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Posts Tagged ‘Kalamazoo Kings’

Sometimes, I pinch myself. Figuratively though, never literally. Fifteen years ago, I sat in the ballpark across the street and called a Red Sox-Yankees game into my tape recorder. The game was sold out; I rested my scorebook and notes on my right thigh and the tape recorder on my left thigh all while trying not to invade the personal space of those sitting next to me. A good chunk of my play-by-play from that game – Luis Sojo hit a walkoff RBI single in the bottom of ninth off Rod Beck to win it for the Yankees – wound up on my first baseball demo tape. That tape landed me my first baseball play-by-play job. Fifteen years later, I’m on the opposite side of 161st Street at the new Yankee Stadium, eight subway stops from where I grew up, being paid to call a playoff game featuring my surprising Houston Astros squad against the New York Yankees. Sure, it’s “just” a winner-take-all American League Wild Card Game but, in many ways, that raises the stakes. In a seven- or five-game series, losing the first game isn’t the end. However, losing the Wild Card Game is the end. Play six months to get into the postseason and it could be gone – Poof! – after one game, in which anything can happen; if you lose, it’s almost like you were never in the playoffs, the moment so fleeting.

The first pitch from Masahiro Tanaka to Jose Altuve is a ball.

*          *          *

The 2015 season is my 14th year broadcasting baseball – seven years in the minors, seven in the Majors, a play-by-play guy in 10 of those seasons – and I’ve never been involved in a postseason game. As a matter of fact, in only one of the previous 13 seasons had a team I covered finished over .500; the 2004 Kalamazoo Kings of the independent Frontier League. The Kings were in the playoff hunt until the season’s final week. The next year, the Kings won the league title, but I wasn’t there to see it; I’d moved on to the Binghamton Mets of the Double-A Eastern League by then. The B-Mets were in the playoff hunt until the season’s final day in 2006, but they split a doubleheader on that day to finish 70-70 & out of the playoffs.

What I learned this year was that, in the playoffs, the waiting is the hardest part. And the Astros had to wait longer than most to find out what was next for them. Going into the final day of the season on Sunday, there were four possible scenarios involving potential playoff or tiebreaker games in three different cities. After that day’s games concluded, the Astros were locked into the Wild Card Game in New York in two days, on Tuesday. Which meant a cross-country flight from Phoenix, arriving in New York – our third city on what was now at least a 9-day road trip – in the wee hours of Monday morning with a game scheduled for shortly after 8 pm local time on Tuesday. Being exhausted and sleeping through much of Monday morning did make the waiting any easier.

*          *          *

I was in the restroom when I heard it.

Colby Rasmus homered leading off the top of the second, a high, majestic shot to right; that appeared to be more than enough run support for Astros ace, and Yankees killer, Dallas Keuchel. I took my customary break when the top of the fourth inning began, turning the play-by-play over to Steve Sparks – my broadcast partner – which always mean a stop at the facilities. I’d just parked at a urinal when I heard the smooth, but booming, voice of Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling over the restroom speakers announce that Carlos Gomez hit Tanaka’s first pitch of the fourth for a home run. Astros 2, Yankees 0. I’ve been in baseball long enough to know the game isn’t won until the last out is recorded, but I was confident the Astros were going to advance.

*          *          *

I woke up Tuesday morning feeling refreshed. The off-day Monday was needed to get over the grogginess associated with a late cross-country flight from Phoenix and to recharge my batteries after a 162-game regular season which included tension-filled games for most of the season’s final month. Monday was a great day to relax, go for a long walk & visit some friends & relatives in my hometown. Tuesday, it was time to get down to business.

I huddled at the desk in front of my laptop & iPad much of the morning. I updated my notes on the Yankees & made sure I had all the information I needed & wanted. Notes on the Astros’ postseason history and regular-season history against the Yankees were typed. This was my first time preparing for a playoff game, so I was learning as I went. Sure, I’d prepared for plenty of regular-season games, but this was different. How much work should I do for just one game? What information do I absolutely need & what information can be put on the back burner? By the time I closed my laptop & iPad, I felt pretty good about my preparation. I never get nervous for a broadcast if I know I’m prepared. I wasn’t nervous.

*          *          *

A two-run lead with Dallas Keuchel on the mound against the Yankees felt like a 10-run lead. Keuchel – who hadn’t allowed a run to the Yankees in the regular season – didn’t even allow many hard-hit outs. Alex Rodriguez did punish a pitch that George Springer ran down in the rightfield corner. The three hits Keuchel allowed – all singles – were harmless. He walked Astros nemesis Chris Young in the first inning, but that was the only free pass Keuchel allowed. The Astros got Keuchel another run in the seventh, when Jose Altuve poked a low-and-away pitch – a pitcher’s pitch – from Yankees reliever Dellin Betances into leftfield, scoring Jonathan Villar from second base. Keuchel handed a 3-0 lead to the bullpen – good most of the year, but shaky in September – when he departed after six innings.

*          *          *

I really wanted Caribbean food.

Houston is a great city with fantastic restaurants & plenty of ethnic food options, but finding good Caribbean food has proven to be difficult. Since moving to Houston, I’d heard of one Puerto Rican restaurant, which I tried & found lacking. Another Jamaican restaurant I read about on the Internet wasn’t up to snuff, at least not to me. A second Jamaican restaurant recommended to me by a friend had proven to be the real deal. So, Houston was 1 for 3 in the Caribbean restaurant department – a great ratio for a hitter, but not for my taste buds.

Growing up in the Bronx in a neighborhood filled with people from all over the Caribbean, I developed an appreciation for their food & culture. And I was confident I’d be able to find a good Caribbean restaurant near my Midtown Manhattan hotel for lunch before heading to Yankee Stadium for the game. A search on Yelp turned up a Puerto Rican restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen across town. Probably a 15-minute cab ride. Google Maps said it was a 30-minute walk. I was confident I could walk there in 20 minutes.

*          *          *

I felt a sense of calm when I saw Tony Sipp enter the game from the bullpen for the bottom of the seventh. The southpaw finished the regular season strong & matched up well against a Yankees lineup laden with lefthanded hitters and switch hitters. My calm was justified when Sipp worked around a one-out walk to Chase Headley, retiring the other three Yankees he faced in the inning. I was thrilled to see Will Harris enter the game in the eighth. Harris would’ve probably started the year in the minor leagues if it hadn’t been for injuries to other pitchers, but he never saw the minors in 2015, pitching well all year & earning the right to be the eighth-inning setup man in a winner-take-all playoff game. The Yankees went down in order against Harris, the ball not leaving the infield.

One more inning.

*          *          *

I haven’t been a full-time resident of New York City in over 13 years. Yet, getting back into The City’s routine, the hustle & bustle, is never an adjustment for me. As a matter of fact, I look forward to it. The streets were packed, as they always are around lunchtime in Midtown Manhattan. Office workers flood outside in the afternoons, seeking food. Many use their afternoon lunch breaks to smoke a cigarette or two, either in front of their office building or on their way to & from lunch (New York City has the most stringent non-smoking laws in the country, & public sidewalks are just about the only place where it’s legal to smoke outside of one’s private residence. For now).

The City’s geography is always in my head as I traverse Manhattan. For a New Yorker, memorizing the north-south avenues in order is tantamount to knowing your multiplication tables. The Puerto Rican restaurant was on 51st Street, between 9th & 10th Avenues. I left the Astros’ hotel, on 42nd Street, just east of Third Avenue, & quickly made my way to Lexington Avenue, before briskly walking uptown. I use the traffic lights to determine my moves. A red light at 44th Street meant making a left turn & walking west to Park Avenue, where I barely made the light before a red at Madison Avenue forced me back uptown. I made it through the pedestrian plaza that’s become Times Square before shooting up 8th Avenue for a few blocks. Construction on 9th Avenue forced me uptown again. I finally made it to 51st Street, a residential block with one storefront – the Puerto Rican restaurant. The beautiful fall weather meant my walk across town at light speed didn’t cause me to break a sweat or to be out of breath.

*          *          *

Yankees closer Andrew Miller was his usual dominant self in the top of the ninth, retiring the Astros on a harmless fly ball & two strikeouts. As Astros closer Luke Gregerson made his way from the visitor’s bullpen to the mound, the Yankee Stadium crowd was trying to summon up the strength to cheer their team to a rally, but it was obvious their heart wasn’t in it. Sparks pulled out the t-shirt & shorts he wore when he covered the Astros’ Champagne-fueled celebration from the clubhouse in Phoenix just two days prior; it was his job to get post-game interviews with players & coaches during every Astros clinching celebration. I’d just gotten back on the air when Sparks motioned to me that he was heading downstairs to prepare for another postgame party.

*          *          *

I stood behind four other patrons waiting to place their order; there was barely enough room for the short line. The restaurant was dominated by the kitchen & food prep area on the right. On the left was a narrow area with three sets of tables & chairs. One table was occupied by two women who were finishing their lunch. It quickly became obvious I was the only person in the restaurant who wasn’t fluent in Spanish. I felt right at home.

I was in line for a few minutes when a restaurant employee approached me.

“You eat here?” He asked me in a thick accent.

“Yes, I’m going to have lunch here. Not to go.”

“Sit! Sit!” He implored, waving toward a table. “I take care of you. Gimme 5 minutes. You want soda?”

I answered in the affirmative as I followed his instructions. Five minutes later, he asked me what I wanted to eat. I never saw a menu, but I didn’t need one. I settled on baked chicken with yellow rice (arroz con pollo) with plantains. “Maduros,” I told him, meaning I wanted the soft, sweet plantains, rather than the hard, salty ones. The food came quickly & in the large portions typical of a Caribbean restaurant. When I finished, I walked to the counter, which separated me from a short, raven-haired woman. After glancing at the chicken bones & stray pieces of rice remaining on my plate, she asked me if I had a soda. I told her I had. “Eight dollars,” she said. An eight dollar lunch in Manhattan? It’s a miracle!

The walk back to the hotel was a little longer than the walk to the restaurant. A full stomach will do that to you.

*          *          *

When he was with the Astros in 2004, Carlos Beltran turned in one of the greatest postseason performances in baseball history. However, he spurned the Astros for the Mets in free agency that winter & many Astros fans still boo him whenever he returns to Minute Maid Park. So, I’m sure many Astros fans took an extra bit of satisfaction in seeing him strike out swinging to begin the bottom of the ninth. The next hitter, Rodriguez, also struck out.

One out remaining.

*          *          *

I always try to take a 20-30 minute nap before I head to the ballpark. Even if I just close my eyes & don’t fall asleep, I feel refreshed & am less likely to get tired later in the day. Given how excited I was, it was a little surprising to me that I was able to doze off so easily after I slipped out of my shoes, packed my briefcase, fluffed up two pillows & laid face up on top of the bedspread.

Whenever I wake up from my early afternoon naps, I’m like a bucking bronco when the gate opens, & today was no exception. I bolted out of bed, quickly slipped on my shoes & grabbed my briefcase before storming out of the hotel room. After checking out at the front desk, I expertly wheeled my briefcase through the endless pedestrian traffic on my way to the subway station. I happened to arrive on the platform just as the 4 train was entering the station, which, to many New Yorkers, is tantamount to winning the lottery.

After arriving at my stop, I briskly walked to Yankee Stadium. I couldn’t wait to unpack, get settled in & to start my day.

*          *          *

One of the things I love about doing play-by-play is the unpredictability & spontaneity; you never know what you’re going to see & you usually don’t know exactly how you’re going to call something until it happens. I rarely think about what I’m going to say before it comes out of my mouth. Even when I give speeches, I never write them down verbatim; maybe I’ll jot down some brief notes or bullet points if I write anything down at all. However, when the final out was recorded, I knew exactly what I was going to say long before I said it, a rarity for me.

I’d been thinking about Frank Sinatra’s version of “Theme from New York, New York,” which is played after every Yankees home game, win or lose. I used to work in Kansas City, where I covered the Royals; after their wins, they play Wilbert Harrison’s version of “Kansas City” at Kauffman Stadium. The winner of this game was going to play the Royals in the American League Division Series, with the first two games in Kansas City. If the Astros won, I knew what I wanted to say, & it would incorporate elements from both songs.

Brian McCann stood in for the Yankees, their final chance to extend the game. The drama was quickly extinguished when Gregerson got him to swing at the first pitch.

“Ground ball, right into the shift! Fielded by Correa to the left of second. Throws to first, in time! And that is the ball game! Start spreadin’ the news, the Houston Astros win the AL Wild Card Game, beating the New York Yankees three to nothing! Kansas City, here they come!”

A perfect ending to a perfect day.

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I need to make a phone call, but I’m not sure where to start.

In 2003, I was in my first year as the broadcaster for the Kalamazoo Kings, a minor league baseball team that played in the independent Frontier League. The Kings had a rough year on the field, firing their manager with more than half the season remaining and finishing in next-to-last place in their six-team division. But, it was a good year for me; management and the fans seemed pleased with my on-air work and several others around the league complimented me on the job I did. Near the end of the season, I was named the Frontier League Broadcaster of the Year. A couple of months later, I got a plaque for my achievement, my name written in gold script. I gave the hardware to Mom, who still displays it in my old bedroom. I called Kings games again in 2004 and again won Broadcaster of the Year. Joe Rosenhagen, the tobacco-dipping general manager of the Kings, requested that the team be allowed to display that plaque in their office and I was more than happy to oblige. It would be nice to have the second plaque, I thought, but it’s neat to know my award will be on display in Kalamazoo long after I leave.

As it turned out, I left Kalamazoo in the spring of 2005. The Kings carried on without me, winning the Frontier League Championship in ’05 followed by several more successful seasons on the field. The Kings continued to pride themselves on community outreach and charity, donating lots of tickets and all of their profits to the less fortunate. However, attendance started to dip after the championship year and 2010 was the final season of Kalamazoo Kings baseball. Officially, the team suspended operations, but it doesn’t appear that suspension will be lifted anytime soon.

I’m sure my Broadcaster of the Year plaque is sitting in a box in a closet or storage shed somewhere. And, if the Kings are no longer, I’d love to have it. But, I don’t know who to call.

The first minor league team I worked for was also named the Kings and also relocated, but that was the plan. In 2000, shortly after completing my junior year of college, I got an internship with the Queens Kings, of the short-season New York-Penn League. The Kings were in their first season, moving from St. Catharines, Ontario, where they had been a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate for many years. The franchise still had one more year left on their Player Development Contract with Toronto when they were purchased by New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon after the 1999 season with the intent of moving the team to Coney Island, on Brooklyn’s southern tip, where the team would be a Mets affiliate. However, a stadium in Coney Island wouldn’t be ready until the 2001 season, at the earliest, and plans to play temporarily in other Brooklyn venues fell through, leading Wilpon to strike a deal with St. John’s University that allowed the ballclub to play in a renovated baseball stadium on their campus in Queens as a Blue Jays farm club. Several people in the residential community surrounding St. John’s were opposed to the plan, afraid that the Kings’ 38-game home schedule would lead to traffic snarls and that the night games and noise from the ballpark would become a distraction that would interfere with their quality of life.

As it turned out, the community’s concerns were mostly unfounded. Despite playing in America’s biggest city, the Kings were last in the New York-Penn League in attendance, so noise and traffic weren’t significant issues. And, the Coney Island stadium was completed in time for the 2001 NY-Penn League season, so the Kings left St. John’s with a brand-new baseball field to become the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Mets affiliate that’s seen nothing but success both on and off the field.

Things have worked out for the erstwhile Queens Kings, but not for the Yakima Bears, the second minor league baseball team to employ me, and the first to hire me as their radio broadcaster. When I got there in 2002, the deck was already stacked against the Bears, who were in the smallest market in the short-season Northwest League. Moreover, Yakima, Washington was in an out-of-the-way locale that relied heavily on agriculture, which helped lead to high unemployment and a lack of discretionary dollars for families and businesses. The Bears played in a tiny stadium on the Yakima County Fairgrounds that lacked the amenities of many of the other league’s stadiums. And yet, I had a great summer getting paid to talk about baseball and getting to know the close-knit group of Bears supporters.

Even though I wasn’t surprised when I started reading about the possibility that 2012 could be the last season of Yakima Bears baseball – I’d heard stories about the Bears exploring relocation even before I got to Yakima – the reports of the Bears’ demise saddened me. I knew how much baseball meant to that community and I worked closely with many of the people who put in many hours of labor to keep baseball viable in Yakima. Not to mention, I have many fond memories of my season with the Bears, even if it was the least successful season in their history. But, the Bears’ history ended last week, when they played their last game in Yakima; they’ll spend 2013 and beyond in a sparkling, new facility in Hillsboro, Oregon. Unlike Yakima, Hillsboro isn’t in the middle of nowhere; it’s a suburb of Portland, the largest metropolitan area in the United States without professional baseball. Their stadium is sure to have many of the money-making amenities that were lacking in Yakima and Hillsboro’s populace is sure to help the franchise move out of the Northwest League’s attendance cellar, which is where the Bears resided for a good portion of their 23-season existence.

After Yakima and Kalamazoo, I wound up in Binghamton, New York, as the voice of the Double-A Binghamton Mets of the Eastern League. Like Yakima, Binghamton is the smallest market in its league and plays in a stadium that was built without many of the frills modern minor league stadiums have. However, the folks in Binghamton worked hard to modernize the ballpark as much as they could, constructing a weight room for the players, adding luxury boxes and installing a state-of-the-art video board, among other things. But, like Yakima, Binghamton often finds itself at the bottom of its league in attendance and, for years, some have quietly wondered how much longer Double-A baseball would last in Binghamton. Those concerns grew louder several months ago, when news reports out of Ottawa, Ontario claimed that owners there were ready to buy the B-Mets and move them into a refurbished stadium in Canada’s capital city. Binghamton’s team president strongly and forcefully denied those reports, but the skepticism remained.

That skepticism was quashed with last week’s news that Binghamton and the New York Mets agreed to extend their Player Development Contract for four more seasons, through 2016.  So, the Binghamton Mets appear safe for at least a little while longer; hopefully, baseball remains in Binghamton for the foreseeable future. Several of the B-Mets staff members I worked with have moved on, but a few remain. I still check the Eastern League standings to see how Binghamton is doing. The fact that the Binghamton Mets still exist means part of my past still exists. You can never go home again, but it’s nice to know that your old home still stands. It’s nice to know there’s still somebody I can call.

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I had ninth-grade Spanish with James, an Asian kid with straight black hair who wore a New York Rangers Starter jacket. He never wore a hat. I always wore a fitted baseball cap (unless a teacher implored me to take my hat off). For reasons unbeknownst to me, James decided one day that it would be a good idea flip my hat off my head, causing it to fall softly to the ground behind me. James thought this was funny. I didn’t. After several occurrences of James hitting the bill of my hat with the palm of his right hand and me frantically trying to catch the hat before it hit the ground, I decided enough was enough. I let James know that, the next time he touched my hat, I was going to not-so-gently touch him, a warning that seemed to get his attention.

After my threat, James left me alone for a few days. I thought my problem was solved. I was wrong. While leaving homeroom and on my way to Computer Literacy class, I heard a voice behind me just as I was about to descend the stairs.

“Hey Robert, what’s up?”

I turned. It was James. Before I could answer, my hat was flipped off my head. Again. It hit the third step from the top and rolled awkwardly down to the next landing. I frowned as I stomped down the steps and retrieved my hat, but not before a couple of my fellow hormonally imbalanced classmates inadvertently stepped on it, making me angrier. I spun around. James was just starting to make his way down the stairs. I quickly went back up the stairs, two at a time, until we were face to face. I punched him in the nose. James didn’t fall backward, but I could tell he was hurt, which was good enough for me. Instead of retaliating, James cupped his hand around his nose. As I went down the stairs, I could hear James whining in pain between sniffles. My punch bloodied his nose. James never touched my hat again. I haven’t punched anyone since. No one’s tried to flip my hat off my head since, either.

I take my hats very seriously. For one, they have to be fitted baseball caps; I wear a size 7 ¾, often the largest size you can find, so I stretch adjustable hats to the limits of their fibers, which isn’t a good look. I’m also not a fan of the hats with the elastic sweatbands; I once bought a New York Giants hat with one of those and got a headache because the band was so tight, it reduced the blood flow to my head. I spend the first few days with a new hat bending the bill until it fits perfectly around the contours of my forehead. I never wear my hats backward; I’m too old for that. I’ll never buy a hat with a logo I don’t know or recognize and the more obscure the logo, the better. I love hats with logos of defunct teams or logos that are no longer used; I have hats with the logos of the Montreal Expos, Quebec Nordiques and the early 1960s Baltimore Orioles (a dark blue hat adorned with a block orange B), just to name a few. I own about 15 hats, all with old-school logos, logos of defunct teams, logos of minor league teams or logos of teams I root for.

The baseball-cap logos that catch my eye are the simple ones, which is probably part of the reason I’m a fan of the old-school hats and logos. You can’t beat the simplicity of logos like that of the Hartford Whalers, with a W topped by a whale’s fin that forms the upper contours of an H. Or the Montreal Expos, with a red, lowercase E connected to a blue, lowercase B, which stand for “Expos Baseball.” The best logos are abstract, yet require only a quick glance or explanation to understand. Logos with too many colors, shapes or words never look good on a baseball cap. That’s why I was never a fan of the old Winnipeg Jets logo; it was way too busy. I love the logo of the current incarnation of the NHL’s Jets, which is much simpler.

I’ve always worn baseball caps. Initially, the hats were for practical reasons. I burn easily in the sun, so my parents got in the habit of outfitting me in baseball caps on hot, sunny days. I had all sorts of baseball caps in my early years, ranging from striped train-conductor style caps that matched my overalls to caps with baseball-team logos. I grew up in a family of New York Mets fans, so I had more than a few Mets hats in my youth. I also had a New York Yankees hat or two and, when I was six, a Cincinnati Reds hat. Most of the hats of my childhood had the mesh panels in the back. All of them had adjustable snaps in the back as well.

I was in the fourth grade when I got my first fitted baseball cap. It was late in the baseball season and a talented Mets team was about to fall short in their quest for a division title. So, my dad, tired of supporting underachievers, gave me his Mets hat. It was a size 7 ½ and a little big on me. It also had a black quarter-sized stain on the bill from when Dad accidentally dropped the hat onto a patch of wet tar. The white sweatband was a light brown, the result of Dad’s summer perspiration. To me, the hat was perfect. I wore Dad’s already-worn hat until it was nearly falling apart and replaced by a brand-new New York Mets fitted hat the following spring.

That second Mets hat started a trend that would last well into my teenage years: get a brand-new fitted hat, wear it every second of the day (except when my teachers or my mother told me to take it off) until the logo, sweatband and bill were absolutely filthy, replace with another brand-new hat. My most frequent hat of choice was a royal blue New York Mets hat, since the Mets were my favorite team; at various times I also wore fitted hats bearing the logos of the Toronto Blue Jays, Cleveland Indians, Capital City Bombers (a long-gone Mets minor league affiliate), Norfolk Tides (the Mets’ former Triple-A affiliate) and Kansas City Royals (I loved the gray hats they used to wear with their road uniforms). Since the Mets played in the National League and these were the days before interleague play, any American League team’s hat – except for the New York Yankees, of course – was fair game. I also grew to love hats of minor league teams; they were unique and unlikely to be worn by anyone else I knew.

My dream was to one day own several fitted baseball caps at once; that way, I wouldn’t have to wear one cap all the time and I could wear a different hat every day. That dream became a reality late in my teenage years, when I started using some of my summer- and after school-job money to buy more hats. I got my hands on a catalogue for a company that sold the fitted hats for every Major League and minor league baseball team; that company got a lot of my business. Whenever I saw a store selling fitted hats, I had to stop by and see if they had anything in my size that caught my eye – the former being a lot harder to achieve than the latter. Once I got out of college and began working as a minor league baseball play-by-play broadcaster, I started acquiring even more minor league hats. Picking up a hat bearing the logo of the team I worked for was a must and, on the road, if I noticed a team had a hat design I liked, I made sure I got one for my collection. That’s how I picked up hats with logos of the now-defunct Queens Kings, Kalamazoo Kings and Richmond Roosters, among others.

I no longer wear hats all day or even every day; much of the year, I’m covering baseball and a baseball cap isn’t proper work attire. Nowadays, my hats spend more time on a shelf in the closet, folded neatly into one another, than they do on my head. And yet, I still like to acquire hats for my collection whenever possible. When I am wearing a hat, my 21-month-old daughter likes to tug on the bill until she pulls the hat off my head, which I don’t mind. Hopefully, she never tries to flip a hat off my head.

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