Will It

I am not much of a sports fan, outside of high-school and intercollegiate wrestling (and even then, I’m not a superfan). I watch professional sports from time to time, not out of a love for any particular sport or loyalty to a particular team, but because I was never much of an athlete myself, so great physical performances are amazing to me.

This also helps to explain why I have so often been a fan of the greatest players and moments in sports. For example, I was a Detroit Pistons fan as a teen, but loved to watch Michael Jordan do his thing, and I still rewatch Gibson’s homer and Jeter’s flip anytime I want to shake my head and grin in disbelief. The ability to anticipate the action, to slow down the speed of the game, to perceive the field clearly, and most importantly, to will your body to respond, is beautiful and incredible to me—especially when I remember my own athletic career. As a young baseball player, I was lucky to make contact with the bat and struggled to stay focused in the field. As a tween basketball player, the pressure to move my body and the ball on offense (or worse yet, shoot) caused the ball to bounced off me and my fumble-fingered hands. As a high-school football player, I finally settled in as a backup noseguard…the one position simple enough for me.  And as a wrestler? I loved the sport, but could rarely make my body respond quickly enough to my opponent’s moves and counters.

So I watch athletes in any sport, willing their bodies to do the beautiful, the amazing, the impossible, and it captures me.

* * * * *

Something changed in me as I approached (and since then, entered fully into) middle age. Whether I’ve grown more accepting of and accustomed to my own strengths and weaknesses, or no longer feel pressured to perform, I can do things I never could before (although I still can’t hit a baseball for any money).  Continue reading

Confessions of a Casual Sports Fan

We didn’t watch a lot of sports when I was kid. I’ve been to two professional sporting events in my life: Tigers-Yankees at Comerica in Detroit a few years ago, and Yankees-Orioles last fall in old Yankee Stadium. But when we visited Busia and Dziadzi, sports were on—Ernie Harwell calling the Tigers game on the radio; the Lions telecast on Thanksgiving; college hoops or football in season if my uncles and cousins were there, too.

At home, we didn’t pay much attention to sports unless a Michigan team was making a playoff run. I tracked the Roar of ’84 on black-vinyl-covered portable radio with a 9V power source and a hanger for an antenna. We watched the Motor City Bad Boys elbow their way to back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990, and watched the Wolverines bounce Seton Hall from the NCAA tournament in 1989. I had a big box of baseball cards, but didn’t know the three Don Mattingly rookies were worth anything until a kid at school showed me a photo in a collector’s magazine in junior high.

These days I get a lot of grief here in Minnesota for not rooting for the Twins and the Vikings, and a lot of grief all over the place for cheering for the Yankees. I have my reasons for the teams I cheer for, but none of them have to do with family ties or geographic loyalty. In fact, my reasons are only slightly better than colors and mascots. Here’s the breakdown:

MLB: Yankees (Runners-up: Twins and Tigers)
As I said, I grew up with the Tigers. I loved Chet Lemon for his name; Señor Smoke (Willie Hernandez) and Aurelio Lopez for their names, Lou Whitaker and Kirk Gibson for being Sweet Lou and Gibbie, game-in and game-out. About the only non-Tiger I could name anywhere else in the league was Kirby Puckett, and I loved him, too, for his name, his frame, and his game. Now I live in Minnesota, and the Twins always seem to put together a solid team. You gotta respect that.

As I got older, I lost interest in baseball. It seemed monotonous to me on television, and it wasn’t until after I was married that I began to catch the subtleties of the game. In fall of 1999, Jodi and I and two-year-old Brendan were at her parents’ place in South Dakota. Her older brother Brad was watching the World Series, cheering hard for the Braves, so I took the other side—the Yankees—just to keep things interesting … besides, their shortstop, Jeter, is a West Michigan boy. And I like history and tradition. I like raucous home fields.

The next spring, when baseball rolled around, little Brendan said, “We root for the Yankees, right, Dad?” He told me his favorite player was Andy Pettite, because he wore his cap low over his eyes—and he began to do the same.

How can you argue with that? We’ve been Yankee fans ever since.

NFL: Packers (Runners-up: Lions and Broncos)
Barry Sanders was a class act. Crazy talented and all business: no spiked balls or touchdown dances. He’s the one bright spot I remember for the Lions. Ever. I grew up in Michigan, so I wished (and continue to wish) the Lions well every year. But my cousin Mel was from Green Bay, right across the big lake, and Lambeau was legendary. Again: I like history and tradition. I like raucous home fields. When the Lions washed out, I pulled for the Packers. That hasn’t changed.

However: the first game I ever remember watching start to finish was a Broncos game, with Elway putting on a show. When I met Jodi, I learned that she is the only member of her family who is not a Viking fan. Her uncle told her as a little girl to root for the Broncos. So Denver stayed on the radar, too.

NHL: Red Wings
Michigan team. Yzerman and Lidstrom. History and tradition. Raucous home fields. And when I went to college, they were deadly on Sega hockey. We played a lot of Sega hockey. ‘Nuff said.

NBA: Pistons
To be honest, I watch very little basketball. But the Bad Boys, and the fact that my favorite soft-spoken superstar from those days, Joe Dumars, is leading the organization these days, means when I cheer, I cheer for them.

NCAA: It’s complicated
I went to Yale. Long tradition of intercollegiate athletics, but aside from hockey, not grabbing national headlines these days. Still, I pull for the Bulldogs. I grew up liking Michigan basketball, but also have great admiration for Coach Izzo at State and Coach K at Duke. I grew up liking Michigan football, but I now work for Minnesota, so I pull for the Gophers whenever I can (football, basketball, hockey, and wrestling). I’ve never followed college baseball. I also worked for Ferris State, and will cheer for them, except when they play the University of Minnesota or University of Minnesota Duluth.

That’s it. For what it’s worth, the kids like the Vikings and hate the Packers. And Jodi likes the Twins. To each his our her own. As I type, New York leads 7-1 in Game 6 of the World Series. Matsui-san is on fire. Go Yankees!

Full Frontal Affection

I summoned Gabe to the top of the stairs yesterday morning in order to wish him a happy birthday before I left for work. He is now nine and is not a morning person, nor does he happily submit to parental scrutiny, discipline, or full frontal affection. So he ascends the stairs with a look of vague trepidation.

I sit on the edge of the coffee table and beckon with both hands. He comes a step closer, then two, then stops. I smile and beckon again. He takes a step, the anxiousness now solidifying in his face.

“Gabe, come here!” I laugh, lean forward, grip his skinny body on either side, right at the ticklish spot below the ribs, so he nearly crumbles to the floor, helplessly squirming. I hug him close and say, “Happy Birthday, son!” He mumbles a sheepish thanks, and on my back I feel the flutter of his hands, patting my back quickly to ward off awkwardness.

Gabe is not generally a head-on hugger. He prefers to sidle under an arm and slip his own around your waist, or back himself into a soft lap and warm embrace. A kiss is an instantly blush-worthy event, and a kiss in the generally vicinity of the lips (cheek, nose, etc.) will turn him inside-out with embarrassment. He simply isn’t an aggressive type, in anger, affection, or otherwise.

But something is changing in Gabe. It started this spring, when we traveled to Michigan to see my cousin Al before he deployed to Iraq. Brendan and a group of Thorp cousins we seldom get to see decided to play baseball, and Gabe, who plays soccer in the spring and rarely puts on a mitt, decided to play, too. Not only that, but to pitch.

After only 10 minutes or so of play, my cousin Mel tossed a pitch back to Gabe, and it sailed just above his mitt and smacked him solidly in the forehead. Gabe fell to the lawn holding his head, his eye welling with tears. I went to him, but as I approached, he got to his feet, hissing air in and out through his teeth, still holding his forehead, walking in rough circles near where he had fallen.

“Are you okay?” I asked. He nodded, eyes wet, jaw set.

“You wanna sit out a minute?”

He shook his head, picked up the ball, and returned to the scuff in the grass from which he had been pitching.

I quietly expressed my amazement to my sister. This was not like Gabriel.

A short while later, he took another baseball to the forehead, this one off a bat, I think. Oh no! I thought, running back out to him. His eyes were glassy again, but he rubbed his head with the heel of his hand and smiled. I moved his hand. You could see the stitches from the baseball imprinted in deep red on his skin. I told him so, and his eyes flashed panic, but only for a second. He went back to pitching.

He talked about both injuries throughout the day, both as points of pride and of sympathy, but never complained and never quit playing.

Fast forward to our trip to South Dakota over the Fourth of July. Gabe has an inexplicable affection for a large goat that perennially appears in the Piedmont (SD) Fourth of July Parade and could not wait to see Jacob this summer. Jodi took him to Jacob’s keeper’s farm a day or so early to visit, and Gabe was invited to march in the parade with the family and the goat.

This should have been a no-brainer, except that Gabe isn’t the most social of our children, especially around people he doesn’t know well, and wouldn’t offer any immediate response about whether he intended to do it.

Ultimately he agreed to do walk with them, and Jodi took him over before the parade to get dressed and ready. He would have to line up with the family, of course, so for the next couple hours he would be without familiar faces, except, of course, Jacob’s.

The results of the parade you can see in the photo above — a joy-filled kid and an alter-ego that still makes frequent appearances at our house: Mr. Patriotic. But the change seems to have gone deeper. Immediately following the parade, Gabe was verbally sparring with his siblings and cousins, keeping pace with their jabs and meeting them with wit and outright hilarity. He was more outspoken about his opinions. And at Brendan’s baseball picnic last weekend, he played pickup baseball with Bren’s team, mostly older boys and strangers, and although he started swimming lessons this year as though last year’s lessons had never happened, he ran into the water at the lake and played and splashed with Bren and his teammates until finally I had to (quietly) remind him that he doesn’t really swim.

How does one do that: admire and encourage the newfound confidence of his son and still protect him from the dunking natures of boys twice his size who don’t know that three months ago, he would barely jump into the water?

I went to soccer practice with him last night. He took a hard-kicked ball right between the eyes; his head jerked backward, and the coach’s wife seated next to me gasped. The coach asked several times if Gabe was okay. He shook his head to clear out the stars, laughed, and said yes.

Then he looked at his coach, smiled wryly, and said, “I got hit in the face … on my BIRTHDAY!” And he laughed again.

Happy birthday, Gabe — we are so proud of you!

Joy In Mudville

Pictured above: Not the fabled game-winner chronicled below, but representative. Get ’em, Bren!

Those who know me best know that I’m an emotional sort, so it will come as no surprise to them that I choked up at Bren’s baseball game last Thursday. His team was playing for a chance at the consolation finals (a shot at third place in the league), and fell behind by seven or eight runs in the first inning. They kept pace after that with scrappy play, including a five-run inning that started on the third strike of the third out, when the opposing catcher lost his handle on the pitch and Bren’s teammate scampered to first.

But they were still down by eight when they came up to bat in the bottom of the sixth and final inning. Slowly, steadily, they chipped away — now a hit, now a walk, now stealing home on a wild pitch — so when Brendan came up to bat, the score was tied with two outs and the winning run on third.

Brendan had a hit earlier in the game, and his coach had mentioned he had a great round of batting practice before the game. Even so, my heart was in my throat. Those who know me best also know that I was a poor athlete, and a particularly ungifted hitter in three short years of baseball. I had not wanted to bat in such situations, and I wasn’t sure I wanted it for him.

The first pitch sailed high over his head and into the backstop; the catcher scrambled, and the third-base coach sagely held the runner against the boy’s better judgment. The second pitch slipped neatly down the middle and into the catcher’s glove as Brendan watched it pass: STRIKE!

Oh no! I thought. That was the one! The dad next to me said, “Now you’ve seen it, Brendan.” I followed with a cheerful, “Alright now, Bren — be ready up there!”

I didn’t feel cheerful.

Maybe there was another pitch or two in there somewhere; maybe not. The next pitch I actually remember met the bat with a metallic PING! and flew high into the air. Bren started toward first with all his father’s speed, watching the ball as it fell down, down. (Just run! my heart shrieked.) The runner at third tagged up and headed home.

There was a relatively narrow expanse of grass between the infielders and the out, and Bren’s towering fly ball fell exactly there, behind the backpedaling shortstop, and in front of the racing left- and center-fielders. When it bounced on the grass, Bren grinned, spread his arms wide like wings, and stomped firmly on first base as his teammate crossed the plate — the walkoff RBI; the winning run. His teammates mobbed him, shouting their joy. I grinned, laughed, cried.

We are friends with the family of the opposing team’s catcher, and it must’ve been a heartbreaking loss. But for Brendan, it was the pinnacle of a season. it earned him the game ball, and when his team circled up and put their hands together in the center, the cheer was, “1, 2, 3, BRENDAN!”

He works hard at being a good ballplayer, and he has accomplished so much that I never did. They won their game Saturday, as well, to earn third-place trophies all around. Congratulations, Bren and team, for a great season!

Bronx Purgatory

Let me start by saying that Bren, Gabe and I had a great time in New York and New Haven. The weather was fantastic, the Deezledub ran like a champ*, and the Yankees and Elis** both won.

That said, for first-time visitors to Yankee Stadium, the bleachers are a bit like purgatory — you see heaven firsthand and are witness to its glory, but you can’t … quite … reach it. Let me explain.

Narrow is the way
First, you gotta get there. Despite their noteriety, the subways weren’t bad. Narrow, yes, but packed with fellow Yankees fans. Makes you feel good.

Then you get off the train. An aside here: I asked my dad if he wanted to come on this trip. His response: “I’d like to have seen New York around 1790. Not since.” He would consider the clausterphobic concrete confines of NYC a vision of hell, I suspect. I wouldn’t go that far, but you do get the feeling that the Bronx, over the years, has been paved with good intentions … not all of which have been realized.

There’s no beautiful approach to this stadium. It’s grittier, more “real” than you might believe, given the pristine white of the uniforms and the clean-cut multimillionaires swinging the lumber. Then you see it: the line of ticketholders filing slowly through the gates. The excitement is palpable. You reach into you pocket to find the tickets — only the thousandth time you’ve double-checked. You smile, because you are one of the chosen.

Shedding our worldly possessions
Our camera lost its charge on the three-hour Circle Tour of Manhattan Island, so we prowl the souvenir shops along the narrow way, looking for a cheap disposable, or failing that, an expensive disposable. Finding none, we head back to the gates — and lo! a stadium souvenir stand with a solitary Fuji hanging on the pegboard behind the cashier.

“How much?” I ask.

“$20,” she states flatly.

Judge not! my conscious admonishes, and I smile and hand her a crisp $20 bill. She hands us the camera, and we get in line. From somewhere above us, a loud voice proclaims that only small, child’s backpacks are allowed into the stadium — no other bags. Brendan carries ours — a green knapsack barely big enough for a grade-school reading textbook. In it is our dead digital camera, sweatshirts, a notebook, a bottle of water, and souvenirs from the day thus far.

Then I notice that no one, but no one, is carrying anything remotely close to the size of this little knapsack. I approach a nearby angel — a no-nonsense black woman with security written all over her. I point to Bren’s pack and start to ask … she slowly shakes her head. We turn back.

“What will we do with the backpack?” asks Gabe.

“Throw it away, I guess — we have no place to put it,” I say.

We tie our sweatshirts around our waists, stuff our pockets with souvenirs and the two cameras, grab the notebook, triple-check that we have the tickets, and carry the rest of our belongings in search of a trash can. Finally, we resort to quietly slipping it into a plastic bag tied to the side of a hot dog cart while the owner serves his customers.

St. Peter at the gates
We get back in line. It’s moving quickly now, and when we reach St. Peter, he’s stocky, with a crew cut and the same uniform and no-nonsense look as the angel from earlier. He is about to scan our tickets, then frowns. He shakes his head: “Not here. Bleacher gate.” He points back around the corner, past the hot dog stand.

“OK, thanks. C’mon, boys.”

We turn, and there’s no easy way out … unless the angel lifts the ropes for us. I approach and smile. “Wrong gate,” I say. She raises the rope, but does not smile.

The bleacher gates aren’t exactly pearly. We enter into a dank tunnel, past a smiling old man like Charon on the Styx. Incidentally, he doesn’t seem concerned about bags or backpacks — only tickets.

We follow the tunnel nearly to its end, and see section 59. We emerge into the light of Yankee Stadium. The sun is blinding, but in a few minutes, it’ll drop behind the upper decks. The grass is immaculate, and the atmosphere is electric, even with only a handful of fans here this early. So this is baseball heaven.

Saints and sinners
We could see the visitors’ bullpen from our seats — and if we stood, we could see the line of fans waiting to get into Monument Park, home of Yankees heroes in marble and bronze.

“Wanna go down?” I ask.

The boys nod excitedly.

“Wait just a sec; I’ll find out where we get in line.”

I step back into the corridor. The angel’s brother, by the looks, stands in a wide doorway opening toward the field.

“This the way to Monument Park?” I ask.

“No admittance,” he says.

The line had looked pretty long. “It’s full up for tonight?” I venture.

“No admittance with bleacher tickets.”

I told the boys. They took it better than me. They wanted to see the Yankee greats, but this was still The Coolest. Trip. Ever.

To me, it was as if we were chosen, but as yet unclean. We could sit with the sinners and glimpse the saints, but not yet commune with them.

Next time we’ll know. Next time we’ll be worthy.

* * * * *

*The Deezledub is what I call my devilishly fuel-efficient Golf — a diesel Vee-Dubbleyoo

**We went to Yale football opener, too — technically the Bulldogs, but they go by the Elis, too, after Elihu Yale. Elihu — that’s a name you don’t hear much these days …