Archive for the ‘Beyond the Shoebox’ Category


Failures Anonymous

June 17, 2016

Josh little leagueThanks to everyone who responded to my attempt to give away some copies of my latest book. Several people were kind enough to leave some good words about my previous book, Cardboard Gods, on Amazon. If you’re one of the heroic review-posters, please drop me a line if you haven’t done so already so that I can burden you with a copy of Benchwarmer.

A few brave fellows responded to my call for stories to failure. These pleased me to no end, and in hopes that you’ll be able to experience, as I did, the cumulative effect of having multiple stories of losing wash over you, I’m posting excerpts below in the manner of support group anonymity. I like to imagine that we’re all in this together, telling our tales of woe.

The first excerpt below is not a story but strikes me as a perfect opening note to our failures anonymous meeting. The other stories are all in the general vicinity, age-wise, of the picture shown here (me on deck, circa 1979 or thereabouts).

Ryan C.:
There’s failure, and then there’s failure. People tend to focus more on the latter, the spectacular demonstration that a person’s skills fled at the most inopportune moment, or maybe that the person never really had the required skills in the first place. But the former seems more like the kind you draw a narrative from and that you highlight from your own life. It’s that kind of failure that isn’t going to make any highlight reels, that doesn’t exactly surprise anyone, and that quietly reminds us that we’re all getting older, farther and farther from the days when would could have deluded ourselves into expectations of success, maybe even had the talent to achieve that success. Then there’s the one moment we have to realize it’s slipped away, and we’ve become Uncle Rico.
Robert B.:
It was probably my 5th game as a starter, and things went wrong big time. A few balls turned into several more. After walking a couple guys, true panic set in, and each pitch, though aimed with increasing tension and frustration, continued to miss the mark.  It slowly turned into the meltdown and end of a future major league strikeout king.  After walking something like 7 or 8 batters without a single strike, my father, our coach, mercifully pulled me.  The experience was so scarring and terrifying that I never asked to be on the mound again after that; my career as a pitcher was over. I also played catcher and outfield to some small degree of success that season, but mentally I had quit the game. I was just too young and immature to understand that those failures are what make one great and separate; had someone adequately explained that all the best players went through something similar, and with more maturity, I might have surmounted it.


Seth R.:
My final game was only a few weeks into the season. I had tripled and was waiting on 3rd with nobody out. The pitcher threw a wild pitch that went to the backstop, so I bolted down the line hoping to score. The catcher raced back to recover the ball, grabbed it, and came up ready to throw to the pitcher covering the plate. So in that instant I decided to drop down into a feet-first slide. However, as I was dropping, the catcher lowered his arm, having decided that there was no chance to throw me out. Therefore, I decided not to slide, and I tried to stop my slide by planting my right foot into the ground and stand back up. My foot got caught, because there was no stopping gravity, and was pulled underneath the full weight of my body, twisting backward and making a loud cracking sound as I “slid” across the plate. I rested there, on the plate, looking up into the eyes of the umpire, who slowly spread his arms wide, signaling that I was, indeed, safe. The look on his face was one of confusion, whereas the look on my face was one of desperation, as I tried to speak to him, to tell him what had just happened, but I was incapable of speech. I sat there for what seemed like a few minutes, until my coach jogged out onto the field and helped me limp into the dugout.


David D.:
Just as people remember the questions they get wrong on a quiz, not those they answer correctly, I recall only one batter I faced that afternoon. (Should I ever forget, I have the home movie to jog my memory.) The hitter was large, one of those “he can’t possibly be 12 years old” boys who shows up in every kids’ league, though never on your team. Nearly as wide as he was tall, he didn’t have to move forward in the batter’s box to crowd the plate.

Being smarter than I was skilled, I kept my first few pitches outside, missing the plate with a couple, catching the corner with a couple more. Each time, the batter leaned a little further over the plate, until he resembled a pre-teen with lumbago. The thought entered my head that if I could put a fastball on the inside corner, he’d never get around on it.

It was a good idea, but my pitch was less a fastball than a get-there-eventually-ball. It took long enough to arrive that Paul Bunyan had time to size it up, step so far into the bucket that he was practically facing me, and crush the ball to dead center: over the fence, over the dirt road, over the embankment . . . and over all 10 lanes of the freeway. He circled the bases to the delighted shrieks of his teammates, while I stared north, trying to determine how long it would take me to walk as far as he’d just hit the ball, and resisting the temptation to abandon the pitcher’s mound and try it. And my father caught every ignominious moment on film.


Calling All Benchwarmers

May 19, 2016

basketball card frontHere are some things I must tell you:

  1. I wrote an encyclopedia of sports failure.
  2. It’s also a memoir and enabled me to process becoming a father, which has been the best thing that has ever happened to me and also caused me to lose my marbles.
  3. It’s called Benchwarmer.
  4. It makes a great gift for fathers; sports fans; fans of anecdotes about fellows who warmed the bench for forlornly inept northern New England NAIA basketball squads; aficionados of tales involving the ghostly facsimile of Calvin Schiraldi as some sort of oblique harbinger of encroaching insanity; nickname buffs who might be pleased by an inordinate amount of text given over to early NFL nonentity Walter “Sneeze” Achiu; or people who like things organized alphabetically.
  5. It’s available at book stores, theoretically, and also via the magic of online shopping.
  6. I had night terrors as a child.
  7. Sometimes I would halfway wake up and feel myself on the border of these night terrors. Usually this would be followed by the night terrors. But occasionally I was able to ward them off by reading copies of Sports Illustrated.
  8. Years later, Sports Illustrated said that my encyclopedia of failure was “funny, enchanting and lyrical. Painfully familiar.”
  9. Between now and Father’s Day, I will be giving a limited amount of free copies away, which I will sign and personalize to whatever extent you would enjoy such a magnificently generous service.
  10. I will not give them away arbitrarily, which would only support the disquieting notion that ours is a wholly random universe, bereft of the comfort of order, upon which all religions of the world are built.
  11. Instead, I will require that you follow one of two paths, which will be active routes to a copy of my book as long as supplies last:
    1. If you are perhaps a fan of my earlier book Cardboard Gods, you could express your appreciation in the form of an online review at this obscure website. There is some urban lore that fifty reviews of a book will put in motion secret inexorable processes on the website in question that will lift the book far above the infinite sea of luckless books with fewer than fifty reviews and thus catapult the author of said book to certain riches and fame beyond his wildest dreams. As of this writing, the book is on the cusp of this transcendent plateau with 49 reviews, most of them favorable, although there are also a couple of one-star stinkers that really hurt my feelings.
    2. If you would rather not enable this ethically dubious groveling for online reviews, you may also enter the running for a free book by trading me a story for it, specifically a story about sports failure. Please make it the worst sports failure you ever participated in, either as an athlete yourself or as a fan. I will send you a book and, if you’re willing, post your story on this site. If you prefer this route, please see my contact info in the sidebar of this site, right near the threatening words flung at me by Don Stanhouse.

Team Spaceman

April 21, 2016

team shaqbox

When I was a kid I used to put my cards into teams sometimes. I usually bought two packs from the store, so I’d pit one pack against the other. Or did I? Who even remembers. It sounds like something I might do. Anyway, I know I played with my cards. I still play with my cards. It always helps. When you’re feeling anxious, or depressed, or whatever—when you feel like you can’t fucking deal—stop and play with your cards a little.

I got ten cards in the mail recently, from Jesse Spector, who has a podcast built around talking to people about baseball cards. While I was waiting to talk to him I divvied up the cards we were going to talk about. Some guys were out of position—specifically in the outfield, though Yaz did log 165 games in center over his career; and Bill Lee, who loves to play—that word again, play—all phases of the game, surely has logged at least ten times that many games in the field in his post-major-league career as a world-traveling semi-pro ecstatic (and in this clip, at about the 20-second mark, he describes the way he wants to die, and it is as a right-fielder); and Mark Fidrych, who considered himself an outfielder as much as a pitcher when he first turned pro and had to be convinced otherwise.

I don’t know how this team would do. Better than some. Yaz, Grich, John Valentin: pretty strong up the middle. A team with the Bird and the Spaceman would be in good spirits, you’d think. The team could unravel of course, what with futility-magnet Eugenio Velez and the lifetime leader in bad luck, Anthony Young. The team would have a spastic, hesitating backbone in poor Mackey Sasser, owner of arguably the saddest of all baseball yips (in that it was the only one to rear its head outside of an action moment). But who know, maybe Balboni would go yard. With Balboni, there’s always hope.

To listen to my conversation with Jesse Spector about these cards, go here. You can follow along and look at the cards discussed here.


White Shadow memories: #1

March 24, 2016


In tribute to the late, great Ken Howard, and his fictional counterpart Ken Reeves, I’m spending the day counting down my ten favorite White Shadow memories (previous memories: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2).

1. The guys go golfing.
This one eventually got into a serious issue—racism, specifically the racism of a country club attempting to get the coach to join—but up to that point the show was pure pleasure, featuring the coach and my three most favorite players just goofing around. This is why I watched the show, to hang out with these characters. The scene I remember the most is in the clip below and contains Thorpe’s explanation of the difference between the course at hand and “the course I usually play”—my favorite line in the history of television.



White Shadow memories: #3, 2

March 24, 2016


In tribute to the late, great Ken Howard, and his fictional counterpart Ken Reeves, I’m spending the day counting down my ten favorite White Shadow memories (previous memories: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4).

3. Phil the trainer on angel dust
The more commonly circulated White Shadow team picture shows the coach and only the players played by cast members featured in the opening credits: Coolidge, Thorpe, Salami, Hayward, Reese, Jackson, Goldstein, Gomez. I love this photo, but it’s always bothered me that Phil the trainer wasn’t in there. I did find a more representative photo, which shows Phil in the top row, far left. (Also pictured are three players who never had a line, so far as I remember; they’re the two guys to Phil’s left and the guy at Phil’s feet.) Phil rarely had a line on the show, which made the episode when he tried angel dust stand out all the more strikingly. The formerly meek wallflower goes berserk and tries (or perhaps succeeds—I can’t remember) to jump off a roof. I experimented with a pretty wide array of drugs in my day, but I steered clear of angel dust, thanks to Phil.

2. Jackson slain/state champs
Angel dust, VD, crushed dreams: The White Shadow pulled no punches. (Hayward, not featured in any of these memories, deserves a special mention for being not only the most often featured player in episodes set on “the streets” but in bringing to those episodes a believable, appealing mixture of toughness and big-brother warmth.) The hard edge of the show hit its pinnacle with the wrenching twist involving the team’s flashiest player, Jackson. The thing I remember about the episode the most, besides the shock of one of the guys getting murdered in a liquor store, is the dissolve-edit from Coolidge claiming the opening tap of the championship game to a shot of the state champ trophy. Not a second of the championship game was included. It belonged to the guys.


White Shadow memories: #6, 5, 4

March 24, 2016

nick9In tribute to the late, great Ken Howard, and his fictional counterpart Ken Reeves, I’m spending the day counting down my ten favorite White Shadow memories (previous memories: 10, 9, 8, 7).

6. Goldstein undergoes primal scream therapy.
The guys attend a late-’70s party in L.A., and while wandering around there the team’s benchwarmer, Goldstein, somehow gets involved with people practicing primal scream therapy. I cried with laughter when Goldstein whole-heartedly puts the practice to use.

 5. Thorpe’s crushed dreams
This one always haunted me. I think it was because at the time The White Shadow was on, I revered the older basketball players in my town, the high school stars, far beyond anything I felt for NBA players. I enjoyed thinking that my school’s star players would keep rising all the way to the NBA. This episode put that dream into Thorpe’s head as one he held for himself, and throughout the episode facts mounted up that killed that dream. Beautifully, Thorpe’s skills as an artist surfaced, giving him alternative, more tangible path into a good future. Even better, the episode climaxed with Thorpe winning a game with a Gerald Henderson-esque steal and score. Kevin Hooks was always brilliant as Thorpe. Like Vince Van Patten (and Thomas Carter, who played Hayward), he went on to become a successful director. I think this speaks well of the culture of the show—it seems to speak of an empowerment similar to that seen with the 1960s Celtics, who saw an inordinate number of players go on to become championship and/or award-winning coaches (Bill Russell, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Don Nelson, K.C. Jones, John Thompson).

4. Coolidge gets an agent/Coolidge becomes a TV star.
Coolidge was my favorite. He was funny, cool, and human. I can’t distinguish in my memory between these two episodes, but I think the basic gist was the same: Coolidge’s abundant talents push him outside the circle of the team. He gets fancy clothes, a fancy car, and begins addressing his peers as if from an Olympian remove. Have I ever been as satisfied by a show as when Coolidge, abashed, returns to the team? Doubtful.


White Shadow memories: #10. Mike Warren

March 24, 2016

woo0-064In tribute to the late, great Ken Howard, and his fictional counterpart Ken Reeves, I’m spending the day counting down my ten favorite White Shadow memories.

10. UCLA national champ Mike Warren guest stars

A huge part of my love of The White Shadow rested on the basketball action being a close enough proximity to the real thing to keep the fictional reality afloat. Coolidge, Thorpe, and Coach Reeves could all play, and the others were for the most part close enough to not mangle the whole presentation. (This can happen—see: William Bendix in The Babe Ruth Story, DeNiro in Bang the Drum Slowly, every second of Teen Wolf up until Michael J. Fox’s stunt double for the wolf scenes starts mincing the opposition). The verisimilitude factor hit its peak in the episode guest-starring Mike Warren, who played on consecutive national championship teams at UCLA in 1967 and 1968, earning All-American honors in the latter year. On The White Shadow, Warren played a street ball legend who joins the team briefly before his irreparably damaged moral compass sends him back to other, darker eventualities. The morality tale for the team—even the most talented ballers can fall—was backed up by—and also somehow secondary to—the visceral thrill of watching someone who could really play the game.