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September 2, 2003

Breaking Balls

Confessions of a Random Ballplayer

by Derek Zumsteg

Philadelphia, September 1st
Dear Diary,

My mom called last night. She saw me in New York, and she was so happy. I don't know if she was off buying a soda or something when Nick Johnson hit that bomb off me, but she didn't say anything about it. Dad's doing fine. Mom wanted to know why so many of the guys on the team looked so dirty.

"You boys make good money," she told me. "Why can't you get yourselves nice haircuts?"

"I have a nice haircut," I said.

"Oh, I don't mean you," she laughed. "These other boys. And the helmets! I can't see the red 'B' on the helmet, they're so dirty. Doesn't someone clean the helmets for you?"

Mom's got a dim view of having a massive head of hair that spikes out everywhere from under the helmet like weeds, and the facial hair thing drives her insane. I'm glad we're not in the same division as the A's--she'd probably be calling the Commissioner's office and demanding appearance rules against that kind of weird soul-patch-and-landing-strip thing. And then Alderson's calling me about my mom giving Selig grief, and I don't need to go into what that's like.

Mom thought maybe the players just didn't know they looked so bad, and made me promise to bring it up. This is what parents are for, I guess--even if you're a professional athlete, they want to know if you're going to go to medical school when you retire, and if your new girlfriend wants to see pictures of you at seven, wearing only your briefs, playing T-ball with Dad because you'd gotten all of your other clothes muddy.

We're in Philadelphia today for a one-game makeup. I forgot entirely about the game and barely caught our charter flight. I wasn't alone--there were four of us charging down the concourse, to be faced with all the kids who'd been trying to get autographs from Pedro, and had started to walk back to their buses or scooters or whatever. They recognized us, and started flipping through their card books to match names to unsigned cards. Then you've either got to go through the kids, and that's a disaster either way because Abbie Markham of Action 6 News is live from Logan Airport, where a young kid who just wanted an autograph got a mark of an entirely different kind...

Fortunately, Mirabelli was first and had this scowl on that made him look like he might enjoy eating well-fed children. Dude is huge, and he's used to having very large people try to knock him down to win games. The kids parted in front of us and we made our gate. I was a little out of breath carrying my luggage, and told a trainer I might have strained a rib cage muscle. He made a note of it.

Why should we have figured out that we were headed to Philadelphia of all places? For one day? Someone thinks it's because these games have playoff implications, because we're looking for the wild card, and the Phillies are close--but who cares? The thought of tying Seattle and Oakland at the end of the season and having to sort out who gets in, and how, fills me with disgust and terror. These kind of playoffs are stupid--it's like fighting another kid in your class for the chance to go to a dance with the fifth-coolest girl in your grade. Who cares? Why not fight over someone more beautiful and smarter, who likes baseball? Because they go out with the stars, yeah, I know--and that's not me. It's funny, I played softball at the family reunion and people seem to forget that I was a three-sport star. They picked some kid ahead of me because I'm a reliever, and then they're surprised I can play short and swing the stick.

It's only about an hour in the air, though, so it's not like we were headed to San Juan or anything. On the flight, I told Damon about my Mom's phone call and asked if he'd considered the impression he might be giving people. He stared at me for a full five minutes in silence before coach called me over to talk about the scouting report, though he didn't have anything to say that I hadn't already heard about.

There was some debate about whether the Phillies had a new stadium or not, which was stupid because we'd already played there twice, and clearly they were still in that hellhole. I know our lives are all travel; with interleague play we might play 20 teams a season, and sure, the Reds had a new stadium that looked like one of the Lego ballparks I used to build--except with gumdrops and scrapbook materials glued to the fašade--but for a park we'd already spent two full days at? And who confuses Veterans Stadium with anything built after the days of American-Stalinist architecture, when we built high schools and stadiums out of the same concrete forms?

After the argument, Timlin refuses to play cribbage with me. He's petty sometimes.

We were staying at the same hotel as the Phillies, which was weird. Larry Bowa recognized me at breakfast and thought for some reason I was one of his pitchers. I was sitting by myself, having gotten up early, and reading while I picked at a plate of hotel buffet food. Bowa slapped the Wall Street Journal out of my hand and everyone turned to look at him. He called me a 'preppy c***s***er,' and asked me if I'd been out all night searching for drugs or hookers. I couldn't speak, I was so shocked, and he continued to tear into me. If I threw another strike on an 0-2 count, he said, he'd tear my balls off and shove them up my nose, or...something. I'm not sure. He's so loud it's hard to make out the individual words sometime.

Then he started to sob uncontrollably. I picked up my paper and made my way back to the lobby.

Suppan pitched today, so we couldn't wander off for long, but I snuck out with Wakefield and we got a cop to take us under the stadium, where they've got a mini-court set up with prosecutor, public defender, judge, bailiff and everything. It's so they can process public drunkenness charges, fights, stuff like that, all right there at the park, and toss you into a paddy wagon and drive it off when it's full, pulling a fresh one up for the next batch. Everyone was great, and Wakefield signed a couple of autographs. I asked if they thought it was fair to process defendants while they were still drunk, and everyone had a good laugh.

Fans were loud. One informed me that my sister had taken to providing sexual services in order to make money. I asked him where he'd heard it, and he replied "Oh, I got it, I got it real good." Disturbed, I ducked into the clubhouse between innings and called my sister. She was happy to hear from me, and assured me that her modest family practice was her only source of income. I promise to call her when I had more time, and returned to the bullpen. I stopped to relate my situation to one of the officers I'd talked to before, but apparently there are no local statutes that adequately cover the nature of this offense, and I chalked the incident up to experience.

We play this in the bullpen. You take a cup, like a souvenir beer cup or whatever, and everyone puts $5 into it. Then the guy holding the cup predicts what the next event's going to be. Like strikeout, hit, home run, walk, groundout, flyout. If you're right, you get the money in the cup, and pass it down. If you're wrong, you pass the cup down. When Lowe's pitching, it's not worth playing either way: "Groundout, whee, I won $30 again." There's also another one we play sometimes, where you have to predict who fields it, which means it's harder. Hardly anyone likes that one, though, because it's harder, but I made a ton off Lowe--call ground out to second all night, and you're going to end up ahead. You don't want to get too fancy.

The great thing is to play it with September call-ups. We've been watching the starters all year--we know if they're ground/fly guys, who owns them and who doesn't. Then these minor league kids come up, they've spent all season working on their changeup or something, so they're not up on the statistics. They haven't watched 140 games from the pen, and most of them don't have much money to start with, but they're all competitive and they want to fit in, so they keep playing. By the end of the game we win enough money to take the bullpen out to a nice dinner, including the kids, and now we're the cool veteran heroes for spending their money. I love expanded rosters.

Chicago tomorrow, two-hour flight. Stadium's got a new name but it still stinks. It's old and sort of lame, but Fenway's got personality. I won't get back until next Wednesday night at the latest. Fortunately we're playing in Baltimore Monday through Wednesday, so I should be pretty well rested.

Related Content:  The Who,  The Call-up,  Autographs

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