Searching for my Role with the Great Eight

A couple of weeks ago I got to put on an authentic New York Mets uniform and played baseball at the Mets’ training facilities in Port St. Lucie, Florida.  I did this as part of a program that the Mets run where participants play on teams that are coached by former Mets players, many of whom are still active in baseball.  I spent five long days collecting bumps, bruises, aches, and pains in every part of my body and my ego and I loved every moment of it.  But I didn’t go because I am a Mets fan, which I am, having grown up near Shea Stadium in Queens.  And I didn’t go for the baseball, a game that I love.  I went because it was a chance to play ball with some good friends I’ve had since high school, friends who have always understood the meaning of teammate.

Still, anyone who knows me, knows that I am baseball crazy.  My whole family is.  I take pleasure in what the game offers:  the lack of a clock, the time of year, the pace, the thinking.  I love the superstitions, the rituals, and most of the statistics.

When we arrived in camp, we met our coaches.  Clint Hurdle, who is the current hitting coach for the Colorado Rockies, acted as commissioner for our league.  When Clint formally introduced each of the coaches, he read their Major League stats.  For pitchers this included games.  For hitters, this included the number of major league at bats they each had.  In any field, in art, in business, in sport, it takes a lot to bring your game to the next level.  Simply getting drafted by a Major League Baseball Club is worthy of praise.  But if you manage to make your way through the minors, from Single A, to Double A, to Triple A and then finally to the Majors, and then in the Majors you somehow stick around for a while and play enough to get at bats, that is a beautiful thing.

During our first morning the coaches set up different stations on the six practice fields so they could get a look at us.  We chose where we wanted to go, by where we hoped to play:  middle infielder, corner infielder, outfielder, pitcher and catcher.  Everyone took a turn hitting.  I pitched for a while and then went to shag fly balls hit by a cigar smoking Howard Johnson who stood near second base.  While we ate lunch, the coaches went off to draft teams.  The eight of us wanted to be on the same team so at night we would have more to laugh about.  We gave Clint a list with our names and he made no promises, though it was clear that no one was worried that we were trying to stack a team.  We did play together, but it cost us.  We were teased and then fined for asking to be on the same team.  After the draft, our team was referred to as the Great Eight instead of its assigned Mets minor league team name of Kingsport.  We were grateful for being placed on the same team and wanted to do our part, so we at every opportunity we provided Clint with new material to poke fun at.

It seemed that Clint’s main goal was to keep us loose.  Partly so we’d play better, partly so we’d come back, but mostly because you don’t get as injured if you play loose.  Clint had a list of offenses that he fined players for and he read off the fines each morning.  Fines were a dollar and payment was optional, though he reminded us that he knew where our lockers were and that we had to be at the fields but he didn’t.  Fines were given for things like missing a belt loop, showing up late, whining, not curving the rim of your hat correctly, or for just being stupid.  One guy got fined for doing a Michael Jackson because he was out on the field and wearing one glove for no apparent reason.  The Great Eight led the league in fines.

The fields that we played on were incredible.  Infield hops were true, the outfield grass was smooth, and the pitchers rubber was level with the mound.  None of this made us play any better, but we were safer.  Our coaches were there for support and encouragement. It was possible to pick up some tips, but there wasn’t enough time to really change anything about our game, or lack of.  We were there to play, to have fun, and to listen to stories about clubhouse antics and baseball history.

I started out playing left field.  To say I had a hard time picking up the ball as it sailed skyward would be a compliment.  Turns out that practicing with a guy hitting from second base doesn’t get you ready for a fly ball from home plate.  I could barely see the batter.  Using my years of experience, I quickly developed a strategy.  My plan was to listen closely for where the ball hit the ground and then run as fast as I could to get the ball and throw it in. I called this the sonar approach to playing outfield.

But then I got to pitch and I pitched a complete game.  For seven innings, I was in my own world on the mound.  Most of the time I didn’t know the score, just the count on the hitter and the situation in the field.  I lost the game, but the team that beat me went undefeated for the week.  They had all the young guys.  I didn’t walk a batter till the last inning, I got a few strikeouts, and I came inside a lot getting batters to hit soft pop-ups off their bat handle.  Unfortunately, a lot of those soft fly balls dropped in for hits.  Some of them were just dropped.  On one of those soft hits, Jimmy almost made a spectacular diving catch.  Instead, he landed hard on his elbow and broke it.  As Jimmy walked off the field with the trainers, Clint Hurdle turned to us and said softly, “and then there were seven.”

Hitting proved to be a roller coaster.  I hit, I didn’t hit.  I was relaxed. I was tense.  I choked, I panicked, I recovered. I went through it all: bliss, embarrassment, anger, disappointment at letting my team down.  There are moments in sports, as there are moments in life, where we find out that we can do more than we once thought possible.  For most of us at Dream Week it was a matter of doing much less than we were once capable.  A lot less.  As a coach and as a teacher, I have seen the solitary struggle of players and students whose success was measured in getting back up, in dusting off, and in stepping back in the box, even if only to strike out again. These are the moments when we challenge ourselves and success is not measured in hits or runs or catches, but in effort, in concentration, in finishing.

The morning of our flight home each team got to play a couple of inning against the coaches.  Instead of the practice fields that we had been playing on, this game was held at Thomas J. White Stadium, where the Mets play their spring training games.  I got to pitch there.  It was a great feeling standing on the mound, looking up at the almost empty 7,160 seats, hearing my coaches call out encouragement from the dugout, listening to the chatter of my teammates in the field.  While I was soaking it all in, Henry, my friend, my catcher, my teammate, was wondering out loud to the next batter, about whether the coaches had all lost their skills, because, he’d been there all morning and he had not seen one ball leave the park.  I got set, wound up, and threw the ball toward Henry’s target, and then turned quickly to watch the ball hit the scoreboard.

Just for the record, the Great Eight got the bronze medal.  We finished strong to take third out of the six teams.  If we had only had more time, who knows?  We had made it though Dream Week.  We came, we played, we survived.

Originally aired won WAMC, Mets opening day 2002