Bringing My Mitt

I fell in love for the first time in the 8th grade. This time, despite my endless, unrequited crushes, it wasn’t with another human being. I fell hopelessly, endlessly, passionately, and head over heels with the great American pastime: baseball. Infatuation quickly morphed into a full-blown love affair, the flames of which have never extinguished.

More specifically, I fell in love with my hometown team: the Detroit Tigers – on the cusp of their lowest point in franchise history. How fitting.

Not only did I quickly develop a kinship with the boys of summer, but I gained both a refuge and a gateway into acceptance. Though I sucked at sports, I convinced myself that being a fan would somehow improve my social standing.

It didn’t. But baseball certainly made my life feel more complete.

Like the Tigers, I also endured a lot of losing during that time – a steady stream of rejections, epitomized by bullying, my dating life, and eventual writing life.

Like any good marriage, I have stuck with my #1 team for better or for worse, through sickness and through health, from April through October. Enduring off-seasons are like the equivalent of having a partner who must take leave for a long period of time, making the promised reunion all the most resonant. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, as evidenced with the arrival of every April, when I find myself loving the game even more than I did the previous season.

And just like I have never given up on my dream, I have remained devoted to my #1 team for better or for worse, through sickness and through health, from April through October. Enduring off-seasons are like the equivalent of having a partner who must take leave for a long period of time, making the promised reunion all the most resonant. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, as evidenced with the arrival of every April, when I find myself somehow loving the game even more than I did the previous season.

I was fueled with consistent optimism that both myself and my team would go all the way. Living life with eternal optimism certainly has its perks, but it also means enduring an endless parade of unmet expectations. And sacrificing the present in exchange for a brighter future.

My first exposure to the game actually took place several years before my passion soared into full-flight when my parents signed me up for recreational tee-ball. It didn’t take long before it was obvious that I would become a much better fan than I ever was going to be a player. The bullying from my opponents and my teammates didn’t help matters. Nor, did being afraid of the ball. Nor, did running to the wrong base (e.g. running from home to third … on a strikeout). Sure, I was only a beginner. But I was still running to third at the end of the season, too. At least I wasn’t running on strikeouts anymore.

Somehow, my failed tee-ball experiment managed to plant a seed deep within my subconscious, years before it would eventually blossom into full fandom, of which there are several different levels: fanatics, moderates, and bandwagon. Overall, I’d say I landed in the moderate category, with a sprinkling of superstitions that occasionally push me into the realm of fanatic. I can certainly never be accused of being a bandwagon fan, which is attested by my unwavering, optimistic devotion to my hometown team, no matter how bad they may be. And for most of my formative years, there was no shortage of bad.

I certainly wasn’t raised in an environment that was conducive to becoming a sports fan. My father gave two shits about sports. My mother watched baseball on TV every now and then, as I begged to watch reruns of Facts of Life or Diff’rent Strokes. Like many other kids, my father didn’t take me

to my first game. Instead, I was taken by my Grandma’s longtime boyfriend., Chuck At the time, my excitement was measured only by hot dogs, nachos, and Cracker Jack, as opposed to base hits, home runs, and stolen bases. Chuck had season tickets to old Tiger Stadium (lower-deck, third base side, a few rows back from the Tigers’ dugout – paradise for a “real” fan) and took me to several games each summer throughout my youth. Beyond that, I never tuned into games at home and never had any idea – or interest – in what their record was (which during that time, was a blessing). In fact, I barely paid attention to the score while watching it live.

But then came 8th grade.

That was when I made a conscious decision to become a devoted follower of the Tigers. The seed had finally taken root, making me a late-bloomer in both sports and puberty. Perhaps subconsciously, I figured if I liked sports, than my peers would like me. But that wasn’t the case. It was also 1990. The Tigers were so bad, I quickly learned that there was nothing cool about being a Tigers fan and therefore, with no friends to play with, I had more time to watch baseball on a regular basis.

There was no turning back. My theory was that I simply saw enough reruns of Facts of Life to last a lifetime. It was time for something new. It was time to become a man.

I remember that first Opening Day as a christened-fan. My school had a half-day. My mom prepared egg salad sandwiches, which I ate while I read the season preview in the Detroit News. With game time less than an hour away, my baseball journey was about to take full flight.

And there was certainly plenty of space left on the bandwagon, which was not only empty – but running on fumes. By the end of the decade, the The Tigers had amassed more losses than any other team. Things didn’t get much better at the turn of the century, either. Despite the losses, I continued cheering them on, taking jabs from family and friends for my blind devotion, and watching just about every game with the hope that things were finally going to turn around and that my allegiance would make things all the more sweeter if – when – they finally did win. And if you are an eternal optimist like myself… life was always a matter of when.

Despite the losing, nothing dampened my enthusiasm for my beloved team – the tell-tale sign of true love. Of course, I wanted them to win more than anything, but I knew that it was only a matter of time.

I just had to be patient – a skill that would later serve me very well in my writing endeavors. Through the years, my patience and optimism never waned, in the face of logic, reason, and Vegas odds.

Despite the endless losing, I became instantly obsessed with absorbing every detail and intricacy of the game: the sights, the smells, the sounds, the box scores, the standings, the endless parade of stats – in short, anything and everything about the American pastime, which was now my pastime, even though I still couldn’t play it worth a lick. It was during that summer that I also got my first big-boy glove, which I promptly oiled up (the warm, nostalgic smell is as vivid now as it was then) and placed under the tires of my parents’ black Dodge van in order to break it in. That fall, it became the subject of an essay I wrote in my 10th grade English class entitled “My Most Prized Possession.” An essay that simultaneously showcased my passion, overshadowed by delusions of grandeur:

“When I look at my mitt, I feel hope that someday, I will be the greatest baseball player ever. It seems to hold a bit of magic that allows me to feel like a real ballplayer.”

I optimistically concluded the essay with:

“One more thing. My mother told me when I entered high school that I would make the baseball team my senior year. I laughed at this comment. But as I look at my mitt, I wonder. And hope…”

Though I never made the baseball team, it was in this very class that my writing dream was born.

And although that seemingly magical glove was de-commissioned a long time ago, I still have it safely packed away in a box full of childhood memories. To this day, it still remains one of my most-prized possessions – a symbol of never giving up. It still smells of oil … from that long ago summer. As I sometimes do with my old security blanket, I often take it out for a dose of instant nostalgia.

Countless summer afternoons were spent adorning my prized glove on one hand and bouncing a tennis ball off of the orange brick of my house with the other, as I waited for the Detroit News to arrive so I could devour the sports section This was often the highlight of my day.

When I got bored of tossing a tennis ball against the wall, I would simply hop on my blue and yellow Huffy and take a bag filled with baseballs to my neighborhood park, proceeding to hit them one after another with my Louisville Slugger, before gathering them all up and doing it all over again from the opposite side of the field. It didn’t matter that I was doing it alone. I was enjoying every second of it.

At family gatherings, I would ask my countless cousins “Did you bring your mitt?” They usually didn’t. But of course, I did. And I never lost hope that someday, they would bring theirs. I still get teased about this till this day. When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, her funeral was held at the church just down the street from the house. On the grounds of a church was a baseball diamond. While standing in the parking lot with some of my cousins, overlooking the now weed-strewn field and mourning my grandmother’s passing, I asked – in a moment of levity – “Did anyone bring their mitt?” We all laughed. Some things never die. And for the record, I always keep my mitt in my trunk. Just in case.

During my junior year, I somehow found the confidence to try out for the JV team and put my mom’s prediction to the test. By that point, I had found a safe haven in band class. And though band did nothing to improve my athletic ability, it certainly boosted my confidence – socially, at least.  I knew I didn’t have a realistic shot, but I had recently taught myself how to throw a decent side-arm pitch, so, I figured what the hell?

In the end, I failed. Though coaches admire heart, most have no need for a pitcher with zero velocity in combination with the uncanny ability of being able to consistently toss a meatball over the heart of the plate. My years of “training” did little to help – other than preparing me to lose. At least the coach thanked me for trying out. I took that for what it was worth. The fact that the baseball coach acknowledged my existence was a victory in itself. And thus ended my high school athletic career. One thing was clear: I was always going to be a much better fan than I ever was a player. But I could live with that.

Three summers later, I formed a co-ed softball team through my church. The only thing more unlikely than becoming a manager of a sports team would have been becoming a gym teacher. Yet, there I was. In charge of a team that I assembled out of nothing.

It was time to get serious.

I bought a brand new glove, my first pair of cleats, my first cup, and my first non-wood bat. The glove has held up well over the years (despite the invisible hole responsible for all of my errors). The lack of contact of ball into glove is probably the reason why it has lasted so long. As far as the bat, it turned out to be an absolute lemon – taking me from suck to super suck.

Not that it would have really mattered which bat I used; the results would have more than likely been the same. But others attested to the fact that my bat sucked, proving I was even a loser at selecting a bat. Once I switched bats, I actually turned out to be a fairly consistent hitter – certainly, not in terms of power numbers, but I could at least get on base with a steady stream of singles. My above average speed certainly helped. My deficiency as a player was on the defensive side of things. I lacked the ability to judge fly balls. Hence why I was a natural fit for right field, where the balls were least likely to go – unless it was a left-handed hitter … or a crafty right-handed one who knew how to hit the opposite way once they realized I was a weak link (it usually didn’t take much time). Whenever a ball was hit my way, I would either: overrun it, or stop short of it, watching the ball drop right in front of me – or, more often than not, far away from me. My inability to judge even the most routine fly ball renders my decent speed completely useless.

Another hindrance to my speed is the fact that I’m still afraid of the ball … even after all of these years. This includes running out a grounder to first base. More often than not, I duck and/or throw my arms over my head as I approach first base, thus slowing down and thereby resulting in outs that should have been hits – once again, neutralizing my speed.

As far as my team itself, it was doomed from the start. Each week, I scrambled to find enough players to field a team – especially female ones. The females that were on my team had little to no interest in playing softball. And I didn’t exactly assemble a Murder’s Row of men. Suffice to say, I guided my team to three straight, pitiful losing seasons. And thanks to my Gold Glove talent, even my Grandmother paid an unfortunate price. It was bad enough my family came to watch such an awful mockery of the game. Making it worse was when the third baseman threw a ball to me, while I was stationed at first base during pre-game warm-ups. In usual fashion, the ball got past me, only to ricochet directly into my Grandma’s leg. What began as a major bruise later required minor surgery.

Three years later, I waved the white flag on my softball experiment, deservingly putting it – and myself – out of its collective misery.

Despite my failings on the field, I could always hang my hat on my one true position – being a mere spectator. Even my dad eventually came around to the fact that his son wasn’t going to follow in his footsteps of being an anti-sports fan. In 1993, he finally acknowledged this fact by taking his me to the holiest of holy days for a baseball fan: Opening Day in Detroit – an unofficial holiday. I remember that day so vividly – the rusted girders of the ballpark giving way to the vivid shades of green grass, the smell of hot dogs, mustard, and spilled beer, the sounds the crowd, the crack of the bat, the ball snapping into gloves, and a glimpse of my first boobies (a drunken fan seated behind us). It has become one of those memories that feels as immediate now as it did then – no matter how much time continues to pass by.

Every game I have gone to since – in some form or another – takes me back to that one, magical day.

We sat in the massive sun and booze-soaked centerfield bleacher section at old Tiger Stadium, which had originally opened in 1912 on the same day the Titanic sunk.

Any true Tigers fan knows that the bleachers – despite their distance from most of the action – were the place to be. As for the game itself, the Tigers beat the Oakland Athletics 20-4 and went on to have their only winning season in an almost a 20-year span (a short-lived success … the losing resumed the following year … and several years after that).

I’ll always remember Opening Days with my dad. The tradition lasted about six or seven years and I have gone to several other Opening Days since, but none of them have matched – nor, ever will – the memory of the first one. Coming in at a close second was the strike-shortened season of 1994 that wiped out the World Series, irate fans protested by littering the field with magnet schedules – most of which were flung from the bleacher section where we sat.

Another vivid baseball memory involved my entire family and took place at historic Fenway Park, which, like the now long-gone Tiger Stadium, opened its doors in 1912. The pitching match-up pitted two aces: Roger Clemens vs. Scott Erickson. There was just one problem: the game never happened. It was rained out. Despite the torrential downpour, I remained determined that the game would be played eventually, forcing my family to endure sitting in the pouring rain for over three hours before the game was finally called. I can still see the falling rain through the hazy lights of the hallowed ballpark. Seared into my memory more than any actual game would have been.

Though I could at least say that I had been inside hollowed Fenway, it just wasn’t the same as actually watching a game played there.

It wouldn’t be until June 2017 that I would finally enter the hallowed ballpark, in celebration of my 40th birthday. Also joining us at Fenway: my Detroit Tigers – at the tail end of a decade of dominance and on the heels of a re-build.

I was also fortunate enough to be at the last game at Tiger Stadium, as well as the first game at Comerica Park the following April. In many ways, the transition between the two stadiums represented, in my mind, the divide between childhood and adulthood. My past and future. And the promise of better days ahead.

I remember that last game so vividly. September 27, 1999. I attended with both my parents – the only game I remember going to with both of them. Though the team was enduring yet another losing season, the magical atmosphere was worthy of the World Series. A fitting end to the beloved, nearly century-old beloved ballpark, Sadly, like so many other structures in Detroit, the stadium would be left to rot.

The people I have attended games with over the years serve as a sort of timeline –  or snapshot – of my social life at the time. Friends and relationships have come and gone, just like the players on the team, or each passing season. One of the joys of the game is the social dimension that the sport provides – more so than other, far more fast-paced sports like football, basketball, or hockey, which demands constant attention. Baseball moves at a leisurely pace, allowing for conversation with friends and family in a way that the other sports simply can’t provide. At times – especially during losing seasons, or the doldrums of any long season, for that matter – the social aspect of the game easily trumps the competitive aspect. In essence, the various ebbs and flows of the sport become almost like a marker of one’s life. Intertwined with our memories are the players and highlights of the game over the years. They are the timeline to our lives.

Despite all of life’s changes, baseball has remained a constant, steady pulse in my life. The game remained constant. And sadly, so did the losing.

At times – especially during losing seasons, or the doldrums of any long season, for that matter – the social aspect of the game easily trumps the competitive aspect. In essence, the various ebbs and flows of the sport become almost like a marker of one’s life. Intertwined with our memories are the players and highlights of the game over the years.

It is only fitting that I would have a chance encounter with a Tigers Hall of Fame legend while waiting at the gate before my fateful flight to L.A. in pursuit of my Hollywood dream, that ultimately led to my memoir Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine.

While waiting at the gate, I spotted an elderly, white-haired man sitting in front of me that struck an uncanny resemblance to a certain Hall of Fame manager. I couldn’t believe my own eyes, so I approached the gate attendant:

“Is that Sparky Anderson?” I asked.

“Yes, it is,” the attendant replied with a smile. I debated whether I should leave the old man alone, but couldn’t resist. I approached, struggling to keep my nerves under control.

“Mr. Anderson?”

“Yes?” he replied.

I offered my hand. He shook it.

“I am so happy to meet you. I am a big fan,” I said, before congratulating him on his recent induction into the Hall of Fame.

I thought for sure that he would brush me off, but instead we chatted for a few minutes about the Tigers and their upcoming season. I then offered him my pen and steno pad, which he signed on the first page: “To Bob. Thanks for being a great baseball fan. Sparky Anderson.”

I thanked him, before clumsily returning to my seat, where I waited to board. The next and last time I saw him, I was heading down the aisle in search of my seat. He was sitting in first class, already asleep.

Following came several more years of losing – including the rock bottom season in 2003, when the Tigers fell short of setting the all-time loss record by one game (53-119).

And then came 2006. Following years of torture, my beloved Tigers finally turned things around. They not only had their first winning season since 1993, but they somehow put together a dream season that catapulted them all the way to the World Series, where they proceeded to lose in six games. They have been competitive ever since. The bandwagon of which I was once the lone passenger of had begun to overflow.

Incidentally, the Tigers’ turnaround mirrors my own professional and personal turnaround in life in a myriad of ways. Just as the Tigers are no longer losers, I am no longer bullied, nor teased for being such a diehard fan, as I was during all the losing. My loyalty paid off and I am better equipped to handle whatever adversity both the team – and myself – might face down the road.

I often write while a Tigers game plays in the background, finding my own ebbs and flows running concurrently along with the game itself. And much like the Tigers, year after year passed with my writing career seemingly going nowhere. Sure, there may been the occasional winning streak amongst the losing, poking through the gray clouds of my writing life. But it was always fleeting.

Suddenly, once the Tigers figured out how to win, somehow, so did I, as a steady stream of publishing followed. But like the Tigers, I am still searching in vain for the grand prize.

But alas, as Robert Frost once said, “Nothing gold can stay.” Following a decade of dominance, the team is in deep re-building mode. The circle of life. But I remain a loyal fan.

The ebb and flow of both the game and life were further echoed in the dissolution of my first marriage, which paved the way for a new one, ultimately leading to the unexpected discovery that I was going to be father.

And in perfect synchronization, following years of losing in all its various forms, my one true moment of athletic glory finally arrived.

My daughter was due in late August, coinciding with the end of what had turned out to be a fantastic, turn-around season for my work’s recreational softball team.

We ended the season tied for first, which meant having to play a one-game play-off for the championship on a chilly, rain-soaked late summer night. The game was a doozy, going back and forth all game long. Of course, I was conditioned to accept that a loss was always lurking around the corner. I was especially thinking this as I headed to the plate with the bases loaded in our final at-bat, down by one with two outs. After years of folding under pressure, there was no greater choke opportunity than that very moment. The fate of our entire season was now entirely up to me. And if past history was any indication, I was setting my team up to lose, and lose big.

Moments certainly don’t get more pressurized than that. To compound matters, I wasn’t having my best game at the plate to begin with, and I wasn’t expecting it to change now.

But as I stood at the plate, I felt something shift within me. Perhaps it was seeing a glimpse of the new life that awaited me as a father. Perhaps I had simply willed myself to refuse to lose anymore. Perhaps it was all the feel-good sports movies I’d watched over the years. Whatever it was, I suddenly had the clarity I’d heard about, but never before experienced in sports.

The fear was gone.

And I knew exactly what I had to do.

Nothing was going to stop me.

I stepped into the pitch and swung, sending the ball sailing to right-center. The fielders who had come up shallow now had to sprint toward the backfield. The ball continued sailing through the night sky before arcing down and slamming down at the base of the fence. I had never come close to hitting a ball like this. I should point out that in this particular league, balls hit over the fence constitute outs. It would have been my luck to knock one out of the park and lose. But fate was on my side for once. And just like that, it was game over. We were champions.

Once upon a time, I was picked last in gym class.

And now, I was a champion.

If only my bullies could have seen me now. Then again, at that point, I could give two shits what they thought.

That was the real victory.

And even if my big hit didn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, I will never forget the feeling on that cold, wet summer night. In that singular moment, it meant everything.

That same night, just hours after our thrilling victory, came another one. I became a father. And I’ve been winning ever since. Professionally, the game-winning hit, combined with the birth of my daughter, mirrored my arrival as a published writer.

In fact, her birth coincided with a 12-game winning streak late in the season that propelled the Tigers into the playoffs in 2011 for the first time since 2006. She’s been their good luck charm ever since. A year later, they were back in the World Series (only to lose again).

From the time she was born, my daughter has been immersed in Tigers baseball: from the pink pennant that was hung in her room before she was even born, to various onesies and other clothing items and toys bearing the old English ‘D”, it was no surprise that she quickly learned to associate that logo with daddy. She literally called it “Daddy” for the first two years of her life. She got a much earlier jump on the game than her father. In fact, she was indoctrinated with Tigers baseball before she was baptized into the Catholic faith that defines me nearly as much as my faith in the game of baseball. In fact, after seeing me play softball, she believed I played for the Tigers (she also believed that I am Grover from Sesame Street). If only I could have kept both of these illusions alive in her mind forever.

The following season, just following her first birthday, I took her to her first game. My legacy of baseball fandom was officially moving on to the next generation. Taking my child to a baseball game was a moment I had dreamt of for years. And now, the time had finally come. My parents were there, as well, making everything so very “circle of life.” The Tigers lost, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was, my little girl was experiencing her first baseball game – one of which I’m certain will be many. Of course, being only one-year-old meant she had no concept of what was happening on the field. However, I was strongly encouraged by the fact that she sat perfectly patient for nearly the entire game. Two years later, my son was born.  I look forward to all the games I will be taking them to in the future. I look forward to taking them to their first Opening Day. I am so grateful that I will have permanent baseball companions. I think of all players yet to don the old English D – and wonder who the future superstar my children will look up to.

Recently, my son played in his first t-ball game. As I watched him stationed at third base, kicking up gravel, I swelled with a deep pride that only a parent could feel. I couldn’t help but imagine him one day taking the field as a major leaguer. And I laughed when he stopped running just short of home plate to dig in the dirt.

Despite all the changes my life has faced, the one constant has been my love for baseball. That is one of the few things I know will never change. Sure, in any relationship, there are always going to be ups and downs. The relationships that thrive are the ones that realize that even when the ups are outnumbered, they are still far worth it. In fact, getting through the downs make the ups so much sweeter. Baseball is no different, which is why in the baseball diamond of life, I will always bring my mitt.

 

Bringing my Mitt

I fell in love for the first time in the 8th grade. However, it wasn’t with another human being. I fell hopelessly, endlessly, passionately, and head over heels with the great American pastime: b-a-s-e-b-a-l-l. Infatuation quickly morphed into a full-blown love affair, the flames of which have never extinguished even all these years later.

More specifically, I fell in love with my hometown team: the Detroit Tigers – on the cusp of their lowest point in franchise history. It was only fitting that my path would cross with the Tigers during this time. A match made in heaven.

Like the Tigers, I also endured a lot of downtrodden losing in my own personal life – beginning with the constant stream of bullying I endured and ranging in everything from my dating life, to the eventual never ending stream of rejections that I confronted on almost a daily basis (first with my peers, later with dating and – most notably – my writing career).

Like any good marriage, I have stuck with my #1 team for better or for worse, through sickness and through health, from April through October. Enduring off-seasons are like the equivalent of having a partner who must take leave for a long period of time, making the promised reunion all the most resonant. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, as evidenced with the arrival of every April, when I find myself loving the game even more than I did the previous season.

My first exposure to the game actually took place several years before my passion soared into full-flight when my parents signed me up for recreational tee-ball. It didn’t take long before it was obvious that I would become a much better fan than I ever was going to be a player. The bullying from my opponents and my teammates certainly didn’t matter. Being afraid of the ball didn’t help matters. Nor did running to the wrong base (e.g. running from home to third … on a strikeout). Sure, I was only a beginner. But I was still running to third at the end of the season, too. At least I wasn’t running on strikeouts anymore.

Somehow, my failed tee-ball experiment managed to plant a seed deep within my subconscious, years before it would eventually blossoming into fandom, of which there are several different levels: fanatics, moderates, and bandwagon. Overall, I’d say I’m in the moderate category, with a sprinkling of superstitions that occasionally push me into the realm of fanatic. I can certainly never be accused of being a bandwagon fan, which is attested by my unwavering devotion to my hometown team, no matter how bad they may be. And for most of my formative years, there was no shortage of bad.

I certainly wasn’t raised in an environment that was conducive to becoming a sports fan. My mother at least watched baseball on TV every now and then, as I begged to watch reruns of Facts of Life or Diff’rent Strokes. My father, on the other hand, did nothing to foster my skill or passion for the game. Unlike most little boys, my father doesn’t give a shit about sports. In fact, he goes out of his way to make it known any chance he gets, going so far as to make fun of others who love sports. My dad was a late-70’s burnout. Sports didn’t quite fit the mold of the mid-70’s burnout that he was (missing the hippy wagon by a few years, he didn’t have a cause to fight for. But there was still plenty of weed to smoke).

When I finally went to my first Tigers game, it wasn’t with my father, but rather with my Grandma’s longtime boyfriend, Chuck (who was like a third grandfather to me). At the time, I had no more than a fleeting interest in the game, with excitement measured only by hot dogs, nachos, and Cracker Jack, as opposed to base hits, home runs, and stolen bases. Chuck had season tickets to old Tiger Stadium (lower-deck, third base side, a few rows back from the Tigers’ dugout – which would have been paradise for a “real” fan) and took me to several games each summer throughout my youth. Beyond that, I never tuned into games at home and never had any idea – or interest – in what their record was (which during that time, was a blessing). In fact, I barely paid attention to the score while watching it live.

But things were about to change.

During the spring of my 8th grade year, I made a conscious decision to become a devoted follower of the Tigers. The seed had finally taken root, making me a late-bloomer in both sports and puberty. Perhaps subconsciously, I figured if I liked sports, than my peers would like me. But that wasn’t quite how it worked out. In the meantime, I started watching baseball on a regular basis. There was no turning back. My theory was that I simply saw enough reruns of Facts of Life to last a lifetime. And one can only take so much of Mr. Drummond … let alone Mrs. Garret. It was time for something new. It was time to become a man.

I remember that first Opening Day as a christened-fan. My school had a half-day. My mom prepared egg salad sandwiches, which I ate while I read the season preview in the Detroit News like a true sports fan with game time less than an hour away. My baseball journey was about to take full flight.

Unfortunately, it was 1990. At that point in time, there was plenty of space left on the bandwagon, which was not only empty – but running on fumes. By the end of the decade, the The Tigers had amassed more losses than any other team. Things didn’t get much better at the turn of the century, either. In fact, rock bottom hit in 2003 when the Tigers fell short of setting the all-time loss record by one game (53-119). Despite the losses, I continued cheering them on, taking jabs from family and friends for my blind devotion, and watching just about every game with the hope that things were finally going to turn around and that my allegiance would make things all the more sweeter if – when – they finally did win. And if you are an eternal optimist like myself… life was always a matter of when.

Despite the losing, nothing dampened my enthusiasm for my beloved team – the tell-tale sign of true love. Of course, I wanted them to win more than anything, but I knew that it was only a matter of time. I just had to be patient. With each passing year, I continued to echo this refrain, truly meaning it, in the face of all logic, reason, and Vegas odds.

Despite the endless losing, I became instantly obsessed with absorbing every detail and intricacy of the game: the sights, the smells, the sounds, the box scores, the standings, the endless parade of stats – in short, anything and everything about the American pastime, which was now my pastime, even though I still couldn’t play it worth a lick. It was during that summer, I also got my first big-boy glove, which I promptly oiled up and placed under the tires of my parents’ Dodge mini-van in order to break it in. That fall, it became the subject of an essay I wrote in English class entitled “My Most Prized Possession.” An essay that simultaneously showcased my passion, overshadowed by delusions of grandeur:

“When I look at my mitt, I feel hope that someday, I will be the greatest baseball player ever. It seems to hold a bit of magic that allows me to feel like a real ballplayer.”

The essay optimistically concludes with this nugget:

“One more thing. My mother told me when I entered high school that I would make the baseball team my senior year. I laughed at this comment. But as I look at my mitt, I wonder. And hope…”

Although that seemingly magical glove was de-commissioned a long time ago, I still have it safely packed away in a box full of childhood memories. To this day, it still remains one of my most-prized possessions – a symbol of never giving up. It still smells of oil … from that long ago summer. As I sometimes do with my old security blanket, I often take it out for a dose of instant nostalgia.

Countless summer afternoons were spent adorning my prized glove on one hand and bouncing a tennis ball off of the orange brick of my house with the other, as I waited for the Detroit News to arrive so I could devour into the sports. For a kid with few friends, this was often the highlight of my day. Despite my lack of skill, I somehow managed to magically catch every ball into my sun-warmed, oil-soaked glove, much like I used to magically make every shot I made on my basketball hoop.

When I got bored of tossing a tennis ball against the wall, I would simply hop on my blue and yellow Huffy and take a bag filled with baseballs to my neighborhood park, proceeding to hit them one after another with my Louisville Slugger, before gathering them all up and doing it all over again from the opposite side of the field. It didn’t matter that I was doing it alone. I was enjoying every second of it.

At ever fair climate family gathering, I would ask my countless Italian cousins “Did you bring your mitt?” Usually, they did not. But of course, I did. And I never lost hope that someday, they would bring theirs. I still get teased about this till this day. When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, her funeral was held at the church just down the street from the house. On the grounds of a church was a baseball diamond. While standing in the parking lot with some of my cousins, overlooking the now weed-strewn field and mourning my grandmother’s passing, I asked – in a moment of levity – “Did anyone bring their mitt?” We all laughed. Some things never die. And for the record, I always keep my mitt in my trunk. Just in case.

By the time I was a high school, I somehow found the confidence to try out for my high school’s JV team. I knew I didn’t have a realistic shot, but I had recently taught myself how to throw a decent side-arm pitch, so, I figured what the hell? In the end, I failed. Though coaches admire heart, most have no need for a pitcher with zero velocity in combination with the uncanny ability of being able to consistently toss a meatball over the heart of the plate. In the end, I failed. My years of “training” did little to help – other than preparing me to lose. At least the coach thanked me for trying out. I took that for what it was worth. The fact that the baseball coach acknowledged my existence was a victory in itself. That was the end of my high school athletic career … and it hadn’t even started. One thing was clear: I was always going to be a much better fan than I ever was a player. But I could live with that.

Three summers later, I formed a co-ed softball team through my church. I bought a brand new glove, my first pair of cleats, my first cup, and my first non-wood bat. The glove has held up well over the years (despite the invisible hole in it that I maintain is the cause of all of my errors). The lack of contact of ball into glove is probably the reason why it has lasted so long. As far as the bat, it turned out to be an absolute lemon – taking me from suck to super suck. Not that it would have really mattered which bat I used; the results would have more than likely been the same. But others attested to the fact that my bat sucked, proving I was even a loser at selecting a bat.

Somehow, against all odds, I eventually turned out to be a fairly consistent hitter – certainly, not in terms of power numbers, but I could at least get on base with a steady stream of singles. My deficiency as a player was more in the realm of my complete lack of ability to judge fly balls. Hence why I was a natural fit for right field, where the balls was least likely to go – unless it was a left-handed hitter … or a crafty right-handed one who knew how to hit the opposite way once they realized I was a weak link (it usually didn’t take much time). Whenever a ball was hit my way, I would either :overrun it, or stop short of it, watching the ball drop right in front of me – or, more often than not, far away from me. My inability to judge even the most routine fly ball rendered my decent speed completely useless.

Another hindrance to my speed is the fact that I’m still afraid of the ball … even after all of these years. I’m even afraid of the ball when I’m running to first base. More often than not, I duck and/or throw my arms over my head as I approach first base, thus slowing down and thereby resulting in outs that should have been hits – once again, neutralizing my adequate speed.

As far as my team itself, it was doomed from the start. Each week, I scrambled to find enough players to field a team – especially female ones. The females that were on my team had little to no interest in playing softball (and the ones who did play had little to know skill). Our men (with the exception of me), on the other hand, were adequate. But suffice to say, I guided my team to three straight, pitiful losing seasons. And thanks to my Gold Glove talent, even my Grandmother paid an unfortunate price. It was bad enough my family came to watch such an awful mockery of the game. Making it worse was when the third baseman threw a ball to me, while I was stationed at first base during pre-game warm-ups. In usual fashion, the ball got past me, only to ricochet directly into my Grandma’s leg. What began as a major bruise later required minor surgery.

Three years later, I waved the white flag on my softball experiment, deservingly putting it – and myself – out of its collective misery.

Despite my failings on the field, I could always hang my hat on my one true position – being a mere spectator. Even my dad eventually came around to the fact that his son wasn’t going to follow in his footsteps of being an anti-sports fan. In 1993, he acknowledged this fact by taking his me to the holiest of holy days for a baseball fan: Opening Day in Detroit – an unofficial holiday. I remember that day so vividly – the sights, the smells, the sounds. It has become one of those memories that feels as immediate now as it did then – no matter how much time continues to pass by.

Every game I have gone to since – in some form or another – takes me back to that one, magical day.

We sat in the massive sun and booze-soaked centerfield bleacher section at old Tiger Stadium, which had originally opened in 1912 on the same day the Titanic sunk.

Any true Tigers fan knows that the bleachers – despite their distance from most of the action – were the place to be. After all, this was the place where I saw my first real boobies flashed directly behind us (they were the only boobs I would see for the next several years). As for the game itself, the Tigers beat the Oakland Athletics 20-4 and went on to have their only winning season in an almost a 20-year span (a short-lived success … the losing resumed the following year … and several years after that).

I’ll always remember Opening Days with my dad – especially the first one. The tradition lasted about six or seven years and I have gone to several other Opening Days since, but none of them have matched – nor, ever will – the memory of the first one. But there were come close second. Following a strike-shortened season in 1994 that wiped out the World Series, irate fans protested by littering the field with magnet schedules – most of which were flung from the bleacher section where we sat.

Another vivid memory in my infancy as a baseball fan involved my entire family and took place at historic Fenway Park, which, like the now long-gone Tiger Stadium, opened its doors in 1912. The pitching match-up pitted two aces: Roger Clemens vs. Scott Erickson. There was just one problem: the game never happened. It was rained out. Despite the torrential downpour, I remained determined that the game would be played eventually, forcing my family to endure sitting in the pouring rain for over three hours before the game was finally called. I can still see the falling rain through the hazy lights of the hallowed ballpark. Seared into my memory more than any actual game would have been.

 

As disappointing as it was that the game was canceled, I can at least say I was once inside hollowed Fenway. Hopefully, I can actually see a game there, before Fenway joins the formerly departed Tiger Stadium.

Though I missed out on Fenway, I was fortunate enough to be at both the last game at Tiger Stadium and the first one at their new home, Comerica Park. I remember both games as vividly as any of life’s most profound moments – and as clearly as that first Opening Day. In many ways, the transition between the two stadiums represented, in my mind, the divide between childhood and adulthood. My past and future. And the promise of better days ahead.

The people I have attended games with over the years serve as a sort of timeline, or snapshot, of my social life at the time. Over the years, friends have come and gone, just like the players on the team, or each passing season. One of the joys of the game is the social dimension that the sport provides – more so than other, far more fast-paced sports like football, basketball, or hockey, which demands constant attention. Baseball moves at a leisurely pace, allowing for conversation with friends and family in a way that the other sports simply can’t provide. At times – especially during losing seasons, or the doldrums of any long season, for that matter – the social aspect of the game easily trumps the competitive aspect. In essence, the various ebbs and flows of the sport become almost like a marker of one’s life. Intertwined with our memories are the players and highlights of the game over the years. They are the timeline to our lives.

It is only fitting that I would have a chance encounter with Tigers’ legendary manager Sparky Anderson while waiting at the gate before my fateful flight to L.A. in pursuit of my Hollywood dream, that ultimately led to my memoir Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine.

I spotted a white-haired man sitting in front of me that struck an uncanny resemblance to Sparky. I couldn’t believe my own eyes, so I approached the gate attendant:

“Is that Sparky Anderson?”

“Yes, it is,” the attendant replied with a smile. I debated whether I should leave the old man alone, but couldn’t resist. I approached, struggling to keep my nerves under control.

“Mr. Anderson?”

“Yes?” he replied.

I offered my hand. He shook it.

“I am so happy to meet you. I am a big fan,” I said, before I congratulated him on his recent induction into the Hall of Fame.

I thought for sure that he would brush me off, but instead we chatted for a few minutes about the Tigers and their upcoming season. I then offered him my pen and steno pad, which he signed on the first page: “To Bob. Thanks for being a great baseball fan. Sparky Anderson.”

I thanked him, before clumsily returning to my seat, where I waited to board. The next and last time I saw him, I was heading down the aisle in search of my seat. He was sitting in first class, already asleep and I realized that I just had the rare privilege of seeing a Hall of Fame coach in repose.

 

 

When I finally found my seat, I wrote in my journal: “My trip’s off to a good start already. Perhaps it’s an omen.” How little did I know how much of an omen it truly was.

Naturally, I informed my best friend Mike about my engagement to the person who would become my wife during at a Tigers’ game shortly upon my return from Ukraine in Septemeber 2001.

The following season, I took my wife to her first baseball game.

Eight years later, it was a game when I told Mike about the end of my marriage. Despite all of life’s changes, the stadium remained constant. The game remained constant. And sadly, so did the losing.

And then came 2006. Following years of torture, my beloved Tigers finally turned things around. They not only had their first winning season since 1993, but they somehow put together a dream season that catapulted them all the way to the World Series, where they proceeded to lose in six games. They have been competitive ever since.

Incidentally, the Tigers’ turnaround mirrors my own professional and personal turnaround in life in a myriad of ways. Just as the Tigers are no longer losers, I am no longer bullied, nor teased for being such a diehard fan, as I was during all the losing. My loyalty has finally paid off . In fact, the bandwagon is now overflowing. And I am its merry driver.

Throughout the years, I have made it a habit to write while a Tigers game plays in the background, finding my own ebbs and flows running concurrently along with the game itself. Much like the Tigers, year after year passed with my writing career seemingly going nowhere. Sure, there may been the occasional winning streak amongst the losin, poking through the gray clouds of my writing life. But it was always fleeting.

Suddenly, once the Tigers figured out how to win, somehow, so did I, as a steady stream of publishing followed. But like the Tigers, I am still searching in vain for the grand prize.

The ebb and flow of both the game and life were further echoed in the dissolution of my stormy first marriage, which paved the way for a new one, ultimately leading to the birth of my beautiful little girl. In fact, her birth coincided with a 12-game winning streak late in the season that propelled the Tigers into the playoffs in 2011 for the first time since 2006. She’s been their good luck charm ever since . A year later, they were back in the World Series.

From the time she was born, my daughter has been immersed in Tigers baseball: from the pink pennant that was hung in her room before she was even born, to various onesies and other clothing items and toys bearing the old English ‘D”, it was no surprise that she quickly learned to associate that logo with daddy. She literally called it “Daddy” for the first two years of her life. Furthermore, the only TV she was exposed to for the first year of her life was Tiger games, which ensured that she got a much earlier jump on the game than her father. In fact, she was indoctrinated with Tigers baseball before she was baptized into the Catholic faith that defines me nearly as much as my faith in the game of baseball. In fact, after seeing me play softball, she believed I played for the Tigers (she also believed that I am Grover from Sesame Street). If only I could have kept both of these illusions alive in her mind forever.

The following season, just following her first birthday, I took her to her first game. My legacy of baseball fandom was officially moving on to the next generation. Taking my child to a baseball game was a moment I had dreamt of for years. And now, the time had finally come. My parents were there, as well, making everything so very “circle of life.” The Tigers lost, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was, my little girl was experiencing her first baseball game – one of which I’m certain will be many. Of course, being only one-year-old meant she had no concept of what was happening on the field. However, I was strongly encouraged by the fact that she sat perfectly patient for nearly the entire game. We were certain that we would have to get up numerous times to occupy her. We were wrong. Now with a son, as well, the future is certainly looking bright. I look forward to all the games I will be taking her to in the future. I look forward to taking her to her first Opening Day. I am so grateful that I now have a permanent baseball companion – even though she doesn’t know it yet. She will someday and I hope she will feel the same way. As will my son, who will hopeful.

Despite all the changes my life has faced, the one constant has been my love for baseball. That is one of the few things I know will never change. Sure, in any relationship, there are always going to be ups and downs. The relationships that thrive are the ones that realize that even when the ups are outnumbered, they are still far worth it. In fact, getting through the downs make the ups so much sweeter. Baseball is no different, which is why in the baseball diamond of life, I will always bring my mitt. What I’ll never do, however, is become the type of fan who actually takes their mitt to a game. Now, that would just be plain crazy … unless, of course, my children asked me to.

 

 

 

 

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My American Pastime

It is no surprise that during the same summer I became a baseball junkie, a game was born bearing my name. I was 13. Where I lacked in athletic ability, I made up for in creativity, leading to what alliteratively and affectionately became known as “Bobby Ball”. It is a name synonymous with both losing. And hope.

On the surface, Bobby Ball is much akin to Wiffle Ball. For starters, it uses a Wiffle Ball bat. However, instead of a Wiffle Ball, Bobby Ball uses a deflated rubber ball, halfway between the size of a baseball and a softball. It makes use of ghost runners and bean-outs. Its purest form is one-on-one, however, multi-player Bobby Ball certainly has its advantages. At its core, it’s the baseball equivalent of one-on-one basketball. First one to 21 runs wins – or, when age or brevity is part the equation – 11.

From a cardiovascular perspective, Bobby Ball is a fantastic workout, consisting of virtually non-stop sprinting. At the expense of sounding like a weakling, I’ve never endured more soreness in any athletic endeavor than I have in the game that bears my name. Even my most athletic opponents over the years would agree, ranging from friends who have come and gone, to extended family members. Bobby Ball is not for the faint of heart. Getting beaned by a ball can make a pretty impressive welt. Or, in the case of my friend Steve, legging out a single to first can lead to a ruptured Achilles heel. Bobby Ball beanings also had a negative impact on my ability to run to first base without ducking and/or throwing my arms over my head out of fear of getting plunked in the noggin.

In the early days of the sport, it was played in the backyard of my childhood home – adjacent to my basketball court. It was my own personal sports complex. Launching the ball over the roof was a home run. However, if the ball simply landed on the roof, the ball was still in play and could be caught on its way down as though it were a routine fly ball. However, after breaking a neighbor’s window, it was time to seek greener pastures, which turned out to be in a small clearing in the woods across the street.

Home runs now had to clear a fence into someone’s yard, forcing us to constantly trespass (“we,” more often than not translated into “me” forced to retrieve my opponent’s home runs). Before long, however, home runs were constantly clearing the house itself. We had outgrown that field just like the previous one and had to find a new home, eventually located on the grounds of my elementary school – where I could battle my old elementary school demons with every whiff of the bat and subsequent loss. This location is also symbolic of the game’s glory days, where the majority of Bobby Ball games have been played.

The layout of this particular field was just about perfect in every sense of the word, emulating a real baseball field, complete with a fence that ran at an angle from left to right (giving right-handed hitters a huge advantage). On the other side of the fence was not only home run territory, but a daycare center playground. If daycare recess was in session, we would have to either find a temporary location, or postpone our game and find something else to do.

The infield was a black top used for elementary school kickball games (so sliding was out of the question). The grassy outfield featured a giant tree in centerfield, dubbed the “Green Monster.” Unless one cleared the tree, the branches would gobble up the ball like…a monster. The ball remained in play until it landed on the ground, so we would have to wait beneath its limbs, as the ball bounced around like a pinball, hoping that when the tree was through with it, we’d be in a good enough position to catch it. Sometimes, it never came down at all, at which point the batter was out and the game paused momentarily in order to first locate, and then retrieve the ball by throwing a shoe – or even the bat – at it until he came back to earth. On occasion, the ball was either never located, or was too lodged between branches to get down, destined to spend eternity above the field, which meant heading to Toys ‘R Us to find a new ball. It also meant the person responsible for hitting it into the tree automatically lost. Same if a home run landed on the roof of the school, or if a bat were to somehow defy physics and break in half (this happened once).

Due to the quirky nature of Bobby Ball (and the unique obstacles that come with each field), rules sometimes had to be made up on the fly. This led to the occasional argument and accusations of cheating. However, all I had to do was play the “the-game-is-named-after-me-and-I-make-up-all-the-rules” card to end any disagreement. Though I wasn’t a winner at my own game, it was the one area of sports where I had some authority. It was as simple as adding a new amendment to the ever-evolving Bobby Ball rulebook. Once it was in the rulebook, it was pretty much set in stone – at least, until I decided to brandish my chisel to change a rule if I later deemed it necessary.

For example, a rule adopted early on was that any ball hit up in the air in the infield had to be caught in the air. However, anything in the outfield could be caught on one bounce for an out. Due to my inability to judge traditional fly balls, the one-bounce rule actually increased my fielding percentage exponentially.

Another quirk located in shallow left field was a Funnel Ball chute. If a ball landed in there, the batter would get as many runs as indicated by the hole that the ball eventually dropped out of. Nobody ever accomplished this feat. But it made the rulebook, nonetheless.

Despite the losing, it eventually gave me the confidence I needed to give real baseball a chance. It was during my junior year when I finally mustered up the courage to try out for my school’s JV team. As expected, it ended in failure.

But at least I tried.

Despite this setback, I took comfort in the fact that here was always Bobby Ball. As much as I wanted to make the baseball team, I knew deep down that nothing compared to Bobby Ball.

As the years went by, one thing has been constant: my losing record in all things sports. At least I was consistent, as a fan, player, and coach. Consistency is normally an asset in sports last time I checked. So even though the losing was consistent between Bobby Ball and organized ball … it was losing on a smaller scale, paradoxically making the losing both easier to swallow, and all the more difficult.

Although I stopped keeping track of Bobby Ball statistics years ago, it would be generous to suggest that I have a lifetime .200 winning percentage (this could very well be an overestimate). If anything, that number might more fairly represent my lifetime batting average, or, even more pathetically, my slugging percentage (though I could certainly knock one out of the park from time to time).

As the years have passed, opponents and fields have come and gone, much like relationships. Bobby Ball has outlasted my childhood, college, career changes, layoffs, marriage, and divorce. Though I play much less now than I did in the glory days of my youth, as long as I continue playing, youth will never fully escape me.

I look forward to one day teaching my children how to play my namesake game (“Daddy Ball”, anyone?). Their training has certainly begun. And my son will not only have inherited my name, but my game. My legacy will live on.

Despite the endless losing, however, Bobby Ball has been one of the few constants in my life. It has been a steady force through all the ups and downs in life – the real wins and losses and the ones that matter the most. I’ll never forget the first game I played the day after I returned from Ukraine, newly engaged to my overseas pen pal. I remember feeling so emboldened, actually thinking that my engagement would somehow give me the fuel I needed to finally win against my main rival and best friend, Tzu.

It did not.

I continued to lose through the course of my eight-year marriage. I remember playing my first game following my divorce, serving as a reminder that not everything in life has to change.

I continued to play as I entered a new relationship – emboldened more than ever … but still losing.

Though it has been years since I moved away from the fields of my youth – I continually seek out new fields of dreams. Till this day, whenever I pass a clearing or a park, it is my instinct to naturally envision how the dimensions of a particular space would potentially lend itself to the game of Bobby Ball – a potential, personal field of dreams, where over time, the universe will balance things out so that I will someday have a winning record to call my own.

I’ve always harbored a dream of one day patenting Bobby Ball and its abundance of intricate rules. Once the Bobby Ball craze sweeps across the nation like wildfire, I will build little Bobby Ball ballparks all over the country. The ballparks will be miniature replicas of actual major league stadiums. And outside each ballpark will be a miniature replica of me that will serve as a reminder to losers everywhere: never give up.