Friday, June 25, 2010

Northwest Arkansas.

If you’re wondering why I’m focusing so much on the farm system to the exclusion of the major league team, here’s why.

On Monday night, after the Royals had lost an excruciating game to the Nationals, 2-1, despite out-hitting Washington 11-4, here’s what Ned Yost had to say:

“That doesn't shut down your [running] game when a catcher throws well,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “You’ve still got to try and score runs when you're not doing much at the plate.”

This makes perfect sense, except that the Royals converted 11 hits into just 1 run in large part because of their running game, which contributed two caught stealings (and a runner picked off – from second base!) and no steals. The opposing catcher, Ivan Rodriguez, just happens to be one of the greatest-throwing catchers in baseball history. To use Yost’s words, when a catcher throws well you absolutely SHOULD shut down your running game.

And as for “not doing much at the plate” – the Royals had 11 hits in the game, despite giving away five outs – the three above and two sac bunts. They actually batted .333 in the game. Sometimes, doing nothing is the best thing a manager can do. For some managers, it’s also the hardest thing.

And then, after Wednesday’s 1-0 win against the Mighty Strasburg, Yost explained why he was so reluctant to use Joakim Soria outside of save situations on the road:

“If you use your closer on the road in the eighth inning when you’re behind,” Yost said, “to me, that says you’re giving up. It’s much easier to use him (in those situations) at home.”

Yes, yes, of course. Nothing says “I give up” quite like PUTTING YOUR BEST PITCHER IN THE GAME.

So this is why I’m studiously attempting to avoid discussion of the major-league team, and I apologize for falling off the wagon there for a moment. I like Ned Yost; I want to keep liking him. The best way for me to do that at the moment is to ignore him.

Which brings us to Northwest Arkansas, and thankfully, we’ve found the mother lode. The prospect train which Dayton Moore assembled in rookie ball three years ago has since passed through Burlington and Wilmington, and has pulled into Wal-Mart country. The Naturals ran away with the division early, clinching the first-half playoff spot with a 42-28 record that was the best in the Texas League.

Mike Moustakas and Michael Montgomery, whom we’ve already discussed, headline the prospects. It bears mentioning that Montgomery, who missed a few weeks with some elbow soreness, came back and pitched well on a strict 55-pitch count…and then went back on the DL with more elbow soreness. The Royals are adamant that his elbow tenderness is very typical, his MRI is clean, and they are just being cautious with their most prized arm. We all hope that is the case, but it’s never a good sign when someone goes back on the DL just hours after they came off of it. I’m not scared, but I am a little worried.

Moustakas, meanwhile, just keeps mashing the ball – he’s already surpassed his homer total from last season, and is hitting a ridiculous .350/.417/.701. He has to be considered one of the front-runners for Minor League Player of the Year honors, however meaningless that award might be. (Alex Gordon won the award in 2006.)

The only other first-round pick on the roster is Aaron Crow, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it: Crow has been a huge disappointment this season, almost certainly the most disappointing player in the system. He looked strong in spring training, to the point where there were rumors the Royals were considering breaking camp with him in the majors (much as the Reds did with Mike Leake, who the Royals were hoping would fall to them in the draft.) Crow went to Double-A instead, and was expected to shine, if not dominate.

Instead, he’s been taken out behind the woodshed, and if anything the beatings just keep getting worse. Crow had a 3.94 ERA in April, a 5.97 ERA in May, and has an 11.66 ERA in June, having allowed 28 runs in his last 18.2 innings. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 53 to 40, which is pretty lousy; he’s also given up 94 hits in 79 innings.

The one saving grace to Crow’s record is that he’s getting groundballs in bunches. According to minorleaguebaseball.com, his G/F ratio is 3.37, and his last start was the first one of the season in which he didn’t get at least twice as many outs on the ground as in the air. That’s a sign that his sinker is working, at least, even if nothing else is. The sinker hasn’t kept him from giving up 9 homers already, although at least he’s trending well in that department, as 5 of those came in April.

When he was drafted, it was almost too easy to compare Crow to Luke Hochevar, as both of them failed to sign as college juniors, then both signed with the Fort Worth Cats in the independent American Association, then both were drafted by the Royals in the first round. But today the comparison between the two is even more striking. Like Crow, Hochevar started his first pro season in Double-A and was expected to dominate, and like Crow he struggled much more than was expected. Compare their numbers:

Crow: 6.27 ERA, 79 IP, 94 H, 40 BB, 53 K, 9 HR

Hochevar: 4.69 ERA, 94 IP, 110 H, 26 BB, 94 K, 13 HR

Hochevar pitched better, particular in terms of commanding the strike zone. But his numbers were not what you’d expect from the #1 overall pick. Like Crow, he gave up a lot of homers despite being a fierce groundball pitcher.

So I do think there may be something to the notion that after pitching hardly at all for 18 months, it may be too much to expect even a top pitching prospect to go to Double-A and dominate. Hochevar was moved up to Omaha in July and pitched about the same – a high ERA masking some decent peripherals. But the following year he was excellent in three Triple-A starts before arriving in the majors.

I think it’s fair to call Aaron Crow a poor man’s Hochevar, with all the loaded meaning that implies. Hochevar has been infuriatingly inconsistent, but also undeniably talented. I think Crow may be fated to be the same way – not a complete bust as a pitcher, but someone whose results will lag behind his stuff. I think Hochevar is close to closing the gap – or he was before he went on the DL – and I hope that Crow one day will as well. But that day is still far off. For now, I will be happy if he simply pitches better in the second half than he did in the first half, and genuinely earns a promotion to Omaha for 2011.

J.J. Picollo on Crow’s struggles (remember, this conversation happened 3 weeks ago): He’s trying to be fine – he’s not good with his first-pitch strike efficiency…too fine with his two-seamer, which batters are laying off of, meaning he can’t use his slider and changeup…in spring training the team thought he might be ready by June…trying to get him to throw more four-seamers on his first pitch…they’ve learned from handling Hochevar not to rush him.

If Crow really has lost his spot on the list of the team’s top prospects, you don’t have to look far to find someone to replace him. Out in center field, Derrick Robinson has been a revelation.

Robinson was a fourth-round pick in 2006, who got $850,000 – second-round money – to sign. He was a pure tools play; he was arguably the fastest player in the draft that year, and the Royals were betting they could teach him to hit. They decided to double-down by teaching him to switch-hit at the same time. For the first three-plus seasons of his pro career, it looked like a bad gamble. Robinson hit .245/.316/.322 with no homers in his first season at Wilmington in 2008, and when he was given a second chance at the same level in 2009, he hit even worse, and his plate discipline deteriorated.

Until the end of July, when in desperation – the Royals were considering giving up on the switch-hitting experiment and letting him bat right-handed full-time – Robinson asked if he could change his batting stance from the left side, standing more upright at the plate. He hit .311/.362/.513 in August, with five homers, after hitting just three in his entire pro career to that point. His overall line (.239/.290/.324) was still worse than the year before, but at least you could dream on him a little.

The dream is starting to take shape this season. As my friend Kevin Goldstein loves to say, “always bet on tools”, and at age 22, Robinson’s tools are finally shaping into skills. Despite making the biggest jump in the minors, the one to Double-A, Robinson started the season looking like a completely different player. In April, he hit .324. He drew 12 walks in 19 games and had a .427 OBP. After years of hitting better from his natural right side, he hit better left-handed, a strong sign that his new batting stance made the difference. Now that he was getting on base, he was free to use his game-changing speed even more. He had stolen over 60 bases in both 2008 and 2009, remarkable given his low OBP. This April, alone he stole 15 bases.

He couldn’t keep it up, and didn’t, going into a prolonged slump in early May. But to his credit, he got hot again, and for the month of May hit .286 with a .374 OBP. He slumped terribly a few weeks ago, but is starting to pick it up again, going 10-for-his last-35. For the season, he’s hitting a very respectable .292/.362/.375. Those numbers look a lot better when you consider 1) he’s still only 22; 2) he already has 30 stolen bases in 42 attempts; 3) his speed gives him Gold Glove potential in center field – one of his catches made ESPN’s SportsNation show last month.

I do believe the Royals need to take it slow with him. After drawing 12 walks in April and 15 in May, he’s walked just twice in June, taking his OBP down with it. His power surge last August hasn’t been replicated – he’s still waiting on his first homer of the season. If he can hit .290 in the majors and take his walks, he can be an offensive force even without power – but if he can’t hit for power even in the minors, there’s the risk that pitchers in the majors will just pound the strike zone and turn him into Jason Tyner or something. The Royals have made comments hinting that they want to take it slow with Robinson, and I agree.

A more flattering comparison for Robinson is Denard Span. Span was a first-round pick of the Twins in 2002, and while he hit better than Robinson in the low minors his numbers were disappointing all the way to Double-A. In 2006, at the same age Robinson is now, Span hit just .285/.340/.349 in Double-A with just 2 homers (a career high!)

And like Robinson, Span’s bat came around after he went back to an old batting stance, as detailed in this interview he gave to Dave Laurila. The Twins continued to take it slow with Span. He spent a full year in Triple-A at age 23 and hit just .267/.323/.355. He returned to Triple-A the following year and the light bulb went on; he hit .340/.434/.481 and was promoted to the majors, and has been an outstanding player since, with high OBPs, good speed, and very good defense more than overcoming his lack of power.

Robinson might be slightly ahead of where Span was at the same age, but I still think he’ll be well served with a full year in Double-A this season, and at least a half-season in Omaha next year before we can think about him patrolling center field in Kansas City. But a year ago at this time, the idea of Robinson making it to the majors at all was a pipe dream. Suddenly, the Royals might have their center fielder of the future. We just may need to look a little farther into the future for this one.

Picollo on the keys to Robinson’s success: It’s a matter of confidence…he has the confidence to get deeper into counts, leading to more walks and two-strike hits. Rusty Kuntz watched him a lot and saw a much more confident approach at the plate in addition to the change in his stance.

The other high-profile prospect on the roster is Johnny Giavotella, the team’s second-round pick in 2008. Giavotella is your classic scrappy 5’8” second baseman, and it said a lot about him that the Royals were willing to spend a high second-rounder on a college player with his profile. He struggled some in Wilmington last year, hitting .258/.351/.380 with sub-par defense, but it was a tough place to hit and he was still young; he was my sleeper pick before the season.

He has played better this year; not a lot better, but better. Giavotella is hitting .283/.365/.375, with as many walks (34) as strikeouts, and while he’ll never be a Gold Glove threat, I’ve heard fewer complaints about his defense this year. Like Robinson he may never hit for power, but he at least has 16 doubles so far this season to keep pitchers honest. The Royals, like every team, were presumably trying to find the new Dustin Pedroia when they took him, but I still think he’s gunning to be the poor man’s Chuck Knoblauch.

A prospect with his profile is in a tough spot, because if he doesn’t hit well enough to play every day in the majors, he doesn’t have the glove to be a utility player because he can’t handle shortstop. Either he’ll be an offensive-minded second baseman, or he’ll be a Quadruple-A player for the next decade. He turns 23 in a few weeks, so he still has time to take one big step forward with the bat. He needs to. Alternatively, given the plethora of second-base options the Royals already have in the majors and the minors, Giavotella would make excellent trade bait.

No other hitter on the roster has the kind of prospect cache that Moustakas, Robinson, and Giavotella do, but that’s not to say there aren’t any other future major leaguers on the team.

Catcher Manny Pina, one half of the haul the Royals got for the lightning arm and loosely-screwed-on head of Danny Gutierrez, looks like a long-time major-league backup at worst. Last year, in the Rangers’ organization, Pina spent the whole year in the Texas League and hit .259/.313/.393. This year his ability to hit for average hasn’t improved – he’s batting .268 – but his secondary skills have. After hitting 8 homers all of last season, he already has 6 this year, and is slugging average (.444) is 50 points higher. And after striking out more than three times as often as he walked in 2009, he has more than doubled his walk rate while cutting his whiffs by 30%, and in 142 at-bats has both 18 walks and 18 strikeouts, leading to a .350 OBP.

Pina came into the organization as a defense-first catcher, making his offensive improvement even more enticing. He just turned 23, and with the Royals’ clear reluctance to use Brayan Pena as anything more than window dressing, Pina has a chance to back up Jason Kendall as soon as next season. Or, if we’re lucky, Kendall can back him up instead.

Other hitters of note:

Clint Robinson, a former 25th-round pick who’s done nothing but hit as a pro, and is batting .301/.389/.548 as Moustakas’ wingman. He’s also a 25-year-old first baseman, and a bench role as a pinch-hitter/defensive replacement at first base might be his upside. But hey, it worked for Ross Gload.

Tim Smith, the other half of the Gutierrez deal, is a 24-year-old outfielder who’s hit .300 at almost every stop, and is doing it once again at .303/.391/.454. He looks like a Shane Costa-ish tweener to me, but I could be proven wrong. Like Pina, his K/BB ratio has completely turned around; he’s drawn more walks than strikeouts after striking out almost twice as often as he walked last year. Double-A hitting coach Terry Bradshaw has an excellent reputation, and for good reason.

Paulo Orlando, a 24-year-old Brazilian native who astute Royals fans will remember as the player we got from the White Sox for Horacio Ramirez – the first time, when the Royals picked him off of waivers and he was good, as opposed to the second time, when he was re-signed for $2 million and sucked raw eggs. Orlando struggled in Wilmington for all of last season, but like a hundred other guys, he was so happy to leave Frawley Stadium that his bat has come alive, as he’s hitting .316/.382/.468. He’s got a good defensive reputation, and has fourth outfielder possibilities.

With all due respect to you Nick Van Stratten and Anthony Seratelli fans, that probably exhausts the list of hitting prospects. Still, on any given night the Naturals can start a lineup where 7 of the 9 batters might wind up spending a lot of time in the major leagues.

The rotation, behind Montgomery and Crow, is a bit shy on prospects. The outlier here is Edgar Osuna, who the Royals took in the Rule 5 draft from Atlanta, and who the Braves refused to spend the measly sum of $25,000 to re-acquire when Osuna didn’t make the Royals’ roster.

Given how little regard the Braves had for him, you wouldn’t expect anything from Osuna, but he has pitched insanely well this season, making the Texas League All-Star Team (along with 8 of his teammates.) The key for him has been, in a word, control. Last year he had good control, walking 35 men in 150 innings between A-ball and Double-A. This year, his control has been insane; he’s walked just nine batters in 80 innings. His other numbers have been pretty average – 55 strikeouts, 79 hits, 8 homers. But you walk one batter per nine innings, and you can thrive even if you’re average in all other respects.

The scouts aren’t buying it. Osuna’s fastball, I believe, runs between 85 and 88; he’s got a slow curveball that gives minor leaguers fits but major league hitters will spit at. His changeup is a genuine major league pitch, but it’s not enough to be successful, even for a lefty. At some point, his performance demands a promotion, at least to Triple-A. The mere fact that the Braves refused to take him back does not guarantee that he’s a nobody; the Dodgers famously declined to take Shane Victorino back from the Phillies after the 2004 season. Still, anything we get out of Osuna at the major-league level is gravy.

Finally, there’s the bullpen, where the Naturals have no less than three relievers with serious major-league possibilities. Well, they had three, until Blaine Hardy went on a run-ger strike, and threatened not to give up another run until his demand to be promoted to Omaha was met. (Horrible pun, I know.) After allowing two runs in his first outing of the year, Hardy didn’t allow another in his next 11 appearances, covering 24 innings, before joining the O-Royals’ bullpen at the end of May.

Hardy, a left-hander, was a 22nd-round pick just two years ago, out of legendary NAIA school Lewis-Clark State in Idaho. He proved to be a find right away, giving up less than a baserunner per inning for Burlington in the Midwest League last year. Still, no one expected this: despite jumping two levels to Double-A, he allowed just 11 hits in 26 innings (!) before his promotion, and he’s been nearly as effective in Omaha. For the year, he’s allowed just 22 hits in 43 innings with a 1.27 ERA. He has just 31 strikeouts against 12 walks, although his strikeout rate is better than it looks, simply because he’s been so stingy with the hit that he hasn’t had as many strikeout opportunities as you’d expect.

Hardy isn’t overpowering, but he throws around 90 and changes speeds well, works both sides of the plate, and doesn’t show a pronounced platoon split. The Royals have made due with Dusty Hughes as their sole left-handed reliever for most of the season, but pretty soon they’ll have a legitimate weapon in that role.

The second lefty in the Naturals’ pen, Brandon Sisk, is a prospect in his own right. Sisk was signed out of an independent league in 2008. As you’d expect from an undrafted left-hander, his fastball is marginal, but according to Picollo “he has excellent deception” in his delivery. He opened eyes last season by allowing just 30 hits in 61 innings in Wilmington. Now pitching in a more neutral ballpark, he’s allowed 39 hits and 15 walks in 40 innings, with 38 strikeouts. Sisk is a lefty specialist at best, but that’s still quite a find from the indy leagues.

The third prospect reliever, Louis Coleman, was the ace of LSU’s College World Series champion team last season, but also came in out of the bullpen to secure the final out of the championship. The Royals got him in the fifth round because his low arm slot meant that he didn’t project as a starter. So the Royals made him a reliever full-time, and he’s been excellent from day one. He reached Wilmington after signing last season and was very effective there, and hasn’t missed a beat for the Naturals in 2010.

In 48 innings he’s allowed just 31 hits and 14 walks, and struck out 52. Those are outstanding numbers across the board, but a word of caution: as you’d expect from someone with a low arm slot, he has a big platoon differential. Lefties are hitting .257 against him this year, while right-handed hitters are batting just .124. His walk and homer rates are pretty similar from each side, but still, that’s a sizeable difference which limits his effectiveness.

In the modern bullpen, where 7 relievers are standard and most teams carry one if not two LOOGYs (Left-handed One Out GuYs), there’s a place for a ROOGY like Coleman. If Yost spots him correctly, Coleman should be a useful piece of the puzzle as soon as next April.

Picollo on the Naturals’ relievers: Hardy is ahead of the other guys simply because he throws the most strikes…throws 89-90 but touches 93…good changeup, curveball is inconsistent. Coleman has a low three-quarters delivery and throws across his body, also quite deceptive…he doesn’t throw a four-seamer which is unusual for a bullpen guy…his velocity is down to 89-90 after sitting at 92-93 last year, but he’s still getting results.

So to sum up: the Naturals have one Grade A stud hitter (Moustakas), one potential above-average center fielder (Robinson), a potential everyday second baseman (Giavotella), a borderline starter/excellent backup catcher (Pina), three role players (Smith, Robinson, Orlando), a Grade A left-handed starter (Montgomery), an enigmatic right-hander who still has top-shelf stuff (Crow), a Jamie Moyer Scratch-Off Lottery Ticket (Osuna), and three potential long-term relievers (Hardy, Sisk, Coleman).

That’s an impressive collection of talent on one team. There have been years where the Royals didn’t have this many quality prospects in the entire organization. And we’re likely to see more prospects pass through Northwest Arkansas before the year is out. While Hardy has moved to Omaha, his place in the bullpen has been taken by Patrick Keating, a 25th-round find last year who I’ll talk about in the Wilmington piece. There’s a good chance we’ll see Eric Hosmer here before the year is out, and now that he appears to be signed it’s possible Christian Colon might reach Double-A this year. Danny Duffy will probably make his Double-A debut in about a month. A late-season appearance by Chris Dwyer or even John Lamb isn’t out of the question.

Put it all together, and a very strong case can be made that the 2010 Northwest Arkansas Naturals has the greatest collection of future major league talent of any Royals’ farm team in history. But that’s an article for another day.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day.

Baseball, they say, is a game for fathers and sons. I don’t doubt that they are right; I’ve seen Field of Dreams, after all. But baseball is not the only thing that binds fathers and sons together. My father wouldn’t know a double from a double play, but I would be neither the man nor the writer I am today without him. So today, on Father’s Day, I hope you’ll indulge me as I tell you a little about my dad.

Nabil Jazayerli was born in Damascus, Syria in 1944. He grew up in a middle-class family, although “middle-class” meant something entirely different in the Middle East in the 1950s than it does in 21st-century America. My grandfather, Muhammad Yunus Jazayerli, owned a factory that produced liquid nitrogen, which was then sold to a variety of companies that needed the stuff for industrial purposes. In America this would have made my grandfather a wealthy man; in Syria, it meant that he had the ability to provide for his family, and eventually buy his house instead of renting it, but it was a path to self-sufficiency, not a yellow brick road.

My father did well in school, as much by necessity as by choice. In Syria, as in most countries outside the western world – then and now – your career path is decided by the time you graduate high school. Every high school senior in the country takes a standardized exam (the Baccalaureate) and your composite score on the exam determines where you stand in line when it comes to picking your college. Or to put it more bluntly, it determined whether you were accepted to medical school. There were about 90 slots in the University of Damascus’ medical school, and that meant that the top 90 high school seniors in the country got the opportunity to become doctors. The 91st-best senior got the shaft. It’s not like anyone was in a position to turn down the opportunity to become a physician. Medicine wasn’t simply a noble and well-compensated profession – it was the noble and well-compensated profession.

While my father was in high school, my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer. Told by the doctor that his disease was caused by the cigarettes he had been smoking in ignorant bliss for decades, he threw away his stash and never lit up again. He would have a lung removed, and managed to survive seven more years in progressively deteriorating health before he passed away. The official cause of death was his cancer, along with heart failure, but a contributing cause of his death was Ba’athitis.

It’s almost impossible to believe today, but in the 1950s, Syria was a functioning democracy. The president was elected – fairly – and served for a period of time before his term expired. Judges had immense power to apply and enforce the law. People enjoyed civil rights like freedom of speech and political expression.

One of the groups that took advantage of the latter was the Ba’ath party, a group of disaffected socialists who railed against the perceived injustices of government. This group gradually gained control of key positions within the army, and in 1963 they struck. A coup d’├ętat was successful, and the Ba’athists soon set out to bring to the masses all the injustices that they had claimed to be fighting against.

One of the Ba’athists’ first targets was the bourgeois middle class, who had the chutzpah to conduct business with the intention of making a profit. In January, 1965 the government began “nationalizing” private businesses, “nationalizing” being a euphemism for “nice business you’ve built – we’ll take it!”

They came for my grandfather’s factory in the middle of the night. They were let in by the night security guard, a member of the Ba’ath party. My father was preparing to head to class the next morning when some of the factory employees rushed to the family’s house to tell them what had happened. It was common knowledge by that point that once the government had taken over your business, your best move was to just stay away. More than one businessman had made the mistake of going to his office to try and reason with his occupiers, and had suffered a savage beating for his impertinence.

My father had the unhappy duty to inform my grandfather of the news. He found Muhammad Yunus sitting on his bed, putting on his shoes.

“I don’t think you should go to work today,” was all my father could say.

My grandfather looked up at him, and immediately understood. “They’ve taken the factory, haven’t they?” My father could only muster a nod.

“Very well,” my grandfather said, and started removing his shoes. He then lay down in his bed and went back to sleep.

My grandfather did not last long after that. Neither would the factory; the Ba’ath party put the security guard in charge of the factory, which is a bit like giving the general manager’s job to a peanut vendor. (Don’t get any ideas, Mr. Glass.) Within six months the factory ceased to function, as every machine in the place had broken down.

At home, my father – barely out of his teens – had a mother, a sick father, and three younger sisters to provide for, and suddenly there was no source of income. My father had only one option open to him – the government, committed to its socialist principles, continued to provide free tuition for all medical students, and moreover they provided a small stipend to students who were in the top 25% of their class. If my dad was to continue in medical school, he simply had to find a way to rank at the top of his class.

So he did. When he wasn’t in class, he had a textbook in his hand. His neighbors would later tell me that when they woke up at dawn, they’d see my father sitting on the family porch, book in hand; when they went to bed at night, they’d still see him sitting there, studying under a fluorescent light.

By the time he finished medical school in the summer of 1970, my father had a wife and a 10-month-old daughter to take care of in addition to his sisters and widowed mother. All he had in his pocket was a medical degree, a plane ticket, and a contract to begin his medical residency in a distant land called Michigan.

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Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, I was blissfully unaware of all of this. I was born in June, 1975, in the suburban Detroit hospital my father trained at; two weeks later my dad completed his Cardiology fellowship, packed up the family, and drove to his new job in Wichita. Like most of his classmates who journeyed with him, my dad never originally intended to stay in America forever, not when his family was back in Syria, not when his mother country was in desperate need of well-trained physicians. Their goal all along was to stay in America just long enough to save up enough money to live comfortably back home. That was why they accepted jobs in small towns like Wichita and Appleton, Wisconsin and Moline, Illinois. Save as much money as you can for a few years, and get out.

Sociologists speak of “the myth of return” – the notion intrinsic to immigrant communities that one day they will return home, no matter how unrealistic that return might be. It’s a dangerous myth, because so long as they expect to return, there’s no incentive for them to integrate themselves into their new society.

For my dad and his classmates, the myth died quickly. My dad visited Syria in 1977, planning to scope out a possible return. He found a country in the grip of a socialist, totalitarian government, with an economy in much worse shape than when he left in 1970. A country where money was scarce, electricity was rationed, and where the greatest ambition for the best and brightest students was to study and move abroad like he had already done. In that moment, my dad realized he was an American. “I could have gone back and lived comfortably,” my dad would later tell us. “But there was no way I could let you kids grow up in a country without a future.”

I’ve long tried to imagine what it would be like for me to move in my mid-twenties to a country on the other side of the world, where I barely spoke the language, where the only people I knew were the few friends who came with me, and then create a life there, knowing that my children would grow up completely immersed in their new culture, without any memory or connection to the one I grew up in. It’s hard enough for me to imagine changing my allegiances towards a freaking baseball team. Embracing a new country? I could never do it. My parents did.

My parents threw themselves whole-heartedly into the new life they had chosen for themselves. Whether it was the PTA or the hospital’s medical establishment or the local tennis club, my parents attached as many strands as possible to the web that made up Wichita society. Before I ever identified myself as a Muslim or as someone of Arab descent, I knew myself as an American. And I never knew that I was supposed to find a dichotomy between those parallel identities. No one ever told me I couldn’t be both American and Muslim, because my parents wouldn’t let them.

Along with my two older sisters and younger brother, I lived an idyllic childhood growing up in Wichita. My brother and I manned a lemonade stand the summer I turned 6; my mom no doubt spent more money on powdered lemonade than we ever made selling it (10 cents a cup!) We watched Saturday morning cartoons like everyone else, until that exciting moment in 1982 when the USA Network started the USA Cartoon Express – cartoons on Sundays too!

I grew up reading A Cricket in Times Square and Henry Huggins and the Encyclopedia Brown books. When I was older I graduated to that uniquely American genre, science fiction, devouring the books of Isaac Asimov, who himself was the child of immigrant parents and whose name was also worth a lot of points in Scrabble.

My parents recognized my precociousness early and did their best to cultivate it. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I suddenly became obsessed with learning as much as I could about Americana, and with my parents’ help I sent away for information from the Chamber of Commerce of every big city in America. Soon my bedroom was filled with pamphlets and brochures about the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia.

Soon thereafter I became a Weather Channel junkie – I’m guessing all the cool multi-colored maps were the thing – and would watch by myself for hours at a time. One of the shows invited viewers to submit their own weather questions to be read on the air. My parents not only helped me to submit my question, but when I was picked, they helped arrange for me to read my question live on the air. I was just 7 when I made my national media debut; I believe my question went something like this: “I understand that hurricane season runs from June to November. Has there ever been a hurricane outside of hurricane season?” Yes, I know: a scintillating question. I was 7. Leave me alone. (And if you want to know the answer – you know you’re just dying to find out – click here.)

The summer I turned 8, I was at a friend’s house and we were looking for something to do when his mother said, “why don’t you play that dragon game you just bought?” And so I entered the world of (Advanced) Dungeons & Dragons, which given my obsessive personality devoured a good chunk of my free time for the next seven years.

And, of course, there was baseball. I have no memory of George Brett’s white-hot summer of 1980, but I have no doubt that I owe my position today to the relevance of the Royals on the national scene throughout the late 70s and early 80s. My first baseball memory was of the Brewers blowing out the Cardinals in Game 1 of the 1982 World Series; then of Fred Lynn’s grand slam in the 1983 All-Star Game – even then I was an AL partisan. My first Royals memory is of a Royals-Yankees game I watched live on July 24th, 1983: the Pine Tar game.

My dad generally encouraged all of my interests, though he was decidedly lukewarm about my baseball obsession. Like any immigrant who owed his success in America to hard work, he was puzzled by America’s cultural obsession with sport. He had nothing against sports; he just didn’t understand how ordinary people might schedule their lives around them. For his oldest son, baseball was just a distraction from the ultimate goal of becoming a doctor as well.

Even so, in 1981 my father spent $50 to buy his numbers-crazed six-year-old a copy of the brand-new edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia, which ran a little over 2200 pages. It was my most-prized possession until I left for college a decade later.

When it became clear to my dad that my love for baseball was not a passing fad, even through college and medical school, many times he would say to me, “Son, I hope that one day you find your baseball in medicine.” I hope you find your life’s passion in your career.

My parents didn’t simply embrace America’s secular traditions, but even while holding fast to their own faith, they found a way to accommodate America’s religious ones as well. We had a Christmas tree like everyone else; we participated in Easter egg hunts like everyone else. The year I turned 13, my parents even sent me to Camp Kanakuk, a Christian summer camp tucked away in the Ozarks, for two weeks. This was 1988, before the Berlin Wall fell and when the Soviets were still our greatest enemy, so I was viewed with curiosity more than suspicion. “You’re a Muslim? Wow. I’ve never met one of you before.”

I didn’t see much of my father as a child; as a cardiologist building his practice, he was frequently on call and usually working late. But he made sure the times we spent together were special. My dad had grown up watching westerns and war movies in the cinemas of Damascus – before they were shut down – and loved nothing more than to watch a good World War II flick. And he made sure my brother and I watched them with him. Whether it was The Guns of Navarone or A Man Called Intrepid or The Longest Day, my dad would sit us down at night to watch. He’d let us stay up past our bedtime, and in return we’d do our best to comprehend what the hell was going on.

My dad enjoyed no movie quite as much as he enjoyed Ike: The War Years, a five-hour mini-series that came out in 1980, during the Golden Age of Mini-Series, with Robert Duvall in the starring role. I’ve only watched it, beginning to end, a couple dozen times. It’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve seen it, and I’m sure I could still recite half the lines by heart. Every other kid of my generation knew actor Paul Gleason as the malignant principal in The Breakfast Club. I knew him as Beetle, the genial aide to General Eisenhower.

Eisenhower was even more of a hero to my dad because he was a Republican. My dad, like most of his Syrian doctor friends, were proud Reagan Republicans, as you might expect from men who through sheer hard work had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps from a life of uncertainty in another country to become successful and wealthy physicians in America. They’ve all reluctantly been forced to become Democrats now, after the GOP made it clear that Muslims are no longer welcome in the party, but Dwight David Eisenhower still holds an exalted place with my father as one of our nation’s greatest presidents. Even better – he grew up in Kansas! More than once my dad would load my brother and I into the car and make the two-hour trek to Abilene to visit the Eisenhower Library and Museum.

In 1983, Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War would come to the small screen, and it was as if the mini-series was made for us. We watched it as a family – all 12 hours of it – at least once or twice a year through the end of the 1980s. You might know Ali McGraw from Love Story; I only know her from this.

At no time in all of this did it strike me as incongruous that my family would have such a passion for World War II movies, would identify so strongly with America’s struggle to defeat the Nazis. No one in my family served in the war, obviously; we had no personal connection to it. (“But I was born during the Battle of the Bulge,” my dad would remind me.) All that mattered was that we were American, and the war was an indelible part of American history. If our connection to this country debuted after 1945, what of it? We were part of a nation of immigrants; the exact year of immigration seemed a pointless detail.

My dad didn’t have time to volunteer with the Cub Scouts, but when I came to him asking for help to build a car for the Pinewood Derby, I saw a side of him I hadn’t seen before. He took me into the basement, opened a toolbox that I didn’t know existed, and in the span of an hour or two molded a block of wood and some plastic wheels into a sleek racing car. I was as astonished as any eight-year-old kid could be. I knew my father was smart, and hard-working, and respected, but until that moment I had no idea that he could be cool.

There was a lot that I would soon learn about my father, and his father, and his father’s father. I learned that my dad was so handy because he had grown up around my grandfather’s machine shop. I learned that my grandfather was a mechanical savant, who during World War II, when there was an acute shortage of metal parts, devised a method to repair a specific defect in Crossley diesel engines using only scrap metal. It was so ingenious that, after the war, representatives from the England-based company came to Damascus and asked him to show them what he had done. Afterwards, they sent him a thank-you letter, along with an offer to pay full tuition, room and board for his young son – my father – should he ever choose to study engineering in England.

I learned about my great-grandfather, Mahmoud, who was a soldier in the Ottoman army and spent nearly a decade in a Siberian prison camp before he was released during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. I learned about my great-great-grandfather, also Muhammad Yunus, whose story needs its own blog post, and just might get it.

The more I learned about my family, the more I understood just what my parents had given up when they came to America. It was easy as a child to be oblivious to the sacrifices my parents had made, because my own life was so free of worries. It was only as a teenager that I realized that the ease with which I considered myself an American was a testament to just how hard my parents strove to do the same thing.

We all learned in our history textbooks about the great and glorious history of immigrants to our nation’s shores. I knew about Jamestown and the Pilgrims, about indentured servants and the slave trade, about refugees from the Irish potato famine in the 1840s and Jews escaping European anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 1930s. I knew that immigrants built this country, and I knew that each wave of immigrants had to conquer bigotry and racism before they could take their place on the tapestry of American life.

Maybe that’s why I never really felt like the child of immigrants myself. Immigrants are supposed to struggle before they, or more likely their grandchildren, found acceptance in America. I never had to struggle to be accepted. I knew I was different, but then in America we’re all different, aren’t we? That’s why I thank God every day that I was born in America, where more than anywhere else in the world – and today even more than in the past – a child of immigrant parents can be accepted right away as an equal member of society, where no opportunities are denied us, where no dream is too big to dream.

And I thank God for the sacrifices my parents made to come here, because it was their willingness to share the same dreams and endure the same hardships as the generations of immigrants before them that made my life possible. A Boeing 747 may have been their crossing ship, and a terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport may have been their Ellis Island. But they were immigrants just the same. They suffered the heartache of leaving the only land they ever called home just the same.

My father is 65 now, and retires at the end of the month. (It’s his third retirement; once a doctor, always a doctor. I’m hoping this one sticks.) Even after 40 years, the pull of the homeland remains strong, and my parents plan to split their time between the States and Syria, where economically if not politically, things are headed in the right direction. Forty years ago he came to America with nothing; today, he retires to a life of comfort, having watched his children grow up to become two doctors, a lawyer, and an MBA. (Or as we call it, the Jazayerli HMO.)

Only in America. And only to someone that believed in, and worked for, the American Dream.

So today, on Father’s Day, I just want to say: thanks, Dad. (And Mom!) Thanks for making the impossible sacrifices that only a parent could make for their child. Thanks for putting up with the snotty, bratty, spoiled, selfish complaints of children who could not possibly comprehend, let alone appreciate, what you did for them. Thanks for giving me a guidepost as I try to figure out how to raise my own three children. Above all, thanks for giving us the one thing every parent wants to give their children: a better life than the one you grew up in.

And Dad: I’m not sure I ever found my baseball in medicine. But I did find my medicine in baseball.