An Excerpt from No Ordinary Game


"I was raised on the shores of Lake Michigan as a Cubs fan. Of my formative boyhood lessons, I learned decency, inquiry, and responsibility from my parents, and the celebration of life from Harry Caray. I knew every player, every year: Rick Monday, Keith Moreland, Ron Cey, Leon Durham, Ryne Sandberg, Dave Kingman, Bruce Sutter, Rick Ruschel, Rick Sutcliffe, Lee Smith. Every summer, my father would load our eager family into the car and drive us from the southwest corner of Michigan to the north side of Chicago. We would walk past the sidewalk vendors, sometimes stopping to purchase a new cap or a team photo, sometimes pausing just long enough to smell the hot dogs. Through the gates and down the concourse, we would catch ephemeral glimpses of the emerald green world that lay within the friendly confines, and finally, we would ascend the girdered ramps and stairways into the grandstand. In the span of one second my field of view would dissolve from the disarray of people and metal and concrete and more people to the expansive symmetry of a baseball diamond, its oddly alluring flatness, and the unwavering perfection of its colors: dust-brown earth, gleaming white lines and bases, and green so lustrous as to make all other colors beholden to it.

Back then, you could bring your own food into the ball park, and we would fill an entire plastic garbage bag with day-old buttered popcorn, quite possibly the most exquisite cuisine of the Western world, if you like baseball. We always had good seats at Wrigley Field, usually just beyond first or third base in the grandstands. All of the games were day games back then. My childhood coincided with the great revolt in the north side during which most residents within ten blocks of the ballpark posted signs in their windows that barked “No Lights in Wrigley!” It was a good time to be a young boy, despite the fact that my heroes were better known as the doormats of the National League.

When the time came for me to bid farewell to my family and set off to college, I traveled east to Boston, where I have lived most of my life since. To spend time in Boston without developing feelings for the Red Sox is to spend a day on the beach without getting wet, tanned, or burnt. Not everybody enjoys baseball, but only those with stunted humanity can live here without developing affinity, passion, empathy, or perhaps just allegorical kinship to the Red Sox.Before2004, they represented the struggle for the unattainable with the hope that it might be attained. It is perhaps a condemnation to spend a life as both a Cubs and Red Sox fan. Surely, the fundamental rights endowed by my Creator have been violated, or are at least not as self-evident as they might have been.

As a boy in Michigan, I had befriended a younger neighborhood boy who had moved from Boston and had brought his Red Sox passion with him. How, I wondered, could any team but the Cubs evoke so much angst and exhilaration in the same inning? I would not understand until I saw my first game at Fenway Park. It was to be the first of many; games in the outfield bleachers, games against the Yankees, a game in the snow with rooftop seats, games with my children, a game with my father—his first game at Fenway—my thank you for the Cubs games.

The dreams of a boy change very little as they age. There was even a summer in which a college friend worked as a nighttime security guard at Fenway and would sneak us into the ballpark at night to let us run around the bases and hit fly balls into the dark and listen to hear if they banged off the hallowed Green Monster. He was caught a few months later and promptly fired, but we will forever have that immortal notch in our imaginary dugout wall. I have to admit that while my heart still pounds with zeal, dread, and lust for redemption whenever the Cubs trot out onto the field, my boyhood passion for them has diminished just slightly with the distance, and I have grown particularly fond of the roustabouts who ply their trade in the shadows of Fenway Park. My father accuses me of heresy for dividing my allegiances, but his ground is shaky— he and my mother have since moved to New York, and he has become one of the Bronx faithful.

Needless to say, I have lived most of my life unaccustomed to favorable highlight reels, pennants flapping in the breeze, or, of course, championships. Allocating my most fervent allegiances to the Cubs and Red Sox was like investing my life savings in the Titanic and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, with the exception that the sinking and the shaking repeat themselves year after year after year. Granted, the Red Sox have provided some measure of redemption since 2004, but I decided to write this book in the hope that I could find highlights, championships, and impossible comebacks in more common venues, perhaps right in front of me all along. I was surprised at what I remembered and what I discovered.

My children have helped with this a bit, to their everlasting credit. At age seven, my daughter was the only girl in her grade playing Little League baseball with the boys, and she struck out the biggest, strongest kid in the league on the afternoon of her pitching debut. Her subtle fist pump and twinkle in her eye as she looked over at me in the dugout erased many of my own frailties. And my son, later that year at age eleven, arced a game-winning goal into the upper right corner of the soccer net as time expired, from fifty feet away. The jubilance of his bouncing teammates transformed the shoddy field atop an old landfill into a megalithic Olympic stadium.

As they showed, a grand stage is not a requisite setting for a great moment. Indeed, victory itself is only an occasional ingredient. I believe that just about anybody could have written the accounts that follow. They are of everyday events that shine with just a little more than the usual luster. They happen to everybody all the time, but to each of us only a handful of times, if we’re lucky. This collection of stories didn’t arise from the hard-court or the diamond or the gridiron, but rather from the sandlots, asphalt, and chain-link fences that host America’s pickup games and recreational leagues. The events in this book are not great by the usual standards of sports literature, but they are great to me simply because they happened . . . to me, or in front of me, and in the process of happening and being remembered, theirs became a stage as grand as any.

Every year there are probably hundreds of thousands of games sponsored by recreational leagues, intramural leagues, or just by the players who happen upon each other at an opportune time. These games are not recorded, their statistics are not counted, and many are not even officiated. They come and go with the daylight and disperse with the players. But they matter, and once in a while, an everyday game transcends itself and becomes embossed in the sublime sporting history shared only by its players. Over my lifetime of forty-five years, I have played and coached thousands of unofficial games: variations of baseball, basketball, football, soccer, and hockey. The number of indelible moments is in the single digits.

Yet these moments were truly formative, and whatever character I may claim to present to the world around me was influenced in some way by these events and by these people. The chapters that follow are the record of uncommon moments in my life as a decidedly amateur athlete and coach. They may be very familiar."


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