Thursday, March 27, 2014

Baseball and life: Dad's 'bad calls' were good advice

With baseball season about to crank up, it seemed like a fine time to share a favorite baseball story.

I was the terror of T-ball when it came to that level of play, but not so much when it came to the first – and last – two seasons of my pitch-ball career.

In those days, kids handled the pitching at that level. These days, an adult handles that duty.


So every pitcher back then thought he was Vida Blue, throwing as hard as possible but with not enough regard for placement.

Whereas some folks tend to be more prone than others to be targets for disease, lightning bolts and disasters in general, I was a magnet for pitches and likely led the league in on-base percentage.

This had nothing to do with bat-on-ball contact. No, I got on base almost 100 percent of the time just standing there, either getting a walk or trotting to first after a wayward pitch beaned me.


But game after game and into the second season, my fear of going to bat grew. The ball became the enemy.

One pitcher in particularly, Toby Dawson, had the reputation of having the league’s fastest throws. For me, that just meant more pain at the plate.

Toward the end of the second season, I had decided I never wanted to play baseball again, and my parents supported this decision as long as I finished the season. My dad said I still had an obligation to stick with my team and give it my best.

Which meant facing Toby Dawson one more time.

It was a warm, sunny spring day when we, the Cardinals, took the field to play Dawson and his team. The umpire had failed to show, so my dad volunteered to put on the mask and make the calls behind the plate.

It came my time to bat and found some comfort in having my dad just inches away.

Toby unleashed his first pitch, which hit the dirt about 6 inches in front of the plate.

“STEE-RIKE!”

The field grew quiet, other than a few whispers, as attention turned to the man behind the plate, the guy who loudly had called a “strike” on an obvious “ball” pitch.

A befuddled Toby got ready to throw his second pitch, and I raised my bat, which remained in no danger of being swung.

The next terrifying pitch whizzed for my shin, forcing me to jump in order to avoid it.

“STEE-RIKE!”

The whispers from the crowd grew, and the catcher looked up at Dad. I stood there, also staring at Dad.

He said something that I can’t recall, and we returned to play.

Fearing a strike out with nary a pitch going over the plate, I felt I had no choice but to swing on the next pitch, even if Toby managed to throw it backward and over the outfield wall.

This time, Toby displayed control and threw one right down the middle.

I swung as hard as I could — and connected, right on the sweet spot of the bat. The ball took off like a missile, well over second base and out toward the outfield fence.

Having never been in this position, I hesitated a second before running toward first base.

The ball landed at the base of the fence in centerfield, and the first-base coach waved me on to second. I managed to slide in just ahead of the throw. A double!

The trip-around-the-bases excitement didn’t end there.

Another hit moved me to third base.

And after yet another hit, the third-base coach hollered for me to take home plate.

But the ball got there just before I did, and a Pete Rose-like collision with the catcher ensued.

“OUT!”

Dad finally made a right call. I was caught, dead to rights.

I’ve told this story often over the years, and it underscores the kind of man my dad was.

Standing there and watching pitches go by or bounce off my noggin wasn’t what my dad considered doing my best.

It also taught a valuable lesson in swinging for the fence, not just in the face of fear, when there is nothing left to lose.

We can’t just stand there when life starts throwing us wild pitches. My dad and his creative umpiring gave me something to remember for the rest of my life.

And it was the only hit I ever got in pitch ball.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Love, Happiness Open The Pressure Valve



It was about a year ago during a routine annual allergy checkup, one required in order to continue prescribing to the magic nose potion that blissfully ended nearly four decades of allergy injections (including a decade of self-injection), that the wide-eyed nurse wagged her finger in my face and told me my blood pressure was out of control.

It was the latest in a long line of unpleasant pressure reports that had started a year or two earlier and continued inching me closer to the idea that the worsening condition was irreversible and would require medical intervention.

Life's circumstances and crushing stress conspired to play a part, and proper diet, exercise and a 30-pound weight loss in a year failed to course correct.

The stress factor that nearly broke the camel's back came in the form of a lightning bolt that struck my Beaumont rental property, frying almost every appliance and ceiling fan, downing a tree and briefly driving out the tenant I so desperately needed to keep the full weight of the mortgage off my shoulders.

By the time I arrived at the allergist's office for the checkup in August 2012, the blood pressure had a achieved an all-time high, putting me well into medication territory. The nurse ticked off a list of horrifying effects such as arterial damage, aneurysms and organ failure. Something needed to be done.

But I did nothing, believing that time's healing of wounds and stress reduction were the best medicines for blood-pressure relief. The old saying about the darkness preceding the dawn rings true. Surely the rogue bolt of destruction from the heavens marked the bottom of the latest dark period, with something better just waiting around the next blind corner.

And then there she was.

Having exchanged a few pleasantries through Facebook, Beth and I met Aug. 31, 2012, on a night of a spectacular blue moon. She was out with some mutual friends at a local nightclub. We chatted and danced, and I walked her to her car and asked permission to download her digits from her Facebook page. I was smitten from the get-go after having spent a few weeks watching her life play out on Facebook. Little did I know that she, out in the real world, had seen me before I'd seen her, before I threw out a Facebook friend request.

The dating mold was broken from the start. Our first outing involved the children, with mine acting rather rotten, a whiney hike around the lake


Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Spoils of Embarrassment

Avoidance is impossible when it comes to that fateful day when a child starts believing his parents suffer from a coolness deficiency.

It wasn't so long ago when both of my sons enjoyed me walking them to class in the morning, and every day was a mini adventure. Sometimes they held my hand.

But then came the day my oldest son Curt, 11, didn't want Dad to walk him to class anymore. That led to him not wanting to be seen dropped off in the parking lot across from the school.

Today, they get dropped off in the circle drive in front of the school, with Curt reaching over upon arrival and turning down the stereo so no kid can hear what Dad has playing in the truck.

Never mind that it might be Nirvana, Motorhead, Led Zeppelin, The White Stripes, Black Sabbath, Soundgarden, The Ramones, Mumford & Sons, Bob Marley, Snoop Lion, Skrillex or Beastie Boys on the stereo.

Whatever it is, it's not exactly like my Dad driving me up to my elementary school with the Kingston Trio or Herp Albert at maximum volume.

Yet kids are kids, and embarrassment is embarrassment. It's in their DNA and part of the growth process.

But where there are a growing number of a maturing child's buttons to push, there are opportunities for clever means of dynamite parenting.

Like this morning.

Curt, as he is prone to do, left his class agenda in the car of my beautiful and incredible fiancee, Beth, who deserves a medal of honor for picking up the boys from school daily and serving as Minister of Homework Enforcement, resulting in substantial grade improvement. The agenda basically is a calendar that serves as one of several means of communication between students, teachers and parents.

An agenda reminder could be stapled to Curt's forehead, and he'd still find a way to forget this critical school component, which triggers a nastygram and sad-face drawing from the teacher should it not make it to class daily with a parental signature.

So when Curt failed to take the steps necessary to get that agenda to school today, the only logical thing to do was to deliver it to him in person on my way to work.

Humor columnist Dave Barry set the bar for campus embarrassment years ago when he drove up to his child's campus behind the wheel of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile and used the vehicle's loudspeaker to call out to his 13-year-old son.

Here's the link: http://www.corgifan.com/oscar/barry.htm

With no Wienermobile immediately available, I had to settle for just convincing the Rice Elementary School office staffers that hand-delivering the agenda was preferable to just dropping it off with them.

I envisioned showing up at the classroom door, knocking just a tad louder than necessary and then being all smiles as I waved hello to the fifth-graders and happily handed over the agenda to a red-faced Curt.

But I never got the chance.

After scoring my hall pass from the front office, I ran into Curt in the courtyard between buildings. He apparently had been awarded the task of ferrying something from his class to some other part of the building.

He had all manner of key cards and whatnot hanging from his neck, giving him a look of importance and authority.

Despite his agenda forgetfulness, he at least was trustworthy enough in his teacher's eyes to be tasked with getting important information from Points A to B on campus.

"HEY DAD?!?!?!?!?!?! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?!?!?!?" he exclaimed as he spotted me from across the courtyard. He was with a buddy, and they were walking purposefully toward their objective.

I gave him a big smile and said, "HERE'S THE AGENDA YOU FORGOT!!!!"

Not as exciting as the envisioned classroom invasion, but it had to suffice. With the doors to the main building locked, I had to depend on him to use his card key to get me out of the courtyard. Once inside, he hurried away on his mission.

Somehow, I don't think what I did this morning will result in heightened agenda responsibility for Curt, so I might have to raise the game.

I'll never go as far as showing up on campus in a "23-foot-long, 3-ton hot dog, with wheels in the buns," as Dave Barry called it, but next time Curt forgets his agenda, showing up at his classroom door with Justin Bieber's "Baby" blaring from my iPhone might not be out of the question.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Finding Dad's Wedding Ring Brings Joy

Little thought had been given to the whereabouts of Dad's wedding ring in the six years since his passing at age 87.

Life changes, including three moves in barely four years, created belongings chaos, with all manner of mementos, books, clothing, art and other items - some dating back to early childhood and even my parents' childhoods - boxed, de-boxed, re-boxed and shoved into the back corners of attics or closets.

Like a blanket dragged over an unswept floor, so many material things have been picked up over the decade along the way of my life's journey, keepsake dust bunnies too important to just toss, some with invaluable sentimental worth.

Curiosity over what happened to Dad's wedding ring didn't surface until late last year, when my beautiful and most wonderful now-fiancée Beth and I began talking about a life together.

One evening in December, I hauled boxes one by one into the dining room and rifled through them. Dad accumulated a crazy volume of tools, gun parts (he built muzzleloaders), jewelry parts (he was a silversmith) and a wild assortment of other material bits and pieces during his life's amazing journey through 81 percent of the 20th century.

Century-old chisels his dad had passed down, antique wrenches and trigger mechanisms mingled with lead muzzleloader bullets, powder horns and foreign coins in boxes so heavy that they demanded an appliance dolly's use for moving from Points A to B.

But hours of searching that evening failed to produce Dad's wedding ring.

In January, the contents of that house transitioned to a new home out in the country, with some boxes unloaded and the rest stacked in a garage corner.

In the mild upheaval and adjustment that came with the move, the burner on the marriage topic remained on simmer.

But that changed April 20.

Little in the way of ruffles and flourishes preceded the Facebook status change from "in a relationship" to "engaged." No dramatic presentations at a romantic restaurant. No proposals splattered across the big screen at The Ballpark in Arlington. No aircraft pulling a banner over the Tyler skies.

The topic simply was revisited the morning of April 20, a Saturday. A plan emerged. Then came the realization that formal engagement had taken place. Excitement built throughout the weekend. Loved ones and friends were told. A Facebook announcement came that Monday, drawing more than 100 "likes" and dozens of congratulatory comments in an overwhelming, lump-in-throat display of loving support.

Thoughts quickly returned to Dad's wedding ring, which I wanted to proudly adorn in my new journey with Beth. My older sister had no recollection of where the ring went, and my younger sister seemed confident that she had turned it over to me at some point in recent years, in a box mixed with old coins, jewelry and childhood mementos. The only one who could have known what happened to the ring immediately after Dad's passing was my mom, who died in September 2008. My parents would have adored Beth.

It was possible that Dad might have been buried with the ring for all we knew. A call was made to the funeral home, which had no records of what he was wearing upon burial.

The only thing left to do before considering another ring option was to revisit the boxes. This past Sunday, Beth and I decided to dedicate part of the day to hanging kitschy junk-shop stuff on the fence around our pool, items such as colorful metal boots, mermaids, stars and signs extolling pool life.

Venturing into the garage in search of a box of screws, I took a quick detour to investigate a stack of boxes in a side closet. A white box caught my eye, thanks to my gold-plated baby shoes poking out from the top. A closer look revealed items that my sister said she had delivered to me along with the ring.

Inside the box was a small white box, which contained smaller boxes of coins - and a small dark-brown pouch I did not recall ever seeing.

I began emptying the pouch contents into my palm. A gold locket I'd given my mother fell out first, followed by a buffalo nickel and then a cheesy metal ring that looked like it could have come from a grocery store gumball machine.

And then my Dad's wedding ring fell into my hand.

Tears welled as I examined it. Beth's reaction was similar, a joyous moment on myriad levels. The ring felt heavier than expected and had more intricate, unusual markings than I remembered, with little in the way of inside inscription. Almost two of my ring fingers could fit in the thing, with Dad having chunky Cuban cigar fingers compared to my relatively small, bony digits.

It dawned on me that I'd never before touched Dad's wedding ring. My parents were married for 45 years, and I don't remember the ring ever leaving his finger.

Soon, that re-sized ring will symbolize an exciting new journey of lifelong love and commitment. Perhaps some day my sons will remember it for its ever-present place on my finger.

And, hopefully, there won't be untold hours spent rummaging around in boxes should one of the boys arrive upon a moment in his life's journey when he wants to wear it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Another Memorable Run

Benevolence and mutual support define the running subculture. Fans along a marathon course, for example, cheer as hard for the plodders in the back as they do the gazelles in front. It's all good. Just getting out there, whether walking or running, commands respect. Just do it!
For me, every run is a page, every race a chapter and every marathon, of which I've run 18, is a book, with no two pages, chapters or books alike.
It's interesting how the sports folks on ESPN radio or television, as well as the athletes whose careers they chronicle, seem to have such detailed memories of events long ago, like a pop fly in the sixth inning or a simple 4-yard gain on a running play.
But the same can be said for runners and their races. I remember details of races large and small from more than a decade ago, sometimes silly things such as making the mistake of using a cold, dry, flaky biscuit as fuel during a marathon. It wound up more like eating feathers, and gagging and coughing resulted in airborne biscuit flakes that brought laughter from the crowd and fellow runners.
Recently, weight loss and training have allowed me to bring down my running times, to the point where medal competition was possible for the first time in years.
It has been more than a decade since I raced a 10K, but my training times, compared to last year's race times, showed I might scratch out a third place in my age group if I did my best.
Targeted on the calendar was this past week's Azalea 10K in Tyler, and training for it started two months ago, highlighted by the boys riding their bikes alongside me on Saturday training runs as we rumbled up and down the Rose Rudman Trail here.
We arrived this past Saturday morning to find more than 1,000 participants milling around near the starting area, which made it difficult to find the friend who was coming out to watch the kids for a few minutes and allow them to see me finish.
But the kid watcher was nowhere to be found. The gun sounded, and off went the runners. My heart sank, because there went any chance to get a medal, because seconds might have been crucial.
More than 90 seconds after the race had started, we connected with the sitter, but I figured it was too late. That 90 seconds is an eternity in a 10K.
I herded the kids over to the registration table, hoping to cash in my entry so that the three of us could run that day's 2-mile race.
A woman at the registration table looked at me and said, "Honey, this is a chip-timed race. You have a chip in your race number. Your time doesn't start until you cross the starting line. Go!"
With the announcer calling, "Last call for 10K runners," I handed the kids over to the sitter, darted through the crowd and took off down the street, with the back of the walkers about a half mile down the road.
More darting ensued, and within three miles I was amid the bulk of the 10K racers, passing and surging ahead, rolling up and down hills and panicking that I'd been left behind, although I knew better.
Finally came the hilly home stretch, and about 40 yards from the finish, my older son, Curt, 10, joined the race and got a laugh when he hollered, "HEY DAD!!! HOLD UP!!," just feet from the finish line. His little brother, Luke, 8, was right behind him.
There was no way to know whether I'd medaled, so we left, had an awesome breakfast at Brookshire's FRESH and spent most of the rest of the day hanging out, with futile periodic checks of the race site.
Race results in the next morning's newspaper indicated that I did not scratch the Top 3 in my age group, therefore no medal. I was still pleased with my time, which the chip would have read as 46:10, exactly what I'd trained for.
But then came the Monday morning surprise. Apparently the previously reported results were inaccurate, and I managed to place third in my age group and score the first medal in a very long time.
So this race will be remembered for the premature heartbreak, the panic of thinking there was a need to catch up, running like a water bug early in the race and managing to scratch out a medal.
But most importantly, I'll remember it for two little guys so caught up in Dad's finish that they broke away from the sitter and joined him in crossing the finish line.
That is a good, heartwarming sign of things to come. It won't belong before they trade in their bikes for running shoes and join me on the trails.


Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Men vs. Boys

Facebook is rife with annoying, nauseating platitudes and self-affirmations, much of them having little more in substance than the 1970s-era "HANG IN THERE" poster of a kitten hanging by its paws.

Sometimes I can't help but mock such posts with distorted lines out of "If You Give A Moose a Muffin." "If you give a moose a muffin, he's going to want some jam and a self-help book to go with that ..."

But something a friend posted today demanded attention. It pointed out the differences between men and adult-age "boys."

I've lately come to the ugly realization, through a lot of conversation and sociological analysis, that the world is too full of dysfunction, selfishness, neglect and abuse. Too often at the root of it all are boys who should act like men.
Crappy dads just might be society's No. 1 problem. I know of two marriages in which the dads' raging alcoholism (A liter of vodka to start the day? Really?) gave the wives no choice but to get out. I know of two others in which the dads have nothing to do with their children other than writing a monthly support check. A good friend told me that home-wrecking infidelity runs rampant within her church congregation, and the adulters all stand there acting like solid Christians on Sunday mornings. The manager of a local hotel noted that prominent members of this community have gotten rooms for use with someone other than their spouses.

There are horror stories about women, too, of course, but this blog post is not about them. This post is about men and what I saw on Facebook today.
It's a small list of difference between men and boys, and here they are:

"Here's to all the REAL men out there ... "
* Boys play house; men build homes.
* Boys shack up; men get married.
* Boys make babies; men raise children.
* A boy won't raise his own children; but a man will raise his and someone else's.
* Boys invent excuses for failure; men produce strategies for success.
* Boys look for somebody to take care of them; men look for someone to take care of.
* Boys seek popularity; men earn respect by knowing how to give it.
* Boys quit and walk away when things get hard; men will promise to love you through it all.

So are you a man or a boy? A Vietnam veteran once told me that the only way to survive an ambush is to fight your way through it, and the same can be said for facing the salvos of adversity that life hurls our way. How that adversity is handled not only distinguishes a man from a boy but defines character. A man's character also can be defined by how he treats those who have little or nothing in the way of something to offer him.

More real men and more character in this world might go a long way toward breaking this pansy, self-centered, "LOOK AT ME" society's cycle of broken homes and broken hearts.



Thursday, November 17, 2011

Toaster Toast

The date that the old toaster oven fell into my possession is unclear, as is when the old battleaxe was created.
But I had the thing at least 15 years, spanning a variety of eras in life and producing countless tuna melts, pop tarts and toasted sandwiches.
The British invented the manual toaster in 1893, according to http://www.scribd.com. The United States joined the toaster arms race in 1909.
My beloved toaster oven originally belonged to my maternal grandmother, and if I had to guess, I'd say it was from the early 1970s. The oven survived seven of my residential moves involving five cities over the years, during which time the appliance gained a certain element of character.
Once the children were born, the oven saw heavy usage, toasting up pop tarts and other breakfast goodies, heating up biscuits and cooking garlic toast.
It's deteriorating state resulted in it becoming a kind of joke as well as a sentimental piece of history. My grandmother would have been proud to have seen how much workload the oven took on during the raising of my sons.
The oven even became a prop in a prank Christmas card, whose heinousness hopefully will never see daylight.
Alas, the toaster earlier this year finally was replaced with a shiny new state-of-the-art model. I stuck it in the camper for usage in its not-so-golden years in the great outdoors.
I pulled it out during a recent camping trip with the boys, and it looked even more horrible than I remember. I guess sometimes that you can get so used to something that its flaws and shortcomings become less apparent. Back at the house, I decided to give it a good scrubbing in hopes of salvation.
However, upon closer examination, the task not only looked insurmountable, but the darn thing just looked dangerous to use.
So with heavy heart, I conceded defeat and grudgingly tossed the thing into the garbage can.
It's easy to get blinded by even the most simple of sentimental things. And then again, too often we take too many things for granted.
The bottom line is that life presents a never-ending series of various things that we embrace and eventually have to let go.