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.

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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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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.