September 16, 2016Sixteen Years Ago – Melancholic Memories – 53 Days
Australian. Volunteer. Fan. – 52 Days
16 September 2016
I’m less melancholy today but I still want to finish this story of how I went from politics, to baseball, and back to politics again, and back to baseball as a fan again.
I have three favourite stories from the Sydney Olympics. One connected me to Australia. One took years to play out. The last is just a quirk of fate.
Sydney was a city on a high for those two weeks in September 2000. The weather was stunning. The sport spectacular. People were just happy.
I went to the seven USA round-robin games plus the semi-finals, the bronze and gold medal games.
The most fortuitous moment for me came on a train ride back to the city after one of the games. I fell into conversation with Tom Nicholson, then director of MLB operations in Australia and Oceania. I told him a bit about my background and, as I was then a student, asked about an internship. I would end up working for him for 14 years.
But that’s not one of my three favourite stories.
The first happened on the night of 25 September when I was at The Oaks Hotel in Neutral Bay to watch Cathy Freeman run.
Catherine, as she prefers now, is an Aboriginal woman from northern Queensland. Relations between indigenous Australians and the White dominated non-Aboriginal majority have always been difficult. Sometimes horrifyingly, murderously, genocidal, shockingly, terrible. Sometimes just tough and uncomfortable.
In 2000 Cathy Freeman was 27 years old and favoured to win her race. She carried the weight of all Australians who were hungry for something promising – even something symbolic – in the country’s herky-jerky start-stop movement towards reconciliation.
In the bar, as the TVs showed her and the other runners taking their marks – silence fell, nervous electric silence. It felt like the emotion of the moment stretched in every direction and encompassed the whole country.
They were off. Some viewers held their breath, others whispered their encouragement. In the stadium the 100,000 plus on hand roared, willing her on. At the Oaks, as she pulled ahead after the final turn and crossed two strides ahead of the silver medallist there were whoops and claps and tears.
Lots of people have written a lot of words about that race and its importance or lack of importance. I don’t really have much to add other than to say I was there. I was in Sydney when Cathy Freeman ran. I felt what that felt like to be there and that was a big step on my path to belonging in Australia.
It remains my favourite sporting moment ever.
The following night my friend Laura and I were watching the US play South Korea in a semi-final baseball game. It was tied in the 8th when rain began to fall and the game was delayed. We found the coffee cart and there we fell into conversation with a couple of guys scouting for the Arizona Diamondbacks. One was their Australian scout, John Wadsworth, and the other their director of scouting, Mike Rizzo.
We chatted about baseball and Chicago and life in Australia and whatever else. Eventually the game resumed and we, and about 15 other people who had stuck it out, watched the USA plate the walk-off winning run in the bottom of the 9th.
We travelled back into town together, had a few drinks, became friends and, off-and-on, have maintained that friendship ever since.
This would be the quirk of fate story. I’ll come back to this in a minute.
The final favourite story I didn’t know anything about at the time, and it really only became a great story years later.
On the evening of 27 September the United States squared off against Cuba in the Gold Medal game. Ben Sheets threw a complete game and the United States won their first ever Olympic Gold in baseball (strange but true – this was the first Olympics where MLB allowed minor leaguers to play; baseball has only been played in five Olympics.)
In the usual way, both teams had bat boys. These kids were selected from among local players. Rich Thompson, 16, was in the Cuban dugout and Trent Oeltjen, 17, was helping Team USA
Both would go on to play in the Major Leagues, becoming the 25th (2007) and 27th (2010) Australians to do so, respectively.
Their journeys in some ways paralleled mine. I began working for MLB in the 2001 season. Pretty quickly I stopped following my teams (Cubs and Orioles) because I was following the Australians – they became my team. There were always a couple dozen of them slogging away in the minor leagues, maybe a few in any season in the Big Leagues.
Rich Thompson, for one, was a kid I met when he was a wide-eyed 18-year old just signed by the Angels. His MLB debut, like those of most of the Australians over those 15 years I was with MLB, was emotional for me. I was invested in these kids and hoped like hell that each and every one of them would succeed.
Working in the game meant watching games wasn’t just for joy, but reminded me of work. So I drifted away from being a fan.
That’s how the twist of fate comes in. Mike Rizzo, who I met in the rain delay of the semi-final, is now the General Manager of the Washington Nationals. And still a friend.
So last October while I was travelling I passed through Washington DC and was able to have lunch with him. We’d not seen each other in 15 years or so but emailed once or twice a year. Reconnecting this way, well, I started paying attention to what he and his team were doing.
It was the off-season so I followed the trades and the free-agent signings. Started to get to know a bit about their players and enjoyed the building excitement of Spring Training – as something pure and simple and pleasurable – for the first time in a very long time.
When it became clear the Republicans were nominating a fascist as their standard-bearer I began thinking of coming over to help Hillary win. Virginia, I thought, Virginia will be important. Virginia will be a good place to help. And Virginia is just across the river from Nationals Park.
It’s been great, coming back to baseball as a fan. I know this club as well as any I’ve ever followed. I’m loving watching them play. They are better than any team I’ve ever followed – it’s exciting and fun.
I’ve been to a few games since I’ve been here – some on my own. I’ve been reminded how much I love going to baseball games by myself – it’s like three hours of perfect mindfulness for me. I can really just be present with the game not thinking too much about other stuff.
Politics, baseball, politics, baseball … what funny threads to have running through my life.
What, then does this long tale of the Olympics have to do with this election and my role in the campaign?
Well, I think it’s a tale of coming and going and about the rising and falling of passions in life.
I feel like I’ve come back to baseball and politics in a really pure, basic, simple way. I’m a fan. I’m a volunteer.
Tomorrow I’ll wake and devote my day to helping Hillary and my evening to cheering on the Nats. It’s not making me any money but it’s a good space to be in.
When I’m not feeling all melancholy that is.