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.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

what about canadians on the outside looking in?

Anonymous said...

"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."

Well said.

Anonymous said...

i luvs yer blawg #44.

-80 mold (frizbee hof member)

jacob said...

There seem to be two potentially conflicting messages here:
1) If you are on a team in a strong region that can't qualify for nationals but would beat teams which qualify from weaker regions, don't complain, as you aren't good enough to win nationals anyway. (I always agreed with this position, even when losing at NW regionals.)
2) If you are on a team from a weak region which would qualify for nationals under the old rules but would currently be excluded by the C1 format, don't complain, as C1 will eventually lead to higher quality college ultimate. (Probably true, but a bit ironic that teams like Carleton, Madison and Colorado would likely not have developed into top tier teams without the traditional format guaranteeing regional representation.)

Then again, as the underlying theme to these two messages is "(work hard and)don't complain," maybe they are not in conflict.

Thanks for the old NY stories.