Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: COVENANT WITH HELL

I got Priscilla Royal's Covenant With Hell out of the library because it looked interesting. I found out rather quickly that it is the latest installment in a series of murder mysteries set in medieval England, with the detectives being a monk and prioress that investigate and solve fishy deaths. This book moved right along, and no real knowledge of either prior books in the series or of the historical epoch proved necessary. If there was a quibble with the story, it is the list of suspects was very small, and the real culprit was relatively obvious long before the end of the book. But this was still an entertaining way to spend a few hours.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Windsor Tournament 2014--Final Day

In the end, it was easier than we all though it would be. We did not know which team in the bracket we would be playing until we got to the field, but it was a given--or so we thought--that we would be facing Chenango Forks in the final later that day. Instead, we ended up facing both of the teams we had already beaten in the tournament again yesterday, as Forks lost to Union-Endicott in the morning game while we were handily defeating Johnson City for the second time in 14 hours. And by time six o'clock rolled around, we were home with another championship trophy, the third on Sabrina's shelf from this tournament over her career.
The games themselves were pretty uneventful. Johnson City scratched a run off Tia in the first inning, and she didn't give up another one the entire day, in either game. JC had a different pitcher than they had used the previous day, and it took one trip around the lineup before the Beast girls figured her out; we got a big inning in the third to go ahead, and the mercy rule ended up being applied in the fifth. Sabrina got a couple of hits and threw out a would-be base-stealer, and the team didn't make an error in the field. And when U-E players started drifting into the stands as the fifth inning commenced, there were some arched eyebrows and gasps on the bench as the news spread about their victory; everyone that was on last year's team that lost in the championship game realized that this year, there wasn't going to be any falling short.
Tia had thrown a one-hitter against U-E on Saturday; U-E had made a pile of errors to make that game easy, but it seemed likely that a few runs would win the game. Tia started off a little wild, but the second batter lined to second and the lead runner was doubled off, which meant the second walk didn't harm us any. And then as the game progressed, Sabrina threw out two more would-be thieves--making a total of six in the five games she caught in the tournament, and our offense teed off early and often. The only suspense was whether Tia would complete the no-hitter this time, and she did, as the game ended again after five with the mercy rule in effect. This game and this entire tournament felt like unfinished business from last year for those that were on the team a year ago, and it was nice to see the veterans smiling and joking in the trophy presentation line and in the inevitable posing for pictures.
I spent a lot of the weekend talking coaching philosophy with the head coach, whose team won the City League earlier in the week. He is an unabashed proponent of the running game, and as the weekend progressed along, it became very clear that one of the biggest advantages we had over the other teams in our bracket was behind the plate. Sabrina threw out six of the ten players that tried to steal over the three days, meaning she saved a full two innings of outs; when you combine her two foul tips caught for strike three and the nice play on a foul pop, we got half a game's worth of outs that no other team got. And as our discussions continued over the course of the weekend, I realized that I had been doing the same thing with Sabrina that I used to resist with her coach when she was in the younger league--he had used her to shore up the infield and put a not-quite-as-good player behind the plate, and I had disagreed with him, pointing out that she had picked up four innings' worth of outs back there over the course of the season. And I think I am going to do things differently next year; with the two high school seniors aging out, Sabrina will be the best catcher in the league next year. She will play there; we can find a third baseman somewhere. The third baseman on the all-star team was the third baseman on the City League champion, and she's not a slick fielder--but she sure can hit, hits a lot better than her defense could possibly cost.
We have another tournament this coming weekend, this one the East Side Tournament that this team also finished as a runner-up in a year ago. This year, winning it seems a distinct possibility. Tia is a lot better on the mound than she was a year ago, and the rest of the team really doesn't have a weakness, especially since a kid that was not in town this weekend for this tournament will be available this coming week. I think this team is well-put together; there don't seem to be any problems brewing over playing time or who's playing where, and by the end of this tournament, roles on the team seemed to be well-defined and consistent...and I have to say that it is a pleasure to be around coaches that know what they are doing, after seeing the fiasco that the BAGSAI league has been this summer. Yes, the object is to have fun--but no one has fun being asked to do things they can't do, and everyone has more fun when you have a chance to win the games you play. I'm not really a coach on this team, but I am in the dugout every game, and keeping score allows a perspective that I don't necessarily get in the stands or even as a coach. I'm enjoying this experience immensely, and learning just as much as Sabrina is.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Windsor Tournament, 2014--Day Two

After the loss Friday night, one of the coaches said to me before the first game started that he thought we were going to have win at least two games in order to advance to the knockout round on Sunday. He need not have worried. On a day that turned out to be a test of stamina more than anything else, the Beast won all three games it played and earned the right to be back at the field in Windsor this morning at 8 AM.
A few notes about the games and the tournaments. The main pitcher on this squad is Tia, who is a couple of years older than Sabrina and was her JV teammate in 2013. I've been watching her play, and pitch, for four years now, between school teams and City League, and yesterday's first game against the U-E team was the best game I've ever seen her pitch. She retired the first 13 hitters she faced, finished with a one-hitter, and dominated U-E in a rather easy 6-0 win. Tia also pitched the last game of the day, four hours later, and although that game was a bit more of a struggle, we hung on to defeat Johnson City 10-7. She pitched Friday's game as well--and two City League playoff games this past week, too. I always marvel at the resilience of softball pitchers, who think nothing of racking up five starts in a five-day span (and another two to come today, I'm sure). Granted, softball pitchers do not have the variety of pitches that baseball pitchers do, and don't generally throw as hard (the difference in high school kids isn't as great as it is among adults; the main varsity pitcher on Binghamton--who just finished the 8th grade, by the way--approaches 75 MPH now, and will no doubt max out around 80 in a few years, and most baseball pitchers this level don't exceed 80 with any regularity), but that's still pretty impressive, especially on a humid, sticky day. And she was only marginally less effective in the second game; the difference in results was largely due to one factor, which I will get to in a moment.
The second game was against a Windsor team that is playing out of the their age bracket. This is a tournament for ages 16-and-under, and Windsor's team is a 14U outfit. They weren't all that competitive; through the first four innings, it was 8-0 and they were hitless against our third-best pitcher (who did walk six). We switched pitchers and they managed five quick runs, and then the pitcher from my City League team was brought in and put out the fire once she got properly warm, and we pulled away again to win 14-6. I can understand why teams would enter a tourney knowing they are likely to lose most of their games; the best way to improve is to play high-quality opposition, and this Windsor team must be a handful against their peers. And unlike some of the other teams we've run into over the years, their coaches seemed to be good guys. Of the three games, that one was the most enjoyable, in my humble opinion.
And there were a couple of other reason why that was so. Windsor has only two fields. The upper one is near the parking lot and the concession stand; more importantly, it's not carved out of a heavily wooded area. The lower field is much closer to the woods, and as a result the first base dugout invariably becomes a war of attrition between our six and eight-legged friends from the animal kingdom. There was so much DEET in the air in the last game yesterday that it was making my eyes water at times. I'm not sure where we're playing today, but I could certainly live with not going down to the lower field again.
The middle game was also the only game that featured quality umpiring. Well, I should amend that--the umpire in the first game was fine, on balls and strikes, but blew a couple of calls on plays in the field (Sabrina was a step across the bag on one of her hits when he called her out, to take one example, and he missed a couple for both teams on steal attempts). But the quality of the guys in blue this year has been noticeably, even strikingly, awful. I coached an entire season in City League this year as a head coach without once chirping at an umpire. I've been here for two days, and there were serious issues with the way three of the four games were officiated. The guy Friday at least at the honesty to admit, after it was over, that it was not his best effort. And the guy who did the last game yesterday was possibly the worst umpire I've ever seen--even worse than the guy we had in the championship game here in 2011, whom I didn't think could ever be topped. The guy yesterday had a small and inconsistent strike zone, blew two calls on tag plays at the plate that were a foot in front of him, invented rules on spur of the moment--and on top of his incompetence, was a complete asshole besides. I ended up coaching on the field during the last four innings because Bill had to leave to attend his daughter's graduation party, and the first inning I was out there, a kid hit a foul ball and the ball was retrieved to me. The catcher held out her glove, so I threw it to her--and the umpire said I shouldn't have. Since the umpire was right behind the catcher, I didn't think it was a great stretch for me to believe he had asked her to ask for it, and said so, nicely. He not-so-nicely got testy, and added a gratuitous remark to the effect that "women never listen to me"; when I gave a sickly little grin because there is no response to an oafish remark like that, he said that I "must know what [he was] saying, because you're smiling." Later in the game, the umpire completely lost what semblance of a strike zone he had, and I passed a remark while standing in the dugout, in response to a question from one of the players on the bench, that his strike zone was apparently about the size of his hand. As I was walking out to the third base box at the beginning of the next inning, he approached me and told me he had heard me, and I said "you were meant to"--and the thin-skinned prick got all huffy and threatened to throw me out of the game. It took all I could do to not tear into him; we had two innings left to play and it was already a struggle, plus a fill-in assistant coach didn't need to be risking a forfeit for the team (because I was not going to go if he did try to eject me). I know that most umpires do the best they can, and I understand that they miss calls on occasion. But there are, unfortunately, too many guys like this clown, who pander to their defective personalities by getting a job that allows them to act like a petty tyrant without consequence. I have a lot better idea of why this guy passed the remark he did about women now. In my job, I deal with a good number of parents whose relationships with their kids are based on the exercise of power rather than setting examples; the only pleasure out of parenting they get is the ability to impose their will on other human beings without consequence. There are a few umpires that I am convinced do what they do for the same motivations--that they can exercise power and control over others without fear of consequence. I thought about confronting this walking anus after the game, but he skedaddled away from the field quickly. I had another opportunity when we were going home; he was changing out of his equipment at his car and I could have swung around and passed a remark or four. But I didn't want to do so in front of my daughter, especially since there is a possibility that this guy might be assigned to a game of ours today, too.
Anyway, I could write more about the day but I have to get Sabrina up because we have to leave her fairly soon to be at the field in time. Last year, we rolled through the tournament until the final and got beaten by a team inferior to us. This year, that same team beat us on Friday, too, and this year's edition is less cocky and more focused. We have a good chance to come away with a first-place trophy this afternoon; the difference between this year and last is that this year's team isn't expecting to win just by walking out on the field. We will see what happens.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Windsor Tournament 2014---Day One

Yes, for the fifth year in a row. Sabrina is on a team entered in the July Windsor softball tournament. And yes, the concession stand at Klumpp Park is open, and continues to serve the area's best cheeseburger/fries combos. Before describing the action, a plug is due to the people that pull this off year after year. I don't know the guy's name, but the person who runs this show and the tournament for the 12U teams next weekend does a fantastic job; with just two fields available at this facility, they somehow manage to have seven and eight team tournaments  every year go off without a hitch. He's also a very friendly man, and is everywhere at once, it seems. It's been a great experience every time we have come here, and this year won't be an exception.
On to the game. Sabrina and one of her teammates were added to the Binghamton East--Beast, for short--team, and apparently will be doing the bulk of the catching this week and in the East Side tournament next week. These tournaments are for 16U (aged sixteen and under) teams, and the other catchers in Binghamton that are better than she is are 17 and 18, respectively (and just graduated high school). The backup catcher is the daughter of a friend of mine, and she isn't bad, but she's also two years younger than Sabrina and not anywhere near her level yet, so I think playing time is not going to be a question. The team itself has a number of talented players, but yesterday was the first time they had played together, either for games or even practices, and it showed. Beast lost to the team that beat them in this tournament last year 7-5, almost entirely due to the seven errors that the team made in the field. Sabrina didn't have a great game at the plate, but in fairness to her, the called strike three in the first inning was a truly egregious call; it was ankle high and off the plate besides. She grounded out (but got an RBI) and was hit by a pitch in her other trips to the plate. Behind it, she had a great game, throwing out a would-be base stealer and allowing exactly zero pitches to get to the backstop. Our pitcher, Tia, just finished her junior year, and was a pitcher on Sabrina's first JV team; she's a lot less wild than she was a year ago, and really was quite impressive, especially considering she pitched her City League team to the championship the previous evening. Of the seven runs she gave up, only one was earned.
I was surprised to be asked to keep score, but I gladly did so. It keeps me mentally in the game; I know that the coaches will have useful information to look at when and if they consult the scorebook; and quite honestly I like being in the dugout. The two coaches for the team are the guys that coached the City League championship team, and I like both of them--they are calm, willing to play by the rules and don't resort to the type of bullshit that some other coaches do, and are good with the kids, too, especially about explaining why they want them to do what they are being asked. And I'm learning; I'm not a fan of the running game, but Bill is, and took the trouble to explain why both to the team and to me, and I have to say he's causing me to reconsider some of my ideas. These guys know what they're doing; their City League team has been good for several years, and it's not an accident.
We have three games today, the first at noon, which thankfully means we don't have to leave here until 10:30. I have to pay for Sabrina and her teammate's uniform today, and that should be the last softball-related expense of the year. It's been an expensive education this past year about what the world of high-level softball entails. As Sabrina ages, I'm not sure where she's going to go with all this, but I do know she can play this level, at least, for two more years. I saw a couple of other players, from her school team and from other schools that Sabrina knows from previous years, at the park yesterday in different uniforms, so there are other options, too. But first things first; hopefully we will win a couple of games today and ensure that we are playing in the seeded part of the tournament Sunday. And also, I hope that I don't gain ten pounds eating at this concession stand for two more days.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: THE WAR THAT ENDED PEACE

For many years, the publishing industry didn't seem to be interested in World War I. In places like Barnes and Noble, the section on this war, compared to its successors and the American Civil War, was puny, and in the library it was hard to find any volumes that had not been published years ago. But with the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of hostilities fast approaching--less than two weeks, as a matter of fact; Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914--there have been more books out this year about the war and the events leading up to it than there were in the previous twenty years, it seems. The War That Ended Peace, by British historian Margaret McMillan, is the best I've read of the current crop, and indeed compares favorably to such classics as The Guns of August and Martin Gilbert's multi-volume series on the war, even at nearly 600 pages. All the eventual belligerents, including some of the minor players such as the Balkan countries and Italy, are covered in at least some detail, and the inner workings of the five major nations and the lead-up to the outbreak of war are examined with clarity.
Sometimes the war is presented as a sort of accident, that no one but Austria really wanted to fight. McMillan shows that wasn't the case, and indeed presents a pretty convincing argument that the war could have happened several times before it actually did--Europe went to the brink of general war in 1905, 1908, and during the three prior years to 1914, but drew back because, essentially, one or more of the major combatants to be wasn't ready to go. In 1914, the military establishments in each country both tired of brinksmanship and took over decision-making as the crisis unfolded, and the result was a hard inflexibility that inhibited the civilian ministers that were working for peace. It's a cautionary tale of what can happen when there is insufficient governmental control over the military, and points out yet again how fortunate the United States has been over its history to have unchallenged civilian control over the military establishment (even if it is largely a historical accident; there wasn't a man at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that did not believe that George Washington was going to be the first President, which is almost entirely why the President was given constitutional authority over the military forces of the country). Even more than bending the monarchs and prime ministers to their will, the military planners in all five major countries that went to war did not share information with their ministries, to the point where few if any government officials knew what their country's total obligations were to their allies. The only significant instance of civilians exercising some modicum of control was the French government successfully keeping its army from being anywhere near Belgium and ten kilometers away from the German border during the week prior to the outbreak of hostilities--and that was largely because the hawk French President was at sea returning to France from Russia.
The most interesting aspect to McMillan's writing was the liberal sprinkling of parallels drawn to modern instances where actions taken or not taken prior to the outbreak of World War I were repeated--the run-up to the Iraq war by the Bushies comes up several times, as does decisions made by Japan circa 1941 and by both sides in the Cold War. Those who do not learn from history do tend to repeat it, or at least construct rhyming narratives.
Not everyone shares my passion for World War I. But this book is highly accessible even to readers that are not normally into history, and the people portrayed in it seem as alive--more so, actually--than the figures we see on our news today. This book took me a long time to get through, but it was worth the effort.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Truly Powerless

About a month ago, there was a notice in the paper about a 15YO girl in a neighboring town that had died as a result of a freak accident. She was riding a dirtbike, wearing some sort of scarf or head covering, and somehow it got caught in the chain and choked her. My daughter found out about it on social media and was pretty bummed about it (it seems to me that adolescents, more than smaller children and more than adults, keenly feel empathetic around deaths in their own age group) even though she did not know the kids personally. I noticed the name but really didn't register it. This week, I stopped by my friend Kenny's repair shop to have a minor issue with my car looked at, and when I went in the garage, his long-time mechanic, someone I've known and been friendly with for nearly two decades, was sitting on a chair smoking a cigarette. He didn't seem quite right--just kind of a weird, faraway look in his eyes--as he told where Kenny was, and when I went into the office, I noticed that there were posters for a benefit dinner for the dead girl's family plastered all over the garage. I said something to Kenny about it, and he told me that the girl was the mechanic's daughter.
And suddenly I remembered. I hadn't seen her in a couple of years, but at least twice in the past, the kid had been at the garage when I was getting work done on my car, and I remembered him talking about her and using her name a few other times. I had never known his last name--there was no need for me to know--so I had not made the connection. And I was just filled with this nearly indescribable sadness, and also this all-too-real sense of helplessness and powerlessness. There is nothing that you can do or say that will help someone going through this particular pain.
Because this is my ultimate nightmare. I've said a hundred times if I've said once that I cannot imagine a circumstance where I would smoke cocaine again--but if it ever were to happen, that's the circumstance it would take. For the length of their lives, just the thought of any of my three daughters dying before I do will bring tears to my eyes and that awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. I said a few words to the man and eventually found myself talking to Kenny again, and I mentioned that I had no idea of how the guy was even able to find the ability to get out of bed in the morning. And he told me that he didn't, either, and that the guy was lost. I'm sure that he is, because I know I would be.I am feeling all weird and strange even just writing these words, and just got up to check to make sure Sabrina is still breathing as she sleeps. And suddenly, I am very sorry that Sabrina will be at a softball tournament in Windsor all day Saturday; I would have liked to have been able to go to this benefit dinner now.
And although I've been able to maintain my own routine, I have to say that I've not really been able to push Tim and his pain completely out of my mind in the last two days. And that feeling was reinforced by twice yesterday talking to a member of our fellowship that lost a son to cancer a few years ago, and seeing a post from another woman in the fellowship that lost a son in a car accident several years ago. I have been through some really painful experiences in my life, but I have not been through the pain that some others have had to go through--and even saying that I am grateful that I have not seems somewhat disrespectful to those that have. My heart goes out to Tim and the others that I know that have felt the ultimate pain, and my admiration as well for finding the strength to go on, to able to come to some sort of armistice with such overwhelming feelings of sadness and grief and be even remotely functional. Even more than admiration--I stand in awe. Because I am not sure if I could get through a similar situation.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

First Season Down

There was to be no championship for our City League team this year. We lost our first playoff game yesterday evening by a 7-5 count. As far as the game itself was concerned, there was nothing to complain about or feel "if only" regarding. We played very well. But the other team played well, too. I think that is something that I see coaches and parents and players don't take into account enough--the other team has good players on it and they are all trying, too. Yesterday, the other team's pitcher had a really good game, they didn't make any mistakes in the field, and they scored two more runs than we did. It happens. Most of our kids progressed in leaps and bounds as the season progressed, and we are losing only one kid off the team. We will be heard from in the next two years, too.
And the journey of personal growth continues for the coach, as well. I am competitive, at times to a fault, and I have also been very critical in the past of some of the coaches Sabrina has played for. Being the head coach for the first time has given me an appreciation both that it's harder to manage the parents of a team's players than it is the players and my innate decency as a human being.
With the first, I've told the kids on our team right from the beginning what the deal was with playing time. With fourteen players on the roster and only ten positions on the field, and the league rules being what they are, a lot of them are going to be playing only half the game, and I made sure each kid  knew why they were being asked to switch in and out. Every kid wants to play all game, but we had at least 13 kids show up most of the time, and managing playing time became a challenge. That being said--the kids dealt reasonably well with it, and truthfully so did most of the parents. But it was very disturbing to me to get a text message from a parent a couple of hours before the game yesterday asking me if I would let her kid play the entire game. I'm not going to critique the player here, but there was a reason that playing patterns were the way they were, and I, as gently as I could, told the parent that I have a team to think of, not just one player, and that I would continue to do what had gotten the team to this point. And then she sent a really long and detailed text message suggesting what I ought to do with our players--which was, basically, weaken three positions and send one of our best players to the bench for half the game... I managed to not respond, and once we were at the field, I tried to put the situation behind and move forward. The kid started the game, and let's just say that she didn't have one of her better games. When the fourth inning rolled around, she was replaced per normal practice--and the kid just about melted down, and I could hear the mother commiserating with the kid behind me as the game was going on. There was a time when I would have confronted one or both, but I've discovered I don't need to do that. I am confident that I am doing the best I can do, and I've realized that I cannot please everyone. And I am not going to cater to individual egos to the detriment of the team. I'm not sure whose ego was more in play here, but for a parent to complain about a kid's playing time the day of our first playoff game is a pretty strong clue. I am glad I didn't go with my first couple of impulses, and that I eventually responded rather than reacted.
The second had to do with the lengths some coaches go to to try to win games. The team we were playing was the team we had to forfeit against. I have since found out that this coach has used 21 different players this season (rosters are supposedly limited to 15). I saw this coach throw a hissy fit at another game that resulted in a 15-minute delay until the umpire changed a call in his favor. Yesterday, the umpire was a little late, and he had his team take batting practice--which you are not supposed to do before a game. Then when the game started, he only had nine players on the field and none on the bench, which I thought was odd. In the second inning, one of our kids noticed that they only had eight on the field, and I was told, when I inquired of the field supervisor, that a replacement was on the way to the field, and that if the replacement got there before the batting order slot, it was all good. I didn't say anything; we were waiting on one of our kids that was working until 7:30 to be able to come to the field, too, and I thought maybe it was a similar situation.
Until their kid showed up. It was the coach's daughter. When she did play in the game, it was apparent her skill level wasn't all it could be, and it dawned on me that, in order to maximize his team's chances to win a game, this guy tells kids on his team not to show up to the games so he can play his best players for the entire game. Which is sick enough, but when you tell your own daughter to stay away from the ballpark so that he doesn't have to play her... well, wow. I'm not without faults, but I can honestly say that I have never been that much of a dick about anything. And I am profoundly glad that I am not so emotionally deformed and twisted that I have to sink to the level where I tell my own kid to stay away from the field to try to win a freaking junior league softball trophy.
My own daughter had a surprise visitor at the game last night, too; her mother, who lives a few blocks away. I noticed her a couple of innings into the game, and I thought that it was going to be a distraction to Sabrina, and it was; she didn't have a great game at the plate, including taking a called third strike for the first time ever in City League play. But it was another sign of growth for me that I didn't get all wound up or bound up about it; she is Sabrina's mother, and as such there isn't any reason why I should let her lack of responsibility be an issue in a situation like this one. And I have to say that seeing her confirmed all the worst thoughts I have had about what is happening in that house; she hasn't been that thin since 2009, when the pain pill addiction first took off, and she looks essentially like an older version of her mug shots from the late 1990's in the face. It was kind of sad to see, honestly. I didn't speak to her; there was no real reason, too, and at the field we were playing at, the stands and spectator area are right behind the dugout, so she was not the only parent in constant contact with her kid.
After the game, I took a bunch of the players and parents out for pizza, and floated a plan for a team outing in mid-August to Enchanted Forest. Because ultimately, we win and lose as a team. This year was a special group; we made the leap from a lousy team to a good team together, and it was my first team as a head coach, and as such they will always have a special place in my heart. And one thing I have noticed without reservation; of the six teams in the league, we have the tightest group. We are the only team that didn't lose a single player over the course of the season to quitting. We are the most raucous bunch in the dugout and in warmups and during games. They...have...fun. Even the kid who was not happy about playing time enjoys the company of her teammates. More than the wins and losses, more than the individual accomplishments, this year's Taylor Rental squad became a team as the year progressed. And with almost everyone coming back next year, and with only one more kid with only one year of eligibility left, this team is going to be together for a long time to come. It already is something special; it can be something even more so in the summers ahead.