Saturday, September 25, 2010

Panic leads to a personal best

Next year, I’m going to double-check what time the Susan G. Koman Race for the Cure starts.

I’ve been preparing for the 5K race for about year, curious if my daily running and dropping the 60 pounds could help me smash my previous best of 26.58. That came in a small church race last year.

I’ve been running between six and eight miles a day for most of the last year, and I’ve been hitting 25:30 in practice runs, so I was hoping to at least hit that mark.

I thought the race started at 9 am, so I rolled up to the Rivertown Crossing mall around 8:20 thinking I'd have plenty of time to stretch and get ready. But I pulled up and saw that they were already herding racers to the starting line. It started at 8:30!!! My heart sank. Then I started to panic.

I found a parking spot at the Meijer store next to the mall, and sprinted all the way over to the far parking, where the race starts. I got there just as they where they were starting the National Anthem. Stuck way in the back, I was behind the walkers, people pushing strollers, people walking their dogs and much older folks.

I tried weaving and moving up, but it was slow going, even as the race started and people started moving. Luckily, the race was based on chip time. A chip is attached to the sneaker and records only the time between when you cross the starting line and then the finish line, as opposed to the actual start of the race, which is called gun time.

But there was still a ton of congestion as I approached the official start, and breaking out of the pack seemed tougher than an obstacle course.

OK, I might have jumped over someone's dog. I apologize for that. But really, why are you bringing your dog to a race? Is that the best place for Fluffy? If he needs a walk that badly, take him around the block where he's not gonna get jumped over. But I digress.

Most of the first mile was a divided four-lane street with a grassy median, so I tried to find a clear route by going on the side, popping up the curb and on the median to pass people, especially people pushing strollers, which are too large to jump over. After clearing the dog, the thought did pop in my mind.

Turning the first corner onto a two-lane street, I tried again to stick to the far side. Sometimes the sides offer some room to air it out, and sometimes people head over there and just stop dead. I was weaving around people like a running back looking for a hole in the line.

The RunKeeper app interrupts the music at every mile so a voice can tell me the distance and the pace. At the end of the first mile, I was running a 7:13, which I have not done since college.

With the racers spreading out, there was a little more room to run in the second mile, and tried to keep the pace and even make up some time. I did notice I was passing a lot of people, and there were not a lot of people passing me, which is unusual. I credited that to starting in the back and just moving past the slowest people. But the end of the mile, the app announced I was at a 7:09 pace.

Having run this race five or six times in the past, I have a good idea where the mile markers are and how much is left. I started to feel like I was running out of steam.

Usually I'm totally into the music, and I put a lot of thought into the race playlist, with fast-paced, inspirational God rock. But this time it I was so angry at myself and focused on trying to get around strollers, dogs and walkers that I wasn't really listening. But as I was losing energy, the Newsboys song "Stay Strong" came through the headset. It's kind of been my personal anthem this past year through some difficulties and the weight loss effort, and the message came just when I needed it.

I decided I was going to try to keep the pace best I could, even if it meant dropping at the finish line and crawling over to the people handing out bananas and Panera Bread bagels. And I could see the finish line off in the distance. At the three-mile mark, the app said the pace was 7:14, and I was thinking that there were three seven-minute miles in there and I might be doing pretty good.

Usually there is big clock at the finish line, but not this time, at least that I could see. Crossing the line and looking at the iPhone, the app read 22:49. No way. The race of my life.

Seeing this, I bounced -- not crawled -- over to the bagels and bananas, and even had some yogurt and other samples, then waited for preliminary results to get posted.
I saw the "Males - 46-50 category," and started at the bottom, because I'm usually somewhere in the lower third. I couldn't find my name and wondered if the chip malfunctioned, since I crossed the finish line on my way into the race when I was running to make the start and heard a beep. Good thing I had the app to know the time.

But I kept moving up the column, and there I was, near the top! I was No. 8 out of 55 in the age category. They had me listed at 23:00.47 for the chip time, and 26:33 for the gun time.

Overall, I was No. 127 out of 2,276 timed runners -- there were 5,600 participants overall when the walkers and dog people are included – No. 99 out of more than 600 males. That time is about four minutes better than the personal best, and two minutes better than my goal.

I don't know if my panicking added adrenaline, or weaving around people actually conserved energy that I used later, or if I would have done even better had I not screwed up the start time. Maybe it was the inspiration from wearing my Faith and Fear in Flushing shirt for the race, calling on the powers of Tom, Gil, Casey and Jackie, whose retired numbers were printed above the 3353 on my pinned-on bib.
Whatever the cause or inspiration, I'll take it!

Now, all that said, run in a Komen race if you ever get the chance. It's a great cause, and very emotional as you see all the breast cancer survivors in their pink shirts, and all the people running with names of loved ones who are fighting the disease, or who they have lost. Lots of tears, but a lot of nice tears. There are people in that race who are celebrating a lot more than beating their personal best, and it keeps things in perspective.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Cheering Frank Thomas, charming security and confronting Derek Jeter

We don’t set out to have adventures. Stuff just happens when Will and I get together for a ballgame.

You have to remember that Frank Thomas is one of our favorite players. He was a slugging rookie for the White Sox – whom both of us claim as a secondary team – and came up the year we were hired at the Flint Journal and became friends.

Of course, the off-told story of the magical misty night at Tiger Stadium only sealed the deal.

So Will grabbed tickets the day the Sox announced they were retiring The Big Hurt’s number on Aug. 29. And the opponent for this destined-to-be-glorious day? That would be the Evil Empire. Will certainly has no love for the Yankees, and my open loathing is legendary.

This day is best told with photos, and in multiple parts.

We arrived at the park bright and early because the team announced with was distributing Frank bobble heads, and we didn’t want to leave empty handed. An hour before game time, the line was already massive.

This brought back unpleasant memories of a Sox WinterFest, when sought Frank’s autograph and waited and waited in line, only have Frank replaced by two other signers as we were within two cattle-chute turns. No offense to then-manager Gene LaMont and the legendary Minnie Minoso, but our disappointment was immeasurable.

We did not want a repeat, and were only somewhat comforted by the stacks and stacks of bobble head cases on the other side of the rail. This fear would not go away until a bobbling giant Frank head with the mega-watt smile was in our hands. We passed through the gates and obtained without incident.

Here’s where things get a little ugly. The Sox have a lame policy that limits people with upper deck tickets to the upper deck. This stinks, because it’s not like we’re trying to steal seats. We like to get a look at batting practice and check out all the cool features in the stadium, very few of which are in the upper reaches of the park which is among the highest and steepest in baseball.

Having experienced this segregation last year, we knew that we could indeed mingle with the hoity toity people below by going to the guest services window and asking for a shopper’s pass.

Upon our banishment to the upper deck, we immediately went to the window and asked for the pass. I assumed this was a mere formality.

“It’s too busy now,” the power-tripping clerk said. “Come back after the fourth inning.”

Both of us realized that fighting with this guy was pointless. But we would not be denied, instead relying on our smarts and charm. Being denied was not going to be an option.

First we went to the guy working the elevator. He said we couldn’t go on, but if we walked down the endless ramps on Gate 3, we might be OK.

After descending, we came face to face with a kindly woman, and told our tale of woe. We just wanted to go to the team store, see the statues, then head back up to our seats. First she said, “Sorry, guys.” But I said we were told by the guy at the top of the ramps that we could do this if we walked all the way down. I looked as pitiful as possible, clutching my Frank bobble box to my chest, and looked wistfully beyond at the field level concourse. Sniff.

“OK, you can go.”

We scooted away before she changed her mind, and headed right for the centerfield area.

The Sox have a bunch of cool things out there. There’s the famous shower -- and it works, so be careful unless you want to get soaked.

Then there are a number of statues of Sox greats. Unlike the Tigers, the Sox have these at ground level where fans can touch them and pose and get an up-close view.
Minnie Minoso is a Sox hero, and we were thrilled to meet him -- even though we were waiting for Frank. The Minoso statue is pretty sweet.

We liked the detail on the Carlton Fisk statue, including the logo on the batting helmet. Naturally we had to recreate the infamous confrontation with Deion Sanders.

There are statues of Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio attempting to turn a double play. I say attempting, becuase I am clearly safe.
We shunned the statue of former owner Charles Comiskey. How come Bill Veeck doesn't get a statue. Probably because Veeck would never stand for the way upper deck fans are treated at this ballpark.

There's a concession area high above the batters' eye in centerfield. Jim Thome reached it with not one, but two epic blasts.

Then we moved into the Fundamentals area. You are supposed to have a kid with you to get in this area, and it’s strictly enforced at the upper deck entrance. But adults in the field level can walk in un-kidded, yet another injustice.

Se we entered from below, and it’s pretty cool. Kids can try to race a giant cutout of Scott Posednick, and he apparently loses more races than a minor league mascot. There are batting cages and a pitching area where you try to knock down a moving cutout of a Sox catcher with your fastball.

Mickey is the sidewalk art from this year's All-Star Game in Anaheim.

There’s also a little field where you can field grounders. This looked like a lot of fun, but we didn’t want to push our luck any more than we already had.

Finally we made our way back to the upper deck for lunch. I will give the Sox credit here, they produce the best-smelling hot dogs ever, with large grills piled high with sizzling onions. And the entire concourse is decorated with photo murals with key players in Sox history, like Tom Seaver, represented twice.
Our attempted banishment to the upper deck was not without pleasures. The dogs and onions smelled wonderfully, and our grillers had a lot of nice things to say. The murals were worth exploring, and we found at least two references to Tom Terriffic.

Having secured both a victory over oppression and lunch, we settled into our seats, which were in the highest, deepest part of the ballpark, in fair territory in left field. No matter, as we were happy to be there.

Sadly, the sound system in our section was not working, and it was tough to clearly hear the on-field celebration. Lots of Frank’s former teammates were on hand, to wish him well, and his portrait on the outfield wall was revealed, as well as his framed jersey with No. 35, never to be worn by another member of the White Sox.

It was tough to hear what Frank was saying as he addressed the fans. He seemed to get kind of weepy, which was nice. I’m also pretty sure that he thanked Will and me by name. We could have asked people in sections with a functioning sound system if they heard Frank mention us, but we didn’t want to risk disappointment, as we were having too much fun.

Frank then threw the ceremonial first pitch to Carlton Fisk, and it was time for the game against the Yanks and the vile Derek Jeter.

Clearly, we needed to make a statement of sorts, and our treatment of Jeter will be detailed in the next post.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Two Big Franks, one huge weekend

"I spent 10 years in New York, and they were the best 10 years of my life.”

If you had to guess which Met told me that, would you ever guess Frank Howard, our former coach and manager?

The West Michigan Whitecaps have a Tiger Friday promotion where the team invites a former Detroit Tigers player to make an appearance, sign autographs and generally bask in the glory that comes from the kind folks of Grand Rapids.

Typically we see players from the 1984 champs, but the last Friday of the season brought someone unexpected.

Howard was a legendary slugger during his days with the Dodgers and Senators, but he much of his mashing magic was gone by the time he appeared in Detroit for 1972 and 1973. That didn’t stop Tigers fans from lining up for his bobble head and signature.

He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1960, and finished with 382 home runs, even more impressive when you consider that he played most of his career in the pitching-dominant 1960s.

He gets major props for his upper-deck bomb off Whitey Ford to break a scoreless tie in Game 4 of the 1963 World Series, helping the Dodgers sweep the Yankees.

Once he homered 10 times in 20 at-bats, with at least one in six straight games.

After his stint with the Tigers, Howard went to Japan, but hurt his back swinging in his first at-bat and never played again.

He later managed a poor Padres team in the strike-shortened 1981 season.

Of course, I was more interested in Howard’s time with the Mets. He came with George Bamberger in what was hoped to be a resurgent team finally rising from another dark period, and things were looking up at least spiritually the next year when Tom Seaver arrived back home.

Alas, things were not quite ready, and Bambi bailed. The team named Howard to be the manager for the last 116 games. He went 52-64, with a .448 winning percentage that was certainly better than Bamberger’s .348.

But the Mets opted to bring up Davey Johnson for 1984, setting the table for the championship.

Howard came back as a Mets coach for the 1994, 1996 and 1996 teams, after stints with the Yankees in 1989, 1991 and 1992.

While Howard is well-known for his power, he’s also famous for being one of the nicest guys in baseball. So I looked forward to meeting him, and unabashedly donned my game-used Rick Trlicek batting practice jersey and blue Mets cap, which would set me apart from all the Tigers fans in the yard that night.

Tigers invited for the Friday night promotions typically start signing autographs just after throwing out the first pitch at 7 p.m. and continued until 8:30. The gates opened at 5:45, and Howard was already in place, ready to go.

I hopped on line with my Mets history book, standing some professional autograph types – ick – and some nice collectors, who shared stories about their various encounters with players.

The line, we noted, was barely moving. This was not an entirely bad thing, since we had a great view of the field and the game didn’t start until 7 p.m.

Some friends of the collectors came by after they had their items signed. “It’s taking forever,” he said. “Howard talks to everybody.”

I approved.

We inched closer, and were about four people away when some Whitecaps employees came over to escort Howard down to the field.

“Don’t go anywhere,” Howard said, holding out his hands. “I’ll be right back.”

Standing up, Howard seemed every bit the 6-foot, 8-inches he is said to be, but he looked thin and seemed to have a little trouble moving. Down on the field, he tossed balls underhand to three kids, who in turn fired to home plate.

He returned to the table in time for the National Anthem, stopping the line to stand and face the flag, hand over heart. Again, I approved.

When my turn arrived, I placed the treasured Mets book before him, turned to a page I’ve designated for managers, coaches and general managers. Jerry Manuel, Howard Johnson and Omar Minaya are already on the page, along with Whitecaps manager Joe DePastino, who had two glorious at-bats with the Mets in 2003.

Howard looked up and extended his hand. It was huge.

After thanking him for the signature, I asked which he enjoyed more, coaching the Mets or managing for that half-season-plus. I’m not sure he heard me well.

“I spent 10 years in New York, and they were the best 10 years of my life,” he said, pointing to my jersey.

I noted that he was often paired with fellow-coach Jim Frey for fantasy camps, with the “Jumbo Franks” playing the “Small Freys.”

“Jim Frey was one of the best baseball men I’ve ever met,” he said.

I thanked him again and headed down to my seat, peeking a very clear and neat signature.

The Whitecaps proceeded to take care of the Lansing Lugnuts, 2-1, inching toward another playoff spot.

I peeked back later, after 8:30, and saw the line was still there, and Howard still signing. Jumbo Frank wanted to make sure everyone got their moment and signature.

Pretty classy.

Two days later, I caught up with Will to honor our other favorite Frank -- Frank Thomas -- and our adventures will fill the next post.