Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

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.

 

Happy Whump Day, everybody.

My father speaks a language all his own.

I figured that out fairly early in life when the confused looks from my friends indicated that perhaps not everyone’s father referred to money as “moolah-tinkey” (I dare you to challenge my spelling). And maybe his terms of endearment were not exactly standard. As people sometimes do, Dad uses food items to identify the objects of his affection, but he never dished up standard fare like “dumpling” or “honeybun.” When we were kids he would call us “braciole,” (pronounced bra-ZHO-lee).

It must have sounded odd to the average American ear, but I’m glad he used the Italian term because “Hey, steak roll-ups!” would have gotten us some even stranger looks.

Braciola di Maiale

My father did some of his best lexical work at the Outer Banks, where my family spent one week of every summer when I was a kid. My siblings and I dedicated most of our waking hours during that week to playing in the ocean. And by that I do not mean we waded in up to our ankles; we immersed ourselves in the waves, eager to ride Mother Nature’s aquatic roller coaster. My parents encouraged our love of the ocean by making sure that all four of us had solid swimming skills, coupled with a very healthy respect for the power of the ocean. We understood that it could outmatch us any time it wanted to, so we never did anything stupid, at least not on purpose.

Though neither of my parents were very strong swimmers, one or both of them usually went out in the waves with us. They couldn’t have done a whole lot if something went wrong, but I think the proximity made them feel better.

In addition to performing standard parental oversight functions in the water, my father also considered himself something of an expert in wave selection. My siblings and I didn’t necessarily need his expertise when we were body-surfing, but it came in handy if we riding the waves on the inner tubes Dad had gotten for us.

And by “gotten,” I do not mean, “went out to Target and bought flotation devices,” I mean, “spotted some truck tire inner tubes that were set aside for discard at one of the depots he had to visit for work and brought them home.” On the upside, these gigantic truck tubes had some real heft to them. You never worried that a big wave or bad landing would cause them to puncture. On the downside, they were black, which meant they heated up in the sun and also that the tar residue that sometimes coated them was not apparent until after it had coated you. These tubes also came with very long, narrow, metal stems that were meant to attach to air hoses but could also serve as disemboweling devices if you didn’t take care to make sure they were pointing downward when you boarded the tube.

Once atop a tube, you had very little control over your destiny, and that’s where Dad came in. As you bobbed up and down in the current, he would keep his eyes on the waves and his hands on the tube. While maintaining a vigil for just the right wave, he would hold you in place so that some swell of inferior quality didn’t send you ashore. Then, when the right wave came along, he would unhand the tube just as the wave was cresting, ensuring that the tube and its rider remained atop the wave and enjoyed an epic ride onto the beach. This process required a fair amount of trust. At some point before the wave approached the tube, you had to turn away from the waves and face the shore –if you ever let a wave catch you facing it while in the tube, that wave would flip your heels right over your head and you’d be exhaling sand for a week–while entrusting the remaining wave-watching to Dad.

This system worked well most of the time, but even the most expert of wave selectors has the occasional lapse in judgment. Every now and again Dad would announce his prediction for the arrival of a particularly choice wave, his inflection rising like that of a World Cup commentator, and I’d turn forward (all the better to catch said wave), only to hear him say, “Uh-ohhhhhhh….” The wave would hit, the tube and I would part company, and I would lose all sense of earth and sky. And then before I knew it I would wash up on the beach like a conch that had, however inexplicably, survived the pound of the surf perfectly intact. Assuming you can be spewing salt water from your nose, eyes, and ears and still be considered “intact.” And Dad would be right behind me.

By way of explanation, he’d say, “That was a real whumper!” The word he used was gibberish, yet somehow I knew exactly what he meant. And we’d start laughing, a measure of our gratitude for the harmlessness, yet potency, of the whole experience.

Decades later, my parents still scout the waves, so to speak. They can’t stop us from getting whumped now any more than they could when we were kids, but they taught us the invaluable skill of rolling with it. It helps to know that even if we do get whumped, as long as we can find a way to stagger to our feet and laugh about it, we’ll be just fine.

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Sometimes You Eat the Bear, Sometimes the Bear Eats You…A Birthday Tribute to Dad

Today is my father’s 72nd birthday, and I thought it would be the perfect time to write about him.  This post, which my brother L.J. wrote, came about as a result of a lengthy exchange the two of us had about baseball.

Those of you who haven’t met Dad might not know that his passion for baseball ranks third, just behind his first two loves: family and pasta.  Dad has always had a gift for baseball (and hilarious sayings, like “Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.”).  He loved playing the game himself and then coaching and watching as my brother evolved into a talented right-hand pitcher who landed an athletic scholarship at Georgia Tech in 1993 and then got drafted by the Braves in 1998. L.J. made it to AAA before a combination of circumstances, injuries chief among them, compelled him to leave the game in 2003.

Over the years I had wondered whether my brother found it difficult to tell Dad that he was leaving baseball. I had occasion to ask L.J. about it recently via email. (Since he’s a father to newborn and a toddler, I don’t call him.)

I wish I’d have posed the question sooner, because my brother, who’s as thoughtful and insightful as he is athletically gifted, gave me an answer that deserves to be read by more eyes than mine.  Here it is:

I can wholeheartedly say, ‘No’, I wouldn’t have worried about disappointing Dad had I walked from baseball on my own had injuries not factored into the decision.  What I learned about Dad, and one of the things I didn’t understand until I looked from the end back to the beginning is that it was never about Dad.  (Think in terms of The Sixth Sense, where you live it all but then have an epiphany that allows you to rewind and understand why things happened and, in this case, why Dad acted the way he did towards me.)

Dad never forced me to play but instead taught me how to play right from an early age.  He tried to protect me from pitching too much, sheltering me until one fateful day in AA (little league) when our team was out of pitching.  Our coach knew I could probably help the team and Dad reluctantly agreed.  He never encouraged me to practice but rather went to work early and was home at 4:30pm if I wanted to hit after he changed out of his work clothes (which we did just about every day).  He never mistook pain for soreness when it came to my arm.  He never told me how much his arm hurt either. He brought out a toughness I didn’t know I could possess when I played after breaking my nose before one game –we didn’t know it was broken at the time—and in another hit left-handed to protect the stitches over my left eye when I was supposed to be letting the cut heal.

Even more importantly, Dad seemed to know what role to play depending upon where I was in my “career.” He encouraged me in my earliest days and when it appeared I had talent and drive, he became like that trainer in the gym you could hate during the workout but love when you stepped on a scale or looked in a mirror and started to see results.  When I played in the Junior Olympics, he became an ultimate cheerleader.  And when a baked potato covered in cheese preceded my hottest hitting game my senior year of high school he called me before each subsequent game and asked if I’d eaten one until my hitting streak subsided.

When I got to college he knew how much the competition improved and he encouraged me even more; he rarely critiqued me and most importantly, he was there… often standing by the first base line with a piece of luggage after getting a flight to Atlanta, taking the subway, and walking to the field.  When I had Tommy John surgery to reconstruct my elbow, he encouraged me again and marveled at what could be rebuilt.  When I got to pro ball, there were no critiques, just more encouragement and support in setting goals, goals he knew I could achieve and ones that could help  fulfill my dream.

When the wheels fell off and it seemed just about everyone left my side, he didn’t.  Neither of us knew what to say sometimes, but words didn’t matter, presence did.  So, I believe what Dad wanted for me was what I wanted for me.  Why he wanted it for me, I believe, is because he saw a way to potentially avoid a 9-5 life (although for him it was probably a 6:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. life to support me).  I believe Dad trusted me and even though I was naïve at times he raised me to make my own decisions… and live with them.  Therefore, I truly believe I could have left baseball at any time and not disappointed Dad, as I would have had a reason, and he would have believed and supported it.

My brother got it exactly right, and I couldn’t possibly say it better.  Happy birthday to our dad, a man who has never been about himself. We love you.

Here’s our man, coaching and supporting, as usual. I hope they ate the bear this time.