Saturday, August 27, 2005

It's Still Rock 'n Roll to Me

I was talked into this. I didn't want to go. But it was a chance to see Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers, one of the last true American bands.

George had given me his Tom Petty two-CD set to listen to to prepare. He likes to put the CD's in his car and blast them throughout his commute so that he's ready for the concert. I listened to the CD, yes, but only the songs I liked. I didn't have time for the other 30 songs! Petty has certainly produced an incredible number of tunes over the last two decades. Then there's his Traveling Wilbury stuff. It just goes on and on.

George, Pamela, Scott, and I were sitting on the very uncomfortable bleacher seats at the Greek Theatre on the UC Berkeley campus, when Jamie and his friend Dan showed up and threaded their way into the row, looking for their seats. The opening act, the Black Crowes, were just at the end of their set and the sun hadn't even gone behind the facade yet.

Jamie was surprised to see me. Since I offered him two seats, he thought I had given him my ticket. Naw, they were George's tickets that his wife and his other daughter couldn't use, and he had given them to Rick, who....sheesh, never mind. Anyway, two free tickets went to UCSC Santa Cruz, and the two banana slugs invaded UC Berkeley territory.

So I found myself sitting on concrete seats that were small and getting smaller as we all tried to squeeze our butts together on this ungiving slab. I believe there were kids sitting there who had grass tickets, but who really knows. There were no real ushers. I think the girl next to me stood up most of the time, just to avoid having her butt squeezed into a size 3. The right side of her body obscured the left side of the stage in my vision, but I decided I could live with that.

Uncomfortable seats, but a great view from almost the last row of assigned seats. Tom Petty really performed like the professional he is. I knew perhaps 5 songs but I enjoyed the songs I didn't know, a tribute to his penchant for writing songs that are immediately hummable and catchy, often with terrific, soulful lyrics. And I got to watch an excited George jump up and down when Petty started doing the song George had awaited -- I've forgotten the name -- but it was a driving, pounding song that I imagined assisted George in driving to work.

The average age of the audience was about 25, and I wondered how these kids even knew about Tom Petty. He was on the fringe of my consciousness, to be sure, and I only found out about him through adeptly performed cover songs by the likes of Linda Ronstadt. These cover songs didn't have the plaintive wailing of his whining voice, a quality that actually adds to something like "Live like a Refugee," my personal favorite. And the two types of cigarette smoke wafting back into my area (and lit up by the spotlights) seemed to be coming from people who were my contemporaries.

I'm glad I didn't even have a taste of alcohol. We had to carefully walk over the litter of plastic bottles all over the stadium in order to find the narrow passageway out. And then down steep stairs to get to the street which would lead me to my parking area.

Great time, bad venue. Love the music, hate the Greek.

Built for Comfort, Not for Speed

Rick and I tackled the 10K walk/run at the Hayward shoreline this morning. We were both a little nervous about it.

Unlike the Faith Fancher 5K walk last weekend, which was more a community get-together than a well-organized event aimed at encouraging healthy ways (it included a BBQ at the end of the event), this event was structured in satisfying ways. I got to pin a number on my t-shirt, and, as we waited for the walk, a fund-raising event for the park, we talked with Molly.

Molly is a runner, and we knew she'd be spurting ahead of us. I asked her how she dealt with water and bathroom needs during a longer run. She said it depends on whether she's watching her time. She didn't think she would need either during this "short" run. Molly has been known to participate in marathons that dwarf official marathons. She did add that one of the organizers said there was a port-a-potty "somewhere on the trail," but he couldn't remember where.

That eased my mind a bit as we prepared for the push-off. Somewhere out there is a toilet, in case I need it. I just have to find it. A diabetic who has had their colon shortened sometimes cannot predict the need for such things. It makes me nervous to think that I will be out on the trail for 3 hours, and makes me stop drinking the water I really should be consuming.

Immediately after the race began I fell to last place. I kept telling myself, "this is not a competition, this is not a competition," over and over. But I knew Rick's male brain was telling him, "This is a competition, this is a competition," and, true enough, he spurted out, not at the head of the running competition, but among the fast walkers. I wouldn't see him again until the end.

I stayed with some of the stragglers until they turned left to join the 5K walk. Since I had pledged to do the 10K, I stayed to the right and found myself all alone. I kept up a pretty good pace, a pretty steady one, through the first 3 miles. I told myself I could relax a bit once I reached the half-way mark.

Along the way they had water stations. The first two had eager volunteers with dozens of cups of water available. At about the 3.5-mile mark, I found a deserted water station; I helped myself to a swallowful. After that, I didn't find another.

It's a lonely trek, but I found I enjoyed that. Being careful not to drag my feet and stumble in my growing fatigue, I still found myself keeping a pretty good pace, albeit a slower one, after the 3-mile mark. Once I got past the drainage canal, there were no walkers, bicyclists or dogs to occasionally pass. There were the birds, the squirrels and me. And my thoughts.

At about the four-mile point, a tall olive-green obelisk, like the one in the movie "2001," grew on the horizon. Could it be...? A thing of beauty it was, and it grew larger with every purposeful step. The porta-potty. I knew it was mine alone, as there was no other human around. I think I could have made it all the way through the 6.5 miles this morning, but I wasn't certain. And after my visit with this wonderful manmade invention, I was certain I could walk until the end.

The last two miles I found a bit slow-going. I could feel my quads complaining, but not screaming. My back hurt, though, probably because of my posture. I tried to keep my form throughout the walk -- arms bent at the elbows and pumping, pelvic tilt -- but I always look down at the road, lest I stumble, and that's probably the problem. The longer I walked, the more my back ached.

There were no markers in the last two miles, no water stations, no walkers, no nothing. About a 100 yards before the station house, a truck pulled past me, picking up the remaining cones from the walk/run. When I got to the station, Rick was standing there waiting for me. Only a few volunteers remained, cleaning up, and nobody told me my time or "way to go" or anything. It was the lonely conclusion to a lonely walk. I was the last one to come in, and they hadn't even known the last participant was still out there.

But I wasn't there to compete or race, or even get the camaraderie of walking with a group. I was there to challenge myself. My goal was to finish. And I did that, at my own pace. As Dianne Davidson once sang, I'm built for comfort. I ain't built for speed.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Play Like a Pro

I started preparing for the Play Like a Pro Day a week ago.

I treat each upcoming event as a project, much as I did when I was working. I give the project lead time, prepare a mental if not a written list of what I must do to prepare, and then schedule it during the lead time, usually a week.

The one requirement the notice from the A’s mentioned was that I needed a glove. I have never owned a baseball glove in my life. Hell, I hadn’t even thrown a baseball or softball in 10 years, and hadn’t worn a glove in 30 years. So when I returned from my latest trip, the first thing on my list: Get a glove.

Rick’s suggestion to go to Play It Again Sports in Fremont was a good one. I found a really really used glove for $10 plus tax. It was an outfielder’s glove, and thanks to my insistence that it be a hardball glove and not a softball glove, it had a great pocket. Not a great deal of padding for an 80-mile-an-hour fastball, but good enough.

The next step was finding someone to practice with. My roommate graciously gave up a half hour on a Friday afternoon, one day before the event, to play catch with me. Luckily she found her own glove, hidden for a couple of years in the trunk of her car. Our high lobs toward each other steadily grew into harder throws, encouraging me that, hey! Maybe old habits don’t die out completely. In the face of emergency, you go back to your training, right?

So on Saturday, August 20, 2005, Rick and I walked the Faith Fancher Cancer Awareness 5K at Lake Merritt in Oakland, and then turned our attention to the A’s clinic. We arrived at 12:15 at Gate D, and joined about 75 other people in line. Check-in was easy, and they gave each of us an A’s cap and a ticket to tonight’s game against the Kansas City Royals.

Rick looked at me and said, “Are we the oldest ones here?” We looked around at the fans, average age maybe 35, and admitted, “It’s close!” Real close.

The P.R. guy took us to the MVP seats above the dugout, told us what to expect of the day, and then led us onto the field through the box. He had split all of us into five groups of about 15 people each. Each group had a player assigned to it, and each player had a responsibility to cover his subject matter, thusly:

Eric Chavez – hitting
Rich Harden – pitching
Bobby Crosby – infield
Mark Kotsay – outfield
Jason Kendall - catching

When we all saw the players, we broke into spontaneous applause! This wasn’t the “B” Team they were throwing at us – these were the All Stars!

Rick and I were in Group #1, so we headed over to Eric Chavez, who was quietly waiting for us by the backstop. He was standing by a t-ball set-up, and there were a couple of bats by his feet. However, he quickly discovered that our group only wanted to talk to this great player, not try hitting. There were only about 20 minutes spent with him, and they weren’t going to waste their time.

I saw as I glanced up that Bobby Crosby had his first group fielding balls. They were throwing ground balls to each other and using their gloves, and he would throw in comments occasionally. But my group never wanted to do that. We just talked to each player and sometimes took some quick pictures of each.

Here are a few comments from each of the players. Most of these comments weren’t really solicited by the dumb questions we fans asked. Their in-depth answers were mainly created by the players themselves, and offered a unique perspective into what I was discovering to be a very difficult game to properly play.

Eric Chavez – Eric had a slight growth of beard and a very casual way of speaking to us. It seems foolish to say, but I was awestruck at the time re: how handsome and poised this young man was. In answer to Rick’s question, who’s the toughest pitcher you’ve ever faced, Eric answered “Pedro Martinez.” He said he hates to face him because Pedro’s ball moves so much. Chavez gave us several hitting tips, including the fact that he personally changes his stance daily to get a good look at the pitcher and his release point. He takes advantage of video so that, even during a game, he’ll duck into the video room to see himself in a previous at-bat against the same pitcher. “It’s a tremendous advantage,” he told us.

Rich Harden – Rich is tall but muscular, much more muscular than I thought a pitcher would look. He has an easy smile, a bit more than Chavez, but obviously takes his job seriously. He showed us the two-finger fastball and the four-finger fastball, and a few other pitches (where to put the fingers against the seams), and my most vivid memory of this moment was watching the 45-year-old woman next to me, obviously thrilled to be there, gripping her baseball in the same way, focusing on getting it right as if the next victory depended on it. When I congratulated Rich on his win of the night before, he laughed and said he really didn’t have it last night. He admitted that his fastball wasn’t working at all. As Jason Kendall would tell us later, it’s a good thing that Rich has three other rather nasty pitches. Rich told us that Manny Ramirez is probably the toughest hitter he has ever faced in his brief career. He said Manny will change his approach from at-bat to at-bat, the way the best ones do, and that inside pitch that worked so well against him last time could be the one he hits out next time. “Vladmir Guerrero can be easy or hard,” he reported. “If you hit your spots, it’s easy. That’s really what it comes down to.”

Bobby Crosby – I noted Bobby was tall and thin when I met him during the FanFest celebration earlier this year. He seems so serious, rarely cracking a smile. He showed us how to tackle the ball when it’s coming towards you, how he tries to get a jump on the ball when it’s coming off the bat: “I imagine a little circle in front of me. When the hitter is going through his swing, before the bat hits the ball, I lean into the circle.” His legs start to move and he can control in which direction he moves to field the ball. The worst baserunner to him is Ichiro “and believe it or not, Benjie Molina.” Ichiro is so fast that Bobby gunslings the ball in an overhead fashion, picking up the ball as quickly as he can to gun it to first. “Sometimes I don’t have a good grip but I’ve gotta make that throw.” Benjie is tough because he’s the slowest baserunner you’ve ever seen, “and frankly I just don’t know what to do with all that time! I find myself thinking, ‘You better get this throw right.'” Bobby told us that it was awesome playing next to Chavez, as he covers more territory than the average third baseman. Would you rather play with Scutaro or Ellis? He smirked slightly and diplomatically said, “It doesn’t matter. They both put it where I want it” on a double play. He told us he talks to Ellis when someone’s on base, whereas he pretty much directs Scutaro on how they’re going to play it.

Mark Kotsay – Kotsay, shorter than I imagined, with his sunglasses always on, treated us like a lecture hall. Fast-speaking and opinionated, he seemed very self assured. “I don’t care if you use one hand or two hands,” he started off, “just get it right. If you catch the ball with one hand, fine, but if you miss, maybe you should think about (using two hands).” He did say on this issue that one advantage of using both hands is, you can be ready to throw sooner, before the runner has two or three steps on you. He told us that the outfielders go over scouting reports, which he sometimes disagrees with, and he directs the other fielders where they’re placed. The center fielder, he said, can see the pitcher and the batter best, and can make adjustments faster. The worst park to play in, as far as outfielder Kotsay is concerned, is Angel stadium. “The walls come up too fast for me there.”

Jason Kendall – Jason had a stubbly beard and much to our surprise wore prescription glasses while he talked to us. His knuckles all seemed large and swollen, his fingers like they had each been broken at one time. He was the most glib of all the players, joked around with us a bit, and told some great stories. And talked baseball. “Chavvy and Kots will swing at anything and everything. So, if I’m the leadoff hitter, I try to give them a few extra pitches to look at. To tell you the truth, I’m more comfortable swinging with two strikes on me anyway.” He smiled conspiratorially and confided that he has a good relationship with all the umpires. “After 10 years, I’ve worked with them all.” He buys them beers whenever he gets a chance. He mentioned that all the young umpires are scared at the new Quest system, where an umpire review board sits in designated stadiums (like McAfee) and critiques the umpires. Old umpires like Joe West, however, are not scared. “’Hell, I’d like to see them do something to me,’” Kendall mimicked West, as he bought him another beer. And he’ll say things to “players I know, like Stairsy (Matt Stairs) the other day – ‘Oh, too bad you missed that pitch ‘cause it’s the last (fastball) you’ll ever see!'” Jason, who used to catch in the National League, seems to prefer that style of baseball, “it’s more of a game,” as the entire game is built around the pitcher. “The 8 and 9 hitters are so-so,” and the strategy revolves around them. Kendall told us that this year “is the most fun I have had in my career! Remember when we were struggling in April and May? The clubhouse was the same. It was the same.” Except that they were all trying to do too much. “I was swinging for the fences! I know I’m not a homerun hitter! I know what I can do and what I can’t do.”

The fans in our group were interesting themselves. We had the obligatory jerk, who insisted on asking most of the questions, and who liked, with each player, to sneak up on the player, throw his arm around him (without touching him) so that he could get a “chummy” photo with him. Sheesh. And we also had a Little League coach who would tell Bobby Crosby, for instance, what he was teaching his kids – “I tell them to throw low to the player” – only to be told by Bobby that they should throw high, “because most of those balls will skip by the kids.” The coach quickly changed the subject. But, in general, the group was a nice mixture of young and older, and we obviously shared one thing in common, our love of baseball and the Oakland A’s. I was amazed at how much each fan knew, not about baseball (that was for sure), but about the players.

After our hour or so of huddling with the players, we all gathered in line. The assistants handed each of us a new baseball and we could get it autographed by all five players. This was our last chance to say how much we appreciated the time they took for us, and to have a great season. I also took an extra minute to thank the original P.R. guy who took us onto the field.

As we left the field (with Rick muttering over and over, “I’m not going to leave. They can’t make me!”), I noticed Ron Washington giving some tips to some young ballplayer we didn’t recognize. He was obviously some rising young star who was taking infield practice. Wash would bat the ball to him and the young man would scoop it up in his glove. As Bobby Crosby told us, Wash is great with praise and never yells, and we watched that unfolding just a few feet from us as we approached the gate to go back up the stairs. Wash put the bat down, came toward the player and positioned his glove more correctly on the ground. “These are the details,” Rick said. We were watching, and earlier listening to, the difference between minor league and major league. It’s all in the details.

And so I never got my chance to throw the ball around with Bobby, or bat with Chavez. Thank God. What will I do with my $10 glove? I’ll keep it. Who knows, maybe I can get someone to play catch with me this weekend. Or maybe I’ll be picked for the Play Like a Pro next year? I could only hope.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Dogs, Frogs, and Baseball

The average age at the Oakland A's Booster luncheons is about 75. They seem to know each other, and they don't easily talk to interlopers. So I knew that, chances are if I went alone, I'd be sitting alone and talking to no one.

The 175 A's Boosters were lucky this time as Kirk Saarloos, a young pitcher and the Athletics' 5th in the rotation, screwed up with his alarm clock and was MIA when the session began. So they called Mark Kotsay, and the veteran outfielder showed up and answered questions for the group. But about an hour into the session, Kirk finally showed up, took a lot of razzing from his fellow ballplayer, and answered questions and even signed autographs for us.

During the dreaded chicken fried steak lunch, I ate in silence along with the rest of the fans at the table. One couple arrived late, however, and the gentleman seated next to me was fairly talkative. He told me I had something on the back of my A's shirt, and helped me brush it off. I mentioned something about "it's probably something from my dogs," and suddenly the 75-year-old ice queen sitting across from me started to melt...

"You have dogs?" she said, plaintively, looking up at me. "Yes," I said, and then I told her about Buddy and Chewy. "You have a chihuahua?" she said, not believing me. When I told her I had the most handsome chihuahua anyone had ever seen, her eyes teared up.

It seems that Cecilia had three chihuahuas, one at a time, over the years, but they have all passed on now. Her husband, Joe, then joined the conversation, and together, they told me stories of their dogs, how they looked, how they used to walk them on the street. They no longer have any dogs "'cause we travel too much," said Joe with a lilt in his voice. Joe then whipped out his wallet, and showed me two old and yellowing photos, one of a beautiful little, black, pudgy chihuahua and the other of their tan-colored one. Obviously devotion worked both ways in that family.

I told those at the table that I was going to undertake the Play Like a Pro clinic the next day. They all looked at me, staring a bit, until the woman off to the right -- she must've been at least 75 herself -- gave me some tips on how to throw to a catcher. I don't remember this tip, I must admit, but I thanked her for her assistance. She nodded approvingly. They all wished me luck.

Cecilia then told me that her 80-year-old sister, who recently moved in with them, just got an albino frog. "A what?" I said. "Yes, you heard right: a frog. My son gave her a frog. Hell, who do you think takes care of that thing? Me, not her. I will kill him the next time he tries to do something like that." This albino frog is a rare breed from Africa, and is a stunning gift, apparently, under most circumstances.

But a frog is not a dog. When Cecilia asked for my dog pictures, I reached for my wallet and discovered I had left the photos in my other wallet. She looked at me sternly. "You are coming to the next luncheon -- on September 28th -- and you are bringing photos." She was very serious.

As Robert Buan said goodbye to all of us at the Booster luncheon, Cecilia got in one more shot: "Remember to bring a photo of your chihuahua!" she said as I was slipping out the door of Francesco's. "Oh, and go A's!"