Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Disorder on the court

Marine One flew low and the sun burned hot above Court B-1 at Hains Point on Saturday morning as I tried to make a triumphant return to league tennis after an eighteen-month hiatus.

(If you’re wondering what happened to my beloved Smash Hits–a storied USTA 3.0 franchise that made its first unforced error by allowing me to join the team in 2012 and compounded the goof by making me captain a year later –they had to disband after a slew of injuries and retirements dropped their numbers to unsustainable levels.)

Since spraining my wrist in February of 2014, I had set foot on the tennis court exactly once, to swat balls around with my friend Laura. Laura, also a former Smash Hit, asked a few weeks ago if I’d like to join her on a team called Sets in the City for their fun summer league. I agreed after determining that Sets possesses the two qualities I view as essential in a team: 1) a great name; and 2) a near-total disregard for actual tennis skills. The captain put me in the lineup for Saturday.

I faked my way through the warmup, but it took less than ten minutes of match play to show that I was rustier than a door hinge on the Titanic. My serve, an eloquent testimonial to why multi-tasking doesn’t work, was sometimes powerful and sometimes accurate but never both at once. I also struggled with ground strokes, alternately taking the phrase literally and hitting the ball straight into the asphalt or treating it as ironic with shots that didn’t touch down until West Virginia. To make matters worse, adrenaline, an uninvited guest when you’re a 46 year-old amateur playing a no-stakes-just-for-fun match, crashed the party and refused to leave no matter how hard I tried to get rid of it.
The whole scene would have struck me as comical had I been playing singles, but my brand new partner, Kate, had to suffer through it with me. We lost the first set, 4-6, before Kate determined that yes, it would probably be okay if she went ahead and suggested a couple of tweaks to my technique.

She delivered a gentle critique with saintly politeness, just as my mother — my long-suffering and once-concussed partner on the Smash Hits — probably would have done.

I appreciated the kindness, but what I really needed just then was my father’s more direct approach. Dad wouldn’t have made it through one game much less an entire set before bellowing a helpful,  “KEEP THE G*&@*!@*! BALL IN THE THE G*&@*!@*! COURT!”

As it turns out, dear old Dad was already on my mind anyway. Twelve hours earlier, my butt had been on the bleachers at Waters Field in Vienna with Mom and my sister Lynne, cheering as the American Legion Post 176 baseball team –an outfit Dad has coached for more than 25 years –won the District Championships. Friday night’s game capped an improbable title run that required Dad’s team to beat the formidable Vienna post twice in a row.
How did they do it? The occasional towering home run helped, of course, but they won mainly by playing small ball and showing big heart. The boys of Post 176 weren’t perfect, but their sense of team seemed to elevate their game both individually and collective just when they needed it most. That, more than anything else, seemed to propel them to an unlikely championship and an even unlikelier chance to douse Al, Dad’s coaching buddy of over 25 years, with a huge bucket of gatorade. I’ll remember that moment of spontaneous team joy, and my dad’s role in it, forever.

As I stood on the court, waiting for the helicopter to pass and thinking about the night before, I decided I was glad to be playing doubles rather than singles, even if it meant being accountable for my lousy game. Like most things in life, tennis is better, and makes you better, when you’re in it for someone besides yourself.

So I worked to raise my game. Which in my case that meant aiming to keep the ball in play and succeeding maybe half the time. It was still a major improvement and enough to help  us win the second set. Though Kate didn’t launch into the Hallelujah Chorus, I could tell she wanted to.

Kate and I went on to win in a tiebreak, 10-8, and though it didn’t really count for anything, it felt good to be back on the ball. Or at least somewhere in its general vicinity.

What's this thing for again, anyway?

What’s this thing for again, anyway?

My father will give you the shirt off his back, or at least out of his trunk

My father has been coaching the American Legion Post 176 summer baseball team for over 25 years. He’s seen quite a bit in that time, as you can well imagine. He’s watched as a few of his kids made it to the big leagues, and he’s helped keep one or two out of an altogether different farm system, if you know what I mean. But what happened last Tuesday night was truly a first. Though I wasn’t there, I’ve pieced together an account based on text messages from my mother, one of our family’s more credible sources.

When my father arrived at Lee High School, the home field for Post 176 , one of the kids told Dad he didn’t have his shirt. The kid hadn’t just left his shirt at home, he’d lost it altogether. Instead of wasting time asking how the kid had lost his shirt –over-invested in the British pound, maybe? –my father went right into problem-solving mode.

Dad keeps the interior of his car very clean and its trunk full of baseball gear. That gear just happened to include the top half of a uniform. This would’ve been stellar news except for three things: 1) the shirt came from last year’s uniform; 2) it bore my father’s number; and 3) it may or may not have been laundered in the off-season. Because American Legion doesn’t play “shirts vs. skins,” the kid really had no choice but to take the field wearing my old man’s old shirt.

The kid once again had no choice when, a few innings later, the manager decided to make a pitching change and put him on the mound.

My mother was in the stands that night, as she often is. Though Mom’s normally a very attentive fan, it’s not clear to me whether she noticed earlier in the game that there were two Number 26s, or that one of them had a surprisingly youthful gait. But it certainly got her attention when the announcer said, “Now pitching for Springfield: Len Yankosky.”

For years I’ve heard my father say that, sooner or later, everybody on the Legion team winds up pitching; I guess he really meant it.

The announcer soon picked up on his lineup mixup and fixed it, making Dad’s return to the hill as brief as it was improbable.

Post 176 begins playoff action today. I wish I could be there, but I have to miss it because I’ll be making my official standup comedy debut (more on that soon). Who knows, maybe both of us will hit home runs today.

There's #26, talking to the umps about his wicked curveball.

There’s #26, talking to the umps about his wicked curveball.

 

Coach Yank: in a league of his own

The boys of American Legion Post 176’s baseball team, the one my father coaches, took their lumps last Wednesday night at Waters Field in Vienna.

I’d watched them lose their first game in the District tournament three days earlier, when the mercury hovered near the 100-degree mark. In conditions that made me want to give in, the kids gave it their all, but it wasn’t enough to beat the tough team from Falls Church. Teetering on the brink of elimination Wednesday night, the Springfield boys lined up on the diamond opposite that same team.

A cold front had moved through, giving us the kind of cool, glorious, humidity-free evening that just might warrant a sweater at some point. But I was sweating it nonetheless. I knew a loss would trigger Dad’s annual “I think this’ll be my last season” speech, and I didn’t want to hear it, not yet. (My father’s been threatening retirement for at least five years, making him the Brett Favre of baseball coaches.)

Not that he won’t have earned it whenever he decides to hang it up, mind you. Dad’s been coaching Springfield’s Legion team of high schoolers since 1993, when my brother, L.J., was on the roster. And he kept coaching long after L.J. left for college. Love for the sport and for those kids motivates him, and I love that about him.

Even a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease in 2007 didn’t force Dad off the field. He kept on pitching batting practice, hitting fly balls to the outfield, and providing a steady stream of encouragement (and jokes and possibly also expletives) in the dugout. But it’s slowed him down a bit. Though Dad’s relatively fortunate to have what neurologists call a “mild” case of PD, even the gentlest form of the disease takes wicked aim at motor skills. As a result, performing the toss/swing/connect cycle that sends a baseball soaring into the outfield has gone from routine to taxing. That strikes a particularly cruel blow for Dad, because tasks that require athleticism rank high on the list of things he enjoys most about coaching. But I doubt that’s what the kids enjoy most about Coach Yank. If you asked them, I bet they’d say it’s his dugout presence. I’ve never experienced Dugout Dad firsthand, but I’ve seen how the kids react to him, and I’m well acquainted with his motivational skills in general. (I can only hope these kids have been treated to some of the same inspirational sayings my siblings and I heard, like the timeless classic, “GET THE LEAD OUT!”) I suspect they want Coach Yank to stay in the game every bit as much as I do. My theory gained support and I choked up a bit when Dad told me this year’s kids had, entirely of their own volition, engineered some sort of solution to make hitting those fly balls a little bit easier.

So I sat in the stands on Wednesday night with my sister Lynne and my friend Bud, hoping the Post 176 boys could find a way to keep the season going, for their own sakes, for Dad’s, and for a daughter who doesn’t ever want her father to admit defeat.

That hope suffered a setback once Falls Church’s bats started making solid contact with alarming regularity. It wilted further when our pitcher struggled to find the strike zone, which the ump apparently put in the dryer because it had shrunk to a cubic inch. When it was Post 176’s turn at the plate, our bats made contact, but most shots landed in places that violated my father’s longstanding “hit it where they ain’t” rule. We managed to put our fair share of ducks on the pond, but they seemed to be the sitting kind: they either went nowhere or got picked off with ease.

I texted these and other updates to Mom, L.J., and my sister Suzi, who couldn’t come to the game but didn’t want to miss any of the action. After four innings, we were down, 3-5. We held Falls Church at bay through two more innings and even put another run on the board in the seventh. With the score 4-5, my hope resurged. I sent an excited text reporting that a tie seemed close at hand.

The Sports Gods, a notoriously perverse bunch, got wind of my text, had a good giggle, and decided to put that tie well beyond reach. When the eighth inning ended, the news wasn’t good.

“Um, 4-10,” I wrote. “If you see some wheels on the side of the road, pick ‘em up because they fell off our wagon.”

Falls Church batted again and picked up two runs, leaving us down, 4-12. I texted, “One touchdown and a 2-point conversion and we’re all set!” My mother responded that 4-12 sounded like a work shift.

The boys of Post 176 went to bat for the last time in the bottom of the ninth, put one more run on the board, and then succumbed. They took it hard, as you do when you play with huge heart only to discover that it can’t compete with big bats and confident gloves.

When I relayed the news to Team Yank, Mom wrote, “Tell Dad he gave it his best shot, now go home and have one.” I laughed, but she’s right: Dad did give it his best shot. He always does, because he doesn’t know any other way. I just hope he decides to give it a shot again next year.

 

dad legion

Coach Yank, chatting with the umps before the game. At least this year I was smart enough not to violate superstition by posting the photo on Facebook during the game. Then again, that tie-related text was not my best move.