Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Adventures of the Noreasters: Three in the Heat

The 2011 Noreasters
“I have seniority, so I’m getting one of the rocking chairs,” Dan, our right center fielder, said. “This place is totally awesome.”

He dropped his stuff and quickly collapsed into the chair. Spud and I eagerly did the same on the couch nearby.

“This is like a cabin back in the 1970s,” Chris, our third baseman said. “I feel like we’re at camp.”

It wasn’t far from the truth. We were at the Cowgirl Diner in the Village. There was a deer’s head looking at us from his perch above the fireplace and the chairs and couches were arranged in a circle. Also, part of the ceiling was painted black with painted on stars. It was the perfect refuge for a sweaty bunch of softball players.

It got even better when Spud walked back from the bar with two beers for me in his hand. I hadn’t had anything but water, Gatorade, and bananas to eat or drink all day, but that didn’t stop me from taking a healthy pull from one of the bottles.

I smelt terrible. I had salt deposits on my cheeks as if I had just finished a half-marathon. I was tired, sore, and hungry.

“I asked them for the biggest Diet Coke they could possibly find.” Brad, our injured second baseman, said after someone made a remark about the gigantic cup of soda he was about to consume.

It had been well earned.

Dan, Chris (wearing a hat and about to play the outfield), and Spud
As some of you may have noticed, a heat wave swept across the country last week.

According to one report, last Saturday the temperature 100 degrees, but felt like 113, in New York City.

All the softball games scheduled on Randall’s Island were canceled by the Parks Department.

Were the Noreasters one of those lucky teams? Did I get to spend my Saturday parked front an air conditioner somewhere with an ice cold beer?

Of course not.

My softball team was only lucky enough to have three games scheduled back-to-back-to-back during the hottest part of the day. And rather than being out in the open with the possibility of a warm breeze, we were stuck playing in the oven that is Hudson River Park off the West Side Highway.

I had a bad feeling about the weekend when my manager Trish emailed the team urging us all to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate the day BEFORE the game. I also had my own mother texting me every hour checking up to see if I was drinking plenty of fluids and worrying about me playing in the intense heat. My plan to grow my hair out went down the drain (literally), after I took my long neglected buzzers to my out of control mop. I threw three pairs of socks into my softball bag, along with three extra dri-fit shirts and three different hats. I had two large Gatorade bottles and a full Nalgene, and planned to buy even more water the next day. I would remind all of you that this preparation is for a recreational softball league and not military exercises in the desert.

I have to sprint onto a field at the beginning of a practice or game. My older brother taught me that hustling off and on the field meant something, so no matter what condition I was in, or how miserable the weather, I had to run my ass to my position. So, I was already sweating profusely by the time I got to shortstop. I could barely catch my breath. My feet could feel the heat rising up from the turf infield through my cleats. My hat felt heavy on my head after fielding only a couple of ground balls.

After starting the year 9–1, our team had gone on a little bit of a winless slide (a slide stopped by a hard-fought come-from-behind tie the week before); so first place was going to be up for grabs all day.

We were faced off against the Ballbreakers (our nemesis) in the first game. Despite the conditions, we played nice and loose and managed to eek out a close win. Although I made a nice backhanded play on a liner in the hole and threw out one of the fastest runners in the league in a key inning, I'm obligated to tell you I had five or six line drives go just past me or just over my head. Yes, I am short.

One game, one win.

Game two pitted us against the Sirens, who had destroyed us two weeks ago. They found every gap that week, had a bunch of worm burner hits that went just past the pitcher’s mound, and got our team so flustered at each other that one Noreaster was prompted to tell another “Eat me.”

Today was different. They weren’t the same team. We clearly wanted the game more. It didn’t hurt that we had Vinny as are pitcher. He’d been off the past few weeks dealing with a family issue, and had stoically volunteered to pitch all three games. He was exactly what we needed. He didn’t waste any time on the rubber, cracked jokes the whole day, and fielded a ton of liners back to him that turned into easy outs. He was the MVP of the day, hands down.

Vinny getting the job done
Two games down, and we had won them both.

Thank goodness the third game was a blow out. If it had been close, our minds would have melted even more than they already were. Just to stick it to Spud one more time, I won the RBI challenge we had started at the beginning of the day. During the first inning, I hit a two-run homer, followed by a grand slam. Late in the game, I came up with runners on second and third. At that point, we knew that we were close, so this at-bat was crucial. Needless to say, I came through, bringing both runners in with a double. Spud had a chance to get back into it since he batted right behind me, but ended up popping up to end the inning. Sara, our official scorekeeper and all-around cheerleader, let us know that I had won by just one RBI. Spud took solace in the fact that he hit one more homerun on the day and didn’t fall into a unending pit of personal despair like he otherwise would have.

The other highlight of the last game was Brad acting as our third base coach. He had done it all day, but he really got into that last game. It seemed on every ball hit, Brad was waving someone around third. He said it best, “I’ve never met a run I didn’t like.” However, we didn’t have one runner thrown out at the plate all day. The best part was he was wearing a Tom Landry style fedora. His advice, though, needs some work.

“I know we have a lead guys, but we can’t be giving up six runs every inning,” he said matter-of-factly after a messy inning.

“Really inspiring coach, thanks,” I said as most of us dragged our fatigued bodies back to the dugout.

It almost didn’t feel real when the last out was recorded. Three games, three wins. We were now controlled our own destiny (UPDATE: We ended up clinching the division yesterday. Go Noreasters!).

“Who wants to have drinks?” Trish asked.

Every hand shot up.

I wish I could tell you everything we talked about at Cowgirl. If I did, many of us would either be in jail or fired. Just know that there was not one moment we weren’t laughing, making fun of each other, devouring appetizers, or sucking back some kind of alcoholic beverage.

Vinny was the only casualty.

He finally cracked after all that time in the sun. After throwing up in the bathroom, he was last seen stumbling out of the bar. He sent out an email the next day, telling us he was all right. It was his heartfelt thank you for giving him the game ball that struck me though.

“I really didn't deserve it,” Vinny wrote. “It is a team sport and we all contributed both offensively and defensively.”

This from the guy that lost his breakfast, lunch, and dinner just to help us out. It’s not hard to see why I love being on this team. We’re a family and we’re always there for each other no matter what. Win or lose, we always enjoy each other and have a good time.

Expect for Spud. He just whines incessantly (just kidding…sort of).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Little Leaguers: First Catch

My 4-year-old nephew Jack posed a question as soon as I opened the car door.

“Uncle Daniel, can you play baseball with me when we get home?”

A younger Jack ready to play ball

I collapsed into the passenger seat. I craned my body around to answer and say hello to him and my nieces Katie and Madeline (2 years old and 7 months, respectively), all of whom had made the trip with my older brother Tom to pick me up from the New Haven train station.

I winced immediately.

My neck was sore. My back was sore. My legs were cramped. My skin was pink. I could barely lift my arm. I had played two softball games with the Noreasters in the wretched humidity oven that is Hudson River Park. I had moved to shortstop earlier in the season, so I was constantly moving on every play. I was cranky, hungry, and pissed we’d badly lost two games. Two hours on a Metro North train hadn’t helped.

All that faded when I saw Jack’s eager brown eyes looking back at me from the far backseat of Tom’s minivan.

“Sure, Jack!”

He wasn’t done asking questions. He never is. Jack’s mind works in such a constant state of overdrive that his parents worry they are raising a future insomniac. He asks questions so fast that you think he’s not processing your answers before he asks another (but he is because he’ll be quick to correct you if you later change your story).

“Did you ride on a high-speed train? Did your train have a lot of cars? Where are you going to sleep tonight? Do you like playing baseball? Can I have some chips?”

His normal interrogation was thrown off when I started devouring the potato chips Tom had brought me.

Tom explained to Jack that he could have some when we got home since we couldn’t reach him, but sneaked several to Katie. She was closer and started wearing him down as soon as she caught on there was food to be had (like any true Ford).

“I wanna ‘nother one,” Katie said.

“We’re almost home. The bag is empty anyway,” Tom said.

“I wanna feel the bag,” Katie demanded.

She was yelling that at Tom when I hopped out of the car to pick up Coronas and limes (essential all-night videogame-playing groceries). She was still yelling at him when I came back in. She continued the entire two-minute drive home. We pulled into the garage right just as Tom was about to blow his brains out. He had barely put the minivan in park before handing Katie the obviously full bag. I’m not sure if her wide smile indicated she was happier that she had (yet again) caught her dad in a lie or that she now had all the chips in her grasp.

Jack, on the other hand, was out of the car in a flash. He quickly collected his soft bat and a bag of tennis balls. He plopped a plastic home plate on the driveway. He raised the bat up to his shoulders and got into his stance.

I was still in the minivan.

And I was slow in moving out of it. This was much too slow for Jack.

“I’m wearing a bathing suit, so I’m going to play in the water while you get ready Uncle Daniel!”

Jack tossed off his t-shirt and proceeded to splash around in the kiddies’ pool.

“Jack, can I use my glove to pitch to you?” I asked.

He thought for a minute and happily nodded his approval.

I took a deep breath. The inside of my glove was still damp with sweat as I slid my hand in. I smacked my fist into the palm.

It was like the previous eight hours had never happened.

I wasn’t tired anymore. I could feel the adrenaline wiping away every sore joint and muscle. I didn’t feel cranky, hungry, or pissed. I felt ready.

I was fired up…to pitch to a 4-year-old.

He was ready too. He smiled as he swung and missed at my first couple of underhand tosses. He didn’t complain and he bounded after each stray ball. He finally connected on one and my instincts prompted my once tired legs to hustle after it.

“Wow!” Jack yelled. “Daddy can’t run that fast.”

“He sure can’t, buddy,” I said.

“Well, only if it’s downhill,” he added.

Jack took a few more swings before he changed his mind about what we were doing.

“Can you help me put on my cool baseball glove?” He asked.

He gave the pool a splash as he made his way over to me. I undid the Velcro on his glove and he smushed his hand in. After I tightened the strap, he slapped his hand in the palm like he had seen me do and rushed to the other end of the driveway.

My first throw missed his outreached glove and hit him gently in the chest. Jack giggled as he tore after the ball. It landed in the grass and he bent down to pick it up with his glove. The grass was long, so he tried and failed a few times.

What a difference a year makes...

“Hey Jack, when the ball’s on the ground, you can pick it up with your bare hand,” I said. “That way you’re in a better position to throw the ball after making an error.”

It just kind of popped out. I realized I was trying to give baseball advice to a 4-year-old who would take a 10-minute break to carefully inspect a worm that had wandered into our game. Besides, he ended up catching only a few of my throws, so he had to get some use out of his glove somehow.

However, he threw the ball pretty damn hard and accurately for his age. He laughed out loud every time the ball skipped by him. He beamed excitedly every time the tennis ball would hop right into his glove. I would pump my fist in the air each time it happened, making him smile even more broadly.

“Uncle Daniel, you can sleep in my room tonight,” he said as we wound down our first catch together.

“Thanks, Jack, that’s very nice of you,” I said.

He dropped everything where he stood and rushed into the house to get ready for dinner. I cleaned up everything for him, still high from ending the day on a good note.

After putting on an eating display (as Tom said, Pépère would have been proud of that fact that I took down a sausage and two hot dogs), Jack dutifully provided me with a pillow and blanket to put on the air mattress that was now blown up at the foot of his bed.

“Jack, are you excited to have a roommate?” Tom asked.

“Yes!” Jack yelled exuberantly.

He celebrated by jumping up and down on the air mattress as Madeline clapped excitedly from her perch on his bed.

“You can have this to sleep with,” Jack said. He handed me his Lighting McQueen stuffed animal. I knew how much the movie Cars meant to him, so I was very honored.

Although he wasn’t thrilled that I wasn’t going to bed at the same time as he was (Madden 2010 and Lego Star Wars weren’t going to play themselves into the wee hours of the morning), he let me go without complaint after I read two books to him.

“Uncle Daniel?” Jack asked as I was leaving his room.


“Did you miss us?”

I smiled.

“Yes, Jack,” I said. “Did you miss me?”

“Yes!” He replied. “I’m going to wake you up tomorrow and we can finish our puzzle!”

I didn’t cringe at the thought of Jack stomping all over me at an ungodly hour of the morning. I knew that even though I’d be cranky, sore, and sleepy, that Jack would make it all go away with his first questions of the day.

And like the day before, I’d be ready with answers.

Playing baseball with Pépère

Friday, July 8, 2011

Baseball Beginnings: On Derek Jeter

I still remember how good it felt to notch my first base hit.

It was a couple of games into my second season in my hometown’s summer recreational Pony League. Up to that point, I only had strikeouts and two weak ground ball outs to show for all my effort.

I’m pretty sure I made an error in the field the half inning before because I ran in from the outfield angry. I led off the inning and I remember being angry standing in the batter’s box. I angrily lined the first pitch I saw into left field where I saw it drop in front of the outfielder. I stopped being angry when I reached first base.

I remember how good it felt to be standing there. I hadn’t made an out. I hadn’t walked. I had an honest-to-God hit. I didn’t know then that I’d have that feeling only 12 more times.

I have no way of processing how good it would feel to do that 3,000 times.

However, the most important Yankee of my generation is about to find out. As I write this, Derek Jeter is two hits away from 3,000 with three more games before the All-Star break.

Much has been made of Jeter’s decline in recent years. Fine, I get it. As you know by now, I’m a homer for the New York Yankees. I’ve been that way my whole life. I’ve never thought about rooting for another team (except for when I would root for the Mets when they were doing well before I moved to New York and actually met a Mets fan). I could tell you that I’m a Yankees fan because my dad was born in New York and has been a Yankees fan his whole life, but that wouldn’t be telling the whole story. I’m a Yankees fan in large part because of Derek Jeter.

Before 1996, I didn’t follow baseball religiously. I would watch the game with my older brother and my dad, but I had no connection to players like Pat Kelly and Melido Perez. I couldn’t steal Don Mattingly away from my older brother because I was in diapers when Donnie Baseball was tearing up the league during his prime. Besides, I was too young and having too much fun playing Wiffle ball with my younger brother in our backyard. What kid wants to waste three hours watching a bad team when he could be outside arguing with his brother about who is going to be the Yankees that day?

Derek Jeter and the 1996 Yankees turned me into a true baseball junkie.

Here’s a player I could connect with. He was young. He wore a single digit number. He played the coolest position on the field. He had an inside out swing that I would grow to emulate. He was fast. He was always smiling. And he loved his parents, who frequently went to the games to see their son play.

I can’t lie—winning the World Series that year helped endear me to Jeter. I vividly remember watching my father’s reaction to Charlie Hayes catching the last out. I think he jumped higher off the couch and cheered louder than either of the two sons he had be his side. I remember watching a smiling Jeter drenched in champagne, smiling broadly, and thinking that anything in this world was possible.

The Yankees kept winning during the late 1990s and my family and I became even more intertwined with our team. As much as my younger brother and I admired the Yankees shortstop, no one became more ensorcelled by Jeter than my mother. She has a shrine to Jeter at her office at work, as well in her computer room at home. Her nickname for him is “Jeter-Butt” because of the way he gets out of the way of an inside fastball (and for a host of other reasons, I’m sure). My older brother made her life when he bought her a picture of Jeter shaking hands with her other favorite baseball hunk, Cal Ripken, who was playing at Yankee Stadium for the last time in his career. No one is allowed to criticize anything Jeter does in her presence…ever. The few times anything negative about Jeter slipped out of my mouth were quickly followed by a backhand to the head.

Maybe my mom is a big reason it makes me feel good to cheer for Jeter. Maybe it’s he hasn’t been connected to steroids. Maybe it’s because I admire his charity work. Maybe it’s because he wouldn’t validate parking for two women he had at his apartment. Maybe it’s because he stayed out of trouble in baseball because he was afraid of letting his parents down (and for people like Bill Simmons who have poked fun at this, it’s not the worst way to go about your life).

Former major leaguer Doug Glanville wrote an excellent opinion piece that ran in The New York Times. Glanville says that “numbers tell a story,” and that Jeter’s numbers were hard earned. To get to 3,000 hits, you not only have to be good, you have to be lucky too. Jeter has been relatively injury-free and consistent for so many years, allowing him to “ooze [his] way to greatness.”

Like Glanville, I’ve enjoyed counting Jeter’s hits along the way. I liked watching him collect them when I was smacking Wiffle balls in my backyard, when I was amassing 13 hits in my recreational baseball career, and now, when I’m drinking a beer alone in my apartment in New York.

Jeter will be the player I’ll tell my kids I saw play his whole career. I’ll tell them about the November night he became a hero to my hero.

For the next three games, I’ll live every one of his at-bats like I did when my younger brother was in Little League. Every ball he fouls off, every swing and miss, every groundout will make me jump and sigh with a mix of relief and anticipation for the next at-bat.

Three thousand is a special number. Derek Jeter is a special player, and will remain that way to me even if his batting average drops below the Mendoza line.

He’s earned that incredible feeling that’s going to wash over him when he stands at first base for the 3,000th time.

I hope I get to keep counting with him to 4,000.