Tuesday, May 29, 2012

All-Star Weekend

Capping a 10-month period in which he received a Most Improved Swimmer trophy from his swim team and made the all-star team for his soccer league after scoring 20 goals in eight games, Michael concluded his sporting year by being selected for one of the two teams our baseball league sent to a Memorial Day tournament. The teams are selected by the coaches, and Michael was solidly in the upper half of every coach's ballot for the "B" team. Our team of 12 players was equally divided between 10-year-olds and 9-year-olds. As one of two regular-season coaches with the kid on the all-star team, I was also named one of the coaches for the team.

Our league sent four teams from two divisions up to Sacramento for the weekend. We all stayed in adjacent hotels that have large meeting areas, a pool and a basketball court. The parents got together over food and drinks while the kids played endless games of basketball and elevator tag, with baseball games offering an occasional diversion.

Stealing third

We had a great time at the games. Our first game was against an overmatched host squad, which we beat 15-1, with the score and duration of the game limited by mercy rules. Our second game was against a good team (which eventually played in the championship game). Every time we scored, they matched us. We had trouble against one of their pitchers who threw nothing resembling a fastball, while we also managed to keep their bats in check. We took a 6-5 lead into the bottom of the sixth (last) inning, but they came through with two runs to win the game. We were disappointed, but satisfied that the game had been played at a high level. After dinner back at the hotel, the kids played basketball together until long after the sun went down, suffering no ill effects whatsoever from the loss.

With the loss, we knew our chance to meet the "A" team from our league in the championship game was gone. Nevertheless, we wanted to finish the three-game tournament with a winning record, so we focused on playing well on Sunday against our next opponent, another good team. It was another closely-contested affair. In the bottom of the fifth, we managed to induce grounders to our shortstop (Michael) and our third baseman, and our tall first baseman used every inch of his length to stretch for their throws to get critical outs.

The pitch is on its way ...

Ground ball to short ...

The throw to first ...

Got him!

The game went into the sixth inning tied, 5-5. Let’s go to the highlight reel …

We scored three runs in the top of the sixth, the first driven by Michael, who stretched what was really a single into a double, and the second, game-deciding run, scored by Michael on a close play at the plate on a passed ball. The other team clawed back one run in the bottom of the sixth, and had runners on base, but our pitcher finished off the game in style with a strikeout.

Finishing the tournament with a win against a good team in a well-played game was a thrill for everybody. It was a pleasure to coach a team that was solid from top to bottom, which is of course the nature of any All-Star team. Michael played very well, leading the team in steals and third on the team in all other offensive categories. As shown in the video (captured beautifully by Cheryl), he came through in the clutch when we needed the leadership of the experienced players the most.

It always gives me a thrill when my kids get to represent their town on special teams like this. I'm especially proud of the hat I received by virtue of coaching the game. I got the hat not on my merits, but because Michael earned it for me. It brings my baseball coaching career to a very satisfying conclusion.

Next year, Michael will go back to being one of the young kids in the next division. However, he has proven to himself and others that he is a capable player with developing skills and, most importantly, an abiding love for the game. We are both a bit worn out from the long season, but I am certain that he will ask to go to the schoolyard to hit balls at the next available opportunity. That's fine with me.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Score Another One For The Good Guys

A friend from high school, who was a neighbor and a formidable student, went on to become a prosecutor for Santa Clara county.  She somehow developed the thick skin necessary to work in the sex crimes and child abuse sections of her department.  She does excellent work there on behalf of the People of California.  She put another person away this week for a very long time, for some very heinous crimes. 

My professional victories sometimes affect millions of dollars paid or not paid.  It is all part of how the economy works, and is important work, particularly from the perspective of our clients.  It does not generally involve making the streets safer for all of us, though.  I do not think I have the stomach to do what Erin Nordby West does.  I am glad she is out there doing it, and doing it so well.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Track Town, USA

Perhaps because NBC has not gotten around to telling me what human interest stories I should pay atention to yet, it somehow escaped my attention that the U.S. Olympic track and field trials will be held in Eugene again this year.  For a non-resident, I have an inexplicably strong sentimental attachment to Hayward Field.  Most of it comes from my appreciation of "Without Limits," one of the Steve Prefontaine biopics that came out a decade ago.  My love of that movie (cinematic comfort food to me) undoubtedly stems from deep personal ties to the town, if not the university.  One of my most fun moments in recent years was the lap I took on the Hayward Field track, before it received a makeover that turned it into more of a fortress and less of the quaintly outdated bandbox it still is at its core. 

Here is a nice profile -- from the Sacramento Bee, of all places -- of the track and city in anticipation of the Olympic Trials, which will be upon us (or at least upon those who think about the Olympics even when Bob Costas isn't introducing a soft-focus, piano-backed profile of an athlete who overcame immense odds, etc.) before we know it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

RIP Daisy (unkn. - 5/8/2012)

One of the things that brings me joy is a sunny Northern California spring morning, when the fragrant cool of the dawn gives way to the promise of the warmth of the day to come.  It takes me back to elementary school and the days late in the school year when the finish line was in sight, when class parties, kickball games against the teachers and summer vacation appeared on the horizon.

Today was one of those mornings, but cruelly, there was no joy in it.  Today, in what was otherwise one of the prettiest, warmest days of the young spring, we were called upon to be executioner-by-proxy.

Daisy, the border collie/Aussie shepherd mix we rescued from extermination just under two years ago, left us today.  Six weeks or so ago, we noticed her appetite was substantially reduced.  Since we never knew exactly how old she was, we presumed that her increased difficulty climbing stairs and smaller appetite were a function of age.  Over the last week and a half, she her breathing became labored.  It got to the point this weekend that it was difficult to sleep in the same room with her because her wheezing was so loud.  She was obviously in distress, because she could never get relief from the gasping.

We took her to the local vet yesterday.  The doctor showed me an x-ray of a healthy dog, in which you could see the ribs, heart and lungs.  He then put up Daisy's film.  The organs and ribs were there, but it looked like someone had also stuffed her abdomen with cotton balls.  She had the canine equivalent of breast cancer, which had spread throughout her body.  It was a shock to see it.  I asked if she had even a month left, and the vet said that she would eventually suffocate if we allowed her to continue to deteriorate at home.  She was not in immediate pain, but was clearly in distress.  He said that there are radical human treatments to deal with cancer this virulent and advanced, but those treatments do not translate well to canine use even if someone were inclined to try.  He said we needed to plan on putting her down within days, not weeks.

I went to the lobby and stared out the window while the nurse put the bill together.  I thought I had handled the news with clinical detachment until the nurse said she was sorry in a soft voice.  Then I found I couldn't speak, and paid the bill as quickly as I could without making eye contact.

We treated Daisy to fresh cooked chicken and any other treats we could think of, and she followed us to the table for the rare treat as any other dog would (one of the few ways she ever acted like a normal dog). The treats felt hollow, though.  We were giving the condemned her last meal.  She didn't know it, but we did.  We gave her as much love and affection as we could all evening long, even as she gasped, wheezed and could not get comfortable enough to lie down for long.  All night, it was difficult to sleep because of the noise she made.  Every time I woke up I hoped to hear her sleeping peacefully, to no avail.  Looking back, she probably slept only a few hours total over the last several days.  She also ate and drank almost nothing.

This morning, I concluded we could not continue to make her suffer.  We decided we had to make the final choice sooner rather than later.  The thought of her gasping through the rest of the week with little food, water or sleep was too much to contemplate, especially knowing how sick she was.  She went outside when Cheryl and Michael left for school in the bright morning sun, but would not leave the rear deck.  She stood still, gasping nonstop, until Cheryl came back.  By then I had worked through a halting discussion with the vet's office about our options.

In the end, we elected not to stay for the final moment.  I will never know if that was the best choice, but we were both so shattered that watching her take her final breath felt like something that would not add anything positive to her life or ours.  Taking off her collar and tags in the vet's waiting room as the nurse waited with a temporary leash that might as well have been a noose was one of the lowest moments in my life.  We walked her down the hall and left her with the nurse.  We closed the door and walked outside, Cheryl leaning on me for support.  That was all.

The decision to put a pet down is a terrible burden.  My college roommate, who lost a much-beloved dog some years ago, wisely notes that the pain comes from not being able to explain to the pet what is happening and what you are going to do.  It feels fraudulent to lead the loved member of the family at the end of a leash as always, with the knowledge that this time, she's not going to come home.  It is a participation in a betrayal.  Watching her suffer, knowing the cancer had overtaken her and would consume more of her before it was done, did nothing to make the decision to relieve her of that suffering any less distasteful.

Daisy was utterly devoted to Cheryl.  Even in her last day, she followed Cheryl wherever she went in the house.  When we prepared to get in the car for her last trip, she came outside willingly, but wandered off into the bushes in the front yard, as if she knew something was not right.  She eventually went to the gate to the backyard, the same gate she went through after countless walks on her way back into the yard and the house.  It was also the same gate I reinforced with metal pieces the first week we had her when she spent her first hours frantically trying to dig her way out of the yard.  Now, the only thing she desired was to get back in.  I so wished we could have let her.

Daisy did not particularly care for me.  As with most adult males, she distrusted me and cowered when I approached her.  We always assumed this behavior had its basis in whatever hell her life prior to us had been (some speculated that she had been kept in a puppy mill, and eventually ended up as a stray).  Still, knowing we would deliver her to her death, and that she would no longer be a part of our family, upset me more than anything in recent memory.  Such is the hold dogs have on our hearts.

She did not play, she did not bark, and she was not even particularly affectionate with most people, but she was a part of us.  She always will be.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

How Many ...

It's puzzle time here on the ol' blog.  As in the classic kids' magazine Highlights, how many differences can you spot between this:

And this:

For further comparison purposes, here is where we started about 14 months ago:

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Boys of Summer, Spring 2012 Edition

After delays with scheduling quirks and rainouts, our Pirates have finally played half of our regular season games, plus a five game non-league tournament over the past weekend.  We are having a great time with the boys, and their families, even as they remind us frequently that they are just nine and ten years old.

The tournament, played against teams in the neighboring towns, gives us an opportunity to play kids in new positions, pitch players who have never pitched before, and use usual batting orders.  The coaches of our league like to do this every year in order to give kids new opportunities to play, but also to develop players in new positions (particularly pitcher) that we will need for the playoffs when multiple games put a squeeze on every team due to strict pitch limits.  We followed this practice over the weekend, which gave some kids a chance to experience the pitcher's mound for the first time, but also revealed some hidden gems that will help us later in the season.  The teams from other towns do not follow our practice, so we ran into difficulty in our first four games as we faced their best pitchers and regular defense.  Even though our bats performed in two of the games, our defense and pitching were not up to snuff.

Our last tournament game was against another Moraga team, so we went back to our normal lineup and used our top pitchers, who had not gotten enough work over the weekend.  It was another beautiful day, so to get the kids to loosen up and enjoy the game, we traded in our baseball pants and Pirates sweaters for shorts and Hawaiian shirts.  The kids laughed, the parents loved it, and we played our best game of the season by far.  Our pitchers (Michael was one of them) were precise and efficient, our batters knocked the ball all over the place, and our defense was solid.  It was a great way to end a fun weekend, and helped us forget the feeling of losing the other games.

Michael has turned a corner in his development.  He has become a very good player in all aspects of the game.  In the weekend tournament alone, he had five hits in seven at bats (they are shortened games), scored five runs, stole four bases, drove in a run, and pitched three innings, giving up one earned run while striking out five.  He also plays solid defense wherever we put him.  He made three putouts at third in our last league game before the tournament, caught a long fly ball in the tournament, and tonight had assists from pitcher, third and shortstop, the last on a nasty bad hop.

Bringing the heat on the mound
It is a pleasure to see Michael play so well, especially at the plate where he struggled most of last year.  He is now in a groove as a reliable hitter who puts the ball in play but also leads the team in walks.  He picked up his first double tonight off of one of the best pitchers in the league.  His effort and smarts have always been a positive, but now he is performing up to the level of his thinking.  While he is probably the third best hitter on the team, he may well be our best overall player thanks to his elevated play in all areas.  On a night like tonight, when we faced dominant pitching and our defense completely broke down, he was one of the few bright spots, making defensive plays, getting on base and pitching well (even as defense let him down).

Drilling a ball to right
He is not destined for the majors, but he is among the top players in his age group in town, which is a fun place to be.  He knows all the hard work he has put in is paying off -- his swing, in particular, has lost its little-kid uppercut to become something close to textbook -- and is having a good time.  He likes wins, but he does not need to be on a winning team to love playing (fortunately, in our case).  I probably will hang up my coaching spikes after this season, so this is a memorable time for me, too.