Friday, August 16, 2019

Roopers, My Purpose (2002-2019)

* Disclaimer: This post is quite long and was emotionally-draining for me to write, making it a stark departure from the previous post. I get it if emotional stories about animals can be tough for some to read, making it totally fine if this type of post is not for you. I thank you in advance for your understanding.*

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I think that it is fair to say the entire college process has always eluded me in terms of both pragmatics and experience. While it feels as though many kids that I currently coach are prepped for their collegiate experiences from the moment that they reach middle school (hyperbole, but not by much), it never really came up as much of a conversation piece in any facet of my life when I was in high school and my view of the collegiate process was simplistic bordering on naive. I enjoyed sports - particularly talking about sports - and many individuals in broadcast media attended St. John's University, which also happened to be my favorite college basketball team. Therefore, I was going to go to SJU. Details? What details?
Roopers in her bed

Unfortunately, my college counselor was of no help in breaking down the realities of what was actually required when it came to finding a school, as her primary pitch for UConn fell on deaf ears (public schools in Connecticut were incentivized to keep students in state) and literally all that she did in the remainder of our meeting was dig an outdated brochure for St. John's out of a bin. It was not until later that I learned of the relative urgency of completing the SAT, which I effectively took blind and posted a score that was good enough to merit acceptance into all of the schools to which I applied. I did not wind up even applying to SJU due to learning about its relative lack of on-campus housing, nor did I go to the likes of North Carolina or George Washington despite being accepted. Instead, I opted to stay close to home at Western Connecticut State University, with the plan being to reevaluate options in the future with the benefit of insight from experience.

While I know many people who have had very positive experiences at WCSU, my freshman year would not be included in that number. I have previously mentioned how several of my professors were utterly uncaring in the wake of the severe concussion that I suffered, with the lone individual to demonstrate any semblance of empathy being my Calculus professor - a very kind man who was often the victim of abuse by students who mocked the manner in which his native language of Chinese affected the way that he said certain words. Most of the students in my courses were utterly disengaged and in-class discussions were behind rare, which was a major culture shock after having come from a high school with a strong academic bent. I dropped out after just one semester filled with uncharacteristically mediocre grades, partly the result of being penalized for work that I physically could not complete while bed-ridden and partly due to not wanting to exert effort in an environment that would not reciprocate. While I mostly worked and coached for the next few years, I still wanted to go back to school and made plans to transfer to Marist College at the advice of multiple friends who were currently in attendance there. It was a disaster.

Marist's policy of not permitting people to request roommates, coupled with my relatively late transfer date, resulted in me being placed in a townhouse just off-campus, one that was ostensibly only to house seven people and yet always seemed to be filled with at least twice as many. While the other guys were pleasant enough (the one not-so-pleasant individual said that I was an idiot for thinking that Kelly Clarkson would win American Idol - his misogyny was in no way subtle), this was effectively a frat house for them and that type of environment was in no way conducive to my health in any form or fashion. As literally the only person in the house with faulty cable and internet connections, I had to endure the discomfort of the beer-bottle-riddled common room to see highlights of the Oakland Athletics setting the American League record of 20 consecutive wins and the lowlights from the United States Men's Basketball Team's lackluster performance in the World Championship. I spent most of my time either trying in vain to sleep, reading multiple full books well before they were assigned for courses, and sitting in the school's computer lab desperately wanting to be anywhere else. The day before I had to commit to staying or leaving for the purpose of tuition payment, I set up a meeting with my adviser and anxiously paced the halls for nearly an hour before the meeting. Once inside her room, I pretty much let loose with everything that had transpired and emotionally broke down, to the point that she termed the experience to have been traumatizing for me. She was right.

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Trauma is one of those terms that can get thrown back at someone in a hurry, usually in bad faith and in a manner laden with logical fallacies. Litigating, ranking, and comparing various forms of trauma does little good other than making the person offering the evaluation demonstrate their true intent of being a belittling jerk. Yes, people who watched others die in front of them quite likely had far more serious traumatic episodes than did I. Well, guess that means that any internal and external pain that I feel is totally invalid - thanks, friend! While I am now surrounded by people who understand the fallacious nature of that line of thinking, this was not the case at the time and I actively hid from view my experiences due to the outright uncaring feedback that I received from others.
2003 Topps - Oakland A's
(Season Highlights)

I was able to return to WestConn for the fall semester in 2002 and had much better professors, although the level of disinterest from the majority of the other students was still a major turn-off. Although I was previously told that jobs at my previous employers would be available if I was ever to want to return, changes in ownership scuttled my attempt to go back to working at the deli, while the reason that I was given for not being able to get hours at the batting cage in town still baffles me to this day. I interviewed at and tried out working for several other places, only to have major anxiety spikes during those experiences prior to becoming physically ill whenever I returned home. In many ways, I felt like a failure. After all, millions of people go off to school and/or go to work every day, yet I could not manage much outside of my meager comfort zone.

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At some point in late September of 2002, my mom called home to ask me to prepare food, water, and a bed for a kitten that she was bringing home from work. Given that my mom was the assistant manager at a school bus company, that was hardly the place from which one might expect to adopt a cat. The tale was just as bizarre as one might think, as apparently some individual had accessed the bus yard overnight and placed a box of kittens inside the back of one of the buses. Unfortunately, mere moments after my mom was called upon to help collect the cats, the driver quizzically opened the back door of the back, which led the frightened kittens to see an opportunity to escape. Even more unfortunately, one of the group that broke free was struck and killed by an unsuspecting driver, while the rest escaped into a wooded area. My mom was able to catch one of the kittens, though, and Paroopers (Roopers) has lived here ever since.

Roopers was by far the smallest cat that I had ever seen, one whose ears seemed to be four times the size of the rest of her body. She eventually grew into them and they are now only twice as large as her body. ;) Nearly all black in color save for a white spot on her chest and the occasional white whisker(s), Roopers got her name for the manner in which her purring would be interspersed by sounds similar to coos. Given how exceptionally small Roopers was and the fact that we did not know how our adult cats would react to having a kitten join the fray (as it turned out, they were all fine to the point of near apathy), my daytime job would often be to consistently keep tabs on Roopers to make sure that she did not get into trouble. She proved quite adept at escaping from the box in which all of her sleeping materials were kept, but soon demonstrated signs of extreme distress when unexpected noises or presences emerged. Even though she slept in my mom's bed for years, there was an extremely long time in which I was the only person who could approach Roopers without her running for cover. When comfortable, she was playful and loved to track down toy mice, often bringing them back as part of a rare feline version of fetch. However, the anxiety and trauma that she had suffered was profound. I do not remember the last time in which she voluntarily went downstairs at our apartment in Bethel and her interactions with any person or cat save for me and my mom were effectively nonexistent. I was there for her, though, and she was there for me - until one day she wasn't.

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Given how often Roopers was in hiding, it took a considerable amount of time for us to notice that she had not been out to eat or drink anything from her bowls. A thorough search of the many places in which Roopers could have hidden came up empty, leaving us with the only other possible solution - that she had somehow fallen out of my sisters' bedroom window. While that sounds implausible, one of our other cats, Midgee, has twice fallen out of windows, there was neither a fan nor a screen in my sisters' window that day, and our younger cats were not always kind to Roopers. It was not until several days later in which I spotted Roopers cautiously emerging from the neighbor's garage that those suspicions were confirmed, which then led to the conundrum of how to catch a cat who is afraid of nearly everything. We began to set out food and water, Roopers ate and drank only to sprint away the moment that noise was made. The head-on approach nearly worked, as my mom caught Roopers on one occasion, only to have her hand be bitten hard - the lone time that I ever recall Roopers biting anyone, even in a playful fashion.

It felt again as though my purpose was to help Roopers, this time in overcoming her fully legitimate fears to return home. I spent a great amount of time in our back porch area talking to Roopers in the calm manner in which we always interacted, to the point that she would not run if I came outside while she was eating. I could not get quite close enough to nab her, which probably would not have been a wise idea anyway, but she eventually began to feel comfortable coming on our porch after initially keeping her distance. A properly-situated laundry basket placed against our screen door served as the perfect place for a food bowl, where Roopers ate as I yet again kept her calm and around which my mom crept to help tip the basket inside the door. Roopers was back after we had worried that she might be gone for good, although I am not sure if she again left the bedroom before we moved to Danbury.

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The apartment in Danbury is much smaller than the one in Bethel, which unfortunately made hiding from people and cats alike that much harder for Roopers. While I loved Püß, one of the two cats who we got as kittens in 2004, his mission in life was seemingly to chase Roopers back into hiding whenever she poked her head out of a room (and might have been the reason behind her fall from the window), which only served to worsen her anxiety. As brutal as Püß's unexpected passing in 2017 was, the closest thing to a positive to come from it was that it allowed Roopers to actually socialize. For the first time since her initial days in Bethel, Roopers was fine with going into any room without much in the way of worry and was finally comfortable being petted by someone other than me. She seemed happier and was actually able to do things fairly freely, which was heartening to see. While the joke the Roopers was "just a baby" largely alluded to her size, Roopers remained extremely spry and alert up through July, which was quite remarkable given that she was right around 17 years of age.
Roopers looking at the camera

Unfortunately, what followed was a script that has become all too common in recent years. I will spare you the details, but Roopers' condition deteriorated in rapid fashion much as it had with Larry, Püß, and Midgee before her, to the point that she was barely able to function. Perhaps defying the odds, we had a group of five cats together from the summer of 2007 through the end of 2016. In the span of around 20 months, four have passed away. Three of them were of the age that it was hardly unexpected in a vacuum, but the idea that 17 years of age is "old" is still tough pill to swallow given that a human of the same age cannot so much as purchase a lottery ticket. The decision was made to put Roopers to sleep this morning, one that was equal parts devastating and relief given the knowledge that she would no longer be in considerable pain. Between last night and today, I comforted her as much as I could before having to say a final goodbye. It may feel silly to say about a cat, but Roopers gave me a purpose when things were really bad and I want to think that I was able to be the kind of friend that she needed in what was a life filled with traumas. She was definitely that for me.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Art of Design (plus a trade with Jeremy)

Despite having moved a decent amount over the years and made several larger purges of various items for the sake of space, I have managed to retain a decent amount of things from my childhood. For the most part, my saved bags of stuffed animals, dinosaur figures, and cars handcrafted by my grandfather do not serve a practical purpose. However, simply looking through those meager caches never fails to bring back waves of positive nostalgia, so one can fairly argue that they are far more purposeful than most things whose roles are based around practicality. While I am not great at the tidying aspect of Marie Kondo's tenets of organization, at least the concept of keeping things that bring me joy has taken hold.
2003 Topps - Rusty Greer
(Custom by Jeremy)

That said, there are definitely a few things from my youth that I wish that I still had on hand. I have previously mentioned that most of my cards from the late 1980s and early 1990s were worn out to the point that they were discarded due to me being wonky about cards with major dings. This occurred in large part due to the fact that I often changed how I organized my collection - by set, then team, then individual player, then in batting orders for sim teams, then something else no doubt. On the positive side, I derived a lot of enjoyment from all of those efforts, so they served a strong purpose before effectively being worn out and I can understand why they are gone.

I am less sure of why I threw out a few other things, though. One was a massive collection of animal information cards that were designed in a manner very similar to recipe cards and stored in a similar type of container. Much like Lisa Simpson's attempts to teach Maggie that nature doesn't end at the barnyard, the monthly arrival of these cards were highlights of my young life as they informed me in great visual and written detail about the axolotl, aye-aye, and other fun animals - some of which did not start with the letter "a"! This collection disappeared between our move from Ridgefield to Bethel, although it still puzzles me as to why given that the storage container was not overly large and the cards themselves were in fine shape. Similarly, my collection of notebooks is almost totally comprised of items recorded since I moved to Danbury in 2010, which is fairly unusual since I have been writing - and drawing - in notebooks since I was very young.

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It might be for the best that Baseball-Reference.com did not exist when I was a kid, as I might not have ever logged off of the website had it been established at that time. The amount of random statistical data that I have recorded in the last decade for the purposes of simulations, data tracking for my teams, fantasy sports, or simply entertaining myself in some small way has been staggering enough that I can only wonder what the grand total of time and effort has been put into these various projects. While some may consider these efforts to be pointless and/or wasteful, they often provided a calming influence for me while also deepening my education about baseball itself. By running per-600 PA statistical conversions for career statistics, I was able to recognize the differences in offensive eras before era-adjusted stats were formally introduced, while running simulations with historical batting orders versus ones that, say, did not have the very fast guy with the very low OBP leading off demonstrated the value of lineup construction.
1996 Topps - Mackey Sasser
(Custom by Jeremy)

While those old projects are fun to think about, the notebooks that I wish that I still had were those in which my friends and I designed our own baseball card sets. In the early 1990s, more and more companies were entering the trading card arena, which led to a wider array of graphical, photographic, and creative styles hitting the market. This inspired me, along with my neighbors/friends Katie and Jimmy, to try our hand at coming up with our own designs and player roster construction. From a technical standpoint, Jimmy's designs and illustrations were always going to be the "best." It was hardly a surprise that he would wind up putting his creative skills to work as an architect, as Jimmy's ability to capture personality and key details were evident in the brilliant cartoons that he drew while in middle/high school. Take the judgment of a 10-year-old for whatever it is worth, but card companies would have been wise to utilize Jimmy's designs had, you know, they actually been privy to the designs' existence.

Although I tend to be very critical of my own artistic abilities, I have a very positive memory of the various drawings that all three of us made over two decades ago. While said memories are somewhat cloudy, I do remember a few things from the card sets that I designed. One was that, no matter how small the set was, I always included Mackey Sasser in the roster. I mean, 1992 Upper Deck failed to include either Sasser or Rick Cerone in their set despite the duo combining for over 120 games played behind the plate and over 500 PA, so I was justifiably righting a wrong. Except for including Cerone. Sorry, Rick. ;)

The second detail was that I very shamelessly ripped off aspects of current designs. The home plate on the back of 1992 Triple Play cards? Let's just take that and put it on the front of the card. Pinnacle's "Shades" subset? Those look cool. Into the set they go! I am fairly certain that each drawing of a player looked basically the same in terms of facial construction and features, as I could kind of handle the logos, but was not willing to get into depicting individual physical details. Nonetheless, these little exercises were a fun way to spend creative time with friends and with things that I loved, making it disappointing that those sketches are lost to time.

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I was fortunate enough to work out a trade with Jeremy from the amazing blog Topps Cards That Never Were, a site at which Jeremy has posted literally hundreds (if not thousands) of customized Topps cards, including massive projects to create cards for literally every player and coach to appear in certain seasons. Given that well over a thousand players appear in the majors each year and older Topps sets only included 792 cards, these are huge undertakings and really amazing accomplishments - particularly when finding photos of obscure players in the proper uniform proves impossible.
1995 Topps - Matt Merullo
(Custom by Jeremy)

Jeremy's player collection section is brilliantly organized and inspired me to amend my own trade page in a similar fashion. Given the vast amount of players both major and minor in notoriety that Jeremy collects, it was quite fun to go through my collection to see if I indeed had cards of former Lakeland Tigers, members of the Dutch National Team, or any of the other intriguing subsets of individuals that were listed. There were so many players on which to check that I did not actually get to all of them before the storage box that I was using was full, which leaves some potential fun discovery for a future swap.

Jeremy was kind enough to offer to help me finish up the 1992 Topps set that I had largely built thanks to the previously-blogged swap with Tom and did just that. While I can still use a few condition upgrades, a set that would have probably at best been 20% completed with what I had on my own is now at 100% after just two trades, which is so incredibly cool. Thanks, guys!

Jeremy also included several cards of Mackey Sasser, a few of others players that I collect, and some Upper Deck illustrated checklists, all of which are great. The real highlight, though, was the inclusion of several customized cards, which would have made for an awesome swap on their own. In addition to the Mackey Sasser and Rusty Greer customs that are posted here, there were also four of Matt Merullo. For some background information, Merullo is the only player from Ridgefield, CT (he played in RLL for a coach, Dave Scott, who later coached me and then coached with me) to reach the major leagues. His father, Lenny Merullo, is the son of former Chicago Cub second baseman Len Merullo, himself played in the minors before suffering a career-ending injury, and currently coaches with me at RHS. While Matt played for parts of six seasons with three different clubs, including getting some solid playing time with the Twins in 1995, his scope of MLB cards is very limited and only depicts him as a member of the White Sox. To see Matt's career fully covered is exceptionally cool and is something that I will show to his father, as Lenny will surely get a kick out of the designs and creativity. Thanks again, Jeremy!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Giving: So Easy, Yet So Hard (plus a trade with Tom)

*Apologies for the gap between posts. A big part of the reason why I only write on recreational basis rather than professionally is the tendency for energy and focus issues to disrupt the flow that allows me to write about topics at length. There will likely be other periodic gaps in the future, so I thank you in advance for your patience on those occasions.*

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The dynamic of giving vs. receiving has always been one that I have found intriguing. When we are young, it is drilled in with great frequency that the former is better than the latter and for good reason. While, speaking from a psychological perspective, young children typically initially have a worldview that is very self-oriented in nature, these still lessons tend to take hold at a good rate and a spirit of generosity is fostered as individuals develop. When I was younger and still celebrated holidays such as Christmas, the concept of giving often caused me issues. I wanted to come up with and provide tremendous gifts for those about whom I cared, but was often vexed by theory of mind issues when it came to what others would like/want. I reckon that simply asking what my loved ones would like might have solved those problems, yet that removed the surprise aspect of gift-giving and sort of killed the premise for me, in turn making me feel like I was failing in some regard.
1992 Topps - Frank Thomas

Of course, giving has additional meanings besides simply doling out gifts or making financial donations. Giving of oneself is another prime manner of offering something of benefit to others in an effort to provide aid, one that has largely defined a great deal of my adult life. While I am technically a professional coach, teacher, and tutor, it still feels odd - bordering on wrong - to be receiving money for helping other people. This is particularly true when it comes to families that I consider friends, as the notion that friends simply help out their friends without the expectation of compensation is one that has always made sense to me. After all, I have provided instruction on a volunteer basis for decades, so why should now be different? Of course, society does not solely function via people helping people, as nice as that it would be to see a far greater focus be placed on giving and helping rather than taking. The idea of taking - even if framed in a softer manner such as the initial idea of "receiving" - is still largely unappealing and one that I am reticent to do. Giving of myself takes much more energy, mentally and physically, but is far more rewarding, to the point that I have often thought that my "destiny" is to give of myself until everything is exhausted. Does that sound healthy? Probably not, but those thoughts remain from time to time.

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While giving as a concept has always come very easily to me, it interesting to look back at the instances in which it proved to be vexing. The aforementioned theory of mind issues with regard to bestowing gifts still exists, to the point that I have to be extremely sure as to someone's likely reaction before giving a surprise present of any kind. Oddly enough, another area of giving in which I really struggled while growing up was when it came to trading baseball cards. Growing up in the 1990s, baseball card collecting was still popular enough that I could find plenty of kids with whom to prospectively swap cards in my neighborhood, at camp, and at school. Although we lived in the height of the Beckett price guide era that helped contribute to cards being defined by monetary value rather than emotional impact, it was not until my short foray into online trading in which the tedium of balancing deals by perceived financial worth emerged. As an aside, this dynamic largely killed my interest in doing anything with my card collection other than keeping it locked away, which is a little depressing.
1992 Pinnacle
Mackey Sasser

No, my issue with trading cards was not financial in nature, but rather that I simply found it extremely hard to part with any cards, no matter what I would be getting in return. There are many psychological reasons as to why decision-making and willingness to part with things can be extremely difficult, concepts that I do think applied (and still apply) to me when it came both to being willing to give away pretty much anything in which I placed any measure of value. It is also inherently illogical to overvalue one's property over that of others, yet it is a common psychological process on display whenever someone says that their favorite team should be willing to take calls about trading its replacement level #5 starter - but only if the other team is willing to trade its five best prospects in return.

As such, I was not a very good trading partner when I was a kid. Not due to being a haggler for value or anything of the like (driving a hard bargain takes levels of energy and aggressiveness that I really do not possess), but more out of decision paralysis. 'Sure, I would like those cards of various Mets, but if I trade this Frank Thomas card, then I will no longer have this Frank Thomas card. That would be bad, right? Not sure that I can do this.' That general dialogue played out in my head so many times, that bothering to try to work out swaps were often fruitless ventures. Therefore, I usually ended up keeping that Frank Thomas card and others like it. Maybe they are still in boxes or pages, maybe they were long since discarded. Either way, they did not benefit those who would have enjoyed them more than I did and a collection became more of an accumulation.

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Shortly after starting up this blog, I came across a post by Tom at Waiting 'til Next Year in which he noted the view on the card collecting hobby that had turned me off in the past. In contrast, Tom extolled the virtues of individuals collecting their own way and enjoying the experience, backing up that notion by offering cards from select sets from the 1980s/1990s to those who would like them. In return, Tom merely asked for what one thought to be a fair return, whether it be help for sets that he is building, cards from his favorite team (Chicago Cubs), or anything else.

As is my wont, it took me multiple days to work up the nerve to make a reply on the post. While I have a strong attachment to the 1991 season (which will surely be noted in future posts) and had great interest in building multiple sets from 1992 that I greatly enjoyed when I was younger, my negative trading experiences popped back up in my head. Now it was much less about any unwillingness to part with what I had, but rather whether I merited such generosity or if what I could deliver in return would be good enough. After much hesitation, I opted to take a shot and reach out. I am very happy that I did.
2014 Panini Prizm
Rusty Greer (autograph)

Tom, a fellow, high school baseball coach, could not have been a more welcoming or generous person with whom to communicate. I had the 1992 Topps set in mini form when younger as well as most of the regular cards from that time period that were worn out, yet now have nearly the entire set thanks to Tom's package alone. I have always loved the photography and clear design of 1992 Topps, while 1992 Pinnacle (the other half of the package) had an intriguing front design complete with black borders with a nice headshot photo on clean backs. Tom also took time out of his vacation to think of me, some random individual that he had barely interacted, as he acquired and sent separately an autographed card of Rusty Greer, one of my long-time favorite players. Such generosity was mind-blowing to me and is much appreciated, one that made it all the easier to give in return to the best of my ability. Finding cards that mean something to other people gives me the same kind of positive sentiment that comes from other types of largesse or volunteering of time/services, which was a nice bonus and a feeling that will hopefully recur as I try to turn my accumulation into a collection.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Prominence, If Only for a Moment

Second grade was the first of three years that I spent at Ridgebury Elementary School after my family moved back from Portugal, three years that remain far more clear in my mind than one might expect events from 30 years to be. While not a universally positive experience [see: Wizard of Oz preparation from the previous post], the vast majority of fellow students, teachers, and parents that I met in that time were so terrific that I often find my mind thinking back to these times. Not long after the start of the school year, all of the boys in the class were invited to the birthday party of a classmate named Brian. I was presently surprised to be included on the list of invitees, given that I was both new to the school and had not interacted terribly much with Brian. This had very little to do with Brian, who I recall being a very pleasant and friendly kid, but was much more related to the fact that I did not have the emotional energy to build close relationships with everyone in the class.
1996 Topps Gallery - Rico Brogna

I remember Brian's birthday party being a rather impressive affair from my seven-year-old perspective. We piled in a pair of minivans to head to the movie theater, with there being multiple copies of Sports Illustrated for Kids inside the van in which I rode, which made the trip all the more enjoyable. After drinking soda that was effectively syrup and watching Uncle Buck, we returned to Brian's house to make our own pizza and play games related to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - which I believe was a federal requirement for boys birthday parties at the time. Brian's parents prepared for each classmate guest bags that were loaded with a great many things, including TMNT action figures that most certainly were not cheap purchases at the time.

As a late-year birthday myself and still of the age in which parties were expected (despite the fact that I actually did not enjoy them), preparations soon began for my own birthday party in late September. Given that my larger parties in Portugal went, um, less than well (there may have been some piñata-related meltdowns), my mom recommended a smaller party and said that I could invite two people from my class. With Brian and his parents having been so generous, it felt only right to return the favor and ask him to attend my party. I was left with a tough choice as to who else should attend. My enjoyment of baseball had greatly grown through my daily conversations with Whitney and Brady, die-hard Red Sox fans who made me care about that team in a positive fashion for basically the only time in my life. I was arguably closest with a trio of girls in the class, - Billie, Heather, and Sara - all of whom remained truly nice people throughout our time together in school. So who came to the party? No, it was not Billie, Brady, Heather, Sara, or Whitney, but, rather, a boy named John Paul. The catch is that, save for maybe a few days, I was not friends with John Paul.

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Our Little League used to - and still does, to some extent - make a big production out of photo day, with parents being able to order a myriad of customized versions of their child's individual pictures. In addition to the various sizes in which the photo could be printed, a la school portraits, one could also get photos on magnets, mock-up magazine covers, and a wealth of other options. After multiple years of no doubt being a nuisance, I was finally able to convince my mom to spring for the personalized baseball cards given that it was my last year in Little League. In addition to our ugly Ridgefield Hardware uniforms and the fact that I am wearing a watch for some reason, the other thing that still stands out to me on that card is the listing for favorite player: Rico Brogna.

Nothing against Brogna, who a capable major league hitter during the 1990s and has Connecticut roots, but I really cannot remember when he was my favorite player aside from whatever day in 1995 I had to fill out the form that was submitted to the photographer. From a logical perspective, I can connect the dots. My favorite player, Mackey Sasser, had seen his professional career come to a close after 14 difficult games earlier in the season. The player who would succeed him as my new longtime favorite, Rusty Greer, would not really hit my radar until the 1996 campaign and my new favorite Met, Edgardo Alfonzo, had barely started his major league career. Brogna, on the other hand, looked like gangbusters prior to the lockout "strike" as a rookie in 1994 (.351/.380/.626, 11 2B, 2 3B, 7 HR in just 138 PA) and seemed poised to break out as a star following a fast start to the 1995 season (.329/.377/.629, 6 2B, 5 HR, 15 RBI in his first 78 PA of the year).

Unfortunately, regression hit, resulting in a merely solid sophomore season and, after being limited to 55 games due to injuries in 1996, Brogna was eventually swapped to the division-rival Phillies for a pair of relievers. While my Mets-related focus turned toward players Alfonzo, Benny Agbayani, Rick Reed, and Brogna's replacement, John Olerud, I did not see much of Brogna's volume-based stint with the Phillies save for their matchups with New York. Despite that, it is his name that will forever be listed on the back of my Little League baseball card.

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John Paul's invite to my birthday party caught my mom by surprise, as she remarked that the only time that I had previously mentioned his name was to note that he had been rude to me. Frankly, I do not know what sparked me to invite him other than the fact that, growing up, I had a tendency to attach very strong meaning to the connections that I made. I do not think that it is accurate to say that I wanted or needed to be liked by everyone, but I did tend to feel and/or hope that every bit of friendliness shown to me was an indication of an exceptionally deep connection. I was trying to be a good friend and assumed that everyone was, too. Whether we had worked on something together in class or had played together at recess, there was some interaction that I had experienced with John Paul that made me consider him to be a great friend when we had previously not gotten along well at all.

Unfortunately, it was the John Paul from my first month at Ridgebury who was the version in attendance at my party. In addition to mocking the size of our house and complaining about the food, John Paul dismissed the fact that he had stained our carpet by noting that the maid would clean up the mess. The "maid" to whom he was referencing was a friend of my mom who was graciously helping out given that minding three young children (including my younger sisters) was a lot to ask of a single parent, let alone five. When I asked John Paul at school why he had said such things, he commented that my mom's friend looked like a maid and did not even clean up the mess that he had made.

From that point on, I did not interact much with John Paul and it was not until partway through third grade in which I noticed that he had moved out of town. Given how many exceptionally nice kids were in my second grade class, I still have regret that I did not invite any number of them to my party that year. In retrospect, this entire experience does not seem to make a lot of sense and is most certainly not all that consequential of an event. However, in the moment, John Paul being one of my best friends made all the sense in the world thanks to a connection that was forged based on something that was likely tenuous and disappeared almost as quickly. Understanding that phenomenon is still something that I strive to do, which is often easier said than done.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Sensory Aversion, Part I - Touch

With two outs in the 7th inning of my team's game on Sunday morning, I was called upon to pinch-run for a teammate who had tweaked a muscle earlier in the contest. Given that I was currently in the game as a relief pitcher on a surprisingly muggy day, attempting a steal was neither a realistic nor a wise option - and that was setting aside the possibility of running our team out of the inning. Nonetheless, the opposing pitcher threw over to first multiple times, perhaps as much to try to get me to expend additional energy as he was aiming to prevent a potential stolen base. He was a fairly clever sort, that one.

I typically run the bases with my batting gloves balled up in my hands, but, having not reached base as a result of a time at bat, I forgot to do so on this occasion. As a result, the dives back into first base that I had to make coated my hands and wrists with dirt. A few pitches later, a groundout would end the frame, sending me back out to the hill. However, before that would happen, I had to deal with the dirt on my hands. It simply had to go.

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My first memory of experiencing the sensory aversion related to the manner in which substances and textures contacting my skin cause me to experience distress came when I was in first grade in Portugal. At one point in the school year, painting - particularly finger painting - was perfectly fine. Then came one day in which we were creating a class banner that would be adorned with handprints of all of the members of the class. After dipping my hand in the paint basin that was set on the back steps of the school, I was overcome by an extreme feeling of discomfort and unease. I actually do not think that I cried, but I most certainly ran to the bathroom to copiously wash off as much of the paint as I possibly could.

1992 Upper Deck - Will Clark
Not to worry, though, as I had plenty of other occasions in which bothersome touch-related sensory concerns caused me to truly lose it. Most notable, for sure, was in the lead-up to our second grade presentation of the Wizard of Oz. Save for the handful of students selected to have actual roles in the play, the remainder of the students were split into groups of munchkins and flying monkeys to effectively just stand around for a short period of time. Given my, ahem, relative lack of height, I was placed in the former group, which really did not mean terribly much in terms of activity within the play. Again, we were in second grade. Merely successfully walking on and off the stage would constitute a win.

However, on the night of the play itself, things for me took a turn for the worse. As we gathered in our respective classrooms, parent volunteers were tasked with making sure that all costumes and makeup were set prior to the presentation. Apparently since the students depicting flying monkeys were having their faces painted blue/silver in line with those of the characters in the movie, the brilliant decision was made to have all of the munchkins wear green paint on their face and hands - despite the fact that the munchkins in the film most certainly did not have green skin. The moment that the first daub of paint hit my hand, I lost it. In an effort to assure me that things were fine, one of my classmate's mother brought my classmate over to me, saying that it was fine given that my classmate was perfectly okay with her face and hands completely painted. Commence Level I Meltdown. My crying caused the plan to have the munchkins be painted green to be scrapped, but it was hard to have such a conniption and not be able to articulate why I was reacting as I was.

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It is hard to explain things like sensory aversion to others who do not experience the same level of discomfort when in contact with things that bother me. When I was asked a few years back by a fellow coach to dig into containers of dirt for use in rubbing up baseball, I declined, which led to a response that was could best be described as stunned and disbelieving. I mean, who has a problem with dirt?

The thing about bothersome textures is that their effects are not limited to the physical discomfort that they cause. Touching a knife blade or a hot stove will, of course, be painful, but their effects are fairly universal in the pain that they inflict. Bizarrely, I can handle a burn or a cut more readily than I can residual dirt and paint, as well as the manner in which shirt tags and clothing material feel when they contact my skin. At least for me, there is a sort of cognitive obsessiveness attached to the latter that works in conjunction with the physical problems that these textures cause. Yes, the paint on my hand and the tag rubbing against my neck do not yield pleasurable feelings, but it is the preoccupation with their negative physical effects combined with the constant awareness of their existence that is the most troubling issue. Just like with the dirt that I acquired when diving back into first base on Sunday, so many of the tags on my shirts simply had to go. Wool and polyester clothing? Ideally gone. Painting? I will pass, thank you. Unfortunately, just like with my painting experience when in first grade, these texture-related issues are not always constant. I wore jeans for years, yet now find the manner in which they feel on my legs to be borderline abrasive. As noted, it is neither an easy thing to describe nor simple to understand - even on a personal level.

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As with so many things that involve different experiences from those in the so-called "mainstream," it has long felt as though the issues that I and others have with sensory touch concerns were largely dismissed as being overplayed or even nonexistent. Given how even the thought of applying face/hand paint causing me to physically cringe and emotionally tense up, I would beg to differ when it comes to the legitimacy of these concerns. Thankfully, many clothing manufacturers have started to become more aware of the sensory woes that their products can cause, which has resulted in many shirts being produced without tags and clothing materials being more sensory-friendly. I recall there being some initial pushback to those changes, as there is to seemingly everything given the volume of petty individuals in the world, yet allowing more people to be comfortable without truly causing any issue for others seems to be a pretty simple idea to accept. Then again, plenty of folks seem to enjoy manners of teasing that involve causing others to become physically uncomfortable, which has often been hard for me to truly grasp.

While the relative efficacy of eye black as a means of reducing glare on sunny days has been debated, its use is now prevalent in more sports than just baseball. For some athletes, the application of eye black is less about worrying about sunlight than it is a ritual that permits them to focus prior to the game. I will not deny that it also tends to look pretty cool [see: nearly all of Will Clark's photogenic cards during his run as a Giant]. Obviously, eye black has always been a no-go for me. However, just as I am cool with avoiding it, seeing others use it as a means of getting amped up to play is similarly good by me. Differences are good and acceptance valuable, after all. If the eye black tube could remain capped after use, though, that would be ideal. ;)

Friday, July 12, 2019

Return to the Impact Zone

With the incredible rise in the amount of entities and organizations willing to assemble travel youth baseball teams these days, many of the players that I coach have, for good reason, expressed shock when I tell them that there was not much in the way of playing options when I grew up for kids who had progressed out of Babe Ruth following their age-15 seasons. Save for playing for the high school in the spring, the lone reliable summer option in town that I can recall was an 18-U or 19-U team known as the Nighthawks. Given that the Nighthawks typically selected their rosters by invitation, were run by the father of a classmate with whom I had an adversarial relationship, and the fact that I was only selected to play at RHS in my freshman season, there was effectively zero chance that I was going to receive said invite. Unsurprisingly, one never came.
1997 Collector's Choice Mini-Standee
Jeff Blake

As with not making the high school team, I was realistic about my own ability, yet knew that I could contribute in a couple of areas in which others struggled while fully acknowledging that there was a gap in terms of ability that made others more worthy of being the full-time options. With the benefit of perspective, there is a part of me that feels like a bullet was dodged in terms of not being on some of these teams. Between the poor and often negative coaching at the high school that caused some of my peers to lose their love for the sport, and the fact that I really never felt that I was included by the better athletes in my graduating class (I was young for my grade and played with kids one grade below me in school for most of my youth career), I do not know if playing for RHS or the Nighthawks would have been healthy experiences. The season that I spent on the freshman team certainly was not.

Setting aside worthiness, status, and any of that nonsense, most of all I just wanted to play. There simply was no convenient or available outlet, no 18-U Babe Ruth program that exists now, no random batting cage that was putting together a motley crew of kids from eight different towns. As such, I began coaching - but still wanted to play.

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Despite getting into a few rather strong universities, the entire college-application process confused me (and still does as I consider grad school options), leading me to opt to spend my first semester out of high school attending nearby Western Connecticut State University. Besides being able to live at home and keep my job, this also afforded me the opportunity to seek out opportunities to stay involved in activities that I would have likely bypassed had I gone to school elsewhere. When a notice for a fall 18-U baseball league appeared in the sports section of one of the local papers, it was exactly what I was looking to see. Unfortunately, Ridgefield was still lagging behind other towns when it came to fielding older teams, as they only had squads in the 15-U and younger levels, but Danbury was putting together a team and anyone was welcome.

Despite being extremely reticent to jump into a foreign setting given my issues with new environments and people that I mentioned in an earlier post, I decided to bite the bullet and sign up to play. Our first practice was on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Rogers Park in Danbury, a nice field that plays host to summer league games that feature a plethora of Division I ballplayers. While the head coach seemed to be a bit blustery and a few of the players had an edge to them, there were others who gladly offered to throw with me and the assistant coaches seemed enthusiastic. The practice itself was largely enjoyable and I was able to quickly shake off the rust, seemingly making a good impression in the process. While the other players were impressive athletes, most of whom I was told had been contributors at Danbury High School as juniors, I did not feel terribly out of place, which was a huge relief.

When we got to batting practice, it now seems unusual that the coach was pitching without the aid of an l-screen, as he instead opted to throw at a pretty consistent speed from the mound itself. Whichever player was in the hole was designated to collect balls that were thrown in near the mound area and place them in a nearby bucket for the coach, which led to the players shagging balls in the outfield to make a game out of keeping score of how many times each could hit the bucket or the player collecting the baseballs. This continued until it was my turn to fill that role, with my worries being more on not embarrassing myself at the plate than getting hit by throws from the outfield. However, as the balls collected around my feet, I nearly tripped while taking a step back and indicated to the coach that I needed a second in order to clear the area. To the best of my recollection, he acknowledged what I said. As such, I briefly turned around, bent down to reach for the first of many balls in the area, and immediately heard the "Ping!" of a metal bat. I turned my head to the left to look toward the plate. That did not work out terribly well.

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In past recollections of this story, I have often been asked what it felt like to get drilled in the temple by a line drive. The answer, at least on this occasion, was that I really did not immediately *feel* anything, whether it be nausea or pain. I definitely heard something, as there was a distinct ringing that remains unlike anything that I have ever experienced during any of my, unfortunately, many other concussive episodes. I also saw something, which, no joke, is the card of Jeff Blake pictured above. If anyone can determine why that image popped into my head at that moment, congratulations, you may have solved a puzzle more complex than deciphering the meaning of life. Perhaps it is nothing more intriguing than that my brain operates differently enough as it is and really did not need to be struck by a baseball in order to produce unexpected results. Probably.

Remarkably, I did not lose consciousness and actually asked to rejoin practice after resting for a few minutes. While coaching now, this would certainly not be something that I would permit my players to do and I tend to err on the side of caution with even more minor injury concerns. The head coach of this team, however, um, did not exercise caution. Several minutes later, I was taking balls in left field and working on my crow hop to maximize what passes for arm strength. Then my head began to hurt. Badly. And my stomach felt worse than my head, which was truly a feat. I had to be helped off the field, as simply taking steps felt like the most laborious task ever conceived.

As I sat on the bench with my head in hands, desperately trying to block out as much light as possible, I was asked to provide my mom's cell phone number so that she could come get me. I am fairly certain that whatever number that I offered forth bore little resemblance to the cell number that we were trying to reach. It could have been our old house phone, my grandparent's phone number, or just some string of random digits. All that I know was that my mom had no clue as to what had happened until arriving at the scheduled end of practice. I am still not sure if I have ever seen her as angry as she was at the coach's half-baked explanation for how the events of the day had occurred, but, thankfully, going directly to the ER took priority over telling the coach how neglectful he had been. I do not remember most of what happened from the time that the pain set in; I just wanted to go to sleep.

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Further cementing the whole "my brain does odd things" notion, I blitzed through two of the cognitive tests administered at the ER, as recounting the alphabet backwards and subtracting units of seven from a starting base of 100 proved to be surprisingly easy for me even with a baseball-smacked brain that desperately wanted to rest. Of course, everything else clearly pointed to a concussion, with rest and consistent monitoring being paramount. For the next five days, simply standing up caused my head to feel like it was in the type of vise used to shake cans of paint. My boss at work was completely understanding. My college professors? Not so much. Despite the fact that I indicated that I was in such pain that getting up to write them an email was literally all that I could physically manage for the day, two professors refused to grant me any leniency when it came to due dates on papers. I was not a great self-advocate at the time and was too overwhelmed to push things to the administrative level when I felt better, resulting in me taking zeroes on papers in each of those courses, worsening my grades in the process. Given that I posted A's in literally every other course that I took in college, those marks stand out, but more for the inability of a pair of educators to care about the well-being of their students than any personal failure on my part. I still feel let down by them and never want anyone that I coach or teach to feel that way about me.

Perhaps foolishly, I made an attempt to return for the team's first games the following weekend. Modern concussion protocols exist to protect students in both the academic areas that I described as well as the athletic realm, but I was pretty much left to my own devices to determine if I was okay to play. I told the coach that I was comfortable playing the field, but did not want to hit, especially given that, as a right-handed batter, it is my left temple that faces the pitcher. He made a bit of a show about this being an issue, but ultimately relented. Why was it important that I hit when we had around 14 guys on hand? It is truly one of life's great mysteries.

After sitting out game one of our doubleheader and being treated to the constant aroma of marijuana that was being smoked by some individuals sitting in a nearby bush, I finally took to right field for game two of the twinbill. With a pretty dominant pitcher on the hill who had to have struck out double-digits in the contest, chances were rare. However, I caught the one routine flyball hit my way, ran down a ball in the gap, and relayed a ball hit to the wall that was then thrown to second to cut down a batter-runner trying to stretch his hit into a double. It was a pretty good game, all things considered, and I would have been happy to just play the field for the remainder of the fall. Those hopes were quickly dashed when the coach said that were shorthanded on Sunday, so I would get to hit, as though it was something for which I was hoping and not desperately avoiding. I began to again feel sick on the way home that night, although it was likely as much anxiety as anything else. I called the coach in the morning to note that I would not be there for their away game that afternoon - and did not play again for almost 19 years.

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As alluded to earlier, I have had the misfortune of accumulating plenty of other concussions over the years, too. A kid from Bridgeport flagrantly elbowed me in the face during a basketball game just months after the injury described above, causing another concussion while also breaking my nose. I was twice hit by baseballs while coaching in the following spring and have seen corners of tables pack a surprising punch. When I was younger, I joked that my head was the universe's punching bag due to the amount of times that I seemed to bump it on the top of a car door entrance or the overhang on my bed. That seemed to be shockingly prescient. Over time, I developed consistent headaches that need to be managed or else my concentration level becomes nonexistent. Given the complexity of the brain and the relative newness of concussion research, it has also been difficult to find doctors who are willing to legitimize and acknowledge the impact that concussions continue to have on my well-being. I do not expect a magic pill, but an attempt to understand would be cool.

In spite of this, I have still yearned to return to playing and this year finally worked up the nerve to do so.
While I have coached many, many teams over the past two decades, there is a world of difference between controlled on-field efforts geared toward instruction and those needed to react to plays occurring in a competitive atmosphere.  I have still yet to feel comfortable at the plate, but have produced better results than I ever would have guessed, even if I will likely never be the type of hitter than I once was. Bizarrely, despite only throwing one inning off of a 60'6" mound in my youth career, I have logged nearly 40 IP on the hill so far this spring/summer. You can't predict baseball, I suppose. While we have not excelled record-wise, it has been a tremendously fun and welcoming experience that I truly needed.

On Sunday, our team plays at Rogers Park. While I have coached many games there since my injury, this will be my first time on the field as a player since that pair of Saturdays early in September of 2000. I will not fault my brain if it again randomly thinks of Jeff Blake throwing a football. After all, it still functions and I am again playing baseball.