Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Spirit of the Season

In 1936, in the first balloting for the Hall of Fame, Cobb received the most votes (222 of 226), outpolling Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.

Like many of you out there, I was raised in a family that was upwardly mobile when it seemed like the whole country was on the rise. I do have three siblings, so there was a certain amount of sharing required, and I am the youngest, so I suffered through my share of hand-me-downs, but I can't say I ever really felt like I was left wanting at Christmastime. My mother tells stories from the time before I was born when, saddled with two children on an Army Lieutenant's salary, my parents couldn't afford a Christmas turkey until a ten dollar bill came miraculously floating to the surface of the wash, and I think she must be making it up. From my earliest Christmas memories I can see toys and games and smell pies and cakes, but I can't remember deprivation of any kind, and certainly nothing like the magically appearing Turkey Ten like out of some Frank Capra movie (It's a Wonderful Bird).

Over time, as my father's salary rose, Christmas grew proportionally, with more gifts and more food and more ornaments on a bigger tree each year. We moved often, and my memories of those Christmases are defined more by where they took place than by what took place, but the memories are predominantly warm ones, and I am vaguely confident that the rest of the family feels similarly.

Eventually, with my parents relocated to North Carolina and my siblings toting little ones around in their own miniature versions of the family, we made the transition to a Christmas Eve event. It was shortly thereafter that the whole affair kind of spun out of control, and the story of the holiday began to be told in measurements (feet of tree, strings of lights, number of gifts), and the theme of the event became impatience. (I can't wait to eat. I can't wait to open presents. I can't wait for the bourbon to kick in. I can't wait for it to be over.) It ended with a paroxysm of gifting, and when the sounds of ripping and rending died down there was another accounting: How many presents? How much money? How long before we can leave?

A move to a Secret Santa construct represented the final transition for our family Christmas, and the economic benefits, both monetary and temporal, kept us going for a few more years, but it was pretty clear our hearts were no longer in it. The kids spent most of the pre-present time watching television, and the adults punctuated their snacking with snippets of interstate woe, snapshots of traffic nightmares just endured and yet to come. Still we marched on, out of habit or obligation, eating the same food, drinking the same drinks, and having the same conversations. And then something mysterious happened – everyone just stopped coming.

Initially it was the siblings with the largest and most far-flung extended families using travel time as an excuse, but eventually even I, a mere five minute walk away, found reason enough to stay away from the site of so many family gatherings, the rural North Carolina house once home to my parents but now shared by my mom and her sister, three years her senior and a widow. For a couple of years they still put up and decorated a massive tree, but now even that time-honored tradition has fallen by the wayside. No fragrant spruce needles, no twinkling lights, no heirloom ornaments with their attendant stories told in reverent awe as hooks are affixed, spots chosen, and placements made.

As much of a pain in the ass as the whole spectacle had become, I actually missed it, or at least missed my selective memory of it, and for reasons I won’t go into, at this point in my life I really needed it. So in November I made a plane reservation and made some calls and started the ball rolling and got on a plane just in time to beat the blizzard out of JFK. But once I arrived I realized that my nostalgic reminiscence for the holidays of yore was not a widely shared feeling, and the reconnection I had hoped for, with the whole family getting together again on Christmas Eve, was unlikely to occur.

My sister and her husband, who live in Charlotte, were happy to host (or so I was told) but the rest of the family wasn’t up for the three hour drive. My brother and his wife, two hours closer in Efland, were also willing to throw open their doors, but they insisted that the traditional Christmas meal be Indian food, which sent the more timid palates in the family running. My mother, for her part, was also happy to get the band back together, but it had to be for the whole shebang – tree, decorations, and full traditional meal – and the thought of that ordeal was a conversation ender for more than a few of the relatives. In short, everyone was willing to participate in the holiday provided it was on their turf and under their terms. How’s that for the holiday spirit?

And that is how I found myself in my former NC home on Christmas Eve, sitting with my father, who is not well, trying to ignore the ear-slitting volume of the television as I scrolled through an RSD thread I was directed to by an old friend during a Christmas greeting phone call. It seems that nearly ten years after I played my last game of competitive UPA ultimate, I am once again in the center of a controversy. My family is growing increasingly fractured, a holiday’s meaning might be irretrievably lost for more than just my immediate family, serious people are dealing with serious shit and doing their best to hold on as the very ground they are standing on seems to crumble beneath their feet, and all some people have to concern themselves with is why I wasn’t let into the UPA’s club. On the surface it’s laughable, but when I gave it enough thought to dig a little deeper, I realized something rather remarkable – the UPA HOF members and selection committee have something in common with my family (and not just that they all find me exasperating).

As a general rule, people who cling so tightly to their vision of what something should be that they won’t allow it to develop naturally on its own cheapen the experience for everyone, and lessen its significance. At the risk of offending, I believe this is what my relatives did to Christmas this year. I also believe this is what has been happening to the HOF since its inception, and it’s a shame, not only for the people being excluded. What’s missing from this whole discussion is that when deserving players are denied, the significance of getting in is lessened. What does it say to the people who were rightfully proud to have been selected only to come onto RSD and see the shrine denigrated as a sham, a farce, and pointless? They deserve better.

There has been some suggestion that the HOF selection process reflects a conspiracy or bias to what Toad calls “spirity types,” what Tony categorizes as primarily northeastern former NYNY opponents, and what others might call the prototypical UPA vision of a player. I will go on record and say that I don’t believe there is any organized effort on anyone’s part to exclude anyone, but not all bias is organized. In fact, often the most insidious bias is subconscious, and sometimes I wonder if the process isn’t carrying that monkey around on its back.

Consider that when the UPA posted write ups about the Slate of Eight on, seven of the write-ups were written in the third person, ostensibly unbiased reviews of the players or contributors in question. Only one of the eight was written in the first person, ostensibly a self-aggrandizing proclamation of that player’s self-perceived greatness. That player was me, and the write-up was taken, without my permission, from the HOF application the UPA asked me to submit (after saying it would be used for internal purposes only). Did they have the right to the post it as they did? Did it bias any of the members of the ultimate community from whom they solicited input to help the decision makers cast their votes? Can we ever know?

For the record, I contacted the UPA and spoke to the person who made the decision to post my profile. That person assured me there was no intent to bias the process against me, and I firmly believe that to be true. But I also believe that unintentional bias has been and continues to be evidenced in the process. Ironically, that bias has, in my opinion, cheapened the very endeavor the powers that be are so strenuously committed to protecting. Seeing as how I have invested nothing in the process and do not hold the endeavor in particularly high esteem, that fact does not trouble me in the slightest. But there is something about this annual exercise in communal hand-wringing that I do find troubling.

What bothers me is my feeling that the denigration of my merits as a potential hall-of-famer is part of a larger marginalization of our team’s accomplishments, the familiar refrain being that we achieved what we did through unspirited play or exploitation of the rules. Such interpretations are not only inaccurate, they’re disrespectful to the many players who graced the NY roster over the years. What made New York special (and ultimately successful) was the rare combination of intelligence and intensity, of exhaustive preparation and explosive competition, and an ethos shared by every member of the team that said the most honest expression of the spirit of the game is to compete at the highest level possible every time you step on the field, no matter the opponent or the score. When we asked ourselves, “What is it not?” and answered, “Enough,” we truly believed it. It was never enough. Two hour practices became three hour practices became four hour practices became five hour practices because it was never enough. Eight sprints became twelve sprints became sixteen sprints became twenty sprints because it was never enough. We could be up by four, but we wanted to win by eight, because it was never enough. And when the curtain fell in the summer of 1994, after six National titles and five World titles, the question asked was, “What is it?” The answer: “Enough.”

And now, fifteen years later, people with limited understanding or insight, who have never had the courage to make the sacrifice required to reach the pinnacle of their chosen endeavor nor the fortitude and commitment to stay there, sit in the safety of their homes and throw around words like thug and cheater and tainted, and all the while they wave the flag of spirit. Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t seem like a very spirited thing to do.

I note with some satisfaction that one of the posters to the RSD thread is, if I’m reading it correctly, a player with whom I had an altercation some time back, not on an ultimate field, but in a competitive sporting endeavor. Unlike many of the posters who have no personal experience with me, this poster and I have battled, and his post is honest, thoughtful, and fair. If he can come to such a place, given his personal experience, then the rest of us can certainly do better. In that spirit, and in the spirit of the season, I will respond to that poster by granting his wish, and share with him a little insight into Pat King, Ultimate Hall of Famer.

Pat King has the quickest hands of anyone I have ever known, and only the truly foolish (or masochistic) will challenge him to a game of hot hands. I have personally seen him get a clean foot block and catch the disc before it hits the ground – twice. I can only imagine how many times he has done it when I wasn’t around or paying attention. In the fall of 1984 I suffered a freak kidney injury that kept me out of Nationals, but KABOOM! qualified to go to Santa Barbara, and Pat, playing every point, almost led us into the semis. I clearly remember the morning of our last pool play game, when my mother remarked that given the load he was carrying, she didn’t know how Pat managed to drag himself out of bed. At Nationals the following year I blew my knee out in semis, and in the finals Pat again played every point and nearly led us to the upset victory over Flying Circus. In one sequence late in the second half of a two point game, he skied for a block in the end zone, completed a fifty yard backhand, sprinted downfield for the dump, and then threw the goal. He was quite simply unstoppable.

On occasion we would end pre-game huddles by having every member of the team run to a spot big enough for him and his ego, and then we would scatter comically all over the field. Pat, one memorable day, simply turned and started sprinting away from us, never looking back. I think he might still be running – and rightfully so.