Oren Miller: He Has Shown Me How to Live

Give Foward

Oren Miller has made me a better person and a better father. He is my brother. I will always tell his story.

We want context at the end. We want order, or some sense of purpose. We want it to matter. We want to tell our stories, and we want them to make sense.

It helps with the pain. It helps with the sadness. It helps to remind us that the reason we cry is because once, we were oh, so glad.

We have been glad to know Oren Miller. We have been proud to call him friend, to call him brother.

We all have stories to tell.

We have stories to tell about Oren Miller.

Today, and for the past few months, these stories have been nourished with tears. We knew it was bad, then worse, and now we are at the end and we want context. We want to add our patch to the quilt of Oren’s life, or his digital life, I suppose.

We were brothers, Oren and I. As his brother, as we come to the end, I am compelled to tell my story. This is right. This is good. Will it make sense? I don’t know. But my pain demands it. My tears require it.

It matters.

My story of Oren is about hope. It’s about the human capacity to shape the world for good.

It matters, all right.

We found out the worst of bad news before Father’s Day – lung cancer had spread to his brain. Nothing could stop it. We set out to help Oren’s family in a small, but meaningful way.

We came together to raise money for a dream trip, a vacation for a lifetime. We figured $5,000 ought to do it. Disney, maybe. Someplace nice before treatment began. Someplace Oren and Beth and their beautiful son and daughter could go and laugh and love and just be, if only for a while.

Our brother Brent Almond posted the online fundraiser on the crowd-funding site, Giveforward.com, at the suggestion of another brother, Jim Higley. These are remarkable human beings. These are my brothers. Oren’s brothers.

Brent posted it late on a Thursday night, the Thursday before Father’s Day, with no fanfare or social media promotion. By mid-morning Friday, the goal had been eclipsed and the total pledged was approaching $10,000.

Eventually, it would surpass $35,000. That was the power of this brotherhood, the power of a group of creative fathers from around the world whose primary connection was a Facebook group started by an unassuming, quiet, Israeli-born Marylander named Oren Miller.

“So crazy, it just might work.”

That is the group’s tagline. It started with about 30 fathers in December 2012. I was among them.

As of this writing, there are 1,047 members from nearly every state in the U.S., nearly every continent on the planet.

There are stay-at-home dads, single dads, old dads, young dads, married dads, divorced dads, gay dads, granddads. There are dads who draw, dads who paint, dads who create video, dads who make crazy lunches, dads who take photos, dads who write and dads who sing.

There are conservative dads, liberal dads, black dads, Asian dads, white dads, and dads of just about every ethnic and religious persuasion you can imagine. We fight and cry, love and learn from one another.

Once a year, we get together at Dad 2.0 Summit. That’s where I met Oren in person for the first time, in Houston. I can’t believe that was only two years ago.

He and I had exchanged excited messages about how we were going to try to expand the Facebook group while we were in Houston. Could we reach 100 members? Who did we want to ask?

Anyone and everyone. That’s who. All were invited.

Are you a dad? Do you have a blog?

You’re in.

One thing, though: “Don’t be a dick.”

It’s Oren’s only real rule for the group. Pretty reasonable, if you ask me.

Now, two years after he wondered if we could reach triple digits in the group, a scholarship fund bearing his name enables some of his brothers to go to Dad 2.0 every year. Six bloggers were awarded the scholarship this time around. It is a powerful, permanent testament to what he means to our community.

And so, the group of brothers who came together out of that initial experiment rose up when Oren needed us and raised tens of thousands of dollars for his family. I wish it could be more. It should be more. Please help make it more by donating here: Give Back to Oren.

One day this past summer, Whit Honea and I were talking on the phone about Oren and the group and how sad it was that Oren had cancer but what an incredible thing it was to see the group come together for that cause with such effect.

If we could do that for one of our own, looking inward, we thought, why couldn’t that energy and spirit be turned outward? Why couldn’t we band together, brothers from around the world, and try to make good things happen everywhere?

And so, thanks to Oren Miller and his loving brothers and all of those who contributed to the fundraiser, Dads 4 Change was born.

All we want to do at Dads 4 Change is make the world a better place, to help our kids develop an appreciation for volunteerism and giving, to model good citizenship for them and hope they carry that message into the future. That’s all.

That’s Oren’s legacy for me. It also is a legacy of community, which is peace. In peace, our best selves emerge. Just don’t be a dick.

Context? Purpose? Order. There is none. What is happening is too sad and pointless, as meaningful as a flower, as full of purpose as a single raindrop, as random as a stalk of wheat in the breeze.

But he has shown me how to live. He has shown us all the meaning of grace and dignity. Outwardly, his humor has remained intact and as sharp as ever. He is Oren. Then, as now, my brother.

There is no context for this. There sure as hell is no purpose. It does matter, though. Oren Miller made me a better person, a better father. That matters. And I will always tell that story. Always.

Oren Miller

Oren Miller (far right) with some of our brothers at Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans, January 2014. Also pictured (L to R): Aaron Gouveia, John Willey, Fred Goodall, Vincent Daly.

I’ll leave you with this: a dancing chihuahua. I saw it first on Oren’s blog, a Blogger and a Father, and it was one of his favorites. I smile every time I see it. So does Oren. I hope you will, too.

happy dance

Nerf Guns and Nonsense

My older son peered through the blinds into our back yard, but made no move to join his friends.

His homework was finished and he was free to play until supper time. Yet, the Monday afternoon soccer game went on without him.

“Aren’t you going outside?” I said.

He turned away from the sliding glass door and shook his head.

“No,” he said. “Not today. I just don’t want to.”

Strange. He loves to play outside. I knew why this time was different.

“Is it because of the Nerf gun thing?” I said.

He nodded.

“A little bit,” he said.

He turned back to the sliding glass door and peered out at his friends playing soccer in our back yard. He wanted to be out there playing, too. Instead, he watched from the cover of the blinds.

_________________________

The Nerf gun thing. In our neighborhood, Nerf foam dart gun battles rage almost daily. There are Nerf assault rifles, Nerf sniper rifles, Nerf blasters, Nerf cross bows, Nerf cannons. The neighborhood lawns are littered with discharged and forgotten Nerf darts.

I don’t like Nerf foam dart guns. I don’t like guns, period. I don’t like watching kids pretend to shoot each other. I worry that they might become inured to violence, and I worry that a blue or orange Nerf dart might strike one of my kids or a neighbor kid in the eye and cause permanent damage.

Naturally, our kids have about a half-dozen Nerf guns.

We allow them to participate in these neighborhood foam dart battles, with the stipulation that they wear the protective goggles that came with one of their Nerf gun sets and that they don’t aim the Nerf guns at other kids’ heads.

The Nerf gun thing that kept my son inside peering through the blinds instead of running around outside on the brown winter grass had its origins in a bicycle race over the weekend. A race my son lost to two other kids, both of whom are older, bigger, stronger and faster than my third grader.

Before that bike race around the block, one of the older kids – a good kid, a kid we know – announced that the race loser would be subjected to an undefended barrage of Nerf darts shot at him point-blank by the other two race participants.

In essence: a Nerf gun firing squad.

Our son told us Sunday night about his scheduled next-day “punishment” for losing the bike race. His mom and I told him there would be no Nerf gun firing squad. He would have to tell the other kids it’s not going to happen.

We left it at that, but we both woke up thinking about it the next morning. My wife called me on her way to work and we talked about it.

Was this a case of bullying behavior? Was it just “kids being kids?” How can parents tell the difference? What should we do about it?

In the moment, shortly after he informed us about the kid-manufactured consequences of losing that bike race, we told our son to stand up to the other boys if they tried to get him to “take his punishment.”

But were we sure he knew how to do that?

My wife and I decided that it wasn’t a case of repetitive bullying behavior, based on what we know about the kids involved and our son’s relationship with them. These kids are a grade or two ahead of our son, but we know them. They’re generally nice kids, not mean-spirited, and our son enjoys their company.

Still, it’s not easy to say no to friends. We wanted to make sure our son was equipped with the words he needed to gracefully minimize a potential conflict and prevent a potential long-term rift with his buddies. She and I talked about it and, together, made a plan of action we could suggest to him if it came up.

_________________________

Back at the blinds, our son was of two minds as he peered out: He longed to go out outside and play, but did not want to be shot at with Nerf dart guns.

I said, “You can go outside if you want to. Those guys might not even remember the bike race. But if they do, and they say something to you, do you know what to do?”

He nodded and said, “Yeah, come back inside.”

His expression told me he wouldn’t be happy with that outcome, so I was glad his mother and I had come up with a suggestion.

“Well, sure, you could do that,” I said. “Or you could look right at them and say, ‘That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to stand here and let you shoot me with Nerf guns. Let’s just play soccer.’”

Then I said, “Let me know if that doesn’t work.”

He thought about it for a few seconds, then reached for his fleece pullover.

“OK,” he said. “I’m going outside.”

I resisted the temptation to watch him through the blinds. I’m not against keeping a close eye on my kids, but this was one time I felt like he needed some space. I figured if he needed me, he’d come get me.

An hour later, he came in for supper. I asked him as casually as I could if the Nerf gun thing had come up. He said it had.

“Oh?” I said. “And what happened?”

“I told them it was just nonsense and to keep playing soccer,” he said.

I smiled and repeated, “Nonsense?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I forgot the other word you told me, but I like nonsense better, anyway.”

I told him I liked it better, too, and asked how his friends had taken it.

“We just started playing soccer again,” he said.

I told him I was proud of him.

I liked that he was not intimidated by his older friends into going along with a bad idea.

I liked that he found the fortitude to face his apprehension.

I liked that he accepted – and improved upon – the plan of action his mother and I devised to help him.

I loved that our son learned something about his own strength of will. And, even though he lost that bike race, he defeated his own uncertainty and managed a difficult situation with words and with grace.

 

My 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot

Here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know about newly elected Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson. The tall left-hander had a losing record against three teams in his distinguished career.

The Yankees (6-8) were one. The Mets (6-7) were another.

The third?

The … um … Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

The Big Unit, one of the 10 best pitchers ever, winner of five Cy Young Awards, the all-time leader in strikeouts per nine innings (10.6) … that guy went 3-5 with a 5.43 ERA in 11 starts against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from 1998-2006. The Rays averaged 97 losses during that time span, which happened also to be a time when I covered the team for the Tampa Tribune.

OK, here’s why I bring up the fact that Johnson – as deserving a first-ballot Hall of Famer as you’ll find – was generally pretty bad against the Rays, especially after going 2-1 with a 1.50 ERA in three starts against Tampa Bay’s inaugural team in ‘98. I bring it up to illustrate the point that baseball statistics are only useful and revelatory in the proper context.

Also, to remind you that all baseball players are fallible.

Very good baseball players make us forgive their failures. Great players make us forgive and forget their failures. Hall of Famers make us remember and celebrate their triumphs.

Does it matter, really, that one of the greatest pitchers ever struggled mightily against one of the worst teams of the 1990s and 2000s? Not today.

Today, we remember the glare, the intimidation, the menacing mound presence, the mullet. Today, we remember why he was called the Big Unit.

Today, Randy Johnson is an elected Hall of Famer, along with contemporaries Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio.

Today, we remember and celebrate their triumphs, ever mindful that none of them were even close to perfect, yet knowing that, for a time, they were the best of the best at what they did.

This was my seventh year participating as a voter in baseball’s Hall of Fame balloting. I earned that privilege as a member of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America from 1999-2009, and I currently hold honorary member status.

I take the privilege seriously. Every year I evaluate the new candidates and re-evaluate the holdover candidates, even the players I voted for previously. There are no automatic selections on my ballot, ever.

That said, once I have decided that I consider a player a Hall of Famer, I vote for him. It never has made sense to me to leave a deserving player off my ballot because he hasn’t waited “long enough.”

No Barry Bonds. No Roger Clemens. No Mark McGwire. No Sammy Sosa. As players, they excelled. They put up the numbers and won the awards. They fall short for me because of the character/integrity/sportsmanship clause in the voting rules.

My thoughts on voting (or not voting) for candidates suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs (PED) are documented here: This Game’s Fun, OK? Baseball’s Hall of Fame Conundrum.

My ballot from last year can be found here: My 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot.

Further thoughts about the clause that stipulates voters must take into account sportsmanship, integrity and character during the voting process can be found here: If Only Integrity, Sportsmanship and Character Did Not Count in Hall of Fame Voting.

And here are the players I voted for this year:

Voters are allowed to select a maximum of 10 candidates. As you can see, I voted for nine, including six holdovers from last year’s ballot: Bagwell, Biggio, Edgar, McGriff, Piazza and Smith.

At some point in their careers, the three first-year candidates I selected arguably could be considered the best pitchers in their respective leagues. That statement is not likely to brook much argument when it comes to Pedro and Johnson, but it also applies to Smoltz, who from 1995-1999 was as dominant as any starting pitcher in the game.

A quick word about my borderline players: Mike Mussina, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell. I strongly re-evaluated their candidacies this year, particularly Mussina. I thought this might be the year that I deviated from my philosophy of deciding that if a player is a Hall of Famer, there is no reason for him to wait.

I gave all three a lot of consideration, and concluded once more that while all three were clearly great players, they didn’t quite make the Hall of Fame cut for me. There was no one, glaring reason why not for any of them.

Rather, as I considered their candidacies again – frankly, as I looked hard for reasons to include them – I could not convince myself that they were Hall of Fame caliber. I reserve the right to be wrong in my assessment (I didn’t vote for Barry Larkin or Andre Dawson, after all). I’m sure they’ll all draw the requisite votes to carry them over to next year’s ballot, and I will begin the evaluation process anew.

For now, though, I’m as satisfied as I can be that the nine players I selected deserved my vote. I look forward to next year, when the first-year candidates will include Ken Griffey Jr. and Trevor Hoffman.

I also hope that the voting process can continue to move toward clarity. I hate that the character/integrity/sportsmanship rule means we, as voters, must act as moral arbiters for baseball’s highest honor after an era when the game itself was tainted by steroids.

But that’s part of it, and I consider it an obligation to participate as well as I can, to conduct the research as thoroughly as possible and to present my conclusions with the utmost respect for the players and the game. I’ll continue to do so as long as they’ll have me.

I’ll leave you with a YouTube video of one of the best All-Star Game moments ever: the Big Unit  striking out terrified Phillies first baseman John Kruk.

 

What’s Important

What’s important?

It’s a question. The question, really. It’s also an imperative statement reminding you to recognize and acknowledge something you ought to appreciate in the moment.

I’m thinking about what’s important. Do you know?

These things we write. These stories we tell. This used to seem important. It might have been, sometimes. I’m not sure anymore.

Now, on a bright Sunday afternoon, I sit on the couch with a football game on TV and watch my older son skip in and out of the house. He’s outside in the November sunshine playing with friends. He’s inside getting a cold drink of water.

I watch him from the couch. He comes in through the sliding glass door and reaches up on tiptoe to retrieve a plastic cup out of the cabinet. He is not tall enough yet for this act to be performed casually. It takes effort, this reaching up. On tiptoe, nothing is easy.

He gets the plastic cup and opens the refrigerator. I hear filtered water pour into the cup.

I watch him, and he sees me watching him. I don’t say a word while he finishes drinking his water. He puts the cup on the kitchen table and, before he heads back outside, he walks with a purpose across the family room toward me.

He grabs me in a hug and kisses me on top of my head. He kisses me again, then pats me on the head.

“I love you, dad,” he says.

“I love you too, bud,” I say.

And just like that, he’s back outside running in the sun, playing soccer with his friends in our back yard.

Was that important? Did it matter?

Do you care? Probably not. Nor should you. It’s my life. It’s my memory. You have your own.

Of course I care. It was one significant exchange during a languid weekend that will be otherwise remembered, if it is remembered at all, for a visit by my wife’s sister from Massachusetts. The sisters spent Saturday night away while the boys and I hung out and watched Shrek.

Did that matter just now when you read the title of the movie we watched Saturday night? Was that important?

It was a detail, a small dash of color. I might have said we watched “something” on TV, or we played board games. Maybe we went to the beach and lit a bonfire and drank Jack Daniels all night while surf fishing for the giant hammerhead shark that patrols the Gulf of Mexico just off Tampa Bay. Maybe that was someone else, or us in the future. Or maybe it never happened and never will happen.

Does it matter?

What’s important?

Right now, my wife and two sons are hunched over a toy circuit board on the family room floor. The TV is turned on — halftime of a Carolina basketball game. It’s muted. As I tap away at a blog post on my laptop, they fiddle with the circuits. A doorbell, a Morse code signal box.

“We got this light working,” she says. “How come nothing else is working, though?”

They’ll figure it out.

But so what if they don’t?

Does it matter?

What’s important?

I feel like whatever it is, I can almost reach it. It’s right there on the lowest shelf in the cabinet. All I need to do is reach a bit higher. I’ll get it if I keep reaching. Just a little farther.

And you’re watching. I see you watching. But I’m reaching, up on tiptoe, where nothing is easy. When I find it, I’ll let it soak in for a good, long time. I won’t let it go until I know the answer. And then I’ll come to you, if you’re still watching, and I’ll grab you in a hug.

I’ll kiss you on top of your head and kiss you again. Then I’ll go outside to run in the sun, where nothing matters but the grass and the trees and the laughter of children under the bright, blue sky.

 

 

 

 

 

Food, Wine and a Day in the Sun

DayInTheSun

One year later, we walked around the world together. The light kissed our cheeks and the breeze tossed our hair. It was a cool day, a good day. A day of food, a day of wine. A day together in the sun.

Epcot’s 2014 International Food and Wine Festival has come and gone. We were there late in the process, a week or so before the finale. It was a cool Saturday, a bit windy. It’s not often we get a taste of autumn around here, even on the day after Halloween.

 

This was a day for us. It was a day to enjoy the cool temperature, a day to feel young.

We began the morning at the Magic Kingdom, showing up at rope drop, eager to get started, impatient to taste our freedom. Our feet barely touched Main Street USA as we dashed to the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The wait in line already was officially an hour, but we boarded in 37 minutes. It was fun.

That night, a fireworks accident set the ride on fire. No one was injured, and it re-opened an hour later.

We rode the Mine Train, then walked onto the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. We thought about Starbucks on the way out, but the line for $6 coffee was longer — by far — than the lines for Mansion and Pirates. So we found seats on the monorail and headed to Epcot.

The two tickets issued by Disney public relations (for review purposes) were park hoppers. That gave us the run of the place, basically, for a day. Why not take it all in, we figured? Why not go for a three-park day?

That would be too much, as it turned out. We would later decide to forgo Hollywood Studios, but that was the beauty of the day — we had options, and those options were limited only by our energy level and ambition.

Instead, we did something we could not have done if our sons had been with us. We ended our day at the Grand Floridian. More on that later.

Before we knew where we would end our day, there was a world to traverse.

We ate this:

What we ate at Food and Wine. 1) America: Fresh baked carrot cake with Craisins® and cream cheese icing; 2) Italy: Filetto di pollo, con funghi al marsala — Chicken tenderloin, cremini mushrooms, marsala sauce and ciabatta bread; 3) France: Boeuf bourguignon — Braised short ribs in cabernet with mashed potatoes and Gratin de crozets de Savoie — Wheat pasta gratin with mushrooms and Gruyere cheese; 4) Scotland: Vegetarian haggis with neeps and tatties — Griddled vegetable cake with rutabaga and mashed potatoes; 5) Poland: Kielbasa and potato pierogi with caramelized onions and sour cream; 6) Ireland: Warm chocolate pudding with Kerrygold Irish Cream Liqueur Custard (gluten free); 7) Ireland: Kerrygold® cheese selection — Reserve cheddar, Dubliner with Irish Stout and Skellig; 8) Grilled lamb chop with mint pesto and potato crunchies (gluten free); 9) Roast bratwurst in a pretzel roll, Schöfferhofer Grapefruit Hefeweizen beer.

What we ate at Food and Wine. 1) America: Fresh baked carrot cake with Craisins and cream cheese icing; 2) Italy: Filetto di pollo, con funghi al marsala — Chicken tenderloin, cremini mushrooms, marsala sauce and ciabatta bread; 3) France: Boeuf bourguignon — Braised short ribs in cabernet with mashed potatoes; and Gratin de crozets de Savoie — Wheat pasta gratin with mushrooms and Gruyere cheese; 4) Scotland: Vegetarian haggis with neeps and tatties — Griddled vegetable cake with rutabaga and mashed potatoes; 5) Poland: Kielbasa and potato pierogi with caramelized onions and sour cream; 6) Ireland: Warm chocolate pudding with Kerrygold Irish Cream Liqueur Custard (gluten free); 7) Ireland: Kerrygold cheese selection — Reserve cheddar, Dubliner with Irish Stout and Skellig; 8) Australia: Grilled lamb chop with mint pesto and potato crunchies (gluten free); 9) Germany: Roast bratwurst in a pretzel roll, Schöfferhofer Grapefruit Hefeweizen beer.

While still at the Magic Kingdom earlier that morning, we attached our daily tickets to our My Disney Experience account and secured a Fastpass+ reservation for Soarin’ at Epcot. We landed the 1:25-2:25 p.m. hour, which melded well with our goal of eating our way around the world at a leisurely pace.

At 11 a.m., when the festival kicked off in earnest at World Showcase, we had the place virtually to ourselves. There were no lines at any of the kiosks, which gave us the luxury to stroll from country to country and consider our many options.

Scotland was first. Vegetarian haggis — basically, turkey stuffing with delicious spices. Through Canada, where filet mignon from le Cellier would eventually draw some of the longest lines of the day (Mexico, with its ribeye taco, and Belgium, with its waffles, would rival Canada for line length).

On past the United Kingdom and into France. Around the world we walked. Morocco, Japan, America (.38 Special was on stage that night, but we would miss it). Italy. We paused and watched the shadows shorten from the stairs overlooking the lagoon.

There, I saw my wife as if for the first time, as if she and I were strangers in Venice, thrown together by fate and food. You ever experience that? A moment of revival. The veil of daily life falls away and life is new again, if only for a minute.

That’s what happened when I saw her sitting there on those steps by the water in Italy. She sat on the steps, framed by blue sky and dense greenery. The autumn sun peeked over her left shoulder and teased her shadow toward Spaceship Earth across the lagoon. The breeze took her hair and she smiled. She smiled at me in that moment, there was no one-year anniversary to process, no birthday to celebrate, no crowd at Epcot.

There was her, and me, the sun and the food. 

We thought about our options. We were free to do whatever our hearts imagined, if what we imagined involved food, wine or themed rides. There was another thing we could do, and it was Beth’s idea — why not hop aboard the monorail and explore a Magic Kingdom resort?

The Contemporary was a thought, but it had to be the Grand Floridian. We bid farewell to Epcot, where the crowd had begun to thicken and the lines had begun to lengthen. We changed trains at the transportation center, moving easily from the Magic Kingdom-Epcot line to the resort line.

An outdoor balcony at the Grand Floridian. Ideal for rest, relaxation and one last Food and Wine Festival memory.

An outdoor balcony at the Grand Floridian. Ideal for rest, relaxation and one last Food and Wine Festival memory.

We walked off the monorail and into a Fitzgerald short story. The massive lobby was white, like diamonds piled on silk curtains. A live band played across the way. Patrons lounged and snoozed on the gilded furniture below.

At our window seat in Mizner’s Lounge, we shared our last hour over drinks and a delicious flatbread appetizer. We contemplated a return to the Magic Kingdom. Small World? Hall of Presidents? The night parade? Fireworks?

No. As tempting as it was to stay — it is always tempting to stay — it was time for our walk around the world to come to an end. We had seen what we wanted to see, eaten what we had wanted to eat, drank what we wanted to drink.

We had been who we needed to be, if only for a little while.

Our day in the sun was over. But we will be back in the spring, and it will still be there.

 

 

 

 

A Quick Joe Maddon Story

Joe Maddon’s mind doesn’t work like yours and mine.

There is high intelligence. There is wit. There is humor. There is flexibility. There is nuance. There also is a stubborn streak that served him well with the Tampa Bay Rays.

I don’t believe I’ve ever been around someone who so deftly combines those traits with an uncanny ability to recall memories, down to the slightest detail, and have them at his disposal whenever he needed to make a point or reinforce a seemingly outlandish statement.

He’s through with the Rays after nine years, which is a little hard to believe right now.

It was one of the great pleasures of my career to be able to know Maddon for a while.

I was there, in my role as a baseball writer for the Tampa Tribune, during the early years. In 2006 and 2007, when the Rays were still be-Deviled, Maddon said all the right things. Even as Tampa Bay stumbled to awful seasons, and even though it looked much the same as it had under previous managers, Maddon never wavered.

Things were getting better, he said. There was an organizational plan, he insisted. The Rays Way of playing the game would one day take hold, was already taking hold, and soon we all would witness a real transformation on the field.

He said these things so often, and with such conviction, that I sometimes wondered about his grasp on reality. To that, I’m sure he would respond: “So do I sometimes.”

It’s all coming back to me now: the crazy road trip dress-up days, the wild defensive shifts based on statistical probability, the unwillingness to publicly criticize his players individually, the occasionally myopic-seeming optimism.

Maddon was right, of course. The Rays did turn into contenders, becoming a model franchise under the guidance of vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and Maddon.

Now? Friedman is gone, lured away by the Dodgers. Maddon is gone, choosing to leave when he was unable to reach an equitable agreement on a contract extension. I wonder if what they built will endure.

I guess we’ll find out. I sincerely hope that things don’t go back to the way they were before. The Tampa Bay area doesn’t deserve that. I believe owner Stu Sternberg and president of baseball operations Matt Silverman know what they’re doing. They’ve earned a lot of trust, just as Friedman and Maddon did.

Yet, it’s going to take some time to get used to the Rays without Andrew and Joe. It’ll be weird for a while.

Meanwhile, I’ll share a personal anecdote that gives you a small glimpse into Joe Maddon’s decency.

In 2006, on a visit to Fenway Park, my father-in-law was with a group of his clients on the field next to the visitors dugout during batting practice. He had leased the Legends Suite, and this was one of the perks.

After the writers were done with Maddon’s daily briefing in the dugout, I took the liberty of asking Joe if he had a second to say hello to my father-in-law. He said sure, and we walked up the steps to the roped-off area where they kept the fans on the field during pregame activities.

I introduced my father-in-law to the Tampa Bay manager, who proceeded to shake hands and pose for photos with every member of my father-in-law’s party. Joe spent 10 minutes with the group, and I scored major points with my wife’s dad.

That is only one, small, personal example of Joe’s kindness. His philanthropic efforts in the Tampa Bay area already are legendary. I hope he keeps Thanksmas going.

You’ll want to remember Maddon, Rays fans. Remember him, and appreciate him. His love of good wine, his unorthodox managing methods, the twinkle in his eye as he answered questions, his erudite approach to the game and life — we had it good with Joe Maddon.

We had it real good. Some team somewhere is about to get a Hall of Fame-caliber skipper.

 

 

Harry Potter and thrills galore set Universal apart

Universal Studios

The highlight of our visit to Universal Orlando Resort was walking into a masterful recreation of Diagon Alley, the crowning achievement of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Before I get into the amazing experience we had during our Facing Fears Together visit to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure earlier this month, I need to put this whole Harry Potter thing into perspective.

We are a family of readers. By that, I mean we enjoy sitting (or lying) down with a good book and getting lost in the pages (or, these days, the digital representation of pages on my iPad Kindle or Nook apps).

Beth and I bonded over the Harry Potter series. How obsessed were we?

In the summer of 2005, we knew the sixth book in the Harry Potter series would be released during our visit to Charleston, S.C., with my mom and dad. So, we pre-ordered the Half-Blood Prince for pick up at a little book store on Meeting Street around the corner from our hotel.

Oh, and we ordered two copies, because we knew that neither of us would want to wait while the other plowed through the pages. This was during a long weekend in one of the coolest walking cities in America.

We spent a good portion of that trip to Charleston imagining ourselves roaming the halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Even as we took the ferry out to Fort Sumter, we itched to get back to the room and read.

That should give you a pretty good idea where things stand for us when it came time to step into Diagon Alley for the first time.

I was prepared to be mesmerized. Universal Studios did not disappoint.

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First, though, there were other thrills to experience, other rides to ride.

I think my new favorite roller coaster in Florida just might be Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, a 17-story, 65-mph rocket that allows you to create a music video of your ride using music of your choice (I chose Camouflage by the Beastie Boys). It was one of the first things we did with the party of bloggers and their friends and/or family members put together by Toni and Mellisa from Two Traveling Moms.

We also had our insides pureed at Universal Studios on Transformers, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and Revenge of the Mummy. Later, at Islands of Adventure, we ate an incredible lunch at Mythos, acknowledged as the top theme park restaurant in the world by Theme Park Insider from 2003-09.

Islands of Adventure

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The castle looks so real, I half expect to see Harry come flying in on a broomstick.

At Islands of Adventure, we also rode the Incredible Hulk, the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, Jurassic Park River Adventure and the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride.

It was all great, the kinds of thrills and wonderful experiences that help put Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure on a world-class level. The proximity of Walt Disney World, Legoland Florida and Sea World demand that of Universal Orlando, anyway.

What takes the two Universal parks into a unique realm, at least in my view, is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Hogsmeade, the Dragon Challenge, Flight of the Hippogriff and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey came to Islands of Adventure in the summer of 2010. It gave J.K. Rowling fans the chance to experience what it’s like to move through real-life versions of the locations made famous in the books and movies.

Then, this year, Universal Studios’ Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express were added.

It’s a game changer on Florida’s theme park landscape. While Disney made great strides with the New Fantasy Land facelift last year, nothing I’ve seen in any theme park anywhere compared to the experience of walking into a place that brought to life a setting I’ve only imagined or seen represented on screen.

Universal Orlando

Once through the brick wall maze coming in from “muggle” London, the view is … well, magical.

Diagon Alley in the books and movies is one of the best-conceived settings in kid literature. In the Sorcerer’s Stone, it provided Harry’s first, true immersion into the world of magic. Everywhere he turned was something new and delightfully fascinating.

Later, it served as a setting for major plot elements. That new and amazing place of the first book eventually became a place of warmth and familiarity for Harry — and for us, the readers.

The detail of Diagon Alley is spectacular. Anyone who loves the books and movies like we do will feel transported.

Universal Orlando

A spectacular light fixture, part of the interior of Gringotts at Diagon Alley.

There were many highlights, but the Escape from Gringotts ride took the prize. Frankly, even though the ride itself is fantastic (it’s like you’re inside a wild, magical 3D movie), the re-creation of the interior of Gringotts was what put it over the top for me.

Small but important details, like the painted advertisements on the brick facades throughout Diagon Alley, gave the place a “street-level” feel not even the books or movies could provide. I’ve included a few of my favorites in the accompanying slide show, and I urge you to check out the information available about the Wizarding World on the Universal Orlando’s website.

Because Beth was not able to accompany me on this Facing Fears Together couples trip, she suggested I invite our neighbor, Ken. He had been to Universal with his kids and loved it, but he had not had the chance to see any of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In fact, Ken — even though he has two kids that love to read and are Harry Potter fans — had never seen any of the movies or read even the first book.

He came into it as a Harry Potter newbie. While there, I repeatedly expressed my amazement with how real it all seemed. Ken was impressed at the time, too, but he lacked the perspective of a Harry Potter veteran.

That changed once we got back. He made a point of watching the Sorcerer’s Stone movie shortly after our return, and I got this text from him as he watched: “You weren’t kidding about Universal vs movie! Impressed!”

Exactly.

Disclosure: DadScribe was invited to the Facing Fears Together blogger event co-hosted by Two Traveling Moms and Universal Orlando Resort to review the theme parks, Halloween Horror Nights, Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Citywalk entertainment district. All opinions those of the author.

 

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Why We Should Care if CEO Dads Choose to be Engaged Parents

The thoughts and experiences of several CEO dads regarding work-family balance are detailed in a new article posted to TIME.

This quote from Ernst & Young’s Mark Weinberger sums up why it is important to tell the stories of these high-powered, high-stress, high-responsibility executives:

“You can have all the initiatives you want saying you can have flexibility, but until some of the real leaders make the choice to choose family, I don’t think people feel like they have real permission to do it.”

I agree with Weinberger, who told TIME about turning down the chance to take photos on top of the Great Wall of China after a recent speech because he had to board a plane to get back to the U.S. for his daughter’s driving test the next day. Weinberger added that he received many emails after that speech, all of which praised his commitment to fatherhood.

I am drawn to a story like this one, as well as the one I wrote last month for TODAY Parents about CEO Max Schireson reducing his work duties to be more “there” for his kids. The idea that millionaire men who are responsible for the growth and well-being of billion-dollar companies want the world to know they are engaged fathers resonates with me.

No, these guys don’t have to worry about paying for food or medical bills. They have the luxury to actually make decisions that will enable them to spend more time being dads, as opposed to working two or three jobs to make ends meet.

But that actually enhances their point. They have the choice, and they choose to make fatherhood a priority. Not merely the traditional, provider role of fatherhood. The vital role of being there, of engaging with their kids. As Schireson told me, “It’s not just about being there more. It’s about being ‘more there.'”

This is why it’s important to acknowledge these rich men who run these big companies but also are committed to being the best dads they can be. Because the more it becomes the norm for the men and women who are “big” bosses to make the right choices in terms of work-family priorities, the easier it will become for all of us to be “more there” for our kids.

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I am beginning my second week working out of our home. So far, so good. Last week, the boys seemed pleased to have me home in the afternoons, and I was more than pleased to be here for them.

We’re still making the adjustment, and I get the feeling that it will take more than a few days to figure it all out. Then, just as we figure it out, I imagine things will change again. We’ll adjust to that, too.

For now, I’ll meet them at the bus stop, get them settled into a routine that includes an afternoon snack and homework (not necessarily in that order) and juggle the responsibilities of writing and maintaining the household.

I’m no CEO, but this will do.

 

Ray Rice is a Jerk, but the NFL Doesn’t Care if You Boycott

Ray Rice – jerk. Simple enough. He cold-cocked his fiancé in a casino elevator. He’s out, cut from the Baltimore Ravens and, at least for now, banished from the NFL.

About that banishment, though: Took you long enough, Roger Goodell. Oh, and way to go with that whole two-game suspension thing.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m hearing rumblings that some fans of the NFL are so disgusted, they’re turning their backs on the game. Which … OK. But who are you hurting, really? Only yourself.

And that brings me to a Facebook message conversation I had this morning with my friend Aaron Gouveia, publisher of the Daddy Files. Aaron is a lifelong New England Patriots season ticket holder. He wanted to name both of his sons Tom Brady Gouveia, but opted for Will and Sam – one Mike short of a linebacker trio.

Parents want to be able to tell their kids the right things when it comes to athletes gone bad. Me? I just tell them that athletes are human, too, that some of them do bad things, and that just because they can run faster and do other incredible things on the field or court, it doesn’t mean they can’t fail at life.

Aaron seems to be feeling a little guilt, though. He was having a tough time reconciling his love for the NFL with feelings of disgust toward the way Goodell has bungled the Ray Rice case.

I tried to talk him down over the course of a half-hour Facebook conversation. Here is a slightly edited version of that back-and-forth, reprinted with Aaron’s permission. Enjoy this glimpse into a couple of twisted minds, each of whom was determined to get his point across on a complex issue:

Aaron Gouveia: I’m trying to work up a Ray Rice related column, but it keeps turning into the same thing – I am a hypocrite and I am part of the problem because I have no plans to stop watching football even though I know I should.

Carter Gaddis: Why? Why should you stop watching football?

AG: Because the NFL is clearly covering this up and covering their asses. They all but condoned domestic violence both with that 2-game suspension and by letting guys like (Ray) McDonald and (Greg) Hardy continue to play.

CG: So, speak out against the NFL’s domestic abuse policy. Why punish yourself? You love the game. You love the sport. You love the Patriots.

AG: I stopped buying Barilla pasta, would never set foot in a Chick-fil-a, etc. All because I don’t want to support a company with those warped morals. Yet I’m going to watch football.

CG: But you didn’t stop watching the Pats after Aaron Hernandez turned out to be a murderer.

AG: The Pats cut Aaron Hernandez immediately. They didn’t hesitate to make the right decision even before their hand was forced.

CG: I don’t think you can conflate the Chick-fil-a thing or Barilla thing with this. I’m with you on both of those things, by the way. But this is different because no one’s human rights are being infringed upon. There have always been criminals on our courts and our fields.

AG: These other teams are allowing known criminals to play. (Greg) Hardy was convicted for (crap’s) sake.

And Goodell is lying. He’s flat out lying.

CG: Call him out, then.

AG: That’s the problem. I can’t call him out and continue to support the product that makes him so powerful.

Season ticket holder, watching the games, buying a new jersey, purchasing the Red Zone channel.

“I’M SO MAD AT YOU!!! Now here’s my money.”

CG: You’re over-thinking it, though. This isn’t a human rights issue. You can enjoy the product and still rage against the policies.

AG: I can. But I don’t think doing that gives me any credibility. Because if I’m really that upset about it, I can rail against AND stop supporting it. Except I don’t want to.

CG: To turn your back on it would be extreme. And unrealistic. It wouldn’t prove anything.

AG: I think it would. It would prove that even a diehard NFL fan is so sick of what’s happening he quit the NFL altogether.

CG: The only one who suffers, the only one who cares, is you if you boycott the game.

AG: Exactly. Which is why the NFL never has to change because too many people feel like I do – they’re upset but not upset enough to walk away.

CG: Anyway. Change has happened, though. Drug policies. Safety policies.

AG: In name only.

CG: No, these are real changes.

AG: (Ray) McDonald was allowed to play after being arrested for beating his wife WHILE THE RAY RICE FIASCO WAS HAPPENING.

That’s not change.

Also, think about this …

If an NFL player goes out and levels his girlfriend in an elevator today, what happens?

6 games suspension.

CG: Nope. The Rice thing now has changed that. This is fluid.

AG: No. That’s the new policy. Went into effect 8/28.

CG: That is out the window.

AG: Hopefully, but not yet.

CG: Rice has been suspended indefinitely and kicked off his team. So … out the window.

AG: I know. But under the new rules created because of Ray Rice, the person who does this next is currently subject to 6 games for a first offense.

In the end, the only real way to tell the NFL consumers are fed up is to stop watching the games. Stop buying tickets. Stop purchasing jerseys. And unfortunately, I’m just not prepared to do that because I’ve gone to almost every Patriots home game since the age of 6. My dad has had season tickets for more than 40 years. Tickets I’ll one day inherit. Tickets I hope to pass down to my son, along with a love for the Patriots. So while I can shout my outrage to the heavens about how the NFL handles domestic violence among its players, I’ll be a hypocrite if I do anything short of walk away.

CG: Rage on, dude. Trust me, no one is going to think any less of you because you still want to watch football. If anything, criticism means more coming from a devoted fan of the sport. A dissenting voice inside is more effective than a voice in the wilderness.

Aaron Gouveia and me at Cape Cod this past August. He's a fiery New England sports fan, but the NFL's stupidity regarding Ray Rice and domestic violence is making him feel guilty about watching and supporting football.

Aaron Gouveia and me at Cape Cod this past August. He’s a fiery New England sports fan, but the NFL’s stupidity regarding Ray Rice and domestic violence is making him feel guilty about watching and supporting football.

Share Your Best Mushroom Recipes for a Chance to Win during #ShroomTember

Mushroom Council

September is National Mushroom Month, and the Mushroom Council and Life of Dad want you to share your greatest mushroom recipes for the chance to win a $500 Visa gift card.

My wife and I fell in love over a plate of mushroom salad at a local fondue restaurant. No fooling. We did.

Nothing says romance like a delicate pile of raw, thin-sliced and lightly seasoned mushrooms in a delicious salad, followed by cubes of French bread dipped in melted cheese on New Year’s Eve. We shared our first kiss that night. Pretty soon, we were married. Not long after that, our first son came along.

And we owe it all to mushrooms.

OK, maybe we don’t owe it all to mushrooms. But we do love them, and they have been a staple item on our weekly shopping list for years. I do most of the grocery shopping, and grabbing a carton of sliced baby bella mushrooms for sautéing and salads is down to muscle memory at this point.

The ultimate comfort food combo: brie cheese and baby bella mushrooms.

The ultimate comfort food combo: brie cheese and baby bella mushrooms.

Our family’s love of the hearty taste and meaty texture of mushrooms made me a natural for the Life of Dad ShroomTember celebration. September is National Mushroom Month, and the Mushroom Council has teamed with Life of Dad writers and “expert” chefs (like me!) to help stimulate your culinary imagination for creating easy-to-make, nutritious and delicious mushroom meals.

Plus, share your best ShroomTember recipes this month for a chance to win a $500 Visa gift card. There are three ways to enter, and the details are at the Life of Dad ShroomTember contest page. Here are the generalities:

Create an original mushroom-inspired recipe. It can highlight the simplicity of the mushroom (Week 1), the blendability of the mushroom (Week 2) or the deliciousness of one of America’s tailgate favorites, the mushroom burger (Week 3). Share a photo of your meal on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter using #ShroomTember and email it to MushroomCouncil@lifeofdad.com.

The winners will be chosen by the Mushroom Council based on creativity of the recipe, quality of the photo and how hungry it makes us!

Oh, and be sure to join me and Life of Dad on Sept. 23 for our ShroomTember Twitter party at 1 p.m. eastern time to learn about recipes and for a chance to win great prizes. Don’t forget to use the National Mushroom Month hashtag, #ShroomTember.

Meanwhile, here’s a little something mushroom-related that I dreamed up. It’s an example of the Simple Dinner category, which is live during Week 1 of the contest and runs through Sunday, Sept. 14.

I know it’s not winter quite yet, but cold weather weekends are right around the corner in many regions around the country. This easy meal will warm you and your family on chilly Saturday afternoons. I guarantee you’ll want to whip this up more than once during the winter months. It’s an example of how mushrooms are a great way to bring flavor and nutrition to the plate or bowl. For our family, mushrooms really are the ultimate comfort food. Enjoy!

photo (14)
Mushroom brie bisque a la Florida with baby bella and smoked Gouda grilled cheese on ciabatta bread

Mushroom brie bisque a la Florida

12-16 oz. mushrooms (baby bella, shiitake, pearl oyster), finely chopped

½ white onion, finely chopped

1 bay leaf

1 tbsp. ground black pepper

1 tbsp. sea salt

1 pinch oregano

1 pinch basil

1 pinch nutmeg

½ stick butter

5 cups chicken or vegetable stock

4 cups heavy cream

½-pound brie, hulled and cubed

2 tbsps. corn starch or all-purpose flour

2 tbsps. water to mix with corn starch or flour

Directions: In a large soup pot, melt butter over medium heat. Mix finely chopped mushrooms, onions and spices, then add to melted butter. Add bay leaf to melted butter/mushroom blend. Sauté butter/mushroom mixture for five minutes, or until moisture begins to evaporate from mushrooms. Mix in chicken or vegetable stock and heat on medium-low for 10 minutes. Stir in heavy cream and brie cubes. Whisk gently until cheese melts. Add corn starch or flour mixed with water. Remove bay leaf. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Avoid full boil. Season to taste. Serves 6-8 people.

Baby bella and smoked Gouda grilled cheese on ciabatta bread

Four slices bakery fresh ciabatta bread

Six-eight thin slices of baby bella mushrooms

One round slice of smoked Gouda cheese

Butter or margarine

1 pinch garlic salt

Directions: In a large non-stick skillet, lightly sauté baby bella mushroom slices with a tbsp. of butter and the garlic salt. Brush a light layer of butter on the outside of two slices of ciabatta bread. Cut the round Gouda slice into equal halves. Place one of the Gouda halves on an unbuttered side of one slice of bread. Place three-four sautéed mushroom slices on top of Gouda, and cover the mushrooms and Gouda with the other slice of ciabatta bread, buttered side out. Over medium heat in the skillet, grill the sandwich on both sides until the cheese begins to melt and the buttered side of the bread is golden brown. Repeat with the other two slices of bread, the second half of the Gouda slice and the rest of the sautéed mushrooms. Serves one-two.

Disclosure: I have partnered with Life of Dad, LLC for the #ShroomTember promotion. Sponsored by The Mushroom Council, the #ShroomTember promotion gives anybody the chance to win a $500 Visa gift card.

Life of Dad