Sept. 12, 2005
ANOTHER BEGINNING...A NEW BEGINNING...NEVER FORGETTING...
Today marks the first day of team practice for this new season. Our friends at the NCAA have graciously allowed us a few weeks to practice with the team as a group, interrupting the many hours they would instead be spending in the library. We normally carve out three weeks in the latter part of the semester for this segment, but I've chosen this year to start early.
Time spent on the field outside the team segment is relegated to small group instruction, limited to four players at a time. This is a good opportunity for coaches to instruct and fine tune the skills of players, but in baseball, nothing takes the place of game experience. Despite restrictions against competing in the fall against other teams, the resultant intra-squad games serve as the best available way to measure your team.
Since we have such a large number of returning players, I want to establish an atmosphere conducive to finding the best lineup we can put on the field. Our guys were smart enough to be accepted into a university, so I'm sure they are bright enough to realize that being a year older doesn't guarantee being a year better. There will be competition for starting positions and key backups. Our top two starting pitchers are pretty much set, but the third and fourth slots are up for grabs. The bullpen should be solid with the closer's role the only set position, and a solid crop of arms set to battle for their spots.
I suppose, if the truth is told, one reason I want to start earlier is to ease the hangover I still feel from last year's NCAA Regional. We didn't play as well as we were capable, and the sour taste is still with me. I'm more anxious to get our guys going in the right direction than at any time in recent memory. There is a lot of potential for a great season with this team to continue our tradition of success, and today we begin again.
Last Sunday, I had the pleasure to attend the wedding of former player, Zack Roper and his bride Carrie Fischer. The reception was held at the Don Cesar Hotel on St. Petersburg Beach, a place so fancy, I doubt Zack could even work there as a valet, let alone stay there except as the husband of the bride.
It was a great day for everyone involved. At times it looked as if an FAU Alumni game would break out at any moment. Dickie Hart, Anthony Doudt, Mick Celli, Regan Sammaniego, Joe Cali, Mrs. Dan Jackson, and Jim Cooney, did their best to represent FAU in a positive manner. I left around 10pm and everyone was well behaved during that time.
I hate to admit this, but Zack was always one of my favorite players. He played the game hard, and with a fierce determination to succeed. After arriving at Florida Atlantic as a third baseman from junior college, he willingly moved to the outfield to make room for Paul Stryhas at third, and then became one of our best outfielders.
Zack's first season was 1999, which proved to be an unbelievable year. We won 34 straight games, went 54-9, and were ranked as high as 8th. As our right fielder, Zack was the favorite of our student fans who packed the right field hill that season. After home wins, they would toss bottles of beer to Zack as he ran towards the dugout. He kept them stacked in his locker as a display of our success. (I learned this part after the season)
We were tied in the ninth of a marathon, rain delayed regional elimination game against FIU, when Mick Celli executed his only career sac bunt to move Stryhas into scoring position. Doudt hit a screamer to right that was caught, leaving Paul stuck at second with two outs. Roper stepped in and delivered a double down the left field line for the game winner and sent us to the championship game.
The following year we were back on the same scene. I remember having just been eliminated this time by FIU. Zack was standing by third as our guys headed for the bus. He put his arm around me and said that he always dreamed of playing pro ball, but wouldn't trade his time in college baseball for anything.
I knew how he felt.
In the toast offered by the best man, Jim Cooney recounted a story that showed Zach's loyalty to a teammate and his respect for how we want the game played. It was an intra-squad game in the fall of 1999, and Zack was back at third base. We had a new JUCO player who had just crushed his third home run of the fall off of sophomore Jim Cooney. The new guy pimped the homer all the way around the bases. As he neared third, Zack lit into him, letting him know you don't act that way here, especially towards a teammate.
Zack always seemed to have a nonchalant, sarcastic attitude toward life. I sometimes got the feeling that he just wanted to look like a guy that was tough and didn't need anything. But he had lost his Mom in a tragic accident when he was still young. I'm sure that loss had a greater impact than anything on the way Zack approached life.
I always felt the truth was that Zack needed to have someone close in his life. Carrie has provided that for him. They had dated in high school, but had gone separate ways. After his baseball odyssey recounted in this diary last year, Zack wound up with the Phillies in Clearwater. He was back home, and somehow Carrie and he found each other again.
She is just what he was looking for.
Four years ago, September 11th found me on vacation with my family at my in-laws' farm in Loudon, Tennessee. Jack and Hannah Parten have around 300 acres overlooking the Tennessee River near I 75. It's a beautiful place with rolling farmland and a big old hill on the west side that offers a great view.
Jack and his son Richard have hay planted, and spend some hard days during the summer and fall cutting, raking, and baling hay. It needs to be done in good weather and takes about five days. I was there to help with the last cut of the year.
I remember it was cool enough for a long sleeve shirt, but as the sun rose higher, it provided one of the most beautiful days I'd seen. Some people might think riding a tractor all day might be boring, but I was a rookie, and the views were great. I was in the northwest field and each turn offered something beautiful to see. Heading north, you could see the road, and another field rising to the only neighbor's property and his white farmhouse. Turning left and rolling down to the southwest, you could see our trailer and the big hill with baled hay and pine trees framing the western end of the farm. Due south, and in the distance was the Tennessee River. When I turned east, the Interstate bridge loomed in the distance, with the barn and the Parten farmhouse off to the left.
How many times I had sung Kenny Chesney's "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy", I don't know, but it was a peaceful morning. Even the most cynical person taking in the beauty that was that morning would be moved to admit that there is a God in our lives. Nothing this beautiful could happen by accident.
On one of my turns to the west, I saw Mary Beth running towards me from the trailer. I hoped it was a visit related to the song in my mind, but as I got down from the tractor, I could see it in her face. Something was wrong; something that no one will ever forget.
The rest of the day was one of questioning. Back on the tractor, I asked God the same questions millions of others did that day. I don't think there are any real answers.
When I got back home, I met with our players and talked about what happened. Most of them had already planned on giving blood- anything to help, in a helpless situation.
We talked about war, and the part they might have to play. It was an uncertain time.
The following year, I started playing a song before each game, as our players were introduced. Our players today probably think it's played because it's by Bruce Springsteen.
The Rising was one of a number of songs written by an artist whose home county in New Jersey lost more people that day than any other county in the state. That year was one marked by too many funerals.
Empty Sky, You're Missing, Paradise, are songs whose genesis was that beautiful September morning that turned so tragic.
The words and images of The Rising make it more than just a song to me. It is about something we will never be able to forget.
Can't see nothin' in front of me
Can't see nothin' coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I've gone
How far I've gone, how high I've climbed
On my back's a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line
Left the house this morning>br>
Bells ringing filled the air
Wearin' the cross of my calling,
On wheels of fire I come rollin' down here
My mind always turns to the image of the NYFD racing toward those buildings as the alarms sounded, and the photograph of the fire fighter going up the stairwell as everyone else walked past him, and down to safety.
Sky of blackness and sorrow
Sky of love, sky of tears
Sky of glory and sadness
Sky of mercy, sky of fear
Sky of memory and shadow
Your burnin' wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life
Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight
I've never looked at a beautiful sky the same since that September day. My prayer is that thousands laid their hands in the hands of God and rose up that day.
This song will always be played for all those who remember that day. KC