Tag Archives: Alex Gabriel

FLASHBACK: “Twist At the End”

M&L Yankees try to keep it together for a team photo.

1999 M&L Yankees try to keep it together for a team photo. Front row: , L to R: Olajowun Edmunds, Will Lehman, Robbie Punch, Zak Prauer, Tyler Halva, Jonathon Kretman, Brian Spindler. Back row, L to R: Coach Stephen Lehman, Donovan McCain, Peter Oleson, Jimmy Shoemaker, Cole Woodward, Alex Gabriel, Thomas Van Geldern

13 August 2014

Even a year or two later, when the subject comes up, our left fielder Thomas’ dad is still saying, “Gotta be the wildest play in baseball I’ve ever seen.” And that next winter, when we appear unexpectedly to sign up for the Winter Dome League, the head coach greets us with, “Now we set. I can still see that play, man. Oh yeah—we gonna be fine at catcher.”

For Alex, my son, it marked the end of an era. He’d been playing ball in our local Little League—St. Paul-Midway—since he was seven years old, and the youngest kid in the league. I’d been his coach each year, up through the seasons of “coach-pitch” ball, then Double A with it’s “no stealing” rules and finally, the pinnacle of our league, Triple A ball.

Alex was the catcher, all the way, ever since he’d begged me back in that first year to let him put on the battered, over-sized shin guards and chest protector. I tried to tell him, “Whoever heard of a seven year-old catcher?” but the shine in his eyes made me relent. At first you could hardly see him underneath all the equipment, but bit by bit he fought his way along, handling wild pitches and high heat, balls in the dirt and base stealers gunning for third. By the time he was twelve, he was one of the two best catchers in the league. The other was Josh, whose dad also coached and, as a consequence, the two boys were rivals. Good-natured, respectful of each other, but rivals nonetheless.

Alex was well-satisfied with his Little League career. The only problem was that we’d never made it to the championship game. This was a big deal in our neighborhood. The Double A and Triple A championships were the centerpieces of the all-day Little League Carnival which was our season’s finale. To top it off, the games were televised live by our local cable TV company. Yet each year we found ourselves in the bleachers watching other teams slug it out for glory. Something was clearly missing.

Finally, in Alex’s twelve year-old season—his last year of eligibility—we managed to reach the championship. As the Yankees, we finished third in the league and then fought our way through a tough five game playoffs to come up against the mighty first place Orioles. At last! Our own chance at glory.

The Orioles were built around three players; the three J’s, we called them. Two were their pitchers—a pair of lefties named Justin and Jon. The other was Josh, that rival of Alex’s for best catcher around.

The game came down to the bottom of the 6th and final inning, with us up 2-0. We had our ten year-old phenom, Robbie, on the mound to close, but coming up was the top of the Orioles’ order. To further complicate matters, our right fielder had been hit by a fast ball in the leg in his last at-bat, and as he tried to run out onto the field he realized he couldn’t go. We pulled him in to the bench, sent out for ice packs, and began to scramble our lineup.

We kept ace defender Jimmy at second. Donovan came off the bench to play first, our first baseman Cole moved to short, and our shortstop, Willie, was sent out to a position he had never played—right field. Some people might wonder about this—why stick your shortstop in right, particularly if he’d never played there?—but it was his dad, Steve Lehman, my co-coach, who suggested it. Two of the Orioles’ Big Three were lefties; there might just be a key play in that direction.

M&L Yankees dig in (Cole Woodward at SS; Olajawon Edmunds @ 3B) behind Robbie Punch.

M&L Yankees dig in (Cole Woodward at SS; Olajowun Edmunds at 3B; Thomas Van Geldern in LF) behind Robbie Punch. The white prison bulk of St. Paul Central High—where several team members later starred—looms in the background.

So with this jury-rigged lineup we hit the field. Right off the bat we got a grounder to short—a clean play by Cole and a good stretch by Donovan at first. One away—and already two of our position switches had been tested.

Up came Justin, who hit another hard smash to short. A repeat—except the ump claimed Donovan pulled his foot off the bag at first. Runner safe. Now Josh hit a rocket to left center for a single. Men on first and second, one out, and big Jon coming to the plate. Jon was the top home run hitter in the league and suddenly our 2-0 lead looked very precarious. If he went yard here, the game would be over.

Alex set up on the outside of the plate, away from Jon’s left-handed power, but when the pitch came in, Jon rocked it high and deep to right. That ball seemed to hang up there forever. If it cleared the fence, we’d lost. If Willie could catch it, the runners would be tagging and advancing. . . .

Every eye, every body bent forward, watching. And then—the ball dropped in fair along the far right field foul line, nearly at the fence. The runners exploded off their bases. Surely one run would score and quite possibly two, which would mean a tie game with big Jon still circling the bases.

But Willie picked the ball up and heaved it—an incredible heave—all the way in the air to our pitcher Robbie, who’d correctly moved to the midpoint between third and home, thinking he’d be the back-up if there was a throw to either base.

Amazingly, even Justin, who’d started from second, had to hold at third. Mentally, I was going, Wow! What a throw! And . . . OK, bases loaded, one out, now we’ve got to . . . when the fans erupted. Jon, who’d hit the ball, was racing towards second, sure that he’d get at least a double. But second base was already occupied.

Shouts from the stands—from both benches—from players on the field. Jon threw on the brakes halfway to second and began to retreat to first. Robbie, who’d been making sure the runner at third held, turned, double-pumped, then fired the ball to Donovan at first. Donovan threw down the tag just as Jon slid back in and they both went down in a heap.

The base ump signaled out (OK, I thought, that’s number two) and Donovan, tangled on the ground, held the ball aloft in his glove in triumph.

But the play wasn’t over. As soon as Robbie had fired to first, Josh’s dad, coaching third base for the Orioles, sent the runner in from third. He scored easily (2-1 now), with Alex standing just in front of the plate, screaming for the ball. Donovan didn’t see. He was still tangled up and still thrilled he’d held on and only now, when Josh, who’d started the play at first, and moved to second on the hit, was waved around third and on in to home, did Donovan begin to grasp that events were still transpiring.

Alex was jumping up and down, up and down, waving and yelling for the ball. But in one section of my mind, while I too yelled to Donovan (“Home! Throw home!”) I knew we’d blown it, it was too late, Josh was too fast to catch now.

And then, at last, Donovan struggled to his feet and fired home. Alex was set in perfect position, but I could see that even if he caught the ball cleanly and turned, as catchers always do, counter-clockwise back to the third base line to put down the tag, it would be too late.

The moment of the throw—between Donovan releasing and Alex catching—seemed a near eternity and, always, there was Josh pounding ever closer down the line.

Then, in an exploding instant, Alex pulled in the ball and whirled—not the usual way, but clockwise, twisting himself backwards to plant glove and ball directly on the front edge of the plate where Josh’s foot was just coming in on a slide. Ball down, foot hits, catcher holds on!

Umpire: “Yer outta there!”

Game over, we’re champs. The ballpark explodes and Alex, through it all, is leaping and jumping and twisting some more and holding on to that dang ball. Final play of his Little League career.

“Wildest play in baseball I’ve ever seen,” says Thomas’ dad.

This piece originally appeared in Elysian Fields Quarterly, Vol. 21 No. 4, 2004.

1999 Triple A Champs from M&L Sports. What an array of coaching talent!

1999 Triple A Champs—the M&L Sports Yankees. What an array of coaching talent! (Jeff Prauer, Donovan McCain Sr., Roger Kretman, Stephen Lehman, Daniel Gabriel, Bill Shoemaker) Front row, L to R: Jimmy Shoemaker, Will Lehman, Robbie Punch, Zak Prauer, Olojowun Edmunds, Thomas Van Geldern. Second row, L to R: Alex Gabriel, Cole Woodward, Jonathon Kretman, Dane Nelson, Donovan McCain, Peter Oleson, Brian Spindler.

FLASHBACK: “Little Big League”

2 April 2014

The Dunning Dragons tee off on the pitches of their coach, Daniel Gabriel.

The Dunning Dragons tee off on the pitches of their coach, Daniel Gabriel.

During a preseason scrimmage against the Reds, we came down to the last inning, with my son Alex catching. I was standing a few feet behind the catcher as I typically do when the Dunning Dragons are in the field. Alex was dirty, sweat-streaked, and still hustling on every play: yanking off the heavy helmet mask, getting into position in front of the plate, arms raised, calling for the ball. He’d done this throughout the game, but the team threw so wildly that he rarely had a chance to reach the ball and couldn’t handle it when he did.

On the last play of the game (the Reds had batted around for the inning, which in our league is the limit), they sent their runners home. Alex hollered for the ball, and it came on the fly. “I was sure I wasn’t going to catch that ball,” he said later, but he stepped into foul territory and reached up high to his left, and there it was, stuck in his mitt.

“Tag her! Tag her!” I yelled from behind him.

Alex stepped back to the plate, put on the tag, and as the runner tried to twist past him, they both fell down in a heap. He held the ball for a second and then it rolled free—but the runner still hadn’t touched home. He grabbed the ball and dove back for the tag just as she half-slid onto the corner.

Safe or out?

It was my call, but either way, somebody would be very disappointed. I just grabbed them both up, yelled “Great play!” in two directions, and the game was over.

Alex recounted the play several times, amazed that he’d actually made a tag and catch at the plate. So was I—and I couldn’t have had a better spot to share the moment.

Dunning Dragons gather around their coaching staff during the post-game recap ritual.

Dunning Dragons gather around their coaching staff during the post-game recap ritual.

After our games and practices, my sons and I sometimes watch games at Dunning Fields. On a summer day in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, baseball’s appeal is passed on to kids running bases, chasing balls, and taking big batting-practice swings on dust-covered diamonds. At one end, a ballpark that features high school and amateur league games lets kids dream of heroics beyond their Little League years. Watching the adults, Alex, my nine year-old, puts on his catcher’s mask and mitt and squats against the backstop screen, imagining that those rocketing fastballs and sharp-bending curves are being called by him. Five year-old Evan, the Dragons’ batboy (and occasional right fielder), climbs the bleacher steps, or chases down foul balls.

As Dragons coach, I often plot out team lineups or rethink my handling of the just-concluded practice. At times, I relax, enjoying the sight of my sons reveling in the game.

We are together, hot and dusty and heavy with a delicious muscle weariness. The moment that joins father and sons is made possible partly by the St. Paul-Midway Little League, which transmits the skills, teamwork, and dedication needed for baseball to boys and girls.

For me, watching continues a lifelong commitment. I pitched and played the outfield in various leagues myself growing up, and never really quit. After high school ball, I went on the softball circuit and there I remain, slower, wiser, yet still dreaming of game-saving catches and hook slides into third.

Wanting to share those joys with my own kids, I find myself back on the pitcher’s mound after a thirty year absence (ours is a “coach-pitch” league), only this time I’m rooting for the batters to hit the ball. For some, it’s daunting. I’ve had kids who spent most of the season getting up the nerve to swing the bat hard. On the other hand, two years of Brian McIntosh’s line shots up the middle have taught me to stay nimble. Brian is built like Kirby Puckett, though his lethal hitch-swing calls to mind hometown boy Dave Winfield, who played at Dunning while growing up.

Players’ concentration varies as widely as their skills, and, at times, my attempts to balance discipline and fun feel as precarious as a high-wire act. For every Jimmy Shoemaker or Sam Palosaari who bounces in place in his eagerness to hit the field, there are kids who need to run to the bench for a drink every five minutes or who show up wearing slip-on shoes and skip along the base paths.

As a coach, I emphasize thinking and attitude, so after every game we give out awards not only for the traditional PLAY OF THE GAME, but also for HUSTLE and FOCUS. Even the most inept player can win these, and the sudden lift of shoulders or brightness in the eyes rewards me too.

My greatest joy in coaching, of course, is working with my sons. While Evan is still so young that he tends to wear down early (“Dad, can I go to the playground now? Please, Dad?”), Alex obsesses with catching and all other aspects of the game. Some nights he comes home from practice and sits at the kitchen table, laboriously devising lineups and defensive rotations for the following game. He’s learned that it’s the catcher’s job to keep the team alert, so he’ll lead “Let’s go!” chants on the bench and, from his position behind the plate, regularly yells out situations: “Two down! Get the easy one!”

Future All-Star Alex Gabriel learns his chops behind the plate.

Future All-Star Alex Gabriel learns his chops behind the plate.

Last summer, after our final game, we had a team party under the trees beyond the left field fence. Alex instigated a sandlot game. One of the players was line-shot-up-the-middle Brian, so I suggested they make him bat left-handed; the pitching mound was barely 20-30 feet from home. My caution was laughed off.

A minute later came a shout and I turned to see Alex, the pitcher, bent over and holding his face. Brian had hit a line drive straight at him; Alex had gotten his glove on it, only to deflect it into his nose. There was blood everywhere—on his face, shirt, glove—but Alex never even cried.

The next day, as I was coming home from work, my son greeted me at the door wearing a big grin beneath his puffed-up nose and carrying an armload of gloves and bats. “Well, who’s up first?” he said. Our season hadn’t ended at all.

Originally published in MPLS ST.PAUL magazine, March 1997.

Interviewed for PBS Documentary on August Wilson

19 June 2013

Last winter I started getting calls from Nicole London, a WGBH staffer in Boston, asking questions about how it was that I knew the late lamented playwright, August Wilson. (For those who have not yet discovered the man, his Century Cycle of 10 plays about African American life in each decade of the 20th century stands as one of the greatest achievements in the history of the American theater. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, and has a Broadway theater named after him.)

I could tell that they’d spotted my St. Paul Almanac piece, “August Wilson’s Early Days in Saint Paul.” (See link on Home page, under Upcoming Events. August and I were writing partners for years, and given that our wives were close friends at that time, we also shared many other adventures as well.) The more we talked, the more excited PBS seemed to become. Eventually, they decided that they’d better add Saint Paul to their filming schedule. They’re in the process of completing a major documentary on Wilson that will air in the Fall of 2014, and prior to our discussions, had not seemed to fully understand the pivotal role that his time in Saint Paul played in the development of his oeuvre.

1981: Daniel & Judith Gabriel outside August Wilson's Grand Avenue apartment in Saint Paul, with the man himself and--I swear--a casual passerby whom August's wife Judy insisted be in the photo.

1981: Daniel & Judith Gabriel outside August Wilson’s Grand Avenue apartment in Saint Paul, with the man himself and—I swear—a casual passerby whom August’s wife Judy insisted be in the photo.

Late in May, producer Sam P, Nicole L, and crew rolled into town and set up in Penumbra Theater, home to more August Wilson productions than any other theater in the world. They ran me through my paces during a 20-30 minute interview, and then ravaged the piles of memorabilia I’d brought along. There were posters from the Penumbra productions of Wilson’s first plays, early draft manuscripts of his first major successes, and obscure reviews that had appeared down through the years. I also had photos from the night he won his first Pulitzer Prize (for Fences). A handful of us gathered to celebrate and hear him declaim a fatherhood scene from the play, and he held my infant son Alex in his arms as a prop. There were also over a dozen rare letters from him to me, including sections (which I’d long forgotten) where he lamented that he was giving up on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (his first breakthrough play), and others where he offered tight-knit advice on pieces of my work that I’d sent him.

On the night that FENCES won the Pulitzer Prize, young Alex Gabriel gets his first exposure to the power of a scene declaimed by August Wilson.

1987: On the night that FENCES won the Pulitzer Prize, young Alex Gabriel gets his first exposure to the power of a scene declaimed by August Wilson.

Hanging out backstage with the folks from WGBH, and jiving about the various bits of memorabilia and their significance was even more fun than the actual taping. (By the next day, of course, I’d thought of all sorts of comments that I wished I’d made during the interview.) What really seemed to hit home to the producer was that Wilson’s time in Saint Paul marked that magical period in any great creative artist’s life when they find their true and authentic voice, and discover how to control it. I can still vividly remember the sessions of sitting across from August in some funky cafe, listening to him riff and ramble until he found his way into a scene–and then watching him catch his rhythm and start muttering aloud the rough drafts of what later became full-blown scenes in his iconic plays. I had the great privilege of watching a clutch of August Wilson Broadway hits–Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Jitney, The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, etc.–find their earliest shape.

The single most vital piece of transformation in Wilson’s approach came as he shifted his characters’ dialogue away from Borges-esque convolution and wordplay into the deep declarative poetry of the Blues. Once he’d learned how to turn his plays into overlapping Blues songs (with each character playing their own notes, or at times producing their own countervailing songs) the rest was a matter of harnessing his active and fertile imagination.

August Wilson died in 2005, his Century Cycle complete. But I still listen hard for his advice every time I sit down to write. And I can still see those piercing eyes pushing me forward along my own writing path. Like the man said, “If you’re going to Brownsville, got to take that right hand road . . .”