Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Little League, Big Dreams

Little League, Big Dreams

Few experiences I’ve had in sports - from playing on great and awful teams as a kid to witnessing Super Bowls and Final Fours as an adult - measure up to the intensity of the championship game I coached, and lost, in the Roland Park Baseball League this week. And as in business and life, you often learn more from the mistakes and the tough losses than the wins, so I thought I’d share.

Allow me to set the stage. I coach my 10-year-old son’s team in the American League of RPBL, which is for kids who are mostly 11 and 12 (some are still 10 and some turn 13 during the season). This is in an interesting age group because you have kids who have already hit their growth spurt and look like man children; and those (like my son) who are still on their way up. As a result, you witness comical confrontations like a four-foot-seven, 75-pound pitcher facing a five-foot-eight, 165-pounder hitter. Often enough, the little guy wins.

This season our Vikings were the little guys, mostly younger kids for this group. But we had talent and solid pitching, and enjoyed a winning season, finishing 8-5-1 and in fourth place in a 12-team league. We went on a run in the playoffs, winning two games and advancing to the championship game against the Falcons, a team largely composed of older, bigger kids. They were 13-2 overall and the No. 1 seed.

It was an epic Little League game, with parents and family and friends lining the newly built and beautiful Roland Park Baseball home field in Mt. Washington. If you haven’t seen it, this field is right out of a Norman Rockwell painting; it’s perfect, tucked away in a wooded lot with with an outfield fence in right, towering yellow foul poles, dugouts, and even an old school scoreboard.

The night of the game, I saw, for the first time, the charity brick I had purchased to honor my late grandfather. It read, “In Memory of Daniel Abel, Baseball Fan.”

I got a little chill when I saw it - my grandfather was our family’s first baseball fan. He must have listened to thousands of Orioles games on a transistor radio. He took his kids - my dad and his brother - to the welcome parade when the Orioles came to Baltimore in 1954. When my father showed up to see his grandson’s game that night, I showed the brick to him. He didn’t know I had purchased it. And, wearing his City College reunion baseball cap, he just nodded in appreciation and said thanks. I felt good.

And then it was time to play the game. Our boys played hard and well, and thanks to some great defensive plays and opportunistic hits (and walks) we took a 4-2 lead ino the bottom of the the sixth, the last inning. But as fate would have it, that’s when the Falcons’ bats came alive. With one out in the bottom of the inning, the Falcons had tied the score, 4-4 and had runners on second and third, with first base open.  

I convened with my assistant coaches and we agreed to intentionally walk the next batter to load the bases and create a force out at home. Now this is a good, no-brainer move in a Major League game, where the level of play and nuance of the game is understood by all to be at the highest level. But in Little League… let’s just say that’s the first intentional walk I’ve called for in 8 years as a youth baseball coach. I felt a little like Buck Showalter and a little like a guy who just took away a shot at glory for the kid who was about to hit. There’s also the knowledge that the kids and parents are watching how I’m handling this situation and myself and I needed to show appropriate composure and sportsmanship, even though I’m grinding away inside.

But that’s sports and that’s life. You have to make decisions and live with the outcomes.

Back to the game. With runners on every base and the season on the line, our pitcher Max found his fastball and location and struck out the next batter. The crowd erupted. Maybe we’d get out of this. The next batter came up and he did it again with three fastballs that were nearly impossible to hit. On to extra innings!

The intensity grew as both teams had to rely on pitchers who weren’t nearly as experienced as the ones who preceded them. In the bottom of the 8th, with daylight dwindling, and the fans and kids nearly bursting from anticipation and tension, the Falcons loaded the bases and pushed a run across on a soft ground ball that eluded our pitcher and first baseman. Their team piled on one another in joyous celebration. Our kids and fans could only watch.  

Some of our players shed a tear or two but we all felt so proud. We had over-achieved and played well. But it definitely hurt. We were right there and came up just a tiny bit short. After the game and the handshakes with our worthy opponents, I gathered the kids to congratulate them on a game and season well played.

We stood, our little circle of kids and coaches, just a few feet from the third base line, with dozens of parents and friends behind us. I felt so proud but also a deep sense of disappointment for them as they looked up at me. Those faces. So earnest and young. Some with tears, some who were already over it. Some who probably didn’t know how to feel and were waiting to take their cue from me.

Honestly, at first I didn’t know what to say. After most games, we’d recap what we did well and what we needed to work on. But now the season was over and there was nothing left to work on, it was over.

I scanned the kids for a moment waiting for the right words. I felt the emotion rushing in me.

“I love you guys,” I said. Then we went out for pizza and ice cream.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Getting Back to Business

OK it's been about 5 years and I figure, kinda like Jimmy Chitwood in Hoosiers, that it's about time I start blogging again. This space was reserved mostly for commentary about the state of Maryland basketball, but seeing as how it's baseball season, let's just dive into some Orioles talk, shall we? Then if I can get some writing momentum going, I'll check in with you on the Terps for the 2017-18 season, when the Melo-less Turtles try to find a new identity and reclaim a regular spot in the top 25.

The view from our family seats in 328.
As for the Orioles, I am hopeful for a winning and entertaining season. In the Buck Showalter era, at least we have a competitive team that has been near or at the top of the AL East standings the last five years. And that's saying something for a team and fan base that endured 14 consecutive losing seasons (1998-2011). Fourteen years of losing!

After that many years, anything resembling a decent team should bring tears of joy to our collective, Orioles-loving eyes. But such is the human condition that as soon as you experience a bit of a good thing, you want MORE. Getting to the playoffs 3 of the past 5 years has been fun, but most fans now want the Os to take the next step and make a World Series run.

Me? Of course a World Series would be nice, I mean it's been since 1983, which is, wait a sec... 34 years ago... but I also like to enjoy the ride. I have a 13-game ticket plan and what I really want, when I take my family of 4 to a ballgame, is to watch a team playing games that matter. When your team is 15 games out by the All Star break, it's not a ton of fun to sit around watching and hoping that maybe they'll go on a 27-game winning streak and get back into contention.

And so I am truly thankful for the seasons we've had the last five years. They've been exciting and suspenseful and thrilling. Yes, also crushing and disappointing, but that's life, right?

Since I'm just starting to get my groove back on this thing, perhaps I should say less than more. I'd like to share a few links to baseball writing I've done the past few years, mostly in the Baltimore Business Journal and the Baltimore Sun, about the need to take a break and watch baseball; or hate on the most beloved Yankee of the last 50 years. Here they are:

Make Opening Day Your Real Resolutions Day

Opening Day Should be an Actual Holiday 

Good Riddance Jeter 

Lessons in Leadership from Buck

Allow me to end this post with a quick parenting failure story. The other day my son Alec, who is 9 and an improving young baseball player, said to me, "Dad, what do you think the chances are that I can make the Major Leagues?"

I should say at this moment that we are jokesters but also realists in our house. Alec is funny and sharp; he gets sarcasm, has a YouTube channel devoted mostly to Trump parody videos, and watches more Simpsons episodes than he should. All of this is to say that I thought he could handle (and was aware of) the truth. So I said something like, "Oh, I don't know, about 1 in 5 million... you know it's not happening, right?"

Oh man, wrong answer. He curled into a ball and wept tears of disappointment. I almost cried too. What had I just done to my child? He's 9... I could let him have the dream a little while longer but NO, I had to go and drop realism on him like a Chris Davis moonshot to right.

Here's Alec, 9, pitching in his first game. 

Well, after my feelings of guilt and his feelings of disappointment subsided, we went outside and had ourselves a catch. I went back to throwing him pop-ups and grounders and he went back to pretending he was in the Major Leagues.

And that's the thing about baseball, you can always sit around and hope... for the next season, the next game, the next play, the next hit, the next out. But it's better to just live in the moment and hope to see a good game and if all else fails, just go outside and play catch.

Welcome back my friends, I'll be back soon.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Enjoying this Magical, Memorable Orioles Ride of 2012

What a story the 2012 Orioles have been.

All the elements are there:
Surprise  - really? we’re good this year?
Excitement - Best winning percentage in one-run games in the history of Major League Baseball.
Suspense - is this really happening? Can it continue?
Hope  - This feels good!; and, hopefully
Joyous Resolution  - no comment

Those who have followed the team at any level know the major plot points: Storied franchise known for winning and doing things the right way - The Oriole Way - falls on hard times to the tune of 14 straight losing seasons. Not just losing seasons mind you, but dreadful, interminable and seemingly pointless exercises in futility.

A revolving door of managers and general managers attempt unsuccessfully to right the ship. A generation of fans loses interest. Caring about the Orioles becomes, for the most part, uncool. Baltimore becomes, fully, a football town, immersed unapologetically in its Ravens, whose swagger and comparative success are completely foreign to the new Oriole Way. 

The 2012 Orioles season begins with modest expectations. Sure, the confident manager, Buck Showalter, has had success in the past - particularly in his second full year with a club. But no one is expecting much out of these Birds.  Their leadoff hitter and arguably best player, Brian Roberts, remains out indefinitely with concussion symptoms. The starting rotation appears thrown together haphazardly – someone’s No. 3 guy here, an unknown Asian import there. And the team’s top position players - Wieters, Jones, Markakis, Hardy - all seem to be a click or two below elite.

Here we go again.

But slowly, methodically, the 2012 Orioles play respectable, winning baseball. Buoyed by a  stingy bullpen of all things, they reach the All Star break five games over .500. But rather than feeling optimistic for the future, the fan base awaits inevitable collapse. We’ve seen this act before.

Undaunted by relatively sparse crowds, the team keeps on winning as the calendar flips to August. A rookie makes a spectacular debut and provides a spark. And now it’s September and the beat of a magical, memorable summer goes on. A team that has called upon not less than 12 different starting pitchers finds itself neck and neck with that most hate-able of enemies - the New York bleepin’ Yankees. And now, after all this time, there can be no question - the 2012 Baltimore Orioles are for real. 

I don’t know that there is some larger lesson to be learned here. One could argue that perseverance pays off; or that a team that has lost for so long is bound to win at some point, etc., etc.  Will we look back on this season as the one when the Baltimore Orioles turned the tide and returned to winning baseball for years to come? Or might it just be a blip; a statistical outlier in an otherwise orderly series of losing campaigns.

Who knows? Does it matter? More than anything what I am personally trying to do as a fan of this team is enjoy the moments, enjoy the ride.

There was that night back in July as I watched the game lying in bed with my son Ethan, who is 8, both our heads propped up on pillows.  After putting on PJs and brushing teeth, our summer routine often included watching Orioles baseball for a few innings together. On this night, the Orioles were down three runs late in the game. J.J. Hardy was up at bat; and I said aloud to Ethan, “we need a 3-run homer right here.” And on the next pitch, damn if J.J. didn’t launch one of his signature line drives clear out of the park. My son stared at me for an instant, mouth agape and eyes wide - “you called it dad!” - and then we high fived and hugged and rolled around on the bed together, celebrating one of those magical surprises that can only be delivered by a clutch three-run homer on a warm summer night.

Those moments, these opportunities, are what’s kept me into it all these years. For reasons having to do with obligation or inevitability, I’ve passed on the love of the game to Ethan and his younger brother Alec, who is 5.

We talk standings and statistics. We look together at averages and discuss the difference between a major leaguer and minor leaguer. We go to the games as a family and scream “Charge!” and buy ice cream.

And who am I kidding? I’m not just happy for them. I’ve invested a lot of time following some seriously bad teams. I have a few friends with whom I text nearly every single game talking about the minutia not just of wins and losses, but of individual plays and at bats all season long. Here, right now, is the payoff for caring. Something Oriole fans thought might never happen again is happening right now. I think it’s worth caring about. I hope my kids can think back on this 2012 Orioles team like I think about the ’79 Os, who went all the way to the World Series when I was 9. I vividly remember that team, those games, and those feelings.

Baseball is a game of failure. Most of the time your favorite player doesn’t hit a home run, or even get on base. I won’t be the first to point out that life is a lot like baseball in that it’s often about suffering; but also striving and enduring, which makes moments of glory and success all that much sweeter. It’s why I can’t stand the entitled attitude of Yankees fans, who don’t seem to take pleasure in small victories – they seem to care only for the big ones. 

But us Oriole fans? We have spent a decade and a half in the baseball wilderness, forced to celebrate only the small victories – like the occasional win against the Yanks or Red Sox when our stadium is filled with their fans. Even during one of those recent 69-93 seasons, there were moments of glory and success, but they were fleeting moments against a backdrop of hopelessness.

Here in 2012, however, we have an entirely new and hopeful script. Each game presents an opportunity for success of a type that has everyone who cares about baseball, never mind just the Orioles, paying attention.

How about those Baltimore Orioles?” they say on ESPN and write in The New York Times. Can they keep it going?

We can only watch and hope.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Maryland at Duke, the (probably appropriate) End of a Tradition

Maryland will play at Duke this afternoon, and it will be the end of a long era, one in which the teams have faced each other, home and away, each season, since the formation of the ACC in 1953.

When Miami and Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004, followed by Boston College in 2005, the ACC did away with the round robin format to the basketball season and introduced an unbalanced schedule. Prior to the league's expansion, the ACC featured nine member schools, a number that now seems quaint in the era of the super conference, when every team played every other team, home and away, every season.

Then when the ACC became a 12-team league, the conference created a system whereby each team had two 'primary partners' that they'd play home and away every year, and then rotate playing once or twice per year against the other teams. I personally hated the change because it replaced what was a perfect system -- you got to play each team on your court and on their court. But that's ancient history and not worth discussing. With the mid 2000s expansion following shortly on the heels of the Terrapins rise to the national championship in 2002 - and, more importantly, some truly epic battles with Duke during the Juan Dixon era - the ACC made Maryland a primary partner to Duke and UVa.

Over the years, Maryland had some great games with Duke, but none arguably more memorable or important than the ones in the late 90s and early 2000s, with both teams in the top 10. While Duke has maintained its excellence among the nation's elite program since that time, Maryland has been much more up and down, with a few very solid seasons interspersed with some very average, forgettable ones (Travis Garrison anyone?)

There were, of course, the stinging chants of "not our rival" from the Dukies when Maryland would visit Cameron Indoor, a chant meant to indicate that Duke's one and only true rival is and was North Carolina, a program that Maryland replaced at the top of the ACC pecking order for a short time, but not anymore.

And, so, where are we now? With Gary Williams retiring last year and the hiring of Mark Turgeon, Maryland has entered an entirely new era. And, perhaps fittingly, so has the ACC. This is the last year - and today is the last game in the series - where Maryland will play Duke twice a year, every year. Starting next year, the Terps' new primary partner is not Duke or even UVa, but Pitt, a team Maryland has absolutely no history or tradition with - but a very good program that's been among the nation's elite for the past decade under coach Jamie Dixon. Pitt is slightly down this year (15-9, 4-7 in the Big East), but has been to the NCAA tournament the past 8 seasons and hasn't won less than 25 games since the '04-'05 season.

As a Maryland fan, there are two ways to look at this new primary partner. One is to feel slighted by the powers that be in the ACC. After all, the Terps have been a part of the conference since its formation, so why are we the partner to one of the newbies? Is there not one school that we've developed a rivalry with worth preserving? Sadly, or perhaps just interestingly, the answer is "not really." I don't think any Terp fan gets particularly fired up to watch Maryland play UVa (and UVa is a natural rival to Va Tech), and who else was it going to be? N.C. State? Wake Forest? Nah, better to give Maryland and its new coach a new rival, one altogether worthy of respect, and, hopefully over time, the source of a kind of hatred reserved only for teams that it feels so good to beat.

Today, of course, there is the matter of Maryland at Duke. A rebuilding Maryland program without its point guard has little chance to beat the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor, but one never knows. Perhaps Terrell Stoglin has a career-defining 40-point explosion of a performance in his system, it wouldn't shock me. So I'll be watching. And, while I initially felt that losing the home and home with Duke every year would hurt the Maryland program and its fans, I now feel like it's the right change at the right time.

It will be a good change for the program to stop thinking so much about the Duke games, and more on building the kind of team and program that goes to the tournament every year and competes for the league title. Kinda like Pitt. No use fighting it, bring on the Blue Devils today, and bring on the new era under our new coach next year. Go Terps.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The 17 Games In, 2012 Season Preview

Hola my friends, it's been a while. I'll spare the excuses for not prolifically filing reports about the young and 'developing before our eyes' 2011-2012 edition of the Maryland men's basketball team. Heading into tonight's contest at Florida State (9 p.m. on ESPNU), Mark Turgeon's Terps are 12-4, 2-1 and a win could get people talking about Maryland as a possible bubble team. Right now they are on no one's list, largely because they haven't really beaten anyone good, got clobbered by, um, Iona, and pulled out a series of a single digit, nail-biting victories over the likes of Mount St. Mary's, Florida International, Radford, and Alabany. I am not even making up that list of schools in such a way that would indicate Maryland has played a bunch of softies, those are among the schools Maryland has played against, and they almost lost to all of them.

Ah, but before we get all hyper-critical like an angry Ravens fan calling a sports talk show to complain about Joe Flacco's completion percentage, let's give these Terps a break, huh? They lost their big man, Jordan Williams to the NBA's New Jersey Nets (where he's appeared in 6 games and scored 6 total points and appears to be the last man on the bench... ) their designated foreign 'fundamentally sound guy,' Haukur Palsson to professional ball in Europe, and several decent roster fillers to graduation or the end of their eligibility or whatever it is happens when a college basketball player completes 4 years in a row of competition at an institution of higher learning. (Hey - side note, did you know that former Terp Cliff Tucker, who made that one game-winner against Georgia Tech, walked on the football team at UTEP? It's true. I don't feel like surfing and linking to his bio, but I think he had 2 or 3 catches.)

Anyway, where were we? Full admission, I have watched about 2/3 of the Maryland games this year and don't feel quite as 'plugged in' as I did in the past when I actually covered the team and/or made Terps games appointment TV or attended most home games.

However, I do feel qualified to now provide a journalistically questionable analysis of the top 5 or 6 guys on this years Terps, plus the new coach:

Let's start at the top with that whirling dervish of a two guard, Terrell Stoglin - Put it this way, you WOULD NOT want to have to try to guard Terrell in a pick-up game. He would destroy you and 3 other guys and score basically, all the points. Only problem is that in this made-up game that will never happen, the other guys on Terrell's team might not have a ton of fun watching him do his thing while they, well, watch him do his thing. He's not exactly a big sharer of the basketball, but man can he score. Stoglin leads the ACC in scoring at 21 points per game and without him, Maryland probably loses to Cornell, Albany, Mt. St. Mary's and few others. He's Maryland's only truly legit player, who would likely start for any other team in the ACC.

OK, moving on then, we have Shawn Mosley, the 34-year-old senior small forward from Baltimore, who is the Terps' what? Glue guy? Team leader? Insert cliche about pretty good but not great senior forced to stay for four years here? Mosley works hard, seems to do everything well, nothing great. Players like Mosley are very nice to have on your team if you have 2-3 stars and he can be content to be in the background, but if he's your guy, well, you aren't that good.

James Padgett - power forward. High energy. Leads the ACC in offensive rebounding at over 4 per game, but only gets 2 on the defensive glass. I don't understand this statistic. Padgett sometimes looks like he can take over, sometimes disappears, not sure what else to say here.

Pe'Shon Howard - when he came back from a toe injury about 10 games in to the season, Maryland had a breath of fresh air - a pass first point guard. Like his name, Pe'Shon is flashy, loves the spectacular or difficult pass and can hit an open shot. He is very entertaining and I'm guessing the coaches would say he's playing his way into game shape and will only get better. I like Pe'Shon.

Alex Len - So when Pe'Shon came back from the toe injury, the Terps also gained the services of Alex Len, a 7-1 center from the Ukraine who had to sit out 10 games because, in the eyes of the NCAA, he did something he shouldn't have, like accepted a few bucks for playing basketball.

Len plays a lot like you'd hope a 7-1 center from the Ukraine would play. He's not just gigantically tall, he's athletic, blocks shots, has a good court sense, and seems to be really enjoying himself. On the down side, big Alex isn't exactly the second coming of Patrick Ewing, or even Uwe Blab for that matter. He's a bit thin and got lost in the recent Georgia Tech game, where he scored only 0 points, but got 9 rebounds. Let's hope there are lots of double-doubles in store for this guy - Terps really need him to play well to be a good team.

Off the bench, Maryland gets thin fast, with Ashton Pankey playing a serviceable power forward and another skinny tall foreign white guy, Berend Weijs at center. Also serviceable. Another role player who shows flashes of serious talent is Mychael Parker, but he also seems inconsistent.

Wait, I'm forgetting Nick Faust, the athletic 2 guard from Baltimore's City College high school who started the first 9 games before Howard came back from injury. I think Faust was a bit overwhelmed at first and was shooting like 25 percent through his first 10 games or so but is probably better suited for a role off the bench right now. From what I've seen, he moves gracefully around the court, can make the three, but forces shots and makes plenty of bad decisions. Faust has the potential to blossom into a very good player but he's not exactly an impact guy who can throw his team on his back. The only guy Maryland has in that category is Stoglin.

And last, let me just throw out a few words about the new leader of the Terps, Mark Turgeon. From what I can tell, Maryland basketball is in very good hands. Turgeon not only works hard, coaches hard, recruits hard, he is brutally honest in press conferences. He says things like, "we need to grow up as a basketball team" and has pushed Stoglin with some tough love, including sitting him out to start a couple of games and chiding him for not passing the ball more.

I'm sure it's not easy to coach a guy like Stoglin, a player who can score like few others, but might not exert maximum effort on D or share the ball as much as he should. So far, so good, for these young, improving Terps. A win tonight at Florida State would be a great stepping stone, and might just get Maryland moving toward something more than just a rebuilding season.

Go Terps.