Monday, November 24, 2014

Becoming Gluten Free

I grew up in a home like many Americans. Middle class. Suburban. More well-acquainted with "dinner from a box" than "dinner from a garden." Most of the meals we sat down and ate as a family were cooked with extra love by my mom, but also contained extra fat, sugar and preservatives. By no means do I blame her (mom, please don't feel bad!). Feeding a family of 6 is basically a full time job, and since she already held one of those, the food we bought had to last in the pantry until we got around to preparing/eating it. Basically every meal was boxed or canned and included wheat flour. Dinner rolls, cinnamon toast crunch, pop tarts, bologna and cheese sandwiches on "healthy" whole wheat bread. They all contained copious amounts of (what I would come to know this past year) as gluten. Gluten is the binding agent in wheat flour. It's the wonderful reason why bread is so fluffy and soft. It is also, as scientists and the population at large are realizing, a huge problem for a lot of people.

My relationship with gluten, as I mentioned earlier, started a long time ago. As a kid, and well into my teenage/post teen years, I was always kinda chubby. None of my siblings (2 brothers and a sister) were overweight at all. They were fit, athletic and ate whatever they wanted. I was overweight, slower and could gain 10 lbs by looking at a chocolate cake. I also suffered from, what the doctor called, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). To them it was a catch-all for my "bad stomach". To me it meant that, like clockwork, I would be sitting on the toilet within 10 minutes of every meal, praying to God that if he let me live through this particular bowel movement I would never sin again. I struggled with inflammation around my belly, chronic stomach aches and embarrassingly frequent gas. As I got older I began to notice more concerning signs of bowel issues, for which I had to undergo some pretty crappy butt procedures (no pun intended). These still yielded no definitive prognosis, so I was left to assume that I was just one of the defective ones. That guy at the party who would ALWAYS ask to use your bathroom. I say these things in such honest terms to dissuade you from thinking my new gluten free lifestyle (and inevitably someone's you know) is part of some stupid and passing fad. I wrestled with these body issues for a long time, and until I stumbled into eating GF, I thought it would be my lifelong battle to fight alone. 

So how did I decide to stop eating gluten? Well, like all great men who make decisions, my wife told me I should do it. She had been voicing to me for a while how she thought I might have a gluten issue. As I said before, I grew up with a taste (more akin to an addiction) for wheat flour and all its tasty/sugary/fatty partners in crime. The thought of a life without Krispy Kreme donuts, chocolate croissants and even ham sandwiches was too much for me to handle. Every time I had one of my gut-busting episodes, I would get defensive and chalk it up to eating things in the wrong combinations. Soda and anything deep fried. Milk and breakfast pastries. Alcohol and wedding cake. I was rationalizing away the common thread that all these things share. Gluten. It wasn't until my wife was instructed by her wholistic doctor to cut out gluten from her diet that I even seriously considered eating GF. Her doctor recommended it as a possible solution to her thyroid problem, so out of marital solidarity I figured I'd try it for a week. 

I expected so little. Maybe I'd feel a little bit better (mostly about my ability to "sacrifice" something I loved), but surely not good enough to make it a lifestyle! Yet, within 7 days of not eating gluten I felt like a new person. My energy level was higher and lasted all dat without need for a nap. All of the aforementioned stomach issues were non existent. I was INCREDIBLY regular (and as a side note to those guys who think pooping 4 times a day is "regular"'s not!) It was as if I could feel my body repairing itself after years of tearing it down donut by donut. Mentally and physically I knew that this was a breakthrough for me, yet still I was hesitant to admit that it was a "real" problem. The little devil on my shoulder would whisper, "it's all in your head." So after a week of purging my gut of gluten, I decided it was time for a reintroduction to test whether it was fact or fiction. 

Sitting down in front of a big juicy burger is something that usually sends the serotonin coursing through my veins straight to the part of my brain that feels happiness. Some of that is all of the memories associated with burgers: cookouts, 4th of July, the smell of charcoal fires. But the other part of that is a more scientific one. Gluten, as scientists have discovered, is the one substance most suited for carrying nutrients and toxins directly to the brain. In fact, they are trying to figure out how to use gluten as a transmitter to direct Alzheimer's medicine to the brain more quickly. So as I sat down in front of that burger, basically drooling with anticipation, one of two things would happen. Either I would eat it and feel the wonderful bliss of its nourishment, or I would feel only the pain of not being able to digest the gluten (in the form of both gut pain and brain fog). Sure enough, within minutes of eating the otherwise delicious burger, my body began to tell me that the prior week was not a fluke. My stomach cramped up and I could feel myself losing focus on anything except how bad I felt. I realized that my body really does prefer a diet free of gluten, and that its consequences are not a figment of my imagination (as plenty of people have told me since). 

I love food. My wife and I have traveled all over the place eating and drinking just about everything we could get our hands on. We enjoy good stuff and bad stuff, rich tastes and bland tastes, both popular and exotic. For me, the choice to cut gluten out of my diet was not something that I did flippantly or without plenty of pause. It was only when the overwhelming evidence was presented that I decided my long term health was more important than the short term satisfaction of eating that buttery flaky ticking time bomb. I could go into the long frustrating rant about American food integrity and processing, but nobody wants to hear that. It's too big of an issue to tackle in a dumb blog post. But I will say this. The 2014 baseball season was the best of my life so far. Was it solely because of my change in diet? No, of course not. But did it affect my performance on the field and on a daily basis? Absolutely. It improved my quality of life. It reinforced discipline. It made me more resourceful. Sure, I was called a hippie, a tree hugger and high maintenance. For anyone who doesn't struggle with the issues you do, it's impossible to expect them to exactly understand your struggle...and that's ok. I would just encourage any of you who do struggle with similar things, you only get one life. No one else gets to live your life and no one else reaps the consequences of how you live your life quite like you. If living the way you see fit is hard, embrace that! Know that you're not alone in it. Maybe we don't share the same struggles, but we all struggle. 

Is it easy now, on the other side of gluten? No, hardly. I still have to run past the bakery section at the grocery store and sometimes I have to leave the room when yellow cake with chocolate icing is served. I've had to educate clubhouse managers, hotel concierges and waiters about what I can eat and why. Like I said before, I love food. That won't change. But it gets a little easier each day, each season. The holidays are just around the corner, and I'm sure it will present its fair share of challenges. It always does, and perhaps it always will. But I'm not afraid of it anymore. My gluten allergy is real...and really beatable. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014


It's been said that pitching is an art. Tom Seaver wrote "The Art of Pitching" and Greg Maddux, for all intents and purposes, took the reigns and came as close to perfecting that art as any of us have ever seen. Growing up in Atlanta, I saw him carve up hitters more consistently than any other pitcher of the last quarter century. It literally was like watching a painter methodically work his way across a canvas. You could see the creativity in all of his pitch combinations and speed changes. His imagination and the execution of that creative mindset baffled hitters for the better part of 20 years, yet very few people would call baseball (even pitching) a creative occupation. In fact, when making analogies to baseball, people most often reference war or racing or some other brute activity. This frustrates me. I like to believe that all people in all endeavors (paid and unpaid) have the ability to be creative...not just the "creative community".

My wife works in a collective studio/office space in Atlanta. She, a letterpress printer and calligrapher, shares space alongside photographers, film directors, bloggers, graphic designers and comedy writers (see Aaron Chewning). The motto of the collective is "Home of Atlanta's Creative Citizen", which makes sense considering all of the people working there would be classified as "creatives"...meaning they all get paid to use their creativity. But sitting in the studio, watching all of them be creative, I found myself thinking about creativity in different spaces. For instance, in a crowded floor of cubicles on the 20someodd floor of a tall building downtown, there are accountants using all of the creativity God blessed them with to figure out my taxes (which must be filed in 17 states for 2014...what!?). Down the road from there, a firefighter might be looking at a mangled car imagining all the possibilities to get a young girl out safely. At my favorite restaurant spot, there is an amazing chef who everyone would agree is part of the "creative community", but the real creativity lies in the gluten-free/dairy-free/soy-free suggestions that my waitress keeps whipping up out of thin air.

I believe that, all too often, people are either encouraged or discouraged from exercising their natural creativity based on the job expected of them. Interior designers are expected to imagine a room, brainstorm about its Feng Shui and create it, while mechanics are expected to rotate the tires, change the oil and get it finished quickly. On the surface, those seem like fair descriptions of their jobs, but when you dig a little deeper, both have their creative side and their transactional (get stuff done) side. The mechanic has to use his imagination and creativity to troubleshoot that weird sound my car makes when I turn the wheel to the left, and the interior designer has to drudge through a few days of sewing pillows and hanging curtain rods. At times both share residence in the "creative community" and at other times, neither do.

Baseball is no exception. I truly believe that baseball players can be as creative as anybody in any other profession. Their duty in the game might not always call for the most creativity or ingenuity, but seeing a 9 hole catcher with cement in his shoes lay down a perfect drag bunt for a base hit...that is as creative to me as my wife's perfect calligraphy. Perhaps I am a bit biased towards the creative. My brothers are graphic designers, musicians and film majors, while my sister is a singer/songwriter living in Nashville. Being the "dumb jock" of the family, I made it a point to exercise my creativity in any and all outlets at my disposal. I began to write at an early age and picked up guitar, saxophone, clarinet and drums along the way. Just because I was good at baseball didn't mean that I would allow myself to sell out to the game at the expense of my other talents and attributes. At this point in my life, writing is my creative outlet, but I'm also experimenting with other creative endeavors. I'm learning how to cook (mostly gluten-free & paleo) and cultivate a garden (my succulent collection is getting pretty impressive). I'm also toying around with the idea of different iphone photography projects and the long term goal of possibly writing a book. Some old-school people might say that doing all of these things might hinder my baseball playing. That a ballplayer should play ball and not clutter his mind with frivolous activities that don't affect the game. My official opinion, however, is that all of my creative outlets do affect the game. Every time I practice thinking outside the box, every time I strum a guitar, plant a flower or sit at a keyboard and contemplate how to express what's brewing inside my mind, It prepares me to execute well on the mound.

It's the 8th inning of a one run game. We have the lead and they have 3, 4, 5 coming up in the lineup. I've already faced them three times that day and dozens of times over the course of a season. There is a way to get them out, there always is, but it's up to my imagination to figure out what the answer is on that given day. I've practiced my fastball, curveball, cutter and changeup thousands of times, but how often have I flexed the creative muscle required to attack these hitters on this day? I believe in living a holistic lifestyle where work, food, creativity, faith and leisure are all interconnected. If everyday I can work on all of these things, then when that moment comes I won't have to worry about being prepared. Simply living my life and cultivating all of the talents/passions that have been entrusted to me will prepare me to succeed. I refuse to be a dumb jock. Life (baseball life, particularly) is too short to pigeon-hole myself into what a stereotypical ballplayer has evolved into. It doesn't matter what you do for work or play, YOU ARE CREATIVE. Let's flex our creative muscle and see what we happens!

I will be starting a series on Instagram (@cmchugh) using the hashtag #UnleashMyCreative. Whenever you use/see creativity in places/people that aren't stereotypically "creative" take a picture of it, write a caption and hashtag #UnleashMyCreative. It's all around us, everywhere we look. Go out, be brave, be creative.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Baseball Takes

The season ended, the last pitch was thrown for the Astros, and we boarded our 43rd plane of the year. It was roughly 11:15 pm as we descended over Atlanta, and all I could think about was how much I missed that place. I missed the trees lining the freeway and the familiar skyline rising into the warm, late summer air. I missed how the roads have no discernible patterns (thanks Gen. Sherman) and how, if you time it just right, you can beat the traffic by cutting through the east side neighborhoods. I missed my family and friends and familiar faces. I missed birthdays and weddings and holidays. As I was thinking about the things I missed (longed for nostalgically), I began to realize all the things I missed (out on) because of baseball. Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to conjure up some great sympathy for professional baseball players. I was just keenly aware of the things that have already, and must continue to be, sacrificed at the altar of the game. One fact of our life is tried and true. Baseball takes.

It's been a month since my season ended, and home has really started to take shape...starting with an actual home. We bought a house towards the end of the season (after seeing it one time for 15 minutes during our 3 day all star break, naturally). Baseball takes our free time. There are no such things as weekends during the 7+ months of the season. Days become a blur of alternating homestands and roadtrips. 10-15 days at a time without an off day. No Holidays either. We play on all the major holidays from Valentine's Day to Labor Day. Baseball even takes a normal dinner time and moves it to 11:45 pm. I'm not gonna say that baseball makes me eat Taco Bell at midnight...but, it kind of does. Being home and seeing my friends follow their normal work schedule reminds me that baseball takes the 9-5 workday and makes it 1-11. These things are inconvenient, sure, but baseball demands relational sacrifice and that pill is much harder to swallow.

I remember a few years back when one of my buddies was getting married. It was going to be a perfect summer wedding on the beach in South Carolina. I, of course, would be playing ball all summer and thus unable to attend. Knowing this, he still invited us to the wedding and even asked if I could be a groomsman. I had to regretfully decline both of the invitations, and my only contribution to the wedding was a super nice wedding gift (my wife has a gift for picking out fancy kitchen tools). As the rest of our friends started getting engaged, there were no more groomsman invites. No more holding out hope that I could "get away" for a couple days to celebrate the biggest day of their lives. Baseball takes Spring/Summer weddings, birthdays, graduations (including my own wife's), etc. and makes them novelties of the past for me. The only remnants of these special events are pictures and status updates via social media. I scroll through my Instagram feed (@cmchugh) and facebook wall and feel myself falling a little further out of touch with the most important people in my life. It becomes more than a crippling case of FOMO (fear of missing out). It's closer to FOFOOTF (fear of falling out of touch, forever). When the offseason comes it's wonderful to see your loved ones' faces you haven't seen in over half a year, but sort of horrifying when you meet the 8 month old cousin that didn't exist when you left. True story.

Not only does baseball take other people's important events away, it also dictates when we can have ours. Thinking of starting a family? If we have a baby in the middle of the season I get 3 days to fly from wherever I am (based on our history, let's assume it'll be as far away as possible), see my wife give birth, hold my first child and be back at the park ready to play. Not ideal, obviously. For that reason, giving birth in the offseason is clearly preferable. To do this, however, there is roughly 3 months from new years to opening day (april 1) to conceive. Baseball takes what should be a natural and organic process and shrinks the timeline into a stressful sprint to parenthood. Some players get lucky and nail to the schedule perfectly, for others (like so many) it isn't that easy and the 3 days during the summer is all they get.

On the subject of wives, baseball has taken my wife's business on a winding journey through 18 houses, countless cities and far from the consistency that she would have if I had a normal 9-5. Only because she is a BOSS has her business survived (even thrived at times), but my decision to play baseball has pulled the E-brake on her enterprising too many times. Baseball puts money in my wallet and takes it out of hers.

Once again, I don't want this to sound like I am complaining. I've taken chartered flights all across the country, stayed in 5 star hotels, eaten at the fanciest restaurants, discovered the best hole in the wall places, met celebrities, met the best fans ever and enjoyed making a living playing the greatest game on the planet. I love it. It's worth it. But standing around our newly built firepit yesterday with my closest friends in the world, I saw all of the things it takes to play baseball and all the things/people baseball takes in return. Sometimes I wish baseball wasn't so jealous and that she shared more of her time with the other important things in my life...because I miss them. Baseball won't last forever, that is a fact, but the people crowded around the fire, drinking beer, sharing stories and inside jokes, will be around long after the game is over for me. My 4 months of offseason is down to 3 now. Here's to investing in the things that last.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Good Days And Bad Days

I always say that when writing, motivation and perspective are the two most important things. Perhaps I'm motivated to write, but not enough time has passed for the events of which I am motivated to write about have any real context. On the other hand, there might be a great subject primed and ready to go, but the inspiration to write it fails me. Either way, people kept telling me "You need to write about this season. So many things that have happened!" Therein lies precisely my dilemma.

Things this season seems to be happening at such a rapid pace that I haven't felt capable of sitting and digesting all of it without fear of missing something else. It's like a roller coaster that keeps making sharp turns and dips while all the people standing in line keep screaming at you to take a good picture. There's a reason so few players (especially in the course of a 162 game baseball season) write, journal, chronicle, etc. their experiences. I had fans and reporters coming up to me after my first start of the season telling me that surely I would have to blog about that night. 12 strikeouts! No runs! It's basically written itself, right? And maybe they were right. But the reality of the matter is that after celebrating well that night with a glass of wine and some dark chocolate Raisinets, I had mentally moved onto my next start. I woke up early the next morning before our day game and was the first to the field, knowing that I had to eat, run, throw, lift and go over video before the 12:05 game began. For better or worse that's the nature of this game. It leaves little time for dwelling on things, good or bad. 5 days later I had another good outing at home. I was fortunate enough to throw into the 9th inning for the first time in my major league career and had a chance for my first shutout as well. Neither the complete game nor the shutout remained intact, but it was, nevertheless, one of the best games I've pitched in my short career thus far. I was greeted with not one, but two, Gatorade baths and a bunch of hugs and kisses from my wife and family afterwards. Once again we celebrated well; this time with friends, a couple local beers and some pimento cheese (classy, i know). Yet just as before, once that night was over, so were the warm fuzzy feelings of success.

The next day brought more of the same questions and pleadings from friends and media alike. "Write!" "Tell us what it feels like to have success like this after being so mediocre for the last two years" (I'm paraphrasing, but you get the point). For whatever reason, however, both the motivation and perspective didn't feel right. Maybe it was a superstitious fear that as soon as I wrote down what it felt like it would be over. Maybe it was a selfish longing to hold onto the emotions that those two weeks had given me. You know, keep something for myself. Either way, I didn't write, and when the sun rose the next morning I was once again full steam ahead for my next start.

I'm a man of routine. I had 7 days between start number 2 and 3, and I did pretty much everything the exact same as the previous week. I did the same workouts. I got all of the same treatment from our trainers. I even ate at the same Mexican restaurant the night before my start just as I did the week prior. But if I had any faith in superstition, it was broken that night of my 3rd start. It wasn't that I pitched poorly. I actually felt good out there! It wasn't that I gave up a million runs (although 6 is pretty close). It was the simple fact that all things equal, I should've done really well against the team I did really well against 15 days beforehand. But baseball isn't a simple game. Sure everyone gets 3 strikes and you have to get 3 outs, but beyond the playing rules there are so many variables that discourage consistently great performances. Perhaps that's why streaks in baseball are so fun to watch. Players defying the "baseball gods" by stringing together success after success. And still, they all come to an end. For me, it was two really good starts before the odds caught up with me.

Sitting in the locker room after that start, cameras and microphones in front of my face, I was asked what the difference was between that night and the previous starts. My answers were generic. Stuff wasn't as sharp. Give credit to the other guys, they swung the bat well. Wish I could've given our team some more innings. All true answers, but not the truth that was ringing between my ears. What I really wanted to say, the real difference between this start and the other starts, was nothing. I had prepared the same, given the same effort against the same team and had come out on the short end this time. Baseball has a way of evening things out over the long run...a concept that's hard to grasp when you, as a player, don't know how long that run will be. Before, in my career, I would worry that one bad outing would define me. That if I pitched poorly I would get sent down, and if I got sent down or designated enough, teams would have a bad opinion of me. It was a self fulfilling prophecy. I would pitch poorly (because, as we already said, everyone does at some point), freak out that it was the end, heap more and more pressure on, only to find myself back on the mound again fighting for my baseball life. It was unsustainable and draining in every way. My wife and I, over the course of our 5 years of marriage/baseball, have tried really hard to fight that mentality. We prayed for patience and perspective, and practiced living it out as often as possible. But until this season I wasn't sure if it had really sunk in.

That night, however, standing tall and undaunted after a loss...I realized that it had. Days like that are going to happen. In baseball and life, there will be good days and bad, but they are both fleeting. Each day can only hold 24 hours, so when life is good CELEBRATE WELL! And when life is tough, remember that there is a newer one, a potentially much better one, just on the other side of the horizon. In the end, we will be judged by the entire body of work, so don't let one good day paralyze you with contentment and don't let the bad ones crush your resolve. Keep plugging away and chances are, in the end, you'll end up right where you're supposed to be.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Field 5 All-Stars

It was the last week of Spring training, and I sat watching the pre-game warm ups on field 5. Stretching on the right field line were a smattering of players, all at differing levels of the minor leagues...but minor leaguers all the same. Some of them were playing just for a chance at making a club. Some were already cemented into a roster spot on one of the 6 minor league affiliates. Most were young. Some were older. All were tired. This was week 7 of camp and most everybody was over playing games where nobody kept score. Where statistics don't matter, and on field 5 where the games more resemble The Sandlot than Minute Maid Park.

The way the facility was set up, each full season affiliated team had a field to itself. The big stadium was for the big leaguers, obviously. Fields 2-4 were for A-AAA respectively. Then, back about 400 yards from the rest, field 5 stood in solitary confinement. It was reserved for the rookie ball guys and whatever other castoffs needed to get some work in. Those players relegated to the daily game on the back field gave themselves the ironic and self deprecating nickname of "field 5 all-stars". These games on field 5 never had real umpires, instead they commissioned rookie ball coaches to stand behind the pitcher's mound and call balls and strikes. Like I said before, it was always a mish mash of young and old, bright-eyed and bitter, full of expectation and full of unrealized expectations.

As the game began with an unenthusiastic "Play ball..." from the coach/umpire, I could immediately see the difference between players on field 5. It wasn't that the talent levels were so much different between veteran and rookie. In fact, with no names on the back of jerseys it would be nearly impossible to distinguish someone with 5 years of big league time from a player fresh out of the draft...except for one glaring characteristic. I could tell immediately which guys took this field 5 all-star game seriously and which ones saw the game as an obligation beneath their talents or experience. Not to say that either of the groups was right or wrong in the scenario. However, when it came to execution and ultimately the result of the game, those who treated being a field 5 all-star as a worthwhile job came out on top. So as an older player, the running joke continues. It's just accepted that if you are chosen to be a field 5 all-star on any given day, you're probably gonna get shown up by a bunch of fresh faced teenage newbies. And nobody seems to take that reality very seriously, because the thought is that when games really begin to matter, the more experienced group can turn it on and compete at the level they should. Maybe they can. Maybe it's as easy as flipping a switch. But if the game of baseball has taught me anything, it's that this game is NOT THAT EASY.

I've been around long enough by now to understand why these things continue to happen, but as I sat and watched a group of young energetic ball players fight and scrap for nine innings in front of no fans on one of the last days of camp, I saw something that resonated. The rookie field 5 players took their back field game just as seriously as the big leaguers took their big league game. They don't know any better because that's all they get. Their lack of experience makes every field 5 game the most important game. But because the older guys have seen what else is out there, the field 5 game feels like a demotion unworthy of their best efforts. The lie in that logic, however, is that just because where you are isn't as "flashy" or important, that the work you're doing is also not important. I feel like we've all experienced this to an extent in our lives. Perhaps you've spent 7 long years working hard and getting the best grades at a good college and law school, only to be saddled with a first job that has you pushing papers 80 hours a week for little pay. Maybe you changed career fields and starting from square one seems like a giant step back. Quite possibly a child or older adult came into your life and "work" became less suit and tie and more diapers and strained peas. Whatever the case, I encourage all of us to remember that work as a field 5 all-star, though maybe less sexy, is just as important as big league work. The better and more consistently we execute our jobs on the back fields of life, the more prepared and confident we will be when we're invited back to the big ones.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Report Date 2014

I was about 30 miles outside of Kissimmee, FL when I realized it. I had already stopped to get gas and lunch, but it had slipped my mind. I was about to attempt navigating through Orlando without any cash for tolls. If you’ve ever driven down to Disney© (the most magical place on earth) then you understand…I should’ve known better. There were a couple of options at my disposal at that point. I could either hope that the tolls took personal checks, of which I would have to write approximately 6 of them for $1.50 a piece. Or, as I chose to do, try the scenic route around Orlando straight to Kissimmee. My GPS said it would add about 30 extra minutes to the drive, which I wasn’t crazy about, but it beat writing a of handful checks, grandma-in-a-grocery-store style.

I got off the expressway and onto the dreaded back roads in all their stoplight glory. I whizzed travelled at exactly the speed limit past cows, pastures, fields of orange trees and the occasional Mickey D's. Once I got closer to Kissimmee (step brother to the most magical place on earth) I began to feel the crawl of traffic, suggesting the “snow birds” and tourists were out in force. 30 minutes turned into an hour, and my limit for traffic on long road trips had officially expired. Finally I rolled into Osceola County Stadium only to be directed into a parking lot for the rodeo next door. Confused at where I was being led, I decided to ask the camo-clad traffic director if this was the way to the Houston Astros major league clubhouse. The look I got was priceless. It was a combination of frustration and judgment, coupled with a cigarette hanging gracefully from his lower lip. Like how could I possibly want to go to a baseball stadium when there was a rodeo literally right in front of me. He begrudgingly pointed me in the direction of the building on the other side of the parking lot and I exited the bull crazed circus as quickly as possible. I headed over to, what was, my new office for the next 6 weeks.

I pulled up in my wife’s dirty 2006 Toyota Corolla. Yes, the same one with the huge dent in the passenger’s side door and an endearing UGA sticker on the rear windshield. 121,000 miles of getting us from point A to point B, with no end in sight. Yet it stood in stark contrast to the rest of the cars in the parking lot. There was a row of rental cars. All identical Chrystler 200 sedans only varying in shades of white and burgundy, and all on loan to ballplayers and coaches who decided renting a car was easier than the drive from their respective homes. My drive was only about 7.5 hours (6.5 without my cashless detour), but some guys coming from up north or out west were looking at 20+ hours trips and a few thousand miles on their whips. A couple thousand miles on the old Corolla wouldn’t do too much to hurt its resale value, but for the guys driving cars without huge dents in them sometimes a rental is better than the miles on those beauties. However, some decided to bring their cars, trucks and SUVs down to camp anyway. And let me tell you, my car was OUT OF PLACE. There were Mercedes, Jaguars, souped-up Jeeps and lifted trucks. Most looked as if they had just been through the wash and detailed with a toothbrush. I proudly rolled my little non gas guzzler into a gravel spot amidst the others, outwardly happy that my wife and I decided not to buy new cars, but inwardly jealous that the clocks in all the other cars probably worked, unlike mine.

Grabbing my Colorado Rockies bag out of the trunk, I felt, for the first time, very self-conscious. I looked like a sort of baseball mutt. I had a New York Mets suitcase and a Colorado Rockies baseball bag, while walking into my new team, the Astros, clubhouse. It felt wrong to do, but that was the hand we had been dealt of over the last 8 months. 3 organizations, each with their own way of doing things (and their own luggage). Walking towards the glass doors, I hoped somebody would simply point me in the right direction. I had already made up my mind that I would walk around that entire building if I had to, looking like I knew exactly what I was doing until someone told me differently. Not the best plan, I know, but you gotta at least act like you belong, right? By the grace of God I opened the right doors and made my way into the major league clubhouse. I popped my head into the first office I came across, which happened to be the clubbies’ domain. Thank goodness! These are the guys that you want to see first, because they’re super nice, super helpful and don’t judge you when you walk in looking like this…

I introduced myself to all of them hoping that the sound of my name would at least ring some bell in their heads that I was supposed to be here. Apparently it did, because they led me to my locker right in the front...right next to the bathrooms. Not sure exactly what the deal is with me and bathrooms, but the world has a way of always putting me close to them. From my college dorm room to multiple big league lockers, the toilet is never more than a few steps away. Maybe it’s the universe trying to tell me “I understand you have bowel issues”, or maybe it just knows that I’m a sucker for looking at myself in the mirror (who isn’t, though). On my chair there was a stack of boxes 5 high. This could best be described as “2nd Christmas”. These were my new shoes, cleats, shirts, jackets, and various other baseball related gear for the new season. My endorsement deals (Yes, people are finally giving me stuff for free!) guaranteed me a certain amount of athletic products from said companies, so I began tearing open the boxes. Like a small child, I ripped them open and tore tissue paper out of the toe of cleats, trying them on to make sure they fit just right. Once satisfied with the experience, I decided it was probably a good idea to put in some face time with as many coaches as were still around. I did my best “little kid trying not to get caught” impression, peeking around corners and into offices until I finally found one that was occupied by men of a distinct age and attire usually characterized by coaches. It was our manager’s office and with him sat our pitching coach and bench coach for the major league team. Now I always consider myself well prepared for encounters like these. I’ll go over a script a few times in my head of probable topics of conversation, tone and body language. Yet when these scenarios present themselves, I never fail to look/act like a confused teenager. When I sheepishly knocked on the door all 3 sets of eyes (6 individual eyes for all you math majors out there) locked on me immediately. I froze. I think everyone in the room was waiting for me to say what I was doing interrupting a coaches’ meeting at 4:30 in the evening, but all I could muster was, “Hey guys. I’m Collin McHugh?” Yes, I phrased it like a question, with the assumption that if I was in the right place they would invite me in, and if not, they’d continue to stare at me awkwardly until I backed out the way I came in.  The seconds that passed after my strange introduction seemed to last forever. I could feel the beads of sweat beginning to form on my forehead, until finally the manager stood up and stretched out his hand. “Welcome to the Astros,” he said. And with that, I breathed an audible sigh of relief and we all exchanged pleasantries. I was on my way out, but before I could get through the door, I heard a voice say those words that everyone longs to hear. The words that mean more to us as social beings than any others. 
“We’re really glad to have you here, son. You belong.”

That pang inside all of us that dreads new experiences is fear. Fear that we won’t be accepted for who we are. Fear that we won’t live up to expectations. Fear of being ostracized. Fear of failure. Fear that we don’t and will never belong. I know that FDR said that the only thing to fear is fear itself, but as we all know, fear can be pretty damn scary. Yet, with a turn of phrase, once person erased all of those fears. Sure, there will always be doubt and second guessing in this game, but the basis for all those fears was erased in that moment. I was told that I belong. That I was in the right place at the right time for a specific purpose. I’m not sure there are more life-giving words that can be spoken, both on the field, off the field and in all of our relationships. 

So camp has begun. It’s well underway at this point and pretty much everything is still up in the air. I don’t know where I’ll be spending my summer, or who will be joining me wherever I land. There are still 3 more weeks left until opening day, and every day affords each of us more opportunity to confirm the words spoken over us.

We belong.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Get Your Arm Up

While throwing my first bullpen in college (Fall 2005), I heard a phrase for the first time. A phrase that would be repeated to me over and over the next 8 years.

   "Get your arm up."

Josh Hopper, my pitching coach at the time, asked me nicely the first time. Almost like a suggestion. I concentrated a little harder on the next pitch. Focusing on my arm slot being a little bit higher, I hit my target with ease. But within 5 pitches I was back to my old habits. My elbow sagging lower and lower. My hand migrating to the side or underneath the baseball. Pitches sailing up and in with no hope of ever reaching the glove. This time coach Hop looked over at me with his unmistakable scowl and yelled "STOP!"

   "I told you to get your arm up and you did. The results were much better, right? So why the hell do you keep dropping your arm? You ok with being mediocre?" He said.

That frustrated me to no end! If I knew how to do it differently in that scenario I obviously would've been doing it. Sure, I knew logically that keeping my arm angle higher and making sure I get my hand on top of the baseball were keys to executing the pitch correctly, but there were years and years of bad habits standing in the way of doing it "the right way." Had I started getting my arm up while playing catch in the front yard at the age of 7, perhaps I would've been more successful now. Had anyone told me growing up that the way I threw wasn't ideal, maybe it wouldn't have been so hard for me to do it correctly in college. My inability to consistently get my arm up wasn't me purposefully doing things the wrong way, it was the result of doing what was easier (more natural) for me to do.

I've seen this played out in other parts of my life as well. For instance, how many times have people told me that I should eat more vegetables? Too many to count. And for the longest time, my response was the same. I would go to Whole Foods (because expensive = healthy, right?), buy some leafy greens and come back home to eat salads for a week. I knew it was good for me. I knew that, in the long run, my body would be better off for it. But without fail, I would get two days into it before finding myself in the drive thru line of Chick-Fil-A, salivating over the aroma of some waffle fries and a chicken sandwich. Once again, it wasn't because I was anti-health that I fled to the nearest fast food restaurant. It was because I didn't grow up eating a lot of vegetables, and as much as I understood and wanted the benefits of eating them, eating fried chicken came more naturally.

Now don't get me wrong. I don't make these examples as an excuse. I'm not trying to explain away my shortcomings as, country music would put it, "products of my raising." In fact, quite the opposite. I've had to work everyday to correct the bad habits I developed growing up...both on the field and off. Not a day goes by during the season that I'm not in front of a mirror practicing my delivery. Trying with every bit of focus I can muster to keep my arm in a good throwing position. It's hard. I sweat a lot. I feel drained at the end of each session. But I know that when the game rolls around, my chances of doing it correctly are much higher. The same goes for my diet. I had to cut out a bunch of stuff, cold turkey. I have to plan out meals and on purpose try new foods that I might hate. I have to eat some organic gluten free oatmeal when all I really want is a warm sweet pastry. Day by day I'm getting better at it, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

The reason I want to remember those examples is so that I don't get too down on myself when I inevitably don't do it right. It's natural that as long as it took me to build up those bad habits, it'll take a good amount of time to break them as well. It's like New Year's resolutions. People get so fired up to do something differently. To make a change. Yet as soon as they fall short, it's as if it was all for naught. BUT THAT"S NOT TRUE!! No one is perfect and very few people, if any, do new things perfectly right off the bat. Breaking habits is hard and it requires patience. You might fail 1, 2 or 50 times, but don't get down on yourself. Just remember that a willingness to do hard things is the first and most difficult step, and that everyday you keep doing it, it gets easier and easier.

I'm sure I will have days where I eat chocolate cake while nobody is looking. And I definitely still have days where, for the life of me, I can't seem to get my arm up (no matter how loud coach Hop is in my head). However, I'm constantly learning that as long as I'm still committed to breaking the bad habits, those shortcomings aren't ultimate failures. Rather, they are natural steps along the path to doing things differently. Doing things better.

"Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat." - F. Scott Fitzgerald