Father’s Day

Many years ago I wrote a semi-autobiographical story about my me and my Dad, Emmett S. Roberts. He passed away in 2008 at the age of 77. This piece was never published anywhere, but I showed it to Dad when I wrote it. He said he was pleased and gratified that I remembered him this way (though he didn’t specifically remember helping me with the solenoid on my Maverick).

I think of my parents often. Sometimes with guilt about the times I didn’t call or remember birthdays/anniversaries. But more often with gratitude for how much they loved my brother and me and our kids.

Anyway, this one’s for you, Dad.

                                                *****

“That’ll be thirty-six fifty, sir.”

Kevin Casey fished two crumpled twenties out of his wallet and dropped them on the oily, stained rubber mat that covered the counter. The clerk made change and handed it to Kevin, who jammed the money into the front pocket of torn jeans without counting it. He dragged the box containing a re-built starter off the counter and turned toward the door.

“Uh, sir? Sir?”

Kevin turned back toward the clerk and raised his eyebrows.

“We’ll need the old starter core for the trade-in. Otherwise it’s thirty more.”

Kevin sighed. “Yeah, I’ll bring it in this afternoon after I take it off, OK?”

The clerk nodded with a thumbs up and turned to the next customer.

Kevin walked out to his wife’s battered van, shoulders hunched against the light summer rain. Cradling the heavy, compact box against his side with one arm, he unlocked the door and dropped the box on the passenger floorboard and started for home.

As the wipers swept the windshield with a groan, road grit smudged the glass. He pushed the button for wiper fluid, but the reservoir was empty. Muttering, he rolled down the window and wiped the windshield with a fast food bag. After a few minutes, the rain cleared the windshield and he rolled the window back up, cursing under his breath.

Auto repair was not his strong suit. This presented problems for a man with one income, two old cars, and a family of five. Even minor repairs meant multiple trips to the parts store. He was frequently forced – by either time or money – to improvise aspects of the repairs, which led to miscellaneous rattles, shakes and leaks that he learned to ignore.

As he pulled into the driveway, his wife came out onto the porch, holding a sleeping toddler whose legs dangled beneath her arms, saliva glistening around the corner of his mouth.

“Your Dad just called,” she said.

Kevin grunted as he lugged the starter over and dropped it heavily on the porch.  

“He want me to call ‘im back?

“He said whenever you have time. I told him you were working on the car.”

He walked through the house and into the garage, retrieving the bright yellow plastic toolbox smudged with grease. As he passed his wife he said, “If he calls back tell him I’ll call tomorrow. I don’t know how long this is gonna take.”

The rain had stopped and the sun was out, making the air thick and and the ground warm and spongy. Kevin pulled a plastic tarp out of the trunk of the Buick and spread it under the car. He opened the hood and started removing the nuts on the battery posts.

As he worked the socket wrench, he idly looked around the engine compartment, wondering what would break next. His eyes fell on the solenoid beside the battery.

Kevin bought his first car when he was nineteen. It was a 1973 Maverick that suddenly wouldn’t start after a month. He got it pushed up into his parents’ driveway late on a summer afternoon and threw up the hood in frustration.

John Casey came out to the driveway in a T-shirt and the shapeless gray pants he wore to the factory. Walking toward his son, hands in pockets, he said cheerfully, “Car trouble?”

Kevin, still panting, blew air through his nostrils and said, “Won’t start” through gritted teeth.

John peered into the engine, pulled on the battery cables and twisted the connections slightly. “Try it now,” he said.

Kevin sighed and slumped into the front seat. He pumped the accelerator angrily and twisted the ignition key. There was a sharp clicking sound under the hood. Between the bottom of the hood and the dashboard he could see his father leaning in, cocking his head toward the noise. His mouth moved, but Kevin couldn’t hear him.

“What?”

“Turn on the headlights,” John said.

Kevin snapped the light switch on and John stepped back and said “OK”. Kevin got out of the car, slamming the door on the way.

“I think it’s the solenoid,” John said.

“Where’s that?”

John tapped a small cylinder on the side of the engine compartment. “Right here.”

“If that’s it, it’s a pretty easy job,” he continued. The older man straightened up. “If you want, you can take the truck down to Western Auto and pick one up. Should only be about ten bucks, but they close at six.”

When Kevin got back with the part, his father was standing in front of the Maverick with his arms folded, toolbox on the ground. Kevin was surprised that the tools were still in the box. As he walked up, John said, “You need to disconnect the battery first.”

Kevin nodded and carefully placed the solenoid on the bumper. He reached into the battered tool box and took out a crescent wrench. The older man cleared his throat. “Be a little easier with a socket wrench.”

Kevin tossed the crescent wrench back into the tool box.

“And I’ll thank you not to throw my tools around,” John said evenly.

Kevin clenched his teeth and picked up the socket wrench. He tried several sockets and finally found the right size. He took off both connectors and laid the nuts on the bumper.

The top was free, but there was a wire connected to the bottom part. He couldn’t see whether there was a nut or a screw holding it. He peered at the part, waiting for direction. Finally he said, “So how’s this connected at the bottom?”

“Prob’ly a nut, same size. But you’ll have to reach underneath and grab it with a crescent wrench.”

Kevin got the wrench back out of the box and got the connector off. The solenoid slipped out of its bracket and he confidently reversed the process with the new part. Working quickly now, he reconnected the battery and straightened up.

“Ready to try it?” John asked.

Kevin nodded and closed the hood. He sat in the front seat and, biting his lip, turned the key. The engine roared to life, white smoke billowing from the exhaust. His father smiled and bent over to close the toolbox.

Kevin shut the engine off and wiped his forehead with his shirt sleeve. He rolled down the window and said, “Thanks Dad.”

John looked up and grinned. “You did all the work. I was just supervisin’.”

Kevin slid under the Buick on his back, rolling part of the tarp up underneath him, He removed the connector from the front end of the starter casing, then started unscrewing two long bolts at the back. As the second one came out, the heavy cast iron starter tumbled onto his hand, pinning his fingers painfully to the concrete.

With profanities echoing under the car, he shook his fingers and shoved the old starter out from under the car in retaliation. He attached the connector and new bolts, picking up speed as he went along. He made one last circuit of the connections, tightening as much as possible, then eased out from under the car into hot, steamy sunshine.

He jumped into the front seat and turned the key to deafening silence. He pounded the dusty dashboard with his palms, then remembered the battery.

Leaping out, he popped the hood and reattached the battery cables. On the second try the engine cranked and caught, and Kevin laughed to himself.

As he picked up his tools, he wiped each one off with a rag and placed them into the toolbox. The last one was a dull, scratched crescent wrench he got from John when his parents moved to Florida. He wiped it and started to put it away, but pulled it back. Holding it up to the sunlight, he turned it slowly until he could just make out the “JSC” scratched into the handle. He carefully laid it in the box.

After washing up, he called his father.

“Hey Dad,” he said. “I was just thinking about you.”

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My Dad, me and my brother John.

 

 

 

I have no pets

When I retired from my real job a few years ago, I decided to make a specific effort to keep my mind active. Not from a fear of boredom, but more a horror of dementia. It was a little easier at first, because I was still working on the book and writing several days per week.

Since then, my writing has been mostly limited to this blog and the occasional freelance article. I still read a fair amount, and took up the mandolin a couple years ago. But reading is pretty passive, and the mandolin sits gathering dust most days. When I do drag it out, it takes me 10-15 minutes just to tune it, and I count the minutes until I can stop “practicing” and put it back in its case.

So about a year ago I started learning Spanish online through an app called Duolingo. I use it only a few minutes each day, so I’m not going to be fluent anytime soon. But I have slowly, tentatively started trying to speak simple Spanish in Mexican groceries. Mostly accompanied by a lot of pointing and nodding.

The app plays a Spanish sentence, then the student types it in Spanish, repeats it in English, then enunciates a written Spanish sentence into the mic on a computer or tablet. The app alternates between a male and female voice, and I’ve noticed it’s harder for me to catch all the words with the female voice. Which probably comes as no surprise to Theresa.

I realize I’m not the only person using this process, but it would be more helpful to me if I learned phrases useful in restaurants and groceries. I have learned several snippets of conversations not especially handy for my situation, and some that make me wonder about Latinx culture.

Two common topics of conversation are, apparently, pets and work. A sentence that I’ve repeated constantly in the practice sessions is “Yo no tengo mascotas.” (In English, “I have no pets.”) Though this is accurate for me (for reasons I’ve described previously), I wonder why people who speak Spanish find it necessary to repeat this phrase so frequently.

Maybe to foreclose the possibility of other people talking about their dogs and cats. Because people who do have pets apparently comment constantly on their relative attractiveness.

“Mi perro es muy bonito.” (My dog is very pretty.)

Mexican_Hairless_from_1915

“Mi gato es muy bonito.” (My cat is very pretty.)

“Ramon tiene dos gatos y un perro bonito.” (Ramon has two cats and a pretty dog.)

Ramon needs to get cable TV and a high efficiency vaccum cleaner.    

The work sentences often refer to people having multiple desks.

“Ella tiene dos escritorios.” (She has two desks.)

“El jefe tiene dos escritorios nuevo.” (The boss has two new desks.)

“Sonia, tienes dos escritorios?”  (Sonia, do you have two desks?)    

The work ethic of immigrants has been thoroughly documented elsewhere, but, come on…..two desks?

In the Latinx workplace, there also appears to be an epidemic of chit-chat with the secretaries.

“El jefe habla con las secretarias.” (The boss is talking to the secretaries.)

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“Ramon habla con las secretarias.” (Ramon is talking to the secretaries.)

 

“Las secretarias trabaja poco en las viernes.” (The secretaries don’t work much on Fridays.)

Seems like they could save a lot of money on desks by insisting on more productivity.

Anyway, the language learning is, I think, helping to keep my brain healthy. And the few minutes I’m spending each day actually expands since I also think about it when I listen to the local Mexican music station or try to find a grocery that sells canned tamales.    Stenographer_Tower_Bros

“Mr Allen? I’d like a word with you…”

I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the Allen wrench is the worst-designed hand tool ever created.

In the interest of transparency, I’ll confess that I decided this shortly after dismantling a canopy frame that was held together by approximately five thousand Allen bolts. I removed about three quarters of them with the “wrench”. The rest were torn out of the frame by twisting the metal back and forth until they ripped out of their holes.

What’s wrong with good old-fashioned screws (flat head or Phillips, I’m not picky)? Or just bolts with nuts and washers on the end? Connectors that can be attached with a screwdriver you can wrap your palm around, or a nut that can be tightened with a socket wrench?

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But, no. It makes MUCH more sense to require a tool consisting of a skinny piece of polished metal that constantly slips between the fingers and bounces off the steps of a ladder into grass still awaiting the first mowing of the spring. (I realize that’s a pretty specific complaint, but, you get the idea.)

As documented elsewhere, I’m not the ablest home improvement/repair guy around. My motto has always been, “Don’t let the ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘Good enough to hold until next weekend. Probably”. So I don’t need the added frustration of a perfidious little scrap of metal making everything take five times as long.

Based on my extensive research of the available literature (Wikipedia), the first patent for a hex key system was recorded in 1910. A man named Howard Hallowell (which sounds fake) apparently wrote a book documenting the adoption of the tool during World War II.  The tome is quoted as follows:

“the transition from a square head set screw to a hexagon socket head hollow set screw, for which had to be developed special keys or wrenches for tightening or loosening the screw, was the cause of more profanity among the mechanics and machine manufacturers than any other single event that happened….. I am sure that the old-timers who read this book will remember this period vividly.”

Which may be the least surprising paragraph ever written. Because I can safely say Allen wrenches are in my top three profanity generators. The other two being Cincinnati Reds radio broadcasters (#FireJeffBrantley) and people who insist on crowding around the baggage claim carousel in airports.

Airport Bromma

I can just picture this Allen guy sitting around with a bunch of other lowlife industrialists, cheating each other at poker and drinking bathtub gin. Suddenly, it occurs to him to scam all of the exhausted working people dragging themselves home after a long day who just want to put something together. Like an icebox or furniture from Ikea. Chuckling to himself as he pulls an ace from his sock, he says, “Boys, I’ve got an idea that’ll make us and all of the mechanics in the world a fortune. Convince everybody to eschew (I’m thinking he was a Yale man; just go along with me on this, for once) regular screws and bolts, and make a tool so clumsy, so inefficient, so……French…..that they’ll never want to fix anything themselves again!”

They all laugh cruelly, drain their glasses, and play cards until somebody gets shanked.

I don’t ask for much. Give me good craft beer and a late afternoon sunset at the grill or smoker and I’m a contented man. But I’m begging manufacturers here. Enough with the hex keys. I’ve only got so many trips up and down the ladder left in me.

Hey! Matt Roberts wrote a blog post!

Aaaaand…..we’re back.

I know I haven’t posted in a long time. It was the dog days of summer, middle of baseball season the last time I updated this blog. But that’s not really what I mean. I mean that I’m back as a University of Louisville sports fan.

My long sports nightmare is over. Pitino is coaching in Greece. (The current rumor is that he may end up at UCLA. Which sounds about right.) Bobby Petrino has been fired. His house in Louisville is on the market, and he and his collection of neck braces have yet to surface publicly.  

The new head coach for the basketball team is Chris Mack, formerly of Xavier. As I’ve said before, my first preference would have been to hire an up-and-coming coach from a smaller program, but the Mack hire is fine with me. He’s almost a Louisville guy, with strong ties to the area, and, most importantly, has a pristine reputation.

The football program hired Scott Satterfield, former head coach of Appalachian State. Based on what I’ve read, he has no Louisville ties and he was obviously the school’s second choice behind Jeff Brohm. But, again, he has a reputation for winning the right way.

Also, it’s finally time for baseball again since Virginia ended the NCAA season with their first championship against Texas Tech I didn’t have any strong feelings about the game, but it was nice to see Indianapolis’ Kyle Guy get the win. As usual, I picked UVA one year too early, betting them to win LAST year’s championship at 7-1. If you’re already thinking 2020 futures, you might consider Gonzaga, since I bet them at 7-1 to win this year.

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Speaking of wagers…..we bet several MLB futures while we were in Vegas for March Madness. We’re only a week or so in to the regular season, and my Dad taught me that only a sucker looks at baseball standings before Mother’s Day. But in case you want to follow along, my wagers are below:

Philadelphia to win the NL East +225…..I would have made this bet even before the Phillies signed Harper. I think they have a great mix of young players and veterans, and they signed one of the best catchers in baseball.

Milwaukee to win the NL Central +275…….I think (hope?) the Cubs’ window is starting to close and St. Louis didn’t do enough to close the gap. But I wouldn’t have bet this at much lower odds, so for me it’s a value play.

Pirates over 78 wins…..hoping Uncle Ray Searage can work some magic with Chris Archer. Also, they get to play Cincinnati a bunch of times. But mostly a sentimental bet.

Boston over 93.5 wins…..they won 108 last year and have almost everybody back. Some people (looking at you, Jacquito) think not signing Craig Kimbrel is a big concern. But I think teams and fans over-value closers. I don’t think getting the last three outs is an especially uncommon skill set and that almost every team has somebody in the bullpen who can close games. I know 94 is a big number, but I don’t see a 14-game regression here. Plus Baltimore is in their division.

White Sox over 73.5 wins…..at some point all this young talent has to come together, and they’re sort of where Houston was right before they became really good.

San Francisco under 74.5 wins……really tough Division, and they seem to be punting this year to rebuild.

Mets under 86 wins…… I don’t see them ahead of Philadelphia. Maybe not even ahead of Atlanta or Washington, which could mean a fire sale in July.

All of the win totals bets were -110. (That is, bet $110 to win $100. Not that I bet that much.)

Like any baseball fan, I love this time of year. Weather starts to improve, the Indianapolis Indians open soon, and the Pirates and Dbacks haven’t been eliminated yet.
1905_Pittsburgh_Pirates_lineup

A pleasant incarceration

It seems like most Frontier League ballparks have two things in common. First, artificial turf field. Second, immediate proximity to interstate highways.

Joliet’s Route 66 Stadium swims against the current in the second respect, sitting at least a couple of miles from any interstate highway, but only about a hundred feet from an active railroad track. The ballpark is in downtown Joliet, Illinois, and a busy rail station hauling commuters to and from Chicago is right outside the front gate.

The team is named the Slammers, in homage to Joliet Prison built in 1858. The jail is a looming limestone structure on the north side of town. “The Blues Brothers” movie was filmed there in 1980. All of the prisoners were moved over to Stateville Penitentiary just a few miles north of town in 2002.

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It’s odd that the owners would name the team after a maximum security prison to promote family-friendly fun. But Route 66 stadium is all-in on the concept. The team store is named “The Clink”. The team logos are a watchtower surrounded by barbed wire and an angry bird wearing an old style prison cap carrying a baseball bat. I realize that the team was founded and named eight years ago before corrections reform was a hot topic. But I hope it’s just a matter of time before ownership changes the name to something a little  more welcoming. DSC_0016

In contrast, Slammers manager Jeff Isom is talkative, personable and friendly. He’s an Indiana guy, drafted out of Purdue by the Pirates in 1993. A left-handed pitcher, he bounced around in the affiliated minors until 1996, then played independent pro ball in the Northern and Frontier Leagues.

“I got released eight times, and it sucked every time, but something else always came up,” he said. “I think Fargo released me for like the third time, and (current Evansville manager) Andy McCauley told his manager that he knew me and thought they should bring me on.

“So that was my introduction to the Frontier League, and I got my ass kicked. It was like ground ball after ground ball going through the infield, and I didn’t pitch very well. So needless to say, the manager got fired, ‘cause I didn’t help him out. They hired Andy as the manager and after my second or third start I said, ‘You know what? I’m not helping you guys, I’m releasing myself.

“Andy asked me to be the pitching coach. So here I am, a left-hander who couldn’t get anybody out, and I’m the pitching coach for the rest of the season.”

After he quit playing he chose an unusual career path to managing.

“I spent a lot of time in Fargo, and they wanted me to keep playing. But I told them, ‘Look, I’m done. I hate the off-season, trying to get ready.

“And I got to coach for two years at Lafayette Central Catholic, and then I’d go up and help at Fargo. I think it was ‘99, and I went up there as a bullpen catcher. So here I am, a left-handed pitcher as the bullpen catcher. But I liked being around baseball, and I learned a lot from the manager.

“But that sucks,” he laughed. “A left-handed pitcher trying to catch sinkers and sliders from right-handed pitchers. That’s not fun. But I wanted to stay in pro ball any way I could.

“Actually, my baseball card from a couple years before that I put the (catcher’s) gear on. I just wanted somebody to shoot me behind the plate. Then two years later I’ve got the gear on trying to catch bullpens.”

Through all of his contacts, Isom got a job managing his first year off the field in Canton. In 2007 he got a job managing in the Brewers system, then in 2013 came to the Frontier League.

Like most of the managers in the league, Isom has to do his own scouting and player acquisition. He’s had success in finding players when released by other organizations, and he’s developed an extended web of former players and coaches to get referrals and background information on players. But he took one key piece for his approach from former Brewers manager Ken Macha.

“We were in a meeting in spring training with all of the minor league staff talking about who was going up. And Ken Macha said, ‘When I’m thinking about bringing a guy up, one question I’m going to ask is, can I trust him?’ And after he talked about it that made a lot of sense to me. So that’s a question I ask.

“Can I trust this guy? If we have a 6 AM bus, can I trust him to make it, or am I going to have to worry about where my shortstop is? If I put down a bunt sign, is he going to get that sign and be able to execute? If we need somebody to help out and load some stuff up, am I going to have to ask him five times or is he just going to go ahead and do it?”

I had noticed that the Joliet schedule featured a doubleheader for June 20. Double-headers are almost a thing of the past in baseball unless there are rainouts that require games to be made up. But in this case, the Slammers were playing a morning game in Joliet and an evening game against Windy City in the Chicago suburbs. Which isn’t much more than a 90 minute bus ride, but both teams had night games both the day before and the day after the twin bill. Four games in less than 30 hours. I asked Isom if this was a typical situation in the Frontier League.

Isom laughed. “For me it’s a new thing. We play here at 10 AM, and I’m sure that will end up an extra-inning game. Then we go up there and play a nine-inning game – hopefully. Then games the night before and night after. That’s a lot of baseball in 27 hours.”

Isom said the Slammers needed an early game that day and Windy City was trying to create an off-day for later in the season. I asked if he thought the arrangement would become a regular fixture in the schedule.

“I hope not,” he said. “But at least I’m not going to have to throw batting practice that day.

“Hopefully we’ll have some guys who are well-rested and we wont have to use too many pitchers in those games.”

On that evening, the Slammers were hosting the Lake Erie Crushers. Isom got some practice in juggling his relievers as the Crushers clubbed fifteen base hits, posting a 5-1 lead by the middle of the second inning. Starter Liam O’Sullivan gave up five runs on eight hits over just two innings, but got off the hook for the loss when his replacement gave up the deciding run.  

All of the pitching changes gave the fans a chance to visit the concession vendors without missing much of the action. The ballpark specialty is fried cheese curds, but that stand wasn’t open. I don’t know if management was expecting a small crowd, but the front office did ask me to get a ticket instead of just showing my pass at the gate so they could “count everybody in the park”. Their fears were well founded. At its peak around the fifth inning, there weren’t more than three hundred fans in seats.

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The ballpark itself has some unique features. A bar just above the seating bowl right behind home plate provides an outstanding view of the field. There’s also an old-timey sculpture of guys watching a ballgame on a building out behind the right field fence. All in all, it’s a comfortable place to watch baseball with a decent beer selection.

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Late in the game I wandered out to the grass area behind the outfield fence and found a lone high-backed chair that gave me a view over the right fielder’s shoulder. By that time fans numbered only a few dozen, and, when there were no trains rumbling by, I could clearly hear crickets and the US flag lanyard banging against the flagpole in the wind. It’s hard to imagine a more startling contrast to a jail. DSC_0025

  

 

A World Cup Interlude

I recently had a discussion with a friend over social media in which he made a joke about the entertainment value of soccer. It’s well-worn territory. People have speculated about why Americans don’t embrace the game for a long time. Despite the vast number of kids who have grown up playing youth soccer over the past forty years, it still seems like an imported sport.

U.S._Fan_Club,_Sam_s_Army,_Walks_to_U.S._vs._Algeria_World_Cup_Match

Maybe that’s because when you see kids playing pickup games, they’re usually recent immigrants. If you see American-born kids playing, it’s almost always in matching uniforms on a manicured field with adults running around trying to control things. Even in high school soccer, I recently overheard a coach trying to explain his offense to the team by using basketball terms.

My son blames organized soccer for the futility of the U.S. Men’s team. He believes the dearth of pickup games leads to a lack of creativity when split-second decisions are required, which leads to a predictable offense and rigid defenses that can’t react to unexpected decisions by the opponent.

I played soccer as a youth, but only for two years in junior high school. I competed with my parish school team, even though I attended public school. Our new, young, assistant pastor started the program, and all of the schools we played were several miles away. We practiced in an open field, where our goal consisted of two large trees about twenty feet apart. My parish was located in a lower-middle class neighborhood on the south side of Louisville, and most of the other teams were situated in the more prosperous east end of the city.

I don’t know what compelled Father Ryan to start the team, but he created a lot of opportunities for kids in our parish, especially in sports and music. Maybe he saw it as an evangelization effort. He later left the priesthood, got married and started his own family, working as an advocate for kids in the Jefferson County Court system. One of my fondest memories of him is when he was watching our B-team basketball game, quietly asking the coach when he was going to put the bench players in. (Of course, one of the bench players was me.)  

Anyway, my high school didn’t have a soccer team, so my playing career ended in eighth grade. Nobody I grew up with played soccer after that, either. My own kids played youth soccer, and two of them played in high school. So I’ve watched a fair amount, and when NBC began broadcasting English Premier League (EPL) games, I became even more of a fan.

I like watching the incredible moves the player make, the distance and accuracy with which they play the ball, the raw foot speed, and the passion of the fans. The parts I don’t like are the faked fouls (“diving”) and constant carping at officials. (I know, I know. Taking up for referees is kind of my own provincialism.) But most of the parts I don’t like are common in other sports (especially my first love, basketball) and there are other positive aspects to pro soccer that the others don’t have. Like relegation.

In the NBA, there are teams that are just plain bad, year after year. The Los Angeles Clippers have never been to the NBA finals. The Kings haven’t even made the playoffs (a low bar for success in the NBA, to be sure) since 2006. The Milwaukee Bucks haven’t won a playoff series since 2001.   

In EPL if you don’t finish in the top 17 of the twenty-team league, you’re banished to the next lower level of soccer. It’s as if you’re the Miami Marlins. MLB comes to you at the end of the season and says, “OK, if you’re not even going to try, your MLB franchise now plays in triple-A. Good luck in the International League.” Then the top three teams in the (lower) Championship League get to come up and try to win in the Premier League.

U.S._Plays_Ghana_in_World_Cup_Match

There is also no salary cap in the EPL. For a country that claims to value free enterprise and achievement of personal success, it’s always surprised me that Americans don’t object to salary caps. Nobody limits the amount owners can make; why do we want to see restrictions on player earnings?

Maybe it will take sustained success by the U.S. Men’s Team in World Cup play for America to embrace “the beautiful game”. Or maybe it’s that we have too many other sports entertainment options to pay attention to something we didn’t grow up with. But I like it. Especially the World Cup, which is one of the true World Championships in sports. I’ll watch a lot of games over the next few weeks, enjoying both the goals and the play in between.

Besides, I have a bet on Argentina to win the thing.   

Argentina_national_football_team_2009

Velcro me to a wall? Yes, please…

One way minor league and independent professional baseball clubs differ from MLB is in their willingness to commit to innovative (some might say goofy) in-game promotions. As much as I love the baseball at Frontier League games, it’s clearly not major-league caliber. In addition, the players would really rather not be here; their goal is to get to the show. And in the affiliated minor leagues, the primary team goal isn’t even to win (though I’m sure they all want to). The main focus is to develop players for the major league team.  

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All of which leads the sub-majors (defined here as minor league affiliates and independent pros like the Frontier League) to come up with ways to get fans in the gate and, once there, keep them entertained so they’ll come back.  The Freedom haven’t just committed to promotions; they’ve moved there and burned their passport.

I pulled into the parking lot of UC Health Stadium on a cloudy Friday night and looked up at the video billboard to find I’d chosen “Super Hero Night”, missing “Martial Arts Night” by a couple of days. The promotions schedule relies heavily on discounted booze, with “Thirsty Thursdays” (one dollar draft beers), “Taco Tuesdays” ($2 tacos and Mexican-style lagers), and “Whiskey Wednesdays” ($1 off bourbon cocktails). Like many other parks, UC Health has a bar area in one corner of the concourse. Unlike the others, there is an attached smoking area. Because Kentucky.

For several innings during this game, one lucky fan won the right to be attached with velcro to a billboard just outside the right field fence. Armed with a baseball glove, he was trying to catch a home run ball, in which case he’d win $8,110. Boone County sponsors the promotion to encourage home owners to call 811 before digging on their property and damaging utility lines. I guess they figured nobody would do it for $811. (But I would. Hell, I’d pay $811.)  

At one point between innings costumed characters (presumably interns clutching very short straws) raced around the infield. This is a common promotion in the majors, with racing presidents (Washington Nationals), sausages (Milwaukee Brewers), pierogies (Pittsburgh Pirates), etc., etc., etc.

But the Freedom chose to envelop the contestants in inflated eyeballs. The costumes were about four feet across and caused a lot of stumbling which was – of course – the point.

Later, all of the kids in the ballpark were gathered just outside the third base line and suddenly loosed to run across the field at the end of an inning. The interns were trying to herd them in one direction and get them back in the stands within thirty seconds. It was a valiant effort, but four-year-olds don’t have the sense of urgency required to accomplish the task, so the staff chased kids around the field for a minute or two as the pitcher warmed up.

The ballpark sits right next to interstate 75, the main north-south artery through Cincinnati, Ohio. You can hear the roar of traffic from anywhere inside. The stadium was neat and well-kept, with artificial carpet instead of real grass. The usual playground is located down the left field line, but a multi-story inflatable slide is added at game time.

The concession stands feature several Cincinnati-area staples, including Montgomery Inn Ribs, chili, Christian Moerlein beer, and – gulp – goetta sliders.  IMG_20180601_194147099

If you aren’t from Cincinnati, you probably don’t know what goetta is. Well over 90% of all U.S. goetta sales take place in and around the Queen City. I’ve tasted it before, and I’m not a fan. It’s basically sausage with steel cut oatmeal mixed in. I like sausage and I like oatmeal, but not together. It’s like mixing beer and maple syrup. They both need to stay in their own country.

Aaron Brodie serves as Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations for the Freedom, and he arranged several interviews for me.  We met on the concourse during batting practice, and he gave me his take on the team and players’ personalities. Two of the players scheduled for an interview were Xavier Turner and Jose Brizuela.

Both had successful college careers and were drafted by major league organizations. Turner was drafted out of high school but chose to play college baseball at Vanderbilt. After his sophomore season he was again drafted, and this time signed a contract with the Texas Rangers. He bounced around in A ball for two years, ending up on the disabled list three times. Then at the end of the 2016 season, the Rangers released him shortly after MLB mandated a 100-game suspension for failing a test for a “drug of abuse”.

A suspension of that length means that he failed drug tests at least three times. If any MLB organization signs him to a contract in the future, he’ll have to serve the suspension before playing  a single game.

Turner was out of baseball completely in 2017, working for his father at a baseball academy in their hometown of Sandusky, Ohio.

“I was depressed and didn’t know if I wanted to play baseball anymore,” he said. “I was going through a lot off the field. But then I entered the real world and found out how real it was.”  

Being out of the game and wondering what might have been convinced him to give professional baseball another shot. Florence manager Dennis Pelfrey contacted him after seeing some video posted by an amateur scout, and Turner signed with the Freedom in February of 2018.

Turner understands that the suspension is a big hurdle for affiliated teams to overcome. They’d have to sign him and then essentially wait for an entire season before seeing him on the field.

“It only takes one out of 32 teams to like you, but I know (the suspension is) playing a big part in how they feel about me. But all I can do is control what I can control, and do the right things on and off the field.”

Brizuela was also drafted out of high school but deferred signing until the Oakland Athletics drafted him after three years at Florida State. He played at the A level  for two years, never hitting above .270. Oakland released him during 2017 spring training, and he signed with the Freedom. In Florence he hit .321 with 13 homers and got a contract from the Dodgers. In sixteen games at the end of the 2017 season, he hit .353 with single-A Rancho Cucamonga, then was inexplicably released during the 2018 spring training.

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Brodie had warned me in an email that Brizuela was “media shy”. I asked him if Brizuela had ever mentioned why the Dodgers released him after he hit .350 in A ball. Brodie said that he wouldn’t really give an answer, just saying it was “one of those things”. He also told me that it was hard to get the player to even agree to promotional videos. I asked whether there was a language barrier since Brizuela was born in Venezuela, but that’s not an issue since he’d grown up in Miami.

Players have avoided or declined interviews with me before, and this sounded like what was going on. I assured Brodie that it wasn’t a big deal if I didn’t get to talk to him. A player (or anybody else, for that matter) who grudgingly gives up a few minutes to talk is unlikely to say anything interesting anyway. If you’re on deadline and a player affects the game in a significant way, you have no choice and have to press the issue. But I’ve never goaded anybody into good quotes. Maybe that’s a professional failing of mine, but in this context I can do without awkward interviews.

In a game they lost 5-4, the Freedom had a chance to take the lead in the eighth inning. Brizuela doubled with one out, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate. Andres Mercurio singled to right field, but Brizuela ran through the manager’s stop sign at third and was thrown out at home. Mercurio tried to take second on the play, but he was thrown out as well to end the scoring threat.

A few days after I left, Florence sold Brizuela’s contract to the New York Mets and he was assigned to their short-season A team in Brooklyn. For his part, Turner was activated from the disabled list and hit two home runs in his first six games back. It’s hard to imagine a team giving Turner another chance. But, like all pro sports, baseball is a bottom line game. And certainly stranger things have happened. Like attaching somebody to a wall with velcro.  DSC_0172

Sauget Wind

It’s a long way to heaven

It’s a short way to hell

Painkillers won’t help

When the weight’s not yourself

They’re poisoning the air

For personal wealth

It’s a long way to heaven

It’s a short way to hell”

       Sauget Wind –  Uncle Tupelo, 1991
One might be tempted to say that the Gateway Grizzlies play “just across the river” from the River City Rascals. But that would be misleading. O’Fallon does lie just west of St. Louis, and the Grizzlies play in Sauget, Illinois, which is on the eastern banks of the Great River. But it’s a 45-minute drive through downtown St. Louis to get to Sauget, and the difference is stark.

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While O’Fallon sits in a relatively prosperous suburb with rolling hills, Sauget….uh……does not. It’s not exactly urban, not really rural or even ex-urban. The ballpark is surrounded by interstates, warehouses and industries like chemical plants and the company that makes deodorant disks for urinals. It’s about fifteen minutes south of gritty East St. Louis, but I can’t imagine anybody feeling unsafe around the ballpark. Unless your idea of danger is an inability to get Starbucks or fill up your gas tank.

In addition to being home to the Gateway Grizzlies, Sauget (pronounced “So-zhay”) is also the Frontier League headquarters. Deputy Commissioner Steve Tahsler pointed out his office in a large building outside the left field fence. He told me that the league settled on the location because the commissioner was raised in the area.

Sauget was originally incorporated as the town of Monsanto, named after the chemical company. From the beginning, the city fathers spared no effort to lure business by allowing newcomers to do use the area as a chemical toilet. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the town as a Superfund clean-up site due to “three closed waste disposal areas …. a closed construction debris disposal area, a backfilled impoundment, an inactive borrow pit and about 3.5 miles of Dead Creek”.

But GSC Credit Union Ballpark, built in 2002, is an island of fun and innocence in the midst of all the industry, warehouses and interstate ramps. The field is artificial turf installed in 2012, but I’m starting to get used to that. The concession stand features “Baseball’s Best Burger”, which is a bacon cheeseburger with a Krispy Kreme doughnut serving as the bun. (Fun fact: Tahsler told me that former MLB All-Star Dmitri Young ate thirteen of them over a three-game series, establishing a modern-day record.) If you venture out to the right right field stands, “Country Bob’s Grill House” offers pulled pork or chicken, beef brisket and other barbecue favorites.

The Grizzlies’ radio guy Nate Gatter set me up with interviews with several of the players the afternoon of the game. The schedule was tight because the position players were having a “hitters meeting” before batting practice. At any level of baseball, meetings are never a good sign. Teams don’t have meetings when they’re winning.

As a result, I spent most of my time with pitchers (who, to be honest, are generally more interesting to talk to anyway). But one position player I met was Blake Brown.

Brown was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school, but chose to play collegiately at Missouri. For his college career he hit .294 and was drafted in the fifth round by Atlanta after his junior year. For comparison, some of the other players drafted in that round in 2012 were current major leaguers Chris Taylor (2017 NLCS MVP), Max Muncy, Mallex Smith, Ty Blach and Rob Refsnyder. If you’re drafted as high as the fifth round, a lot of people expect you to play in the major leagues someday.

Brown bounced around the Atlanta minor leagues for three years with stops in Danville, VA, Rome, GA, and Lynchburg, VA, never rising above single-A and never hitting above .261 for a season. The Braves finally released him in 2015, so he signed with Gateway. This summer, he’ll turn 27 and exhaust his Frontier League eligibility after this season. I asked if he thinks he got a fair shot with Atlanta.

“I absolutely do,” he said without hesitation. “I played every day for two-and-a-half years, and, honestly, it was all on me. I lost my swing and tried to make the game too technical instead of just playing the game. Even my first year here, I had some success but I never got comfortable with my swing and my game until last year (.300 batting average with 18 home runs in 93 games).” So far this season, he’s hitting .309 with two homers and five steals over twenty games.

Brown told me that he was close to finishing his bachelor’s degree, and he isn’t entirely bereft of options outside baseball. According to his college bio, he participated in several national student leadership conferences in high school. I asked him if he was still trying to get picked up by an affiliated team.  

He shrugged. “I’ve pursued it, but there’s only so much you can do besides play. I’ve had friends who went overseas or to other leagues and they end up being fourth or fifth outfielders, so they don’t get seen anyway. I feel like this is a better place to showcase what I can do. I’m comfortable here.”

Other players have told me that sometimes getting drafted by the right team – one without a surfeit of players at a particular position – can help with advancement in the organization. I asked Brown if he thought that might have made a difference for him.

“The coaching you get is different everywhere, and you can hear the same thing a thousand times, but somebody just says it a little different and it clicks. Maybe I could have heard something a little differently. But I got plenty of instruction and plenty of opportunities, I just didn’t capitalize on it.”

During the game, I walked around the ballpark and sat in several different seats to get different perspectives. From the third base line, you see cars and trucks flashing by on I-255. Looking in from the outfield, it’s all green and brown carpet enclosed by the brick walls and concession stands. Finally, I climbed to the top row of bleacher seats down the first base line and looked west. Across the flat plains and industrial pipework of Sauget, you can clearly see the St. Louis arch, just a few blocks from the Cardinals’ Busch stadium. It occurred to me that there’s more than one kind of distance.DSC_0134

  

Next stop: O’Fallon, Missouri

I drove into O’Fallon, Missouri just west of St. Louis around noon on a Tuesday. My first Frontier League trip was starting with the River City Rascals.  It was a really hot day, and, deferring to my usual paranoia about being late for meetings, I was three hours early for the interviews I’d scheduled.

Carshield Field sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood, with left field abutting an apartment complex. The housing in the immediate vicinity looks to be upper-middle class, but manufactured housing and sketchy apartment complexes are  just a few blocks away.

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The Rascals started Frontier League play in 1999, and the ballpark is clean and well-maintained. Like a lot of minor league facilities, CarShield features a play area to keep little kids occupied that also contains a full-sized adjustable basketball goal. The team installed artificial turf in 2017, which is a little off-putting (though consistent with most teams in the league). Not only is the grass part of the field replaced, but the dirt part is covered with dark brown carpet.

River City’s manager is Steve Brook, and he also serves as Director of Baseball Operations.

“All that means is that I make all the player decisions,” he said. “There are some managers in this league who only manage the team. They don’t have to worry about paying people or making transactions.

“It’s a burden, but it’s kinda fun, really. It’s like playing fantasy baseball with real people.”

We were talking in his cramped office in the clubhouse, which is a brick outbuilding beyond the right field fence. An overworked air conditioning unit labored to keep up with July-like heat outside. Brook sat at a desk making out a list for his clubhouse manager to make a run to Subway. I sat in a chair to his left while assistant coaches Josh Ludy and Alex Ferguson slumped on overstuffed couches just a couple feet away.

Ludy, a squat, bearded ex-catcher and current Rascals hitting instructor sat looking at his phone, his lower lip puffy with dip. Ludy played over 300 games for the Rascals between 2014 and 2017. We were talking about how Brook finds players to field his team. He said it’s an everyday process of talking to coaches in both pro and college programs and close monitoring of the waiver wire.

“I rely heavily on these two guys (Ludy and Ferguson), and all my former and current players. And a lot of it is just emailing people. For instance, if a high-A or double-A guy gets released who spent three years at Georgia Tech, I’ll email all the contacts I have at Georgia Tech and ask for the kid’s phone number.”

Ludy stirred from the depths of his couch. “Where’d you get my name from? I don’t think I ever asked you that.”

“You were with the Phillies?”

“Yeah.”

“Zack Sterner.”

Ludy stared at Brook. “I have no idea who that is.”

“He was a right-handed starter from the Phillies who played for me in 2011 and 2012.”

Ludy shook his head. “Had no idea.”

After managing in independent baseball for years, Brook demonstrates an encyclopedic recall of players in both his own league and affiliated baseball. It’s one result of nearly constant focus on finding, evaluating, and acquiring players each year.

“It’s non-stop,” he said. “It’s a burden that never goes away. I mean, Christmas morning I’m thinking, ‘Who do I have at short this year? Who do I have a at second? How am I gonna get this guy? How do I outbid all the other managers around the country doing the exact same thing when I have the second-smallest salary cap in all of independent baseball?’ Plus, we have organizational restrictions that are tighter than other teams in our own league.”

“But a lot of it is getting the right people who want to come and enjoy baseball and have a shot at getting picked up by an affiliated team.”

As game time approaches and the sun sets, the heat eases a bit as the ballpark starts to fill. Brook had mentioned that River City and Gateway are the two smallest ballparks in the league. There are no ushers, so seat selection is apparently on the honor system. I settle into a spot five rows from the field down the first base line in front of Raskie’s Bar and Grill, a brick building in right field that offers relief from heat and kids along with cocktails and beer.

Frontier League Deputy Commissioner Steve Tahsler had mentioned to me that each ballpark in the league developed its own unique concession menu. In addition to the usual fare of peanuts, popcorn and hot dogs, CarShield Field offers “The Boomstick” ( a 24” hot dog with cheese and jalapeno peppers), “The Catcher’s Mitt” (a huge soft pretzel that surrounds cheese, fruit, and candy), and other specialties that can feed small families or large fans.

Brook’s comment about the team’s frugality didn’t sound too much unlike what I’ve heard in triple A. But several times the PA announcer mentioned that anyone turning in a foul ball would get a coupon for a free haircut from Great Clips.

The play on the field was surprisingly energetic and competitive. Some of the players told me that there is a lot more focus on winning games in the Frontier League than in affiliated baseball. At the triple A level, you sometimes get the impression that players are mostly interested in getting their at bats or innings and not getting hurt. But in this contest against the Schaumburg Boomers, players were sliding on the hot turf to knock down grounders and crashing into outfield walls with abandon. The home team clobbered three home runs and held the Boomers scoreless on their way to a 10-0 win that came in under two-and-a-quarter hours. IMG_20180522_183804536

I think I’m going to like this league.

Roaming the Midwest looking for baseball

Sometime around 2005, I discovered that there was a Frontier League team in Richmond, Indiana. The Frontier League is an independent professional baseball league. (That is, the teams are not affiliated with any Major League Baseball franchises). The League started in 1992 and originally contained teams from Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio. Over 20 Frontier alumni have appeared in major league games, with Brendan Donnelly (Angels), Jason Simontacchi (Cardinals), and Brian Tollberg (Padres) among the more familiar names. Over the years, a number of teams have folded, been sold, and started.

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None of the original eight teams still exist. (At least not in the same city. Figuring out whether the same ownership group moved one of the teams elsewhere would require research. Which will happen at some point this season, but not yet.) I remember that the Richmond team was purchased a couple years after I noticed them and moved to Traverse City, Michigan, where they still play. I took Conor and Eamon to a couple of Richmond Roosters games, though I don’t remember much about the ballpark. What has stayed with me is the sight of their hideous green and orange uniforms.

But, sartorial objections aside, I started thinking about independent pro baseball again a few weeks ago. The Frontier League now numbers twelve teams with three in the Chicago area, two more close to St. Louis, and the farthest one from Indianapolis being just outside Cleveland. It’d be much easier to visit all of these teams over the course of one season than to try to make an MLB circuit. So, in order to write (definitely) and sell (pinkies crossed) several magazine articles, I’m planning to visit each ballpark between May and August.

The Frontier League office graciously sent me a “VIP” ballpark pass that will get me in to the games. I’m now in the process of coordinating visits with each team, hoping to interview players, coaches, fans and host families. I don’t see a book coming out of this, but you never know. Even if I don’t sell many articles, how many people can say they’ve seen every ballpark in the Frontier League?……Huh?…….Anybody?….OK, I’ll admit maybe there’s no widespread desire to want to say that, but, still…..   

My first trip will be to St. Louis because I want to interview the league officials early in the process. That’ll also allow me to see home games for the River City Rascals (O’Fallon, MO) and Gateway Grizzlies (Sauget, IL).   

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I fully expect to see the same types of players I saw when I was covering AAA baseball. A number of hopeful, younger guys still chasing a dream of playing in the majors and older players giving this thing one last shot, rounded out with in-betweens who can’t say why they’re here; they’ve just played baseball every summer for their whole lives and don’t know how to quit.

But I hope I’ll find some interesting personal stories. One thing the last year has taught me is that in any group of 10-15 people, at least three have a history or a motivation that you can’t read on their faces or guess by their situations. So for the next few months of this blog will reflect those travels and games, with the occasional break from sports forced by whatever is occupying my thoughts at the time. Other than Hamilton lyrics. Because everybody I know is tired of hearing me talk about that.  

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