Mexican Cornbread

It is the week of my birthday. Family members ask me what I want for gifts and my answers are rather ridiculous.

I’d love to custom design my own Wilson glove.

I’d love to hit a ringing double when I step up to the plate on Sunday.

I’d like to eat a few dozen St. George’s donuts and drink a couple liters of Dr Pepper and not have it impact my physique whatsoever.

I’d love a new Royals hat that isn’t permanently sweat-stained and fits “just right” and to play catch with Bo Jackson and Alex Gordon.

I’d love to find a publisher for the Catch 365 book and to connect with Sean Astin to talk about the novella I’ve been working on.

I have been greatly blessed from my family, my friends, and my lot in life. To celebrate my birthday, I want to pass along a gift to anyone who wants it.

My favorite meal is Mexican Cornbread. I don’t remember when I first tried it. I last ate it about two weeks ago. It is fantastic with, of course, a Dr Pepper, fruit salad on the side, and Andy’s chocolate custard for dessert.

Happy birthday!

Game #1 – Naturals vs. Cyclones

Photo courtesy of Mike Hudgens Photography.

The game was a blur.

Supposedly, the game was about two and a half hours long.

In two and a half hours, I can watch a movie (unless it’s Marvel). In two and a half hours, I can drive almost all the way to KC. In two and a half hours, I can take an epic nap.

I know how two and a half hours feels. We played nine innings in about 14 minutes.

One hour before first pitch, I drove to the stadium, parked the car, and pulled up the driver’s side window in case it rained. The skies were completely gray cloud covered which, thankfully, blocked the sun. Chances for rain hovered around fifty percent throughout the morning hours but it never materialized. 

By the time I walked in to the stadium from the car, I was soaked. My red jersey was plastered to my back and shoulders. My hat was minutes away from a steady stream of sweat dripping off the bill. August humidity was in full force on Opening Day of the GRBL.

I sat on the end of the bench and traded my P.F. Flyers — “Those would make Benny ‘The Jet’ proud,” one teammate said — for my cleats and felt something like Mr. Rogers.

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…

The only names I knew in my new neighborhood were my coaches. I had a lot of new names to learn. I started putting names to faces, hearing stories of baseball seasons past, throughout the game while cheering them on.

Skylar. Jake. RJ. Rob. Jared. Nick. Tyler. Scott. Brandon. Justin. Layn. Loren. Zachery.

These are your CY Cyclones!

Stretches, catch with Scott and Jake, a few sprints, and then it was time for player introductions and the national anthem.

Play ball!

I warmed up the right fielder a couple times and practiced timing pitchers while we were up to bat. I learned as I listened to Scott and Ryan process the game and passed out quarters to kids returning foul balls to the first base dugout. The quarter redemption program is just one of Tony’s brilliant ideas in the league and is a good way to interact with young fans. Lots of smiles and high fives.

In the bottom of the third, Rob singled to right and I was inserted as a pinch runner. My first game action. Grant Ledbetter, a righty who used to pitch for the Kansas City T-Bones, was on the mound for the Naturals. I took a conservative lead, determined not to draw any throws.

Photo courtesy of Mike Hudgens Photography

Standing on first, I had flash backs of playing the game for the filming of The First Boys of Spring. After drawing a walk, I was picked off on a set play by the catcher and first baseman.

A couple pitches later, no pick off attempts thrown, I took off for second on a pop-up to the catcher, which ended the inning.  

Dad braved the humidity, sitting directly behind the dugout. He tipped his hat and applauded as I ran off the field, grinning from ear to ear.

Three minutes later and it was the eighth inning. Rob had driven in a run, cut the deficit to two, and I was back on base as a pinch runner with one out and a chance to truly stretch my legs. Coach Nasby kept me focused, talking through the situation in between every pitch.

“Scott Nasby having a very careful word with his runner,” Rance said on the broadcast as I returned to first after running out a foul grounder.

Two strikeouts ended our brief rally. On to the ninth.

I ran out to left field, a late inning defensive replacement, fully aware of the mantra Denny Matthews espouses, “The ball will always find the new guy.”

It did.

The inning started with a lead-off walk, followed by a solid single to left. I fielded it cleanly and threw it back in. Two hitters later, with runners on second and third, I got my first fly ball. Grateful for the help from center judging its depth, I made the catch and stupidly airmailed the cutoff man for a possible play at the plate.

The rookie mistake allowed a run to score.

Two hitters later, I got my second fly ball.

“A can of corn grab,” Rance described it.

It did not feel like a can of corn. With every pitch, my heart was hammering and my mind was fully and completely engaged, thinking through possible scenarios. It was incredible, pure adrenaline and joy.

Another minute passed and the game ended. We were unsuccessful in mounting a last-at-bat rally. I was in the hole when the final out was made.

The Naturals won 6 – 2.

I am a pretty competitive person. I don’t even like losing at rock-paper-scissors to my wife. (I don’t know why we play. She always wins.) Losing the first game was frustrating, but I really like this team. These Cyclones have a lot of grit and heart and are great teammates. Now that the loss is out of the way, maybe we can just win the rest the games.  

After my daughters left for church, it occurred to me why the game felt so short.

When you completely lose track of time doing something, you are playing.

Playing keeps you young, even if you’re the oldest player on the team.

Playing embodies hope, which was so needed after a week of dealing with multiple car issues.

Playing puts a smile on your face, even if your team loses.

Next Sunday is Back to School Day. All elementary, middle school, and high school students, teachers, and faculty can attend the games for free. There will be games for the students and specials for teachers, encouraging all at the start of another school year.

Education is the answer.

The Cyclones will face the Yogis in another noon game which means I will be trying to figure out how to wear a frozen hat and jersey.

Red

I wore red on my first baseball team. Red pants and red stirrups pulled tight and a hat with a red bill that was nowhere near flat. This was the team where everyone wanted to try on the catcher’s gear and there was a breakout of lice. Being bald was a blessing.

In 2015, I wore red as a role player in Larry Foley’s baseball documentary The First Boys of Spring. A white wool uniform, a tan hat, and red tall socks. That same pair of socks will be part of my uniform on Sunday.

For years, I owned no red clothes. My wardrobe was all shades of blue. I never had to worry about anything matching. I could discern which t-shirt was which simply from the shade of blue on the sleeve.

The head coach of the CY Cyclones is the head coach of Drury University’s baseball team. Drury’s colors are red (scarlet) and gray. It makes sense, then, that the Cyclones would be red.

I was fortunate to not only be drafted by the head coach of Drury, but to find a sponsor — The Hamels Foundation. Created by Heidi and Cole Hamels, the Hamels Foundation “is dedicated to enriching the lives of children through the power of education by giving them the tools they need to achieve their goals.” For ten years now, The Hamels Foundation has provided financial support to schools in the United States and in Malawi, Africa.

On Day #348 of Catch 365, I watched The Hamels Foundation donate new cleats to the softball and baseball teams of Conway High School just before Christmas. I have no practical use for metal cleats and still found myself drooling over the gift.

I visited with Kathy, the COO of the foundation, and heard so many stories. Stories of building a primary school and breaking the cycle of poverty. Stories of collegiate scholarships and after-school programs and playground equipment. And one story of Delaware Elementary, the school where I grew up, the school where Jamie teaches, providing sensory room supplies and gardening equipment. The support of The Hamels Foundation has directly impacted my wife’s calling, too.

I contacted Kathy and told her of my desire to try out for the Grip ‘N’ Rip league.

“The Hamels Foundation would be honored to sponsor you!” she replied almost immediately.

Along with the sponsorship, Kathy sent me a new red t-shirt — “Education is the answer.”

I will proudly wear red on Sunday.

To learn more about The Hamels Foundation, click here.

Group Texting

The first text came through while I was standing in the shop at All-Pro Automotive. Rick was being as gentle as he could telling me all the reasons my car didn’t pass its annual inspection. Thankfully, Rick has a good sense of humor and made me laugh as he relayed the bad news.

I am not a fan of cars. Those seven words could be etched on my gravestone. Or maybe I should just get a tattoo of that phrase.  

Jamie and I have been married 22 years. We’ve had 16 cars during that span. Soon to be 17, I guess. My first desire after hearing Rick’s news was to take a bat to the vehicle. But my bat was at home. And I’d be more worried about the car doing damage to the bat than vice versa.

Then I remembered the text.

I am not usually a fan of group texts. I still have a flip phone. There have been times in the past when group texts have completely overwhelmed my phone and shut it down. But this phone only cost me $25. Which frees me to spend more money on car repairs. Life is funny like that.

The text.

Coach Nasby relayed the information for this season’s first game.

Sunday, August 11, Noon.

The Cyclones will kick off the fourth season of the Grip ‘N’ Rip Baseball League against the Naturals.

(Season tickets can be purchased here!)

A couple of my teammates chimed in and, for just a few moments, I completely forgot my car woes. I had no idea who the names or faces were behind the numbers, but I knew that they were teammates. Everyone was excited simply for the chance to play baseball again.

This is one of the beautiful parts of the game of baseball. Teammates pick up the guys who are struggling.  

There are far too few parts of “real life” that encourage the positive aspect of the teammate mentality. Social media makes it so easy to divide and cut down other people rather than tap into the power of encouragement. Being negative is easy. It takes guts and work to choose hope every single day. Teammates — friends — are those incredible people in your life who help you keep your chin up and rise above the circumstances, walking with you through whatever storms life brings.

I have no idea what vehicle I’ll be driving on Sunday morning, but I’m looking forward to spending time back on the field with a bunch of guys who love and respect the game like I do. Those couple hours are going to help keep me sane moving forward into car-shopping territory.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dad tells stories with videos like I try to tell stories with words. He documented my efforts on Sunday and created this story. Though it’s quite humbling and embarrassing to see high school junior varsity skills on a 44-year old frame, it’s pretty neat to see how he pieced it together.

Of course, pretty much every baseball video is better with the Field of Dreams soundtrack as accompaniment.

Tryouts

It started with a whisper I couldn’t ignore.

Almost immediately, Rance volunteered to cover the cost of my tryout promptly eliminating my first excuse.

Mark and I started working out the day after the Royals Opening Day victory.

Four months later, tryouts were here.

I didn’t sleep well at all the night before. At 6 AM, I rolled out of bed and got dressed because I was tired of pretending I was sleeping.

I entered the stadium gates of The U.S. Baseball Park at 7:30 AM. The last pitch of batting practice was thrown at 12:25 PM. Five hours of adrenaline and nerves and all those uninvited voices in my head. Voices of fear and doubt and reasons to quit. Voices telling me to play it safe and not risk injury. I keep thinking that, one of these days, those voices will leave me alone.

Those voices listed all of those reasons several times over throughout the day.

Even at 7:30 AM, a time I’m fairly certain belongs to coffee and donuts and prayers to make it through the day, a time when the best baseball is not being played, the registration line was long. I was intimidated simply by others’ appearances. Their top-dollar gloves and bats and bat-packs. I waited impatiently to check in so I could start stretching out. The line moved quickly and I joked with those near me so I wouldn’t chicken out.

I signed a release form and a friendly young woman handed me my number written on a yellow sticky note.

92.

Walking away from the table, I heard numbers 117 and 119 check in. It took me about three seconds to do the math of 6 teams and 14 players per team — 84 players will make the cut.

The voices shouted a little louder, “You can walk away. You don’t have to stay. Go surprise your family at church. Get donuts. Give Rance his money back and leave. There is a reason the vast majority of baseball players retire before they reach your age.”

By the time I walked in to the third base dugout, the left field foul line was full of people playing catch. I put on my cleats and started stretching, waiting for Mark to work through the registration process. Mark and I were running in right field when I spotted Dad waving his hat. I had invited him to watch, but feared the day was going to be long and boring and hot. He took pictures to document the effort.

I decided to try out as a second baseman and outfielder. It’s possible I could pitch an inning with a little movement. I could represent the Stevie Wilkerson school of pitching. It’s also possible my arm might fall off at the elbow.

Tony, the league commissioner, opened the tryouts with a quick welcome and sent everyone to work. Pitchers and catchers reported to the bullpen. I had about an hour to practice grounders, getting better acclimated to the speedy turf field.

I stood in line with about 15 other middle infielders. When it was my turn at the front of the line, I signaled my readiness by showing my glove to the man swinging the fungo bat and bounced on my toes. The very first ground ball hit to me was a rocket shot, screaming just inches off the ground. It bounced less than a foot in front of me and skimmed off the turf, like a skipping stone across a still lake, where it seemed to pick up speed, glanced off my cup — Thanks be to God for the Nutty Buddy — and shot straight through my legs and into the kneecap of the young man standing behind me.

I felt like an idiot. I apologized to the young man profusely.

In between turns, I kept an eye out on the pitchers so I could watch and cheer Mark. He threw a short bullpen session the last time we practiced. His slider was nasty. I was glad I was catching it and not trying to hit it.

The bullpen sessions were impressive. Pitches cut and dropped and zipped to the plate at velocities exceeding anything I’ve driven any motor vehicle. I witnessed one lefty knuckleballer throwing pitches that would have made Bugs Bunny proud.

Side note: I honestly don’t know how anyone ever hits a baseball.

When the pitchers and catchers finished, all outfielders were sent to right field. A pitching machine was set up near home plate and dialed in to launch line drives. Prospective outfielders were to field four balls on one or two hops, and then make two throws to third base and two throws home.

Standing in right field, third base is forever away.

The gray metal siding of the U.S. Ballpark offices and the gray bleachers camouflaged the ball quite well. There were more than a couple times I had difficulty picking the ball up out of the machine.

Being number 92 was like having a last name that started with X. I wasn’t quite last, but close enough. I watched players make throws that would have made Oakland A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano proud.

I had enough time to think and doubt and worry. My arm is not a throw-through-the-cutoff-guy kind of arm. My arm is a thank-God-Almighty-there-is-a-cutoff-guy arm. I was slow to field my first line drive simply because I lost it in the buildings. Four relatively accurate throws bounced half a dozen times on the way to their destinations.

Waiting my turn in the outfield, at second base, before batting practice I could not help but notice how much talent there was on the field. I talked to several of the other baseball hopefuls and heard their stories and again I felt ridiculous when I compared my relatively limited baseball experiences to theirs.

“You are very good at writing baseball stories,” the voices said. “You could really help the league by writing about the teams and the players.”

The pitching machine was re-aimed at the ground to deliver consistent grounders for all of the infield positions. I cleanly fielded my three ground balls, no cup checks, made accurate throws to first, and then waited my turn for batting practice.

There were two rounds of batting practice. Five swings the first round; four swings the second. While I waited, I tried to time the pitcher who seemed to be standing about two feet in front of the plate.

I walked into the cage affectionately called the “turtle,” and don’t remember what happened next. I don’t know if I held my breath or closed my eyes or what. Most likely, I swung at every pitch whether or not if it was a strike. I don’t think I missed any. I honestly don’t know.

I returned to the outfield to shag fly balls while batting practice finished and then tryouts were over and it was time to wait.

I drove home, treated the black turf-tire-sliding stains on my white pants, and laundered all of my sweat-saturated clothing while I waited. I guzzled a couple glasses of water and watched the Twins dominate the Royals. I emptied my baseball backpack, noticed that it is hanging together by mere threads, and considered throwing it away. I played ball with my dog and cleaned dishes and waited.

Three hours later, Mark and Rance texted almost simultaneously.

“Congrats! But we’re on separate teams,” Mark said.

“Your uniform is going to be red. Congratulations!” Rance said.

I was drafted by Scott Nasby, the head coach for the Drury University Panthers, and by Ryan Wolfe, the owner at CY Sports and sponsor for the team — the CY Cyclones.

Dad and I drove back to the ballpark for the opening banquet catered by Mexican Villa. I was inspired by the passionate speeches Tony and Rance and Scott delivered. I was still a little stunned believing that I belonged. I met my teammates, signed a contract, received my first payday** as a “professional ballplayer,” and got my jersey.

I will be wearing number 10.

Like Andre Dawson.

Like Lefty Grove.

Like Chipper Jones and Ron Santo.

Like Dick Howser.

Like Mark. Now we’ll look like twins, I’m positive.

(He’s the one with the beard. I’m the bald guy.)

“Congrats today. It took courage,” Tony told me after the banquet.

At no point during the entire tryout process did the word “courage” ever cross my brain.

Maybe courage in real life isn’t bold and brash and brave as seen in Marvel movies and Firefly and Braveheart and Finding Nemo.

Maybe courage is just daring to believe that first whisper a little more than the voices that tell you to quit, to give up, to play it safe.

Maybe courage is believing in yourself just enough to try and climb that first hill, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

It takes courage to try new things, to meet new friends, to set oneself up for rejection whether on the field, in the batter’s box, or shopping publishers for your latest manuscript.

The presence of Rance, Mark, and Dad helped me believe in myself enough not to quit.

Your presence may give someone else the courage they need to face whatever whispers are on their hearts.

**Tony gave every ballplayer a $1 bill so we could all be considered professional baseball players, being paid for our skills. I am having mine framed.

Open Workout

I spotted Mark stretching on the right field line as I entered the stadium. Fifty guys gathered at the U.S. Baseball Park in Ozark, Missouri for the open workout the day before the Grip ‘N’ Rip League tryouts. There was great comfort knowing I had an encouraging catch partner waiting for me.

Stretch. Jog. Throw. Smile.

A steady and gentle breeze swirled around the field, helping cut through the humid morning, even if it was less than 80 degrees.

Less than 80 degrees on August 3. That’s ridiculous.

Tony Lewis, the commissioner of the league, greeted all the hopeful ballplayers with the simple instructions that today was a day of batting practice and getting acclimated to the field.

For example, the turf of U.S. Baseball Park is fast. Grounder bounces and hops are true, but they require quick and sure reflexes. Everyone took their positions. I lined up at second base with four others, including two who played in the league last year. Before it was my turn to field anything, we were called in for the next round of batting practice.

Two rounds. Ten swings the first round. Five swings the second. I tried my best to hit the ball where it was pitched, hoping to make solid contact.

And I honestly have no recollection how I did. I mean, I hit what Tony threw, the bat felt great in my hands, but as soon as I made contact, he was gearing up for the next pitch. I took a breath, took my swings, and kept the line moving.

After taking my swings, I went to the outfield and got a good session of fly balls from Coach Lael, head of baseball operations for the league.

There was a lot of talent on the field today. There will be more talent on the field tomorrow.

With my dri-fit shirt positively glued to my body, I walked to the van and couldn’t stop smiling.

“I know it’s just a game, but it is just so much fun being on the field,” I overheard one of the other outfielders say.

Tomorrow morning, the four hours of fun continues.

Tryouts are here.

Covered

When I last played competitive baseball, as the score-keeping-foul-ball-chasing-outfielder-warm-upping benchwarmer on the junior varsity team at Kickapoo High School in the palindromic summer of 1991, I hated wearing a cup. It was bulky and uncomfortable and horribly awkward. The baseball field at the high school was not the beauty it is now. We ended many practice sessions picking up rocks off the infield dirt. There were a couple of occasions during practice I received a cup-check bounce and was grateful everything was covered.

Fast forward a couple of decades. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that, even for a one day tryout, wearing a cup is a must. Even on a turf field. Even for a hopeful benchwarming outfielder. Even if it’s a millionty August humidity-filled degrees.

There are four ways to talk about the importance of proper protection for baseball players.

Statistics. Humor. Story. Science.

Statistics.

Less than 13% of 700 high school and college male athletes surveyed wear a protective athletic cup.[1]

A ball traveling in excess of 90 mph delivers an impact of more than 2,000 pounds of force.

Choose wisely.

Humor.

Bob Nelson is a stand-up comedian whose collegiate football routine rocketed him to fame in the mid-1980s. Starring in multiple HBO specials, his alter ego Eppy Epperman’s babushka dance is one of my family’s favorite comedy routines.

Shortly after Jamie and I got married, my entire family saw Bob perform live as he was at a comedy club directly across the street from our first apartment. A portion of his routine was reserved for taking requests and he performed an abbreviated his famed college football all-stars. In this routine, he talks about “the most important piece of equipment — the cup. It ain’t no Dixie cup and it ain’t no coffee mug and you certainly won’t want to be drinking nothin’ out of it…There are no ways to get hurt when you’re wearing your cup…Unfortunately, I’m not wearing my cup right now and I can’t see.”

The physical comedy of it is perfection.  

Wearing a cup can improve one’s vision.

Side note.

Here’s a video of Eppy’s baseball story.

Story.

Last spring, Yadier Molina was hit in the groin by a tipped-pitch and suffered a traumatic hematoma which required emergency surgery. Yadi was on the injured list for weeks. Of course catchers need to wear cups. With the speed pitchers throw, there are tons of stories of catchers’ cups breaking. Even though I will never play that position, I am positive a cup is imperative. I have had all the surgeries I ever want to have.

I know of outfielders who wrongly think they don’t need to wear a cup. I witnessed one particularly speedy outfielder on first base taking a sizable lead when the pitcher threw to first to pick him off. The throw was errant and hit him where he didn’t want to be hit. He ended up having to go to the hospital, suffered an extreme testicular contusion, and was on the disabled list for a couple weeks.

I’ve seen players hit themselves on foul tips that take bad bounces and wicked line drives into dugouts. My simple contention is that every player on the field should have one. Even 44-year old potential benchwarmers.

Science.

I love Sport Science, the TV show that explains the engineering and scientific principles of athletic feats and undertakings. Some of my favorite episodes include the differences between natural and artificial adrenaline and the Jennie Finch myth episode.    

Since 1991, the design of cups hasn’t really changed all that much.

Enter Nutty Buddy — not to be confused with the Little Debbie snacks.

Missouri-born founder Mark Littell pitched for both the Royals and the Cardinals. Mark designed Nutty Buddy as the perfect protection system for male baseball players. An anatomically-correct cup design. He was invited on Sport Science to stand behind his claims. Literally.

By taking a 90-mph direct hit to the groin.

A company with a sense of humor providing an important service to the game I love.

By far, the Nutty Buddy is the most comfortable cup on the market. And it does exactly what it is intended to do. There’s no way I will ever volunteer to test the efficiency and effectiveness of a cup, but I don’t have any problems wearing this one or encouraging all players to wear protection.

If you can’t be an athlete…

All bases and body parts are covered for next week.

Tryouts are exactly one week away.

Play ball.


[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/2018/05/23/st-louis-cardinals-yadier-molina-testicle-evolution-athletic-cups/634108002/