Another Lap Around The Sun With “The Game”

Jun 20, 2019   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

Yesterday was my birthday. My 63rd birthday, for the record, although that number seems made up and random to me. I mean, it can’t really be my age, right? When I close my eyes and picture myself I’m about 35, I think. That’s probably why I am quite often rudely stunned when I look in the mirror in the morning. The concept and the reality are often quite different.

Birthdays have a way of making a person reflect on the big picture, and that’s how I spent much of yesterday. I was just trying to digest it, make sense of it, and look back over all six decades plus three years. What did it all mean? What have I accomplished beyond simply making it this far into my 60s? What are the threads that bind the whole story together?

Well, for 20+ years I was in professional drag racing. I never expected to be there and certainly didn’t plan it from an early age. It just happened sort of organically. You know, one thing leads to another, and another, and then you’re standing 10 feet behind a Nitro Funny Car as it leaves the starting line and 11,000 horsepower shakes your entire body. I loved it. I needed to, because 20+ years of the travel and the stress would make it untenable if it was just a job or just a way to make a living. I loved it.

As my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” detailed (probably in too much detail, actually) there were those years in soccer. I’d fallen in love with the indoor game just after that Americanized version of the sport was invented and presented to the public. Somehow, some way, I managed to go from being a fan in the stands to being a front office executive for three different franchises. I just made it happen. I willed it to happen. I loved it. Every minute of it. Well, except that moment when the Indianapolis Twisters owner stood at the podium in my office and folded the franchise in front of a room full of reporters and TV camera crews. He was the only one in the room who knew what he was about to do. Didn’t love that too much, and it marked the end of my indoor soccer “career.”

There were other ventures in the sports marketing world, which provided trips to foreign lands, introductions to famous athletes, and other VIP sorts of escapades. It all seems surreal now. So wait, I sat in a room with Magic Johnson and we just chatted like two guys who did stuff like that all the time? Really? Did that actually happen? It did. There are too many of those sorts of stories to document, although I did my best with the book.

What’s the one thread, though, that runs through all of this? From birth to the 63rd birthday I celebrated yesterday? Oh, and by the way, we capped off the day-long celebration with a stunningly wonderful dinner at St. Paul Grill, inside the St. Paul Hotel, which is located guess where. Downtown St. Paul, of course. Almost certainly a tie for “Best Filet Mignon” ever for me. There can’t be just one, but all those that tie for best-ever come from a very short list of world-class restaurants. It was sublime.

So back to the question I started that last paragraph with, before my digression about food. What’s that one thread? What connects all the dots? You know what it is. It’s baseball.

Every single day of my life has been centered around or directly tied to baseball. It’s in my blood, it’s in my DNA, and it seems to be in a vast amount of my life’s memories. Baseball.

Kneeling, second from left. I at least knew how to wear the uniform and pose. (Click on any image to enlarge)

I have never discovered a single photo of me playing the game in grade school. None exist, as far as I can tell. The earliest photo of me in a uniform is found in my St. Louis U. High yearbook, from my senior season. It’s so grainy, out of focus, and harshly full of shadows it looks like it might have been shot with a Kodak Instamatic (without the rotating flash cube.) We are a motley crew, and in the full photo half the team is looking elsewhere. Others look sloppy or disinterested. I look like a baseball player.

I was the son of a former big league catcher. I was supposed to be a baseball player. I spent many consecutive summers with Dad in ballparks ranging from RFK Stadium in DC, to Mile-High Stadium in Denver, to Fairgrounds Park in Spokane. All the while, thanks to those ballpark experiences shagging fly balls during batting practice, I became a hell of an outfielder who couldn’t much hit his way out of a wet paper sack. I had a lot of development ahead of me. It would take a while.

And I didn’t just live for playing the game on the field. I’ve been a fan since Day 1. I’m still a fan. I love the fact that baseball is nearly a daily companion from the start of Spring Training in March, to the end of the World Series in October or November. I get through the winter on hockey, football, and basketball, but I live and breathe baseball. I truly miss it during the offseason.

Cardinal fan? Of course. You don’t grow up in St. Louis as the son of a former Cardinal without being directly tied to it. I’ve watched the Red Birds play in old Sportsman’s Park on Grand Avenue, to the circular Busch Stadium in downtown, to the new Busch Stadium, which was being built during the last season in old Busch. The footprints overlapped, though, so the minute the 2005 season ended the construction crews had to race to be ready, tearing down the old park to finish the new one. They didn’t quite make it. The multi-decked seats in left field were not done in time, and the park opened with many sections still closed and under construction.

Twins fan? Of course. You don’t grow up in St. Louis as the son of the Twins top scout and Fall Instructional League manager without becoming devoted to the team I never thought I’d be able to root for in person. And then in 2002 we moved here. Took a long time to close that loop, but now I’m “home” in Minnesota while I pay attention to the Cardinals from a distance. Full circle.

Number 5 gets ready to hit a five-hopper back to the pitcher

I was extremely fortunate to earn a scholarship to Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville, where I’d spend four years getting a great education while the one-and-only Coach Roy Lee pushed, prodded, pulled, and otherwise did all he could to make me the best hitter I could be before it was time to graduate. I had my moments. I would have had no moments at all without Coach Lee.

I made friends at SIUE on those teams that I still stay in near constant contact with today. Social media makes that much easier. Those are the kinds of friendships that last forever. Roommates. Teammates. Friends. We’ll always be Cougar brothers. I cherish every memory.

It didn’t matter what academic quarter it was, or what season of the year, or what the weather was like. We were Cougar Baseball brothers. It’s why we were there. It provided us with bachelor’s degrees we have used to make our marks elsewhere in life, but it was baseball that tied it all together. It was a wonderful place to go to school, and it was an even better place to play ball. Our two NCAA Div. II World Series appearances, and the induction of both of those teams into the school’s Hall of Fame, are indicative of just how amazing it all was, even if we didn’t know it at the time.

Today, the much-improved and upgraded ballpark at SIUE is name Roy E. Lee Field.

And then baseball fate intervened again, when the Detroit Tigers were either smart enough or silly enough to offer me a contract to play professionally, for the incredible sum of $500 per month. And that doesn’t even include the $500 “bonus” I got for signing, as if I needed a little more incentive to put my autograph at the bottom of that lengthy official document.

Hey look! That ball I just threw. It’s flying through the air!

Of course, the Tigers then found a way to demote Dan O’Connor, Buddy Slemp, and me from the Bristol team, despite the fact it was their Rookie League club. They shipped us all the way up the road to Paintsville, Kentucky. That was a move that created one of the best summers of my life.

We, of course, had no idea what we were in for. We didn’t even know where Paintsville was. Heck, we’d only known each other for about four days. As it turned out, Paintsville was baseball heaven. We were enormous fish in a little tiny pond, but we were Paintsville’s fish and they took incredible care of us. And I started hitting a little better. Long days and bus rides with Vince “The Bronze Fox” Bienek, Eddie “Boxhead” Gates and the rest of the Hilanders were priceless.

Baseball took me from grade school, to high school, to college and then to pro ball. If given the opportunity to go back and change any of it, I would respectfully decline. I wouldn’t change a thing.

I got to go to Spring Training as a professional baseball player. I was in uniform at Tiger Town, with a whole bunch of outstanding players. And I didn’t look out of place. I’d lived my entire life dreaming of being in such a place. And there I was. That’s why Marchant Stadium in Lakeland had to be on our “SIUE Roomies Reunion” itinerary this past spring, when Lance, Radar, Oscar and I ventured down to Florida.

This was the best the A’s could do for a team photo

And then, out of the blue, my life instantly changed from hot and steamy central Florida to the beauty of the Great Northwest. Here you go kid. Drive 1,000 miles home to St. Louis and get right on a plane bound for Medford, Oregon. You’ll figure it out. You’ll make friends. You’ll get hurt and it will be bloody. And then you’ll pitch!

Go figure. I couldn’t have written the script if I tried. And I did figure it out. And I did make friends. Dear close ones, at that. And I still have the scar and the caps on my teeth. And, yes, I pitched. After Oakland A’s catcher Mike Heath caught me in the bullpen at Royals Stadium so that A’s pitching coach Lee Stange could evaluate this 23-year-old outfielder turned reliever, it was all “that close” to happening for real. But “that close” doesn’t cut it. Still, wonderful memories and an incredible experience. Even the 15-hour bus rides.

When the spikes were hung up, it was time for baseball to intervene once again. That thread that ties it all together. It was surely a strong one.

Rather than work in a salt mine, or even a broadcast booth, I went to work for the Toronto Blue Jays. For parts of four years I watched baseball for a living. Just like my dad before me, I became a scout. It was in my blood.

When it was time to move on, my sports marketing career took over but baseball re-entered my life back out on the playing field. For a decade I played with the best bunch of goofballs you could ever meet, on the incredible Sauget Wizards semipro team. Were we good? It was the best overall talent I ever shared a dugout with. Sometimes I forget just how good we were. You don’t beat the USA National Team, fully stocked with future big leaguers, and become the only American-based team to ever beat them, without being pretty good. And I went deep to cap it off.

These guys…

After all that time, I had finally become a hitter. I don’t profess to fully understand it, but I assume it was just a late spurt in size and strength. Plus a little knowledge and a lot of dedication. In all regards, I was a late bloomer.

Let me try to explain this, especially for those of you who never played the game or at least didn’t keep playing once Little League was over.

There is NO SENSATION in the world that matches the feeling in your hands when you hit a moving baseball so hard it’s a foregone conclusion that it’s going over the fence. It’s the sweetest feeling in the world, but it’s hardly a feeling at all! Most of the time you contact a pitched ball, there’s a little tug, or a push, or a vibration, or even a sting involved with it. You feel the bat hit the ball. Sometimes it feels pretty good, and sometimes it feels like you have a handful of angry bees. But you feel it.

When you absolutely crush one, it’s as if the bat went right through the ball and just vaporized it. You see it, of course, but you don’t feel it. If you’ve mashed it hard enough and gotten it up in the air (everyone talks about “launch angle” these days) you know it’s gone. By the time I was a Wizard, I could finally do that and do it quite often. Hitting .380 with 15 to 20 bombs a season got to be routine. And the joy of it never left me.

I clearly remember how my game totally changed. I was in my late 20s entering my 30s and I was a different player. I was as focused as I’d ever been, as well. I remember never taking a pitch off when I played in the outfield. Guys like Robert Giegling, Jim Greenwald, Gerry Pitchford, Dan Nicholson, and I stayed focused on every pitch. We communicated and backed each other up like we were in the big leagues and 40,000 people were watching. It was the greatest fun I ever had playing the game. And we won a lot, which made it even better.

The rarely mentioned but fondly remembered Fairfax team. Great guys. Great players.

In the decade or so where I was working for a living but playing semipro ball, I did spend two seasons playing for teams other than the Wizards. When I was living in suburban Washington, DC I played for a team in Fairfax. Again, didn’t know a soul the day I showed up but that summer was fantastic and the guys were great. Mark Siciliano, Richie Gill, Bill Harris, and all these guys, were just great. Baseball does that. The same thread that ran through my life ran through theirs. It’s a strong thread. It binds ballplayers together.

The highlight, of course, was the day we beat the Korean National team and yours truly hit a no-doubter about a mile. Or 400 feet. Felt like a mile, and I even got to stand there and admire it for a split second. Then we won the Eastern Seaboard Championship and off I went back to St. Louis and the Wizards.

In 1995 I was somehow wrangled into being the player/manager for what was supposed to be a fun “front office” team for the Kansas City Attack indoor soccer club. It was hardly that. Most of the guys who wanted to play wouldn’t have made even decent slow-pitch softball players, so I scrambled to find some former high-level college guys who wanted to play. It was fun, we won the championship, I loved the managing side of it (again, following the DNA I got from my dad), and I “raked” as we say when you’re hitting well for a long period of time. It wasn’t the Wizards or Fairfax, but it was good college-level baseball. It’s baseball. It’s in my blood, but it wasn’t necessarily in my shoulder or hamstrings. That year in KC was the last I played. I was about to turn 40.  That’s what you call “milking all you can out of the game.”

Since then, from Indianapolis, to Chapel Hill, to Austin, to Woodbury, to Spokane, and back to Woodbury, I’ve just been a fan. I’m still a student of the game, and that’s a good new trick for this old dog. The science of the game, from launch angles, to spin rates, to shifts, and analytics are mostly far newer than the last game I played. There’s a lot to learn. And here we are in June and I’m once again loving the chance to enjoy the game almost every single day. When Roy Smalley or Justin Morneau are in the Twins broadcast booth with play-by-play announcer Dick Bremer, I learn something every night. I’m too old to play, but I hope I’m never to old to learn.

There’s also this thing in Minnesota. It’s called “Town Ball” and it goes on all over the state. It’s really unique, and it’s legendary up here. It’s good baseball with a lot of current or former college guys thrown in with a few ex-pros and some “slightly more mature” locals. So, it sounds like the baseball the Wizards or Fairfax played, but it’s different. It’s about the towns. It’s about lovely ballparks and avid fans, who treat their local Town Ball team as their own franchise.

A ballplayer named Dylan and his fantastic parents.

Our friends Terry and Lynn Blake have a son named Dylan who is a heck of a college player at St. Olaf, here in the Twin Cities. Dylan plays Town Ball during the summers (he’ll be a senior this fall) and this year he’s playing for the Miesville Mudhens. To find Miesville on a map you’ll have to find the road that connects St. Paul to Red Wing, down on the Mississippi south of here. Then you’ll need to zoom in quite a bit. I don’t believe there are 200 residents in Miesville, but the atmosphere at their wonderful ballpark is fantastic. I know this because Barbara and I joined Terry and Lynn last Friday night, to watch Dylan and his team play. They demolished a team that wasn’t very good. Dylan was great. The experience was priceless.

There is such local pride in these Town Ball places and parks. I hope the guys who get to play in these little burghs, country villages, or midsize suburbs appreciate what they have and what they get to do. And they need to stop worrying about spin rates and launch angles, at least for a while. Just hit the ball as hard as you can and run everything out. Love the game. Focus on every pitch.

During the game, Terry and I talked about something I wanted to do for my 63rd birthday. I wanted to dig one of my old gloves out of a duffle bag and play catch. Just me and him on any open field we could find. I wanted to feel the ball in my hand again, and hope to high-heaven that my right shoulder wouldn’t disintegrate on the first soft toss.

Just two old guys tossing a ball around. It was time.

Yesterday, we did that. It was simultaneously wonderful and frustrating. It’s been about 20 years since I put the glove on, held a baseball, and threw it to another guy. A few recreational softball games over the drag racing years, and one day of batting practice for ESPN when we were racing in St. Louis and we could head over the SIUE to do that. But to stand 20 or 30 feet apart and play catch? It was time to do that.

Here’s what I learned. I have great mental memories, but the muscle memory of throwing a ball is pretty dim. I’ll need to get together with Terry quite a few more times to get that back. I also wear glasses now, all the time. They have a progressive prescription, and there are three blended zones in each lens. The bottom part is for reading, the middle for computer work, and the top for distance. Well…  The first ball Terry threw to me went into and back out of focus multiple times on its short trip to me. It was like trying to play catch with one eye closed and the other one out of focus. It was really frustrating, and only a little dangerous. Fortunately, I didn’t take one off the nose.

We’ll figure that out. And we’ll do it again. And I’ll build up some morsel of arm strength and rekindle some of that muscle memory.

After all. It’s baseball. I’ve been on this planet for exactly 63 years and one day. There has been baseball for every day of it. It’s in my blood and my DNA. It represents my roots and my foundation. It’s in me. I love the game.

Brothers. Still just kids barely out of college, but brothers for life.

And I leave you with photographic evidence of how the game impacts your life in so many wonderful ways. It’s Radar, Lance, and me around 1980. We had reconvened at SIUE as alumni players, there to take on the varsity. It wasn’t pretty, but it made clear to me that these friendships, this brotherhood, was deeper and more lasting than I may have ever anticipated.

And that’s the game.

I love it. I do so deeply love it.

I’ll see you all next week. I promise the whole damn thing won’t be about baseball, but this one just needed to get from my brain and my heart onto the blog page.

If you enjoyed it, please click on the “Like” button at the top. “Likes” are the equivalent of solidly struck line drives.

Bob Wilber, at your service and still loving the game.

 

 

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