One More Opening Day
Joe Shrode is a father, and a 19-year youth baseball coach. He is the author of “Between the Lines: A Father, A Son, and America’s Pastime.” BTL goes beyond balls and strikes, hits and outs, and wins and losses. It’s about relationships. To see excerpts, visit www.btlfatherson.blogspot.com.
One recent Saturday morning, I took the field for my 30th opening day: eleven as a player and 19 as a youth baseball coach.
Basketball has its annual tip off. FootballÂ kicks off its season. But baseball lays claim to Opening Day. It comes around every April just as sure as the tax man. Since it was referred to as â€œbaste ballâ€ in the diary of a College of New Jersey student in 1787, surely this fair weather sport has had an opening day of some sort.
Most things, after that many years and that much repetition, become routine. Not Opening Day; not for me. Iâ€™m as excited as Aaron Harang who threw the first pitch for the Cincinnati Reds, baseballâ€™s first professional team, who always open their season at home in what is still recognized as the â€œtraditionalâ€ major league season opener.
The words â€œOpening Dayâ€ heighten the senses as they conjure childhood memories of the taste of dirt as you slid into home plate; the sweet-stale smell of a favorite leather glove, of the freshly cut wild onions in the outfield, and hot dogs on the grill; that first at-bat of the season; the thwack of bat against ball, and the strange sensation of flying when you hear the words, â€œOver the fence! Itâ€™s gone!â€; the emerald-green grass that leaves indelible reminders on the knees and elbows of once-white uniforms, of brilliant saves and valiant tries.
When I was 30 years old, a friend asked me to help coach his sonâ€™s baseball team. It had been a long time since I played baseball, but the game hadnâ€™t changed. I hadnâ€™t forgotten about balls and strikes, hits and outs, and how to win games. Thatâ€™s all there is to it, right? Sure, I can coach baseball. So I did.
A few years went by, and my friend no longer coached with me. His son was graduating from high school, and I was getting married. But I still coached and looked forward to the day when a son of my own would be included on the roster.
After three years and countless dashed hopes, an infertility specialist told my wife, Cathy, and me that we could never have our own biological child. Months later, an expectant mother told us that she had changed her mind; she would not adopt her child to us after all. Six months after that, it happened again. I was still coaching â€” and dealing with the hurt and disappointment of knowing I may never be a dad. I would never coach my childâ€™s baseball team, or write â€œShrodeâ€ on a lineup card. Then one afternoon, I received a call from a friend. A partner in his legal firm had been contacted by a young woman who was unable to keep the child she was expecting to deliver soon. Adoptive parents had been chosen for her baby, but she felt uneasy about the adoption arrangement. Through a series of events that can only be called miraculous, this selfless woman selected us to be the beneficiaries of the most precious gift imaginable.
Two weeks later, our son was born. His name is Sam. â€œSamâ€ is a good, solid, down-to-earth â€œbarber shopâ€ name â€” like Gus and Ed and Bill. Samuel means â€œGift from God.â€
Sam is my son and I am his father, and his coach. April 23, 2005, was our first Opening Day together. Since then I write â€œShrodeâ€ on the lineup card every game. Sam has changed everything. My view of the world is both immeasurably larger and infinitesimally smaller than before. Iâ€™ve learned to see through the penetratingly deep brown eyes of a little boy. Yet, I still feel that most of lifeâ€™s dreams and fears, hopes and challenges, joyful conquests and painful losses mirror the game of baseball. Somewhere between adolescence and the age of 30, I forgot some of those valuable lessons. They had been buried beneath the obligations of adulthood. Iâ€™m lucky, though. Nearly 20 years of coaching over 300 kids, and now Sam, have helped me to remember. Baseball is more than balls and strikes; hits and outs.Â Baseball is much, much more.
Last fall, following his first experience in live pitch during the fall baseball season, Sam informed me he didnâ€™t want to play baseball anymore.Â He said he didnâ€™t like it. I knew that it was due to his normal and natural fear of being hit by pitches thrown by those big ten year olds.
As I wrestled with this possibility, I imagined a spring without coaching youth baseball. For 19 years I have anticipated spring and the start of baseball season along with the 12 boys who would make up my roster. For 19 years there has always been an Opening Day. What would spring be like without it?
I was torn about how hard I should push him to play baseball. At what point do I cross the line from responsible father pushing him to overcome his fear to an overbearing coach? How much of my feelings are out of the anticipation of Sam dropping out, then watching with envy as his buddies who stuck it out now enjoy more than ever the game he loves so much? How much of my feelings are selfish?
Over the winter, the fear began to fade. Sam changed his mind about playing baseball. He accepted that he will get hit by a pitch, and it will hurt, but only for a short time. It would be worth the pain to play the game he loves so much. Sam is deep thinker, an â€œold soul.â€ He understands that baseball is the only sport I coach. Itâ€™s the only game that allows the two of us to take the field together, wearing matching jerseys on Opening Day. Thatâ€™s what we did Saturday, April 17, 2010; one more Opening Day.
Coach Zachary opens the 2010 season in the dugout; his first as an assistant coach for the Cardinals. Until his third heart surgery ended his playing days, Zachary was the Cardinalsâ€™ all-star second baseman. Though he lost sight in one eye when he was four years old, his shortened major league career earned him a trip to Cooperstown. While heâ€™d rather still be playing along with his twin brother and starting pitcher, Dominic, he is thankful for another Opening Day at the ballpark.
Even with the loss of his second baseman, the Cardinalsâ€™ manager is confident that this team could reach the World Series. AfterÂ 15 games, they are undefeated and currently lead their division. Even if they donâ€™t make it to the World Series this year, Coach Zachary will have many more chances. After all, heâ€™s only twelve. The Division that these Cardinals lead is the Major League at Peccole Little League in Las Vegas.Â Itâ€™s the World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, that the Cardsâ€™ manager â€“ Zacharyâ€™s father, Brett – has in his sights. The team’sÂ goal this year is to becomeÂ the first from Nevada to advance to the Little League WorldÂ Series.
Mostly, the Cardinalsâ€™ Manager Brett Grant is grateful – beyond his ability to express – to take the field for one more Opening Day in a jersey that matches his sonsâ€™, starting pitcher Dominic and his new assistant, Zachary.
The 2008 season was barely underway when surgeons at Stanford University Hospital inform the Grants that they would have to replace Zacharyâ€™s mitral valve for the second time. This was to be the ten year oldâ€™s third heart surgery; the first he underwent when he was only six days old. A mishap during the second left him blind in his right eye at the age of four.
Only with support from family, friends, and now teammates and their families, are the Grants able to endure these challenges and prepare to face yet another. Along the way, there were a few surprises too. During one of Zacharyâ€™s and Dominicâ€™s games over Memorial Day weekend, Brett uncharacteristically takes a call to his cell phone while coaching third base. Although he had been alerted, he never fully expects this call.
â€œHello, this is Brett,â€ he answers.
â€œHey, Brett. This is Greg Maddux. Is Zachary there?â€ As casually as if it was spoken by his closest friend, that is all the voice on the phone says.
In his mind Brett, the fan of all things baseball, hears: â€œThis is Greg Maddux, major league pitcher, the first to win four consecutive Cy Young Awards, the only one to win 15 games in 17 straight seasons, winner of more games in the 1990s than any other pitcher, and recipient of a record 18 Gold Gloves.â€
To boost his spirits as he anxiously awaits his upcoming surgery and accepts that he may be playing his final games for the Cardinals, the parents of one of his teammates arranged the call from Zacharyâ€™s favorite player.
â€œHello,â€ Zachary says weakly into the phone. Although he later assures his father they discussed serious baseball strategy, Zachary stands motionless with his mouth open and his ear to the phone throughout the call.
DaysÂ later, as the Grants prepare to leave for Stanford, Zachary receives a FedEx package. In it he finds an autographed baseball and a good luck message. It is from Zacharyâ€™s newest favorite player and new best friend, Greg Maddux. He tucks it into his suitcase. While Zachary undergoes tests in the hospital, Coach Brett travels back to Las Vegas from Stanford for one day to coach Dominic and the Cardinals in a playoff game. Upon arriving home, he discovers another FedEx package. Evidently, Greg Maddux contacted the St. Louis Cardinals and suggested they do something good after having beaten up on the San Diego Padres, for whom Maddux was playing, the week prior. Not to be outdone, the second package contains another baseball. This one is signed by Zachary’s co-favorite player, Albert Pujols.
Though he says little about them, those two baseballs go into surgery with Zachary. They remain by his bedside throughout his recovery.
Late that summer, the Grant family attends a Padres game while on vacation in San Diego. They have been to PETCO Park before. This time is different. It feels more like the completion of a journey; like crossing the finish line. Tonight they will watch their hero and friend and, in their own way, say thank you.
Even Brett, a St. Louis native, roots for the Padres; except when the Cardinals are in town. He has even forgiven Mr. Maddux for the years he spent with the Cubs.
They arrive early to watch batting practice and hopefully get a few autographs. From behind the home dugout Zacharyâ€™s mother, Kathy, strikes up a conversation with a Padresâ€™ trainer. She tells him his story and about Madduxâ€™s selfless act. The trainer walks off toward a group of Padres players stretching in the outfield. Then they watch as tonightâ€™s starting pitcher walks in their direction. Surely he is going into the dugout, they think.
To their disbelief, he walks right up to them. â€œHey, kid, let me see that scar,â€ he says to Zachary. They spend a few minutes talking and get the chance to thank him personally. Zachary stands motionless and without saying a word. No doubt they again discussed some serious baseball strategy.
Zacharyâ€™s trip to the Hall of Fame comes during the 2009 season. He has recovered sufficiently to rejoin his brother on their club team, the Las Vegas Shamrocks. At only 70 pounds, he holds his own against opponents who are much bigger and stronger. His final games are played at Dreams Park in Cooperstown.
The Shamrocks, led by their father/coach Brett, are victorious in their first four games before dropping the next two. Now trailing 8-1 in the bottom of the last inning, the Shamrocks face elimination.
From his coachâ€™s box at first base, Brett watches his son take his warm-up swings in the on deck circle. The second out is made. Zachary drops the donut, checks his bat, and marches toward the batterâ€™s box. He knocks the dirt from his cleats. Heâ€™s ready.
Suddenly, Brett is struck with the realization that this is Zacharyâ€™s final trip to the plate. Due to the blood thinning medication he takes, doctors refuse to allow him to play any sport that might that may result in blunt trauma. At this level, baseball has become too risky. Dominic chose to quit playing hockey because Zachary couldnâ€™t play. This summer he only plays baseball so he and his brother can be together.
Until this moment, Brett hadnâ€™t allowed himself to think about the final at-bat. Â Now, itâ€™s here. Exhausted – from the tournament, the trip, the journey, from life â€“ his sonâ€™s undersized frame looks barely able to swing the bat again. With tears streaming down his cheeks, silently Brett pleads, â€œLord, please just donâ€™t let him strike out.â€
Zachary battles the pitcher and works a walk. Upon reaching first, he looks to his coach for a signal, then to second base. Heâ€™s ready for whatever is next.
In January of this year, Brett was diagnosed with colon cancer. Now it is Zacharyâ€™s turn to be his fatherâ€™s biggest supporter; a job he is taking very seriously. Brett is reacting well to chemotherapy, and Zachary is growing tall and wide. They look forward to working on their golf game this summer.
â€œI have gained so much inspiration from Zachary to get through my own illness. He has been my hero since he was 6 days old,â€ says Brett.
Both Brett and Zachary are at the ballpark on Opening Day to coach the Peccole Little League Cardinals, Dominic is on the mound,Â mom and big sister Emily â€“ their biggest fans -Â are in the stands.
Just one more Opening Day? Indeed it is. One more Opening Day is as much as some people dare to hope for.