Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wow, what a goal!

Boston, brrrrrr!

Every now and then I'm lucky enough to get to see something that makes even This Old Jock sit up and take notice. Check out this video. The shooter is Oliver Wahlstrom, who plays for the Portland Junior Pirates in Maine. The setting is NESN's Mini 1-on-1, which airs between periods of the Bruins games. The shot is simply amazing, and the goalie's reaction -- "What the heck just happened?" -- is absolutely classic.

The video was making the rounds like wildfire this morning, especially among hockey circles. The general consensus was, "Get that kid on the Bruins." One of the more clever posts said "The Bruins just traded him to Toronto!" Unfortunately, what was equally incredible was the number of people who felt it necessary to post comments on the web site, criticizing young Oliver for having the skill and cajones to make such a move. Here's just a short sampling:

Just about as dumb as doing a triple axle then scoring. Any defender with a brain would take 2 steps and end this kid as he turned to the net. The people on this post obviously never played the sport.

The only thing missing is the goalie coming after shooter with his stick, shaking off gloves and having the two pound away at each other.

Very talented kid, but he needs to learn that someday he won't be the big fish in the small pond and he will get his lunch handed to him if he does that to the wrong opponent.

The showboating is the kid chose to embarrass his opponent with a very high-skilled manuever that should not be allowed in a competition like this. If it were a H-O-R-S-E like game, fine, knock your socks off, but this kid chose to embarrass the goalie, not just put the puck by him.

Huh? Have these people lost their minds? Is this what youth sports have come to? I'm a goalie, for crying out loud, and I can appreciate the remarkable skill required to make this move (and to put it in the net). Plus, the kid had to have ice water in his veins to pull it off in competition.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm all for sportsmanship, as any of the players on my Squirt hockey team, not to mention their parents, will tell you. But there's a time and a place to really let loose, and I can't think of a better place than some made-for-TV competition. Plus, I didn't see Oliver "show up" the goalie with an exaggerated fist pump or any other histrionics! He simply raised his arms, the traditional salute for a goal scored. Plus, he's just a kid! I congratulate him, not only for his skill, but for the hours and hours of practice he must have put in to be able to pull off such a difficult move. Best of luck, Oliver. You're going places in this great sport!

And for anyone who thinks this skill is useless in a game, just go to YouTube and search for Michigan's Mike Legg and his fantastic goal against Minnesota in the 1996 West Regional final, scooping the puck up behind the net and depositing over the unsuspecting goalie's shoulder. Brilliant, and ballsy!


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My daughter, the teenager ...

Boston, beautiful & brisk.

On Friday, I will become the father of a teenager! How is that possible? My life forever changed on Oct. 16, 1996, when MaryAylssa Diane "Maddi" O'Connor made her grand entrance into the world. And, if I remember correctly (sleep deprived as I may have been), she entered eyes wide open, with a pair of lungs to match! I became not only a father, but a husband in a much, much more profound sense than I ever could have imagine, being with Lauri throughout her labor.

The fact that I was in that hospital room, helping as much as any fumbling husband really can at that moment, was a testament to the seismic shift my life had taken in the previous 16 months. At age 36, the guy who my Mom said was her "confirmed bachelor," got married. Part of that deal, I knew, was children, if we were lucky enough. I've never met a woman -- or maybe I should say I never dated a women -- with such a strong maternal drive as Lauri, and she made it clear that if we were going to get hitched, then fatherhood was in my future.

Of course, being a guy, I spent our first year of marriage blissfully unaware, carrying on like I always had, running off to play hockey and hoops, riding my bike, going windsurfing. Lauri and I were young professionals, settling into a new house, all fancy free and open to a world of possibilities. But Lauri was setting up a "home," building the foundation. After all, it was my bride who, when she first saw our neighborhood, commented: "What a great place this will be to raise kids." She got us a cat -- a great, entertaining feline we named Marley -- to help me get adjusted to the concept of responsibility. Then, shortly after Valentine's Day, we learned we were in the "family way."

We signed up for parenting classes, and Lauri got busy with fixing up the new bedroom, buying cloths (a late ultrasound revealed we were having a girl!), and reading, reading, always reading. Me? I just stayed out of the way. We really enjoyed picking out the name, and settled on MaryAlyssa Diane O'Connor. The name is a playful combination of my sister's (MaryEllen), Lauri's mom (Diane), and a name we both really loved, Alyssa. Plus, her initials gave her the instant nickname of Maddi, which we joked would come in handy once our eldest became a teenager and decided she hated her name!

Now that moment is at hand, and I can't believe what a blur the last 13 years have been. Of course, everyone tells you it will pass like a freight train. Intellectually, you understand that. But emotionally, you want nothing more than to have a life DVR, something that allows you to pause, capture, or even rewind all the good parts. And there have been so, so many "good parts" watching Maddi on her journey through childhood. She's always had that dazzling smile, those twinkling eyes. She's grown straight and strong, built so much like her beautiful mom. Like most children, Maddi has been a challenge and a joy. An early daycare teacher -- Miss Marcia -- once called Maddi a "gentle soul," and in all the years that have passed since, I don't think anyone has described Maddi more succinctly or more accurately. The girl's got a heart of gold, which is something I really try to remember during all those maddening parent-child flare-ups that inevitably happen between generations. Life has an annoying way of letting all the niggling details -- the small stuff -- wear on our patience and hamper our ability to see the big picture. Again, I'm so grateful for Lauri, and the yin & yang of our partnership that allows us to council one another when one of us is spinning out of control. It's reassuring to have that rock, one that isn't bashful about reminding me just how super our kids are.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can offer Maddi, and her mom, as well as younger sister Brynne, is letting them know that there is no place, no place, I'd rather be at any moment in time than with them. Though I'm a writer who once lived for adventure travel, I find I have, at most, a 48-hour window while away before I start missing my girls something fierce. I've discovered depths of emotion I never knew existed, fired by Lauri and stoked, constantly, by Maddi and Brynne. I realized that I could never return to the newspaper field, where human tragedy is the daily fodder of the business. I just don't have the stomach for it anymore.

Some of my new-found traits, I admit, are less-than-admirable, like the inevitable Papa Bear reaction to any perceived sleight suffered by my child. Still, always the reporter (and Libra, I suppose), I try to be fair and impartial when Maddi goes through a rough patch, whether it's a falling out among friends or a squabble at home. Often she bears some responsibility, and it's my job as a parent to make sure she understands how her actions impact others. Those lessons haven't always been easy. When she aches, I ache. Like a good friend once told me when Lauri and I were first expecting, there's no greater sense of helplessness than when your child is hurting, and you can't take that pain away.

All that said, we have been incredibly fortunate. We've had a few scares, such as the time Maddi, only two, was rushed to the hospital with an unknown viral infection. But, taking the past 13 years as a whole, we have to count our blessings. We have a small, cozy cottage here in Hamilton, which means that, more often than not, the four of us are tripping all over each other (in addition to the two cats and True, our knucklehound). For the most part, I absolutely love it. Though it would be nice to have a bigger house (just ask Lauri), I can't imagine enjoying the distance that would come between us. Maybe that will change, as Maddi, and then Brynne, burrow deeper into the unsettling arena of adolescence. I hope not. My Mom used to counsel that you prepared kids the best you could, and then you have to let them find their own way. I see Maddi, on the cusp of her teenage years, and I just hope and pray that the adventure is a rich and rewarding one. And I pray the Good Lord lets me be a part of it.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Kind words from an author ...

Boston, raining & cold.

It's not often that my colleagues and I in the freelance writing biz get a thoughtful response to what we publish. Much of our craft takes place in a vacuum, which I guess is a good and a bad thing. We're typically insulated from criticism, but rarely hear praise, other than the kind words of our editors (which, I'll add, are always appreciated, probably more than they know!).

This past Sunday, I had a book review published in the Boston Globe. The book - Heart of the Game - was one of the most powerful I'd read in years. The review, however, languished in a holding pattern at the Globe for months, the victim of ever-shrinking editorial real estate. It wasn't anybody's fault, really ... there just wasn't any space. Last week, however, came the word that the review would run. I was relieved, not only because it meant a paycheck, but also because I felt strongly that S.L. Price's superb work deserved the ink. I struggled mightily writing the review, because I wanted to do the book justice. It touched me on a personal and emotional level, and it's never easy to write about those feelings without sounding self-absorbed. But I was pleased with the final result, and grateful that the review would see the light of day.

Then, on Monday, I received a note from the author, one that made all the extra effort worthwhile. It read, in part: "I can't tell you how much your review means to me: in some ways, you actually explain some of what I was trying to do better than I could ever articulate. It's rare to feel that something you've written has been met, even exceeded, by the understanding of the reader. That happened here, with your thoughtful, well-written, essay."

I let Price's words rattle around inside my head for a while, sitting in my cramped office, a sense of contentment warming me. I've always said that I enjoy writing because it gives me a wonderful opportunity to connect with others. And I was happy to know that two people who don't know one another, two fathers who both cherish sports and the lessons they teach us, connected because of this fine book.

Here is the review, which ran with the accompanying photograph of Tino Sanchez, sitting beside Mike Coolbaugh's jersey. It probably goes without saying that I highly recommend Heart of the Game, whether your a sports fan, or just a fan of the human race.

Death and life in baseball's minor leagues

Judging a book by its cover is the cardinal sin for a reviewer. But the photograph that adorns “Heart of the Game’’ is riveting. It shows Mike Coolbaugh, a long-time minor league baseball player, his uniform-clad back to the camera. In his arms are his two young sons, Joey and Jake, each with a hand on their father’s broad shoulders. Knowing he’s gone, killed in one of baseball’s most freakish accidents, brought me to the edge of tears.

Yet this is where veteran Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price weaves his magic. Genuine and raw, “Heart of the Game’’ is a heartfelt work of despair, triumph, and redemption. Price presents the lives of two minor league “lifers’’ - Coolbaugh and Tino Sanchez - on a cataclysmic collision course with the unerring eye of a superb journalist and the grounded sensitivity of a poet. True, there is a sense of dread permeating Price’s book, but his prose never turns maudlin. We know the ending isn’t happy. But to stop reading would be far worse, tantamount to quitting on a man who never quit himself.

“Mike kept playing after his dream died because he had a family to feed,’’ writes Price, describing Sanchez’s first impressions of Coolbaugh. “Mike has a passion tempered - inflamed, even - by rejection and pain.’’

Essentially, Price takes a sound-bite tragedy and begins digging, dissecting it. The short story is this: Coolbaugh’s life was cut short on a warm July night in 2007 in a pristine new ballpark in North Little Rock, Ark. At 35, he was less than month into a new coaching career after struggling for 17 years in professional baseball, mostly in the minors. He had been appointed hitting coach for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers (a Colorado Rockies affiliate), and was still getting comfortable in this new environment, serving as first base coach that star-crossed night. Then, lightning struck. With a swing of his bat, Sanchez sent a foul ball rocketing 90 feet down the first base line. It struck Coolbaugh flush in the neck, just behind his left ear. “Its report was muffled, moist, like an ax sinking hard into a patch of rotten timber,’’ writes Price.

Coolbaugh was killed instantly. The moments, days, and weeks that follow are absolutely gut wrenching. Sanchez, a native of Puerto Rico who had hoped to get the coaching job won by Coolbaugh, reached him first, even before the first baseman or the first-base umpire. Back home in Texas, Mandy Coolbaugh was pregnant with the couple’s third child, a daughter. In the hills of Yauco, Puerto Rico, Sanchez’s wife Annie was also expecting a daughter.

Throughout, Price is respectful but never fawning. It’s clear that, while he may have approached the project as a journalist, he developed an admiration and deep respect for those whose lives were irrevocably altered that July evening. He describes Coolbaugh’s taskmaster father, the spirited sibling rivalry with older brother Scott, the seismic shift in his family’s faith and foundations, and the reverberations felt through the entire Colorado Rockies organization (Red Sox fans will recall the sweep of the Rockies in 2007; what they don’t know is that the Colorado players unselfishly voted Coolbaugh a full $233,505 share).

Price delights in exposing the inequities of minor league ball, as if hoping to balance those scales of injustice. While the general consensus is that our national pastime is as wholesome as Grandma’s apple pie, Price torches the myth and rips open the game’s seedy underside. “Minor league baseball is an endless winnowing process,’’ he writes. “Cast for months into a confined space where people are promoted, demoted, traded, and released every day, where today’s teammate is tomorrow’s memory, players literally live with rejection. No one can truly relax; even the most secure prospects sense the insidious thrum of fear.’’

But in these players, and many of the long-time coaches and scouts, Price finds many admirable qualities: perseverance, integrity, humility, grit, patience, compassion, and, yes, even love. “There are so many clich├ęs I could rattle off,’’ says Matt Miller, the Drillers left fielder who heard Mike’s last words. “But what I’ve taken away is: You’ve just got to respect what you do. Mike obviously loved baseball, and if he wasn’t a baseball player he could’ve done something else and been just as passionate. That’s important. That’s what I want to incorporate in my life. Whatever you want to do, go after it with passion. Just don’t quit.’’

The role of faith, or fate, or any celestial connection in Coolbaugh’s life and death, of course, remains a mystery. “God had a plan for Mike,’’ Mandy says, “and there was nothing we could do to stop it.’’

The challenge is to keep reading through the tears and the inevitable swell of sorrow. But you will. Like Coolbaugh, like his family, like Sanchez, you won’t quit. You’ll finish it. And afterwards, there’s a very good chance that you’ll look at your own world a bit differently, with more appreciation. As strange as it might seem, given the tragic nature of Coolbaugh’s story, you’ll feel better for having allowed Price to share it with you.