Thursday, June 20, 2013

June 15- Fort Wayne Wizards



If there is a particular line in any baseball-related film that’s stuck with me throughout the years it has to be this one said by Shoeless Joe Jackson, played by Ray Liotta in “Field of Dreams” getting thrown out of baseball, “Getting thrown out of baseball was like having a part of me amputated. I've heard that old men wake up and scratch itchy legs that been dust for over fifty years. That was me. I'd wake up at night with the smell of the ball park in my nose, the cool of the grass on my feet... The thrill of the grass.” There’s something truly haunting about never being able to do what you love again, and it’s definitely a feeling I hope to never experience. I love baseball; probably more than a grown man should. As a kid all I ever wanted to do was play baseball. Morning, noon and night my friends and I went to the school yard and played until we couldn’t see the ball anymore. I played Little League until I was 13-years-old, not that I didn’t want to keep playing, the unfortunate reality of my parents’ divorce prevented me from continuing to play every summer as my mother had moved to Pismo Beach, California, about an hour-and-a-half away from my hometown of Bakersfield. My father had been the coach of my teams ever since I was nine-years-old, and no one took it harder that I wasn’t going to be around to play as much as he did. For the next four years I played baseball off-and-on, alternating with basketball and soccer on occasion. I was good at the other two sports, but the reality was that I was truly a prodigy when it came to baseball. I know it sounds arrogant for me to say, but it’s the truth. It didn’t matter if I stopped playing physically, my mind kept going, analyzing new and better ways to get a read on a ball once it was thrown or hit so I knew how to move my body. I played one year of summer league ball once I got into high school, but once again had to move away for the summer to be with my mom, this time in Vancouver. Washington. In 1999 I stayed in Bakersfield for the whole summer. I had scored my bat boy gig with the Bakersfield Blaze and had no intentions on leaving it. This summer, as it turned out, would be one of the last times I’d ever play organized baseball.

I touched on this in a previous post on March 7th.  Since the Blaze were on the road my friends and I had the privilege of using Sam Lynn Ball Park to practice and play scrimmages in. Word got out and a few guys from the high school teams around the city starting hitting me up, asking if they could play as well. It was almost like my little clubhouse and I somehow became the leader. I obliged. There was no sense in keeping anyone out, especially considering the fact that I would be able to study them as I had intentions of going out for the varsity team the next season.

On an extremely hot 105 degree day in the middle of July my life was forever changed. The thing about Sam Lynn Ball Park is that it was built in the wrong direction. By this I mean the sun sets directly behind the center field wall. Even more important is that a sun shield was built to help get games started earlier as the sun goes down. Even funnier, the sun shield was built a few feet off. See?

It should also be noted that dead center is only 354 feet away, and not that difficult to knock one out during batting practice. Believe me, I don’t have much power but I’ve been able to do it. Anyway, on this particular day the sun was practically blinding everyone who came to the plate as it was around 3:30 in the afternoon. We were playing a full nine innings and I came up to bat for the third time, set to face off against my friend Jason who was on the pitchers mound. The first two pitches I took for a ball and a strike. I lucked out on the ball. I really couldn’t see it. On the third pitch I could tell by his wind-up that he was going to try and throw me a slider. Having known him and played on the same team as him for so many years it all seemed like it was going in slow motion. As he released the ball I could tell he screwed up. The ball was coming in way too high. For some reason my eyes looked upward briefly, catching the sun and I could no longer see the ball. Knowing that it was more-than-likely go in for a ball, I stood there. Within a split second my vision came back, but it was too late. The ball struck me dead center between my nose and my upper lip. I had been hit by plenty of baseball in the past; some in the back, a few in the leg and one or two in the ribs. But the pain of getting tagged in the face was excruciating. I stumbled back and bent down. Somehow I never fell to the ground. Jason came sprinting off the mound to make sure I was ok. I had difficulty finding words. The pain was too much to get anything out. Tears feel from my eyes, but I didn’t cry. When you get tagged in the nose it sets off a chain reaction that waters up your eyes, and I had it bad. Blood poured from my nose, onto my jersey and the ground. I looked up briefly and patted him on the back to let him know I didn’t have any hard feelings against him. Still a bit dazed, I started walking to first base. In my head I knew I got a free base after being hit, but the gravity of the situation hadn’t set in. A few of my other friends and the guys on the field tried to get me to sit down and have some water, but I just wanted to keep playing.

I never went to the hospital. It would be two years before I learned that I suffered post-concussion syndrome which I found out through an electroencephalography (EEG) test. I also learned that my brain rarely shuts down, which is why I usually never sleep. Either way, the damage was done. I was so mentally scarred from that event that anytime I stepped in the box after that I froze. I had no confidence. I was useless. Any dream I ever had of playing professional was gone. It took a few years to muster up the courage to play Portland City League and I was fortunate enough to hit .712 in my only season, but I felt I was too old and missed my window. I pretty much hung it all up after that.

I still have dreams of being in the box on a near-nightly basis. Not necessarily of me getting hit, but scenarios and pitch counts, and knowing what to do in any given situation. That part will never go away, and deep down, it truly saddens me. It’s been almost 14 years. Nearly half of my life, a glimpse of an unattainable moment from my past that will play on repeat for the rest of my life.

I realize I took you all down a weird road, but I promise you it has a point that has everything to do with this cap. I can pretty much come close to guaranteeing that had that moment never happened I probably would be sitting here today to write this story; nor would I have had the opportunity to be one of the nine Cave Dwellers in the MLB Fan Cave last season. Of all the people I had the pleasure of meeting, then-Los Angeles Angels and current New York Mets relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins certainly rounds out the top.

For those of you who don’t know Hawkins turned 40-years-old on December 21st of this last year. The occasion took place in Las Vegas and was orchestrated out by his wife. I won’t go into too heavy of details, but the only reason I know this is because he was kind enough to invite me, but I unfortunately couldn’t afford to take the time off of work as I was saving my money to fly to Florida to see my girlfriend Angie Kinderman. The reasons behind how I got invited are insignificant, but all I can really tell you that it was by far one of the most thoughtful gestures I’ve ever received from a truly amazing person. The reason I went into so much detail on how I lost my ability to play baseball over half a lifetime ago is because Hawkins has literally been playing professionally for a little more than half of his. He and I, from a professional stand-point, are polar opposites.

Hawkins was born in Gary, Indiana in 1972. For those of you who don’t know, Gary is roughly 25 miles southeast of Chicago. Gary's fortunes have risen and fallen with those of the steel industry. The growth of the steel industry brought prosperity to the community. Broadway Avenue was known as a commercial center for the region. Department stores and architecturally significant movie houses were built in the downtown area and the Glen Park neighborhood. In the 1960s, like many other American urban centers reliant on one particular industry, Gary entered a spiral of decline. Gary's decline was brought on by the growing overseas competitiveness in the steel industry, which had caused U.S. Steel to lay off many workers from the Gary area. As the city declined, crime increased. The first time I ever heard about Gary was when I was 11-years-old, trying out for the roll of Winthrop in a church production of “The Music Man.” There was a particular song that I had to sing in which the character thinks that Gary is basically the greatest place ever; something that I’ll never forget. Another key note of Gary is that it was also the birthplace of pop music sensation Michael Jackson.

Hawkins was drafted in the seventh round of the 1991 amateur draft by the Minnesota Twins out of West Side High School in Gary. He immediately reported to the Gulf Coast League (GCL) Twins of the Rookie League soon after, were he went 4-3 with a 4.75 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 11 games as a starter. He spent the next four years in the Twins' minor league system until making his Major League debut on April 29, 1995 against the Baltimore Orioles as a starter. From 1995-1997 Hawkins struggled a bit as a starter and was moved to the bullpen to take over closing duties. In 2000 and 2001 where he saved a combined 42 games. When Eddie Guardado was tapped to start closing games Hawkins become a set-up man in 2002 and 2003, and had his best years statistically with the Twins during this time. He went 15-3 combined for those two years with a 1.99 ERA and 138 strikeouts. At the end of the 2003 season Hawkins became a free agent and was singed to a three-year deal with the Chicago Cubs.

Hawkins was assigned by the Cubs to pitch the 8th inning to set up for Joe Borowski, but Borowski went down with an injury early in the season, and Hawkins took over closing duties. On September 11, Hawkins struck out the side on only nine pitches in a game against the Florida Marlins. He finished 2004 with a better-than-average ERA of 2.63 on the year and 25 saves, but he was traded to the San Francisco Giants on May 28, 2005 in exchange for pitchers Jerome Williams and David Aardsma. At the end of the 2005 season Hawkins became a proverbial “gun-for-hire” as he went to the Orioles in 2006, the Colorado Rockies in 2007, the New York Yankees for half of a season in 2008 before going to the Houston Astros for the next year-and-a-half, the Milwaukee Brewers for two seasons (2010-2011), the Angels this last season and the Mets now. During this time frame he pitched a few games at the Minor League level as well, but mostly for the sake of rehab appearances. All in all, Hawkins has donned the jersey of 10 different Major League teams as he is now in his 19th season in the Majors, but 23rd year overall as a professional, just a little more than half of his life. Many at any level would give anything to be in the game at the highest level for so long, and Hawkins is surely one who praises every day he steps into the clubhouse.

During the time we met each other in the Fan Cave we only said a few words to once another, mostly about what it was like to be stuck in a room for so many hours during the day. When I got my Instagram account set up back in June of 2012 he, Collin Balester and I would swap jokes back and forth amongst each other, and every now-and-then I found a “like” by Hawkins on a few of the photos I added. The most notable being the Jackie Robinson statue that sits outside Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, one of my favorite nights from my North American baseball tour.

When I was down in Corpus Christi, Texas visiting my little sister at school after we had gone to the Houston Astros game the night before, I talked to Hawkins for the first time in a few months on Twitter, but only after he had gotten into a bit of a spat by some punk talking smack. This is an unfortunate occurrence that I see more regularly than I’d like, all of which is started by raucous fans. I always make sure to applaud Hawkins for standing up to all the smack talk, no matter the consequence. I suppose after nearly 20 years of service, not to mention coming from one of the toughest towns in the United States, you can’t help but let his words slide. He earned the right to defend himself.

In the upcoming week I gave Hawkins a heads up that I would be in Arlington for when the Angels visited to play the Texas Rangers. During batting practice my friend Monica Gonzalez (@MissMoniRose) and I went up against the railing to spot him, and sure enough he spotted my big-ass beard and came rolling over to visit. We caught up as best we could. I had no idea of invested he was in my travels as he had been following my tour through all the photos I was posting on Instagram. We talked about food, the ballparks and pretty much everything else baseball related on top of how the season was looking tight between the Angels, Rangers and my Oakland Athletics as the last few games were shaking out. It was within this conversation that the topic of his birthday came up and he asked me to send him a direct message with my info to get to his wife. I of course obliged as soon as I could. We said our goodbyes and he went back to shagging balls during BP. As Monica and I walked away it dawned on me that I forgot to take a photo. I ran back across the left field bleachers, hailed him down again and popped this shot. I don’t normally ask people to pose for my photos, but in this case, based on the fact that he mentioned my photos, I had to do it.

It’s hard to say if we’ll ever meet again, my sources say yes only because I always seem to find myself in the right place at the right time more times than one could imagine. But until then, I hope this piece serves as a solid tribute to one of the iron men of Major League Baseball.

15-5/2.06-  I was fortunate enough to come across this cap on Ebay thanks in part to a fellow New Era Caps enthusiast by the name of John Beare (@Interstate19). He had casually mentioned that he saw it and thought I might be interested. Believe it or not, I had been trying to track down the hat for some time and immediately purchased it for the excellent price of $12 including shipping. Hell, it still had the tags on it.

The Fort Wayne Wizards used this cap from 1993-2004, changing it once to a wider "FW" logo without the wizard's cap in 2005 before they changed their name to the Tin Caps for the start of the 2009 season. The Midwest League came to Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1993. The franchise dates back from the league's days as the Illinois State League, starting in 1947 in Mattoon, Illinois. In 1958 the team moved to Keokuk, Iowa, where it spent five seasons; it was based in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin (1963–1983) and Kenosha, Wisconsin (1984–1992) before moving to Fort Wayne. From 1993-1998 they served as the single-A affiliate of the Twins before converting to the San Diego Padres in 1999 which still stands as the main affiliate to this day. The one detail about this cap that still puzzles me is why they chose the Wizard hat style that they did. To be honest, it reminds me of the hat Mickey Mouse wore in the Disney animated feature “Fantasia.” Even more surprising, I’m shocked Disney didn’t come to the same realization and get sue-happy.

Of all the moments in the team’s history that I could write about I still find myself drawn to Hawkins’ career; specifically the 1993 season, which, as mentioned above, was also the first season in the history of the Wizards era.

Fort Wayne is roughly 132 miles east of Gary, so not too much of a culture difference for Hawkins when he took the mound for the Wizards in 26 games, 23 of which were as a starter. That season Hawkins had undoubtedly the best year of his career (statistically) including the Majors. He went 15-5 with a 2.06 ERA and 179 strikeouts. Sadly I ran out of room to add the 179 in on my hat, but I made due with what I had. I was also lucky enough to come across some photos of his time with the Wizards which were taken 20 years ago to the date.

It’s moments like this where I realize I ended up where I need to be. As much fun as it would have been, and as great as a fat paycheck would be, I just love researching and telling these stories. God has a plan for all of us. Sometimes we know it on the spot from birth, other times we have to go through half of our lives for the light bulb to click on. I’m perfectly content with the gift and the path God ultimately chose to bestow upon me. It took some time, but the itch is gone. Now, it's just fun to play when I can.

3 comments:

  1. Great write up.. I will be sharing this with my @gioperation tweeps. The minute I saw the 15-5 2.06 and the fw hat I knew exactly who this was about.

    If I'm not mistaken... hawk started that season shitty and they moved him to relief which I don't think he liked very much... they put him back in the rotation and he went ballistic.

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    1. Thank you so much! I'm truly honored.

      You are spot on about Hawk's start in Ft. Wayne. Throughout his career anytime he got "demoted" he always fought back to the position and killed it. He's definitely a very motivated individual. And because he's such an amazing person I really didn't want to mention anything negative about his career. Most players of his caliber and longevity rarely get the credit and attention they earned.

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