Perfect game

perfect-gameJayson was on the verge of an epic accomplishment. His team had overcome enormous odds. The shelves of the trophy cabinet outside the principal’s office were collecting dust. Now, the Titans were an out away from a state championship and that coveted first trophy.

Jayson toed the rubber. He shouldn’t have been pitching this game. He was a reliever, responsible for filling innings when their team was woefully behind. He had become a regular contributor, before this improbable season. With their ace pitcher twisting an ankle just minutes before the first pitch, Jayson was given the impromptu start.

It was agonizing. Each inning, Jayson had thrown up a seemingly endless supply of donuts. No runs, no hits, nothing. How long could his mediocre pitcher defy the odds? Everyone could sense the coach’s thoughts. He kept doubling down, and that’s how Jayson arrived at a different form of the baker’s dozen, twice over, twenty-six consecutive outs.

The single blemish was the batter he just pelted. Up by one run, a single out would earn Jayson a championship and a no-hitter, a holy grail for pitchers at any level.

Jayson saw Chloe in the bleachers. He’d always been smitten with her, but she was out of his league. He knew she’d come to watch Troy smack homers. Everyone did. Focus. Jayson exhaled before beginning his windup.

It took under a second for Jayson’s pitch to reach home plate, and even shorter to realize the consequences of his concentration lapse, the bat launching his offering over the fence. A perfect game had already eluded Jayson. Gone now was the no-hitter and the championship.

Jayson looked around, convincing himself this wasn’t real, that he hadn’t made that fateful pitch. The opposing team hoisting the trophy reaffirmed the reality of his nightmare. Chloe was walking towards the dugout, probably to console Troy. Jayson could see her make a mark on the dugout pole before strolling out to him still on the mound.

“Hey.” Smiling with empathy, Chloe leaned over and pecked Jayson on the cheek.

Spinning in an emotional maelstrom, Jayson was unable to grasp anything, so he returned to the last thing he remembered. “What did you do? On that post?”

Chloe blushed. “I made a mark, for every game I’ve come to watch you.”

“Me? I thought …” Honestly, Jayson wasn’t sure what he thought.

“I was waiting to see how long it would take for you to ask me out. I decided next season is too far away. How about some pizza?”

She stood on her tiptoes, removed Jayson’s cap, and slipped her ponytail through it as she nestled it on her head. With fingers intertwined, Chloe led them to a quiet table away from the celebration, two slices of pizza creating a small slice of heaven.

Numbers don’t lie. Jayson had lost his chance at baseball perfection. The once in a lifetime opportunity sitting across from him right now, however, reminded him this particular game couldn’t have ended any more perfectly.

Little things

chess-board“Joey, two steps to the left.” Cupping both hands around his mouth, Aaron bellowed to his right fielder, “Jack, take a few steps back.” Like pawns on a chess board, Aaron directed players to different positions on the baseball diamond. The left handed batter stepping up to the plate had not hit a ball to the left side all day. It was all about probabilities and percentages. The group of nine and ten year old boys kicking dirt and smacking fists into their gloves had overcome extreme odds to arrive in the little league championship game. Aaron wanted to do everything in his power to lead the team on the final step of their journey.

With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and up by one run, there were runners on second and third base. The batter at the plate was not the most fearsome hitter on the opposing team, but he was not to be taken lightly, and Aaron knew that.

As the batter stepped into the box, waggling his bat in the area of the strike zone he envisioned the ball arriving, the umpire behind the plate pointed towards the pitcher’s mound as if to say, “Your move.”

Aaron was never a chess player, but he couldn’t help but feel there were so many parallels between it and the game of baseball. He suspected that these conclusions could probably be drawn between many seemingly unrelated things in life when we chose to scrutinize them a bit more closely.

“Strike two!” Aaron had a way of slipping into a daydream state from time to time. It was both a blessing and curse, depending upon the situation. Coming back to the present situation on the field, he realized that the umpire’s call meant that his team was one strike away from hoisting the trophy sitting behind home plate. It was a little league championship game comprised of just eight teams, all playing within a ten mile radius of each other. To these boys, however, this game may as well have been the World Series.

A nervous habit adopted from his childhood days, Aaron adjusted the position of his cap and called out some final words of encouragement to his pitcher, “Here we go Jimmy, straight and true.” It was a mental reminder he had established with the ten year old over the course of the season – to empty his mind and let his arm release the ball straight and true, like an arrow.

Jimmy’s abbreviated windup had the ball traveling forward, four seams spinning in slow motion as the ball approached home plate. Desiring to hear a thump in the back of the catcher’s mitt, everyone in the stands instead heard the distinctive ping of aluminum bat meeting ball. The backspin imparted on the ball launched it airborne in the direction of right field.

Aaron could tell immediately that his decision to move Jack, his right fielder, back a few paces was the right decision. He didn’t need to move an inch. He was positioned in the perfect location to record the final out. He was one catch away from being the hero. He had shagged fly balls much more difficult than this countless times before. As the ball hit the leather in his glove, Jack squeezed tight feeling the security of the baseball in the back of his glove.

baseball-on-groundThe feeling of triumph was overwhelming. They had done it. They were victorious. They were champions. And as though some surreal and cruel warping of time had occurred, Jack realized that the final words of this heroic ending had not yet been written. The ball, hitting the fleshy part of his palm ricocheted into the webbing and out of the top of his glove. As he watched the ball, almost in slow motion, fall to the ground, he could simultaneously see the runner from second base cross home plate.

The celebration Jack had envisioned was taking place right before his eyes – for the opposing team. Staring at the ball laying on the ground, Jack pulled his cap over his eyes and hung his head. He wanted to climb into the gopher hole on the other side of the right field fence and disappear. With the rest of the team dejectedly trudging back to the dugout, Jack remained in right field, embarrassed and heartbroken.

Aaron had both hands gripped around the fence in the dugout. Even though every member of his team save one was now gathering around him, his eyes were focused on the right fielder who had his chin buried in his chest. Aaron could feel the anguish in this kid’s heart. Jack was not only Aaron’s right fielder. He was also his son.

Aaron realized that Jack would not make the walk back to the dugout on his own. The remainder of his team was coping with the loss in their own way – some cried with sadness, some threw their gloves against the dugout wall in frustration, and some handled it with grace uncharacteristic of a disappointed ten year old boy. Coming around the fence, Aaron began the walk out to Jack, trying to figure out with each step what he would say and how he would say it.

As the distance closed between father and son, Jack raised his head to greet his dad’s gaze some twenty feet away. Aaron could see the tears streaming down Jack’s cheek. Reflected in those tears was the memory of a time twenty-five years ago when Aaron felt exactly the same way.

The echo of sneers from the auditorium injected more pressure on the eleven year old Aaron than he felt he could handle. “Air ball, air ball,” came the pleas from fans of the opposing team. Standing on the foul line, the scoreboard behind the backboard showed their team down by one point with two seconds left in the final quarter.

He had just been fouled driving to the basket for a layup that would have put his team in the lead, surely securing a win in the semi-final game of the youth league tournament. He now stood, looking up at the hoop fifteen feet away. “One bucket to tie, two to win,” Aaron whispered to himself. Following through on the routine he had practiced so many times before, he took a breath, dribbled, looked up, and let the ball fly.

The arc of the ball looked perfect in Aaron’s eyes. Surely, the signature swish of ball meeting nylon net would be the next sound greeting his ears. Instead, the clang of ball meeting the back of the rim had the basketball flying back right at him. If his heartbeat wasn’t racing before, it was now. Aaron realized that he had just missed out on an opportunity to win the game for his team. But, he still could tie it up and force overtime. That wasn’t such a bad alternative given the circumstances.

Going through his routine again, Aaron hurried through the process so as to reach the desired outcome expeditiously. As if the pleas from the crowd had some tangible influence on the result of this free throw attempt, the basketball missed everything – no rim, no net, no nothing. As the clock resumed, one final second elapsed before the buzzer sounded. Aaron’s team had been eliminated because he couldn’t make one lousy free throw. Wanting so desperately to handle the situation with grace, Aaron couldn’t stop the tear from forming in his eye and trickling down his cheek.

The thirty-six year old Aaron realized that he was now face to face with his son in right field. As disappointing as that memory from his childhood was, he now had a smile on his face. Draping his right arm around Jack’s shoulder, dad squeezed and said, “I’m proud of you.”

sometimes-win-learn“Why? I dropped the ball,” uttered Jack between sobs. The look of confusion on his face was unmistakable.

“Did you try your best?” asked dad.

“Yeah, but we lost,” replied Jack.

“Sometimes we win, and sometimes we learn,” replied dad.

“What did I learn? I learned I can’t catch a fly ball to save my life,” whimpered Jack.

The smile on Aaron’s face was a knowing one. As much as his statement about winning and learning was directed towards his son, it was the memory of what happened after the missed free throw twenty-five years in the past that left him with a smile on his face.

As he coaxed his son back towards the dugout, Aaron kept a hand on his shoulder as if to convey that everything would be okay. “How about we stop and get some ice cream on the way home?”

“But … we lost,” questioned Jack as he looked up at his dad.

“Yeah, well ice cream always helped me after a tough loss. How about it?”

“Okay, sure, I guess so,” replied Jack not really understanding how ice cream helped to get rid of his guilt, disappointment, and embarrassment. Aaron thought to himself, dad knows best.

As they pulled into the parking lot of the old style ice cream parlor, dad and son approached the counter side by side. “Two vanilla cones with rainbow sprinkles please,” requested Aaron from the worker behind the sliding glass door. The smell of chocolate chips, strawberries, and fresh whipped cream escaped through the portal to the magical world of ice cream on the other side of the glass. As if the intoxicating scent of these ingredients was indeed medicine for an aching heart, Jack’s shoulders seemed to droop a little less. The frown on his face became a little less pronounced.

Handing one cone to his son, Aaron led the way to a picnic table around the corner. The creamy vanilla ice cream seemed to be a type of magic elixir, removing disappointment and replacing it with contentment, one lick at a time. Looking across the table, Aaron didn’t initially see his son. Instead, he saw a vision of himself from the past, sitting across from his own dad, sharing the same ice cream treat after facing his own disappointment on a basketball court.

As minutes passed, the conversation between Aaron and Jack slowly migrated from talk of the game to other topics, things ultimately more important than the result of some seemingly monumental baseball game. Looking across the table, Aaron started to chuckle as the ice cream mustache on his son had matured into a full-fledged beard.

Jack looked over at his dad and asked, “What?”

Aaron picked up the remnants of his cone and smashed it on to his face creating a matching ice cream mustache and goatee. “I think we could both use a shave,” chortled dad to son. Jack let out one of those unbridled authentic giggles turned into uncontrollable laughter – the kind that makes your stomach hurt in the best way possible.

little-things-are-the-big-thingsThe vision of his son covered in ice cream – and more importantly – a genuine smile on his face was more gratifying than any image involving him and a league championship trophy. More than any life lesson he hoped to share with his son, Aaron wanted Jack to know that little things become the big things – like the unforgettable memory of an ice cream cone and giggle with your dad. It took Aaron twenty-five years to grasp this truth. Better late than never, he thought. And if he could help one young boy discover this nugget of wisdom sooner, then it was definitely worth the wait.

Perfect game

baseball-on-moundWith two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Ryan had delivered a masterful performance. The velocity on his fastball complemented the sweeping break on his slider to the tune of twenty-six consecutive outs. One final out stood between Ryan and a perfect game: no walks, no hits, and no errors. Perfection was within his grasp.

Using his forearm to wipe the beads of sweat forming on his brow, he massaged the ball in his hands as if to summon a magic genie to grant him a final wish. Taking his position on the mound, he simultaneously looked into his catcher for the sign while placing two of his fingers over the red seams, a familiar texture to the pads of his fingers. Shaking off the curveball called by his catcher, Ryan had settled upon the tried and true heater with an imperceptible nod on this one ball, two strike count.

The complex movements of a pitcher and his arm are unnatural to a human body. The amount of stress and fatigue imparted by such an unorthodox motion is rarely appreciated. With a deliberate and repeatable windup, Ryan delivered the ninety-five mile per hour fastball just above the letters on the batter’s jersey. The swinging piece of lumber passed just below its target, the ball exploding into the back of the catcher’s mitt with a detonating crack.

Teammates from every position on the field and in the dugout swarmed the mound like ants toward a single kernel of corn. Buried beneath the pile of jubilant compatriots, Ryan didn’t feel the weight of those people on top of him. He would have cause to feel that weight in a different way later. Right now, all he felt was euphoria. Perfection had been attained on the baseball diamond.

apartment-windowLooking out the window of his 7th floor apartment, scotch on the rocks in one hand, the baseball he had used masterfully earlier that day in his other, he began to feel the weight and pressure that never seemed to visit him on the mound. The burden was originating not from anything outside that window, but rather from within.

Looking at the dirt embedded in the leather cover of the baseball, he stared deeply at it, as if he were peering into a crystal ball, trying to make sense of his tangled emotions. He had just attained perfection. Why was it that he felt so incredibly empty after such a momentous accomplishment? Ryan had everything he had ever dreamt of: fame, fortune, the applauding cheers and support of a huge fan base. Baseball came natural to him. He had what some would call an innate knack for understanding the subtle nuances of the game. Coupling that with the pure athleticism of his twenty-nine year old body resulted in a storied set of records, accomplishments, and accolades.

Rising from the black leather chair, Ryan found himself gravitating towards the acoustic guitar delicately balanced against the wall. Picking it up, taking it in his hands, he courted it as a gentleman would to a lady in requesting a dance. The choreographed dance that took part between Ryan and this instrument was as beautiful as any strikeout he had ever recorded in his career, probably more so. As the melodic chords began to echo from the hole in the solid body, the weight was lifted from his shoulders. An air of lightness came over him. There was nothing else in the world, just Ryan communicating with his soul through these six strings and the manipulation of his fingers over the fret board.

This was a recurring theme in his life, riding the highs of public recognition in the baseball world, followed by the ensuing loneliness and solitude of his personal life. He was too tied to the routine, too accustomed to the numbness to recognize it for what it was: a whisper from within.

The careful knock on his apartment door surprised him. Was it another reporter looking for the inside story? Was it a teammate’s attempt to drag Ryan out into a nightlife that felt foreign to him? The big city lights and flirtatious women did not appeal to Ryan. Despite his renowned acclaim in the public’s eye, he was a very quiet and reserved individual.

Looking through the peephole, Ryan felt the mounting anxiety of an anticipated confrontation melt away. It was only Callie. Turning the deadbolt and opening the door, his next door neighbor smiled, “Hey Ryan, how’s it going?”

Callie was the furthest thing from a baseball fan, and Ryan took solace in that. She was his welcome buffer from the fanatical experience in that other world he frequented on a baseball diamond. Working in the local museum as a curator, she was a recluse from the same mold as Ryan, enjoying the quiet serenity of her domain among the artifacts she collected and displayed.

“I heard you playing next door. Thin walls, you know? It sounded like you could use some company.” Ryan and Callie had an intangible connection between them. It wasn’t a surprise that the melancholy way Ryan strummed his chords on that evening sent a message to Callie next door. Their relationship was not. and never would be, romantic in nature. It was much deeper than that, almost like a familial bonding between brother and sister.

“Come on in,” said Ryan as he stepped aside to invite her in. “Do you want a drink? I have some chardonnay in the fridge.” It was the bottle of wine that was shared between Ryan and his last attempted romantic endeavor pressed upon him by his agent. “Get out, see the world,” his agent had said in a suggestive way. The unfinished bottle was indicative of the date’s outcome. It wasn’t that she wasn’t attractive, in the physical or mental sense; he was just left without any compelling interest to pursue a relationship at this point in his life. There was too much else going on.

“Sounds good,” said Callie, “just a half glass for me though. I have to be at the museum early tomorrow morning. We’re procuring some wooly mammoth tusks from an archeological dig site in Arizona. It’s going to be a busy day of cataloging and setting up the new display.”

Grabbing two goblets from the cabinet, Ryan decided to join Callie, switching from scotch to wine. Pouring a half glass in each one, Ryan carried them out to the living room while taking note of the excitement in Callie’s voice. “You really have a knack for taking otherwise ordinary things and infusing a breath of life into them.”

Deferring the compliment as was custom for Callie, she shyly responded back “Well, you do too you know.” Taking a sip from his glass, Ryan responded “How do you mean?” He didn’t feel attached to anything other than his next scheduled pitching performance, even if that connection was contrived in nature.

guitar-against-wall“That guitar, your music, it’s beautiful, poetic, and moving,” she said as she casually pointed to the instrument that had resumed its position resting against the wall. Ryan was taken aback. His narrow view, blinders only allowing him to focus on the catcher’s mitt and throwing strikes, obscured the observation posed by Callie. When Ryan didn’t respond, Callie continued on, “Seriously, you have a gift, don’t you see that? Even on those days and nights that I don’t knock on your door, I can sense your emotions through the vibration of those strings I hear on the other side of the wall.”

Caught in a momentary flashback, Ryan recalled the very first time he picked up that guitar. He didn’t even know what to do with it. And yet, his hand took hold of it, gripped it, and strummed the strings like he had done it a million times before. Sometimes the things that come to us so naturally are taken for granted until someone brings it to our attention. His presence in the sporting world had received the lion’s share of his attention. Callie’s recent words fell upon him with a warm sensation that he could not explain. The words wrapped around him so as to not let the feeling escape.

Coming back to the present without a word being said, Callie shook her head while smirking, “What are you smiling about?” Ryan hadn’t realized that a smile had materialized on his face. “I don’t know,” he said, “let’s just say it’s good I have friends like you to help open my eyes.” The creaking sound from the neighbor’s door opening one apartment down could have been mistaken by Ryan for the door that had just been opened within him, Callie’s words being the key to unlock it.

“You know, we’re hosting an event in our cafe on Saturday afternoon to promote the new exhibit. A little music would spice it up a bit. I think it would be a great idea to bring your guitar and play a set during lunch. Heaven knows we could use a little energy to help excite our patrons about the new offering,” she offered with a mildly sarcastic grin, eyes rolling.

Ryan’s next start was scheduled for this Saturday. But, being a night game, he could certainly fit this suggestion into his schedule. As much for himself as for the help it would provide his friend, he shrugged his shoulders and smiled, “Sure, why not?”

rotunda-cafeSeated on an unassuming bench near the center of the rotunda, the bubbling fountain provided a soothing backdrop to his melodic sounds. The tables situated around the fountain were filled with hungry patrons, black forest ham and Gruyere cheese sandwiches for the adults, gourmet peanut butter and jelly for the kids. The hum of conversation filled the cafe, sound waves bouncing and reflecting off the stained glass ceiling and columns supporting the architectural masterpiece.

With trepidation, Ryan brought the instrument into his grasp and began the familiar strum of his favorite song. In that moment, he could only hear the percussive sounds emanating from his instrument along with the trickling sounds of water meeting water in the fountain. At first, Ryan presumed he had retreated into his own private world, hearing only that which he was focused upon. Glancing up, however, he noticed that all eyes were on him. He had commanded the attention of every patron in that cafe.

As he began to play the final verse, the lyrics he sang brought a smile to his face. Two simple words, why not, had changed his life. Such an innocent statement in an otherwise ordinary day has the power to produce extraordinary results when we choose to embrace them. Inside those thirty minutes, Ryan forgot that he was pitching a baseball game that evening. He wasn’t concerned with giving up walks, stolen bases, or home runs. He was already home and he had no need to run anywhere.

Fly away home

second-baseAfter the signature ping of aluminum bat meeting baseball resulted in a double down the left field line, I stood hunched over, catching my breath at second base. The double ear-flapped helmet obscured my peripheral vision as well as the cheers from the small crowd comprised of other parents in the bleachers. The run I represented held great significance. Well, it did for the twelve year old version of me some thirty years ago. As the potential winning run, I was the difference between a team victory and extra innings. And the customary reward for a win, a free cherry sno-cone from the snack stand behind home plate, tightened my focus. Well, truth is, we got that sno-cone regardless of whether we won or lost, but I digress.

As I shuffle off second base to take my primary lead, my eyes are locked on the pitcher taking his position on the mound. In the split second that I glance behind me to find where the shortstop is positioned, the pitcher spins around and relays the perfect pick-off throw to the second base bag. Whether by some ill-conceived plan to appear as an accomplished ballplayer, or out of sheer instinct, I dive back headfirst towards the bag. There is a very good reason why headfirst diving is discouraged in little league baseball. I learned exactly why in the seconds that followed.

As my outstretched fingers attempted to touch the safety of second base before the approaching ball tagged me out, I overestimated the distance between me and the base. With too much force and excessive momentum, my fingers jammed into the side of the base. What used to be of utmost importance now meant nothing. I didn’t care whether I was out or safe. All I cared about was the searing pain running through my fingers as they collided with the stationary base.

The imminent swelling and varied shades of blue color brought tears to my eyes. Partially from the excruciating pain, the tears carried more emotion from the anticipated plans for the coming week. With an injury to the fingers on my glove hand, it would be extremely difficult to participate in the baseball camp I was scheduled to attend at Penn State University. Was I excited to learn baseball skills that would improve my game? Absolutely. Was it my sole purpose for wanting to attend this camp? Decidedly, no. With an opportunity to stay in college dorms, eat in the dining halls, and maintain responsibility for my own schedule, it provided me an opportunity to develop and exercise independence. A healthy dose of ice, some tape wrapped around my fingers, and a stubborn resolve to carry forward allowed me to attend that summer camp, to develop that independent spirit.

Fast forward thirty years to the present day. With our son sitting in the back seat, my wife and I are driving him to his first week long Boy Scout summer camp. And although my camp experience occurred so long ago, it is one of the most vivid memories from my youth, most likely due to the impact it imparted on the aforementioned opportunity for independence. I remember feeling a mix of nervous anxiety and eager anticipation for that chance to strike out on my own, even if it was only for a week. Back and forth, the emotions rattled inside. And here I sit in the driver’s seat feeling the same thing, for myself, my wife, and my son.

Over the course of this past week, my wife and I have attempted to keep ourselves occupied, acknowledging the void in our household, struggling to not let our son’s absence affect us too deeply. It’s amazing how much you miss the sarcastic comments, the random sounds emanating from his room, the assortment of clothes scattered in the most unconventional places all around the house. And by unconventional, I mean everywhere but the laundry basket. The subtle reminders of his presence are missed dearly, especially his voice.

I have been away from my son for a week long period on many different occasions. But, I have never been away from his voice for that long. Even while traveling halfway around the world, I was able to call him from another continent, the radio waves bouncing from satellite to satellite in order to connect us for a few moments each day. And here we are separated by a mere two hours of driving between the Boy Scout camp and our house without a hint of verbal connection.

And so, with the help of a suggestion by my wife, I devised a different way to stay connected with my son over this past week. Although decidedly one sided, I have formulated a story, broken up into five individual pieces, which I have shared with him by the e-mail he receives from us each afternoon at camp. The ironic thing is that story and the process of writing it helped me as much as I hope it will have helped him.

arctic-ternThe Arctic Tern is an amazing bird. Each year, it travels up to twenty five thousand miles in migration from its Arctic breeding grounds to its wintering grounds off of Antarctica. Over the span of its lifetime, it travels a distance equivalent to the space between the Earth and the moon, three times over. Although we don’t necessarily need to reach for these extremes, it behooves us to spread our wings on occasion and take flight into the unknown. Flying away from what is comfortable can open our eyes to new possibilities and bring us a sense for what it truly means to be home, not only in our house, but also in our heart. For now, I am looking forward to flying north in our car tomorrow morning to pick up our son, give him a hug, and find out just how far he has flown over the past week.

Opening day

rays-opening-day-2014Although time travel in a physical sense is presently science fiction, it is a reality when traveling within our mind. Through our experiences and our memories, we are able to journey into the past, for better or worse, and revisit those feelings and emotions that stirred us so deeply. And although many of those memories are filled with grandeur and majesty, often the ones that become a fabric of your life are the quietest and simplest.

Monday, March 31, 2014 is a national holiday. Well, it is for baseball fans. As opening day of the new baseball season, it is a celebration of hope for your team, an unofficial welcome to the splendor of spring. And a very good excuse to take a vacation day, travel across the state with your son, and watch the Tampa Bay Rays opening day game in St. Petersburg.

For years, I have been a cheering fan in the seats at Tropicana Field on opening day, partaking in the festive atmosphere, allowing myself to be ushered by the wave of excitement. Alone. The opportunity to share this rendition of opening day with my eleven year old son filled me with eager anticipation. After partaking in a lunch consisting of a foot long hot dog, a pressed Cuban sandwich, and a shared order of fries, we found our way to section 219, row D, seats 19 and 20, our new t-shirt and cap securely clutched in hand.

As we settled into watching batting practice, the rhythmic crack of a wooden bat piercing the air was an oddly comforting sound, an announcement that baseball is back in full swing. As the power hitters launched ball after ball into the outfield seats, many a “Whoa, did you just see that?” were shared between us, along with sips of lemonade from our souvenir cup.

Near the conclusion of warm-ups, we decided to explore a new addition to the venue affectionately known as The Trop. Circling the entire stadium at just above field level is a walkway that allows you to soak up the experience from nearly any vantage point. As we were navigating our way through the crowds of people along the path, the jumbo screen came to life. With a musical score introduction exuding a victorious tone, a cinematic presentation followed. Highlights from past seasons streamed over those pixels on the big screen providing a reminiscent trip down memory lane.

The magical sequence of events that our entire family watched together on the final day of the 2011 baseball season. The highlights from Game 7 of the 2008 American League Championship Series. As I place a hand on my son’s shoulder, I got down to his eye level and pointed with my finger to the very last row at the top of the stadium behind home plate. “I was up there during that game when they advanced to the World Series, and it was absolutely amazing. I wish you could have been there with me to see it.”

Caught up within the evocative memories of seasons past, I kept the tear forming in the corner of my eye from escaping down my cheek. The goose bumps, however, could not be contained, washing over my skin with a tidal wave of emotion. Not because my team succeeded. Okay, well maybe a little bit because of that. Ultimately, though, the emotion came from sharing such a special moment with those around me, whether it was the stranger who looked like Mr. Miyagi seated next to me in those nosebleed seats during Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS, or with my family on our living room couch in 2011.

As we departed the stadium, en route back home, the churning hunger pains from our stomach began to win out over the adrenaline rush of an opening day 9-2 victory. In search of a Chick-Fil-A at all expenses, my son willingly staved off those pangs of hunger until we were finally able to locate one an hour into our drive back home.

After pacifying the immediate demands of hunger, I looked up to my son who was sitting across from me and I said, “You know, when they were playing those highlights from the past seasons, I got goose bumps.” He paused a moment, looked up with a little grin, almost one of relief, and said, “Yeah, me too.”

opening-day-is-specialAnd right then, I forgot whether we had won or lost the game. The memory I had intended to make by attending a baseball game with my son didn’t occur in a stadium. It transpired at a Chick-Fil-A, an hour away from home, while dipping chicken nuggets in buttermilk ranch sauce. And those goose bumps that had visited earlier treated me with an encore performance. I can’t say exactly why that moment filled me with such joy. Perhaps it was just an intimate moment between father and son, a shared memory that endowed more emotion than a game winning home run ever could. Sometimes, we capture memories in a photograph, and sometimes a memory becomes so imprinted upon us that a photograph could not possibly do it justice. Chalk one up for the latter.

A ray of light

Tampa-Bay-Rays-LogoHow can one person become so emotionally involved in a game? That is the question I ask myself as I sit on the edge of my couch contemplating the fact that I may be watching my last Tampa Bay Rays baseball game of the 2013 season.

For the past eight days, my team has played in six baseball games, four of which were elimination games, games that could have been the final one of their season. Yet, in each of these four games, they have found a way to prevail. To live another day, to play another game.

I have been a fan of baseball all my life. I have been a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays since 2006. They have been wildly successful over the last five seasons. Before 2008, however, they were a team that lost more than half of their games played. Some would suggest it was due to their former team mascot (Devil Rays), but I digress.

Even during those unproductive seasons, I enjoyed watching them play. How is it that you can enjoy watching your favorite sporting team lose almost twice as much as they win? It’s all about attitude. No, not your attitude as a fan. Rather, it is the attitude of the players on the team that make all the difference. Regardless of their win-loss record, each of the players continue to play with hustle, heart, determination, and persistence. These are inspiring attributes not only in the game of baseball, but also in the game of life.

I sit in the virtual stadium of my living room. With every heart-pounding and nail-biting moment of anticipation during a game, I live through them as if each were my own moment to succeed or fail. Even though we have no direct influence over the outcome of a game, we feel connected and emotionally invested. Even though we don’t know any of the players personally, we seem to identify with them at some level. These are baseball players and human beings who are dealing with their own type of challenging situations both on and off the playing field.

Therein lays the answer to the question that prompted this post. Why do we get so immersed in a team? Why are we so fanatical? We can identify with these players, our players. There are superstars. There are everyday players. There are flashy and flamboyant personalities. There are quiet and poignant leaders. Regardless of what type of personality we carry inside, there is sure to be someone on our team that we can associate with.

teamworkAnd when we see all these personalities mesh together to form a cohesive team, it is an inspiring sight to behold. Coming together as a group to achieve a common goal is not only an admirable ambition on a baseball diamond. It’s an aspiration in our everyday lives.

As the flood of emotions ebb and flow over the course of a baseball game and an entire season, we become a little more entrenched as a fan of our favorite player, a follower of our favorite team. Yes, they play a game for a living and it is, after all, only a game. But, those players and that team can teach us so much about how we handle our own life. How we can carry the right attitude within ourselves in the face of victory or defeat. How we can work together as a team to achieve a worthy goal. How we can remain persistent and determined regardless of the score. How we can always continue to hope and see a window of opportunity in any situation.

As I prepare to don my lucky hat and situate myself in front of the television, I will imagine myself sitting inside the dome at Tropicana Field. I will cheer. I will sigh. I will gasp. I will pace. Most of all, I will hope. And although I may be watching the final game of the season this evening, I will do it with the knowledge that this sport and this team have taught me a tremendous amount about the important things in life.

A ray of light that reminds me to focus on the current day, the current game and just keep taking one day, one inning, one out at a time. Let your inner child out and enjoy every …  single … moment.

Diamond in the rough

clear diamond in the green grassLife is like a diamond in the rough. Every cut or break only reveals more of the beauty and brilliance we all have waiting to expose. ~Author Unknown

When I speak of diamonds, I refer to a baseball diamond instead of the precious gem. And when I speak of the rough, I refer to the three inch blades of St. Augustine grass that inhabit our backyard after a week of summer rain in Florida. In this rough lives our own personal field of dreams.

I am passionate about baseball. I have been since I was a young boy in little league. Playing the game until I was close to eighteen years old, it provided me with many exciting moments and valuable lessons. Lessons that I am still absorbing today.

I am not going to pontificate on the high morals present in any sport. Unfortunately, there are misguided and fraudulent individuals from all walks of life. Baseball is no exception. But, there are those that play the game the “right” way with energy, passion, and integrity. Just as in everyday life, we can choose to focus on the positive or the negative. I choose the positive.

Regardless of whether you are a baseball fan, or a sports fan at all, there is much that can be taken away from this American pastime that originated over 150 years ago. Baseball is one of the few games that has no time limit. Regardless of how far behind you trail in the pursuit of a win, there is always a chance. There is always hope. It is the eternal optimist’s game of choice.

In light of that feeling of hope, consider this fact. The most prolific hitter in baseball history is Ty Cobb who carried a .366 batting average into the Hall of Fame, the highest honor bestowed upon a major league baseball player. Think about the implications behind this statement. A person fails more than six times out of every ten tries and he is considered the most decorated hitter in baseball history.

Fall down seven times, get up eight. ~Japanese Proverb

Most of us have been exposed to this quote at some point in our lives. Here is a living proof example. Yes, baseball is just a game. But, it provides insight into some valuable lessons that can be applied to many other areas of our life. We can always cultivate hope. We can learn to embrace failure as a stepping stone to success. We can choose to focus on the positive and expand its influence in our lives.

As I step into the backyard and don my glove, I pick up the ball and prepare to pitch to the opposition in my 10 year old son. First base is the plumeria tree (much to the dismay of my wife). Second base is the vague patch of lightened grass somewhere in the general area of where second base should be. Third base is the concrete slab leading to the air conditioned house. And how I long for the air conditioning on those 95 degree days when my son comes running out of his room and inquisitively states one word, “Baseball?”

As much as I am tired when I get home after a long day at work, as hot and humid as it is outside, I sometimes forget just how important this time with loved ones really is. In a way, the miniature baseball world of our backyard has taught me another lesson. To live in the moment, to appreciate the people around you, to cherish every experience you are able to share.

spend-time-with-childrenI have never had the opportunity to hit a game winning single with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning. I will never be a hero on a baseball diamond, lest it be during my sleeping hours. But, as I take the initiative today, I poke my head around the corner into my son’s room and utter the inquisitive “Baseball?”. The immediate response and grin on his face reminds me that I can be a hero on this field of dreams in my own backyard.

And that observation is truly a diamond in the rough.