Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What It Means To Me

I don’t have a bucket list, but boy if I did, attending a Kansas City Royals World Series game with my son, Scott, age 29, would be on it. That will happen tomorrow. Scott sent me this message in an email and was kind enough to allow me to share it here. --MM

I don’t remember my first Royals game, I’m sure my dad dressed me in some ridiculous baby onesie and held me up in the air when the Royals scored. I know he probably hollered at Danny Tartabull and probably covered my ears because he can really yell.

The first Royals game I remember was in 1993. Mike MacFarlane was catching, Wally Joyner at 1st, Jose Lind at 2nd, George Brett was on that team. Gary Gaetti at 3rd. Gaetti looked like a large rat but hit a lot of home runs.

I remember these players because I fell for baseball that day. Months and years later, I still pored over the program from that game. In a sick twist of fate probably orchestrated by my father, the Royals gave out white plastic Royals baseball card cases with 5 or so Royals baseball cards inside. 

I was hooked. 

Scott at 8 (and Tigger.)
I started to pack my brain with facts about baseball statistics. Within my 8th year I could name the 25 man rosters of every MLB team. I would sit in front of a yellow legal pad at my dad’s kitchen table and draw the 9-man defensive line-ups of each team.

My dad fed this passion, watered it and tended it like a careful gardener because after all the passion was his first. He would buy two packs of baseball cards for me every weekend. I opened those packs hoping for Juan Gonzalez and usually getting David Howard but I loved them all anyway. I memorized those cards. 

I watched as George Brett retired and Bob Hamelin and Carlos Beltran won Rookie of the Year. I watched as Jose Rosado blew out his shoulder and Johnny Damon moved on. I waited patiently through Bob Boone, Tony Muser, Tony Pena, Trey Hillman.

I watched as Mike Sweeney tried to play through a bad back. I watched and waited when new management would promise a return to a history that I knew about from Baseball Reference and the Baseball Almanac and countless trips through the Royals Hall of Fame. I waited. 

Every spring my dad and I would play around with the idea of flying to Arizona to catch some rays and watch the hopefuls move through drills and afternoon doubleheaders. We’d talk about the rotation and who looked good and what we needed to field a contender. I listened to Denny on the radio, and watched Paul Splitorff on TV, and read Joe Posnanski and hope sprung eternal until it didn’t.

I think at some point in the last ten years I surpassed my dad in terms of cynicism. There was something revelatory in rooting for a team that was so bad. So there I was, a Royals fan who didn’t believe, a Royals fan who knew that a team without home runs and walks, a team that was married so deeply to old-school bullpen usage had no hope against the smarter, richer teams and that I was destined to continue to root for the team with its head in the sand.

My dad would talk about hope and I’d scoff pointing to fWAR and our Pythagorean win expectancy, he nodded knowing that I just hadn’t seen it happen yet.

In August, Alex Gordon started hitting home runs to win games. Yordano Ventura was throwing harder than anyone else. Wade Davis struck everyone out. No one could hit a ball that would land in our outfield and I started to believe that there was something different.

As a young sabermetrics follower I had turned baseball into a series of probabilities and formulas to help understand what was happening and to predict outcomes, but somewhere along the way I forgot that it was the magic that made me love the game. It was the improbabilities.

Then it happened. 

Josh Willingham dunked a ball into no-man’s land. I yelled. I screamed for Jarrod Dyson to come in and he popped out of the dugout looking so confident. I pleaded for him to steal and then he flew into third and he was safe. When he scored and the game was tied I had seen a team do the impossible. Win. They won. They came back and showed me that 'wins probability' is a thing but the magic of this game is when hearts decide to win and young men put everything they have into it and something mystical that excites so many and unites us as fans.

I love baseball, and I love the Kansas City Royals. Magic happens and grown men cry and there is joy that tingles throughout your entire body. The Kansas City Royals are in the World Series. 

Thank you, Dad.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Scuzzy Penny Loafers

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” 
                                                            -Rick Blaine, Casablanca 

OK, she was actually there first. So technically speaking, I walked into hers. And it wasn’t a gin joint so much as it was a restaurant.

I’m slated to meet a friend and colleague in Topeka at 12:30 p.m. before a joint 1:30 p.m. appointment down the street. He’s coming from Wichita, me from Manhattan. I get there about 12:20 and as the hostess is showing me to my table, I notice a colleague of my wife’s sitting with a group.

“Hi Katie,” I wave with a smile.

Then I notice another. “Hey Susan.” More smiles.

And a third. “Hi Greg.” More waves.

They’re all looking at me kind of strange, as though my button-down collar is unbuttoned or something.

I takes me a few seconds before I realize whuddup and recognize another of their number. It’s my wife, her back to me, at the same table. I’m standing right next to where she’s seated.

If ever a moment called for some witty repartee, this was it. (BTW, do you ever see the word, “repartee” unless it’s preceded by the word, “witty?”)

“Hey, it’s my wife,” I say to the assembled group. “Imagine meeting you here!”

(Sorry, it was the best I could do on the fly – in the moment. I’ll do better next time.)

It says something, though I’m not altogether certain exactly what, that completely unbeknownst to each other, my wife and I wind up:

a. In the same city, 56.9 miles away from Manhattan.

b. In the same restaurant.

c. On the same day.

d. At the exact same time.

After the pleasantries are exchanged and the poor excuse for witty repartee (see?) offered, Jackie says to me, “You’re prolly gonna have a salad, right?”

(Lately we’ve been tryna help each other modulate... or at least temper... the caloric intake.) 

“Prolly.”

We used to have a general sense of each other’s comings and goings through shared calendars, but Google keeps changing the rules and I can’t keep up. Or maybe I'm just prioritizing what to care about.

We could also talk to each other on the phone, text, read each other’s minds or I could pull off to the side of the Interstate, rustle up some wood, pound a couplachunks o' flint together (Flint Hills,) start a fire and communicate via smoke signals. But not today. My penny loafers mighta gotten all scuffed up. And I prefer to leave a good impression.

“Dude, what happened to your shoes?”

“Well, Google calendar went south...”

A lot of husbands and wives engage in verbal exchanges in the morning about their pending days. We normally do this when we walk the dogs at 6 a.m., but not today, since I didn’t get up until 6:15 a.m. and made a unilateral, executive, husband decision to let sleeping wives sleep until 7 a.m. Then it was hustle, bustle, haveagreatday, loveyababe, seeyatonight and out the door.

When you think about the work we do and the circles in which we run, when you factor in our respective statewide venues, it’s really surprising this kinda thing doesn’t happen more often. I am all the time running into friends in coffee shops and restaurants in Wichita, Topeka, Johnson County, Lawrence, Salina, et al.

Today, my charming bride. In Topeka.

And I had a cup of soup (165 calories, dear.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Greatest Baseball Game Ever Played

“You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” 

                                                                                                  -Jim Bouton, Ball Four

A 29-year old second-year medical resident texted me that quote from Denver just a few minutes before the end of the greatest baseball game ever played. The young man bleeds powder blue and I blame myself. My son, Scott, was a babe in arms, a mere eight months old when Bret Saberhagen and George Brett embraced on the mound.

Jackie I and share Royals season tickets with friends. Last night, our seats were right next to the Royals bullpen.


Hat on, hood up. Glove on.
Danny Duffy spent the entire game in a brand new MLB-marketing driven hoodie emblazoned with “Always October.” Hat on, hood up. Glove on.

A little kid, prolly 9 or 10 years old, sat in front of us. Between innings, he’d make his way over to the fence and gaze down on his heroes. After his third or fourth trip over there, Duffy picks up a baseball and chucks it up to the kid. He turns around beaming, with wide eyes and shows it to his father, who encourages his son to “tell him ‘thank you.’” 

Gripping his new treasure, the kid runs back to the fence and yells, “THANK YOU!” Duffy gives him a smile and a thumbs-up. 

That’s how it starts.

Four months ago, Brandon Finnegan was pounding down the ramen noodles and cutting Sociology class at Texas Christian. Now, at 21, he brings the stinky cheese and mows down big league hitters in the playoffs.

A World Cup-inspired rhythmic chant cascades throughout Kauffman Stadium as the Royals come to bat in the bottom of the 12th. 

“I be-lieve that we-will-win... I be-lieve that we-will-win... I be-lieve that we-will-win.” 

I thought of Jackie, who shares George Brett’s birthdate and like most 40-something females in the Great Plains, grew up admiring his hustle, his passion for the game and his biceps. If you think I love Royals baseball, please allow me to introduce you to my wife.

The next Best Catcher In The Game who has recently looked like anything but, scalds a breaking ball down the left field line.

Directly in front of us.

We’re going b-a-n-a-n-a-s with 40,500 of our closest friends.

I thought of Scott and all those games we went to in the ‘90s and the First Decade of the 21st Century That No One Has Yet To Develop An Effective Shorthand For.

Where have you gone, Danny Tartabull?

Christian Colon, whose name means ‘dove,’ flies around third and wins the game.

That bears repeating. 

Wins the game.

Tears are flowing. 

I thought of me and Willie Mays.

Friday night, August 2, 1968. I’m the same age as the kid Duffy tossed a ball to. Candlestick Park, San Francisco. Mays hits a home run and the Giants lose to the Bucs, 3-1. The Kansas City Royals were born eight months later and I was in their grip.

The narrative is set. The Hunt for Blue October. Take the Crown. 

29 years in the desert. We’re the darling, the underdog, the nation’s new fav.

We won a five-hour game that mattered. It started in September and ended in October. These guys, this team, this game, it just swallows your heart. I am in its grip and today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

In Harm's Way

“Man, my PTSD’s really affecting me hard today.”

He said it three times in the space and time it took to cut an 8-foot 2-by-4 into four very specifically-sized lengths for a backyard fence gate repair project. Operating a high speed table saw in the chaos that is Saturday morning at a big box home improvement store is stressful. Before you even get to the PTSD.

Add to this milieu dozens of kids and their parents/grandparents perched on upside-down orange buckets hunched over a makeshift plywood worktable, cacophonously hammering away. Bring the kids in to build a birdhouse and maybe Mom and Dad’ll buy a gallon of paint on the way out.

Manhattan, Kansas is a college town, but it’s also an Army town. Our community is just a Flint Hill range away from Fort Riley, home of the First Infantry Division. ‘Infantry’ is just what the word implies: face-to-face, tip of the spear, at the front. 

In the thirteen years since 9/11, thousands from the Big Red One have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, experienced terrifying events and made their way back. Many stay after their hitch and get jobs cutting 2-by-4’s. 

He’s measured and marked the 2-by-4 but can’t get the table saw to work. Eventually it will take his supervisor and then her supervisor huddling, pushing buttons and jiggling cords to achieve the desired objective. Then something went awry in the actual cutting process and the lengths are off by a half-inch.

I’m no head shrinker, but I know Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event. Add layers of noise, helplessness, frustration, a table saw and you can only imagine how this poor guy is feeling.
 
“Were you in the Army?” He asked me after his second PTSD mention. It was not a ‘then how the hell do you know how I’m feeling?’ question. It was more of a ‘if you’ve walked a mile in my combat boots, then maybe you can understand.’ 

“No, I wasn’t. Have some friends who served.” Seemed like he wanted more from me. Empathy is intuitive, but it’s also something I can work on intellectually and spiritually. 

As a species, I am optimistic we will eventually evolve to a point where we need no longer ask the youngest and strongest among us to sacrifice their health, well-being and in far too many cases, their lives.

God didn’t ask us to organize in nations and religions. We humans did that.

That evolution surely won’t take place in whatever time I have left. Now the template’s pretty clear. If there’s a threat to security – existential or otherwise – young people will be sent in harm’s way. They will experience terrifying events. The kind of things those of us who fill our weekends with ballgames and backyard fence gate repairs can’t even begin to fathom.

Was my guy’s thrice-mentioned PTSD suffering a cry for help? To a middle age precipice-approaching total stranger? Maybe a realization he understands his condition, knows how it manifests itself – to telegraph to me that we’ll get this 2-by-4 sliced up right, but it may take a while? 

If it was the former, did I do enough? In the moment, I did what I could. Thanked him for his help, his service and encouraged him to have a good rest of the day.

Then I went home, fixed my back yard fence gate and vowed to do more. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

My Watergate Lesson

“PEOPLE, YOU ARE LIVING IN HISTORY... RIGHT NOW!”

John Delbertson’s* voice thundered through the classroom at Wichita Heights High. U.S. History was a requirement for high school juniors. Talk of subpoenaed tapes, non-denial denials and executive privilege was in the air and in the lessons learned in the spring of 1974. 

Like all good teachers, Delbertson had a little ham in him. He wore longish hair, a beard, no necktie and positioned himself on the banks of the faculty mainstream. He’d read the daily school announcement sheet as though he was Olivier on stage.

IT SAYS HERE...” looking over his glasses, holding the piece of paper at arm’s length, “... that effective IMMEDIATELY, meetings of the Chess Club will be moved from the floor of the Commons Area to the cafeteria.”

As an editorial aside, and as a valuable lesson in human motivation, our history teacher would interpret the story behind the story.

“If you play chess on the floor, you’ll get stepped on. When you get stepped on, you get angry. Anger leads to violence. Ergo... ipso facto... THERE’LL BE NO chess played on the floor of the Commons Area. The Man solves another problem! CHECKMATE!

The highlight of his daily shtick involved a dramatic unfolding of the stapler, making his way across the classroom to a floor-to-ceiling cork bulletin board and haphazardly pounding today’s sheet atop yesterday’s. By the springtime, the cumulative accumulation (is that repetitive... or at the very least, redundant?) was impressive.

As the school year progressed, a sense of inevitability hovered near the surface. What would fall first – the announcement sheets or the President of the United States? On the last day of school in May 1974, our U.S. History teacher encouraged us to pay attention as history unfolds over the summer. 

That fall as seniors, we matriculated to a mandated semester of American Government, taught by Adam Patrick.* By now Richard Nixon had fallen, and Delbertson had started a new school announcement paper buildup with a new junior class.
 
Patrick assigned us to split up, organize, caucus and vote. The girls huddled quickly, calling themselves the “Ms. Magnum” Party, as if to drive home their motivation (It was 1975, after all.)

I urged my chums not to take the bait and instead carve out our own political niche, reflective of the values and traditions we held deeply as strapping young red-blooded American males. Deep-sixing our first name suggestion, “Keg” Party, consensus emerged rapidly around the less authority-threatening, more family and voter-friendly “Birthday” Party.

In the elections, the Ms. Magnum Party kicked our strapping young red-blooded American male hindquarters. Their victories were assured when a handful of erstwhile Birthday Party loyalists jumped ship and voted for the girls.

Some of us had agendas beyond mere classroom politics, thank you very much.

On August 9, 1974, the day Nixon resigned, I went to work, bussing linguine-encrusted plates off tables at Angelo’s Italian restaurant. I was saving to buy a car.

As a high school kid focused on sensory and material pursuits, U.S. History and American Government were forced in front of me an hour a day for a year-and-a-half during Watergate.

In time, I would enjoy professional success as a political journalist and later as an aide to the Governor of my home state. As I ease my way down into the precipice of middle age, I find myself grateful to have experienced teachers, who, forty years ago, recognized the power of current events as teachable moments. 

One man resigned the Presidency of the United States and the nation survived. A pathway  was introduced to a teenager.

The system works. 
___________ 

* Not their real names. If they were to write a blog about me, I'd appreciate a courtesy 'heads-up' and I've neither the time nor the inclination to track 'em down (goes to motivation, your honor.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Second Reaction

We’ve just taken two from the White Sox in Chicago. We’re back to .500 for the fourth or fifth time this season. We’ve won 50 games and lost 50. That leaves 62 games in the season. If we win ‘em all, we’ll finish 112-50. If we lose ‘em all, that’ll put us at 50-112.  

“We” are the Kansas City Royals and this was supposed to be the year. If the current trend holds, it will not be the year after all, though we’ll likely remain mathematically alive through Labor Day-ish.

The numbers can add up. It’s mathematically conceivable. It is within the realm of possibility that the exact combination of Royals victories, Detroit and Cleveland losses could propel Kansas City into the playoffs for the first time since winning it all in 1985.

The chances are slim.

It’d be easy for me to default to cynicism. A snarky Royals blogger says if the Mariners offer the Royals “a bucket of baseballs” in a trade for Billy Butler, we should jump at the deal. My first reaction is, “Yes!” With extreme prejudice.

My first reaction is these guys get paid millions to play a game, so earn it already. Which, in its own incendiary way, only sharpens the cynicism.

As the precipice of middle age draws nearer, I’ve come to appreciate that my first reaction is very often flat wrong.

My second reaction is to think of Billy Butler, the human being.

In the second reaction, I imagine his offensive struggles this year are taking an emotional toll. The man has one job. Hit the baseball. Everyone on his team and in the stadium expect him to do that one thing. How badly must he feel when he doesn’t?

I think of Butler’s father, who accompanied his son with other players’ dads on a Father’s Day road trip to Chicago and Detroit.

During a TV interview, you came away with just exactly how much the man loves his son. Pride, sympathy, wanting to do nothing more than crawl inside his son’s psyche and take the pain and hurt away.

But he can’t.

In the second reaction, reality emerges.

Billy Butler is my guy. Mike Moustakas, Nori Aoki and Brett Hayes are my guys. Just like Bobby “The Hammer” Hamelin was my guy in 1995 when he struggled after winning Rookie of the Year in ’94.

Just like Mark Davis was my guy when he couldn’t find the plate in 1990 after his ‘89 Cy Young Award season.

Just like all the underachievers, all the guys who have donned the Royal blue and white since 1969, striving to fulfill their potential.

Every Kansas City Royal desperately seeking the Mendoza Line.

In the second reaction, I am thankful to have a big league ballclub in the area and I am loyal to the guys on my team, regardless.

Guys with fathers, mothers, wives and children who love them. Guys who have good years. Guys who have miserable years.
 

The second reaction allows room for a little grace.