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Holiday Reading: The Day Before Opening Day

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There is a little lull in the sports world over the next couple of days, so I thought I would divert from Syracuse to further recap my crazy time as general manager of an independent professional baseball team. The following is an excerpt from a book I haven't written, but would love to write.

Around now is when we either hear, say, or think something along the lines of, "Boy, a lot can change in a year." Which is an absolutely accurate phrase, no question about it. Something I now know very well, too. Flipping the calendar from December to January can feel like a big accomplishment.

Still, it's even more amazing how much can change in just twenty-four hours. How everything as we know it can go from this to that in the time it takes the sun to rise and set. The speed of life is something I'll never understand, but it's something I've come to appreciate the older I get.

Take for example, the day last May when, battling unseasonable cold and push-you-over wind gusts, I was up in the empty grandstands at the ballpark here in town. The next day? I was standing out on the field thanking a lot more people than I anticipated for being there with me.

Back to the previous day, where it was me out there with some guy I just met about two days prior. We literally go row to row, placing labels on every possible seat. A1, B12, E14 and on down the line. Last-minute prep work, stuff typically done a couple of weeks before a season. But in our case, at that point late last spring, we were sitting a dead-red twenty-four-freaking-hours before opening day!

It's the craziest story, how the team I was general manager for, the Watertown Bucks, went from preparing to play in the East Coast Baseball League, to possibly folding up shop before a single pitch was ever thrown. That the owner and commissioner of that "ECBL" never had a dime to his name, instead lying to everyone with stories of bank accounts and funds and sponsorships. It was a meticulously woven blanket of lies that only started to really unravel in the weeks leading up to what was supposed to be the start of the season.

To truly understand where we were back then, you have to realize that our team's owner had sunk a big chunk of change in paying for uniforms, leases, my payroll and merchandise. His money and reputation was in the balance. And for me, well, I left a career, with a wife and son in tow, for this crazy job -- it was a gamble from jump. We were both all in. And the commissioner of this fake league had both of us fooled, to the point that we had moved into the offices at the ballpark, that I had made the rounds talking "Bucks Baseball" to businesses, little league teams and just about anyone who would listen.

Then everything fell through.

Then my boss and myself worked our asses to salvage something. (A link to a previous post where the entirety of the craziness is explained.)

Then the weight of the league took its toll. (Long live the Watertown Bucks!)

That incarnation of the Bucks, along with the created-out-of-thin-air North Country Baseball League, left me with so many memories. Crazy times from a crazy time. Like that that weekend before the season started: Me sticking letters and numbers to aluminum, chilled to the bone with what felt like a hurricane battering down, my boss setting up cash registers and a credit card machine in the ticket booth. Oh, and our apparel company showed up with merchandise, too -- something we last-minute planned and then, in the rush of the moment, let slip off our radar.

"Holy shit, I completely forgot about all of this stuff! Thank God you showed up!"

Imagine that? The big day: gates open, hot dogs and burgers sizzling on the grill, players stretching on the field, me and the owner greeting everyone, and then...nothing to sell?!

One of the biggest criticisms we faced from some of the nonbelievers was how we seemed to be supergluing everything together. An "insult" that always me laugh. "Supergluing? YOU'RE DAMN RIGHT WE ARE!" Not only were we both new to the world of running a baseball team, learning on the fly, we were both running a freaking league. A league that didn't exist five days before its opening day. So yeah, we weren't the most polished, I'm okay with admitting that fact.

Which is probably why I was out there putting those stickers on the seats the day before we debuted. It's also likely the reason why we set up our "Bucks Barn" with t-shirts and foam antlers in near darkness as what we could see of the sun that day started to make way for the moon. All of it starting from scratch to putting on the finishing touches -- weeks worth of work done in just over a day. Duties previously neglected in the turmoil of our existence as a franchise.

It was hard to leave the ballpark that evening. With so much to do, I really didn't think about what the next day would be like. I just kept finding more and more items that needed to be checked off the list. Banners to hang; tickets to line up; roster cards to unwrap (those roster cards were literally hot off the press, seeing as how we didn't have lineups or even teams just days before.) Never-ending. It was part motivated by fear, part some type of obsessive compulsive issue and a little "How do I know when we are done getting ready?" A good question considering there really wasn't a right answer. I mean, it's not like I could ask someone, "Hey, is this what it looked last year on opening day?"

I did eventually leave, to go home and share one last semi-normal night with my wife and son. And I'm not sure if it was my Dad high above or the universe itself or some serendipitous coincidence, but that night I randomly came upon "Field of Dreams" playing on a TV channel I had never even heard of before. Nervously drinking a beer and checking my phone, we both watched Ray Kinsella give up just about everything to follow some probably misguided dream: to let baseball take him where he needed to go.

Pretty odd, right? Like: What the hell are the odds?! THAT movie is playing on a station I had never clicked on and I land on it the day before my Watertown Bucks take the field for the first time ever. I don't know if I believe in signs, I don't even know if it was anything more than nervous boredom that led me to watching it, but for that night, I was feeling like Kinsella, helping build something and wondering if "they" would ever come.

Eventually my thoughts and my hopes for what would be turned into sheer terror coursing through from my brain to my heart.

*LUB DUB* My heart's beats raising my rib cage high in the air. "It's two hours before our first pitch, what if only a couple hundred or so people show up?!" *LUB DUB LUB DUB LUB DUB*

"What if NO ONE SHOWS UP!" *LUB DUB LUB DUB LUB LUBDUBLUBDUBLUBDUB*

I must have paced the concourse, from my office to the press box along the third base side of the field 200 times that next morning. It did warm up a little, the sun and my cardiovascular regimen getting the chill that settled into my bones the day before. And, as luck and life would have it, I still had plenty to do before the game, too. Prepping our staff on how to sell tickets, merch, roster cards and going over the rundown of the pregame ceremonies with the managers of both teams. Oh and there were a lot of distractions from players stopping me asking about contracts and payments and....it was hectic. Very hectic. A welcomed chaos to keep my eyes off of the clock on my phone.

None of the busy work stopped time, though. It went from nine in the morning to 1:30 in the afternoon in a blink of an eye. About thirty minutes from what was supposed to be first pitch, the first pitch ever in our new league. It went from just a couple of people running around the ballpark trying to make it look like it was the home of a professional team to a real live game day. And by that then, the crowd was filing in. Nothing great, but not exactly heartbreaking either. A smallish gathering of curious people who decided to give this weird new team, which had received bad press in the lead up, in a brand-new league no one knew a thing about, a shot. And while I wanted more butts in the stands, I was gratified to see the people who were there.

That's about the time the Bucks' manager tracked me down. "Hey, Matt, we probably should start the ceremonies. Gil (our ace of the pitching staff) is ready to roll out in the pen. I don't want to make him wait too long."

Our skipper was right, it was time for Blue to scream "play ball!" But I couldn't get on the mic and walk on to the field to start it all up without the owner. That's when I realized that the owner was helping out in the ticket booth. That's also when I realized we had a rush of late-arriving fans standing in a line that stretched all the way out past the parking lot.

I could have fainted. Shit, I may have blacked out for all I know.

What I do remember is running into the box office and telling the owner that we had to go, that everyone was ready and waiting. We had to go and we had to go NOW. He wasn't having it. Long lines are good for looks but bad for customer service, and he was staying until everyone was able to get a ticket and get in to watch the Bucks. And since he was the boss, we waited an extra fifteen minutes before heading out to the field.

In the end, the crowd wasn't huge, but it was so much larger than I let myself imagine. In fact, I remember being a little nervous before stepping out there with the owner and some city officials. First pitch, even at our level, is a big deal. Still, I wasn't uptight because of the people staring back at me, that I'm a little used to given my previous careers, but this was different because I hadn't even thought about what to say. I never planned that far ahead.

Can you blame me? Just a day earlier there were only two people in those stands, and I was one of them. Now, I was trying to focus on saying all the right things in front of a lot more people. People I hoped would be back again and again. It was a pressure packed three minutes.

Not to mention, I was a little busy trying to get mentally ready for the next game. A game that was, of course, a day away.