My son doesn’t smile

Maybe a year ago, Alex was looking at family photo albums and said: “Jack used to smile so much more when he was little.”

Then this past weekend, I heard Alex’s best friend, Aidan, refer to Jack as: “The man who never smiles.”

Here’s a pretty typical shot of Jack from a bike trip with my brother’s family:

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And I’m struggling through this reality.

I don’t think he’s unhappy. About once a week, we go for a “Peanut Chew Walk” (3 for $1!) to a small grocery store about a mile from the house. I check in and see how he’s feeling about life. He has friends. He likes school all right. He has fun with his family.

But still sometimes he’s like a ghost in the house. He slides through silently and sits in his room going through baseball rosters. He’s truly a creature of solitude, and unlike me or Alex, or even Shani, he doesn’t crave attention. He actively stays under the radar in the social pecking order at school.

And he does smile sometimes. Tickle him and he smiles. Or a few weeks ago I saw a helicopter overhead and without thinking about it, I said to him: “That thing is lower than my sack.” Jack and I looked at each other for a moment and then we laughed uncontrollably for five minutes.

The baseball playoffs kicked off Tuesday night with the Yankees vs Twins, winner-take-all game. It’s been a magical year for the Yankees, full of fresh faces and unexpected success. As they were announcing the players before the game started, I found myself beaming. I genuinely love this team in a way I haven’t loved a team for years.* I snuck a look over at Jack:

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My boy was smiling ear to ear.

And then that game — oh man. The Twins scored 3 runs right away. Before the Yankees even got to bat they were behind. It was the worst possible start; Jack rushed upstairs (he later admitted it was to cry).

But then just as quickly, the Yankees struck back. Didi Gregorius hit a 3-run homer to tie it up. Jack and I went bananas – stomping, hugging, screaming — I yelled so loud for so long I thought I was about to black out.

The next 4 innings were baseball at its best. Each team threatening and scratching together runs and outs. It went back and forth. Twins lead 4-3. Yanks tie it 4-4. Yanks pull ahead 5-4. Watching it was a tense, high-wire affair. It is an emotion that baseball creates and no other sport can touch.

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Then Aaron Judge was up. The Aaron Judge who will win Rookie of the Year unanimously. Who has broken the record for home runs in a season by a rookie. Who is the largest position player in the history of baseball. In fact, the very same Aaron Judge that Jack is doing a presentation about in his public speaking class next week. Oh yes, that Aaron Judge came up to bat with a man on first base.

“I sure could use two more runs for a little breathing room,” I said to Jack.

SMACK!

Like he’s done all year, Judge buried one in the stands. Alex and Shani were in bed at this point so Jack and fist-pumped and kicked and frolicked and flopped around on the floor, but we did it all in silence.

The tension was broken. The Yankees had the game in hand and rode the rest in cruise control.

Baseball (and sports) is about the dumbest thing in the world. It is absurd to place your personal hopes and life happiness in the hands of people you don’t know and who don’t even know you exist. It is the exact opposite of how I live my life.

But at the same time, it brings such intense, shared joy to me and my son.

So if you say sports if stupid — I agree. But man, oh, man do I want to see the Yankees go deep into this year’s playoffs. I know Jack feels the same way.

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*Note — coming soon will be a post about the 10 (or so) reasons to love the 2017 Yankees. This will come when they are eliminated (or win the World Series). So hopefully it won’t come for a while.

 

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Tampa Rays Blues

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We begin…with stress. At work, we were launching a new product and the big launch meeting was in Orlando this week. Our client was a flaming ball of stress heading up to the meeting, which led to some seriously uncomfortable phone calls over the weekend where she used the word “disappointed” a lot.

But the launch meeting went off beautifully. She was getting praised left and right. Tuesday night she apologized to me and my co-worker, Tony (or at least as much as a client ever apologizes). We had known that a Tampa Bay game was a possibility, but up until then we thought we’d be in high-stress meeting mode. But suddenly the weight was coming off our shoulders…next thing we knew we were in the car wearing shorts and headed for a baseball game.

There are 4 people I know who love baseball more than I do:

  1. Jack (obviously)
  2. Andrew Kaufman (in a class of his own — see end of that blogpost)
  3. My friend, Wade
  4. Tony

Tony is a real-deal, haunted, Philadelphia sports fan. Sports are part of the boy’s core makeup. You know how some kids have manners drilled into them and it stays with them for life? Kids in Philly are taught sports that way.

Which leads me to…

Official NuckolBall Review of Tropicana Field (Tampa Bay Rays)

There’s a big moment going to a new park when you first see the stadium. You come around a corner and spot it. Or in this case, you see it from the highway. It was a big white bubble with a slanted roof. Here’s a shot Tony took from the car:

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We found $10 parking, scored $19 tickets in the 4th row in left field, and learned it was $2 hot dog night. Then in we went. Check out this video…

I’ll confess, I expected Tropicana Field to suck. But as we walked in and looked around, I thought it looked pretty cool. It was a dome stadium, which made it feel small. It had incredible access to the field and any seat was close to the action.

“Maybe this isn’t so bad,” I said to Tony.

But that wore off quick. Here’s what’s wrong with Tropicana Field:

1) Turf

It doesn’t seem like real baseball. When guys run for a fly ball, something seems off. Scuff marks on their pants seem odd – it’s not real dirt, why should it stain their pants? Plus it look absolutely awful. Check out the photo, the surface looks like a worn out, greasy sweater.

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2) Concessions

Modern ballparks are designed so you can get to the concessions without leaving the action. At the Trop, you descend into a blue cavern that is completely cut off from the field. Parts of it felt like the Philadelphia Airport (worst, most claustrophic airport in the country). Parts felt like the halls of a hospital.

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My living room has higher ceilings.

 

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This way to radiology.

3) Blue

The Rays have no logo, no marquis player, no real history to speak of, no fans. They have the color blue. That seems to be their entire identity. Every damn thing was blue.

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4) Atmosphere

Maybe it was the roof, or the lighting, or the turf, or the lack of people in the stands, but it didn’t feel like a major league baseball game. The place was completely, freakishly devoid of any atmosphere whatsoever. There were no crowd noises, just a weird murmur. The sound of the ball and bat were muffled and off. It felt like a trade show being held at the local college arena. Everyone was sitting around waiting for the college team to finish up their practice before we could start setting up our folding tables.

But there were some good things. Parking was easy. It’s a great place to get a ball. Tony introduced me to “The Game” and then promptly lost $11 to me (I will not explain The Game). Actually…the best part was getting to go with Tony. Tony is a fan who sees more things than I do, was excited about stuff I didn’t know to be excited about, and was generally even more comfortable in a ballpark than I am. It was a real treat to go with him.

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To conclude, Tampa Bay was my 18th park, and it has taken over the bottom spot of my rankings. It’s even worse than the dreadful Rogers Center in Toronto. But still, as we drove off on 275 headed back to Orlando, Tony and I were jabbering away, happy as a pair of songbirds. Even the worst ballpark in the country is still cause of celebration and joy.

 

TMI about the start of baseball season

Baseball season has finally returned. I have 2 observations:

1) Good evenings

Jack and I sat on the couch the other night and put on the Yankees game. We watched 1 inning, but it was a 45-minute inning where the Yanks battered the Astros. The boy is 12, but he still sat down next to me and we snuggled as the room got darker and darker.

Shani got home to find us in the pitch dark, laughing about the fact that there is a pitcher on the Phillies whose ERA is actually infinity.

I took a shot of the screen and then flipped it around for a selfie.

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2) Good mornings

Baseball season means better poops for me.

I’m like clockwork. Coffee hits system…system goes poop. It’s as regular as it gets. During non-baseball season I check Facebook and other dumb things on my phone while I’m doing my business. But during baseball season, I watch the FastCast and then peruse the highlights from the night before.

It’s the absolute best.

 

 

8 Observations from a trip to Cincinnati

This weekend we made it to Cincinnati for our first game of the season. A roadtrip to meet up with Shani’s folks at The Great American Ballpark. Here are 8 random observations:

1) I could be a professional baseball park travel agent. I got prime seating for $28, parking for $5, and executed an exit strategy that was easy as pie. All this for a sold-out game. I have this down to a science. In fact, NuckolBall readers should feel free to contact me for consultation if you’re visiting a ballpark. I’ll set you up.

2) I found the people of Cincinnati to be incredibly kind and helpful. And every single one of them want to talk about why Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame.

3) During batting practice, baseballs gather in between the pitcher and hitter. Every once in a while a bat boy has to run out an pick up all of those balls. But with the Cardinals, all the players go out and do it as a group. These are millionaires and they’re doing it like they did in little league. I have never seen another team do this – and it speak volumes about the Cardinals to me.

4) If you get to Cincinnati, get your ass to Skyline Chili. They make these chili dogs that have a 6-inch cloud of finely-shredded cheese piled on top. You wonder how you can fit in all in your mouth, but then it mushes together into cheesechilihotdogonionsmustardheavenallgone. Alex is digging in to one in this photo:

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5) 90% of the time, Shani is the worst co-pilot on earth. She alternates between reading, dozing off, and fiddling with her phone. She sets her water cup overtop my carefully arranged power cords. She is deeply annoyed when I ask her to put the creamer into my coffee because I’m busy driving a car.

But then there’s the other 10% of the time. She’ll pull out a chapter book and read aloud in her melodious voice. The boys will be captivated and keep begging for just “one more chapter.” Or she’ll snatch up my phone (the phone I’m using the navigate with) and start cycling through TV theme shows on Spotify.

“You know this one, I bet.”

“Is that Dallas? No…Dynasty!”

“It’s St. Elsewhere, silly.”

“Right!”

“How about this one – I loved this show!”

And yes, we’ll miss our exit, but still we’re in hysterics as we sing the theme to Moonlighting together.

6) My boys’ ability to road trip is simply mindboggling. We did 11 hours straight on Friday and come Sunday they jumped right back in the car, eager to hit the highway.

7) Shani’s parents are my perfect role models for what I want to be as a grandparent. They drove 600+ miles to spend 24 hours with the boys. Saturday morning they took Alex to Target so they could get a sewing kit. One of his stuffed animals had a tear and required “groin surgery”.

Shani’s folks get it and they do it 100% right.

8) My life is divided into 2 seasons, baseball season and not baseball season, and there is a valve in my heart that opens up in April and then slides shut with the final out of the World Series.

This Saturday I sat in the sun at The Great American Ballpark and watched the Red and the Cardinals play. My son was next to me talking with his grandfather about Stan Musial. A few seats over, Alex was chattering away as he showed Shani and her mother photos he had taken of the game. I could smell the mucky spring scent of the Ohio River, which flows behind right field. I had a big, cold Bud Light and a bag of peanuts.

That valve in my heart was wide wide open.

It’s 2015. Play ball.

Reader’s note: The NuckolBall sports editor, Jack Nuckols, has now officially ranked the ballparks he has visited. That list will be coming this week.

Here are some photos from the weekend.

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Goodbye, Mr. Jeter

So let’s start with the tickets. They cost me $288 each. A lot of people have asked and half-asked me, so I figured I’d get that up front. I forked over $576 for Jack and I to go see Derek Jeter’s last game at Yankee (plus the cost of a quart of ice cream for Alex).

The forecast called for rain. 100%. There were no playoff implications, which meant if the game was cancelled they would not reschedule. The Yankees website said that I would receive credit for the face value of the tickets ($32).

But the baseball gods favor us. Time and again they have rewarded us with remarkable gifts of fortune. So at 1:00, Jack and I hopped in the car and headed for New York. Derek Jeter’s final game.

We have it down. We park in our old neighborhood (Washington Heights), which is right at the GW Bridge. From there we take the subway to the Bronx. By 3:45 we were outside the stadium in a bigass line of people, all of whom were being soaked in rain. At 4:00 they let us in.

Now, we know what we’re doing. We know how to get autographs and where to stand for balls. And MAN was Jack hoping for an autograph, but this was a rough situation. Pouring rain meant no batting practice and there were loads of fans. It was bleak and it was pouring. Here are shots of my intensely patient son trying to get a ball.

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After an hour I finally convinced him to give up so we could get some food.

So – apologies to a lot of people – but Jack is by FAR my favorite person to go to a ballgame with. He reveres the game more than anyone I know. Inside a baseball stadium he carries a gravity about him of awe and appreciation. More than anyone I know he is aware that every game he attends is a dip into the flow of baseball’s tremendous history. It’s as if half of him is there with you and the other half lifts up and leaves his body. He is so intensely in the moment.

Here are some shots from his first baseball game. Look at his face:

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Now here are shots from the Jeter game.

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Look at the boy. You can see how aware he is of everything. God, it’s incredible to be around him.

On top of that, he watches the game. Real baseball fans understand that. Like a laser he is locked in on every pitch, every routine out, every shift in position by the outfielders.

And finally, everyone at the game around him adores him. It always starts with people saying things like:

“Hey, little man – someday you’ll appreciate this. Remember these games with your dad.”

People think he’s cute. But then they begin to overhear Jack say things like:

“Nelson Cruz is gonna get some MVP votes, but I actually think Altuve has a shot.”

Suddenly they stop treating Jack like he’s my cute fashion accessory and start saying things like:

“Damn…er…he really knows his stuff.”

In truth, it’s starting to feel less like taking my son to a ballgame and more like going to a game with a buddy. I honestly found myself wishing I could get him a beer.

Anyhow, at 6:30 we headed up to our seats, the ground crew pulled off the tarp, the 100% chance of rain became nothing but blue sky, and Derek Jeter’s final Yankee game was on.

The big, expected Jeter moments came. When he first took the field. His first at-bat – and then when he hit a double. The place was screaming from minute one. Again and again the crowd chanted:

Der-ek Je-ter! Clap-clap-clapclapclap!

Der-ek Je-ter! Clap-clap-clapclapclap!

But it’s baseball, right? You can only keep that up for so long. After the 1st inning it was tied 2-2 and from there the crowd toned down the Jetering to sit through 6 scoreless, well-played innings.

In the 7th, who else?, Derek Jeter knocked in 2 runs and at the end of the inning the Yanks were up 5-2. Two innings left to send Jete off with a win.

The Yanks took the field in the top of the 8th, and to me, this was the most emotional inning. The chanting all game had been loud and joyous, but now it was different. It came in a deeper tone and it was twice as loud. It was the bleachers leading it and it was a roar. Everyone seemed to realize that this was it. The end. This was Derek Jeter’s next to last inning at shortstop in Yankee Stadium. And you could see it getting to Derek. From way the hell up I could see him fighting off tears. You could feel him realizing what was happening and you could feel how grateful he was to all the fans yelling his name.

Here – check out this clip if you want. It’s the whole inning.

All the fanfare after the game is all over the news, and it was tremendous, but for my money this was the biggest goodbye moment. It’s certainly the most overlooked.

So into the 9th inning we go. Robertson on to close out the 5-2 victory – and the son-of-a-bitch gave up 2 home runs to let the O’s tie it up. Damnit!

The overwhelming emotions: anger and annoyance. I mean, here we are in a meaningless game, we’re all ready for that final easy out so we can get on with the Captain’s last moment at short. It was the perfect emotional ending that we were all there for. We were ready to cry and cheer together – and stupid Robertson screwed it up. 5-5. Tie game.

It was Jack, ever aware of the batting order, who said: “This is good, we get to see Jeter bat one last time.”

It happened so fast. Bottom of the 9th, tie game. Pirela slashed a single. Gardner bunted him over to 2nd. Jeter up and…

That moment was like a crazy revivalist meeting where the Holy Spirit swoops over the congregation and everyone falls down in fits of convulsions and speaking in tongues. You know when you blow up a paper bag and then pop it? My chest was just like that. Someone popped it and noise exploded out of me – I have no idea what kind of noise it was; I may have been cackling.

Walk off, Jeter. What was about to be a tearful farewell turned into a jubilant celebration. Joe Girardi’s plan was to have Jeter lap the entire stadium and when he got back to home plate, there would be his former teammates (Posada, Petite, Rivera) to embrace him and they would walk down the dugout stairs together, bringing him into retirement. But the baseball gods had other plans.

The team poured onto the field. Jeter’s ex-teammates came out. He leaped for joy. Everyone howled and screamed. Jack and I both tore off our hats and flung them onto the field.

We walked out (finally) trembling and glowing. We took the subway back to the car and away we went. It was hard to believe what we’d just seen.

At some point on the Turnpike, I said to Jack:

“You think we’ll stay friends? Not all teenagers like their dads.”

You can’t really hug someone in the front seat of a car, but Jack pushed his head into my shoulder and said:

“I think so.”

Post script

Lest you think we have this perfect father-son thing going, it should be noted that halfway home, Jack had a level-3 shitfit because I would not pull over at a rest stop.

“I’m starving!” he wailed.

Apparently, if you buy your son Skittles, a hot dog, a giant soda, peanuts, and pretzel, and $288 tickets to Derek Jeter’s last game – all of that is worthless if you don’t pull over at 11:45 and buy him a pack of Combos.

He shrieked at me for a solid 15 minutes. Then he passed out asleep.

Post-post script

Alex opted for a can of whipped cream instead of a quart of ice cream.

Here are some photos from the game:

In line outside.

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In front of the stadium.

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Jack and his $6 mega-Mt. Dew in commemorative Jeter cup.

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In the stands.

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Here’s our view.

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Jack in mid-revelry.

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After the game. (Note about my idiotic clothing. In preparation for the rain, I wore my camping clothes. It was great for cold/rain. It looked ludicrous. As we were getting into the car to leave for the game, my neighbor walked by and in all seriousness asked me: “Are you going hunting?”)

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These videos are basically unwatchable, but the sound is pretty cool.

Quick Update

This will be quick. 2 baseball-related updates.

1) Fall Ball started and Jack already has a hit. The typical drama we go through each season about “will he finally get that hit?” is just not to be. I think he’s somehow over the hump. First game, first at-bat he smoked a ball that bullseyed the shortstop’s glove for an out. Game two, Jack drilled a ball right down the third base line for a double.

So I’m not sure what kind of tension I can bring to this fall ball season. Maybe we’ll get another run-in with Psycho Coach.

2) I have paid an obscene amount of money to get 2 tickets for Derek Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium. It is next Thursday and there will most assuredly be a related post. I am pulling Jack out of school early so we can get into the game for batting practice.

Alex is not attending. He and I struck a bargain. Instead of getting to go to the game he gets an ENTIRE carton of ice cream all his own.

Jenna Jameson vs Angelina Jolie

This Saturday, Jack set his regular alarm and two iPhone alarms (his phone and my phone) for 3:45 AM. After he was up, he slipped into my room and woke me up. We stumbled downstairs, got under 3 blankets on the couch and put the TV on.

For those of you who don’t know, Major League Baseball sent the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks to Austrailia to play the first 2 games of the 2014 season at the Sydney Cricket Grounds. It’s a week before baseball season starts proper, but these are real games; they count. It’s the start of the season, and it’s why Jack and I were awake.

After a 30 minute rain delay (egads!) and a solid 25 minutes of announcing each player individually, at 5:01 AM EST, Wade Miley threw a fastball past Yasiel Puig for a called strike.

Baseball season had begun.

Clayton Kershaw was pitching for the Dodgers and he is currently the best pitcher on the planet. His pitching is an opera, a ballet, a sonnet, a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo.

Justin Verlander, ace pitcher of the Detriot Tigers, is baseball pornography. He can throw a curveball that will be headed right at the batters head and then with 5 feet to go it makes a 90 degree turn and slams downwards across the center of the strike zone. He threw such a pitch in the playoffs last year and I literally leapt out of my seat at what I’d just witnessed. Verlander throws 98 mph fastballs until the 8th inning at 104 pitches when he actually dials it up to 101. To watch the proportions, the stamina, the sheer might of Justin Verlander is vicarious and sensational.

But if Verlander is a porn star, Kershaw is Angelina Jolie at the absolute top of her game. He’s using everything – fastball, splitter, sinker, curve – every inch of the strike zone. He’s absolutely masterful and every nuance is perfectly controlled. He is consciously using every bit of god-given talent to deliver a steaming, breathtaking performance.

Which do I prefer, Jenna Jameson or Angelina Jolie? In truth, I wouldn’t mind a game 1 of the World Series that lets them perform opposite one another.

And I’ll tell ya’, it sure was fun watching Kershaw at 5 AM. At least for the first 2 inning before I fell asleep. Jack, of course, watched every second.

Around 9 that morning I started getting breakfast working.

“Jack, what do you want for…”

He was in the dining room digging into his baseball bag.

“Oh, well I was going to…you know.”

“Go,” I nodded.

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Oh yes, my friends, baseball has begun. This long, heavy, claustrophic, snow-day-stuffed, grey grey winter is at long last dead. Wade Miley threw a fastball right through winter’s heart. Any blast of cold left are merely death throes. Let’s play ball!

I’m live on the LOHUD blog

My favorite Yankees blog just posted my guest post today. In about an hour I already have 151 comments. Holy crap!

If you’re new to NuckolBall thanks to the LOHUD blog, welcome. Please consider signing up as a follower.

Here is the post I wrote:

 

 

The Complications of Raising a Yankees Fan

 

I used to be a normal Yankees fan, but then my son, Jack, screwed the whole thing up for me. Everything got a lot more complicated. See, it’s not enough just to raise your kids to root for the Yankees and loathe the Red Sox. You also have to raise them to be good people. And sometimes the Yankees make that difficult.

 

Now don’t get me wrong, there are lots of great lessons my son has learned from baseball. He’s learned that if you strike out, then get out to the backyard, practice your butt off and next time you’ll get a hit. He’s learned how to take a tough, tough loss. And there’s nothing like the double play to show the value of teamwork. But baseball – the Yankees in particular – also present some bad lessons.

 

As a dad, what do you do about ARod or Cervelli? Do you still root for them? Last season the Yanks only really started playing well when ARod was on the field. I remember him smashing a game-changing home run that had me screaming with joy. My son and I were exchanging high-fives. Which means I’m essentially telling my kid: “Yeah he’s a creep and cheater, but the Yankees really need him and that’s more important.” What kid of message does that send?

 

And what about the Steinbrenners and the money thing? I’m trying to teach my son that might doesn’t make right – but the Yankees are the exact opposite of that. “Don’t worry that we didn’t make the playoffs. This offseason we signed McCann, Beltran, Ellsbury, and I’m sure we’ll outbid everyone else for Tanaka. We may not be able to win by being smarter or working harder, but money can make everything OK.”

 

It’s confusing, right? My son has turned my Yankees fandom upside down.

 

However, being a dad and a Yankees fan hasn’t been all bad. In fact, there are ways that my son has made being a Yankees fan a thousand times better. The 2009 season blows away any other championship for me. Jack and I would get up every morning and look at the standings. We tracked them the whole season, through the playoffs and all the way to the World Series. When Johnny Damon pulled the double steal in Game 4, we were literally dancing around our living room and hugging each other in delirium.

 

This past season I paid a small fortune to bring Jack to Rivera’s last game in Yankees stadium. I found most of the game a little boring. The Yanks were out of the playoffs so it didn’t matter if they won or lost. The when Rivera came in to Enter Sandman it was kind of a letdown. It didn’t have the incredible drama of a real save.

 

Then something strange happened. Two guys were coming out of the dugout.

 

“What’s going on?” I asked.

 

“It’s Jeter and Andy Pettite!” Jack screamed.

 

Rivera’s two longtime teammates came out and took the ball from him. Then Rivera’s head was buried on Andy’s chest and the greatest closer in all of baseball was crying like a baby. Suddenly my son and I were crying too. We were somehow managing the cheer and cry at the same time. Unforgettable.

 

There’s no hesitation teaching your son to root for Mariano Rivera. Baseball accomplishments aside, that guy is a model of class, sportsmanship, and doing things right. And we were there for that moment at the end of his career. They’re going to show that on Sports Center 30 years from now and my son can say: “I was there. My dad took me to that game.”

 

That wasn’t just baseball history. That’s part of the history of me and my son – and it’s there because we’re Yankees fans.

 

Woosh! I better start saving up in case Jeter retires next season.

 

NuckolBall to Guest Post for Yankee Beat Writer

Really exciting news:

My favorite Yankee beat writer (Chad Jennings) and author of my favorite Yankees blog (for the Journal News) has offered me a spot as a guest blogger. This is awesome! I’ve been reading this blog for years; he has thousands of readers. He thought my point of view would be really interesting.

Cool, right? I’m going to do a post about being a Dad and a Yankee fan — and the associated complications that come with it. I’ll keep you posted.

Here’s a link to the website:

http://yankees.lhblogs.com/