Sunday, August 31, 2014

Football from a different angle

Because of circumstances beyond my control, I covered a high school football game for The Dispatch Friday night from an unlikely (disad)vantage point:

The sidelines.

Normally, I'm safely perched in a press box, pen in one hand, binoculars in the other, jotting down yards gained, passes caught, penalties assessed.

It's what I've done for nearly 40 years on Friday nights in the fall.

On this particular night, however, the press box was full. I arrived about an hour before kickoff, fully expecting a large crowd in the stadium and wondering if I'd have a decent place to park my car.

It never occurred to me that I wouldn't have a place to sit. But the handful of seats generally reserved for the print media were being used by radio and Webcasters (a sign of the times?) instead.

So I used my fallback plan: walk the sidelines.

Some sports lend themselves to coverage outside of a press box: I've covered baseball, softball and basketball from the stands, or even standing courtside in SRO moments, happily (sort of) keeping up with my stats.

Football is not so easy. Try standing at the 18-yard line when the quarterback unleashes a 33-yard pass; try counting off the yards on a 36-yard punt while running from the line of scrimmage to the punt returner; try following the game when you are standing on one sideline and the action is going on at the far sideline of a crowned field (was he inbounds? I dunno). Then try doing all this when you're 63 years old and it's 85 degrees on a late August night and heavily armored football players are bearing down on you while you're trying to do addition and subtraction in your head and the band is blaring away in your left ear.

It's not the best way to cover a football game. I think it's why press boxes were invented. You know. For the press.

At any rate, there was one advantage to being on the sideline: I saw up-close just how huge these guys are. A player who is 6-foot-2 looks at least a foot taller when he's in his football gear. From the press box, these kids are chess pieces on a game board. From the sidelines, they're 17- and 18-year-old behemoths, many of whom are somehow college-ready players. It's awesome. And a revelation.

You also get to hear the sounds of the game — the crashing of pads, the grunts of gang tackles and the agony of leg cramps. It really adds depth and color to the game that you might not otherwise get from a press box.

Depth and color are nice, by the way. They help to make stories readable.

It's just that you better get the story in the first place.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


What's become of my generation?

We children of the '60s, as I recall, were going to change everything that was wrong with the world. We were prompted by an ugly war in Asia to wage a lasting peace; we were going to live in communes growing our own organic food and where love was free (but never cheap); we were going to forsake materialism as best as we could, living off the land in our frayed blue jeans, tie-dyes and red bandannas, or else make an honorable living by altruistically helping others as doctors, farmers or folk singing musicians.

And we were all going to get along. That idea — that idealism — underscored everything, it seemed.

It sounded good at the time.

Now, decades later, with Ferguson, MO, sending us faded signals from a distant — but not too distant — era that righteous civil disobedience begets the change we seek. And, historically, it almost always has. A part of me feels we've come a long way in race relations in my own lifetime; another part of me is wondering when we're going to take the meaningful crucial step.

The war in Asia has been replaced by conflict in the Middle East, fueled by extremism, arrogance and culture clash.

Wall Street has become more important to maintaining our 401k's than Ventura Highway ever did in maintaining our dreams. So much for forsaking materialism when your retirement is hanging in the balance.

Perhaps we took a questionable turn somewhere along the way and we probably never knew we did. Each time we nobly try to rise above our own human nature ("human nature" can explain a lot our actions, if not actually excuse those actions), human nature reaches up to pull us back down by the ankles.

The idealism of my generation that was going to change everything surrendered to unrelenting reality, which I guess was inevitable.

At least, I think, we made a decent attempt to change the world. If nothing else, we got some great music out of it. And Star Trek.

I've been thinking out loud here, so excuse me if I think I can carry some of that idealism with me still. Changing the world is clearly asking for too much and I don't mean to be preachy about it. But maybe I can nudge myself to head in a different direction, similar to the one I — we — saw in the 60s. Maybe it'll turn out to be that it's the direction in which we travel that actually matters.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The $30 tip

It's finally happening. I think my stitching is starting to come a little loose around the edges.

Inevitable, I suppose.

We were enjoying our Angus beef hot dogs and brew at the Town Tavern in Blowing Rock. The Tavern is a restaurant on Main Street that used to be Tijuana Fats several reincarnations ago. I loved Tijuana Fats back in the day, especially the location in downtown Greensboro. The arroz con pollo there was unbeatable and it still remains a tasty memory all these years after the business closed its doors.

Kim and I still have discussions about Tijuana Fats' arroz con pollo.

The Fats in Blowing Rock, by contrast, was never as good as its sister locations, I thought.

And neither were the succession of restaurants that followed in the same building. At least two, maybe three other restaurants have tried and failed there. All within about 10 years or less.

The Tavern, however, seems to have it right. It's a sports bar that offers comfort food at reasonable prices. It's not a place that's trying to be something it's not by throwing in some goat cheese on its franks wrapped in toasted ciabatta or red-eye gravy on its pub chips.

So I thoroughly enjoyed my hot dog, which was longer in size than the usual frank and maybe a little shorter than a footlong. It was good. Very good.

When we finished our meal, the waitress brought our check. It was for something like $16.40, and I thought a twenty would cover the meal as well as provide a nice (20 percent) tip. So I absently pulled a bill from my wallet.

"Are you sure about this?" asked the waitress.

"Sure," I thought to myself. "You did a good job. Twenty per cent is about right."

"Yeah," I actually said.

"You just made my day," she said and happily pranced away.

"Uh-oh," I thought to myself again, my something's-not-right detector finally raised.

"What did you give her?" quizzed my wife, a former bank employee who knows a thing or two about money matters.

I checked my wallet again. Air rushed out of my lungs. I'd totally forgot about the $50 bill I had in there, innocently hiding behind my twenties. I don't usually carry fifties; I don't much like them and unless you're making a big purchase, like paying for a motel room, there's not much use for them, I think. Plus, the "50" on the bill kind of looks like a "20" at first glance. Try it sometime if you don't believe me. At least, try it when you're 63 years old.

At any rate, I leaped from my bar stool like I was ejected from an F-100. I found the waitress, standing with one of her colleagues. I could just imagine the conversation they were about to have.

"Ma'am," I said, and she turned to me. Then she smiled. I didn't have to say another word.

"I was pretty sure you didn't mean to give me that," she said.

"I wish I could," I said, and we exchanged the fifty for a twenty, making everything right, including the tip I meant to give her. I felt embarrassed for myself and sorry for her, mostly because I'm sure I just unmade her day.

She was incredibly understanding, though. I guess she could see the stitching coming apart.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Summer of fun

This was different.

There's been a lot of activity in our neighborhood in the past month or so. Two different families have bought houses on our block and are engaged in the moving-in process.

One of the families, in particular, caught my attention. It was because of all the vehicles that suddenly showed up. From all over. A quick glimpse of license plates revealed cars from Connecticut, Kentucky, South Carolina and maybe another state or two that I've since forgotten. Maybe Illinois. There almost always seems to be a car from Illinois.

There might have been six or seven vehicles in all parked in front of the house...and down the street.


"What a family," I thought to myself. "They move in and extended family members come in from all over the country to help out. That's awesome."

Well, not quite.

Turns out, the family moved in from a house just a few blocks away. All the out-of-state cars belonged to college baseball players who were playing for the HiToms in the wooden bat Coastal Plain League.

Originally, there were five players, I think, who were staying with Pam and Jason Zanni as the Zannis opened their home to them this summer as an uncompensated host family.

"What a family," I thought to myself, wondering what kind of people open their home to virtual strangers for nearly two months. For free. "Unique people," I thought to myself.

The number of players was whittled down to three by August, and a few days ago, the HiToms lost in the first round of the CPL playoffs. So now all the players are gone.

The HiToms wear traditional uniforms, with stirrups and sanitary socks.
Part of me is actually sad. On the Fourth of July, I covered my first HiToms game for The Dispatch, where I am a contract writer getting paid by the story.

I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed the game, which was played in friendly Finch Field in Thomasville. With the rest of The Dispatch sports staff tied up covering the American Legion baseball state tournament, I gladly worked the HiToms the rest of the summer. I think I ended up staffing seven of their home games down the stretch.

I was excited by the quality of play. The pitching could be superior, at times. So could the hitting. In 58 games, the HiToms knocked out 50 home runs. In one game — the Fourth of July game — I saw two players hit two home runs each. One player, Austin Crutcher, ended up leading the league with 12 taters.

I was impressed with the players. Post-game interviews were peppered with "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" in their candid responses. Coach Austin Love, in particular, was thoughtful and engaging in his remarks. Mostly, as a journalist, you run into people wanting to cover up blemishes. Not here, and I appreciated that.

I also appreciated the simple things, like the HiToms wearing exposed stirrups and sanitary socks with their uniforms and not pant leggings whose hems trailed in the dirt. They looked, well, like baseball players. I'm an old-school fan and stuff like this goes right to the heart of the game. My heart, too.

Baseball season is over. For the first time in a while, I can't wait until next year.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Legionnaire disease

A few days have passed since the North Carolina American Legion baseball tournament concluded at Lexington's venerable Holt-Moffitt Field, with Shelby Post 82 ending up as the nominal state champion.

I say "nominal" because, on the field, where it should count, Shelby suffered two losses in the double elimination tournament. One of those losses was a 12-5 decision to Thomasville Post 87 last Saturday. The other was an 8-1 loss to Gaston.

But as the result of a protest, a couple of appeals and a curious — at best — ruling from the American Legion Baseball national office in Indianapolis, IN, Thomasville Post 87 was disqualified from the tournament for supposedly using an ineligible player, catcher Cesar Trejo.

Here's where it gets a little dicey, blurry and odorous all at once.

Shelby filed a protest alleging Trejo was ineligible because of his participation in something called the 2014 Under Armour Showcase: Baseball Factory's Team One South in Peachtree City, GA., on July 11-12.

Trejo only participated in baseball skills and did not play in any games. It's not as if he was a ringer waiting in the wings. That didn't matter to the American Legion, saying he was supposedly committing "dual participation" by attending the non-Legion event.

It's an event that the American Legion apparently sanctions, by the way. The American Legion receives $30,000 per year from Baseball Factory to provide names and addresses of players to showcase their talents to college coaches and scouts. American Legion sanctions only two bodies: Baseball Factory and Baseball USA. So what's the problem?

But it gets weirder. Shelby filed the protest after Saturday's game, saying it learned of Trejo's alleged transgression after Post 82 returned to its motel.

Huh? That soon? What, was there a note on the door? A timely email? A voicemail? Huh?

The suddenness of this protest, seemingly out of thin air, appears to be evidence in itself of supposed prior knowledge waiting to be sprung at the most propitious moment.

While that little nugget smells fishy enough, it should also be noted that tournament coaches and athletic directors were given an opportunity in a meeting on Thursday, before the tournament began, to question the eligibility of any player on any roster. Nobody spoke up. That, logically, should have been the end of it right there. No surprises. Door closed.

But, surprise anyway.

Thomasville athletic director Greg Suire eventually filed two appeals with the American Legion national office, and both were denied.

The American Legion response — coming from an office 600 miles away from Holt-Moffitt Field — was curious, at best.

In an article from The Dispatch, American Legion baseball national director Mike Buss said, "They could be partnering with American Legion. But I can also tell you that nowhere in the contract that we have with Baseball Factory is the company Under Armour. That's an issue that the lawyers can discuss.

"That is something that lawyers need to discuss, I'm not gonna get into what is sanctioned and what is not sanctioned," Buss added. "That is a situation that lawyers could talk about, and I can't really offer any more on that."

Well, that's pretty lame. Sounds like double-talk semantics. Furthermore, as national director, Buss better be darn sure what his organization sanctions and what it doesn't, otherwise debacle will follow travesty every time.

Even now, it looks as though the American Legion office is essentially ruling against itself. Oh, my.

And did you notice Buss used the word "lawyers" three times? Yikes. Youth baseball and lawyers. Mercy. If that's what we're coming down to, then I think we're all missing the point.

There's one more curiosity here. The American Legion World Series is held, annually, in Shelby. You don't suppose Shelby got that favorable ruling from the American Legion office because Shelby hosts the American Legion World Series with a state-of-the-art facility, do you? Nah. Of course not. Doesn't look like that at all.

What it does look like from here is a royal theft of Post 87's hopes and dreams. It looks like Post 82 will do anything it can to win a title, preferring even a clerical championship if it can't win one on the field. How satisfying is that? And it looks like the national office, swimming in conflicts of interest, is holding hands with the recipient of its favorable ruling.

Sad, sad, sad.