An ejection is punishment for bad behavior.
It’s also a good sign, a strong hint that Darrell Handelsman’s life and baseball career are settling into a familiar place roughly 12 months after a horrific gas explosion seriously injured the former manager of the Waterloo Bucks.
He is now the skipper of the Fayetteville SwampDogs, and in their second game of the 2013 season, Handelsman got tossed. Thumbed. Take a seat.
Bucks fans with good memories and an appreciation for baseball theatre at its finest can probably recall a Handelsman ejection or two or three. With that in mind, the SwampDogs’ manager chuckled and interrupted himself as he explained how he’s aiming to be more patient in the wake of the May, 24, 2012 accident.
“I say that, and I got thrown out of the second game of the year,” said Handelsman. “Some things, I guess, are hard to change.”
In a way, Handelsman’s ejection is reassuring.
His passion, his competitive fury and his ability to win games are still there. Over the past eight seasons, fans of the SwampDogs have gotten to know that man, too.
And his life is becoming whole again. He’s returned to the third-base coaching box, for instance. Handelsman didn’t reassume his on-field office when he returned a year ago. Swatting fungoes and pitching batting practice are back in the routine — little things that mean a lot.
“Everything is moving forward,” said Handelsman. “We’re trying to get back to as normal as possible - whatever that is.”
But folks in North Carolina are also seeing a different Darrell Handelsman, a man reshaped to some extent by what happened at J.P. Riddle Stadium.
A gas grill exploded, sending Handeslman and others to the hospital. He suffered severe burns, injuries that forced him to miss roughly the opening month-and-a-half of Fayetteville’s 2012 season.
A year later, the man who is also the co-owner of the SwampDogs with his father, Lew, feels fine physically. Handelsman still receives counseling to deal with the emotional, post-traumatic effects of the accident.
“It’s part of the process,” said Handelsman. “You’re back at the job and you think everything goes back to normal, but that’s not the case.”
Yet, Handelsman is back. Last season, he eased back into the game following his release from the hospital, watching from the press box. There he began to understand what he had missed while away from the game.
Handelsman carried that knowledge through the balance of the 2012 season into 2013.
“Every year is kind of a new beginning, doing what we do,” he said. “But, certainly, I have a different perspective on things than I did years ago in Waterloo.
“With what went on last year or so, I appreciate things a little more. I really want to make sure I enjoy all the special things we have going on here. The thing that really stood as being important was the relationships with the players.”
Yes, Handelsman says he is more patient, an early-season ejection notwithstanding. At the same time, his passion for baseball is greater now than it was last season.
“Any group of kids I get, I want to share that passion with them,” said Handelsman. “I mean, this just energizes me personally. I do see a renewed energy.
“I’ve been doing this a long time for a lot of summers. There are games, long bus trips. I still love every day - more so now, obviously, having it taken away for a short time.”
Handelsman took at least one more thing away from his experiences of the past year - he has friends in and out of baseball.
The manager heard from a lot of former Bucks, for instance. Rick Heller, the former Northern Iowa baseball coach and a man who bounced back from his own on-field accident a few years ago, contacted Handelsman.
Even total strangers stopped to give him a kind word or two. Not long ago, Handelsman was approached by a man at a gas station. The gentleman asked him how he was doing, and told him, “we’re praying for you. Glad you’re doing OK.”
Handelsman added, “I didn’t know him. Stuff like that, to me, is incredible. The outpouring of support is still going on today over a year later.
“We just passed the year anniversary of the accident. It was tough. Going through therapy and dealing with stuff - it’s probably tougher than I thought in some respects. At the same time, I have good perspective. The good far outweighs the bad.
I can say it’s something we’re dealing with. It gets a little bit easier having games to concentrate on, being able to work with the team. That kind of helps the process.”
The SwampDogs’ style might look very familiar to Bucks fans who watched Handelsman lead the team to its last Northwoods League title in 2002. Fayetteville runs the bases aggressively, and then runs some more. The players are versatile athletes who can play multiple positions.
That style worked in the NWL. It’s served Handelsman well in the Coastal Plain League. Now in his ninth season with the SwampDogs, the team has won eight out of a possible 16 division titles and missed the playoffs just once.
But Fayetteville is still looking for its first league title under Handelsman. The manager knows that teaching the SwampDogs the game of baseball is important, that the wins and losses aren’t always a true measure of success.
At the same time, yes, Darrell Handelsman would love to win a championship again. Some things don’t change, and that’s a good sign.
“It would mean a lot,” he said.