Forged in the Flame – Baseball, Stoicism, and the Road 702 Fire

My heroes have always been baseball players who overcame adversity.

George Brett was the first – the fiery Hall of Famer known for his intensity on the field. Infamous as much as famous, he is as much remembered for rage as prowess, as you can see in this video when a homerun was called an out due to a technicality – the substance used to grip the bat (pine tar) was about an inch too high on his bat.

https://www.mlb.com/video/7-24-83-the-pine-tar-incident-c3180386

My interest matured and manifested as both player and amateur historian, I was drawn further into the past, to the legends of the Negro Leagues. Josh Gibson, John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, and many more.

Stumbling on to the current “secret” of my happiness – having less to experience more – I’ve retained little of my previous life’s possessions. One cherished possession survives- a poster of Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil, legendary Negro League players. A Christmas gift from my grandparents when I was very young, who somehow got it signed by O’Neil. Yesterday I grabbed it from my storage unit, as I’ve found my new home, and there’s a place on the wall perfect for it.

The stories fascinated me – barnstorming tours, word of mouth legends. The most agreed-upon history, however, began with integration, Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Many men were considered to be the first black player in the white league. Robinson was hand-picked by Branch Rickey to break to the color barrier and integrate the races in baseball, and it had far less to do with his talent than his mentality.

The famous line is “turn the other cheek” – Rickey knew that the man to unite baseball could NOT be a fighter, for he had to withstand tremendous abuse. Robinson took the vitriol Rickey piled on him when meeting the first time, confused at why this man would spout such vile words at him, testing.

Jackie asked if Rickey was looking for a man not afraid to fight back.

Rickey’s response was clear: I’m looking for a man with the guts NOT to fight back, because to do so would undermine the goal.

You can read about the horrors endured by Robinson, and how not only he, but his teammates, came together to respond. When Jackie received word that there was a threat of an assassination attempt during a game, one of his teammates suggested they all wear the same number – Jackie’s 42 – to confuse the villain.

Robinson responded with a smile, saying they’d have to paint their faces black and run pigeon-toed like him as well.

Not only virture…but humor.

This morning’s visit to the philosophical well that is Ryan Holiday’s “Daily Stoic” podcast brought me back to that poster.

Holiday notes a passage from Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations”, where the young emperor discusses with a mentor the gift of responding to adversity with virtue.

Aurelius did not seek to be emperor, and considered it a burden at first. However, instead of asking “Why me?”, he found the fortitude to be thankful for the burden – the opportunity to test his mettle by remaining virtuous when he had, overnight, become the most powerful man in the world whilst yet a teenager.

I sit in my temporary office, wondering how close I am to virtue today, and what I can do to move further in that direction.

Because I know how I’ve failed in the past.

You see, responding to adversity with virtue has rarely been my reality. Like many, I’d been hardened to resist, to defend my honor and that of others…

To fight.

Even today, that fervent passion to overcome remains. It is, as my as the copper color of my eyes or the scars on my body, a part of me. My routine for writing reveals as much, for the song I listen to prior to every writing session is the same – Fight Back, by Neffex.

Admittedly, the lyrics pump me up and I’ll drop to the floor and rip out a set of pushups, maybe even bob around and sing the lyrics, psyching myself up for the day.

“You’re never gonna make it, you’re not good enough
There’s a million other people with the same stuff
You really think you’re different? Man you must be kidding
Think you’re gonna hit it? But you just don’t get it”

As if the intro isn’t enough, verse one really solidifies the defiance which has both plagued and served me:

“Who the fuck are you to tell e what to do?
I don’t give a damn if you say you disapprove
I’m gonna make my move, I’m gonna make it soon
And I’ll do it ’cause it’s what I want to fucking do.”

My life – my way. An eternal battle, always fighting. A vicious monster, indefatigable, cunning, and ruthless.

But how has it truly served me? I look back and wonder.

In high school, I’d become entertaining to watch on the baseball field. Some natural gifts – I threw hard enough to gain some attention from college scouts – and a motor that knew nothing but all-out effort. MadBoy was a nickname – passed down from “MadMan”, my dad. Another coach called me “Redline”, referring to the danger zone where an engine revs so high it will ultimately explode.

I found solace in the individual aspect of baseball – a team, yes, but ultimately a solo sport. One man with a ball, another with a bat.

Me against you.

Me against…everyone.

Until I found the same onstage as a musician, the diamond was the only place I truly felt at peace, like I belonged. Outside I raged, but inside, I thought I was in control.

I laid claim to that control with arrogance and ego. It was mine, not yours, and I would make sure you knew.

Today I laugh, knowing I control nothing outside the borders of my mind.

I go back to a summer night, I think my junior year. The Stockton Tigers were in town, and the two teams were evenly matched, which is to say both equally bad.

Our American Legion team had not existed three years prior. In my first act of civil service, as a freshman at a high that had no baseball program, I’d gathered enough signatures on petition to take to the city council and get permission to restart a team.

Like any team starting from scratch, we weren’t great. I think we had eleven players, and no real talent to speak of – but there were a few of us who loved the game and lived to play it.

On this particular night, I was on the mound, dealing heat. I was sixteen and threw in the low eighties. Couple that with oft-erratic control, and stepping into the box against me could be unnerving.

A fastball got away from me in the first inning, drilling Stockton’s cleanup hitter in the back, who went immediately to the ground. I started to the plate to check to see if he was ok – I’d once watched a classmate be carried off the field once from a wild pitch, and was genuinely concerned about hurting someone.

To my utter surprise, he not only pulled himself up, but began walking toward the mound to meet me…bat in hand.

Bad move. The rage began to build. This is MY world. My mound. My ball. My batter’s box, and I decide what happens.

I remembered the offense, and hit him the next two times up. By his fourth at-bat, the real estate he occupied in the batter’s box was no large than the footprint of a gallon of milk, to the back of the box, feet tight together on the chalk, ready to bail. Still I gunned for him, by now genuinely aiming to hurt – aiming for a headshot, and miraculously found accuracy when targeting a human head instead of home plate.

I wound and fired with all I had, my best effort sent directly for his earhole. Thankfully, he ducked. The ball stuck his bat and bounced harmlessly back to me for an easy ground out.

On this night, players were not my only target, however.

It had become clear to the Stockton coach on first base that I had a problem with control, in more than one way. His incessant jawing through the first few innings rattled me. Any time I came set and checked a runner at first, then turned back to the plate, his gums would be flapping, talking shit. By the second time through the order, I’d had enough, and made a plan.

In the dugout, I called over my first baseman, Zach. He was a lineman on the football team, and knew what it meant to play dirty. Zach played baseball to hang out with his buddies more than to win games, and today his mindset and mine were matched. I told him my plan, talked through the signal for enacting it, and we went out for another inning.

My control had settled, and I breezed through the first two batters. Two out, none on. I walked the next batter on purpose, easy enough to do when I walked plenty by accident.

Runner on first, two out. The first base coach in my ear again, no idea what was coming.

I let the runner take his lead, checked him with a look directly at Zach, and turned back.

Quick step off the rubber, turn, and fired a pickoff throw with all I had – nowhere near first base. No, this ball had a more sinister trajectory – I aimed to put it in the first base coach’s teeth.

He hit the deck, the ball burned throw a hole where his face had just been and slammed into the fence…where Zach was waiting, at least thirty feet from where he should have been for a pick-off attempt. We nearly got the runner taking second, and that was the last I heard from the coach.

The inning over, a stern warning from my coach, the game was back on. I’d defended my honor, silenced my critic, and was ready to compete again.

But the secret was out. There was a hothead on the mound who couldn’t control his anger. The third base coach took over for his counterpart, lipping off the next inning.

It had worked the first time, so I did it again. A runner on third, a pickoff throw at the coach, pre-planned with my left-fielder who came crashing in to retrieve the errant throw off the fence.

This time, I gave up a run. The throw was off, the coach was unfazed, and we lost…6-5.

I found out after the game the kid I’d been throwing at shared my last name. He was a distant cousin, and my mother had been in the stands, sitting next to his. I’ll consider it a blessing that my mom’s penchant for chatting made it so she rarely had any clue what was going on during any of my games, as I’m certain she’d had been horrified to understand my intent. The coaches I threw at were likely volunteers, just like mine, giving of their time for love of the game. Looking back, I’m not proud of any of it.

We were terrible that year. I’m not sure how many games we won, but it wasn’t many. Our biggest win was a forfeit – a team from Hays that won state and would have been undefeated had they lost one game on a technicality. I tried to trip a runner coming home on a wild pitch. No chance of tagging him out, instead grabbed his ankle with my pitching hand as he ran across the plate. Struggling to maintain balance, his left foot wind-milled, planting directly on my glove hand, 1/2″ metal spikes driving to the bone. Our league allowed only rubber cleats, and when I showed my bloody hand to the umpire, he threw the player out and gave us the game. It was cheap, dirty, and even in the moment I didn’t feel good about it. I think they won the second game 16-2, which they deserved.

But none of this is what was truly on my mind this morning. Not George Brett and the Pine Tar Incident, not Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, or the Negro Leagues.

Fire.

I’m currently at my folks farm, and last week began what is being called the Road 702 fire, a wild grassfire out of control. It’s incredibly dry in western Kansas to begin with (we average about 21 inches of rain/ year) and this spring has been nothing short of desert status. One spark is all it takes out here – there’s not much to stop and flame, and the wind has blown non-stop, fanning the flames and moving them along.

Support, both ground and air, has come in from states away. North to south, it’s covered twenty eight miles so far, and local crews from every surrounding town responded. As of yesterday (April 26) the latest report said it was 47% contained and they expected to continue battling it until the first of May. Estimated acres burned is well over forty thousand, and I’ve heard the final tally will likely be closed to one hundred thousand.

I know few of my readers are familiar with acres as a unit of measurement, so picture this: a square whose sides are twelve and a half miles in length, everything inside it now turned to ash.

Imagine half of New York City, gone.

Nearly every man and woman (I even saw junior high kids out there) is a volunteer. Every farmer with a water tank was there to replenish the trucks, tractors tilling firebreaks, meals being made.

To see so many people come together in a common purpose is truly moving.

One of them is my old catcher, Josh Green. Josh was one of those who loved the game as much as I, and he was a great hitter, catcher, and teammate. His dad Rick was one of our coaches.

Last Friday, Josh and another volunteer were out on the fire and found themselves in a bad situation – abandoning their truck as the flames overcame them.

I’m careful not to editorialize the experiences of others, so what follows is Josh’s post after being released from the burn unit:

Josh Green:

Good Morning everyone…. Wow it’s never felt so great to say that.. from the bottom of my heart I can not thank everyone enough for the calls texts FaceTimes visits Means the world to me its kept me very grounded.. this has been a hell of a whirlwind ?the last 3/4 days. There’s so many people to thank from people getting tiff to where she needed to be (my sister) to getting all the hotel set up so she didnt have to worry ( Dylan and jordan) Ann wolf and tiffs mom for coming down and spending the two days with us and getting us back home my parents for keeping the boys and keeping there minds off of it carter FaceTimed us prolly a 100 times lol which I loved the meal train started so greatful no clue how much stress that takes away
The staff at the burn unit in Lincoln they were so awesome so friendly treated me like I was one of there own
I got some skin graphs done on both arms i had 2/3 degree burns on my arms my face won’t be as pretty as it was before i have 2nd degree burns on my face maiming my nose and honestly thats what hurts the worst beside my calf when we were running I got a cramp in my calf and told myself I wasn’t guna die out there so kept running which in return ripped part of my calf off the bone
I can’t thank dustin Harting enough we kept eachother going he saved me by keeping me calm and going I knew I wasn’t in good shape with all the burns but he kept me going and my kids I told myself over and over I gotta get home to my kids and tiff
I finally got some alone time this morning and finally had my first breakdown finally hitting me that I about lost it all and I’m so lucky to be alive in a way I kinda feel like I failed the department by destroying equipment and not being there to help I know how much effort they had to put in
I’m alive that’s All that matters I’ll heal but now I have a different out look on life
I’m done rambling
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything ????

That’s on my mind this morning, as I consider responding to adversity with virtue.

That’s always been Josh – no quit. I stopped to take a moment after reading his words, thinking back to the kid behind the plate who never complained about the sting of my fastball or the bruises from foul tips, who would take a heater to the ribs without blinking, sprint to first, and clap his hands to encourage the next guy to bring home the run. We both wore our stirrups high, like the Negro League players of the past.

And I think about all that, remembering the monster inside me that lost his head, lost the purpose…lost the game. I intentionally put others at risk, and likely scared off recruiters who didn’t want a headcase. Relentless, no quit, determined to prove something… but living in chaos.

Yet here I sit – smiling. That monster is now my friend, because I’ve learned to direct that rage, that passion, into a more worthy cause. To have the guts not to fight back. I don’t begrudge my monster and his singular purpose to fight – I just learned to solidify his purpose.

To fight, yes – but to keep the fight internal. Not to prove anything to anyone but myself and my monster. To let my fire burn, knowing it can never be put out, it can never be controlled – but like the 702 fire, it can be contained. To simply be better, no longer seeking “better than”.

The 702 fire won’t make it to my parent’s farm – for them, I am happy. Many others are not so fortunate. To every single man, woman, and child who came together to battle the flames – Thank you.

Especially to you, Josh. The last line is the same as the first, and meant solely for you.

“My heroes have always been baseball players who overcame adversity.”

**A mealtrain has been created to help Josh, Tiffany, and their two children during this time.

You can view and donate here:

https://www.mealtrain.com/trains/g9nwdl

Josh has requested no food with tomatoes, onions, peppers, or lettuce 🙂

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