I remember getting up, flipping the ball to my older brother who was umpiring the game and shouting at my teammates to get something going.

We were down by one run headed into the last inning. Tony had kept our hitters off balance all day with his ungodly curveball. He was still in there and showing no signs of getting tired. I came to the realization that I was up third in the order. I could be the potential last out of the game.....again.

Sure enough, the first two batters made quick outs and I strode to the plate. In baseball, the rule is to take a strike late in the game when you’re losing, so that’s what I did. The second pitch was a curveball that Jesus himself couldn’t have touched. I had a flash back to a game during my first year when I struck out to end the game looking and ended up crying my eyes out. I stepped out of the batter’s box and took a deep breath. I stepped back in and accepted my destiny. I swung weakly at another nasty curveball. The season was over, as was my short-lived career.

I got quite the send off however. On a cool, clear night at venerable Muzzy Field, I stood with the best players in the league, waiting to receive the Sportsmanship/Most Improved Player Award. I couldn’t hear what they were saying over the loudspeaker about me because I was too busy concentrating on not tripping over myself on the way to the presentation table. Finally, I heard them announce my name and I trotted over easily. The best part was that my older brother was the one to hand me the award. He’d been my coach and mentor, not only the previous two years, but throughout my life. Sharing the moment with him was special and made winning the award even sweeter.

As I was leaving the stadium later that night, I received one of the best compliments of my life. Spec Monico, a great coach at my high school and who had just won the league championship managing the Eagles, told me the award was well deserved and I had earned it.

“You don’t forget awards like this one,” he told me. “These are special.”

He was right.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Player Spotlight:
Baseball Fathers

In honor of Father’s Day, I delved into the stats of some famous baseball fathers. Check back later in the week for a longer post about my short lived playing career. Enjoy your Sunday and cheers to the best father a guy could have!

Jose Cruz (father of Jose Cruz Jr.)

Jose Cruz spent 19 seasons in the majors between 1970 and 1988, mostly with the Houston Astros.

He finished third in the National League Most Valuable Player Award voting after hitting .302 with 11 homeruns and 91 RBI. His best three seasons came between 1983 and 1985. He hit .318 in 1983 and led the league with 189 hits. He finished that year with 28 doubles, 8 triples and 92 RBI. In 1984, he finished with a .312 average with 187 hits. He drove in a career-high 95 runs and finished with 28 doubles and 13 triples. He only played 141 games in 1985, but still hit .300 and drove in 79 runs. He finished with 34 doubles and 163 hits.

He ended his career with a .284 batting average with 2,251 hits. He finished with 391 doubles, 94 triples and 1,077 RBI.

Bobby Bonds (father of Barry Bonds)

Bobby Bonds played 14 seasons in the majors for 8 different teams between 1968 and 1981.

In 1973 with the Giants, he finished third in the NL MVP voting after hitting 39 homeruns and driving in 96 RBI. He led the league with 141 runs scored, 341 total bases and 148 strikeouts. He also smacked 34 doubles and 182 hits. In 1975 playing for the Yankees, he hit 32 homeruns and drove in 85 RBI. One of his best seasons came in 1977 playing for the California Angels. He finished with 37 homeruns and 115 RBI.

He ended his career with an impressive 332 homeruns and 1,024 RBI. Less impressive are his 1,757 strikeouts, good for 11th most all-time.

Ray Boone (father of Bob Boone, grandfather of Aaron and Bret Boone)

Ray Boone is the original Boone who played 13 seasons between 1948 and 1960.

In 1953, Boone hit .296 with 26 homeruns and 114 RBI for the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers. In his first two full years with the Tigers (1954-1955), he smacked 40 homeruns and 201 RBI. He led the league in RBI in 1955, driving in 116. In 1956, He hit .308 with 25 homeruns and 81 RBI.

After bouncing around four teams the last years of his career, Boone finished with a .275 batting average 151 homeruns and 737 RBI.

Mel Stottlemyre (father of Todd Stottlemyre)

Mel Stottlemyre played 11 seasons between 1964 and 1974, all pitching for the New York Yankees.

He pitched for some pretty awful Yankee teams and led the league in losses in 1966 (20) and 1972 (18). He did win his fair share however, winning 14 game or more in all but three years of his career.

In 1968, Stottlemyre won 21 games with a 2.45 E.R.A. He completed 19 of his 36 starts and had 140 strikeouts. He continued his winning ways the next season, winning 20 games and leading the league with 24 complete games.

Stottlemyre finished his career with 164 wins with an E.R.A. of 2.97.

Vern Law (father of Vance Law)

Vern Law played in 16 seasons between 1950 and 1967, all pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

His best season came in 1960. He won the Cy Young Award after winning 20 games with an E.R.A. of 3.08. He completed 18 games and tossed three shutouts. More importantly, he won two games against the Yankees in the World Series. The Pirates upset the Yanks that year after Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off Game Seven homerun (sorry Dad).

Law finished his career with 162 wins and an E.R.A. of 3.77. He pitched 119 complete games and 28 shutouts

Thorton Lee (father of Don Lee)

Thorton Lee played in 16 seasons between 1933 and 1948, mostly with the Chicago White Sox.

His best season came in 1941. He won 22 games and led the league with a 2.37 E.R.A. He also led the league with 30 complete games. He tossed three shutouts and struck out 130 batters. In 1945, he won 15 games with a low E.R.A. of 2.44.
Law finished his career with 117 wins and a 3.56 E.R.A. He pitched 155 complete games and 14 shutouts.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Let's Go Mets!

Before I moved to Queens, I would actively root for the New York Mets to do well (provided they weren’t playing the Yankees). I quickly realized that Mets fans are sometimes worse than Red Sox fans in their hate for my favorite team. During the first few months of the season, when the Yankees would inevitably be off to a slow start, I would hear more garbage coming out of Mets fans mouths about how they were the best team in New York. The last two Septembers were especially sweet when the record was set straight (never mind the fact that the 2008 Yanks were choking as well).

That being said, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Shea Stadium, the Mets former home which is now a parking lot.

It was a blue and orange concrete bowl lacking in any sort of definable character, but I always ended up having a great time whenever I got the chance to go. It always seemed to be raining or threatening to rain when I was there which made the stadium seem even more of a dump. It did offer a lovely centerfield view of the scrap yards and auto chop shops as well.

The concerts that I saw there will always be what I’ll remember most about Shea. My second year in college I scored a ticket for Bruce Springsteen and had a blast all by myself. I missed a Bob Dylan guest appearance by a night, but I did get to see former Mets starting pitcher Al Leiter take a turn on the tambourine. Springsteen rocked as always.

I was also lucky enough to see Billy Joel’s "Last Play at Shea” last summer. I can say without a doubt that it was the best concert I’ve ever been to. Joel seemingly played for hours, performing every hit in his lexicon. However, his special guests were what made the night really special.

To begin with, Tony Bennett, in all his 82-year-old splendor, serenaded the crowd with a great version of ”New York State of Mind”. As soon as Joel started into ”Shameless”, Garth Brooks, a favorite of mine since birth, came out wearing a Mets jersey and belted out the song that had ended up being a hit for him. My voice was gone for the rest of the night at that point. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith made an appearance and sang ”Walk This Way” and Roger Daltrey of The Who came on and performed one of the great rock songs of all time, ”My Generation”. If all of this wasn’t enough, Paul McCartney brought the house down with ”I Saw Her Standing There” . The upper deck above my seats was literally shaking up and down uncontrollably. After Joel performed ”Piano Man”, we all figured the concert was over because Joel didn’t have any songs left. McCartney had one up his sleeve however. Along with the rest of The Beatles, he had played the first concert at Shea in 1965 at the start of the group’s famous first U.S. tour. Fittingly, his voice was the one to send Shea off, delivering a stirring version of ”Let it Be”. I had chills for hours.

So even with fond memories of what happened inside Shea, I was not at all sad to see it go. That feeling was justified even further when I walked up to their beautiful new ballpark.

The exterior of the new Citi Field, designed to resemble the Brooklyn Dodgers former home Ebbets Field, has a very distinctive and inviting look. The stadium is surrounded by broad walkways that are lined with trees that made me question whether I was still in Flushing. It definitely succeeds in being a throw back to the past with perfect modern touches. I couldn’t wait to get inside.

Fans are welcomed into the Jackie Robinson Rotunda upon entering the stadium. If you don’t get goose bumps immediately, then you just aren’t a true baseball fan. The sheer history of the room was overwhelming.

The Rotunda puts on display the life and career of the incredible man that broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Robinson not only showed unassailable courage day in and day out on the field during his major league career, but went on to be a tireless advocate of black rights until his death in 1972. Paying tribute to him was a very classy move by the Mets and I hope a new generation of fans will be able to appreciate Robinson’s legacy for years to come.

I went to the game with a good number of people on my softball team, the Noreasters of the BASL. We have an interesting blend of Yankees, Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Red Sox and Phillies fans (okay, just one Philly fan, Brad) which made for a pleasant evening of wise cracks, personal insults and good-natured slams. That choking sound you hear is our third baseman Chris making fun of the Mets’ past two last season collapses.

My buddy Chris’ family’s unending jokes about how high up we were notwithstanding, I thought that we actually had a decent view of the whole field. As long as a ball wasn’t hit to left center or left field, we could see basically everything. Everyone eventually acclimated to the high altitude and the Mets were gracious enough to supply a team of Sherpas to help us up the steep slopes of the upper deck.

The Mets were facing off against the World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies, whose lineup on paper made the Mets batting order seem like it was a Triple A Minor League team. With several of the Mets big hitters (Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado) hurt, Luis Castillo was batting leadoff and Gary Sheffield was batting clean up. With the exception of David Wright and Carlos Beltran, it wasn’t exactly a Murder’s Row compared with Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez of the Phillies. Also, Cole Hamels, last year’s World Series Most Valuable Player, was on the mound coming off several strong starts. The vaunted Phillies sluggers were facing off against Mike Pelfrey. It did not bode well for the Amazin’s.

As always when it comes to me and Chris, we found something to debate about the entire game. I said to him early on that Mr. Met was the best mascot in baseball, maybe even in sports. I mean, you really can’t get better than a mascot with a giant baseball as a head.

He disagreed immediately, saying that other mascots were way better, including the Phillies’ Philly Fanatic. I laughed in his face for this ridiculousness. Trish, the manager of our team and a rabid Mets fans, said it was a no brainer. She said that she couldn’t even think of another mascot in sports, never mind one that was better than Mr. Met. When I mentioned the Philly Fanatic, she told us a story how she had taken her family to a Phillies-Mets game in Philadelphia where the Phillies mascot appeared to urinate on a gorilla wearing a Mets jersey. Our debate ended there, mainly because we were doing our best not to laugh at Trish telling us how scarred she had been. Feel free to weigh in, but I defy anyone to come up with a better mascot.

Chris and I also brought upon ourselves a slew of jokes about how we wore the same hats without any kind of advanced planning. I can’t remember how many times his fiancĂ© rolled her eyes at us, but it was constant throughout the evening. Chris was also sought out by a beer guy who admired his Transformers hooded sweatshirt. The guy then showed us the Autobot symbol and Deceptican symbol tattoos on his forearms. Not to be outdone, Chris showed off his Autobot tattoo on his calf. It had to be one of the nerdiest moments I’ve ever been apart of and that’s saying something.

The game actually ended up being really exciting. Hamels didn’t have a particularly good start, especially considering that Pelfrey ended up with two hits against him, including a double and RBI single. The Mets had numerous chances with the bases loaded to blow the game wide open, but failed to get a big hit. They ended up banging out 16 hits with only four runs to show for it. Utley ended up being the hero in the top of the 11th, smacking his second homerun of the game into the right field seats. The Mets went down quietly in the bottom of the evening.

After the Mets failed to score in the bottom of the tenth, most of our team hit the road. I stuck around until the end however and I got to thinking how much I missed watching baseball in person. After being spoiled at St. John’s, being able to see 60+ games a year at some of the best fields in the country, live baseball games have come few and far between. With the outrageous ticket prices in both stadiums, there’s no telling when my next game might be. It was all about the game during the last couple of innings and I could have sat there all night taking it all in. The constant drowning sound of 40,000 voices talking, cheering and laughing; the crunch of peanut shells under your feet and the taste of beer in your mouth; and the heavenly smell of hot dogs and sausage being grilled seemingly all around you (Noreasters feel free to supply your snide comment here).

Luckily for me, several people stuck around and I got to do what I enjoy most; bullshitting about the game with a wad of sunflower seeds tucked away in my cheek. Our outfielder Dan, also a Mets fan, admitted his former love for the Cincinnati Reds during the Big Red Machine era and impressed us all by listing what seemed like their entire roster. Our shortstop Rachel, who is cool despite her love of the St. Louis Cardinals and Red Sox, Brad and I had an interesting discussion about who was the best player in baseball. We all agreed it was Albert Pujols, but some other interesting names were thrown around, including Joe Mauer and Hanley Ramirez. I still don’t agree with Brad that Pujols will rival Ted Williams as the best hitter in baseball, but can agree that he’ll be in the top five if he continues his brilliant start to his career. It was a great way to end the night, especially after watching Brad jump out of his skin when Utley hit the game breaking homerun.

As I made my way out of the stadium, I couldn’t help but be thoroughly impressed by the new Citi Field. As Brad accurately pointed out, it has a real small town ballpark feel to it. It is sparkling clean, completely distinct from its Bronx counterpart and just an enjoyable place to be all around. I think I’ll leave the final words to the drunken Mets fan who provided a couple of innings of entertainment trying to incite the upper deck to do the wave.

Let’s go Mets!

A Good Man

Unfortunately, I have to end this post on a sad note. My Uncle Jimmy passed away this past week after battling an illness. If you look up Frenchman in the dictionary, odds are there is a picture of my uncle next to the entry. He was a short, stubborn, muscle-bound, scrappy guy who had a laugh that filled up the whole room. I have no doubt that he is now with his older brothers sitting around a poker and trying to drink each other under the table. Should you be enjoying a Sunday cocktail, please raise a toast with me to a good man who deserved a longer line of credit.

Godspeed Uncle Jimmy. You will be missed.