Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. ~ John Dewey

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(Stories from my side of the field parts 123456, 7)

He stands next to the car, keys in hand ready to go as the sun comes up over the Camelback Mountains. As I come out of the trailer my M’s hat on backwards he smiles at me.

“Ready?” I say.

He nods, hands me the keys and we climb into the truck. He doesn’t talk much anymore and the ride from my parent’s trailer in Sun City to the Peoria Sports Complex is a quiet one.

As I drive I’m overwhelmed with emotion. Here we are getting ready to go watch the Mariners practice during Spring Training, something we had dreamed about and talked about for years, and we can’t really share this moment together. Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) has taken most of his speech and executive functioning now.

Unlike alzheimer’s where you lose your memories, FTD affects the front of the brain and the speech pathways. The memories are there, the experiences are there he just can’t express them in any way.

As I continue to drive to the sports complex I keep telling myself he knows what this means even if he can’t express it, show it, or internalize it. That we’re going to watch the Mariners practice during Spring Training together.

Once we get to the sports complex, Starbucks in hand, we walk to the lower practice fields and watch the pitchers take Pitcher Fielding Practice (PFP). As I watch I’m transported back in time to my college days where every day as pitchers we worked on PFPs. So boring, so “stupid”. Pretend to throw a pitch then have the coach roll you a pretend bunted ball down the first base line so you could practice picking it up and throwing to first. The hours I spent doing this are more than I would like to remember. Yet here is Felix, Walker, Paxton and Iwakuma pitchers at the top of their game going through the same motions as millions of kids around America will be doing this year as well. If I thought I spent a lot of time doing PFPs, I wonder how many hours these guys have done?

My dad is quiet, watching them next to me through the fence. I nudge him and point as Felix covers first base and then crouches down like a catcher to receive the throw from the next pitcher in line. Ah…the things you get away with when you are the King. As I watch my dad watch the players, the memories of all those times he crouched down behind a makeshift home plate so I could practice pitching, all the times he helped to set up an old tire in the back yard so I could practice. All the games he watched me play in……

Seager taking ground balls
Seager taking ground balls

We watch for a bit longer and then slowly make our way to the upper practice fields where the team is getting ready to take batting practice. We head to a row of bleachers between the main practice field and a smaller field used only for infield practice and stand on the top row; giving us a perfect view of the team taking batting practice in front of us and the infielders taking ground balls behind us. I can’t help but smile and feel like I’ve found a slice of perfection right here in Peoria. Surrounded by baseball with my dad.

We watch Seager field ground balls on the practice field, I turn and look at my dad and again the emotions overtake me. The hours that he hit me ground balls like that, the patience he had to help me work through bad habits and form good ones. The willingness to do whatever it took to make me the best at this game that I love.

I wrap my arm around his shoulder and give him a squeeze……he looks at me confused and says “What?”

“Nothing” I say as I give him another squeeze, “I’m just glad we get to do this.”

Batting Practice
Batting Practice

He half smiles not fully comprehending the moment I know but I also know the memories are still in there even if he can’t express them or reach them any longer.

“CRACK!”

We both turn around in time to see Nelson Cruz the newest Mariner hit a ball 400+ feet over the left field wall.

“CRACK!”

“WOW!” Dad says….like a little kid seeing his first homerun as another one flies over the fence. We watch as Cruz deposits 3 of the next 5 balls over the fence in left center field.

“He’s going to be fun to watch” I say.

Dad doesn’t respond…not knowing how to and not being able to find the words. I would like nothing more than in this moment to be able to talk about all the players with him, to talk about the way this player prepares to receive ground balls or the way that one has changed his stance over the years, but the conversation has escaped him now so we stand here in silence watching the Mariners take batting practice.

I remember the winter of my senior year of High School right after I was cut from the varsity basketball team and feeling down and out; my dad coming home one day with the wiffle ball pitching machine from the High School. Being a teacher at the school had its privileges. I remember my dad not mentioning, or mentioning very little about me being cut from the basketball team and instead decided that this was a great opportunity to help me prepare and practice for baseball season. My mom being Principal of an elementary school gave us access to a gym on the weekends. Almost every weekend the family would head to Broadway Elementary, set up the machine and take hacks in the gym. Mom and Dad would take turns feeding the machine as us boys rotated through hitting. Once that was done, dad would hit us ground ball after ground ball. The hours that this man has spent teaching me, helping me, showing me this game are countless.

Dad and I Spring Training Game
Dad and I Spring Training Game

As we watch batting practice, I start talking to him as if he didn’t have FTD. It’s a one way conversation as he doesn’t say anything except every once in awhile “There goes another one” as a ball flies over the fence. I talk to him about the players, about the minor leaguers trying to break into the majors and about my predictions for how I think each player will do this year for the Mariners. We stand there on the top row of the bleachers, my arm around him, while he drinks his Starbucks through a straw and we talk baseball.

He might not be able to express it, he probably can’t even comprehend what all of this is and why I’m so excited to be here with him right now. But he’s still my dad, he’s still the man who spent hours teaching me this game and provided every opportunity he could so that I would love and appreciate this game as much as he did.

As another baseball season gets underway today I’m reminded of all the hours my dad spent helping me to understand and appreciate this game….thanks Dad, for everything.

(Stories from my side of the field parts 12345, 6)

The stress and pressures of life continues on the airplane. Even though I’m headed for a vacation, I work on my laptop the full 3 hour flight, trying to get one more task completed. The stress in my upper shoulders is aching as I sit in my cramped economy middle seat trying to balance my laptop on a little tray made even smaller by the fact the person in front of me has leaned his chair back.

“This is your Captain speaking….we have been cleared for landing and should be on the ground in about 20 minutes.”

springtraining

For the first time since we took off, I lift my head out of my laptop and look across to my wife sitting in the window seat and out the window. Below us as we start to descend is the black of the desert and the faint lights of the city below. Out in the distance there is a bright circle of lights, then another appears and yet another a little closer to us.

As more and more come into view, and I realize what they are, I feel the stress in my shoulders all but disappear, a calm comes over me as I close my laptop mid sentence in an email and just stare out the window at the baseball fields lighting up the night sky.

The memories of playing the game for half my life uncontrollably start to flood back into my consciousness.

– My first time pitching in little league

– My first home run in high school

– My first time pitching in college

– Making a great play as shortstop to save a run

– A diving stop at 3rd base

– The hot summer nights spent sitting on the bench hoping to get in the game

– The hot summer nights in a game wishing I was sitting on a bench

The memories continue to pour over me as more and more fields come into view. For the second year in a row now we’re headed to Spring Training in Peoria, Arizona to watch the Mariners.

By the time we land I am in baseball mode. Work and the pressures of life have disappeared and all that is left is baseball.

The next day we go for a run soaking in the 70 degree weather and the sunshine. We finish our run at the Spring Training complex and watch the minor leaguers take batting practice. The first field we go to the players look small…really small. The new draftees, the new players fresh out of high school who haven’t been on the offseason weight lifting plan, take batting practice barely getting the ball out of the infield.

We walk over to the next practice field where the boys from the last field have become men. The difference between single A ball players and triple A ball players is huge. Not only their size and strength but also their approach in the batting cage, the polish of their swing, and the feedback they get from the coaches.

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As we walk around the complex watching these up and comers practice I am again taken back to all those days playing baseball in Spokane, Washington wishing and hoping that one day I would be here…be a part of this. I think about all the hours spent practicing. Whether in the back yard playing catch with my dad and brothers, during the winter months in the gym at Broadway Elementary School (Mom being a principal we would go in on the weekends and dad would hit me ground balls), or on the field practicing with the team. The hours that were spent on learning this game, now that I think about it, were extraordinary.

I look around at the hundreds of players practicing on five different fields and then think about that only 25 actually get to play in the Majors for every team. 25 out of hundreds of recruits, thousands of college players and millions of kids everywhere. Only 25 are chosen to play at the highest level for each team.

That night as we head to the game I can’t help but think that not only am I lucky enough to get to go to Spring Training, even if it’s on the wrong side of the field, but that I get to go with my biggest fans. My dad who woke me up every morning being a hero, my mom who was always my biggest fan, and my wife who is also here just because of ‘the love of the game’.

So here is to my biggest fans….let’s enjoy another baseball season.

(Stories from my side of the field parts 1234, 5)

“Ok, let’s go play!” My dad says as the three of us jump up and down and head in three different directions.

My youngest brother heads to the kichen, opens up the cupboard and grabs two white paper plates. My other brother (the middle one) hustles to the back porch and grabs an incrediball, while I run upstairs and grab our gloves.

“Greg…where’s your glove?” I holler down the stairs.

“In my room in the corner!” He hollers back.

My mom walks over to the coat closet, opens it up and picks up her and dad’s gloves.

“Let’s go boys before the sun sets.” Dad says as he opens the front door.

It’s a perfect summer day in Spokane, Washington. At 8pm the sun is low on the horizon but still plenty of sunlight for a family game of hot box. As the three of us tear through the front door into the front yard, the smell of freshly cut grass hits my nostrels. That unforgettable smell of summer, of newness, of baseball.

“Put one here,” dad says to my youngest brother. Bryan drops a paper plate at dad’s feet and then walks over to mom about 60 feet away and lays the other one at her feet.

Photo Credit: StuSeeger via Compfight cc

Hot box is a simple baseball game. Two people throw the ball back and forth while the runner tries to run safely between the bases without being tagged. It’s our family game as we rotate through being runners and base protectors. It always starts the same way, with mom and dad throwing the ball to each other while the three of us try and make it safely between the bases.

I’m up first and wait for my dad to throw a high fly ball to my mom. Reading the angle of his wind up I know it’s going to be a high throw and I take off from the plate next to my mom and sprint towards my dad. By the time the ball completes its arc in the air and lands in my mom’s glove, I’m 2/3 of the way to the other plate. I take two more steps and slide into the plate before my dad can catch the ball my mom has thrown and tags me.

“SAFE!” my brother yells from the sideline. That’s your job if you’re not playing to be a base umpire.

“Those aren’t your school jeans are they?” my mom asks as I get up from my slide and look down to find a fresh grass stain on the lower half of my left pant leg.

“No…I changed when I got home.” I reply.

It was something that was drilled into us growning up on the farm. As soon as you got home from school you changed out of your school clothes to your play clothes. To this day I come home from school and have to change right away out of my school clothes. The day hasn’t ended until I’ve changed my clothes…something that to this day my wife teases me about.

We continue playing hot box for an hour. Until every one has rotated through being a base protector and being a runner. All along laughing and joking.

My dad and mom make the best base runners. They’ll take off from a base and get themselves into a pickle in between the bases. We throw the balll back and forth between us trying to tag them so they’ll be out. As we throw the ball to each other we slowly close the gap between us, giving the runner less and less room to run. Until one of us can catch the ball and in one motion tag the runner.

It is a simple game that for an hour a couple times a week transforms our front yard into the base path between 2nd and 3rd base at the Kingdome, home of the Seattle Mariners back in 1988.

Late into my junior high years we played this game as a family and in my mind it was always just a game. Years later looking back, little did I know that what mom and dad were teaching us was a fundamental part of baseball called the “run down”. Something that by the time I was the starting shortstop in high school I was extremely good at. Knowing when to throw the ball to your teammate in a run down is the key, and with years of practice under my belt in our front yard, I had learned to perfect the timing in all the run downs my mom and dad would put themselves in on purpose.

As another baseball season begins today on this beautiful sunny spring day in Seattle, I can’t help but think about all those hours we played hot box in the front yard as a family.

Here’s to another baseball season and to families everywhere who know the joy of summer days in the yard playing hot box.

The Baseball Winter Meetings just ended in Nashville. Which means absolutely nothing….unless you are a baseball diehard like myself…then it means everything.

Today while listening to Eric Wedge, the Mariners manager, give a press conference, he spoke about building a team.

He basically says there are two ways to build a baseball team…you either build for the short-term or the long-term.

Building for the short-term you focus on this year, you make a run for the World Series and hope you reach the playoffs.

If you build for the long term, you develop your players in the minors. In the long term, you stick with your players, you develop your young talent, you stay the course and you improve.

Now in baseball we know this approach works. The Texas Rangers changed to a long-term approach after they found out buying expensive players for the short-term just doesn’t work in the long term. (See: Alex Rodriguez).

Since they changed their approach here are their win – loss stats:

They steadily improved as they rebuilt their minor leagues and focused on good draft picks. Five years later they make the playoffs including a World Series appearance….and they are picked to be the top of their division again this year.

Since new management and Eric Wedge took over, the Seattle Mariners have been rebuilding the club for the long term. Here are their stats over the past few rebuidling years.

Eric Wedge took over as manager in 2011 and we have seen steady improvement. So his comments today that the team is building for the long term makes me happy. Makes me really happy. We are going to be good again someday soon…but we need to be patient, develop our players, watch them grow, learn, and blossom into some awesome baseball players. Would I love to see a winning season this year? Absolutely! But I would take 5 winning seasons in a row over 1 any day.

 

So what does this have to do with Education?

 

I started thinking about this today and then started thinking about where we are with technology in education:

Do we build for the short-term or long-term results?

Here’s what I have heard from teachers:

“I would love them to create movies, but iMoive takes too long to learn.”

“I would love for them to create a game using Scratch, but it takes too long to learn.”

“I would love for them to create a podcast, but it takes too long to learn the software.”

“I would love to have them blog, but it takes too long to show them how to do it, keep them updated, and monitor them.”

 

All of these above statements are focused on short-term results. You never hear a Kindergarten or 1st grade teacher say:

“I would love to teach them their numbers, but it takes too much time.”

“I would love to teach them to add, but it takes too much time.”

“Yes…I do think they should be able to write, but we just don’t have the time to teach that.”

 

You will never hear a Kindergarten or 1st Grade teacher say that. Why? Because it’s not about the short term. It’s about giving them skills that they can build upon. It’s about understanding learning is a process and every teacher at every grade level does their part to bring students along in a long-term approach to learning. The major leagues for us in K-12 education is graduation. We should all be focused on giving students the skills they need to be successful at the next level and in life.

 

Yes…it takes time to learn iMovie, to blog, to create a podcast. But they need to learn the skills at some point and at some point someone needs to step up and say I’ll get the skill building started.

Some rights reserved by @superamit

When I was at ISB, the 5th grade team stepped up and said they would teach students to blog. Yes, it took away from other curriculum “must-dos”, yes it was hard, yes it was time consuming. But somebody had to do it. Each year each grade builds on it and now there is a school of bloggers. Every teacher above 5th grade should be thanking those teachers for taking the time to teach the kids how to blog. Just like every teacher above Kindergarten should be thanking the teacher before for teaching writing, their numbers and their letters.

How do we change our view of technology in education of one from being a short-term: this assignment, this unit, this school year; to a long-term, “I’m going to teach them something they can use and build on year after year?”

How do we change our direction, our outlook on technology?

How do we build for a long term future that will see us year after year make improvements instead of build for June when the kids will move on to the next grade?

How do we make sure every year our students have skills that will help them improve next year?

How do we develop these technology skills that most people agree students need, but very few are willing to make room for to teach?

The first step might be understanding that technology is more than a tool…it’s a skill set that needs to be developed year after year just like the skill of reading, writing, and math problem solving. Technology is a skill, a skill you are going to need if you want to make it to the major leagues and be successful.

On Monday the MLB (Baseball) draft started and one of the Mariner Bloggers that I follow Jeff Sullivan had this to say about the draft:

This afternoon or evening, the names of several future disappointments will be announced. Zero or one or two or three of the players will develop fully. Many more will develop partially, and the rest will develop not at all. It sounds so grim and makes it all seem like a complete waste of time, but the math isn’t really different in other professional fields. Most of us are destined to disappoint. High baseball draft picks just get more publicity than most of us do.

That sounds down right depressing but it is so accurate and I think you could apply it to hiring anyone for any company, organization or school. You hire on potential, hopes and dreams. Much like companies baseball teams take risks on young potential players hoping they will work out. Some do, others don’t, while still some who are drafted at the very end of the day make the biggest impact for a team or company. 

I think about education and students. We don’t get to hand pick our students, we’re given a class list in August/September and we’re told to develop them and help them reach their full potential. We’re not allowed half way through the season to say “Look kid you’re not cutting it here, we’re going to send you back down for more work in the minors.” We’re told to help the student reach their full potential no matter what. 

I think of coaches who know they don’t have the best team, but they do the best with what they have. Helping everyone develop, staying positive, and providing support where needed. They dream of days when they’ll have that ultimate state winning team. But until then they battle through the hard years doing what they can to develop players. 

Baseball General Managers get paid a lot of money to pick potential players……and fail most of the time. 

Educators get paid much less are given a bunch of players and are successful most of the time. 

 

Not sure if any of this makes sense…but that paragraph has been running through my head since I read it a couple days ago and I needed to write some of these random thoughts down.

(Stories from my side of the field parts 1, 2, 3, 4)

Doesn’t he know better than to give a test on game day?

As if the professor actually cares that there’s a baseball game today. 

Man on first, lefty at the plate……..Why is Chief Seattle’s speech in 1854 so significant?

Focus….you have to finish this test!

It is always hard to concentrate on game day. I glance over at my friend Ryan, our back-up shortstop sitting next to me, our eyes meet and he shrugs. 

Lefty at the plate, man on first…curve ball down and in………..1854……I have no idea.

Really there should be some sort of rule about giving tests to players on game day. The school might call us “Student Athletes” but in our minds we are “Athletic Students”. 

The bell rings and I turn in my blue book and walk outside and wait for Ryan. 

“That was brutal!”

“Yeah…..at least it’s over”

We walk across campus to the locker room on a rare sunny day in Bremerton, Washington. 

We’re an odd couple Ryan and I. No one would ever guess a farm boy from Spokane who wears Wrangler jeans, a cowboy hat, boots and a belt buckle would become friends with a Filipino who wears baggy jeans 5 sizes too big, a baseball cap a little crooked, and listens to grunge and alternative rock. 

But we have one thing in common. The love of baseball. We talk the game constantly whether it’s situations, pitch counts, our latest practice or our favorite topic, the Mariners

“You think we’ll see any action today?”

“You might” I say as we walk across the commons “but I threw a pen session yesterday so I’m on charts.”

“Doubt I will either…a day game on four days rest. Maybe as a pinch runner but that’s it.”

We’re not the best players on the team, Ryan doesn’t start many games and I’m a relief pitcher who tops out at about 78mph. Not enough gas for the community college league we play in. 

We make our way to the locker room and get changed for the game and then take my truck to the ball field about 20 minutes away. Although we know we’re not starting, the preparation is the same. We spend the 20 minute drive in silence knowing once the uniform goes on the mental preparations begin. I’m lost in thoughts of pitch counts and pitch selections while Ryan runs through play situations in his head. 

The game goes as expected for Ryan and I. I spend the game sitting on a bucket of batting practice balls spitting sunflower seeds and charting pitches. Ryan sits next to me on his own bucket with a stop watch. Timing everything from the speed of pitches to the catcher’s throws to second base. A split second can mean the difference of a stolen base or an out….and nobody catches the small details better than Ryan.

It’s not all glamour this game. You never see a pitcher charting piches on TV in the big leagues. They have staff people that do that. But here at the community college level if you’re riding the pine sooner or later you’ll find yourself keeping charts. 

By the 7th inning, although we’ll never admit it afraid to jinx the team, our minds start praying that these last two innings go fast. It’s not helped by the fact that the third person of our group has just shown up in the stands, coming straight from work. She slides in on the end of one of the bleachers with her Mariners sweatshirt on under her jacket and her hair pulled back in that signature ponytail.

I nudge Ryan with my elbow and give a toss of my head in her general direction. Ryan sees her sitting there and gives the slightest of head movements acknowledging that he sees her. 

As the last out of the game is made we break our silence.

“What do you think……can we make the 5:30 Bainbridge?”

“No way…we still need to pack up and drop my truck off at my place…..we’re better off taking the 6 o’clock Bremerton.”

“Yeah…but the Bremerton is an hour ride we won’t make first pitch.”

“Yeah…but if we try for the 5:30 and miss it we miss the first three innings.”

We part ways and work as fast as possible to clean up after the game. Another shot you’ll never see on TV. The players raking the field and fixing the mound after a game. But here in community college we’re both player and grounds crew. 

Ryan heads to shortstop and I head to the mound. Everyone knows these are our areas and everyone stays clear. Ryan and I built this mound from the ground up on a rainy Sunday for 5 hours with coach one weekend. I know this mound better than anyone and quickly work it back into shape. 

On another wet and rainy weekend, Ryan and I resodded the entire infield with new grass, and yet another weekend remixed the dirt for the infield. Ryan knows every bump, ever rock of the shortstop position and using a rake quickly smooths it out. We might not get a lot of playing time on the field but we still respect it and honor it the way a baseball player should. 

We quickly put our rakes away grab our bags and hustle out to the parking lot. She’s there at her car waiting for us. 

“We’ll never make the 5:30 Banbridge…we still need to drop my truck off at my place and change our clothes.” I say with a smirk on my face. 

“What if we left your truck here and you guys changed in the car? We have to pass back by here after the game anyway so we can pick your truck up then.”

Ryan and I look at each other with that look that communicated, why didn’t we think of that? And at the same time, We knew there was a reason we hung out with her. 

We pile into her car and head to Banbridge. 

Ryan and I change in the car in a similar scene that you’ve seen in the movies. Body parts being bent in all sorts of positions, clothes flying everywhere, and laugher erupting from all of us. By the time we hit the ferry terminal in Bainbridge, I’ve transformed back into my Wranglers and flannel shirt and Ryan into his baggy jeans and baggy sweatshirt. We both opt for our college baseball hats with the big OC for Olympic College embroidered on the front. After all, a cowboy hat doesn’t go over too well in Seattle.

We quickly park the car and sprint down the plank and jump onto the ferry just moments before its whistle blows and sets sail for Seattle.

“Told you guys we’d make it.” she says out of breath but in a tone to remind us that this is her town.

rainer
Mt. rainer from the Ferry

It’s an unusually warm May day, so we elect to sit out doors at the front of the ferry. As we slowly gain speed she pushes Ryan and I apart and sits between us. She promptly turns sideways laying her head on my shoulder and kicking her feet up over Ryan’s lap. I swear she never could sit like a regular person.

“So….didn’t see any action today huh fellas?”

“No….we saw loads of action today……we just weren’t involved in any of it.”

She laughs and Ryan and I bump fists over top of her.

As we sit there with the smell of the ocean filling our nostrils and the wind from the boat gaining speed forcing us to turn our hats around, we see our destination come into view. 

spaceneedle
space Needle and Seattle Skyline

The whitish gray top of the Kingdome standing out like a beacon south of the city. Off to our right Mt. Rainer stands clear and tall over Seattle slowly turning purple and pink with the setting sun. Off to our left and north of the city the Space Needle rises like a watch tower among low buildings. We sit there in silence for the longest time just taking in the view and the smell of the ocean as the ferry makes the 35 minute crossing of the Puget Sound.

“Who’s pitching tonight?” 

“Randy Johnson!” Ryan and I say in unison as if the answer was rehearsed. 

We return to silence as I wrap my arm around her shoulder as I can tell she’s cold. Ryan hugs her knees close to his chest to keep her warm on his end. 

As the boat slows to dock in Seattle, the skyline of the city sits in front of us slowly turning the same purple and pink of Mt. Rainer as the sun makes it’s way lower on the horizon. 

“Some day we’re gonna live right there.” I say pointing to a new condo building with a big NOW RENTING sign and phone number on it.

“Yeah…wouldn’t that be the bomb if we could afford to live there?”

“We can live there….the three of us together could afford it.”

“There’s no way! No way we could afford that…..seeing I’m the only one with a job.” She reminds us with a chuckle. 

“I bet we could….Ryan….write down the number….how much do you think the top floor of that place costs?” Ryan always has a pen on him usually with reminders scribbled all over his hand…so one more phone number won’t hurt.

“With that view? More than two baseball players with no jobs can afford.” Again reminding us of our employment status.

“I’m not talking now” I say, “but in the future…seriously….the three of us could afford it together.”

“That would be too cool…..could you imagine us all living in Sea town?” Ryan says spinning his hat around but leaving it just a tad to the left of straight. 

“Some day….I’m telling you…some day we’re all going to live here. We’re gonna live here and walk to games whenever we want. No having to run for a ferry!” 

“Keep dreaming boys!” She says as she sits up straight and the ferry pulls into the dock. 

It’s 6:05, an hour before the first pitch. We exit the ferry with the rest of the passengers dressed in their Mariner garb headed to the game. Once off the ferry we quickly separate from the crowd with our quick pace and make our way to the Kingdome. We order a soda and popcorn and find our seats just in time for the National Anthem.   


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Ryan and I at Safeco Field

As another baseball season begins today with my beloved Mariners taking on the Oakland A’s in Japan, I’m reminded of this boat ride. We had probably close to hundreds more just like it over the years as we made our way from the Olympic Peninsula to the Kingdome and Safeco Field. Each ride would be basically the same conversation. This idea that some day we would all live in Seattle and be able to walk to Mariners games whenever we wanted. Ryan and I envisioned leaving work in our ties and throwing on a baseball cap to catch an afternoon game or owning season tickets for those seats we could never afford. As we prepare for our move back to Seattle, where that girl and I now own a condo that has a view of Safeco Field and Ryan owns a condo just 7 blocks from us, I’m reminded of all those conversations we had on the ferry about these days to come. The days when we would all be living in Seattle, and just a quick walk from the ball park. 

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safeco and mt Rainer from our Condo

So to my wife and to my best friend….may our dreams of 16 years ago see the light of day….and just remember I told you one day we would do it!

(Each year on the Opening Day of Baseball season I write a post 1, 2, 3)

Elmer UtechtHe sits there next to my mom and dad in the stands dressed the same no matter the weather. Flannel shirt, baseball cap, and khaki colored pants. He makes it to a couple of games a year when the farm is at its slowest. As I glance up from the bullpen he’s once again found someone he knows to talk to. No matter where he goes in this state he’ll know somebody.

It’s no surprise really, he’s been part of his community for a long time. He made the family name recognized in Spokane. As far back as I can remember he’s been selling his produce to local stores. The “Valley Fresh” or “Grown Locally” signs found in the supermarket could have just as easily read “Grown by Elmer Utecht”.

He’s always been a farmer and always well be.

But today he takes time out of the fields and makes the 400 mile drive with my parents to watch me sit here in the bullpen waiting to see if I’ll play. He wears the OC hat I bought him last year with pride. His grandson playing baseball in college…he couldn’t be prouder.  

 

The game has changed a lot since he was a kid. Back then you listened huddled around a radio, you played in the field with a stick and anything remotely round, and you bought baseball cards for the gum. Gloves didn’t cost $100s of dollars. A bat was anything that felt right in your hand, and major leaguers played because they loved the game.There was no free-agency, no talk of salary caps or steroid use.

Time has changed baseball in so many ways yet the basics of the game, the reason why I love it so much, remain the same. They say this game is 90% mental and 10% physical and that it’s the hardest thing to do in all sports: Hit a round ball with a round bat square. It’s the only sport where if you are successful just 35% of the time you go to the hall of fame. And if you hit safely 40% of the time…well….I’m not sure what would happen as it hasn’t been done for a long time.

He loves sports and although today I didn’t get to play he’ll have some comment about the umpires. He always does. It’s either the strike zone, or a close call at a base, but some how some way he’ll find something to talk about. I just smile as we go out to dinner and he recaps the game for me talking about different players, different plays, and of course the umps.

kingdome
 

As we talk over dinner I remember the time we all went to the King Dome to watch the Mariners play. I had to be around 10 then and it was the first time for both of use to be in the King Dome and watching the Mariners live. Of course he wore the same then as he does now. Flannel shirt, baseball cap, and khaki colored pants. I’m not sure which one of us was more awe struck being in the King Dome. A place we’d seen on TV so many times. He rarely missed a game on the television and when he’d come over for dinner he’d always let us know the game was on. He loved all sports. No matter the season he had something to comment on, something to talk about. 

 

This year as a new baseball season begins I’ll be thinking of my grandfather and the times we shared around this game. Whether talking about Mariner players, my college days, or my time in high school, he was always willing to talk. This year he gets to watch the game from high above, and I’m sure from time to time umpires will hear him in their ears.

Thanks gramps for the memories and let another baseball season begin. 

 

Dedicated to Elmer Utecht
February 9, 1928 – March 2, 2011

(Stories from my side of the field Part 1 and Part 2 here)

I throw another hand full of seeds into my month and wrap my jacket tighter around me.

Man it’s cold today…wish the wind would quit blowing….I’m freezen!

We’re in the second game of another weekend doubleheader at home. We’re up by a run going into the 7th inning. As cold as I am I can’t believe she’s still here, in the stands, watching this game. Why doesn’t she go sit in the car? Or why is she even still here?

She sits there huddled in her blanket by herself, just watching. She likes baseball….or so she tells me. She comes to every game she can, and even some she can’t by rearranging her work schedule and having someone cover for her at Olive Garden so she can be here…..sitting in the stands, on hard bleachers….watching me…..sit here on this hard bench spitting seeds.

That’s the thing about being a relief pitcher, you do a lot of sitting around, a lot of watching baseball rather than playing it, and a lot of charts…..so many charts.

Yet she sits there, willing to watch and wait to see if this is the game I’ll play in. I can tell she’s cold, heck she’s always cold, but today it’s freezing.

We’ve only known each other for 3 months, happened to take a couple classes together last quarter and then ended up signing up for extra credit in biology by going to elementary schools and teaching kids about microscopes. That’s where we met…..in our professor’s car full of microscopes on the way to an elementary school. We started talking, and have been talking ever since. There’s nothing romantic about it, we’re just friends….good friends, and as good friends do she’s her to support me…..sitting on this bench….chewing on some sunflower seeds.

“Utecht! You’re up!”

I look down toward the dugout where the pitching coach is standing making the number 1 with his left hand and number 2 with his right to indicate my number. He then gives the sign that means hurry up and get warm.

I peel off my jacket and instantly the numbing cold that has been slowly making its way into my bones the past 16 innings of sitting here is gone, replaced with a rush of adrenaline. I grab my mitt drop it on the mound and quickly sprint to the outfield wall and back to loosen my legs. As I run back in I take in the situation on the field.

Men on 1st and 2nd….how many outs (looking at the score board) 1 out, full count. Come on Corey….roll a double play and get out of this.

I get back to the mound a little out of breath and the catcher is waiting for me with a ball. We play catch next to the mound snapping the ball back and fourth to each other as quickly as possible to get my arm loose.

Our pitcher walked the batter and now the bases are loaded with one out. The coach steps out of the dugout again and looks down the sideline at me giving the hurry up and get warm sign. I was always known for getting warm quickly and obviously coach doesn’t want me wasting any time.

Come on Corey…..ground ball and you’re out of it.

I step up on the mound in the bullpen and the catcher squats behind the plate and I start to throw.

Fastball, Fastball, Change Up

CRACK!

I stop throwing and look up to see a base hit into left field. The left fielder gets to the ball quickly and gets it back in….only one run scores.

Fastball, Change Up

The coach walks out to the mound to have a talk with the pitcher, as he does he glances down to me.

He’s not bringing me in now is he? I’ve only thrown like 5 pitches.

Fastball, Curve, Fastball

The umpire walks out to the mound to tell the coach he has to go back to the dugout or make a change. The coach points down to the bullpen indicating that he’ll make a change…..and I’m it.

“Utecht! You’re in!”

Crap! I’m not warm….I didn’t even have time to focus on location!

I throw one more fastball to the catcher and then jog into the game. The coach and catcher are waiting for me on the mound.

“You ready?”

There’s only one response…and every baseball player knows what it is.

“Yep….I’m ready.”

“Good….1 Out bases juiced….get us out of this Utecht!”

“You got it coach!”

He puts the ball in my glove and turns to head back to the dugout. The catcher puts his mitt over his mouth so the other team can’t read his lips when we’re talking.

“The usual?” he says and I can see the grin on his face through his glove.

“Yeah….the usual….two pitches and let’s get out of here!”

He jogs back to the plate and I get 10 pitches to warm up.

At least they give me 10 pitchers out here….heck that’s more I got in the pen! OK….now focus….Fastball outside corner.

POP! The ball hits the catcher’s mitt on the outside corner of the plate.

That’s good now fastball again, you can’t show the change-up now….the guys standing right there getting the timing down….only fastballs.

POP!

To high….you leave the pitch up there and you’ll make this guy a hero Utecht….keep the ball down…follow through.

POP!

Better….now come inside…paint the corner nice and low, follow through.

POP!

OK….now a curve ball….let him know you have something other than a fastball.

POP!

I get the ball back from the catcher and turn around and head back up the mound for the next pitch. I take a deep breath and throw.

I get the ball back from the catcher again and this time I see her sitting there, just off to the right of the catcher four rows up in the stands, huddled up in her blanket. She sees me see her and she smiles.

Keep the ball down Utecht…..

It’s a strange thing when you’re playing baseball. In that moment on the mound there are few things you hear. I can’t hear the other team cheering on their teammate at the plate, or my own team behind me cheering me on. No….I only hear the wind and my thoughts.

I throw my last warm up pitch, get the ball back from the catcher and head back up the mound.

“Utecht…you and me on a come backer” the shortstop yells at me. I nod my head to let him know that I heard him and get ready to do my job.

The catcher gives the sign…..fastball!

Outside corner, keep the ball down and make it count!”

My specialty is getting guys out with just two pitches. I have great location (most of the time). I’m not over powering topping out at around 78mph but I have a change-up that’s pretty good.

In baseball it’s all about location and speed. The change-up works in that it looks like a fastball, moves like a fastball but it travels around 10mph less than a fastball. Research shows that the human brain takes about 20 seconds to forget location and speed of an object. So if you can through your fastball followed by a change-up within 20 second of each other and locate them close enough to the plate, the human brain sees the same pitch, swings the same way, and if all goes as planned hits a slow roller to the shortstop.

“STRIKE!” the umpire yells

Perfect….now change nothing, think fastball and let the grip do the work.

My teammates behind me all know what’s coming next. I’m not throwing this pitch to get a strike out, I just want to get the batter out on his front foot, take hi
s power away, and have him roll a nice ground ball to the shortstop. We turn a double play and go bat.

I get the ball back from the catcher and I can’t help but glance up at her sitting there. A grin on her face as we’ve talked about this exact situation more times than she’s probably wanted to. She knows what’s next, we all know what’s next….except the batter.

The catcher gives the sign…..change-up!

Think fastball, think fastball, think fastball

As soon as the ball leaves my hand I know it’s going where I want it to…low outside part of the plate. The batter starts his swing, his brain then realizes that he’s started to early and tries to hold up, but it’s to late, his muscles have already committed to swinging the bat. He makes contact and the ball bounces about two feet in front of the plate and I catch it waste high. I turn, make a solid throw to 2nd base, there’s nobody there but he’ll be there. As the ball sails over the bag, seemingly out of nowhere the shortstop is there, catches the ball, sweeps his foot across the back of the bag, and throws to first base. The runner at first is out by two steps. A perfect double play!

Yes!!!!

I turn like every pitcher does, pretending that it’s just another out and slowly walk to the dugout. As I start to walk, the noise of the crowd cheering hits me. I look up in the stands to see her there clapping and a big smile across her face. I wink at her, put my head back down, and make my way into the dug out.

That’s it for me….my day is done, two pitches, two outs. I put my jacket back on, get a couple more high fives in the dugout, and start rooting on my teammates now at bat.

She watches the rest of that game, and will watch every game she can of mine from that day forward.

14 years later as I play pickup games here and there, she’s still there, sitting in the stands, about 4 rows behind the catcher just to the right. That same little smile that only I can see, and an understanding of my love for this game that only she gets.

As another baseball season begins today I’m excited to spend yet another season watching baseball with my wife. She truly is a baseball fan. We listen or watch games here in Thailand over the Internet together and spend our summers at Safeco Field in Seattle cheering on our favorite team. So here’s to you my love, may this baseball season be another one to remember.

(See Part 1 from last year here)

I sit on the bus plays running through my head. It’s quiet…we’re all thinking about the game.

Runner on second line drive to left field….guys gonna try and score…I’m the cut off….catch and throw in one motion. Gotta be a strike to the plate.

Stay back….pick up the spin and stay back…keep your elbow up…and keep your weight back…remember that.

We arrive at Ferris High School and go through are usual warm up routine. I keep peaking to the spot where she always shows up. Of course the guys don’t see me looking and she’s not here yet…but I know she will be.

We take some batting practice.

Stay back…keep your weight back.

It doesn’t go well.

Crap! Quit pulling your head and keep your weight back.

I grab my mitt and sprint to the outfield to shag while my teammates get their turn at the plate.

As I sprint to my position I look over…she’s not here yet. Hope everything is OK…she’ll be here…she always is.

We finish taking infield and head to the dug out. We’re visiting so we’re up first. Another quick look at the line up. I’m batting 5th. I grab my bat and slowly turn it in my hands.

Have to stay back…this guy throws a lot of junk…pick it up early and keep your weight back.

As the game starts….I see her walking towards the field and a calm comes over me. As usual she’s driven straight from work. She has a green army blanket tucked under one arm and is carrying her folding lawn chair in the other. She has her CV visor on and is bundled up ready for the game.

She sets up in her usual spot. I’ve been playing ball on this field for at least 5 years..and always the same spot. Just to the right of the third base dugout and just past third base. She unfolds her chair sits down and wraps herself up in the blanket.

She sees me looking and gives me a quick smile. I feel a small grin come across my face.

I get up to bat.

Stay back….keep your elbow up.

As I step into the batter’s box I hear her.

“Here you go Jeffers!”

The same thing she has said to me every time I’ve stepped into the batters box for as long as I can remember.

It’s not a good at bat….I strike out watching a fastball paint the outside corner.

What was that? Why didn’t I swing…it was a perfect pitch….crap!

“That’s OK….get him next time”

The same thing she hollers every time I strike out.

I run back to the dugout…grab my mitt and sprint to Shortstop. I go through my regular routine…baseball is all about routines. I smooth out where I’m going to stand with my cleats, and try to forget about the strike out. Baseball’s tough that way. You can’t take the bat on the field with you and you can’t take your mitt to the plate. It’s easier said then done though.

First batter hits a ground ball right at me…field and throw.

That felt good…that’s what you get for striking me out!

“YES! Why to go Jeffers!”

She’s sitting almost horizontal to me just outside the third base line. She has the best seat to see every play I make.

The next two guys strike out and as I sprint back into the dugout, I look over and she waves a Gatorade bottle at me.

I drop my mitt in its usual place and then walk out of the dugout to fetch my Gatorade.

“Nice throw!”

“Thanks.”

As I drink half the bottle of Gatorade right then and there.

“You need some seeds?”

“No, I have some.”

“You have to keep your back elbow up you’ve been dropping it lately.”

“I know Mom!” I snap back

“I know you know…I’m just telling you!”

“I know!”

“Dad says he throw a lot of off speed stuff.”

“Yeah….wasn’t expecting the fastball on that count.”

“Don’t think…you think to much.”

“I know.”

“Just play.”

“I KNOW!”

“K…..”

I take the Gatorade and walk back to the dugout.

Two innings later I get up to bat again.

“Here you go Jeffers!”

As usual she’s the only person I hear in the stands….I swear she’s the only fan here although I know there are at least a couple dozen others.

Second pitch is a curve ball…I wait on it…keep my weight back, my elbow up and hit a line drive in the gap between center and right field. As I slide into second for the double I hear her again.

“Way to go! That a boy!”

“I told you to keep your back elbow up!” I hear her yell will her hands cupped on either side of her mouth so the sound travels right throw the ear hole in my helmet. I look at her….smile and she grins and claps.


This post is dedicated to my mom who was always my biggest fan. She is an elementary school principal and through out my playing days no matter what the sport she was always there. Like most every teenager, I never stopped to think about what it must have been like for her. An elementary principal who had to leave school at 3pm sharp to drive the 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 1/2 hours…whatever it took to make the start of the game. She only ever called me “Jeffers” when I was playing sports and no matter how packed the stands were…her voice was always the one I would hear. She always made sure I had Gatorade, or water, or seeds or my jock strap for that matter. 🙂 She was my biggest fan, my agent, my calendar, my support. No matter how good or poorly I played she always remembered the good plays. I could strike out 3 times and make one good throw and she’d talk about the one good throw.

So here’s to you mom….as the 2009 baseball season gets underway. I’m thinking of all those games…all those summers where you drove here and there to watch me play.

Let the season begin!

I lay there half awake thinking about The Game.

Ball hit to your left, man on first….under hand to second.

Ball hit deep in the hole, back hand, plant and throw….the guy’s quick so it needs to be on a line.

Man on third ball hit down the line….stop the ball no matter what it takes, look him back and throw hard to first.

Counts 1-2 what’s he throwin’? What’s the pitch?

Keep your elbow up.

Smooth…must be smooth.

Don’t over think….just play….you know this game.

As the plays continue to roll through my head uncontrollably, I hear the familiar steps of my alarm clock coming up the stairs.

Who am I today? I think to myself as my door opens. Am I Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr., maybe Omar Vizquel. Although I had that good hit yesterday maybe I’m Olerud?

“Hey Brooks,” as he bends over and gives me a gentle shake.

“Hey…you awake?”

I knew it, I knew it was Brooks today! Trying to keep him from seeing the smile spread across my face.

“Hey Brooks….time to get up”

“Yeah” I mumble, “I know.”

“You know they called him the ‘Human Vacuum Cleaner’ nothing got by him.”

“I know Dad.”

“You should have seen him…one of my favorites.”

“I know”

“You got NC today right?”

“Yeah”

“Watch Richardson, he’s been a hitting fool lately.”

As if he didn’t already know who we were playing against today and as usual he had already read the paper, analyzed the box scores from yesterday’s game and wanted me to know this little bit of information.

“I think he’s number 15….ripping it up he has…and quick too… gonna have to be quick on the release.”

“K” I respond just wishing he’d let me go back to sleep.

“OK…get up Brooks,” one final shake and I hear him as he makes his way back down the stairs.

For 17 years he’s been teaching me this game, and every morning during the season I get woken up being a different hero.

As the day wears on The Game continues to run through my head. I can’t concentrate in class, I can’t focus on much of anything.

2-2 what’s he got? Lefty throwin’ today…damn I hate lefties. Gotta watch the rotation, gotta pick it up early.

I barely eat any lunch, as the clock ticks closer to game time, the nerves continue to grow deep in my gut.

“You ready?” he says as he passes me in the hallway, putting a hand on my shoulder.

I shrug, “Yeah…nervous but that’s usual.” Having your Dad teach at your high school can be strange at times, but comforting at others.

“Just go out there and play ball Brooks….just play ball.”

He continues to walk down the hallway as I stop at my locker to get books for the next class.

Where am I playing today? Trevor’s pitching for us…that usually means shortstop.

More nerves but also relief…I love playing shortstop.

The bell rings and the locker room is quiet. It’s game day, everyone is focused…running through situations in their head. Baseball is a mental game 90% mental they say. No mental mistakes.

Ball hit to my left….field, spin, and throw.

We hit the field where in the dug out we find the line up for today. Hitting 7th and playing shortstop.

Trevor’s pitching….a lot of ground balls.

We’re done taking in-field, nerves make my stomach ache, as a nice sweat break out on my brow.

We’re the home team and it’s time to take the field. Coach gets us all together.

“1,2,3…BEARS!”

I sprint to my position, and as per routine start smoothing out my spot with my cleats. Field a ball from the first baseman and fire it back.

Focus….don’t over think….stay down…field before you throw.

I continue to smooth out my spot and look up to find him standing in his usual spot. Just to the right of the bleachers a pack of David’s in his hand.

He sees me, smiles, winks and nods his head ever so slightly so that only I see it, spits some seeds on the ground as the Umpire yells “PLAY BALL.”


This post is dedicated to my dad who for 17 years taught me how to play and love the game of baseball. For 17 years, I never used an alarm clock as each and every day he woke me up for school…although baseball season was the best. I woke ever morning being a hero.

It is the first day of the 2008 season…and this is all that is running through my head. All the times he was there in the stands, all the morning he woke me up…and as a true teenager, never appreciating it. It wasn’t until I was in college playing baseball and having an alarm clock wake me up that I realized just how much I appreciated those mornings, those days, that gentle nod in the stands.

Here’s to you dad…let’s enjoy another season of baseball!

[tags]baseball[/tags]

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