Monday, October 20, 2014

Left to Face the Fall Alone

The crowd and its team had finally understood that in games, as in many things, the ending, the final score, is only part of what matters. The process, the pleasure, the grain of the game counts too. – Thomas Boswell, Why Time Begins on Opening Day
Summer ended abruptly this year, on a long fly ball into the dark of night. The World Series has yet to be played, but for me, the baseball season ended when Travis Ishikawa drove a stake into the heart of Cardinal Nation, on a walk-off home run into the right field stands of AT&T Park in Game Five of the National League Championship Series. It is the second time in three years that the Giants have defeated the Cardinals in the postseason, the final moments played out in the windy confines by the San Francisco Bay. As the Giants celebrated on the field and mobbed each other to the delight of 42,000 wildly screaming fans, the Cardinals players disappeared quietly into the visitors’ clubhouse, packed their gear and headed home. The sun has set on another season of baseball. Winter has unofficially begun. It is time to rake the leaves once again.

For the third consecutive year, the Cardinals ended the season with World Series glory just beyond the horizon, the sun beckoning in the near distance, only to be spoiled by the dark clouds of defeat. They were an underachieving assortment of aging veterans and untested rookies, at times displaying brilliant play, and seemingly blessed with unlimited talent. And then, as if to curse destiny, they would commit inexcusable running mistakes, fielding errors, and managerial blunders. The Cardinals limped into the postseason with their ace starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, fighting tendinitis in his elbow; and Yadier Molina, the best catcher in the game, recovering from a severe thumb sprain. When Molina keeled over in pain in Game Two of the NLCS with an oblique injury, unable to leave the batter’s box, I knew then that the Baseball Gods were unfavorably disposed. This year was not to be.

This is not to make excuses, for the Cardinals had their chances. The Giants simply made fewer mistakes. As former manager Bob Lemon said, “The two most important things in life are good friends and a good bullpen.” The Giants’ bullpen was flawless during the final three games in San Francisco, shutting down the Cardinals’ bats and stifling rallies and run opportunities with apparent ease. The St. Louis relief corps seemed always in disarray, uncertain of their roles and unsure of when or if they would be needed to carry the torch to victory.

When manager Mike Matheny put young Michael Wacha into a tied 3-3 game in the bottom of the ninth inning with the season on the line in Game Five, my every instinct felt ill at ease. Wacha is a great young talent, but he is a starting pitcher, not a reliever, and he had not thrown a single pitch for 20 days. He, too, had been injured earlier in the year, and he had struggled to find his groove in late summer. How precise could his command really have been under such circumstances? Why would you not put Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, or Trevor Rosenthal, experienced relievers who are used to pressure-filled, game-on-the-line situations, to keep the season alive and give your team one more chance at sending the series back to the warmer, friendlier confines of hometown St. Louis? Sure enough, Wacha immediately yielded a single and a walk. The drumbeat of gloom sounded ever so near.

“You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock,” said former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver about the game of baseball. “You’ve got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.” When Wacha, struggling with his control, finally threw the ball over the goddamn plate, Ishikawa swung and connected. There was no need to look. The ball disappeared into the darkness. The season was over. As if in unison, Wacha and his teammates looked to the ground, catching a final glimpse of grass and dirt before walking silently into winter.

I should be used to these feelings by now, for baseball is more about failure and lost dreams than the spoils of victory. “It breaks your heart,” wrote A. Bartlett Giamatti. “It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

Life will go on, of course. It always does. But the pain and disappointment in knowing that the season has ended on a soul-crushing blow to the 12 year-old residing inside my head, never really fades. For six months, I count on baseball to serve as a respite from war, violence, hatred and disease – all of the bad news that fills the daily papers and nightly cable shows. I rely on baseball as, writes Giamatti, a “buffer to the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive.” And then quickly, almost unexpectedly, it is over; “just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

As I write and look out my window on a cool October morning, the sun shines brightly as the leaves sway in the gentle breeze of fall. The trees are full of promise and color on this day, their leaves falling effortlessly to the ground and covering the smooth green grass below. The birds are singing from the higher branches as the squirrels run and jump and search for nuts, seemingly oblivious to my sorrow. It is then I understand something I often forget during the season – that baseball is only a game, a glorious game, full of history and memories, moments of bliss and boredom and frustration, feelings of joy and anguish, setbacks and heartache. It is life in nine inning segments. Regardless of the outcome of any game or season, there will be another game, another season, with fresh faces and familiar struts adorning the diamond-shaped fields of this, our national pastime.

“Baseball,” wrote Saul Steinberg, “is an allegorical play about America, a poetic, complex, and subtle play of courage, fear, good luck, mistakes, patience about fate, and sober self-esteem.” This all may be true. But for today, there is no joy in Mudville. The Cardinals have lost. The season is over. The cold chills and dark nights of winter have begun.

So, until next year, when a warm breeze in early March awakens my senses and lifts my spirits, beckoning the start of a new season, I will develop perspective and lead a normal life. I will attempt to live in the present, appreciate the wonders of the universe, and make the most of life. But this, too, will pass. For a fresh start to a new season awaits the first hint of spring. Such is the life of a baseball fan.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pretty Amazing Grace

Pretty amazing grace is what you showed me; pretty amazing grace is who you are; I was an empty vessel; you filled me up inside; and with amazing grace restored my pride. -- Neil Diamond ("Pretty Amazing Grace")

There are times when we must acknowledge the role of fate, or luck, or the grace of God in our lives. How hard we work and study, the skills we develop along the way, the values we embrace from parents and teachers – these are significant and important factors that influence the quality of our opportunities and potential for growth and advancement. But we should never underestimate pure luck. We do not choose the families into which we are born or the economic and social circumstances of our birth. We choose our friends, but even those are partially determined by luck – a seating assignment at school, the placement of our family’s house on a particular neighborhood block, being in the right place at the right time. In matters of the heart, chance and fortune play a strong hand. As much as anything in life, our choice of potential life partners, whom we meet and when, are influenced by timing and circumstances beyond our control.

I have been very lucky in most aspects of life. I was born into a loving, stable family of middle class existence. I had excellent role models – parents, siblings, and teachers who encouraged me at an early age to excel in school and in sports, to give my best, and to treat people with sincerity and respect. I was blessed with good health and the many freedoms that America provides. At times, I have felt like the character described in Hubbell Gardner’s story, “A Country Made of Ice Cream,” in The Way We Were: “In a way he was like the country he lived in; everything came too easily to him.“

But I have found through experience, as have most of us, that life is hard. And life happens. I was a 27 year-old law school graduate when I met the woman who would become my first wife. Although we shared many common interests – a love of books, a passion for politics, similar tastes in music and movies – we had a better friendship than marriage; and though the friendship lasted, the marriage did not. She is a kind and decent woman and a good mother to our two wonderful daughters. But we were not right for each other, and probably never were. After thirteen years, we courageously acknowledged that divorce was not as tragic as remaining in an unhappy marriage and teaching our children the wrong lessons about love.

*     *     *     *

Sometimes it takes a sad turn of events to allow the hand of fate or the vicissitudes of fortune to change your life for the better, to allow for a second chance at love and happiness. Andrea Foulkes, who I married one year ago today, gave me that second chance. With a smile that will brighten your world and a sunny disposition that sees the best in people, she makes me feel good about myself and appreciates me for who I am. Perhaps it was a guardian angel, or providence, but through some combination of fortuity and circumstance we found each other and discovered we needed each other. With time and the steady pull of mutual attraction, we gave each other a second chance at life. Excluding October when the Cardinals are in the playoffs, I am a better man when she is near.

Born Andrea Susan Gelman, she was raised in a modest 1950’s Jewish home in the East Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, the daughter of two very special people (see Marty and Gertrude: An American Story, December 2012). As a young girl, she was a talented violist with a flair for music. She attended an all-girls high school (Girls High), studied history at Ithaca College in New York, and earned a master’s degree in international studies from American University. After working on Capitol Hill for two years, for Rep. Jack Brooks (D-TX) at the height of the Watergate scandal, she finally settled on her true calling, the study and practice of law.

Long before we met, Andrea attended Temple University Law School, when women were only then entering the legal profession in large numbers. She quickly embraced the law and founded the Barrister Society at Temple, a student-led trial advocacy group. After graduating, she landed a job with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, where she displayed her skills as a talented trial lawyer and prosecutor. Andrea was among the first prosecutors assigned to the newly-established Rape Unit, where she handled sexual assault cases with such skill and compassion that, to this day, she is recognized by former District Attorney (and Mayor and Governor) Ed Rendell for her demonstrated commitment and grace.

In A Nation of Wusses: How America’s Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great (Wiley, 2012), Rendell writes that, as a 35 year-old District Attorney for Philadelphia, he received a letter from the mother and father of a fourteen year-old girl who had been brutally raped by an older man at knifepoint. The girl’s parents explained to Rendell that the crime had turned their daughter, a happy and free-spirited child, into a complete recluse; she stayed in her room for days and cried, blaming herself for what happened, refusing to go to school, and no longer talking with her friends. It was Andrea, according to the girl’s parents, who changed all of that. As the Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case, Andrea met their daughter the day before the preliminary hearing and treated her with respect and compassion. Over the next several weeks, Andrea helped their child reclaim her life and truly understand that she was not at fault; that she could not let the cruelty of what happened ruin her life. As the letter to Rendell explained:
Andrea Foulkes did a great job, Mr. Rendell. She presented the case brilliantly. The offender was convicted and received twenty-five years in prison. But more than that, she worked and worked with our daughter. She developed a terrific relationship with her. We had taken her to psychiatrists and psychologists and they couldn’t get through to her, but Andrea kept working with her. She finally got through to her that what happened wasn’t her fault. Then there came a day when we heard a strange sound from our daughter’s room. It wasn’t the usual sobbing. She was talking on the phone with one of her girlfriends, and all of a sudden we heard her laughing again. It was a miracle – Andrea Foulkes gave us our daughter back. God Bless you, Mr. Rendell, for starting the rape unit and God Bless Andrea Foulkes.
(Rendell, A Nation of Wusses, p. 22). Rendell forwarded the letter to Andrea with the note, “Andrea, You won’t get letters like this representing General Motors.”

Although I did not know Andrea back then, it is a story that captures what I love best about her, for she is a woman of humanity and grace, empathy and tenderness. She treats everyone with the respect and charity they deserve and is living proof of how capable we are of influencing for the better the lives of others.

Andrea and I would later discover that we had, in some ways, lived parallel lives. Long before we knew each other, we had both served as big city prosecutors and spent time in the Rape and Homicide Units of our respective offices. We had similar families, attended similar schools, and had many of the same life experiences. And yet, our paths never crossed. Somehow I wound up in Philadelphia and eventually landed in the Organized Crime Strike Force of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. And this is where luck once again enters the picture. Because that is where we met.

By the time Andrea and I got to know each other, after I joined the Strike Force, I was blessed to have more good fortune than most people ever experience. I loved being a prosecutor, cherished being a Dad who was close to his children; I had my health, my friends, and my family. But a big piece was missing – an empty space in my heart. I was lost and adrift when Andrea came into my life, as was she, having each experienced the pain of failed marriages. I was uncertain if I would ever fill that empty space again, and I doubted if I even knew what true love was, or whether I had forfeited any chance to attain it. “We accept the love we think we deserve,” wrote Stephen Chbosky in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. For a time, before Andrea and I met, before we became, at first, good friends, and then, eventually, two people in love, I felt unworthy.

“When you find somebody you love, all the way through, and she loves you—even with your weaknesses, your flaws, everything starts to click into place,” writes author Nora Roberts. “And if you can talk to her, and she listens, if she makes you laugh, and makes you think, makes you want, makes you see who you really are, and who you are is better, just better with her, you’d be crazy not to want to spend the rest of your life with her.” It may be that, in any given generation, love eludes all but a few fortunate souls on Earth and finds only those who are willing to embrace it. I cannot say if other chances at love were presented to me, though certainly I encountered young love. But with Andrea I have found my soul mate, the one person with whom I wish to share my hopes for the future, even the dreams that I know may never come true; my goals and disappointments.

She is the first person with whom I want to share good news and the one person with whom I am not embarrassed to cry during a sad or sentimental movie. Laughter is a part of our daily life, and the sweetness of her smile a moment to treasure. “Love's about finding the one person who makes your heart complete,” writes Julia Quinn in The Viscount Who Loved Me. “Who makes you a better person than you ever dreamed you could be. It’s about looking in the eyes of your wife and knowing all the way to your bones that she's simply the best person you've ever known.”

It is the second time around for both of us and, despite our past mistakes, we are blessed to now have a blended, more expansive family – with Andrea’s wonderful sons, Doug and Drew, and my beautiful and talented daughters, Jen and Hannah; two sets of loving and caring families; and an extended network of people in our lives who are special and supportive. Andrea has accepted my baseball fanaticism – dare I say she is almost a Cardinals fan? She has supported my need to write and question. And I have been enriched by her love of musicals and her devotion to two community theater groups that produce some of the area’s finest performances.

When we were married a year ago, in a backyard ceremony at our home, I asked a close friend to begin the ceremony by singing Neil Diamond’s Pretty Amazing Grace. The lyrics speak of the perfection of love, its redeeming qualities, and of being lost and then found through the “pretty amazing grace” of love. When I first played the song for Andrea – she was naturally skeptical that Neil Diamond was appropriate wedding music – she cried, immediately taken by how closely the lyrics captured what each of us felt, and what our love had done for each other. “Pretty amazing grace is how you saved me; and with amazing grace reclaimed my heart. . . . You overcame my loss of hope and faith, gave me a truth I could believe in. . . . Showed me that love and truth and hope and grace were all I needed. ”

Together, we are taking a fresh gamble on life and love. Happy Anniversary, Andrea. Thank you for reclaiming my heart. 

You find strength in knowing you have a true friend and possibly a soul mate who will remain loyal to the end. Life seems completely different, exciting and worthwhile. Your only hope and security is in knowing that they are a part of your life. – Bob Marley