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  • We're supposed to write about "How We Make Sense of Our Lives" here. This is about how I first made sense of life, and how it still impacts me to day.

    Growing up in a large family, that had a lot going on below the surface (as many large families do), I was the "mascot". I was the 6th child and 5th son born in barely 8 years. You can imagine the chaos that place was. Everyone wanted to be my "buddy", I always saw it as my job to make everyone laugh, and I did my job well. There was always a high level of tension in our house, which I couldn't stand. My chosen role, or maybe it chose me, was to cut through that tension, as much and as often as possible. My tool was humor. Make 'em laugh. My favorite tool was practical jokes. I pulled off some doozies.

    But, I was really a lost kid in that large family. I didn't have a niche in all of that chaoes, a thing I felt like I could call my own. When they talk about "the tears of a clown", that deep inside the clown cries, I know that story. I've seen that movie. That was me. When I was by myself, which started to happen more often as the older siblings started to go off to college and went away to work for the summers, I was totally lost. With no one to entertain, no practical jokes to pull, no one around to make laugh, I didn't know what to do with myself.

    And then, I discovered baseball. I'd been around it, some. Played a little neighborhood ball, went to a few games at old Forbes Field with my brother Chris, who showed me some cool things about that place. Hidden passages beneath the stands that led to the players' clubhouse. Drainpipes you could shimmy up to sneak from the cheap seats to the expensive box seats. All the things a big brother should teach a little brother about a place.

    But, the year I was 9, it all began to make sense to me. The magic of baseball clicked in my brain, and embraced my spirit. I was just learning the "new math" in school, and my friends down the street, Pete and Jake Kreibel, had game called "Strat-o-matic Baseball", that came with cards showing all of the players' statistics, and they taught me how the statistics worked. How to figure out a batting average, an earned run average, fiedling percentages, winning percentages. My God, there was a whole world in baseball that you could get lost in. I loved that world. I dove right into it. Baseball became my obsession.

    I learned how to negotiate the streetcars (trolley) from the South Hills part of town, where we lived, out to Oakland, where the Pittsburgh Pirates played in Forbes Field, on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, there. I had a paper route and a job in a bakery, so I had dough to spend, and I spent it all on baseball. I went to a ton of games that summer, mostly on my own, riding that trolley into downtown Pittsburgh, transferring to another trolley there to take me out to Oakland.

    That place, Forbes Field, was like heaven to me. Just out past the Left Field Bleachers you could see, standing tall in the distance, a building of the University of Pittsburgh called the "Cathedral of Learning". For me, Forbes Field was my own, personal cathedral of learning. As far as I was concerned, everything I needed to know about life was right there. That was right about when I discovered the greatest man I have known in my life, Roberto Clemente. Up until then, I was big into Superman, but after watching this super Puerto Rican ballplayer, who carried himself with such poise and pride, and who played the game like a mad demon bent on destruction of the other team, Superman had to take a back seat. I was in utter awe of this player. Everything about him just amazed me.
  • In 1972, my family moved away from Pittsburgh, but I still faithfully followed my Pirates throughout that year, from a distance, and noted when Clemente got his 3000th hit, a double, on the last day of the season. He was only the 11th player to ever accomplish that feat. That's a big number in baseball. That's one number that ensures immortality. He was a lock for baseball's Hall of Fame. He already was, but that sealed the deal.

    And, then it happened. One of the saddest days of my life. New Year's Day, 1973, I heard about it on the radio. Roberto was dead! I just couldn't believe it! His plane had crashed into the sea, off the coast of Puerto Rico near San Juan, shortly after taking off, loaded down with supplies for the earthquake victims in Nicaragua. I cried my eyes out when I heard it. I was just turned 18, and it was not cool to cry, but I did not care.

    I lost interest in baseball through most of the 70's - I still followed it from a distance, but it was no longer an obsession with me - I was into drinking, drugs and girls, now. Baseball took a back seat. There was no magic out there - no Clemente to fire the imagination. I finally went back to a game, after I got out of the Navy and was getting back on my feet after a long depression, in Philadelphia. A lot had changed in the years that I was away from it. The Phillies had this mascot down on the field, pulling pranks and practical jokes on the opposing team's players, and entertaining the kids and making the adults laugh their asses off. It was the Philly Phanatic. at first, the baseball purist in me did not approve, but that Phanatic was, and still is, one of the best mascots in the business, and he quickly won me over. Later, when I started taking my son to games, he got such a charge out of the phanatics antics, you couldn't not love that mascot.
  • When we moved to the DC area, there wasn't a team in DC. You had to go up to Baltimore to watch the Orioles if you wanted to go to a baseball game. The owner of that team was one of the worst in the sport, and I eventually stopped going to games there, as a matter of principle. Then, DC finally got a team, the Washington Nationals, a franchise that had previously been in Montreal as the Expos. I began going to games religiously, as my obsession for baseball got reignited. I think I went to about 41 games that first year. That was also the year I started playing softball again, after nearly 25 years away from playing organized ball, myself.

    The second season the Nationals were in town, they began to have "The Racing Presidents" come on the field and run a race from the right field wall to home plate in the 4th inning of every game. It was the Mount Rushmore crew, George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt, these 12 foot tall presidential mascots with the huge presidential heads, one of the funniest things you'll ever see. That winter, they held tryouts to be a racing president the following season.

    Yes, you guessed it - I was there. I ran as George. There were 45 contestants vying for 12 spots. They were hiring 12 people to rotate as the racing presidents. Our trial heats were running from the right field foul line to left field, and back. It was a good distance to run in a 12 foot costume, with a 50 pound head to balance above your shoulders. Most of the contestants were in their early 20's and 30's. I was 52. I was the only one over 40. I won both of my races. Left Abe, Teddy and Tom in my presidential dust. But, shockingly, I was not selected to be a racing president. I blamed it on ageism. I held a press conference (not really, but I did get interviewed by Comcast about the tryouts - "How did you prepare for this?" "Every morning, for the last 3 weeks, I thought about going to the fitness center. I drank another cup of coffee, instead").

    Like Al Gore, I won my race, but lost the job. I tried it again the next year, where I again ran as George, and again won both of my races. I still did not get picked. I was still the only old fart out there. Oh well, you can't say I didn't give it the good effort.

    This year, they're adding a 5th president to the crew, William Howard Taft. He was the first president to throw out the first pitch at a game. I won't be able to try out. I'll be at a retreat in Connecticut that weekend (tryouts are held on Presidents' Day, of course!) Besides, if they wouldn't hire me at ages 52 and 53, I don't see them hiring me at age 58. But, despite all that, if I was in town that day, I'd be out there on the track. I coulda been a contender!
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