Shaping the clay
Having been adopted at birth I’ve never known my biological parents, nor have I ever really wanted to. My older sister, older brother and I were placed by God into a loving, middle class family. My mother and father, your Grandma Judy and Grandpa Phil, raised us on ten acres out in the country. I grew up on a small farm that consisted of a small herd of cattle, a barnyard full of chickens and ducks and one turkey that would chase us kids whenever we got too close. We also raised some pigs from time to time which all helped to keep our grocery bill to a minimum. We weren’t able to have much in the way of extras but I don’t ever recall going to bed hungry or going to school without what we needed to fit in or participate in athletics, my Grandpa and Grandma made sure of that. I can’t tell you the number of times that we made the forty-five minute drive to Portland to visit Na Na and Pop, (as we called them), but whenever we did we came home with more more then we went with. They not only gave us money whenever we needed help, but vehicle help as well. Pop had more mechanical knowledge than anyone I’ve ever known and was as clever as they came. I loved him and my Na Na very, very much.
My earliest recollection of a religious upbringing took place at the local church about a half mile away, on the highest hill around. Our church is as picturesque as they come for a small town. It’s small and simple white box construction is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The double door entrance walks you through the steeple which contains a bell that could be heard ringing throughout the valley each and every Sunday.
The community I called home consisted of one four way stop and one tiny store about an eighth of a mile from our house that my brother and sister could walk to for a treat if we were “good”. I still recall the store owner, Mr. Jiggs, playfully popping me on the top of my head with the bottom of the paper bag in the act of opening it whenever we bought something. It was as small town as it gets and looking back now I realize just how blessed I was.
Why my parents dropped us off but didn’t attend with us I still don’t know to this day but it seemed just fine to us at the time. It was probably as simple as just giving them, and us kids a much needed break. I never saw it as a negative and I still don’t. Which denomination we were I couldn’t tell you, but this was my first recollection of learning about God.
I still feel regret about how I acted during services. As young, unsupervised boys, more then once my brother and I had started the service in the back pew by our choice but later wound up being moved to the front by the preacher’s choice. I guess church was, to my brother and I, a chance to test our newly formed boundaries of freedom.
As I remember it, we did one immature thing after another. From finger flicking battles that escalated into shoulder bruising wars to uncontrolled giggling fits, the reasons for being brought to front and center varied from Sunday to Sunday. I have since seen my first pastor Larry, and given him and his wife Carolyn my most sincere apologies, which they simply smiled at and accepted, as any good Christian would.
My next spiritual “growth” took place in and around the 4th grade. My best friend’s father was the preacher at the local Baptist church so I became involved in those services as well as in their youth group, I recall really enjoying the journey, that is until the bonfire experience.
This “fun-loving” bonfire was initially advertised to us kids as a nighttime spiritual get together and I recall being very excited to go. I mean what gradeschooler wouldn’t love to watch a giant controlled burn? I pictured a marsh mellow/wienie roasting, God loving gathering, that is until I was made aware of the kindling that would be used to start it. Our youth director went on to explain that we should all bring our rock and roll tapes, comic books, baseball cards, and anything else that we ”idolized.” Naturally, without any further explanation, this came off as quite strange to me, but I remember keeping quiet about it. But as time went on, the question of ‘why?’ kept nagging at my brain, and finally I couldn’t take it any longer so I asked. I remember the director looking me straight in the eye and, with a devilish smile, responding with the words I feared most. “We’re going to burn them little buddy.”
Now you gotta understand, my brother and I were avid and competitive comic book collectors and I also collected sports cards. These were more than just cardboard pictures, they held pictures of my heroes. And on top of that, I had worked hard doing my chores around the farm to earn the money to buy those comics and football cards.
Well, I decided right then and there that I would not be going to that bonfire. In fact, I didn’t go to that church, not one more time. My father painted the 4×8 plywood backdrop of Mt. St. Helens for the baptismal in which I had earlier received my first Baptism, but that didn’t matter. I knew in my heart that I wanted nothing to do with a church that was taking away my hard earned treasures and therefore a piece of my freedom as well. I believe that this is when my rejection of God began, not a complete denial, but I began to see Him in a less than positive light, that’s for sure.
Due to the short-sightedness of the leaders of that church, God’s love for me changed into something that had to be earned and from that point forward I saw the church as something that stood between me and a good time. As I look back now, it was actually from that point on that I began to viewed God as a hindrance and a rebel was born.
All throughout my childhood and much of my early adult years I harbored a rebelliousness that would bubble up from time to time. It was never so strong as to get me into serious trouble, but it existed nonetheless. From intentionally causing waves in grade school by wearing an obscene t-shirt to paying a $20 fine with a sack full of quarters in the minor leagues for not wearing my uniform “the right way”, I guess there were times it just needed to come out.
Although I somewhat prided myself on my sporadic rebellious “bad boy” existence, I was never a bad person. I must admit, however, I’ve always taken great pleasure in dominating the cocky types, athletically that is, so they may have a differing opinion about me from back in those days. But off the field I was as fun loving a spirit as there was. If there was an argument or fight at a after game party, I was usually the one keeping the peace with a cold beer diversion. Being from very simple family life I was taught early on by my father to always be humble and loyal. I can still hear my dad tell me to let my actions do the talking. I was also taught to treat others how I wanted to be treated and that family and team were always first. My friends and family meant everything to me, just as they do today. If anyone needed help in any way, I did what needed to be done.
Throughout my early 80’s high school years I admired and longed for the rock star lifestyle. I gravitated toward older peers because of my athletic talent and a self esteem based on my ability to play the game of baseball and party with the “big boys” flourished. My ego had taken on a life of it’s own and, I began traveling down what I now know was a self destructive road, although it didn’t feel like it at the time . All evidence led me to believe that I was special, and I guess I wanted to show that to everyone by being a success despite leading an anti All-American lifestyle. The rebel in me wanted to prove I could be an All-American and not live the All-American life. I had thrown no-hitters, hit game winning grand slams and won many ego building accolades living this way. There were times when I felt untouchable by anyone or anything. I was athletically talented and seemingly unstoppable, destined to make millions of dollars doing what I loved, playing the game of baseball. Life was so sweet and simple. Too sweet and simple.
I went on to fall in love with my high school sweetheart and promise my mother the house she had always wanted, an ‘A’ frame with big windows. Despite my use of drugs and alcohol my grades didn’t suffer throughout high school. I also enjoyed great success playing the game, which only fueled my thoughts of invincibility, so the party raged on. It wasn’t until college that the good times began to affect my grades, but even that didn’t matter. In my mind I would be hiring someone to do my accounting, why should I learn about it?
Then came my first real setback.
During my college sophomore season I suffered a shoulder injury and surgery was required to repair it. My indestructibility as an athlete was fractured but I was determined to make a comeback. My alcohol consumption decreased dramatically because I knew it would inhibit my physical healing process but my ignorant use of marijuana remained. Looking back I couldn’t have been more foolish in that regard. I was undereducated on the harm that pot does and if this drug seems enticing to you I urge you to educate yourself. Use of this drug is nothing short of poisoning youself. Look it up.
I rehabilitated diligently and restructured my throwing motion and through this focused hard work I gained 10 miles per hour on my fast ball, making me a lefty that threw over 90mph. This put me back on the major league scout’s radars and I was back on track in my mind as well. The “party animal” had re-emerged and I was once again feeling invincible.
After my senior season in college I got married, became a father of you, Tommy, and was drafted in the 6th round of the 1990 amateur draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. This reality change slowed my “party hardy” habits a bit. I loved my family very much but my Godless connection of drugs and alcohol to a good time still remained.
Upon signing my first professional contract I was then required to move thousands of miles away to start my minor league career. I remember becoming extremely focused on my career both mentally and physically and it paid off. I had a great beginning and was named “closest to the majors” in the entire Brewer organization in the highly respected publication, Baseball America. My baseball career was taking off and on top of that I got the great news that I was going to have another baby, this time a girl. Outside of being nearly broke, life couldn’t have been any better, really. Then injuries and the travel began to take it’s toll.
Unable to afford to bring my family along with me after my second season put untold stress on my family and relationships. The literal gap created between me and my family was difficult but in my mind we always had the off season to re-acquaint and patch things up. In the off-season of ’93, (I think it was), I received an offer to play in a newly formed winter league in Arizona. All the top prospects were being invited and this would be a chance to showcase my abilities with the best. In my mind I would have been crazy to pass it up. It took all of ten minutes to make the decision to go.
Arizona was as beautiful as you would expect. The days were filled with perfect weather and talent filled baseball. The nights were equally as impressive. A party of rock star status could be found every night and I didn’t maintain my off field focus. My selfishness and downright stupidity sent the season up in smoke and I went home with my tail between my legs, licking my wounds. But then came a chance to redeem myself, or so I thought.
The Venezuelan government had gone through a coup and one of the American major-league pitchers playing there decided he had had enough of the chaos and wanted to go home. I had a friend on the team that recommended me so I got the call just after I returned home in December. Despite legitimate objections from my wife, I went. I was okay with it because I was told I would be paid $3,000 for only a month of play….just a few more starts to get the team into the playoffs and then they would get someone else to fill my shoes. This is what I was told over the phone anyway.
At that time the Venezuelan league was second only to the American major leagues, so the exposure would be great. I could also earn three times the money I did during the minor league season in a third of the time which would enable me to take my wife and kids with me the next season. To me it was a no-brain-er.
Although I heard the sense of urgency in my wife’s voice, and could clearly see the hurt in her eyes when she asked me to stay, beleiving that in the long run it would be what was best for us as a family, I reluctantly went anyway.
The organization I played for, The Caracas Leones, made it into the playoffs and because I had pitched well up to that point they “asked” me to stay for another month. My wife was counting on me coming home, and I planned to return as well, but then came the meetings. One with the players at the chapmionship celebration party and another with the owner. At the party I was fed enough rum and beer to inebriate an elephant but staved off the barrage of pleadings for me to stay. Although I was enjoying the new team and the players on it, I still felt my promise to my wife to be paramount. Then came the meeting with the owner. It was in that office that my naive eyes were opened to the business realities behind the game.
I was told that the $3,000 that I was promised over the phone would be paid in full to me only on the contingency that I fulfilled all requests of the organization and now they were requesting for me to stay for the playoffs. When I told them that this isn’t how I understood the contract when it was explained to me over the phone I was ever so politely shown that it was all right there in the fine print, literally. The contract with my signature was unfolded in front of me and the writing being referred to was pointed out. I was then told that I could leave but they would only pay me $1,500, half of what I needed to take my family with me the next season. I had been officially baited and switched!
I remember the anger and sadness as if it were yesterday. I felt trapped and angry. In my mind my hands were tied and I sadly explained that over the phone to my wife back home. I did my best to convince her it was for the best, and hung up the phone. Then things went from bad to downright miserable.
The playoffs went horribly. The extra two weeks felt like a year. My pitching reflected my internal feelings of hollowness and my performances weere a shell of my ability. Our pitchers didn’t pitch and our hitters didn’t hit and and we were out of the playoffs within a week. Then, just when I thought it couldnt get any worse, I received yet another kick in the butt on the way out the door.
Strangely, on the day for us to leave and go home, I was the only American that didn’t have a plane ticket waiting for me at the airport. When I was told that the next flight available wouldn’t be until the next morning my heart hit my stomach and my stomach hit the floor! I literally wasn’t sure that I was going to survive if I had to stay the night in the airport, and this was why.
My mind rushed back in time to the day of my arrival. I immediately recalled being warned by my pitching coach when we first met about the abundance of thieves and robberies, (as well as by the other American players, many times over), to a Venezuelan thief, an American passport was literally worth killing for. For this reason we had essentially two rules to live by. Keep your passport locked up in a safe place or in your possession at all times, and never travel alone. Even though I adhered to these rules as if my life depended on it, (which it did), I was still victimized on two separate occasions, the first of which occurred only days before while traveling to eat.
At that time in Caracas the only American fast food restaurants, McDonald’s and Burger King, were located in the heart of the city so I, and four other players, would travel there via subway to have lunch from time to time. Going to these restaraunts was as close to being home as we could find. These were like holy temples to us, and to satisfy our ingrained need for American style food was seemingly worth risking our lives for. We had made this pilgrimage several times successfully so our confidence was high. However, on this particular run through chaos my innocence was lost.
After enjoying a small taste of the homeland we hopped back onto the subway just as we had done a handful of times before, only on this particular return home our grouping effort got twisted up and I was cleverly separated from the others.
While we were getting on the escalator that transported passengers up from the underbelly out to the street level, a man suddenly cut in front of me. He was just alittle guy so he didn’t seem to pose a threat. And besides, my American friends were right in fron of him, so I simply kept my distance and rode my way up.
We ascended without incident until the very top of the ride where he then suddenly dropped his subway ticket on the stairs at the top where the stairway disappeared under the concrete pad leading to the street. Suddenly the ticket was lifted into the air by the reversed air current created by the stairs continued motion under the landing and it began to levitate in front of him. It was like a magic trick!
The ticket was bobbing up and down like a butterfly and he was swatting at it and waking backwards at the same time! You see, the way the subway worked there at the time, (and probably still does), you needed to insert your ticket into a kiosk to open one of the many horizontally revolving bar gates at the top of the escalators to advance onto the street, so if you don’t have a ticket, you can’t get out.
Well, because I was immediately behind him I was then forced to suddenly take my hand out of my pocket, (and off my wallet), so I could balance myself while walking backwards in order to avoid running him over. I naturally bumped into the person behind me and this is when this man must have picked my wallet out of my front pocket. I say “must have” because besides the bumping into him I didn’t feel a thing out of the ordinary and didn’t even realize what had happened until several minutes later as I hurried to catch up with the others.
I recall feeling the relief of catching up to them but then the sudden hooror of my front pocket being empty. Realizing that I had been robbed I was both angry and scared. We all decided that chasing after the thief was pointless so we all cautiously headed back, looking forsard to the safety of our hotel rooms.
Couple this traumatic incident with the overall chaotic wild west lawlessness that ruled the land and yeah, if I were forced to stay the night in the airport, my life was definitely in danger.
With this memory still in the forefront of my mind I began frantically searching for the number of the Caracas Leones front office in everything that I had, beginning with my newly aquired wallet. After methodically peeling apart everything I had, I came to the stomach sickening realization that I didn’t have it. I quickly calculated that my easiest way out of this increasingly dangererous situation would be to call my wife back in the states. I knew she had the number and could call the front office for me and have them send out what I envisioned at this point to be a rescue party.
With this less than reliable plan, I awkwardly lugged my giant suitcase in one hand and my little briefcase in the other around the dilapidated, third world airport.
I did my best to watch everyone around me with the voice of my pitching coach ringing in my ears, “some people here will kill ya for your passport so be on alert”.
To get a phone line connection back to the United States I first had to find the phone booths of international lines, which were grouped together in one spot and located in the middle of everything. I hurriedly walked to the nearest open phone and picked it up, listening for an operator. The phone system there was, (and I’m sure still is), incredibly simplistic and straightforward. If you heard a busy signal when you put the phone to your ear then you had to hang up and try again.
After what seemed like an hour of trying to connect to the outside world I finally felt the relief of hearing someone in broken English ask me “which country?”. Then my wife’s voice on the other end was truly a HALLALUIA moment! Although relieved to hear her voice this most certainly didn’t mean the potential for death and dimemberment was over. The challenge then became being heard and understood because the connection was so extremely faint. It was like trying to hear the smallest voice in the world while standing on a bustling concourse of a major league baseball game during the seventh inning stretch.
Then, just as I got through to my wife, I noticed a man pick up the phone in the open booth next to me. Knowing that I was going to have to literally yell, I turned away, putting my back to him in an attempt at politness. If I had known what he was about to do, being polite would have been the furthest thing from my mind! While explaining about the ticket mix up to my only life line out, this professional thief picked up my briefcase and probably calmly walked away. I had only taken my eyes off of it for a few moments and again like magic, POOF! It was gone!
I yelled at my wife to hold on and dropped the phone, letting it dangle by its cord. I hurriedly walked around to the other side of the phones to try to catch the thief. After quickly scanning the area there I then rushed back around to check on my last sole possession, my luggage full of my clothes and personal items. I was expecting to see someone running away with that too but thankfully it remained there on the floor next to the swaying phone receiver. Probably too heavy and bulky for a clean get away!
After internalizing the loss of my most valued possessions excluding my passport, I put the phone back up to my ear and angrily explained what had just happened to my wife. With the urgency of the situation hanging like a noose in the air, she made the call immediately. My rescue team turned out to be the same scatter toothed smiling guy that picked me up at the beginning of this whole fiasco. He was driving the same smelly, ready to break down, old, mostly American car, but I couldn’t have been more relieved to climb in. I would have got on the back of a scooter at that point! I was back in my hotel room an hour later sipping a rum and coke to calm my nerves and proceeded to fly out the next day.
It probably goes without saying but I have been extremely hesitant to travel outside the United States ever since.
As far as the next year was concerned, there was no change in the downward spiral of the one before.
First my Dad passed away from cancer of the brain, then I suffered a season ending injury of a broken facial bone and crushed sinus from being hit in the right eye with a line drive during batting practice that I didn’t even throw! And if that wasn’t enough to make me turn to God, the next thing should have been!
Two weeks into spring training my wife called and told me that she wanted a divorce! Although I recall being quite literally knocked down to my knees, my pride still wouldn’t allow me to pray for God’s assistance and I still didn’t think He was anything but a fable.
In retrospect I see now that my self-pride was so large and in charge that I simply didn’t have room for God. I only recall feeling my desire for excelling as a professional baseball pitcher change from a passion into an obsession. I actually recall telling myself that I was “now married to baseball” and there was nothing short of career ending injury that would keep me from getting to the Major leagues. My life’s existence was centered around working my tail off to get better at the craft of pitching during the day and partying my tail off at night to numb the pain of not being able to see or talk to my children.
I suffered many ups and downs throughout the remainder of my career and I never acheived the goal of the millions of dollars that I once felt destined to receive. I look back now and wholeheartedly thank God that I didn’t achieve millionaire status because I know now that with my attitude of invincibility backed by a seemingly endless flow of cash at the big league level, I would have only partied my way into rehab. I was so twisted and broken on the inside that I didn’t have the self-discipline off the field to do the right thing, and I now realize that of course God knew that as well. Although I was oblivious to it at the time, God wasn’t taking anyuthing away from me, He was protecting me from myself.
I disappointingly retired from baseball in 1998 but my inward looking, self serving ways continued….that is until the “Arizona enlightenment”.
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