Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Moments That Matter

Tough economic times don’t seem to affect the New York Yankees, who have shelled out more than $400 million in recent days just to sign three baseball players. The Yankees may have ruined the Christmas plans of several other ballclubs in winning the bidding wars for those players, but no one is confusing the Steinbrenner family with Ebenezer Scrooge. No tightwads in the Bronx, that’s for sure.

But for those of us who have struggled with how much is too much in the realm of holiday giving, the Yankees’ decision to overpay for All-Stars encompasses a theme we know quite well. I’ve just said goodnight to my two girls on Christmas Day – a day in which they’ve received more presents than entire villages receive in many third-world countries around the globe. I helped select some of those gifts, and I feel some guilt that I’m helping to spoil my kids, as well as some concern that they’ll grow up to be takers more than givers. I want the joys of giving and receiving to be felt by everyone at this time of year, and in equal amounts. I want my girls to want that, too.

We’ve taken the girls caroling at the homes of elderly folks in our church, and they’ve helped us buy presents for people in need through our church as well. We’ve brought boxes of old toys to thrift stores with the kids in tow, and let them see the process by which their donations can be others’ blessings. I’ve taken them to events run by the community service club at my school, and they’ve watched teen-agers give of their time and energy to improve the lives of others.

They will get it, I’m sure. And my wife and I will figure out how many presents are enough. In the meantime, we snuggle together before bed and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, listening to Linus put it all into perspective, and watching the mean kids find a heart in the end. We watch Charlie as he pays attention to the small details, and we think about the things that matter most.

We think about the moments that bring us together, for those are the gifts we can never replace or exchange. They are always on sale, and at great prices.

I think of the new student I have, who just moved to America from Egypt a couple of months ago. Last week, we looked outside our classroom window to see snow beginning to fall. She walked up to me and said, “Mr. Hynes, I’ve never seen snow before.”

I jumped up from my seat, and called the rest of the class to the front of the room. We all escorted this new student out to the school courtyard. I led her out and she looked up into the white sky. She smiled, and spread out her arms to catch the thick flakes as they fell on her. “I have to get a shovel!” she said to me. I told her she could try to catch them with her tongue as well, to taste them. She said she’d like to try snow angels when she got home.

We stood there for a few more minutes, watching this young woman in her moment of discovery and wonder. It was a true joy to be there, sharing this all with her. It was a joy that no stocking stuffer can provide. As you celebrate the holidays, may you experience many moments like these with those around you. Happy holidays.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Holiday Giving

It was no surprise to me that Michael Phelps won Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year.” His record-breaking performances and superhuman abdominal muscles have earned him every letter of that title. But if you had asked me for my pick … well, I would have suggested taking it in a different direction.

I would have chosen the Central Washington University softball team. You might remember them from back in April. The Wildcats were playing against Western Oregon University, trying to keep their season alive. But then Sara Tucholsky of Western Oregon smacked the first home run of her career – high school or college – with two runners on base. Tucholsky was thrilled, so much that she missed first base. As she doubled back to touch the bag, she collapsed to the ground with a serious knee injury.

There was no way that Tucholsky could stand up and round the bases. If her teammates picked her up, she’d be called out. If a pinch-runner was called in for her, she’d have to settle for a single. And so, with a golden opportunity to hold Western Oregon to fewer runs than it really deserved, the Central Washington players huddled up and …

Well, they asked the umpire if they could pick Tucholsky up and carry her. The ump said there was no rule against that. So pick her up they did, rounding the bases with her, and allowing her to touch each base.

Tucholsky completed her three-run homer. Western Oregon won the game by two runs, eliminating Central Washington from conference-title contention. The Wildcats’ postseason hopes were lost. But they had won so much more than a ballgame.

Holiday season, 2008: There are people shooting each other in department stores. There are people stampeding a Wal Mart employee to death in their pursuit of big-screen TVs and GPS devices. There are, allegedly, people asking for six-figure holiday presents in exchange for U.S. Senate seats.

It is supposed to be a time of giving. That’s what my parents told me when I was growing up. That’s what I tell my girls. That’s what I see when I look at the students who show up for community-service club meetings in my school, and give of their time and energy. But it is so easy for so many of us to slip into the greed.

America is at a place right now where large numbers of individuals are choosing – or at least considering – the virtues of service and sacrifice. I read of record numbers of young adults applying to Teach for America. I read of teen-agers starting successful non-profits. I hear the president-elect announce plans to present more such service opportunities. When I read of the stampedes and the shootings and the bribe requests, I have to believe that such greed is too weak in the face of compassion.

So as we celebrate the holidays in this most difficult of years for so many families, I look forward to more moments like that softball game in April. It was a brief moment in the lives of these young women, but they won’t forget it. They probably knew it before, but they definitely know now that it doesn’t take much to make a difference. It doesn’t take much to inspire another person to care. Sometimes, you just have to pick a kid up off the infield dirt, and carry her around for a while.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Heroes

We kept the Ken Burns Baseball documentaries running throughout the day, at a low volume in the corner of the room. We wanted him to surround him with the things he loved. He was dying from cancer, and we had been called to his beside. As his body slowed down, we sat beside him. A man of muscle and mobility for 88 years, it was time.

My brother, mother and I took turns holding his hand, and were joined at different times by his sisters and my father as well. We whispered words of love to him as he stared ahead, preparing for the journey. He could no longer communicate with us, but every once in awhile he reached upward with his left arm. The hospice nurse saw him do this, and said, “I see it all the time. He’s ready.”

His name was Warren Mueller, and he lived a helluva life. He took on a number of roles in those 88 years: pro ballplayer, husband, father, businessman, alcoholic, son, brother, recovering alcoholic, caretaker to a diabetic wife, leader in local Alcoholics Anonymous rooms, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He made amends with those he had hurt, offered valuable advice to those he met in the rooms, and shared his life story with his grandsons.

He’d talk with you about most anything – sports, your job or schoolwork, the neighbors in his senior-apartment complex, the news, and – his favorite topic of all - the money he’d saved at Pathmark this week through coupons. He’d offer words of advice, but wouldn’t badger you with suggestions. He’d joke freely, and he gave everyone he loved a disparaging nickname. I was Charlie Brown, he said, because I couldn’t do anything right. Somehow, this was related to me in a way that exuded warmth and compassion.

His heart stopped beating shortly after dinnertime, just when his favorite prime-time shows would be starting. He didn’t need the shows anymore, or the baseball documentaries. He was doing fine.

It was two years ago today. I can close my eyes and still see him twirling the temples of his plastic eyeglasses in his hand, and I can still hear the high-pitched wheeze of his laugh, or the sing-songy way he answered the phone. I tell my daughters about him all the time. Heroes don’t need to be famous.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Promise of a Nation

My grandfather passed away two years ago at the age of 88. He had lived a long life, and in doing so had grown quite a bit in his outlook toward those of different races. I can recall, some 30 years ago, sitting in the car with him while he told me that black players were ruining baseball. He said that guys like Reggie Jackson and Dave Parker, with their “cocky” attitudes, were bringing the game down. I can remember feeling an uncomfortable pang in my gut while he told me this, hoping his diatribe would end soon.

Maybe it was his memories of Mr. Henry that brought about the changes I’d see later on in my grandfather’s life. Mr. Henry was a black man, a teacher, at PS 12 on Staten Island. One day, nearly 80 years ago, Mr. Henry asked my grandfather if he wanted to try pitching during a baseball game. Some 15 years later, my grandfather was earning a living as a minor-league ballplayer. He’d go on to play semi-pro ball for years. His success in baseball gave him self-esteem and business contacts that would affect his life forever.

So while my grandfather may have had trouble figuring out what to make of Dave Parker, he knew deep down that labeling a race wasn’t the way to go. As he grew older, our baseball talks often centered around our mutual appreciation for African-American players such as Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, as well as other players of color, from Mariano Rivera to Hideki Matsui. As he told me stories of his youth, he spoke with fondness of Mr. Henry.

My grandfather still had his blind spots, but he had seen so much change, so much growth, in America that he was willing to reevaluate things. I thought of him on Monday, when Madelyn Dunham, the grandmother of Barack Obama, passed away at age 86. Obama has spoken about his grandmother’s racial blind spots as well, but he has also spoken with such gratitude for the devotion she showed in helping to raise her African-American grandson. Her views toward race were imperfect, but in the end deeply compassionate and deeply hopeful.

I think my grandfather would have had a great time talking with Mrs. Dunham. They would have had a lot in common – pride in their grandsons, and pride in America. They would have talked about the changes they’d seen around them, and about the need to understand and adapt.

Because sometimes, the change we need is a kind that requires growth and acceptance and, yes, equality. There comes a time when the best candidate for the most important job in our country is indeed African-American. And when that time comes, we ask, can we push past those blind spots? Can we take that step forward? Instead of calling this black man “cocky,” or something far worse, can we just call him “Mr. President”?

Yes. We. Can.

Yes we did. On November 4, 2008, there were so many people, with stories just like my grandfather’s and Barack Obama’s grandmother, who took that step forward. They cast a ballot not only for the best candidate we could have hoped for, but also for the promise of the Declaration itself. It is a promise that, in our very best moments, guides the moral compass of this nation with breathtaking beauty. It is the kind of promise I will gladly share with my own grandchildren.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Take Me Out to the Debate

Four years ago, I asked a friend a pointed question: “Which do you think would be worse, the Red Sox defeating the Yankees in the playoffs, or George Bush defeating John Kerry?” His response was simple: Let’s not take our baseball too seriously here.

He was right. I didn’t get either of the victories I was looking for in 2004, but it was only the latter that made a difference. Four years later, I don’t have the luxury of rooting for the Yankees in the playoffs this season. But I do have my vote, and in October 2008 the American presidential race is really the only game of consequence.

As I watched the final presidential debate Wednesday night, I found myself reflecting on the emotions I’ve felt while watching these contests. This year, I find myself deeply invested in one ticket, as I believe Senators Obama and Biden are clearly the more qualified candidates. With that in mind, I’ve found my body language during these debates to be strikingly similar to the behavior I show during Yankees playoff games.

I can’t sit still. I roam from room to room, cleaning the house while listening to their words. I stop and watch one of them answer a question, but when the back-and-forth gets going, my heart races some more. I move about the house again, making my lunch for the next day or getting my clothes ready. In Wednesday’s final debate, with Obama riding high in the polls, I felt as though I were watching Mariano Rivera pitch the Yankees through the ninth inning, trying to hold onto that lead by staying cool under pressure. Even so, that pressure was too much to take through the constricted medium of a television set.

I watched the CNN Ohio voters give their immediate reactions to the words in the debate, and it reminded me of the scrolling ticker at the bottom of a sports event. I listened to the political pundits speak after the debates, and their partisan bickering seemed as predictable as the goofy back-slapping in modern postgame sports desks. Even so, I found myself glued to the post-debate analysis, even though I knew what was going to be said – just as I find myself watching those postgame playoff interviews, even when I know players will give the standard responses. I even watched replays of key moments in the debates, just as I turn to SportsCenter after a big game to see the postgame highlights.

There are similarities between these Fall Classics, all right. But there are differences, too. The thing about a baseball game is that the fan at home has no impact whatsoever on whether the favorite team wins or loses. But democracy is different; the candidates’ fans don’t have to sit idly. So I’ve made my donation. I’ve got my lawn sign and car magnet. I’ve helped a half-dozen people register to vote. I’m thinking about taking a drive to Pennsylvania or spending a few hours on the phone with voters in North Carolina.

It’s the late innings, and my candidate needs to seal the deal. I’m willing to answer the call. Mariano Rivera doesn’t need me to do that.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Your First Time

They are 25-year-old men and women, born and raised in Wisconsin. They’re three years out of college, perhaps even married by now - maybe even parents. And yet they’ve never seen their state’s pro baseball team in the playoffs. That will change, at long last, tomorrow.

There is no resident of Tampa or St. Petersburg who can tell you about the last time their hometown team was in the Major League Baseball playoffs, because it’s never happened. In the 105 years since the first World Series, there is no listing of a “Tampa Bay” among any season’s postseason clubs. That, too, will change this week.

For all the hand-wringing and teeth-clenching that often accompanies the elimination of teams from playoff contention in September, there is also the indisputable fact that somewhere, there are people weeping with joy at the surprise realization that their own favorite team will warm the October chill with a trip to the playoffs. This fall, two such Cinderella teams have brought their fans immeasurable joy this past week. And although this fall’s prime story is the Chicago Cubs and their attempt to win a World Series for the first time in 100 years, there are two other sets of fans who have had to wait much longer than the Cubs to see their team in the playoffs: They are fans of the Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays.

For the Brewers, this year marks their first playoff appearance since the American League pennant season of 1982. For the Rays, this year marks their first season over .500, let alone in the playoffs. Both teams have spent the majority of their history in the lower levels of their respective leagues. The fans in Milwaukee and Tampa Bay are used to watching their teams lose out on the glory. That’s what makes this season so special for them.

I can only imagine what it must be like for an 8-year-old fan of either team. Or even a 28-year-old. In these weighty days of economic turmoil, widespread international crises and high-stakes politics, there are some frivolous things worth thinking about for a few minutes. I won’t have the time to watch all the postseason baseball games this fall. But I will sneak a peek at the Brewers and Rays games when I can. And I’ll think of the kids in those two cities, knowing that they’re feeling that lump in their throats when they see the bunting hanging from the fa├žade in their team’s stadium, or when they watch their favorite player come up to bat with a man on second and two out in the ninth. I hope they’ll enjoy it all, and remember the feeling.

There are some people in Wisconsin and Florida gaining a memory or two this week that will frame their childhood – and perhaps even their life – in some small way. That’s worth something.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Friends and Enemies

When I lived in Massachusetts, I used to go out for jogs wearing my Yankees cap backwards. That way, by the time the Red Sox fans noticed what I was wearing, I’d have passed them by already. We lived on the North Shore of Boston from 1999-2004, during the heart of the modern-day Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. My jogs through Salem and Marblehead may have shielded me from the Boston baseball fans, but other social interactions brought me face to face with the Fenway faithful.

Red Sox fans are not the type to hide their passions. By the turn of the century, Red Sox fans my age had spent their lives rooting desperately for men like Carl Yastrzemski, Dwight Evans, Mike Greenwell, Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Mo Vaughn and Nomar Garciaparra. They had watched these men perform majestically, only to fall just short at the finish line or in the playoffs. And when a flamethrower named Pedro Martinez arrived in Boston with a glimmer in his eye and a championship in his sights, these fans began filling Fenway Park every day and night, no matter the month or the weather. They began, in some small way, to believe.

They were rooting for and believing in my least favorite team in baseball, and I watched their passion with no small measure of dread. I, like so many Yankees fans, had reveled in the fact that New York had won 26 titles since acquiring Babe Ruth from the Red Sox in 1920. I had come to see Boston’s annual autumn fade as a seasonal rite of passage, and as validation that I was on the right side of the greatest rivalry in sports.

But then I got to know large numbers of Red Sox fans. I worked alongside them in public schools, I worshiped beside them in the pews of my church, and I shopped alongside them in supermarkets and shopping malls. And as I met these people and talked with them, I found myself making genuine friendships with people who wore that Old English “B” on their heads. I found myself going out to eat with them, inviting them over my house, and even going on weekend vacations with them. And while we engaged in some trash-talking when it came to baseball, the rest of our time together was spent talking about other things – the kids we taught in school, or the kids we raised at home, or the world events around us.

It is late September in 2008, and the landscape of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has changed dramatically since I moved back to the New York area in July of ’04. Three months after we moved, the Red Sox pulled off the greatest comeback in baseball history to defeat the Yankees for the league pennant, then went on to win their first title in 86 years. Three years later, Boston won the World Series again. This year, they’re on their way to yet another postseason. The Yankees and their vast history of success are taking a year off from postseason play in ’08, and they haven’t claimed a title in eight years.

I still keep in touch with several of my Red Sox-rooting friends. When we talk, I wish them the best and tell them their team is great. At 37, I have come to a place in life where my emotions are not guided by the successes and failures of baseball teams. I have reached a point where I can watch the Red Sox win a championship, and instead of feeling bitterness I can think with affection of the friends I know who are filled with joy at that moment.

I would still prefer that the Yankees be the ones winning, and I’ll still root for the other 28 teams over Boston any day. I still like to pick certain Red Sox players and envision them as evil incarnate (my current choice: Kevin Youkilis). But that’s just for fun. The Sox are a baseball team, and I don’t even know the players personally. The friends I have, however, are true and genuine. I know that. And I think there’s something pretty cool about them feeling some thrills when their favorite team wins.

So on we go, into another October. I’ll read about the Yankees’ plans for off-season moves. And, if the cheers from New England reach my ears, I’ll fire off another congratulatory e-mail to some delirious friends in red and blue.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Wag of the Tail

We bought her in September of 1997, and carried her up the stairs to our tiny apartment on Staten Island. During her first week at the house, I can recall trying to potty-train her while hosting a house full of friends and family for Game 1 of the Yankees-Indians Division Series. During those early days of house-breaking, she’d get so excited when company arrived that she’d pee on their sneakers and leather shoes while greeting them at the door.

We named her Pumpkin – not a bad moniker for a golden retriever with plenty of orange-colored fur. We hoped she’d enjoy us, and perhaps even teach us a thing or two about parenting in advance of the real thing. We didn’t expect her to become a subject of devotion for four generations worth of family members. But that’s just what she did. She became a therapy dog of sorts for my grandparents, going for long walks with them in their final years of activity and allowing them to pet her for hours after the walks. She was an invaluable companion to all of our parents, staying with them when we went away and greedily munching on the treats they fed her. When Amy and I had kids of our own, Pumpkin even went away for “vacations” of her own with our parents, so she could be treated like the only kid in the house for a few days, and our folks could feel her warm body at their feet while sitting on the couch at night.

And, of course, she was an ever-present companion to Amy and to me. Whether it was a jaunt to the park, a gallop through the backyard snow, or just a lazy day around the house, she always had a way of making you feel as though she needed you and adored you for the care you gave her. Even when my own kids tried to ride her like a horse, she hung in there, trusting that we’d keep her safe. As she grew older, she lounged more, but always wagged that tail when we greeted her, and never failed to let us know when it was time for her meals. Even when we ignored her for too long in the midst of our hectic days, she never complained, and leaned her back toward us when we finally sat down to pet her. She never, ever gave up on us.

Last week, they found a mass on her spleen, the size of a softball. We talked it over, and decided that we would have the surgery done. She got through the operation well on Tuesday, but then there were some heart troubles on Wednesday. These seemed to subside, yet the following day her body began to fail her. Amy got to the hospital in time, and sat with her in her final moments last night. She told her that my grandparents were up there waiting for her, ready for another brisk walk – maybe this time through the clouds.

I had never had a pet before, and had no real idea what to expect from Pumpkin. I now know that an animal can ground you and give you a truer understanding of unconditional love – of what it takes to never waver in your dedication to family, even when they walk right past you or step on your tail. She taught me that it takes patience to love another fully, and that by simply being there for those you love, you can make their world so much more complete.

Caring for Pumpkin this week cost as much money as some of those pricey tickets for Sunday’s final ballgame at Yankee Stadium. I won’t be in the South Bronx on Sunday –I’ll be at home instead, watching the game on TV. It’s a week for goodbyes, I suppose.

Money is money – it comes and goes. Ballparks – even the great ones – reach an end, too.

Dogs die as well.

But love lives on forever. Pumpkin could have told you that, with one wag of the tail.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

October 1993

It was the fall of ’93, and I was busy typing up resumes and cover letters in my parents’ basement as my stereo pumped out the music of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I had just graduated from college, and was hungrily looking for my first newspaper job. With our country crawling out of a recession, I was casting a wide net, firing out resumes to papers in every mid- and major-size city in America, as well as to papers in Ireland, England and Canada. It was a time of anticipation and hope for a 22-year-old. While doing all this, I had half an eye on the TV screen, where the Chicago White Sox were playing the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series, and the Philadelphia Phillies were taking on the Atlanta Braves for the National League pennant. Bo Jackson was challenging his White Sox teammates to bring their games to a higher level, while the Phils’ Curt Schilling was pitching like a man who knew what the postseason was all about.

I’ve been thinking of that period, 15 years ago, as I reflect on the impending reality that 2008 will mark the first autumn since’93 that Major League Baseball is holding a postseason and the Yankees are not a part of it. Like any baseball fan, I’m disappointed that my favorite team doesn’t seem to have enough muscle to push their way into the playoffs. And yet, as I think back on 1993, I remember surviving that year just fine. So as I think ahead to next month, I also see much room for personal fulfillment even without a Yankee playoff game.

As a baseball fan, I’m eager to see young teams like the Brewers, Twins, Rays, Diamondbacks and Cubs vie for a playoff spot and a title. As a Yankee fan, I’m looking forward to watching the team unload some of the high salaries and re-tool. And I must say, some of the New York playoff rituals were getting a bit tiresome – the Irish tenor singing “God Bless America,” Rudy Giuliani clapping from his seat behind home plate, the Joe Torre investment commercials, even – dare I say it – the Jeter fist-pump.

When I think back to ’93 and the Yankees, I remember that being a year in which the team’s future started to unveil itself. We realized that year that it wouldn’t be long before New York returned to the playoffs for the first time since ’81, as the superb young players they’d grown from within had actually not been traded during George Steinbrenner’s two-year exile from baseball. The organization had realized that if you drafted great talent and nurtured it, you could be in pretty good shape once you added the right mix of veterans. In 1993, no Yankees player epitomized the future more than the guitar-playing center fielder, Bernie Williams.

Number 51 was still figuring out how to avoid pickoffs on the bases and when to lay off the breaking pitches at that time. But man, he could hit and run. And as time passed, we realized that this man possessed a brilliant combination of talent and class. He was the kind of player who could hit a walk-off home run in a tension-filled playoff game, then put his head down and run the bases without showing off the opposing team. He was a man who seemed to know that his intense passion on the field would only be maintained by having other interests (such as classical guitar) off the field. He never showed up the fans, and always maintained his cool under the hot lights.

As the Yankees close up their old ballpark and prepare for the new one, there has been no tribute to Bernie Williams. The old center fielder last played in the major leagues during the 2006 season and had a falling out with the team during spring training last year. Whatever was said during that time, the Yankees organization should be fully capable of moving beyond it and retiring No. 51 before the stadium closes. When a man helps his employer make billions of dollars with skill, effort and integrity, he deserves to be honored. When he’s not, the employer looks ungrateful.

Until I see No. 51 hanging up in left field with the other retired numbers, I won’t be too teary-eyed about the Yankees missing out on any playoff series. I’ll keep an eye on Ryan Braun, Alfonso Soriano, Evan Longoria and Chris Young, as they vie for a title. I’ll listen to my music – more Wilco and Beck these days than the grunge music of ’93. I’ll keep up my writing and my teaching. And life will indeed go on.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fretting Over Fantasy

To a certain extent, I’ve had it with fantasy baseball. I’m tired of checking to see who the hottest rookie call-up is, tired of comparing the WHIPs of relief pitchers, tired of figuring out which shortstop will tally the most extra-base hits. I’ve been playing fantasy baseball for four years, and by this time of year I’ve often had enough of the daily and weekly grind of trying to improve my team.

And yet, on the other hand, I love fantasy baseball. Baseball statistics are part of the neurological programming in my brain, as I’ve been memorizing and analyzing them since I was six years old. At age 9, I was playing hand-held computer baseball games with the small, plastic Entex game in one hand and a scorecard in the other. The little red dots that beeped and danced around the tiny screen would land on “single,” “double,” “triple,” “home run” or “out,” and I’d fill in the appropriate box for my make-believe matchup between the 1980 Astros and the 1980 Mets. When I was hit by a car and unable to walk without crutches for a few months, I sat down on my backyard patio and threw a racquetball against our chimney, and created an imaginary scheme of bounces and high flies that led to hits and outs. Again, the scorecard gave me stats. As my brother and I grew into our teen years, our parents bought us a Commodore 64 computer, and we quickly found a game called “MicroLeague Baseball.” When we put the floppy-disk software to this game into our computer, the Commodore let us play games featuring real baseball lineups, and the stats were kept for us, right there on the screen. Entire summer days were spent in this statistical heaven.

In high school, Eric and I joined a “rotisserie league,” as fantasy baseball was commonly called at the time, and had a blast as our friend compiled the league stats by hand. College brought me into the world of sports journalism, and I chose to devote nearly all of my free time to writing. It wasn’t until three years ago, at age 34, that I tried out fantasy baseball in its 21st-century incarnation. Fantasy sports are quite the pastime today, with many millions participating around the world in a variety of sports ranging from football to golf to auto racing. I find it fascinating that so many are turned on by the lure of statistical speculation – so much that even Michael Phelps said in a news conference that he had to refrain from opening an e-mail about fantasy football during the Olympics, to keep from getting distracted.

And yet it is that distraction that concerns me, especially when I have spent enough time at my computer already during the day and what I really need is to go for a run, hang out with my wife or play a game with my kids. I don’t want fantasy sports, of all things, to play a role in keeping me away from what I want to do most with my precious time and energy.

So as I finish this fourth year of fantasy baseball (currently in sixth place in both my leagues, by the way), I wonder about whether to go further. Isn’t it perfectly acceptable for me to spend a few minutes doing something that I truly enjoy? Yet, if my free time is limited, isn’t it silly to spend any of it playing a make-believe game?

I’ve talked this over with my wife, kids, brother and best friend, and I think I’ve found a solution. The solution lies with the aspect of fantasy sports I enjoy most of all – the opportunity it affords for keeping in touch with friends and family members – in some cases with people I haven’t seen in quite some time. The sense of community that fantasy baseball provides is something I simply don’t want to give up now. Keeping in touch with friends is hard enough as it is, and if fantasy sports give me a chance to do so, then it’s worth my time.

How much time, though? That’s the key question, and after much deliberation with my 6-year-old, we’ve come up with a solution. When Daddy wakes up on a day off from work and wants to check his fantasy baseball, we’ll set the oven timer to 15 minutes, and leave him alone for that time. When the timer rings, he’s done, and we move on to the rest of our lives.

Sounds like a good deal: A chance to have some fun and keep in touch, but with some clear boundaries that prevent it all from becoming an obsession.

Let’s see if I can pull it off.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Blazing a Trail

Katie is angry at Barack Obama. My oldest daughter wanted to see a woman serve as our next president. Hillary Clinton was her choice, and because Obama defeated Clinton, Katie strongly dislikes the presumptive Democratic nominee. At age 6, Katie’s take-charge approach to life at home leads me to believe that she relates to the idea of being a chief executive – although occasionally her behavior leans more toward dictatorship than democracy (“Chelsea, I want my toy back now!”)

The other day, as my wife and good friend Neil were talking about the presidential campaign, Katie heard their conversation and said, “I like John McCain.” Both Neil and Amy looked over to her and asked why she preferred McCain. She said, “He’s good on energy.” Uncle Neil’s eyebrows pursed as he asked her, “Where did you hear that?” Her response was simple: “That’s what it said on the commercial.”

Neil, who is a lawyer, was not going to let Katie off easy here. “How do you know that what the commercial says is true?” he asked. Katie’s response: “Because at the end he said, ‘I’m John McCain, and I approve this message.’ ” Neil explained that this commercial was paid for by the candidate’s campaign. He asked her if she would pay for a commercial that said she was the best bicycle rider in the world. She said she would.

“But are you?” Neil asked.
“No,” Katie replied quietly.
Chalk one up for Uncle Neil.

The girls like to watch baseball with me. They love the fact that I have a passion apart from work and family. Last week, while watching a game on TV with me, Katie said, “I wish I was a boy.”

“Why?” I asked.
“So I could play baseball,” she said.

I explained to her that she could definitely play baseball as a girl. Even though most girls chose to play softball, some have chosen to play baseball with the boys. It’s not impossible to do. Eventually, I said, there will be a woman who plays professional baseball.

“Who says you can’t be the one who does it first?” I asked.

Katie shrugged her shoulders and thought about it awhile. Somewhere in that blossoming brain of hers, there are thoughts of women running our country and girls running 90-foot bases.

I like that a lot. I approve that message.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ballparks and Brothers

I’ve been to Yankee Stadium dozens of times over the past 31 years. Ever since my first game – Bat Day in 1977, when I was handed a wooden Adirondack with the name “Thurman Munson” engraved on the barrel – I have felt so alive every time I’ve visited this ballpark. It is, without question, the greatest arena for sports that I have ever experienced. I have stood in the upper deck during playoff games and felt the electric pulse of 55,000 trying to will the Yankees to victory, the entire level shaking beneath our feet. I’ve sat in the lower deck during the lean years, watching Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly and Mike Pagliarulo lace frozen ropes into the gap before 20,000 intensely faithful fans. I’ve walked reverently through Monument Park, roared blissfully with the bleacher creatures, and stood on the field singing along with Billy Joel.

Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Camden Yards are more aesthetically beautiful than Yankee Stadium ever was. But the beauty of this ballpark in the Bronx goes beyond anything the eye can see. The magic of Yankee Stadium rests in the way this place feels, and the passion its fans provide. It’s the kind of atmosphere that gives you 50,000 people roaring deliriously for a former Yankee who’s just lost his job with another team, as took place a few days ago during Old-Timer’s Day. As Willie Randolph jogged onto the field to wave his cap, he watched an entire stadium stand to its feet to welcome him home and nearly bring him to tears. Yankee fans often realize what a player needs before the player knows it himself, and that is where the mystique and aura lie. When the playoffs begin, Yankee fans know that they need to take their job of cheering to another level, and they do; it is for this reason that they love players like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte so much, for these three have also known how to find that extra level of intensity come October.

It’s difficult to imagine this place closing for business in a few weeks. But it will, and it is with this in mind that I checked out the prices on StubHub recently, to see if there was a chance I could say goodbye myself. I found ticket prices well into the hundreds, even thousands of dollars, for the remaining games played in the stadium this year. I guess the old place has earned this kind of price tag. I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come next year in the new park.

For now, though, I’ve got plenty of memories of my own moments in the big park: Ken Griffey Sr. soaring over the seats in left field to take a home run away from the Red Sox; Jerry Mumphrey smashing an upper-deck, walk-off home run against the Angels before those things were ever called “walk-offs”; Mattingly roping a double into the right-field corner to wrest the league batting title away from Winfield on the season’s last day; Ron Guidry striking out a dozen or so on Old-Timers’ Day, shortly before he himself became a retiree; Paul O’Neill drilling home runs on his way to a batting title; David Wells baffling the Rangers, then Indians, in the playoffs en route to the 125-win season of 1998; and the home crowd standing for Cal Ripken on one of his last games in the Bronx.

Much more than the players, though, I will remember the people I sat with at these games. My mom, my dad, my grandparents, best friends, college friends, teaching colleagues, fellow journalists. I’ll remember the games with my wife, the two of us holding hands as she let me fill her ears with useless stats. I’ll remember the game with my oldest daughter, her eyes opening wide as she looked down on the vast field of green. And most of all, I’ll remember the games I attended with my brother. My passion for this game leads me always to him, to our days playing, watching, and talking about this game. We have laughed, debated, high-fived and, yes, even argued in this ballpark. We’ve talked about nearly every aspect of our lives in the hours spent watching ballgames here. Add it all up and we’ve lived several days in this park, eating pretzels and hot dogs side by side in the upper deck. As we’ve grown older, the stadium has helped provide a place and time for making each other a priority, even when work and family demands are intense.

We’ll meet up for games in the new park, I’m sure. But just as the beautiful home our parents retired to doesn’t feel like the little ranch we grew up in, the new Yankee Stadium won’t feel quite like home, either. But we’ll have to adjust. Life is like that. In the end, it’ll be fine – so long as we’re there together.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Handing Out Stars

I’ve been reading Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope lately. I’ve been watching some of his speeches as well. As a voter, I’m looking for a leader who strives for unity – between individuals, between cultures, and between groups of every kind. I like what I see from the senator, and I’ve found the audacity to hope he might actually win.

When I watch and read about pro sports, I don’t see nearly as much unity as I’d like to see from a profession that has so often prided itself on teamwork. I keep seeing fights between teams and even between players on the same team. I keep reading about athletes who are unhappy with eight-figure salaries. I read of relationships between Hall of Fame players and their teams disintegrating over nonsense.

It’s with this in mind that I’ve been thinking about the 1979 Pirates lately. Before they were a team that refused to keep their good players, the Pirates were a powerhouse. Nearly a decade after the death of Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell led Pittsburgh to a ’79 World Series matchup with Earl Weaver’s mighty Baltimore Orioles. The Pirates had taken America by storm that year, as first baseman Stargell awarded stars to his teammates when they made a good play or had a good game, and the players placed these stars on their caps as if the stars were Cub Scout badges. The team also proclaimed Sister Sledge’s hit song “We Are Family” to be their anthem. This ballclub’s unity paid off well in the end, as the Pirates were able to keep their composure and rebound from a 3 games to 1 World Series deficit to win the World Series. Stargell and company were smiling the whole time, and they helped buoy a country galvanized by recession, terrorism and an energy crisis.

As the America of 2008 faces such similar challenges today, I look for signs of hope and unity. I hear Barack Obama, and I listen closely. I feel inspired. When I look over to the baseball field, I crave the sight of more selfless dedication to team on the diamond. I wait for someone to step forward, turn on some late-‘70s disco music and start handing out stars. Mr. Jeter, Mr. Varitek, Mr. Rollins, Mr. Pujols – what do you think? It’s worth a try. It’s a change I can believe in.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Manny Being Mannered

I don’t spend my time in baseball locker rooms, so I can’t speak to the character of any player in Major League baseball. I don’t know what they’re really like, only what I get through the filter of news media outlets. Many reporters are superb at what they do, but their medium does not have the space to tell us everything about the athletes they cover. Skepticism should be a natural instinct we carry with us when following coverage of such “heroes” whom we have never had the chance to speak with in person.

So I can’t say that Manny Ramirez is a jerk any more than I can say that he’s a prince of a guy. I have absolutely no concrete evidence on which to support either statement. For every off-hand comment he makes, he may be giving tons of money to charity for all I know. One thing I can say for sure is that he’s interesting. And I’d love to chat with him sometime and see what he’s like one-on-one.

But from a distance, there are still some lessons I think I can pass along to my kids from watching Manny Ramirez play ball and talk to the media. He is giving a clinic on workplace behavior right now, in the midst of the cameras and the doubles off the wall. The lessons are plentiful. Here are a few:

1. Burning bridges has a price: No matter what your employer may have done to slight you, there is a cost to leaving them on bad terms. Saying that you’d rather play ball in Iraq when that employer has paid you more than $150 million is going to leave a sour taste in the mouths of many, no matter what led you to that place of anger. You never know where you’ll meet that employer again, and there’s no reason to make life more uncomfortable than it already is.

2. Hustle, always: There is never an excuse for jogging to first base on a ground ball, just as there’s never an excuse for “mailing in” a day’s work in any field. There are always people watching you and learning from your body language. Most important, there are young people who can learn something from you about the importance of giving your best and feeling pride in yourself.

3. Dress well: Tuck in your shirt. Wear pants that fit your body. Model a sense of self-worth and maturity to those who are looking up to you and those looking out for you.

4. Show humility in public: No matter how good you are at what you do, it’s so important to speak with gratitude for what you’ve been given and with humility about the things you’ve accomplished. There are too many people suffering in this world, and for every star athlete who spends a ton of time talking about himself, there is inevitably less media coverage being given to those in need. Athletes would do well to spend more time ducking the spotlight, for that is often the best way to earn respect.

5. Love what you do: Find a career that lights you up, and enjoy it every day. Find a job that makes you smile, and relish the chance to do what you love. I list this final point not as a criticism of Manny Ramirez, but as a compliment. No matter what the situation, he always seems to be hugging a teammate and having fun.

I will not miss the unnecessary “Manny’s Moody” headlines that covered far too much of the media in recent days. But I will miss watching Manny Ramirez play ball on a regular basis. I last saw him live in April, at Yankee Stadium. He crushed two home runs with effortless grace, his instincts finding that perfect place where bat meets ball in the sweet spot. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better pure hitter than this man. He is a master of his art. I hope one day he can find a way to use the news media well and become a better ambassador of the game he loves so much.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Midsummer

I’ve always felt a bit of a letdown in the days following the All-Star Game. Falling just two weeks into July, the game is played at the height of summer in all its limitless splendor. There is, of course, much more left to the baseball season after the All-Star Game, from trade-deadline deals to pennant races to the postseason itself. But even with the tense, meaty drama of the second half, the fact remains that the unlimited possibility of midsummer is gone. Some of the unexpected first-place teams have slipped into second now. Some of the surprise All-Star selections have hit their inevitable second-half slumps. Some of the hot rookies have turned cold.

Some of the families I know are home from vacation already. Pro-football training camps are set to begin. Back-to-school magazines and circulars are finding their way onto my kitchen table. The number of fireflies outside at night is diminishing.

Summer has so much left to offer. But some of its prime – the heart of the watermelon, the first dip into the pool, Justin Morneau’s sprint toward home in the 15th inning – is spent. To me, the All-Star Game represents the fleeting beauty and glory of this summer season.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sammy Sou-sa

Throughout their lives, my mother’s parents shared a deep love for baseball with my brother and me. Warm, compassionate grandparents, they often expressed their love to us through animated conversations about the Yankees, Mets, or our own Little League and high school teams. One of the most enjoyable aspects of these baseball talks was my grandparents’ incredible ability to destroy the pronunciation of players’ names. This side of Babe Ruth, there wasn’t a player whose name they didn’t butcher.

That new outfielder the Yankees had just signed from Japan? Mat-soon-i. The home-run-hitting outfielder for the Cubs? Sammy Sou-sa. The clutch lefty pitcher in pinstripes? Penn-itte.

My brother and I would joke good-naturedly with my grandparents about this, and they’d laugh along with us. I wondered to myself whether these mispronunciations were due more to their education level (one had graduated from high school, while the other had left high school before earning a diploma), or whether it was due more to geography and ethnicity (a combination of Irish-German-English descent placed on the North Shore of Staten Island – a place where you’d hear many a native ask for earl and vinegar in a restaurant, and where you’d hear them say the gas was cheaper in Joisey). When I heard them say the words “Derek Jeey-ta,” I wondered whether this mispronunciation was due to a real deficiency in literacy or to a simple combination of genetics and learned behavior. Whatever the reason, I felt sure that my brother and I – writers both – would not have such struggles.

My grandparents have both passed away in recent years, leaving us with just memories of hearing about “Joe Gir-al-di” or “Jorge Po-san-a.” Until …

My mother. She was talking to me the other day on the phone. She wanted to know if I thought the Yankees would trade for that Cleveland pitcher.

“Which one, Mom?”

“Sa-na-thee-a.”

Silence.

“Mom, do you mean C.C. Sa-bath-i-a?”

“Yes, him.”

More silence.

“Mom, you’ve inherited it.”

“What?”

“The name gene.”

She is almost 62, and I see now that she is well on her way. My mom is fast becoming a major-leaguer at mispronouncing names. We shared a laugh over this realization, and then moved on to other things. But as I hung up the phone, I thought about it some more, and started to get nervous.

When will I start doing it?

I pore over the names in box scores, and say them over in my head. “Fukudome. Pierzynski. Francoeur. Gallardo.” I will not succumb, I say. Genetics or not, I can stave off this grammatical glitch.

From their lofty perch, my grandparents smile. “Just you wait,” they surely say. Just you wait.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The True Professional

I have been watching Willie Randolph for as long as I’ve been watching baseball. I was five years old when he joined the Yankees in 1976, and I saw him play on everything from pennant winners to also-rans. I saw him win championships with his bat, his glove, and his coaching instincts. I saw him turn the double play with an endless array of shortstops, and I saw him wave home dozens of Yankees players. I voted for him to start in All-Star games, and I cheered his selections as a co-captain, coach and manager. While it was always strange to see him in a Mets uniform, I rooted for him to win as manager of New York’s National League team.

I don’t know everything there is to know about Willie Randolph. But as a man who tries to go about my own job with a quiet dignity, a dedication to professional standards, and a compassion for others, I have viewed Randolph's behavior and demeanor with admiration on more than one occasion. He has always struck me as the kind of person who knows what is most important in life, and who is made that much better as a professional because of the perspective he carries along with him.

Willie Randolph may not be the manager of the New York Mets anymore. But beyond the change in job title, he is still a champion in all the right ways. I wish him the very best.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Dignity and Death

I didn’t know much about death in the summer of 1979, as I hadn’t yet lost anyone close to me. I would lose a great-grandmother later that year, and I can remember the bewilderment I felt in the funeral home. This woman who had cared for me and given me so many hugs lay motionless in a coffin, her hands clasped together, while the adults whispered about the place in their suits and black dresses, and the overpowering smell of so many flowers stung my senses. Indeed, I would begin to understand death soon enough.

But on August 2, 1979, I hadn’t had much acquaintance with death. And so it was that I learned that one of my favorite baseball players had died on this day. Thurman Munson, the captain of my favorite ballclub, had perished in a small plane crash. He was gone, in a moment, on an off-day between Yankee games. I sat on the grass of my front lawn that afternoon and tried to figure this thing out. It wasn’t making much sense.

When the Yankees took the field in their home stadium the next day, I saw thousands of grown people crying, trying to deal with the loss of someone who had meant something real to them. I saw Yankee players crying in their pinstriped uniforms. Death was something powerful, something you didn’t take lightly. Death meant paying your deepest respects to the person who had died, and at the same time trying to continue with your own life.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the career of Bobby Murcer at this point, but I learned that he had been close friends with Thurman Munson. Four days after Munson’s death, Murcer spoke at his friend’s funeral service. That night, the Yankees had a game. And in the most powerful period ever delivered to the end of a eulogy, Bobby Murcer drove in all five New York runs, including an upper-deck homer, to deliver a 5-4 Yankees victory in honor of the fallen captain.

In the 29 years since that day, I’ve been able to learn a lot about Bobby Murcer, first through his status as my brother’s favorite childhood player and then through his career as a Yankees broadcaster. I’ve learned that the kindness and friendship he displayed on that summer day in 1979 represented the kind of man he was. His death yesterday, at the age of 62, is a very sad day for his family, and for those who follow baseball. In the days ahead, I look forward to seeing the Yankees honor him in ways that befit a real role model.

I’ve also learned more about death since 1979. I’ve worn those suits to the funeral homes, spoken in hushed tones, and sent those bouquets of flowers. I’ve learned to revere death, to pay my respects with compassion, and to hope beyond hope that when it’s my turn there will be words for me that approach those spoken for Bobby Murcer.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Bruises We Carry

We had just arrived at the game when we heard the “Heads up!” cry. We were just unfolding our blanket on the lawn seats on the right-field side of Commerce Bank Ballpark, home of the Somerset (N.J.) Patriots. At the plate was a Bridgeport Bluefish outfielder named Ryan Bear, and with his big paws Bear had just fouled off a pitch that was soaring into foul ground – coincidentally, straight toward that lawn-seat area we had selected as our destination on this first night of summer. My wife, Amy, took a look up before I did. She realized immediately that Bear had sent a gift straight toward her. She covered her head, ducked down, and withstood the thud of Rawlings baseball striking lower back.

By this time, I had belatedly looked up from my blanket duty, and I saw a ball bounce off my wife’s back. With my right hand, I reached for her, concerned for her immediate well-being. With my left hand – well, to be honest, with my left hand I grabbed the ball.

She said she was fine. The circular bruise would be purple by the third inning. As for our two daughters, they got over the surprise of their mom being hit by a baseball quickly enough, as soon as I handed them their very own foul ball to play with on the grass. They rolled it back and forth, and even placed it up against Mom’s back to study the sphere’s impact.

Amy’s bruise remained purple for a good 10 days. She’s fine now, and looking forward to another trip to the ballpark. But she has a story now, and it’s one that she can hold onto for a lifetime. She can tell anyone she wants that in the heat of the moment, her husband couldn’t decide which was more important – her health or baseball. That is the bruise I carry with me, and it ain’t going away.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

She's Got an Arm

He was the best left-handed pitcher on Staten Island, N.Y., during a time when that meant something. And now, more than 60 years later, his great-granddaughter was learning that she had inherited his gene pool. For the man’s grandson and the girl’s father, this was a day to remember.

My grandfather, Warren Mueller, pitched on the minor-league level, for the Hartford (Conn.) Senators/Laurels, in 1944-45. He amassed a 22-6 record during his two years of minor-league ball, and his Hartford team was recently listed on www.minorleaguebaseball.com as one of the top 100 minor-league clubs of all time. But in the spring of 1945, Warren left this team in the Boston Braves organization as World War II was ending. His concern was this: If he failed to make it to the big leagues, there would be very few jobs available at home due to the large numbers of soldiers heading back.

So, playing it safe, he returned to Staten Island, where he became the premier semi-pro pitcher of his time and place. In this era before television, the locals would flock to see well-played baseball games in their hometowns. And in this time before all the organized adult softball, basketball and soccer leagues surfaced, those men who wanted to play a sport beyond their school years knew that baseball was the game. This was a time when companies would hire excellent ballplayers to work for them during the week, just so long as these athletes also played on the semi-pro ballclubs. More wins for the teams meant better advertising for the companies. Later on in his career, when my grandfather owned his own business, he sponsored one such semi-pro team of his own.

By the time I was born, Warren Mueller’s ball-playing days were long gone. But whenever he’d introduce me to other men his age, these gentlemen would tell me stories of how great a pitcher my grandfather had been. While Warren remained humble about his accomplishments, he shared his passion for the game with my brother and with me. He also came to nearly every organized game we ever played. When both of us became pitchers, Warren was there behind home plate, hollering out encouragement that was always helpful and never pushy. When our playing days ended after high school, we’d watch Yankee games with him and my grandmother on TV and talk about the state of baseball today.

My grandfather died a year and a half ago. But before he passed, he had the chance to know my two daughters – his great-grandchildren. He loved them with all his heart, and when he died I asked him to watch over the girls. I didn’t realize that he had already given the oldest one some of the magic in that left arm of his.

Katie, who is 6, played on a tee-ball softball team this year. She had a lot of fun running the bases, swinging the aluminum bat, and fielding ground balls. But the thing she liked doing the most was throwing. She’d point her right glove arm forward, step with the right foot, and whip her left arm over her head, releasing the stitched softball and sending it on a line, right over her teammate’s head.

Her coach approached me. “Your daughter has an arm,” he said. I nodded, and smiled. He suggested she attend a pitching camp in a couple of years. When Katie overheard me relating this to my wife and parents, she started throwing the ball even farther.

My grandfather wasn’t sitting in a lawn chair on this day, like he did when I was playing. No, this time he had an even better seat. And I know he was enjoying every moment of it. As for me, I tipped my cap to him, aware that he had more than a little to do with those fastballs Katie was throwing.