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Catching Up With UConn Baseball

April 5, 2012

Home is Where the Heart Is

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Pittsburgh, Pa.:  I know, I know.  No blogs for awhile.  Mom taught me a long time ago that if I didn’t have anything nice to say, not to say anything at all.  I’ve applied that to writing, or more aptly, not writing over the past few weeks, as we’ve struggled to find the right lineup, catch the baseball, and win games while traveling the nation.  We’ve played just six games in Storrs, and at the halfway point of our season, we are 15-13 as we prepare to play Pittsburgh later today in the city of bridges.

After quick bus trips to Amherst and Chestnut Hill this past week, we still have our next nine games away from home.  There is a rhythm to the buses, planes, lobbies, and bed checks.  In some ways, it is more familiar to us than playing in Storrs.  So, until April 20, we’ll have to be at home on the road.

When we are really at home, it feels a bit foreign during the season.  Brooke says that even when I’m home, I’m not really there.  As much as we try to be present in the moment, the season can take on a life of its own, and what I call the “re-entry phase” can be difficult.  Oftentimes, I don’t recognize my own family.

For instance, after the Oregon-Washington-Myrtle Beach trip, I returned to Wethersfield to find three kids that looked a lot taller than before I left.  A night after I returned, Charlie dismissed me from the dinner table in an unfamiliar hushed voice, “Jim, you are safe.  You may leave the runway.”  Then, looking at his mother with his head tilted, he added, “Brooke, your look was tired and unfinished.  You are out.”  Then, he rose from his seat, walked to his mother’s place at the table, kissed her on both cheeks, and whispered, “Auf wiedersehen.”  Brooke was laughing so hard, that it took several minutes for me to get an explanation as to why my four-year old was addressing his parents by our first names while speaking in an accent.  I had no clue as to how he knew the German word for goodbye. 



When she composed herself, Brooke said that he was quoting Heidi Klum from Project Runway, a fashion show on Bravo.  With me gone, there wasn’t much March Madness on the t.v. in the family room.  Brooke and ten-year-old Tess controlled the remote and Charlie was an innocent victim.  It suddenly made sense as to why eight-year-old Hank was spending overnights and weekends at his buddy, Luke Strole’s house.  Luke has an older brother, several pre-adolescent boys as neighbors, red meat on the table at dinner often, and a full basketball court in his backyard.  As an eight-year-old, he couldn’t control the remote, but Hank could control being more remote.  He escaped the estrogen-fest.  Poor Chick, he didn’t know any better, and had nowhere to go.

On the way home from practice a week ago, I treated Hank and Luke to a Shady Glen cheeseburger.  At the table across from us, I kept catching a woman stealing glances at our party.  When I got up to pay the check, she called me over and asked if I was Jim Penders.  When she spoke, I recognized her right away.  She was a little grayer, but characteristically dressed to the nines, and bright-eyed.  Mrs. Drake, my fifth grade teacher got a big hug from the kid she encouraged to write back at Maple Street School in Rockville.  I hadn’t seen her since 1983 or ’84, but there she was – my favorite teacher.  She said with a smile, “You know, it is alright with me that you didn’t become a writer.  You turned out okay.”  We shared a laugh, and I had the thrill of introducing my favorite teacher to my son almost three decades after I’d last been in her classroom.

It is opening day for the Pirates here today.  I took my morning run around the beautiful PNC Park, and thought a lot about our former Huskies scattering around the country from their respective spring training bases in Arizona and Florida.  We’ll have former players in every level and corner of the pro ball landscape this spring and summer, and they’ll be away from home too.  Yet, just like Charlie, and the rest of us, they’re all a product of their environment and of all those with whom they’ve come into contact.  I hope they all call UConn home in some way, shape, or form. 

One of those former Huskies is staying in Tampa.  Tim Norton, one of the toughest, strongest, driven, and most loyal people I’ve ever coached, decided to hang up his spikes after rehabbing from his third shoulder surgery.  Tim called twice while we were at BC, and caught me at my desk yesterday before we flew out.  He wanted me to know he was given a great opportunity to become a coach with the Yankees.  The organization is going to groom the big kid we all used to call the donkey.  He may have moved like a horse, but his blue-collar work ethic and grind-it-out demeanor were always more akin to a donkey.  If desire and hard work were the only requirements to make it in the bigs, he’d be a first ballot Hall of Famer.  His body failed him, but when he shaves every morning, he’s always going to see a guy that gave it everything he had and has no regrets.  Now, he’s going to take care of the Yankees like they’ve done for him.

As long as he wants to, he will become a great coach.  The path might be a little different, but Tim will still make it to the big leagues one day.  Just like Mrs. Drake, and apparently Heidi Klum, he’s going to have an influence.  I bet as he begins this new quest in teaching, no matter how far his travels take him, he’s going to find himself right at home.