Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Sure Things

The baseball news was predictable this week, as the two most dominant players of 2009 were awarded Most Valuable Player honors for their respective leagues. Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer are quite likely two of the best players many of us will ever see on the baseball field, and both were more consistently brilliant this year than in any other. There are few sure things in baseball, but Pujols and Mauer are two of them.

Sure things. We take comfort in those two words – the idea that there are things we can rely on, day in and day out, never wavering in their constancy. For Chelsea, our 4-year-old, there have been several sure things in her life – the parents, big sister and grandparents who care for her, the white house she calls home, and the little preschool she attends every weekday.

Oh, and one other thing – there has been Blankie.

Every day since she was first able to hold something in her hand, Chelsea has carried around the white blanket that she was wrapped in on the day she was born. It’s a standard maternity ward blanket, white with yellow ducks, pink and blue chicks, and little green hearts. For three years, Chelsea’s blanket remained in rather good shape. We’d wash it every so often, and while it began to look weathered, it remained intact.

Three years, apparently, was all that this cotton material could take. For nearly two years now, we’ve watched Blankie literally fall apart in Chelsea’s hands. It went from a full-size blanket to a brownish, cotton thing the size of a hand towel, to an even browner piece the size of a handkerchief, to the small, fabric-sample-size remnant she carries around today. She tucks it together with a red ponytail holder. It is so brown that I’ve taken to calling it “Raggie” and declaring it a health-code violation. Chelsea just smiles, takes another sniff of her sure thing, and holds it tight.

Until Sunday, that is. Sometime between the time we got home from church and the time we went to bed, Blankie became misplaced. And, unlike the countless other times when we’ve searched for and found the little cloth, this time Chelsea’s friend was hiding for real. Chelsea said she knew we’d find him, and she agreed to sleep with a backup blanket she has dubbed “Cheesie.” She held this replacement friend in her hands, with its own pattern of yellow ducks, stars and hearts. But it wasn’t the same.

Monday came and went. No Blankie. Tuesday arrived, and still nothing. Meanwhile, Mauer and Pujols were picking up their sure-thing trophies, comforting the fans in Minnesota and Missouri.

But there is only one MVP in Chelsea’s life, and considering how much it’s meant to her she was surprisingly calm about it all. On Tuesday, when she decided to color, she pulled out her bin of crayons. And there, nestled among the Crayola rainbow, she saw her friend. She lifted Blankie up, smelled him, and smiled. “He smells like crayons,” she said to me. Usually one to avoid sniffing that dirty thing, I found myself taking a quick sniff. Crayons, indeed.

As we gather with our families and friends this Thanksgiving, here’s a toast to the sure things. Here’s to the people, the pets, the places, and, yes, even the blankies that are there for us. We’re not always as lovable as we could be every day, and sometimes we’re worried, or afraid, or sad. It’s at those times when a little comfort is all we need. A hug. A kind word. A sunset. A sniff of old cotton.

A reassurance. Even if it’s weathered and worn and smelling of crayons.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fantasy Farmers

For 30 minutes each day during the baseball season, I sit in front of a computer and completely lose myself in a world of make-believe. I set my lineups, add and drop players, make trade offers. I read up on baseball-player news, and I strategize. All of this, of course, involves an imaginary, fantasy-baseball team that exists solely on the Internet. The players are real, of course, but they don’t really play for me. I’m trying to craft a team that will perform better than the teams run by a dozen other grown adults, who are also giving a half-hour of their life to this child’s play.

When I do this, I experience an odd mixture of glee and guilt. I’m excited because this is genuinely fun for me, as it is for the many millions of fans worldwide who are quickly turning fantasy sports into the real sports pastime. And yet, I also feel some pronounced guilt, since there are obviously a billion more productive things I could be doing with my life during that half-hour. Sure, we all need some time to decompress, and many of us do so on-line. But I could be on, or reading important news stories, or e-mailing a friend.

The strongest guilt, though, has always come from the other adult who lives in this household. My wife has perfected the look – head cocked to the side, eyebrows pursed, a half-smile on her lips. “What are you doing?” she asks while I click and type furiously over my cereal bowl. “Didn’t we say we were going to church together this morning?”

“Um-hum,” I mumble. “Just give me a second, and I’ll be right there.”

Now the arms are folded in front of her, and she’s giving me the nod. “Sure,” she says. “Whatever you say.”

We get to church late, and now I’m really feeling guilty. She doesn’t say a word, making it even worse.

So this is how it’s gone for five years. Every winter I tell her that I’m going to quit the fantasy baseball scene next year, and she assures me that I won’t. March comes, and she’s right. It all begins again, and that odd mixture of feelings comes back to me while I peer at my lineup over that cereal bowl.

But no more. Next year, without question, will be different. I say this not because I plan to cease playing fantasy baseball. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that I’ve finally been relieved of the marital guilt.

The reason is simple: My wife raises fantasy livestock. She’s planting make-believe sunflowers. She’s up to level 25.

We’ve had some odd crazes in the history of American pop culture, but FarmVille is definitely up there among the best of them. According to a New York Times article a few weeks ago, more than 62 million people have signed up to play this Facebook application, which allows its players to tend to a virtual farm all their own. Zynga, the company that created FarmVille, told the Times that 22 million people log into their FarmVille account at least once a day.

When I check my Facebook page, I see these bulky animal and crop drawings, with messages stating that friends of mine are looking for lost cows, or have found wild turkeys, or just discovered mystery eggs, or simply want to say “Thank You” to all their FarmVille friends. It is agricultural madness. It is Atari meets Facebook meets Amish Country.

We should have seen it coming, of course. Many of the adults who are playing this game grew up with such odd passions as Cabbage Patch Kids, Q*bert and the Smurfs. We know that strange fads make life more fun. We’ve kept our Rubik’s Cubes and our Tickle Me Elmo’s, thank you, and we’re on the lookout for the next strangely obsessive thing.

It would be fine if only Amy checked her farm once a day. I would be totally cool with that. However, it’s become a challenge just to talk with her once the girls are asleep. Really, how could you bother to converse with your husband when there are blueberries to harvest, and animals to feed, and hay bales to arrange in the design of a Christmas tree?

You could say that this is karma, and that I’m getting what I deserve after all those hours of fantasy baseball. You’d be right, of course, but I see it differently. I envision a conversation this April, when I’m on the computer one Saturday, and she gives me that look again.

“Honey, are you checking your fantasy baseball?” she’ll ask.

“Yup,” I’ll say.

“Can you get off the computer? We’ve got things to do.”


“Are you serious? You’re really going to play that all day?”

“As long as I want to.”

“Come on – let’s get a move on.”

“Sorry, babe,” I’ll say. “But you buy fantasy pigs in your spare time. You harvest fantasy corn. You earn fantasy money when your fantasy chickens lay fantasy eggs. You inform your friends that fantasy ugly ducklings have shown up on your fantasy farm.

“So if you don’t mind, I’m going to take just a few more minutes with my little fantasy baseball, where at least the players are real.”

She’ll stare at me for a minute. “Are you done?” she’ll ask.

“I am,” I’ll say, smiling to myself. Patting myself on the back. Little fist-pump beneath the desk.

She’ll continue: “Let’s go.”

I’ll lower my head, and click hibernate. “OK,” I’ll mumble.

The guilt again. Damn farmers.

Monday, November 16, 2009

No Game Tomorrow

It was 10 o’clock on a Sunday night, and we were watching Matthew Broderick and Frank Whaley chase a Komodo dragon through a shopping mall. There was a time when I actually paid money to see this film in a theater, and found myself mildly entertained. But I was a teen-ager at the time. Yet here we were, my wife and I, flipping through the channels and stopping to watch some of “The Freshman.”

This is what happens when the baseball season ends.

I know, who am I to complain? The team I root for won the World Series; there are Yankees championship commemorative magazines wherever you look. Joe Girardi and his boys are on top of the world, and they get to stay there all winter long.

And yet, that’s the problem – the all winter long part.

For no matter how well your team does, whether it’s last place or the last men standing, the fact remains that when that final out is made in the deciding game of the Fall Classic, all true baseball fans feel a very real sadness. It’s all over. Another season in the books. No game tomorrow.

There are leaves to be raked, and winter coats to unpack, and holiday catalogs to peruse. The heat is on in the house most evenings now, and I have a hard time getting home in time for a jog in the daylight.

Life is a series of seasons, both in sports and in weather. As the baseball concludes, so does any last remnant of summer. Katie, Chelsea and I are a lot more likely to be inside reading books than outside playing ball these days. My mom and I will talk about the holiday movie season rather than the baseball postseason. My brother and I will try and make plans to meet for dinner in Manhattan, rather than in that giant ballpark in the Bronx.

And, yes, Amy and I will watch a few minutes of a long-forgotten Matthew Broderick comedy in lieu of a few innings of a ballgame. Granted, the MLB Network does air old games all the time. But watch too many of those and you begin to feel like you’re living entirely in the past.

Every few days, it hits me almost like a bolt from the blue that the Yankees are champions. There’s no bitter regret over a crushing playoff loss. Only the image of players, fans, and coaches dancing in victory. Fabulous.

Yet finished. The clock ticks, and we move on. We find new rhythms and new routines for our days. Here’s one I like: Chelsea has finally decided on a favorite TV show. In an amazing way, it’s become my favorite, also. On weekends, we like to take it in together, talking through the stories.

It’s called “Wonder Pets!” It’s kind of like watching Mariano Rivera, except with domestic animals singing. The show stars a turtle, guinea pig and duckling who are closet superheroes called to save the day during each episode. Their job is to help an animal in trouble. And this they do, with incredible efficiency, optimism and success. Like the Yankees closer, their saves are quite predictable. Like Rivera, they smile a lot. Unlike Rivera, they sing.

But oh, if only Mariano had a mike on the mound, he’d surely croon the Wonder Pets’ favorite words: “What’s gonna work? Teamwork! What’s gonna work? Teamwork!”

Yes, we have some new routines, new seasons, new days in the Hynes household. We will handle that just fine. And when the weather gets a bit colder than we’d like, we’ll remember this date: April 5.

Opening Day. Fourteen games scheduled, including Yankees at Red Sox. It will get warm soon enough.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Snowstorm in Lower Manhattan

I tell the girls we won’t get close enough to see the players’ faces, but that they’ll hear the roars, see the streams of white paper falling from office windows, and feel a kind of excitement you don’t experience every day. I know this from the last time I tried to see a ticker-tape parade, in 1996. That year, the only Yankee I could glimpse from half a block away was Kenny Rogers, and that was only because he had climbed on top of his float. But the sound of hundreds of thousands of voices echoing through that canyon of gray buildings? The streams of paper showering you from above? That’s why you come to this thing.

Amy and I figure we’ll enjoy the trip more by driving into Staten Island and taking one of the mighty orange ferry boats to the city. It’s a great idea, if only there were parking spots to be had on Staten Island. After finding a spot about a mile away from the ferry terminal, we’re all finally on our way, passing by Lady Liberty and Ellis Island in the mighty harbor.

Walking up to the parade route, I see a sign hanging from the Fraunces Tavern Museum on Broad and Pearl streets. It reads: “See the Magna Carta.” I do a double-take. Say what? The Magna Carta is here, on Pearl Street? If that’s true, I’m starting to feel guilty for walking by, for kind of wanting to see CC Sabathia more than the document that changed the world. I wasn’t really ready for that choice.

We move on, and turn left onto Beaver Street. From here, we can make out the floats as they roll by, about a hundred yards away. There goes Derek Jeter, wearing some shades and flashing his smile. There’s Andy Pettitte, videocamera in hand. Oh, and that’s definitely CC – all 6 feet 7 inches of him. “There’s CC,” a father says to his son, and holds him up. What an impressive man Sabathia is – truly a document all his own.

We wave to Mariano Rivera, as he fittingly closes out the parade. The girls come down off of our shoulders, we take some more photos, and walk through the printer paper, the ticker tape, the toilet paper and the phone book pages. It looks like a snowstorm has hit, and this part of the city has the communal feel of a snowstorm as well. We stand in line for some soft pretzels, which aren’t hot, but oh well. A sanitation worker with broom in hand waits patiently for us to move so he can get started with the hours of work he’s got this afternoon.

There are so many people wearing brand-new Yankees gear, leaving little reason to wonder how the team can afford so many high-priced players. One fan has taken marker to her jersey, writing the words “Have My Baby” underneath the “Teixeira” on her back. Sorry, miss, but Tex is spoken for. Another fan wears a Mike Mussina jersey, calling to mind the former New York ace who joined the Yankees after their last world championship in 2000 and retired after last season.

Back at the ferry terminal, they have decided not to add any additional boats today, despite the fact that thousands of navy-blue-clad people are standing elbow-to-elbow in the terminal, waiting to travel back to Staten Island. We’re feeling the crush of bodies around us. Chelsea is crying. I lead the way as we excuse ourselves and move out of this crowd. A man curses at me, and I ignore him. Minutes later, dozens of police officers arrive as there have apparently been injuries among the thousands pushing forward in that crowd. We’re out of here. So much for the communal feeling.

Outside, a young family like ours is standing along the East River walkway. They’ve left the ferry terminal as well, and they’re taking photos. We chat for a few minutes, and it’s getting back to the kind of day it’s supposed to be, one in which people let their guards down a bit and share a greeting or two. Over at the South Street Seaport, a man is leading a child in a “Let’s Go Yankees” chant. A man is running up to scare a pigeon from behind with his noisemaker. Amy buys the girls some ice cream cones, and that, for Chelsea, is the real highlight – chocolate all over her face, the sweet taste of Haagen-Dazs in her mouth.

A fleet of ferries has arrived to clear out the terminal – anyone for planning ahead next time? – and the girls are ready to head home. Broadway is making its way back from paper to asphalt, and the Yankees are all at City Hall now. Workers are hammering a pylon into the ground south of the Seaport, and a helicopter takes off from the nearby heliport. A guy in a Yankees jacket walks into Fraunces Tavern. (I can hear his chant now: “Magna Carta! dun-dun-dundundun. Magna Carta!”)

A pair of tourists drive by on rented bicycles from Central Park. Amy and I smile to each other. We want to stop and tell them that this is not the way it is here every day. Electricity doesn’t run at this high a voltage all the time in New York. Only when powered by paper, passion and pinstripes.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

November 4, 2009

We started the night in a tavern, a couple of miles from our house. Amy and I were munching on nachos as Andy Pettitte picked his way through the Phillies lineup in innings one and two. My mom, who was staying with us last night, had offered to put the girls to sleep so we could get out for a few hours together. I had come from work, and wasn’t dressed for a tavern or a ballgame. But Amy didn’t seem to mind; nor did Andy.

The last time the Yankees clinched a World Series in Game 6 – 13 years ago – I was in a bar back on Staten Island, on the job as a newspaper reporter. I was interviewing locals for a reaction story on a tight Saturday deadline – so tight that I would have to dictate the story from a pay phone on Forest Avenue. I didn’t have any time to feel nervous over whether Jimmy Key could outduel Greg Maddux, nor did I have time to roar over Joe Girardi’s game-changing triple. Last night, however, there was plenty of time to take it in, as we munched on our nachos, then on wraps and fries. Of course, there was also plenty of time to get nervous.

The TVs in the mostly-empty restaurant area, where we were sitting, were a few seconds delayed compared to the TVs in the bar, which was packed with men and women wearing navy-blue spring training jerseys. The delay provided an interesting experience, as we heard the roar to celebrate Hideki Matsui’s second-inning home run before we actually saw it with our own eyes. It looked mighty good, even on delay.

The roars grew even louder when Matsui came up again, this time drilling a two-run single off of Phillies starter Pedro Martinez in the third. Back home, Katie and her grandma were getting dizzy with delight. Katie, who at 7 has never seen the Yankees win it all, picked up the words to the Yankee fans’ chant for longtime nemesis Martinez. She stepped in front of the TV and shouted: “Now who’s your daddy, baby?”

The time delay gave us yet another clue that Matsui would come up big in the fifth, and before long we were watching his long double drive home two more. This was feeling too good to be true. It was also feeling like we should stay here, since this spot had brought such good luck. But Amy wanted to get home. And there was that one annoying, 12-year-old Phillies fan across the room. So we hopped in our cars.

Wrong move. Ryan Howard homered off of Pettitte while we were nearing the house. My fault; I had left that lucky, time warp of a spot. Sure, the Cajun shrimp wrap could have been better, but the tavern had given the Yanks a great lead. Should I turn back?

I didn’t turn back. I got home to see Joba Chamberlain end the Phillies’ rally. My mom was on the phone with my brother, Eric. He was in his home, in Brooklyn, with our friend Neil. They sounded optimistic; we talked for a while, and promised to speak again later.

I was not going to clean the house, or do the dishes this night, as I so often do to calm the nerves in late innings of Yankees playoff games. No, I was going to hang in there, live or die, with this one. I picked a lucky spot, in the corner of the living room, and stood there. Damaso Marte! Down goes Utley; pump the fist. Down goes Howard; pump it again. Who knew the guy had it in him? I called my dad, who hadn’t come up to our place with my mom this week, and was therefore watching the game alone. He said he was still up, past his bedtime, and had enjoyed Johnny Damon the most of any player in this series. I felt the same.

It was time now for Mariano Rivera. He began his nightly dissection of a lineup; even so, the outs couldn’t come fast enough. The TV cameras showed Yankees fans pounding on that blue padding covering the walls of the field, like 6-year-olds trying to wake their parents up on Christmas morning. Let’s go! We want our presents!

Santa Closer didn’t let them down. As Rivera induced Shane Victorino into a harmless groundout to complete the championship, I hugged my mom, hugged my wife, and called my brother and Neil. We talked about where we’d been back in 2000, when the Yankees last won it all. We wondered about who would win the MVP, Matsui or Rivera. Eric and I marveled at the way in which Mike Bloomberg kept angling himself into the photos up on the podium, and longed for some spontaneity in the postgame awards presentation. We laughed about a lot.

After a few minutes, I said goodbye to Eric and to Neil. My mom watched the postgame interviews with us for a while, then went to bed herself. Amy and I headed to bed as well, and she drifted off to sleep.

It’s just a game, I know. And yet, how many days in the last few months have I talked with both parents, my brother and Neil on the same day, while also spending a few hours sitting with my wife? How many times had we all taken a break from the rat race to slow down and make time for one another? Was Matsui’s monster game just a sporting accomplishment, or was it part of a larger call to community that had brought families, friends and colleagues together, if even for one night?

The girls would want to hear all about it in the morning; it was time for me to get some sleep as well. The Yanks had done it again, and it had been a good night. A little like Christmas.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Act IV, Scene IV, Game IV: Where Fortinbras Meets Johnny Damon

He didn’t hesitate for one second. Just glanced over his shoulder, saw the opportunity, and seized it.

Jerry Seinfeld has said that we root for sports teams so that we can be “make-believe happy” when they win, and “make-believe sad” when they lose. This argument sees sports as a fantasy world, one where the events on the field, court or ice don’t have a direct impact on the real lives we’re living.

It’s true; of course it’s true. And yet … there are moments in all the arenas of entertainment – a ballgame, a movie, a book – when that “make-believe” world does move us, inspire us, direct us in some way. We see a deeper meaning in the actions of a Chase Utley or a Sean Penn or a Jay Gatsby, and we take something away that might find its own place in our minds, our hearts, our souls.

It’s the top of the ninth inning, two outs, tie game, World Series Game 4. Johnny Damon, the 35-year-old left fielder for New York, has singled his way to first base after a nine-pitch at-bat against Brad Lidge of Philadelphia. With Mark Teixeira at the plate and batting left-handed, the Phillies shift their infield to the right in order to better defend against the slugger. Damon notices this. As Lidge kicks and fires a pitch, Damon takes off for second.

The throw is late, and Damon knows he’s got second stolen. What he also knows is that because of the shift, third baseman Pedro Feliz has taken the catcher’s throw at second. The third thing Damon knows is that no one – not Lidge, not the left fielder, no one – is standing on third base.

And so, with Feliz holding the ball a foot or so away from him, Damon pops up from his slide, gives that little glance over the shoulder, and takes off again. Feliz reaches out with his right hand, but it’s too late. Johnny Damon has stolen two bases in one play.

Now Lidge has to be more careful with his breaking pitches, as one in the dirt could bounce off the catcher and score Damon. Lidge hits Teixeira, then offers Alex Rodriguez a high fastball. By the time Rodriguez’s double is retrieved in the left-field corner, Damon has crossed home plate and the Yankees are on their way to a victory over the Phillies.

Will New York win the World Series? Don’t know. Will Johnny Damon be a Yankee next year? Can’t say. But really, in the end, those yes/no answers are not nearly as interesting as this bigger question: How does an individual find himself so ready and able to execute in the heat of the moment? How is he able to think quickly and take advantage of an opportunity most wouldn’t have even noticed, all of it coming at one of the most pressure-packed moments in his working career?

Baseball is just a game. But for those of us who have found ourselves feeling those knots in the stomach before major life moments – a major presentation at work, a job interview, a first date, a critical moment with family – it’s nothing short of inspirational to see a speedy left-fielder take a window of opportunity and turn it into a game-changer. He was prepared, he thought on his feet, and he executed.

Shakespeare knew all about this kind of thing, this gathering up of inspiration from those we’ve never met. Here’s Hamlet, still trying to find the courage to kill the uncle who has murdered his own father. As he walks through the countryside, Hamlet comes across young Fortinbras, a Norwegian prince who is leading his army through Denmark to fight for a tiny plot of land in Poland. Hamlet realizes that this prince is willing to fight to the death “even for an eggshell,” while he himself is struggling to act for a much clearer reason.

“How stand I then,” Hamlet says to himself, taking stock. If Fortinbras can go for it all in Poland, then why not Hamlet, too? “I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do't,” Hamlet says.

Indeed, sweet prince, we catch your drift. We’ve had moments like that, too. We had one on Sunday night. If Johnny Damon can make it happen in Philadelphia, then maybe we’ll be ready in the clutch as well. When the moment is right, and third base is open, and the hot lights are shining, we’ll give that little glance behind us. We won’t look back long enough to second-guess, or overthink – just long enough to know it’s time to seize the day.