Attending a baseball game is as much about experiencing the stadium and the crowd as it is about watching the game. The simple pleasure of watching the sunset as you eat a hot dog and watch the pitcher go into his windup is tough to beat. Attending a game to watch your local team, regardless of level, is enjoyable. Traveling to a new stadium to watch a new team in their home park is even better.
Bernie and I are embarking on a small baseball road trip. We are going to see four baseball games in four different cities in four days. This will be my first proper baseball road trip. I have traveled to see games in various cities, but never as part of a baseball centered road trip. I have never been to any of these stadiums, so every game will be a new experience.
Last year Bernie, Kevin, and I went to Pittsburgh to watch the Pirates play at PNC Park over Memorial Day weekend. Sunday night the Pirates hosted the Mets and we watched Matt Harvey’s terrible base running in person. Monday afternoon we watched the Pirates play the Diamondbacks. One city, two visiting teams, two days. We could not meet up at a new stadium to watch a game this Memorial Day, but Bernie and I were determined to turn our trip to Pittsburgh into a yearly tradition. Kevin will not join us this year as he is anxiously waiting for the start of New Zealand’s inaugural season in the Australian Baseball League. His baseball road trip is a little longer than ours.
Last year in Pittsburgh watching the Pirates host the Diamondbacks. We will miss Kevin this year. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Over the four days of our baseball road trip we will drive 1,100 miles to watch the Lansing Lugnuts host the Dayton Dragons. The next day we drive to Detroit to watch the Tigers take on the Minnesota Twins. After Detroit we head to Indiana to watch the Fort Wayne TinCaps play the West Michigan Whitecaps. Our road trip concludes with the South Bend Cubs hosting the Lake County Captains on Mister Rogers Day.
Traveling around Michigan and Indiana to watch baseball with a friend is a great way to end my summer break. New cities, new stadiums, new food, and a good friend. Here’s to year two of what I hope is an annual tradition.
Baseball never stops. It would be easy to fill your day with everything baseball; the games, injuries, trade rumors, player transactions. The amount of information coming out of baseball every day is difficult to fully ingest. Returning from a three week vacation with no internet or cell reception requires you to play catch up. I am not complaining about venturing into the woods and mountains of the western United States and Canada, only it makes keeping track of baseball impossible.
Living off the informational grid for a few weeks is refreshing. As much as I wanted to know the daily scores, it was nice not hearing my phone pinging with emails and notifications about things that ultimately do not matter. Baseball also fades into the background, after all it is just a game.
Upon returning to the world of internet access and cell service I bombarded myself with the news I missed. The All Star Game and the Home Run Derby. I wanted to know who won the Derby. I missed the “controversy” surrounding Bryce Harper hitting too quickly; I was not sorry to miss that part of the Derby.
Hiking a trail up a mountain to get away from the tourists gives you these types of views of Peyto Lake in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Injuries were another thing I missed while in the woods. The first text I received after asking my friends what I missed was the Mets were in first…for the draft. The obvious next question regarding the Amazin’s was had they called up Tim Tebow, because the Mets do weird things. Nope, broke his hand. I also found out about Aaron Judge’s broken wrist. The most surprising news was Noah Syndergaard contracting Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease. Easily the most Mets reason ever for a trip to the disabled list. There were other injuries I missed but these were the primary ones I heard about upon my return to the world of information; sorrow from my friends who are Yankee fans and collective laughter about the Mets.
The major news I missed was the run up to the trade deadline. Plenty of trade rumors but coming home, turning on a game and seeing Mike Moustakas in a Brewers uniform was strange, especially as this was how I learned he was traded. The big news of Manny Machado going to the Dodgers was everywhere, but Jeurys Familia to the Athletics? Interesting. The Mets trading Asdrubal Cabrera to Phillies or the Rangers trading Cole Hamels to Cubs. Sure. Even Brad Hand going from the Padres to the Indians and Zach Britton from the Orioles to the Yankees were strange. Adjusting to players in new uniforms takes time. It is even more jarring when you learn they change teams by seeing them in a new uniform.
Baseball never stops, it keeps moving regardless of what is happening in your world. It is difficult to keep up with the daily transactions, games, and news. It is impossible when you miss three weeks. Playing catch up with baseball is a Sisyphean task. The more you know about the game, the less you know. A midseason break makes it difficult to stay up to date on the major stories in the game. My vacation was a reminder that getting away from the chaos of daily life does not mean the rest of the world stops. You can only hope you have people willing to fill you in on what you missed when you return to the real world.
Every fan wants to own part of their obsession. Star Wars fans want everything from shirts to full on costumes. Baseball fans are no different. Every die hard baseball fan wants to own a piece of the game. You collect a piece here and there, and over time it grows into a small collection. Few people can rival the collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but it does not mean we should not have our own version of Cooperstown.
This painting of Buck Leonard was a gift from my wife. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
I am under no illusion that my baseball collection of is vast, or even valuable. The value is the joy I get every time I walk through my baseball room. Every piece is a tiny part of baseball history and my own history. It is a reminder of my love for the game and what I have done in life. A wall can turn into two walls, then a room, and then hopefully into something even greater.
My baseball wall. It is small, but growing a little every year. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
My centerpiece is a signed Andruw Jones jersey my wife bought me. He is my all time favorite player. Jesse met Andruw Jones and Otis Nixon and had them sign a baseball for me. My other signed memorabilia has been collected through winning charity auctions; this includes signed baseballs by Billy Hamilton, Joey Votto, and Johnny Cueto. My wife bought me a signed Craig Breslow baseball. Our first real trip together was to Boston and a game at Fenway, Breslow was the winning pitcher that day for the Red Sox. I won cleats signed by Kal Daniels and a signed photographs of Brandon Phillips and Devin Mesoraco from charity auctions. My wife found the program from Johnny Bench night at Riverfront Stadium at a thrift store for me. I have the program from the 2016 South Atlantic League All Star game, which I attended in Lexington, Kentucky with my sister-in-law. I have a score card from a game I attended in Houston after a friends wedding. The Astros defeated the Blue Jays that day with the roof closed while it monsooned outside. I have a Dodgers cup and a Pirates plastic nacho helmet from attending games with friends and family. I have a Moneyball movie poster and a poster of all the professional baseball team names broken down by category. I have a reprint of a Norman Rockwell painting and a painting of Buck Leonard as a member of the Homestead Grays. These pieces of art have been given to me as gifts along the way. I have a Louisville Slugger signed by my friends and family from our wedding shower. My lamp is filled with baseballs signed by friends and family from our wedding.
Devin Mesoraco no longer plays for the Reds, but this photograph is still striking. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Some of my collection has actual monetary value, however small. However, much of my collection is important for sentimental reasons. All of it helps to create my personal version of Cooperstown. I love it and I know it will continue to grow a little every year as I experience new things in life and my love for the game grows.
What does it take to go from sitting in the stands watching a game to on the field as part of the game? A lot of time and energy. Working a game as an umpire means spending hours studying the rules and mechanics, getting physically fit to meet the demands of calling a game, and suiting up with all the proper safety equipment before stepping on the field.
What does it take to go from umpiring a game to sitting in the stands? One pitch. I received this painful reminder Saturday afternoon. I was the home plate umpire for a 17U game. In the top of the 5th inning, the pitcher threw a fastball chest high, the left handed batter swung and fouled the pitch back. This minor redirection meant the baseball slammed into the right side of my throat. I do not know if I was slightly out of position in my stance, if my chest protector had slid down, or how the ball missed my mask, I wear the hockey style mask, and throat guard. All I know is I never want to experience that pain again.
Derek working behind the plate before getting hit in the throat later in the game. (The Winning Run/ SCL)
As luck would have it my parents and wife were watching my call the game, they were sitting 20 feet away. They said I dropped like I had been shot. I remember getting hit and I remember landing on the ground, I do not remember falling. After what seemed like forever, but was probably only a few seconds I was moving around collecting myself. I was trying to determine if I was hurt or injured. I sat up and started to move around. A coach waiting to play the next game came on the field to examine me. He is an ICU doctor. He said I was ok, but if my head started to hurt or if my neck swelled I needed to go to the Emergency Room immediately. I felt well enough to continue, so after reassuring my wife and parents and we continued the game.
At the end of the half inning my head started hurting and I was having difficulty turning my head. Clearly I had no business on a baseball field. The coach/ doctor checked me out again and said I needed to head directly to the Emergency Room. After several hours at the Emergency Room, the doctor said I am fine beyond some swelling and bruising. Relieved I avoided serious injury, I thought about how easily it could have turned out very differently.
The best I can describe getting hit in the throat with a fouled off fastball is imagine you are in a serious car crash but only to your throat. My entire right right is still sore from the impact. My throat is swollen, I still cannot full turn my head side to side. It is difficult to find a comfortable position to sit or lay down. I sound like I have been a heavy smoker for the last 50 years.
Jesse working behind the plate at Georgia Gwinnett College. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
I asked my wife and parents individually if I turned my head at all before the ball hit me. They all said I did not move. Flinching is dangerous when you are umpiring behind the plate. If you are moving around you are opening yourself up to pain and injury. Even in some magical world where I knew the pitch was coming for my throat after it touched the bat, there is not enough time for me to move.
Even when you do everything correctly, there is no guarantee you will leave the field uninjured. It may be a baseball or a bat or a non-contact injury that ends your career. No one stays on the field forever. One pitch can hasten your leaving the field for the last time only return as a spectator. Cherish every moment, good and bad, you are on the field. You never know when you step off the field for the last time.
It seems like only yesterday the Mets were poised to have a scary starting rotation for years to come. A rotation rivaling the Braves’ rotation in the 1990’s which had three Hall of Fame pitchers coming at you night after night. The future of the Amazings had Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, and Jacob deGrom. This rotation would dominate the division and baseball for years to come. Yeah…about that. The Dark Knight was banished from Gotham and is now pitching for the Cincinnati Reds, and even the Reds are beginning to discuss trading high on Matt Harvey before he crashes again. Noah Syndergaard has not pitched since before Memorial Day due to injury. Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler are having forgettable seasons and rumors are swirling about one or both leaving Queens. Neither would yield a huge return, but the Mets may be more concerned about getting something before their trade value becomes nothing. This leaves only Jacob deGrom on the mound for the Mets.
Even as Jacob deGrom is producing a career year, the Mets are wasting the work of their best pitcher. The Mets are terrible this year, may be time for a rebuild in Queens, even when deGrom is lights out. deGrom is leading all of baseball in ERA, FIP, and ERA+. Regardless what you think about FIP and ERA+, leading MLB in ERA, with a 1.79 ERA is no small feat. In 18 starts this season, deGrom has pitched 115 ⅓ innings, allowing 23 Earned Runs, with 142 strikeouts against only 29 walks. He also has a 0.988 WHIP. He has gone at least seven innings in 11 starts. Yet despite his brilliance, deGrom has a 5-4 record and the Mets are 7-11 when deGrom starts. No team is successful when they struggle to win with their best pitcher on the mound.
Jacob deGrom has had to grin and bear it this year as he watches his great starts wasted by the Mets. (Michael Reaves/ Getty Images)
The Mets have scored 69 runs, 3.83 per game, in games deGrom starts. However, they have given up 70 runs, 3.88 per game. The bullpen is letting the team down, having allowed 46 runs in deGrom starts. Any close game deGrom leaves the bullpen is struggling to hold the lead or keep the game close for the offense. deGrom is 2-2 at Citi Field and 3-2 on the road. The Mets are currently 35-51 and in 4th place in the National League East, ahead of only the disaster in Miami in the standings. Not a great return for the pitching deGrom is delivering every fifth day.
The Amazings cannot expect deGrom to continue putting up these numbers with nothing to show for it. The Mets need to rebuild around deGrom or find a trade while he is hot. A pitcher like deGrom should bring back a slew of prospects that could turn the franchise around. deGrom does not reach free agency until 2021, he would be more than a trade deadline rental. Regardless what the team does, the Mets should not waste deGrom’s brilliance. The Mets are ridiculed for their decision-making, such as Bobby Bonilla and the Wilpons, but at some point the team needs to either act like a small market team that happens to play in New York or responsibility act like a big market team. Stop giving big contracts players at the back-end of their prime like Jason Bay, 4 years $66 million, and Yoenis Cespedes, 4 years $110 million. Spread the money around, spend money on the bullpen, spend money on developing a retaining guys like you did with David Wright, and hope they can avoid injury. Yes, Jacob deGrom is having an amazing season wasted by the Mets, but this is the latest symptom of the Mets inability to capitalize on the talent they draft and develop. The team needs to focus on putting a winning team on the field. Winning baseball will attract the fans and media attention and make New York a two team town.
Baseball is America’s pastime. It is also a reflection of America. Anyone can rise to the top of the game. It doesn’t matter where you come from, only your ability on the field. You can be born the son of a saloon keeper in the Pigtown section of Baltimore, Maryland and grow up to become Babe Ruth. You can be born to poor African-American parents in Mobile, Alabama and grow up to break Babe Ruth’s home run record and establish yourself as Hank Aaron, the Home Run King. You can grow up in Commerce, Oklahoma and become Mickey Mantle, arguably the greatest switch hitter of all time. You can be the son of Italian immigrants and grow up in The Hill, St. Louis, Missouri and become Yogi Berra, one of the greatest catchers of all time. You can grow up in beautiful San Diego and become the greatest hitter of all time, as Ted Williams did. You can be a kid living in The Bronx, listening to the radio, wishing you were at the game and grow up to be Vin Scully, the greatest broadcaster ever.
Baseball can give people so much, yet it also has a shameful past. The exclusion of African-American players is indefensible. It will forever be a stain on the game. The resulting Negro Leagues are the truest American response to injustice. When faced with hatred and ignorance, players created their own leagues. Baseball in the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues was never perfect. However, African-Americans fought for their rightful place as equals in America with every pitch, hit, catch, and throw. The Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Missouri continues to ensure this history, good and bad, is not forgotten.
Baseball is a reflection of what is good in America, but it can also reflect what is not good in America. (www.si.com)
Baseball, like America, is a melting pot. People from all over the world come here to play the game. Ichiro crossed the Pacific and become a legend in Japan and America. One of the greatest right handed hitter of all time, Miguel Cabrera, left his native Venezuela to leave opposing players and fans in awe at his skills with a bat. Peter Moylan had a second chance at baseball after working as a pharmaceutical salesman in his native Australia. Gift Ngoepe continues to create a path for other African born players, as the South African became the first African born player to appear in a Major League game. Baseball and America takes players from everywhere in the world as Ed Porray proved, he was born at sea.
America is a true melting pot. We are not a perfect nation. We have done horrible things to our own people, from the Native Americans to African-Americans to religious minorities to the LGBTQ community. We fight and argue for what we think is right, just like in baseball. The rules that govern how we play the game and live together need updating from time to time. Change is never easy, but it is necessary. We are stronger together when we are willing to judge people by their abilities on the field and in life, and not on preconceived ideas based upon where they are from, what language they speak, or what god they worship. The wonderful thing about being an American is there is no mold to follow. Only a select few of us, when you trace your family back, are from here. Instead of telling our teammates and fellow Americans to conform, why not listen to them and learn from them to make yourself better, and by extension our team and country better.
Happy Independence Day!
The romanticized version of baseball has the players as the boys of summer. Playing a children’s game on an immaculate diamond in perfect weather. In reality, those boys of summer are sweating under the hot midday sun. The umpires are feeling the heat even more than the players, literally and figuratively. Amateur baseball is almost never played in a stadium, usually it is just a diamond, some fencing, and not much else. Once summer hits in earnest, the sun begins to cook the diamond and those on it.
Umpiring during the summer can be exhausting. The games begin to blur together, especially if you work a weekend tournament. Three, four, five, or even six games in a day takes a mental tole on you in the best conditions. Switching out with a partner to break up working games behind the plate or in the field does help maintain your mental focus, but regardless of position the time on the field wears on you. Adding to the stress and strain are parents and coaches who sometimes forget baseball is just a game. One of the first things you learn when you begin umpiring is if you take everything people say about a call you made to heart you will not make it as an umpire. Studying the rule book, proper mechanics, proper angles, and hustle are an umpires best friend. Taking all of these challenges then adding 100 degree heat can make the best umpires question themselves.
On almost every close call umpires are making at least half the people ate a game unhappy. (Alan Mothner /Associated Press)
It is a hot summer day, then put on plate shoes, pants, ball bags, a chest protector, and a mask. This is a recipe to make it look like you went swimming. Personally I wear the hockey mask which gives me better protection around my entire head, but what I gain in protection I lose in air flow. The hockey masks breathes fairly well, but at a certain point sweat begins to pour down your face. My chest protector has a band across the chest, which pushes it away from my body slightly. This allows better airflow, and keeps me cooler. While the band helps prevent heat rash, it does not mean I am cool, only I am cooking not being broiled. My shin guards and plate shoes fit snugly against my legs and feet. As you would imagine what I gain in protection I lose in coolness. I also wear a cup, I will never step on a baseball field without on. Getting hit in the cup is painful enough, I have no desire to experience what it is like getting hit there without a cup. Every piece of equipment is necessary to protect me. I would never work behind the plate without all of it on. A single missed pitch by the catcher or foul ball are not worth the extra coolness.
Umpires move on every pitch. This constant motion, especially in the heat, wears you down. Squatting behind the plate and in the field to watch the pitch. Moving from behind the plate, down the first base line to watch for a pulled foot at first, or moving out to gain a better angle on a fly ball to the outfield. Running with the runner around the bases to ensure they touch each base and to be in a good position to make an accurate call regardless of the base. Umpires are constantly moving and they do not retreat to a dugout between innings. Finding any amount of shade, no matter how small is an oasis on a desert diamond. The fight to stay hydrated and eat enough to maintain your physical health is vital if an umpire is going to survive a long hot weekend.
Night games can be a saving grace. Jesse might still be hot, but at least the sun is no longer beating down on him. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Umpiring in the heat is no joke. If you do not take care of yourself before and during the games, you can quickly find yourself in big trouble. Dehydration and sunburn are painful reminders that you were not prepared for the conditions. Any endeavor which requires long stretches of focus and physical exertion quickly teach you to take care of yourself. You did not get enough sleep last night? Great, you will be missing pitches and hearing about it from coaches and fans. You have been eating a garbage diet? You probably will not withstand the physical toll multiple games in a day takes on you. You were not hydrated to start the day and/or you have not continued to hydrate in the heat? Your muscles will cry for mercy, your mental focus will escape you, and once you have dug yourself a hole it is nearly impossible to get out while on the field.
Few people begin umpiring for the money. It is a nice side job, but doing it for the money will quickly show, as money is not always the best motivator to improve. Every baseball game has three teams; the home team, the visiting team, and the umpires. I do not mean the umpires are trying to win or make calls against a team. Each team has a job to do; the home and visiting team are trying to score the most runs before the end of the game, the umpires are working to ensure the game is played according to the rules of baseball. When an umpire does not properly prepare for a game they are letting their partner down. Yes, the heat can get to anyone, no matter how well prepared they are. This does happen. However, everyone should do their best to be ready for what awaits them on the diamond. The pressure cooker that is umpiring only gets more intense as the temperature rises.