Fostering the Sultan of Swat

Babe_RuthI was an avid baseball fan as a kid.  I remember when I was about 10 or 11 years old, and my mom would leave my brothers and I in the public library while she ran errands.  I remember those times as formative years, where I would learn much of what I knew about the great baseball players in history.  I would immediately go to the section where I knew the baseball history books were.

That is where I learned about Babe Ruth.

Babe Ruth was a foster kid.  He was placed in foster care at age 7.  While in foster care, he learned to play baseball, and of course we know what happened next.  He grew up to be a legend, one of the greatest baseball players ever, hitting over 700 home runs and going down as the greatest Yankee.  Many will remember that Yankee stadium was called the house that Ruth built.

What is interesting is that in most books that tell his story, very little is told about those years.  What most books say was simply that he was a rough kid, and lived in a reformatory.  But I do wonder what allowed George Herman Ruth to survive those times, and what allowed him to succeed in life where others did not.  It seems to me that the Babe was able to succeed because of baseball.  I mean, he was able to find something he was good at, that lifted him out of his situation.  I suspect that those around him in his care recognized his potential, and encouraged it.  How different would his life had been if he had not had that encouragement, or if he had been placed in a reformatory where baseball was not played.

I guess my point is how fragile we really are as humans.  No matter how much talent we have buried deep inside of us, we just cannot do it alone.  We can all look back into our childhood and remember that one person, one event, one season in our lives where our abilities were brought out of us.  How different would our lives be if that didn’t happen, of if for some reason, we failed to take the opportunity when it was presented.

I see foster parents today as fulfilling that role.  We are the spark that can either ignite a child, or extinguish them.  It is a big responsibility that God has placed on us.  Don’t get me wrong.  A Babe Ruth may only come around once in a lifetime.  But maybe we have the next president, or singer, policemen or fireman in our home.  Whatever this child may become, it is us that can make the difference in their lives.

I pray that God gives us the time, strength, and wisdom to pour out His love and His plan for the life of this little child.

I also pray for those souls who don’t have someone in their lives to fulfill this role.  May His love and guidance bring them out of their present situation.

Play ball!

 

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Playoffs!

baseballIt was a Saturday like any other. No school, so I got up a little later. Of course, for a 13 year old, that meant 9 AM instead of 6 AM. After dressing and the obligatory brushing of teeth, I stroll into the kitchen. Mami has cafe con leche ready, along with some toasted Cuban bread. Yeah, Cubans in Miami feed their kids coffee. I am not sure if that contributed to our hyper activity. This is 1980, so ADHD has not become the popular diagnosis for hyper active kids yet. We are just considered annoying young boys. Nothing a day of playing outside won’t fix. As I go to my room to grab my baseball and glove, the realization that today is not a regular Saturday starts to reach my brain.

Playoffs!

I was a baseball fanatic as a kid, and as such, was on a Koury League team, our version of Little League in Miami. Our team was in the playoffs that year. I can’t tell you I was the star on the team. I was small for my age, and I was struggling to learn to hit a fastball. I was a decent fielder, and I was progressing as a hitter though. Papi apparently had aspirations of having a Major League baseball player for a son, so he was very involved. I fondly remember seeing him at practice and at games, cheering me on. He had coached little league back in New Jersey, and even helped out with my current team as well. Of course Mami never missed a game. Those years were instrumental in cementing my relationship with both of them.

So in his attempt to help me reach my dream of baseball stardom, Papi had heard of the Charlie Lau batting method. Baseball fans will surely remember George Brett, the star third baseman for the Kansas City Royals. Many will remember his chase of Ted Williams .400 batting average that one year, and the many thrills he gave us during his career. Well, he made the Charlie Lau method famous. It was a method that used the body’s own momentum, and a transfer of weight between the batter’s back and front feet to propel him through the ball. Papi took me to a local batting instructor who taught this method.

The change was pretty significant, not so much because I was suddenly transformed into a superstar, but because of the confidence it gave me. I had a new weapon at my disposal, one that none of the other kids on the team had, and the encouragement I received from Papi and the instructor went a long way. Suddenly I was connecting bat with ball in practice much more frequently, and best of all, the ball was flying off the bat. Where most of my hits had been harmless ground balls, I was now consistently hitting line drives into the outfield.

Game time!

The game was pretty exciting, going back and forth, no team having the lead for very long. It was the second to last inning and we were behind 4-2. We quickly get two hits, putting men on first and second. Suddenly a quiet ballpark comes alive. We are all standing in the dugout now, unable to contain our excitement. You can feel the energy in the ball park, as the chatter in the bleachers begins to build, parents and fans cheering on their family and friends. We have a chance to win this one now if we keep it going, but we are up against arguably the best pitcher in the league. This kid looks 2 or 3 years older than the rest of us, and I can swear he throws illegal pitches, since every ball seems to have a break in it, which is not allowed in this league. The next batter strikes out, and our hearts deflate. I am now on deck, as the next batter goes to the plate, hoping to be the one to get us back in this game.

“Strike one!”

“Strike two.”

“You’re out!”

Wonderful. This is not the way I had planned it. With two outs and the game on the line, we will have to see what Charlie Lau can do for me. Everyone is cheering me on. I am shaking like a leaf, and I am sure it shows as I move to the plate. The pitcher looks huge. Images of David and Goliath permeate my brain. The coach, probably noticing I am white as a ghost, calls time and calls me to over to talk.

“Ok kid, relax! You can do this. Remember this.. Keep your eye on the ball, and wait for for your pitch. No need to swing at everything. Just meet the ball with the bat ok?”

Henry – he was a great coach. He never yelled, and was never negative. He always had a way of putting me at ease and instilling confidence in me. I step in to the batters box, curling into my new batting position, confident I can make this happen. I am repeating in my head, “Wait for your pitch. Wait for your pitch…” The pitch is thrown, and it is right down the middle, no break in sight. A fastball. I can hear it sizzle as it flies towards the plate. It all slows down now as I unwind my swing. Back foot transfers to front foot, bat follows body, eye follows ball and then…

Crack!

The ball flies off the bat, directly over the pitcher’s head. The ball reaches the outfield before I even get a chance to run. The runners on first and second were moving with the pitch, and take advantage. Two runners score, and I stop on second.

We are tied 4-4!

I can see Mami screaming, Papi with a huge smile on his face, applauding. My teammates are jumping up and down in the dugout, some of them jumping on the runners as they cross the plate. I am of course serious as a heart attack. I can’t let anyone know that I think this is the absolute best moment of my short life.

“Stay serious John.” I tell myself “ It’s no big deal. Just a normal day at the park for George Brett, No different for you.”

We later scored again, winning the game.

We lost the playoffs that year. But that night – I went home a superstar.

Baseball Snapshot

It’s funny how as an adult, you remember some aspects of your childhood, and yet others are just a blur. For example, most of my years in catholic school were a blur. I remember a couple of the teachers, but most of them are just distant images in my mind. I remember specific moments very clearly, but very few.

There is one night of my childhood that remains clear in my brain. I was not just a baseball fan as a child, I was raving baseball lunatic. I remember more than one night sleeping with my glove and baseball. I could recite the entire Yankees lineup. I could tell you their current batting averages, who was leading the league in home runs, RBI’s, you name it. From the ages of about 7 to 15, I was the resident baseball guru in my house.

I will never forget the night my dad took my older brother and I to Shea stadium to see the Yankees play the Twins. The Yankees he says? At Shea? Yeah this was the mid 70’s and they were renovating Yankee stadium, so they were playing at Shea. At some point during the trip over the Hudson River to New York, my dad revealed that we were going to meet Tony Oliva from the Minnesota Twins. Apparently my dad went to school with him in Cuba, and was going to meet him after the game. Now, you might think I knew exactly who Tony Oliva was. I didn’t. Unfortunately, Tony was in the later stages of his career and had had several injuries, so he was not playing everyday anymore. I believe this was probably his last year as a player. I didn’t really care though. I was gonna get to meet an actual big leaguer. Wow!

So we got to the game late. My dad got three tickets at the ticket booth, and we went in. I still remember the smell of the stadium. You could smell hot dogs and popcorn all around you. When we got to our seats, I saw it. A real big league stadium. It was beautiful. The field was a perfect green. We were far away, but I could see the players and was pretty amazed at how big the field was. It was much bigger than the fields I played on. It was the last inning, and we only got to see the last couple of outs. I remember the last out was a grounder to the shortstop. I don’t remember the score but I know the Yankees won.

So we are walking out, and as we get outside, my dad leads us to where the players come out so we can wait for Tony to meet us. Soon I see in the distance one of the Twins, but it isn’t Tony Oliva. I can’t see who it is because of all of the kids around him, asking for autographs. My dad notices the crowd, and tells me to give him the ball I brought with me. He goes over and gets in the crowd, holding the ball up for the player to sign. It seemed like it took forever for him to see my dad, but he finally took my ball and signed it. My dad hands me the ball, a huge smile on his face as I take the ball back and look at the autograph.

Rod Carew!

Wow! Rod Carew – the great batting champ throughout the 70’s. He was one of the greatest Twins ever, and I had his autograph. The moment I saw that ball in my hands is one of those snapshots of my childhood I can never erase. The smile on my dad’s face as he hands me the ball, knowing the moment he just created for his son, is imprinted in me forever.

But this night wasn’t over. Out comes Tony Oliva. After he and my dad give each other a big hug, Tony says hi to us. I was always very shy, so I say nothing. But inside I am awestruck. What a night. Tony sees the ball and my dad shows Tony the autograph. Tony smiles approvingly, and signs the ball on the opposite side. I felt like the kid in the coke commercial when Mean Joe Green tossed him the sweaty t-shirt.

“Wow! Thanks Mean Joe!”

So Tony tells my dad he is hungry and we all go out to a diner in New York. We spend the rest of the night listening to my Dad and Tony talk about old times. Both my brother and I were falling asleep, but I just couldn’t let sleep take over. I didn’t want the night to end. So I remember the rest of the night as a battle to stay awake, hearing bits and pieces of their conversations, like Tony telling my dad that Nolan Ryan was the only pitcher Rod Carew was afraid of. Priceless!

Today I don’t have the ball anymore, nor do I have any pictures. All I have is my memories. Every once in awhile my brother, dad and I will talk about that night. Seems like that night was one of those snapshot memories for all three of us.

Funny how that works huh?