Saturday, October 9, 2010

'The Yahd' and Some Good Karma

When I was a kid we used to play baseball in the back yard. It was a three person game with my two neighbors, Scott and Brent: one all-time pitcher for the game, one outfielder and one hitter who pushed ghost runners base to base on hits to score runs. Six full innings. All Spring, Summer and into the Fall.

Our backstop was made from an old swing set with wire mesh secured on one side. Our amphitheater hatch for about 75 games every year. Our neighbors house was plunked in right field, an ominous light tan obstacle... and by our ground rules an automatic out if hit by a batted ball. The alley to straight-away center and left center was our main field of play, some 210 feet to a driveway that served as our home run fence. Beyond the driveway was small gully that led down to a brook. On the left side of the field was 'the bank.' An ominous porch, a steep 70 degree drop of pricker bushes, snarly trees and on it's way some 50' to the main road. We snuck in games after school, weekend six game series, whatever, whenever we could. We kept track of our records, and home runs. Every game, every at bat and every pitch was played imitating our Major League idols... as if they were there. We managed our teams too, made pitching changes... a quintessential backyard theater. We knew every MLB player, every stat, every batting stance and pitching motion... more than just a backyard game. It was 'our' show.

My neighbor Scott was the equivalent of the '29 Yankees in our three person league. Scott had been undefeated in four previous seasons, won every home run title... the leagues reigning champion and triple crown winner. Brent and I usually stayed neck and neck... refining our skills... trying to catch the league leader.

Until this one day.

In our six inning game I, at long last, was one out away from beating Scott in a game. He had runners on first and second, Brent our all-time pitcher for the game had pitched a gem, 6-5 as I recall, and he was beginning to fade. I called time. Yes, we managed the games as well, made pitching changes, the whole enchilada.

"Time," I called and ran in to talk to Brent who was, at the time imitating Bill Campbell, the great Red Sox closer of the time. I remember telling Brent we need something special. The air for me, and him, crackled with excitement, and we were tired. The danger of the call for dinner could happen at any moment... the only thing, save a good thunderstorm, that interrupted our games. I was just one out away from beating Scott for the first time in five long years. I decided to make a pitching change, my first notable moment of brilliance as a manager. I called in El Tiante, the great Luis Tiant to the mound. Brent's job in this case was to imitate the wild motion of Tiante to a T. I figured it was our best shot. We needed something unusual, a twist to send the game over the edge. "Throw him curves," I said. Brent sighed and said simply "ok."

As I jogged back to the outfield, Scott called out from home plate. "Who's pitching?" "Tiante!" I yelled out. Scott nodded and stepped into the batters box, a dirt patch burned out in the grass... and settled in.

Brent's motion imitated 'El Tiante' to the letter. The herky jerky, the twist, the head tilt and in came a curveball. I held my breath and watched Scott take the bait. He took a huge swing and popped the ball up to the left side... and high. It began to drift into the wind to the left side toward 'the bank.' I decided I was going to get it... no matter what.

I can still see that ball in the air, the sway of the trees. I ran full speed and took a Peter Pan off the bank, and as I write this I still can feel the goosebumps that swept across my whole body at that moment. I stretched out into a full dive and watched the ball all the way into my glove, an exhilarating smack that only a good leathery catch like that can provide... and then...

I realized I was headed over the bank and into the thicket, a full tumble down the bank... I still remember  my wide eyes... and the tuck as I went over. I crashed down through the brush, being clawed by every snarly monster on the way down, tumbling through the dirt to the bottom and I stopped just before the road some five feet away. Eyes closed, I remember laying on my back and I began to take inventory. I opened my eyes and looked up through the swath I'd just plowed down to where I lay. Brent was at the top, eyes wide and yelled down. "Did ya catch it?" I lifted the glove toward him and opened it... and felt the ball. Brent jumped up in the air and began to cheer. "He caught it, he caught it!" Brent yelled and jumped around.

We'd done it. The first victory over the league champion in four long years.

I felt a massive adrenaline rush and ran up the hill. The thicket clawed at me on the way up but I didn't care. I arrived back up on the field and there was Scott, looking like  something straight out of a Normal Rockwell painting. Not even remotely choked up, bat over his shoulder, glove stowed securely on the end of the bat and his hat tilted back. I'll never forget what he said just then. ''Nice game," he said with a grin." "'bout time" he said as he smirked and began a slow walk to toward his house.

I was doing my best to be a good winner, to contain myself... but I shouted out... "WHOO!" and ran to my house.

My parents were setting up for dinner. I burst on the scene and jumping around and blurting out that I'd won. As my father told me some years later, while I explained it all I proceeded to drink all three glasses of milk on the table. I continued to recap it all as if it were an actual Red Sox game: Jim Rice's home run, Fred Lynn's diving catch, who started, how many doubles my team had hit. As I did, blood was dripping down from all the scratches and onto the floor to mix in with the dirt, sweat, twigs and grass the bank had laid on me as I described how I'd won the game, at long last, finally winning one against Scott. I remember shouting in a gasp as I jumped around the room "can you believe I won?" I remember my father looking me over slowly head to toe and saying "Won huh? Looks like you lost."

My mother told my father to take me outside and clean me up and I was led out to the side of the house. I remember my father smirking as he sprayed me down with the garden hose while all the while I continued to recap the game, gasping in between passes of the shooting water. Soaking wet he led me over to the picnic table and sat while he continued to pick things off me, pull thorns from my arms and such and burdox out of my hair. I continued the spirited recap of the game ... Rick Burlson this and George Scott that, the save by El Tiante and the monster dive into the stands to snag the game clincher... in every detail. I remember a feeling just then... my father had stopped talking and stopped picking things off me. I looked up at him and remember his eyes... puffed up, brimming with some tears and then what he said very simply...

"This is just going by way too fast."

The tickets to Fenway for the game I took my son to Sunday came to me via a strange route which I'll explain in a bit. I struggled with the idea of going to the park that day believe it or not and almost passed at the chance. A family of four, two tickets, boat loads of work to do, student work I hadn't read through yet. After a good bit of chatting we all decided that Eb and I should go to the game. Eb's first. A magical event in a family steeped in baseball.

We arrived at the park early, and Eb's first trip up the ramp was a treat I got on video. The excitement, the look of awe at whole scene. We soaked it in as we strolled around the park end to end. We took in a slice of pizza and made our way down to field side right behind the press box at the end of the first base dugout. We watched Peter Gammons interview Mike Lowell for a good bit. I've followed Gammons work for decades and Eb and I are both Mike Lowell fans. We watched Ken Burns stroll the dugout and a host of players prep for the game some 25 feet away. Eb's face said it all. Mine did too as I watched him soak it all in.

Eb and I with Peter Gammons interviewing Mike Lowell in the background.

The Red Sox players were going to flip out souvenir baseballs to fans so we decided to stay field side as long as we could. We were in the front row and the folks who's seats we stood in had arrived. We were going to walk back to our own seats then and I grabbed Eb's sleeve. Row two was open and I wanted him to have a shot at catching a ball. A bit nervously, we both decided to test our luck and stay. The players jogged out and the circus began as they flipped balls all around the bleachers. A ball finally came our way, tossed by Eric Patterson, Saturday nights game hero with a walk-off single and the starting second baseman vs the Yankees that day. The ball went over our heads a bit, just over my outstretched fingers, hit the hand of someone behind us and it bounced over and hit a chair in front of us. The ball rattled down to the ground and I dropped catcher style (with a very sore back) and snatched it up and handed it to Eb. A great thrill for a young kid, his first game, and to me who's been to about 20 MLB games and had never even been close to catching a ball. We celebrated and watched the players toss out the rest of the baseballs. Victor Martinez was the last one, tossing balls left handed into the second deck some 20 feet away from us.

As the game start neared, Eb began to get uneasy, asking that we can go back to our seats. He didn't understand that we could claim our seats at any time with our tickets. I told him we'd stay for a bit longer, hoping to catch a few pitches of the game, a rare chance to be that close to the field. One inning passed by, and then another. The folks in row two hadn't come to the game that day and there we sat, the two of us in four empty seats, wishing that Janice and Grace could be with us on this magical day. We were two rows from the press box, eye shot into the Red Sox dugout. We soaked it all in: The home run by Drew and two by Lowrie, on through the bunt single and curtain call by Ortiz and the cheers for Varitek as he was replaced in the ninth. Eb's highlight I think was seeing Bard throw, the Red Sox young flame thrower who, next to Varitek, is his favorite player. Eb watched every pitch and the radar gun post after each pitch and I watched Eb much of the day. Many times I got that feeling, the one that my own father had while he and I sat together on the picnic table that day.

To cap it all off, before the game it was announced that we could walk on the field after the game. I'd heard of this before at Fenway but never been there when they allowed fans on the field. Without a doubt, Eb wanted to go and so did I. It was a long wait, the crowd was huge, it was rushed... and Eb and I enjoyed it thoroughly. We walked along the warning track and inspected the Green Monster and the scoreboard. We walked over to and up the right field line on to first base and the infield dirt. We worked our way through the crowd and on through home plate. A fitting end to our trip to Fenway. A quick trip into the souvenir store and we were on our way home.

A friend of mine named Jim Carter relayed a story me once. We were chatting over how difficult it is to run sports programs, how it pulls time away from your family. The story Jim told me came his way by a gent named Ray Pelligrini. "Ray told me 'if you spend more time with other peoples children than you do with your own you're doing it all wrong.'" It's a tough challenge when you teach, and especially when you coach high school sports. There's always another workflow to look over, another piece of writing, a video, another fundraising meeting, another practice. It's difficult not to feel a pull, even anxiety of sorts about the choices you have to make on these fronts. My family has always been great with this, always shifting to go with me, rerouting some educational or baseball related function into a family event. They've managed it better than I have over the years I think. 

Our trip to Fenway was made possible by a colleague and friend at school, Pete Nicholson. Pete had won two tickets to the final game of the season at Fenway that day but he couldn't go. Rather than sell them, he decided to give them to me, an avid Red Sox fan. Pete's generosity set a great day in motion for us, a chance to spend time with my son out of my busy schedule and to reconnect in a way to days gone by. I decided to go over to Pete's class, a Speech and Composition class and tell the tale to his students, much like it's laid out here... and then something very cool happened.

Pete seemed a bit flustered when I peeked around the corner just as his class was getting started... which seemed uncharacteristic of him. I asked a few more times if he was sure... if he could spare five for the tale and he assured me it was fine. I chatted away, recapping the old story of my dive off the bank, the connection with my father and on through the need to slow down and enjoy my family, and how it tied into our trip to Fenway which was ultimately all possible by his generosity... and the dumb luck of choosing the right seats by the field to watch a game. Pete thanked me after the tale, and like the consummate Speech and Comp teacher, he recapped it how I delivered it to the class. Then he asked me to hang out for a bit and he told us all one of his own.

"Of all the days" he said, "that I needed something like this, it happened today." He explained why he was flustered at the beginning of class when I came in. He'd been called up shortly before class by his son's daycare. His son was sick and needed to be picked up. Pete relayed that he was a bit stressed about it, the feeling of guilt about stepping out of school, leaving his students, his foiled lesson plans, the assignments, a slew of presentations, a slew of details. My story had reminded him of something far more important... to pick up his son, not to feel guilty or disappointed... and just enjoy the time. There's another day to catch up.

Eb's first trip to 'the yahd', a magical couple of days really and some good karma.

I checked our DVR the next day to see the game Eb and I attended. Because of our proximity to the field I was certain we'd made it on TV and had planned to catch some images from it and frame them for Eb along with our slew of pictures. Alas, the DVR had croaked and we had to order up a replacement from DirecTV. Unfortunately the recording was lost, along with all the others we'd kept. I've sent notes on to NESN to try to get a recording and out and about with no luck so far. The only blemish on a magical day. 

Now I'm off... done putting down this tale here and stepping away from the rest of todays work... and off to watch Eb play soccer.

Thanks for tuning in.

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