It’s taking me some time to process this, and without wanting to get too maudlin or melancholy, these were some of the moments that came rushing to the front of my mind as his final game wound down, his team on the losing end of the first round of playoffs. These were the moments that came to me during our post-game parent commiseration gathering, and these were the moments I reflected on last night as I lay in bed… the years have passed like moments, but the moments themselves live as years in my memory.
I remembered the very first gift I gave him, on his birth, which was a bat made by a company that was getting a lot of press at the time called, appropriately enough, Sam Bat. I remember we used to play the silliest and most fun made-up game when we lived in Seattle and he was no more than four. We had a Fisher-Price t-ball set, and two plastic balls, and he would set one ball on the tee with me standing about 20 feet away and I would hurl the other ball as hard as I could to try to knock the ball off before he could hit it, and we would invariably end up laughing hysterically as we rushed to get the balls back on the tee and do it all over again.
I remember going to Safeco Field to watch the Mariners (and his hero Ichiro), and he was more interested in the planes flying overhead than he was the action on the field. I remembered him making a catch at Joe Wagner Field during Little League (he and I now refer to it simply as “The Catch”) — he was playing shortstop and a line drive was hit to the third baseman, the ball went off the third baseman’s glove, popped into the air, and Sam had the presence of mind (and field positioning) to dive for it and make the catch (it kills me that I don’t have it on video, it was truly a Sports Center “Da Da Da” highlight). I remember picking him up one Saturday morning at his friend Jack Wirth’s house after a sleepover, and pulling into the Redwood High School parking lot on the way home to break the news to him that while most of his friends got pulled up to the Majors, he did not and had to do another year of Minors… he was crushed, crying curled up in a ball on the seat of my car and all I wanted to do was take him in my arms and tell him it would all be okay. I remember him saying he might quit, and I told him the decision was up to him, but I thought it might be a really good opportunity for him to lead a team as a captain, and he ultimately embraced it and had a phenomenal year.
I remember him winning the Twin Cities Little League’s Bob Bascomb Spirit and Sportsmanship Award not once but twice and being so proud that his skills transcended that of the game. I remember a seemingly unending number of days, evenings, weekends and holidays at various fields (seemed like every Mother’s Day was spent in the stands — yet the moms were total troopers). I remember countless days in which one of us would say to the other, “Wanna throw the ball around?” and him knowing that I would drop literally anything to do it, no matter what. I was reminded of that in a note he wrote me for my birthday this year in which he talked about how aware he is that he only has four more months in which to do that before he leaves for college. I remember when one of his coaches suggested he move from shortstop (where he’d played pretty consistently in his early years) to the outfield, and I remember him saying that he was an infield guy and that he wasn’t sure he knew how to play the outfield, or if he really wanted to. I remember telling him, “Yes, you do know how to play the outfield,” because while playing catch on the street some of the pop flies he fielded were epic, and he knew how to get under them, get his glove into position, and watch the ball all the way into it. To his credit, he stayed with it and pretty soon owned center field — his speed, his range, and his innate knowledge of where the ball was going (Gretzy-esque — don’t go where it is, go where it’s gonna be) are all things that his coaches since have commented and complimented him on.
I remember when one of his coaches called me after selecting Sam for his team to ask if I’d be willing to be an assistant coach, and I remember telling him that I’d be happy to help, but that Sam had surpassed my physical and mental grasp of the game the previous year so I wasn’t sure how much I’d really be able to help. I remember Sam struggling to hit (there were some dry years offensively), and telling him, “Don’t worry about the last pitch, think about the next pitch,” and thinking at the time that that’s not only a good baseball lesson but it’s a pretty damn good life lesson about not dwelling in the past but envisioning the future you want for yourself. I will always remember being lucky enough (undying thanks to Leonard Hoops) to be able to take him to Game 2 of the 2010 World Series at AT&T Park on his 11th birthday.
I remember him being invited to join a travel ball team, The Pirates, with which he would eventually visit the ESPN Sports Complex in Orlando and play on the Atlanta Braves’ spring training field, and I remember him being concerned that the players would all be better than he was, and talking about how that will only help him get better, that whenever you can, “play up,” because you’ll improve more quickly than you would playing with people who are just as good or not as good as you. I remember that trip, with the team playing against a very strong team from Panama, with Sam up with two outs in the last inning and the Pirates losing, and I remember being on the phone with my wife Leigh Ann because I was so nervous for him and I didn’t want him to feel like he’d lost the game if he struck out, and I wanted to tell her that we’d just lost the game and would be heading home soon and whaddayaknow the kid got a bouncer base hit over the first baseman’s head, which scored the tying run, and I remember instead of reporting the sad news to Leigh, all of a sudden I was jumping up and down screaming and crying at the same time, and all I remember is her saying, “Is he hurt Is he hurt!??” because I was screaming so loud and she couldn’t understand a thing I was saying.
I remember he’s now played pretty much every position on the field except maybe first base, and he was good at all of them, so never let anyone tell you that versatility and adaptability aren’t important. I remember him playing center field during summer ball between his freshman and sophomore years, and in an effort to get some boys some time playing different positions, the coach had put the catcher into left field. When a ball was hit to left center, both boys went for it, of course neither one called it — and they collided. Hard. I’ll never forget the sound of the crack, or the reaction in the crowd, which was split directly along gender lines — the women were all horrified at the sound of the crash, wondering if the boys were okay, and as Sam came up with the ball (having caught it), all the men in the crowd were like, “How the hell did he hang onto that?” I remember he was supposed to bat fourth that inning, but they went 1–2–3, so he went back out to play center, made another catch, and when the side was retired, came in to bat. Or so I thought. Instead, one of the other players went to the plate in his place. I remember wondering, “What happened?” and then I saw him come around the corner of the dugout to wave me down — not normal behavior. As I got close, I remember him saying, as he gestured with his hands to a spot on his left periphery, “Dad, I can’t see anything right here.” I remember my heart dropping, because that only meant one thing — a concussion. He went on lockdown, did all the protocol and ultimately when checked out and approved to return by the doctor, I remember her saying, “I’ll clear you to play football this fall, but if you get a concussion playing football I’m not going to clear you to play baseball in the Spring.” And I remember that for him the decision was an easy one — as much as he’d enjoyed football his freshman year, he knew he didn’t want to miss baseball. So he skipped football, and didn’t play either his sophomore or junior years.
I remember how proud we were that he was named MVP by his teammates his Sophomore year, and that he was pulled up to Varsity at the end of the year for the playoffs along with a handful of other Sophomores… then I remember the struggles of his junior year season, after being out of school for almost two weeks due to a retreat and then being sick, and how crushed he was to lose his starting position, and yet while he was clearly upset at home he stayed positive at the field, and never lost his enthusiasm for the game or his support for his teammates.
I remember him going back to football his senior year, and the incredible community that the coach built, one that was very different from his junior year baseball team, and that even though he wasn’t starting, he was FIRED UP to be part of the team. Having not played the previous two years, we didn’t have high expectations, but he ended up getting three touchdowns over the course of the season, and the team went deep into the playoffs. The Saturday night they lost their last game, I remember him feeling that it was over, not feeling it as deeply as some of the other boys who had played all four years felt it, but even within Sam, I could tell it hurt, and that he was starting to realize things were coming to an end. The team got home at 3:00 Sunday morning, Sam slept until noon, and then jumped right into several hours of homework. I remember it was about 4:00 that afternoon and he came downstairs, stood in the doorway where I was working, and with a knowing smile on his face, said, “Wanna throw the baseball around?” Nothing he (or anyone else) could have said to me at that moment would have made me happier.
I remember the friends and teammates over the years, like Nick Buechert, the Gardner twins, Will Magnuson, Jack Wirth, Ben Skinner, Chad Vasquez and so many others, and I remember the coaches like Steve “Skip” Lightfoot, Bill Ryan, Chad Solter, Lance Armstrong, and Darrick Hale, most of whom were phenomenal and only one that we remember was a nightmare and under whose unwatchful eye Sam made no forward progress (but I’m not still bitter or angry). I will always remember his hit this year, his senior year, against a strong San Marin team, fortunately and fortuitously captured on video by one of the other dads, after MC was down 7–0 in the 5th, the team came streaking back, and with two outs and two runners on base, Sam hit a perfect double down the left field line to score two RBIs and take the lead and it was as exciting for me as his hit in Orlando was.
I will always remember the bounce of his run out to center field, how happy he was to be going to that place where he was so comfortable and confident, where he got the nickname “The Springer Spaniel” from Sam Skinner for his speed and enthusiasm. And I will remember him saying to me, as we hugged following last night’s game, “This isn’t over, I’m not ready, I’m going to try to walk on at USD this fall.”
Don’t think about the last pitch, young man, think about the next pitch. I love you, and am so proud of you.