Sunday, August 9, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan: How did you get involved in the Mainers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil: Keep your night job.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Lord's Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Yankees hopes were still alive and so were ours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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