A Very Simple Game

THERE’S A GOLDEN GLOW JUST BEFORE THE TWILIGHT hour, lending a hint of Hollywoodesque unreality to the proceedings. The aroma of freshly mown grass and damp earth mingle in a pleasing medley. The voice of Mick Jagger echoes through Tony Gwynn Stadium as umpires and coaches go through their familiar pre-game rituals. Fans balance hot dogs in one hand, sloshing beers in the other. Peanut shells and discarded sunflower seed casings already litter the floor of the stands just behind home plate. People greet each other by name, joking about the awkward maneuvers necessary to squeeze past one another’s knees without stepping on purses or knocking over frosty beverages.

Photo: Stan Liu

It’s almost time to settle back, grab a handful of peanuts and watch these boys of summer play ball. But first, of course, come the necessary preliminaries: The teams”the San Diego Surf Dawgs and the Fullerton Flyers” are introduced to raucous cheers and muted heckles. The color guard of Cub Scout Troop #779 solemnly files onto the diamond, flagpoles clutched in whiteknuckled hands. The national anthem is offered up by a sincere young woman who almost manages to hit every note. An expectant rustle echoes through the park at the magic words: “Play ball!” There’s a frisson in walking through the tunnel out to a ballfield, the mere act of emerging from the dark into the light makes the heart lift in spite of itself. And watching the Surf Dawgs take batting practice from their dugout is an exercise in simple pleasures, the sort that comes from eavesdropping on casual boyish banter punctuated by the satisfying crack of the bat. When shortstop Adam Mandel ‘04 trots into the dugout, he’s sporting a small smile that he may not even know about.

Mandel plays second base for the San Diego Surf Dawgs, one of the eight teams that make up the Golden Baseball League, an independent venture that’s in its inaugural season. Launched by a pair of Stanford classmates as part of their “Evaluating Entrepreneurial Opportunities” class, the idea behind the league is to offer up family friendly, affordable games with a hint of the old razzle-dazzle. For the Surf Dawgs, that sizzle and flash is provided by 46-year-old baseball legend Rickey Henderson, who bats just ahead of Mandel in the line-up.

“I’ve always loved baseball,” Mandel says, eyes still on the field. “It’s absolutely my favorite sport to play.” The 24-year-old came to San Diego for the Padres’ open try-outs after recovering from ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (more commonly known as “Tommy John” surgery), just after his graduation from Denison.

“The injury put me out for five months,” explains Mandel. When he was good to go, he headed for the West Coast to toss his cap”and glove and bat”into the ring. “After tryouts, a scout contacted me and offered me a spot on this team. It’s been an amazing experience.”

Life in Mandel’s cleats sounds pretty sweet. In the off-season, he sells industrial real estate in Columbus, but for now his only job is to wake up every morning and play baseball. And he’s playing well, too; he was moved from the outfield to second base, and by season’s end had a .309 batting average and 49 runs, earning third place in Rookie of the Year voting. His performance helped the Surf Dawgs to the the first ever Golden Baseball League Championship.

An added bonus is that he’s converted his fiancé, Molly Reardon ‘05, into an avid follower of the game. “She wasn’t a fan before she met me,” he says, laughing. “I met her my senior year, and she started coming to games at Denison. Then she spent some time in St. Louis with me over the summer, and we’d go to Cardinals games. And now she comes to almost every game and keeps score.”

But by far, the most satisfying part of the whole experience is getting to share the field with Henderson, a childhood hero. “It’s unbelievable,” Mandel says. “I mean, to play with a guy that I grew up idolizing.” Voice trailing off, he shakes his head in wonder. “It’s been great. He’s given me all sorts of advice, especially on stealing bases. I can go to him anytime I have a question. Some of the other teams have big-leaguers, but none of them have anybody like him.”

The facilities at San Diego State University, where the Surf Dawgs play, are markedly different from what Mandel’s used to. “California baseball’s a lot bigger than it is in Ohio,” he explains. “Especially at Denison, a Division III school. I’d never played before more than three or four hundred people in college.”

Now he can multiply those numbers by a factor of ten. The San Diego Surf Dawgs’ opening night saw 3,000 fans in the stands, and the team has played in front of as many as 5,000 in towns like Chico. “The crowds didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought they would,” Mandel says, almost incredulous. “I found it more exciting. It made me want to play better.” He’s found other differences between his days in college and his current life, particularly when it comes to team dynamics: “In college, it’s more rah-rah. Here, there’s less of that, but I’ve been surprised by how little competitiveness there is. It’s a tight group.”

Looking back on the season, there’s one moment that stands out in high relief. “When Rickey walked into spring training, it really kind of hit me,” Mandel says, shaking his head in quiet disbelief. “I’ll never forget that. I mean, I watched that guy on TV when I was a kid, and now he tells stories about games and I think, ‘Hey! I saw that!’”

“Nice job, Adam!,” shouts the lady next to the man in the Surf Dawgs windbreaker. Having handily thrown a man out at first, Mandel is up to bat in the next halfinning. After Henderson walks, Mandel moves him to third with an infield single and subsequently steals second, no doubt flashing on advice Rickey’s given him. A smudge of brown dirt adorns the side of one uniformed leg, the result of that slide into second.

When the next batter up hits a home run, he trots around the bases just behind his hero. They tag home, high-five their teammates and share a private grin.

Just another day in paradise.

Editor and freelance writer Julene Snyder lives, works, and plays in San Diego.

Swing Shift

Christina Monacelli

FOR MANY A WEEKEND HACKER, EARLY MORNING tee times represent a little slice of heaven, an escape from the grind. But they’re part of the daily rigor for Christina Monacelli ‘92, who just finished her second season on the FUTURES Golf Tour, the developmental level of the LPGA. In this business it’s all about heart-pounding four-foot putts. It’s putting a little extra draw on a three iron to carry the hazard. In this business, it’s about unnerving resilience.

It took plenty of nerve and a reserve of resilience for Monacelli to become a fulltime pro, just months after picking up a golf club for the first time. A lifelong, multi-sport athlete”and a lacrosse and soccer standout at Denison”Monacelli couldn’t shake her dream to make her sporting passion a profession. She was enjoying success as a Silicon Valley sales rep when she took up golf as a business tool. And early success on the links sounded to Monacelli like opportunity knocking.

She quit her Silicon Valley sales job and dedicated herself to golf with veracity. Case in point: She enrolled in a Las Vegas golf academy, where she hit 1,000 golf balls a day for a week. A trip to the doctor the following week revealed she had broken five ribs from hitting too often and too aggressively.

To say she picked up the game rather quickly is an understatement of all-time proportions. She won her first ever tournament while still an amateur (Antioch City Championship), made it to the final stage of U.S. Open qualifying and played well enough at the FUTURES qualifying school to earn her tour card. Now she competes all over the United States and Canada weekly, against mostly 18 to 24 year-olds who were likely swinging a golf club before they ever learned to ride a bicycle.

“There is so much involved with being a professional golfer,” remarked Monacelli. “It’s nothing like what I expected. The travel, the logistics, living life on the road…while the travel wasn’t as much of a shock because I had done a lot of that in the business world, playing has been by far the biggest challenge, but I wouldn’t do anything different.”

Golf can be alarmingly cruel. It predicates itself on hard numbers, money lists, and leaderboards, and Monacelli knows this all too well. She has made two cuts in 2005 but sits near the bottom of the tour’s money list. She’s aware that if she was after instant results, she picked the wrong profession.

“There is no subjectivity to the game of golf, and I like that. I have shed more tears over this sport than any other,” she admits. “I have just fallen in love with the pursuit. I was in the sales world and that was competition; I was getting that. There was just this underlying athletic bug that I just couldn’t squash. Now I get up at 6 a.m. and I just can’t wait to practice.”

Published November 2010