Win it for Carlos

I believe in God.

Yes, I believe in destiny.

I am a growing anomaly in a secular society with an answer for everything that fits in our back pocket.

But I am also a romantic; a man who lives for the underlying story. Tales of synchronicity that cannot be explained.
Improbable and impossible ironies.
Magical moments that raise the hair on your arm.

We live in a world void of magic.
Void of faith.
An age of facts and happenstance.
Chance.
At best, we get serendipity.
Divine intervention? Providence? Don’t even think about it.
Nietzsche was wrong, God isn’t dead.
But we like to pretend He is.

When I was abroad studying in a graduate program, a professor openly mocked the concept of angels and people who believe in them. All of my classmates laughed.

I didn’t.

I believe in angels.
I am from the city of angels.

I once read that “it is right to chide a man for being blind to divine coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.”
The passage struck a chord, so I took it with me.

Thankfully, there is a sport for people like me. A game where rituals and pre-game ceremonies thrive in abundance. A sport where grown men wear dirty socks and grow hideous beards for good luck. Bats are licked, bubbles are blown and coaches are kissed all in the name of superstition.

Baseball.

The game’s best, Clayton Kershaw, is a man of superstition and faith.
Every fifth day Kershaw eats the same meal (cereal, fruit, and a sandwich), warms up with the same amount of pitches (34), walks to the dugout at the same time (8 minutes before first pitch) and uses the same tattered glove he’s owned since he became a Dodger.

He also cites his faith as the most important thing in his life. Kershaw is not alone in his religious convictions. Next time you watch a game, pay close attention. Watch as the hitter steps into the batter’s box and blesses himself with the sign of the cross.
Nothing makes me happier.

The era of advanced statistics and saber metrics in baseball has arrived, but the element of the non-quantifiable will always survive.

My family bleeds Dodger Blue.

Anyone who knows a Polanco knows where his loyalty lies when it comes to the diamond. But our allegiance transcends the sport. It is our passion, our identity. We have a dog named Koufax and worship Vin Scully. When my mother passed away, Steve Garvey called to extend his condolences.

We.

Bleed.

Blue.

The Dodgers’ magical 2017 season continued on Tuesday night with our first berth to the World Series in 29 years. The first since Gibson limped to the box and fist pumped his way around the bases of Blue Heaven on Earth. Our family was elated, exchanging text messages throughout the week to keep in contact with a group spread across the country.

In the midst of the excitement hovered heartache as our minds turned to beloved family members who were no longer with us. Uncles, brothers, sons and mothers who had cheered with us for years. We finally made it, we thought, if only they were here to see. For me, and for most of my family, one name rose above the rest… Carlos.

My Uncle Carlos was different.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia midway through high school, my uncle was frozen in time. He forever lived in the era of Garvey and Lopes, a time when he excelled in sports and got all the girls. The age of Aqua Net, Stacy Q and cruising Whittier Boulevard. A day didn’t pass without him mentioning his Volkswagen bug and the “pretty girl with big boobs” he kissed driving through the hills of Elysian Park. I forgot her name.

He loved Art Laboe, hamburgers, and adored his family. But above all, he worshipped the Dodgers.

For most of my life my uncle’s condition was stable. Often, the only manifestations of his illness were visible through small quirks and hilarious commentaries. A poke to the shoulder here, a strange question there. His memory was surprisingly sharp, but he always mixed up details in the best of ways. In college, I had a girlfriend named Autumn. He would remember small particulars about our relationship, but could never get her name right.

“So, how’s Odom, bro? Does she still work at that pizza place?”

Lamar Odom was the power forward for the Lakers at the time. I would laugh and respond, “She’s great Tio, thanks for asking.”

To me, there was no better company. I loved driving to my grandmother’s house and watching games with my uncle. Out of selfishness, I never called before coming. The best moment was always ringing the bell and watching him run to the door with excitement through the fogged window.

“Aaron! I knew you would come!” he exclaimed as he hugged me, smelling of musky aftershave.

My abuelita would smile as I entered the living room, happy that I came over to spend time with her son. “Tienes hambre mijo?” She would ask in Spanish.
Siempre Abuela.
My grandmother would serve us mounds of hot, delicious food as we cheered for Matt Kemp and laughed at my uncle’s crazy stories.

The last time I saw my uncle was after an evening together at Dodger Stadium. The crowd was unusually large for a midweek game. As the fans roared with each hit, my uncle would stand, cup his hands around his mouth, and yell.

He laughed as he returned to his seat, “Bro,” he said, “you can yell anything you want, no one can hear you!” The next hit he stood up and yelled, “I’m Tony Montana, say hello to my little friend!”

He was a big Pacino fan.

I laughed and joined him, imploring the crowd to “say goodnight to the bad guy,” at the top of my lungs. That was my uncle Carlos. His quirkiness and child-like innocence had a way of injecting you with happiness.

We drove from the stadium to the sounds of eighties disco pop, dancing and happy after a Dodger victory. As my uncle opened the door to leave, he hugged me and said, “you’re a good nephew bro.” Two weeks later I got the worst call of my life and learned of his passing. Our family has never been the same.

We lost our levity.

We lost our lightness.

As the playoffs progressed, mentions of Carlos increased in my family’s group thread.
This one’s for Carlos!
Thinking of Charlie tonight!
We shared photos of my uncle, forever in his Dodger hat.
My aunt found an old picture of him in his little league jersey. I don’t need to tell you what team he was on.

Once the Dodgers clenched the pennant and ticket prices soared, the realization that most of us would be watching from home sunk in.
Fortunately, one member of the Polanco clan, my younger brother Daniel, secured a seat. He would serve as our family representative during the first World Series game played in Chavez Ravine for nearly three decades.

An hour before first pitch, Daniel messaged the group with a selfie from the stadium, wishing we were all there with him. Responses from aunts and uncles poured in.
How many Polanco’s can we fit in one seat!?
Let’s go Blue!
I sent a selfie from Minute Maid Park in Houston. I was in Texas for work and figured the Astros’ home turf would be the second best place to take in the game.
True fan right there!
Be careful Aaron!

My brother followed up by sending three words to the thread…

Oh my God.

What? I thought. Houston fans were mellow in comparison to the more deplorable sections of the Dodger fanbase. As I typed a response, another message from Daniel came through…

Guys! A representative of the Boys and Girls Club just threw out the first pitch. His name is…

CARLOS POLANCO!

Tears immediately filled my eyes as my phone began to vibrate uncontrollably. Streams of messages came in as my family members expressed their dismay.

I let it buzz.

As I sat in Minute Maid Park, surrounded by orange, my mind drifted to memories of my favorite Dodger fan. I heard his laugh and smelled his cheap aftershave. I was in disbelief. What are the odds? I thought. Perhaps my brother was mistaken. Midway through the second inning broadcaster Joe Buck confirmed my brother’s report.

‘Throwing out the first pitch tonight was the Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year,

Carlos Polanco.’

My uncle was watching the World Series after all. I cried like a baby. Right there in Minute Maid Park. Tears came and I let them flow.

We can’t lose tonight. I thought. And sure enough, we didn’t. Fueled by an angel’s namesake and a magical red beard, the Dodgers marched to victory in their first World Series game in twenty nine years.

Talk about cosmic poetry.

Now, if Carlos can come back and throw out the first pitch for the rest of the Series, that would be great.

Go Blue!

Win it for Carlos.

 

 

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Baseball IS Life

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I am a Dodger fan.

It’s no secret.

Anyone that has a pulse within a 5000 mile radius knows that I bleed Dodger Blue.

All emotional investment in this season’s outcome was washed away when my boys were eliminated last week. But as I sat and watched game seven of the World Series, I couldn’t help but lose my shit. I couldn’t stop myself from jumping and hollering as momentum swung from team to team, like some cruel, sadistic pendulum.

The tortured faces of Cubs fans flashed across my screen and their suffering oozed through the pixels. Grown men wearing inside-out caps with hands on their faces, watched the game unfold through trembling fingers, the weight of 108 winless years bearing down on their drooping shoulders. Bill Murray looked catatonic one moment, on the verge of cardiac arrest the next. From Lost in Translation to Caddyshack with every pitch.

39,466 days of hope and suffering relived in a five hour ballgame…culminating in one beautiful moment of shared jubilation. There will be no sleep on the Northside of Chicago tonight.

What a game. What a ride.

Two days after the Dodgers were eliminated from the postseason my dad called to talk about the game. (He knew I needed some time to process. Thanks Pops).

“Did you cry when they lost?” he asked. A strange question from my father who usually shies away from sentimentality.

“Uh… kind of.” I replied neutrally, unsure where he was headed.

“Well your brother did. He took it hard. He went into the kitchen and wept like a baby. What’s up with that?” I laughed as my heart swelled with pride.

Baseball is a marathon and an investment. Each season blossoms in spring and stretches deep into the year as the air turns cold and leaves begin to fall.  Every team suffers injuries and enjoys winning streaks. Beloved players are traded and unknown rookies emerge into the limelight. Dedicated fans sit back and experience it all, each loss… each victory… every pitch. Together.

For the past three seasons, my brother, roommate and I have done exactly that. We would rush home from work to eat dinner and watch the ballgames together. We cursed players when they underperformed and danced during walk-off victories and Kershaw no-hitters. We took naps and ate burritos, too many burritos. The whole while Vin Scully’s voice echoed through our apartment, the beloved narrator of our shared experiences. We carpooled to Chavez Ravine, sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” to the organ of Nancy Bea and stuffed our faces with grilled Dodger Dogs. How spoiled we truly were. You may scoff, but it was the best time of my life.

My European friends gasp when I tell them how many games are played each year. 162 games? 6 months? That sounds horribly boring. And they’re right. Baseball is fucking boring. And so is life, regardless of what your friend’s Instagram account leads you to believe.

OMG Susie I want your life! You’re always going on adventures! 

I love reading the comment section. People only post highlight reels. No, Susie isn’t always going on adventures. She was probably sitting in traffic or pooping when she posted that picture under the Eiffel Tower. Modern attention spans, or lack thereof, don’t appreciate the intimate, slow unfolding beauty of baseball. They don’t value long innings or double-headers. They just want Paris and slam dunks, touchdowns and hard tackles. Not me… I love pooping.

Baseball, unlike anything other sport, has the beautiful capacity to mimic life. The boring innings and thrilling highlights, an intricate and interdependent patchwork of the sweet and mundane. And victory wouldn’t taste so sweet without the investment of time, life’s most precious commodity, that true fans make each season. So when we lose, it hurts. The end of a season marks the closing of a chapter of our lives. We simultaneously mourn and celebrate the passing of our shared experiences.

Baseball, like life, isn’t so much about the end result. It’s about the in-betweens. The ups and downs. The ride. For 108 years Cubs fans have stamped their tickets. This is the narrative that has taken over your social media feed. Cubbies Nation takes pride in their investment, as they should. But don’t be fooled, the World Series is not the fruit of their toil. The prize lies in their struggle. A century of time spent hoping and cheering together.

And when the celebrations end and the confetti is swept, we will do it all over again. Baseball doesn’t end, it marches on.

Baseball is pain. Baseball is beautiful. Baseball IS life.

 

Viva Los Dodgers: Chronicles of a Dodgers Fan Living in Spain

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As my plane lifted off, destined for Barcelona, I looked down at the lights of Los Angeles and was overcome with emotion. But my grief was not for my family or dear friends. Sorry guys… I love you, but you’ll be there when I get back.

My mournings were of a bluer variety.

My eyes scanned the maze of urban lights down below, in search of hallowed ground. That diamond jewel that lies in the hills of Chavez Ravine, blue heaven on earth, Dodger Stadium. As the plane ascended into the starry night, a whiff of grilled Dodger Dogs rose 10,000 feet and bid me farewell.

Alas, I had made my decision. I was leaving to study in Spain in the middle of a pennant race, even worse, in the last weeks of Vin Scully’s broadcasting career. The team I loved so dearly, would never be the same. For who are the Dodgers without their beloved maestro? What is baseball in Los Angeles without the Voice of Summer?

Unfortunately, the Dodger faithful will have to answer those questions next season. Like Vinny said, “Don’t be sad because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

Right?

I guess.

So here I am, at 3 am in Barcelona, smiling as my Boys in Blue fight against the Nationals in the playoffs. I take siestas at 10 pm and set alarms to wake at 3 to watch the games, shouting into pillows and high-fiving myself when we win.

This nine hour time difference might be the death of me, but I’ll be damned if I miss a game.

This is our year,

I want to hear you from here.

Wave those blue towels and cheer with all of your might,

let’s win it for Vinny and send him off right!

GO BLUE!!

#WinForVin

A Blue Mother’s Day

I am so honored to say that this post was featured on one of the top Dodgers Fan sites on the web for Mother’s Day. I have had the pleasure of reading comments and similar stories from fans around the world over the last twenty four hours. Thousands of people are reading about my Ma and I can’t stop smiling about it. You can see my story on Dodgers Nation here.

 

Since the 2006 season, Major League Baseball players have worn pink when taking the field on Mother’s Day. In a dedicated fight against breast cancer, bearded men don pink wristbands, wear pink cleats and even wield pink bats on the second Sunday of May. With Mother’s Day on the horizon and Dodger baseball well underway, it seems like an appropriate time to share a story about baseball, cancer and my Momma.

JT

Anyone ever forced to bear the news of a loved one’s cancer diagnosis can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the “C” word. Father Time slows his steady march to a crawl when the word is uttered. Confusion ensues, ears ring.

“Cancer…

mother….

chemotherapy…

stage four.”

As the brain begins to process the gravity of the unfamiliar words at hand, they hit like an anvil to the chest

Fortunately, for our family, a strong support system of relatives and friends rallied around my mother when news of her stomach cancer diagnosis reached the edges of our social circle. As she fought for her life, undergoing chemotherapy treatments and operational procedures, my siblings and I felt love and support pour in from all directions. Friends and acquaintances held charity events, cooked dinners and even washed cars in an effort to chip in.

All the while my mother’s condition worsened. The cancer cells in her stomach were metastasizing at an uncontrollable rate, making it difficult for her to pass food regularly. Weekly chemotherapy treatments began taking their toll on her frail body. She lost weight, she lost her hair and at times… worst of all… her eternal sense of optimism. I could hear the sound of defeat in her voice.

Then one day I got a call from my mom and the excitement in her tone reached through the phone and slapped an instant smile on my face.

“Oh my God, son. Oh.. my… God! Guess who I just off the phone with?” My mother exclaimed with the exuberance of a fourteen year old girl.

“No idea Ma.” I replied through grinning teeth.

“Steve frickin’ Garvey!”

“Whaaaaat? No way!” I shouted in confusion, secretly hoping she hadn’t imagined speaking with her childhood crush in a chemo-induced hallucination. Chemo brain is no joke, but my mother hadn’t imagined a thing. As she battled cancer, a distant friend heard of my mother’s diagnosis and reached out to Mr. Garvey.

Anyone that knows my family knows that Dodger Blue blood courses through our veins. For a bunch of Los Angeles transplants living in the desert of Arizona, the Dodgers were more of an identity than a baseball team, a symbol of our past lives in Southern California, surrounded by family and citrus trees. Whenever Vin Scully’s voice hit our ears, we could taste the Dodger Dogs of yesteryear.

And no player was held in higher regard than Steve Garvey. When my Momma coached my t-ball team, she made sure I wore number six in honor of her childhood crush. She loved to tell the story about waiting for Mr. Garvey in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium after a game when she was twelve years old. Garvey pulled up in a red convertible, rolled down his window, and signed an autograph for her. She almost fainted.  After my mom passed away, I found a manila envelope filled with Steve Garvey newspaper clippings and hand sketched drawings she had collected and drawn as a young girl.

She never had an Instagram, but Garvey would have definitely been her Man Crush Monday.

Ana

The few minutes that Mr. Garvey took to reach out to my mother would have been enough. His thoughtful act brought joy and light in a time of darkness. But number six didn’t stop there.

In a last ditch effort to remove the cancer cells from her stomach, my mother traveled to the City of Hope in Duarte for surgery. If time slowed to a crawl when we first learned of my mother’s diagnosis, it stood completely still as my family sat in that second floor waiting room. The longest day of our lives. When the surgeon finally appeared, the news was grim. Six months to live. How does one react to such words?

Devastation.

As my mother healed in the hospital after the procedure, our families’ moral sunk to unprecedented depths.

A few days after the surgery, a box arrived in her hospital room. Gifts from Mr. Garvey. My mother reached inside and pulled out a white jersey with elegant blue letters flowing across the chest. Underneath, the number six flashed in a radiant red, bringing a gasp from the mouths of family members gathered around the bed. The words, “To Ana, a Sweetheart… Fight On!” were written in blue permanent marker just above Steve Garvey’s signature.

And fight she did, until the end. But first… she smiled.

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A few months after the failed surgery a friend sent word that Mr. Garvey was making a public appearance in the City of Industry. Determined to thank him for what he did for my family, I made the drive to the event and joined a long line of Dodger fans, eager to meet their favorite first baseman. As I neared the end of the line, I sensed a hint of nervousness enter my body. Will he remember us? Maybe sending gifts to sick fans is an everyday thing for baseball legends.

My apprehensions were quickly assuaged. As soon as I mentioned “Ana,” my mother’s name, Mr. Garvey’s eyes lit up.

“Oh Ana! How is she doing? What a sweetheart. I’ve been meaning to call and check up on her. You know what? Let’s call her now.”

My eyes drifted to the long line of waiting fans as he pulled out his cell phone and dialed my mother’s number. I silently prayed she would pick up, my ma was notorious for never answering her phone.

Nope.

Mr. Garvey laughed and left her a voicemail. We spent a few minutes chatting and even posed for some pictures. Mr. Garvey noticed my cousin and uncle waiting behind velvet ropes and invited them over so he could sign their baseballs. What a guy. If dudes could have Man Crushes, he would have definitely been mine. Okay that sounded weird, but seriously, Garvey is the MAN.

My mom finally called me a few hours after we left the event.

“Ma! You totally missed Steve Garvey’s phone call!” I scolded her.

“Honey, I have to play hard to get and be challenging. I will call him back in a day or two and he can ask me on a proper date, the rest will be history.”

She totally big timed a big leaguer. I laughed so hard I got a cramp in my neck.

My mother lost her fight to cancer three months later, but she went down swinging, and thanks to Steve Garvey, she went back to the dugout with a smile on her face. A week after she passed I got a call from number six. And of course, forever my Momma’s son, I missed his call.

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Blue Mournings

When I opened my eyes yesterday morning my insides hurt.

My body ached from head to toe.

I like felt I had just went three rounds in the octagon with Ronda Rousey.

Nausea was a loyal companion all day long, never leaving my side like some damn golden retriever.

I sat glued to the couch for hours watching the Major League Baseball Network, forcing myself to relive the painful details of the season’s final game, over and over and over, as if changing the station meant admitting the season was really over.

Even the weather reflected my grief. A blanket of dark clouds hung low in mourning, blocking the sun, as a cool breeze blew through Los Angeles for the first time in weeks.

God must be a Dodger fan.

Yes, I know… this is a travel blog.

But this blog is also about my mission to live with zeal and passion. Like I’ve said before, the Gap is about “squeezing the juice out of life… every last fucking drop,” and nothing gets my juices flowing like Dodger Baseball.

It may sound silly to you. It’s just a game, you might be thinking. Not for me, not for my family. Baseball, and the Dodgers in particular, bring memories of sweet experiences shared with loved ones. For a group of Angelenos living in the desert of Arizona, the Dodgers became an identity. When I hear the famed broadcaster Vin Scully’s voice, my chest fills with warmth.

You can read more about my love for the Dodgers here: Viva Los Doyers!

So before I made the life altering decision to quit my job and book a one-way ticket to Europe I had to check one thing:  Major League Baseball’s postseason schedule. The November 5th departure date was no coincidence. If the Dodgers would have advanced to the World Series, the last possible game, Game Seven, would have been played on November 4th. I could think of no better send off then witnessing a World Series victory with my brothers and loved ones. The elation would be so great I wouldn’t even need a plane ticket, I would just point my fist in the air and fly off to London like Superman with a Dodger Blue cape.

But the Dodgers lost and I can’t fly.

Even as I sit here, brooding in the darkness of defeat, I am pleased with my decision. I mean, just look at this picture of my brother and at Dodger Stadium for what would prove to be the last game of the season, our level of excitement oozing from the pixels:

 

Mexican Greinkes

 

For three hours Chavez Ravine rocked with emotion. As the game swayed like a pendulum, we cheered in moments of  triumph and prayed to the heavens when all seemed lost, searching for hope in the bats of our diamond heroes.

When our fate was sealed we walked through the parking lot like wandering zombies, hardly exchanging a word.

And that, my friends, is what it’s all about. No, not the zombie apocalypse, the ride. The memories of loss are as vivid as the memories of victory, and I’ll forever recall the day my brother and I went blonde for the Doyers.

Not a bad look right?

There’s always next year. But until then… I think I’ll do a little traveling.