I’m not one of those guys who remembers everything.
Come to think of it, that could be a bit of an occupational hazard. Many announcers seem to have an ability to recall dates, names and events with great clarity and accuracy. That’s not me, unfortunately.
I’m more of an in-the-moment kind of guy.
I stay up late. My conversations meander endlessly. Lord knows I’ve never met a stranger, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a bartender wipe down the tables and turn up the lights.
“You don’t always have to wait until the last dog is hung,” my dad used to caution me.
I’m not sure I ever knew what he meant, but it was probably good advice.
MAY 31, 1980
It rained that day in Chicago. A lot. I know that because my parents drove me there as an 8-year old kid. For some reason they also brought my brothers — aged ten and four. It was a big deal, driving 1,000 miles from our tiny western-Nebraska town to this bustling city.
Turns out my dad had designs of taking his three boys to a ball game. Maybe he’d mentioned it, I can’t remember. I was pretty distracted by my Star Wars action figures and — you know — rocks, shoelaces, candy and whatever bright, shiny thing entered my field of vision. I was the ultimate flibbertigibbet.
My dad played it cool, though. He led us through Wrigleyville and let the excitement build all around us. The rain did little to dampen the experience. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing and smelling. Loud men hawking shirts. Vendors in every direction outside the ballpark.
My dad bought us big league replica hats outside Wrigley. Since I did whatever my older brother did in those days, we got a couple of those sweet black-and-gold Pirates pillbox caps. My four-year brother liked the bird logo and chose an Orioles cap. We went inside.
The place just smelled right. Our seats were right down front. And it kept raining.
My little brother’s hat didn’t fit — even at the tightest setting. So dad pulled out his lighter and melted the plastic together in the back. Perfect.
We ate hot dogs and watched the grounds crew and asked Dad lots of questions. He wasn’t a huge baseball fan, but he knew the basics. Unfortunately for him, I wanted to know everything. When he couldn’t answer my question about the umpires having an “NL” on their hats, he went for help.
“National League,” he said. “They are umpires for National League games only.”
As far as players went, he told me to keep an eye on the big red-headed third baseman for the Phillies: “He hits a lot of homeruns.”
That’s all I needed.
Mike Schmidt blasted a ball way over the right field wall early in the game. It was a moonshot. I soaked it all up — along with a huge soda, candied nuts and who-knows-what-else — in amazement. Dad was right. It was more than a homerun, though. It got up in the wind and sailed an impossible distance.
Luke Skywalker couldn’t have hit it that far with a lightsaber!
My dad explained that it was harder for Schmidt to hit a homer the opposite way like that. He usually pulled balls to the other side of the diamond — left field — for his homeruns.
Even then, I found that insight fascinating.
Dad ran out of cigarettes about the time the Phillies were to come up again in the later stages of the game. He needed to reload. I asked if we could wait until Schmidt led off the next inning.
Poof! My life would never be the same.
We all watched in awe as Michael Jack Schmidt turned on a pitch and shot it like a bolt of lightening into the left field bleachers. A solo home run in a blowout game. Schmidt’s second of the afternoon.
Things get a little fuzzy from there. My dad bought some smokes and we floated out of Wrigley Field having enjoyed a magical day together.
No, I don’t remember everything but I’ll never forget that day.
MORE THAN A HERO
That’s the thing about baseball. It possesses the unique power to make something more than heroes out of its players — it creates mythology and legend.
My dad could have said, “Watch Dave Kingman,” or “Keep an eye on Steve Carlton.” Either would have been fine. Or Schmidt could have just as easily punched out twice and rolled into a double play.
Instead, two men made good that day.
That Mike Schmidt came through the way he did, on that specific day, is something no one can explain. I didn’t have the words to describe it then, and I’m no closer to finding them today.
It’s as if my dad conjured Hercules himself. Then, as if on cue, this red-headed Greek God (with an oddly Germanic name) slayed a nine-headed Lernaean Hydra (maybe the nicest thing anyone ever called the 1980 Cubs) with two mighty clouts. Right in front of my very eyes!
I was mesmerized — indeed, hooked — on baseball. No way to get it out of my blood now. I was going to be Mike Schmidt, or Dale Murphy, one day.
DECEMBER 12, 2011
About six months ago, I got the toughest writing assignment of my life. I had to write my dad’s obituary.
I was with him, on and off, in our tiny little Nebraska town for the last three weeks of his life. Ironically, a baseball-related obligation pulled me away for a couple days in December. I swung through Houston to check on my wife and kids as I circled back to my childhood home. I arrived the morning of December 12th. I was about 12 hours too late.
It’s okay. He lived one hell of life. For better or worse, he lived it on his terms.
To be sure, my dad and I had fairly divergent personalities, but we connected in some profound ways over the years. I’m so thankful he lived long enough to know my three boys; what a blessing.
In those last few weeks, though, we reached deeper than in all the previous 40 years. We shared some important thoughts and emotions.
We dug out a few Johnny Carson tapes. I gave him one last Jim Ignatowski impression. We drove around looking for pheasants. Sometimes we just sat in silence as dusk eased into our little valley.
We talked about baseball.
What a great and mysterious game. It connects so many of us in ways we don’t even understand. From that first game at Wrigley Field, I think my family realized what baseball meant to us. Our summer vacations began to revolve around trips to Seattle (Kingdome), New York (Yankee Stadium), Boston (Fenway) and others. My parents bought season tickets when the Rockies came to Denver.
Admittedly, I never became Dale Murphy or Mike Schmidt; my little brother ended up being the good player.
There’s only so much magic one man can rustle up.
My dad filled me with quite a spirit, though. He took risks, worked hard and trained his aim as high as humanly possible. Then, when I chased my dreams like a wild man, he was always right by my side.
There were days when I struggled to make sense of my dad. I couldn’t stand those damn cigarettes. Now I see that he and I are much more similar than I could have ever imagined.
I didn’t really want to be Mike Schmidt. I wanted to be the man who made Mike Schmidt magic.
Maybe that’s why I like guys like Jose Altuve so much. I want him to be a hero — no, legend — to some small kid listening to the radio. I want that kid to know that magic really does happen. People might call him “pequeno gigante” one day.
Or better yet, he could grow up to be like his dad.
My original vision for this blog was to examine numbers, strategies and baseball conventions. Not surprisingly, I got distracted. Without further ado, let’s commence with our first “Stats Sunday.”
• Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie hit a 2-2 pitch for his 13th homerun of the season last night in Arlington — most among all shortstops in MLB. A remarkable 10 of those HRs have come with two-strikes in the count.
Lowrie’s two-strike prowess is unmatched right now in MLB. His 10 HRs are twice as many as the next closest SS (J.J. Hardy has five) and two more than any other hitter at any position (A. Dunn, C. Granderson, D. Ortiz have eight).
What’s more, his .569 slugging percentage with two-strikes is also tops in the majors (assuming at least 25 ABs). Jerry Hairston, Jr. is the next closest “shortstop” with a .489 SLG%.
• Astros fans are likely aware that 2B Jose Altuve has the top average (.319) and most hits (82) among MLB second basemen. I bet they’d be surprised to find out that his .467 slugging percentage is second only to Yankees’ 2B Robinson Cano. Even Atlanta’s Dan Uggla (.463 SLG%) — he of 11 HRs — trails Altuve.
• If it seems like forever since Carlos Lee played in a game, it’s understandable. Last time we saw him, Lee was sporting a 1977 Astros rainbow uniform. Last night, the Astros donned their vintage 1986 unis.
Lee’s return to the lineup couldn’t come quickly enough for manager Brad Mills. In Lee’s 13-game absence, the Astros averaged 11.2 strikeouts per contest — up a whopping 51% over the first 52 games o the season. Not surprisingly, walks were down 29% over the same period (from 3.1 BB/gm to 2.2 BB/gm).
There has been some good news: scoring and homeruns are up. The Astros averaged 4.8 runs and 1.3 HRs per game without Carlos Lee. They were scoring 4.1 runs on 0.8 HRs with him.
• One last little tidbit from the Matt Cain perfect game on Wednesday. ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark used data to confirm what we believed to be true that night: Gregor Blanco’s catch behind Cain in the seventh inning was as impossible as it looked.
Stark points out: no right fielder has caught a ball hit that hard to that part of ANY park during the last three seasons. Lots of interesting stuff in the article.
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY
Hope you all enjoy a great Father’s Day. Bring some baseball along on the radio and I guarantee everyone will have fun. In the meantime, I give you a few last quotes either by or about dads:
“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed me.” —Jim Valvano
“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.” — Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
Keith Hernandez: “Really, you know my mom’s one quarter Cajun.”
“Uh, my father’s half drunk.” — Elaine Benes, Seinfeld
“Remember who you are.” — Mufasa, The Lion King
Last thing for you today.
It’s a picture of my dad — taken last summer. There he was, in the splendor of the Rocky Mountains on a gorgeous summer afternoon. I believe he had just floated some rapids with my mom and brother. Funny…I love his sly look, but I hate those damn cigarettes.