Charity Focus: Signatures For Soldiers

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Whether it’s a signed ticket from being in the right place at the right time or an autographed photo from an athlete to promote the opening of a car dealership, many sports fans have some signed items tucked away in their collections. What makes Tim Virgilio different is that he is using his collectibles to make a difference, rather than just collecting dust in a forgotten box in the attic. Virgilio is the founder of “Signatures For Soldiers,” an arm of Military Missions In Action (MMIA), a registered 501(c)3 charity supporting both veterans and current military members.

MMIA provides home care, repairs and home remodels for disabled veterans and the disabled children of active service members, as well as providing clothing and hygiene items for homeless veterans and sends care packages to deployed military personnel.

Virgilio has been involved with the organization since its inception in 2007, but a move out of North Carolina–home of MMIA– made it difficult to be as involved as he once was. Still desiring to support the organization, in November 2014, Virgilio founded Signatures For Soldiers, to “…use my hobby of autograph collecting to reach out to former MLB players to request that they sign cards that I had so that I could sell the cards and 100% of the money raised, not just the profits.” In just under two years, Signatures For Soldiers has raised over $14,000.

Tim Virgilio and Dodgers outfielder, Josh Reddick

Tim Virgilio and Dodgers outfielder, Josh Reddick

Virgilio takes trading cards, either donated or from his personal collection, and contacts the athlete to see if they would be willing to sign a few cards or make a  personal donation. Once the card or cards have been returned,  they are posted on the Signatures for Soldiers website and made available for purchase, with the full amount donated to the larger MMIA cause.

The support from athletes is nothing short of impressive. While contributions from any professional athlete are appreciated, Signatures For Soldiers has some impressive names amongst their over 300 supporters. Former All-Stars Ivan Rodriguez, Curt Schilling, Delino DeShields and Rob Dibble have contributed, as have  some top minor league prospects such as Jacob Faria, Taylor Motter and Jose Trevino.

Former closer, Rob Dibble, signs autographs for Signatures for Soldiers

Former closer, Rob Dibble, signs autographs for Signatures for Soldiers

Sometimes, the athletes will go above and beyond the initial request and add cards and signed photos from their personal collections. Sometimes, they even add more.

Jose Trevino, a catching prospect in the Rangers organization sent Virgilio a tweet of several signed cards as well as a pair of signed game-used batting gloves. Taylor Motter of the Tampa Bay Rays sent a signed game-used bat, but the biggest surprise came from Lance McCullers Jr., a star pitcher with the Houston Astros.

Lance McCullers used and signed cap and cleats

Lance McCullers Jr.’s used and signed cap and cleats

“Mr. McCullers. . . informed me that the game issued hat and cleats that he wore from the Memorial Day game this season were going to be donated to support my efforts.  True to his word, he donated the hat and cleats and signed all of them.”

You don’t have to be a professional athlete to support Signatures For Soldiers. If you have a dusty old box of baseball cards sitting in a closet somewhere that you can part with, Virgilio can use them.

“If I can make a dollar or two from the donated item, I’m willing to accept it.”

In addition, sending cards to the athletes isn’t free, and any postal supplies would be greatly appreciated as well. Stamps, padded 4×6 envelopes and sharpies are the items most in need, but the support doesn’t need to be tangible. Any assistance getting information about the charity can make a huge difference, as can contacting athletes and asking them to get involved with Signatures For Soldiers. Exposure is key, and any creative way to raise awareness of MMIA and Signatures For Soldiers can make a world of difference.

Prospect Jacob Faria's donated used cleats

Prospect Jacob Faria’s donated used cleats

You can find Tim Virgilio on twitter at: @Sigs4Soldiers and on the web at http://www.signaturesforsoldiers.com as well as on Facebook.

Storming The All Stars

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In honor of the advanced Class A California League celebrating it’s 75th anniversary, the Lake Elsinore Storm hosted the annual California versus Carolina League All Star Game this past Tuesday, the 21, at the Diamond in Lake Elsinore and Lauren and I were fortunate enough to attend.

We had tried to get to the game last summer when it was hosted in Rancho Cucamonga, but my prolonged hospital stay following our horrific car accident endured that we missed it, despite having tickets. When I saw that the 2016 game was being held in Southern California for an unprecedented second straight year I marked the date on my calendar and bought tickets as soon as they went on sale.

Lauren and I took just over an hour to drive to Lake Elsinore and arrived shortly after the gates had opened for the pre-game FanFest. We had no idea what FanFest entailed, but thought it would be fun to try and get some autographs, especially since the Cubs were sending several members of their Advanced A team, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans to the event.

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Most of the ballpark was open to fans and there was a “Fun Zone” available, but the main draw for the FanFest was the chance to meet and get autographs from some of baseball’s future stars. The players from the Carolina League had the first set of autograph sessions, meeting fans for an hour while the California League players took batting practice, and then the leagues switched roles.

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Upon first arriving, we were not entirely sure what was going on, so Lauren went ahead of me on a scouting mission, while I held my ground in what seemed to be the longest of the lines formed around the concourse of the ballpark. Our instincts were right, as it turned out, we were in line to meet 3 of the 4 Pelicans players, including top prospect, Ian Happ, and pitchers, Zach Hedges and Jake Stinnett. Despite the line looking fairly intimidating, we did not wait more than 30 minutes or so and the wait was amusing, with mascots from many of the teams represented at the game wandering the concourse and interacting with fans. I even got a kiss and a beard scratch from Thunder, the Storm’s fuzzy green dog mascot.

When we reached the table with the players they could not have been more gracious. They signed autographs with a smile and gave in for any specialized requests. I got a chance to talk very briefly to Hedges about the fact that we had gone to the same college and Stinnett complimented me on my Pelicans t-shirt (journalistic objectivity be damned.) My one regret for the whole interaction was the fact that for some reason I didn’t ask for a photo with them, which I’m sure they would have willing obliged.

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By the time we had finished collecting our things, the Carolina players were about to head down to batting practice, so Lauren and I headed to the team store to see if there was any specialty All Star game merchandise. We lasted only a few minutes in the jam-packed store and didn’t see anything that particularly struck our fancy so we headed down to our seats, a row behind the visitor’s dugout.

Lauren headed back up to the concourse for some snacks, since we still had about 2 hours until the pre-game festivities would begin and returned with some standard ballpark fare; some nachos, hot dogs and a cold lemonade, all of which were tasty, if unremarkable.

I always enjoy watching batting practice, though in retrospect, I should have sought out some of the California League All Stars for their meet and greet sessions, but the benefits of resting my legs and relaxing for a little bit cannot be overstated.

The pre-game festivities began with a local band doing some *interesting* covers of ’80s rock songs and that was followed up with a helicopter from the local hospital landing on the field and delivering Thunder to the game. The pre-game also featured the induction of the initial class of the California League Hall of Fame, with all of the inductees present to receive the honor in person, which meant fans got to see Jose Cruz, Jr., Storm hitting coach, Xavier Nady, 500 home run club member, Gary Sheffield and MLB Hall of Famer, Rickey Henderson.

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Following the Hall of Fame presentation was the introduction of the All Stars. All of the non-starters were driven to their respective baselines by a parade of classic cars. A Navy parachutist carrying the American flag landed on the field and the game was underway.

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A player for the Lynchburg Hillcats, an Indians farm team, and San Diego native, Greg Allen, got on base as the leadoff hitter and proceeded to steal 2 straight bases and come in to score. The Carolina League never looked back and the game felt like significantly more of a blowout than the score of 6-4 would indicate.

The Carolina All Stars always seemed to have something cooking on offense, and when the pitching allowed men on base, they seemed to get out of it with little to no pressure, until the 9th inning when Potomac Nationals pitcher, Evan Phillips gave up 3 runs and left with men on base. Even then, Pelican starting pitcher, Trevor Clifton came in to slam the door on the attempted comeback and nail down a save.

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Clifton wasn’t the only Pelican to have a great showing at the game, however. While Happ was hitless, he had 2 good at-bats and looked good at second base, which is a relatively new position for him, as a converted outfielder. Both Hedges and Stinnett pitched hitless innings, and Hedges turned a particularly gorgeous double play. Speaking of Hedges, I mentioned earlier that he and I both attended the same college, located about an hour away from the Diamond, and the Zach Hedges fan club was in full force at the game. During his inning pitched, I think we heard the loudest and most enthusiastic cheers during the whole game, including any for local Storm players. It made for a fun environment…particularly for this Pelican fan.

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I’d be remiss not to mention some of the other stars of the game, including the previously mentioned Greg Allen, who in addition to his 2 stolen bases managed to score 3 times, his teammate in Lynchburg, Bobby Bradley, who hit a monster home run and game MVP, Andrew Stevenson from Potomac, who hit 2 triples in a ballpark that seems far too cozy to give up too many extra base hits. If you are looking for some Cal League players to keep your eyes out for, I’d suggest looking at High Desert 2nd baseman Travis Demeritte, who is second in all of the minor leagues in home runs and hit a loud double in the game, San Jose  shortstop CJ Hinojosa who had 2 RBI and his teammate, reliever Rodolfo Martinez who was lighting up the radar gun in the mid-90s.

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I love going to minor league games and seeing some of these talented players so early in their careers. It gives me a sense of pride, a “I saw them first” baseball hipster vibe, and attending the All Star game just heightened that feeling. The Cubs, Giants and Indians (Hillcats) seem to have quite a bit of talent coming up through their systems and it will be nice one day to be able to say “I saw them when…”

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Until next time (…and I promise it won’t be long!)

Keep Trippin’ Baseballs!

 

 

 

18 Years Ago Today

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It’s hard to believe it all happened 18 years ago. I was a sophomore in high school and I rushed home, like always during the baseball season, to try to catch the last few innings of the Cubs game on WGN.

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By the time I had frightened off any younger siblings and changed the channel away from a Barney and Friends rerun it was only the 7th inning…and something amazing was happening. A rookie–a kid, really, not much older than I was–had 12 strikeouts coming into that 7th inning and I was spellbound. I sat in awe for the next 3 innings as Kerry Wood struck out 8 of the last 9 Astros he faced.

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This was not a weak hitting Astro team, either. Craig Biggio is in the Hall of Fame, largely for his hitting prowess and Jeff Bagwell should join him in Cooperstown soon. Derek Bell, Brad Ausmus and Moises Alou were above average with the bat also. Ironically, the only hit allowed by Wood was by light-hitting shortstop, Ricky Gutierrez on a ball deep to the 5.5 hole, between third base and shortstop.

It has been speculated, and I tend to agree, that allowing the hit helped take some of the pressure of a potential no-hitter away from Wood, pitching in only his 5th MLB game, and gave him the freedom to pitch the way that he wanted to.

The game took a mere 2 hours and 19 minutes to complete, and was played in front of less than 16,000 fans, in defiance of the legion of fans who now claim to have been in attendance.

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20 strikeouts in a single game set the National League record, which has since been tied by Randy Johnson and tied the MLB mark, set twice by Roger Clemens, but what needs to be noted, once again, is the fact that Wood was pitching in the major leagues for only the 5th time, whereas both Johnson and Clemens were well established veterans for their record-setting games.

According to Bill James it was the greatest game ever pitched and it set Wood on track for a 13-6 record and, eventually, the honor of the National League Rookie of the Year. While his career never quite blossomed into one of Hall of Fame caliber, he was a 2x All Star and has become one of the faces of the Chicago Cubs and a wonderful ambassador for the team.

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I always felt a connection to “Kid K,” likely due to the similarity in our ages, and he is one of my all time favorite Cubs, certainly of the late ’90s/early 2000s. Congratulations on your amazing game and thank you for giving me such a wonderful memory.

Rick Monday: Patriot

 

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It was 40 years ago today that Rick Monday performed the greatest play of his 19 year MLB career. He didn’t hit a home run in extra innings or make an amazing catch to preserve a perfect game. It wasn’t anything like that. What Monday did, for those uninformed, was to save the American flag.

Monday, playing center field for the Cubs in the bottom of the 4th inning when he noticed two protestors jump on the field and kneel down and begin trying to light an American flag. This did not sit well with Monday, a veteran of the Marine Corps reserves.

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Now, the words of Vin Scully.

“And wait a minute, there is an animal loose. Alright…I am not sure what he’s doing out there. It looks like he’s going to burn a flag! And Rick Monday runs and takes it away from him! I think the guy was going to set fire to the American flag! Can you imagine that?”

Monday grabbed the flag and turned and ran it over to the Dodgers dugout for safekeeping as stadium security apprehended the protestors; a father and his 11-year old son. The father was later fined, charged with trespassing and placed on probation.

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When Monday came up for his next at bat, the scoreboard flashed the words, “RICK MONDAY… YOU MADE A GREAT PLAY…” and the Dodger fans gave him a well deserved standing ovation. Monday was later presented with the flag on May 4, 1976 on “Rick Monday Day” at Wrigley Field once the Cubs returned home. He has since been given the Peace 1 Earth medallion by the organization Stand Up 4 Vets and was later gifted with a flag flown above Valley Forge, in recognition of his patriotism and valor shown in the Dodger Stadium outfield.

I was able to attend Rick Monday bobblehead night at Dodger Stadium in 2013 (full write up here) and am pleased to note that when the videoboard showed the footage of Monday’s historic grab, it was once again accompanied by a standing ovation.

In a time when politics and policies are becoming more and more divisive, it’s nice to look back at an event like this–by no means earth-shattering or revolutionary–and remember that there are some things that can just unite groups of people, regardless of socio-political-economic division. The act that Monday stopped that afternoon was wrong and almost everyone in that ballpark knew it at the time and seemingly still know it today.

Thank you, Mr. Monday!

“If you’re going to burn the flag, don’t do it around me. I’ve been to too many veterans’ hospitals and seen too many broken bodies of guys who tried to protect it.”

–Rick Monday

We Will Miss You, Big Man

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With the news today that Kyle Schwarber is out for the season with a torn ACL and LCL, I am at a loss for words. I saw him just a few days ago in Anaheim, hitting bombs in batting practice. He will be missed dramatically.

However, as someone who suffered serious leg injuries and knowing the kind of person Kyle is, I have absolutely no doubt that he is going to work his tail off and be back to 100% next season, proving wrong all the predictors of doom currently raging on the internet.

Thoughts, prayers and best wishes are with the big man from us here at Tripping Baseballs!

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Cubs on Pace for 162-0!

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Let me make this clear. The Angels are my second favorite team in baseball. Most years I will root for them to go 162-0. This year, however, I was pulling for a 158-4 record and the first two games of the season were two of my anticipated and hoped for losses. And they try to tell me that dreams don’t come true.

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We arrived to Angel Stadium shortly before the gates opened and parked literally right next to the home plate entrance. The stadium lot is only $10 this season, either due to more parking now that the Amtrak station moved down the road or the fact that the Angels were tired of getting undercut by nearby businesses renting out spaces in their parking facilities. I was prepared to pay up to $20 due to my lack of mobility and discomfort walking the half mile from the outlying parking options, so to see the price at half of the cost to park at Disneyland, I was elated.

The aforementioned lack of mobility discouraged me from heading to the first base side of the ballpark, where the Cubs dugout was, to seek autographs or baseballs and Lauren and I headed straight to our seats above the bullpens. I spent much of the pre-game as close to the field as I could get, watching the Cubs take batting and fielding practice, watching Jon Lester warm up and chatting with fellow Cub fans.

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The interesting thing about the pre-game activity was the fact that Manny Ramirez was hanging out in left field with Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber and even shagging a few baseballs himself. No one called to him for autographs or baseballs, and I wonder if no one recognized him, or if people just didn’t care. I tend to think it was the former.

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While I didn’t notice any of the Cubs signing autographs at all during the pre-game, I later heard that Jake Arrieta was shagging baseballs in the outfield, pulling a pen from his back pocket, signing the ball and tossing it into the stands, which I happen to love. Post-game I saw the bullpen guys throw at least a half-dozen baseballs into the crowd, so the early reports of the Cubs being not so fan friendly on the road seem to me to be a few jilted autograph dealers upset that maybe the players weren’t signing a dozen baseballs for every fan who asked.

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While I was watching the Cubs get ready, Lauren did a reconnaissance mission of our seating area so that we could plan our food for the evening. I like nothing better than a basic hot dog at the ballpark, but sometimes it’s nice to branch out. We opted for the burger bites, which are essentially White Castle sliders, minus the onions. They were topped with a sweet “thousand island-esque” sauce that was fine, but really, I could take it or leave it. They were served in a bucket with fries that were average ballpark fries. Overall, I’d get them again.

In the same vein, later in the game we shared a sticky sweet strawberry “rum-a-rita” in a lurid shade of red and the basic Angel dog. Both items will easily be repeated as the season goes on.

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The game was great, as Jon Lester was dealing against an anemic Angel offense and the Cubs bats must have brought some of the heat of Las Vegas with them when the came to Anaheim. Home runs by Matt Szczur, Dexter Fowler and one-half of the Bryzzo Souvenir Company as well as a pure hustle double by David “Grandpa” Ross highlighted the offensive onslaught.

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There was a very curious moment in the top of the second inning when Angel pitcher, Andrew Heaney threw one pitch to Anthony Rizzo, stepped off the mound and disappeared into the dugout. I wasn’t sure whether he had been caught doing something illegal to the baseball, but I never saw the umpire gesture that he had been tossed from the game, and immediately jumping on Twitter, learned that he was dealing with a nosebleed. I don’t know if there is any correlation at all, but the Angels placed him on the disabled list today with a muscle strain. Not a good thing for a franchise that is already very thin in the pitching department.

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Lester pitched 7 strong innings and only allowed 4 hits, which marks a significantly better start than his first Cub start last season. Later, Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood and Pedro Strop all made appearances out of the bullpen and all looked very sharp.

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As I said, we were seated right above the bullpens, in an area with a few fairly vocal groups of Cub fans, including a drunk man in a Cubs onesie and two of my favorite people from work, Shaun and Arvin. I really want the Cubs hockey-style sweatshirt that Arvin was showing off.

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We left the game with little to no hassle and as we sat in the parking lot of the Big A I plugged in my iPhone and played “Go Cubs, Go” since the Angels didn’t have the common courtesy to play it for us after the “W.”

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Thank you Angels for the 2-0 start. You can start winning now. At least until you head out to Wrigley later this summer! As usual, a gallery of game photos can be found right here.

Until next time,

Keep Tripping Baseballs!

Cubs Are Exhibitionists in Anaheim

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While I don’t fully understand the reasons that the Cubs would play an exhibition game on the day before they open the season against the team with whom they are going to play to start the aforementioned season I cannot complain too much. The fairly ill-conceived game provided me with two opportunities to see my Cubs in my town, since tickets to the actual opening day were selling for slightly more than I was willing, or able, to pay. Adding to that, the fact that the exhibition was taking place on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I was sold on the idea.

The crowd for the game was significantly less than I had anticipated, possibly due to the fact that the two teams were playing “for real” the following day, and there was a healthy number of Cub fans in attendance, many located on the first base side close to the Cubs dugout.

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The thing that irritated me a bit was the fact that while Joe Maddon started the same lineup that will be starting on Opening Day, the Angels didn’t even bother with trotting out the regulars, even for a few innings. Mike Trout and Albert Pujols were both conspicuously MIA.

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The ballpark appears much the same as it has over the past few years with no real notable additions or subtractions, either aesthetically or in relation to food offerings, which is a bit of a shame.

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All of that being said, however, it was great to get back out to a baseball game, and while the end result of a Cubs loss is never a good thing, Kyle Hendricks pitched well and struck out more than a batter an inning and the Bryzzo boys crushed a pair of home runs adding to one from Addison Russell. Albert Almora showed his amazing defensive skills, as well.

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I will also be attending game two, featuring Jon Lester and hopefully seeing the Cubs head to Arizona with a 2-0 record!

As always, the full gallery of photos can be found here.

Until next time,

Keep Tripping’ Baseballs!

This Thing Still Exists?

Hey!

How’s it going?

The sun is shining. The swallows are returning to Capistrano and baseball is alive and well in Arizona and Florida.

It has now been well over a year since my last blog post and almost a full baseball season and a half since I have really contributed on anything even remotely looking like a regular basis. For that, I am sorry.

Last summer I was in a fairly horrific car accident and am only now getting back into the most remote imitation of “normal life.”

Suffice it to say that with a broken back and shattered leg, I only made it to two games the entire last season, both at Petco Park, and sadly, I was focusing more on making it all the way through the game rather than documenting either the ballpark or the games.

I also missed out on writing about the most exciting season that I have experienced in a long time…possibly ever. Luckily my convalescence allowed me to watch many, many Cubs games and just enjoy the heck out of the team.

See? There’s always a bright spot of some kind!

I will refrain from making any promises this season, because those don’t seem to work out well for me, but I will do my very best to post regularly here and share my love of baseball and its many facets with the internet. Whether the internet wants it or not!

Until next time,

Keep Tripping’ Baseballs!

Goodbye, Mr. Cub

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Ernie Banks was one of the best of us. Despite being a Hall of Fame baseball player who was denied any sort of post-season activity by virtue of being a life-long Cub, he never showed any resentment. He never asked “Why not me?” as vastly less talented players got to taste the World Series and, later, playoffs. He always seemed happy to be alive, and the fact that he is no longer so is a terrible thing for the Cubs, baseball and the world at large.

The quote most associated with Banks is “It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two!” But according to Banks, the line had a bit more to it than people assume. Speaking to Richard Dean of the Houston Chronicle, Banks recalled,

“”It was about 105 degrees in Chicago, and that’s a time when everybody gets tired. I came into the clubhouse and everybody was sitting around and I said, ‘Beautiful day. Let’s play two!’ And everybody looked at me like I was crazy. There were a couple of writers around and they wrote that and it stayed with me.”

That was Banks in a nutshell. As an All-Star and future Hall of Famer, Banks could have sat in the clubhouse and sulked about having to play in the middle of the day in the heat of summer, but he didn’t, and that is what will be most closely associated with him, his sunny outlook on life.

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Even once he retired, he was the face of the Cubs and remained so until his death. As blog readers will recall, I attended the 100th Anniversary of Wrigley Field and Banks was in attendance, and seemed to be in great health and, naturally, great spirits. He walked on the field with no assistive devices, visiting with teammates and old friends, looking more spry than some of the alumni years younger.

My personal recollection of Mr. Banks was at my very first Cubs Convention when I was 14. The Convention was less hectic than it is now, and you didn’t need to hit the lottery to meet with any of the players or celebrities. Naturally, Mr Banks was one of the more popular autographs to obtain, so I hopped in with the mob, hoping to get him to sign my baseball. My mom attended the convention with me and was pressed into duty as my personal photographer.

As she was positioning herself to get a good shot of Mr Banks and me, he looked up at her and said “Young lady, is your boy in this line?” My mother affirmed and all of a sudden he called for me. “Where’s your boy? Where’s your boy? You get him up here to me!”

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I felt like I floated through the line and I shook his hand and he signed the one single-signed baseball I got that entire weekend. As you can see, almost 20 years later and I still tell the story of the time that Ernie Banks “hit on my mom.” It’s just a shame that I’ll never get to tell him the tale.

Goodbye, Mr Cub. I never saw you play in person, but I’ve seen the old tapes. Heck, I even made myself listen to Jack Brickhouse calling home run #500 tonight. I kept it together a little bit better than I did when I had heard you passed away, as I was sitting at the In ‘N Out burger tonight.

I know Harry and Ronnie were just waiting for you to get there, and I know that heaven looks a lot like Wrigley Field–in fact, I’d even swear there’s a little bit of ivy covering up those pearly gates tonight.

I’m sorry you never got to be a part of that World Series win at Wrigley, but don’t you worry. We aren’t going to forget you when the time comes. Keep smiling and remember, the sun is always shining up there and it’s always a doubleheader.

I miss you already.

That Didn’t Take Long

Well, it didn’t take too long for me to have to alter my 2015 plans–a mere 16 days– and in reality, they were changed sooner than that. Obviously I am not currently attending the Cubs Convention. Some more health issues reared their ugly head and, in reality, I have nowhere near the stamina that such an undertaking requires. So, while my Cubbie brethren are freezing in the windy city, I’m stuck in Southern California with balmy breezes blowing in through my window.
Fear not, readers. This setback may be a blessing in disguise, as I am now left with some unused air miles and money earmarked for baseball adventures. Suffice it to say that now this season’s plans may be grander than originally planned.
I am currently not able to completely divulge what is on tap, but it is going to be a lot of fun and, as always, I will be posting all the details here–even if that means I’m just shouting into the empty void.
I also plan to write-up a charity event with CJ Wilson that I was able to attend last summer that was really a lot of fun, so look for that soon.
Until next time, keep tripping baseballs!

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