Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Talking to my son between innings. (photo by Gail Winger)

Father’s Day never meant all that much to me until I became a father myself. It (becoming a father) always was something I figured I would do; I just never knew when, or how rewarding it would be once it actually happened.

But now I’m afraid I might be turning into “that guy.” You know, the one you see living vicariously through their children. It’s not like I’m a stage father or anything, but I do have to admit that lately I’ve been living and dying with every one of my son’s little league baseball games - probably even more so because I happen to be his coach.

Let’s not underestimate the power of “the coach.” I still remember my little league coaches quite vividly - and not always with a lot of fondness. More often than not, my coach was always some kid on the team’s dad, just like I am now, and they always did what most dad/coaches do – put their kids in primo positions even if they sucked.

This is just what dad/coaches do. I never took it personally because I knew if I was in their position I’d probably do the same thing. Besides, even if I thought they were idiots at times, I got along with most of my coaches (and their sons) and we had pretty good teams when I was a kid.

Of course, that was long before the advent of youth soccer in our society. When I was a kid everyone played baseball because basically our summers were made up of two choices: play ball, or go swimming - and the order of these two was mighty important, as every dad/coach would warn us on game days. We were strictly forbidden to go swimming before a game lest it somehow interfere with our ability to field a grounder or swing a bat.

The whole swimming-on-game-day stuff never made sense to me then, but now, 35-years later, I find myself telling my players the same crap about the evils of the swimming pool, and it’s my son who is playing the primo positions (from an objective standpoint, if that’s possible, he is one of our best players).

I’m not sure, but I think maybe, subconsciously I got married and had kids so that I could relive my childhood again. Sadly, little league may have been the highpoint of my baseball career because I was never good enough to play past the high school level, but I’m still plenty good enough to play with 10-year-olds. (plus I get to wear a uniform and hat – just like the players!)

And who couldn't love all the neato things that 10-year-old boys like to do? Like giving each other cool nicknames. My team, the Ann Arbor A’s, is made up mostly of kids named after breakfast cereals. We have “Apple Jacks” at third base, “Corn Flake Blake” at second and a kid we call “Special K” who can play anywhere. We also have our hardware section with "Hammer" at short, and "Nails" in centerfield. My son has been dubbed “8-ball” and our exceptionally tall pitcher landed the unfortunate moniker of “Sasquatch.” The fastest kid on the team is “Hot Wheels” and our catcher is “Savior” (his initials are J.C.). We also have one kid who never wears socks, so his nickname, of course, is “Socks.”

These kids have great personalities too. One of the boys (Nails) has taken it upon himself to be my official “cuss counter” quietly pointing out every time a let a swear word fly out of my mouth. I told him I’d give him 10 bucks at the end of the season if he has more runs-batted-in than I have swear words ... right now my money’s pretty safe.

And I would know because I keep track of things like runs-batted-in, and batting averages and on-base percentages. I chart every pitch and every at bat. I keep track of stolen bases, passed balls, and errors. I’ve turned into a statistical geek for no apparent reason because I don’t even like math.

Maybe I’m taking this coaching thing too seriously because last week when we blew a four-run lead in the last inning to lose by one, I stayed awake for two straight nights wondering if there were any moves I could have made to help us win.

It’s sick, I know, but the fun I had playing ball as a 10-year-old doesn’t even compare to the amount of fun I’m having coaching them. (I think it’s because I don’t have to run.) I guess it all makes sense because despite my age, I’ve never really felt like a grown up. Sure I’ve got a college education, but I much prefer relating to 10-year-old kid collecting baseball cards than a grown man playing the stock market.

That's who I am - why should I fight it? I don’t even own a suit or a tie, so I guess I’ll be buried in a ball cap instead. All I ask is that they don’t plant grass on top of my gravesite when I die. I'd rather have a pitcher’s mound!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Defining Moments

Sometimes fate boils down to nothing more than a split second or a half an inch. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

No one knows for sure when a moment in time will be thrust upon him or her in such a way that it will change their life forever. Sometimes it comes and goes without so much as a blip and it’s not until much later that the significance is even realized.

Sometimes the moment happens by not happening at all. The plane you didn’t board, the road you didn’t take, or maybe you avoided a horrific crash just by leaving somewhere 10 minutes early … or 10 minutes late. Every fiery crash you see on the highway could have been avoided by either party if not for bad timing.

I’ve thought a lot about defining moments lately. Not just my own, but other’s as well. Especially last week when Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers came within a whisker of pitching a perfect game against the Cleveland Indians. His defining moment came on what should have been the last batter of the game, Jason Donald, who hit a routine grounder to second base.

Only it wasn’t quite that easy. The Tigers’ first baseman Miguel Cabrera ranged far off the bag to try and field the grounder instead of letting the second baseman take it. Now, realizing no one was covering first, Galarraga hustled over to cover the base and try to cement his place in history.

Donald was busting up the line to try and beat the throw, but Cabrera threw a perfect strike to Galarraga, who got there a step ahead of the Indians’ runner. The stadium was set to erupt, the players were set to erupt, but then came the parallel arm motion of first base umpire Jim Joyce. It seemed puzzling at first because it wasn’t what anyone expected – not even Jason Donald.

Joyce had called him safe.

Stunned silence filled the air. It couldn’t be. Television replays started showing the play from a million angles, and every angle showed the same thing – Donald was out by a wide margin and Joyce had blown the call costing Galarraga his shot at the history books.

Fans began to boo Joyce as Tiger manager Jim Leyland and first baseman Cabrera gave the ump a tongue-lashing. But not Galarraga, he seemed unaffected as he walked calmly back to the mound to record his 28th out of the night.

Later, Jim Joyce, regarded as one of the best umpires in the American League, would see the replay and break down in tears. He now knew he had blown the call and he felt terrible. So terrible he did something unprecedented for an umpire. He payed a visit to the Tigers clubhouse to seek out Galarraga and he apologized.

Joyce wouldn’t sleep that night; in fact, he still had tears in his eyes the next day as he tried to ready himself to be the home plate umpire for final game of the Tigers and Indians three-game series. In a show of true sportsmanship, Galarraga walked the lineup card out to Joyce. When he arrived at home plate, he gave the tortured umpire a pat on the back. Joyce wiped away his tears and returned the gesture. It was nice moment between the two who now were forever linked by a routine grounder with two outs in the ninth inning of what would have been a perfect game.

It’s become their defining moment. A half an inch higher on the bat and Donald pops out to right field – no controversy. A half an inch lower and he strikes out - a perfect ending to a perfect game. If anyone other than Jim Joyce was umping at first that night, he probably calls Donald out and Jim Joyce could tell his grandkids about the perfect game he got to work one night in Detroit.

I feel for both men, but especially Jim Joyce because I know what it’s like to lose sleep over a mistake – to question your worth, even when you know you’re good at what you do. Galarraga’s almost-perfect game couldn’t have come at a stranger time because I had my own defining moment the same week and it nearly cost me my job, and just like Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga, I had no clue that something so routine would turn out to be so huge.

Of course mine wasn’t a ground ball to second base, mine was my normal drive home from work – something I’ve done on the same route, five days a week, for the past 16-years. Only on this particular day I saw something that wasn’t routine at all - a dead man. It was so striking to me, I wrote about it a few weeks back in my piece called “Slipping into Silence.”

Originally published on my blog with little fanfare, the piece took on a life of its own when my employer, AnnArbor.com, published it. Some people loved it – others not so much. I was called a racist, a terrible writer, a terrible person, a liar, etc. Some thought I made up the whole story. When I was asked to verify the details of the man I thought was dead, I found out I was wrong. The man I assumed to be dead, was indeed lifeless and unresponsive, but only because he had just suffered a seizure.

Maybe he died later, maybe not. I’ll never know because HIPPA laws prevent hospitals from giving out information about patients. But it didn’t matter. My employers deemed my error unacceptable and I was sent home for two days while they tried to decide my fate.

It’s hard to put into words how you feel sitting at home on a beautiful day not knowing if  you’ll have a job or not when the phone rings. I couldn’t really enjoy the weather because I felt like I might puke. I couldn’t really get up enough energy to do anything but worry. After 25-years as a photojournalist, I had a hard time believing what was happening.

How could my career come down to one mistake?

How could an anonymous man control my destiny?

Was my job really going to boil down to if a man was alive or dead? How could I possibly hope for someone's death just to save my job?

In the end I kept my job. But not until I was smeared publicly by a gaggle of commentators who were, and still are, calling for my head. I’m now forever linked with that elderly black man on the bench who I thought was dead - just like Galarraga and Joyce are forever linked. The only difference is the man on the bench, if he’s even still alive, doesn’t know it.

It’s been a strange few weeks. People keep asking me what happened and I keep telling the same story over and over again. I’m no longer allowed to write for AnnArbor.com, but that’s all right because I’ll continue to write on my own blog as I’ve done all along - at least through the end of July. At that point I plan on starting a book about my childhood.

In the meantime I’m rediscovering the joys of running and working out and breathing air again. I love to write and I love to take pictures, and coming up with something fresh and new every week for four straight years was a hell of a challenge. I’m proud of what I produced in that time span, and I plan on doing it for a while longer, but then it will be time to move on to try something new.

Who knows, maybe that will become my true defining moment.