A “Fanatically” Bad Umpire

I wrote this post as part of a project Fanatics is doing to show how sports brings families closer together. It’s a cool project and I was excited to post about that idea (actually most of my posts are really about that idea). So if you’re looking for sports stuff, maybe check out Fanatics first – especially if you’re looking for MLB Caps. They seem to be about more than just sports stuff — they’re about the impact sports can have on families.

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My son Jack and I are pretty close – and baseball is one of the big connections we share. We’re both Yankees fans and he was 7 when they won the Championship in 2009. Every morning we’d check the recaps on line to see who won and then check the standings. Baseball is really something special for us. But we don’t just watch baseball together – Jack plays baseball too. And that’s led to some memories that cement our baseball connection. Here’s an example that stands out:

Last year was Jack’s first year of kid-pitch baseball. First game, first at-bat, first pitch…CLUNK…Jack gets drilled in the thigh. He never really recovered. Every at-bat from then on he was basically cowering. He never even swung. (Mind you, he still walked a lot because first year kid pitch is all walks and stealing. It’s brutal.)

 

So I said to him: “You get a hit and we all go out for milkshakes.” (Milkshakes are a standard bribe in our household.)

 

That worked a little and slowly as the season went on, he actually started to take half-hearted swings from time to time. But he was still not very close to getting a hit. It became a pretty big deal for the whole team. Everyone wanted to see Jack get a hit. (His brother, Alex, most of all, because he wanted a milkshake.)

 

At the second-to-last game of the year, the coach says that they need a parent to be the field umpire. I, foolishly, volunteered. I’d umped the previous year once before and it was a mess. Probably the most stressful two hours of my life. I blew a bunch of calls. However, I did learn to take a minute, think, and then make the call.

 

So I’m calling Jack’s game and doing all right. Then in the 5th inning I notice that the opposing team’s new pitcher is throwing meatballs. Practically underhanded. Jack is on deck and about to go to the plate. I jog over, lean down and say:

 

“Jack, this guy is throwing slow and right down the middle. This is your guy. This is it.”

 

His eyes got big and he nodded. I scurried back to my post between first and second.

 

In comes the pitch. Jack swings and corks it right down the third base line. He takes off running, but not very fast because he’s watching the ball. The third baseman grabs the ball, fires it across the diamond. Jack’s foot hits the bag just as the ball hits the first baseman’s glove. It’s a photo finish.

 

I stand for a moment. Go over what I’d just seen…and then say:

 

“I’ve got him out.”

 

I called him out. The result was nothing sort of devastation. I couldn’t look at Jack, but I heard him go back to the dug out, which was right at first base. From there I can hear him sobbing. I hear his coach speaking words of encouragement. I hear Shani come over from the stands and try to comfort him. Jack continues to hide his face under his batting helmet and weep. No milkshake. No big hit. His dad had told him that the big moment had arrived…and then took it right away from him.

 

We had an awkward walk back to the car and an awkward ride home. I told him that I really did think he was out and I had to call it fairly. He insisted he was safe, but not in an angry way.

 

The next morning after breakfast, I consulted my to-do list. I had a bunch of things to get done. I lifted the notebook up and there, scrawled in big blocky kid writing is a new item on my to-do list:

 

“Go back in time and call Jack safe.”

 

 

 


What was said, what went unsaid, 16 photos, 1 video

EXT. THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL – DAY

ALEX hikes along the trail ahead of MIKE, Alex’s father. Both are wearing backpacks.

MIKE

The summer your mom was pregnant with you, she was really tired and always sleeping. So Jack and I spent lots of time together. I’d put him on the back of my bike and we’d go to Einstein’s bagels for breakfast. We’d go to the park. We’d go swimming in the pool. We didn’t have any friends because we were in the temporary apartment, so that summer Jack and I got to spend so much time together. It was such a great time.

 

ALEX

Just like this right now. Except with you and me.

 

MIKE

That’s exactly where I was going. I miss Jack, but we’ve been doing so much fun stuff together.

 

ALEX

Mom was pregnant?

 

MIKE

Yeah.

     (getting lost in the memory)

Your mother was so damn beautiful when she was pregnant.

 

ALEX

More beautiful than she is now?

 

MIKE

It was so fun being pregnant. I loved when mom was pregnant. You’re just so excited about it…aw, man, I’m getting’ choked up.

 

ALEX

I’m starting to cry too.

-

-

Alex and I chattered away the whole time, but this moment stands out. Such a mishmash of things were suddenly going through my head. I was remembering how it felt when Shani was pregnant with him. You dream about all the things you’ll do with that kid. How much fun it’ll be to be a dad. I was so excited about it.

And then at the same time here I was in the actual reality of being a dad. Here I was backpacking with my 8-year-old son.

Because for all the dreaming I did about how great it would be to be a dad, it could not touch the liquid sunlight joy of the real thing. Of sitting next to each other on a rock overlooking the Lehigh Valley, sharing a peanut-butter and nutella sandwich and drinking ice-pure water that we’d filled from a spring that morning. Of waking up in the shelter at 1:30 AM and listening to the rain on all the leaves. Hearing the rattle of rain on the roof of the shelter. The small body next to me curled up in the sleeping bag. Magic magic magic.

He got it too. As clear as day he got it and it hit him just as hard. So forgive us both if we got a little emotional.

Here are the photos.

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And I know I told you 1 video, but I love ya’, so I’m giving you 2.

 


Five Dives

Saturday at lunch, I asked Alex if he was excited about his dive meet the next morning. He got a little evasive.

“Kind of.”

“Kind of? Why?”

“I’ve been having trouble with my front flip. I keep over-rotating.”

And he sounded genuinely sad about it. Please note that the front flip is Alex’s signature dive. He is the master of the front flip; it’s historically where he gets his highest scores.

“Then let’s go to the pool right after lunch. You can practice your dives.”

He perked right up. “Yeah – I’ll do front flip, one-and-a-half, front flip, one-and-a-half and do them each about a million times.” And off we went to the pool along with Alex’s Pop-Pop. The boy got to the diving board, tried his flip…he was right. He was over-rotating.

Here’s the thing. The next day Alex was in a dive meet, but he wasn’t competing against the other divers. He was in a class of his own trying to qualify for the Junior Olympics (JO). This means where the other divers were doing 3 dives, Alex would be doing 5. Herein came the problem.

Alex had recently learned to do a one-and-a-half. This is where he does a complete flip, then keeps rotating another 180 degrees until he goes into the water in a dive. This had screwed up everything. The front flip and the one-and-a-half had blended together. He rotated too far on the flip and too little on the one-and-a-half. Both dives were a mess.

“I don’t think I’m going to qualify,” he told me with he eyes down on his chest.

My Alex is not a creature of self-doubt, and to be honest this really concerned me. I was about to give him the old: “Of course you’ll qualify” in raucous Dad tone, but then I started doing the math. Alex had scored a 59 at the last meet and done 3 dives – plus he’d nailed all three. To qualify for JO he needed a score of 94. That meant he had to do even better.

“Look,” I told him, “if you don’t qualify, there’s another dive meet next weekend. You’ll have a whole week to practice for that.”

6AM my alarm went off. I made coffee and then went to wake up Alex.

“I’m so excited,” was the first thing he said, which I took to be a good sign. Maybe the self-doubt was gone.

We got him there for warm ups, but he was still over-rotating. He was getting closer to getting his front flip right, but he needed more time. However the damn line of kids warming up was just too long. I was pretty nervous for him.

Meet started, they got through the girls, then the boys, then Alex.

“Alex will be doing a front flip. Degree of difficulty: 1.4”

I hadn’t known the flip was first – we’d see real quick how things were going to go for our boy. Alex got up on the board, started his approached, in the air…

Perfect flip. Went in exactly right. I heard the gasp from his coach.

Scores:

6.5 6 6.5 6.5 7

I tried adding that up in my head, but I have deep doubts about my ability to accurately score a dive. Next up…

One-and-one-half. Degree of difficulty: 1.6. Up the boy went, whipped around and around and plunged into the pool in a dive.

Scores:

5 5 5.5 5.5 5.5

 

Back dive. Arced into the pool in a gorgeous descent.

Scores:

6 6 6.5 6.5 7

 

Inward. This one scares the shit out of me. The boy shot backwards and turned down to dive right into the water.

Scores:

5 5 4 5 5

 

Flip and half twist. This mother had a 1.7 degree of difficulty, which I knew was good for points. The higher the difficulty, the more points it’s worth. I found myself on my phone trying to calculate how close he was to the 94.5 he needed to qualify.

Alex got up, did his approach, into the air in a flip and twist.

Scores:

5 4.5 4.5 5 5.5

The final result:

If you missed it, his score was 130.85. And where my head is going…scholarship!

 


Is Swimming a Sport?

OK, so we all know Alex doesn’t like baseball. It’s sort of the running joke of this blog. (Although in my eyes it’s not a joke, it’s a serious character flaw that is my duty as a father to fix.)

But what Alex does like is swimming and diving. For the past 4 summers he’s been on the swim team and the dive team at our pool. Monday through Friday he spends an hour swimming and then an hour diving every morning. You should see the boy each July — he’s freakin’ ripped. And this means I spend plenty of time at swim meets and diving competitions. I invest lots of blog posts reporting on baseball games, so I figured I would talk about the swim and dive experience.

So swim meets..right. They’re awful.

There is no tension. There is no teamwork. There are no exciting plays. There is no variety. There is no action. I mean, yes, they are in motion and they’re working hard, but…

You know what it’s like? It’s like mid-term election night in the House. You’ve seen the polls, so 90% of the matchups you already know who’s going to win. Sure there are a few races where it’s close – those are exciting – but for the most part it’s a foregone conclusion. In fact, well before election night, you know which team will win control of the House.

Swim meets are the same. You’ve calculated who will win before it ever starts. We know we’ll win the 50 meter freestyle, boys 50 butterfly we’ll take 1st and 2nd, and Molly is in backstroke so that’s in the bag. We know we’re going to win going in. So with the exception of a few close races where it suddenly gets exciting for 30 seconds, a swim meet is just a 3 hour swim practice where I get up 3 or 4 times to yell for Alex.

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching him race and I love that he’s getting great results. He’s doing awesome and he’s qualified for “Tri-County” in backstroke and butterfly — for which I am very proud.

But for my money, it’s not a sport. Well, maybe it’s a sport, but it’s certainly not a team sport. Yes there is a swim “team”, but there is no teamwork whatsoever. And after a swim meet there’s really nothing to report in a blog post.

As for dive meets, for me watching a dive meet is mostly about hoping for other kids to do poorly. At least until Alex comes up and then I’m so excited when he nails a dive I can’t stand it.

In truth, Alex dominates in diving. He’s won first place in every meet he’s participated in this year. He’s naturally agile, strong, and flexible. But on top of that he has a focused work ethic that most adults couldn’t match. We’ll go to the pool in the evening and he’ll spend hours practicing his dives on his own. Alex scores 6s and 7s where others usually get 4s and 5s.

This Sunday, since he’s already qualified for “Tri-County”, he is trying to qualify for “Junior Olympics”. This means he will execute 5 dives instead of the 3 everyone else will do.

And get this…my little 8-year-old will be doing:

  • Back dive
  • Front flip
  • Tuck dive (jump off board, tuck into ball, come out of ball into a dive)
  • One and a half (off board, do flip, continue rotating forward into a dive)
  • Flip and half twist (off board, do a flip, turn 180 degrees so you are facing the board, enter water)

Wild stuff. And in reality…that will be worth a post. Stay tuned for results.

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The Scott Rice Effect

The quest for an MLB article continues. Jack sent out letters to 9 MLB teams requesting interviews. We heard from the Mets and Jack interviewed reliever, Scott Rice, who was super nice.

Jack has now written a second letter – he has decided to focus his article on relievers.

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Here is the text:

Dear ,

My name is Jack. I am writing an article about relief pitchers. I recently interviewed Scott Rice of the Mets. Now I need to interview another relief pitcher. Can I set up a time to interview one of your pitchers?

Last year when I was 9 I wrote an article on the minor leagues. Eventually, the article was published in the local newspaper, the Haddonfield Sun.

Contact my dad, Mike Nuckols, his information is above.

Thank you,

Jack Nuckols

He has written to:

  • Yankees: Tony Morante, Director, Stadium Tours
  • Phillies: Rob Brooks, Manager, Broadcasting
  • Orioles: Monica Barlow, Director, Public Relations
  • Indians: Tom Hamilton, Announcer
  • Red Sox: Colin Burch, Director of Broadcasting
  • Nationals: Jessica Baruch, Coordinator, Marketing and Broadcasting
  • White Sox: Bob Grim, Senior Director of Business Development and Broadcasting
  • Royals: Mike Cummings, Assistant Director, Media Relations

Really hoping he hears back from these guys.


He is gone

This is a quick one, but one that was felt intensely.

Jack is gone. He is at camp for a month. One month.

-

Appropriately, we watched a baseball game on his last night at home. Jays-Yanks and we watched the entire thing. It was a sloppy embarrassment of a game for the Yankees but then they climbed back to tie it, only to lose it on a walk-off error. We sat on the couch together, snuggling and yelling at the Yankees to play better. I could smell the dusty scent of his hair.

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We drove to Vermont the next day through awful squalls of rain, and stayed in a motel. Next morning we had pancakes with thin, sweet Vermont maple syrup for breakfast. We weren’t supposed to get to the camp until 2:00, so we went for a hike up Vermont’s deepest gorge, but none of us were present.

We took him to the camp. Camp councilors applauded each new car that arrived. We took him up to his cabin where Alex helped him unpack his things and Shani helped him make his bunk. I couldn’t help but think that only the top two shirts in the pile would actually be worn.

We headed down to the nurse for an initial checkup and to sign in with the head of the camp. There was a soft tension all around. The parents and kids all wore it. An excitement but a hesitation. Jack immediately drifted away from us and went to the basketball court. He found a ball and started shooting baskets along with 3 or 4 other subdued boys.

He was ready. He’d been preparing for months. He knew this day was coming and he was ready to show himself and us.

“What’s the best strategy for leaving?” I asked the camp head. It was happening so fast. We’d been there less than 30 minutes.

“Just go,” he said. And I knew that was going to be his answer.

We headed towards Jack, who was now kicking a soccer ball around with some other boys. He came right over. He gave me a quick hug. Then Shani.

Then he got caught, of all places, on Alex.

They fumbled at each other. Alex put up a hand to slap five but they also bumbled into each other in a misfired hug as they spoke over each other.

“Bye…
…Bye, Alex.”
“High five?
….I’d rather kick you in the butt”
“Bye.”

Jack’s face was suddenly patchy and red. He hadn’t thought about Alex at all. He knew he’d be away from Shani and me. He’d considered that at length. But he hadn’t counted on being without his genuine-but-never-admit it best friend and companion.

-

And then we left.

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Petco Perfect

I remember a comedian talking about how easy it must be to be a weatherman in Sand Diego.

“Today’s weather? Nice. Tomorrow? Nice. And then next week? Nice.”

I was there for the weekend and everyone kept marveling at how nice it was outside. Every time I stepped outside someone would say, “God, it’s gorgeous out here.” It was sunny, low 70s, no humidity.

I had meetings through Sunday at 11:30. Then I hustled up to my room, changed into shorts and a T-shirt, and made it out to the front of the hotel as a faded black pickup truck rattled in. This was my cousin Max to pick me up so we could head to Petco Park: Padres vs Dodgers.

Full stop to the narrative…Some background on Max. [And a note of apology - this background will be too long unless you're a family member.]

I knew Max mostly when he was a kid. When I was 22 I moved to LA and lived with my Uncle Coddy, Aunt Mary, and their two sons (Max and Sam). I spent 6 months living there and I consider it an immersive pre-training parenthood camp for me. Max was 7 at the time.

To say Max has grown up would be an understatement.

Max is huge. His head is huge. His shoulders are broad. His torso is massive. He somehow carries a bigness to him that’s hard to explain. I remember looking over at his arm as we drove. It’s not muscular like a weightlifter and it’s not flabby either – it’s just big. Several times in the course of the afternoon when we stood up from our seats I was shocked that Max wasn’t a foot taller that me. He seems like he should be 6’9”. If we’d blown a flat I feel like Max would have simply gone to the rear bumper and lifted the truck up while I changed the tire. He wouldn’t groan with effort or call attention to it. He might laugh about it if you said something. But then he’d set the truck back down once the spare tire was on and climb back into the vehicle.

To go along with the hard-to-define bigness of Max there is a hard-to-define gentle quality about him as well. He’s one of those rare people who listen to every word you say during a conversation. He leans in and nods as you speak. It felt like the simple updates I was giving him about Shani and the boys were precious to him and he would hold them with care in his humongous hands.

As Max and I headed towards the ball park, the first thing we did was try and nail down when we’d last seen each other. In fact, no one in my extended family has seen Max for years. Fact is, he’d been sucked away by a girl.

It was his first long-term relationship. She had anxiety disorder and a messed-up family situation. You can see how Max, with all his patience and soft kindness, got sucked in. You can see how her anxiety attacks before a family reunion meant Max stayed to care for her and sadly let us all know he wouldn’t make it after all. You know this story.

In March they broke up. They have only spoken twice since then – and that was only about logistics of misplaced boxes. That chapter is over. Now Max is headed to Ireland in July to bum around for a month. He even has a layover in NYC and is staying with us for a few days to hang out with my boys. We’re going to drive out together and see my brother and his family. You can see the life return to my cousin, yes?

PHEW! Forgive the long exposition, but family members who read this blog will delight in this update about our Max. And suffice it to say, I was thrilled he was making the drive down from LA to go to the game with me.

Here is a map of the area around Petco Park:

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The area I circled is the convention center with hotels and restaurants and corporate rich people that can come over and enjoy a game in the nice San Diego weather. However…here’s where we parked:

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The area I have circled in this image is the area we walked through to get to the park. It was absolutely teeming with homeless people. I’m not talking about a few panhandlers, either. Under the bridges and on the sidewalks along chain link fences there are rows and rows of tents and cardboard shelters. I snapped a few photos.

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Petco Park

I was stunned. I suppose homeless people recognize the nice weather as well as anyone else does. Nonetheless, we scored street parking right near the entrance ramp back onto the freeway. We were set. Six blocks later we had walked to Petco Park.

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So here’s Petco from the outside. I thought it was an art museum until I saw the sign. And I’ll tell you, the area outside the field was amazing. It was unlike any park I’ve ever been to. There are raised walkways, hanging gardens, and terrace bars. I’ve never had so much fun just getting to my seats. Check out the photos:

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We made our way to our seats just just before the first pitch with Hodad’s burgers and cups of good beer in hand. We had cheap seats, but still we had a great view of the field. Here’s our view:

View from PEtco 309

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In plenty of parks (Blue Jays, Yanks, Phillies), the view from the cheap seats is substandard. At Petco you can see everything. Max and I sat back in the sun, and instead of watching the game with my normal laser focus, I started jawin’ with my cousin. We talked about the break up with his girl. He told me about his plans to go back to school. I told him all about Shani and the boys. There’s nothing like a ballgame for men to have leisurely conversation. If we’d sat in a living room for three hours it would have been some effort to talk one-on-one for all that time. But at that ballpark, time moved along like it was a cool stream that Max and I were dangling our feet into. And I’m embarrassed to admit it, because normally I’m aware of every ball and strike, but I found myself saying: “What inning is it?”

Mike and Max

In the 3rd inning we headed out to get another round. Right outside our seats was the Stone Brewing Company Bar. If you’re into microbrews you know how special that is. And here came my next baseball sin. Standard protocol for me is to grab beers and get back to my seat as quickly as I can. But here’s this patio bar with seats overlooking the city, two knockout bartenders serving Stone “Petco Park” IPA. Well hell, how could we not sit down and enjoy our beers at the bar and watch the game on the flatscreen. I know it’s sacrilege, but look at this place. That’s it up on the right with the palm trees.

Stone Bar at PETCO PArk

God it was nice. We went back to our seats eventually, and stayed there until the 7th inning when we decided to check out the terrace of the Western Supply Company. Petco Park was built on the site of this beautiful brick building called the Western Supply Company. Instead of tearing it down, they made it part of the stadium. See it out there?

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Max and I wandered over there to see if we could watch some of the game from one of the decks. Not surprisingly, it was reserved for private parties, but they let us take a few photos and then we went and sat in right field for the rest of the game.

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Western Supply Company

Official NuckolBall recap of the game? This is actually a bit shameful to report.

In the first two innings when the Dodgers were batting it seemed to take forever. They got men on base, walked, stole, hustled, and brought in 2 runs. Conversely, the Padres went down in what seemed like minutes.

Then we went to the Stone Brewery Bar and I could barely see the flatscreen with all the sun — so I missed a few innings.

The middle innings were even and steady. Well-executed groundouts, good pitching, a nice diving stop-and-flip from the Padre shortstop. No runs on either side.

Then we left to explore the terrace. When we finally got seated again I was shocked to find it was the top of the 9th. The Padre catcher threw out a Dodger baserunner with a gorgeous throw and suddenly the crowd was up and the game seemed winnable for San Diego. Just 2 runs.

But it was not to be. The Dodgers are heavy with talent and their closer put the Padres down 1-2-3.

Official NuckolBall review of Petco Park? I’ll say the area outside the actual field is unlike any other park and it is utterly gorgeous. Plus it has the best beer I’ve ever had at a ballpark (which is appropriate for San Diego). But the field itself? I guess I’ll say it’s like the weather in San Diego: “nice”.

It’s funny, I was jotting down the ballgames I’ve been to in the last 5 years and for each and every game I know who went with me. I didn’t have to wrack my brain to come up with it either. Pete, Julio, Patrick, and Reef were with me at the Giants game. With Matt at Dodger Stadium. With Hal for the Rockies. I can name ‘em all; it’s an inherent part of each experience.

So with that said, I could not be happier to have gone to Petco Park with my lost cousin Max.

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Note there are two Grade A baseball mutants behind us.

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Hodad burgers and Sculpin IPA.

 

 

 

 

 


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