Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Team Yank celebrates a Hall of Famer

[My pal Philippa and I have just kicked off our version of National Blog Posting Month, where we cover the whole month by alternating days. It’s supposed to jump start my writing, or my insomnia, or both…]

Last weekend, my brother was inducted into the West Springfield High School Athletic Hall of Fame’s inaugural class: a very big deal.

L.J. never would have described it in those terms — “don’t get a big head” was one of my father’s mantras when my siblings and I were growing up, plus my brother is a humble team-player by nature–but statistics don’t lie.

As a right-handed pitcher for the West Springfield varsity baseball squad from 1991-1993, he helped the team win a State Championship, pitched on the silver medal-winning USA Junior National Team, landed repeat berths on the Washington Post’s All-Met Team, and was named the All-Met Player of the Year in 1993.  When the Minnesota Twins made him an 18th round draft pick in 1993, he opted instead to accept a full athletic scholarship to Georgia Tech, an engineering and Division 1 baseball powerhouse. In his first year on the talent-loaded Tech team, he helped pitch the team to its first-ever College World Series appearance. He was a perennial ACC Honor Roll-er, a two-time academic All-American, and the recipient of Tech’s prestigious Total Person Award in 1998, an honor given annually to two student athletes who excel on the field, in class, and in the community. (Did I mention that he’s also a nice guy? It’s true.) He closed out his pitching career at Tech with a record of 25-4, the third-best in Tech’s history at the time. When the Atlanta Braves drafted him in 1998, L.J. was not just a member of the team’s pitching staff but also its only engineer. During five seasons, he pitched four hundred-plus innings in over 100 games on Braves teams in Macon, Myrtle Beach, Greenville (SC), and Richmond. He made it to AAA before injuries nudged him off the field.

Though he’d had a spectacular run, its ending was without spectacle, so this whole Hall of Fame thing gave our tribe an opportunity, however belated, to give my brother’s accomplishments their due. I can’t speak for anyone else in the family, but I really needed that second chance.

It’s not that I hadn’t known my brother was an incredible athlete; of course I did. I’d been aware that he was a gifted pitcher long before he got to West Springfield, though that’s when his true potential really began to show. Unfortunately, I simply failed to appreciate that time. I had just started college and was not merely determined but flat-out defiant about blazing my own, non-baseball trail. This might have been fine if I’d had any idea where that trail should go —navigation has never been my strong suit –or what my own potential was.  But I didn’t. So at the precise moment when I should’ve been cheering L.J. on with the rest of Team Yank, I was busy trudging through the Great Seeking Swamp (a place that’s easy to get stuck in but turns out not to be all that deep), my progress hampered by the fact that I had blinders on and my nose in my navel.  I went to my brother’s big games, but those gorgeous curve balls, sinkers and sliders whizzed past me just like they did all those hapless batters. I wasn’t present. When I emerged from the Swamp, at about the time when L.J. was heading to Tech, Team Yank didn’t act like I’d spent a couple of years warming the bench. I knew I had, though, and I knew I’d missed out on some great stuff.

So when the Hall of Fame news broke, I reacted with what my brother probably saw as extraordinary enthusiasm. It’s not every day that a family member gets inducted into a Hall of Fame, and it’s certainly not every day that you get a second chance. A second chance may not be the same as a clean slate, because that botched first attempt lives on in your memory (and who knows where else), but that’s exactly what makes second chances so great: remembering what you screwed up the first time frees you up to make an altogether different mistake the next time. Or to learn from it. Or both.

Instead of reprising my role as benchwarmer, this time I helped rally Team Yank. Together, we compiled a video commemorating L.J.’s greatest moments, both on and off the field. It was some of our better work. In a nod to Dad’s “don’t get a big head” mantra, the off-the-field segment was part roast and part heartfelt tribute. There were cameo appearances by family, friends, and L.J.’s mullet (yes, the mullet was of such magnitude as to warrant a separate credit). There was a dramatic re-enactment of my brother’s pitching career, featuring every member of the family and the music of, who else, Barry Manilow.

But the real scene-stealer was L.J. After the ceremony and after we’d watched the video, when he’d earned the right to bask in the glow of his accomplishments and our family pride, my brother refused to stand in the spotlight by himself.

“Anything I’ve done, I didn’t do alone,” he said.

Whether or not we all agreed with L.J.’s words, they shouldn’t have surprised us. I scoured a bunch of old articles in the weeks leading up to the induction ceremony, and in every article that praised my brother, he credited and thanked his team, his teachers, his coaches. It seems he understood even 20 years ago the value of humility, and that you strive not so much for individual gain but to elevate those around you. I couldn’t be prouder of my brother, for what he’s done and who he is. And I think I speak for all of Team Yank when I say he’s definitely helped me raise my game.

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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.

 

I respect my father, but that doesn’t mean I always listen to him

My father turns 73 tomorrow. Dad doesn’t seek out the spotlight, so big parties and surprises usually aren’t his thing. He also has a superstition about birthdays and believes you shouldn’t celebrate them early. Though I can’t say for sure where that notion came from, it seems to have roots in Italy, and Dad is one-half Italian. The other half of Dad’s makeup is baseball fan, which guaranteed that my father would take the superstition seriously, regardless of its origins.

We do our best to respect Dad’s wishes on that front, but circumstances make that tough sometimes. Take this year, for instance. With Dad’s actual birthday landing on a Monday, only the local Yanks would have a shot at wishing him well in person. If we advanced the celebration by just one day, the chances of my sister Suzi and the Richmond crew being able to join in would increase exponentially. Not that my father would take it personally if any of us couldn’t attend, because he wouldn’t. But those of us who love him hate to miss a chance to celebrate him.

My mother, who is unfailingly thoughtful about birthdays, wrestled with the timing question. Then she found out the Nationals had a home game scheduled for 1:35 p.m. the day before Dad’s birthday. Two of my father’s greatest loves are spending time with his family and watching baseball in person, so Mom wondered whether an opportunity to combine the two might qualify us for a one-time exemption from the early bird curse. She floated the idea past me and my siblings, and it turned out that, except for one Richmond nephew and my Atlanta-based brother and his family, the rest of us could get there, including kids and spouses. Before we could over-think it, Mom bought eleven tickets.

Knowing that our plan had the potential to pluck Dad’s superstitious nerves, Mom decided not to tell him anything about the game until the last possible minute. After going to Mass this morning, Mom offered to take Dad to breakfast at an IHOP near their house.

“I smell a rat,” Dad said. This is one of my father’s favorite expressions, which I’ve always found funny because Dad has almost no sense of smell whatsoever. He would not detect the scent of rat if the rat walked right under his nose and into his closet, died there, and spent a week decomposing. Referring to his children and grandchildren, Dad said, “They’re all going to be there, aren’t they?”

My mother, who is an atrocious liar, must have breathed a sigh of relief because his question didn’t even require her to flirt with dishonesty. “No, they’re not,” she said, and it was true. When Mom and Dad arrived at the IHOP, only Suzi, her husband and two of the Richmond nephews were waiting for them.

Just after the group had gotten home from breakfast, I showed up. I made a less grand entrance, which involved hiding in the powder room, sneaking out on tiptoe, and then springing myself on my father when his back was turned. Not wanting to make the birthday superstition come true by causing him to have a heart attack, I opted just to tap him on the shoulder. He turned around, saw me, and cracked up. The gods were on our side. Shortly thereafter, our group of seven got in the car and headed to Nats Park.

We strolled around for a while and then settled into our seats. At at about 1:15, my sister Lynne, her husband, and their two kids breezed into the row, causing Dad to break into a huge grin.

Our team may be a few players short of a full roster and not so good at following directions, but we always show up. Maybe even a day early.

 

It was a gorgeous but hot day at Nats Park. Based on our collective stink on the way home, I bet Dad was glad he couldn't smell us rats for a change.

It was a gorgeous but hot day at Nats Park. Based on our collective stink on the way home, I bet Dad was glad he couldn’t smell us rats for a change.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

Way off base

I never should have done it.  I knew better.  I really did.

I hail from a baseball family, a tribe that inhales one part superstition along with every two parts oxygen.  I grasp far better than most that, as a fan, you think twice before you mess with any of the rituals that got your team to the playoffs.  And I understand perfectly well that a must-win playoff game is the absolute worst time for a fan to do something she’s never done before.   Yet I did it anyway.

I had my reasons.

Before I get into those, and what I did, I should take you way back to the early 1990s.  In those days, my younger brother was in high school, playing summer baseball on Springfield’s American Legion Post 176 team.  Dad, who had also played baseball in high school and college, started working with the Legion team right about then.

His involvement continued long after my brother graduated high school and stopped playing on the team, long after he graduated college and stopped playing for Georgia Tech, and long after he graduated from AAA ball in the minors and started life in corporate America.

For the past 25 years, and for love of the game and the kids, Dad has kept right on coaching.  And I love that he has.

Going into every season, Dad claims it will be his last.  I usually ignore him, but this year I thought he might mean it.  The Manager, who’s also been Dad’s partner in crime for the last 25 years, had a major heart attack in the off-season.  Though Dad’s pal recovered and is back on the field this year, I feared the two would view it as a sign to hang up their cleats.

So tonight, as the team took the field for what had the potential to be Dad’s last game as a coach, I got sentimental.  I couldn’t let the moment go unrecorded.  When Post 176 queued up along the third base line with their backs to the fans and, as one, removed their hats for the Legion pledge, I snapped a photo.

I’d taken photos of my dad in the throes of coaching before, but I never shared them beyond my immediate family.  Yet just this once, and just because my father is one of the most humble people to grace the planet, I decided to brag on his behalf.  I wanted to make sure other people would know what kind of person Dad is, in case they couldn’t figure it out just by watching him.

So I winked at sentiment, thumbed my nose at ritual, and posted the photo on Facebook.

“The pic is hard to make out but that’s my pops, coaching the American Legion Post 176 team in the playoffs.  So proud and happy he still does this, considering he hasn’t had a kid on the team in 20 years,” I wrote.

Because this display of pride and vanity was as unprecedented as it was flagrant, it invited the full wrath of the sports gods.  And they were only too happy to oblige.

As the “likes” poured in, so did the fury of the sports almighties.

They started by taking our typically competent first, second and third basemen and replacing them with Larry, Moe and Curly.   They swapped out our bats for feather dusters. We went through so many pitchers it wasn’t so much a rotation as a centrifuge. And every time we managed to put ducks on the pond, the sporting gods outfitted them with concrete shoes.

I tried to shake off the curse, to undo it through all sorts of reverse actions.  I stood up when I usually sit, took off my sunglasses and perched them on top of my head, crossed my fingers, and uncrossed my toes.  (Anyone who knows me well appreciates just how hard that last one is for me.)

And it looked like my acts of atonement were working, because suddenly Post 176 had narrowed a four run deficit to one.

The score was 5-4 as we entered the eighth inning.   Two hits, two outs, and a walk later, we had three runners on base.  All we needed was one base to tie the game.

The pitcher, who was visibly rattled, threw a wild pitch. The ball went past the catcher.  The runner on third lunged forward.

As I watched the play unfold, I was reminded of one of Dad’s favorite sayings: “Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.”

It’s enough to tell you Dad’s team won’t be burping up bear tomorrow morning.

“We had our chances,” Dad said as I stood at the fence to offer congratulations and condolences.  I didn’t tell him it was all my fault, that the game was over not when the last pitch was thrown but when the first photo was posted.

Here’s the photo that brought down the House That Yank Built.

But there could be a silver lining.  If this loss leaves a bad enough taste in Dad’s mouth, one more season might just look like lemon sorbet.