Golf is a funny game. It should be easy, right? The ball is just sitting there. You have a flat grooved blade on the end of a stick to hit it with. There are no other golfers out there playing defense. Like I said, it should be easy. However, some of the terms used to describe the game are frustrating, maddening, mind boggling, and many other expletives not suitable for this blog. You probably know them all, and have used a few, if you play.
The game will throw you a bone every now and then. Mysteriously, it will allow you to forget all the duffs, the divots, the hooks, the slices, and the dribblers just long enough for you to crush a drive right down the middle, or loft an 8-iron to within five feet of the pin. And you get excited, and you come back for more. But it’s never all good. That’s what I’ve noticed about my friends who play a lot and truly are very good at the game. They get just as frustrated as I do, despite being 20 strokes better than me (and you should see the back 9!) Everyone gets frustrated. Why do so many people play a game that drives them so nuts?
Well, for one thing, it’s a beautiful game played in natural landscapes in the great outdoors. Usually, you can drive around in fun little carts. Often, a young lady in another cart will show up selling adult beverages. And then there’s that one shot. The one great one you hit. It gives you hope.
Here’s a brief overview of my history with golf…
I wasn’t too bad as a kid. I’m talking 11 to 13 years old. I was playing naturally. I hadn’t developed any bad habits yet. I hadn’t started to overthink and overanalyze it. I just hit the ball with the stick and then went and hit it again. I didn’t play a lot, but I enjoyed it.
I hardly played at all once I got to college, because baseball was my mission and my main pursuit. The two swings really do not help each other. They are fundamentally different, each in their own maddening way. But… Many of the flaws in a baseball swing seem to travel right along with you to golf. I had a tendency to “drop my back shoulder” in baseball, and that forces your shoulders to be out of alignment, forcing the bat to be a little too low and the swing to be a little too long and loopy. And you see that fastball right down the middle but you pop it up on the infield. That was such a problem for me I finally rebuilt my stance completely, to correct the issue. All the way through college, I kept my hands very low and then pulled them back as the pitcher began his delivery. Sometimes it worked, because it relaxed me, but often it didn’t. Remember, baseball is a game that will make you a well-paid star if you totally fail at hitting the ball safely 70% of the time. Fail 70% of the time in the big leagues for 15 years and they will make a plaque for you at Cooperstown. So I changed my stance to one where I held the bat straight up and very high. The purpose being I wanted to stay on the right swing plane and avoid the pop-ups by keeping my back shoulder up. That changed me as a hitter. I was 27 by then, and had missed my window to keep playing pro ball, but I was playing high level ball with the Sauget Wizards and geez it was fun to crush the ball regularly, hit .390, bang 25 bombs a year, and drive in 90 runs. It took me that long to figure it out. It sure was great when I got there.
I brought that same original loopy swing to golf, though, and I have a real hard time hitting the ball straight with my driver. I have a natural slice, and it’s because my back shoulder is dropping a bit and that opens the club face. Open club face means side spin on the ball. Side spin creates a slice wherein the ball comes off the club going straight but then takes a right turn. Slices go into the woods. Not fun.
I got better once my post-baseball business career arrived, and played golf a lot more. I finally got good enough, in my late 20s and 30s, to enjoy a fun day out on the course and not let the bad shots bother me. I was never going to be a scratch golfer so I didn’t aspire to anything more than having fun. Then, when I was around 30, I hurt my lower back for the first time, actually playing tennis (which I did successfully for many years thanks to the guidance of brother-in-law Lonnie Smith.) And then a few years later I hurt it again. And again. Finally around 45, it was just impossible to play golf. When you can’t tee the ball up or get it out of the cup without the stabbing pain of a pinched nerve in your L4/L5 disc, it’s no fun. The clubs soon began to gather dust.
I’ve had a lot of back treatments over the last 20 years, and they at least allowed me a lot more flexibility and a lot less pain. The injections aren’t fun, but they work. Still, over the last 10 years I haven’t played more than 12 or 15 rounds of golf, and in the last five years I basically didn’t play at all. The one round I’ve played in the last five years was with my SIUE roomies at our reunion in Seattle. Lance got us on at the historic Broadmoor Country Club, and it was a disaster for me. At my best, it would’ve been a very big challenge, with tight fairways, bunkers galore, and thick pine forests along every fairway. It was really no fun, but I’m glad Lance, Oscar, and Radar had a good time. I finally quit hitting tee shots and just messed around with my short game once they got near the green. And I put the clubs away again. I hadn’t even taken them out of the travel bag I shipped them to Seattle in.
When we lived out in Liberty Lake, we played a few times and pain-wise it was encouraging. At least I could swing the club and tee it up all by myself. I’d have a good hole or two and then two bad ones, but Barbara and I were out there. Funny thing, though… We never once played at Meadowwood, the course we actually lived on. We played at Trailhead because it was pretty much wide open with room to make mistakes.
When my birthday was coming up, back in June, Barbara brought up the idea of me getting new clubs. My old set was really old. So I did it. I went and got fitted for a new set of carbon fiber TaylorMade clubs, including two hybrid clubs in place of a 4-iron and 5-iron. I’d never even held a hybrid, much less swung one. With the new clubs in hand, Barbara and I headed for the driving range at a nearby course here in Woodbury. The clubs were great. The swing was mostly the same. But we had fun, and we went back. And then again. And today I met my buddy Terry Blake and his son Dylan for another large bucket of balls. With each trip to the range, and with these new clubs, I got a little more consistent. I think I graduated all the way up to “pretty bad” instead of the “hopelessly horrible” status I had right after I got the clubs.
Today, I hit 60 balls. I started with the 9-iron and worked my way through the 8 and 7, and all that went pretty well. The 9, actually, was a joy to hit. Nice high lofted shots to the target green. That’ll keep you going.
The hybrids are fun. I’ll use them off the fairway and off the tee, and they’re pretty easy to control. For some reason, I don’t seem to slice with them.
The driver, though, is a big oversized monster and I’ve never swung one of those before. The first day out, I was terrible with it. With each day at the range, I get a little better but I still have a long way to go and the slice says “Hey, I’m still here buddy” way too often. But, incrementally I’m getting a little better each time.
So when we were done, Terry said, “OK, let’s pick a day and play a round here.” The course is called The Ponds at Battle Creek here in Woodbury, and it’s a pretty little 9-hole track I’ve played once before. Let’s just say other than the one long drive you have to hit over the Atlantic Ocean (or is that Lake Superior?) it’s pretty forgiving. Use your worst old ball when you tee up on that one.
We all agreed. Terry will pick the day and I’ll screw up my courage to get back out there. I have the new clubs, a new bag, and some new golf clothes. Birthdays are good. I’m into birthdays. If the scorecard ends up looking like a horror movie, it won’t be because of the clubs, bag, or apparel. It will be user error. I’ll give it my best, with the sole mission being to once again forget the bad ones and just enjoy the day. I’ll hit enough of those seductive good shots to get myself lured back into thinking I can figure the game out. It never fails.
Dylan is a very good athlete. He was a stud infielder for his high school baseball team, and then played at St. Olaf College for a really good team there. I’ve seen him play. He’s good. Really good. Like thousands of other high school and college athletes, though, he was robbed of his senior season when Covid-19 hit and everything was shut down. That’s a shame. I was lobbying hard to get him to consider trying to play at least one year of professional ball in an independent league. I happen to have a good friend and former SIUE teammate named Bill Lee, who is the Commissioner of the Frontier League. It’s a very solid independent league in the Midwest. I thought Dylan could hold his own there, and since all the Major League clubs scout the players in that league, maybe he’d get a chance to play a little in the minors for an MLB organization. It was not to be.
He looks to be a pretty natural golfer, too. He crushed more than a few drives. Between the three of us, I’d say we had our moments today. Good, bad, and awful, but we hit enough of them OK to make the thought of getting out on the course seem appealing. It will be fun.
As for the headline today, it should ring a bell with any of you who actually watch golf on TV. For some reason, golf announcers seem to always include the word “golf” in just about everything related to the game. “Tiger is really playing solid golf today on this golf course. His golf swing is smooth, he’s hitting the golf ball a mile, and these news golf clubs he has are working.” I’m not sure why that style is so prevalent, but it is. It’s almost universal on the TV shows.
Football is like that too. How many times will you hear the announcers say “That’s a fine football play by a good football player. Just look at him running around on that football field.”
You’re welcome. If you hadn’t noticed that before you will from now on.
And if you get out there on your local golf course, to swing your golf clubs and hit those golf balls, remember this: Even the best players in the entire world still hit them into the woods or into the water. Even the best players in the world can miss a 5-foot put by 10-feet. It’s a hard game. And the ball is just sitting there, doing nothing. You don’t have to hit a round ball with a round bat. You don’t have to hit it when it’s coming at you at 95 mph. You don’t have to live with the frustration of crushing it despite all those odds and then wincing when another guy makes a diving grab of your shot and throws it back. It’s just sitting there. Mocking you. It’s a very challenging game. It may very well have been invented not by the Scots, but by the Devil himself.
So that’s all the frustration I can write about today. When Dylan, Terry, and I strap it on to play 9 holes at The Ponds, I’ll be thrilled to shoot 55. Thrilled. No, honestly, I’ll be thrilled. One step at a time in the reclamation of my golf game.
If this installment didn’t drive you too nuts, please click on the “Like” button below. The more “Likes” the better. And maybe those likes with tap into the inner golfer in me. We can only hope.
See you next week!
Bob Wilber, at your service and trying not to slice.
Saturday is my sister Mary’s birthday. On July 25, 1955 our mother Taffy gave birth to a healthy and beautiful baby girl. All was right with the world. That gave my parents four kids, two boys and two girls, and they had artfully spaced out the births to make things easier around the house for my mom, who had to handle nearly everything for as much as eight or nine months a year when my dad was gone to play, coach, or manage baseball. Each child was three or four years separated in terms of birth order. Del Jr., Rick, Cindy, and Mary. It was all good.
Then, just a couple of months after Mary was born, my mom found out she was expecting again. By “expecting” I mean pregnant. She surely wasn’t actually expecting to be in such a state, and it’s funny that the word can be used in both senses there. The next June, on the 19th, I was born. Just 11 months younger than Mary. There was a colloquialism about such back-to back births at the time. We were called “Irish Twins” and I can only assume that referred to the fact or myth that those fun-loving Irish Catholic folks produced a lot of kids. Whatever you called us, we were so close in age we were everything up to but not quite actual twins.
We grew up together. We shared baths for years and when we became a little too big to do that we shared bath water. Guess who got the cool dirty water? I got used to it.
At the tail end of the group of siblings, we were our own little sub-unit of the Wilber family. Cindy wasn’t too much older, born in 1951, but Rick and Del were both senior enough to be a bit detached from us. We got to see them play high school football as if they were men, not boys. We watched them both go off to Big 10 schools to play quarterback. Cindy cooked for us a lot, and pushed us to try new things, like the guitar (FAIL) and art, whether it be pastels, pencils, or water colors (again, FAIL) but Mary and I found ways to keep each other company, keep each other laughing, and keep each other sane (to some degree.) By no means were those art failures Cindy’s fault. She tried. She was creative. She was a phenomenal big sister. But we just didn’t have the natural inclination (also known as talent) to succeed in those pursuits.
We were very different. I was the same insomniac as a kid as I have been for most of my life. She went to bed, put her head on the pillow, and fell asleep. That always irritated the hell out of me. I was sick all the time, and pretty frail for many years. She was as healthy as any kid could be, while also being strong and athletic. I was a goofball. She was a bit reserved around anyone but me. She was “right down the middle” smart, good at all subjects when we went through Mary Queen of Peace grade school. I was generally hopeless at math and science but a bit of a prodigy in terms of creativity, writing, and other such pursuits.
We rode the school bus together for many years, having to cut through our backyard to walk up to the corner of Woodlawn and Quan to wait for it, whether it was raining, snowing, or single-digits. We sat on Santa’s lap each year as little kids, and accompanied our mom to the various Stix, Baer & Fuller or Famous-Barr department stores around St. Louis. Once there, Mom would head off to do what moms do and Mary and I would invade the toy department. She’d look at the Barbie dolls and I’d scour the shelves for a new battery-operated tank or a cool new plastic army helmet.
In a lot of ways, we helped raise each other. But that wasn’t a 50/50 proposition. She definitely looked out for her little brother. She guarded me, taught me, and protected me. I tried to keep her laughing.
Each year, just like this one, I’d catch up to her in age on June 19, but every time I tied the score she’d take the lead again on July 25. Her record for doing that is remarkable. She’s the Lou Gehrig of older sisters.
We played basketball in the driveway, under a solitary spotlight mounted on the front of the house on Woodleaf Court, until they made us come inside. On warm nights, we’d lay in the grass and stare skyward to marvel at the uncountable number of stars.
We played kickball in the street with other kids from around the neighborhood, but that group was always in flux and changing. There were only a few other kids, in all of our years in that house, who were our age or anything close to it. When we were very young, we were fortunate enough to have some teenage girls on Woodleaf Court, who were great babysitters with a wide selection of Doctor Seuss books to keep us occupied. When we entered our pre-teens and teens, the demographic of the street changed to younger families with much younger kids. Mary made a small living looking after those children just as we’d been looked after ourselves when we were younger.
We were cursed by only one thing: Our birth order. Had I been the fourth and Mary the fifth, we would’ve had no problem introducing each other to suitable friends once that sort of thing became interesting. As it was, few of her high school friends wanted to date a boy who was a year younger, and most of my friends were intimidated by girls a year older. We made it work a few times, at least for a while.
High school was a really important time for us. Mary went off to St. Joseph’s Academy when I was in eighth grade at MQP. I was on my own at school, but I lived vicariously through her stories about what the next level was like. St. Joe’s was an all-girls Catholic school, and I was determined to follow my brothers to St. Louis U. High, an all-boys Jesuit institution. The two experiences were parallel in many ways.
Because of how close we were, that cursed birth order, and the fact we both went to gender-specific high schools, we often had no social life in terms of same-age kids of the opposite sex. So, we did what Mary and I always did. We kept each other company. We used to say we “dated each other” for much of that time. Movies, miniature golf, tacos, pizza, or sports events. We did most of that together.
Whether it was long walks to explore the woods that still existed in Kirkwood then, epic kickball or “kick the can” games in the street, or nightly “bike cruises” around the tiny cul de sac with whatever neighbor kids were of bike-riding age during any particular summer, we were more than siblings. We were partners. And she still looked out for me.
Once Mary turned 16, and inherited big sister Cindy’s tiny Austin-Healey Sprite convertible, we could add “going for drives” to the list, and we did that almost nonstop. If you traveled west on Manchester Road, the main east/west thoroughfare that ran from downtown St. Louis to well out in the country (we lived only a short distance down Woodlawn to get to Manchester) you’d eventually leave the suburbs behind and arrive at Rockwoods Reservation, a sprawling natural park with winding roads, caves to explore, and walking trails. We must have gone out to Rockwoods five times a summer.
We’d drive out to Lambert International Airport just to hang out there. Coming from a family that traveled so much, airplanes and trains were part of our DNA. We just enjoyed hanging out at the airport. You could do that then. You could even walk down the concourse and look at the arriving passengers as they deplaned. Where did they come from? What is life like there? Why are they here? The questions were endless.
By then, there were numerous malls around us out in the westside suburbs. West County Mall on Manchester Road sat on the same property where the Manchester Drive-In had once flourished. We saw our first movie at that Drive-In, with Mom and Dad, when we were very young. It was the original version of “101 Dalmations.” Crestwood Mall, to the south of us a bit in Sunset Hills, was also a go-to. We could hang out at those places for hours. I’d wear my SLUH letter jacket, too.
Then Mary graduated from St. Joe’s and it all entered an entirely new phase. It really was a “coming of age” moment for both of us. Childhood and the precocious young teen years were behind us.
Mary wasn’t sure where she was going to college, but then she heard that the University of Evansville offered a one-year exchange program with a sister school in England. The rule, at the time, was that you had to enroll at Evansville (that’s in Indiana) for at least a year before you could take advantage of the exchange program, but somehow Mary and my mom managed to get around that. My mom was good at that sort of stuff. She knew how to negotiate. She and my dad got Cindy into Georgetown University as part of the school’s first class that allowed girls, back then. Senators and governors were involved in the endorsement plan.
Anyway, Mary went off to England. I was a senior at SLUH. I really truly missed her. I was 18 and for the first time in my life I didn’t have my “twin” sister around. I sent her letters. I made tapes and sent those to her. But all we could do was correspond by mail. Snail mail. It took a long time for those letters to get from England to Kirkwood, and vice-versa.
Also, somehow my folks thought it would be fine if they traded in Mary’s Austin-Healey to get a new car for me. I mean, she was all the way across the Atlantic and they always thought that tiny car was dangerous, so why not? I ended up with a brand new powder-blue Volkswagen Beetle. Mary ended up hitchhiking around England.
And she met a guy. A tall Scottish musician named Alan Learmonth. He was dashing, funny, smart as hell, and from Scotland. What’s not to love? Well, that last word is appropriate because they fell in love. Alan came back to St. Louis with Mary after her schooling was over, and they got married at the historic Old Cathedral in downtown St. Louis, right on the same grounds as the Gateway Arch. Alan wore a formal kilt. A bagpiper played instead of an organist. Stan Musial and other former Cardinals were there.
Soon thereafter, they ended up moving back across the ocean, to the tiny seaside village of Arbroath. They had two children, and named them suitably as Scottish kids. Rhiannon and Ewan.
After a few years, for whatever reasons (definitely including home-sickness, I’m sure) Mary and Alan split up, got divorced, and she brought the kids back to St. Louis. It was a really hard time for her, and she spent a lot of it over in Edwardsville where I was going to college at SIUE. She met a cool guy named Lonnie Smith, who played tennis and came from a small town in central Illinois. That blossomed, Lonnie became one of us, and they got married. Kimberly, Leigh, and Lauren soon rounded out the family.
Those were halcyon days for Mary, in many ways. She and Lonnie found a great ranch-style brick home in a fabulous neighborhood in the suburb of Creve Coeur, just north and west of Kirkwood. The best part of the home was the fact it was actually the caretaker’s house for a small park that had three tennis courts. They could live there rent-free if they oversaw the park and kept things cleaned and organized. It was a heck of a way for the kids to grow up, and Lonnie turned me into a tennis player. He was a great player, and I was terrible. The best way to get better at any one-on-one sport is to play against someone way better than you. That’s great for the student, but not so much for the teacher. Lonnie was fantastic, though. And by the end of one summer he had me playing real tennis. I even came within one shot of taking a set from him once, but I choked and hit the overhead into the net.
Mares (that’s what we all still call her) and I spent so much time together then. It was marvelous in a whole new way. I became so close to the kids, and enjoyed being around the Smith family as often as possible. What was possible was a challenge, because I was traveling almost constantly, first as a baseball scout for the Blue Jays and then as a rep for Converse Shoes. But, whenever I was home you’d likely find me at the Smith abode, tennis rackets in hand. Between the fact that brother Del was president of a racket company called Snauwaert at the time, and I had access to all the Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert Converse tennis shoes we’d need, we were pretty decked out. (To this day Lonnie complains to me that I never should’ve left Converse because the limitless shoes were such a benefit for guys who played as much as we did.) My parents also adored Lonnie and all five little Smiths, and holidays were often celebrated in that brick ranch home by the park.
At one point, as the kids progressed through Creve Coeur schools, the upscale suburb didn’t suit them as well. Lonnie felt the pull to move back to his original neck of the woods, and Mary agreed. They left the park and tennis courts behind and moved to Carlinville, Illinois in a stately old home. It was a wonderful place for the kids, and Lonnie’s career with Diebold was taking him places. It was just hard to get up there to see them very often.
By then Ewan had sprouted to about 6-foot-9 and was a great high school basketball player. So they decided to move to nearby Shelbyville, where the school had a better basketball program, in the hope college recruiters might see him play and be interested. To this day I’m stunned and amazed by how easily the other kids made that transition from Carlinville to a cool old farm house in Shelbyville. They were, and remain, a phenomenally close-knit group. They just pulled together and made it happen. I wonder who instilled that sort of maturity in them… Maybe their mom? I’m sure of it.
Lonnie was winning all sorts of performance awards at Diebold by then, and those often included all-expense paid trips to various islands in Hawaii. Mary and Lon loved those trips, and eventually settled on Kauai as being their true vision of paradise. All five kids grew up, became wonderful adults with different pursuits and interests but an unbreakable bond as siblings. You will not find better “kids” anywhere. And Rhiannon and Ewan have long since reconnected with Alan and his two girls, Eve and Rachel, getting to know and love their half-sisters and establishing a new bond with their dad. It’s all good.
After moving to Florida for many years, originally near Orlando and then in Sarasota where both Mary and Lon were real estate agents and where Mary became the primary point-person who oversaw the care given to our mom and dad as they declined in health at the end of their lives, it was time to put it all behind them. They had bought a small condo in Kapaa, on Kauai, sight unseen and fixed it up enough to make it a rental property.
They then decided to sell or give away nearly everything, packed two bags each, and moved to the condo. They renovated it to their style, and have been there ever since. It’s paradise. They are the most popular people in Kapaa. I know this for a fact. I’ve seen it and experienced it myself.
And with that, Mary and I have had a much deserved renaissance after so many years apart. We still don’t get to see each other enough (this year’s trip had to be cancelled due to Covid-19) but we correspond a lot and talk on the phone. When we are together, over there in paradise, it’s as if we’re still in high school. The bond is unbreakable.
When I’m there, or when Barbara and I make Kauai our preferred vacation destination, Mary and I can sit and talk for hours, never having a moment when you’re searching for how to keep the conversation going. We’re still “Irish Twins.”
We walk the trails, visit their favorite joints, drive around the island with Lonnie at the wheel, from the “end of the road” in the north, past Hanalei, to the “end of the road” in the west, beyond Waimea and Kekaha. (See, Mary and I still like to go for drives, just like visiting Rockwoods Reservation in the Sprite.) We whale watch. We relax in a way you just can’t relax anywhere else.
So, it’s a big birthday for my sister. I won’t spill the beans but I just turned 64 and the math isn’t that hard, even for me.
I wish I could be there to celebrate with her. I wish this virus hadn’t squashed our plans from earlier this spring.
Happy Birthday to the smartest, kindest, most compassionate, most fearless, and most fun-loving sister any guy could ever have. And thank you for looking out for me for so long.
Love you, Sis!
Writer’s Comment: None of this is hyperbole. If anything, it understates just how amazing Mary is. She’s one of a kind. She’s an incredible sister, and a phenomenal mother and wife. And she’s my “twin” forever.
I’ll see you all next week for yet another blog installment.
As always, if you just finished this blog and found it even the least bit entertaining, please click on the “Like” button below. That might kind of signify that you like Mary Smith, my Irish Twin.
Bob Wilber, at your service and missing my sister.
I’ve always been known as an optimist. As a matter of true fact, after my former roomie Lance McCord introduced me to Barbara he told her, “Bob is the most optimistic person I know.” I’m not sure I’m really all that, but I’ve rarely been a pessimist. I guess I’d describe myself as a guy who tries to see the positive side of life, and strives to get there, but at the root of it I’m also a realist. Of all the chances I’ve taken in my life, and those of you who have read my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” know all about that “plow forward” mentality, I never really took any of those leaps unless I thought there was at least a chance for it to work out well. When I can see the brick wall and know there’s no way around or over it, I’m a realist.
Right now, I’m being a realist. I don’t want to bring anybody down, but frankly if you’re not a little down about all that’s going on you might want to reevaluate your position. Life, as we know it, is now very different. If we thought this would all be over by April, or May, or June, or July, we misjudged that fly ball so badly it’s still flying completely out of the ballpark while we’re trying to find it again in the sky. It’s a new world. And damn, we really have our work cut out for us. Just look at Florida, Texas, Arizona, and all the other new hot spots. We’ve never had a handle on this. Well let me clarify that. I think a LOT of us have individually had a handle on it. Barbara had a handle on it back when I was still slightly skeptical. We’ve done our part. We’ve been careful. But that hasn’t been close to enough. Bottom line: We were too late to act and too early to “reopen” and pretend it was the old normal again.
With such a disjointed and disorganized message coming from those who are supposed to lead us, and I mean that from the local level (in terms of both government and business owners) to states, and all the way to the White House, too many people are politicizing health. Imagine that! Politicizing health!!! When a pandemic like this strikes a large group of people, such as the United States, the final result will land closer to the lowest common denominator, not the average, and certainly not the best. A huge percentage of us can do everything right, but when the foolish and belligerent break all the common sense rules, we all end up in that sinking boat together. It’s tragic.
I have four members of my immediate Wilber/Doyle family who work directly in the the medical industry. I have another who works with the medical industry to help keep it running. I’ve heard the stories. It’s horrible. Their lives have been changed and scarred. If we ever do somehow get over this, they will never forget what they’ve been through. And, in one case where a niece volunteered to leave her family to be right in the middle of it in New York for two weeks, she will never forget holding the hands of dying patients.
I have four, five, six (I’ve lost count) friends or colleagues from the racing world who have come down with Covid-19. Their stories are just as horrific, if not even more so. These are people I know and respect. I’ve read the words “at that point I just thought it would be better if I died” from more than one of them. I’m so thankful they’re all still with us. It was damn close for more than a few.
It hit me yesterday that I’m adjusting, and that scares me. I’m no longer pining for the good old days. The realist in me knows they are a million miles away in the past and likely another million in the future. I sat out on the screened porch last night, with my laptop, to watch the live-streamed broadcast of an intrasquad game the Twins played at Target Field, in preparation for the planned 60-game schedule MLB is expecting to play, in empty ballparks.
Just to hear Dick Bremer and Justin Morneau announce the game. Just to see the players playing hard and trying to get ready. Just to see it, meant so much. Barbara came over and sat right next to me. We watched four innings together. We missed it that much. But it all seemed “new normal” way more than I ever thought it would. If I’d seen this on March 1, I would have thought “Oh that’s ridiculous. I can’t watch this.” Yesterday, I just soaked it in and appreciated it.
They were talking about how different it is at so many levels. The players don’t all use the same clubhouse. They must be spread out. They can’t sit around before a game and just play cards or shoot the breeze. They can’t use the regular weight room. They can’t even all sit in the dugout or bullpen together. If they are reserves who likely will not play, they sit above the dugout in the stands. It’s a new normal. And yet… Once they were on the field it was baseball. Some odd protocols were in place, but it was baseball. Grown men playing a little boys’ game. It was lovely to see.
In terms of those protocols, if more than three different hands touch any ball, it gets thrown out. So both of the catchers just threw the ball back to the pitcher after a strikeout, instead of throwing it around the infield. Masks are optional, but a lot of guys were wearing them. One of the first-basemen kept his around his neck, until a runner got on. Then he’d pull it up and put it on. And I got used to it.
When Nelson Cruz and Max Kepler went deep, we cheered. There was no crowd there to go crazy, but the Twins were working out the kinks on all the new “sounds package” MLB is guiding them through. From what I’ve heard, all the teams have been issued new iPads loaded with a wide variety of “reaction sounds” whether those are modest cheers for a hit or a strikeout, or roars for homers. And in between, they have a “white noise” sound that is really just the noise made by 30,000 people who are simply sitting in the seats and talking. I haven’t heard if there are sounds of vendors hawking items, but that would be a great add if not. It sounded pretty good, and is way better than the eerie silence of an empty ballpark.
So, you ask (you didn’t but I’ll answer it anyway) what does this positive thinking realist see in the future? Hopefully I see a vaccine. That would really help. What I don’t see is many of the morons who are out partying and congregating like they’re bulletproof (see Miami Beach for current photos that will make you lose your faith in humanity) suddenly seeing the light and understanding the issues.
Some of my Wilber/Doyle family members and their colleagues who work in hospitals or medical facilities spend as much time getting dressed and prepped as any football player does, and then with multiple masks, shields, suits, and gloves they’ve worked 12-hour shifts. But Bubba won’t wear a mask to go into 7-11 and buy a six-pack because he can’t breathe. I wish that stunned me. I’m numb to the idiocy now.
Entertainment is a huge part of what is missing. We have to admit we spend far too much time in our lives watching sports, going to concerts, seeing movies or plays, or just being entertained. That’s gone for the most part, unless it’s on our TV in the comfort of our own secluded homes.
The racing industry is making inroads, and NASCAR just allowed 30,000 people into the cavernous Bristol track this week. Let’s wait a week or 10 days before we call that a success. In terms of racing with no crowds, or limited ones, racing has the advantage of having their “players” (the drivers) isolated to do their work. The pit crews and officials are another story. They have to have the discipline to stay with the protocol, and watching bits of the recent NASCAR races I’ve seen that slip quite a bit on pit road. They have their masks on, but they seem to be reverting to old habits a little. Between the NASCAR deal and the NHRA race from Indy last weekend, I was impressed by most of the attention to detail, but by the end of the day I saw more than a few masks sagging down below the nose and social distancing going out the window. It’s going to be hard to keep up what needs to be done. And again, let’s wait to see if the idea of 30,000 people at Bristol was a safe one. At Indy, they allowed a few thousand in the east side grandstand and they seemed to do a very good job of staying spread apart. I hope they keep it up. I wasn’t there, but everything I’ve heard was that NHRA did a fantastic job with crowd control, temperature readings as fans entered, sanitizer stations, and informational signs that told the fans and racers what needed to be done. What <HAD> to be done in order to put that race on.
Most of the NBA is now down in Orlando, secluded into one section of the Disney World sports complex. They actually call it “the bubble” because the teams have no in-person access to the outside world and vice-versa. They will play in an empty arena.
The NHL is practicing now. They will go directly into their playoffs at selected “hub sites” around North America, but again with no fans.
MLS is doing what the NBA is doing, also in Orlando. They’re playing games that count in the standings, but with no fans. And it’s brutally hot there right now. I did enjoy watching our Minnesota United boys pull off a miracle win in extra time the other night, against Sporting Kansas City. By then end of the first half, the whole set up was the new normal for me. I couldn’t conceive of 20,000 rabid Loons fans at Allianz Field in St. Paul, with arms around each other’s shoulders, swaying back and forth while singing at the top of their collective lungs. Seems impossible now.
The NFL seems oblivious at the moment. I hope they’re not. Maybe they aren’t, but the only words I hear coming from the league and the teams seems to be who is signing a new contract and who is unhappy with the one he has. Do those guys really think they’ll start earning money this fall? The realist in me is very skeptical. With the exception of boxing and martial arts, no other sport that I can think of features a hundred or so instances, per game, where huge winded men are smashing into each other, often face to face.
I hope there is talk of coming up with some sort of new plastic shield inside their face masks. But those 300-pound guys do need to gulp a lot of air. We’ll see. The skeptical realist wouldn’t put a $10 bet on there being a full NFL season, and I mean on the field as well as in the stands. Would I go to US Bank Stadium to watch a Vikings game with 60,000 other people right now? No way. Not on your life, and not on mine.
Would I go to a movie? Maybe, if the management convinced me how much they’re sanitizing before anyone comes in, and if they stagger the seating to keep the blubbering guy behind me from sneezing all over my neck. And masks must be mandatory. But who polices that during the movie? It’s not like we have ushers roaming the aisles with flashlights like we did when I was a kid. And why was that, by the way? Were we that unruly? We must have been. Anyway, if you think it’s possible some moron will immediately take off his or her mask as soon as the lights go down, you’re on the right track. It’s more than possible.
And the world of theater is crushed right now. Thanks to meeting some blog reader dude named Buck Hujabre when he was in “Jersey Boys” I have met and been introduced to other Broadway actors. They’re wonderful people, truly among the finest group of thoughtful and talented individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet and get to know. And they can’t work. And I can’t fathom a guess as to when the lights will go back on.
The fact Disney rushed the new film adaptation of the play “Hamilton” and got it on Disney Plus six months before its due date, was remarkable and brilliant. Even for a musical that happens to be that enormously (historically) popular, there’s still just a tiny percentage of citizens who’ve had the chance to see it. When the touring company came to Minneapolis, tickets were damn near impossible to get. I remember there being some sort of lottery just to get a chance to buy them. Now, I can’t count the number of friends I have who finally did get to see it on TV. Most signed up to pay for Disney Plus just because of the show. They all loved it. It’s good for the soul, and our souls need good things right now. I feel so fortunate to have seen it, in Chicago, with Barbara back when we couldn’t imagine this Covid nightmare. I’ll never forget it.
Nor will I ever forget seeing “Jersey Boys” three different times. It was just as riveting and impressive each time, and it afforded me the chance to become close friends with Buck and his family. Thanks to Buck, I met Nathan Scherich and Aaron DeJesus, and I’ve kept in touch with both of them via social media. Great people. Barbara and I had the rare pleasure to get together with Nathan after enjoying every minute of “Beautiful” when he was in that terrific show about Carole King, on Broadway. To have him meet us backstage and give us a full behind-the-scenes tour before heading home to his wife and kids was incredible. As he said “You gave me the same sort of tour at the NHRA race in New Jersey. It’s the least I can do.”
And concerts. My gosh what a hole in our lives. Barbara and I are both devoted music fans and equally devoted to live performances. Whether it was an intimate show at the Dakota Club in Minneapolis, a theater show like Evanescence or Kansas at the State Theater, or a mega show like Rush, U2, Springsteen, or Queen with Adam Lambert, in a huge sold-out arena, we wanted to be there and we often were.
Again, I have no idea when that will happen again, and I worry for the artists, the management companies, the record companies, and the venues. The Dakota Club has been a treasure for us. Fabulous food and big-time acts only steps away from our table. I don’t know how they have survived, and can’t imagine how their business model would work if they attempted to socially distance the audience. How can you make any money when you’re paying the acts what they deserve but have to cut your sold-out crowd from 250 to 100? I hope they make it. I hope we get to see another fabulous show there.
And finally, how about The Boyz? We hear from a lot of people who ask how Boofus and Buster have coped with these last four months of this new normal. At first, I think they were just confused that we were always around. It is, after all, their house. We just live in it. Over time, they’ve become so accustomed to this new normal I’m afraid they’d really go nuts if we went back to traveling or working outside the home. Even though they sleep like cats (seems like at least 14 hours a day, but maybe more) they love to be with us. If I’m in the living room, Buster will no doubt be near me on the couch, even if it’s just to sleep. When I come downstairs to watch TV in the home theater, he’s right behind me. I can barely sit down and recline my seat before he’s on my lap. Right now, he’s sound asleep right next to me, snoring delightfully.
Boofie is the Momma’s boy. He’s as glued to Barbara as Buster is to me. Maybe more so. He does love hanging out on the screened porch during a beautiful afternoon like we’re having today, but he spent the morning in her office, on the floor in the sunshine. That’s how every day goes.
They’ve adapted. They no longer seem surprised that we’re nearly always here. If I run out to do some errands, Barbara will often say “Buster stood by the garage door and cried for you the whole time you were gone.”
We’re a family. We make each other happy.
We stay safe. We don’t cut corners. We mask up. We do it for ourselves and for everyone else.
I just don’t have any reason to be optimistic that we’re anywhere near the old normal. I’m not sure we’ll ever get back to that, and with every passing day it seems more like an ancient improbable memory. Maybe even a myth. I’ll have to be a realist. I hope we get there. I think we can. But I have to be realistic.
Stay safe out there friends. Stay very safe. Err on the side of caution. I worry about all of you.
As always, there’s a “Like” button just below and it would be great if the word “like” represented how you felt about this blog installment, even though it’s not a happy “it’s all going to be fine by next week” type of thing. If so, I appreciate every like we get.
It’s hard to fathom. It didn’t even make major headlines. It just happened because there was no other way for it to go. Due to Covid-19, there will be no minor league baseball in 2020. Well, let me make that a little more clear. There will be no MLB affiliated minor league baseball in 2020. No farm-system seasons. No Rookie ball, no A ball, no Double A, no Triple A. There are some independent leagues, which operate without working agreements with Major League franchises, that are trying to make a go of it. For instance, our nearby and much beloved St. Paul Saints of the independent American Association are playing. But, Minnesota’s current Covid rules make it impossible for them to play at home, at gorgeous CHS Field in downtown St. Paul, so for now they are playing their home games in Sioux Falls, S.D.
No minor league baseball. I can hardly imagine it, and my heart absolutely goes out to the players who are all missing a season, and to the amazing fans in minor-league towns ranging from Bluefield, West Virginia to Charlotte, North Carolina. From Lakeland, Florida to Fresno, California. Minor league ball is a way of life for those cities and towns, and for the young men who play there. It is one of the most rewarding, and yet challenging, times of their lives. And in 2020 it doesn’t exist.
I can’t overstate just how impactful the minors are to so many guys like me. Life altering. Dream making. Dream demolishing. So many more things you can’t even imagine until you get there.
The experience is different from guy to guy. The high draft picks, with their big bonus checks and legitimate dreams of big league stardom, are there to hone a few final skills before being moved up through the organization and on to the big club. To “The Show.” The middle group, guys who weren’t as highly touted but have serious skills, are trying to prove themselves and make the scouts wonder why they didn’t rate them higher. The majority, the vast majority, are guys like me. Thrilled to be there. Relishing every moment. Soaking it all in. Hoping for those miracles that can happen to any player who makes it this far. I had my moments. Good and bad. Seems like I remember every one of them.
You learn a lot more than just baseball in the minors. You learn how to take care of yourself. You either become more mature or you wash out in a hurry. “Remember that guy whose locker was right there? What was his name?” You learn to survive in the bus leagues. It was not easy to eat well, or even eat enough, on $7.00 a day meal money, and that was only on road trips.
You make new friends and bond with them. You’re in it together. When that bonding happens, it’s a much easier game to pursue and strive to succeed at.
You learn that riding a bus is a bigger part of the whole experience than the playing. Many of the games last three hours or less. Many of the bus rides last six to 12 hours, maybe even longer. You learn to sleep on another guy’s shoulder without worrying about it. As Jackson Browne sang in the classic song “The Load Out” which was about life on the road as a musician, “The only time that seems too short is the time that we get to play.”
You just go. You don’t hesitate. It will all be OK if you just go and give it your best shot. There will be good days, with a miraculous catch or a walk-off rocket into the gap, and there will be bad ones with strike-outs at a critical time, but you just keep going. Don’t ever hesitate. Need to be on the other side of the country because someone out there is still willing to pay you? Go!
You grow up a lot. You have to. College and high school were different. It was all very structured. You had actual school to attend, and then you got to play ball after the classes were done. Now, maybe a thousand miles from home surrounded by guys you never met, you’re on your own. You’re there to work, but the job doesn’t start until late in the afternoon and it keeps you up and wired until the middle of the night. If you can handle that, and stay healthy and focused, you have a chance. If you can’t, and you go crazy with your newfound freedom, it won’t last long.
You meet guys who are challenging to get along with, but you meet more who are the greatest dudes on Earth. And you establish that bond.
For every self-centered guy I met, there were dozens of others like Jose Rodriguez and Eddie Gates. Just pure great guys who were living the dream alongside me. Class acts who just wanted to play. We made the most of it. We loved the game. We were madly in love with it.
We laughed. We sweated. We nursed injuries that ranged from pulled muscles to traumatic stuff (oh, like maybe taking a Louisville Slugger to the face and knowing my life was forever altered before I even hit the ground.) We grew. We helped each other. We cheered for each other. We learned and shared our knowledge. We had the time of our lives.
And now it’s not happening in 2020.
I’m heartbroken for the rookies waiting to experience it for the first time. I’m equally heartbroken for the longterm minor league veterans, trying to hang on one more year with a wife and kids at home, counting on that $2,500 a month.
This virus has cost us all a lot. It’s cost more than 100,000 lives! It’s altered our way of living and our expectations for the future. It’s pure evil, and we haven’t contained it worth a damn here. We let it overtake us, and we still see people not even caring.
The minor leaguers care. They wouldn’t have gotten this far if they didn’t care. They love the game with all adoration their hearts can muster. It’s what they’ve always dreamed of doing. It’s their version of “Field of Dreams” and now the field is closed. There’s no baseball here.
I wish them all the best. Hang in there guys. Keep the dream alive. Don’t quit. Don’t give up.
I leave you with a photo of a guy who worked so hard at keeping the dream alive he played seven positions in pro ball. The last position was relief pitcher. That’s reaching as hard as you can to keep it going. I miss it every day.
That’s it. That’s the blog today. Short and to the point but very meaningful to me.
Let’s buckle our butts down and stop this virus. Lives depend on it. Dreams depend on it.
Bob Wilber, at your service and so damn lucky to have done this…
I swear, I’m not the crusty and crabby old guy across the street who yells at you to get off his lawn. I’m not. Well, I might be, but I’m not that bad. I think. I’m pretty sure. I just have issues with getting old and getting stressed over things that never existed back in “the good old days.” Things that are purported to make life easier.
New technology and I had a great relationship once. We loved each other. Crazy “out of the box” ideas like cable TV (especially you, original MTV with your cool VeeJays and nonstop videos) or cordless phones (even if they had a ridiculous metal antenna) were things I embraced from the beginning. Bring it on. My first iPod? Couldn’t wait to fill it up with playlists from those MTV halcyon days. My first cell phone? Oh, to flip you open and type a number. My first iPhone? A little scary, but I got one and loved it. Wait, a camera, a phone, an easy way to text, all in one? I’m in!
As I get older, I either get dumber or the technology gets more confusing. Probably both, actually. My theory is that as we move forward with tech, each new level of “better” banks on everyone remembering or having mastered the previous level. But what if you found something you liked and stuck with it for a while, when everyone else was doing the prescribed step-by-step progression? What about that? That’s where I’ve been. Not proud of it. It’s just the reality of it.
The last couple of iPhones or iPads I’ve bought got harder and harder to set up, and that was WITH the Verizon or AT&T person walking me through it in the store, taking control when I went careening off the corner and into the woods. Too much tech. Too many passwords. Too much to remember. Hell, I can tell you what I ate for lunch on any given day in high school, but I literally need to write down my passwords on a list. And then I forget one and have to reset it. The whole process begins anew.
So, a few (I use that term loosely) years ago I bought another new iPhone. It was an iPhone 6. Prehistoric by today’s tech standards but it worked fine, took decent photos, texted like a pro, and was a competent telephone. And then, like any beloved pet you’ve ever shared a home with, it got older, and slower, and less full of energy. I have lived in denial for at least the last year.
At first, the battery went from being solid for a couple days to just one day. Then to half a day. Then to a few hours. Finally, I had to keep it plugged in just to use it. I kept telling my wonderful (and far more intelligent) wife Barbara that I knew I needed a new phone and I’d get one soon. Only problem was this: Covid-19 caused the Verizon stores to shut down. No face to face interaction. I understood that. I’m all about protecting myself and those around me (WEAR YOUR DAMN MASK!) but such a thing was also a fine excuse to just keep the old iPhone 6 limping along. Finally, in recent weeks, the old 6 would go from 100% charged to 80% before I could back out of the garage. And then, once it got to 70% the next stop on the “Express” line was a full shut down. No slow countdown to zero. Just 70% to full shutdown in mid-tweet or mid-sentence. Buh bye! All gone. Not home? Sorry about that.
A week ago I was having a conversation with Barbara about something. Can’t recall now what it was. And one of my answers to one of her questions went on for a few minutes. When she didn’t reply, I looked at my phone. It had gone from 80% to fully dead. I was driving at the time, so I had to wait until I got home and hooked up an IV to the phone, otherwise known as the power cord, before I could call her back. I said those fateful words: “The Verizon store is open. I have to go get a new phone.” Yikes. My stress level went up when I said that. I knew it would be awful. I ordered a new iPhone 11 online and set up a time to go pick it up.
The stress started with just getting there. We have a new company-owned Verizon store here in Woodbury. I set up an appointment and memorized the map. The store, however, was not where the Google map said it was. My appointment time was ticking away. So, with my old phone plugged into the USB port in my car, I tried another GPS map. Wrong again. And this was in the busiest and most congested part of Woodbury, where the stoplights are many and the length of each one can be timed with a calendar. Finally, I simply stumbled upon it, but not before I was out of left-turn options. By then, I hadn’t even parked my car or stood in line on the prescribed dot on the sidewalk and my blood pressure was already boiling just knowing how much worse it was sure to get. And this is not an indictment of Verizon. I’ve had four different carriers since that first flip-phone and Verizon, for me, has been the best. Very reliable with fantastic signal coverage. Their procedures at the store were necessary and understandable. It’s just stressful. Hell, going to Walgreen’s is stressful these days. Being anywhere near a moron without a mask drives me nuts. C’mon snowflake, I promise you’re not going to suffocate.
When the guy came out and said “Bob?” I walked forward and instead of handing me my new phone and the accessories I ordered, he said “Your order is still pending because you didn’t reply to the email about accepting our terms and conditions.” Awesome! I said, “I never got that email. So how was I supposed to reply to it? Can’t I just tell you I agree?” He said, “No, and unfortunately the only way you can have it sent again is by calling our national service center.” That would be the one that is set up to solely keep the company from having to talk to real humans. It’s a telephone nightmare.
As teed off as I was, there was nothing I could do about it so I drove home with my SiriusXM channel set to the loudest and most raucous hard rock possible. I may be 64 now (my birthday was just a few days ago) but I still love me some Breaking Benjamin, Chevelle, and Skillet. When I got home, I checked my email on my laptop just to make sure I hadn’t just missed the Verizon request. And then I checked my SPAM filter. There it was. I replied to the email, accepted the terms, and got a note back with a new appointment for the next day.
I got there on time, was actually allowed into the building, and the staff were great. But, these days, they aren’t allowed to spend 30 minutes with an idiot like me in order to hold my hand and set up my new phone. The gave me a single sheet of paper with instructions on how to transfer all my data and info from the old 6 to the new 11. And gave me a look like “C’mon Boomer, you’ll be fine.”
I brought it home. I even opened the box to look at it. Seemed like a really nice phone and it was right up there with any of Apple’s gorgeous and sleek designs over the years. It was great. But I just let it sit there. For three days. The thought of actually turning it on and transferring the data seemed too daunting. I’ve officially become a technophobic old man. I admit it.
Finally, I don’t recall what day it was this week but something forced my hand, I began the process. Frankly, Verizon’s piece of paper was pretty good, although a little wordy and confusing. The iPhone 11, though, was brilliant. It walked me through every step, with the two phones side-by-side on my desk. I was actually cool to turn them both on and see each one recognize the other and actually know what I wanted to do. Not that long ago, during my lifetime, such a thing would’ve been science fiction.
It all went smoothly… Until… As one of the last steps in the process the two phones were going to swap my music catalog. And the new phone asked for my password to iTunes. No worries. I got this. The new phone already had everything else. My screen, my phone data, my apps, and my bookmarks. No sweat moving the music. Except for one thing. The box in which I’d have to type the password said “Insert iTunes password for the account created with this email.” The email listed was my old Earthlink account. I killed it off years ago. It doesn’t exist anymore. Awesome!
I tried a few passwords I’d originally scribbled on my list way back then but they didn’t work. After those few, I was locked out. A brand new house with all my furniture in it, but no stereo, and I was locked out without a key. I picked up the old phone just to call Barbara and have her calm me down. I’m sure my blood pressure was somewhere around a million over 120. I was actually sweating. I really needed to hear her calming voice. But my old phone had by then been deactivated by the step-by-step process, and the new phone was locked. Plus, I couldn’t even get off the screen that wanted the password. The “Cancel” button ignored me or just brought up the same password box. The “Back” button mocked me. I shut it down and restarted it numerous times, and fortunately it remembered all the steps we’d so happily taken to get to the part about the iTunes catalog. But then I would hit the same brick wall. Still locked out.
I could click on the button that said “Forgot Password?” but that did me no good. They automatically sent a new password via email. To my long-deceased Earthlink account. Talk about caught in a spiral vortex of technology!
I pressed everything I could press and finally got to the home screen. So, to calm down and get something done I went in and reset my Facebook and Twitter apps, along with my Delta, Uber, and a few other apps that all needed passwords (I had all those) and set the phone down again. No phone. No hand-held access to the outside world. It was a very strange sensation.
Somehow, some way, my successful set up of all those apps must have triggered a response from Apple or my phone. It let me back in.
So, here we are and I have a wonderful and very cool iPhone 11. It’s a marvel, but I have only attempted to try a few limited things. What I really care about is that it is easy to use, it’s a great phone, the camera is remarkable, and after four days I have yet to see the battery dip below 50%. In order to get to this place, I had to forego any chance of moving that enormous old iTunes playlist to the new phone.
I guess it’s time to take the step into yet another new technology. I’ll have to start streaming music. And I was just so COMFORTABLE with all that old music. Harrumph. Get off my lawn!!!!
So here’s the deal, as I wax nostalgic. Tech is great. We FaceTime with our grandnieces every week. I text with friends and relatives every day. I check Twitter and Facebook whenever I want. My iPhone is always with me. But you know what? I remember rotary phones you actually dialed. I remember when “touchtone” phones came out and were the rage. You could press buttons so much faster! Not once in my lifetime, however, did the landline telephone I owned ever run out of battery.
Just sayin’… Maybe we didn’t know how good we had it when the only way we could bug each other was to get lucky enough to have someone actually pick up the phone on the wall, or on the desk, at the other end.
And here’s Buster, taken with the new phone, just to keep the boyz equal in terms of publicity.
But it’s all good now. Love my new iPhone and I’m doing all I can to suppress the memories of the panic that set in when I had one deactivated phone and one phone I was locked out of. It wasn’t pretty.
That’s enough stress for this week. I’ll see you all next Thursday, if the creeks don’t rise. See! More possible stress! And we don’t even have a creek anywhere near us!!!!
As always, there’s a “Like” button at the top of this blog. If that word even slightly resembles how you felt about reading this, don’t be shy about clicking on that “Like” for me. Thank you! OK, wait a minute… We’ve recently had an update done to WordPress (this blog’s software) and now I don’t see the “Like” button. Do you see a “Like” button? I think it died a tragic death not unlike my iPhone 6. Technology. Why do we do this to ourselves? Man, I’m crabby…
Bob Wilber, at your service and GET OFF MY LAWN!!!
I got a phone call from Del Worsham yesterday. Hadn’t heard from him in quite a while, and I was excited to see his name pop up on my phone. And then he said “I hate to be the bearer of bad news.” He told me that Joe Spica had passed during the night, dying in his sleep.
Joe Spica worked for CSK Auto, the Phoenix-based company that not only owned Checker Auto Parts, Schuck’s Auto Supply, and Kragen Auto Parts with stores spread over much of the country, but also sponsored Del and our Worsham Racing Funny Car team on the NHRA Drag Racing tour, from the start of the 1997 season through the end of the 2008 season. I was Team Manager for Worsham Racing. Joe was the essential point-person for the sponsorship on the CSK staff. There were plenty of other talented and dedicated people on both sides of the program, who made it work and made it wildly successful, but Joe and I were the two who literally spoke on the phone every day. We plotted out the marketing plan. We organized new paint or vinyl schemes. We planned and scheduled the displays and appearances. We coordinated who our associate sponsors would be, and he quarterbacked leveraging the major sponsorship to assist our team with needed bottom-line items like parts and supplies from a variety of CSK vendors. All that leg work had to be done, and Joe was the man who handled it at “ground level” for CSK. He was tireless. We covered and planned every detail from uniforms to the design of the privacy barriers around our hospitality. From handout cards to the graphics for the transporters. From the real race cars to the 24th-scale die cast models. And just about everything in between.
For two people to work that closely together, through 12 long seasons of racing, and get along as well as we did was remarkable. I’ll give Joe all the credit. He was amazing, thoughtful, flexible, creative, and dedicated. He was also hilarious. The vast majority of our endless number of phone calls included laughter. A lot of laughter. Our time together at various race tracks was priceless.
He called me “Professor” and I called him “Doctor.” I don’t recall why. It just happened organically.
When I’d manage to do something well in the PR world, he’d congratulate me by saying “Great work. I’ll take you to lunch next time we’re together. I might even Super-Size it at the drive-thru!”
12 years. Every single day of the CSK era. That’s how long Joe and I worked together. It was a business relationship of course, but it blossomed into a friendship quickly. I’d often tell Del, “Joe and I get a lot of work done, day after day, but if you’d then ask me who I’d like to go have a beer with, I’d pick him. He’s that kind of guy.”
12 years. That CSK era with the Worshams and the various drivers, crew guys, crew chiefs, volunteers, and family members who came through our lives, was priceless. It defined my career. It made me what I am as a man. Joe was a huge part of that. So was Del. We all grew together, got better at what we were doing, saw our future in front of us and then made it happen.
We were absolute underdogs when we started. CSK was literally “sticking a toe in the water” of the whole race car sponsorship world. We scraped by and did the best we could, but we made it clear to CSK that our hearts were in it, and we wanted to be partners. To us, it was all about relationships and building trust.
Joe and I did our best, in the very early days, to be creative with what little we had to work with. And my gosh, the program grew. From the original $200,000 sponsorship, we all mutually developed it into a “super team” running on multi-million dollar budgets with a slew of CSK vendors lending support and putting their names and logos on our cars and uniforms. From one old home-built trailer with a single Funny Car, to three modern big-rigs on the road and two full-time Funny Cars (with a third car popping up every now and then) we focused on building the program. When we won our first race as a group, at Seattle in 1999, it felt like the top of Mount Everest. It was really just the beginning of an amazing run. Joe was there with us, in Seattle, and it was the first time I’d seen him get that emotional. He wore his emotions on his sleeve. He’d say “I’m getting a little misty” as the tears would roll down his cheeks. From that point forward, we won many races. Dozens of races. The “Wally” trophies still stand guard at various locations around our house, reminding me of just how great it all was. At a few points in our history, we weren’t just “as good as anyone out there” we were better. We dominated. Joe had so much to do with that.
When O’Reilly Auto Parts began making inroads in an attempt to purchase CSK and merge the two companies, we could all sense the end might be near. We practiced our own version of “ignorance is bliss” in an attempt to not think of it, but it was out there. Joe and I never skipped a beat. Need Del or one of the other drivers out at the track at 5:00 a.m. for the local version of the Today Show? We’ll be there. Need us to display the cars and fire up the engines at a local mall? No problem. We just kept the pedal down, going as hard as we could to make it work. It was such a pleasure.
It wasn’t always fun (leaving the hotel at 4:30 for that 5:00 live shot is never fun) but we got it done. Racers are racers. Racing is what they want to do, and Del wouldn’t always be thrilled to hear that Joe and I wanted him to be in five places in five hours when he’d rather be working on the car, but he never said no. We always did all we could. That’s why it worked so well. That’s why we succeeded.
When the merger went through, 2008 became our swan song. That Sunday night after the final race in Pomona, in our pit area with our teammates, friends, and so many CSK people, the emotions ran very deeply. It was the end of an era. For Joe Spica and me, it was the end of a nonstop working relationship, but not the end of our friendship. When the CSK team dissolved, we were all fortunate to land on our feet as “free agents” and I was particularly lucky to head over to Team Wilkerson, where the feeling and atmosphere was nearly exactly the same as it was with the Worshams. When we’d race in Phoenix, I looked forward to seeing Joe more than anything else. If I was with Team Wilk, he was too.
I posted a brief note on Facebook, about Joe, and have had my heart warmed by the response from friends, former teammates, and former drivers of the blue CSK Funny, the counterpart to Del’s red CSK machine. Everyone remembers Joe the same way. Because that was him. What you saw was what you got. He was a marvelous man.
I was close to so many CSK executives and staff members I can’t possibly mention them all here. Ron Chisler, Jim Schoenberger, the late Martin Fraser, and so many others (you all know who you are.) They were part of our racing family, and I firmly believe we were part of their corporate family. We worked our butts off to make it work for them, and they did the same for us. Joe was always involved, from the biggest “big picture” strategy to the smallest detail. And through it all he made me laugh while I was furiously taking notes to keep it all straight. It was the most remarkable business relationship I’ve ever had.
Joe was special. He made me better. He made me understand that relationships are the key. If it’s just about winning, the whole deal can go bad with one slump in performance. If the relationship is solid, if we’re one family working toward a common goal, nothing can stop us. When you care about people, the ups and downs of racing are just background noise. Joe cared. Joe cared deeply. About his work, his company, our racing team, and all the people around him. We are all better for having known him. Period.
I’ll miss you Doctor. You were the best. Rest in eternal peace, my friend
In late 1966 Stephen Stills sat down and wrote an anthem about specific events and the times our country was going through. The song was “For What It’s Worth” and he recorded it with his band Buffalo Springfield. These are those lyrics:
There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down
There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right, if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance, from behind
It’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down
What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down
Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away
We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down
Although the song resonated with people all over the United States, because it was such a reflection of the times, in the interest of fair reporting I can tell you Stephen Stills wrote the song specifically about what was known as the “Sunset Strip Curfew Riots” in November of 1966, when protesters were attacked by the police, because they were, well… Protesting! Sunset Strip was then a huge and influential scene for great musical clubs and gatherings. The crowds of young people would not just enjoy the burgeoning music scene, but also gather along the street to discuss the times and protest any of the myriad social problems the country was going through, including (of course) the Vietnam war. They were enjoying their right to free speech as granted by the constitution. Imagine that. The wealthy nearby home owners, however, complained about the noise and the crowds of hippies, which congested the traffic on Sunset Blvd, a road that was always pretty much congested to begin with. So, the city responded to the rich home owners and established a 10 pm curfew for the area. They sent the police to enforce it. Yes, a 10 pm curfew on one of the busiest streets in LA, full of scruffy young people with flowers in their hair, flashing peace signs. A 10 pm curfew on a street full of music clubs where things barely got rolling and fun by that hour. As one might imagine, things started peacefully but soon got out of hand. Night sticks were used. Heads were cracked. Arrests were made, and not necessarily nicely.
It all sounds achingly familiar.
Also for the record, all these years later a lot of people think “For What It’s Worth” was written about the murder of students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard. That actually happened more than three years after “For What It’s Worth” was written and released. After Kent State, Stephen Stills’ new group, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, recorded and released the song “Ohio” to commemorate it. “Ohio” was written by Neil Young.
So the point here is this: I was born in 1956. I was a child of the 60s. Age wise, I didn’t fit neatly into a lot of the epic upheaval the country went through, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. When the Vietnam protests reached their high point, I was still just a bit too young to be there. In 1968, when it seemed like the entire world was falling apart and there was no foundation to lean upon, I was just 12. I remember the night Bobby Kennedy was killed. I remember the day Dr. King was killed. I remember the riots. I remember National Guard troops with rifles, and bayonets attached, facing off with unarmed kids. I watched as the Chicago police attacked demonstrators outside the Democratic convention, as if they were wading into war with a foreign adversary. I was too young to be in it, but I was part of it and very aware of it.
I was raised by two very special parents. They taught all of us some important lessons. We’re all in this together. You need to stand up for what is right. Hate is not an option. Silly little things like that.
As I got a little older, through high school, the Vietnam war was still raging and innocent young men were being shipped home in boxes by the plane load. I knew it was wrong, and by that time I was able to express my anger about it. My VW Beetle had plenty of peace signs and anti-war bumper stickers on it. I also knew I was likely next to go. It’s hard for anyone under 50 today to understand what that was like. We were powerless. When the government came for you and said “Time to report for duty” you had no choice other than Canada or some other country. All for a senseless war we were never going to win. I truly wanted to be a peace-loving hippie.
I had friends, as a kid, whose parents were very different than mine. Back then, I was aware that those kids already had been raised to believe what their mom and dad told them. It was very racial, very paranoid, and very destructive. I had friends whose families actually moved a mile or two within the same suburb because “the blacks” were buying houses just down the street. There was a lot of senseless hate, and I had never been taught that by my parents. I couldn’t understand it.
As the end of high school approached, the Selective Service (the organization that ran the military draft, and boy doesn’t that name sound so innocent) had at least adopted a lottery system. Instead of drafting every eligible 18-year-old boy, they ran 365 ping-pong balls through a machine and used birth dates to select a specific number of young men. The year before my eligibility, my birthday was well into the high 200s. I would not have been drafted. One year later, when I was on the spot, my birthday was in the top 10. There were ways to get deferments, but most of them required deceit (up to a felony depending upon the lie) or elite social standing that came with influential friends in high places. I was not going to use either of those approaches.
Then the war wound down, President Nixon was impeached and resigned, and the draft was discontinued before they called up the next “class” of soldiers. I was then, and am still now, incredibly fortunate.
I abhorred the Vietnam war, but I didn’t take that to the next level and hate the guys fighting over there. I admired them. I was stunned by their courage and dedication. I would have joined them had the draft continued, but even at the time I couldn’t fathom how I could be brave enough to do it. I knew a lot of guys who were drafted and ended up fighting. I couldn’t believe their stories, but the one thing those stories taught me was that they weren’t super heroes. They were just guys like me, mostly scared to death. Thrown into a hell no one over here, in our comfortable suburban homes, could imagine in our wildest nightmares. All for a cause nobody really understood.
It was such a tumultuous time, but as the 60s and 70s wore on, it felt like we as a people were figuring it out and getting much better as a society. There was a sense of “We’re better than this” and there was a lot of pride in knowing that peaceful protests could actually have an impact. Were there riots? More than most people today can even imagine. There was a lot of hate. A lot of reaction to oppression. A lot of pushback in a time when police and military men would charge peaceful protestors and attack them with force I couldn’t believe. But we felt we were getting better. That was a long time ago.
The last few weeks have felt like a time-travel deal. We’re right back to where we were. And here in the Twin Cities, we were the epicenter of it.
We watched a man of color get murdered by a law enforcement officer who seemed to relish what he was doing. I’d never seen anything like it, and could hardly believe it happened in Minneapolis. And the response by the public was swift.
Protest marches formed organically, and were attended by all types of citizens. Young, old, black, white, Christians, Jews, Muslims, you name it. They were angry, of course, but peaceful. What we all then witnessed was far too reminiscent of the Vietnam era. A tiny percentage of the participants used the peaceful marchers as cover, blending in until it was time to burn and loot. They succeeded in making everyone look bad, but I knew in my heart Minnesotans weren’t like that. Each day, hundreds or thousands from all backgrounds would show up in the morning to clean up. Food drives that had been organized to feed dozens were overwhelmed with enough food to feed thousands. The peaceful marches continued, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, but the opposition began to look more and more like a heavily armed military and the whole thing just got more and more frightening. And it spread across the country.
We live on the other side of the Twin Cities from where most of the protests happened in Minneapolis. But the line in Stephen Stills’ song that says “Paranoia strikes deep” certainly applied.
Early on, to keep outside agitators from easily driving into St. Paul or Minneapolis, they closed the interstate highways from late afternoon until morning. I-94, the major East-West freeway here, was closed and if you drove to the closure point, you had to exit right here in Woodbury. If people bent on destruction were trying to get to Minneapolis, they’d be forced off the road just a few miles from our peaceful little neighborhood. Paranoia strikes deep, indeed.
For a long string of nights, we joined most of our neighbors by keeping all of our outside lights on, whether it was just porch lights or (in our case) spotlights that lit up our entire backyard. We heard the helicopters circling. Every time we’d hear a siren we didn’t think “There must have been a wreck, or a fire, or something.” Those are normal reactions in a sleepy suburb. This was not normal.
I stayed up until at least 3:00 am for many nights in a row. I couldn’t sleep anyway, and we both “heard noises” and worried, so I stayed up and kept watch. I could hit a 100 mph fastball with a baseball bat in my prime and figured one of those Bob Wilber autographed U-1 model Louisville Sluggers would be my weapon of choice if anyone so much as peered into one of our windows. Paranoia strikes deep. It really does.
We’re getting through it. George Floyd was not conveniently forgotten. Minnesotans rose to the occasion and those bent on anarchistic destruction gave up and went home. And now we recover. We’re still trying to do that.
All that pride from the 60s and 70s, when we thought we were really making a difference and our generation would get beyond racism, prejudice, judgement, and abuse seems long gone. Here we are again. Maybe this time we’ll learn. It certainly feels like we can. I hope that’s true.
My parents didn’t see people in terms of color. They gave no thought to social strata or wealth. They just saw people, the good and the bad, and taught us to be inclusive and fair. Skin color, sexual orientation, religion, political beliefs, and other prejudicial nonsense was not part of my life. None of that makes any sense to me.
George Floyd died on the street in Minneapolis. It’s still hard to believe and nearly impossible to watch. But I’m proud of Minnesota for how the vast majority stood up for him, and stood up for our state and our cities. These are good people. I’m proud to be one of them.
That’s my rant for today. It felt important to do this.
If you perused this and liked it, there’s that “Like” button at the top of this blog. It would be great if you clicked on that.
We’re OK. We’re better for this. George Floyd did not die in vain. And we must remember so many other innocent unarmed citizens of color who have been profiled, or singled out, or manhandled, or injured, or murdered. It’s tragic. We have to learn. We have to! We’re better than this.
Bob Wilber, at your service.
Odds and Ends, and Some Things You May Not Have Known
Welcome, blog faithful, and here we are back on our normal Thursday schedule. It’s good to be here. First of all, I’m very pleased and completely honored that my “comeback blog” on Monday (posted after our site had been down for a few weeks) was received so well. It seemed to have touched a chord with a lot of people, and many of the comments or emails I received were beyond kind. Please know that I very sincerely appreciate everything from the “likes” on Facebook to the emotional things many people told me.
To that end, I got a nice email today from Hall of Fame pitcher and Twins color analyst Bert Blyleven, who read the blog. It said “We’re so happy that your pop’s jersey is HOME!!!” It was signed Bert and Gayle Blyleven. Does that mean a lot? Yeah, that means a lot.
Moving on, my challenge today was to come up with subject matter for a new blog, just a few days after the special Monday edition. In football they call this a “short week” when the teams play on Sunday and then again on Thursday night.
The first bit of news I can share had to do with our initial big storm of the season, late on Tuesday. I don’t remember what time it was, but at the same moment both of our phones went nuts with a loud screeching alert. The text said we had a “Tornado Warning” for our area and we should take cover immediately. So we scrambled.
I quickly moved some wooden outdoor furniture to a more protected spot while Barbara took down the umbrella on the grilling deck. All of that stuff could make for lethal missiles if some really bad stuff hit us. I also went out and moved the trash and recycling bins from the curb back into the garage, while the rain started to pound me as the sirens began to wail. Fortunately, Boofus and Buster hadn’t panicked yet so we were able to gather them up and Barbara took them to a lower level room where the litter is, while I monitored radar on my laptop and had local news on the TV. They weren’t safe in that room, but I didn’t want to move them into the utility room unless we absolutely had to. Lots of places for the boyz to hide in there where we wouldn’t be able to account for them or reach them, as it’s only partially finished. With foundation on three sides, though, it’s the closest thing we have to a safe room here. For a while it looked like the worst of the oncoming storm, where they had spotted rotation, had a dead bead on Woodbury, but when it was just about 10 miles away it broke up. The sirens went silent, the TV stations went back to regular programming, and Barbara and the boyz came back out. We missed another one. Very fortunate, indeed.
Earlier today, when thinking about this blog, I remembered an email I got from someone (it was a while ago and I really don’t remember who it was, but if it was you then you’ll know it stuck in my head) and that note said, “Next time you’re looking for material, how about talking about some things we somehow still don’t know about you?”
My initial reaction was “After the book and this blog, is there anything left you don’t know about me?” I stewed on that a little bit this morning, and came up with a few things, but mostly I just came up with odds and ends that kind of form a thread and are possibly interesting. I hope. We’ve made a habit of writing blogs about nothing, over the years, so why stop now? And here we go…
When I was a little kid, there was one year when my sister Mary went off to school for the first time but I, being a year younger, still stayed at home with my mom. My last year of freedom, so to speak. One day, I was playing behind the couch in the living room, probably pretending I was exploring a cave or being launched into space atop a rocket, but who knows. I was just back there. I’m guessing I was four years old, or thereabouts, because I think we all started kindergarten at five.
I was back there minding my own business when there was a knock on the front door. Mom opened it, and I could hear it was a friend of her’s. I remember thinking, “Well, it’s going to be embarrassing to come crawling out of here now, so I’ll just wait a few minutes until that lady leaves.” That “few minutes” turned into what had to have been close to an hour, as they sat on the very couch I was behind and “visited” for quite a while. With each passing minute, I knew the embarrassment level was only going up and up. I had to stick it out. Finally, Mom’s friend left and I crawled out. “Were you back there the whole time?” my mother asked. I told her I was, but it wasn’t until later in life I began to wonder if she had ever even noticed I wasn’t around. I was the only other person at home with Mom! Sheesh. Lesson: Don’t go behind the couch, whatever you do!
I also developed a deep love for the board game Stratego as I grew up. My brother Rick and I played it all the time, and it was a phenomenal way of building brain power in terms of strategy, memory, and trickery. It’s a great game, and I still have a version of it stuffed in some closet here.
I think most people have played Stratego (according to Wikipedia it has sold over 25 million copies throughout the years) but if you haven’t, the short version of the rules are these: You and your opponent each control a full army, with each piece being a particular rank, and those ranks have different skills and abilities on the board, kind of like chess. You each have a flag piece as well, which cannot be moved once you place it. The object is to capture the other person’s flag, using your pieces judiciously and avoiding the pieces that are bombs. It’s REALLY fun. And it takes an enormous amount of concentration. I guess it really is like chess, in that regard, but with way more pieces and two lakes on the board you can’t cross. Also bombs. There are no bombs in chess.
Rick is eight years older than me, so when he was in high school I was just a kid. We still played all the time but I was completely unable to beat him for many years. I’m not sure how old we each were, but I think I was in college when I finally won a game. I did it by capitalizing on a strategy I’d just dreamt up. It was all about patience. It was the “rope-a-dope” of Stratego. I never really attacked, other then to send a few scout pieces up the board to feel him out (that’s really all they’re good for) and just let him come at me. I played defense. I’d hidden my flag well, and had it surrounded by bombs and other high-ranking soldiers. It took at least two hours, but I finally won. I’m pretty sure that’s the last time we played. Maybe I can talk Barbara into a battle tonight.
Speaking of brother Rick, he took me to see my first James Bond movie. It was “You Only Live Twice” starring Sean Connery (of course!) and since it was released in 1967 I’m assuming I was 11-years-old, at the time. I remember Rick telling me, “You think you’ve seen good action movies. You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait until you see this!”
It blew me away. It was nonstop action, in exotic places, with pretty girls and masterful weapons that were more like toys. I’d never seen anything like it, and it’s still my favorite Bond movie to this day. Connery was at his best, the story line was typical “good guys versus evil guys” and the fate of the world was at stake, but it was full of great plot twists and fabulous sets. The special effects weren’t much, it was 1967 after all, but that didn’t bother me. I loved it.
I’m a Connery guy through and through. The movies got more ridiculous through the Roger Moore era, although I typically watched them all anyway. I thought Pierce Brosnan did a heck of a job, Timothy Dalton was good, and now I think Daniel Craig has become the most “believable” Bond, with flaws and all. He’s great and the new Bond films are far more gritty and stressful than the old ones. But when Connery was at his devilish “secret agent” best, you could hardly beat it. That’s him flying “Little Nellie” in the poster artwork.
I loved the movie so much I somehow talked my mom into buying me the soundtrack, on a full LP album. It was all the music from the movie, and Nancy Sinatra sang the theme song, so it was way outside my normal music “box” but it reminded me of the magic of that film. I played it all the time. I think I had a plastic bottle of OO7 cologne at some point, as well.
And speaking of albums, this will get a little away from the “things you may not know about me” theme but it struck me as timely.
I rarely do those Facebook things where you list places you’ve been, or movies you like. Everyone is doing it a lot more these days, with quarantines and the virus, so I decided to join in on one of those deals. It was the one where you show 10 different album covers, one a day for 10 days. Not the best albums you ever heard, but the most influential. Albums that made a big impact on your musical tastes from that point forward.
I actually put a lot thought into it. If there were multiple albums by one band that all had an impact on me, I realized I should just post the first one of those, in terms of the order I originally heard them. Without that first one changing my tastes, I may never have heard the ones that followed. That went well, and it was fun. Lots of interesting reactions from friends near and far, including a lot of buddies from high school. I knew I had shared a lot of musical interest with a core group of guys from St. Louis U. High, but I did not realize how widespread it was among other classmates, who I’m now FB friends with. Lots of “That was my favorite too” from guys I knew well but didn’t hang out with.
It was just today that I realized I easily could’ve included an album entitled “Remember The Future” by a band called Nektar. They were a British band that actually formed when they all met up in Germany, and although they were pretty popular over there they hadn’t really broken in the US market until 1973, after the release of that album. Legendary St. Louis album-rock station KSHE-95 (ubiquitously known as “K-SHE”) got behind them. K-SHE really broke Nektar in the States, and the band actually lived in a St. Louis hotel for three months while they rehearsed for their first US tour. It’s a great album, and I listened to it endlessly back then. I would’ve been a junior in high school when it exploded on the scene around St. Louis.
Those were heady days for a music lover like me. K-SHE was known nationally as one of the most influential stations in the country, and those were the days when album-oriented stations could have the leeway to do pretty much whatever they wanted and play what they liked. Even the deejays had the right to play a lot of what they wanted, even full album sides, although the station always kept tabs on what people were asking to hear. If a band like Nektar got noticed, and the public approved, big things could happen. Although K-SHE is still on the air, and still popular, it’s like just about all other radio stations now; part of a corporate chain and pretty much tied to focus groups and consultants while the daily deejays don’t have much input, although I give them a lot of credit because they still make a point of playing those “K-SHE Classics” from back in the day, when you never knew what you were going to hear. It was a great time to be addicted to rock.
I also saw a thread on Facebook the other day, posted by my friend Linda Wilding (who is married to my friend and former Funny Car driver Norm Wilding). It was photo of the inside of a late 60s or early 70s record store, with endless rows of albums all standing up in bins, arranged alphabetically. The caption had to do with “Do you remember flipping albums at the record store?”
Of course I do. My reply to Linda was “going to the record store, whether at the mall or at the stand-alone mega store Peaches Records and Tapes, was the only shopping I ever wanted to do. I was in agony at a department store, but I could spend all day flipping through the bins of LPs looking at the covers and reading the notes on the back. It was heaven.”
Peaches was the core of that heaven. They were amazing stores, and we were lucky to have two of them in the St. Louis area. Neither one of them was close to where I lived, especially once I went to SIU-Edwardsville for college, but the magnetic pull of both Peaches stores drew me to them all the time. It was a welcoming and communal type of place, but huge. Great music was always playing, the wooden “peach crates” were something everyone seemed to have at home, right next to their stereo because they were just the right size to hold all your albums, and the browsing was unmatched.
When vinyl began to disappear and CDs took over the market, it all went away. Stores tried to adapt with ways to display the CDs, but that often entailed trapping them in bulky plastic frames to make them retrofit into the deep album bins. The fun was gone. Pretty soon, the record stores were gone.
I still have a dream to put a full old-school stereo together, and rebuild my vinyl collection. Vinyl stores are easier to find now than there were 25 years ago, I think, but most of my extensive collection was destroyed in the “great flood of 1993” when water was everywhere in the midwest and my garage flooded when a creek I never knew was there came up over its banks. I hadn’t been smart enough to put the cardboard boxes up off the floor. Lesson painfully learned.
I dream of an old tube amp, maybe a Marantz or a Kenwood, and big rich-sounding floor speakers. The turntable would be key, and I always had good luck with Pioneer manual turntables. Just one record at a time, and gently drop the needle onto the first groove. That “crackle” of the record coming out of the speakers was so inviting, and the sound of vinyl and big floor speakers was so lush and full. Digital may be “perfect” but it’s not really perfect. Albums are perfect. But that’s just the old guy who lived through it, talking…
I wish I could “drop the needle” right now but as much as I talk about it there always seems to be something more important or critical to spend money on. Like my dad’s 1946 Cardinals jersey. Some things have to come first.
That’s it for this week. When I started today, I wasn’t sure I had much to write about. Somehow we did it again.
And, of course, hitting that “Like” button at the top is always appreciated. It helps us spread the word, and I bet a lot of readers who’d love to reminisce about old albums, or Peaches, or even James Bond, would like to find this place.
See you next week!
Bob Wilber, at your service and wishing I was holding that magnetic velvet “album cleaner” pad over a record right now.
It’s been almost three weeks since my last blog post. I wasn’t lazy, I wasn’t forgetful, I wasn’t even on strike or instituting any kind of work stoppage. The work stoppage was forced by the website itself. It disappeared. Vanished. Crashed and burned. All of the above. We weren’t really sure, but whatever had befallen The Perfect Game Foundation website was bad. And what’s bad for TPGF is bad for the blog.
My brother Del is the diligent leader of this foundation. He’s done phenomenal charitable work with it, both in terms of the site and the actual outreach and assistance the foundation provides. I knew we were in trouble when he was stumped. Our former web guru, the magnificent and uber-talented Laura who got this thing created and online in the first place, had moved on to bigger and better things, so we were at a loss. A week went by with no improvement. And another week. And finally, thanks to a great deal of largesse and care, Laura gave us a hand. She wasn’t sure how bad it was, although she was sure it was some level of bad, and she couldn’t tell us how long it would take.
As you can see, she worked her magic. We owe her a huge debt of gratitude. As I am prone to say, “Technology is hard. Just like math and science, only harder.”
So we’re back as of yesterday afternoon. Laura and Del cautioned me to let it sit and operate for a bit, so that the site wouldn’t be “stressed” after recovering, and I waited for the “All Clear” before doing this. Hey, I get stressed too! I understand.
I just wanted to post this blog to finally include the story and some photos of the subject matter I had locked in place for what I thought would be the May 14 blog. I sat down then, tried to log in, and saw the same dire warning many of you have gotten when trying to visit here. So now I’m here, and we’re back, and I have the chance to tell this tale. It was pretty damn epic.
I’ll start with this photo, taken just a few minutes ago.
If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter you likely know the story, but this blog will allow me to flesh it out quite a bit more because, well, it was a pretty great story! I’m holding my father’s St. Louis Cardinals jersey from 1946. He’d been in the armed forces for more than three years after having risen as far as the top of the minor leagues with the Cardinals, and once he was discharged after World War II he was called up to the big leagues. He and my mom, whom he met at Lackland Air Base in San Antonio where he was officially a Physical Education officer and she was Miss Air Force – San Antonio (although in my dad’s case he and Cardinal legend Enos Slaughter were there to lead and play for the Lackland baseball team and entertain the troops.) Technically, at the time, the base was known as San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center. After the war, they moved to St. Louis and bought a small but comfortable home on a quiet little street called Par Lane, in the suburb of Kirkwood. It was called Par Lane for a reason, since it was part of a large development of Cape Cod style brick homes built on the site of a former golf course. The Wilber family put down roots in Kirkwood. That’s why I was so fortunate to grow up there, although the family had outgrown the small house on Par Lane and, by the time I was born, they had purchased a cool mid-century modern split-level home just a few blocks away, on Woodleaf Court.
When Skip (as we all called him) arrived in the big leagues, the Cardinals issued him this custom made jersey as part of his uniform. His name is stitched on the bottom of the front, along with the number 46 to designate the year. I’ll just string a bunch of photos along the right here to illustrate it all. On the back was the number 23.
In the top photo, I’m holding the road version of the ’46 Cardinals’ uniform. All teams wore white at home and gray on the road.
How did this happen to finally fall into my hands? Well, my nephew Del III (the author and accomplished journalist) somehow found a listing for an auction being held by one of the most respected sports memorabilia companies in the country, Heritage Auctions. (Side note: When my friend and longtime PR colleague from the NHRA days, Elon Werner, finally gave up the grind like I did and resigned from John Force Racing, he went to work doing PR for Heritage, so I already knew how big-time they are. He had a lot of stories to tell about the amazing stuff he saw come through there before he left the company.)
After discovering the auction, Del III contacted my brother (his dad) Del Jr., my nephew Ewan Smith, and me with a link to the listing. The item was “Game worn 1946 Del Wilber jersey” with photos. I had, up until then, never so much as touched a Major League jersey my father played in. I have a Twins jersey he managed in, and have seen a few others over the years, but when I was growing up there were no Cardinals, Red Sox, or Phillies uniforms in any of the duffel bags full of equipment he had saved. Why? Because, back then, the teams didn’t allow the players to keep them. My dad actually wore this jersey for parts of three seasons! Now, MLB teams change jerseys and styles often throughout any season, many times just using them for one game or one weekend. They are easily found and available, and the teams or players regularly auction them off for charity. Back in my dad’s day, you turned your uniform in after the last game. Then, after it had been used for a few years, it often got handed down to the minor league players working their way up through the organization. There’s really no telling how many guys wore this but the name on the bottom of the front tells us who it was made for.
When I got the link from Del III, I was stunned. I took my laptop upstairs to Barb’s office to show the listing to her. I wasn’t even sure what to say and surely didn’t have a clue what she’d think about it. I also knew it would cost quite a bit to win this item. MLB jerseys from the 40s are rare and difficult to find. Sure, this one was for a journeyman catcher, not a star, but it’s still a 1946 Cardinals jersey and I knew it would be very sought-after by serious collectors. I just looked at Barbara with wide eyes, and she said, “You have to get this.”
I cautioned her on its potential price, and we briefly discussed how far we’d go with the bidding. But I knew in my heart I had to have it. I just had to. Barbara was very supportive. She knew I needed to win this, but we both realized we had to have some sort of limit. We agreed on one. I was honestly scared I would lose it, though.
Ewan, Del Jr., Del III, and I exchanged emails and took a vote. What we couldn’t afford was for any of us to drive up the price by bidding against each other (it’s a secret auction.) In the end, everyone agreed to let me give it a shot, although I knew Ewan was really interested in it. Ewan is my sister Mary’s son, and for some reason known only to grandfathers and grandsons, he was very close to Skip. They had a bond that was really hard to even fathom, and Ewan adored him. As Ewan was growing up, they’d spend hours together watching ballgames on TV and talking, and as Skip’s health began to fade and Ewan got older, the grandson took great care of his grandfather, and looked out for him all the time. I promised Ewan I’d make sure he got to share this precious relic with me, if I won the auction.
Then Del III found another listing on the Heritage website. It was the 1946 Del Wilber home jersey! The white one. I’d already signed up, registered, and put in my initial bid on the road jersey, so Ewan then jumped in on the home version. It was still two weeks before the end of the auction. It was going to be a long wait…
So here’s how it works. You put in your max bid, but when you do that you really only raise the current high bid by a set amount. The rest of your max bid is held in secret by the auctioneer, and for anyone to outbid you they’d have to clear that number. If that happened to me, I would have no idea what their max bid was. In other words, it’s stressful.
I checked the updates every day, sometimes twice or three times. After about a week, I saw the bad news. I’d been outbid and the new highest offer was about $50 higher than my max. I told Barbara and she was very direct in her response. “Outbid them again. You have to win this.” So I cranked it up a little higher. I’m not going to divulge what these numbers were, but it was enough to make me sweat. I’ve bought more than a few sports items at various local auctions, and some of them were a little pricey. But this… I’d never wagered this much for a single item, but I’d also never seen one so personal and so important. I had to have it.
My new max was back in the lead, with about six days to go. I checked it daily. I was still on top on the final day. The bidding officially ended at 10:00 pm that night. Ewan was in the exact same position as me, in the lead with the same bid I had. My gosh it was a long day. Hour by hour I checked the updates. Nothing new. Both of us still on top.
I finally did some research into the entire Heritage auction these jerseys were part of, and that gave me some hope. There with more than 2,000 highly collectible sports pieces involved, and some of them were Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, or Ty Cobb items. Maybe our two 1946 Del Wilber jerseys would sneak through under the radar. We could only hope, and we both had been outbid once so we knew we weren’t alone, but the wait was awful.
I texted Ewan and said, “You know somebody is going to wait until two minutes before the end and outbid us, so be ready for that disappointment.” (OK, I used some language that was a little more colorful and salty than that, but this is a family blog.) He agreed. We both sensed it, and that’s how auctions work. It’s like poker. You don’t show your hand. You bluff until the end.
When we got down to the last hour, we were both in knots, with Ewan in Virginia and me in Minnesota. And then the auction ended, with both of us still on top. Or so we thought. As total neophytes in the world of big-time auctions, we learned some lessons. After we initially thought it was over, the auction house instituted “Extending Bidding” for two or three hours. I didn’t even understand the rules of how that worked, but there was nothing we could do about it. As I said to Barbara and texted to Ewan, “Imagine the TV announcer saying ‘After four quarters of play, it’s 106-98 with the Celtics over the Lakers. But we’ve decided to go to overtime anyway.”
It was damn near midnight before all the unexpected games and extensions were over. Finally, we both won. Del Wilber’s son and his grandson had secured the two jerseys from his rookie season in the big leagues. We had done it. It was an amazing relief.
It took about a week for the package to arrive. I hadn’t really thought about how it would feel to open that box and pull it out. I’ve held a million baseball jerseys in my life (slight exaggeration, but you get my point) so I just figured it would be nice to touch it. Even pulling it out of the box wasn’t that big of a deal. And then I took it into Barbara’s office.
To see her reaction, to see how emotional she got, to watch her actually hug it to feel my dad in there, brought ALL the emotions out. Kinda surprised me, really. It was enormously emotional. This jersey was part of him. A young man just out of the war, going up to the big leagues at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. Putting on this very jersey, with the iconic “birds on the bat” stitched onto the front. This was a huge piece of my dad, right back in my life. It was hard to fathom. It still is. He put this jersey on for the first time more than 10 years before I was born.
We marveled at the stitching and construction of this heavy wool jersey. The zipper works like new. Everything you see on the front of this jersey is individually stitched and embroidered by a real human. A very talented human. Each letter in the word “Cardinals” is individually placed and hand embroidered. The birds are amazing. The whole damn thing is amazing.
I posted some stuff on Facebook, of course, and a few days later Ewan did the same thing. His oldest son Matt is now 6-foot-3, which is impossible and unbelievable in itself but that’s another story. Skip was 6-foot-3 when he played Major League ball. So Ewan had Matt try it on. This is a photo of the great-grandson wearing a piece of his great-grandfather’s legacy. Amazing.
No, I have not worn the road jersey. It’s odd, but it means too much to me. I lived a great portion of my life aspiring to follow in my dad’s footsteps, hoping I could do him proud by making it to the top in the sport we both loved. I know he was proud of me for all I did accomplish in the game, even after my professional playing days were over, but I never earned the chance to wear one of these. I’m proud of myself and what I did. I still have quite a few jerseys from the college, professional, and semi-pro days. But I never played in the big leagues. I didn’t earn it. I don’t feel it’s right for me to put it on.
I’ll have it framed at some point. It will go in a place of honor in my office, not far from the Twins jersey that hangs above my desk. He worked, perspired, and managed or coached his butt off in that Twins jersey, and Rod Carew and Tony Oliva will never forget him because of that. This new jersey is just a little more special. He was young. He was a rookie making his Major League debut. He was a Cardinal. Guys like Stan Musial and Marty Marion took him under their wings and helped him adjust to the top level of baseball in the world. This is HIS jersey. I’m just the caretaker now.
So that’s the story. It’s all I have today, but it’s a lot. These two jerseys are home, where they belong.
I’ll do my best to get back at it again this Thursday, and hopefully the website won’t explode.
Please, if you liked this story it would be really great if you could click on the “Like” button at the top. That would mean a lot and help us spread the word.
And feel free to share this with others you know who might enjoy it too. It’s a homecoming of a sort. The story of a dutiful son who admired his father with all his heart. He’d be so happy to know these two jerseys are home.
Bob Wilber, at your service and back in the saddle. Thank you for reading!
Remember the fabulous cartoon “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” that ran as part of the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” series on TV? It was incredibly smart, as was the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” stuff, because it appealed to kids as well as adults. Those were the halcyon days of Saturday cartoons. If you could thread the needle to make kids laugh and pay attention, but also deliver life lessons and political satire to adults, you had a winner.
Mr. Peabody himself was a talking dog, which is pretty brilliant in its own right and is now copied regularly, but in addition to that he was the smartest being on the planet. He knew everything. Sherman, hilariously referred to as Peabody’s “pet boy Sherman” was just an inquisitive kid who wanted to learn about the past in the present tense. See what I did there? To accomplish that, Mr. Peabody would fire up the WABAC Machine (pronounced “Wayback” because it was a time machine) and take his pet boy to various moments in ancient times, to see how it all really went down and to learn some lessons. This stuff was aces. The writing for “Rocky and Bullwinkle” was as well, of course, as they played a role in mocking the Cold War but delivering jabs along the way. Who can forget Boris and Natasha, or the college Wossamatta U?
Well, these days on the interwebs there’s a thing called the Wayback Machine (I’m assuming the WABAC spelling is copyrighted) and it gives users a way to (somewhat) dig back into the past to find websites or web pages that no longer exist. It’s not a perfect thing, and most stuff from the late 90s and into the 2000s is pretty sketchy and incomplete when you search for it, but every now and then you can stumble upon a fun hit. Just like this screen grab of the 2004 version of delworsham.com. Those were the days!
As I said, the Wayback website isn’t perfect. It’s spotty in its coverage and it fails to load a high percentage of old photos, which is too bad. See, the web is forever. If you put something out there, and then get roasted because of it, so you then delete it, it’s not totally gone. If you know how and where to look, you can often find it, mocking you with its presence. There are entire colonies of web geeks who specialize in finding and saving deleted tweets, these days.
Every now and then, I’ll dial up the Wayback site and dig around. It really is a trip back in time. Del Worsham and I started the website in our first year together, which was 1997. It was rudimentary, of course, but we were on the cutting edge for NHRA teams even having websites. At the beginning, we contracted with a guy out in northern California to build it and host it for us, and it went through different hands and managers over the 12 years of the Checker, Schuck’s, Kragen program. In the beginning, I’d take the Kodak film out of my 35mm camera and haul it to the 1-Hour Photo store at a nearby mall. Then, I’d pick the photos I liked and actually mail them to the web guy (no scanner for me back then, and no digital photography that was worth using.) By the time we folded up shop, it was all pretty instant and digital. Times changed. So did we.
The Photo section of the site quickly became the top “hit magnet” we had. Why? Because it changed regularly. People liked the race reports, the stats, and the other info on the site but they went pretty nuts for the photos. I’ll rhetorically ask again… Why? Because, without even planning it this way or thinking it through, I just naturally came up with a plan that featured “behind the scenes” stuff, rather than racing photos. The on-track stuff was everywhere. I wanted to show our visitors what it was like to be “behind the ropes” and in the pit area with Del, Chuck, and Team CSK, and I’d try to come up with witty captions for the pics. It was a precursor for the philosophy I would develop for writing my blog, when that started in late 2005. Offbeat, stream of consciousness, and hopefully entertaining. People ate up that delworsham.com photo gallery. I was just ad-libbing and making it up as I went, but people ate it up. It was a cool time to be innovating and trying new things.
I was also really developing as a writer and PR rep. I was pretty rough around the edges when Del and I teamed up, because I was trying really hard to be perfect and hadn’t found my own persona, style, or way through it all yet. This bio, of Del back in 2004, is a great window into that time. It’s actually pretty darn good, if I must pat myself on the back. A little wordy and flowery, but by 2004 I was already a much better writer than I was when we started. And, in 2004, we felt like such veterans. Like we’d seen it all and been around forever. I started with Del in ’97, and by 2001 I’d been Team Manager for Worsham Racing longer than I’d ever held any other job in my life. By 2004 it felt like I’d never done anything else. It felt like it would never end, but I kept trying to get better at it every year.
So 2004 was our 8th season with CSK as our sponsor. We’d had the two CSK Funny Cars (red and blue) since 2000. Like I said, we felt like old pros and we were, by then, solid contenders. We won a lot of races and kept the CSK people happy even beyond that. We were a major part of their marketing and advertising plans and proud to be in that role. It was a business relationship, of course, but I think what Del and I were most proud of is how it became a personal thing, too. We were part of the CSK family, and very close to many of the people in the company. They were so supportive, and proud to be associated with us. The feeling was mutual.
Back to bios… As the PR guy, I annually had the uncomfortable task of writing my own. It took a long time for me to come out of that shell, and starting the blog in 2005 was a big part of it. The typical rule of thumb is that the PR rep is invisible to the public, and only there to further the exposure for the driver, the team, and the sponsor. As I got to be known, more and more each year once the blog started, I really didn’t have a choice but to represent myself, as well. Also Barbara, Shasta, and then Boofus & Buster, not to mention Neighbor Dave, Scott The Pilot, Crazy Jane, Kim the Lawyer, and all the other characters that populated the world of the blog. And let’s not forget Pond Cam!
This is my bio from that 2004 iteration of the Worsham web site. It’s written more “matter of fact” than the ones I wrote for Del, Chuck, and the team. You can’t really put “He’s the greatest PR rep in the history of publicity” in your own bio. Right? But I found it noteworthy that I was still making a point of outlining the fact I was (or at least still felt like I was) an outsider in the sport of drag racing. I think I was proud of that, and proud that I could absorb a lot of information to learn about the sport, or at least enough to be conversant in it instead of befuddled by the details.
Baseball is a game that often keeps its family roots from generation to generation. Drag Racing is way more so. As soon as I joined the Worshams it was obvious to me that anyone I was meeting or getting to know who WASN’T from a racing family was a rarity. It rightfully seemed like everyone out there was cut from the same mold as Del. Racing before walking. Racing before being born, even. That’s racing within the womb, and Del’s twin daughters can attest to that. It’s a family business, passed down to the next generation.
I definitely followed the old mantra “Fake It ’till You Make It” for years, while I listened and watched, and that goes for the PR stuff and my own knowledge about the sport. By about this time, in 2004, I was getting to be pretty fluent in the language, and fairly knowledgeable about how difficult it was to get a Nitro Funny Car down the track at top speed, without spinning the tires or blowing it up. I can thank Del mostly for that. From Day 1, he was an open book for me, and he (I think) enjoyed having me in the lounge watching what he was doing and what those squiggly lines he was analyzing on the computer represented. Tim Wilkerson was the same way, after I made the move to the Levi, Ray, & Shoup team in 2009. Always happy to have me sitting there listening and asking questions. By the time I joined Wilk, I’d put 12 years of Worsham wisdom into my head. That doesn’t mean I could tune a Funny Car in any way, but I understood more and more of what these geniuses were doing when they’d show me the graphs and charts or explain why we were doing specific things with the motor, the blower, the tires, compression, or even the wheelie bar. All of that stuff. And there’s so much of it. It was fun to absorb all that and somewhat understand a smidgen of it. And Wilk was never afraid to ask me “What do you think?” in terms of overall strategy. Most of the time, whether I said “Go for it” or “Let’s just get down the track and make them beat us” he’d reply, “Yep, that’s was I was thinking.”
All of this in today’s blog is a great illustration of just how appreciative I am of those 20+ years in the sport. I matured and grew as a PR person and a writer. I gained confidence in my own abilities, but never stopped trying to get better. I’m still trying to get better! You can always get better. I went from a novice to a rank amateur when it came to the tuning and mechanical stuff, but I always wanted to know more. Nothing made me prouder than when another driver or crew chief would stop me in the staging lanes and say “What happened to you guys on that run?” and I could actually formulate a coherent answer, even with details some of the time!
It was a wonderful experience, a priceless one, and like so many others and I’m sure many of you, I miss it right now. I miss baseball, too, because both sports are in my blood. I hope NHRA can find a way to safely get back out there and welcome back some of the greatest and most loyal fans in the world. I hope I get to smell the Nitro again sometime soon. I miss that whole part of my family tree. I hope baseball finds a way back, too. My evenings are not as rewarding without the ballgame on TV. My Sundays are not as exciting without having NHRA to follow, run by run and round by round.
We have to be safe. We have to be smart. We have to be patient. “Normal” may not be normal again for a long time, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves.
Maybe I can find Mr. Peabody and he can take me back to all these great memories in the WABAC machine. Until then, I’ll have to rely on the spotty results found on the internet with the alternate spelling: The Wayback Machine.
Hey, if you see a little button at the top of this blog that reads “Like” it would be super if you could click on that. Unless you really didn’t like it at all. But if you did, that would be great.
See you next week.
Bob Wilber, at your service and looking for Mr. Peabody.
“This is like a fraternity, isn’t it? Like a brotherhood. You guys are pretty special.” Those words were spoken to me by my incredible wife Barbara Doyle not long after we tragically lost my college teammate, roommate, and close friend Bob “Radar” Ricker last September. Our large group of former SIUE Cougar Baseball players were all reaching out, making contact, sharing memories and trying to absorb and digest it all. It was horrible, but we had each other. We needed each other. I talked, texted, or emailed to many guys more in that next month than I had since school, especially James “Oscar” Noffke, who was closer to Radar than any of us. It’s a brotherhood, for sure. We kept each other grounded and sane.
I was never a member of an actual Greek fraternity in college. I didn’t need to be. I was a Cougar. I had a large group of brothers with me each year, and with the passing seasons the group changed a little, as guys graduated, but we never lost that feeling. There was only a little bit of hazing from the seniors when we were rookies on the varsity. It was required that you be tossed into the hotel pool, fully clothed, on the first night of your first road trip. And, on that road trip while traveling on the team bus, you had to stand in the aisle, drop your pants to your ankles, and sing your high school fight song at the top of your lungs. If you were lucky, the older guys only made you do it once. I passed that test before we pulled into Owensboro, Kentucky, and still don’t fully understand the “pants at your ankles” part of the equation, but it was clearly harmless. Other than that, it was nothing more than a group of brothers sharing a mission to play the game we all loved desperately, hoping to do well enough to feel we’d served each other, and the university, well.
I think Barbara began to understand the depth of it when our 1977 team was inducted into the SIUE Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016. Almost all of us gathered in Edwardsville, and on the first night our former star infielder Dave Schaake hosted us all at his marvelous home. It was 39 years after we played in the 1977 NCAA Div. II World Series as a group. It might as well have been just the week before. That’s what it felt like.
Baseball is behind us all now, and we aren’t narcissistic enough to look back at it as our “glory days” with a warped view of us being a lot better than we actually were, or more important than we were (we were only important to each other) or that those were the days that defined us as people. We’re realistic about that. We look back on it and think about the brotherhood at a phenomenal university. That’s all we really ever talk about. Not the games or the plays, but the camaraderie and the friendships. The goofy stuff. The bus rides. The lunch table. The parties. We were all extremely close back then. Just walking into Dave’s living room and seeing all those guys was heartwarming beyond measure. We’ll always be brothers.
After college, I was one of the fortunate few to experience pro ball. I’ve written extensively, over the years, about how baseball provides “instant friends” wherever you go, whatever level you’re playing at, no matter how well you do or how badly you struggle. You get the phone call that says “You need to be in Town X tomorrow, so go straight to the ballpark when you get there” and you just go. No questions asked. Sometimes it’s just across state lines, but sometimes across the country. And when you get there you are usually surrounded by a large group of complete strangers. They don’t stay strangers for long. They are instant friends. It’s a family. Also, after so many years of writing this blog I know I repeat myself on many subjects, and this is one of those. But the stories are so endless and there are always new details to add and odd coincidences to mention.
This photo is from the summer of 1978, taken in Paintsville, Kentucky (of course.) If after reading my first book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” you never went to Google Maps or Mapquest to find Paintsville, you should still do that. Just finding it, on the far eastern side of Kentucky, in the coal mining hills made famous by country and bluegrass singers, just north of Pikeville, will give you a good idea of how special it was. Remote, small, but a community that embraced us as “their team” and “their boys” all summer. It was priceless.
The site of this photo is long-gone Johnson Central Park in Paintsville. Home of the Paintsville Hilanders of the Class-A Appalachian League. The precise spot is at my locker in the home clubhouse, under the grandstand on the third-base side. My teammate Pete Conaty is in the photo with me. Yes, that’s a hair dryer on the top shelf of my locker, tucked behind the soda can. I am posting this photo to illustrate one key thing. It’s a brotherhood. In pro ball, for most of the guys, you spend your time together and then go on to new adventures, but you’re brothers for life. Sometimes, though, your paths inexplicably cross again. It’s a mystery how that works.
It took me a while, but I finally just connected with Pete on social media, although only because his wife apparently set up a Facebook page for both of them. He was a great teammate, and a helluva stud pitcher. He signed with the Hilanders as an undrafted free agent, but once again that just proves that scouting and evaluating baseball players is an inexact science. Like many guys I played with on various teams, Pete should have been drafted by a Major League club. He was very good. The next year, he ventured out to Bakersfield, California to play again for the same manager we had in Paintsville. Another Hilander teammate, and great friend, Roy Dixon went there, too, after the Tigers let us both go. He went to Bakersfield and I went straight to Medford, Oregon to join the A’s organization. We just wanted to keep playing. The money didn’t matter. Get to Town X by tomorrow and go straight to the ballpark. You bet!
Some teams are closer and more bonded than others. The Paintsville Hilanders were one of those teams. I honestly do not recall a single moment of stress or incompatibility among the players. We rode the bus a ton. Home for four, on the road for four, over and over again, always on the same country highway (Route 23, for the record) down through Prestonsburg and Pikeville, just to get to Kingsport and the Tri-Cities, where the Kingsport Braves, Johnson City Cardinals, Bristol Tigers, and Elizabethton Twins all played. The Bluefield Orioles, over in West Virginia, were “outliers” just like us. They were on the bus all the time, too. We grew up a lot. We got better as players. We bonded. We were a family.
I’ve shown this photo a number of times over various social media platforms. This is the 1978 Paintsville Hilanders official team photo, taken at Johnson Central Park very early in the season. Hence, my dear friend, and fellow former SIUE Cougar, Stan Osterbur is not in it. He arrived a week or so later. Pete Conaty and I are both in the middle row. He is standing directly over the batboy in the blue uniform. I’m two people to the right in the photo, standing between Steve Locklear and Stan Hendrickson. I am surrounded by friends. Brothers. Family.
And a funny but noteworthy thing here: I’m usually considered “pretty tall” at a little over 6-foot-1. But, when surrounded by other professional athletes, I look pretty average.
Vince “The Bronze Fox” Bienek is at the far right of the back row, standing next to Buddy Slemp, who he went to college with at Oral Roberts, and I roomed with Buddy for the first half of the season in Paintsville. In the second row, on the far left, is our owner Paul Fyffe. A wonderful man by any measure of such things. Next to him, our manager Ron “Yank” Mihal. Next to him my friend Roy Dixon, who I’m still hoping to reconnect with after these 42 years, and another player who should have been drafted but wasn’t. Two players to the right of Roy is Dan O’Connor who we all called OC. Buddy, OC, and I (all the property of the Tigers who had collectively been optioned to Paintsville) shared an upstairs apartment above an elderly woman’s house, until Buddy let the tub overflow (for about an hour) one day. Anyone who has read “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” likely remembers that story. We were summarily dismissed as rental residents. Coincidentally, because baseball is full of such coincidences, Roy, OC, and I were all in Lakeland, Florida the next year, playing for the Tigers in the much more stressful “advanced” Class-A Florida State League, playing with or against future big leaguers every day. We roomed together there. None of us made it to the promised land, but we had the time of our lives.
That Hilander team was, quite literally, as low as you could go in professional minor league ball. A co-op team made up of free agents and some affiliated players (like me) from different organizations. Entry level. Rookie ball. $500 per month. It’s amazing that two of these guys made it to the big leagues. That’s defying the odds any way you look at it. On the far right in the second row is our trainer. I don’t remember his name, but I guarantee we just called him “Doc” anyway. Two players to the left is Kevin Hickey, who signed with the White Sox out of a tryout camp and was then loaned to Paintsville like many of us were. Kevin had a stellar big league career in Chicago and Baltimore, as a hard-throwing lefty reliever. (HINT: How do you get signed out of a cattle-call tryout camp as a pitcher? A) Throw really hard. B) Be left-handed. You’re welcome.) In the back row, standing right in the middle above me and Steve Locklear, is burly catcher Chino Cadahia. He never played in the majors, but he made it there as a coach for a couple of teams, after a long minor league career in the Twins organization. Vince Bienek should’ve and probably would’ve played in the big leagues had he not later torn up an ankle in Double-A. He was the best player on this team, and a marvelous teammate. Vince and I both feel fortunate to have reconnected these days. Social media can be truly awful, in many ways, but it also provides these connections. They are priceless. In the top row, right behind OC and Pete, is Eddie Gates. Yep, Eddie “Boxhead” Gates of “Bats, Balls & Burnouts” fame. We’re Facebook friends, too.
It was a season of nonstop baseball I will never forget. And I’ve never forgotten the charm and friendliness of Paintsville. Great people.
Now for the uncanny coincidence. In 1987 I was living in Reston, Virginia in the Washington DC metro area, working for my brother Del at his sports marketing agency, and as my first spring there approached I was itching to play ball again. I contacted the head coach at George Mason University, in nearby Fairfax, and told him who I was. I asked him if he knew of any good semipro teams in the area. Good teams. Competitive teams full of ex-pros or college players. He steered me toward a team in Fairfax made up of just such players. I called the manager, Woody Harris, and he let me come to their first spring practice. After that, he offered me a spot on the roster.
This photo is of that Fairfax team. We were pretty good. Probably just as good as any of the Sauget Wizards teams I played on before and after my escapades in DC. Recognize me? I’m in the back row, fourth from the right. If you look two guys to the left of me, in this photo, you will see Pete Conaty, towering above the other guys in the back. Somehow, some way, through sheer love of the game, persistence, and amazing coincidence, these two Hilanders ended up on another team together, playing for free this time in another part of the country, nine years after our summer in Paintsville. And Pete was still very good. All of these guys were good.
I walked onto that practice field that first day knowing no one. I spent the summer playing with this talented, dedicated, and hilarious group of guys and was one of them within days. What a great experience. What great brothers. And were we any good? We won about everything we could possibly win, including a game over the Korean National Team (in which the new guy went deep) and somehow won a major tournament that made us Eastern Seaboard Champions. I’m friends on Facebook with Mark Siciliano (front row, third from the right) and now with Pete Conaty. Brothers.
Side note: At Fairfax we beat the Korean National Team at the University of Maryland’s stadium and I went deep. Way deep. Drop the bat and watch it fly deep. When I returned to St. Louis and rejoined the Sauget team, we beat the USA National Team down near Memphis, at their beautiful stadium in Millington, Tenn. and I went deep. Way deep. Over the center field wall deep. I’m pretty sure I’m the only former SIUE Cougar, or Paintsville Hilander, or Lakeland Tiger, or Medford A’s player (not to mention Sauget and Fairfax) to be 2-0 against major national teams with two bombs. You take those career highlights where you can get ’em.
I know how fortunate I am to have done all this. Almost every little boy plays Little League ball (or at least they did when I was young.) Only a few then play for their high school teams. Of that group, only a few (if any at all) go on to play college ball at any level, much less get a full scholarship at a fabulous school like SIUE. As good as we collectively were back then, making two trips to the NCAA Div. II World Series during my time with the Cougars, only a few of us ever signed professional contracts and then got to know how amazing that experience could be. And then, after pro ball when jobs and life allowed it a few years later, I got to experience the joy of playing for the Sauget Wizards (just across the Mississippi from the Gateway Arch) and for one year with Fairfax, before I moved back to St. Louis to complete my Sauget career with a bunch of guys who loved the game and each other. “Fortunate” doesn’t come close to describing it. It’s a brotherhood. It’s a fraternity. It’s a shared experience that none of us will ever forget and all of us will always be thankful for. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it for anything.
Here at the Wilber/Doyle Ranch, we celebrated Barbara’s birthday yesterday. With all that’s going on in the world right now, it just didn’t seem right to go overboard and spend a ton of money on diamond earrings, or a black pearl bracelet, or anything else expensive and ostentatious. We also usually go out for a big night on the town at a fabulous restaurant, but you can’t do that these days. So I went for originality, and Barbara is still talking about how it was one of her favorite birthdays ever. I collected a series of videos, shot by local Twin Cities sports celebrities, ranging from former Twins stars to TV personalities, and one former Minnesota Wild hockey player. They were all gracious and tremendous, sending personal “Happy Birthday” greetings to Barbara, and including specific little facts I’d told them about beforehand. She was over the moon with those, and quite touched. Then I gave her the one physical present I had purchased for her.
I found a company on Facebook called Turned Yellow, and I knew I had to do this. You send them a personal photo and can then either use one of their standard backgrounds, like the couch in The Simpsons living room or in front of The Simpsons house, or you can send them photos of what you’d like to be in front of. Then they turn you into this. As if you’re on The Simpsons. I chose a photo of us in our Twins gear, taken at a game a few years back (hence, neither one of us is wearing glasses) and a few optional backgrounds using photos I had taken at Target Field. My gosh, the artist NAILED IT. Barbara loved it. And I love her. We’re doing pretty well through all this quarantine stuff. We make a good team. I know a thing or two about being a good teammate and what makes a good team.
Barbara also heard from our friend Kelsey, who is the daughter of our dear friends Scott and Barb from the old neighborhood, and she learned that Kelsey is doing a little side-project making custom door mats for anyone’s front porch. We had to have one!
It’s pretty priceless, as you can see in today’s final photo. And the pillow on the chair, made by longtime blog reader Ruth, is also priceless.
So, that’s it for another week. We’re staying healthy, wearing our masks in public, washing our hands often and wiping with sanitizer as well. We’re going to get through this. I’m not sure what we considered “normal” will ever seem that way again, but we’re going to get through it.
As always, my lone request at the bottom of every blog is regarding that pesky “Like” button at the top. If that seems like an apt description of what you thought of this bit of rambling, please feel free to click on it.
And remember: Teamwork makes the dream work. Be a good teammate.
And to all my former teammates, be careful, stay safe, and take care. We’re all brothers. Always will be.
See ya next week.
Bob Wilber, at your service and very thankful for all these priceless memories.
Merriam Webster (the dictionary people) define the word “hunker” as seen to the right. For some evolutionary reason, we all seem to have adapted the word to mean more of a mentality thing than a physical act. I don’t think too many of us are literally crouched down or just squatting on the floor. I mean, maybe on a really bad day, but not as a daily routine. We instead see “hunkering down” as a way to get through this. We conserve. We cook. We clean. We wear our masks and gloves. That’s hunkering in the 2020 Covid 19 vernacular.
(This paragraph is an edit. I just proofed this blog and read it from top to bottom and I realize now, way more than I did as I wrote it, how dark and depressing it is in a few spots. That tells me a lot about my mental state and where I am with all this. I’d love nothing more than for this blog to be 2,500 words of mirth, wit, and comedy. I’m sorry it’s not. It’s just what’s on my mind. Like a TV show, if it’s not what you want to experience you should change the channel.)
I’ve been reflecting on all of this a lot lately. It’s not getting better. I caution you to not believe those who say the worst is behind us. They typically have ulterior motives, or hidden agendas, or they just don’t want to face it. Open the economy up? Sounds like flipping a switch but it’s not. It’s people. It’s lives. Yes, the economic impact of this virus is real and very damaging. Many small businesses will never reopen. I get that. It impacts us, as well. Woodbury is full of small independent restaurants and businesses. I feel it. I feel for everyone. But what is the price you’ll pay in trade for human lives? Let’s open those casinos. Start the baseball season. Hit the beach. Why isn’t the mall open? Can’t the NBA and NHL just start their playoffs so we can all go jam into an arena? As of right now, as I write this, the US is at nearly 49,000 deaths, and that number is short of reality. Many people die at home and are never counted. This has all happened in basically a month. It’s staggering to me how nonchalant or oblivious some people can be. I don’t need to write about this. You all know it. We all know it. It’s the new reality. C’mon man…
This is going to go on for a while, and I’m more and more pessimistic about those things that used to be essential for me (aka sports) happening again anytime soon. I believe we are all in for a long hiatus, and it will be a slog. I also believe we may never go back to what we thought was normal. Can you even fathom the thought of being in a stadium or arena right now? Standing in line at the TSA checkpoint in a crowded airport? Sitting in a movie theater with someone coughing on your neck from the row behind you? Riding the subway or a bus, holding that pole or strap? Even dialing up an Uber for a ride across town? C’mon man. I can’t see any of that in the near future. But what do I know…
I wrote a blog on March 12 entitled “This Is Not A Good Time” to basically announce my understanding of what this virus really had in store for us, and my belief that continuing to author this as a light-hearted goofball of a blog seemed wrong, at the time. I stopped writing this for weeks. But I missed it.
To be clear, I may have spent 12 years in private catholic schools, but those instructors (especially the Jesuits at St. Louis U. High) taught us to be analytical and to understand and believe in science. I believe the real scientists and doctors. That’s who I listen to. It was all becoming crystal clear to me on March 12, but I knew basically nothing compared to what we’re all going through now.
We had just gotten back from our trip to Florida. We played with Bella and Stassi (the Twincesses) in Orlando for a few days. We went to Fort Myers and Bradenton to watch two Spring Training games, surrounded elbow-to-elbow by many thousands of other baseball fans who were doing the same in the warm Florida sunshine, with our biggest concern being how much sun block we had on. We flew home knowing about this virus thing, but not understanding it.
Just a couple of days after we left Spring Training in Florida, the teams instituted a policy to keep their players from interacting with fans. No more standing at the railing to sign autographs, take selfies, or shake hands. It was shock at the time. Just days later, it was all over. Everything was shut down. We went from the greatest sports nation in the world to a total void. And that was more than a month ago. It seems like a year.
At first, after getting back home, I was resistant to the concept of wearing a mask or gloves. Maybe you can relate to that. Part of it was just self-consciousness. I felt stupid wearing that stuff. Part of it was a natural reaction of “let’s not overreact” to something that might blow over any day. Something that would go down in history as another one of those “remember when everything was going to change because of (insert epidemic or pandemic name here)? Or even technological panics. Remember Y2K and how that was going to end the world? We’ve become numb to these alerts. Once one Category 5 hurricane comes ashore and quickly loses steam, not creating the cataclysm the experts warned us about, the next one gets a shrug. And people die. We’re numb. C’mon man. Sometimes I think we’re not just numb, we’re actually numbskulls
Barbara was very stern with me. She needed to be. I’m definitely “high risk” with this thing and the more we hear the more we understand just how difficult it is to avoid. Staying at home and having no interaction with other humans is really the only way to effectively combat it. But I couldn’t stand to see her have to “suit up” and go to the store or run all the errands. That led to me finally getting over my aversion to wearing the protective stuff. Now, I go to the store and actually get angry at the morons strolling around with no masks on, as if they’re bullet-proof and the whole thing doesn’t exist. They’re also likely to be the ones that stand right behind you in line, or elbow you out of the way to touch four different cucumbers before taking one. Must be a connection there, huh. C’mon man! Meanwhile, we’ve crossed the 48,000 death mark as a country. Those aren’t numbers. Those are fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers. Neighbors, co-workers, and friends.
I hear some public figures (especially the mayor of Las Vegas) attempt to spin this as a purely economic thing. Apparently they haven’t lost a friend or loved one yet. If they have, or if they’ve even known someone who went through it and barely survived (like I do – my friend Bobby Bennett who wrote about it in detail on his website) and they still think it’s fine to open the doors and let droves of unprotected people come in to act like nothing’s wrong and it’s all back to normal, well… I’m at a loss. Do they have a heart? This thing may pass, but it sure won’t if stuff like that happens. We’re not there yet. We have a long way to go. If you don’t think so, C’mon man.
Yeah, I get stir crazy. I miss sports. I watch replays of games from years ago. I go a little more nuts every day. Barbara and I do the best we can. We share the chores and work as a team. We “suit up” before even getting the mail. We rely on Amazon and other delivery services a lot, but we take care to put on gloves when retrieving the packages from the porch. There’s no telling who touched or coughed on those boxes just an hour earlier. We protect each other. We look out for each other. We go for long walks when the weather is nice, and each day we do that we see more and more people understanding and practicing the protocol. Give space on the sidewalk. Make sure to wave and say hello. We all need that. We see the painted stones that neighborhood children have decorated and placed in the grass, and the messages they write in chalk on their driveways. We try not to eat too much, but that’s a challenge. Food is comfort. Hence the 3-mile brisk walks each day.
We love on our fuzzy black boyz, Boofus and Buster, and make sure they know how much we care about them. Extra treats don’t hurt. We crave comedy. We need to laugh. I do my part to get a giggle out of Barbara on an hourly basis.
Today, at my desk I caught myself maneuvering a small TC Bear bobblehead, given to me by our friend Erica, and a small carved wooden baseball guy that my former player/manager, the great Bob Hughes, once presented to me. It’s a little version of me, wearing a Sauget Wizards uniform with number 7 on the back. That’s the number I wore as a Wizard, because Neil Fiala, the lone former big leaguer we had on the team, wanted number 5. That’s a baseball “pecking order” thing. Seniority matters and is respected. As you can see, TC Bear has his little arms outstretched, as he is attempting to explain to little wooden Wizard Bob why he didn’t wear a mask to the store. Little wooden Wizard Bob is unimpressed and looking stern. In the background, Minny and Paul are still shaking hands across the Mississippi like they have been since 1961. They didn’t know about social distancing back then. They didn’t know about it two months ago. Well, they really don’t even know about it now. They’re bobbleheads. I hope TC Bear got the message from little wooden Wizard Bob, who certainly looks like he just said “C’mon man.”
And now I’m back to writing this blog every Thursday. I need it. I’m writing a lot for the new book, as well, but this feels more like a conversation with friends. We’re all socially distancing, but we don’t have to be distant.
I haven’t cooked this much over a five-week span in my entire life. Nor have we run the dishwasher this much. When you cook and eat at home, you use dishes, silverware, pots, and pans. A lot of them. Who knew? We seem to fill the washer every two days. And apparently we eat a lot of cheese. We seem to need to clean the cheese grater every single day. Sometimes twice.
Last night I whipped up a creation of sliced and cubed chicken, seasoned, browned, and then cooked in soy sauce before placing it on a bed of chicken fried rice. Thumbs up from Barbara and my own bad self. Tonight, more chicken but this time the breast will be blackened and baked before adorning a Caesar Salad. We do mix in tacos and hamburgers, as well. Or a stir fry every now and then. And plenty of pasta. Grilled cheese sandwiches and PB & Js are staples for lunch. Also lots of pears, apples, and bananas; two of which go really great with peanut butter. Hint: It’s not the pears, I don’t think. Never tried that. But peanut butter and banana sandwiches rock, as do slices of apple smeared with peanut butter as a fine alternative to caramel. We put together a terrific Chef Salad a couple of night’s ago. Home run. I like to make my own Ranch dressing with the packets of Hidden Valley powder you mix with buttermilk and mayo. Way, way, way, WAY better than the bottled stuff. I guess I’m not the only one. In the last two trips to the store I’ve struck out. They have toilet paper now, and paper towels, but no Ranch mix. C’mon man.
Next Tuesday is Barbara’s birthday. I have some fun surprises for her, all of which I think she’ll really like, but the Filet Mignon steaks I’m going to grill have already been announced and are eagerly anticipated. For the record, I marinate my steaks in the Allegro brand marinade. Primo. This is not a paid endorsement. We just love the stuff.
We haven’t been to the dry cleaner since this started. It’s not open anyway, but there’s no need for dress shirts (for me) or suits (for Barbara) when you work at home and can’t go out to eat. I now consider the act of putting on jeans to be somewhat formal, when I need to change out of my sweats. My sweat pants have been in a constant rotation. And with both of us home, I’m doing the laundry every other day. It’s like we have five kids. And yes, I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt right now. Very formal, indeed.
There was a lag between the time the virus hit and the time TV advertisers could adjust their commercials. It’s not that easy to reshoot and rewrite those things, and many of the ad buys are booked well in advance. Now, a vast majority of the ads are related to Covid-19. When an older ad pops up, and beer-drinking groups of young hip beautiful people are hugging and kissing in a crowded bar, I shake my head and wonder if we’ll ever see or do that again. Seems so reckless, in retrospect.
We’re doing our best to be optimistic and positive. We have a lot to be thankful for. We’re in good shape in every way. We take it seriously and desperately miss our friends from the old neighborhood. Seems like ancient history to recall when, just a couple of months ago, we’d get a text saying “A bunch of us are meeting at O’Malley’s Pub at seven. Come join us!” Wouldn’t we love to…
I’ve had one haircut since this started and Barbara gave it to me. I’ve trimmed my facial hair once a week, but if had I not done that I’d look like Grizzly Adams by now. Hockey players grow playoff beards. Maybe I should just give in and have a Covid-19 beard. Nope. Not gonna happen. Last night over dinner Barbara looked at me and said “I’ve never liked beards.” The trimmer comes back out after I finish this.
Next Tuesday was my planned departure day for nearly a month on Kauai, to cat-sit for my sister Mary. We cancelled those plans a month ago. This past week, my SIUE roomies Lance and Oscar and I finally admitted we needed to pull the plug on the San Diego and LA trip we had booked for late August. We’re working on alternative plans now. The guys might just come up here for a few days in August. Maybe we’ll drive up to a lake resort or the North Shore of Lake Superior.
On the travel note, a huge BRAVO! to Delta Airlines. No fees, no questions, no hassles. Cancel any trip and the entire fare is instantly credited to your Sky Miles account as an “E-Credit” you can use for future travel. And they’ve made all E-Credits now good for two full years instead of one. They also have extended everyone’s Sky Miles Medallion status for an extra year, since basically no one can fly enough to reach the same level again before the end of 2020. Even if I don’t fly again this year, I’ll be a Diamond Medallion member all the way through 2021, with tons of E-Credits to get me back in the air then. Thank you, Delta!
Time to wrap this up. I apologize if I got too worked up and pontificated a bit too much this time. I don’t take this thing lightly, and since Barbara and I are of the same frame of mind with it, and don’t socialize with anyone else, we talk about it a lot. And worry about it a lot. And we worry about our families, and our friends. Be safe out there. Wash your hands, of course, but put that mask on. Just put it on. I mean it.
It would help if you could click on the “Like” button at the top, unless of course you really did not like this blog. Either way I understand, but more likes are better for drawing new eyes to this.
I’ll see you next week. Barbara’s birthday should give me some material that’s far more fun to write about. Adios amigos!
Bob Wilber, at your service and really pretty handsome when wearing a mask. No? C’mon man!
It occurred to me in the last 24 hours that not that many people ever have the pleasure of signing a contract. Not any contract, like your mortgage, lease agreement, or car loan, that legally binds you to compensate the other party for products or services they are rendering. Instead, a contract that someone else offers to compensate you for the services and professional skills you will be providing. Landscapers, home renovators, builders, and some other trades routinely utilize contracts to guarantee they will be paid for the professional services they perform, but most people go through life on handshakes and verbal agreements. I’ve utilized those handshakes, of course, but I am fortunate to have signed more than a few contracts in the world of sports, and now I’m about to do so in the world of publishing. Such things are so rare, so beyond-belief rare, it’s always an honor and a thrill to sign at the bottom. I’m pretty sure I remember every one of them.
My publisher and I are now about 99% there on all the details outlined in our contract. The original version, sent to me this week, had a few tweaks that needed to be made and those are agreed upon and in the process now. There are lawyers involved, of course, so one could say reading through the document is a little “cumbersome” with all the legalese, but we’re getting it all sorted out so that the final agreement will be mutually beneficial for all involved.
This is my signature on the original publishing offer. It was a practice run just for this blog. It’s not binding because I won’t be sending it back. But, much like all of my baseball documents, it’s a contract to a dream. The dream to be a contracted author. To be appreciated and trusted to deliver a work that will not only be of professional quality but also entertaining. Sort of like being a baseball player. You have to provide professional quality play or the contract can be voided at any time in the minor leagues. No guarantees down there. And you have to entertain the people who are shelling out money to sit in the stands and either cheer for you or jeer you.
I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have earned this. It has never been an easy thing to accomplish in any version of the publishing world, but it’s tougher now than ever before. What I found (or what found me) is an entrepreneurial publisher who knows the key to finding the path to success is to work as a team. I’ll do the writing. Greg Halling will be there for me on the style editing. The Get It Factory (my publisher) will be there for other edits, formatting, graphics, covers, distribution, and marketing. It will be a team effort. We’ll all aim for professional quality and entertainment. I’ll make a little money, but that’s not the goal. The overriding goal is to tackle a new genre of writing and make it good (and professional) enough to entertain people who will shell out good money to buy it. Not much different than playing baseball in Bristol, or Painstville, or Lakeland, or Medford. You have to deliver.
With that in mind, I did something last night I hadn’t bothered to do yet. I finished a big, and important, chapter and wondered how many words I’ve written so far. That’s pretty key when it comes to page count, and page count will factor into how the book is formatted. Remember, the first draft of “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” was so enormous it basically couldn’t be published. It would have been more than 900 pages. Tolstoy would’ve balked at that. So we cut, and we pruned, and we enlarged the book and minimized the margins. We employed every trick in the book. And we still ended up at 545 pages and a $49.95 paperback because I had no say in the price.
I think I’m about 60% done with the initial manuscript, and now that contracts are being exchanged I’m a bit on fire, in terms of writing. So after completing that chapter yesterday I used the “Word Count” tool on Google Docs. I’m at 105,000 or so. If I write at the same pace and rate, we’ll end up somewhere near 200,000 words. There will be editing and formatting, of course, so who knows what the final count will be, but the absolute mission is to keep the hardback version under $30. Later, when the paperback comes out, it will be under $20. Those are market driven prices, and they are price points that are proven to sell. The Get It Factory and I will work in conjunction to keep those prices where they need to be. This whole process is pretty energizing, to say the least, and it’s happening right when I need that push of energy. This “stay at home” quarantine impacts different people in different ways. I’m stir-crazy like everyone else, but I also find I slip into a sort of malaise easily, because the normal world is such a distant memory. Seeing this contract changed that. I have a very big reason to attack this every single day now. I sometimes find myself tweaking or writing at times like 6:00 a.m. or 12 midnight. Whenever a thought, idea, or motivator crosses my mind, I can open the laptop and work. The commute is easy. Sometimes it’s even as far as the living room sofa.
This is a photo of the first professional contract I ever signed. Actually, this is the top 1/3 of a lengthy two-sided legal document, but there’s my name and my home address on Woodleaf Court in Kirkwood, Mo. The way minor league contracts work, you sign with the team you are assigned to. So, even though I was the property of the Detroit Tigers, the contract was with the Bristol Tigers. When I was optioned to Paintsville, I signed a new contract. I still have that one, too.
As I outlined (hopefully well) in “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” I signed this contract in the living room of the house I grew up in. It was just after the end of my senior (and final) season of college baseball, so I hadn’t actually lived in the Woodleaf house for four years, but college addresses are so transient it was best to send this to my parents’ home. Fitting, as well, I’d say. I spent two decades preparing to be a pro at that very house. Throwing tennis balls off the front of the house so I could turn and go back to catch them, leaping and backhanding them, for hours and days on end. Throwing a baseball against the concrete foundation to build up arm strength and accuracy, and practice catching the ground balls that came back to me. Our backyard was not exactly well groomed, so those caroms and bad hops were lessons to be learned.
When this contract arrived, I sat in the sunny living room with my mom (my dad was on the road). It was June 9th, 1978. I’d need to be in Bristol in just a couple of days. I wanted to sign it in a hurry, before anyone changed their minds, but I stopped and soaked it in. I was finally putting my name, and my signature, on a professional baseball contract. I had aspirations, but no firm dreams of playing in the big leagues. I just wanted to do the best I could and see how far I could get, playing against elite players at the next level.
As you can see here, from the bottom of the backside of the contract, my handwriting and autograph have “evolved” greatly over the years. This was all I had then, in terms of a signature. According to the contract, I had to sign my full name and middle initial, and I wasn’t used to doing that, so it was what it was. The circle over the “i” in Wilber was something I absorbed from my dad. He signed many thousands of autographs and the baseball cards and requests were still showing up in the mail when he died. They are all over eBay to this day. He almost always put the circle over the “i” instead of a dot. As you can see in the top photo, I’ve made my signature more efficient these days. There is an “R” to begin it, and then swoops to represent all the letters in “Wilber.” I always go with a dot over what would be the “i” now. It’s just easier. I even put the dot on it when signing a screen at the check-out counter. Habits… They die hard.
After my playing days were over, and I’d signed new annual contracts with Bristol, Lakeland, Paintsville, and Medford (where I got a huge bump up to $700 per month in salary!) the final document I received from the Oakland A’s was a form that contained a wide variety of ways your contract could be assigned or dispensed with. It was the “Disposition of Contract” form, in triplicate. The third box down on that form, which was checked, was next to the line “Player has been released outright from the contract.” There was a name for that in the baseball world. It was known as “getting your number three box checked.” I got my number three box checked twice. Lucky me. I actually pinned those two forms on the inside of my bedroom door at the last apartment in which Lance and I lived, in North St. Louis.
So with that, I needed a job. And the Toronto Blue Jays came calling. I was hired, probably against a lot of people’s better judgement, and I signed a different kind of contract. It was blue, instead of tan, and the actual title or job had to be entered into a blank space. Front office people, staffers, coaches, and scouts all signed these. My first one, which I no longer seem to have, was for the amazing sum of $8,600 for the year 1980. Seriously. How on Earth did I live on that? Plus, I had to get my first credit card just to be on the road. My mom co-signed for me at Commerce Bank in Kirkwood. That original MasterCard had a $500 credit limit. Yep. Again, how did I do that? I know this: You had to want to. It wasn’t the sort of job you took just because you needed work.
To be fair, we were on full expense accounts. So, the more you were on the road working, the fewer necessities you had to personally pay for. Meals, lodging, and miles on your personal car were all covered, and the per-mile car payment included depreciation, so it was always for a lot more than the gas it took to make those trips. Somehow, some way, I survived.
This is my second contract with the Blue Jays. I got bumped up all the way to the unheard of amount of $13,000 for 1981. I also had to move to Fresno, Calif. that year, but all those expenses were covered as well. I remember still eating a lot of tuna sandwiches and beef tacos, but I got through it and did the best I could covering the central part of the state.
By 1982, the Jays reshuffled assignments again and sent me back to St. Louis. Incredibly, I believe that third contract was for about $19,000 and I covered as many as eight midwestern states. My fourth and final contract with Toronto got me up to where most of my colleagues were. It was for $21,000 and I thought I was rich.
The job was hard. The travel was incredibly backbreaking. And the challenges could be enormous, thanks to the Major League draft which allowed all the teams to grab players round by round, often leaving a hard-working scout like me with nothing but “Good work, Bob. Sorry we didn’t get any of your guys” at the end of a long string of months on the road.
The rewards could be great as well. Changing the lives of guys like Keith Gilliam and Jim Gott, by spotting them and going to bat for them with the Blue Jays, and being persistent enough to sign one to a rookie contract (in Gilliam’s case) after seeing him pitch for Austin Peay State, or select the other No. 1 in the Rule 5 draft from the Cardinals (in Gott’s case) after seeing him pitch in Mexico. Sometimes, the big fish got away, and I wrote about that extensively in “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” too. The names Mike Henneman and Joe Magrane come to mind. They did great things in the big leagues, but for other teams.
In racing, our team certainly signed contracts with our sponsors every year, but as the manager and PR rep my signature was never required, whether the contract was with CSK Auto or Levi, Ray & Shoup. I was there for most of those signings, but just as a spectator. I’ll never forget the first multi-year deal we signed with CSK. Once the signatures were in place, Del, Chuck, and I looked at each other and smiled. It was the first time any of us had ever had the luxury of knowing we had jobs for more than a year. A lot of hard work went into those. It was different with Tim Wilkerson. Yes, we had to perform professionally and make the LRS sponsorship a good business decision for them, but over the years Tim and Dick Levi had built up a great deal of trust with one another, and the Funny Car was a major part of their annual marketing plan. Although each contract was for just one year there, it’s still vibrant and renewed once again, 20+ years later. The Team Wilk partnership with LRS is one of the best, most solid, and most mutually beneficial deals in the sport. It was an honor to be a part of both of those programs, CSK and LRS, for two amazing decades. “Changed my life forever” is a mild way to put it.
So here I am. Almost 64 years old and about to sign my “swoopy” signature at the bottom of another contract. It’s on me to deliver. I have to create, out of thin air, a book people will want to buy, and then enjoy once they do. It’s as much of a challenge as hitting a mid-90s fastball, or deciding which of those kids out on that field can really play and which can’t. I’m up for it.
Favor time, as always: If you just finished this and liked it even an official “smidgen” please click on the “Like” button at the top. And then read it again. There will be a test tomorrow.
See you next week. Time to do more writing.
Bob Wilber, at your service and contractually obligated.
Yesterday, I put a teaser out on Facebook about the fact I’d be restarting the blog today, after not writing it for a nearly a month due to the Covid-19 virus and all the challenges we mutually face. And I also subtly (that’s sarcasm) made mention of the fact the main reason for this reboot is the fact I had big news on the personal front. I do. I’ll get to it. But before I do any of that, I want to send out caring wishes to everyone. I hope you’re being safe. I hope you’re all well. I hope none of you foolishly think you’re bulletproof. We’re on a “stay at home” quarantine here in Minnesota and I have actually only been out of the house twice in the last three weeks, not counting getting the mail. Both times, when I left here in my car, I was on an errand to drop something off with no human interaction. I’m being good, as is Barbara, and we’re both taking our temperature multiple times a day. So far, so good.
Barbara is more than a little adamant about my restrictions, because I’m certainly classified in the “at risk” category atop the charts, thanks to my long history of asthma and other respiratory issues. At first, I was a bit dismissive of all the rules, but I know she’s right and I’m learning all the steps I have to take if I even bring a package in from the front porch. It’s the right thing to do. She’s been a little more socially interactive than me (someone has to go to the store when we’re out of food) so we’ve even quarantined ourselves to a degree here at the house. I tend to stay downstairs and she is upstairs most of the time, working from home. We do eat together, and we’ve been making all of our meals here at home. That’s a huge departure for us. We’ve probably averaged eating out at least three or four nights a week since we got married 22+ years ago. And guess what happens when you eat at home… You create a LOT of dirty dishes. We’ve been running the dishwasher every other day for weeks. And my “short-order cook” skills have been getting a workout.
We have two other residents here, named Boofus and Buster, and frankly it took them more than a week to get comfortable with the fact this isn’t solely their home. They clearly were aware that things were amiss when they realized we actually weren’t leaving the place to them for hours or days at a time. They’ve gotten more used to it now, but when they get a chance to curl up and sleep we make sure to let them. They need their space just like we do.
And now on to the news at hand…
First of all, my decades in the racing business make me very mindful of not counting chickens, roosters, or any other flying creatures until they hatch. You don’t put out a press release full of details about a new partnership until the contracts are legally signed and in place. Call it a superstition if you like, but just about any marketing or PR person from the racing world has experienced how things can go sideways after verbal agreements are in place. I’m a healthy skeptic, but still I feel really solid about this and even though I’m going to leave out most of the details until the contract is done, I think it’s worth bringing up.
Yesterday, I spent nearly an hour on the phone with a very bright entrepreneurial guy, by the name of Ryan, who has taken an interest in my work. He’s making a name for himself in a number of media fields, including a successful podcast and an up-and-coming publishing business. Yep, publishing.
He interviewed me on his podcast a few months ago, talking about my book “Bats, Balls & Burnouts” and we hit it off well. Plus, he read the book cover-to-cover and really enjoyed it, so that made for a very insightful interview. After we finished the podcast we talked a little more about the new book I’m writing, still tentatively titled “How Far?” and he left me with the words, “Hey, once you get closer to being done let’s talk. I’m growing my publishing business and I might want to talk to you about this new book.” I filed that away in my memory bank.
I’ve been making some good progress as of late, completing new chapters and adding to previous ones. I’m really happy with how it’s going and how the character development keeps coming more and more to life. It’s been fun, challenging, and rewarding. I’m also “old school” enough to keep a printed copy of the manuscript in a binder. I like to be able to hold it in my hands and read what I’ve written in print, rather than on the screen. I noticed yesterday that this binder is basically full now. I’m either going to have to jump up to a much bigger binder or go with “Binder 1” and “Binder 2” as we keep going. Maybe even “Binder 3.”
Not long ago, I got in touch and let Ryan know about my progress. He agreed to take a look at the partial manuscript I’ve so far completed.
A few days later, he let me know what he thought of it and also let me know he’d be interesting in seeing what we can do together to bring it to life.
His publishing business is what’s called a “hybrid” shop, in that most of their business is self-publishing, wherein the author submits the work and pays a fee to get it out there in print and available to the public. That’s exactly what I did to get “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” out into the world. The business has changed and consolidated a lot in the last couple of decades, and even for a guy like me who has one successful book under his belt, it’s still nearly impossible to land a deal with one of the big traditional New York publishing houses. It just doesn’t happen, but you will spend a year getting rejected on a weekly basis, if that’s what you’re after.
In addition to publishing for a fee, he selects a very limited number of works to publish in the traditional way. No fee from the author and his business covers all the costs, then splits a royalty with the writer. By “very limited” I mean one or two per month. I was thrilled to see, in his email reply to me, words to the effect off “I’d very much like to publish this for you, in the traditional way, but I’m stacked up until the first quarter of 2021. Would that work? Otherwise, if you want to move faster and take full ownership I can send you a proposal for our various packages.”
I was honored. I did have him send me the proposal just so I could see how he goes about publishing and marketing, and all those details were just what I wanted to see. I was very interested in working with Ryan in the traditional sense. Plus, first quarter of 2021 is about the right target for me, considering where I am in terms of getting this done.
Ryan agreed. We talked about many details and he answered the two pages worth of questions I’d compiled, as to how it all works and what the expectations will be.
So… Once the contract is signed next week, I’ll be on my way to being published because my work is good, rather than because my money is good.
I won’t get rich (seemingly no one does in the book business these days) but I’ll be under contract to a real publisher and all I have to do is concentrate on the writing. We agreed to a firm deadline of October this year in terms of wrapping up the story and submitting the full manuscript.
Ryan is fully networked, and the book will be available on Amazon and all the other normal online outlets, both in print and in digital formats. On top of that, and this is really a bonus, he has an established network of local “brick and mortar” bookstores around the country, and he plans to get the book on the shelves there as well. But there’s one more detail that really got me excited.
We plan to release it in early 2021 as a hardback first. We’ll then bring out the paperback version a few months later. That’s another huge step up from anything I’ve ever done. And we’ll do all we can to keep the cover price in the sweet spot, in terms of what’s selling well these days, even with the hardback version.
I’ve been writing since I could scribble. I’ve done a lot of things, put a ton of words out there, and successfully released my own autobiography. I’ve written everything from press releases, to blogs, to columns, to a mammoth 545-page book. To have someone read my stuff and say “This is really good. It will sell. Let me make that happen for you” is the reward for all this work. Again, I’m honored.
But there’s a long chain in this process, to get me to this point in my life and career. A lot of things that had to fall in the right order and work in their own ways. Missing any link in the chain would likely mean this project would have to be “pay to play” just like the first one. Or it might not even happen at all.
Being accepted as a PR rep for 20+ years in the NHRA world not only established me, it gave me confidence. Writing my column for National Dragster magazine took that confidence to a new level. Writing my blog for all these years allowed me the chance to stretch out all those widely different writing muscles, putting stories together in a vast range of styles. It all added up to my first book.
Taking on this project, a fictional work, was a new foray into uncharted territory for me. It’s been eye-opening and thrilling to do this.
Without the support of people like Del Worsham, Tim Wilkerson, Phil Burgess, Greg Halling, and many others throughout the years, this wouldn’t have happened. I never take it lightly when anyone’s advice to me is “You really have to do this. It will be great. Just do it.”
Without the amazing and stunning support of my Kickstarter backers, who so generously pledged an enormous amount of money to fund “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” I’m not sure if it ever would’ve seen the light of day. Without that first book, I can’t imagine there would be this second one.
Without trusting in myself to take this leap into a creative corner of the fictional world, I’d still just be sitting on the sidelines quite proud of the first book but without anything else to write about.
And without Ryan’s trust and interest, there’s almost zero chance I’d be launching a traditionally published book in hardback, as soon as early 2021.
That’s a lot of “without this and without that” references. It just had to happen that way.
Hopefully, next week I’ll be able to release more details and plans once the ink is dry on the contract.
One could say “This is getting real, right about now.” I think it is.
I’ll keep you posted, every step of the way.
And hey, as always, don’t be afraid to click on the “Like” button at the top of this blog. The more “likes” the more exposure, and the wider the audience for what’s coming in the very near future.
Take care of yourselves. Be safe. Follow the protocols. WASH YOUR HANDS, and wear that goofy mask. It can save your life.
Bob Wilber, at your service and working hard at becoming a real boy.
This could be my last blog for a while. I don’t know. Maybe, or maybe not. We’ll see. I just know that in the last few weeks a thing that seemed ominous and worrisome, but way out beyond the horizon, has become far more than that. This coronavirus is not a joke. It’s not a hoax. It’s nothing to be trifled with. My blog has, since Day 1 back in August of 2005, almost always been focused on fun, nonsense, uplifting stories, nostalgia, heartfelt relationships, and the love of life. I’ve rarely (if ever) pontificated or preached. I have my opinions, and others have theirs, but I’ve tried valiantly to keep those things outside the realm of the regular “stream of consciousness” that has defined this blog forever.
And now, I just don’t feel like trotting out old photos, or pics of the The Boyz, or anything like that. This is real. Life is already altered, and it’s about to get far worse.
To be honest, when I hear the scientific experts talk about those who are most vulnerable, it hits home with a thud. I’m 63 and not far from 64. I grew up with severe and chronic asthma that has clearly impacted my lungs to this day. In terms of asthma, you may “grow out of it” but the impact of it is never gone. I can deal with my allergies and arthritis with meds, but the effects of the asthma are always there and the damage was done before I was a teenager. So, yes, this whole thing worries me.
Today, I’ve had to walk away from the laptop and social media a number of times already. The myopic views of so many people who are upset (that’s putting it mildly) because their favorite attractions, sports, or events are being disrupted by this pandemic drive me basically up the wall. And look, here I am getting preachy when I hoped I wouldn’t do that. Maybe I can’t help it.
I just don’t get it. I’m not wired that way. I wasn’t raised that way. This is not something I can understand. You are irate because your favorite sports event is cancelled out of an overwhelming need for caution and care? You think this whole thing is overblown and possibly made up? OK. I hope you’re right. More than anything in the world, I hope you are right. But, scientists (as opposed to politicians) tell me different facts. If it all blows over and people stop dying, that would be fantastic. A “Godsend” so to speak. I’ll gladly trade a few months without baseball, hockey, basketball, racing, and concerts if that can be the outcome. But, would I ever say “I don’t think it’s that big of a deal so why try to stop it or mitigate it?” Not for one minute.
After 9/11, our lives all changed for quite a while. It was real. We watched it happen. We absorbed the impact of it and tried to make sense of it.
This thing is different. We are dealing with something involving the whole world. As a country, we seem sadly ill-prepared to handle this and late to react to it. Is that preaching? Maybe, and if it offends you I’m sorry but not sorry. Lives are at stake. Today, things seem to be ramping up as organizations, leagues, and private industries have made their own decisions, because they can’t wait on the powers that be. I’m proud of the sports leagues and other entities who have stepped up to be proactive. Of course, because of the way we are or have become, they’re now the target of about as much hate and mindless vitriol as they are appreciation. To me, people come first. Yes, I’m absolutely going to be lost when flipping channels for the next month or so (I can hope it’s only that long) when I can’t find any of my favorite “sports balls” on my 800 cable channels, but this isn’t about me and my TV habits. It’s about all of us.
And when I say “all of us” I mean that literally. This is about all of us. If all you can think about is elbowing someone out of the way to get the last 32-roll pack of toilet paper at Costco, think about that. There are senior citizens rightfully afraid to leave home right now. This is no time for us to devolve into some “Lord Of The Flies” anarchy. Yes, that’s what we call hyperbole, but the videos of empty shelves where toilet paper used to be back it up. Get a grip. Look out for your neighbors. Care about your community. Take CARE of yourself, and that means washing your hands, covering your mouth, and keeping your distance. Just think about it. Seriously.
I am so proud of my nephew, Del Quentin Wilber. He’s a brilliant journalist who, like many of his colleagues, has to deal with the crap he hears about “the media” in order to do his job the best possible way, but he’s also a wonderful human being. Maybe those two things aren’t separate. Maybe being a careful, talented, and honest journalist and a wonderful person kind of go together? OK, I’m a Wilber and I’m biased. I grew up in a family of writers and journalists. Just moments ago, on Twitter, I saw this:
It’s about all of us. It’s not about the rich, or the poor, or those who still have their heads stuck in the sand. At some point, even the skeptical are going to need help. I believe in science. I believe that when scientific experts say “No, this is not the normal flu or a common cold” they are relying on real data, not hunches or wishful thinking. We are all going to be in this together, and we’ll either help each other out and look out for the greater good or we’ll fracture and wonder what the hell happened to us. It’s our choice.
And here’s the rub… Because why wouldn’t you? As I said earlier, I get incensed by so much of what I read on social media. People who are actually OPPOSED to all of this precaution. OK dude, so maybe you’re right. Maybe this is nothing. I don’t think so, but maybe there’s a chance. I hope there’s a chance. That would be awesome. But, what have you lost by being more careful and more socially health conscious? How hard is that?
So, here I am. We’re trying to go about our lives normally, but that’s not going to be fully possible soon. When sports are a huge part of your life, as they are to me, it’s already not possible for this to be normal. Eating out? Movies? Plane flights? Hotel rooms? It’s going to have to be a new normal. I just hope we all discover the will and conviction to find a way to lessen the impact. It will take all of us. As my dad often said, “Quit your bitchin’ and pitch in.”
I’ll be back when I feel like being fun again… Take care of yourselves!!!!
If this seemed too preachy to you, maybe you need to look in a mirror. I do that on a daily basis, wondering what the right things to do are rather than the convenient things. This is just what I think, but I didn’t conjure it up on impulse, from propaganda, or for personal convenience. I listen to the science, I listen to facts, from the CDC and the WHO. I don’t take it lightly. I don’t yet know if this is the last blog I’ll write, but if it’s the last one you read because you disagree, well that’s just how it goes. All the best to you. I hope it all works out. Life will go on for me. I hope to be back here again soon with more mischief, nonsense, and merriment. Until then, be careful and look out for each other. And dammit, wash your hands and cover your coughs and sneezes!!!
This was one very special week. It was heartwarming, loving, exciting, adventurous, full of travel even after we got down to Florida, and nostalgic. It was a lot of really good feelings.
I’m a day late posting this, but for a legit reason. Yesterday, my appointed blog day, was pretty much consumed by travel, whether on roads, on foot, or in the air. We left our hotel in Cape Coral at 9:00 in the morning, and got to the Ft. Myers / Naples airport, officially known at Southwest Florida International, around 10:15 for our 12:20 flight. If that seems quite a bit early, it’s because it has to be that way. Once you start your car in this part of the Sunshine State, you don’t know if you’re going to glide right through the route of travel or spend half your life in gridlocked traffic. You have to allow for the latter option, and if the traffic is manageable the worst thing is that you’re early. More about all that traffic later in the blog. You can’t visit the Gulf Coast of Florida without dealing with it.
I flew into Orlando on Saturday, following Barbara by a few days, and drove my rental car straight to the suburb of Ocoee, where nephew Todd, niece Angie, and the two adorable Twincesses (Bella and Stassi) live. Their wonderful home is also inhabited by an awesome group of cats and dogs, so it’s right up our alley, and Barb’s sister Kitty is often there as well, since she looks after the girls a number of days each week.
Todd and Angie are both busy almost all the time with work, so it’s a big deal when “Gramma Barb” and “Bob-Bob” come down for a few days. It’s basically nonstop fun for everyone involved.
The girls are at an age (three and a half) when things change so rapidly. We see them only every few months, which seems far too long, but each time we come down they have grown and progressed so much it’s beyond startling. They’re not babies anymore. There not toddlers learning to stand. They’re not even the little girls who just celebrated their third birthdays with us last fall. They’re so advanced, and they look so cute in a much more grown-up way. It’s amazing.
The last time I was with them, we could read to them and play some very simple games if their attention spans would allow it. Now, they hold in-depth conversations, play card games that I had to watch for a while just to figure out, and “point and swipe” on their iPads like pros. They play memory games on the iPads, turning over cards that reveal animals or other objects, and then have to remember where they saw that when they find the matching card later. You could almost see the neurons firing as they developed that memory, and then the matches would appear as fast as they could touch the screen. Wow.
For much of the time I’ve been around them, Bella would always be very open and welcoming to me but Stassi would be extraordinarily shy. So shy I felt bad about it, because she would hide or cover her face whenever she saw me. Each visit, it would get a little better and during each trip it would ease up noticeably while we were there. I’ll never forget the first time she grabbed a stuffed animal out of the bin, walked across the room, and handed it to me. Made my heart melt. Now, Stassi is officially my girlfriend. And Bella is the life of the party. It’s wonderful.
On Monday, it was time to say our goodbyes and make the drive down to Cape Coral, which is just north of Ft. Myers. I have enough experience with I-4 and I-75 to know that following that route can be really direct and efficient, but also very slow and frustrating. Long gridlock backups are, unfortunately, not uncommon. So, we took the scenic route much of the way, straight down the middle of the state on small highways. We did take I-4 as far as Lakeland, though. I wanted to show Barbara Tiger Town and Marchant Stadium, where I went through Spring Training and then played in the High Class-A Florida State League a lifetime ago. The Tigers were actually playing a game, so we couldn’t park and walk around, but I did give her a tour around the edges of the facility, and then we drove over to Florida Southern College, which features one of the world’s most extensive collections of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. It’s pretty amazing to drive around a college and see so much obvious work by one of the all-time masters of design. And it’s all still functioning and beautiful to this day.
After the long drive down to the Cape Coral – Ft. Myers area, we made one tactical mistake. I’d studied the map pretty extensively to check out how we’d get to the hotel, and none of the options seemed all that good. My original thought was that it might make more sense to cross the river into North Ft. Myers and then drive to Cape Coral that way, crossing back over the river not too far from the Westin. Instead, we decided to dial up the trip on GPS and use that. Those directions were awful. They literally had us going too far west, then south, then backtracking, all while battling bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was agonizing. And yes, the next day we discovered that my hunch would’ve been the better option. That was the best way to go, and we used that technique to get to multiple places.
Our schedule for Tuesday had us attending the Minnesota Twins game against the Detroit Tigers, at Hammond Stadium. It officially marked Barbara’s first experience with Major League Spring Training. Her “Spring Training debut” as it were. We got there in plenty of time, had no delays getting parked, and had the chance to cruise around the beautiful ballpark and soak it all in before the game started. The Twins won (which is kind of beside the point in Spring Training but still fun) and the day was gorgeous. It was damn near perfect.
Spring Training. I seem to write about it every year, but it never gets any less special to me. The first time little Bobby Wilber ever visited Florida was for Spring Training. All those early memories of Florida, from my youngest years up through college, were trips in which baseball and sunshine were directly linked. Whether by train (which was VERY cool) or by car, we made those pilgrimages nearly every year, and when my dad was the manager for the Twins Fall Instructional League team, I’d get to “double up” and head back down in late September for another visit. Let us never forget the time the 12-year old version of me threw a ball back into the infield while shagging fly balls out in right field, and said ball hit a young rookie infielder right in the back of the head. I wonder if that rookie remembers it. Next time I have a chance to chat with Rod Carew, I’ll have to ask him.
I’ll also never forget the spring of 1979 when I drove south myself, with my duffel bag, bats, and clothes all stuffed into the back of my little red Ford Fiesta, to attend my first-ever Spring Training as a professional player. When I was a few miles from Tiger Town, I spotted the massive light towers at Marchant Stadium and all the hair on my arms stood up. I was going to Spring Training once again, like all those other years, but this time I would part of it, on the field and in uniform. When I drove Barbara through Lakeland and spotted those light towers once again, the hair on my arms remembered the first time. It’s so very special.
Everything about Spring Training is special. As I posted on Facebook, there’s really nothing else even remotely like it. It’s unique in sports, and fabulously so.
The NFL plays four preseason exhibition games. There is almost nothing special about any of them. They are mostly disregarded by even avid fans. The NHL and NBA also have preseason games. They are meaningless, of course, but also nothing really unique or different from regular season games other than the fact they don’t count and the play is less spirited. That meaningless feature makes them, well, meaningless.
Spring Training is different. True, the scores don’t matter, but the experience and atmosphere do. You get to escape winter and head to paradise to watch your favorite players mix in a few innings in the sunshine. Then, guys you may or may not have heard of, minor leaguers looking to make an impression, often enter the game wearing jerseys with numbers like 87 or 93 on the back. Even then, there is a hierarchy. The minor leaguers who are almost ready for the big leagues and who have been to big league camp before get a high number too, but they get to have their last names on the back. Those guys wearing number 87 or 93 with no name on the back? They are soaking up every minute of it, gaining experience from it, and hoping desperately to make an impression on the big club staff. They know some day soon, maybe even this week, they’ll get the word to pack up their stuff in that first-class big league clubhouse and make the short walk over to the minor league complex next door. It only takes a few minutes to get there, but it’s roughly a million miles away. Still, they won’t forget a single moment of their time over there at Hammond Stadium, or wherever their big club plays. I’m 63. I still remember being in Tiger Town like it was yesterday. Those memories are indelible.
With one out in the 9th, we headed for the exits to get back to the Westin, which is incredible, and enjoyed a nice dinner before getting some shut-eye. Barbara had reserved a nice room, but her Titanium status with all Marriott properties again came in handy. We got upgraded to a two-bedroom suite on the top floor, with incredible views, two baths, three TVs, and a full kitchen. Since she’s not traveling nearly as much this year, she is not likely to keep that Titanium status, so we’ll enjoy it while we can!
The next day, we had tickets to see the Pittsburgh Pirates host the Atlanta Braves up in Bradenton. When we were making all these plans I recall being unsure what to do about that, in terms of driving and the hotel. With no traffic, Bradenton is about 90 minutes up the road from Ft. Myers. Add in the time it takes to just get to I-75 from the Westin in Cape Coral, and how long it takes to exit the freeway in Bradenton and plow through the stoplights just to get to historic McKechnie Field, and then factoring in possible tie-ups on I-75, and the trip could take anywhere from two hours to infinity. So… Should we leave the Westin and move to a hotel up there, or should we just make the long roundtrip drive? If we stayed up there for the final night, we could then fly back home out of Tampa or Sarasota. I had pondered that for a few days back in January, but decided the Westin was so nice that in and of itself it was part of the allure of the trip. So, we made the drive up there on Wednesday morning knowing we’d make the full round trip.
McKechnie Field (now officially LECOM Park at McKechnie Field) was built in the 1920s (1923 to be exact) and it’s a marvel in terms of being a trip back in time. It’s been renovated and updated a couple of times over the last century, but it maintains its atmosphere of an old-time ballpark. It’s marvelous. It’s unlike any other Spring Training park still in use, and it’ll warm your heart just being there.
For the record, neither Barbara nor I had any idea what LECOM was, but I wondered if it might be a Pennsylvania company of some sort, involved with the Pirates to create recognition with the Buccos fans who make the trip south each spring. Turns out, it’s a school. LECOM stands for Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and it is indeed a Pennsylvania institution, but they also have a branch in Bradenton. I guess that makes sense.
The latest renovation to McKechnie was a great one. They added a plaza behind the first base grandstand, where huge palm trees shade a grassy area where there are chairs and chaise lounges, while concession stands take care of hungry and thirsty fans. It’s beyond quaint. Barb was pretty mesmerized by the entire experience. It’s kind of like going to see your local amateur team but then on the field are big league stars. It’s about as comfortable and enjoyable as any ballpark I’ve ever visited. Definitely special!
McKechnie is also unique in another old-school way. It’s been on this particular site since it was built, and back then Bradenton was just a sleepy little Florida village. Over the decades, business and industry spread into the neighborhood, along with side streets full of homes, and they surrounded the ballpark. It now sits right on a busy intersection, about three steps from the edge of W. 9th Street, and any foul ball has a better than average chance of leaving the park altogether.
Parking can be an adventure, especially when compared to all the modern Spring Training ballparks that are surrounded by massive parking areas. At McKechnie, you drive down 9th and see a plethora of individuals with bright flags, trying to wave you into the their business or yard. We parked at a place that does tires and wheels. It cost $5.
Up until just recently, the Pirates didn’t control any of the parking for McKechnie. Then they bought the property behind the left field wall, tore down the abandoned building, and built their own lot that holds, maybe, 75 cars. That lot costs $10 because it’s right at the park, but to me it also looked like a magnet for home run balls, during BP and the game. Plus, the wind was blowing out to left. I could just imagine coming back to the car after the game to find a Major League baseball sitting on the driver’s seat, directly below the hole it made in the windshield. Hence, our decision to park a few blocks away.
If $5 for parking seems cheap, the ticket prices are too. We had great tickets for both the Twins and Pirates, just a few rows from the field in the reserved box seat section. They cost $29 each. Concessions are reasonable as well. At Hammond Stadium we bought a couple of hot dogs and two bottles of water and I think the total tab was less than $20 total.
Souvenirs are pretty much on a par with any Major League stadium, but we didn’t let that stop us. We left each ballpark fully stocked with new Spring Training t-shirts and hats. That’s a given. You just have to.
Both Hammond and McKechnie have also followed a fantastic trend during recent renovations. They’ve installed boardwalks that completely circle the outfield, so you can walk all the way around the field any time you want. There are concession stands out there, and any place on the boardwalk looks like a good spot to catch a homer if you get lucky. We spent at least four innings walking around at both parks. It’s great way to enjoy a warm Florida day with a baseball game just a few feet away.
By the way, have I ever mentioned what I believe to be the most wonderful sound in the world? It’s the crack of the bat when it hits a baseball right on the sweet spot. This is true.
After the game, we decided to take a little side trip and drive over to Anna Maria Island, just west of Bradenton across a causeway. The hard part was getting there. Traffic, again, was just brutal. It probably took us 45 minutes to cover the 5 miles over to the Ugly Grouper, a fun outdoor restaurant Lance, Radar, Oscar and I discovered last spring. That was fun, and good, so we decided to drive up to the tip of Anna Maria just to smell the Gulf breezes and enjoy the day a little more. Then everything took a much more frustrating turn.
Traffic, as is so often the case down there, was horrendous. Stop and go, with a lot more of the “stop” portion than the “go.” Stoplights galore, lots of tourists not familiar with the area, and even a draw bridge or two, just for added merriment. After all the fun we’d had, it was really exasperating way to end things. I think it took us nearly three hours to get back to Cape Coral, and that was with an effective “back way” into town I’d found on Mapquest. It allowed us to get off I-75 about 40 miles north of Ft. Myers, on a county road with very little traffic. And, to make things even better, that backroad took us right to the area of Cape Coral where the Westin is situated, so no need to trudge through all the surface street traffic you have to battle if you stay on 75 all the way. Still, I was exhausted from the day. All that driving and all that traffic will do that.
About five miles north of the hotel, I stopped to fill up the rental car with gas, making sure to top off the tank as much as I could so it would still be on “Full” when I returned the car the next morning, and when I went to put my American Express card in the reader on the pump, my heart stopped. It wasn’t in my wallet. I’d obviously left it on the table at the Ugly Grouper. Crap! It’s hard to avoid a panic attack when that happens, but I kept it together enough to fill up with a different card and then move the car out of the way so I could call Amex. Barb called the restaurant, but unfortunately they didn’t answer any of the multiple times she called and their voice mail system was full. Ugh!
It took a while to get through to the American Express rep I needed to speak with, because Amex has a pretty efficient phone recognition system that remembers your number and recognizes you. Well, to make things even MORE frustating, my phone had 2% battery and the rental did not have a USB port (what?) so my phone was effectively dead. At 2%, I wouldn’t have time to even get to a rep much less talk to them.
So I used Barb’s phone, which was fine but, of course, it fooled the Amex system, which meant they thought I was her. We finally got it sorted out, got my card cancelled, and a new one issued. It just came from FedEx a few minutes ago. The Amex rep then did a scan of my transactions and immediately asked me if I’d used the card at some place called the Ugly Grouper, for a bill of around $22. I had, obviously, but luckily there were not any other attempts to use it. The server must have grabbed it and put it somewhere safe where they could hold it for me when I came back. That wasn’t going to happen, though. Not after six hours of driving, and by then we were almost back to the hotel. No way on Earth I was driving back up to Bradenton and Anna Maria Island. Cancelling the card and issuing a new one was the only way to go.
To give them credit where such accolades are due, American Express probably leads the world in this sort of customer service. They know they’re going to be talking to a stressed out customer, and they calmly reassure you of everything. This is the fourth time I’ve gone through it, although the first three were after instances where I’d been hacked. This was the first time I’d ever walked away from a restaurant and left my card there, and then compounded that mistake by not discovering the fact until I’d driven many hours away from the scene of the lost card.
I have to change quite a few online profiles to the new number now, but that’s easy. I’m just glad we got it sorted out as quickly and as well as we did.
So there you have it. We flew home yesterday and got to the house around 5:00, I think. When we boarded the plane via jet bridge, it was 81 degrees. When we did the same in reverse, at MSP, it was 36 degrees and snowing a little. That’s a bit of a shock to the system, and I didn’t bother taking a jacket with me.
Now we’re back home and getting ready to enjoy temps in the 60s here this weekend. It’s not 82 and sunny, with a ballgame being played right in front of us, but we’re glad to be home. Buster and Boofus are glad too, after putting us through the “ringer of guilt” by yelling at us for a couple of hours. Once they realized we were truly home and not just stopping by, they spent the rest of the night purring on our laps. We did break in a new cat sitter for this trip, and apparently all of that went very well. There’s only one Erica, and we miss her as do the boyz, but Kelsey pinch-hit like a pro.
After getting yelled at by the boys and checking everything out, we were pretty exhausted last night, and both slept like bricks once we went to bed. Whew…
Before I go, I’ll remind you all of my ongoing request at the end of every blog. If you got this far and enjoyed the stories, please click on the “Like” button at the top. Maybe I’ll get enough new “likes” to clear my head from the fun of the lost American Express card and all the gridlock traffic.
See you next week!
Bob Wilber, at your service and in possession of my new Delta Reserve American Express card. Let the spending begin!
What You Find When You Dig Through The Utility Room
The word is “plaque.” For some reason, I always want to put a “c” in there and spell it placque, but a quick search on the Google machine instructed me, in no debatable terms, that the word “placque” is nothing more than “a misspelling of the world plaque” so there you have it. Late yesterday I was searching for a theme of any sort for this week’s blog, and (like most of them) it came to me out of the blue. The theme would be about plaques.
I’d been in the utility room to change the furnace filter yesterday, but thought nothing much more of that place where boxes, household items, tools, old jerseys, framed photos, duffel bags, and other remnants of this long career in sports and sports marketing go to spend the rest of their time in retirement. After downsizing quite a bit to move from the old Woodbury home (how we miss you Pond Cam) when we transferred to Spokane, we then downsized about another 1,000 square feet when we moved back here to our current lovely home in Woodbury. After the first move, out to Washington, a number of carefully packed boxes were never opened. They just lived there for four years in a closet. When we came back, the same thing happened. The unopened boxes, where I’m sure my cool miniature guitar and drum collection is still stored, went on a shelf in a new large utility room. For the record, the utility room in Spokane was so small you had to wedge your way around the furnace sideways while ducking under a copper pipe, just to get to the main sprinkler shut-off valve. There was no room to store anything in there. As my father used to say, “That place was so small you had to leave the room to change your expression.”
In addition to those boxes that stayed sealed, much like some sort of time capsule, a number of others also got put away as well, once we moved back to the Twin Cities. That’s both the benefit and the scourge of a larger utility room with sturdy built-in shelves. No need to throw anything out!
Among the heavier and more substantial bits of memorabilia down there were a bunch of plaques. I could see many of them standing on their sides under the bottom shelf, but had to dig beyond an upright fan, two end tables, a number of boxes, and a dozen or so framed photos, some of which I’d lost track of and therefore was really happy to see, including the long-lost Paintsville Hilanders team photo. I shall never lose that again!
It struck me that I should not just show some of the more important plaques, but I should tell the overall story of why I still have them and what each of them means. So here we are.
After I joined Del and Chuck Worsham in 1997, we battled like crazy for a couple of years but didn’t win a race. We finally did that in 1999 in Seattle, and it was a celebration for the ages. I was still relatively new to the sport and did order a jacket and a Wally trophy, but I didn’t yet know about a firm in Tampa called In The News and I also don’t think we earned a spot on the National Dragster cover after winning that race, but I may be mistaken. It was long time ago.
We didn’t win again until 2001, when we qualified No. 1 at Houston and then ran the table in dominating fashion. We had a big old hullaballoo at the Outback Steakhouse in Baytown, north of the track, and during the toasts and the steaks, someone mentioned In The News to me. I don’t recall who it was, but they said “If we get the cover of the Dragster, I’m ordering one of those plaques.” I had no clue, so I asked about it.
The company specializes in taking photos or clippings and mounting them on heavy wood, then sealing them with a polyurethane before adding a standard “trophy style” name plate at the bottom. They did a lot of work for racing teams back then, and as far as I know they still do. They were then, and probably still are now, the industry leader in taking awards and clippings and preserving them as impressive wooden or acrylic plaques, and have access to all the major publications so you don’t have to cut the clipping out and send it to them.
I got “tipped off” early that when National Dragster would come out, we would actually not be on the cover. But, the people at CSK really wanted to congratulate us so they asked me to come up with a full-page ad concept, and needed me to write the copy. An hour later, we had it. A week later, we had the magazine in our hands, and a couple of weeks after that I had this plaque on my wall. All of these are probably images you’ll want to click on to enlarge.
So that’s how it starts. You win that first race, which in our case was Seattle, and you just have to get the jacket and buy the Wally. You just have to. And then another two years go by and you’re convinced it might never happen again. When it does, and you win it all in Houston, you not only buy the Wally and the jacket, but now you add the In The News plaque. And the collection begins.
I’m not sure it’s superstition or just pride, but from that point forward I never hesitated to get one of everything, especially once we finally started making the cover of National Dragster after victories. There was never any hesitation, and I know the main reason for that was the fear that it might, actually, never happen again. I mean, it’s REALLY hard to win those races. Why jinx it?
And back then, in my office at the Marsh Creek house, my decorating style was one I’d seen in many sportswriter or sports information director’s offices. The style was “Show everything and use every square inch of wall and shelf space to display it.” Starting with a few plaques was easy. Some framed Winner’s Circle photos were a sure thing. Die cast cars, the Big Bud Shootout trophies we got with Western Six-Shooters mounted on them had to be shown too. And the Wally trophies? Well, duh. Winner’s Circle hats? Of course. I made sure to even hang each year’s hard-card credential and its lanyard on the wall. Barbara never said much about it. It was my job, and my office. It was kind of crazy and legit out of control.
I finally made the decision to stop trying to fill every inch of space when it was time to sell the house and the staging expert convinced me to clean up my office into a more minimalist look. I admitted it was, sad to say, more appealing once I saw it. I decided I’d never do it the old cluttered way again, but I would rotate various photos and bits of memorabilia over the years and I would most likely never part with any of it. I mean, those jinxes are real! Don’t mess with success!!!
In 2002, we finally earned a cover when we won the Checker, Schuck’s Kragen Nationals in Phoenix. Those race weeks were always manic for the PR guy, as we ran around and had to be “here, there, and everywhere” from Tuesday through Thursday, before the actual race began on Friday. To cap it off with a win in front of damn near the whole company, was a thrill beyond anything we’d done up to that point. And, it was another reason why we were cementing our place as the cornerstone of CSK’s marketing efforts. We were their team. They were our family. And I ordered that plaque as soon as the magazine came out. Editor Phil Burgess not only gave us the cover photo, but a great headline too. Talk about a “keeper.”
In addition to the cover, CSK again took out a full-page ad to congratulate us and that made for my first side-by-side plaque. The thing weighs a ton, and it looked great on the wall.
As an aside, I wasn’t just the Team Manager and PR rep for the group. I was also Chief Decal Installer, a job I was proud of but continually horrified by. Every time I see a photo of any of those CSK cars, I close one eye and peer through my fingers with the other, knowing for sure I’d be seeing something so crooked I might want to burn the photos. The Houston and Phoenix pics look pretty good, thankfully.
In 2003, we won my hometown race in St. Louis and got the cover again. Keep in mind, after we won Seattle in 1999 and then went winless in 2000, we won four races in 2001 and four more in 2002. Then we won three in 2003, five in 2004, two in 2005, and one final race in 2008. And I’m only talking about Del’s red car here. The blue car won some races too, with Frankie Pedregon and Phil Burkart delivering the goods, and I ordered some plaques and photos for those wins as well. In the interest of telling this story and keeping it somewhat short, I’m only diving into the red team here.
After years of broiling at the St. Louis race during summer events held in the hottest months of the midwestern year, we ran the 2003 race completely at night. Well, sort of. It doesn’t actually get dark in St. Louis until after 9:00 pm during the summer, so we started in early evening and finished up at night. At least that kept the soles of our shoes from melting.
The thing is, we ran pretty lousy in qualifying and just sneaked into the field in the final spot. Yep, No. 16 in a 16-car field. But I’ll never forget winning that first round (was it Gary Densham we beat?) and thinking “We just took over the No. 1 car’s spot. We can win this.” And we did. It wasn’t until much later that I watched a replay of the TV show and heard Mike Dunn say, as Del pulled to the line in round one, “If anyone can win a race from the number 16 spot, it’s Del Worsham.”
I wore a Cardinal hat throughout the race and then wore it to the Winner’s Circle, just to honor my dad and my home town. When we got our official Winner’s Circle hats, I put the red Cardinal hat on the injector. I still have a photo of Del and me with the Wally and the red hat with the STL logo is clearly visible.
And yes, for the most part the decals on that St. Louis car seem pretty straight. By then, we were winning lots of races and landing considerably more associate sponsor deals, whether we were getting them ourselves or CSK was leveraging them for us. That’s a ton of decals to squeeze in along the bottom edge or behind the rear wheel wells, and on the spoiler spill plates. When we’d get a new body, the whole process stressed me out so much I’m surprised I never got hives or something. And I always attacked a fresh new body in the same way. 1) I always put Del’s name above the windows first. That’s how I dove in the pool and got started. 2) I knew once that first one was on, there was no stopping until I was done. I’d have decals spread all over the hospitality area and sheets full of notes about where everything went.
Finally, the biggest, baddest, and most important plaque of them all. And yes, it’s another heavy side-by-side. Indy, 2005.
Yes, we won the $100,000 Skoal Showdown for the first time. That was amazing. Then we came out to the track on Monday and could only dream of winning four more rounds during the actual Mac Tools US Nationals to “double up” and turn our prize money into something north of $225,000 in just two days. And we did it.
It was the most nervous I’ve ever been. If you read my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” you might recall how I had played a random playlist on the old iPod speaker dock in my office and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” came on before the first round, and the lyrics spoke to me as if to say “This got played for a reason. Listen to this. This can happen if you seize it”
“If you had one shot, or one opportunity,
To seize everything you ever wanted.
In one moment.
Would you capture it, or just let it slip?”
I then, of course, played that again before round two, and the semifinal, and the final. And I was so nervous before the final round I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to pass out. When we won, I’m relatively sure I’ll never feel that much emotion pour out of me again, all at one unfiltered moment. It was incredible. Obviously, this plaque will be with me forever, despite being in the utility room.
I leave you with this unframed 8×10 photo I also discovered in the utility room. I hadn’t seen it for decades.
I’m 99% sure this is from 1997. At least I know all of these drivers were in the 1997 Big Bud Shootout (the precursor to the eventual Skoal Showdown) and I don’t see any easy-to-find evidence that they were all, once again, in another Big Bud together as a group. Must be ’97.
Like the fan I was, I ran around before and after this photo shoot and got all the driver’s to autograph it. They are, from left to right: Gary Densham, Kenji Okazaki, Cruz Pedregon, John Force, Tony Pedregon, Chuck Etchells, Dean Skuza, and my boy Del Worsham. Note that Del is wearing a black generic Simpson fire suit. In ’97, our budget wasn’t big enough to pay for a custom red CSK fire suit, or even embroidered CSK starting line shirts! We started that deal with next to nothing. We collectively built it into something absolutely huge.
In the middle are Dallas Gardner from NHRA and Karen Holschlag from Anheuser-Busch. Also lots of beer.
So there you have it. A trip to the utility room to change a filter turns into a pretty fun recounting of things like plaques and Wally trophies. And how my design aesthetic changed from “How much can I cram in here?” to “What are the most important things I can display here?” It’s better this way, but thankfully I have a utility room that allows me to keep these memories around. I’m not a hoarder. I promise. I’ve given far too much of this stuff away to be considered a hoarder.
As always, the rule is this: Did you like any of this blog? Even a few words or a photo? If so, I’d be ever so thankful if you clicked on the “Like” button at the top. The more “likes” the more visitors and the more we can spread the word about some of these stories. Gracias, amigos y amigas.
See you next week, I think. I’m headed to Florida on Saturday and Barbara and I will be enjoying Spring Training games in Fort Myers and Bradenton on Tuesday and Wednesday, before flying home on Thursday. I might be a day late if I want to write about those adventures. We’ll see.
Bob Wilber, at your service and proud of the 20+ years I put in with Del Worsham, Tim Wilkerson, and the NHRA Drag Racing tour. I have the plaques to prove it!
I toyed with the idea of skipping the blog this week, for a couple of reasons. The first was the fact I was really on a roll with the new book over the last few days, cranking out page after page until my typing would get sloppy. I wanted to keep that up. My editor Greg Halling is now waiting on me to get him more content and I know I owe it to him. The second reason was the fact I had no theme in mind, although that’s rarely stopped me in the past. What to do?
Well, after a few hours of stalling I came to the realization that this blog is important too. The book will happen. We’re getting there and I like what we have in the tank so far. But every Thursday I feel the need to ramble on about something. What would that something be this week? I wasn’t sure. OK, I actually had no clue. Then, out of the blue (where most motivational ideas seem to come from) something clicked in my head about things I miss. The older you get, the more you file away things that you not only miss, but probably can’t do any more. The list gets longer.
And then there’s the flip side, the yang to the yin, the down to the up. In each instance of missing something, what do I not miss? At around 11 this morning I remember thinking “How have I never had that idea before? That’s a great theme!” Who knows, though. I’ve been writing a blog since 2005 and I can’t be 100% sure what I’m inventing versus what I’m recycling. Too many blogs and too many words to keep track of all that.
I guess we’ll see. Not sure what I’ll have for photos, and I may not end up with any at all, but this should be a good exercise in self-awareness and appreciation for the past and all the things that made me what I am. Here we go:
Things I miss
Playing Wiffle Ball or basketball in the driveway at my boyhood home. The Wiffle Ball games were epic, and they continued all the way through high school. My buddy Bob Mitchell and I must have completed a full 162-game schedule by the time we were done and off to college. Our customized rules were simple.
It was a one-on-one game, with just a pitcher and a hitter. I don’t recall ever playing with other players out there with us.
There were no “walks” in Wiffle Ball. You either hit the ball and were safe or out, or you struck out
Any ground ball back to the pitcher, fielded cleanly, was an out
Any fly ball or pop-up caught by the pitcher, was an out
Any ground ball past the pitcher was a single (there was no base running and there were no bases, you just counted it as a hit and imagined the man on base)
Any line drive past the pitcher, that landed before the end of the driveway, was a double
Any fly ball or line drive that landed in the street, but between the end of the drive and the center of the street (there was paving “seam” there to mark the spot) was a triple
Any fly ball that landed on the far side of the middle of the street was a home run. That was quite a poke with plastic ball that had holes in one half.
With any imaginary runner on base, any line drive caught by the pitcher was a double play
These games could go on for hours. Mitch and I once played for an entire weekend afternoon, starting at 12 noon and not ending until dark. We even played through a thunderstorm to make it happen.
My “strikeout pitch” was a sidearm slider, released with the Wiffle Ball holes on the bottom of the grip. It was damn near unhittable. In today’s parlance, we’d call it a cutter, but we didn’t know that term then. It was hard, from 40-feet away, and it dove down and away just enough to avoid bats. Even if you knew it was coming.
There was as huge oak tree next to the drive, and it’s still there. The branches grew out over the driveway a little more each year, and we dubbed it “The Green Monster.” The line was, “The Monster giveth, and the Monster taketh away” because a sure homer might just nick a branch and fall harmlessly straight down, maybe even turning into an out if the pitcher reacted quickly enough. But, a lousy pop-up might also get tangled in the tree, turning a sure out into a pinball game that could cause the ball to fall as equally harmlessly as a hit.
The photo to the right is a brand new one from GoogleEarth. It stunned me to see that “Mary’s Tree” has been chopped down. Yikes! Planted as a stick in 1970 and now nothing but a memory. But the big oak we called the “Green Monster” still dominates. Pitcher’s mound would’ve been about halfway down the drive, with the batter’s box right in front of the garage.
The key to the fun was the bat. Those yellow plastic bats that come with a Wiffle Ball set are useless. They are hollow and far too light, so you can’t swing them like a normal bat. Mitch and I had a vintage wooden Wiffle Ball bat. It was just the right length and weight, and it felt like a real bat when you swung it.
The balls had a lifespan, and it wasn’t long. We seemed to be always scrounging for the money it would take to go to the drug store and buy new balls. When we were flush with cash, we might buy six at a time. There was nothing better than opening that small box and pulling out a brand new Wiffle Ball.
Those were the days…
Things I don’t miss
Crawling under bushes to find any ball that happened to roll into that science-fiction vortex. It was a great way to skin your knees and end up with prickly bits in your arms, and the insane ability for a ball to gently roll into that bush but then disappear forever was mindbending.
Starting a game with a beat-up old ball that was caving in on the top half and then seeing it crack and collapse altogether in the third inning, knowing we were broke and didn’t have the money to buy a new one. They cost maybe a dollar, but when you’re broke you’re broke. Generally, the basketball came out at such a time.
Being hyped up to play all day at school, only to come home and find out my mom had a group of friends over and their cars filled not just the driveway, but the curb on the street as well. The heartache was real. No seriously, it really was.
Things I miss
12-hour bus rides with my baseball brothers, whether in college or pro ball. Those were bonding moments, and you found out in a hurry how well you all got along. I’d bring a book and a backgammon board on most of those long trips. And as I wrote in “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” you learned in a hurry that personal space is not really optional. Another guy’s shoulder might be your pillow on this trip, and the offer would be made in reverse on the next one.
There was just something communal and strengthening on those long trips. You were brothers in arms.
Things I don’t miss
Five or six hour bus rides with my baseball brothers. You get prepared and psyched up for the super-long trips, and your brain is ready for it. By comparison, a six-hour ride seems easy and harmless. They are not. Six-hour rides are the worst. Too short to sleep or be prepared for, but long enough and tedious enough to drive every guy insane. The word “interminable” comes to mind.
Things I miss
Reading voraciously to pass the time when I was a baseball scout for the Blue Jays. Being a scout, especially during the summer when we had “pro coverage” and just scouted other organizations’ minor league teams, was a lesson in killing time. Reading was a way through those long mornings and afternoons until it was time to “go to the yard” for that night’s game. I went through many phases, including murder mysteries, police dramas, and biographies.
Things I don’t miss
The horrible feeling of guilt and remorse as soon as I bought a new hardback book at the B. Dalton in whatever local mall was nearby, knowing my scout’s salary of $13,000 a year couldn’t handle such luxuries. It was a real thing. I’d ache for that new bestseller and would talk myself into buying the just-released hardback for $19. I no sooner got back to the motel before that wave of guilt would wash over me. Reading always won. The remorse always came in second, but it was powerful.
And the other part of scouting I will never miss was the paperwork. Scouting reports are tedious and complicated. For every game seen, you could easily face six hours of paperwork, and it wasn’t just filling in lines and boxes with a pencil. It was all about your own professional opinion. My name was on those reports. My opinions and rankings were part of that. There was a lot of deep thinking involved in addition to the handwriting. It was a lot of pressure mixed with a lot of tedium. I remember my dad always telling me about that, before I was a scout. He was right. “The job is never over until the paperwork is done.”
Things I miss
Winning NHRA races. There is genuinely nothing like it. It’s a walk-off winner for the ages, and just seconds before it happens no one knows how it’s going to turn out. It’s pure emotion. It’s amazing. I still stare at the many photos I have, just remembering those incredible feelings. “The highest high” for sure.
Things I don’t miss
Holding the video camera to shoot our Funny Car heading down the track only to see something really bad happen. From Funny Car bodies (EXPENSIVE Funny Car bodies) being launched into the air or shredded into a million pieces to collisions with the wall or another car. It’s awful. The accumulation of those video views clearly took a toll on me. I’d had enough when it as time to quit. I don’t miss that at all. I hated it. “The lowest low.”
Things I miss
Running three different indoor soccer teams, despite the fact the third and final one was folded out from under me not long after I took over the reins in Indianapolis. There was nothing as energizing as getting ready for a season, developing and selling those sponsor packages, and leading my staff to sell every possible ticket we could. And then, on game day, walking out into that arena to see the crowd and watch their reactions to not just the game on the turf, but also the promotions we did and the way we led them on the PA system. That was pure joy. I never worked so hard in my life, but also never got more satisfaction from it.
Things I don’t miss
Wearing a suit and tie to work. Throughout my four years in indoor soccer and for the three years I worked for my brother Del’s sports-marketing agency, a suit and tie (or at least a coat and tie) were the costume of the day.
Simply put, I was never programmed to enjoy that. I tried to make up for it with wild paisley ties or others with Looney Tunes characters printed on them. I had quite a few Bugs Bunny ties, but I still hated getting “dressed up” to go to work. Maybe it was because the nuns made us wear ties for eight full years of grade school and I never wanted to wear another one.
Things I miss
Going to work with my dad after dinner on a winter’s night. Like most baseball men back in those days, he needed a winter job to keep the bills paid and for much of my childhood he worked at Casey’s Sporting Goods in Kirkwood. He’d go back for the final shift after dinner and often take me with him. I roamed around the store, staring at objects I could never afford, but relishing the sight and smell of new baseball gloves, hockey sticks, pucks, soccer balls, and snow skis. Those were glorious nights. And we’d often cap it off by stopping in at Velvet Freeze right next door to the store, for a some vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate syrup and salty nuts. Heaven.
Things I don’t miss
Saying goodbye to my dad in late February when he was scouting, knowing I’d be lucky to see him for more than a day or two per month until October. It was lousy, but we were all used to it. When he was managing in the minors, I’d usually get to spend some of the summer with him and his team, but even waiting from the first day of Spring Training until school was out was agony. I spent most of my childhood missing my dad desperately, but I adored him and idolized him anyway.
Things I miss
Being able to literally eat anything, and as much as I wanted, without ever fearing that I’d gain even a pound. All the way up through my pro baseball career, my biggest worry was that I was NOT gaining weight. I was always too skinny. Entire Farotto’s pizzas? Big Macs? Malts and milk shakes? All of it.
Things I don’t miss
Eating all of that unhealthy food. I was never a healthy kid and I can’t imagine my diet helped in any way. I’m still not the world’s healthiest eater, but I watch what I consume and I have successfully developed the ability to stop eating as soon as I feel full. I hate the feeling of being “stuffed” after overeating.
Things I miss
Being young and so full of energy I could hardly slow down to eat, much less sleep. Being able to run forever on the baseball field, tracking down fly balls from 100 feet away and throwing rockets to the plate to gun a runner down. Being on the bases and scoring from first on a double. Hitting a ball so hard, and so much on the sweet spot, you couldn’t feel it but you knew it was gone the second you made contact.
Things I don’t miss
Pulled hamstrings, shoulder tendonitis, getting jammed with a fastball and not getting the feeling back in my hands for 10 minutes, or getting drilled in the elbow by a fastball and having it hurt so bad you couldn’t help but think throwing up was coming next. Also the ubiquitous “strawberries” we always had on our knees and thighs. The open wounds that never healed thanks to sliding on rock hard dirt.
Nah… Who am I kidding? I miss all of that too. Desperately.
So that’s it for this week. Maybe you’ll spend a little while thinking back and compiling your own “Miss” and “Don’t Miss” list. Have at it.
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See you next week!
Bob Wilber, at your service and still trying to appreciate all the things I miss and don’t miss. It’s all the fabric of me.
Welcome back, frozen faithful and all you others who are someplace where it’s nice and warm. This might be a bit of a short one today (you’ll understand that when I get to the second part of the “adversity” topic) but we have some ground to cover. Yes, it’s the middle of the afternoon and we haven’t gotten up to zero degrees yet. That’s not really adversity, I guess, but it’s certainly something that has an impact on what you do and where you do it. Tonight, we’ll be back down to -16 or lower again, but we have a rapid warm up scheduled for Friday into the weekend. We may hit 35 on Saturday, and compared to this deep-freeze that will seem balmy. You will, indeed, see Minnesotans running errands in shorts or light jackets.
We are getting there, in terms of the overall seasonal weather, though. The days are getting longer, and now it’s no longer totally dark just after 4:00 pm. Sunset is now closer to 5:45, and I noticed yesterday that the sun is shining into different parts of the living room and dining room, as we approach the Vernal Equinox in just about a month, and the tilt of the planet shifts the sun’s perceived location in the sky. All of that is good. More sun means more melting and warmer days. A higher sun means more melting, too. At some point, even if we do get those pesky April snow storms (don’t say “blizzard”) it goes away pretty fast because we have so much more sunshine.
And Spring Training has started, so that’s the surest sign that another winter has its days numbered. We’ve had a couple of snow storms recently that added to the total on the ground, but the new company our HOA has contracted with for snow removal has been doing a great job.
They have a team of people with regular shovels to clear our walkways and porches. They have one guy with a walk-behind snow blower for the sidewalk. And then there’s the talented dude who drives the tractor for our driveways. It can pull snow away from our garage doors, with a big “box” attached to it, and it then acts as a giant snow blower to clear the rest of it away. They can do the entire neighborhood in just a few hours, although they usually wait until the snow has stopped before they get started. They also try to time it so that the Woodbury city crew has plowed the street before they do our drives. Otherwise, they clear our driveway and then the city trucks plow us back in with the big equipment. It’s working out well. We haven’t always been pleased with the contractors the HOA has hired, but this group does a great job.
So there’s that, but I also have a more immediate adversity story to tell. Barbara is in New York and Baltimore this week, so I had a ton of errands to run yesterday. When I was at the grocery store, stocking up on my bachelor provisions, I remember thinking “Hmmm. My stomach doesn’t feel so great” but I ignored it and passed it off. When I got home, around 4:00-ish, I was feeling pretty sketchy but I had a lot to unload and put away so I just kept going. Once I had all that done, I think my body and brain conspired to say “OK Slick, now we take over.” It was pretty awful for more than a few hours. Luckily for me, it appears all I had was a little 24-hour bug and today I’m feeling much better, other than the part where I feel like I got hit by a truck.
After the really bad part, I had a feeling I’d have a hard time sleeping. I still felt terrible. That can be a really hard thing when both Barbara and I are here because neither one of us likes to put the other out when we’re not feeling well. Generally, one of us will “go into quarantine” in another room when the other is sick. Being here alone wasn’t any fun, but at least that meant I could utilize one of my go-to routines when sleepless nights happen. At any time, I could switch to a “change of venue” in the house to see if I could fall asleep there. Whether it was the master bedroom, the living room sofa, or even the home theater downstairs, I could change where I was without worrying about bothering her. That helps from a mental perspective.
I’ve been a lifelong insomniac, and I’m not using the “lifelong” term loosely. Since early childhood, I’ve often had a hard time going to sleep. It used to drive me crazy when my sister Mary and I would be told to go to bed and she’d be sleeping as soon as her head hit the pillow. Even as a seven or eight year old, it was common for me to toss and turn, and then get very frustrated, until after midnight! Insomnia is not fun.
But when I’m alone, I can just chill out. No need to worry about waking up sister Mary, or any other roommate I’ve ever had. No need to worry about bugging Barbara when she really needs her sleep because work is so demanding. So the whole “frustration” part of it chills out a lot. I know I was awake last night until at least 4:30, but I just relaxed and didn’t worry about it. That makes it bearable. And I did change venues a few times, just to see if that would help. Around 4:00, I was laying there and I actually felt my stomach feeling better in a hurry. It’s was noticeable, and a huge relief. I know there’s a stomach flu going around that puts people down for a week or more, so once I started feeling better I put it all aside and went to sleep. I didn’t sleep great, but at least I got some.
And here’s what you hear late at night and into the morning when it’s -12 outside. A lot of house noise. Pops, groans, creaks, and other stuff I couldn’t identify. It was 35 degrees as late as noon yesterday, but the bottom dropped out of the temperature and the house was reacting to that. When you’re up until after 4:00, you hear it all. Boofus and Buster lifted an ear once or twice, but I guess they’ve heard it all by now.
As for the insomnia, I once saw a specialist when I was living in Kansas City running the indoor soccer team there, and he gave me a ton of advice on having bedtime routines. You have to follow them, and the worst thing you can do is just say “I’m not tired, but I’m going to bed now.” Once that first doubt creeps in that you’re not falling asleep, you’re toast. I know it’s hard on Barbara that I feel the need to follow those routines, but I really have to. I have to be totally tired and nodding off before I go to bed. No TV in the bedroom! And no iPhone in hand once in bed! Usually, I can go right to sleep, but last night was way more physical than mental, so I just rode it out. Now I’m feeling a lot better.
And the last mention of adversity has to do with the man in this photo. This is Father Bailey, who was President and Principal at St. Louis U. High when I went through that amazing school. He passed away back in 2006, but today was the anniversary of his passing and the school sent out a social media blast so that we could all remember him.
I wrote about this in my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” but it’s great to put a face to the story for all of you now. When I got to SLUH, I struggled with the advanced curriculum and very difficult classes. The Jesuits were fair, but they were tough and they demanded a lot from us. Frankly, much of it was over my head, and I came as close to flunking out my freshman year as you can come. I’m sure, looking back on it, I had A.D.D. and that didn’t help when the classes were really tough and really dry. Father Bailey had a HUGE impact on me. He saw something in me that most of my teachers did not. He believed in me. He knew I had a lot of talent in some areas, but would never be a master of math and science.
When I was at my lowest and about to give up, he said, “I believe in you. You’re smart. You can do this. I want to ease you into a curriculum that better addresses the terrific skills you have. Anyone who can write and communicate, and take over a room like you can, probably isn’t going to need all this advanced trigonometry and calculus. I doubt you’ll need much in terms of physics and other advanced science. Let’s make you the best at what you’re meant to be.”
Within months, I’d raised my grade point average to a solid B+ and it stayed in the B+ to A- range until I graduated. A lot of those other teachers dismissed me as an underachiever in their particular classes, and I guess I was. Father Bailey spotted something in me and refused to let me fail. He changed my life. He was a great man. He was special.
And now what about that mention of travel?
We haven’t been doing a ton of that since Thanksgiving, but it’s about to ramp up again in a big way. First, by the end of this month we’ll be heading to Florida for a week. First stop Orlando, to see the gang there and the Twincesses, who are growing up so fast it’s hard to fathom. Then, Barb and I will head down to Fort Myers so that she can see her first-ever Spring Training game. We’ll be at the Twins home game on the first day down there on the Gulf Coast, and then will make the trip up to Bradenton so she can see that classic ballpark and her hometown Pirates, before heading back home from Fort Myers. Sounds like fun to me!
After that, a quick trip out to Denver to see all the Doyles out there, especially niece Erin, her husband Eric, and their adorable little girl Maci, who was basically still not much older than a newborn when we last saw her. Looking forward to seeing the whole gang out there. It’s always fun, although this trip will be short. I think Barb’s sister Kitty might be coming out as well, which is great.
And then the big news. (Drum roll please…)
It’s cat-sitting time again in Kauai!!! Mary texted me the other night about their plans to come to the Mainland to see kids and grandkids, and asked if I’d be interested once again. I could barely type “Sure!” fast enough. It’ll be the end of April into the middle of May, and not only is Barbara coming out for the final week but one my nieces, Mary and Lonnie’s daughter Lauren, is as well, with her boyfriend. They’ll cat-sit once they get there and we’ll move over to the Sheraton across the road, but it will be fabulous to spend time with Lauren and get to meet her guy. I’m such a giver. Family asks me if I could possibly do them a huge favor by coming over to Kauai and I never hesitate. I mean, you have to be there for them, right?
So that’s about it. I need a nap. I never did get the license plate number off that truck that hit me last night. Feeling way better now though, so I’m thankful for that.
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See you next week! Now time for that aforementioned nap…
Bob Wilber, at your service and really now understanding how important Father Bailey was to my life.
It’s cold here this time of year. You know that going in. And it was a bit on the seriously chilly side a few nights ago when I went outside for some reason. I don’t remember now what took me out there. Some sort of errand? Whatever the reason, I walked out the door and over to the driveway, and I looked up. It was a cloudless winter night, and the stars were amazing. Billions of them. They’re like that on crystal-clear winter night. And as I stood there, looking up, a totally unexpected thought burst into my consciousness. “These are the same stars. That’s Orion. They’re all the same. It’s the same sky.”
Now, I’ll admit, that’s not a huge revelation. It’s been the same sky for all 63 of my years. But it triggered something in me, and I don’t know why. Maybe I’m just getting old and nostalgic. But, right there at that moment, staring at the same sky, I was back on the driveway at 513 Woodleaf Court in Kirkwood, Mo. I was there. It was a lot of wonderful and little bit scary all at the same time. I was there. I felt it. I was home.
Let me bore you with a little more detail about Kirkwood, Missouri. You could not possibly ask for a better place to grow up. And I was lucky, in that regard. My dad moved around ceaselessly in his baseball career. It was a different town, a different league, or a different job almost every year. It’s a vagabond lifestyle unless you’re one of the truly talented and fortunate who get to spend decades in one place. My dad was a great player, though he was no Stan Musial. But when he was signed by the Cardinals and put on the big league roster in 1946 my parents bought a home. In Kirkwood. I really don’t know why. It was about 12 miles from the ballpark and 15 miles from downtown. It was a “bedroom community” in some ways, but it had its own historic downtown with shops, a bakery, a drug store, a hardware store, and more. Plus an actual functioning train station. It was middle America in spades.
Their first house was on Par Lane, not far from where I grew up. There had been a golf club there, way before the houses were built. I think you can still find it in the Guiness Book of World Records for the longest putt ever holed. Some golfer teed off with a putter at the Woodlawn Golf Club and got a hole-in-one. When a developer bought the entire place and built hundreds of small Cape Cod brick homes, the sort of suburban homes that were popping up everywhere after World War II, my parents bought one after my dad became a Cardinal. The developer was cute enough to name many the streets after golf terms. Par Lane was one of them, along with Fairway, Bogey, and Club. Those street signs are still there.
When the family grew, and my sister Mary and I were about to join the world, they moved a few blocks, to Woodleaf Court, just down Woodlawn Avenue from Par Lane. It was a modern contemporary 1950s house. Split level with huge windows and modern touches beyond its time. It was cursed with something typical for the time, however. The three bedrooms were small, the closets microscopic, there was only one full bath, and the galley kitchen was barely big enough for 1.5 people at a time. But by 1956 when I was born, it was home.
We may have traveled a lot, for my dad’s career, but 513 Woodleaf was always home. It stayed the family home until we finally had to move Mom and Dad into assisted living and then sold the place. That was hard. It was the warmest, safest, most wonderful home a boy could grow up in.
We had a basketball hoop in the driveway, it would’ve been about halfway down on the left in this current-day photo. I can’t believe I was never more than an average basketball player considering the hours I spent out there shooting hoops. And I was an aspiring football kicker, who spent an equal amount of hours kicking balls into the large oak tree on the other side of the drive. They would pinball down, branch to branch, and I’d retrieve them and kick them all again. We always had four to six footballs in the bin in the garage. That was a necessity.
That large tree that’s seen right next to the driveway? My sister Mary took a branch from another big tree and stuck it in the ground right before we left for Washington D.C. for the summer of 1970, when Big Del was a coach for the Senators. We could not believe it when we got back home after that summer and the thing was still alive. Look at it now! That’s a Wilber legacy, all by itself. Our history is in that tree. Mary’s DNA is in it. Amazing. It’s officially known as “Mary’s Tree.”
There is a lone spotlight on the front of the house above the garage. It wasn’t all that bright, but it gave us a chance to play basketball at night. The challenge was always shooting from the left side of the basket, because you were not only looking into the light but you were shooting uphill by a degree or two. It was a small slope toward the street, but it was real. No wonder, later in life, when I did play pick-up basketball, my favorite shot was from the right side of the basket, about 15-feet out.
On too many nights to count, after basketball was done, I’d lay on the lawn and stare at the sky. The same sky. The same stars. You could do that in Kirkwood. It was quiet. It was full of families living in modest yet wonderful homes. I never once felt worried about my safety or those around me. Not once. It was home.
See the diagonal sloping window connecting to the chimney, above the huge windows in the living room? That was a skylight. All 10 homes on Woodleaf were designed by Harris Armstrong, a much admired mid-century-modern architect. The entire cul-de-sac is now considered an historic enclave of this design, but we never knew that at the time. Each home had the same basic design, but all 10 were slightly different. Ours was the only one with a skylight.
Through the years, our neighbors came and went. Mostly families, and we got to know all of their kids, but sometimes older couples. The Hargis family lived next door the entire time my folks owned the home. They were the only ones who were always there, but the others in the neighborhood all felt like friends. We had block parties and all knew each others’ lives. The Shoemakers lived on the other side of us for a few years, and Mr. Shoemaker actually built a World War I style biplane in his garage. Not kidding. When it was done he hauled it to a local airfield and attached the wings. Then he flew right over Woodleaf Court and we all stood in the street to wave. The McNichols lived directly across the street. They were an older couple and “wealthy” by our standards. Their house was the only one with a brick facade and a swimming pool. Once in a blue moon, they’d invite us over to swim.
This photo is from the front yard, not far from the basketball hoop and the same place I’d kick all those footballs. Sister Cindy is clearly getting ready for her first communion at Mary Queen of Peace, where we all went to grade school. This is the single most angelic photo of her ever taken, and we all look like exactly who we ended up being after growing up in that wonderful home under those same stars. Del Jr. is holding me. Rick is in the back. Cindy is practicing for the nuns. Mary isn’t sure what I’m doing, and for some reason I have the “belligerent lip” going. But we were home.
My best friend in grade school, Larry Eberle, and I would ride our bikes all around Kirkwood, and looking back on it I don’t ever recall my legs being tired. We were young and full of energy. Riding the few miles to downtown Kirkwood was easy, and we’d usually ride right down Par Lane and pass the Wilber family’s previous home. I was glad to have been born after the Woodleaf house was bought, because the house on Par Lane was tiny. Larry and I would stop in all the stores, get a cold glass of Coke with slivers of ice and a paper straw at the soda fountain inside the Rexall Drug Store, maybe buy a donut at the Kirkwood Bakery if we had enough spare change, and we’d always stop in at the Kirkwood Train Station. The water fountain in there had the coldest and most wonderful water in the world. And when the passenger trains came in, we were enthralled. I’ll admit that we might have, just once or twice, slid a penny under the massive wheels when the train was stopped, just to see it get smashed. The station is still a vibrant part of downtown and the Amtrak trains come through daily.
So I don’t know why the view of the Minnesota winter sky prompted all this in me. I’ve always loved Kirkwood, and any time I’m in St. Louis I do all I can to drive by 513 Woodleaf just to see it, then I’ll cruise down Kirkwood Road in downtown or over to Mary Queen of Peace to see my old grade school and reminisce about Sister Gertrude Marie trying to teach me long division. When I’m there, a wave of overwhelming nostalgia sweeps over me. But for some reason, right here in Woodbury, I felt like I was there again, out in the driveway after shooting hoops, looking up at the stars. I can still smell the logs burning in the living room fireplace, and see the wooden frame leading into the galley kitchen, with all of our heights marked off in pencil. I assume the new owners replaced that piece of wood. I wonder if they ever noticed the 1-thru-10 numbers carved into the frame of the living room windows, where Mary and I played “elevator” as preschool kids. I’d like to know.
At one point, when Cindy came home from college, we all pitched in and turned the garage into a family room, complete with green shag carpet. We also went down into the north side of St. Louis where many fabulous homes from the 1800s were abandoned, and found a hallway in one that was paneled with old wooden slats that were completely covered in carved initials. There’s no telling the stories behind those carvings, but we brought those musty darkened old slats home and covered one garage wall in them. I have no idea if that was legal. I was just a kid. Later in life, I had more than a few high school parties in that room. After a few years, we turned it back into a garage but the planks on the wall stayed. Are they still there? I can only hope.
It was the most pleasant and inviting home ever. We didn’t have the best of everything, and usually didn’t have the best of anything, but we lived on Woodleaf Court in Kirkwood. It doesn’t get any better than that. Under those same stars.
Not long after I met Barbara, I took her there. My folks were old by then, and not long after we’d be selling the house when we had to move them to assisted living, but I’m so happy she got to see and experience the home I spent my entire young life in. My sister Mary, her husband Lonnie, and their daughters Leigh, Lauren, and Kimberly were there. Not sure where Ewan and Rhiannon were at that time. They had probably both already gotten on with their careers and left St. Louis. I love this photo.
Kirkwood is changing now. It’s too convenient to St. Louis, too nice, and too attractive to avoid developers who are buying up the little Cape Cod brick homes like the one on Par Lane, purchasing them two at a time in order to tear them down and build midsize McMansions that look as out of place as an igloo in the desert. I sure hope that never happens to Woodleaf Court.
But it’s still a wonderful town in a wonderful place. Those stars spoke to me. They transported me. We love it here in Minnesota and have the best friends we’ve ever had, here. But I miss it. It’s home. Under those same stars.
That’s all for this week. I guess it’s enough nostalgia for one blog. I think if you’ve ever been to Kirkwood you know what I’m writing about.
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I’ll see you next week. Under these same stars.
Bob Wilber, at your service and thinking of Kirkwood.
No, not the Paintsville seen to the right. This photo was taken in Paintsville, Kentucky. Our house, though, is currently “paintsville” central, as professional painters have taken over to completely redo the lower level and the office. Paintsville, Kentucky, for the record, is a charming town in the coal-mining hills of eastern Kentucky, with a current population of somewhere around 4,000.
When I inhabited the town, during the summer of 1978, the population was very much the same, so it’s clearly a stable place with many generations staying firmly put because it’s a great place to call home. It’s a wonderful town, and in ’78 it was the home of the first-ever professional baseball team in the village’s history. We were the Paintsville Hilanders, playing in the Appalachian League and getting paid to do it. This photo is of me and first-baseman Steve Locklear, taken during batting practice on a random afternoon during a home-stand, at our ballpark known as Johnson Central Park. Steve Chandler is seated behind us. It was a heck of a way to spend a summer, and the culmination of my lifelong dream to play pro ball. I enjoyed every second of it and don’t think I stopped smiling between the day I arrived and the day we all had to say goodbye, to each other and to the amazing Paintsville people who embraced us so warmly.
And now for the local version of “paintsville.” Here at home, there are drop cloths, plastic sheets, and bare walls all around us. Plus, all the furniture has been moved and condensed into the center of the lower level to give the guys room to work. In the office, the same experience is underway. Furniture crammed together with plastic sheeting everywhere. These guys, Logan and Tanner from Generation Paints right here in Woodbury, are true pros and really good, so that’s the key reason they’re here. Detailed prep work, focus and concentration when doing the “cut in” work, and perfection when rolling the walls, are all paramount in order to get the job done right. I’ve painted entire houses before, but if you really want it to look like professionals did it, you need to hire professionals. I’m a rank amateur who is just as apt to get a smear of wall paint on the ceiling as he is to get it on his nose. The office is actually done, but they’re still going to have to move the massive bookcases back into place and replace all the faceplates in there, and right now they’re focused on the home theater and lower level office. There’s a lot involved in this! And yes, for all our Woodbury friends, I’d 100% recommend these guys.
Of course, the first thing that has to be accomplished is the selection of paint and color. Much like people have different taste in everything from music to movies to dinner, the same goes for colors. I don’t seem to have the visual acuity to see the nuance in each selection. I definitely don’t see, nor can I describe, some of the “undertones” in the color. I just know what I like. I can see which colors are “warm” or “cool” at the least, so all of that goes into it. My wife, on the other hand, has a phenomenal eye for this and is a serious analyst during the process. I think we have a final winner, but until it goes on the wall we’ll keep that under advisement.
They were hoping to be done today, but (because it never fails) we’ve had a couple of delays/problems so we’re running a bit behind schedule. They’re still trying to get done here by late today, but if I had to place a $10 bet I’d put it on “They’ll have to come back tomorrow to finish up.” Again, we’ll see.
To add to the fun, two local residents have had to “go to jail” for two consecutive days now. The painters are in and out of the house a lot, and once the paint goes on you can’t touch it, much less rub your whiskers on it, so Boofus and Buster are secure within a beautiful and spacious suite, otherwise known as our master bedroom, bathroom, and closet. The are ever so interested in what’s going on out here, but it’s best for them to be in there. And, they’re handling it a lot better here on Day 2 than they did yesterday on Day 1. They have everything they need in there, and they sleep on the bed anyway, so I just go in to check on them from time to time. Yesterday, every time I opened the door both of their heads would pop up with large nervous eyes staring at me, like a small pair of baby owls. Today, they just kind of open one eye and go back to sleep. They’re pretty adaptable and resilient.
Logan and Tanner are great. They move the heavy furniture and they are totally in charge of things like electronics and the home theater. They’re bonded and insured, so if the big screen crashes I don’t want it to be my fault. They take great care, and on top of that they’re perfectly willing to add in their own opinions about what doesn’t just look good right now, but will make us happy for years. Great guys, too.
To get ready for them, I had to strip everything off the walls in the lower level and store it in a bedroom we’re not doing this time around. All the racing photos, all the baseball photos, and all the entertainment stuff, including the original Chuck Jones cartoon drawings and cels, and a whole wall of framed and autographed album covers and drum heads. It didn’t take long, but I realized immediately that I might not remember what goes back into place where, in what order, and that’s kind of critical. Custom frames give a consistent look, but the wires in the back aren’t always exactly the same length. Basically, they never are. So, if you want everything to line up perfectly you have to measure carefully and then factor in the “lag” on the wire once the frame is hung. A laser level helps too, to get the tops of the frames all on the same plane. Therefore, all the hooks and nails are a little bit off. Just looking at the hooks and nails, you’d think a blind man hung all this stuff, but it was all very parallel.
Knowing all that, I assisted my brain by taking photos of every wall. This way, I can get it all back up exactly right, although we’re going to rearrange a few things on one half-wall to make it more visually appealing.
The two frames I couldn’t do myself were the two baseball displays on the wall by my desk. The first one features one of my dad’s old Minnesota Twins jerseys and a few photos of him actually wearing it back in the 60s, and the other one displays my high school, college, and pro baseball jackets. That second one weighs a ton. It actually hangs on an “L” bracket and it’s so large one person can’t do it. It’s not even easy for two. Teamwork came into play there, and we got it down without leaving a gaping hole in the wall.
Once the guys left last night, we let The Boyz out and they spent a good two hours inspecting everything and sniffing even more. At one point, I was downstairs where it’s a veritable fort of plastic sheeting and saw Buster staring at the plastic covering my desk. I wasn’t sure what the was looking at until I saw the four little black paws showing underneath the bottom edge. Boofie was just hanging around in there, looking through the plastic and keeping an eye on his brother. Funny stuff, and I guess he felt like it looked like a fort too!
When they got done exploring and checking it all out, they finally relaxed. As soon as I had moved the first photo off the wall on Tuesday, they got nervous. They’ve moved across the country twice and I don’t think they like it. I don’t like it either. But once they got around the house and realized it’s all just shuffled about, they came up to the living room and absolutely passed out on our laps. They finally could calm down. Today, of course, they’re just chilling the bedroom. I’m sure there will be another exploration phase tonight, but it should be better.
So that’s our world right now. The only major hang-up so far was the inability to take down the big screen TV downstairs. They figured out how it was attached to the bracket on the wall, but one critical screw that holds it in place had been stripped by the installers. After 90 minutes of trying and a little bit of cussing, they had to give up on it. There’s very little room to work behind it, and they just couldn’t get the screw removed. They’re going to paint behind it but they really wanted to get it down. As I said when they were at their most frustrated, “I can tell this is getting personal now.” It was.
We’ll see if they can get done tonight. I’m up in the living room writing this and can hear them down there working away. Probably time to go check on things, because you know painters just love it when the homeowner comes and looks over their shoulders, and I need to go check on our two inmates in the master bedroom. I’m a supervisor! It’s what I’m good at.
A bit short today, but there’s a lot going on. From Paintsville to paintsville.
As always, there’s a button at the top of this blog that says “Like” and if you click on that you will have done me, and this blog, a favor. The more of those “Likes” we can get the more traffic we can draw.
See you next week!
Oh, and if you’d like to know more about the actual Paintsville (the one in eastern Kentucky) and my remarkable and memorable season there, I did happen to write all about it in my autobiography “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts.” If you’ve never read it, there’s a lot more to it than just Paintsville, or just baseball for that matter, and it’s still available on Amazon in both print and Kindle. Yep, I still get royalty checks, although by now (two years later) they are in no danger of changing our tax bracket. Still, I always get a kick out of getting paid a little, even if it’s just $7 or “all the way up” to $25 in a given month.
OK, I’m a day late but I’m not a dollar short. I’m 76-cents short, which is really odd for me because I so rarely use cash I actually don’t recall the last time I had coins in my pocket. Basically I use cash money for only a few things, almost all of which involve making sure a server, or room service person, or pizza delivery guy, gets the entire tip in spending money instead of having to get it from the boss after I added it to the bill. The way I figure it, if someone brings me my food, on time and with a smile, they deserve the best tip I can give them, and that involves cash. Other than that, I live my life with my debit card and good old American Express.
And that’s something I’m proud of. When Barbara and I got married, way back in the dark ages of 1997, both of us had multiple credit cards in our possession. We used them a lot, and paid a ton of money in interest. One of my first initiatives, as the husband who wanted to make life better for the two of us, was to put together a plan to get accrued interest out of our lives. It took more than two years, but I did it. No more credit cards with minimum payments and monthly interest. Yes, we have a mortgage and have had car payments over the decades, but those can have interest rates that are so “cheap” it’s financially a good deal. Those old MasterCards with high interest rates were killers. So, now we live on our US Bank debit cards and American Express, which we pay off in full every month. We’re fortunate to be able to do that. And life is better without all that compound interest debt. But back to those coins. It’s so rare for me to have even a few of them I almost don’t recognize them when I have them. Is that a dime? Seriously.
I used to keep a coin cup in my closet. I think there’s still one in there, although nothing has been added to it in many years. Every day, I’d empty my pockets and put everything but the pennies in that cup. Pennies are the scourge of the coin world. We’d keep them in a large jar and cash them in at the bank once a year, because they will overtake a general coin cup almost instantly. As for the silver stuff, that added up fast. During my racing career, that coin cup represented my initial capital for Las Vegas slot machines, whenever the NHRA tour would head that way. It wasn’t hard to have well more than $100 in coins collected over a year. These days, I’m nearly cashless except for tips. As a matter of routine, when Barbara and I travel together one of the most common comments is “Hey, do you have tip money?” Whether it’s valet parking, room service, tips for bartenders at the Sky Club, or the bellman, you need those ones and fives.
So that was a digression I never planned for when I sat down to finally write this. Weird how that works. I just engage my brain and stuff comes out on the screen. Now, let’s get to what I originally planned for this week’s blog.
I make it a habit to scour eBay and other memorabilia sites on a regular basis, just to see what’s out there in terms of my dad, my mom, my family, or even little old me. Amazing what you can find in terms of old newspaper clippings, old photos, and other such stuff. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you come across something new and sometimes it’s even confusing. This letter would fall into both of those categories.
The letter is from Ford Frick, who at the time was the president of the National League. It’s sent to my dad, and it informs him of the details about the 1948 All-Star Game. Huh? No, seriously. What the heck?
My dad was a helluva ballplayer. You had to be to spend nearly 10 years in the big leagues when there were only eight teams in each league. But, he was never a threat to make the All-Star team. I had no clue what this letter was about, so I had to do some digging.
Turns out, the 1948 All-Star game was held at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. My dad, at the time, was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. Oddly, though, the team that hosted the game in St. Louis was not the Cardinals. It was the old St. Louis Browns who shared the ballpark with the Redbirds. So why was Del Wilber named to the National League All-Star team?
Well, for one thing he lived in St. Louis. For another thing, each team needed extra catchers to help warm up pitchers in the bullpen. He was “named to the All-Star team” for that very reason, as best I can tell. Basically, “Come on down to the ballpark for the game and help us out.” He even got two free tickets! Still, a very cool piece of memorabilia that none of us had a clue about. It’s also funny that it contains information about travel plans and expenses. My dad just had to drive to the ballpark. I’m just guessing it was a form letter from the league president and they didn’t bother to adjust it for a guy who was already there.
And here’s the next fun thing I found recently. The year is 1971. The location is Mile-High Stadium in Denver. The photo features Denver Bears pitcher Dick Such, manager Del Wilber, and catcher Rick Stelmaszek. I know it’s 1971 because I spent the summers of ’71 and ’72 out in Denver with my dad, as a batboy and general pest. My first year out there, the team wore old-school uniforms. Not sure if they were wool or cotton, but they were the old style from the days before double-knit uniforms became the norm. That’s clearly what they’re wearing in the shot.
I had a pair of white baseball pants I brought with me, but I had to wear one of the extra uniform jerseys from the equipment room for games. I was 15 and not very large. The smallest jersey was enormous on me, and I remember being very self-conscious about it on game nights.
(Trivia Question: Which MLB team was the first to switch over to double-knit uniforms, complete with pullover tops and elastic waistband pants? Answer: The Pittsburgh Pirates in 1970)
Dick Such was a heck of a pitcher, but his professional career was full of ups and downs. He was also a heck of a guy and I remember really liking him a lot. The highlight of his career ended up being in coaching. The Denver Bears were the Triple-A farm club of the Washington Senators who then became the Texas Rangers. Dick went on to be a pitching coach for the Rangers from 1975 to 1985, and then he joined the Minnesota Twins for a long stretch, as their pitching coach from 1986 to 2001. Like my dad, he was a better instructor than player, but he was great at both.
Rick Stelmaszek, or Stelly as everyone called him, was a gem. A fine catcher, he played in the big leagues for the Senators, Rangers, and Cubs but like Dick Such, it was coaching that rewarded him the most. He spent 32 consecutive years on the Minnesota Twins coaching staff, and was still on the staff as a bullpen coach when Barbara and I moved here in 2002. His final year with the Twins was 2012. He passed away in 2017. He was a phenomenal guy who treated me so well. Fun, dedicated, and really talented.
I loved finding the Topps “Rookie Stars” card online, with both of these guys on it. So many great memories of both of them, and such a coincidence that they’d both end up being longtime coaches for the Twins. Who is Gene Martin? OK, give me a minute to Google him and find out.
There you have it. Gene Martin played professionally from 1965 to 1981, but had only a handful of at-bats in the big leagues. He actually played for the Denver Bears one year, but it was 1970 so my dad and I weren’t there yet. He also played six seasons in Japan, where he hit a bunch of home runs, and two different seasons in Mexico. This is what we call “chasing the dream.” If someone will pay you to keep playing, you go. I believe he then went on to be a scout and front office guy. Plus, he’s on this “Rookie Stars” card with Stelly and Suchie.
And now to wrap this day-late and somewhat short blog with a piece of advice…
I currently have a bandage on the right side of my nose, directly next to my right eye. Why? Well, my wife convinced me to go see a dermatologist back in October, and that doctor saw a few things he wanted to remove from various parts of my body. Only one of them came back from the lab as anything bad, and it was a bump on the side of my nose that basically just looked like a wart. I’d had it for a few years and it was positioned right where my glasses rested on my nose, so I thought it was related to that.
It was basal cell carcinoma, which is no fun but if you’re going to have any kind of skin cancer it’s the type you want. It’s not life-threatening, and it can be removed completely. He took it off, but called me to say I probably needed a little more work done or it would come back. So, about two weeks ago I went in for what is called MOHS surgery to have the remnants of it completely surgically removed. Now, this thing was really pretty small but the surgery requires that they carve out quite a bit of area all around it, and then analyze that under a microscope to make sure they got it all. Since that is a time consuming deal, they advise you to be ready to spend anywhere from two hours to eight hours there, in case they have to keep going back for more.
I was lucky, in that they got it all on the first try. They bandaged me up while they confirmed that, and I was kind of surprised when I went to the bathroom and saw how large the bandage was. When they gave me the “all clear” the nurse handed me a mirror and said “Do you want to see it before we bandage it again?”
I was stunned. It looked like I’d been shot right the nose. It actually scared me. They gave me detailed instructions on how to treat it and bandage it again, and let me know it could easily be four to six weeks before it’s healed. It was all kind of a blur, really, because I was still seeing that giant hole in the mirror as the nurse spoke.
So now I’m an expert on using Q-Tips, gauze, “paper tape,” hydrogen peroxide, and other absorbent bandages to treat it every day. I wish I could say it looks all better now, but looking at it twice a day it’s hard to see the changes or any progress. Hopefully I’ll only be wearing this highly noticeable “What happened to you?” bandage for a few more weeks. I’ve gotten good at making it as small as possible, and I’m finally getting over the self-consciousness of being out in public looking like this.
But that leads me to this. If you see anything on your skin that looks new or different, go get it checked. Even if you don’t, go get a full-body check. It’s easy, generally painless (thanks to the Lidocaine shot) and you’ll likely walk out of there with a new sense of well being for having done it. I’m glad I went, and even happier that my wife suggested it.
Just take care of yourselves.
That’s it for this week. Yes, a day late and 76-cents short, but I had stuff to do yesterday. I’ll try to be back on the regularly scheduled Thursday next week.
As always, if you just absorbed these words and kinda sorta liked them, please do me a favor and click on the “Like” button at the top.
Bob Wilber, at your service with memories and advice.
When I completed my blog installment last week, I had some leftover memorabilia items I figured I’d save for this week. Mostly baseball stuff I had found online, including an incredible letter to my father from Mr. Ford Frick, then President of the National League, about the 1948 All Star Game that, as far as I know, nobody in our family knew anything about. It was just going to be another one of those blogs. And then everything changed on Friday.
“Suddenly, you were gone. From all the lives you left your mark upon…” -Neil Peart from the Rush song “Afterimage”
I don’t recall exactly what time it was last Friday when I saw the first post on social media. I saw Neil Peart’s photo and, no doubt needless to say, that got my attention. And then my disbelieving eyes saw the headline. At the young age of 67, the drummer and lyricist for Rush had passed away from a very aggressive form of brain cancer. I was in shock, initially. A tiny part of me clung to the belief that the internet is a savage beast and maybe, just maybe, this was a hoax. It was not.
I was crushed more than I thought I’d ever be. It was as if I’d lost a family member, and no I’m not exaggerating or using hyperbole. I was searching for a way out of this tragedy. I was shattered by what this not only meant to me but what it meant to millions of others who had come to not just respect and enjoy the art this man made, but to revere it.
I’ll admit I’ve been an outspoken Rush fan for the last 40 years. I know all sorts of people who are enormously devoted to musical artists and bands, and I further know that taste in music is not at all different from taste in food, or movies, or anything else. What is one person’s delicacy is another’s trash. That’s just the way it is. I was never shy about expressing my fandom and my appreciation for what these three “normal guys” could do musically and what it meant to me. Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart could not be much more normal. All devoted husbands and fathers. All serious musicians who approached their art with sincerity and purpose. All perfectionists who also shared a warped sense of humor. All believers in the theory there is always more out there, always more to accomplish. There’s always more.
I knew Rush from early on, thanks to KSHE-95 in St. Louis, an album-oriented rock station that played many of their early songs. Songs like “Working Man” and “Fly By Night” seemed great to me, but so did music by a ton of other progressive and talented bands. It was not until I dropped the needle on my first copy of their seminal album “2112” (maybe a year after it came out, actually) that I felt my brain explode from what I was hearing. There was nothing like it.
Neil Peart was a magician, with both words and sticks. He was a voracious reader, and did indeed like his philosophy and science fiction books. His early lyrics reflected that completely, and often were outlandish tales of fantasy. As Geddy Lee once said, when talking about the fact his own mother just “didn’t get” what they were doing as a band and what their songs were about: “By-Tor and the Snowdog? What is that about?” Exactly. But it drew many of us in. No one else was playing music this complex with lyrics this literate.
As their career continued, I became more and more of a devoted fan. They developed. They grew. They never paid attention or cared about what the rest of the music scene was doing. They wrote and played what they wanted, in the way they wanted, and if anyone out there cared to listen and like it, that was just fine. It was nothing near the mainstream. As Geddy said, “We had our own stream, and it was way outside the main one.”
As he grew, Neil’s lyrics shifted to be more personal, while his playing kept developing into something otherworldly. He began to write about life, and relationships, and the normal stresses of youth. He’d considered himself an outsider from childhood and his lyrics often illustrated that. As a Canadian boy who couldn’t skate well enough to play hockey, he was the kid who never sat at the cool kids’ lunch table. Instead, he dove into books and drumming.
“Growing up it all seemed so one-sided. Opinions all provided. The future pre-decided. Detached and subdivided in the mass-production zone. Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone.” -Neil Peart from the Rush song “Subdivisions”
As his drum skills evolved, his “tool kit” evolved right along with that. Over time he added to his kit, whether it be more drums, more cymbals, more bells, or more effects. Before long, he was surrounded by a circle of percussion instruments on stage, all placed on a circular platform that would spin around so that he’d still be facing the audience when he played the backside of the kit.
And none of that literacy or skill came without criticism. As a whole, the band was (at best) ignored by the critics or (at worst) horribly ripped to shreds. They were far too outside that “mainstream” to be appreciated, and Neil’s playing seem far too over-the-top to be recognized. As a kid, he’d idolized Keith Moon from The Who and John Bonham from Led Zeppelin, because of their ferocious approach to “hitting things with sticks” but something about their reckless playing didn’t satisfy him. His goal was to play all the beats, all the notes, all the difficult stuff, but then perfectly replicate it time and time again. Always perfect. Always beyond what most other drummers could dream of.
Well into his career, he felt his playing was at a plateau, so he did what few other drummers would dare do. He went to work with famed drum mentor and jazz expert Freddie Gruber to reinvent his style. He tore down all his habits and rebuilt the way he attacked the drums. It was a profound example of his desire to never settle for where he was or what he was.
He had a love for those who came before him, especially Buddy Rich. He could seamlessly switch from his bombastic Rush style into a Big Band style in a single beat, and often did that during his legendary drum solos.
He changed drumming. The list of today’s best and most respected drummers who proclaim proudly that Neil Peart was the reason they began to play, and then strove to be better at the art every time they sat behind a kit, is too long to list.
And then tragedy struck his life. Not long after the tour that followed up the album “Test For Echo” his teenage daughter was killed in a car accident. Devastated, Neil and his wife moved to England to be far away from the memories of those roads and towns in Canada. And then his wife got sick. Within mere months she passed away from cancer, although Neil always stated he believed she died from a broken heart. The man could not have been more shattered, and he questioned his own will to carry on. Rush, as a band, no longer existed.
He finally embarked on a nearly endless motorcycle trip, across Canada and then down to Central America, before heading back home. He was simultaneously running away from something but also hoping to run toward something else. He had never been comfortable with fame, and craved the anonymity of the open road, where he could simply work on his own well-being without be recognized. “Just a guy in a coffee shop, reading a book” as he put it.
Geddy and Alex were nearly certain the band would never play again, but Neil found his salvation in that lengthy trip. He wrote about it in his first best-selling book “Ghost Rider” and finally decided to reach out to his band brothers to see if they might play again.
It had been about five years. He hadn’t picked up a stick since his dual tragedies. He had no idea if he could even still play. The album they created then, in 2002, was “Vapor Trails.” It was a masterpiece. I listen to it to this day, and I’m always struck by the urgency of the playing. All three of them are playing at a manic pace, trying to express just how much it meant to them to even get back to that place. You can’t miss it. And the lyrics were a million miles from the science fiction stuff of Neil’s early years. It all had to be personal, whether it was about his own life or what the planet was going through, not long after 9/11.
“Pack up all those phantoms. Shoulder that invisible load. Keep on riding north and west, haunting that wilderness road. Like a ghost rider. Carry all those phantoms, through bitter wind and stormy skies. From the desert to the mountain, from the lowest low to the highest high. Like a ghost rider.” -Neil Peart from the Rush song “Ghost Rider”
“All this time we’re burning like bonfires in the dark, a billion other blazes are shooting off their sparks. Every spark a drifting ember of desire, to fall upon the Earth and spark another fire… Dream of a Peaceable Kingdom. Dream of a time without war. The ones we wish would hear us, have heard it all before.” -Neil Peart from the Rush song “Peaceable Kingdom”
The band was back, and better than ever. After all those years of snide remarks and disrespect, the critics finally “discovered” them. They sold out shows in major arenas, and topped the charts with their new albums. And unlike so many other bands that just play out the string to keep making money, they were creating what most consider some of their best work.
When they released “Clockwork Angels” in mid-2012, everything went into overdrive. It was a full-on concept album, based in the “steam punk” view of the lyricist, and it blew the public and media away. The reviews were stellar. The concerts were SRO. They even brought other musicians onto the stage with them for the first time, and those musicians were dubbed the “Clockwork Angels String Ensemble.” Yes, they enlisted a group of respected string players to back them, and the shows were beyond belief.
I saw Rush somewhere around 24 or 25 times. That’s just a guess, because in my early years I never thought to actually count the number of shows I saw. It could be more like 26 or 27. The “Clockwork Angels” show was the final one. Barbara and I actually flew down to Anaheim to see it at the Honda Center arena, and we were in the fifth row. I took this photo on my phone, and loved the fact Neil was on the big screen behind them at the time, while they wowed the crowd with their newest creation. And really, what band creates one of its best masterpieces after 40 years of playing?
In 2015, they embarked on what they titled the “Rush R40” tour, to celebrate their four decades together. It was a brilliant retrospective show, which featured their music from the current day back to their humble beginnings, in that reverse order. As yet another sign of their humor, they had roadies constantly on stage, replacing the newer set-ups with familiar older ones, until finally they were playing with small amplifiers sitting atop chairs one would find in the gymnasiums they had often played. They always took the art seriously, but never took themselves too seriously.
Unfortunately, for me, work schedules and tour schedules didn’t mesh. I couldn’t get to a show. My “Clockwork Angels” memories will have to be all I have in terms of a personal involvement. It wasn’t a bad way to go out.
The band had let it be known that the tour would most likely be their last. No reason (other than age and families) was given. They documented the tour with a phenomenal DVD called “Time Stand Still” and I still can’t get through it without Kleenex. It’s a wonderful tribute to not just the band, but their devoted fans. Heck, the fans are the stars of the show. Watch it someday. It’s a window into the world of Rush fans. They’re normal people, just like the the three guys in the band. Just like me (I think) as well.
Looking back now, it’s hard to think Neil didn’t know something was wrong. He was diagnosed only a few months after the tour ended. He battled for three and a half years, but in his own style he kept it very private and quiet. Much like he never felt comfortable with fame, he would certainly never be comfortable with millions of his fans knowing he was so sick. His family, his bandmates, and his close circle of friends did an amazing job of keeping the secret. I had no idea until I saw the headline last Friday.
Neil Peart is gone. I’m coming to grips with it nearly a week after the news broke. I don’t think I could’ve written this blog last week after I learned of it. The enormity of it was too much.
As one final pitch (I said that I openly admit I’m outspoken about this band), I’ll just bring it up that in 2010 they were featured in a documentary that won many awards, including the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival award for documentaries. It’s “Beyond The Lighted Stage” and it’s masterful, but it’s also extremely personal and it’s a wonderful look into the childhoods and upbringings of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart. Let me put it this way: I begged Barbara to watch it with me. She appreciates Rush but they’re not exactly her cup of tea. She loved it, and was happy to tearfully tell me that after we watched it. It’s worth buying, renting, or stealing. The day the news shattered me, I watched it yet again. I needed to.
And now it’s all we have. The photos taken at concerts. The DVDs. The music.
And we have the memories. I respect the three of them so much. I enjoyed their music and mastery of their craft. I was ceaselessly impressed with their dedication to be the best they could be.
I’ve been so pleased by the outpouring of comments and tributes about Neil from around the globe. This band that was marginalized for so many years before finally getting their due (and their induction into the Rock Hall of Fame) and this drummer who was dismissed by some for actually being too good, with too many drums in his kit, were being recognized for how special they were. And how special Neil was. I knew it all along.
And the outpouring of notes I personally received was stunning. “You were the first person I thought of when I heard the news” was the most common sentiment. I guess being so outspoken had an impact, although it might not have been pleasant for the listener or reader at the time. I appreciated every word.
That’s it. That’s all I can write.
And you likely know the drill: If you are a Rush fan, or a Neil Peart fan, or just the opposite but you enjoyed the tribute above, please click on the “Like” button at the top. That would be a very fine tribute.
Bob Wilber, at your service and still coming to grips with it. But now I’m celebrating instead of mourning.
PS: I was just in my car on the way to and from the grocery store, because we’re supposed to have a major snowstorm tomorrow and Saturday, and well… You have to go to the store! On SiriusXM radio they have turned their “Deep Tracks” channel into a Rush and Neil Peart channel. I was listening both ways and the host (a guy I’ve never heard of) kept calling him Neil Pert. It’s pronounced Peert. Like you’d peer in a window or stand on a pier. One would think the host of a channel honoring the man would know how to pronounce it. Ugh.
Very early on in my autobiography “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” I brought up the musty old adage about the fact you “can’t pick your parents.” That truism is a key part of the entire book, as is the line I used more than once that stated I am “the luckiest kid in the world” to have been born to Del and Taffy Wilber. I didn’t pick them. It just happened. It’s science, it’s random, and DNA is involved. I’ve heard people also claim that “you can’t pick your neighbors” but I don’t think that’s 100% true. If you’re super-wealthy enough, you can buy up all the property around you and not have any pesky neighbors, but of course we’re talking about Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates super-wealthy. Hence my claim that the neighbors adage is not 100% true. It’s also good fortune that we’ve had so many great neighbors over the years. We didn’t pick them. They already lived there!
Today is my late mother’s birthday. She would’ve been 95 today. All things considered, especially in terms of the dastardly Alzheimer’s that claimed her, it’s probably a good thing she is resting in peace and has been for nearly a decade. She was an amazing woman who blazed trails well before other women were busting many of the same barriers. She was an incredible lady, who somehow balanced her career with the need to responsibly raise five kids while she put us through the best schools, and kept us safe. Plus, her husband was a baseball man, often gone for as many as nine months in a year. I still can’t believe how lucky I was.
This obituary ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch very soon after her death. It’s worth reading, just to get a better idea about the woman who not only raised me, but also instilled so many of her best traits in me. I wouldn’t be writing my second book, nor would I be writing this blog, had I not been born with her innate communications skills hard-wired into my brain. I miss her every day.
Over the last few months, I’ve been on a roll collecting some stuff that I knew would end up on this blog at some point. I just didn’t know when. I guess I figured it would be some rainy day when I needed material. Since we don’t have too many rainy days during the Minnesota winter, today’s overcast sky and cold January air just somehow seemed right. It’s kind of a sad day out there. And then I realized it’s her birthday. Weird how that works.
This first photo is a favorite but it’s one I have rarely ever posted. My parents are so young here, so I’m guessing it’s the mid-1940s. Not long after they met at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio during WWII, where she was Miss Air Force -San Antonio and Big Del was a the stud catcher on the baseball team, providing entertainment for the troops.
I’ve repeated the stories I’ve heard many times, because I obviously wasn’t born yet and all I’ve ever had to go on was what Mom and Dad told us. One of the stories had to do with when they were dating. My mom loved to dance. My dad, not so much. So, when other men asked her out to go dancing, my dad would hang around with my mom’s parents, ingratiating himself with her dad. Taffy’s dad was a brilliant man, who walked into a high school for the first time as the principal of the place, and he had the charming full name of Posey Archibald Bennett. Somehow, the baseball player impressed the academic man enough to get him on his side in the chase for Edna Mae, who at the time was still more commonly known as Eddie, rather than Taffy. Big Del won the sweepstakes. My four siblings and I won the entire jackpot, because of that good fortune.
Mom was a Texas girl, through and through. Born in Del Rio, her folks moved when she was young and called San Antonio home for as long as I ever knew them. Taffy attended the University of Texas in Austin for a while. I was lucky enough to take her there when she and my sister Cindy game to Austin to spend some time with Barbara and me, when we lived there. Alzheimer’s was still a long way off, because Taffy directed me right to the house she lived in. It was still there, and she knew right where to go.
After the war, Dad’s baseball career was restarted and he was called up to the big leagues with the Cardinals. Imagine that, in terms of the culture shock for my mom. Off to Missouri, off to a crazy life in baseball where your husband only “went to work” (like most husbands) during home stands, although the hours were long. The rest of the time, he got on a train with his teammates and left for weeks. Between 1945 and 1956, all five of us were born. First Del Jr., then Rick, followed by Cindy and Mary, and then little old sickly me. I needed a lot of attention when I was very young, and despite the fact Taffy was blazing her trail in radio, baseball, and public relations she never missed a beat nursing me back to health every time my asthma and/or allergies flattened me. She doted on me. She took me to more doctors and specialists than I care to recall. And whenever I was feeling better, she took me to Steak ‘n Shake. Those steak burgers still have a very special place in my heart and on my tastebuds. They were the indicator that I was going to be OK. Once again, she had gotten me through it and I was going to be OK.
She had her own show on KMOX radio in St. Louis. That’s no small feat. KMOX was then and remains now a powerful 50,000 watt AM beacon across most of the country. She later went to work for the Cardinals in their front office, creating new promotions for women and children as one of a handful of females who held any job other than secretary. And I got to sit in the 9th row behind home plate every night the team was home. What a childhood, to not just root for Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Mike Shannon, Dal Maxvill, Tim McCarver, and all the other Cardinals including my personal fave Orlando Cepeda, but to know them as well. And of course, there were all of my dad’s former teammates from his time as a player. Stan Musial attended multiple Wilber weddings. Marty Marion and his wonderful family welcomed us to their home regularly. That’s where I saw color TV for the first time. Jack Buck? Sure. Red Schoendienst? Absolutely. Ted Williams? My dad’s best friend from his time with Boston. These were our family friends, but so much of it happened when my dad was away. Being a baseball manager or scout is like that. You don’t work Monday through Friday and you sure as heck don’t work 9-to-5. Mom was the glue that held us together.
Later, when Dad was coaching in the Major Leagues or managing in the minors, I’d get to spend much of each summer with him. The word “magical” doesn’t come close to describing those endless summer days, roaming the outfield during batting practice or plying my trade as an official batboy each night. This photo is a new one I recently discovered online. My dad had just been named the manager of the Denver Bears, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Senators. He and Taffy were in Denver for a banquet. I love this photo because it’s a rare one in which they are both getting older (we’re talking 1971 here) but both are still so elegant and stylish. Look at that outfit my mom is wearing!
I don’t think the lifestyle was easy for either one of them. The travel for my dad was backbreaking, whether it was the trains in 40s, 50s, and early 60s or the planes that followed. He was so rarely home when he was scouting, just a day here or there to do laundry before he’d head back out, and during his managing years he’d be leaving in late February and wouldn’t be home again until mid-September at the earliest. Somehow, they pulled it off. You can’t do that without a super-strong woman at the helm.
And so damn smart. I had no idea what a great writer she was until I was in high school, when she showed me some of the manuscripts she’d written over the years. I was blown away. She went on to produce local TV shows, and work with senior citizens. Her PR agency, Taffy Wilber and Associates, was groundbreaking. And yet she still managed to keep us all fed and alive, helping us with our homework and getting us to school.
And about my dad… He was the strongest man I ever knew, and don’t mean just in terms of being a 6-foot-3 former catcher. He could focus on anything and stay strong through the toughest times. He was a bear of a man in terms of stature, but he was a pussycat in terms of personality. My ratio of hugs to spankings was about 1,000 to 1. He loved to laugh, he loved to tell the same old jokes time after time, and by all accounts he was always a team favorite on whatever club he was playing for. He was, as they like to say in the clubhouse, “a great teammate” and that’s as fine a compliment as any ballplayer can receive. He wasn’t popular because he was the best player. He spent his nine years in the Majors as a career backup catcher. He was popular because he was a great teammate.
He bounced around a lot. That had to be hard on both of them. As kids, we were fortunate to be spared much of that. They bought a house in suburban Kirkwood after the Cardinals brought him up and our family stayed rooted there until we moved them to assisted living and sold the home I grew up in. Always in Kirkwood. I still love the place and go there every time I’m back in St. Louis. I’d live there again tomorrow, if I could.
Dad’s career was always one bad day away from ending. He hung on as that great teammate and did whatever he could do to help the team. In ’46, the Cardinals brought him up after the he was discharged from the military but he only stuck with the big club for a few at-bats. They sent him back to Triple-A in Columbus, Ohio. These ups and downs were always foggy for me. I didn’t live through any of it and he never talked about it much. Mostly all we knew as his kids was the fact he spent nearly a decade in the bigs, with the Cardinals, Phillies, and Red Sox. I just found this photo online in the past few days. That’s him, third from the right in the back row, with Columbus.
I never saw him play. And, as a true matter of pure fact, I never knew what he was doing in the game when I was born (1956) until I figured it out in high school. For the record, in ’55 and ’56 he was the bullpen coach for the Chicago White Sox. I just never asked and always wondered why we had photos of him in a ChiSox uniform. His playing career had shot around three big league clubs and other trips back to the minors. The Cardinals even sent him to Houston one summer, to be player/manager of a lousy minor league club. It was a very long and very winding road.
He never made big money. Few players did back then. I think the most he ever made for one season was $9,600, or at least that’s what he told me. I believe it. That sounds about right, for the era. He worked winter jobs nearly every year when I was growing up. Most of his teammates did, as well. We weren’t rich. We weren’t even well off. We were squarely middle class, but our parents took pride in sending us to the best private schools, always making that tuition a priority when it came time to pay the bills. We bought our appliances at “scratch and dent” stores. Dad finished much of the basement himself, laying tile and putting up pegboard walls. Our biggest extravagances were dinners on The Hill in south St. Louis or long “road trip” vacations in the car, when Dad could double up by taking us along to Spring Training or on scouting excursions.
It was magical. I’m still the luckiest kid in the world.
Happy Birthday, Mom. Thank you for every single day, for all the times I was sick and you helped me through it, and for long nights at the dining room table when you walked me through algebra or whatever other studies were stumping me. And thank you for the genetics you handed down to your youngest. Your skills are apparent in every word I write. I hope I make you proud.
And as for you Big Guy, your birthday is coming up on February 24. I won’t forget. And I hope I make you proud, as well.
Thanks for reading, everyone. If you enjoyed it and even possibly liked these words, please don’t be afraid to click on the “Like” button at the top.
Bob Wilber, at your service and still incredibly lucky.
Whew! It’s been a crazy couple of weeks but I’m back to work and have fingers on the keyboard to create some new nonsense today. I’m a little late, in that it’s now almost 4:00 on an overcast Minnesota Thursday, but the thermometer is on our side and a lot of our accumulated snow is melting. It’s kind of been that way to this point in the winter season. Big snowfalls followed by warmups. That’s not a bad thing.
So anyway, since I last blogged at you two weeks ago (after having just gotten back from a quick trip to Texas) it’s been pretty nonstop. And a lot of it has been what we’d refer to as “self induced” considering the reason. Not all, but some. Let’s start off with the Monday before Christmas. That story is definitely not self-induced. It was my pleasure to participate.
Our dear friends Joe and Mary Beth Gillis are season-ticket holders for the Vikings. Not only that, they are also season-ticket holders for the Green Bay Packers. Joe is originally from Green Bay, so that’s the reason for that. And, if you know anything about the Packers you probably know that season tickets are almost impossible to come by, so families tend to hold on to them for generations. Joe isn’t giving his tickets up anytime soon. Like never. Joe and Mary Beth are also what we call, around these parts, a “mixed marriage” because Joe wears green and gold and MB is a solid purple girl. It happens a lot around here. We have a number of friends who are part of the same sort of arrangement. According to all, you have to be civil and you have to be respectful. Other than that, you can cheer for your team all you want, as vociferously as you want. And wear your colors! It’s a way of life.
Mary Beth could not attend the Monday Night Football game between the Vikes and the Pack due to neck surgery. She’s doing well and recovering fast, but it was impossible for her to dress in purple and use her ticket for that game. I was honored when Joe offered the seat to me, and we discussed the ground rules after Mary Beth instructed me, in no uncertain terms, that my responsibility was to cheer as loudly for the Vikings as she would have. Unfortunately, my cheering wasn’t enough for the Vikings. Still, a fun time was had by both of us and I was struck by how friendly the crowd was, at least until the fourth quarter when most of the fans had a few beers in them and they started razzing each other. Until then, the predominance of mixed colors was mostly a good vibe. Thanks Joe! It was an honor to be there with you, green and gold notwithstanding, and we had a great time. We even hooked up with another friend to do a little tailgating in the parking lots prior to kickoff. All around, a great night.
Christmas, at the Doyle/Wilber manse, was a very low-key event. We agreed to go minimalist on everything from decorations to presents, and Barbara and I were both good with that. We bought a little 4-foot pre-lit tree at Home Depot and put it on the porch, because The Boyz can’t help but try to eat anything green that looks like a plant, even if it’s artificial. We bought a few presents for each other but also managed to fill The Boyz stocking with new toys, because they don’t have enough toys. Like, an entire house full of toys scattered everywhere just isn’t enough when it comes to toy quantity.
We slept in, lounged around in sweatpants, and had a nice breakfast followed by a late lunch, before we even moved the wrapped gifts to the living room. At that point, both Buster and Boofus knew it was Christmas. They actually get pretty excited when it’s time to see what we gave each other and what’s in their stocking above the fireplace. Seriously. Somehow they know.
It was a great day, full of wonderful heartfelt presents and two fuzzy guys playing with their new stuff. Catnip is a magical thing. They roll around with those new stuffed mice (which look exactly like their old stuffed mice) and then chase each other around the house at full speed. Merry Christmas to all, including Boofie and the Big Fella. And hey, look! There’s a champagne glass in the background. If you’re going to do Christmas, you should do it right!
The next morning, bright and far too early (we’re talking about being up and getting ready just after 5:00 a.m.) we were off to the airport to begin another great Barbara/Bob adventure. This one was partly just for fun and mostly just for miles. You read that right.
As we’ve often done late in December, I needed to make a “mileage run” on Delta to get to the next level of elite status. This is not uncommon among those of us who fly a lot, whether it be on Delta or some other airline. Earning elite status is hard to do, and it entails a year full of often back-breaking travel at a heavy financial cost. But, that elite status is SO WORTH IT when it comes to how your travel will happen throughout the next calendar year. The level of customer service, with Delta, is primo and well worth the effort.
At the end of November I started doing the math. It was clear I was going to come up about 7,000 miles or so short of Diamond, which is the highest official level you can reach. There’s another “secret” level above Diamond, which no one discloses, but I know it’s there. I don’t have a clue how many miles you need to fly to earn it, but I know it’s way out of my reach. It’s for frequent flyers who do a lot of overseas travel, to places like China and Australia. If you’re ever on a Delta flight and see a Porsche Cayenne pull up next to the plane when it approaches the jet bridge, that’s for one of those people. They’ve earned that private Porsche ride to their connection. As for me, 125,000 miles in a year has always been a lot and a tough target to reach. I only had a shot this year because of my trips to Kauai and the fact I had 30,000 miles roll-over from last year when I came up short. So, it was time for a “mileage run” to make it back over the Diamond hump.
These are generally not glamorous trips. They are mostly just a way to get the miles you need, but in my mind you might as well go someplace you like if you can. I needed a big loop around half of the United States to do it. Why not Austin, L.A., and Spokane with a connection in Seattle? Sounded good to me, and Barbara as able to make the Austin trip with me! Plus, she’s super-duper elite with Marriott, so it gave her a chance to earn a few more nights and points with them.
And just as an aside, we shall never forget the one year when we were living out in Spokane and Barb needed to make a “run” in December, in order to get back to Diamond. She flew on a red-eye overnight flight all the way to Atlanta, then got off the plane before getting right back on the same aircraft to fly back to Spokane. She was nuts. At least I leave the individual airports!
We lived in Austin for four years, so that was an easy first stop. We got in on the afternoon of the 26th and went straight to The Oasis, out on Lake Travis west of town. When we lived in Austin, our home was only a few miles from The Oasis and we always took out-of-town visitors there. It wasn’t necessarily for the food (which was always decent but not outstanding) but way more for the views of the lake, the sunsets, and the ambience. It’s just a cool place, and has been for a very long time.
The Oasis looks like a standard restaurant from the outside, but once you’re in you see that it is made up of dozens of expansive outdoor decks, all overlooking the lake. It’s spectacular. Sadly, not long after we left Austin and moved to Minnesota, it caught fire and the wooden decks were burned to the ground. I vividly remember how we felt when we heard the news and saw the photos. I figured we’d never have the chance to experience it again.
Amazingly, they rebuilt and used synthetic planks to recreate the same experience with a non-flammable material. And they upgraded the menu and the staff. It’s better than it’s ever been, and if you’re ever near Austin, Texas you should do yourself a favor and get to The Oasis out on Lake Travis. In the summer, the sunsets over the lake are amazing.
We took our time, enjoyed our lunch (OK, too much queso before our entrees arrived, but that’s a mistake we seem to always make) and smiled the whole time. We were back. The Oasis was back. We were in Austin. It was all good. And yes, we came home with three souvenir plastic glasses because the ones in our kitchen were closing in on the 15-year mark in terms of age.
We also drove through our old neighborhood, which is called River Place. The entrance was a little crazy, because they’ve developed it into a business and hotel area, but once we were past that it was all familiar. Of course we drove past our old house, and it looked fabulous. The new owners replaced the standard shingle roof with a tin version, and that looked really cool. Wish we would’ve thought to do that. They also added new fencing in the back and it sure looked like they put in a pool. It was a nostalgic deal. We loved that home, and loved Austin. It was easy to wax nostalgic and remind ourselves of all the great times and great friends we had there. So glad we went on this trip, and were able to “go back home again” at least a little bit. And they say you can’t do that. What do they know? And who are “they” anyway?
We then headed downtown to check in at the JW Marriott, which didn’t exist when we lived there. Much of the current downtown didn’t exist when we lived there. Austin has really grown, but there’s still enough of the old place left to make it charming. It was 4:00 by the time we got to the hotel, so we figured we could check in and get to our room easily. Or not. The room was listed as still being serviced, but the guy at the desk went to talk to his manager to see what they could do. Keep in mind Barbara’s super-duper elite status with Marriott. While he was gone, Barb turned to me and jokingly said “Well they should just put us in the Presidential Suite, right?” We had no idea they even had such a room. It was a joke we both laughed at. And then the clerk came back and said “For the inconvenience, Mrs. Doyle, we’re just going to put you in the Presidential Suite.”
We looked at each other and did all we could to keep from cracking up, although we had no idea what the room would be like. What was it like? Well, calling it “a room” is incorrect. It was a massive suite with a huge bedroom (bigger than 90% of all the hotel rooms I’ve ever been in), two bathrooms, two sitting areas, two huge TVs, a kitchen, and a dining room. It was amazing. We did, however, have plans for the evening so we couldn’t run around and sit on the all the chairs and couches.
We walked up to 6th Street just to have a drink at the bar within the historic Driskill Hotel. Yes, it’s absolutely haunted. Just ask my wife who watches all the “Ghost Hunter” shows on TV. She can tell, and the Driskill isn’t shy about the rumors. It’s a fabulous “old Texas” place and the bar is phenomenal. It was always one of our “go to” joints when we lived there, but we had to stop in the main lobby to have this photo taken by a kind passerby. Again, if you’re ever in Austin, visit the Driskill or stay there if you can. It’s classic.
We sipped on wine, listened to some great live music, then ordered an Uber for a short ride to the other side of the river. We had dinner plans, baby!
Our absolute fave restaurant throughout our four years in Austin was Chuy’s, in Barton Springs. No question, no debate. It’s still the same place, with the same incredible and wacky atmosphere. At a corporate level, it has changed because the company went public and now they have restaurants in multiple states. The only thing that did to the menu was to streamline it, though. A couple of our favorite dishes are no longer available, and I’m guessing that’s because it’s too hard to get those Tex-Mex ingredients in places like Ohio. It’s still Chuy’s though, and we savored every bit of it. For the third time, if you’re ever in Austin…. Just go to Chuy’s in Barton Springs. It’s the original and it’s one of a kind.
After our dinner and Uber ride back to the hotel, we did all we could to enjoy the entire suite, then hit the sack. When it was morning, it looked like the sheer curtains were closed up there on the top floor, but they weren’t. It was fog! Austin was totally fogged in, which put a crimp on some of the plans we had. After a few hours it burned off, and we were able to hit our final Austin stop, and it was a place neither of us had ever been.
Before the trip, we were trying to decide what to do on the 27th before we had to head to the airport. Barbara came up with a visit to the LBJ Presidential Library, and we’re both so glad we did that. We were a bit frustrated that the pea-soup fog slowed down our morning, which made us a little late getting there, so we had to do a bit of the classic Chevy Chase tour, almost running from room to room, but it was all fantastic. The recreation of LBJ’s Oval Office was really neat, but the whole place was terrific. We need to go back and take it in a lot more slowly.
When we did get to Bergstrom Airport, it was time for Barbara and me to split up. She got on a flight back to MSP and I boarded a plane at the next gate, for LAX. It was going to be a quick stop in L.A. but that was all part of the plan. I needed those miles, and LAX is by far the best airport in the L.A. region in terms of both availability and price. I had a reservation for a new “curio” hotel called the H Hotel by Hilton, just a block from the entrance to the sprawling airport. It was fantastic, and so convenient. As a Hilton Honors member, I got a top-floor room and a great rate. And the free shuttle made it officially “no fuss – no muss.” I did have to sleep fast, however. I had a 9:00 flight the next morning.
After a quick shuttle ride back to the airport in the morning, I was on my way to Seattle. That’s a cool route of travel, by the way. Up the coast for a good while, then over the San Joaquin Valley, until finally San Francisco and the entire Bay Area was out my window in the distance. Then up the center of California, right over Mount Shasta, and into Oregon and Washington. We went right over Medford and Eugene, where I played a lot of baseball back in the day, but by then it was cloudy. Still, a great ride up America’s left coast. And another 1,000 miles in the bank.
I had to fly into Seattle in order to get to Spokane, and when I booked the flight I saw I had two options. I could have a 25-minute layover, or a 2-hour and 25 minute layover. The short one sounded like a recipe for disaster, and the Sky Club in Seattle is plenty nice, so I went with the long layover. Better to relax than to stress out, in my book.
It’s only a 35 minute hop over to Spokane, so that was easy, but it was around 6:00 by the time I got there. Again, Barbara’s Marriott status did me a big favor. She booked a room for me at the Davenport Grand Hotel in downtown, right by the convention center and the site of Expo ’74, the only World’s Fair I’ve ever attended thanks to the fact my dad was the manager of the Spokane Indians baseball team then. The Grand is sumptuous and friendly. If you’re ever in Spokane… You know what I mean.
I needed dinner, after a long day of travel, and the best option was right across the street. Spokane is not a big town, but it remarkably has two of the best steak houses I’ve ever been to. Churchill’s was six blocks away. Spencer’s was across the street. Spencer’s won. And they got me in with no wait. Great staff, incredible menu, fabulous chefs. Say it with me: “If you’re ever in Spokane…” Although you can’t go wrong with Churchill’s if you choose that option. I just chose to walk across the street and the Filet Mignon was incredible. I expected no less.
In the morning, I took a drive out to Liberty Lake. Toured the old neighborhood (our former house hasn’t changed a bit and it’s still a charmer) and the whole town looked just the same and it felt like I’d never left. Lots of new construction in little Liberty Lake, including a new elementary school and the town’s first high school. LL kids won’t have to commute to Spokane Valley anymore, once the high school is done. Ridgeline High, home of the Falcons!
Yes, it was very nostalgic to drive around Liberty Lake, although I didn’t have much time because my flight was at 2:00. We moved back to Minnesota in 2016 so it hasn’t been that long since I’ve been there, but it gave me a fresh perspective on just how nice our time out there really was. It’s a great place to live, and full of fun restaurants. I wish I could have had a meal at Hay J’s, or Legends, or Barlows, or Ding How, or even The Fieldhouse. I only had time to do a drive-by, though. Glad I did that.
Once I got home that night, the deed was done. Actually, my math had been a little off due to a fare class on one of the flights that earned me some extra bonus medallion miles, so I was actually over the Diamond threshold before I boarded my flight at the cozy little Spokane airport. I was at Gate 8. That’s the last one on the concourse. It’s not a big place, but it sure is friendly and convenient.
I have more stories, including the one about New Year’s Eve and our chance to put a party together in just a couple of hours after our hosts who do it nearly every year had the flu invade their home. Maybe I’ll get to that next week, or I’ll update this later. Right now, I need to get to Punch Pizza here in Woodbury to meet Barbara for dinner. I hate to be late!
Sorry for the quick wrap-up, but Punch is calling.
As always, if you just read this deal and thought it wasn’t awful, please do me a favor and click on the “Like” button at the top. Maybe that will earn me some more Delta miles? Probably not, but try it anyway.
See you next time! I’m guessing there are multiple typos in this mess, but I’ll have to fix those after dinner.
Bob Wilber, at your service and still worn out from my “mileage run” trip.
Greetings blog faithful, and thank you once again for being so supportive and interested in the rambling nonsense I so often provide. This week, however, I shall leave you with a few photos (only fair, since I provided none last week) and word that this week’s blog will be nothing more than this explanation of said photos and next week’s will likely (almost surely, but don’t call me Shirley) not exist at all. It’s that time of the year, and here in Wilber/Doyle Land that means travel.
As a matter of true fact, I just now got home and sat down on the sofa in Woodbury after a quick overnight trip to the south central part of the good old USA. Just a quick jaunt down there yesterday and now I’m back. However, on the day after Christmas next week, and that just happens to be a Thursday, Barbara and I will begin a “trip around half of America” excursion for four days. I’ll recount all the stops and sights the following week, but I’ll admit right now that it’s a combination trip in many ways. Barbara can’t be gone for four consecutive days, with all the work she’s swamped with right now, but it appears she might be able to join me on the front end and the back end of the Delta-centric trip. We’ll see, but I hope so. Both the first and last stop are near and dear to us, and it would be fun to stop in those places together.
Yes, it’s a thing we’ve done before when either or both of us get really close to the next level of elite status on Delta and a big looping trip seems like a good idea to try to make that happen. For me, it’s Diamond Medallion, which is the highest level you can achieve, so maybe it’s worth the effort and expense. Plus, the planned trip is full of fun stops so it’s a bit of a holiday vacation as well. It’s going to be close, in terms of elite miles, but I think I have it figured out and getting to Diamond is worth the effort. With CLEAR and Pre-Check getting us through security quickly, and the shorter Sky Priority lines at the check-in counters, there’s also the exclusive “Diamond Desk” number to call if things go haywire. They do take care of their medallion members and I’ll never forget how they saved me when Hawaiian Airlines botched my flight from Lihue to Honolulu, meaning I’d miss my Delta overnight flight home. That kind of hands-on customer service is basically priceless. And since we’re both travel fanatics, and Barbara still needs to take many long flights for work, it’s worth it to give the top level a shot.
So I’ll just leave with you these three photos to tide everyone over until the week after Christmas, along with a quick explanation of what you’re seeing.
The first is a shot of my brand-spanking-new glasses. I finally went pretty hipster. Red, maroon, and blue frames and I look both devilish and semi-attractive. No, seriously!
The second photo is of our Mama Turkey who lives somewhere in the trees back behind our home and those of our neighbors. None of us have seen her actually in a nest or even resting back there, but she’s around all the time and appreciates the seed we leave out for her. In Minnesota, most big birds migrate south (that’s a really good thing when it comes to the Canada Geese) and even many midsize birds like the robins, head somewhere south for the season. But the little finches of various varieties, many blue jays and cardinals, and the crows stick around. As do the squirrels, who would have a hard migrating if unable to hitch a ride somewhere.
When the snow comes early and heavy, and looks like it’s going to stick around until spring, all of us on our side of the street fill our feeders and even spread some seed around on the ground or wall. Birds gotta eat. So do squirrels. And no, turkeys don’t migrate. If you were ever a fan of the classic sit-com “WKRP In Cincinnati” you will recall the reason why. Think Les Nessman. So, we do what we can to keep everyone fat and happy. Nothing we can do to help her with a makeover to be a little better looking.
And finally, I don’t think I wrote about Buster’s trip to the veterinarian a couple of weeks ago, at least here on the blog. I know I addressed it on Facebook, but as far as I remember I didn’t give the Big Fella his due here in Blog World. We were worried that he’s slowing down a bit, and he is 12+ years old, so I took him there for a battery of tests and exams. He was such an amazingly good boy. I couple of cries in the carrier when we got in the car but then all good from that part forward. I let him out of the carrier so he could roam around the exam room until the doctor came in, and he was a prince. The doctor and her assistant fell in love with him.
And, most importantly, he aced all his tests. Yes, he’s getting older and is slowing down a bit, but all of his vitals were fine and his blood tests were remarkably good. Plus, he was a sweetheart about the whole thing.
Why did Boofie not go? Boofie is classified as almost sorta banned at the vet. He’s listed in his records as a “pillow case cat” because he goes so nuts he has to be brought in like that, inside a pillow case. He’s still crazy around the house too, so he got off easy.
So there you have it. I still have quite a bit of Christmas shopping to do, and there was a bit of drama right before I left the house yesterday for the airport, and I heard that the sump pump was trying to run but the drain hose was frozen solid. It had gotten well down below zero the night before and I still had the intermediate length hose attached to the pump’s PVC pipe, so that does happen. I was just glad I was still home to hear it. It’s a subtle sound, but if missed for a day or two it can burn the motor out.
I managed to loosen the frozen clamps to get the hose off, and I put on the curved PVC connector that won’t freeze up, but not before getting doused with a ton of water when the hose finally broke free and came off. The pump was still under pressure and I forgot to step to the side. And I was all dressed for the plane, too. It was 8-degrees out and I looked like I’d fallen in a pool. The joys of winter, on full display.
And here’s that shot of Buster waiting patiently for his tests at the vet. Good boy, Big Fella!
See you in a couple of weeks. I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas and a very Happy Holiday season. I’ll be back soon!
Bob Wilber, at your service and finally dried out from the sump pump dousing.
Every now and then, when the well of blog material runs a little dry, I fall back on a time-tested remedy for such a lack of material. I do a “Q & A” blog by answering questions I’ve received, over the months, from readers. I typically privately answer the emails or messages immediately, but I save the questions for these installments that don’t have fun things like a trip to New York, or St. Louis, or Amsterdam, as the prime theme.
Usually, those questions are kind of tame. Like “What’s your favorite NHRA track?” or “What’s your biggest baseball highlight?” and stuff like that. Over the course of a few years, though, I managed to put away a few more pointed and personal questions, just for a rainy day like this one. Except it’s not rainy. It’s snowy. Here in the this part of Minnesota we’re already running way ahead of normal for snowfall, and today we added a couple of new inches to the total. I’m hoping we’re over the threshold for the HOA contractor to come through the neighborhood and clear it all away again. Nothing worse than coming up a half-inch short of what they deem “plowable” and then having to scrape it off myself. I should deduct my hourly wages from the monthly HOA fee each time we don’t quite reach the minimum depth. But I digress.
So here are a few interesting questions I’ve received over the years. Like normal, I answered them all privately but saved them in a special file in my Apple Mail program. I just never knew if I’d answer them publicly. Today, I feel like doing that. Let’s go! (With respect to full disclosure, I have taken the time to edit the questions a bit, if only for grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.)
From Buddy H. in Boise, Idaho.
Q: “You’ve been doing this a long time. Is it 20 years yet? My wife and I love the “nonsense” you write about but we wonder if it’s been easy. What gave you the confidence, or even arrogance, to start the blog on NHRA.com? The others were by famous drivers. Did you get any hate mail when you started?”
A: There are a whole slew of questions here, thanks to Buddy. I’ll try to answer them all. It’s not quite 20 years yet. I started the NHRA blog in mid-August of 2005, so to this point it’s been a little over 14 years. Time flies when you’re having fun! Was it, or is it still, easy? That’s hard to answer. To me, it’s pretty easy because I just engage my brain and watch my fingers move on the keyboard. Words seem to appear on the screen as I think of them, so it’s not like it’s hard work or real labor. But still, it doesn’t write itself and I don’t want it to be awful, even if it’s all “nonsense” or gibberish. So, as a writer, I think I have to take credit for the fact it’s something I’m proud of. Writing can be really hard. Writing books can be overwhelming. Even writing a blog for 14 years can’t really be classified as “easy” but I don’t dwell on that. I do it because I love it. I could easily quit doing this tomorrow, and I’m sure I’d miss it, but I think of all the loyal readers out there who look forward to it and give me feedback about it, and I can’t imagine just walking away.
I think the terms “confidence” and “arrogance” are great reflections of how it happened. The central theme of my autobiography “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” was the “plow forward” mentality I seem to have always had. Maybe not always. As a little kid I was sick a lot, didn’t have a lot of confidence, and I was pretty timid. Especially about new things or new people. I seem to have gotten over that at some point, and I’m glad I did. My entire career was all about jumping at every new opportunity no matter the risk. Just go for it. Without that approach, I never would have ended up with a 20+ year career in drag racing, which kind of presented itself out of nowhere (Thank You, again, Bill Kentling.) I also doubt I’d have ever worked for one professional indoor soccer franchise, much less three. Heck, I might still be a baseball scout now, at 63 after having started at 23. That would’ve been the safe and easy route. Just following in my dad’s footsteps and there’s nothing wrong with that. I admire my dad more than just about anyone. But I just kept trying new things. I failed at a bunch of them, but I never stopped plowing forward. And, let’s face one of the biggest things: Had all these dominoes not fallen in the order they did, there’s a really good chance I never would’ve met Barbara Doyle. Things happen for a reason. I wouldn’t go back and alter the fall of any single domino. This is where I’m supposed to be.
As for the last question Buddy posed, I did get some negative emails way early on. A few I’d even describe as “hate mail” like he mentioned. People can be really mean, for no reason other than to please themselves, I guess. Maybe they need that. The vast majority of all the correspondence I’ve ever gotten, as a blogger and writer, has been incredibly positive and uplifting. I’m continually amazed and thankful for it. But, way back in late 2005 and early 2006, as I was finding my way as a blogger in the NHRA world, there were a few guys (always guys, by the way, for whatever that’s worth) who lashed out as if I was stealing their wallet or cursing their mother’s name.
I guess they would’ve rather read a blog ghost-written with no real content than the honest words I was posting. But, of course, they wouldn’t have sent the nastygram had they not read it, so there’s that. At first, I did my best to reply and try to engage them in an honest conversation, but it was pretty clear that only got them more riled up. Why? I have no idea. Finally, my response would be “Sorry you don’t like it. I’d suggest you not read it” and that would generally end it. It wasn’t pleasant, but fortunately it was a very rare thing. Over the course of the first two years or so, maybe five or six of those negative notes compared to hundreds of nice ones. By the end of 2006 all of that negativity seemed to just go away.
I see my blog career as something I really did earn. I had to prove myself, I had to have the confidence (and maybe arrogance) to think anyone would want to read my nonsense. And I just had to keep going. Now I can’t quit. For all of you who come back here to follow along, even after my retirement from the NHRA world and the shift here, to The Perfect Game Foundation site, all I can do is thank you profusely. It’s been an honor since the first day, and it continues to be just that.
From Dennis W. in Longmont, Colorado:
Q: “Blog reader from Day One here. And book reader too. I’ve really enjoyed your words and your perspective on everything from drag racing to life in general. But I’ve always wondered if people in high places agreed with what you were doing from the start. Compared to the other driver blogs back when it started, your stuff was pretty out there, but I mean that in a good way.”
A: And I take that in a good way. I think I’ve written about this before, but maybe it was in the book. About two years into it, when Pond Cam was a huge hit and Boofus and Buster were becoming key characters, I did get a little pushback from a couple of highly placed folks. They didn’t really get it, and didn’t really like it. We had a discussion at the track one day, and talked it out. Basically, I said I’d quit writing it if they didn’t like it. I understood that. It was their website, for crying out loud. Just tell me to quit, and I’ll quit. But if you let me keep writing it, I don’t want to change it and I don’t think my readers would like that either. I just kind of put my foot down. Gently, but that’s what I did. My point was this: My goofy blog was drawing traffic to the site. A lot if it. That’s a good thing, and I hoped they’d understand that.
The rest is history, although not exactly the Earth-shattering type of history.
From Carla in Denton, Texas:
Q: “Love all your stories. You write so well about emotional moments. Throughout all those NHRA years, can you remember one moment that was the most emotional for you? Good or bad. It’s such a sport of incredible highs and lows.”
A: I can answer both of those. On the good side, winning the U.S. Nationals and the Skoal Showdown with Del Worsham and the CSK team cannot be matched in terms of a stratospheric high. I’ve never felt jubilation quite like that. As I wrote about in the book, I felt light-headed at the starting line as we fired the car for the final round, and I was worried about that. Then I realized I wasn’t breathing. I was too nervous to breathe. It was a lot of money, and we all got a piece of it, but it wasn’t about the money. It was about being forever etched in NHRA history as a team that “doubled-up” and swept it all at Indy. We got all the big promotional checks and proudly held them up in the Winner’s Circle. I have a series of photos from that day in my office here. I look at them every day. The emotions will never fade
As for the bad side, that’s another that immediately comes to mind. Drag racing is dangerous. Bad things can happen. Sometimes really bad things. In 2004, the St. Louis race was an all night-time deal. It was just too hot and humid in the middle of summer to run a normal schedule. So, we as race team members had time to kill each day, and we aren’t really wired for that so sitting around was hard. On the first day I was there, on Friday I guess, I got a call from PR guy Rob Geiger, who represented Top Fuel star Darrell Russell. They had just landed at the St. Louis Airport and wanted me to meet them for lunch down on The Hill in south St. Louis. I didn’t really know Darrell at the time. He’d always smile and say hello in the lanes or in the pits, but we’d never even had a conversation.
That day, over a fine Italian lunch at Rigazzi’s, we talked at length, and Darrell asked most of the questions. He wanted to know all about me, my upbringing, my baseball career, my dad’s career, and my hometown of St. Louis. I’ve never quite had another conversation like it.
He was charming. He was so friendly. His default setting was a smile and twinkle in his eye. He was handsome, smart, and super talented. It was my honor and pleasure to share that lunch with him and Rob.
On Sunday, during eliminations, Darrell’s dragster was involved in a horrible crash. When that happens and the driver is OK, we generally hear about that over the P.A. system immediately. When we hear nothing, we worry. I called Barbara to tell her. I could barely speak. When we did hear that he had succumbed to his injures, after the race, I was shattered and broken and devastated. I called Barbara from my car and the only words I could utter were “We lost him.” She talked to me all the way back to the hotel, just helping me get there through the tears.
I basically knew him as a person for a couple of days. I felt I lost a true friend. You never forget that sort of thing.
And finally, from Adam W. in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:
Q: “Loved the book and have been reading the blog since the beginning. How do you keep doing this? Aren’t you out of words yet?”
A: Not yet. I think there are plenty more words in me. It’s just a matter of lining them up right.
And now, here’s a question I’m going to ask of all of you. If you follow me on Facebook, you might recognize the name Keith Kaufman. He’s been a blog reader since the first installment and he stays in touch a lot. Plus, he and his wife Kelly are massive cat people. They have a big group of furry friends at their house.
Sadly, Kelly suffered a serious stroke recently and the future is going to be tough for them, going forward. As of right now, there are many more difficult questions than easy answers and Keith is trying to handle all of this. They have limited insurance coverage, and Kelly’s treatment and recovery are going to be long-lasting and expensive.
Keith started a Go Fund Me page and I donated immediately. He and his wife, who means the world to him, need help. It’s hard to ask for help. By doing so, I know how serious it must be.
If you can help, even with a small donation, go here:
So that’s it. No photos today, but I’m good with that. It didn’t seem like that sort of blog. It’s also been another exercise in making something out of nothing, but that’s not giving credit to the people who send me so many emails or Facebook messages. It’s all just further motivation, even on a snowy day like this one. And no, the crew hasn’t shown up to plow yet. C’mon guys…
As is our regular procedure here, it’s been my pleasure to write this. If it’s been your pleasure to read it, clicking the “Like” button at the top is a wonderful thing.
See you next week!
Bob Wilber, at your service and more than 14 years into this.
If it seems like we’ve been going nuts on travel adventures as of late, that’s only because it’s true. For a retired guy, I’ve spent an awful lot of time on airplanes and in hotels this year, plus there was more than three full weeks in my sister Mary’s condo on Kauai, so to me it feels like the adventures never end. And hey, it’s still just the first week of December. There’s time to add one more getaway if we want to. I’d be up for that.
This latest one was so crazy it now seems like it lasted multiple weeks instead of four nights and parts of five days. New York can have that effect on you. There’s so much going on, so much hustle and bustle, so much energy, and just so much of everything that is New York, you go on overload and never really come down off of that rush. It was wild, and wonderful, and sometimes frustrating, but all-the-time memorable. It was a heck of a way to spend Thanksgiving, and a total immersion trip into the Manhattan scene. While it’s happening, it’s mostly a blur and just too much to even comprehend. Once it’s over and we’re home, it sinks in a little more when you think of all the things we did, all the magic we saw, and the fun we had. Even the frustrating parts were all part of the adventure.
It’ll be hard to do this all chronologically, because even now I’m still not sure what happened when and on what days. It’s mostly a jumbled mess except for Thanksgiving Day, which was the highlight of the trip, I’d say. So, with that “jumbled mess” in mind, I’m just going to jump in and try to draw a straight line through it, but if anything is out of order I reserve the right to be absolved of any wrong doing. The same will go with the photos. I have more than will probably fit, so we’ll just do the best we can and I’m not going to stress over having them match up perfectly with the text. For instance, this first pic is from the top of the Empire State Building. We went there on Friday (I think).
The whole thing started off with a blizzard. We had a 10:00 a.m. flight from MSP to LaGuardia on Wednesday morning. The only problem was the 8 to 10 inches of blowing snow we were supposed to get between 6:00 Tuesday night and 10:00 in the morning on Wednesday. So, Barbara and I had the same thought at the same time. We should get to MSP on Tuesday night because the roads were likely to still be a mess on Wednesday. The new Intercontinental Hotel is now open at the airport, and it’s even connected to the terminal with its own TSA checkpoint.
We weren’t the only ones with this idea. We had a nice dinner at the hotel and the man and his son sitting next to us had done the same thing. And looking out the windows at the traffic attempting to drop off and pick up passengers in the raging snow storm, it was clear that a LOT of people were trying to beat the storm and get out of town early. The fact Delta waived any change fees because of the storm gave everyone a chance to get on earlier flights without having to pay those fees, and in all my years here I’ve never seen the traffic as backed up and gridlocked as it was on Tuesday night. It was madness. And our plan was a good one. Our friend and driver, Israel, who gives us a great rate to the airport and drives us there a lot, knew a back way into the hotel to avoid all those backups.
When we checked in, the woman behind the desk reminded us about the TSA checkpoint on the third floor, which was on the new skyway that connected to the concourses. She assured us it would be easy, but both of us were skeptical. How can anything be easy on the Thanksgiving holiday? And just look at the traffic out there now! We gave ourselves plenty of time on Wednesday morning…
I had a fear we’d get off the elevator on the third floor and the TSA line would snake all the way back into the hotel. There was no such line. As we turned the corner on the skyway, I was sure we’d see 100 people waiting to get through security. There was no such line. And there was the checkpoint, right in front of us. 10 people? 12? Nope. No such line. Just three TSA agents waiting for us. No line whatsoever. Crazy.
It had snowed all night. The wind had howled all night. The MSP snow removal crew worked all night. The runways and taxiways were clear. Of course they were. It’s Minnesota.
Amazingly, our flight to LGA left right on time, and it was half empty. I think that was just another indicator that a lot of people got out early on Tuesday night. And just leaving on time for LGA is a miracle. In the middle of the summer, on a perfectly wonderful day, you can expect delays flying into any New York area airport. It’s just the way it is. Way too many airplanes all trying to arrive and depart from three airports in close proximity to each other. Delays are part of the deal, but we left right on time.
Upon arrival, we had some coordinating to do. Barb’s sister Kitty was flying in from Orlando but was due in quite late Wednesday night. Nephew Todd, his wife Angie, and the Twincesses Bella and Stassi were flying in shortly after we arrived. Angie’s dad Rick was also on his way in, but he had handled all of his own accommodations. Once we got into the city, Barbara made sure everyone was checked in and only had to show ID to get their keys, but the notable thing was that we weren’t all at the same hotel. The Florida crew was at the Marriott Courtyard right on 6th Avenue near Macy’s. We were at a small boutique hotel called The Hendricks, about five blocks north, as was Rick. It was a nice place, and really modern, but it was a very old building they’d renovated so the rooms were still the same microscopic size they were in the 1930s. With a king bed in our room, you had to walk sideways (not kidding) just to get around it. And good luck if both of us wanted to get dressed at the same time. A real estate agent would’ve called it “cozy” but it really was a nice place. The staff was terrific.
Todd and Angie’s room at the Courtyard was specifically reserved because it had a view of 6th Avenue. That would be the very road the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade comes down. We could avoid the crush of humanity on the sidewalks and view the parade from the room. Worked like a charm.
Bella and Stassi were mesmerized. The rest of us were, as well. We’ve all seen this parade on TV too many times to count, and finally we were all there to see it in person, right across Herald Square from the biggest Macy’s in the world.
The biggest worry about the parade was the wind. The organizers don’t allow the balloons to fly with winds over 30 mph. The forecast the night before called for 30 to 35 mph with gusts well over that. The first thing we did in the morning, even before walking back down to the Marriott from our hotel, was to check on the status. The balloons were a “Go” for liftoff, but they’d have to keep them really low. Normally, they’d be up five or six stories, but with 25 mph winds they had to be held just a few feet off of the street. We didn’t care. It as awesome.
We’d also gotten some great advice from the check-in staff at the Marriott. We’d heard all sorts of talk about having to get inside the building before 5:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving because everything gets blocked off. Since we were walking down from our hotel, that seemed daunting. But the girl checking us in said “Don’t worry about that. Just come down 5th Avenue instead of 6th. The parade route on 6th will be a madhouse, so go down 5th and come in the back way. We’ll give all of you credential letters to get you by the police at 5th and 35th. You can stroll right in at 8:00.” This was priceless advice, and absolutely correct. I had not exactly been “jazzed” about getting to the Marriott at 5:00 a.m. Crisis averted.
Being right near the end point of the parade, near Macy’s itself, we could watch the whole thing get started up by Central Park on TV and memorize the floats and balloons, which would get to us about an hour later. Funny how so many of the balloons were characters from newer kids movies I know nothing about. Like the guy in the photo above from the movie “Frozen 2.” I knew who Snoopy was, though!
We’d been over to Macy’s the afternoon before, and actually did some shopping over there for a “sound machine” to help us sleep in the noisy environment that is Manhattan. What a classic place. The old school wooden escalators brought me back to my childhood when our mom would take us shopping in downtown St. Louis, at Stix, Baer, & Fuller or Famous-Barr. Those were old school downtown department stores too, and they had the same Art Deco design and the wooden-slat stairs on the escalators.
On Thanksgiving evening, we had dinner reservations at really nice place on Columbus Circle, right at the southwest corner of Central Park. Amazingly, there’s a new urban mall there, all indoors, walls of glass, with high-end shops and modern design. It almost seems out of place in Manhattan, where everything has such old-school history to it, but it was a terrific oasis in the middle of the city. Can’t even imagine the cost of that property. Hence the very high-end stores.
The restaurant was The Blue Bird and we were fortunate to get a table for a group as large as ours. Sadly, Bella had started feeling a little under the weather during the parade, and she was sick by then. Angie and Bella stayed behind at the Marriott while the rest of us dined on a fixed menu of traditional Thanksgiving fare. Turkey, stuffing, and multiple sides the whole table could share. It was fabulous, and the service was impeccable. We just wished Bella and Angie could’ve been there.
The meal was also really creative and very well presented. They actually stuffed the dressing into each individual slice of turkey. It’s hard to explain, but it was delicious.
Friday was moving day. We all were checking out of the rooms we’d been in for two nights (actually, Angie’s dad Rick stayed at The Hendricks because he’d booked his own itinerary) and were headed further uptown to the Residence Inn at Broadway and 54th. The Residence Inn actually shares the building with another Marriott Courtyard. That’s the same Courtyard, just north of Times Square and south of Central Park, where Barbara and I stayed when we visited New York earlier this year. Same place, but to get to our Residence Inn rooms we had to use a different bank of elevators. The Residence Inn actually occupies the top half of the building, so we got to shoot right past the first 34 floors before we got to our hotel. We were on the 51st floor, if I remember correctly.
It was nice to have a much bigger room at the Residence Inn, although our room strangely had no drawers. Not kidding. There was a shelf in the closet, but not a drawer to be found. It was a little hard to unpack, but the view made up for it. Also, the other quirky thing about our new room was the fact the bathroom door opened out, into the room, right next to the double doors for the closet. If the closet doors were open, you couldn’t get in the bathroom. It took some getting used to, but it was a nice place. The two hotels also shared a bistro on the fourth floor and a full hot breakfast room on the third. Nice amenities for sure, and we took full advantage of the massive breakfast buffet.
The view from our room, way up near the top of the building, was pretty priceless. It would’ve been even more priceless had two new skyscrapers not been built directly in the line of sight from our room to Central Park. Still, there it was on either side of the new skyscrapers, and out the other side of our room we had a pretty nice view of the Hudson River, as well.
This building boom in Manhattan is pretty remarkable. New tall structures are going up all over the place, and one of the noteworthy things you can’t miss is the transition to super-tall but super-skinny buildings. After all, it’s not just the cost of the building itself that’s steep, it’s also the land it’s sitting on. Some of these things are crazy skinny.
If you go back up and look at the first photo I posted, and enlarge it, you can see a number of these new designs going up at the same time. One building, the second new construction from the left, looks like a giant pencil and it appears to be all condos. If that’s the case I’d have to guess that each condo has its own floor with 360-degree windows. There’s just not enough room in the footprint for more than one. And I’m sure they’re not cheap. Ya think?
Todd is a realtor now, but he used to be in construction and he was telling us how they’ve come up with this technology to make these skyscrapers so ridiculously tall but equally ridiculously narrow and thin. There’s a lot of tech that goes into the structural integrity of such a place, not to mention how they have to keep it from swaying in the wind. Quite frankly, some of the new construction projects give me the heebie-jeebies just looking at them. Like “How in the world can that thing stand up?” I’m kind of flabbergasted by the design, but I get it. Office space is in pretty good supply in New York, but new housing is rare. The whole area had gone decades with little new construction for condos and apartments. Now, these new buildings are popping up like mushrooms, except they often look like single blades of grass.
We did manage to get to the Empire State Building that day. Somehow we squeezed a lot in, didn’t we? I don’t think any of us had been to the top before, so that was cool. Here’s some advice if you’re ever thinking of it: 1) Be prepared to stand in line for a very long time. They did a big renovation a few years ago, and made the whole process more like a Disney ride. Instead of just standing in endless lines, they route you through a series of displays and rooms full of images and movies, in an effort to make you think of that stuff and not how long you’re in line. 2) Also, just like at Disney, when you come back down guess where the elevator lets you off… Yep, the gift shop! 3) Spend the additional few bucks to get the “Express Elevator” all the way up. The normal elevators don’t make it to the Observation Deck, so you either change elevators (which means more standing in line) or you can walk up six flights. We walked. I wouldn’t do that again. Those old stairwells are original to the building and very cramped. Lots of switch backs. Also, feel the burn baby.
So this is the point where I’m really not too sure what happened on what days. I know we did the Empire State Building on Friday because Rick was with us. He had plans to see friends over near Queens on Saturday. On Friday night, we had dinner as a group at Angelo’s, a classic New York Italian place with great pizza. It was epic, and so very much everything you expect in New York. Bella was with us for that, but it became clear during dinner that she still wasn’t over her illness. Stassi, meanwhile, was coughing a lot. This sort of thing happens with twins, right? Things get handed back and forth.
Our plans for Saturday included a trip to the Museum of Natural History as the day’s high-point. Bella was way better, but by then Stassi needed to stay in the room with her mom, so Todd, Barbara, Kitty, Bella, and I took on the daunting task of getting up to the museum on Central Park West. It’s at 81st Street, right across from the park. That’s a long way from the Residence Inn. Like about 30 blocks. We decided to take the subway. No pun intended, but things got a little “off the rails” on this excursion.
We knew which lines would get us from Columbus Circle up to the 81st Street stop. We had it all dialed in. No one, however, clued us in to the fact the trains run different schedules on Saturday. We waited for the C train, got on, and about five minutes later watched the 81st Street – Museum stop go flying by the windows. Turns out, we were on an express instead of a local. There was no sign, no announcement, no nothing. You just had to know. There were a few other nervous tourists on there with us, trying to figure out what to do. Fortunately, a couple of NY natives and subway pros explained it all to us and told us how to get back to the museum. Or so we thought. We got off at the next stop, at 125th street, way up north of the park in Harlem. We crossed over to the southbound tracks and got on the D train toward the museum. Guess what… Yes sir, we were somehow on another express train and we passed right by the museum stop once again, finally arriving back at Columbus Circle where we started.
If there was one good thing about the lengthy trip to nowhere, it was the fact Bella was not only feeling better but she became an instant subway pro within minutes. This picture of a 3-year-old subway expert cracks me up. “Just sittin’ here ridin’ the New York subway like I do it every day.”
She’s just sitting there between two local strangers, with others standing all around her, and she couldn’t be less fazed by it.
We finally made it back up to the museum, once again relying on the advice of a few locals to make sure we got on the D train local, instead of the express. It was well worth the aggravation to see all those fossils and bones, and Bella (who was feeling all better) couldn’t believe all the things she was seeing. If you’re in NYC and have some time, go to the Natural History Museum. Just make sure you’re on the local subway line, not the express. And don’t be afraid to ask the locals for help.
This fact bears mention because, as much as most New Yorkers would not like to admit this, they are generally pretty kind and helpful. If you’re nice to them, or ask politely for help, they will typically go above and beyond to do whatever you need.
One night Barb and I headed back to the Hendricks Hotel in a taxi because there was one was right there on the curb and the nearest Uber (we’d been using Uber for just about everything) was five minutes away. When we got out of the taxi, the driver couldn’t pull all the way up to curb on the one-way street because of other cars in the way, so we were pretty much out in the middle of the road. Two seconds after I got out of the car, after sliding across the backseat to exit on the curb side, I knew I’d left my phone in the vehicle. I’ve never lost a phone. Not once. Never. Now I know the horrible feeling you get when you realize your whole digital life is now missing and probably never to be seen again.
The taxi was already gone. We had used cash, so we didn’t have a receipt that would provide the taxi number or maybe a phone number to call. There was another taxi on the curb, but the guy was off-duty and at first he just kind of waved me off. He thought we wanted a ride. Then he rolled his window down and I told him what happened. He really didn’t have much input as to what to do, but I think he could see the distress on my face and when I turned away he yelled, “Hey, I got an idea. Just have your wife call your phone! Call it over and over until someone answers!” That was actually a great thought.
Barb called and called and called. Finally, on maybe the 10th or 12th try, the driver answered. He said, in broken english, “I heard it ringing but couldn’t stop. I have it now. You want your phone back?” He was 35 blocks away. 15 minutes later, he pulled up to the curb and handed me my phone. I handed him a 20-dollar bill. And the other off-duty guy was still parked there. I went over and shook his hand to say thank you for the idea. He said “Happy to help. Glad you got it back. I couldn’t even imagine losing my phone.”
This sort of stuff completely blows the New Yorker image of being rude, or mean, or inconsiderate.
So anyway, on Saturday night the plan was to take both girls down to the area surrounding Rockefeller Center. There’s plenty of classic New York to see and experience there, and some fun Christmas shopping for the girls as well. We had both of them in a stroller, and not long after we got to our first stop, a store named “American Girl” Stassi started to show signs of not feeling well. She went from giggly and laughing to instantly falling asleep in the stroller, right in the middle of New York craziness. Angie was with us, this time, so that was good. The poor woman had barely left the hotel for two days with Bella being sick first. We talked about options, and everyone still had things they wanted to do and see, but I made it clear to Angie that I’d go back to the hotel with her if she thought Stassi needed to do that. At first Angie was not sure, but then she said to me “If you want to go back with me and Stassi, that would be really nice.” I don’t think she wanted to ask. She’s 100% self-sufficient and a very strong woman. I think she was just worn out by sick babies and the offer of help was too good to pass up. I was happy to do it.
So Todd, Barbara, Kitty, and Bella stayed behind and spent quite a bit of time around Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, and the whole bustling area. Todd even took Bella down to the Rockefeller Center skating rink and rented skates for them both. He can get around just well enough to keep her between his legs as she shuffled her skates to stay upright. I know this because I saw the video later. For a little Florida girl, it must’ve been quite an experience.
After all that, we flew home on Sunday and managed to get out of snowy and icy LaGuardia only about two hours late. We got home, though, and that’s the key part. It was a trip to remember!
There are so many other stories and so many other photos, but my fingers are running out of the energy and I need to type this with a minimum of typos. I will leave you with one additional photo. At one point, when everyone was going in different directions, I took a walk down near our midtown hotel because I’d seen a Google Maps listing for a business I recognized, just a few blocks away.
If you’ve never watched the TV show “Project Runway” this storefront will mean nothing to you. But if you have, and I’ll admit the premise of the show is pretty cool and Barbara got me watching it for a number of seasons, this place will be more than a little familiar. The show features a competition among a group of young fashion designers, who are put under tight time constraints and lots of challenges, in order to see which designer can wow the judges with the ensembles they create, sometimes in just hours.
I hadn’t realized we were so close to the Fashion District of New York (also known as the Garment District) when we stayed at The Hendricks, so it was a lot of fun to walk the streets and see actual designers walking by, with garment bags full of creations over their shoulders. It’s not hard to spot the models on the sidewalks, either. It’s a neat area, with little shops that sell nothing but beads, or buttons, or “stretch material” or other necessities, all around. At first you think “How can there be a button store in Manhattan?” but then you realize where you are. Mood is central to the show and central to all of that. It’s a “go to” store for fabrics, accessories, and other things all designers need to take their mental creations and make them real. In every episode, the aspiring designers are sent to Mood with a small budget, and they literally run through the store to collect everything they need.
Yeah, I’m a “Project Runway” geek. I got a huge kick out of finding Mood and taking a photo of the place.
So wow, that’s enough right? My hands are tired and my brain is mush. I need a break.
See you next week. I doubt I’ll have this much to write about, but I’ll give it my best effort.
As per usual, if you just read this blog and you kinda, sorta, maybe liked it a little, please do me a big New York favor and click on the “Like” button at the top.
Bob Wilber, at your service, back from New York, and ready for more…
Greetings blog faithful, on a mid-November day when the Minnesota skies are schizophrenic, alternating between the dead of winter and the pleasant glow of a sunny, but short, day. We deal with it. Today has been quite busy for me, getting some new writing done and some old writing edited (more on that later) and I find myself facing 4:00 as if it’s some sort of deadline. I’ll allow it to feel like that. Time to get this written and posted. It might be short, out of necessity, but it should be worth a read.
First of all, let’s get to the first part of today’s headline. Barbara and I have visited the Alamo Draft House, here in Woodbury, twice over the course of the last week. Once again, I will make my statement that Alamo Draft House has saved, and totally revived, my interest in seeing movies at an actual theater. For decades, and I do literally mean continuous sets of 10-year increments, I was adamantly opposed to “going to the movies” as I had done most of my life before then. At some point, people lost their minds and became rude, self-centered, and just plain jerks. Going to a theater, no matter how great the film, was an exercise in doing everything I could to not strangle someone or dump an entire tub of buttered popcorn on their head. Basically, it was all the perfect example of the fact people are terrible in public, and this started way before cell phones and other things that now ruin public life. At Alamo Draft House, all that is cured with the pre-movie announcement that talking, cellphones, and any other noises will not be tolerated and the offenders will be flogged. Or at least kicked out. It makes movie going fun again. The food & drink service at your reclining chair isn’t bad either.
So, last Saturday we got together with former neighbors Dave and Nichol to see “Ford v Ferrari” at Alamo. The pizza was actually really good. The movie was terrific.
I can sum up what an entertaining film it was with this single anecdote. My wife is very well read, and very knowledgeable about a vast range of subjects. Walking into the movie, she had basically no idea about sports car racing and endurance racing. Nor did she have much experience with the Carroll Shelby and Enzo Ferrari rivalry. I had read the book “Go Like Hell” a number of years ago, and tried to tell her how great it was at the time, but that sunk in about as well as it might have if she tried to wax poetic about the latest romance book she’d just finished. Not that she reads romance books (I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed that, actually) but I’m just making a point. And here’s the anecdote: She REALLY liked the movie. She might have loved it. There’s a fine line there, but when your wife is actually trying to physically steer the car with an imaginary wheel, while watching the racing scenes, that’s a pretty good indicator that she was into it. Dave and Nichol liked it too.
Matt Damon (who plays Carroll Shelby) and Christian Bale (who plays under-appreciated and/or misunderstood driver Ken Miles) were fantastic. The tension in the movie is palpable. The storyline is easy to follow and all true. The racing scenes are beyond anything I’ve seen on the big screen. In a lot of ways, it’s a masterpiece.
Barbara had, of course, heard about the 24-hours of Le Mans but had no real appreciation for it. No real understanding of it, either. As popular as that single race is, the whole sports car prototype side of racing is still a niche application in the overall universe of going fast. In their case, it’s about going fast for a very long period of time. 24 hours, actually. But that doesn’t mean the racing isn’t thrilling, and very dangerous. The movie presents that masterfully, as well as the backstories about the wrestling match between corporate (sponsor) control and those who know damn well how to prepare and drive these cars. In any type of racing, those two sides of the equation often end up at loggerheads. So there you go, I just used the word “loggerheads” in a blog. First time ever, perhaps?
Bottom line: Well worth the price of admission, no matter your initial interest in the subject matter. And again, Damon and Bale are brilliant, as are the cinematography and the story.
Just two nights later, Barbara and I returned to Alamo for another flick, but this one was a “one night only” installment of one of Alamo’s best ideas. They play classic films and host “movie parties” in their honor. Still the same great service, and they relax the noise rules to allow guests to chime in with their favorite lines, but still a great way to see a movie back on the big screen while being played through their magnificent sound system. When we saw the movie party scheduled for Monday night, featuring the all-time classic “This Is Spinal Tap” Barbara bought tickets immediately.
I’ve seen “Spinal Tap” too many times to count, but only saw it once at a theater. Not surprisingly, because it’s such a deep and brilliant film, I recall thinking it was fun but also not totally “getting it” at the time. Over the decades, the sheer brilliance of the movie soaks in.
This movie didn’t just break a mold, it created a whole new genre. The term “mockumentary” did not exist before Rob Reiner brought this movie to life with a brilliant cast, featuring Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Reiner himself, playing the spot-on role as documentarian of this fictitious but totally “real” hard rock band.
Did you know that the movie was almost completely improvised? The cast knew their characters and simply played them, making up the brilliant lines on the spot. That’s why they’re so often talking over each other, because that’s how it would be in real life. When Reiner was done shooting, they had about 100 hours of film. Editing that down to 90 minutes must have been a real challenge, but what you end up with is 90 minutes of pure genius.
Did you know that McKean, Guest, Shearer, and the other guys on stage were really playing their instruments? They absolutely were.
Did you know that a lot of people (including Ozzy Osbourne) were fooled into thinking they were a real band? And when the songs from the movie were put on an album, it sold very well. Not because it was a soundtrack, but because hard rock and metal heads thought it was great. Amazing.
And this goes to 11.
And now back to one of the subjects I mentioned way up at the top of his blog. Writing and editing…
As you may know, when I put my writing hat on I’m a serious detail guy. Even with my own life story “Bats, Balls & Burnouts” I was starved for details. Ravenous, one might say. Or, as I said to myself at the time to keep from getting lazy, “the beauty is in the details.”
Well, when writing fact-based fiction, the details will be what separates a good story from a great one. I’m as much focused on gathering real details as I am on stringing the words together. I’m not going to say writing comes easy for me, but I could. I know I can write. I’m good at it. It doesn’t stress me out at all. But gathering details and finding a way to season the words with just the right amount of them, is work. There are no shortcuts. Today, I took another big step in adding that seasoning to “How Far?” and I’m thrilled by it.
I knew, up front, that I had a lot of digging and research to do on the hockey side of the story. I never played the game. I’d never been up to Roseau. I didn’t know that many guys who had played at an elite level, so I went about making sure I fixed that. The people of Roseau rolled out the red carpet for me, and that inclusion and warm welcome translated into a real understanding of the environment and the folks who live there. When former Roseau resident Paul Broten (the youngest of the three legendary Broten brothers who all went from the Roseau Rams, through the University of Minnesota, and then on to great NHL careers) agreed to help out as a technical advisor, the tales of Roseau went from interesting to very, very real. The beauty is in the details.
I knew I had an advantage when writing about my baseball character. I was born and raised in the game. I played it until I was 40. I know almost every nuance about training, playing, and getting better. I can still smell the pine tar, 23 years later. But, I quickly discovered that when my baseball character goes off to college at the University of Minnesota, I wasn’t really sure what that was like. I went to Southern Illinois – Edwardsville. If my guy had gone there, I would’ve had it covered but the story wouldn’t work. So I needed a mentor.
I researched the Sports Information department at the U of M, and saw the name Sullivan Bortner as the person who does that PR and communications work for the Gophers baseball team. I reached out. I was looking for advice and introductions, to get the same type of flavor for U of M as Paul Broten was giving me for the hockey segments. Sullivan came through. I love it when people you’ve never met are intrigued enough to just “come through” like that. It reaffirms my belief in humanity.
Sullivan reached out to Brain Raabe who not only played baseball as a Gopher, he also did that at exactly the same time as my character. They would have been freshman teammates in 1987 had my character actually been a real person. Brian instantly agreed to speak with me.
Thanks to Sullivan, who set the whole thing up and actually stayed on the line with us after he merged our phone calls, Brian and I had a 30-minute chat this morning that seemed to fly by in a flash. He’s a great guy and we have a ton in common. Brian played at U of M and then was signed by the Twins. He had a very solid career that was highlighted by trips to the Major Leagues with the Twins, Mariners, and Rockies.
Within just a few minutes, I felt like I had known Brian forever. That’s the beauty of baseball. In effect, I had known him forever, thanks to all the intersections and crossed paths we’ve shared, despite the fact we were nine years apart during our pro careers.
Importantly, I was able to run by him some of the descriptions about life as a Gopher that I’d already written, to get his opinion as to whether or not that stuff would have, or could have, happened. I’m thrilled to say I had guessed right on much of it, but just in the 30 minutes we spoke he gave me so much more flavor and detail it was amazing. I got off the phone feeling like I’d gone to school myself, and my appreciation for all he offered was immense.
I even ran the concept by him that I’d like for him to actually be in the book, as a friend or roomie of my character. He said yes without hesitation. I can’t wait to write the next chapter, and the many more that follow. Brian is eager to stay in touch and do his part of make sure I get it right. I love it when people “come through” like that. Again, huge thanks to Sullivan and to Brian. This stuff is priceless.
Tomorrow, I head down to St. Louis. My buddy Lance is flying in at the same time, and we’ll hook up at the airport, then we’ll grab my rental car and drive downtown to the Hilton at Ballpark Village. Our buddy James “Oscar” Noffke and his amazing better half Alicia will meet us there, and we’ll head to The Hill for dinner. On Saturday, we’ll attend our “celebration of life” in memory of our dear friend and former roomie Bob “Radar” Ricker. I can’t wait to see everyone. We all need to share this. I really don’t suspect there will be any closure. How could there be closure after tragically losing a guy who was so instrumental in all we were and all we ended up being. But it will be so good to see a lot of the guys and be there with them. I’ll be home on Sunday.
That’s it for this week. I hope you enjoyed this one. I was staring at 4:00 when I started and now it’s 4:50. Time to get this posted.
If you somehow worked your way from top to bottom here, and liked what you read, there’s an easy way to scratch that itch. Just click on the “Like” button at the top.
See you next week.
Bob Wilber, at your service and so happy for things like Alamo Draft House and people who “come through.”
Welcome back, blog faithful. I’m happy to report it was an eventful weekend full of many laughs and some great socializing. All in all, I’d have to give it six stars on a five-star scale. Yeah, it was pretty wonderful from start to finish. I’ve been to Dallas too many times to count, but over the course of my racing career that really means I’ve been “through” Dallas too many times to count. Fly to DFW, rent a car, drive south the Waxahachie and then attend the “Dallas” race in Ennis for three days. Then, back up to DFW to fly home. This time, we actually experienced a few parts of Dallas, and it was great.
Barbara and I flew down on Friday afternoon, arriving at DFW right around 6:00, which means it was already dark when we got there. Following GPS directions, we easily made our way down to the Residence Inn – Arlington South, just off I-20. This would be a good time to mention that having a solid GPS system on your phone is a critical part of enjoying your trip to Dallas. Lots of freeways. Lots (way too many) outer “service roads” alongside those freeways. Lots of confusing off-ramps. We all know how off-ramps work, when transitioning from one freeway to another. You’re heading south. At the next interstate, you want to go west (right) on that road. That off-ramp should come first, right? Not in Texas, or at least in Dallas. The eastbound ramp will come first, and that can be really confusing, but Siri’s comforting voice got us there seamlessly. Piece of cake. Also, the service roads mean you can’t always get off the freeway at the cross-road you’d like to use. Sometimes you have to get off way early and follow along that outer road to get there. Sometimes you have pass right by where you’re going to get off at the next exit and then circle back. I guess the locals are used to it.
When we arrived at the area around the hotel, an upscale development of shopping, hotels, and restaurants, we passed a beacon of sheer delight, basically on the same mega-sized parking lot as the Residence Inn. Its red, yellow, and white colors called to us as we drove by. There it was… An In-N-Out right by the hotel! On Google Maps I’d already seen that a Total Wine was there, as well, and that was good because we wanted to bring a couple of bottles to the party at Elon Werner’s house on Saturday evening. But, the In-N-Out was a total surprise. We got into our room, unpacked a little, and started walking. The Double-Double and fries “well done” were sublime. We were off to a very good start.
After a not-so-quick stop at Total Wine, we had our two bottles (one purple, one yellow, as we say) and headed back to the room. We had decided to stay at the Residence Inn for a couple of reasons. One, it’s a Marriott property and Barbara is (this isn’t a joke) a Titanium Elite Marriot Rewards member. Seriously. So we get all sorts of spiffs when we stay at Marriott hotels, and she earns more points. Two, the Residence Inn gives us a full living room, a kitchen with full-sized fridge, a nice bathroom, and a great bedroom with a king bed. There’s ample room to stretch out and relax without having to sit on the bed in a standard hotel room, and two TVs in case we wanted to watch different stuff or go to bed at different times. It was really comfortable.
We slept in a little in the morning, although Barb was kind enough to go downstairs and bring some warm cinnamon rolls up from the lobby. We figured we had to leave the hotel at 11:30 to make sure we’d make it up to a certain restaurant in order to meet a certain pair of people at 12:30, north of downtown Dallas. That would be Pete and Jacque Delkus, of course. Siri got us there just fine, and that’s a good thing. I would’ve taken the wrong ramp at least three times had she not gently steered me the correct way. Right on time, we pulled into the parking area at R+D Kitchen, a wonderful and charming restaurant in a really cool part of Dallas. These were parts of Big D I’d never seen before, and this entire trip really completely changed my opinion of the whole DFW metroplex, as they call it. I was really impressed.
As soon as we walked in the door, Pete and Jacque came in right behind us. I can’t overstate this. It was like I’d seen them both yesterday. In every sense. I can’t remember the last time I saw both of them, but I think it was when Pete was doing the weather in Cincinnati, and he’s been at WFAA in Dallas for 15 years, so there you go. It was a homecoming. It was a reunion. It was heartwarming. It was wonderful.
Barbara had never met Pete and Jacque, and they were just as eager to meet her as she was to meet them. We had a nice booth in the restaurant and let’s just say there was never a moment when the conversation lagged or it felt like we were searching for things to say. Never. It was just like it was in 1989 when Pete and I were rooming together in a cool 3-level apartment in the westside suburbs of St. Louis. He was a quirky, hilarious, sarcastic, and fantastic roomie. You really can’t get any better. We spent, I’d guess, about six months rooming together, while he was dating Jacque, until he had to report to Spring Training in Orlando. Let me restate that. You don’t really “have” to report to Spring Training. You “get” to.
He’d been helping me out down at the St. Louis Storm indoor soccer offices at the old St. Louis Arena, selling group tickets and just keeping busy while we both grew frustrated over the fact there’d been a work stoppage at the Major League level on the first-ever spring when he’d been added to the Minnesota Twins 40-man roster. More than 30 days after camp was supposed to start, they finally settled it and my roomie packed up and headed south. On the night before, we had a home game. I was the P.A. announcer, of course, and during a quiet stoppage in play I said something like “Ladies and gentlemen, all of us with the St. Louis Storm would like to bid a fond farewell and send all of our best wishes to a colleague who will be leaving tomorrow. Pete Delkus will be heading to Orlando to take part in his first Major League Spring Training with the Minnesota Twins. Good luck, Pete. We’re all pulling for you!” I was ever so pleased that he got a rousing ovation from the crowd.
We had a great lunch. We reminisced and grew nostalgic over the old stuff, but we spent even more time on the present, bringing each other up to speed on all we’ve done and where we are now. It was absolutely priceless.
Two old roomies. Through good times and bad. I still can’t read the foreward Pete wrote for “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” without getting a little misty. I know he always meant a lot to me, and I respected him so much, but to hear it all come back to me was just too much. He’s a helluva guy, with a wonderful wife I introduced him to by sheer luck and whimsy. Life is funny like that.
Suffice to say, we spent a full two hours there, and the laughter absolutely never stopped. The hugs at the end were pretty good too. All in all, I think we’ve done OK for two old broken down baseball players. Not bad, huh.
We said our goodbyes and then Barbara and I had to hustle a little to get back to the hotel before it was time for Abby Werner’s 20th birthday party. Oh yeah, and her dad Elon was having his 50th too, but let’s be serious.
Funny thing, Siri took us back to the hotel a totally different way, and I think it’s because she has a handle on which exit ramps work and which ones drop you off short or beyond your target. 30 minutes later, we’d seen another part of Big D and were in our room. We freshened up a bit, gathered our gifts (the vino) and headed down to Mansfield, where Elon lives. It was an easy shot, straight down the big boulevard than ran south from just a block away from the hotel. Siri helped us navigate the winding roads in the development where the Werner’s live, but the mass of cars along the curb outside one particular home was all we needed to see.
I wasn’t really sure what Elon’s home would look like, but I figured it would be nice. It was spectacular, but not in an over-the-top “Look at me!” way. It was, indeed, beautiful and impressive, but more than that it was charming and welcoming. I felt like I was home the second we walked in. Getting a spine-crushing hug from Elon, who towers over me in a world where I tend to at least have equal stature if not a little advantage over almost everyone else, was like a trip to the chiropractor.
Barbara knows Elon well, they actually communicate about shows they binge watch without even involving me, but neither of us had met his lovely wife Jenn or the two kids, Abby and Nick. That was a true pleasure, and the two younger Werners are clearly a product of their parents. Not just in terms of their attractive good looks, but in the way they carry themselves and interact with others. They’re gems, who have been brought up well.
The kids had lots of friends there, and the neighborhood was well represented, so I wondered if we’d even know anyone else at the party. I’m OK with stuff like that. I have no problem being introduced to total strangers and then getting to know them before sharing life stories. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard “Hey Bob, didn’t know you were here…”
It was Jim Oberhofer, famed and damn-near legendary crew chief and tuner in the NHRA world. Jim O worked for Kalitta Racing for so long I actually don’t remember what he did (or what the team did) before he got there. Now, he’s just opened a quick-service oil-change and lube shop in the Dallas area. “Just opened” as in about a week ago. It was awesome to see him. His new place is called Victory Lane Quick Oil Change and it’s in Plano. If you live anywhere nearby, stop in and get your oil changed (and say hi to Jim O).
And then Elon walked by and said “Densie is here, too” and at that moment the one and only Dave Densmore entered the room. I’m sure I was beaming.
Dave Densmore… I have never met a more respected and more accomplished PR person. He’s got more talent in his little finger than I have in every fiber of my being. I have adored him and respected him since my first day in racing, and that’s not an exaggeration. And what has always blown me away about Densie, is that he treats nobodies like me just like people treat him. From Day One, I’ve held him in the highest esteem, and it’s a big crowd of us who all feel that way. He’s a walking encyclopedia and a fountain of memories and statistics, but above that he’s caring, engaged, and not only hilarious but also appreciative of anyone who can make him laugh. He loves to laugh, and when he does the whole room can’t help but laugh with him.
We toss around the word “legend” far too loosely. Dave Densmore is a legend. It has been my honor and privilege to work alongside him, befriend him, laugh with him, and get through all the ups and downs that NHRA Drag Racing can throw at a PR person, for well more than 20 years.
Randy Anderson is a photographer of the highest caliber, who lives in Dallas and shoots everything that looks interesting, from bridges and skylines to Funny Cars blasting off the line. He was also there, at the party, and by the time this whole group was together there was never any worry about having something to talk (and laugh) about. This was one spectacular evening at the Werner home. And both Barbara and I were so thrilled we’d decided to fly down to be a part of it. Priceless!
From left to right in the photo: Randy (far left), Elon in the back, towering over everyone, Jim O next to Elon, and little old me on the far right. In the front, two of my favorite people in the world. Dave Densmore and Barbara Doyle. What a great time. And the food was amazing, as well.
Our flight on Sunday wasn’t until around 4:30, so Barbara and I were initially unsure what we were going to do. As a Marriott Titanium hero, she can arrange a 4:00 check-out whenever she wants one, but we weren’t just going to sit in the room. Therefore, when Elon mentioned having brunch around noon, we were thrilled to do that. He got a reservation at a great place just a few exits from the hotel (although, yes, Siri had to navigate which actual ramp we’d use since you couldn’t get off I-20 at the restaurant) and the whole Werner clan attended, along with a very good friend of their’s.
This was our best chance to get into some deeper conversations with Abby and Nick, and we took advantage of that. Abby is a sophomore journalism major at Mizzou (the University of Missouri, in my home state – Go Tigers!) which is roundly considered to have the best journalism program in the country, so that tells you something. Nick is a senior at Mansfield high and is an accomplished member of the school’s swimming team. He’s narrowed his college choices down to University of Texas, down in Austin, or Texas A&M in College Station. I’m not sure that he’s totally sure, but it seemed like he’s leaning a little toward being an Aggie, rather than a Longhorn. But hey, when you’ve done so well in order to have both of those schools as your options, you should be proud and you should make the decision carefully.
Abby is totally amazing. So mature beyond her years, and so much a reflection of her parents (Abby, that’s a GOOD thing). We both really enjoyed talking with both of them. They are at such a great moment in their lives. They may not fully appreciate that, in the here and now, but they will always look back on these years with memories they will cherish forever. Barbara and I wish all the best to both of them. Kick butt and take names later, Abby and Nick!
So, it may not be completely apparent here, but we kinda sorta had a great time. Not just in the “hey that was fun and we did some neat stuff” sort of way, but in a really deeply personal and unique way. Pete is one of my best friends ever. Elon is clearly my best friend and former colleague in my modern life, in NHRA Drag Racing. He’s a phenomenal guy who would do anything for you, yet you feel the need to give it right back to him. Two class acts I’ve been so fortunate to know and appreciate. Two amazing friends. And having Barbara there with me, so that she could meet everyone and get to know them, took it to another level.
Memorable? Yeah, I’d say so.
That’s it for this trip around the blog week. I’m actually going to be home this weekend, before heading off to St. Louis and New York the next two. I plan to enjoy my time with my wife and two sweet boyz.
As always, feel free to click on the “Like” button at the top if that seems appropriate. Good thing there’s not a “Dislike” button, LOL.
See ya next week. Take care, everyone.
Bob Wilber, at your service and still reveling in the memories of this past weekend.
I’m truly sorry if today’s headline has implanted a Sonny & Cher song into your head. It did that to me, and I wrote it! But, it’s pretty much the theme right now as Barbara and I get ready for a lot of travel between now and December. Just keep your head down and go.
This will likely be a short installment today, because I have a lot of errands to run and home projects to complete before we fly down to Dallas tomorrow afternoon. And Barbara has it way worse than I do. She has an injured foot that’s really been bothering her since she came over to Kauai at the end of my stay on the island. This week she spent Monday and Tuesday in Toronto, then turned right around and went to Chicago yesterday. She’ll be home tonight and then we go to DFW tomorrow. Yikes. They gave her a walking boot, which she’s pretty good about wearing at home, but those business trips are hectic and she really can’t wear it when traipsing around places like Toronto and Chi-Town.
To make my errands even more fun, it’s not just autumn here anymore. We kind of fell off the cliff in the last few days. Right now, it’s 23 degrees. It’s more than a little chilly. We were in the low teens last night, and I really (REALLY) need to service the hot tub, move some outdoor furniture, put covers on things, and handle a few other details while I can today. Sometimes the onset of winter just jumps out from behind a bush and catches you totally unaware. Fortunately, I got my snow marker sticks in the ground a couple of days ago and turned off all the outdoor water, before we had our first hard freeze.
So, this first trip of three before the end of the month is to Dallas, as stated above. My great friend and former PR colleague Elon Werner is not only celebrating a landmark birthday (nifty, nifty, look who’s 50) his daughter is celebrating one too. When we were invited to come down and join them for a party, we couldn’t imagine not going. We’re really looking forward to it, and eager to spend some quality time not just with Elon but with his family. I feel like I know them all, thanks to social media, but I’ve probably only met his wife, son, and daughter one or two times, if that.
This is Elon (in the middle of course) from a few years back, when he was name the recipient of the Jim Chapman Award. That’s the single most prestigious award a PR person can earn in racing. It basically means you were selected for excellence in PR throughout all of motorsports. You might recognize his boss at the time, on the right, and that’s Michael Knight (who coordinates the selection of the recipient) on the left.
Elon and I motivated each other, cheered for each other, learned from each other, and relied upon each other for many years, out on the NHRA tour. But most importantly, we enjoyed each other. We still talk frequently on the phone, and have the ability to instantly make each other laugh. We’ve been through great times, good times, and horrific times together. Professional racing delivers all of those and you have to be ready for anything. We’ve also been through priceless times, making each other laugh out loud, even when the stress was at its highest. Can’t wait to see him and celebrate this birthday.
Oh, let me digress a bit and finish up a subject from last week’s blog. How did Halloween go in the Wilber/Doyle world? We had more trick-or-treaters than ever. The kids from the nearby family neighborhoods came out in large numbers, and at the end of the night I was down to maybe 16 or 17 candy bars. It was a lot of fun. We did have to put the boyz in a room for a while, because Buster has developed a thing where he likes to dash out the front door whenever it’s opened. Can’t have that, with a black cat on Halloween night. Everyone got through it OK, with no escapes.
OK, back to the upcoming Dallas trip. We’ll get down there Friday night, and then on Saturday we’re meeting my former teammate and roommate (not to mention longtime friend and one of the authors of the two Forewards in my book) Pete Delkus and his wonderful wife Jacque, for lunch. It’s been a while, and I think we’re all looking forward to it.
It was my dad and me (mostly my dad) who got Pete signed with the Twins after he surprisingly went undrafted out of SIUE. In his second year within the Twins organization, he was basically the best pitcher in all of professional baseball, playing Class A ball in Kenosha, Wisconsin of the Midwest League. Stats don’t lie. As I outlined in the book, this guy went through all of Spring Training without giving up an earned run. And all of April. And all of May. And all of June. And all of July. He finally gave up two earned runs in August. That’s impossible but he did it, throwing really funky stuff from a submarine slot. He was damn near unhittable. Here’s his stat line from that 1988 season. He was the Kenosha Twins closer, so all of this was in relief when games had to be locked down. Lots of pressure.
Innings Pitched: 68
Hits Allowed: 43
Earned Run Average: 0.26
Therein lies the reason he was named the Twins Minor League Player of the Year in ’88, and why we had a huge brass “Rolaid’s Relief Man of the Year” trophy in our apartment, featuring a big fireman’s helmet because relievers put out fires. It was amazing.
After Pete’s playing days were over, he became a TV weather man. First in Orlando, then Cincinnati, and now Dallas where he’s won too many Emmy Awards to keep track of. He’s the chief meteorologist at WFAA. And he leads the industry in social media sarcasm. He and I would’ve been friends even without the sarcasm gene, but ours were big genes and perfectly matched. He’s kind of legendary on Twitter, and is still hilarious to this day.
I’m sure we’ll have plenty of old stories to share over lunch, most of which will leave our wives chuckling but still uncertain as to our sanity. And we have a lot of catching up to do regarding what’s gone on in our lives, since the last time we were together. Between the Werners and the Delkuses (is that how you write that, or is it Delki?) there will be plenty of mirth, laughter, and love this weekend. We plan to maximize that.
So that’s it for this week. I have furniture to cover, propane tanks to close, errands to run, and I still haven’t made the bed yet today. That’s not my fault. Buster and Boofus haven’t moved, and it’s 12 noon. I never make the bed until they vacate it. It’s their house, we just rent space.
Take care, have a great week, and I’ll check back in next Thursday with tales from Dallas. Should be phenomenal, and the Chief Meteorologist has promised perfect weather on Saturday. I’m holding him to that.
As always, if you dashed through this installment and that “Well, that wasn’t a total waste of my time” clicking on the “Like” button at the top would be appreciated.
‘Tis indeed All Hallows’ Eve, better known as Halloween. I shall not be wearing a costume tonight, unless you consider me dressing up as Bob Wilber to be a costume. That’s one I wear every day. I shall also not be watching baseball. That realization hit me around the 7th inning of Game 7 last night. “This is it. No more daily doses of my favorite game until next spring.” This is when we start the countdown for when pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. It’s a tough pill to swallow all in just a matter of a few innings, and it’s a long winter ahead.
As I’ve stated, I did not have a horse in this race. I have great admiration for the players and coaches on both teams. But, as a lifelong fan and a longtime player, I can tell you that losing Game 7 like that, having a two-run lead going into the seventh and then seeing it disappear in a flurry of runs, and then watching your season come to end, that’s way harder than losing 10-0 and never coming close to scoring. Those games you just file away. Being ahead for six and then getting bombed hurts. The Astros won’t soon forget it. They may never forget it. It’s tough. I realize our 1977 SIUE Cougar Baseball squad was only in the NCAA Div. II World Series, but we were handily leading each game only to get caught and beaten in the late innings. It’s crushing.
The Nationals, on the other hand, will definitely never forget it. Right there, in the final three innings of Game 7, they showed what they have displayed all season. The ability and desire to never quit. It was impressive. Both teams were impressive. Zack Greinke and Max Scherzer were beyond impressive, and I’m sure the second-guessers are still wondering why the Astros pulled Greinke in the seventh with only 80 pitches and no sign of losing his command. He was masterful. I wonder about that, too. The bullpen obviously did not do its job. It’s not like they had to save him for Game 8. As for Scherzer, he’s obviously a warrior. He earned every bit of it, and if you saw the postgame stuff he was really emotional about it. Both guys left it all out there, I just think Greinke should have been left in a little longer. My 2-cents.
That Nationals win was for any of just old enough to have been a fan of the Washington Senators before they moved to Texas. It was for the more senior type of citizens who remember the first Washington Senators, before they moved to Minnesota. And it was for the wonderful Montreal Expos fans, who had their team yanked out from under them and relocated to Washington, to become the Nats. Somewhere, Youppi is crying. They might be tears of joy, but maybe not. And if the Youppi reference makes no sense to you, it’s easy to Google.
OK, back to Halloween. I think we have 36 or 37 houses in our development here in Woodbury. I should know that number, since I was on the Board of Directors for two years, but it escapes me right now. I do know this: Not one house in the immediate subdivision has a child living within it. This is a neighborhood for people who are empty nesters and who are downsizing now. We don’t like mowing the grass anymore, and shoveling the snow is not on our favorites list either. It’s an “older” neighborhood. Get off my lawn!
As you can see, I do have a bowl of mixed candy treats for any kids who come by. There may be a few. The neighborhoods near us, here in the master development that is broken up into subsections, are known as “traditional homes” because that’s what they are. Your house, your lot, your responsibility, so there are a lot of kids just a block or two away. They’re truly family neighborhoods. Whether those kids make the perilous journey over here to our gaggle of detached townhomes is always a question mark. The sure way to make sure they do is to not have any candy.
I made that mistake out in Liberty Lake once. Our first year there, we had a big bowl of candy and not one kid showed up. Again, demographically it was a much older neighborhood and it was gated. The next year, I was talking to the head of the HOA and she said, “Don’t bother. We won’t have any trick-or-treaters. We never do.” So I didn’t buy anything. And six kids came to the door. I had to apologize and tell them I was “all out” which was only a slight bending of the truth. I was never “all in” before that night. They looked at me crestfallen and in total disbelief. I still feel bad about it.
So, we’re fully stocked and will be prepared for the small chance we’ll have visitors. And then we’ll have plenty of leftovers to ration ourselves over the coming months.
Do we have a pumpkin? Well, yes we do. Is it massive and creatively carved? Well, no on both counts. When Barbara’s sister Kitty was here over the weekend we went apple picking one day, and part of that was a hayride, and before we left the orchard we bought a small pumpkin. It’s little. It’s cute. It’s not carved. But last year we had about six or eight pumpkins on the porch and then had a hard freeze just a few nights later. Getting rid of those things was not only difficult, it was gross. So just this little guy. At least he signals “There’s candy here” to any costumed characters walking by.
We did have a wonderful time with Kitty while she was here. Lots of laughs, great food, and fun excursions. She loves coming up here, especially when we’ve cooled off but it’s still 90 in Orlando. Our 40s and 50s felt delicious to her.
And the fact she and Barbara hit the spa on consecutive days probably made it even more fun. Saturday was the big day, with the trip to Afton Apple Orchard starting it off. I’d never been there, and didn’t know it existed despite the fact it’s right by a golf course we’ve played a few times. I’ve never seen anything like it.
I guess you could walk the orchards from the main building after you check in and get your apple bags. You could do that. It would take you all day to see and pick half of it, but it’s theoretically possible. The entire property is phenomenal and almost too big to fathom.
They have a table with samples of the various types of apples they grow, so you can cut a slice and see which ones you like the best. That allows you to concentrate on those selected parts of the orchard. That’s a good thing. Each variety has two or three rows of trees that are at least a half-mile long. They stretch on forever.
And to get out to the different rows of the various varieties, you ride the hay wagon. Much fun.
We made our choices and hopped on the wagon. When we got out to the two varieties we had agreed upon, we discovered a few things.
First, a lot of little kids come to the orchard. There were actually two school buses from Minneapolis in the parking lot. That’s a long drive in a school bus to hopefully pick some apples but I’m sure the kids had fun on that field trip.
Second, little kids tend to concentrate on the first trees they come to, so those trees were mostly bare. You have to walk deep into the row to start finding some trees with plenty of apples left on the branches.
Third, we were probably a week past the orchard’s prime. 90 percent of the apples were already on the ground and at least 70 percent of those that were still attached were split, or partially rotted. You don’t want those. The lady bugs can have them.
So, we persevered. We walked well down the rows and finally ended up with two bags full of perfectly good apples. I’d say we had 30 or more. And it was hard work. But it was fun!
We had a busy night planned, so the next morning Barbara and Kitty got to work making two dishes of “apple crisp” which is also a thing I’ve never had, at least home-made. It was amazing. It was also last Sunday when this was created, and I just came down off the sugar buzz on Tuesday. Wow!
Then they made apple sauce, and I’m here to testify that real home-made apple sauce bears some resemblance to the stuff you buy at the store, but not much. It was also amazing. My wife and her sister can create masterpieces, and I told Barb afterward that just sitting in the room listening to them as they made this stuff was fascinating. Kitty is a really good cook, and could easily be a top-flight chef if she wanted to be. My line to Barbara was “I can’t believe she just knows all that stuff. I’d have to have five cookbooks open and I’d still screw it up, but she knew it all and knew the process, the order, and the cooking time and temp. That’s amazing.”
Obviously, the operative word here was “amazing.” It was. We also had picnic at a state park, saw two Bald Eagles up close, just staring down at us from a big utility tower, and then needed to get downtown for a wonderful dinner at Kincaid’s followed by the Wild hockey game, which they miraculously won. They’re not exactly, how do you say this… Good. They work hard, but they have a lot of veteran players near the end of their contracts and those guys are not nearly as fast as they used to be. Can I say it? The Minnesota Wild look old and slow, and that doesn’t fly in today’s NHL where speed is king. Oh well, we were lucky to see a 5-1 win and we had a great time.
I’ve also been making some solid headway on the new book, “How Far?” this week. I know it seems like it’s taking forever, but I’ve only been writing when the muse hits me and Thursdays are prioritized for this style of writing. The whole process has been fun, but I’m into the second half now and that’s a different kind of fun because the characters and stories are now intertwined instead of separate. You need to take your brain to a whole new level of writing to keep all that straight, but so far it’s been a fantastic thing. Character development is an art. I’m kind of learning it on the fly…
So it’s time for an apple. Am I crazy to love sliced apples with peanut butter on them? I don’t think so. I used to like caramel apples, but the caramel is so sticky and sweet. I love peanut butter (creamy only, please) and it’s the same sensation but it tastes better to me. Call me nuts.
I’ll be back next week with a full report on how many trick-or-treaters we had, if any. Will also keep a running inventory on how many leftover candies we have. We allow ourselves one piece of “Fun Size” candy a night, after dinner. I’m partial to Snickers and Reese’s Cups.
As always, if you perused this random series of words and appreciated the effort, please give me a shout-out by clicking on the “Like” button at the top. That’s like a cyber high-five, to me.
Bob Wilber, at your service and now an expert on apple picking.
Greetings all, after another week has absolutely flown by. We didn’t go to any concerts this past week. Didn’t get on any airplanes. Didn’t really do much other than live a normal life, and it was great. It’s all going to spin out of control here soon, but that’s material for another few blogs. For instance, Barbara’s sister Kitty is flying in today to spend the weekend with us. That’s always good, because Kitty is a wonderful person who is up for anything, and that attribute means we usually come up with some fun stuff to do. Such as apple picking, which is on the agenda tomorrow. Then on Saturday, we have a dinner reservation at 5:00, at Kincaid’s in downtown St. Paul, and then we have three seats in the fourth row off the glass for the Minnesota Wild game at 7:00.
In the upcoming weeks, we’re headed to Dallas for my former PR colleague and all-time great buddy Elon Werner’s 50th birthday, which will be awesome. There will be cake, right? And while we’re there we’re having lunch with my longtime friend and former roomie Pete Delkus, and his wife Jacque. If you live anywhere near Dallas and watch TV, you should know who Pete is. He’s the chief meteorologist at WFAA TV. And a former professional pitcher. And a former Sauget Wizard, which is where we met many years ago. We stay in touch, and Pete wrote a wonderful foreword for my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” but I honestly don’t recall the last time we’ve seen each other. And that means it’s been way too long. Looking forward to the whole trip.
After that, it’s the trip down to the St. Louis area to attend the “celebration of life” for departed friend Bob “Radar” Ricker. And after that it’s the Thanksgiving weekend trip to New York City to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Yet another thing I’ve never done in person before. As of right now, we have nothing on the schedule in December, but as you might guess that’s always subject to change. We’ll both be close to Diamond Elite with Delta by then, so maybe a quick “mileage accumulation” trip might be warranted. Who knows?
It’s autumn here, in all its glory. While I was on Kauai the whole place changed from summer to fall, and now it’s just a little past its peak for color. Still beautiful to look at, and hopefully the HOA contractor who handles the landscaping will wait until all the leaves hit the ground before they come and clean them all up. Last year they came on their appointed day but apparently didn’t allow themselves the leeway to adjust, and most of the leaves hadn’t fallen yet. Two weeks later, our yards were covered again. And yes, I know that letting the leaves just sit there over the winter is actually fantastic nutrition for the ground and the grass, but I’m not in charge of the HOA and a vast majority of the neighborhood likes them cleaned up. It’s a democracy, here in the St. John’s Village section of the Dancing Waters development.
We’re getting lows in the 30s at night now, and just today I was thinking that I’ve still got a number of winterizing projects left to do. There’s a slight chance for “plowable” snow early next week, and I don’t have any marker sticks in the ground. If the lows creep down into the 20s for a few days, I also better get the outdoor water spigots turned off and cleared out. I recall being late with that chore last year. And it’s the time of year to empty the hot tub, clean it, and refill it with 250 gallons of sparkling new water, so I’ll have to do that before I turn off the spigot. That water should get us through the winter, if I stay on top of the chemical balance. I’m pretty strict about that, because it’s not fun to drain the tub and refill it in the middle of the winter. Last but not least, at some point I’ll have to admit that summer is gone and put the winter floor mats in our cars. It’s all downhill from there.
Here at the ranch, our ongoing project with the back deck, the paver patio, and other things is still just that. It’s ongoing.
As you might recall, when it got down to 27-below last winter, followed by waves of unseasonably warm weather followed by more crazy cold stuff, we had a lot of frost heave in the back. So much so that our grilling deck rose about 3/4 of an inch in one corner and we couldn’t open the screen door from the porch. Fortunately and thankfully, we work with two very reputable companies. Despite the fact we purchased this home seven years ago, our original home builder agreed to level the deck as a warranty item. And to do that, the great landscape company we worked with to build the paver porch, had to come out to take some of it apart so that the builder could adjust the way the footing works under the post that heaved up a little. Lots of coordination between two separate companies who both wanted to make good on the work they did.
The builder got the first part of their job done, and all that’s left is to put fresh lumber around the post and paint it white to match the others. Before that happens, Willow River Landscaping has to replace the pavers that had to be removed so that the new footing job could be done. It all has to happen in order, and hard-working Al is here right now getting to work on that end of it.
So that footing. It’s apparently 60-inches deep. That’s pretty huge, but even at that size it couldn’t handle the cold and very wet winter. So here’s the trick the guys from McDonald Construction did. They jacked the deck up enough to trim the top of the post, leveling it back out. Then they dug out all 60-inches around the footing and put a heavy tube around it. They then filled the tube with pea gravel. Apparently this works. The gravel acts like ball bearings so that the post itself won’t raise up if we have any heave from the deep frost line. I have a hard time picturing how it works, but they said they’ve done this many times before and it really works. All I know is it’s a heck of a lot of hard work for guys who are all doing it as warranty work. Much appreciated, on my part.
Also here at the ranch, I can’t explain it but for some reason I’ve decided I like writing and working from the living room sofa lately, instead of down in my office. I think part of it is because Buster and Boofus like to hang out here with me. I finished another chapter a couple days ago and fired that off to my editor Greg, and my two assistants were never far away. It’s very calming to have these two nearby, even if Buster snores a lot. Like right now.
And, it’s an interesting time of year for sports, and I’m a sports guy (no, really?) Hockey season has started, the NFL is about seven weeks in, I think. College football is about halfway through their season, and the Timberwolves kicked off their NBA season in Brooklyn last night, beating the Nets by a point in overtime. And… We still have baseball!
Even though the Twins were swept in the first round, at least they made the playoffs and they had a magnificent season that kept us on our toes and more than interested for months. As the World Series approached, I initially figured the Astros were a lock, just because of their starting pitching, but just before Game 1 the other night I looked at Barbara and said “I don’t know why, but I think the Nationals are going to win this thing. I just have a feeling.”
It’s just two games, but still it’s hard not to be impressed by the Nats. Yes, a number of teams have come back from being down two games to none, but losing those first two at home really makes it a lot harder for the Astros. They can do it. They are phenomenal group of guys, but everything favors Washington now. I have no horse in this race, and frankly would just like to see it go seven games, but I’ll be happy for either team that wins it.
And although I have really no connection to the Washington Nationals, I do very much have a connection to that stylized “W” on their hats and helmets. As seen in this wonderful old photo, my father was the bullpen coach for one of the last seasons in Washington before the Senators moved to become the Texas Rangers. I had that “W” on a lot of the stuff I wore, and used to draw it at the dining room table a lot. That was a wonderful summer, shagging fly balls in RFK Stadium. Balls hit by Frank Howard, Mike Epstein, Paul Casanova, and the rest of the Senators.
And then there’s our local soccer lads. Minnesota United is in their third year in Major League Soccer, and for the first two they were frankly, technically, “not very good,” especially on defense. This year they moved into their fabulous new stadium, Allianz Field, and improved so much it was hard to believe. They made the MLS playoffs for the first time, and although they lost that first playoff game and were eliminated by L.A. Galaxy, they really turned the Twin Cities on in terms of attendance and TV ratings. They sold out every home game. And within the last week two of their players were named best in the league at their positions. Ike Opara as MLS Defender of the Year, and Vito Mannone as MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Minnesota United is now a major part of the Twin Cities sports scene. This season was a lot of fun.
Barbara is headed for the airport now, to pick up Kitty. Tonight they’re meeting a few of the other Woodbury women for Happy Hour. I’ll more than likely have the NFL on, since the Vikings are on Thursday Night Football. Gosh, are sports a huge part of my life or what? I don’t really think it’s a bad thing.
And to be fair to my little guy, here’s a cute shot of Boofus to wrap this up. Barbara put a little decorative pillow on the railing where the steps lead down to the lower level, as a sign to me that I should take it down there the next time I head for the man cave. Except Boofie thought it was put there just for him, as a comfy little bed. He’s too much. Love both these fuzzy guys to death. They give us a great amount of joy and love.
So this one was pretty much your standard “a whole lot of nothing” blog, but that’s probably better than no blog at all. And now you know more than you ever wanted to about frost heave, deck posts, and footings.
As always, if you enjoyed this installment (and how could you not when both Buster and Boofie make appearances) please click on the “Like” button at the top. If I get enough “Likes” I can buy them some new treats…
See you next week!
Bob Wilber, at your service and on the living room sofa.
Greetings blog faithful. I apologize for the weeklong gaps we’ve had to go through lately, including this past week when it took me more time than usual to fully get over the jet lag after three weeks on Kauai. It’s not that hard going west. You just power through the long flights and get there in the afternoon, island time. If you can stay up until 9:00 you’re on your way. Eastbound, though, is a different story. Those red-eye flights back to the mainland are not fun, especially for a guy who rarely sleeps on overnight flights. That guy would be me.
I did my best to catch up and get back on Central Time after we got home, but frankly the whole week was kind of a blur. Falling asleep too late, getting up too early, taking too many naps. I think I’m pretty well set now. And no travel for at least a few more weeks. We do have some more trips on the docket, and one of them will be in mid-November when I head down to St. Louis for a “Celebration of Life” to honor my former roomie and teammate Bob “Radar” Ricker. I’m sure it will be emotional, but I’m equally sure a lot of our teammates and friends will be there to share it. Lance and I will be meeting up at the St. Louis airport and staying in the same hotel in downtown St. Louis. It’s an easy drive over to the gathering, from there.
The celebration will be in Pocahontas, Illinois, the little town where Radar lived. He lived right outside the actual town on a nice piece of land with a wonderful home and a Man Cave any guy would envy, out in his shop/garage. Plenty of sports were watched out there, year ’round. Apparently, according to the invitation, there’s a winery in Pocahontas, as well. We’ll be having the get-together there, and we’ll also be celebrating the 34th birthday of Radar’s son John. We will come armed with gifts. John is currently living with his godparents, and from what I’ve heard he’s doing about as well you could hope.
Just a few days after that trip, Barbara and I will be heading to New York to meet up with the Orlando gang, including the twins Bella and Stassi, for Thanksgiving. Why New York City for Thanksgiving? Because we were able to reserve a hotel room right above the street where the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade goes by. The one with the huge balloons that traverse right down 6th Avenue. Should be fun!
So back to last weekend… Way back in April (I think) I bought two tickets to see the band Kansas at the State Theater in Minneapolis. And I didn’t fool around. I bought the VIP package, which included a whole array of gifts and memorabilia, a Meet & Greet with the band before the show, and great seats. That was such a long time ago I pretty much forgot about it until I started getting emails from the promoter and packages in the mail a couple weeks ago. Then I discovered the seats were actually in Row 2 right in front of the stage.
Barbara knew she’d probably not be able to go to the show even then, when I bought the tickets, so way back in April I asked my buddy Joe Gillis if he’d like to come with me. He likes a lot of the same music I do, and he was thrilled to say yes. Just like I had needed to be reminded of the mid-October date, I had to jog his memory a little as well, but we were all set on Saturday and left way early so we could eat dinner downtown before going over to the theater.
I write about music a lot, and write about some of my favorite artists probably more than most people would like. I rarely write about Kansas, and I’m not sure why. They have been one of my all-time favorite bands since their first album was released in the spring of 1974.
They are called Kansas for a reason, since nearly all the original members were born and raised in Topeka. There’s a fabulous documentary about them, which you can find on YouTube and I’d heartily recommend it, called “Miracles Out Of Nowhere” (which is also the title of one of their songs) and that title could not be more appropriate. How six guys from Topeka ever got signed to a record deal, not to mention a deal with the legendary Don Kirshner, borders on being a miracle. They went on to sell tens of millions of records and pack arenas around the world. I probably saw them in concert five or six times during college.
They were no simple band. They were basically all musical geniuses, and the addition of Robby Steinhardt on violin gave them a very distinctive sound. I couldn’t get enough of Kansas back in my college days. They went through a number of changes over the years, and currently Phil Ehart and Rich Williams are the only two original members in the band. Ehart, the drummer, is roundly considered the guy who formed the band in the first place, enlisting the best of the best of his friends in Topeka.
As the concert date approached, I was just hoping the mostly new lineup would be OK. They were more than OK. They were brilliant. And at the Meet & Greet they could not have possibly been more gracious. Friendly, engaging, willing to chat a little and shake hands. Phil Ehart was the last one in the line, and all I could think to say when I got to him was “This is truly an honor.” In the group photo, Ehart is at the far left and Rich Williams is third from the left. Legends, in my book.
The show was amazing! The “new guys” (a few of whom have “only” been in the band for about 30 years) were spectacular. The sound, at the fabulous State Theater was impeccable. Our seats rocked. The big “if” in my mind was going to be the vocals. Back in the original lineup, a guy named Steve Walsh was the lead vocalist, and his range was truly off the charts. He was clearly one of the bests singers I’ve ever heard. It’s one thing to replace the violinist, the guitarists, the keyboard player, and the guy on bass. How in the world were they going to replace Steve Walsh? And that’s kind of important. Walsh’s voice was the sound of Kansas, to many fans.
As it turned out, by the first few notes of the first song, I could tell we were in for a magical show. Everything about the group was spot-on perfect, including the vocals. I can’t necessarily say this group is better than the original lineup, but they are absolutely just as good.
They played a bunch of hits to start it off, including my all-time favorite Kansas song “The Wall” and even played a few new songs they just released on a new album, and those tracks were great too. Then they played the album “Point of Know Return” in its entirety. And yes, they spell it “Know” in the title. When they came back for the encore, the singer said “We’ve got one more to play for you. Do you know what it is?” The entire sold-out crowd yelled “Yes!” and the band launched into “Carry On Wayward Son.” The whole crowd was singing along. Me included. I apologize to Joe and anyone else who could hear that.
All in all, it was everything I dared hoped for and a whole lot more. I’m so happy we went, and glad Joe got to experience it with me. Dinner and drinks were great too. And Joe was happy to be the driver, so I could relax and just soak it all in. Thanks, my friend!
And I’ll leave with this cute little detail.
Any of you who are NHRA fans and have ever gotten Pro Stock driver Jason Line’s autograph, you know how he signs it. He signs Jason and then draws a line next to it. Get it? I always found that funny. Well, Phil Ehart does something very similar, as you can hopefully see in this shot of the drum head I got autographed by the whole band. As the founder of Kansas, he gets the prime spot in the middle. He signs it with a “P” and then writes an “E” before drawing a heart. Made me smile…
So that’s about it for this week. I’m glad I got back here and back in the saddle. It felt good to write this blog once again.
I promise I’ll be back next week!
And, as always, if you just read this and thought it wasn’t terrible (even if you’re not a Kansas fan) I hope you’ll click on the “Like” button at the top. After doing that, you can feel free to carry on wayward son (or daughter).
This will be one of the shorter blog I’ve ever written, but I just wanted to check in and give you all an update. Tomorrow is our final day on Kauai, with an 8:00 pm red-eye flight to Seattle and then an early morning connection to Minneapolis. It’s been an incredible trip, and Barbara has been here since Sunday, so the fun level has been off the chart. I’m also just posting random photos in no particular order, just to give you more visuals of The Garden Isle.
Yesterday was moving day. Dr. Bob, who Mary and Lonnie were house-sitting for, returned from his epic European bicycle ride so Mary and Lonnie packed up and returned to the condo, at the same time Barbara and I were doing the same for a move across the road to the hotel. We’ve stayed here twice before, when it was the Marriott Courtyard, but it’s just finishing up a lengthy renovation and a switch to the Sheraton brand. It looks fantastic, and as soon as I post this I’m joining Barbara at the gorgeous new pool they’ve built. Here’s a view from our luxurious room overlooking the ocean, right on the beach.
Mary and Lonnie and I have literally covered the island from one end to the other. The mountains come right down to the sea at the northwestern end, so there is no road that connects all the way around the island. Earlier in the trip, we went up the east side past Princeville and Hanalei to get to the end of the road that way. A few days later, we went the other way, a lengthy ride from here in Kapaa, and the last 10 miles of it was on a dirt road so rutted and full of huge potholes that calling it a “washboard” would be far too understated. We borrowed Dr. Bob’s Toyota 4-wheel drive vehicle for that, but it was still only 5 to 10 mph all the way down that road. Quite an adventure, to say the least.
We’ve hit a long string of local restaurants. We’ve absorbed more than a few cocktails, including Mai Tais of course. We’ve had wonderful fun with the cats Maxie and Biscuit over at the condo. There have been more than a few nights when time zones messed up our sleep patterns, but we’ve kept it stress free and not worried about it. It’s been idyllic. It’s also been three weeks for me, and frankly I miss our boyz quite a bit, so I’ll be happy to get home. The weather will certainly be different. The seasons are rapidly changing in Minnesota.
So aloha from Kauai. Enjoy the photos. There are more of them below, so scroll down to see them all. I’ll be home soon…
Bob Wilber, at your service and heading for the pool.
I’m sorry for the late posting of this Thursday Blog Day installment, but I’m five time zones away. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. I’m on a smallish island, out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a fun place called Kauai and I’ve been here since last Friday. This is one of those places were time flies and the days go by in a blur. Can’t believe this is my seventh day on The Garden Isle, but I still have two more weeks to go.
The most wonderful part of this long visit is that my sister Mary and her husband Lonnie are actually here. When I come over annually to cat-sit for them (love me some Biscuit and Maxie) it’s because they are over on the mainland to see their kids and grandkids. To have them on the island, just a few minutes away as they dog-sit and house-sit for their close friend Dr. Bob, we can get together with ease. At least after Mary gets off work at Pier 1.
We’ve already been up to the top of the island and the “end of the road” beyond Hanalei, and that’s a notable thing. The huge floods from April of 2018 destroyed a number of bridges and the accompanying landslides washed out some roads. For a very long time, you couldn’t really drive beyond Hanalei, and the authorities needed it that way to first get relief supplies to the stranded residents who lived beyond the bridges, and then to rebuild. All that conspired to really hurt the Hanalei economy, since so few tourist made the drive. It was great to have lunch there and see the place so vibrant again.
You can’t quite drive all the way to the end of the road like you used to be able to. They’ve closed it off a little short of there and you actually have to show a Hawaii driver’s license (or have some sort of pass) to even get into the new parking area they built. Lucky for me my driver had such a document, since they live here.
They connected the brand-spanking-new parking area to the beach with a boardwalk and gravel path. It’s very nice, and it’s impressive they were able to put up new bridges, clear roads, support the areas where the landslides occurred, and get it back open at all, much less this quickly.
Since then, I’ve been writing and editing, as well as doing a lot of background sports research. As I might have mentioned, I’m to the place in the new book where I kind of lacked a true outline. The point where my two characters finally meet was pretty clear in my head, but I’d done so much factual research for the first 17 chapters I failed a bit by just assuming I could dive right into the next part of the book. I mean, I know the plot, but the facts have to be right. I realized how little I knew about specific sports teams, the ones my guys would be on, and I’ve taken a couple of full afternoons to dig back on the Google machine to figure that all out. It needs to be right.
Two nights ago, I went up to Dr. Bob’s house where Mary and Lonnie were hosting another friend for dinner. We had kabobs and brats and Lonnie was a superstar on the grill. Their friend Michael was a fascinating guy, and a great conversationalist, so the whole evening was wonderful. I was also proud I found the house without any wrong turns or backtracking. It’s quite hidden in a jungle of gigantic native plants and is down a very steep driveway. As a Minnesotan, my first thought was “Well this must be impossible in the winter” before correcting myself by realizing that’s not really a thing here.
And in terms of weather, the islands are going through a bit of an historic spell. It’s really pretty darn hot. The beauty of Hawaii has always been how wonderfully temperate it normally is. As in “a high of 82 and a low of 72” each day, just about all year long. Just in the week I’ve been here, I think every island in the chain has set a new all-time record for high temps, many in the 90s. It’s pretty steamy, and I’m thankful Mary and Lonnie have AC here at the condo. I’m sure Maxie and Biscuit are, too.
Last night featured a visit to The Oasis restaurant and bar, because you basically have to go there on Wednesday nights. It’s a rule. That’s when Aldrine Guerrero performs with his ukulele and his counterpart adds in the guitar parts. It’s beyond amazing. Think of the most incredible guitarist you’ve ever seen, in terms of technical parts and perfect precision, and then imagine doing that on a 4-string instrument that’s half the size. It’s like having Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Brian May all performing at once, on ukuleles! It’s mind blowing. If you follow me on Facebook, I posted a short video of Aldrine performing. Check it out!
Plus, as is always the case at The Oasis, Mary and Lonnie are the most popular people in the place. Every time they walk in, it’s like Norm walking into Cheers. And that’s not restricted to The Oasis. There are plenty of places on Kauai where they seem to own the place. That just makes it all the more fun, and the drinks never stop arriving. It’s a solid win for me!
There’s always a part in the show where Lonnie gets up to play the role of “stranger seeing his first Aldrine concert.” I hadn’t noticed that he’d left the bar but Mary elbowed me and said “Lonnie’s about to do his schtick.” Keep in mind, Aldrine knows Mary and Lonnie very well.
Lonnie wanders out in front of where they’re playing, waiting for a break between songs. Then he says, loudly, “Hey man, do you have a tip jar? Is there a tip jar around here?” Aldrine plays along by saying “I don’t know who this complete stranger is, but he wants to know of we have a tip jar. It’s right there.” It’s pretty hilarious, and it works. The crowd all starts to come forward to drop money in the jar after the Lonnie bit.
We made sure Lon took a pic of me adding my currency to the tip jar. It’s all part of the Lonnie and Mary experience. They’re the best.
As soon as I’m done with this blog, I’m going to get back to work on the book. I can’t be THAT lazy to not keep a writing schedule going! But, to be honest, I am being plenty lazy. I’m just now getting fully acclimated to the time zone here, since it’s five hours earlier than Minnesota.
When you first arrive, it’s really hard to stay up past 9:00 and then you’re waking up at 3:30 in the morning. Last night, I made it to 10:30 and I didn’t fully wake up until 7:30. That’s a milestone! I think tonight I’ll just hang out and relax. We’ll have plenty more to do over the next few days and weeks. I just hope it cools off a bit and the trade winds kick in enough to make it less of a sauna out there. My normal trail walks along the ocean have been curtailed because of it. I love those walks because of the scenery and the beautiful weather. Yesterday, I walked the 100 yards to the drugstore and when I got home I was soaking wet with sweat. Ugh.
Yeah, I know. I’m on Kauai and I’m bitching about the weather. That’s absurd. Shame on me, and I truly mean that. I’ll take whatever Mother Nature throws at us and I’ll be smiling the whole time.
This was a short one today, but the island is calling, my book is calling, and Maxie and Biscuit are calling. I just wanted to check in and let you all know I’m here, it’s all good, and the island life suits me. Oh does it suit me.
As always, if you liked this installment enough to not bail out half-way, clicking on the “Like” button at the top is always good. Mahalo!
See you next week with more tales from The Garden Isle.
Bob Wilber, at your service and actively looking for my first Mai Tai of the trip.
It seems like every single day of the year is now the “Official Day” of something, whether it be National Dog Day, Cat Day, or whatever. Yesterday was “National Suicide Awareness Day.” Every single day of each year should wear that moniker. I know. I just experienced it and I’m still grappling with it and trying to process the whole thing. If you’ve never gone through being on this side of a friend’s suicide, you can’t imagine it. As of Sunday until around 12 noon, I couldn’t imagine it.
This will not be a fun blog to read (or write) and it won’t be a long one. I don’t even want to write it, and I’m not sure I can put my feelings into coherent words. I just hope, in some small way, it will at least be an eye-opener for someone. Whether you have a loved one who seems a bit troubled or near the edge, or if you feel that sometimes there is no way out of whatever predicament you believe you are in, call someone. Reach out. Don’t give up. Talk about it!
Bob “Radar” Ricker was my college roommate for two years, and a baseball teammate as well. If you’ve known me or have been following my writings, you might know of him and you might have had the pleasure to actually know him personally. This photo is from around 1982 or thereabouts. I honestly don’t remember, but I was working for the Toronto Blue Jays at the time and we were all back at school to participate in an Alumni Game against the current varsity. You can see the bond in the photo. It’s very real. It lasted
Radar has been a close friend since we met at SIUE about a year after I got there, when he showed up at the lunch table as an undersized player with an oversized heart and a will to make himself a better ballplayer. His stature and his wire-rimmed glasses made the “Radar” nickname stick immediately. He was instantly absorbed into our group, and was one of us even when he was struggling to make the JV, much less the varsity. We all loved each other. We were a family.
More recently, he was one of our group of four former roomies who made it a pact to have a reunion every year, starting in 2015 and always based around the game we loved to play and continue to love with all of our hearts. We did that, and made a promise to continue it, because we were all getting older and it struck us all that we should do it because, well… we still could! We never imagined that the loss of one member might be due to something like this.
Around noon on Sunday, I got a text from Lance McCord that began “Terrible news…” Lance had learned that Radar had tragically taken his own life the night before. He shot himself. I didn’t even know how to process what I was reading, and Lance (who is as well spoken as anyone I know) sent only a few cryptic lines. We spoke a few minutes later, and the reality of it began to sink in, but the reason for it still eludes me.
Lance, Radar, James “Oscar” Noffke, and myself were just four members of the SIUE Cougar baseball team, but we had a special bond as brothers. All of our teammates were brothers, but there was something about the four of us that kept us glued together. I really can’t explain it, other than to see a variety of “sticking points” that kept us tight. Lance and I have always been very close. He changed my life by introducing me to Barbara!
Lance was always the facilitator. He stayed in regular touch with Radar over the years and kept me up to date on things. Oscar and Radar ended up living only about an hour apart in central Illinois. Both of them were avid hunters and they remained very close. I was just happy to still be friends with guys like all of them. I feel fortunate to be connected to everyone from the SIUE baseball program. It is a truly classy group of highly intelligent, genuine, and loyal friends. Everyone should be so lucky.
I have almost no details about what happened and I’m not sure I want to know them. It’s just tragic and it’s such a loss for so many people. As Oscar put it, “A friend once told me that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” I can’t think of any single line that more accurately represents what we feel right now.
All week, I’ve been working through the process and trying to come to grips with it. There’s anger, sadness, disbelief, and a wide range of other emotions. But, the strongest emotions have been triggered by the contact being made from these brothers of mine. Guys I don’t see for a decade at a time. Guys I don’t talk to as often as I should. The calls and texts have been so heartfelt. As I told Lance yesterday,”I’ve said ‘I love you man’ more times in the last four days than I have in the last four years.” These are friendships you can’t replicate.
Stan Osterbur, who I roomed with on SIUE road trips and then later played professionally with on the Paintsville Hilanders, texted me multiple times a day, just to check on me. After all, when someone takes their own life you can’t check on them. He made sure to check on me, to see how I was doing. And, masterfully, with each text he’d make it a little less morose and a little more lighthearted. That’s the sort of friendship you can’t replicate, as I said above.
Lots of guys were reaching out, through various means, and we all were there for each other. It’s a support group of the highest order. We still don’t know what we could’ve done, or if anything could’ve been done. There were demons we didn’t understand or never saw. We lost a dear friend.
Former teammate Bill Lee said, “I just saw him a week ago at the SIUE charity golf tournament, and at the Gateway Grizzlies minor league game after it, and he seemed just like himself. He seemed great.”
That’s the thing. You almost never see it. Whatever possesses a person to get to the final tragic option is usually not apparent. It’s so sad. It’s just so damn sad.
Bob Ricker was a great roomie. He was hilarious. He was fun loving and willing to do just about any crazy thing anyone could come up with. When I got home from my first year of professional ball I called him and said, “School doesn’t start for another three weeks. Want to go to Miami?”
He laughed and said “How do we do that?”
My mom was doing a consulting project down there, living with a friend, and there was a spare bedroom at the house. I said, “Let’s drive!”
A day later we got in my little red Ford Fiesta and took off for Miami. Somewhere around Paducah, Kentucky we pulled into a gas station and I said, “You want to drive for a while?”
Radar replied, “Sure. But I’ve never driven a stick shift…” He got some quick lessons. He didn’t learn much.
We were scholarship athletes at a very high level, playing baseball for an NCAA program that was outstanding, but I think Radar got as much enjoyment out of playing intramural flag football with all the baseball guys as he did hitting and fielding. He was demon on the flag football field. We didn’t lose.
I don’t recall one time when any of us would say “Hey, want to go do this?” without Radar immediately saying “Sure!”
He had a heart of gold, and even when we were young and immature Radar was the guy who made friends with local senior citizens. He’d stop by their homes and sit on the porch with them. He built a very successful State Farm insurance agency in little Maryville, Illinois and more than anything his business was about friendship. Locals would just stop in to see him and say hi. He had time for every single one of them. But something within him was missing. I wish I knew what it was. He left behind so many people who loved him and the reason couldn’t have been worth it. As Bill Lee said, “Geez, he had literally a million friends.” He did.
I can hear his voice. I can see him when I close my eyes.
I can’t believe he’s gone… I miss you Radar. But Goddammit… It didn’t have to be this way.
As of now, the Ricker family is still grieving as are all of of his friends. There are no services pending.
I have a flight to Kauai leaving at 8:30 tomorrow morning. I’m going to be on it. I need to be on it. Aloha.
Time. It is, simultaneously, both a concept and a scientific fact. In our world, at least for those of us who aren’t super-advanced scientists who speculate and hypothesize about the flexibility (or even the reality) of the concept of linear time, it’s just what marks our minutes, hours, days, and calendars. It’s when we get up, it’s when we go to school or work, and it’s how we know the weekend is here. It is consistently perfect. There are always 60 minutes in an hour. Well, except for that aberration in the time/space continuum known as high school algebra class, when time would slow to a crawl or seem to cease movement altogether. Or conversely, those other moments in time, like the last two weeks of summer before going back to school, when the clock and the days would accelerate into warp drive and each hour passed in what seemed like a blink. But time, like the hands on a fine watch, really just marches forward at the same pace. It’s weird, I know.
So I didn’t blog last week, because I felt I’d run out of time. On social media, I mentioned the fact that Barbara and I were both pretty worn out from some frantic travel to Orlando and then to Chicago, and then further excused myself from writing by mentioning the Minnesota State Fair and how we planned to attend. To utilize a phrase from the journalistic world, “In the interest of fair reporting” I must now admit we never got there. Throughout last weekend, we came up with projects around the house or other excuses that let us off the State Fair hook. There was a LOT to do, including some messy painting of patio furniture. Plus, the Fair was experiencing all-time high attendance, up to close to 200,000 people per day! Let that sink in for a second. There were no “Park & Ride” locations anywhere near Woodbury. Just getting there would be hard. The moon was a waning crescent. Mars and Jupiter were aligned. The Twins were on TV. It might rain! Plus, naps sounded really good. So we never made it.
So here we are, and there’s still lots to write about despite not having the “Great Minnesota Get Together” as a part of it. But again, just think about a State Fair that draws well over 150,000 people per day, and sometimes quite a bit more than that. Amazing.
After our Brainerd adventure a couple weeks back, our next trip was to Orlando, or Ocoee to be precise although you do have to fly into Orlando. Bella and Stassi, the well-known and impossible not to adore “Twincesses” had their third birthday. Now let me tell you how that went… These two girls have been born and raised on Disney. They have annual passes and use them a lot. They watch Mickey’s Clubhouse on TV nearly every day. This was not going to be a dining room full of crepe-paper streamers and a cake, like many of mine were. Nope.
This was one of the most elaborate, well planned, well executed, and phenomenal birthday parties I’ve ever witnessed, and both Barbara and I pitched in as much as we could. It was staged at the clubhouse in the neighborhood Todd and Angie (the parents of the Twincesses and our nephew and niece) live in, and they did almost all of it themselves, including the inflation and presentation of over 1,000 balloons, gifts and games for all the guests, an incredible Disney style cake, and an appearance by two actual (official) Disney princess characters. It was amazing. As three-year-olds, I’m not sure how much of it the girls will remember, but it was incredible.
My specific job for the event was the creation of a large batch of white-wine Sangria. Nailed it!
On the big table where snacks, lunch, and other beverages were served, my gigantic dispenser of Sangria was a major hit. I overheard many parents telling their little ones that it was “Mommy and Daddy juice” when they wouldn’t pour them a cup. The big dispenser was just about empty by the end of the day.
Nearly all the kids came in Disney style costumes, and nearly all of them were nothing short of adorable. A number of adults came in full regalia as well, and that was a riot. There must have been 70 people there, and the room was rocking with Disney tunes and confetti, not to mention the aforementioned balloons. Outdoors, where it was typically Orlando (that means hot and steamy) there was an elaborate inflated bouncy house and pony rides, except the ponies were wearing a single horn and rainbow manes to make them unicorns in the eyes of the little ones. The whole thing was epic, basically.
The girls took almost all of their gifts home, and as you might imagine almost all the presents were Disney products. It took them the rest of the day, after the party, and part of the next morning to unwrap them all. But the one present they got at the party was a new car. I’m not kidding! They got a new car. Just for them.
This thing was amazing. This was no pedal car like I got when I was three. Or a little go-kart that broke in a week. It was an incredibly accurate Mercedes and just gorgeous.
It came equipped with optional ways for it to operate. You could indeed accelerate it and steer it from the driver’s seat, but there was also an override for that and a remote that could run it, too. Todd chose the latter option for the Twincesses’ first spin around the clubhouse, just to be safe. Solid choice, I’d say.
Funny thing was, though, Stassi (who was in the driver’s seat) clearly thought she was driving the car. She’s either been watching Daddy a lot from her car seat in the back or she just instinctively knew how to operate a steering wheel. She’s a natural!
In addition to the many kids who came in costume, a lot of the adults did too. Ranging from some Disney shirts and shorts all the way to elaborate movie-style outfits, and it was great fun to see everyone having a good time. Sort of the exact definition of the term “kids of all ages.”
I brought a costume with me, as well, but after we loaded so much stuff into the clubhouse prior to the party I made the decision to wait until we got home with the girls to put it on. It was made of fleece, plus with the real Disney characters there I thought it would be a little amateurish or disrespectful to put it on in their presence, so after we got back to the house, and the girls were opening presents, I adjourned to the bedroom and came back out a minute later.
Ta-Daa! A grown man in a Mickey Mouse outfit. Yep. That would be a first for me.
When I walked into the playroom, Stassi’s eyes lit up and her mouth hung open. Bella, seen here in the photo, just looked up at me and said “Hi, Bob-Bob.” That would be what we call destroying the illusion. Still, everyone got a kick out of seeing me in the suit, with the three-finger gloves. And even in the house, with the AC on, it was a fleece sweatbox within about 5 minutes, but well worth the effort. I wonder what I’ll be next year? Goofy would seem appropriate.
We spent most of the day with them the next day, then headed for the airport for a late Sunday flight. It was a bit of a manic trip down there, but well worth the effort, I’d say. The Mickey outfit only cost $29, which was about right on target compared to its construction and design.
We were pretty tired from the whirlwind that is any visit to see Bella, Stassi, Angie, Todd, and Kitty but we only had one day at home to recover from that. On Tuesday we were headed for Chicago.
Much like (actually, just like) the New York City trip we made a few weekends ago, this was one of those deals where Barbara had a full day’s worth of business meetings to attend, so I tagged along. All I needed to pay for was a cheap Delta ticket. The conference Barbara was attending was at the JW Marriott in Chicago, and that’s a fine place to stay, if by “fine” you mean outstanding. It was well worth the effort to accompany her.
That first night, we scouted out a world-class steakhouse just about six blocks away, and it turned out to be directly across the street from the theater where “Hamilton” was playing. That was a fortuitous thing, since we had tickets for the musical the next night after Barbara’s conference was over. No worries about finding the theater, and the steaks we had were incredible. I’d say Top 5 in my book. What other steakhouses make my Top 5? Well, start with Manny’s and Murray’s in downtown Minneapolis. Then there’s Churchill’s in Spokane. There’s a whole bunch that would tie for the fifth spot, including the St. Paul Grill and Ike’s in Minneapolis, but The Grill Room in Chicago is probably right at the top with Manny’s or Churchill’s. Top notch!
Barb had to work all day the next day, so I went for a long walk. And that stroll was a revelation for me. I’ve been to Chicago too many times to count, but almost all of those trips were business oriented. The same sort of “get in, get out” trips Barbara is always on. Heck, when I worked for Converse Shoes our regional office was in Chicago, but I never spent much time downtown just relaxing or being a tourist. I made up for that on Wednesday.
And I realized something that came into sharp focus compared to the NYC trip we’d just recently made, where I also went for a long walk around Manhattan while Barbara was in meetings. Chicago is a truly MARVELOUS city. I guess I never really knew just how walkable, enjoyable, and beautiful it actually is. I was amazed, and so happy I got out there on the streets to see it and feel it.
New York is one of the most amazing cities in the world, but I think even New Yorkers will sort of proudly admit how brusque (rude?) and “no eye contact” it is. There’s a huge overt sense of urgency and “get out of my way” on the streets in Manhattan. It’s still incredible, but there’s a feeling about it that makes someone like me feel a bit too much of “My gosh, I must stand out as a rube tourist here.” In Chicago, I think there’s just enough Midwest mentality to ease all of that. I felt at home. People smiled. They held doors. The sidewalks were packed with busy people on purposeful missions, but were wide enough for everyone to get by without bumping into each other.
So, basically, it took me six decades but I finally got to understand the allure of downtown Chicago. It’s a special American city. So close to where I grew up in St. Louis, but a world away.
When Barbara’s work was over, she came up to the room not long after I’d gotten back from my lengthy stroll about the Windy City, and she desperately wanted to get outside and get some fresh air. So, we retraced a bunch of my route and some other streets, and by the time we got back to the JW Marriott I’d clocked in at over 11,000 steps, according to my watch. A day well spent in Chicago, but the fun was only just beginning.
When we entered the lobby, it was impossible to miss the fact we were surrounded by a large group of very fit, very big, and very athletic men. I instantly said to Barbara, “This is a sports team.” I had wondered, before we checked in, if the Twins might not be staying at the JW Marriott, because they were in town to play the White Sox. It was clear this wasn’t the Twins. Many of these guys were absolutely huge. It had to be a football team.
Once we got to the room, I pulled out my laptop to see when the Chicago Bears might be playing, and who their opponents might be. Turned out, we were sharing the hotel with the Tennessee Titans. I asked a person at the hotel if that was correct and his response was only a rapid wink of one eye, then he said “Oh, we don’t discuss who are guests are.” Gotcha!
After being surrounded by NFL humanity, we had to get cleaned up and head over to the theater for “Hamilton” so Uber seemed the best way to do that. No need to take showers and then walk six blocks and get all hot again. We got there in plenty of time, found our terrific seats, and got ready for something I was barely ready for.
Up until our drive up to Brainerd a couple of weeks ago, I basically knew nothing about “Hamilton” other than it was about the Founding Fathers in general and Alexander Hamilton in particular. I’d heard some people mention that it was a real dichotomy of a specific historic tale presented in a modern way. When Barbara put the soundtrack CD in the car on our way up to the race, I got a real feel for it. Oh, it’s modern for sure. Very musical, very vocal, and also hip-hop and rhyme. I was really interested in seeing the show.
It. Blew. Me. Away!
So much talent on one stage. So much creativity. So many laughs and moments when the audience just couldn’t help but yell, clap, and cheer for performances that were nothing short of perfect. And, with all that said, it was such an insightful look into our country’s history, with so much more relevance to what we’re going through today than I could have imagined. Remember, back then everyone who wasn’t native American was an immigrant, and most of them were of meager means. They overcame it all. And it wasn’t easy.
“Hamilton” brings it all to life spectacularly. If you haven’t seen it (I bet many of you already have) you must find a way. You’ll thank me. I’m so thrilled we got to experience it.
So, after a week off, that’s about it for this installment of “As The World Turns” or “Bob’s Blog” or whatever this nonsense is called. I see no reason why I won’t be back next week, although I also doubt I’ll have this much ripe material to work with. That’s never stopped me before, so I’m sure we will persist.
As is almost always the case, I’ll make one request. If you’ll just send me $5,000 up front, I’ll share the $10 million a Nigerian Prince is going to wire me tomorrow. I’m sure it’s on the up-and-up. He seemed like a nice guy. That, of course, is not true. What is a true request, though, is that if you just read this and enjoyed it even a little tiny bit, please click on the “Like” button at the top. If I get enough “Likes” I’ll fly to Nigeria to get that money. No I won’t.
See you next week, boys and berries!
Bob Wilber, at your service with thoughts of Twincesses and Chi-Town still fresh in my mind.
A Double Order of Bacon, With a PodCast On The Side
I like bacon. No, let me rephrase that. I love bacon. I like it crispy, and I like it by itself or as part of a greater whole. Bacon belongs on cheeseburgers. Bacon belongs on salads with ranch dressing. Bacon absolutely makes a BLT, because otherwise it’s just an LT. Club sandwich without bacon? No thanks. Bacon on an omelet? Of course. Bacon with scrambled eggs. You betcha. Just a pile of bacon, heaped on my plate, when passing by the chafing dish in line at the hotel breakfast buffet? Don’t judge.
Last night, Barbara and I had a double serving, but this time it was Bacon, with a capital B. We enjoyed an evening with Michael Bacon, his “little brother” Kevin, and the fantastically talented band that helps make up The Bacon Brothers. It was awesome. And there, in that packed room at The Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis, I completed the assignment of finally having just one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon. If you don’t know what that reference is about, just Google “Six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon.” That was a thing for people to do a decade or so, ago.
This will probably be a short one today. Barbara and I are entering a period of crazy travel over the next couple of months, and I don’t know if we’re done booking flights. She leaves for Orlando this afternoon, and I’ll follow her down tomorrow. We have a big old time scheduled for Saturday, as the twins Bella and Stassi celebrate their third birthdays with an all-out Disney party. I’m going to be in costume. It arrived a few days ago. It includes giant cartoon hands (with only three fingers each) and comically large shoes. And a one-piece zip up suit to wear. There are large round ears at the top. Yes, this is all true. There may or may not be photos, but it’s also a fleece suit so the Orlando weather is not going to exactly be conducive. I’ve convinced the authorities that I will put the costume on in private, stroll through the crazy party, where I will either delight or scare the little kids, and then peel it back off as soon as I’m soaked with sweat. They agreed.
Next week, before it’s even blog time, we’ll head to Chicago for a couple of days. We have tickets to see “Hamilton” while we’re there, and I’m really looking forward to that. Barbara and I headed up to Brainerd for a day this past weekend (more on that later) and she played most of the soundtrack for me on the car stereo. Amazing stuff.
OK, I need to be interviewed for a PodCast right now. This could take a while, as I’ve never been accused of being afraid of the sound of my own voice. Chat amongst yourselves, or just listen to the theme music…
(90 minutes later)
Whew! I do like to talk. I think I wore poor Ryan Acra out. Ryan is a go-getter who is making a mark for himself in all sorts of social media and publishing ways. Somehow, when researching something else, he came upon some of my prior work via the Google machine. The more he looked into my background, the more he wanted to interview me. It seems he specializes in sports, writing, author stuff, books, ideas, and other things. I’m kind of right up his alley.
We just had a wonderful 90 minute conversation. He’s extremely sharp, and asks some of the smartest questions I’ve ever had posed to me. It’s not often that someone asks me a very real and serious question and after thinking about it for a few seconds, all I can say is “I don’t believe anyone has ever asked me that before.”
We covered a ton of ground, mostly based around “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” and it was great fun. He’ll need some time to edit the raw interview and then get it posted, so once he does that and he sends me a link, I’ll let all of you know where you can go to listen. Really glad I did that. Plus, he’s going to be a great asset going forward in terms of publishing my new book “How Far?” He recently started his own publishing business and thinks I might be a great fit for his portfolio. This is what we call “networking” and it’s a marvelous thing. I’ll keep you posted on the PodCast as it goes from raw interview to edited show and then appears on the interwebs.
So back to enjoying bacon and Bacon.
As briefly mentioned above, last night Barbara and I ventured back over to the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis to see The Bacon Brothers. I had no idea what to expect. I knew Kevin Bacon was a serious musician but I didn’t know his style or what kind of band he had. As we got comfortable in our seats and began to chat with others, it was obvious the first question was “Did you come for the movie star, or for the music?” Barbara admitted she came for the movie star. I came for both.
From start to finish, it was a great show. Nothing too heavy, but everything was so eclectic I think they checked off about a dozen different styles of music. From folk to country, from rock to rockabilly, from ballads to covers. It was all very well played and great to listen to. I think my two favorites songs were both originals by those wacky Bacon Brothers, one was called “Tom Petty T-Shirt” and the other was “Don’t Lose Me Boy.” Both worth finding on YouTube.
All in all, a great show and a ton of fun. It was the single biggest and earliest arriving crowd I’ve ever seen at The Dakota, and everyone was fired up for it. What actually surprised me, although I’m not sure why, was the fact they finished the encore by playing and singing “Footloose.” For some reason, I just figured Kevin wouldn’t want to cross those beams. He’s a huge movie star who is a very serious musician and he’s touring constantly in pursuit of that love. I guess I assumed he’d want to keep those jobs separate, but I’ll admit it was a great way to finish the show. Well played, boys!
Last Saturday, we drove up to Brainerd early in the morning and had a fun day at the track. It was so great to see so many great friends and former colleagues, and I can’t express my thanks sincerely enough to let you know how much I appreciated what NHRA, Team Wilkerson, and Del Worsham did to make our trip as pleasant as possible. When you spend enough time away from the sport, you can’t help but wonder if anyone even notices you’re not there. I’m not big on handouts and I’m absolutely not big on expecting people to wait on me or provide me anything. It was wonderful, and it made a huge impression on both of us. We were very grateful for the help, the love, and the fun.
Once qualifying was about over, we headed to the car and made our way out of BIR, then through Baxter, left through Brainerd, over to Mille Lacs, and then down to Grand Casino near the south end of the big lake. We had a nice room with a view, if by “a view” you mean if you knelt down on the chair in the corner and looked hard to your left you could actually see a bit of the parking lot, but that didn’t bother us. We were there for dinner and some gambling fun.
Bottom line, we think we won about $300 or maybe $400 on slots. We brought a certain amount of cash with us, but both of us had some other money in our wallets so it wasn’t all that easy to remember just how much we put into the machines. I know I hit a pretty big one on a dollar machine, and Barbara did too. All I’m sure of is we came home with way more than we left with, and by getting those VIP cards you stick in the machines, we got about half off our dinner and about $20 in free slot credits. I usually don’t bother with those things at the big Vegas casinos, and have a far greater history of leaving my card in a machine and walking away than of getting any benefit from the program, but this time it all paid off. It was a fun night, and we slept like bricks.
Not a bad drive getting home, and when you come down Route 169 from Mille Lacs you’re only about 50 miles from the western side of the Twin Cities. It all went pretty smoothly, despite the experts in their big pick-ups, hauling their boats home, driving like it’s the 24-hours of Le Mans. I’m a careful driver, but it’s stressful to be surrounded by entitled idiots who think anyone doing 10 mph over the limit should just get out of their way, even if such a thing is impossible with the other idiots jamming both lanes. Exactly how close can you get your big truck to my back bumper, Slick? And where exactly do you expect me to go? Sheesh.
So, I thought this one would be short and it has been. The 90-minute PodCast in the middle of it wore me out a little, but I think we covered some good ground. Like I said, as soon as there’s a link to share for the PodCast, I’ll post it here and on social media. Could be a few weeks…
As always, if you just read this and didn’t think it was awful, I’d appreciate any clicking you can do on the “Like” button at the top. I might get enough “Likes” to buy some more bacon!
See you next week, I think. We’ll be in Chicago during the middle of the week so I may have to push the blog back to Friday. We’ll see…
Bob Wilber, at your service and still loving bacon. And Bacon.
If you’ve ever been to either of Disney’s Magic Kingdom parks in the U.S., you’ve more than likely gone on one particular ride aimed at kids, whether you had any children with you or not. It’s an indoor ride, in a boat, in a dark building filled with barely-animatronic singing children from a variety of countries, and the same simple song plays the entire time you’re there. You’ve got it now, right? It has to do with the size of our planet. And, no, it’s not Pirates of the Caribbean.
I almost typed the whole title in the headline, but by stopping short I think I have absolved myself from any blame when you are still hearing the song in your head eight hours from now. It’s not my fault. I didn’t write it, produce it, or play it at the park for you to listen to as you floated along slowly in that boat. But we all know it!
So here’s the deal. Last Friday we went to a party. A birthday party. A surprise birthday party! The truly surprised honoree was our dear friend Joe Gillis, who turned 60. The devilish plot was hatched by his wife Mary Beth, another dear friend from the old neighborhood here in Woodbury. The whole Marsh Creek gang was there, and in an interesting plot twist Mary Beth “crossed the beams” by also inviting a similar sized crowd of friends from their days at 3M.
It was fun and, bucking all the odds, it was successful on the surprise side of things. Of all the surprise parties I’ve been to, or which have been planned for me, I don’t think 24.5% of them were truly completely successful. This one was, and all the credit for that goes to Mary Beth. She nailed it, and a lot of us got there early to help out. Terry Blake, Barbara, and I assisted in the parking category, because having a whole bunch of familiar cars parked around their house would’ve easily tipped Joe off. And, to make it more of a challenge, the entire Marsh Creek neighborhood is currently having the street totally torn out and rebuilt, so there wasn’t really any parking in the neighborhood anyway.
There’s a small city park just outside the neighborhood, with parking for about 15 cars. There’s a paved trail that also winds through the woods from the parking area, and it connects, eventually, to their backyard (if you know where you’re going.) The three of us formed a relay team to help people get parked, and then we’d show them the way on the trail, handing them off as we went. Worked like a charm. And then it was finally time for Joe to arrive, coming back to Woodbury from Green Bay. Mary Beth had a double-secret planted assistant in that regard, too. Along on the trip was a friend of Joe’s who kept Mary Beth up to date, by text, as they got closer.
When Joe walked in the door from the garage, this photo illustrates how stunned he was by the fact their entire kitchen was full of friends shouting “SURPRISE!” Truly speechless. It was awesome!
So after all that fun, the party settled in and we mostly sat out in Joe and Mary Beth’s gorgeous backyard, socializing, laughing, enjoying the food and drinks, and just having a great time. We also got to meet a number of their former 3M friends, and that was great too.
And here’s where the real theme for this blog comes in… You know the song.
Barbara and I were sitting with a group of 3M people (3M’ers, as they’re known around here) and were getting to know them. I was sitting next to a really nice guy, whose name was Warren, and we hit it off immediately. The back and forth about what we used to do, what we do now, and other background stuff just rolled along as it normally would at a party.
We talked quite a bit about my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” and my upbringing, which of course is instrumental to the subject matter in the book.
Eventually, Warren asked me if I was a Minnesota native, and when I said, “No, actually. I was born and raised in the St. Louis area. Barbara and I have both lived literally all around the country, but after we got married we lived in Chapel Hill for a while, and then Austin for four years. We moved to Woodbury in 2002 and consider it home now.”
Warren’s eyes got a little bigger, and he said, “I used to live in the St. Louis suburbs, for quite a while. From childhood into adulthood.”
“Which suburb?” I asked.
“Warson Woods, originally” he replied.
Warson Woods and Kirkwood, where I grew up, are right next to each other. At that point, the questions were flying.
“Where’d you go to grade school?”
He went to Ste. Genevieve du Bois and I went to Mary Queen of Peace. Ste. Genevieve is all of about a mile and a half from the house I grew up in. I played a ton of grade school ballgames on the fields there.
Then we got to the question any two St. Louisans will ask each other, to immediately establish that one degree of separation.
“Where’d you go to high school?”
I went to St. Louis U. High. He went to De Smet Jesuit High, which was built out in the more affluent westside suburbs just before it was time for me to decide where I was going. My brothers had gone to SLUH, and I liked the history of the old campus down in the city, across the highway from Forest Park. He was in the third or fourth (I can’t remember now) freshman class at De Smet.
So that really got us going. Warren told me how he moved a couple of times, each time a little further west in the suburbs. I was completely familiar with each area and the street names that go with them. It was like a trip back in time.
I said, “So, from where you lived in Warson Woods, if you went south on Woodlawn you’d cross Manchester Road. Then, about a half mile later you’d come to a blinking yellow light where Quan Road ends at Woodlawn. Just a few yards further, Woodleaf Court would be on your left. I grew up on Woodleaf Court.”
Again, his eyes got bigger and he said, “I know it well. I had a friend who lived on Woodleaf!”
You’re kidding me, right?
We lived in the second house on the left, in the little Woodleaf cul-de-sac that featured only 10 homes, all of the same basic mid-century modern split-level design. He knew a guy named John BaDour, who lived two houses down from us. It was my turn to be speechless.
The BaDours were a wonderful family, and I used to play catch or throw a football around with their young son Tim, who was Timmy to all of us. When John would get home from work, he’d race up the street in his suit and loafers to join us. Truly great people, and I remember how sad I was when John broke the news that they were moving to Wisconsin.
So, Warren had been in John’s house. That’s just crazy.
What’s even more crazy is the total random nature of how this all happened. Two complete strangers go to a party. They could each sit anywhere or interact with people they already knew. Instead, we sat next to each other and began to talk. It took a long time for the conversation to finally get around to St. Louis and Kirkwood and Warson Woods and schools. And the streets we lived on.
So this is Warren Wasescha and me, at the party. It’s a small world after all, isn’t it? I couldn’t help it.
In other news, Barbara and I had a brief but fun “staycation” the last couple of days. She had a business dinner in downtown Minneapolis on Tuesday night, and then had a business conference, also in downtown Minneapolis, that started early on Wednesday morning. It seemed silly for her to drive all the way home after the dinner and then get up early to drive right back to within a couple of blocks where the dinner had been, for the conference.
So we got a room at Hotel Ivy, a wonderful boutique property near both her dinner and conference. We got there just in time for her dinner, so I hung out at the hotel and waited for her to get back. I had a room service cheeseburger that was awesome. Yes, I did. And, yes it was.
When she returned, we decided to check out the bar tucked into the basement of the hotel. It’s call Constantine and after you walk down the steps from the super-modern and bright lobby, the entrance is to your left. You actually walk through black curtains to enter. It was dark in there, and kind of medieval too, with actual burning candles providing much of the light. Almost like something from a castle during the middle ages, but a super cool place. We sipped a couple of drinks and ordered some tater tots (don’t ask, it’s Minnesota thing) that were terrific, and then headed up to our room on the 17th floor.
Barbara headed out early for her conference the next morning, and I had much of the day to relax, walk around downtown, and answer a bunch of emails. When she got back to the hotel, around 1:45, we had some time. She’s as “super elite” as you can get with Marriott (she’s actually a “Titanium Level” member, which I never knew existed) and Hotel Ivy is a Marriott property, so they gave us a 4:00 check-out. The trick was, Barbara had a 5:30 flight to Dallas. So we found some lunch, took our time, and then finally checked out. I took her to the airport, and off she went. She’ll be home from Dallas tonight. She posted on Facebook, early this morning, that it was already like an oven there. Ugh. It’s gorgeous here.
And this weekend we’ll be heading up to Brainerd to see as many people as we can at the NHRA Nationals, on Saturday. After a full day of that, we’ll head down to Grand Casino Mille Lacs, just about 30 miles from the track, to spend the night there. We’ll likely spend some money, too. I’m really looking forward to seeing a lot of smiling friendly faces, and so is Barbara.
So that’s it for today. As always, if you liked this blog installment please click on the “Like” button at the top. I wonder if I can make Titanium status in the “Likes” department?
See you next week, with tales and photos from Brainerd.
Bob Wilber, at your service and still singing “It’s a small world, after all…”