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!”

The Day Rick Saved the Stars and Stripes

Photo by Jim Roark Rick Monday grabbing the Am...
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Ah, October. Autumn arrives and with it the final leaves of a 4860 game baseball season begin to fall as the competition is reduced to twelve teams across six divisions and two leagues.

As a young man, our four-boy family ritual of male bonding included trips to Chavez Ravine, a 350 acre terraced plateau of chaparral, eucalyptus and palms overlooking downtown Los Angeles. Dodger stadium sat like the Masada, a mountain top fortress on the southwestern plateau of the Elysian Fields neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was the center of the baseball firmament – the sacred home stadium of the Dodgers. Each season, our “boys in blue” would battle the hated San Francisco Giants and the despised Cincinnati Reds for the National League West pennant.

My father loathed the crowds and the traffic of sporting events as they equated to a perfect storm of human imperfection – bad drivers, inept parking attendants, cretins with their hibachi BBQs, legions of loud, drunken buffoons and filthy public urinals. Adding insult to injury was the sobering fact that every LA sporting venue was usually located in a very rough neighborhood.

Despite his misgivings, he understood the need to allow his boys to experience the electric atmosphere of a stadium packed with rabid fans and to witness young men who had so honed their athletic talents that they were afforded the chance to play Major League Baseball.

It was 1976 – America’s Bicentennial year – and it seemed everyone was declaring their independence. I was a surly freshman in high school and could not create enough distance between myself and my father. His existence annoyed me. Every syllable he uttered skidded like fingers on a chalk board. I cringed at the way he ate, talked and even breathed.  It seemed that his principle job description was to control my life.

My mother had already crossed this hostile adolescent desert with my two older brothers and suggested to him that we spend some father-son time at a Dodger Game. On this sunny April Sunday, it would be a chance for my Dad to see his beloved Chicago Cubs and for me to reconnect with a more innocent time of Topps baseball cards, the chance to catch a foul ball and if we were lucky, a nostalgic glimpse of a time when my Dad was viewed as mentor instead of tormentor.

We exited the Pasadena freeway on to Academy Road, winding through a densely populated, graffiti-scarred neighborhood of chain linked front yards. Run down homes built in the 1930’s were perched on steep hillsides with laundry on clotheslines flapping like Tibetan prayer flags in the spring breeze. Like clockwork, my Dad told me to keep my eyes peeled. I suddenly remembered why I did not like going to sporting events with my father. The toughest person we actually saw on the street was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman pushing a baby stroller.

“Careful, Dad, that grandmother might have a gun”, I said sarcastically.

At 16, I had begun to routinely challenge my father’s conservative peccadilloes and delighted in touching each one the way a sadistic dentist might probe a deep cavity. Dad had finally come to recognize when I was baiting him and ignored the provocation, writing it off as the price of being together. He was a creature of habit – robotically driving the exact route, to the same parking area, to the same space– a location furthest from the stadium and closest to the exit.

My father’s greatest nightmare was to be trapped in post game traffic when Los Angeles’ great social insurrection occurred. He believed these neighborhoods to be major social fault lines where pressure was always building. One day, urban rebellion would explode in an earthquake of civil unrest. When it happened, he damn well would not be stuck in his car when a gang of peasant farmers with pitchforks decided it was time to take back California. It was a thankless time for my Dad. I had spent the last year challenging his views on everything. I complained about the distance we had to walk to enter the stadium. He walked slightly ahead – eager for a coke and the cool shade of the concession area.

I was impressed as we were directed by an usher to field level seats off the first base line. The Dodgers were expected to be decent this year and showed some promise with a line-up that featured Billy Buckner, Ted Sizemore, Ron Cey and Steve Garvey. The meat of the Cub lineup was Rick Monday and Bill Madlock.

As we sat down, I suddenly saw a different side of my father that afternoon as he began to rattle off statistics and insights into his favorite Cub players and the pitching match ups.

“The Cubs will probably lose. They have no damn pitching this year and there’s nobody to support Monday and Madlock. Those cheapskates the Wrigleys are too tight to pay for good players. They are no better than that idiot GM Jim Finks for the Bears who won’t get them a decent quarterback to help Butkis and the defense out. Monday hit .267 with 17 homers last year. He is hitting .365 now and is on fire. Steve Stone was 12-8 last year but his ERA was too high at 3.95. But, the numbskull likes to give up the long ball”

My Dad wasn’t even looking at me. He was like a little kid playing with soldiers, chatting away to invisible friends. He spotted Roger Owens, the famous peanut vendor.

“Michael, remember this guy? He once threw you a bag of peanuts between his legs over ten rows.”

“Hey Roger!”

He held up some money. The popular redheaded peanut vendor smiled and pointed at my father. He was four rows over and six rows up. Owens whirled and shot a bag of peanuts behind his back. Dad snapped them up as they flew above his head. There was a smattering of applause as he handed $4 to a daisy chain of fans who passed the money up to Owens.

The actual game was a nail biter that was likely to be decided by one run. However, the game proved to be a mere sideline to the drama that unfolded in front of 25,000 fans.

Heading into the bottom of the fourth inning, a fan and has 11-year old son leaped on to the grass of the outfield. Initially met by raucous applause, our cheers quickly turned to boos when people realized their intentions. My Dad turned to me and said, “Hey, give me those binoculars!” I heard him swear as he hissed, “that son-of-a-bitch Communist is trying to burn an American flag!” As he said “Flag”, I saw Cub outfielder, Rick Monday, rush past the protestors and grab the flag. The stadium went berserk and cheered even louder as security roughly escorted the agitators from the outfield. I looked up to see an entire small town of Americans standing and cheering.

“Dad, can you believe that?”

I looked over and saw that my father was almost crying. He was clapping his hands so hard that they must have hurt. “Atta Boy, Monday!” Dad was one of the last people to sit down as the game resumed. In his next at bat, Monday received another standing ovation from the grateful crowd.

The scoreboard flashed, “Rick Monday, you made a great play!” Dad stood again applauding the young Cub player who as it turned out, was also an ex-marine. I was about to tell him to calm down and sit but somewhere in the back of my adolescent brain, I knew this was the right thing to do. I stood up beside him and started clapping again. He turned to me and shouted over the din, “That’s what makes this country great. It’s patriotism. It’s goddamn patriotism. Don’t ever forget that!”

I suddenly felt a surge of pride.  It was an awkward feeling to feel pride for being part of something bigger than you when you seemingly had made no contribution.  But, I had witnessed something special. I was proud of Rick Monday, proud of my Dad and proud to be an American.  In the thirty-five years that would follow, I cannot not recall a time when I saw my father so spontaneously happy.  It happened as fast a lit match – – a hero deciding to take action.  I realized action is what heros were all about – normal people, that in an instance, stopped watching and started moving.

The following year, Rick Monday was traded to the Dodgers and helped lead them to two division pennants. He became a permanent family favorite and a role model for a new generation looking for reliable points of reference in a rapidly changing society.

A Veteran’s Day for Red Ormsby

Ty Cobb (297 triples) and Shoeless Joe Jackson...
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This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.  ~Elmer Davis

In 1934, the Great Depression had cast a shadow across the entire United States like the great plumes of scorched earth that choked out the sun in the dust bowl of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas panhandle.  An estimated 20% of the US population was unemployed.  Agrarian and industrial communities alike were struggling to stay afloat – swimming against the riptide of geographic turmoil and economic uncertainty.

It was a hard time to be a veteran – particularly a veteran of WWI where a nation’s memory of war was fading to be replaced by more domestic and immediate concerns.  Names like the Somme, Verdun and Ypres that had carved deep and visible scars across the psyches of an entire generation of Europeans were but distant echos and accoustic shadows from fairy-tale, haunted lands with names like  Belleau Wood and The Argonne.   The fighting had taken its toll on our young country whose brawny idealism had been wounded by the machinery of modern warfare. This was a new kind of conflict fought in trenches and against an unseen and lethal enemy.  There were battles with 90% casualty rates fought with such vicious ferocity that men often simply disappeared under a barrage of artillery.  Victories were sometimes measured in yards of ground. It was a new generation of guns, germs and steel that would serve as a chilling prelude to a next great war that would claim 20m souls. Yet, for those who lived through it, The Great War was like a brief and violent storm whose lessons were endured and then set aside like so many badges of youth, tucked away and forgotten – along with the memories of 320,000 casualties marked by monuments of those missing, killed and wounded.  It spared no one including those young immortals in pinstripes playing America’s greatest game – baseball.

Emmit “Red” Ormsby was born on April 3, 1895 in Chicago, Illinois.  He grew up as a physical force of nature – enjoyig all sports but excelling at baseball.  As a strapping right hander who mixed an above average fastball with a delightfully wicked spitball, he opted to play semi-pro ball in 1912 for Green Bay in the Wisconsin-Illinois Minor Leagues. Red pitched well enough to graduate into a starting rotation of St Paul in the American Association. That year, he shined hurling several complete games while racking up impressive stats  – – a dominant ratio of strikeouts to hits and fewer earned runs. Red was going places and baseball was his meal ticket.

In 1914, war broke out in  far off places like the Dardenalles of Turkey and along wispy meandering rivers in Belgium and France.  By 1917, the US had been drawn into the conflict and Red had not hesitated to do his duty – he joined the Marines.  At Quantico, he briefly played on an armed forces baseball team along another green recruit, all-star second baseman Eddie Collins.  He was quickly shipped off to France with the Fifth Corps– a fighting unit that would soon be decorated for valor in several battles including the decisive Argonne Forest campaign. 

In the Argonne, Red’s strong arm earned him a spot on the grenade throwers roster.   Grenaders  were essential elements to bolster the conventional fire power of infantry units.  The massive Allied offensive in the Argonne would include confusingly close hand to hand combat with trench lines sometimes exchanging hands multiple times across a no man’s land as short as 25 feet.  If the bloody stalemate was to be broken, the Allied Expeditionary Force under General “Black Jack” Pershing would need to be its catalyst.

In what would go down as the bloodiest campaign to date in Marine Corps history, the Argonne became a killing field shattered by unsurvivable enfilading machine gun fire, errant artillery and a deadly swirling ground fog of poison mustard and phosgene gas.  On a late Autumn afternoon, Ormsby had infiltrated toward the front lines of the fighting — preparing for a suicidal offensive when he was wounded in the back.  In addition to this injury, he was overwhelmed by poison gas which partially seared the lining of his lungs.

Ormsby would survive his encounter with the Germans and return to the US as a decorated veteran.  His injuries eliminated any possibility of his continuing to compete as a player.  Yet, his love of the game, could not move him away from the cut grass and red dust diamond.  Red Ormsby decided to become an umpire.

Over the next 19 years, Ormsby would rise to become one of baseball’s premiere umpires including presiding over four world series and league championship series.  Ormsby had a booming voice that sounded “ like two steam ships bickering for their right of way along a lakefront.” He was also master and commander at home marrying and fathering a dozen children. Like many veterans, his injuries never fully healed and he spent his entire career suffering from severe back pain.  In the days before unions or employment protections, workers understood that the inability to perform one’s job –  even as a result of temporary disability or illness – essentially meant unemployment.

According to his grandson, Red secretly donned “a back brace in almost every game he umpired for 19 years. Nobody in the American League, except the other umpires knew about his back. If the league front office had known about it, he wouldn’t have been umpiring. If they had checked the records at Hines Veterans Hospital they would have seen that he was listed as 74 percent incapacitated. But with straps and braces of an umpire, nobody could tell and if they did, they never said anything.”

On this day at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, it was hard to tell that the depression was still raging like a fever across America’s working class. The stands were filled to capacity as the White Sox were squaring off against the hated Detroit Tigers. Birdie Tebetts was catching for Detroit with catcher Mike Tresh catching for the White Sox. Ormsby was calling the game from behind home plate and he was in pain. Author and historian C. Brian Kelly chronicled Ormsby’s story in a November, 2006  Military History magazine article that described the veteran umpire’s difficult circumstances. “During the depression, an injured day off work was tantamount to a pink slip. A good American League umpire could make up to $300 a month, according to catcher Birdie Tebbets – a tidy sum in those days. ‘With 12 mouths to feed, we all knew that Red Ormsby needed his job. On that particular day, we were not about to see him lose it.”

Tebbets could tell that Ormsby was hurting and laboring to breathe.  The scarring on his lungs from the phosgene gas was now regularly impeding his ability to catch his wind. It was on this day, according to Kelly, that Tebbets and Tresh caught the best games of their careers when they threw this disabled veteran ump a lifeline.

“A guy hit a ball up the right field line and Emmett ran up the line to make the play. When he came back to home plate, he said, ‘‘Birdie, I’m getting very dizzy and can’t see the ball right now. It’s  from my Army (injury) thing and don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to quit as I’ll probably lose my job.”  For the first time in Tebetts career, an umpire was actually admitting to being blind.

“I said, ‘look Red, you just sit tight and when I raise my right hand after the pitch, it’s going to be a  strike. If I raise my left glove, it’s gonna be a ball.’ Sure enough, the pitch came in and I raised my right hand. ‘ S-T-R-I-K-E!’  bellowed the veteran umpire. And we went through the hitters this way until the end of the inning. “

It was now Tresh’s turn and he did not hesitate to replicate the secret pitch call code for Ormsby.  For the next several innings, both catchers called the game until Ormsby recovered his breath and vision.  At one point in the sixth inning, Tebbets saw Ormsby lean in and whisper something to the White Sox catcher.  The following pitch, Tresh did not raise his hand.  Red Ormsby was back in charge of the game.

Years later, Tebbets revealed this story in an amusing biography,  Birdie: Confessions of a Baseball Nomad.  Tebbets shared that he would never expect that kind of relationship between players and umpires to exist in today’s free agent, self-centered game.  “But in the 30’s and 40’s, it was a different place and time.  We looked out for each other.”

For Red Ormsby, father of 12 and World War I veteran, there was never any doubt about duty – – to his family, to his country and to his sport. He ruled across a 19 year diamond studded universe of all-stars like “Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Bitsy Bobby Shantz, Leo Durocher, Lefty Gomez, Connie Mack, Babe Ruth, Jack Dittmer, Joe DiMaggio and others. ‘Ty Cobb,” he would say, was the greatest of them all.”

Emmit “ Red” Ormsby was just one of many veterans who gave so much and then came home just to “get on” with his life.  He did not expect anything in return for his service – except  perhaps a chance to work.  On that day, Red’s umpiring career was in jeopardy at Comiskey Park. It was only when two wily catchers found a way of paying back an aging veteran that they added yet another colorful footnote to humanity and to the grand narrative of America’s greatest game.

Centerfield

Centerfield

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone – the sun came out today!
We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.
A-roundin’ third, and headed for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man;
Anyone can understand the way I feel.

Oh, put me in, Coach – I’m ready to play today;
Put me in, Coach – I’m ready to play today;
Look at me, I can be Centerfield.

~ John Fogerty, Centerfield

During a game, the coach called one of his 9-year-old baseball players aside and asked, “Do you understand what cooperation is?  What a team is?”  The little boy nodded.  “Do you understand that what matters is whether we win or lose together as a team?”  The little boy nodded.  “So,” the coach continued, “I’m sure you know, when an out is called, you shouldn’t argue, curse, attack the umpire or call him a butt-head.  Do you understand all that?”  Again the little boy nodded.  The coach continued, “And when I take you out of the game so another boy gets a chance to play, it’s not good sportsmanship to call your coach a dumb ass, is it?”  Again the little boy nodded.  “Good,” said the coach.  “Now go over there and explain all that to your dad in the stands.”

It’s baseball season.  Once again, I have decided to join the ranks of the volunteer coaches of New Canaan Cal Ripken Baseball.  I am already starting to behave oddly at home.  I yelled “slide” to my eight-year-old as he ran to greet me at the door the other day.  I asked my wife if it would be okay to buy a radar gun.  “We could clock all kinds of things – how fast the kids get out to the bus in the morning, how quickly they come to dinner when we call.  We could increase their allowance when they beat certain time thresholds…”  She gave me that “you are a very troubled person” look.  The sad truth is that I cannot resist the draw of those bats, balls and battle.  It just doesn’t feel like April unless once again wrestle 11 other committed Dads for bragging rights.

Coaching is a catharsis.  It’s the ultimate opportunity to be of service and help shape kids.  It is also a mirror for self-reflection and, if done properly, lays a foundation for kids to grow into young adults.  If done poorly, coaching can be a demoralizing experience for a child, a source of constant tension for parents and a Greek tragedy for the fatally flawed but well intentioned coach.  When Reverend Joe Ehrmann came to New Canaan last fall, many coaches were introduced to the book about Joe, Seasons of Life.  For some, it was given as a gift or a stocking stuffer.  For others, it was left surreptitiously on a front door step or, in a few cases, tied to a rock and hurled through a living room window.

Joe’s message is priceless: each kid is a treasure trove of possibility and sports is a stage where we can discover each child’s potential.  Coaches can cultivate each player to become a more confident and engaged citizen of our community and to build self-esteem, which is the oxygen that fuels adolescence.  I realize this is innate stuff to a lot of people who work with kids.  Yet for others, including myself, Ehrmann’s talk was a great reminder.

There are coaches (and yes, I am one of them) who occasionally forget it’s just a game and become a little obsessed with winning.  It’s sort of like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where two alpha males make eye contact across the watering hole (in this case the baseball diamond).  I can almost see his antlers growing.  I scratch the ground with my cleat.  He picks up a bat and takes a few half swings.  The rut is on.  It’s a curse, really, thinking when the other coach goes home at night they’re calculating batting averages and comparing first to second base sprint times, instead of catching up on bills or reading.  Each season there’s always one coach who “challenges my objectivity.”  Whether it’s having their runner steal second while enjoying an eight-run lead or invoking some double secret rule like the “Speed of Play” clause from the Cal Ripken Official rules book that I get handed every year but never read.  (I actually think the “Speed of Play” rule was first created by the French in the UN to prevent the US from taking over committee meetings.)

I know I should not be so competitive.  There’s just something about that mixture of red dirt, chalk, and eye black that makes a guy a little, how should we say, less spiritual?  I’ve had to learn the key to being a good coach is to realize that it’s not about me.  It’s not about the parents.  It’s about every kid I’ve been entrusted with – every single one.  It means taking pride in each kid’s progress and teaching something new.  It means telling them the story about when I was a kid and how I pretended to go to football practice but would instead hide in the bushes, in full pads, smear dirt on my pants and wait for two hours before going home, hoping a passing dog wouldn’t lift his leg on my hiding place.  It’s me remembering when my son makes an error or strikes out and looks at me that I do not cringe, shake my head or make a face but smile and clap and say “go get ’em.”  It’s finding humor in everything.  Whether it’s a food shack listed in Zagats and rumored to be selling foie gras or the way people park their cars at Mead Park as if they have spilled an extra hot latte in their lap.

We all want our children to respect one another, try their best, work hard, and come back to play another year.  We need to remember that great television commercial that appears during most NCAA games: “There are 30,000 athletes in American universities and most of them will go pro in something other than sports.”  It’s a great time of year…the smell of freshly cut grass, chalk lines faithfully edged around a red dust diamond, and the sharp ping of a well hit line drive mixing with the roar of a hometown crowd.  Somewhere a kid rounds third base and tries to beat the throw to home, while another player tugs on his/her coach’s arm and yells, “hey coach, put me in .  I want to play centerfield.”

The Anxious Dodger

Dodger Stadium
Image via Wikipedia

 

The Anxious Dodger

A springtime ritual of male bonding in 1970’s Los Angeles meant trips to Chávez Ravine, a 350 acre terraced plateau of chaparral, eucalyptus and palms overlooking downtown Los Angeles.  It was the epicenter of our baseball universe – the sacred home stadium where each year our Los Angeles Dodgers would battle for the National League West pennant.

My father loathed the crowds and traffic of sporting events.  Attending a game with 60,000 fans was a perfect storm of human imperfection – bad drivers, inept parking attendants, cretins with their hibachi BBQs, legions of loud, drunken buffoons and public urinals.  Adding insult to injury was the sobering fact that every LA sporting venue was located in a very rough neighborhood.

The LA Coliseum in South Central LA hosted the 1932 Olympics, the Rams, UCLA Bruins, USC Trojans and the 1968 Watts riots.  The Forum – home of the Lakers and Kings -was like Fort Apache precariously located in Inglewood, an area with more guards, barbed wire and barred windows than Folsom prison.  Dodger stadium sat like the Masada, a mountain top fortress on the southwestern plateau of the Los Feliz Hills in East Los Angeles.  East LA was often depicted in the media as an area dominated by gangs and drive by shootings. My father’s suburban anxiety manifested itself each time we would attend Dodger game.  His paranoid behavior made our long day’s journey an emotional roller coaster as we rode shotgun scanning alleys and side streets for potential assailants.

While we lived less than thirty minutes drive from the actual ballpark, we would literally leave hours before the game, as my father did not want to ever be stuck in traffic.  To the chagrin of his sons and wife, he was not particularly fond of going out.  After a hard week at work, he subscribed to the FIFO method of socializing – – first in, first out.

We would exit the freeway winding through densely populated, graffiti stained neighborhoods of chain linked front yards where laundry hung on clothes lines flapping like Tibetan prayer flags in a mistral wind. Like clockwork, my father would tell us to duck down in our seats and lock the doors. The toughest person I saw on the street before having my head jammed into my collarbone was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman pushing a baby stroller.  “ Careful, dad, that baby might put a cap in our rear end”, my older brother said sarcastically.  At 15, he had begun to challenge my father’s peccadilloes and delighted in touching each one the way a sadistic dentist might probe a deep cavity.

A magnificent 1970 Chevy Impala low-rider rumbled past – its occupants patrolling their barrio.  The chrome wheels and custom sapphire blue paint job reflected the hazy midday sun. It was the ultimate Chicano cruiser and we were very impressed.  My brother started to roll his window down.  “ He dude, that’s a cool ca…” My father grabbed him and shoved him down in his seat. “Jesus H Christ. You want to get us killed?”  The driver was a handsome tan twenty-something with arm tattoos and wrap around sunglasses.  He dismissed us with a nod and continued rolling down the street.  My brother continued. “ Dad what does H stand for in Jesus’ name? And isn’t his name really pronounced ‘hey-soos?’ Mexican people are still pissed off about us stealing California from them, dad. I hear they carry machetes and if your car breaks down they cut your head off and stick it on their front porch flag pole as a warning to other people who short cut through the barrio.”

“I’m scared,” I whined.  My brother looked at me disgusted, “ I’m just joking, you peon!”

My father had had enough and looked ready to explode from the goading and logistical anxiety of driving four boys to a baseball game on a hot, smoggy Sunday afternoon.  “If you don’t keep quiet, I’ll ‘peon’ you” he snapped.  My brother started laughing immediately and then my other brother realized what my father had said.  I finally appreciated the double entendre and laughed extra loud to convince all that I had known all along that my father was threatening to urinate on my brother.

He would park in the same area, Lot Y – the furthest space from the stadium and closest to the exit of the parking lot.  His greatest nightmare was to be trapped in post game traffic when LA’s great social insurrection occurred.  He believed these neighborhoods to be major social fault lines where pressure would always be building until one day, they would explode in an earthquake of civil unrest.  When it happened, he damn well would not be stuck in his car when a gang of men with machetes decided it was time to take back the state of California.

Our seats were in the right field pavilion – a word I assumed must certainly be French for outfield bleachers.  The term “pavilion” sounded chic and elite. The fact you were sitting next to a guy wearing a wife beater undershirt and a tattoo that said, “Loco-motive“ did not seem to diminish your sense of prestige.  By the end of the game, you and that maniac were blood brothers.  You might even exchange phone numbers and promise to keep in touch – unified through the strange alchemy of beer, sun, foot long hotdogs and your common obsession with Tommy Davis.

If you were lucky, you would catch a glimpse of Roger Owens, the world famous peanut vendor whose uncanny accuracy with tossing peanuts made him an instant celebrity.  Owens could thread a needle with a bag of nuts across twenty rows – -consistently landing the salty prizes in the hands of his intended targets. He would throw between his legs, behind his back, often peppering three different individuals at the same time with three different bags.  According to the record books, his all-time personal record of most tossed peanut bags in a game was 2,400 bags set in 1976 in Dallas, Texas, at Texas Stadium during a Cowboys game.

About the sixth inning, my father would begin to furtively look at his watch and sniff as if he had a cold.  This was his “tell –tale” twitch indicating that we were minutes from exiting the ballpark. By the seventh inning stretch, we were being hustled from our seats and running across a great desert of burning asphalt and cars. “ Dad, why are we running?”  my brother would yell as we stumbled toward our car.  “ We don’t want to get caught in traffic!” my father would scream back as he raced ahead. Years later, my younger brother realized that eight innings is not extra innings in baseball.  He had never actually seen a game go beyond seven innings before being sequestered out of the stadium.  In fact, he assumed hockey had two periods, football was three quarters and any basketball game was over once a team went up on their opponent by more than 20 points.

We raced toward the freeway on-ramp, heads ducked in the car, on the look out for General Santa Ana and the Mexican army.   It was all very stressful – the ducking, the running, the rapid eating, the running, ducking, and 130-degree car with windows rolled up as tight as a submarine.  About this time someone would declare himself carsick and throw up.  Looking back, it all seemed very normal.

Years later, as I take my children to Yankee games, I find myself parking in lots that will afford me a rapid escape.  It is the seventh inning stretch and I consider the dreaded purgatory of post game traffic.  I turn to my boys and say,” let’s get going, guys.” There is a huge groan of resistance.  Alas, I have become my father. Yet, with each spring, I repeat our ritual pilgrimage to the Bronx. (Wait, isn’t this the same Bronx where the 41st precinct was called “Fort Apache” and where the gang from the movie “The Warriors” fought a rival gang dressed in pinstripes wielding baseball bats?) Yet, like my father, I brush back my demons with a high, hard sigh because I know to a kid nothing is better than a hot dog, Pepsi, peanuts and a homerun. Eternal youth is walking into a stadium on a warm summer day, the air heavy with the smell of cut grass and the sharp contrast of a blue sky against a green manicured diamond.

In the realms of fathers and sons, there is area where age has no boundaries. It is a safe place where moments are shared and words need not be spoken.  In this uncharted geography, you might come across a place of worship. It sometimes takes the shape of a baseball stadium.  As you get closer, you hear the deep crack of a hard maple bat, the roar of a partisan crowd and a boy yelling to his father above the chaotic din,

“Dad, why do we have to leave the game early?”

 

That Championship Season

That Championship Season

 

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remember’d;

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

 

Henry V, William Shakespeare

 

There is a weathered show box in my den that hides inconspicuously behind uneven, dusty piles of rubber banded baseball card and old Sports Illustrated magazines.  The contents of this magical ark are talismans of my youth – awards, medals, merit badges and obscure honors bestowed for noble deeds and feats of athleticism and academic excellence. The artifacts have miraculously survived my teenaged years, college, first apartment, starter home, as well as moves to and from Europe.  Each time I pack and unpack the things that I choose to define my material world, I cannot help but open that one time capsule that vaults me back to a vulnerable and powerful time where the mythology of world and all its possibilities stretched before me like a great, dark wood. There is one particular object of enormous sentimental value that rests silently within this box – an odd felt patch that simply says 1973 Green Hornet Award – Champions 1973. It represents the one time in all my years of competitive sports that I played on a championship team. 

 

At 12, I had been part of an eleventh hour trade – the kind of transaction that is often borne out of the larceny of a parent coach who cannot help taking advantage of a more chaste opposing coach.  I was dealt to a new baseball team, (presumably for two pitchers and a kid still in his diapers), that had lost all but one game the prior season.  My new coach wanted to win badly but insisted on starting his child at pitcher and shortstop when in fact, his son was already exhibiting signs that he would rather be braiding the hair of his sister’s Barbies than throwing strikes.  We all understood in our own way that our coach was attempting to defy Mother Nature at our expense and she was paying us back cruelly with lopsided losses.  Son and father finally answered our prayers and quit the team after a spectacular confrontation in the dugout, possibly over shoes that did not match his belt. 

 

A white knight volunteer coach whose children had long since outgrown the confines of a 60-foot diamond rescued us.  He was tough – making us run laps and field ground balls off our chest.  He yelled. He used running as a cruel reprisal for the simplest infraction.  I hated him at first and complained bitterly to my father.  After my describing my tormentor, my father chuckled and said, “sounds like Bobby Knight.  I like him already.”

 

After all, I was a pacifist.  I wasn’t sure exactly what a pacifist was but it sounded like they never had to run and spent a lot of time in the Pacific ocean.  The fact is, if I had been born ten years earlier, I would have been one of those turtle necked peaceniks putting daisies into the barrels of National Guardsman guns at Kent State.  I was a heavy kid with a strong arm and big swing but a suburban soft constitution.  The coach figured me out as lazy but also pegged me correctly as competitive, people pleaser. At our next practice, he introduced the concept of the “Green Hornet”, an award for the player that exhibited the greatest hustle.  “Hustling” to me was walking very fast when everyone else was running.  The first evening, I pushed myself hard to win the award.  I was thrilled at my ability to avoid being dead last in our sprints. When the award was being presented, I stood up humbly ready to give my acceptance speech.  Instead, the award went to Charlie Meagher, a skinny second baseman who insisted on finishing every sprint in first place.  He couldn’t even hit and made at least two errors an inning.

 

For the first few weeks, I decided to be indifferent to winning the coveted Green Hornet – a stupid piece of forest green felt cut into an incomprehensible shape.  But I secretly wanted that award.  I needed to have it. I asked coach why I had not received the recognition.  He looked at me for a long time, choosing the right words.  “Because you only give the minimum, Mike.  I want 100% from you.” I felt like saying, “I am a kid. We don’t even do percentages until the 8th grade!” But I understood clearly what he was saying.  Over the next several weeks, I pushed myself and finally won one of those Green badges. That season, we transformed from the Bad News Bears to a bad neighborhood.  Teams dreaded playing us.  Some opposing parents resented our success and immediately started to talk about our coach. “He’s so intense!” ” He takes things too seriously.  He doesn’t get that this is youth sports.”

 

We saw it differently.  My coach was trying to teach us how to succeed.  He never denigrated a single kid. He treated us equally, yet individually administered his theology of competition based on our ability.  It was not about winning.  It was about giving it everything you had. In sports as in life, the man who wanted it more was the man who usually prevailed.  He never took a swing, threw a pitch or fielded a grounder in a single game.  It was all us.  The day we won the championship, everyone celebrated.  He made a point of sharing how every kid had his fingerprints on that trophy.  He told us that we would remember this game and this championship forever because he knew a championship is the harmonic convergence of many things – talent, opportunity, heart, preparation, will and character. I can remember each kid at each position, with eye black and caked red dust streaked with sweat.  Champions.

 

It was interesting for me this year to watch as both of my sons’ football teams won hard fought championships.  Each boy played his heart out.  Both played for tough and demanding coaches.  They responded by rising to the occasion and pushing themselves. They wanted a championship – bad.  They wanted to don that laurel that the number one man wears, the FCFL Champions jacket with their own name and number embroidered on the sleeve.  To wear a jacket like that is to prove you exist.  It is the red badge of courage, the uniform of the accomplished. The boys wanted to be part of a tribe that had achieved the very best.  Each boy spent over 95 hours on the practice field. I never heard a peep out of them.  One night, one of them threw up during a grueling practice.  He only expressed astonishment from the fact that one could actually exercise so hard that one could get sick. If it had been me, I would have been calling my attorney, if I had one. 

 

Both championship games were nail biters and will forever be remembered in the folklore of these young men as the 6-0 defensive win over Westport and the 19-12 Ice Bowl victory at Darien. When the gun sounded at the end of the game, the boys celebrated in a manner that only coaches and players know, the boy moving closer to manhood and the coach now a surrogate parent for life.

 

As our lives sweep into adulthood, we accumulate many things and often lose that shoebox full of treasured memories and mementos.  The roar of a crowd, the crack of a bat or the squeaking of high tops on a gymnasium floor triggers a familiar feeling.  It is the echo of lost youth and past accomplishments – an energy that never dissipates. The soul of that exact moment lingers.  It is the spirit of a time where for once in your life, you gave it everything you had and you were rewarded the ultimate prize.  As I listen to my boys preen and recount their accomplishment and as I watch them hug and high five their teammates and coaches, I smile.  I mentally open my shoebox and caress that tired scrap of green felt and think, what a season that was …that championship season.

 

Me and Myself and the Mets

Shea Stadium - 2007 New York Mets-Boston Red Sox
Image via Wikipedia

To my friend David, who is convinced that on the first day, God created the baseball stadium – and it was good.

April 17, 1964 – David was 8 years old, the same age of his father when his dad died of a sudden heart attack.  The father’s painful loss was hidden away like an old memento stored in the dark crawl space that lies between the present and the past. In a working class family, the patriarch was king.  To lose a father as a boy was to suffer an egregious identity theft, a deeply traumatic felony that robs a child of innocence and adolescence. The son, now a father, was suddenly fitted with size 34 pants and spent the next decade growing into them.

But on this day, for the father to be taking his young son to the opening of Shea Stadium, after a morning at the New York World’s Fair, must have seemed like he had hit a celestial round tripper.  The son clutched his father’s hand, a great catcher’s glove of security and watched as the world unfolded in a great sea of orange and blue.   It wasn’t the young boy’s first major league game but it was unlike the ancient brick of the New York Yankees.  There was a thrill of seeing something new, a franchise and a stadium with its whole future ahead of it, unencumbered by the gilded chains of nostalgia.  For father and son, the day represented all of life’s possibilities.

The Mets were hapless supporting actors in a play that ran every day in Queens.  “ A face only a mother could love” a favorite expression to describe anyone whose endearing under-achievement and ineptness condemned them to the fringes of society. The Mets, not unlike their fans, were a roster of young and old assembled by a general manager making the best of a tough situation.  In their first seven seasons, the team was a combined 394 – 737 for a winning percentage of .348.  For many in Queens, the basement seemed a familiar, reassuring place.

The father and son never had season tickets for any New York area sports teams.  In life and in sports, the father was never a great spectator. That dark corridor that he was forced to walk alone between eight and eighteen left him focused on doing, not vicarious living. He never went to college.  It seemed as if he was born and then went to work.  But like so many of his era, he never shirked his responsibilities.  He married, enlisted in the service during the Korean War and came home to start a family.  Yet, he was drawn to the Mets.  In life and in baseball, great teams were characterized by a blue collar work ethic – – the predictable integrity of repetition and the character of never accepting a mediocre result regardless of how mundane your own assignment might be. . The Mets represented a less than glorious franchise, located in perhaps the least glorious part of town.  Some called them the workingman’s team.  His loyalty to the Mets somehow softened his hard childhood – abandoned by his father and their baseball team, the Giants, who left NY to move to California in 1959. It just made sense that this orphaned soul would adopt this team.

In a world wracked by uncertainty, the son looked to the father for predictable leadership.  The son’s successes were nourished by the staples his Dad provided – durability, punctuality and resilience. With his son, the father maintained the distance of a third base coach and his star player, choosing to convey his delight or displeasure with subtle signs and signals – – a twitch of an eye brow, a hand to the chin or the sudden clap of determined encouragement, “C’mon, get a hit!” Trust, emotional proximity and unconditional support were the foundation of their relationship. It was as if they were seated next to one another in life’s stadium – each with their own ticket but sharing the game together.

Life is all about perspective. In the 1960’s, most of the boy’s friends were Yankee fans.  Following the Bronx Bombers seemed to represent a superficial kind of loyalty – something borrowed because it was popular and easy.  At 13 years old, the boy was at the peak of his adolescent fanaticism. He had recorded the entire Mets line up neatly on my seventh grade denim three-ring notebook. In June, the boy asked his dad if he would take him to a Mets game.  The entire neighborhood was elated that the lowly Metropolitans, a team that had lost 120 games in 1962 and were synonymous with last place, were now in first place with a chance for post- season play.   The dad asked his son to get him the schedule, and confidently pointed to the last home game of the season and boldly announced “The Mets will clinch the division championship here”.  On September 24, 1969, they were rewarded with a miraculous NL pennant for their unwavering loyalty to “ the Lovable Losers.”  1500 miles away, Chicago Cub fans were writing another painful chapter in their star-crossed history.  To this day, the son reminds his father of his Kreskin-like powers of prediction.

The son still recalls that night – the air thick with cautious anticipation and an ill fall wind that seemed full of broken promises for a winning season. When the Mets won the game, father and son erupted with the entire sea of humanity spilling on to the field. Today it would be impossible to penetrate the phalanx of mounted police that line the field.  That night, they roamed the stadium as if it was their own front yard.  On that day, the boy began to understand what the father had always conveyed to him – that anything was possible.

September 28, 2008 – It was never an option that they would not attend the final game at Shea Stadium to pay their respects to the passing of an age of innocence.  The father, now 80, complained to his son about his legs, and in doing so, foiled the boy’s best laid plans to retrace their 1964 “walk” into Shea.  The son, now a successful executive, had season ticket located two rows behind home plate.  Their journey from nose bleeder bleacher seats to the prime field level real estate was a map of their life’s journey.  The father had not seen Shea in 20 years.  The Mets lost, eliminating any hope of a post-season birth.  Yet, it was somehow apropos.

For a team as famous for losing as winning, it was a fitting eulogy.

Lessons Learned At Mead Park

Lessons Learned at Mead Park

My Father used to say that the harvest from seeds of defeat can be greater than those grown from a success.  I used to dismiss this and his other Mid-western agrarian sound bites as the ramblings of someone starved senseless during the dust bowl years.  Yet, as I watched our New Canaan Tiger 10 year olds lose 12-0 in the local playoffs, I felt an ancient seed germinating from my father’s bag of insights.

By the fourth inning, our star pitcher had yielded eight runs.  Our all-star first baseman was in tears tormenting himself over a rare error.  The testosterone and bravado of pregame warm-ups were now dissolving in a deluge of hits, bad throws, walks and every conceivable form of human error.  How could this be?  Our little agents of competition who had become my vicarious instrument for exorcising all the unfulfilled demons of my work day were getting – – slaughtered.

My fellow coach, Michael K., and I immediately switched gears like captains salvaging a ship being ravaged on the rocks.  As we let go of our dreams for a championship game and refocused on the boys and the experience playing out before our eyes, we discovered a redeeming dignity among the faces tear streaked with eye black mascara.

None of the boys pointed a finger at one another.  Their disappointment was driven by the need to not let the other guy down.  They never gave up.  They dove.  They sprinted. They slid.  At one point, one of our more inconsistent players turned to me and say, “ Coach, this time I promise I will strike out…swinging !”

These little men came out each inning and circled the hilltop like Custer and his troops awaiting the further on-slaught , knowing no help was on the way.   If life is measured by not getting ahead of the other guy, but getting ahead of yourself, we were winning the game.  The seeds of future life lessons were being scattered among a rag tag crew of fourth grade boys who tears, sweat and toil were fertile soil and a great mirror for self reflection.

In the end, the game was mercilessly concluded and as we circled the boys, we told them how proud we were of them.  “You never gave up.  You never blamed anyone else.  You tried your hardest and the ball just did not bounce our way. “ They shed their tears, shuffled through the victory line high-fiving their opponents, handing them this year’s bragging rights and then slowly broke off in groups of twos and threes, hugged by parents and consoled by siblings.

We learn best what we teach and that’s the beauty of coaching kids.  We remind ourselves how to conduct ourselves – – “ Keep your head up .  Practice makes perfect.  Be a good teammate.  Things will get better. “ There’s always going to be the green grass of summer and the promise of another chance at the plate…a chance, perhaps to fail better the next time.  Some day, somewhere, those little seeds we sew will germinate in those young men.  As parents, we hope our children will one day exhibit those attributes we value most in society – – compassion, tenacity, intelligence, humility and resilience.  We needed to look no further than that diamond on that day to see the seedlings of maturity taking root in the red dirt and dust of Mead Park.