Swing, Fail, Swing Again

Baseball

Stay focused. Stay relaxed. See the ball, hit the ball. Failure is inevitable. How you respond is up to you, and it can make all the difference.

We played ball out back on a makeshift miniature diamond I mowed into the high, early summer St. Augustine grass. The 8-year-old stepped to the foam-rubber home plate, batting lefty, knees bent just so, arms high but relaxed, head cocked toward the pitcher — me.

I wound up and tossed the ball softly in his direction.

It occurs to me that I was 17 when I became a sportswriter. Nine years older than this boy at the plate. I stepped into that life before my life had really begun, and had no real reason to regret it for two decades. But at the end, when it was over, it could only be classified as a failure.

The boy swung and missed. The swing was handsy, too much upper body, but there was purpose to it and his head and eyes were where they were supposed to be. That’s more than half the battle when you’re learning to hit a baseball. Watch the ball hit the bat. See it, hit it. He retrieved the ball and tossed it back.

How could a career as rewarding as mine be considered a failure? Because it didn’t end on my terms. Where did the fault lie? With me alone? With a newspaper industry in its dying throes? A combination? No matter. When I began that career, I intended for it to end many years from now, many games later, when I was too old to carry my computer bag into the press box. Didn’t happen that way. I failed.

I reminded him to focus on the ball, to keep his arms relaxed, to step toward me, pivot and turn his hips, throw his hands at the ball and explode into the swing. I pitched, he swung — and missed again.

Failure of that sort — mammoth, life-altering, frightening — can derail a man. You think you’re moving along toward a certain destination, surely, confidently. And then … it stops. Even if you sensed it coming, knew failure was inevitable, it stung. Worse, for the first time in your life, you didn’t know what came next.

The ball sailed over the shrub and the external AC unit as he swung and missed a second time. It was a bad pitch, a ball in any league, but at age 8 he still swings at anything and everything. He has not yet developed a discerning eye, a well-defined hitting zone. Every pitch is a promise. Every swing and miss is that promise broken. He dropped the bat and hustled after the ball again.

You didn’t know what came next, but you understood for the first time in your life that nothing was promised. Really understood that fact, not merely the theory. That there were dead ends. 

He found the ball in the high grass and tossed it back. Insects disturbed by the lawn mower began to crowd around us. He swatted at a bug in front of his face and stepped in for one last pitch from dad.

There are dead ends. Failure is inevitable. How you respond to that inevitability determines whether dead ends crack and split and branch off in promising new directions or stay dead ends. You choose your response. You choose to move forward. You choose. That’s what failure does for you, if you let it. If you let it.

This one came in under-handed, an acquiescence to physics and undeveloped, 8-year-old muscles. His eyes grew large as it arced toward the plate.

He stepped. He pivoted. He swung.

Cape Cod Days

Cape Cod 2006

Jay’s first trip to Cape Cod in 2006.

We’ll head back to Cape Cod for the fifth time as a family in a couple of weeks. Before we started going there (almost) every summer, I thought of Cape Cod as this exotic place. It was the Kennedys and lobster, sailing and lobster, summer theater and lobster, golf and lobster, lobster and lobster. There was also a deep link in history between my family and the Cape, but more about that curious connection in a minute.

The first time I went to Cape Cod with my wife was for her sister’s wedding in 2005. It took place at this incredible seaside resort built around two Gilded Age mansions perched on a bluff over the Atlantic. You would think that breath-taking setting would reinforce my pre-visit perception of Cape Cod. But I think in this respect, Cape Cod is like any other place you hear or read about a lot and mentally slot into a “mind’s eye” view. What you leave out in your imaginary vision of a place is what I call the street-level view. It’s like that in Las Vegas, where you imagine a never-ending line of magnificent casino resorts glittering in the desert, only to forget the space in between, where you’ll find nameless souvenir shops, outdoor bars, Walgreen’s, the McDonald’s, M&M’s World, 7-11, and the stream of people who wander up and down the sidewalks of Las Vegas Boulevard all day and night.

Cape Cod Light

THIS is how I always envisioned Cape Cod.

The street-level view at Cape Cod is defined by the forested stretch of Route 6, the main artery that runs the length of the Cape from Bourne to Provincetown. There is nothing remotely exotic about most of Route 6, also known as the Mid-Cape Highway. My first impression of Cape Cod was shaped by that drab drive along Route 6. I was expecting Cape Cod-style clapboard cottages, sweeping beachfront vistas, yacht slips and mansions. Instead, I saw trees. An apparently endless mass of trees to left and right for mile after mile after mile. Oh, but what those trees concealed. It turned out to be far more exhilarating than I imagined – and I can imagine some pretty exhilarating stuff.

So, we go back now just about every year. Jay was 8 months old the first time, and he tried to crawl up the beach to Boston. He didn’t quite make it.

First Encounter Beach

View of First Encounter Beach from the cottage.

MomScribe spent most of the summers of her youth at Cape Cod. It was just what her family did. When school got out, they shipped out of Westford, Mass., and settled down in the cottage in Eastham, situated about a quarter of a mile down-Cape from First Encounter Beach on the shore of Cape Cod Bay. They stayed for weeks, living the Cape life, working on their tans and appreciating the sunsets. The girls worked at an ice cream shop, or at Arnold’s – a well-known seafood, ice cream, and mini-golf spot along Route 6 between Eastham and Wellfleet. When it was time to go back to school, the family packed up and shipped north again. But the summers were spent on First Encounter Beach, where my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was among 20 passengers and crew members of the Mayflower to conduct a (bloodless) battle with Cape Cod’s Native Americans. His name was Stephen Hopkins, and he was a part of the third on-shore expedition that issued forth from the Mayflower as the future inhabitants of Plymouth Colony searched for a place to put down stakes. Others more famous than my 10G-grandfather were also there, including William Bradford and Myles Standish. Hopkins was included, we have decided, because he had been to the Jamestown settlement a decade earlier and was (ostensibly) familiar with the native inhabitants.

‘Stephen Hopkins’ at Plimoth Plantation.

In any case, the spot where Hopkins and the rest of the Mayflower force fired muskets and stood among the falling arrows of the Nauset Indians was named First Encounter Beach and would one day become the summer-time playground of my future wife. It is entirely fitting that a descendant of one of those intrepid Mayflower passengers should journey there with his family every summer for a week of eating lobster rolls, exploring the tidal pools, building sand castles and searching for the perfect Cape Cod cocktail (I favor a simple concoction of Captain Morgan and ginger ale).

There is another historical connection between my family and Eastham. Among the Plymouth settlers who left for the Outer Cape in the mid-1640s was Nicholas Snow, who came over a few years after the Mayflower and married Stephen’s daughter Constance Hopkins. Nicholas and Constance helped found Eastham, which was incorporated in 1651. Giles Hopkins, one of Stephen’s sons, also came along. The three of them are buried and memorialized now at the Cove Burial Ground on Route 6, located just north of the Orleans Rotary. Constance and Nicholas were my 9G-grandparents.

Constance Hopkins’ memorial at the Cove Burial Ground.

I took a photo of Constance’s headstone at the Cove Burial Ground on a Tuesday in August of 2007. The next day, MomScribe and I took a quick trip to pick up her grandmother in Connecticut. On the way, at my insistence, we stopped at Plimoth Plantation, the amazing living museum based on the original Plymouth Colony. There is a colonial village recreated in great detail from period maps, and it is “inhabited” by actors playing the roles of the colonists who would have been there in 1627. Of course, the first thing I wanted to see was the Stephen Hopkins house. We found it, and sure enough, there was a portly gent with a beard holding forth on a log chair across the dusty road from the Hopkins house. It was the faux Hopkins, who was something of a character in life, and we listened for a minute to the man portraying my 10G-grandfather before we ducked into the very small hut that served as their family dwelling.

Constance Hopkins, Plimoth Plantation

‘Constance Hopkins’ at Plimoth Plantation.

Inside, we found a young woman in period dress. It was Constance. I added her picture to the one already on my camera of her grave stone. The actors couldn’t break character, so it would’ve done no good to tell her of the strange circumstance of visiting her final resting place the day before. I don’t know if it would’ve meant anything to her, anyway. It meant a lot to me, though. It was one of those moments only Cape Cod could give me. I think about Constance every time I pass the Cove Burial Ground. That’s a big part of my street-level view of Cape Cod now, that surreal brush with the living past. I can’t wait to experience that again in a couple of weeks with MomScribe and the boys.

This time, when we cross the Sagamore Bridge (or the Bourne Bridge, whichever seems quicker at the time) and jump onto the Mid-Cape Highway, I’ll see those thick trees again. But I’ll also see the sunsets, and I’ll feel the breeze off Cape Cod Bay, and I’ll smell the fresh fish and burgers and hotdogs and veggies on the grill. I’ll taste that first cool sip of Captain-and-ginger ale, and I’ll hear the soft waves rolling in off the bay at high tide. I’ll think of the boys running and laughing along the beach, and I’ll remember all the days we’ve spent there already, and smile at the thought of all the Cape Cod days to come.

Cape Cod Sunset

Cape Cod sunset at low tide.

Cap Cod Baby

Jay almost made it to Boston. Almost.