No. 23 Is Missing.
In which a platooning outfielder is traded from one mid-sized industrial city to another, and the ripples are felt by a small boy in Thailand.
By TED ANTHONY
Two days ago, an earnest and driven young ballplayer named Travis Snider, a part-time right-fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates who wore the number 23, was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for a couple of heretofore unknown prospects. In the world of Major League Baseball, it was not a tectonic shift.
Don’t get me wrong. As a Pittsburgher, I quite liked Travis Snider as a Pirate. His scrappy presence and competitive spirit made him great fun to watch. He had a liberal dose of boyish verve. His appetite for good meals was known far and wide. Best of all, he brought a formidable bat and a glove beyond reproach to the 2014 lineup, even if the more tactically minded among us realized he quite possibly didn’t figure in the ballclub’s long-term plan.
Nevertheless, when my wife sent me a one-line email alerting me that he was headed to take up residence in the outfield at Camden Yards, I immediately shuddered. As did she.
Because Travis Snider happens to be our 8-year-old son’s hero. And our 8-year-old son, a devout Pittsburgher, moved to Thailand with us last summer. And because Travis Snider in right field at PNC Park, or Travis Snider coming off the bench to pinch hit in a black-and-gold uniform, was the thing that said “Pittsburgh” to our 8-year-old more than almost anything else.
Sometimes it’s hard to explain how we choose our heroes. Some of them deserve their pedestals. Others, with the passage of time, we find wanting. Sometimes our heroes arrive at our doorsteps abruptly, materializing out of the ether because of what we might need at a particular moment.
And sometimes … well, sometimes, when you’re a kid, it takes only the single swing of a baseball bat on a spring night in an American suburb to seal the bargain forever.
HERE IS HOW Wyatt Dylan Kirk Anthony, now 8, of Pittsburgh and lately of Bangkok, came to adore Travis James Snider, now almost 27, of Everett, Wash., and soon of Baltimore.
On the evening of May 21, 2013, the 6-year-old was enjoying the second month of the first professional baseball season into which he’d really invested any emotion. Our family had taken to listening to Pirate games on the radio after dark, much as I did in the same house when I was a child.
That night, he and the then-9-year-old were up past their bedtimes. The Pirates were playing the Cubs, who were winning 3–1 in the bottom of the sixth. We were sitting in the living room, lights off, radio tuned to 93.7, KDKA-FM. Travis Snider was pinch-hitting for Clint Barmes, the brilliant-fielding Pirate shortstop who struggles to find his bat. The bases were loaded, but there were two outs. It was a familiar situation for Snider, who during those months would often take a huge cut — “swinging for the downs,” as 1970s Pirate announcer Milo Hamilton used to say — but end up popping out to third or short.
“Snider’s gonna hit a grand slam,” the 6-year-old declared.
“You say that about everyone, Wyatt,” the 9-year-old said dismissively.
“I know,” came the retort. “But this time I mean it.”
My wife and I exchanged glances through the darkness. This sort of prediction had happened in our household many times already that spring. Mild disappointment always ensued. But then, realizing the doubt in the room, the 6-year-old clarified.
“Usually I say I HOPE someone hits a grand slam. But he’s GONNA hit a grand slam. Watch.”
Whatever. The Cubs’ Shawn Camp delivered the 2–1 pitch.
Then we heard the sharp crack of bat hitting ball. Suddenly the radio’s volume shot up, even though we hadn’t touched any dial.
Let Pirates announcer Greg Brown take it from here: “There’s a high fly ball, deep to right-centerfield, back, and … GONE! Clear the deck! Cannonball comin’! Grand salami for Travis Snider!”
Wyatt jumped up and ran around the room, shouting jubilantly. “I told you! I told you! I said so!” So much for a calm bedtime. The Pirates went on to win, 5–4, and just like that, Travis Snider was a hero in our household. Wyatt Anthony had willed him to do something big, and he had gone and done it.
In the weeks and months that followed, the words “Travis Snider” — and, even more than that, the number 23 — became incantations in our household. His older brother had a Pittsburgh hero, too — catcher Russell Martin, who also parted ways with the Pirates this off-season—but it was hard to get through a day in the Anthony family without something 23-related surfacing in conversation.
By September, we had even splurged on one of those “authentic” uniform jerseys you get at the ballpark — precisely like the pros wear, only the size of a Wyatt. When Snider homered against the Reds in the last home game of the regular season, we were there. I held up my son and spun him around so the world could see the name on his new jersey.
How was Travis Snider loved by this child? Let us count the ways as they unfolded over 2013 and 2014:
—For months, he raged against top Pirates prospect Gregory Polanco, at that time still in the minors, because Polanco had the temerity to play right field, Snider’s position, and be good at it. This was apparently an aggressive act in and of itself. Anyone who even mentioned Polanco would earn a hairy Wyatt eyeball. (The child has since made his peace with Polanco, who, it should be noted, tweeted upon learning of the trade that Snider “was one of the guys who helped me most when I came up last year good luck in BAL #hermano #classact”)
—He would draw elaborate pictures of Snider, complete with his trademark flushed cheeks, and leave them carefully hidden in strategic locations around our house to be found when somebody was looking for something else. And he would meticulously curate all his Travis Snider baseball cards, arranging them first by year and then by pose, placing them in plastic sleeves before lovingly filing them away until the next time.
—He even integrated math into the equation. He would sit around adding up numbers to make sums of 23. I would catch doodles done in his notebooks and his sketch books: 232323232323232323. It was charming, albeit in a slightly Jack Torrance sort of way. Last summer, when I traveled to Hong Kong for business, I mentioned that I was staying on the 23rd floor and he insisted I snap a picture.
—In December 2013, we attended “PirateFest,” a two-day exercise in fandom and sports marketing that brings together people selling gear, ticket-sales reps, and — the biggest draw — appearances by current and former Pirates. A week after turning 7, Wyatt Anthony stepped up to the mic and, in front of about 300 baseball fans, faced down the club’s entire front office — team president Frank Coonelly, general manager Neal Huntington and the Pirates’ wise and charismatic manager, Clint Hurdle.
“What’s your name, son?” said the moderator, play-by-play man Tim Neverett.
“Wyatt!” shouted Wyatt.
“Hello, Ryan,” said Tim Neverett.
“WY-ATT!!” shouted Wyatt, louder now.
“OK, Wyatt,” said a taken-aback Neverett. “What’s your question?”
Wyatt paused to glare intently at Coonelly, Huntington and Hurdle. Then, at the same decibel level, he continued: “WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH TRAVIS SNIDER NEXT YEAR?”
The panel of three seemed a smidge nonplussed at his vehemence (the photo at left bears this out). If memory serves, they gave a noncommittal answer that conveyed their good feelings for Mr. Snider, who would go on to have the most productive season of his career for the Pirates in 2014. I am biased, of course, but I submit that Messrs. Coonelly, Huntington and Hurdle were somewhat impressed by the singlemindedness of the chutzpah-brimming 7-year-old who wanted an answer.
Two weeks later, with newly acquired art materials that had arrived on Christmas morning, he drew the pink-cheeked picture that sits atop this tale. “Batting praktis — my favrit pirete” was the caption. It was perfect, almost preposterously so; it looked like a Hollywood propmaster’s creation. I photographed it and tweeted it at Snider, who earned my eternal respect by promptly tweeting back: “that’s awesome! Happy Holidays!”
Wyatt’s affections only grew when the Pirates and their Central Division nemesis, the Brewers, got into a benches-clearing brawl in Milwaukee last April. Snider was smack in the middle of it, tackling Carlos Gomez and taking a fist to the eye from Martin Maldonado. When he was suspended, Wyatt thundered around the house for days railing about the injustice of it all and saying he wanted a black eye, too. And don’t even get him started on the utter coolness of the night last June when the Pirates ran out of pitchers and had to send Snider to the mound to pitch an inning. He endured a bumpy inning but ended up striking out Joey Votto, a bragging right that Wyatt wore like a sheriff’s badge for weeks.
Then came the final game the boys would be able to attend before moving overseas. It was a Sunday afternoon “Kids’ Day” at PNC Park that, this time around, featured young fans lining the warning track of the outfield behind a rope and waiting for players to emerge and say hi and pose for photos. Wyatt fretted. He was sure Travis Snider would head toward the wrong side of the outfield or not come out at all —or, worst of all, turn out not to be a very nice guy.
Suddenly, there he was. He actually made a course change when he spotted the little boy in the No. 23 Snider jersey — OK, the only boy in a No. 23 Snider jersey. The ballplayer was friendly, engaging and amused at his diminutive doppelgänger. “I didn’t even know they made those,” he said, eyeing the jersey.
He chatted with Wyatt for a minute or so and even remembered the tweeted drawing when asked about it. “Was that the one with the red cheeks?” he said. They talked about our impending Asia move and posed for an iPhone photo together. It was, for a little fan, a perfect baseball moment.
Barely two days later, Wyatt Anthony, his brother and their mother drove straight from his little-league championship game in suburban Pittsburgh to the airport and boarded a plane to join me and live in Thailand. For the moment, as my older son said through tears, they were no longer Pittsburghers.
And that, finally, is what makes this story different from the others.
“Maybe there’s only one summer per customer.” — Rod Serling
WE TALK a lot about homesickness in our family these days. We plan to be here in Bangkok for a few years, and our sons, now 11 and 8, find themselves living in a 27th-floor apartment instead of a house with a yard. They are in an unfamiliar school in an unfamiliar city, struggling to learn an unfamiliar language. Whenever the subject of Pittsburgh comes up, at least one set of eyes usually wells up. They hold onto it as a place they call their own.
And yet they both seem to be thriving.
Part of it is that they’re adaptable — more so than I was when I was moved overseas as a child and faced this same situation. But part of it, I think, is because no matter how far they venture, they have an anchor — Western Pennsylvania. They may say they’re no longer Pittsburghers, but barely a day passes when we don’t hear about how someone misses the cream of potato soup at Eat N’ Park or wishes they could spend an afternoon in the woods behind the house or longs for a couple hours with this friend or that friend or this place or that place.
MLB.tv, one of the wonders of the modern virtual world, has helped bridge the divide. The kids were able to watch the 2014 Wildcard game live, disappointing though the Pirates’ 8–0 loss to the Giants was. They followed the Giants and Royals all through the World Series, comparing statistics, saying “Bumgarner” over and over again to each other and unleashing assorted sarcastic comments about Hunter Pence along the way.
Then came the off-season. The 11-year-old’s nightmare scenario happened, even though he’d kind of been expecting it: Russell Martin rejected the Pirates’ qualifying offer, hit the free-agent market and ended up with the Toronto Blue Jays. We mourned for an afternoon, promised a trip to Martin’s native Canada, and moved on. But for Wyatt, the offseason nail-biter remained: Would the Pirates decide to re-sign Travis Snider?
All through the winter (if you can call it that in Bangkok), we’d give him updates. I’d monitor the news on Google and the MLB app every few days for any morsels. In late fall, the Pirates were said to be talking to the Orioles about Snider. That chatter faded. January wound toward its end, and it looked as if No. 23 would be reporting for spring training in Bradenton in a few weeks.
Yesterday morning, the one-line email arrived from my wife as I was about to go into a meeting: “Travis Snider traded to Orioles.” Wyatt’s little piece of Pittsburgh, distant and gossamer though it might have been, was disappearing.
We texted his brother at school and instructed him to keep mum for the moment. We decided to all meet up for dinner at Terminal 21, an elaborate, airport-inspired megamall in the middle of Bangkok. I sat in “San Francisco,” next to a model of the Golden Gate Bridge, waiting for them to arrive. I had printed out a copy of the news story announcing the trade.
Wyatt arrived in his usual explosive fashion, running across the mall to administer a colliding hug. We sat him down and said we wanted to share some news that he wasn’t going to like. I didn’t want to go too dramatic on him; he’d probably think a grandparent had died. I leaned in and said, quietly, “Travis Snider was traded to Baltimore.” I handed him the printout.
He read the headline and went silent. His eyes filled. He did not cry, though I think that took a lot of effort. We told him he could pick where to eat that night. We told him we’d drive to Baltimore to an Orioles game when we’re home this summer and get seats in right field to be near the patch that No. 23 usually patrols. We told him that Boog Powell’s Camden Yards barbecue stand might be even better than Manny Sanguillen’s PNC Park burger stand. That, finally, got a bit of his attention.
“I’d like to talk to Wyatt alone for a couple minutes,” the 11-year-old said. We backed off a bit and watched him do his best to comfort his brother. You can see them at left, two fortunate, generally happy but slightly heartbroken kids talking about losing their respective slivers of baseball home. The older one’s emerging empathy was evident, even if he did spend a bit of the brother-to-brother talk trying to persuade his sibling to choose Tony Roma’s (“A Place for Ribs”) for dinner.
There’s a lot we can’t control in our kids’ lives, much as we try. We struggle against the instinct to helicopter in, to work the room with charisma and tight smiles and cajoling. We try not to prepare the path for the child when we should be preparing the child for the path. We err in what we do, and we err in what we don’t. But there is one incontrovertible, inconvenient truth, these days more than ever before: The path will change. Always.
I suppose, then, that Travis Snider has been our 8-year-old’s miniature laboratory of change. And, apparently, our 11-year-old’s as well. Though he has been a Russell Martin man through and through, and is thriving in his new Bangkok middle-school social circle, we were surprised to see that the Snider trade knocked him back into homesickness, too.
While we were tending to the 8-year-old’s quiet wound-licking, the 11-year-old foraged into the corners of his closet to unearth all of his baseball equipment — three bats, three gloves, a helmet and five batting gloves — and arrange it all carefully on his bed. “I don’t think I’ve ever missed home more than I do tonight,” he said.
And the 8-year-old Snider fan? Did he want to talk about it a bit? Not really. We watched some video of Snider’s 2013 grand slam on my iPad, found some clips of some of his more acrobatic catches in right field, and then Wyatt got up, stood up straight and looked at me. “I just want some time by myself,” he said.
He went into his room and hung out for a minute or two under the desk in the corner where the Snider jersey was hanging on a chair. Then he picked up his favorite ball, the one he carries to school every morning.
His soccer ball.
At his international school, everyone who is anyone in the second grade plays soccer. Each day, he earnestly totes his ball the two blocks to school. Each afternoon, he returns home with a face grimy from the soccer pitch (yes, pitch) and hair matted by sweat. He has, in recent months, taken to talking about a new figure alongside Travis Snider: Lionel Messi, an Argentine who plays for a team called FC Barcelona. Lately, while out on the streets of Bangkok, it is the Messi jersey he bought with his allowance that he has been wearing, not the Snider one.
Maybe that’s why no tears came. This is another moment, and perhaps it calls for a different hero. Travis Snider, Baltimore Oriole, gets filed away carefully and lovingly, much like his baseball card has been. Bangkok beckons, and beyond it, the world. Tiny heartbreaks and tiny opportunities and tiny evolutions, teaching lessons, shaping the future.
Heroes move on. Life rumbles on. Change is constant. Loving someone — a parent, a crush, a sports hero—presents rewards, but it makes loss possible, too. Being 8 hurts sometimes, but for the lucky among us, the hurt lasts for only a little while. And even in the heavy heat of far-off Bangkok, baseball still somehow always ends up as a metaphor of possibility, even when it’s about that possibility coming to an end. Swing, batter, batter. Swing.
Ted Anthony, a Pittsburgher living in Thailand, has been dissecting and bloviating about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects various fragmentary images and thoughts on Tumblr here.
©2015, Ted Anthony