In The Wee Small Hours…

By Bob Socci

A few batters earlier an error by third baseman Aramis Ramirez helped his former team transform a threat into a rally.  Immediately after the ex-Cub mishandled Marlon Byrd’s grounder, pinch-hitter Steve Clevenger singled in a run and Darwin Barney walked.  Chicago loaded the bases.  Milwaukee was barely holding on to a 7-5 lead.

While life now includes daily episodes of Sesame Street...

Fortunately for the Brewers, the game’s 10th pitcher — their sixth — had means of maneuvering out of jams like this.  Generally, John Axford did it with a mid-80’s slider and a fastball in the upper 90‘s.

Seventy times the last two years he saved a win for Milwaukee.  Given his first opportunity of this new season, Axford was within a strike of doing it again.  Sixty feet away, Starlin Castro was in the right-handed box.  He stood in a hole created by two hard breaking balls, swinging at the first, taking the next.

With long brown hair flowing from his blue cap and reaching down to his gray jersey, Axford set himself upright.  Then he uncoiled from the stretch and unleashed a 96-mile per hour delivery.  He placed it precisely on the outside edge of the strike zone.  Castro was frozen in the moment.

...I still found time, albeit at an ungodly hour, to see the Cubs' Starlin Castro take a game-ending third strike.

As were most of the hearty souls hanging around Wrigley.  Or so it appeared on ESPN.  Thankfully for them, they had long since thawed out by the time I was seeing that game-ending sequence.  Axford had actually vanquished Castro and the Cubs hours earlier on a Monday night.  But I didn’t bear witness to it until sometime after 4, yet not quite 5 o’clock, the following morning.

Though exciting, even when viewed through a haze of half-consciousness, such 9th-inning drama had nothing to do with why I was captive on our coach in Tuesday’s wee small hours.  Framing it in baseball terms, I was up at that ungodly hour because it was time for the 7th-inning stretch.

At least that’s how I’ve come to think of that stage of the night when our 3-month-old daughter cries out from her Nanny Caddy, demanding to loosen her legs and fill her tummy.  This particular Tuesday, Mom was due for a long, hard day at the office.  So Dad was in the bullpen, awaiting the call from Baby M to warm up a bottle.

It came by way of a tap on my shoulder.  “The baby is stirring,” my wife said, signaling for the right-hander and returning her head to the pillow.  Into the darkness we went, my girl and I, descending the stairs to our main living area.

We were bound for the kitchen, though I stopped briefly in the family room to turn on the television, knowing full well that once feeding begins the parent is left without a free hand to change channels.   A minute or two later, we returned.

All things considered, this wasn’t so bad.  Our baby was happy and I was getting into the game.  So what if it involved the Cubs.  After all, a week or two earlier I was sitting in this same spot, probably at this same time, enduring an Orioles-Pirates spring training replay on the MLB Network.

(By the way, the overnight slots always seemed to be filled by either the O’s or Bucs.  Or, come to think of it, the Padres.  No surprise, I suppose, that while the Yankees and Red Sox get prime time — even in the Grapefruit League — the game’s perennial dregs go up against infomercials.)

In years past, whether single or married before children, the baseball I viewed was live.  Not tape delayed.  From April through August, my vantage point was mostly in a ballpark press box.  If I caught a telecast or radio broadcast, chances are I had just called, or was about to call a game.  Even last year, after the birth of our first child, a son, led me to cut back my work as a broadcaster, I was with the Triple-A Norfolk Tides for their opening two weeks.

But here in 2012 my season-opening homestand extends into late April.  Instead of preparing for the next game, I prep sippy cups and formula bottles.  About the time I used to describe the bottom of 2nd innings,  I now read to my boy from a rocking chair.  Ball Four has been replaced by Cleo’s Counting Book.

Before our first was born, friends who are parents promised: Your life will never be the same.  This I understood.  Of course, it made perfect sense.  What I didn’t (what I couldn’t possibly!) know is just how many ways and how much life differs when kids enter the picture.

For one thing, I’m much less hip to pop culture.  Okay, not that I was very hip to begin with, but spending time around ballparks gave me a pretty good sense of contemporary tastes, like which music topped the charts.  For two hours of every afternoon batting practice is set to Top 40 hits blaring from stadium speakers.  More than once, I used to leave the field trying to empty my mind of the latest Nickleback release.

Today, instead, there’s no escaping the themes to my Buddy’s favorite Sprout and PBS Kids shows:

They’re two, they’re four, they’re six, they’re eight; Shunting trucks and hauling freight…

Sunny days sweeping those clouds away; On my way to where the air is sweet…

Who’s got the power, the power to read?  Who answers the call from friends in need?

Oh, there’s more where those lines came from.  What’s more, those tunes strike at every hour, during any activity.  If I weren’t a fan myself (the Super Why jingle is especially catchy), I’d find them haunting.

Who's got the power to read? Why, of course, it's Super Why!

Since I mentioned the “t” word, my wife and I still have best intentions of trying to limit our children’s TV intake.  That, however, doesn’t mean I get to watch what I want, when I want.  Case in point, consider last Sunday.

Bubba Watson and Louie Oosthuizen had just left the tee box, looking to rescue themselves from their drives on the second playoff hole of The Masters.  I’m no golf guy.  But I do appreciate drama in competition, and was anxious to see the conclusion.  Just then our Little Guy returned from Tubby Time.  He was sipping warm milk from a cup in one hand, holding his sports-themed Lovie Bear with the other.  The Pajanimals were about to begin.

We never did see Bubba don the green jacket.  In his place, Apollo, Squacky, Sweetpea Sue and Cowbella set off for the Land of Hush.  Make no mistake, in our house The Pajanimals are a tradition unlike any other!

Regardless of such sacrifice (I write with tongue in cheek) and save for sleep deprivation (this I mean!), life’s vast changes are for the better.  You gain a great sense of accomplishment from a solid broadcast.  But it’s nothing compared to the pride you sense from seeing your toddler point to the number eight on your cue.

Sure I’ve missed the ballpark, especially on Opening Day.  You can find yourself in Rockford, Ill. or Moosic, Pa., as I have.  It doesn’t matter.  The season opener is special.  Starters are introduced along the baselines.  Ballparks are dressed with red, white and blue bunting.  The first pitch is as symbolic as it is ceremonial.

But this year I experienced a first on the real first day of spring.  With rare control of the remote, I switched back-and-forth between the Red Sox in Detroit and Mets at home against the Braves.  My son, who will soon be 2, joined me.  I was about a year older when I first fell in love with baseball and the not-exactly Amazin’s.  This fact my boy will someday learn should he ever ask why I routinely serenaded him with Take Me Out to the Ballgame and Meet The Mets— before he emerged from his mother’s womb.

Frank Francisco saved an Opening Day win for the Mets, giving father and son reason to celebrate.

Much to my satisfaction, New York held a 1-0 lead and Atlanta was down to its last out.  Still, the combination of Frank Francisco pitching and Jason Heyward batting left the outcome very much in doubt.  But Francisco, who’d been velocity-challenged in spring training, mustered enough of a fastball to tie up Heyward with a 3-2 pitch above the belt.  Swing and a miss!

In Flushing Meadows, the Mets celebrated their 33rd opening-day victory in the last 43 years.  About 220 miles away, just south of Boston, this dad asked his kid for a high five.  Excitedly, my Buddy obliged.  Now that, thought the Old Man, is Amazin’!

With Big Bro apparently hooked on our Household Pastime, who knows whether his Little Sister will likewise contract — as it was said when dad was a kid — Baseball Fever.  I certainly don’t intend to force-feed her the game, 24/7.  Nevertheless, as long as Daddy’s Little Girl needs to eat, 24/7, there’s always a chance she’ll get hooked too.

It just so happens the Yankees are playing the Twins this Monday on ESPN.  Re-air of the game is scheduled for Tuesday.  At 3 a.m.

Bob has called baseball on the radio for the  Norfolk Tides since 2006.  He is also the radio play-by-play voice of Navy football and broadcasts college basketball for CBS Sports Network.  For samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

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