Monday, April 4, 2016

OPENING DAY: RE-BIRTH OF BASEBALL & A BEAUTIFUL JOURNEY



From Little League to the major one, there are few things in sports like Opening Day.

Freshly-cut and perfectly manicured grass stimulates the senses, baseballs gleam
like white pearls, the spring air feels remarkably clean, and the seeds of big dreams
get planted in our imagination.

As a baseball-obsessed kid growing up in Harrison, New York,  Little League Opening
Day was being the biggest event of my young, 9-year-old life, far more exciting than
Christmas and 100 times more electrifying than a birthday party with 15 of my best friends
at Rye Playland.

This was real baseball and the beginning of a journey I hoped would eventually take me
to the major leagues and the mother of all Opening Days.


Some 43 years ago, I was just a rookie, playing with Little League "veterans". There were
no tees to hit off or coaches carefully aiming pitches at your bat, hoping a few of them
lead to a line-drive that lands safely in the outfield grass.

Nope, the baseball training wheels were off, and you were finally on your own,
ready to prove yourself on what is now your field of dreams.

Parents disguised as know-it-all baseball experts lined the fences or settled into aluminum
bleachers, waiting to unleash blood-curdling screams for reasons they weren't even quite
sure of.

Yes, this was Little League and Opening Day, which would signify the start of my
baseball journey. The gates seemingly burst open as if it were the Kentucky Derby
instead of just a game with excited kids playing purely for the love of it.


For the first time in my life, these games really counted, and many of us treated them
as  if they were the most important things on earth. Winning meant ice cream on the
way home, losing seemed worse than getting grounded for failing to bring home a good
report card.

As MLB ripped the wrapping off its new season on Sunday and Monday, Opening Day
brought the little kid out in many of us once again. It put big smiles on our once baby
faces, now accentuated with wrinkles, which are quickly becoming deep grooves like the
rings you on the downed oak tree in the backyard that had seemingly been around forever.

However, this year was a little different for me. I not only celebrated the renewal of the
game, but I also realized just how lucky and blessed I was to be a part of baseball for so
long and in so many different ways. The great times I had in the game and special people
I met because of it, are just something you can't measure by money, awards, or anything
else for that matter.
 
There were great struggles and hard times, too. But they were teachable moments and
adversity that nearly everyone who puts on the spikes, has to deal with at one time
or another. It's just part of the reason why it's called baseball and not Twitter of Facebook.

However, I had been guilty of what so many of us are in this country: focused
on the final results instead of really enjoying and appreciating the journey.

Oh, sure, I've heard motivational speakers spew their golden words about things
in life "not being about the destination, but the journey." I had seen all those placards
posted on Facebook shouting out to everybody that it's not all about the wins, losses,
and failures, but the road you traveled.

It never really resonated me. It never sank in no matter how many times I heard from
the messenger. I was just too obsessed with how it all ended to let the words marinate
into a beautiful lesson.


Monday, It finally hit me like a ton of bricks thrown by Matt Harvey. There is greatness
in the journey. Even if you don't land on the moon, playing amongst the stars can be
a wonderful experience.

I finally figured out what others saw and knew. Or perhaps, I just let my guard down
and accepted what is, and what was.

The journey I had in baseball and covering it was truly amazing. I mean, really freaking
amazing. I had focused on the destination for so long and so hard, I failed to see the
greatness in the journey. And looking back now, I am sorry for that.


Baseball took me to Taiwan as part of Team USA, representing my country. I had
the opportunity to play in a land so far away against those same players who had beaten
our Little Leaguers in Williamsport seemingly every year.

Baseball took me to Chapel Hill on a scholarship to play for UNC and with not only
the best players in the country, but some of the best people, as well. I made friendships
that have lasted a lifetime and the stories that came out of that program are priceless.


I experienced failure in baseball for the first time in my life at UNC. Failure led to
doubt, lack of confidence, and what I call 'robotics.' Baseball had always come so
natural to me. I had watched it, studied it, and became obsessed with it long before
I arrived on campus. But everything became so mechanical and anything but second
nature. My swing was so screwed up, I started hitting left-handed my junior year.

Shockingly, baseball at UNC was no longer fun.

It was all part of the process and the journey. Struggles come at different times
for different players, but in baseball, those struggles always come. It's how you
battle and fight through it that matters. Those who want to end their baseball
journey, usually get off when the struggle becomes too much.


I never really wanted the journey to end.

Baseball made me a part of the movie, "Bull Durham", something I shied away
from initially because after all, nearly every sports movie before the late 1980's
had been a bust. Remember "Bang the Drum Slowly"? There's no question Robert
DiNiro can act, but the man cannot ball. Not even close.

I was simply in the right place at the right time of my journey for "Bull Durham."
Somebody told me to get a bat and listen to what Kevin Costner instructs me to
do. A number of cameras, lights, and Hollywood 'artists' were angled about 15
feet from the batter box where I stood. A large piece of plexiglass protected them
from line-drives in their direction.


It was no big deal to me.

I just figured the scene would end up on the cutting room floor. I was so
unfazed by it and so sure of its insignificance, I didn't bother to tell my family or
close friends about it.

However,  the scene made the movie and the ball I hit went "so far it should have a
stewardess on it", according to Costner,  became something I could not outrun and
for those who have seen me run, that shouldn't be all that surprising.


As fate (and the journey) would have it, I was in that same batter's box in that same
park where the real Durham Bulls play less than eight months later. I had signed
a free-agent contract with the Boston Red Sox on Christmas Day and was assigned
to the Carolina League. Yep, the same Carolina League the Durham Bulls played in.

And of course, it just happened to be "Bull Durham Night" when we played. I wish
I was making all this up, but I am not. I had zero home runs heading into the game
against the Bulls. With the premiere showing the next afternoon, I was hoping to get
one or risk hearing, "You can only hit home runs in Hollywood, Devlin." until I actually
hit one.

I hit one that night. A grand slam. It was divine intervention. Had to be.

When I hit the ball, I  thought it was a pop-out to right-center field. The ball must've
been juiced or something because I certainly wasn't.


If the fence was 310 feet, the ball must've carried 310 feet and half-an-inch. I kid you
not. But hey, it went down as a bomb on the scorecard and in the movie, I guess.

The magic of Hollywood was fleeting and I ended up on the Red Sox cutting room
floor, released a year later. I went to minor-league camp with the Atlanta Braves and
a few days before camp was over, I hit a home run off Gordie Hershiser, the not-so-famous
brother of Orel. Where was Hollywood when I needed it?

Shortly after getting out of the shower that day, I found out my baseball career was
over. The late Bobby Dews, the Braves minor-league director, called me into his office
and told me I was done. I'll never forget that moment. Dews had more tears in his eyes
than me. They may have been crocodile tears, but god dangit, they were tears.

Ironically, years later when I was working as a sportscaster for Fox Sports Net in
Atlanta, Dews was the bullpen coach for Bobby Cox and the Braves. We had a bunch
of laughs about the day he released me and he'd jokingly tell Cox that if I could hit,
field, throw, and run, I'd be playing in the big leagues.

I had the opportunity to stay around the game and covered many Opening Days
as a sportscaster. I worked for the Red Sox flagship station in Boston in the late
90's, covering their run to the playoffs in 1998. To cover the organization I once
was a part of, was simply electric, which is what Pedro Martinez was when he
started the All-Star game at Fenway Park.

I was in the second row that night as Pedro was throwing mid-90's fastballs with
a wicked curveball and a stop-your-heart change-up. He struck out five hitters in
a row, including Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire back-to-back. Inside, I was still
that 9-year-old kid back in Little League on Opening Day.



Baseball didn't get much better than it did that night---until Ted Williams came out
to the pitchers mound on a golf cart mid-game! Ted Williams back in Boston?!
The roof at Fenway Park almost blew off.

Seeing Williams brought back a ton of memories for me. In spring training of 1988,
Williams stopped by the cages and worked with me for about 15 minutes. I was
that kid on Opening Day of Little League. Wide-eyed with the biggest smile on my
face. OH. MY. GOD. Ted Williams is talking to me about hitting. Wake me up when
this is over.

It was all part of the baseball journey that I had put into a box and stored away for
years. It all came back to me on Opening Day and it was tremendous. It made me
feel so alive.

I was lucky. I was blessed. My baseball journey was incredible.

While working for Fox Sports Net in 2001, I reported on the Arizona Diamondbacks
as they rode the powerful arms of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling to the World
Series title. The only thing more memorable than Arizona winning it all in the third
year of existence, was seeing President Bush throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium
shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

That was powerful. I had chills watching it from just behind the third base dugout
back then, just as I had them while writing this now.


I went back to Boston to work for NESN, the Red Sox flagship station in 2004. Our
offices were in Fenway Park, which meant I went to the cathedral of baseball every
single day.  That year, the Red Sox ended their 86-year curse. All the pain, frustration,
and heartache was flushed down the toilet when the Boston swept St. Louis in October
of that year.

This baseball journey just keeps getting better and better.


Opening Day in Boston in 2005 was truly special. On a picture-perfect day, the
Red Sox raised the World Series banner and gave out their championship rings,
all in front of their hated rivals, the New York Yankees.

Dennis Eckersley and Jim Rice, both Hall of Famers and analysts with NESN, were
part of the journey as well. I'd see them nearly every day during the baseball season
and soaked up every ounce of their knowledge and experience.

My baseball journey also took me to MLB.com where baseball was always on.
The company was loaded with incredibly talented people and baseball men like
Billy Sample, Jeff Nelson, and former Mets GM Jim Duquette, who I came to know
while he was the Mets minor-league director and I was a sportscaster in Binghamton,
where the Mets had their AA affiliate.

I'm not a name dropper or star-crossed, but they were all part of my baseball journey,
and influenced me in one way or another. Incidentally, in 1994 when I was in Binghamton,
the team invited me to play in the exhibition game between AA Binghamton and
AAA Norfolk.  I guess I can say I finally made it to AA right?

What blast. I hadn't played baseball since the game said good-bye to me in 1990.
Hadn't picked up a bat or thrown a ball. Yet, there I was in full-catching gear playing
against the AAA Mets. Hilarious.

You only live once and you never quite know when the baseball journey will end, so
I played. And it was awesome. Oh, sure, that left-handed pitcher I had to catch, looked
like he was throwing 93-mph when it was actually 88-mph. It was a challenge, but it
was something I'll never forget.

However, it wasn't all good. There were a ton of struggles along the way. But that's
what makes the journey so complete. Good or bad, there are always stories I can
now laugh about.


I had the opportunity to throw out the first pitch during a Braves-Diamondbacks
game. I made the mistake of thinking about it too much. And I bounced it. LOL.
BJ Surhoff, a former teammate of mine at UNC, wanted to catch my throw. He
didn't. It bounced over his arm and hit the cameraman who was kneeling behind
Surhoff, right in the family jewels.

Ahhhh, what a moment.

Surhoff got up yelling at me. None of his teammates or the fans for that matter,
knew we were friends and that had to look awfully funny when were screaming at
each other.


Yep, it's all part of my baseball journey that has enriched my life in so many ways.
The experiences, both good and bad, helped me grow as a person. But the people
I met along the way were, and have been, truly incredible.

It didn't matter where they ended up, most of us started out in the same place.

In Little League with an Opening Day.

All the baseball journeys have to end at some point. I was lucky and blessed that
mine was able to continue long after my playing days were over.

There is nothing like baseball.

And there is nothing quite like Opening Day.




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