Diving on the Big Stage

 

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Alex’s goal for the AAU Diving Championships in Orlando:

“Not come in last.”

It turned out to be a wild and emotional experience.

Alex and Shani had flown down to Orlando on Sunday. I flew in Monday night and after a bunch of flight delays, I slithered into the hotel room around 1 in the morning. Shani and I caught up in whispers as Alex slept in the other bed. When we all woke up, we had a very hyper boy on our hands. Alex basically did somersaults on the bed for an hour before we finally headed over to the pool. The schedule was as follows:

  • 7-8 AM: Warm ups
  • 8:30: First round of competition. All divers would do 5 dives.
  • 3:30: Finals. Here is where the top 12 divers from round one would compete for the championships.

And here was the good news: There were only 12 kids in Alex’s age group. So right away we knew that Alex would make the finals. But there was a little bad news: it made his odds of coming in last a lot higher. It made me all the more nervous as the first round started.

To describe round 1, I’d like to take you dive by dive. I’d like to take you through each round and tell you how Alex scored and build up the tension. But I can’t do any of that – because watching this event was completely incomprehensible. Check out this pool…

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There were 14 diving boards and three different competitions all going on at the same time. There were three announcers calling out names and scores, and I could only catch bits of words. Plus, the whole building was a giant aluminum shed that funneled all the splashes, yells, boards, and chattering into a huge echoing roar. It wasn’t until Alex’s third dive that a woman next to us told us to go on the website: cleanentries.com. Check this out…

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It gave us a running scoreboard and ranked the kids in real time. So I mostly watched round 1 on my phone.

But when the dust settled, Alex had done 3 good dives (4s and 5s), 1 lousy dive (3s), and one really nice dive (6s). We knew Alex wasn’t last, but we didn’t really know much else. At 2:00 we got back at the pool for the finals. I wandered over to the scoreboard. And get this…because here’s where things get good.

Alex was now in 4th place. They kept 3 dives from round 1 and somehow this re-scoring had worked in Alex’s favor. This boy wasn’t just going for next to last place – he was in it.

The basic picture was this:

  • There were 2 kids way ahead of Alex
  • There was 1 kid barely ahead of Alex
  • There were 4 kids right behind Alex

For the finals, each kid did only 2 dives. I figured I could actually track this thing and be more in the moment. Because if things went well, Alex had a real shot at the bronze. Here’s my inane scoring sheet.

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Alex was 5th in the diving order. I watched the first 4 kids and tracked them accordingly to where Alex had to be. The kid right before Alex was the one who was in 3rd place, and to my great joy the kid did a mediocre dive. If Alex could execute, he could move up to 3rd place.

Alex stepped up to the board…

Time out.

I’m going to stop and let you know what we didn’t know at the time. See, diving rules are confusing. Alex had warmed up the past hour to get up and do his 1.5 inward. But when the boy got up on that board and heard the announcer say… 

“Now doing a reverse tuck…Alex Nuckols.”

Alex and his coach had screwed up and suddenly Alex learns that he is doing a completely different dive. A major curve ball had been thrown to my boy. But Shani and I didn’t know any of this at the time. All we knew was…

Alex stepped up to the board…

And bombed.

The dive was awful. Legs splayed, body all wrong, big awkward splash. I could hear a few of the scores as they called them out. “2.5…2…2.5…”.

I closed my notebook.

I could see that Alex was in bad shape when he got out of the pool. I watched him go over to his coach. I watched him prepare for his next dive. Even from across the giant pool, I could see that he was crying. Five minutes later, he was coming back up on the board for his second and final dive. He later told me he was still crying as he climbed the ladder.

He went up on that board, took a deep breath and…

THAT is what it looks like to nail a dive. I heard the muffled announcer call out: “7…6.5…7…7.5…”

Look, I’ve seen Alex win a shitload of dive meets and anyone stupid enough to ask me about Alex will hear me brag and beam about him. I’ve had so many proud moments with this sport – but that dive blew them all away. He collected himself and he executed. Damn if I’m not choked up right now as I write about that dive. My boy. Hell yes. Hell, period. Yes, period.

OK…so the meet ends and you also have to realize that Alex has no idea of the score. None. Didn’t know he was 4th going in. Didn’t know anyone else’s scores. All he knew was that he bombed his dive and that his goal was to not come in last. Suddenly, there he was up in the stands in a towel and his speedo and our boy just dove into his momma’s arms. I snuck some shots.

The instant the competition ended, he went right for Shani and he sobbed for a solid 3 minutes.

That’s when I told him he came in 5th.

Turns out a lot of kids cracked under the pressure of the finals. That combined with Alex nailing his second dive and he’d ended up 5th out of 12. Here he is up on the podium. Sweet, right?

I will end with a warning. Watch out for Alex Nuckols next year. If I were those 2 kids at the top of the podium who won by 40+ points, I would start practicing right away. Because let me make you aware of Alex’s history as a diver.

Historical Example 1:
Alex’s first two years of diving he was just OK and only kind of into it. He placed 11th and then 6th at the South Jersey Diving Association (SJDA) finals.
Starting the following season, he has placed first in every meet he’s been in except one.
Historical Example 2:
This winter Alex started competing in AAU and USA meets events against a whole new caliber of competition. In his first few meets he was next to last and his best total score was 99.
The final meet of the season he scored 169.4 and shocked his coach by qualifying for the national championship in Orlando.

His goal this year was to not come in last.

I suspect he will be setting his sights a bit higher for next year.

About Fatherhood (The Curse of Donna G’s Boobs)

 

This is the final and concluding installment of the Donna G Project. This project has been written to and for my boys. It was inspired by my wife’s friend Donna G and her experience with breast cancer.

The final subject of the Donna G Project: fatherhood.

If you’re a dad, and you take your kids out for breakfast without your wife, there is a 100% chance that someone will come up to you and say:

“What a good father you are.”

It’s a sure thing. It usually happens 2-3 times over the course of the meal.

Now let’s break this down. A dad spending time with his kids without his wife is so extraordinary that strangers feel the need to come and recognize it. Hell, you’re not even making breakfast – you’re taking your kids out so someone else can do the cooking. But still, it stands out as a marvelous act of fatherhood.

Think that happens if a mom goes somewhere alone with her kids? Not a chance. But that’s how low the bar is for dads.

The fact is, dads get a pass. For some reason, wives, kids, society, everyone is just fine with dads getting away with doing 10% of the parenting. Watch families in public for 5 minutes and you’ll be stunned.

Dads pretend to not smell the dirty diaper. They pretend to not hear the baby crying. They dodge their own kids and for some reason that’s OK. It’s actually expected.

That’s the bar for dads.

Now you may ask yourself: How can this be? Why is it like this? Good question. Well, as a father, I can share 4 reasons that help explain the current state of fatherhood.

Reason #1) There are times when fatherhood sucks

Everyone will tell you it’s wonderful being a dad. Children are a blessing. But in reality, some things about fatherhood are just awful. Fatherhood is sitting through 2-hour pre-school “concerts” where 14 classes of kids sing crappy songs. You wait for your kid’s class to sing and then afterwards you tell them how amazing they were at singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Fatherhood is pushing a big wheel around the driveway until your back is killing you because kids don’t pedal for themselves. Fatherhood is deep knee bends down the hall at 3:55 AM trying to get them back to goddam sleep. It’s rushing into the skankiest gas-station bathroom for an emergency poop and suspending a 4-year-old over the bowl for seven minutes with your face level to the lip of the foul-smelling toilet.

Fatherhood is boring. It’s exhausting. It ruins vacations. Hangovers are brutal.

A lot of the time, it sucks having kids.

Reason #2) Kids make it easy

Fatherhood is the most unfair relationship in the world. You have all the power – and that is awfully seductive. You make the rules. You define good and bad. You have the power to punish and reward. You can say: “Daddy needs to watch this game and then we can play.” And because you said so, you’re right. Hell, you can punish them if they don’t leave you in peace.

In other words: if you want to avoid fatherhood, all you have to do is tell your kid that it is right to do so. They will accept your rules as right because you’re the dad, and you have the power to enforce your bullshit rules.

And on top of it all, that kid worships you. So after laying all that unfair bullshit on them, when you finally do get up and spend 20 damn minutes kicking a rubber ball around the backyard, your kid will forget the 3 hours of waiting. They’ll be deliriously happy. Kicking that ball will be their favorite memory of the whole week. They’ll tell you you’re the best dad in the world.

That is how easy kids make it.

Reason #3) Technology makes it easy

Give your kid your phone – done. Put on a video – done. Set them up with the iPad – done. This one is obvious, but still it is so easy to fall into that trap. Whole teams of brilliant experts are developing technology designed to be more interesting than you. Your kids will beg for it and all you have to do is say yes and you’re off duty.

Reason #4) Society (including wives) make it easy

Think of it this way: if you went to your job and 90% of the time, dodged your workload and dumped it onto your co-workers, what would happen? There’d be a damn mutiny. You’d be fired in a week.

But dads do that every single day and for some reason it’s fine. Maybe wives just give up and decide it’s not worth the fight.

In fact (and I swear I’m not making this up), I wrote a draft of this in an airport and right across from me…a mom, dad, 3 little kids. The kids were crying and fighting and the mom was struggling to wrangle the 3 of them. That dad sat right there, talking on his phone, like he didn’t even realize his kids were there.

So now when you ask yourself why the fatherhood bar is so low, you have 4 solid reasons why. Someday you may experience these reasons first-hand. In fact, that’s where we’re going to go. But before we go there, we’re gonna take a time out. This is the last installment of the Donna G Project, so I thought it made sense to check in with Donna G. Let’s revisit her story, shall we?

It started with an abnormal blood test. Then a scan and the detection of cancer in her right breast. There was telling her husband. There was telling her two daughters. (You boys know them, imagine that moment.) There were logistics and appointments. Then the surgery.

They laid her on her back, put her under, and took scalpels to her breasts. They cut down the tops and across the bottoms, discarded her nipples, and then peeled the skin back like opening up an orange. Then they cut out all the flesh of her breasts. They slid implants under her pectoral muscles. Then with great care and precision, they sewed the skin back together.

Start there. Consider that mutilation. That physical devastation.

From there, the slow, plodding, aching recovery. Physical therapy. Muscle spasms in the pectoral muscles. Knots in the tendons under her armpits that a physical therapist would have to “crack” by pushing down hard with both thumbs. That’s what Donna G went through.

It’s been two years and no sign of the cancer returning. But still the thought never leaves. When Donna’s knee hurts after going for a run, cancer lingers. She will think: “Has it spread to my bones?” Horrible doubt and fear lurking. Donna G lives under that shadow.

She takes medicine that causes her hands to ache. Her daughters will notice when it’s bad and say, “You don’t have to braid my hair, Mommy. I’ll wear it straight today.”

Donna has faced it with grit. With bravery and clarity. She told me, “cancer is a control freak and you have to take control back from it.” That’s what she does. That’s what she has done. “It’s the new normal,” she says.

And as I read that over, it occurs to me that those are her reasons. If she wanted to do a half-ass job as a parent, she had plenty of compelling reasons.

So with that, let’s go back to fatherhood, shall we? Because as we come to the conclusion of this project, I am invoking all the power of Donna G. The suffering, the endurance, the refusal to live under any terms but her own. I invoke all of it and bring it to bear in the form of a curse.

When it comes to fatherhood, you two don’t get a pass. Your pass has been revoked. You two get a different bar and I’m setting it right here and right now. In all the other things I’ve written, I’ve given you advice. This is not advice. This is a requirement. This is mandatory.

I am calling on the full power of Donna G’s boobs and laying this curse upon you.

If you choose to have kids, you are going to be kickass dads. You read that right; I am placing an honest-to-God curse on you.

Oh, and remember those 4 reasons I laid out? Well those don’t hold water for the two of you.

“But sometimes being a dad is so annoying. I thought it would be fun.”

Too bad. Get in there. I don’t care how bad it sucks. Especially when it sucks. You will engage every friggin’ time. You will get your ass off the couch. You will dress up in dumb costumes. You will play hide and seek even though kids always hide in the exact same spot every stinkin’ time.

“My kids tell me I’m a great dad. They understand that I need time to myself. I’m helping them be independent.”

You don’t get to pull that bullshit. That incredible power over your kids is to be used to make them good people. It is to teach them good life habits and ingrain them with a sense of right and wrong. You get to use that power responsibly and for the interest of your kids, not for your own self-interest. It takes tremendous restraint and discipline – but that’s exactly what you’re gonna do.

“They don’t want to play with me – they want their devices.”

You’re gonna put that shit down. Devices are not the parents — you are. You need to be more fun than the device. Cut that bullshit out.

“But that’s how dads are. My wife gets it.”

BULLSHIT! 100 times – bullshit! You will not buy into that – do you hear me? You’re gonna get down on that rug and roll around. You’re gonna push that kid in those swings and chase them around the playground – then do it again. You are going to be the first to smell that diaper and you change it, goddamit. That’s your kid. Spring out of bed at night when you hear the crying. Read those awful picture books over and over.

You two listen to me, and listen good. This curse is real. It is legal and binding. It is happening. If you boys choose to be fathers, you will honor this curse or you will spend fatherhood with my foot (and Donna G’s foot) up your ass.

That is the curse of Donna G’s boobs – and I hereby lay it squarely on you both.

Pause.

Full stop.

Take a moment to appreciate the fact that you’ve just had a curse placed on you. Because now I want to follow that rant with a few stories. Check it out.

My precious son, Jack:

The day after you were born I went for a run. My run took me through a tunnel and as I ran through it I suddenly found myself bellowing: JACK! JACK! JACK! It just gushed out of me. Again and again, I yelled it with all the might my thunder-throated voice could bring. The sound of your name crackled off the concrete arches and each time I heard it, reality sunk in deeper and deeper.

What had happened didn’t seem possible – but it was real. I was a father. I had a son.

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My son, Alex:

When you were three we spent a whole day together. Mom and Jack were away for some reason. You and I ran errands, we played ninja fights, we had dinner together. That night, I put you to bed and you were falling asleep the second you lay down. As I tucked you in, you said to me in the sleepiest voice:

“I wish we were twins.” Your voice was so tiny.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because then we’d be together always for our whole life.”

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My son, Jack:

When you were two years old and we were living in that temporary apartment in Pennsylvania, you wanted to play cars outside after dinner. It was raining just a little, so I sat down on the concrete and rested against the door. I expected you to go play cars on the sidewalk, but instead you sat down right next to me like it was perfectly normal and suddenly everything everything locked into crystal clear focus. The whole universe instantly made perfect sense. In that moment I literally knew the meaning of life with absolute certainty. I had it in the palm of my hand. The doughy little boy, side by side with me on that cold concrete was everything I had ever wanted or needed. It was more than I ever had the right to ask God for, but there it was just the same.

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My beautiful son, Alex:

Our first backpacking trip. We slept in the shelter, and in the middle of the night it absolutely poured. The rain rattled so loudly on the metal roof it woke me up. I sat and listened to the whole world roaring around me. Out there with no one around for miles I sat there with your tiny sleeping body next to me, and I wished that moment would last forever.

My two sons. My two magic boys:

These moments are endless for me. I could fill pages and pages and pages with these moments. You boys have brought me joy that dwarfs anything else I have ever known. When it comes to my love for the two of you, it feels like God himself pulled the sun from the sky and stuffed it into my chest. To me, that is fatherhood. That is what the two of you have brought to me.

So yes, I have put a curse on you. But in spite of what the majority of people seem to believe, Fatherhood is not a curse.

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Angelic Baseball

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My uncle Coddy picked me up at the airport. As I climbed into the car, I asked him how far it was to Angels Stadium.

“At least an hour. Get comfortable.”

An hour sounded fine to me. We drove south across LA. Coddy told me about his hip surgery and a songwriter’s convention he’d recently gone to. He played me a few of his new songs. We talked about my boys…

I guess here I have to stop and mention that Coddy has been a role model to me for my entire life. I remember as a teen trying to emulate his warmth and open affection. In my early 20s I lived with him for 6 months and got to see him in action as a Hall-of-Fame dad. So lemme tall ya’, I was damn happy to be headed to a ballgame with him.

As we pulled into the stadium, Coddy spoke to the parking attendant:

“I don’t have a handicapped sticker, but I just had hip replacement surgery a month ago. Is there somewhere you could recommend for me to park?”

Coddy waved his cane through the window and soon we were headed for prime parking.

It was a short walk from the car to the giant Angels batting helmets that sit at the front gates of the park. Once inside, we made our way around towards our seats – good seats. I started plotting where we would get dinner and was pretty disappointed by the selection: Jack in the Box, Panda Express. Pretty unimaginative stuff; it was like the food court at a new mall.

We found a food counter near our seat.

“I’ll have a hot dog, a beer, and peanuts, please,” Coddy said.

“Huh – I’d actually like the exact same thing,” I added. It struck me that we’d ordered the same food. Then I looked at Coddy and something else struck me. See if you can tell what it was from the photos:

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We were wearing the exact same clothes. I took that to be a very good sign.

We got to our seats and settled in to the game. Angels-Mariners. Now, at a new ballpark, you have to get oriented. You have to see where they display the score, the balls and strikes, the batter and pitcher stats. And here is my second observation from Angels Stadium (my first being that the food selection was lame) – the scoreboard situation blows. Check this out:

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That scoreboard has 3 times more advertising space than information. It was really hard to follow what was going in. They should take that whole board, make the entire thing a screen and rotate advertising through it. That way the ads would be right where I’m already trained to look for my information. The way it is now, the ads are just in my way. Asinine.

It also quickly occurred to me that the seating in Angels stadium is built poorly. We had terrific seats, just along the first-base side near the foul pole. But the entire section has the seats set up so if you sit straight you are facing here:

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When you want to look over here:

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So you sit the entire time turned at a 45-degree angle. But in all honesty, I wouldn’t call that a design flaw. Why? Because the fans seemed to have no interest in watching the game at all. I found it baffling.

If you go to the bathroom at a Phillies game, Yankees game, Pirates game…you can tell what’s happening in the game just by listening to the crowd. You can hear them cheer for a hit or moan for an error. Close your eyes and any good baseball crowd will tell you what’s going on.

Not so with the Angels and these assclown fans. They’re all yappin’ with each other, talking on their phones, texting. Hell, most of the crowd never even showed up until the 4th inning.

It was still 0-0 in the 5th and the Mariners got men on base with one out. Big trouble for the home team. But CJ Wilson managed to pitch his way out of it. The inning ended with a weak Popfly that squashed the Mariner threat. There was barely a cheer from the home crowd.

In the 7th, the Angels’ newly-signed high-priced outfielder, Josh Hamilton, struck out for the second time in the game. He’s hitting .212 and is massively underperforming. Where the hell were the boos?

I wouldn’t have thought it would have affected me so much, but I genuinely found it disorienting to try and watch a baseball game when no one else around me was. I felt like I was watching TV in the middle of a party.

“This is a good game that only you and I seem to be watching,” Coddy said, leaning over.

He was right, it was terrific game. Both pitchers kept working out of high-tension innings with men on base.

Only one run scored in the entire game, and that was all Mike Trout. Trout is stocky, short, and non-descript. He doesn’t look powerful or fast – but last year he hit 30 home runs and stole 49 bases. Not to mention he’s dynamite in the field. He won rookie of the year last year and should have won MVP. He is one of those players that I love to watch. It feels like the air is suddenly different every time he gets up to bat. He’s like super hot chick walking around a party – you’re always aware of him.

In the 6th inning, Trout hit a single to the outfield, but he hauled ASS from the first step and turned it into a double. Next batter flied out and Trout moved to 3rd base. From there, he took such a huge lead off 3rd that he was practically halfway home with each pitch, then he’d run like hell back to the base when the catcher caught it. Sure enough, a pitch got by the catcher and Trout was crossing home plate before the pitcher could even get there to try and make the tag. Baseball geeks love players that “manufacture runs” and this was a textbook case of that. Not to mention, it turned out to be the ballgame – the Angels won 1-0.

With the game over, Coddy and I crunched our way out over our peanut shells, out through the concourse, and made the short walk to our car. It was a perfect night – clear and cool. Our handicapped parking had an exit that took us right onto the freeway. A flawless, hip-surgery-induced exit strategy.

“Next time you come out, you gotta bring your boys,” Coddy said. “We could even try to hit an Angels game and a Dodgers game if the schedules work out.”

“Hell yes!” I replied, glad to have yet another reason why Coddy is an outstanding role model.

Afterward: Fangraphs.com (which is an awesome website for hardcore baseball dorks) actually wrote an article about Mike Trout’s “hustle double”. There’s even video of it: check it out:

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/mike-trout-and-yasiel-puig-a-hustle-double-comparison/

Drive-by Crank

Warning: this is a cranky post.

This weekend I drove by something that invariably drive me nuts: a lemonade stand. See photo:

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Now, if you find lemonade stands wholesome and cute. If you think they are great ways to teach kids about work ethic and money, let me ask you a few questions.

  • Did the kids pay for the lemonade they are selling: No.
  • Did they make it themselves: No.
  • Did they carry that table to the curb: No.
  • Did they carry the lemonade to the curb: No.
  • Did they make a sign: Yes.
  • Will lots of cars stop and tell them to just keep the change: Yes.
  • Will their parents tell them how proud they are that they worked so hard: Yes.
  • Did I feel super creepy pulling over to snap this picture: Yes.

Next stop, at the intersection near my house they have put up cones for a fundraiser for the junior high swim team. See photo:

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This type of fundraiser is common around where I live. They take a corner and ask for donations as you drive through the intersection.

Some questions:

  • Do I think swim club is a worthy cause: Yes
  • Does it stop up traffic: Yes.
  • Were there any junior high kids collecting money: No.
  • Was it their parents standing out there: Yes.
  • Is this the lamest, weakest, most effortless, creativity-free fundraiser imaginable: Yes
  • Is this actually just panhandling: Yes.
  • Did I give them any money: Hell no. Not a goddam dime.

Final question:

  • At the age of 42 have I become a cranky old man: Apparently, yes.

Bad Language in the Dugout

Little league playoffs. Double elimination and Jack’s team had already lost once. It was do or die time. Potentially Jack’s last chance to get a hit this season. I’ve kept the score book all season and this time the head coach asked me to sit in the dugout. Alex joined me.

Two observations of note:

1)    The kids were amped up. They wanted it and they wanted it bad. This did not work to our favor. Kids swung at lousy pitches, struck out, and then slammed their helmets down in the dugout. I would say half the kids ended up in tears of frustration at one point during the game. Rough stuff.

2)    Baseball is second priority in the dugout. Top priority: putting stuff into their mouths. Every kid brought in something: sunflower seeds, big league chew, Bazooka gum. They are constantly trading, begging, swapping, denying, and above all stuffing all that garbage into their mouths. Look, I’m a born low-life, but this genuinely grossed me out. These kids are pigs. It’s like Halloween in there.

Some poor kid left an almost-full pack of Starburst on the bench when he went to bat. By the time he got back there were 2 left. I swear to God kids we’re eating them up while other crap was still in their mouths.

As to the game itself, ultimately they lost 8-4 in a really tight game. But the big question…did Jack get a hit? Well let’s start at week 2 of the season. I’m at the airport about to fly to SF for work and Shani calls.

“Jack said Coach Guy (not his real name) used the F word in the dugout.”

“Really?” I asked.

“He was kinda shaken up about it.”

Crap. By the holy laws of Dad-hood, I have to call Guy and talk to him about this. I didn’t know Guy well at all. I wrote him an email:

 —-

To: Guy@email.com

From: Mikenuck@yahoo.com

Guy – can you give me your phone number? I’d like to give you a call.

 —-

To: Mikenuck@yahoo.com

From: Guy@email.com

I think I know what this is about. My number is: XXX-XXXX

 —-

To: Guy@email.com

From: Mikenuck@yahoo.com

I’ll call you tomorrow. Just so you know, I’m not even remotely pissed off (just in case you were anticipating an annoying angry parent call).

 —-

I think that sent a good tone. When I got a hold of Guy, he apologized and we both laughed about it. At the next game he came up to me with a big smile and we shook hands. Oddly enough, the whole thing had actually made us friends. And for the record, Jack has had terrific fun this season and I like the coaches a heck of a lot.

OK…so back to Jack’s playoff game. First at-bat, he was facing the best pitcher in the league. This kid throws super fast and has an honest-to-God curveball.

Jack walked – but he took a couple swings. He hadn’t swung in weeks. This was an extremely good sign. Next at-bat, he walked again but even fouled off a couple of pitches. After Jack’s walk, they put in a new pitcher.

“I think he’s gonna get a hit,” I said to Alex, who was in the dugout helping me keep book.

Jack got up again in the 6th and final inning. This would be the last chance. Jack let the first 2 pitches go by without a swing. Then he took two balls. Then the third pitch comes in. Ump pumps his fist – strikeout. It was over. Hitless through the season.

“Shit!” I yelled. Then quickly I covered my mouth up. “Sorry, Alex,” I quickly muttered. Then I turned to my right:

Coach Guy was sitting right next to me with the biggest damn grin you’ve ever seen in your life.

Phillies Game Part 4 of 4: Making History

Final entry for the Phillies game. This one widens out to a much larger personal picture.

Like I said, it was me, Jack, Alex, and Shani’s dad. Boys trip to the Phils. We parked at the Holiday Inn lot.

“This is a good hotel to stay in if you’re going to the game,” Jack said.

“Just like the Drury Inn in St. Louis,” my father-in-law said. We’d gone to a Cardinals game in St. Louis together last summer. As he brought that up, something really struck me, I found my energy level jump even higher.

“Look at this!” I called out, clapping my hands. “The boys are headed to a baseball game again.” At the time I didn’t know why I was so excited, but I’ve given it some thought and I have a theory.

In the summer of 2005…

Thunder

Shani was gigantically pregnant with Alex. We had left NYC and were living in a temporary apartment outside Philadelphia. Shani’s mom came to stay with us for the last month of the pregnancy. She slept on an air mattress and helped take care of Jack while I was at work.

The plan was for my father-in-law to come when Alex was born, but he and my mother-in-law are deeply interconnected. After 3 weeks he couldn’t take it any longer and he joined us. They rented the apartment next to ours.

As the summer went on, we waited for Alex. The due date came and went. Even in the womb, Alex was cuddling. He didn’t want to come out. One Saturday morning at breakfast I said to my father-in-law:

“The Trenton Thunder are playing at 1:00. They’re a minor league team with the Yankees and they’re 5 miles away. Why don’t we take Jack and have a boys’ trip?”

We climbed the steps into the stadium with 2-year-old Jack between us, each of us holding one of his hands. We reached the top of the stairs and looked over the field. Jack was stunned.

We had a terrific time at the game. Tickets were $7.00, we had hot dogs and a few beers. Jack spent most of his time searching for the Thunder’s mascot, Boomer.

“Thunderchicken!” Jack would squeal every time he spotted the mascot among the crowd.

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In the spring of 2009…

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My father-in-law got us tickets to a Yankees game. Jack and I drove into the Bronx. We bought Mariano Rivera T-Shirts on the way in and then found our seats. I expected Jack to be bouncing with excitement, but instead he was subdued. I kept asking him if something was wrong. Finally, I realized that he was dumbfounded by the ballpark. He spent the entire game in a daze.

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That year Jack really became a Yankees fan. He was 6 and able to genuinely follow the team. Each morning we’d watch recaps together and check the Yankees standings. We followed them through the playoffs and even watched a few games. They went on to sweep the Twin in the first round of the playoffs, beat the Angels to make the World Series, and then in 6 games beat the Phillies to win it all.

I have great memories of other Yankees teams that won it all in other years, but they were nothing like that team and that year. Jack brought something thick and heavy to it all. There was a richness to it. Other years were cotton candy. This year was an ice cream sundae. Up until that season I was a Yankees fan. After that season I was a baseball fan.

In the summer of 2009…

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We visited my in-laws in Arkansas and on a crystal perfect evening drove to an Arkansas Naturals game. Our family was in the midst of a glorious road trip across the country.

The game was just fantastic. We laughed at the weird one-man-Village-People act that came out between innings. We ate hot dogs smothered in bright yellow mustard. For the first time Alex made it through the whole game without a single complaint. All six of us left the park glowing from sharing such a great time together.

I think something changed for my father-in-law that game. It began a tradition of going to baseball games together, but for him it was much more than that. Baseball grabbed him – or maybe re-grabbed him — in some emotional way. He started actively following the Cardinals again.  He and Jack would talk baseball on the phone when he called us. He and Shani’s mom now take weekend trips to go to Royals and Cardinals games.

But back to the Phillies game. That moment in the Holiday Inn parking lot when I realized we were going to a game together again. That moment that struck me so vividly. At the time I didn’t know why it struck me so powerfully, but now I think I know.

In the summer of 2012…

“Pop-Pop, do you remember when the closer blew that save at the Cardinals game we went to?”

In the fall of 2011…

“Dad, do you remember when the CN Tower in Toronto lit up with all those colors at the Blue Jays game?”

In the summer of 2012…

“Pop-Pop, do you remember when Carlo Testa gave me his bat?”

In the fall of 2008…

“Dad, do you remember when we ran the bases at the Nationals game?”

When you ask me why I love baseball, one of the reasons is the history. You can go see a team that’s been around for over a century. Every season you’re witnessing the history of the game continue. You’re part of it. Every year records get challenges and set. It’s always unique and yet always the same.

And what occurred to me as we headed to that Phillies game was that we were doing more than going to a baseball game. We were creating our family history.

That was the power of that moment. And perhaps the power of baseball. Can’t wait for our next game together.

Special thanks are due to Andrew Kaufman for setting us up for the tickets to the game. Here’s a look at Andrew’s legendary autographed bat. Our entire family thanks you, sir.

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Phillies Game Part 3 of 4: Citizens Bank Park Review

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When I was in high school, I went to every single home football game, but I didn’t watch the games at all. For me it was a social event. I’d spend three hours walking around and around the field, stopping to talk to people, hitting the snack shack, flirting ineptly with girls.

For many people, a trip to Citizen’s Bank Park is exactly the same.

The park is a gorgeous, brilliantly designed park. Some of the other new ball parks like PNC and AT&T feel small and intimate. Citizen’s Bank Park feels gigantic. It feels like you’re stepping out into the Roman Colliseum. The music over the loudspeakers blasts twice as loud as any park. The crowd is a cheering, crashing sea of red shirts and caps. It’s fun.

But the real genius of the park is not the stadium itself, it is the concession area. At the older parks, if going from your seat to the concession areas you travel through a concrete tunnel. When you’re standing in line for a hot dog, you feel like you’re in a parking garage.

But at Citizen’s Bank Park, nothing separates the concession area from the stands. It’s entirely open. So when you’re buying a beer, you can still see the field. You can hear the crowd. You never really leave the action. You can see what I mean in this photo.

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At the top of the stands, you’ll find crowds of people around beverage carts and food stands, hanging out and watching the game. Now check out the diagram.

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The pink seats are the lower deck of the stands. Behind them is a giant ringed concourse filled with restaurants, picnic tables, beer taps, mounted TVs and mobs of people hanging out. You could spend half the game hanging out in the concourse and still be part of the crowd watching the game.

Because here is the truth about Citizen’s Bank Park: it’s not really a stadium – it’s a bar.

If you’re in the blue, yellow, or green seats, you’re in the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th decks. These seats are high above the field. But really, why would you ever bother to go up and sit in those crappy seats. Just spend your time wandering the concourse, having a great time and enjoying the game.

Now let’s take it a step further. Because while the Phillies are on the field, I believe that the game does more than just extend beyond the crowd and into the concession area. In fact, I believe that it spreads out from the field, to the stands, to the concessions, and outward unhindered through the entire city of Philadelphia and even beyond.

In the same way that I think Citizen’s Bank Park is really a bar, it follows that the tremendous Phillies team of the last 10 years are more than just a baseball team. The Phillies have been the hosts of a party and every single person in the city has been invited.

Consider this: In 2009, the Yankees and the Phillies were in the World Series. Cliff Lee pitched game 1 for the Phillies and dominated the game. It was the most masterful pitching performance I’ve ever seen. He made the Yankees ferocious batters look like a Junior High team.

The next morning at work, my friends John and Sonia came cavorting into my office.

“Did you watch the game last night? Sucker!”

“Your Yankees didn’t look very good!”

They were having a great time. I rolled my eyes and ignored them.

“I think your Yankees are going to lose,” John sang. “I love Cliff Lee.”

“Plus the Phillies pitcher tonight is even better,” Sonia piled on.

“What’s that pitcher’s name?” I responded.

This stumped them.

“I don’t know,” John finally cackled, “but he’s going to beat your Yankees.”

Sonia and John both lived in Philadelphia. And while it should be obvious that they knew nothing about baseball, both of them absolutely knew how to enjoy a party. They’d been invited to the Phillies party and were having the time of their lives prancing around my office.

As a resident of the greater Philadelphia area, I can tell you that it’s been a joyous, once-in-a lifetime party. It’s a team and a time that I think people will still talk about 50 years from now. And it is my opinion that it is at least partly due to the brilliant and wide-open welcome design of Citizen’s Bank Park.

*Please note, in 2009 the Yankees went on to beat the Phillies and win the World Series. Needless to say there was no more cavorting from either John or Sonia.

Phillies Game Part 2 of 4: Team Analysis

Before we begin, let me remind you that I am a huge Yankees fan, and therefore loathe the Red Sox. They are my mortal enemy. Also note that my entire town including my younger son are Phillies fans. I genuinely root for them and consider them my second favorite team.

However, as Shani’s dad and I spent the game mushed shoulder to shoulder, deeply analyzing the game with our expert eyes, our conclusions were inescapable. We’ll begin at second base.

The Red Sox second baseman is Dustin Pedroia. As his pitcher winds up, Pedroia takes two quick steps forward and then springs into the air. Check out the photo.

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He times it so he’s landing just as the ball reaches the batter. That way he’s in motion and ready to spring whichever way the ball goes. Ball, foul, pop fly…it doesn’t matter that the ball gets hit to him only 5-8 times in a game. Every single pitch, Pedroia leaps into action.

Compare this to the Phils second baseman, César Hernández. He would stand in the field with his feet together and then just as the ball was pitched, he’d crouch slightly, halfway into a ready stance. A stark contrast to Pedroia’s bounce.

In the outfield, when a pop fly went between the center fielder and right fielder, the Red Sox center fielder would get to the ball. The right fielder would run so he was behind the center fielder for the catch. You’ll see this taught in little league. The idea is that if the center fielder misses the ball, the right fielder is there to back him up.

Now, sure, this is a professional ballplayer with a routine fly ball; there’s no way they’re going to miss it. Yet every single fly ball, the Red Sox did this. I didn’t see it once from the Phils.

In between innings, the Red Sox outfielders would spread out into a triangle and toss the ball around, firing hard straight throws.

The Phillies outfielder did the same thing expect they set up a much smaller triangle and their throws were slow, lazy arcs.

In the 6th inning, the Red Sox batter hit a long fly ball that was clearly going for a home run. Phillies right fielder, Delmon Young, trotted in the ball’s direction, watching it fly.

Except it WASN’T a fly ball. He misjudged it. The ball bounced off that wall and away from Young. His slouchy play turned a single into a double.

The exact same thing happened in the next inning on a fly ball that Phillies left fielder Domonic Brown clearly could have caught if he’d run.

The Phillies played like a team entitled to win. The Red Sox looked like a team taking nothing for granted.

These are clearly both teams in decline. Red Sox won the World Series in 2007 and the Phils won in 2008. They were both powerhouse teams. But now it’s 5 years later. They have aging stars and mediocre rookies. I’d say they each have about the same level of talent on their teams. But the way the teams approached the game was entirely different. It’s not a shocker that the Red Sox won the game 9-2.

Watching the Phillies play lazy baseball, I found it pretty tough to root for them.

Watching the Red Sox play tough, smart baseball, I found myself…not even close. It gives me hives just writing complimentary things about the Red Sox. Actually, I take it all back. They suck.

BREAKING NEWS: Jack Nuckols sets record

We interrupt our 4-part Phillies series to bring you an important update. The final game of the little league regular season was yesterday. Let me give you the play-by-play.

Jack had still not gotten a hit yet this season. To add to the drama, his grandparents were there to see the game. We were really hoping for that first hit to come.

2nd inning, Jack walked. This was not the normal case where Jack doesn’t swing out of fear. This pitcher was so wild Jack couldn’t have reached the ball if he had a 5-foot broom. Once on base, Jack stole second, stole third, and came home on a passed ball.

4th inning, Jack got up to the plate. This was the ideal pitcher. The kid was throwing slow, gentle rainbows. They might as well have been underhanded. Shani’s dad and I leaned in, rooting under our breaths (Jack has forbidden us from cheering).

“Come on, Jack,” I whispered.

“This is it, I know it,” said Shani’s Dad through clenched teeth.

Jack swung at the first pitch and missed. Second pitch was a ball. Another ball. Another ball. Count was 3 and 1. The entire crowd is rooting for him, especially his coach. Everyone wanted Jack to get that hit.

Next pitch came looping slowly in. Jack swings. Connects weakly. The ball dribbled down the third base line.

“RUN!” I screamed (couldn’t help myself).

“Go, Jack, go!” screamed his grandfather (he couldn’t help himself either).

Jack hauled ass and easily made it to first. The third baseman hadn’t even gotten to the ball by the time he was safe.

“Foul ball!” yelled the umpire. At the last second, the ball had rolled over the line into foul territory.

“Son of a bitch!” I muttered. The whole crowd made a collective “Aw” sound of disappointment. Shani’s Dad got up from the stands, walked a small, stressed loop and then sat back down again.

Next pitch: ball four. Jack walked to first base. No hit. Jack proceeded to steal second, steal third, and then come home on a passed ball. He did not get up to bat again.

It was a fun game and Jack made some nice plays in the field. His team won 9-5. It was hot as hell, so Shani and her folks left the minute the game ended. I stuck around as Jack’s team huddled around the coach for the post-game meeting. As Jack came out of the meeting he came up to me trying to hold back a smile.

“The coach just told me that I officially led the league in stolen bases,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“The coach just told me that. With all the bases I stole today I did it. I have the most stolen bases. The season ends today.”

Now just to be clear. The league does not track stolen bases. I keep the official score sheet for Jack’s team and I don’t record stolen bases. Jack is legitimately fast and has gotten pretty damn good at stealing bases. But it’s not something anyone is tracking. What had really happened was that Jack’s coach had delivered an act of coaching genius.

“Congratulations!” I shouted and hugged Jack.

We drove back to the house. Jack entered the living room and once again trying to keep his big smile in check informed Shani and his grandparents about his official accomplishment.

“HEY!” they all shouted. His grandmother hugged him hugely. His grandfather shook his hand.

“Let’s go out to lunch and celebrate,” Shani said. “You choose where we go, Jack.”

“Not right now,” Jack responded. “I’m not ready for lunch yet. I want to play some.”

It was over 90 degrees. But the boy went outside, put on his batting gloves and helmet. He then proceeded to the street in front of our house and began playing an imaginary baseball game. And I’m fairly certain that he was wreaking havoc on the base path against his imaginary opponent.

Phillies Game Part 1 of 4: Boy Management

I was explaining to Jack where I got the tickets.

“They’re from a guy I used to work with named Andrew. He’s a real-deal baseball fan.”

“Not more than me,” Jack replied.

“Actually, this guy might have you beat.”

“How?”

“He has a baseball bat autographed by 23 Hall of Fame baseball players.”

Jack frowned at that. He takes pride in being the biggest baseball fan on earth. He didn’t have a comeback to that bat.

Either way, we had 4 tickets to the Phillies-Red Sox game. As luck would have it, my in-laws were in town, so it was me, Jack, Alex, and Pop-Pop (my father-in-law — hereafter referred to as “Dad”). Boys trip to the Phils. We climbed in the car and headed for Philly.

We parked and walked to the stadium, got in and just made it for the first pitch. The seats were spectacular – first base side, 12 rows off the field. Perfect. Or so I thought. Turns out, we had some issues.

It was hot as holy hell. 96 and muggy. Worse off, the sun was absolutely blasting us in the face, which made it tough to see the game. Jack was behind two tall guys, so he kept standing up to see, which was annoying the hell out of the people behind him.

As for the game, each team was starting a rookie pitcher. That meant there would be lots of hits and lots of walks. We were in for a long night.

At the top of the 2nd, I looked over at Alex. The boy appeared dazed. As I looked him over, I thought about what he’d done that day…

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He’d had a school field trip where they hiked around a pond searching for bugs. This was 4 hours in the hot sun. From there he’d gone to a swim practice where he’d done laps for 90 minutes. Shani had rushed him home, put him into a Phillies shirt, handed him a slice of pizza, and threw him in the car for the game.

“Alex…let’s get a drink.”

“You said the 3rd inning.”

“I know, but we’re going now. Come on.”

Alex plodded slowly behind Jack and I as we climbed the steps up to the concession area. We got into a slow moving line. Alex was flopping against me. He leaned his face up at me and said:

“I’m not having any fun.”

Oh boy. Now we had a situation on our hands. Alex vs Jack. I totally understood where Alex was coming from. He’s hot, he’s bored, he can’t even see the damn game. And we’ve got 2+ hours to go. On the flip side, I’ve got Jack, who will throw an absolute shit-fit if we even suggest leaving early. My only way out was a spending spree to keep Alex entertained, which is brutal on the wallet.

“Excuse me, are they with you?” A man had come up behind me.

“What?” I bumbled. “Yeah, these are my boys.”

“Here.” The man handed me 6 tickets. “They’re concession vouchers. I can’t use them. Buy them some ice cream.”

“Wha…thanks!” He was gone. I looked down into my hand: I was looking at $30 in vouchers.

“Boys!” I shouted. “The baseball gods are with us!”

Lo and behold, they were. The boys each got Gatorade, I bought myself a beer, and I got a water for my dad. We went back to our seats. Alex sat on my lap and slurped down his blue liquid, perking up as he got re-hydrated. The sun sunk below the stadium wall so we could stop squinting. The temperature dropped.

A friend in Jack’s class called down to us. He was 6 rows behind us watching the game with his dad. The seats next to us were free and we invited them down to join us. In the 6th inning I took the boys to buy ice cream with the rest of the vouchers. By the 7th inning the Phils were down 7-2 and the stands were thinning out. The 3 boys scooted down to the front row. They spent the next half hour begging the ball girl to give them the next foul ball (that never happened).

My dad and I spent the rest of the game side-by-side. We could easily keep an eye on the boys and still focus on watching baseball. We were both too big for the chairs and our shoulders were mushed together. We watched every pitch and shared a running commentary on what we saw.

In the 9th inning they put up the “Flex Cam”. Jack began flexing his muscles for the crowd and suddenly there he was on the big screen.

“It’s Jack!” my dad spat out, leaping out of his chair and thoroughly mushing me in his enthusiasm and shock.

When the game finally ended, the boys rushed across the rows to the Phillies dugout in hopes of getting autographs. An old lady usher promptly shooed them away after making Jack tie his shoelaces.

So we headed out. The four of us walked together back to the car. The parking lot exit fed us directly out onto the Walt Whitman Bridge headed east. With sleepy boys in the back seat, we headed back to Jersey.

[Part 2 of 4 coming tomorrow(ish), where I’ll actually focus a bit on the game.]