Suited Up

I’m so happy I’m able to still wear a baseball uniform.

You sometimes hear big-leaguers talk about the thrill of putting on their team’s colors – the pinstripes and the script across the chest and the fitted cap. But it really is true for them; the most self-aware players, at least. Those who understand the rare gift they possess and, in most cases, its minuscule shelf life.

But it is also true for high school coaches, the ranks of which include me as a volunteer assistant who makes it out to the field when he can. That is hardly as often as I would like. Nowhere close. Bills must be paid and office hours logged, it seems. Still, “community service” hours offered and encouraged by my new employer allow me to be out on the field, in the uniform, in the base coach’s box, a couple times a week at games – practice times unfortunately do not mesh with this new schedule. Yet there still are chances. And every chance is a chance I do not take lightly.

In that regard, with first pitch pressing or often already taken place, I have become deft at dashing from the office to the car, the uniform piled in the front passenger seat. Shoes and socks easily slip off as I drive barefoot to the first stop light, which affords ample time to switch out to the uniform socks. At the inevitable next light, the business shirt gets doffed into the back seat as the T-shirt and school-logo coaching shell slide over my head.

The momentarily naked man from the waist up behind the wheel perhaps raises eyebrows in the vehicles nearby.  I never notice, though. I am too busy taking off my pants.

This is easier than it looks, although it does involve unbuckling the seat belt and squirming to the side at just the right angle (while seated at the light, of course!). Lift up, slide down, slip off, toss in the back, slide on most of the way – then snap up, buckle and align at the next light. Probably 10 or 15 seconds flat. Done.

By that point, it’s all over but the donning of the weathered turf shoes that reside in the trunk once I’ve parked at the field. By then, the game face is on, and usually so is the game, so I jog over and slide into the dugout to soak up and savor it all again.

I get to take up space in the first-base coach’s box, cheerleading, congratulating those who make it that far, encouraging those – much more frequent, of course, because baseball is totally a game of failure – forced to make U-turns back to the bench after making out.

I started coaching years ago to touch the part of me that went dormant when I chose a bird in the hand – a sports writing job – over the concurrent pursuit of a college baseball graduate assistantship.

I started as a way to honor my father, who literally built a youth club from the ground up across the street from our house and introduced me to baseball. I think of him, and how proud he was of me even reaching the minor leagues, every time I am on a baseball field, without fail.

I started and continued long after my son and daughter put baseball and softball aside, because being on that perfect field and teaching the game’s finer points — and feeling warm and worthy when a particular lesson takes root — “feeds my soul,” as a helpful confidant of mine likes to say.

You bet I am proud to still wear the colors.

You bet I am blessed to still take the field.

With luck, the kids around me sense a soul being fed — and perhaps might aspire to the same for themselves. Today, and over their countless tomorrows.



The terrible time . . .

Eight years since the mass murder at Virginia Tech.

The horror remains unimaginable and always will be so. My good friend and former sports writing colleague Kyle Tucker and I were e-mailing some memories today about that terrible time and the role Hokies football played toward healing when it returned 4 1/2 months later; Kyle was decamped in Blacksburg then as a world-class beat writer, as you may know.

It moved me to look up the things he and I wrote from that first emotional game Virginia Tech played that early September, 2007 afternoon when Hokies fans filled Lane Stadium to weep and watch and reflect.

I pulled the front-page story I was asked to do that day from the newspaper archives. I paste it here in memory:


A Tech tradition. Memories of ‘the 32.’ Closer to healing.

BLACKSBURG | A voice hung in the air of Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium on Saturday. The song it sang was simple, clear and haunting. It accompanied a photo montage on the video board, heralding the blessed return of football to this proud college-football town. Healing was in the words. Hope was at its heart.

Walk humbly son

Walk humbly now

And cherish every step

For a life well spent

On this earth we’re lent

Will be marked by the void you have left …

Moments earlier, the 66,233 people who filled the stadium had raised their voices in a spontaneous pre game cheer – for the Hokies’ opponent, East Carolina University.
“Thank you … Pirates!” “Thank you … Pirates!”
Usually, that four-syllable cadence is reserved for a rousing chant that shakes Lane’s walls: “Let’s go … Hokies!”
Then again, usually the visiting school doesn’t present a $100,000 check to its host at midfield right before kickoff.
East Carolina’s donation to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund was one of many signs of something dramatic, something different on an overcast afternoon.

Two orange ribbons with a maroon “VT” decorated the playing field. A flyover of two Air Force jets followed the national anthem and a moment of silence. The teams simultaneously ran into the stadium, a departure from the Hokies’ usual solo entrance to a heavy-metal soundtrack. Hokie fans had been asked by Tech’s administration not to boo the Pirates.

Four-and-a-half months after 32 people were killed on campus in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, Virginia Tech’s community gathered to weep and comfort but, yes, to celebrate its familial bond.

Normally, the opening of football season is one of the most-anticipated events at Virginia Tech. Normalcy, though, really wasn’t in Saturday’s equation, even as the ninth-ranked Hokies defeated East Carolina 17-7.

It was a step, however. Welcome and eagerly awaited.

“I think that’s going to be a continuous process,” head coach Frank Beamer said. “I think as long as you’re Virginia Tech, I think you’re probably going to remember April 16 every day. I think that’s just part of it, and let’s continue to move on.”

Walk humbly, son

And store your pride

When you need strength later on

For your life’s work will be judged if earth

Is saddened when you have gone …

“We heard that song playing when we walked into the tunnel,” Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon said. “I don’t know what it was. But the whole stadium seemed to be silent. That was definitely a weird feeling.”

That kept with the day’s somber tone, the surreal sense that Virginia Tech student Milford John-Williams tried to explain as he lingered near ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” telecast, which originated across from the stadium.

“This is just a mixing bowl of emotions,” said John-Williams, a senior economics major from Woodbridge . “I don’t know that words can really describe it.”

Mingling nearby, Tech graduate Terry Saylor worried how that emotion would affect her team. It will be much this way all season; media will continue to spotlight the Hokies’ ability to rally their “Nation.”

Tributes and spirit-fund checks will continue to flow from opposing schools, even as the Hokies pursue the national-championship chance many experts believe is within their reach.

“I think the players could be feeling an emotional pressure to have a successful season,” said Saylor, Class of ’77, who added that she and her husband, Greg, were “compelled” to attend the game from Atlanta.

“I don’t think you can ever put it behind you completely,” Greg Saylor said. “I’d just as soon it be played down, though. You’ve got football players trying to do their best. You can’t wallow in it continually. But for the moment, this is our reality.”

And perhaps focus was hard to find amid the buildup. The Hokies’ performance was disjointed; they struggled to run the ball, gaining only 33 rushing yards against a team they were favored to beat by four touchdowns.

They scored just one offensive touchdown – 10 points came on a field goal and an interception return. Tech fumbled the ball away twice, and Glennon threw an interception on the Hokies’ first play of the game.

“It’s quite obvious we better be better next week,” said Beamer, whose team plays at second-ranked Louisiana State next Saturday night.

Walk humbly, son

Walk humbly, now

And forget not where you are from

Will you walk humbly, son?

When it was over, Beamer said Tech’s seniors will place the game ball at the memorial at the on-campus Drillfield, where 32 stones honor those killed in the massacre.

Running back Branden Ore said the Hokies know they’ll play for “the 32” all season. And Glennon hoped the Hokies were “mentally tough enough” to deal with the responsibility they have shouldered.

“Once the whistle’s blown, we have to put that out of our heads and go out and play football and do our assignments,” Glennon said. “Obviously we didn’t do that today, because we came out flat, especially on offense.”

Still, a football season is always a hard and challenging walk. But along their new, uncharted road, these Hokies will walk accompanied like never before.



(Note: That ’07 season, Tech went 11-3 overall, 7-1 in the ACC and won the Coastal Division as well as the ACC championship game.)

Just do it, kid

My default recollection has always been that the notion to become a sports writer came to me late. Relatively. I’d dabbled in it loosely in high school, and for a few bucks for the first time as a college senior —  a bored business major with a native ability to string words together, I’d noticed, better than a lot of my peers in English class.

Once I failed my life-long quest, to that point, to become a major-league ballplayer — getting into the race in the minors but barely off the starting line really — sports writing became a viable option that wound up being more than viable. But it seemed accidental. I would do it a while, have some fun, then get on with coaching college baseball, my real calling.

But when I found out earlier today that Stan Hochman, an all-time great, wise, savvy, prolific and ballsy Philadelphia sports columnist, had died at 86, it hit me that my recollection was faulty. I realized this because, out of the brain dust and cobwebs matted atop each other, I remembered my one and only brush with Stan Hochman.

I’m not here to say he was my hero or mentor. But looking back, he damn well might have been my inspiration. It only took me 45 years to figure that out.

As a kid, 9 or 10 maybe, I was at the Spectrum in Philly with my dad. We were at a 76ers game, although it actually might have been the NBA all-star game. I know I attended the latter around that time in the late ’60s, because I still have the game program in a box in the attic — um, unless I sold it a couple years ago. I think I might have sold it. I’m pretty sure it had Bob Lanier’s autograph on it and I thought, hell, that’s got to be worth a few bucks online. Yeah, I hate to think I sold it . . .

Anyway, why I bring this up: I was just a little kid but I full-well knew who Stan Hochman was. THE awesome columnist for the Philly Daily News, a raucous, tabloid, afternoon daily at the time that ran long stories and devoted pages and pages to sports coverage, many more pages than the Inquirer.

So I am at the game. I am walking by the court during warmups to sneak peeks at the players, perhaps the all-stars. I recognize Stan Hochman from the picture on his column. He is sitting at his seat on press row. I have never spoken to a sports writer in my life. I have no reason to speak to a sports writer. And I have no idea why something moved me, a shy kid with nothing to really say to anybody, to speak to Stan Hochman, of all people, at that moment. (And what would I say anyway?) But I did speak to him. I stopped at his seat. I don’t recall interrupting him, I think he was just sitting there. And my memory tells me I said something along the lines of “Excuse me, Mr. Hochman?” My memory tells me he turned and looked at me. He did not ignore me or tell me to get lost. “Yes, son?”

I told him I really liked his writing. What the hell? What? But he was gracious. He said thank you. And again, for some reason I didn’t quit while I was ahead but I continued: “May I ask you, how did you become a sports writer? How DO you become a sports writer?”

Foreshadowing? Where did THAT come from? I’d always thought I was big-leagues-or-bust. No Plan B. Having a Plan B meant you werent’t all in on Plan A. Who knew I was actually working on B as a pre-teen? Stan Hochman remained pleasant. Patient. I haven’t Googled this, so my memory could be exposed as very wrong and this was all a dream, in which case this would all be embarrassing. But Stan Hochman answered my question. My questions. My recollection is — again, I haven’t awoken Mr. Google — he said he had been in the Navy, and no, he had not gone to college to become a sports writer (I had asked him if he’d gone to college to become a sports writer). Somehow, it had just happened, he said. He started writing and soon enough he had become Stan Hochman, the sports writer (soon to be the Philly sports writing legend). And he said kid, you could do it, too. If you want to do it, why not? You could do it, too.

I thanked him and moved along, wary even then of over-staying my welcome and being a pain in the ass. But I had shared Stan Hochman’s space for maybe 60 seconds. He had encouraged me, some dumb kid bugging him before a game. I went on and continued to read his blunt, witty, bare-knuckle column in a bare-knuckle pro sports town for years and years.

And in the end, I did not go to school to become a sports writer. I just started writing, and soon enough I was a sports writer. Damn if Stan Hochman hadn’t said it could be so. Damn if he wasn’t right.


New day



Full hearts, unlocked, allowed to flower and burst.

And these words for Easter, and every day, from “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker:

“Have you ever found God in church? I never did.

I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show.

Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too.

They come to church to share God, not find God.”