In The Batting Cage With Babe

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Growing up, I was a stocky kid built like a Roman plinth with the mobility of a house plant.  However, I was blessed with a strong arm and decent hand eye coordination – skills I had perfected while dodging the  daily assaults of my older brothers.  I excelled in Little League and watched as my father gushed with pride each time I hit a home run or cleanly fielded a short hop grounder.   I could see him projecting forward well into the next millenium when I would be inducted into Cooperstown.

With each season of life, competition at first base became more intense and by the time I had reached seventeen, it was no longer a certainty that I would be a starter.  I had thrived in a younger man’s world of fast balls but had risen to the level of my incompetence.  Opposing pitchers had discovered my achilles heel — the breaking ball. Despite hours of practice, I could not overcome the temptation to lunge at the off speed ball and would often end up twisted into a pretzel as the rainbow curve floated harmlessly past my bat for a strike.

My batting average plunged as I dropped in the junior varsity line up. My dad was an ex-basketball player and could offer me no insights into my disability.  I was doomed.

After a particularly humiliating 0-4 game, my father introduced me to a Babe Dahlgren, an ex-major league batting instructor working out of the local batting cage.  The Babe was not as well known on the West Coast but he had walked into Major League Baseball’s history books on the day he replaced Lou Gehrig at first base — the end of an epoch when The Iron Horse concluded his 2,130 consecutive games played streak.  On that afternoon, Babe hit a home run and the Yanks won 22-2.

Babe waddled over in the batting cages and shook my hand with a firm athletic grip.  He had a toothy, crooked grin, light brown hair flecked with streaks of gray. He seemed to have a wrinkle for every day he had spent playing the game he loved. He was a right hander and carried a 38 ounce bat that served as a crutch, pointer and prod. He seemed unsteady on knees that had long since lost their cartilage only to become remarkably nimble once he entered the batting cage.

I was initially disappointed by the aging ballplayer whose name and claim to fame meant nothing to me.  He straddled the batters box and waited as the electronic arm of the machine lifted and dipped, grabbing a yellow ball.  As the fastball rifled towards home plate, the Babe picked up his front heel, stepped, pivoted and ripped a perfect line drive through the dish sized hole of netting that protected the pitching machine. He proceeded to hit ten more line drives that sprayed in every direction. ” Your turn, kiddo,” he yelled. I grabbed a 32 ounce aluminum bat as a pitch thwacked against a hanging mat.

I stepped in the cage and nervously shifted.  He did not say anything but studied my uneven movements and watched as my weight shifted forward to my front foot.  He stopped the machine. “Try this”  He kneeled to my right and tossed a ball at my ankles, I missed it by a foot. ” Again.  This time use your hands and hips.”  This time, the ball was tossed slower but at the level of my chest. I missed again.

” Ok, Dad” he said turning to my father. “I can see what is going on.  Give me six weeks with him, twice a week and he will be spraying line drives across the entire field.” As I walked out of the cage, I was distraught.  “Dad, how the heck can this old man know what’s wrong with me after just five minutes?”

Over the next three months, the Babe completely reconstructed my swing.  He colored my afternoons with stories of his life in the Major Leagues and his time spent with his idol, Lou Gehrig.  He spoke of his career and the Hall of Fame players with whom he played, coached and shared a passion for America’s game.   I would later learn that the Babe had his own demons and it was only through instructing young men that he seemed to temporarily exorcise them.

“Pick up your heel, step and pivot.  Keep that head still.  Bend that knee and go down to reach for that outside slider.  Drive it through the right side of the infield.” He yelled. “Your hips, that is where all your power comes, Turp.  You have a big butt, use it!”

Weeks later, I shook his massive catcher’s glove hand.  It was already curling in old age like an eagles talon but he could still crush my adolescent bones without much effort. “Kiddo, you’re as ready as you’ll ever be.  I don’t expect to see you back but I will be watching the papers!”  Three months later in the spring of 1977, I was voted the MVP of my JV team after hitting .451 for the season. I promised to stay in touch but I never returned to thank my sage hitting instructor.

Thirty years later, I was sitting on a Metro North train lurching out of Grand Central Station when I was stumbled across a NY Times article on Congress’ efforts to identify those ball players who were guilty of abusing baseball’s drug policies.  As the steroids scandal was savaging the reputation of baseball, the Times made reference to another obscure player from the 1940’s who was unfairly accused of drug abuse and as a result, blackballed by major league owners.  His name was Babe Dahlgren.

He became the first major leaguer to volunteer to take a drug test in an effort to clear his name.  Until his death in 1996, he solicited successive commissioners to reconsider the charges that had unfairly ruined his reputation.  In the book, ” A Rumor In Town”, published in 2007, Matt Dahlgren, Babe’s grandson, detailed how a disagreement with Yankee owner Joe McCarthy, got Babe sideways with management.  Apparently Babe decided his friendship with a blackballed batting coach, Lefty O’Doul was more important than McCarthy’s edict to avoid him.  According to the Times and Dahlgren, McCarthy started a rumor among GM’s that Dahlgren was a marajuana user and used this as an excuse to trade him in 1940 to the Boston Braves.

Although Babe was an outstanding player and fielder, hitting over .260 in an eleven year career, the reputational damage had deposited a permanent cloud over him in the clubhouse and left him reputed as a risky investment.  He would persevere in the face of prejudice, spending a nomadic final five years playing for nine teams.  His promising career was cut short by an insider’s grudge and a public all too willing to believe the worst about an individual.

Babe carried on after retirement – coaching young players and passing on his God given talents — a marvelous synchronicity of hands , hips and bat.  He worked across  multiple generations of aspiring players transferring his incredible skill as a hitter into young adolescent arms.  When his grandson’s book was published posthumously, it was a final chance to clear the name of a man whose love for the game was greater than the ill-will of those who conspired to prevent him from playing.

His voice still echoes across a hundred diamonds each spring.  Former students, now graying youth coaches furrow their wrinkled brows and watch their hitters as they swing in batting practice.

“Hey kid, good swing.  But next time, pick up your heel, step and pivot.  Remember all your power comes from your hips.  Hips and hands.  Hips and hands!”

Cock-a-doodle-doo-doo

“Uniqueness is the commodity of glut.” Matt Ridley, GenomeImage

In the ancient animal kingdom of my youth, there were only two kinds of dogs –mongrels and pedigrees.

Purebred dogs dominated film and television as canines like Lassie and her Aryan cousin, German Shepherd Rin-Tin-Tin, proved time and again that the pedigreed dog was indeed man’s best friend.  The mongrel dog, however, was viewed as a poor relation and a mere supporting actor.  With names like Tiger and Scout, these mud-bloods were furry accessories and semi-domesticated symbols of the nuclear family.

They greeted us on our front door steps, would willingly eat broccoli passed under the table, slept in dog houses and protected personal property across America’s rural and suburban communities. Mongrel dogs were a microcosm of our nation – a melting pot whose murky mélange of genetics produced a strange but even stronger alloy of person and animal.

Veterinarians were trained in school to use more politically correct clinical terms  like “pound puppy” or “mixed breed” to describe a dog with questionable heritage. Our vet explained that our mix breed dog was smart and resourceful – a testimony to his confused lineage and hard knocks upbringing.  Max was a poodle, shepherd and terrier mix.  It must have been quite a party the night he was conceived.  His genetic cards left him looking like the lead guitarist in an acid rock band — wild, matted hair, crazed eyes and an inability to focus. He was a fearless guard dog with the guts of a burglar and a pit bull’s resolve.  Max was fearless and would chase anything that moved including cats, trash men, small children and trucks — the latter of which eventually bested him.

Our neighbors on the other hand, had a pure bred Dalmatian — a dog more tightly wound than the lug nuts on a new bridge.  Luigi had managed to bite every kid in our town — a rap sheet that his owner felt was undeserved. In the epoch of Jurassic parenting where children were always considered guilty until proven innocent, a kid might come home crying of a dog bite and immediately be interrogated by an angry adult, “ well, what the hell did you do to make Luigi bite your arm?” In these days, children were considered sub-human and the benefit of the doubt always fell to the Kennel Club canine with papers.

Around the block was another purebred – a German shepherd named Lobo who had probably been inbred more times than the descendants of the Bounty on Pitcairn Island.  Lobo had bad hips and could not catch an eighty year old with a walker.  However, he was crafty.  He would crouch by a low retaining wall – waiting patiently for kids walking home from school before he thrust his front legs on to the wall and lunged at us savagely barking. His owner, Mr. Heitzenbach, would yell at us while his dog threatened to turn us into eunuchs.  “Hey you kids, quit teasing that animal.”   Germans loved their purebreds. Yet most of their breeds –Doberman Pinschers, Shepherds, and Mastiffs were bred primarily for law enforcement or personal property protection.   Even my grandparent’s schnauzer, Flossie, had a chip on her shoulder.  The only exception to this Aryan purebred factory of fierce creatures was the dachshund, which was really the French’s idea of a funny birthday present to the Kaiser who liked weinershnitzel.  As usual, the Germans failed to see the humor and a few weeks later invaded the Alsace.

As an adult, I finally confronted my sense of inferiority for never having owned a pure bred and purchased an Australian Shepherd.  I had always been fascinated with working dogs — Border Collies, Aussies and Queensland Healers.  Brody, the tricolor Aussie herder was our first effort to join the elite circle of pedigree owners.  As I drove to the dog park with Brody, I felt a strange mixture of pride and betrayal.  Somewhere in the cosmos, Max was lifting his leg on me for selling him out. Driving into Spencer’s Run car park, I spied a United Nations of breeds intermingling, chasing, tumbling and pouncing.

Brody’s genetic programming kicked in within a minute of the dog park.  He wanted to go to work.  The park was imploding with happy anarchy and he was determined to restore law and order.  I suddenly heard the dreaded four-word query that would plague me for months to come. I scanned the yard for Brody and watched as he stood victorious over a Weimaraner. The incensed owner pointed at Brody and screamed, ” Ok, whose dog is this?”

Minutes later I was skulking out of the dog park like a drunk thrown out of a German beer hall during Oktoberfest. It’s actually hard to get tossed from a dog park or a German bar in October.  But Brody had out worn our welcome.  As I dragged my happy but bewildered buddy to the car, a woman walked by with a microscopic caramel-colored, short hair dog with massive ET eyes, alert ears and perfect hypoallergenic hair.

“Hmm. What kind of dog is he?” I asked.

She surveyed me and my Aussie as if we were both immigrant convicts fresh off the ship at Ellis Island. “Francine is a triple chi-mini-poo”

“Isn’t that a drink at Starbucks,” I asked.

“She is three parts Chihuahua, one part miniature pinscher and one part cockapoo. She never sheds, understands Spanish and English and has one bowel movement a day that is the size of a peanut.”

I suddenly pondered Brody’s relentless regularity, his shedding, matted hair that required constant brushing and felt woefully inadequate as if my leaping, twisting, enthusiastic herder was an outdated version of some new cell phone.

“Let’s go home, Buddy. I need to read some Tolstoy to you tonight.” I walked away dejectedly and then remembered her condescending look.

“You know, on second thought, let’s go back into that dog park and make some trouble for these mutants.”

As we reentered doggie Disneyland, I was suddenly aware of the weird and subtle genetic nuances in many of these dogs. They were not just labs, spaniels, cockapoos and terriers -they were genetically modified vegetables.  An animal scurried by my feet and I jumped.  It resembled a NYC roof rat more than a dog.  It ran passed me and jumped into the arms of its owners.  The man cooed, to the dog-rat saying, ” Good boy, Cujo.”  I wondered if Cujo slept on a bed or in a hamster cage.

I could not help but ease drop on two new age, millennium Mendels as they described their genetically altered companions. “Ginger is a ChiShihTzuNot – a Chi Shih Tzu mix with a Nottingham terrier. She’s not like that BullShihtz over there.” She pointed to what looked like a miniature bulldog wearing a curly brown hair shirt. “The Bull breeds are so mischievous and unreliable. Ginger is very consistent. If she scratches at the door, she really does need to go outside to use the rest room.  This breed is all business.”

Brody ran off as he spotted a Springer Spaniel racing along the fence line. I could almost see his brain calculating the angle that would assure him the shortest distance to intercept the moving object.  As he bolted, I whistled at him to stop.  It was no good, his genetics were firmly in control and it was looking as if I would be once again be kicked out of the dog park.  In a flash, he closed the distance on his prey and lowered his head, ready for a spectacular takedown. As I winced and cringed,  the Spaniel miraculously sprouted two small flaps and lifted itself in the air as Brody crashed into the dog park railing and tumbled head over the heels.  The spaniel fluttered harmlessly to the ground and continued on his run. Brody looked like a cold cocked fighter – staggering back to me and collapsing at my feet.

A young man leaned over and smiled. ” Pretty cool huh, he’s one of those Flying Turkey BoxSprings — a cross between a Springer, Boxer and turkey vulture.  Apparently, they are one hell of a dog.  They even eat roadkill.   Don’t you just dig his weird little wings?”

I shook my head and then noticed one dog, walking with determined conviction, his left side to the fence. He patrolled with serious intensity, never leaving the park’s perimeter. He had the head of a mastiff, the wrinkled chrome-blue folds of a sharpei and musculature of a bulldog. He looked powerful but clearly was uncomfortable mingling with the mixed breeds.

“So what kind of dog is that?” I asked pointing at the tough solitary creature.

The young man looked up and shook his head. “Oh Newt, he’s always here.  He’s a strange mix between a Neapolitan and a Conroy pit ball. It’s a weird breed. He’s very tough but never leaves the right side of the fence.  Don’t approach him from the left, he lacks peripheral vision and he might bite you.”

What the heck do you call a breed like that.”

He smiled and turned to reply as he was walking away.

” I think they call him a Neo-Con”

Return of the Reptile

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Obstacles are like wild animals.  They are cowards but they will bluff you if they can.  If they see you are afraid of them… they are liable to spring upon you; but if you look them squarely in the eye, they will slink out of sight.  ~O.S. Marden

I grew up watching Japanese monster movies.  I always felt sorry for Godzilla. The mutant aquatic invertebrate was hatched out of the ebony depths by a radioactive blast on some distant Pacific atoll and then dragged into a modern world where his might no longer made right.  He would be betrayed by ignorant public officials, stung by toy tanks, blasted by model airplanes flying on silk threads and battered by automatic weapons spitting sparks.

Godzilla was misunderstood.  He would try to make nice with the humans but regress devouring army men like California Rolls and trashing buildings and karaoke bars with his atomic breath.  Godzilla hated change. He just wanted it to be the way it used to be where he was on top of the food chain – superior to all comers — fire-breathing turtles, gigantic moths or monsters that looked like something you might encounter in a public restroom at a bran muffin festival.

Godzilla was, first and foremost, a reptile. He was genetically predisposed to the most basic needs – eating, sleeping, fighting and cruising Tokyo looking for a female lizard. Paleontologists believed he was the dinosaur equivalent of a teenager – which makes sense.  He had a big mouth, bad attitude and an inability to compromise.  Life was a veritable buffet of visceral pleasures and he was preprogrammed to get his share.  He wanted to do the right thing but his reptilian brain kept getting in the way.

After years of Godzilla movies and parenting, I am able to recognize a reptilian brain from a kilometer away.  The neurology of how we make decisions is driven by three distinct areas of our brain– the stem or “reptilian” section is the ground floor of our intelligence. It is our most basic analog personality. Reptilians like reality TV and pizza.  The limbic or “mammalian” mid-sections of our noggins are characterized by memory, emotion and reflective decision making. Mammalians tend to watch American Idol and cry during “Old Yeller”.  If you are really evolved, your cerebral elevator reaches the penthouse of thinking – – the largest and most evolved area known as the Neo-Cortex.  The crown of our brain is a less inhabited penthouse of higher intelligence that allows us to make our best decisions and is decorated with really cool art-deco furniture.  It is underutilized and as such, feels more like a second home.  Those who rely on their neo-cortex can complete the Saturday NY Times Crossword, understand why people watch “The Bachelor” and write Haiku poetry with their left hand.

These three portions combine into something that neurologists refer to as the “triune brain”.  Interestingly, most people spend time on the first and second floors – moving between the stem and limbic portions of the brains.  Climbing up to the neo-cortex is a hassle for most.  There are brief episodes of enlightened thinking usually following a triple latte, yoga or a vegan meal.  With the advent of cable television and the internet, many of our mental elevators have essentially stopped running to the penthouse.  In fact, in times of geopolitical uncertainty and economic angst, reptilian thinking is making a comeback.

Signs of reptilian thinking are everywhere.  When my roof started leaking last winter due to ice damming, the water dripped down the inside of my living room walls and pooled on the roof of the basement where myopic teens played X-Box in between meals and belching.  As the water began to seep through the dry wall ceiling and on to the sofa where they were sitting, the boys merely shifted out of the way of the nascent waterfall and continued to play COD – Black Ops while our sofa began to swell like a wet diaper.  An hour later, one calmly informed me that the sofa was wet and theorized that the water leeching from the ceiling might be the source.

Reptilian brains are very binary.  Any stimulus is typically processed through a single series of highly self serving filters.  The reptile asks, “Does this represent a threat to me?  Can I crush the source of anxiety or should I flee from it?  Should I stay here on the couch playing video games or do I get up and deal with a problem that really has nothing to do with me?”

We seem to be regressing as a society into highly self-centered thinking.  Many are reaching the frightening conclusion that the world is a life boat and there are simply not enough supplies to go around.  Michael Lewis acknowledges this phenomena in his recent book,  Boomerang -Travels in the New Third World, where he describes society at a tipping point where we will either demonstrate greater emotional intelligence and learn to defer our own need for instant gratification or we will continue to on a path toward bankrupting our future. It will come down to character — as a person, community and as a nation.

Reptilian thinkers live for today.  They are afraid if they don’t grab something while they can, it won’t be there for them when they need it.  The reptile does not want to hear inconvenient facts or engage in a mammalian debate about consequences and moral obligations.  Let tomorrow take care of itself.  Now is not the time to be German and plan for the bridge 500 kilometers ahead.  It is better to be Greek and cross that bridge when we come to it.

The reptile is rustling in the leaves of my brain. I am all that I think about.  I cannot wait for people to stop talking so we can discuss my favorite subject – me.  I find it harder to reflect on a solution to a problem when I am hobbled by the nagging need to know what’s in it for me.  I am afraid.  I don’t want to end up on “Hoarders”.

I am not rational but the media keeps telling me that something wicked is coming. I rise from my couch and stagger like a giant monster toward the kitchen – seeking solace in sugar and simple carbohydrates.   I am suddenly scolded out of my self-pity.  I am reminded by my partner – who relies on her evolved neo-cortex – that fear and faith cannot occupy the same place.  She tells me all reptiles can evolve – if they learn to adapt.  Eventually, they become mammals – embracing the inevitability of change.  The first step towards becoming mammalian is to acknowledge the needs of others.

On this night, Godzilla is asked to take out the trash.  As I lumber down the stairs toward the outdoor trash bins, I realize that in removing the rubbish, I am being of service to my spouse and getting out of my own head.  Less trash in the house also reduces the probability that I will become a hoarder.

Now if I can just get rid of this radioactive breath….