The Joy of Catching a Foul Ball

My dad took me to my very first baseball game at Yankee Stadium, when I was about 5 years old. Since then, I’ve attended hundreds of games, always with my trusty mitt in hand.

But despite having a glove, I’ve never caught a batted baseball from any Major League game. Sure I’ve come close, like the time I went to a friend’s birthday party and snagged a practice ball that was part of a pre-game warmup. I was about 9 at the time and the pitcher for the Angels was tossing the ball back and forth with his catcher. One of his pitches caught the catcher by surprise and the ball bounced off his knee, and then dribbled over to my seat by the 3rd base dugout. So I did what any kid would do — I scooped up the ball with my Yankee hat and scampered into the stands as fast as I could because the Angels catcher was running after me. Fortunately, he stopped at the railing, but I hid from him the entire game, while tucking my prized possession deep inside my sweatshirt. It was exciting to evade the catcher, but not quite the same experience I longed for in my dream of  catching an actual batted ball.

Many years later, as an adult, I dove into a row of seats in front of me to scoop up a foul ball from the bat of a River Cats player at Raley Field. I knew then I was ready to catch my first Major League batted ball, but my scoreless streak had only just begun.

Over the years, I went to dozens of A’s and Giants games, but still my faithful glove came home empty-handed every time. Out of frustration, I stopped bringing my mitt to games. And then it happened.

In the 4th inning of Sunday’s ballgame between the A’s and Angels (yes those same  Angels), Oakland’s Stephen Vogt stepped to the plate against Tommy Hanson. Vogt, a member of the River Cats just two weeks ago, lifted a lazy pop foul into Section 120, just three rows in front of me. A dozen fans raised their arms, but the ball  landed squarely on the concrete and bounced high into the air with backspin, heading straight towards me. My instincts took over as I reached up with my left hand and snagged the ball bare-handed, while cradling the coveted souvenir with my right hand.

I caught a ball

Finally, after decades of frustration, I was now a member of the Foul Ball Club, ironically without the help of my faithful companion, the mitt. I inspected the ball carefully to verify it was indeed an official Major League Baseball, signed by none other than Commissioner Allan H. Selig, better known as Bud Selig. And for just a moment after catching that ball, I felt like I was a 12-year old kid again.

The ball

The gift from the baseball gods on my birthday weekend was the best present a kid (at heart) could ever get, but it was about to get better. For the A’s rallied from a 5-0 deficit, to win the game 10-6 and send the fans into a frenzy.

Banjo Triple

What a fantastic finish to a great game I’ll never forget. And now I’ve got a new item to add to the bucket list: Catching a Home Run ball. But for that one I think I’ll bring back my trusty mitt!

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Twins legend Joe Mauer is the father of Twins

All-Star catcher Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins is literally the face of the franchise.

Joe Mauer Action Figure

Mauer 2 Joe Mauer Action Figure

I spotted these Joe Mauer paper mache’ cutouts in downtown Minneapolis on the way to Target Field a few years ago.

Target Field: Home of the Minnesota Twins

Target Field: Home of the Minnesota Twins

Joe Mauer missed Wednesday’s game against the Angels in Anaheim to fly back to the Twin Cities, just in time for him to receive his biggest catch ever: Twin daughters named Emily and Maren.

Mauer Fathers Twins

Congratulations to the father of the Twins!

 

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Cabrera and Davis Dominate Baseball

Miguel Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers slugger, is the hottest hitter in baseball. Chris Davis, the powerful first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles is not far behind. Together, the two players dominate nearly every single offensive category in baseball. Here are the stats:

Cabrera and Davis Dominate

Indeed, in twelve key offensive statistics, Cabrera or Davis are tops in nine of those categories, including batting average, home runs, RBI, runs, hits, total bases, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage.

Davis just smashed two homers on Saturday and now has 30 through June. If he keeps going at this pace, he’ll end up with 60 HR, a Ruthian-like number. Meanwhile, Cabrera is without a doubt, the toughest out in baseball, with a .375 batting average and a 1.139 on-base plug slugging percentage. And nipping at his heels is Davis, whose OPS is 1.133.

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The Gift of Baseball

On this Father’s Day weekend, I am grateful for being a dad and having the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua with my daughter Sarah to visit my son Matt. We spent six days together in a beautiful country that will one day develop into a popular destination for tourism and it’s possible that baseball will help lead the way.

Baseball is very popular in Nicaragua and on any visit you’ll be sure to see kids playing ball in the city streets and rural fields across the country. Adults follow Major League Baseball with a passion, rooting primarily for the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

Nicaraguans closely monitor the progress of two fellow countrymen, Everth Cabrera, the shortstop for the San Diego Padres who hails from Nandaime (near Granada); and Winton Lopez, a right handed pitcher for the Colorado Rockies. Lopez is from the city of Leon.

Ballfields are common in the bigger cities like Granada,where young players hope to become Major Leaguers.

Granada Baseball

We also visited this stadium in Matagalpa:

Matagalpa Stadium

In Matagalpa, we saw young baseball prospects training with coaches from Nicaragua, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. While there, we were blessed to have the opportunity to donate a dozen new baseballs to the team, to replace the torn up balls they had been using.

Matagalpa Baseball

Baseball is a passion for Nicaragua, where Dennis Martinez is still fondly remembered for the Perfect Game he threw on July 18, 1991 for the Montreal Expos against the Los Angeles Dodgers. You can see the entire game, a 2-0 shutout, here:

El Presidente El Perfecto

Here’s the box score of the game:

Dennis Martinez Perfect Game

Martinez, a star pitcher for many years with the Baltimore Orioles, is the winningest Hispanic pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball with 245 wins.

Martinez Career Stats

He is often referred to as “El Presidente” and is now a bullpen coach with the Houston Astros.

Dennis Martinez Interview

Martinez was the first Nicaraguan player in MLB and his success helped pave the way for future stars including Cabrera and Lopez. Now the focus is on the new generation of players from Central America.  Perhaps one day they will emerge  from the diamonds of Matagalpa, Leon or Granada. The people of Nicaragua will be watching.

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Baseball Buddies

Baseball is a game of wins, losses and…good deeds. Two Bay Area brothers formed Baseball Buddies to provide leftover equipment to kids in need. Jordan Leffler, age 15, and his 14-year-old brother Matthew discovered a treasure trove of used baseball cleats — still in good condition, while cleaning out their garage in San Jose.

The boys wanted to donate the goods to youth baseball teams that couldn’t afford equipment. So with the help of Barryessa Little League, the boys started Baseball Buddies and began collecting donated bats, gloves, helmets and cleats from the community.

Soon they had enough equipment to help fill a plane at Travis Air Force Base, where the baseball goods were shipped to young ballplayers in Honduras. Their donated items have also helped kids in Haiti and to the Boys and Girls Clubs in San Jose.

In today’s world, it’s nice to hear about kids doing something positive to make a difference.

Here’s a link to the Baseball Buddies web site:

Baseball Buddies



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Dodger player gives dying boy the shirt off his back

The Giants and the Dodgers are arch rivals but that didn’t stop LA’s Matt Kemp from performing a very classy gesture in SF. After his team had just gotten swept in the series, Kemp spotted a kid in the audience. The Dodger outfielder approached the boy, who happened to be terminally ill. Overcome by emotion, Kemp literally gave him the shirt off his back, before also volunteering his hat and then his shoes.

The boy, Joshua Jones has inoperable cancer and is expected to live only 90 days,  was awed by the generous gesture. Kemp did it spontaneously and was unaware a fan’s camera phone was recording his every action.

See for yourself in this clip, the joy that baseball can bring:

Matt Kemp FANtastic

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Cubs Threaten To Leave Wrigley?

Say it ain’t so, but the Chicago Cubs are threatening to leave the sacred confines of Wrigley Field. Owner Tom Ricketts wants to build a big 6,000 square foot video screen over left field, but he’s got an insurrection on his hands from the neighbors.

His problem specifically is with the rooftop bleacher people — the ones who pay good money to join private clubs that offer unrestricted views of the ballpark. The owners of those clubs are yelling foul, because they don’t want anything blocking their sightlines — and they do share 17 percent of their revenue with the ballclub.

But Ricketts, who wants to renovate the stadium built in 1914,  says, “The fact is that if we don’t have the ability to generate revenue in our own outfield, we’ll have to take a look at moving — no question.” Ricketts adds that without the signage, the Cubbies are missing out on $20 million a year in ad revenue — money he needs to modernize the park.

Cubs owner speaks out

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is supportive of the signs, but there’s no consensus yet on their size or shape. Wrigley Field is the second oldest ballpark in Major League Baseball — right behind Fenway Park in Boston, which opened in 1912.

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The Magic of Baseball

It’s a story with a Hollywood-like ending, but it really happened. In Cincinnati. That’s where Ted Kremer is an honorary bat boy for the Cincinnati Reds. Teddy has Down syndrome but his energy and passion for the game have made him a fixture in the Reds dugout.

Last week, Teddy had three wishes…that the Reds would score 11 runs and get 11 Miami Marlins to strike out so fans could get free pizza. Oh and one more thing. A home run from Todd Fraser. The Reds 3rd baseman promised Teddy he would do just that, then proceeded to knock the ball over the center field fence. Teddy’s reaction is pure joy and captures the magic of baseball.

See it here: Hit One for Teddy

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What happened to Jackie Robinson’s Legacy?

On April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, every Major League Baseball player will wear a jersey sporting the number 42, to honor the player who broke the color barrier back in 1947. The movie “42″ is now on the big screen and it’s already a big hit with baseball fans — and movie fans everywhere. In fact, early box office receipts show “42″ had the highest grossing weekend debut of any baseball film ever.

But Jackie Robinson would be disappointed to see how few African American players are in the game today. Baseball is of course, a game of numbers and the numbers show African Americans comprised just 8.5% of all players on Opening Day rosters this year. The numbers used to be double that in the 1980′s. In fact, nearly one out every five ballplayers was African American in 1986 (19% to be exact), according to the Society for American Baseball Research. And yet ironically in 2013, the World Champion San Francisco Giants do not have one black player on their roster. Ten teams have no more than one African American player.

So what has happened to Jackie Robinson’s legacy? To help answer that question, I interviewed former baseball manager Jerry Manuel in Elverta, California, where he runs the  Jerry Manuel Foundation which is dedicated to bringing more African American kids into the great game of baseball. Manuel managed the Chicago White Sox from 1998 – 2003 and the New York Mets from 2008 – 2010. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig just selected Manuel to a task force designed to increase diversity — and especially the number of African Americans in the game.

Manuel and his son Anthony have teamed up to educate several dozen African American kids at Alpha Middle School in Elverta — where they also learn the fundamentals of baseball, using Jackie Robinson’s values of integrity, commitment and persistence as their guide.

Jerry Manuel teaches Jackie Robinson's values

Jerry and Anthony recently took ten of their kids to the premier of “42″ is Los Angeles. Jerry told me the students are wide-eyed and filled with questions. “Yes they were very surprised,” he said. “There were still questions, ‘Were there really different drinking fountains? Were there really different bathrooms?’”

Then Manuel addressed the anemic modern-day numbers of African American ballplayers. “We have dropped the ball,” Manuel stated. “My generation has pretty much dropped the ball in promoting this great game of baseball. Our culture has given so much to the game. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson…” Manuel said as his voice trailed off.

I asked him why Jackie’s legacy has faded so fast.

“We really haven’t had that one athlete that transcends the sport like LeBron transcends basketball,” he told me. “All our youth identify with LeBron. We’re trying to identify that athlete, say a Matt Kemp, CC Sabathia, Torii Hunter, Curtis Granderson, even Derrek Lee here in Sacramento, to get them to understand that these guys played the game of baseball and they can help you to have longevity in this beautiful game.”

Another key factor is the cost of playing baseball. It’s expensive to buy bats, mitts, balls and baseball cleats. Plus, you need a wide open grassy space to play ball. By contrast, to play basketball, all you need is a hoop and a pair of sneakers. You can even sharpen your skills by yourself against a backboard, whereas baseball requires at least two to have a catch.

“All the sports now, kids are choosing early what they’re going to do,” Manuel explained. “When I came about it was three sports. You played baseball, you played basketball, you played football. Now they’re choosing the one sport.”

Jackie Robinson played four sports at UCLA, where he excelled in baseball, basketball, football and track in 1939 and 1940.  Ironically, Robinson considered baseball to be his “worst” sport. Also attending UCLA at that time was my cousin Hal Auerbach, who grew up in Michigan with my dad. They remained close friends throughout their lives.

But back to baseball, where Jerry Manuel explained that the great expense of travel ball is prohibitive for many inner city kids. Major League Baseball is trying to address that with a program called RBI, which in this case stands for Reviving Baseball in the Inner cities.

But the game of baseball has changed. It’s become an international game, with roughly 30% of all players hailing from foreign lands — Japan, Korea, and the baseball hot bed of Latin America, where players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela now dominate MLB.  In fact, today’s SF Giants roster consists of six players from Venezuela, six from the Dominican Republic and one from Puerto Rico.

“Is Major League Baseball deliberately recruiting Latin American kids because it’s cheaper than recruiting inner city American kids?” I asked Manuel.

“No I don’t think so,” he said. “Well at the beginning, yes. But as you play with the basic agreement, regardless of who you are, it depends on how many years you have, but you’re going to get paid X amount of dollars.”

It’s also possible the fields are not exactly level. Latin American players can sign with major league clubs at age 15, whereas American kids must wait until 17 or 18, when their class graduates from high school. Scouts say that can put American kids at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to developing their skills at the baseball academies established by the big leagues.

Anthony Manuel cited another big reason today’s rosters are so devoid of African American players. “I think other sports target the inner city a little more,” he said. “You see more African Americans in the NFL, in the NBA. Major League Baseball is not something that the kids really look forward to. A lot of our kids are very athletic and sometime baseball can be a slower game, standing around and it’s more mental. So they’re not always able to use their tools.” he stated.

Anthony Manuel, Mike Luery and Jerry Manuel

“It also goes to colleges. There are not as many scholarships for baseball. I think it’s only about 11% right now in the NCAA, when other sports can give full rides to basketball and football players,” Anthony Manuel said.

The Jerry Manuel Foundation is dedicated to changing the face of Major League Baseball. “The Jackie Robinson movie drives home what needs to be done,” Jerry Manuel told me.

“That’s what we’re all about. We’re trying to bring the kids in, teach them baseball,” Manuel said. “It’s baseball year round. And then at the same time, send them back to their Little League programs to enhance the Little League programs around Sacramento. What I’m hoping is that Major League Baseball adopts this program and then we can replicate it throughout the country. But what they’re going to be adopting, they’re not going to be adopting just the Jerry Manuel Foundation, they’re going to be adopting Sacramento. Because we’re going to go and try and fix up the fields, do everything we can to bring the kids out and play baseball.”

And watching those kids succeed would be a fitting tribute to Jackie Robinson’s legacy.

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Baseball in Nicaragua

It’s Opening Day in Major League Baseball, where tens of thousands of fans will flock to the ballpark on April 1, for the start of a new season.They’ll enjoy grilled hot dogs and cold beer from the comfort of their stadium seats.

But in Nicaragua, it’s a very different story, where baseball is played on fields that look like this one:

My son Matt snapped this picture and sent it to me from Nicaragua, where he is currently living and building nature preserves for the town of Matagalpa. He saw these kids playing baseball and wrote this letter via e-mail:

“Hey Dad…I think you’ll be happy to know I finally was able to get in on a pick-up baseball game this last weekend. I went with a couple friends to a field in a place called Apante and played for about 3 hours.  It was super fun and I’ll tell you more about it later but I think it’s fair to say that playing a spontaneous game on a makeshift field in the middle of a Central American jungle with 17 other Nicaraguans is one of the more memorable experiences of my life.

I didn’t get any hits unfortunately but drew one walk. I was playing center field and made a play or two, including catching a deep, high fly ball.  We have tentative plans to go back again next Sunday and maybe play every weekend if possible.”

“How fast was the pitching?” I asked him. “Did you see curveballs and sliders or just fastballs?”

“Nothing too intense.” Matt said. “Maybe 60mph.  But it’s plenty fast for me.  I think the pitcher was throwing a bit of everything but I wasn’t too concerned with identifying the pitches so much as just trying to hit the ball.”

“Who did you play?” I wanted to know.

“The group of people was pretty hodgepodge,” he said. “It was some older guys, a few athletic guys in their 20s, some younger kids.  We played 8 vs. 8 with no right fielder because there is a giant mound and some boulders in right field.  We used some old wooden bats which was cool.  I think I fit in pretty decently, although I’m definitely out of practice.   Aside from my little stint with your softball team, I haven’t really played in over ten years.”

“We are talking about real baseball,” I asked. “Not softball right?”

“It was hardball,” he assured me. “And yes I brought my mitt with me.”

Have mitt, will travel. And you never know where a baseball game might break out. Especially in Nicaragua where Dennis Martinez is still idolized as a baseball god.

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