Baseball Gods and Fantasy Football

When I looked at my phone and saw 11-8, my heart dropped. I clicked “My Team” and scrolled through my players, looked at Team Smith’s roster, and consulted ESPN. Then, being home for Thanksgiving break, I ran outside, where my dad was mowing the lawn. I made him stop and showed him my phone, pointing to where I was projected to lose 123-126.

“I wouldn’t worry about it until after the first quarter,” he said.

I joined the crazy world of fantasy football because Ted Kluck, the faculty advisor for our school newspaper, walked up to the table where my friend Lydia and I were eating in Cobo, pointed at me, and said, “Caleb [the sports editor] and I are making a fantasy football league. You need to join. There’s an email in your inbox.”

I grew up in Tampa. We have three major sports: hockey, baseball, and football. But we’re not known for our football. Or our baseball. (In a good way.) For me, though, the difference between football and baseball is that I enjoy baseball.

I have never watched a televised football game. I have watched a lot of high school football games…using the word “watched” loosely. I ran the concession stand, talked to my friends, and called quarters “innings”.

Even as I agreed to join fantasy football, I knew that my competitive nature would take over. I started running crosscountry in middle school. My first meet, I was in fourth place, mere feet from the finish line, when I stopped. I couldn’t see straight. I could barely walk. My flushed red face contrasted with my dead white lips. Following my dad’s voice, I kept lurching to the finish where I swooned and threw up. I still finished seventh in a race with more than a hundred runners, but it the fact that I could have been fourth or possibly even third bugged me well into high school.

My first two weeks playing fantasy were not great. I lost both. My first week, I played the team that led the league for nine week on his best game of the season. My second game I only lost by seven points. Then I buckled down.

I started reading about football. ESPN, Sports Illustrated, CBS…anything that could give me an insight into this world of tackles and touchdowns. I started consulting with my dad. I checked my line-up and stats over and over and over.

And the Alley Cats started winning. After those first two games, I went on an eight-game winning streak. By week 11, I led the league in points. I led the western league. Only Ted, whose team was 9-1, was ahead of me.

Week 11, my team played Team Smith. It was three weeks to the play-offs and I if I won, I would only need one more win to clinch a spot in the play-offs. Plus, I like to win. Sunday, I checked my phone constantly. My defense had played Thursday and almost gave me 15 points, but they allowed 17 points in the 4th quarter, leaving me with eight.

I was projected to lose, then win by 12 points, then we were projected to tie, then she was projected to win, then me. Then tie.

If art and creativity do come from pain, the next few weeks may result in the best writing of my life.

I took my laptop down to the living room. To watch a football game. On TV. For the first time. Ever.

The Bucs were playing the Kansas City Chiefs. (Until maybe an hour before, I didn’t know that Kansas City had a team other than the Royals). According to an article by Tom Jones, the Bucs reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, the Chiefs are arguably the best team in the AFC. (I also didn’t know what the AFC was.) They were at an NFL-best 17-2, an 11-game winning steak, and 16-4 at home since the 2014 season. Sports Illustrated ranked them No. 3 in their power rankings. The Bucs were No. 21.

Jones wrote, “If you’re an NFL team, there are three types of games: Games that you are supposed to win. Games that you are supposed to lose. And games that could go either way. Today is a game the Bucs are supposed to lose…But sooner or later, if you’re going to take the next step as a franchise, you have to win games you’re not supposed to. You need to pull off an upset that makes everyone go, ‘Whoa!’”

When I joined fantasy football, I knew that I would probably lose. How could a girl who never had any interest in football possibly compete with a bunch of guys who have been watching the sport their whole lives?

But if ever the baseball gods were smiling on their downtrodden worshippers, they were this year. The year that the teams with the two worst records in the MLB faced each other in the World Series. The year that people yell-sang “Go, Cubs, Go” all the way down Lake Shore Drive and threw blue streamers in the air. Maybe – just maybe – this was the year that a baseball-loving football novice from Tampa could win a fantasy football league.

11:30 p.m. Team Smith was finished with 134 points. I bit my nails, watching my last three men, none of them earning me points. Washington kept trying to run for extra points (I forget what that’s called) instead of using my kicker. Then, when my fantasy score was 133-134, they used my kicker. And instead of tying the game for me, his kick sent the football into the side of the goalpost.

I screamed.

I screamed again, less than two minutes later, when Adams caught a pass and earned me five points.

The Bucs won that week, too. Sometimes you do win games you shouldn’t.

(And, hopefully, the baseball gods will at least wink at Tampa next season.)

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From the Mountain to the Ocean

SSIIt started on the top of a mountain.

I was a metal-mouthed middle schooler who highlighted her already-blonde hair. The chemicals gave my strands a distinctly yellow look, which really accentuated the cheeky splash of rose-colored acne. (This isn’t particularly relevant to the story, but it’s something I’m still working through.)

I went for a hike with my dad, uncle, and two male cousins, but left the testosterone-dominated group far behind me the entire time, moving swiftly over the rocky, uphill path, like a balletic leopard. (I imagine. This can neither be confirmed nor denied because everyone else was too far behind.) At the top, my dad captured my moment of triumph with a photograph of me standing with legs apart, one hand on my hip, gazing victoriously over the tops of trees and mountains, far above everything for miles. That was when my parents decided to sign me up for cross country.

 

I wake up before my alarm and silently slither down the bunk bed, trying not to step on my sister or our cousin Katie. I step into the bathroom, change my clothes, secure my hair in high ponytail, and slip out the door.

The walk is short, but slightly painful as bumpy asphalt slap the bottom of my feet until I reach the long, wooden dock that leads to the beach. Approaching the water, I adjust my earphones, set my alarm for 20 minutes, and take off down the shore.

My bare feet noiselessly pound the coarse sand, rubbing the balls of my feet and the tip of my toes. My feet massage the shore like it’s one of those balls people grip to relieve stress. The muscles of my right calf clench as they prepare to launch me, relax for a split second as I am airborne, then my left heel sinks into the damp ground.  As the rest of my foot comes down, I shift my weight to my toes and lift off the ground again.

It’s just before 6 o’clock in the morning and the sun is only a glimmer of light above the gray waves. I always start running toward the east, watching the sun timidly peek over the horizon. Shocked by its beautiful reflection in the waves, it serenely floats to the top of the sky in a self-content blaze of pink and golden glory.

As a college student, I’m always surprised by the sheer number of people (which is, maybe, 15) that wake up at dawn to walk their dogs or simply walk toward the new day.

When my alarm rings, I turn my back toward the sun, set it for another 40 minutes, and keep going. Typically, I run over six miles in an hour. However, running on sand requires about 1.5 times more energy than my usual runs on pavement, so I’m not quite sure how far I’ve gone. As an extremely competitive person who takes great satisfaction in the unsung victory of beating her own personal best, I usually monitor my runs religiously, noting distance and time. But somehow, that doesn’t matter today. In fact, it seems almost sacrilegious to run past the shattered mosaic of shells, my iPod drowning the joyous chorus of clapping waves with Broadway music.

When my alarm goes off and I turn around again, the sun is a golden flame. The hot, thick air has teased my thin, straight hair into the frightening texture of a Miss America contestant after a hard night’s sleep. My ponytail hangs down my back in a damp curls, fly away hairs form rakish rings around my head. I can feel the grit of salt on my face, but I’m not sure if it’s from sweat or the ocean air.

I purposely ran 20 minutes past the entrance to the beach, so my cooldown is a long, leisurely walk back to the house. Somehow, shuffling my bare feet along the shoreline gives me the same feeling as reaching the top of that mountain – unconquerable and on top of the whole, beautiful world.

Get Lost…or Not…

My cross country coach delighted in misdirection.

Three days a week, she rounded us up at the crack of dawn for a workout at the Dover Horse Trails, a network of paths leading through woodland, field, and Florida scrub at different stages. (If you don’t know what Florida scrub is, I’m sorry, but I won’t try to explain it.) I had to wear two pairs of socks and wrap my feet in bandages to prevent the dew from soaking through my shoes and socks and leaving gaping blisters on my feet.

Getting lost on those dew-soaked, godforsaken trails was practically a rite of passage for the cross country team. It brought Coach Laura a certain level of sadistic satisfaction. She said that when we got lost, she got to see how far we could really run. (Because, for some reason, no wrong turn led to a shorter route. It was just endless miles of scrub…which you can Google, if you’re so curious.)

Well, I just finished my second week of living in Birmingham. I moved into my apartment on Monday, May 30. And on Tuesday, June 1, I started my summer internship, working as a full time reporter.

Suddenly, not only was I living in a strange city – a strange state, actually – I had to write about a city that consists of five different regions, find my way around it/them for stories, interviews, and photos.

Let me tell you – I have gotten lost a lot in the past week.

I have missed turns, taken wrongs turns…made more mistakes I won’t talk about because the people who pay for my car insurance read this blog…

And as I miserably blundered my way through Birmingham traffic for so long I heard the same song play on the radio three times, I could not help but dolefully reflect on the philosophical implications of getting lost.

It is easy to have a devil-may-care attitude about getting lost when you have a safety net. Namely, Madam GPS. I apologize to her when I miss turns after she has patiently informed me that my turn is one mile…three quarters of a mile…half a mile…a quarter of a mile…900 feet…500 feet…250 feet…100 feet in back of you and two lanes away, you bumbling idiot.

Actually, she has extraordinary patience. (Which is why I wish all people were like phones: calm and easy to put away. There’s never any drama with a phone.) But it also makes it easier for me; I know that if I make a mistake, she will almost instantly compensate for it and steer me onto the right path.

I know that we grow by making mistakes (which is probably what Coach Laura was getting at, in addition to her perverse thrill) but we shouldn’t be careless about it. Mistakes happen so that we can learn how to not make that mistake again.

And yet, I still turn when she says I have 800 more feet to go because I’m not actually paying attention to the street signs.

Which is probably the bigger lesson here: take advantage of the resources you have to prevent yourself from making that stupid mistake.

Heurism is an effective teaching method, but it’s also a dangerous one. Mistakes don’t just affect us. It’s a miracle I haven’t killed someone abruptly turning without my signal or screeching across multiple lanes to get to my exit.

And we should be grateful when we have directions.

Right now, my directions end at the edge of a stage, clutching a diploma – an empty roadmap that assures the world I am qualified to set out on my own, but doesn’t give a single hint about which way I should go. I don’t know if I’ll step left or right or keep going straight. I’ll probably just take a swan dive and land on my face.

But my feet will hit the ground, too, eventually.

I guess we if we use our heads and stop blindly following a robotic voice, we’ll all emerge stronger from our time wandering in the Florida scrub. (Seriously, look it up.)

Where Spring Begins

baseballWe paid ten dollars to the lady wearing a Home Depot apron and neon traffic vest for the honor of parking at the Good Earth Crematory, right next to Bradenton Propane, across the street from Top Gun Towing. We piled out of the car and followed one of the golf carts driven by a security member (as denoted by his red collared shirt with the yellow “P” embroidered over his heart) to the oasis of tall palm trees poking out from the surrounding yards of rusty chain-link fence.

This was my last night in Florida. The next day, I would fly back to Jackson, Tennessee. The day I left, it was 48-degrees with fierce winds blowing across a landscape of brown grass and gray skies. Growing up in the Sunshine State, I struggle to understand why it still feels like the dead of winter in March, but that isn’t what prevented it from feeling like spring; it was the sense of not honoring one of our beloved traditions: spring training.

Outside McKechnie Field, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training field, one man holds up helmets with Pirates’ and Tampa Bay Rays’ logos, calling out, “Ten dollars! Ten dollars!” Two men hold fistfuls of tickets in the air and cry with raspy voices, “Tickets! Tickets! Tickets!” They stare us down with dollar signs dancing in their vulture-like eyes even though we’re holding our large, pre-printed entry passes to scare them off.

It’s only 15 minutes until game time and a sizable crowd is meandering into the stadium, a mob of black and yellow Pirate jerseys, blue and white Rays jerseys, and gaudy Hawaiian prints. The crowd narrows into four lines, passing by security guards who scan passes and glance into bags for contraband (weapons, drugs, and opened water bottles).

We finally squeeze through. Even though I’ve been coming to ballparks for as long as I can remember, I am still hopelessly incapable of finding seats. Trusting my dad’s confident stride, I follow my parents around the back of the grandstand.

The tops of palm trees reach higher than any of the bleachers. Green, perfectly manicured grass grows around the trunks of the trees, like small squares of the perfectly manicured lawns of the expensive houses by the bay. People recline in plastic lawn chairs, sipping large cups of lemonade in the shade.

Fried foods, grilled onions and peppers, hotdogs, and ketchup scent the open-air stadium. Smoke rises from some of the food vendor stalls, not black smoke, but a delicate, whitish smoke that promises something delicious and fattening is about to come off the grill. Although the food vendors wear black caps with yellow “P” on them, branding them for Pittsburgh, their tanned arms and easy-going smiles have a distinctly Floridian vibe.

I used to have a system for eating at the ballpark. After the third inning, while the groundkeepers tidied the field, I would get a foot-long hot dog, ketchup oozing over the meat and a thin line of mustard down one side. I never added mustard when I ate a hot dog at home, but the baseball diamond seemed to require a special touch, like trying to dress up an old t-shirt with a statement necklace. After the sixth inning, when the groundkeepers again magically re-emerged, pulling their rakes, I would slowly consume a pretzel larger than my fist, cholesterol levels flaring as I bit into the chewy dough wrapped in a chrysalis of salt. My gluten allergy and health consciousness (read: calorie counting) prevent me from eating those foods now, but the smell still makes my mouth water and heart beat a little faster.

It’s almost 6 p.m. on the last Saturday of March and the Florida sun, while not oppressive, shines brightly. My dad and I are wearing shorts and a Rays shirt, but Mom wore jeans, an elbow-length Tampa Bay Lightning shirt over a camisole, and a baseball cap with the logo of the company my dad works for.

“I didn’t realize we were playing the Pirates,” she says regretfully, adjusting the black and yellow hat. Dad reminds her that this is their stadium.

Mom removes the Lightning shirt soon after sitting down. I pull down the brim of my hot pink Rays cap just over my eyebrows so I could see home base without squinting. Over the course of the game, the sun slowly dropped out of sight, warming the left side of my face. This is probably the only spring training game I’ve been to that I won’t get a sunburn.

The players are still warming up, rolling on the ground with resistance bands, throwing a ball back and forth, and running with strange, skipping steps, kicking their knees high and wringing their waists like a wet towel. A few jerseys don’t have names on them, signifying their minor league status.

Mom nudges me and points to kids crowding the fences, holding balls, notebooks, and Sharpies high in the air. “Remember when that was Ryan?”

We used to come to games three hours early so that my cousin Ryan could collect autographs. However, now that he’s 6’4” and captain of the high school football team, players overlook him (or look under him) in favor of younger fans.

We’re sitting in the grandstand near the Pirates’ dugout, surrounded by black and yellow shirts. We’re less than an hour away from Tampa Bay, home of the Rays, but these interlopers have acclimated themselves nicely to their sunny environment, growing like an exotic plant, trying to choke out the native flora.

I don’t actually have anything against the Pirates or their fans (unlike the Red Sox or Yankees). Nevertheless, I feel a mother-bear protectiveness whenever my team is playing.

I’m too far away to hear the sounds of the game: the taunting whistle of the ball as it jauntily flies over home plate at over 90 mph; the desperate whoosh of the bat as a nameless jersey wildly beats the air; the low, satisfying thump as a fly ball securely nestles itself in an outfielder’s outstretched glove; the scuffle of cleats as a player slides onto a base; the emphatic, guttural declarations of the umpire.

The noise surrounding me drowns out what is happening on the field. My ears hum with cheers when a beloved player steps up to bat. The child behind me tries to intelligently discuss the game. (“Can he steal the base now, dad?”) A couple can’t figure out where they’re supposed to sit and keep getting booted out from their seats complain complacently. The loudspeaker echoes with announcements. (“Now, stepping up to the mound, third baseman, Evan Longoria!”) The food vendors impressively extend monosyllabic words as they climb through the stands. (“Bee-eer! Get yer ice-cold bee-eer!”) Sometimes, I can’t see the ump’s sharp hand signals, but I almost always hear the response from the crowd, whether they’re applauding an excellent call (which, coincidentally, benefits their team) or demanding his head while waving torches and pitchforks (i.e., hot dogs and soda bottles).

There’s no Jumbo Tron, no cameras scanning the crowd, no boisterous fans in heavy face paint, no walk up music to rev up the crowd as players swagger to the plate. Seagulls glide over the field, extending their wings and emitting small cries, as though they’re gunning for the best view of the game and cheering on players. In the spaces between the stands on the other side of the stadium, I can see an automotive building and cars driving past. In the seventh inning, a drunk man jumped onto the field and threw beer cans at the Rays dugout. There’s a distinct lack of the extravagant glamour and sleek intensity that we’ve come to expect while watching professional sports.

The only thing that doesn’t change from preseason to regular season is the people: the little leaguers with major league dreams; the men whose faded caps cover balding heads filled with the stats of every player on the field; the families raising their kids to love the sport and know who to root for (“Not the Yankees, Ali”); the people who don’t seem to know what’s happening or even who is playing, like the woman sitting in front of me wearing a Yankees shirt, Yankees cap, and Yankees headband. (Just…why?)

The famous quote from the movie Field of Dreams holds true: if you build it, they will come. Whether you build a multimillion dollar stadium or build it in a city neighborhood beside a crematory and a towing company, we always come. Because the red dirt of the infield spells out something more valuable than most things written in Expo marker on a classroom whiteboard. Because here we find friends and nemeses (here’s looking at you, Yankee Doodle lady). Because spring doesn’t enter like a lion or a lamb or with a balmy breeze and kaleidoscopes of flowers. Spring begins here. With the thump of a leather glove.

Toto, We’re Not in Florida Anymore

2015-02-16 07.13.28-2It didn’t begin with the sirens, but with a beep from Lydia’s phone. Then, all our phones started ding-ing and I ended up crammed into the bathroom (our “safe zone”) with two of my roommates, our friend Rachel, and two of the girls who live above us. Scrunched into our shower, I remembered being back home when I was little, snuggling up in my closet with a flashlight and books while a hurricane raged outside. Funny. This is the closest to my hometown (Tampa Bay) I’ve felt in a while.

For the past few weeks, I’ve battled icy conditions with youthful vigor and the charming naivety of a baby playing with a rattlesnake. The first time I saw my windshield coated with an armor of thick ice, I had no strategy for counterattack. I wrenched my car door open and turned on the heat and the windshield wipers, which didn’t help. After a hasty retreat to my dorm, I returned brandishing glass cleaner and paper towels. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t work.)

As a tow-headed third grader, I got an entire week off because of the imminent threat of hurricanes. I’ve run three miles along the beach in rain, thunder, lightning, and hail. But this was my first tornado. I’d imagined it would start with a dark stillness in the sky, then cyclonic winds would tear shutters (that magically appeared for this fantasy) off the dorm windows…something like The Wizard of Oz.

Instead, it looks and sounds like a thunderstorm, except that I can hear the warning sirens and feel the cold, smooth bottom of our shower while we wait for our RA to give us the all-clear.

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

I think there’s a reason that’s one of the most famous lines in cinematic history. It expresses a pensive sense of displacement. It was obvious that she was far from home, but there’s still a sense of hesitancy, uncertainty, and innocent bewilderment as Dorothy wonders where she is. And this simple statement implies a poignant question: can we return home?

They say “home is where the heart is,” but what the heck is that supposed to mean? I divide most of my time between college and where I grew up, about a 900-mile difference. When I’m at school, I miss my family, usually calling them a couple times a week and texting constantly. Then again, homecoming isn’t like a parade across the football field wearing a sparkly crown and holding a bouquet of red roses; it’s more like precariously walking a tightrope, attempting to balance the freedom I have at school with that fact that I’m back in the room I’ve had since I was eight. And no matter where I am, I spend a lot of time planning where to go next. For instance, right now, I’m planning on moving to Birmingham this summer for an internship.

Each one of these places has my heart somehow; I love my family, I love my friends, I love school, and I love my work. It would be so simple if I could just click my heels and magically be transported to one place where everyone and everything I care about exists in perfect harmony. Instead, I’m sprinting down yellow brick roads, hoping they’ll carry me to my dreams.

Saying that I don’t know where home is sounds heartbreakingly mournful. But I don’t think it is. It’s only sad if there’s nowhere to go or no one to be with. There’s something wonderful – scary and beautiful and bewildering – about facing a world full of open doors, hearts willing to welcome you in, and suitcases ready to travel to every corner of the globe.

Maybe that’s the idea. Maybe home doesn’t have to be one, single place. Maybe a central facet of maturity is the conscious decision to find joy in any situation, love for new neighbors, and beauty in foreign surroundings, so that wherever we are, we can sincerely and confidently say, “There’s no place like home.”

 

Why I Celebrated my 20th with Darth Vader and Hello Kitty

2016-01-04 06.47.16.jpgThis morning when I walked out of my room, I almost ran into Darth Vader.

Well, not the actual Darth Vader (although I would be pretty psyched and a twinge creeped out to find James Earl Jones wandering around my dorm room). It was a piñata head dangling from my doorway, framed in white streamers.

Maybe I should mention that it’s my birthday.

Which prompts the question: what have I learned from the 20 years I’ve spent on earth?

Well, the first few years, I mostly spent mastering the fine arts of talking, walking, feeding myself, etc. I am proud to say that my efforts in these areas were successful. For the most part. 

In the third book in the “Anne of Green Gables” series, Anne turns 20 and remarks, “Miss Stacy told me that when I was 20, my character would be formed for worse or for better.”

As I’m sitting here, wearing Star Wars pajama pants, surrounded by superhero posters, Hello Kitty streamers dangling from the ceiling, a Wonder Woman cape hanging from my door, facing our dartboard, which has a place of honor across from our Xbox and GameCube, attached to our TV, which is currently playing “Lilo and Stitch,” I have to wonder…really, how much have I grown?

Frankly, this isn’t exactly how I imagined life would be at 20.

But is it a bad thing? I don’t think so.

When you’re 20, no one really expects you to have your future figured out (although they keep asking you about it) or even be able to keep your clothes off the floor (except your parents…they never lose hope). As I’m madly scribbling papers and desperately skimming test materials, I check my email for responses to my numerous summer internship applications and play episodes of old Disney channel shows.

Even though I still enjoy the same things, now I see different things in them. For example, in “Lilo and Stitch,” I realized how protective Nonnie was of her sister, despite their fighting. I almost cried when Stitch as looked for his ohana.

On some level, maybe these are things I always understood. Maybe what we call “maturity” is just being able to put into words what we instinctively felt as children.

Going back to Anne, immediately after making this comment, she decides to go for a walk in the park, where a tall, dark, and handsome classmate rescues her from the rain, sends her flowers the next day, and they date for the rest of their time in college.

I doubt that will happen to me today. Or ever.

But did Anne’s friends hang a Darth Vader piñata from her doorway? Or fill her living room with Hello Kitty streamers?

I think not.

In fact, I never thought about it until today, but Anne’s friends didn’t even spend her birthday with her. They went to a football game, leaving Anne curled by the fire with the cats and her friend’s great-aunt.

So, who really had the better birthday?

I’ll probably have a boyfriend eventually. But right now, I have the best friends and family ever. And that’s a pretty great way to start the next decade of my life.

Although meeting James Earl Jones would also be fantastic.

hk