“An early-spring renewal of the spirit” over 10,000 fungos later

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The 10,001st fungo! Dean Tucker in his Yale shirt. He spent thousands of fungos sending his daughter to New Haven, but did get the nice t-shirt. Xerox cap (from where he earned those fungos). Reifsteck Field, Brighton, Easter, 2016

Before Dean retired from baseball to take up the more leisurely disc golf, he and I were most likely the only people who hit fungos on the artificial turf fields of Rochester. First at the UR’s Fauver Stadium and then at Brighton’s Reifsteck Field, both normally used for football and soccer. We estimate hitting about ten thousand balls over several decades.

The aim and art of fungo hitting — done with a longer and lighter than a regulation bat with a smaller diameter designed to hit balls tossed up in the air by the batter rather than pitched  — is to drive the ball to the fielder in a wide array of heights, distances, and trajectories.

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Intercepting Dean’s successful “fieldgoal fungo!” Using my father’s old DiMaggio glove. In this case, not Joe’s or Dom’s, but printed with the name of the third major league brother, Vince. [Photo: Dean Tucker who amazingly both hit the ball and took the picture] Easter, 2016 Reifsteck Field, Brighton

Towering flies as high as gravity allows. Shots to the left or right requiring speed and instinct. Blasts over the fielder’s head only hauled in Willie Mays-like over the shoulder. Bloopers only caught running in full tilt. And the trickiest of all, line drives hit directly at the waiting man unsure whether to stand ground or back peddle.

We use artificial turf fields because it’s a cleaner, faster more efficient game. And even mishit balls are a challenge; bouncing and rolling balls must be cut off and flagged down lest they skip unmercifully behind the fielder down the length of the football field. And the return throws, usually on a bounce, take a true and fast path back to the hitter.

For fungo, Dean and I are evenly matched.  Dean considers himself a 1 and a 1/2 tool player. Decent speed and when he connects warning track and occasionally beyond power. When living and working for Xerox in London for three years, Dean was once invited to play in cricket match. A Rochester Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he made a prodigious wallop of the cricket ball, landing it far away in an English garden.

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Parker throwing Downing out at home in the 1979 All Star game.

My one athletic gift is a semi-rifle arm that also did me well during my badminton playing days. Brad from my softball team played a season of Division III at R.I.T.  In my prime, Brad ventures I probably possessed a D-3 arm. During fungo, I sometimes imagine myself Dave Parker in the 1979 All Star game nailing Brian Downing at home with a no bounce bullet.

On occasions we would enhance our game with “field goal.” The hitter trying to clear the uprights from different distances while the fielder could negate the point by successfully hitting the ball with his thrown glove. After the season, when the Genesee River was frozen, we would knock leftover balls across the ice, skittering like tops.

As Dean was not disc golfing, today we went to Reifesteck Field to hit our 10,001st fungo and play “fieldgoal fungo.”  The outing — our early spring renewal of the spirit — reminded us of another March day when we went to Toronto for Team USA vs.Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic. The trip would become a story (below) for the Brighton-Pittsford Post.

Seven years later, Dean recalls experiencing vertigo while in our very upper deck seats. He also laments paying 13 Canadian dollars for a single Labatt’s beer.

“An early spring renewal of the spirit”

3/19/09 first appearing in the Brighton-Pittsford Post then in the Messenger Post Newspapers

On Saturday, March 7, spring came early for about 42,000 North Americans. True, the closed, retractable roof of the Rogers Centre in Toronto shielded us from the grayish wintry drizzle outside. Nor was the green grass even grass – instead the immortal synthetic kind that can never really smell like summer.

TORONTO - MARCH 11: A fan cheers on the USA team during the 2009 World Baseball Classic Pool C match at the Rogers Centre March 11, 2009 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Venezuela defeated the USA 5-3. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Rogers Centre, Toronto, 3.7.09 [Getty Images]

Yet there we were, my friend Dean and I, in the first week of March, at a real baseball game, not a desultory, half-empty Cactus League exhibition, but a packed house ready to witness Goliath (Team USA) battle David (Team Canada) in the first game of the World Baseball Class, Pool C.

This was our first taste of international baseball competition; we didn’t quite know what to expect or exactly how to behave.

In preparation, I had brought a medium-sized red-white-and-true blue American flag, thinking it to be my patriotic duty.

Dean and I probably represented the entire Brighton contingent. We did see several ’Cuse and Buffalo Bills jerseys, a few University of New Hampshire T-shirts, and more than a fair share of Red Sox caps.

The stadium was dotted with flags, mostly Canadian but still a sizable number of Stars and Stripes. The larger ones were draped on overhangs, prime targets for ESPN cameras.

Medium-sized ones like my American one made a decent show. However, the pointed end of the pole, when grabbed in the rush to celebrate, proved to be downright dangerous. The prudent neatly waved smallish versions easily placed in a shirt pocket during the lulls that are baseball.

If this had been European football, I imagine the flags would be territorial markers, symbols capable of triggering the mad dogs of hooliganism. But this is baseball, the triumph of mature love over infatuated adolescent willfulness.

Yes, the Canadians flags unfurled in a red and white cascade when Russell Martin and Joey Votto hit their home runs, and Philippe Aumont, the French Canadian kid, left three Yanks stranded.

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The Rogers Centre, Toronto, 3.7.09 In the vertigo seats.

And, we statesiders bounced back when Captain Jeter deftly fielded his position and Kevin Youkils, Adam Dunn and Brian McCann went yard. In the end, Goliath won, 6-5.

Yet, not for a moment, was there a hint of enmity between the competing flag wavers. I chatted amiably with my red-and-white bedecked neighbors about the early days of SkyDome, when lovers neglected to close the shades in the hotel rooms overlooking center field.

Two Japanese-Canadian girls asked to twirl the red-white-and-blue when Jeter (their favorite) came to bat. Given that, technically, Rogers Centre was considered a neutral site, at one point the PA system even blared, “Born in the USA.”

The joyousness of the occasion had much to do with that inkling, however artificial, of the coming fields of spring dreams. On another level, it had much to do with Canadians themselves. As I looked upon the spirited Rogers Centre crowd, I sensed a true melting pot, a conglomeration of almost every conceivable ethnic group, whose collective national pride seemed derived from tolerance and decency.

As I was leaving, I noticed some fans who had bought the same medium-size flags as mine, theirs Canadian. I offered to trade pennants. We readily agreed, shook hands, and I hope, went home feeling that much better.

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Exchanged flag from the World Baseball Classic game in Toronto. The right glove is my prize possession signed by Cal Ripken Jr and Frank Robinson. The left is my father’s old DiMaggio glove. In this case, not Joe’s or Dom’s, but printed with the name of the third major league brother, Vince.

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