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!

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