Friday, March 27, 2009

Another Baseball Story

I wrote this a year ago and put it on the now defunct Pearl Soup site, so those of you who were my friends there will have already seen this. Older Son, now 23, is moving into his own place this weekend and baseball season is upon us, so I thought this would a fitting time to re-post this, with apologies to those for whom it’s a “rerun.”


It is a tie that binds us together, a connection that has eased us into some uncomfortable conversations.

My older son, now a 22-year-old man, started playing baseball when he was five. He always took it seriously and I never told him that, genetically, he faced an uphill battle.

My own foray into athletics as a child included a couple of hapless enrollments in organized sports during a time when, sadly, most coaches – volunteer or otherwise – had little interest in one as clumsy as I. I gave it up quickly and sought out the more creative avenues for which I was better suited.

I watched from a distance, though, as my peers advanced through the ranks of the various games of their choosing. I envied their fit and agile bodies. I loved the whole idea of athletic games but had no natural ability.

Sill, I loved following sports as a youngster, especially baseball. I have early memories of not only watching my older brother play (he got all the athletic skill in the family), but also listening with him to St. Louis Cardinals’ games being broadcast over the radio. Family vacations included a couple of trips to Major League parks.

So to have a son who actually played the game gave me great joy. I knew my own limitations, however. I thought that, although I could be supportive and encouraging, there would be little I could offer in the way of assistance.

My son had other ideas. In the early days of tee-ball and coach-pitch, when I would arrive home from work, he would often be waiting for me for a game of catch in the yard. Even then I was a bit self-conscious, but I could hold my own. At practices I would pick up what I could from more experienced dads and would try to impute those lessons.

As he got older, it had to have become evident to him that this was not my strength. I remember a game where the head coach, who had not gotten to know me very well, asked me to coach third base.

With butterflies dancing in my stomach – but with my son grinning and looking on with pride -- I took my place. Runners on second looked at me with questioning eyes. One even called out my name and asked if he should run. I said something along the lines of, “Sounds good to me.” I was soon reassigned to something like keeping up with the batting order.

At the end of one season, when he was nine, an evaluation was required in order to play in the next year’s “competitive league.” I do not remember the day of the evaluation, but I do remember that we never heard from anyone in the league as to whether or not he made it. Although I knew the answer, I got the name and number of the spineless guy in charge of the “draft” and gave him a call to get the official word. It ticks me off to this day that he was not man enough to notify us.

I gently broke the news to my son. He was disappointed but took it in stride, and asked if there would be another chance to try out in the spring before the season started. I had asked that very question and had been told yes, but there would be only a few spots available. He might want to consider playing in the “rec (recreational) league,” I had been told. I managed to get off the phone without telling the guy where he could go with his “rec league.”

After getting past the initial disappointment, I remember being relieved that, for at least the next few months, we could forget about it. But I was mistaken. I don’t remember if it was the very next day, but if not, it was only a few days later, when my son was back in the yard, glove in hand, and asking me to help him.

We spent a good part of that fall and winter, whatever the weather, either in our yard or at a nearby park. He practiced all of it methodically – catching flies, fielding grounders, running bases and hitting. I did whatever I could to help. I was sending up prayers asking God to please, oh please, let it happen for him, telling God that, although I was a wretched person, this little boy He had blessed me with, he deserved a break.

On the Saturday morning of the spring evaluations, he got me up early and we went to the park. We went through all of the routines we had been practicing over the winter. In my estimation he looked perfect. But what did I know?

I have no memory of the evaluation itself, probably because my head was buried in my hands during that time. I have always had trouble facing things.

A couple of weeks passed and the call finally came. I will never forget the joy of hearing that my son had been “drafted” to play for “the Sox.” I was told that he would remain with this organization for the next four years and would have the opportunity to work his way up from “C” to “A” league.

I went and found him. I hugged him. I tackled him and threw him to the floor. I hugged him some more.

The rest is, of course, family history. He enjoyed a three-year stint before a move to another city cut short his career with the Sox. During those three years his game improved drastically, thanks in large part to some dedicated and fair coaches who had not just knowledge of the game, but the ability to teach.

He quickly affiliated himself with a team in our new hometown. His new coach asked me if he might like to try pitching. I told him I felt sure that would not be something he would want to pursue, that he had worked a long time perfecting his abilities at first base and other occasional infield positions.

What I did not say was that I had expanded outside my borders about as far as I could. My knees were far too old to be squatting down to catch practice pitches.

He was pitching within a week. He struck out nine batters his first game on the mound. I cried at the end of the game.

By then he had moved into a new dimension. It thrilled me to see his self-confidence and poise grow in this game, and I was glad the coach who had eyed him as a pitcher had possessed the good sense not to listen to me.

I also knew that, at this point, he had grown beyond where I could be of much help to him. Though it saddened me a bit, I was more than happy to sacrifice that for his personal development.

Once again, however, I had way underestimated my son and his perception of his dad. For Father’s Day that year he presented me with my very own catcher’s mitt. The unspoken message overwhelmed me and that mitt is among the most treasured gifts I have ever received.

Today baseball has given way to intramural softball but we both still love the game. After his high school graduation, the two of us went to Baltimore’s Camden Yards for a couple of games, another step in the goal he set a few years ago for us to visit every Major League Park. (We are about half-way there and his little brother has now joined us in this delightful journey).

We had some great conversations during that trip about the changes taking place in his life and he confessed some of his concerns about the future. No, we did not necessarily have to go watch baseball for that to happen. But he is so much like me -- so much like the male species – so much needing to talk about his feelings, but not quite being able to get there without the right conduit.

Thank God for the beautiful game that allowed a father, over and over, to see into the heart and character of his son, and that gave that son the opportunity to believe in himself and learn the age-old lesson of what can be accomplished through persistence and hard work.

And thank God for the game that caused a son, over and over, to reach out and affirm his dad.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Boys of Summer in Spring

I find myself going through a little bit of withdrawal as spring approaches. For the last two springs I have gone to Major League Baseball’s Spring Training in Florida and had the time of my life.

I have been a MLB fan for a long time and have been visiting their various ballparks for a number of years now. I try to add at least one each year, but knocked off three last year with Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and Yankee and Shea Stadiums in New York, the final seasons for those two venerable old parks.

Until two years ago, though, I had never been to a Spring Training game. I am now hooked and regret that this year, with Younger Son not having his spring break until April, I won’t be going.

In 2007 I took a week off work and took Younger Son, then 14, and two of his buddies. We holed up in a cheap condo in Kissimme (near Orlando) and ventured out from there to the games, all of which were close by or were easy day trips. To give the trip some variety, we spent a day each at Walt Disney World (two parks and only hit high points) and Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. We went to four games total.

Last year, I couldn’t swing the entire week off at the time, so Wife and Younger Son drove down and I flew mid-week and met them in Kissimme. We went by approximately the same plan as the previous year, except we were a little more hard-core with baseball and only did one theme park day, at Disney (and we upgraded our accommodations a bit since Wife was along). The two of them went to six games and I made four, and we ventured a little farther south into Florida (Jupiter) for one of the games. Wife became totally indoctrinated and was keeping scores and stats by the end of the week. She is itching to go back just as I am.

For those who might want to consider such a trip, I recommend Alan Byrd’s splendid book,Florida Spring Training. I read it cover to cover before I took the first trip two years ago and used it as my main guide both years. Amazon still lists it as “Third Edition” which is the one I have, but I’m guessing there will be a newer one coming out soon as there have been at least a couple of changes since the last printing (e.g. the Dodgers are no longer doing Spring Training in Florida and the Rays, who used to play their spring games in St. Pete, have moved to Port Charlotte).

In preparation for the book, Byrd, the poor guy, visited every venue in the Grapefruit League, sat in the bleachers and sampled the food and beer. The result is a concise summary of each park and a ranking of his most to least favorite.

He includes tons of helpful information, including purchasing tickets, directions, parking tips, best seats, players’ accessibility for autographs and, of course, his own food and beer preferences. He also gives great tips for nearby attractions and restaurants and includes some sample itineraries for those trying to attend games and take in other sights.

The ballparks are as varied as the teams and therein lies much of much of the fun in this trip. I still have not been to all of the Spring Training parks. We have only gone as far south as Jupiter, which is where the Cardinals and Marlins play.

The ones I like best are the small, minor league-like venues where you are close to the players and they will generally be generous with the autographs. They will also occasionally toss a ball into the stands. Good examples (and my favorites) are Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter (Cardinals and Marlins) and Osceola County Stadium in Kissimme (Astros). Both are great little parks, each holding a few thousand and there’s not a bad seat in either place. The typical baseball fare of ‘dogs, burgers, peanuts and beer are in abundance.

Roger Dean Stadium sits right in the middle of the beautiful little town of Jupiter, just a few miles from the beach. There are all kinds of shops, restaurants and sports bars in the vicinity. Osceola County Stadium sits sedately out in an industrial and residential area of Kissimme, and there is not much there except the ballpark.

The antitheses of these two fields are George Steinbrenner Field in Tampa (Yankees) and Champion Stadium in Buena Vista (Braves). Steinbrenner holds about 11,000 and strikes me as a miniature Yankee Stadium. It is right across the street from the football field where the Tampa Bay Bucs play, and in fact you park there and walk across a sky bridge to get to the baseball stadium.

There is no chance of getting an autograph at Steinbrenner Field. Games there, in my opinion, feel more like a regular season MLB game than Spring Training. There are many food and drink offerings. Don’t get me wrong, it is loads of fun; I just prefer the smaller Spring Training parks.

Champion Stadium, spring home for the Atlanta Braves, is located in Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports complex and seats about 10,000. Going there is just like a trip to Disney World – you will be entertained, but you’ll be in a large crowd. You will sit in a long line of traffic to park in a field about a mile from the ballpark, stand in a line to board a shuttle to get there, then stand in another line to get through the ticket turnstile. The food is plentiful and varied but it’s not cheap. The stadium itself is beautiful, built in Spanish Hacienda architecture. Although you can sit relatively close to the field, this is not a good park for autograph seekers.

One of my regrets is never making it to Dodger Town, near Vero Beach, where for years the L.A. Dodgers held their spring camp. It was apparently a cool little complex that included a Dodger museum. The Dodgers packed up and headed for the Cactus League in Arizona a couple of years ago.

Byrd points out in his book that, unfortunately, many of the teams’ spring homes have gone the way of their larger home field counterparts, with corporate sponsorships and luxury boxes. He believes this takes away from the traditional Spring Training aura and I agree.

Still, for die-hard baseball fans -- and even those not as fanatical but who would enjoy a spring vacation to Florida before the crowds and heat are quite so intense -- a trip to Spring Training is a real treat. I am looking forward to going back.

(Lest you feel too sorry for me with this year’s late spring break, I am headed to Boston’s classic Fenway Park in April to see the Red Sox. I am typically not an American League guy, but my sons have had Fenway at the top of their list for a long time).

Monday, March 2, 2009

In All Things

Steve, my new blogger friend, wrote a thought provoking piece recently that started out with how he still does not have a cell phone. The underlying theme, however was really about contentment and how, in the current economy -- which, if it is not robbing us of our jobs and homes, is chipping away at our retirement plans -- we can learn about being thankful.

I recently wrote about a trip I took back to my home town. I am still processing that short journey and its therapeutic effects.

One of the highlights was spending the afternoon with my old next-door neighbors, a couple who are now both 80. She has Alzheimer’s and he is her primary caregiver.

As he and I sat on his sofa together he told me how difficult it is to see his wife of 58 years slowly deteriorate before his eyes. But, he said, he is still thankful for so many things and he gives thanks every day for this opportunity to care for his soul mate.

He told me that years ago in his family medical practice he had an elderly lady as a patient. She had chronic high blood pressure. On one visit he told her it was under control, just where it should be. Her response was, “Thank you, Jesus.” He affirmed her thanks.

On a subsequent visit a few weeks later, her blood pressure had soared and he broke the news to her. “Thank you, Jesus,” she said, just as before. He told her no, she must have misunderstood; this was not a good report.

She looked at my friend the doctor and told him no, she did not misunderstand anything. But she knew that she was to give thanks in all things, and that was what she was doing. My friend said the lesson for him was great and he has never forgotten it. As his wife slowly loses ground, he still gives thanks.

Today my portfolio is losing value even as I write this. I am scared about my job (I work for a bank). My house has a crack in its foundation and needs paint and a roof. I am increasingly concerned about the policies being implemented by the Obama administration, fiscally and socially, and daily get my ire up at the Democrats who blindly follow him.

Tonight, however, I will get in bed with a woman whose love for me, amazingly, just seems to grow. I feel the same way about her. We never run out of things to talk and laugh about. Today I have a job and her business is thriving. We are both healthy. It needs some work, but we have a nice home and we eat some great food here.

We have three children who, at 23, 20 and 16, seem to be on their way to becoming responsible members of society. They challenge us occasionally, but they love us and the five of us still get together and have a blast.

Wife and I have some great relationships that we have nurtured for many years now, both here in Tennessee and back in Arkansas. Wife’s parents are still alive and very much a part of our lives.

And finally, in just about a month baseball will start and for the following six months I will be able to pick up the newspaper, run my finger over the box scores, follow my favorite teams and continually espouse the superiority of the National League.

I hope the economy picks up steam soon. I hope the stock market bottoms out and starts its way back up. And I hope I am wrong about Barack Obama.

My faith, my hope and my values, however, cannot be tied to these matters over which I have no control. And I can – no, I must – continue to, in all things, give thanks.