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Lessons from Little Leaguers

May 24, 2016 Leave a comment

IMG_20160416_090307It’s 8:40 on a Tuesday morning and I want to go to my kids school, pull them out of class and apologize to them. I want to apologize to them for my demeanor and attitude after our last few little league games. I want to tell them how proud I am of them and I want to tell them that sometimes their father is an idiot (a fact that they are probably already aware of).

Last night we lost our ninth straight game, this one coming against the previously winless last place team. It all but assures us of a last place finish on the season with just a game to go. Of course, anyone that knows me and my love of sports, knows how much this must bother me, especially as the manager of this team. No one wants to finish in last places and I take it personally.

So, of course, I sulked in the car on our way home and I moped around the house as the kids ate their dinner, finished homework and got ready for bed. It is the same thing I did last week when we lost 15-14 when the other team scored five runs in the bottom of the last inning and it was the same thing I did after nearly every other loss during that stretch. Our one win seems so long ago.

The reasons I feel this way are complicated. My attitude isn’t necessarily about me, but I’ll admit that a bit of my ego is involved. I see the other three teams from our town having a little more success in our combo league (multiple towns involved in a league with 26 teams) and I do turn a little green…I won’t deny it.

However, the bigger driving factor in my feelings after the games is my responsibility to these kids. Their parents have trusted their kids to me and my two coaches to teach them this game and help them become better players. At this age (9-11), the kids involved for the most part want to be there and want to play. Some may have aspirations to play in high school or beyond and some may just enjoy the game and just want to be out there. What ever their reasons for being out there, it is our responsibility as coaches to help them get better.

So, when a kid struggles to get ball in the strike zone, while I try to figure out what they are doing wrong, I am also thinking about whether or not I adequately prepared them for this situation. When a kid picks up the ball on the first baseline with the runner flying past them and becomes unsure of what to do with the ball, the only thing I can think of is how we didn’t cover that situation enough in practice. When a kid strikes out for the third time in a game, all I can think about is how we should have spent more time with the tee in practice. These are things that my coaches and I take very seriously.

However, let me get back to this morning and my revelation. As I sat here sulking, I was reminded of how in one of our games one of the kids gave up two home runs. Not the ball-got-kicked-around-the-outfield type of home runs. We are talking about the-outfielder-takes-two-steps-towards-the-fence-looks-up-and-just-watches-the-ball-go type of home runs. When I went out to check on my pitcher and ask him if he was okay, his face absolutely lit up and he said, “that was cool!”

After another loss, one of the kids came up and started telling me how he had promised his mom that he would score a run for her and she promised him Rita’s if he did. He was so excited because he had managed to get on base and score in the bottom of the last inning.

There was another boy on the team that has struggled with accuracy on his throws all season. Last night, he fielded the ball in left field and fired a strike to get the guy trying to score at home. Later on, he went on to pitch for the first time and had two strong innings.

Most of all, I realized that in all my sulking about the games, Benjamin and Matthew continued to laugh and giggle and smile. In fact, during all our losses, the whole team continued to laugh and joke in the dugout, as well as discuss who had the best play in the game and cheering on their teammates. Even in the realization that we would finish last, Benjamin turned around to me and said something along the lines of, “Well, someone has to finish last…it might as well be us.”

While I believe I put on a good face and was able to stay positive for the rest of my team on the field, it was Benjamin and Matthew that had to see the dark cloud hanging over my head. Even as they tried to cheer me up, I wallowed in it. At the end of the day, all the teaching on the field and showing them how to be good sportsmen, gets washed away when we are off the field by them seeing me sulk. Actions speak louder than words and I probably failed them in that regard.

As I sit here at my desk facing my pending layoff, there is no better time than now to learn from my kids and my baseball team about enjoying life, regardless of what hits me. These are lessons that cannot be overstated.

That’s why I can’t wait to see them tonight. To tell them they were right, I was wrong. As I sit here contemplating these games and the other misfortunes of life, staying positive and having a good attitude is so important. A game is just a game, but that laughter and smiles and attitude regardless of what happens in that game is a key to happiness in life. It’s what you do with losses and misfortunes in both games and in life that means everything and I need to let my boys know that I could not be anymore proud of them for the attitude they showed than if they had hit a championship winning home run.

A few weeks ago, a manger of another team and I were contemplating our woes this season. At that point, between the two of us, we had two wins.  As we were discussing all the little things that go wrong that lead to lost games, he had the following to say, “When we our kids are grown up and we reminisce, these inconveniences won’t be the memories.” It is such a good perspective and I think I’ll always remember that. I also hope that I always remember the year my team went 1-11 or 2-10 and my sons and team taught me a little bit about having the right attitude.

Happy Memories in the Warehouse

October 10, 2014 1 comment

20141010_010315The sun has risen and set 6,203 times since the last time the Baltimore Orioles played in an American League Championship Series game. That’s 17 years since Armando Benitez gave up that heart breaking home (with Benitez, you usually need to be more specific when talking about heartbreaks) and Robbie Alomar struck out without swinging his bat. So much water has gone under the Bay Bridge since that chilly October night, yet, with the Orioles dominant again, it seems like yesterday as the memories come flooding back.

A few weeks after that game, I asked Andrea to marry me. A few months after that, I headed to New York to take on my dream job at the Mets. Three years later, I’d get my National League Champions ring from the Mets (to this day, I know in my heart it was that choke artist Benitez that kept me from a World Series Champions ring). Eight years later I’d look into the eyes of my new born son. Ten years later, my second son was born. Fifteen years later, I’d be standing on a Little League field coaching my boys’ Tee Ball team. Seventeen years later, I sit in front of a computer with a million different memories of those days with the Birds and I go from happy to sad as the nostalgia of all of it confounds my emotions.

It’s been a long 17 years, especially in terms of being an Orioles fan.

It’s funny, when I think about those days and those Orioles, it’s really not the team or the players that stick in my mind. In fact, I need to look up details of those games, as they don’t readily come to mind. What I do remember most are the people that I worked around, for and with. Memories of victories aren’t of the team celebrating on the field, they are of celebrating with my co-workers when our jobs were done. Winning the 1996 NLDS against the Indians was awesome, but it was celebrating with my managers as they got off the bus from the airport with what seemed like the entire city of Baltimore surrounding us. I don’t remember the last out of the 1997 NLDS win against the Seattle Mariners, but I remember hugging, laughing and cheering with the other interns in the hallways of the warehouse afterwards.

When there wasn’t much to celebrate, during the long middle months of the season, there was still whiffle ball games in the warehouse halls after extra inning games, philosophical discussions about the powder eggs they served in the press lounge on early Sunday mornings and making plans for after game shenanigans in Fells Point as we waited for them to call rain outs. A baseball job is demanding and, in many ways, our coworkers were like family.

Even in losses, it’s the bittersweet moments with those people that I remember most. Even in the hours after Alomar struck out, I remember sitting in the warehouse quietly laughing between tears with these wonderful, hard working friends. Even after losing to that other damned team from New York in 1996, we still celebrated well into the early morning hours the next day, bar hopping and laughing like we had just won the World Series…We weren’t happy that we lost, and if my co-workers were like me, we cried ourselves to sleep when we did finally find a bed (that damned kid, his glove and Derek-feaking-Jeter), but we had worked so hard for 10 months and the only thing we could do was enjoy that time together when there was nothing left to worry about.

It was hard work and even longer hours (I once put in a 36 straight hour stretch without leaving the warehouse) and I am not going to pretend that all of us got along. There were tense times and moments when you just wanted to be left alone. But I think that was what was special about those times and those people. They were bonds that were forged in fire and moments that so few people could really understand. The lows of that job would go so low and the highs…well, there was just nothing like that. In between those moments were a group of people who loved baseball, loved the Orioles and, at some level, loved those moments with each other.

A very vivid memory for me was in the early morning hours after the last ALCS game in 1997 when a few of us were left hanging out in the warehouse. The stands were empty, the AL Champions were on their way back to Cleveland and we had nothing left to do except wait for the stats to transmit to MLB and do our best at finishing off the beer. The lights were turned low on the field (one of my favorite views of a baseball diamond) and most of the staff had left. Hoping to rally the city and the team before, we had thousands of “WE BELIEVE” signs printed and given out at the stadium. There was one of them on the door to reception. After we finished our beers and realized there was nothing left to do but go home, we gathered our stuff and walked out. On my way out, I ripped the “BE” from the sign so that it just read, “WE LIEVE.” We laughed about it, and went home. However, the altered sign ended up having a much deeper meaning. People started leaving the Orioles for other jobs. I left in February of 1998, and at the time, it felt like I was one of the last ones out the door. Of course, it wasn’t true…it just felt that way. A few people still work for the Orioles. However, that just seemed like the end of an era, whether or not it was a good ending, and we went our separate ways.

It was a sad way to leave and even in the great moments with the New York Mets, parts of me still wished to be celebrating with my friends in Baltimore.  When I look back at my 40 plus years, those days were among my happiest. Never in a million years would I trade my current life for those days, but those times and the people in them will forever hold a very special place in my heart. After all these years, especially in the light of the Orioles recent successes, I still feel close to them…still feel that special bond, reaching across 17 years. It’s probably been 15 years since I’ve spoken to many of them, it still feel like I am celebrating with them.

And while the New York Mets will always have a lock on my baseball heart, the Baltimore Orioles will always be so very special to me. I’m not going to pretend and say I am a huge fan of the Orioles today, but I always quietly says “O’S!” to myself whenever I hear the National Anthem. It fills my heart with joy to see them doing so well and them winning the ALCS and World Series would make me almost as happy as if the Mets won. The team and the people I worked with there will always be dear to me.

I hope that the current members of their back office staff are enjoying these times as much as we did.

Go O’s!

Small Miracles on the Diamond

May 21, 2014 2 comments

10363612_10203714795331867_5509403908439764333_nDue to another event happening at the normal Little League field, Matthew’s game on Saturday was moved to a different time at a back up field. All three of my assistant coaches could not make the game because of prior commitments. One of the other fathers on the team happens to be a coach for a tee-ball team as well as the league’s safety officer. He also happens to be an EMT. I’ll call him JM. I asked JM if he could help me out for the game and he happily agreed.

As we begin our game, I notice Ben wandering around the field, talking to a couple of other kids and staying out of trouble. So I returned my attention to positioning my team on the field. A few minutes later, I heard a scream from Ben that still echos in my head and makes my stomach drop. He keeps yelling “DADDY!” at the top of his voice and I start running towards him, as he holds his arm high. I could see his arm even from 50 feet away and I didn’t see any blood, so I assumed he got stung by a bee.

A couple of days later one of the other fathers told me he could see in my face the moment I realized it wasn’t a bee sting. He said he could see in my face the sudden realization that this was much more serious than a bee sting. Ben’s arm was ripped open and I could see…well, I could see way too much that is not suppose to see the light of day. And it was reflected on my face.

JM got to us a moment later, took one look and very calmly asked his wife to get his paramedic bag out of his car and then proceeded to call 911. As my brain lit on fire, JM calmly began asking Ben questions, cleaning the wound and getting it dressed. In the same calmness that you or I might explain to a kid how to field a ground ball, he explained to Ben how the ambulance is going to arrive and each step that they would take after that. As I sat there helpless, knowing the best thing I could do was to stay out of their way, he and his wife calmly took care of Ben.

JM knew exactly what to do as I became confused as to what I should do. Do I leave Matthew with other parents and get in the ambulance with Ben? Do I just pack up the car and meet them at the hospital? In my confusion, I tried to stop the game and send everyone home. After a few moments, I was able to pull myself together a bit and figure out what to do, but it was only because of the calm example that JM was setting.

All the other parents were great, as well. One tended to Matthew as he started crying, afraid for his big brother being loaded into the ambulance and there were multiple offers to watch him for the rest of the day as I went to the hospital. The other dads, I would learn later, pitched in to help the rest of the team finish the game. Offers of help came from all around.

It didn’t end there.

The paramedics smiled as they did their jobs professionally and urgently, even sticking around at the hospital for a few minutes to help keep Matthew distracted. One even took Matthew over to get an ice-pop from the nurses’ station. The cop was extremely helpful and patient as he asked me questions and explained what the ambulance was going to do. The doctors were warm and friendly and I cannot say enough about the effort the nurse put in to get Ben to think of other things besides his arm. I am still overwhelmed at the help I received from so many on Saturday. While ultimately Ben’s injury was not that serious (17 stitches and no major damage to any internal tissue or bone), I feel truly blessed by the way so many came together to help me and my sons out that day.

However, I keep thinking about JM. Due to his job as an EMT, his responsibilities to the league and the fact that he coaches a team himself, he isn’t always at our games. He misses a few innings here and there. So, I can’t help but wonder how different things may have been that day had he not been there to help. In my confusion, would I have made the wrong decisions? What would I have done had he not been there?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve made my faith more personal and internal. I don’t talk much about my belief in God and how I feel his presence in my life. There have been times when that faith has wavered; I’ve never lost it, but I’ve been mostly silent on it for years. The faith has always been there, though, because of moments like this. It’s a small moment in the grand scheme of things. However, in a somewhat weird culmination of events, JM was there, on that field that day, in a position to use his training and skills to help keep a bad situation from becoming worse. Some would call it a coincidence. As a man of faith, I would call it something very different.

Not to mention, everyone that saw his injury remarked that it was a minor miracle that it wasn’t worse. The boy climbed up a rusty chain link fence (in cleats!) and reached over the top to the other side to try to get a grip when his foot slipped. His arm caught the sharp top of the fence. Somehow, he didn’t catch a vein. Somehow, he landed on his feet. Somehow, the muscles in his arm were intact. Somehow, he didn’t break any bones. As a man of faith, I don’t need to ponder the somehow part, I only need to marvel at it.

It’s also a matter of faith in other people. From JM all the way to the hospital and all the way to the flood of emails from other parents after the game. So much kindness and help was shown to us that day that it is overwhelming. People are good and kind and I was reminded of that on Saturday.

And I’ll always remember and be thankful for JM that day.

What does a ball hitting the bat look like?

20140427_124822His uniform seemed like a lead shroud hanging from his thin frame. His hat pulled low, concealing wet eyes. Glove tucked under his arm as he drags himself into the car. He is heartbroken.

My heart breaks for him, also. I’ve been there and it feels like there is nothing worse, not at that age.

Five at-bats. Five strike-outs.

Not even a single saving ping of a foul ball, and my poor son seemed broken.

Baseball sucks. He hates it (and he hasn’t even realized yet that I’ve doomed him to be a Mets fan).

This isn’t the “good” heartbreak that baseball dooms all her fans to.

We talk, we analyze, we get ice cream. He laughs and smiles again and plays video games with his brother.

My heart continues to twist, impaled on that metal bat he dropped in frustration. I want to let him quit…There are still ten more games.

A few days pass, we talk more. With each day, he wants to talk less about it. I feel helpless to help him. Rain pours and prevents me from trying to help him. It seems like he doesn’t want to even try anymore.

Finally, I drag him out. I tell him to set his feet as I told him, but forget everything else I told him. In talking I realize that I am too deep in his head. His coaches (all four of them) are too deep in his head. His friends running the bases are too deep in his head. His own little brother’s success in baseball is too deep in his head.

I know he hears them and they fight with his own, once confident voice.

I throw two dozen balls to him…he misses.

Every.

Single.

One.

His brother takes a turn and he hits half the balls.

We step away from the plate. We have a catch and I let him talk about his video game. I’m dying inside.

I ask if he wants to bat again. He reluctantly says “yes”.

I get a box to help him visualize his strike zone. I get a second bat and have him hit the head of it with his bat. I move it around so he can adjust his swing. He has fun with that.

I take the bucket of balls and back up 15 feet. He misses the first six.

Then I remember his analytic mind. I ask him what he thinks a ball looks like when the bat hits it. He says he doesn’t know. I tell him that we should find out.

“What does a ball hitting the bat look like?”

He hits the next one 50 feet to the driveway.

“What does a ball hitting the bat look like?”

The next ball hits my car.

He is smiling.

“What does a ball hitting the bat look like?”

The next ball almosts hits me.

I back up another 20 feet. He looks nervous again. I go back to five feet in front of him and throw a ball over the plate. He realizes the longer pitched ball is his advantage. I go back to the full distance.

“What does a ball hitting the bat look like?”

The next ball goes back into the driveway.

He hits half of the next two dozen and he is beaming. We call it quits for the night.

Next game. First at-bat. He fouls off a pitch before striking out, but clearly his swing is better.

Next at-bat.

First pitch.

His brother sits next to me, eyes closed, too nervous to watch his older brother.

He hits a slow roller up the third base line.

Safe.

It might as well have been a world series winning home run.

Inning ends with him at third and he runs over to me with a huge smile on his face. Tells me he did it. Tells me he timed the pitches from the pitching machine. Tells me how he is watching the ball hit the bat. Tells me how he isn’t thinking about hitting when he is hitting.

Home run.

Final at bat.

Foul.

Swing and miss.

Foul.

Hard fly ball to left field. Outfielder doesn’t get there.

Ben is almost dancing on first base.

Three-for-five.

Back in the car. I pull my hat low, concealing wet eyes.

Anguish and Pride on the Little League Field

April 17, 2013 Leave a comment

wpid-1331352768668.jpgI’ve had some tough times as a father in the seven plus years that I’ve been on this wild journey. There have been some emotional moments for so many different reasons. However, one of the most emotional moments happened for me this past Saturday on a baseball diamond.

I am coaching Benjamin and Matthew’s coach-pitch Little League team. Matthew probably could have used another year in tee ball, but Ben was definitely ready to move up. So, we moved Matt up as well so that I could coach both of them again. Now the rules of coach-pitch are pretty simple. Every kid gets to bat in an inning with their coach pitching to them. Each kid is suppose to get seven pitches and if they don’t get a hit, they are out. That said, the coaches have an agreement to continue pitching, as long as it is reasonable, until they get a hit.

When Matthew came up for his first at-bat, he had his silly face on, giggling at me pitching to him. His early swings were wild and all over the place, except near the ball. He eventually settled in, but still missing badly. This went on for a long time. I must have thrown him 20 or so pitches and it became clear that he was pushing too hard and I had to make the very difficult decision to call him out and send him to the bench. I believe I made the right decision. There may come a time when I need to send another kid back to the bench and I can’t do that if I am not willing to send my own son back. Plus, I could sense that he was starting to press and the other team behind me was getting restless. It was a difficult decision, but one I would do again.

Well, as he walked back to the bench and took off his helmet, I could see him trying to be tough and not cry. But he was upset. Andrea went over to him and then he started crying. My heart broke like I had never felt it before. It is a moment of such anguish for me, that even thinking about it now, I want to cry. After our half inning was over and my team took the field, I went over and hugged him as he sobbed some more, but I think I may have felt worse than him. I let him sit on the bench a little longer and Andrea gave him a little food and water, while I stood on the field with my hat pulled low on my head to hide my wet eyes. Eventually, he cheered up and came back on the field with a smile, almost like nothing had happened.

The next inning, as his at-bat approached, my nerves kicked in and I felt like I couldn’t bear it again. When he did come up, we gave him a smaller bat and he seemed more determined. The sillies were gone and he looked like he was going to do everything he could to not go back to the bench. I…I was a mess and could barely pitch to him.

Before his tenth pitch, however, he managed to hit a little roller up the third base line and he was safe at first. All the parents watching erupted in cheers and were yelling congratulations to him, while I choked back tears of joy and pride (Tom Hank’s character must have never coached his kids in baseball when he said there was no crying in “League of Their Own”). I was so happy for him and I could tell he was equally happy. After the inning was over, I gave him one of the biggest hugs I could muster without crushing his little body. He simply fixed his hat and was ready to play some more.

It is amazing with kids how such a tough moment can be suddenly turned around. And, it is amazing how our kids, even at the age of six, can be so much tougher than us.

In a footnote, the next day we practiced batting in the backyard for a while and he started hitting well. When we played our second game, he came to bat and carefully lined up his feet and was determined again. In his first at bat, he hit the 10th pitch, in his second, he hit the fifth pitch and in his third at bat, he hit the first pitch…Watch out David Wright!

Fixing Home

March 13, 2012 Leave a comment

This evening, after work, I was out playing tee ball with Benjamin and Matthew, trying to get a head start on practice for both them and me.  At one point Matthew insisted on batting without the tee, with me pitching to him.  So, I lined him up at the rubber home plate and explained where his feet needed to be in relationship to the plate. I explained that the pointy part always pointed away from the pitcher and that his back foot should be sort of inline with it.  He did well with it his first at bat and came back to the plate after Ben took his turn.  Matt started to line up his feet in a way that had him facing me straight on, with the point of the plate between his feet.  Without me saying anything, he realized something was wrong and proceeded to fix his stance…by keeping his feet in place, and turning home plate around so that they were lined up correctly in relationship to the plate.  Laughing, and instead of trying to explain it, I moved and we got everything in order.

It’s going to be a long season.

Off My Game

March 11, 2012 1 comment

Any one who is a parent knows that there are days when we just are going to be off our games.  Days when it feels like all we have is just enough energy to get through three solid meals, the bare necessity errands and a story at bedtime.  Days when the kids are basically good, but the tolerance low and they find themselves wondering why they were in trouble.  Most of today was one of those days for me, but somehow, it was salvaged in the end.

Andrea is travelling for work again and the daylight savings time change gave the entire day a weird Twilight Zone feel to it. Throw in some stuff I had to do for the kids tee ball team and near summer-like weather and I could almost hear Rod Serling’s voice narrating.  The kids are also somewhat caught in a weird place as well.  They still are stuck in Winter find-stuff-to-do-indoors mode even thought the weather is perfect.  I felt like my parents as I kept ordering them to go/stay outside while repeating, “I don’t know why you would want to stay in the house when it is beautiful outside.”

After a trip to Target and a ride to the baseball fields to pick up equipment, I did make a few half-hearted attempts to play with them outside, but when they wanted to kick a soccer ball at the baseball pitch-back and then wouldn’t leave me alone when I was trying to chop up a stump with an ax, I gave up and we all headed inside.   The next couple of hours were spent with me grumping on the couch and them playing video games and watching TV.

However, like so many things in life, the day just miraculously turned around.  A little before dinner, I decided to head out side and throw a baseball against the pitch-back and then throw pop-ups to myself.  As I was doing this, Matthew came outside and asked to play baseball.  We spent a good amount of time with me lobbing wiffle balls to him, giving him instructions and watching him solidly hit every other pitch (I am so proud).  We then went inside where we laughed over dinner.  Afterwards, we walked down to the small river by us, skipped some stones and tried to see who could make the biggest splash with rocks.  About 45 minutes after bedtime, Ben came back down complaining about not being able to sleep (because of the time change) and so, we talked about his video game as he drank some warm milk at the kitchen table.

It really was amazing how quickly the day turned.  What started out as a day I couldn’t wait to get through and forget, turned into a day that I think I will remember forever.  It’s amazing how easily that can happen and how magical it is.