Saturday, March 7, 2009

Michael's Memorial Service

Dear Friends: Michael’s memorial services were held on March 2, 2009 in Taipei, and included a wonderful video tribute made by his Diggers teammates. On behalf of our entire family, I want to thank each of you, his beloved friends, for your wonderful friendship to him while he was with us, and your condolences on his passing. Per Michael’s wishes, his ashes will be kept at a memorial center in the hills of suburban Taipei.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Michael S. and the Asian Stereotype

Whenever Mike went on vacation, or even the random site inspection, he was particularly aversive to carrying a camera. I was astounded at first and asked him what his issue was. He basically said he didn't want to look like all of those Asian tourists everywhere carrying a camera and snapping pictures of everything there was.

Like this guy:

Michael S. calls in sick.

Mike and I usually arrived for work around the same time every day, 8:30 or so. One day I get in and after about 15 minutes Mike wasn't in yet and it was then they I saw the light on my phone indicating a voicemail.

I call the voicemail and listen to the one message that turns out to be from Mike. It was left about an hour or so earlier and on it a gravelly voiced Mike is saying that he didn't feel well, that he thought he ate some bad chicken parm the night before and he wouldn't be in that day.

It turned out to be a big joke from that day forward and we would always refer to calling in sick as "eating chicken parm." Sometimes it was preemptive, like "I'm having chicken parm for dinner tonight so I'll see you in two days." Ultimately it was just shortened to "chicken parm" and that's all that was needed.

Erik Backer

Michael S. goes to Atlanta

Greetings everyone. For those that don't know me, I am Erik Backer. I met Mike in late 1999 at my first job out of college at Arbor. We worked there together for about a year and a half before he left to go to APF in Manhattan. A year after that, he brought me over to work in his department. Mike was my boss, my colleague and my friend.

I'm a little late to the game with the blogs but hopefully everyone out there is checking back periodically. I decided that instead of one all-encompassing post, I will break this up into pieces sharing some memories a few a time. Hopefully I can convey them in a way that everyone can understand what it was like to be there.

The first story I will share is when Mike and I went on a 2-day, 2-night business trip to Atlanta for some pointless conference (aren't they all). Tuesday we attended the first day of the conference and we struggled to stay awake. That night, as luck would have it, the Braves were playing a home game against my beloved Mets so we bought tickets and went to Turner Field. It had monsooned earlier in the day but the rain finally broke and we were gonna get this game in. Or so we thought. I found out a few days after returning that when the monsoon returned in the third inning, that game would turn out to be the first ever rainout in Turner Field history (which was only about 6 years or so at the time). So we walked out in the rain w/out an umbrella and asked where the cabs were. We were directed to a particular street but b/c the game ended earlier than anyone expected, there were no cabs. It was at this piont we were approached by a guy that looked like this:

and was wearing this:

and he says..."yo you guys need a cab?" And we were a little caught off guard and partially desperate and said "yeah" and he said "follow me, I got you a cab." Since he started walking in the same direction as the rest of the crowd exiting the stadium we figured it wouldn't hurt to at least see what this guy was offering.
This is still in the rain, mind you.
We get to an area near a newstand at an intersection and he tells us his cousin is coming, just to wait. Mike and I look at each other and, rather belatedly, conclude this guy is full of shit. There isn't a cab coming. There's a CAR coming, but it ain't no cab. And the only place it was taking us was nowhere. And since we didn't want to be a pair of New Yorkers that fell for this low-budget scam all the way down in Atlanta we decided to leave. So we looked around and there happened to be a yellow cab in the gas station across the street so we made a break for it. It turned out the cab was nearly full and from New York. But we squeezed in anyways and we left the cracked out Emitt Smith standing there waiting on the corner for his "cousin" to come pick us up.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

From Mark H, friend and Digger teammate

I'm the guy who replaced Mike as the primary pitcher on the Diggers, if "replace" is even the word.

Even on a recreational softball team, Mike stood out by belonging to his position in a way that seemed out of the ordinary. The rest of us were always misfits and moving parts; he owned the mound. It's no easy thing taking over for someone who is essential to a position, especially when you fall short in so many ways. This in part explains why we now have no fewer than three pitchers who will rotate into different games at different times.

One anecdote in particular seems to cut straight to the heart of Mike's reputation, both on our team and in our league, and I'd like to share it. The first year I pitched (the year Mike took ill) we played a game against a team very well-known to us, one we had played against in many tight games in the past. I pitched decently, just well enough to win a close game, and after the game, a player from the opposing team passed me on the field and congratulated me. He told me that when he and his teammates saw me warming up before the game, they calculated they stood a much better chance of winning because they "didn't have to face that awesome Asian guy, and will we have to face him next time?"

It's a funny thing to be told by someone you just beat that they're still more afraid of the guy who held the position before you than they are of you, but the big world of New York City softball is small like that. People remember the good guys.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

From Paul G., a Diggers Teammate

Michael was a Digger from the beginning. We both came out to the Yorkville League’s tryouts, and were put together on a team called the Replacements, which was composed of all the new people who wanted to play in the league but didn’t have a team. Our coaches’ name was Ray, and we did ok that year. At the end of the season our pitcher, Purple, asked me if I wanted to be part of a “competitive team” the next year? I said sure. She suggested we get all the best players from the Replacements, find some new folks, and form a new team. As our trusty Short Center Fielder with the reliable bat, Mike was on the list of invitees.

As that winter went by I hadn’t heard from Purple and had to decide if we were going to form this new team, and what to call it. I wanted a name that spoke to both baseball and radical politics. I thought of the Bombers, but that name was taken, and had Yankees’ connotations. Walking along McCarren Park in Williamsburg against a late February wind, I thought of the name Diggers, as a reference both to digging out a ball from the dirt, or running hard around the bases, and to the direct actionists of the 1600s who claimed the common land for the people after the English Revolution. Mike was one of the first people I called to ask if he would like to play for this new team. He said Yes, and became one of our steadiest and most reliable players.

Mike was always there in the early days of the Diggers, a pre-email, pre-cell phone era when fielding a complete team was a sometimes difficult task. Several times we’d come up short on the required number of women players needed. In those instances we’d play the other team anyways, just for fun. Purple would never stick around if the game didn’t count, but Mike always would. He just loved to play.

I was manager for the first few years of the fabled Diggers’ franchise, and towards the end of my tenure, after Purple and her awesome younger cousin had moved on from their pitching duties, Mike approached me and said he could pitch. For the first several years of playing as the Diggers, Mike was our amazing Short Center Fielder. He both embodied and defined the position. Some managers will play four outfielders across the outfield, but Mike made an excellent case for playing three across, with him roving the area behind Second Base. He was very fast, and made more shoe-string catches than I can count, always running hard and coming out of nowhere to make the out. It was truly incredible to watch.

So when Mike, our awesome Short Center Fielder, approached me wanting to pitch, I was skeptical. Being a softball manager, one hears all sorts of things, often about how great a shortstop someone really is, or how they can play Third Base, or should really be hitting Clean Up. Then, in a game situation, one finds out the harsh reality of that players’ need to stay in Right Field, or further down in the order. We were desperate for pitching, and I thought Mike was just being nice to offer. But we started to work him in for a few innings, and it became obvious that he had some ability. In time, Mike would develop into one of the greatest softball pitchers many of us have ever seen.

Those of us who had the fortune to know and play with Mike remember him as both a fierce competitor on the field, and a very gentle, caring person off the field. He always exhibited a genuine concern for his teammates well being and personal lives, while playing every game as if his life depended on it. We will miss Mike, for the rest of our lives. He was a friend and a teammate, and a Digger for life.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

From Jonathan K., a Diggers Teammate

Farewell to a Man I Admire

For the past 11 years, it has been my proud honor to serve as the lead organizer for what has become a very special group of individuals, in a place where such communities are so vitally important to our emotional and spiritual well-being. As human beings, we feel most alive when we act collectively, together in a common endeavor – especially one in which we cannot succeed without the others we must depend on, and find a common way which must always be greater than the sum of its parts.

Today I look upon my ship and I see a picture it will take me a very long time to get used to: a vessel w/ a missing man. It is my hope that my friends can find solace, however, in the knowledge that Michael was so vitally important in building the kind of strong community that allows us to feel this way about him. We grieve, but we know without ever having to say it that every step we now take together honors our departed friend. Our games, our rituals, and our traditions now take on a far more special meaning for us.

Triumphant Comeback

In the winter 2007, I received a phone call from my star lefty, who’d been in all of our thoughts and prayers, asking me very simply to “save a spot for me, Jon.” Frankly, it was sort of a momentarily uplifting feeling, but one wrought w/ a sense that my friend was being, well, a bit overly optimistic. Boy was I wrong…

That misinterpretation, I came to learn, was the result of my failure to comprehend the character of my friend as well as I thought I did (managers always think they understand their players better than they actually do). Many have written about how true heroism can be seen in our ordinary lives, by people we are privileged to know, and in ways which go unrecognized most of the time. Michael, #42, the elegant lefty from the other side of the world, was such a person.

Beginning in late April, what our merry band of ballplayers witnessed, week after week, was truly amazing. Through this experience of watching our friend play (and playing behind him, as supporting characters), we were all being given one of those extremely rare gifts in life. All of us can fully understand and feel this now, and we remember well. The circle of that experience is now complete, one and one-half years later.

In a way pitchers are sort of like orchestral conductors – it’s an extremely nuanced art -- equal parts craft and skill, all governed by a kind of poise. Our elegant lefty always had a special grace about him, when he took the ball from me before each game.

It seems to me that in those 14 games or so that Spring and Summer of 2007, Michael gave all of us a life lesson about what human beings ultimately are capable of. It was an intimate gift shared by our small community, one none of us will ever be able to forget.

There is a vast, empty space in our world right now, as we grieve the loss of our friend, and our leader. In the Diggers’ world, Michael now belongs to the ages.

Jonathan K.