The Athlete

The First Cut is the Deepest

We’ve all heard the story by now. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team only to persevere and become a national champion at North Carolina, a 6-time world champion for the Chicago Bulls, and the undisputed king of crying memes.

In 1978, Michael Jordan was just another kid in the gym trying out
for the Emsley A. Laney High School varsity basketball team. There were 15
roster spots. Jordan—then a 15-year-old
sophomore who was only 5’10” and
could not yet dunk a basketball—did not get one.

This very true story has become every parent’s rallying cry when their child gets cut. In movie terms (and these are the only terms I understand) getting cut is like being shipped away to Shawshank Prison or to a solitary cell at Alexandre “Dumb-ass’s” Chateau d’if.

Let’s stick with the Shawshank Redemption theme. You might say that when it comes to being cut, it comes down to a simple choice, really:

“Get busy living. Or get busy [crying].”

As a little league “All-Star” coach, I had to cut kids as young as nine. Nine!?!? Sure, I handled the cutting process delicately and I challenged each player to work hard and prove me wrong next year. Like Jordan before him, one player did prove me wrong. By age 12, he finally earned the right to be called an All-Star. Sadly, other players phased out of baseball and phased into lacrosse, track, or Grand Theft Auto.

In cases where cuts lead to quitting, it’s easy to blame the coach. And as “the coach”, it was easy for me to stand on my soapbox and deflect criticism with
coach-speak replies that were more cliche-ridden than a Bon Jovi set list. Heck, I’d even extend my “You Give [Cuts] a Bad Name” anthem to friends and family members whose kids didn’t quite, well, cut it.

“Uh, [Shane], I do believe you are talking out of your ass.” 

It turns out that being a former coach with cutting privileges means you don’t know jack crap about what it’s like on the other end. When my son got cut this season, my natural response was to shape-shift into Mama Bear and shove porridge up Coach Goldilocks’s ass.

  • Your first thoughts are irrational ones: He has something against my son. It’s all political. He must know I like pineapple on my pizza.
  • Your second thoughts are equal parts constructive and destructive: Maybe I should call the coach…call the cops…send him a letter…lace it with anthrax.
  • As the blood finally recedes from your vein-bulging forehead: I’d better shred the letter…hang up the phone…put the pineapples back on my pizza…have an honest conversation with my son.

And that’s exactly what I did (the honest conversation part). And when you do that, you might find that your child won’t take “cut” for an answer. In fact, he just might look forward to proving his coach wrong.

“I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright.” 

As a former little league coach, I enjoy watching my former players ascend the ranks from middle school to high school ball. The coach in me can’t help but project their futures and grade them like stocks in my very own baseball portfolio. There are “5-toolers” and “bench-droolers”, “can’t misses” and “couldn’t hit water if they fell out of boats”. But like the 9-year-old who ultimately proved me wrong, there’s nothing that I enjoy more than a baseball redemption story. Especially when, in my humble opinion, the coach gets it wrong at first.

To me, a baseball redemption story is no less dramatic than Andy Dufresne crawling through a river of shit and coming out clean on the other side of Shawshank Prison. And like geology to Andy Dufresne, baseball redemption is a study in pressure and time. “Maybe that’s all it takes really…is pressure and time.” If you’re lucky enough, your time will come. And when your time comes, you hope to handle the pressure of that moment. Because, let’s face it, all good redemption stories come down to that one moment.

“I find I’m so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head.” 

This past week I watched two such players take full advantage of their respective times in the most pressure-filled moments of a high school baseball game. For one player, his moment was an indescribably beautiful, run-saving, full-extension, diving catch. For the other player, his moment covered three dominant, scoreless innings on the mound. What both players had in common was that they weren’t the coach’s first choice over the past couple of seasons. And it would have been understandable if either player had “vanished like a fart in the wind” after being cut and/or having to serve a commuted sentence on the varsity bench.

The redemption lesson here is that the players didn’t lose hope when their number wasn’t called at first. And, I’m pretty certain, their parents didn’t let them lose hope.

“Remember, [parents], hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

I hope that every player who was cut this year works hard to prove their coach wrong.

I hope that every coach welcomes the opportunity to be proven wrong next year.

I hope there are more baseball redemption stories to be told in the future.

I hope.

 

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Happy 50th Doc!

251415_420212768037111_1648127768_nAs a lifelong Mets fan, I always adhere to the party line when asked about my favorite baseball memory. “It’s game 6, October 25, 1986” I always lie. The truth is, my favorite baseball memory involves my all-time favorite Met in (Gasp!) Yankee pinstripes.

I was driving home from Boston, just happy to catch a baseball game on the radio. Dwight Gooden was on the mound, trying to win his first game in some 23 months. Meanwhile, Gooden’s father was watching in his hospital bed…awaiting open-heart surgery the next day.

I listened to 8 innings on my car radio before the baseball (and traffic) Gods got me home in time to catch the final 3 outs with my wife in our apartment. Dwight Gooden did more than just snap a 2-year winless streak on May 14, 1996. He pitched the grittiest, most improbable no-hitter in baseball history.

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My wife didn’t quite understand why I cried when they lifted Dwight off the field that night. Maybe because she wasn’t there with me to watch Doctor K’s meteoric rise to the top of the baseball world (he was baseball’s youngest Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and 20-game winner). She wasn’t there on those countless weekends when I’d sacrifice a night out with friends for a night in with my hero. For me, there was nothing better than watching a Dwight Gooden start. She also wasn’t there the first of many times Doc fell from grace…only to rise…and then fall again. And again.

Dwight Gooden turned 50 yesterday. And it’s easy to look back and think, “How could he have thrown it all away?” Or “He should be in Cooperstown today.” Today I’m just grateful to know that he hasn’t fallen in over 3 years. I’m also grateful that Dwight Gooden taught me something as a kid that I can only truly understand as a grown man today:

In sports, as in life, sometimes the rise is more rewarding after the fall.

Happy 50th birthday Doc! May God bless you with the strength you need to keep rising. Again.

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Happy 20th Anniversary to Cal Ripken’s 2131

251415_420212768037111_1648127768_n23 years ago I wrote a poem about a living legend who was coming off the greatest season of his illustrious career. Yet he found himself mired in a prolonged batting slump. I marveled at how fleeting fandom could be. “Doesn’t he know the streak is hurting his game?” “Shouldn’t he just take himself out of the line-up…for the good of the team?” “Put aside your personal goal Cal. The streak must stop!”

Cal’s streak didn’t stop! He persevered through a lot of physical pain and plenty of second-guessing by the pundits and the boo birds. Until on September 6th, 1995 (20 years ago today), my brother and I watched Cal achieve the unthinkable…and break a baseball record once deemed unbreakable. Oh, and blast a home run. What made this night so much sweeter (and ironic) was that a work stoppage ended the 1994 season prematurely. Baseball desperately needed a feel-good story, and it found one in its hardest “working” player.

Happy 20th Anniversary to 2131, and congratulations to Cal Ripken: one of America’s true “working-class” legends:

 

The Iron Bird

Perched on high with the baseball Gods,
The embodiment of America’s game.
The Iron Bird of Camden Yards,
Consistency his claim to fame.

Sixteen-hundred…the streak limps on…
For Baltimore’s number eight.
Flying high in pursuit of baseball’s angel,
Becoming a broken-winged bird of fate.

Proof of the wear, his graying hair,
Uncommon for a man of thirty-two.
Playing through pain the Ripken way,
A throwback to the ”Pride” in Yankee blue.

Just a typical game for Mr. Oriole,
He’s hobbled by a swollen knee.
With the winning run racing toward home,
His diving snare in the hole makes three.

It’s now his turn to break the tie,
As the boo birds rise to jeer.
His swing shoots pain through flesh and bone,
A soaring long ball brings back the cheers.

It’s time to cherish our working-class legend,
Let’s applaud all the courage he’s shown.
Because in the these troubled times of baseball,
He’s been the only constant that I’ve known.

If baseball’s a game that survives the times,
Look to Cal during this decade of doubt.
For watching him play should remind us all,
Of what baseball is really about.

On that fateful day when he leaves his perch,
There’ll be only eight men to play.
Let that vacant spot remind us once more,
That the Iron Bird played there…every day.

Shane Smith, 1992

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LITTLE LEAGUE BASEBALL: PARENTAL GUIDANCE ISN’T SUGGESTED

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“Hey dad…you wanna have a catch?”

251415_420212768037111_1648127768_nMy favorite line from my favorite baseball movie of all-time still manipulates my tear ducts every time. For me, the simplest, purest, American-dreamiest act of childhood is a baseball catch with the old man. Like leather bookends, a pair of game-weathered baseball gloves catches more than just a cowhide sphere tossed back and forth. They capture memories that span multiple generations of sons who become fathers and fathers who become little league coaches.

I was a son coached by his father. For the past seven years, a coach of my own two sons. From the beginning of my coaching days, it was hard not to wax nostalgic and think back to my own playing days. The idealist in me wanted to believe that little league baseball was nothing more than an organized version of The Sandlot. Every game would begin at the crack of dawn and end under a night sky lit by fireworks and accompanied by Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”. Best of all, in this most wonderful of baseball worlds, parents were nothing more than glorified extras who sounded an awful lot like the adult actors from the Charlie Brown TV specials.

sandlot

After seven years of coaching little league baseball, however, the realist in me knows better than to get all misty-eyed when I hear Mr. Armstrong’s heartfelt, raspy-voiced lullaby. In this coach’s opinion, what happens between the little-league foul lines is still every bit as wonderful a world as promised. But outside the foul lines, a little league field of dreams can become a nightmare for some unsuspecting players and coaches.

“I always said that the only team that I would coach
would be a team of orphans, and now here we are.”

–St. Louis Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny, in a letter to his little league parents

Mike Matheny’s letter to parents is a must-read for every coach. For little league parents, it sets the perfect tone for what a coach is trying to accomplish and what he expects from parents. “The reason for me saying this is that I have found the biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents. I think that it is best to nip this in the bud right off the bat.” Matheny continues: “…if you hand your child over to me to coach them, then let me do that job.” 

Without the benefit of Matheny’s words, I signed up to coach in Louie Armstrong’s version of little league baseball. My goals were simple: 1) Have fun and teach the game of baseball the same way my father taught me; 2) Try to be a positive influence on and off the field; 3) Play to win, but teach my players how to win and lose with class. In terms of setting expectations, I still preach a simple philosophy: Regardless of how far your future baseball career takes you, baseball is never more fun than when you’re a little-leaguer. Unless, of course, a “bad little league parent” stands in the way of the fun.

“By the time I was ten, playing baseball got to be like eating vegetables
or  taking out the garbage. So when I was fourteen I started refusing.
Can you  believe that? An American boy refusing to play catch with his father.”
–Ray Kinsella, Field of Dreams

Yes Ray Kinsella, I can believe that an American boy would refuse to play catch with his father. Especially if each backyard catch comes with a time clock, and each punch of the time card raises expectation levels. It’s these expectation levels that can burden the child with an unspoken promise to repay dad with a stellar little league career. Call it little league baseball’s “Daddy IOU.” If you think that’s a stretch, visit a neighboring town and sit anonymously in the stands during a Williamsport All-Star game. If that’s not possible, read about the ongoing survey conducted by two former coaches, Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller. They asked hundreds of college athletes to think back to their worst memory of playing youth sports. The most common response: “The ride home from games with my parents.”

Based on this response, it’s not surprising that nearly 75% of kids who play organized sports quit by the age of 13. Sure, you can argue that some quit out of necessity…as they fail to keep pace with their bigger, faster, more athletic peers. Yet so many others quit for a simpler reason. Like Ray Kinsella before them, they start playing baseball for the love of the game…and wind up playing for the acceptance of their parents. What starts out as a game played for fun ends with anxiety-inducing memories that are stitched into a child’s psyche tighter than cowhide to string.

“I know that it is going to be very hard not to coach
from the stands… but I am confident that this works in
a negative way for their development and their enjoyment.”
–St. Louis Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny, in a letter to his little league parents

Before I started coaching, I used to love it when the ESPN cameras panned the stands during a Little League World Series game. “What were all those cheering parents feeling?” I’d ask myself. Joy for their children; pride for their hometown team’s accomplishments; gratitude for their coaches? I’m sure there’s plenty of all three. But I’m also willing to bet that for every “root, root, root for the home team” cheer, there’s an email being composed about playing time. There’s a whisper about how “my son” would have made that catch. And there’s at least one parent who feels that even the biggest victory is pyrrhic if “my son” doesn’t shine.

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It’s no different when you move back to the diamonds in the rough in your own home town. Every player is dissected, each inning is revisited, and statistics are obsessed over like hanging chads. Parents record at-bats and then analyze the swings frame-by-frame like the Zapruder film. Coaches are second-guessed about batting positioning, defensive positioning, and playing time. Worst of all, unsuspecting players are often evaluated through the rose-colored (“my kid is better”) lenses of parenthood.

“I think the concept that I am asking all of you to grab is that
this experience is ALL about the boys. If there is anything
about it that includes you, we need to make a change of plans.”
–St. Louis Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny, in a letter to his little league parents

Now most baseball parents, to be fair, are well-intentioned. They simply love their children and want them to enjoy the same highs or avoid the same lows they experienced as children. Even Matheny admits: “A large part of how your child improves is your responsibility. As a parent, you can help out tremendously by playing catch, throwing batting practice, hitting ground balls, or finding an instructor who will do this in your place.” I couldn’t agree more. There’s no better way to help nurture your child’s love for the game than having that backyard catch every time he or she asks. The challenge comes when you move from the backyard to the ballpark.

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Let’s be honest. Who among us, present writer included, hasn’t been a “bad little league parent” from time to time. Have you ever argued a blown call made by a teenage umpire? Maybe. Have you ever second-guessed a coach about your child’s batting position or playing time? I’m sure you have. Heck, have I failed to show the same level of post-game enthusiasm after my son’s 0 for 4 as I have after his 4 for 4? You bet. But I’ve learned to stop myself. I’ve learned that the game should be played between the foul lines, and it should end when you step outside those lines. I’ve also learned a lot from Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller.

In the same survey from Brown and Miller, the same college athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great. What elevated their joy during and after the game? The overwhelming response: “I love to watch you play.”

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Before the Winter thaws into Spring training, drive through your hometown and slow to a crawl as you pass by your local little league field. Look passed the weathered advertising banners, the makeshift press box, and the broken-down bleachers. Just focus on the field. The field represents so much more than just the promise of next season. The field is a time capsule. It holds the memories and dreams–both fulfilled and unfulfilled–of every little leaguer who’s ever stepped inside the chalky-white foul lines.

“And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped
themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick
they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.”
–Terence Mann, Field of Dreams

Allow yourself to think back to a moment when a little league field was “the most special place in the whole world” to you. Close your eyes, listen closely, and you just might re-hear the cheers or re-feel the goose bumps from your most enduring little league memory.

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And if we all listen to the words of Ray Kinsella, Brown and Miller, Mike Matheny, and Terence Mann…maybe we won’t hear all the screams, the whispers, the second-guessing, and the berating this coming season. Maybe during each game we’ll hear the raspy-voiced lullaby of Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”.

And after the game, regardless of the outcome, maybe we’ll hear six simple words from a parent to their child:

“I love to watch you play.”

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The Sandlot: Great Expectations in Little League Baseball

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[WARNING: SHAMELESSLY EXAGGERATED, SELF-AGGRANDISING OPENING PARAGRAPH]

I was somewhat of a local legend back in the day. In the spirit of the great boys of summer who came before me, I once delighted Morristown fans to a brand of baseball that was seldom seen in these parts. A glove man of such grace, fans would pack-in the friendly confines of Burnham Park just to watch me take infield practice.  You could have charged admission and they’d still come to behold the wizard of Burnham Park turn a diamond in the rough into a field of dreams. My hands were so soft, they called me “Hoover” back then. If you already caught the vacuum analogy, please let me hose you with the rest of my hyperbole. My glove was the place where base hits went to die, and I could count the number of errors I made on my middle finger [it’s still sticking up if you’re knocking me for bragging]. And my curveball didn’t just break, it broke the hearts of opposing batters.

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If all that shameless self-praise has you ready to eject me from the blogging game, please keep in mind that I was only 12-years-old at the time. I’m allowed to boast now because my baseball career didn’t have a Roy Hobbs-like ending. I never tore the cover off the ball or shattered the stadium lights with my Savoy Special. Heck, I could hardly splatter the inner edge of the outfield grass with the 30-inch Easton Big Barrel that outweighed me. I didn’t even win a varsity letter…unless you count the endless string of Es I committed during my freshman baseball season. Burdened by expectations, I started playing less like the vacuum Hoover and more like the President Hoover. Yep, my career as a slick-fielding, weak-hitting ballplayer peaked at the age of 12. So I guess you could say I didn’t live up to people’s great expectations of me. Or maybe I simply crumbled under the weight of those expectations.

So to this day, when I reminisce about playing baseball….I’m not wearing a uniform for my high school team. I’m playing on the Burnham Park little league field where my father/coach stood outside the dugout smoking his Winston reds right down to his nicotine-stained finger nails. I’m heading up to Newburgh, NY with my 1985 Morristown National Little League state championship teammates. Or I’m in the street with a tennis ball and a makeshift stickball bat with my brother and friends. I’m nailing cars, breaking the neighbor’s window, and helping my friend to his feet because a telephone pole caught his face before his glove caught the ball. In other words, I’m playing baseball with only one expectation in mind: having fun!

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Today I coach baseball on the very same little league field where I played as a kid. And I follow my father’s Hippocratic-Oath-like first rule of baseball: “FIRST, have fun!” Believe me, this isn’t always easy. Coaching my son on the same field I played on, it’s almost impossible for me to not set high expectations for him and his teammates. I’m as competitive as the next coach, and I’m a firm believer that it’s a lot more fun to win than it is to lose. But every time I find myself getting caught up in the good plays and bad plays, the hits and the misses, or the wins and the losses…I remember my father’s golden rule of little league baseball. If that doesn’t work, I pop in The Sandlot.

“Man, this is baseball! You gotta stop thinking! Just have fun. If you were having fun, you would have caught that ball!”

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The Sandlot is youth baseball in its purest form. It’s about kids passing time playing the great American past time. No benchwarmers or All-Stars, just boys growing up with baseball in the foreground and the expectations of parents and coaches far off in the background. The kids are the players, coaches, umpires, and spectators….and they’re all having fun. Too often, I fear, kids aren’t playing baseball for fun. They’re playing to meet or exceed the expectations set by everyone but themselves. Sometimes it’s the expectations of the coach, or a parent…or as is often the case: the parent/coach like myself.

As a parent/coach to my 11-year-old son (and 6-year-old daughter), I’ve learned to not set too many expectations for a couple of reasons:

1. Expectations are probably what took the fun out of baseball for me after little league. And it’s probably why, to this day, I feel my son’s strikeouts and errors as if they were my own.
2. Expectations backfired when I named my firstborn after Cal Ripken…and he named his first love SOCCER.

So if you ever find yourself frustrated by your child’s recent slump or string of errors, try to remind yourself of the golden rule set by the greatest coach I’ve ever known: “FIRST, have fun!”

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If that doesn’t work, rent The Sandlot…or just read the tagline on the movie poster: “The Sandlot: A piece of paradise a half block wide and a whole summer long.”

Little league baseball lasts longer than a whole summer….and for most kids, it’s as close to baseball paradise as they’ll ever get. But only when expectation #1 is to first have fun.

A Mets Fan’s Guide to the Top 10 Baseball Movies of All Time

251415_420212768037111_1648127768_nMets pitchers and catchers report to camp next week. I’ve looked at their projected roster and all I can say is: “Who are these fu**in’ guys.”

If you know that movie line, you probably know where I’m heading with this. Even the eternal optimist in me can’t crystal-ball a scenario where “the worst team a Ponzi scheme can buy” will win 80 games this year. So with little hope for the 2012 Mets —and zero interest in the team playing in the House that Ruthless Built—I turn my attention to my favorite baseball movies of all-time. These are in order, and open to debate…especially from Yankee fans*:

10. The Rookie
The day after watching The Rookie with my young son, I suggested he buy one of those baseballs with the built-in radar. This way he could measure the speed of his fastball. My son was only 4 at the time. I clocked my fastball at 68 MPH. In school terms, that’s a D+. In The Rookie terms, that’s 30 MPH short of the 98 MPH fastball that a 39 year-old chemistry teacher throws. Today, like The Rookie, I’m 39-years old. I wonder how fast my fastball…err…my son’s fastball is now?

9. Moneyball
I hate math. I suck at math. I loved this movie about a general manager who uses advanced math to field a winning baseball team on a shoestring budget. Because beneath all the Bill James number-crunching, there’s an underdog story played to perfection by Brad Pitt as Billy Beane. Like “Jerry Fu**ing Maguire” before him, Billy Beane rolls the dice. He takes a chance on the fat kid from Superbad, sticks to his guns, and watches their little experiment change the game forever. To that, I say, “show me the Money[ball]!”

8. Eight Men Out
By now, everyone knows that the 1919 Black Sox threw the World Series. But most people don’t know how it was done or why it was done. Did Kennesaw Mountain Landis wrongly paint all eight with one broad brush. Was Shoeless Joe Jackson merely a victim of his own illiteracy? Did Buck Weaver commit a crime simply by NOT ratting out his teammates? This is a heartbreaking story from one of baseball’s darkest days. It’s a reminder that baseball is big business…and whenever there’s big money to be made, big-time corruption is sure to follow. Did you hear that WILPONS???

7. Soul of the Game
This little-known, made-for-HBO movie tells the story of the Negro League superstars who were not the first to cross baseball’s color line. Satchel Paige was arguably the greatest pitcher of his generation. Josh Gibson the greatest hitter. Yet it was a lesser-known Jackie Robinson who was anointed to cross the line first.

When “Linsanity” first hit a couple of weeks ago, I made the comment to my boys: “Wow, can you imagine what it must have felt like for Jeremy Lin to sit on the end of that Knicks bench every night? Knowing he was good enough to play…wondering if his Asian-born/Ivy league background was the reason he wasn’t.” Then I kicked my own ass for making the comment, rememebered Satchel’s persistence,  Gibson’s heartbreak, and Robinson’s courage. And I watched Soul of the Game with my boys.

6. The Bad News Bears
A couple of years ago, on the eve of our team’s first 9 year-old All Star game, we scheduled a team-bonding night. We built it around a classic kid’s baseball movie. Twenty minutes in, we realized our mistake. “All we got on this team are a buncha Je*s, spi**s, ni**ers, pansies, and a booger-eatin’ moron!” Bad News Bears is NOT a kid’s movie. It is, quite possibly, the most politically incorrect movie ever made. It also remains one of the most consistently, unapologetically funny movies I’ve ever seen. Oh, and there’s also “a cruddy alky for a manager!”

5. Major League
I had only been dating Helena for a few months. We were watching a Mets game. “El Sid” Fernandez was laboring on the mound [didn’t he always]…when, in a perfect Lou Brown rasp, Helena blurts out: “Get me Vaughn!” First comes “Vaughn”, then comes marriage. And after 17 years of marriage, she still watches baseball on her own Major League terms. After an anemic offensive output from the Mets: “That’s all we got, one goddamn hit?” After David Wright boots a ball at third: “Don’t give me this olé bullshit!” Major League is a major reason why my wife and I don’t only watch rom-coms together.

4. Bull Durham
“…I believe in the soul, the co*k, the pu**y, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch…I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there oughtta be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter…and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.” And I believe that if Crash Davis had heard voices in an Iowa cornfield, he’d have plowed over his corn, built a driving range, and waited for Tin Cup McAvoy to come. And I believe that’s why I like Bull Durham. It shows the funny, sexy, and sometimes “…utterly fu**ing hopeless” side of baseball.

3. The Sandlot
My baseball career peaked at the age of 12. And even though I played baseball until my senior year in high school, I don’t reminisce about wearing a uniform or hoisting a trophy. When I reminisce, I’m playing baseball in sweatpants cuffed at the knee. I’m in the back yard with my brother making permanent baseball diamond dirt-prints. I’m in the street with a tennis ball and a makeshift stickball bat with my friends. I’m nailing cars, breaking the neighbor’s window, or helping my friend to his feet because a telephone pole caught his face before his glove caught the ball. Today, backyards have perfectly manicured lawns. Dead-end streets like mine are dead quiet. Baseball fields are often empty or—GASP—have lacrosse nets where outfielders should be. That’s why I love The Sandlot.

2. The Natural
I was never a fan of comic book superheroes until my brother rented The Natural when I was 12-years old. More like The [Super] Natural, the story of Roy Hobbs still feels like a superhero origin to me. He’s the golden-haired Wonderboy with the corn-fed upbringing. He has a special power—a cannon for a left arm. His weapon of choice—a bat he carved out of a lightning-struck tree. Unfortunately, his father dies before he can warn him that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Need I go further? I will. Sixteen years after he “up and vanished like a fart in the wind”, our hero returns in nomadic Dr. David Bruce Banner fashion. He knocks the cover off baseballs, shatters stadium light bulbs, and could probably leap tall buildings in a single bound. The Natural is baseball and cinematic magic at its best…and Roy Hobbs is my favorite superhero.

1. Field of Dreams
Not only my favorite baseball movie of all-time, but my favorite movie—period. It takes a special kind of movie to send me out on a road trip to Iowa for my one-year wedding anniversary. [Relax ladies, we toured the Bridges of Madison County too. Okay, we drove through one of the bridges.] I needed to experience “the smell of the grass” and “a chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it.” I wasn’t disappointed. I only wish I could make a return trip with my father, brother, and two sons. There’s simply nothing more Apple-pie American than a boy having a catch with his father. And there’s no greater movie ending than the simple, childlike innocence of “Hey dad…you wanna have a catch?” Field of Dreams so authentically represents all that is right about the American dream and America’s game. “It’s the [movie] where dreams come true.”

NOTE TO YANKEE FANS:
Please don’t take the exclusion of Pride of the Yankees too personally. Yes, I hate the Yankees. But Gary Cooper is one of my all-time favorite actors. And yes, his “luckiest man” speech manipulates my tear-ducts just like yours. But sorry…until a Spielbergian director can digitally re-master Gary Cooper into anything that resembles a baseball player who’s actually held a bat before…I cannot rank Pride of the Yankees in my top 10.