Wednesday, November 26, 2014

College Road Trip

Obviously, I am way too old to take another one of those cool college road trips but God, in His amazing way with which He opens doors, allowed me to travel with the Johnson Royals basketball team on a 1300 mile round trip serving in my role as assistant coach. I continue to marvel at the surprises that God has in store for me when I know clearly that it is a blessing that I truly don't deserve. I get to learn more about the game I love and be involved in it in ways that I never would have imagined. Also, in small ways I can live out what God has put on my heart, being involved in peoples' lives hopefully mentoring them and serving them. It's quite joy and one with which I'm sure in many ways I need to grow more in.

Our first stop was to play the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, VA. Better known as VMI, this is a NCAA Division 1 program with all of the support and talent that comes with a program like this. For a small non-scholarship school like ours, this is known as a "money" game. Teams from higher levels pay the school for us to play to obviously help them in working on their game. For our guys, it's a chance to do something only a few people get: play basketball at the D1 level. I marvel at the fact that I myself can now claim that I have coached a D1 game. The talent gap was quite obvious, the crowd was energetic and it was blowout. I hope that this game was one that each of the players can savor - not for the score but for the opportunity. Having the right perspective and learning how to deal with great adversity is good for character building. They even gave us Gatorade and pizza from a local restaurant after the game. That was a nice gift.


The next nice surprise was that the team was offered free lodging at an alumnus' house in town. To call it a house would be an understatement. It was more like a lodge or even a small palace (eight bedrooms, a man cave, large dining room and a master bathroom larger than my condo). The Thomas' were beyond generous hosts who not only provided housing, but that evening gave us an early Thanksgiving meal. With Turkey and all of the trimmings, it was a nice gift. I felt so blessed to meet such generous people. They had the wisdom to know that God has blessed them so that they could be a blessing to others. An added blessing for me was they had two fluffy white dogs that I couldn't get enough time to enjoy. It was like having two Mazies (my Great Pyrenees).

"The Load-Out" by Jackson Browne
And these towns all look the same
We just pass the time in our hotel rooms
And wander 'round backstage
Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd
And we remember why we came...

We got time to think of the ones we love
While the miles roll away
But the only time that seems too short
Is the time that we get to play

The bus: our home away from home.

Lots of time sitting around.

Game film at the hotel dining area.

Part of the life is finding time to wash uniforms between games.

A youth football team doing their game film.

To say that college basketball is all glamour and ease would be false. I'm not complaining in the least, but  small college athletics involves riding on a bus; very long rides. From Knoxville to Lexington was a good five hours and another five or so hours was required to make it to our next destination: Valley Forge, PA. Having college aged men requires frequent stops for food as well. Passing time can be a challenge so I resorted to sleeping, watching movies on my tablet and texting friends. I find it very interesting that in these days of smartphones, the players found ample ways to pass the time.

A road trip is not complete without some unforeseen "challenge". For this trip, we were not directly involved. The women's team bus hit a deer. Thankfully, nobody was hurt with the unlucky deer. Their bus on the other hand, had front end damage and needed to have the radiator replaced. This meant that we ended up sharing the bus we were travelling in while we were in Valley Forge. Before the trip, we had hoped to make it to Philadelphia and possibly New York City. Although we tried various ways to work around the bus sharing, it didn't work out. We were fortunate enough to be across the street from the King Of Prussia Mall which is the second largest mall in the US. That ended up being our down time entertainment for the stay.

I would like to say that our team fared well but sadly the outcomes weren't what we hoped for. I do see improvement. I appreciate their team first attitude. They're a young team (one Junior and the rest are sophomores and freshmen) so growing pains are evident. We challenged them to give it their all and I believe they responded well. We are close to getting to where we need to be. I know that can be said for me as a coach as well.

With our last game played, it was loading the bus at 9PM and driving all night back to Knoxville. Trying to get as much sleep as possible is the goal for us not driving. It's not the most glamorous life but one that I never thought I'd live out. The strange part was that the next day we were right back on the court for a game at another local college. It seems like the mantra is always "hurry up and wait".
Right back at it the next night after 13 hours on the bus.
The interesting thing for me is that I am still amazed that even at middle age, God is still teaching and revealing things to me. I have new adventures to live out and more that I must grow in. I'm thankful for a group of young men who are sharing a small part of their lives with me.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Yes! Yes! Yes!

To quote the sometimes profane Hunter Pence: Yes (2010)! Yes (2012)! Yes (2014)!
I'm more at a loss for words when I think about the 2014 San Francisco Giants, World Champions for the third time in five years. It's almost too good to think that the team I follow has been that good for this period of time. I was just so thankful to finally see the Giants win it all in 2010. 2012 was great and this one was in some ways the best. I guess it just doesn't get old.
I think also of all of the little stories that make each team compelling. To win a championship, you must have great players, good players who play great and to be honest a little luck. When you have a string like the Giants have had, you have to have great management as well.

There's no question that Larry Baer, Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy have proven to be great management. They have created a great atmosphere in a great ballpark; acquired important players and have managed them in a way that they find success. I also think of the stability they have at the coaching positions with Tim Flannery, Hensley Meulens and perhaps most importantly, Dave Righetti and Mark Gardner. In the case of Righetti, isn't it interesting to think that when he signed as a free agent late in his career and was pedestrian in terms of his effectiveness as a player for the Giants, that it would open the door to him becoming one of the best pitching coaches for a championship team? I finally give a shout out to Dick Tidrow (director of player development) who was instrmental in the raising of players like Lincecum, Cain, and Bumgarner. A management team has its own set of unsung heroes.

The list of good players playing great: Juan Perez had a few big hits and several brilliant defensive plays; Brandon Crawford with his steady defense and big hits of his own; Yusmeiro Petit pitching lights out in just about any role thrown at him; and finally Travis Ishikawa. His hitting in the NLCS could have easily earned him the MVP of that series. Of course he know lives on forever in Giants' lore with his walk off home run in Game 5. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy. I hope that he can savor that moment for the rest of his life.

As for the great players, there are talented players who can play well in the regular season. Then there are the true greats who can elevate their play under the pressure of playoff baseball. These are the ones who are remembered most fondly. The terms winner and champion takes their play legacy to the highest level. In seasons past we think of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Buster Posey (who didn't hit great in this World Series). As for Posey, he appears to be a Giant for life and has been handed the mantle of the face of the franchise. From what I've seen of him, he is a worthy successor to Mays, McCovery and Clark. There's much to say of a catcher that backstops three championships and doing it with humility and class.

The stars of this series were first the jubilant Pablo Sandoval. Appropriately nicknamed Kung Fu Panda, his size and shape belies his great athleticism. The MVP of the 2012 series, he continues to be a hitting machine in the playoffs. Willie Mays (who rarely makes public comments about players) said that he think that "Panda" has the best hand-eye coordination he's ever seen in a player. His praise for the greatest Giant of all. It is so fitting that he caught the final out.

Hunter Pence is for me in so many ways the Will Clark of this era of Giants. He's a passionate player who's desire to compete and win is at another level. With the wild beard and hair; the twitchy way he carries himself (Vin Scully once said that "He makes coffee nervous"); sometimes profane and impassioned game speeches; and those eyes of serial killer. It almost makes you forget he's a great hitter and defensive outfielder. He seems to always be in the middle of a big rally.

Of course, this series belonged to Madison Bumgarner. 25 years old and possessor of a 0.25 ERA in the World Series (read that a few times to take that in). He's the polar opposite of Pence in terms of demeanor. He has the look of a guy who doesn't have a care in the world as he mows down hitters on the biggest stage looking like he's reading the morning paper. With a pitching staff that was scuffling, he put up scoreless inning after scoreless inning with frightening efficiency and command. When writers and commentators start reaching back to compare him with the great pitchers from the dead ball era it gives you some perspective on what we witnessed.

I feel that I would be remiss to not give just a small shout out to Joe Panik (best defensive play in the Series), Michael Morse (big time R Brandon Belt (hitting over .300), Jeremy Affeldt (winner of Game 7) and so many others. This was a team effort from top to bottom. Speaking of the franchise, perhaps the best example is equipment manager Mike Murphy. He is nicknamed the franchise as he has literally been with the San Francisco Giants since the beginning (he was a bat boy in 1958). When Panik broke his belt on his sparking game changing double play, the Murph was ready to get a clearly used replacement belt. Everybody pitches in for the win.

As Lou Brown of the movie "Major League" fame said, "My kind of team, Charlie. My kind of team."