Tag Archives: baseball

We’re Born Again, There’s New Grass on the Field!

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Not a blade of grass to be seen.

I’ve played a bit of baseball in my time.  I think I may have told you in a previous post that when I was in Little League old men would ask me to autograph baseballs on the off chance that I would actually amount to something other than a manager at a hospital.  I guess the joke’s on them.   I imagine those signed balls being passed down from generation to generation without the giver having any idea why.  Then again, maybe not.

I played baseball from the time I could walk until just after my 21st birthday.  I was the classic product of the big, farm-raised fish in the small stock pond of life and once I got into the actual Pacific ocean of wild fish, it turns out that I was just pretty darned average.  My natural good looks and athletic ability (I had plenty of the latter and very little of the former) only fed my ever expanding ego, but never met with the requirement to actually work hard in order to succeed.  I had the desire, but not the work ethic to advance to the next level.

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Batting practice at Spring Training

So I always have mixed emotions when I watch a live, professional baseball game.  On the one hand, I still feel like I could have made it had I tried harder, but on the other hand I thank God that I didn’t and especially so after watching many of the fans at Spring Training last week in Scottsdale.

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Mom and Dad staying out of the heat

My dad brought my sister, my mom and me to Scottsdale in 1974 to watch the Chicago Cubs Spring Training.   I have some very vivid memories about the trip, but most of the other details are lost to time.  I saw Hank Aaron play (he popped up in his only at bat), got Don Dreysdale’s autograph (I still have no idea who he is) and had my picture taken with a ballplayer whom I don’t now recognize.  I also remember my dad interviewing a carpet layer in our hotel room.  Dad always said that you could tell the measure of a man by how calloused his hands were and I was dying to know if the man had rough hands.  Dad said he did.  Weird what my mind recalls.

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I have no idea who the guy on the left is, but I think he smelled like Aqua Velva.

We stayed at the Camelback Inn and I ate t-bone steak and dipped my crusty french bread in the stewed juices of dead snails.  Never had the body fluids of a  mollusc tasted so sweet.  I swam in the pool, got sunburned for the first time  and took batting practice in the same place the pros did.  I was a young Alaskan in sunny Arizona and I had baseball in my blood and it felt like something else let me tell you.  Well, at least what I remember of it.

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Vanna White would be proud.

We watched game after game and I got so many autographs that I couldn’t keep track of which players I had and which ones I didn’t.  It got so bad that the players would see me coming and say, “You already got me.”  I’m sure I was like a bad dream that wouldn’t go away, but to me it was like an Easter egg hunt and their big, fat signatures were the eggs.  There were few fans, the players were accessible and willing to sign (except for Mike Marshall, the stupid jerk) and it seemed like one big tailgate party.  My dad loved it.  Mom not so much.  My sister not at all (she got blood poisoning from her sunburn and slept a lot).  It was here that I wanted to be when I grew up.

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This is my sister Betty recovering from her blood poisoning. Sun and Alaskans don’t mix.

Let’s just say, things have changed a bit in 40 years.  Lots of things.

Spring Training last week was a really good time.  The weather was amazing, the ball parks were fun and we got to spend an amazing week with my sister, but the overwhelming thing I felt for the players was pity.  I truly did.  I know they make millions playing a game, but because of that, a small minority of the fans think they are owed something from them.  The players are badgered and cajoled, sworn at, talked down to, and fawned over – all for a signature.  A sharpie mark

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Running the gauntlet of autograph seekers

on a baseball.   A scribble on a piece of cowhide to prove that the owner actually had a brush with fame, or, as is more often the case, to be sold on Ebay so others, for a price, can hold a piece of that player’s soul for eternity.  And, for all I know, many players may look at it like the tribesman from New Guinea who won’t let you take his picture because he’s sure you’re stealing a part of his soul.   Some will sign, others might, and still others never do.

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Brandon Belt signing Allison’s jersey.

I do understand why we want it.  It’s a memento, a moment in time.  A freeze frame of your life that you can pull out and show to friends, who will then know that you met someone famous.  It’s your six degrees of Kevin Bacon moment.  And we love it.  It’s a bit like buying that Star Wars action figure and never taking it out of the packaging.  We hope it will go up in value and that we can pass it down to our children and someday it will be worth millions.   On my deathbed I will hand my signed Whitie Herzog baseball to one of my lucky kids and they will hold it high and flaunt it over my other children and still not know who the heck Whitey Herzog was, but because he was famous they are somehow famous.

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Bruce making friends

And in that autograph frenzy, where little kids are crushed by old men, something has been lost.  You can see it in their eyes.  Many of the players are not having fun.  As they walk by the bleachers with fans yelling at them and begging them for a morsel of their attention, they look as if they are walking to the guillotine and Madame Defarge is knitting at the edge of the dugout.   These men never have a moment in public where someone isn’t demanding something of them.  They have got to feel like performing monkeys in a circus – and it’s not too far from a circus either.

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Circus practice

And the players are partly to blame.  Every player is a brand and that brand has to be advertised.  And advertise they do.  There is an endless supply of personal information spewing forth from the culvert pipes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and it’s all a perfectly orchestrated wonderland where everyone is handsome and happy and all the kids dress well.  We know everything about their lives, what they wear, what they eat, and how they play with their kids.  Their wives even respond to social media posts which means that the players saw it, too, which means that I’m one step closer to him than I was before.

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Some have more fun than others.

And we all feel like best friends.  How can we not?  I know as much about my favorite player (and I do have one) as I know about my best friend – maybe more – and so why wouldn’t I expect him to be my friend?  We would be great buddies.  I could hang with him like I do my other friends.  I see him hanging with his friends and their families just like I do.  We could be BEST FRIENDS! If only he would meet me and get to know me and I could tell him how cool I am and how cool he is and wouldn’t it be cool if…  What a jerk he turned out to be.  He didn’t even look at me when I yelled at him.

I do feel sorry for the players.  I’m sure the game used to be fun.  Now, I’m not so sure it is.

But, there are bright spots.  Hector Sanchez is one.  He’s the backup catcher for the SF Giants and I really like him.  When you get to the field early you get to see the players with the dead eyes, but also the players that are completely energized by it all.  They know what it’s about.  They know that this is a sport with a dwindling fan base and they do what they can to create loyal followers.  Hector is one of those guys.

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Hector Selfie

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AND… the result

He should be the face of baseball.  He’s handsome and funny and kind (yes, it may all be orchestrated), but he spent an hour making sure everyone got an autograph and a picture with him.  He even took the selfies, well, himself.  I saw him walk across the field to give a baseball to a toddler and then do the same thing minutes later to give another ball to the toddler’s older brother – thus eliminating any fighting the parents would have to deal with on the way home.  He made people feel like they were his best friend.  That’s what I’m talking about.  That was Spring Training 1974 style.  I’m firmly in the Hector Sanchez fan club.

I’m sure there are more like Hector and I hope so because a little player attention goes a long way towards making someone’s day.  My girls got some amazing  autographs (they promised me that they did not swear at any of the players) from some really nice ball players and became “best friends” with many of them (winkie face). We were all thrilled with it.  Spring Training is a special time.  It’s a more intimate brand of baseball, something more akin to it’s Little League roots. Many of the old guard, the jaded ones, are just going through the motions, but there are many kids trying to make the 24 man roster who are completely sold out and though there is intense pressure they are reveling in the moment and can’t believe how fortunate they are to be standing on a field with people they idolize.  You can see it in their faces because you are close enough to see it in their faces.  There are no bad seats in Spring Training.

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No bad seats.

The Spring Training venues are amazing and intimate and a far cry from the days of dirt fields and bleachers (though bring your own food because it ain’t cheap at the park) and the fans are enthusiastic.  The A-list players may only play an inning or two, but the young talent is really fun to watch.  It’s a bit like a melodrama where you root for the good guys even though you know they stand little chance of surviving.  It breaks my heart to see a pitcher trying to make the squad get shelled or a rookie outfielder going O for four.  But then, that’s life and when they wash out they can always get a job as a manager at a hospital.

Baseball has changed and I’m not sure I like it, but as they say, it is what it is.

Above my desk is a picture of the American League vs. National League All Star Game held in Potlatch Idaho, October 26, 1914.  The stands are packed with loggers and dignitaries all dressed in their best – all trying to catch a glimpse of their favorite players.  The coach is standing in the box near first with his hands clasped behind his back and the pitcher is taking a signal.  This game has been around a long time.  It’s a game with a ball, a stick, and people running around trying not to get out and a group of other men trying to get them out.  In essence it’s really just an elaborate game of tag.  It is a game at its core, and a fun one at that.   I’m still not sure how it got so serious.

Hot Coffee, Stained Pants and Skin Grafts

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My dad’s coffee gave me the jitters.

Earl was 70 years old when had his first latte.

“Betty, you ever had one of them double Lah..Tays!?”  Betty is my sister (and from Seattle – the latte capital of the world) and it was more of a statement to her than a question.  “It’s the best thing I’ve ever had.  One of the guys bought me one on the way to the golf course today.  I like them!  You ever had one?”   He was off and running before she could answer.  “You ever watched Meerkat Manor?  It’s about these animals that stand up on their back legs and look at stuff.  It’s my favorite show.  Speaking of animals the democrats are ruining our country.  Did you watch the Mariners last night?  They lost again.  Can’t hit to right field.  I played  terrible golf today.  Couldn’t see the ball.  Couldn’t care less.  It was a great round.  Hey, have you ever had a  double Lah..Tay before?”

Earl had never mainlined coffee and I can only imagine that the heavens must have opened for him and he saw salvation on every street corner with a drive-through.   Folgers was the gateway drug into a pure, undefiled, caffeinated woop-woop, heck, I’m going to live forever,  look out, Earl is on the loose feeling!  If his ADHD was bad on Folgers, it was on afterburners when he was on the good stuff.  His crash that evening must have been epic – like taking Nyquil with a whiskey chaser.

As a child I never really understood my dad’s love affair with coffee, but from my earliest years I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t working through at least one cup and hollering at my mom for a refill when it was empty.  Heck, there were times he didn’t even holler, just raised the cup above the daily paper and shook it back and forth like a beggar shaking his tin cup at passersby and my mom, in her beaten down exasperation, always got up and refilled his cup.  At the time it seemed normal, but now I wonder why she didn’t pour it over his head.  I guess it was always so much easier to do what he demanded than to fight with him about it.

NB: When I was a teenager I turned agreeing with Earl into an art form.  I could agree with him in such a way that it would give him apoplectic fits.  When he berated me for my lack of motivation and told me I would amount to nothing better than a ditch digger (the epitome of the lowest of the low), I would tell him in my best Disney voice that if that happened I would be the best darn ditch digger I could be.  Combine that insolence with my innocent expression and hand motions and I could bring him to the brink of violence in a heartbeat. 

In reality I was petrified of Earl’s coffee.  I know it may seem odd to be afraid of coffee, but I had seen what it could do and wouldn’t come near it after mom set it next to him.  In her hands it was safe.  In his hands it was a liquid hand grenade in a cup.  It was a hot blue mug of steaming nitroglycerin ready to explode at the smallest provocation and my dad was always that provocation.

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Earl had ADHD before anyone even knew what ADHD was and I lived in constant fear that his searing hot coffee would engulf me in a tsunami of brownness and scald me over 90 percent of my body.  He wasn’t one of those burn-your-kids-on-purpose kind of dads, but his distraction drove me to be very attentive whenever there was coffee around and especially when we were in the car.

Drinking while driving was one of the monkeys that my dad was never able to get off his back.  But that monkey had nothing to do with alcohol and everything to do with coffee.  The family’s AMC Jeep Wagoneer was a marvel of American ingenuity in every way but one – it had no cup holders.  It could climb a waterfall of ice in winter, carry enough gear to outfit an entire baseball league, and haul the carcasses of six dead deer and one Christmas tree all at the same time, but it lacked that one very important feature. And, if anyone on this planet could have used a cup holder, it was Earl.

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Driving anywhere with my dad was an adventure, but heading to a baseball game always brought his frenzy to a different level.  He would open the driver’s door and throw in his Thermos, shattering the insides like a Christmas ornament (he purchased the glass inserts by the gross), jump in beside it and set his cup of molten lava onto the expansive dashboard.  I usually offered to hold the cup for him (against my better judgement), but he would always bluster about me worrying too much and slap my hands back as I reached for it.

To say that my dad liked his coffee hot would be a gross misunderstanding of the word hot.  If the coffee in his cup wasn’t the temperature just below the point where water turns from a liquid into a gas, he would dump it out and have mom get him a new one.  And it was this boiling hot cup of pumice that he would set on the dash.

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As soon as his butt hit the seat he would go into the Wagoneer starting routine.  His arms and legs were a blur of motion as he mashed the gas pedal repeatedly, yanked the choke and turned the key back and forth countless times until the engine roared to life. He would instantly jam the Jeep into gear with his foot still on the throttle so it wouldn’t stall, all thoughts of the cup gone from his mind.

The mug would hiss as it slid across the dash.  Earl would slam on the brakes and stab at it like he was wearing boxing gloves and the coffee would spray over everything and everyone like Vesuvius burying Pompeii.  I had mastered the art of making myself really small, hugging my legs to my chest, but I was rarely spared and still have the scars on my arms and legs to prove it.

I was convinced that my dad had no feeling on the tops of his legs.  He would cuss and swear at us for spilling his coffee, but he did nothing about cleaning himself up and seemed to enjoy the feeling of having hot coffee running down his leg into his boots. I’ve had an aversion to wearing wet clothes ever since and looking at his pants clinging to his chicken legs made my skin crawl, but he would just turn on the heater and go his merry way.

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This always led to another problem. So much coffee had been spilled into the defroster that the green dash had a brown sheen and whenever we turned the blower on (which was every time we went anywhere), brown cumulonimbus thunderheads spewed forth turning the car into a full-bodied Nescafe rainforest.  Driving in that car felt like sitting in a sauna where someone had poured old coffee over the hot rocks and then forced you to sit in it your entire childhood.

Old people at my dad’s baseball games used to love me, not because I was particularly lovable, but because after riding in the Wagoneer I smelled so much like a cup of hot Sanka.  They would hug me and linger just a bit too long for my comfort, sniffing all the time like an old dog at a carpet stain.

Earl coached baseball for over 25 years, mostly, I think, because of the free coffee he got at the ball park.  It was hot, like it had been plumbed from the depths of Hades and it was to be had in abundance.  (I tried their hot chocolate once and I was saddled with a speech impediment until the scab finally peeled off my tongue.)  He had fourteen kids on his team, nine of them for the field, four as back-ups, and one as the coffee runner.  I know that on at least one occasion the coffee runner peed in his Thermos.  I’m not sure at what point my dad realized it was tainted and I was never brave enough to ask.

Twenty years after leaving Alaska he had that first latte.  A continuous diet of antacids helped him stomach the reconstituted freeze dried crystals he drank for so many years and that first taste of liquid heaven in a paper cup must have been an epiphany because the next day he bought himself his very own espresso machine.

Let’s just say his level of awareness stayed the same, but his level of awakeness went through the roof.   I’m just glad that his friend hadn’t bought him a Red Bull on the way to golf.  I don’t think his family could have taken it.

“There’s no crying in baseball!”

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“When I was eleven I pitched a shutout against the Yankees and lived to tell about it.”

When I was ten years old I cried all the way home from the Little League ball park.  It was my first game as a pitcher and I had been shelled by the Yanks and I was in shock.  I can’t remember the final score, but it had definitely been a loss and a big one at that.  I was hooked during the first inning having retired a total of zero batters.   Zilch.  Nada.  No one.  And to top it off a kid named Benji Tavares, a kid that picked on me constantly, replaced me in relief.

I held myself together through the rest of the game, but as soon as I collapsed into the back seat of our Jeep Wagoneer the snot and tears came unabated.  I swore I would never, ever, play baseball again.  I was supposed to be the phenom, the best to ever have played.  I had been a bat boy, a ball boy, I had worn the uniform since I was five, I had practiced hard, and here I was, at ten and my career was over.  I even thought about switching to soccer (well, not really – I didn’t even know what soccer was at that time and even though I was desperate, I would not have been THAT desperate).

NB: Soccer was tried in Ketchikan my 8th grade year.  The new teacher from California tried to introduce this “world” sport to us and after about  sixty seconds of him yelling at us to stay in position, it quickly turned into a classic game of smear the  “guy with the ball” (that’s not actually what we called it, but political correctness will not permit me to use the term Q***r) and we never got to play it again.

After that first game my ego had taken a line shot to the nuggets and I laid in the back seat with my stomach aching,  wondering how I was going to ever face the world again.  I wanted nothing more than to kick my uniform down the stairs, eat a bowl of Captain Crunch and sit on my beanbag in my dark closet (Yes, I actually did this.  It’s quite comforting really).   For a full year I burned with self loathing and hatred towards the Yankees – the team that saw fit to make a mockery of what was supposed to be my coming out as the next Nolan Ryan.  Revenge, as they say, would be sweet.

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When summer rolled around to my second year of Little League I  had grown from a flaccid boy of 4’8″ to a flaccid boy of  5’1″ and those 5 inches seemed  to make all the difference in my little world.   When I took the mound against the hated “Yanks” that first game, I was no longer the kid crying in the back seat. I was the phenom,  oozing in unknown confidence, and I was in top form because I had practiced every single day for six months straight.   What I learned from that game has stuck with me my entire life (even though I have tried to beat it out with a shovel).  That day I realized that I truly WAS as awesome as I thought I was.

“First Game I Won Ever (Yanks).”  That’s how I inscribed the ball on the wall plaque that I made my dad. A picture of myself with my beaming, bug-eyed face floating behind five balls, from my five wins that year, pasted below it.

NB: When I see pictures of myself at that age, I am always surprised that my mother didn’t smother me in my sleep or make me wear a paper bag over my head.  It wasn’t until later in life did I understand why people screamed and ran away from us whenever we went out as a family.

The Tongass Traders went undefeated and won the championship that year.  I still have the newspaper articles that my mom cut out and dutifully underlined every instance of my name being mentioned (who really wanted to read that other stuff about other kids anyway and this saved me from having to search the article for mentions of ME).  She was an ardent fan and the strongest (at least when it came to love for her kids), yet meekest woman I have ever known.

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In retrospect, I should have given that first game plaque to her because she probably had more to do with my wins that year than my dad (a wave of guilt just washed over me as I wrote that last sentence).  My baseball relationship with her probably illustrates more than anything  exactly what was wrong with my dad and explains why everyone who ever met my mother considered her a saint.

Dude (Yes, everyone really called her Dude though her name was Gertrude.  Ask Kelly sometime about having to call her future mother-in-law “Dude.”) was 37 when she had me and I’m sure she had no idea after pushing out her 12 pound son that eleven years later, at the age of 48, she would have to kneel behind home plate and catch his pitches because her husband demanded that she do it.

“Dude! Get out there and catch John.  He needs to practice!”

He always used the term “catch John” as if I was running away from him and mom needed to chase after me to drag me home.  Come to think of it, he used to use the same basic words with our errant dog too.  “Catch Dusty!” he would scream as the dog sprinted his way out the open door to freedom.  I’m sure there is some Freudian meaning behind this which I’m not smart enough to unwind.

I can still hear her exasperated, feeble attempts at non-compliance, but my dad was such a force of nature that no one ever really said no to him.  It breaks my heart that it seemed so normal to me at the time to have my overweight mother, a woman with knees so bad that she had a hard time getting out of a chair,  kneel down behind the plate and dig my errant pitches out of the dirt and that my dad wanted me to throw fast ball after fast ball at her so that I would be really, really good at something so meaningless (In truth, I never really threw as hard as I could.  I was an idiot, but not completely heartless).

She was a woman who was afraid of the water and couldn’t swim, was a timid driver, slaved for my father and me, and was a pack animal who carried our coats and hats when we got too warm and our packages when our arms got too tired.  Yet, because of her great love for her family  (or maybe Stockholm syndrome) she seemed to not mind any of it (even catching).  “Greater love hath no mother than this.” In short, she was a saint and we were, well, let’s just say less than saints.  God has a special place in heaven reserved just for her.

It’s interesting to me that so many of my best games were against the Yanks and almost all of the balls I pulled out of the storage box were in some way related to that team.  I went on to play baseball through junior high and high school, Babe Ruth, Senior League and American Legion.  I played in Ketchikan, Anchorage, Fall River Mills, Redding, and Lewiston and in many other towns both far and away.  I even played a bit of small time college ball.  I played close to fifteen years total, and never, in any of the years after that 2nd year of Little League did I ever put the name of the pitcher I hit a home-run off of  on the ball, but my hatred of that team ran so deep that it seemed fitting to forever brand those two guys for no other reason than that they played for the Yankees.

NB:  If you are wondering if anything good ever came of my time on the mound,  I would say yes.  God used my time in baseball to open my eyes to Him – but that’s another story.

This box of balls has been with me for almost 40 years and now it’s time to let them go.  These baseballs are not me.  Christian and Allison have taken a few.  I asked Wesley if he wanted any and he replied in a text “I do not.”  and Molly just wrinkled her nose and said something like “Eww.”  The rest of them are going to the dog… literally.

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