Late last Wednesday night the Farmington Caridinals lost 4-0 to the Arizona Firebirds at Ricketts Park, thus ending their run in the Connie Mack World Series. The game was very even, very clean, and seemingly very quick. The following day I was on my way back to Dallas, where I had second-year orientation Friday morning. The following week was completely full with labs, lectures, and paper discussions, and it seemed like I had never really left the Baylor basement. As a dental student at Baylor, the only summer vacation that students get is the one between first and second years. Subsequent summers will be spent in clinic with patients, far from a baseball field and even farther from a team. The last two years of my life have very heavily involved coaching baseball back home in Farmington, both school ball and club ball, and the 18 or so years before that were spent playing. To the best of my knowledge, I am going to be away from the game now for the next three years at least. There are a lot of hopeful emotions and contemplation that I’m sure will take place between now and the next time I get to be a part of a team, but there will be an even greater amount of longing and frustration. The game has been very good to me, and I have spent a great deal of my life trying to be good to it as well. Aside from my family and very close friends, baseball has been the most important thing in my life since I can really remember, and it is difficult to accept that for at least a few years, it will take a backseat to my career in another field.
My relationships in the game have always been what I looked forward to the most. Countless friendships began on the baseball field for me. Many of these began in elementary school and have not and never will end. Just take a look at the list of folks who write for The Sombrero for a glimpse at the kind of friendships that baseball brought me in college and high school. The people who write for this site are brothers to me (as well as one sister-in-lawish-type person and my own girlfriend), and there are many more folks just like them who have never written but who mean no less to me.
My relationships with my coaches have greatly shaped the direction that my life has traversed, and I attempt everyday to make the coaches who penciled my name into the lineup proud of doing so, even though I haven’t touched a field for any of them for years. Tim Hollibaugh, the head coach at Grinnell, changed my life and will always be much more than just a coach to me. He made Grinnell and my life there better than I ever could have imagined, and I can’t wait for him to hold that MWC trophy one day. 2011 feels like the year to me. I’m not saying a place like Grinnell is right for everyone. What I’m saying is that it was right for me because of Tim Hollibaugh.
The game has provided me an opportunity to get to know Whitney’s family in a way that I never would have if the timing of my return to Farmington had been slightly different and if her brother, Eli, had been a different kind of kid. As it is, Eli’s baseball has been one of my favorite projects. He has developed from a somewhat duck-footed and gangly kid into one of the premier players in New Mexico. He has great friendships and the same kind of devotion to the game that takes all talented players to unique levels. I am incredibly proud of him and thankful to the Freese family for letting me be so closely involved in his development as a baseball player and as a young man. The bomb you hit off Burdi gave me chills, bro.
Watching Griff grow as a coach on the field and off of it has been another endlessly rewarding aspect of my time back home over the last couple of summers. I expect Griff to revolutionize the game in Farmington as long as he is there, and whenever or if ever he leaves, the baseball community that he enters will never look back. I’m really proud of what you’re doing with your life, dude. Arlo, The Sombrero is an inspiration. Griff, you might want to start trying to convince Arlo to pack and move to wherever it is you wind up so that you can win some championships in the next few years. Sam, you work in a front office. You’re a hero to all of us. Sometimes baseball brings two friends who for whatever reason stopped being so close back together. Jeff, the best thing that came from this summer for me was restoring our friendship. It means an awful lot to me that we are as close as we are today.
Lastly, and most importantly, the game has been a central part of my family since I can remember. Without it, I’m not sure I would know my father as well as I do, and for that I can never thank the game enough. The game has a way of making men into boys all while helping boys grow into men. The excitement and interest my dad took in my game and the tremendous sacrifices that both of my parents made for my play is the kind of gift that can never be repaid. Dad, you were always right.
I am forever grateful for growing up in the community that I did. I moved to Farmington when I was five, and a year later I was playing in my first games. The Farmington baseball community has a uniquely rich tradition and history of baseball excellence. A Farmington high school has won a state title in each of the last six decades. The community is unquestioningly supportive and proud of its young players. Every singly player who starts for a varsity in Farmington has a chance to play in college somewhere, and that is the kind of reputation that has taken half a century to earn. With a new generation of guys at the helm in the club and school scenes, I expect things to continue to progress in the positive direction. I consider myself very fortunate to have been in a position to coach and mentor kids from Farmington inside of that tradition. It is important for us as graduates within that culture to remind our kids where they come from and whom they play for. I can never arrive at or leave from Ricketts or the StrikeZone without having a conversation with someone from the baseball community in Farmington, and while most of these conversations are just baseball bullshit, they all begin from the perspectives of two or more people who grew up within that community. Guys like me remember stuff that happened decades ago like it just happened, and I don’t think that is as common in other areas.
Coaching has allowed me to pay off a number of debts that I accrued as a player. I was the kind of player that had the nerve to pick up the phone in the middle of the day, interrupt my coaches at their day job, and ask them to come throw me BP or hit me fungo. Most of the time, these coaches would drop whatever it was that they were doing to come help me out. As a coach I was honored when a player would call me and ask me to do the same. I always dropped everything and got to the cage or the field as fast as I could. My coaches taught me that no payment is ever enough to cover the cost of good BP or fungo. The debt is to the game, and players repay it by adopting the role of coach as soon as their last AB as a player concludes.
However, coaching is not always easy or kind. The politics and internal stresses, which go unnoticed as players, require time and careful words when you’re the guy making the schedule and lineups. Families who were our biggest supporters when their kid was starting would rather you didn’t exist when that same kid is not starting two weeks later. While I am a supporter of total transparency between the coaches and players, by the time The Series concluded, I at least understand the older generations of coaches and their cling to silence.
The game has brought me an endless supply of joy. Almost every important lesson I learned growing up could have been taught with almost nothing more than the game. Baseball is the most important piece of American culture. We are lucky to have it, and it needs to be treated as such. I personally think Derek Jeter should be instated as the President of the United States the day he retires. He should stay as long as he wants. The White House should be moved to Cooperstown…or Farmington…and a minimum requirement for a position in Congress should be a 5-year career in the Bigs.
In all seriousness, though, saying goodbye to the game has been a very emotional experience. Maybe I learned it from Coach Hollibaugh, but the last post-game talk of the season is always accompanied by a great deal of tears. The team probably thinks I am a huge baby. Maybe I am, but I always hate saying good-bye to a team. Nothing makes me feel like I am losing years more than watching players go their separate ways after a season or a career. This feels like that to me, but a duller and more drawn out version. The good news is that many of the players I coached will still be playing their college ball when I graduate, and I look forward to taking a road trip with Griff to wherever it is they are all playing at the time. He just found about that plan when he read that sentence. Anybody else who wants in is in. The trip ends in Appleton where Grinnell is going to win the National Championship.
Thanks to the game. Let’s not make it a goodbye. Let’s make it a see you soon.