Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Valley of Ashes (One Sixty-Two: Day 69)

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 Sixty-Nine: Cliff Lee, Seattle Mariners

As the No. 4 train pulled up to 161st Street last night, I wondered what state of disassembly the old Yankee Stadium was in, 21 months after it last hosted a baseball game. I wasn’t aware that the ballpark was gone entirely, that the cranes and pulleys had torn the stadium apart already. So as the elevated train crawled to its stop, I had trouble believing my eyes.

I looked west and saw a vast, empty lot the size of three city blocks. The lot was coated with a ghost-gray dirt cover and surrounded by a makeshift blue fence. Instead of looking like the House That Ruth Built, this looked more like the Valley of Ashes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. As I walked down the stairs from the train tracks, I stopped and took another look. This dirt pile over here was right field; that one was left field. Only my imagination could help me see the old stadium that had framed my childhood. Out toward 157th Street, beyond the lot, I could see the old, 138-foot-tall replica of a Louisville Slugger baseball bat. This was where I would meet my brother or friends when we were arriving separately for a game. It was the only remnant left.

Of course, as I descended the stairs, I walked across 161st Street and into Jay Gatsby’s house itself. This monstrous hulk of a stadium now houses all the Yankee home games. It was a beautiful early-summer’s evening, and the pinstriped club was hosting the Seattle Mariners. The fans had filled this mansion up, as they do every night. They were walking around the open concourse, shopping in the souvenir shops (they even have a women’s-specialty store, with lots of Yankee pink), and eating at the Hard Rock Café. I was fortunate enough to sit for a few hours with my brother, Eric, and our dear friend, Neil. They had an extra ticket and had invited me. As we sat in our upper-deck seats, we took it all in – the 101-foot-long video screen, the groundskeepers dancing to the Village People’s “YMCA,” and the cascading levels of seats, running all the way down to the “premium” seats at field level, where one seat costs more than the per-capita income of about 50 countries. In those box seats, Gatsby comes over and serves you dinner.

Out in centerfield, I could barely see the monuments and retired Yankees’ numbers beneath the giant, black-tinted Mohegan Sun Sports Bar. Over in right field, I could see the No. 4 train pass through the small opening between the bleachers and upper deck. But the train now passes that spot after it departs, northbound, from the 161st Street stop. So if you’re riding that train from Manhattan, you don’t get that breathtaking, momentary view of the green field while pulling up to the platform. It’s a view that defined the magic of this place. But times have changed.

Seattle’s ace pitcher, Cliff Lee, shut down New York with a complete-game victory last night. The home team rallied in the ninth, then folded. After saying goodbye to Eric and Neil, I crossed the street on my way back to the train station. As I walked up 161st, that blue wall was beside me again. When the makeshift wooden planks offered a slight opening, I caught a glimpse of the Valley once more. Gray, and barren. On the wall, the words “Post No Bills” were printed in white stencil. A man with a saxophone played a slow blues tune in front of the old park. A funeral hymn, perhaps.

I reached the station, and climbed aboard the No. 4. It had been another grand party at Gatsby’s house, with lots of new money all around. I had enjoyed the company and the entertainment.

The atmosphere, though, had left me empty. It always does in this place.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

It Works If You Work It (One Sixty-Two: Day 68)

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 Sixty-Eight: Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers

My father asked me, about a month ago, what was up with Josh Hamilton. The Texas Rangers outfielder was batting during a nationally televised game, and his numbers for the year were rather pedestrian.

“Isn’t he supposed to be this great player?” my dad asked.

Yes, I said, he is. But Hamilton had struggled with injuries over the past year, so I didn’t know if he was still hurt. Of course, my dad knew all about Hamilton’s recovery from substance abuse, and the reckless manner in which he nearly threw away his enormous talent in exchange for drugs and alcohol. My dad also knew about Hamilton’s courageous recovery from those life-threatening addictions. He knew about Hamilton’s big-league debut at age 26 with the Cincinnati Reds, followed a year later by his 32-homer, 130-RBI explosion in 2008 with the Texas Rangers. I also knew about Hamilton’s relapse early in 2009, and the immediate help he sought after falling off the wagon.

So as Hamilton stood at bat early in his fourth season, my dad wanted to know if Hamilton’s one great year was an aberration. Was the former No. 1 draft pick really as good as those numbers revealed? My dad asked this in late May, at a time when Hamilton had fewer than 10 home runs on the year, about 25 runs batted in, and a batting average well below .300. All fine, but nothing special.

And then the calendar turned. June has been a little different for Josh Hamilton. We’ve still got two days left, but already Hamilton has locked up the honors for American League player of the month. His numbers are staggering: nine home runs, 30 RBI, 47 hits, a .470 batting average and a 21-game hitting streak.

And you talk about a most valuable player – in games in which the Rangers win, Hamilton is hitting .404 with 15 home runs. In games in which they lose, he’s hitting .248 with three homers. So far, it’s been more wins than losses for the Rangers, who lead their division by 4½ games. When the All-Star Game is played in a couple of weeks, Hamilton will be there, for a third straight season.

It’s always exciting to see a gifted athlete perform at his highest level. Right now in Arlington, Texas, the Rangers are watching a 29-year-old man play baseball better than anyone who has ever worn the Rangers uniform. This man has been scarred by the demons of his past. Those demons beat him up badly, and left him empty and alone. And then, even after he’d written a book about his inspiring recovery, those demons got him again. But once more, he got back up.

Scarred, yes. Humbled, indeed. But not slain. Josh Hamilton is still standing. Standing and slugging.

So Dad, I think we know the answer to your question now. “Great” may be too mild a term. And “reborn” is probably too strong a term, despite the temptation to overdramatize Hamilton’s comebacks.

In the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, the men and women who attend AA meetings often close with these words: “Keep coming back; it works if you work it.” In terms of English grammar, this makes no sense. But in terms of recovery and wellness, it makes all the sense in the world.

Keep coming back, Josh. Keep working it. It’s working.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Going for Three (One Sixty-Two: Day 67)

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 Sixty-Seven: Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners

I think I’ve finally broken through. At long last, I have come to appreciate soccer. And baseball has shown me the way.

I’ve tried, every four years, to lose myself to soccer. I’ve watched those graceful, gritty Brazilians, Argentinians, Germans, Dutch and Italians, as they’ve glided up and down the pitch in search of the goal that will bring their country untold glory and honor. I’ve watched these men’s World Cup matches, and, to be honest, I’ve struggled. Struggled to find enjoyment in 90 minutes without a single score. Struggled to understand just what these soccer fans out there are seeing. Wondered if they were seeing something that I just couldn’t see.

As I’ve watched pieces of this year’s 2010 World Cup, I haven’t had an epiphany, where I now see every facet of beauty in the game. High-definition is good, but not that good. Yet, I have figured some things out, and I’ve done it by viewing soccer through the prism of my own passion of cowhide and red stitches.

The one thing I’ve always known about soccer is that there are very few moments in sport as thrilling as the scoring of a goal. The electricity of the goal is on par with the boxing knockdown, the horseracing photo finish, the basketball fast break, the hockey breakaway, and the football “Hail Mary” pass. In baseball, the most exciting play I’ve ever seen is the triple. And it is here that I see my way into soccer.

When you’re at a ballgame, there is nothing like it – a line drive is hit in the gap, it splits two outfielders, and the ball rolls all the way to the wall. As the runner nears second base, he makes a quick, aggressive decision and kicks his legs into another gear. The fans pop to their feet and shout, “He’s going for three!” The outfielder grabs the ball and throws to his cutoff man, who then fires a line drive to third. The runner dives head-first, the umpire keeps his eyes glued to the white base, and a cloud of dust kicks up on the left side of the diamond. We look to the man in black, who makes the call.

So imagine, if you will, a baseball game in which teams can only score a run if they hit a triple. Think about that for a second – no home runs, no stolen bases, no ground-rule doubles, no singles. Just triples, or else you’re out. And teams would still be required to play their nine men in the traditional defensive positions, or else they’d be called offside. It would be a much, much lower-scoring affair, but teams would have to strategize on how to hit the ball in ways that make a three-bagger more possible. They’d also set their defense in order to defend better against the triple.

So there would be no home-run heroes, with bulging triceps and slow trots around the bases. There’d be no stolen-base thieves, who turn singles into doubles. Instead, the sport’s heroes would be men who could manipulate the bat to shoot the baseball into those gaps, or along the foul lines. These heroes also would have speed on the basepaths and in the field, and perhaps even a strong arm to throw out those runners on their way to third.

In a game like this, a man like Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners would be a dominant player in his sport. With his 70 career triples, his ability to maneuver the bat like a magician (2,132 hits in 9½ years), and his rocket arm (nine Gold Glove awards in nine years), Ichiro has all the tools needed to produce and stop triples. He would join the likes of Carl Crawford of Tampa Bay, Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins of Philadelphia, and Jose Reyes of the Mets as baseball’s most important players.

It would be a lower-scoring sport, all right, but what a roar you’d hear when those triples appeared. Instead of the “Goal!” calls we hear now, it would be a “Three!” Some fans would complain that the sport is too slow. But others would call it pure, gorgeous, and brilliant. Ichiro, who is arguably the world’s most famous baseball player already, would be even more popular across the globe.

So that’s my in – I’ve selected the most beautiful part of the sport I love, and connected it to soccer. I’m still not sure what a yellow card means, nor do I get the whole offside thing. But it takes a lot of strategy, skill and speed to score those gorgeous goals. I can see that, at least. I’m getting there. My appreciation of soccer hasn’t completed its circuit yet, but I’m standing on third base. And I like the view.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Turtle Out of Water (One Sixty-Two: Day 66)

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 Sixty-Six: Andre Ethier, Los Angeles Dodgers

We inched our canoe up to theirs, the two boys calling to us with wild-eyed wonder. Their father seemed pretty excited, too. They were pointing to the back of their canoe, imploring us to take a look. When we’d pulled up next to them, we looked inside and there it was – a beautiful brown turtle, no bigger than a shoe box.

I was out with my wife and girls for a Father’s Day treat at the Cranford Canoe Club, a legendary canoe -rental facility in central Jersey. The club dates back to the days in the early 20th century when canoe clubs were all the rage around here. Cranford, with numerous backyards abutting the Rahway River, was once referred to as the “Venice of New Jersey.”

It was a delightful two hours on the placid Rahway, paddling our way along while dragonflies followed us, fish swam around us, birds chirped at us and a deer glanced over her shoulder while eating on the river bank. But before we get too comfortable, let’s get back to that turtle for a second. When they called us over to their canoe, the boys and their father said they were planning to bring the turtle home as a pet. We nodded our heads and paddled on, knowing that the folks at the canoe club would not be letting these guys walk out of their boat with any pet turtles.

The turtle belonged in the water. Seeing him in some tank in a suburban bedroom would be all wrong. Seeing him trying desperately to climb out of the canoe was bad enough. Sometimes, you need to stay in your native environment.

Watching Joe Torre wearing a Dodgers uniform this weekend felt a little like watching that turtle inside the canoe. Torre looks like a New Yorker, he speaks like a New Yorker, and he did more to bring the Yankees back to prominence than anyone else in the past 15 years. His departure from New York after the 2007 season has been well-documented, and there’s no need to re-hash it here. Joe Girardi has led the Yankees to a world championship as manager, and New York has not fallen apart since Torre left.

Still, some people just don’t look right when they’re away from home. When the Yankees visited the Dodgers this weekend for an interleague series, Torre wore the interlocking “LA” on his cap while the visiting team sported that interlocking “NY.” His team did just fine, going after the Yankees with playoff intensity. Torre has led his club to the postseason each of the past two years, and L.A. is in the thick of another pennant race in 2010. But there are other men on this team who look much more the Southern California type than Torre does.

Take right fielder Andre Ethier, for example. Born in Phoenix, Ethier has that West Coast look – the curly locks dangling from behind his blue cap, the long sideburns, the on-again, off-again beard. Of course, it’s just a look – there’s nothing relaxed about Ethier’s effort on the field, as he’s quickly become the Dodgers’ premier clutch hitter.

But when you watch Ethier suit up for a game on another gorgeous night in Chavez Ravine, he looks like a player who’d be very comfortable hanging out on Venice Beach during an off-day. As for Torre, he looks like a man who’s dying for a decent slice of pizza and a copy of the New York Daily News.

Joe Torre has proven, to anyone who didn’t believe it, that his managerial magic extends beyond the South Bronx. He is holding together a franchise with serious ownership issues and gearing Los Angeles for another run at a division title. I hope he succeeds, and then I hope he gets out of Dodger blue this autumn.

Venice Beach is no more suited to Torre than that canoe was to the turtle we saw last week. Get that turtle back into the Venice of New Jersey; bring Torre back to the City That Never Sleeps. There’s a No. 6 to retire, and a lot of fans who never got to say goodbye.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tempers & Reputations (One Sixty-Two: Day 65)

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 Sixty-Five: Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs

We learned, at a very young age, just how important it is to hold our tempers. Big Bird taught us; Barney taught us; Mr. Rogers taught us. We listened, and we tried to heed that advice.

Sometimes we follow through in keeping our cool, and sometimes we don’t. When we do lose our tempers, we hope that the steam we’ve blown off doesn’t impact anyone else: our spouses, children, parents, friends, colleagues. It’s quite rare that we lose our cool and feel good about it afterward.

It’s hard to imagine that Carlos Zambrano felt good about the explosion he unleashed in the Chicago Cubs’ dugout yesterday after giving up four runs in the first inning. He embarrassed himself, his teammates and an organization that has made him a very rich man. He looked like an individual with absolutely no self-control. His team suspended him indefinitely for this outburst.

At age 29, Zambrano has had more public temper tantrums than most professional athletes. He has not heeded Big Bird’s advice. And so the Big Z, as Zambrano is called, finds himself on the outside looking in as baseball is played today. It’s not a fun place to be, and I doubt Zambrano likes it. The question now is whether he’ll get another chance to redeem himself with those whom Mr. Rogers would call his “neighbors.”

As we graduated from preschool TV to literary characters, we learned a thing or two about the importance of reputation. “I have lost my reputation!” Cassio shouted in Othello. John Proctor, in The Crucible, bellowed similar words: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!” These characters lamented the loss of their honor in society, and felt the deep loneliness that comes with this.

Carlos Zambrano is real, not fictional, and his outbursts have surely soured his own reputation. The question now is whether or not he can save it. He’s got his work cut out for him.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Shouldering the Load (One Sixty-Two: Day 64)

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 Sixty-Four: Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers

With just one week to go before he can sign as an NBA free agent, LeBron James is most definitely weighing his options. When you find yourself carrying your team, it’s hard to feel great about your championship options. You start to wonder what it would be like to play with another franchise.

For the past seven years, James has been the dominant player on the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he has lacked the caliber of supporting players enjoyed by Kobe Bryant of the champion Los Angeles Lakers. Of course, whatever James has had in Cleveland is far better than what he’d have with the New York Knicks next year. But, after five straight playoff disappointments, James just might feel as though he needs a change.

For more than five years now, the Milwaukee Brewers have danced on the periphery of baseball playoff contention. Milwaukee has always had the hitters; it’s the pitching that has slowed them down each year. In 2008, the Brewers made the daring move of trading for starting pitcher CC Sabathia during the summer playoff race. The addition of this front-line starter was a difference-maker, and Milwaukee made its first playoff appearance in 26 years.

In 2010, the great Brewers hitters are still in that lineup – Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, and others. However, the pitching is absolutely pitiful – except for one man. And that’s just not enough.

Yovani Gallardo, a 24-year-old flame-thrower, has started 16 games, won seven of them, and compiled a 2.36 earned-run average to go with 115 strikeouts. These are superb, All-Star numbers. But to show you how far removed Gallardo’s performance is from the rest of his team’s, check this out: Every other Brewers starter has yielded at least twice as many runs per nine innings as Gallardo. No Brewers starter has even half as many strikeouts as this man. The Brewers have two complete games and two shutouts from their starting rotation – both coming from Gallardo.

This is simply not enough. Starting pitchers get the ball once every five days. The way Gallardo is throwing, he’s as good a bet as any to win with that lineup. But there are four other games in between his starts. As a team, the Brewers are giving up five runs per nine innings. No one in the National League scores as many runs as Milwaukee; and yet, even this offense can’t score as many runs as the pitching is giving away for free. This is why the team is 32-40 nearly halfway through the season.

Sadly, it doesn’t look like a championship year for the Brew Crew. As for Gallardo, he’s not yet eligible for free agency. But when that time comes, you have to wonder if he’ll be willing to stay around Wisconsin if there are no other decent pitchers around him. The Brewers have time to re-tool; LeBron would surely advise them to get started.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Change in Command (One Sixty-Two: Day 63)

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 Sixty-Three: Gaby Sanchez, Florida Marlins

The man in charge had changed on Wednesday. But Gaby Sanchez didn’t miss a beat.

When the Florida Marlins decided to fire manager Fredi Gonzalez on Wednesday morning, it left the team’s players with a significant challenge – to continue playing their very best without the man who had led them all year. Obviously, the Marlins’ front office believes the team will be even better under interim manager Edwin Rodriguez and whoever the permanent replacement is. But however it turns out, it’s clear that the Marlins have been thrust into a period of transition. The question, of course, is just how smoothly that transition will go.

Last night, just hours after Gonzalez had been fired, the Marlins faced the Baltimore Orioles. Sanchez, who has been excellent in his first full season as a big-league first baseman, led his team to a 7-5 win with a home run and three hits. For the moment, at least, the transition seemed smooth. Tonight, Sanchez produced three more hits. But the Orioles had 17 hits of their own, which led to a 11-5 Baltimore win. Tonight, the Marlins most definitely missed a beat.

When the man in charge is dismissed, we pay close attention. In a much more important arena on Wednesday, the president of the United States replaced the commanding general in charge of the longest war in American history. President Obama placed Gen. David Petraeus in charge of the war in Afghanistan, removing Gen. Stanley McChrystal after McChrystal and his staff made disparaging remarks about the White House staff in a magazine interview.

There are millions of Americans following this war, and thousands of Americans fighting in this war. Those soldiers who patrol the mountains and streets of Afghanistan want to know that their leadership is strong. According to published stories of a news conference today, the president was as clear as he could be regarding the transition’s impact.

“We will not miss a beat because of the change in command in the Afghan theater,” Obama said.

The troops in Afghanistan want to believe this. The proof, of course, is in actions rather than in words. The same applies to those ballplayers in Florida. They’re looking to their manager and front office to see if the plans are sound. They know there’s a new man in the dugout, and they may not be happy about it. But these things happen in life; it’s the overall direction, mission, and confidence that you study closely. The Marlins’ owner, Jeffrey Loria, says he wants to win, and I’m sure he means it. But his entire team payroll is equal to the left side of the New York Yankees’ infield. Is that really enough? The president says our mission in Afghanistan is sound. But if there is significant infighting about the war within his own administration, can that administration really lead a viable war effort?

It’s hard to avoid missing a beat sometimes, even when you have a steady commander. Gaby Sanchez is trying to do his part; he inched his average above .300 tonight. He’s not even supposed to be the next great Marlins first baseman. But he’s executing wonderfully. Someone has reached him, and tapped into Sanchez’s resolve.

That took leadership, and so far it’s producing results. It’s the job of the true leaders in this world to bring out our best, and to make us better than we ever thought we could be. When we feel that personal growth, and we see ourselves working together as a team, we know the men in charge are doing something right.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pomp and Pop: The Art of Beach Ball Defense (One Sixty-Two: Day 62)

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 Sixty-Two: Orlando Hudson, Minnesota Twins

I was the beach ball guy. Someone had to do it. So tonight, amid the pomp and circumstance, I took the dirty job.

Graduations have lots of time-honored traditions – wearing a gown and funny-looking cap in the scorching heat for 90 minutes, posing for photos with some of the closest friends you’ve ever had, hearing your family clap and cheer for you as you walk across the stage, switching your tassel from right to left as you accept your diploma, and tossing that cap high into the air when you’re officially pronounced a graduate.

Oh, and one other – there are those pesky beach balls. They’re hidden inside gowns, blown up quickly somewhere in the middle of a row, then tossed into the air and tapped by the fingers and palms of graduates. These are young adults hanging onto one last piece of childhood immaturity, which feels all the more precious as they brace for the inevitable coming of age that lies ahead. This is fun to watch for most of the people at graduation – unless, of course, you’re one of the teachers assigned to line duty.

As one such teacher this year, my job was to help the students find their spots in line for the procession, and then to keep an eye on them as they sat in their rows during the ceremony. I like to think that I’m still kind of quick on my feet, so I figured if there were any beach balls tossed my way, I’d be happy to help the administrators by catching them and discarding the balls.

So first there was one. And then another. And another. As I saw each ball go airborne, I tracked it, spotted an opening, and scooped it up. As my catch neared a half-dozen, it seemed that students and parents alike were cheering for the balls to be kept away from me. Each time, I found my way to the ball and made the catch.

I had worked with many of these seniors, and was so glad to see them receive their due. I didn’t want to think much about the beach balls. But afterward, when a parent approached me and called me the “Beach Ball Terminator,” I realized that on this night, at least, I had developed a reputation with those who didn’t know me. I was the “no fun” guy who played beach-ball defense.

Oh well; there are far worse things to be known for in this life. And hey, playing stellar defense has its rewards. Ask Orlando Hudson of the Minnesota Twins. Hudson, 32, is known for scooping up nearly every ground ball that comes his way. Over the course of his nine-year career, Hudson has won Gold Glove awards with three different teams. This year, as he plays for the Minnesota Twins for the first time, Hudson is trying to win the award for a fourth team. With just two errors on the year, Hudson may do just that.

In visiting stadiums, Hudson won’t be applauded for his glovework; he’ll be robbing the fans of a hit they wanted to see. But his teammates will appreciate it, and they’ll let him know how much they respect his web gems.

Today, as the graduation ceremony ended, a few teachers walked over to me with pats on the back and handshakes. “Teacher of the year,” one said. “Great job,” said another. They knew it wasn’t easy. Defense never is. But someone’s got to do it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Philadelphia Firefly (One Sixty-Two: Day 61)

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 Sixty-One: Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia Phillies

It always seems like it’s been too long since we last saw the fireflies. When they dance onstage midway through June each year, their neon lights herald the beginning of summer. It’s a glorious display of illumination, nature’s own Times Square – and in our own backyards. When school ends for the Hynes family later this week, we’ll have our annual Firefly Night, in which the girls get to stay up late one evening to watch the little guys light up our block.

Of course, these lightning bugs always leave us too soon, in the same way that summer does. By the time July nears its end, there are just a few stray fireflies left, each of them flickering like a lost hiker with a broken-down flashlight. At times like this, we’re reminded of just how fleeting life’s beauty often is.

For two out of the past three years, Jimmy Rollins has been baseball’s version of the firefly. The Phillies shortstop has had some untimely injuries, and they’ve kept him away from the game for portions of the 2008 and 2010 seasons – thus making his own dynamic appearances more fleeting than Phillies fans would have liked. In 2008, however, Rollins returned from his injuries in time to help lead his team to a championship. And this year, having played in just 12 games due to calf injuries, Rollins finally returned to the Phillies lineup tonight.

He didn’t get any hits. But with that confident swagger, that power, that speed, and that slick glovework, Rollins is an electric summer force. The Phillies have their firefly back in the lineup again, just as the summer light shows have begun outside our own houses. To the National League, beware. To the fans in Philadelphia, enjoy the show.

Monday, June 21, 2010

When Intimacy Hurts (One Sixty-Two: Day 60)

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 Sixty: Daryle Ward, Free Agent (via Newark Bears)

Katie has had it with minor-league baseball games.

Two years ago, while setting up our blanket in the lawn-seat section at a Somerset Patriots game, my wife took a foul ball to the hip. (See my earlier column on this at A little later that year, Katie saw a middle-aged woman take a foul ball to the face, also at a Patriots game. There was some blood, and Katie started to consider this independent-league ballpark in Bridgewater, N.J., to be a health risk for herself and all the other fans around her.

Last year, we didn’t see anyone get hit by a ball in the two Patriots games we attended, and Katie’s comfort level improved to the point where she and I ran the bases when invited to do so after one game. But things changed again this past Saturday night at our first game of the year. Yes, it happened once again. Former major-league first baseman Daryle Ward stood at the plate for the opposing team, the Newark Bears. Ward, who hits left-handed, swung late on an outside pitch. He poked a foul ball off the end of his bat, and it shot off the wood about three to four feet off the ground. The ball flew to the right of the backstop netting protection, landing flush in the face of a young boy in the front row. The boy quickly doubled over in pain.

We were getting up to leave the park when this happened, but Katie wouldn’t step out of the stadium until she’d had the chance to walk past the first-aid area. Once there, she saw the boy, tears streaming down his face, as ice was applied to his left cheek. It was a bruise at best, a break at worst. The boy would be OK, and he had a souvenir ball for sure. But I don’t think he’ll be sitting in any front-row seats anytime soon.

So Katie has posed the suggestion that we no longer attend minor-league games. She’s fine with upper-deck seats at Yankee Stadium, but she’s had it with intimacy.

I’m sure Daryle Ward would take that trade as well, opting for the big stage instead of the bandboxes he plays in now. Ward is one of many former big-leaguers playing in the Atlantic League, an independent minor league based here in the Northeast. On the Newark team itself, the ex-major leaguers range from Ward and Carl Everett to Scott Spiezio and Edgardo Alfonzo to Armando Benitez and Willie Banks. These are men who are no longer desired by major-league teams, but who are just not ready to accept that as a reality. They’re not willing to give up playing baseball for a living. They’re still hoping that a summer of brilliant play will get them one last chance in The Show. Ward, who last played for the Chicago Cubs in 2008, had turned into a respectable pinch-hitter in the big leagues. But will anyone really come looking for him again? With each at-bat he takes with Newark, there is at least a hope that they will.

Until that happens, though, Ward’s world is the minor-league scene – the dizzy-bat races and the T-shirt tosses and the furry mascots. It’s a world of player autographs before the game, affordable tickets every night, postgame fireworks displays and, yes, even lawn seats.

There is the occasional misdirected foul ball, and it’s not fun when it hits and hurts. But Katie, we can bring your glove next time. You can wear it, and we’ll be ready – especially if Daryle Ward comes up again. But you don’t have to run away from the intimacy of a place like this. You’ll find, soon enough, that you don’t get this kind of feeling everywhere. It may not be The Show, but it’ll work just fine as community theater.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fathers and Footes (One Sixty-Two: Day 59)

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 Fifty-Nine: Omar Vizquel, Chicago White Sox

They popped up from behind the couch, with a “Happy Father’s Day” and a gift bag in hand. The girls gave me their homemade cards, a really cool fitness watch, and a ball that’s made for catches on the beach (“Bounces on water!” the box reads). As I thanked the girls and their mom for each of these gifts, I noticed one more small package in the gift bag.

The silver wrapping looked about the size of a baseball card – and, wouldn’t you know it, it was a pack of baseball cards. It’s been about 20 years since I’ve held a brand-new pack of cards in my hand, and I know the pack would probably be more valuable if I never opened it. But after 20 years, I still remembered that anticipation of what might be inside. I tore open the wrapper.

It wasn’t a bad pack, either, with Manny Ramirez, Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon cards inside, as well as a rookie card for Giants prospect Madison Bumgarner. The most enjoyable card in the pack for me was White Sox shortstop Omar Vizquel, as the back of his card required Topps to cram 21 years worth of statistics onto one tiny surface. The point size for Vizquel’s statistics was in the low single digits, and I remembered fondly some of the similar cards I’d had as a youngster – players such as Tim McCarver and Jim Kaat, who had played in the big leagues for more than 20 years and whose numbers seemed to require a magnifying glass to read them.

The package stated that there would be 12 cards inside – unless you were lucky enough to be a winner. This year, Topps is running a contest it calls the “Million Card Giveaway,” in which the company is sending lucky winners an original baseball card from years gone by. “We’re giving you back the cards your mom threw out!” the slogan reads.

If you’ve won a card, then your pack features a replica of an old card (not the real one), along with another card featuring a special code on it. When you register on-line, you type in this code and find out which old card Topps is willing to send you.

The relic card I received was a 1955 Duke Snider, which is not a card that my mother threw out – but, most assuredly, a card that my father’s mother threw out. I looked at the young Snider following through on his swing and thought of my dad, who was enjoying a day at the beach today. The Duke was my dad’s childhood sports hero, and 1955 was the year in which Snider and Co. finally claimed that elusive world championship by defeating the rival Yankees. What daydreams my father must have had, holding this card in his 12-year-old hands and thinking of No. 4 hitting another one out of Ebbets Field.

As I said, the Snider card was just a replica. But this second card had a code on it, with an original waiting for me if I just chose to register on-line and type in the code. I knew I was setting myself up for about 500 e-mails from Topps, but with the Snider card staring me in the face I had to do it. What if this card they’ll send me really is a ’55 Snider? That would definitely provide an excuse for the late Father’s Day gift, wouldn’t it?

And so I logged on, registered, and typed in all the letters and numbers. My heart skipped a beat as I clicked submit, and … and … it was a 1980 Barry Foote.

Indeed, I was awarded the card of a weak-hitting catcher who spent most of his career as a backup. Foote looks ever the sportsman on the card, all right, with his thick mustache and his wavy brown hair spilling out from beneath a blue Cubs helmet. Back in 1970, when Foote was a first-round draft pick, he inspired a lot of excitement in the baseball world. And he certainly played the game far better than I ever did. But today, as I “unlocked” his old card from Topps, I was definitely underwhelmed. Especially considering that I have the card in my house, along with the rest of the 1980 collection that I completed the old-fashioned way, one pack at a time. So when Topps offered to send me the card for $3 in shipping, I balked.

Had it been a Duke Snider card, that’s another story. Oh, well – maybe next time, Dad. I hope you enjoyed the rest of your Father’s Day, and you know I love you. Sorry I couldn’t get you that card your mother threw out, but there are far worse things in this world.

And hey – the Topps site does say we can trade the cards we’ve gotten through this giveaway. So if any of you out there have a Barry Foote fetish, let’s do business. I’m awaiting your request.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Cone of Shame (One Sixty-Two: Day Fifty-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 Fifty-Eight: Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies

It looks like our dog got into a tussle with a lampshade, and came out on the losing end.

Some call it an Elizabethan collar, others call it a space collar, and still others label it the “cone of shame.” For Daisy, this upside-down, plastic lampshade is meant to keep her from chewing open the stitches that are part and parcel of the spaying she underwent this week.

Daisy is a 6-month-old golden retriever who’s normally teeming with energy. With the collar, though, she seems a bit depressed. She keeps bumping into doorways, and has trouble sleeping in her favorite spot beneath our bed. We have to fill up the water bowl higher than normal so she can actually reach the water and drink. And, to be honest, it’s also kind of hard for her to lick her butt these days. The dog wants her life back.

But for now, she must adjust. There are times in our lives when recovery is the name of the game, whether we like it or not. Troy Tulowitzki is the best player on the Colorado Rockies, a team viewed by many in April as a sure-fire playoff team. Thursday night, Tulowitzki was batting against Minnesota Twins reliever Alex Burnett in the later innings of a Rockies win. The pitch came inside, struck Tulowitzki’s left wrist, and changed his season completely.

Doctors found a fracture in the shortstop’s wrist yesterday. It won’t require surgery, but Tulowitzki is not going to be playing any baseball until August. Whether he likes it or not, he’s wearing a cast instead of a baseball glove. The ground balls that Tulowitzki typically scoops up so smoothly will be fielded by someone else. When the All-Star Game rolls around in a few weeks, Tulowitzki will be watching the game on TV, rather than suiting up for the game with his peers.

It’s not fun, this recovery thing. It’s easy to wallow in self-pity and stare blankly at the TV. But this too shall pass, as they say. And Troy, you can take comfort in the fact that however uncomfortable that cast feels, it is no lampshade. You really don’t want that; take it from Daisy.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Dangerous Rhymes (One Sixty-Two: Day 57)

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 Fifty-Seven: Adam Dunn, Washington Nationals

It’s always a bit dangerous when you start rhyming with a 5-year-old around.

It started as an innocent attempt at finding words that rhyme with “team.” As we watched an episode of Wonder Pets! and heard the superhero-animal characters singing about teamwork, the girls and I got our rhyming juices flowing. Katie, who is 8, jumped right into the action. Stream. Beam. Cream. Seam.

As the girls went up to bed, Katie whipped out the rhyming dictionary. From her top bunk she called out, “Give me words that have ‘its’ in it.” And that’s where the problems began.

I gave her pits and fits. Chelsea, who’s 5, was listening closely. And now she was ready to contribute.

“Tits!” she shouted, lying on her pillow and grinning.

I looked down at her, a bemused smirk on my face. “What does that word mean, Chelsea?” I asked her.

“It’s ‘tits,’ ” she said, “like in Tootsie Rolls.”

“Oh, I see,” I said.

Knowing I’d share this with my wife later, I figured it was time to nod and move along. “Katie,” I said, “there’s hits. And mitts.”

Chelsea again: “And tits!” she declared, giggling into her blanket.

I’m not sure what this little girl was thinking, but we weren’t going to hang around that neck of the rhyming world any longer – because, as you know, it can get worse with that particular rhyme pattern. As Katie read to herself, Chelsea and I rhymed some animal names together. Then it was off to sleep for little Chelsea and her glorious innocence.

The Washington Nationals, Chelsea, have a first baseman named Adam Dunn. When it comes to batting, Dunn is the one who can hit a home run. In the afternoon, Dunn thinks it’s fun to run in the sun. When he hits a ball, he hits it a ton.

Sometimes, though, Dunn’s hitting gives the pitchers fits. He hits and he hits, and his balls elude the mitts. Those pitchers feel like they’re the pits.

And we’re going to stop right there, Sweetie, before you get any ideas. Good night. Sleep tight.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What's Next? (One Sixty-Two: Day 56)

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 Fifty-Six: Nick Swisher, New York Yankees

Throughout the year, ESPN has been running an innovative collection of documentaries titled “30 for 30.” In the series, the network celebrates its 30 years of existence by airing one-hour documentaries about sports events from the past three decades, created by various filmmakers.

Last night, ESPN debuted “June 17, 1994,” directed by Brett Morgen. Without conducting a single retrospective interview and using only video footage from that day, Morgen has created a breathtaking review of one of the most fascinating days in recent sports history.

The New York Rangers are parading down Broadway to celebrate their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. Arnold Palmer is limping along the course at Oakmont in his final U.S. Open. The World Cup is getting underway in Chicago, with President Clinton and Oprah Winfrey welcoming the world. Ken Griffey Jr. has launched a homer off of David Cone to reach 30 home runs in a season faster than any man in baseball history.

In Madison Square Garden, the fast, furious and physical NBA Finals between the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks are set to play Game 5 on this evening. Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon are both in search of their first-ever title, and the teams are about as evenly matched as the 2010 Celtics and Lakers are.

So much sports excitement. And yet, it is all being pushed aside without a moment’s hesitation. The news is out of Los Angeles: One of sports’ most celebrated superstars has been charged with murder, and the L.A. police cannot find him. As O.J. Simpson and the infamous white Ford Bronco become visible on the highways of Southern California later in the day, American television news is quickly ushered into a new era. It is an era of news as entertainment, as soap opera, as sensationalism, as reality and as 24-hour Shakespearean drama.

It’s a day that altered the way our news is covered, and its imprint is all over the electronic journalism we encounter today – from the 24/7 oil spill camera, to the coverage of Tiger Woods and Michael Jackson, to the up-to-the-moment critiques and analysis of every political maneuver, to the constant overlap of news and reality television (balloon boys, White House gate crashers, American Idols, and YouTube sensations, to name a few).

My brother was showing me his Twitter account the other day, and he was explaining how it all works. He was using his iPhone to search around Twitter for people to “follow,” and he came across a very popular Twitter page for New York Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher. The people who follow Swisher’s Twitter page get any up-to-the-moment thoughts that the friendly Yankee slugger has to share each day. How was last night’s game, Nick? What are you up to today? Who are your Twitter friends? Swisher has voluntarily placed a portion of his life on display every minute of every day. He knows that his fans crave nothing less.

Technology has changed dramatically over the past 16 years. But the cultural shift of June 17, 1994, is guiding what we do with this technology: We create our own news, our own realities, and give ourselves the constant rush of something new. We want to be both consumers and newsmakers at once, so we take off for the highway overpass and wave to the cameras following the Juice.

You don’t get to follow a Ford Bronco through L.A. every day, with one of the best football players in history holding a gun to his head in the back seat. But when nearly 100 million people tune in to watch something as gripping as this, they want to know one thing: What’s next?

It’s June 17, 2010. Turn on your phone, your laptop, your TV. He’s still there, still in that Bronco. It never ends. It never has. There’s always something next.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Throw Away the Book (One Sixty-Two: Day 55)

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 Fifty-Five: John Jaso, Tampa Bay Rays

I was leaving a local library yesterday when I passed a display of old books for sale. The last thing our house needs is another book. But of course I stopped.

And I almost walked away. But then an old hardcover caught my eye: How to Steal a Pennant, by Maury Wills with Don Freeman. I knew that Wills was an infielder and base-stealing master with the Los Angeles Dodgers back in the 1960s and ‘70s. I also had a faint recollection of Wills managing the Seattle Mariners for a while in the early ‘80s. But as I looked at the book, I realized that it consisted of Wills’ philosophy on managing – before he ever had the chance to do so. Published in 1976, How to Steal a Pennant featured a retired ballplayer’s ideas on how to manage baseball better than the men he’d been watching in the dugouts while working as a TV analyst.

Wills’ No. 1 advice for managers was simple: Throw away “the book” that tells you how you’re supposed to manage a game. Instead, Wills advised, think outside the box – er, book. If you’re losing a game by four runs, Wills wrote, don’t wait for the grand slam. Chip away – bunt a runner over, scrape for runs here and there, and claw your way back into the game. Don’t hesitate to steal bases, don’t hesitate to let a lefty reliever throw to a righty hitter, and don’t hesitate to throw a strike on an 0-2 count.

I’m sure that when he watches ballgames today, Maury Wills admires the work of Joe Maddon, manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. There is no “book” in the Maddon managerial code. This is a man who starts a catcher in the leadoff spot, even though that catcher – rookie John Jaso – has just one stolen base. So why does Jaso lead off? The reason is simple: Because he gets on base 40 percent of the time. To Maddon, getting on first is more important than one’s ability to steal second.

But that doesn’t mean Maddon hesitates to let his runners steal bases. Not at all. Outfielders Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton both have more than 20 steals already this year, and slugging third baseman Evan Longoria has swiped 10 bases. The Rays lead their league in stolen bases by far this year.

And thinking different doesn’t stop there for the Rays – while Maddon has a bona fide closer this year, he hasn’t hesitated in the past to use a closer-by-committee approach to finishing games. Rather than put the game in one man’s hands, Maddon has let the best matchup determine who finishes the game. Just go with what works.

This time of year, we hear a lot of graduation speeches encouraging young people to take the road not taken. Maury Wills was encouraging that nearly a quarter-century ago. I found his book, and heard his advice to throw away “the book.” Joe Maddon hears this advice, too. And he follows it. Maybe that’s why no team in baseball has a better record this year than the Rays.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Diligence, Mischief & Funk (One Sixty-Two: Day 54)

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 Fifty-Four: Manny Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers

“Daddy, does my hair look funky?” Chelsea asked.

I hesitated. Does a 5-year-old want her hair to look funky? Or was she looking to make sure it was un-funky? And if you’re settling into bed, as Chelsea was when she asked this, why does it matter?

Ah, the mysteries of life. Take the innocence of a preschooler, mix it with some Disney Channel exposure, toss in an impending summer solstice, and life becomes a bit funkier than usual. At least Chelsea’s sister, lying above her, was more focused on the book she was reading than on her bedtime appearance.

Katie’s attention was on the task at hand – read a story, learn something new, then doze off to sleep. Chelsea was more of a Tigger tonight – bouncing around her bed while talking about her hair and the fact that she had no water bottle. It was an interesting contrast in bedtime behavior.

It’s hard sometimes to balance what you want to do with what you need to do. Manny Ramirez is one of the most talented baseball players ever to walk the earth. He has hit 551 home runs since his first big-league appearance 17 years ago. He’s driven in more than 1,800 runs, compiled a .313 career batting average, claimed a pair of World Series titles and led 11 different teams to the playoffs. Astounding success and skills.

Manny knows how to get the job done, no doubt. But the man can also veer off the straight and narrow. He can zone out in the field, offer curious quotes to reporters, upset the occasional teammate, and even put a substance in his body that’s a bit more illicit than Chelsea’s water. And the hair – most definitely funky. Manny Being Manny – it’s sort of like panning out to a side view of the girls’ bunk bed, and seeing diligence and mischief together in one frame.

Chelsea was still bouncing and squirming by 9:00. So I told her a story, about a starfish who washes ashore and panics that he’ll dry up on the sand. But then a heroic crab waddles onto the beach, shimmies beneath the starfish, and carries his friend back into the water.

She liked the story, and began to calm down. It was time to rest that hair on the pillow and dream of heroes. Crabs carrying their friends in the summer; Manny carrying his team in the fall. No more talk of funk; just some good sleep in the bunk.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A New World (One Sixty-Two: Day 53)

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 Fifty-Three: Torii Hunter, Los Angeles Angels

Maeve doesn’t need to get ready for work. She has no homework to do. There are no bills for her to pay.

Just food, sleep, baths and a big ol’ world to discover. Such is the life of a 2-month-old.

Maeve is placed on a blanket on the floor, and she lies on her back and looks up at you. As you whisper hellos to her and give her little legs a gentle tap, she responds with a million different variations of the human smile. There’s the wide-eyed wonder smile, the laugh-out-loud, head-turned-to-the sky smile, the sneaky, lips-pursed smile – and, of course, the occasional gas-induced smile.

So new to this life of hers, Maeve is opening her eyes each day and absorbing the world with a joy that is impossible for us to fully understand. As a friend of her parents, I get to see that joy when we visit (as we did yesterday). But for Mom and Dad, Maeve’s growth is more fascinating than anything they’ve ever seen. Even Maeve’s dad, a die-hard baseball fan, has never seen anything like it. Her eyes cover more ground each day than Torii Hunter does in centerfield for the Angels. Just as Hunter glides around the vast expanse of green in pursuit of fly balls, Maeve studies all the people and things she can see and tries to make sense of them. This week, her new discovery is ceiling fans. They rotate! They make wind! They keep rotating! They make more wind!

Maeve will one day carry a backpack, and a briefcase, and a stack of bills. Life will bring her there soon enough. But right now, she’s just got faces, and sunlight, and ceiling fans to study. Lots to cover for such a new world. And lots to smile about - for both the child and her parents.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Shot to the Heart (One Sixty-Two: Day 52)

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 Fifty-Two: Mark Reynolds, Arizona Diamondbacks

I got one, and didn’t even see it coming. And my, did it ever make my day.

It started with a line drive over the wall. Katie and Chelsea were outside, and I asked if they wanted to hit some balls. “Sure,” Katie said. I took out a half-dozen Wiffle balls and a bat, and Katie stood at the plate. The 8-year-old knocked a few pitches the opposite way, and realized that she could see the ball much better when she kept her back foot in place.

Chelsea followed next, and when she faced the right way, the 5-year-old took some decent swings as well. She even hit one all the way back to her dad. But after a couple of minutes, Chelsea had hit enough.

Now it was my turn. Katie grabbed a few balls and threw me some pitches. I saw one down in my wheelhouse, and just couldn’t help myself – off the little plastic ball went, gliding over the fence like a Mark Reynolds home run out in Arizona. (Last night, the mighty Diamondbacks slugger launched his 15th of the year.) As we watched the ball fly over the wooden fence, Katie and I smiled. Time for a walk around the block.

We took the dog with us and walked together to retrieve the ball from our neighbor’s yard. On the way, we talked about the birthday party Katie had attended earlier in the day. We spoke with a closeness that seemed forged in part by our batting practice in the yard. We had only played ball for a few minutes, and our walk was just as short. But Daddy had pulled himself away from the computer, the grading and the household chores for a while and played some ball with his girls.

So as we turned the corner on our way back home, Katie looked over her shoulder at me. “I love you,” she said.

Bam – a shot to the heart, stronger and more majestic than any home run I’ve ever seen. I told her I loved her, too. We walked together, in the fading sunlight. We were finished playing ball for the night, and it was time for dessert. As for me, I’d received something sweeter than anything we could eat. I got an “I love you.” And I kept it.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Deep-Dish Dreaming (One Sixty-Two: Day 51)

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 Fifty-One: Alfonso Soriano, Chicago Cubs

It’s been a special sports week for the city of Chicago, as the Blackhawks claimed their first Stanley Cup in 49 years Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers. Two million hockey fans lined Michigan Avenue yesterday to toast the Blackhawks’ players and coaches. In the afterglow of this hockey title, the town also remains abuzz with hopes that the Chicago Bulls might lure LeBron James from Cleveland to the Windy City this summer.

As for baseball, it’s shaping up to be a summer of mediocrity in Chicago. The White Sox of the South Side are 8½ games out of first place, while the Cubs of the North Side are 7½ games back. The White Sox will receive more of a pass here since they’re just five years removed from their own championship parade. The Cubs, on the other hand – well, those 102 years without a title do nag at the Wrigley Field faithful just a bit. This generation of Cubs teams was built to follow the lead of outfielder Alfonso Soriano. The lean, sweet-swinging Soriano was signed to a long-term deal after slugging 46 home runs and stealing 41 bases for the Washington Nationals in 2006. While Soriano has hit his share of blasts as a Cub, his power, run-production, speed and run-scoring numbers continued to fall each year from 2007-09.

This season, Soriano’s production has inched up again. He’s got 10 homers already, and he’s driving in more runs than ever as a Cub. He’s not running like he used to, but perhaps the 34-year-old doesn’t have the legs for that anymore. Cubs fans can live without Soriano’s legs; what they need is his heart. They need this seven-time All-Star to lift up his teammates through his actions and words.

Two million people sounds like an awful lot of happiness. But you can’t even imagine the delirium of a Chicago Cubs victory parade. It’s a joy that Alfonso Soriano would like to experience, I’m sure. But he’s going to have to search even deeper for more of his youthful vigor, and send a few more of those moon shots over the left-field bleachers and onto Waveland Avenue.

Maybe while he’s out for some deep-dish pizza, Soriano will bump into a few Blackhawks. Perhaps they’ll let him touch the Stanley Cup. Let some magic wisp its way through the Windy City. The parade is waiting, Alfonso. They’ll crown you king.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Waving the Flag (One Sixty-Two: Day 50)

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 Fifty: Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees

And so it begins – one month of frenzied passion, as athletes from around the globe converge in South Africa for the most-watched tournament in sports. As the World Cup kicks into gear today, 32 teams are vying for the ultimate title, to be determined in the World Cup final one month from today. There’s a lot of soc … ahem, football, to be played in the next 30 days, and a lot of amazing plays to be seen along the way.

As I left school today, I saw two students looking at a bracket that one of them had filled out for the tournament. I walked over and took a look. The student had Argentina defeating Brazil in the final – a pretty safe pick, as Argentina has won the tournament twice and Brazil has claimed it a record five times. Since only seven countries have ever won the World Cup, most of the teams in the tournament are playing for their first-ever title. And that makes their fans all the more rabid.

Portugal is one such country with a reputation for success yet an empty World Cup trophy case. Star forward Cristiano Ronaldo will try to take his team to the promised land this year, but with Brazil, the Ivory Coast and North Korea in the same first-round group, just making it to the second round will require serious effort from the Portuguese team.

Outside of Ronaldo, the most famous athlete of Portuguese descent in America is probably New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira. Now in his eighth season as a big-leaguer, Teixeira has already slugged more than 250 home runs and driven in more than 800. The 30-year-old switch-hitter claimed his first championship last year with New York, and he’s won a trio of Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.

Teixeira is known for his slow starts. But his 2010 season has been even slower than normal, as he’s hitting only .226 nearly midway through June. At this rate, he won’t come close to meeting his average batting numbers for a full season. The Yankees remain patient, though, penciling his name into the lineup’s No. 3 spot every night.

Perhaps Teixeira was just waiting for the World Cup to get his blood boiling. As Ronaldo and Co. fend off those tough teams in Group G, maybe Teixeira will draw inspiration from his ancestral home and lift some long fly balls to deep right field. Perhaps it will be Portugal’s year, at long last. If by chance it is, there will be a man in pinstripes waving the flag. It’s that time of year.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Trumpets & Grunts (One Sixty-Two: Day 49)

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 Forty-Nine: Jonathan Broxton, Los Angeles Dodgers

Lights flickering. Water falling. Elephants lifting their trunks and trumpeting. Gorillas beating their chests and grunting. Giant butterflies hanging on the walls. A crocodile catching pennies.

It’s just another night at Rainforest Café, and we stopped in tonight to celebrate Chelsea’s preschool graduation. What better way to relish her preschool diploma than with burgers and make-believe jungle animals? Chelsea and Katie love the place and ask to go whenever a special occasion arises; as for their parents, I think it’s safe to say we prefer a dining atmosphere minus the sound of stampedes. But it was not our night, and Chelsea enjoyed every flicker and sprinkle and grunt.

Eating your dinner in a fake rainforest is, to say the least, disorienting. It’s kind of like stepping up to the plate in the ninth inning against Jonathan Broxton of the Los Angeles Dodgers. You’ve been working hard and concentrating on the field for nearly three hours, you’re behind by a run or two, and now you’ve got to figure out a way to handle nearly 100 miles per hour of hard, country fastball, exploding from the right hand of a 6-foot-4, 295-pound man who’s been sitting in the bullpen all night – just waiting to eat you alive.

Most batters, trained to hit at the highest level baseball knows, cannot touch the man. Throughout his career, Broxton has struck out 12 batters per nine innings. He saved 36 games last year and has already notched 16 saves this season. As he turns 26 next week, Broxton finds himself officially among the elite relief pitchers in the game.

Batters don’t necessarily seek to thrive against Broxton; merely surviving is in some ways a victory. Popping up, for instance, or grounding out. At least you saw something up there.

I’m not sure exactly what I saw at Rainforest Café tonight – I think there was a fake snake involved somewhere, and a lot of live fish. But I did walk out in the end, and I can see straight and hear once again.

Chelsea loved it, as always. Maybe she’s immune to the grunts. And the fastballs. Send her up against Broxton. She can bring the elephant’s trunk with her. Try to throw it past this, Jon. We’ll see who gets to beat their chest in the end.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Cardinal Rule (One Sixty-Two: Day 48)

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 Forty-Eight: Skip Schumaker, St. Louis Cardinals

Tomorrow, we’ll watch from our seats as our grown-up girl walks down the aisle, accepts her diploma and moves on to a brand-new stage of school and life.

Chelsea is graduating from preschool.

She has met all the prerequisites – she knows her alphabet, counts to 100, colors in the lines, uses her scissors, and goes to the potty all by herself. It is time for Chelsea to take those skills and add about a thousand more in kindergarten next year.

Perhaps most important of all, though, Chelsea has learned how to share. She knows that she can’t have everything to herself, so she’s willing to give up that purple crayon or that picture book when someone else wants a turn. What’s more, she knows that sharing also brings with it a greater chance of playing with someone else. And playing with others leads to friendships. I’ll take that life lesson over anything else Chelsea has learned so far. I think she gets its value, too.

Skip Schumaker is the starting second baseman for Tony LaRussa’s first-place St. Louis Cardinals. But if you play for LaRussa, and your last name is not Pujols or Holliday, then you’ve learned by now that you’re going to have to share your position a bit. LaRussa likes to mix it up, keeping everyone on their toes by trying new looks in the Cardinals’ lineup.

So yes, Schumaker has played in 54 games at second and batted more than 200 times this year. But he’s also taken a seat on the bench at times while other St. Louis players got a shot at second: Felipe Lopez (who himself shares shortstop with Brendan Ryan), as well as Tyler Greene and Aaron Miles. They’ve got a true second-base “center” over in Busch Stadium, and Skip has done a very nice job of playing nicely with Felipe, Tyler and Aaron. Mr. Tony has even given them extra recess time as a reward.

Chelsea has a whole summer ahead of her, and I can only hope she’ll play as well with her sister as she’s done with her preschool classmates. (Dream on, Dad.) Tomorrow, after her “graduation,” we’ll take a trip over to Rainforest Café for dinner. Inevitably, there will come a point in the meal when I’ll reach over to Chelsea’s plate and ask if I can have a couple of her French fries.

Remember the Cardinal rule, Chelsea: Don’t forget to share, even when Daddy is raiding your own meal. (It’s OK – you’ll get him back. More times than he can imagine.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What a Tangled Web We Weave (One Sixty-Two: Day 47)

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 Forty-Seven: Brad Lincoln, Pittsburgh Pirates

I was tempted to turn on my laptop at 6:45 this morning to check my e-mail, my fantasy baseball, and anything else the Internet brought my way. But I decided I needed a simpler, quieter breakfast with a backdrop of birds chirping rather than electronics humming.

I glanced at Monday’s New York Times while starting my bowl of cereal, and there on Page One was a headline that seemed quite fitting to the decision I’d just made: It read “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price.” The story, by Matt Richtel, focused on technology overload, and the ways in which our attempts to multitask with computers, e-mail, phone calls, iPads, iPods and other assorted media have altered the way we think and behave. In addition, Richtel reports, scientists are finding that the media multitaskers among us struggle to focus.

It’s an article that any adult would do well to read. I was particularly taken by Tara Parker-Pope’s sidebar, titled “Warning Signs of Tech Overload,” when I noticed how many of the signs applied to me. As I think about the degree to which my girls watch and emulate my behavior, this concerned me even more.

But the thrill of information everywhere is so difficult to discard. It is the most tantalizing byproduct of this technological revolution – if we want it, we can find it. And the fact that we can find so much leads us to want to find much more than we would’ve ever thought to look for in generations past. And I’m not sure that helps us in the long run.

So the Pittsburgh Pirates apparently are considering a promotion for their top pitching prospect, a young man named Brad Lincoln. With all the hype over Stephen Strasburg’s debut with the Washington Nationals tonight, you might think that Mr. Lincoln would be overshadowed, with little information about him as the team considers starting him tomorrow.

But oh, how wrong you’d be. Just a quick Google search brings us the following: News stories on Brad Lincoln from,, The Associated Press, USA Today and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; scouting reports and statistics from, Yahoo! Sports, CBS Sports and; blurbs from Pirates fan sites (“Raise the Jolly Roger” and “Bucco Fans,” to name a couple); Lincoln’s biography on the University of Houston athletics department’s site; and, of course, a Wikipedia entry.

So if you were somehow addicted to both baseball and technology (a combination that I’ve heard something about), you could literally spend hours reading stories about a 25-year-old man who has not yet thrown a single pitch in the major leagues. Hours.

He’s supposed to be a good one, it’s true. And it’s cool to have the opportunity to read about him. But, as Richtel’s story tells us, there are an awful lot of us reading an awful lot of things these days on-line – and we’re having trouble looking away.

Yet those birds, man – they’re chirping. They sounded beautiful this morning. I gave them 15 minutes, felt at ease, and then rushed off to work. The computer went on, and here it is still, 15 hours later.

Tonight, I‘ve gained more knowledge about Brad Lincoln. But what have I lost along the way?

Monday, June 7, 2010

From Wizard to Whiz Kid (One Sixty-Two: Day 46)

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 Forty-Six: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

It’s a scintillating time for sports, with more events to cover than newspapers can handle. This weekend offered fans a choice of watching the French Open tennis finals, the Belmont Stakes horse race, a boxing match in Yankee Stadium, the Stanley Cup Finals or the NBA Finals. Later this week, the World Cup men’s soccer tournament begins in South Africa. Major League Baseball began its amateur draft today. And, to top it off, legendary NCAA basketball coach John Wooden died on Friday at age 99.

It is not surprising that the coverage of Wooden’s death eclipsed all of the live events this weekend. This man was more than a 10-time national champion at UCLA, more than the most successful college basketball coach in history. Those who have listened to or read Wooden’s words have learned so much about life from the man, and this weekend they wanted to take some time to honor him in any way possible. In a sports world full of me-first athletes, the loss of Wooden brought us all back to the lessons of teamwork and humility that this "Wizard of Westwood" worked so hard to teach. compiled a list of “Woodenisms” on its Web site. Reading them felt a lot like flipping through the pages of Thoreau or Emerson. "Be more concerned with your character than your reputation,” Wooden said, “because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are."

Another: "Don't measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability."

And still another: "Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful."

Tomorrow, the biggest story in sports will take place in Washington, D.C., when Nationals rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg takes the mound for the first time as a major-leaguer. Blessed with a 100-mile-per-hour fastball, Strasburg has dominated every level of minor-league ball since the Nationals drafted him with the first pick in last year’s amateur draft. Tomorrow, the 21-year-old’s big-league journey begins.

Television cameras will follow Strasburg’s every move. But if Wooden were still with us, he’d remind Strasburg to focus on his team, not his own spotlight. "The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team," the great coach once said.

Wooden would remind Strasburg to pay attention to more than that fastball. He’d suggest working just as hard on character development, perseverance, humility and gratitude, no matter how many lights are shining on you in that clubhouse.

Because at the end of the day, it’s the way you live outside of the sporting arena that matters most of all. Soccer, basketball, hockey, tennis, baseball – whatever the sport, the story’s the same. "It isn't what you do,” John Wooden said, “but how you do it."

Good luck, Stephen. In more than just the game.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Carnival Hero (One Sixty-Two: Day 45)

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 Forty-Five: Alex Rios, Chicago White Sox

After playing outside in the heat for a while, the girls realized it was time to cool down in the air-conditioning. As they glanced around the living room, they huddled up and decided to re-create the carnival they’d attended at Katie’s school on Friday. So, within 20 minutes’ time, the room was filled with games of chance and skill.

I was handed 10 dominoes and told that these were my tickets. I was escorted through each of the games, which were set up on end tables and chairs throughout the room. I tossed a ball at stuffed animals to knock them down, I flipped Littlest Pets into plastic drinking cups, and I guessed which cup the ponytail-holder was hidden beneath. The games kept coming, and I kept trying to win some of the toys lined up beneath the homemade sign. It was simple sign, and it read: “Prizzes.”

Don’t we all aspire to win a few prizzes. In baseball, they give out plenty, including a lesser-publicized prize known as the Comeback Player of the Year Award. It may not carry the cachet of an MVP or a Cy Young award, but it means an awful lot to those who win it. What the award says is that you got your game together again, and returned to the level of excellence you had attained at an earlier time in your career.

Alex Rios is 29 years old, with plenty of baseball left in him. But in 2007, it appeared that Rios would soon become one of the best all-around players in the game. Rios hit .297, smacked 24 homers, drove in 85 runs and stole 17 bases three years ago. As the Toronto Blue Jays mapped out their future, they centered it around Rios.

But then the production dropped. In both 2008 and ’09, Rios hit fewer home runs, drove in fewer runs, and watched his batting average dive down. Finally, Toronto traded him to the Chicago White Sox to clear his salary off of their books. So as 2010 began, Rios had something to prove in Chicago.

And my, has he come back. One-third of the way through the season, Rios already has hit 12 home runs, driven in 29 runs, stolen 17 bases and posted a .318 batting average. Better yet, Rios has cut down on the strikeouts and increased his number of walks. Although his team is struggling, Rios has shown the White Sox that they made a very smart move in trading for him. Chicago, like Toronto three years ago, can build its future around this 6-foot-5, right-handed slugger.

If he keeps this up, Rios will have a Comeback Player of the Year Award in his living room this fall. But at the pace he’s producing, that won’t be the only honor he gets. When you hit like this, there’s no telling how many prizzes you’ll get. The carnival lasts a long time for players like this.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Stemming the Flow (One Sixty-Two: Day 44)

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 Forty-Four: Chris Tillman, Baltimore Orioles

When you view it through the box score, it looks like a disaster. He faced 11 batters, and five of them reached via hit. Two more walked. Four runners scored. The line tells you he pitched one and one-third inning, and watched from the mound as the Boston Red Sox belted him around the park. Once the struggles began for Chris Tillman last night, they didn’t stop.

Tillman is one of the Baltimore Orioles’ hot young prospects, and he’ll likely pitch much better his next time around. But last night, after absorbing a Boston pounding, the young man might have struggled to remember it was just a game.

If he did have some trouble letting go of last night’s loss, Tillman needed only to look at a newspaper for perspective. A lost ballgame hurts, but the flow of Red Sox runs means very little compared to the flow of oil beneath the Gulf of Mexico.

Tillman’s poor pitching numbers pale in comparison to the numbers we’re getting out of the Gulf: According to British Petroleum, more than 115 million gallons of oil may already have spilled into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion of April 20. The lineup of animals affected by this disaster is much more frightening than any Red Sox lineup, ranging from pelicans and gulls to dolphins and whales to shrimp and plankton to tuna and turtles. Scientists and reporters are helping us to understand this crisis, and the government and BP are trying to fix it. But the reality is crystal-clear that this never, ever should have happened.

Two of my seniors gave a presentation this week on solar and wind energy. They constructed their own wind turbine using a bicycle wheel, duct tape, an old car jack, a car belt, scrap wood and a ’61 Ford generator. As wind blew on the turbine, the voltmeter displayed energy, created solely by air.

It’s the same air that lifted those hits off of Chris Tillman last night. But it’s clean and crisp and free, and the only thing it does to turtles and pelicans is fill their lungs. We bounce back from disasters by making changes. The sun and the wind are here, ready to provide for us. It’s time to change our approach to energy, because this kind of mistake needs a game-changer.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Short People (One Sixty-Two: Day 43)

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 Forty-Three: David Eckstein, San Diego Padres

This is a short story. About a short man. He’s easy to mistake for Dave from accounting, or Dave the IT guy, or “Hello, this is Dave, may I take your order?”

He is 5-foot-7, and could easily blow away in a wind storm. Do you waste an early draft pick on an infielder who’s 5-7? Of course not. You take him with the 581st pick in the draft, then send him to the minors.

You raise an eyebrow, though, when at age 26 he’s starting at shortstop for the Angels and stealing 29 bases as a rookie. The following year, you really perk up when his inspiring infield play and leadoff hitting plays a key role in the Angels’ first-ever world championship. You watch him earn All-Star appearances in 2005 and ’06 for the Cardinals, and by this time, when he earns a World Series MVP for St. Louis in 2006, you’re no longer surprised by anything this man does.

You remember the bridge to Randy Newman’s song Short People: “Short people are just the same / As you and I … All men are brothers / Until the day they die.” David Eckstein, all 67 inches of him, has been exceeding expectations on the baseball field for nine years now. This year, as the Padres’ second baseman, his consistent hitting and fielding are one of the reasons why San Diego has surprised the baseball world by standing atop the National League West division, four days into June.

The Padres aren’t supposed to be this good. But then again, neither is David Eckstein. He chokes up on the bat, stands there looking like your cousin at the batting cage, and waits for the pitch. Then, as he did in the bottom of the ninth against the Mets’ Francisco Rodriguez two nights ago, he shocks you with another big base hit.

Turtles survived the dinosaur era. It makes no sense. David Eckstein lived through the steroid era. Again: inexplicable. But perhaps Randy Newman meant for those words to come out a little different. Maybe short people are not the same as you and I. Maybe they’re better.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Man on the Mend (One Sixty-Two: Day 42)

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 Forty-Two: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers

It’s not often that a Detroit Tiger’s one-hitter becomes the most-discussed sports story in America. But that will happen when a perfect game is foiled by a missed call with two outs in the ninth inning. Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game, umpire Jim Joyce’s erroneous safe call and emotional apology afterward, Commissioner Bud Selig’s refusal to change the call – all have been covered extensively over the past 24 hours. There are enough voices debating the merits of instant replay right now.

Instant replay on a limited scale might help clarify some missed calls, but the beauty of baseball continues with or without it. To me, the most extraordinary thing about last night’s controversial play was not Joyce’s call; it was, instead, the play of Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Some have criticized Cabrera for ranging so far to his right for the ball, rather than allowing the second baseman to field the play. But playing good defense in baseball requires a smart aggressiveness, and Cabrera showed just that – he pounced to his right, scooped up Jason Donald’s grounder, and made a clean toss to Galarraga. In making this play, Cabrera showed more than great defense; he showed us a man on the mend.

It was the first weekend of October, 2009, and the Detroit Tigers were in a battle for the divisional crown with their American League Central rival Minnesota Twins. Early on a Saturday morning, Miguel Cabrera had a much-publicized fight with his wife, in which police found both husband and wife with scratches and Cabrera with a very high blood-alcohol level. Cabrera was brought to a police station, and team general manager Dave Dombrowski drove there to pick him up. Later that day, Cabrera would go hitless as his team lost a critical game. By the end of the weekend the Tigers’ season was over, the Twins were on their way to the playoffs, and, while no charges had been filed against him, it was clear that Cabrera was a mess.

This spring, Cabrera explained that he had undergone counseling over the winter. He did not hide from his troubles. At 27 years of age and in his eighth season in the big leagues, Cabrera looked a bit like a man ready to grow up.

So to see Cabrera playing with such energy and passion last night was a most welcome sight – one that was clearly not present eight months ago. This afternoon, Cabrera was at it again, slugging his 16th home run – tied for the major-league lead – and driving in his 50th and 51st runs of the year. No one in baseball has driven in as many runs. With his batting average at .352, Cabrera is vying for both the Triple Crown and a Most Valuable Player award.

Nobody’s perfect in this life. Not Armando Galarraga. Not Jim Joyce. And definitely not Miguel Cabrera. But we can take steps forward. We can improve, recover, and make amends. It happens one step and one day at a time. Cabrera took a few steps to his right last night, fielded a tough ground ball, and looked like a new man.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hemingway's Kind of Hero (One Sixty-Two: Day 41)

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 Forty-One: Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals

Do you believe the great DiMaggio would stay with a fish as long as I will stay with this one? he thought. I am sure he would and more since he is young and strong. Also his father was a fisherman. But would the bone spur hurt him too much?

I have begun reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea with my freshmen. While they haven’t yet reached the quote above, they are engaged in Santiago’s humble, dedicated life as a fisherman, and they are well aware of the protagonist’s devotion to the great Joe DiMaggio.

When I asked the freshmen if they knew who DiMaggio was, almost all said they’d heard the name, and that he had something to do with baseball. A few knew he was a Yankee. But that was about all. So I gave them a primer on one of the 20th century’s most famous Americans, from his humble beginnings as the son of an immigrant fisherman to his 56-game hitting streak to his life as the royal prince of New York and, eventually, of baseball. I explained that the level of popularity DiMaggio experienced during the 1940s surpasses the fame of any American athlete today, since baseball was simply the sport at that time in our history. We watched a video of DiMaggio, and the kids asked some good questions.

But afterward, as I flipped through the book preparing for tomorrow’s lessons, I wondered who Santiago would call his hero if he were out on his skiff in the Caribbean today. Which ballplayer would give him strength as that mighty marlin tugged on the line for days?

Would it be the great Mariano Rivera, relief pitcher for the New York Yankees, who maintains a regal grace and cool under pressure as he saves games for his team? Would it be Mike Lowell of the Boston Red Sox, who has been discarded like an old fisherman and tossed aside on the Boston bench, and who must wait patiently for his opportunity to ply his trade again for another team? Or would it be Kendry Morales of the Angels, the most famous of the current players born in Santiago’s country of Cuba?

All would be wise choices. But I think that if Hemingway were writing this novel today, he’d do just what he did 60 years ago, and shoot for the top. If you’re facing the greatest challenge of your working life, then why not take your inspiration from the mightiest baseball hero of all? Santiago’s choice would be easy: He’d be cheering for Albert Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals’ larger-than-life first baseman.

It is the mighty Pujols, after all, who hits all pitchers, who has played with pain in his elbow, and who stops at nothing to excel in all facets of his game. Pujols has averaged 40 home runs and 123 runs batted in per year in his first nine seasons. He has won three Most Valuable Player awards and one world championship. At age 30, Pujols is already a sure-fire Hall of Famer. And he may still be improving. By the end of the year, this Dominican-born slugger will likely have more than 400 career home runs. Were he to play into his 40s, there may be no record he does not own.

So yes, Pujols would surely be Santiago’s man today. But although it’s easy to pick DiMaggio’s equal in 2010, it is much more difficult to visualize Pujols the hero in quite the same way that Santiago saw DiMaggio in Hemingway’s story. Santiago was a poor man, who might have had access to some radio, but whose main source for baseball news was the newspapers that he read, then used as a sheet to cover the springs that stuck up from his bed. Today, however, the fisherman would surely have access to countless Pujols images on TV and the Internet.

While this makes it easier to know just what the big guy looks like hitting his awesome homers, it also takes something away from the myth-makers inside of us. When you’ve got to create your own images from the agate type you read in the box scores, those home runs take on a whole new life. They become personal snapshots and videos that you can own and fine-tune all day long, as you hold fast to that great fish inside your skiff on the sea.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Kings James & Carl (One Sixty-Two: Day 40)

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 Forty: Carl Crawford, Tampa Bay Rays

The Lakers are playing the Celtics again in the NBA Finals this year, but this matchup of legendary franchises is not the top story in the NBA right now. Since 28 other teams are done for the year, and the most talented basketball player on Earth is a free agent, the biggest story is this: Where will LeBron James be playing next year? Will he re-sign with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers? Or will he go for the big-city life and choose the New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets, Chicago Bulls or Los Angeles Clippers?

The team that James chooses will immediately become a playoff contender, if it’s not one already. His presence on the court will carry his team to dozens of wins that it wouldn’t have claimed without him. A championship requires more than one great player, but one LeBron James can serve as a ticket to the NBA’s postseason.

Baseball is much different, in that one player cannot single-handedly lead his team into the playoffs. Ken Griffey Jr. couldn’t do it for the Reds, Alex Rodriguez couldn’t do it for the Rangers, and Carlos Lee hasn’t done it for the Astros. In baseball, the best free-agent signings are the ones that provide the one missing piece a team needed in order to rise from good to great. The Boston Red Sox’s 2003 signing of David Ortiz, the slugging lefty, is one such example. When Ortiz entered the Boston lineup, he prevented teams from pitching around Manny Ramirez. One year later, the Red Sox were champions.

So in baseball this winter, there will be no talk of LeBron James. The big question, instead, will be this: Where will Carl Crawford play next year? The Tampa Bay Rays’ left fielder is one of baseball’s elite talents: He plays the best left field in baseball, he steals bases at will, he hits for average, he pops just enough home runs to keep outfielders from playing him shallow, and he serves as a vocal leader in the clubhouse. In short, there’s very little the man can’t do. Add him to an already-strong team, and you might just have yourself a championship club.

Losing Crawford would deal a devastating blow to Tampa’s civic pride, in the same way that Cleveland would suffer without James. Fans of the Rays hope that a great 2010 from the team (the Rays currently hold the best record in baseball) will keep Crawford in town beyond this year. As for the rest of baseball, there are an awful lot of owners with their checkbooks ready.

By the time we reach October, Crawford’s free agency might just overshadow the on-field drama of the World Series. By then, an enormously wealthy LeBron James will be starting his season – somewhere, with a team still to be determined. Stay tuned.

Biggie Played Dead (One Sixty-Two: Day 39)

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-Nine: David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox

Toward the end of a glorious Memorial Day weekend at the beach, Katie was digging in the sand by the water’s edge. As Amy and I lounged in the sun, our daughter came running up to us, her orange pail in hand.

“Mommy, I found a big crab!” she exclaimed, showing her mom a sand crab that was slightly more than an inch long an inch wide. Katie quickly named her crab “Biggie,” and soon had two smaller crabs in the pail to keep him company. The companions were named Sammy and Georgie.

Every few minutes, Katie would reach into the sandy bucket and lift Biggie out to inspect him. After a minute of checking him out, she’d drop Biggie back into the pail, and he’d quickly dig his way into the sand at the bottom of the bucket. After several minutes of this back and forth, Katie again dropped Biggie into the pail. But this time, instead of digging, he lay motionless in the water. Upside-down.

After a moment, the tears began rolling down Katie’s cheeks, and the guilt set in. She blamed herself for poor Biggie’s death, for all that lifting him out of his element. But just as we prepared to bury him, Biggie suddenly flipped himself over, scurried into the sand, and left an 8-year-old girl laughing away the tears.

Biggie played dead. Was that a recent headline in The Boston Globe? And didn’t I read those words in Beantown last spring, too? In Massachusetts, Biggie is better known as Big Papi, who is better known to the rest of us as David Ortiz, designated hitter for the Boston Red Sox. In 2009 and 2010, Ortiz started his baseball seasons in miserable fashion. Last year, Ortiz had just one home run and 33 hits through the end of May. This season, he had one homer and a .143 batting average by April’s end.

And then, just as the David Ortiz career retrospectives were going to press, the big man flipped around, dug his cleats into the dirt again and started bopping home runs all over the yard. Last year, he hit 27 home runs in the season’s final four months. This year, he slugged 10 homers and drove in more than a run per game in May.

So here he is now, as we enter June, just a few home runs off the league lead. Here is his team, playing winning baseball again and back in the pennant race. Indeed, Big Papi is back. And with him, so are the Red Sox.

Once Biggie the crab flipped over in the pail, Katie brought him back to the ocean. No more playing around with this crab. It was time for Biggie to do his thing again, in his own element. And the same went for Sammy and Georgie, too.