Category Archives: Sports

Our greatest father-and-son moment: the Sooner Schooner game

For every good moment I can remember of my father, I can remember many bad ones. A mechanical, electrical, and electronic wizard, he obtained a master’s in a subject to which his bachelor’s degree did not pertain. With honors. While working full time and coming to all my Little League games. When I joined the Cub Scouts, he volunteered as Cubmaster.

How he could go from that to religious fanaticism and domestic violence, I am not sure I will ever understand, but he died in my twenties within two weeks of the attempt to reboot our relationship. In any case, most of what I learned from him was negative, as in “never be that kind of man.” We only had a few truly great moments, and at halftime Saturday, my alma mater celebrated one of them. (It was all we had to celebrate, as we lost to Cal. But we didn’t lose as badly as Oregon did to Utah. Even during our anniversary dinner, I had Deb keep checking the score. Just the look on her face was golden, especially when she would burst out laughing.)

On New Year’s Day 1985, I was home from UW for the holidays. When in school, I honestly didn’t care that much about football, and with all the foolhardiness of youth, I took the Huskies’ success for granted. I did respect the players as fellow students, because Don James ensured that they behaved themselves. In my first year as an RA, I had a tailback, a tackle, and a defensive tackle living in the cluster right next to me. Some of the nicest ‘dents I had, and that year, I had very many. I had trouble with men’s basketball players, and the men’s crew, but never football players. One of the quarterbacks, whom I knew from a Willis class (non-UW folks: to understand this, google ‘Willis Konick’, and believe me when I tell you that nothing you read is exaggerated), had a sister living in my floor’s elevator cluster. Paul Sicuro was bright, personable, and was destined to start under center for the Huskies in the Orange Bowl on January 1, 1985. He is now an oncologist, and I suspect a very good one.

Now, the old man loved college football. His viewpoints on it were dogmatic and Big 8-biased, but he watched it all day every Saturday in fall. My mother still hates even the mention of the sport. I didn’t watch very often, but here we had a rare convergence of his ideas and mine. You see, my father was a Jayhawk who also liked Nebraska, and he hated Oklahoma Sooners football like I hate Oregon D*cks football. I’m fond of saying that if the University of Pyongyang showed up to play Oregon, I’d be out there holding up a big picture of the Dear Leader, chanting communist slogans in Korean. Well, if there were a school titled the New York Atheist University Fighting Evolutionists, and they showed up to play the Sooners, my father would have been out there waving a copy of Origin of Species. Knowing him, he would have been drawing vocal and unflattering inferences with regard to the covered wagon opposition and the lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder.

I have enough friends from Oklahoma not to feel quite as strongly about this as my father, but I certainly didn’t mind it. For my part, I was a Husky of Kansan origin, and this was the Orange Bowl, and it was obvious which team I would support. Our interests and opinions were aligned if not identical, a rare arrangement indeed.

The game didn’t begin too well for my Dawgs. Switzer had a good football team in Norman, with stud defenders like Tony Casillas and Brian Bosworth (who failed in the pros but was a force of nature in college ball). My man Sicuro didn’t have his best game. Three quarters in, with the score tied, Oklahoma lined up for a chip shot field goal to take the lead. Their kicker made it, but the referees called the play back for illegal procedure. Another try, right, but surely a 27-yarder isn’t much harder than a 22-yarder? Might even be easier, depending on the location of the ball between the hash marks? Then as now, no Division I-A kicker considers 30 yards or less to be a distance issue.

Ah, but…you see, the Oklahoma mascot is a Conestoga wagon maintained by a pep group, drawn by impressive horses and titled the ‘Sooner Schooner.’ Having not seen the penalty flag, the drivers brought it onto the field to celebrate. It got stuck in mud in front of the UW bench in a gesture that surely wasn’t meant as a deliberate middle finger, but looked like one to an observer. My father and I watched in disbelieving, unrestrained hilarity: did the Okies really just bring their covered wagon onto the football field in the Orange Bowl? Yes, they had.

Being killjoys, the officials didn’t think it was very funny. They tacked unsportsmanlike conduct onto the Sooners, and the former chip shot was now a 42-yarder. For longer field goals, a kicker will generally go for lower trajectory in search of distance. Oklahoma lined up to kick again, and Husky safety Tim Peoples blocked this attempt. My dad and I came unglued again. He was actually in tears of laughter, face the color of a brand new breast cancer ribbon, emitting his peculiar rutting-rhino laugh. (Imagine Arnold Horschack with real lungs.) It was hard to credit the TV evidence. Looking back, I still have a hard time believing it. I’m reading a retrospective news article from an authoritative source, and it’s still hard to believe what I saw.

The Huskies went on to win that game with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, as father and son broke out in periodic snickers, chuckles, giggles, and guffaws.

As I approach the age at which he died, I guess it’s natural to reflect on my father and compare. Too often, I think of the face frozen in ruddy and violent fury, the indifference he showed as I spiraled down to a very dark time in life, the oppressive religious fanaticism, and how much more I hated the man every time I saw the way he treated my mother (and us). Now and then, I think of one of the good moments. This was one.

Ending my one remaining newspaper dependency

Warning: wandering blog entry. Those looking for a carefully structured persuasion attempt, well, that’s why this doesn’t cost the reader any money.

A couple of days ago, I deleted the RSS feed that used to give me Adam Jude’s Washington Husky football coverage via the Seattle Times, Seattle’s surviving daily mainstream paper. My link had shifted to collecting some other aggregation of Times headlines, it needed fixing, and figuring out the new RSS bookmark was more effort than their coverage was worth.

Since I do not actually buy a newspaper, and since I do my level best to block ads, refuse cookies, nerf scripts, and otherwise sidestep every effort the news media make to eke some benefit from my freeloading, one might fairly level some accusations at me:

  • I’m a freeloader.
  • I am contributing to the death of the hometown newspaper concept.
  • I’m probably in violation of their terms of service.

Even if all of those are just, I don’t care. Because:

Newspapers seem to get the vast majority of their content from wire services anyway. Most of it is the same words one could read anywhere. At no time do I ask them to cover anything. They choose what to cover, and are quite immune to any desires or non-desires on my part. I don’t think that becoming a paying customer would change that much. My business just isn’t that big a deal for them to lose, if they were to gain it to start with.

The newspaper is a corporation of some sort, thus it must do or be something exceptional to qualify for any sympathy from me. In fact, Jude’s efforts at covering Husky football are a major step downward from his predecessor Bob Condotta, one of the hardest working sportswriters in the business. I’m not sure if this speaks more to Jude’s work ethic or to the paper’s spreading his available hours thinner, but I’m not required to care. I care about reading the news concerning Husky football, and the hometown paper is no longer the best source. It might not be the third best. It was once the very best, no contest. If Condotta were still covering the Dawgs, I wouldn’t be so hasty.

That’s a business decision by the paper. My choice is also a business decision: the coverage wasn’t worth paying for before, and now it’s not worth the effort to avoid paying for. If they don’t want people to make choices on how they read the material, the executives are welcome to take down the website. I certainly have no right to object. No one forces them at bayonet point to post anything.

My issue is that the expectation of empathy seems to go only one way: from everyone to the consumer. I hate that in society:

“Give to me/do for me/let me get away with/make allowances for me.”

“And in return, you will what?”

“Well…er…I’ll do the work I am paid to do.”

“Those are the key words: you get paid to do that. You are not owed more. If you want more compensation, that’s between you and your employer.”

It gets old, this business of people and institutions asking me to care about their problems without proposing to care about mine. “Give to me” is getting old. I like reciprocity. I care about my neighbors’ feelings because they care about mine. I care about letting people merge on the highway because I am often allowed to merge, and it feels like participation in a practice of cordial kindness. I care about my clients because I respect them, and because they pay me to offer them my very best. I’m not entitled to ask for extras from them. I quote a price, I am or will be paid, and that is all the compensation I have any right to request. Sure, it’s nice to get a complimentary signed copy of the finished book, but they aren’t obligated, and I have no right to guilt them about it. If it was that important to me, I should have negotiated it as part of my compensation. It’s nice to be print-credited, but the same logic applies. They aren’t under any obligation to do that unless we negotiate it. Of course, if I have done my work well, I won’t have to request it of them. That is purely on me, to leave them feeling warmly toward me and that they received better value than they anticipated. Good service leaves a client feeling expansive and generous-spirited. And it’s not up to the client to tell me how to do that. I’m presenting myself as the knowledge source. It’s up to me to figure out how to give the best service that is in my power.

I don’t have any evidence that the print news media see it that way, though I am sure there are exceptions.

I do not regard any lengthy, fine-print Terms of Service as morally binding. Want me to regard them as morally binding? Stop making them so long that no one will read them. Stop making the print so fine that they are burdensome to read. Start making them concise and straightforward. Stop sneaking really unpalatable clauses in around page four. Do it in 200 plain English words. Surely you have an editor around there someplace, what with being a newspaper and all.

I find it amazing that people have acquiesced to the statement ‘use of this site constitutes acceptance of these terms.’ It may hold up in court, because that works out well for lawyers (the more complex that legal matters are made, the more often the citizen requires a paid escort to navigate them), but since there’s no enforcement to speak of, I don’t care. If you don’t want me to look at it, don’t post it online. I won’t plagiarize you, of course, because that is against my own ethics, but neither will I just endorse that the site owner has the right to put up ten pages of legalese and consider me morally obligated to respect it. I don’t. If the site owner wants to put it behind a pay wall, fine. Then I have another business decision to make, just as they made theirs.

A good example is the New York Times. Most papers’ websites at least try to make you take cookies, or let all their scripts run. Some won’t work unless you take the cookies. The NYT, which seems to think it’s special, requires a login. Fine. Their prerogative. If I can circumvent that, I will. I’m sure their TOS prohibit that, somewhere deep in the duodenal section, and I am sure that I simply don’t care. If I can’t, that’s fine too. They aren’t that special to me.

Perhaps the biggest reason to give up on the hometown paper’s coverage of my alma mater, though, is that its coverage isn’t as good as what the amateurs are providing. All that cachet, all those resources, and still the amateurs are clobbering them. And I mean clobbering, too. The amateur coverage is prompter, more complete, more interesting, and at least as dependable. It has its homerist moments, but it has always been the consumer’s duty to read critically. Just because hardly anyone seems to bother doing so lately doesn’t relieve each of us of the duty.

What could the newspaper industry have done to avoid this decline? I don’t have the answer. They’re the media professionals, not me. But I can tell them that guilt trips and worsening coverage definitely aren’t the way to go. Is it too bad? Yeah, but it’s not as if this is bucking the trend. Our mainstream TV news is a sad joke. The main grownup world news source available to me is a channel out of Qatar, for gods’ sakes, or one out of the UK.

Of course, if I disable features, I can’t be annoyed with a site for not working as designed. So I’m not. But that’s not what happened here. The Times simply changed its RSS feeds, and it wasn’t worth the effort to fix them.

So I probably won’t be checking out the Times‘ Husky football coverage this season much. And that’s all right.

We’re strapping in for a rough season anyway, it seems. I have a feeling that reading some of the coverage will feel self-laceratory. But I’m a college football fan, and hope springs long-lived if not eternal, and I admit it: I can’t wait for the opening kickoff.

No one who refuses to read this book should ask me for book marketing tips any more

The book in question is the autobiography of Bill Veeck, Veeck as in Wreck.

Clients ask me for marketing tips all the time. Of course, a cynic might think: “If he were that good at marketing, he’d probably be writing and pushing his own books.” Most authors hate marketing and think it’s icky; they just want to write, publish, and let their work rise on its merits. Well, it is icky. It’s like picking up after your dog icky. However, if you do not pick up after your dog, your back yard is not a fun place.

Other than how to approach Amazon reviewers, there is not a lot of useful stuff I can tell people about marketing books. The cynic above? S/he is quite correct about me.

The author who refuses to embrace marketing, and who insists that it’s a commercial rather than a vanity book, should be writing fantasy. That’s because that stance is indicative of a very active and fertile imagination, an ability to suspend disbelief in the face of obvious evidence. This should enable him or her to come up with some amazing alternate realities.

I believe that all projects should begin with a fundamental mindset. Winston Churchill knew it. His six-volume WWII memoirs, which are some of my favorite reading, began with a Moral of the Work:

“In war: resolution. In defeat: defiance. In victory: magnanimity. In peace: goodwill.”

One may debate the moral, its applicability to the telling of history, or whether Churchill lived up to it in life. He did establish a mindset, and one supposes it guided him. Thus it is with writing, or the marketing of writing. If the mindset toward marketing is that it’s icky, I see a high probability that the result will reflect the mindset. That means the author doesn’t sell very many books, and perhaps even takes a net loss after all the initial expenses are considered.

So; mindset before all. And that’s why authors seeking marketing tips must read Veeck’s book.

  • It is about growing up around and operating baseball teams.
  • It is about breaking attendance records, even with lousy teams.
  • It is about one’s approach to the public.
  • It is about just enough chicanery.
  • It is about an unconventional mentality.
  • It is about marketing without fear, shame, or guilt.
  • It is about how to treat those with whom one works.
  • It is about having fun, and plenty of laughter, while practicing all of the above.

If authors let some healthy portion of Veeck’s rollicking, fun-loving, generous, brass-balled, loyalty-building, establishment-defying, disability-defying, fiscally savvy, opportunistic mindset sink into their marketing approach, there is further point in discussing strategies. They will have a mindset, a guiding attitude, and will thus be able to carry out those strategies without feeling like they are picking up dog turds.

If they decline to read it, or read it and decide that marketing is still icky and they just want to write, I will be delighted to serve as their editor and will not bother them any more about reading Veeck’s book. However, they should know that I’ve already given them my best marketing advice, from my limited storehouse of same, and that I may not have much else of use to tell them about how to get people to buy books.


 

*I can’t finish a discussion of a book written with Ed Linn without a shoutout to his efforts as co-author. I have read several sports books written ‘with Ed Linn.’ Mr. Linn has passed on in recent years, but he happens to be one of my best examples of voice. All of Veeck’s books with Mr. Linn sound consistently Veecky. Others, with other autobiographists, sound like those persons. When I edit multiple POV first person fiction, I remind myself that those voices must, must, must differ, must match to the developed characters, and must further the speaker’s development.

What happened to sports cards

I remember a time when sports cards were toys.

Then I remember a time when they were everywhere.

Now I see people unloading boxes and boxes of them for $30, or trying to.

What happened?

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. In those days, make no mistake: we were concerned with the value of cards, or at least the heaviest buyers were. But only one major company produced them. That was Topps, which had held an effective corner on the market since the mid-1950s. In those days, production was often sloppy. Cards came poorly centered, color overlays were messed up, and one card in every pack had waxy residue from vile-tasting gum that was so hard you could shatter it just by dropping it on the floor. Reverses were not glossy or white, most years, but the natural dirt brown of the basic cardboard.

Cards could be unintentionally hilarious. In addition to some pranks and errors (Billy Martin flipping the bird, Bob Cerv’s arm airbrushed out, Claude Raymond pictured two years in a row with his fly open), card manufacturers had to struggle to say something good about each player. When a guy hit .171 and fielded as if wearing oven mitts, that wasn’t easy. We would hear about his great performances in the minors, his tremendous potential, and if all else failed, his achievements outside sports. This was more of a problem in baseball because baseball players were more likely to get cards. With 40+ people on a football team and some 20+ professional teams, anyone could see there wasn’t going to be a card for every reserve offensive guard. Basketball was easier, because there are something like twelve people on a basketball squad. Hockey (about 18 per squad) just didn’t produce that many cards. In baseball, you could expect cards for about 75% of a 25-player roster, with full sets being 500-700+ cards. Which meant that the writers at Topps could end up trying to convince us that a washed-up 2-9 pitcher with a 5.58 ERA was, in fact, an important personage.

Through the 1970s, cards were still playthings for most kids. This meant that they became worn, creased, impaled, water-damaged (I’ll really never forgive our cat for peeing on my 1972 Roberto Clemente cards, even though the cat has been deceased since about 1985), and otherwise mutilated. Very savvy forward thinkers did protect their cards from wear, but many cards that avoided damage did so because someone forgot about them in a shoebox.

After a court ruling, the Topps monopoly broke in the 1980s. Around that time and shortly thereafter, now-adult collectors began to see small fortunes in those old shoeboxes. Some began to buy up others, transitioning from collecting to investing. Early birds got the best bargains. As non-Topps companies got into the game, production values improved. Bad centering became rarer; metallic decor began to show up; the photos improved. The mud-colored reverse became something of the past. Imagining value, kids and also some adults started to buy the flood of new cards–and they didn’t play games with them. Gum went away, an impediment to value. For the next twenty-five years, it was all about so-and-so’s rookie card, or stars, stars, stars. Price guides told everyone what the cards were supposed to be worth, and a grading system emerged. Guys even bought cases of unopened card packs, figuring to sell them for good money some day.

I didn’t collect during this period. It all looked like flashy garbage to me. But neither did I get rid of my own cards. Some were worn playthings, some were in pretty good shape, and they all represented one of the happier memories of an unhappy childhood. That quarter-century simply happened without me.

After 2000, in my estimation, enough buyers figured out that most of the money in cards was already made. The bubble burst. Nowadays, people sell boxes of them on Craigslist for bargain basement prices, usually trying to tell potential purchasers that these in fact are worth thousands. Few seem able to anticipate the obvious rejoinder: “If they’re worth that, then why are you dumping them for $20, which no one seems willing to pay you?”

Things seem to have come full circle. Last I saw, only two major producers were still making cards. Everyone who sank thousands into cards during the glut is hoping to get a bit of the money back. Sitting pat, I was unscathed. I found other ways to lose and waste money, but not on cards.

Got some old cards? With noteworthy exceptions, if they are post-1980, don’t expect much. Anything from the 1950s has some value just for showing up in decent condition. 1960s, less so, but there’s a little value. 1970s cards go cheaply.

I still remember when they were toys. And I still hate to think how much of my limited disposable income went into them, but what the hell. I had fun with them.

Book review: The David Kopay Story

(This review was originally submitted to Epinions. I am reclaiming my work in edited and updated form.)

So Michael Sam, a linebacker from Missouri with legitimate hopes of being taken in the NFL draft, has come out as gay. He did so knowing that this might impact his opportunity to play at the sport’s highest level. Evidently he had already come out to his college teammates, who respected his confidence and continued to treat him as a teammate.

This takes guts. You know how, when a windshield cracks, it can be repaired provided the crack doesn’t reach the edge? This may be the blow that cracks the glass barrier of discrimination to its edge. While those of us who advocate an end to homophobic discrimination are cheering on Michael Sam, I’d like to remind the world of the man who first struck at the barrier. I have more in common with him than some might realize.

David Kopay was a tough college running back who made it to the professional football ranks through sheer determination and obstinacy, staying there for a decade as a backup and special teams hand. A craggily handsome fellow who ‘came out’ in the mid-1970s while writing The David Kopay Story with Perry Deane Young. And a University of Washington Husky.

David and I, therefore, have walked the same collegiate paths. I’m proud of my alma mater; while no university is perfect, UW (we usually say ‘U-Dub,’ often without the definite article) combines a square mile of carefully landscaped lakeside campus with some of the finest educational tools that exist. As far as I know, it is still the very finest nursing school in the land, and maybe the world. For those with the self-discipline to till them, UW can offer impressively fertile grounds for learning in a rich variety of studies.

We also have good sports teams. But when I think of famous fellow Dawgs who inspire me, the first one that comes to mind is not Football Hall of Famer Hugh McIlhenny. Nor is it legendary quarterback Warren Moon. It is not statesman Warren Magnuson, flying ace and Medal of Honor winner ‘Pappy’ Boyington, activist and decorated veteran Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, former Speaker of the House Tom Foley, newsman Chet Huntley, actors Richard Karn, Dawn Wells, Joel McHale or Patrick Duffy, or civil rights activist Gordon Hirabayashi–though I’d be honored to meet any of them.

No, when I think of fellow alumni whose hands I would like to shake, David Kopay is the first-stringer.

We must remember that this book was first published in 1977. Jimmy Carter was President. The nation was mired in a post-Vietnam funk. The economy was a hot mess. We had begun to make meaningful the civil rights gains of the 1960s. The Cold War was a reality. We were expecting the next war in Europe, possibly soon, and our military was the next thing to a broken force.

The ex-hippies were just starting to be promoted to lower management, but going home and listening to the Beatles and the Stones on vinyl at home, and clinging to their VW microbuses as tokens of a bygone time when ‘all you needed was love.’ We had partied the hearty party of post-WWII prosperity, we were about done throwing up the morning after, and we were mopping up the puke with a throbbing headache and drinking cranberry juice. And telling everyone to turn that damn music down.

The popular perception of male homosexuality in the 1970s was that it was a personal choice, like becoming a Jehovah’s Witness or a disk jockey. Many also saw it as a dangerous perversion, felonious in many states. Family and friends tended to treat it as a major disgrace. Society treated male homosexuality as a rare, contagious, emasculating disease.

In this timeframe, at the finish of a ten-year NFL career, David Kopay let it be public knowledge that he was homosexual. No one else had done this, especially not someone who had spent nearly a generation in men’s locker rooms where he might–omigawd–see other men naked. It sounds stupid now, but remember the times, and you’ll be able to imagine the reaction.

With Young’s able assistance, Kopay tells us the story of his path to ultimately living as an out gay man. The conflicting desires. The intoxicated sexual incidents with friends and fraternity brothers. How hard he tried to be heterosexual, and the ways in which that hurt women who truly cared for him. The cracks and comments from teammates who had no idea how correct they were, and the way Kopay enjoyed hitting them extra hard in practice. The format alternates between Kopay’s narrative and Young’s commenary, and flows well, with no sense of reading a tennis match. (Not that it’s really germane, but the two were never lovers. Of course, if you co-author a book with someone, you might as well be.)

Kopay’s book impacted popular perceptions of athletes similarly to Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. For many years, the public had practiced voluntary ignorance concerning professional athletes’ humanity. Bouton, another of my great heroes (although it should not be glossed over that Ball Four contains some crude homophobic references that I suspect Bouton regrets today), had made athletes look more human. By coming out, Kopay humanized them in yet another. If part of the population is gay, part of the athlete population will be gay. Kopay’s work destroyed that comfy ability to pretend that wasn’t so.

I find Kopay’s description of his upbringing to ring with truth, which is why I’d recommend it for anyone who wishes to better understand the experience of being gay. Of course he found his early desires and thoughts confusing; he was raised in a very religious home, and there was no manual available in any case to explain that some people happened to prefer same-sex partners. His only clue was that he knew, deep down, that he was more interested in males than females, try as he might to live otherwise. The candor of this self-discovery story, and his coming to terms with it, makes Kopay’s book relevant nearly two generations after its first publication.

By modern standards, his family’s reaction to his coming out would be considered very disappointing. For the 1970s, their reaction was commonplace and mainstream. Kopay lets us see the pain that caused him, the ‘we cannot truly accept you as you are’ hurt that continues to bleed long after. His African American teammates who knew or suspected he was gay were also the most understanding. While the book is explicit, it’s not pornographic. it is more about football than sex, and again, Kopay is straightforward. He was not a big star. He hung on in the pros by sheer force of will. He just wanted to play the game.

That explains another part of the kinship I feel with David Kopay. Armed with moderate athletic talent, he lowered his helmet and charged, pounding his way to a respectable ten-year professional football career. Unlike Kopay, I lacked athletic talent, yet I battled my way to two high school varsity baseball letters, a varsity football letter, and the slightly fear-tinged regard earned by someone lacking a commonsensical regard for his own safety. The only thing that got me any respect was the reckless use of the hardshell helmet against joints, soft parts, and so on. (I once hit a kid hard enough to break one of the steel bolts holding my face mask in place.)

After college, I took up amateur hockey and played it for six years, leaving memories of myself with many; I also played ten years of amateur baseball, making solid contributions to competitive teams (and, I daresay, leaving a few physical calling cards along the basepaths). I refused to accept lack of talent as a disqualifier. I wanted to win, and to do well, and I wanted it bad enough to give all of what little ability I did have. I’ve learned that it’s about 80% what you do with what you have and about 20% what you have to work with. The same ratio held true in college academics, as I learned by underachieving my way through my first two years of school, while others of comparable natural talent made me look rather dumb by comparison.

Kopay set forth to be a collegiate and professional athlete, not an activist. His career was not spectacular, but certainly successful (he was particularly tough on special teams). After that career ended, a challenge far greater than the Rose Bowl came his way. Kopay faced and met that challenge. His account doesn’t dwell on the courage that took; nor should it, because it speaks for itself. Sure, he was afraid; I also would have been. He felt the fear, and did it anyway.

I wish I’d had David Kopay on any or all of my teams. Skills, talents, sexual preference; all secondary considerations. Give me someone who’s honest; give me a comrade; give me someone who wants to win with all his or her heart; give me guts under fire; give me someone who never quits; give me someone who’ll angrily tell me I’m full of it; give me someone who will lead me if I falter, follow me if I lead, and avenge me if I fall.

Let me draft a team loaded with that mentality, and we will make a way.

In the first round of that draft, my team selects David Kopay.

Michael Sam’s step is of similar magnitude. I am glad that today, unlike Kopay’s day, he may look behind him and see not merely a few confidential well-wishers, but a great multitude in which straight allies outnumber those who are gay. This is one of those rare crowds where I feel comfortable. Good luck, Michael.

Bill Veeck: major league baseball’s last entrepreneur

Were he still with us, February 9, 2014 would be the hundredth birthday of William Louis Veeck, Jr. Today’s sterile, quillion-dollar corporate baseball industry misses him terribly. There will never be a better day to explain why.

Let’s start with one bold assertion: if Bill Veeck owned your hometown baseball team, you’d buy season tickets.

You would. I love the game, but I’m not much at all for actual stadium attendance (don’t like crowds, too many jackasses). I would want season tickets.

Even when Veeck’s teams were lousy, they entertained. And since he understood women’s buying power, and their sometimes differing expectations from the ballpark experience, Veeck’s teams appealed to women perhaps even more than men. In those days, most owners viewed female fans as afterthoughts. Veeck considered women valuable customers of the most loyal sort. An unprejudiced man in an era of African American segregation and aristocratic anti-Semitic restrictions, Veeck’s operations attracted and welcomed anyone willing to buy a ticket. Thus, Veeck set attendance records, and all his teams created buzz.

They also sometimes became winners, and on a low budget. Veeck was an entrepreneurial baseball owner; when he owned a team, it was his primary business. He was no George Steinbrenner, flush with wealth earned in other ways. Rarely could he afford a team’s purchase price, so he followed the principle of ‘other people’s money.’ He would line up investors, put up some of his own money, and operate the team. He was a salesman, a hustler of the best kind, and a very shrewd judge of administrative and sports management talent. If you had wanted a drink-from-the-firehose sports and promotional education, and you’d had any guts at all, you’d have gone to Veeck’s office and offered to take a job doing anything, for whatever he wanted to pay you. The rest would come through osmosis.

There’s a trend today in sports, news and talk shows: sports entertainment, news entertainment, talk entertainment. Pro wrestling, CNN and Jerry Springer are examples of the trend. Problem: no one today manages the second noun without losing the first. Pro wrestling is not sport, CNN is not news, and Jerry Springer isn’t discussion. They’re circuses, nothing more, deserving no more serious consideration than a stage magician who seems to believe his act involves actual magic.

Bill Veeck combined entertainment with sport without diminishing either. That is genius. And while Bill Veeck spent much of his life laughing his head off, few things gratified him more than when the game’s stuffy dignitaries would accuse him of making a travesty of baseball. But why would they say such a thing?

  • He once sent a little person (formerly called a ‘midget’) up to bat.
  • He gave outrageous door prizes, like a dozen live chickens or a pallet of beer.
  • His stunts sometimes bombed, notably Disco Demolition Night.
  • He sometimes used clowns in the coaching boxes.
  • He brought up 42-year-old Satchel Paige, late of the Negro Leagues, and touted him for Rookie of the Year.
  • He was the first to sign an African American (Larry Doby) to play in the American League.
  • He held a funeral for a pennant.
  • He held a Grandstand Managers’ Day in which fans chose the lineup and strategy. His fans won.
  • His groundskeepers’ skullduggery was a legend. If Veeck’s team was full of turtles, the groundskeepers transformed the basepaths into swamps. If they couldn’t run, no one got to run.
  • If he had a crosstown rival, he considered it his duty to try and run them out of town, annoying them in every way he could think of.
  • Hardly a game went by without some sort of stunt. Car racing. Little people landing by helicopter. Door prizes. The exploding scoreboard (a Veeck invention). Fireworks…

…and much more. But he did all of it while doing his level best to build winning teams on a shoestring budget. Bill Veeck wanted to win as well as entertain. The ‘travesty’ was that he and his fans had fun.

My assessment is that the other owners hated him out of stuffy envy. Veeck was always having fun, and they often were not, and his promotional competence pointed up their many promotional scleroses; of course they were bound to hate him. The staid and dull almost always hate the fun and interesting, do they not? Most owners took their lordly positions very seriously. Veeck’s first act, upon buying a team, was to remove his office door. He would then reorganize the concession stands, renovate the women’s restrooms, speak at any event that wanted him, tease his detractors, excoriate his nearest rivals, and go out drinking with his friends. A caring man who meant much to many, Bill Veeck had a great many friends to drink with. Some were the bleacher guys, because Veeck did not watch games from an effete  luxury box. He preferred to sit shirtless in the cheap seats, drinking beer and talking baseball with his steady customers. He loved the stadium, the stunts, the fans and the game.

For most of this time, he had a leg to stand on…and only one. He lost the right in Marine training during World War II, and every so often they had to trim it back a little more. He had to soak the stump in hot water for several hours each day. Veeck being Veeck, he cut a hole in the prosthetic leg and used it as an ashtray. For fun, he would stab it with an icepick and watch the reactions. He was inventive and brave, pioneering a number of innovations we take for granted today.

Bill Veeck made baseball fun, even for people who otherwise paid it minimal attention. He is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is something of a patron saint to the Baseball Reliquary, the organization which gave me generous permission to use Tony Salin’s work as the basis of my baseball name pronunciation project.

And if he owned your hometown team, you’d go to the games.

There is plenty of good reading out there about Bill Veeck. Here’s your Veeckography:

Veeck as in Wreck, Bill Veeck with Ed Linn

The Hustler’s Handbook, Bill Veeck with Ed Linn

Thirty Tons a Day, Bill Veeck with Ed Linn

Bill Veeck: A Baseball Legend, Gerald Eskenazi

Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick, Paul Dickson

Note: for my money, anything written with Ed Linn is worth reading. One of the most gifted co-authors whose work I’ve had the pleasure to experience. They rarely get due credit for that.

Wearing purple around Boise today

I do realize that it’s a faux pas for a person whose work is the written word to care about college football. Well, I was always immune to peer pressure.

Today, my team and alma mater (Washington Huskies) filled their football head coaching vacancy by hiring one of the most coveted coaches in the game: Chris Petersen. Petersen was previously employed as head coach of the Boise State Broncos. He is appreciated, loved, even revered among the BSU fanbase, and with good reason: he took them as high as the stratified Division I-A conference system would allow. He recruited unheralded players and groomed them into NFL talents. There are about twice as many Bronco alumni playing at the next level as there are Huskies. That speaks for itself.

I live in Boise.

I underestimated the Bronco faithful, and for that I apologize. Fair’s fair.

After watching the Cal-Berkeley fanbase’s reaction a couple of years back to our hiring away of a couple of their assistants–they went through all the Stages of Grief, but tarried long in Anger–I wasn’t expecting much warmth of the good kind. I anticipated rage, fury, loathing, wearing of potato sackcloth and ashes, rending of garments, weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Reaction on the BSU fanboards was about 90% this: “We knew it could happen. Thanks Pete for every great memory and win. Go Broncos and then go Huskies.” Not what I’d expected. There are programs whose fans would be sending the coach and his family death threats over such a thing, not wishing them well.

As it turns out, I had occasion to be out and about today, and while I didn’t want to wash anyone’s face in their grief, my windbreaker is purple and gold with prominent lettering on back. So if anyone wanted to give me some spillover, they’d get their chance. I don’t have a desire to rub anything in, but you can’t case the colors.

I underestimated the BSU fanbase. Of course, everyone had a reaction, but a lot of it was wanting to know how I felt about the hire. They took it like fans of a power program, not like crybabies. It was the good kind of college football banter, not the bad kind. They’re good fans, and while there may be some bandwagon falloff, they’ll be all right. When I wished them well, I found myself meaning it.

And, Broncos, if you end up hiring our prize DC Justin Wilcox to replace Petersen, well, we can hardly blame you. If that happens, I hope we behave as well as you have. But thanks for showing me that you have reached a point that some Pac-12 and SEC programs still don’t grasp: the ability of a longtime winner to be gracious in the face of a setback. I hope the new playoff system gives you a fair opportunity to shoot for the big prize. I’ve always felt that situation was fundamentally unfair.

Good luck, Bronco Nation.