Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Welcome to the World

Sectionals 1989: Truthfully, I can’t even remember it. I know that we hoped to come in second, behind Tsunami and ahead of East Bay. I believe we ended up third, behind East Bay, squeaking past Davis. Worm will have to fill in the details.

Regionals: The West was still one, big, monster of a region. Picture everything west of Kansas, north of Mexico, and south of Canada. That region happened to include: Boulder, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Davis, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Seattle, Portland, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. Canada wasn’t yet part of the UPA, but still, that was a hell of a region. Three teams go to Nationals.

The tourney was held at Stanford, on the Intramural Fields near El Camino Real. Being a low seed, our first game was against Portland. They were the Oregon Donors that year. They were known to be an up and coming contender. They surely didn’t know us. We didn’t know them at all, except that they had Ronar.

Ron “Ronar” Oliner was a legend based on his performance at the 1985 Nationals. If I remember correctly, Barney told me that he had scored 15 of Flying Circus’ 21 goals on their way to winning the finals. He was huge, about 6 foot 4. And cocky. And, as both teams finished warming up, you could see that his teammates seemed to have ultimate faith in him.

First game of regionals. 16 teams, double elimination. No excuses. Got to win when it counts. We’re playing on the field near the restrooms and the parking lot. The west edge is a mixture of dirt, sparse grass, and gravel

Oregon opened the game with a series of points that mainly revolved around finding an opening for a huck to Ronar in the endzone. He pulled most of these down for easy goals. But our offense is clicking and we are matching them score for score.

I’m realizing that all the college kids are just starting to get their footing at the club level. Their throws are not only better than I personally could have imagined at their age, most of them are better throwers than me on that day. And they can run. Oregon definitely has the experience and talent advantage, but we have legs and some serious defense.

Somewhere near half-time, we have burned through our taller defenders trying to stop Ronar. Worm, at six foot even and maybe 175 soaking wet, matches up with him. In the next couple of points, the Oregon throwers force a couple of hucks into a covered Ronar. Perfect placement and float might have worked, but not these. I think Worm got one block, perhaps a poacher got another. We may or may not have managed to take a one point lead.

Regrouping on the next pull, Oregon starts working it up with a sequence of shorter throws trying to catch a look at an open huck or a long bowling alley come-back. Seth, Teddy and I are doing a decent job up front of making most of the throws difficult, denying a few cuts in each sequence. Worm is backing the hell out of Ronar, making the long throw a little risky and daring the come-back. Finally, after a swing, the sideline opens up and Ronar is churning up the alley for a full 30 yard under cut. Worm is trailing right behind him, but with Ronar’s bulk and flying elbows there is virtually no opening to get around him. Perhaps Ronar slowed up a bit just before the catch, or maybe Worm had a huge burst. Either way, the disc never got to its target. Twisting and stretching, Worm launched around and in front of Ronar. His hand slipped in and batting the disc away as he came crashing down and skidded along the gravelly dirt. No foul call - no contact. Just a burst of cheering from our sideline, a look of disbelief on their sideline, and a bloody and dusty Worm gathering himself up off the ground and trotting towards the forming stack.

We score. We have the momentum. They have not only lost their cockiness, they are starting to get on each other. Ronar isn’t even on the field for the next offense. The Donors are starting to consider the possibility of losing. We are starting to believe we can win. Hell, we don’t have anything to lose we’re seeded 13 or 14 out of 16. We’re too young and dumb to think of playing conservative now. And the captains let us go. No last minute “Old Man’s Offense” like last year. The Boot is winning or losing with the group that got us there.

We win.

The news of the upset spread quickly throughout the tourney. I think every team, with the notable exception of Oregon and perhaps their next round opponent in the loser’s bracket, was psyched that we were advancing in the winners bracket. Some might have truly been rooting for us, we were a fun team, when we weren’t drunk and heckling. But mostly, everyone saw the draw open up wide on our side of the bracket.

Next game was against Phoenix. Neither team knew each other, but they may have been a little wary of us. We didn’t care. We were on a roll. I remember the game getting a little testy. Some calls and an argument or two. Our defense picked it up and we were two and oh heading into the next round of the winner’s bracket.

LA Iguana waited for us under the shade of the eucalyptus trees. They had surely marked their schedule in the morning, aiming towards the expected first test during this round against Oregon. Instead, they get us. They are practically salivating. We, on the other hand, are familiar with this opponent. And it is not working in our favor. That loose energy and exuberance that carried us this far flees into the corners of the woods. The Iguana bats us around and tosses us aside.

We are one loss away from elimination.

Going into the next game, you have to appreciate the difference between the two teams. The Santa Barbara Condors are legends. At that point, in 1989, I think they had qualified for every Nationals since ... well ... since there was a National Championship. They have a mix of battle hardened veterans and experienced college players from the dominant Black Tide squad. The Boot has ... well, we have a couple of veterans that have been in big games, but always lost. We have one veteran that has won Nationals. We have a bunch of guys that have recently been cut from other teams. We have Worm from Chico and a bunch of college kids that are psyched to still be playing in club regionals. On paper, it is no contest.

As they say, that’s why they play the games.

It was an epic struggle between two teams desperate for a win. We were playing to get closer to our first chance at Nationals. They were playing to maintain a chance at their god given right to Nationals.

The game was to be played to 15, cap at 17. No time limit.

Most of the game has faded in my memory. How we managed to be so close at the closing points, I don’t remember. I do remember that I ended up covering Aengus Wagner most of the game. At the time, he was basically royalty in west coast ultimate. Not only was he a great athlete, but he was also known as a great sportsman and generally fun guy. The fact that I was even trying to match up with him was a thrill for me.

When the score was 13 all, we pulled to them. I ran down on the pull, especially wary of Aengus knowing they would probably be looking for him in the crunch. I remember how he tended to run with a short, inefficient gait. Lots of strides. Shuffling more than loping. Either way, he was fast. He could cut quickly. And he could catch anything and never seemed to throw it away when it really counted.

They start working it up the field with a sequence of swing throws looking for continuation and give and gos. Aengus is on fire, cutting for every other throw. If I manage to cover him, his clear cut is a serious option. I felt like I was chasing a chicken around the field - sometimes closing off a throw, only to be caught overplaying and broken on the opposite side.

He is schooling me, but I am not giving up. We need this turnover. They need this point. Badly.

They work it all the way up the field. Aengus is cutting cross field with me on his tail again. Yet another button-hook and he is heading back for a dump-swing. I can’t let him get it. The thrower looks him off. As he plants and turns to clear out, he slips. I am right behind him. I jump over him to avoid stepping on him.

At this point, everything slows down. He is still sliding, but scrambling to his feet. I am above him, trying to look for a place to safely land. As I come down, my foot clips his leg. I am tumbling towards the sideline. He is gaining his footing and heading for the endzone.

I start running before I get to my feet, he is trying to find the clear spot for the score. There is a quick swing to the sideline farthest from me. The sideline Aengus is breaking for. I am at least five yards behind him running as fast as I can to close the gap but still feeling like I am slogging through quicksand.

The front endzone corner opens up and the soft leading throw goes up as I accelerate past the thrower. Aengus is alone, but I am closing faster than the disc. He breaks hard right to meet the throw just behind the goal line right inside the cone. Staggering, I lunge for the disc. I miss by more than a yard. He claps the disc for the score. 14 - 13 Condors. Game to 15.

And then ...

... well there are turning points in all lives. Moments when things happen that resonate quietly but persistently throughout a life. Moments that may seem fleeting to one party, but may make all the difference to another.

This was one of those moments for me. In fact, I am almost afraid to attempt to commit it to written words, because I can’t do it justice. All I can do is state it simply, and hope that anyone else who has been in a similar position can appreciate the circumstances and the implications.

At the instant he caught the disc, Aengus, sweating and exhausted from the effort of not only that point, but of the entire game, indeed, the entire brutal tournament to that point, looked down to confirm that he was in the endzone. Goal.

In the next second, as I slid to a stop near him, he handed the disc to me. As the rest of his team was celebrating the crucial point, he looked me straight in the eye and quietly asked me, “Do you want to call a foul on that.” He indicated our entanglement seconds and a lifetime ago.

Here was a virtual ultimate god asking me, a nobody grunt player on a nobody team whether I wanted to take back the precious goal he had just worked so hard for. Of course I wanted to call a foul. I wanted to do anything that would get us a second chance at that point. If I had uttered the word, “Foul”, I truly think he would have not contested and taken the disc back twenty yards to where he slid and I jumped.

Instead, somehow, I overcame my selfish instincts and managed to do the right thing. I considered the situation, thought about the circumstances, and decided that it was all incidental in the sense of unintentional and unavoidable. It only took a moment, but it was a struggle.

“No foul. Nice goal.” As much as I hated myself for getting burned for such an important score, I admired Aengus for what he was willing to do to be sure that there was no question of the legitimacy of the outcome. He would rather lose than win dishonorably.

That simple act of sportsmanship has followed me, indeed sometimes haunted me, for 17 years. It has impacted the way that I attempt to conduct myself on the field whether winning or losing, whether playing a simple league game, or competing at Nationals or Worlds. It is like a benchmark that I strive - and sometimes fail - to maintain.

What would I have done it that situation?

What would you have done?

The Boot won that game.

My teammates play out of their heads to tie it up and then to push it into overtime. Game point, Ron Cootes throws a long bender up the sideline to Worm sprinting for the goal. He’s fighting to keep himself between the defender and the disc. It’s a good throw ... except that it is coming straight out of the sun. Hesitation. Uncertainty. A prayer and a lunge. Goal.

Final score. Boot 17, Condors 16. Three hours. One legend of a team losing their second chance. One upstart team staggering but still holding their dream upright.

I remember the combination of elation and exhaustion that swept over me at that moment. Two more wins, and we are going to Nationals. I recall the post-game handshake and the genuine wishes for “good game, good luck” from the Condors. After our brief and subdued group celebration, I sank down my back on the field, thankful for a moment to recoup.

Through my closed eyes, I notice the eclipsing of the sun as someone walks up next to me. Holding my hand up to block the sun, I squint at the silhouette of Andy Gould, the captain of East Bay.

“Game time is in, uh, five minutes. Who’s flipping for the pull?” He smiles.

East Bay has been on the sidelines for at least half an hour, watching in amusement as we beat ourselves near to death trying to scramble past Santa Barbara. They are rested and warmed up. We are worn out and beaten up. Nagging little injuries are slowing some of our veterans. Our kids have nearly reached the end of the adrenaline wave that they have been riding all weekend.

We begin playing less than ten minutes later. Game to 17 cap at 19. No time limit.

It was a battle of familiar enemies. We all lived in the Bay Area. Their roster tended to come from the City and Berkeley/Oakland, ours from Palo Alto and Santa Cruz. We had played against them a few times and never won. We felt they were kind of old and slow. They knew we were mostly young and dumb. They had better throws, we had better defense. They were more organized and strategic, we were going for it with the attitude that we had nothing to lose.

Once again, the minutiae of the early points is lost to me. I know that it was close the whole way. So close that it got to 17 all - going to the cap. Again. At this point, the game is past the three hour mark. We are running on fumes, desire and guts. They are playing as if their lives depend upon it. Indeed, one ultimate season would end in the next few points and one team would be within one step of their first Nationals.

We score. We are pulling to them 18-17. Game point. Despite huge layouts and pressure man-to-man, they flawlessly work the disc into the endzone. 18 all. Next point is everything. They pull to our best offensive unit. We work the disc to within 25 yards of their endzone. The disc gets swung to Ken Calloway.

Ken is a late addition to the team. A Nationals champion of Barney’s on Flying Circus, his knee brace and slightly soft mid-section speak to the fact that his peak days are past him. But his throws have been instrumental in us getting this far. Indeed, it seems like every player on the team has done something, at some point to help the team. A complete team effort.

Ken looks up for the continuation cut. Seth is blazing open to the near corner of the endzone. This has been something of a coming out party for Seth. If anyone in the club scene knew him before this weekend, it was as a slightly goofy, speedy college player. Here, he has matched up against the best that we have seen and more than held his own. Since I had the pleasure/misfortune of covering him at practice, I knew he was a nightmare. I was only too happy to see everyone else find out.

One pass more. The throw goes up. It’s a little behind Seth, the East Bay defender is tight. Seth slams on the brakes and strains back for the disc. Block!

East Bay picks it up and immediately starts moving up field against our game, but struggling offensive unit. Score. Game. Season over.

Standing on the sidelines, my head drops to my chest and my legs give way.

In two must-win games, we played over six and a half hours. We won by one. We lost by one.

Dejected and spent, we slowly gathered on our sideline. Eventually, someone, probably one of the Santa Cruz kids, yelled out, “Where’s the damn beer! Let’s start drinking and heckling!”

At first, this seemed almost blasphemous to me. We had just lost a heart breaker when we had the disc to win. We had worked all season and fell short by a game and a point. Shouldn’t we be depressed and angry? I was. A little. But, also, there was in me a growing appreciation for what we had accomplished.

We were a completely new team, less than a year in the making. We had maybe six players that had played in a big game in club ultimate. We had a bunch of crazy college kids and some players like me, that had been drifting along the fringes of the sport.

And we had fun. A lot of fun. No major political infighting. No simmering personality struggles. Just a lot of intensity. A lot of team devotion. And a lot of laughs.

I sat on the sidelines and randomly heckled the game-to-go as Oregon, coming all the way up the dirt road beat a tired East Bay team. We had the dual satisfaction of knowing that we were the only team to beat a team going to Nationals and that we probably influenced the outcome by running East Bay for all they were worth. I drank a particularly tasty beer and toasted my teammates. 1989 was one of the most satisfying seasons I ever had.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Making Strides

At the end of May, 1989, The Boot received a large influx of players from UC Santa Cruz. Their season had just ended, and they wanted a chance to step right into club ultimate through the summer and fall. We were in the perfect position to welcome them to the fold. They mixed right in with our stable of current and recent Stanford players and brought a spark to the crusty vets.

Also, this was the one time I gave Worm a leg up in ultimate. Despite the emotional win in Santa Barbara, I knew that he couldn’t be satisfied playing with the local city homeboys. It hadn’t been enough for me. It wouldn’t be enough for him. I kept prodding him at various social functions when I saw him.
“Tom, come on, don’t you want to even try coming out to a Boot practice?”
“Maybe. I guess. I don’t know. Where are you practicing?”
“Milpitas,” I am reluctant to admit this. This is a good hour south of San Francisco.
“Milpitas! Why so far away.”
Scrambling to make it sound as reasonable as possible, “Well, a lot of the players are in Santa Cruz, some are from Palo Alto, then there are a few of us north up to San Francisco. Milpitas had fields with lights and it’s relatively centrally located.”
He is hedging, “I don’t know ... “
“Come on. One practice. See how you like the team. Then decide.” Hoping.
Hesitantly, finally, “Alright. What day, what time?”
“Wednesday. Practice starts at eight o’clock. Leave here by seven.”
“Get home by ... what? ... eleven?”
“Yeah, that’s about right.”

That was that. He finally agreed to come out. Now I had to clear it with the team junta. There was a generally open policy at practice, but only for people that the captains invited. I was merely one of the scruffy little rookies on the team.

“Barney, hey, I ... uh ... I invited a guy to come out to our next practice.” I was a more than a little nervous, even over the phone.
“What? You? Who?” Scepticism running rampant through his voice.
“This guy Tom. From Chico. He moved to San Francisco this spring. He’s a great player. Great defensive player at least.”
“Chico? What’s his name?”
“Tom ... uh ... Tom Glass I think.”
“Any relation to Mike Glass?” Somewhat more interested.
I have no idea who he is talking about, “I don’t know, maybe.”
He’s thinking, “Alright, but our roster’s just about set now. He won’t get much of a chance.”
I’m relieved, “Fine. See you Wednesday.”

Worm and I drove down there that week. I remember that nasty, short, rutted field we played on in the elementary school yard in a bad neighborhood. I know New York, New York used to boast of the bad neighborhoods they played in. I know the Miami guys used to recount to me the travails of playing at the edge of a ghetto, on a field that was basically under an overpass. But this field was no picnic either.

In fact, I distinctly remember the practice where five - FIVE - of our team cars got broken into while were we practicing about 50 yards away. They started with the car parked furthest away and methodically broke the windows, stole the stereos, and picked up the loose items in the first five cars working their way down the line. My car was the next in line, not touched. I recall feeling guilty that I was so relieved that my teammates, and not me, had to deal with such a nightmare.

Anyway, Worm and I arrive at the fields. I introduce him to the gathering group as we quickly warm up and get ready to play. We didn’t do a lot of training or drilling in our practices. We didn’t know any better. We thought we had to play as hard as we could against our teammates to try to make ourselves and them better. It worked pretty well for us.

About half-way through the scrimmage, Worm poaches off his man on defense and hurls himself towards a throw intended for Barney in the endzone. Worm gets a sick, fingertip D, but not without landing on Barney. Elbow first. Right on his head. Riding him into the dirt.

“JESUS CHRIST!!” Barney is screaming as he tries to stagger up from underneath Tom, “What the HELL is wrong with you!?! It’s only practice!” He’s rubbing his head, walking in circles.

Worm has managed to piss off the one person on the team with the biggest veto power.

Everybody else that saw the play is thinking, “Great block.” I know they are convinced that we need this guy on the team.

“Sorry,” Tom looks like the guy that just got slapped by the prom queen.

“God Dammit! What the hell were you thinking?” Barney is clearly not happy.
“I saw my guy clear out ... turned ... saw you open in the corner ... started heading that way, then the throw went up. I went for the disc.” Matter of fact accounting of a split second moment.
Barney is finally seeing the big picture now, “Well ... dammit, be sure you do that to the other teams.”

Worm was on the team. As usual, we went to the local dive after practice.

Sutter’s Card Lounge. I believe that was the name. I certainly remember the inside. No windows. A pool table off to the left. A few hard-used booths. Some random scattered tables and chairs. A long bar with a few constant bodies. Smoke permeating the air. Juke box. And the ubiquitous stuffed toy “Claw” machine.

We habitually gathered here after practice, despite the work/school-night status and the inevitable late hour. We would pour in as a group, wearing shorts, sweaty shirts, grass stains and dirt. Some still with cleats on. I distinctly remember the night, one time after we hadn’t practiced for a while, when I got there first. The Santa Cruz boys, Seth, Teddy, Richey, Walter, all came in at once. The dead-to-the-world bar-fly woman in the corner heard their “Bouyaah!” arrival. She barely lifted her head up off the bar, just enough to croak out, “Here comes the smorgasbord!” and then dropped her head back down. We all hesitated, looked around, laughed, and started ordering beers.

We used to heckle and cheer the people that tried to coax a toy prize from the evil Claw machine. I laughingly recall Seth screaming out to one unsuccessful, but vaguely attractive woman, “That thing is THE DEVIL!”

Seth often screamed his pronouncements. We all laughed and toasted. She seemed somewhat mollified that we recognized that she had been unfairly robbed. Sometimes that is all it takes.

After a good night at Sutter’s, I think Worm was committed. He was the last roster add that year.

Incredibly, I am looking at a phone list for that team. Something I held onto over the years knowing I would want to see it again some day. I guess tonight it is. I know it isn’t the final roster, but it spurs remembrances of most of the players:

  • Phineas Baxandall: I haven’t thought of Phin for years. He was a great teammate. Very athletic, capable of greatness, sometimes a little unfocused. Very fun.
  • Jeff Borncamp: Great guy. At every practice, every game. Very quiet in this crowd. Funny stories for years. Maybe Worm will elaborate.
  • Barney Bruner: I remember thinking that he was just about too old to still be playing. Yeah, he had a wicked backhand, and he managed to juke his way open more often than not, but ... seriously ... he had to have been all of ... 32 years old at this point. That is way past your prime for ultimate. [Very frightening to recall this as, at the age of 41, I am still trying to play in the Open division and compete at Nationals. Sad.]
  • Jimmy Conners: All I knew about him back then was he preferred to play in a unitard similar to a wrestling uniform. He also had the best high release backhand ... ever. Got to know him better years after playing on the Boot.
  • Ron Cootes: Older vet, but a serious speedster. We used to give him shit because he was so focused and serious. He wore high socks.
  • Dante Anderson: Did he really play for us back then? How is it possible that we didn’t win more games? Or at least, how come we didn’t have multitudes of women hanging around our team?
  • Peter Deutsch: For at least a year, I only knew him by the name Peter Watsonville (because he drove up from Watsonville for practices). Great guy, good middle, not flashy, but didn’t make many mistakes.
  • Will Debello: Only guy on the team that weighed less than me. He was still playing for Stanford at this time. He had become a legend because of his performance at college nationals in ‘89. Ask any player that was there. Also, we used to try to get him drunk and fuck with his photographic memory. He was the first person in the world to commonly use the word “Sweet!” to communicate enjoyment.
  • Tom “Worm”Glass: With him on the team, how is it possible that we didn’t win more games? Or at least, how come we didn’t win every boat race ... oh, wait, we did.
  • Chuck Godin: Chucky. He was in seriously good shape for an old man of ... maybe 30. Loved the inside out throws.
  • Dan Harrington: Soul of the team. Huge, conscienceless hucks. Occasional amazing defense. Wrote the funniest short blurbs for the team. [Sadly, this was before email, or he would have been more widely acknowledged for his genius prose]
  • John “Truth” Knuth: Did he, too, play for us. It couldn’t have been for the whole season. He will show up later in this blog. One of the smartest teammates I ever had. Never read a whole book in his life.
  • Me: Enough babble about me already.
  • Dave “Lippy” Lipscomb: Raw, tall, fast talent. Would blossom later.
  • Ken Leiserson: Little college kiddo. Nice guy. Easy to fuck with. He showed some potential.
  • Peter Moyer: I had forgotten about Pete until re-reading this list. Not sure about his background. I think he was a friend of Barney’s and must have played on a pretty good team or two. I definitely, vaguely, recall the details of an altercation on the field. One of our opponents was getting seriously amped against one of our younger players. Peter strode out into the middle of it and pointedly mentioned that he would love to rearrange the face of the next person that said a word. Everything got very quiet. That was the end of that.
  • Mark Newton: Tall, gangly, fast, high hops ... Newt. He and Jeff Borncamp used to hang out and do the craziest things. Ask Worm.
  • Brian “From Hell” Plymale: A legend in many parts of the land. For many different things. Could write an entire blog about him and his exploits. As a teammate, he was great. Huge throws. Always smiling.
  • Alan Rudy: Probably the one player on our team that pissed off more opponents than Barney. He was aggressive, physical, and tough. He also taught me the basic concepts of cutting. [Some might say that didn’t take too well, but he was good at it].
  • Seth Blacher: Crazy kid. Looked like he might be pretty good if he stuck with the game. Funny both when he wanted to be, and when he wasn’t trying. The essence of Santa Cruz.
  • Dave Smith: Big Dave. When he joined the team, it was like the gods smiled on us. Do they all grow so tall in Kansas? We didn’t care, he was on our team.
  • Teddy Wardlaw: Goofy Santa Cruz boy. Could run like crazy. Had trouble catching and throwing that first year. Turned out to be not a bad player.
  • Chris Yoder: Very cool for being so young. Always seemed like, win, lose, or whatever, he had plans for after the tourney.
  • Walter Dodds: One of the most unique teammates I ever had. Soccer goalie for UC Santa Cruz. Wasn’t very fast. Didn’t cut particularly quickly. Had good, precise, low throws. What he was remarkable at was being middle-middle in the zone. He could lay-out instantly, four feet off the ground, for a throw trying to split the cup. Got more blocks that way than just about any player I ever knew. Really great guy too.
  • Richey “Z” Zlatnich: Driver of the Tuna Boat. [see later blurb]. The epitome of the Santa Cruz surfer dude. Very funny. Very smooth low throws. Makes me smile just remembering him.
  • Russell Zinner: Russ from the NASA team. Russ from El Lunche. By now he was a serious receiver and defender. Only downside was he loved the long throw a little too much. Was always glad he was on my team so that I didn’t have to try to cover him. Made practice hell though.

That was the bulk of our team heading into the Fall. Some of these players would go on to greatness, but at the time, we were mostly unknowns and beginners. But we certainly had some fun times at both practices and tourneys. That year, it seemed like we would make the quarterfinals of every tournament, and then would lose to a better team. We just couldn’t get over that hump. But we were some of the best hecklers on the sidelines.

Sutter’s Card Lounge is gone now. I believe they bulldozed it to make room for condos. It will always live on in my heart though. A place where a great group of guys bonded over a a lot of beer, many laughs, a desire to work towards a common goal, and the willingness to push each other as much as we could.

What else is a team ... really?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Learning to Walk

The spring of 1989 saw a reorganization of the team formerly known as El Lunche. It seemed many of the crusty veterans from the previous year didn’t have the drive or the desire to begin their ultimate season in April. This was when “The Kids” would have their chance. The team was still Dan Harrington’s, but he had ceded many of the strategic and personnel decisions to others - one of whom was Bart Bruner.

Bart, or as he was more commonly known, Barney, had a big time background in the sport. He had won Nationals with the Flying Circus in 1985, had subsequently moved to Santa Barbara and played with the mighty Condors for a few years. Having returned to the Bay Area, he fell victim to the cliquish and petty politics that often permeates many big city ultimate scenes. The reigning Bay Area power, Tsunami, wouldn’t give him a look. He had rubbed some - many - people the wrong way. Those people happened to be making the roster decisions on the team of choice.

Therefore, Barney was taking a different path. Unlike Dan Harrington, he was serious and focused and he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He was trying to build a team up from scratch. A team that would consist of mostly young guns with a few wily vets. A team to beat the big boys with a bunch of unknowns or the overlooked.

He was hoping this would be that team. We had the proper starting ingredients. A slew of raw newcomers and green college kids, a few big throwing veterans with some big game experience, and a team-wide desire to have fun. We even had a name. We were now officially “The Boot.” The moniker was homage to the fact that just about everyone on the team had been cut or denied by another team. We were the booted, the leftovers, the dregs. We were also pretty fired up to prove them all wrong.

We entered the spring tourneys with an evolving roster. Even so, our pecking order in the competitive Bay Area ultimate scene soon became established. We were slightly better than the majority of teams, but we were a measurable step down from East Bay, who were themselves a large step down from Tsunami.

Meanwhile, a small tremor could be felt in San Francisco - and neither the Ultimate scene, nor the tourney party scene would ever be the same. The Worm had arrived from Chico State.

I had recognized him at a few pick-up games in Golden Gate park. He was his usual dirty, grass-stained self even after these casual Sunday gatherings.

“This guy’s career isn’t going to last long,” I thought to myself, “but he sure is a great defender right now.”

I tried to convince him that he should play for us, play for The Boot. He was torn. His closest friends and former Chico State players in the Bay Area had cobbled together a team. They couldn’t offer quite the level of competitiveness that we could, but they could easily out-drink any other team ... possibly in the country. I tried to appeal to his competitive nature. He wasn’t swayed. He decided to stick with his homeboys in his new city.

The Boot went to the Santa Barbara Classic on Memorial Day weekend. We were hoping to introduce ourselves to the some of the other west coast teams. We figured this would be our first taste of how we stacked up against the competition that we would see in the fall at Regionals.

We competed. We won the games we should have, we lost a couple of close games against teams that were expected to beat us. We eventually bowed out in the quarterfinals losing to the imposing squad of attitude, swagger, and talent that was the LA Iguana.

Worm’s team, Bitch and Moan, was in the B bracket. Here are some significant facts about that team:

-They had a small roster on Saturday morning of maybe 12 players, 9 of whom had played a competitive tourney before.

-They won the party by a wide margin on Saturday night, receiving the full spectrum from accolades to death threats by the gathered and departing crowd.

-They didn’t come close to losing a Boat Race.

-Their Saturday night heroics resulted in a measurably smaller roster on Sunday, with at least one possible alcohol poisoning cutting into their numbers.

After we lost in the quarters, I wandered over to see how Bitch and Moan was doing. They were scrambling for their lives in the B semis. Carried by Worm’s defense and Mike Chico’s throws, they held their slim lead all the way to the end.

[On a funny side note, Mike Chico reminds me of an odd but common phenomenon in ultimate - players that are better known by their nicknames than their real names. I’m not talking about the difference between people easily identifying Jerome Betis by his nickname “The Bus”. I’m talking about playing a sport, traveling, eating, and practically living with people whose real names you don’t know for months, years, or even ... ever. It was about a year and a half after meeting Mike Chico that I realized his real name was Mike Kerhin. That “Chico” came from his alumni status from that bastion of scholarly (and brewski) achievement - Chico State. I didn’t even think twice about it. What I mistook for his vaguely hispanic look was actually his slavic ancestry. What did a kid from Connecticut via St. Louis know about such things?

Think that’s bad? I know of one player, who shall remain nameless, that played on the same team as Worm for three years before he realized that his name was Tom. The exchange went something like:

Me: That sure was a hell of a block by Tom at the end of that last game.

Him: Who?

Me: Tom.

Him: Tom? Is there a Tom on the team?

Me: (incredulous) Tom Glass ... Worm?

Him: Oohh, Worm. Yeah, that was a sick block. (pause) His name is really Tom?

Me: You’ve been on his team for three years and you didn’t even think he might have another name besides Worm!?!

[Side note within a side note: It was actually about this time that I acquired my semi-nickname ... Billy. It’s all Dan Harrington’s fault. I had been known as Billy all through childhood. When, at the end of seventh grade, my family moved from Northern California to Connecticut, I made the decision to rid myself of the hated diminutive form of my name. Starting the beginning of eighth grade, introducing myself to a whole new state of people, I was officially Bill. And it stayed that way. Until I moved back to California and at the age of 24, Dan Harrington decided that he liked saying Billy more than just Bill. That was the end of that.]]

Anyway ... where was I? Oh yeah, Bitch and Moan staggering into the finals of the B bracket of the Santa Barbara Classic. I chose to watch for a few reasons. One, the A division finals were being played two fields over. But it was yet another in a seemingly endless string of finals meetings between Tsunami and Iguana. Athletic contests of will and pride frequently marred by tit-for-tat calls and minutes-long arguments. I didn’t have the stomach for sitting through that again.

Besides, Bitch and Moan reminded me so much of that scrappy old Wild Bunch team trying to finish out a string of playing way over their heads for just one more glorious victory.

My final reason for watching their game was as an academic exercise. Worm’s elbow had become a fascinating study in biology and pain management. It had become so swollen from repeated bashings on the unforgiving fields that he had, at first, thrown a small wrist band over it to cushion the inevitable, continued abuse to come. The wrist band had given way to a large elbow pad, but at this point, at the end of the weekend, it wasn’t even marginally containing the hanging fluid sack that was once his elbow. It was like looking at national geographic pictures of africans suffering from Elephantiasis. It was so large and floppy, that it did not even vaguely resemble a human body part. Certainly not a working elbow joint. It was both disgusting and fascinating. Luckily, it was on his left arm (or it was his left arm). This meant that neither his throws nor his boat racing had been significantly impaired. I don’t recall anyone asking if it hurt. I think everyone rightly assumed it did. It was more like watching a monk flogging his own back as Worm launched for yet another layout block, landing left arm first.

Bitch and Moan limped to the fields for the B finals. I was their waterboy and cheering section. I watched as they tried to negotiate with their competitors - Albuquerque. The offer was this: agree to a draw and both teams would split both the winner’s and loser’s purse. I think it was $200 and two cases of good beer for the winners, $100 and a case of mediocre beer for the losers. Split evenly, they reasoned, both teams would have a decent field party.

Albuquerque wasn’t buying it. They looked at the remains of the Bitch and Moan team, they looked at their own burly, testosterone filled teammates, they went for it all. They proposed winner take all, loser gets nothing. I don’t know if it was the baiting and in-your-face call-out or if it was the prospect of that much beer, but Bitch and Moan agreed.

And, of course they won. It wasn’t easy or pretty, but they won. The usual recipe: heroics from unlikely sources, stepping up and beyond for a few key players. Worm’s elbow actually deflated slightly by the ragged end of the game. I think most of the gallons of fluid had been forced through repeated blows to permeate the rest of his body. It was leaking out of the open gashes in his knees, sides, and head. Yes, scrapes along his head.

I remember the repeated cries from the Albuquerque players:

Warning: “Don’t throw it near that guy!”

Remonstrating: “What is wrong with you!?! I don’t care if the receiver seems to be open by 10 yards! Don’t Throw It!!”

Mumbling: “He’s got to take a sub at some point. Doesn’t he?”

The Bitch and Moan players rushed the field ... or more correctly, they rushed towards the tournament director that had the beer and prize money. Three cases of beer and $300. These same guys that probably had never felt comfortable in an algebra class had immediately done the higher mathematics to solve the equation: 300 hundred dollars = lots of good beer = lots and lots of bad beer. In an amazing display of organization and teamwork, they dispatched beer runners, food runners and ice runners. Within moments of sitting back to bask in their improbable success, they had a riotous crowd clamoring for their growing riches of cold beer and variety of muchies. Their victory party started there and didn’t end until ... I don’t even know when. Let’s just say they were well aware that Monday was a holiday and no more games were scheduled.

The cruel Monday morning light greeted the bloodshot eyes and pounding heads of Mike Chico and Worm. I, having much less to celebrate, was feeling healthier, more clear-headed, more awake, and generally less satisfied. Good thing I was doing the driving back up to San Francisco, 5 and a half hours away.

The drive down had been relatively benign. I didn’t really know either Mike or Tom, but they certainly knew each other from their days at Chico State. We exchanged casual get-to-know-you kind of questions and answers. Those two mixed it up with a few verbal jabs here and there, but we were all tired and the late night drive was generally quiet.

The drive back up was another matter. Worm and Chico got into the chapping and story-telling immediately. Their hangovers seemed to add a steely edge to the proceedings. They were brutal, pulling no punches. It was all in fun - but brutal none the less. I was lucky. They didn’t know me well enough to include me in the bloodshed.

Then we hit the traffic jam.

We were crawling north along 101 outside of San Jose. We were about seven hours into our 5 and a half hour trip. We were weary and depressed about re-entry into tomorrow’s work day. Somehow, the conversation had reached a comparatively thoughtful equilibrium. I think the topic was along the lines of dating prospects and relative effectiveness in different approaches for different types of women. In the midst of down-shifting for the three thousandth time in the last eight miles, I slipped up.

“You know, living in the Castro for the past couple of years has changed my perspective on some things. I mean, having guys blatantly and aggressively hit on you is not all that fun. Now I have an idea of what it might be like to be a good looking woman.”

The second before I uttered these words, I would have bet large sums of money that both Tom and Mike would be asleep within the next two minutes. Within microseconds of the last syllable of “woman” passing my lips, their ears perked up and their eyes instantly glistened. I believe they actually began salivating.

Mike was first out of the blocks, “Soooo ... now you know what it’s like to be a bea-UTIFUL woman, huh?”

Worm not far behind with, “That’s got to be tough, I mean how many times can you say, ‘I’ve already got a drink - thank you!’”

This being my first time in the cross-hairs, I made the fatal mistake of all newbie chappies - I tried to fight it. “That’s not what I said...”

“You must get sick of hearing guys beseeching, ‘Oh god! Don’t let me go blind now!’ as you walk by.” Worm is practically stumbling over himself to get the chaps out faster than Chico.

I’m squirming now, “But I ...”

“‘Don’t pinch me if I’m dreaming,’” Chico is crowing,”’Lord, I’ve done gone to heaven and I don’t wanna leave.’”

Worm immediately following with, “So, tell us. What exactly is it like being a drop dead GORGEOUS, bombshell of a woman?”

Now it’s not so funny. “Listen, I never said I was ...”

“Oh, don’t get all bashful on us now. What’s it like having guys constantly trying to pinch your ass and ask for your number?”

It went on. And on. And on. It was the most miserable two hours of traffic I have ever lived through. When ever they seemed to have lost momentum, when they had slowed down and not said anything for a minute or two, I thought I was finally off the hook. Then some song would come on the radio. Or spotting some woman in a nearby car would once again spur them on. Any excuse to re-enter the fray.

My ability to take a chap was forged in the hellish fires of that ride home. Never forget: One little slip-up is all it takes sometimes.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

First Steps

The year 1989 was full of highs and lows.

Sandy, the college girlfriend that I had moved out to California to be near, was leaving. She was heading off to the Peace Corp for at least one and a half, maybe two years. We had discussed this possibility before we even left college, but the reality of it still surprised me. We certainly hadn’t been spending much time together since I had moved to the Bay Area - graduate school for her, new job and ... well ... ultimate for me, had been virtual wedges in our bonding. The Peace Corp was basically the final, splitting, blow.

Ultimate had been a less than satisfying mistress. Sure, I was always excited to play, I even searched out off-season pick-up games in Berkeley, Oakland, and Palo Alto, when there wasn’t a dependable game in San Francisco. I was hooked, but not completely infatuated.

The end of the previous season had soured me a bit. All the team talk, all the personal sacrifice, and at the crucial juncture, I felt I had gotten pushed aside for a poorly conceived and eventually ineffective campaign of old guard versus new blood.

I played at least once a week in a pick-up game somewhere during the winter. The Golden Gate polo fields game had grown large and relatively competitive. Now that I was single again, I was particularly interested in the number of women that were showing up for the Sunday games.

As suggestions of Spring began hinting around the edges of things, I got a call from Gary back in Boston.

“Well, it’s that time of year again.” He was referring to getting the ShortFatGuys together for another tournament. Not only had “No Borders” back in 1987 not been our last tournament as players, we were still getting together as a one time a year team. Basically, ShortFatGuys had become a Washington University reunion team with assorted invited others joining in. What had started in Ottawa in ‘87, had continued in Gainesville, Florida the next March at the Frostbreaker tournament. Gary had thought it would be a good excuse to get out of the cold and to renew bonds with the small, but quickly dispersing crowd from college.

We lost most of our games that year, but we had fun and there seemed to be a general consensus that this could be an enjoyable thing to do every year. One notable moment from that otherwise forgettable tourney was the fact that my father came out to watch.

My parents had split when I was seven, but I had yearly contact with my father since then. He had moved to Tampa when I was still in elementary school, so many of my summers had been spent in the sandy, humid, hot confines of the paradise that is modern Florida.

He, personally, had not played sports since a less-than-enjoyable year or two in little league baseball had convinced him that physical exertion was not his ticket out of small town Vermont. He worked and studied his way through three stellar years of undergraduate work, three crushing years of medical school and ten subsequent years of combined Phd. research and multiple renowned fellowships in sub-disciplines to earn his fame as an eye surgeon.

He regarded his son’s involvement with sports as a minor distraction at first. Then, when my college grades were less than outstanding, it was a serious impediment. Finally, with me at the ripe old age of 24 and with the Lifetime Achievement Stopwatch ticking, this association with a hippie non-sport could barely be tolerated.

Needless to say, I was surprised when he mentioned he was going to be in Gainesville the Saturday of the tournament (he was giving a keynote address at an eye conference). I casually mentioned that he should swing ten minutes out of his way to see us play. I was shocked and a little dismayed that he actually said he might.

Towards the beginning of our fourth game of the day, I returned to the sidelines after yet another successful defense and score by our opponent. As I reached for a bottle of water, I recognized my father standing off to the side, sunglasses on, sport coat unbuttoned, tie loosened but still in place, arms folded across his chest. It was at least 85 degrees.

I downed the mouthful of water, walked over and shook his hand.

“Glad you came out.”

“Well, I was here anyway. Figured I might as well see what this sport was all about.”

I briefly explained the basics of the sport to him, trying to use the happenings on the field as illustrative examples.

It is at times like this - trying to introduce the sport while using a poorly played, B bracket, spring tourney game contested at the end of an oppressively hot day - that ultimate often seems silly to me. The spectator is usually completely unfamiliar with the most basic terminology that ultimate players breathe every day. They are often not even accustomed to watching live amateur sports of any kind. NFL Monday night football and Major League baseball, replete with slow motion replays, insightful color commentary, and backed by massive databases of statistics all highlighting the accomplishments of the top-most one percent of one percent of athletes - this is what the vast majority of America thinks of when the word “sport” is uttered.

That is not what my father got to witness first-hand that day. ShortFatGuys lost badly. If that wasn’t bad enough, neither team was very good. We had women on our roster, actually playing against the men on the other team. To top it off, what I had always thought of as a cool and witty team name sounded childish and ridiculous when explaining our scrubby, cotton t-shirt uniforms to my father. ShortFatGuys? Hell, the only team my father had ever rooted for was the New York Yankees. The mighty, serious, legendary, adulated, rich and successful Yankees.

What the hell was a ShortFatGuy? Why would you want to be seen wearing that on a shirt? The subtle humor and self-deprecation was just too much for me to explain. The question lay out in the open, observed by all and answered by none.

I had run myself ragged and launched heedlessly for the disc a dozen times. Although I did manage to get a number of blocks and a couple of highlight-type catches, I have to admit my motivation was as much to impress my father as it was to contribute to our losing cause.

As I recall, my father’s only comment at the end of the game was, “Your teammates don’t seem to be trying as hard as you. You should evaluate your level of effort with that in mind.”

With that, he left while we still had another game to play. He has watched a total of about an hour of my ultimate life. Despite the fact that he lives about a half an hour away from the Sarasota Nationals site, I have always been more relieved than disappointed that he has never managed to make his way over to watch a game or two.

So, when Gary opened our phone conversation in the spring of 1989 with that line, “It’s that time of year again” it wasn’t a complete surprise.

“Alright. Sounds good. Frostbreaker again?” I didn’t even feign hesitation anymore.

“Yep. Florida in March. Get your ticket, I’ll handle the hotels.”

That year at Frostbreaker was a little different. ShortFatGuys played our way out of the bottom bracket on the first day. We were still sporting a co-ed team, but the women weren’t really a liability. Also, the previous roster of Wash U alumni was dwindling while being replaced with more talented players that Gary met and played with in Boston.

One of the new women on the team was Jennifer Sokoloski, an indoor league teammate of Gary’s who was finishing up her astrophysical studies at M.I.T. So, on top of being a good athlete and more than a little attractive, she was not exactly dumb. I think much of the team’s ability to exceed our seed was a collective, individual effort to impress Jen. Whatever the reasons, we did manage to move up the pecking order, and our late-night carousing celebrated this achievement.

On Sunday, our quarterfinals game was against a team from North Carolina - the Irrates. I had never played against a team from North Carolina before, but we had been given unsought advice going in to the game. Many of their previous opponents had volunteered a scouting report.

“They are physically talented, with a few tall players and a couple of throwers. But watch out for their attitude.”

What did these people mean by that? I couldn’t exactly get a grasp on what they were saying.

“They will push the rules and they play really physical. Also, they call every travel - real, close, or not.”

ShortFatGuys against the Irrates of North Carolina. They had us beat on every front. They could out-throw us, out-run us, and out-jump us. We were struggling to score one point for every two they racked up. They had one particular player that was killing us. He was tall - maybe six foot two or three - and he was fast. When he was receiving, he was catching most of the goals. When we pushed him back to the disc with a taller defender, he started throwing long scores.

Finally, towards the end of the game, out of frustration and desperation, I decided to cover him. We had managed to score, and their stud was waiting at the far end of the pull. Our team of over-achieving, fun loving, and relatively short players was deciding how to defend him. Steve Votruba, as the tallest player on the team, had been given the thankless job of trying to cover their Machine most of the game. He didn’t seem all that eager to enter the fray again - but then again, no one else did either. I looked down our line, and compared it to theirs across the field.

“I’ll take him.” Did that really just come out of my mouth? The mouth attached to my skinny, five foot six inch frame?

Our other six players just looked at me, with a mixture of relief and pity. Gary said, “We’ll give you an ‘Up!’ call.”

The pull settled down as I glided in to a three yard deep cushion on the Stud. As the match-ups resolved themselves with the first pass or two, he looked at me, looked around the field, and looked at me again. He laughed and pointed at me, “Clear the deep!” he shouted. His teammates looked up and noticed the obvious mismatch. At least I had managed to keep him from touching the disc for the first three swing passes.

He took off towards the far goal as everyone else pulled in close on the far side. I put my head down just about the time I heard the “UP!” call from down field. I was two yards behind him and holding ground. At least he wasn’t going to beat me on speed. I glanced back and searched for the oncoming disc. It was screaming down-field directly over our heads and with not much float. But it was still high and gaining altitude.

Thinking I only had one possible chance at getting the disc, I took two more steps at a full sprint and launched as high as my diver’s legs would take me ...

When I was training in college diving, we had to get our standing vertical jump measured at the beginning and end of every season. My personal best was 36 inches. Not out of this world, but for a short guy, the contrast could be dramatic.

As I had experienced hundreds of times in diving, when your mind and body are completely focused at a precise moment, time does indeed slow down. It moves with a kind of syrupy, fluid grace that can sustain reflection and dissection.

... rising, I spun a hundred and eighty degrees, left arm outstretched above my head, hoping to disrupt the flight of the disc. At the peak of my jump, I felt that almost indescribably satisfying connection of plastic disc rim to palm. My hand locked on it reflexively. I remember looking down and seeing The Stud’s eyes looking up at me with a mixture of disbelief and shock. I remember pedaling my feet, trying to reach back down to the ground. I recall wondering when - almost indeed if - I was going to land.

Time collapsed in on me again as the tip of my left foot barely grazed the grass as the rest of me came crashing chest-first back onto the sandy field. I almost had the wind knocked out of me, but I still had the disc in my hand.

Shaking my head a couple of times, I gathered myself and stood up. The Stud set up his hectically aggressive mark. I didn’t even try to challenge it. I threw an easy dump to the first teammate that made it down field to me. I think we scored the point. I know we lost the game.

In the post-game handshake, we congratulated our camouflage-wearing opponents and wished them good luck. For the most part, they simply slapped our hands with a perfunctory, “Good game” and moved on. At the end of their line, their stud was waiting for me. He smiled as he sincerely shook my hand, “Hey, when you see that six foot eight monster on your team that skied me, give him my regards. That was a heck of a play.”

To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember the guy’s name, but it was one of the best compliments I ever received playing ultimate.

Gary subsequently made a sweatshirt for me with the iconic ShortFatGuy leaping upwards on the front and “Six-Eight Chill Monster” on the back. Over the years, I wore that faded grey sweatshirt until it fell apart in the wash.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Working Up Through the Ranks

Two weeks after our monumental victory in the humble confines of NUCL B Division, the Wild Bunch made an appearance at the A division finals. This time, we had a larger, more competitive contingent. The news of our prior conquest had spread like, well, not exactly wildfire. More like sputtering incense. But either way, we had all of our best players - except no Mike Pomeroy this time. He was out of town. I knew that I should have been comforted by the knowledge that we had essentially traded one great player for five or six decent players. Even so, I was not feeling confident.

While the Northern California Ultimate League was not filled with powerhouse teams, there were some talented players scattered among the ranks of corporate, local, and some college teams from all around the Bay Area. We had had a tough time with the lower group of teams, how would we fare against the upper bracket?

In short, not well. As I recall, we may have won a single game, maybe two, but the better teams mopped the field with us. We had no one that could cover their taller receivers. I could do a decent job of defending against shorter players, but these teams had more than one or two throwers. In fact, it seemed like, on some teams, every player could actually complete a forehand. Multiple people could throw overheads.

We could not match that. Even though I was mostly a middle, often I defaulted as being a bail-out handler. Only, I still wasn’t very confident in my forehand while faced with a decent mark. And I could only throw it accurately for about 15 yards. We saw a lot of force forehand and some zone. We were toast.

I think our last game of the day was against the team from NASA Ames in the south bay. They pretty much ran roughshod over us. I do remember being matched up time and again against one particular player on their team. He was a little taller than me, with curly brownish hair. He was athletic and fast. He also had no qualms about launching full field hucks and laughed just about the same whether he completed them or not.

At some point, during maybe the third or fourth point where he covered me, he took advantage of a break in the action to introduce himself, “My name’s Russ. Good game, huh?”

Maybe from his perspective. His team was batting us around like a cat playing with a mouse. And they were having fun. I was back to being frustrated. It had been a long day, and my mood wasn’t helped by the fact that this smiling, laughing jerk was keeping up with me pretty easily. Sure, I’d catch a pass or two, but he was making me work hard for each reception. I wasn’t used to having to set up my cuts. Also, clearing out more often than getting open was growing old fast.

By the end of the misery, I had introduced myself to him and decided that, all things being equal, he wasn’t such a bad guy. At least he was having fun, and he did hand me a consolation beer after the game.

We were sitting on the fields after all the games, just bullshitting between teams, when the captain of another team rode his mountain bike towards us. He stopped in front of me and said, “Dude, what’s up? I’m putting together a new team for regionals. I want you to play for us.”

I hesitated and then glanced around. Apparently, he was talking to me.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Uh ... Bill.” Was this a joke that some of my teammates had concocted?

“Well, I’m Dan here’s my phone number. We’re going to start practicing in a couple of weeks. Give me a call soon and I’ll let you know when and where.”

“Are you sure? Me? I mean, I play for the Wild Bunch.” I was mad at myself that I’d even entertaining the notion that this was a serious offer.

“Yeah, I know. I also saw you running up and down the field all day leaving everyone in the dust.” He was chuckling, “Yeah, I’m sure. Call me. Soon.”

I wasn’t exactly certain how to feel. I already had a team. Sure, I was mostly frustrated, but we were getting better, slowly, fitfully. Who was to say this other team would even be a step up? Or more importantly, more fun?

I talked about it with Mike. He pointed out that the Wild Bunch had pretty much peaked at the NCUL B tourney and that I spent more time discouraged by lack of commitment and talent than I was content with the team. He also reminded me that he was getting ready to head off to Cornell for graduate school in the fall. I visualized what that meant for my future satisfaction on the field. After about a week, I called Dan. He told me the practices were going to be on Stanford’s campus starting the following Saturday afternoon. He gave me directions, laughed at my hesitation, and hung up.

That Saturday, I drove the 45 minutes to Stanford, found the fields and arrived about 10 minutes early. I was the only person there. I still wasn’t quite getting the hang of this “Ultimate Time” phenomenon. I sat in my car, full of doubts and fears.

Should I even think of abandoning the Wild Bunch? I was their captain after all. For whatever that was worth.

What kind of team would this be? Would the players be cool? Fun? Any good?

I consoled myself with the thought that maybe I’d be so much worse than everyone else that they would cut me. Then I wouldn’t have to decide which team to play for. I wouldn’t have to decide whether I was willing to drive 45 minutes south for practice versus riding my bike five minutes from my apartment.

As the other players’ cars started pulling up, I figured I’d soon have some of my answers.

One of the few things I remember about that first practice was that I immediately recognized one of the players. It was Russ from the NASA team. I felt comfortable enough to start throwing with him as the remaining players trickled in and started warming up. Russ seemed to know quite a few of the other players, while the only other person I knew was Dan “The Bum” Harrington, the captain of this new ship.

The practice went surprisingly well. I was definitely the least skilled player, but not the least athletic. There were some older players on the team that had great disc skills, but they weren’t going to strike fear in the hearts of opposing defenders. At least, not with their cuts.

I practiced with the team a few times in June. They mentioned that there was a tournament coming up in Golden Gate Park in July. I actually knew of the tourney ahead of time. The Wild Bunch had asked me to play with them one last time. They figured it would probably be the last time they played together as a team. There wasn’t enough cohesion to hold it together any longer. I knew that the new team, which had taken the tentative moniker of El Lunche, would have plenty of players. When I told them I was playing with my old team, one last time, they weren’t too upset.

Dan said to me, “Well, do whatever you want to do, but you’ll get to play in more games with us.”

I knew that, but I also knew that I felt like I owed my old team something for taking me in when no one else wanted me.

El Lunche did fairly well in the tournament, I think they made the quarter finals against a field that included some very good west coast teams. I distinctly remember them taking their warm up lap down the length of the polo fields just so they could circle me and my zero-win team with a light hearted “We told you so - we’ll see you next week” chapping.

In some kind of weird ultimate fate kind of thing, our final game of this tournament was the one I recounted much earlier in this blog. That was when the scraggly Wild Bunch played the scruffy Chico State team. That was when Worm and I first met. Of course, at that time, he didn’t introduce himself as Worm, he claimed his name was Tom, or maybe even Thomas. Whatever. Either way, if I had played with El Lunche, I wouldn’t have met the Worm then. The entire direction of Bay Area ultimate would have forever been altered. Probably for the better, but we’ll never know for sure.

After the tourney, I practiced with El Lunche, making the drive down to Stanford two or three days a week. I was learning things about the game as much from watching as from any formal instructing or drilling. Dan was a captain mostly in the vein of wanting to surround himself with as good a group of players as possible, that wouldn’t get too uptight, and would allow him to throw hucks at will. Russ and I were two of the youngest players on the team. Our job was basically to play defense, run around a lot, and cover the pulls as quickly as possible.

Our first major tournament was Labor Day in Santa Cruz, 1988. There were two aspects of the tourney that I loved. First, since none of the good teams had seen me play before, Dan wanted to use it as an advantage - and also as a chance to showcase his big throws. If we were receiving the pull, our first play was always the same. Someone would catch the pull and they would swing the disc to Dan immediately. He would then rear back and throw the disc as far as he could down field. I would have already started running hard as the pull was caught. I think it went for a goal every time that first day. I love the memory of Dan laughing and clapping his hands as he gleefully skipped down the field past the startled opponents. For my part, I was mostly happy that I caught the damn throws. But I was also quietly satisfied at the number of times I heard the other team saying, “Who the hell is that little guy? Who was covering him?”

Second, one of our pool play opponents was none other than Acme, the “higher level” players from the original San Francisco conglomeration. The same guys that wouldn’t even give me a look in the Fall. I had never beaten them, not even in loose pick-up contests in the park.

As we warmed up before the game, I walked up to Dan. He was joking around with some of our other teammates. They were playing some weird game consisting of throwing high, blading tosses into the wind, trying to steal the hat off someone’s head, placing hat on own head, and catching the original toss. Or something like that. Either way, they weren’t exactly deeply focused on our game coming up in ten minutes.

“Dan ...”

“Watch out! Damn!! That shouldn’t count, he’s on the field and doesn’t have a hat on.”

“Whatever. No points. My turn.” Dan gets no sympathy for his obstructed miss.

“Uh, sorry,” I mumble, “Hey, um, Dan do you know this next team?”

“Yeah, why?” He’s distractedly watching his opponent scramble for a hat while trying to track the plummeting throw.

“They are pretty good. This could be a tough game.”

“What? These guys? Forget it. They suck. We’ll crush. My Turn!!” And he’s off.

They do suck. We do crush. At the end, I have that sweet satisfaction of the game closing hand shake. Victor consoling the outclassed, out-played loser. With the team that recently cut me. That is one sweet position to be in.

Unfortunately, that was the highlight of my season with El Lunche. We made it through sectionals, qualifying for regionals. The odd thing for me was that we had picked up some players just before sectionals - players that hadn’t practiced with us, hadn’t trained with us, hadn’t played with us. I didn’t understand why we were adding people at the last minute when we had been told that team unity was key to success. I remember heading down to Santa Barbara for regionals wondering how it would compare to my experience at college regionals just a year and a half before.

Well, it was very different.

I remember us winning a few games. On Saturday, Russ and I played pretty well. We did our job. We played hard defense, we ran around a lot and we didn’t have many turnovers. The first day went well enough for us to be in pretty good position for progressing further.

Our first game on Sunday was against Chabot College. I know that doesn’t seem too impressive to anyone now, but back then (before they had transformed into Las Positas College) they had come off of a college championship a couple years prior. They sported a few crusty veterans and a solid college team of athletes. We knew it would be a tough game, but it seemed we expected to win. Me? What did I know? I had never been to Santa Barbara, had never experienced club regionals, had never seen this level of intensity in ultimate. I just expected to keep playing defense and running until I couldn’t stand up.

That was not the way it was to be.

I played a few points early in the Chabot game. I ended up covering a guy they called Rojo. He was, naturally, a red head. He was also very fast. And relentless. He also was a very competitive but fair opponent. While chasing him around the field, I remember him slipping out little, “Sorry about that” mumbles regarding momentary jostlings and “Nice D” comments on well covered cuts. He was focused on the game, but he seemed to be a nice guy as well.

The game was tight well into the second half. As the score increased, I noticed the time between my points on the field increasing as well. I couldn’t understand it. The basic problem, as I saw it from the sidelines, with my many ... months ... of admittedly limited experience was that they were out-running us. If we weren’t going to play zone (which we had hardly trained for) then Russ and I should be getting some significant minutes. At least, that was the way I saw things.

Unfortunately, that was not the way the captains saw things. I guess they felt that they needed to rely on their veteran players. Some of whom had been with the team from the inception, some of whom they had cajoled to join at the last minute. They must have felt that the crunch time belonged to experience and savvy over youth and speed.

They were wrong. I distinctly remember watching as, yet another, cutter got blown by for the block, failed to pick up on transition defense, and watched the goal get scored by his man. I was sickened on the sidelines.

We lost. The team was upset. Dan was sad that his dream of forming an upstart team had failed. I was pissed.

What the hell!?! Did I spend the time driving down to Stanford for dozens of practices for this. Did I run my ass off and try my hardest to be basically left out of the significant minutes of our final game? Apparently ... yes.

As I drove the five and a half hours back up to San Francisco, I wondered to myself what my future in Ultimate looked like. Did I want to sacrifice so much for a team that wouldn’t use me? Would I rather play for a team that desperately needed me but couldn’t satisfy my need for reasonable competitiveness? At the end of 1988, I wondered what ultimate would be in my life.