Thursday, May 22, 2008

Welcome to the Cub

First off, a warning: if you’re going to let your kids play little league sports, prepare yourself for a weekly gut-ectomy. If you’re planning to coach your kids’ teams – run. Run very fast the other way, while you still can, and don’t look back.

The scrappy little Cubs (ages 9-11) of Wylie Little League took another one on the chin Tuesday night at the old ball orchard. Leading 10-7 going into the bottom of the sixth and final inning, we lost to the mighty Red Sox, 11-10. Joan Rivers’ chin hasn’t taken this much.

Last week, we dropped a 12-11 decision to the Rangers on a bang-bang play at the plate. Up by one, our first baseman took a throw from short and fired a bullet to the catcher, just ahead of the runner trying to score from third. The umpire waited, presumably checking to see if our catcher held onto the ball (which he did) and finally made the call.

SAFE! What?!?! Why would you look to see if the catcher has the ball, see that he does, then rule safe? Either the runner beat the throw (which in this case it didn’t appear he did) or he’s out, so long as the catcher hangs on. The Rangers, to their credit, scratched out another run and won by one.

This week, it was even worse. We led from the first inning and had that aforementioned 10-7 lead going to the top of the sixth. My oldest son, Andrew, led off with a walk and advanced to third on a pair of wild pitches, which also contributed to our next batter reaching first on a walk. First and third, nobody out, up 10-7 with both teams, coaches, umpires, and fans fully aware that if we scored three runs, the game would essentially be over because the most you can score in one inning is five. Another wild pitch, Andrew headed home. He beat the throw so easily that he didn’t even slide. No call from the umpire until Andrew began walking back to the dugout.

OUT! What?!?! I left the first base coaching box to ask about the call. He said Andrew missed home plate. Now there is scarcely a more prejudiced party in this matter than me. But having said that, Andrew didn’t miss the plate. He told me he stepped on it. The entire section of bleachers, which sit less than 20 feet from the plate, saw him step on it. Even the other team’s coaches told us later it was a bad call. But the ump ruled he was out. Instead of an 11-7 lead with a runner at second and no one out, it remained 10-7 with one out and the runner at second. Our next two batters struck out, setting the stage for the Red Sox comeback.

Still clinging to a 10-9 lead with a runner at third and two outs, our pitcher got ahead of the hitter 0-2. At that point, the ump’s strike zone shrunk to approximately the size of a small quark. A walk and a pair of run-scoring wild pitches later, we’d lost 11-10.

I told our team this week the same thing I said the week before: we’re not going to be a team that blames losses on the umpires. That’s the parents’ job. Even if the umps blew those calls, I reasoned, it only means they’re human (though for the life of me I can’t figure out where they find real people to spend 20 hours a week making $8.50 a game plus concession stand discount). My larger point is that I want our team to know that you can’t go through life blaming other people when things don’t go your way.

Which, after a mere 600-plus words, brings us to the PGA Tour’s newest Players Champion. Sergio Garcia’s playoff victory over Paul Goydos Sunday at TPC Sawgrass was by far the biggest moment of his career. Bigger than the British Amateur in 1998. Bigger than the runner-up finish to Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA. More than all those Ryder Cups he’s helped keep on European soil.

It wasn’t just that Garcia won, it was how he did it. Yes, Goydos helped by bogeying three of his final five holes and splashing his approach at 17 on the first swing of the playoff. But Goydos, with those Lou Piniella looks and Lou Costello one-liners, would’ve won it in regulation had Garcia not held it together in extreme meteorological and course conditions and saved par with a clutch seven-footer at the 72nd hole. His perfectly placed tee shot in the playoff provided the punctuation mark to a signature victory.

Garcia’s has been a fascinating and occasionally troublesome metamorphosis from wunderkind to wonder-when? I’ll never forget how ancient a 23-year-old Tiger Woods appeared after tapping in at Medinah’s 18th to beat Garcia by one at the ’99 PGA. Sergio, with his no-look swings and scissor kicks, was the reason Woods looked so crusty.

For golf fans with Garcia, it was love at first swipe. We couldn’t get enough of that syrupy swing and insouciant spirit that dared to take on the world’s best. (Remember Garcia’s glare from the green back toward Tiger on the tee box after rolling in a birdie at 13 on that Chicago Sunday?)

We all thought back then that the 19-year-old Spaniard had scooped up from the ashes what the spotlight had seemingly burned out of Woods as he evolved from phenom to dominant number one, specifically that sheer love of the shot, the moment, the game. But while Sergio was turning cartwheels, a cold-blooded Tiger was busy winning majors and sucking the life out of the rest of the Tour. Apparently, that’s Tiger’s idea of fun. In fact, Woods won six of the next 10 after Medinah, the last of which fully juxtaposed his and Garcia’s character. While Woods was methodically navigating his way through nasty weather and an even nastier Bethpage Black at the 2002 U.S. Open, Garcia was waggling, flipping off fans, re-waggling, accusing USGA officials of giving Tiger preferential treatment in how they determined whether or not to postpone play because of rain, and re-re-waggling. Woods didn’t just beat Garcia head-to-head in Sunday’s final groupe 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage; his play and presence exposed a petulance that has so far defined Garcia’s career – at least until Sunday.

Winning the fifth most important stroke play tournament in all of golf may begin a new chapter in Garcia’s career, and it’s high time for a plot twist. The book on him so far tells the story of a precocious player with preternatural ability who achieved success early but struggled to consistently hang with the world’s best as his putter developed severe multiple personality disorder. His Dr. Jekyll stroke has been a regular on Thursdays through Saturdays and during foursomes and fourballs in Ryder Cups; but Garcia’s Mr. Hyde usually makes cameos in crunch time or whenever Tiger Woods was near. (It’s at the very least a coincidence that last week’s victory was also the first time Garcia had teed it up in a Players Championship or major that didn’t have Woods in the field.)

It hasn’t just been on the green that Sergio has shown multiple personalities. Often engaging and gregarious in the public eye – he came off especially cute in those Michelob commercials – Garcia’s been just as likely to be ornery. And that behavioral Jekyll and Hyde has been frequently triggered by the Heckle and Chide of a well-lubricated peanut gallery or media sharks who’ve smelled blood whenever Garcia’s let a big one get away. More often than not, he’s taken that bait, complaining about various and occasionally mysterious mistreatment he’s endured. (Telling the press “I’m playing against a lot of guys out there, more than the field” after last year’s playoff loss at the Open Championship was an instant classic). One of his recurring rants is that he’s been unfairly made the whipping boy of the same scribes who gladly take their pound of Garcia’s flesh in the stories they write for the next morning’s paper.

Seems like since that seminal moment at Medinah, Sergio’s smile has gradually devolved into a snarl. Until Sunday. We’ll see how, if at all, the biggest victory of his career changes Garcia, on the course and in the immediate aftermath of tournaments when the pressure and the press are at their most intense.

A word of advice, Sergio, from someone who believes there’s way more of you to love than dislike: lay off the press, and they’ll eventually let up on you. Especially if you keep winning big events and taking full responsibility for yourself when you don’t. In other words, grow up and start acting like my little leaguers.

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