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Note: This was originally posted on August 6, 2009. Image

What do sports mean? It’s just a game right? Not to me.

Sports are many things to many people – obsession, indifference, camaraderie, diversion, god, community, simple entertainment, or – tragically – a passive-aggressive form of spousal abuse.

For me:

Sports are the moments they create. I’m not talking about the moments on the field. I’m talking about the moments that arise in the stadiums or – far more often – the basements or the living rooms where they are watched with family and friends.

Sports are sitting on my dad’s lap, watching the Red Sox on the nearly 100 degree Thursday that I got home from the hospital as a newborn baby. (I remember it like it was yesterday!)

Sports are the comforting hug my dad gave me after Aaron Boone broke our hearts in 2003 and my Michigan-born cousin, Brittany, insightfully declared, “It’s okay guys. It’s just a game.”

Sports are the very different hug we shared a year later. “Well,” Dad told me, “the Red Sox won the World Series and Grandpa got to see it. Sleep well tonight.” As short-term New England expatriates in Maryland, we searched the greater-Gaithersburg area to find the World Series T-Shirts we had ached to wear for so long.

Sports are my Mom, without a second thought, delaying the birth of my brother Grant by a day so we could watch the Patriots win their first Super Bowl together at home in our living room. The doctor said that they needed to induce labor, and that they had an opening on Sunday night. My mom said: “Sunday night? Don’t you know that the Super Bowl is Sunday night? How about Monday?” That Sunday night I sat with my knee in an immobilizer after ACL surgery and saw my Dad leap for joy as an Adam Vinatieri field goal split the uprights. The mighty Rams were defeated and Lonie Paxton made a “snow angel” in a dome.

Grant was born during the parade.

Sports are every member of the family sitting in the same seat for every game of an entire playoff run. They are making signs that we hung over the TV, with the full persuasion that the sign was a major contributor to the victory. Tom Brady was 10-0 in the playoffs until the one year we didn’t make a sign. Just saying….

Sports are my sister Abigail doing every detail of the scorebook on every Red Sox playoff game for the last four October runs. She doesn’t alter her efforts based on the state of the game. She’ll sit in front of a heart-breaking demolition, where the Red Sox are being mercilessly blown out, and record every pitch. The scorecards she has framed make it all worth it.

Sports are a Wes Welker game-winning touchdown launching a six year old Grant off the arm of the couch with a shout of glee and a carelessly abandoned certainty that I will catch him.

Sports are many things to many people.

To me – sports are family.

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Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Baxter Photography

Can I really complain? I have lived through one of the most successful eras for any city in the history of American sports.

Good grief, my grandfather waited eighty-one years before he saw the Red Sox win once. Qualms should be absent from this area of my life.

Many would inform me that six championships in a decade “ain’t that bad Jack.” (I would clarify that my name isn’t Jack. They would inform me it was just a figure of speech. Then I would understand and move on.) Despite this prosperity of success – what would a sports fan do if he couldn’t complain once in a while – I’ve experienced some pretty painful losses with my teams as well.

I’m still in disbelief that Desmond Howard returned that kick-off for a touchdown in the 1997 Super Bowl – just as the Patriots were getting traction. Chuck Knoblauch did not tag José Offerman in the 1999 ALCS.  Don’t tell me otherwise.  The stench of watching Aaron Boone’s 2003 game 7 home-run soar softly into a raucous, Bronx crowd was only diminished by the sheer glory of the next year – not, however, by the approximately sixty-eight freeze pops I ate attempting to drown my sorrow that night.  Don’t judge me. Was the Patriot’s 2008 perfect season really foiled by a circus catch from a guy who was cut by the same team the next year? Really? I refuse to believe that.

Where does last Sunday’s loss to the noxious New York Jets rank among these travesties? How am I coping? Hear me out on this but…I’m okay.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I don’t have a visceral distaste for the Jets (always have, always will). I also don’t mean that Rex Ryan isn’t a vulgar, buffoon who talks a whole lot for someone who, last I checked, has ten empty fingers. Do I think the Jets constantly faking injuries to slow down the Patriot’s hurry-up offense was a classy strategy? Funny you should ask.

So, here’s the revolutionary thing – I’m fine. Really.

You see, when your team wins the big game the response is straightforward. You are gleeful, celebratory, glowing like all this stuff is really, really important. Dramatic losses on the other hand…

Losses are living organisms. They’re like snowflakes – each different than the other. It’s impossible to predict what your full reaction will be until the clock hits zero and your team is emptying their lockers.

In the worst cases, you get a rotten feeling in your stomach, as you watch the other team celebrate. The nausea and numbness lingers into the next morning as you replay in your mind the alternative outcomes to each play and how your team could have (and clearly should have) won. Then the martyrdom sets in. All the time I spent watching them this season, all the fun conversations I had with friends and family, how could it end like that? Why do bad things happen to good people? Clearly God doesn’t care about sports if Rex won. Even years later any mention of “that game” will tighten your jaw and force you to “politely” step out of otherwise good conversations.

For my generation this was Aaron Boone, for my father’s it was Magic’s skyhook and Buckner’s blunder, and his father’s generation still doesn’t know why Johnny Pesky held on to the ball in the 1946 World Series.

Then there are other times when the loss is disappointing but it rolls off me like water off an aquatic bird whose feathers were created to have water roll off their backs.

Now headed into Sunday’s clash with the Jets I had it pegged as an inescapable specimen of the former of these two options. How could it not be, right? Given Rex Ryan, given the trash talk and the insults and the threats from the Jets players, and given the Patriot’s being picked to win by everyone and their mother and their mother’s cribbage partner Gina, it seemed as sure as the outcome of flipping a two-headed coin that a loss would have me gorging on freeze pops and wearing sweatpants for a week.

Don’t get me wrong. I am bitter about it. I do not really want to talk about it and I hope the Jets are dismantled next week.

Yet, wonder of wonders, as Jets players did triple back flips on the Pat’s home turf and the CBS scoreboard informed us that 28-21 was indeed the indisputable final score – there was no wailing. No gnashing of teeth. No cursing the heavens.

But there was a baby.

A grinning, cooing three-month old boy who seemed deeply satisfied just because I was holding him. His world was unshaken by Tom Brady’s ineffectiveness against an unexpected zone defense.

It’s much easier to remember that your team’s loss is not actually that important when you are surrounded by everything you care most about. We all use the word “devastating” far too readily.

The little guy growing up with me as his dad is bound to be passionate about sports and have a few games that wrench his gut. I’m fine with that.

For now, though, he’s simply a happy reminder of what matters.

Thanks Charlie. It’s just one more thing you’ve made much better.

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sports080

Before the dramatic moment is lost, I must provide a little perspective to the history that took place in Chicago on Thursday. Mark Buehrle, with a little help from his friends, tossed only the 18th perfect game in baseball history and only the 16th since 1900. How amazing is this feat? A bit of context: 


There have been 224 inside-the-park grand slam home runs. This means that you are over 14 times more likely to see your teams hitter hit an inside-the-park grand slam than to see one of your pitchers throw a perfect game. 

 

Home plate has been stolen 54 times. Oh wait, let me try that again – Ty Cobb stole home plate 54 times. Nobody knows exactly how many times it has been done in history, but 32 people have done it 10 or more times. If you want to talk about doing it twice in the same game, well, even this has happened 11 times.

 

A no-hitter still gets a lot of attention, though it has been done 263 times. Nolan Ryan has 7 all by himself. 26 people have thrown more than one. 

 

33 people have hit for a .400 batting average in a season. 

 

16 people have struck out 4 (yes, four) people in 1 inning. Chuck Finley somehow managed this 3 times. 

 

In three mind-bending instances, a team has hit 3 sacrifice flies in one inning. Think that one through.

 

I guess ESPN is on the right track when they cut to the 9th inning of any game where a pitcher (big name or no-name) is tantalizingly close to “27 up, 27 down”. These moments are not just passing curiosities, but truly one of the rare times that we can use the over-used, often hyperbolic adjective “historic”.

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So the Sox have dropped 4 in a row. Fans confidence is plummeting and most are ready to sell the farm for Roy Halladay to come riding in on a white, season-saving stallion. “The Nation” is abuzz with doubts. Is life as good as we thought it was? These are the times in when you need only to look to those around you to see how blessed you truly are. Imagine, for a moment, that you were part of “Padres Nation”. Stay with me here. Pardon a brief flashback to an insignificant moment in 2006.

 

So a disappointing 2005 season is done and the Red Sox are retooling a bit. The bosses decided – to fans sentimental disappointment – to part ways with likable, back-up catcher, Doug Mirabelli. His replacement: free agent catcher, Josh Bard.  Well…Bard caught a knuckle ball about as well as most people spell “Yastrzemski”. The organization, experiencing seller’s remorse, longed for the return of Tim Wakefield’s hefty security blanket, Mr. Mirabelli. Our unsensational friend was desperately needed. However, he had already been signed by the Padres. So on May 1, 2006 we sent Josh Bard along with Reliever Clay Meredith to the Padres for Doug Mirabelli. A feel good but fairly mundane move. 

 

On June 23, 2007 the Red Sox traveled to San Diego for an inter-league match up with     the Padres. The Josh Bard deal was 13 months in the rear view mirror and stale, old news – for all but Padres play by play announcer Matt Vasgersian. For a Padres fan, apparently, this was Jordan coming back to play the Bulls, or pinstripe-clad Clemens pitching against the Red Sox. Coverage of the game began, with Vasgersian playing up the “injustice” that had been done to Bard. In a profound twist of fate, Wakefield happened to be pitching, which meant that Mirabelli was behind the plate. The “drama” was palpable. Dad and I mocked the intensity of the Padres television coverage and with condescending comfort sympathized with all “post-Tony Gwynn Padres fans.” Unknown to us – the drama had barely begun. 

 

An early Mirabelli strike out brought victorious shouting and cries of satisfaction. Their back-up catcher had been vindicated! There was more.

 

Bard stepped into the batters box in the bottom of the 2nd inning with a runner on second. He lined a knuckleball into the left-center field gap that scooted by Manny Ramirez for an RBI double. 1-0 Padres. 

 

2nd inning doubles are not new to me. I don’t remember most of them. What set this one apart? Well our friend, Matt Vasgersian, made sure to educate us and stamp this extraordinary event upon our memories.

 

As the ball cracked off Josh Bard’s bat, Vasgersian’s voice rose. As the ball slipped through the gap he took a deep breath and, with relish and flourish, shouted “Oh, and this game is just replete with sweet irony!”

 

A quarter of a hour later, we had mostly recovered our composure. As Proverbs says, “Laughter does good like medicine.” Here, dear friends, is the medicine we need this very week.

 

“Replete with sweet irony”. A grander over-assessment of a situation has not been proclaimed since Harold Minor came out of college labeled: “Baby Jordan”.

 

You know, like when someone refers to an “X-Games” win as “historic”, any WNBA game as “riveting”, or Alan Greenspan as “mildly interesting.”

 

But you see, this is the life of fans across Padres Nation, Rockies Nation, Pirates Nation (Village?)…you get the point. No wonder so many people are hopping on our happy bandwagon. 

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0509 PA-213

My little brother Grant played his first year of baseball this year. Let me preface this post by saying he had a very good time.

Grant Lewis is without question the greatest source of laughter and thought-provoking questions in our home. He is 7 years old and has a deep, unbridled love of sports. He is very competitive, and far more athletic then his older brother ever hoped to be. From the time he could walk he has had a ball in his hands, and he is constantly asking us to teach him how to do better the things he sees us do – how to throw harder, hit a baseball further, drive a golf ball straighter, etc.

When Grant needs to entertain himself, he plays 9 inning baseball games against himself. The games are, of course, fully announced and stats kept for each game. I once overheard him say “And Pedroia knocks one into center field and he has his second hit of the game. Boy he is some player.” He has the Red Sox lineup memorized, and when David Ortiz or J.D. Drew come to the plate he (naturally) bats left handed.

Let me describe a recent, backyard Wiffle Ball battle. He was pitching and managed to get a fastball right by me. As the ball smacked our makeshift backstop, a pleased grin swept across his face. “You’re too easy to strike out,” he said, still smiling. “Oh yeah?” I responded. “Throw me that pitch again and I’ll knock it way into the trees.” “On this pitch?” he asked, with a sly smirk. “This is the one,” I said confidently. I stepped back into the box, the 20 year old looking to show the 7 year old who rules this backyard. I waited on the pitch so I could send it towering into the trees. He wound up and with all his might threw a ball that sent me ducking away as it grazed my left shoulder. I looked at him. I took a step toward him like I was going to charge. He took a step  toward me, looked me in the eye, and said “I dare you.”

Naturally I tickled him to death.

He is competitive and scrappy. Any confidence I had in “always beating him in sports” has flown out the window. Not just because his skill is progressing so quickly, but more because I see, even at a young age, that he plays everything with a passionate focus and mental energy set on beating me even at an age and size that makes this impossible. It’s only a matter of time.

Don’t misunderstand – the provocative questions, gems of wisdom, and tender spirit in this toothless 2nd grader often make me wonder if he isn’t just a pair of C.S. Lewis’ thumbs from profoundly impacting his generation.

He started talking about Little League at 4 years old. With a moral opposition to the horrors that are “Tee-Ball,” we waited until he was 7 and could play on a coach pitch team. With much discussion and anxiety about the horrific possibility that the league might place him on the “Yankees,” we got the relieving call that he was the newest member of the “Nationals. “The whole family got off of work for his first game and counted down the days together. Finally, opening day.

His uniform was meticulously worn for 3 hours before he had to be at the field. We arrived at the game expectant. We were beginning the fun that would be Grant’s Little League career. We made a discovery that day. Few things are more disturbing to the heart and world-view of a Basement Athlete than “Rookie League” baseball.

It was not coach pitch, as we had though but rather “machine pitch.” This machine was a mechanical Rick Ankiel (the 2001 version). This thing could not find the strike zone more than once every 5-6 pitches. Batters were ducking and running. You can imagine how successfully these suburban, commuter fathers solved this problem. Would someone, please, just throw the ball?

Then there were the many things that were supposed to make the game more “fun” for the kid ( i.e.- 10-15 strikes for the kids that didn’t hit well). The parents would groan after strike 9, and the coach would say: “Okay now, only 5 more good ones.”

They were only allowed to take one base at a time. It didn’t matter where the ball was hit – you got one base and one base only. Worse, everybody rotated defensive positions each inning. This meant that the kid who would sit and eat dirt for half the game with his hat on backwards got as much time at shortstop as the kid who laid awake the night before envisioning each play of the upcoming game. And, of course, we don’t keep score – so everyone is a “winner”.

Apparently my confusion was rooted in the false impression that this batch of seven and eight year olds were there to learn how to play baseball. I was deeply disappointed to discover that these leagues are driven by a persuasion that comforting and sheltering the players from any form of disappointment is far more healthy and important than learning how to play, win, and lose well. Couldn’t these young fellows have learned to lose graciously as well as win without becoming boastful and arrogant? Apparently not.

May I suggest that the score of a game does mean something. Should kids not be rewarded, who have worked hard to do well even at a young age? Would positioning the two or three best players at the two or three best positions do anything but make the other kids want to play better and have examples of what that should look like? So, the first-learned goal of baseball is a tie game – a wonderfully level outcome – regardless of performance, that would have made Karl Marx proud.

But this was fine – Grant kept score in his head anyway. Just try to tell him that those games ended in a tie.

I dare you.

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