The ribs on my right side were starting to hurt. The base of my right index finger burned from a broken blister. My arms were tired from swinging a 30-ounce bat nineteen times in the August heat. And while I didn’t know the exact score, I had a pretty good feeling that if we were going to have any chance of winning, my last swing was going to have to be my best.
It was over a month ago, during WGAM-900’s weekly segment with Mike Murphy of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, that afternoon drive co-host Mike Mutnansky first mentioned the idea of a Media Homerun Derby at Manchester’s Merchantsauto.com Stadium. I was driving at the time, because I only listen to sports talk radio when I’m in the car, but as soon as I arrived at my destination, I pulled out my phone and dashed off an email to Mutnansky, suggesting that Bus Leagues was a legitimate southern New Hampshire media outlet and deserved to be included.
The topic came up again the next week. Later that night and into the wee hours of the morning, I typed up a long email to Murphy, the organizer of the event, in which I listed ten reasons Bus Leagues deserved a chance. (Andrew helped.) There were mentions of the experiential stuff I like to write about, the sweetness of my swing, my long ago interview with Erin Andrews, and the fact that my only previous Derby experience had resulted in unmitigated failure. Regrettably, I did not include my startling physical resemblance to Prince Fielder (we are both extraordinarily round); if I had, this might have been resolved much sooner.
There was no answer until the following Monday, when Murphy got back to me with some info about the entry fee ($100, which would go to charity) and suggested I contact Mutnansky about partnering with either him or his co-host, Rich Keefe. They answered the question on-air the next day by announcing that they would be joining forces as Team WGAM. After another email from me, Murphy gently laid down the law: unless I could find a media member willing to take me on as his or her partner, I would probably not be able to compete. I sent him one more email, apologizing for any over-pushiness on my part, and chalked it up as a learning experience.
Then, last Friday, I was pulling into 7-11 to grab a Gatorade when a text message announced that I had an email. Preliminary inspection revealed that it was a reply to the last “Media HR Derby” message I had sent to Murphy a few days before. Veeeeeeery interesting. I bought my Gatorade, sat in my car for a minute, and opened the email, which read as follows (with my immediate thoughts in italics):
“Do you believe in miracles?” Why yes, Mike, I do.
“You want in?” Yes. Please don’t tease me.
“You have $100, a partner, and a charity?” Yes, I’ll bring my two-year-old and his inflatable Red Sox bat if I have to, and I’m sure I can find one.
In closing, he told me to call him, so I did – eight minutes after he sent the original email. Ten minutes later, he had gone over a few of the rules and I was unofficially part of the derby, assuming I met the conditions named in the email. Like I was gonna mess it up at that point.
Murphy followed up our phone conversation with an email detailing the scoring rules. Basically, because most of the participants were highly unlikely to hit a ball over the wall, they came up with a points system to level the playing field. Anything over the wall on the fly was worth 10 points; if it touched the wall, 7 points; went past the “interior” wall (designated by flags), on the fly, 5 points; rolled or bounced past the “interior” wall, 3 points; hit hard and reached the outfield, 1 point. The teams were groups of two, with each partner getting ten swings, regardless of outcome. The top three teams advanced to the finals.
Finding a charity wasn’t hard. I asked my boss if she knew any good ones that I could use and she was like, “Um, you work for a non-profit. Use us or our Special Olympics team.” So the PLUS Pride Special Olympics team became my charity of choice. The partner thing was a bit more difficult. My friend Chris moved back to New York recently, my brother was busy with school, and my father informed me that “he would help, but Pedro broke his bat.” (Inside joke, long story.) My friend Colleen learned of the derby on Saturday night and spent the better part of two days asking to be my partner, but, well, she’s Colleen. Winning wasn’t required, but I didn’t want to wave the white flag before we even started. It was my wife who suggested that I email her cousins, Tom and Erol, to see if they might be available. Erol was busy, but Tom emailed back a couple of days later to say that he could make it, which was good, because I’ve always been under the assumption that Tom is good at baseball, and that seemed to be a nice quality to have in a partner for this event.
So that brings us to Tuesday. Derby Day. I arrived at the ballpark at about 2:15 (start time was scheduled for three o’clock on the nose; I was a bit excited), met Murphy, and soon found myself sitting in the first base dugout. It’s surprising how big it is – I was able to take full practice swings without fear of hitting anything.
I wasn’t worried about my swing – it’s always been the best part of my game. No, the thing that concerned me most was my timing. I hadn’t been able to get to a batting cage over the weekend, hadn’t seen live pitching in years, and knew that it would likely take a few pitches (probably several to many pitches), to begin to settle in. When I approached the ticket window to announce my arrival, my first instinct was to say, “I’m here for the public humiliation.” (In fact, I think I used that line on Murphy when we first met.) Timing, and the ability to find it quickly, was the key to not making a complete fool of myself.
Tom showed up about twenty minutes after me, wielding an old-school Easton bat that he had used in high school. (I, on the other hand, was the “cool” kid with a shiny, new, never-been-used Louisville Slugger Samurai that I’d bought at Olympia Sports the night before; I figured if I was gonna be bad, I might as well look good.) We were meeting some of the other competitors when my wife arrived, ready to take whatever video she could, and my in-laws were right behind her, with my two-year-old son in tow. He didn’t really understand the magnitude of what was happening on the field, the epic, life-altering event in which his father was soon to take part; of far more importance to him were the plane he saw flying overhead, the tractor that passed him on the concourse, and the wide open stands through which he was allowed to roam encumbered. I miss being two-years-old.
Thanks to a random drawing, Kevin Gray of the Union Leader and his partner, Morgan Crandall of the Fisher Cats, went first. I didn’t see much of their turn at bat because I was watching my son run around the stands and praying he wouldn’t find one of the open gates to the field. No need to get kicked out at this point in the proceedings. I tuned back in just in time to catch their final score – 18 points, if I remember correctly. It’s hard to know for sure because moments later Murphy drew the next name, called out, “Team Moynahan, representing Bus Leagues Baseball!” and my heart jumped into my throat.
Tom was kind enough to let me go first. As I stepped in against the pitcher, Fisher Cats hitting coach Paul Elliott, my first conscious thought was how close he was. He couldn’t have been more than thirty feet away, tucked safely behind an L screen. My second conscious thought was that I needed to wait for a couple pitches, at least get some sort of feel for the speed and location before I started hacking away. That was the end of conscious thought for a while. The rest of the round is a blur. I had a few decent hits, including one line drive that reportedly rolled all the way to the right field wall, and put up 18 points. Tom stepped in after me and delivered a strong showing of his own, tallying 17 points for a team total of 35.
As it turned out, none of the remaining four teams – Team WMUR (sports anchor Jamie Staton and Chris Sullivan), WGAM (midday drive hosts Mike Mutnansky and Rich Keefe), WGAM II (host Pete Tarrier and Ken Jobin), and WGAM III (host George Russell, on his own after his partner failed to show) – were able to beat our score, meaning that not only were we through to the finals, but we would be going last. Staton and Sullivan finished second, with Mutnansky and Keefe in third.
Before the finals started, I asked Tom, “How do you wanna handle this?” He answered brilliantly, asking me, “How do YOU wanna handle this?” Truthfully, I already knew what I wanted to do: I decided that when the time came, I wanted the contest in my hands. I was going to be the last hitter, I was going to know exactly what I needed for the win, and I was going to close this sumbitch OUT.
“Of course,” I suggested, “If you want to just go ahead and put up like forty points, I’ll bunt ten times and call it a day.”
Rich Keefe led off the finals with a second excellent performance, spraying line drives all over the field and scoring twenty points. Mutnasky could only manage eight, however, for a reasonable but beatable total of 28. Sullivan batted for Team WMUR next and also started strong, matching Keefe’s twenty points. As Jamie Staton walked to the plate, he quipped, ‘If I can’t get eight, I’m never doing this again.” He came through with fifteen, matching our first round total of 35.
So now Tom and I knew exactly what we had to do. He stepped in first and promptly popped up about three straight pitches. I could hear our opponents muttering under their collective breath – “Trying too hard”; “He’s pressing”; “Trying to do too much”. He settled in, though, and hit a few solid drives past the flags planted around the outfield. As he walked off the field and handed me the bat, he was muttering to himself.
“Terrible,” he said.
“Twenty points,” Mike Murphy announced.
So there it was. Fifteen to tie, sixteen to win. Seemed doable. I felt pretty loose and kidded with Elliott on my way into the box, asking if he could pitch to me underhand. For some unknown reason, he declined.
I stepped in and popped the first pitch up. Then the second. By the time five pitches had passed I had scored just a point or two, if that. In my head I could hear the same comments the peanut gallery had made about Tom, and they were all true – I was trying too hard.
As I pushed a ball away from the plate with the barrel of the bat, I decided to slow things down. It might as well have been a 3-0 pitch, because I stood up there like a statue, with no intention of swinging. He could’ve put it on a tee and I would’ve politely declined. The next one too, although this time I at least pretended to be ready for it. Finally, my mind and body slowed, I was able to deliver my favorite hit of the day: Elliott placed the ball low and away, out over the plate, and I flicked the bat out to reach it. The connection was perfect, the ball leaving on a line to centerfield, where it landed and rolled all the way to the wall for seven points.
By the time I got to the later pitches, my timing felt good, but my body was beginning to remind me that it had been awhile since we had performed this particular activity. On number eight, I took a hack, popped one up, and felt a pull in my ribs. “That’s gonna hurt later,” I thought to myself. On number nine, there was a pain from my right hand, at the top of my palm and the bottom of my index finder; I figured the skin had torn, but if I didn’t look, it couldn’t be that bad. So I didn’t look.
So this was what it came down to. The ribs on my right side were starting to hurt. The base of my right index finger burned from a broken blister. My arms were tired from swinging a 30-ounce bat nineteen times in the August heat. And while I didn’t know the exact score, I had a pretty good feeling that if we were going to have any chance of winning, my last swing was going to have to be my best.
If the earlier swing, the line drive to center, was my favorite of the day, my last one certainly was my best. Again the pitch was low and away, over the plate, only this time I got out in front and lifted it on a high arc to right field. I watched from the plate as it landed on the warning track, took one hop, and caromed off the wall. Seven points! I raised the bat in one hand as I walked off to accept the congratulations of my fellow competitors.
Some quick mental math suggested that Tom and I were the winners. Two sevens, plus a couple of hard hit balls, meant that we should have a narrow victory. Murphy called out to right field, where a team employee was tallying points.
She took a moment to consult her sheet one last time before answering.
“34!” she shouted.
“By himself or total?” someone yelled.
“Total,” she called back.
We were a point short, but how? I’d hit the wall twice, Murphy noted…only I hadn’t. The first big hit, the line drive to center that felt so perfect coming off the bat, the one that rolled so far that I implored it to grow legs as it gently kissed the wall, hadn’t reached the wall at all. Five points instead of seven.
“It was short by this much,” she said, holding her hands about eighteen inches apart.
I like to think that Tom and I now know how the Tennessee Titans felt when they lost the Super Bowl by a yard.
We handled it well, though, with the aplomb of a couple guys who were just happy to be there. We congratulated the winners, Staton and Sullivan (who won $600 for the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth), accepted congratulations from other participants, awkwardly posed for a picture, and marveled at how close we had come to walking off, in dramatic fashion, with the whole thing.
In the end, this can go down as nothing less than a fantastic experience. We made Staton’s evening newscast and Gray’s sports blog at The Union Leader (granted, nobody got the spelling or pronunciation of our names or the blog’s name quite right, but it was still good publicity, and my wife got a kick out of seeing me on TV), and had a great time. On the down side, my ribs still feel like somebody kicked me and there’s a tiny circular spot on my right hand that simply doesn’t have any skin.
I can’t wait to go to the batting cages. Gotta get ready for next year.
(The final order of finish and charities everyone was playing for went as follows:
1. Jamie Staton, Chris Sullivan: WMUR – CHaD Battle of the Badges
2. Brian Moynahan, Tom Duprey: Bus Leagues Baseball – PLUS Pride Special Olympics Team
3. Mike Mutnansky, Rich Keefe: WGAM – Herobox.org
4. Kevin Gray, Morgan Crandall: The Union Leader – Team Emma’s Enchantment
5. Pete Tarrier, Ken Jobin: WGAM – Manchester Boys & Girls Club
6. George Russell – Nashua Police Athletic League