Saturday, July 31, 2010

Moving Day (One Sixty-Two: Day 100)

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

Day One Hundred: Jake Westbrook, St. Louis Cardinals

For Major League Baseball, July 31st leaves some clubhouses looking like college dormitories in late August: suitcases strewn about, boxes stacked atop boxes, and garment bags flung over shoulders. This final day of July brings with it baseball’s trading deadline, the last day in which players can be shipped from one team to another without having to pass through waivers.

Almost everyone who is traded on this day is part of a deal that unfolds as follows: A pennant contender acquires an established veteran from a struggling team in exchange for younger prospects who will try and help the sub-.500 team return to prominence in the years ahead. In an ideal world, this kind of trade works out well for both teams, such as the deal two years ago that sent CC Sabathia from the Cleveland Indians to the Milwaukee Brewers. While Sabathia led the Brewers to the playoffs before bolting to the Yankees via free agency in the winter, Cleveland received a young slugger named Matt LaPorta who is now showing signs of excellence as the Indians’ starting first baseman. Unfortunately, it seems all too common these days that the playoff contender gets even better while the losing team ends up even worse than it was before. In 2003, when the Pittsburgh Pirates traded third baseman Aramis Ramirez to the Chicago Cubs, the slugging Ramirez led Chicago deep into the ’03 playoffs and remains the team’s starter seven years later, while the Pirates received prospects who had no impact on the big-league team. Baseball’s economics today tend to favor teams with more cash to spend, so the smaller-market teams often end up accepting less than the value of the player they’re trading in order to unload salary and save money.

However it all works out for these teams down the line, it remains true that today is Moving Day for dozens of young men. Starting pitcher Jake Westbrook, for instance, learned today that he must change his working address from Cleveland to St. Louis. It happens quickly, and ballplayers are expected to adjust on the fly. Of course, in a profession where the minimum salary is $400,000, there are some cushions here to the whole moving thing. Still, I try to think of myself in their shoes, and it’s a bit unnerving. I imagine being told, in late February, that I’ve been traded to another school in exchange for a first-year teacher and some SMART Boards. How quickly could I pack, say goodbye, and find my way to the new school? Which classes would I be asked to teach, and what would my schedule be? How would I bond with my colleagues, administrators and students? Would I be equally effective at this new place of work?

It’s an exciting day in baseball, but not necessarily an easy one for the ballplayers who are changing jobs. Those dorms can be overwhelming to a newcomer, and it’s hard sometimes to navigate your way through all the newness.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Phenom in the Driveway (One Sixty-Two: Day 99)

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 Ninety-Nine: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers

I was walking the dog outside my parents’ house, but my gaze quickly strayed beyond the leash. I could not keep my eyes off the Wiffle Ball game going on across the street. Now for full disclosure, I must tell you that the pitcher in this game was wearing a bikini. But for the full story, you must know that this pitcher was tossing balls on a driveway to her son, a youngster no older than 8. And the most eye-catching piece of all was the frequency with which this boy was smacking his mom’s offerings into the street.

He held the plastic yellow bat in a perfect right-handed stance, then met each pitch with a smooth, level swing that allowed the laws of physics to ricochet the white ball past his mom’s outstretched arms. Over and over, he met the ball with that free and easy swing, connecting right in the middle of the bat’s barrel. The boy’s grandpa was manning centerfield in the street, as there was no way this batting practice could continue without some defensive help.

When you watch baseball phenoms appear on the major-league stage – men such as Ryan Braun of the Brewers, who has dominated the game from his very first week in Milwaukee three years ago – you wonder what they looked like playing ball as kids. Did their immense gifts reveal themselves when they were in diapers? Stride Rite shoes? Air Jordans? How long did it take to see the budding greatness?

I would imagine that the signs appear at different stages for different players, and I know for sure that these skills are nurtured in a variety of ways. But this morning, on a quiet street at the Jersey Shore, I may have glimpsed a gifted young ballplayer discovering his talents on a cement driveway. And my, did he make it look easy.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

What to Toss, What to Keep (One Sixty-Two: Day 98)

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 Ninety-Eight: Justin Upton, Arizona Diamondbacks

A stack of old receipts. A bag of solidified rock salt. A crate of near-empty bathroom-cleaning sprays.

Gone. Tossed. Cleansed.

For many of us, there comes a point during the summer when we have time for cleaning. And I don’t just mean vacuuming and dusting – I mean getting rid of stuff. This past week, I found a few hours with some time on my hands. So I went ahead and parted with some possessions.

As the bags of garbage and recyclables mounted, I felt the house grow lighter and nimbler on its feet. I could walk through areas of the home and garage without feeling claustrophobic, and I could see us starting school in a month with a livable home to return to each day.

Over in Phoenix, the Arizona Diamondbacks are in the midst of some serious summer cleaning. They’ve got some work to do, as a 37-64 record has left them 23 games out of first place. For a team that played in the National League Championship Series just three years ago, this is unacceptable. So the team’s management has decided to go ahead and trade as many veterans as possible for young prospects who can help the team return to prominence.

Arizona started by unloading left fielder Conor Jackson, then fired the team’s manager and general manager. This past week, the team shipped out its ace starter, Dan Haren. Several more players are likely to leave Phoenix within the next 48 hours, all of them in exchange for young prospects. These trades will give Chase Field a new look, albeit one that might seem a bit foreign to the home crowd.

Even though it can be refreshing to throw stuff out, some things don’t get moved around when we clean. They are the staples of our home, the pieces we have no interest in getting rid of: the grandfather clock, the fine china, the family photos on the wall. We might dust them, but they’re going nowhere.

In Phoenix, the prized furniture at Chase Field sits in right field. His name is Justin Upton, he’s 22 years old, and he signed a six-year contract with the team in March. Some teams would give up most of the players on their roster in exchange for one Justin Upton. While he’s been stuck in a bit of a slump this season, Upton has an extraordinary ability to hit for average, to hit for power, to steal bases, and to hit with patience. He has Hall of Fame potential, and the Diamondbacks certainly are hoping to build their franchise around him.

So Upton remains, written into the Arizona lineup in Sharpie marker. As for the rest of the team, manager Kirk Gibson is likely using pencils for their names right now. The trash bags are out, the cleaning is under way, and the Diamondbacks will not look the same come Saturday. That’s not always a bad thing, as long as you don’t end up with an empty room when you’re done. But Justin Upton will ensure that the Diamondbacks’ home is never without some sparkle.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mr. Unlucky (One Sixty-Two: Day 97)

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 Ninety-Seven: Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants

Cain is able. He just can’t catch a break.

Each year, without fail, a handful of starting pitchers are unlucky. These are the guys who put together great seasons, only to see their teammates fail to score runs almost every time they’re on the mound. This season, pitchers such as Roy Oswalt of the Houston Astros, Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners and Johan Santana of the New York Mets have suffered from dismal run support, and their low win totals reflect that.

Out in San Francisco, though, the Giants have a young starting pitcher who can beat anyone’s woeful tale of low run support. His name is Matt Cain, he’s 25 years old, and he throws a fastball that can blow a hole through a wall. In his five full seasons, Cain has developed quite nicely from a thrower into a pitcher. But Cain arrived in San Francisco at the tail end of the Barry Bonds years, and his Giants have not yet built a formidable offensive club in the post-Bonds era. Hence, Cain has received very little hitting support throughout his career. To put it in perspective, his career earned-run average of 3.47 is ninth among active pitchers. And yet, his career won-loss record is 52-59.

That’s right – he gives up three and a half runs per nine innings, and he loses more games than he wins. By comparison, Andy Pettitte owns a 3.87 career earned-run average – .40 points higher than Cain’s. And yet, in his first five seasons in the majors, Pettitte had a won-loss record of 81-46. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Pettitte was pitching for the Yankees during those years. Indeed, Pettitte has never had a losing record in his career, even going 14-11 with a 4.70 ERA in 1999. By comparison, Matt Cain went 7-16 with a 3.65 ERA in 2007 and 8-14 with a 3.76 ERA in ’08.

Despite a slightly improved offense this year, Cain is still not getting the run support he surely craves. His ERA is at 3.14, but his record stands at just 8-8. The Giants as a whole have such strong pitching this year that they’re in second place, just behind the Padres, in the National League West. As Saturday’s trade deadline nears, Matt Cain is surely hoping to see his team pick up a potent bat from another team. Should they do so, and should rookie catcher Buster Posey continue hitting the cover off the ball, the Giants might be able to give Matt Cain the one thing he undoubtedly craves more than his own victory total – a trip to the playoffs.

In the October spotlight, Cain would have the chance to introduce himself to the scores of fans who don’t know him from Adam. His own Giants fans and teammates know him quite well, though. And they’d like nothing more than to ride that golden right arm into the promised land.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Last Man Standing (One Sixty-Two: Day 96)

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 Ninety-Six: Ramon Santiago, Detroit Tigers

Wade Boggs has 3,010 career base hits, but the most famous at-bat of his career involves none of those hits. Boggs’ most-viewed at-bat shows him waving helplessly at a biting slider on a July 4th afternoon in Yankee Stadium. The pitcher, Dave Righetti, responds to this miss by hugging his catcher, Butch Wynegar. The Yankees storm the field.

Righetti has thrown a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox on this day in 1983, and Boggs is the final out. And 27 years later, even though Wade Boggs has a plaque in Cooperstown and Dave Righetti does not, our visual history always shows Righetti as the better player. Thousands of people each year see that clip of Righetti dominating Boggs, while far fewer see any of the opposite-field singles that led Boggs to five batting titles and 12 All-Star Game appearances. That’s what happens when you’re the final out of a no-hitter – you live in infamy, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Ramon Santiago is no Wade Boggs, but he’s certainly had his share of hits in a nine-year career spent mostly with the Detroit Tigers. Yesterday, though, Santiago was called to the plate to pinch-hit against a man who had retired 26 batters without allowing a hit. As Tropicana Field reverberated with a roar not often heard in that building, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Matt Garza had one more out to go in his quest for the first no-hitter in Rays’ history. Instead of sending starting shortstop Danny Worth to the plate for the third time, the Tigers sent up Santiago.

And so here it was – Santiago would either break up the no-no, and avoid falling on the wrong side of history, or he would succumb to Garza and see himself, decades from now, making that final out again and again.

He swung hard – let’s give him that. But Santiago got under a Garza fastball, and lifted a lazy fly ball to right field. Ben Zobrist, who had saved the no-hitter with a leaping grab earlier in the game, had no problem with Santiago’s pop-up. Garza had his no-hitter – the fifth of the year in Major League Baseball, with more than two months still remaining in the season. The Rays jumped all over Garza, reporters interviewed him on the field, and a teammate gave him the obligatory pie in the face.

As for Ramon Santiago, he went back to the dugout, surely hoping that his team would play a better game the next day. And assuming they don’t get no-hit again this evening, the Tigers can only improve. But even if he leads his team to victory with three home runs today, Santiago can rest assured that those homers will be contained within a 24-hour news cycle. After that, they’ll be forgotten.

His final out against Garza, however, lives forever. Someone has to make that final out, and yesterday it was Santiago. He can take solace in the fact that his final swing was much more impressive than that of Wade Boggs some 27 years ago. He did make contact, at least. But the ball didn’t drop for a hit; it was caught. And so, Mr. Santiago, we welcome you to the 27th Out Club. It's a lifetime membership. Mr. Boggs will be here to greet you shortly.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Cool-Down (One Sixty-Two: Day 95)

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 Ninety-Five: Derrek Lee, Chicago Cubs

For the first time in weeks, those of us in the New York area awoke to a light breeze this morning. It’s been the warmest summer here in more than a decade, with temperatures roaring above 90 degrees nearly every day, coupled with stifling humidity. Today, however, the humidity was nowhere to be found, and the sparkling sunshine didn’t feel nearly as hot as it has this July.

The glorious morning felt a bit like the falling action in the plot of a dramatic film, right after the climax. You know the scene – the main characters have hit rock bottom, realized something deep and profound about their flaws, and learned what they must do to make it back to a state of grace. It’s Boogie Nights, after Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly and Heather Graham all have hit their lowest of lows. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson queues up The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” while we see the characters toning down their excesses and moving into a place of deeper self-awareness and maturity.

It was an appropriate morning for Carlos Zambrano to speak. There have been a number of outbursts in Zambrano’s career, but none as outlandish as the one he unleashed on his teammates June 25. When Zambrano lost his cool in the Cubs’ dugout that afternoon, he looked like a man in need of help. After the Cubs suspended him, Zambrano began anger-management sessions, according to his interview today with ESPN. “Thank God the Cubs have sent me to the doctor for anger management,” Zambrano told ESPN. “I've had three sessions already.”

Last month, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo S. Torre wrote an excellent article about the number of baseball players who have sought help in the area of mental health throughout the past few years. For decades, Torre writes, baseball players were expected to be above issues such as anxiety, depression and anger issues. But when the National Institute of Mental Health reports that more than 57 million Americans – or 26 percent of Americans 18 and older – suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, it seems impossible that baseball players would somehow be immune to such concerns themselves. So Major League Baseball has taken important steps in recent years to assist players who are struggling with mental-health issues.

And several athletes have chosen to step forward and seek help. Players such as Zack Greinke of the Kansas City Royals, Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds and Milton Bradley of the Seattle Mariners have been placed on the disabled list in recent years in order to seek assistance for mental-health issues. This past month, during his suspension from the Cubs, Carlos Zambrano did the same. According to Torre’s story, Greinke, Votto and Bradley all received considerable support from their teammates upon returning to their ballclubs. As Zambrano prepares to return to the Cubs this weekend, his teammates must decide if they are willing to give him another chance and try to help him in his attempt to “be more quiet,” as the 29-year-old termed it in his interview today.

Derrek Lee, the soft-spoken first baseman who seemed to be the target of Zambrano’s outburst last month, will be in an interesting position as the pitcher returns. Lee’s teammates will surely watch how he interacts with Zambrano, and many, I’m sure, will follow his lead. While it is imperative that Zambrano not lose his cool again on his teammates, it’s also essential that he be supported as he seeks treatment for his illness. Lee, I’m sure, will say and do all the right things. He will do what he can to help his colleague in recovery.

A month ago, Carlos Zambrano’s heat index was off the charts. But he seems to have cooled down in his month away from the game. He is in that moment where the clouds have parted and a slight breeze is blowing. The hard work is only getting started, but he may have begun his ascent from rock bottom. It’s time for the director to give us a happy song, and for the actors to flash a smile or two. Where Carlos Zambrano goes from here, God only knows. But it’s a new day, and he seems to be taking the right steps. When we struggle with mental-health concerns, we often hurt both ourselves and the ones we care for the most. As we climb back, their support can mean the world to us. Here’s to Derrek Lee and his Cubs teammates, as they prepare to help a co-worker in his time of struggle.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Roadie (One Sixty-Two: Day 94)

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 Ninety-Four: Drew Butera, Minnesota Twins

I’ve never been much of a George Thorogood fan. But last night, as we strolled the grounds of the balloon festival we attended near our home, we heard the blues-guitar riffs and gravelly voice of Mr. Thorogood himself. He was the main musical act at the festival Saturday night, in between Friday’s Air Supply concert and today’s Rick Springfield performance. I’m not embarrassed to say that I’ve actually seen Air Supply in concert before. And I’ll proudly sing along to “Jessie’s Girl” whenever prompted. But Thorogood just never did it for me. Yet, here he was, and my younger girl wanted to see and hear him. So we hung around for a while, long enough to hear “Who Do You Love?” but not long enough to catch “Bad to the Bone.”

By not staying to the end, we weren’t able to watch Thorogood’s roadies clear off the stage after the concert. This might have helped my older daughter and me, as we were asked to be roadies of a sort today. It turned out that my wife had a ton of real-estate work to do before her open house, so she asked us to help set up her show by bringing all the open-house signs to different spots around the neighborhood of the showcased house. It was easy work, really: Inflate some balloons, bring the balloons into the car, put the signs in the car, then drive to assorted corners to place the signs and balloons where others could see them.

We got all the work done in a half-hour. It felt a little like plugging in some electric guitars before a concert. Not a big concert, mind you; balloon-festival size. By the time the open house was ready to begin, the stage was set for Mrs. Hynes to do her thing.

The baseball equivalent of the roadie is probably the backup catcher. Men such as Drew Butera of the Twins spend most games doing whatever needs to be done – warming up relief pitchers, catching the last few innings of a blowout, or charting pitches. A backup like Butera is expected to be dependable and mostly invisible. But when called upon, he’s expected to perform.

Today, Drew Butera stepped in as understudy to the Twins’ lead catcher, reigning MVP Joe Mauer. Hitting from the ninth spot, Butera had a couple of hits – one of them a triple – and a run batted in. It raised his average to .179. Such is the world of backup catchers; rarely are their hitting statistics impressive. But hey, no one ever asks a roadie how many minutes it takes to clear off that stage – just whether or not the job got done.

I did my pre-concert roadie work all right today, but at around 10 o’clock this evening I realized that I had told my wife I’d also pick up the signs after her open house. And I hadn’t done that yet. So in the cool, dark evening, with headlights and a full moon illuminating my path, I drove back to the assorted street corners, found each sign, and placed them in the back of my car. I drove them home, clipped off the ribbon and balloons, and brought the signs inside.

It was invisible work. But it got done – eventually. Like the roadies and the backup catchers, I was working in the shadows, with nothing but the voice of George Thorogood in my head. The stage was clear and the pitchers warmed up, just in time for Jessie’s girl and Joe Mauer to arrive.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Pine Tar & Partners (One Sixty-Two: Day 93)

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 Ninety-Three: Jose Guillen, Kansas City Royals

I’m good with dates, in a Trivial Pursuit kind of way. For some reason, I can remember that Mt. St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. I can tell you that Ronald Reagan was shot on the same day that Indiana defeated North Carolina in the men’s basketball title game – March 30, 1981. I recall the first Gulf War’s aerial attacks starting on the day before my 20th birthday – January 16, 1991.

And so on. You can argue, quite convincingly, that there are more important things to store in my brain than dates I can look up in two seconds’ time on the Internet. But our minds do what they want, and we can’t really control that. So while my brother compares me to Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, I shrug and say sure, good connection. It’s my own idiosyncrasy, and I embrace it.

For a long time, I associated July 24th with a baseball event – the legendary “Pine Tar Game” of 1983. For those who don’t recall, this was the game in which Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett hit a two-out, two-run homer off Yankees reliever Rich Gossage in the top of the ninth inning to put his team on top by a run, only to be called out by home plate umpire Tim McClelland for having too much pine tar on his bat. Yankees manager Billy Martin brought the bat to the umpires’ attention as soon as Brett crossed home plate. Martin challenged the bat’s use by claiming that the pine tar was spread too high up the barrel of the bat. This, Martin claimed, was against baseball rules. The umpires conferred and agreed with Martin, calling Brett out and therefore ending the game.

The rest is the stuff of legend – Brett dashing onto the field like a man out for blood, his teammates and other umpires restraining him from McClelland, and the Yankees walking awkwardly off the field, somehow victorious. A few days later, American League president Lee MacPhail reversed the ruling, claiming that Brett’s pine tar hadn’t interfered with the spirit of the rules. Twenty-five days after Brett’s home run, the game resumed and the Royals won.

For six years, my brain-bank of dates and numbers noted July 24th as Pine Tar Day, and nothing more. It was a fun event to remember for a baseball fan like me. And then, when I was 18, I started dating a girl who was born on this same day. A whole bunch of years later, we’re still going steady. So now, there are a few more important things to remember when July 24th comes around – cards, gifts and plans for the day, for starters. My wife isn’t real big on birthdays, and she especially doesn’t like to be the center of attention. But my daughters and I do what we can to make her feel as special as we know she is. Today, it was homemade cards and drawings, a trip to the big balloon festival here in Jersey, her favorite ice-cream shop, and a movie.

There aren’t many similarities between my wife and the Pine Tar Game. Amy is not a rule-breaker, nor is she very controversial. She doesn’t run after anyone like Brett did on that day, although now and then she flashes me the kind of look Brett gave to those umpires. My wife, in fact, is the antithesis of that game: She’s calm, reliable, fair, cheerful and loving. And, of course, she is beautiful.

Coincidentally, the Yankees happened to play the Royals today on the anniversary of that crazy game 27 years ago. When Kansas City’s Jose Guillen blasted an upper-deck home run off New York’s Sergio Mitre today, there were no calls for a look at Guillen’s bat. It was a homer, fair and square. The Royals won, although a controversial umpire’s call in the ninth inning found Mark Teixeira out on a play in which he appeared to be safe. Royals closer Joakim Soria got out of the game with less drama than Rich Gossage experienced a quarter-century ago, preserving a 7-4 win.

We watched the end of the game, then moved on to other things. There are, of course, more important things than baseball. And there are other things that happen on July 24th. Such as the birthday of your life’s partner. The day you get to remind her that she’s the most important person in your world. There’s nothing controversial, or trivial, about that. The umpires all agree.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Tear-Jerkers (One Sixty-Two: Day 92)

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 Ninety-Two: David Wright, New York Mets

For the past few years, Amy and I have shared a Friday-night ritual with the girls that we all have come to love. We call it Movie Night. After dinner, we sit down in the living room, pop a film into the DVD player, and watch it together. I fetch the ice cream, Amy turns off the lights, and the girls cuddle up with us.

It started one Friday night in August three years ago when I showed the girls the old 1966 Batman movie, featuring all the actors from the delightfully campy ‘60s TV show. The girls had watched plenty of Disney, Pixar and Sesame Street films with us before, but this might have been the first time I’d actually selected a movie for them. Somehow, the Adam West-Burt Ward madcap feature appealed to the girls, and they wanted Daddy to pick another movie for next week.

So the Friday-night ritual was born. By now, we’ve exhausted our own collection of age-appropriate films as well as our local library and the county library system. Some Fridays – tonight being one of them – we find ourselves watching a film we’ve seen already. (The girls get a second look at The Tale of Despereaux today.) Other weeks, we branch out further than we thought we would, even into the realm of foreign films (The Red Balloon and White Mane, to name a couple). Still other weeks, we move into the documentary realm and watch episodes of Planet Earth. Whatever the choice, we can’t go wrong because of the simple fact that we’re all spending time together.

Being that most of our films are G-rated, they typically end happily. We don’t lean toward many tragedies in our Friday-night club. However, if the girls wanted to stay up a little late tonight, they could watch a genuine tear-jerker right before their eyes.

Right now, the sad tale is playing out in Los Angeles, and it was in Phoenix earlier in the week preceded by San Francisco last weekend. It’s the tale of the 2010 New York Mets, and it’s getting ugly fast. The Metropolitans were in the thick of the National League East divisional race during last week’s All-Star Break. But after losing seven of eight games on the West Coast, New York now finds itself 7½ games out of first place. A few more losses, and the Mets will be sitting in fourth place.

If you read the news, you see all kinds of speculation about changes in the Mets’ front office and dugout. I certainly have no idea what the team’s owners will do. But I do know what it’s like to sit in the midst of a serious slump. It starts to feel, after awhile, like you’re on a long train to nowhere. Every pitch, every inning and every game seem designed to leave you on the bottom looking up.

David Wright is one of the more talented hitters in baseball, and he’s certainly been the Mets’ top player this year. But even Wright finds himself caught in the current that has carried his team backward this past week. Wright is 6 for 30 since the All-Star Break, with just two extra-base hits and two runs batted in. The amazing thing is that Wright’s .200 average during these past eight games is actually higher than the team average of .189.

The Mets need some hits, and they need some wins. That’s easy to say. What’s much more difficult is to actually do it – to turn the losing streak around, and bring a much happier ending to your season.

My girls are a little young for PG-13 movies. But when they’re old enough, I’m sure we’ll sit down one night and watch Titanic together. They’ll fall for the love story, they’ll cry over the senseless deaths, and they’ll marvel at the magnitude of the tragedy. In sports, the metaphor of a “sinking ship” is often used to describe a franchise whose fortunes are falling fast. The metaphor’s use intends no disrespect toward those ships that really have gone down. It’s just a way of visualizing the mounting strikeouts in the scorebook, zeroes on the scoreboard, and losses in the record books.

Right now, that metaphor fits the New York Mets better than any team in baseball. In order for that to change, someone has to steady the ship. The Mets need a W, and they need someone to set things right. W; right. David, it sounds like you’ve been called on deck. Grab a bat, my friend. The movie isn’t over yet.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Wheels Come Off (One Sixty-Two: Day 91)

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 Ninety-One: Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh Pirates

She started on a grass field, where the falls would be softer. Once she’d gained some confidence there, it was on to a tennis court. After a few laps around the court, she was ready for the parking lot. And when the asphalt seemed easy, all she could do was smile.

Chelsea, at age 5, has taken off the training wheels. She’s a two-wheelin’ girl now, and there’s no going back. When she hops on her pink and white bicycle, she looks comfortable and relaxed enough to take a ride along a boardwalk or through a park. It’s definitely a “big girl” accomplishment, and she will tell anyone who’ll listen about her latest triumph.

Moments such as these are incredibly exciting, yet also a bit sad for Mom and Dad. We encourage our girls’ growth and independence and celebrate their triumphant steps forward. But then, in our private moments together, Amy and I remember with fondness and longing the moments when our girls were littler, and depended on us more to carry them through each step of life. It all goes by so fast, and we know there will come a day when it will seem as though they went from two-wheelers to car keys in no time.

For now, though, Chelsea is thinking only of strapping on her purple helmet and taking to the sidewalk or tennis courts. “Daddy, you need to watch out,” she says, “because I make sharp turns.” OK, Chelsea, I’ll be on my toes. Her older sister, meanwhile, can see that our attention is on Daughter No. 2. Therefore, she begins cutting Chelsea off with her bike, and performing tricks that she really can’t do that well on her bike. Before long, she’s crashing into a tennis net. And so it goes. It seems as if the older one just started riding her bike ten minutes ago – and now her long, ever-growing limbs call to mind Kermit the Frog riding his bicycle in The Muppet Movie.

Two years ago, Pedro Alvarez was the second overall pick in baseball’s amateur draft. For the next 24 months, the Pittsburgh Pirates kept a set of training wheels on their talented third baseman. The Pirates transitioned Alvarez from Vanderbilt University to the pros by letting the lefty slugger learn in the minors. He played in towns such as Altoona, Pa., and Indianapolis, belting home runs at every step.

In the middle of June, Pittsburgh decided it was time. The training wheels came off, and Alvarez was called up from Indianapolis. He is now the starting third baseman and No. 5 hitter in a major-league lineup. The Pirates hope he’ll be theirs for many years to come.

In his second month on that two-wheeler, Alvarez is most definitely making sharp turns. He slugged a pair of home runs on Tuesday, then followed that up with another pair of homers on Wednesday. So far, the 23-year-old has seven home runs and 20 runs batted in after just 112 at-bats. He’s striking out a lot, and his average is at .250. But the young man is showing tremendous promise. That’s what was expected, and that’s what his team is seeing.

Someday, when Pedro Alvarez is holding some award in his hand or signing his first nine-figure free-agent contract, it will seem difficult to remember some of those days back in the minors, when the training wheels were fastened tightly. But if he thinks hard enough, he’ll remember. And while I’m sure he’ll be living in the moment, I’ll bet Alvarez will also yearn somewhat for that formative time, before he strapped on the black and gold hat and went out into the big leagues on his own.

Because once the wheels come off, you have to make your own way along the path you’re given. You can ask for directions, and you can get some tips on how to slow down or avoid obstacles. But ultimately, it’s in your hands now. You’re growing up.

And those tears you see? Oh, that’s just Mom and Dad feeling proud of you. Proud, and just a little bit older.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tough Love (One Sixty-Two: Day 90)

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 Ninety: Maicer Izturis, Los Angeles Angels

A few things happen when you, a New York Yankees pitcher, give up a two-run home run to a weak-hitting shortstop in your own ballpark. First of all, you get to watch the 5-foot-8 singles-hitter jog around the bases – something he rarely gets to do. Then you see him greeted eagerly by his teammates in the visitors’ dugout. As he slips into the dugout, you see that one of the fans in the right-field seats has given up his or her souvenir by throwing the ball back onto the field. Finally, you hear a cascade of boos raining down upon you from all corners of the park.

Even if you’re an All-Star, this is the way it goes.

Phil Hughes has won 11 games so far this year as a starter for the New York Yankees, and his relief work last season was an invaluable part of New York’s championship run. However, Hughes has given up five or more runs in four of his last six starts. Yankees fans notice this, and they let you know. So as Maicer Izturis, who has 27 career home runs in seven big-league seasons, rounded third after his homer last night in Yankee Stadium, Hughes heard the Bronx cheer loud and clear.

It’s not as if Yankees fans suddenly despise Phil Hughes. They’d ask for his autograph in a second if they met him outside the ballpark, and they’d offer him all kinds of advice on how to get back on track. But in the moment, on that mound in a place where championships are expected, Hughes has no choice but to endure the boos. Yankee fans see it as their responsibility to let players know where they stand.

I can recall a game in the old Yankee Stadium during the early 1990s, when a surging Cleveland Indians club demolished what was at the time a struggling Yankees ballclub. At one point, an Indians hitter lined a shot off the leg of Yankees starting pitcher Mike Witt, who had been hearing the boos for quite awhile in this game. As the team chose to remove Witt from the game with an injury, the stadium crowd suddenly roared its approval to Witt’s departure from the game. As if the line drive hadn’t hurt enough, the sarcasm of this applause surely stung twice as hard.

Again, no personal offense was intended. It’s just a part of the atmosphere in the South Bronx. I was in the stadium when Mike Witt hobbled off that mound nearly 20 years ago, and I was in the stadium last night when Phil Hughes took his long walk to the showers in the sixth inning. Hughes may have nine inches and 70 pounds on Maicer Izturis, but he was the one knocked to the canvas last night. And until he can pull himself up and land some clean jabs again, Hughes will not hear much affection from the home fans. It’s just the way they do things here, on the field of tough love and trophy-hunting.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Head Games (One Sixty-Two: Day 89)

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 Eighty-Nine: Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins

Two years ago, I had a month-long spell of headaches that wouldn’t go away. I went for tests, and everything came up clear. I would imagine it was either allergy- or stress-related, as it gradually dissipated.

Pain in any part of our body is no fun at all, but pain in the head can be particularly stressful. In recent years, doctors and athletes have taken a much closer look at the problem of concussions in sports. The National Football League, in particular, has done some serious soul-searching in addressing the number and severity of concussions its athletes sustain. High school athletic groups, too, have focused more intently on the injuries our teen-agers experience when they take blows to the head.

Over on the baseball diamond, Justin Morneau was having an MVP season with the Minnesota Twins as the All-Star break approached earlier this month. Morneau’s 18 home runs, 56 runs batted in and .345 batting average placed him alongside Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera and Texas’ Josh Hamilton in a three-man quest for baseball’s first Triple Crown in 43 years.

And then Morneau took a knee to the head during a ballgame on July 7 while trying to break up a double play. He was diagnosed with a concussion, hasn’t played since, and missed the All-Star Game completely. Published reports state that he’s resting, seeing a specialist, and not yet ready to play ball again.

One can only hope that Morneau recovers from this injury, and that he is back at the head of the Twins’ offense quite soon. As for the sports world in general, may researchers continue to look for ways to protect our athletes from severe head injuries. Collisions with balls, turf, walls or other athletes are violent ones, and they can impact lives. When doctors recommend a rule change here or a thicker helmet there, it’s time for everyone to line up in support. A healthier playing field is always a more progressive one.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Fundamentally Sound (One Sixty-Two: Day 88)

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 Eighty-Eight: Tim Hudson, Atlanta Braves

I’ve written in previous blogs about my grandfather, Warren Mueller, and the profound impact he had on me and my brother. Warren was a good father, husband, son and brother, and an even better grandfather. He also was a terrific baseball player years ago, and as he grew older he shared his passion for the game with his daughter and grandkids. We used that mutual passion for baseball as a vehicle through which we could connect about much larger life issues.

Today, Warren would have been 92. He lived for 88 years, passing away in November 2006 after a battle with melanoma. During his 20s, Warren pitched in the Boston Braves’ minor-league system before moving over to the semi-pro ranks. He pitched against Joe DiMaggio and Jimmie Foxx, and was known as one of the best pitchers ever to come out of Staten Island, N.Y. In the mid-1940s, while pitching for two different semi-pro teams each week, Warren threw out his left arm and was forced to quit pitching. He still played first base, though, and soon enough had his own semi-pro club after purchasing a White Rock soda business.

While watching a game with my grandfather, I always had the privilege of viewing the matchup through the eyes of a ballplayer. He watched the pitcher’s windup, arm angle and follow-through, then looked to see how close each pitch came to the catcher’s target. Warren’s eyes honed in on heads-up base-running, proper execution of bunts, and defensive positioning. We'd talk about this as he grabbed us a couple of sodas out of the "icebox," as he called his fridge.

In essence, Warren Mueller believed that you won ballgames by executing the fundamentals. And, aside from the home-run-fueled years of the steroid era, he was right. This season, as offensive numbers have fully retreated to their pre-steroid levels, the game is looking more and more like the one my grandfather played.

I think he would enjoy watching Tim Hudson of the Braves pitch in 2010. Hudson, like Warren Mueller decades before him, pitches for the Braves organization. And Hudson, like my grandfather, experienced a serious injury to his throwing arm. The last 65 years have seen tremendous medical advancements, though, so Hudson is back on the mound after major reconstructive elbow surgery. What’s more, he’s pitching better than he has in seven years. Throughout his career, Hudson has been a gutsy pitcher who doesn’t take his team out of ballgames: He’s won nearly twice as many games as he’s lost, he strikes out more than twice as many hitters as he walks, and he fields his position quite well. At 35, Hudson was again an All-Star this season.

In short, he’s the kind of player an old-timer loves to watch – the kind of pitcher who knows how to grab the ball and find a way to win. So in honor of my grandfather, I salute Tim Hudson today. You’ve got to have players out there who work extra hard on the fundamentals, and who never give in to the opponent. Without them, it’s not really a game worth watching. At least that’s what my grandfather told my brother and me. We listened to him closely, and still hear his commentary today, from the ballfield all the way to the icebox.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Just a Number (One Sixty-Two: Day 87)

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 Eighty-Seven: Jason Giambi, Colorado Rockies

Yesterday, I hit the halfway point in my final year as a 30-something. There’s no turning back now, like it or not. The age-39 roller coaster is in that moment of uneasy calm between the ominous climb and the terrifying fall.

Oh, it’s not that bad, I know. Forty is just a number. Of course, it didn’t help that my haircutter told me yesterday that she was skipping the step of thinning my hair after the cut, since it appears that the thinning process is now happening naturally. Nice. Thanks, here’s your tip.

So many people fret over 40 because they know that they will probably experience the aging process more distinctly during the next 10 years than they did during any of the previous four decades. There are reasons why most pro athletes retire around this age, if not earlier. And yet, there’s no one saying you can’t look and feel great while also accommodating the changes that will be there. And life in our 40s brings all kinds of exciting moments with family, careers, vacations and community involvement.

It’s just a number; that’s my mantra. Baseball-Reference.com has a list of all the big-league players born in 1971, and it shows that 14 players of that birth year have played in the majors this year. They range from Ivan Rodriguez of the Washington Nationals to Billy Wagner of the Atlanta Braves to Jorge Posada of the New York Yankees. Most of the players who are still around are either veteran catchers, like Rodriguez, Posada or Gregg Zaun of the Milwaukee Brewers, or specialized relief pitchers, like Wagner, Jose Contreras of the Philadelphia Phillies or Ron Mahay of the Minnesota Twins. In fact, there is only one active 1971 baby who doesn’t play either pitcher or catcher.

It’s a bit ironic that this individual is Jason Giambi, now a backup first baseman and pinch-hitter for the Colorado Rockies. For the past six years, Giambi’s name and his overall health have been sports-headline material, much of it related to steroid investigations taking place in and around baseball. The left-handed slugger has experienced severe blows to his reputation and career statistics over these half-dozen years, enough to ensure that his 412 career home runs, .405 career on-base percentage and seven years as a New York Yankee will not be enough to land him in the Hall of Fame. The latter half of Giambi’s career has not been without its highlights – he did, after all, slug 32 or more homers three out of four years from 2005-08 – but his life as a 30-something will always be connected with what-ifs and whys.

And yet, here he is, still suiting up to swing for the playoff contenders in Denver. Come January 8 of next year, Giambi will turn 40. While his career may be winding down, a new decade might provide him with a chance to contribute more positively to baseball, and perhaps to improve his overall reputation in the game. Maybe Giambi will coach a team’s hitters, and give them advice fueled by his own mistakes, successes and incredible batting eye. Perhaps he will find a way to pass along the competitive fire that guided him through those tough at-bats against Pedro Martinez back when the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was white hot. Or maybe he’ll move away from baseball altogether, and instead help individuals who live their lives outside the white lines.

A few days after Giambi turns 40, I will follow suit. I don’t have a baseball career to look back on, nor have I ever found my name on the back page of the tabloids. That’s OK, actually. I’ll be moving on in my own way, as a teacher, writer, father, husband, son, friend. There’s so much to do, and so much to look forward to, that I wonder if I’ll even have time to count the years. Maybe the real number that matters when you start your fifth decade is 24 – as in the number of hours each day carries in it. If you’re as busy as many of us are at this age, you may find yourself wishing for 40 hours in a day more than you find yourself wishing against 40 candles on a cake.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Old-Timers as Teachers (One Sixty-Two: Day 86)

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 Eighty-Six: Chase Headley, San Diego Padres (via Jerry Coleman)

I read with deep sorrow the news today that former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith is suffering from memory loss. Smith, 79, is one of the giants in college basketball history, and he did it the right way, winning nearly 900 games while also graduating more than 96 percent of his players. While Smith has always been a very private man, those who’ve met him have had the chance to learn so much about life and about basketball.

It seemed somewhat fitting that this news was released today as the New York Yankees held their 64th annual Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium. In the same way that countless young basketball players have had the chance to learn from conversations with Dean Smith, the Yankees and Rays players had an opportunity today to learn from nearly 50 retired Yankees players who were honored during a ceremony before the game between New York and Tampa Bay. As the ceremony took place, the cameras showed current Yankees players chatting it up with men much older – and, in many cases, much wiser – than they.

It makes no sense to me that the Yankees stand alone in holding a baseball ceremony of this sort. We read so often of young ballplayers who lack perspective, maturity, and a true appreciation for the game and its history. What better opportunity than to walk into your clubhouse and find 50 former players right there, ready and willing to talk baseball and life with you?

In addition to honoring retired players from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s, the Yankees also celebrated the 60th anniversary of their 1950 championship team today with a handful of surviving members from that great team. Among those present today was Jerry Coleman, a former infielder for New York who had his best season in 1950. Coleman is now 85, but he’s still announcing San Diego Padres games on the radio. Coleman began working as an announcer in 1960, and he only stopped for the one year in which the Padres hired him to manage the team.

Those Yankees who chatted with Coleman today could have asked him about a lot of things. They could have asked how it felt to win five straight championships, and what it was like to turn a double play with Phil Rizzuto. They could have asked about his transition from the playing field to broadcasting booth, and how he handled that. They also could have asked Coleman about his service in the United States Marine Corps during both World War II and the Korean War. They could have asked him which of his accomplishments he’s most proud of, and what it all means as he looks back on nearly 86 years of living, playing, serving and talking.

Out in San Diego, the Padres players are incredibly lucky to have a guy like Coleman around them. A young infielder like Chase Headley can learn from his team’s announcer – learn a bit about the game of baseball, or learn even more about the game of life. This past week, with the deaths of Bob Sheppard and George Steinbrenner, Yankees players were reminded that no one stays around forever. And the North Carolina Tar Heel family has been reminded that as we age, our minds don’t always stay as sharp.

The seniors among us have so much to share. All we have to do is ask. Schools across the nation are constantly bringing youngsters together with older folks to learn from one another. Baseball can surely do more of the same. Old-Timers games are more than a chance for the old gang to get together again while they’re well enough to do so. These ceremonies allow generations to connect. You can’t go wrong with that.

Friday, July 16, 2010

New Stars (One Sixty-Two: Day 85)

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 Eighty-Five: Evan Meek, Pittsburgh Pirates

For me, one of the coolest things about baseball’s All-Star Game is seeing a virtually unknown player announced during the pregame player introductions. At least once a year, a player comes out of nowhere to produce a great first half and earn a spot on either the National League or American League team. As a result, that young man earns the right to line up, tip his cap, and stand alongside superstars.

When I was younger, I collected the entire set of each year’s Topps baseball cards, as well as the free Yankees cards I got at Burger King. Still, I didn’t know every player – and even if I’d heard of the player’s name and seen his baseball card photo, I might not have watched him play on the field before. So in 1981, for instance, when Cleveland Indians catcher Bo Diaz suited up for the All-Star Game, he was a newcomer to me as well as to most of America. Same for Jim Presley, the Seattle Mariners third baseman who earned a spot in 1986. And Mike Sharperson, the Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman who was named in 1992. And Lance Carter, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays relief pitcher, who was an All-Star in 2003.

This year, the out-of-nowhere award goes to Pirates reliever Evan Meek. I had first heard of Meek a few weeks ago, when the fantasy-baseball sites started crowing about his great work as a middle reliever. But I’ve never seen him pitch. This is Meek’s second full year in the majors, and thus far in 2010 he has a 1.11 earned-run average in 40 games pitched, to go with nearly a strikeout per inning. After years in the minor leagues, the guy has dazzled this season for a losing team, and it did not go unnoticed.

So when he stepped forward during the All-Star introductions to tip his cap, Meek was this year’s unknown. At 6 feet tall and 225 pounds, he looked like a man who had built up strong legs in order to power himself off the pitching rubber. Unfortunately, no one got to see Meek pitch on Tuesday, as he was not used in the game. But if he keeps it up, perhaps Meek will be back for another try next July.

I’ll be keeping my eyes out for a chance to spot Meek on the mound, maybe during some baseball highlights or perhaps even in a televised Pirates game. Until then, I’ll add Evan Meek to the list of ballplayers who got that unexpected chance to step into baseball’s midsummer spotlight. He tipped his cap, smiled for the fans, and stood shoulder to shoulder with the greatest baseball players in the world. It’s not a bad way to spend a summer’s night. Not bad at all.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Second Halves (One Sixty-Two: Day 84)

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 Eighty-Four: Adam Lind, Toronto Blue Jays

As I inch ever closer to age 40, it has come to my attention that I may be in the All-Star Break of my life. That is, the first half of my own season may be in the books, with a second half just getting under way. It’s kind of a frightening prospect, but one that I can’t deny. After all, the average life expectancy for American males is 75, and I have definitely passed the halfway point toward that number.

As my generation chugs into its collective All-Star Break, I see and hear a lot of folks taking stock of their past – attending reunions, playing their favorite ‘80s pop songs, and spending time with family. But conspicuous as the gray hairs may be for some of us, this is no time to despair over the passing of time. The season is long, and second halves can be even better than the first.

Take Rosa Parks, for instance. She was 42 when she changed the world, then spent the next 50 years furthering the movement she’d helped to start. Or how about Frank McCourt: Rather than kicking back after retiring from a fabulous teaching career, McCourt won a Pulitzer Prize for Angela’s Ashes at age 67. Morgan Freeman was an actor best known for theater, a soap opera and a kids’ show until he picked up an Oscar nomination for Driving Miss Daisy at age 52; he earned his most recent nomination last year, at 73. And Joe Torre had an excellent, if not Hall-of-Fame-worthy playing career until he took a job managing the New York Yankees at age 56. Fourteen years, four championships and 13 playoff appearances later, Torre is a sure-fire Hall of Famer now.

Second halves can make all the difference. In the smaller time frame of a baseball season, some players post extraordinary first-half numbers, only to fade in the dog days of summer. Others struggle in the first half, only to kick their games into another gear as summer begins its second month.

Adam Lind turned the baseball world on its head last year. He had known modest success as a part-time player from 2006-08, delivering a total of 22 homers and 94 runs batted in over that time frame. Last year, in his first season as a full-time player for the Blue Jays, Lind became one of the American League’s premier hitters: He hit 35 home runs, drove in 114 runs, and posted a .305 batting average. Few people saw it coming, but everyone took note of Lind’s tremendous improvement.

This season, however, has been a different story. After 86 games, Lind is hitting just .214, with 12 homers and 40 RBI. Lind is on his way to one of the highest strikeout totals in major-league history. And yet, Toronto’s manager, Cito Gaston, keeps putting the left-handed designated hitter into his lineup each day. This shows confidence, and I’m sure it means a lot to Lind. As the second half of the 2010 season begins, Adam Lind is clearly looking for a return to last year’s success.

It’s a long season, and sometimes three or four days off in the middle of July can make all the difference. Players clear their heads, rest their aches and pains, and get some sleep in their own beds. They return to the diamond feeling new again, and they look to the second half with optimism. In some cases, they do deliver tremendous second halves, and all of those early woes are forgotten.

Adam Lind is looking for that kind of change as he gets re-started tomorrow. And on Saturday, Lind turns 27 – still well into his own life’s first half, one would hope. But for the game he plays for a living, Lind is looking to pull a Frank McCourt, a Morgan Freeman, and a Joe Torre all in one. There’s plenty of time to craft a second half to remember. Now’s the time to start.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

All-Stars Among Us (One Sixty-Two: Day 83)

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 Eighty-Three: Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves

One of the first great lessons my parents taught me grew out of their friendship with George and Maurice. These two men, both my parents’ age, were over our house all the time – for birthdays, holidays, and regular days – and it was clear that they were extremely close with my parents. George, after all, was my godfather, while Maurice was my brother’s godfather. In addition to being two of the most grounded individuals I know, George and Maurice also are two of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. My parents’ friendship with them stretched back to their days at Curtis High School on Staten Island, and I could see, even as a kid, that their bonds would stretch on into forever.

So the lesson I learned here was that my own interpretation of family need not be restricted to blood ties. If your relationship with a friend was so close that they knew what you were thinking before you said a word, that person was not merely a friend. He was your brother, your cousin, your uncle. Your family. And so it has been for my brother and me, as we’ve grown up with Uncle George, Uncle Reese (until he forced us, in our 20s, to call him Maurice) and numerous other uncles, aunts and cousins whom you will not find on our family tree.

In our own adulthood, my brother and I have adhered to this ideal, and it can be seen quite wonderfully in the ways in which my daughters now call some of our close friends “Uncle” and “Aunt.” The girls don’t question it, as they seem to understand the concept completely. This was evident again this past weekend, when they spent time with their Uncle Neil and Aunt Siobhan.

Neil was my brother’s best friend in high school, and has remained his closest friend throughout Eric’s life. As I came to understand what a remarkably compassionate and considerate individual Neil was, I was able to develop a very strong friendship with him as well. He is my younger daughter’s godfather, and he chose to marry an equally loving woman who, like him, finds limitless ways to reach out to her “family” every day. As Neil and Siobhan have grown together, they’ve become the rock around which their own families revolve. They are constantly there for their parents, siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins. Their umbrella of family extends far and wide, encompassing friends from high school, college, law school and work. They are the ones who get the calls from loved ones in need of help, or a listening ear, or advice. This can be a considerable weight to carry, especially now that they have their own child. But I don’t think Neil and Siobhan would have it any other way. It’s simply who they are.

I thought of these two last night, while watching baseball’s All-Star Game. The folks at Angels Stadium, along with People magazine, had a neat idea to welcome 30 everyday heroes to the pregame festivities. These individuals were dubbed the “All-Stars Among Us,” as they have contributed mightily to their communities through various service projects. Neil and Siobhan have spent many hours coordinating and working at the Mercy Center for women and families in the South Bronx. They know what it’s like to give of yourself freely for the greater good.

Then, as the game played itself out, I saw a man step out of the shadows and carry his National League team to victory when the moment called for it. Brian McCann of the Braves wasn’t an All-Star starter, but when he stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the seventh inning, he had a responsibility to get the job done. And so McCann did it, with a bases-clearing, game-winning double off of Chicago White Sox reliever Matt Thornton. It was enough to earn the catcher this year’s All-Star Game MVP award.

So McCann was the rock on which the National League rested its hopes last night. And he delivered. On the baseball diamond, he did what Neil and Siobhan do every day, and what they will continue to do for as long as they live. As for me, I’m just one of the lucky ones who get to experience their friendship. My parents showed me a long time ago what family is. It’s the all-stars among us.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

When the Boss Listened (One Sixty-Two: Day 82)

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 Eighty-Two: Andy Pettitte, New York Yankees (via George Steinbrenner)

What is strong leadership? Is it getting the job done, no matter what the cost? Is it setting a standard for dignity and effort, with the knowledge that others will watch and follow your example? Must a successful leader rule by fear and intimidation, or is it possible instead to lead more effectively through quiet determination and clear communication?

As dozens of baseball players, managers, executives and media types commented today on the death of New York Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner, they said many kind words about a man who was driven to win. But as they spoke of Steinbrenner, the underlying discussion these folks were having was one on leadership. Was Steinbrenner a positive leader, one to be honored for all time? Or was he a pushy, overly involved boss who instilled more trepidation in his employees than trust?

I’ve followed the New York Yankees closely for 33 years, and in my formative years I watched Steinbrenner blow through managers, third-base coaches and front-office executives like a fussy homemaker ever dissatisfied with his living-room furniture. What’s more, Steinbrenner would constantly trade young prospects for veterans past their prime, and he would publicly berate his players time and time again.

This came to a head in 1990, when Steinbrenner was found to have paid a gambler in order to try and find incriminating information about his own player, outfielder Dave Winfield. Fay Vincent, who was commissioner of baseball at the time, banned Steinbrenner from the game for two years.

Yankee Stadium was a lonely place in 1990, as the home team was baseball’s worst franchise and fans could constantly be heard chanting “Steinbrenner Sucks” from the stands. I can recall feeling as though the suspension of Steinbrenner had given my team new hope. And indeed, that’s exactly what happened: The team’s front office executives worked to develop talented young players such as Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. When these players matured, they were not traded, as had been the Steinbrenner way. Instead, they were inserted into the New York lineup.

By the time Steinbrenner returned, he could see that this plan was working. And so he did something that all good leaders do: He listened to his employees’ plan, accepted it, and changed his ways. By 1996, his Yankees were world champions again. Last year, New York won its fifth title in the past 14 years, three more than any other team has won in that time span.

In the early 2000s, Steinbrenner had one more relapse into his blustery ways, deciding strangely that Andy Pettitte – clearly his most reliable pitcher from 1995-2003 – was not worth signing anymore. He also went on to sign a few more of those big-name stars who looked good on paper but didn’t quite fit the Yankee mold. After he’d gotten Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson out of his system and seen no titles as a result of it, Steinbrenner again listened as his general manager laid out a blueprint for developing from within and signing free-agent players who suited the Yankees’ needs. Again he listened, and agreed. So players such as Robinson Cano and Phil Hughes were not traded, and instead became All-Stars. Players such as CC Sabathia and, yes, Andy Pettitte were signed to free-agent contracts. Last year’s Yankees gave Steinbrenner one more championship – his seventh since buying the Yankees in 1973. Pettitte pitched the clinching game in all three rounds of the playoffs.

Today, as news of Steinbrenner’s passing spread throughout the country, Cano and Hughes and Sabathia and Pettitte all were in Anaheim to represent the Yankees as American League All-Stars. The plan is working, even if the Boss is not there to see it through anymore. I never met the man, so I can’t chime in on his character. But I think the sight of Andy Pettitte cruising through Inning 3 of tonight’s All-Star Game says something about this mercurial owner: He slowed down, shifted gears, and tried a new approach. He even stopped firing so many managers and coaches.

Ironically, early-21st century media have brought a reality-TV culture that thrives on intimidation, dismissed contestants and the words “You’re fired.” In the South Bronx, that’s so 1985. George Steinbrenner, dead at 80, learned patience. In doing so, he taught us all a lesson in leadership: It’s never too late to change.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Snapshots (One Sixty-Two: Day 81)

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 Eighty-One: Scott Hairston & Jerry Hairston Jr., San Diego Padres

When the family gets together for a few days, as my family did this weekend, it’s often the case that a photo album makes its way into someone’s hands. In between trips to the beach, sittings for breakfast and dinner, and walks to the ice-cream shop, someone pulled out some albums from the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

My brother quickly found some photos of me that he couldn’t resist passing around. One, an early-80s shot, shows an 11-year-old boy wearing glasses that are roughly the circumference of a side-view mirror. As the awkward boy smiles behind the Coke-bottle glasses and beneath his wavy brown hair, he holds aloft a blue-and-white Pinewood Derby car and the trophy he (and his dad – actually, mostly his dad) earned for finishing second in the Cub Scout race.

When it was my turn, I made note of a late-‘70s photo of my brother. In it, Eric is tossing a Frisbee on the beach while wearing the smallest Speedo bathing suit mankind has ever created. He countered with a shot of me in some sort of red velour sweater, sitting on a chair with the aforementioned glasses dominating all aspects of the frame. I pointed out his KISS T-shirt in one photo. He made note of my – ahem – Shaun Cassidy silkscreen in another photo. I can’t offer any excuses or explanations to that.

But the photo that drew perhaps the most laughs was one in which I am standing outside a well-respected Jersey Shore restaurant wearing a Philadelphia Phillies T-shirt, tucked into a pair of red running shorts. The shirt is tucked in somewhere around my navel, calling to mind the old Martin Short “Ed Grimley” character from Saturday Night Live. As if that weren’t enough, this photo also shows me wearing a yellow and brown San Diego Padres helmet on my head. I can recall winning a plastic baseball helmet at a boardwalk roulette game of some sort, but I don’t remember wearing it out to restaurants. And yet, there is proof that I did so, and that my mother and father allowed me to dress in this manner. I don’t think there were other kids in the restaurant dressed like this. In fact, I don’t think there was anyone else in New Jersey sporting this look. There is good reason for that.

As 10 family members gathered under one roof, and as a summer rain brought us indoors for a while, we looked at this 10-year-old boy and laughed, together. More photos were taken of us all this weekend, and we talked and ate and played in the sand. The old photos were hilarious, sure, but they also served as a reminder of the path we’ve been walking together, and how far we’ve all come. The photos also helped inspire us to share old stories with my girls, to broaden their understanding of that path, and to help them figure out their place in it.

The San Diego Padres were never a team I rooted for much. But back in the early ‘80s I liked to wear hats and, yes, helmets of teams that were more exotic than my New York-area ken. My brother preferred his Houston Astros cap to go with the KISS and Empire Strikes Back T-shirts he wore. This weekend, as we dressed in much more boring adult clothing, two brothers in their 30s laughed for a while at the photos. Meanwhile, Sunday’s baseball action found this year’s Padres continuing their surprising first-place run. In a 9-7 win against the Colorado Rockies, the Padres smacked 16 hits. Seven of those hits came from a set of brothers, Scott Hairston and Jerry Hairston Jr. Scott is 30 years old, while Jerry is 34. The two Padre hermanos played well together on Sunday, giving their family more pieces for the scrapbooks and photo albums.

My brother is 36 now, and I’m 39. We don’t play ball anymore, aside from the occasional Wiffle Ball classics. There are other shared experiences now. They build upon themselves, and the photos serve as testament to the power of family. Hynes or Hairston, it doesn’t matter. We keep tucking in those shirts, donning the occasional helmet, and smiling for the photos. We walk through life, side by side, and the snapshots remind us of just how many miles we’ve traveled.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Voice (One Sixty-Two: Day 80)

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 Eighty: Derek Jeter, New York Yankees (via Bob Sheppard)

Now batting, number two, Derek Jeter. Number two.

His voice echoed throughout the vast stadium, bouncing off the fa├žade and into your bones. “Every time you heard it, you got chills,” Derek Jeter said. Truer words were never said.

The man with the voice was Bob Sheppard, and he served as the most famous and most accomplished public-address announcer in America. His booming, eloquent delivery of names and numbers filled Yankee Stadium from 1951-2007, introducing players from DiMaggio to Mantle to Jackson to Mattingly to Jeter. He also worked New York Giants games for 50 years, as well as a host of other teams, from St. John’s University to the New York Cosmos. On Sunday, Sheppard died at home at the age of 99.

There will never be another voice like Bob Sheppard’s, but sadly there are very few stadiums today willing to allow a public-address announcer’s voice to be the dominant sound effect in the park. Most baseball teams have a sound-effects employee who pushes buttons in between each pitch to give us a recording of some pop-culture sound, such as the clapping intro to “We Will Rock You” when the bases are loaded or the sound of a window shattering when a foul ball lands outside the stadium.

We are a short-attention-span nation, and we don’t listen nearly as well or as attentively as we once did. The imagination can do a lot with a perfectly enunciated name – you can hear those names in your head when you’re playing in the backyard, and they can add considerable drama and excitement to the Wiffle ball you’re about to throw.

"A voice that you hear in your dreams, in your sleep," Chipper Jones of the Braves told a reporter when asked about Sheppard.

Our imaginations need these voices, much more than they need the cheap sound effects. When the voices talk to us, they take us places we never thought we’d go. They give us chills.

Every time Derek Jeter walks to the plate at Yankee Stadium, a recording of Bob Sheppard’s voice is played. Every time at bat in the ballpark, Jeter is introduced by this man. Close your eyes, and listen. It’s still magical. Still the stuff of dreams.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Babes & Busters (One Sixty-Two: Day 79)

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 Seventy-Nine: Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants

This year, the National League has one of its most impressive rookie classes ever. From the outfield to the pitcher’s mound to the backstop, rookies are playing crucial roles on several big-league teams. America’s modern youth sports system expects young athletes to specialize in one sport early on, and to play that sport all year long. So when a 22-year-old arrives in the big leagues today, he’s a lot more experienced and ready to contribute than the typical rookie of previous generations. This year’s rookies are likely to play deciding roles in determining who wins the league’s pennant. Come November, it will be awfully tough to determine who this season’s NL Rookie of the Year should be.

Despite their enormous talent, there’s one problem with most of these talented National League rookies: Their first names are too dull. There’s Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward, Michael Stanton, Matt Latos, Mike Leake, Pedro Alvarez. Jaime Garcia, Ike Davis. All right, Ike isn’t a name you’d see every day, but the rest are just so ordinary. Where are the nicknames? Ever since the early days of pro baseball, nicknames have been such a colorful part of the game. Where are they now?

Until these youngsters find a more colorful moniker, my Rookie of the Year vote goes for the 23-year-old who catches for the San Francisco Giants and answers to the name of Buster. His given name is Gerald Posey, but this Georgia native is the one rookie who’s following that time-honored baseball tradition of grabbing hold of a cool nickname. Buster Posey: Once you hear the name, you can’t forget it.

Creative nicknames add to a ballplayer’s mythic lore, and offer the sportswriters more color to work with when describing the players’ exploits. Back in the old days, when sports fans learned about their athletes from newspaper articles rather than SportsCenter highlights, these nicknames helped paint a picture of the player in each reader’s mind.

Who needed a Lawrence Berra when you could call the Yankee catcher “Yogi”? And why call the outfielder plain ol’ Joe Jackson when “Shoeless Joe” sounded so much better? The great home-run hitter’s name was George Ruth, but how ‘bout just calling him “Babe”? And on it goes, from James “Cool Papa” Bell to Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown to Joseph “Ducky” Medwick. And that’s not even counting all the men named Lefty or Red or Whitey or Hack or Goose or Smokey.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, Posey’s father, Demp, was called “Buster” as a kid. When he had his own son, Demp named his child Gerald Dempsey Posey III, but chose to call the kid by the same nickname he had known as a child. "It stuck with him," Demp Posey told the Mercury News. "It's just kind of him. He's just ol' Buster."

So let Stephen Strasburg strike out the world, and let Jason Heyward hit home runs to the moon. As for me, I’m voting for the rookie who’s hitting .333, driving in runs and leading the defense for San Francisco. He’s a gamer, and he’s a Buster. They named him just right.

Friday, July 9, 2010

I Want to Win (One Sixty-Two: Day 78)

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 Seventy-Eight: Roy Oswalt, Houston Astros

“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach,” LeBron James said. “I think it will give me the best opportunity to win, and win for multiple years.”

For a man with all the money he could ever need, the focus turns to winning. So as the fans in Cleveland fume, and some even turn to burning his No. 23 jersey, James leaves his hometown for the sunny skies of Miami, and the opportunity to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh under the tutelage of Pat Riley. It’s a winning combination, one that will likely bring these men some NBA titles.

Ho-hum. The rich get richer – again. What’s new?

We see it in sports all the time – players who’ve made more money than most of us could ever dream of choose a franchise with a tradition of winning over another that lacks said tradition. They search for the best chance to claim a title, and leave their old team without much hope. LeBron James did this last night, but he’s not the first. Nor will he be the last.

Roy Oswalt is 32 years old, and he’s in his 10th season pitching for the Houston Astros organization that drafted him. Oswalt has won 143 games for the Astros, one shy of the franchise record for career wins. Oswalt’s right arm helped lead Houston to its only World Series appearance in 2005, and to playoff appearances in ’04 and ‘01. But in 2010, the Astros are well on their way to their third losing season in the past four years. And Oswalt, who has earned approximately $75 million during his 10 years in Houston, is ready to leave the Astros behind.

It happens every year. Oswalt won’t be the only big-name baseball player traded this month – Seattle Mariners pitcher Cliff Lee could be traded as soon as today. But like LeBron James, who played seven seasons with the Cavaliers team that drafted him, Oswalt wants to win now. That means leaving behind the franchise that had been his home.

So if you’ve got a No. 44 Astros jersey, wear it today. Tomorrow, it might be out of date. Someday, after he retires, the Astros might bring Oswalt back and retire that number. But for now, in July of 2010, that number is about to be exchanged for Double-A prospects.

Oswalt wants to win. If he could shoot from the outside, the Miami Heat would love to have him. But he’ll settle instead for a pennant race. In a new town. It’s kind of like shopping in a mall – you feel no connection to the place, and there’s nothing there that feels like home. But you get what you want, and you go home with stuff.

Everyone wins, in a way. Except that no one establishes roots. And when there are no roots – when you don’t hang with a place long enough to live through the ups, downs and everything in between – it’s hard for you to ever become what the greatest of our athletes and coaches have been called:

A legend.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Underappreciated Man: Tweet All About It (One Sixty-Two: Day 77)

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 Seventy-Seven: Michael Young, Texas Rangers

This evening, we received news that Nick Swisher had been voted to the American League All-Star team in the increasingly popular fan vote to determine the final member of each league’s team. Swisher, who has a wildly popular Twitter account, spent part of this week actively promoting his cause via tweets. He edged out Boston’s Kevin Youkilis, who received a heavy dose of support from Red Sox Nation.

A little while later, ESPN broadcast the most-hyped free-agent signing announcement in the history of the world, in which LeBron James sat before Jim Gray, a group of youngsters and a VitaminWater vending machine to announce that he’ll be playing pro basketball for the Miami Heat this fall. LeBron’s announcement was broadcast via a one-hour special, which ESPN titled “The Decision.”

It was a day for self-promotion in sports. But what day isn’t? The potent combination of sports and electronic media in the 21st century has placed individual stars under the microscope more than ever before. Swisher and James, to their credit, seemed to be trying to maintain some humility in discussing their triumphs. But try as they may, they could not erase the fact that each had helped turn an event into a media frenzy.

Michael Young doesn’t do media frenzies. The Texas Rangers third baseman finished fourth in the American League fan vote, leaving him out of the midsummer classic for the first time since 2003. The Rangers certainly encouraged their fans to vote for Young. But the 33-year-old did not speak out on his own behalf.

And if anyone had a right to do so, it was this guy. No active major-league player has been as clutch in All-Star play as Michael Young, as he drove in the game-winning runs in both the 2006 and 2008 All-Star games. Young is a six-time All-Star, who at age 33 has more than 1,700 hits and a .302 career batting average. He rarely misses a game for Texas, and has agreed twice in his career to change positions when the Rangers asked. In 2004, he moved from second base to shortstop to accommodate Texas’s acquisition of Alfonso Soriano. Last year, months after winning a Gold Glove at shortstop, Young moved over to third to make room for the younger Elvis Andrus.

Humility may be hard to find in sports these days. But over in Arlington, Texas, the first-place Rangers have a healthy dose of it at third base. Michael Young may be the most underappreciated player of his generation. But he won’t tell you that. He won’t tweet it, either. Sometimes, just knowing for yourself is good enough.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Journey Begins (One Sixty-Two: Day 76)

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 Seventy-Six: Mike Murray, Arizona League Giants

We take a break today from the big-league players in order to drop down a few levels. Today’s focus is a Rookie League player fresh out of college. Mike Murray is not a Major Leaguer yet – give him a couple of years. But Murray is a former student of mine, and he’s playing professional baseball, and that’s worth writing about.

As a junior, Mike was an active participant in our English class at Westfield (N.J.) High, often voicing his opinions on the quality of books I selected (thumbs-up for The Great Gatsby, thumbs-down for The Bluest Eye). When I had him again as a senior, Mike helped brighten a first-period English class by starting class discussions while others were still yawning and rubbing their eyes. It’s not often that you have a student for two straight years, but in those two years I realized that Mike was a natural leader. It was no surprise, then, when I learned that he was a catcher. An All-State and All-American one, at that.

In the spring of his senior year, Mike chose college over the amateur baseball draft, and he spent four years studying and playing ball at Wake Forest University. As a senior, he co-captained the Demon Deacons and hit .345, driving in 53 runs in 54 games. This past spring, Mike signed a contract to play in the San Francisco Giants’ minor-league system. He’s got a .333 batting average so far, playing for the Arizona League Giants in sunny Scottsdale, Ariz.

You hear stories, time and again, about the challenges of adjusting to the minor-league lifestyle. The travel, the down time, the expectations, the loneliness. As Mike Murray begins his minor-league journey out West, I’m sure he’s got plenty of support from his family and friends. But for what it’s worth, may he also know that there’s a high school English teacher back East thinking of him, and wishing him a summer filled with joy, good health, strong throws to second and doubles in the gap.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Flying the Flag (One Sixty-Two: Day 75)

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 Seventy-Five: Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles

When you walk around a Jersey Shore town, every once in awhile you’ll pass a house with the Maryland state flag hanging outside. It’s not a long drive from Maryland to Southern Jersey, especially if you take the ferry from Lewes, Del., to Cape May. Whenever I pass such a house, I am reminded of just how gorgeous that flag is.

There’s no state flag like it, both visually and historically. The flag is broken up into quadrants, yet only two images are drawn on the flag – each of them on diagonally opposing quadrants. One image depicts a red and white cross, while the other depicts a yellow and black diamond pattern. When viewed altogether, the dueling images make for a striking flag display. Historically, the images mean a lot to Maryland, as this is the only state flag whose design is based on heraldic emblems. The two images depict the coats of arms of the Calvert and Crossland families, founders of the Maryland colony back in the 17th century.

They take their images seriously in Maryland, from the state flag to the muscle-bound turtle on University of Maryland Terrapins T-shirts, to the slick, elongated bird on Baltimore Ravens helmets. In terms of sports, though, no Maryland image is as impressive and iconic as the simple, yet elegant bird on Baltimore Orioles hats and T-shirts. It’s a detailed Oriole of black and orange, and he calls to mind both the natural environment of the region as well as the proud history of a baseball franchise.

It’s one thing to look good, of course, and yet another thing to execute. While every Baltimore Oriole looks sharp in white, orange and black, not many Orioles have appeared all that capable on the field in the past decade and a half. This year’s Orioles, owners of the worst record in baseball, are on their way to a franchise-record 13th straight season with a losing record. This from a franchise that once ran off a string of 18 consecutive winning seasons, from 1968-1985. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, no American League team was as consistent as Baltimore. Manager Earl Weaver fielded a team of great pitchers and solid hitters, and Orioles fans respected and admired their clubs. World Series were won here, and Hall of Fame players were honored to suit up for the Birds.

After the 1992 opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, one of the great ballparks in Major League Baseball history, the Orioles went on another winning streak, fielding competitive teams for a half-dozen years in the ‘90s and making the playoffs twice. But after a surprising playoff loss to the Cleveland Indians in 1997, the Orioles have come up empty year after year ever since.

This year’s team has a lot of exciting young players, none more highly touted than catcher Matt Wieters. And yet, the Orioles are 25-57, a whopping 26 games out of first place. Wieters is hitting just .239, and the team as a whole is hitting just slightly better than that. The Baltimore manager has already been changed, giving the O’s their sixth manager since this lengthy losing streak began. By comparison, the Atlanta Braves – the Southeast’s other big-league team – have had just one manager over the past 20 years. With Bobby Cox’s consistent leadership, the Braves have produced a losing record just twice in the past two decades.

So when will the losing stop in Baltimore? When will the fans be given reason to return to Camden Yards? Word is that Baltimore is talking with Buck Showalter, the ESPN analyst and former manager who has helped turn around the fortunes of all three teams he’s led. Perhaps Showalter will have the winning touch here as well.

Until then, the Maryland flag will keep on waving outside those Jersey Shore vacation homes. They do sell Orioles flags, and they can be flown outside your house, too. It’s just that winning makes every flag a bit prettier, and a bit more desirable. Until the losing stops, Marylanders will stick with their coats of arms.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Summer (One Sixty-Two: Day 74)

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 Seventy-Four: Billy Butler, Kansas City Royals

There’s a Springsteen cover band playing “Thunder Road” on the pool deck of a hotel called the Montreal Inn. From eight blocks away, we can hear the music as we roll our bicycles out of the garage for the short ride to the beach. Inside the house, I walk my dog into her crate, and turn on the TV so she’s not frightened by the sound of all those fireworks yet to come. I choose “Sunday Night Baseball,” and Billy Butler of Kansas City is up at bat against Joel Pineiro of the Los Angeles Angels. Pineiro strikes Butler out just as my dog takes a seat in her crate.

Down at the beach, the crowds are thickening, as adults and children lay out their blankets and unfold their beach chairs. Once we’ve claimed a spot, I grab our baseball gloves and have a catch with my girls for a few minutes. Nearby, a group of kids light some sparklers. The cover band has moved on to “Rosalita.”

As the sun sets, the thin clouds streaking across the darkening blue sky take on brilliant tints of pink and orange. Across the bay, we can see the fireworks beginning over in Delaware. As the sky darkens just a bit more, the grandparents sit down in their beach chairs, while the parents and kids huddle together on a blanket.

As the fireworks begin shooting up from an offshore barge, the oohs and ahhs commence right away. Explosions of green, red, pink, white, yellow and purple fill the sky above us, and the beach crowd is captivated. The 8-year-old calls out names of holidays that match the colors of each firework: “Christmas!” she shouts to the red and green sparkles above her. “Easter!” for the bright pink shimmer. “St. Patrick’s Day!” for the green field of lights.

The fireworks last for 15 minutes, ending in a scintillating rainbow of colors and pops and applause. When it ends, we rise from our comfy seats in the sand, roll up our blankets and make our way back to the bicycles. The crash of ocean waves reclaims its place of prominence among the sound effects here. The moon and stars once again direct our visual effects.

It is summer, as ripe as a fresh peach. As bright as a fireworks display. As reassuring as a Springsteen song. As alive as a baseball game.

I breathe deep, take it all in, and pedal home slowly through the gathering darkness. There’s no rushing this.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Promise (One Sixty-Two: Day 73)

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 Seventy-Three: Chipper Jones, Atlanta Braves

On this day, Americans gather to celebrate the most famous press release in the history of the world. When it was signed on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence announced to the colonists, the mother country, and the rest of the world that America was going to become its own nation, no matter how much bloodshed this required.

In drafting this announcement, the Founding Fathers elaborated on the kind of country they wished to create. It would be a nation based on the principles of liberty and equality, they told us. When writing the words “all men are created equal,” the Philadelphia patriots chose to make this Declaration more than just a pronouncement. They chose to make it a promise.

Throughout the past 234 years, Americans have harkened back to the Declaration whenever they’ve found our country failing to deliver on that sacred promise. The boldness and beauty of “all men are created equal” has stood watch over the decisions we’ve made as a nation. After decades of slavery, Abraham Lincoln cited the Declaration as the country moved to turn things right. After nearly a century and a half of women lacking the right to vote, the Seneca Falls Convention used the Declaration to show us where America had fallen short. After nearly 200 years of discrimination and segregation toward African-Americans, Martin Luther King quoted from the Declaration in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in the summer of 1963.

The United States of America was founded on the highest standards of freedom and acceptance. And in reaching for those standards, we the people have often taken two steps forward, followed by one step backward. From race to gender to class to disability, our nation has expanded its guarantees of equality in many ways over the years. But at the same time, we find individuals across our nation reminding us of the many ways in which we’ve denied equality. In recent years, for instance, we’ve heard from immigration activists in Arizona, from gay-rights activists across the country, from advocates for the poor in our inner cities, and from Arab Americans facing discrimination across the country.

We are a complex people, with a complex history. Take today’s Atlanta Braves home game in Turner Field, for instance. When the Braves host the Marlins today, they will do so in an integrated Southern city, where any visitor can pay a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. The Braves will field a team featuring white, Latino, African-American and Asian players. The team’s makeup features everything Thomas Jefferson might have hoped America could become.

And yet, at the same time, the Braves will play today’s game in a state that just nine years ago chose to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from part of its own state flag. What’s more, when the Braves take the field they will wear an image of a tomahawk on their jerseys – a weapon of choice for the Native Americans who had their own freedom and humanity stripped from them in the early years of this republic. Finally, if the Braves start a rally during their game today, and star third baseman Chipper Jones steps to the plate, the fans will no doubt begin their famous “Tomahawk Chop.” With this chop, the fans will move their right arms downward like tomahawks, to depict the scalping that they hope their Braves will inflict on those Marlins. This, in spite of the fact that vast numbers of Native Americans still live on isolated reservations, in a constant struggle with poverty and substance abuse.

It’s a complex nation, all right. We have a hard time delivering consistently on that promise of 234 years ago. There are times each day when we see ourselves and others falling far short of the expectations inside that press release. And yet the promise remains. It always has, ever inching us forward.

In our best moments as Americans, we look for ways to work together in hopes of taking that next step. In those moments, we march together in the direction of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our unalienable rights. The promise of a nation. It is there, in Turner Field and every field. From sea to shining sea. Beckoning us onward, where liberty stands ready to shine.