What’s Special About This?

Sage Park survived…

The Woolsey Fire is now all but out. The evacuation area got as close as a mile from my home. I got out toward the end of last week and saw some of the devastation along the north-bound 101.

Most of the oak trees I have photographed on many of the trails I hike have burned. They stand now like charred skeletons on the fire-darkened slopes. Compared to many of who live not very far from where I do, I was very lucky.

The fire started to the south and west of Sage Park. For days, I wondered if the prevailing winds would allow the dried grasses and oaks of the park survive the inferno and they did.

There’s always something to be thankful for and today I’m thankful for all of the oaks and all of the wildlife and all of the rare open space of Southern California that came through the Woolsey Fire unscathed.

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What’s Special About This?

A Passion for Learning: Tony Manzoni

Tony Manzoni SM

I can’t remember if it was 2008 or 2009 when I first met Tony Manzoni. I know I was in the desert on a golf junket and that I had picked up a local desert golf magazine that had an article on Tony that alluded to his swing theory. The article was pretty sparse, and didn’t really get to the essence of what Tony was saying, but there was just enough there to pique my interest.

Soon thereafter we met but it was years, many years, in fact, before our book, The Lost Fundamental, saw the light of day. Those many years have now flipped by as the days and weeks and months and years of the calendar are destined to and now my friend, Tony Manzoni, has moved on.

Tony battled cancer over the last few years. He fought the good fight and fought it with optimism and good humor but in the end cancer or the fates or God in heaven ended the game and now we are all left to face the world, and especially the world of golf, without him.

Yes, he had played alongside of the greats of our game.

Yes, he taught golf to movie stars.

Yes, Frank Sinatra was godfather to his daughter.

Each of these are undisputed facts but what they don’t convey is what truly matters about Tony Manzoni. In the end, as great a teacher as Tony was, as fine a player as he was, his real calling in life, his real gift, was as a lifelong student of golf.

Of course, Tony was an amazing player in his own right.

Of course, Tony coached his College of the Desert team to no fewer than five state championships.

I had the good fortune of working with Tony on his concepts many times over the last decade and each and every time I met with him in person, or when I spoke to him by phone, his mind was always on the game.

Once, I met with him in his office during a time when we were feverishly editing one of the final drafts of our book. I was reading the book, out loud, to him while Tony silently read his copy of the draft.

I was watching his hands as he read but I couldn’t figure out why he was moving them as he was..

Then I realized what was happening. Before we had gotten into the edits I had mentioned the premise of an article I had read concerning the action of the wrists during the golf swing. The writer said that only the left wrist truly hinged while the right wrist merely shifted right to accommodate that hinging action. What I was seeing was Tony working his hands to see if this was true or not.

After a while, Tony looked up and me and said, “You know, Paul…that’s absolutely right.”

Perhaps this is the final and best lesson of a true master of golf. Learning never ends. Part of being an expert is having an open mind to different ways of experiencing golf and also to explaining it. Tony had this gift. A part of it gave him the ability to relate to his young students at College of the Desert though he was many years their senior. It was easy for him because Tony was always learning, just like his players.

Tony has only been gone for a few days now but I already miss him dearly. My own golf game will surely suffer for his absence but my life will always be enriched by the echo of Tony’s ongoing presence and his passion for golf and learning.

I am proud to count Tony Manzoni as a friend and I was honored to work with him on the mission of bringing his knowledge to more and more of those who love our game.

If you would like to read more about Tony’s storied career you can read his obituary in the Desert Sun here.

 

 

 

 

A Passion for Learning: Tony Manzoni

Tragedy has struck my Sinn 103

Tragedy has struck my 103…

While setting my beloved Sinn 103’s date wheel this evening it got stuck between numbers.

If I was still the man I was 15 years ago I would not be bothered much at all. I would simply box it up and send it off to its makers in Germany. While it was being repaired I would simply wear any one of my other watches.

I wonder if I would have missed it at all back then?

But now, today, I am very dismayed. It’s not just that I’ve been a one-watch-man since I’ve owned it. Over the course of those seven years my 103 has been quite nearly bonded to my wrist and to the rest of me. I have worn  it everywhere…during all activities save for sleep and bathing.

The truth is that it’s been due for service (and a new crystal) for quite some time, having been made back in 2008. Still, I have grown accustomed to resetting it once a week, owing to its loss of 8 seconds a day. I enjoy and look forward to being involved with it, even in that small way. In other words, I have come to appreciate its weaknesses, to be endeared by its age, at the very same time as I so often try to push away the effects of my own advancing years. My guess is there’s a lesson buried somewhere in all of this.

I trust the good folks at Sinn will take good care of it.

Tragedy has struck my Sinn 103

My Golf Lesson with Roger Gunn

Yup, another oldie, this time from back in 2007. No, I never did qualify for the US Amateur Public Links. Coulda, woulda, shoulda…

PC

Sorry that I couldn’t come up with a more clever title and that I had to resort to a cheap take off of a miserable movie called My Dinner with André that I hope never to see again. I know you’ve all come to expect more from me. Anyway, taking a golf lesson is a lot like going to the dentist: No one goes because they want to.

I never had any delusions about becoming a great player. My own playing ambitions are really pretty modest. I want to hit the ball solidly and I would like to qualify for the US Amateur Public Links. To do this, I’d have to shave enough strokes to get my handicap down to the mid 8s from the mid 10s.

But, I digress…

My game fell apart right around the time I got divorced, though I cannot be sure of any direct association. The horrors came on fast and hung on tight. Out of nowhere I lost my backswing. It almost felt like someone else was taking the club back for me and not the way that I wanted. It felt like the top of my back swing got lost in the woods and it quickly became impossible to find a way to start the down swing toward the ball with any kind of flow. That’s a lousy feeling. Once your back swing is lost it takes so many corrections to re-simplify that which has become all too complicated for the result to be a solidly struck ball.

Amazingly, some balls were hit solidly. Still, the entire event became so convoluted that swinging the club had become a genuinely painful process. Playing a round was possible, but not enjoyable. Practicing,however, was impossible. The feeling of physical madness that had contaminated my full swing was quickly making its presence known in simple practice swings, and shorter shots. At times, I could even feel it during chips and long puts. I kid you not…

Part of the problem is that we tend to muddle on. Golf imparts an odd mixture of fatalism and optimism. Players really believe that they can figure out their flaws but somewhere in the depths of their souls they know that other, possibly more serious, problems will always be lurking nearby.

Finally, and out of desperation, I tried a couple lessons. I was looking for someone who not only knew the golf swing but also had the conversational skills to clearly convey what he knew and also to understand what I was saying to him. So much of my life is about words yet I know that words can often get in the way. Still, words are indispensable tools in both golf and life.

I took lessons from two local guys. One is something of a local legend and the other is a humble pro from a local executive course. The legend was useless though I say that with no rancor. He was simply a guy who had decided long ago that he was going to give every golfer the same prescription. He had found his nectar and poured it freely.

The second guy was a gem of a person, though he just couldn’t get me going in the right direction. We could have talked for hours about golf and life, he was just such a fine and genuine guy. Somethaing about the evil move that had taken root in me just escaped him. He could almost see what was going on but it just couldn’t find a way to address it. It was frustrating to both of us. He really wanted to help and I really wanted to be helped. Still, he is a man that I happily count as a friend and a really good teacher of the game.

For months I tried to dissemble my swing in the backyard. I learned some interesting things. I learned that a comparatively weak left hand (the hand itself not my left hand grip) made me tend to open the blade far too quickly on the way back. I learned this when I realized that if I tried to hit chips with my left hand only I would usually shank the ball. When I focused on keeping blade square, just few inches longer, I developed a whole new feeling for the position of the left hand as it moves away from the ball. I also learned that my balance had been compromised and I have started to work to increase my lower body stability and regain as much balance as I can.

Still, I gradually became aware that the basic fault was far too ingrained for me to beat it by myself. My greatest fear was that the fault would become a permanent effect and that I’d be just another guy with a game shattering fault who just scraped it around. I had heard about Roger Gunn quite a bit over the years. He’s about my age and played a lot of competitive golf in the Los Angeles area. Roger has taught PGA Tour players and Hollywood types but would he be up to the challenge that I brought to him?

Roger teaches out of Tierra Rejada in Moorpark (you can read my review of the course elswhere in the blog) which is one of the newish breed of let’s build a golf course on a mountain type of courses that have become so prevalent in Los Angeles County over the last decade or so. Whatever your take on Tierra Rejada as a course, the have an excellent practice facility. I met Roger out there last Friday morning and I was very impressed with my lesson and with Roger.

After we shook hands and began to chat, Roger took an informal inventory of my bag. He took stock of clubs and their condition and examined their faces and soles. He reminded me of a doctor who asks you what you did over the weekend while he looks into your ears. Of course, I had to present a dissertation on my problem that would have bored lesser pros to tears but Roger listened intently and that meant a lot.

Gunn
Roger Gunn teaches at Tierra Rejada Golf Course in Moorpark, California

Finally, the fateful moment arrived. I have hit the ball like this for so long that I have almost gotten used to it, but it stills feels lousy and the balls flies without verve or purpose. I half feared that I would hit a couple OK and that it would throw him off the scent. I needn’t have worried.

After just a couple swings Roger began to speak about the importance of plane and path. Of course, I head heard and read the stuff he was saying a thousand times before. But, Roger gave a few simple examples that brought the essence of the problem to me clearly. For the next few minutes we worked on a very basic correction that involved him guiding the plane of my back swing. He reiterated that without the proper plane and path issues like tempo were irrelevant. His efforts allowed me to feel where the top of my swing had to be so that I could freely get the club on its way back to the ball.

A real strength that Roger has is to doggedly stay on point. When I asked him whether it might be helpful to work on my transition, he gently reeled me back into the issue of plane and said that if the plane was right the transition would take care of itself.

After my lesson with Roger I felt more than a glimmer of hope for the first time in a long time. I had a simple issue to work on that was basic to my swing. I also had an idea of how I had gone so far astray. It is well known that we all learn to play golf differently. Roger combines clear verbal instruction with an amazing ability to get to the most essential problem first. It would have been great had I found Roger a long time ago. I could have been on my way back to playing the way I know that I can a whole lot sooner. That said, golf is a lot like life. Sometimes we have to suffer through things for a new and better path to be clearly revealed. I’d like to thank Roger again and recommend him to anyone looking to rekindle their passion for the game. I’ll be working with Roger again soon.

I need to make up for lost time if I’m going to qualify for the USGA Publinx!

My Golf Lesson with Roger Gunn

Andrew & Benji take on The Dakotas Tour

How can it be over six years since I wrote this; impossible! Still, reading it again reminds me of writing it and makes me want to drop AVL to see how he’s doing.

Cheers.

PC

 

In 1996 Tiger Woods said, “Hello world,” and things haven’t been the same since. Before Woods ever put a tee into the ground as a professional he’d been made a multimillionaire by Nike and Titleist. For the first time, far more of a player’s income was going to come from sponsorships than tournament winnings. A new world order had arrived and golf almost instantly expanded into a truly global game.

Since then, we’ve said hello to a bunch of mini-Tigers like Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Ryo Ishikawa. What each of these players have in common (along with a lot of game) is a massive corporate support mechanism. Each is as much a brand as a player. Fowler actively cultivates his image and look on his website by asking, “Love my look?” His Cowboy-orange and flat-billed cap are tools helping to set himself apart from the rest of the khaki-clad PGA Tour crowd. And, while it would be easy (if a tad cynical) to say most great players have yet to set themselves apart by winning,

I don’t want to create the impression I don’t like this crop of young, corporately well-connected, players because for the most part I do. It’s just that I also enjoy following the kind of player who lacks such deep-pocketed support. It’s important to understand how many players come to professional golf in anonymity and with significant hardship.

It’s well known Ben Hogan failed on the PGA tour at least once before finally breaking through. Before succeeding, he was down to his last bit of cash, $86 from a war chest of $1400. He had promised his wife Valerie (who was driving with him from event to event) that if he didn’t earn a check in the next tournament they would take what little money they had left and make their way home to Fort Worth, Texas. The morning before the tournament, the Hogans awoke to find their Buick stripped of its rear tires and wheels, its rear axle propped up on rocks.

Hogan got a ride to the tournament and ended up winning $385. Hogan described that check as the biggest one he had ever seen and he was quite sure it was the biggest he would ever see in his entire life. It’s impossible to imagine that Hogan sponsored by Nike, given millions of dollars before he had ever put a tee into the ground in a professional event. Hogan is a reminder that for every Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler there are thousands of aspiring players who come up another way; a much harder way.

Jim Von Lossow came to professional golf in a way much closer to that of Hogan than of Fowler or Woods. Jim’s an old friend of mine and some years back he told me of his time on the PGA Tour. He was only 20 when he left Seattle for California and his parents had no love for the idea of playing professional golf. Jim’s quest to play on tour was one he faced largely on his own. He ended up on tour for a few years and even played alongside some storied players like Tom Kite and Jack Fleck. Though Jim didn’t make many headlines while on tour, his journey led him to become a PGA instructor, the first putter manufacturer to mill heads from 303 stainless steel and now one of the most respected club fitters in the country.

It’s no surprise that Jim and his wife, Susan, have two children who grew up excelling at golf; their daughter, Hannah, and son, Andrew. When it came to Andrew, Jim hadn’t realized how good he’d gotten until Andrew and his friend, Eric Benjamin, shot back to back rounds in the low 60s. This got Jim thinking and he and Susan decided to stake Andrew and Benji enough cash to cover a summer playing The Dakotas Tour. “When I was coming up, I didn’t have the support of my parents when it came to golf,” Jim told me. “So, it was important to me that my wife and I give Andrew and Benji whatever help we could.”

Toward the end of July, Andrew and Benji loaded Andrew’s 1997 Toyota Camry and headed east toward Bozeman, Montana. Bozeman would serve as the duo’s home base for their summer on The Dakotas Tour since Benji knew some folks there. Andrew & Benji missed the first eight events of the 2010 Dakotas Tour season. These tournaments were played in cities with names like Okoboji, Iowa. Obscurity is common in professional golf. A serious golf fan might be able to name 50 PGA Tour players but there are 125 exempt spots. Add the players on the Nationwide Tour, the Canadian Tour and all the myriad other mini tours and we’re talking about serious obscurity. Galleries consist of friends and family, but more likely no one at all. Testing one’s game on a tour like the Dakotas was a strong reminder that golf can be a very solitary game, especially for aspiring professionals like Andrew & Benji.

Still, this is a duo that’s pretty comfortable with obscurity. They’ve even created their own organization to promote it; The Northwest Obscure Golf Association. Andrew & Benji came up with the name when they were forced to admit that to play as much as they needed to play to sharpen their games they’d have to play on some of the area’s scruffier courses. So, for two months of summer in 2010, Andrew & Benji tested their games against other aspiring professionals. They played some golf, they drove a lot of miles and had a lot of fun. At the end of the summer, they both agreed it had been the best one ever.

Obscure

After arriving in Bozeman, Andrew & Benji drove about 700 miles for a one day Pro-Am at Wild Oak GC in Mitchell, South Dakota. For the next few weeks, Andrew & Benji teed it up twice in Yankton, South Dakota at Fox run and then at the open qualifier at Hillcrest Country Club.

Which open? The Bobcat State Open at Fargo Country Club, of course. Notably, the state animal of South Dakota is the coyote, so go figure. Jim Von Lossow had told me what good players his son Andrew and daughter had become, but it was Andrew’s humble blogging that drove home just what fine players he and Benji are and at the same time what a difficult undertaking they were attempting.

Andrew’s first blog entry:

Benji and I played a practice round at Fargo Country Club. It was a nice day, around 80 degrees with a slight breeze. The forecast for tomorrow is calling for wind and sun. I tee off at 8:20am while Benji tees off at 1:20pm. 

The greens are very firm and fast. The key to approach shots is staying below the hole and taking one club less for the ball to run up to the pin. This is a very Northwest-style golf course so Benji and I feel comfortable playing here.

Here are a couple pics from today at the Fargo Country Club…

AVL
Eric Benjamin

To the casual reader, I’m sure these photos simply look like two really good players teeing off. But, when I look at them I’m trying to imagine if Andrew & Benji felt differently when they put the tee in the ground. They were doing what they had done thousands of times before, but they were doing it for a very different reason. Their ability, their pure joy in playing the game and their newfound drive to play golf for a living, had taken Andrew & Benji to this very unusual place.

I once watched Nick Price in one of his first tournaments on the Champion’s Tour. I had sought him out before he teed off to tell him how much I enjoyed his book, The Swing, which had come out a few years earlier. Nick Price was as kind and gracious a man as his reputation would suggest. There were a few people who watched him tee off, but by the 3rd hole his gallery had all but vanished. It was a perfect, glorious day in Southern California and one of the best players in the game was playing a competitive round of golf in almost total solitude.

That was an odd event. It was the first day of a tournament that had been moved from one course to another and attendance would be light until the weekend. But, that day reminded me what a lonely and isolating game professional golf can be. As I walked with Price I marveled at his rapid-fire swing and the dead-solid sound the ball made when he struck it with an iron, and I felt a little sorry for him. I know…Price wasn’t really alone, and was certainly not lonely. Still, live professional golf very often doesn’t always bear as much similarity to the game we see on television as we might expect.

Andrew & Benji were taking their first steps toward becoming a colleague of Nick Price but I’m sure they didn’t see it that way. They were and are good friends who wanted most of all to have their best summer ever. While they were at it, they would measure their games against each other and against the games of the other players with the same mission.

They both knew it wouldn’t be easy:

Day 31-33

Day 1 of the Bobcat North Dakota State Open:

Benji and I both shot 75. I played in the morning and made the turn at 3 over and shot even on the back. 

For Benji’s round in the afternoon the wind picked up and baked out the greens. He hit a flagstick from 190 yards and the ball then went into the water in the greenside hazard. In the last 3 tournaments, Benji has at least hit one flag per tourney. His round also lasted 6.5 hours. 

Day 2:

Benji shot 70. He played solid but just had one bad hole. He was punching out from the trees when his ball caught the trunk of a tree sending it into the hazard. Benji missed the cut by 2.

For myself, I shot 81. Made the turn at 3 over again and knew I had to make some moves if I wanted any chance of making the cut. Instead the round went the other way.

We are leaving North Dakota today and heading to Milbank, South Dakota. We will drive three hours and play a practice round at Pine Hills Golf Club for a one-day Pro Am tomorrow, August 30th.

We are looking forward to playing a new course and teeing it up in another tournament.

For 7,000 miles, Andrew & Benji chased the little white ball across the Dakotas and into Montana, going all the way east to Iowa for the Tour Championship. They were like the golf equivalents of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, hopping from town to town, staying at KOA campgrounds. Playing golf was the reason for their trip but I will bet it was the trip itself they’ll remember most keenly. As another Cervantes once wrote, “The Journey is better than the inn.” In an era when people are brought together over vast distance by technology, it’s even more important to venture into the expanse from time to time. I’m sure Andrew & Benji would agree.

Koa AVL
Koa Benji

I wondered a lot about Andrew & Benji and their dream of playing golf for a living. In fact, when I started working on this story, I wasn’t even sure they really wanted to play the game for a living. So, I talked to Andrew about it.

Today, Andrew Von Lossow’s day job is studying Design at Eastern Washington University where he’s on schedule to graduate in 2013. He told me about the reaction of his fellow students when he tells that in his spare time he’s a professional golfer. Not surprisingly, they don’t quite know what that means. When most people think of the word professional, they think of doctors and lawyers, not golfers.

When asked to describe his game, Andrew said, “My strength is ball striking. I can hit high long irons and from there I have good confidence in my other irons. My chipping and pitching are works in progress. Same with my putting; I am a streaky putter I can really get it going when I am on. When I’m not, it is a lot of two putts and the occasional and dreaded 3 putt.” He’s clearly a guy who believes in his game and has done a lot to develop it from working with a number of teaching pros to enhancing his overall fitness by following a rigorous fitness regimen developed by the Titleist Performance Institute.

As ever, golf is a game of making three shots into two shots any way you can. The different mind set of the truly fine player is revealed when he says, “Once I make one birdie, I feel I can string them together. The more birdies I make, the more unaware of my score I get because I get caught up on the next shot to make the lowest score possible.” Poor players don’t think that way. A couple good holes is more likely to make them protective than confident. Andrew clearly has the confidence to go low when the opportunity comes his way, as he did by finishing 5th and winning $800 in the Gallatin Valley Open.

He wrote about the event and the end of his first pro tour:

Back Home

What a journey it was out in the Dakotas. Benji and I both agree that this was the best summer we have ever had. Benji had some great finishes in tournaments while I was enrolled in the school of hard knocks in the tour life. What I learned was very important for becoming a better player. Golf is not easy as we all know. 

The last tournament, The Gallatin Valley Open, I came in 5th shooting 72-68. The first day I shot 4-over 40 on the front nine and I took some experience from my previous tournaments and shot 4-under 32 on the back nine. The next day I shot a bogey free 68 to make a move up the leader board to cash my first professional check.

I’ll bet Andrew’s closing 68 felt so easy. At the same time, I’m sure that front nine 40 must have had him doubting that he was cut out to play professional golf. The ability to turn off those doubts and salvage par says a lot about his resiliency. Still, it must be extraordinarily difficult for an aspiring professional to measure his game, until the heat of professional competition gets turned up. Then it becomes easy, if potentially confidence crushing. There are so many good players today. As sure as I am that the best players of eras gone by like Nicklaus, Hogan and Ballesteros would still be amazingly successful players today, I’m equally certain the depth of quality players is greater today than it’s ever been.

No one needs to tell Jim Von Lossow about the difficult challenge that lay ahead for his son. There is surely no way to tell whether Andrew will be able to make a living playing golf. But, that’s not really the point. In golf and in life, outcomes are never assured. All we can do is make our best swing, go find the ball, and do it all again.

Today, Andrew & Benji are continuing to hone their games in preparation for their next trek on tour. They’re sure to have plenty of birdies and their fair share of bogies when they do.

Their best summers ever are just ahead.

Andrew & Benji take on The Dakotas Tour

That Is the Story: Billy Lockyer

Every now and then I’ll tell my girlfriend something from my past I think she’ll find amusing and every now and then I’ll add, “There’s a story there somewhere but I’m not sure what it is.” I guess I’ve told one too many of these tales and my girlfriend has finally had enough. She said, “You’re so stupid; that IS the story.” So this is the first of who knows how many incidental short stories. Each is, to me, incomplete yet I suppose each also says something relevant about me and the things that have stayed in my mind throughout my life.

Billy Lockyer was a great kid but he didn’t look much like a catcher. He was lean and wiry with a crew cut right out of the 50s. His father, Bill, had a matching haircut but little else in common with his only child. He was loud, uninformed and trending toward the boorish, even compared to other American Legion Baseball coaches. Don’t get me wrong, Billy wasn’t soft. He was was a very tough kid and a solid catcher. He didn’t have the strongest arm but he made very few mistakes behind the plate and backed his pitchers all the way. Pitchers just love catchers who back them up no matter how well (or badly) they’re throwing that day.

But wait, I need to describe our home field. It was all dirt. Well, not exactly dirt but it was certainly all earth and no grass. Heck, we didn’t even have any weeds. The field had been cut by earth-movers out of what had been a working flood control basin. The backstop was typical chain link but the was no outfield fence. We didn’t need one. The field had been cut into the earth so instead of a fence we had a five-foot solid wall of earth surrounding the outfield. The first time I saw it I remember saying that the entire field looked like it belonged on Mars.

The playing surface was pool table-flat and very fast. Visiting teams had a very hard time adjusting to just how fast and that usually worked to our advantage. The surface of the field was hell on baseballs. Ground balls resulted in scuffs and fly balls that hit the field before being played ended up with little flat spots from the impact. Each game started with a dozen new balls and the plate umpires did their best to rotate-out balls that were obviously damaged but even still as the games wore on, so did the balls. The most obvious result was a lot of breaking balls and a lot of balls in the dirt.

We played a lot of double-headers and Billy would frequently catch all 18 innings. One day his mom bought along bathroom scale. She’d warned Bill that her boy was losing too much weight and sure enough the kid had sweated-out 10 pounds by the end of the second game. All Billy’s old man had to say was, “Well, make him a sandwich when we get home.”

Ours  was a team of hard-nosed white guys with one token black kid and, me, a token half-latino-half-German. What we lacked in size and speed we tried to make up for with what I would call a tough & crafty style of play. While we were fairly tough to outplay we were virtually impossible to intimidate.

One weekend found us playing a team of what Bill Lockyer called thoroughbreds. They were regarded to be the class of the division and had a number of very good players. A couple of their guys were big hitters who were also very fast on the bases and you don’t see that combination all that often in American Legion, or anywhere else for that matter. Early in the second game of the day, one of their guys hit a slicing drive into right field with one of those big fast guys on second base. Our right fielder was a little slow getting to the ball and his throw to the plate was a little weak and up the first base line. Billy stepped up the first base line to field the ball on a good hop so he could hold the hitter to a very long single. Suddenly the runner coming to the plate stumbled slightly and Billy took a late slap at him with his gloved hand. The umpire was right on top of it and rightly called the runner safe.

I could see Bill kicking at the dugout’s chainlink fence and yelling Billy’s name. Billy’s gaze went back and forth from me to his father so I called time and had Billy come out toward the mound. I knew we’d only have about 10 seconds before his old man and the plate umpire would want to know what the hell was going on. Billy ran out toward me, looking nervously over at his father as he did. I didn’t have anything to say to him. I just wanted to make sure he was with me. We had two outs and a guy on first and I wanted to make sure he knew what was up. When I finally caught his eyes I said, “No breaking balls; let’s work him away instead of down.” Billy smiled and looked relieved, “10-4!”

I sat the batter down on four pitches, each on the outside and we got out of the inning cheaply enough in my view. Billy’s father saw things very differently. He walked up to his son and bellowed at him after he sat down on the dugout bench.

“You know better than that. I taught you better! Get your ass in front of that plate. Guard it! Why the hell did you let that guy by you?

Just then, the right fielder, Steve Cortez stepped up and said, “Coach, that was on me. I slipped when I made the throw. It was way off line.” Bill just kept staring at his son. By then Mrs. Lockyer was looking from the stands toward the dugout. The expression on her face said it all. She was used to this and so was her son.

“Next time a runner is rounding second I want you up that god damn line. I don’t give a good god damn if you have the ball or not. You make sure you block that plate or I will have your ass, you hear me?”

“Yes, sir..I will.”

Billy’s face had been red before all of the commotion. We were all hot and sunburned and tired and getting beat by a stronger and better team. But, mixed in with the heat and sun and fatigue on Billy’s face was pure dread.

Baseball is the closest thing to an analogy for life wrapped in a game that has ever been invented. It has it all. It has stillness. It has motion. It has drama. It has boredom. There’s also something of Greek tragedy and drama in baseball. I’m sure Sophocles would have loved baseball. As the game and the day wound down there was a sudden flurry of action from the other team’s offense. They got a runner to first and their best hitter at the plate. The runner, of course, was the very same player who had scored around Steve’s errant throw earlier in the game.

You could actually feel what was coming before it came. A shot was lined into right center and both the right and center fielders converged on the ball. The lead runner had gone on the pitch and was hauling serious ass around second base as the ball got to the outfielders. Billy stepped up the third base line early and without the ball, just as his father had told him and waited, the runner hurtling toward him. The ball bounced just short of the plate and slightly to Billy’s right. In one way it was a perfect throw and in another the hardest possible ball for Billy to field and still have time to take a solid defensive position and ready himself for the impact. He caught the ball cleanly and in a split second turned back to his left.

The runner was in full stride when he hit Billy. The thought of sliding had never entered his mind. He had the speed and he had the angle and he knew it. After all these years I can still see and hear the impact. First was the crack of the top of the runner’s helmet into Billy’s face mask, which he had thankfully not had time the time to pull off after the ball was hit. Then there was the sight of the mask and his blue helmet tumbling through the air. As the main force of the runner’s body hit Billy I could actually hear the air whoosh out of Billy’s lungs right before he fell backwards onto the plate. He’d been so far up the third base line that the back of Billy’s head actually hit the plate when he fell. When Billy’s mitt came off of his hand, the ball tumbled to the ground.

In the dusty silence after the impact I remember Billy’s mother coming onto the field and the umpire looking down at his crumpled body. As he lay there, unmoving, Billy suddenly looked more like a little boy than a 17 year old. My guess is the player who leveled Billy outweighed him by at least 50 pounds and he had managed to impart every bit of that weight advantage into Billy in that sickening crack of a collision. It seemed like Billy was silent for such a long time, but I’m sure it was less than 30 seconds before he put his head up and asked, “Did I hang onto the ball?”

In that moment I wanted to be Billy’s best friend forever. He wasn’t mad at anyone. He just wanted to know if he had succeeded; if his best, if his sacrifice, had been enough. Billy had double-vision for the rest of the day and got to take a nice ride in an ambulance, but he was OK. There was exactly one good thing that came out of it. It made Billy’s father ashen-faced and speechless for the first and only time I ever witnessed.

Bill Lockyer continued to be wrongly and stupidly hard on his son for the rest of the season and his son Billy continued to be one of the nicest kids I ever knew & the toughest catcher I ever played with.

That Is the Story: Billy Lockyer

What do the books we get rid of say about us?

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On their way to the eyes of other readers

I’ve been getting rid of a lot of stuff lately and I don’t have all that much stuff to start with. Someone once described me as having a small footprint and that pretty much felt right to me. No, I’ve not yet read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo but it’s on my short list. I’m serious. I know that some folks keep books forever. Many have huge bookshelves holding the paper-bound words and thoughts that have influenced them over the years. Being very much a 20th Century Man I get the appeal of being able to grab a book, turn to a page, and illustrate a point to oneself or others.

Still, that’s a facility that has largely lost its appeal to me.

So, just a few thoughts on these now dearly departed books. The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy is a fine book for any writer to read. The two writers corresponded for decades about their triumphs, their marriages, their problems with writing and their shortages of money. Talk about bringing the challenges of being a writer home where it belongs; between friends. I’ve known many writers but the few who were my friends seem seldom cross paths with me anymore. Writers, always solitary, seem prone to getting more isolationist as they get older.

George Patton always intrigued me. I loved that he was loathed by Andy Rooney (whom I also loathed) and revered by my uncle Mike who liked to say, “I rolled with Patton in WWII.” More than anything I reveled in his myriad personal contradictions. George C. Scott’s movie portrayal of the man led people to believe he had booming and gruff voice when the opposite was true. Patton was both urbane and obscene. As brutal as he could be to soldiers under his command he also got far fewer of them killed than did more humble and measured generals like Omar Bradley. I always found the imperial nature of MacArthur and his efforts to upstage Truman, as well as his proclivity to occupy grand places such as the Malacañang Palace, far more damning than anything Patton ever did. Best of all, Patton was a real SoCal boy just like me. The sprawling rancho where he grew up has long since been swallowed whole by the urban sprawl of what is now San Gabriel, less than an hour east of here.

Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers is the only military book I have ever read that was nowhere near as good as what is effectively a movie that was based on it. I’m sure Ambrose was a good guy and a solid historian but Band of Brothers is marginally written and uninspired compared to the HBO series. I’ll be blunt. Don’t waste your time with it.

Love in a Dry Sea is a novel by Shelby Foote who would later write the saga of the Civil War that Ken Burns used as the foundation of the epic PBS documentary. I loved Sheby Foote and his erudite and seemingly effortless command of the language. Comparing Sheby Foote to historian Ed Bearss is like comparing Jack Nicklaus to Jack Fleck. The odd thing is that as magnificent a writer as Foote was when it came to non-fiction he was blandly average as a writer of fiction. It’s odd and somewhat sad since Foote always aspired to be a novelist.

It nearly pains me to watch Plato hit the road but as often as I find myself thinking about or speaking about the dialectic or quoting some obscure line from the Phaedo I haven’t picked the book up in years. Plato’s good and stuck in my head so the need to have him sitting on my bookshelf has lessened. The book on Aquinas was easy to set adrift.

George Santayana’s Scepticism and Animal Faith is the single most difficult to read book I have ever come across. Most folks hit the wall harder with Kant but Santayana had me pinned. I’d catch myself reading the same half-page again and again hoping my brain might gain some intellectual traction. Way back when, I might have gotten some of it but I tried reading a few pages the other day and I nearly got lightheaded.

The editing books are mere works of reference and paper references (about the use of words and language, anyway) have been rendered superfluous by the presence of Google beneath our fingertips. Yes, I do still have the last dictionary I ever bought. It’s an Oxford Concise and I reach for it a couple times a week. But, those books on style and usage have long outstayed their usefulness to me. I won’t miss them.

Geez, that Jon Krakauer’s a good writer. I loved Into Thin Air but I keep getting derailed from finishing Under the Banner of Heaven. Talk about a gift for prose. Talk about energy. Talk about clarity of narrative. Krakauer is reputed to be rather petulant kind of guy, trending toward self-righteousness, but he is an amazing writer. I’d love to have a beer with him.

From time to time I’ve enjoyed reading a little of Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa if only to remind myself that even great writers can come across as merely average and totally mortal. Though some of the stories are amusing, this was an easy one to get rid of.

I know what you’re asking yourself; how the hell does guy get rid of his Idiots Guide to the Pilates Method, a retrospective on Speed Racer, the Diaries of Kafka and a book about swearing? It’s a head scratcher for sure but they’re outta here.

You know, the more I think about I’m pretty sure there’s still room on my bookshelf for the Speed Racer book.

It’s nice and thin!

 

 

 

 

What do the books we get rid of say about us?