Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bulldogs, Cougars, and the Beauty of Sports

In the summer of 1977, while the Kansas City Royals were en route to winning 102 baseball games, some ten miles to the south  of Royals Stadium  I was playing a less beautiful  and more obscure version of the national pastime  at Clark-Ketterman Fields, home of the South Suburban Junior Baseball Association—“SSJBA”  for short.  

For me, the summer of ’77 was in many ways not much different than that of the nine or ten summers that preceded  it.  As reliable as homemade ice cream  or fireworks on the Fourth of July, my summer ritual of playing baseball in the SSJBA was a comfortable thread woven throughout my childhood.

But while the summer of ’77 and the baseball that went with it carried a reliable and familiar feel, it also delivered a handful  of small transitions, as the certainties of youth were slowly unearthed, foreshadowing an impending and unavoidable adulthood.

We were now in high school, and the rosters for our age group were dwindling. The  really good players were playing in leagues filled with college-bound talent, while many of the other guys had by this time lost interest and were spending their summers cultivating other pursuits.

The result of this smaller talent pool was that I landed in unfamiliar territory, and  ended up becoming teammates with  guys that before I’d only played against—guys from rival high schools like Ruskin and Hickman Mills. I had been familiar with many of their names—John  Galloway, Richard  Hinton, George  Fizer, Mike  Newman, Jeff  Leiding—and maybe even recognized a face or two, but now they were teammates and I found them, surprisingly,  to be much more likeable than in previous years when we had worn different colors.

I have not thought about many, if any, of those names in over thirty years. The last name on my list—Jeff Leiding—came to mind last week when I learned that he had died of a heart attack. He was 52, a year younger than me.

Few memories have survived from that summer team in 1977. We had a pretty good team, and I learned that teammates and alliances can be forged from among unfamiliar and previously hostile tribes.

That could’ve been that. And those names, including Jeff Leiding’s, would have been but  footnotes from my childhood had not high school football brought us back together just fourteen months after the conclusion of that baseball season.

In September, 1978 my Grandview Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 in Kansas City.  Right behind us at No. 2 were the Hickman Mills Cougars, and we met September 15—the third game of the season—to determine the bragging rights not only for south KC, but for the entire metropolitan area.

Hickman Mills was led by my old little league baseball teammate, Jeff Leiding. Leiding,  a junior linebacker and fullback that year, was already one of the most highly touted  high school players in the state. He would eventually go on to be an All-American at Texas. I watched him on the Bob Hope special.  He was an imposing figure, topping out at 6’3” and 230 pounds.

The game was a highly anticipated and much publicized contest. It drew a standing room crowd at Grandview’s stadium, and was covered extensively in the Kansas City media.  All week our preparations took on a new dimension as we tried to fathom the significance of the game that awaited us Friday night.

I played tight end for Grandview’s wishbone  offense.   We were not known for our passing game. I think I had four TDs on ten receptions that season. As the wishbone  dictates, ours was a running offense, and it highlighted the talents of QB Rusty Hill, FB Andy Gibler, and RBs Angelo Malone and David Haynes. Haynes would rush for over 2,000 yards that season and later attend Arkansas. Hill would join him as a Razorback while Gibler would go on to be a tight end at Mizzou and Malone a running back at Northwest Missouri State. So there was a significant amount of talent on both sides of the ball.

Hickman Mills beat Grandview that night 14-7. It was a stinging defeat, the sort of loss that feels like the death of a loved one.

There is a lot that could be said about that game. I could write about injuries and sicknesses and miscues and what might-have-been. These would simply be excuses, the sorts of things that should have been put to rest three decades ago.

What remains from that game for me is not the bitter gall of defeat, but the wonder of sport itself and the kinship that is established among teammates and opponents alike.

As a tight end in the wishbone offense, I was given the unenviable task  of attempting to neutralize Jeff Leiding in his role as linebacker that September night. It was an assignment that I did not take lightly, and it was an assignment I would have gladly traded for a seat on the sidelines. After the loss, I don’t remember thinking that I did well or poorly against Leiding. I’m sure he made his share of tackles. The game seemed to hinge on a turnover or two and our offense sputtering in general (probably because of Leiding and the rest of their defense). After a loss like that you just hurt, and don’t over analyze your own personal performance.

The following Monday morning I was dreading reviewing the Hickman Mills game film. It was a painful experience, like watching a video of your dog dying. When concluded, Coach Bob Tavernaro  said that he would like to acknowledge one player who the coaching staff thought, after reviewing the game film, did an exceptional job against the Cougars. As I looked around, wondering, who they thought did a good job in this train-wreck of a game, Coach called my name.

This was a forgotten memory for me, one which by-and-large had laid dormant until I heard of Leiding’s death. I don’t share it to pat myself on the back. I was a mediocre football player by anyone’s standards.

I share this memory because I think it represents the best there is about sports.  Whether teammates or opponents, (or in the case of Leiding who had been both),  there is this kinship, this bond, that transcends culture, that transcends class, that transcends ethnicity,  that even transcends whether or not a guy is personally likeable.

There is this sort of duty we all have to make one another better. To encourage one another to rise to the occasion. There is a code of honor that dictates we respect an opponent by giving him our very best. I marvel that although it has been over 30 years since I’ve played competitive sports, I still speak of these duties in the present tense.

Jeff Leiding and many others in that game in1978 went to much larger and more prestigious stages than we were on that night. I’d like to think that a little bit of each of us went with them. Hopefully we were all better because of the investment from teammates and opponents alike. I know that night, Jeff Leiding made me a better blocking tight end than I ever dared believe I could be. I hope in some small way I made him a little bit better as well.

In Coach Bob Tavernaro’s pre-game charge he told us—the assembled Grandview Bulldogs—that whatever happened that night on that field we would remember  for the rest of our lives. This was a true statement.

Despite the accuracy of Coach Tavernaro’s words, time and Providence have framed them, forged them, and shown me two things.  The first is that although that game and its memories are forever etched upon me, that which was once important is not Ultimate. The wound that laid raw on the morning of September 16, 1978, the wound that we thought would haunt us to our graves, has healed, and has been placed in its proper perspective along with all the other meaningful but temporal pursuits of youth.


The second thing I’ve been shown is that while all those that played in that game will certainly remember its results for the rest of their lives, the length of days of those lives will not be the same. Some of those lives—like the life of Jeff Leiding, and the lives of my teammates Bill Burgess and Rusty Hill—from my earthly, mortal, perspective, ended much too soon.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Greinke's Homecoming

It is bittersweet tonight as Zach Greinke returns to Kauffman Stadium as his opposing Dodgers play the Royals in interleague play. As much as I wanted to stay away, I couldn't resist the desire to watch him pitch live again.

So I will be there tonight, and will now zealously root against him as he takes on the Royals. A lot has happened since he left us. The Kansas City Royals are better and at least some degree of their success can be traced back through Greinke's trade from the Royals in 2010 as we would not have Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and (arguably) James Shields had it not been for that trade. Besides the changes with the Royals, there have been massive changes in Greinke's bank account.

I am re-publishing below a blog post I wrote  back in 2009. It's too bad he couldn't have continued to play here, but such is the way it goes for small market and underachieving teams. Perhaps we can see tonight  a few of Greinke's beautiful sliders, and then the Royals can send him to an early shower.

From August 26, 2009:

My brother is on an Alaskan cruise, so he gave me a week's worth of his Royals season tickets. In the spirit of Beaver Cleaver, my immediate reaction was "Gee Wally (not my brother's real name), do I half ta go?" I endure enough pain, torment, and blown saves during the day not selling commercial real estate, so I was not necessarily excited about continuing the frustration after hours at Kauffman Stadium.

As it turned out, I could only go to two of the six games, the first being this past Sunday where my expectations of utter frustration were fulfilled. Among other things, I was treated to the Minnesota Twins' 8-run 7th inning which featured Michael Cuddyer's two home runs, a feat not accomplished in the major leagues since David Ortiz did it for the Red Sox last year. I also endured the Royals feeble attempts at a sacrifice bunt while observing the Twins' perfect execution of this most basic of baseball fundamentals.


Other lowlights included a drunken Twins fan who insisted on remaining shirtless for most of the game. He kept waving his Twins hat throughout the game while turning around so that the sun could fully burn his massive girth. To my surprise, when he finally put on his shirt it was a George Brett Royals jersey. I'm not sure to whom the most dis-service was delivered. Was it the Royals jersey to the Twins cap or the Twins cap to the George Brett jersey?

To pass the time I surfed my Blackberry to see how many games the Royals were out of first place as I wondered if they had yet been mathematically eliminated. I then learned from mlb.com that the Royals were about 19 games out of first place and maybe five games out of 4th place in the AL Central. They own the worst record in the American League but are some three games better than the Washington Nationals of the National League. As if this were not depressing enough, I saw that the Royals were 24 games out of the wild card playoff race. So let's get this straight, it is five games harder to be the 4th best team in the American League than it is to be the Division leader and presumably third best team? Oh well, at least we're better than the Nats.

When the game was over the drunken Twins fan pulled a little broom out of his back pocket to celebrate his team's sweep of the American League's worst team. It was a little wimpy broom, smaller than the whisk broom that the umpires might use during the game. Although it takes a little nerve to bring any broom to the opposition's ballpark, if you're going to be that brazen you should not apologize for it with a whisk broom and come with an industrial strength broom. Crocodile Dundee would have not approved. But this guy had the ultimate defense. If anyone ever considered hitting him he'd pull out his George Brett jersey. A Royals' fan hitting someone in a George Brett jersey is worse than a guy hitting a girl with glasses. It simply cannot be done.

Mourning turned to dancing though when I went to last night's (Tuesday's) pitching gem offered up by the Royals' ace, MVP, all-world, hope-for-the-future, and walk-on-water stopper Zack Greinke. Greinke amassed 15 strikeouts during his 8 innings of work. This total eclipsed his previous personal best of 11 K's and broke Mark Gubicza's Royals' record of 14 set in 1988.

Greinke has changed the way I watch a baseball game at Kauffman. I used to plan trips to the bathroom, concession stand, and miniature golf course around the opposing team's at-bat. I used to want to watch the Royals attempt at offense and wasn't too interested in watching them in the field. After all, I know what it looks (and feels) like to miss a cut-off man. However, with Greinke on the mound, I now will not leave my seat while he is pitching. I'm content to hear the Royals at-bat over the radio play-by-play in the men's room or watch it standing in line at the concession stand. I'll be perfectly fine missing a grand slam or a hit-and-run or even a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt, but I won't miss a Greinke pitch. They are too beautiful to watch, especially the slider that was responsible for most of last night's strikeouts.


Greinke has become a sport within a sport. His pitching is so phenomenal that you forget that he's a play within a play. He's a Mid-Summer Night's Dream. And even though the Royals are entrenched in a bomb of a 2009 production, the Act that is Zack Greinke stands alone.

And last night, that was enough.


Monday, December 30, 2013

NFL: Chiefs’ J.V. Awarded AFC's Sixth Playoff Spot

Editor's Note: This post was first published on our sister blog (www.finleyriver.com) because of the satirical nature of its content.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced this morning that the Kansas City Chiefs B Team will replace the San Diego Chargers in this weekend’s opening round of the AFC Playoffs.

The League cited several reasons why it decided to override its own formula for choosing which six teams would represent each conference in the quest for this season’s Super Bowl, to be held February 2 in New Jersey. “After reviewing the film of yesterday’s game in San Diego, we believe it would be an insult to the integrity of professional football for the San Diego Chargers to represent the American Football Conference in this year’s wildcard playoff game,” said Goodell, reading from a prepared statement.

The Chiefs, with its fifth seed sealed, gave the Chargers every opportunity to route them in yesterday’s game, but the San Diego club took advantage of none of them, barely escaping with a tainted 27-24 OT victory on their home field. The Chiefs played its scout team and did not even activate many of its eight pro bowlers.

 What’s more, the Chiefs denied their starters a pre-game meal and withheld Gatorade until the game reached overtime.  “We did everything in our power to give them the game except to take a knee,” said Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid in assessing the loss. “I’m not sure what more we could’ve done. You know, we don’t much like Todd Haley and all but we had to make it look like we were at least trying so as not to insult the Steelers. Shoot, our scrubs made that redneck Philip Rivers look like he was wearing a tutu out there,” exclaimed Reid. “I was like ‘Phil-take a valium and put on your big boy pants,’” he said as he shook his head laughing.

The Chargers could not take advantage of any of the Chiefs charity, but instead were forced to rely upon errors from the officiating crew, which it was later determined to be a holdover “scab crew,” from last year’s referee strike. “The zebras clearly blew two calls,” said Goodell in a departure from his prepared remarks. “The Chiefs kicker (Ryan Succop) should’ve gotten another chance to make a 36 yarder at the end of regulation because of that illegal formation, and then I don’t know what they were thinking when they gave the ball back to the Chargers on that fake punt in O-T,” admitted Goodell. “In my book, that was either a fumble/T.D./Chiefs’ win or Chiefs ball on the San Diego 22. Either way, ‘Good Night Chargers!’”

“While the NFL acknowledges that this decision is both unorthodox and certainly controversial,” read Goodell as he returned to his script, “we believe it is in the best interests of this game we all love to implement this decision.” He continued: “It would be an absolute joke for those sissy Chargers to go to Cincinnati Sunday to take on the 11-5 Bengals. I’m sorry, but if those pantywaists in San Diego can’t convincingly beat a bunch of rag tag B-teamers, then what in the world will Andy Dalton and the Bengals to them?” he said. “That’s simply not going to happen on my watch.”

Many around the NFL were immediately critical of the League’s decision because it did not choose the Steelers to take the Chargers’ spot, instead giving the nod to the Chiefs’ second string. When asked about that, Goodell, clearly annoyed, simply stated: “Bottom line—we  chose what we thought was the best remaining available squad from what we had to pick from. This decision was about putting the best 22 guys on the field against the Bengals. Period.  No more, no less. I can’t involve myself in conjecture and ‘what-ifs?’ If Rooney’s boys had taken care of their own business we would not have had to step in. Let them go cry on their collection of Lombardi trophies,” said Goodell.

The Chiefs’ Reid was clearly pleased with the NFL’s decision, which will allow him to coach games on consecutive days this weekend and allow backup QB Chase Daniel additional meaningful work. “I think our staff is up to the task,” said Reid. “We’ll practice like we always have—starters vs. scout—during the week. We’ll all head to Indy Friday, then the J.V. will bus to Cincy at halftime Saturday. Both squads will be without backups but hopefully we’ll remain injury-free,” said Reid. “The only other thing we’ve got to figure out is how to get Ryan (Succop) and Dustin (punter Colquitt) down to Paul Brown (Stadium) by noon Sunday,” he said. “We’re essentially approaching this like the Royals do a split squad game out in Spring Training,” said Reid.

The NFL declined to meaningfully address the possibility that the Chiefs’ first and second strings could play each other for the AFC Championship January 19. “There’s a lot of football to be played between now and then,” said Goodell. "Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves."

He paused, then added: “I can tell you one thing for certain: If the Chiefs end up essentially having an intrasquad scrimmage for the AFC Title, then that game will definitely be played at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City,” he said.



Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Tale of Two Tigers

In sports, as in life, allegiances and loyalties are forged over time, the jagged products of family, place, and experience.  And sometimes loyalties are dislodged and become fluid, as influences emerge, shift, or change.

If you are a Tiger fan, defined as one whose loyalties rest with either Auburn University or with the University of Missouri, you are not wondering who to root for this afternoon as these two schools clash for the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Championship. But I find myself on the morning of this game in a bit of a quandary. A quandary that certainly took me my surprise, unexpected in the momentum it has gained as the week has ambled along.

In my youth I was a diehard Mizzou fan.  As I listened to Saturday afternoon broadcasts, I dreamed of one day replacing Monte Montgomery as the Missouri punter, or kicking a game-winning field goal for the Tigers in the Orange Bowl.  But alas, I was only Division II talent (if that) and didn’t  receive even one letter from the Missouri coaching staff.

Despite playing for an emerging I-AA team in the State, my allegiance to those Missouri Tigers remained strong throughout my collegiate days. One November Saturday  in 1980, I traveled  with friends to Columbia  to watch the Missouri-Kansas game, a game which featured, on opposites sides of the ball, two of my high school teammates—Andy Gibler for Missouri and Mike Arbanas for Kansas. Although we visited Mike at the Jayhawks’ hotel, I still rooted for Missouri, who won the contest 31-6.

I took a fondness for Mizzou to graduate school at Kansas. I chose KU because of its reciprocal agreement with Missouri for students entering its School of Architecture and Urban Design. I chose Graduate School because I didn’t take a job with the City of Springfield, Mo. which was going to pay $13,900 per annum, and if the truth be told, I wasn’t quite ready to work anywhere for any amount of money.

I learned quickly at Kansas and during the years which immediately followed that it is unheard of to be a fan of both MU and KU at the same time in the same way and in the same dimension. So my fondness for Mizzou weakened a little during my 18 months in Lawrence as I became indoctrinated in all things Jayhawk, not the least of which was Kansas basketball.  It was during that time that I realized that even William Clarke Quantrill could not have spent two winters in Lawrence without being a bit smitten by the mystique of Allen Field House.

As I concluded by tenure at KU and entered the workforce, I began spending a great deal of time with a young lady with whom I had become reacquainted since our days together in high school. That young lady, whose name was Sandee and who would eventually become my wife, had spent some time as a freshman at Auburn University, which happened to be her father’s alma mater. She had also lived the first year of her life on the Auburn campus in married student housing.

When Sandee and I were joined in matrimony, I was grafted into a family of Auburn Tigers. Sandee’s father had not only graduated from Auburn but starred for its football team before becoming the Kansas City Chief’s 4th round draft choice in 1963.  A host of Sandee’s kin—grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins taught me about the magic of the Plainsmen and Toomer’s Corner and the battle cry of War Eagle!

I eventually visited Auburn and experienced game day in person, attending the first Iron Bowl (Alabama-Auburn game) ever played at Auburn. The game had always been played in Birmingham, off campus for both schools, which my father-in-law always claimed was virtually a home game for Alabama  and not the neutral side claimed by the Tide. I’d heard the Bear Bryant quotes about what hicks they were down on the plain, and how he would never play at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, which was Auburn’s name until 1960. My first Iron Bowl was an unbelievable experience, and this annual contest is everything that it is advertised.

Auburn won that first Iron Bowl in Auburn and I got to witness  another Iron Bowl victory a few years later. Most memorable from that second game was the time I spent with my brother-in-law Rusty and Sandee’s dad and uncle in the “A-Club,” which is Auburn’s letter club. The A-Club has a pre-game get together in a suite that is tucked inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. I remember vividly Rusty and I munching on snacks while former Auburn TE and then Chicago White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas (the "Big Hurt") made an appearance in the suite.

While my fondness for Auburn grew, I returned to Missouri as a resident and employee. But the city in which I landed, Harrisonville, had little tolerance for Jayhawkers. When I drove my moving van across the stat line from Olathe, Kansas, it was as if Bloody Bill Anderson had invaded Bushwhacker territory anew. The ribbing I took for attending Kansas was mostly good natured, but its intensity and the taunting that followed a Missouri win over Kansas made it harder for me to rekindle any dormant loyalties to the Black and Gold.

So I have these ties to Kansas and Auburn.  Add to these ties a bit of a distaste for the way the Mizzou alums in the Missouri General Assembly handled the transition of my alma mater, Southwest Missouri State,  to D-I sports and name change to Missouri State, and it’s a wonder I'm in much of a dilemma at all today.

But something strange happened this year, I started watching Missouri football again. I enjoyed their style of play and I enjoyed seeing them win against historically great teams from the SEC.  I think Missouri was the only team I watched on TV for any length of time all year. The program’s move to the SEC made it seem palatable to watch them and enjoy them, if not all out root for them.

Another thing tugging at me this morning is the scattered comments I’ve heard this year about Mizzou not being Southern enough to be in the SEC.  As a Missourian, that bothers me a bit as it demonstrates a bit of ignorance about the state as a whole. Trying selling that notion in Poplar Bluff or Sikeston or even as far north as Fulton.

So today I throw in a blender all of my history with Mizzou, Auburn, Missouri State and Kansas and all the thrills and memories and baggage that goes with each of them. Affecting the mix greatly is that I am a son of Missouri. Also tugging are all the childhood hurts from losses to Oklahoma and Nebraska and near misses of Big 8 Championships and Orange Bowl berths.

I've polled my wife and children and they are leaning solidly Auburn's way. The lone exception is my oldest son, Davis, who told me he wasn't sure who he was going to root for. He said he was just going to watch the game and "walk by the spirit."

I think I'm going to take Davis's approach and simply see what happens, enjoying the game for the earthly pleasure it provides.

Sometimes when you have too many dogs in the fight, you simply sit back, enjoy, and wait to learn which pack of dogs you love the most.

But whoever wins today, I'll be watching from a distance, not really in anyone's inner circle. But I'm certain I will in the end be happy for many people that I know well and love much.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Nick Saban and the Fragile Kicker Psyche

Nick Saban may be considered a great football coach, but his special teams decision-making was abysmal in the Crimson Tide's 36-28 loss at Auburn today.

Since the game ended a couple of hours ago, there's been much discussion about Auburn's game ending 109 yard field goal return and the three previous Tide field goals that were either missed or blocked.

The misses and losses weren't Saban's fault, but in my opinion the play of the game was the field goal that Saban elected not to kick. With 6:19 left in the game, and Alabama nursing a 28-21 lead at the Auburn 13, Saban elected to go for a first down instead of trotting his kicker back out for a 30 yard chip shot that would have given Alabama a 10 point, two possession lead.

The CBS commentators acknowledged that Saban might have lost faith in his kicker, Cade Foster, after missing previous attempts from 44 and 33 yards. But in my opinion, kicking that field goal is your only viable option in that situation.

As a head coach, the worst thing you can do to your kicker is to communicate you have lost confidence in him. After a shank or a pull or any other critical miss, the coach simply must send him back out there at the next opportunity if the game situation calls for it. And a FG at the 6:19 mark was exactly what the game situation called for.

You see, kickers' egos are proxies for all that is fragile about the male psyche in general. Kickers are microcosms for all that is insecure and tenuous about our gender.  We are forever wondering if we are still loved after failure. We are constantly questioning our worth as thinking we are only as good as our last success. These assessments, while tongue-in-cheek, are closer to the truth than we might want to admit.

Before the game even starts, kickers walk around wondering if they are really football players. Many of their teammates don't think they are, and it usually takes a tackle or block or fumble recovery or two to prove you are and to gain their peers' respect. Their practices are often spent in isolation working on their craft. The labor day-to-day in relative obscurity, practicing kicks like a PGA Tour pro might knock in 100 three foot putts on the practice green.

Few head coaches understand the kicker and how he ticks.  Placekicking is a mental game that is more like golf than football. Kicking takes place during and within a football game, but it has more in common with chess or skeet shooting that it does with a zone read or cover 3. And the thing about chess and golf and skeet shooting is that you don't have tens of thousands of people screaming while you're trying to focus.  You don't have to rely on two other people (snapper and holder) to execute their jobs perfectly before you can attempt yours. And you don't have to rely on eight other guys to keep up to 11 hostile opponents from killing you.

So with all this baggage the kicker is carrying around, the last think he needs to be wondering about is whether or not his coach thinks he can still succeed. When the game is on the line, when you really need that fragile little almost-football-player to win the game for you, you don't want him wondering whether or not you believe in him.

But Saban erred in two ways today. He lost confidence in Cade Foster, and this lack of confidence in his kicker caused him to make a bad football decision.  Kicking the FG at 6:19 was the only reasonable call to make.  If he gets that call right, then there is no game-ending 109 yard field goal return.

But I'm glad Saban made that call. I wanted Auburn to win and as Nick Saban said, "First time I've ever seen a game lost that way."

First time I've ever seen one won that way either.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Wonder Anew

When a man pledges his allegiance to the Kansas City Chiefs, he embarks upon a gut-wrenching journey of heartache and despair.  He is relegated to a nomadic existence amid a Narnian curse, where it is always winter, but never Christmas.

But it was not always so. Great loss may be experienced only after fully tasting the sweet nectar of success (this sentence was written in homage to Mitch Holthus).  And success indeed marked the Chiefs first decade in Kansas City. And it was the Chiefs’ first decade in KC that closely correlated with my own first decade on Earth.

For my generation, growing up with the Chiefs beget a sort of a Wonder Years love affair with the team. It was a love forged on successes surrounding first and fourth Super Bowls and refined on playgrounds and backyards as we chased and tackled each other while wearing jackets and stocking caps of red and gold. It was a love that blossomed as we learned who we were and from where we had come as we began to understand our place in the cosmos.

We learned simultaneously in those days about two evil forces—perhaps the only two evil forces—in the world: the Viet Cong and the Oakland Raiders. But we learned quickly that even though some amorphous villain named Ho Chi Minh was wreaking havoc half a world away, our true wrath should be directed at the evil closer to home.  An evil that invaded our city at least once a year—evil incarnate with names that we would learn to pronounce but never try to spell. Names like Ben Davidson and Fred Biletnikoff and Daryle Lamonica. There were really no bad guys quite like the Oakland Raiders, and pity the poor chump at High Grove Elementary that even hinted at affections  for the silver and black.

At High Grove we had no official school uniform, but an unofficial dress code existed among the males that some sort of Chiefs gear be donned and displayed proudly during football season. Our bedrooms would be virtual memorabilia rooms boasting pennants and posters and every effort would be made cover our mothers’ hideous wallpaper with licensed and non-licensed Chiefs products. For me one relic survives those years—a round wastebasket featuring the Chiefs’  offensive and defensive starters’ headshots, all placed in perfect “X and O” alignment on the can.

Our finest hour was seeing Johnny Robinson sitting on the Tulane Stadium turf pointing his finger skyward as we claimed number one for the first time. Several months later, that same image of Johnny Robinson graced the cover of “Championship,”  a book we all ordered from the Scholastic Book Club catalogue so that we could ever read about that magical season.

For those of us who grew up during those years, there was never any question whether or not we’d be good. No question we’d make the playoffs. Success was assumed and expected, and we had no reason to believe it would ever end.

But it did. One by one our childhood idols left us as their bodies succumbed to inevitable age or were otherwise casualties of the new Arrowhead “turf,” which was virtually indistinguishable from the asphalt paving in the Truman Sports Complex. So the love that had emerged so many years earlier was tested and tried and refined during years of frustration and futility.

Since that time we’ve had years here and there that gave us a reason to hope. Glimpses of past grandeur emerged every now and then, but our hopes were always dashed by a missed kick or an off day or a superior opponent.

The 2012 season marked the low point in the franchise. The season ended 2-14. I was an eyewitness to Romeo Crennel’s last game as head coach as the Chiefs played the Broncos in Denver (see post from December 29, 2012). It was the worst display of football that I ever witnessed in person. The Chiefs looked like they could not wait for the season to end. I believe they disrespected the Broncos by not giving them their best game.

In Denver, I wanted to tear my Chiefs regalia and cry the football equivalent of “blasphemy!” My disgust at what was unfolding before me sent me to one of the bathrooms at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. My misery increased there as I was confronted by a long line and an Intoxicated Bronco fan who defiantly shouted to me: “The Chiefs suck!” I had no retort, and simply applauded his brilliant and insightful assessment of my 2-14 team. They pay big money for such penetrating analysis on the networks, I thought to myself.

Fast forward to last Sunday night. I had not felt great about the Chiefs nine victories during 2013 and was impressed by the Peyton Manning offensive machine that lay in wait for us. I feared a 35-10 defeat, but was pleasantly surprised at several things I saw from the Chiefs and was assured of the mortality of Peyton and the Broncos. So there was in many ways more satisfaction from a 27-17 loss in Denver than in all of the previous nine victories.

But sometimes the fear of success looms larger than the fear of failure. In many ways the loss last week in Denver was as comfortable as an old shoe. I realized I had become accustomed to losing and it no longer was the bitter pill it was in 1971. I had become too comfortable with moral victories. I had become content speaking in platitudes.

So we look to the Chiefs’ next six games with hope. Hope that we can observe a team that continues to gel, continues to get better, continues to compete, and gets back to the business of winning. And let losing once again leave a nasty yet unfamiliar taste in our mouths.

Although not eternal or essential, I would like for my children to be re-introduced to the Chiefs, and to get to know them as Champions. I would like for them to experience a little Christmas in what has been their long Chiefs winter.

Maybe, just maybe, they’ll see the Chiefs on Broadway next February 2.

And all the wonder will begin anew.




Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pine Tar Memories

It’s nothing like 9-11 or the Challenger explosion, or for others that are older the JFK assassination, but I remember exactly what I was doing 30 years ago today when George Brett made famous a substance called pine tar.

It was Sunday afternoon, a day game, and I was sitting in my grandmother’s hospital room at St. Joseph’s in Kansas City. My grandmother, then well into her nineties, had fallen a day or two before and broken her hip. Many of the family had gathered in her room to wish here a speedy recovery. She, as an avid Royals fan, was undoubtedly supportive of us tuning in to catch the afternoon contest against the hated Yankees.

In the event you don’t know the historical facts of this game, allow me a brief synopsis. The Royals were one out away from losing the series finale against the Yankees by a score of 4-3 when George Brett came to the plate as the Royals final hope.  Rich “Goose” Gossage, the feared Yankee’s closer, had been sent to the mound to notch a save and send the Royals packing. Brett promptly sent the Gossage offering into the right field bleachers for a home run, scoring himself and U.L. Washington to give the Royals a 5-4 lead and a great chance of victory.

Yankee manager Billy Martin had been plotting for several weeks to protest the amount of pine tar Brett applied to his bat. He waited, strategically, however to protest the substance at a time after Brett had done some damage to his team. That time was then, after Brett’s two run shot had put the Royals close to victory.

After the homer, Martin brought Brett’s bat to the attention of the umpiring crew that day, specifically home plate umpire Tim McClelland. After a few minutes of deliberation, measurement (the pine tar exceeded the 18” limit) etc., Brett was called out, the home run being nullified. Game over. Yankees win 4-3.

Brett’s reaction to the call is legendary. At the time my mother, a modest baseball fan, called Brett “a maniac” and thought his reaction unsportsmanlike. Calling Brett’s actions maniacal after the call might be generous. He more closely resembled the demon-possessed “Legion” in Chapter 5 of Mark’s Gospel.  And although my mother was probably right, Brett’s actions are somewhat understandable given his history with the Yankees and given the historically villainous antics of Billy Martin. And besides, my growing up watching George Brett categorically prevents me from criticizing him for anything.

The next day the Royals protested McClelland call. Four days later American League President Lee MacPhail ruled in favor of the Royals. MacPhail, claiming the spirit of the pine tar rule was to keep from gumming up baseballs, ruled the excessive goop gave Brett no advantage in hitting the home run. The game was ruled suspended, and the Yankees and Royals were ordered to resume play with two outs in the top of the 9th. The two teams eventually resumed the game about a month later in front of about 1,200 fans at Yankee Stadium. After a series of Yankee protests and antics, followed by four straight outs, the game was over and the Royals prevailed 5-4 before flying on to Baltimore  for their next series.

In 1983 the Royals were in their prime. The team was three years removed from its first World Series appearance against the Philadelphia Phillies. Although they lost that Series in six games, many of us were relieved just to have had them there. The real victory, it had seemed, was finally beating the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. By 1980 any true Royals fan was hardened and weary from losing three consecutive AL Championship Series to the Bronx Bombers during the late 1970s.

These were bitter defeats, but the Royals fortunes had turned with the beginning of a new decade. The team would flourish during the first half of the 80s, culminating with its only World Championship in 1985.

So in 1983 we were almost smack dab in between the franchise’s two World Series appearances. And although the bitter defeats at the hands of the Yankees had become less raw with the passing of time, the loathing of George Steinbrenner’s franchise in the Big Apple had not. Simply put, it was impossible to bleed Royal Blue and have any affection for pinstripes.

The Pine Tar Game would not have had the same significance, the same drama, had it been played against the Seattle Mariners or the Cleveland Indians. Such drama was apropos for baseball’s most famous venue—Yankee Stadium.

Further, the game would not have been the same had the almost ten years of history between the two teams not been what it was. Neither team liked the other much. Billy Martin relished the chance to foil George Brett. Brett relished the opportunity to punish the Yankees. He got especially pumped to face the fireballer Gossage. The pine tar home run was reminiscent of a similar shot Brett had hit off Gossage at Yankee Stadium to put the Royals into the World Series in 1980. The stage was set. That sort of drama brought my family together around a hospital television set and for a couple of hours allayed the suffering of my ailing grandmother.

As I look back on that game in 1983 I miss several things. I miss pine tar. It’s still used I guess, but Brett should have had his own brand. Everyone has to wear batting gloves these days. Brett liked the feel of the bat in his bare hands. He questioned the manhood of the guys who were afraid to bloody or dirty their hands.

I miss Brett’s passion. Maniacal?  At times. I’m not sure I want to show the pine tar video at a Little League parents meeting. But, I never saw anyone play harder than Brett and care more about the outcome of the game than did he. That factor appears to be missing in a lot of players today.

I even appreciate Billy Martin. Any good story must have a villain. Billy Martin played the villain, par excellence. He was even a villain among his own team sometimes. But even more than a villain, he was a competitor. His competitive fire might have rivaled Brett’s. The pine tar characters could not have been cast any better from a Hollywood casting director.

What good stories must have even more than a villain is redemption. Sent packing a loser on July 24, 1983, George Brett had hit, what one broadcaster called “the only game losing home run in history.” And although Lee MacPhail acknowledged Brett’s actions that day warranted ejection (some accounts had him watching the resumed game at the airport), MacPhail redeemed Tim McClelland’s call and rightly restored George Brett’s home run—one of 317 in his career—to its rightful place in the record books.

I listened to many Royals games with my grandmother. I fondly remember her repeatedly telling me her favorite player was John Mayberry. The pine tar game was probably the last game I watched or listened to with her. She declined steadily after the broken hip and died the next year.

I’m thankful to George Brett and Billy Martin and Goose Gossage and even Tim McClelland, for giving my family one of the most memorable games in baseball history.