Thursday, January 26, 2012

My road back to Baseball

2009 Hat Day
Dad threw out the first pitch at my kids first trip to "The Show" in Cincy
Ever since I was introduced to the great sport of baseball by my dad and brother I have loved to be a part of everything surrounding the game.
When I was younger though my dad and I came to the mutual decision that focusing on tennis would be my best path to athletic success. So at the age of nine or ten I gave up on my dreams to one day pitch for the Big Red Machine.
I never regretted moving away from baseball towards tennis.When I reached the finals of the Cincinnati boys city championships in  1973 I knew that decision was the right one.
Having spent nearly all of my adult life playing, coaching, and living my tennis dream. Getting to travel through the  United States, Europe and the Caribbean would not have been possible without all the time spent on a tennis court. Through my years as a tennis pro I have played in over fifty
Pro-Am's. Some have been non-competitive events where we the pros rotate partners after a few games or a set. Some have have been knock down dragged out battles for prize money for the pros and big prizes for the amateurs.
In 1985 I played in my first pro-am event in Mount Kisco, New York. I was living in New York City and playing as many tournaments as I could on the USTA satellite tour as well as the USTA-Eastern men's circuit. I was lucky enough to be paired with the number one ranked over fifty senior player in the USTA for the pro-am. We cruised through the two day event and I got my first paycheck as a player.
It was two hundred bucks. For the next twenty three years there were many tennis matches that kept me chasing after rankings and some dollars. During this time I also spent many hours on the tennis court as a coach which kept me in shape and ready to pursue a dream that I had abandoned as a young boy.
My son son began playing baseball when he was three or four. While I was spending hours on the tennis court and working six days a week my kid was at our house pounding wiffle balls out of the pitching machines that he had received as birthday presents from his friends and family,
Then his sister and babysitter would take turns pitching batting practice to him where he would slam the wiffle ball over their head into our neighbor Grace's yard or into the street and careening down the hill of our cul-de-sac.
On my one day off I was usually too tired to take him outside to play catch, hit tennis balls or any type of sport. I took him to a playground where I would usually sit on a bench and recuperate my sore muscles from six straight days of chasing down tennis balls.
When my son got started in tee ball I noticed that he had pretty good hand eye coordination and he really loved the baseball experience. So I began to find time to play catch with him. I used a glove we had purchased for my daughter for softball.
A few times in 2008 I even took him to a cage and pitched to him. It was during this time that I bought a package for the Yankees for their last year at the old stadium. My kids were both Mets fans so I also bought a package for them to Shea Stadium before the move to Citifield.
My wife called it " My sentimental journey through baseball history".
It was a great experience to attend many games during that spring,summer and fall in both stadiums even though my loyalty was to the Pinstripes and still the Reds.
My son had his eight birthday on the date of a Yankees-Orioles game and twice during the game his name flashed across the scoreboard at Yankee Stadium. I'm not sure if that was the night he decided to become a Yankee fan but that's the story I tell everyone I know.
It was more likely that after the Mets collapsed at the end of 2008 for the second year in a row and failed to get to the postseason that my boy gave up on his team's chances at returning to avenge their 2006 ALCS loss. He had gotten tickets to the NL Division Series if the Mets made it in that year.
The last day of the season they had a chance to make the playoffs with a win.
New Yankee Stadium first practice
The next day he became one hundred percent Yankee blue. Just look at his room now with it's Yankee blue walls and Yankee Fathead decals.
As 2009 rolled around we along with many people were extremely excited about the new baseball palaces in New York.
With both my kids and my friend Mike we attended the Yankees first practice. A few days earlier my son and me had sat in the rain at Citifield to watch Georgetown play St. John's in it's inaugural game.
I had subsequently retired from tennis so there was plenty of free time on my hands to play catch with my son and catch up on all the things I had missed in my kids lives since my daughter was born.
I even got to help coach in little league that season. We got a package at Yankee Stadium to attend eleven games. During that spring I started throwing a baseball more than I had done in the previous forty years combined.Once would have been more since I never had picked a baseball up since I was a kid. When my son got selected by his teammates to the All-Star game I got to coach the team. Over the next year we played catch many times and I pitched batting practice as well.
We got to see a few post season games and were in the Bronx to witness the Yankees win their twenty seventh title. First time witnessing in person a team that I supported winning a championship
was pretty amazing.
 I had been to some World Series games in Cincinnati but the Reds won their titles on the road and when they lost in 1972 to the A's I did see in person the agony of defeat in losing a Game 7.
As a tennis player I have lost 3 city championship finals, two state team championships and a match that decided who would be ranked number one in the USTA-Eastern section im my age category.
Not a great feeling ending up on the short end but I play for love of the sport and the results are a product of that passion to compete.
The New York Giants win in the 2008 Super Bowl inspired me to always fight hard and never give up on your dreams as it had come at the tail end of my dad's seventy eight day stay in the ICU and  hospital step down facilities that nearly took him from us. The Giants were road warriors that year. My dad was our warrior as he bravely fought back against Myasthenia Gravis.
The Yankees were warriors of the walk off pie in your face win in 2009. They always battled and never gave up. Even during their tough losses there was much to learn from them.
In 2010 my son  joined a travel team and baseball moved front and center into our daily lives. We still spent some time in the Bronx watching "our Yankees" but since his travel team played all year long it required more time spent practicing the skills to become an elite player and it limited our focus on the Yankees and more onto his baseball.
His team won two titles that season and he had begun working with a local pro player that coached him on his hitting, fielding and pitching skills.
Chris Vasami was arguably the best baseball player to ever come out of Westchester County. He attended Notre Dame after being named as on of the top fifty national prospects in his senior year at Mamaroneck High School in 2004. He had transferred to Elon University where he was All-Conference. He was surely on his way to big things in Major League Baseball. He could hit a baseball over four hundred fifty feet. He had a fastball in the mid-90s and he also spent time as a catcher. Chris got drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the 39th round and settled into their farm system where he was used primarily as a catcher.
During his time with the Rockies (4 seasons) he put up some good numbers as a hitter but in 2009 during spring training he was hit in the hand by a pitch. His season was over and upon his return to the team in 2010 he was released since they had filled his slot in his year away from the game.
He never gave up on his dreams and was now pitching in the Independent League for the Newark Bears. The manager of the Bears is Tim Raines who may one day very soon be enshrined in Cooperstown. Also coaching him is Ron Karkovice who spent twelve seasons in the Bigs as a catcher.
My son and I immediately bonded with Chris. Chris is young enough to be my own son but after spending time talking with him it became apparent that he has knowledge and maturity well beyond his years. My son and Chris have spent many hours crafting his swing. Improving his fielding and throwing skills as well. It was during these sessions with Chris and his pursuit of his goal to get to
"the Show" that I started to wonder what it must feel like to be on the field in a pro baseball game.
I love being a fan and spending time at Yankee Stadium but I wanted to experience the game as a player.
In 2011 we got to witness our friend Chris pitch many games for the Newark Bears. The Bears were at one time the Yankees minor league team. After each game we would talk or text and discuss how the game went that day.
For my son to see his coach standing on the mound in a professional game inspired him to work harder than he ever had to improve his skills so that maybe one day he would be the guy out on that mound. Over the summer we changed our usual practice routine. We would normally go to the batting cage where I would just pitch to him. He would hit great in practice and in a game he had days when he would get one or two hits and other days no hits. I guess that's the norm in baseball. But as a tennis player it has always seemed hard to understand how not hitting the ball every time and still being considered successful is accepted.
I had competed against guys that served in the 120-130 mph range and beaten them so hitting a
95 mph fastball didn't seem that fast. Let alone a little leaguer throwing it in the 50 mph range.
How ignorant can one person really be?
 Pretty darn ignorant is what I was!
On rainy days we used to go under this big bridge in our town where they have paved areas and some practice walls next to a park that has four tennis courts. There are two areas for practicing. One has tennis backboards and the other side has a mini track for kids to run or skateboard.
We chose the track side and on one wall we noticed that someone had painted an outline of a person on the wall that had a rectangular box for a strike zone. So someone had obviously played baseball under there before. About fifty feet away was the other wall so I found a spot that would serve as a pitching rubber about four feet from the wall. We decided that instead of doing batting practice that we would play a simulated game. We would each get two innings at bat. There were five panels on our side of the bridge. If the ball hit the ceiling it was a foul ball. If you hit a ground ball and it reached the middle three panels before being fielded by the pitcher it was a single. If it was hit as a line drive and it hit the bottom half of the wall on the fly it was a double. If it hit the top half of the wall it was a triple and if that triple rolled back and hit the wall closest to the batter then it was a home run and dad was going to have to add some money to his son's allowance that week. I had not swung a bat in quite some time and I hit righty and also experimented as a lefty hitter similar to my two handed backhand in tennis.
Righty or lefty I was hitting with little if any authority. I shortened my swing and started making better contact but my kid was hitting very well and when he got into a game for his little league and travel team his average went way up. I experimented with different grips as a pitcher and different arm angles. I practiced pitching out of the stretch and the windup. My son's pitching control improved also and he got into some games for his team as their closer. In one game he only had to throw one pitch to end the game. In another he got them out of a jam with two runners on base. It wasn't always perfect. One game he walked the first three guys after the coach of the other team told his players not to swing until they got a strike. After seven or eight fastballs that missed he threw a strike. He was  frustrated because he felt that he let his team down. His team was winning 11-3 so not wanting to give the other team a chance a new pitcher was inserted and he threw slow perfect strikes that the other team's boys watched pass by them at the plate not knowing when to swing. Their coach had made them so scared to swing and make a mistake that they all froze up. By the way that team was in last place and never won a game the entire season.
The coach had them practicing three or four days a week and doing intensive drills and the  kids had stopped coming to practice. Baseball is supposed to be fun. I guess when your coach doesn't realize that and only focuses on winning not fun then it's time to check out mentally.
So over the course of 2011 our games under the bridge continued and I really felt like I wanted to play baseball. Sometimes when I was sitting in my seats at Yankee Stadium I would cheer for the boys in pinstripes and say to myself, " self.... I want to be out there doing that. Be on that mound."
So as summer turned to fall and started edging towards winter my son's travel team once again won their league championship in mid-November. It was two weeks after the World Series ended and I was a bit sad that baseball was officially over until the spring. Well at least games were over. There was still my son's team workouts and those with his coach. But our time under the bridge was over until spring. As Rogers Hornsby said, "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."
I didn't want to have to stare out that window.
I had been told by my friend Mike that on his fortieth birthday in 1990 that his wife had given him a great birthday present. A week at the New York Yankees Fantasy Camp. One of his coaches was his favorite player Mickey Mantle. He spent a week hanging out with Ol' number 7.
I heard how he hit a ball all the way to the wall in deep center field and Mickey winked at him as he cruised into second base and said, " Nice hit kid". Pretty cool!
I had spoken to two or three guys from back home in Cincinnati that had gone to the Reds Fantasy Camp. One guy goes back every year and also pitches on a team for players fifty and over in Ohio.
A Yankees beat reporter that I follow on Twitter was attending the November Yankees Fantasy Camp and giving updates. It sounded like a great experience. Aside from him talking about the long line of players that had to see the trainers for an assortment of injuries that middle aged men not accustomed to sprinting ninety yards and throwing from deep in the outfield to hit a cutoff man or diving at shortstop to keep a ball from getting through the gap into center.
So I emailed the camp director Julie to see if spots were available to get me into a Yankees uniform for my shot at playing in " The Show".
 Julie replied that a few spots were still left and so I registered online for my big league dream.
If it were only so easy for my friend Chris Vasami. But he may one day wear an actual MLB uniform. I can only pretend. So I filled out my forms for registration and indicated that I wanted to be number 54. My son's number and also the number of the great Hall of Famer Yankee
Goose Gossage.
So I started training the week before Thanksgiving for my journey to Tampa. I went to hit off a batting tee every other day as a righty and as a lefty. Fifty swings on each side. Some days more.

I took a bag of balls spread them out along a fence and did a running drill where I would sprint to a ball stop turn and fire it into the soft toss net about forty to fifty feet away.
I stood on the bullpen mound at our high school where the boys team had won back to back state championships in 2008 and 2009. I set up a tee at home plate at my sons suggestion and placed a ball on the tee. I trudged back to the mound sixty feet and six inches way and took my bag of fifty baseballs and took aim at the ball on the tee. At first that sixty feet seemed like a mile. Especially since the distance we played at under the bridge was forty six feet which is the Little League distance. We had always done long toss throwing of one hundred to one hundred fifty feet. But being precise from sixty feet ain't no picnic in the park.
I experimented with different grips and arm angles. I practiced pitching out of the stretch and windup.
One day I asked my son to bat with me pitching from the mound on the actual field and had him put on his catching gear and get used to seeing a catcher behind the plate.I was usually ready for a nap after most of these workouts.
I was able to knock the ball off the tee a few times and hit my son's glove with good accuracy.
Oh by the way I forgot to mention that his allowance got bigger in those weeks where he went on the field with me to pursue my dream. He even yelled at me like a real coach as he threw me ground balls and pop ups, he told me if I missed a ball I had to do push ups or run a lap.
People running on the track surrounding the field must have laughed as they saw an eleven year old barking out commands to his middle aged student.
On the weekends when I went to the high school field to hit into the soft toss net off the tee I always saw a local kid in the batting cage that had been drafted by the Yankees in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. For the last couple years we had gone to the cage at the high school and had seen this boy and his dad spend hours doing hitting drills. We always said hello and watched with awe as he hit with incredible precision and power. He looked like every second in the cage with his dad was fun.
He was living his dream. He had turned down a full scholarship at Fordham to play for the Yankees organization. I'm sure getting a good signing bonus helped convince him to play baseball.
He was also probably wondering why a middle aged guy was there hitting off a tee on a cold fall afternoon.
I was thinking that live pitching and hitting off a tee were not the same so I started going to the indoor cage two times a week and realized I had some work to do. I usually hit 160 balls from the pitching machines. Eighty pitches lefty and eighty righty.Starting at 50 mph and then moving to 65mph. My hands hurt pretty bad on the 65mph but eventually as my hands got tougher they hurt less.
I also went to the gym with a new purpose. Increasing core strength was my goal. Swimming helped my upper body core. I started playing squash which is mostly short sprints, lunges and squats that helped my legs and fast twitch muscles react better. It is a great cardio-respiratory workout as well.
I know some MLB pitchers that like C.aptain C.runch cereal that might benefit from playing this game.
No names though (see above initials).
I found this balance board thing in the gym that I used for thirty minutes every other day while drinking a cup of coffee. Then added some light dumbbell weights while on the board and simulated a pitching motion. Or a batting stance. As my week in Tampa approached I felt extremely excited and felt as if I had done everything in my power to prepare for the Big Leagues.
Then I said goodbye to my family and packed my bags for my trip to George M. Steinbrenner Field and the Yankees complex.
With my goals set as 1. being to be able to get a batter out as a pitcher and get a hit into the outfield and 3. to stay out of the trainer's room the entire week  I set out on my journey to "The Show".