Monday, October 25, 2010

That pitch looked low to me, too!

His expression says it all: "Are you kiddin' me? He didn't really call that, did he?"

You know what they tell you in Little League: "If it's close, you gotta swing!"

You could almost hear the fans thinking through their disbelief that the season had ended: "You blew it, Howard! They pay you big bucks to come up big in situations like this! Dude! You had two runners on and a chance to win the game! C'MON!!"

Okay, that's a certain extent. Ryan Howard had no RBIs in the post season. That's "unthinkable". But can you tell me one position Phillies player who had more hits? A better average? I bet not.

Howard had 10 hits in 33 at bats in nine post season games. He hit no homer runs -- I will grant you that -- but he hit for a .303 average. That's good any any standards. He hit nearly 80 points higher than Raul Ibanez, the next "highest" hitter on the team in the post season with an average of .226.

Yeah, you read that right. The entire line-up went into a funk at the worst possible time. It hit .215 over nine games. They deserved to lose, given those numbers.

Yet, the starting pitchers and bullpen pitched so well that the Phillies challenged for a third straight pennant and a place in history. They lost four games to the Giants but they won two and they out scored the Giants 20-19 over six games. Five games were close. The Giants won three of them by one-run. It was a very close and well-played series.

So what gives? How could they have a much better team "on paper" and lose the series, 4-2?

Maybe you, too, noticed. They were out-managed.

It has to be said: Charlie Manuel came up small. He was out-coached by Bruce Boche, the Giants' manager.

I love how hard the Phils play for Manuel. I think his approach to running the team is perfect for a long 162-game season. There are a lot of highs and lows in a baseball season. You "maintain an even strain" and "let your players play" to use the standard cliches. It's smart to keep the clubhouse "happy" and to trust veteran players to play hard and give an honest effort. On those accounts, he's a great manager.

But here's where he failed. He was facing the best pitching staff in the majors. He was facing the best bullpen in baseball. He had to adjust to playing small ball and trying to win one-run games. He failed. The Phils never adjusted to the style of game the Giants were playing.

Game six is a perfect example. He had switched Chase Utley to the two hole on two occasions in the NCLS. Smart move, Charlie! You separated your two best hitters with a right-handed contact hitter, Placido Polanco. You made Boche think twice about bringing in his cadre of lefty relievers to face those all-star batters on your side. But you abandoned this heady strategy in must-win game six. You left Utley and Howard vulnerable to lefty relievers.

You made the correct move and inserted right-handed hitter Ben Francisco into the line-up in Game 4 in place of your slumping left-fielder, Raul Ibanez to face the lefty pitcher Madison Bumgardner. He had a hit and some great swings against the lefty, yet went back to Ibanez in game six.

San Francisco pitched four lefties against the Phils in innings 1 through 7. You wanna know why? The Phils line-up was loaded with left-handed hitters. You played right into their hands, Charlie.

The Phillies should have won this series...and they almost did despite their collective hitting slump. They had the better line-up on paper. They played hard and they played with heart. They just had the wrong manager in their dugout pulling the strings.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why I finally decided it was time to become a member of WXPN

No doubt many of you are already members of WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania's very fine public radio station. The station fills a wonderful niche on the local FM dial (you can find them at 88.5 if you are curious)because it plays music that you just never hear anywhere else.

XPN plays a wide variety of music: Alternative, alt-country, classic R&B, folk, the blues, confessional singer/songwriters and, best of all in my book, world music. You just never hear such a wide range of music anywhere else. Best of all, it is "listener supported." That means there are no commercial interruptions in the programming. People who listen to the station tend to be hardcore music aficionados like myself. It is one of the very few stations in the city that can honestly claim to support new artists.

I long have resisted becoming a member of XPN. I am somewhat chagrined to say why. For many years I just shrugged my shoulders and said to myself: "why pay for something that's free"? Call me a cheapskate. I enjoyed the music, but never paid for it. I listened to the station primarily because the music programming was provided without commercials, which are more annoying than a toothache. I justified my penurious behavior by telling myself I listened more to CDs in the car more than I did my radio. And when I don't have a CD handy that I want to hear, I am just as likely to listen to sports talk radio as I am XPN.

All of that changed with one simple moment on Sunday evening.

I was walking toward Citizen Band Park with my son and my brother to attend Game 2 of the National League Championship series between the Phils and the Giants. As we approached the park, we passed a six-piece brass band who were playing their faces off. They were making a joyous noise; loud, raucous, upbeat and extremely funky. They called themselves Philly Soul. The band leader, Joe Miller, told me they were members of the Cheyney University marching band, and had gotten together to entertain Phillies fans at home games since July. He said they had not yet played a paid gig in a club, but man they sure sounded ready! For five or six minutes, they played an extended jam, the same 12-bar riff, but it never became repetitive. They reminded me a lot of the Rebirth Jazz Band I had seen in New Orlenas at the Jazz Festival two years ago. To put it indelicately, they were kicking ass.

Thousands of fans streamed pass the band. You could tell -- just by looking at the their smiles -- that many of them were enjoying the band as much as I was. There was an open instrument case in front of the band and it had been generously filled by passers-by, but as I watched for several minutes, no one kicked in so much as a quarter. I called a friend to let her listen to the music for a minute and the tuba player got in my face and blew his horn directly into my cell phone. It was a beautiful moment. I appreciated his gesture as much as he seemed to appreciate mine. His eyes were alive with laughter.

I was about to turn away and head to the game when I saw a white-haired gent with a neatly trimmed beard stop to hear the band. He listened with discriminating ears for about a minute and -- without hesitation -- reached into his wallet and pulled out a sawbuck. He dropped it in the kitty and quickly went on his way to find his seat at the ballpark. I grabbed my son's elbow and told him: "hey! that's David Dye!"

Dye is one of the city's preeminant music on-air personalities and the host of my favorite XPN show, the World Cafe. It's become a National Public Radio Network mainstay and is syndicated to dozens of public radio stations around the country. At that moment, I finally realized how committed he was to his job: that it wasn't "just a job" but a calling. And I realized I had to do my part too.

I kicked in a five spot to Philly Soul, asked my brother to capture some footage of them with his camera after the game and decided it was high time to become a member of the station. This is my way of thanking Dye and his cohorts at XPN for giving me years of listening pleasure: music to listen to, to dance by, to think with. You can hear a small taste of the Philly Soul band on this raw footage, provide by my brother, Matt.

Enjoy! And the next time you see street buskers playing their butts off for you, do a random act of kindness like David Dye did! Every little bit helps. You're supporting the arts after all!~

Matt's video clip:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Cheers to you, Mom!

Yesterday my siblings celebrated the 50th anniversary of my parents' wedding. I read this testimonial to my mother. Some of my siblings and my aunts and uncles have asked me to pass this along, so I am posting it here. Thanks for reading!

"Cheers to you, Mom!"

It goes without saying that most young men love their mothers and that their mothers become the template against which all other women are measured. Maybe that’s why I have so much trouble finding the right one, Mom! You were just impossible to replace!

It finally dawned on me – just how special you are, and how difficult it would be to find someone like you to spend a life with – when an old friend who’s never met you read my Mother’s Day story from the Inquirer Magazine and said how touched he was to read that story. He told me it must be hard to live with a mother who is a saint. He was right about that. It was hard then and it still is hard today. It is hard because you set the bar so high. You and Dad really demanded greatness of us. None of us achieved that, of course. Not yet. I keep waiting for Mark to outshine us all when his graphic novel hits the best seller’s list. Here’s the working title: “My Abusive Childhood: Collective Memories Growing Up Catholic at Kidzaplenty Place”

We know how hard you worked. Just the daily routine of taking care of such a large home and feeding 11 children was exhausting to witness. And coming into the second floor bathroom every morning and seeing three or four piles of laundry that awaited you, was a constant reminder of all the work to be done while we were off in school. That work alone, in a house as large as ours, should be enough to get the beatification process started in Rome. Mother Teresa started out in life as an Agnes, too. Did you know that?

We remember the sacrifices you made for us. We all made them, too! We sacrificed our appetites when we were fed macaroni and cheese once a week, or liver and onions twice a month; or broccoli stalks and brussel sprouts and blood-red beets and other inedible vegetables we hated but that you knew we needed. We remember how you fed a family of 11 for years on a $60 grocery allowance. We always hoped for spaghetti and meatballs and Italian sausages, and, despite how much work that took, we were fed that meal more than any other because you knew how much we all we all loved your sauce.

We remember seeing you stooped over the family sewing machine, sewing missing buttons on our shirts or hemming hand-me down pants from the Hopkinson boys or mending torn kneecaps and holey socks or making the girls dresses or even sewing clothes for their baby dolls, doing all you could to ensure we were not dressed like street urchins out of a Dicken’s novel. You might think all that work was God’s penance for having such a large family, but we tend to think you were doing God’s will. There’s grace in performing those mundane motherly tasks that all mothers do and you earned a ton of it, Mom.

We remember the stories you told us growing up in Holland. We experienced first hand a treasure trove of those Dutch customs every Christmas. The time you spent in the kitchen making saucijsbrooges and stollen, and separating each and every piece of a dozen grapefruits with the curved edge of a grapefruit knife and then sprinkling sugar on top. We remember the tales of Black Peter putting coal in stockings and of the Dutch songs you would sing to us in words we couldn’t understand but that delighted us anyway because they always made you laugh when you finished them. We all remember the way you and dad turned Christmas day into a never-ending event of good vibrations by making us sit as a pajama collective in a wide circle and unwrap our gifts individually, one at a time. It stretched that glorious holiday out for hours.

Only rarely did any of us get the present we most wanted, but none of us has forgotten the experience of those Christmases past or forgot how much they brought us close as a family. We learned then to appreciate the things that really matter in life. Some of us went to our friends’ homes on Christmas afternoon to play with their shiny new Erector sets or slot car tracks or their Lionel trains or to play with their soft, new Care Bears or My Little Ponies or their shiny and leggy Barbie Dolls. We likely wished we had those presents too.

But I know none of us would ever trade the lessons we learned about the real meaning of Christmas for the neighbor’s presents. All of us wish we could bottle those Christmas mornings and sell them to the rest of America. Not because it would have made us fortunes, but because it would have made us all rich in love and people everywhere would thank us for sharing those wonderful vibes of sheer joy. You earned some heavenly points there, too, Mom.

You made all of the holidays special in some way. We all remember your incredible pies at Thanksgiving we somehow forgot to save room for but devoured anyway; the painted Easter eggs at Easter we hunted in the vast uncut openness of the spring front lawn; the costumes you made at Halloween. Points, points, more heavenly points.

You were a Queen among moms. And I suspect my friend from Loyola knew all of this when he made his comment to me about what a saint you were. But that’s not really what he was talking about. When he mentioned how difficult it must be to live with a mother destined for sainthood, he was talking about your courage, your willingness to show the world of powerful men that mothers count too; that the opinion of mothers was what got politicians elected and that they should be held accountable for their decisions, especially when their governments ask America’s mothers to send their sons and daughters off to foreign lands to protect the nation’s economic interests.

You wanted them to take their oaths of office as seriously as you took your own responsibilities as a mother. You knew that the lives of American youth was too high a price to pay to fight unnecessary wars. You knew that the very idea of war was something people had to start to question. You knew that “Question Authority” was not some trite political slogan but a social responsibility all citizens have. I never personally knew anyone who was willing to go to jail for this just cause, Mom. Until you did. You showed us all that one person could make a statement of goodness and purpose with her life; that in fact, there is no higher purpose in life than that: to try to speak the truth and to embrace life itself and all its goodness.

I don’t think too many of us ever really understood or appreciated the toll those actions took on you, Mom; on your marriage and on your relationship with your siblings. But God knows. And he loves you very much for those sacrifices and maybe we are all a little bit jealous of you for that. That’s probably what my friend was thinking of when he told me how hard it must be to have a saint for a mother. It’s hard because none of us possess the same amount of fortitude to follow our hearts as you do. We look up to you for a wide variety of reasons, most of all for showing us how to love our own children, and we emulate you and honor you and we sing your praises in birthday cards and in anniversary parties like this. But we find it impossible to follow in your footsteps and place our personal freedom at risk to live a life of conviction.

All of this is just prelude to a moment we shared together. You and I. You probably won’t remember it, but I can’t ever forget it. It held for me the secret of who you are and why you did what you had to do when you took on the government and the war machine and the arms dealers. I knew in my heart I would write about this moment some day. All of us have some very private and special moment with you we hold sacred, Mom. This is mine.

I had gone with you and some of the siblings to the Schretlen family reunion in Holland in 1988. It was July and I was leaving my job soon at the newspaper in Virginia and I was coming home soon to start my teaching job at West Chester. Isabel turned one during the week I was away in Holland, so the trip cost me the experience of sharing her first birthday.

One day the Schretlen clan planned an afternoon trip to your parish church. It was centuries old, made of old brown stones from some local quarry. As we walked into the interior of the church, it smelled musty and the sanctuary seemed smaller and darker than churches I was used to in America. The pews were made of an old hard, dark wood and the kneelers were worn. After 10 or so minutes, I followed you and one of my aunts up a small path towards a grove of tall trees, mostly pine. It looked like we were approaching a park. When we got to the summit of the hill, I was surprised to see a series of small plots of ground encircled by stone walls about three or four feet high. Initially, I thought they were small gardens. They were meticulously cared for and, because it was the middle of summer, all of them had a variety of blooming flowers in them, a blaze of color. Primroses, daffodils, irises, nasturtium, scarlet sage, sunflowers, violas, catmints, polyanthas, and foxgloves. It was as if I had stepped into a well-tended English arboretum.

It was stunning and peaceful, quiet except for a slight rustle of the tree branches and birdsong that filtered gently through the pines and leaves. I thought to myself I had found a small slice of heaven. But I couldn’t quite figure out why the garden was separated by these small stone walls and divided into plots. It was almost as if this sacred place were a 4-H competition…. each plot more meticulously planned and carefully tended than the next, as if someone were coming soon to judge them and one of them would win the gold medal.

Then we walked to a small plot that was less well tended. Flowers bloomed there too, but it hadn’t been weeded in quite some time. Soggy leaves left over from the last year’s fall were stuffed into corners of the stone walls and the lush, emerald grass was uncut, growing wild, several inches higher than the trimmed plots that surrounded it. I was puzzled and couldn’t understand why this one was different than the others. The overall effect of the place was one of serene, lush beauty, a place as alive as any I had ever been in. Even this untended plot had been lovingly cared for, but just not as recently as the others.

You and Aunt Celine stopped and looked around the plot and you both became quiet and respectful. When you looked down at the ground, it suddenly dawned on me that we were in a cemetery. And then you started crying. Very softly, as if you didn’t want to worry us or to interrupt our own thoughts. Then I finally realized where we were: at the gravesite of your sister Mary and your brother, Bluffy. The aunt and uncle I had never met. And I knew that it had been a very long time since you had been back to visit them.

Maybe you were crying because of things you remembered about them. The shade of Mary’s ash blonde hair in her teenage youth or the way she sang to you to sleep at night. Or maybe you were thinking of Bluffy’s small and tender hands and they how they felt in your own fingers when you took him for a walk over the shady streets of your neighborhood. Maybe you were remembering back to that tragic day when the Americans were trying to drive the Nazi’s out of Nijmegen and they were killed by American bombs in an air raid. Maybe you were crying because there was no one from the immediate family left to take as good a care of their final resting place as the other cemetery plots were so lovingly cared for. Or maybe you were crying because you were afraid you might never come back to this serenely quite place, where your sister and brother would spend eternity, thousands of miles away from you and your other siblings.

I knew then Mom, why you did what you felt you had to do when you were breaking laws and going to jail and becoming the disgraced sister of your siblings, the family’s embarrassment to many of us. I tried to imagine how I would feel if I was coming to the burial plot of Lisa and Matt and their graves were so far away that I would not be able to leave flowers there or trim the grass and tend to their garden so others would feel welcomed there. I tried to understand the complex emotions you were feeling but I failed utterly to do so. I couldn’t imagine having to endure that much pain in my life and I hoped I never would.

The searing memory of those five or six minutes with you at that small plot of land surrounded by small stone walls has never left me. It made me understand so much about your desire to try to change the world, try to make it a better place; to do what little you could, as a single person, a mother and a grandmother, to eliminate the violence and the horror and the implicit, everlasting sorrow that reside in weapons of mass destruction. I am so very proud of you for that. And I feel more than a little shame that I have not yet been able to bear your torch and carry on the fight you so nobly waged against what President Eisenhower once called the “military industrial complex”.

You have set an example for all of us with your service to peace and justice,
Mom. And those minutes in the cemetery in Nijmegen at the graves of Mary and Bluffy told me all the reasons I ever needed to know about why you had to speak out about war.

And dad, I know you initially were reluctant to embrace mom’s acts of civil disobedience. It was more than an inconvenience to you…and I know how hard it must have been to field questions about mom’s behavior from her siblings. She didn’t ask you for your blessing when she went and got herself arrested. But I have to tell you, I never felt prouder to be your son when you fielded those questions gracefully and told the relatives how much you admired her and that she had a mind and will of her own and she was following her conscience.

At that point, it finally seemed to me your marriage to Mom was one based on trust and respect. It seemed to me you had learned the hardest lesson of marriage one has to learn: how to adapt to your partner and support your partner when your partner’s life suddenly takes a course you never expected and that you don’t necessarily trust or approve of. Surely you turned to your faith in God in those moments and surely you heard God’s answer: that Mom’s work here on Earth was pretty darned important too and that you would have to make some personal sacrifices to adapt to Mom’s newfound purpose.

In those moments, it seems to me, you and mom really forged a marriage for the ages, one we honor here today. You have given us all more than a lifetime of love and blessings. You have shown us the meaning of personal sacrifice and commitment to an ideal. We are all so blessed to have you as our parents.

So in closing, Yes, I must agree with my old friend. It IS hard to live with a mother who is a saint. But I thank God mothers like you, mom, walk among us.

You inspire us to greatness and to accountability. That’s the best kind of work that parents can do. You both did your jobs very well. We all love both of you very much.