Thursday, September 30, 2010

We Meet Again (One Sixty-Two: Day 161)

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 Sixty-One: Grady Sizemore, Cleveland Indians

It had been nearly four years since Ron and I had gotten together. He had moved to a different state, made partner at his law firm, and traveled five days a week nearly every week of the year. To say his plate has been full would be an understatement. I have no idea when the man sleeps. In Ron’s life these past few years, getting in touch with friends was secondary to finding some time to actually eat, exercise, and rest.

But a few weeks ago, Ron got in touch. He asked if I’d like to go to a Yankees-Red Sox game with him. I told him I would love to go. And so, on a cloudy Sunday evening in late September, I met up with one of the best friends I’ve had in my life after missing his presence for the better part of my late 30s.

We hugged, exchanged greetings, hopped into my car and began the complex work of catching up on four years. I know the clock said we spent seven hours together, but it felt more like ten minutes. There was so much to discuss: Stories of family, work, friendships, travels, daily routines and personal growth. We talked in the car, on the subway, and on the street. We talked in Staten Island, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx. And, of course, we talked at the ballpark.

The rhythms of a game provided the perfect backdrop for two friends who’ve attended several dozen games together, yet haven’t done so since the pinstriped unit played in a different home stadium. As we sat together in the new digs, Yankees-Red Sox in the South Bronx was as exciting as you’d expect, especially as this game saw New York win in extra innings. But, to be honest, Ron and I could have just as easily been sitting in Arizona, watching Indians centerfielder Grady Sizemore rehab his knee at Cleveland’s spring-training facility. The location didn’t matter, so long as there was baseball before us.

We talked eagerly of seeing each other again, and continuing the business of reconnecting. The vow to meet again soon was more than optimistic chatter. As I reflected on my visit with Ron, I realized that there was a time, earlier in my adulthood, when I would have felt more hurt, betrayal and anger at a friend who’d fallen out of touch with me. But the years have softened the demands I make of friends, and left me feeling grateful for whatever time I can get with them. There’s not enough hours in the day or space in the heart for those kinds of hard feelings. Just tell me what you’ve been up to, and let’s head out to a game.

Ron’s girlfriend is a Cubs fan. During the season, they walk from their home to Wrigley Field whenever they can catch a game. I look forward to joining them there, along with my wife. We’ll enjoy the game and the gorgeous ballpark, I’m sure. But mostly, we’ll just talk. That’s what friends do.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Story of the Year (One Sixty-Two: Day 160)

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 Sixty: Armando Galarraga, Detroit Tigers

As the baseball season’s final week unfolds, the media spotlight shines on teams in pennant races and on individual players pursuing awards and statistical crowns. All of these clubs and players are well worth the attention they’re receiving. But the story of the year in baseball did not involve any playoff implications or MVP-caliber players.

It involved a blown call, a disastrous end to the best game one man had ever played, and the supreme sportsmanship that followed. Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Armando Galarraga has not lit up the world by any means as a pitcher this year: He’s 4-8 on the year, with more hits given up than innings pitched, and nearly as many walks as strikeouts. The Tigers are a mediocre team this year, and Galarraga fits that mold with his 4.62 earned-run average and just one complete game.

But oh, that one complete game. Bring me your most dramatic, exciting pitching performance in the playoffs this year, and I’ll still take Galarraga’s June 2nd masterpiece over it any day. It’s two outs, bottom of the ninth inning, and no Indians player has even reached first base. All Galarraga needs to do is retire shortstop Jason Donald and it’s all over. The pitcher gets Donald to hit a ground ball to first base, where Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera fields and throws to Galarraga, who is covering first. The throw and pitcher’s foot beat the runner, yet somehow, umpire Jim Joyce misses the call. He throws out his hands and rules the runner safe.

The rest is now the stuff of legend: Galarraga finishes off his one-hitter. Joyce goes to the umpires’ locker room and sees his missed call. He walks into the Tigers’ locker room and apologizes, tears in his eyes. Galaragga forgives, immediately. The Tigers rally around their pitcher’s kindness, and the fans follow their pitcher’s lead and give Joyce an ovation the next day. The umpire’s immediate and emotional apology, coupled with the pitcher’s perspective and grace, reminded those who follow sports that there is a lot more to life than a perfect two hours on the pitcher’s mound.

Galarraga found the strength and understanding to reach out with compassion to another human being who had made a mistake, who felt the pain of that error, and who needed forgiveness. At this moment in late spring, Armando Galarraga reminded us that in its greatest moments, baseball really can serve as a metaphor for life at its very best.

A few weeks ago, the Tigers hosted the Baltimore Orioles at home. Galarraga took the hill and threw a strong seven innings, yielding just four hits and three runs. The home-plate umpire for that game was Jim Joyce. The two men crossed paths once more and gave their all, just as they’d done three months earlier. Once again, there was no perfect ending to be found – that is, if you’re measuring life through statistics. If you’re measuring instead by acts of sportsmanship, then this is about as perfect as it gets.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Programming Hope (One Sixty-Two: Day 159)

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 Fifty-Nine: Brian Matusz, Baltimore Orioles

In the fall of 1984, I learned how to perform basic programming on my Commodore 64 computer. I could craft a program in which users were asked a question, to which they would be asked to type their own response. The program would then give an (A) or (B) answer based on whether or not the user had given the correct response.

For the topic of this program, I chose the 1985 New York Yankees. The fact that I had crafted a computer program about baseball was completely unsurprising to anyone who knew me. But why was I making this program about the following year’s Yankee team? After all, we still had a few more months of ’84 yet to live. The Detroit Tigers had yet to defeat the San Diego Padres handily in the World Series. And Ronald Reagan had yet to defeat Walter Mondale even more handily in the presidential election. Why was this obsessive 13-year-old looking ahead so eagerly?

It was all about the way things were ending in the South Bronx that year; I was excited about the future. The Yankees, who had started miserably that year, finished strong under manager Yogi Berra to the tune of 87 wins. I had seen a lot of young, pinstriped players bloom in the ’84 season. Therefore, my wacky new program asked the user which player he or she thought would start at each position for the Yankees the next year. If you selected the player I agreed with, the program told you so. If I disagreed, it gave you a different answer.

So if you answered the question, “Who do you think will play shortstop for the Yankees next year?” with the answer “Bobby Meacham,” the program responded by telling you that I expected Andre Robertson to start at short instead. If you answered my question about first base with the words “Don Mattingly,” you were greeted with enthusiastic agreement.

Young players like Robertson, Mattingly, Mike Pagliarulo and Joe Cowley had helped the team post a 51-29 record in the season’s second half. Like many kids with “NY” logos on their caps, I was pretty pumped about the year ahead. Most of the other fans could contain their obsession enough to avoid creating Commodore 64 programs about the Yankees. But I guess we all have our passions – and quirks.

This evening, I thought about that autumn of 26 years ago while looking at the standings and noticing how well the Baltimore Orioles have played since Buck Showalter took over as manager. The O’s seemed destined for an utterly miserable season in late July, but the hiring of Showalter on July 29 has given the Maryland faithful a lot of reasons to hope. The former Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers manager has steered Baltimore to a 30-22 record over the past two months. Young Orioles pitchers and position players who’ve had the words “potential” stamped on their foreheads for some time have finally started playing quality major-league ball, and they’ve won ballgames as a result. Left-handed pitcher Brian Matusz, for instance, has gone 6-1 with seven quality starts since Showalter took over the reins. A first-round draft pick two years ago, Matusz is the future ace of this club, and he appears ready to fill that role as soon as next season.

So the fans are getting excited in Baltimore again, and Buck Showalter is spoken of glowingly in conversations at Inner Harbor restaurants these days. As for the kids at home, they’ve already started dreaming of a return to the playoffs for the boys in orange and black. I don’t think many of those kids own a Commodore 64, and even if they did I don’t think they’d use it for Orioles starting-lineup quizzes.

But whatever they do, the youngsters who cheer for the Baltimore Orioles have more than a few reasons to think about the spring of 2011. You can’t program a winning season, but you can recognize something good when you see it. Now, Orioles fans, let’s get started – who should Buck start at first base?

Monday, September 27, 2010

He Did It Again (One Sixty-Two: Day 158)

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 Fifty-Eight: Logan Morrison, Florida Marlins

My mother would call us in for dinner from the back window, and we’d hear her as the sweat dripped down our brows. “Just one more minute!” we’d call from the patio, panting the words. My brother and I were locked in combat, and there was no dish of spaghetti or tacos or London broil that could pull us away from this moment.

We were inevitably tied at 20 in a game of one-on-one basketball, and our rules required the victor to score at least 21 points (one point for each basket made), while winning by at least two. As my mom granted us that one more minute and closed the window, Eric would dribble back to the foul line, give me a head fake and swish a jumper. Game point for him. I’d follow by picking up the pace on defense, putting a hand in his face on the next shot, and grabbing a monster rebound.

I’d dribble back to the foul line quickly, then bulldoze my way to the rim, where he’d get a hand on the ball but I’d hold on and somehow drop a layup into the rim. My ball again: This time I’d miss a short jumper, but hustle for the offensive rebound and bank in a put-back to pull ahead by one.

My ball; game point. Finally, for the first time in months, I was about to beat my brother. The kid was three years younger than me, but he’d been growing like a weed and was developing long, sinewy muscles that could do most anything he asked of them in the sports arena. As he grew into his teens, the kid started defeating me regularly in hoops, in stickball and in tennis. Almost every time we played, I’d hold a late lead, only to watch him snatch victory away from me in the waning moments.

This time, though, it was going to be different.

I dribbled slowly toward the hoop, keeping the ball away from Eric’s lanky arms. I backed him to the rim, setting myself up for a head fake and a short jumper. He leaned in, but I had him where I wanted him. And then, for some reason, my inner desire to become the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar overtook any semblance of sanity. I leapt, swung my right arm in an arc from below my hip to above my head, and let loose a pretty, yet dreadfully misguided, hook shot.

Eric grabbed the rebound. He took off for the foul line, then returned with a pretty layup. Game tied. Ball back to Eric. He brought the ball behind the 3-point-line, took a quick look at me, and released a perfect jump shot. In our games, shots taken from behind this line counted as two points. As Eric’s ball landed perfectly through the net, my mother called us in again. I was bent over and wheezing now, in need of an inhaler. My brother slapped me five and retrieved the ball. “Good game,” he said.

Yeah, sure. Good game. It was always a good game with my brother. The problem was that it always ended the same way. I was Charlie Brown going all-out to kick the football, and he was Lucy pulling it away from me at the last moment. Just when I thought I finally had him licked, he stepped behind that 3-point-line and finished me off.

This past week, somewhere in the virtual world of ESPN Fantasy Sports, two make-believe baseball teams played a head-to-head matchup in a league semifinal. One of these teams was managed by my brother, and the other by me. My team had far and away the best record in the regular season, while Eric’s had just barely made the playoffs. I had superstars ranging from Alex Rodriguez to Carl Crawford to Roy Halladay on my team. Eric had a few great players, but he also had to scuffle just to fill his roster with some players he could rely on regularly.

But when he found himself matched up against his dear brother, Eric knew his season was about to turn around. And it did, of course. While my superstars struggled just to get base hits last week, Eric turned to unsung players such as Marlins rookie Logan Morrison, whose superb week helped lead Eric’s team swiftly past my group of All-Stars and into the finals.

I have a pretty good history of recovering rather quickly from fantasy-baseball losses. There are, of course, several million more important things in our lives than virtual sports. But at the same time, well, it happened – he beat me again. I was so close to victory, and I could taste it as if it were Mom’s spaghetti steaming on the kitchen table. And then my laptop took a queue from the gathering dusk of a backyard patio on Staten Island, and that kid found a way to hit another final shot.

Charlie Brown, you can pick yourself up now. The game is over. You battled hard, you fought ‘til the end, and your brother still loves you. Dinner’s ready.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Kicking the Ball Around (One Sixty-Two: Day 157)

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 Fifty-Seven: Jeff Francoeur, Texas Rangers

Chelsea is a bit of a free-swinger. When I toss this 5-year-old some pitches in our backyard, she doesn’t care if the ball is in the strike zone or not. She just rears back and unleashes a blur of yellow Wiffle-ball-bat motion. If she followed pro baseball, Chelsea might find a bit of herself in a hitter like Jeff Francoeur of the Rangers, who rarely sees a pitch he doesn’t like, and who has turned pitches far outside the strike zone into plenty of singles and doubles, as well as more than a few strikeouts.

But Chelsea knows nothing about Jeff Francoeur or the Texas Rangers. The thing is, the kid doesn’t really like baseball all that much. She and I have bonded over Play-Doh, as I’ve written before, but we don’t have major Daddy-daughter moments when we’re playing baseball in the backyard. We get some nice exercise for a few minutes, and then she gets bored and starts using the plastic bats as walking sticks for some make-believe hike through the yard. There’s no genetic handoff of baseball passion here.

Yesterday morning, though, Chelsea started a new sport. She strapped on some knee-high socks, a pair of shin guards and new cleats, then walked a few blocks to a neighborhood field for her first soccer practice. The verdict: She absolutely loved it. Chelsea kicked, she ran, she listened to her coach and she left the field feeling a bit like a jock. She walked with a little strut, and said she was looking forward to next week’s practice.

Later on in the day, we found ourselves in a dog park with our golden retriever, and Chelsea had located an old soccer ball that had been left there for the dogs to use. We began kicking it back and forth to each other, and you could tell after awhile that Chelsea was feeling the kind of visceral comfort that comes with doing something you really enjoy. She kicked, I kicked. She kicked, I kicked. Then she spoke.

“You know,” she said, “when I’m on the bus going to the Y after school, and we pass the school where you work, I always say ‘Hi, Daddy’s school.’ I say it to myself, not out loud. But I always say it.”

We chatted a bit more, and kept kicking the ball until dusk sent us home with the dog. When we got home, I helped my little girl clean the soccer and dog-park dirt off her body in the shower. But there was no wiping away the memory of our soccer time together.

It wasn’t a catch or a bit of batting practice that brought these words out of my daughter. Just a ratty old soccer ball, and a few moments of uninterrupted play. To say it made my day is an understatement. I think I’ll go shine her cleats.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Merits of Merit Pay (One Sixty-Two: Day 156)

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 Fifty-Six: Bobby Jenks, Chicago White Sox & Scot Shields, Los Angeles Angels

One of the hottest issues in educational circles these days is that of merit pay. Legislators on both sides of the aisle, as well as many leaders in education, have supported the concept of paying teachers extra based on their performance in the classroom. Others in both government and education have stood in opposition to this concept, with their primary reason being this: How do you measure great teaching?

It’s a fair question. First of all, assuming you can identify clear student growth in a skill, who gets the credit? Is it the teacher who presented and assessed the work? Is it the parent who worked with the student at home? Is it the tutor whom the parent hired to work on skills with the student? Or is it the librarian, the administrator, the coach, the academic-lab teacher, or the countless other staff members who might have worked with that child during the year?

Taking another step back, there’s the issue of how you assess student growth to begin with. Can it all be measured via a standardized test? Or can student growth be seen in other ways, such as through work habits, class participation, and creative projects that allow for analysis outside the box? And, taking yet another step back, there’s the largest question of all: How do you measure the ways in which a teacher has helped a child to grow not just as a student, but as an individual as well? And if no one is even considering this growth when computing merit-pay formulas, what does that say about our values?

So yes, there’s a lot to work on when it comes to finding an equitable and workable system for merit pay. In baseball, players get incentive clauses in their contracts all the time – for awards won as well as statistics compiled. According to the blog Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Bobby Jenks of the White Sox and Scot Shields of the Angels both have clauses that pay them extra money if they win the Rolaids Relief Man Award. This award, given to the best closer in baseball each year, is determined via a statistical rubric that rewards relievers for wins and saves, but takes away points for losses and blown saves. It’s a rather straightforward formula that has been tinkered with over the years, and has been widely accepted in its 35 years of use.

Perhaps in another 35 years, educators will point to a system for merit pay that works as well as the Rolaids Relief Man system does. Or perhaps by that time we will have reached a consensus that good teaching can’t be computed. As a 12th-year teacher myself, I feel very good about the work I do in the classroom, and I’m very much in favor of seeing great teachers paid well. But can you set up a rubric to measure all the things I’m trying to do each day? I’ve yet to see one so far. But give someone a laptop, a pack of Rolaids and a wizard’s hat, and they might just find a way to get it done.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Grammy for Best Pitcher Goes To ... (One Sixty-Two: Day 155)

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 Fifty-Five: David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

Almost every time I check out the baseball section of my newspaper or flip through an on-line news site, I find more debates over who should win the American League’s Cy Young Award this season. The award is supposed to go to the league’s best pitcher. But in 2010, that’s not an easy thing to determine.

Is the best pitcher the man who has won the most games? If so, then New York Yankee CC Sabathia holds that honor right now. Or should the award go to the man who has given up the fewest runs and struck out the most batters? If so, then hard-luck Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez gets the trophy in 2010. It’s an odd comparison, as Sabathia has 20 wins, 189 strikeouts and a 3.26 earned-run average, while Hernandez has just 12 wins but has struck out 227 batters while compiling a league-best 2.31 ERA.

Many baseball writers and fans are arguing that Hernandez is simply the best pitcher this year, and to deny him the trophy is to deny a very obvious fact. It’s not Hernandez’s fault that he has a weak offense to support him, the argument goes. But others disagree, deferring instead to the long tradition of Cy Young winners posting high win totals. Most of the pitching awards throughout baseball history have gone to men who racked up the W’s. Why, this opposing side counters, should that tradition change now?

It’s a curious debate. In the old days, it was very easy to see who the best starting pitchers were, because they always pitched complete games. According to Baseball-reference.com, there have been 147 winners of 30 or more games in the history of baseball. However, all but 21 of those men won 30 or more in the 19th century. Of the few 30-game winners in the 20th century, only three did so after 1930, and only one surpassed 30 wins after 1934.

That takes us to the 20-game winners, who are also becoming a vanishing breed. Through the 1980s, it was very common to see several 20-game winners in each league every season. But as relief specialists and pitch counts have become de rigeur, starting pitchers rarely have the chance to finish their own job. In two of the past four years, no pitcher has won 20 games at all. This season, three pitchers have already won 20, but no one will get any higher than 22 this year.

So that brings us back to the Cy Young race. Do we throw up our hands and just forget about the number of wins a pitcher has in the 21st century, or do we still count those victories as significant when measuring a hurler’s Cy Young credentials? My thoughts are this: We take the Grammy route.

Every year, the Grammy Awards nominate a very interesting bunch of artists for Album of the Year. Some of the nominees are there because they’ve pushed the envelope, taken some risks and given music a new look (such as Amy Winehouse in 2008, Radiohead in 2009, or Lady Gaga in 2010). Other nominees are on the list because their album was enormously popular (Kanye West in ‘08, Coldplay in ’09, and The Black Eyed Peas in ’10). This diversity among the nominees creates a fascinating debate and keeps a number of viewers awake watching an awards show until after 11 on a Sunday night in winter. And then, when the victor is announced, mouths fall agape “The winner is .. Herbie Hancock! … Robert Plant and Alison Krauss! … Taylor Swift!”

The Grammy people love compromise picks, and these selections have all the spice and flavor of a rice cake. The envelope-pushers inevitably become popular anyway, and the top-sellers remain top-selling. But clearly, one of them should have won the award, right? In the realm of music, safe picks make no sense.

But in terms of pitching, there’s a lot to be said for following the Grammy road. Because as important as it is to honor a great season, I just cannot hand over a best-pitcher trophy to a guy with 12 wins. That’s an offense to the labor of Charlie “Old Hoss” Radbourn, who chalked up a record 59 wins in 1884. Or even to Denny McLain, our last 30-game winner, who tallied 31 victories in 1968. Baseball is about tradition, and winning games is something pitchers have always celebrated. That’s why the starters always head into the clubhouse when a reliever has blown the lead for them. On the other hand, though, it is understandable that a man with 20 wins who gives up a whole run more than the league leader should not win the Cy Young trophy. He has, of course, benefited from more luck than the average pitcher.

So we look in between the Sabathias and the Hernandez’s. And that’s where we find David Price. The Tampa Bay Rays left-hander, in just his second full season, has been electric all season long. Price has an 18-6 record, a 2.84 ERA, and 179 strikeouts. What’s more, he has given up more than five runs in a start just once all season. Last night, as Price outdueled Sabathia for a Rays victory at Yankee Stadium, he put a final stamp on his claim to the award. He may lack Sabathia’s wins, but he’s got plenty. And while he’s a little short of Hernandez’s K and ERA numbers, he’s more than holding his own. This year in the American League, Price is right for Cy Young honors.

The 20-game winner might be fading out of view, and this era of WHIPs and WARs and K-to-BB ratios has so many fans crunching more numbers than they ever imagined they’d see next to a ballplayer’s name. But there’s no need to go nuts with the statistics when looking for your Cy Young. Just uncover this year’s Alison Krauss. It makes for a lousy Grammy pick, but it works just fine in baseball.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dollars & Dust (One Sixty-Two: Day 154)

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 Fifty-Four: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

She called me at work today with one of the major announcements of her 5-year-old life.

“Hi Daddy,” Chelsea said on the phone. “I lost my first tooth.”

Whoa! And the crowd roared its approval. Or, rather, the Daddy roared in excitement. When I saw her later, she opened wide and showed me a gap in the bottom row of teeth. Chelsea said it was much easier to chew now, and that she looked forward to munching on carrots again.

At night, she tucked her little plastic tooth holder under the pillow, and asked me assorted questions about how the Tooth Fairy operates as I sang her to sleep. “Magic,” I kept whispering, “magic.” My wife, meanwhile, was out securing a bag of fairy dust to place in that plastic holder, along with some cold, hard cash. It was a good day to be 5 and toothless.

Magic. It happens, you know; don’t lose faith just because you’ve got your wisdom teeth. For the first six years of his major-league career, Jose Bautista never hit more than 16 home runs in a season, never drove in more than 63 runs and never posted an average higher than .254. This year, in his second full season as a Toronto Blue Jay, Bautista has mashed his way to the title of baseball’s home run king. Today, in a 1-0 win against the Mariners, Bautista blasted his 50th home run of the season. He’s driven in 115 runs, his batting average is over .260, and his slugging percentage is well over .600. There has been no breakthrough in 2010 quite like that of the 29-year-old Bautista.

You can say all you want about the guy tweaking his batting stance, or working out more in the off-season. As for me, I’m going with the fairy dust, the baseball ghosts, and the unexplainable magic that turns a utility player into an MVP candidate.

Jose Bautista lost all his baby teeth long ago, so there are no dollar bills under his pillow tonight. But after home run number 50, the Blue Jays slugger can rest assured that there will be some very large checks headed his way this winter. The reward for losing a tooth may be dollars and dust, but the prize for becoming a superstar is one that can be deposited, saved and invested.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Can't Hide the Sizzle (One Sixty-Two: Day 153)

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 Fifty-Three: Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks

The heavens opened up in New York City during the final hours of summer, unleashing a torrent of rain in what had been an extremely dry, hot season in the Northeast. It was the warmest summer on record in both the Big Apple and Philadelphia, as well as in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and six other Eastern states. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provides these numbers, also reports that 2010 was the fourth-warmest summer ever in the contiguous United States.

There were enough hot and dry days this summer to leave our lawns brown, our dogs panting, and our electric bills spiked with air-conditioning voltage. So tonight of all nights, just as summer waves goodbye, this season of sizzle has the nerve to drop a bunch of raindrops on us? Please, spare the hypocrisy.

Don’t pretend to be something you aren’t. Don’t bring out a seasonal disguise as you head for the exits. If you were all about breaking the record for 90-degree days in a summer, then a little thunder and lightning show on September 22nd isn’t going to change our impression of what you were.

We know how things work. Take Chris Young here, the talented centerfielder for Arizona’s Diamondbacks. All season long, Young has been the best player on his team, by far. In this, his breakout year, Young has hit 25 home runs and stolen 27 bases. He’s driven in 85 runs and scored 87 runs. The Diamondbacks have struggled all season long, but it’s been no fault of Young’s.

And yet, few players are having as bad a September as Young is right now. He’s batting just .179 on the month so far, with only 10 hits and one stolen base. For a man who was hitting over .270 for much of the season, these past few weeks have seen his batting average dip below .260.

So if you look only at the end of summer, you might not be impressed with Chris Young. You can see that he’s cooled off considerably, and has brought an autumn chill into his lineup earlier than he needed to bring it. Perhaps Young started chugging apple cider before his September games, and his body clicked into offseason mode as it smelled McIntosh trees and pumpkin patches.

Or maybe he just got tired of the longest, most grueling regular season in American team sports. Whatever the reason for his recent slump, Chris Young did not have a bad season. His poor September numbers are a lot like that storm we felt here in New York tonight. You don’t always get a fitting ending to a season, but the numbers don’t lie. Just ask your weatherman.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bunting Her Over (One Sixty-Two: Day 152)

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 Fifty-Two: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

All it took was a little Play-Doh. I should have known all along.

Chelsea has been more distant from me lately. She’s got a lot going on in her little head, as the transition into a new school for kindergarten has not been easy for her. She misses her mom and her grandparents and her best friend Jimmy each day, and she wishes they were with her in school. She misses me, too, but she’s used to me being out at work each day. Her Mommy and Nana, well, they’ve always been there for her. And when they’ve been gone, she’s always had her blankie. But you can’t bring a blankie with you to kindergarten.

I want to talk with Chelsea, and help her through this in all the ways I can. But when I try to engage her in conversation, she usually grunts and continues what she’s doing – playing in the yard, or watching some TV, or eating her dinner. She doesn’t want to talk about school, especially when I bring it up. If she had a solution to what she’s working through, she’d have handled it already. She doesn’t want to hear Daddy’s advice.

This evening, with my wife and older daughter out of the house for a while, Chelsea and I had some time alone together. She took her shower, put on her nightgown and asked me if she could play with Play-Doh. I said sure, and put the Play-Doh out on the table for her. I then went back to getting myself ready for work tomorrow. But somewhere in between laying out my clothes and making my sandwich, I stopped and realized that I needed to sit with my little girl far more than I needed to do anything else.

So I sat down next to Chelsea. “Do you want to play Play-Doh with me?” she asked. I told her I did. “Can you make some ice cream for me?” she asked. I told her I could. So I sat and made her a Play-Doh sundae, and she gave me a little Play-Doh cherry on top. We made a plate full of little Play-Doh balls, and worked together to create a Play-Doh Pac-Man.

After a little while, Chelsea and I looked out the window and noticed the full moon shining for us in the sky. We talked about that for a while. Dessert was in order, and Chelsea was up for apple slices with vanilla ice cream. By the time Mom and Katie got home, it felt as though they’d been gone for just a few minutes.

Chelsea and I didn’t talk about school – not this time. But we spent time together, messing around with some Play-Doh, and that’s what we needed to do first. You don’t get a runner home from first base on a single very often. But if you take the simple step of bunting him over to second, he’s likely to score on a base hit. No one’s done the sacrificing thing better in 2010 than Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers pitcher who has a major-league-high 17 sacrifices on the year.

I bunted today, and that sacrifice brought my dialogue with Chelsea over to second base. Now that we’re there, maybe next time we can talk some more about how school is going. For tonight, though, just rolling some green Play-Doh along the table was plenty. It was perfect, in fact. Kind of like a full moon. Or a nice, soft bunt.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ahab in Atlanta (One Sixty-Two: Day 151)

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 Fifty-One: Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves (via Bobby Cox – and the Whale)

“Hast seen the White Whale?”

It’s either appropriate or insane that during the same summer in which I undertook 162 blog entries in 162 days, I also decided to read Moby-Dick. What, an English teacher who had never read Herman Melville’s Great American Novel? Indeed, guilty as charged.

But no longer. While I still have a week and a half left of the blog series, I did finish Moby-Dick last night – all 654 dense pages of her. It’s a fascinating book, from its detailed description of whales, whaling and nautical life, to its thrilling account of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the mighty white whale.

In the 159 years since the novel’s publication, countless scholars have analyzed Moby-Dick to explore its structure and meaning. Most notably, readers have wondered just what Ahab and the whale symbolize. Do they represent greed? Good and evil? Race? Religion? Nature and humanity? Fate? Life itself? Or something else entirely?

These varied interpretations serve only to make this epic novel that much more interesting. I’ve spent the past two months reading the book, and now that I’m finished I can say that I know exactly what Ahab’s quest was meant to symbolize.

It was all about Bobby Cox.

Ahab was a whaling man for 40 years. Cox, the legendary Atlanta Braves manager, is in his 40th year as either a manager, coach or general manager. His next win will be the 2,500th of his career. Only three other major-league managers have won more. Cox and Joe Torre share the record for most playoff appearances by a manager, with an astounding 15.

There is no question that when Bobby Cox retires at the end of this season, as he has announced he will do, he will quickly find himself inducted into the Hall of Fame. But there’s another piece to this man’s managerial record, and this is the part where we find Ahab and the whale. Of those managers who have made the playoffs eight or more times, all have won multiple championships – except Bobby Cox. A manager like the Yankees’ Joe Girardi, now in just his fourth season as a skipper, has won as many titles as the 69-year-old Cox, who has 29 seasons as a manager under his belt.

It has been all of 15 years since Bobby Cox’s Atlanta Braves won their sole championship under his reign. That’s the equivalent of five 19th-century whaling voyages. You age an awful lot in 15 years, and your thirst for another sight of the white whale only grows fiercer. It’s no wonder that Bobby Cox has been ejected from 158 games as manager – far more than any other skipper in history. You blow a lot of fuses when you push onward with such passion in your quest for another baseball title.

So as young sailors such as right fielder Jason Heyward man the mast-head and sharpen their harpoons, Cox paces the deck and sets sail toward the equator. His Braves are currently 2½ games ahead in the National League Wild Card race. With just two weeks to go, Cox can taste that record 16th postseason appearance. If and when he gets there, the legendary skipper will have one last chance to claim that second title.

It’s been a long, long journey since Bobby Cox first captained a ship. He’s about ready to quit and go home, something Captain Ahab was never willing to do. But before he gets back to his own Nantucket, Cox is about to get one last shot at his ultimate goal. All signs indicate that he’s ready.

“Hast seen the White Whale?” you ask. Indeed, Bobby – there she blows! Man the deck, and lower the boats. You’ve got one more pass at the mighty beast.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Very Sunny in Philadelphia (One Sixty-Two: Day 150)

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 Fifty: Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies

If you live in the New York area, the baseball news you hear about most these days pertains to either the Yankees, who head into October looking to repeat as world champions, or the Mets, who limp to the finish line poised to remake what has been a very disappointing ballclub. You look at the standings and see that the Yankees have the best record in baseball, and you figure they’ll claim yet another title this year.

And they may do that. But don’t think for a moment that the Yankees have the best team in baseball right now. If you head about 90 minutes west of New York, you’ll find baseball’s premier unit, and they don’t need to advertise themselves to anyone. Those within baseball know that the Philadelphia Phillies are the team to beat. The question is just whether anyone will be able to do so.

The Phillies started their 2010 season off slowly, as they were hampered by injuries and poor first-half performances by key players. But in the past month, the Phils have won 20 of their last 30 games, including 16 of their last 20. On paper, they look like world-beaters. Finally, they are looking the same on the field.

Offensively, the Phillies’ prowess has never been in question. Their 2008 championship and 2009 pennant both were sparked by the offense, and this year their lineup is as potent as it gets – from Ryan Howard to Chase Utley to Jayson Werth to Jimmy Rollins to Shane Victorino to Raul Ibanez. But the difference this season is found on the pitching mound, where the Phillies have three aces in their starting rotation. Roy Halladay, the likely National League Cy Young Award winner, has 19 wins, 210 strikeouts and one perfect game. Roy Oswalt, the former Astros ace dealt to the Phillies in July, has yielded fewer than two runs per nine innings since arriving in Philly. And then there is Cole Hamels, who took a minor detour from greatness but is back again, thank you very much.

In 2008, Hamels was MVP of both the National League Championship Series and the World Series, as the Phillies stormed to their first title in 28 years. But last season, Hamels stumbled to a 10-11 record, then faltered badly in the playoffs. The lefty with the matinee-idol appearance seemed to be drifting off the list of baseball’s elite pitchers.

And then a new season began. This year, Hamels has been the victim of poor run support during several of his games, but that has not prevented him from pitching tremendous baseball once again. Number 35 is yielding just three runs per nine innings, he’s struck out 201 batters, and he’s been nearly unhittable in the second half of the season. Hamels’s resurgence and Oswalt’s arrival have allowed the Phillies to overtake the Braves in the National League East, where they now have a three-game lead.

In a seven-game playoff series, the Phillies can either start Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels twice apiece, or send Halladay to the hill three times, and the other two aces twice. However they choose to do it, the Phillies are the dominant force to be reckoned with in October 2010. And this time, it starts with pitching.

So as you hear all the news about Derek Jeter’s slump and Carlos Beltran’s lost season, remember this: The Yankees and Mets may be news today, but in slightly more than a month you may very well be picking up your newspaper and seeing a picture of Cole Hamels holding aloft another World Series trophy. They know this in Philadelphia, and they’re ready to make it happen. They’re just keeping quiet about it for as long as they can.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

She's a Maniac (One Sixty-Two: Day 149)

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 Forty-Nine: Nyjer Morgan, Washington Nationals

You know it’s going to be a rough weekend when your 5-year-old begins her Saturday by telling her older sister, “Katie, let’s be maniacs today.”

Now what kid wouldn’t say yes to an invitation like that? So, after a few hours of wrestling, kicking, punching and manhandling their dog, the two girls have finally settled down to play school. By then, Dad is exhausted. The maniacs have won.

I’d never heard Chelsea utter the word “maniac” before, so it stuck in my mind throughout the day. Which, for a man who came of age in the ‘80s, is not a good thing. After a few hours, that Michael Sembello song “Maniac” from the Flashdance soundtrack crept into my head. And once it arrived there, it wasn’t leaving anytime soon.

So here I was, on a wire between will and what will be, trying to parent two self-proclaimed maniacs. In a small way, it at least helped that Chelsea had announced that this was coming. I wonder whether Nyjer Morgan had similar thoughts a few weeks ago, when he found himself in the midst of two very controversial baseball plays inside of a week. In one game, the Nationals centerfielder was accused of throwing a baseball at a fan in the stands. In the other, he charged the mound after a pitcher threw at him. Earlier in that game, he had broken an unofficial rule by stealing two bases with his team behind by 11 runs.

The total suspension for Morgan ended up being eight games, and he’s out until next weekend. He’ll have time to reflect, and I’m sure it will do him good. When he returns, I hope he’s singing a different tune. Preferably not one by Michael Sembello. As for me, I’m going to beat the girls to the punch tomorrow morning.

“Hey girls,” I’ll ask, “why don’t you be giraffes today?” Now that would give Dad a quiet Sunday.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Streak is Over (One Sixty-Two: Day 148)

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 Forty-Eight: Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers

Prince Fielder’s major-league-leading streak of consecutive games played by a current player ended earlier this week, when flu-like symptoms kept Fielder out of the lineup for the first time in 327 games. Two full years without a sick day is quite impressive – but it does fall just a bit short of Cal Ripken Jr.’s record of consecutive games played. More than 2,300 games short, to be exact.

Consistency. The Milwaukee Brewers and their fans have enjoyed the reliable sight of Fielder at first base every day. He’s back in the lineup again, looking to add to his 190 career home runs at just 26 years of age. We take comfort in the constant presence of people – be it in our homes, at our workplaces, on our TV sets, or in the box scores. We also develop some occasional affection for certain material items that stay present in our lives for extended periods of time. They don’t talk to us, these items, and they certainly don’t mean as much as the people in our lives do. But sometimes we do look at them and feel a kind of reassurance.

Since my wife and I were married 15 years ago, we’ve spent a part of nearly every day with the same set of dinnerware. The set was a wedding gift – not an expensive collection, mind you, but a very durable set that goes by the name of Corelle White. My uncle has joked that this sounds more like a college football player than a set of dinnerware: Now starting at tailback for the University of Michigan, Corelle White! But this simple and functional set of plates and dishes has been by our side and at our table for, well, more than 5,400 days. That’s a streak, all right. We’ve fed ourselves on these plates and bowls countless times in five different homes, while also using them to feed our children, parents, siblings, friends, and even our departed grandparents. Corelle has hung in there pretty nicely, even enduring the occasional lick from a golden retriever.

But last night, as Amy and I drove into Manhattan for a quick anniversary dinner, we decided to make a stop at CB2, a home-d├ęcor store on Broadway. Some dear friends had given us a gift certificate to the place, and we’d been thinking about what to buy there. As we pulled up to the store, we made our decision: After 15 years, it was time for some new plates and bowls. Time to replace dear old Corelle White.

We didn’t select anything fancy – the new set is still white, still simple, and still functional. But the new bowls and plates don’t have the slightly worn look found on our dinnerware from 1995, and they look a little bit more elegant. We’ll use them tomorrow when friends come over for dinner, and our friends will surely compliment us on the new plates.

But tomorrow morning, before we take our new plates and bowls out of the boxes, I’ll eat breakfast once more with a trusty Corelle bowl. I’ll wash it clean afterward, then place it and the other Corelle Whites in a box for our yard sale. I won’t linger with a long goodbye, nor will any teardrops fall on the dessert plates. These are just things, after all.

But the kitchen will look a little different tomorrow, and something simple that I always knew to be there will be gone. The streak is over, Prince. All we can do is get our bearings, readjust, and start another one.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Still Do (One Sixty-Two: Day 147)

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 Forty-Seven: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners (via Ken Griffey Jr.)

My baseball memories of Autumn 1995 are dominated by the image of delirious Seattle Mariners baseball players diving atop Ken Griffey Jr. on an evening in early October. They tackled Griffey because, in the bottom of the 11th inning, his slide home had defeated the New York Yankees in the deciding game of the very first American League Division Series. I remember the sinking feeling that came with watching Edgar Martinez lace a Jack McDowell pitch into the left-field corner, and the shouts that followed the sight of both Joey Cora and Griffey dashing around the bases to claim Seattle’s first-ever playoff series. For a Yankees fan who’d gone 14 years without seeing his team in the playoffs, it was a sorry sight.

But that memory, dismal as it may be, is about the only thing that went wrong in my life during that fall a decade and a half ago. This was, after all, the September in which Amy and I were married. Fifteen years ago today, she walked down the aisle with her father and we said a couple of I do’s. Fifteen years ago, we danced and hugged and smiled for the cameras in a glorious celebration of life and commitment. It’s hard to believe that it’s been this long, but life does chug along pretty quickly – sometimes, it seems, about as quickly as that Ken Griffey sprint in October 1995.

After 15 years, I am amazed at how many things I’m still learning about my wife. I’m proud of how resilient we’ve been in working through challenges together. I’m impressed by the passion and effort we’ve given to parenting. I’m thrilled about our mutual willingness to try new journeys, both together and independently. And, more than anything, I’m fascinated by the ways in which my love for her deepens with each year.

If you take away all the team allegiance stuff, there really isn’t a much better sight in baseball history than Griffey’s dash home in ’95. The perfect ballplayer made the perfect run and the perfect slide, then flashed the most perfect smile baseball had seen in a long time. I watched it again today, and as I viewed it I didn’t feel much in the way of Yankee-fan sadness. Instead, it reminded me of the fact that I had watched that play in the bedroom of my new apartment, folding clothes next to a woman to whom I had just been married a few weeks earlier. It wasn’t the play I thought of; it was Amy. She was there with me, that day and the next day and thousands more days after.

Fifteen years. Wow. Ken Griffey has retired now, and Felix Hernandez is the perfect player in Seattle these days. The Yankees have made the playoffs nearly every year since then, and both teams have provided thrills aplenty.

And that’s all just fine. But for me today, 15 years means just one thing: I still do, honey. Today, tomorrow, and forever.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Kindergarten Blues (One Sixty-Two: Day 146)

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 Forty-Six: Yuniesky Betancourt, Kansas City Royals

There may be no crying in baseball, but there’s an awful lot of it in kindergarten.

Chelsea has had a rough two weeks adjusting to life beyond preschool, where her best friend Jimmy was always by her side. Mornings have found her clutching my wife outside the doors of her school, begging Amy not to leave her. As teachers have led Chelsea inside, she has grabbed for her mom with tears streaming down her 5-year-old cheeks. The school nurse has given her stuffed animals to carry around for comfort during and after the school day. A good morning at school has seen Chelsea whimpering rather than sobbing.

It’s so hard sometimes to step into the great unknown, and kindergarten certainly represents that for some children. For Chelsea, it symbolizes a greater step away from the protective care of her mom and grandma, not to mention a place where she can’t sniff her blankie whenever she wishes. So right now, mornings are tough.

Tom Hanks told us in the film A League of Their Own that there’s no crying in baseball. But that’s not always true. One of the most indelible images of baseball during my childhood was a photograph of Kansas City Royals shortstop Freddie Patek crying in the Royals’ dugout after his team had lost the deciding game of the 1977 American League Championship Series to the New York Yankees. I can remember feeling great admiration for Patek’s desire to win and to keep wearing that blue and white uniform, despite my own affection for the team that had beaten the Royals.

It’s been awhile since a Royals player has had the chance to cry tears of sorrow or joy after a playoff series. The last time Kansas City found itself in the playoffs, current Royals shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt was not yet old enough for kindergarten. Those 1985 Royals won their championship in dramatic style, but it’s been far too long. After a quarter-century of missing the playoffs, Kansas City fans would probably give anything just for the chance to cry over a lost postseason series, as that would have meant a summer full of meaningful baseball.

But as the Royals stumble to the finish line again in 2010, the tears must wait at least another year. The dry eyes in Missouri are more than counterbalanced here in New Jersey, though, as Chelsea turns on the faucets when nine o’clock approaches.

There are, however, some hopeful signs on the kindergarten front. As I picked her up from school yesterday, Chelsea was wearing a “sticky sign” on her shirt. A long piece of masking tape ran diagonally along the front of her T-shirt, and it bore a message from her teacher. In black marker, the message read: “I was happy at school today!”

Well there you go, Sweetie. Give me a hug. You were a big girl today. We are so proud of you.

After the crying comes the courage.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Falls That Lift (One Sixty-Two: Day 145)

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 Forty-Five: Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds

There are days when the stress feels like it will swallow me whole. I go for a run, or duck out to the gym, and try to breathe deep and let it all subside. But September 2010 is not an easy time for us in some ways. Like so many American families right now, we have seen better days in the way of finances. And it’s hard sometimes to know just when it will get better.

You feel a bit like one of those white-knuckle closers, who are forever filling the bases with runners before somehow wiggling out of it. Francisco Cordero of the Cincinnati Reds has 35 saves in 43 chances, but he also walks nearly as many batters as he strikes out, and he puts an average of 1½ men on base per inning. Rarely does a Cordero outing run smoothly. Reds fans can feel the stress almost as soon as the big right-hander begins pitching.

So in these Cordero-like days at Hynes Central, I’ve got to figure out just how much anxiety I want myself to feel on a day-to-day basis. I can worry all day long if I want – there is no law against that. But it doesn’t seem like a smart idea. And I can’t imagine how it would help me, my wife, or my girls.

So, as always, I search for perspective. This weekend, I found it in a place I never knew I’d be. It took a winding highway, a dirt road, a trail and dozens of steep steps to find it. But my, was it worth the trip.

Tannery Falls is located in a part of the Berkshires called Savoy Mountain State Forest. It’s not a place that you’ll find in most New England guidebooks. But my wife found it nonetheless. In an overnight trip that we took to this area over the weekend, we decided to check it out.

After winding our way along the Mohawk Trail that also goes by the name of Route 2, we turned onto an unmarked road outside Florida, Mass. From there, we drove up into the mountains for several miles before turning onto a dirt road. After nearly a mile of gentle driving over the many rocks on this road, we found a parking lot. The trail started from the lot, and as we followed the blue arrows we found ourselves walking alongside a brook. Soon enough, though, the trail took us down many steps. When we reached the bottom, we looked up and saw before us a pristine waterfall in the midst of the Massachusetts woods.

From 80 feet above us, the water of Tannery Falls cascaded down some 35 feet into a tiny pool, then rolled down the rest of the way via a rocky chute. The white water bobbed and weaved all the way into the shallow pool that lay before us. While only one other family was at the falls when we arrived, numerous others had been there before, and they’d left their mark by taking flat stones off the ground and making small sculptures around the edge of the pool with these rocks. Amy added one as well, and we stood together and watched the water drop down to our feet. The tiny pieces of rock art served as a human thank-you gift of sorts to the falls themselves.

This wasn’t the largest waterfall in the world, nor was it the largest one I’d ever seen. But as Amy and I looked at it, took pictures of it, and listened to it, we weren’t feeling any emotion that you could confuse with stress. This was about as beautiful as life gets – a husband and wife, walking hand in hand through the woods far away from the challenges and triumphs of life, taking some time to enjoy nature at its best.

Tannery Falls. That’s my new catch-phrase. Whenever the stress seems like it’s cascading down on me with the force of a Francisco Cordero wild pitch, I will say those words and think of that glorious display of falling water. Because if this world can contain something that beautiful, and if I can savor its majesty in the same spot where Native Americans watched it 300 years ago, then I think I also can endure a few bumps in the road of life. There is no stress worth worrying about when I can choose instead to breathe deep and visualize the white water and the gifts of stone, all while feeling the warm pulse of my wife’s hand in mine.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Innovators (One Sixty-Two: Day 144)

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 Forty-Four: Gio Gonzalez, Oakland Athletics

It is a landmark of ingenuity, nestled in the Berkshires inside a maze of brick mill buildings. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, known as MASS MoCA, has been around for more than a decade now. However, it is growing in scope, ambition and popularity with every year. This weekend, my wife and I had the chance to pay a visit.

The museum, located in North Adams, Mass., takes your breath away from the moment you see it. The 13-acre complex features 26 buildings along with numerous courtyards, passageways and tall windows, to go with a giant metal sign atop the roof featuring the museum’s name. Inside, the visitor encounters a stunning array of contemporary art, including a three-floor retrospective of Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings, a vast exhibit featuring everyday material items inside giant rooms, and a collection of ambitious sculptures by Petah Coyne. Oh, and did I mention Leonard Nimoy’s photos of individuals showing off their “secret selves”? Or Natalie Jeremijenko’s outdoor sculpture featuring telephone poles and upside-down trees? And we haven’t even gotten to the museum’s concerts (including a recent summer festival starring Wilco), nor have we discussed its theater, dance, films, kids events and dance parties.

Sometimes, when you think different, you create amazing things. As MASS MoCA continues to grow, the other old mill buildings in North Adams have become home to artists’ lofts and galleries. The downtown features dozens of galleries and very few empty storefronts. A walk through the street on a Friday night found busy restaurants and a live musical performance in a gallery. This is a town to which Amy and I both plan on returning, sooner rather than later.

Think different. The Oakland Athletics have been following this motto for years now, using their data-driven philosophy, immortalized in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball, to change the way baseball players are valued and scouted. In the past few years, though, the A’s have fallen under the radar, as their offense has dissipated and they have traded away several veteran players.

Of course, the team’s front-office, led by general manager Billy Beane, was up to something clever all along. As baseball steps forward into the post-steroid era, Beane was re-making his team around pitching. And so, as the A’s stand solidly in second place in the American League West this year, they do so behind the arms of some very exciting young pitchers. Some of these starters, such as Trevor Cahill and Dallas Braden, are homegrown A’s who were drafted by the team itself. Others, however, such as lefties Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez, were craftily acquired via trade.

Gonzalez, for instance, was obtained from the Chicago White Sox a couple of years ago in exchange for outfielder Nick Swisher. It turns out that the Sox moved Swisher along to the Yankees after one year, while Gonzalez has quietly become one of the American League’s best left-handed pitchers. This year, he has 14 wins, a 3.16 earned-run average and 153 strikeouts in 179 innings. A few days shy of his 25th birthday, Gonzalez is at the heart of the new-look A’s – a team that’s not afraid to beat you 1-0 if that’s what it takes.

When we try bold new innovations, we often surprise people. And before they know it, those people are waiting in line for playoff tickets in Oakland – which, by the way, could happen as soon as next year. Or maybe they’re letting their GPS or Mapquest lead them up to North Adams, Mass., to walk through some old mill buildings and experience art as they’ve never seen it. Take some creativity, a dash of forethought, and a whole lot of guts, and you might get something that surprises the world. Like a museum in the mountains that feels cooler than cool.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Cleaning House (One Sixty-Two: Day 143)

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 Forty-Three: Melvin Mora, Colorado Rockies

Today we had it out. They refused to clean their rooms once again, and then they wanted to turn the living room into a third play area. I said no. They pouted. And on it went.

I get little help on the cleaning front because my wife believes our two girls need to take ownership over their own rooms. If they don’t want to clean, she says, then let them deal with the consequences themselves. I have just a wee bit of obsessive-compulsiveness within me, so I cringe when I see the clothes strewn about and the emptied bins of American Girl doll clothes all over the floor. I often give in and clean the rooms myself, which only serves to enable the thing I’m trying to change.

So what is a father to do? How do you make it through the moments when two kids seem like two more than you can handle?

You think of Melvin Mora, that’s what you do. The Colorado Rockies third baseman, now in his 12th season as a major-leaguer, is the father of 9-year-old quintuplets. I am sure that this man’s home features a frenzy of activity the likes of which I have never seen. If I’m going to stress out over two messy rooms, I can only imagine what it’s like for a father of five active fourth-graders. I would imagine that you learn to put things like dirty socks into perspective. You choose instead to check on how everyone is feeling today, and if the homework’s been completed, and if everybody has eaten. You spend some time playing and talking with your kids, and you listen to them tell you about their classes and friends and sports teams. Cleaning up, I would think, falls a bit lower on the list.

At age 38, Melvin Mora is near the end of a successful career that has seen him collect nearly 1,500 hits while playing various infield and outfield positions for the New York Mets, Baltimore Orioles, and Colorado Rockies. Mora’s quintuplets weren’t born yet when he appeared in the playoffs for the first and only time, with the 1999 Mets. This year, Mora has been a backup for the Rockies, but he has started nearly every day since starting third baseman Ian Stewart went down with an injury a couple of weeks ago. And during Mora’s time in the lineup, the Rockies have become baseball’s hottest team, winning 10 straight games and pulling to within 1½ games of the National League West division lead. If the red-hot Rockies keep it up, perhaps the Mora Five will have the chance to see their dad play in the postseason, after all.

There’s probably very little time for cleaning in the Mora household these days, other than all the sweeping that Dad’s team has been doing at the expense of other baseball teams. It’s a busy time of year, what with school starting and pennant races running full-tilt. It’s the kind of bustle that leaves kids to take care of their own rooms.

After all, the American Girl doll clothes won’t destroy the house. And, when you least expect it, they will clean. They are your kids, and you’ve raised them well. Take a breath, Dad. Watch a ballgame. Check out those Rockies.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Peace Be With Us (One Sixty-Two: Day 142)

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 Forty-Two: Josh Thole, New York Mets

We awoke on this beautiful morning with an invitation to remember. As we honor the fallen of September 11th, we remember the importance of peace, acceptance, understanding, cooperation, and sacrifice. We remember the hope that comes with determination and rebirth, and we celebrate the beauty that can arise after tragedy.

Many museums have taken to offering free admission on September 11th, which seems to capture much of the spirit of this day. These institutions open their doors to the public and allow us all to study and appreciate works of art or science from around the world. It is a sharing of creations, inventions, stories and imaginations – in a sense, it is the ultimate celebration of freedom. Baseball stadiums would do well to offer discounts on this day as well, as a means of bringing people together in the name of fellowship, fly balls and frankfurters.

Josh Thole was only 14 years old on September 11th, 2001, and he was living half a continent away. Now a catcher for the New York Mets, Thole has surely seen the video clips of his Mets predecessors wearing the caps of the different city agencies that had lost workers on 9/11. If he walks around the city today, Thole will feel some of the vibe of unity that followed this tragic day. And perhaps he and the rest of the Mets will carry that vibe with them throughout the day. It’s a good day to remember, and a very good day for seeking peace.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Turning the Corner (One Sixty-Two: Day 141)

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 Forty-One: Martin Prado, Atlanta Braves

My mind knows I’m off from work today for Rosh Hashanah, and that it’s OK to sleep later. But my body, which has readjusted to the school-year schedule, was ready to go at six.

September.

A pristine 70-degree day is concluded with a pink sunset, then followed by a cool breeze. We sit and savor the wind’s whisper while talking about our plans for the days to come. As dusk turns to darkness, we feel the buzz of mosquitoes on the prowl.

September.

The morning newspaper that awaits us on our driveway has a few acorns atop it. We open to the sports section and read about last night’s U.S. Open tennis matches and this weekend’s college and pro football games. There’s not much time to dawdle over the paper, though, as there is much work to be done.

September.

We have turned that corner, watching the hand of summer slip out of our grasp and feeling the crunch of fall beneath our feet. It’s a time for school years to click into gear, for mercury to drop on thermometers, and for calendars to congest with things to do. In sports, it’s a thrilling time in which football begins, America’s premier tennis tournament concludes, and the baseball pennant race hits its homestretch.

Football in September is all about promise, while tennis in September is a fleeting thrill. But baseball in September is all about turning points and falling action, which is the prime rib of any plot. After five months and 140 games, teams are fighting for their lives, and seasons hang in the balance every night. In the National League East, for instance, it’s entirely possible that only one team will make the playoffs. That means every night is critical for the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves, who are currently separated by only one game.

Some of the players on these two teams, such as Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies and Billy Wagner of the Braves, are accomplished veterans who know what it takes to fight through the grind of September. Others, however, are new to this playoff hunting season. So that raises the question of how they will handle the pressure. Take Martin Prado, for instance. The 26-year-old Braves infielder is having a breakout season in this, his second year as a full-time player. He’s hitting .314 with 15 home runs, 63 runs batted in and 93 runs scored. But mid-September is different from any other time in this long season. Prado is surely feeling the fatigue, yet the games mean even more right now. Can he maintain his focus, composure and nerves, all the while lifting his game to a higher level? Will he relish the opportunity to play for a pennant, leading his team out of September’s breeze and into October’s chill?

It’s a time for changes: pencils, briefcases, sweatshirts, harvests. And, best of all, pennant races. Kick aside the acorns, and swat those mosquitoes out of the way. There’s a game to watch, and it’s gonna be a good one.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Playing School (One Sixty-Two: Day 140)

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 Forty: Chris Johnson & Tommy Manzella, Houston Astros

My girls have been playing “School” every day during the past week. They alternate the roles of teacher and student, leading each other through make-believe school days in their playroom. My 8-year-old, who plays teacher more often than not, gives the 5-year-old everything from morning work to math problems to art projects. Katie’s even drawn up a fire-drill schedule in the room, to go with her attendance chart. They’ve got a dry-erase board, an art table, and a small “teacher’s desk.” School, it seems, is always in session in our house.

As I listen to the girls play upstairs, it’s clear that they are using this game to help themselves adjust to the routines and experiences of the young school year. They’re leaning on each other as they try to navigate their way through something new. As they do this, it’s incredibly fulfilling to see these sisters acting like best friends.

It can be hard sometimes to figure out your new environs. You’ve got so much new stimuli around you, and you see so many new faces in front of you. For students, this year’s teachers have different expectations and approaches than those of the year before. Plus, the work is a little more difficult this year. Your new classroom looks different than last year’s, too, and the kids around you might not be the same ones you saw three months ago. Changes, everywhere.

For ballplayers, a promotion to a higher level of ball brings similar challenges to those experienced by the student. This year, nearly two-thirds of the teams in baseball are out of the pennant race already, thereby leaving many clubs with a desire to test out some of the young, talented players who’ve been toiling in the minor leagues for much of the year.

And as these young players step up to the big-league level, they are adjusting, side by side. Over in Houston, the Astros lineup is very different from the one that Houston fans saw in the spring. Players such as Chris Johnson and Tommy Manzella are getting a lot of playing time these days, as the two young men currently make up the entire left side of the Houston infield.

So far, the results are mixed. Johnson, in half a season’s worth of at-bats, has posted an impressive .324 batting average to go with seven home runs and 39 runs batted in. The 25-year-old third baseman is not taking many bases on balls, which is always important if a player is to develop patience at the plate. But he is showing an ability to make solid contact. Manzella, 27, is off to a slower start. The shortstop is hitting 100 points lower than his fellow rookie, at .224, and has just one homer and 18 RBI. Like Johnson, Manzella is striking out far more often than he’s walking. But, like Johnson, Manzella is so new to the big leagues that his success lies more in how he handles pitchers the second time around than in how he fares the first time.

By the time this school year comes to a close, a new baseball season will have begun again. By that time, Johnson and Manzella hope to find themselves in the big kids’ room, with all the upperclassmen. An Astros’ lineup card with their names on it in April – now that’s a sign that they’ve earned the biggest promotion any baseball report card can hold. That’s an adjustment they’ll gladly make.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Who's All Washed Up? (One Sixty-Two: Day 139)

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-Nine: Jim Thome, Minnesota Twins (via Derek Jeter)

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Derek Jeter’s performance on the field, and whether or not the Yankee captain is beginning to experience an erosion of baseball skills. My thoughts on this are clouded by my fondness for the Yankees, of course, but as a baseball fan I’d say we underestimate a player like Jeter at our own peril. When you’ve performed at such a high level for so many years, a late-summer slump is probably not a sign that you’re finished. It’s likely just a slump.

Of course, Jeter’s situation is clouded by the fact that his gigantic 10-year contract comes to an end after this season, and he will be a free agent. The issue is not whether or not he’ll resign with the Yankees; New York knows it cannot let the face of the franchise go anywhere. The question is what kind of contract he signs. It’s important that the Yankees not play cheap with this man for a couple of reasons: First of all, Jeter should have plenty of superb baseball left in the tank; and secondly, his future impact on the team will not be felt solely during his time as a player.

First of all, keeping Number 2 in pinstripes assures that the Yankees-Jeter brand will last for as long as Jeter lives. Both teams have much to gain in terms of revenue and prestige from this partnership, just as the Yankees have experienced with men such as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. Secondly, it’s certainly possible that Jeter will decide he wants to manage someday, and I’m sure he’d be tremendous at it. If I were the Yankees, I’d want him managing in the South Bronx, rather than anywhere else. So what is to gain by trying to lowball Jeter’s contract this winter when you’re hoping that he leads to you future championships both during and after his playing days?

Some guys are just built to produce and win, and they exude a leadership that the rest of the team feeds off of every day. Jim Thome is another such example. Thome turned 40 a few days ago, and it’s true that he plays better now when he gets some extra rest. But last season, when Thome’s season home-run total dropped below 30 for the first time in a full season since 1995, the word on the street was that his days of glory were behind him.

So, as most American League teams looked elsewhere for designated hitters, the Minnesota Twins looked for Thome. In just 241 at-bats this season – the equivalent of a half-season – the lefty slugger has 22 homers. That, by the way, gives him 586 in his career. Oh, and as his Twins are surging toward the playoffs, Thome leant a hand this week with four home runs in three games. A strong September in Minnesota will give Thome the ninth postseason appearance of his illustrious career.

So, you know, go ahead and say the guy is a liability because he can’t play the field anymore, and because he doesn’t hit lefties as well these days. The Twins would love it if you keep knocking the guy, because then they might be able to sign him for less money again next year. And he’ll punch another 20 or more home runs over the wall – often in the late innings of late summer, when lesser players shrink under the pressure.

Jim Thome and Derek Jeter will both retire someday; they are mortal, after all. And they’ll stand in Cooperstown one July afternoon as well, holding their Hall of Fame plaques for the cameras. At that point, there will still be some people debating just how good they were in their later years. But neither man will be listening. They’ll just be smiling.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Don't Look Down (One Sixty-Two: Day 138)

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-Eight: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Boston Red Sox

She was really nice about it, actually. This sophomore sitting in the front row of my classroom smiled and asked me, “Did you wear different shoes today for a reason?”

I looked down. My jaw dropped. Thankfully, both were brown and somewhat similar in style. But it was easy to see that these were from two different pairs of shoes. How many students and colleagues had seen this and chosen not to say anything today? The sympathetic sophomore asked this during my final class of the day. I walked quickly through the halls for the rest of the afternoon. Don’t let ‘em see you step.

It is September, all right. As the alarm rings for me at six, and I stumble out of bed and reach for my clothes, interesting things can happen. My shirt and pants matched just fine today, but tomorrow’s no sure thing.

Some days, you just don’t have it all together. When he woke up this morning, I’m sure Daisuke Matsuzaka fully expected to pitch well against the Tampa Bay Rays tonight. But after eight hits, four walks and eight earned runs, it was clear that Matsuzaka was not carrying his A game with him this evening. For the slumping Red Sox, this was not a good thing.

Perhaps the Boston pitcher would have done better had he mixed up his shoe selection a bit. You know, wear one red cleat and one blue. After all, I did teach well today. I just looked a little funny. As for tonight, though, I’m going to put the shoes out ahead of time. Like Matsuzaka, I want to stand out for the right reasons.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sculpted Memories (One Sixty-Two: Day 137)

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-Seven: Travis Hafner, Cleveland Indians

Maya and I were sneaking around the shrubs and sculptures, trying to get a quick glance at the guests in their dark suits and vibrant dresses. They sat in white folding chairs, surrounded by beautiful works of art. They awaited the bride, the groom, and the wedding ceremony itself.

Maya and I had discovered this impending outdoor wedding at a magical place called the Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton, N.J. As Maya’s family and my family walked together through this 35-acre public sculpture park just outside Princeton, we viewed many of the 240 or so contemporary sculpture pieces here. We saw them in open fields, atop hills, beside a pond and a lake, and inside buildings. We chatted, posed for photos, touched the sculptures we were permitted to touch, and climbed the one we were allowed to climb.

But spectacular sculptures aside, the thing that caught our attention the most was this wedding not far from Isaac Witkin’s stunning “Garden State” sculpture. When we noticed the hustle and bustle, 5-year-old Maya wanted to view it all. We saw handsome groomsmen standing tall in their tuxedos, we saw guests dressed in orange and green traditional African dresses, and we saw ushers wearing headsets so they could organize this ceremony with the precision of a rock concert. We didn’t have time to stay and wait for the ceremony to start, but we did have time to sit and talk about weddings for a while.

So as Maya and her 3-year-old sister, Quinn, sat on the grass with their parents and with my wife and girls, I shared some details of my own wedding. I told Maya how I had to stand for 30 minutes inside a church while waiting for my wife-to-be to arrive in her limousine. I told Maya how I later learned that Amy had been posing for wedding pictures on her parents’ lawn, even taking a few photos with her dog, while I stood and sweated in the sanctuary. Maya liked the dog part. Amy smiled at the memories, too, although she wasn’t going along on the guilt trip.

It’s been 12 years since the dog in those wedding photos died. And in a few days, Amy and I will celebrate the 15th anniversary of our wedding. By next fall, Maya and Quinn’s parents will have been married for 10 years. In the vibrant joy of the moment, it’s hard to envision it all being a memory someday. And yet it happens.

Three years ago, Travis Hafner batted cleanup for a Cleveland Indians team that came within one game of the World Series. Today, that Indians club is mired in last place, and it has traded away most of its veterans (Hafner, due to injuries and a large salary, is not a tradable commodity these days). Cleveland has acquired some talented prospects for those veterans, but it’s going to be awhile before the Indians are that close to a pennant again.

So Hafner and the Indians’ fans are left with memories, which seem a little more distant every year. But when time moves on and those memories start to fade a bit, you need to tip-toe past the shrubs, and catch a glimpse of the bride in white, walking along a sculpture-filled path on her way to saying “I do.” This will bring it all back, Maya. You’ll see it again, and you’ll remember the magic. You’ll be glad you waited a half-hour for your life’s partner to finish taking those pictures. A work of art is worth the time.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

When You're Hot, You're Hot (One Sixty-Two: Day 136)

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-Six: Ian Desmond, Washington Nationals

It’s been a rocky rookie season for Ian Desmond. The 24-year-old Nationals shortstop is the runaway leader in the dubious category of most errors committed in Major League Baseball this year, with 31. Desmond’s hitting has also been erratic at times this season, as we often see with rookies.

But Desmond has been a much better hitter in the last two months, with a .342 batting average since the All-Star break. In September, Desmond has been out of this world, with 10 hits in 16 at-bats. He’s not really a home-run kind of guy, but the kid is smacking an awful lot of singles and doubles for the young Washington club.

When you’re hot, you’re hot. At times like this the pitcher’s best bet might be to just serve it up and get out of the way. Last night, I experienced this very feeling in the unexpected environs of my own backyard. And the Ian Desmond-like hitter was an 8-year-old who has already retired from softball.

Katie and I walked into the backyard on a gorgeous Saturday evening and decided it was a good time for a little batting practice. When Katie decided not to play softball this past spring, she said that while she liked playing ball with me, she didn’t enjoy the competition of team sports. She doesn’t like losing, and she also doesn’t like watching others lose. This is part of her sensitive demeanor, much of which I want to preserve like fine china. However, I also know that feeling the flow of those competitive juices, and knowing how to manage that flow, can be a very healthy thing. So I’m hoping Katie will decide to try another team sport when she’s ready.

Last night might have been a turning point in helping her decide to give softball another go. I was just tossing plastic baseballs to her, and she stood in a solid stance, her plastic, yellow Wiffle bat in hand. She started by spraying some outside offerings to the opposite field. I commended her on keeping her eye on the ball. As I came inside with some throws, Katie pulled a few balls off the neighbor’s fence. When I threw one down the middle, I got nicked in the shoulder by a line drive. Another one down the middle landed off the evergreen tree in the back of our yard. And, just before darkness fell, Katie finished her evening by lining a shot right off her dad’s forehead. She liked that one most of all.

As she smacked all these balls, Katie laughed while I showered her with praise. It was as low-pressure a situation as possible, as well as a time for bonding with Dad. But as we finished, I asked Katie if it might be worth trying softball again. She said maybe. She ran inside to tell her mom all that had happened out in the yard.

Maybe: On this day, that was all I hoped to hear. Not because I want to pick the kid’s pastimes, or relive my own baseball days through her, but simply because I want her to feel those juices. I want her to know what it’s like to drive your teammate in with one of those line drives, and to deliver her home with solid teamwork. And I want her to shake hands with the opponent, say “Good game,” and realize that no one’s life was ruined by the final score of a sports game. I think Katie would like that, and I think she’d be a great leader for a team.

For now, we’ve got the backyard. I’ll keep delivering the pitches, and I’ll hope for a few more shots off the forehead. I’m not masochistic; she just looked so happy with herself out there. When you’re hot, you’re hot. Be it Katie or Ian Desmond, you just can’t be contained. Serve it up, pitcher, and get out of the way.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Gray Day (One Sixty-Two: Day 135)

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-Five: Brian Bannister, Kansas City Royals

I was just washing my hands in a museum bathroom. I didn’t expect anything special out of that. But when I glanced in the mirror, I got a glimpse of what I’d been dreading.

There they were, clear as day: Two gray hairs.

White, to be more precise. Both to the right of my forehead, where the hairline meets the temple. Even for a guy taking a quick glance at himself in the bathroom, this was unmistakable.

I stepped away from the mirror, left the room, and walked over to our friend Elizabeth, whose family was at the museum with us. I asked her if she’d ever found any gray in her own hair. Elizabeth, who is younger than me, said indeed, she had many. She explained that her husband had specifically asked that she not dye her hair and leave those gray hairs just as they are. Elizabeth and her husband, Brent, are two of the most compassionate individuals you’ll find on the face of the earth. So the fact that Brent found beauty in Elizabeth’s gray hair and that she seemed so accepting of her grayness was of no surprise to me.

And then Elizabeth showed us her gray hair, and as Amy and I looked, it was shocking to me how beautiful it really was. Her brown hair dominated, but the occasional strands of gray blended in with the expressionistic splash of a Jackson Pollock painting. I told her that I couldn’t imagine straight brown hair looking better than that. Amy agreed.

So as I welcome these flecks of white to my own brown hair, I think of Elizabeth and the promise that can come with this “crown of splendor,” as the Bible calls gray hair. It’s true that I’m not a kid anymore – heck, I have watched Brian Bannister pitch for the Kansas City Royals, and I’ve also watched Brian’s father, Floyd, pitch for the Seattle Mariners. So I’ve been around for a while.”Let’s face it, Daddy,” my 8-year-old said to me on the way home. “You are getting old.” Thanks, kid. Much appreciated.

Getting older has a lot of benefits, patience with your oh-too-honest children being one of them. Right now, though, I’d like to think about the ways in which age equals beauty. I don’t have long hair like Elizabeth, so I’ll look to embrace more of the George Clooney gray-hair look.

I checked the mirror again when I got home. Still there. Deep breath. Exhale. You can do this, kid. Old kid. Old guy. You can do it just fine. Gray is the new black.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Harvest (One Sixty-Two: Day 134)

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-Four: Brett Myers, Houston Astros

One of my girls’ favorite picture books has always been The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss. This beautiful story tells the tale of a young boy who dutifully waters and cares for the ground in which he’s planted a tiny carrot seed. While his family members tell him that nothing will grow there, he maintains his faith. At the end of the book, just when all appears lost, the leaves sprout out of the ground, followed by the largest carrot known to man.

We had our own Carrot Seed moment this evening. All summer long, we’ve been dutifully watering the green bean plants in our vegetable garden, with nothing to show for it. But as I walked out to the garden before dinner tonight, I couldn’t believe what I saw: Dozens upon dozens of green beans, all fully grown and ready to be picked. By the time I’d finished, there were a good hundred beans in my bowl. I called to the girls, and together we marveled over just how much had finally come up.

Faith. It can be hard sometimes to keep it, especially when you’re not seeing what you’ve been hoping – and perhaps praying – to see. But life isn’t easy, and the results we seek don’t always sprout overnight. So we hold onto our belief that it can get better, and we watch the garden with hopeful eyes.

Ed Wade was general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1999, and he oversaw the selection of pitcher Brett Myers in the amateur draft’s first round. For the next decade, Myers was a part of the Phillies franchise, but he didn’t always produce a bountiful harvest for his team. From injuries to legal troubles, Myers had some dark moments in Philadelphia. While he was part of the Phillies’ championship team in 2008, he never really lived up to his promise there.

So when Myers hit the free-agent market before this season, it was Wade – now general manager of the Houston Astros – who came calling. Wade signed Myers for a bargain price, and placed him right into the team’s starting rotation. With one month to go in this 2010 season, Myers has been one of the true bright spots on a struggling Astros team. The 30-year-old has won 10 games, struck out 145 batters, and posted a 2.97 earned-run average. And you talk about a workhorse: In all 27 of his starts this year, Myers has pitched at least six innings.

So as Ed Wade saw his harvest finally come to fruition this summer, he made sure of one thing: Brett Myers is not going anywhere. Wade signed the pitcher to a contract extension that will keep him in Houston for at least two more years, with a team option for a third year. Since the contract was signed, Myers has shown no signs of letting up. He and left-handed starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez provide hope that with some improved offense, the Astros can become competitive again next season.

We don’t watch too many Astros games here in Central Jersey, although my oldest is a big fan of the team’s logo. But we do know a thing or two about patience rewarded. We’re going to eat a lot of green beans this weekend, and I’m looking forward to it. When you finally see those seeds work their magic, you feel hungry in all the right ways. Your faith has seen you through, just as you knew it would.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fear the Bean (One Sixty-Two: Day 133)

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-Three: Leo Nunez, Florida Marlins

I thought I was helping Katie work on her reading skills while also bonding with her a bit. Little did I know that I was sparking extreme fears of ingested toxins.

The book is titled George’s Marvelous Medicine, and it was written in 1981 by Roald Dahl. Katie and I have read several of Dahl’s books together, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Fantastic Mr. Fox to Esio Trot. Katie typically gets a charge out of Dahl’s dark, sly humor, so much that she often wants to read his stories past her bedtime. But something different happened after I read George’s Marvelous Medicine with Katie, and it took awhile to reveal itself. She seemed amused and captivated by young George’s attempts to quiet his super-cranky grandma with a potion made from just about every household fluid he could get his hands on. But in the days that followed our book-reading, Katie began wondering to herself just how many things around her are as toxic as George’s medicine turned out to be. And that’s when this 8-year-old started to panic.

That leads us to a few nights ago, when we had a crisis over ice cream. It was a delicious bowl of Breyers vanilla, with orange sprinkles on top. It was waiting for Katie to eat it, but Katie was crying in the living room. You see, while spooning her sprinkles onto the ice cream, Katie had noticed several black dots in the vanilla. She had started wondering if these dots were toxic objects floating around in her creamy dessert. The tears began to flow, and she said she couldn’t eat it.

As Daddy swept in to try and help, he took a look at the bowl, then at the container. I brought Katie over to the Breyers box and showed her the words in bright orange print on the black container: “Now 33% more real Vanilla Bean!” I showed Katie that these little black dots were actually flavorful vanilla beans, and they weren’t the slightest bit toxic. In fact, there were 33 percent more of them than in year past. Thus, more black dots.

Katie still hesitated, so I told her that if she sat down and ate this ice cream, I’d list all of the toxic things she needed to avoid. She seemed content with that, so we had a deal. As she savored the vanilla bean and orange sprinkles, I gave her a quick list: One, don’t drink any of the cleaners we keep beneath the kitchen sink; two, don’t start eating random mushrooms off the ground in a forest; three, don’t sink your teeth into any raw meat; and four, stay away from bottles of medicine.

Once she realized that she knew all of that stuff already, Katie was relieved. The fear eased out of her face, and she was able to enjoy the rest of her dessert. I felt a bit exhausted, but I was reminded of my own, random childhood fears from years ago: My worries that the bedroom closet would light up in flames while I slept, or the chills I felt throughout my nervous system whenever I heard Blondie’s hard-hitting song “Call Me” when I tried going to sleep with the radio on. They were random fears, and quite funny in retrospect. But growing up is hard stuff, and anxieties sort of come with the territory.

As we grow, the anxieties take on a different shape, but they remain nonetheless. In Miami, the Florida Marlins have a closer named Leo Nunez, who is struggling right now. There have been some blown saves of late, and some games in which Nunez has been rather toxic on the pitching mound. But rather than dread his own demise, Nunez must do what Katie had to do: Take a deep breath, realize it’s going to be OK, and settle down. As we grow up, we realize that just when things seem to be at their worst, there’s often some ice cream with sprinkles just around the corner. With 33 percent more vanilla bean.