Saturday, July 26, 2008


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?”



“Mom, do you mean C.C. Sa-bath-i-a?”

“Yes, him.”

More silence.

“Mom, you’ve inherited it.”


“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 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.