11th and Washington

11th and Washington: May 2010

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Mets' zero-sum games

It hasn't happened in the Majors in six years and hasn't been done by the Mets since September 1969, but it was completed tonight: A three-game shutout sweep. Amazing.

In some ways, I was as nervous heading to the ninth as I get during no-hit bids going into the final inning (or, if it's a no-hit bid by a Met, into the seventh or eighth). This wouldn't just be a sweep, but a resounding one, shutting out one of the best offenses in baseball (they are at home, at least) for three straight games. This series could turn out to be not just a statement (it already is) but a springboard. I'm still not sure exactly what this team has -- if it has enough to reach the playoffs -- but if it can play with this kind of confidence, energy, attitude and pitching (especially the pitching), it can make the NL East race very interesting (and hopefully not ultimately heartbreaking).

I think these Mets are starting to play to their ballpark. If Jose Reyes can get on base and use his speed, if Luis Castillo can make contact to move runners over (though, as Keith Hernandez has said on air, I'd like to see more hit-and-run calls than straight sacrifice bunts), if Jason Bay, Ike Davis and David Wright can drive them in with doubles (and a few home runs), and if the bottom of the order can provide opportunistic base hits, they can win a lot of games without a 30-homer hitter.

But none of it will matter if they can't keep it up on the road. Now they're off to Milwaukee for three and San Diego for three, the first road trip since the 2-6 swing through Miami, Atlanta and Washington that had Jeff Wilpon and Omar Minaya at Turner Field and the buzzards circling Jerry Manuel's office. In the past two seasons, the Mets are 5-9 in those cities, and three of those wins came in a sweep at Miller Park in '08. Otherwise, 1-2 at Miller and 1-3 and 0-4 at Petco.

Let's see where this trip takes them. A 4-2 swing has to be the benchmark for this feel-good feeling to last. Anything less, and it's back to wondering.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Saturday, May 15, 2010

People still come, Ray

I've been to heaven. Twice, in fact.

I first learned you could go there on your own time during my junior year of college. A friend of mine from western Illinois, Joe, had a photo of himself with several friends, a few I knew, together on the ballfield in the cornfield in Dyersville, Iowa. Until that point, I don't think I knew that the Field of Dreams was still there, still a pilgrimage site for fans of the game and the movie, still a little piece of heaven in the Iowa corn.

I'd first read about it a few years earlier, while in high school, but my first trip didn't come until some years later, during my post-graduate cross-country sojurn. I put Dyersville on the map as one of my definite stops and made it there on a perfect Saturday afternoon:

The map took me to Dyersville, the AAA took me north, signs took me east, and my deep-rooted love of baseball took me to Don Lansing’s farm and the Field of Dreams. It sat there, just like in the movie, as everyone expects it to — a little piece of heaven cut out of the cornfield. Turning down the driveway, seeing cars parked by the house, it all just felt right. Like on this perfect, warm sunny Iowa August day, that we should all be here, out in the field, standing at the plate, walking in the corn. Fathers pitched to sons, daughters took their cuts, mothers watched with cameras in hand. Some had brought chairs and sat in the shade along right field — there for several hours, no doubt. Everyone, it seemed, was smiling. People did come, and it was as they’d remembered it — maybe not form childhood, but from the movie. Out on the field, the men talked, chatted, joked together — a group of them may have come together. But standing there in perfect Iowa afternoon, I had the feeling that maybe they hadn’t known each other. Then, stepping on that field, they began to look familiar; they realized they were all fans — all kids again. And they talked like old buddies.

Everything from the movie came to life — the people on the field in pure enjoyment; the crunch of the gravel and red-dirt infield; the chirp of the crickets and rush of the wind; and the coarse rustle of the corn stalks tickled by the wind or brushed aside by the curious visitors investigating “what’s out there.” Before leaving, I magically remembered I had brought along a baseball tape, and I found James Earl Jones’ “People will come” speech. I sat there listening to it in stereo, for all the background sounds existed on that perfect Iowa afternoon.

The second trip was 10 times cooler. For his bachelor party, my friend Brad had a long May weekend of bars, baseball and cigars lined up, beginning with a reserved room at Chicago's ESPNZone, then a Cubs-Brewers game the following day (a cold, rain-delayed experience, though we did meet up with some nice folks in the left-field bleachers who graciously saved us some space; we ended up chatting with them and pondered when the Cubs would call up the pitching prospect who was lighting up the minor leagues, Mark Prior). Following the ballgame, we got a late start west, deciding on dinner at a Hooter's before we'd left Chicagoland and arriving at a new Super 8 or Comfort Inn just off U.S. 20 in Dyersville late that night. The next morning, we warmed up by playing catch in the parking lot as the stragglers in the group packed up and then -- after a quick breakfast at McDonald's during which we discussed Brad's brother's former soccer teammate, DeMarcus Beasley, and his prospects for that summer's World Cup -- headed off to the Lansings' farm.

Brad's "other friend Dan," as he still refers to him (to me) to this day, had called ahead to arrange for us to meet with Becky Lansing before we took the field. As the website explains, the Lansings have continued to offer use of the field from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day, from April through November, politely explaining that they do not take reservations for groups, individuals or events. But if we arrived early -- on a Monday in May especially -- she had said, we'd likely have the field to ourselves for an hour or so.

Though Dan, as the best man, organized the trip, the idea had been Brad's. "What I liked about the game is that everybody could play, everybody could relate to it," he told me afterward for a potential story I'd hoped to write about our experience. I never did, but I kept my notes, so now I'm doing something with them.

"I had friends there from my dorm in college," Brad said, "from the college newspaper, from work, from law school, and I had a brother at the game, too. That’s five different circles of friends, five different times of my life represented. When you have so many different groups, getting them to meld together can be really hard, particularly when their paths will only cross for a weekend. The people are thrown together, and with only a couple days it’s hard for people to get to know the others, hard to get to know them any more than beyond the typical superficial questions -- where are you from, what do you do, et cetera.

"But when you get together to play baseball, everybody knows what to do. You don’t have to preface the game by explaining the rules to anyone. It’s baseball. And after the game is over, everybody has something in common with each other -- they played a game of baseball together."

Diamond in the cornfield

Not only did we play a game, but we got some one-on-one (group) time with Becky Lansing. Before taking the field, we sat ourselves down on the bleachers -- the same set along the first-base line with "Ray loves Annie" etched into the top bench -- as Becky gave us some of the backstory to how her farm was chosen, what filming was like, and what the next 13 years had brought.

"The Dubuque Chamber of Commerce and the Iowa Film Board came by in late 1987," she said. "They were looking for a long lane with a two-story white house. They looked at 250 farms from Georgia to Canada."

The Lansings' farm, which has been in Don Lansing's family for 105 years now (97 when we visited in '02) was almost perfect. The house -- in which Don himself was born -- was showing its years and needed a little work.

"The front of the house is the east side, away from the field," Becky told us. "So they put in a new door, fixed up the porch and put in bay windows."

Filming took 15 weeks during the summer of 1988, and the field wasn't supposed to remain when they were finished.

"It took four days to build the ballfield," Becky said. "What you see in the movie is what is happening. It covers three and a half acres. To a young farm family, losing that much corn might make a difference. It’s $7,000-8,000 worth of crops here [in 2002].

"The original contract with the studio was to have them put everything back -- replant all the corn -- after filming was finished. Next door, they put all the corn back in left field the week the movie premiered. A year and a half later, they put the field back in."

"Next door" is the neighbors' property, including left field. I first learned of the movie site in an article discussing that corner of the field (I believe it was in Beckett Baseball Card Monthly) in the early '90s. While the diamond, backstop, bleachers and farmhouse from the movie all sit on Don and Becky Lansing's land, left field was in fact cut out of the neighbors' corn. Parallel to the Lansings' lane leading to the field and farmhouse is another driveway. Between the two are a series of telephone poles and power lines that mark the property line. Since then, there have been two sides to the Field of Dreams: Drive down the right driveway and you're on Don and Becky's farm; buy from their souvenir stand and the money goes to help maintain the field. Drive down the left driveway and you're on "left field" land. Buy from that stand and the money goes into the bank.

"We pay Universal Studios royalties, a portion of the proceeds from the shop," Becky explained. "The rest of the money goes back into maintenance. This is not a money-making opportunity.

Last look down the lane "Left field was leased to private investors, but our intensions were to keep it small and simple. They wanted to build a corn maze in left field, but you can get lost in my corn for free!"

Of course, in mid-May, there was no corn in which we could get lost. We had to settle for our imaginations, but otherwise, visitors to the site feel like they're in the movie.

"We work three times as hard to keep it that way," Becky said. "Corporate America comes in every year, but we turn them away. People notice every single detail if it changes from the movie.

"Donny and I do all the field maintenance. We close at 6 p.m. because the field needs to rest and we need to rest."

When it was time to play ball, we divided up into our predetermined teams -- the Yankees (Brad's favorite team since his days growing up in the Bronx suburb of Fort Wayne, Ind.) vs. the Cubs (Brad's adopted National League team from his post-college years in Chicago) for a nine-inning pickup game. Because Dan had ordered numbered T-shirts for each of us that we'd be taking home, I requested to join him on the Cubs, even though Brad, our friend Matt and most of the other Notre Dame grads would be on the Yankees (the Cubs consisted of Brad's Chicago friends, those from his recently completed first year of law school, and the friends of his brothers invited along for this outing to help fill out the teams). I still have that Cubs T-shirt, but doubt that would be the case had it been a navy-blue NY shirt.

The warmth of the morning sun was nullified by the cold wind whipping across the barren cornfields, so many of us were bundled up under our team shirts. I found swinging and throwing to be restricted, but I still managed to attempt an athletic, off-balance throw on a dribbler down the third-base line (the runner was safe, if I recall), collect a couple of base hits and drive in a run with a respectably deep (read: deep enough that no infielders had a shot and the center fielder didn't have to sprint in from his position) fly ball.

What made the morning so special was that, like in the movie, we were two teams of former players getting one more chance to play baseball on a private field in an idylic setting, something we could never be sure we'd be able to do again. And now, eight years later, I still have yet to take a baseball field with a glove on my hand and spikes on my feet and play nine-on-nine with overhand pitching. The closest I've come is regular batting practice/shagging flies with some friends from work these past few years or the occassional softball game among friends, but never the combination of nine-on-nine (or more) and overhand pitching. As we enjoyed ourselves, Becky spent some time watching, standing behind the backstop or beside the bleachers as we laughed and ran and swung and threw.

"The only two things that weren’t perfect that day were the final score and the fact that mid-May is too early for six-foot-tall corn stalks," Brad told me. "The game was close until the sixth or seventh, but they [the Cubs] broke it open after that. I had a chance to close the gap when I batted with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh (I think), but I grounded out. What a waste. And it would have been cool to have had the opportunity to knock a ball into the corn stalks and watch it disappear like James Earl Jones. But those are minor complaints. After all, I still went 2-for-5."

The Cubs won, 15-3, even after some in-game trading in an attempt to even out the squads. My final line was 2-for-6, with that RBI and a run scored. I batted sixth and played third base. We kept score, and afterward Dan sent around the box score with all our names and batting averages listed. The pack rat that I am -- both digitally and physically -- I dug up my old laptop and inserted the -- get this -- floppy disk to transfer the box score and the file with Brad's comments onto a flash drive and then onto my current laptop. I found Becky's comments in one of the dozen reporter's notebooks I still have packed away. I'd always toyed with the idea of crafting a first-person account of our trip for a potential submission, such as to the Notre Dame alumni magazine, but I never truly made the effort. Now, with the farm up for sale, I wanted to get it all down.

We finished our game just as the first visitors to follow us began to arrive, but we took our time packing our things. Becky opened up the souvenir shed to take our donations (on a cold May weekday, it seems the business hours of the stand were customized to when someone showed up) and then allowed us where most visitors aren't allowed to go: Onto the porch of the farmhouse for a group photo she took with our cameras, mine included.

Looking back, we could've asked for more -- a warmer morning, a later date so that the corn was growing -- but had we gotten either of those, we probably wouldn't have had the field to ourselves for so long, or had the chance to visit so long with Becky. If more visitors had been there as we were preparing to leave, we might not have been allowed onto the porch for a photo. I'm not sure I'd change a thing about that day; I'd only ask for the chance to do it again. Hopefully, the new owners keep things the way they are.

"My husband’s favorite actor from the movie was James Earl Jones," Becky said eight years ago. "He said to us, 'What do you want for the farm?'"

I wonder if he's still interested. If only Brad, Matt, myself and a few others had the resources to pull together $5.4 million -- and someone to live on the farm and continue maintenance so that we could all reconvene there once a year for another game.

"Playing a game of baseball, I thought, was a better event for a bachelor party than the typical events," Brad said, "because after you’ve been to a few bachelor parties, your memories of them can run together. Bars in Chicago look pretty similar to bars in New York (although they do look a lot better than bars in South Bend -- trust me.) But how many times does a bachelor party involve playing in a baseball game?

"The point is, I realized that the bachelor party was one of the few instances I’d ever have where 18 guys I know had to do what I wanted. And what I wanted to do was play baseball with my friends. As you get older, how many more chances do you have to do that?"

As we now know, none so far. Brad and his wife have two children and live in Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., where they work. Brad's National League allegiance has shifted from the Cubs to the Nationals -- and now, it's the Nats that seem to be the team on the rise out of those two. I'm married, living in northern New Jersey, and working in New York. Matt remains close friends with the two of us and, married himself, lives in South Jersey, working in Trenton. The three of us have managed to get together at least once a year since then and have included ballgames in many of those meetings, but for those we're drinking beer and cheering on the home team, not putting on gloves and swinging bats.

As great as Brad's idea and Dan's planning were, all the credit to such a memorable trip goes to Don and Becky Lansing, simply for keeping the field. They had a once-in-a-lifetime experience in having a movie filmed at their home, and they could've quickly gone back to the way life was afterward, but they didn't. And it all started with the first visitor.

"The first person to come was from New York," Becky told us in 2002. "We were sitting down here on a Saturday afternoon and he just drove up the lane. He said he just saw the movie and had to stop by. It’s a pretty amazing story -- art imitating life and life imitating art."

They kept coming from there: 7,000 in the first year, doubling each year until topping out at 55,000 annually. After 20 summers, Don and Becky Lansing have earned their retirement.

"We hope to keep the farm the way it was portrayed in the movie," Becky said eight years ago. "We can’t promise it will always be that way when we get up to our retirement years, but right now it’s really important.

"Sometimes, we lose sight of the wonder of it all. When we do get a chance to talk to people, we get a chance to relive it."

Thank you for that, Don and Becky.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, May 10, 2010

Listening to history

As I was getting ready to drive into work last night, I got the text alert that Dallas Braden was perfect through six innings. As I waited in traffic heading into the Lincoln Tunnel, it occurred to me that I had yet to receive an update saying that the perfect game bid was over. So I fired up At Bat on my phone and listened to the Oakland radio feed just as the ninth inning was beginning.

Braden breezed through it in 12 pitches but it seemed like about four. Listening to the picture painted on the radio was a treat. Ken Korach's play-by-play was descriptive and unobtrusive. I've watched the no-hitters thrown by Jon Lester, Carlos Zambrano and Ubaldo Jimenez in recent years, but in each case, the TV announcers were a little too loud, too over the top. If anything, the radio broadcasters should raise the excitement a notch while the TV commentators should let the images speak for themselves. Twice I held my breath, wondering if the balls hit would find the outfield grass. There was Dioner Navarro's line drive to left fielder Eric Patterson on which there was a moment I wondered if it would fall in, and then Gabe Kapler's ground ball to shortstop Cliff Pennington, who fielded it cleanly and threw to first for the final out. If anything, I could've used a touch more excitement from Korach to know that it was a routine grounder to Pennington, but I can't really criticize his even call which, those who listen to A's games on the radio may know from experience, was an indication that it was all routine.

And then there are the Rays, who were perfected by Mark Buehrle just 10 months ago. Seven of Sunday's starters also played in that game in Chicago, including reserve Gabe Kapler, who nearly broke up Buehrle's with his drive to center in the ninth that Dewayne Wise made an amazing play to grab, and who made the final out yesterday. Only the Dodgers, who were on the wrong end of history for Tom Browning in 1988 and Dennis Martinez in 1991, have been the victims of two consecutive perfect games. Los Angeles had just one player in both games -- shortstop Alfredo Griffin. The Rays had seven. What baffles me about Tampa Bay, usually known as a strong and patient offensive club, is that those three batters in the ninth -- Willy Aybar, Navarro and Kapler -- weren't standing at the plate taking pitches until strike two. Especially Kapler, who made the final out on a 3-1 pitch. Braden came into the game averaging 1.70 walks per nine innings -- why not make him work in the final inning? He hadn't pitched out of the stretch all afternoon, so even a walk might be enough to throw him off his game and result in a fat pitch easily drilled for a base hit.

But I'm not complaining. It was a lot of fun listening to the ninth and a great story for a kid from a tough background, one who lost his mother to cancer in high school and had his grandmother in the stands on Mother's Day. A great day for baseball.

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Where it all began for Chipper

This isn't a piece of trivia that I had tucked away in my brain, but if you'd asked me which team surrendered Chipper Jones' first Major League home run, I'd have said something along the lines of, "It would have to be the Mets."

And it was. It came, naturally, at Shea Stadium, where he hit 19 long balls in his career. The only places where he hit more were his home ballparks. He has one at Citi Field, hit last September, in 11 career games there to this point. The Marlins' home ballpark (the name keeps changing, so why bother putting one in when it could be obsolete in another year?) has yielded 16 homers to Chipper, a native Floridian, so he's got a chance to hit three or four more there in, presumably, 18 games this year and next before the team moves into its new home in 2012.

It might be worth noting, too, that Chipper's seven homers off of Steve Trachsel are the most he's hit against any pitcher, but three of those came when Trachs was a Cub. The four Trachsel allowed as a Met equal the four Bobby Jones, wearing orange and blue, allowed to Chipper. Rick Reed also allowed four homers, but one was with the Reds.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, May 07, 2010

Photo flashback: Present and future Phillies

On a gorgeous spring day, Casey and I and a friend from work drove down to Philly to see the home team down the Cardinals, 7-2, with Roy Halladay on the mound. (RIP, Robin Roberts.) From there, we made our way over to the Jersey Shore (area) to see the Lakewood BlueClaws top the Charleston RiverDogs by the same 7-2 score.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Ernie Harwell's legacy

I love this thought:

There’s a man in Mobile who remembers a triple he saw Honus Wagner hit in Pittsburgh 46 years ago. That’s baseball. So is the scout reporting that a 16-year-old sandlot pitcher in Cheyenne is the new “Walter Johnson.”

And also this one:

In baseball, democracy shines its clearest. Here the only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rule book. Color is something to distinguish one team’s uniform from another.

Those are from "A Game for All America," an essay written for The Sporting News in 1955. The author became famous for the words he spoke more than those he wrote. It was Ernie Harwell, the longtime voice of the Tigers who passed away last night.

I don't have any personal memories of listening to Harwell on the radio, but I do recall summer nights when I'd lie in my New Jersey bedroom and slowly turn the AM dial on my radio and see what ballgames I could tune in from across the Northeast. I don't know that I ever got a WJR affiliate, but I know I heard the radio voices of the Blue Jays, Indians, Pirates and Orioles in addition to the much-closer Mets, Yankees and Phillies. And Harwell just fits that memory, even if I can't recall a specific game I heard him describe.

Ernie's death reminds us that there aren't many iconic announcers left. On a national level, Vin Scully may be the only one. Loud noises and flashy graphics and the announcers that fit the mold just can't come close to the subtle storytelling of the Scullys, the Harwells, the Bob Murphys and the Harry Kalases. Harwell, Scully and other broadcasters of yestercentury became nationally known because of coast-to-coast broadcasts on ABC, CBS and NBC (radio and TV). Their counterparts of today on Fox and ESPN just shout at us.

On the local level, there's Bob Uecker in Milwaukee, Jerry Coleman in San Diego, Dave Niehaus in Seattle. And though many of us know Uecker from national broadcasts, Major League, beer commercials and Mr. Belvedere, he's a regional announcer to anyone too young to remember when the Blue Jays won a World Series. So even though we can get any game and any announcing team on our phones or computers with At Bat, it's not going to create the lasting memories for today's young fans that these distinctive voices have for those of us in our 30s and older.

There's not much else I can say about Harwell, but there's a lot of great stuff that has been said:

The Detroit Free-Press obituary

MLB.com's tribute page

An NPR feature from 2002

When Ernie met The Babe, also from NPR

A fond farewell from Larry at Wezen-Ball

Farewell, Ernie. You and Jack Buck will make quite the team up there.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, May 03, 2010

My year on the disabled list

As a kid, I played baseball from sometime in maybe the second grade through my junior year of high school. When I wasn't good enough to make varsity before my senior year and realized that I would be practicing every day and playing sparingly in games, I decided to enjoy the spring afternoons with my friends.

But I think my development had stalled four years earlier. In the spring of 1990, as I was finishing eighth grade, I was asked to play on a local all-star team. I think it was in Colt League, but I can't be sure. It would've been a chance to play a higher level of competition before getting to high school. Maybe if I'd had that opportunity, I'd have handled the transition a bit better. Or maybe I would've learned then that the Red Bank JV would be the best I'd ever do.

I didn't get that chance, though. On the final day of Easter break, I was pitching in a scrimmage on a field less than two miles from my house. I had friends on my team and knew some guys on the other team, but because it was just a scrimmage, my parents didn't come to watch.

I threw a wild pitch with a runner on third. He broke for home; I ran in to cover the plate. The catcher tossed me the ball as I slid in; I caught it and turned to tag the runner in one motion. My arm was straight, elbow locked. The runner -- a year younger than me and actually smaller (I'd max out at 5-foot-7, 140 pounds in high school, so that probably should've been another clue at my baseball future) -- didn't slide so much as jump into me. I broke my arm, both bones just above my wrist. I'll save the graphic details, but let's just say that there was no doubt.

I looked down and couldn't believe what I saw; I was in immediate shock. I looked up and saw my coach, one of the player's dads who was serving as home-plate ump, and he was speechless. I shook off my glove, held my arm and walked to the bench. Someone handed me an ice pack before the father of my best friend, Will, put me in his car and drove me to the emergency room, but not without stopping at home to tell my mom to follow us over.

The doctor fitted me for a cast that went halfway up my upper arm, immobilizing it in an L shape for about four or six weeks. I desperately wanted to go to school the next day, but my parents insisted I stay home. It was the only day I missed that year. (For some reason, just once in my life, I wanted to have perfect attendance. I did it sophomore year of high school and then didn't hesitate to take a "day off" junior and senior years.)

Needless to say, I missed that entire baseball season, though I went to all the games, kept score and compiled stats. The cast was cut down to only my forearm after those initial four or six weeks and I was once again able to bend my elbow. Unable to not pick up a bat for an entire summer, I played Wiffle ball by learning to bat left-handed, though because I couldn't -- in baseball terms -- break my left wrist, most of the swing was one-handed. I modeled it after Will Clark's sweet, smooth stroke.

Though I had a waterproof fiberglass cast, the padding beneath it was cotton, so I showered with a series of New York Times delivery bags rubberbanded to my arm to keep it all dry. But after a class outing to a pool in June resulted in a wet cast, I couldn't let it keep me from my summer fun, so I occasionally swam with it on despite the lingering dampness and eventual odor akin to that of wet dog.

I recall all of this now (though two weeks later than I had originally planned after I found the hospital bracelet, dated April 22, 1990, and realized it has now been 20 years) because I came across the card I've scanned in here. During one of those first days after the accident, my mom wrote to the Mets and explained what had happened. A few more days later, this card with a photo of the 1989 team arrived, along with the 1990 media guide and perhaps one or two other things that may have been misplaced over the years. But I still have the media guide, this card and the hospital bracelet, all of which now take me back to that spring and summer when I began to make the transition from trying to be a baseball player to learning more about the statistics side and enjoying that aspect of it.

If only I'd found this card last year -- I could've made new copies and sent it out to the likes of Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado ...

Labels: , ,