Tuesday, August 31, 2010

When Time Speeds Up (One Sixty-Two: Day 131)

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 Thirty-One: Gordon Beckham, Chicago White Sox

Time started to speed up today. From the moment I entered my school on this, the first day for teachers, everything felt like it was moving in fast forward. The paperwork. The meetings. The conversations with colleagues. The boxes to unpack. The room to decorate.

The marathon that we call a school year has begun, but it always begins and ends in a sprint. As we go from 0 to 60 in a matter of hours, teachers try to search within for the ability to breathe deep and allow time to slow down again. It can be done, but it takes real effort. If we don’t slow it down, the only thing we can be sure of is that we’ll come home with a headache every day.

They talk a lot in baseball about what happens when the game starts to speed up on players. When you’re struggling, it often ends up that you step into the batter’s box and, before you can blink, you have two strikes on you. Hitting coaches work with players to develop rhythms and patience at the plate, with the hopes of preventing pitchers from dictating the outcome of every at-bat. As for pitchers, they too need to slow things down so that they don’t find themselves walking two batters quickly, only to groove a pitch down the middle of the plate to the third man up.

Gordon Beckham has struggled this year with the pace of his game. Two years ago, Beckham was a first-round draft pick, and he debuted with the Chicago White Sox last season. Beckham’s rookie campaign was an excellent one, as he hit .270 with 14 home runs in just 378 at bats. There were high hopes pinned on Beckham in the Windy City as the 2010 season began. But in April, Beckham found himself hitting just .235 for the month. In May, he hit .159. And in June, he hit .233. Overall, this left him at just .216 for the first half of the season. Beckham had gone from one of the hottest young prospects in the game to one of the least effective starting position players in all of baseball.

And then, in early July, time started to slow down for the second baseman. He began to knock doubles into the gap, and he hit some home runs as well. The White Sox have kept Beckham in the ninth spot in the lineup, but he is hitting again. In July, his average was .354, and in August it was .309. Beckham is controlling his at-bats once again, and he can anticipate a pitch and make the pitcher pay.

In teaching parlance, Beckham is once again walking in the door ready for his lessons – he prepared the day before, and he knows the material well. He’s well-rested and ready to meet the students’ needs, whatever they might be. He’s doing his grading, but not letting that stack of papers take over his life. He’s got the rest of his paperwork under control, and he’s not getting stressed out over the little things. He’s calling the parents of students who are struggling, in order to avoid major problems down the road. And, most importantly, he’s going home and doing something for himself each day so that the job doesn’t consume him in all the unhealthy ways that work can do to us.

The White Sox like the kind of baseball that their second baseman is playing right now, and he’s certainly not losing his job anytime soon. Gordon Beckham knows this, I’m sure. Now as September brings the pennant race to a close with another full-out sprint, the key for Beckham is to keep his cool as the hot lights shine on him and his teammates. The stakes may be high, but the game doesn’t have to go any faster than you want it to go. Just breathe deep, and keep your hand off that fast-forward button.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cy Three (One Sixty-Two: Day 130)

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 Thirty: Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter & Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals

Every summer, our local library holds contests for kids each week in different parts of the building. There’s the “Find Buddy the Worm” contest, in which children have to find the laminated cut-out of a cartoon worm somewhere in the children’s section. There’s the “Fun Facts” contest, in which kids are asked a science question, often one about animals. There’s also the “Guess How Much Candy” math question, in which the youngsters try and determine how many Tootsie Rolls or lollipops are inside a clear jar. For all of these contests, the kids write down their answers, place their paper into a large jar, and hope that their correct answer will be the one randomly chosen that week.

So this morning, the phone rings, and it’s the library. Chelsea, I’m told, has won the “Find Buddy” contest, and her prize is waiting at the front desk. I tell her this, and her eyes light up. Her immediate instinct is to go and tell her sister … who is not so happy.

“What about me?” Katie asks. Oh, dear. Here we go.

The phone rings again. It’s the library once more. Katie has won the “Fun Facts” contest this week. Her prize is waiting, too.

Crisis averted. Cheers of joy in the house. It must be my day.

You can’t win everything. It’s just not possible. Even Michael Jordan finished more NBA seasons without a championship than with one. We learn, early on, to enjoy the journey and the many triumphs along the way in life, rather than expecting a prize for everything we do. Somehow, though, that hasn’t stopped me from announcing all the chores I do each day; my wife has explained that no medal is forthcoming, nor will it ever be. But that’s a different blog post for a different day.

The girls pulled off the rare sibling sweep of summer library prizes this week. But that kind of stuff doesn’t usually happen. Over on the baseball field, a trio of pitchers by the names of Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia would all love to win the National League’s Cy Young Award this season. And all have put together years quite worthy of this honor. In fact, it is staggering to see just how much these three starting pitchers have carried the St. Louis Cardinals this year. Going into tonight’s action, the Cardinals were 69-59 on the year, good enough to keep them in second place and five games behind the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central.

But without Wainwright, Carpenter and Garcia, the Cardinals’ season would be long gone. Out of the 69 team wins, the three aces have combined to win 43 of those games. Out of the 59 losses, they’ve claimed only 19 of them. All three men have earned-run averages below 3.00, with Wainwright and Garcia actually both below 2.40. In the way of strikeouts, the three pitchers have combined to punch out 440 batters, versus only 160 combined walks.

To put all of this in perspective, no other Cardinals starter has more than four wins on the year. The next-highest win total on the team comes from closer Ryan Franklin, who has won six games. The Cardinals have baseball’s best player at first base in Albert Pujols. But this season, Pujols has not been the only one handling the heavy lifting.

If any of these three men is to win the Cy Young Award, it will likely be Wainwright, who has more wins (17) and strikeouts (178) than the other two. But Wainwright could easily fall short of the honor himself, to premier pitchers such as Ubaldo Jimenez of the Rockies, Roy Halladay of the Phillies or Tim Hudson of the Braves. For now, though, one thing is very clear: The Cardinals are still in the pennant race because of the pitching of three incredibly capable men. These guys don’t need their library to call and tell them they’re winners: They’ve got a dugout full of teammates telling them that every day.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Beauty of the Basics (One Sixty-Two: Day 129)

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 Twenty-Nine: Barry Enright, Arizona Diamondbacks

She positions her right hand on the white keys, and slowly but surely she plays a scale. Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. Later on, after her scales, she practices playing “Happy Birthday.” She plays the song over and over, rushing nothing. After about 45 minutes, she stands up from the piano to take a break. Katie is practicing the basics, and for now that’s plenty.

It was an unexpected gift – an upright piano, given to us by neighbors who are moving tomorrow. As we rolled the black piano down our street, up the driveway and into our basement, my 8-year-old was overjoyed. She has been practicing throughout this past week, and has declared herself ready for lessons. I’ve been impressed with her “first-things-first” approach, as she seems content with mastering the basics before aspiring to tackle Beethoven.

There have been very few symphonies played this year at Chase Field in Phoenix, as the Arizona Diamondbacks fell out of contention months ago. However, one of the benefits to the occasional down season is the opportunity it brings to try out your younger players. As the Diamondbacks give their prospects a look, they’ve been handling the ball to a 24-year-old pitcher every five days, one who has shown a penchant for taking care of the basics. Barry Enright has started 11 games at the big-league level, and so far his starts have been solid if not spectacular: He’s pitched 66 innings, given up just 56 hits, and delivered a 2.44 earned-run average and 5-2 won-loss record. Enright has pitched seven or more innings just twice, and he’s struck out more than five batters just once. But in those 11 starts, Enright has never given up more than three runs. He’s kept his team in the game every time he’s stepped on the mound. That’s a first-things-first approach if I ever heard of one.

Barry Enright seems to be showing the Arizona Diamondbacks that he’d like to be up in the big leagues for good. Enright is doing this by staying within himself, not trying to do too much, and focusing on the things he can control – keeping runners off base, working out of jams, and avoiding high pitch counts.

Whether or not Enright can become the next Greg Maddux someday is beside the point – that’s like saying my daughter will play the piano as well as Alicia Keys when she’s grown. It’s too early in Enright’s career to consider just how good he can be. What is clear right now is that he’s doing a superb job of handling the basics. It’s kind of like hearing a little girl play her scales. And seeing in her eyes a realization that this first step is something for which she should feel nothing but pride.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

All I Have to Do is Dream (One Sixty-Two: Day 128)

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 Twenty-Eight: Jason Varitek, Boston Red Sox

I’ve heard a lot of noise in recent days about who should be allowed to worship in what portion of New York City. I’ve also noticed that some very loud individuals have claimed the 47th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement’s March on Washington to put forth their own vision for America.

These voices sound a lot more insular than inclusive, and it was my impression that acceptance and equality were important ideals in this country. So maybe it was my anger at all of this noise that produced my own dream this afternoon as I snatched a rare mid-afternoon nap in the hammock. I did have a dream and, my brothers and sisters, I think I will share it with you.

As so many great dreams do, this one took place in Montclair, N.J. It involved baseball (what a shock!), and a legendary old man. The Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, located on the campus of Montclair State University, currently has an exhibit devoted to New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter. But in my dream, the Jeter exhibit had drawn to a close, and the legendary Yankee for whom this museum is named stood before a podium and announced that he was opening a new exhibit. This one, he said, would be devoted to players in the modern day who had excelled at his position, catcher. And, Yogi said, there would be an entire wall in the exhibit dedicated to Boston Red Sox catcher and captain Jason Varitek.

The response to this announcement was, in a word, bedlam. Yankees fans protested loudly outside the museum, outside Yankee Stadium, and outside the team’s Spring Training base in Tampa, Fla. “This is giving our enemies justification for their existence!” one fan blogged. ““Yogi: It’s Over!” another tweeted. The evening news trucks found a fan who compared this exhibit to opening a Fenway Franks hot dog stand two blocks from Yankee Stadium. Even Newt Gingrich got into the act, speaking about the “historic ignorance of baseball elites.”

But, in my dream, Yogi said he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. “It’s déjà vu all over again,” Yogi said. “Every time we’re afraid of something, we reject it with so much hatred that we lose our ideals. We’ve been doing it since Salem, Massachusetts, more than 300 years ago. Why can’t we honor a Red Sox player in New York? All it does it bring people together. Plus, that guy Varitek seems like a pretty good man to me.”

So Yogi didn’t back down. And, in my dream, his exhibit ended up being more popular than any in the history of the museum. Once everyone had settled down, it actually became a gathering place for Red Sox and Yankees fans who wanted to talk about baseball without any of those elevated animosities that have plagued the rivalry over the past decade. The exhibit even attracted national attention, and led to plans for a new exhibit at the St. Louis Cardinals Museum honoring Ernie Banks of the Cubs. Exhibits honoring rivals of the past sprang up in museums, schools, churches, temples, mosques, skyscrapers and stadiums across America. A new movement for peace, love and understanding had begun, and Yogi watched with a smile the whole time.

Forty-seven years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream of his own, and he shared it with America. “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ” Americans heard Dr. King’s words very clearly that day, and many of us have studied these words over the years. But we haven’t always followed the vision inherent in them as closely as we might like.

“The future ain’t what it used to be,” Yogi Berra once said. For the past nine years, a lot of Americans have felt the same. If we’re going to make that future brighter than our worst nightmares envision it to be, we have to take the bold leap of reaching out to all of our brothers and sisters in the name of peace, even when fear and anger stand in the way. That’s my dream, anyway. You might think there was something delusional in that hammock outside, but I’d rather think of it as a very real, and possible, vision.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Bad Week for Flame-Throwers (One Sixty-Two: Day 127)

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 Twenty-Seven: R.A. Dickey, New York Mets

So the best pitching prospect since Roger Clemens is likely out of baseball until 2012, and the Rocket himself as been indicted.

Not a great week for flame-throwing right-handers.

As Stephen Strasburg prepares for the likelihood of Tommy John surgery for the torn ligament in his golden right elbow, and as Roger Clemens prepares for the possibility of spending time behind bars with the accusation that he lied to Congress about his use of steroids, it seems like a good day to celebrate someone who never wowed the crowds with blazing fastballs.

It’s a good day to be R.A. Dickey, knuckleball-throwing specialist for the New York Mets. For years, Dickey tried to stick in the major leagues with a fastball and breaking ball. But at the age of 35, he has mastered the knuckler, a floating, fluttering wild card of a pitch that hitters often have no idea what to do with. In 2010, Dickey has been the second-best pitcher on the Mets, winning eight games and maintaining a superb 2.64 earned-run average. Not only that, but Dickey is throwing a pitch that’s much easier on the arm, as it can’t dance properly unless released with far less exertion than a fastball.

Stephen Strasburg quickly became a household name this season thanks to his strikeout prowess with the Washington Nationals. But as Strasburg steps out of the spotlight and into rehabilitation, the former All-Star pitcher for whom his upcoming surgery is named – Tommy John – has heard his name mentioned nearly every day in relation to this increasingly common surgery among pitchers. The procedure, which was first performed on John in the 1970s, involves replacing a ligament from the elbow with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. Today, it is performed all year long on arms throughout the collegiate and professional ranks. The odds of recovering from the surgery keep getting better, but the procedures continue as pitchers pile on innings at all levels of development. The physics of throwing a baseball overhand at great speed does not compute well with the biology of the human arm. Even as teams try desperately to keep pitchers from throwing too many innings, the fact remains that our arms are much better suited to throwing the ball underhand.

Or to throwing a knuckleball. And if you’re tossing the ball 50-something miles an hour, you’re probably not too tempted to try any performance-enhancing drugs, either. So cheers tonight to R.A. Dickey, as he finally finds himself pitching regularly for a big-league team every five days. It’s taken nine years, but some things are worth the wait. That’s some advice Stephen Strasburg could probably use right now, as he looks ahead to 2012. And the same applies to Roger Clemens, as he looks ahead to many days in court.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Misplaced Moniker (One Sixty-Two: Day 126)

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 Twenty-Six: Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds

I have written in the past about the temptations of fantasy baseball, and the ways in which I’ve fought the urge to spend hours on make-believe lineups of baseball players. I find it fun spending a few minutes each day on a diversion such as this, and to let my mind escape for a bit. But fantasy baseball only benefits me when I give it a little drawer in my life, rather than a walk-in closet.

This week, I probably leaned a little more toward the closet metaphor than the drawer. Maybe it was all that rain, or maybe it was just my desire to elude two young girls who really need to go back to school. Whatever it was, I spent more time tinkering with this virtual lineup than I have at any point this year. And when I tinker, I tend to overthink the whole thing, and make player moves that don’t really make sense. Then I get frustrated.

Now if you’re looking for a new pitcher for your fantasy baseball team, one universal rule should be that you never select a pitcher whose name is Homer. It just doesn’t compute that you’d get help from a pitcher whose name bespeaks the very thing you least want him to produce while on the mound. So really, who would pick up a guy with that name?

I would, for one. It’s been six years since the Cincinnati Reds selected David “Homer” Bailey with the seventh pick of the amateur draft. In his four years as a big-leaguer, Bailey has shown flashes of brilliance followed by significant struggles. He’s walked a lot of batters, given up loads of runs, and won just 15 games against 15 losses. These are not the results the Reds were hoping for when they drafted the young man out of high school.

But in August 2010, Homer Bailey is still only 24 years old. And in his first two starts since returning from the disabled list this month, Bailey gave up just one run over 13 innings. He won twice and helped the Reds maintain their lead in the National League Central division. So, with the offensively inconsistent San Francisco Giants playing the Reds yesterday, I went ahead and added Bailey to my team.

At some point in the afternoon, I looked at my computer and noticed that ol’ Homer was winning 11-3. Sounds like a good pick, I thought, then went on with my day. When I checked my e-mail during the evening, I stole a glance at the baseball scores. The fact that the Reds still won didn’t mean anything to me. The final score of 12-11 did.

About the only thing Homer Bailey didn’t give up yesterday was a home run. But there were plenty of hits and walks, enough to let the Giants back into the game. After Bailey left with an 11-5 lead, his teammates promptly gave up six more runs and left him unable to earn a win. It was back to the drawing board for Homer. His odyssey toward greatness continues, very much unfinished.

As for me, I dropped Bailey from my fantasy baseball team as soon as I saw the score. I didn’t pick up anyone else to replace him, because I realized that I’d been spending too much time thinking about teams that don’t really exist. So I sat down to write, and read my book, and talked with my parents.

Homer Bailey has a lot of talent, and I hope he can navigate his way to stardom someday. But the next time I find myself overthinking the fantasy baseball stuff, I’m going to pick a pitcher with a nickname like Big Train or Rocket. Something that denotes speed, efficiency and dominance. I’ll leave Homer to the hitters. And the epic journeys.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Here I Come to Save the Day (One Sixty-Two: Day 125)

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 Twenty-Five: Ryan Franklin, St. Louis Cardinals

There is a small rack of batteries at the front of an aisle in a Staples store on Route 22 in Springfield, N.J. It’s nothing you’d notice while on your way to make copies or buy a three-ring binder. But on a drizzly summer evening, this little rack held a saving grace for a man wearing gym clothes and holding a driver’s manual in his hand.

I kept clicking the car alarm sensor, and it just would not beep. I opened the plastic sensor case, took out the tiny battery, and placed it back in the case. Still no beep. Searching for another way to disarm the alarm, I unlocked the car door and grabbed the driver’s manual out of the glove compartment. Ten minutes later, with the alarm blaring throughout the Bally Fitness parking lot, I gave up that idea. I soon set out on foot through a few neighboring lots alongside hectic Route 22.

As I reached Staples, a red-shirted employee directed me to that rack of batteries. It was here that I found the one-inch-long alkaline battery I needed. A few minutes later, I had disarmed my car and could drive it home. Two dollars, 17 cents and a less-than-scenic walk – that was all it took to save the day.

A few years ago, there was a generally mediocre pitcher toiling in the Cincinnati Reds’ bullpen. His name was Ryan Franklin, and his career numbers were the kind you’d easily flip past while looking through a baseball magazine. In the 2004-05 seasons, for instance, Franklin’s combined record with the Seattle Mariners was 12-31. But as the St. Louis Cardinals prepared for the 2007 season, they needed some help in their bullpen. So they spent a few dollars on Franklin, and signed him up in the hope that he could turn things around.

After almost four seasons in St. Louis, Ryan Franklin has given the Cardinals far more than a little battery power. He has risen up the ranks to team closer, and has saved 76 games for the team over the past three years. Last season, Franklin earned a spot on the National League’s All-Star team. This year, he’s striking out five times as many batters as he’s walking.

A closer’s most important job is to preserve a win in the final inning. When he does this, he’s credited with saving the game. When Franklin takes the mound in search of a save, he – like the rest of his teammates – dresses in red. Same as the guys at Staples. And like a battery you never knew you’d need, Ryan Franklin has hopped off the shelf, shut down the alarms, and made the ride home a lot smoother for the fans in St. Louis.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Rainbow in the Parking Lot (One Sixty-Two: Day 124)

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 Twenty-Four: Casey Coleman, Chicago Cubs

I don’t often stop to take in the scenery at a strip mall. But one night last week, I found myself doing just that.

It was after dinner, and my older daughter and I had driven over to the Watchung (N.J.) Square Mall to buy a couple of things at the bookstore. As we stepped out of my car, Katie and I glanced up and stopped in our tracks. We saw a complete rainbow, starting on the northeast horizon and soaring up into the sky before diving down and stretching to the southwest. We pointed at it, smiled to each other, then leaned back against the car and marveled at this giant gift of nature.

I showed the rainbow to a few other bookstore customers, and they stopped in the parking lot as well. As we counted the colors that stood out before the blue backdrop, I put my arm around Katie and allowed myself to slow down, if only for a few minutes. I didn’t notice any shopping carts, or honking cars, or receipts and cigarette butts on asphalt. Just this spectrum of light, far above the Borders, Stop & Shop and Home Depot signs.

Sometimes, things are not as ugly as they seem. On Sunday, the Chicago Cubs fell to 23 games below .500, and their legendary manager retired after the game. Lou Piniella, who has been either a player, manager, front-office executive or TV commentator in this game for five decades, took off his No. 41 uniform and went home to care for his ailing mother. The Cubs were given an interim manager to help guide them through the rest of this season, a year that will extend their string of years without a championship to 102.

Sunday’s final game under Piniella did not bring Sweet Lou his 1,836th win; instead, the Atlanta Braves crushed the Cubs by a score of 16-5. “This’ll be the last time I put on a uniform,” Piniella said through tears afterward. “It’s been very special to me.”

As the Cubs began their post-Piniella era Monday in Washington, there were surely a lot of North Side faithful wondering what else lay in store for them. Would there be a few season-ending injuries on tap for this week? Or perhaps a 20-run loss?

But as Monday night’s game began, a 23-year-old youngster made his second major-league start for Chicago, and he held the Nationals to just three hits while pitching into the seventh inning. Casey Coleman is not the hottest young prospect in Chicago’s farm system, but on Monday he was plenty good enough. And his team supported Coleman with nine runs, including one driven in by Coleman himself.

The Cubs’ 2010 season has been about as pretty as a strip mall. But yesterday, a kid from Florida – the same state to which Lou Piniella returned to begin his retirement – stepped on the mound and drew the Cubs a rainbow. It lasted for a couple of hours, and then it was gone. But while it lasted, Coleman’s piece of beauty gave Chicago fans something to watch, and point at, and chat about with the neighbors. He gave them something they don’t see every day.

And, dare I say, he gave them a reason to hope.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Broomsticks & Bobby (One Sixty-Two: Day 123)

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 Twenty-Three: Edgar Renteria, San Francisco Giants (via Bobby Thomson)

In 1951, my grandparents lived with my mom in an apartment on Victory Boulevard in Tompkinsville, a working-class neighborhood on the North Shore of Staten Island. Their landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Nellis, lived above them and rooted passionately for the Brooklyn Dodgers. My grandparents gave them a hard time in September of ’51, as the New York Giants stormed back from 13½ games back to force a three-game playoff with the Dodgers for the National League pennant.

On October 3rd, when Bobby Thomson hit a three-run home run in the ninth inning of the deciding Game 3, my grandparents couldn’t help themselves. They picked up a broomstick and started banging on the ceiling. They, like almost all of New York, had been following this pennant race closely. Thomson’s home run had them whooping and hollering, while it had their landlords sobbing. Neither landlords nor tenants were alone in their reactions.

Bobby Thomson died a week ago at age 86, and he spent a lot of time over the last 59 years of his life talking about that home run. Not many people know what it’s like to electrify the world with one swing. But Thomson knew.

There have been players who’ve experienced the thrill of ending a postseason series with a game-winning hit. Bill Mazeroski and Joe Carter have clinched World Series titles with home runs, while Aaron Boone has, like Thomson, launched his team into the Fall Classic with one. Luis Gonzalez, Edgar Renteria and Gene Larkin have clinched world championships for their teams with singles. All of these hits are among baseball’s most exciting moments ever.

But when you’re talking about New York City in 1951, it’s a bit different from Minnesota in 1991, Miami in ’97 or Phoenix in 2001. There has never been a more fascinating setting for baseball than Gotham in the 1950s, as countless sports writers and historians have explained through books and articles over the years. And to think that of the three New York baseball teams, one was already in the World Series in October ’51, while the other two were playing a three-game series in order to get there and face the Yankees. That’s a level of excitement never experienced before, and never since.

I met Bobby Thomson once, while covering the unveiling of a postage stamp that commemorated his famous home run. Thomson seemed humble, reserved, and still in love with the game of baseball. He seemed to understand just what his “Shot Heard Round the World” meant to people, but he also surely knew that he would have never gotten the chance to hit such a historic homer were it not for so much amazing baseball played that season by Giants and Dodgers players alike.

To the people of New York, Thomson’s homer brought tears of joy, tears of sadness, screams of all kinds, and pandemonium in the city that never sleeps. It led to broomstick-knocks from the apartment below you, as your tenants shouted with joy while you covered your face to hide from the truth.

Bobby Thomson brought the frenzy of 1950s New York City baseball to its nirvana. He delivered it, savored it, and heard about it for six decades afterward. It was the kind of day that you don’t mind reliving for the rest of your life. Or telling your grandkids about. It was, most assuredly, the kind of day you remember forever.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

My Jersey Girl (One Sixty-Two: Day 122)

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 Twenty-Two: Andrew Bailey, Oakland Athletics

It’s time to face the facts: My younger daughter is a Jersey Girl.

I have tried to ignore this for as long as possible, but now it’s become impossible to deny. To clarify things here, I don’t mean to imply that my 5-year-old is the next coming of Snooki, nor do I mean to associate her with the lyrics in Tom Waits’ beautiful song “Jersey Girl.” These are more adult images of what a Jersey girl is, and I’m talking about a kid who is preparing for kindergarten.

So what do I mean when I call Chelsea a Jersey girl? Well, let me give you a few images for starters and see if that helps. We start with a father telling his girls that they’re going out for a walk in the park. My 8-year-old daughter pops on her socks and sneakers and is ready to go. Chelsea, on the other hand, whines about how she can only wear flip-flops because the sneakers rub up against the scab on her ankle, and this hurts so much, you don’t understand, Daddy, and it will make me cry, yada yada yada.

We move on to the park itself (with Chelsea wearing flip-flops, of course). As we start along the path, Katie (who was born in the rigorously active state of Massachusetts) begins a brisk pace and notices the pretty fountains in the pond alongside our path. Chelsea, on the other hand, looks down and is disgusted by what she sees on the path.

“Look at all these goose poopies!” she exclaims. “There are hundreds of goose poopies! I’m not walking on all of this.”

“Yes you are,” her father responds, and she trudges along behind, never looking up at the pond for fear of tarnishing her precious flip-flops by touching a piece of the aforementioned goose poopies.

Our third image involves the end of our walk at the previously noted park. Katie feels a surge of energy coming, and asks if she can jog the rest of the way back to the car. I tell her sure, she can definitely do that. Chelsea sees her big sister and jogs slowly behind, but as you might recall she’s wearing her flip-flops. So, predictably, she trips and falls – the slowest fall I’ve ever seen, mind you. But soon enough, just as she’s gotten back to her feet, she turns toddlery and pleads, “Daddy – uppy.” I refuse, and the whining intensifies.

So what does Chelsea crave in life, besides flip-flops and goose-poop-less parks? Well, in order to explain this further I’m going to have to stereotype a little. And before I do so, I want to reaffirm my belief that labels are never universal, nor are they always accurate. But … if your idea of a great weekend involves some mall-shopping, a trip to the beach, getting your nails done and watching a movie, you just might fit the label of a Jersey Girl. On the other hand, if your idea of a great weekend involves a little kayaking, some hiking, a trip to Trader Joe’s and a museum tossed in the mix, you’re probably more of a Massachusetts Kid. We seem to have one of each in this house, which makes things a bit more interesting.

Chelsea has a lot more growing up to do before we can confirm just what kind of kid she is. The only thing I know for sure is that I wouldn’t trade her for anything in the world. But as she matures, I do see some early signs that she’s going to be testing my resolve and looking for ways to get just the things she wants as often as she can.

Andrew Bailey was born in New Jersey, then went to Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y. He surprised most of baseball last year by winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award as the Oakland Athletics’ closer. He’s been superb again this season, and today he returned from the disabled list and threw another scoreless inning in relief. I’ve read an interview with Bailey, and he seems to be a very humble and polite Jersey boy. He offers plenty of proof that those who are born in the Garden State can most certainly break free of those Jersey stereotypes that seem to be flying around these days.

When I begin another school year next week, I’ll find myself teaching dozens more young men and women who defy those Jersey Kid labels in many wonderful ways. But even for those New Jerseyans who have smashed the stereotypes, there are still times when you really do find comfort in wearing a pair of flip-flops, walking through the mall for your manicure before a nice weekend at the beach, and cruising over to the multiplex for a 9:30 movie. It’s not exactly something that folks here would call a bad day.

So Chelsea moves on, embracing her environment in all the ways her 5-year-old mind can comprehend. I may wish at times for a little more rugged outdoorsy behavior, but in the end I can either take it or leave it. So bring on the flip-flops, kid, and let’s take a drive down the Parkway. I’m not letting go of my Jersey Girl, not now and not ever.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Shake It Up (One Sixty-Two: Day 121)

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 Twenty-One: Angel Pagan, New York Mets

Sometimes it’s worth driving 22 miles each way just for some pizza and an Italian ice. On a Friday night in August, with summer nearing its twilight, we decided to take the girls to a pair of Staten Island, N.Y., institutions – Denino’s Pizzeria and Ralph’s Ices, located across the street from each other on Port Richmond Avenue. Anyone on the island will tell you that there’s nothing like a pie from Denino’s – the sweet sauce, the fresh cheese, the perfectly textured crust. Many New York City publications list Denino’s as one of the top pizzerias in all five boroughs. And as for Ralph’s, the water ices here taste as close to the genuine fruit as possible, yet they’re sweet enough to fit the bill for the perfect summer dessert.

Over in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, the hottest dinner-dessert spot in New York City just keeps growing in popularity. The Shake Shack, with its walk-up windows and outdoor seating, regularly features incredibly long lines snaking through the park. In these lines, you’ll find locals and tourists alike who crave a good burger and frozen custard shake. I’ve waited in the line, and I can tell you that the food is worth every minute of the wait. Since so many people agree, the Shake Shack has branched out to locations throughout Manhattan, as well as to a particular baseball stadium in Queens.

When you get to Citi Field, there’s a lot to check out, as the second-year stadium features an impressive array of activities, food venues and standing-room views of the field. But the clear-cut winner for most popular spot in this ballpark is the Shake Shack, located in the concourse out in left-center field. You can stand here and miss at least a third of the game, just waiting for a vanilla shake. Many people do it.

Now under normal circumstances, I would argue that these people are wasting their money. No disrespect to the delicious shakes, but if you’re paying to see a baseball game, shouldn’t you actually watch the game rather than wait in line for food? In 2010, however, there’s a clear counterargument to be made that Citi Field hasn’t actually hosted much genuine baseball of late. The Mets have given their fans a flashback to the dismal days of the late 1970s this summer by falling precipitously out of the pennant race and into the lower levels of their division. The team has had embarrassments on and off the field, and fans are wondering just what direction these Mets are headed.

So, with that in mind, maybe a long wait at the Shake Shack is a smart move right now. When the Mets are on the field, one of the closest players to the Shake Shack is outfielder Angel Pagan, who splits his time between left field and centerfield. While Pagan’s skills are not to be confused with those of his All-Star teammates Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Jose Reyes, Pagan has arguably been the most consistent player in Queens this year. He is hitting just a hair below .300, and he has 10 homers, 30 steals and 40 extra-base hits. He’s been dependable and more than competent for manager Jerry Manuel, and these days at Citi Field that’s enough for a medal.

So watching Angel Pagan has been one true treat for Mets fans this year. Beyond that, though, 2010 is shaping up to be a tough one for the Flushing faithful to swallow. Unless, of course, you’re on line at the Shake Shack. Or, even better, listening to the game in your car while finishing off a Ralph’s Ice. Your team’s fortunes may be melting, but the summer is still here. I’ll take a medium watermelon ice, please. My day is complete.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Now You Find Yourself in '82 (One Sixty-Two: Day 120)

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 Twenty: B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay Rays

We’re going to make a baseball-to-movies analogy here, and it manages to connect E.T. to B.J. Let’s start with the films.

In 1982, the Oscar nominees for Best Picture were so outstanding that Academy Award voters had an incredible challenge on their hands. The most notable nominee was Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which had become the highest-grossing film in history as well as a critically-acclaimed masterpiece. But there was also Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, also adored by critics and, with its three-hour-bio-epic structure, was just the kind of film that typically wins these awards.

But there’s more. There was the Dustin Hoffman-Sydney Pollack tour de force known as Tootsie. There was the Sidney Lumet-David Mamet-Paul Newman classic The Verdict. And there was the intense drama Missing, featuring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek tearing up the screen.

These five nominees weren’t even the only ones labeled “classic” in 1982. Among those films not nominated for Best Picture: the Meryl Streep tragedy Sophie’s Choice, the Ridley Scott cult hit Blade Runner, the Richard Gere-Debra Winger drama An Officer and a Gentleman, and the highly-decorated German film Das Boot.

It was an unbelievable year for movies, with cinema soaring to a supremely high level. You can argue that any of the nominees from 1982 would have taken the Best Picture prize in 1985, when Out of Africa bested The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi’s Honor and Witness for the top trophy. But sometimes, a lot of cream rises to the top at once.

This takes us to our baseball connection. In 2010, the American League East Division has taken a 1982 Oscar bent. The New York Yankees lead the division with the best record in baseball, followed by the Tampa Bay Rays who at one game back sport the second-best record in the game. In third place, the Boston Red Sox sit 16 games over .500 and would be leading the American League West Division by one game were they in that group. Instead, Boston sits 6½ games behind the Yankees in the division and 5½ games behind the Rays in the Wild Card hunt. In fourth place, the Toronto Blue Jays remain six games over .500 and would be just five games back in the Wild Card race were they in the National League. But alas, they are in the AL East, and are therefore 11½ games behind the Yankees in the division and 10½ games behind the Rays for the Wild Card. In last place, we have the Baltimore Orioles, who would be in the cellar in nearly every division. But there’s got to be at least one punching bag in a division this strong.

There will be room for only two of these teams in the playoffs, as the American League’s Wild Card entry surely will come from here. There are a lot of games to play before it’s over, many of them pitting the divisional rivals against one another. Tampa Bay centerfielder B.J. Upton has begun to heat up, as he often does this time of year, and he’s certainly looking to help his young Rays defeat the mighty Yankees for the division title and, if needed, during the playoffs as well. But the Red Sox and Blue Jays aren’t done yet, either, and the Orioles under new manager Buck Showalter are ready to play the role of spoiler.

The baseball analysts will probably tell you to expect this year’s division winner to come from the South Bronx. They’ll tell you that the Yankees are just too strong a team to lose this year. And they may be right. But you never know. The experts can be wrong.

There were a lot of people thinking in 1982 that E.T. would win it all, with its blockbuster status and its heartwarming ending. But this was not to be. It was the year of Gandhi, as the film took top honors, as did Best Actor winner Ben Kingsley.

E.T. is, of course, the most enduring film of these 1982 classics, as it is rented, bought and watched far more than the others. But if even E.T. can go down in the Best Picture race, why can’t the mighty Yankees fall as well? It’s enough to keep B.J. and his boys playing their hardest, night after night. The cream has risen, and it’s about to overflow.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

For What It's Werth (One Sixty-Two: Day 119)

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 Nineteen: Jayson Werth, Philadelphia Phillies

The legendary pitcher Satchel Paige once said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Many of us struggle at times with the impulse to retrace our steps and reflect on choices we’ve made in life. Was it smart to have taken this job over that one? Did we pick the right house, neighborhood or state in which to live? Have we made the best choices in terms of raising our kids?

We know that looking back and thinking through our choices often leads us to more stress than we already have. Looking ahead, on the other hand, often feels much more healthy and exciting. We’ve only got this one life, so why spend most of it second-guessing ourselves?

Plus, the one thing about major life decisions is that you can’t keep score of your personal successes solely by analyzing the things you choose to do. Doing this fails to acknowledge the other kinds of decisions: the things we choose not to do. Sometimes, the things we opted not to do end up being far more important to our life’s journey than the things we did decide to do. There’s that job lead we had that we didn’t pursue – it ended up being a terrible job, after all, but we don’t know that because we didn’t even bother going for it. There’s that blind date we canceled way back when – it ends up she was just the kind of girl we might have fallen for, yet for all the wrong reasons. And there’s that house we decided not to look at when we were out with the realtor – we would have loved its historic charm, but it ended up being a money trap. We filter our decision-making faculties all the time, and sometimes that filter works really well.

Back in July, the Philadelphia Phillies were struggling mightily. As the July 31st trade deadline approached, they toyed with the idea of selling one of their top players rather than trading for veteran contributors. Outfielder Jayson Werth, who will be a free agent this winter, was dangled before teams. Salivation ensued: Werth, who was struggling at the time, has the ability to hit a grand slam, make a great catch and steal home in the same game. But in the end, the Phillies decided not to sell. Instead, they bought, trading some key minor-league prospects to the Houston Astros for starting pitcher Roy Oswalt.

In their last 25 games, the Phillies are 20-5. Since the All-Star break, Jayson Werth is hitting over .350. He is crushing doubles, scoring runs, and taking all the walks he’s given. Werth has anchored the Phillies’ lineup amid injuries to superstar teammates Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. As the Phillies inch ever closer to the Atlanta Braves in the National League East, Werth is leading the charge.

So in July of 2010, the Phillies decided to acquire Roy Oswalt. His numbers will speak for themselves, and plenty of fans will use them to second-guess the decision that Philadelphia made. The Phillies’ organization will choose instead to move forward without re-visiting their choice to pick up this pitcher. But in the end, the most important thing that happened in Philadelphia last month was the thing that didn’t happen. The decision not to trade Jayson Werth has made the Phillies a much better team as the 2010 stretch run begins.

They decided not to hold a summer yard sale, and it turned out that there was a valuable gem inside that pile of stuff to sell. He’s out in right field now, and he’s not looking back.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Back to School (One Sixty-Two: Day 118)

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 Eighteen: Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers

Staples has spiral notebooks for a penny apiece. Target will give you a pack of Crayola crayons for a quarter. Office Depot has boxes of ballpoint pens for a buck apiece.

You can try and look the other way, especially if your kid doesn’t start for another few weeks, but facts are facts: It’s back-to-school time. In some parts of the country, Semester One is already in session. It’s always a shock to the system for students, teachers and administrators, but the start of a new school year does carry with it all kinds of promise for individual learning, personal growth and fellowship. There’s really nothing like it.

It’s a marathon of education, and you have to prepare yourself for the long road ahead. Once it starts, you’ll find yourself learning more than you thought possible, and it comes at you in all kinds of ways – from book learning to literary journeys to lessons in social skills. It doesn’t always feel like fun, but school takes hold of our minds and maturity levels in a way that is both exhilarating and exhausting. By the time June rolls around, we feel like different people.

Neftali Feliz is 22 years old, an age at which many young Americans are graduating from college. But Feliz is a little different from most of us in that he can throw a baseball 100 miles an hour. Therefore, he is not following the traditional path of education. At age 18, Feliz was pitching in the minor leagues rather than for a college team. By age 21, he was a Texas Ranger. In 2010, Feliz’s first full year in the majors, he has saved 29 games for the Rangers and earned his first All-Star Game appearance.

The Rangers are soaring toward their first postseason appearance in more than a decade. And in the playoffs, you don’t win a lot of games by 10 runs. You often find yourself holding on by a thread, and you turn to your closer to bail you out in the end. So if the Rangers are leading the mighty New York Yankees 4-3 in a first-round playoff game, will Feliz be able to hold the lead amid the pressure? Last week, in two close games against New York in Texas, he experienced two different outcomes: In the first game, he pitched two dominant innings to pick up the win in extra innings, while in the second game he blew a ninth-inning lead to take the loss.

It’s been a very good year so far for Neftali Feliz. But school is about to begin for real as the pennant race heats up. There are still some things that this gifted young man has to learn. The question, of course, is how quickly he’ll learn, adjust, and grow. There’s no sale at Staples to cover that; it comes from within.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

No Doggin' It (One Sixty-Two: Day 117)

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 Seventeen: Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies

I paid my fine today. Five dollars to the library, for a lost magazine.

Only it wasn’t lost. This copy of The Writer was, in fact, eaten – partially, at least. A bite-size chunk of pages 1-10 was taken out of the periodical by an 8-month-old dog who happens to live in our house. Whenever Daisy finds herself full of energy yet devoid of others’ attention, she looks around for some mischief to munch on. Typically, she searches for tissues or pieces of paper. At my parents’ house, this habit hit a new high (or low) when she devoured my mom’s $200 mouthpiece. When you catch her in the act, Daisy lowers her head and ducks beneath the nearest piece of furniture. She may not have complete self-control yet, but she does have an idea of what guilt feels like.

These are the dog days of summer. And while some of us have actual dogs searching for ways to spice up these days, even those without a frisky canine share an understanding of what this time of year means. The Romans created this title in reference to the proximity of Sirius, also known as the Dog Star, to the sun during these warm summer days. They figured this shift in the constellation was the reason for all the hot weather and unpredictable behavior July and August would bring. In today’s world, we tend to connect this seasonal nickname with metaphors: It is in August, for instance, when we’re most likely to “dog it,” and move about at a slower, more lethargic pace. In a particularly warm summer such as this one, this is often true.

In baseball, the dog days bring with them summer’s fiercest grind. As the season begins its final 45 games, players find themselves handling yet another 90-degree day, another nine-inning game, and another nine-pitch at-bat. It can be difficult to keep the focus and momentum going. Yet, when you’re trying to stay in a pennant race, that focus is essential.

Carlos Gonzalez has had a long season as the Colorado Rockies’ versatile starting outfielder. His team is struggling to remain in the National League West divisional hunt, but Gonzalez is fighting against the drain of mid-August. Instead of slumping through the dog days, Gonzalez has taken his own bite out of the magazine, grabbing fans’ attention with an MVP-caliber season. So far, Gonzalez has belted 25 home runs, driven in nearly 80 runs, stolen almost 20 and hit for an average above .320. He leads the National League in hits, and is second in total bases. Gonzalez, along with fellow National Leaguers Joey Votto of the Reds and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals, is making a serious run at winning the first Triple Crown in 43 years (that’s leading the league in homers, RBI and batting average).

Three years ago, as the dog days turned toward September, the Rockies put together an astounding string of victories that led them all the way to the World Series. It’s not too late for that to happen again in 2010. But if history is to repeat itself, Carlos Gonzalez may have to lead the way. If he does, he’ll clearly be Denver’s top dog, and its biggest star. That’s Sirius stuff. Enough to push a player through the grind.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Johnny & Jude (One Sixty-Two: Day 116)

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 Sixteen: Johnny Damon, Detroit Tigers

For most of my 5-year-old’s life, she has asked my wife and me to sing her to sleep. It’s one of the most fulfilling moments of our day with Chelsea, as we kneel beside her bed and whisper a lullaby or love song to her. It typically takes just a couple of songs before her eyes close, her breathing grows heavier, and she drifts off into dreamland.

The songs we choose vary: My wife’s favorites include “You Are My Sunshine” as well as Laurie Berkner’s “Moon Moon Moon.” Mine include “Rainbow Connection” and “Oh! Susanna.” While the standards work like a charm for Chelsea, I’ve also incorporated some more modern songs into the bedtime rituals. The Beatles work well with this, as “Here Comes the Sun” and “Hey Jude” fit quite nicely into the mix. Chelsea has responded well to them so far, to her father’s delight.

“Hey Jude” is one of my favorite songs in the world, so it’s been sung and played in our house quite a bit over the years. My 8-year-old, Katie, is well aware of the song. And as you grow older, you remember more of the parts to your parents’ favorite songs. Then, when you’re placed in a bunk bed with your little sister and you hear your dad singing one of those songs to her, there’s a tendency to want to sing along.

This takes us to the evening a few weeks ago when, in the darkness of bedtime, I had reached the famous fade-out coda of “Hey Jude.” In a near whisper, I sang it: “Na na na, na-na na na / Na-na na na, hey Jude,” in the best Beatles-lullaby voice I could muster. But from the top bunk, I suddenly heard Katie chime in with a raspy: “Jude, Jude, a-Judey, Judey, Judey, Judey.”

In Katie’s mind, the song now includes McCartney’s ad-lib vocal fireworks in between the refrain. She has learned the benefits of adding a little sparkle to a song. The refrain is soothing and fun as is, but McCartney’s joyful screams turn a marvelous melody into a dynamic celebration. And really, what’s wrong with that? Even as she drifted off to sleep, Katie still found the energy for a little shout.

Tonight in the South Bronx, the New York Yankees hosted the Detroit Tigers for the first time this season. That’s particularly notable since this year’s Tigers feature a gentleman named Johnny Damon in their lineup. For four years, Damon was the spark inside a button-down Yankees lineup while men such as Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira brought stability and no-nonsense execution to the team. Damon waved to the crowd and bantered with the fans in left field. He gave tons of interviews with reporters and never took the field without a hop in his step. As the team evolved, players such as Nick Swisher and A.J. Burnett brought their own quirkiness to the pinstripes, and the Yankees began to incorporate more of Damon’s fun into all that success. By 2009, they were a pie-in-the-face group of champions.

Johnny Damon didn’t re-sign with the Yankees this past winter; he’s a Tiger now. As he stepped up to bat for the first time tonight, the New York fans gave Damon a warm welcome back to the stadium. They remembered all the spark, and all the “Judeys” he brought to the fade-out. They know that Johnny Damon took a glad song and made it better. So they let him into their hearts, and that hasn’t changed with his new uniform.

You don’t need to know a lot about baseball or music to know joy when you see or hear it. Sometimes, it even makes you sing out loud as you fall asleep.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Shooting Star (One Sixty-Two: Day 115)

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 Fifteen: Brian Roberts, Baltimore Orioles (via Peter Horn)

There was a meteor shower the other night, which was a perfect fit for the week of Peter Horn’s wedding. We can’t meet all of the people living among us in this world, but there are some folks who seem to come awfully close. They spend a good portion of their lives trying to connect with as many individuals as possible. Peter is one such person.

Peter goes by a lot of titles: teacher, musician, poet, actor, administrator, mentor, student, friend, son, brother, uncle. But perhaps the best way to describe this man is as a shooting star, a force of nature who lights up the room wherever he goes, and finds a way to illuminate the lives of those whom he encounters.

Yesterday, Peter added another title to his life list: Husband. He and his wife, Robyn, held hands in a charming church ceremony and declared their love for each other via personalized vows and an “All You Need is Love” recessional. After the ceremony, Peter and Robyn led their guests to a field nestled warmly in the heart of the Catskill Mountains. As guests dined and socialized beneath a giant white tent, members of the bride and groom’s families performed music and delivered eloquent toasts. Dozens of guests had taken up Peter and Robyn on their offer to camp on the grounds of the wedding reception, and their tents could be seen down a trail, pitched beside a clear stream.

As the carrot-cake cupcakes disappeared from the dessert tray, the reception ended and this wedding began its third act: that of a rock concert. Friends and relatives of the bride and groom took turns on a stage, complete with speakers and video screen, to end this joyous day by rocking out. As they had done all day long, the bride and groom floated around the tent, connecting with as many people as they could. At around nine at night, Peter tapped me on the shoulder and introduced me to an uncle of his who loves baseball. Peter told his uncle that I was the author of “The Pitch,” a baseball blog, then moved on to chat with another guest.

The uncle told me he was a fan of the Baltimore Orioles, and that he’s heard good things about the team’s new manager, Buck Showalter. I told him his club had a lot of good, young players. The Orioles also have a second baseman in Brian Roberts who manages to make everyone else on the field better. A Peter Horn of sorts. But as for Peter’s uncle, he wasn’t really in a place where he could break down Brian Roberts’s intangibles. He’d been making rather merry on this day. “My problem,” he told me, “is that I don’t blog. I’ve got to start blogging.”

I smiled, and let Peter’s uncle enjoy the rest of his festive evening. When I turned toward the stage, I saw the bride. Still glowing in her white gown, Robyn stood before a microphone. Robyn is a stage performer, but she’s been known to front the occasional rock band. Peter, meanwhile, was hooking up his electric violin. His bandmates were ready, and off they went, bride and groom, sharing the vocals to Cream’s “White Room.”

A little while later, as my wife and I were carrying our sleepy daughters to the car, we looked up above the trees on this dark, dreamy evening. Thousands of stars sparkled in that black sky like nothing I’ve ever seen outside of a planetarium. As we neared our car, we could hear the voices of husband and wife, newlyweds, leading their guests in a sing-a-long:

And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines on me / Shine until tomorrow, let it be.

I’m not privy to the music of angels quite yet. But I have a feeling it sounded and felt a lot like August 14th, on a heavenly hill, where a shooting star and his radiant wife led their friends beneath a white tent to celebrate life.

What to Pack (One Sixty-Two: Day 114)

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 Fourteen: Pat Burrell, San Francisco Giants

My mother-in-law has taken some flack throughout the years for her packing habits. Her vacation prep consists of folding up half of her wardrobe and stashing it in her minivan. She’s been known to pack her car full of plastic storage bins – the kind normally used for holiday ornaments – with loads of shirts, pants and enough shoes for a small village inside those bins. This year, her daughters counted 21 pairs of Capris packed for a 14-day vacation.

My wife and I joke with her mom about this, but a closer look at our own suitcases shows that we’ve got our own issues with overpacking. We typically stash twice as many clothes as we need in our duffel bags, and we never seem to change our ways, even as we find ourselves lifting piles of untouched clothing from our bags back into the dresser.

It’s human nature to want to make sure you’ve got enough for a trip, even if that means overpreparing. Of course, it’s also human nature to forget things. We may pack six more sweaters than we need, yet forget to bring along our toothbrush in the process. Even with long checklists, we still find it hard to pack perfectly.

There can be packing problems in sports, too. A team bent on winning at all costs can stock up so much talent that the club loses the critical element of team chemistry along the way. The 1994 North Carolina men’s basketball team was one of the most talented college basketball teams in recent memory, but the club had so many go-to guys on the court that players struggled to figure out their roles; in turn, the team was upset early in that year’s NCAA Tournament. The 2005 New York Yankees had more home-run hitters than most championship teams, but the Bronx Bombers didn’t have enough table-setters to get on base for the power hitters and do the little things that every strong offense needs. As a result, the Yankees lost in the first round of that year’s playoffs.

This year’s San Francisco Giants have been trying to add some offense in recent weeks to supplement their excellent pitching and remain in the National League West divisional race. But in trying to do this, the Giants have placed right-handed sluggers Pat Burrell and Jose Guillen in the corner outfield spots. While these guys might help the Giants score some runs, they could actually cost more runs than they produce because of their defensive deficiencies. ESPN.com’s Rob Neyer pointed out that Burrell and Guillen are two of the worst defensive outfielders in the game. In a closely-matched division, run-prevention becomes at least as important as run-scoring.

In trying to bolster their hitting, the Giants may have overpacked, and forgotten something essential along the way. If so, they’ll find their season ending by late September. By that time, the San Francisco players will have a lot of time available for vacations. I would just suggest that if they do go away, they avoid those plastic storage bins. You’ve got to pack light eventually.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Rock (One Sixty-Two: Day 113)

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 Thirteen: Orlando Cabrera, Cincinnati Reds

The rock rises about eight feet above the water, and it’s anchored to the bottom of the pond some five feet below the surface. It’s a nice-looking boulder, and it serves as a magnet to those tooling about Tispaquin Pond in Middleborough, Mass.

Those in kayaks paddle to the rock. The sailboats sweep around it. The kids in their inner tubes kick their way over to it. And the swimmers, who start at their own docks dotted around the edge of the pond, swim to the rock.

It is the destination, the goal. Your job, as you paddle or bear off or push through another breaststroke, is to find your way there. You look at the round, grey rock, visualize the act of reaching it, then watch as you inch closer with each movement. When you finally touch the smooth stone, you stop and look around. A gull flies off the top of the rock just to be safe, and you catch your breath as you feel the rocks beneath your feet or let your hand skim the surface in this shallow but glorious body of water. Then you turn around and begin to steel yourself for the trip back.

Swimming to a boulder in a pond just north of Cape Cod may not sound like much, but it feels like an awesome accomplishment once you’ve gotten there. We set goals for ourselves all the time, and the clearer we can see them in front of us, the more likely we are to reach them.

In baseball, making it to the postseason is the primary goal of any self-respecting ballplayer. But what does it really take to get there, and how do you maintain the momentum needed to reach the playoffs over a marathon season of 162 games? The Cincinnati Reds are trying to figure that out. This year’s Reds have been in the pennant race all season, and are still just a game out of first place in the National League Central despite a difficult week. Some of the Cincinnati players are young and very talented, but they have no idea what it’s like to compete in a pennant race, as the Reds haven’t been to the postseason since 1995.

So before and during this season, Reds management has acquired a number of veterans who have played baseball in October, and who know what it takes to reach that rock. Catcher Ramon Hernandez made it to the playoffs in five of his first seven years as a big-leaguer. Third baseman Scott Rolen and outfielder Jim Edmonds both won two pennants and one world championship in St. Louis. Utility player Miguel Cairo, pitcher Bronson Arroyo and reliever Arthur Rhodes are all veterans of the playoff scene.

And then there is starting shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who has the unique experience of playing in the postseason for four different teams over the previous six seasons. If he does it again with the Reds in 2010, Cabrera will make it five different teams in seven years. Ever since the Montreal Expos traded Cabrera to the Red Sox in July of 2004 and the shortstop helped lead Boston to a championship that fall, he has been showing players how to make it to the rock year in and year out. Last year, it was in Minnesota. The year before that, Chicago.

This year, as the Cincinnati faithful hope upon hope that this might just be the year, the young players will get a bit nervous at times, and perhaps a bit cocky at others. That’s why you need a guy like Orlando Cabrera to remind those players how to keep their eyes squarely on that rock. Every step of the way.

You can’t let up, at least until you’ve made it there and back to your own deck. Then you can lie down on the wooden planks, soak up the sun, and let out a smile. Then you can say that you’ve gotten the job done.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Force is With Us (One Sixty-Two: Day 112)

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 Twelve: Shin-Soo Choo, Cleveland Indians

When you’re spending a few days at the lake house of some dear friends, you wonder how you can possibly repay them for the generosity of their invite. These friends are opening their doors to you and your children, while also offering you unlimited access to swimming, fishing, sailing and kayaking. You bring along some gifts and some food, and you plan to do as much cooking and cleaning as they’ll allow. But still, you wonder if there’s any way you can properly repay this kindness.

So when you walk in the door and a 5-year-old is trying to figure out the details of The Empire Strikes Back, you know you might be able to be of some help. And before you know it, you’re trying to explain to this boy how the agendas of Jabba the Hutt, Darth Vader and Boba Fett all fit together on Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City. After several dozen more questions, you have explained the process of freezing Han Solo, putting C-3PO back together and replacing Luke Skywalker’s right hand.

I’ve had some serious questions to answer here, as young 5-year-old Ben is not one to let anything pass if it perplexes him. But I was up for his questions, as I’d been raised on the original Star Wars trilogy, and I can talk about the characters in these three movies with anyone. So we discussed Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, 3PO and R2D2, Yoda and Obi- Wan. I did my best Yoda voice, and we all tried our best Chewbacca growls. By the end of the three days, we all felt a little bit of the force in this beautiful house.

Ben is inquisitive and introspective far beyond his years, so it did not surprise me that he was talking about Boba Fett more than any child I’ve ever met. In the original trilogy, Boba Fett has very limited screen time, although his role as the bounty hunter who brings Han Solo’s frozen body to Jabba the Hutt is critical. And anyone who’s taken a close look at the character knows that the angular green, grey and maroon armor that covers Boba Fett makes him about the coolest looking character in the Star Wars galaxy. He is, arguably, the most overlooked character in the films.

While I offered to answer any questions he had about baseball, Ben wasn’t up for that this week. If he was looking for any kind of Boba Fett-to-baseball connection, I might have told him about Shin-Soo Choo. Kind of sounds like a Star Wars name, in a way. But Choo is no bounty hunter – he’s an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians. And while the average baseball fan may know very little about Choo, the Cleveland faithful are well aware of his hidden value. Choo hits home runs, he drives in runs, he steals bases, and he takes walks. Unfortunately, he plays for a team that has been dismal in recent years, and he doesn’t get nearly enough time in the spotlight.

But he will; the great players always get their moments. If the Indians choose to include Choo in their current rebuilding process, he’ll find himself playing during October sometime in the next half-decade. And when he does, there will be no more Boba Fett metaphors to make about the man. His all-around game will be known by the masses.

As for Ben, he’s still asking questions. He wants to know the back stories behind Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. That means there are three other movies to watch, and more conversations to have. We have cleaned and cooked and – most importantly – shared great moments with friends during our time here. But I don’t think Ben will remember our swims in the lake quite as much as he’ll recall our talks about Boba Fett. After all, first things first.

Simplify (One Sixty-Two: Day 111)

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 Eleven: Jorge Posada, New York Yankees

We’ve got some friends over the house, and my wife is on her way home. She calls to tell me she’s picking up the pizza, and that I should call to order. I say no problem, and hang up.

I look for the pizzeria menu we keep in our kitchen drawer, but I can’t find it. And it’s at this point that our friend Stan and I begin some distinct 21st-century behavior. I dial up my wife again, because I know she has the pizzeria number on her cell phone. Stan, meanwhile, takes his BlackBerry out of his pocket. As my wife takes my call, she pulls over to the side of the road to get me the number. By the time I hang up with the number written down, Stan is holding his phone up to show me the number he’s found on-line.

In the next room, a rarely-used phone book sits on a shelf next to our computer. It’s got the pizzeria’s phone number in it, and it’s completely ready for use, anytime. Yet, I didn’t even think of using it until after I’d gotten the number via cell phone and Internet.

Simplifying life. We keep saying we need to do so, yet every year we add more layers of complexity. From smart phones to laptops to GPS devices to iPods to DVRs to 3G networks, we can’t help ourselves. We need to be wired everywhere, and connected to everything. We Facebook, Twitter, text, e-mail and play video games with people in Dubai. It never stops.

But once in awhile, when we find ourselves drowning in data, it hits us. There is a life outside of all the computer chips. We can live in this world without WiFi. We take our inspiration wherever we can.

Take Jorge Posada, for example. The Yankees catcher has never walked up to the plate wearing batting gloves. Almost every baseball player alive wears the gloves to enhance their grip on the bat. But not Jorge. Just a little pine tar and a strong grip is all he asks. As for his helmet, Jorge doesn’t need a sparkling new one every week. He’s got the same weathered helmet he’s been wearing for years. He’s a bit old school in that way, and he doesn’t seem to mind at all.

I would imagine that Jorge has pizza delivered to his home. But when he calls, I bet he’s used that phone book every so often. He’s washed off the pine tar by now, so he can flip through the pages just fine.

It’s OK to simplify, and it always will be. These days, though, most of us seem to be missing that message. We’ve got the batting gloves on, and we’re ready for what’s next.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Don't Mention It (One Sixty-Two: Day 110)

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 Ten: Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox (via John Sterling)

When you’re on an interstate traveling a couple hundred miles, and making your way through New York City along the way, you cross your fingers when it comes to traffic. When you’re halfway there and you haven’t hit even a single brake light, you wonder how long the luck will last.

So the last thing you want to do is call attention to your good fortune. Yet, when your oldest daughter asks how long it will take until we get there, you want to give her a straight answer. So you say, as part of your answer, “Well, so far we haven’t hit any traffic, so …. ”

And your wife gives you the look. Now you’ve done it. The jinx is on. The “Road Work Ahead” signs are clearly on their way.

No one mentions that they’ve avoided traffic so far, she says. You talk about that once you get there. Meanwhile, on the car radio, WCBS announcer John Sterling is calling the play-by-play for the Yankees-Red Sox game. Boston starter Jon Lester hasn’t given up a hit yet, and it’s the fifth inning. While Red Sox players are surely following the time-honored tradition of saying nothing about the no-no to their pitcher, Sterling is running a jinx-athon on the radio. With every other sentence, he calls attention to the no-hitter.

And so it makes perfect sense that Yankees outfielder Austin Kearns knocks a single to center in that fifth inning, ending Lester’s no-hit bid. John Sterling all but guaranteed it. At around the same time, our car finds some interstate traffic that slows down our trip for a while. Just as I prophesied with my no-traffic comment.

Jon Lester lost his bid for the second no-hitter of his career yesterday, but he did pitch a fabulous game and picked up a much-needed win for his team. We hit our patch of traffic, but we still arrived at our destination in plenty of time for dinner. So all was fine in the end on both accounts.

It’s just that when you want perfection, and you think you might get it, there’s no need to bring it up. Just keep driving, or pitching, and let the rest take care of itself.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Cereal Swinger (One Sixty-Two: Day 109)

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-Nine: Coco Crisp, Oakland Athletics

So the government is putting some pressure on the food and advertising industries to stop advertising high-sugar and high-fat foods as healthy choices to American children. It’s an interesting dilemma, as very few of us want to see free speech stifled. Yet, on the other hand, it’s kind of hard to say just how much benefit a bowl of Froot Loops provides to the healthy growth of a child.

As I read with interest a recent New York Times article on this subject, I agreed with those who believe that an ideal solution would be one in which food companies police themselves, and agree to promote Cheerios instead of Lucky Charms. In a nation teeming with childhood obesity, it would be nice to see a collective movement toward healthier options. This, of course, will not happen without someone giving the companies a little push. Hence, the government muscle.

Which brings us, of course, to Coco Crisp. If we’re going to clean up our childhood cereal choices, we’ve got to start with the baseball player who sports a cereal-box name. Crisp, the veteran center fielder now with the Oakland Athletics, has been full of snap, crackle and pop lately. He’s hitting over .300 these past two weeks, and has reached base nearly 40 percent of the time. Coco has been smacking honey bunches of hits this month, and has even stolen a half-dozen frosted bases. His A’s, in the meantime, have crept up to second place in the American League West.

But when Coco comes to bat, or when his face appears on the video screen at stadiums across America, isn’t his name yet another threat to childhood obesity? I can’t help but think of a bowl of sugar cereal when I hear his name, and that’s not good. So in the name of 21st-century health consciousness, I would like to propose a new nickname for this man of centerfield speed and alliteration.

How about Oat-Bran Crisp? Or Mini-Wheat Crisp? Maybe even Grape-Nut Crisp? The lines are open, and we’re taking your suggestions. As for the baseball team in Oakland, they’ll take the man whether you’re calling him Coco or Kashi. It’s the results that matter, and right now Crisp’s bowl is full.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Seeking Stability (One Sixty-Two: Day 108)

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-Eight: Brett Wallace, Houston Astros

Summer can make it tough to remember just what home feels like. Between vacations, weekends away and day trips, many of us spend more time outside our house this time of year than we do inside it. While this can be a lot of fun, it also can be a bit disorienting at times. As much as we might hate to admit it, there’s a part of us that looks forward to the return of September routines, and the comfort of our own bed.

Brett Wallace doesn’t care so much about summer versus September. He’s just looking for someplace to call home, period. Since he was selected with the 13th pick of the amateur draft two years ago, Wallace has done nothing but slug home runs in the minor leagues. And yet, he has been traded three times: from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Oakland Athletics, then from the A’s to the Toronto Blue Jays, and finally from Toronto to the Houston Astros just a few days ago. I haven’t followed Wallace’s minor-league career closely, but his stats show a corner infielder who makes some errors but hits a ton. Sounds like a solid prospect to me. Indeed, Baseball America rated Wallace the 27th-best prospect in baseball this spring.

So the Houston Astros, after acquiring a very talented 19-year-old center fielder from the Philadelphia Phillies last week, shipped this youngster off to Toronto in exchange for Wallace. After then trading first baseman Lance Berkman to the Yankees, the Astros gave Wallace the call he’d been waiting for: He was headed from Triple-A to the big leagues.

It’s only been a week, but Wallace has six hits so far, he’s driven in a few runs, and he hasn’t made any errors yet. Things are looking promising for the kid.

Most importantly, Brett Wallace seems to know where home is now. There are no rumors of impending trades, as the Astros are looking for solid young players to help them rebuild. If Wallace keeps hitting, the Astros will be happy to pencil him in as their starting first baseman next year. And that means he might even be able to sign a one-year lease on an apartment in Houston.

Stability, Mr. Wallace, may finally be arriving. And we’re not even in September.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Sea Glass Season (One Sixty-Two: Day 107)

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-Seven: Delmon Young, Minnesota Twins

The girls are all into sea glass. Prior to this week, they’d never even heard of the stuff. Now they’re collectors.

One of my parents’ neighbors introduced the girls to sea glass, which is basically glass that has been weathered by the ocean and sand so much that all of its edges are smoothed out, or “cooked.” Depending on the chemistry of the original glass, the color may have changed as well. This kind neighbor gave the girls a green-colored piece of sea glass, with a portion of the Coca-Cola logo visible on the smooth glass. My daughters were amazed at the way in which nature had taken something so sharp and dangerous and turned it into something so smooth and soothing to the touch.

The girls and the neighbor are apparently not alone in their excitement over sea glass. According to a story in last Sunday’s Parade magazine, individual pieces of sea glass sell for as much as $300, and sea-glass jewelry can run into the thousands of dollars. A sea glass expert has self-published a book on the subject and sold 85,000 copies, and a North American Sea Glass Association meets this fall in Massachusetts. The recession has apparently done no harm to the burgeoning sea-glass industry.

And so, on a sunny Friday in August, my younger daughter and I went on a sea-glass hunt. Chelsea and I walked along the shore until we found spots where smooth rocks and pebbles abounded. As we combed through the rocks in search of sea glass, Chelsea looked at my findings and informed me if each one was real sea glass or not. She has apparently become an expert over the past few days, so Daddy could keep only the pieces she approved. By the end of our hunt, we had a half-dozen pieces of tiny green sea glass, as well as one small brown piece. Chelsea was satisfied, and she made sure to check with me several times during the day to make sure I still had the sea glass in my pocket.

The Parade magazine reporter, Stephen Fried, says it takes 30 years for the physics and chemistry of the ocean to smooth out the edges of sea glass. In the larger world, there are many facets of life that also take some time to lose their rough spots. Personalities, sensitivities, work ethic, job skills, social development – all are areas of life in which many of us carry some pretty sharp edges with us. It takes a combination of maturity, introspection and the guidance to help us smooth out the surfaces. Sometimes, people need even more time than sea glass.

The Minnesota Twins have a left fielder named Delmon Young. Five years ago, when he was with the Tampa Bay Rays, Young was considered the best prospect in baseball. He was seen as the face of the future for a franchise with tons of young talent. But Young’s reputation took a major hit during a minor-league game in 2006, when he threw a bat at a home-plate umpire who had called him out on strikes. He was suspended for 50 games after this incident.

By the end of 2006, Young was in the majors, and the following year he put together a strong rookie campaign, driving in a bunch of runs and showing flashes of speed and power. But after a trade to Minnesota before the 2008 season, Young seemed to play like a man with a lot of sharp edges. His power dropped, he swung at too many pitches, and his overall production fell to the level of a mediocre outfielder. The Twins, to their credit, kept sending Young out there, but he was clearly adrift.

Then this season began, and the sea glass that is Delmon Young washed ashore. With two-thirds of the season complete, Young has already driven in 83 runs – 10 short of his career high. The 24-year-old has more home runs than he’s hit in any season (14), and his 34 doubles are fourth-most in the league. He’s striking out less often, and he’s making productive contact far more often than in any of his big-league seasons, with a batting average well above .320.

I haven’t had the chance to talk with Delmon Young, so I’m not sure what the elements are that have smoothed out his edges. But I do know that it has happened, and that the potential Tampa Bay saw when it drafted him first overall in 2003 is finally being realized. This has made Delmon Young a valuable commodity in the Twin Cities this year.

Now is he as valuable as sea glass? I don’t know – there’s no saying what someone will do these days for a cooked Coke bottle. But I do know that whether it’s glass or human beings, the process of smoothing out our rough spots requires patience and perseverance. And when it happens, and we can see the difference, it’s pretty hard to put a price on that.

Friday, August 6, 2010

No One Mourns the Wicked (One Sixty-Two: Day 106)

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-Six: Kevin Youkilis, Boston Red Sox

We’ve solved the mystery, although it took awhile. We know who planted a pair of red socks where they didn’t belong.

My parents have a metal sign hanging on the fence in their driveway reading “Yankee Fans Parking / Red Sox Fans Go Home.” Sometime during the week, an individual slapped a magnet on this sign. It was a pair of red socks – the unmistakable logo of Boston’s Red Sox.

No longer was it a lazy beach week; someone had declared war. Where will he strike next?

Tonight, my 8-year-old daughter and her 10-year-old cousin performed songs from the musical Wicked for the family, lip-synching to “Popular” and “Defying Gravity” with plenty of energy and emotional gravitas. While Katie and Megan have not seen Wicked on Broadway, they understand the theme to this story – that sometimes it’s hard in life to tell just who the evil people are around us. Is green-faced Elphaba the wicked witch we’ve always known her to be, or is perky Glinda the one with true wickedness inside her? Are there times when a person chooses a questionable path largely because of the ways she’s been mistreated by others? In that case, who’s the real wicked one?

Tonight they meet again: the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have begun a four-game series in the South Bronx with the Red Sox needing wins to keep their season alive. For years, the fans in New England have called New York the “Evil Empire” owing to the seemingly unlimited cash that the Yankees have to spend. But are the Yankees really the evil ones? After all, didn’t this whole string of 27 championships begin because Boston’s owner wanted to sell New York a guy named Babe Ruth? Was that the Yankees’ fault? And how can you blame the Yankees when Mike Torrez helped pitch them to a World Series title in 1977, but then switched to Boston the following year and gave up the division-clinching homer to New York’s Bucky Dent? Didn’t both teams have the guy, after all?

My brother and I didn’t spend our summers lip-synching to show tunes, as my girls have done this year. We were more the baseball and Star Wars-figure types. If we weren’t playing ball outside, we were probably creating stories with our Han Solos and Luke Skywalkers. Sometimes, we’d even mix the two, creating a baseball diamond on the living-room carpet and placing a Star Wars figure at each position. We’d use one of the Ewoks’ cannonballs for a ball, and create a semblance of baseball using Gamorrean guards and Cantina bar customers. Somehow, it all worked.

It was rare that a member of the Evil Empire wound up on top in our fictional ballgames. The guys with the force usually won out. And when we played our baseball games outside, it was always New York sending Boston home with a loss.

And yet, some 250 miles north, it was surely the opposite every day. From Connecticut to Maine, it was the Yankees who secured the Dark Side; those magnetic red socks were a sign of goodness and northeast-American unity.

So really, who’s the wicked one? And how should we feel about the guys on the other side? Should New York fans be cheering because Boston first baseman (and sometime Yankee antagonizer) Kevin Youkilis is out for the season with a torn muscle in his thumb? No one mourns the wicked, right?

Or should we feel sympathy for those on the other side, and search for a way to finally get along? After all, Darth Vader did come back to the Jedis in the end, right?

Yeah, but Elphaba didn’t get all Goodie Two Shoes up on her broom, even if Dorothy did do her in. Rivalries are too much fun to give up, whether you’re battling through ballgames, musicals or action figures.

Oh, and those mysterious magnetic socks? My niece, the one who played Glinda tonight, has a dad who likes to joke around. He confessed to planting the dreaded logo on my parents’ sign. It took days before he came forward, but we finally got his story.

So, Glinda, when you and your family drive home from your vacation tomorrow, look to the western sky as you pass through New York City. You’ll surely see a blimp up there somewhere, defying gravity in order to photograph Yankee Stadium for a nationally televised New York-Boston game. Who, you might ask, is the wicked one on that field?

It depends on how you read my parents’ driveway sign, I guess.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Backbone Man (One Sixty-Two: Day 105)

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-Five: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays

Got ‘bone?

The words were printed on a black T-shirt, one that hung in a gazebo behind the West Cape May Municipal Complex. Inside the gazebo stood a group of middle-aged men with guitars and drums, and they were playing a set of bluesy rock songs for dozens of adults and kids sitting and eating on blankets in the field around the gazebo. The men call their group Bluebone, and over the years they’ve developed quite a following in this part of the Jersey Shore. They’ve grown popular enough to warrant more than the usual CD sales at gigs: The band has its own Web site, its own slogan (“Burnin’ Blues & Smokin’ Boogie”) and, of course, its own T-shirt design (with apologies to the California Milk Processor Board).

When I saw and heard Bluebone play on a recent night, it was at the delightful West Cape May Farmers Market, one of the hidden gems of the Jersey Shore summer season. For $7, I had a dinner of crab cake and freshly picked cherry tomatoes. If I’d wanted, I could have added such delights as peach cider, barbecued chicken and fresh jam to my grocery list. The sun was out, the breeze was delightful, and the music was, well, bluesy.

My mom, who is a big fan of Bluebone, was digging the tunes, which featured a mix of covers and originals. But while my mom might splurge for the new Bluebone CD, Devil Keep Chewin’, I doubt that she will choose to walk around the Victorian-Era homes of Cape May wearing a “got ‘bone?” shirt. If she lived in Seaside Heights, maybe. But not here.

Aside from all the R-rated connotations this phrase brings to mind, there are other connections to be made here – other variations on what this pointed question could mean. There’s backbone, for instance. With every group of people who work together, there needs to be someone with the steady skills and intestinal fortitude to lead the way toward success. Many musical groups – Bluebone included – have a member who takes the lead in writing lyrics and singing vocals. At most of our workplaces, we can name individuals who keep the ship sailing by constantly delivering help and guidance when it’s needed.

On the diamond, every baseball team has a player or two who serves as the club’s backbone. The last-place Kansas City Royals look to pitchers Zack Greinke and Joakim Soria as backbones, as these two men show their teammates that you don’t have to be on an elite team to perform at an elite level. At the other extreme, the first-place Tampa Bay Rays have a backbone of their own. He’s a third-year player who mans third base better than anyone in the American League while also driving in runs, hitting for power, and stealing bases. He is Evan Longoria, and this season fans voted for him over Alex Rodriguez to start at his position in the All-Star Game. Longoria has quickly become one of the most productive players in the game, and he is the backbone behind the ballclub that is tied with the Yankees for the best record in baseball.

Despite the similarity of his name to that of model and Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria, the Longoria of baseball is much more grit than glitter. From the moment he arrived in the Show, Longoria has been one of those guys who just knows what it takes to win. It’s no coincidence that the Rays went from last-place castoff to playoff squad in Longoria’s first season as a big-leaguer. This season, the Rays are well on their way to a second postseason visit in three years, while their third baseman is well on his way to a top-10 finish in the league Most Valuable Player voting.

Many baseball players have nicknames; Longoria’s is “Longo.” It seems we cannot avoid the sexual connotations today. So let’s just come out and say it – Longo has got ‘bone. And that, my friends, seems to have made all the difference in Tampa Bay.