Archive for October 2009
Mr. October was the name of the piece about learning how to hit a baseball, and it came in at a hair under 4500 words (14 pages). The first draft was twice that long. I never got it published, and to this day it remains my greatest heartbreak as a writer.
I first submitted the story to Elysian Fields Quarterly, and they rejected it (EFQ is the same place I sent Strategy, Innovation, and 91 Meltdowns, my story about Earl Weaver, which I referred to in this blog as “Earl and Me“). At about the same time, I received a call for submissions for a collection of writing by established and emerging Illinois writers. So, I sent the story to the editors who were compiling the collection. After a few months, they sent me the non-standard rejection letter, which included a note explaining that I should be aware that I was very close to making the final edit. Since then, the piece has been rejected by 6 or 8 other publications. I’ve pretty much given up on trying to get the piece in print, but figured I could at least include excerpts from it in this serial since there are a lot of parallels with the time of year and the baseball playoffs.
I made a number of mistakes in the overall process of writing Mr. October. Foremost, I had pinned my hopes too high for the type of writing I was attempting, which was participatory journalism. The piece was great fun to write, but it was also a tremendous ego trip. It didn’t have any significance other than that which I assigned to it in my own mind. There was no social impact, no shocking discoveries, nothing but me trying to set right something that went wrong 20 years earlier. To make matters worse, I chatted the piece up endlessly to friends, family, and anybody else who would listen. I talked about how it was destined to be published, how it would be my first mark in the world of publishing, because it was the best thing I had ever written. I flaunted my new-found knowledge of hitting any time I watched baseball, and debated with friends about what was wrong with any particular hitter. It was all very hubristic, and the heartbreak that resulted was painful, but well-deserved.
Despite all that, good things came from my heartbreak (I’ve found the same to be true after the hardest romantic breakups… eventually, I emerge as a better person, and as a better partner in future relationships). The writing process alone was transcendent, especially when it came to having to reduce the original draft by half. That helped me understand a lot about self-editing. There are several passages that I still consider some of my best writing, and I even used an excerpt from the piece to help score an independent study with Brenda Miller. The story was also a bridge from what I used to write and what I now write. Before Mr. October, I was writing memoir almost entirely, which for my tastes is too self-centered, more akin to emotional masturbation than anything else. As soon as I started working away from that direction, I started to find a lot more success and satisfaction as a writer. Perhaps most importantly, I learned the significance of having emotional separation from my writing. I don’t pin my hopes on anything getting published; I focus more on the satisfaction I get from writing the best piece I can and how each story changes me and helps me become a better writer. It’s some kind of zen thing.
There’s a lesson to be learned here that can be taken into my relationships, but I’m not quite sure what it is at this particular moment.
I’m starting to see the end of this affair materializing on the horizon. Best case scenario: I’m still running around behind the Cubs’ back until next Thursday night. It could all end sooner, though… maybe as early as Monday night. It’s at this point in all my affairs that I focus only on the present and try to enjoy every minute as much as I can. When it’s all over, then I’ll worry about the emotional numbness that always follows.
It’s been interesting to watch the heart of the order of both teams. Outside of the stellar pitching, that’s where both games have been decided. The Yankees are holding up decently against the Phillies, thanks in part to their 3-4-5 hitters stroking the ball at a .348 clip. That is mostly due to Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui playing out of their minds. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira have been hacking for the most part, though Teixeira came through with a critical homer in Game 2. The Chase Utley / Ryan Howard / Jason Werth combination has at least been a little more consistent; they’ve spread 6 hits evenly among themselves while striking out only 8 times in 22 at-bats (the 3-4-5 part of the Yankees lineup has whiffed 13 times in 26 at-bats). Neither superstar has lived up to his billing, though– Howard and A-Rod have each struck out 6 times.
I think Joe Girardi has cause to be concerned with his offense, and he’s going to have to find a way to keep Matsui in the lineup after his excellent effort in Game 2. But how’s he going to do it? Sacrifice defense by putting Johnny Damon on the bench? He’s already having trouble keeping Nick Swisher in the lineup, which has compromised his outfield and Swisher’s spot in the lineup.
Notes on World Series Game 1:
Philadelphia started to wear down CC Sabathia from the start. They made him throw 24 pitches to get out of the first inning; 19 came after 2 outs when the heart of the Phillies’ lineup forced Sabathis to show his control. He gave 2 free passes and loaded the bases before Raul Ibanez grounded out 4-3. All told, Sabathia had to throw 23+ pitches in 3 different innings, and Philly scored in two of those innings.
After the division and league series’ officiating blunders, it was great to see the umpires make the right call on Robinson Cano’s shot to shortstop in the 5th (part of me loved seeing that, too, because it went against the Yankees and I’m still sore from the Jeffrey Maier incident). It was a double play all the way, albeit aided by Hideki Matsui’s baserunning blunder coming from first base. The call sparked a debate with the guy sitting next to me at the bar where I was watching the game. I argued that regardless of what happened after Rollins’ shoestring catch, Matui should have been called out because he was standing on the infield grass, which put him pretty far outside the base paths. I checked the MLB rules, and found this in section 7.00, The Runner:
- 7.08 Any runner is out when—
(a) (1) He runs more than three feet away from his baseline to avoid being tagged unless his action is to avoid interference with a fielder fielding a batted ball. A runner’s baseline is established when the tag attempt occurs and is a straight line from the runner to the base he is attempting to reach safely; or
(2) after touching first base, he leaves the baseline, obviously abandoning his effort to touch the next base
So I was right!
Ryan Howard could learn a lot from Chase Utley about hitting left-handed pitching. Howard is a sucker for inside pitches especially, and struck out on a low, inside pitch to end the 3rd. His other whiff happened when he chased a low ball in the 6th. This must have something to do with Howard’s hulking physique. Pitchers are thowing to his blind spot (he hit .207 vs. lefties this year), and he hasn’t compensated for that yet. He probably needs more bat speed, and maybe a stance that helps him open up more when facing lefties. I’m sure Charlie Manuel will fix the problem.
The Yankees melted down once again when they were forced to go to their bullpen. 5 of their middle relievers combined to give up 4 hits, 4 runs, 3 walks, and only 1 strike out over 2 innings. If somebody doesn’t step up before Mariano Rivera comes out of the bullpen, it’s probably going to cost them the Series.
These could be Johnny Damon’s last days in pinstripes. He’s been moved out of his natural position in center, and his bat has been real weak throughout the month. He had one hit last night, but not until garbage time in the bottom of the ninth. The Yankees can’t bury his bat in the bottom of the order, either. They already have Cano, Cabrera, and Swisher flailing away down there. I wouldn’t be bothered at all if this was it for Damon. I used to like him quite a bit when he played for Boston, but have thought less of him since he sold out to The Evil Empire.
Finally… I made it out to a bar called The Last Chance Saloon in Grayslake to watch the game. You could have shot a cannon through the place by the time the Phillies dug in to start the 4th inning. I didn’t stay there for the whole game, nor would I have even if the place had been jumping. But I did get a reminder of who goes out to bars on Wednesday nights in the northern suburbs: Nobody. I also got a reminder of why I hardly ever go to a bar on a school night: It’s too damn hard to get my brain working once I get to school the next day.
October 28th, 2006: Matt and I meet at a park he claims is Zion’s best for baseball. My stomach feels queasy from the moment I get out of my car. I’m confident that I’m going to make contact with the ball, but don’t know how effectively because Matt will be pitching off a mound. I know it will only increase his velocity, which has been around fifty miles per hour, topping off around sixty.
We go through a bucket of soft toss to get warmed up. When I criticize several of his tosses, he counters, “I can tell you’re getting to be a real hitter. You’re complaining about pitches.” After a bucketful of warm-up tosses off the mound, we begin the final test.
Matt puts on a good show, considering he has no catcher and is sliding in mud on his follow through. I can’t do anything with his first eight pitches except foul back four of them, chop two in front of home plate, and miss two others entirely. I have mud problems of my own. My pivot foot makes a thrkkkk sound and is clumped with mud every time I move it, veritably nullifying the effects of squashing the bug.
I pause to collect my thoughts and clean mud off my shoe. I return to the batter’s box and steady myself for the ninth pitch. I watch the ball from Matt’s hand, test the ice, point the knob, and in the time it takes a synapse to fire between neurons in my brain, my cardboard strike zone appears like a template in my mind’s eye. The ball is coming into the seven slot in slow motion, and as if by divine intervention, I get my hands across my chest faster than ever before. There is a satiating crack as I rocket the ball over third base, looping to the right. The crack echoes off the trees behind the third base dugout. It is the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.
Before I can stop to think, the tenth pitch is barreling towards me in the four slot. I launch it hard into left.
A flood tide of adrenaline is surging through me. I don’t know what to say, but think that my smile is saying it all. I’m lost in giddiness and foul off or miss the next five pitches. I have twenty-one balls left. I do some quick math in my head and realize I have to hit over .280 from here on out. I step out of the batter’s box again, wipe sweat off my face, snap into focus, and then slap the next pitch down the first base line into right field. I scatter nine of the next nineteen pitches around the shallow to middle parts of left and center field. Matt does his part to keep me humble by making me miss a few altogether and foul off the rest, but I can see his pitches coming into most of the slots in the strike zone as I focus on watching the Big Stick hit the ball.
Before I’m ready to return to Earth, Matt calls out, “These are the last two.” I tell him it doesn’t matter now; I’ve surpassed my own expectations and it’s all gravy from here on out. He chucks the thirty-fifth pitch and I rip it right back to him, forcing him off the mound. He sees me smiling and smugly announces, “You shouldn’t show up your pitcher like that.” He reaches back and lets loose with an inside curve that looks like it’s coming into the seven slot. It drops faster than I can move and thumps the middle of my calf. I pogo-stick around the batter’s box on my right leg, too stunned to do more than laugh and exclaim over and over how I never thought he’d do it.
We pick up the balls, make notes about my hitting pattern, and I thank him for everything before I head home. His final words are, “You can definitely hit sophomore pitching.” It figures. That’s exactly where I left off 20 years prior.
Later, before I finally make it to bed, I grab the Big Stick, stand in front of the cardboard strike zone, and swing through numbers seven and four a few more times. My smile grows bigger with each swing as I relive the jolt and crack of contact. When I’m finally too tired for nostalgia, I limp to bed and fall asleep as my calf throbs and the last beads of sweat dry on my forehead.
My friend Joel and I walked into The Island in Libertyville at 7PM Saturday night to watch Game 6 of the ALCS. My plan since I started this serial was to visit various bars around the area to watch playoff games, take notes, and write an episode or two, but it hasn’t happened because I’ve been too busy, too tired, and generally lacking the motivation to socialize. It was supposed to be a great chance to get out and mingle in unusual places at unusual times, which is usually when unexpected things happen, which is good personally and as a writer… instead, there I was, late in the playoffs, making only my second attempt at what I thought would be the funnest part of this whole thing.
Nonetheless, the unexpected happened after we ordered a round of Harps, settled on stools, and asked the bartender if he’d turn on the baseball game: He told us it was postponed. I felt like a tool for not knowing about the postponement after I’d followed everything so closely for the past three weeks. So instead of staying out late and doing a bit of carrying on, we feigned interest in a college football game and talked about whatever for a few hours. I was sitting in bed by 11 o’clock, grading papers and watching Dead Again on my laptop.
The Angels tried to tire out Andy Pettitte, as I thought they would. The 6th inning was a good example of how a team can wear down a pitcher. They forced Pettitte to throw 26 pitches, and put 2 runners in scoring position while they were at it. If they could have capitalized on that, it would have been a different game. Instead, Pettitte pitched into the 7th (99 pitches total), and almost placed the game directly in Mariano Rivera’s lap. Girardi got smart and brought Rivera in early so as not to expose the Yankees’ weak middle relief any longer than necessary (middle relief needed a total of 7 pitches to retire the Angels in the 7th). I’ve got to credit Girardi for doing that, though I don’t think he’ll be able to get away with it very often. He can’t afford to have a tired closer, especially one he relies on as heavily as he does Rivera.
If the game was a circus after the 7th, then the Angles were the clowns. Their fielding and throwing errors at first base let 2 runs cross the plate, and that sealed their fate. I expect things to be a lot different starting Wednesday. Philadelphia is a better defensive club than Anaheim, they have a better starting rotation, and they have the kind of plate discipline that will wear the Yankees’ starters down in ways that the Angels couldn’t.
I think the Phillies will win the series in 6 games. If they do, they’ll be the first National League team to repeat as world champions since The Big Red Machine in 1975-76.
My quest to hit was coming to a close this week in 2006. I was confident with my stance and swing, my body had adjusted to the rigors of swinging the Big Stick, and I was trying to work on my weaknesses: inside pitches, middle and low. It was cold, wet, and dark most days when I got home from school, so I spent a lot of time in front of my strike zone mock-up preparing for my final live pitching session with Matt, which was to take place in 2 days:
October 26th and 27th, 2006: I take extra swings in slots four and seven on the cardboard diagram; they are the middle and low inside areas of the strike zone. I can’t reach them consistently and wonder how much Matt will challenge me there when we meet for the final time.
I have decided that it is reasonable for me to hit .250 against Matt’s pitching. There are thirty-six balls in his bucket; I have to put eight of them solidly into the outfield if I’m going to meet my expectations. If I can’t do it, I don’t know what I’ll do.
St. Louis has won the World Series, even though nobody gave them much of a chance. I think that explains the soft spot I have for the team.
This illicit affair I’m having behind the Cubs’ back is working out far different than I could ever have imagined. I thought at this point I would be writing about the joyous hours I have spent watching the Cardinals carve their way to the World Series; instead, I haven’t had cause to write a word about them for almost 2 weeks. That’s not to say this hasn’t been an interesting dalliance, or one that I regret. Far from it. I’ve come to appreciate an entirely different team for the same reasons I love the Cardinals in the first place: they’re playing beautiful baseball.
Up to this point in my life, I either was indifferent to Philadelphia, or hated them. But I only hated them because my brother Rob loved them and cheered for them in the most obnoxious ways imaginable. But I have to admire Rob’s dedication. It wasn’t easy to follow the Phillies 500 miles away from Veteran’s Stadium where we grew up in northeast Indiana; the only time he could hope to see the likes of Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton was during the playoffs, maybe on a weekend baseball game, or through rare highlights on This Week in Baseball. When the Phillies won the 1980 World Series, he went so far as to get a couple of t-shirts made. Each shirt was oh-so-typical 80s: white torso, red 3/4-length sleeves. Across the chest, one shirt announced, “1980 Philadelphia Phillies / National League Champions;” the other, “1980 Philadelphia Phillies / World Series Champions.” He opted to show his pride with puffy felt iron-on letters that even a blind man could have read if he traced each one with his finger. The shirts were about as subtle as chainsaws and served only to underscore his obnoxious cheering tendencies, which put him on par with most Philadelphia sports fans (I’ve read that they are the worst in sports). But maybe that speaks to our family roots. Our father was born and raised in Pennsylvania, so maybe some of that obnoxiousness is part of our genetic makeup.
I’ve elevated the status of the ALCS to “intriguing,” if only because the Angels are still in it. It defies baseball logic that the Yankees aren’t resting up for a showdown with the Phillies as I write this. If the absurdity of the series continues, there will definitely be a Game 7 tomorrow night. I just can’t get my head around some of the things that happened Thursday night: How can the Angels give up 6 runs in one inning of a playoff game and still win? How can they allow the Yankees to load the bases with 2 outs in the top of the ninth, run the count full, and still escape unscathed? And where are the cold-blooded Yankees who have stabbed me in the heart so many times by pulling out improbable wins?
I read this morning that there are a lot of questions surrounding Joe Girardi’s relief pitching decisions before he gets to Mariano Rivera. I wrote about that a few days ago when I attributed the Angels’ first win in the series more to Girardi’s ill-fated decision to pitch Alfredo Aceves than to the Angels’ ability to play good ball in the clutch. But maybe Mike Scioscia knows that middle relief is the Yankees’ weakness, and he’s banking on his team to exploit that. It doesn’t sound like the best plan since the Yankees’ starters can usually put the game in Mariano Rivera’s lap, but then again you can wear down even the best pitchers through disciplined and patient at-bats. If the Angels can do that, then they have a window of opportunity before Rivera takes the mound.
Why the hell can’t the Cubs figure out stuff like this?
I mentioned in Day 2 that I was thinking about contacting my ex-girlfriend. Once I finished using a journal last week that she bought me for my birthday, I figured I had a good excuse to call. So I did. We had a nice conversation, both of us inquiring about the relationship status of the other, both of us surprised that the other had a recent breakup. There wasn’t much insinuation to the whole thing– there can’t be much insinuation when so much is right on the surface. I thought for the past week about her situation, my situation, and the cordiality and fondness that still exists between us; in fact, I thought so much about it that I figured I should put myself out there and see if she would like to get together. I called her again two nights ago and asked if she was interested in going to a local corn maze this weekend. She turned me down; something about the start of a new relationship and her not wanting anything with me to interfere with that.
This won’t be the last time we talk.
Before you laugh out loud about the corn maze idea, I would encourage you to go to one. They’re a ton of fun for a cold Fall day. But not so much fun that I would go to one by myself.
I’m starting to doubt that the Angels can knock off the Yankees, even though they won Game 3 of the ALCS. It was the manner in which they won that raised my doubts. Mike Scioscia looks like a genius for leaving Jeff Mathis in after he cranked a walk-off RBI double in the bottom of the 11th, but the game should never have gotten that far. It should have been over in the bottom of the 10th when Mathis was standing on 3rd with no outs. Scioscia should have pulled him for a pinch runner. Had he done that, they would have plated the run 3 pitches later when Chone Figgins hit a grounder to 1st that Mark Texiera dove to get. Any respectable pinch runner would have at least forced a play at the plate and most likely scored given that Texiera would have had to get up and then throw in a hurry, off-balance. Scioscia should have taken that chance, especially since it meant it could end the game and he wouldn’t have to worry about seeing A-Rod, Jeter, or Texiera again.
So the Angels won, but it probably had more to do with Joe Girardi pitching Alfredo Aceves with two outs in the bottom of the 11th rather than having David Robertson stay in the game. Aceves is inexperienced; he melted under the pressure.
Philadelphia is running away with the NLCS by now, and one way they did it was to force LA to live the nightmare of the blown save. At this point, I don’t know how LA can still have any confidence about themselves. They’ve played from behind in 22 of 36 innings thus far, got completely killed in Game 3 (0 runs and only 3 hits; 2 by Manny), and then couldn’t pull out last night’s game despite having one of the best closers in the NL.
I think a lot of LA’s problems go back to Game 2, even though they out-dueled and out-strategized Philly to eke out the win. They had the bases loaded with one out in the bottom of the 8th, and could only get one run– and that was because of Ryan Madson’s control problems. What that revealed was they don’t have enough cold-blooded killers who can rip out the opponents heart late in the game. Manny, of course, has built his career on that. But even he hasn’t been doing much in the series (he’s hitting an anemic .250 with 1 home run). Ronnie Belliard, James Loney, and Russell Martin are batting over .300, but nobody else is doing much. They can’t handle Philadelphia’s starting pitchers, who have an ERA of 2.81 through 4 games. It all goes back to the classic baseball axiom: Good pitching beats good hitting.
I was right about being sore after my nostaligic turn at practicing hitting from Sunday afternoon. It was mostly my left shoulder and back, though oddly my left elbow was creaky and painful all day yesterday.
I was getting desperate to try something new at this point in my quest to hit 3 years ago. I gleaned a great idea from a book I had checked out of the library: I made a mock-up of a strike zone and hung it on my closet door. Then I taped cutouts of nine baseballs on the mock-up in three columns of three. I numbered the balls 1-9, and then stood six or seven feet back and swung a dozen times through each ball. I scoffed at the idea when I first read it, but once I tried it I realized how much it helped my focus and my ability to identify pitches I could or could not hit. I looked ridiculous trying it, and felt sheepish every time I had to explain it when I had a visitor, but I didn’t care. I wanted to hit, and I was willing to do whatever it took to learn how.
I’m not much interested in American League baseball, mainly because I don’t like how the AL pumps up the offense with the Designated Hitter. I’d rather see the National League’s warts-and-all approach. Besides, batting the pitchers and double switches are more interesting than the DH, and they make for better all-around ball. That being said, I had my eye on the ALCS last night, mainly because it was the only baseball on. I guess I’m rooting for the Angels since the most important thing now is that the Yankees lose.
I liked how the Angels played gritty ball all night, especially how they ground out some runs in the 5th. They got on base and advanced runners the old fashioned way: a double, a single, hit by pitch, a walk, and a wild pitch. More importantly, they played some stunning, acrobatic defense: 3 double-plays, including a rarely-seen 3-6-1 job in the 6th. I had to smile when I saw it. You can tell a team is committed to defense when they turn one of those. Too bad it wasn’t enough for them to escape with the win. Damn Yankees.
One benefit of focusing most of my attention on the NLCS is that I can avoid hearing Tim McCarver babble about the most banal points imaginable since he’s on Fox for the ALCS and the NLCS is on TBS. That doesn’t necessarily make me look forward to the World Series, but at least I can avoid him until then. McCarver is to MLB what Billy Packer was to the NCAA Final Four: an over-rated blowhard who loves the sound of his own voice. He has long overstayed his welcome, much as Packer did for the 15 or so years before he called it quits. Hopefully McCarver will take his cue from Packer and make this postseason his final tour.
I was dealing with my share of aches and pains 3 years ago today as I continued my hitting internship.
October 18th, 2006: I work for a half hour tonight on keeping my hands up. It feels like I do better with that when I point the knob at the ball. I will myself to get several dozen solid hits, but can’t seem to get a rhythm. I wonder how much the Hit-A-Way is helping me.
I have a Tic-Tac-shaped callous on my left index finger and an invisible bruise on my palm. Both hands protest when I slide them into my batting gloves.
Early this afternoon, just for yucks, I went back out to the park with my Big Stick and Hit-A-Way. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for, well… for 3 years, ever since I wrapped up my story about learning to hit.
As I was warming up, I started to think about my right Achilles tendon, because I plant and push off my right foot when I’m swinging (click here to find out why I was worried about it). I should have been more concerned about my left shoulder and abs. They were achy and weak by the time I finally got my swing and step down and was making solid contact. I’m sure I’ll be sore tomorrow.
I forgot how awesome it feels to bash the ball with the Big Stick. The crunch of impact brought back some great memories. I walked back to my condo in the same spirits I had been in for so many days three years ago. There’s no doubt that the satisfying feel of inflicting blunt force trauma on the ball and the resultant adrenaline rush helped me manage the initial hurt and anger from the relationship that had ended just prior to me starting the story about hitting.
Not even the joys of hitting, though, were much help for my anger a month after the breakup when my ex-girlfriend phoned and asked me if I wanted to get together to see Flags of Our Fathers. She knew I was a huge WWII fan and that I would get to the theatre to see it as soon as I could. I seethed. Prior to the fateful Saturday evening when the relationship was terminated, I went through months of dealing with her reluctance to do much of anything, along with a steady stream of excuses to not get together or not stay overnight or to only spend a few hours together at a time. But there I was, finally getting the attention that was so important to the relationship, a month after I ended it. I still don’t understand why the final consequence had to expire before something changed.
I declined her invitation on the grounds that I had already made plans to see Flags of Our Fathers with my friend Edwin, and quickly ended the conversation before I exploded.
Edwin and I went to see the film two weeks later. It sucked.