Sunday, July 24, 2011

LeCure, Twitter, and the Meaning of Life

LeCure, Twitter, and the Meaning of Life
By Aaron M. Smith

"It's what you bring to the table, not what you wear to it." -- Sam LeCure
Sam LeCure
Sam LeCure is not Cy Young. He may never win one either. But what he represents is what baseball is all about -- the journey, the struggles, the joy in success, the frustration in coming up short. He has the tools to last longer than a cup of coffee in the Bigs and the proper perspective to be just fine if he doesn't.

I was at LeCure's Major League debut last year when the Reds throttled Houston at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. All he was to me at that time was simply a prospect with an encouraging first outing. But in the year since, he's become a lot more.

Thanks to Twitter.

I began following him on the social media site not long after that game and was immediately immersed in the world of an up-and-coming baseball player. Reading his tweets, one gets a glimpse at the life of someone trying to live out a dream. One sees what life is like in the minor leagues and how excited a guy can be when he takes the mound in a Big League stadium. More importantly, one sees that baseball does not define a player. There is so much more to LeCure. He's an uncle who loves that role. He's a music lover -- it often serves as "therapy" for LeCure. He's a dreamer, a thinker, a philosopher. He's more than just some guy who can help my team win.

LeCure, a 6-foot-1, 205 pounder with a wild-west mustache and a strong right arm, hails from Jefferson City, MO.  He was drafted by Philadelphia out of high school in the 2002 amateur draft, but did not sign. Instead he played college ball for Texas before getting drafted and signed by the Reds in the 2005 draft. LeCure was called up to Cincinnati last May and made his major league debut in a start for the Reds on May 28, 2010 against the Houston Astros. LeCure pitched six innings, gave up two runs and six hits with four walks while striking out five batters. He was also the beneficiary of the Reds' offense producing fifteen runs on nineteen hits. Since then, he has bounced up and down between the Reds and their AAA affiliate Louisville. He currently is the long-relief man in Dusty Baker's bull pen.

Growing up, I always got the image of baseball players driving convertibles and living in mansions. As I've become an adult, that couldn't be further from reality. Sure there are some -- the superstars -- who live that lifestyle. But the majority of baseball players do not -- and these are the guys that are far more interesting to me. I love to hear about the struggles of fighting through the minor leagues to get to the show. 

"I don't know what to say folks," LeCure tweeted earlier this season. "I desperately want to pitch and I feel like I'm wasting space as I'm sure you all do. I'm ready if they call."

I crave stories of real life, real guys making it. That is Sam LeCure.

"I'll say this, my first trip to Wrigley was a memorable one," LeCure tweeted after pitching well in Chicago. "So happy to help the team win, and what a cool ballpark. Thanks, #beeasy."

LeCure gets it. He's not spoiled by his opportunity with the Reds. He does not have some skewed view of the world because he's a major league baseball player. He understands, and more importantly, appreciates the opportunities that have come his way. And he lives out this life, this journey of his on Twitter.

He engages his fans in philosophical discussions: "Sports, politics, humanity, what's going on in the world that is in the forefront of your mind?"

He gives his fans a glimpse of what it's like to live the life of a traveling ball player: "Nothing quite like waking up and having no idea where you are. Lovely #roadwarrior"

And he embraces his family life: "Just talked to my Pop for a while, I love that guy. He is who he is and hes cool with that, and so am I. Can't wait to give him a big hug."

LeCure takes us on road trips with him with his regular "top step pictures." He stands on the top steps of the dugout in each stadium he visits and takes a picture. He then posts it to Twitter. It shows his appreciation of where he is and allows his fans to see the awesome view of sitting in a major league dugout.

He also provides his fans a healthy dose of perspective and thought in his "five things." Every once in a while, he posts five things that he is thankful for or items that he is thinking about. Rarely, if ever, is it baseball related. He does his readers a lot of good by showing that there is more to life than how well or poorly the Reds may be playing. Life goes beyond baseball.
"#5things -yet another chance to grow -treating yourself to something nice -a thoughtful gift for someone -sunshine -the ability to learn" -- @mrLeCure
It has been a treat to watch LeCure grow as a pitcher for the Reds and to "get to know" him through Twitter. When Dusty calls to the pen to bring him in, I feel like someone I know is getting called to the mound. I root for his success, not only as a Reds fan, but because I genuinely want to see LeCure succeed. He's the kind of guy I root for in sports.

LeCure's quest for success on the field and his craving of wisdom and knowledge off of it is inspiring. I will always be a fan of his.

And it will have nothing to do with is ERA.

NOTE: Follow Sam LeCure on Twitter -- @mrLeCure

Friday, July 15, 2011

Dipped in Magic Waters

Dipped in Magic Waters
By Aaron M. Smith

"And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces." -- Terence Mann

Me in the left field corn at the Field of Dreams site in Iowa.
There was a pause, a moment of thought, and then I went for it. With the moonlight as my guide on that pitch black Iowa night, I sprinted with the exuberance of a 10-year old on Opening Day across the small stream of water. I galloped onto the cool damp grass on that putrid hot night, forgetting the anxiety that came with trespassing on private property well past midnight. The magic in the moonlight was palpable; I would not have been surprised had Joe Jackson himself emerged from the darkness of the cornfield.

My brother Jeremy and I were giddy; the quietness of the night, the breeze on our faces, and the smell of the sweet corn in the outfield transported us to our youth. There is something about that place that you can feel in your gut. It turns adults into little boys with over-sized baseball caps full of dreams of making it to the Bigs someday when they grow up. With clouds rushing past the nearly full moon that night, Jeremy and I patrolled the outfield grass. We walked into the corn, disappearing into the darkness, half expecting to magically land in some sort of baseball heaven. We didn't need to be magically transported; we were already there.

Me and Jeremy in Iowa.
Walking onto that field had been a dream of mine since I first watched Field of Dreams so many years ago on the eve of yet another Opening Day. Year after year, our family would gather in the living room with popcorn and put in the movie to get us in the mood for the start of the season -- the official start of summer -- the next afternoon. Being out there on that field in the darkness of night with only the sound of rustling corn stalks and the occasional passing car, it was apparent to me that the magic was certainly real.

After we had our share on the field that night, we drove back to the hotel a few miles away and hurried to sleep so that we could return in the morning. After breakfast, we went and bought a baseball glove and drove the beautiful serpentine roads of rural Iowa until we found the long gravel driveway of the farmhouse. To see the field in daylight was just as spectacular as the night before. I could visualize the whole movie -- Joe Jackson cracking fly balls to the cornfield in left, Archie winking, Terence Mann on the bleachers.

Jeremy and I played catch where Ray tossed with his dad. We swatted homeruns (from second base!) to hear the ball tear away at corn leaves on chest-high stalks. I played third base while a young boy took batting practice from his dad. I smacked a deep drive (this time from home plate!) off a perfect pitch from another boy and I ran all 360 feet around the base paths, sliding into home through a pile of red clay gravel. We walked the field more than once and talked to other visitors. One man, probably in his 70s, also strolled slowly in the outfield with his hands clasped behind his back. I asked him if he'd been here before. He had. Every single year since the field opened up to visitors, he made the drive from Indiana to soak in the magic.

But why? Why did he drive every year from Indiana to some empty baseball field in the middle of rural Iowa? Why did Jeremy and I make sure to visit the field? Why had it been a dream of mine to do that for so many years?

The Field of Dreams house
Growing up in rural Ohio, basketball was my favorite sport to play and football was my favorite to watch. However, as I have gotten older, baseball has become my favorite sport over the others. By far. Baseball is a special sport. It is timeless. Unlike any other sport, baseball immediately transports you to memories as a kid. I still fondly remember October of 1990 when my dad woke up my brothers and me to catch the end of the Cincinnati Reds' sweep of the Oakland Athletics. We had actually been listening to Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall on a little box radio in our bedroom. But sitting with our legs crossed in the living room with my dad as Randy Myers jogged onto the field to close the ninth inning was special. Baseball has a connection beyond teams and players. It serves as a bond between fathers and children, brothers, and friends.

Mighty Sierra at the bat
Now that I have three children of my own, baseball serves as a constant in our lives. Whether we are watching the Reds on a warm summer night, or playing ball in the backyard, baseball is bringing joy and laughter to our lives. My daughter Sierra, now four, loves to tell me the score of the game. "Daddy, I have bad news," she'll say with a frown. "The Reds have only three runs and the blue team has five runs." But when the Reds take a lead, she sprints over to me with the thrilling news. My son Aidan, now two, knows the lyrics to Take Me Out to the Ball Game. He always requests his baseball shirts. He loves the Cincinnati Reds and Jay Bruce. I took him to a Reds game for his second birthday and we sat in the right field seats. He yelled "Bruuuuuuce!" the entire game. And little Natalie, just seven months, is getting started. She wears her little Reds onesies for big games.

Sierra and Aidan have the bond of baseball.
These are the moments I will undoubtedly be whisked back to some years from now when the three of them have left our house. The sound of their laughter, the crack of the bat, the happiness of Chrissy's cheering as Sierra races around makeshift bases after hitting a rocket past daddy. How I will long to hear Aidan's grand finale of "the old ball game!" I'll dream of sitting in the bright red seats of Great American Ball Park with my amazing children, eating hot dogs, and cheering on our team. What baseball has already brought to our lives is immeasurable. Baseball is beyond happiness.

It's heaven.

And that is why a lonely old man strolls around an empty diamond in rural Iowa every summer with visions of his father or brothers or friends playing baseball on an emerald swath of grass so many years ago.

A "ghost player" recreating the role of Chicago White Sox legend Shoeless Joe Jackson plays ball with a young tourist
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Friday, July 8, 2011

What If?

Police and fans look down to where Shannon Stone fell to his death. -- AP photo
What If?
By Aaron M. Smith

What if?

What if Oakland's Conor Jackson checked his swing? What if Jackson didn't swing at all? What if the foul ball did not ricochet into the outfield? What if Texas's Josh Hamilton hadn't heard Shannon Stone calling for the ball? What if Hamilton threw the ball just a few feet further?

What if?

If any of those things happened, a young son would not have had to watch his dad die after falling 20 feet to a concrete floor at what should have been the awesome experience of a father-and-son night at the ball park.

It sickens to me see the replay of Stone reaching over the railing for the ball, just in front of his son. He toppled over the railing head first and disappeared behind the wall leaving only the imagination to visualize the horror that happened next.

Witnesses said Stone had head and arm injuries but was conscious, repeatedly asking about his son who then was by himself. Fans near the son brought him down the stairs to be with his dad. Everyone thought he would be OK. But on the way to the hospital in the ambulance, Stone tragically went into cardiac arrest and passed away leaving a young boy without a dad.

As soon as I saw this clip and read the story, my mind was a tangle of "what ifs." I tend to do that when I hear of tragedy. The smallest of changes could affect the tragic outcome. So many little things or even things that seemingly are unrelated -- what if the Reds never traded Hamilton to the Rangers -- can keep tragedy from happening. I don't know why I do this; it's not going to change a thing. It only makes me sicker to think about the tiny things that could have prevented a horrible outcome.

While reading this tragic story, I also noticed something that I also see every time there is a tragedy. Perusing the "comments" section of the story, I found a litany of comments blaming this person or that person. Some wanted to blame Hamilton for being careless with his toss of the baseball. Some wanted to blame the Rangers organization for not having preventative measures set up to prevent a fall like this. Others even sadly wanted to blame the dad for thinking more about the baseball than his or his son's protection. I think it's obvious after hearing about the man that Stone was, nothing could be further from the truth. Stone was a class act and a model for fathers everywhere. So why does there always need to be blame passed around?

I read a blog written by a mother who lost a child and she noticed the same thing. She writes:
"Why, when something tragic happens, do we automatically think there has to be a culprit, there has to be a well-defined reason, there has to be something that could have been done that would have avoided the end result?
"The answer isn’t pretty…
"Because we’d like to think it couldn’t happen to us.
"We would have seen something was wrong. We would have noticed the one thing that could save our child’s life. We would never, ever have missed the obvious.

"We are not in control of every minute detail of our lives. We can’t account for every circumstance, every decision made by someone else, every path God will lead us down.
"Tragedy happens. It doesn’t always have a direct cause that we humans can easily pinpoint.  We’d do better to offer compassion to those reeling in the aftermath than heap salt on the wounds by playing the blame game."
I realize I'm a little all over the place with this post, but I just can't seem to get the story out of my mind. I'm thinking of the poor boy who now will associate his dad's death with our national pastime -- a natural bond between father and son now serves as the ultimate separation. My mind goes to the "what if" scenario, but that doesn't help. Looking to blame someone here doesn't help either.

Like the mother said in her blog, "tragedy happens." It happens in the blink of an eye.

No "what if" can change that.