Sooo…Jack sent the following email to all the MLB teams who have spring training in Florida.
Hello. My name is Jack Nuckols. I live in NJ. I am 11 years old and really into sports and sports writing. Two years ago I went around to different minor league stadiums and interviewed players. Then I wrote an article on it. Last March it was published in the local newspaper. Then that spring I went to the Mets stadium and interviewed a reliever named Scott Rice. I also got the chance to see a press conference and have backstage passes. I am planning on getting another team to help me finish this article. So this spring training I was wondering if I could go to get another interview of a relief pitcher and other players.
The Blue Jays have already responded and put us in touch with their media folks. BOOM! If the point of being a dad is to exploit your kids to get exposure to cool stuff — this could be remarkable. Jack’s grandfather is also planning to join the exploitation. Stay tuned!
If you’re new to NuckolBall, here’s a link to the article Jack got published last year. If you really want to read about the whole experience, click “Minor League Project” in the Categories over on the right side of this page. We had some amazing experiences with that article.
Note: This post is part of the Donna G Project. This is written to and for my boys.
I will begin with the flaws, because they are glorious.
- My mother’s defining characteristic was her smoking. My mother was the best smoker in the world. Credible estimates have her between 4 and 5 packs a day. She was so nicotine-addicted that she couldn’t sleep more than 2 hours before her body would wake her up to smoke 2 quick cigarettes before she could go back to sleep. After we moved out of the house I grew up in, when we pulled away her chair there was a huge brown stain that ran up the wall and out over the ceiling. She literally left a smoking shadow after she was gone.
- She had a bizarre skin condition that made her prone to rashes. She refused to see a doctor (because a doctor would tell her to quit smoking), so she tried to medicate the rash through a series of diet changes that friends and strangers told her about, but nothing really worked. It condemned her to a wardrobe of loose-fitting mu-mus that minimized any chafing.
- She’d broken her shoulder when I was in 7th grade when she slipped on the ice. She refused to go to the doctor (because a doctor would tell her to quit smoking), so it had healed in a way that left her slightly askew. She walked with a slight hunch and she couldn’t raise her right arm above her head.
- She had exceptional trouble with word recall.
“Go downstairs and get the…thing!” she would demand.
“The THING! The…the…THING!”
“Thing” could mean anything from a can of beans to a folding table. I can remember countless times I had to bumble around the basement searching for the “thing” that was right next to the “other thing”. Then I’d be sent back down until I finally managed to retrieve what she needed.
However, her word recall did work to your favor sometimes when she couldn’t come up with your name. If a crappy job was headed your way, you could sometimes make your escape if you were quick enough.
“Someone needs to paint the porch. Harry….no, Chr…no…”
“I gotta go, Mom! Bye!”
“God damn it! Get back here…YOU!”
- She had insane theories about how the world worked that were based on nothing even resembling fact. The barometric pressure affected mood. The key to being organized was to buy dozens of multi-colored pens. The skunks were eating all the dandelions!
So with all of this, it should be no surprise that she had a heart attack when she was 55 – and that she didn’t go to the ER for nearly 48 hours. I was living in NYC at the time. When I got the message from my father, I called her hospital room.
“The doctor said I have to quit smoking,” she told me.
“Are you going to?”
“Yes!” she barked at me. “I don’t want to die!”
But she did die. She died that night. The phone rang at 3AM; it was my dad. He told me what had happened, but I knew the instant the phone had woken me up. I don’t remember the conversation clearly. I know I called my brother right after, but I don’t know what we said to each other. I remember Shani staring right into my face and saying, “You don’t even get it, man!” I think we went through my address book together to pick out all the people she would call and tell the next day. What I do know is that the whole world became a vacuum the instant I heard that phone ring. Gravity disappeared. I was somehow floating and so was everything around me.
I was really close to her and I liked her a hell of a lot. I looked up to her. She was a damn good mom – first ballot Hall of Famer. And I could physically feel her love like a heat lamp blasting on me – and not just when I was with her. It was love I felt 24/7 and love I felt a thousand miles away.
But the heat lamp had been unplugged. I guess that was where that vacuum feeling came from.
(For the record, I’m writing this on a plane and the woman next to me is trying to pretend not to notice that I’m crying. It’s messed up, boys. I still miss the crap out of her.)
OK, so this is going to sound nuts – but the days immediately following her death were fun. They were.
I took the bus to Binghamton. My brother flew in. My uncle Coddy came. Uncle Bob. My Aunt Joan came back into our lives (thank God). Marie, of course.
My friends appeared like genies – POOF – they were there. From all over the country they came to make me laugh, to talk it out with me, to cry with me. I can remember being on the phone with Chief when he called from LA.
“I’ll be there tomorrow around noon.”
“Wait,” I started. “You don’t have to…”
He bulldozed right over me. “I’m coming. I just got off the phone with Discover to raise my credit limit. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
People brought heaps of food. They hugged the hell out of me. Neighbors came by. My mom’s huge array of friends sat and told me stories about her. I got drunk with my father and brother. Your uncle Chris and I went for a walk at midnight and didn’t get back home until dawn. About a million people came to the funeral and every last one of them told me just how much they loved my mother.
And it was fun. It was filled with love and authenticity and support and laughing. It was fun.
What was not fun was pretty much every day for the next 9 months. Because the truth is, it sucks when your mom dies and you feel like shit for a good long time after it happens. I barely did any writing for the entire summer. I got an awful review at work that September. I kept feeling cranky or unmotivated or just sad. Time and again Shani, bless her heart, would say to me: “Is this because of your mother?” And AHA! The light would go off and I’d realize that had been it all along. Until I’d forget it again a week later.
In fact, I will share with you my death advice. Here are 3 things that were really helpful:
- My Uncle Bob told me that the average grieving time is 13 months. He warned me that you would feel it for that long – and you would notice when it starts to pass. And knowing that was helpful.
- My high school English teacher came by and shared her husband’s story. He had nearly died of a heart attack earlier that year. He described it as floating up through layers and layers of light, and each layer was more wonderful than the next. Knowing that helped too – especially when I imagined her that night when the second heart attack took her. She’d told me just hours before that she didn’t want to die – but I hope at the end there were layers of light and wonderfulness.
- My friend Bruce told me this: He said that he was sorry I was in pain. But the pain was there because of love. And while he wished he could take away my pain, he would never want to take away the love I’d had. That really helped. That was some genuine wisdom that I clung to many-a-time.
But back to my mom – because now I want to tell you about the positive traits.
The best way to describe her is to say that she was a force of nature. And a force for good. She was one of the most active forces of good I’ve ever personally known.
She was the president of the school board and a deeply involved one at that. She knew everyone in the district and they all went to her with concerns. Bus drivers, administrators, teachers, students – everyone knew Mary. And she seemed to know whatever tough thing that was going on in their life.
At least once a month a parent would show up at our door. Usually it was a father, and usually he would be near tears. The doorbell would ring and a giant, strong man would be at the door asking for the help of my bent and nicotine-addled little mother.
And my mother would go to bat for every single one of them. She’d set up meetings with principals. She’d intervene with the police. She’d arrange for tutors. She’d talk to truant officers. Once a teacher had put his hand down a female student’s shirt – and believe you me, Mary Nuckols took that one on full force.
And the school board was just the beginning.
She was an Accord Mediator. Rather than go to court, people would first try Accord mediations, which basically meant my mother tried to help families work through really bad situations before going to court. You can bet she needed a few extra cigarettes after those meetings.
She was on the local board of Voices for Children, which is a group that advocates for kids in foster care. This meant that kids who didn’t have their own parents to stand up for them had my mother. Who was a pretty damn good advocate.
She was on all kinds of state committees on education and frequently went to Albany for meetings.
Then beyond the formal, organized ways she helped people out, there were dozens of more personal examples.
For example…A young girl down the street was in an abusive relationship. My mother brought her into the house, showed her an envelope with $500 cash in it, taped the envelope behind a picture in our living room and said to the girl: “If you ever need to get out right away – that money is there. The front door is never locked and this money is yours.”
For example…One night over winter break when I was in college, I came home to find a woman and her teenage daughter in our guest room. They lived at the end of the block and their house had burned down. And sure they were much closer to other neighbors on our street, and yes they had literally never met my mother – but guess who took them in? Guess who negotiated with insurance companies for them? Guess who took them out to buy clothes and toiletries? My mother just couldn’t help herself.
Which brings me to my main point – and why I started with the flaws. Here is what I learned from my mother:
You always have an excuse. Everyone does. You always will have plenty of reasons why you’re too busy, too distracted, too whatever to help people. You’re too busy to volunteer. Your life is too hectic to pitch in. You’ve got too much going on to help out.
My mother is evidence that those excuses are a load of crap. My mother had every excuse – from poor health to too much going on already – and still she always jumped right in at every turn. I try to live up to that. It makes me SO damn proud that your mother has been the president of your PTA, runs the local book fair, volunteers for her college. And there’s something poetic about the fact that your mother and I met volunteering.
My mother was a good person. I believe she is in heaven (smoking). I desperately wish she could have met you boys — I think about that during talent shows and diving meets. She would have delighted in the two of you and would have annoyed the crap out of me with advice on how to raise you. That would have been fun. We missed out on that from her dying.
And the takeaway? I have three takeaways to share with you:
- Please don’t smoke. Not a single puff. Not ever. It would hurt me deeply to see you do that. I would see it as a major failure in my job as your parent.
- Please be good people. And to be good, you have to do good. Goodness is active; you can list it like bullets on your resume. That’s what being good is.
- Finally…please accept the full-blast heat lamp of my love for the two of you. It is mighty and it shines with terrifying intensity. And know this – if the pain of loss is equal to the strength of love that existed, it is my intention to make my death as painful for the two of you as I possibly can. I apologize for this in advance.
Based on the last post, the social scientists at NuckolBall.com have created this handy guide.
Note: This post is part of the Donna G Project. This is written to and for my boys.
When I met your mother, I was fresh off the road. I had literally lived in my car for the past year. I hiked National Parks, stayed on friends’ couches, got thrown out of bars. Then at the end, I landed in New York City.
When it came to women, I figured the only way I would get into a real relationship was to find a girl who could keep up with me – and that seemed impossible. In my head I pictured Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark. In her first scene of the film, we find her in Nepal winning a drinking contest against some giant man. THAT was the girl I wanted. I had to have a madwoman. A lunatic. A bar-room brawling, hard-drinking, Nepal-visiting gal. Other than that? Forget it.
I met your mother doing volunteer work. We both signed up to work on a year-long project where we helped a group of junior high students in East Harlem create and publish a magazine. Your mother was leading the project. I noticed her likeable, jittery way of running the team meeting. And of course I noticed that hair. I thought she was really pretty and exotic-looking.
She called me the next day. I had offered to do some task and she was calling to confirm. We ended up talking about all sorts of stuff and staying on the phone for half an hour. When we finally hung up, I found myself staring down at the phone. “That was a good conversation,” I thought. Then I snatched up my safety goggles, picked up the phone, and dialed her number right back.
“Hello?” she answered. We hadn’t hung up more than a minute earlier.
“Hey, would you want to grab a drink or go do something?”
“Tonight. We can go tonight.”
I can distinctly remember her voice when she answered. I can remember it like it was yesterday. She said: “I have plans tonight, so I can’t. But I’d totally like to another time.” I could tell she was smiling and I could tell she was flustered. I could also tell that she was full of shit. She didn’t have plans – she was playing some girl game.
We arranged to grab a drink after our next volunteer meeting the following week. That one was quick, but then we decided to go out that next Saturday. We were scheduled to work with the kids on the project until noon. So we’d grab lunch and see a movie after working with the kids.
That day is in the top 10 of all time for me.
It was magical; I remember it in flashes. I remember eating Peruvian chicken, which was so succulent and salty and you gobbled it right off the bone. I remember gasping that the movie ticket cost $10 and your mother saying: “Welcome to New York!” I remember sitting on benches in Washington Square Park and getting into a long conversation about religion. I remember your mother wore thin, purple socks and finding her ankles attractive. And at the same time I remember thinking how weird it was that I was noticing her ankles. I remember drinking Red Stripes in a dive bar and picking out songs together on the beat-up old jukebox.
We hadn’t set an end to the date and we both kept finding excuses to keep going. We spent all day and most of the night together. It wasn’t until 2 AM that we finally ran out of reasons to keep going. Your mother grabbed a taxi and we said good night. It had been a 14-hour date.
Now she went home. I didn’t. Not by a long shot. In most cities you wouldn’t have a choice, but this was New York. I high-tailed it to South Street Seaport where my friend, Paul, was getting off work soon. I waited for him at the bar with that incredible glow that can only come from meeting a girl. I was walking on air.
Over the next month or so, Shani and I saw each other a lot. I took her to see my neighbor’s god-awful speed metal band and we were in hysterics afterwards as we compared it to the sound of power tools. She had me over and made me Pasta Putanesca. She spent the night at my place in Brooklyn where she stepped on a roach while she was brushing her teeth. We were seeing each other two, sometimes three, times a week and we were talking on the phone every day. It was going so fast.
See, it wasn’t right. She wasn’t right. This wasn’t the girl I pictured. Sure she was fun and smart and beautiful, but she was also modest and quiet. She was a rule-follower. She cared about her clothes and read Glamour magazine. She watched The Today Show every morning and she hated roller coasters. She couldn’t drink for shit.
But then I had my “moment.”
The night before my moment we had a disasterous phone conversation. The subject of our relationship came up and I expressed my position that we were not exclusive. I told her I wanted to be completely up front and clear with her. Shani said she appreciated me being up front, but what did that mean? She didn’t say so, but she was certainly upset. We hung up without resolution and agreed we’d talk more that weekend when we planned to get together.
I barely slept that night and was a zombie the next day. I was tutoring writing at a learning center in Brooklyn that night, but I couldn’t focus on my lesson. A swirl of Shani and exhaustion fogged up my brain. After the lesson I went out and walked the streets aimlessly. Soon I found myself sitting on a stoop in Park Slope, confused and physically dizzy. That was when my moment came. And when I say my “moment”, what I mean is “the moment I pulled my head out of my ass.” It’s the moment I saw my bullshit for the bullshit it was. Because this girl was fantastic – and that wasn’t bullshit at all. I found the nearest pay phone and dialed Shani’s number.
“I’m coming over,” I told her, and hung up.
My legs wouldn’t stop bouncing on the subway to the Upper East Side. I practically ran to her building, flew up the stairs and into her apartment. I told her there hadn’t been any other girls and more importantly, I didn’t want there to be other girls. I told her I was being stupid. I wanted to be “exclusive.” I told her I thought she was terrific and gorgeous and that she was one of the most fun people I’d ever met.
And really, from that moment on, I knew I was going to marry her.
We moved in together. We met each other’s parents. We got to know each other’s friends. We spent holidays together. We took all those steps that couples take. But my head was out of my ass and not going back in. I proposed on the floodwall near the house where I grew up. We got married in Kansas and had a glorious, epic party. We bought a house. We had you two.
Like most people, I’ve made a bunch of life decisions. And like most people, I’ve hit some and missed some. But when it came to the biggest decision of my life, when it came to picking a partner, I came up to the plate and NAILED that f@%#er. I Mickey Mantled that pitch and I got your mother.
And everything…career, house, kids, life…everything has stemmed from that. Everything from there has been built on a foundation of joy and love and honesty and respect. It’s part bedrock, part sunshine, part music. In truth, it’s made everything else bliss. It is on this foundation that the two of you are built. It is the center of our home and the core of what we are as a family.
So with all that, my advice to you boys is this: if you decide to get married, pick someone who is fun. That’s basically the key. There are a million things I like about your mother. I love her stack of 25 books by her bed. I love when she puts on 80s music and starts dancing around the kitchen. I love what an adventurous eater she is. I love her hair. I love how she nurtures you two chuckleheads. But mostly I love how much fun we have together. I think that’s our secret. I think that may be the secret.
I will end by telling you that 6 months after we got married, your quiet, rule-follower mother and I quit our jobs to spend a year travelling the world. We visited Fiji, New Zealand, Indonesia, Thailand, Greece, Turkey, and…NEPAL. We spent 3 weeks in Kathmandu and did a 14-day trek in the Annapurnas.
On Christmas morning, at 5:30 AM, we climbed to the top of Poon Hill (9600 feet) to watch the sun rise. It had a 360-degree view where you could see 9 different mountains. We watched the sun strike the peaks and light them up, blazing gold and red, then slowly creep down them. It was 15 minutes between when the sun hit the first peak and when it hit us. It was our first Christmas married.
So while there may have been no drinking contests with giant Nepalese men, I’ll take drinking hot chocolate out of aluminum mugs and watching the sunrise on those peaks with your mother any day of the week.
My wife’s friend (Donna G) was diagnosed with breast cancer this past year. She had a mastectomy, treatment, all that – and at this point all results point to a complete recovery.
This summer, at the pool, I got into a conversation with her, and it was one of the best conversations I’ve had in years. We talked all about the experience. She had an invulnerability about her that was tangible. I asked her question after question. She told me about breaking the news to her daughters. She told me about the procedure. I found myself soaking in every word. One thing she said stood out above all.
“When you get that diagnosis, when that earth shifts, suddenly everything is different.”
“Has it shifted back?” I asked.
“I hope it never does.”
I got thinking about that conversation and about that earth shift in particular. And to be honest, I’m jealous. Not of the cancer, of course, but of the perspective. I’m jealous of the forced prioritization. Of the clarity. Of the stillness that Donna possessed as she sat there speaking with me.
Donna G gave me a gift that day. She had gone through physical and emotional devastation and earned wisdom and strength in return for her suffering. And although I had gone through none of the pain, Donna gave me some of her hard-won treasure. She gave it without a second’s hesitation. It was one of the highlights of 2014 for me.
So here is the Donna G project. It is an initiative to fill the off-season that will be a gift to my boys next Christmas. Between now and Opening Day (April 6!), I’m going to write to my boys on the following subjects:
- About your mother
- About my mother
- Biggest moment of my life
- Recipe for Spiedies
- Recipe for “Mike Nuckols Yummy Wing Sauce”
- Recipe for the “Perfect Home Fries”
- On God and goodness
- On popularity
- On streaking
- The official rules for calling shotgun
- On fatherhood
- On baseball
As a final note, because these posts are so intensely self-indulgent and non-baseball related, I’m only going to leave them up for a few days. The audience is really my boys, anyhow. You readers are just getting caught in the crossfire.
Alex was being an a-hole. And he’s usually my easy kid. But he was relentlessly antagonizing Jack, he was shrieking at me when I told him it was time to brush his teeth, and he was crying about nothing.
Generally, when your kid is freaking out for no apparent reason and acting like a complete nightmare, it’s time to stop and ask…
“Alex, is something bothering you? Did something happen today at school?”
His answer was NO! and he went on acting insane. But half an hour after I got him to bed he called me:
It was one of those times you can hear it in their voice. I had two friends over, but they’re dads too and they recognized the tone.
“What’s up, Alex?” I asked as I went into his room.
“Remember when you asked me if something happened today? Well…something did happen.”
“At recess, Rachel won’t play with me. She only wants to play with Lisa and other girls and not me.” [I’m changing the names here]
“So you get left out?”
“I have to play by myself.”
“What about boys?” I asked. But I knew the answer already. See, nearly all of Alex’s friends are girls. I chalk it up to maturity on his part. Plus he doesn’t much like team sports – which makes the boys’ kickball-pit-of 3rd-grade-horrendous-sportsmanship the last place he wants to be. So what’s happening to poor Alex is that they boys and the girls are splitting up. They’re at the age where they’re becoming two hostile nations – which leaves my sweet Alex cast out and alone on the monkey bars for 25 minutes a day. And he doesn’t get it.
“Why?” he asked. “Why can’t boys and girls play together?”
And here I had a moment of true parent brilliance. I had no idea – but I knew someone who might be able to help.
“Jack!” I called. “Can you come into Alex’s?”
Jack walked into the dark bedroom. As I explained the situation to Jack, he climbed up onto the foot of Alex’s bed. All three of us on there.
“I don’t really know why,” Jack said. “But I can say that the popular boys are the ones who first start not liking girls – and then later they’re the first ones to start liking girls again.”
We spent a good 20 minutes in there talking, and I will tell you what: Jack was kind and thoughtful. He really helped. We talked about which boys Alex might try to be better friends with. And what I liked was that Jack didn’t ask which boys were popular and advise Alex to target them. Jack asked which boys were nice. Those were the boys Jack told Alex to make friends with.
Mostly, Alex just needed to talk it out. He needed some sympathy and some love. He wasn’t looking for us to solve it, I don’t think.
Your kids are going to go out and take their lumps socially. They’ll be picked on and made fun of, I suspect. And I don’t think it’s something you can prevent. Kids are going to be mean to Alex and hurt his feelings – and I’m not that sure how to help him through that.
I got this one right. But still I picture my little guy out there alone at the monkey bars during recess. I picture him standing and watching the girls run and laugh. I picture him wandering over to the boys’ kickball game and standing off to the side. I think of his neon yellow sneakers and his painted fingernails. I picture his face with his brown eyes. A little pit opens up in my stomach.
It’s hard to watch him go through this. Hmm…maybe Jack can give me some advice.
When it comes to coaching a little league team, if you are trying to field a winning team, most coaches go about this completely wrong.
The wrong approach:
Coaches tend to focus on their stud kids. Discuss the draft with a coach and they will talk about the first 4 rounds. “I got Johnny round 1, Jimmy round 2, and Tommy round 3 – all 3 of those kids are awesome hitters!”
And that tends to remain the focus of their approach and their team. Those kids are the focus of their offense and the better the coach can make those kids, the better off the team will be.
Except that’s entirely wrong.
The right approach:
Ready for this? The key to winning is to focus on your lousy kids. Focus on your duds. Games do not come down to whether your stud kids perform. Games are decided on which team has the most “automatic outs”. And the lousy kids are the key to that.
In other words – you should spend the majority of your time working with your duds.
Let me provide an example…
My son was on a team 3 years ago that went undefeated. They were awesome and had 5 hitters who absolutely drilled the ball. We walked through the playoffs. The finals were in late June and we were the heavy favorite. We had crushed the opposing team twice already that season.
But here’s where it went wrong. Come gameday, the opposing team had only 8 kids show up. And the kids who were missing were all their worst players. In other words – they had no automatic outs. No duds.
That meant that their lineup kept going around and around through 8 good players – and they wracked up a TON of runs each inning.
For us, our studs played great. But then our dud kids came up and those innings fizzled.
Our studs played way better than their studs. But because they had no duds, they beat us.
Look at it this way…
You have 6 innings of Little League play. Most coaches are looking to score runs. That’s why they focus on their stud kids.
The right approach? Don’t worry about runs. Worry about outs. You have 6 innings – which means you have 18 outs. That is what to focus on. The team that plates the most kids before hitting that 18-out mark is the team that will win. Forget runs – focus on avoiding outs. Don’t try to be the team that scores the most runs. Try to be the team that avoids those 18 outs the longest and you will win every time.
In other words, focus on your duds. Turn a doubles hitter into a home run hitter? Who cares? It has no impact on how quickly you reach 18 outs.
Turn an automatic out into a singles hitter – now you’re talking.
A calculation to back the theory up…
Team A has 5 studs and 5 duds. And the coach spends his time working with the studs.
- The 5 studs become SO awesome that they hit a home run every single at bat.
- The 5 duds get out every time.
In 6 innings, Team A will score an astonishing 20 runs. Great job, coach!
Team B has 5 studs and 5 duds. And this coach spends his time focused on the duds.
- The 5 studs underperform and only get a single every time they come to bat.
- The 5 duds get out only half the time and the other half of their at-bats they get a single.
In 6 innings, Team B will score 30 runs. Team B will DESTROY Team A.
Here’s what else happens…
I can already hear the snarky comments about Little League not being about winning – so think about this side benefit when you focus on your lousy kids. Because if you believe all the standard talking points about wanting it to be fun and be about teaching…here’s what happens when you focus on your duds.
- Those kids will never forget you.
- You will be that kid’s favorite coach that he ever had
- That kid’s parents will glow about you at parties and over coffee – which is not a bad thing if you live in that community
Listen, stud kids got a TON of attention. They’ll be fine. They already get all the glory and adoration of playing well.
But imagine if your work lets that dud kid be the hero. If that dud kid gets that big hit that wins the game? You will make a sports memory that that kid will never forget.
I will end on a story…
A friend of mine coaches Little League and he is someone I think is a really good coach. He had a MAJOR dud on his team, but the coach worked with that kid.
In a tight game, the kid got a hit. Over the course of the inning the kid came around so he was on third and had the potential to be the winning run. The coach went and asked him…
“If I give the sign, I need you to get home as fast as you can. Do you know the sign?”
In a mix of terror and elation, the kid replied:
“I’ve never been on base before.”
Tell me that coach hasn’t already won the entire Little League World Championships? Amazing.