Sunday, April 10, 2011

Brothers, Baseball, and Beer: The Art of Playing Catch

The search began as soon as the day started to break toward spring.

The porch, the shed, the cellar, and my parents’ cars turned up nothing. I scanned the front and back yards cautiously. I didn’t want to discover that its final resting place ended up being a soggy piece of lawn recently buried under two feet of ice and snow. I came up empty no matter where I looked. I took a slug of my beer dejectedly. I was ready to concede defeat and suffer through yet another weekend without a sacred early spring ritual.

That’s when my eyes fixated on my younger brother Pat’s closet door. I was fairly certain that he had thoroughly investigated it, but with no other options left, I decided to check his work.

My faith in my brother was rewarded. There was nothing baseball related in plain sight. However, I noticed a duffle bag that I didn’t recognize. Always open to “borrowing” a forgotten pair of sneakers or workout shorts, I decided to keep digging. As soon as I moved a pile of clothes out of the way, Pat’s stupidity was reaffirmed.

The missing black Rawlings baseball glove was staring right at me.

I slid my hand into the soft leather glove. Any frustration I might have felt melted away as soon as I opened it and hammered my right fist into my opposite palm. I rushed to pick up the baseball I had abandoned in despair. When the ball was safely nestled in the webbing of the glove, I fired off a text message to Pat

Found your glove. Get your ass here.

The Ford brothers didn’t always play catch in the middle of the street. My earliest recollections have us tossing the ball around in our backyard. The grass always seemed to be perfectly mowed, well-worn dirt patches surrounded our plastic bases, and our neighbors’ fences ensured that our bad throws would end up a manageable distance away from us. Whether playing a heated Wiffle ball game or getting smacked in the head with one of our father’s throws, our backyard was a baseball paradise for a kid.

Maybe we decided to move after I sailed a ball over Pat’s head that ended up smashing the glass window on my father’s grill. It could have been the other throw that I unleashed that violently took off the top of one of the wooden fence posts separating our yards. It could also have been because we were tired of losing baseballs in our death-defying patch of poison ivy and then contracting a rash going in after them. Pat sent me a message the other day that put our flight from the backyard into perfect perspective: “It was a swamp until June and it was full of dog shit.”

Obviously, a new home was necessary.

We tried the driveway first. This was short lived because one of us failed to get a glove on a baseball that put a hole in my father’s taillight. We couldn’t long toss in then front lawn because there wasn’t enough room and we didn’t want to chance destroying our neighbor Jimmy’s prized vintage Buick. According to my older brother Tom, the street had everything we were looking for; convenience, fewer obstacles, reduced chance of damages, and more space to air it out. The street became our refuge and we wasted no time in creating memories we could actually remember.

Since our street is on a slight hill, I was quickly banned from throwing downhill. I developed a case of the yips for a couple of months and everyone, myself included, was tired of having to run to prevent the baseball from going into the woods or sewer after every errant throw. If I forgot my softball glove in New York, I usually ended up being the brother who was stuck with the inadequate-in-every-way catcher’s mitt. I might as well be playing catch with a tiny Latex glove.

2010 was a banner year for us.

On day, my brother Tom pulled up to the house, got out of his car with his glove on, and ran out to join me and Pat who had been throwing for a while. Tom’s wife Kristen had been inside, waiting for him to take her to lunch. And here he was ready to play ball with us. Good thing she wasn’t pregnant at this point (oh wait….). After throwing the ball around for a good 15 minutes, Kristen poked her head out the front door and admonished Tom for making her wait. Tom’s defense was that he had just gotten there. Pat looked at him after Kristen slammed the door and said, “I don’t think she bought. It might be because you’re sweating profusely.”

Our best days came early in the spring. All we did Easter weekend was drink beer, throw a baseball around, and eat. We’d throw for a bit, drink half a beer, throw a little bit more, finish a beer, throw, run to get refills, throw some more, etc. etc. This all occurred on the street and in our front yard. The only thing missing from our redneck tableau was a matching set of lawn chair furniture and a car up on cinder blocks. The only break we took was during Easter brunch, after which we continued to throw our arms out and sneak beers to Tom without Kristen knowing. Later that night we ended up scarfing down the leftovers from the cookout the night before as if we hadn’t eaten anything all day. My father complained later on that he looked like an alcoholic when he dragged three full trash bags of empty beer bottles to the Lions Club.

Found your glove. Get your ass here.

This past Sunday found Pat and I right back where we belonged. We had all the essentials we needed, except for one (in reality two, counting Tom)—beer. Pat had fought his instinct to buy anything near his Air Force base in Massachusetts, failing to remember you couldn’t buy liquor in Connecticut on Sundays. Undeterred, we dusted off our father’s bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin and made gin and tonics. I have to say, our pint glasses really classed things up.

The rhythms of the catch were unchanged. There was the same inkling of soreness in our arms after the first ball was thrown, the frequent stopping to let cars go by, and the constant putdowns and slams we lovingly hurled at each other along with every baseball. The seams of the ball tore at our soft, winter fingertips, and the bright, unscarred baseball tore through the air with the familiar machine gun sound.

One thing stood out to me on that cool Sunday afternoon. Pat was dressed in his military uniform having come right from work. It was a clear sign of how time had changed him, changed the entire family really, and how precious these moments with each other truly were. I found out later that he was being shipped to some of the more unsavory parts of the world for a training mission. I shook his hand and hugged him good bye, told him to stay in the wire over there, and that I’d be right there waiting for him with a beer when he got back.

He won’t have to look very far for his glove this time either.

Player Spotlight

My buddy Chris and I bought $5 tickets to go see the Yankees last week. It was his first time at the new Yankee Stadium, which meant the baseball gods conspired to rain out the game. We still managed to have a good time by spending $50 on food and waiting 15 minutes just to see a guy being carted off on a stretcher after police halted traffic on the ramp leading to the upper deck. We actually could have left the scene at any time, but stayed thinking someone important might be strolling by, like the time Henry Kissinger and Beyoncé walked past me during Game One of the 2004 American League Championship Series. Nope, this time it was just some random unconscious guy.

The highlight of the evening was visiting the Yankees Museum. Even if there had been a game, and even if the Yankees had won, it still might have been the highlight since Chris and I are both Yankees homers and huge history nerds. Along with old jerseys, bats, championship rings, and World Series trophies, the museum included a display of baseballs signed by anyone who had been affiliated with the team. We giggled over seeing our favorite players and reacted with horror after seeing a baseball with Suzyn Waldman’s name proudly displayed. One of the ushers told a mildly disappointed Chris when he told him Mel Hall was too busy banging out license plates to sign baseballs. Well, that and FedEx doesn’t exactly deliver to those serving a 45-year prison sentence.

The reason for bringing this up, other than to continue our running Mel Hall joke, is to highlight a player that caught Chris’s attention because he shares the same nickname.

Spud Chandler

Chandler made his debut in 1937 and played his entire 11-year career with the New York Yankees. His breakout year came in 1943, in which he won 20 games, had a winning percentage of .833, pitched 20 complete games, had an E.R.A of 1.64, and won the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award. He would retire in 1947 with the best winning percentage of any pitcher with over 100 career wins (.717).

Chandler served in the U.S. Army during World War II from April 1944 to September 1945. He was not assigned to active duty because of his age and injuries to his arm. Like many baseball greats, Chandler missed out on two years during the prime of his career. However, he did not complain and is quoted in a 1993 issue of Baseball Digest as saying, “I came back. Some of those boys didn’t.” When he did come back to the league full time in 1946, he would win 20 games and post an E.R.A. of 2.19.

For more information on Spud Chandler, as well as other information about baseball players who served during World War II, I encourage you to visit Gary Bedingfield’s Baseball in Wartime. The website includes player biographies, memorials for those players who died during the conflict, details on service teams and games, and photo galleries. The author also maintains a blog, which can be found here.

Diamond Tweets

April is military child month. The Army will be sponsoring activities at installations around the world to recognize the sacrifice of military children. According to the U.S. Army, more than 1.7 million kids have one or more parents actively serving in the armed forces, with an estimated 900,000 children who have had one or more parents deploy multiple times. To learn more, click here.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Baseball Beginnings: Why I’m Not a Baseball Player

I was not a baseball player.

I left that to my brothers.

I didn’t know the fundamentals of fielding a ground ball, how to round first base after singling up the middle, or how to use two hands to nab a fly ball out of the unlimited summer sky. I had no concept of how long 90 feet between bases actually was, what signals the pitcher gave away that let me know it was time to steal second base, or what it meant to pick up a teammate who stranded a runner in scoring position.

This wasn’t because I didn’t want to be a baseball player.

I watched in awe with my father as my older brother pitched his heart out in high school without reservation or fear. When he put on that Bristol Eastern uniform with "1" stitched on the back, he ceased to be my brother and became a superhero. He was everything I wanted to be.

It’s also not like I never played baseball.

It just wasn’t real baseball.

My younger brother and I would play Wiffle ball in the backyard from the start of spring until the chill of late October. I hold the Ford Stadium records for career homeruns, single season homeruns, strikeouts in a game, and career championships. If there were a Wiffle ball Hall of Fame, I’d be in it (turns out there is, and I'm not).

I had plenty of opportunities to be a baseball player.

My family is baseball obsessed. This all stemmed from my father. He followed the great New York Yankees teams of the 1960s (and the not-so-great teams during the backend of that era), and, according to his memory, could pick the ball out of the dirt at first base with the best of them. His oldest son was in uniform practically out of the womb, so one would have assumed that his second son would follow suit without question. He made it clear to me that it was my choice to play or not to play.

I wasn’t a baseball player because I was afraid.

You can’t be afraid and be a baseball player. I was shy. I was a crier. I was a thin-skinned kid who took everything the wrong way and then sulked about it. It would be easy to heap all the blame on my father for not forcing me to play, as my older brother often does, but I can’t imagine the tantrums I would have thrown once someone starting rifling ground balls my way. The scenario in my head gets even worse thinking about if I had made a mistake in a live game. My father’s tough, but no man could have endured that kind of humiliation.

I did end up trying to become a baseball player.

I started shaking off my shy demeanor as a teenager, and tried out for my middle school baseball team. I was the first player to take batting practice that first practice. I fouled off the coach’s first pitch, and I could feel the vibration in my stung fingers in the bottom of my throat. I never made contact again. The coach announced at the end of the day that everyone would need to turn in a physical form if they wanted to play. I knew I wasn’t any good, and didn’t want to put my parents through the trouble of arranging everything when I was just going to get cut. I used this as an excuse to give up.

My tryout for the local summer recreational league was possibly my most embarrassing moments as a player. I had decided I’d be a good first baseman, since they didn’t seem to do very much, so there I was as a low throw came in from the shortstop. I didn’t have a chance at catching it. Luckily, my big toe stopped the ball from getting past me. My knee caught the next throw with ease. This was all in view of my older brother, who was going to be a coach in the league. I wasn’t embarrassed for me, I knew I was terrible, but I hated letting down my hero. He drafted me anyway.

I tried two more times to join teams of any consequence. I gave it my all and lasted through weeks of tryouts for the freshman baseball team in high school. The problem was I still couldn’t hit, was slow afoot, and was only an average fielder with a below average arm. Pretty cut and dry analysis of why I was cut. My sophomore year I tried out for the J.V. team, and within two days my legs felt like I had run back-to-back marathons. In what felt like a coward move at the time, I wrote the head coach that I was done. I heard through the grapevine that he thought it was a classy way to go out.

So, I failed at being a baseball player, but these failures didn’t mark my complete banishment from the game.

I got to be in the same dugout with my older brother as he coached my team for two seasons in that summer league. I was able to become an assistant coach for my younger brother’s Little League team and watch him experience everything I was too afraid to do at his age. Eventually, my lack of baseball prowess helped me land a job with a great northeastern college baseball team, giving me all the experiences of a collegiate athlete with half the work. Not to mention, along the way I learned how not to give up.

When spring approaches and baseball season breaks through the boredom of a long winter, I think of all the things that could have been, and I appreciate the things that are. I can’t rob a line drive in an endless expense of lawn; I can’t eyeball a pitch outside to force a base on balls; and I can’t ensure my team is wearing the whitest damn uniforms possible during a Sunday day game. But I sure as hell can write about the game that I’ve loved all my life. And that’s just what I plan to do.

I should point out before signing off this Sunday, that I’m the last Ford brother to wear anything resembling a baseball uniform. It may be in a softball league, but it still connects me to the game in some way.

I’m not a baseball player…but, I’ll take it.

Player Spotlight: Old Reliable

My goal was to find a player whose name contained some variation of “beginning” or “origin” to commemorate the reboot of this blog. I perused through my voluminous ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia early in the week, but came up empty. I tried to think of old ballplayers my father randomly mentions and listened intently to the Opening Day telecasts in hopes of getting a good lead. No luck. I thought of ditching the idea of Player Spotlight entirely, until I entered the magic word into the search engine of


Joe Start.

Joe couldn’t have been more perfect for a baseball/history nerd if he tried. He began his career with the Brooklyn Atlantics in 1980, four years before the Civil War and eleven years before the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (the early predecessor to the National League). He led the Atlantics to two undefeated seasons in 1864 and 1865, years better remembered for the final clashes between the armies of Grant and Lee. He joined the New York Mutuals of the National Association in 1971, and would play professionally for 16 more seasons before retiring in 1886. He also, despite some debate, is considered to be the first first baseman to play away from the base, rather than close to it or on top of it as was the custom during the early days of the game.

Joe registered his highest batting average of .360 in 1871 for the Mutuals. He led the led the league with 100 hits in 1878 with the Chicago White Stockings, and logged a .351 batting average. He averaged 105 hits from 1878–1885, and drove in nearly 300 runs during that span. Joe smacked a career 117 hits in 1882 for the Providence Grays, and would finish his major league run with 1,417.

I realized why I should still care about Player Spotlight. Only the men wearing them make the uniforms of our hometown teams memorable. Baseball players' personalities, eccentricities, and character (good and bad) have defined the game just as much as their athleticism has. Throughout the game’s history, fans have piled on expectations on these men who, at their core, are no more superhuman than the rest of us. We revel when they defy logic and met them, and sulk and moan when they reveal their true humanity and fall beneath them. Either way, only a chosen few get to button up a jersey, pitch or hit a searing fastball, and leave behind a lasting statistical imprint that nerds like me can scrutinize centuries later. Their stories matter, so I’ll keep looking for them.

Opening Day

“Detroit is in Michigan?” one of my coworkers asked out loud in front of people.

While my other coworker, who happens to be from Michigan, tried to answer diplomatically, my eyes were fixed on the flat screen television above the table where we were enjoying lunch.

It wasn’t showing scenes of weeks old trash being unearthed from two feet of melting snow, celebrities devouring goddesses with tiger blood (no, that can't be right), or people stepping cautiously through the Bronx Zoo.

It was showing a baseball game.


My beloved Yankees were playing the Detroit (yes, the one in Michigan) Tigers and I had done enough work that day to justify stealing away to catch a couple of innings of the first game of 2011. The Yanks hadn’t managed much against Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander until the bottom of the third inning. Mark Teixeira came up with two runners on and launched a ball to deep right field.

As soon as the ball was hit, I leaned my body toward fair territory, helping the ball’s trajectory stay true. As the umpire called the ball fair, the patrons around us cheered, and so did I. I got chills as if the homerun had decided the final game of the World Series instead of a meaningless game in April.

Baseball is back. And so am I.