Sunday, May 30, 2010

Unhappy Endings (One Sixty-Two: Day 38)

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 Thirty-Eight: Kendry Morales, Los Angeles Angels

It’s your wedding day, and after the beautiful ceremony, the lovely first dance, the hugs from relatives, and the delicious dinner, it’s cake-cutting time. As you cut that first slice, the knife slips, you feel a sharp pain in your finger, and suddenly you’re off to the emergency room for stitches.

It’s your graduation day, and after the diploma and the cheers and the speeches, you toss your cap in the air. You reach up to catch it, but instead catch an elbow in the mouth. Instead of dinner, your family gathers with you at the dentist’s office.

It’s your birthday. You’ve gone out to eat, taken calls from family members, and eaten some of the cake your mom baked. On your way to bed, you don’t see the dog on the floor, you slip, and now you’re spending the night with an ice cap on your knee.

Horrible.

To finish a beautiful day with such a sudden twist of fate is something we all hope to avoid in any way possible. But there are times when it happens. And all it really does is remind us of how fragile, how human, we are – even in our moments of triumph.

It’s the bottom of the 10th inning, game tied 1-1, with Los Angeles Angels first baseman Kendry Morales up at the plate against Seattle Mariners reliever Brandon League. Morales crushes League’s offering well over the left-centerfield wall for a game-winning grand slam. As the 26-year-old first baseman rounds third and heads for home, Morales sees his teammates gathered around home plate, ready to pounce on him in the kind of “dog pile” celebrations that have become popular around baseball. Morales tosses his red helmet into the air and leaps. He lands on his left foot, slips, and falls.

His leg breaks right there, on home plate, with giddy teammates trying to pound his helmet. But these teammates gradually realize that instead of celebrating, they have to cart their best hitter off the field. He is writhing in pain.

The ballgame is over, and so might be Morales’s season. All because he slipped on home plate while trying to enjoy the moment.

There’s no right or wrong to it. The Angels will not celebrate this way at home plate again, as their manager, Mike Scioscia, has said. They’ll try and learn from it. Right now, there are surely a lot of heads hung low in that team’s clubhouse.

Life will absolutely go on, and there will be much better days ahead. But the wedding cake will never taste as good as it might have. The graduation pictures won’t bring back the kinds of memories we hoped they’d bring. The birthday cards won’t elicit the same smiles. The ending didn’t match the day, and it’s hard to forget that.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Perfection (One Sixty-Two: Day 37)


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 Thirty-Seven: Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies

In a typical day of teaching, there are so many things that go well. Take one day this past week, for instance. My ninth-period freshmen were electric in their enthusiasm over Othello. One of my seventh-period seniors delivered a 30-minute presentation on sign-language, teaching her classmates more than they’d ever learned about the topic. An eighth-period basic skills student was reading a book I’d leant him and proclaimed it one of the best things he’d ever read. During second period, a sophomore was crafting a thorough outline for a literary essay.

It was a good day. But not perfect. My fifth-period freshmen were struggling to focus, and I could have helped them find more energy for their schoolwork. As the bell rang, I sat and thought of some steps I might have taken to help them write more. Being a perfectionist, I found it difficult to think about the things that had gone well that day; instead, I found myself focusing on the flaws.

It’s rare that a day at work is perfect; I learned long ago that there are bumps to nearly every day. Some of us are better than others at accepting those passing clouds, and focusing instead on the sunshine. But we still strive for ways to make tomorrow even better, and to bring ourselves ever closer to that elusive perfect day.

And then, on those very rare occasions, absolutely everything falls into place. The students are all on their game. A kid who’s been struggling finally gets it. The student who’s been holding back on participating slowly inches her hand into the air. A colleague stops in to collaborate on a lesson plan. The principal pops in and says thanks for all your work.

Tonight in Miami, the Phillies’ Roy Halladay had one of those days. Halladay faced 27 Florida Marlins batters, and he retired all 27. Everything fell into place, and the Phillies’ ace claimed the 20th perfect game in baseball history. He struck out 11 batters, and thoroughly dominated the Marlins’ lineup.

Halladay is a tremendous pitcher, and he’ll probably find himself delivering a Hall of Fame speech someday. But the odds are slim that he’ll ever have a day quite like this one. There are no flaws for him to look back on tonight. For once, the man’s day at work was truly perfect.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Racing to the Top (One Sixty-Two: Day 36)

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 Thirty-Six: Franklin Gutierrez, Seattle Mariners

New Jersey, like so many states across America, is seriously considering major education reform. The federal “Race to the Top” grant program, championed by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has dangled $4.3 billion in educational funding in front of cash-starved states with one critical caveat: In order to win a piece of the federal funding, states must institute major educational reforms.

Merit pay. Charter schools. Data-based performance assessments. Challenges to tenure systems.

Movement toward educational reform is coming from both Democrats and Republicans, and teachers’ unions find themselves wondering just how much they can hold the line on some of these issues. For the first time in years, many individuals are stepping back from their traditional lines in the sand and taking a good, hard look at the ideas that educational reformers have presented. Is it worth changing the way we do things in order to “Race to the Top”? Can public schools really operate better than they do now? It’s a question many are asking.

Changes can be uncomfortable and strange sometimes, but there are moments when you realize they’re coming whether you like it or not. Many teachers across America are deciding to get involved in these conversations about reform, rather than ducking for cover. Over in the world of baseball, similar changes have altered the way teams look at run production.

For years, the prevailing thought around baseball was that you built a quality team through offense. But now that our technological revolution has given us a way to crunch numbers on the defensive side of the game, teams have had a collective epiphany: They’ve realized that some players save so many runs through their play in the field that they need only be adequate offensively in order to contribute mightily to the team’s success.

So a team like the Seattle Mariners trades for centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez, locks him up on a long-term deal, and lets him roam the outfield freely. Gutierrez catches balls all over the place, with tremendous range, and the baseball world of 2010 values this man far more than it had during the steroid era. Throw in Gutierrez’s 18 home runs, 70 runs batted in and 16 steals in 2009, and you’ve got a poster boy for baseball reform.

So merit pay has come Franklin Gutierrez’s way. His salary improved by more than 400 percent from last year to this year. The data supported it, so the Mariners gave it to him. It’s a new era, Franklin, and the reformers adore you.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Settling for Less (One Sixty-Two: Day 35)

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 Thirty-Five: J.J. Putz, Chicago White Sox

There are so many complications to an economic recession, experienced on many different levels. One of the current recession’s drawbacks is the fact that many people are working at jobs for which they are overqualified. When your upper-management position is eliminated, you may have to settle for a mid-management job. When you graduate with a degree in teaching and there are only a dozen teaching openings in your county, you may find yourself grateful for a job as a teacher’s assistant.

You know that economies operate in cycles, and you eagerly await the day when the job markets will improve. But it’s not easy to wait. Not only has your income taken a hit, but so has your self-esteem.

J.J. Putz knows what it’s like to settle for a job. Three years ago, Putz was the most dominant closer in baseball, saving 40 games for the Seattle Mariners with a 1.38 earned-run average. Over a two-year span in 2006-07, Putz struck out 186 batters in 150 innings, while walking only 27. He was nearly unhittable. But a couple of injuries and an economic downturn later, Putz now finds himself as a middle reliever for the Chicago White Sox. He’s been effective this year, striking out batters at a high rate once again. But Putz is not the head man in his team’s bullpen anymore.

There is hope, of course. Putz’s team is struggling, and there will be teams shopping around for closers in the weeks ahead. Perhaps one will offer the White Sox some prospects in exchange for the former relief ace. Maybe then Putz will get his shot once more at a job he knows he can do – a job he’s proven he can do.

Maybe those Help Wanted ads will fill up again soon, too. Maybe the call will come – “We’d like you in for an interview” or “We’d like to offer you …” Until then, those who are overqualified for their jobs try to find solace in the reality that it could, indeed, be worse. J.J. Putz may be an undervalued middle reliever, but at least he’s got work.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Super Cold (One Sixty-Two: Day 34)

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 Thirty-Four: Ike Davis, New York Mets

So they’re going to play a Super Bowl in Jersey. This seems about as wise an idea as hiring Vanilla Ice to sing at the Super Bowl halftime show. Which, considering the weather around here in February, might actually be a fitting choice.

Whoever earns the right to play in Super Bowl XLVIII will have the privilege of suiting up at the New Meadowlands Stadium in lovely East Rutherford, N.J. If you’re looking for someplace to watch U2 in concert this summer, New Meadowlands is the perfect spot. But a Super Bowl? If I’m spending the kind of money they charge for a ticket to the big game, I want to see it in the most pleasant weather possible. Give me Pasadena, not past the Turnpike.

If the National Football League is going to play a Super Bowl in the Northeast, then maybe Major League Baseball should re-visit that proposal it received from Buffalo, N.Y., to host a major-league franchise. Back in the early 1990s, when baseball was expanding from 26 to 30 teams, Buffalo was one of the finalists. But, alas, it lost out to such warm-weather cities as Miami, Phoenix and Tampa. The one northern city given a franchise was Denver. And while the Colorado Rockies do have their share of snow-outs, a Buffalo team might spend most of April sliding around in the slush and snow.

There is a professional baseball team in Buffalo, albeit a minor-league one. The Buffalo Bisons serve as the New York Mets’ Triple-A affiliate. The team plays its games in open-air Coca-Cola Field, which seats more than 18,000. Up until a few weeks ago, Ike Davis was hitting the ball all over that field. But when you’re too proficient a hitter in the minors, you soon find yourself suiting up for the show.

And so now Ike Davis finds himself starting at first base for the Mets, plying his trade 25 miles from the site of Super Bowl XLVIII. Davis is doing well so far, hitting .282 in his first month as a big-leaguer. The 23-year-old seems able to excel regardless of the weather or the city. Davis even connected on the first pitch he saw from the great Mariano Rivera on Friday night. Davis smashed the Yankee pitcher’s famous cutter into right field for a run-scoring double.

To hit Rivera so hard, on your first try, is a sign that this Davis kid has some big-game talent. And maybe even nerves of steel. Or ice. Ice. Baby. Bring him to the Jersey Super Bowl. He can handle the chill.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reaching for the Stars (One Sixty-Two: Day 33)

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 Thirty-Three: Hunter Pence, Houston Astros

Every year around the start of the baseball season, Katie and I sit down and look at the logos of each major-league team. She loves art much more than she loves baseball, so our passions meet as we sit down and analyze the different designs on each of the 30 teams’ ball caps and uniforms.

Katie has always appreciated the classic, interwoven “NY” on both the Yankees’ and Mets’ hats, as well as the Olde English “B” of the Boston Red Sox. She’s got a soft spot in her heart for the connected “KC” on the Kansas City Royals cap, as she sees the logo and recognizes the first letters of her first name and her sister’s. (I think she also likes the fact that the K for Katie is on top of the C for Chelsea. You know those big sisters.)

Some caps and uniforms move beyond mere letters, featuring designs that are more likely to attract an 8-year-old’s attention. Katie loves the detailed drawings of birds on the Orioles, Cardinals and Blue Jays uniforms, as well as the nautical design on the Seattle Mariners’ cap.

This year, though, Katie’s favorite logo was none of the above, and it was an easy choice for her. She picked the snazzy, space-age star atop the Houston Astros’ caps. It was a choice that will surely impress her uncle, as my brother has been wearing Astros caps since he found one in the Baseball Hall of Fame gift shop in Cooperstown, N.Y., at age 6.

We have Super-8 video of Eric running around the backyard wearing his bright orange Astros cap. Flash-forward some 15 years, and we have video of Eric walking across the stage for his college graduation, his tassel attached not to a graduation cap, but rather to yet another bright orange Astros cap.

The kid was never a big Astros fan; he was always a die-hard Yankees guy. I think it was just the novelty of this team, from thousands of miles away, with a really cool cap and some neat players – J.R. Richard and Jose Cruz from one generation, then Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio from another.

This year’s Astros don’t wear an orange cap – they’ve got a more reserved, black cap these days. But the star is still there, and it is orange and white. The ‘Stros don’t have much of a team these days, either, as they’ve got the worst record in the National League. But with a young, slugging right fielder named Hunter Pence, and some other budding talent, there is hope in Houston for the years ahead.

As for now, though, most of baseball’s stars are shining for other teams. The Astros turn to their logo, and hope it’s a sign of things to come. Katie, I’m afraid, won’t notice either way. She’s more interested in copying the design. Artists are busy these days.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Tasty Like Swedish Fish (One Sixty-Two: Day 32)

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 Thirty-Two: Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles

Katie was daring tonight: She ordered the Swedish Fish-flavored ice at Rita’s Ices. The Rita’s store in the town where I work had offered to donate a portion of tonight’s proceeds to my school’s community service club. So we knew we’d be eating ice tonight, and talking with folks from around town about our great club. What we didn’t know was that we’d be trying some candy-flavored Italian ice.

And, wouldn’t you know it, the red ice tasted just like the deeply sugary, strawberry-flavored candy that bends like rubber and looks like a fish. After sampling Katie’s, I couldn’t help myself – I decided that just for tonight, I too would experience the ice-cold taste of Swedish Fish. By the time I had finished, I felt satisfied but ready for some peach or mango ice next time. It reminded me of the time my brother and I saw corn ice cream in a dessert shop in Manhattan. Indeed, it was yellow and tasted like corn. And really, what sugary item does not have corn in it? But the sample was enough.

Some things are best experienced for one time only. For Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, Saturday’s inside-the-park home run in Washington was surely a real treat. But if Jones were given the choice of taking a slower jog around the bases next time, I’m sure he’d go for it. But as Washington Nationals centerfielder Nyjer Morgan dropped Jones’ fly ball Saturday, then inexplicably threw his glove in disgust, Jones had an opening, and he flew around those bases faster than any Swedish Fish could swim. He slid in safely, and claimed for himself something that is now a rare feat.

In days gone by, when stadiums were cavernous, inside-the-park homers were much more common. But today, with teams playing in little bandboxes, most home-run balls land well beyond the outfield fence. Every once in awhile, though, you get a little reminder of just how exciting this play can be.

But for the hitter/runner, it’s also a bit exhausting. Back in the dugout, Adam Jones surely needed some hydration. I would offer, but I think the Swedish Fish ice is best suited for the postgame meal.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Healthy Dose of Cricket (One Sixty-Two: Day 31)

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 Thirty-One: Scott Rolen, Cincinnati Reds

We were eating ice cream last night in a playground near our home, and in the ballfield next to the playground more than a dozen men were playing cricket. The men had turned the area between home plate and the pitcher’s mound into the traditional cricket “pitch,” and they had wickets posted at either end. They had the traditional cricket bats and ball, and were well into their game by the time we peered through the chain-link fence.

My girls and their cousins were captivated by the game, as they’d never seen it before. Everything about it was foreign to them – the rules, the equipment, the movements, and the Middle-Eastern language being spoken on the field. Some of the players wore T-shirts and shorts, some wore long-sleeve shirts and pants, while others wore official-looking cricket uniforms. They spread out around the field in their positions as bowlers, wicketkeepers, fielders and batters.

I have learned bits and pieces about cricket over the years, but I still don’t have a full grasp of the rules. Last night, what stood out most to me was how well the fielders could catch that leather ball with their bare hands. I’m used to catching (or dropping) well-hit balls with a big, leather glove. But as these men handled fly balls and grounders with nothing but their hands, I was more than a bit impressed.

It reminded me of Cincinnati Reds third baseman Scott Rolen, who is the best at making barehanded plays in baseball these days. To watch Rolen field a slow roller with his right hand, whip the ball sidearm to first, and nab that runner by a half-step is a thing of beauty. But I imagine even Rolen would have a hard time grabbing some of those hits on the cricket field.

One of my former students conducted a class presentation on cricket a few years ago, and she brought her stepfather, who is from Pakistan, into school to help teach us the game. The students were fascinated, as they found themselves learning sport and culture at the same time. In 2010, America could use a lot more of that. As tensions and words unsaid create walls between individuals from different backgrounds, a little sharing of traditions and pastimes might do us a world of good.

Perhaps if we’re at the playground again and I see a cricket game under way, I’ll introduce myself. While I’m at it, I can introduce my girls as well. A connection between cultures might go well with ice cream. And, just maybe, I might learn how to make one of those bare-handed catches.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Other Phillies (One Sixty-Two: Day 30)

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 Thirty: Jamie Moyer, Philadelphia Phillies

Anywhere you go in eastern Philadelphia, southern New Jersey or Delaware, you’ll see men, women and children wearing red Philadelphia Phillies jerseys. When a team claims just five league pennants and one world championship in its first 125 years, then suddenly wins two pennants and one title in a two-year span, that team’s long-suffering fans are bound to flock to the nearest sporting-goods store. Phillie fanatics want to show off their club’s sudden success, and really, who can blame them?

These Phillies are built to last, as the franchise has developed a number of outstanding players from within the organization and acquired several other elite talents from other teams. So if you’re one of those Phillies fans looking for a new jersey, the big question you’re asking yourself is, simply, which player’s name and number do I want to wear?

For hitters, you’ve got No. 6 for the mighty first baseman, Ryan Howard; No. 26 for the multi-talented second baseman, Chase Utley; No. 11 for the clutch-hitting shortstop, Jimmy Rollins; and Nos. 8, 28 and 29 for the three outfielders, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez. Over on the pitching mound, you might buy a brand-new No. 34 jersey for the recently acquired Roy Halladay, already off to a superb start. Or you might be wearing No. 35 for 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels, or No. 54 for the team’s best pitcher in ’08, closer Brad Lidge.

That’s a lot of jerseys from which to choose, and we’re not even talking about the now-outdated, clearance-marked No. 34 Cliff Lee jerseys printed last summer when the Phillies acquired the ace left-hander from Cleveland. After Lee led Philadelphia to the Series, he was traded to the Seattle Mariners for a slew of prospects during the winter. You can still buy that jersey in some stores, but it might not be as fun to wear.

When you go to those sporting-goods stores, it’s very doubtful that you’ll see any No. 50 jerseys. Soft-tossing starting pitchers with 4.30 earned-run averages don’t usually make their way onto many jerseys. But if you did find a No. 50 somewhere, and you bought it, you’d be wearing the jersey of baseball’s oldest active player, as well as its active leader in wins, innings pitched and strikeouts.

Oh, and you’d also be wearing the jersey of the only native Pennsylvanian on the Phillies’ roster. That would be 47-year-old Jamie Moyer, who was born in Sellersville, Pa., attended high school in Souderton, Pa., and went to college at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Aside from being a local boy and the last active major-leaguer born while John F. Kennedy was still president, Jamie Moyer remains an extremely effective pro pitcher. This year, he’s already earned five wins in eight starts, and he has struck out three times as many batters as he’s walked. Thanks to Moyer’s quality pitching, the injury-riddled Phillies are once again where they’ve been for each of the past three years – in first place.

So please, Phillies fans, go ahead and buy yourself a Howard jersey, or an Utley, or the new Halladay. Enjoy. Just remember, though, that as bright as those superstars shine, the Phillies win nothing without the guys like Jamie Moyer – players who show up, do their job, and humbly walk off the field. They wear those red jerseys with pride.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Mound-Walk (One Sixty-Two: Day 29)

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 Twenty-Nine: Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants

”Daddy, can you grape-dance?” Chelsea asked me.

We were watching Michael Jackson’s This is It, so I think she meant break-dance. As the girls and I viewed the film’s footage, we saw Jackson rehearse for the concerts he did not live to perform. As we watched, it was difficult to believe that a human being could perform some of the moves Jackson pulled off on stage. There were times when the man seemed to be floating, and other times when his arms and legs seemed to be operating on springs. And this was at age 50.

No, Chelsea, I cannot break-dance. Although I used to practice the moonwalk in front of my mirror, with little success. Some people, however, do move with a kinesthetic brilliance that you can only stare at in awe. Jackson was one such person, and hence his reputation as one of the great showmen in the history of entertainment.

Over on the diamond, the best show in baseball takes place every five days wherever the San Francisco Giants are playing. It starts when a 5-foot-11, 170-pound right-hander stands atop 10 inches of dirt and starts throwing 98-mile-per-hour fastballs. Tim Lincecum, the best pitcher in baseball, has been called “The Freak,” which is a baseball way of saying that he does things no one else can do.

As he kicks his left leg, Lincecum’s head tilts toward first base, his left arm flies up in the air and his right arm rears back. His left leg follows with an enormous, 7½-foot stride toward home plate. His right arm then whips around overhead, unleashing rawhide and stitches with uncommon fury.

At 25 years of age, Tim Lincecum has a career record of 45-17, and has won two straight Cy Young Awards. He has given up fewer than three runs per nine innings pitched in his career and has struck out 10 batters per every nine innings. Now 5-0 this year, Lincecum has been even more unhittable and has struck out an even higher percentage of batters than his career average.

Lincecum, like Michael Jackson before him, has a lean and flexible physique that can bend in ways most of our bodies cannot. And, like an early-1980s Jackson, Lincecum appears to be still rising toward his highest levels of brilliance. If the past few years were his Off the Wall, perhaps the next few will be his Thriller. Wherever that electric delivery takes him, Lincecum can be sure that baseball fans will be watching. “The Freak” might lack the regal ring of “The King of Pop,” but the man is a dancer nonetheless. Call his show the mound-walk. Without the white glove.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pitchers & Pension Plans (One Sixty-Two: Day 28)

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 Twenty-Eight: Livan Hernandez, Washington Nationals

We had a pair of financial advisors over the house tonight, to begin talking about how we might manage our money when we actually have some. During the course of our conversation, the advisors asked, as they do all their clients, when Amy and I would like to retire.

We had to laugh at that. Retirement couldn’t seem more distant or impossible than it does at this point. But we understood the reason for the question, as these gentlemen were there to help us start thinking ahead, rather than just in the moment. All we could do was take a guess about a preferred retirement age, based on what we might like in an ideal world. I would imagine that’s all they were asking.

Retirement doesn’t come at an early age for public-school teachers to begin with, and in 21st-century America it might come quite a bit later than it did for previous generations. We’ll have to wait and see. As for baseball players, well, their career arc is quite different than that of teachers. A successful pro career can leave many players set for life by their late 30s, and ready to either retire or begin a second career with no real need for additional income. As for those who do not make many millions, they too will be forced to leave the game at a young age, only to find themselves entering another area of baseball (coaching, front office, scouting) or a different career altogether.

I would have guessed, a couple years back, that Livan Hernandez would be retired by now. Maybe not in 1997, when as a 22-year-old rookie he led the Florida Marlins to their first world championship. And definitely not in 2000, when at 25 he led the San Francisco Giants to the playoffs with 17 wins. Not in 2003, either, when a 28-year-old Hernandez managed to win 15 games for a Montreal Expos team that scored fewer runs than it allowed. Hernandez’s reputation was that of a pitcher who could throw a ton of innings, and who could usually keep his team in the game for as long as he was out there.

But during each of the last two years, Hernandez seemed to lose his steam quite steadily. Pitching for four different teams from 2008-09, Hernandez gave up just under six runs per nine innings, and he lost more games than he won. His weight seemed to be an issue, and he just couldn’t seem to keep runners off base. It seemed as though teams were signing Hernandez based on reputation, hoping he’d recapture some of that past glory instead of coughing up a few runs in the first.

There are a lot of players in their mid-to-upper-30s who’ve been forced into retirement recently because of a terrible economy and a movement toward youth in baseball. But because he shows up to pitch every five days and never seems to get tired, Livan Hernandez found a job again this spring. And as a starter for the Washington Nationals, Hernandez has quietly strung together as good a month and a half as almost any pitcher in baseball so far this year. With a 1.62 earned-run average, he is keeping his team in every game he pitches. He’s not striking guys out anymore, but he’s also not giving up a lot of hits. And, to top it off, the typically awful Nationals are winning some games, including four of the ones Hernandez has started.

So at age 35, with tens of millions in earnings, Livan Hernandez is not yet a retiree. No need for him to dip into that pension plan yet. Just get him on the mound, and don’t worry about pitch counts. The man’s in the bonus, and he’s pitching like a kid again. Living in the moment.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Trusty Rabbit's Foot (One Sixty-Two: Day 27)

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 Twenty-Seven: Eric Hinske, Atlanta Braves

For some, it’s a beaded bracelet. For others, it’s a necklace. Still others choose a keychain. And, yes, some still carry a trusty rabbit’s foot.

Good-luck charms. We can say we’re not superstitious, but in the end we know we are. We allow little rituals and possessions to remain in our lives as comforts of sorts – a reminder that despite the twists and turns of life, there are some things that remain the same. And if we hold onto them tightly enough, we might just make it through to the other side.

Baseball has more superstitions than you can possibly list. From jumping over foul lines to spitting on batting gloves to taking a certain number of practice swings at the plate, ballplayers will do anything to lure a little luck their way. Right now, though, the most prominent good-luck charm in baseball is not a thing, but a person. His name is Eric Hinske, and he plays infield and outfield for the Atlanta Braves.

After winning the Rookie of the Year award with the Blue Jays in 2002, Hinske played a few more seasons with Toronto before he was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 2006. The following season, he served as a valuable bench player on a world-champion Red Sox team. In 2008, Hinske found himself on the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that had never made the playoffs in its history. But by October, Hinske was again in the World Series, where the American League-champion Rays fell to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Last year, after starting out with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Hinske was traded in mid-season to the Yankees. Once again playing a vital role off the bench, Hinske helped New York claim another world title. Now 32 years of age, the man has been on a roll. And he’s got rings to show for it.

In 2010, the Atlanta Braves are playing mediocre baseball. They certainly have some talent, and could make a move toward the playoff picture. But if they don’t, the Braves will surely trade Hinske in July. They’ll send him off to a contender in need of pop off the bench, and they’ll receive a minor-league prospect in return.

If that happens, then whichever team trades for Hinske will immediately feel lucky. The coaches and front-office staff will know that they have acquired the official Major League Baseball rabbit’s foot. Hinske’s teammates will treat him like a king, and will keep him as happy and healthy as possible. You don’t mess with good-luck charms; you just hold on tight, and send them up to pinch-hit.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Inching Toward Daylight (One Sixty-Two: Day 26)

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 Twenty-Six: Kyle Blanks, San Diego Padres

There are times when life just feels like it’s clicking. Work is going well. The family’s healthy and happy. We’ve managed to get to the gym lately. Heck, even the weather is great.

And then there are the times when it’s all off-kilter. The job is stressful, the kids are sick, there’s no time to even think of a workout, and, to top it off, there’s been no sun for days. You know the story: When it rains, it pours.

We duck our heads down and try to inch forward, ever so slightly, toward daylight. We trust that we’ll get there, and that those moments of grace will return.

Kyle Blanks is a 23-year-old baseball player, and he is a major piece to the present and future of the San Diego Padres. The left fielder has hit home runs throughout his minor-league career, and last year he smacked 10 homers for the Padres in a brief, late-season call-up. So as 2010 began, Blanks was handed a starting job for the big club.

And right now, a quarter of the way through the season, Blanks couldn’t hit a beach ball if you tossed one at him. His batting average stands at .157, and 46 of the 86 outs he’s made so far have come via the strikeout. If Blanks keeps this up, he will likely find himself back in the minors soon to work on his hitting.

I would imagine that every at-bat feels like it’s moving in fast-forward for Blanks right now, just as life feels rushed and dizzying to the rest of us when events snowball out of our control. We try and breathe deep, keep our wits about us, and watch that ball closely as it comes our way.

Kyle Blanks still has the bat in his hands, and there’s another game tomorrow. It’s sunny quite often in San Diego; that sun will find the young left fielder soon enough. It will all start clicking, and the hits will fall. Eventually.

Monday, May 17, 2010

When AC/DC Loses its Cool (One Sixty-Two: Day 25)

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 Twenty-Five: Trevor Hoffman, Milwaukee Brewers

I’m officially a generation older than my students now, even without the gray hair. But at 39 years of age, and with young kids at home, I feel as though I’m able to connect with teen-agers and show my own understanding of their world pretty well. I don’t know all their favorite songs, but I know enough. I don’t try to use the cool slang words of the moment, but I try and speak to teens like someone who’s aware of their world.

Sometimes, though, I wonder when that connection will stop. When will I start to appear out of touch in the eyes of my students? When will I start to seem like a guy who’s era has long since passed? Will that ever happen? Can I avoid it and find some fountain of youth within my classroom, or is my day of reckoning inching ever so close?

You can’t stop and think about these things too often, because you’ll find yourself trying too hard. But it crosses the mind briefly, and you let it sit for a minute before moving on with the lesson plans. I was thinking about this the other day as I looked at this year’s statistics for Trevor Hoffman.

At age 42, Hoffman is a certain Hall of Famer. He has saved 596 games, more than any baseball player in history. He’s been an All-Star many times, he’s played for nearly 20 years, and he’s made tens of millions of dollars thanks to his ability to get three quick outs in the ninth inning of close games. When he retires, Hoffman’s number 51 will be retired in San Diego, where his entrance into Padres games for 16 years brought a mix of heavy metal and heavy cheers.

But so far this year, Hoffman has been brutal. He’s pitched 13 innings for the Brewers and yielded 16 runs. He’s allowed an average of almost two runners on base per inning. Already this year, he’s given up three times as many home runs as he did all of last season.

So is this it? Is this where Hoffman becomes the old fogey who feels the sting of spitballs on the back of his neck? Is this where he starts beginning his sentences with the words “In my day”? Is this where the AC/DC song to which he’s entered games for years becomes Perry Como-esque to the ears of the modern fan?

Or is it just nothing more than a bad start? It is, of course, only mid-May. The baseball season, like a school year, is a marathon. And there’s always time to find your inner cool once more.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tell Us a Story, Vin (One Sixty-Two: Day 24)

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 Twenty-Four: Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers (via Vin Scully, Dodgers broadcasting booth)

The technological revolution of this 21st century has changed more aspects of our life than we can count. As we review and prioritize the list of ways our life has changed over the past 20 years, “access to baseball announcers from other teams” is probably No. 200,000 on that list. Nothing world-changing about it, for sure. But for some of us, it’s kinda neat.

As a child, my baseball-announcing ken was limited to the Yankees and Mets crews, as well as the men who brought me ABC’s Monday Night Baseball and NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week. Toss in Mel Allen’s voice for This Week in Baseball, and that was it.

So I didn’t hear the late Ernie Harwell calling games in Detroit, nor did I catch Harry Caray singing to the masses from Wrigley Field in Chicago. Nor did I get to hear Jack Buck and his Cardinals broadcasts, nor Bob Prince and his Pittsburgh Pirates games.

In 2010, however, the baseball fan can become much more familiar with other teams’ announcers. You can buy a package that gives you access to all of Major League Baseball’s games via the Internet or the TV. You also can listen to other teams via satellite radio. Finally, you can tune into the MLB Network, and watch as the station drops in on the live action of games for a few minutes at a time – local announcers and all.

What this means, for a baseball fan who doesn’t live in the greater Los Angeles area, is that you now have access to Vin Scully. And that is probably No. 1 on the list of most important changes that technology has brought to the world of baseball storytelling.

This year marks the 61st year that Vin Scully, now 82, has been broadcasting Dodgers games. He started in 1950, alongside the legendary Red Barber. He has told fans about the exploits of generations of Dodgers: from Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider, to Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, to Steve Garvey and Ron Cey, to Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela, to Mike Piazza and Eric Gagne, all the way to Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp.

Of course, the quantity of years is one thing; the quality of work is quite another. What makes Vin Scully the greatest baseball announcer of all time – bar none – is his ability to tell the stories behind the game. Scully knows that baseball has a certain pace to it, one best suited for conversations. That’s what fans do when they’re at a game – they talk with each other. So Scully gathers loads of anecdotes, and he fills up his three hours with storytelling.

Matt Kemp, therefore, becomes much more than a name in a box score. The Dodgers centerfielder and budding superstar is a human being to Vin Scully, not a fantasy-baseball stud. Scully tells us the back stories that we haven’t heard about Kemp, and his mellifluous voice makes those stories sound like the most important things we’ve heard all day. As a man who grew up in the years before TV, Scully knows how to paint a picture for us, rather than leaning heavily on instant replay and high-tech graphics. Scully knows that all of us love to hear a good story, no matter what our age.

So we close our eyes, listen to that golden voice, and see so much more of Matt Kemp than any camera can give us. For 61 years, Vin Scully has been giving us this pleasure. He is a national treasure, without a doubt. And the only proper way to thank him is, of course, to keep listening.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Big Red Hybrid (One Sixty-Two: Day 23)

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 Twenty-Three: Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

I’ve been enjoying Joe Posnanski’s The Machine, a deliciously detailed book about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds. Posnanski, who writes for Sports Illustrated, has crafted a vibrant chronicle of one of the great seasons any team has had in baseball history. The Big Red Machine, as the Cincinnati club was called at this time, was a thoroughly dominant club, yet had to win one of the closest World Series of all time in order to claim the championship it craved.

As I read The Machine, I’m inspired to learn of the belief that so many Reds players had in one another, as well as the tremendous confidence that manager Sparky Anderson had in his club. As the team struggled in mid-May, Anderson unloaded on his players before a game in Montreal: “I’m sick and damn tired of hearing that the Big Red Machine is dead,” Posnanski quotes Anderson as saying. “That’s what they’re saying out there. That we’re dead. Well, let me tell you something, we ain’t dead. We’re gonna win this thing. We’re gonna win because this is the best damn team in baseball.”

Star players such as Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez responded to Anderson’s leadership in a big way, leading the Reds to 108 wins on the year, including 90 wins in their last 125 games, followed by that classic seven-game World Series win against the Red Sox. The Reds would follow their amazing ’75 season with another championship in 1976.

From 1970-76, the Cincinnati Reds won four pennants, claimed two titles, and made the playoffs five times. Yet in the 34 years since then, the Reds have made the playoffs just three times. Cincinnati has not been a part of the postseason at all in the past 15 years, and has not finished with a winning record since 2000. They don’t use terms like Big Red Machine when speaking of this ballclub anymore.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings were baseball’s first professional team in 1869, and the city of Cincinnati has played an essential role in the history of the game. Part of baseball’s greatness lies in its tradition and history, and it is time that the tradition of winning returns to the city of Cincinnati.

Joey Votto is where it all begins. The 26-year-old first baseman is one current Red who would have done just fine on the Big Red Machine. Votto hits over .300, drives in runs, hits homers over the wall and smacks doubles off the wall. He takes his walks, steals the occasional base, and fields his position. As with so many stars of the post-steroid era, Votto is more of a hybrid than a diesel engine – he quietly, steadily, and efficiently gets the job done.

The Reds are not yet a team full of Joey Vottos. But one can only hope that sooner rather than later, the franchise will find a way to surround Votto with a roster capable of winning it all. It can be done. As Votto himself proves, these modern times don’t require a machine. Just a lot of clean, energy efficiency. Like doubles off the wall.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Long Run (One Sixty-Two: Day 22)

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 Twenty-Two: Dallas Braden, Oakland Athletics

I always thought The Long Run was a pretty good album. It had some neat songs, from “I Can’t Tell You Why” to the title track to my favorite, “Heartache Tonight.” However, I’ve read in an interview with the Eagles that they had viewed the album as a disappointment after its release in 1979.

Their reason: The LP just wasn’t as strong as the band’s previous album, Hotel California. The Eagles felt as though they’d lost something, simply because The Long Run was deemed a very good album rather than a classic.

It’s hard to follow up on greatness. Tonight, Dallas Braden faces the same dilemma. The last time he pitched, Braden threw the 19th perfect game in Major League history. After his 109th and final pitch against the Tampa Bay Rays, Braden had thrown the best baseball game he will ever throw in his life.

So what does he do next? What if he goes six strong innings tonight, en route to a 5-2 win? Is that a failure in comparison? How do you measure everything else up against the moment when all your skills came together to produce the finest work you’ve ever delivered at the office?

As Braden takes the hill against the Los Angeles Angels, he’ll have a game plan in mind. But he also knows that there are simply too many variables to this game to allow for much perfection. A walk, an error, a stolen base, a bloop hit. Suddenly, you’re two runs behind. It doesn’t take much to soil that feeling of perfection you might have coming into the game.

Braden got his Hotel California last weekend, and that’s more than most pitchers ever find in one career. His teammates, I’m sure, are not expecting the same again. They just want a strong lefty pitcher who can help them compete for 162 games. It is, after all, a long run to October.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

On Pitching & Pollen (One Sixty-Two: Day 21)

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 Twenty-One: Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays

Last spring, I mowed the lawn three times with the gas-powered Honda mower I’d been using for years. All three times, I awoke the next day with an allergy explosion in my head. This spring, Katie embraced the beautiful weather that mid-April brought, only to end up in the house for several days of nebulizer treatments. Chelsea goes out to play in the yard with the dog each day, then comes in and sneezes through a tissue box. For Amy, the process is simple: Breathe in pollen, sneeze, feel mucus settle into sinuses, then drive to doctor for antibiotic.

Spring is, for many of us, the most beautiful sensory season. And yet, it’s also the most difficult season for many in terms of health. As the pollen swirls around us, we wonder how something so lovely can be so frustrating at the same time. Should we go outside or not? Such is the quandary of spring for the allergy sufferer.

We long for some consistency, some stability, to this season. In the world of baseball, there are teams across the country looking for stability as well. From allergies, sure. But more than that, from pitchers. Nearly every team can tell you about a guy who has all the tools to throw incredibly well, yet can’t seem to put it together. He’s like the spring weather – he looks so good, but toss in a little pollen and he’s making you sick. For this kind of pitcher, the pollen takes the form of bases on balls, or poorly placed pitches, or mental struggles that leave him battling himself on the mound, rather than his opponent.

Brandon Morrow is 25 years old, 6-foot-3, and blessed with a thunderbolt for a right arm. He can strike out anyone, at any time. He was drafted with the fifth overall pick in the 2006 amateur draft, and he has experienced high expectations every day for the past four years. And while he’s wowed them with the strikeouts, Morrow has amazed baseball watchers with his wildness.

In 232 innings pitched so far in the majors, Morrow has struck out 250 batters. That’s tremendous. But he’s also walked 154 hitters, culminating in Monday’s debacle in which he walked six Red Sox hitters before leaving the game in the second inning of a game his team would lose. Of course, Morrow also struck out four Boston hitters, and he only gave up three hits. But the hits will hurt you badly if you give free passes to six other guys.

When Morrow throws a heater past the man at bat, it’s a thing of beauty to see. But far too often, the beauty ends up turning into a beast as those deliveries sail far and wide. Something has to change; perhaps a look back at the basics of his windup.

I’ve gone back to basics as well. After spending a week in the house with an allergy-induced sinus infection last June, I gave up on mowers with engines. I dropped the Honda off with friends who’d just moved to Jersey from the city, and purchased an old-school, blade-rotating reel mower. It doesn’t work that great, and the grass lacks that clean, crisp cut that it used to have. But this mower cuts the grass gently, so I don’t get allergy symptoms from mowing the lawn anymore. I’ve also gone back to allergy shots, to build up my immunity.

I’m trying to adjust so that I can enjoy the spring. It’s too wonderful to give up. In the same way, I hope that Brandon Morrow can find a way to work through the rough spots and blossom, once and for all.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sleeping in Seattle (One Sixty-Two: Day 20)

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 Twenty: Ken Griffey Jr., Seattle Mariners

I woke up in the middle of the night last week, my heart pounding. I had just dreamed that while my school’s principal was observing my class, I’d fallen asleep and left my co-teacher to take care of things. I had looked up from my desk after a half-hour, mumbled something about my students completing their journals, then conked out again. In the dream, my boss had watched intently as I snoozed the whole period.

Sleep. So often, those of us in our 30s and 40s are unable to get as much shut-eye as we know we need. Work, parenting, household duties, overall stress – they team up to sandwich themselves between us and the rest we crave. Just two nights ago, I set the timer on the bedroom TV, as I always do before going to sleep. But my wife got to bed far too late after a long night’s work, and the TV was off already. So she turned it back on, watched some news, and set no timer. A little while later, I began dreaming of partisan politics. When I awoke at 3 a.m., MSNBC greeted me with a tense debate about the news on Capitol Hill.

All of this brings us to Ken Griffey Jr., the 41-year-old Seattle Mariner whose Hall of Fame accomplishments have been overshadowed in recent days over a question of sleep. A Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune report quoted two unnamed teammates as saying the great lefty slugger had slept through a potential pinch-hitting opportunity the other day in Seattle. Was Griffey really asleep in the clubhouse when his manager called his name? Or is this all just a tall tale?

I don’t know, and I don’t think we need to send the Law & Order crew to Seattle to investigate this. As the aforementioned dream attests, none of us wants to be caught napping on the job. I will say this, though: For the past two decades, Ken Griffey Jr. has given thousands of youngsters lots of reasons to dream through their sleepy nights beneath the covers. For many budding ballplayers, nothing was more soothing than a vision of Junior’s long, loopy swing sending a ball on a long journey into the night sky. And what was cooler than the sight of Griffey soaring above the centerfield fence to grab a ball before it landed over the wall?

For all the sleep he has helped procure throughout his extraordinary career, I say Ken Griffey Jr. gets a pass on the “Sleeping in Seattle” controversy. I see that he pinch-hit today and drove in a run. That makes for 1,835 RBI, along with 630 home runs over 21 seasons. The guy will have to sleep through a lot worse to ruin his reputation. Even if his boss is watching.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Iron Man of Minnesota (One Sixty-Two: Day 19)

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 Nineteen: Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins

I’m not a big movie-sequel guy, and Amy’s not really into comic books. So I doubt we’ll go to see “Iron Man 2” when we head out for our date night on Friday. We’ll probably choose either a romantic comedy (her choice) or a critically-acclaimed, independent film (mine) – just as we’ve been doing for years. We’ll flip a coin.

From what I’m reading, “Iron Man 2” is doing just fine at the box office without us. It’s a bona fide blockbuster, with more than $320 million in worldwide sales so far. And the film has only been out for a few days. It’s no wonder Disney recently bought Marvel comics. Comic-book heroes rake in the cash.

Baseball games don’t have the same kind of action as summer blockbusters, but they do feature some iron men on the field every night. These iron men don’t look quite as cool and high-tech as Robert Downey Jr. does in his red and gold costume, but they do all right. Some leg guards, a chest protector, a face mask, a helmet, and a mitt. These, of course, are the catchers, and they take a pounding every day. Fastballs in the dirt, foul tips off the thigh, backswings to the side of the head, and runners diving at them, shoulder first, as the catchers stand between these runners and home plate. Catchers work in a crouching position for nine innings, they peer out through a metal mask, and they try to catch 98-mile-per-hour fastballs in their mitts. They call the pitches and help the pitcher keep his cool, all while quarterbacking the defense for their teams.

They are superheroes all right, these catchers. Any player will tell you that his team’s defense begins and ends with that man behind the plate. Nowadays, most catchers are either really good at defense or excellent at hitting; only a select few excel at both. In 2010, the Twins have developed a homegrown catcher who is truly the complete package. At just 27 years of age, Joe Mauer has won three batting titles, a Most Valuable Player award and two Gold Glove awards. He is the most complete catcher baseball has seen in years, ever since the Cincinnati Reds introduced Johnny Bench to the world more than 40 years ago.

This past winter, Minnesota decided to make sure Mauer does not depart for a higher-revenue team anytime soon. With a $184 million, eight-year extension to his contract, Joe Mauer became baseball’s blockbuster catcher. The Twins have centered their future around this St. Paul native, and they’re willing to pay him handsomely to lead the way. Mauer’s contract may pale in comparison to “Iron Man 2” revenues, but it’ll do just fine for him.

Mauer was recently injured for a few days, but he’s back behind the plate again for Minnesota. The St. Paul superhero has his gear on, and he’s ready for all comers. And hey – after a few more seasons like this, they might have to make a movie about the guy. Downey Jr. is ready for the script.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Cracking 'The Lineup' (One Sixty-Two: Day 18)

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 Eighteen: Jason Bay, New York Mets

There’s a neat show on the MSG Network titled “The Lineup,” in which a panel of experts debate the best players at each position in the history of New York baseball. Although Babe Ruth was the clear-cut choice for right field on last week’s show, he had plenty of esteemed company: Reggie Jackson, Darryl Strawberry, Willie Keeler and Roger Maris, to name a few. Tomorrow’s show takes on center field, and the debate here is an extraordinary one: Who do you pick from among Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider? Whew.

But in left field, the candidates are not quite as impressive as at the other two outfield spots. Sure, you’ve got Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson, but they played most of their careers outside of New York. The top two choices are probably the Giants’ Monte Irvin, who would have had much more impressive career numbers had baseball not maintained a color barrier prior to 1947, and Zack Wheat, the Hall of Fame Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder.

As I said, though, no one really stands out. That’s what makes the Mets’ signing of slugging outfielder Jason Bay this past winter that much more interesting. Bay is 31 years old, and in six full seasons he has averaged more than 30 home runs and 100 runs batted in per season. If Bay averaged the same over another 10 years, he’d be both a Hall of Famer and the greatest New York left fielder of all time. Toss in a Mets’ championship and he might even have a retired number.

But such lofty goals can only be achieved one game at a time. So far, Jason Bay is starting off slowly, with just a home run and 14 runs driven in this year. The Canadian native is not exactly lighting up Citi Field quite yet. But the season is a marathon, and there is time to turn things around. When he does begin lifting balls out of the park, Bay might even brush up on his New York baseball history. He’ll find that there is plenty of room for new legends in left field.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mom & Matsui (One Sixty-Two: Day 17)

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 Seventeen: Hideki Matsui, Los Angeles Angels

Every year, my mother picks a new favorite Yankee. It’s not an indecisive thing, nor is it a Susan Sarandon-in-Bull Durham kind of selection; it’s merely her way of christening the new season. She sprinkles good luck on one Yankee, goes ahead and roots for them all, but gives an extra little cheer for her “guy.”

If the Yankees knew of her track record, they would pay my mom money not to select a favorite player. Just about every year, the player she has chosen has ended up hurt – often for long periods of time.

Dawn chooses Jorge Posada, and he goes down. She selects David Justice, and he’s soon disabled as well. Robin Ventura: same. Shane Spencer – yup, even him. This year, she picked Andy Pettitte. After his tremendous April start, Pettitte suddenly developed elbow trouble and is now missing his start tomorrow.

But perhaps no Dawn Hynes selection was as crippling as the one she made four years ago, when she chose Hideki Matsui, then the Yankees’ left fielder. Matsui entered 2006 having played in every game for each of his first three seasons in the big leagues. But that wasn’t the half of it: Matsui had actually played in more than 1,700 straight games when counting his career with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan. The guy hadn’t missed a game in nearly 13 years. This was surely a can’t-miss pick. That is, until Matsui dove for a line drive at Yankee Stadium in May and fractured his left wrist as it struck the outfield ground.

It was a gruesome sight, and it left Matsui out of action for most of the year. Of course, he would come back and finish that season, while also playing three more with New York. Last year’s World Series MVP performance made my mom and plenty of other Yankees fans proud. As Matsui plays this year for the Angels, he is missed in New York.

For years, many athletes have talked about the Sports Illustrated jinx. When you’re on the cover of SI, legend has it, you’re doomed. Injuries, slumps, mishaps – they come your way when the world’s most famous sports magazine shines its spotlight on you. In my family, Dawn’s “Yankee Guy” is in that same category of unintended black magic.

Of course, the irony is that my mother couldn’t possibly carry better intentions than she does. Her compassion for other human beings extends far and wide, and includes everyone from her family to her neighbors to her friends to those she doesn’t know well, or at all. The secretaries of her doctors, the family of the man who’s renovating her house, the owners of countless stores and restaurants in the town where she and my dad live – all of them receive heavy doses of Dawn’s sunshine when they see her. As for my brother and me, we know for a fact that our mother is thinking about us numerous times in the course of each day.

My mother does a lousy job of jinxing Yankee players. But aside from that, she is an extraordinary model of compassion, selflessness and love. I could not ask for more from a mother; I can only hope she knows just how much I love her back. Happy Mother’s Day, Dawn. Go Yanks.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Welcome to Boston (One Sixty-Two: Day 16)

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 Sixteen: Victor Martinez, Boston Red Sox

There were days, Victor, when a 15-16 start was met with shrugs. Never acceptance, but a shrug nonetheless. Maybe a bitter “here we go again” tossed in as well. I know you’re still new to Boston, Victor, having come over from Cleveland at the trading deadline last July. But you missed the eras when 15-16 was met with patience.

There were those 86 years, of course, in between world championships. As generations of Red Sox fans grew up rooting for the team that Babe Ruth had left behind, the Sox had some pretty ugly records at times. For instance, the Sox had a string of 15 straight losing seasons from 1919-1933. They finished 42 games out of first place in 1954, and 40 games back in 1965. And yet, despite those dark years the Red Sox always managed to rise up again and field terrific teams. With players such as Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice and Wade Boggs, Boston won 85 games or more a total of 30 times between 1938 and 2003 – only to claim not a single championship. In fact, the Sox made the World Series just four times in that span, losing in the deciding seventh game every time. Meanwhile, the Yankees claimed 26 world titles between 1923 and 2000, a record for professional American team sports.

And then, as you know, Victor, things did change. Your current teammate, the big lefty named David Ortiz, turned into the true Babe Ruth of Beantown, leading the Red Sox to their historic wins against the Yankees and Cardinals to claim the 2004 title. Then in 2007, Ortiz and Co. won it all again. Boston has won at least 92 games seven of the last eight seasons, and has become the standard by which 21st-century baseball teams are measured. Fenway Park, always a cinch to draw more than two million fans a year, now pulls in more than three million. Baseball executives study the moves of your general manager, Theo Epstein, as a model of how to build a winning team that also keeps an eye toward the future.

That’s how the Sox got you, Victor. You were smashing balls all over the place in Cleveland, but Epstein wanted your bat enough to give up young players for you. But not his best young players. He held the line, and got you anyhow. Now you’re starting in front of the team’s captain, because the Sox want to win at all costs. So does all of New England, as they tune in each night to listen to your team’s games from the Connecticut coastline all the way up to the tip of Maine.

You’ve finally started hitting the ball in recent days, Victor, just as you’ve done throughout your career. So it’s time you really thought about this – there’s an entire region of the nation about ready to lose their Cracker Jacks if you and your boys don’t start winning games. Embarrassing losses at home to the Yankees are the final straw.

You’re a catcher, Victor, and you’re a great player to boot. So you know what it’s like to carry a team. It’s getting to be mid-May, and the Boston Red Sox are not a 15-16 team. Fenway Park heroes get their numbers retired on the fa├žade beneath the upper deck in right field. Your number 41 would look real nice up there. New England awaits, Victor. Your turn to bat.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Remember Paris (One Sixty-Two: Day 15)

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 Fifteen: Kerry Wood, Cleveland Indians

I’m not sure why I remember the article; maybe it just represented the world in which I felt comfort, just as I was heading out of my comfort zone. I sat next to my wife, Amy, on an airplane en route to Paris. Before taking out the French-English dictionary so that je peux me souvenir le francais, I flipped through my copy of The New York Times. There in the paper was a photo of a 20-year-old Chicago Cubs pitcher, who had shocked the baseball world the day before with a record-tying 20 strikeouts in one game.

His name was Kerry Wood, and he was fast becoming the next great thing among baseball’s pitchers. The next Roger Clemens, they said. In 166 innings during that 1998 rookie season, Wood would strike out 233 batters and help lead his team to the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. By June, half the fans at Wrigley Field were showing up with blue No. 34 jerseys featuring Wood’s last name at the top.

A few hours after our plane departed, Amy and I would find ourselves immersed in French culture and attractions, walking alongside the River Seine and picnicking beneath the Eiffel Tower. Only occasionally that week would we be carried back into American culture, such as when we saw subway vendors selling Leonardo DiCaprio posters, or when we spotted a shocking headline in Le Monde reading: “Sinatra est Mort.”

The Paris vacation took place 12 years ago this week, and while we haven’t returned to France yet, Amy and I still have some photos from that trip on the walls of our house. A lot has happened in those dozen years – we’ve moved twice, switched careers, earned master’s degrees, had two children, lost three grandparents, and witnessed history-changing events.

As for Kerry Wood, he’s now 32 years old, and plenty has happened to his career since ’98. He returned today from his 13th trip to the disabled list, finally ready to throw his first pitch of the season. It’s been a difficult career for Wood, as his brilliant pitching has constantly been beset by injuries. After a 13-win season in his rookie year, Wood has won just 67 games ever since.

But he is still standing. And he’s only 32 years old. As Wood suits up for the Cleveland Indians now as their closer, he seeks to save games rather than win them. He wants three strikeouts in the ninth, rather than 20 over the course of a game. He hopes that his arm, and the rest of his body, will hold up this time.

Amy and I have to watch our neighbors’ cat this coming week. The young couple is headed to Paris for a week. They’ve got their camera, as well as their dictionary. And who knows? Maybe on their flight over the pond, they’ll flip through a newspaper and find a story about the comeback closer in Cleveland. C’est possible, non?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Friends (One Sixty-Two: Day 14)

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 Fourteen: Robinson Cano, New York Yankees

Everyone’s been talking about Robinson Cano lately – the Yankees second baseman is finally blossoming into the hitting star so many scouts predicted he’d become. So far this season, there has been no better hitter in baseball. Today, though, Cano is on my mind for a different reason.

It was September of 2006, and Cano had one of his best games yet as a Yankee. He hit a homer and drove in five runs as New York defeated Tampa Bay. I don’t remember a lot of details from that game, except that I was sitting in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium, and that I went to the game with Ron.

It was nothing new to be attending a Yankee game with Ron – this was our second time going that year, and probably our 20th or so together at the stadium since our parents first permitted us to drive from Staten Island to the Bronx. Add in the ballgames we’d seen in Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Montreal, Reading, Trenton, New Haven, and Frederick, Md., and you’ve got a lot of hours spent watching baseball side by side.

Because Ron and I both loved baseball, the games provided us with a place to relax, talk, and share a mutual passion. We’d discuss the teams and the games a bit, but mostly we’d talk about life – our jobs, homes, relationships, friends. Some people have these conversations over dinner; Ron and I had them from the upper deck. It felt right, for so many reasons. Weren’t we, after all, the nerdy seventh-graders who got Yankees players’ names and numbers screen-printed onto the backs of T-shirts years before teams even began selling those uniform tees? And weren’t we the ones collecting day-after newspapers from every New York publication after each Yankee title? Didn’t we also use baseball players’ names to help us remember the titles of paintings for our AP Art History tests?

It’s been more than three years since I last saw Ron. It’s hard to say why friends lose touch – often, it’s not anybody’s fault. Our lives take different turns, circumstances change, and suddenly we’ve fallen out of contact. It’s never fun, but it is human nature.

Today is Ron’s birthday, and so I’m thinking of him. I’ll send him an e-mail, wishing him the very best, and hoping we can meet up again soon. You can always go to another ballgame, and catch another Robinson Cano home run. But you don’t always get to do it with your friends. When you lose touch with that friend, you realize how much you took for granted. You want to sit in the upper deck and talk with him.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Reel Angel

Bill Reel met with me in his backyard. We sat in the summer sun as he read through my clips. Bill shared the advice and experiences of a newspaperman with three decades in his back pocket, yet he never uttered a condescending word. Bill willingly offered to serve as a reference for me as I applied for newspaper jobs, and he eagerly encouraged me to pursue journalism as a career. He even included me in one of his Newsday columns, and with four words he gave a 22-year-old kid immense encouragement. While speaking of me in his column, Bill wrote: “The kid can write.”

As we sat in his yard, Bill expounded on the profession I was entering. “It’s not an art, what we do,” he said. “It’s a craft.”

For 40 years, Bill Reel perfected that craft. He wrote from the soul, telling stories of real people. He wrote about the folks in New York City who are quietly making their town a better place, and also of the individuals who are humbly making their way back from personal struggles. In writing these columns for the Daily News and for Newsday, Bill Reel in turn made his city a better, more human place in which to live. When he died Monday at age 71, Bill left behind a legacy of candor, civility and compassion.

I grew up with Bill’s daughter, Ursula. We attended the same elementary and middle schools, and in time we both made our way into the world of journalism as well. For a while, both Ursula and Bill’s son, John, were colleagues of mine at the Staten Island Advance. It was eminent that Bill had done as good a job in parenting as he had in writing, as Ursula and John are incredible individuals.

I’ve lost touch with both of them, to my regret, and I hadn’t spoken with Bill in several years. We’d all moved on to different places and to different work. But the impact that this man had on me has never dissipated. Even as I wrote for the Advance, Bill continued to offer advice, and even help with stories. When we spoke, it never felt as though I was talking with a legendary New York columnist; instead, it felt more like I was chatting with an angel of some sort, who had reached down to help me find my way in an often-chaotic profession.

We cross so many paths in our lives, and there are countless opportunities in these hectic days to lose our patience and fend off those who ask for our time. I’m a teacher and a writer now – those are my certified professions. But back when I was at the beginning of my road, Bill Reel was teaching and writing in a way I can only aspire to emulate. He was an angel, all right. Certified in every way.

It's All Relative (One Sixty-Two: Day 13)

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 Thirteen: Edwin Jackson, Arizona Diamondbacks

It was a gorgeous day in the mid-Atlantic today, the kind that would have found my friend Bill Reel walking through his beloved Clove Lakes Park on Staten Island. (For a tribute to Bill, see the entry above.) Days like this remind us why so many couples schedule May weddings, and why colleges hold their graduations outdoors. With blue above us and green all around us, we send our kids scampering across baseball diamonds and playgrounds, and we take a deep, satisfying breath.

For a baseball player who has endured the twists and turns of April weather, a 75-degree May afternoon can put an extra hop in the step. Finally, the cold is gone, and the player can look forward to more days like this. But what, I wonder, about the baseball player who suits up for games in Phoenix, Arizona?

What kind of hop will Edwin Jackson have in his step when he steps on the mound tomorrow at Chase Field, with a high of 95 degrees forecast for Phoenix? How do you handle the spring when your May equals the depth of summer for most other areas in the country? Does Edwin dream of azaleas when he’s passing those cacti on the way to work? Does he long for a day when he can pitch at home with a nice, three-quarter-length shirt beneath his uniform top?

Or does he do what so many of us must – adjust, deal with it, and enjoy what you’ve got? After all, when I was grappling with the snow and rain this winter, Edwin’s place of work was, well, kind of like my May. All relative.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sing it, Sister (One Sixty-Two: Day 12)

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 Twelve: Octavio Dotel, Pittsburgh Pirates

It was a beautiful Monday night in May, and the family decided to meet up for dinner. My parents drove up from the Jersey Shore, my brother hopped over the bridge from Brooklyn, and Amy, the girls and I hustled over from central Jersey. Our meeting place was one of New York City’s premier pizzerias: Joe & Pat’s of Staten Island.

We devoured the house salad, with its sprinkling of red peppers and its heavy dose of Italian dressing. We congratulated my brother, Eric, on finishing his master’s degree, and showered Katie with praises for her second-grade report card. After the salad, our waitress brought us two large-cheese pies, with their thin crusts, delightfully sweet sauce, and tender cheese. This is the same pizza we would eat with my grandfather when we’d take him out for lunch in his later years. On this night, the pies were gone before we could finish catching up on one another’s lives.

The night was young enough that we could all drive a couple miles north to Ralph’s Ices, where we’d treat ourselves to some delicious fruit ices at one of the oldest Italian ice shops in New York City. I hopped in Eric’s car for the short trip from Joe & Pat’s to Ralph’s. As we talked, I kept waiting for the conversation to turn to baseball – fantasy leagues, Yankees, anything. But on this night, we had so much more to converse about – summer plans, our own writing, the new job a friend has taken in a Brooklyn school, and the upcoming christening of another friend’s daughter.

It felt rich and rewarding, for all of us to spend this time together and for my brother and I to shift our conversation away from baseball for a night. Of course, as the girls neared the ends of their ices, Eric and I finally broke down. We started talking about Pirates reliever Octavio Dotel, and whether we can rely on him for our joint fantasy baseball team. We gave it about a minute of talk and thought, then moved on to something else. Chelsea wanted Eric to see her new tattoo, and Katie wanted to drive back to our house with her grandparents.

It was time to go. The night had been sweet. And while Octavio Dotel might not know it, his current team once had a theme song some 30 years ago: Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” The song had a much different context inside the 1979 Pirates locker room than it did for an evening of pizza in 2010. But its overall message – sure, it was just the same.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Wish for the Fish (One Sixty-Two: Day 11)

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 Eleven: Hanley Ramirez, Florida Marlins

Hanley Ramirez doesn’t fish for a living; he plays baseball, and he does so quite well. But every day, Ramirez walks onto the field with the likeness of a marlin stitched onto his cap and left shoulder. His team’s nickname celebrates the rich marine life of southern Florida. As one of his sport’s elite players, Ramirez carries that nickname and logo with him to All-Star games as well. More than 110 miles south of Ramirez’s home stadium in Miami, artists from Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Buffett to Tennessee Williams have reveled in the culture, beauty and fishing of Key West, where sport fishermen here and throughout the Florida Keys head out each day to try and catch and release a marlin.

There are times when a crisis strikes our world, country or region with such force that everything else appears secondary in comparison. The massive oil spill now spreading throughout the Gulf of Mexico is quickly becoming one such crisis. As oil continues to gush through the ocean floor southeast of New Orleans and spread eastward, the future of critical American wetlands hangs in the balance. How far will the oil travel, and how much destruction will it cause? From Louisiana to Mississippi to Alabama to Florida, there is tremendous trepidation. And yes, they are bracing for the worst in the Keys, too.

Most of us aren’t capable of taking any direct action to help this situation. Of course, we can continue to educate ourselves as much as possible on energy use, and encourage our elected officials to push for the kind of energy policy we believe is best for the country. In the meantime, we can look at Hanley Ramirez’s cap and hope that the gorgeous animal his team celebrates – the one that fought Santiago so valiantly in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and glides through our waters so freely – can survive this man-made catastrophe and live to swim in a home that is clear, fresh and safe.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Stack of Resumes (One Sixty-Two: Day 10)

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 Ten: Jermaine Dye, Free Agent

I attended a job fair at the local community college yesterday, as I’m always looking for summer and evening work to help supplement our family income. But as I walked into the college on this warm May afternoon, I saw hundreds of adults – many of them older than me – standing in line, sharply dressed in suits, ties and skirts.

As I waited in line to sign in for an interview, I struck up a conversation with the applicant in front of me. Her supervisory position at a school had been eliminated, and she was anxious to find herself some work. As I moved on to a line for English teachers, I learned that the college had not expected so many applicants, and was therefore having trouble coordinating all the lines and interviews. As I sat down with an English professor, I saw a stack of resumes in front of her, already an inch thick.

This is America, 2010. With our economy still struggling mightily, the job of an adjunct instructor at a community college is highly competitive. I’m sure that most of the people at yesterday’s fair will not be called back, simply because there aren’t enough jobs to go around. Many of them will attend other job fairs at other schools in the near future. They will keep trying.

In his baseball career, Jermaine Dye has earned many millions of dollars, and I would hope he has invested his money wisely. But just one year after he hit 27 home runs for the Chicago White Sox, the 36-year-old Dye remains unemployed this spring. It’s true, his batting average dipped 41 points last year. But still, the man has averaged 31 homers over the past six years, and he has hit 325 home runs over the course of his career. But that drop in batting average, coupled with some struggles on defense, have left Dye untouched.

A few years ago, plenty of teams would have been willing to spend money on a veteran like Dye. With cash to burn, the risk would have been minimal. But not now. You don’t take risks when your cash flow is down. You look for ways to economize.

In time, someone may call and ask Dye to suit up for a team this year. He might have to take on the role of part-time player. His salary won’t be nearly what it was. But this is 2010. The job fairs are packed, and the resumes are piling up. You take what you can get.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Just a Little Patience (One Sixty-Two: Day Nine)

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 Nine: Aramis Ramirez, Chicago Cubs

I turned the corner from our bedroom into the hallway, and it was there that I witnessed the punch. It was a straight, right-handed jab to the nose. Or, rather, to the snout.

The 5-year-old glanced over her right shoulder as she inexplicably slugged her puppy. The dog was not at all fazed, but I was certainly distraught at what I had seen. I sent the girl to the couch, where she buried her head in a pillow, awaiting punishment. As she sat there silently, I tried to determine what exactly you do for punishment when your preschooler dismisses all those Cesar Millan dog-training tips and instead goes Julio Cesar Chavez on the poor pooch.

Q: What in the world caused you to do that?
A: I don’t know.
{Sigh.}

Patience. Among the qualities required of a parent, few are as critical as this. You teach, model and reward positive behavior, then watch as they slowly but surely figure out how they’re supposed to behave in this world. You plant the seeds and wait, faithfully, for the growth.

In the first weeks of baseball’s new season, certain established players inevitably get off to painfully slow starts. It takes patience from managers, teammates and fans in order to wait out these awful, early-season slumps. When the player has proven over several years that he can do the job, you’ve got few other options than to wait – patiently – for the turnaround.

On the North Side of Chicago, long-suffering Cubs fans have had to wait more than any other spectators in American sport. Their team last claimed a world championship 102 years ago, while Teddy Roosevelt was president. The patience required of Cubs fans has spanned five generations. On top of the overall team futility, there is a player on the current roster who demands a wait all his own.

Aramis Ramirez, the Cubs’ third baseman, has hit 267 home runs in his career and driven in nearly a thousand. His lifetime batting average is .283, and he’s played in two All-Star games. But over the course of his 13-year career, Ramirez has hit worse in April than in any other month. This year, he took those opening-month blues to a new level, hitting all of .152 in the season’s first month and striking out once every four trips to the plate.

There is no reason to believe that this will continue; there is simply no precedent for Ramirez hitting poorly all year. He will get better. Just not yet. Cubs fans must wait, and hope, and trust.

My 5-year-old has a favorite book. It’s the classic picture book The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss. The plot is simple: Boy plants a carrot seed. Boy’s family members tell him the carrot won’t grow. Boy waters the spot every day. Boy watches, one day, as a giant carrot the size of Aramis Ramirez grows in said spot – just as he knew it would.

My daughter knows every word to the book, and she smiles every time we read it. She loves the story. Her middle name, after all, is “Faith.”

So the seeds are planted. This much we know.