Jose Vazquez was on a cruise ship en route to Bermuda when he got the news he was hoping not to hear.
In only a few weeks, "the Finest," the NYPD baseball team, were scheduled to take on their archrivals from the Fire Department, "the Bravest," in the NYPD-FDNY Baseball Classic. But before that, Vazquez had to go on a trip to celebrate 25 years of marriage to his wife Rose. He had no choice. Although he served as the manager of the Finest, he was a husband first and Rose would not be denied a chance to commemorate their anniversary. And if that meant Vazquez would miss a few playoff games against the New York Bears in the opening round of the Westchester Wood Bat League playoffs, games the NYPD needed to prepare to play the FDNY, he was just going to have to deal with it.
Fortunately, Vazquez was able to extract a small concession from his wife. He was allowed to bring his cell phone, and check in periodically with Dennis O'Sullivan - a team captain who Vazquez designated to serve as manager in his absence.
The Finest split the first two games of their best-of-three series. But on the night of the deciding game, Jose and Rose Vazquez went to see a magic show on the cruise. In the middle of the performance, Jose got a text from O'Sullivan: The Finest lost 10-6 in 10 innings.
"Fuck! We just got fucking eliminated!" he said loud enough for his wife to hear - making a spectacle of himself during the show. Rose looked at Jose and she knew what was coming. She had been with him long enough to know that he was going to spend the rest of the trip mulling over the defeat, even though he was a thousand miles away. Her husband, who played amateur ball every summer for nearly 30 years, is a baseball lifer.
"It ruined my vacation," Jose admitted.
He'd had a feeling this was going to happen. Vazquez hadn't liked what he'd seen from his team before he left. In their last game before his departure, the Finest were anything but fine. It was hot and muggy, spirits were low, a lot of guys had worked an overnight, and starting pitcher R.J. O'Neill had come straight from a double shift. "My pitcher worked a double before the game," Vazquez said later. "I mean, it's the playoffs, and you're working a double the night before?"
It is the New York City equivalent to the Army-Navy game.
Nothing felt right. Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, N.Y. - where the game was being played - wouldn't let the players spit sunflower seeds on the ground and had no outfield fences. Several times, the Finest hit shots that would have cleared the fences at a field that had them, but in White Plains, they were harmless fly ball outs. That loss had set the tone, and the defeat in the first round of the playoffs meant that now his team would have to take the field on Aug. 23 against the Bravest cold, not having played for weeks. Losing in the playoffs was bad enough, but losing to the Bravest would be far worse. That was the game that mattered. That was the season.
Although the New York police and fire departments have sporadically played baseball against each other for more than a hundred years, the current series has been played annually since 1999. In a sense - at least to those who play - it is the New York City equivalent to the Army-Navy game. In the 13 prior meetings, the Bravest of the FDNY held a 7-6 advantage - although the cops had taken four of the last five. This year presented a chance for the Finest to square the series.
A three-week hiatus going into the Classic certainly wasn't going to help their cause. Still, layoff or not, the NYPD believed they were better. Although both teams were talented, with many players who had starred in college or played in the minor leagues, the PD's roster was much younger and deeper than the FDNY squad. The Finest respected their rivals - but this was a game they felt they should win.
It isn't easy being Jose Vazquez. He'd taken over the Finest in 1999, and played through 2011, the same year he retired from the NYPD. The one-time infielder was never the most talented athlete on the roster, but he was incredibly passionate about the game, and perfectly suited for the manager's chair. He loves the job, but there are a lot of headaches, a lot of mundane, administrative tasks the players don't see, and a lot of egos to keep happy. But then again, it isn't easy being a cop either, and Vazquez, who spent 20 years on the force mostly in Street Narcotics and the Youth Division before retiring, certainly understood that. All of his players were still on active duty and that meant double shifts and line of duty injuries were things he had to deal with every game. Sometimes, he even lost a player who went undercover and couldn't be seen in public. For all their troubles, Joe Girardi and Terry Collins have never had to deal with anything like that. And even though 30 players were on Vazquez's roster, for most games only half could make it. If a guy had to work the occasional double, so be it. Vazquez could work around it.
Still, before he left for Bermuda, Vazquez sensed his team was in trouble and tried to pump them up. He didn't yell and scream - a stocky 5' 8, he's not the most imposing figure - but he chewed them out just the same. What really bothered him was that his team was making excuses. They were still bitching about the lack of fences, and cops spend their whole careers listening to excuses that just don't fly.
"I don't want to hear it," he said. "They had to play with the same fences."
The players looked blankly at their manager. These guys didn't give up their nights and weekends to hear a lecture. If they wanted somebody to talk shit to them, they could go find a perp. These are tough guys who work a dangerous and difficult job. Their free time is precious and there isn't much of it. They played ball to blow off steam and have some fun.
But they did respect Vazquez, and they did want to beat the FDNY every bit as badly as their manager. They relied on chain of command at work and it was no different on the ball field. When their C.O. talked, they listened.
"These were kids today," Vazquez said of their opponents in the Wood Bat League.
Then the manager looked around and made sure he had the full attention of his players before he spoke again.
"What's gonna happen when we face FD?" he asked. "Those are men."