Friday, April 30, 2010

Take Your Base (One Sixty-Two: Day Eight)

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 Eight: Daric Barton, Oakland Athletics

I couldn’t stand playing Wiffle Ball with Billy. The kid lived across the street from me, and he was often willing to join in on the summer games we played in my driveway. But the problem with Billy was that he always looked for a walk. In Wiffle Ball.

I mean, come on. You’re nine years old, you’re outside in the sun, and you need some exercise. Shouldn’t Wiffle Ball be all about hitting? Maybe it was that way for you and me, but not for Billy. He watched the looping curveball as it started over the plate, and rested the thin yellow bat on his shoulder while the white ball bounced off the rear bumper of our Pontiac Bonneville, just to the left of the lawn chair – hence, just outside the strike zone.

Ball four.

In the 1980s, when very few teams took note of a player’s on-base percentage, walks were not valued quite so much. Batting average was the key statistic for a hitter. In this here 21st century, however, hitters are now raised to approach hitting just like ol’ Billy did. The goal is simply to get on base, any way you can. A walk is, in some ways, even better than a hit, as it forces up the pitch count and gets you closer to a team’s often vulnerable bullpen.

No team has embodied this approach to hitting better than the Oakland A’s, who have used General Manager Billy Beane’s focus on computer-generated statistics to revolutionize the way teams prepare their ballclubs. A’s prospects are taught from the outset to be patient at the plate, and are rewarded for that patience – ultimately, with a trip to the big club.

This year, the most patient of the A’s has been a first baseman named Daric Barton, who has been up to the plate 97 times, yet has walked 20 of those times. So while Barton has earned a hit 30 percent of the time he’s been up to bat, he’s landed on base a whopping 44 percent of the time. More men on base equal more opportunities to score. So this 24-year-old, who hit only .226 in his only full season in the majors, is currently the poster boy for Oakland A’s baseball.

He’ll continue to be so for as long as he can wait, patiently, for the pitcher to throw him something inside that little strike zone. If it can’t hit the lawn chair, Daric, just leave it alone. Whether it’s my neighbor Billy telling you that, or your boss Billy, the advice is solid. Take your base.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Impossible Feat (One Sixty-Two: Day Seven)

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 Seven: Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado Rockies

While teaching a college reading-skills course one summer, I assigned my students David Ferrell’s Los Angeles Times feature story on the ultra-marathon known as “Badwater.” As we read and discussed the story, my students were amazed that there are human beings who run a 135-mile race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, Calif., often through temperatures well above 100 degrees. It doesn’t seem humanly possible, yet there are a select few who start and finish Badwater.

Achieving the near-impossible – it’s something that humans have been striving to do for as long as they’ve walked the earth. Climbing the tallest mountain, tightrope-walking between skyscrapers, swimming across channels – it’s part of what we do, part of our genetic makeup. And whenever we break another barrier, a name gets added to the list of trailblazers, stretching from Pheidippides the marathon runner to Phelps the swimmer.

It is time to add another name to that list. This young man has figured out something that no one has done before: He’s learned how to pitch dominant baseball in Denver, Colorado. For the past 17 years, Coors Field in downtown Denver has been known more as a launching pad than as the home to baseball’s Colorado Rockies. The thin, dry Rocky Mountain air helps baseballs soar farther at Coors than they would at lower elevations. Even though the Rockies have been storing their balls in an atmosphere-controlled room known as the “humidor” for eight years, the balls can still fly out of that park: Witness yesterday’s 12-11 Arizona win over Colorado in Denver.

But now, amid the long fly balls of 2010, a trailblazer has arrived. He is 26 years old, 6-foot-4, and born in the Dominican Republic. He has endured his share of tough games at Coors, but now things are different. As April comes to a close, the National League will surely name Ubaldo Jimenez its player of the month. He is 5-0 with a 0.79 earned-run average so far this year. Since May 1 of last year, Jimenez is 19-9, and not once have hitters hit better than .250 against him in a month. On April 17, Jimenez took things a step further and pitched a no-hitter – the first in Rockies’ history – against the Atlanta Braves.

Oh, and the kicker – he pitches no worse at home in Coors than he does away. Indeed, Ubaldo Jimenez has found a way to do what many thought to be impossible. This is a team that many pitchers have long avoided, for fear that the Denver air would wreck their careers, not to mention their statistics. This is a stadium known more for football-like scores than baseball ledgers. And yet, here he stands, 98-mile fastball in hand.

The Associated Press reported that on the day after his no-hitter, Jimenez awoke at 6:30 a.m. and ran six miles, slightly longer than his usual run on the day after he pitches.

Hey, it wasn’t Badwater. But for now, at least, one impossible feat is enough.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fearing Failure (One Sixty-Two: Day Six)

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 Six: Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals

I’ve been reading The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer’s warm and clear-eyed memoir on his search for a father figure and family in a Long Island bar. One of the dominant themes in Moehringer’s book is a theme we can find throughout modern American literature, from Death of a Salesman to Fences to Rabbit, Run: A man’s fear of failure.

So many of us feel this fear at times in our lives, as we compare the life we’re living now to the dreams of our adolescence. What if I never realize those dreams? What will I make of myself? Will the writer ever claim his Pulitzer, or get that job at The Times? Will the actor ever make it to Broadway, or at least out of regional theater? Will the lawyer finally – finally – get a shot at making partner? We compare ourselves to others, to the expectations we’ve had for ourselves, and to the prophesies that well-intentioned teachers or family members uttered on our behalf one shining graduation day.

As I reflect on The Tender Bar, I wonder what’s going through the mind of 26-year-old Alex Gordon. He was drafted five years ago with the second overall pick in the Major League Baseball amateur draft, and was quickly declared the face of a revitalized Kansas City Royals franchise. Gordon was compared to Hall of Famer George Brett, who, like Gordon, played third base for Kansas City. By March of 2007, Sports Illustrated had run a feature story on Gordon, the next can’t-miss kid.

This is now Alex Gordon’s fourth year in the big leagues. His highest average in a season was .260. He’s never hit more than 16 home runs in a year, never driven in more than 60 runs, never scored more than 72. To say that the young man has not lived up to expectations would be a gross understatement. There are rumblings that he might in fact be headed back to the minor leagues in the days ahead.

Which begs the question: What if Alex Gordon is not the next George Brett? What if he’s not even an All-Star? And, to take it a step further, what if he’s not even good enough to start for one of the least-successful teams in baseball?

What should he make of himself? What kind of man should he see when he looks in the mirror?

One can only hope that Gordon finds success in the truest of ways, and that he feels fulfillment from work, yet also from the deeper joys that life holds for him. But as he struggles on, he can take comfort in the knowledge that he’s not alone. Not by a long shot. They win Pulitzers writing about this stuff.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Doorknob Installer (One Sixty-Two: Day Five)

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 Five: Phil Coke, Detroit Tigers

We live in a specialized world, or so we’re told. Don’t learn a little bit about a lot; instead, learn a lot about a little. Be it technology, finance, writing, science, medicine – everyone’s looking for that edge, and they often find it by carving a niche.

In baseball, a position has developed over the past decade and a half that is so specialized it occupies a tiny cubbyhole in the realm of baseball. It’s a job that often requires no more than 10 minutes on the pitcher’s mound, about 80 times a year.

It’s called the left-handed relief specialist. Minimum salary: 400 grand.

No one’s saying it’s easy: Your 10 minutes might involve a faceoff against Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Adam Dunn, or Justin Morneau. You may walk onto the field with runners on second and third, one out, and the cleanup hitter at the plate. You’ll have to go from warmup tosses to blistering pressure in no time flat.

But if you toss some nasty sliders at that cleanup hitter, and get him chasing a few, your night will be done as soon as he’s back in the dugout. You’ll get a pat on the back, a right-handed pitcher will come on to face the next righty hitter, and you’ll be off to the showers.

Not a bad day’s work. And man, is it ever in demand. Every team has at least one. Take Jesse Orosco, for instance. The former Mets closer stood on the mound to face lefties for 24 years, retiring at the age of 46. No pitcher has ever appeared in as many games as Orosco. His record, however, will surely be broken by another lefty reliever soon enough.

It’s like having a job installing only doorknobs. As the carpenters, plumbers and electricians do their thing, they call you whenever a door is installed and in need of a knob. You show up, screw it into place, and leave. Ten minutes.

Last year, Phil Coke did his left-handed doorknob installer job so well that it earned him a World Series ring with the New York Yankees. This year, Coke is with the Detroit Tigers, and he’s already won three games for Detroit in the bullpen. Monday night, however, Coke offered evidence of what can happen when we glide outside of our niche.

The Texas Rangers have loaded the bases in a game that Detroit leads, 6-4, and the left-handed slugger Josh Hamilton stands at the plate. In comes Coke. And before you can finish biting your nails, a sweeping curve sends Hamilton down. Strike three.

And then … Detroit manager Jim Leyland decides to leave Coke in to face Vladimir Guerrero, a legendary right-handed hitter profiled on Day Three of this series. Suddenly, the doorknob guy has been asked to wire the bathroom lights. And, before you can say “single up the middle,” sparks are flying. Guerrero trots to first, two men score, and the game is tied.

The night ended well for Phil Coke, as Detroit came back to win in the ninth, and he even got the win. But the specialist had climbed outside his cubbyhole, and he’d taken a few lumps.

We know the moral: Next time, Phil, stick with what you know. After all, you’re only 27. Ten minutes a day for another 20 years, and you’ll be passing ol’ Jesse’s record. The doors are ready for you, sir.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Out-of-Towner (One Sixty-Two: Day Four)

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 Four: Javier Vazquez, New York Yankees

Every time a victorious third out is made in the top of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium, more than 50,000 people stand up and begin a mass sing-a-long. As they slap high-fives and file out, the pinstriped faithful croon along with Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York.” Some stand in place to sing, others sing while making a dash for the subway, and still others link arms and do a Rockettes kickline.

As they sing loud and clear, the Yankee fans come to a line they all know well:

If I can make it there / I’m gonna make it anywhere

As you walk out of the gates and onto River Avenue, another New York victory in the books and the buzz of humanity around you, it kind of feels as though you’ve made it in the big city, no matter where you’re headed after this game. It’s one of the heady, fleeting thrills of a ballgame in the city, and it emboldens Yankee fans to ask for more of their players the next time around.

Occasionally, however, a player will arrive in New York and have a tough go of it. If that player has succeeded on other teams, the news reporters will inevitably begin asking if this guy is choking under the pressure of playing for the Yankees. It’s such a pressure-packed situation, they write, and it appears that so-and-so just can’t hack it in New York.

The last time Javier Vazquez was pitching for the Yankees, he helped put an exclamation point on one of the lowest moments in New York history, when he served up a grand slam to Johnny Damon in the seventh and deciding game of the 2004 American League Championship Series. The Boston Red Sox went on to dominate that game en route to their historic comeback from three games down. Vazquez had pitched terribly for New York that season, and he was quickly shipped off the Arizona in a trade that brought Randy Johnson to the Yankees.

For every other team that he has played for, Vazquez has been a reliable pitcher – never the league’s best, but the kind of guy who will give you seven innings, give up no more than four runs, and strike out almost a batter an inning. Vazquez has been incredibly durable, and he’s got nearly 2,300 strikeouts. He’s pitched in Chicago, Phoenix, Montreal and Atlanta, and dominated many batters along the way.

When Vazquez left New York after the ’04 season, one wondered if he’d ever get a chance to pitch on the biggest stage again. This past December, the Yankees gave him that chance, trading for him and planting him directly in their rotation once more.

As April concludes, Vazquez’s 2010 numbers are very hard to look at: one win, three losses, and a run given up per inning. He’s having trouble even getting to the fifth inning. This is not the player who plowed through the National League last year with Atlanta. The New York papers are already pouring ink into the Vazquez story.

So, Mr. Sinatra, what do you think? Is this a man who can’t “make it” here? And if so, what should that mean to his reputation? Must every ballplayer prove himself on the biggest stage to be considered a success? Aren’t there people all over America who are more comfortable working in, say, Memphis or Little Rock or Fargo than they are in New York? What if you don’t really have little town blues, but actually enjoy a slightly slower pulse than that of the city that never sleeps?

It is OK, and always will be, to prefer something other than New York. For some, it’s a great place to visit, and that’s all. I’m not sure where Javier Vazquez stands on this. Maybe his struggles as a Yankee have more to do with arm mechanics, location, or the speed of his fastball. Maybe he’ll right his ship this spring and help the Yanks return to the “top of the heap.”

But if Vazquez is feeling too much pressure here in New York, I’m sure he’ll be sent elsewhere soon enough. He’ll hear the cascades of boos, and the papers will run him out of town. It’ll be a high-profile departure, but it won’t be the first of its kind. They won’t be cheering for Vazquez when they sing “New York, New York.” But that doesn’t make him a failure. Just an out-of-towner.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Breaking the Rules (One Sixty-Two: Day Three)

Writer’s note: This is the third in 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 Three: Vladimir Guerrero, Texas Rangers

Katie has a new art book, thanks to a generous Barnes & Noble gift card from her aunt and uncle. My 8-year-old has been reading the book almost every day for the past couple of weeks, and she keeps coming back to a two-page spread on Vincent van Gogh. She stares at the sunflowers and tells me how vivid the gold and yellow colors look to her. Together we read about Van Gogh’s use of texture, and how he’d apply his paints straight from the tube.

In Katie’s art classes, her teachers won’t be showing her how to paint directly from the tube anytime soon. They’ll hand her a paintbrush and show her how to do things the traditional way. She’ll follow the rules. In the same way, the boys and girls who learn to hit a baseball or softball are told to swing only at pitches that look like strikes. No need to try and hit something that’s outside your comfort zone.

But both painters and hitters are allowed to break the rules of their craft once they know what those rules are. If Van Gogh needed to use a paintbrush, he could do it in a heartbeat. He simply chose to think, and act, different. Over in Arlington, Texas, the Rangers’ designated hitter is a future Hall-of-Famer named Vladimir Guerrero. If you asked him to tell you whether a pitch is a strike or a ball, I’m sure Guerrero could tell you. But for the past 13 years, this right-handed slugger has made a living hitting baseballs that no one alive should be swinging at, much less hitting.

And my, does he hit them. Hits them hard, hits them far. Balls down at his shoe-tops. Balls up by his shoulders. Balls far outside. He lunges, he reaches, he hacks – and he hits. Guerrero has hit more than 400 home runs, more than 400 doubles, and nearly 2,300 total hits. So far. His lifetime batting average is .322. About the only thing Vlad doesn’t do much is walk. Of course, when you’re as busy as he is breaking the rules, there’s little reason to hold back that swing.

This winter, the word around baseball was that Guerrero was too old and out of shape to play well anymore. Going into today, he was hitting above .370. So the 35-year-old apparently has plenty left in that bat. To those who have watched him over the years, this was really no surprise.

One day eight years ago, I took a road trip to Montreal with my brother and some friends. Our goal was to catch a game at Olympic Stadium before the dome closed and the Expos left town. It was a bizarre old place, with enough eccentricities inside to have kept Van Gogh busy for years. Early in the game, Vladimir Guerrero stepped up to bat; at the time, he was Montreal’s best player. As a pitch arrived, Vlad took one of his legendary full-body hacks, and wood made violent contact with rawhide. The ball flew up – higher, higher, higher – until, finally, it bounced off the white roof of the dome.

In Olympic Stadium, the roof was fair play. The ball careened of the padding above us, then landed somewhere between shortstop and left field. Guerrero trotted into second base with a double. They were breaking rules all over the place, and the fans loved it.

There’s plenty of texture left on Vladimir Guerrero’s canvas. Just don’t force him to paint with a brush.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Citizen Twin: (One Sixty-Two: Day Two)

Writer’s note: This is the second in 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 Two: Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins

I’m showing my seniors Citizen Kane in class. We’re watching, discussing, taking notes, and gearing up for their first film-analysis essay. Whenever I watch the film, I am blown away by the attention to detail, the innovation, the depth of storytelling, and the acting in this 1941 masterpiece. In creating Kane, Orson Welles dominated the medium of film so thoroughly it can take your breath away. As a producer, director, co-writer and lead actor, Welles commanded both the camera and the screen in a way that no one, save Chaplin, has ever done.

And the tragedy, of course, is that he made so few films afterward. It’s a well-documented story, the life of Orson Welles, and no matter how many times it’s told we still have just a handful of his glorious films to watch. His career as a film director was brief, yet brilliant. Were he a ballplayer, he wouldn’t have had the number of games played that’s typically required for the Hall of Fame. But the few seasons he played would make it so difficult to exclude him from joining the great ones.

Over in Minnesota, there was this left-handed rookie pitcher a few years ago who took to the mound like Welles took to Kane. In that summer of 2006, then-22-year-old Francisco Liriano was called up from the minor leagues and proceeded to blow major-league hitters away, tornado-style. He started 16 games, won 12 of them, and struck out 144 batters in 121 innings. He gave up two runs for every nine he pitched. No one could touch the guy.

And then, late in the summer, Liriano hurt his arm. Badly. He was done for that year, and for the next one as well. He pitched a bit during ’08 and ’09, but the magic wasn’t there. His left arm seemed to have no follow-up to the Citizen Kane he’d delivered in ’06. Such a shame. It was a story Orson knew quite well.

But then … wait, what do we have here? Three games started in 2010, with two wins already. Seventeen strikeouts in 21 innings pitched. Just over one run yielded per nine innings. It’s just a few starts, but it’s the closest we’ve seen Liriano to that force of nature from 2006. Number 47 is whipping that left hand around and throwing darts once again.

We’ll take what we can get. Perhaps this is Liriano’s version of Welles’ A Touch of Evil, that brilliant thriller from 1958 in which Welles reminded viewers of just how unreal his career could have been, if he and the studios had just gotten along a bit better. Maybe Liriano is showing us one more time what that comet we saw on the mound in ’06 really looked like.

Or, perhaps, the lefty is embarking on a longer string of successes. Scorsese-like, perhaps. Over in Minnesota, they’ll take that kind of career every day of the week.

No offense to Orson, of course. But Welles knew the game. For as long as Liriano keeps winning, he’ll sell papers. That, my friends, would make Charles Foster Kane one happy man.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Working to Potential (One Sixty-Two: Day One)

Writer’s note: This is the first in 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: Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee Brewers

Third marking period grades were due yesterday, so I spent my Thursday morning huddled over the laptop. I was inserting grade letters, absence numbers, and teacher comments for my students. In this age of computerized report cards, the teacher also selects from a group of comments, each of them given a particular number. As I scan through the list in search of the proper comment for each student, I try and avoid – as much as possible – the potent Number 4:

Not working to potential.

Ouch. It stings just to say the words. It speaks, to a degree, of personal failure. It also feels a bit like a lecture. And I’d rather talk with kids than lecture them. You also know that the teens who are not working to their potential have surely heard those words dozens, if not hundreds, of times from family members, friends, and other teachers.

So do they really need to hear it again? From me?

This year, the Milwaukee Brewers sent a 27-year-old man out to play second base on Opening Day. The young man has been playing regularly in the big leagues since he was 22, and the word that’s been batted about more than any other when referring to this man is, most assuredly, potential.

His name is Rickie Weeks, and while the scouts say he has all the talent in the world, he’s only hit over .240 once in a full season. He’s never hit more than 16 home runs in a year, and he’s never driven in more than 46. Last season, in the midst of what seemed like a breakthrough spring, Weeks sustained a wrist injury that ended his season.

He returned this year, and after nearly three weeks, he is playing about as well as anyone in the game. Hitting for average. Hitting for power. Scoring runs. Leading the Brewers’ dangerous offense from the leadoff spot. Weeks is playing, without question, like an All-Star. The Brewers have the ability to explode, as they did for 20 runs last night, with their second baseman leading the way.

So what happens when you do reach your potential? Do you erase the word from your memory? Do you finally rest easy at night? Or do you work even harder, in the hopes that you’ll never have to hear it again?

I’m guessing it’s the latter. Here’s to you, Rickie. Your report card so far is one to post on the refrigerator. No sight at all of comment No. 4.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Take Me Home

Out here on the roads of central Jersey, there’s a roundabout known as the Watchung Circle. It’s a tidy little traffic circle up in the hills of Watchung, and I hit the circle whenever I’m driving down the mountain from Interstate 78.

As I enter the circle, for a brief moment I see a green and white sign that looks as if it’s been written just for me. There are two arrows pointing left, and just three words on the sign. One of them is “WARREN,” and the others are “NORTH PLAINFIELD.” It’s as if the sign is calling me by name to remind me of where I live.

I follow the arrows and keep to my left. A moment later, at the next exit off the roundabout, another arrow and sign points the way toward the town of Warren, N.J. I stay on for another second and take the exit for North Plainfield. It’s in this town, below the hills, where I find my house. My home.

It’s not always this easy to find your way to a place you call home. I’ve lived in four different states over the past 16 years, and each one had its advantages and disadvantages. The weather in North Carolina was superb, as were the dogwood trees, the basketball and the barbecue. But there was no good pizza, no Brooklyn Bridge, and no Yankee Stadium in Carolina.

Living in my hometown of Staten Island was fun for a while as an adult, and there was an abundance of great pizza, the great bridge and ballpark were just a quick trip away, and family was all around. But sometimes, an adult in his 20s can feel closed in by too much of his hometown. The wings want to fly, and so he breaks from the nest.

We did just that, and gave Massachusetts a try. The pizza was still pretty good in Boston, and both Boston and Salem (where we lived) had tons of charm. But as soon as we had children of our own, the lure of family became too powerful. We headed south and set down new roots once more.

For more than five years now, home has been this town called North Plainfield, a gloriously diverse and friendly place down the road from the aforementioned circle. We love our home, we see our family more often, and the big city is just a short train ride away. But we’re not living by the water like we were in Salem. And we don’t have a bustling downtown like we did in Chapel Hill. And we don’t have all the great Italian restaurants that we had on Staten Island.

Sometimes you wish you had a green and white sign in front of you all the time, to help guide the way. What is home? Where is home? Were some of these towns better suited for us than others were? Are we in the right place here? Should we look for something better than this? Or should we just settle down, take a deep breath, and sink some roots into the ground for once? You can always search some more, but sometimes the thing you’ve been looking for is right in front of you.

Just off the Watchung Circle, there’s a plaque in the nearby park honoring Bobby Thomson, who as a New York Giant hit the most famous home run in baseball history to win the 1951 National League pennant. On the October afternoon when he hit that famous homer to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers, Thomson took the Staten Island Ferry home from the Polo Grounds in Manhattan. He lived in my hometown from the age of 2 until he was in his mid-30s. Then Thomson and his family decided to leave Staten Island and move west a little ways, to Watchung. They liked it enough to stay in those Jersey hills for nearly 50 years.

The neighbors across the street from us are on the move in search of home, having chosen to leave our town for one closer to family. As Laura and Nick packed up their belongings this weekend and headed west to Pennsylvania, they appeared happy to be settling into a town near Nick’s family. Their son, Chase, is bound to find his own name a lot more common in his new town, as there have surely been plenty of Phillies fans naming their kids after Philadelphia’s second baseman extraordinaire, Chase Utley. Laura and Nick don’t follow baseball, but they said they expect they’ll learn all about Mr. Utley real soon.

I shook Nick’s hand, hugged Laura, and wished them well. As they drove off, they left an old leather suitcase by the road for someone to take. As I walked back across the street, I joined Amy and the girls in the backyard. We were preparing the vegetable garden for another growing season.

Katie was planting the tomatoes. Amy nestled the broccoli and lettuce plants into the soil. They covered the plants with topsoil, peat moss and fertilizer.

The roots will take hold, as they always do. They know a good home when they feel one. As for the old suitcase across the street, it’s gone now. Probably in someone’s car, winding its way around the Watchung Circle. Looking for a sign.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Play Ball! (Scorekeeping Optional)

Maya had just finished opening her birthday presents, and while she seemed more interested in her brand-new Littlest Pet Shop toys, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the rubber playground ball she’d just unwrapped. The design of Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends on the ball didn’t dissuade me from bouncing it around a bit.

When the party had dispersed, my girls and I hung around for a while with Maya, her parents and her kid sister at their house. After pizza, I found the right time to ask if anyone was interested in some kickball. Maya, now 5 years old and ready to learn new sports, said she was game. So did her dad, Brent, as well as my Katie.

At age 8, Katie had never played kickball before. Neither had Maya. So Brent and I got to work: We used a combination of patio furniture and playground sand to assemble the bases, we showed the girls how to kick and run, and we encouraged them to stop when they knew they couldn’t advance safely to the next base.

In her pink princess dress, Maya must have gone 10-for-10 in the game. She was an all-star. Katie switched from her new Jessica Simpson-brand party shoes to her sneakers, and she notched about 10 hits of her own. Brent and I alternated between pitching, hitting, coaching and umpiring. In the end, we got a good half-hour of activity out of Miss Spider and her bouncy ball.

The best thing about kickball on the day before Easter – aside from the awesome boing! the ball makes when you kick it – was the simple fact that no one kept score. Everybody won in this game, and the girls felt empowered by their kickball excellence.

The games in which no one wins or loses are always the best ones. In the big leagues, they start keeping score for real tonight, and tomorrow is the traditional Opening Day for Major League Baseball. Once that first pitch is thrown, the scoreboard kicks into high gear.

So, as the season begins, it’s time for predictions. Last year, I forecast a Dodgers-Yankees World Series, with Los Angeles triumphing in seven games. I had the correct American League team, and as a Yankees fan I was pleased to see New York win it all by defeating the Phillies last November.

In 2010, I can’t see the Yankees missing the playoffs this year. They’ll win their division in the American League, and will be joined by the Chicago White Sox, the upstart Texas Rangers, and the wild-card Tampa Bay Rays in the playoffs. New York and Tampa will meet for the pennant, with the Yankees’ pitching hold off the immensely talented Rays.

In the National League, the Philadelphia Phillies have built themselves a dynasty, and their powerful hitters will lead them to another division crown in 2010. The rest of the league features a lot of teams with glimmers of greatness, yet significant holes, especially in starting pitching. I see the best overall hitting clubs joining the Phillies, namely the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers and surprising wild-card Arizona Diamondbacks. In the playoffs, these other NL teams will fall quickly at the feet of the Phillies, who will return to meet the Yankees in the World Series again this year.

Boring, I know – the same two teams in the Fall Classic two years in a row. But sometimes, that’s just the way it goes. Sometimes, teams are built for more than one year of greatness. It’s a year for defending your pennant, and then for defending your title. New York in six, once again.

But enough of that. One team will win the World Series, and 29 other teams won’t. As for Maya, Katie and the rest of us, we’ve got kickball games at our disposal all spring and summer. All you need is a little inspiration from Miss Sunny Patch, a few bases, and a nice pitch down the middle. Let’s play some ball.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Rebirth, Renewal, Reset

Katie took the lead, and we dutifully marched behind her on the red trail. She held the map out in front of her and looked closely for red squares painted to the trees of the Watchung Reservation. My mom carried the water, my dad held the puppy’s leash, and I balanced the 5-year-old on my shoulders.

It was just a little half-mile trail through the woods, and there was some mud to maneuver around. But we were ready and willing to go wherever Katie led us. Our reason was simple: There’s this orb, known to many as “the sun,” and it had finally returned from hibernation to shine gloriously on us in the clear blue sky. On top of that, the thermometer told us it was 70 degrees. Indeed, all was good with the world.

Spring is a time for starting over – or, as our president might say, hitting the “reset button.” But we’re not talking here about resetting a domestic agenda, or a relationship with Russia. Spring is about hitting “reset” on life. Just a few days ago, another torrent had turned our yard into a small pond. Many of us were cursing the alleged spring that was supposed to have arrived. The heavy snows of February had turned into the furious rains of March, and I dared to wonder what April might have in store.

We’re just a couple of days in, but the month known for its showers has started off quite auspiciously. And when spring arrives in all its glory, with the tulips and the buds on the trees and the robins flying from here to there, everything changes. These are the days when you just forget all about the shoveling and the ice scrapers and the sump pumps. You can’t even bring yourself to think about the difficult weather days you’ve had.

You just want to go for a walk, and follow your kid along the red trail. No need to reflect on what has been. Spring is all about looking forward, with rose-colored optimism all the way. Might February let us down again next year? Absolutely possible. Will March get all angry on us again? Wouldn’t surprise me.

But right now, as the birds chirp and – Katie, look up from your map! – a half-dozen deer trot gracefully in front of us, our thoughts turn toward rebirth, possibilities, and hope.

Thirty teams, all of them tied for first place. That’s the way April opens for baseball teams. Some 750 players, all of them equally capable of making the All-Star game right now. Last year’s triumphs and struggles are chronicled on newsprint that’s already been recycled. It’s a new day.

In Phoenix, the Arizona Diamondbacks have a young centerfielder named Chris Young. At age 26, Young is beginning his fourth season in 2010, and it’s also the fourth year in which baseball experts have marveled over his talents. The only problem is, in each of his first three seasons Young has struggled mightily as a hitter. He’ll hit a towering home run one day, then strike out three times the next. Will Young ever find a way to put his power and speed together and dominate the game like so many believe he can?

It’s hard to say. But one thing is clear on this pristine April day – Chris Young, as well as the rest of us, have hit that reset button. We’re spring cleaning, and that includes bad memories as well. Anything’s possible. Just take us along the trail, Katie, and let the flowers bloom.