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Feb. 13, 2015

Weddings, Funerals, Ups, Downs And Everything In Between

72 degrees and sunny… that’s the forecasted high temperature and outlook for today in Boca Raton, Florida.  We flew here last night to play the Florida Atlantic Owls in a three game series beginning tonight.  The forecast contrasts the one back home slightly.  We are happy to confirm to all the doubters in New England, green vegetation does still exist outdoors in the United States.

I often describe my son, Hank as being 72 degrees and sunny.  Most of life isn’t that way.  Most people aren’t either.  He is eleven, and certainly has his moments, but if there is one thing he consistently impresses with, it is his ability to remain positive and steady.

The offseason has been a lot like life, not always steady.  Since we lost in May up the road in Clearwater, we changed what needed to be changed, enhanced the things that needed to be enhanced, and dismantled the few things that needed to be dismantled.  In the process, we’ve arrived here as a team that is very together, and focused on achieving at a much higher level than we did in 2014.  The process, like all which include change, hasn’t been comfortable.  I’ve never seen real change without pain.  If the last months and weeks were pain-free, we wouldn’t be ready to tackle the challenges that the 2015 season will present. 

If teams reflect their head coach, I hope the guys feel as ready as I do.  Life’s been far from 72 and sunny.  In the last two months, it feels as though we’ve seen every degree mark on the thermometer.

The first weekend of December kicked off a month of weddings of former players.  Brooke and I had a blast at the beautiful nuptials of former Husky great, Scott Oberg and his bride, and former Husky rower, Diana.  What a treat to see a dozen or so former teammates of Scott all in Philadelphia.  The bride and groom appeared at the reception arm in arm for the first time to the strains of the UConn Husky Fight Song.  A week later, I had the honor of watching another outstanding former Husky hurler hitched in Greenville, Florida.  Tim Norton and Kayla were so full of happiness and gratitude that my cheeks hurt for days from all the smiling I did.  New Year’s Eve was spent celebrating the nuptials of a third former star pitcher and current assistant coach.  Josh MacDonald and Stephanie closed out 2014 in memorable fashion with a wedding for the ages. 

It is difficult to describe how happy I was for all three of “my guys”.  It was an absolute honor to be included in such a special day in their lives, and I will remember each day forever.  Cloud nine is somewhere even better than 72 and sunny, and that is where their old coach was for all of the “I do’s”. 

At Coach Mac’s wedding, I was privileged to do a reading at the ceremony in his hometown of Milford, Connecticut.  Only thirty hours earlier I was speaking in a different church in Natick, Massachusetts.  My beloved Auntie Kath had asked that I eulogize her before cancer claimed her life at 57 years of age, and on December 30th, I did that.  Closer in age to me than to her oldest brother (my father), she was much more like the fun older sister I never had than an aunt.  Just some of the several hundreds of lives she touched came through the doors at the wake and funeral, and her family was humbled by the show of love and support.

Auntie Kath would score her beloved Red Sox and Huskies games by listening to the radio and meticulously jotting down each ball, strike, hit, etc. in an old-fashioned scorebook.  As the daughter, sister, and aunt of coaches, she got plenty of practice scoring.  The Italian Joes (Castiglione and D’Ambrosio), along with Chris Jones were her trusted eyes.  Her framed masterpiece of the 2013 Big East championship is hung upon my office wall and is one of my most prized possessions.  She’d star the key plays and even write down the weather conditions on the pages.  The best part was the XOXOs with which she’d fill any blank space left on the score sheet.  They were meant to convey hugs and kisses, but it looked like a never-ending tic-tac-toe game.  I’d say she probably has her #2 pencils sharpened in heaven for tonight, but I doubt it.  She was a decisive, never-to-be-swayed, confident scorer.  She scored with pen, and at 6:30, she’ll have the best view as we take the field.  The radio might not be necessary, but the Bic will be gripped tightly.

As pre-season practice began, and we got busier and busier in our preparation, there was a comfort in the sounds of the gloves snapping and balls pinging off bats.  The rhythm of the game sucks you in, as does the daily interaction with vibrant young men, and I couldn’t wait for the season to get here.  However, there was one more blow to come.  Coach Baylock’s beloved wife, Barbara would succumb to cancer on Groundhog Day.  And boy, it felt like Groundhog Day.  Here we go again.  Another lovely woman who touched so many with her peaceful, gentle, and brilliant ways lost to a brutal disease -- not fair.

There was another eulogy to write and deliver, and another moving wake and funeral to attend.  Neither Auntie Kath, nor “Mama Bear” (as we called the woman who proctored our study halls, put together packets of newspaper clippings for each player at the conclusion of every season, and was our mom away from Mom), held public office, traveled the world, or acquired great material wealth.  However, if Jackie Robinson was indeed right, if, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” these two ladies led rich and vastly important lives.

We’ve been up and down a lot since last May.  We’ve been high as a kite and lower than whale excrement.  That reminds me, as I kissed Brooke goodbye for the marathon that is our season, she had a phone to her ear trying to reach the septic service as the downstairs toilet was unrelenting with its overflow.  Looks like a new tank might be needed at the homestead.  “Ok, hon.  Here’s the plunger, I’ll see you Monday morning.”   My departure is rarely ideal in its timing.  However, Brooke’s and my perspective of that probably differs as much as the forecast for Storrs and Boca.  In case a trip to sunny Florida would spoil me, the plumbing emergency served as one last reminder.  There will always be crap with which to deal. 

President Kennedy, at his second State of the Union speech said, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”  We did that this offseason.  I am looking forward to seeing how it holds up in the storm that is the baseball season.  And while there is certainly some comfort in seeing the thermometer reading 72 degrees, and to look up and not see a cloud in the sky, we know it won’t stay that way for long.  But, like Hank, if WE can, we’ll be okay.  We’ll be better than ok.

This group, with two fifth year senior starting pitchers in Carson Cross and Jordan Tabakman, as well as a savvy veteran in Bobby Melley as tri-captains is different.  Their leadership, along with that of other teammates all pulling together resulted in the largest contingent on campus over the long winter break that I could recall in the last five years.  I am anxiously anticipating how that togetherness manifests itself in the scorebook, and how far we can go on the journey that is the 2015 baseball season.  It all starts tonight with a first step against FAU.  I’ve never been more excited to hear the umpire yell, “Play ball!”

-        JFP