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.

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