Saturday, August 15, 2015

Memories Can Be Harsh

Casually reading about the presidential candidates stumping Iowa, readying themselves for the coming election, I was struck by two things. Candidates, eager to mix with the hoi polloi of voters, attend summer state fairs where the most vile and calorie-laced comfort food is de rigueur and various games of chance and skill lure the un-skilled, previously skilled and never-had-any-skilled participants.

Naturally, I was sent tumbling back in my personal memory because of something one of the candidates did. He spied one of those radar guns that record how fast a baseball can be pitched.  I think in a person’s mind how fast he or she can throw a baseball is nearly always much faster than the speed that person is physically capable of achieving, usually light-years difference.

I remember an incident when, as a newspaper reporter, I was covering the campaign of a local candidate for county freeholder. Montvale had a summer fair and surprisingly one booth had a radar gun. Today, radar guns are incredibly common, if not apps on smart phones. Back in 1978, (I know, I know, when dinosaurs like me roamed the earth) a radar gun was not so common. This was probably one of those horribly inaccurate police versions which routinely clocked brick walls at five miles over the speed limit. (My editing self cringes at the expression “over” the speed limit because, technically, it should be “more” than but what person has ever had the experience of that state trooper ambling up to your rolled-down window and saying “Sir, I think you’ve driving more than the speed limit allows?”)

In those days, we did not have Pete Sampras rocketing tennis balls at 120 mph but we did have Arthur Ashe. Non-players, need to know something about his style of play. He had a cannon of a serve. Instead of volleying back and forth to gain position, he game was mostly rocket serve that produced an ace and failing that, a couple of quick, hard volleys and the point was either gained by a hard return or lost when he hit it out. All or nothing.

       The serve only needs to catch part of the line

My mother dragged me out on the court when I was 12 years old and wearing all whites and tennis shoes was a requirement of walking on a court. It’s something known as etiquette. (Isn’t that a word foreign to millennials – please scratch that if it sounds too snarky.) Tennis seemed polite in those days. In mixed doubles, you were supposed to lighten your serve when serving to the female, etc.

        My first racquet was a Bancroft

My serves even through high school were somewhat patty-cake compared to what I became. A second serve, following a failed hard serve, was usually a spin serve, made harder by slipping an “Eastern Forehand grip.” I was at the top of the second tier of players on my high school team. The top was Brien Duffy who had all the serves and speed. I simply tried hard to perfect the service taught to me by Brother McPadden who’s main objective was to avoid double faults by making sure the serve got in the box—hang the speed.

           Wilson T-2000 steel racquet

The summer after I graduated, I changed all that. I traded my wooden racquet in for steel and completely revamped my serve. My new serve had the racquet striking the ball at the absolute highest point, directly overhead like a Juan Marichal or Mel Stottlemyre baseball pitch. When I was making contact at that highest point, the tips of my sneakers were either barely touching the court or they were one to two inches off the surface, depending how high my toss had been. I worked to perfected that serve all that summer. When we vacationed for a week in Maine, I found the local college, wrangled my way on to the court, and served ball after ball, even launching a few balls into the ocean, which came to within a dozen feet of one corner of the court.

Note Ashe's toes at the top of his serve

The combination of steel, trampoline effect, and height produced a laser of a serve. When I was on, I could serve three to four in a row into the service box. When I was off, my success rate was more like one in three. Instead of following a failed first serve with a less fast, or spin serve, I would simple try another rocket. If I double faulted on one point, the following point was usually an ace. Most tennis players couldn’t handle two lasers in a row, one whizzing by their ear and the next one taking a divot out of the court.

One advantage of attending a small college, I reasoned, would be the ease of making the tennis team. So hanging up my ice skates and going south to Baltimore I could cushion the disappointment of no hockey with at least the solace of playing college tennis. The first day I was passing the gym’s trophy case and noticed that Loyola had won the Mason-Dixon tennis championships about 18 of the past 20 years and my heart sank at the very real prospect that I was not making that team. Through luck, hard work, good fortune and help from a good friend, John Davis,  I was finally able to make the varsity by my junior year but that’s an even further digression.

The 1963 undefeated Loyola tennis team

Back to that summer fair in 1978 and the radar gun. In my mind, I was capable of 120 mph Arthur Ashe serves. By 1978, I was five years post college tennis and not a regular player anymore. As with all former athletes, you think that after a few tries to “knock off the rust” you are capable of duplicating any feat you routinely performed when you were at your peak.

I went through the motions normally used to loosen up my shoulder. Think of those cutaway shots during a baseball game when they announce a pitcher warming up in the bull pen. He stands up and immediately you see him  stretching out his shoulder. I served two or three balls with a hard overhead—not my lunging, all-out, earth-scorching motion (please, there were young children watching) and signaled I was ready for the radar gun.

BOOM, the familiar sound of the ball exploding off the racquet strings. I turned expectantly to the gun expecting to make Arthur Ashe jealous and was crushed to read “70 mph.” That had to be a silly mistake. BOOM, second try: “76 mph.” BOOM, third try: 79 mph. That radar gun must be defective. Young children’s eyes be damned, I followed with the scorched-earth laser launched with my tippy toes inches off the ground. BOOM, “83 mph.”

My mind conjured up a stream of alibis. I didn’t have my steel racquet. I hadn’t picked up a racquet in months. I didn’t have the proper time to warm up (The truth was that by my forth hard serve, I was already fatigued.) It was over: my foray into old man’s tennis at the ripe old age of 26 was beginning.

Today, reading that article about candidates throwing baseballs and eating comfort food at the summer fair was enough to trigger those memories. I had a wry smile on my face when I read the candidate saying (after his throws) “my shoulder is ready to fall off.” I’ve been there and, yes, I was shocked to learn I wasn’t immortal.

There was one thing about those politicos rubbing elbows with the proles, the riffraff, and the great unwashed. I would still be competitive after all these years in one category: consuming vast quantities of outrageous (think pork chops on a stick, deep fried Snickers bars, corn dogs) comfort food. That’s one ability that, after all these years, has not eroded.

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