Friday, November 07, 2008

The Way It Was

My elite ultimate career began in earnest under the Queensboro Bridge on the east side of Manhattan at 59th street. It was the summer of 1980. I had just graduated from high school, and my older brother, Brian, grudgingly dragged me along to a combination NY Heifers practice/pick-up game that took place after the softball players were done with the field. Because Brian brought me and I wanted to make sure that I didn’t embarrass him, I played my heart out. I layed out for everything, especially passes he threw me. At one point, someone (maybe Derek Lent) said, “Dude. You made the team. Please stop laying out.” At the time I didn’t even realize I was trying out.

For the sake of historical accuracy, I should probably divulge a few details.

First, the “field” was a patch of clay that sported more than its share of rocks, glass, and random pieces of potentially disfiguring metal. Second, we were poachers, meaning that we had no right to be there. At any time anyone could come up and kick us off or shut down the lights. Still, despite the tenuous nature of the arrangement, dozens of players from all over the city, alerted by word of mouth (this was, after all, long before the internet) came two nights a week to ply their trade on that bleak urban landscape. To this day I can remember watching players from Bronx Science, including Luis Pellecier and Jeremy Seeger, warm up before the game. They were the most talented players I had ever seen.

The game generally ran from 11PM to 1AM, and afterward we would gather at the Blue and Gold Deli on First Avenue, sit on milk crates and drink tall boys of Bud. When the cans of Bud had been drained, Brian and I would return to our upper west side apartment and plan our overthrow of the UPA.

OK, overthrow is a bit of a stretch. All we really planned was to find a way to circumvent the UPA’s regional qualification system and get ourselves to The Show. It was a show that, because we played in the northeast region along with Boston Aerodisc and the Hostages, was all but unattainable. They were just too good. But many of the teams that qualified from other regions were no better than us, and many were considerably worse. So there we sat, on hot summer nights with the AC cranking, in a 16th floor apartment in The Eldorado, on Central Park West between 90th and 91st streets, planning our coup.

“Let’s call ourselves Bayonne,” Brian said. “Bayonne. Not even Bayonne Ultimate. Just Bayonne.” I realized even then that he didn’t want to be from Bayonne so much as he enjoyed saying “Bayonne.” And let’s not forget that this was back in the day when the UPA’s verification system was all but non-existent, so we could pretty much say we were from anywhere on the planet. Saying we were “Bayonne” was not that far-fetched.

Still, while calling ourselves Bayonne would put us in the significantly weaker Mid-Atlantic region, and thereby give us a virtual ticket to Nationals, nobody who lives in New York would ever seriously consider saying he’s from Jersey. It’s just something you don’t do. Confronted with that reality, Brian came up with another idea: “How about New Orleans?”

At that time the South was an ultimate wasteland, and marginally talented teams regularly squared off for the chance to go to the big dance. Saying we were from New Orleans would certainly get us to Nationals, and the only downside would be that a shitty team like the Dallas Sky Pilots wouldn’t get to go to Nationals. No great loss there. But it would mean flying down to Southern Regionals, a tournament that virtually guaranteed us a weekend of eating altogether unpalatable food. As much as getting to the show was an appealing idea, eating that much fried food was more than we could take.

So, in the end, after much discussion and debauchery, we decided that the only legitimate course of action was to earn our way to Nationals. Not through Bayonne or New Orleans, but through the then brutal Northeast region (which was probably much like the NW of today’s club scene). It made no difference that we were in a tougher region. It didn’t matter that we were better than some teams that got to go even though we had to sit at home and read about it in the newsletter. The bottom line was that if we wanted to be in a position to challenge for the title we had to earn that right by slogging our way through the best competition, whether it was at the Regional or National level. Three years later, in 1983, we did so by beating the Hostages. For all the National and World titles I’ve won, there’s something about that second place finish at the 1983 NE Regionals that will never be equaled. Such is the nature of personally ascribed value.

I’ve been reading comments from teams who have been raised on the UPA’s all-inclusive sectional/regional system, and who are uncomfortable with C1’s more selective system. I’m not on a college team and can’t speak to the specific emotions you’re feeling. But I feel confident in suggesting that when players who are dissatisfied stand up and make the powers that be notice good things result. Maybe not immediately. Maybe not for those players who suffer the most initially. But unquestionably in the long run the game, the competition, and the experience are enhanced.

I know what it’s like to be left out of a competition you feel you have earned the right to be a part of. But I can’t help but say that if you were really good enough to win at the highest level you wouldn’t be on the outside looking in. Back in the early 80’s we wanted to go to the show, but the plain truth is we would never have won. Not even on our best day. Windy City had our number. But we kept working, fighting, running, planning, and eventually we beat the shit out of those second-rate Midwestern scumbuckets. Despite the presence of a C1, when you have worked hard enough to earn your chance, you’ll get it. I can only hope that you make the most of it.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Fight The Power

In the summer of 1990, my mother, grandfather, and I decided to take a ferry from Newcastle, England to Bergen, Norway, across the North Sea. At the time it seemed like a nice idea, but that’s only because we had absolutely no clue what a ferry crossing on the North Sea would be like. After 24 hours of feeling sick, wanting to vomit, hoping to die, and thinking seriously of throwing myself off the deck into the water, I know far too well what a ferry crossing on the North Sea is like. If you can glean no other piece of wisdom from reading my blog, know this: fly to Norway.

The upside of our maritime misery was that we landed in Bergen, a lovely port city surrounded by mountains. From there we took a train over the mountains to Oslo. The train ride through the mountains was as spectacular as the ferry ride was horrible. The train itself was somewhat antiquated, but in an appealing, old-timey way. The seats were covered in a maroon fabric that at one time was probably plush but had been worn from use, and the brass fixtures were tarnished and dinged, but when it came time for a snack you did not walk to the snack car. Instead, an elderly man in a starched white jacket served us cucumber sandwiches and beer from a cart that he rolled through the aisle. Whichever side of the train you looked out showed breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and their many lakes. It was a memorable trip, and though I’m sure the trains are now modern, sleek and fast, I’m rather pleased I got to experience some of the old world splendor while it lasted.

The occasion of our visit to Norway was the 1990 WFDF World Championships in Oslo, a tournament we qualified for by beating Tsunami in the 1989 UPA Nationals. At that game, as twilight fell and temperatures dropped, my grandfather took a seat on a cold aluminum bench on our sideline. Soon after he sat down, we began our second half comeback. Thinking that perhaps sitting on that bench had started our comeback, he refused to move, even as twilight became darkness and the temperatures continued to fall. After our victory, it took some time for us to straighten him out for the walk to the car.

There were no such problems at Worlds. The weather was warm and we rolled through the pool play games with ease, crushing the Swedes, who we felt had it coming after 1988, 17-4. But the tournament was not without challenges. Playing in July in Norway, “The Land of the Midnight Sun,” we had our first experience with trying to sleep in a country where it never gets dark. We finally got the hang of it by taping black plastic garbage bags over our hotel room windows. What we never did figure out was how you know it’s time to end the waffle ball game and go home when the sun stays out all the time.

The tournament continued, and a win in the semi-finals over what might have been Finland earned us a rematch with Sweden in the finals. It also earned us a bit of controversy.

The tournament program showed the finals had been scheduled in a local stadium, something that was hardly unusual for a world championship. What was unusual was that the stadium field was artificial turf, and we weren’t told until after the semi-finals. We couldn’t believe it. How could they even think of playing a final on turf? While it’s true that some teams, particularly in winter, play on artificial turf at times (usually for practice), we never did. We also played hard, layed out often, and expected to do the same during the World Championship Final. The thought of playing on turf was very unsettling to say the least. The fact that they had not told anyone on our team of their plans beforehand was even more so.

The tournament organizers were very re-assuring. They told us the field was in good shape, Europeans often played on artificial turf, and there was no reason to anticipate any injuries or problems. We were also told that it was in the best interests of the tournament organizers, the other eliminated teams who wanted to watch, and the many fans in attendance that we play in a stadium rather than on one of the pool play fields, our only other option. Despite the logical, well-made argument that it was in everybody else’s best interest for us to do something that made us uncomfortable, we, as a group, decided to do what was in our best interest. We refused to play. Told we could lose the game on a forfeit, we still refused. Our health and safety were more important to us, we reasoned, than their trophy.

In the end WFDF blinked, and the finals were played on a grass field. We beat Sweden, winning our second of five WFDF and WUCC titles. More importantly, we stood up for what we thought was right, resisted the pressure of an organization that tried to bend us to their will rather than look out for our interests, and refused to heed the argument that the interests of all the people not playing the game were more important than those of the players. If any of you young players out there find yourselves in a similar situation, perhaps you can learn from our example. How will you find yourselves in such a situation?

Let’s just say you’ll know one when you see one.