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.