gazeebo by the duck pond, demarest, new jersey.
I grew up in the forests of Northern New Jersey trapping fireflies and diving in piles of candy corn colored leaves. I grew up stepping on snails and slugs and listening to the sounds of the great wild woods behind my house. I grew up in a town that was only two square miles, where my entire grade was one hundred people. In fact, I grew up in a town so small that they didn’t have the resources to provide tee-ball to the littlest of aspiring baseball players. This meant that when we would fly across the country to visit my cousin in Encino, I suffered at his little league games. I would run the bases after the final out, so sure I could play with the big boys. I was waiting for someone just to let me play.
Every weekend I begged my father to hit flyballs to me. He would pitch me wiffle balls and tennis balls in our driveway where I would insist on running the imaginary bases I created after each hit. Home plate was a drain, first base was a pile of leaves. I watched a video of one of these sessions recently and marveled at my enthusiasm, but more so at my father’s patience as he continually tossed me a ball, which I would proceed to smack into the neighbor’s yard and gleefully run around the bases with my arms stretched out like an aeroplane. The more I learned about myself and the more I came to honor and respect the grandest of all games, the more I understood how my father could be so patient. I longingly wait to have a son I can be so patient with. I will one day be young again.
As far back as four years old, I remember my father letting me stay up to watch the New York Mets win the 1986 World Series. My earliest television memories were of my father politely asking me to step away from the screen because I had a nasty habit of pressing my forehead against it to amaze myself with the discovery that each pixel was composed of the tiniest of red, blue and green pigments.
shea stadium, queens, new york, 1986
My father raised me to be a Mets because he fell out of love with the Yankees. He had grown up loving Mickey Mantle so much it hurt. My father is a purist. He loves small ball, to say, the practice of manufacturing runs with tiny, little decisions that all must be placed together to create the desired outcome. Mickey Mantle could do it all. My father wanted to be him. I grew up understanding that in baseball, like life, there was a “right” way to do things. Don’t tell lies. The pitcher bunts with a less than two outs and a runner on first. Don’t cheat in school. Look the runner back to third before throwing to first. The rules of life and of baseball were the same.
I learned every player on the Mets roster in the 1980s. Every. Single. One. I knew their stats and what they were good at. It is amazing that I loved these players so much, having absouletley zero idea that I worshipped possibly the poster team for the New York cocaine scene of the 1980s. It was Al Pacino from Scarface playing first base and Gordon Gecko in right field. In reality, I loved Daryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden and David Cone and Gary Carter. But there was one player I loved more than all of them…
daryl strawberry wearing the same satin jacket i begged for.
My father took me to Shea Stadium, the ugliest venue in all of sports, maybe ten times a season. We’d drive out to Flushing Meadows in Queens, or even better, I’d get to come to NBC Studios at 30 Rock with him and meet all kinds of exciting people. The stadium was bright blue and had three story neon baseball players on the side. The metal railings inside were orange and awkward. The hot dogs were soggy, but they were brilliant. The LaGuardia Airport flight pattern was directly overhead and often times loud enough that even the public address announcer was impossible to hear. Even better was the giant black top hat out past the wall in left-center where a glowing and about-to-break red apple would pop up after each Mets home run. It was amazing. The kind of thing a little boy will always love.
home run, mets.
My first time at the stadium though, my father somehow got to take me into the guts of the stadium to meet some players. It is a pleasure I have not had since in some 21 additional years of baseball worship. I will always, always remember it with a smile creeping into the corners of my mouth. We met Daryl Strawberry, my favorite player at the time. My father thought he might be too busy to stop, but he had the guts to call out to him, and Daryl, seeing my in my shiny, satin Mets jacket staring at him with my frightened blue eyes, stopped. He stopped, came over to me and shook my hand and asked me how I liked the game. I could barely talk. He was so tall and his suit, which I remember as well as if I had just seen it this morning, was striped and made of the most fantastic fabric ever. He had a nice way about him. I could barely keep from exploding the velcro on my Keds. Afterwards, we met a young shortstop named Kevin Elster, who had hit a home run that day. You could safely describe this as my first man-crush.
We met Kevin and he was probably as excited to talk to us as we were to hit. The polar opposite of Daryl Strawberry, Elster showed up in a dirty shirt and his game pants still on. There was eyeblack on his face. He looked like I did coming home from catching pop ups and diving in the mud. He was so glad I was his new fan. We talked, he asked me what position I wanted to play, which immediately became shortstop, and gave me some tips on how to hit. Ironically, I ended up being way too slow to play shortstop and taking hitting advice from a middle infielder is not always a great idea.
wakelee field, demarest, new jersey
I eventually got to the age where I was old enough to play coach pitch, a variation of youth ball where the coaches would pitch to avoid any pitchers being embarrassed by walking every batter. I was a beast at shortstop that season. Life was amazing. I can’t even remember who sponsored us, but in Demarest every team had the same jersey. It just said “Demarest” on the chest and had your sponsor on the back, which was some mom and pop store who sprung for the 200 bucks it cost to uniform a team of little dirt eaters. We were the green team. You wouldn’t believe how much I loved putting on the stirrups (we wore them) and putting on my first pair of cleats.
But then things got weird. My father took a position in Dallas, Texas and had to commute back and forth for six months. Also, I knew I was moving. Everything was really hard. I never saw my Dad. My mother and I had to figure it out a little bit, even though we saw him on weekends, it was really hard. I missed him. I missed having a catch. I missed a lot of things. I remember I had a little phone with some blue neon in it and I would call my Dad at his temporary apartment in Dallas in the middle of the night to talk to him. Those memories probably seem worse than they were at the time. Hard to say.
That season, my second season in baseball, I was very lucky. Even though Dad was out of town and had to miss every game, I was on my best friend’s team. His Dad, who was kind of that super dad who you couldn’t believe wasn’t in the big leagues, was the coach. Me and my friend were the best players on the team and hit 3 and 4 in the lineup. His dad would call us the “bash brothers” like Mark McGuire and Jose Canseco, who we didn’t know at the time, were taking steroids. Every week I’d have a great game and then have to tell my dad over the phone how it went. I wanted him to see so badly how good I was getting.
Baseball is like life. There are risks and rewards and there is right and wrong. I was playing first base on sunny afternoon and our team desperately needed the third out. In 4th grade, you talk a lot more smack than you think. I would chat up every kid who got to first. I would tell him his shoes were untied. I’d tell him his sister was a cow. Who cared? I just wanted to mess him up. This one kid comes up, I can’t remember his name. He’s got some form of learning disability. Not sure what, but like you just kind of know when you are little, he’s a little different than you. Anyway, the kid smacks a base hit into short center and when he reaches first, I just start screaming “Go to second! Go to second!” Before I know it, the kid rounds first and starts wildly running to second. I am mortified the second I realize I have just deceived someone who was only guilty for trusting me. Reflexes take over and I take the return throw and slap a tag on the kid as he is realizing his mistake. My coach has to dive in front of me because the poor kid’s mother is running out to tear my head off. I have never felt so guilty. I apologize to the kid in the middle of the game and plead to the umpire to let him be safe. He refuses. Baseball is like life. Sometimes, you get taken advantage of. Sometimes there is no second chance.
A sunnier memory from that season was the time my father was able to make it to my final game, the final game I would play on the east coast. In fact, one of the last times I would ever step foot in New Jersey. My Dad drives straight from JFK to the field and walks up about two minutes before what will be my final at bat. My coach grooves one in there for me and I launch it. I am almost startled at how far it flies. The centerfielder just starts sprinting. I do the same flying highspeed to first. The exhiliration is incredible. It will be a race to the plate. I am going to hit a home run in front of my Dad in the one at bat he will see all season. As I pass second the ball is not on its way back into the infield. I keep running. I am filled with emotion as I touch home plate and am tackled by my teammates. It was my first home run and one of only three I would hit in my entire 13 year career as a baseball player.
the library, demarest, new jersey
After the game, we have no car as my dad had caught a cab. We get offered a ride, but we are both glowing and just so happy to see each other. We decide to walk home two miles, something we have never done. We walk through the tiny township of Demarest and the old library. We walk past the high school and take the long way home through the woods that used to scare me as a child. It is one of those special afternoons that glows golden in your memory. Amongst all the first kisses and near escapes from the law, nothing is quite like hitting your first home run in front of your father. He has taught you the game of fathers and sons, and you have shown him that you listened and that you have learned. Baseball is like life. Sometimes timing works out perfectly.
We had moved to Dallas, Texas and it was hard. I made most of my friends through baseball at first. Going from a small town to a city with 200,000 citizens and vast Little League complexes. My division had more teams than the whole county we lived in back in Jersey. My first game, they bat me seventh in the lineup. Two doubles and a runny nose from the cold, Texas wind later, at I hit third for the next three years of Little League.
One night under the lights I was patrolling first base. I can’t remember who was winning or what I was studying in school at the time. I don’t remember who was playing or if we were in first place or last. I do remember the story.
My father ran out from the dugout as we were warming up for maybe the third or fourth inning and tells me he has a stomach ache. He decides he will head out to address the issue and will be back in time for the game to end. He does mention that if the game ends and he is not back, to tack a ride home with the Healons, a family that lives nearby that we are friends with.
I get lost in the game as I do every time and when the final out is recorded, it is hard to remember how much time has passed. People don’t carry cell phones yet, so that isn’t an option. I just figure I’ll catch a ride home. Texas is haunting at night. It is so dark and windswept and vast. There are no hills to break up the infinite shadows. It is a powerful place to look at. The car ride home is warm, it is a typical spring night in Dallas. It is almost midnight as our game was far away and it is a school night.
our old house, plano, texas.
When we arrive home, the lights are out. My fingers are nervous as I punch in the gate code to open the garage. There are no cars inside. The house is empty. I run outside to catch the Healons who now are worried as well. We have no idea where my father is. My mother is in California at the time. I believe it was because my grandfather was being treated for skin cancer. I start to wish my Dad had just pulled me out of the game, but baseball is the kind of thing you finish once you start. My father would never have suggested it. We start making calls. My mother is concerned. I don’t know what to do. It is now three hours since anyone has spoken to my father and it is one in the morning.
The head coach of my team calls us just after 1:30am. He is a former FBI agent and was cool-headed enough to run through protocol. He found my father in the hospital suffering from a strangulated hernia. My father, who I rarely have see wince still refers to it as the worst pain he’s ever experienced. I am relieved. He has surgery in the morning. My mother flies home. I sleep the night at the Healons thinking and staring at the ceiling. Baseball is like life. Sometimes it scares the shit out of you.
Shortly after this, I go through a slump. The only true slump I have ever had. To make things worse, it was the year my coaches made me the cleanup hitter. For three seasons, I am mashing the ball. The minute I am entrusted with the cleanup spot, I start to blow it. In a big way. I cannot find the ball. It is like the bat has a hole in it. At a certain point, I am excited to make contact. I go to the batting cage and I am fine, but once I go back to the batter’s box, I am lost. It is amazing that baseball can make you fear it so much. It was my favorite thing in the world, but now I dreaded it. I was embarrassed. I wish I could tell you I had a miracle comeback that season, but I didn’t. I couldn’t hit all year. Baseball is like life. Sometimes, it isn’t fair.
There was a bright spot to that terrible season where my team, the Giants, were mired in second to last place. In the second round of the playoffs (somehow we had managed to win the first game) we were set to square off against the Dodgers, the undefeated team with the obnoxious coach. Everyone hated this team. He made his players cry, and worse, they were awesome. Our first round draft pick had been slumping too, so between him and I, we were in trouble as we were the three and four hitters.
We take to the field on a shiny morning and something is different. We don’t suck. We are hanging in there. I am still not hitting, but I am scooping balls at first base left and right. I am Will Clark out there. Even better, Robbie, our slumping hero, launched two of the longest home runs that day I ever saw. We watched him and his lanky stride hop around the bases as we all tackled him at home plate. The game wasn’t close. We murdered them. It was the only time in my life I was glad the Giants beat the Dodgers. It was great even if I didn’t hit well. I was a part of a team and in baseball, everyone is responsible for themselves. It’s a true team sport. Healon and I, again on the same team, stayed up all night playing Nintendo, eating total junk and celebrating a night we were underdogs. Baseball is like life. Sometimes the underdog wins.
old agoura park, agoura hills, ca.
We moved to California. Sure, I missed my friends in Texas, but I was never scared to leave. I had dreamed of being from California my whole life, ever since I first visited family there. It always seemed like vacation with the lemon trees in backyards, the green rolling hills, the orange sunlight. Now, we were moving to “vacation”. My father and I drove from Texas to LA, seeing the weathered fences and buildings of West Texas and the long lonely deserts of the southwest. I got a 103 degree fever in Las Vegas and got sick at Caesar’s Palace, still, I demanded to walk around. Vegas is insane when you are a kid who has never seen it. You can’t even believe it.
I had a great summer in California playing with my cousins and meeting all the older kids. Eventually, I had the chance to play summer league Pony ball. It was mostly 8th graders, but I was a 7th grader. I didn’t care. I still remember getting picked on a lot for my Texas drawl that I’d picked up and my lack of California cool. I didn’t care, I stuck it out.
I remember my first game. My family all showed up. I think they enjoyed going because I was the only baseball player in the family. My first at bat in California was probably the shortest. The kid on the mound seemed to be minutes away from high school, throwing high 70mph heat comfortably, which to a 12 year old is pretty intense. It’s the kind of heat that whizzes by you audibly and snaps like a gunshot into the catchers mitt. The fear of getting hit with a hard, round leather projectile is incredibly real. I was using a bat that was too long and too heavy for me, but I made my dad buy it, mostly because I liked the colors. I have always felt like if I looked good out there, I’d play good. I always rolled my pants up and kept my socks knee-high. I believed that your uniform was like a business suit. I was in my Sunday best, and I was about to face the fastest, heaviest pitches of my life.
I stepped in the box and made myself ready and before I knew it, the fastball was on me. I choked up and sent a hard grounder right up the middle past the pitcher and into the ocean of free green territory in center field. I ran so hard to first base, completely aware that my parents and family were cheering wildly. Baseball is like life. Sometimes you confront your fears and overcome them.
It is freshman year of high school. It is my favorite season of my lifetime. It was the last time I loved the game as a player. I am on a team with all of my friends. As the starting pitcher, every direction I would look, there was somebody I really, really loved to death. It was like going out there and fighting alongside your friends. I used to look forward to practice and whooping it up about girls and class. Driving the golf cart like an asshole. Raking the field. This was my summer year. It was the year that represented the high watermark. Everything was possible. Soon there would be glory, and cars, and booze, and breasts. It was the last team of true adolescence. We were wearing our town’s name across our chest, but we were not the front line. We weren’t the business of varsity sports yet, where parents grew insane hoping their kids would get scholorships or drafted to the minors. It wasn’t crazy talk. This was the Marmonte League, a competitive division of the CIF Southern Section, where kids did go pro. JV was the holding tank for Varsity. The Freshmen team was a place to play serious baseball with your friends.
We were about a .500 team. There were good days and bad days. I ran into my old coach, my favorite of all time recently and he reminded me of something I told him. He told me I once said “baseball is like chicken soup.” He is now the Varsity coach at my high school, which makes me happy. He told me he still tells his teams that baseball is like chicken soup. I was right and so is he. It can make you feel better when you feel like shit. It has a way of simplifying life for you. It can make everything clear as if you unmixed all the pigments of the universe into the three primary colors.
agoura high school
If you are still reading, this is the high point of the story. This is the part of the drug movie where they are spending c-notes like they are singles. This is where there are chicks and Bentleys and all of that. We were going to play Westlake High School.
In fairness, I lived in Westlake. But I went to Agoura High and hated Westlake with a passion. Westlake, our bitter rivals who never even considered us rivals. To do so would be to admit we were in their class. We used to claim they recruited for football calling them Cal State Westlake. It was true, I still belive it is true. We never beat them in football. Ever. One night I am sitting on the couch at USC, half-wasted when SportsCenter comes on saying “now for some Marmonte League action in Westlake, it’s the Agoura Chargers leading the Westlake Warriors with no time left on the clock.” I just out of my seat. No one in the room cares. I think Agoura is going to beat them for the first time in a decade. Only the reason this clip made national news is because Westlake pulled a Cal vs Stanford and used every trick in the book to run back a kickoff and break our hearts. Football isn’t like life. The good guys never had a chance.
So we are playing Westlake and I have the ball. I have my good friend Jon on third base pumping me up. Jordan and Doug are in the outfield. Dan is playing first. Matt is at short. Chris, who later was drafted by the Reds, is somehow still on the Freshman team even though he is our Manny Ramirez. Chris was the best backstop I ever got the pleasure of throwing to. You just knew it. The way he framed the ball, the way he learned when to call what pitch. I never, ever shook him off, that is, unless he gave me the signal to pretend to shake him off. I felt like I had a rocket for an arm when I pitched to him.
There was a heightened consciousness to that afternoon. Friends showed up and our tiny bleachers were packed. I remember all of us talking on the third baseline by our dugout. Jon and Chris and I as captains were making the point that today we were going to murder these assholes. I believed it. But it was the reality that you would have to start the sequence and execute, execute, execute.
We took the field and it was clear this day was special. Jon was laying out for the ball at third. Matt and Mike turned a double play. Chris was gunning runners out at second. And me? The curveball was breaking and my fastball was locating. Chris would sprinkle in my slurve, or the “four” as he would call it with a smile, and we kept everyone off balance. Chris would wiggle the “four” signal to me for the remainder of high school to me, long after my baseball story turned sour.
We reached the bottom of the seventh and we were clinging to a 3-2 lead. At this point, the varsity team’s game had ended and they climbed up to our ragged field to watch the ending. The head coach of the program at the time was there. My coach came out to the mound with me before the final inning where I was to face the 2-3-4 hitters and he sort of smiled to me. He asked me what I was doing for dinner later. He pulled me out of the pressure. I smiled. Once he saw that, he popped the ball in my mitt and said to me that all he wanted from me was “three more”. I knew what he meant. I had to leave it all on the field. When you have thrown over 110 pitchers, your arm feels false. You can’t trust it. Your legs and stomach hurt. Imagine lifting a twenty pound dumbbell 110 times. Normally, I wouldn’t have thrown so many, but a good coach lets the pitcher finish his painting. Every player on that team bled for it and we were going to finish big. We’d honor Doug’s outfield play and Kellen’s RBI double from the bench. I wanted so badly to bring this one home.
The first batter strikes out. The volume seems to get turned up. The intensity raises. Somehow, striking the kid out made it harder to find the next two outs. This kid Josh comes up, he’d transferred to Westlake. He was the catcher. He was pretty good. Worse, he had already grabbed a few hits off me. Chris calls the curveball and I break off a great one, only Josh nails it and it is soaring towards left center. That feeling hits your gut. You feel sick. It’s what I imagine it feels like when you realize you are about to fall to your death. You realize it and now have to play out the gory conclusion.
But not today. Jordan is fast and athletic and he gets behind the flight pattern of the ball and makes a stunning catch against the chain links of the wall out in left center. Casually, he tosses the ball back in. To this day, there has never been a bigger relief. I had let my team down many times, but this game, this inning, please God in heaven do not allow me to let them down. We are so close and you only get these chances a few times in a life time.
The clean up hitter comes out. I expect Chris to come talk to me, but he just gets in the squat and calls for a fastball. My arm is killing me, but I hit the black of the corner of the plate and go up 0-1. Next, a curveball in the dirt. Another curve in the dirt. A fastball inside is fouled off. 2-2. The crowd is making all kinds of noise and for a minute, it’s Shea Stadium to me. I am almost begging myself not to mess up. My team are all encouraging me. I look at Chris, and he wiggles the “four”. I don’t allow myself to think. I just deliver it.
The balls loops from a 3/4 angle delivery and rolls across the righty batter’s body arching towards the outside corner. It is not fierce or wicked. It is simple math. It is a modest hope in the form of 60 feet and 6 inches of flight. The batter must pause just enough to roll over on the ball and hit it poorly.
He does. The ball dribbles towards second and I have nowhere to run. I just stand there trying to will everyone into place. Mike grabs the pellet and fires it to Dan who raises his hands in the air. We’ve done it. My team tackles me and we celebrate together. The varsity team is cheering. Chris is punching me in the stomach in the pile telling me it was the “four”. More likely, it was his pitch calling and our team’s defense. Regardless, for a moment, we are kings.
That day after the game, Chris is moved up to Varsity, or maybe JV, I can’t remember. I do know it is the last time I ever threw him a pitch.
The season ends. I get a small award as pitcher of the year for the freshman team, although there were only a handful of us. I play summer ball. I am ready for JV. I had no idea it was going to be my last season. I never saw it coming.
Right off the bat our new coach seemed to hate me. I was shocked. Most authority figures have always liked me. I certainly never spouted off to the guy. Really, he didn’t like my curveball. It was not a power curve, more a lazy 12-6 I tried to drop off the table. My fastball, high 70s with a gust of wind behind it wasn’t power. I used too many pitches. I was a junkballer. He hated junk.
He told me I was out of shape. So I ran. Obsessively. He told me I threw too slow. I lifted weights. I’ll never forget one game he brought me in to face one batter, I got a pop up that the right fielder dropped, and then he pulled me. He called my pitches. He constantly beat me up. I couldn’t figure it out, but I also didn’t want to complain. It was so foreign. I guess up until then, I never realized how hard I pressed to make people like me. This experience really changed my life. In a weird way, I stopped caring. I became like the people I used to resent.
The season ended unceremoniously. I had the flu and I skipped our last game. In the back of my mind I suspected I might never suit up again, but I wasn’t sure. They named the JV coach the head coach of varsity and I decided I was done. I loved baseball, but I hated being so apathetic. I hated it becoming a business to me. Maybe I was soft. Maybe I was just a sixteen year old more concerned with chicks and popularity. It’s hard for me to say, even a decade later. Baseball is like life. Sometimes you don’t get a chance to say goodbye.
The next year, I ran my first marathon. I had never been to downtown L.A. before. My parents and my friends didn’t want me to run, but I was and am the most compulsive person I know. I have waited years for things like love and revenge and employment. I’d like to say I grew out of that, but I haven’t. That fire still burns in me.
I would run in the rain and in the middle of the night. Most of my friends didn’t know to what level I was taking it. I was very, very angry at myself for quitting ball. Ah, I still am. I probably won’t get over it until I see my son suit up one day.
Two years passed and I focused on making films and student government. I ended up being the president of my high school, for what that is worth. It was all life with the volume turned down. My band did pretty well and we got to play with some bands we grew up loving. It was great at times. We hung with indie punk record labels and sat in tour buses with some of our favorite bands. I spoke at graduation. I came in second place for homecoming king and lost on the football field at homecoming in front of five thousand people. That was rad.
It all ended when I got into film school at USC. I knew I had to go, it was the culmination of a lot of dreams. I checked out mentally. I ignored the baseball season, even though I felt pathetic on game days when my friends were in their varsity jerseys. I would never have been a big time starter in our division, there is just no way. The good Lord made me a lot of things, but a 6’4″ right hander with a plus-plus fastball he did not. Still, there would have been a role for me. A middle reliever. Something with quiet dignity. I am sad to say, I let one man get the best of me. I hope he is happy, wherever he is. I turned out pretty good. He taught me a lot in the strangest of ways. I probably owe him one. I learned the importance of never, ever giving up. No matter what, no matter what they say about you, no matter what the odds are, you owe it to yourself to look your doubters in the eye and tell them, “I will crawl on my stomach over broken glass before I give up.” And I will. And I have.
College is something I don’t talk about much to anyone. You had to be there. Suffice to say, I am battle hard now. I’ve been raised by wolves. I thank you, friends. I really do.
Once I entered the real world, I fell in love with baseball again. Once my heart was at peace, baseball became love again. My father and I got season tickets. It’s me and my Dad under the lights, enjoying summer and the sound of the bat on the ball. It is so peaceful. It is just so, so peaceful for me. Baseball is like life. Sometimes there are second chances.
I never take the American game for granted any more. Every spring I feel it. I feel like a little kid again. I am walking home with my Dad from Wakalee field. I am in a slump. I am getting mobbed after a complete game. I am catching pop ups in New Jersey. I am hugging my father as the Cubs are eliminated and our season gets extended just a little longer. Every spring I am born again.
To everyone I have ever played on a team with, thank you. And to everyone who I’ve ever sat with at the Ravine, thank you. To my father, thank you. Thank you times a million.
The season started today. Baseball is like life. Anything can happen.