One for the Books

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For many of us, twenty-first century life can be summed up as: WAY. TOO. BUSY. Family, work, school, lessons, games, groceries, laundry, the gym, meetings, practices —oh, and hopefully a little time set aside for eating and sleeping. Constantly being bombarded with so many first-world demands can feel suffocating. Sometimes we barely can catch a breath! Add to this technologies, gadgets and gizmos that enable and entice us to be ever-available, ever-multitasking, and it’s easy to see why we are ever-exhausted.

I don’t know about you, but every now and then, in the midst of the mania, I need to take a nano-second to just “be.” To sniff the air after a thunderstorm; listen to birds chirping at dawn; gaze at the constellations at night – watch a sun set.

I know first-hand that this isn’t something everyone is automatically wired to do. It certainly isn’t in my Indians-coach husband’s DNA. He usually can’t slow down long enough to soak in the little things I find so refreshing and inspiring. But a few weeks ago, during a particularly intense game, the most wonderfully unexpected thing happen. Time-out was called. The Indian players hurried to gather around their coach for instruction, and then – they all looked skyward where brilliant red, pink and purple streaks had been painted across the evening sky. “Take a look at that sunset,” someone heard my husband say to his team. And then just like that, it was over.

The game resumed. The other team eventually won. But the “breath-taking” time-out was forever inked in the score book.

Losing

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Last evening was a pretty rough outing for the Indians. Losses never feel good. A 20-2 loss feels lousy. It may even feel like the worst thing that could ever happen.

It’s not.

Rational people understand that losses in athletic competition are inevitable. The key thing often overlooked though is not giving disproportionate focus to or exhausting braincells on evaluating losses. They’re merely moments – single points in time from which we can learn something of value, then must quickly move on, better in some way for having had the experience.

Morgan Wooten, arguably one of the nation’s best high school basketball coaches, sums it up well. “You learn more from losing than winning.” Okay, nothing noteworthy there. Haven’t we all heard that a thousand times? But it’s the simplicity of his next words that should inspire us. “You learn how to keep going.”

The most important take-away from any loss is finding the gumption to move on!

So “keep going” Indians! Refuse to dwell on last night’s (or any) loss. Deny permission for a loss to become a defeat. Win or lose, that’s what will define you as winners of the highest caliber, whether on or off the field!

How Many Baseball Players Can Fit in the Back Seat of a Pick-up Truck?

The rear seat of Bob’s truck is equipped with only three seat belts, but somehow the four 11 to 12-year old boys squished together, the two on either end angling their bodies sideways, just enough for all of them to fit in snuggly. You gotta really like your teammates to get that close to them – especially in soggy uniforms. And it was evident that they did.

I’m not certain exactly how we ended up as hosts to these specific players – or any players for that matter – except to say that the early evening cloud burst had kicked-up so fast and furious that it was each person for him or herself when it came to grabbing the closest available umbrella or hopping into the nearest vehicle.

So as the rain pelted the vinyl covering over the truck bed, where the equipment bag and ball bucket also were taking shelter from the storm, the four Indian players entertained Bob and me with their banter, wisecracks, friendly put-downs, and quirky observations about themselves and their teammates. I showed them a few short, family videos and some photos from my smartphone, and they asked us some get-to-know-you-better kind of questions like, “Did you really have a mustache, Bob? Is that picture from when you were first married? How long have you been married? What kind of dog is Izzy? Whoa Bob, did you sink that puck through the little slot and win the $10,000 when you were on the ice between periods at the hockey game?” (Uh, no!)

They told us their funny little stories, and we told them a few of our own. You know, the kind of stuff you hear and say around the family dinner table. We laughed. And then, almost as quickly as it had begun, it was over – the rain, the banter, the questions, the laughing. The kids piled out in search of their families, who also had sought refuge in various places of convenience during the storm. And there we sat, just Bob and me, alone now with the musty smell of damp truck seats, sweaty bodies, and wet baseball uniforms.

It was the most fun I remember ever having during a rain delay (which eventually turned into a postponement).

Keeping Our Heads Safely in the Game

Here’s the million dollar question: “Why don’t pitchers – especially at youth levels of play – have to wear protective headgear, but batters at all levels do – even to run bases? This, at a time when youth bats are bigger, lighter, and more powerful than ever. Not to mention that, due to realignments of age requirements, bigger players often are playing on fields where distances have not been adjusted to compensate for the increased power of these bigger bats and these bigger kids.

A recent Facebook post showing a Mountville Indians pitcher wearing protective headgear, prompted one fan to ask, “What kind of helmets do pitchers wear now?” Unfortunately, the answer is – none. The big question is – why not?

Rewind to 2011, when an Indians pitcher was hit in the temple by a line drive. (He subsequently was hospitalized, but fully recovered.) Because of this frightening incident, the Indians coaching staff, out of concern for the safety of their players, researched protective headgear options that would help safeguard future Indian pitchers from similar head injuries. There was only one available at that time, but it was not yet in production. However, the Indians players were afforded the unique opportunity to test a prototype of this gear and then provided feedback to the manufacturer, with the hopes that the protective headgear soon would be commercially available. For reasons unknown, the product never went to market, so Indians pitchers have been wearing that same prototype of the headgear ever since. Not surprisingly, it is now showing significant wear.

To date, there’s been no regulation adopted at any level that says a pitcher’s head must be protected, so what motivation do manufacturers have to develop anything? What will it take? Former MLB Padres pitcher, Chris Young, who was hit by a line drive in 2008, says unfortunately (speaking about the MLB level), it may take a pitcher losing his life. (http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/10363291/pitchers-protective-caps-approved-major-league-baseball)

Strange. Especially when you consider that in recent years other measures have been implemented by various baseball organizations to make youth baseball safer: requirements that coaches must wear helmets when coaching bases, longer wait times before play can resume after thunder is heard, pitch counts to protect young arms. It’s not that these changes are not good ones, but what about also protecting young pitchers’ heads from the unlikely but potentially catastrophic consequences of being beaned in the noggin by a line drive?

Parents of Indians players are cautioned that it’s not known whether or not the prototype protective headgear worn by our pitchers actually would prevent such an injury. Let’s hope we never find out. One thing is certain though – when our coaches’ heads are surrounded by their pillows each night, they rest easier knowing something also surrounds the heads of their young pitchers when they’re on the mound.

Catchers – The Unsung (super) Heros

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No baseball pitcher would be worth a darn without a catcher who could handle the hot fastball. ~Casey Stengel

I’m intrigued by baseball catchers. They are often the unsung heroes of a game,“stolidly going about their duties without attracting much attention.” [*Peter Morris, Catcher: The Evolution of an American Folk Hero]  And I’ve noticed that this catching stuff is really one tough job – not a job for just any hero, but a SUPER hero!

Crouching in an inherently unnatural and uncomfortable position for long stretches of time, relaying pitches and adjusting to whatever comes across the plate, framing and blocking pitches, popping up quickly, making lightning-speed, on-the-money throws – let’s face it, without these “super” powers behind the plate, even the best pitcher could come-off looking like a bad Robin for Batman.

And then, of course, there’s the little detail of equipment, the so-called “tools of ignorance.” A glove, mask, chest protector, and shin guards — arguably a disguise fit for a superhero (sans cape, of course). According to baseball-reference.com, “The term, tools of ignorance, was meant to be ironic, contrasting the intelligence needed by a catcher to handle the duties of the position, with the foolishness needed to play a position hazardous enough to require so much protective equipment.” Yep, sounds like a super hero to me.

In his book*, Peter Morris also reveals that “In baseball’s early days, catchers stood a safe distance in back of the batter. Then the introduction of the curveball in the 1870s led them to move up directly behind home plate, even though they still wore no gloves or protective equipment. Extraordinary courage became the catcher’s most notable requirement, but the new positioning also demanded that the catcher have lightning-fast reflexes, great hands, and a cannon for a throwing arm. With so great a range of needed skills, a special mystique came to surround the position, and it began to seem that a good catcher could single-handedly make the difference between winning and losing.”

So this is why I am in awe of catchers. I admire the confidence and guts it takes to silence an archenemy’s weapons, coupled with the humility all superheroes possess to quietly change back into being just another ordinary, everyday kind of guy (or gal) at the end of the battle.

No place like (our old) home

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Our league season officially begins tomorrow, with one little wrinkle. Home field. It won’t be at the same place it’s been for most of the Indian’s storied past. I think I miss it already.

Many former Indian players and their families have expressed disappointment in this change. I’m not surprised. Even though the parking situation was less than ideal, and foul balls regularly bounced into the adjacent alley, these, and many other quirky characteristics about the VFW field, are the very things that made it feel strangely special to us.

There was something endearing about the freight trains lumbering by, their engines droning so low and loud that play sometimes would be suspended because a person couldn’t hear her/himself think. The horses grazing in the meadow beyond the tracks, the house on the hill just over the left field fence where many home run balls left their marks, the grass infield, and the stands so close to the backstop that even an umpire with bad hearing could hear fans grumble. This is a baseball field? Yes. And oh, how we’ll miss it!

What is it about “place” that’s so important to us, no matter how imperfect that place may be? According to Ed McMahon,  a nationally renowned authority on sustainable development, land conservation and urban design, “A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics – visual, cultural, social, and environmental – that provide meaning to a location.”

That pretty much sums up the place we once called our home field, and helps explain why it will always be dear to our hearts.

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This year, all Mountville Indian home games will be held at FROELICH PARK (at the Mountville Pool) instead of at the Mountville VFW field as in past years.

When words fail us

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I love words. But this week, I’ve been profoundly reminded how inadequate Webster’s attempt is in defining some words. Loss, sorrow, family – these words are visceral. You “feel” them in your gut. This week my gut has been aching from digesting the weight of these words.

Frank Buchwalder, the father of two recent Indian players, kept score for our team, decorated the team’s Cooperstown-bound cars (to the envy of all other teams); sketched hilarious cartoons of game absurdities (one the team adopted for a t-shirt design); designed Indians’ Cooperstown trading pins. Dedicated, creative, witty – these words barely scratch the surface in describing Frank’s character and talent.

Frank was family – Indian baseball, Mountville Youth Association (MYAA), and Mountville community family. Now he is suddenly gone. And words fail us. “Loss,” “sorrow,” these seem like random combinations of letters on a page, trying in vein to express the lived experience.

There are no words we can say to his loving wife Michelle and his two young sons, Nick and Ryan, that will take away their pain, tell them how sorry we are for their loss, express our own sorrow.

So, we will “do.” We will hug. We will cry with them, and for them. We will stand by them and support them the very best we can. Because that’s what families do.

Rest in Peace Frank.

A new game every day

I am sad. The Indians’ season is officially over, barring one remaining tradition — the annual team picnic. Every year, I’m surprised by the swell of emotion I feel, though short lived, as the Indians exit the field after their final game at Cooperstown.

At the beginning of the season, this moment seems too distant to even think about. Then suddenly, “boom,” it’s here, and I feel almost caught off-guard by something I knew all along was coming. And I wonder, “Did I squeeze every ounce of goodness out of this time?”

Did I appreciate people, behave like a respectful fan, get to know the team families well enough, pay attention at the games, praise the players and support the coaches? What opportunities did I miss? I wonder if I ever will learn to be so totally present in each moment that I will never have to ask these questions.

Since my cancer diagnosis last year, I’ve tried to live more intentionally; drinking it all in, soaking it all up — every minute, every day — as best I can. Some days I am better at this than others.

When I mess up, as I am prone to do, I find hope and grace in something Cleveland Indians pitcher, Bob Feller, who passed away in 2010, once said. “Every day is a new opportunity. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day, and that’s the way baseball is.”

Face value

It’s come – the line of demarcation in the season when I finally know all the players’ names and can correctly match-up each player with his family. I’m still working on pairing all parents with their first names though. But by the time the team travels to Cooperstown in July, I usually have this down too.

I’m mystified why it takes me so long to master this each year. Faces – I never forget. Names? Well, that’s a different story. I guess I’m a visual learner. That’s the best excuse I can come up with. But I really do believe that names are important. And I honestly want to – and try to – remember them. But in all these years, I just haven’t found the one trick that works best for me.

So Indian players and parents – past, present, and future – if I accidentally call you by the wrong name, I hope you will understand. And I want you also to know that, while I may forget your name, I will never forget YOU. The hundreds of people who have come into Bob’s and my life by way of the Indians have been an integral and important part of our lives. Collectively you have enriched our lives in countless ways. And though names may sometimes escape me, the many fond memories you have created for our family are a lasting treasure.

Ask not what your players must do for you; ask what you must do for your players

Bob loves coaching at third base. He tells me he feels he “earns his keep” there. But third base is pretty far from home – sometimes too far as it turns out. At this weekend’s tournament, the Indians seemed to gain a competitive edge by having their head coach stay a little closer to “home” – right there in the dugout with them.

It was enjoyable to see Bob and the players interact this closely – play after play (and also before plays). And it seemed to pay dividends.

It’s often said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. After an opening game loss that didn’t showcase the team’s full potential, the coaches knew changes needed to be made if the Indians were to have a successful tournament. But rather than just look at what the kids needed to do differently (what the coaches needed from the players), they also considered what THEY could do differently (what the players needed from their coaches).

So it was that Bob ended up in the dugout for the next four games (which we won!) – engaging the kids in conversation about the game and about situations, giving them more constant and direct guidance and encouragement than he is able to do at third base.

For now, this strategy seems to be effective. But you can be sure if it ever looks like it has stopped working, the Indian coaches will put their heads together once again and come up with some other idea – rather than keep on doing the same old thing over and over again, hoping for different results.