Lakewood Blueclaws and Unbearable Heat

HOT HOT HOT HOT HOT melting molten crotch-chafing HOT

That’s what the day was like. And we were off to Lakewood, NJ where the Phillies single-A team, the BlueClaws, play ball. We’d set up more interviews for Jack’s writing project.

We arrived at 4:30 and met with Greg Giombarese, the broadcaster and media guy for the team. He led us down to the hall outside the locker room, and then brought out 2 pitchers for Jack to interview.

Both the guys were terrific. They fist-bumped Alex and shook Jack’s hand. Maybe because it’s single-A ball that the players are young and enthusiastic – don’t know. But man, were these guys both nice to my boys. Kevin Walter and Geoff Broussard were their names and I wish both of them great success.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We then interviewed Greg, our host. When we were done, he went up to the office and get us free tickets to the game. The boys both ducked into the stadium store because it was air-conditioned.

The stadium itself was really nice. Every seat is a good one and I let the boys wander around. Wherever they were I could always see them from my seat. The stadium is right near the Jersey Shore so there were seagulls in the air and dragonflies flitting around the seats. The outfield is ringed by a grassy hill where people can sit on blankets – there are even giant lifeguard chairs out there that you can sit in and watch the game from up high.

But dear Lord was it ever hot. Hot and humid beyond belief. We asked an usher about autographs:

“From about 6:00 to 6:45 is the best time. Lemme see your tickets…you’re in section 105 – sun should be off you by about the 6th inning.”

As he spoke it occurred to me that the game didn’t start for another hour and a half and then we had a 3-hour game to sit through. This was more than a baseball game; it was a battle for survival against the heat.

Jack took his bat and headed right into a crowd of kids trying to get autographs. He’s normally a somewhat timid kid, but he got right in there and wriggled himself a spot up front. He’s really gotten good at getting autographs. He’s not afraid to call out to players and ask them to sign. In the next half hour, Jack got himself a solid 20 signatures. It was actually funny. For the rest of the game every Blueclaw batter that came to the plate, Jack would say: “I got him.”

Jack got the bat in 2009 when a player gave it to him after a game (Carlo Testa of the Arkansas Naturals). It was amazing. Over time he’s collected at least 30 autographs on the thing. But what’s funny is that he hasn’t recorded any names of who signed. It could have been Alex’s 1st grade class signing the bat and no one would be the wiser, but Jack loves the thing.

It was “Kids Eat Free” day, so the boys each got their soda, hot dog, and chips. I got a titanic beer for $9 and a bag of peanuts. I chugged half the beer in one gulp to quench my thirst. As the game started, I opened the bag of peanuts and offered them to the people behind me. We settled into the game as best we could, all three of us squirming in the heat.

The game had a great vibe to it. The crowd was friendly and making fun comments to one another. The players were doing all the little things right. They ran like hell for first base even when it was a sure out, they warmed up in the batters box with intensity and focus, the infielders fired the ball around the infield between innings.

Jack didn’t sit with us at all. He was like a 10th fielder and he would position himself in the rows of the stadium wherever he thought a foul ball was most likely to go. The boy’s gotten damn good at knowing where to be too.

In the second inning a ball came into the stands just a few rows behind him and some old guy managed to grab it. But two minutes later Jack came rushing to me, holding up a ball.

“How’d you get that?”

“On TV if a grown-up gets a ball and doesn’t hand it to a kid people boo. If he hands it to a kid people clap.”

Brilliant. Jack had stared down the old guy until the man had no choice but to hand over the ball.

In the 3rd inning Alex announced: “I’m just going to go see how much lemonade is,” and rushed off. Minutes later he returned with ice cubes in each fist which he rubbed over his neck and inside his elbows.

After lemonade in the 4the, we got water ice in the 6th. They were $5.75 each and in cups as big as ice-tea glasses, but it kept the boys busy for 2 innings. Jack ate one-handed (his glove was on his other hand) in a seat right near the home dugout where he could beg the batboy to toss him foul balls.

Alex and I sat together and he chattered away. I love that kid. He’s so funny and thoughtful. He told me his theories about lemonade and ice cream in his stilted rhythm:

“I like lemonade [breath] because at first it tastes sweet [breath] and then at the end [breath] it tastes sour.”

“With ice cream, [breath] I like the strange flavors at first [breath], but by the end [breath] I don’t think they taste as good.”

The sun finally went down and the sky turned orange. Alex took the camera, leaned back, and took a good 25 shots straight up at the sky.

And I hate to admit it, but I started to find myself thinking: “I’m a little sick of baseball right now.” Hard to admit, but it’s true.

I’ve been to 8 games already this season and we’re only at the halfway point. I’ve sat through 25 little league games as well. That’s way more than I’ve ever done. Plus the scoreboard didn’t work so I couldn’t keep score. And above all, I was melting in the heat.

We’ve got the Wilmington Blue Rocks on the 26th – interviews are all set up and then we’re done with our tour. And I’m eager to be at that finish line. I’m also eager to dig in with Jack and help him write his article; I think it’s going to be terrific.

OK…two things before I finish up.

1)    Over the course of the game, here are all the words I wrote down to describe the heat:

  • Neck-rashing
  • Cotton-candy-crumbling
  • Ice-begging
  • Sink-shower-inducing
  • Collar-soaking
  • Water-ice-liquifying
  • Hat-darkening
  • Sock-cursing

2)    Here are a few selects out of the 330 photos Alex took.

P7153708

“His head is peeking over Jack’s head.”

P7153723

“He’s thinking about Jack’s question.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Jack’s back.”

P7153811

“The mascot’s nose is like a baseball. Kind of.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I like how he’s swinging the bat here.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“The sky.”

P7153841

“Sky.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“The sky.”

P7153850

“Sky. I took one every inning.”

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.

10883826-large

In the spring of 2009…

IMG_0077

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.

IMG_0079

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…

5660_1211571246804_4674275_n

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.

HOF_2

HOF_11

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.

photo(2)

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.

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…

Blog1

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.]