Streakin’

Watercolor by Sophie Bryan painted during the first two innings of the game.

“Uncle E! Tomorrow is our baseball game?”

Henry greeted me with the question after hugging Jamie, asking about her foot, and getting a good look at her fancy scooter.

“I have my glove and my hat.”

Mighty Henry, nephew extraordinaire, was in town for the weekend. He would be throwing out the first pitch at his first baseball game. Multiple times throughout the day, he talked to me about “our baseball game.” In a short season like the GRBL, it is necessary and understandable to go to extreme efforts to break losing streaks. Thanks to Sungwoo Lee and the Royals, I’ve been part of an unforgettable first pitch ceremony. I was hoping Henry could impart some of his contagious positive energy on the CY Cyclones with his own effort.

On game day, I met him at the stadium, after I had stretched and helped warm up Skylar, our starting pitcher, who couldn’t throw anything straight. (That’s a compliment.) Henry looked great wearing his #Catch365 t-shirt. I questioned his choice of an A’s hat, until I remembered it was his t-ball team. The Oakland A’s have a legitimate shot at the postseason; the Cyclones needed that mojo, too. He quickly made himself at home in the bullpen and challenged me to flip the large tractor tire. I declined.

Photo courtesy Katy Oswalt

After the first game finished, we ran out on to the field. Henry loved the feel of the artificial turf as we did some stretches in the outfield and ran a couple sprints before he offered to carry my bat to the dugout. The more Henry mojo, the better. In the dugout, Henry was treated to a cup of water and a few words of wisdom from Coach Nasby.

Photo courtesy Katy Oswalt.

Escorted by Kaylea on college day at the park, Henry walked to the field for his first pitch.

Video by Katy Oswalt.

Official Grip ‘N’ Rip photographer Mike Hudgens also documented the moment, with Kaylea standing behind Henry and Henry’s hat turned backwards making him a solid, if young, doppleganger for Squints from The Sandlot.

Photo courtesy Mike Hudgens Photography
Photo courtesy Mike Hudgens Photography

It was only after Henry’s most excellent first pitch did I learn that Rylan was also throwing out a first pitch. Rylan, and his dad Chandler, were catch partners last year (Day #270). Chandler is a pitcher and off-speed specialist for the Yogis, the opponent for the day. I was hoping for a chance to stand in against Chandler’s loopy curveball just so I could see it with my own eyes.  

But in terms of streak-breaking baseball-mojo, Rylan’s first pitch rendered Henry epic effort moot.

Side note: My sister passed along this story from the stands. “You know how they play different walk-up songs for each player? Well, apparently Henry didn’t like one of them, because he turned to the loudspeaker and yelled, “ALEXA! Stop!” And then the song stopped (because the player was at bat), but I’m sure Henry thinks it was his doing.”

* * * * * * * * * *   

I have three baseball fears.

3. Losing a fly ball or line drive in the lights. (We’ll see what happens in two weeks.)

2. Getting picked off of first base.

1. Getting hit by a pitch.

Tanner was the starting pitcher for Yogis. I faced Tanner in my first at bat of the season and knew that he threw the ball hard. I spent the week taking a few hundred swings in anticipation of and preparation for his fastball. I dreamed of barreling one of his fastballs and sliding safely into second. Down two runs, I led off the top of the third and felt ready.

Tanner went into his slow wind-up and I put an excellent fastball swing on an even more excellent slider. I may have missed the ball by a foot or two, but at least I held on to the bat and my knees didn’t buckle. The second slider was considerably outside to even the count. After seeing two sliders, I took a breath and geared up for the fastball. The fastball was inside and I jumped back to avoid it. With the count in my favor, I was ready to take another cut at a fastball.

I saw it, I saw it, I started to swing and then the ball just danced or defied physics or found a wormhole. Tanner threw another excellent slider and I looked like I was trying to chop down a tree. With the count even at two balls and two strikes, Tanner went back to the fastball and it ran inside. This time, I couldn’t get out of the way.

The ball hit me square on my right elbow and bounced almost all the way to first base.

And that’s how you get revenge against ridiculous sliders. Alex Gordon would have been proud.

In the words of High Rollers outfielder Ben Hammitt, “I got a trophy.” I hoped the bruise would turn purple and green so I could brag about it.

I stood on first with the top of the lineup coming and the fingers on my right hand feeling weird. Still, I was ready to put my legs to the test; I wanted to touch ‘em all and get the scoring started. Todd, the first baseman for the Yogis and one of the few players my age, was holding me on. I told him it wasn’t necessary. I wasn’t going anywhere and didn’t have any intention of drawing a throw.

Cyclones’ second baseman Tyler stepped up to the plate. Tyler of the worst-luck, hitting balls hard and square and right at people. On a 2 – 1 slider, Tyler popped out to second for the first out. At least he made contact with the pitch.

R.J., one of the league leaders in hitting, was next. R.J. is a former catcher for Drury University. I’m amazed at how he survives these mid-90s days behind the plate wearing all that gear. With the count even at 2, R.J. hit a dribbler up the first base line and I took off. Foul ball. Try again. A curveball high maxed out the count. Another curveball and R.J. was ahead, pulling it foul. On the next pitch, R.J. connected with a towering blast. At most any other ball park in southwest Missouri, the hit would have been a home run. R.J. hit a moon shot to deep left field which was caught on the warning track.

If I would have been thinking, I could’ve tagged up and been on second. But I wasn’t thinking. Just keep learning.

With two outs, Todd stopped holding me on at first. Coach Nasby motioned to me and encouraged me to increase my lead, to get a good secondary lead. I did not want to end the inning being picked off by the catcher, so my first move was back toward first.

With the count 1 – 1 to Jared, Cyclones’ tall-sock-wearing center fielder, I took the biggest lead of my life, and quickly walked back to first on a swing and miss.

On the very next pitch, I took a walking lead and caught everyone by surprise when I bolted for second.

While the pitcher still had the ball.

I even surprised myself.

Tanner had to double-pump the ball, waiting for one of the middle infielders to get to the bag.

I went as fast as these legs could take me and slid hard and, somehow, was safe. It was not exactly how I dreamed it, but still, I was on second base.

“Attentive base-running,” Rance said on the broadcast. A generous call.

In reality, it was stupid luck.

Still, Billy Butler would have been proud of the effort. And I still need one more stolen base to catch Albert Pujols.

Jared struck out on the next pitch. I asked Coach Nasby to put Scott in right field in my stead. My fingers and arm still felt odd. (Two innings later I was playing catch. Everything is fine. Still waiting on the colorful bruise to show up.)

For the second time in four games, the Cyclones lost in extra innings. Our streak extended to 4, but not the kind of streak anyone wanted. I don’t think we’ve been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but I probably have about the same chance as growing a beard by season’s end.

I went home and comforted myself with a Dr Pepper and a Gatorade and watched Mark pitch in the 11th and 12th innings to secure the win for his team in the nightcap of the triple-header.

Next Sunday is Bark at the Park. The Cyclones play at noon against the High Rollers, which means Mark will be in the opposing dugout. I’ve caught his slider on multiple occasions and know I can swing and miss it, too. But, maybe, next week we’ll get our first W. Weirder things have happened.

What a great game baseball is.

America’s Game

Photo credit: Nate Rueckert and Baseball Seams Co.

On June 14, 2001, I saw Mike Sweeney hit a walk-off home run against the St. Louis Cardinals in the bottom of the 13th inning to complete a three-game sweep and move the Royals to 15 games under .500. I was at the game as part of a job interview. While I was in my last semester at seminary, I told my wife, “If we could find a church where I could play guitar and work with students in Kansas City, that would be heaven.” I took the home run, win, and sweep as a divine sign.

The 2001 Kansas City Royals weren’t good. They lost 97 games and finished last in the AL Central. Mike Sweeney, Carlos Beltran, Joe Randa, and Rey Sanchez were the majority of the offense. Jeff Suppan was the ace of the staff and Roberto Hernandez was the closer. I lived in Kansas City for two months of the 2001 baseball season. I cheered on Frank White any time I saw him in his capacity as a coach for the team.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was a Tuesday.

A month prior, I celebrated my graduation from Truett Seminary at Baylor University, accruing enough student debt to last the rest of my life. I had been hired as a youth minister and worship leader at Cornerstone Church in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. My first, full-time job as an adult. My first-born, Kaylea, was less than 7 months old, full of colic and literally up for hours every night, turning me and my wife into semi-zombies. I am still trying to catch up on sleep from her first couple years of life. I was 27 years old and full of ridiculous dreams of writing songs and inspiring teenagers to make this world a beautiful place for all people. 

Cornerstone Church was a young church, only 12 years old. A church willing to take risks and try new things and make new friends. A church willing to hire a naïve dreamer. A church willing to find ways to say yes, even if they’d never done it that way before. They welcomed me and my family and helped us find our place in God’s Great Story. I was on staff at Cornerstone for 11 years. The Royals were bad the entire time, their only winning season coming in 2003. Because the Royals were so bad and because the people of Cornerstone Church knew of my affection for the team, I received free tickets all the time.

On that Tuesday, I was anxiously preparing for the weekly staff meeting, trying to think through the youth activities for the following night while juggling the choosing of songs for band practice after youth and the order of worship for Sunday. I was overwhelmed and completely petrified I was going to fail. (I failed a lot. I survived.)

Bob was the associate pastor. His office was also on the second floor of the church, just down the hall and around the corner from mine. I had to pass his office to get to the stairs so I could head downstairs for the staff meeting. I walked by with my printed out calendar in hand, clutching on to a stack of papers and notes I had written to myself.  

I could hear that the TV was on in Bob’s office. He was standing only a couple feet in front of the mounted, CRT, big-box TV with one hand across his chest and one hand over his mouth.

“Have you seen this?” he asked me.

I took a couple steps in to Bob’s office and looked at the TV just as the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.

My heart skipped a beat.

My wife and I had been unable to sell our home in Texas. My family of three lived with my pastor and his wife and son. There were many perks to living with my pastor’s family. One unexpected perk was his subscription to the KC Star. It was while I lived with my pastor I fell in love with Joe Posnanski’s writing.  

In 2001, my wife and I shared a cell phone. Using our shared cell phone, I tried to reach her on the home line. She was in the middle of feeding Kaylea and didn’t pick up. Kaylea was quite the finicky eater; stopping in the middle of a feeding was never a good idea. I called again and again and again until Jamie finally answered.

I could tell she was frustrated when she answered.

“Turn on the TV. Something’s happening,” I said.

I spent the day watching TV. I was completely mesmerized. In 2001, the internet service at the church was dial-up, so trying to follow the news online was slower than just watching the national broadcast. I watched the North Tower collapse and followed the stories of the other hijackings.

I went home early, stopping at a gas station and paying $3 a gallon to fill up my car. As soon as I got home, I hugged my wife and held my baby girl.

The “war against terrorism” started.

America as I knew it had changed.

The next few days, the church was open for prayer, for anyone who needed a safe, quiet space to be and process what happened. I spent time alone in my office pondering the kind of hate that takes innocent lives and the overwhelming fear left in the wake of acts of terror that killed 3,000 people. What kind of world was Kaylea going to grow up in? What is faith’s response to terrorism?

Listening to President Bush talk, I remembered the slogan my high school baseball coach, who was also my freshman year American History teacher, taught us from Warren Harding’s campaign after World War I, “Return to Normalcy.”

How can life return to “normal” after seeing people leap out of a building? After watching replay after replay of planes crashing and towers collapsing? After dreading what was going to happen next?

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig suspended all baseball games for 6 days, extending the regular season a week into October.

For the next week, I read and watched everything I could about all four plane crashes. The weight of the stories affected my dreams and my demeanor. Two thousand years prior, Paul wrote these words to his friends in Rome who were suffering under an unjust empire, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I decided to trust those words.

A week later, I wasn’t really in the mood for baseball, but I tuned in for a needed mental distraction and watched the Royals lose to Cleveland. It was good to see the team on the field, even in a losing cause. Losing felt normal. On the first day games resumed, Marty Prather, known as the St Louis Signman, was featured on TVs from coast-to-coast as he held one of his signs before the Cardinals game, “Baseball has players. America has heroes.”

Patriotism ran thick through the stadiums. Emergency responders were honored. God Bless America was sung in the 7th inning. Players recognized that this game could put a smile on the face of those who were still trying to find a new normal. Even in the middle of horrific tragedy, our souls need to find space to breathe and play. Baseball created that space.

About a month later, President George W. Bush threw out a first pitch at Yankee Stadium during Game 3 of the World Series. Wearing a bulletproof vest and an FDNY jacket, the President gave a thumbs up from on top of the mound. He then fired a perfect strike. It was one of the most emotional first pitches I’ve ever seen, wonderfully recounted in the ESPN 30 for 30: First Pitch.

That first pitch inspired Truman State University southpaw pitcher Nathan Rueckert to cut apart his practice jersey and a few baseballs and carefully craft an American flag. “America’s Game” he titled the piece of art. Baseball Seams Company was born in the wake of September 11.  

* * * * * * * * * *

It’s been 18 years since I stood in Bob’s office watching TV.

Memorial services will take place all across the country remembering those who died on that Tuesday. We will also remember those who died years later because of exposure to toxic chemicals as they rushed in to save other lives. We will honor the children of those courageous first responders who are following in the footsteps of their parents. The FDNY Academy is graduating 13 new first responders who lost a parent in the Twin Towers attacks. They are already heroes. Take time to thank the emergency responders wherever you are, today and every day.  

That colicky and finicky baby is now a freshman in college, studying music education and playing violin. Music continues to play a key role in bringing about the healing of our country.

Cornerstone Church is no more.

I’m no longer on staff at any church. I’m writing stories and poems about baseball, hoping that one day Joe Posnanski will take notice and meet me for a game of catch. He’s still writing epic baseball essays, along with amazing pieces about Hamilton and Houdini.

Baseball Seams Company grew and grew. The art inspired by President Bush’s first pitch has been recreated thousands of times, with copies hanging in the White House and in Cooperstown and in my parent’s living room. Years later, Nathan invited me to join him in a project called America at the Seams. I heard stories from every state how this weird and frustrating game is more than just a game. People told me how baseball created space for them find healing and hope and their new normal.

Eighteen years ago, I never could have imagined I’d get a second chance to play baseball. And I am absolutely loving the experience — taking risks, trying new things, making new friends. Baseball brings people together.

“Baseball can give us back ourselves,” wrote Anne Lamott.

There is a reason baseball is America’s Game.

Weird

(Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS via Getty Images)

Baseball is weird.

Devout fans of the game claim animals can affect outcomes of games and, in some cases, seasons (goats and black cats, especially). At one point or another, almost every team in the league has had its own “rally animal.” Squirrels and cats and possums and monkeys and praying mantises.

In 2016, the Royals had two different rally praying mantises who, supposedly, spurred their streak of winning 18 out of 22 games. A couple of fans started wearing rally mantis masks to the game and were shown multiple times throughout the broadcasts. When both Rally Mantis and Rally Mantis, Jr. died, Royals fans mourned their passing across social media.  

In 2017, the Royals were playing the Cardinals in St. Louis, leading by a run in the 6th inning. With two outs, the bases loaded, and Yadier Molina at the plate, a black kitten ran across the outfield, meandering near Lorenzo Cain. A member of the grounds crew snagged the cat in deep centerfield, suffering multiple scratches as he carried the ferocious beast off the field. On the very next pitch, Yadi hit a game-changing grand slam, putting the Cards on top for good.

The game has encouraged all kinds of bizarre superstitions and jinxes. Don’t walk on the foul line. Don’t talk about a no-hitter in progress. Obsessions with every number imaginable. Wearing a rally hat of some kind. Eating the right salsa or BBQ or tacos. Changing walk-up songs or not changing socks and underwear. No one ever said anything about the intelligence of baseball players.

And then there’s Wade Boggs. Eating chicken before every game. Taking 150 ground balls before each game. Running sprints precisely at 7:17 before every home game. Drawing in the dirt before every at bat. He’s also in the Hall of Fame. Maybe there’s something to be said to honoring the weirdness.

Yesterday, the CY Cyclones played in a very weird game against a tough Shockers team. With the heat index just shy of 100, my first instinct is to blame the weather. In my time in left field, my toes were getting toasty from the turf field and my hat was streaming sweat from the brim.

A bizarre balk call allowed one run to score. A “foul” ball bouncing off home plate into fair territory. The stadium announcer talking to players during at-bats. (He gave me props for dodging a blistered foul ball during my half-inning stint as a third base coach. “Way to not get tattooed!” I waved back at him.) Almost double the number of the MLB record for hit batsmen in one game by one team.

The game was tied through seven innings, and then the wheels fell off and the Cyclones fell to 0 – 3. The only winless team in the league. Baseball is frustratingly weird.

Life is weird.

From phosphorescent algae and the 900 statues called Moai to octopi and traffic circles, life is full of the bizarre.

There was no real reason for a healthy 6-year old boy to lose all of his hair. It just happened.

My family was living in Lee’s Summit when my hair started to fall out, the same year the Royals went to their first World Series. We learned it was called alopecia, which is a fancy way of saying “your hair is falling out.” Having attended my first Royals baseball game two years earlier, I was learning to love the game. I had several different pieces of Royals memorabilia in my bedroom, pieces I still have to this day, safely packed away in my garage.

I remember asking Dad, “Can I still play baseball?”

“Yes, of course you can,” he said.

And with those simple words of fatherly affirmation, all was right in my world.

Sometimes, when life is weird and crazy and all kinds of out of control, what we crave most are simple words of encouragement from someone we love and trust.

I wear a different hat during warm-ups than I do in the game. If I wore my game hat during while stretching and taking swings in the cages and playing catch and running, it would be dripping in my eyes before the singing of the national anthem.

For the first three games, I wore my beloved Royals hat. My daughters bought it for me as a Father’s Day present in 2018. I wore it religiously for the year of playing catch as well as workouts in preparation for tryouts. Rust streaks from the button on top.

But, maybe, possibly, wearing a Royals hat in a season where they are pretty much guaranteed to lose 100 games is not good, smart baseball mojo. Maybe wearing a Royals hat simply encourages the baseball weirdness.

In the spirit of the game that believes a broadcaster commenting on the lack of hits in a particular game or an animal on the field might affect the outcome, I’m going to make a change. I’ll be wearing a new warm-up hat next week in hopes of starting the Cyclones winning streak straight through the league championship.

Weirder things have happened.

And if that doesn’t work, I’m bringing my cat the next week.

(That’s a completely hollow threat. There’s no way I’m bringing my cat to the ballpark. There’s a reason they have “Bark at the Park” and not “Felines at the Field.”)

Lice, Sunburns, and Sweat

September is Alopecia Awareness Month. I was diagnosed with alopecia at the age of 6 in the same year the Kansas City Royals went to the World Series for the first time. My parents attended the first World Series game in KC; I watched it on TV. The Royals won. There are pros and cons to having alopecia when it comes to chasing baseball dreams.

At the end of second grade, I was invited to play on my first baseball team — a Chuck E. Cheese sponsored, Kiwanis league team. On this team, everyone learned about the various positions and tried on all the equipment which was the perfect recipe for a lice outbreak. When Coach called Mom to tell her the news she replied, “I knew there would come a day I would be thankful God made Ethan bald.” Coach was embarrassed, but it was a sign I had been accepted as a ballplayer.

My sophomore season in high school was probably the worst alopecia-related incident and it was all my fault. I spent a Saturday playing golf and, for some reason, forgot to bring a hat. I also forgot sunscreen. I first felt the sunburn on the drive home. Before bed, I greased my head in aloe which made my pillowcase gross. The next day, friends at church pretended to warm their hands from the heat radiating off my head. The blisters first appeared on Monday which were equal parts painful and embarrassing. On Tuesday, the high school team had an away game and I played a couple innings at second base. After the game, the team went to Wendy’s for dinner. I remember crying in front of the mirror in the restroom trying to peel my hat off of my head. I’ve never had another sunburn on my head since.

Now, playing in the Grip ‘N’ Rip League, the only alopecia-related problem I have is sweat. I can saturate a hat in two innings. Or less. Sweat streams off the bill and in my eyes and pools in my glasses. I don’t really want to own three or four versions of the same hat just to keep sweat under control. Before each game, I freeze a couple of kitchen towels and keep them in my bat-bag, cooling off my head and wiping up the sweat at the end of every inning. It’s something.

After almost four decades with alopecia, these are the most important lessons I’ve learned.

1. Sunscreen or hat (or both) always, always, always.

2. Ivory soap is the best.

3. Persons with alopecia were created to shine.

The Battle for Bell

I learned of Larry Hasenfus while researching stories for America at the Seams. At the age of 58, Larry went back to college to earn his degree. While in college, Larry decided to try out for the baseball team. A commuter, he left home in the wee hours of the morning for the pre-class, off-season workouts and stayed after class for afternoon workouts. Come spring, Larry made the cut and was a member of the JV team. Playing D-III baseball for Springfield College, Larry served as an inspiration for teammates who were roughly one-third his age. The handlebar-mustache-sporting left-handed pitcher ended his collegiate baseball career pitching a clean inning in the last game of the season. His story was a perfect story to represent the state of Massachusetts.

It would be fun to try and follow in Larry’s footsteps and go back to school, not for the pursuit of any degree, but to play baseball. The absurdly naïve part of me thinks that, if I spent a couple months with Driveline Baseball in Washington and diligently followed the year-round throwing program of Jaegar Sports, if I “eat-breathe-lived” baseball, if I sacrificed my donuts and Dr Peppers and petitioned the NCAA, I might be able to find some way to beg or barter my way as an official BP-thrower or fly-ball catcher on one of the two local teams.

(At this point, Coach Guttin and Coach Nasby are laughing. I am perfectly fine with that.)

My motivation for going to such extremes would not fame or fortune. It’s not to try and be the oldest player in either program. And I couldn’t grow a handlebar mustache if my life depended on it.

I’d just want to play in The Battle for Bell.

* * * * * * * * * *

There are reminders of Coach Howard Bell all over Springfield.

A plaque in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.

A baseball scholarship and the naming of the baseball and softball sports complex at Glendale High School.

The red chair at the baseball field at Kickapoo High School.

An annual Strike Out ALS Poker Challenge at Twin Oaks Country Club.

The championship trophy of the Grip ‘N’ Rip Baseball League.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last year, I played catch with Kim, his wife, on Howard’s birthday. Since his passing, Kim courageously created a wedding venue on the north side of Springfield — Belamour. She told me baseball stories and Belamour stories and stories of all the neighborhood kids who came by to ask if Howard could play.

“Howard encouraged each of us to concentrate on living fully today,” she said.  

After his induction in to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, I played catch with Howard’s brother, Darrin, and nephew, Jake. We told stories of basketball, baseball, and junior high which seemed to keep Jake mildly entertained.

On the date of last year’s game, I played catch with his daughter Kameron.

“I love remembering dad, hearing stories about him and how he’s still making a difference. This exhibition game started because of him, and now it’s so much bigger than just him,” she said.

* * * * * * * * * *

On Saturday, September 21, Missouri State University will play Drury University in the fourth iteration of The Battle for Bell. The gates of US Baseball Park will open at 4:00 for batting practice and pre-game fun for all ages, including a silent auction. The game starts at 6:30 and tickets are $5, or $10 which includes a meal and commemorative Battle for Bell cup. Money raised will benefit the ALS Clinic at CoxHealth South Hospital.

Baseball is a game of hope, a game of bringing people together, a game full of stories of perseverance, dreamers, and whimsy. The Battle for Bell is a game where all these are celebrated. We remember a local baseball legend — complete with a game-winning grand slam over Mizzou — and devoted coach, honoring his legacy by giving hope to those who are diagnosed with ALS.

“What I have learned living with ALS is the importance of taking each day as it comes, being happy and enjoying the moments you have, because you never know what the next day will bring. Each day in and of itself is truly a gift,” Coach Bell said.

Adjustments

Baseball is all about making adjustments.

I was at CY Sports taking swings, trying to get my eyes and body used to hitting pitches in the mid-80s. Dad was feeding balls into the two-wheeled pitching machine which didn’t throw anything straight. I took cuts against Bugs Bunny curve balls and ridiculous sliders and pitches I swore broke half a dozen times. Ryan, the owner of CY Sports and Assistant Coach of the team, was watching and noticed my foot. My left foot was tippy-tapping much like my dog’s feet whenever she greets someone new at the front door.

All this time I thought my sister was the only dancer in the family. I had no idea how much I was dancing in the batter’s box waiting for the next pitch.

Ryan took video, something I can’t do on my flip phone, and I watched my tippy-tapping foot, so I spent the rest of the time making an adjustment — Calm my feets. In the process of calming my feets and taking swings, I felt a new blister start to form on my hand, which means I’ll be shopping for batting gloves before my next game. The good-bad news is I’ve got plenty of time.

Grip ‘N’ Rip Game #3 was scheduled for 6 pm and I, again, got the nod to start in left field. I was excited for the opportunity, knowing I was starting because Loren’s hamstrings were not cooperating. The last time I injured my hamstrings my doctor told me to be extremely lazy and not do anything for six months. I’m hoping Loren’s hamstrings heal faster.   

Caleb Cole, standout ballplayer for Drury University, and Andy Galle, who pitched for the Gateway Grizzlies in the Frontier League, were two of the names I recognized on the opposing roster, the Republic Ford Lincoln Rangers. The Rangers also have a left fielder with a last name Bryan, though I don’t think we’re related.

While stationed in left field during my first game, I saw Caleb warming up. He yelled out to me, “I see you out there Mr. Catch 365. Don’t think I’m gonna test your arm.”

I laughed. I remember watching Caleb play as a high school student in Lee’s Summit and for Coach Stratton at Drury. He’s smooth at the plate and in the field. My hope was to not let anything he hit go over my head. Even then, he’d probably turn a routine single into a double.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains,” says semi-fictional baseball pitcher Nuke LaLoosh.

I was watching the first game of the day online, listening to Rance call the action, when the rains came. In short time, both the 3 pm and 6 pm games were cancelled.

Life is all about making adjustments.

Youngest daughter goes to high school. Adjustment.

Oldest daughter goes to college. Adjustment.

Wife breaks foot and can’t drive for six weeks. Adjustment.

Rains cancel the ballgame. Adjustment.

Adjustments are necessary for all of life’s ridiculous curve balls, whether you’re trying to hit them or just make it through the day. I usually grumble my way through adjustments only to see the silver linings years later, missing the beauty and wonder of living in the moment. Chris Hadfield is a Canadian astronaut. He’s been to space multiple times and authored the book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything.

He writes, “Getting to space depends on many variables and circumstances that are entirely beyond an individual astronaut’s control…Ultimately, I don’t determine whether I arrive at the desired professional destination…There’s really just one thing I can control: my attitude during the journey, which is what keeps me feeling steady and stable, and what keeps me headed in the right direction.”

Dealing with adjustments is all about attitude.

With Labor Day coming up, my next game is scheduled for September 8. That gives me two weeks to practice calming my feets and letting a blister heal.

In the meantime, “I’m just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ball club…I just want to give it my best shot, and the good Lord willing, things will work out.”

August 18

Photo credit to Mike Hudgens Photography

On August 18, 2004, two days after my 30th birthday and two months before the birth of my second daughter, I had surgery on my right knee.

The original injury occurred a month prior while on a mission trip with my church to serve those who worked at the Christian Activity Center in East St. Louis, Illinois. Toward the end of the week, we were cooking dinner for the staff, thanking and celebrating them for their amazing work. Those who weren’t directly involved in meal preparation were invited to play in a basketball game.

The staff of the CAC know how to play basketball, some even played collegiately. I played one year of Boys and Girls Club basketball as a 6th grader. I scored 4 points in my first game, which is the same total I had at season’s end.

Just a few minutes in to the basketball game in East St. Louis, I stole the ball from their point guard and took off in the opposite direction. I could hear one of my teammates behind me and had the thought to create space so I could toss him the ball, hoping he’d get as close to dunking it as he could. I took a crossover step with my right leg and immediately collapsed. I have no idea what happened to the ball or the rest of the play.

I crawled to the sideline and tried to walk it off. My right leg refused to cooperate. I never got back in the game. We lost by more than 40 points. The next day, my knee swelled to the size of a basketball. The next week an MRI confirmed an ACL tear.

“You don’t have to get this repaired,” the surgeon said. “You aren’t a professional athlete and can live a quality life with a torn ACL. It’s a complicated surgery with a hard recovery.”

But I was a dad, soon to be to two girls. I wanted to run around and do things with my daughters. Beaches and Disney World and random serendipitous adventures. I didn’t want to worry about buckled knees or limited mobility. Surgery was scheduled four weeks later.

Three days before surgery, I was home alone, sitting in my recliner watching TV. Out of thoughtless habit, I pushed down the foot of the recliner with my heel. Lightning and fire exploded under the kneecap. I felt the second tear in every fiber of my being and almost threw up. Tears streamed down my face and sweat dripped down my head. Along with the day I broke my ankle, it’s the closest I’ve come to passing out without actually doing so. It took me forever to crawl upstairs and change out of my sweat-soaked clothes.

Surgery was a success, even if I did throw up coming off anesthesia. The day after surgery, I returned to the doctor to get the drain tube removed and receive my post-operation instructions.

“That was one of the worst tears I’ve ever seen,” he said.

I shrugged my shoulders in response. “Thanks for fixing it.”

* * * * * * * * * *

On August 18, 2019, two days after turning 45 and moving my oldest daughter, Kaylea, into her dorm room, I woke up, immediately checked the forecast, and took a couple ibuprofen. Fifteen years later, there are still times my knee doesn’t feel right. My instinct is to blame the weather. Cold fronts and storm fronts really do seem to affect my knee. My knee felt stiff, as did my ankle, but that surgery is only three years old.

And then I remembered — I was starting in left field. Coach Nasby sent out the starting lineup on Thursday. I was completely surprised to see my name listed among the starters.

I honestly don’t remember the last time I started a baseball game. I was a relief pitcher and benchwarmer the two years I played in high school. As soon as I remembered, I felt that surge of nervous adrenaline that accompanies any new and (personally) noteworthy experience.

I get nervous easily, a character trait / flaw I passed along to my daughters. I get nervous whenever I have to introduce myself to a group irrespective of its size. I get nervous anytime I’m asked to do a storytelling. I get nervous whenever an editor returns a manuscript or whenever I go to the dentist or whenever I’m in conflict with someone. My nerves are carried in my gut making it impossible to even think about eating.

Why do I do things, pursue things, dream and scheme things, that I know will make me nervous? Why am I not content to just be? Who am I trying to impress? What am I trying to prove?

I want to set an example for my daughters, that they may not give in to the voices of fear and doubt, but press on through the nerves and dare to try new things. Living a good story means finding ways through every kind of obstacle — physical and mental. Living a good story means summoning the courage to take that next step, even with a chorus line of butterflies in the stomach. Even with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of this body, I want to prove to myself that I can do more than write a good baseball poem; I want to live a good baseball story.

Mostly, I was nervous because, along with my first start in left field, I’d get my first at bat in the league.

I do remember my last high school at bat. A fly out at Meador Park in the American Legion championship game. We lost.

“Good luck today! Relax. Breathe. Soak it all in! You’re gonna do great. Go get that first base knock!!” Mark texted me.

His text put a smile on my face and also got me thinking about my breathing which became my mantra for the day, “Breathe.” Thinking about my breathing helped push away the doubts and fears. Inhale. Exhale. It’s hard to think about much of anything else when you’re thinking about your breathing.

In the bottom of the first inning, I ran out to left field and breathed with every pitch.

My first at bat occurred with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the second. It came at the same time as Kaylea the college student’s chair auditions for the MSU symphony. I remember telling her to just breathe, too. My first at bat was also at the same time that the pre-game peanut butter and jelly sandwich I ate decided it didn’t want to stay in my stomach.

“If you wanna root for the long shot, if you wanna root for the underdog, this is your man,” Rance introduced me to the online viewing crowd. 

The nerves were compounded by the fact that the pitcher I was facing, Tanner Allen, was throwing the ball faster than anything I’ve ever seen. Upper-70s is the top of the talent I faced as a JV player.  

I took a breath. The first pitch was a ball outside. I took another breath. The next two pitches were strikes and the bat never left my shoulder. Then, somehow, I fouled off the next four pitches. Dory’s modified mantra echoed, “Just keep swinging. Just keep swinging.” The first two foul balls were crazy-late swings shooting the ball toward the opponent’s dugout. I heard Chandler Veit teasing me and couldn’t help but laugh.

“I guarantee you right now, his heart feels like a jackhammer inside of his chest,” Rance said.

A peanut butter and jelly flavored jackhammer. 

The third foul ball chopped up the first base line. The fourth foul ball went behind me toward the third base side of the plate. “Just keep swinging.”

The at bat concluded with a weak grounder to the shortstop who threw me out by a couple of steps to end the scoring threat.

Ryan Wolfe, owner of CY Sports and our first base coach, gave me a fist bump. “Solid at bat. You kept battling. You didn’t strike out. Good work.”

It was my first at bat in a competitive baseball game in 28 years. I am convinced, as Pitching Ninja attests on Twitter every day, that hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do in sports. (Simone Biles doesn’t count. No one can do what she does.) I’m not exactly sure how I actually hit the ball. I’m pretty proud that I didn’t throw up. 

My second at bat came two innings later, with runners on the corners and one out.

I took a deep breath and stepped into the box. I saw the first pitch hit the dirt in front of the plate. That image is burned into my memory — the small explosion of turf tire pellets as the ball skipped toward the catcher’s chest. I took another breath and sweat dripped into my eye and pooled inside my glasses.

Sweat dripping in my eyes is the worst part of having alopecia. By game’s end, I saturated two hats and three towels with sweat. I called time, wiped away the excess sweat, and took another breath.

The next pitch was on the outer half of the plate. I took a less-than-beautiful swing, not a swing that would ever end up on a baseball card, not a swing anyone should intentionally imitate, but a perfectly effective swing and blooped the ball toward right field. It dropped just inside the foul line. Fair ball. The runner on third scored.

My first hit came with an RBI, a ribeye as Royals broadcaster Rex Hudler says.

Ryan yelled, “Get on the bag! Stay right here! Now give me a hug!”

I did and was immediately overwhelmed with an adrenaline-filled rush of emotion. The selfish part of me wanted to keep that ball as a small trophy. Scott Weis came in as a pinch runner and I ran back to the dugout.

Coach Nasby walked down from the third base coach’s box and was all smiles giving me a fist bump and congratulating me. “Congrats! Great job.”

I was greeted by high fives and helmet slaps from all of my teammates. I experienced everything good about this game, everything I have missed from decades of not playing ball. I have a team pulling for me, actively cheering for me and helping me be my best. I wish everyone could experience that feeling.   

“Welcome to the GRBL, young man!” Rance said.

I sat on the bench and wiped the sweat off my head, smiling and laughing and breathing.

Tyler Faulk followed my bloop with a blast down the left field line. Scott scored from first on the double and I’m thankful I didn’t have to truly put my knee to the test.

“Congrats on the hit!” Mark texted. I later watched him pitch a 1-2-3 inning in the 6:00 game. Our teams don’t face off until Week 6. Maybe I’ll have my nerves under control by then.

I doubt it.

The game went to extra innings. The GRBL has a fascinating extra-inning policy. Each half inning starts with the bases loaded and two outs. We lost in the bottom of the 10th on a blast to center by Gerad Fox. Even though the last two seasons of Royals baseball has trained me how to accept losing, I’m still not a fan of it.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains,” said Nuke LaLoosh.

I was resting at home, savoring a very cold Dr Pepper, when Kaylea texted me.

“I definitely messed up and it wasn’t great but oh well.”

“Sounds like my game.”

“But you played! You did it! And so did I.”

She earned her place as sixth chair for the second violinists in the MSU symphony. Her first concert is in September. Maybe I’ll invite all of my teammates so they can cheer her on, too.

My knee was wrong; it never did rain.