Monday, August 26, 2013

Indie Baseball


The Declaration of Independent Baseball

 "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all ballplayers (except our favorites) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights and Lefts, that among these are the Fastball, the Slider, and the ability to get safely from first to third on hits to the gap."
            It's a springtime Saturday afternoon, tryouts for the Vallejo Admirals and San Rafael Pacifics of the North America Baseball League (NABL).  The cyclone fence surrounding Wilson Park in Vallejo features faded advertising panels from local insurance companies, the Elks Club, Knights of Columbus, the Vallejo Police Officers Association. The outfield grass is thick and uneven but a "sprucing up" is in the cards, promises Pacifics co-owner and NABL organizer Mike Shapiro.
            Either way, it's Showtime. Twenty-to-thirty men of all shapes, colors and sizes – mostly big – are here to compete for jobs that will pay a maximum of $1200 a month, the privilege of dressing in locker rooms that look suspiciously like public restrooms, and living accomodations with other people's families for the duration of the summer. There were earlier tryouts in Fairfield, another is scheduled later in April in San Rafael. But for most of these guys whose parents, girlfriends, siblings and even their own kids watch anxiously from the bleachers, this is their shot at entering professional baseball through one of the widest yet most obscure portals of all – independent baseball. 
What other kind of baseball is there? Think of the first time you played – on a field, a playground, a street, anywhere an imaginary diamond could be superimposed. All you needed was a ball, a stick to hit with, something wadded up to serve as bases, a piece of cardboard for home plate. All baseball not affiliated with Major League Baseball is independent. Little League. Pony League. American Legion. High school. College. T-ball is "Indy ball."
            This game starts without an umpire (umps make a $100 a game at this level, maybe this one's delayed at another job). And though players supposedly have been working out on their own, some clearly haven’t. The Admirals’ starting pitcher sports a noticeable gut and begins pouring sweat early in the first inning. But his compact motion produces serviceable fastballs, and curves that break sharply off the plate. In the bottom of the inning, the Pacifics' pitcher reaches 90 mph on the radar gun. This feels as authentic as any level of baseball. A good curve is still a good curve, after all. A 90 mph fastball is still 90 mph. A line shot bending over the bag, the third baseman scrambling to his feet and gunning a throw that saws the diamond in half to beat the runner by a step is a work of improbable magic in any league.
            It's pro baseball, you just don't know these guys' names – though they hope you will some day.  Jordan Bally, Coley Crank, Leroy Dunn, Tim Espinoza for the Admirals … Zack Pace, Will Wright, Nick Kuroczko, Steven Detwiler for the Pacifics.  One known commodity is 33-year-old Maikel Jova, the Pacifics' rightfielder, who twice escaped from Cuba on a raft (the first time he was captured and sent back) to play American baseball. He finally landed in the Dominican Republic, then climbed through the Toronto organization to AAA in 2006. Though hitting in the .290s, he was cut and has played "Indy ball" for seven seasons. Last year Maikel won the NABL MVP award and led the Pacifics to a championship.
            Another is Tyler Pearson, a 6'3' 205 pound right handed pitcher in his second season with the Pacifics. He throws two effective innings, then sits down to talk baseball. His dream? "I wanna get signed," he says. "I’ve been really working at it – working out, running a lot, throwing bullpen. I went to a tryout for the Diamondbacks last month. I was throwing 92 but I’m twenty-seven [years old]," he says wistfully. "They're looking for younger guys, I know that."
            Tyler was drafted by the Royals his junior year but decided to stay in college. When he didn’t pitch as well his senior year, he wasn't drafted.  He's now a six-year veteran of the Indy league circuit, putting in time with the Amarillo Dillas, Chico Outlaws, Yuma Scorpions, Rockford Riverhawks, Fort Worth Cats, Sioux City Explorers and last year the Pacifics. "I get paid to play a game," he says. "There nothin greater than that."
Tyler works out during the offseason in Ukiah with his dad, who taught him the game. During the season he plans to live with a host family in San Rafael rather than commute. "Like I say, my dream is to get signed," the big right hander confides.  "It can happen. The Chico Outlaws produced Daniel Nava, he’s with the Red Sox playing outfield with Jacoby Elsberg and those guys.  I played with him …"
Driving home I wonder what other sport inspires dreams of reaching the pinnacle at 28, 30, 34-years-old? Not the NFL, where most players are done by 28. But in baseball everything seems possible. Think of the film "The Rookie" ... the improbable ascension of Ryan Vogelsong, the "sudden" emergence of Andres Torres. Baseball is the great democratizer, where a man with a glove and a pair of cleats can aspire to immortality. Forget that “independent” in this case means "unattached" to the escalator to the Big Leagues, and eating PBJ's before games instead of steak. You're on your own. You’re a pro. You’re getting paid to play baseball and nothing's going to stop you – except yourself.  That's what Indy ball is about. 
 
 Reprinted from the program of the San Rafael Pacifics baseball team, 2013.
 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Family Baseball

Heat waves crush the nation, the Euro continues its perilous fall, Romney and Obama don battle armor for the fall campaign, but Baseball and Family life blithely march hand-in-hand through the gauzy portals of mind and memory. Proof of this enduring truth came anew when my partner Katie, son Lucas and I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into the timeless realm of minor baseball in San Rafael, California. 
The occasion was a Saturday evening game between the San Rafael Pacifics and Sonoma Grapes in the reconstituted North American Baseball League. Where else could we find a league with teams from Maui and Hilo, Hawaii, Edinburgh and San Angelo, Texas, and neighborhood Marin and Sonoma Counties of California?  Nowhere else but here.  The North American Baseball League is the brainstorm of former Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giant executive Mike Shapiro and partners.
The North American League is an independent league, with former major leaguers and major league wanna-be's still reaching for the brass ring along with a coterie of eager young men with that unmistakable gleam of ambition in their eyes.  And it's all a wonderful family-oriented affair. The night we watched the Grapes crush the Pacifics under a warm, breezy east Marin night, kids wandered the stadium looking for autographs and friendly concession stands.  In between innings the hosting team conducted various kid-friendly activities such as musical chairs, a hotdog-eating contest, and a jousting match involving the Pacifics' six-foot avian mascot, Sir Francis the Drake (the main road through San Rafael is named Sir Francis Drake, named for the British admiral who discovered this beautiful coast for England). Mike Shapiro's wife, Jane, dished out her signature "Skyline Chili" while her teenage son, Jackson, tended to other customers at the concession booth. 
It was a lovely night of baseball, family and Americana. But just don't take my word for it.  Check out the Pacifics' website. Click on "Fan Zone" and find numerous camps, clinics and community events for kids and the family, including "Little League Night," when kids wearing their local team's Little League uniforms get into the game for half price. 
There's a wonderful sweetness and moral clarity to minor league baseball. The flag flies, bats hit balls, and ambitions soar over outfield walls plastered with ads from local orthodontists, delis and car repair shops.  You don't have to wait for election day to find the political wellspring of our democratic communities. Just plunk down a ten spot and ease your way through the turnstile of a minor league ballpark like the San Rafael Pacifics' Albert Park. 
Tell 'em Lefty Gillenkirk sent you.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fathers, Baseball and the Myth of Mick

Here's a stirring baseball/americana poem from the poet B.H. Fairchild.  If you enjoy this, go to Poem Hunter for more of his poetry.

Body and Soul

Half-numb, guzzling bourbon and Coke from coffee mugs,
our fathers fall in love with their own stories, nuzzling
the facts but mauling the truth, and my friend's father begins
to lay out with the slow ease of a blues ballad a story
about sandlot baseball in Commerce, Oklahoma decades ago.
These were men's teams, grown men, some in their thirties
and forties who worked together in zinc mines or on oil rigs,
sweat and khaki and long beers after work, steel guitar music
whanging in their ears, little white rent houses to return to
where their wives complained about money and broken Kenmores
and then said the hell with it and sang Body and Soul
in the bathtub and later that evening with the kids asleep
lay in bed stroking their husband's wrist tattoo and smoking
Chesterfields from a fresh pack until everything was O.K.
Well, you get the idea. Life goes on, the next day is Sunday,
another ball game, and the other team shows up one man short.

They say, we're one man short, but can we use this boy,
he's only fifteen years old, and at least he'll make a game.
They take a look at the kid, muscular and kind of knowing
the way he holds his glove, with the shoulders loose,
the thick neck, but then with that boy's face under
a clump of angelic blonde hair, and say, oh, hell, sure,
let's play ball. So it all begins, the men loosening up,
joking about the fat catcher's sex life, it's so bad
last night he had to hump his wife, that sort of thing,
pairing off into little games of catch that heat up into
throwing matches, the smack of the fungo bat, lazy jogging
into right field, big smiles and arcs of tobacco juice,
and the talk that gives a cool, easy feeling to the air,
talk among men normally silent, normally brittle and a little
angry with the empty promise of their lives. But they chatter
and say rock and fire, babe, easy out, and go right ahead
and pitch to the boy, but nothing fancy, just hard fastballs
right around the belt, and the kid takes the first two
but on the third pops the bat around so quick and sure
that they pause a moment before turning around to watch
the ball still rising and finally dropping far beyond
the abandoned tractor that marks left field. Holy shit.
They're pretty quiet watching him round the bases,
but then, what the hell, the kid knows how to hit a ball,
so what, let's play some goddamned baseball here.
And so it goes. The next time up, the boy gets a look
at a very nifty low curve, then a slider, and the next one
is the curve again, and he sends it over the Allis Chalmers,
high and big and sweet. The left field just stands there, frozen.
As if this isn't enough, the next time up he bats left-handed.
They can't believe it, and the pitcher, a tall, mean-faced
man from Okarche who just doesn't give a shit anyway
because his wife ran off two years ago leaving him with
three little ones and a rusted-out Dodge with a cracked block,
leans in hard, looking at the fat catcher like he was the sonofabitch
who ran off with his wife, leans in and throws something
out of the dark, green hell of forbidden fastballs, something
that comes in at the knees and then leaps viciously towards
the kid's elbow. He swings exactly the way he did right-handed
and they all turn like a chorus line toward deep right field
where the ball loses itself in sagebrush and the sad burnt
dust of dustbowl Oklahoma. It is something to see.

But why make a long story long: runs pile up on both sides,
the boy comes around five times, and five times the pitcher
is cursing both God and His mother as his chew of tobacco sours
into something resembling horse piss, and a ragged and bruised
Spalding baseball disappears into the far horizon. Goodnight,
Irene. They have lost the game and some painful side bets
and they have been suckered. And it means nothing to them
though it should to you when they are told the boy's name is
Mickey Mantle. And that's the story, and those are the facts.
But the facts are not the truth. I think, though, as I scan
the faces of these old men now lost in the innings of their youth,
it lying there in the weeds behind that Allis Chalmers
just waiting for the obvious question to be asked: why, oh
why in hell didn't they just throw around the kid, walk him,
after he hit the third homer? Anybody would have,
especially nine men with disappointed wives and dirty socks
and diminishing expectations for whom winning at anything
meant everything. Men who knew how to play the game,
who had talent when the other team had nothing except this ringer
who without a pitch to hit was meaningless, and they could go home
with their little two-dollar side bets and stride into the house
singing If You've Got the Money, Honey, I've Got the Time
with a bottle of Southern Comfort under their arms and grab
Dixie or May Ella up and dance across the gray linoleum
as if it were V-Day all over again. But they did not
And they did not because they were men, and this was a boy.
And they did not because sometimes after making love,
after smoking their Chesterfields in the cool silence and
listening to the big bands on the radio that sounded so glamorous,
so distant, they glanced over at their wives and noticed the lines
growing heavier around the eyes and mouth, felt what their wives
felt: that Les Brown and Glenn Miller and all those dancing couples
and in fact all possibility of human gaiety and light-heartedness
were as far away and unreachable as Times Square or the Avalon
ballroom. They did not because of the gray linoleum lying there
in the half-dark, the free calendar from the local mortuary
that said one day was pretty much like another, the work gloves
looped over the doorknob like dead squirrels. And they did not
because they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamn much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen year-old-boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home. But there is one thing more, though it is not
a fact. When I see my friend's father staring hard into the bottomless
well of home plate as Mantle's fifth homer heads toward Arkansas,
I know that this man with the half-orphaned children and
worthless Dodge has also encountered for the first and possibly
only time the vast gap between talent and genius, has seen
as few have in the harsh light of an Oklahoma Sunday, the blonde
and blue-eyed bringer of truth, who will not easily be forgiven.

B H Fairchild

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Fatherhood Indicator: Dads and Recession

It seems fitting that the wilting of industrial capitalism with the Great Recession of 2008 should hasten reintegration of fathers into the American family. After all, it was the rise of industrialism which wrenched dads away from the farm and onto the factory floor. 

Prior to the industrial revolution, many families worked the land together or in family-owned businesses or crafts, with little Suzi, Sven and Seamus spending half the day cracking the books in the one-room prairie schoolhouse and the other half helping out the family business.  Driven – or lured – from the farm to the Big City, fathers had to leave their families to work 10-12 hour shifts in the factory. And for several generations moms stayed home to care for the kids until they grew up and she could enter the workforce. 

Beginning in the 1970s when more and more women entered the workplace, more men began to take on more responsibilities in the home.  We've noted that trend often in this blog – a trend expertly detailed in books such as Jeremy Adam Smith's "The Daddy Shift" and the work of Warren Farrell.  Single-father-headed households with children increased 27% in the decade from 2000 to 2010. Over two-and-a-half million single parents today are single fathers, an increase of 27% from figures in 2000.  And the number of stay-at-home dads is rising with them – a nearly 60% increase between 2003 and 2008.

The Great Recession is accelerating that trend.  A recent report from the PEW Research Center shows that the economic downturn initially had a greater effect on men than women, with males losing more net jobs between December 2007 and May 2011.  The flip side of that tragedy is ... more men spending more time with the kids.

A recent Census Survey of Income and Program Participation from the U.S. Census shows that the number of dads regularly caring for children under age 15 increased to 32 percent in 2010 from 26 percent in 2002. By chance, necessity and choice, Dads have come to realize that their kids -- not just their golf, fishing and drinking buddies -- need them.  And they like their new job.

"If I'm making X and my wife is making X plus 10, who do you want making the money?" asks Patrick Spillman, 42, of New York, the primary caregiver for his 3-year-old daughter.  Concluding his hard-boiled analysis to a reporter from Bloomberg News, Spillman said, "It's a matter of dollars and sense."

For others, it's more than just economics.  About three years ago, Lance Somerfeld, 38, found there were few resources for fathers like him after he decided to say at home with his newborn son. He started the NYC Dads Group and watched it grow into 500 men who share ideas for museum trips, classes, play groups and other child-nurturing activities.  Most of the men weren't laid off. Instead, they have wives who are making more money or are further along in their careers.

"I just see dads wanting to be a part of their kids' lives," Somerfeld declared.

I certainly feel that way. As do a growing number of dads, doing everything they can to make time for their kids.  This is a good thing.  Even if it took a recession of historic proportions to help make it happen.

Friday, December 9, 2011

There's no "I" in Parent

Although statistically it's usually fathers who opt out, cop out or are pushed out of their children's lives by divorce, it happens the other way as well – and with equally devastating consequences.  An excellent example comes from blogger Sophia van Buren, who for various reasons lost joint physical custody of her children in a divorce and has expressed her grief – and her children's – in a most public forum.

Surprisingly, Ms. van Buren has also appeared in several online forums for divorced fathers and has come to identify – and to sympathize – with the legions of divorced dads.  As a similarly legally alienated parent, she now endorses a concept that is becoming more common in more states across divorce-torn America: co-parenting.

“'Co-parenting' is just a slick new word for an old idea – Cooperation," she writes in her blog. "Cooperation [is] a word that even looks like a thinly veiled word scramble of 'co-parenting,' and is a concept most kids are introduced to at an early age."

Hers is a sound conclusion, and one more and more people are coming to.  One parent is an individual, two or more involved parents make a team.  And just as in baseball, it's the best team that wins in parenting.  This is even more true after divorce ... especially after divorce.  Whatever it takes to field such a team, research shows that divorced parents should do it.  It doesn't do any good to have a star player on the sideline.  And let's face it, in most kid's eyes both mom and dad are star players.

Take a moment to read about Sophia van Buren's struggles to stay involved in her children's lives despite a lopsided parenting plan.  As you read, think about the millions of fathers who have gone through this same custody nightmare at the hands of a court system that customarily dismisses the importance of a father's day-to-day role in children's lives. Van Buren's story is a heartfelt one, with a strong endorsement for a solution that's working for divorced parents and children of divorce everywhere: joint legal and physical custody. 

And yes, while "co-parenting" may sound a lot like "cooperation" (and feel like it too), "parents" and "partners" is an even more thinly-veiled word scramble.  Which isn't surprising. The best parents are partners, after all.