MacDougall

The instinct to pick up a stick and swing at something surely originated when we were a culture of hunters and gatherers, protecting ourselves from faster predators, feasting on the slower ones. The best stick swingers probably worked together, finding solid lumber for an adequate defense, passing on their skills and wisdom to their children for the good of the community. As we settled in more stable homes and no longer feared attacks from nature, except for those who live in Australia or Florida, the instinct to pick up a stick and swing at something slowly transitioned into entertainment and sport.

Golf. Hockey. Cricket. Baseball.

I think I was in fourth grade, maybe fifth grade, when Dad bought me my first wood baseball bat. I have no idea where he found a bat small enough and light enough for me to use. Most people would have mistaken it for kindling. I didn’t have any pine tar, so Dad wrapped some of his white surgical tape as a grip. I could not wait to take it to the batting cages.

Fun Acre batting cages, across the street from All-Pro Automotive, used to charge a quarter for 10 pitches. Thirty-five years later, it still costs a quarter but only five pitches are thrown. Paying for hitting practice at Fun Acre has significantly increased my desire to swing at absolutely everything. My current concept of the strike zone is above my ankles to eye-high and if the ball isn’t going to hit me, then I’m going to hit it.

The new wooden bat with the white surgical tape grip, so loved, so precious, didn’t survive long. I swung at a pitch in on the hands and felt the crack immediately. It never saw game action. I didn’t get another wood bat until my family moved back to Springfield in 2012.  

I now own two wood bats. They are both high quality pieces of lumber, surviving thousands of swings. They are both significantly cracked and are only held together by massive amounts of duct tape and love. Neither one of these bats would survive tryouts. They barely survive swings at Fun Acre.

There is fear in buying another wooden bat. It only takes one pitch to turn it into toothpicks. I don’t have the resources or connections to invest in several bats for what may end up being a one day experience.

I learned of MacDougall & Sons Bats while researching America at the Seams. I had significant difficulty finding a baseball story for the state of Oregon and brainstormed random search strings when I happened across the website of John MacDougall. I read every single word, watched every video, and sent an email to Nate Rueckert of Baseball Seams Company — “Found a story for Oregon.”

The Oregon story is the only story in the book centered on a bat. Ever since my first conversation with John almost three years ago, I’ve wanted to own a MacDougall bat.

MacDougall bats are BBCOR certified, which means a MacDougall is perfect for all high school and collegiate baseball play. It’s also been approved for Perfect Game and Connie Mack games. But there is so much more to a MacDougall.

MacDougall bats have been tested and proven to provide more pop than other pro maple bats, especially on hits away from the sweet spot. Where a good slider will shatter a pro bat, MacDougall’s simply don’t break. Period.

To back up that claim, MacDougall bats come with a FIVE MONTH WARRANTY. This is exactly the assurance I needed.

And the company is 100% green — getting a large portion of their electricity from wind and recycling all of the wood scrap and sawdust back into their community. A baseball bat company who respects their environment.

It took almost three years, but now I can proudly say I own a MacDougall bat.  

For the past couple of months, Mark and I have been meeting for catch and batting practice. We’ve tracked down a couple locations where we can work on our swings in preparation for the August 4 tryout.

Last week, as dark skies threatened all around, I swung my MacDougall. There simply is no comparing this bat to my other two name-brand bats. It surpasses them both in feel and performance, even just in batting practice. Thanks to my Fun Acre training — I only use the duct-tape bats there — I swung at pretty much everything Mark threw my direction. Their custom-made grip tape felt fantastic under my gloveless hands even when I hit balls off the hands and off the end of the bat.

And then I squared one.

The sound of a baseball hitting a wood bat is one of my favorite sounds in the world.

Mark took a turn swinging my bat. He hit multiple baseballs that I heard as they passed me. He hit the ball so hard that I got anxious throwing batting practice, throwing pitches high and wide because I was too busy making sure I was ducking behind the net.

There are less than two months until tryouts and I want to get my swings in.

So, Kansas City Royals and Springfield Cardinals and Missouri State Bears and Drury Panthers and Queen City Crush and any and every other team in or near southwest Missouri, if you’ve got any hitting camps to teach this old dog some new tricks, I’ll take all the help I can get.

Come August, I want to feast on fastballs and slow curves.

Of Pitching and Poetry

Quiz in the Hall / Quiz Warms Up, by Jim McTaggart

I love watching how people throw a baseball.

When I go to games, I study pitchers warming-up in the outfield and in the bullpen. In between innings, I find my eyes drawn to the infielders and outfielders making throws and try my best not to be jealous of the ball boy playing catch with the corner outfielder. (I figure this is the only conceivable way I’ll ever play catch with Alex Gordon.) I get a kick watching umpires, while wearing all of their cumbersome protective gear, throw a new baseball to the pitcher.

Throwing a baseball is poetry.

I have no idea how Carter Capps learned to hop and throw. I’m not exactly sure it’s legal, but it sure is mesmerizing to watch.

Hunter Pence’s unorthodox mechanics are a result of Scheuermann’s Disease which affects the flexibility in his spine, but not the strength of his arm.

Infielders and their sidearm flings or jump-throws across the diamonds. Poetry. Catchers throwing laser strikes to second from their knees. Poetry. Outfielders winding up to throw 300-plus foot bombs to double a runner off of first base. Poetry.

I miss watching Dan Quisenberry pitch. Quiz was the submarine reliever for the Royals in the mid-80s who jokingly confessed that he found “a delivery in my flaw.” He never threw a 100-mph fastball and was a poet both on and off the mound. His success came via double-play inducing sinkers and a wholehearted trust in who he was and what he could do. He didn’t try to throw like Nolan Ryan; he tried to be the best Dan Quisenberry.

When I played wiffle ball with my best friend Brian in his backyard, I pretended I was Dan Quisenberry. A submarine delivery with a wiffle ball led to pitches that would break feet. I remember aiming behind Brian’s back, hoping the ball would still catch the outside corner of the strike zone.

I found a couple pictures of Quiz when I visited the Hall of Fame and was glad to find him there. I am convinced that he deserves a plaque. (Joe Posnanski has done the research and written about it multiple times as has Bill James who said that no pitcher ever made fewer mistakes than Quiz.)

Professional baseball seems obsessed with throwing the ball harder and harder and harder. I confess, it is pretty exciting to see a radar gun light up with 100+ mph pitches, hearing the catcher’s mitt explode with power. But I miss the pitching poets, those who exposed their souls and creativity on the mound and in life, tempting hitters to swing from their heals only to softly dribble a ground ball to second or weakly fly out to center.

In this power-obsessed world of efficiency and profit, I am grateful for and challenged by friends who live their lives as a poem, peeling back the masks and muscles and bravely laying bare souls and a trusting creativity in what it looks like to be simply and beautifully human.

Quiz

He pitches

poetry

flawfully, fearfully flung not-so-fastballs

delivered with self-doubt

humbling, humored self-awareness

praying for ground balls

to find friends and fielders

inning-ending double plays

three-inning saves.

Quiz’s quirks earned

a World Series ring

and statistical perfection

“never a pitcher

made fewer mistakes.”

Deadwood

Picture from HBO.com

My friend Perry sent me a link to Mark Singer’s interview with David Milch in The New Yorker. I know of David Milch because Dad is a fan of westerns and Milch created the HBO series Deadwood.

The interview describes Milch’s journey through his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, a disease which is a significant fear for any thoughtful, creative, breathing human. To be of sound body but untrustworthy mind. To be robbed of memories created with loved ones over the course of a life is terrifying. Already, I have experienced moments where I struggle finding the exact word I’m looking for or have no recollection of a particular event ever taking place, only to later find a picture of my goofy grin at said venue.

It took me far too long to finish reading the interview as I got stuck at a single paragraph. “That part really gets me,” Perry said in her note. Halfway through the piece Milch says, “I’m thinking of playing catch with my son, Ben, teaching him to play catch. The particular kind of reverence that you feel for that process, for what you know it will mean to him. To catch the ball and to throw it back right, and to know that I’m proud of him.” 

The catch-playing year coincided with the beginning of Kaylea’s senior year in high school and Sophie’s last year in middle school. I am fully aware of the significance of those transitional times in life, those moments we look back at in wonder on our impressionable selves and wish we could offer some words of advice and warning and encouragement. I remember well my senior year, full of doubts and regrets and anxiety. I remember eighth grade year too, praying for a growth spurt and girlfriend.

This is why I write: to help me not forget.

I don’t want to forget the day Dad and I made our trip to the iconic Field of Dreams movie site and played catch. I don’t want to forget playing catch with my daughters outside our hotel room before going to Universal Studios and creating memories and riding coasters. I don’t want to forget playing catch the day Nate introduced me to his dog Lucky or the day the sleet bounced off my glasses before church with Harper or the day Nic told me about Alex Gordon or the day Matthew ran the bases and slid into home. I don’t want to forget Perry’s stories at Beyer Stadium or walking where Jackie walked in Daytona or Hunter’s reassuring words, “You’ve got talent.”

One year ago, my family was in the middle of the Catch 365 Tour of Hope. Those ten days of adventures on the road were some of the best days of my life. Not a week passes that I don’t look at the pictures of Kansas City and Omaha and Sioux Falls and Wallingford and Chicago. I’m ready to pack up the Bryan Family Millennium Falcon and do it again; I’m still hoping and dreaming of a first pitch offer from the Royals.

Milch continued, “The opportunity to do those things is transferrable to the artistic process as well — the process of passing on, for better or worse, as well as one can, what you’ve learned. And blessing him on the voyage that he’ll begin. Those are special and particular opportunities that are given an artist.”

This is what I hope to capture in the Catch 365 book, some of those lessons I learned over the year that I don’t want my daughters to forget, and that they have my fullest blessings in their lives as artists.

I agree with Milch that playing catch is a reverent process widely applicable to all of life and I hope with everything in me he follows through with his desire to play catch with his son. A “special and particular opportunity,” playing catch truly does bring people together in creating memories for a lifetime.

Baseball Brit

Baseball Brit

Time zone traversing

Pond hopping

Continent crossing

Superfan

of Eric Thames

and Baseball.

Peanut shelling

Accent bearing

Mustache wearing

Superfan

of major leagues

minor leagues

independent leagues

any-kind-of leagues

and Baseball.

“Always something

to look forward to,

some place new

to go each day.”

Adventurous, audacious

162-game journey

not seeking wealth, fame

or autographs

International Ambassador

of Goodwill

of Friendship

of Joy

and Baseball.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Intimidating skies, whipping winds, and an abundance of severe weather watches and warnings kept the majority of the Hammons Field crowd at home.

But Joey drove 400 miles to watch a baseball game — Game #50 on the year — and I was honored to accompany him.

For the past two years, Joey, better known as “Baseball Brit” on Twitter, has been traveling the world attending baseball games in hopes of increasing interest in the sport throughout the United Kingdom. We connected last year with a game of catch when he came to Springfield for his first AA game.

“In 2019, I will be attending 162 baseball games,” Joey declared. “An unofficial, unpaid, beat writer of sorts.”

The whole purpose of his baseball adventure is to get his countrymen prepared for the event taking place later this summer.

On June 29 and 30, the New York Yankees will play the Boston Red Sox.

In London. At London Stadium. In front of a sold-out crowd of more than 60,000 fans.

“I love the sport of baseball, but not enough people in my home country know much about it. I’ll be going to all 30 major league ballparks, along with minor league and independent ballparks, too.”

Joey started the 2019 season with the MLB opening series, watching the Mariners and Athletics play in Japan. “In Japan, there’s lots of brass instruments. The fans are organized into cheering sections. It’s really loud.” He was at the game when Ichiro announced his retirement which had to be an incredible sight to witness live. I only saw the replays hours afterwards.

Joey has already conquered the east coast, from New York and Boston to Tampa Bay, along with an abundance of minor league parks in between including the famous Durham Bulls. With the Cubs and Cardinals scheduled to play in London in 2020, Joey came back to Springfield to do some advance scouting of the AA team.

I wore my Royals hat to the game in specific hopes of connecting with Jay, the in-game emcee. I introduced Joey to Jay, who entertained us in-between innings with trivia, donut-eating, daughters-decorating-fathers, and musical chair contests. In the fifth inning, I received a text from my wife that a tornado was on the ground in Bolivar, thirty miles away. It was one of 19 tornadoes that touched down across 4 states yesterday. Lord, have mercy.

The game itself was a low-scoring affair until the visiting Tulsa Drillers took the lead with four runs in the top of the 7th, eventually winning 5 – 2.

Joey doesn’t really have to explain his quest to me. I understand completely the passion and contagious joy of spending time at the ballpark with friends new and old. I loved hearing his stories of adventures on the road and in the ballpark. He was the subject of Jeff Passan’s first in-game interview at a New York and Boston game. He’s eaten gumbo and alligator and Chick-fil-A and survived driving in a blinding storm with his head out the window. He’s crashed on couches of strangers and driven thousands and thousands of miles all for the sake of baseball. I shared some of my own stories as we settled into the simple rhythms of conversation in between three outs, watching outfielders do their best to chase down wind-blown pop-ups and line drives.

I gave Joey a copy of America at the Seams for reading when he flies back home in June. Maybe he’ll get the chance to meet one of my Seams friends for a game at some point this season. I invited him back to Springfield in August or September to witness the tripleheader Sundays of the Grip ‘N’ Rip League and confessed my earnest efforts to try and get back on the field. If I make the cut, I may have to honor Joey’s adventure by choosing his walk-up song, Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas.  

“I’m learning about the different cultures, the different people, about the USA. Talking to people and hearing their stories of life and home and baseball.”

He’s currently on his way to St. Louis to watch the latest iteration of the I-70 rivalry. I know he’ll be cheering for the Royals and can only hope he’ll bring them some much needed luck.

Baseball brings the world together.

Why Baseball

“Why do you care so much about baseball? It’s just a game.”

I’ve been asked this question hundreds of times. Why baseball? Why not politics or medicine or law? Why not cars or camping or hunting? Why not something that actually makes a difference in this world?

If you asked me this question when I was 8, I would have answered, “Because it’s fun. It’s fun playing catch with Dad and it’s fun hitting the ball and running the bases and sliding. Baseball is fun.” When you’re 8 years old, fun is the highest priority.

As we age, for some reason, we forget how important fun is in keeping brains and bodies healthy. The pressures and stresses of daily life distract us and “fun” gets pushed further and further down the list of priorities. For some people, unfortunately, fun gets forgotten.

If you asked me this question when I was 15, I would have answered, “Because I’m going to play for the Kansas City Royals.” Playing baseball professionally was my dream. I remember attending a summer camp around the age of 10 and meeting a former minor league player. He said, “Do you know the odds of anyone in this camp playing professionally? Maybe one, possibly two of you will have any kind of baseball future after high school.” Encouragement wasn’t really his forte. For the remainder of the camp, the group of boys I was with fought to prove which of us was the chosen one. None of us made it.

My dream of playing baseball professionally kept me invested in school. I wanted to be recognized as a “student-athlete.” My last game, however, took place in the summer of 1991. I still had two years of high school left. I had to learn to dream new dreams. But I always knew where my glove was.

If you ask me this question today and give me time to reflect and think, this is how I will answer.

Baseball is a game of failure. This is the standard answer. But as a recovering perfectionist, learning to move forward after repeated failures is a good thing. Our culture is obsessed with overnight success stories. We need to be regularly reminded that failure is neither fatal nor final, just a necessary step of learning and accruing wisdom. Failure can be part of the fun.

Baseball is not fair. Some of the hardest hit balls still turn into outs. Strikes are called balls and balls are called strikes. Some teams have millions upon millions to freely spend; some don’t. Life is not fair. Keep playing anyway. And be quick to tip your hat.

Baseball is a reminder of just how little control we have over anything. Fans cannot control whether or not our favorite team will win any more than the hitter can control the outcome once the ball is put in play. Do your best in that moment, regardless of the outcome. Take a deep breath and enjoy the experience.

Baseball is for all people. Not just the José Altuves standing next to the Aaron Judges. The courageous stories of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League are still being lived out through organizations like Baseball For All and stress one important truth: Girls are ballplayers (and coaches and umpires and fans), too. Miracle League fields are growing around the world so every child can enjoy the thrill of crossing home plate. Baseball is a game for everyone.

In baseball, you are not alone. You take the field and play as a team who, if you’re lucky, will love and support you like family, through the highs and lows of a season. This world could use more of a team-mentality in daily life, especially if we could learn to see that we’re all on the same team. When our teammates struggle, we’ve got their backs, through the highs and lows of life.

Baseball tells the best stories. Every fan of every team has their favorite stories. I love the Hollywood-esque drama of the Royals losing the last game of 2014 and then winning the last game of 2015. Earlier this season, Alex Gordon was wearing an armband with the name “Charlie” written on it. Charlie is battling pediatric cancer and was scheduled for brain surgery. In the first pitch of his first at bat, Alex hit a home run. He tapped Charlie’s armband as he rounded the bases. There are stories like this at every level the game is played. (Check out America at the Seams if you don’t believe me.)

Baseball brings people together. I was quite fortunate to be included in the 2014 miracle season of Sungwoo Lee. Watching an entire city embrace this Superfan from South Korea was an experience I’ll never forget. Years later, every single time Sungwoo messages me, I still get a large smile on my face. I’ve seen Royals fans create t-shirts and raise money for pediatric cancer, the homeless, and the hungry. I’ve seen Royals fans create softball games to help families pay medical bills. Strangers brought together through the simple love of a game are making a difference in their city and beyond.

Baseball is a game of hope. Whether you win or lose, whether you’re the hero or the goat, the grind of a season of 162 games teaches us this: Tomorrow is a new day. Maybe today the Royals will start their 20-game winning streak. Maybe today we’ll see something we’ve never seen before, learn something we’ve never learned before. Until the last out is recorded, don’t give up.

Baseball is fun. Even in the middle of 100-loss seasons, there is joy to be shared through the misery.

Why baseball?

It’s just a game.

And this simple game has much to teach us about living good stories.

Donut Mecca

Donuts are my favorite food group, and Springfield is a great place to live if you love a good donut. One of the poems in This is My Springfield pays tribute to the abundance of places who fashion the heavenly pastries. Tyler Heckman, a choral conducting graduate student at Missouri State University, arranged the poem into this brilliant piece which made its debut Saturday night. The original poem is posted, followed by a link to the performance.

Donut Mecca

St. George’s

carefully crafted in

wee morning hours

by donut fairies

two double chocolate

lifelong favorite

Hurts Donut

open 25 hours a day

eight days a week

avoid the October clown

chocolate old fashioned

with key lime icing

or S’mores

Krispy Kreme

melt in your mouth

piping hot glazed

powdered sugar

with chocolate-kreme

chocolate iced

with white-kreme

Dunkin Donuts

Daylight Donuts

Donut Time

Gold-N-Glaze

It takes a wealth

of donut shops to provide

ample donuts

for all the churches.

Hitting with Jason Hart

Image courtesy of http://www.comc.com

Jason Hart knows hitting.

“Whenever I visited a new stadium, I had a personal goal to hit a home run that they talked about in that stadium,” Jason said.

When Jason played for then-Southwest Missouri State University, he hit a home run at Meador Park that sailed more than 550-feet, which brings to mind Kevin Costner’s epic line from Bull Durham, “Anything that goes that far ought to have a stewardess on it.”

(My very last at bat in a competitive game was at Meador Park. I was a pinch hitter and flew out to the warning track as my team lost the championship game. I wrote a poem about this game, posted below.***)

In his first year of minor league ball, Jason played for the Southern Oregon Timberjacks in the Northwest League, the Short-Season A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics. He told me the story of his home run off the scoreboard against Boise. “No one had ever hit the scoreboard before,” he said. I wish Cut4 could have shared video of that Ruthian blast.

Within the first month of the season, Jason earned Batter of the Week honors for his performance at the plate. Over the course of one week, “he was 10-of-29 (.345) with four home runs, a double and a triple. He drove in 12 runs had an .862 slugging percentage and a .367 on-base percentage.” At the end of the season, Jason was chosen by league managers as the league’s MVP as well as securing a spot on the all-star team.**

Jason kept hitting throughout his 8-year minor league career and his 10-game call-up with the Texas Rangers in 2002. His career in MLB was ultimately sidelined by a brain tumor. He told me that story and showed me the scar when we played catch last year (Day #254).

Jason still looks like he could hit epic home runs at every stadium he visits. Now the hitting coach for the Frisco RoughRiders, his home field is Dr Pepper Ballpark which sounds like an ideal place to practice swinging for the fences. As hitting coach, Jason gives the young ballplayers all the information necessary to help them succeed. “But the hitter has to buy in 100%, or there’s nothing a coach can do.”

Jason helps his players make the most of their talents, fine-tuning their swings for the day their call comes. With the RoughRiders in town playing the Cardinals, I asked if he had any advice for making the most of tryouts this fall.

“Be as relaxed as you can. Use your first swings to get the timing. Hit it back up the middle, line drives over the second baseman’s head. With your last swings, swing for the fence. Take it yard. Show off your power.”

I’ll be lucky if I still have warning track power.

Jason told me of the importance of routine and walked me through the routine he had every time he stepped in the box — two digs and a swipe with his right foot, a swipe with his left, and drawing a line in the dirt right back at the pitcher. “It kept me focused on hitting the ball up the middle, even though I was really a pull hitter.”

He shared a few of his practical superstitions to help with hits on game day, including his lucky t-shirt. “I wore it any time I really needed a hit. It was an old A’s t-shirt, and I wore it even when I played for the Rangers.”

“Most of all, respect the game. Respect your opponents. Respect the umpires. Respect your teammates. This game is so humbling, you have to respect it.”

If I make the cut, he promised a free lesson at CY Sports to help shore up my swing, which might be the best thing anyone’s promised if I actually make a team.

Now, to go find a lucky t-shirt.

**Many thanks to Tim Trower for tracking down Jason’s stories with the Timberjacks. Both stories were written by Greg Stiles and published in July and August of 1998 in the Mail Tribune of Medford, Oregon.

***

Last game of the season

championship game

winner takes all game

feels like destiny game

this is why we play game

adrenaline woke me up game

trophies on display pre-game

played on the collegiate field

with brand new baseballs,

rubbed down with Missouri mud.

Benchwarming duty anticipated,

responsibility accepted.

Not one single foul ball lost.

Scorebook kept accurately.

In-between inning foul poles ran passionately.

Played catch with left fielder faithfully.

Last inning, pinch hitter

“Swing away, Slick.”

Ball one outside.

Strike one, even farther outside?

Fastball inside, barreled to the gap.

Digging for three

from step one.

Time to start a rally.

Centerfielder pretends he’s

Willie Mays.

Parents of both teams

tip caps and cheer.

Head hung while other team

celebrates on field.

“There’s always next year, boys.”

Unknown at the time,

it was also the last game

of my career.