Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Journey - Chapter 13

Monday, August 10, 2015 was an off day. The team flew out to Cleveland, to begin a series with the Indians the following day. Joe Girardi was not on the plane. He was no longer manager of the Yankees.

At the moment of Girardi's firing, the record of his squad was twelve games under .500. Managing a team nineteen games out of first place and sinking fast,  Girardi's departure from the team he had managed since 2008 was a seeming inevitability. Even though he was in the middle of a four year contract, the dollars the Yankees were forced to absorb in the firing paled in comparison to the earlier A-Rod disaster.

The ownership, with the departure of King George, had been much more forgiving of the trespasses of the team and of its leader, but there were limits which had now been exceeded. The last Yankee mid-season firing of a manager was the dumping of Bucky Dent, in June of 1990, while he was with the team, in Boston of all places. A quarter of a century later, at least the timing was a bit better.

Dave Miley had managed the Cincinnati Reds for two and a half seasons ten years ago. On August 10, 2015 he was performing that role for the Scranton- Wilkes Barre Roughriders, the Yankee's Triple A team. The following day he was back in the big leagues, this time as the leader of the most storied franchise in baseball history.

He was widely viewed as an interim sacrificial lamb, a placeholder until a manager with some gravitas could be plucked from the ranks of the unemployed or free agents before the 2016 season. He hoped to prove the naysayers wrong, much as two controversial earlier choices (Buck Showalter and Joe Torre) had done.

The road trip to Cleveland and Toronto produced five wins and one loss. Everyone seemed to have a little more bounce in their step, which is a strange phenomenon that occurs with some surprising regularity in circumstances such as these.

I was trying to regain my own footing, having just gone through some difficult days. My 38th wedding anniversary was August 6th. As much as I paid it little mind throughout the years, the fact that it was not a day of celebration but one of somber reflection robbed me of any joy this event would typically bring.

I encountered my first health problems on this trip. I had been fortunate throughout the season that apart from the occasional back discomfort, I had been remarkably healthy.

On Wednesday evening, August, 12, 2015, I ate at a Caribbean food truck on Ontario Street just outside of Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians. I awoke in the middle of the night with a very pronounced case of food poisoning. After struggling for an hour or so in my room,  I called my wife looking for help, as though she could hold my hand at 4 AM from afar, then contacted the front desk asking for suggestions, I ended up taking a cab at 5AM to an emergency room. I was in the hospital most of the day, and was discharged late in the afternoon.

Too weak to even consider spending the night at a ballpark, I now missed my fifth game of the year, and my fourth in less than ten days. At this rate, it was a toss up as to who had the worse record, the Yankees or me.

That evening, I did manage to go into the bar at the hotel to watch the game. I do not drink, due to a balky stomach, and have hardly ingested a glass of wine or stronger beverage in over four decades. So, I was decidedly in the minority as I sat there, surrounded by mostly Cleveland fans, all with several alcoholic stimulants helping to propel the discussion.

When the conversation turned to me, and how I found myself sitting in that particular locale, I was advised that it was not the food, but the Yankees that had made me so ill. I could hardly put up a fight, both because of my weakened condition and the state of the squad that I had now followed, at least most of the time, for almost four and one half months. 

Thankfully, at least on this night, victory was ours. Jacoby Ellsbury hit two home runs, only the third time this year that anyone on the Yanks had accomplished that feat in one game, drove in six runs, and the final score read 8 to 5.

When the game concluded, I called my wife and both of my children to check in and let them know I was feeling much better. I woke each one up. While I wondered if I had overestimated my value with them, I understood the truth was that my family knew if there was even anything remotely bothering me I would let them know it, chapter and verse. For I am nothing if not both a wimp and a hypochondriac.

In 11th grade I was known as a pretty good soccer player. Captain of my team, I was being counted on to be its most prolific scorer. After the third game, I developed a small rash under my chin. When it persisted for several days, I went to a doctor for a diagnosis. I was informed that I had impetigo. I rested for the remainder of the season, almost two months, for what was quite candidly, not much more overwhelming than a pimple.

As I lay in bed that night, I worried if I would be strong enough to continue on the road trip. I am sure the following morning my family was in contact with one another, chronicling my episode and laughing at my latest version of impetigo,

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Journey - Chapter 12

My friend died on the night of August 3, 2015. His wife wrote us a brief note saying he was now at peace.

The Yankees played August 4, 5 and 6 in New York against the Red Sox. I did not attend any of the games.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Journey - Chapter 11

The road trip took me to three cities, and into the month of August. There had been times in the past that the Yankees, seemingly headed nowhere as the heat of the summer intensified, suddenly found their footing. None was more memorable than 1978.  The team, trailing the Red Sox by 14 games in July, took their rivals to task in the "Boston Massacre" in September and then ripped out their hearts with the Bucky Dent home run in the playoff game to determine the American League East championship.

But that team had been in the World Series the previous two seasons and won 100 regular season games and, eventually, the 1978 title. There was to be no mistaking this year's version for its predecessor. There were no heroics remotely on the horizon as the 3 win and 7 loss road trip concluded. It was August 2 and the fat lady was already singing.

My limited notoriety preceded me into foreign cities now, and afforded me one unique opportunity while on this trip.  I was contacted by the Star Tribune, a newspaper out of Minneapolis, and asked whether I could be interviewed while I was in attendance at the Sunday afternoon game on July 27. I gladly accepted, for unlike my ailing friend from Boston. I craved the attention.

I had begun a blog in 2008. Since then, I had given my view on something, almost anything, several times a week. I suffered if the 'hits' to my site were lacking. I took great pride if a piece seemed to garner admiration. What I had essentially accomplished over the years was to alienate most of my readers and bore the remaining few, to the point that I was virtually writing words that no human eyes except mine, ever saw. But I continued on, convinced somehow that what I would write tomorrow would capture the imagination of the public and elevate my being.

My intention had been to keep a lower profile during my 2015 odyssey and then overwhelm the reading universe with a story of immense meaning and sublime wit.  What I determined, as my travels continued, was that my tale would probably best serve as a sleep aid and that the hours I was going to spend on my writing project would be better utilized learning to be a more well rounded person.

The reporter greeted me at my seat a few minutes before the game was to commence. He was young, maybe in his late 20's, and had only been with the newspaper for several months. I was not going to be a front page story, and I envisioned our conversation being whittled down to one comment hidden in the recesses of a mid-week sports page.

Others sitting near to me were quickly aware of what was happening. They made sure to give the reporter their opinion of the Yankees, and of a Yankee fan who was traveling around the country watching a losing team perform with metronomic futility.

As the game progressed, I began to speak of all the issues that had taken priority over the course of the season; my family and friends, work and travel. I spoke of the loneliness, the boredom, the camaraderie that I was now establishing, or trying to, in each new locale. I focused little, if at all, on the games I had watched and on my disappointment with those masquerading as Bronx Bombers.

I spoke, almost non-stop it seemed, for several hours. As the game drew to a close,  my new young friend thanked me for being so forthright and open with him. He said a story would probably run in the next several days and he would contact me as to when this was to happen. I received a call from him the following day, just after my plane landed back in New York. The newspaper wanted to interview me again, and was considering writing a series of articles on what I was doing. 

Over the course of August, September and through the last game of the season on October 4, I had a conversation with my new best friend at the conclusion of every series. We spent long hours dissecting what was happening with me, what my eyes and my head were telling me. And especially what was going on in my heart. It made me feel much less isolated, much less fatigued.

And so, even as I write this story for you, there is in a parallel universe, a long piece that is supposed to be published in the Star Tribune shortly before Christmas, chronicling what occurred as I followed the most losing Yankee team in decades hither and yon over the course of a very long and difficult season.

My friend in Boston continued to deteriorate as the days went on. I called his wife upon my return home. I could hear the pain in her voice and I suddenly wondered what right I had to go on such a frivolous adventure

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Journey - Chapter 9

On July 8th, the Yankees reached the half way mark in the season, at least in games played. They were still staggering at 36 wins and 45 losses, although there had been some slight improvement over the past several weeks. Not only was Travis Wade continuing to perform reasonably well, hitting close to .290 and making remarkably few mistakes for a 20 year old rookie, but another youngster emerged as a once and future star. His name was Jacob Lindgren.

Drafted in the second round of the 2014 draft, small in stature at 5' 11", he possessed a huge arm. In a truncated first year in the minors he averaged almost two strikeouts an inning. He was a year older than Wade, and  Lindgren jumped to the majors when David Robertson went down with the season ending injury. As they say, when one door closes, another opens.

Betances moved seamlessly into the closer role, throwing well when called upon, which was too infrequent given the futility of this team. Lindgren quickly moved up the pecking order behind him, and by early June he settled into the penultimate reliever's position. It was fun to watch Wade and Lindgren perform and it gave at least the hint of hope that there was, lurking in the weeds, the possibility of a new generation of home grown talent.

The weekend of July 10 through 12 brought another series in Boston. This time I chose not to stay with my earlier hosts, not because of their Red Sox bias, but because I wanted to spend time with a friend who was ailing.

I  met my friend several years before and immediately found him enormously interesting. He was forever a person of mystery, never revealing much of his past, making us guess as to what secrets were hidden under lock and key. From the bits and pieces of information that emerged, I determined that he had been a musician of some renown. But beyond that I didn't know if he had been a member of the CIA (a common guess) a trader in commodities or a minor league third baseman in the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system. He was very bright, always interested in my story, my children, my issues. And his own health problems were shrouded, kept under cover, as he held onto his privacy fiercely.

He had not been well in recent months, and it seemed clear that there was something very serious going on. So, I asked, with much trepidation, if I might bunk with him and his wife for the weekend while I attended the three games at Fenway. To my great surprise, and with my deep gratitude, he said yes.

The series had virtually no importance to me. I rushed to the games at the last minute and rushed back the moment the last out had been called. I just wanted the opportunity to thank my friend in whatever way I could for his friendship.

Over the years he had collected many autographs of ballplayers, and of others in various entertainment industries. Many were signed on baseballs. In fact, on one occasion, when my wife and I went to listen to Rachel Maddow speak, we came away from that event with a ball she signed that I handed over to my friend. Most of those balls had long since been donated to support various causes. But some remained, and we spent a long time on Saturday morning looking at them, my friend recounting tales of the hows and whens that each particular signature had been garnered. He also showed me an amazing photograph signed by all the players on the 1948 Brooklyn Dodgers. It only aroused more suspicions about his baseball background.

Sunday brought more stories, more self deprecating humor on his part and more glances by me at his wonderful and devoted wife. I could see the toll that these past few months had taken on her and I worried for her well being. But she was a rock for him, always at his side and always there to lift his spirits. She was a remarkable human being in her own right.

It was with a heavy heart that I boarded the flight back to New York on Sunday night, as I wanted nothing more than to be able to linger a little while longer. I hoped my friend understood how much our time together that weekend had meant to me.

When I arrived home that evening, I discussed the events of the last few days with my wife.  I found myself in tears, overcome by the emotions I had tried to suppress when in the presence of my friend. Before heading to bed, I unpacked my bag. Hidden beneath my clothes was something that made me break down once more. It was the autographed photo of the 1948 Dodgers.

The Journey - Chapter 10

Two days before the 2015 All Star Game, the Yankees called a hastily drawn press conference. Brian Cashman spoke:

"It is with a great deal of sadness that I come here today to inform you that we have terminated the contract of Alex Rodriguez with the NY Yankees. A-Rod served this organization with distinction for over a decade. For all those who have doubted him and spoken harshly, know that he has been dedicated forever to the betterment of the team. We, as an organization, have had some rough patches with Alex, but through it all we have recognized his commitment and passion for the game and for the fans of New York.  As of today, he is no longer associated with the Yankees and is free to offer his services to any other major league team. We wish A-Rod nothing but the best wherever his future, inside and outside of baseball, may take him."

Alex Rodriguez was hitting .197 when this announcement was made. In truth, it was an open secret that the team had been trying desperately for weeks to give him away, or to work out some kind of settlement to buy out the balance of his contract, which had two and a half more seasons to run. The Yankees had failed in their efforts to peddle his wares, had failed in their efforts to have him declared medically unfit to play due to the continuing difficulties with his hips, and were forced, in the end, to absorb all but a few million dollars of the remaining monies due to A-Rod as they escorted him out the door. It was a bad moment for the team, and for A-Rod it was extremely hard.

I had been a big critic of Rodriguez during the revelations of prolonged steroid use. I felt that he, and others of equal star power, like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, had abused the privilege that their talents had afforded them. All of them had become so egomanical that they, much like Lance Armstrong in cycling, had seemed offended by even the suggestion that their skills had been artificially enhanced. It was that hubris on the part of A-Rod which drove me to write several letters which the NY Times published on my great and lasting displeasure for him.

Yet, I must admit that when I read the Cashman statement I was saddened, and felt more than a touch of sorrow for the former third basemen for the team. I understood that Rodriguez was particularly aware of and sensitive to criticism. Whereas Jeter seemed to go about his business, and keep his head down, not listening to the whispers of lack of range or power, Rodriguez took in every bit of negativity. He wanted to please, he desperately needed to please, and if it meant doing what many others were doing, he had to maintain his place at the top of the pantheon of heroes. This is not intended as an endorsement for the fallen star, but an explanation of what seemed to drive him and feed his insecurities.

As there were no games played on July 13th through July 16th, I was able to spend that time away from the game. But the rise and fall of Alex Rodriguez remained with me throughout that time.

I was happy, if that phrase can ever be associated with work, to have four uninterrupted days at the office. No thoughts about rushing out to the Stadium, no planes to catch, no packing or unpacking. One thing I had discovered was how nice it was not to have plans.

My back was acting up a bit, and so the time off was welcome in that regard.  I  envisioned myself much like the players who welcomed the break to reconnect with loved ones and to rest their engines. It gave me a chance to sit down with both of my children and give them my mid-term report. And to spend a lot of time talking about nothing to do with baseball.

Even better was that, after the break, the first two series were at home. That meant that there would be almost two weeks when I could be at home with my wife. Oh, yes, my wife.

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I don't know who they are, but I can testify that they are correct. I missed my wife, more than I ever expected. Closing in on four decades of marriage, it is hard for me to believe I am even writing these words. There were no more secrets, for they had long, long ago been revealed. But what I had not realized, maybe never realized, is that I should appreciate what it was that I had, that I knew, that I could count upon day after day. That I loved.

And so, this baseball season became one in which there was a little bit of a renewed romance between myself and my wife. I don't know if she felt it in the manner that I did, but I think I finally was beginning to understand, even a little, what marriage was all about.

When I left for the road, and Minnesota, in the early afternoon of July 24, I was more than a little sorry to kiss my wife goodbye.

The Journey - Chapter 8

The ghost of Derek Jeter hovered over the shortstop hole from the first day of the season. Not only was the bedrock of the team gone, he had seemingly sucked all the talent out of that position. By mid June, there had been six players who had tried and failed, if not to fill the shoes of the former occupant of this space, at least not dig a deep trench.

There was the free agent flop, the back-up fiasco. There were hitters who had no idea how to field, and fielders who never met a pitch they couldn't flail at helplessly. Stephen Drew proved that 2014 was not an aberration for there were no paper bags he could hit his way out of. It would have been a comedy of errors if it weren't so tragic. It was beyond embarrassing. Over two months into the season, the collective batting average of those who were pretenders for the shortstop throne was .210, with three home runs, twelve RBIs and eighteen errors. It was enough to make one wonder if Jeter couldn't be coaxed out of retirement.

Tyler Wade was a 4th round draft choice of the team in 2013. Handsome, 6 foot 1 inch and 180 pounds, out of California, with a ready smile, he was a good fit physically to one day play shortstop for the Yankees. But at the beginning of 2015, still only 20 years old, he seemed far from the answer. In 2014 he had hit .272 at Class A ball with only one home run and 118 strikeouts. No power and a questionable eye at the plate were not the combination the doctor ordered.

But he had moved up to Class AA in 2015 and seemingly found some power and control of the strike zone. He was hitting .306, with seven home runs and had committed only three errors when, on June 3rd, he hop-skotched over Triple A and landed on the Yankee bench. Ten days later he was in the starting line-up.He became my new favorite Yankee that day.

Batting ninth in the lineup, Wade had three hits in his debut, although one was a bunt, another a broken bat dying quail into short left. But he got on, stole a base and seemed to contribute more in that one game then all the rest of the Jeter wannabes had by their combined efforts. The next day brought similar results. The Yankees won both times. Maybe, finally their luck was changing and the Jeterian curse was lifting.

One other thing happened for me in mid-June. I changed my approach to the game, and to the season. If I had been assigned an average up to that point, it would have been no more than .160. I stunk. My attitude was wrong, my appreciation was missing. I had made one monumental, fundamental error, even worse than those that were being made everyday out on the field. I had forgotten what brought joy to me as a fan.

If a basketball heart beats 200 times per minute, baseball's barely breaks 100. If the face of football is violence, baseball has a much gentler visage.If athletics in today's world is all hype and loud noise, then the sights and sounds of baseball barely register. It is in many ways antiquated, an anachronism, not imbued with the necessary prerequisites that the high octane  21st century demands.

The average length of a game now exceeds three hours. For those of us accustomed to watching the Yankee - Red Sox clashes over the past decade, four hour struggles seemed the rule, not the exception.

So what is it that keeps the game alive?

It is in its lack of constant hyperventilation, in its punctuated outbursts, surrounded by time that has to be otherwise filled. It allows each of us  to slow down, to relax, to breathe, to absorb, to reflect and to make connections with much more than the game itself.

Over the close to six decades  I had been going to the ballpark, most of my lasting memories had much more to do with who I was with then what was happening on the field. I still picture the smile on my dad's face that day he caught the ball Yogi Berra hit that had caromed off one of the steel stanchions at the old Stadium. The laughter that resounded as my friend, whose family shared partial season tickets with mine, criticized or praised the efforts of the pitcher, any pitcher, one good or bad throw at a time. And best of all was the joy I got, and still get just watching my children watching the game, discussing with them matters important or not, knowing that we were all so happy sharing this life long connection. Baseball provided the backdrop,  permitting me the great and unusual privilege of letting time slow down in a very fast paced universe.

I realized that I was making a terrible mistake in taking this journey by myself. I had been isolated, surrounded each day by others who I had studiously chosen to ignore.

So I began act two. I looked for a relationship not with athletes in pinstripes but with others like me, people who came to get away from their worries, to cement old bonds or create new ones. I engaged fans around me, both at home and on the road. I found them to be universally warm, interesting and nearly as funny as my friend had been so many years before. Many found my story compelling and I seemed to gain a bit of celebrity wherever I went. 

And while I deeply missed the presence of my children, I found a kind of substitute family with whom I could share my thoughts, many of which had nothing to do with the trials and tribulations of my team. It opened up a new world and a level of enthusiasm that had been sorely lacking in me.  

Suddenly, I was having fun.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Journey - Chapter 7

My law practice had been a very local one throughout the years. Travel was almost exclusively limited to vacations, and such was the long established rhythm of my life. I was definitely not used to living out of a suitcase, going from place to place, never quite settling in before I was gone. But this year, this odyssey, meant that I was always coming or going. Never at rest.

After the wedding on Saturday night, the fatigue seemed to settle into my bones. I was very happy that the homestand was not finished, and that my next journey would be to Baltimore (and back to my cousin's) on the following Friday. Best of all, both Monday and Thursday were off days for the team, but more importantly, for me.

I felt I needed to replenish, revitalize, if I was to stand even a remote chance of continuing this trek for another 100 games or more. I now knew the fuller meaning of the phrase, as prevalent as any saying in the game: "baseball is not a sprint, it is a marathon." Yes, its application was in never counting your team out in June, for the race, as they say, did not necessarily belong to the swiftest. But in reality its truer meaning was in relation to the physical and emotional stress that must permeate to the core of every ballplayer's soul. He cannot but grow tired of the routine, of the monotony, of the Sisyphean task of pushing himself and his team up a very large hill for a very long time. If a runner hits the imaginary wall at the 20 mile mark, then I had run headlong into a brick barrier at about 10 miles into the race. And the Yankee players, mired in last place and going nowhere, must have encountered the same demons.

I spoke with my wife and children at length about whether I should just give up the chase and return to a more sane and sanitary existence. I was, after all, no longer chasing the dream of seeing every pitch. Now I no longer would even be able to say I had been present at every game. I was lonely on the road. The thrill of going to the park, day after day, had disappeared, and it seemed more work than play at this point. The team was bordering on pathetic, the future looked dismal, and I missed my wife, my children, my friends, my life. I was as close to miserable as someone could be whose main task was merely to show up to watch major league baseball.

My family told me to do what I wanted. That, unlike the wedding of my niece, I would not look the fool if I decided that enough was too much. But that what I was doing was something special, something unique, and if I did not see it through to its conclusion, I might look back with a great deal of sadness on my decision to abandon the chase. They were, as I said, a very bright group of people and very sage in their advise. I decided that I would carry on, at least for now, and see where the road led.

So I trudged to the stadium on Sunday and the Yanks again spanked the Angels. On the off day on Monday, I caught up with my most pressing work needs, visited my mom, and had dinner with my wife and both of our children. I felt a little stronger, a little more focused on the task at hand.

Tuesday I arrived  earlier than usual at the ballpark  for a night game against the Nationals. As I was waiting on line to go in, there was a tap on my shoulder. It was the cousin whom I was going to visit later that week. He was an avid Nats fan, and had driven up to catch the two games at the house that Steinbrenner built after he tore down the house that Ruth built. We spent most of that night talking baseball, speaking of its great joys and great moments. I mentioned little of the woes that had beset me, of my uncertainties. I suddenly felt foolish even harboring the possibility of leaving this all behind. 

And then there was Bryce Harper. He was a stud, and having a monster season for the Nats. That Tuesday night he made a diving catch in the outfield, threw out a runner at third base, legged a single into a double and clubbed a massive home run deep into the right field stands in the upper deck. He reminded me of why I was there.

As the homestand closed, and after another off day on Thursday, I headed out on a short five day road trip, ready to take on all challenges. Even if the Yankees weren't.

The Journey - Chapter 6

I was a New York Giant season ticket holder in the 1980's. This had been a franchise of greatness in the late 1950's and early 1960's but had fallen on a generation of hard times since then. I even attended a dinner of like minded unhappy fans in the late 1970's who ended up protesting their displeasure by having a plane fly over the Stadium with a banner that read something like "19 years and we're not going to take it anymore."

Thus, when the 1986 team reached the Super Bowl, there was boundless joy. And when my friend and I, through a lottery, obtained two tickets to California to attend that year's extravaganza, it was like, well, winning the lottery.

The game took place on January 25, 1987, the Giants won and all was right in the world. Except for one small matter. January 24, 1987 was my son's sixth birthday. And I was not home for the celebration. Even now, twenty eight years later, I am reminded that I voluntarily chose to be 3000 miles from home on that day.

So, I get that milestones in one's life, even if not particularly important to me or my wife, do have far greater meaning to much of the population. Thus, Saturday, June 6, 2015 was circled in my calendar with a big exclamation mark. It was the evening my niece was getting married. And the California Angels were in town to play the hapless Yankees.

I love my niece. She is a great kid, not so much a kid anymore as she had just turned 31 earlier in 2015. She was bright, pretty, a young lawyer of some renown, and best of all she treated her uncle with the respect he (I) deserved. She was my one and only sister's only daughter, and she was very special. Except that she was interfering with my plans.

That Saturday's game had a 4PM start to accommodate the television gods. The Yankees had broken their 14 game losing streak two weeks earlier, and had now settled into the pattern of alternating wins and losses with a metronomic regularity. They were 12 games out of first place on June 6, and the stands were half empty. Those who came spent more time directing their venom at the home team than rooting for them.

But I had not missed a game, missed an inning, missed a pitch of the entire season. And pictures for the family were called for 3PM on that Saturday, with the ceremony to begin promptly at 5:30 PM. How could I tell my niece, my sister, that I would not be able to appear, thank you very much, because I was an absolute moron?

While milestones might not mean all that much to me, family does. I live and die each day by the joys and sorrows that attach to my children's lives. I have spent most of my marriage within arm's length of my wife. And my mom, dad and sister have been like idols for me. My dad passed away when he was 61, more than 35 years ago, and not a day goes by that I still don't miss him and wish he was here. My mom, who thankfully had another of her amazing recoveries from recent back problems and was still with us in body, if not mind, was someone who spoiled me from the first day of my life to the last coherent conversation I had with her. And my sister was a wondrous person, caring not only for herself and her crew, but for my family with equal depth and sincerity. She was generous with her time and of her spirit. I adored her, and all those in her family.

Could my idiotic mission, coupling myself for no good reason with the gang that couldn't hit straight, trump all that? Could I really let them know that I was giving my regrets, that I was certain that the day would be spectacular, that she should take a lot of pictures, and be sure to give me every detail, but my first allegiance was to be at my appointed round at the appointed time? Was I like the postman, only rain, sleet and snow was substituted with balls, strikes and broken bats?

I sought counsel from my wife and my children, whose understanding of the human condition I greatly respected. They were universal in their dismay at my even considering putting my self appointed obligation over my duty to honor and respect my niece. So much for my trusting in their judgment.

On June 4, 2015, still tortured by my indecision, I picked up the phone to call my sister and discuss what was going on in my head. After she initially laughed, thinking I was making a very bad joke, she told me to call my niece. If I was thinking of doing what I was thinking of doing, she said, I should at least have the courage to call my niece and explain it to her. If I couldn't do that, she told me, then I should just get dressed up early Saturday afternoon, show up at the predetermined hour at the appropriate venue, and make believe this conversation never took place.

And so on June 6, 2015, I broke my vow to myself to see every inning of every game of the 2015 Yankee season. The wedding was spectacular, my niece and her husband looked astounding, and I hoped that my sister could one day forget the call that had taken place two days earlier.

And oh, by the way, the Yankees played their best game in over a month that day, beating up on California 11 to 1.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Journey - Chapter 5

On the evening of Monday, May 4, 2015, David Robertson was pitching in the bottom of the ninth inning against Toronto. The team was holding on to a two run lead. One out, and three runs later, the game was lost.  The next night, a one run advantage, two outs, no one on base. A single, a double, a wild pitch and a bloop hit later, Robertson had blown another save.

It is a funny thing that after being a student of the game for six decades, it is hard to tell exactly the moment when things are truly falling apart. May 4th, it turns out, was the beginning of an epic journey to the depths of Yankee lore.

The franchise had been in existence since 1903, first as the Highlanders, and then, beginning in 1913, as the Yankees. In all that time, the longest losing streak had been 13 games. That meant that come lousy pitching, worse hitting, bad coaching and terrible karma, even the most horrendous accumulation lacking talent or luck had found a way to snatch a solitary victory from the jaws of defeat before a  baseball fortnight had passed.

Robertson complained of a dead arm after the second debacle. In truth, he was probably hurting for some time.  Two days and one MRI later, he was done for the season with a torn rotator cuff.
If I had been at home watching the games on the tv between May 4 and May 19, I  would have undoubtedly informed my wife I would be willing to watch anything, anything else in which she was interested, even re-runs of Project Runway.

It was a train wreck playing out in slow motion. Except for a four game series at the Stadium with the Orioles, I spent those 15 days in Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Kansas City, squirming in my seat every night and day. Every possible way of losing was demonstrated and then repeated. The team, and I, were trapped in a cycle of misery.

By the time we reached our last stop, the streak was at 11. The local press was funny and brutal. Kansas City, which had forever been a downtrodden baseball town was now home to the AL champs. The axis of the world had shifted. "Yanks Make Reservations on Hindenburg" one headline exclaimed. Indeed this $200,000,000 mistake was going down in flames. It was only the middle of May and this was already a collection of the walking dead.

I was depressed. My son called me after defeat 13 to check in. "You are watching history" he told me, as if that would provide solace. He could sense the quiet desperation in my words. "Are you ok?" I was touched by his compassion and felt an overwhelming desire to get home on the next flight out. But there were still two more games to be played before that could happen.

This had to be a humiliating experience for the team. So many of them were accustomed to nothing but success, surrounded forever by sycophants, full of obsequious praise. Now they were being ridiculed, publicly flogged day after day and privately criticized relentlessly. Overpaid and underperforming was not a happy combination.

In the middle of this maelstrom was Joe Girardi. He of the marine style haircut and the look of a man who was forever ready to do battle. But this was more than even he could explain away. His job was on the line. He received the obligatory vote of confidence from those on high, meaning he was close to the unemployment line. Like the good soldier he was, he answered questions with stock responses night after night. And he prayed that his name would not soon be in the record books as the captain of the Titanic.

May 16th brought consecutive loss 13 and then the record for futility was cracked on Sunday May 17th with a national audience watching in collective delight. The mighty Yankees, the team of 27 World Championships, the home of everything strong and powerful, were mocking symbols of past glory. This was as bad as it gets.

That is until I twisted my ankle leaving the plane on the flight back to New York Sunday night. Talk about limping home. I was mentally and physically a wreck.

And then it got worse.

The Journey - Chapter 4

I gained four pounds the first month of the season. At that rate, by October I would have to add the cost of an entirely new wardrobe to the price of my adventure. I had decided that, even when home, I would dine at the ballpark. Something about purity of experience.

But living on at least one fast food meal a day, and more on the road, was definitely not what the doctor ordered.

So, beginning in May, I cut back on the bread, the pasta, the fried foods and the desserts. I would exhibit self restraint. It is not easy walking past the cheese fries, the ice cream swirls, the pepperoni pizza and settling in for a meal consisting of a piece of grilled chicken on top of some green stuff. It felt like I had removed one of the essential underpinnings of what made baseball so enjoyable. My pleasure meter dropped precipitously.

I spent Friday morning before the start of the Boston series in the office. I had a 2PM flight. But at 10 AM I received a call from a court of an emergent application to be heard at 1:30. My presence was required. I considered advising that this would not do as I had an away game that night, but thought better of it. I worried that my consecutive inning streak, as important to me as Ripken's  consecutive game was to him, was already in jeopardy.

But good fortune shined on me. The judge was actually on the bench at the appointed hour, my case was the second heard, I spoke quickly and concisely, which is not my normal manner, and by 3:10, I was on my way to the airport. I was somehow able to get a seat on a 4PM flight and arrived at Fenway with 30 minutes to spare. Disaster avoided.

The Sox, having gained early season momentum with their sweep in NewYork, were playing the best ball in the majors. The Yankee winning streak came to an abrupt end that night and they once more fell below .500.

My hosts for the weekend were good friends, the daughter and son-in-law of our next door neighbors. They had two adorable kids, 8 and 4. My wife and I babysat for the older child once and she promptly fell headlong into the corner of a table. We had not been asked to babysit since.

They lived in a beautiful house in a Boston suburb. As I settled into my room that evening, a surprise awaited. The entire room had been filled with Red Sox paraphernalia. My favorites were a bear wearing a Sox uniform and hat and  a blanket with a huge logo of the team dominating the bed.
But I was tired, the bed was very comfortable and I lacked the energy or the will to put up a fight.

I fell asleep only inches away from the autographed photo of the "Splendid Splinter", Ted Williams. The kids had drawn a picture of a World Series trophy, below which it merely read "2004." It was nestled underneath my pillow. 

And so I spent the evening sleeping with the enemy.

The weekend brought unexpected good times at Fenway. On Saturday, Michael Pineda, he of the sticky substance on his neck, threw a beauty, limiting Boston to three hits, all singles, and not allowing a runner past second base. Sunday was even better as the Bombers won in a rout and Brett Gardner hit for the cycle. It was the first time I had ever been eyewitness to this feat.

Gardner's last hit was the hardest one to achieve, the triple. He lined a ball into the right field corner and took off from home plate with what appeared to be fierce determination and amazing speed. He threw himself headlong into third base, seemingly beginning his ascent shortly after rounding second, and slid in just ahead of the tag. A huge grin crossed his face and for a moment all seemed well in the Yankee universe. Back over .500 at 12 wins and 11 losses and heading on to Toronto.

And that is when it happened.