Enjoying a Different Kind of ‘Ball + Chain’

 

Rebecca Lobo, Steve Rushin and family. (Photo courtesy of masslive.com)

I have two new best friends. I’ve known who they were for many, many years, but only recently I have let them into my life on a personal level.

Well, truth be told, they’re letting me—and thousands upon thousands of others; especially those in St. Petersburg—into their lives on a personal level, and it’s absolutely priceless.

Former UConn women’s basketball star and present-day ESPN talking head Rebecca Lobo and Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin have a podcast called “Ball + Chain.”

They’ve put together 35 episodes, so far. I’m about 26 episodes in as I’m still playing catch up, but I’m enjoying the ride. So much so, in fact, that I’ll sit in the car for a few extra minutes, or drive around the block, just to finish listening to a segment … or perhaps the entire remaining minutes of a podcast.

It’s a home run. Or, in Robo-speak, it’s a pure swish.

First, let me say this: A big part of this podcast is right in my wheel house.

A former college basketball star that I once saw play joining forces with an SI writer, who I’ve spent a lot of my life reading?

What’s not to like, right?

But it’s more than the sports talk that keeps me hooked. It’s the people … well, the family, really .. that’s involved.

It’s like sitting on a back deck with friends, listening to them play off each other to much amusement. It’s like being invited to their breakfast nook the morning after spending the night and listening to husband and wife discuss their day in absolutely entertaining fashion. It’s like being in a car, with your friends in the back seat, gabbing about their family, their world, their lives.

And it’s so much fun. Yet it almost wasn’t.

When I first gave “Ball + Chain” a try, I didn’t even make it through the first episode.

There were some major sound quality issues that made listening to it almost impossible.

Many months later, on a recent road trip to New Jersey, though, when I was stuck in a car, driving through Connecticut, New York and New Jersey traffic, I gave it another try.

SI writer Steve Rushin, half of the “Ball + Chain” podcast. (Photo courtesy of jeffpearlman.com)

They fixed the sound issues, making the podcast much easier on the ears, and by the time my trip to and fro was over, I must have been eight episodes in.

I was hooked.

I was a fan.

I had two new friends to keep me company on pretty much every journey I’ve taken since.

If my drive is more than 30 minutes, I switch off my Sirius XM and tune in to the “Ball + Chain” podcast.

And, I repeat, it is so much more than the just the sports that keeps me tuned in and coming back for more.

First some background: Rushin is going to be turning 52 years old soon, while Lobo is soon to be 45.

As such, both are from my generation and for the most part grew up watching the same sports teams, sports moments, television shows and commercials and listening to the same music as I did.

They are my generation and they relish in their memories of growing up during the same era, and as they reflect on such moments, so do I.

Lobo grew up in Massachusetts, Rushin in Minnesota.

Fate, however, brought them together in a New York City bar. It’s a topic that is frequently brought up on the podcast, and it’s as a great of a first-meeting story as there is out there.

Rushin had once written, “Although Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have slept with 20,000 women in his lifetime, I had once slept with 7,138 women in a single night: We were all snoring in the stands at a WNBA game.”

Lobo happened to be a WNBA star at that time and confronted Rushin at the bar during a chance meeting.

Rebecca Lobo, half of the “Ball + Chain” podcast.

“She asked if I was the scribe who once mocked, in Sports Illustrated, women’s professional basketball,” Rushin later wrote. “Reluctantly, I said that I was. She asked how many games I’d actually attended. I hung my head and said, ‘None.’ And so Rebecca Lobo invited me to watch her team, the New York Liberty play at Madison Square Garden. We both reeked of secondhand Camels (and, quite possibly, of secondhand camels: It was that kind of a dive.) But my insult had been forgiven. It was—for me, anyway—love at first slight. She had the longest legs, the whitest teeth, the best-sown cornrows I had ever seen, and I imagined us to have much in common. I ate Frosted Flakes right out of the box, and she was on boxes of Frosted Flakes. I am ludicrous, and she was name-dropped in a rap by Ludacris. We were, I thought, made for each other.”

Give them a listen and you realize, they really are made for each other.

That’s why it works so well, I think.

I have this little fantasy in my head: Rushin makes Lobo laugh a lot and every time he does I can almost picture him smiling with the knowledge, “Yup, she still loves me.”

Their connection to each other radiates through their words and mannerisms. I don’t recognize true love when I see it. In this case, though, I hear it.

The two married and have four children—three girls, one boy—all of whom come up from time to time in the podcast.

I told you it was about more than sports.

The ball and chain—“Who’s the ball, who’s the chain? is a key line in the podcast’s opening ditty sung by Tom, Dick and Harry (Tom is Steve’s brother, by the way)—talk about their lives and everything that happens in it. Fathers, sons, mothers, daughters … even grandparents, uncles, aunts and neighbors.

As often as they trade good-natured jabs at one another, they also obviously keep their hearts open for each other, as well.

It’s funny. It’s interesting. It’s touching. It’s just a great listen, from start to finish.

It doesn’t matter if they’re reflecting on Larry Bird, Geno Auriemma, the Minnesota Vikings (or Twins), changing their car oil, or Steve’s inability to cook anything other than microwavable White Castle, they will keep you entertained.

While many podcasts have tunnel vision (i.e., I listen to The West Wing Podcast, too, which is focused just on the hit television show), you never know where “Ball + Chain” will take you.

Each episode is a different adventure, but is filled with enough memories and running jokes that Lobo and Rushin make it feel like you’re part of their larger extended family.

Sometimes, literally, it’s an adventure, too, as Lobo and Rushin discuss their different travels and travails, from airports to hotels to Uber (or Lyft) rides. Or maybe just a mini-van ride to an AAU basketball tournament in Massachusetts, or the local grocery store.

They’ve had some special guests—Lobo’s sister, former NFL player and current ESPN personality Mike Golic and his wife, and the podcast’s producer Deny (With one N!) Gallagher– to name a few. Even when others enter the podcast, it doesn’t throw off the enjoyment.

Semi-spoiler alert: The ending of the podcast with Deny (With one N!) is one of the best endings in podcast history.

The author, a Minnesota Vikings fan despite hailing from Maine, with his old friend, Charlie.

In closing, I remember the moment I realized “Ball + Chain” and I had a special connection.

It came when Lobo talked about a ventriloquism dummy she had received as a gift when she was younger. And, Rushin reflected on what it was like to work as a 14-year-old during a Minnesota Vikings game.

It took me back to a picture of myself when I was younger. Of me, wearing a Minnesota Vikings sweatshirt, holding on to a ventriloquist dummy I was given as a child.

Basketball. Sports. A Sportswriter. UConn basketball. A dummy. The Vikings.

How’s that for a fate?

In a different time and in different places, I could have been friends with Lobo and Rushin. We would have shared a lot of laughs.

Instead, I’m just a loyal listener, taking my new friends—one a ball, the other a chain–with me on countless rides to keep me company.

 

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A Return To The Links: Giving the Game Another Go

The author captured this photo of a golfer hitting an approach shot earlier this spring.

For pretty much all of my life, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the game of golf.

It has given me many great memories; yet it has cost me dearly, both physically and emotionally.

Today, just two weeks past my 52nd birthday, I’ve made a decision to take the game up again.

I’m Tiger Woods Redux, only paler and fatter and older and nowhere near as good as he is … left-handed.

 

I went out and low balled the heck out of second golf career, spending $300 for clubs, a bag, a glove, 36 balls, 100 tees, and a pair of Nike Golf Shoes.

Less than a mile from house, there is a nine-hole Par 3 course. The Short Beach Golf Course, it’s called.

It’s only $10 a round, so that’s where I’ll start my comeback.

Hole by hole, I’ll play to the future. Getting better, I hope, while both my weight and my score drop lower and lower.

As I sit here thinking about my next first round, I can’t help but dance with the ghosts of my foursome as I tee off on this thought and making it become a reality.

• • •

Insert wiggly flashback special effects here.

• • •

I was just a boy that day my dad and I went to the golf course in Eddington. Watchoverya, is what I called. Even today, I don’t know how to spell it.

It’s where I first swung a club and even though it’s long gone now–closed, defunct, overgrown, no doubt–it still holds a special place in my heart for that reason.

Father. Son. Bonding over a sport.

Golf is one of my favorite memories with my dad. And that’s where it all started.

• • •

Insert wiggly flashback special effects here.

• • •

In middle school, eighth grade to be exact, I had a student teacher named Mr. Blodgett.

Donald Blodgett from Penobscot, Maine.

Growing up in a small town like Orrington, Maine, most of my teachers were wily and cagey veterans. Too damn old to be cool or to be able to reach students on a certain level. It was there way or the highway.

They wouldn’t put up with much bullshit and—as good old Robert Bradford, a science teacher, showed me that same year—if you dished out you’d get a punch straight to the forehead.

But, I digress. Mr. Blodgett was probably my first “favorite teacher”, even if he was just a student teacher who would be gone by the end of the year. He was cool and it was fun to be in his class.

Once the school year was over, I was saddened to see Mr. Blodgett go. But one of my favorite middle school memories was playing a round of golf with him that following summer at the Pine Hill Golf Club.

I also made one of my all-time great golf shots that day: A long, winding, twisting putt from one end of the green to the other that found nothing but the bottom of the cup.

I knew where my golf had gone after that. I never knew what happened to Mr. Blodgett.

Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, though, I found out for this post.

Mr. Blodgett lives in Scarborough and retired from the Old Orchard Beach school system.

I wonder how his golf game is. Chances are when I’m out on the course later this week, he’ll surely cross my mind.

And thanks, Mr. Blodgett, for having such an effect on a student before your career truly got off the ground.

• • •

Insert wiggly flashback special effects here.

• • •

I was 19 going on 20 and it was at a time when I loved three things.

My new job as a sports assistant at the Bangor Daily News; my new girlfriend, Jennifer; and the game of golf.

Any chance I got I would tee it up and play. Bangor Muni, Pine Hill, Woodland Terrace. My friends and I would even trek to Portland to play when we could.

That summer I got pretty good, or at least I thought I did.

I shot an 84 at Woodland Terrace, a Par 60 course – my lowest score ever for 18 holes. And I shot a 93 at Bangor Muni, my best-ever score on a real par 72-course.

One day, playing the sixth hole at Bangor Muni, a 169-yard par 3, I struck the ball perfectly. Seven iron, if I remember right.

I watched my shot sail into the sky, reach an apex and fall back to earth.

It was a pinseeker if there ever was one and for the only time in my life I thought I might get a hole-in-one.

The ball landed and skipped slightly left, winding up four inches wide of the hole.

I tapped in for birdie. So close and yet so far.

That’s the thing about golf.

You can stink it up for 17 holes and then hit three perfect shots on the 18th and walk off with a birdie.

And that’s what keeps you coming back.

If you can do it once, why can’t you do it all the time.

And doing it all the time is what cost me my relationship with Jennifer. Instead of walking back, I walked away.

Golf got in the way, she got angry and the eyes of another caught my attention.

That led me down a path where I got away from golf a little bit, playing only from time to time.

Did golf remind me of what I lost too much? Hard to say, even all these years later.

But I never forgave the game for what it cost me.

• • •

Insert wiggly flashback special effects here.

• • •

The last time I played golf was in Somersworth, N.H. The year was 2000? Maybe 2001.

I don’t even remember the name of the course.

I just remember taking a shot, hearing a pop and feeling a burning sensation in my right shoulder blade.

Just like that, the golf clubs were put in a closet for good.

I haven’t played a round since.

How much will I play in the future?

Who knows?

Will my shoulder handle the wear or tear again?

Who knows?

Will I find the sport a bore, a bad walk spoiled and thus have wasted all this money giving it a go?

Again, I ask, Who knows?

But I’m going to try to comeback. Just like Tiger did.

He has the whole world watching.

I have nobody.

So let’s tee it up, let it fly (in whatever direction it heads) and we’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, “Fore!”

Remembering Walter: A long-lost weekend’s lesson remains true

Walter Crabtree, left, touched the author’s life more than 30 years ago. It hasn’t been forgotten. (Photo stolen from Walter Crabtree’s Facebook Page.)

I didn’t know Walter Crabtree well, but it’s safe to say he taught me one of life’s most important athletic lessons.

Play your role 100 percent and you’ll be successful.

After a life full of teaching those around him, Walter passed away two days after Thanksgiving Day at the age of 60.

Personally, I’m thankful I got to know Walter over a couple of weekends, far too many moons ago.

I actually knew of Walter before I met him.

As a young cub sports writer at the Bangor Daily News, his athletic prowess in his native Maine was larger than life.

A graduate of tiny Sumner High School, in an even tinier town of East Sullivan, Walter was one hell of an athlete; or so said those who knew him.

I never saw Walter play in person, at least not to my knowledge.

My life-changing run-in with Walter came in Act 2 of our athletic careers.

I had just turned 21, was living in Bangor, and I was hand-picked (read invited) to play in a regional softball tournament with a team that was based out of the Ellsworth.

Walter Crabtree was a member of the team and, perhaps, the one closest to my age, though he was likely pushing 30 at the time.

Being 21, I had a cockiness about me – probably one not as deserved as I thought. I thought I was pretty good.

In truth, looking back on it with hindsight, I wasn’t that good.

I was average, which in slow-pitch softball isn’t saying much.

But I digress.

During that regional tournament, I mostly played catcher – which, to be honest, I didn’t mind doing.

Sure, at the end of a long six-game weekend, my knees would be worn out, but I was playing and plays at the plate were always fun.

If my mind, I believe we finished as regional runners-up, which meant we qualified for the state tournament in division.

That meant an overnight weekend in Lewiston, playing softball.

Good times, right?

Not really.

It was one of the worst weekends of my athletic life.

I was no longer catching. Somebody else was added on to the roster from a team that didn’t qualify, so I was relegated to the bench.

Once a game, I might get an opportunity to pinch run for some fat guy in his 50s.

Life is funny, you know.

Today, I am one of those fat 50-something guys wishing I had a pinch runner that could run to the bathroom for me at two in the morning.

Walter knew I was having a miserable weekend, though.

I’ll admit it. I was pissed. I drove two hours to Lewiston to play softball, not collect splinters on my ass.

As Saturday became Sunday and we kept winning, I remember Walter sitting next to me before a game and it was then he gave me sage advice.

I might not have been the best softball player in the world – even though my 21-year-old mind would have fought that – but in those days I was fast.

“Why do you think you were picked for this team?” Walter asked me. “We all know how fast you are and we’re going to need that speed in one of these games.”

The message was obvious: Play your role. It’s going to help the team.

I had always heard coaches talking about playing your role through 13-plus years of my sports career.

It never truly sunk in until Walter Crabtree sat down next to me and taught me that important lesson.

In our last win of that tournament, late in the game, I was called on to pitch run during a rally. I was one of the runners who scored, helping to send us to the next round.

We would get blown out in that next game and the running joke on the bench during the final inning was whoever made the last out would buy a case of beer for everybody to indulge in.

With two outs, I was finally given an opportunity to pinch hit.

I laced a single into the outfield.

I got stranded on the bases, but after the final out was recorded, the first person to shake my hand was Walter Crabtree.

In his obituary, printed in the Bangor Daily News, it was written, “Walter dedicated his life to using his talents, abilities, and skills to help others succeed. Over the years, Walter filled a number of roles as he touched literally thousands of lives; teacher, coach, referee, mentor, colleague and friend.

“He was a role model for both his students and his peers. His wisdom, common sense, kindness, compassion and humor will be greatly missed.”

That sums him up quite nicely. I should know. I was one of those people whose life was touched just by knowing him.

Rest in Peace, Walter.

And, thank you.

Taking a Stand: When are we going to get to the real issues?

Roofers in Waterville, Maine, stand for the National Anthem playing at nearby football game.

So three roofers are standing on a roof.

What sounds like the beginning of a lame bar joke is actually one of the problems with what’s wrong with America, at least in my humble opinion.

Let’s get one thing straight, though: Three roofers taking time out from doing their job and standing for the National Anthem isn’t the problem.

The fact that act is going viral?

I have an issue with that.

My own job puts me in places where the National Anthem is played from five to seven times a week.

I can say with 100 percent authority that in my 33-year career as a sports writer, 99.99 percent of the people within my eye sight are standing when Francis Scott Key’s words start getting sung.

“Oh say can you see….”

A problem in America?

Boy, can I.

Why is something 99 percent of Americans do going viral?

Because the hatred in this country in 2017 for that other 1 percent runs so deep, it’s scary.

Now I’ve gone on the record saying I can’t ever see myself NOT standing for the National Anthem, regardless of the fact that “God Bless America” should truly be our country’s Anthem.

I do support those who want to “protest” by not standing, however.

Their freedom to do that, at least to me, is the ultimate statement of how truly free this country is.

This fall, for journalistic reasons, I’ve been looking around a lot more during the National Anthem to see if anybody dares to take a knee or stay seated during the twilight’s last gleaming.

I’ve seen baseball players two fields away stop their game and stand at attention. I’ve seen adult softball players in the same complex put down their hidden beers and stand at attention. I’ve seen people outside of the stadium stop what they’re doing as the music wafts across the air and disappears into the distance.

I’ve seen people standing in their backyards having lunch, or a swim in their pool, climb out on their decks, face the flag while soaking wet, and honor America.

It’s what we do. Well, 99 percent of us.

So when I see a photo of three guys doing what I’ve seen countless others do “go viral” I can only shake my head.

Only in America.

The fact the National Anthem keeps being an issue, at least to me, is nothing but a deflection from the Orange Glow out of Washington, D.C., to distract us from the real problems this country refuses to deal with.

And that saddens me.

Why are we having this fight?

When are we going to get to the real issues?

If I had to guess, it won’t be until 2020 when the next President of the United States is voted in and has the unenviable task of trying to heal a shattered country.

The Quitter

She quit. She packed up her gear, walked out of the dugout, said something to the head coach and walked away from the field, not looking back, leaving behind eight teammates to ask, “What the hell just happened?”

She just quit.

It was the bottom of the fourth inning in a two-run game.

This is the story of Sara. (Not her real name). OK, it is her real name, but I’m not putting a last name or what team she played for, so I’m hiding her anonymity so future potential employers won’t know she’s a quitter who will walk away when it’s time to learn something, or won’t know she’s the worst kind of team player imaginable.

She is … or, well, was … a travel softball player and right away the coaching staff knew there would be some issues.

She was what some people would call soft.

She would ground out, she would pout.

She would strikeout, she would pout.

Because she lacked foot-speed, she got thrown out from right field. Her head was gone for good, at that point.

Sara was part of the team because the team needed her. Due to some early summer-season number issues, which had players on the roster doing internships, working and taking vacations, it was a struggle to field a team, so when somebody suggested a pitcher to the head coach, he welcomed her.

So, too, did the team.

Sara was shy and always stood away from the team. She had to be invited into the team’s inner circle, but by the third tournament of the season she was part of the team, one of three pitchers used in a regular rotation.

She was a slightly below average pitcher, pitching over head against some tough summer competition. She probably threw more balls than strikes. And, she was a really below average hitter.

But softball, like baseball, is a game where you’re going to fail more than you’re going to succeed.

Mentally, she was never able to embrace that, and her negative Nellie attitude was draining on a team that was struggling to find its first win of the summer.

On Sunday, the team was in the thick of a battle in a game it could win.

Then, in the fourth inning, with runners on second and third, Sara — her team’s starting pitcher — stepped to the plate with one out.

It was a defining moment in the game. It proved to be a defining moment in her young life.

The third base coach gave her the suicide squeeze sign — which for those of you who aren’t sports fans is a simple bunt that must be put into play because the runner at third base is racing home at full speed.

The pitcher delivered. The runner at third broke for home with the pitch. Sara swung and missed. Fortunately, the catcher dropped the ball and the runner was able scramble back to third base.

From third base the head coach bellowed, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WE’RE SQUEEZING.”

Sara just looked dumbfounded.

“Do it again,” the coach ordered, giving the sign.

Then he added, “We’re squeezing.”

He told Sara. He told the defense. He world the world.

He was calling a suicide squeeze. Again.

The pitcher delivered. The runner at third broke for home with the pitch. Sara swung and missed. Again. Didn’t even pretend she was looking to bunt.

“SARA! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

The coach was angry. His coaching staff was stunned. She missed the sign twice and missed a verbal instruction that was as obvious as a sun in the sky.

When queried as to what she was thinking, Sara waved her hand at her coach and stepped back into the batter’s box.

The next pitch painted the outside corner. Strike three.

Sara stormed back to the dugout. Behind her teammates, behind her coaching staff, in the back of the dugout, she gathered her belongings and packed up her bag.

When the inning was over, Sara looked over the fence from outside the dugout and told the coach, “I quit.”

Then she walked off away from the field, nothing more than a quitter.

She left her team with eight players to finish out the game, which they lost 4-2.

The coaching staff was angry at Sara. The players were perplexed, but in the long run they all seemed to agree not having her around would be best for the team.

Me?

I was stunned.

If a kid doesn’t enjoy a sport, I understand the decision not to play anymore. But the only reputable way to do it is once the season is over and your commitment has been fulfilled.

I can even understand a kid quitting after a game, though it’s a choice I would never respect or understand.

But to walk away from a team sport  mid-game? Leaving behind eight people who embraced you as a teammate, allowed you to become one of them?

It’s inexcusable.

I could understand the anger coming from the coaching staff, but more than anything I felt sorry for Sara. I felt sad for her and her future.

If she quit a summer softball team because she screwed up something so badly, what else will she quit over the course of the rest of her life?

Every time she failed, she pouted and refused to show any self-confidence, or even a hint at wanting to learn from her failures and grow from it.

The world of sports is full of life lessons. Likewise, many successful lives, without a doubt, can be traced back to the world of sports.

And part of both are parental decisions that help make the difference between success and failure.

Sadly, Sara is a quitter and will likely remain that for the rest of her life.

And that doesn’t make me angry. Instead, it just makes me sad.

 

An American Tragedy: A Fallen Star is Dead

Former NFL player Aaron Hernandez listens during his murder trial at the Bristol County Superior Court in Fall River, Mass., Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. Hernandez is accused in the June 17, 2013, killing of Odin Lloyd, who was dating his fiancée’s sister. (AP Photo/Dominick Reuter, Pool)

Like every other New England Patriots fan — well, let’s make that NFL fan, why don’t we – I woke up to the news this morning that Aaron Hernandez was dead.

Hanged in his prison cell.

Just like that a former star is gone.

He was just 27.

I knew what was coming next. As I bounced around social media and the World Wide Web this morning, I would find a lot of hatred pointed in his direction.

After all, he blew an opportunity 99 percent of us can only dream about – success, money, adoration – and was found guilty of blowing it all by killing a man.

Me?

To be honest, I don’t feel any hatred.

I feel sadness.

Aaron Hernandez was a convicted murderer, yes, and he also killed his golden goose.

But he was also a son, a brother, a father.

As much as people hated him, he was also loved.

So I’m sad to hear this news this morning. For his family. For this whole damn story.

When I moved to Connecticut nearly 10 years ago, Aaron Hernandez was a senior in high school.

I was never a fan. He was a helluva football player, though. The colleges were calling. The NFL scouts was watching. The girls were flocking.

The world was his oyster.

His world was his downfall.

The word I’ve heard a lot today – just heard it on ESPN, in fact – was that Aaron Hernandez wanted to be a gangster more than he wanted to be a football star.

As such, his posse of hangers on weren’t ideal choices and trouble also seemed to follow the talented tight end at many turns.

His father died when he was 16 and things changed, people say.

Instead of going to play football at Connecticut, he opted to go to Florida, a national power.

Warning signals were fired almost immediately.

In 2007, Hernandez was in a restaurant drinking – despite being just 17 – and tried to leave without paying. He threw a punch that landed on a restaurant employee, rupturing the employee’s eardrum.

Later that fall, Hernandez was linked to a shooting of three people in Gainesville.

It was a sign of things to come.

Despite being drafted by the New England Patriots, Hernandez couldn’t escape his darker side.

In 2012 and 13, Hernandez was linked to three more shootings.

One of them – the murder of a man named Odin Lloyd – would begin Hernandez’s downfall.

He would be found guilty and sentenced to live in prison without parole.

Just days ago, he was found not guilty in another shooting.

And now he’s gone.

His story is over, but this story, for now, is just beginning.

People are offering up their opinions – some just flat-out emotional, others with some thought and conviction, others just spouting off at the mouth because they have their own hatred built into their own lives.

Today, the New England Patriots visit the White House to celebrate their latest Super Bowl championship.

A day of joy has been tinged with some mourning, some anger, some hatred.

Me?

Well, to me the whole story is just sad.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the Hernandez family today. Same to Lloyd’s family and the families of any other victims would might have been wronged by the poor choices of a man who made some mistakes.

It’s the end of another American tragedy.

The Unwritten Bucket List Loses Another Item

The view from left field at Charlotte Sports Park, spring training home of the Tampa Bay Rays. (Photo by John Nash)

Before I ever loved basketball – before I even truly knew what love was, in fact – I loved baseball.

It was 1975. I was 9. And it was beautiful, even after it broke my heart.

The Boston Red Sox went to the World Series that summer and captured my heart my heart while doing so.

My first favorite player was Doug Griffin, a little-known second baseman who played on a team that included a host of quick-hitting one-namers — Yaz. Rico. Pudge. Rooster. Louis.

The team featured two pitchers that season – one who gave me my first autograph (Jim Willoughby) and one who gave me my first double-entendre schoolboy giggle (Dick Pole).

As the 1970s rolled by players like Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, Bill Lee, and Butch Hobson would just continue to grow in stature to a young boy growing up in Maine, which was as much Red Sox country as downtown Boston.

I loved just two sports in my life … baseball and basketball. Basketball would be the girl with the great body and all the right moves and we were connected by affection for one another … but baseball, that first love, is something you never forget.

All these years since 1975 – and that’s 41 and counting – I’ve seen baseball games played far and wide at all kinds of different levels.

I’ve seen a 10-year-old national championship game in Florida. I’ve seen a college no-hitter in a conference championship game. I’ve been to dozens of Minor League Baseball games. And, I’ve sat in the nosebleeds at a World Series in New York City in 2015.

But I had never been to a spring training game.

Until Monday.

That’s when I trekked to Port Charlotte, Fla., to the Charlotte Sports Park – home of the Tampa Bay Rays’ Single-A farm team and site of the parent squad’s annual spring training pilgrimage.

I joined an old friend of mine and we watched the Pittsburgh Pirates hold off the Rays by a 5-4 count.

We saw players we knew – Evan Longoria of Rays and David Freese of the Pirates – both stood at third base not more than 10 yards from us when the game began.

By the time it was over we had seen a plethora of players take the field, grab a bat and throw off the mound.

We drank beer, ate a steak and cheese, circled the stadium and watched baseball at a leisurely pace under a gorgeous Florida sunshine.

Like baseball itself, it was almost perfect.

If I’m going to watch a sport on television, I’d pick basketball. College basketball to be specific.

But if you’re going to give me a ticket to go to a game, I’m likely to pick baseball.

I’m old school that way.

I like to sit back, relax, let the game unfold, while people watching and eaves dropping and talking to the people around me. (One of my Facebook friends is a woman I met when I trekked to Pittsburgh to watch the Red Sox play the Pirates in a three-game series a few summers ago at PNC Park).

To this day, baseball is pretty much the same it was when I was nine.

Nine innings. Four balls. Three strikes. No clock ticking down.

You throw the ball. The ball is hit. You field the ball.

Watching from the stands with 5,000 people was just what I needed on my first Monday in Florida, this latest work-ation that I find myself undertaking in the spring of 2017.

Would a Red Sox game have been better? Not necessarily. If the scheduled had fit better, I would have tried, but it didn’t, so that’s OK, too.

I don’t have a bucket list of things I want to do before I die. But I do have a mental list and I’d say attending a spring training game was on there somewhere.

Not anymore.

The played baseball on Monday in Port Charlotte and I was there to see it.

Mentally, she’s checked off.