I’m at an age at which the great experiences are mostly the ones your kids get to have, and getting to share those — to experience the kids experiencing the moments — is enough. Those are awesome.
But every once in a while, if you’re lucky, there’s the other kind, too.
I loved playing the game more than I can describe. I mean, I loved it. Craved it. Depended on it.
All day long all summer as a little kid. In a uniform (Staubach’s number 12, always) after that. Every chance I got, until the last time, more than 20 years ago.
When Ben Rogers invited me a couple weeks ago to play in the Dirk Nowitzki Heroes Celebrity Baseball Game, there was about a three-second adrenaline rush before I realized we had plans to be out of town to see family that weekend. Ben calmly suggested I ought to make a phone call, just to see if there was any leeway on that. I did. Ginger told me I should stay back for this, and Max too — she knew how much it would mean to me, and him. She’s awesome.
I got some BP in with the great Mike Tovar early in the week, and ripped up my bottom hand in three places. Whether it was bad mechanics or overgrip or just a matter of hands that had gotten used to two decades of not swinging at hardballs, I’m not sure, but it led to a first-ever trip to REI (I’m available to endorse Moleskin) and a couple days of rest on the hands before Friday’s Heroes practice, where I got some cuts in.
I knew from the minute I accepted Ben’s invite that the cost of agreeing to play in the Heroes Game was a 120-proof concoction of embarrassment and injury, which was totally acceptable. I’d have roughly forever to recover from this one-time shot.
Back at the ballpark late Saturday afternoon, I walked across the outfield to the right field corner en route to the visitor’s clubhouse as the 10,000 seats were already starting to fill. Waiting in the clubhouse, in a locker (next to Eduardo Najera’s) with my name on it — which was silly-cool itself — was a jersey, in my size. A pair of baseball pants, in my size. Two caps, in my size. A baseball belt and a pair of socks and two dry-fit tees. Need some baseball cleats, in your size? Seriously? Yes. Then yes, thanks. A pair of baseball cleats, in my size.
Pregame spread. A walk back across the outfield over to the cages, and now the stands are really filling up. Some cuts in the cage, back to the clubhouse for a quick game plan/pep talk, then off to the area above the visitors’ bullpen for a press conference where Dirk, Michael Young, Steve Nash, Tyson Chandler, Derek Holland, and the founder of the event, Charlie McKinney, speak to several dozen reporters.
Get a little run in, a little stretching, and then throw to get loose with Cole Beasley. Charlie Villanueva mixes in with me and Cole, and appears to conflate a couple sports he doesn’t play, as a few minutes into short-to-long toss he starts jogging laterally as if running a crossing pattern, waiting for my throws. Turns out he was onto something. More on that shortly.
We’re loose and it’s time to hit the dugout. Player introductions and the anthem, with a three-jet flyover.
Lineup is set (I’m hitting 10th out of 20), as is the first-inning defense. I’m starting at third base. Forty feet from Michael Young.
OK, seriously. I’m suited up, cap and glove and cleats, 40 feet from Michael Young. Let’s go.
First batter retired — can’t remember how — and the ball is sent around the horn. Michael whips the ball to me before I flip it back to the pitcher.
And in that moment, I was my kid’s age.
Next, Dez Bryant rifles a shot to my left and my 46-year-old legs have time to take one step and extend, and I get a glove on it, but that wasn’t acceptable. The ball deflects to Michael but by time he makes his throw to first, Dez is safe. It makes a sellout crowd very happy, so, you know, you’re welcome. But man, I’m steamed. I’ve got to make that play.
After a Kevin Mench bomb, another out, another couple men on, and someone (was it Skin?) grounds a ball my way. I turn to make the tag on the runner from second base but he’s veering outside the baseline so I throw to second instead. Force, inning over. Time to grab a helmet.
You know how, in R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming,” the piano basically never stops? The weird thing about the Heroes Game is when they play walkup music, they never turn it off. It’s a hockey game from an A/V standpoint. That’s weird as I step to the plate, but maybe the music blaring over the sound system managed to make me not think about my blistered lower hand, and concentrate on keeping my weight back, and my back foot relatively quiet, and throwing my hands at the ball.
First pitch I see, I shoot a single to right center, where Mench fields the ball. After a turn I lope back to the bag, where Dirk reaches down about eight feet to give me daps, and says: “Nice shot, dude!”
There were the things that Ray Corbett and Michael Hardge said to me 25 years ago on a ballfield, and now: “Nice shot, dude” . . . .
I won’t forget that.
I took second on a single to center, and thought about trying to take third, which Mench wishes I had (given what he said to me as he came up with the ball). I held at second.
A single to left in Dez’s direction, and Tyson Chandler waves me around third, which was unnecessary and would have been fully ignored had he signaled otherwise. I ran on Dez (who along with Devin Harris was the most gifted, natural-looking ballplayer among the other-sport athletes out there), and scored, sliding.
Won’t forget that, either.
I’m in center field for the second inning. No action. Wanted that chance to make a throw to a base, which I knew would mean zero arm left the rest of the day, but I wanted that chance. No such luck.
In the fifth, I’m asked to play shortstop, and Devin hits a two-out, two-hop grounder up the middle that I’m able to center and get my feet right on, but I look to first and see Charlie V already in full lunge toward me, glove outstretched, compressing his seven-foot frame into what amounted to a four-foot target, and it screws with my head. I drop my slot — a mistake right there, as I had plenty of time — and sail one wide that Charlie might have been able to glove if he’d been running one of those pregame crossing patterns. But he wasn’t, and the ball skips past him. Inexcusable on my part. Brutal.
Charlie (who spared me the indignity of beating me up for the E-6 in his blog recap of the event) gets to the ball quickly enough to fire it down to second before Devin could get there, and we get him in a rundown and I chase him down for the third out. But the first base umpire rules that Devin is awarded second on my initial overthrow. Hmm. OK.
Sixth inning, and we’re up big. One out and a man on second, and I’m up for my second at-bat. After fouling off about six pitches, one fairly deep but 20 feet foul, I ultimately roll over to second, where Nash gathers it and throws me out easily.
Max, who watched the game with a friend in the stands, would tell me later that it was OK — I just added to Nash’s career assist total. (High five.)
Top of nine. My third and final chance at the plate. First pitch is middle-out and I hit it square to left field, going the other way with a ball that Mike Bacsik thinks he should have caught.
It surprises at least one fan in attendance.
Fortunately, it’s another inning with Dirk manning first base, and as the next hitter steps up I thank Dirk for putting his energy behind this awesome event. He talks about how cool it is to have that many people supporting the cause, and having a good time.
Dirk has no business being as unassuming and normal as he is. It’s pretty great.
This was also my first time to be around Dez, and while he’s not unassuming, and not normal, his energy is infectious and irresistible. What an awesome dude.
I take third on a base hit, and score on a grounder to short. I’m sent out to right field for the bottom of the ninth, watch Lance Dunbar effortlessly flag down a shot between us — Lance Dunbar is a great guy — and jog in to line up in the middle of the diamond to celebrate Blue Sox 17, White Sox 5.
Postgame spread. Fireworks for the fans. Some really great conversations back in the clubhouse with some of my sports heroes, and other guys I’d just met. A lot of kids, one by one, asking me as I walk back out onto the field to cross back over to the home side if they can have my bat or glove.
(Sorry, buddy, no. They’re the only ones I’ve got.)
(Plus, you really don’t want them.)
Saturday night’s should have been the best sleep ever. I was exhausted, and exhilarated, and when my head hit the pillow I was out.
But every time I moved an inch throughout the night, something barked. And woke me up.
Sports-sore is the best. I miss it, and feel super-alive when I get to do something that brings it back on.
But I’ve never gotten the chance to do something like that. Your name over the PA (set to rock music), your face on a 2,700 square foot video board, you and the pitcher, the opportunity once again to compete.
In this case, for a really great cause. Lots of kids get a big hand from the Dirk Nowitzki and Heroes Foundations, which have raised more than $3.6 million for Dallas-area youth. The Heroes Game is the signature event annually, and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it any better.
It was one of the great non-family experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have. If I could do this, I would:
I’m doing it in my head, at least.
And Saturday night, I got the chance to take something I’d done in my head a thousand times since I was a kid, and play it out on a diamond, in an exhibition where numbers like 17-5, and 2 for 3, meant nothing compared to that $3.6 million that will kick up even further next year.
This time, my kid was in the stands, watching Dad. It was a reversal of roles of sorts, for a moment, and I think Max was just as OK with it as I was, for a weekend.
I’m super-grateful for the opportunity, at a level that Charlie and Ben and Skin and Dirk and everyone else involved probably couldn’t expect.
It was an absolutely unforgettable experience, and to suggest it was on the bucket list for me would be to give too much credit to the rest of the list.