Stealing Home Excerpt: On the verge of perfect

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In the stands we watched the game unfold that was perfect, so far

Every one of baseball's other hundreds of thousands of games started out with the same chance — They’re all perfect for awhile. An official perfect game emerges over a long cycle of actions, nurtured by luck and daring those odds. I was taking my own long shot at two weeks of happiness using eleven hotel nights to see eight ballparks—all of which I’d never tried to find in thick traffic or the dark of the night. Every check-in, every fill-up, every Quarter-Pounder we discovered in the right place at a time that fit our schedule, every parking space or subway train caught, they were all individual plays in our larger game. Two weeks of road tripping with Nicky might amount to a string of disappointments as the experience fell short of my expectation. Because when the mustard is too spicy or the game is played in a drizzle or your team doesn’t win, that’s not perfect.

I thought we’d found perfection at our game in Chicago at Wrigley. The Friendly Confines was my exacting destination, the turn-back point for our journey. Wrigley was planned, something I could reach for—and then later on, burnish like a cup pulled down off a mantel.

Being in those hot seats at the Ballpark in Arlington was something far different. The baseball gods were giving me a tease, a hint this trip could end on an even higher note. It was something I didn’t dare wish for, but also a thing I desired more than anything. A perfect game would be a historic sign that I was meant to be more than a weekend dad. A ballgame even better than Nicky’s very first trip to Wrigley with his stepdad. No pressure there, for me—just come home with a perfect game, so you can call it a perfect trip with your son.

Once a game is more than halfway over and one team has squeezed out no hits, or even taken a base on a walk or errors, the focus tightens on what remains. It takes 27 outs in a row to make a perfect game. After we marked down the first 15 on our scorebook, counting every pitch and marking every play, I started to look ahead at the nearly impossible back half of the game. Just a single “ball four, take your base” could spoil perfection. Rangers pitching had been hammered all year long, giving up more runs than any team in that season. Perfection was too much to expect as they went onto the field for the sixth.

July 28: An Austin matinee debut reading for Stealing Home

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At Malvern Books on July 28, my memoir makes its debut. There will be other readings to come, and an interview with Austin Liti Limits, but I know from my acting days that Opening Night is special. This time around, for the show that is Stealing Home, it’s a matinee opening, 1 PM at the Austin bookstore on 29th and Rio Grande.

I'll read from the book, have a fun Q&A, and sign books for sale at Austin's great independent bookstore. Malvern is one of America's Top 50 bookstores and genuine Austin gem. I’m bringing refreshments. Yes, there will be cake.

That day of the 28th in July is the 25-year anniversary of Official Perfect Game No. 14 -- the one which is the capstone of the book's journey.  Stealing Home: A Father, a Son, and the Road to the Perfect Game is the story of an 11-day, 9-game road trip I took with my Little Leaguer — and how my plans for perfection delivered things much deeper than scores, miles, and smiles. You don't have to drive 3,147 miles to find your way to fatherhood. When I did, something magical and rare appeared at the end of the journey, inside my heart as well as on a diamond.

See, the rarest outcome in sports is baseball’s perfect game. One team does everything right, forcing the other to accomplish nothing. In 150 years of baseball, there have only been 23. Perfect is nearly impossible. As a divorced dad, I was trying to redeem my fatherhood with a baseball road trip with my Little League son Nicky.

Save the date to join me. This is my heartfelt passion project. That Sunday in July will be the newest chapter in the book's six-year journey. I'll be so pleased to see you there. Please set aside the date, take your seat and enjoy refreshments and fatherhood storytelling on my book's opening day.

For my family, it's the real Father's Day

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It is June 3, my genuine and personal Father’s Day. This is the day Dad was born, his birthday that we celebrated in cakes and songs, wrapped in the sweet hugs that children give a father who’s a little lost about when to embrace his growing-older kids. That was my Dad, many times, unsure if the best thing to do and say was to correct and critique, or to praise us without any regard for the truth.

Father’s Day was created by greeting card companies, he would tell us whenever the floating holiday would appear. His day was always June 3, as immovable as his efforts at loving us.

He was born into a world that was already in full roar in June of 1927. His brother was nine years older and his sister five, so Bobby Seybold might have been a surprise baby. He grew up sickly and small for his age, although by the time he became my dad I could never believe he’d ever been small at anything. He could be loud and harsh, or uncork a belly laugh that made me sure whatever was happening was funny to its core.

I have no clear memories of any particular birthday of his, other than the one I missed because I was away in Army service. I’d been in Texas since November, and in the weeks before June of 1977 I sent him a box of contraband fireworks from Tennessee. I’d driven past fireworks stands on my way back from Ohio, reporting for duty in Killeen, Texas at Fort Hood. Along the way, I got the idea of giving him a box of rockets and roman candles and M-80s.

I sheltered the contraband away until June approached, then simply dumped it into a cardboard box and put the powderkeg into the US Mail. He might have got it during a year when he was at sea, emotionally. Dad was turning 50 in 1977, a birthday when a man sizes up what’s become of him and what remains. It was that way for me, anyway, so perhaps the day gave him pause, too.

One of my cherished photos of Dad is from that day he opened that box. He is professional in his dress, the close-striped collared shirt unbuttoned at the neck, a pair of ballpoint pens in his shirt pocket. He’d been losing weight that year, maybe the result of the depression that pulled him down with its undertow. Yet on the face of this giant chieftain of my life is a childish grin.

In the box was the explosive fun, the same kind he shared with me and with my brother. Daddy shot off firecrackers on the concrete driveway that he poured beside our tract house in Point Place. We’d light the fuses and run together, even if it was just out into the yard. The strings of Black Cat firecrackers, 30 to a rope, were the most fun. He was good at imagining the danger in them, warning us in a steady voice to be ready in case the fuse burned too quickly.

He was good at creating a kind of silence that warned me. Downstairs in his lair, where silence was broken in his workshop only by the sounds of radios and the squealing of just-built circuits, he would escape from us. He loved us in an effort that failed him whenever he spoke to us. He could mimic my mom’s voice, all rich with her notes and melody, that voice of hers not yet rasped away by another 40 years of Pall Malls and Virginia Slims. But my father—we called him Dad to creep closer to his heart, to encourage his nurturing—could not mimic mom’s Irish cheer and benevolent lies. Dad had no script or incantation to send to me, no voice to let him heap praise where it was deserved only in part.

He was quiet and focused in the logic of electronics, the echo of his job in television. He worked at the bench in our basement during the era when TV was the shit, as we would all say someday later about computers and then the Internet. His TV career was like novels were in the 20s, like radio in the 30s, like movies before the Big War and beyond. He loved himself in that silence that he infected our wood-frame house with, the home he painted in Sherwin Williams aqua, a time when such names of paint colors didn’t evoke fruits or confections. His silence was as tactile as play-doh to me.

His 50th birthday was the last the family would ever see. The next year he took his own life. Maybe his fuse burned too quickly for even him to predict. His departure was stunning to me, in large part because I was not at home to watch the undertow.

He made me in ways both great and small, grand and petty. He would have been 92 this year, an age he might have not seen in any case. I cling to the loving lessons of the smile under his brusque mustache, the nights he taught me in the basement photo darkroom, developing the images of family that endured as his legacy.

A Perfect Postcard for the Next Life

The family in full at the perfecto: Nicky, me, and Dot. Nicky’s wearing that night’s giveaway, the Dr. Pepper Will Clark Rangers t-shirt.

The family in full at the perfecto: Nicky, me, and Dot. Nicky’s wearing that night’s giveaway, the Dr. Pepper Will Clark Rangers t-shirt.

In my creative writing workshops we use an exercise — we write a memory we could carry into the next life. We’re only permitted one. It’s gotta fit on an index card, front plus back. Here’s one of mine. It’s from my parenthood baseball memoir, Stealing Home: A Father, a Son, and the Road to the Perfect Game.

That night I didn’t feel the late July Dallas heat. Even though I’d just seen that perfect game on the diamond in person, I craved a screen. Watching any event was just more real if it was on a screen. Dad taught me that TV made everything real.

The Rangers’ new ballpark had a Dr. Pepper scoreboard screen, and upon it, the triumphant Kenny Rogers, the pitcher of the night’s perfect game, grinned. I was an ex-sportswriter by that night, but I still took notes in the margins of our Bibb Falk scorebook with its sweat-stained blue cover. The notes would have to do, because a video camera was not luggable on that night 25 years ago.

I watched the scoreboard’s lights shimmer in my son’s eyes. The noise of the crowd, all 47,128 of us, rattled off the skybox fronts and the fresh green concrete of our third deck section. Beside me and holding his Indians cap, Nicky beamed, laughing and hooting. Dottie hollered and then the field got quiet while Rogers talked, a headset wrapped around his face, pretty much speechless except for varieties of, “I didn’t see this game coming.”

Me either. Not any sign that the night would deliver an official major league Perfect Game, Number 14 across 125 years of baseball history. It is the rarest outcome in all of sports. My heart buzzed, finding the luck of perfection when I was no longer looking. I had the greater luck to have my family in full under those lights that night. Two weeks of travel to eight ballparks had become the road to the perfect game.

Where do we find the perfect moments in our lives? Often in places where they find us. As a divorced dad, I pursued a perfect moment with my son. Sports was our bond. The perfection which played out was luck I believed I’d earned.

First a miss, then a championship

First a miss, then a championship

My son won his only championship on a second try. At first I had to campaign to get him into Little League baseball over the concerns of his mom about injury and inattention to homework. I wanted to give Nicky the sports experiences I didn’t have as a boy too small to be picked at tryouts. In truth, I really didn’t participate in organized sports because of my fear of failure. I wanted Nicky to have a chance at a life with less of that fear.

In the year of his championship, Nicky’s team was an underachieving underdog in his league. Steve Shanks Field had been the scene of more than a few baffling losses during the regular season, as the leagues top teams got past Nick’s Cubs. While the Cubs played below their potential, or shy of the expectations of their fathers, other teams played and exceeded their limits. The lesson still unlearned by the boys was not really how to handle a ball hit to the third base side of second, but how to believe you could do it.

Adam was the coach’s son and the star pitcher for the team, but in time it became evident that other pitching talent would need to appear for the Cubs. One afternoon while the season was still fresh, without much warning, the coach asked Nicky to pitch. His son had thrown a good game earlier in the week and had to rest, according to league rules. Little League coaches, especially those in the leagues where kids are first pitching, hold this kind of tryout as part of games.

Nicky threw hard on that afternoon, but the Marlins hit even harder. His day on the mound lasted three rocky innings, his strikeouts marred by lashes of hits and a handful of runs scored against him. The capping ignominy of that day was a hard hit right up the middle that bounced off his foot for a single. Tears welling up in his eyes, he wanted to come off the mound after that hit and just be a supporting player again, not the focus of attention and expectations. If he left the mound he’d be out of that game. He was persuaded to stick out his attempt, and after escaping the inning he handed over the ball to a teammate.

As official scorer I had a record of his outing on the mound, and even though it didn’t deliver his objective of setting down the batters in order, the appearance had some sparkling moments.

Nicky couldn’t see it that way. “I’m never gonna pitch again,” he told anyone who wanted to listen. He’d thrown his hardest and it hadn’t worked out. Who needed any more proof that he’d been a failure?


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No hits, no runs for Reds

It happened again this week, for the 300th time in MLB history: an official no-hitter. A no hitter is rare, indeed. About 210,000 Major League games have been played so far. So that's .007 percent of them with no hits and runs, over nine complete innings, by one or more pitchers. Combined no hitters help make up the 300. There’s another kind of no-hitter, an extra level. Only 23 no-hit games have ever been perfect games. No walks. No errors. No dropped third strikes, safe at first. A perfecto gives the losing team no baserunners. Twenty seven up, twenty seven down.

I’ve had the good luck to see one of those 23. Add a decimal place; the perfectos make up about .0001 percent of every game ever played. Add in the number of tickets available for every one of those games, and each seat is a 6400-1 shot to be there. When you get three seats together at a perfecto, it’s a 19,000-1 shot.

We had three together on that night in July of 1994. Twenty-five seasons ago, Perfect Game Number 14 emerged before my wife Dottie, my son Nick, and me, all of us holding our breath then cheering at the end in The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.

This week the Reds took their futile swings for all nine innings in Oakland. That 2-0 result was perfect for awhile, like all games are perfect as they begin. None of the Reds reached first safely until the fourth inning, when the A’s third baseman bobbled a ball and Jesse Winker arrived safe at first. After Mike Fiers and the A’s recorded eleven straight outs to start the game, the perfecto died at the hands of an A’s fielder.

It’s just one pitch (ball four, take your base) or one bobbled ball away from disappearing. The perfecto is the rarest outcome in all of sports. The good fortune that my family found in those 1994 seats is at the heart of my memoir Stealing Home. To beat those 19,000-1 odds, I had to be on the road with Nicky when he was 11 and in Little League, where we saw nine games in eleven days. It was the unscheduled tenth game, though, that was the perfecto. Only nine more have been achieved in the 25 years since our night. But Number 24 could happen today. Perfect is elusive, but it’s out there.