Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day Remembrances

I wanted to take some time this Sunday to look back at the brave baseball men that gave up the sunshine of their youths to serve their country in World War II and Korea. It wasn’t only the well known players, such as Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, who gallantly signed up for what could have been a death sentence. I wanted to make sure the lesser known players were remembered for their dedication and patriotism. So while you enjoy your family barbeques and dipping your feet into your pool for the first time this Monday, take a moment and remember that we are all apart of something bigger. These men took up arms so we could enjoy these moments. Have a happy, healthy and loving Memorial Day!

Bob Feller

Everyone who knows baseball knows who Bob Feller is. Recently, he has made no secret of his feelings regarding the Steroid Era, saying that anyone who is caught using them doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. In my opinion, Feller has more than earned the right to say whatever he wants about the game or anything else for that matter. He joined the Air Force during the prime of his career and spent the war as a Gun Captain aboard the USS Alabama. He ended up with five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars, according to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Around those war years, Feller was one of the best pitchers in the American League. He won 24, 27 and 25 games for the Cleveland Indians in the years leading up to 1942. He also led the league in strikeouts from 1938 to 1941 with 240, 246, 261 and 260. He pitched in 343 innings his last year before the war; something that would be unheard of in today’s game.

Feller continued his winning ways after the war, winning 26 and 20 games in 1946 and 1947. He struck out 348 batters in 371.1 innings in 1946. That same year he finished with 36 complete games and 10 shutouts. He didn’t win the Cy Young Award that year because it didn’t exist yet. He did finish sixth in the voting for the Most Valuable Player Award.

Feller finished his career in 1956, winning 20 games only one more time in 1951. He finished his career with 266 victories, 2,581 strikeouts and 279 complete games. The war robbed him of 300 wins, but not our respect. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1962.

Taffy Wright

Taffy Wright played for the Washington Senators, Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Athletics in his nine year career.

He hit .300 or better in the five years before he entered the war in 1942. In 1940, he hit .337 with 196 hits and 88 RBI for the White Sox. In 85 games in 1942, he hit .332 with a .432 on base percentage and only struck out nine times.

He stumbled to a .275 batting average in his first year back from the war, but came back to hit .324 in 1947. He finished his career with a career average of .311 with 1,115 hits. It’s interesting to think of whether he could have been a Hall of Fame hitter with four more prime years under his belt.

Johnny Schmitz

Johnny Schmitz pitched 13 seasons for seven different teams from 1941-1956. He led the league in strikeouts in 1946 after serving in World War II. His best season came in 1948. Playing for the Chicago Cubs, he won 18 games with an E.R.A. of 2.64. He had 18 complete games and pitched in 242 innings. He finished 12th in the MVP voting that season.

Schmitz ended up with only 93 wins in his career, but with a respectable E.R.A. of 3.55. He finished with 86 complete games and 16 shutouts.

He also had one of the best nicknames I’ve come across; “Bear Tracks”. I don’t know how he got it, but I’d trust a guy on the mound who had a nickname like that.

Enos Slaughter

Speaking of great names, Enos Slaughter has one of the best. Even his nickname, “Country” was cool. He seemed to be named to be a hitter and that’s exactly what he did.

Slaughter played most of his best years for the St. Louis Cardinals. Before he entered the war in 1942, he led the league in hits (188), triples (17) and total bases (292). He hit .300 or better four times between 1938 and 1942.

In 1949, he hit .336 with 191 hits, including a league leading 13 triples. He drove in 96 runs and finished in the top three in MVP voting. I hadn’t realized he played two seasons for the New York Yankees in 1957 and 1958. He hit .304 in the later year with 138 hits in just 77 games.

He finished his career with a .300 batting average with 2,383 hits. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1985.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hardball Heart Guest:
Dustin Hockensmith

Throughout my time working with the baseball team at St. John’s, I became close to an unbelievable array of talented people, none more so in my opinion, then this week’s Hardball Heart Guest. He brought a welcome blend of wittiness and spirit when he became the Sports Information Director and blew us all away with his writing skills. We bonded on crappy road trips to places like Lubbock and South Bend, drunkenly guided each other home after benders in the city and survived more than one meal together at Qdboa. Welcome fantasy sports writer extraordinaire Dustin Hockensmith!

Dan: I wanted to get this question out of the way as soon as possible. What is your favorite embarrassing story about me when I was the manager for St. John’s Baseball?

Dustin:Trying to think here, and I can only come up with one embarrassing story about myself and one general, embarrassing theme for you. It's not one story as much as a collection of stories about you that comprise your interesting, to say the least, relationship history. This isn't a good forum to relive all those, but it is to relive the day at the old “The Ballpark at St. John's” when the national anthem tape wouldn't play. I had to have cursed, what, 50 times in 30 seconds, just furious about the fact that all 9 fans in the house were gawking up at us in disbelief. Then, turns out, it wasn't a technical malfunction at all, just the stupidest kind of operator error. Who knew the volume knob had to be turned up when you wanted sound to come out???

Dan: Where did your passion for sports originate from? What sports did you play growing up and what player(s) did you look up to? Which sport would you consider your favorite?

Dustin:I can't even think back to a day when I didn't have a passion for sports, and older brothers are the reason for that. They went off and found their passions first, then it was hard to not follow suit. Their interest level in sports was, and still is, through the roof, and mine has been the exact same. But, since I was the bat boy for their T-ball teams at the tender age of 2, I've felt some kind of cosmic connection to baseball. And when the time came where I could no longer play, I made a real point of staying connected to the game. In college, it was getting involved with the Penn State program, then traveling and learning from a scout, then working with the Maryland program, covering the Baltimore Orioles, working at St. John's, and now, writing a baseball blog at

Dan: You went to Penn State for your undergrad degree and worked as a sports information assistant for a couple of years. What was that experience like and how did you develop your interest in writing? Who were some of the writers that you looked up to?

Dustin:I knew Penn State was where I wanted to go, didn't even consider other schools. Part of me knew that some kind of opportunity was around the corner in sports, that such a big athletics program could give me a good chance to get involved. The experience didn't disappoint, either. Once I transferred from a tiny branch campus to State College my junior year, I got involved with the field hockey team, and a couple of months later, I was flying with them to Louisville to do PR at the national championship game. At that point, I realized that a.) maybe I had some kind of talent for this, and b.) maybe it was worth my 100 percent dedication to see if I could make a career of it.

I have no regrets about the fact that I studied finance and economics in college, but I wish I'd explored writing a little further. The business program at Penn State required very little coursework in English, and my studies involved next to no writing. It didn't dawn on me until after graduation that, yeah, I can write a little bit, and, yeah, maybe I should explore that talent.

Dan: Your first job out of school was at the University of Maryland? What was that like?

Dustin:Maryland was really an awesome experience. Working with the baseball program was a fantastic opportunity to see what legitimate talent looks like and to live life in one of the premier baseball conferences in the country. What I couldn't have seen coming was just how incredible and interesting life would be on the road with the team. You can attest to the fact that 25 collegiate baseball players make up the funniest, goofiest, craziest travel party you can imagine.

Working with the football program was really cool, too. I was in the locker room five times a week, getting to know the players, watching practices, seeing games from the sidelines. All kinds of things that the average fan would love to do. And a couple of the things I always find myself bragging about are a friendship I had with linebacker Shawne Merriman, who's now a stud in the NFL, and watching Merriman and tight end Vernon Davis, a top 10 draft pick turned dud in the NFL, do battle against each other in practice.

Dan: After your stint there, you worked at ESPN for a couple of months as a reporter for their Sports Ticker. Did you enjoy that experience and how did it help you hone your craft?

Dustin:Eye-opening, without a doubt. I knew right away that kind of journalism wasn't for me, especially when I'd nearly crap my pants every time I walked into a major league clubhouse. The first question I asked was at Victor Martinez of the Cleveland Indians, who responded “Don't ask me about my hitting.” Uhh, okay Victor, "what's your favorite breakfast food, and why?" I didn't really say that, just walked away from him with my tail between my legs.

One of my other signature moments as a SportsTicker reporter was kicking Paul Konerko's water bottle over as I approached him for an interview. He couldn't stand the thought of talking to me anyway, then I was a clumsy moron and he immediately hated my guts.

I will say, though, that walking around a clubhouse was a great place to people watch, to see how players acted off the field. I remember being impressed by Coco Crisp, thinking he didn't act or talk like a guy named "Coco." Jhonny Peralta’s demeanor impressed me, too, he just looked like he'd be a solid major leaguer. Todd Helton was tiny and kind of a jerk. CC Sabathia was as big as a house and hit 100 on the radar gun at Camden Yards.

Dan: You came to St. John’s during my senior year. You started working for the two consistently winning teams in the athletic department, baseball and soccer. You also worked with the basketball team during the winter as well. What are some of your memories from your time there?

Dustin:Well, it was a tough gig. Not a lot of personal time, and not a lot of opportunities to catch my breath during the year. From mid-August until mid-June, I was working at least six days a week. I don't know of another position in the athletic department that required such involvment from start to finish of the sports season. Still, I have no complaints about it. I got to work closely with the three most appealing sports that St. John's has to offer.

My best memories were with the baseball program, no question. It's a hell of a lot of work, and you have to work every, single day from February through June, but it never felt like work. All the travel, even when the trips were logistical nightmares, was my favorite part of the job. I loved arriving at the ballpark, playing catch in the outfield, shagging fly balls at practice, sitting in the dugout, just having the chance to get to know the guys and spend so much time with the team.

Dan: You also worked with the basketball team, which gets all of the attention when they are in season. How different was it working for them and then coming out on the road with baseball? Talk to me about the long train ride you had when you joined us on the road in South Carolina one weekend.

Dustin:From strictly a job perspective, the difference between working with the baseball and basketball teams was night and day. Promoting the baseball team practically involved begging for attention, even though it had so much success. Promoting the basketball team involved less work in that regard, but there was more scrutiny on the players and coaches and more pressure on you.

I made the decision to make that long train ride from New York to South Carolina, which was brutal by the way. My services were needed in both places, so I elected to stay with the basketball team as it fought to make the Big East Tournament, then make the trip to South Carolina on my own. Little did I know, it was going to be 12 hours of planes, trains and automobiles to actually get there.

Dan: Other than me providing unintentional comedy on a daily basis, we had a lot of characters on the team we worked together with. What stands out in your mind?

Dustin:Everybody on the team had a personality. Scott Barnes - the aloof talent. Justin Gutsie - the dumb guy, who wasn't as dumb as he let on. Matt Tosoni - the typical Canadian. Jeff Grantham - the scholarly shortstop. Sam DeLuca - the big leaguer. Anthony Smith - the proud son of gung-ho parents. I could keep going. Each player and coach had something about them that I won't ever forget.

Dan: Since we were on the road quite a bit during the early spring, you, Brien (“The Big Guy”) our athletic trainer and I became pretty good friends. Is there any story that you remember more than others involving the three of us?

Dustin:Hmm ... not really, to be honest. Three years later, and the specific memories just kind of fade away. I'll always remember your personalities and having a blast on all the road trips, but I'll need some help with the specifics. The question is, is there any story that YOU remember more than others?

Dan:I remember feeling like crap on a trip to Norte Dame and Brien introducing me to Blue Moon beer. That was a life altering moment and we all ended up getting pretty drunk. That brought to mind a story involving just me and you. We were at a real dive bar in Queens and watching the Floyd Mayweather -Oscar del a Hoya fight with a really rough crowd. They gave us our Blue Moon in the most flamboyant glasses with a huge orange slice hanging off the end while everyone around us had bottles of Rolling Rock and Miller High Life. I have never been that self-conscious drinking a beer.

Dan: Of the players we worked with who are playing in the minor leagues, who has impressed you the most?

Dustin:Well, Scott Barnes was the most gifted. He had good stuff -- not elite, can't-miss stuff -- but he was so athletic and so capable of repeating his delivery over and over again. And as Texas Coach Augie Garrido said at the NCAA Tournament last year, he just got tougher and tougher with runners on base. It's easy to see why he's regarded as one of the San Francisco Giants' top prospects now.

Rob Delaney, you just have to be happy for him. He was pretty average his senior year, let's be honest, but he's gone on and had quite a bit of success in the Twins' organization. Time will tell if he ever puts on a big league uniform, but he's given himself a chance after signing as a free agent. That's impressive.

Brendan Monaghan, same deal. He may not have the athleticism or reach the big leagues or have an extensive career, but he had just incredible leadership ability and work ethic. He also was mature, studied hard and treated people with respect.

Once again, I'd have something positive to say about all of them, so I'll just stop right there for the sake of saving space.

Dan: How much Aquista’s, Double J’s and Q’doba do you think you ate during your time at St. John’s? Which one made you feel the worst?

Dustin:Great question, typical Daniel Ford humor. I ate disgusting amounts of all three. Aquista's at every home baseball and basketball game. Double J's for lunch at least three times a week. Q'doba for lunch and dinner at least three times a week. It was more of a surprise when I was eating anything but that stuff.

Buffalo chicken pizza from Aquista's made me feel the worst, I think. A close second was Q'doba, and the sensation it gave you that an army of exotic spices was tearing you apart from the inside. But damn, it was good going down.

Dan: In August 2007, you decided to leave St. John’s to start your own website that focused on fantasy baseball. What led to that decision?

Dustin:What didn't lead to that decision? It was about family, it was personal, it was professional, it involved a lot of things. I wanted a job that led me closer to my family, and launching a web site allowed me to choose where I could live. After some pretty stressful years after college, I also needed to take some time and "find myself." And lastly, I wanted to try and write on a full-time basis, to just dedicate myself to the craft and improve as much as I could.

Turns out, there couldn't have been a worse time to a.) take about 70 percent pay cut, and b.) get involved in the newspaper business. Live and learn, I guess.

Dan: What’s the name of your site and how has it evolved since you launched it?

Dustin:The last of our sites still standing is a baseball blog called Imaginary Diamond. We got started covering baseball, basketball and football, and we got to a point where we had three mediocre sites and not one great one. So, we trimmed down, focused on baseball, and started seeing some better results. Recently, we signed a partnership with a group of guys who created Yahoo! Sports, left, and started a site called For the first time, we have a semi-steady, if very moderate, revenue stream.

Dan: Why do you think fantasy baseball has taken off the way it has in the last ten years? What goes into planning your fantasy draft and how early do you start that process? What’s your best finish so far?

Dustin:Fantasy baseball has been around for a long time, but the progress of the internet and fans' senses of entitlement have played big roles in its surge in popularity. Fans want, even demand, to be part of the action, and fantasy baseball lets them do it in any way they can possibly imagine.

Having a successful draft is a process, for sure. I use average draft rankings -- i.e., the study on where other drafters are selecting players -- and practice a few times before the real thing. What I end up with is the market for players, when I can expect them to go off the board, my opinions, and as much information I can possibly gather on players. So much happens in the off-season, it's a real chore to catch up on all the news.

Dan: What do you think about all the new stats that have come out in recent years, such as WHIP, OPS and all the defensive stats? Why do you think stats seem to mean more in baseball than they do in other sports?

Dustin:Baseball is by far the most numbers-driven sport there is. Just by nature, you can assign probabilities to practically everything, then have a big enough sample size for the numbers tend to hold true.

And because so many baseball actions are so quantifiable, innovation in statistics can create an advantage for managers and general managers. A team like the Oakland A's, made so famous in the book ”Moneyball” have used all kinds of measures to find underrated free agents and amateur players. And just as they brought on-base percentage and OPS measures into the mainstream, they shifted to defensive statistics and started finding value there.

So many great minds are dedicated to baseball statistics now; it's mind-blowing how far they've come in a short amount of time. Statistics will continue to evolve as long as innovators keep finding new ways to quantify the game.

Dan: You came over to the dark side when we were working together and became a Yankee fan. What do you think of the year they’ve had so far and do you think they will be in the playoffs this year? What other teams do you think are good this year?

Dustin:The Yankees have dealt with a lot so far. And in typical Yankee fashion, they sling money around, get a bunch of ill-fitting, high-priced parts, and hope they fit together. I'm not sure that this group fits together well enough to make the playoffs, let alone win the American League East or be worthy World Series favorites.

But, the best days are ahead of them. Mark Teixeira is a slow starter. CC Sabathia, at least in the last two seasons, is a slow starter. Alex Rodriguez is just coming back. There's still a chance, but that's a tough division to give away games early and hope to come storming back.

Even with Manny Ramirez being suspended for 50 games, I still like the Dodgers in the National League. I also like the Cardinals and Phillies, two teams that weren't getting nearly as much attention as they deserved.

In the American League, I saw the Royals' success coming. Never saw such dominance from ace Zack Greinke, but liked the balance in their lineup, their efforts to improve the bullpen, and the abilities of young closer Joakim Soria. Those pieces, combined with an unpredictable AL Central, give them a chance to make a Tampa Bay Rays -type run this season.

Dan: You are also the online editor for the Patriot-News a local Pennsylvania newspaper. What’s been the most interesting story you’ve covered so far?

Dustin:Well, the editing process, which I'm told is where the money is at in journalism -- I've still yet to see any -- is more about facilitating, training, reading, generating headlines, stuff like that. So, since I've taken this post, I've done next to no writing. Prior to that, I was working as a part-timer and a stringer in the sports department, and I covered every kind of story imaginable. Boxing, mixed martial arts, swimming, bull riding, semi-pro football, softball, lacrosse, you name it.

This is no doubt an interesting time for newspapers. We either sink or we swim. And if we swim, we may just be treading water until we actually sink, too. Nobody is quite sure. We're in OK shape with our circulation numbers, but where we're struggling is in advertising dollars. When times are tough, the first cuts usually made by businesses are in their advertising budgets.

Dan: On Facebook, I noticed one of your interests is bowling. Are you any good?

Dustin:Some friends and I got into a "winter" bowling league last year that actually lasted from September until April. I got off to a slow start, peaked about two-thirds of the way into the season, then just crashed and burned down the stretch. My average finished just below 170, which is OK for a first try, I think.

I was good and bad in bowling for the same reasons I was good and bad at sports like golf and baseball. I'm competitive and mildly athletic, so the motions and techniques are never the problem. I also just happen to be a head case that gets too caught up in the moment and consumed with doubt.

I can understand perfectly where guys like Dontrelle Willis and Zack Greinke are coming from. The body can be willing, but sometimes the mind just gets in the way.

I'm willing to bet that was way more than you bargained for with such a simple question.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Texas Nightmare, Frank Viola and Mom

I slumped into my seat on the bus.

My head throbbed and I could feel my blood seeping into the paper towel I had pressed up against my forehead. I was doing my best not to make eye contact with anyone sitting around me. I could hear snickers and I’m sure they were meant for me. I tried to put them out of my mind and relax as the bus started to drive out of the stadium’s parking lot.

Suddenly I panicked.

I bounded out of my seat and looked in the overhead compartment. I rifled through the bag I had on the seat next to me and came up with nothing. I nervously sat back down and tried to think of some way to tell the coaching staff the bad news. I forgot to grab our expensive brand new digital video camera when we left.

“Do any of you have the camera?” I asked the coaches courageously. “I think I left it by one of your bags, but I don’t see it here.”

No response. I started to break into a sweat.

I retraced my steps starting from when the game ended. I remembered I put the camera case down near the coaches’ bags so I could go get the bats that had been confiscated by the umpires for being too dented. Eager to get back to the team bus as soon as possible to get a head count, I sprinted toward the umpire’s locker room that was behind the home team’s dugout underneath the bleachers. I ran head first into a low hanging steel beam.

My knees buckled immediately and I bit my tongue hard. The next thing I knew I was flat out on the ground and seeing stars. Everything was fuzzy when I stood up. A parent from the other team came up to me and asked me if I was okay. I nodded, which hurt like hell. After collecting the bats and getting strange looks from the umpiring crew, I rushed into the bathroom, wiped my forehead off and walked as fast as I could to the bus.

“We have to go back!” I yelped. “The camera is on the field, I left it there. We need to go back and get it!”

I watched as the coaches looked at each other. Coach Hampton, the head assistant, turned around in his seat. I braced for my well-deserved tongue lashing.

Instead, he reached behind him and presented me with the lost camera.

“Let one of us know next time that you need us to grab the camera for you,” he said, a smile starting to break out on his face. “You should have heard yourself just now. And what happened to your head?”

Too embarrassed to explained, I told him it was nothing and slumped back in my seat in disgrace.

I was on my second road trip as the equipment manager for St. John’s University Baseball. I had accepted the job the previous fall and spent much of the early practices and scrimmages trying to wrap my head around what I had gotten myself into. I tried to absorb enough knowledge from my friend Derek who had the job before me, but it was in large part a trial by fire.

Between going to class and doing homework, I had to more or less be a team mother to over 25 players, many of whom were four years older than me. I did everything from laundry, videotaping hitters and pitchers, field maintenance, study hall monitoring and deflecting the practical jokes thrown my way.

By the time of our first road trip to Arkansas, I felt like I had already worked for a full season and was ready for a break. That first trip actually went smoothly. I survived my first ever plane flight; I didn’t forget any gear or lose any uniforms; and I managed to organize every meal in the hotel without a hitch. I did, for a minute, think I left Coach Hampton’s brand new phone in the visiting team’s locker room, but was excited to find it in my jacket pocket.

Going into our second trip, a week in East Texas, I knew I probably wasn’t going to be as lucky. I was right. Almost getting knocked out cold was only the start of my Texas nightmare. After taking two of three from Lamar University (who was ranked in the top 25 going into that weekend), we were headed to play Sam Houston State. We stopped to eat at McDonald’s before setting out on our two and a half hour bus trip. After getting something in my stomach, I felt a lot better about things and vowed that the rest of the trip was going to be mistake free.

That, unfortunately, did not last long.

Since we were in between hotels, all the players and coaches had their suits hanging up around the bus as it’s a school policy to travel in suit and tie on an airplane. Coach Blankmeyer asked me to get a head count before we got on the road. I got up from my seat and peeked around the obstacles to ensure that everyone was on board. I gave the bus driver a thumbs up and the bus roared to life. I sat back down eager to get some shut eye after what had already been a long day.

“Hey, we’re missing someone,” a player said from the back of the bus.

My skin went ice cold. My eyes shot open and the bus screeched to a halt. All of the coaches looked back in my direction. I sheepishly looked out the window and back toward the McDonald’s. Sure enough, three very confused St. John’s players were standing by the door holding ice cream cones.

“What’s the matter with you today Danny,” Blankmeyer said mockingly. “These suits can’t play baseball.”

The entire bus exploded in outright laughter. I couldn’t shrink down in my seat far enough. For the rest of the ride I remember gazing out into the nothingness of Texas and wanting to jump off the bus with it going as fast as possible. I’d either be crushed by the wheels or be left to wander the Texas heartland forever.

I didn’t talk to anyone the whole way to our dinky roadside hotel. I remember rushing off the bus, flopping down on the bed and hoping never to see the outside world again. I pulled the flat, overused pillow over my head and was determined to pass out until we had to leave for our team dinner.

Of course, the phone rang minutes later. Our volunteer assistant coach, Chris Carminucci wanted to have a word with me. I hung up with a horrible feeling in my stomach. I thought they were about to fire me in the middle of nowhere in Texas and leave me to find a way home all by myself. I expected the worse when I walked slowly and insecurely into his room.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. He spent a half hour pumping me up. He understood that I was having a tough time trying to learn the job. He gave me tips to improve my management skills such as being early to the bus to keep track of everyone getting on and off. He assured me that the coaches all liked me and things would get easier everyday. He told me story after story how awkward he was when he started out coaching and that staying positive was what got him through the rough stretches. Call it cliché if you will, but everything he said hit home at that moment. I left the room feeling more confident and was resolved to make my stamp on the job.

I wish I could say the trip was all roses after that, but it got even worse. However, it became a collective nightmare instead of just mine. We lost a few close games and got blown out by a team that we should have murdered and left for dead. I had to spend our off day washing uniforms using the hotel’s tiny washer and dryer since there wasn’t a laundry mat within 100 miles. The last four days in Texas, we had to eat Subway because it was the only thing open when our games ended. It didn’t help that the hot sandwiches we ordered earlier ended up being cold by the time we picked it up. I don’t know how many of you would feel after eating a cold foot-long meatball sub everyday, but we were on the edge of mutiny by the end of the trip.

The one good thing I remember clearly from that trip, other than leaving, was after we won our first game of the season against Lamar. I was standing outside the hotel in Beaumont waiting for Pizza Hut to deliver 33 pies and Coach Hampton walked by.

“Winning feels pretty good, doesn’t it Danny?” he asked.

“It’s the best feeling in the world Coach!” I said exuberantly grinning from ear to ear.

He looked at me for a moment, shook his head and couldn’t help but smile back.

“You’re good shit Danny,” he replied. “I don’t care what they say about you.”

We returned to New York with only a couple of wins to feel good about, but certainly not empty handed. We all learned more about each other and what we were capable of. I kept on learning that year and, in spite of finding new ways to humiliate myself, endeared myself to the whole team. I got to watch 25 talented players win more than their fair share of great baseball games and learn how to be a man all at the same time.

I'm sure I'll share more stories from my time at St. John's, but for now, I'll leave you with this one. I think I'll raise a toast to Texas and pray I never have to go back!

Player Spotlight

St. John’s Baseball has a long history of producing Major League Baseball talent. Two of the most famous alumni are John Franco and Frank Viola. Both were drafted out in the 1981 MLB Draft (Viola in Round 2; Franco in Round 5) and both went on to have distinguished Major League careers. For the first of what I assume will be many St. John’s related posts, I wanted to focus exclusively on Viola. I actually had a chance to talk with him after he did the telecast of one of our games that was broadcasted by ESPN. What I’ll remember the most though is shaking his hand. He had the most enormous hands I’ve ever seen in my life. My hand literally disappeared when we shook.

At St. John's, Viola won a combined 20 games in his last two years with E.R.A.'s of 2.16 and 0.87. In 1980, he guided the Johnnies to an appearance in the College World Series and pitched a four-hitter to win their opening game against the Arizona Wildcats(who ended up winning the Series that year).

Viola had his best years in the Major Leagues as a member of the Minnesota Twins. In 1987, he won two games in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, including the deciding seventh game to give the Twins there first championship in Minnesota (they had won the Series previously as the Washington Senators in 1924). He ended up being awarded the World Series MVP. The next year, he had one of the great seasons for a pitcher in Major League history. Viola won 24 games, had an E.R.A. of 2.64 and pitched seven complete games, including two shutouts. He was awarded the Cy Young Award at the end of the year.

After a rough 1989 season, during which he was traded to the New York Mets, Viola rebounded with another 20 win season in 1990. He led the league with 249⅔ innings and 35 games started. He finished with an E.R.A of 2.67, seven complete games and three shutouts. He finished third in the Cy Young Award voting.

Viola played one more year for the Mets and then spent the last five years of his career with the Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds and Toronto Blue Jays. He ended up with 176 career wins, 74 complete games and 16 shutouts. He finished with a career E.R.A. of 3.73. He retired in 1996.

Frank Viola after beating Arizona in the 1980 College World Series (photo courtesy of St. John's Baseball).

Happy Mother's Day

I want to wish a Happy Mother's Day to my mother. She knew exactly how to deal with her four baseball obsessed boys and ended up becoming a bigger Yankee fan than all of us combined. She yells at the TV, gushes over Jeter and closes her eyes when the game is on the line in the ninth inning. My life wouldn't be the same without her. Enjoy your day Mom and I love you very much!

Baseball Sunday Guest

Throughout my time working with the baseball team at St. John’s, I became close to an unbelievable array of talented people, none more so in my opinion, then this week’s Baseball Sunday Guest:. He brought a welcome blend of wittiness and spirit when he became the Sports Information Director and blew us all away with his writing skills. We bonded on crappy road trips to places like Lubbock and South Bend, drunkenly guided each other home after benders in the city and survived more than one meal together at Q'dboa. Our conversation went on longer than either of us thought, so I decided to let it stand as its own post. Please come back tomorrow to check out my conversation with fantasy sports writer extraordinaire Dustin Hockensmith!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Meet the Noreasters!

I never imagined I would be the last Ford playing organized baseball, ahem, softball.

My family projected Pat to be playing throughout college and I figured Tom’s arm would have to literally fall off his body before he stopped playing in his twilight league. I always had a more peripheral relationship to the game and thought that when I walked off the field after a playoff loss when I was sixteen I’d never be in a uniform ever again.

I was wrong.

During my interview with my buddy Chris, we talked about what it meant to play on our softball team, the Noreasters. After an exciting doubleheader on Saturday, I thought it would be the perfect time to introduce everyone to the team that has become like a family to me.

I first joined the team three years ago after Chris’ blind endorsement. He knew the team needed an outfielder and was satisfied with all the bragging I had done about my stellar outfield work seven years prior. He could see I was hungry to play and he did everything to sell me to the manager of the team. Without seeing me play, she reserved a roster spot for me.

It was a gray afternoon on Randall’s Island when I first stepped on the field as a member of the Noreasters, a team in the Rainbow Division of the Big Apple Softball League. It was an exhibition game against an all-women team from a different league.

I was quiet throughout most of the game, concentrating on swinging the bat and learning everyone’s name. I remember making a nice catch in the outfield and then forgetting there was a runner on first with only one out. That’s when I was first introduced to Chris screaming like an idiot for me to throw the ball to the infield. I also hit my first homerun in that game, a deep drive to centerfield that I had no trouble legging out. Our catcher tried to convince me I broke a lamppost out there, which looked like it had been bent in half by a car eons ago.

That game ended after Chris maimed a woman sliding into second base with an errant throw. He had moved to shortstop from centerfield. He fielded a groundball cleanly and then side-armed to our second baseman, who had no chance of catching it. The woman crumpled to the ground as the ball hit her square in the head. She was helped off the field and was pretty out of it for awhile. She ended up being O.K. and Chris sparingly played the infield after that, mainly because we are now required by law to alert the paramedics whenever he’s playing any infield position.

My first season was truly special. We made it to the championship game and played hard despite being overwhelmed by the best team in the league in the end. As much fun as we had on the field, we had even more off of it. We were always joking around, picking on each other and finding new ways to gross everyone out. It was the perfect atmosphere for someone who was trying to find himself again.

When I joined the team, I had made the decision to leave grad school; I was extricating myself from an awful relationship; and I was struggling to make ends meet every month. Everyone on the team made all of it easier to bear without even trying. Starting with my amazing manager Trish, everyone gave me the confidence and assurance that I was a good guy and good things were bound to happen to me if I just kept working hard. We felt like a family despite our differences in ages and backgrounds. We loved to win and perform well individually, but if neither happened, it was nothing a couple of margaritas couldn’t fix at Arriba, Arriba after the game.

I started my third year this past Saturday, with a team MVP award in my pocket no less (sorry to keep piling on Chris).

The night before the game, I lovingly re-oiled my glove and got everything ready for the following afternoon. I had my cleats, sweatbands, black socks and batting gloves all packed into my softball bag. I wore all three of my hats for at least five minutes each in an attempt to decide which one I would wear tomorrow. I ended up throwing all of them into the bag in case I wanted (or needed to in the event of a crappy performance) to switch up my look for the second game of the doubleheader. After filling up my water bottles and putting them in the fridge, I went to sleep with dreams of rounding the bases after collecting a clutch hit to win the game.

I left my apartment the next morning preparing my mind for the game. I had the song Victory 2004 blaring out of my headphones. When I’m trying to get my mind focused, I think about everything and I think about nothing. At times, I visualize the ball getting hit in my direction in left field and what I’m going to do to catch it or stop it from going behind me on a base hit. Other times, all I’m thinking about is the rhythm of the music and the hop in my step as I make my way to the bus.

A lot of things can throw me off my mental preparation ritual, none worse than the breakdown of public transportation. To reach Randall’s Island from Astoria, I have to take the M60 over the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge to 125th St and then take the M35 back over the bridge and onto Randall’s Island. Usually, it doesn’t take me long at all, however since it was my first game back after my vacation, it took over an hour. I waited a half hour for the bus at 125th St; it took me ten minutes to actually get on the bus and it took forever for the bus to get me to the field we were playing on. It was far from an ideal start and led to me practically blowing out my ear drums by cranking the volume on my iPod all the way up because I was so angry.

It was only the second time ever Chris had beaten me to the field. The first was last year before the start of the playoffs. My girlfriend convinced me it would be a good idea to walk over the RFK Bridge to get to the game. That was another hour of my life I’ll never get back. We ended up playing three games that day and getting bounced out of the playoffs. It was the longest day ever with absolutely nothing to show for it except sore legs and a hangover the next day. Chris blames my walk over the bridge entirely.

I was actually pretty nervous coming into today. Last year, I had worked out vigorously several weeks before the season started. I did sprints, lifted weights and made sure I was eating right to get myself in the best shape to help the team win a championship. This year however, owing to a hectic work environment, going back to school (actually doing the homework this time) and outright laziness, I am far from being in great shape. I thought I would be a hot mess out there in the field and at the plate. I wasn’t worried so much about not being good anymore, since I’ve been there before, but I wouldn’t have been able to withstand the ridicule from Chris and everyone else.

As soon as I grabbed my glove, everything felt the same. Chris and I started to throw in the outfield to warm up our arms and it was like the long winter never happened. My mind went right back to focusing on what I needed to do on every play and how I was going to approach every at-bat. Before I knew it, the first inning was in the books and I was waiting for my first chance at the plate.

Our leadoff hitter, Bill, is a hitting machine. Well, he was before me and our shortstop Brad jinxed him. While we were taking practice swings, we mentioned how Bill had probably hit .900 last season. “It’s amazing how he does it holding a beer in one hand,” Brad joked. “I actually think he had four cigarettes in this at-bat so far,” I joked right back. Predictably, Bill ended up flying out to the outfield. Brad and I vowed never to make fun of Bill again, but the damage had already been done. He went hitless for the day.

With two runners on base, I stepped to the plate. I love hitting with runners in scoring position. There is no way I’m not bringing them in. Whether it’s a sacrifice fly, a ground ball to the left side or a screaming line drive, I’m putting the RBI in the bank. I walked confidently up to the batter's box. I made sure my batting gloves were on as tight as possible and then rubbed my hands in the dirt. Then, I rubbed my hands together and gripped the bat. I settled into my stance. I watched the pitcher start into his delivery and tapped my bat twice on my shoulder. I let the first pitch go by. It was called a strike. I took a deep breath and rearranged the dirt I was standing on. The second pitch sailed in and I swung. It was a line drive up the middle; two runs came into score.

It was a good start to my 2009 softball season.

As usual, anytime we play the Ball Breakers, the game ends up being close. We were down by a couple runs going into the last inning. I ended up getting on base and Brad smacked a ball that ended up splitting the outfielders. I’m not the fleetest of foot on the base paths, so when Brad turned the corner at first, he started screaming at the top of his lungs, “You better run Ford!” The ball ended up past a line of rocks that designated the play a ground rule double. We now had the winning runs on base for our catcher that day, Jonathan.

Jonathan laced a ball into the outfield and I started clapping as I ran to touch home plate. I turned around and saw Jonathan taking the biggest turn I’ve ever seen at second base. I looked toward the outfield and saw that the ball had split the outfielders and was rolling into deep right center field. Jonathan chugged home with a game winning three run homerun! The entire team was shouting and swarming around him as he attempted to catch his breath. For reasons passing understanding, Brad grabbed him and threw him into the fence. Jonathan let us know later that because of the lack of oxygen, he didn’t feel us pounding on him.

We now had an hour and a half to kill before our next game, so some of us decided to grab food at a nearby concessions stand. Trish reiterated to everyone that we weren’t going to sit down and relax, because when we do that, we usually play like crap the next game. Everyone got their food quickly…..except for Chris and I.

We had ordered hot dogs, but according to the hostess, our receipt “blew away” and they hadn’t made them yet. Trish glared at the guy who finally threw them on the grill until we were given out food. Meanwhile, everyone got to sit down and enjoy the nice weather and relax, exactly what Trish wanted to avoid.

We did end up losing the second game, but we played hard throughout the whole game and only lost by a couple of runs. I ended up being the last out in fulfillment of the Ford curse. It never fails that in a tight game a Ford will come up with two outs and the game on the line…..and make an out. It happened to Tom; it happened to Pat; and it’s happened to me more times than I can remember. In this at-bat, at least I hit the ball hard and the outfielder had to make a great catch to end the game. It took all Chris had not to burst out into an MVP chant.

Over margaritas and light beer, Trish instituted a ban on the concessions stand in between games. It may not have had anything to do with the loss, but we weren’t taking any more chances.

We have a championship to win.