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A Special Post from a Guest Author

Posted by sharris2929 on September 1, 2011

I’m not going to say anything to introduce this or explain it, you’ll get the picture when you read it.  This was sent to me by Tom and he asked me to post it, and copied and pasted it from the document he sent me as is.   

The Death of a Baseball Player

I’m playing medium depth, straight up position in center field. The sun just set and the glow of the field lights and the warmth of a summer night make me feel right at home. I’m 39 years old and play in an adult baseball league in Crown Point, Indiana. I love it. I’ve played baseball on and off since I was eight years old. There’s no place on earth that I feel more comfortable, more joyous, and more alive, than on a baseball field. After playing on my college club team, I tried to satisfy my love for the game on the softball field. It was fun but the level of competition pales in comparison to baseball. When the opportunity arose for me to play real baseball, “hardball,” again several years
ago, I jumped at it and never looked back. There’s no thrill like connecting on a fastball and watching it scream towards the fence between two outfielders that have no chance of catching up to the ball sending the hitter flying around the bags like a twelve-year-old again. There’s no thrill like stealing a base and scoring on a close play at the plate. There’s no thrill like giving it your all to race towards a ball hit in the outfield and making a dramatic, game saving diving catch. It is what some of us, young and old, live for.

There are two outs, the bases are loaded, and we are up by one run. Scott, our best pitcher, is on the mound. I stand on my toes in anticipation of every pitch. We cannot let the other team score. We have to win. This is our year to win the league championship. It’s my third year with this team. The first year was a real challenge. I joined a team made up of somewhat dysfunctional and truly “over the hill” baseball players who were scraping a clawing to hold on to a game that they cherished despite the fact that the game had passed them by, in some cases, decades before. We only won one game that year. Last year was a bit better and we surprised a few teams in the playoffs but still ended the season realizing that we were severely outclassed by the top echelon teams.

This year was different. Our manager Jeff made the very difficult decision to release several of our players from the previous year. Being a manager or coach of a team is never easy, no matter the level of play. Ultimately, Jeff decided to risk losing a few friends in order to build a more competitive team. It wasn’t easy for Jeff to put some of his buddies “out to pasture.” Nobody wants to be in that position, but when you’re talking about guys who in one case, had arm problems and couldn’t raise his throwing hand above his shoulder and could hardly toss the ball more than twenty feet, at some
point the decision has to be made for them that it is time to hang up the cleats for good. Some guys went away quietly and humbly admitting that their career had come to an end. I suspect that they really did realize that it was time to quit but like a pitcher who is struggling on the mound but won’t admit that he is in pain or just doesn’t have it on that particular day it is necessary for the manager to come out of the dugout and physically remove the ball from his hand in order to extract him from the game. Other guys went away bitching and moaning. “You can’t do this to me!” they said. What they really meant was, “You can’t take the game that I love away from me.” Tom, the player who
was Jeff’s most heartbreaking release, was in fact one of the founding fathers of the league and well into his fifties. Eventually, he found another team that would take him and is still playing. I have a ton of respect for the guy’s determination to hang on to game. My teammates would often mention how they hope they can still play when they were Tom’s age. Although he was somewhat of a liability on the field, the man could still hit a baseball with consistency. I suspect that if old Tom had a leg amputated, he’d still be trying to hop around on a baseball field somewhere.

Our catcher Dan and I were each able to procure several players over the off-
season and we assembled a team over the winter that we suspected to be one of the best in the league. We spent time during the winter and early spring renting out various indoor batting cages around town. From week to week more of the new guys attended and on any given week we’d have a half dozen batters assembled for practice. Seeing the other guys hit was encouraging but the best part was the fact that each and every one of the guys had a good natured, positive attitude. Nobody had an ego problem. Everyone got along well from the very beginning. The chemistry on the team was like none I’ve ever experienced.

As the game wears on under the lights, catcher Dan calls for a particular pitch and Scott delivers. Crack! Birds take flight, fish swim, and I take off in the direction of the deep shot to left center. Some things just come natural. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that I love baseball so much. I don’t have to think about the trajectory of the ball, the velocity at which it is traveling, or what angle I should take. Guided by instinct I race at full speed toward the spot where I hope to catch up to the glowing white rocket. It’s too my right and deep. I can’t let it drop. Can’t let my team down. I have to make the catch!

I’ve never taken the time to count the number of teams that I’ve played on.
Between little league, teenage years playing for the Elks and Kiwanis clubs, high school, college, adulthood, numerous all-star teams at all levels, it must be in the dozens. One year I played on three different teams and felt as though my arm would fall off at the end of the summer. I admit that I was not always the most talented player on the field. Far from it. I’ve had the pleasure of playing with some tremendously talented players over the years. But I do have great hustle and a deep-rooted love for the game. I grew up playing in the late seventies and early eighties. During this time period, baseball was at the apex of its popularity for ten, eleven, or twelve-year-old kids. We all played little
league baseball in my neighborhood, collected baseball cards, watched the Bad News Bears movie, and idolized certain players. Some of my favorites were guys like Mike Schmidt who could blast a game winning home run and calmly make his way around the base pads with a certain look in his eye that conveyed a quiet confidence and no sign of showboating. Pete Rose who hustled on absolutely every play and could run the bases with a certain ferocity seen in no other. Ryan Sandberg who I spent many a summer watching with my grandmother as we listened to the legendary Harry Carey call the games on good ol’ WGN TV. Nobody had cable TV in my neighborhood at the time so
we were all Cubs fans thanks to WGN. To me, the early eighties were the golden years of baseball. It was a pre-soccer, pre-X games, and pre-video game world for American boys. In East Chicago, a small rust belt city sandwiched between the south side of Chicago and Gary, Indiana, most of us in my neighborhood didn’t have enough quarters to make playing video games at the local hotdog joint worthwhile. What we did have between us was enough gloves, a bat, and well used baseballs to play ball. And that we did. Even when the weather reached 95 degrees and Amazonian humidity, my fellow baseball fanatics on the South Side of East Chicago and I would be at Kosciusko Park playing ball until we just about dropped. Baseball was the one sport in which my severe
asthma did not stifle my success. It didn’t matter how far a ball was hit, I could sprint to it and worry about catching my breath later. I could steal second and score with ease and catch my breath in the dugout. The natural breaks in the game caused the differences between me and my asthmatic lungs and those of my healthy friends disappear.

When there weren’t enough guys to play a pick up game at the park (even with
right field out) we’d end up at the McKinley Elementary School yard playing strike-out where someone had spray painted a strike zone on the wall. I, of course, would never admit to such blatant vandalism. Oftentimes we’d play strike-out until the rubber ball that we used literally broke in half. The battles were epic. In a poor, gang infested, politically corrupt, and polluted city like East Chicago, the schoolyard or ball field were islands of tranquility. Of fun. Sport was an avenue for a boy to prove himself to his peers. A way to build an identity that didn’t involve drugs or gangs or violence. I cherish those times in my memory and sometimes wonder what ever happened to many of my baseball crazed comrades.

As I raced towards the ball as fast as I could possibly run I begin to realize that
there is a chance that I can get to this ball. Adrenaline races through my veins. My good jump, my decisive path, my digging as fast as my spikes can carry me have paid off. With a few more strides and a well-timed leap, I can get to this one! I’m in pure bliss. I once read a children’s book titled One Silver Second to my daughter. I can’t remember all of the details of the book but to the jungle animals in the story there was this one moment, one silver second, when all was right with the world. This is how I felt when my feet left the ground and I leaped into the air, fully extended to make the catch that would save the day for my team and which I could cherish for years to come.

Baseball players remember plays like this. I can still remember vividly squaring up on a fastball when I was playing on my little league all star team and blasting a grand slam home run that sailed beyond the reach of the field lights and into the night. The funny thing is that it was only in a practice game against the previous years all star team but to me it didn’t matter. I was playing baseball and it was the best hit of my life.

I also remember when the league I was playing in invited me to play on an all star team made up of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds when I was just thirteen. I was facing the best pitcher from across town, a kid who had already developed a city-wide reputation as a fantastic player, one destined for greatness. I was intimidated and probably shaking in my spikes as I approached the plate. As the junior member of the team, I was at the bottom of the line-up and this pitcher had already mowed through the entire line-up with ease. It was the middle of the game, maybe the fourth inning by the time I finally got up to bat. He through me a fastball and maybe I closed my eyes or something but

I connected with a mighty crack of the bat. At the particular field we were playing at, there was no outfield fence. The center fielder hopped on his proverbial horse and sprinted back as fast as he could run. Somehow he made a dramatic leaping catch to rob me of a sure triple or perhaps even a home run. What I remember most was our team leader berating the fourteen and fifteen year olds. He was a tough guy amongst tough guys. A gang leader who was feared by all who knew him. “Did you see that!? This little sh#* blasted the ball like that and you motherf#@*%rs are scared of this guy! You motherf#@*%rs are a bunch of p#@*%#s! Hit the f#@*%ing ball!” He smacked me
in the back of the helmet as I walked back to the bench. A way of showing approval. In my world, this was huge. In front of the guys that I looked up to and admired, with one swing of the bat, I had earned the respect of Leo Garces.

This season I made a dramatic diving catch in our second game. I had to give up my body and make a full out dive in order to reach the sinking line drive. I hit the ground with a thud but bruised ribs were a small price to pay for the cheering that ensued and the manner in which the team’s spirit was raised by my effort. “That’s the Tom Ruiz that I remember!” shouted Juan Sanchez whom I have played with and against since childhood and I managed to coax onto our team this last winter. I have to admit, as corny as it sounds, especially I’m sure to those who have never played organized sports, this is what players live for. Giving it your all and making the play. I swear I felt like a twelve year- old kid again!

“Call it!” screamed our catcher Dan in a frantic voice. He is already leaving the
plate and running towards the outfield. His voice is the last thing I hear. It is too late. I am already committed and in the air. There is no way in the world that I am going to take my eyes off the ball which is making it’s descent from through the night’s sky. Neither of us call the ball. As center fielder, it is my responsibility to call off my left fielder. Not only am I surprised that I tracked the ball down, I am totally blindsided by the fact that Jeff got to the ball at the exact same time that I did. The thing that still puzzles me is how I didn’t see or hear him coming. I’ve always had the ability to somehow, some way, either here the other fielder’s footsteps or at the very least, see him out of the corner of my eye. In this case, I am concentrating 100% on the ball and oblivious to the fact that my left fielder, who outweighs me by about 60 pounds is
barreling towards me and the ball.

From that point on the next sequence of events was like a slow motion movie.
The sound of the crash could be hard over a hundred yards away and was sickening according to those in the crowd who would describe it to me later. I’m not sure what was worse- experiencing it or watching it through my wife’s eyes as she and crowd rose, wide eyed, hoping that the collision would somehow be averted in the last millisecond. It was not. I remember spinning like a helicopter in the air. I can remember the pain shooting throughout my body. I can remember for a second my left fielders body flying in the air
in a very unnatural position. After spinning through the air both in pain and in the shocking surprise of what had happened I landed on the ground with a thud and don’t even remember whether or not I put my arms out to brace myself. I never lost conciseness. I tried to get up but fall to the ground in a heap. I checked my glove for the ball. “Are you alright Tommy” I hear as I roll onto my back searching for a position that is the least painful. “No. Did you catch the ball?” I hear myself say and the sound of my own voice scares me. I end up on my hands and knees gasping for air. I was hit in the groin and that blow alone can bring any man down, I got the wind knocked out of me and I couldn’t breathe, my head is ringing from a sure concussion, and I have a pain in
my gut that is intense and one that I’ve never experienced in all my years filled with baseball, basketball, football, and my share of fights in the streets of East Chicago during my youth.

My good friend Tim, who I persuaded to join the team last year, is one of the first to approach me. He also happens to be a doctor and my teammates who gather around give way to his lead as he runs me through the normal series of concussion checks and damage evaluation. Some of the other guys crack a nervous joke or two and gauge my response. Ballplayers do this quite often in the hopes that a chuckle from the injured party would snap things back to normal. In this case, there is no response from me. I’m a crumpled heap gasping for air. It takes two guys with my arms around their necks to
carry me off the field. I hear clapping from both teams and their respective families in the stands. It’s appreciated but doesn’t do much to ease the tremendous pain shooting through my body.

For some reason I decide to remain in the dugout. Perhaps I will catch my breath in time for my next at-bat. I really want to face this pitcher again, I think to myself. I do eventually catch my breath and the little stars that I saw are beginning to fade away but my hands are tingling and something in my mid-section just doesn’t feel right. I look to my wife who hasn’t taken her eyes off me since I shooed her off by telling her “I’m okay, just need a minute to catch my breath.” Her instincts tell her that something isn’t right. With some help I make it out to her car. She begs me to let her take me to the emergency room but I refuse. “Just get me home,” I tell her. I set up camp in my easy chair at
home. Uniform still on and a couple of Tylenol in me, I resolve to wait it out and pray that the pain goes away.

Jackie and I have known each other for a long time. We both attended the
same public high school for a year, East Chicago Central. It was my last year in public school and her very first and last. We had algebra class together. After a year of underachieving, my parents persuaded me to attend the local Catholic high school, Bishop Noll. Deep down inside, even as sixteen year-old, I knew that the friends that I was making, the poor choices that I was making and lack of effort in the classroom were leading me down the wrong path. In my adulthood, I came to realize that attending Bishop Noll was the best thing that ever happened to me in more ways than one. To my surprise, on my first day of school at Noll I attended geometry class and was smiled at and waved to by Jackie, the beautiful girl I had met the year before. She was in the same
class. She transferred too! By the summer between our junior and senior year, we were dating. Her parents would not let her go away for college and because I was head over heels for her, I decided to cancel my plans of attending Indiana University Bloomington (chosen because it had ranked high on Playboy’s list of best party schools), and enrolled with Jackie at Indiana University Northwest. IUN was one of IU’s satellite schools located in Gary, Indiana.

I played on IU Northwest’s club baseball team. Attending classes during the
morning and practicing baseball during the afternoon was one of the best experiences of my life. I had not played baseball at Bishop Noll because of a coach named Bentley. I explained to him that I had severe asthma and couldn’t do all of the long distance running that was required during winter conditioning. Despite my informing him of my condition, he screamed and berated me for slowing down to a walk when I should have been running. For a kid from E.C. with a chip on his shoulder, this kind of treatment was unbearable. Despite the pleading of several of my potential teammates who had played with me on previous teams, I decided to walk away from the game. “I can’t take this a##%*@% screaming at me,” I explained to them.

On IUN’s team I shined. I was starting left fielder and lead-off man. Lead-off
was a position in the lineup that I had relished and just about every coach, including IUN’s coach, former major leaguer and pride of Gary Indiana, Joe “Moose” Gates, bestowed upon me the honor of having. Playing those few years at IUN alongside other guys who were region stars at their respective high schools was truly a joy. I proved to myself that although I didn’t play high school ball, I was good enough to have played. This meant a lot to me. Our team beat just about everyone we faced including some small division 3 colleges around Indiana and Illinois that actually offered baseball
scholarships to it’s players. Had my love for Jackie not caused me stay at home for school where I could play baseball, I’m sure I would not have majored in education. Half the reason I decided to become a teacher was so that I could coach baseball. Kids deserved better, I thought, than teachers like the ones I had at E.C. Central and coaches like Larry Bentley.

I’m not only too proud to go to the emergency room; money is on my mind as
well. I think I have decent insurance but a few months ago my asthma specialist sent me in for a blood test. A simple blood test that took ten minutes and which my doctor spent exactly 5 seconds telling me that the results were normal, cost over two thousand dollars, twelve hundred of which the hospital says is my responsibility. The idea of a costly ER visit caused me to simply deal with the pain. It wasn’t until Tim arrived after the game to check up on me that I finally conceded and agreed to go the emergency room.

Tim came very, very close to not attending the game because he was so busy at
work that day and the game had already started by the time he left the office. Tim is a young doctor and he is in the process of starting his own practice. Had Tim not been in the ER with me, it is doubtful that any of the surgeons would have come in for a patient who was injured during a baseball game. What are the chances that I would have a friend and teammate who was a physician that would accompany me to the hospital, monitor my progress, and advocate for me? I know that Tim felt very uncomfortable calling the surgeon back because he worried about overstepping his bounds. He even called his wife Lisa who is also a doctor both before and after he called the surgeon. Without a physician advocate there that night, I would have gone from the ER to the floor and not seen a doctor again until the next day. Either my wife or I would likely have told the nurse that I was in increasing amounts of pain and they would have likely given me more and more narcotic pain medicine until I fell asleep. I may not have woken up. All night, more and more of my small and large bowel would have become gangrenous as the blood supply diminished. Likely, my bowel would have perforated and spilled millions of tiny bacteria into my abdomen and blood stream. That bacteriam is called sepsis. Sepsis leads to septic shock and that usually leads to the patient’s death.

Tim stayed at the hospital with Jackie and me through the entire ordeal.
Advocating for me and convincing that surgeon to come in was the second time Tim saved my life that night, the first being when he convinced me to get out of the easy chair and go to ER. Had emergency surgery not been performed, had I remained in the easy chair, had the contents of my intestine spilled and poisoned my system, death would have resulted. The thought of my wife or daughters finding me the next morning makes me shudder.

The surgeon couldn’t believe his eyes when he opened me up. Injuries like mine
are typically seen in very bad car wrecks. Someone likened my experience to running into a brick wall. I think of it more as a brick wall traveling towards me at a high rate of speed and me running full speed into it. The one word that my pastor, Father Pat, who came to visit me in the hospital used to describe the collision most accurately and the ensuing aftermath to my body was “violent.” I agree. The surgeon told me that he was considering using my injury as the subject for an article in a medical journal.

I am a school principal and I have the best job in the world. I love my students
and their families. I am part of a wonderful parish community. The funny thing is that I never realized just how much I appreciated these aspects of my life until this incident. The outpouring of love and concern and prayers for me and my family’s well-being was and still is almost overwhelming.

I spent a very difficult week in the hospital. The first several days are now a blur, as I was under the influence of some very heavy duty pain medication. The surgeon removed about thirty inches of my dying and disintegrating small intestine. I was relieved when I learned when I regained consciousness after the surgery that I would not spend the remainder of my life with a colostomy bag or have any permanent disabilities if everything heals up as the doctor hopes. After several months, I should even be able to resume physical activities such as weight lifting again and by next spring, if everything goes well, I could be in shape for baseball, the game that I love.

Throughout my time in the hospital, my wife Jackie was with me every step of
the way. She even spent the first several nights with me. She was there when I woke up the next day after the surgery. Jackie helped me as I ventured out of my hospital room with drainage tubes coming out of abdomen and IV lines running from my arm to vertical rack with machines attached for me to wheel around the hallways. She was there for my first sip of soup and even helped me go to the washroom and bathed me. The funny thing is that we had just come back from a twenty-six day road trip across the country with our children. Prior to the trip, we had both been so busy raising two children and spending

time with our careers, hers as a teacher, that we had drifted apart after fifteen years of marriage. We had stopped making the time to go out on dates and spend real time together as so many couples do. We truly bonded on our 6,359 mile journey and I thought our relationship was a solid as it had ever been. Her nursing me through this ordeal has caused my love and appreciation for this woman to deepen in ways that I had no idea it could.

In a half-hearted way, Jackie has been after me to quit baseball for several years. I wouldn’t let torn ligaments in my foot three years ago from running the bases force me to quit. I wouldn’t let a broken and permanently disfigured finger caused by diving headfirst into second base two years ago—á la my childhood hero Pete Rose—cause me to quit. Nor would I allow cracked ribs from diving for a ball last year that forced me to sleep propped up for a month force me to throw in the towel.

I came to the realization that I need to finally quit while alone in a hospital bed.
Quietly. While watching my beloved Cubs. For her sake, I decided to give up the game that I love.

I’m not sure if the average person could understand the magnitude of this
decision. To me it was like saying goodbye to an old friend forever—a cause for
mourning. Someone whom I have shown the utmost respect. Someone that I grew up with and learned many life lessons from. Someone who has introduced me to my oldest and dearest friends. Someone who has always been there for me and given me back exactly the amount of love, yes love, I have shown to it.

In case you’re wondering, Jeff somehow made the catch on the field that night,
paying the price of bruised ribs and my face planted in his should with such force that he wasn’t able to raise his hand over his head for a week. To him it was worth it though. We shut out the other team in a close game and the sweetest season, my last season, rolled on with one less outfielder on the roster.

Tom Ruiz
08-23-2011

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Posted in Diversions | 6 Comments »

Superstitions

Posted by sharris2929 on March 16, 2011

Being so early in the spring, and the season being so far away, there obviously isn’t a great deal of news here at the Tiger Den.  Once the season gets closer we’ll have more player profiles, expert predictions for the season, celebrity guest columnists*, and plenty of other exciting features.  Until that time, expect a wide variety of content here at the Tiger Den.  Editorials, general baseball discussions, hell even book and movie reviews.  It’s all filler until the season comes along.  My vow is that I’ll try my hardest to enlighten, entertain, and make you think.  Or whatever.  Just keep coming back here, okay?

Superstition plays a larger role in baseball than in any other sport.  Watching a game makes that fact obvious.  You see players with their choreographed pre pitch routines (like Nomar Garciaparra and his famous batting glove tug/foot stop dance), and at first glance it just looks silly.  But there is more to it than that.  Players come to feel that these rituals, however strange or unusual, play a part in their success or failure.  Nomar’s routine probably started one day when he was wearing ill-fitting batting gloves and had some leg cramps he was working out.  And he probably had a big game, and immediately correlated his routine with his success.  That’s how baseball superstitions start.  And even though Nomar had many bad games after that, the superstition never stopped. 

When a reporter asked Babe Ruth if he had any superstitions, he said this:  “Just one.  Whenever I hit a home run, I make certain I touch all four bases.”  It was obviously a joke, but it tells us that even when our beloved game was in its infancy, superstitions were commonplace.  (Babe Ruth also once said, “Ty Cobb is a prick.  But he sure can hit.  God Almighty, that man can hit.”  That quote is unrelated to the present topic, but it sure is funny).  And many high-profile players have had very famous superstitions.

Wade Boggs was one of the more superstitions players in history.  He ate fried chicken before every single game.  He woke up at the same time every day, took exactly 100 grounders before every game, and took batting practice at the exact same time every day.  (He is also rumored to have once drank 60-70 beers on a cross-country flight, which is really awesome).  Did these things make him one of the most productive and consistent hitters of all time?  Of course not.  If anything the fried chicken may have hurt him.  But what is important.  He felt that it helped his performance, and that’s all that matters.

There are other, more widespread superstitions in baseball.  When a pitcher has a no-hitter going, you don’t mention it or talk to the pitcher.  Most players won’t step on the foul lines when taking or leaving the field.  Some players won’t shave before a game.  I’ve heard many pitchers will not have sex the night before they pitch. 

The point is that every player has at least some type of superstition.  Here at Tiger Nation, we’d like to hear what superstitions the Tigers themselves have. 

So all you Tigers reading this…leave a comment and let’s hear about the superstitious things you do in relation to baseball.  Fans and friends feel free to leave yours as well.

*Probably not

Posted in Diversions | 3 Comments »