Father, son and the gift of a game
After 16 seasons of organized baseball, son John's career comes to an end
he game meant nothing. Williams had already clinched a spot in the New England Small College Athletic Conference playoffs, and Hamilton was playing to see if it would finish 7-25 or 6-26. The Ephs had trounced the Continentals, 8-0 and 11-2, the day before, so it's fair to say that the spectators braving the chill wind of the Berkshires on this late April day were fully expecting another beating.
For John, though, the game meant everything. As the teams lined up along the foul lines for the national anthem -- a lovely rendition by a Williams sophomore -- my wife, Bambi, and I could see through our own tears that he was crying. This was to be his last appearance as a player. "Batting fifth, playing shortstop, No. 7, John Wulf."
After 16 seasons of organized baseball, roughly 700 games of T-ball, Little League, travel, Babe Ruth, high school, college and summer ball, the end was here, on Bobby Coombs Field in Williamstown, Mass. Since a distinct majority of those games had been played in uncomfortable weather, the shivers were nothing new. Some of the faces were certainly familiar: the stalwart parents who tried to attend every Hamilton game to keep up their kids' spirits; the Choates, whose hospitality and meatballs never ceased to amaze; my intrepid in-laws. Older brother Bo was here, too, albeit in my jacket pocket, ready to text comments as he watched the game via live stream.
Two of John's old Little League teammates were also on the field: juniors Gabe Klein for Hamilton and Taylor Mondshein for Williams. Their presence made it that much easier to do a little time travel. I flashed to a precocious double play John turned in T-ball, then to the moment he was carried off the field after retiring the side in a big tournament for 10-year-olds, then to the look of joy on his face when his high school team won the league title -- a face he had badly scraped while selling out to beat out an infield grounder. (As it happens, a member of that team, Evan Oleson, was on an adjacent field, playing rugby for Williams.)
A photo gallery of Hamilton College baseball history
That's one of the beauties of baseball. Not only does the game lend itself to snapshots, but it also provides the frames: dates, scores, innings, situations, counts, plays, stats. Blessed with four marvelous, athletic kids, our mental scrapbooks spilled over with field hockey, soccer, football, ice hockey, basketball, squash, equestrian, lacrosse and softball memories. But baseball was always foremost. It's why we have a home plate welcome mat and a sign over the kitchen sink that reads We Interrupt This Family For Baseball Season.
Baseball was also my business, or at least part of it since most of the stories I've written since graduating from Hamilton College in 1972 have been about the game and its people. So there I was, a father seeing my son play the game I love for my alma mater for the last time.
atching the kids on the baseball field has always been a particular pleasure because I know they're learning things from experience. Some sportswriters and seamheads get all hot and bothered when athletes demean them for never having played the game, but here's a little secret: The athletes are generally right. You can never really truly understand a sport like baseball until you've seen between the lines.
The fact that all of them were pitchers has been a source of inordinate pride. The position, after all, requires poise and resolve and a sense of responsibility. Bo once led Westchester County, N.Y., high schools in innings pitched, Eve has thrown every inning of every game for her high school varsity softball team for the last two seasons, and Elizabeth was quite a good left-handed baseball pitcher in Little League before she went over to the dark side and took up lacrosse. When the going got tough on the mound, each had a tendency to cry, which was a little disconcerting for umpires and their coaches (some of whom were me). But they cried because they cared, and they usually just wiped away the tears, took a deep breath and worked their way through their jams.
John has been wearing his emotions on his Under Armour sleeves for as long as he's played the game. So it wasn't so surprising that he'd be crying during the national anthem. He's always been the first one out of the dugout to congratulate a teammate and the last to leave the field after a win or a loss. Of the requisite five tools, he has only one that is above average -- glove -- but he also has two that aren't counted though they should be: heart and mind. He can and will play any infield position he's asked to, and even though his fastball would not get pulled over for speeding on the Thruway, he knows how to pitch.
Unlike the three other members of his high school infield, John wasn't recruited by any of the NESCAC schools, so his decision to go to Hamilton had nothing to do with baseball, nor should it have. It's an exceptional liberal arts college in Clinton, N.Y., with a bit of an identity problem -- Colgate University is in Hamilton, N.Y. (Apocryphal story: When Hamilton alumnus and Algonquin wit Alexander Woolcott died, his ashes were put on a plane to be spread over the Hamilton campus, but the pilot flew to Hamilton, N.Y., instead and smudged Colgate.)
To appreciate Continental baseball, it helps to have a selective memory. The history of the game at Hamilton, which just turned 200, dates at least to 1866, and the first recorded won-loss record in 1884 was a hopeful 7-6. But even counting that season, Hamilton is a collective 549-1,035-5, a winning percentage of .340. That means the Continentals would have to go undefeated over the next 15 seasons to get close to .500. Their last winning season was in 1990 (12-5!), and the last time they had back-to-back winning records (1938-39) was when FDR was president. Back in 1914, a Hamilton pitcher named Steven Royce got a tryout with the New York Giants, who had Christy Mathewson and Jim Thorpe at the time, but Royce elected to go into the hotel business. That brush with fame, though, was enough to get the baseball field named after him.
There are a number of reasons for this losing tradition, chief among them the weather. Like baseball itself, the forecast is usually cloudy with a chance of sun. While the team now goes to Florida to start the season in March, it often returns to find snow on the ground. Who wants to play in those kinds of conditions? And what pitcher in his right mind would want to take the mound at Royce Field, with the wind blowing out to the brutally short, laughably flexible left field fence? All the NESCAC schools set a high bar for admissions, but most of them reserve a few more slots for baseball players than Hamilton does -- a few years ago, a big right-hander who was a grandson of Bob Feller applied but did not get in.
Those admissions standards also work for Hamilton because they sift out the misguided who might value baseball more than the school. You could argue that the typical Hamilton baseball player loves the game even more than most college players because he's willing to put up with so much: the losing tradition, the weather, the field, the lack of apparent support. Some of them juggle two sports, and many of them are first-rate players who could start at any D-III school. There are just not enough of them.
The true measure of NESCAC baseball is not in the number of major leaguers it has produced -- the late John Cerutti, a lefthander for Amherst and the Blue Jays, is the most notable -- but rather in the number of baseball executives who are alumni. There are six recent or current general managers with NESCAC roots: Jed Hoyer (Wesleyan, Cubs), Ben Cherington (Amherst, Red Sox), Neal Huntington (Amherst, Pirates), Dan Duquette (Amherst, Orioles) and Bill Smith (Hamilton, Twins). Another nice thing about NESCAC baseball is the collection of ballparks, almost all of them picturesque diamonds that recall bygone days. As inadequate as Royce Field is, it is framed by a lovely set of pines that separate it from the golf course, and from more modern, generic diamonds.
I pitched on the field once, back in the spring of 1972, when I decided to go out for the baseball team as a senior. However, when I read the baseball preview in the college paper, The Spectator, I saw that "sophomore Steve Wolf is trying out as a pitcher." That was the signal that journalism needed me more than the baseball team did. I spent four happy, fairly undistinguished years at Hamilton, compartmentalizing them by the Rides Up (from hometown Troy to Clinton), full of hope and ambition and the knowledge that I would soon be with friends, and the Rides Down (Clinton to Troy), tinged with slight disappointments and doubts and uncertainty. I know that sounds hopelessly maudlin now, but please keep in mind that Cat Stevens was on our turntables.
ohn's Ride Up to Clinton was 2˝ hours longer than mine, and he didn't really make his first real one until mid-January of his freshman year. He was part of the "Jan admits," a group of Hamilton freshmen who spend their first semesters in London. The day he landed was also the day Chesley Sullenberger ditched US Airways 1549 in the Hudson, so we marveled at the TV footage as we moved him in. We also marveled at the thermometer -- it was 12 below.
Fortunately, baseball helped him acclimate right away. John had missed the fall practices run by the Hamilton captains, so when he walked into the first indoor practice that January, he was a total stranger. After the second practice, though, the head coach, Tim Byrnes, pulled him aside and said, "I don't know who the hell you are, but I like the way you play. Stick around. We'll find a spot for you."
What Byrnes saw in John was a younger version of himself, a skinny kid who knew and respected and loved the game the way he did when he was at St. Lawrence. Now in his seventh year, Byrnes deserves much better hands than he's usually dealt. But he's just the kind of devoted coach that John and his teammates deserve.
That first year, John played in only 12 of the 35 games (14-21), starting three at third base, relieving twice. He made just one error and hit .263, which was also his slugging percentage and his on-base percentage. Watching from the bleachers, I could see that his value lay in keeping the bench loose, picking up what the other pitcher was throwing, volunteering to chase foul balls.
While the Continentals' record was 4-8 in NESCAC in 2009, they did lead the league in hospitality. Spearheaded by Brendan Rafalski's mom, Patti, the tailgates sustained not only the appetites of the players, but their spirits, as well. And they were a great way to bond with parents of a like mind, who loved watching their sons play as much as we did.
John's second season began a little early, playing with his friend and teammate Jeremy Brenner in the Dominican Republic over Christmas break; they were on a New York City team that arranged a series of exhibition games with Dominican players. In the last game of that series, John had a unique walkoff -- struck out the last batter on a curve, handed him his glove and gave his shoes to the little escort to the bus.
A few months later, I went down to Florida to see a few Hamilton games. This is what I'll always remember: a game against UMass-Boston, a team that would play in the Division III College World Series. The game was played in Leesburg, an old central Florida town where the sign outside the ballpark reminds people, Don't Feed The Alligators. Hamilton was losing pretty badly when Byrnes asked John, a spare infielder, to relieve. After a 1-2-3 inning, he smiled and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, Go figure. After another three-up, three-down inning, in which the middle of the order flailed helplessly at his off-speed stuff, he smiled and shrugged again. Then, after a third perfect inning, and a warm dugout reception, Byrnes announced his new intentions for John: "Wulfie, go run in the outfield with the other pitchers."
He didn't pitch all that much his sophomore year, with eight relief appearances, and he batted just .200 in 15 plate appearances, though he did somehow drive in four runs with his three hits. One of his frustrations was his inability to get bigger and stronger -- at one point, Byrnes added 10 pounds to his roster weight simply because it didn't look good that he had a player who was 6-foot and 140 pounds. It also bothered John that the team, 10-23 overall, was only 1-11 in NESCAC. The typical league schedule calls for a three-game weekend set, with a doubleheader, so the sole win was sandwiched in between 13-1 and 20-8 losses to Middlebury, where his old high school teammate, Will Baine, was the starting shortstop. Bragging may not be nice, but bragging rights are.
John spent the first semester of his junior year in Australia, though he did manage to find a team to pitch for in Adelaide. (Because his catcher could not hold onto his pitches, he would sometimes strike out four or five batters in an inning.) When he returned, Byrnes decided to make John a starting pitcher for the 2011 season. "I'd rather have a pitcher with control who knows what he's doing than a flamethrower who walks everyone," said Byrnes. John had a slightly different take: "I hit like a pitcher, so I might as well become one."
The plan worked -- for a while. John got the start for the first game of an early-season doubleheader at Wesleyan, which was something like 26-3 all time against Hamilton. The Pioneers are usually loaded offensively, but that played in John's favor, as he painted the corners and kept them off-balance with his changeup. You could hear the Wesleyan batters' frustration -- "Hit this guy!" -- but he finessed his way to a 12-4 victory. Afterward, the home plate umpire came up to him and said, "Nice game, Maddux."
Unfortunately, that was the first and last NESCAC win of the season, as Hamilton dropped the next 11 league games, including three to Middlebury. John ended up getting three of Hamilton's eight victories on the year, but he thought he should have done better. Still, he was named a captain for the 2012 season, along with outfielder Sam Choate, the best hitter in Hamilton history, and catcher Lukas Bridenbeck. Together, they were determined to turn the Continentals' fortunes around.
There's a great scene in "The Art of Fielding," Chad Harbach's novel about small-college baseball, in which the captain of the team, Mike Schwartz, gives a Socratic pregame pep talk to the Westish Harpooners:
"Brook," he said, fixing his eyes on Boddington, one of the team's few seniors, "what was our record your first year?"
"Three and twenty-nine, Mike."
"O'Shea. What about yours?"
"Um ten and twenty?"
"Close enough. And last year? Jensen?"
"Sixteen and sixteen, Schwartzy."
Schwartz nodded. "Don't forget it. Don't anybody forget it Now we're a different ball club. We're eleven and two."
The Art of Fielding" has a mystical air to it, but so does Division III baseball, a world of chivalry and fraternity and heroic deeds seldom seen by outsiders. In a way, Schwartz is an amalgam of Hamilton's own captains: Sam, a prodigious hitter; Luke, a warrior catcher, and John, a player willing to do anything to help. During last fall's captain's practices, John expressed his excitement about the crop of freshman pitchers Hamilton had brought in. "We're going to be OK this year, Dad," he said. "I won't be pitching much, but I'll find some place to play." He thought they were on the cusp of improvement, if not winning. The Ride Up.
A few weeks later, John called with some bad news. The player who was both the third baseman and the best starting pitcher on the team would be leaving school before the season. A short time later, Ben Grimm, the pitching coach who had helped to recruit the new pitchers, announced that he was taking the head job at Oneonta State -- a great opportunity that nobody could blame him for accepting. The Ride Down.
Just before the team left for Florida, though, Byrnes found a pitching coach: Dick Hunt, the retired principal at Clinton High School. He had served Hamilton in a similar capacity from 1979 to 1998, and when I asked John about him, he said, "Great man, Dad, great man." His recovered optimism was also reflected in his bank statement -- Bambi noticed a new expenditure on John's debit card, something from Dick's Sporting Goods. "Oh, that," John told her. "I just wanted nice spikes for my last season."
And so it began, on March 12, with a doubleheader at Lake Myrtle Park in Auburndale against Franklin & Marshall. Lake Myrtle is the epicenter for snowbird baseball in Florida, a vast complex where the peanuts are boiled and the Northerners are quickly baked. The Wulf family had planned to attend all the Florida games in relays: me, then Bambi and Eve, then Bo. When John greeted me, he gave me a Hamilton baseball hat, a Hamilton baseball polo shirt -- and the car keys he forgot he had taken from us in January. (He's like that. I was reminded of the time I had to hurtle through the Bronx before a high school playoff game to deliver a single baseball shoe he had left behind.)
F & M already had played a few games, and it showed. Franklin won the first game 10-6, and Marshall won the second, 10-2. John played second and pitched the last innings of both games. He had told me to keep an eye out for sophomore reliever Tommy Moriarty, and in the second game, I saw why: Not only does he bear an uncanny resemblance to Dan Quisenberry in both his submarine motion and his red hair, but he also Tebows before throwing his first pitch.
Day 2 was another twin bill, this time against the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. John played second, going 3-for-3, and closed the first game, but a last-inning rally fell short and Hamilton lost, 4-3. The Continentals won the second game, 7-3, behind the pitching of freshman Ryan Crawford and the hitting of Sam Choate. John's consecutive game pitching streak, however, ended at three.
Despite their age difference, Dick Hunt and John already had become fast friends. "They talk baseball history all the time," said Byrnes. "Half the time I don't know who they're talking about." Hunt is a member of the Society of American Baseball Research, and he carries around a glove his grandfather, Gene Madden, used when he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates -- for one April game in 1916. Says Hunt, "The manager who had told him he wouldn't play in the game, got ejected, so Honus Wagner took over and inserted him into the game as a pinch-hitter -- he hit a 'duster to second.' Then he joined the Marine Corps and was sent to Europe in WWI." As for Coach Hunt's new protégé, well, he is the kind of student of the game who delights in the fact that Martin Luther King's fraternity little brother at Morehouse College was Donn Clendenon, the 1969 World Series MVP for the Mets.
John had his own fraternity little brother, JJay Lane, another of the talented freshman pitchers, and it was gratifying to hear from his mother, Jill, how nice John had been to him. A third freshman pitcher, Alex Pachella, beat Lesley College 10-3 in the fifth game of the spring, which was my last. When I left Florida, Hamilton was 2-3, and John was batting .539 with a 0.00 ERA in three games.
As it turned out, that was the Golden Age of Hamilton baseball. My poor wife and daughter saw the Continentals lose the next five games, one of them an 11-10 heartbreaker against Washington (Md.) College, when John was called on to get the save, only to suffer the loss after an error by an infielder. The infield was so unsettled that John bounced from second to short to third to first on the Florida trip. The Continentals would win only one more game, a 2-0 shutout of Union by Pachella, before flying north with a 3-12 record.
Hamilton opened its NESCAC season at Amherst, against the Lord Jeffs. (Yes, NESCAC teams have some strange nicknames.) As Dick Hunt pointed out, Amherst was the team that Westish played for the mythical Division III national championship in "The Art of Fielding." Alas, Hamilton was not Westish, and the Continentals lost all three games, though the third one was a tight game for five innings. Maybe they just needed to play a game on Royce Field.
he four-hour drive to Clinton on the Thruway can get a little monotonous, so in a fit of nostalgia, I bought a CD of Cat Stevens' "Tea For The Tillerman." Track 10 is "Father and Son," and as I listened to it for the first time in years, I realized -- duh -- that my role had changed. I was the one singing, "Look at me, I am old, but I am happy."
Before the home opener, a doubleheader against SUNYIT, we noticed a change to Royce Field: There were no bleachers on the Hamilton side. Some might have interpreted that as a manifestation of a lack of support, but in fact, Byrnes didn't want his players getting distracted by family and friends. No, the lack of school support was better exemplified by the difference in the national anthem at the adjacent lacrosse game: They got the Buffers, the campus singing group, while baseball got a generic rendition on a CD. (John once tried to spice things up by playing the Marvin Gaye version, but the parents and visiting team didn't like that for some reason.)
Turns out, playing at home didn't do the trick: Hamilton lost both games. It didn't win again until the second game of a doubleheader against Cazenovia when Lane and Pachella combined for a 9-2 victory. Two days later, Hamilton went to nearby Utica College for the 25th annual Jackie Robinson Game, a game that Hunt had helped to establish. Bambi was there for that one, wondering why they would even play the game during a hailstorm.
Her dispatches were painful. John, who hadn't pitched in three weeks, came in to get the save in the ninth, gave up the tying run, then hit a batter in the bottom of the 10th to force in the winning run. I texted to console him, told him it wasn't fair that he was put in such a tough spot in bad weather, and got back this: "My fault Dad. Let the team down." Oh, s---. The Ride Down again.
Two days later, Middlebury with John's old teammate, Will Baine, came to Hamilton for a three-game set: one on Friday, doubleheader on Saturday. The Panthers had beaten the Continentals eight out of the nine previous times they'd played, and while this wasn't the best Middlebury team (8-9), it was looking to move over .500 against 4-19 Hamilton. With the score tied at 0-0 in the bottom of the fourth of the first game, John led off with a double in the left-center field gap, then came around to score the first of two runs. He was also in the middle of a three-run rally in the fifth, and Pachella took a 5-1 lead into the eighth before tiring and giving way to the bullpen. Final score: Hamilton 5, Middlebury 3.
The first game of the Saturday doubleheader was business as usual, a 12-2 loss. But in the second game, Hamilton scored three runs in the first, thanks to a two-run homer by Sam Choate, and JJay Lane pitched like a senior. With Hamilton up 5-2 in the top of the seventh, I walked off my nervousness along the left field line and ran into assistant football coach Mike Tracy and Mike DeBraggio, John's boss in the communications office. With a runner on third and two outs, the Middlebury batter hit a slow roller to the left side of the mound. No chance, I thought. But the Hamilton third baseman swooped in, fired the ball to first and just nipped the runner. The two Mikes and I said the same thing simultaneously: "Whoa." It was only then that it dawned on me. The third baseman was John.
Hamilton hung on to win, 5-4. After the game, Will came over to John, hugged him and told him, "You know, Hamilton doesn't win those two games without you." Ah, the Ride Up.
Alas, that would be the Continentals' last victory of the season. But, as you've probably already figured out, Hamilton baseball isn't about winning. What it is about was made abundantly clear in the next weekend series against Wesleyan. During a 7-2 loss on Friday, maybe the only nice day of the season, John's favorite history professor, Doug Ambrose, came by with his young son to watch the game. The professor made note of all the players on the team he had taught over the years, so John got the players to sign a ball for his son. In the meantime, Ambrose gave a riveting, impromptu lecture to Bambi and Lee Bridenback, Luke's dad, on the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. (Come to think of it, that was really Hamilton's first loss.)
One of the school's traditions is that a designated member of a class writes a letter about his time there 50 years removed. These "annalist" letters are often fascinating, and in searching for the history of Hamilton baseball, I came across this one, written by Paul S. Langa, Class of 1948: "Our win-loss record may not have been outstanding, but no loss was ever the result of the lack of ambition, spirit and the unrelenting desire to honorably represent Hamilton on the field of battle."
Mark Woodworth, the Wesleyan coach, said much the same thing to Byrnes after the series. According to Byrnes, "He told me that he and the other NESCAC coaches always talk about how hard our kids play."
Cut to the last game of the last season. Depending on what uniform the team chooses, John wears either No. 7 or No. 28, so it was nice that it was No. 7, a family tribute to The Mick, Mom's favorite player. He came into the game batting .250, but his on-base percentage was remarkably high: .400. The first time up he hit into a fielder's choice, but the second time he came to bat, with the bases loaded and no outs, he laced a hard groundball down the line that went under the glove of the third baseman for two runs. Both Bo -- "Give him the two-RBI hit!" -- and I thought it was a hit, but the somewhat strict scorekeeper called it an error. Oh well, why argue? Hamilton took the lead, 3-2. Williams got another run off JJay Lane in the bottom of the third, but Hamilton came right back with a run in the fourth. In the fifth, John led off with a single, but Hamilton stranded two. He looked, as Bo texted, "So Smooth At Short," and JJay was dealing.
Then came the bottom of the eighth. With Hamilton leading 4-3, his old Little League teammate, Taylor Mondshein, hit a ball in the hole that John got to, but he didn't get enough on the throw to nail Taylor. Even the Draco of the scorebook called it a hit, but I could see John was kicking himself for possibly opening the door. He was doubly upset because his "little brother" was on the mound. And sure enough, Williams rallied for three runs to take a 6-4 lead.
In the top of the ninth, John grounded out to Mondshein at second for the second out, and Hamilton left two runners on. Bo texted: "Ugh. Good fight. John played very well, good way to go out."
Of course, John didn't think so, thought he should have made the play in the eighth, but that's not what the last of his tears was about. They were the same tears of gratitude Bambi and I had been shedding, and they came with a smile, and a laugh over a nearly botched rundown. "I'm OK now," he said. And then, "I think we're going to be good next year."
And they will be. The pitching will be very strong, and they'll have back Gabe Klein, who made second-team All-New England, as well as Lukas Bridenback and Sam Fuentes and some promising underclassmen. They'll even have a newly landscaped field with more reasonable outfield fences, thanks to a very generous donation by the father of a former player.
John didn't really surface again until after he had finished all his papers; we just knew he was in the library. He got much better grades at Hamilton than I did -- I was too busy playing Strat-O-Matic -- and he got much more out of the school: regular bylines in The Spectator, the honor of being the baseball team's scholar-athlete, a job in the communications office. We could not have been more proud.
On the night before graduation, the whole clan, complete with friends and grandparents, was having dinner in Clinton when a recap of that day's baccalaureate service led to a discussion on religion, which led to a mention of Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens.
"You know Cat Stevens?" I asked John.
"Yeah, I have him on my iPod."
"You know 'Father and Son?'"
"'It's not time to make a change, just relax, take it easy '"
As John and I finished singing the first verse together, Bo said, "That was really weird."
The other day Bo pointed something else out. In the final 2012 NESCAC statistics, John led the league in one category: sacrifice hits. No batter gave himself up for the team more than he did.
Means nothing to most people. Means everything to me.