Saturday, December 18, 2010

Elf Meets Dog; Chaos Ensues

The elf is most assuredly on the shelf. Even in baseball’s off-season, the injuries can pile up. Especially when you pit a few ounces of innocent felt against 58 pounds of curious canine.

Last year, my girls joined an ever-growing number of children whose holiday seasons are now overseen by a wide-eyed creature dressed in red. The “Elf on the Shelf” has taken the Christmas season by storm, adding several more reasons for children to be nice rather than naughty. This elf is a wee 13 inches from his toes to the point of his red cap. He’s dressed in red and white felt, and his big blue eyes stare at you with a mixture of wonder and wildness.

He sits in a spot inside our house each day, watching the girls closely with those big eyes. At night, he flies to the North Pole to give Santa a kid-behavior report, then catches the red-eye back to our house by morning. Each day, we find him in a different surveillance spot.

The girls named our elf Freddie last November, and declared that he was a she. A white skirt was produced, and Freddie seemed to enjoy her time with us last year. But oh, how things have changed.

In February, the girls’ birthday gift was a very cute and fluffy golden retriever puppy named Daisy. Some nine months later, that puppy has grown plenty big and strong. In late November of this year, Daisy met little Freddie. It began with a sniff here, and a tail-wag there. And then it got ugly.

One morning, Freddie thought she’d be safe inside a ceramic boot Christmas-card holder. It felt secure enough to her. But Freddie forgot to take into account that she was now within Daisy’s reach. What happened next, only Daisy and Freddie know for sure. I can only describe the grisly aftermath.

The dog was standing over the red elf, whose body lay splayed across the rug. Daisy was licking the red fabric of Freddie’s jacket, but that was certainly not the worst of it. As my wife picked up Freddie, she noticed the tear. The elf’s right shoulder was partially detached from her body. This was a torn rotator cuff of the worst sort. Were Freddie a pitcher, she’d be out of action until 2012.

In the case of felt elves, glue surgery works better than anything involving tendons, ligaments and bone spurs. Freddie was given a night off from flying, and permitted to rest on the kitchen counter while the glue hardened. By morning, she was scarred, but ready to return to work.

Daisy turned one year old on Thursday, and we celebrated by giving our dog some toys and treats. She’s matured in plenty of ways over the past year, from knowing when and where to poop to knowing how to sit, stay and roll over. But there are other ways in which Daisy is still very much a puppy. She still has a tendency to view her own poop as a snack, and she has a fetish for dirty socks, tissues and just about anything else left on the floor. As my dad has noted, she is no scholar.

When Daisy goes after a newspaper or a paper-towel roll, she gets disciplined and hides beneath the table. She knows, in some way, that the thing she just did was wrong. In the case of Freddie, she did the same. But at this moment, her loss of self-control had done more than just damage some paper. It had placed an innocent helper of St. Nick on the North Pole Disabled List. For a half a second or two, I think Daisy might have felt badly about it. But then she moved on.

As for Freddie, I don’t think she’ll ever forget the night she and Daisy met face to face. Elves can do a lot of cool things, but even Santa can’t save them from the nosiness of a golden retriever. The shelf can never be high enough.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Goodwill; Good Grief!

The Charlie Brown / Cliff Lee Christmas Special.

[Scene begins with a dad, once nicknamed “Charlie Brown” by his grandfather, conversing about Christmas with his older daughter.]

So Katie, if Santa could bring you one gift this year, what would it be?

[A pause, then an answer] A dachshund.

Now Katie, you were given a dog for your birthday last year. Daisy isn’t even a year old yet. Let’s move on: If Santa could bring you two gifts this year, what would the second one be?

A bed for my dachshund.

All right now, Katie. Let’s move away from the dog gifts. If Santa could bring you a third gift, what would that be?

A panda bear.

(Sigh.) Good grief.

Sometimes, even the most wonderful time of the year is fraught with negotiation. While there will be no hot dog-shaped canines or black-eyed, bamboo-eating bears under our tree this Christmas, there has to be something. And when the girls finally got serious and gave us their Santa lists, the requests were, well, staggering. In a Sally Brown kind of way.

- An iTouch
- A new backyard playset
- An e-Reader
- An iPod
- A bicycle

They didn’t say it themselves, but I’m sure they’d also be pleased with Sally’s request of “tens and twenties” on her Santa list. What happened to the days when Lite Brite was a lot to ask for? What happened to hoping upon hope that a new Joe Montana jersey lay beneath the tree? What, in the name of Charlie Brown, ever happened to Lincoln Logs? Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Linus isn’t home right now, Charlie. Lucy is, though, and she’ll tell you it’s all a big commercial racket. She’s reading the newspaper today, and she’s interested in a story about Cliff Lee, the left-handed pitching ace from Arkansas. Still undecided on what his next team will be, Lee can be certain of one thing – when he does sign, he’ll be at least $150 million richer. There have been a lot of negotiations between Lee’s agent and assorted major-league teams over the past month, and the teams keep piling more money in front of the lefty. If Lee wanted a dachshund and a panda, several teams would happily provide them for him tomorrow.

Of course, Cliff Lee could build his own zoo with the money he’s about to make. He can look at my girls’ list and take care of it tomorrow – with his own shopping assistant, if he so desires. He might even buy himself one of those big aluminum trees. Maybe one painted pink. It’s not the easiest Christmas for some families, but for elite baseball players such as Lee, the stocking is overflowing.

Santa will bring some wonderful gifts to our house on Christmas morning, but he did not spend two weeks shopping in Best Buy or Petco for the 8-year-old and 5-year-old who live here. The gifts will be just fine, and I have a feeling my two girls will be very grateful for what they receive.

In our living room, after all, we have a new holiday ornament this year – a replica of Charlie Brown’s tiny Christmas tree. The girls like it a lot, and I’d like to think it reminds them of one of the many great messages found in Charlie’s holiday classic – that nothing needs to be pricey to be a thing of beauty; all it needs is a little love.

Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.

Ah, Linus. There you are. Bring that blanket over here and tell us a story. Lights, please.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Class & Professionalism on Clearance

This week’s New York sports news centers on the most important baseball player the city has seen over the past 15 years. It seems inconceivable, yet the New York Yankees have chosen to play hardball with Derek Jeter in contract negotiations, with the owner even going so far as to warn us all that this could get “messy.”

Hal Steinbrenner and associates are apparently working hard to avoid overpaying the face of the franchise. New York has won five championships during Jeter’s tenure as starting shortstop, captain and overall role model for the pinstriped club. Apparently, Jeter’s clutch play and classy professionalism are not enough to stand in the way of his drop in offensive statistics last season. The Yankees have reviewed the data, and have decided the best way to do business is by making the ultimate stand-up guy sweat.

It’s true that Jeter has earned more money than any of us need in a lifetime, and it hardly seems productive for any of us to worry about the salaries of multimillionaires. But sometimes, we follow these contract talks not out of any concern for the salaries awarded, but more out of a genuine interest in knowing how much loyalty and integrity are worth these days.

I don’t think the Yankees could have ever dreamed they’d have a more impressive team leader in the astounding run of success they’ve experienced in this past decade and a half. When you are running the most profitable franchise in the history of professional team sports, you honor that success by going ahead and paying the man who symbolizes everything there is to like about you. There are some athletes and entertainers who transcend the word “overpaid” – the Jordans, the Ripkens, the Bradys, the Gretzkys. No one cares how much they made – only that they stayed put.

In 21st-century baseball, statistics rule the day. Yesterday, Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners won the American League’s Cy Young Award with just 13 wins – the lowest total in history for a Cy Young-winning starter. While Tampa Bay Rays starter David Price won 19 games for a division-winning team, Hernandez received the award based on his overall numbers. And it’s true that Hernandez gave up fewer runs per game than Price and struck out more batters. But it’s also true that Price won numerous big games in a pennant race, with constant pressure. He was stronger in September than in any month of the year, and he continually found a way to win. Yet that was not enough to make up for the fact that the computer screen tells us Hernandez was better.

Derek Jeter was not the best player on anyone’s fantasy baseball team last year, and he won’t be the best next year, either. But if you think the Yankees will be a better team without him next year, or the year after that, then you aren’t watching the game – you’re just looking at statistics. There is a lot more to a great athlete than numbers. And if you’re going to use the numbers as the foundation for your negotiations, then you can assure yourself that you’ll build a team with no chemistry and no intangibles. Just a half-decade ago, the Yankees gave Jeter supremely talented teammates such as Randy Johnson, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi – only to see those players bring New York no further than the first round of the playoffs in their time together.

There is something more to life than mere numbers. If stats were everything, then colleges would ask only for students’ SATs, discarding all those essays and recommendations that give us a much closer look into the minds and hearts of these kids. Data assessment may drive the working world of 2010, but if you don’t look up from your spreadsheet once in awhile, you can miss some pretty amazing things.

Like Derek Jeter singling to the opposite field on a 3-2 count in the late innings of a playoff game. Or Jeter knowing just what to say to calm a rookie starter before a game against the Red Sox in Fenway Park. Or Jeter taking the time to work with children in need on an off-day. Or Jeter nodding his head to the young fan who calls out his name as he jogs back to the dugout.

The Yankees are crunching numbers and eyeing the bottom line. In so doing, they’re trying to reduce the price of true professionalism. If you can glance away from the data for a moment and look more deeply into the value of the man, you’ll see that this is one mistake that no one should even consider making. You can’t get a class act like Derek Jeter on clearance. And you really shouldn’t be trying.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Woes of a Pinstriped Democrat

This November 5th feels a bit different for me than it has in recent years. Two years ago on this day, I drove around town buying as many different newspapers as I could in order to save all accounts of Barack Obama’s election the day before as 44th president of the United States. Last year, I did the same thing in order to save all accounts of the New York Yankees’ 27th world championship the day before against the Philadelphia Phillies.

But oh, what a difference a year or two makes. There was no reason to hit up the delis for newsprint today. Unless, of course, I want to chronicle the rise of Marco Rubio for my children. Or share the detailed accounts of the San Francisco Giants’ victory parade.

For a man who has found much inspiration from the slogans “Yes We Can” and “Let’s Go Yankees,” November 2010 is a rather downcast month. The Republicans are back in power and rarin’ to dismantle the president’s policies. And the Giants used rock-solid pitching to overpower a Texas Rangers team that had easily dismissed New York’s superstars a week earlier.

So what’s a Democrat in pinstripes to do?

I could join the crowd, turn on Obama and chide him for any number of reasons – from failing to turn around the runaway economic train in time for the midterm elections, to failing to communicate as effectively as he did while campaigning, to being too moderate/centrist/liberal/socialist (pick your label, then spin away). I could watch the cable stations, listen to the pundits, and let their words become my own.

As for the Yankees, I could blame manager Joe Girardi for his playoff pitching decisions. I could blame the overpriced hitters who didn’t hit in the postseason. Or I could chalk it up to a shortage of pitching, and hope that the teams spends the equivalent of a developing country’s entire GDP on Texas Rangers starter Cliff Lee.

I could complain, lower my head, and remind myself that fairy tales don’t last forever. I could retreat to cynicism, that safe harbor where we all can drop anchor and protect ourselves from ever having the audacity to hope. It’s an eerie place, that harbor, one where everyone hides inside a shell only to pop out every so often to shoot a spitball at somebody else.

I could go there, sure. But every April, when a new baseball season begins, I find myself unable to do such a thing as lose hope. I can’t ever stop believing in the Yankees, no matter what the lineup looks like. You simply can’t associate yourself with such a long, hard, unpredictable sport unless you’re willing to pour all the hope you’ve got into your team. The game will break your heart far more often than not, but the heartbreak is all worth it if you’ve followed those balls and strikes with passion.

Our nation’s government is exponentially more important than a baseball game. But the sport’s rhythms can serve as a guide for this cold November rain I’m feeling right now. When you’ve felt inspired and deeply moved by the words and ideas of an elected official, a few months of disappointment and defeat cannot be enough to turn your hopes into hardened bitterness. Like baseball, politics is a game of seasons, and when one season ends that simply means another is on its way. In between those seasons, we witness adjustments and reevaluations. We hear about new game plans, new supporting players, and new energy.

There have been very few politicians in my 39 years who have inspired me to become a better person through their words and leadership. Two years ago, I voted for one of those select few. I have hung my hat on President Obama, and that hat is staying right where it is. He is retooling now in the White House, just as the Yankees are doing in the South Bronx. The next season will differ from the previous one. The road map toward change looks different now, but that’s a result of the democratic process.

I stopped into a deli today and checked out the front pages: A few stories about the Tea Party. A feature on Conan O’Brien. Obituaries on Sparky Anderson, the legendary baseball manager. The post-election stories explained quite clearly that our political landscape looks much different than it did two days ago. But the remaining stories reminded me that life has gone on. There is still a country to lead, and still a need for inspiring guidance and encouragement.

This is not a time for quitting. Not for the president, and not for those who have placed their trust in him. You pick your head up, you look ahead, and you keep hoping. Can we at least do that? Yes, of course we can.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Full of Beep

She speaks Beep. I do not know the language. But I am trying.

My 5-year-old daughter, Chelsea, has always been a bit on the shy side. Her primary objective in life is to be cozy, and to spend time with her mom and grandparents. She goes to school and tolerates it well enough, but school can’t hold a candle to sitting quietly on the couch, sniffing her blankie while watching TV. Or sitting at the kitchen table with her mom, doing a jigsaw puzzle while sipping apple cider.

After both of our school days are done and we’re home together in the house, I ask Chelsea how her day was. She glances up at me from behind her blankie, keeps walking, and says just one word: “Beep.” I tell her that I’d really like to know how she’s doing. Again: “Beep.” For my third try, I get a bit more specific and direct: “Chelsea, can you please tell me what you did today in school?”

You guessed it. Beep.

I don’t understand where it comes from, or why the girl has turned into a blonde-haired version of Road Runner. But whatever the reason is for this girl’s affection for Beepness, it has happened. And it seems to offer her the same comforts that the soft blankie does: A place in which the demands and stresses of the big, wide world need not be considered. It’s a world where you don’t hear about homework or new math problems or Monday-morning wakeups. You just spend your time counting beep.

I work a lot with language, as a teacher and writer. And I know that we can communicate in a lot of different ways. In literature, popular writers such as Junot Diaz and Khaled Hosseini often bring multiple languages into their prose. In politics, campaigns resort to metaphor-loaded jargon that often obscures any real talk about issues. In our daily lives, many of us communicate via e-mail, status postings and text messages in a short-hand, symbolic language that might have confused even a lover of invented words such as Shakespeare. And in baseball, there are entire books devoted to explaining the language of this sport, so that the casual viewer might have some idea how to tell the difference between a “Baltimore chop,” a “little dribbler” and a “screaming liner.”

So if we’re playing so much with language already, why not toss a little kindergarten Beep into the mix? There’s room under the tent for that as well. Yet while playing around with language is completely fine, the use of said language to avoid ordinary conversations can be a bit more troubling.

So I am working on cracking the Beep code. My initial approach has been to join in the game. So in recent days, when I’ve seen my little girl, I’ve asked her this: “Chelsea, how was beep today?”

“Beep,” she responds.

“Sure,” I say, “but did you read beep in class? Or did you draw beep instead?”

She cracks a smile, and we play at this game for a while. I still don’t get much specific information about the school day, but I do feel like she’s letting me into her world somewhat.

Last Friday, as my wife and older daughter were at Brownies, I got a couple of hours together with Chelsea. I picked her up from school, we did the Beep dance for a while in the car, then we headed out to Target together. We walked through the aisles, looked at some stuff, then I bought some things from the pharmacy and food sections.

As we arrived home, Chelsea hugged her mom and told her about our trip to the store. And while her recap began in a happier tone, Chelsea soon shot her mom a more serious look and lowered her voice to a register of disappointment.

“And at the store,” Chelsea said, “Daddy didn’t buy me one single thing.”

Some ideas need no secret language to convey. I shook my head at these words, then looked at my wife with a smile. As for Chelsea’s material desires, I’ve been there, done that. But on this afternoon, I was under the impression that our time together was all that mattered.

Seems like Daddy was full of beep.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Piano Man

Grading papers is a craft of sorts – you want to provide valuable feedback to help a student improve those skills, yet you can’t spend an hour on each essay. That would leave you with no life whatsoever. So you work efficiently, red or purple pen in hand. And you write those comments in a manner that is part-teacher, part-psychologist – you’re always aware of whose work you’re grading, and what tone you should use in order to leave that student feeling better about his or her potential, no matter what the final grade may be.

It’s a little like the work of a hitting coach. Instead of fine-tuning a batter’s swing or follow-through, you’re honing some reading and writing skills, via full-class sessions, conferences and written feedback. And instead of poring over video and scouting reports, you’re studying The Great Gatsby and A Raisin in the Sun. You don’t expect to become a household name through the work you do, but you know that if you do it well, there will be more than a few students who will come back and thank you someday.

As I was practicing my grading craft Monday, I did so with another craftsman working in the basement below me. His name is Lee Bulkley, and he’s been tuning pianos for four and a half decades. Some kind neighbors had given us their piano upon moving, and this early-‘80s Kimball upright needed a tuning in the worst way. So, thanks to our friend Peter’s recommendation, we invited Lee over to take a look. He walked in, greeted me, and sat down at the piano. He played a few notes, stopped and said, “Well, it sounds awful, but it’s something we can work with.”

There are craftsmen, and then there are craftsmen. In my book, Lee Bulkley more than earned his italics on Monday. The man spent four and a half hours in our basement, delving into the bowels of that piano in search of a sweet sound. He adjusted the tension of strings and oiled the metal pins that held these strings in place. Every hour or so, Lee played a full tune on the ivories to give the piano a test drive. As I worked through my seniors’ tests on A Streetcar Named Desire, I did so to the sounds of Lee playing “The Entertainer” and “Hello, Dolly!” If a few of my students earned higher test grades than normal, it’s because of the mood that Lee’s music left me in as I sat at my desk.

Occasionally, I walked downstairs to check on Lee. At one point, we digressed from talking about pitch, broken keys and the evolution of the Kimball, and instead started discussing careers. Lee shared with me the reality that his business is not faring so well these days. As with so many businessmen in 2010, Lee has had more profitable years than this one. He’s thinking of new ventures, he said. Right now, he’s looking into real estate.

There was a time, not so long ago, when learning a craft and perfecting that craft were seen as some of the highest accomplishments an adult could achieve in life. In this 21st century, though, it has become possible to computerize so many of the things we use and value. While this has its advantages, it also tends to leave the craftsman behind.

And when we do that, we lose something. The Lee Bulkleys of this world have provided an awful lot of soul to the music of life. Losing them would be a bit like assessing our students solely through standardized tests. Or teaching youngsters how to hit a baseball via YouTube videos.

Lee got halfway through the tuning process on Monday. He’s coming back soon, to finish the job. He estimates it will take another four hours. I look forward to seeing him walk up the driveway, toolbox in hand. And I can’t wait to hear him test out his handiwork with a song or two. I may even put the grading aside this time, and just sit and listen.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Closers & Connections (One Sixty-Two: Day 162)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Sixty-Two: Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

When I was taking journalism courses in college, I studied many of the great American sportswriters. It didn’t take long for Roger Angell to quickly become a favorite. Angell’s breathtaking New Yorker essays showed me the extent to which baseball writing can be literature. I studied Angell’s stories and noticed his attention to detail, as well as his willingness to go beyond balls and strikes and into the larger stories taking place in a ballpark every day.

Thanks to writers like Angell and the incomparable Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated, my life as a sports fan, sports reader and sports writer is framed by the dual observations of the game itself and the stuff of life surrounding that game. My heart pounds when Mariano Rivera enters a Yankee game in the late innings of a playoff matchup: He’s out there, after all, because New York is trying to protect a razor-thin lead against a formidable foe. But amid the nail-biting suspense, I try and see the big picture as well. I view the cool with which a man like Rivera goes about dispatching elite hitters every day, and wonder how different his nerves are from those of a man who welds together steel beams 100 stories above Manhattan, or a woman who defuses bombs for a living. As Rivera finishes off a hitter for the final out, I wonder what it says about the man that he is able to smile and shake hands while also maintaining a composure that seems to say, “The win was great, but it’s not everything.”

When Rivera closes a game, as he’s done better than anyone in history, he seems to enjoy the moment while also looking ahead. Even after he’d finished off the Philadelphia Phillies in last year’s World Series, Rivera stood on the dais at Yankee Stadium and announced that he was ready to play ball for another half-decade. The man can finish things, but he knows that every ending is really just another beginning.

“Baseball is not life itself, although the resemblance keeps coming up,” Roger Angell wrote in his book Season Ticket. The great part about this aphorism is that you don’t have to force it. My wife bought some Turkey Hill ice cream today at Stop & Shop, and it came in a Yankee-themed box with a flavor titled “Pinstripe Brownie Blast.” Now that is an example of a forced baseball-to-life connection. We didn’t need the brownie blast to see baseball and life interweaving – clearly, my wife had gone food shopping without eating a full breakfast today, and her hunger had left her buying food items in a manner befitting George Steinbrenner’s free-agent splurges of the 1980s: She was eagerly snatching up the fancy-looking stuff, buying on impulse rather than deliberate planning. Amy may not like this ice cream in the end, but for the moment it was a headline-grabbing purchase in our house.

Another arduous regular season draws to a close this weekend, with the playoffs set to begin in a few days. Sometime during the week, I’m sure Amy and I will find ourselves sitting in our living room, watching nervously as Mariano Rivera takes to the mound in the ninth inning. Our hearts will race a bit, but I’m sure we’ll calm ourselves down with a nice bowl of Pinstripe Brownie Blast. It will taste good enough to remind us both that baseball, like life, is about far more than the drama of the moment. In my final days of life, I don’t know that I’ll be able to recall what the Yankees did in 2010. But I know I’ll be able to remember what it felt like to sit next to my wife, eating some ice cream with her, while watching a ballgame together in our home.

In the end, it’s always about the connections – with those we know, with those we meet, and with our own selves. It’s always more about the hug Rivera just gave to his catcher than it is about the final pitch he threw. You don’t build a relationship with a pitch. But you can do it just fine with a hug.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

We Meet Again (One Sixty-Two: Day 161)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Sixty-One: Grady Sizemore, Cleveland Indians

It had been nearly four years since Ron and I had gotten together. He had moved to a different state, made partner at his law firm, and traveled five days a week nearly every week of the year. To say his plate has been full would be an understatement. I have no idea when the man sleeps. In Ron’s life these past few years, getting in touch with friends was secondary to finding some time to actually eat, exercise, and rest.

But a few weeks ago, Ron got in touch. He asked if I’d like to go to a Yankees-Red Sox game with him. I told him I would love to go. And so, on a cloudy Sunday evening in late September, I met up with one of the best friends I’ve had in my life after missing his presence for the better part of my late 30s.

We hugged, exchanged greetings, hopped into my car and began the complex work of catching up on four years. I know the clock said we spent seven hours together, but it felt more like ten minutes. There was so much to discuss: Stories of family, work, friendships, travels, daily routines and personal growth. We talked in the car, on the subway, and on the street. We talked in Staten Island, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx. And, of course, we talked at the ballpark.

The rhythms of a game provided the perfect backdrop for two friends who’ve attended several dozen games together, yet haven’t done so since the pinstriped unit played in a different home stadium. As we sat together in the new digs, Yankees-Red Sox in the South Bronx was as exciting as you’d expect, especially as this game saw New York win in extra innings. But, to be honest, Ron and I could have just as easily been sitting in Arizona, watching Indians centerfielder Grady Sizemore rehab his knee at Cleveland’s spring-training facility. The location didn’t matter, so long as there was baseball before us.

We talked eagerly of seeing each other again, and continuing the business of reconnecting. The vow to meet again soon was more than optimistic chatter. As I reflected on my visit with Ron, I realized that there was a time, earlier in my adulthood, when I would have felt more hurt, betrayal and anger at a friend who’d fallen out of touch with me. But the years have softened the demands I make of friends, and left me feeling grateful for whatever time I can get with them. There’s not enough hours in the day or space in the heart for those kinds of hard feelings. Just tell me what you’ve been up to, and let’s head out to a game.

Ron’s girlfriend is a Cubs fan. During the season, they walk from their home to Wrigley Field whenever they can catch a game. I look forward to joining them there, along with my wife. We’ll enjoy the game and the gorgeous ballpark, I’m sure. But mostly, we’ll just talk. That’s what friends do.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Story of the Year (One Sixty-Two: Day 160)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Sixty: Armando Galarraga, Detroit Tigers

As the baseball season’s final week unfolds, the media spotlight shines on teams in pennant races and on individual players pursuing awards and statistical crowns. All of these clubs and players are well worth the attention they’re receiving. But the story of the year in baseball did not involve any playoff implications or MVP-caliber players.

It involved a blown call, a disastrous end to the best game one man had ever played, and the supreme sportsmanship that followed. Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Armando Galarraga has not lit up the world by any means as a pitcher this year: He’s 4-8 on the year, with more hits given up than innings pitched, and nearly as many walks as strikeouts. The Tigers are a mediocre team this year, and Galarraga fits that mold with his 4.62 earned-run average and just one complete game.

But oh, that one complete game. Bring me your most dramatic, exciting pitching performance in the playoffs this year, and I’ll still take Galarraga’s June 2nd masterpiece over it any day. It’s two outs, bottom of the ninth inning, and no Indians player has even reached first base. All Galarraga needs to do is retire shortstop Jason Donald and it’s all over. The pitcher gets Donald to hit a ground ball to first base, where Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera fields and throws to Galarraga, who is covering first. The throw and pitcher’s foot beat the runner, yet somehow, umpire Jim Joyce misses the call. He throws out his hands and rules the runner safe.

The rest is now the stuff of legend: Galarraga finishes off his one-hitter. Joyce goes to the umpires’ locker room and sees his missed call. He walks into the Tigers’ locker room and apologizes, tears in his eyes. Galaragga forgives, immediately. The Tigers rally around their pitcher’s kindness, and the fans follow their pitcher’s lead and give Joyce an ovation the next day. The umpire’s immediate and emotional apology, coupled with the pitcher’s perspective and grace, reminded those who follow sports that there is a lot more to life than a perfect two hours on the pitcher’s mound.

Galarraga found the strength and understanding to reach out with compassion to another human being who had made a mistake, who felt the pain of that error, and who needed forgiveness. At this moment in late spring, Armando Galarraga reminded us that in its greatest moments, baseball really can serve as a metaphor for life at its very best.

A few weeks ago, the Tigers hosted the Baltimore Orioles at home. Galarraga took the hill and threw a strong seven innings, yielding just four hits and three runs. The home-plate umpire for that game was Jim Joyce. The two men crossed paths once more and gave their all, just as they’d done three months earlier. Once again, there was no perfect ending to be found – that is, if you’re measuring life through statistics. If you’re measuring instead by acts of sportsmanship, then this is about as perfect as it gets.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Programming Hope (One Sixty-Two: Day 159)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Fifty-Nine: Brian Matusz, Baltimore Orioles

In the fall of 1984, I learned how to perform basic programming on my Commodore 64 computer. I could craft a program in which users were asked a question, to which they would be asked to type their own response. The program would then give an (A) or (B) answer based on whether or not the user had given the correct response.

For the topic of this program, I chose the 1985 New York Yankees. The fact that I had crafted a computer program about baseball was completely unsurprising to anyone who knew me. But why was I making this program about the following year’s Yankee team? After all, we still had a few more months of ’84 yet to live. The Detroit Tigers had yet to defeat the San Diego Padres handily in the World Series. And Ronald Reagan had yet to defeat Walter Mondale even more handily in the presidential election. Why was this obsessive 13-year-old looking ahead so eagerly?

It was all about the way things were ending in the South Bronx that year; I was excited about the future. The Yankees, who had started miserably that year, finished strong under manager Yogi Berra to the tune of 87 wins. I had seen a lot of young, pinstriped players bloom in the ’84 season. Therefore, my wacky new program asked the user which player he or she thought would start at each position for the Yankees the next year. If you selected the player I agreed with, the program told you so. If I disagreed, it gave you a different answer.

So if you answered the question, “Who do you think will play shortstop for the Yankees next year?” with the answer “Bobby Meacham,” the program responded by telling you that I expected Andre Robertson to start at short instead. If you answered my question about first base with the words “Don Mattingly,” you were greeted with enthusiastic agreement.

Young players like Robertson, Mattingly, Mike Pagliarulo and Joe Cowley had helped the team post a 51-29 record in the season’s second half. Like many kids with “NY” logos on their caps, I was pretty pumped about the year ahead. Most of the other fans could contain their obsession enough to avoid creating Commodore 64 programs about the Yankees. But I guess we all have our passions – and quirks.

This evening, I thought about that autumn of 26 years ago while looking at the standings and noticing how well the Baltimore Orioles have played since Buck Showalter took over as manager. The O’s seemed destined for an utterly miserable season in late July, but the hiring of Showalter on July 29 has given the Maryland faithful a lot of reasons to hope. The former Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers manager has steered Baltimore to a 30-22 record over the past two months. Young Orioles pitchers and position players who’ve had the words “potential” stamped on their foreheads for some time have finally started playing quality major-league ball, and they’ve won ballgames as a result. Left-handed pitcher Brian Matusz, for instance, has gone 6-1 with seven quality starts since Showalter took over the reins. A first-round draft pick two years ago, Matusz is the future ace of this club, and he appears ready to fill that role as soon as next season.

So the fans are getting excited in Baltimore again, and Buck Showalter is spoken of glowingly in conversations at Inner Harbor restaurants these days. As for the kids at home, they’ve already started dreaming of a return to the playoffs for the boys in orange and black. I don’t think many of those kids own a Commodore 64, and even if they did I don’t think they’d use it for Orioles starting-lineup quizzes.

But whatever they do, the youngsters who cheer for the Baltimore Orioles have more than a few reasons to think about the spring of 2011. You can’t program a winning season, but you can recognize something good when you see it. Now, Orioles fans, let’s get started – who should Buck start at first base?

Monday, September 27, 2010

He Did It Again (One Sixty-Two: Day 158)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Fifty-Eight: Logan Morrison, Florida Marlins

My mother would call us in for dinner from the back window, and we’d hear her as the sweat dripped down our brows. “Just one more minute!” we’d call from the patio, panting the words. My brother and I were locked in combat, and there was no dish of spaghetti or tacos or London broil that could pull us away from this moment.

We were inevitably tied at 20 in a game of one-on-one basketball, and our rules required the victor to score at least 21 points (one point for each basket made), while winning by at least two. As my mom granted us that one more minute and closed the window, Eric would dribble back to the foul line, give me a head fake and swish a jumper. Game point for him. I’d follow by picking up the pace on defense, putting a hand in his face on the next shot, and grabbing a monster rebound.

I’d dribble back to the foul line quickly, then bulldoze my way to the rim, where he’d get a hand on the ball but I’d hold on and somehow drop a layup into the rim. My ball again: This time I’d miss a short jumper, but hustle for the offensive rebound and bank in a put-back to pull ahead by one.

My ball; game point. Finally, for the first time in months, I was about to beat my brother. The kid was three years younger than me, but he’d been growing like a weed and was developing long, sinewy muscles that could do most anything he asked of them in the sports arena. As he grew into his teens, the kid started defeating me regularly in hoops, in stickball and in tennis. Almost every time we played, I’d hold a late lead, only to watch him snatch victory away from me in the waning moments.

This time, though, it was going to be different.

I dribbled slowly toward the hoop, keeping the ball away from Eric’s lanky arms. I backed him to the rim, setting myself up for a head fake and a short jumper. He leaned in, but I had him where I wanted him. And then, for some reason, my inner desire to become the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar overtook any semblance of sanity. I leapt, swung my right arm in an arc from below my hip to above my head, and let loose a pretty, yet dreadfully misguided, hook shot.

Eric grabbed the rebound. He took off for the foul line, then returned with a pretty layup. Game tied. Ball back to Eric. He brought the ball behind the 3-point-line, took a quick look at me, and released a perfect jump shot. In our games, shots taken from behind this line counted as two points. As Eric’s ball landed perfectly through the net, my mother called us in again. I was bent over and wheezing now, in need of an inhaler. My brother slapped me five and retrieved the ball. “Good game,” he said.

Yeah, sure. Good game. It was always a good game with my brother. The problem was that it always ended the same way. I was Charlie Brown going all-out to kick the football, and he was Lucy pulling it away from me at the last moment. Just when I thought I finally had him licked, he stepped behind that 3-point-line and finished me off.

This past week, somewhere in the virtual world of ESPN Fantasy Sports, two make-believe baseball teams played a head-to-head matchup in a league semifinal. One of these teams was managed by my brother, and the other by me. My team had far and away the best record in the regular season, while Eric’s had just barely made the playoffs. I had superstars ranging from Alex Rodriguez to Carl Crawford to Roy Halladay on my team. Eric had a few great players, but he also had to scuffle just to fill his roster with some players he could rely on regularly.

But when he found himself matched up against his dear brother, Eric knew his season was about to turn around. And it did, of course. While my superstars struggled just to get base hits last week, Eric turned to unsung players such as Marlins rookie Logan Morrison, whose superb week helped lead Eric’s team swiftly past my group of All-Stars and into the finals.

I have a pretty good history of recovering rather quickly from fantasy-baseball losses. There are, of course, several million more important things in our lives than virtual sports. But at the same time, well, it happened – he beat me again. I was so close to victory, and I could taste it as if it were Mom’s spaghetti steaming on the kitchen table. And then my laptop took a queue from the gathering dusk of a backyard patio on Staten Island, and that kid found a way to hit another final shot.

Charlie Brown, you can pick yourself up now. The game is over. You battled hard, you fought ‘til the end, and your brother still loves you. Dinner’s ready.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Kicking the Ball Around (One Sixty-Two: Day 157)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Fifty-Seven: Jeff Francoeur, Texas Rangers

Chelsea is a bit of a free-swinger. When I toss this 5-year-old some pitches in our backyard, she doesn’t care if the ball is in the strike zone or not. She just rears back and unleashes a blur of yellow Wiffle-ball-bat motion. If she followed pro baseball, Chelsea might find a bit of herself in a hitter like Jeff Francoeur of the Rangers, who rarely sees a pitch he doesn’t like, and who has turned pitches far outside the strike zone into plenty of singles and doubles, as well as more than a few strikeouts.

But Chelsea knows nothing about Jeff Francoeur or the Texas Rangers. The thing is, the kid doesn’t really like baseball all that much. She and I have bonded over Play-Doh, as I’ve written before, but we don’t have major Daddy-daughter moments when we’re playing baseball in the backyard. We get some nice exercise for a few minutes, and then she gets bored and starts using the plastic bats as walking sticks for some make-believe hike through the yard. There’s no genetic handoff of baseball passion here.

Yesterday morning, though, Chelsea started a new sport. She strapped on some knee-high socks, a pair of shin guards and new cleats, then walked a few blocks to a neighborhood field for her first soccer practice. The verdict: She absolutely loved it. Chelsea kicked, she ran, she listened to her coach and she left the field feeling a bit like a jock. She walked with a little strut, and said she was looking forward to next week’s practice.

Later on in the day, we found ourselves in a dog park with our golden retriever, and Chelsea had located an old soccer ball that had been left there for the dogs to use. We began kicking it back and forth to each other, and you could tell after awhile that Chelsea was feeling the kind of visceral comfort that comes with doing something you really enjoy. She kicked, I kicked. She kicked, I kicked. Then she spoke.

“You know,” she said, “when I’m on the bus going to the Y after school, and we pass the school where you work, I always say ‘Hi, Daddy’s school.’ I say it to myself, not out loud. But I always say it.”

We chatted a bit more, and kept kicking the ball until dusk sent us home with the dog. When we got home, I helped my little girl clean the soccer and dog-park dirt off her body in the shower. But there was no wiping away the memory of our soccer time together.

It wasn’t a catch or a bit of batting practice that brought these words out of my daughter. Just a ratty old soccer ball, and a few moments of uninterrupted play. To say it made my day is an understatement. I think I’ll go shine her cleats.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Merits of Merit Pay (One Sixty-Two: Day 156)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Fifty-Six: Bobby Jenks, Chicago White Sox & Scot Shields, Los Angeles Angels

One of the hottest issues in educational circles these days is that of merit pay. Legislators on both sides of the aisle, as well as many leaders in education, have supported the concept of paying teachers extra based on their performance in the classroom. Others in both government and education have stood in opposition to this concept, with their primary reason being this: How do you measure great teaching?

It’s a fair question. First of all, assuming you can identify clear student growth in a skill, who gets the credit? Is it the teacher who presented and assessed the work? Is it the parent who worked with the student at home? Is it the tutor whom the parent hired to work on skills with the student? Or is it the librarian, the administrator, the coach, the academic-lab teacher, or the countless other staff members who might have worked with that child during the year?

Taking another step back, there’s the issue of how you assess student growth to begin with. Can it all be measured via a standardized test? Or can student growth be seen in other ways, such as through work habits, class participation, and creative projects that allow for analysis outside the box? And, taking yet another step back, there’s the largest question of all: How do you measure the ways in which a teacher has helped a child to grow not just as a student, but as an individual as well? And if no one is even considering this growth when computing merit-pay formulas, what does that say about our values?

So yes, there’s a lot to work on when it comes to finding an equitable and workable system for merit pay. In baseball, players get incentive clauses in their contracts all the time – for awards won as well as statistics compiled. According to the blog Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Bobby Jenks of the White Sox and Scot Shields of the Angels both have clauses that pay them extra money if they win the Rolaids Relief Man Award. This award, given to the best closer in baseball each year, is determined via a statistical rubric that rewards relievers for wins and saves, but takes away points for losses and blown saves. It’s a rather straightforward formula that has been tinkered with over the years, and has been widely accepted in its 35 years of use.

Perhaps in another 35 years, educators will point to a system for merit pay that works as well as the Rolaids Relief Man system does. Or perhaps by that time we will have reached a consensus that good teaching can’t be computed. As a 12th-year teacher myself, I feel very good about the work I do in the classroom, and I’m very much in favor of seeing great teachers paid well. But can you set up a rubric to measure all the things I’m trying to do each day? I’ve yet to see one so far. But give someone a laptop, a pack of Rolaids and a wizard’s hat, and they might just find a way to get it done.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Grammy for Best Pitcher Goes To ... (One Sixty-Two: Day 155)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Fifty-Five: David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

Almost every time I check out the baseball section of my newspaper or flip through an on-line news site, I find more debates over who should win the American League’s Cy Young Award this season. The award is supposed to go to the league’s best pitcher. But in 2010, that’s not an easy thing to determine.

Is the best pitcher the man who has won the most games? If so, then New York Yankee CC Sabathia holds that honor right now. Or should the award go to the man who has given up the fewest runs and struck out the most batters? If so, then hard-luck Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez gets the trophy in 2010. It’s an odd comparison, as Sabathia has 20 wins, 189 strikeouts and a 3.26 earned-run average, while Hernandez has just 12 wins but has struck out 227 batters while compiling a league-best 2.31 ERA.

Many baseball writers and fans are arguing that Hernandez is simply the best pitcher this year, and to deny him the trophy is to deny a very obvious fact. It’s not Hernandez’s fault that he has a weak offense to support him, the argument goes. But others disagree, deferring instead to the long tradition of Cy Young winners posting high win totals. Most of the pitching awards throughout baseball history have gone to men who racked up the W’s. Why, this opposing side counters, should that tradition change now?

It’s a curious debate. In the old days, it was very easy to see who the best starting pitchers were, because they always pitched complete games. According to Baseball-reference.com, there have been 147 winners of 30 or more games in the history of baseball. However, all but 21 of those men won 30 or more in the 19th century. Of the few 30-game winners in the 20th century, only three did so after 1930, and only one surpassed 30 wins after 1934.

That takes us to the 20-game winners, who are also becoming a vanishing breed. Through the 1980s, it was very common to see several 20-game winners in each league every season. But as relief specialists and pitch counts have become de rigeur, starting pitchers rarely have the chance to finish their own job. In two of the past four years, no pitcher has won 20 games at all. This season, three pitchers have already won 20, but no one will get any higher than 22 this year.

So that brings us back to the Cy Young race. Do we throw up our hands and just forget about the number of wins a pitcher has in the 21st century, or do we still count those victories as significant when measuring a hurler’s Cy Young credentials? My thoughts are this: We take the Grammy route.

Every year, the Grammy Awards nominate a very interesting bunch of artists for Album of the Year. Some of the nominees are there because they’ve pushed the envelope, taken some risks and given music a new look (such as Amy Winehouse in 2008, Radiohead in 2009, or Lady Gaga in 2010). Other nominees are on the list because their album was enormously popular (Kanye West in ‘08, Coldplay in ’09, and The Black Eyed Peas in ’10). This diversity among the nominees creates a fascinating debate and keeps a number of viewers awake watching an awards show until after 11 on a Sunday night in winter. And then, when the victor is announced, mouths fall agape “The winner is .. Herbie Hancock! … Robert Plant and Alison Krauss! … Taylor Swift!”

The Grammy people love compromise picks, and these selections have all the spice and flavor of a rice cake. The envelope-pushers inevitably become popular anyway, and the top-sellers remain top-selling. But clearly, one of them should have won the award, right? In the realm of music, safe picks make no sense.

But in terms of pitching, there’s a lot to be said for following the Grammy road. Because as important as it is to honor a great season, I just cannot hand over a best-pitcher trophy to a guy with 12 wins. That’s an offense to the labor of Charlie “Old Hoss” Radbourn, who chalked up a record 59 wins in 1884. Or even to Denny McLain, our last 30-game winner, who tallied 31 victories in 1968. Baseball is about tradition, and winning games is something pitchers have always celebrated. That’s why the starters always head into the clubhouse when a reliever has blown the lead for them. On the other hand, though, it is understandable that a man with 20 wins who gives up a whole run more than the league leader should not win the Cy Young trophy. He has, of course, benefited from more luck than the average pitcher.

So we look in between the Sabathias and the Hernandez’s. And that’s where we find David Price. The Tampa Bay Rays left-hander, in just his second full season, has been electric all season long. Price has an 18-6 record, a 2.84 ERA, and 179 strikeouts. What’s more, he has given up more than five runs in a start just once all season. Last night, as Price outdueled Sabathia for a Rays victory at Yankee Stadium, he put a final stamp on his claim to the award. He may lack Sabathia’s wins, but he’s got plenty. And while he’s a little short of Hernandez’s K and ERA numbers, he’s more than holding his own. This year in the American League, Price is right for Cy Young honors.

The 20-game winner might be fading out of view, and this era of WHIPs and WARs and K-to-BB ratios has so many fans crunching more numbers than they ever imagined they’d see next to a ballplayer’s name. But there’s no need to go nuts with the statistics when looking for your Cy Young. Just uncover this year’s Alison Krauss. It makes for a lousy Grammy pick, but it works just fine in baseball.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dollars & Dust (One Sixty-Two: Day 154)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Fifty-Four: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

She called me at work today with one of the major announcements of her 5-year-old life.

“Hi Daddy,” Chelsea said on the phone. “I lost my first tooth.”

Whoa! And the crowd roared its approval. Or, rather, the Daddy roared in excitement. When I saw her later, she opened wide and showed me a gap in the bottom row of teeth. Chelsea said it was much easier to chew now, and that she looked forward to munching on carrots again.

At night, she tucked her little plastic tooth holder under the pillow, and asked me assorted questions about how the Tooth Fairy operates as I sang her to sleep. “Magic,” I kept whispering, “magic.” My wife, meanwhile, was out securing a bag of fairy dust to place in that plastic holder, along with some cold, hard cash. It was a good day to be 5 and toothless.

Magic. It happens, you know; don’t lose faith just because you’ve got your wisdom teeth. For the first six years of his major-league career, Jose Bautista never hit more than 16 home runs in a season, never drove in more than 63 runs and never posted an average higher than .254. This year, in his second full season as a Toronto Blue Jay, Bautista has mashed his way to the title of baseball’s home run king. Today, in a 1-0 win against the Mariners, Bautista blasted his 50th home run of the season. He’s driven in 115 runs, his batting average is over .260, and his slugging percentage is well over .600. There has been no breakthrough in 2010 quite like that of the 29-year-old Bautista.

You can say all you want about the guy tweaking his batting stance, or working out more in the off-season. As for me, I’m going with the fairy dust, the baseball ghosts, and the unexplainable magic that turns a utility player into an MVP candidate.

Jose Bautista lost all his baby teeth long ago, so there are no dollar bills under his pillow tonight. But after home run number 50, the Blue Jays slugger can rest assured that there will be some very large checks headed his way this winter. The reward for losing a tooth may be dollars and dust, but the prize for becoming a superstar is one that can be deposited, saved and invested.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Can't Hide the Sizzle (One Sixty-Two: Day 153)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Fifty-Three: Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks

The heavens opened up in New York City during the final hours of summer, unleashing a torrent of rain in what had been an extremely dry, hot season in the Northeast. It was the warmest summer on record in both the Big Apple and Philadelphia, as well as in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and six other Eastern states. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provides these numbers, also reports that 2010 was the fourth-warmest summer ever in the contiguous United States.

There were enough hot and dry days this summer to leave our lawns brown, our dogs panting, and our electric bills spiked with air-conditioning voltage. So tonight of all nights, just as summer waves goodbye, this season of sizzle has the nerve to drop a bunch of raindrops on us? Please, spare the hypocrisy.

Don’t pretend to be something you aren’t. Don’t bring out a seasonal disguise as you head for the exits. If you were all about breaking the record for 90-degree days in a summer, then a little thunder and lightning show on September 22nd isn’t going to change our impression of what you were.

We know how things work. Take Chris Young here, the talented centerfielder for Arizona’s Diamondbacks. All season long, Young has been the best player on his team, by far. In this, his breakout year, Young has hit 25 home runs and stolen 27 bases. He’s driven in 85 runs and scored 87 runs. The Diamondbacks have struggled all season long, but it’s been no fault of Young’s.

And yet, few players are having as bad a September as Young is right now. He’s batting just .179 on the month so far, with only 10 hits and one stolen base. For a man who was hitting over .270 for much of the season, these past few weeks have seen his batting average dip below .260.

So if you look only at the end of summer, you might not be impressed with Chris Young. You can see that he’s cooled off considerably, and has brought an autumn chill into his lineup earlier than he needed to bring it. Perhaps Young started chugging apple cider before his September games, and his body clicked into offseason mode as it smelled McIntosh trees and pumpkin patches.

Or maybe he just got tired of the longest, most grueling regular season in American team sports. Whatever the reason for his recent slump, Chris Young did not have a bad season. His poor September numbers are a lot like that storm we felt here in New York tonight. You don’t always get a fitting ending to a season, but the numbers don’t lie. Just ask your weatherman.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bunting Her Over (One Sixty-Two: Day 152)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Fifty-Two: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

All it took was a little Play-Doh. I should have known all along.

Chelsea has been more distant from me lately. She’s got a lot going on in her little head, as the transition into a new school for kindergarten has not been easy for her. She misses her mom and her grandparents and her best friend Jimmy each day, and she wishes they were with her in school. She misses me, too, but she’s used to me being out at work each day. Her Mommy and Nana, well, they’ve always been there for her. And when they’ve been gone, she’s always had her blankie. But you can’t bring a blankie with you to kindergarten.

I want to talk with Chelsea, and help her through this in all the ways I can. But when I try to engage her in conversation, she usually grunts and continues what she’s doing – playing in the yard, or watching some TV, or eating her dinner. She doesn’t want to talk about school, especially when I bring it up. If she had a solution to what she’s working through, she’d have handled it already. She doesn’t want to hear Daddy’s advice.

This evening, with my wife and older daughter out of the house for a while, Chelsea and I had some time alone together. She took her shower, put on her nightgown and asked me if she could play with Play-Doh. I said sure, and put the Play-Doh out on the table for her. I then went back to getting myself ready for work tomorrow. But somewhere in between laying out my clothes and making my sandwich, I stopped and realized that I needed to sit with my little girl far more than I needed to do anything else.

So I sat down next to Chelsea. “Do you want to play Play-Doh with me?” she asked. I told her I did. “Can you make some ice cream for me?” she asked. I told her I could. So I sat and made her a Play-Doh sundae, and she gave me a little Play-Doh cherry on top. We made a plate full of little Play-Doh balls, and worked together to create a Play-Doh Pac-Man.

After a little while, Chelsea and I looked out the window and noticed the full moon shining for us in the sky. We talked about that for a while. Dessert was in order, and Chelsea was up for apple slices with vanilla ice cream. By the time Mom and Katie got home, it felt as though they’d been gone for just a few minutes.

Chelsea and I didn’t talk about school – not this time. But we spent time together, messing around with some Play-Doh, and that’s what we needed to do first. You don’t get a runner home from first base on a single very often. But if you take the simple step of bunting him over to second, he’s likely to score on a base hit. No one’s done the sacrificing thing better in 2010 than Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers pitcher who has a major-league-high 17 sacrifices on the year.

I bunted today, and that sacrifice brought my dialogue with Chelsea over to second base. Now that we’re there, maybe next time we can talk some more about how school is going. For tonight, though, just rolling some green Play-Doh along the table was plenty. It was perfect, in fact. Kind of like a full moon. Or a nice, soft bunt.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ahab in Atlanta (One Sixty-Two: Day 151)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Fifty-One: Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves (via Bobby Cox – and the Whale)

“Hast seen the White Whale?”

It’s either appropriate or insane that during the same summer in which I undertook 162 blog entries in 162 days, I also decided to read Moby-Dick. What, an English teacher who had never read Herman Melville’s Great American Novel? Indeed, guilty as charged.

But no longer. While I still have a week and a half left of the blog series, I did finish Moby-Dick last night – all 654 dense pages of her. It’s a fascinating book, from its detailed description of whales, whaling and nautical life, to its thrilling account of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the mighty white whale.

In the 159 years since the novel’s publication, countless scholars have analyzed Moby-Dick to explore its structure and meaning. Most notably, readers have wondered just what Ahab and the whale symbolize. Do they represent greed? Good and evil? Race? Religion? Nature and humanity? Fate? Life itself? Or something else entirely?

These varied interpretations serve only to make this epic novel that much more interesting. I’ve spent the past two months reading the book, and now that I’m finished I can say that I know exactly what Ahab’s quest was meant to symbolize.

It was all about Bobby Cox.

Ahab was a whaling man for 40 years. Cox, the legendary Atlanta Braves manager, is in his 40th year as either a manager, coach or general manager. His next win will be the 2,500th of his career. Only three other major-league managers have won more. Cox and Joe Torre share the record for most playoff appearances by a manager, with an astounding 15.

There is no question that when Bobby Cox retires at the end of this season, as he has announced he will do, he will quickly find himself inducted into the Hall of Fame. But there’s another piece to this man’s managerial record, and this is the part where we find Ahab and the whale. Of those managers who have made the playoffs eight or more times, all have won multiple championships – except Bobby Cox. A manager like the Yankees’ Joe Girardi, now in just his fourth season as a skipper, has won as many titles as the 69-year-old Cox, who has 29 seasons as a manager under his belt.

It has been all of 15 years since Bobby Cox’s Atlanta Braves won their sole championship under his reign. That’s the equivalent of five 19th-century whaling voyages. You age an awful lot in 15 years, and your thirst for another sight of the white whale only grows fiercer. It’s no wonder that Bobby Cox has been ejected from 158 games as manager – far more than any other skipper in history. You blow a lot of fuses when you push onward with such passion in your quest for another baseball title.

So as young sailors such as right fielder Jason Heyward man the mast-head and sharpen their harpoons, Cox paces the deck and sets sail toward the equator. His Braves are currently 2½ games ahead in the National League Wild Card race. With just two weeks to go, Cox can taste that record 16th postseason appearance. If and when he gets there, the legendary skipper will have one last chance to claim that second title.

It’s been a long, long journey since Bobby Cox first captained a ship. He’s about ready to quit and go home, something Captain Ahab was never willing to do. But before he gets back to his own Nantucket, Cox is about to get one last shot at his ultimate goal. All signs indicate that he’s ready.

“Hast seen the White Whale?” you ask. Indeed, Bobby – there she blows! Man the deck, and lower the boats. You’ve got one more pass at the mighty beast.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Very Sunny in Philadelphia (One Sixty-Two: Day 150)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Fifty: Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies

If you live in the New York area, the baseball news you hear about most these days pertains to either the Yankees, who head into October looking to repeat as world champions, or the Mets, who limp to the finish line poised to remake what has been a very disappointing ballclub. You look at the standings and see that the Yankees have the best record in baseball, and you figure they’ll claim yet another title this year.

And they may do that. But don’t think for a moment that the Yankees have the best team in baseball right now. If you head about 90 minutes west of New York, you’ll find baseball’s premier unit, and they don’t need to advertise themselves to anyone. Those within baseball know that the Philadelphia Phillies are the team to beat. The question is just whether anyone will be able to do so.

The Phillies started their 2010 season off slowly, as they were hampered by injuries and poor first-half performances by key players. But in the past month, the Phils have won 20 of their last 30 games, including 16 of their last 20. On paper, they look like world-beaters. Finally, they are looking the same on the field.

Offensively, the Phillies’ prowess has never been in question. Their 2008 championship and 2009 pennant both were sparked by the offense, and this year their lineup is as potent as it gets – from Ryan Howard to Chase Utley to Jayson Werth to Jimmy Rollins to Shane Victorino to Raul Ibanez. But the difference this season is found on the pitching mound, where the Phillies have three aces in their starting rotation. Roy Halladay, the likely National League Cy Young Award winner, has 19 wins, 210 strikeouts and one perfect game. Roy Oswalt, the former Astros ace dealt to the Phillies in July, has yielded fewer than two runs per nine innings since arriving in Philly. And then there is Cole Hamels, who took a minor detour from greatness but is back again, thank you very much.

In 2008, Hamels was MVP of both the National League Championship Series and the World Series, as the Phillies stormed to their first title in 28 years. But last season, Hamels stumbled to a 10-11 record, then faltered badly in the playoffs. The lefty with the matinee-idol appearance seemed to be drifting off the list of baseball’s elite pitchers.

And then a new season began. This year, Hamels has been the victim of poor run support during several of his games, but that has not prevented him from pitching tremendous baseball once again. Number 35 is yielding just three runs per nine innings, he’s struck out 201 batters, and he’s been nearly unhittable in the second half of the season. Hamels’s resurgence and Oswalt’s arrival have allowed the Phillies to overtake the Braves in the National League East, where they now have a three-game lead.

In a seven-game playoff series, the Phillies can either start Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels twice apiece, or send Halladay to the hill three times, and the other two aces twice. However they choose to do it, the Phillies are the dominant force to be reckoned with in October 2010. And this time, it starts with pitching.

So as you hear all the news about Derek Jeter’s slump and Carlos Beltran’s lost season, remember this: The Yankees and Mets may be news today, but in slightly more than a month you may very well be picking up your newspaper and seeing a picture of Cole Hamels holding aloft another World Series trophy. They know this in Philadelphia, and they’re ready to make it happen. They’re just keeping quiet about it for as long as they can.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

She's a Maniac (One Sixty-Two: Day 149)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Forty-Nine: Nyjer Morgan, Washington Nationals

You know it’s going to be a rough weekend when your 5-year-old begins her Saturday by telling her older sister, “Katie, let’s be maniacs today.”

Now what kid wouldn’t say yes to an invitation like that? So, after a few hours of wrestling, kicking, punching and manhandling their dog, the two girls have finally settled down to play school. By then, Dad is exhausted. The maniacs have won.

I’d never heard Chelsea utter the word “maniac” before, so it stuck in my mind throughout the day. Which, for a man who came of age in the ‘80s, is not a good thing. After a few hours, that Michael Sembello song “Maniac” from the Flashdance soundtrack crept into my head. And once it arrived there, it wasn’t leaving anytime soon.

So here I was, on a wire between will and what will be, trying to parent two self-proclaimed maniacs. In a small way, it at least helped that Chelsea had announced that this was coming. I wonder whether Nyjer Morgan had similar thoughts a few weeks ago, when he found himself in the midst of two very controversial baseball plays inside of a week. In one game, the Nationals centerfielder was accused of throwing a baseball at a fan in the stands. In the other, he charged the mound after a pitcher threw at him. Earlier in that game, he had broken an unofficial rule by stealing two bases with his team behind by 11 runs.

The total suspension for Morgan ended up being eight games, and he’s out until next weekend. He’ll have time to reflect, and I’m sure it will do him good. When he returns, I hope he’s singing a different tune. Preferably not one by Michael Sembello. As for me, I’m going to beat the girls to the punch tomorrow morning.

“Hey girls,” I’ll ask, “why don’t you be giraffes today?” Now that would give Dad a quiet Sunday.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Streak is Over (One Sixty-Two: Day 148)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Forty-Eight: Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers

Prince Fielder’s major-league-leading streak of consecutive games played by a current player ended earlier this week, when flu-like symptoms kept Fielder out of the lineup for the first time in 327 games. Two full years without a sick day is quite impressive – but it does fall just a bit short of Cal Ripken Jr.’s record of consecutive games played. More than 2,300 games short, to be exact.

Consistency. The Milwaukee Brewers and their fans have enjoyed the reliable sight of Fielder at first base every day. He’s back in the lineup again, looking to add to his 190 career home runs at just 26 years of age. We take comfort in the constant presence of people – be it in our homes, at our workplaces, on our TV sets, or in the box scores. We also develop some occasional affection for certain material items that stay present in our lives for extended periods of time. They don’t talk to us, these items, and they certainly don’t mean as much as the people in our lives do. But sometimes we do look at them and feel a kind of reassurance.

Since my wife and I were married 15 years ago, we’ve spent a part of nearly every day with the same set of dinnerware. The set was a wedding gift – not an expensive collection, mind you, but a very durable set that goes by the name of Corelle White. My uncle has joked that this sounds more like a college football player than a set of dinnerware: Now starting at tailback for the University of Michigan, Corelle White! But this simple and functional set of plates and dishes has been by our side and at our table for, well, more than 5,400 days. That’s a streak, all right. We’ve fed ourselves on these plates and bowls countless times in five different homes, while also using them to feed our children, parents, siblings, friends, and even our departed grandparents. Corelle has hung in there pretty nicely, even enduring the occasional lick from a golden retriever.

But last night, as Amy and I drove into Manhattan for a quick anniversary dinner, we decided to make a stop at CB2, a home-d├ęcor store on Broadway. Some dear friends had given us a gift certificate to the place, and we’d been thinking about what to buy there. As we pulled up to the store, we made our decision: After 15 years, it was time for some new plates and bowls. Time to replace dear old Corelle White.

We didn’t select anything fancy – the new set is still white, still simple, and still functional. But the new bowls and plates don’t have the slightly worn look found on our dinnerware from 1995, and they look a little bit more elegant. We’ll use them tomorrow when friends come over for dinner, and our friends will surely compliment us on the new plates.

But tomorrow morning, before we take our new plates and bowls out of the boxes, I’ll eat breakfast once more with a trusty Corelle bowl. I’ll wash it clean afterward, then place it and the other Corelle Whites in a box for our yard sale. I won’t linger with a long goodbye, nor will any teardrops fall on the dessert plates. These are just things, after all.

But the kitchen will look a little different tomorrow, and something simple that I always knew to be there will be gone. The streak is over, Prince. All we can do is get our bearings, readjust, and start another one.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Still Do (One Sixty-Two: Day 147)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Forty-Seven: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners (via Ken Griffey Jr.)

My baseball memories of Autumn 1995 are dominated by the image of delirious Seattle Mariners baseball players diving atop Ken Griffey Jr. on an evening in early October. They tackled Griffey because, in the bottom of the 11th inning, his slide home had defeated the New York Yankees in the deciding game of the very first American League Division Series. I remember the sinking feeling that came with watching Edgar Martinez lace a Jack McDowell pitch into the left-field corner, and the shouts that followed the sight of both Joey Cora and Griffey dashing around the bases to claim Seattle’s first-ever playoff series. For a Yankees fan who’d gone 14 years without seeing his team in the playoffs, it was a sorry sight.

But that memory, dismal as it may be, is about the only thing that went wrong in my life during that fall a decade and a half ago. This was, after all, the September in which Amy and I were married. Fifteen years ago today, she walked down the aisle with her father and we said a couple of I do’s. Fifteen years ago, we danced and hugged and smiled for the cameras in a glorious celebration of life and commitment. It’s hard to believe that it’s been this long, but life does chug along pretty quickly – sometimes, it seems, about as quickly as that Ken Griffey sprint in October 1995.

After 15 years, I am amazed at how many things I’m still learning about my wife. I’m proud of how resilient we’ve been in working through challenges together. I’m impressed by the passion and effort we’ve given to parenting. I’m thrilled about our mutual willingness to try new journeys, both together and independently. And, more than anything, I’m fascinated by the ways in which my love for her deepens with each year.

If you take away all the team allegiance stuff, there really isn’t a much better sight in baseball history than Griffey’s dash home in ’95. The perfect ballplayer made the perfect run and the perfect slide, then flashed the most perfect smile baseball had seen in a long time. I watched it again today, and as I viewed it I didn’t feel much in the way of Yankee-fan sadness. Instead, it reminded me of the fact that I had watched that play in the bedroom of my new apartment, folding clothes next to a woman to whom I had just been married a few weeks earlier. It wasn’t the play I thought of; it was Amy. She was there with me, that day and the next day and thousands more days after.

Fifteen years. Wow. Ken Griffey has retired now, and Felix Hernandez is the perfect player in Seattle these days. The Yankees have made the playoffs nearly every year since then, and both teams have provided thrills aplenty.

And that’s all just fine. But for me today, 15 years means just one thing: I still do, honey. Today, tomorrow, and forever.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Kindergarten Blues (One Sixty-Two: Day 146)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Forty-Six: Yuniesky Betancourt, Kansas City Royals

There may be no crying in baseball, but there’s an awful lot of it in kindergarten.

Chelsea has had a rough two weeks adjusting to life beyond preschool, where her best friend Jimmy was always by her side. Mornings have found her clutching my wife outside the doors of her school, begging Amy not to leave her. As teachers have led Chelsea inside, she has grabbed for her mom with tears streaming down her 5-year-old cheeks. The school nurse has given her stuffed animals to carry around for comfort during and after the school day. A good morning at school has seen Chelsea whimpering rather than sobbing.

It’s so hard sometimes to step into the great unknown, and kindergarten certainly represents that for some children. For Chelsea, it symbolizes a greater step away from the protective care of her mom and grandma, not to mention a place where she can’t sniff her blankie whenever she wishes. So right now, mornings are tough.

Tom Hanks told us in the film A League of Their Own that there’s no crying in baseball. But that’s not always true. One of the most indelible images of baseball during my childhood was a photograph of Kansas City Royals shortstop Freddie Patek crying in the Royals’ dugout after his team had lost the deciding game of the 1977 American League Championship Series to the New York Yankees. I can remember feeling great admiration for Patek’s desire to win and to keep wearing that blue and white uniform, despite my own affection for the team that had beaten the Royals.

It’s been awhile since a Royals player has had the chance to cry tears of sorrow or joy after a playoff series. The last time Kansas City found itself in the playoffs, current Royals shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt was not yet old enough for kindergarten. Those 1985 Royals won their championship in dramatic style, but it’s been far too long. After a quarter-century of missing the playoffs, Kansas City fans would probably give anything just for the chance to cry over a lost postseason series, as that would have meant a summer full of meaningful baseball.

But as the Royals stumble to the finish line again in 2010, the tears must wait at least another year. The dry eyes in Missouri are more than counterbalanced here in New Jersey, though, as Chelsea turns on the faucets when nine o’clock approaches.

There are, however, some hopeful signs on the kindergarten front. As I picked her up from school yesterday, Chelsea was wearing a “sticky sign” on her shirt. A long piece of masking tape ran diagonally along the front of her T-shirt, and it bore a message from her teacher. In black marker, the message read: “I was happy at school today!”

Well there you go, Sweetie. Give me a hug. You were a big girl today. We are so proud of you.

After the crying comes the courage.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Falls That Lift (One Sixty-Two: Day 145)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Forty-Five: Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds

There are days when the stress feels like it will swallow me whole. I go for a run, or duck out to the gym, and try to breathe deep and let it all subside. But September 2010 is not an easy time for us in some ways. Like so many American families right now, we have seen better days in the way of finances. And it’s hard sometimes to know just when it will get better.

You feel a bit like one of those white-knuckle closers, who are forever filling the bases with runners before somehow wiggling out of it. Francisco Cordero of the Cincinnati Reds has 35 saves in 43 chances, but he also walks nearly as many batters as he strikes out, and he puts an average of 1½ men on base per inning. Rarely does a Cordero outing run smoothly. Reds fans can feel the stress almost as soon as the big right-hander begins pitching.

So in these Cordero-like days at Hynes Central, I’ve got to figure out just how much anxiety I want myself to feel on a day-to-day basis. I can worry all day long if I want – there is no law against that. But it doesn’t seem like a smart idea. And I can’t imagine how it would help me, my wife, or my girls.

So, as always, I search for perspective. This weekend, I found it in a place I never knew I’d be. It took a winding highway, a dirt road, a trail and dozens of steep steps to find it. But my, was it worth the trip.

Tannery Falls is located in a part of the Berkshires called Savoy Mountain State Forest. It’s not a place that you’ll find in most New England guidebooks. But my wife found it nonetheless. In an overnight trip that we took to this area over the weekend, we decided to check it out.

After winding our way along the Mohawk Trail that also goes by the name of Route 2, we turned onto an unmarked road outside Florida, Mass. From there, we drove up into the mountains for several miles before turning onto a dirt road. After nearly a mile of gentle driving over the many rocks on this road, we found a parking lot. The trail started from the lot, and as we followed the blue arrows we found ourselves walking alongside a brook. Soon enough, though, the trail took us down many steps. When we reached the bottom, we looked up and saw before us a pristine waterfall in the midst of the Massachusetts woods.

From 80 feet above us, the water of Tannery Falls cascaded down some 35 feet into a tiny pool, then rolled down the rest of the way via a rocky chute. The white water bobbed and weaved all the way into the shallow pool that lay before us. While only one other family was at the falls when we arrived, numerous others had been there before, and they’d left their mark by taking flat stones off the ground and making small sculptures around the edge of the pool with these rocks. Amy added one as well, and we stood together and watched the water drop down to our feet. The tiny pieces of rock art served as a human thank-you gift of sorts to the falls themselves.

This wasn’t the largest waterfall in the world, nor was it the largest one I’d ever seen. But as Amy and I looked at it, took pictures of it, and listened to it, we weren’t feeling any emotion that you could confuse with stress. This was about as beautiful as life gets – a husband and wife, walking hand in hand through the woods far away from the challenges and triumphs of life, taking some time to enjoy nature at its best.

Tannery Falls. That’s my new catch-phrase. Whenever the stress seems like it’s cascading down on me with the force of a Francisco Cordero wild pitch, I will say those words and think of that glorious display of falling water. Because if this world can contain something that beautiful, and if I can savor its majesty in the same spot where Native Americans watched it 300 years ago, then I think I also can endure a few bumps in the road of life. There is no stress worth worrying about when I can choose instead to breathe deep and visualize the white water and the gifts of stone, all while feeling the warm pulse of my wife’s hand in mine.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Innovators (One Sixty-Two: Day 144)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Forty-Four: Gio Gonzalez, Oakland Athletics

It is a landmark of ingenuity, nestled in the Berkshires inside a maze of brick mill buildings. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, known as MASS MoCA, has been around for more than a decade now. However, it is growing in scope, ambition and popularity with every year. This weekend, my wife and I had the chance to pay a visit.

The museum, located in North Adams, Mass., takes your breath away from the moment you see it. The 13-acre complex features 26 buildings along with numerous courtyards, passageways and tall windows, to go with a giant metal sign atop the roof featuring the museum’s name. Inside, the visitor encounters a stunning array of contemporary art, including a three-floor retrospective of Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings, a vast exhibit featuring everyday material items inside giant rooms, and a collection of ambitious sculptures by Petah Coyne. Oh, and did I mention Leonard Nimoy’s photos of individuals showing off their “secret selves”? Or Natalie Jeremijenko’s outdoor sculpture featuring telephone poles and upside-down trees? And we haven’t even gotten to the museum’s concerts (including a recent summer festival starring Wilco), nor have we discussed its theater, dance, films, kids events and dance parties.

Sometimes, when you think different, you create amazing things. As MASS MoCA continues to grow, the other old mill buildings in North Adams have become home to artists’ lofts and galleries. The downtown features dozens of galleries and very few empty storefronts. A walk through the street on a Friday night found busy restaurants and a live musical performance in a gallery. This is a town to which Amy and I both plan on returning, sooner rather than later.

Think different. The Oakland Athletics have been following this motto for years now, using their data-driven philosophy, immortalized in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball, to change the way baseball players are valued and scouted. In the past few years, though, the A’s have fallen under the radar, as their offense has dissipated and they have traded away several veteran players.

Of course, the team’s front-office, led by general manager Billy Beane, was up to something clever all along. As baseball steps forward into the post-steroid era, Beane was re-making his team around pitching. And so, as the A’s stand solidly in second place in the American League West this year, they do so behind the arms of some very exciting young pitchers. Some of these starters, such as Trevor Cahill and Dallas Braden, are homegrown A’s who were drafted by the team itself. Others, however, such as lefties Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez, were craftily acquired via trade.

Gonzalez, for instance, was obtained from the Chicago White Sox a couple of years ago in exchange for outfielder Nick Swisher. It turns out that the Sox moved Swisher along to the Yankees after one year, while Gonzalez has quietly become one of the American League’s best left-handed pitchers. This year, he has 14 wins, a 3.16 earned-run average and 153 strikeouts in 179 innings. A few days shy of his 25th birthday, Gonzalez is at the heart of the new-look A’s – a team that’s not afraid to beat you 1-0 if that’s what it takes.

When we try bold new innovations, we often surprise people. And before they know it, those people are waiting in line for playoff tickets in Oakland – which, by the way, could happen as soon as next year. Or maybe they’re letting their GPS or Mapquest lead them up to North Adams, Mass., to walk through some old mill buildings and experience art as they’ve never seen it. Take some creativity, a dash of forethought, and a whole lot of guts, and you might get something that surprises the world. Like a museum in the mountains that feels cooler than cool.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Cleaning House (One Sixty-Two: Day 143)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Forty-Three: Melvin Mora, Colorado Rockies

Today we had it out. They refused to clean their rooms once again, and then they wanted to turn the living room into a third play area. I said no. They pouted. And on it went.

I get little help on the cleaning front because my wife believes our two girls need to take ownership over their own rooms. If they don’t want to clean, she says, then let them deal with the consequences themselves. I have just a wee bit of obsessive-compulsiveness within me, so I cringe when I see the clothes strewn about and the emptied bins of American Girl doll clothes all over the floor. I often give in and clean the rooms myself, which only serves to enable the thing I’m trying to change.

So what is a father to do? How do you make it through the moments when two kids seem like two more than you can handle?

You think of Melvin Mora, that’s what you do. The Colorado Rockies third baseman, now in his 12th season as a major-leaguer, is the father of 9-year-old quintuplets. I am sure that this man’s home features a frenzy of activity the likes of which I have never seen. If I’m going to stress out over two messy rooms, I can only imagine what it’s like for a father of five active fourth-graders. I would imagine that you learn to put things like dirty socks into perspective. You choose instead to check on how everyone is feeling today, and if the homework’s been completed, and if everybody has eaten. You spend some time playing and talking with your kids, and you listen to them tell you about their classes and friends and sports teams. Cleaning up, I would think, falls a bit lower on the list.

At age 38, Melvin Mora is near the end of a successful career that has seen him collect nearly 1,500 hits while playing various infield and outfield positions for the New York Mets, Baltimore Orioles, and Colorado Rockies. Mora’s quintuplets weren’t born yet when he appeared in the playoffs for the first and only time, with the 1999 Mets. This year, Mora has been a backup for the Rockies, but he has started nearly every day since starting third baseman Ian Stewart went down with an injury a couple of weeks ago. And during Mora’s time in the lineup, the Rockies have become baseball’s hottest team, winning 10 straight games and pulling to within 1½ games of the National League West division lead. If the red-hot Rockies keep it up, perhaps the Mora Five will have the chance to see their dad play in the postseason, after all.

There’s probably very little time for cleaning in the Mora household these days, other than all the sweeping that Dad’s team has been doing at the expense of other baseball teams. It’s a busy time of year, what with school starting and pennant races running full-tilt. It’s the kind of bustle that leaves kids to take care of their own rooms.

After all, the American Girl doll clothes won’t destroy the house. And, when you least expect it, they will clean. They are your kids, and you’ve raised them well. Take a breath, Dad. Watch a ballgame. Check out those Rockies.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Peace Be With Us (One Sixty-Two: Day 142)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Forty-Two: Josh Thole, New York Mets

We awoke on this beautiful morning with an invitation to remember. As we honor the fallen of September 11th, we remember the importance of peace, acceptance, understanding, cooperation, and sacrifice. We remember the hope that comes with determination and rebirth, and we celebrate the beauty that can arise after tragedy.

Many museums have taken to offering free admission on September 11th, which seems to capture much of the spirit of this day. These institutions open their doors to the public and allow us all to study and appreciate works of art or science from around the world. It is a sharing of creations, inventions, stories and imaginations – in a sense, it is the ultimate celebration of freedom. Baseball stadiums would do well to offer discounts on this day as well, as a means of bringing people together in the name of fellowship, fly balls and frankfurters.

Josh Thole was only 14 years old on September 11th, 2001, and he was living half a continent away. Now a catcher for the New York Mets, Thole has surely seen the video clips of his Mets predecessors wearing the caps of the different city agencies that had lost workers on 9/11. If he walks around the city today, Thole will feel some of the vibe of unity that followed this tragic day. And perhaps he and the rest of the Mets will carry that vibe with them throughout the day. It’s a good day to remember, and a very good day for seeking peace.