What I Did On My Summer Vacation
I actually squeezed quite a bit of living (some of it a little too much like real life, unfortunately) into the past month. I stuck close to home after a March trip to Napa. The highlights:
June 11, Boston: Went with Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to Fenway Park for Sox-O's. Sat in the ballpark for two hours pre-game watching batting practice, and Schwartz couldn't have eaten it up more.
When the game started, we were discussing how you disguise signs as a defensive coach, and, with speedy Jacoby Ellsbury on base, Schwartz was intently watching the Baltimore catcher look to the dugout for signs. When the catcher didn't look over at one point, Schwartz divined the catcher was probably calling for pickoff throws by himself -- something only a coach would be looking for. A nice education watching a game with him.
June 13, Athens, Ohio: You may know this about me -- I am a not-so-closeted fan of the pucks. And when I tossed a couple of MMQB bouquets during the Stanley Cup finals toward gritty Pittsburgh Penguin Ryan Malone (who took a slapshot in the face, breaking his nose and badly bruising the orbital bone just below his eye, and missed only two shifts), his agent called me to see if I wanted to talk with him. Sure do, I said; I've rarely seen such an act of cold, stark bravery in any sports event. And a few days later, while I was in Athens to give the commencement speech at my alma mater, the phone rang, and it was Malone. "What did it feel like?'' I asked. He said, "Like my face got broken. Luckily, I didn't get, I guess, a broken face, or whatever you would call it. I just got six stitches. And I'd already broken my nose a few days before, so it wasn't really like a broken nose.''
Hmmmm. I see. This was the second time in the series against Detroit that his nose was broken, and he almost shrugged off the busted nose "because it never got a chance to heal.'' Malone said the shot didn't give him much of a headache, and he never really thought about not playing.
"It's a pretty big game,'' he said. "You play all your life for a chance to play in games like that, so if there's any way you can go, you play. My coach was worried about me. I told him, 'Don't worry. I'm fine.' And I really was. In hockey, it's just pride. You're supposed to be big, strong and tough anyway, and at this time of year, there's so much pride playing for the Cup. You've been hearing about it since you were 2 years old.''
Isn't that how we want our players to feel? I told him I wished there were more players in all sports who felt the way he, and the majority of hockey players, feel.
Postscript: Malone hit the free-agency jackpot, signing with Tampa Bay for $31.5 million over seven years. Nice to see one of the good guys make the good money. I asked him about whether the tough-guy stuff is just a hockey thing. "I don't know,'' he said. "I do know the warrior stuff comes from the history of the game, because it's the way the guys who came before us played. It's how we're expected to play.''
I don't mean to gush about these guys, but anyone who says football players are the baddest guys in the sports world need to study the Ryan Malone story, and the stories of those like him in hockey.
June 14, Athens, Ohio: I do not fret for our future. After 28 hours on campus for graduation, I drove away thinking how serious and dedicated so many of these kids are, more than I remembered my class being. Not just brown-nosing nerdy serious. The summer editor of the student paper I used to work for, The Post, is going to law school in the fall. When I met with a bunch of the Posties, there was no talk of drunken nights waking up in some strange dorm. Internships, ethics, cultivating sources. That was the talk. I was also surprised there wasn't a lot of job fear. These kids think they'll find their way, maybe not in traditional media but in some form of info-gathering.
June 19, Sparta, N.J.: I like to coach. This is my 17th year coaching girls softball in north Jersey, and for the last seven I've been one of four coaches of the 10-and-under Montclair Bears travel team. On this night, we'd just won a game in the School's Out Tournament in northwest Jersey (perfect scene -- warm night, parents and grandparents on lawn chairs, Sparta's version of Dairy Queen down the left field line), and in the post-game chat with the kids, I mentioned a story about the Aplington-Parkersburg (Iowa) High School softball team.
Parkersburg got hit by a tornado in late May, killing eight, and six of the team members lost their homes, and the school was destroyed, and the team lost its equipment and pitching machine and home field. You should have seen these girls and their parents get into it. They immediately wanted to do something to help.
Each of our girls prepared a letter for each of their girls, with little trinkets and gifts. They got dressed in full uniform a couple of days later, prepared posters explaining the plight of the girls in Iowa, took our black-and-gold Bear helmets out to Cold Stone and Starbucks and Applegate, the other ice cream place in town, and, cute as buttons, badgered the entire town into surrendering spare change and dollars. Supplemented by a few parent donations, the girls raised $1,960 -- enough for a new Jugs pitching machine, eight dozen softballs, a few aluminum bats (thanks to justbats.com), and $40 per player on the Aplington-Parkersburg team.
One of our girls, Emma Pacifico, enclosed a $25 gift card to Barnes and Noble for an Iowa player who'd lost her home "because you will need to buy some new books after losing all of yours.'' Another, Olivia Silverstein, donated money from her lawnmowing jobs. Now our girls are e-mailing and texting girls six and seven years older, and one of our kids, an only child, says she feels like she has a big sister now. Goosebumpy stuff.
June 25, Clifton, N.J.: My wife had been on me for weeks -- months, really -- to get the burgeoning freckle/mole on my right forearm taken off, and so I saw a dermatologist who agreed it must go. I never would have gone on my own. Too busy. But I went. Mole removed. Size of an Atomic Fireball. Routine. Six stitches. Doc, Jonathan Gold, said I'm fine. Gave me 55 and 70 SPF sunscreen and told me to wear it. Life goes on.
June 28, Montclair, N.J.: It's not often you see a 10-year-old girl throwing at warp speed, but that's what the undefeated first-place team from Wanaque brought to town on this Saturday afternoon to face our little Isabella Calandra, who's not as fast but just as gritty and competes like Dustin Pedroia. The Wanaque pitcher was a windmilling Randy Johnson, and other than a few fruitless bunt outs we didn't touch her, that is until the bottom of the fifth.
Great story, our leadoff hitter that inning. Montclair's as diverse a place as you'll find in suburbia, and first baseman/shortstop/outfielder Maheen Khan was born in Islamabad. Never played the game until 15 months ago in the Montclair rec league, and she made our team on determination and a quick bat this year. I said to Maheen, "Square around to bunt, but instead of laying down the bunt, push hard at the ball, like you're trying to punch it into the outfield. Can you do that?'' She nodded.
First pitch: punch bunt over the drawn-in third baseman's head. Base hit. Then a sacrifice and a throwing error, and Maheen came in with the only run of the game. Game ball to a beaming Maheen, who is still trying to comprehend all the little things about this game that looks a little like cricket. I do think the post-game chicken fingers were more rewarding.
The win got the goat third-base coach off the firing line for a day. See, the previous night, down 3-2 with one out in the sixth, I'd blown the game by being too aggressive on the bases against Paramus, getting the tying run tagged out on a risky gambit at third. I don't know how football coaches take it sometimes. You make a coaching decision that backfires and causes your team to lose ... and you have to wait a whole week to play again? Torture.
I love our team. It's the United Nations of travel softball. We've got our Pakistani rising star, and a shortstop whose dad was born in Cuba, and an outfielder from China. We are the melting pot that makes this country a pretty fun place to live.
July 1, Clifton, N.J.: "I need you to come in today or tomorrow,'' Dr. Gold said on the phone. Oh? What for?'' "Your mole came back with a melanoma.'' Cancer. I think he said after that he thought it was contained within the original mole and tissue he cut out, but all I could think of is, What is this guy talking about? Isn't melanoma something for old people in the sun too long?
I go in the next day. The protocol for such things, I see on WebMD.com, is to cut out an area three-quarters of an inch in all directions to make sure the melanoma has not spread into the lymph nodes or bloodstream. The procedure was longer, and the smell of burning skin more intense as he burned and cut the innocent tissue away. "You'll always have a little dent in your forearm now,'' he said as he sewed up the gulf with 25 stitches, then looked down at his handiwork. "Looks like the laces on a football.''
Heck of a job, doc. Thanks. Weird feeling. Much of the area between the wrist and the sutured wound I can't feel. Comatose nerves, hopefully. But an infinitesimal price to pay. And I never would have paid it if not for my wonderful wife telling me to take care of that little mark on the arm.
July 5, Montclair, N.J.: One question about fireworks: I understand having them July 3 at night, or anytime July 4. But the fifth? And the second? (And, as it turned out, the 11th? The ELEVENTH!) Those aren't holidays. In the name of all skittish-dog owners (Bailey the golden retriever is one of the all-time great dogs, but thunder or fireworks cause her 10 minutes of carpet-digging delirium), I implore those in charge of fireworks displays to limit them to the third or fourth in the future.
July 8, Montclair, N.J.: The nest was officially emptied at 11:47 a.m. as Mary Beth King and her newly minted Colgate degree took off for the Rest of Her Life, driving out of the circular driveway for the West Coast with a good friend and a packed-to-the-gills car. (More about her destination next week.)
I kept wondering what I should say, since I am very rarely at a loss for words. I have no recollection what I finally said. But I was raised by parents who felt their job was to teach me to get along without them. I hope that's how we've done with Mary Beth and her L.A.-living sister, Laura.
But that doesn't change the feeling when the precocious kid you drove to pitching lessons for seven years (and caught), and then watched 80 percent of the games she ever played and then watched as she navigated a new world in college drives away to be a real adult. The first time with Laura was tough. And experience didn't make it any easier the second time.
July 11, Chicago: Don't tell my boss, but on the way back from Scappoose, I stopped for the afternoon in Chicago, lathered on the 55 SPF sunscreen, and sat in the seventh row of the left-field bleachers at Wrigley Field for Cubs 3, Giants 1. The guy a few seats away asked me, "What's your favorite ballpark?'' And I told him the story of taking my late mother to Wrigley for the first time, maybe eight or 10 years ago, and how she'd been used to Fenway Park and didn't think any place could every be better, and in the seventh-inning stretch, she leaned over to me and said, "Peter, I think this is better than Fenway.''
I love the sun beating down on the bleachers, and the 20-somethings sitting with the 60-somethings, and the organ playing, and the balls flying all around you in batting practice. There's not a lot of places purer in sports. Now, the $110 price tag for the general admission bleacher seat is another matter. But once every five years, I'll pay it happily. What a great afternoon.
One other vacation highlight: I paid $82.20 for a tank of gas the other day. I don't know how all of you are doing it out there. I do know that very soon I'll be in the market for a hybrid.