"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Monthly Archives: March 2021

The Morning Paper

[Author’s note: The following was originally written in April of 2019.]

I read a newspaper today. I found myself staying in a hotel in Washington, DC, along with eighty of my middle school students on an East Coast trip that started in Boston, continued in New York, and finished in the nation’s capitol. When I walked downstairs and turned towards the breakfast buffet, there they were, quaintly laid out on a counter like relics in the museums we’d been visiting all week.

I grabbed a copy of the Washington Post, not necessarily for the news, but for the same reason you might pick up your grandmother’s rotary phone and give it a quick spin. There should be a word that means “amused nostalgia.”

But then something interesting happened. It turned out the Sports section was sitting just where I’d left it ten years ago, three sections from the front, and everything else was just as I remembered. (And by the way, if we’re going to add words to the lexicon, we should also replace outdated similes; from here on out, instead of “just like riding a bike,” let’s agree on a different phrase: “just like reading a newspaper.”)

I’m certain that none of my fourteen-year-old traveling companions could navigate a newspaper, nor would they understand its idiosyncrasies. Headlines make perfect sense in the unlimited space of the internet, where a complete sentence or even two can sprawl luxuriously across the top of an article, but “Nats get boost from Robles in No. 2 spot” drew my eye immediately and reminded me of headlines from a past when static dimensions of pages and columns once gave us headlines like “Spike Inks Pact” or John Updike’s famously poetic “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” It was an art in and of itself.

So after I read the first eight paragraphs about Victor Robles and his productive night from the second spot in the lineup, a kind note at the bottom of the column pointed towards the rest of the article: See NATIONALS on D5. As I dutifully turned the pages, I passed familiar features common to most Sports sections: a digest with highlights from around the sports world, a table of television and radio listings, and a notes column about the hometown Washington Nationals.

But before I could read more about Robles, I was transfixed by a full page of baseball boxscores. Once upon a time this was the highlight of my day. I’d find the Yankee game and carefully scan each line of the agate type for clues about how the game had gone — who had gotten the hits, stolen the bases, and scored the runs. It was a daily ritual during baseball season that began when I was eight or nine and didn’t end until the internet stole it away.

In this current era I’ve become a much more focused fan. I know far more about Judge and Stanton than I ever did about Mattingly and Winfield, but as the internet and satellite television have narrowed my focus, it’s as if the rest of baseball has fallen away.

Again, this morning’s Sports section reminded me of all this. A dozen box scores stood stacked across six columns, each telling a story of a different game, and the league leaders were posted on either side. Perhaps appropriately, there were none of the modern metrics like WAR or even OPS, but instead the statistics from my childhood: batting average, home runs, and RBIs for the hitters; ERA, saves, and strikeouts for the pitchers. Some of the names made sense — Christian Yelich and Khris Davis, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander — but who could’ve known there’s an Alexander in Chicago hitting over .400 or a Yates in San Diego leading the league in saves? None of that would’ve gotten past me as a child, but today it’s news. Tomorrow it’ll be trivia.

I can’t imagine that I’ll ever subscribe to a daily newspaper again, and that’s a shame. For all I’ve gained, something has been lost. Sure, it’s nice to have instant access to the information I want (the Yankee score wasn’t even in the paper: NY Yankees at LA Angels, late), but it was nice this morning to get all the information I didn’t know I needed.

When I put down the paper, I knew more than when I had picked it up, and I was also left with something else my iPhone will never give me — ink-stained fingertips.

Down in the Valley

It’s second and third with two outs in the last inning and we’re down a run. A tight spot, but tighter than you think as it’s the last game of the season and we’re staring at 0-10 if we don’t get these runs home. No team sets out to simply not lose every game, but when the end is three strikes away, it’s the only thing every player, coach and parent is thinking about. As the head coach, I feel like I’ve let these eleven-year-olds down and there’s nothing I can do about it.

As our team looks ahead to a new season, it’s impossible to forget the previous one. We practiced at the end of February to get a jump on the spring schedule. Once we got the basics down, we’d implement our beloved trick plays. I played ball into adult leagues and I had all the time in the world to impart the wisdom of 40 years in the game.

We didn’t see each other again for four months.

We retreated from our offices and classrooms to the dining room table. From hardball at the park to Wiffle ball in the backyard. My wife and six-year-old daughter, previously tolerant of my obsession with the game, became enthusiastic sluggers. My daughter holds all the batting records in the family as the precondition for her participation was guaranteed homers. A Boras-worthy contract. She’d bury her face in the flowers outside the third base line rather than play the field.

We lost a case of balls to the eager dogs on two sides of our diamond and the flourishing vegetable garden on the third side. The deck off the living room was an inviting right field porch and homers to left peppered the neighbors’ black and red Mini Cooper. We debated what was more offensive: leaving Wiffle balls scattered in their driveway or contaminating their living space by retrieving them.  Even the newly converted ran out of steam when the summer arrived. We hadn’t played in a few weeks when Governor Murphy announced we could have a summer team.

Our first practice was unproductive. I recorded temperatures, tracked transmission rates in vacation destinations and sterilized catching equipment. One positive case would bring the team, possibly the league, crashing to a halt. The kids, remote-learning since March, were finally close enough to smell each other’s farts again and who was I to interrupt their joyful togetherness with the infield fly rule? We would get to the baseball when the time was right.

When we started playing games, we lost. I noticed nobody even bothered to know the score. Enjoyment divorced from outcome. I’m not built that way – I’ve never gotten over the championship I blew when I was ten – but I knew better than to try to impose my hang-ups on them even under normal circumstances. We never had any positive tests, but the losses piled up and the competitive kids were smiling less and the more vocal parents had advice.

We enter the bottom half of the last inning down six and a winless season is three outs away. The pizza arrives in the bleachers for the postgame party. We want the kids to celebrate something, even if it’s just a slice and Coke. Like a flash, a couple of walks and a couple of hits flood the bases and the tying run is on third and the winning run on second with two outs.

In the on-deck circle my son takes a deep breath and bangs his bat on the turf to loosen the weighted donut. He’s the shortest player on the team and has the walks to prove it. As a parent, I feel relief when ball four sails high and wide. As a coach, I feel desperation.

The other manager wants to reassure his pitcher and calls for time. As I run out to second base during the meeting on the mound, I curse myself for my sloth. I never got around to trick plays. Why give them more than they could handle? Unforgivable!

“Joe, take a big lead and when the catcher has the ball, fall down. When they chase you, stay in the rundown until Connor can score.” Joe might have questions but I won’t let him ask them as I’m already running back to third. I brief Connor with even less information.

The first pitch is a called strike. Joe hits the deck and I do the one thing I can think of which is to yell at Joe like he’s dropped a live grenade. The catcher is startled, decides he doesn’t want the ball and zips it back where it came from. I am briefly worried, but I needn’t be because every other living soul within a mile radius has taken the bait the catcher passed up. Their screams spin the pitcher into action and he fires to second as Joe jabs toward the bag. Connor breaks for home. The second baseman watches him tie the game as the ball flies into centerfield. Joe winds up safe at third.

The bench and bleachers erupt. There’s finally a passed ball on the next pitch, “Go! Go! Go!” I scream, but Joe’s head is still spinning and he hesitates and stays, stays, stays. The batter strikes out and we go to extra innings. We exchange zeroes and the umpire calls the game as the sun sets.

We didn’t win, but I can’t imagine celebrating one any harder. Coke cans became Champagne bottles and the kids drenched each other as we reminded them to keep their masks on. You have to really shake that can to cover six feet. Earlier in the summer, baseball was secondary to the camaraderie. That night, baseball was the reason for the celebration. And the virus, while ingrained, was only the background.

We called it the “Valley Play” because a team named Pascack Valley had used it on us thirty years ago. Don’t tell the kids; they’re still at ease with mystery. It works because when the game is so tight and the players so focused, they don’t consider the absurd. Everyone was shocked to learn that Joe had fallen on purpose. They forgave my recklessness and we stayed at the field until we could barely imagine each other’s smiles in the darkness.

I had trouble falling asleep. Every time I shut my eyes I saw the ball bouncing behind the catcher. Go! Go! Go!  Ties, unlike masks, are un-American.

[Featured Image Photo Credit: Wasyel Danysh]


So there are doing this thing, this spring training and getting ready for a big league season thing again.

What, if anything, excites you about this year’s team?

Picture by Bags


feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver