No place like (our old) home

VFW - rainbow

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.

The right things at the right time

The weather was warm and sunny on Saturday and Sunday -  one obvious bright spot of this year’s Mountville 12U baseball tournament. There were other bright spots too. Okay – maybe not as many as we would have hoped for the Indians, but they were there all the same.

Admittedly, the Indians didn’t have one of their best tournaments ever. But hey, we did see some good Indian hits, defensive plays, and pitching. Right things were done at the right times – just not enough of them in the same game. This will come. 

Athletes like basketball great Kareem Adul-Jabbar’s know the importance of doing the right things at the right times. Adul-Jabbar’s career success may have looked like it came easily, from natural talent alone. But he recognized that his athletic ability was not enough. To be the best he could be, he had to be mentally focused too. “I try to do the right things at the right times,” he said. They may just be little things, but usually they make the difference between winning and losing.”

So give the Indians the high-fives and kudos they deserve for everything done well this past weekend. Take a look at the stars on their hats too. They’re good reminders of the many things the players have done well so far.

Then take heart! With encouragement, and the good coaching they get as Indians (not that I’m the least bit biased or anything), many more good things will happen this season. As the players get more game experience and learn to focus on the little things that make a difference – on doing more of the right things at the right times – they’ll gain confidence. And that, combined with the talent this team has, is a winning combination!

Long story, short

In many ways, this baseball season has been, shall we say – unique. Mid-March snow piles necessitating indoor, single-day player evaluations; countless heavy spring rainfalls and days of sub-normal temperatures resulting in an unusual number of practice cancellations and game postponements; a roster bearing not even one returning player’s name; an umpire passing out at the plate; the new tedious (but important), league-mandated recording and limiting of pitches. The all too familiar rhythm of the Indians’ baseball season has been punctuated with so many oddities that it reads like a story composed of incomplete sentences.

I wonder if the players and their families feel that same herky-jerkiness, or if to them it feels like we’re simply flipping the pages of an “interesting” season’s story.

Either way, hold onto your black and gold baseball caps, because this story is about to pick up some serious steam! In the span of a just few short weeks, the Indians are scheduled to play twelve league games – twice as many as they’ve played so far this season – thanks to the weather.

So just like a good book that you can’t put down once you really get into the heart of it, the rest of the season will suddenly fly by and then be over before you know it. Here’s hoping for an ending that leaves us all smiling because we decided to be part of this story in the first place.

More than a game

As you might imagine, I’ve been attending Mountville Indians baseball games for quite some time – long enough to even know what a suicide squeeze is; which is quite an accomplishment since I spend almost as much time people-watching at games as I do paying attention to what’s happening on the field.

At last night’s game I was in full people-watching mode, and I couldn’t help but notice lots of familiar faces among the spectators – former players, parents of former players, and yes, even grandparents of former players.

Now, I know Indians baseball games can sometimes be pretty exciting, but surely, I thought, these people must have more important things to do on a warm, spring evening. What brings them here? The kid who played two years ago, and his mom and sister; a grandpa whose grandson was on the team at least three years ago; the former player who is now a high school junior and has come back this year to help coach the Indians (his mom and little sister were there too). Then at the end of the game, the umpire strode toward me and tilted his mask up to say hello – revealing a now-adult’s face that had once been that of 12-year old Mountville Indian. There they all were, along with others just like them, reconnecting with a time and to experiences in their lives that both Bob and I hope will always hold a special place in their hearts.

You know it’s spring when…

Despite the incredible amount of snow that fell on Lancaster County this year (including the two or so inches that we got today!), spring will not be denied. She will come, at least as a date on the calendar, if not with sun-filled skies, crocus blooms, and robin songs. And I know that she’s surely here when Bob is later coming home in the evenings, and later staying up at night – doing “baseball things.”

It’s a time of year Bob and I both love. The thrill of meeting a fresh crop of kids and parents; of grooming a new team – eager, maybe a little apprehensive, always excited. Oh, the things they will learn; the places they will go. As I update the tournament schedule on the website, I’m already looking forward to the season with great anticipation. Hello spring. Let the games begin!

Star gazing

cap with stars

Each year as the season progresses, I enjoy observing glimmering configurations of small gold stars evolve into personalized and unique works of art on the Indians’ caps. Player’s jersey numbers are often the first recognizable figures to emerge. And by the time the annual team picnic rolls around at the end of the season, small constellations – arbitrary formations of stars perceived as figures or designs; a gathering of brilliant things, according to Wikipedia – miraculously have burst to life within twelve individual baseball cap galaxies. (Among the components that make up galaxies are stars, dust, and some mysterious element called “dark matter,” so I like this analogy.)

Back in the days when the season was only a twenty-something game commitment, one of my jobs as coach’s wife was to embed the stars into the players’ caps after each game. Like clockwork, players lined up to request their customized “star placements.” And I’d insert star prongs into caps, bending prong after prong after prong backwards on the inside of the caps until my fingers nearly bled.  Later, I got smart and used a thimble. I decided it was time to resign my “chief star-inserter” position when the seasons grew to sometimes upwards of fifty games. I now happily have been replaced by a much more efficient system – players’ parents! (Thank you to all of you for sacrificing your fingers and sparing mine! May I suggest thimbles?)

I’m a big fan of the stars. I like what they represent. I like the designs the kids make with them. It’s fun to watch. But I especially enjoy watching the entwined universes of each player’s skills, character, and baseball cap galaxy simultaneously grow. It’ a beautiful thing!