Old Catchers Never Die

Happy Saturday! I wrote this for Friday’s #2MinutesGo. Loads of great writing going on over at JD Mader’s place. Maybe one week you’ll join us. Or just read.

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His hands are ruined, but that came with the job. Catching blazing pitchers, winging balls to second, getting knocked around by foul tips and bats on the rebound and runners plowing into him trying to reach holy mother home plate. These hands will never win any beauty contests, but each blown knuckle and callus and broken nail tells a story. He can point to one and talk about the day he threw out a Hall of Fame base-stealing legend—twice. He can point out another, always with a smile, because those rough-and-tumble days of bus rides and crap motels have become romantic over time, and talk about the beating he took from catching his first knuckleballer.

If he could still talk.

The nurses comment on his hands each time they come to check his vitals; one in particular, a young girl, visibly pregnant, pets his good hand like it’s an abused dog, sometimes cooing a few words in Spanish. They are beautiful words, and her hands are soft and soothing, and he says the words over and over to himself, embedding them in what’s left of his memory. She’s the type of girl he might have cottoned to in the bar after the game, the quiet and motherly girls, like his Gina, God rest her soul.

Today the older one comes, with her world-wise eyes and the limp she won’t talk about. “Morning, Pete.” Flo is the only nurse who calls him by his first name, which he prefers, because that mister business makes him feel every inch of his years. She’s the only nurse who picks up his hand and laughs and says “that’s one damn ugly paw,” and he likes that too. He can take that, from a woman like her, and if he could talk, he’d give it right back to her, and the smile in those weary eyes tells her she knows that. She checks his reflexes, his various bags of fluids, his numbers. With a grim attempt at a smile—only one side is working—he remembers the days when his stats were the numbers that mattered. Batting average, home runs, percentage of runners he’d thrown out. Now it’s blood pressure, oxygen level, heartbeats. Each heartbeat chattering across a digital screen. He’d rather be back there, jamming another finger trying to scoop a low, mean pitch out of the dirt, than in this damn bed, watching the measure of what’s left of his life.

It’s late when she returns; he can see that with his one good eye, the way the light is dimmer through his half-open shades. Maybe Flo sees the way he’s looking because she says, “Yeah. Lucinda called in sick, something with the baby.”

He feels surprise and worry do something to the side of his face that works, and god knows what’s happening to the other side. “Nah, she’s fine.” Flo checks his IV. “And aren’t you the lucky duck to get me pokin’ at you twice in one day.”

He wants to tell her that he doesn’t mind at all. Flo reminds him of another girl he knew when. She came right up to him at the bar after a game, nothing shy about her at all, and both of them knew what they wanted. He liked her honesty. It made things easier for him. He’d gotten good at reading signals and calling pitches, but it was frankly a relief to leave that on the field at the end of the day.

“Yeah,” Flo mutters, giving him a wink, “I know you love me. But we don’t want to make the other nurses jealous.”

He laughs at that, or at least tries to, and it comes out like a bit of a wheeze. Still, it gives him hope. When they first brought him here after the stroke, damn near nothing worked. The doctors told him he had an excellent chance of recovering most of what he’d lost.

Flo makes a few notations on his chart. “Not bad, Pete. They’ll be getting you into rehab pretty soon.” Her face softens. “You want, I’ll come visit. I know you got some good stories in you, especially about what happened to these ugly paws. And I want to hear every one.”

She wraps one strong, no-nonsense hand around his. The one on his bad side. Where he hasn’t been able to feel a thing. But her hand is warm, the pressure firm but not so much it hurts.

His heart monitor beeps and beeps and beeps.

Baseball and Writing and Baseball

Photo by Robert Boris

Photo by Robert Boris

I’ve been a baseball fan since I was big enough to reach the TV dials. (Yes, they had dials back then…) Much to my father’s chagrin, I chose to fall for that “other” team, rather than his beloved, pinstriped Yankees.

The soothing voices of the New York Mets’ announcers and the slow, meditative pace of the game appealed to me. And maybe to my budding writer’s mind as well. Watch a pitcher try to hold a notorious base-stealer on the bag. There’s a story behind that dance. The runner tries to rattle the pitcher, throw him off his rhythm. The pitcher tries to catch the batter flat-footed and pick him off base. Watch the tango of catcher and pitcher. A volume goes unsaid as the catcher flashes his signals and the pitcher shakes them off. [Find a copy of Bull Durham if you want a fast lesson in how catchers and pitchers work together.]

Some other lessons I’ve learned from the game speak directly to a professional writers’ career: Continue reading

Give the MLB All-Star Game to the Minors

David "Big Papi" Ortiz celebrating another long ball...

I love the Home Run Derby. A fairly recent addition to the All-Star Game festivities (it’s televised tonight, at 8PM, check your local listings), it pits the big bats, like David Ortiz and Prince Fielder, head-to-head in a contest to see, you guessed it, who can hit the most homers. It’s fun. It’s a family thing. Some of the players bring their small children onto the field with them, and they sit together on the sidelines in special tiny uniforms. I could squeal from the adorableness of it. Even though David Wright was never quite the same hitter after whacking a record 16 home runs in the first round of the 2006 competition, the HRD is one of my favorite pro sports events of the year. (‘Cause according to Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, “chicks dig the long ball.”)

But the All-Star game itself? It’s become a charade. Who cares who gets voted in? Who cares that your kid voted, like, a thousand times for Derek Jeter, C.C. Sabathia, Mariana Rivera, José Reyes, Justin Verlander, A-Rod, or Chipper Jones? They’ve already been yanked out, substitutes announced, either because their managers don’t want to risk injury to their superstar players, or, in the case of José Reyes and Alex Rodriguez, they’re already injured.

And if the superstar pitchers nominated by the managers of their respective teams have pitched in the last couple of games before the break, like Rivera and Sabathia, they are automatically yanked because of rules Major League baseball has set up to protect the pitchers.

I understand injury prevention. I’m a Mets fan. Half our team is injured at any point in the season. We just lost José Reyes, the team sparkplug, to a hamstring pull. Even if he was healthy, he might’ve been yanked. What manager these days wants to risk their best players for a game that essentially doesn’t count, is nothing but PR?

But if the superstars aren’t going to come out, that not very good PR.

So I think they should ditch the All-Star game altogether. Save our overpaid thoroughbreds for the pennant races. And how about using all that great media time and goodwill (and still give Major League players a few days off midseason) to highlight the accomplishments of minor league ball players? How about an All-Star game for the guys coming up? I still crow about watching José Reyes play for the Binghamton Mets, before the Mets drafted him. Wouldn’t it be great to see, in prime time, the next A-Rod? The next Derek Jeter? These guys work hard, often on their own time, or for not very much money. Give them a shot at the big time, or a bonus; give them some publicity, a big hand for how hard they work, and let the MLB superstars spend the break on ice.

I’d definitely watch that.

5 Things The Designated Hitter Rule Taught Me About Business

On January 11, 1973, Major League Baseball’s American League enacted the Designated Hitter rule. It’s a stupid rule, in my opinion, and many baseball purists agree with me. The rule states, in part, that the position in the batting order normally taken by the pitcher may be replaced with a “designated hitter,” and therefore the pitcher may remain an active player (on the mound) without having to hit and, you know, break a nail or something. Since professional baseball, outside of its art and poetry, is also a business, here’s what the consequences of this rule have taught me about the business world:

1. Keep your skill set updated. Have you ever watched an interleague or World Series game and noticed that the American League pitchers (when they are forced to step up to the plate at a National League team’s park) look like little leaguers taking their first swings at the ball? Since they don’t have to bat, they lose the ability, while some of the National League pitchers, like current free agent Dantrelle Willis, are pretty decent at the plate. Therefore, if you’re in the market for a pitcher for a National League team, one who doesn’t embarrass himself in the batting box is a much more attractive option.

2. Think strategically. Part of the manager’s job is to think strategically. The game of baseball has many moving parts, including where you position your fielders, how your batters fare against left- or right-handed pitching, and how to keep tabs on a speedy baserunner like the New York Mets’ Jose Reyes. The designated hitter rule removes from the manager’s purview decisions about keeping the pitcher in the game as the ninth spot in the batting order grows closer. This is a huge part of a National League manager’s responsibility. Letting the American League managers off the hook is doing them a disservice. Yes, it can be said that relieved of this responsibility, AL managers can better focus on other parts of the game, but I believe a NL manager is more well-rounded in his strategic thinking. At work, too, if you opt out of some aspects of strategic thinking, you could be letting your competitors hit your hanging curve out of the park.

3. Change can be good…if you allow it to happen. In the American League, a heavy hitter who is no longer as effective in the field, like Boston Red Sox DH David “Big Papi” Ortiz, is very often put into the designated hitter position. This allows a player who has grown slower or battles chronic injury to extend his career. This, some say, also saddles a team with yet another player on the roster with limited abilities when they could shop for a player who can hit and field well. In the business world, many people are afraid of change, even hanging on to concepts and practices that no longer work as well as they used to.

4. Don’t hide your talent. If a pitcher comes up to bat with a man on first, he may attempt a bunt to move the player into scoring position. Because this happens so frequently, many National League pitchers are excellent bunters. In the National League, a random position player may not be able to lay down a killer bunt or even an effective one. American League pitchers, although they might have this ability, rarely get to try. It deprives them of a chance to show that they have other ways of helping their teams win than just on the mound. Maybe you can help your business succeed by using some hidden talent.

5. Life isn’t fair. Historically, American League teams score more runs than National League teams, and some say have an advantage in interleague and World Series games. This is, I believe, because National League managers are saddled with more responsibility. Until Major League Baseball decides to either enact the DH rule for the National League or get rid of it entirely, this inequity will continue. But that’s life, and the faster you accept that some things are not fair, the better you can focus on continuing to do your best. And maybe work on correcting those inequities for the future.