Hopefully, in the next couple of days, I’ll have a new blog.
More Dr Pepper fueled stories of baseball, life, and hope.
Hopefully, in the next couple of days, I’ll have a new blog.
More Dr Pepper fueled stories of baseball, life, and hope.
The purpose of the drill was simple: Catch three pop-ups in a row.
The execution of the drill was straightforward. Lie down on the ground in push-up position. The coach exclaims “Ball up!” as he throws the first ball into the air. The player on the ground immediately jumps up, spots the ball in the air, and catches it. When the first ball has reached its apex, another coach will throw a second ball. After catching the first ball and tossing it to the side, the player locates the second ball, and catches it. When the second ball has reached its apex, the third ball is thrown. Track it. Catch it. Three pop-ups. Drill completed.
I stood at the end of the line of outfielders for the Parkview High School baseball team. They performed the drill quite successfully, even with the gusty winds blowing the pop-ups significantly toward right field.
When it was my turn, I was tempted to step aside. Instead, I took a deep breath, got in push-up position, and nodded that I was ready.
“Ball up!” Coach Kendrick shouted. Coach Kendrick is the assistant coach for the team as well as one of the coaches in the Grip ‘N’ Rip League. We played catch last year and have since talked about playing catch with our vintage mitts, but he left his at home today.
As soon as he shouted, I jumped up and looked straight into the sun. I took a couple of stumbling steps and caught the first ball significantly off to my side. I then clumsily drifted toward the second ball. It bounced off the top of the mitt. By this point, I’m pretty certain my brain was spinning, because I didn’t even touch the third ball. I picked up the baseballs from the ground, tossed them to Coach Kendrick, and walked to the end of the line. The outfielders were quite generous and gracious and did not laugh out loud at my attempt.
And this is how my first day of outfield work started.
After the dizzying drill was fly ball practice, followed by more fly ball practice with throwing through the cutoff man to each of the bases, some running drills, and more pop-ups.
I caught some. I misplayed some and will blame the wind for the sake of my ego. I made some good throws, I made some bad throws, especially when my plant foot slipped in the grass. Tennis shoes are not adequate footing on grass surfaces, either. After close to an hour, I was the only one breathing hard. I needed to leave to get home in time for dinner before Kaylea’s symphony practice.
I tipped my hat to the athletes in green and gold and thanked the coaches for allowing me to spend some time in between the lines.
“The kids loved having you out here,” Coach Kendrick later messaged me.
There’s so much work left to do.
Tryouts are in 118 days.
I saw the foundation for the home run porch in right field as I tried to warm up my hamstrings and lower back. Catfish General Manager Mark Hogan told me it was going to be two-tiered and hoped that someone would park the first home run of the new team on the porch on Opening Night — June 4 against the DuPage Pistol Shrimp. GM Hogan knows and loves baseball like I love baseball. For 18 years, he coached SEMO’s baseball program and still has dreams for the facilities at Capaha Field. He turned down the opportunity to coach the Catfish, but agreed to put in the work necessary to help make it a success in the community.
In less than two months, the 12-team Prospect League will make its way to Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The Cape Catfish are one of the westernmost teams playing their first season in the 60-games-in-70-days league. Unlike the drawn-out schedules of collegiate baseball, Prospect League baseball mimics the intense daily grind of professional baseball — except the collegiate ballplayers will be gaining experience not six-figure salaries. For the ballplayers, the experience is not only a test of their on-field skills and abilities, but also their mental toughness. How will they fare in the heat and humidity and road trips? Can they rise to the challenge and play to their personal best as well as help their teammates? Will their bodies survive the dings and bumps and bruises that come through the game or not?
I stood in the right side of the batter’s box and looked up at the porch. I pretended to dig in to the turfed dirt, but my P. F. Flyers simply slipped. Tennis shoes are not adequate footing on turfed surfaces.
“People on that porch are safe from me,” I quipped.
Opposite me stood Steve Larkin, the new manager for the Cape Catfish. For the past three seasons, Coach Larkin has worked as a hitting and infield / outfield coach within the Prospect League, for the Chillicothe Paints and the West Virginia Miners.
“If you can take one out to left, you can take one out to right,” he said.
I don’t think I can take one out at all. Capaha Field is 330 feet down both lines and 400 feet to straightaway center. Give me a golf ball and a 9 iron and I can go yard all day. But I’m not a power hitter. I’m lucky if I’m a gap-shot doubles guy.
Coach Larkin knows what it takes to survive and thrive in this greatest of games. Drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1994, Larkin spent 11 years on the field professionally — including one game in the show. In September of 1998, he took his place at first base for the Cincinnati Reds while his brother, Barry, played shortstop. Two other brothers covered second and third — Aaron and Bret Boone. The Reds were victorious over the Pittsburgh Pirates, 4 – 1, and Steve collected his first and only major league hit. The ball is currently safe at home with his mom.
After hearing Hogan’s story of his Stan Musial autographed mitt, Coach Larkin and I played catch in front of the first base dugout. I picked Larkin’s brain for some of the wisdom he will be passing along to his players still dreaming MLB dreams.
“I’ll say it a thousand times this summer, ‘Throw it through the cut-off man.’ And make sure you stay behind the screen when you’re throwing batting practice.” He said while showing me the lump on the back of his throwing hand.
Coach Larkin encouraged me to put in time in the cages and playing catch, two things I already love to do. At 44-plus, I don’t think there is any chance I could cut it in the Prospect League. As I prepare for my own tryouts later this year, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the Catfish, cheering them on from across the state. Hopefully, I can make it back to catch a few games and maybe even take some swings when Coach Larkin’s throwing batting practice.
To the first Catfish player who hits a home run on the porch, I offer this trade:
One copy of America at the Seams — complete with a story of the Prospect League’s West Virginia Miners and Big Paul — in exchange for an autographed baseball.**
**Not the actual home run ball.
Rickey Henderson is the most prolific base stealer in MLB history. He once said, “You have to keep running. I always believed I was going to be safe.”
The Kansas City Royals are the fastest team in baseball. Adalberto Mondesi has already hit three triples and an inside-the-park homerun. He safely singled on a slow ground ball to second base. Whit Merrifield is stealing bases every opportunity he gets, seeking to defend his stolen base crown of 2018. Billy Hamilton is roaming spacious centerfield and Terrance Gore is ready to show what speed can do in the late innings. Speed equals fun in baseball.
In 2014, I trained and ran in the Girls On The Run 5K with Sophie. I broke in a pair of new shoes and loosely followed a couch-to-5K plan, as well as joined Sophie and her friends on a couple of training runs. On a windy and cold November morning, Sophie and I (intentionally!) woke up at 5:30 AM to go run the 5K together. They called out her name at the finish line at which point she confessed she had no desire to run another 5K.
Running is an important part of playing baseball. Turning singles into doubles. Closing in on line drives to the gap to rob someone of a hit. Dancing off of first and distracting the pitcher. It’s not a slow old-man shuffle, but an explosive speed propelling athletes from the batter’s box to first base in just over four seconds.
One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four one thousand.
I had ankle surgery in 2016. Since then, I have run here and there just for the fun of it, for the joy and freedom of moving quickly, but I haven’t seriously trained any since the 5K with Sophie. I know there will be a timed 60-yard dash at the tryouts, the equivalent distance of a double without the hard left turn. (Major leaguers run a 60-yard dash in under 7 seconds.) So I started running yesterday. John MacDougall, the founder of MacDougall Batmakers, sent me an encouraging note.
“Don’t run more than 60 yards. It will just make you throw up. Never hit a triple.”
I heeded his words of wisdom.
Simple “sprints” of 50 yards.
My lungs and legs protested mightily.
After a significant period of stretching and only 10 “sprints,” I was done. And highly discouraged. And doubting the wisdom of trying out.
Listening to the radio on the way home, I was distracted trying to catch my breath and thinking through the excitement of a book launch when someone read a verse from the Bible as part of an interview.
those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Tryouts are four months from today.
Four months which will pass with the speed of Mondesi legging out an infield hit.
Four months of hoping and running.
“It’s a round ball and a round bat, and you got to hit it square,” Pete Rose once said.
Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do in sports. In what other sport can you be considered at the top of the game and succeed only 30% of the time?
Mark stands 6’3” and is full of muscles. Bearded and soft-spoken, Mark met me at CY Sports to spend some time in the batting cages. We shook hands and my hand was lost in his grip. He played outfield and pitched in the Grip ‘N’ Rip League last year so I was all ears, trying to soak in as much advice as possible.
“The crack of the bat, that sound…that is my favorite part of the game,” he said with a smile.
I successfully did not hit Mark once while throwing him batting practice. I heard that distinctive sound, that beautiful sound, the sound that embodies spring as he squared up multiple pitches and barreled balls back my direction.
Mark grew up playing baseball in Morrisville and loves the joy and thrill of competition.
Last March, playing basketball, he tore the UCL tendon in his thumb on his throwing hand. He had surgery in May and had to wait 6 weeks before he could move it. He worked hard at increasing the flexibility and strength in his thumb to be ready for August tryouts.
“Being able to compete again, being in a league like this and meeting so many great people, it’s really a special opportunity.”
Using a midnight blue M-14 demo bat from MacDougall Bats, I took my swings and didn’t embarrass myself too much. The bat felt as terrific as it looked and I worked up a steady stream of sweat taking swings.
T-minus 128 days to tryouts.
There is a whisper growing inside of me.
It bounces around like March’s madness of basketball and weather and Spring Training pitcher ERAs. It is perfectly and passionately ludicrous and triples my pulse every single time I’m quiet enough to listen to it. I can’t help but think of Field of Dreams and remember the email I once received from W. P. Kinsella – “It is the fiction writer’s job to create weird characters, but I wouldn’t want to know any of them in real life.”
I tried to ignore the whisper in January and February only to have it return with a vengeance once Spring Training games started.
Last year, I loved playing catch every day — the people I met, the stories I heard, the simple joys and sounds and smells of connecting through not-so-fastballs and the snapping of leather. While I have appreciated the freedom from the self-imposed pressures of having to find a daily catch partner, I have greatly missed the activity itself.
“Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you were supposed to be?” author Ian Morgan Cron wrote in an email newsletter that, somehow, ended up in my inbox and I read it and was sent on a remembering journey of my earliest days in Columbia and Lee’s Summit and Grand Junction and Springfield.
I remember sticker-covered tricycles on porches and camping in the mountains and losing all of my hair. I also remember watching the World Series and pick-up baseball games anywhere and everywhere and baseball cards. Until I was 16, I remember saying I was going to play baseball when I grew up.
And then I stopped playing. Mostly because my body didn’t grow on my timeline.
“For as long as I can remember, all I’ve wished for was one more chance to play ball — to step on the mound, toe the rubber, and pour my heart out; to flip Field of Dreams on its head and wink at the hitter just before I got him out.”
Four years ago, I first wrote those words now published in Dreamfield. A light-hearted novel of baseball and faith and time travel, Dreamfield was a story of second-chances. Now, I might get a second chance to see those words come true.
On Sunday, August 4, the Grip ‘N’ Rip Baseball League will host tryouts at U. S. Ballpark in Ozark, Missouri. The wood bat league “strives to provide the ultimate baseball experience for players still young at heart.” Seven games in August and September followed by playoffs and an All Star Game. The local news featured the league last year.
The whisper simply says, “Tryout.”
Excuses come easily. It’s been decades since I’ve really played baseball. I’m too old. I’m half blind. I’d need a bat (or two? or three?) and turf shoes and baseball pants and on and on. And then there’s the painfully honest question: What if I’m not good enough to make the cut?
I told my friend Rance about the whisper in hopes he would talk some sense into me. Rance Burger is the editor of the Christian County Headliner. We played catch on a couple of occasions last year, at the beginning of February and during the World Series. Rance is also the Communications Director for the Grip ‘N’ Rip League, calling the play by play of all of the league’s games.
“I’ll cover the cost of your tryout. I believe in you, Ethan. I don’t care if you show up in cutoff jean shorts with the Walter Johnson glove on your hand, I’ll stake your tryout fee.”
I did not anticipate that response. The good news is I don’t own any cutoff jean shorts. No one needs to see the scars on these far-too-skinny-and-blindingly-white legs.
I get it. I really do. Baseball is just a game. There are so many more important, pressing things on this planet. There are pains and injustices and atrocities that make me question my faith and question humanity and worry about the world my daughters will inherit. What good can come into the world through yet another baseball story?
I have no earthly or heavenly idea.
But, over the years, I have learned to trust these whispers of unknown origin. Whispers about moving back to Springfield. Whispers about playing cowboy with Dad. Whispers about playing catch.
Springfield is home to an incredible wealth of baseball talent. From the AA Springfield Cardinals to successful collegiate programs to multiple training facilities around town. If I’m not going to completely embarrass myself at tryouts, I am going to need help. I’m hoping to follow up on friendships made last year and make new friends as I learn a thing or two, to try and “get in the best shape of my life” so I can step on the field on August 4 with a semblance of self-confidence and baseball swagger.
Tomorrow the Royals will take the field against the White Sox and I’ll be following the game as best I can via radio and internet as first pitch occurs in the middle of the after school life. I hold on to ridiculous hopes for these that’s-what-speed-do Royals, just like baseball fans worldwide do this time of year. (Surely this is the year Alex Gordon will win the MVP and the Royals will invite me to throw out a first pitch!)
As Opening Day kicks off and professional ballplayers of all levels entertain us throughout the summer, my training will begin in earnest. I know that this greatest of games still has plenty to teach me about life on this beautiful ball of dirt.
Is there enough baseball magic in Springfield to turn my dreams of playing ball into a reality?
**Photo courtesy Aaron Unthank.
Bill Virdon knows a thing or two about home field advantage. He’s the only New York Yankees manager never to manage at Yankee Stadium. Yankee Stadium underwent renovations while he was at the helm of the pinstriped team. Shea Stadium, the home of the New York Mets, became the home field for both teams.
Central High School is the oldest high school in Springfield, celebrating its first graduating class in 1894. With a bulldog for a mascot, Central has an incredible history. It is the home of the Kilties, the first all-female Scottish pipe and drum corps in the country (1926). It is the high school from which Linda Brown, the child associated with the historic case Brown v. Board of Education which outlawed U.S. school segregation, graduated. It is the high school from which Bob Barker graduated — please spay and neuter your pets — and it is probably haunted. As one of a handful of schools in Missouri with the International Baccalaureate program, Central is also home to some of the most brilliant students in the country.
For the last four years, I’ve spent my mornings driving Kaylea to Central and picking her up in the afternoon. Last year, as a 7th grader, Sophie joined the Central ranks as part of the Middle Years Scholars Program. This year, Caleb has become part of the crew on board the Bryan Family Millennium Falcon, braving early morning music and conversations.
A friend from church, Caleb was part of Catch 365 (Day #74). He’s also on Central’s baseball team.
Central is the only high school in town that does not have its own baseball field. As I traipsed around town playing catch last year, I was on the lookout for places where the red and black team could call home.
Maybe the field on Harrison and South could be redesigned as a baseball field. Persons taking their driver’s license test might have to watch out for home runs as they parallel parked.
Or the fields at Smith Park near Evangel University. Crosstown Barbecue could host post-game celebrations.
Both of these locations still require some travel, but at least they are closer to the school.
Currently, the team is raising funds to cover the additional expenses of travel and equipment for practices and games. (Caleb’s page is here.)
Part of growing the game is having adequate and appropriate space for practice and play.
It’s time for Central to have a home field.
My fifth grade teacher, the same teacher who dressed up as Viola Swamp on “bad days” as a warning to us students, the remarkable and inimitable Sandy Rhodes, quoted my own poetry back to me. It made my whole head blush a ridiculously bright red.
In high school, on multiple occasions, teachers asked for personal copies of pieces I’d written. I scrawled them out on notebook paper and never gave it a second thought as to why they wanted to keep the poems.
I grew up in Springfield.
I played soccer and baseball on fields across town and have memories of traipsing the fairways of every golf course with Dad. I broke windows chasing baseball dreams and broke teeth running away from a bully. I rode bikes with my best friends through Delaware Elementary neighborhoods and loved playing video games at Aladdin’s Castle. After moving to Texas for my Master’s degree and spending a decade working in Kansas City, my wife and daughters and I moved back to Springfield to be closer to family.
My daughters started pursuing their dreams of music and art, my wife went to Drury for her Master’s degree, and I started a “career” as a freelance writer. Blogs and articles and books. The more I wrote, the more I remembered my own dreams from my growing up days. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write about Springfield. It became the setting for my first novel, Dreamfield, and the home base for stories of my catch-playing year.
Jeff Houghton, of Instagram Husband and The Mystery Hour fame, challenged dreamers to “make something where you are.” In 2017, I started working on This is My Springfield, a book of poetry, photos, and illustrations about life in the Queen City. Poems celebrate Fun Acre and Andy’s, the “French Fries” and Brad Pitt and ridiculous weather.
Brad Zweerink is a local freelance and documentary photographer and friend from our days in Mrs. Rhodes’ class. He donated significant time and energy bringing the poems to life in beautiful black and white photos.
Sophie, my youngest daughter, is incredibly artistic. Her art displays wisdom and talent beyond her years. Artists of any medium and age need opportunities to give and ship, as Seth Godin would say. I gave her a timeline and asked if she would create simple illustrations for some of my poems as well. I was amazed by both the quantity and quality of her submissions.
This is My Springfield is not only Springfield made, but Springfield-based and gives back to the community as well. For 50 years, Ozarks Literacy Council has provided free, one-on-one tutoring to anyone who needs help improving their reading skills. All proceeds from This is My Springfield will benefit OLC, helping grow new readers so they can also turn their dreams into a reality.
On April 3, from 6 – 8 pm, The Creamery Arts Center (411 N. Sherman Parkway) will be hosting a come-and-go book launch celebrating the long-awaited publication. Books will be for sale ($20) — so, so many thanks to Brent Gilstrap Realty and Rick Grayson Golf for sponsoring the evening.
I love Springfield and hope that feeling is discovered and conveyed in these poems and stories. I’m already thinking about Volume 2.
Keep dreamin’, Queen City friends.
Go Shout Love shares stories of real-life superheroes.
Like Hadley, Nathan, and Hollyn who enjoy the magic of being alive.
Like Beckett and his bucket list.
Like Ellie who knows how to live life to the fullest.
Several years ago, my sister first told me about Go Shout Love while researching Mighty Henry’s Schizencephaly. Thanks to her, I connected with the Macan family and was able to help share the story of Super Bo and his family in both a picture book and America at the Seams.
“We raise awareness, funds, and create community through social media for families who have children on rare medical journeys,” said Josh, the co-director of Go Shout Love.
Each month, Go Shout Love shares the story of a different family, celebrating that family and raising funds through sales of beautifully designed graphic t-shirts and other marvelous products.
“The best part of working with Go Shout Love is the fulfillment of seeing these families supported and encouraged by complete strangers. We have an incredible team that works hard each month for our families and it’s an honor to work with them. For each one of them, the work they do for Go Shout Love is not just work, they truly believe in the mission and live it out. The hardest part is not being able to feature every nomination we receive, and to do even more financially for each of the families.”
I thought of several of my catch-playing friends living their own courageous rare medical stories who could be nominated as a feature family.
Skylar, the dream-chasing, world-record attempting, spokeswoman for Schizencephaly.
Addi, the Nixa-based multi-sport athlete who was diagnosed with Traf7 Syndrome — only 20 cases worldwide.
Nic, the Royals-loving jokester diagnosed with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher Disease.
Last week I learned Go Shout Love is now based in Springfield, so I contacted Josh and asked if he had time to grab his glove and celebrate the not-too-distant coming of Opening Day.
“I’m a Cardinals fan,” he said. “I grew up north of St. Louis. But I went to college in KC. I’ve been to plenty of Royals games, too.”
Go Shout Love is diligently working toward becoming a better known brand in both the “do-good” business space and in the apparel industry. With more recognition and awareness comes more Shouters, helping more families, spreading love and light from coast to coast.
One of the new directions the team is taking is sharing the stories of multiple children from the same city. Springfield will be the featured city for the month of July.
“Buy a shirt. Buy merchandise. Be supportive of families on rare medical journeys, even if it’s not through us. Choose love, choose to shout love, choose to consider what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. And then act on those urges to make a difference in their journeys.”
On the day after the Bryan Family Millennium Falcon surpassed the 200,000 mile mark, on the day Pi and pie are both celebrated, Josh and I played catch at Nathaniel Greene Park. In ridiculous mid-March wind (and accompanying wind advisory), not one single throw was straight. In exchange for borrowing a glove, Josh gave me my own Go Shout Love t-shirt which perfectly encapsulates the joy of playing catch, making new friends, and chasing ridiculous dreams, “Enjoy the magic of being alive.”
Thank you Hadley, Nathan, and Hollyn for your inspiration.
To nominate a family to be featured and for a community to rally behind, go here.
Super Cool Side Note #1: All of GSL’s shirts are responsibly manufactured. 100% Organic Cotton grown and processed in the US. The polyester in each tri-blend tee is created from six recycled plastic water bottles that would otherwise end up in landfills. Through the shirt supplier and their partnership with the Global Orphan Project, every month’s support of Go Shout Love is creating jobs in Haiti that pay 3-4 times the average wage, an amount carefully calculated to meet the basic needs of a Haitian household.
Ordinary Side Note #2: Opening Day is two weeks away.
On February 10, the MSU Bears played the Illinois State Redbirds and John Q. Hammons Arena hosted MSU’s first Rebound Challenge game. Tickets were sold for $5 and spectators could sit anywhere. Announced attendance was 6,507, which is the largest crowd of the season to date. But, with less than two minutes in the game, Missouri State trailed by 6 and fans started leaving.
At a baseball game, you don’t leave until after the third out in the bottom of the 9th inning.
At a basketball game, you don’t leave until after the final buzzer.
“My mom turned to me and said, ‘Miracles still happen,” Christina Ford said. “We were standing watching the game from the concourse. I had to leave the table.”
Christina is the president of the Rebound Foundation. She had watched most of the game while distributing information about the organization which started because of a God-given, dream-story similar to that of Joseph in the Bible.
“I never pictured this is what I would be doing. After the dream and confirmation with my mom, I started thinking about it in 2015. It became an official non-profit in 2016 with the first rebound game in 2017. For so long, I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just taking baby steps, I was trying to be prepared for when the time was right.”
The Rebound Foundation raises money and awareness to give women who have suffered from domestic abuse a fresh start by providing transitional housing.
“When we finally opened the first house, I knew I wasn’t crazy.”
Almost three years passed between the dreaming and coming true. At the end of those three years, Christina and her family moved to Springfield because her husband got a position as the new head coach for the MSU Bears men’s basketball team. Five weeks after moving, Christina gave birth to their fourth child, a baby boy.
Even through the unsettled stress of transitions, Christina kept moving forward with the work of the foundation.
“It took a lot of small steps and a strong faith. I couldn’t give up. What would happen to the women who needed a safe space? To keep going doing this kind of mission work, you must have passion, you must have faith. And Springfield is a community that really wants to improve. They have embraced us and our mission.”
There are now two Rebound Foundation homes in Springfield. Over the course of six months to a year, the women who live in these homes receive the gift of time to start the healing process without having the burdens of trying to figure out how to live.
“We want to give them that time to heal from the trauma and focus on answering the question, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’”
All money donated to the foundation goes into the homes, helping the women get a fresh start at life.
With 7 seconds left on the clock, the Bears tipped the ball on the inbounds play which led to a frenetic scramble and ended with a last-second, half-court, buzzer-beater for the win that I’ve since watched about 50 or 100 times.
“As soon as the ball went in, my mom fell over. It was pure madness,” Christina said. “Days later, I was still watching the highlight and reading other people’s reactions. I finally had to make myself stop watching it.”
The miracles-still-happen game raised almost $12,000 which will be used to bring miracles in the lives of women who have suffered from domestic violence.
In the cold and wind and drizzly gross and highly unpredictable Missouri winter weather, Christina and I postponed today’s game of catch.
The good news about not playing catch every day is the joyful freedom of taking a rain check.