Monday, November 20, 2006

Leaders Cup Weekend Part II: Saturday Morning

SATURDAY MORNING

Scott, Aaron and I get to the park early, because there’s a captain’s meeting at 8:30 a.m. that we need to be at (even though the first game isn’t until 10 a.m.) Because we were staying downtown and not at the “official” WAKA player’s hotel in the North side of San Diego (the tournament is at Coronado Park, which is south of downtown), we didn’t have access to the free WAKA shuttle that was taking players to the fields and back throughout the day.

So, we hire a town car. Because, when you’re a champion, you travel first class. Actually, it worked out just fine – it was a short drive to the fields (five minutes) and we got to spread out and relax rather than be crammed into a school bus with hundreds of other people. In retrospect, we should have told the driver to just pull onto the field instead of dropping us off at the parking lot, but that’s hindsight…

Here’s a bit of back history before I talk about the captain’s meeting: I’m always very, very skeptical of anyone who works for WAKA, especially at the national level. Until proven otherwise, I assume that they’re arrogant, smug and take themselves (and kickball) way too seriously. They fall into the same category that the “serious” kickball players I’ve seen on the message boards back East are in: they think they the mere fact that they play kickball makes them interesting. I tend to think that as Ninjas, we make kickball interesting with all of the bullshit things that we do. But I digress.

We took our pile of props, set it down at the fields, and went to the captain’s meeting. And, surprise, it took about two minutes to be condescended to by WAKA staff. This came when they were reviewing the basic rules (because clearly, the teams that are playing in the World Championship need to have to rules reviewed – do you think they explained to the Steelers and the Seahawks that football has four downs before the Super Bowl?). The guy running the captain’s meeting (who had all the humor and warmth of a camp counselor) decided it was important to point out when reviewing the strike zone that:

“So, I understand that some of the West Coast Divisions use this plastic strips to show where the strike zone is. That IS NOT how it is supposed to be done!”

Please note that he was staring directly at Scott and I the whole time he was saying this. Some more background: in Hollywood and then later Studio, we used to chop the crappy plastic bases into foot-long strips. If you place a strip on either side of the home base, you can see exactly what the strike zone is (12 inches on either side of the plate). Simple, right? A perfect way for even novice umps to accurately call a fair strike zone?

Except that WAKA decided that they didn’t want us to use the strips. Why? Because it wasn’t standard WAKA equipment. Basically, WAKA would rather have arguments about balls and strikes than budge from “their way” of doing things.

So, as soon as I heard the WAKA lackey make that comment, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I was trying to go into everything with as open of a mind as possible. But as soon as I heard that, it reconfirmed every belief I have about WAKA and their personnel, and just put me back into an adversarial relationship with the organization all over again.

Fortunately, I had brought several name tags to wear during the day (or at least until I sweated through my shirt and they fell off, which was about 90 minutes into the games). They said different things, such as “WAKA is a Monopoly” and “I Support Indie Kickball”. But, thanks to the attitude of the WAKA stooge, I went with a more direct message:

“I HATE WAKA!”

The rest of the team eventually arrived, and we went back from our field to the main stage for “Opening Ceremonies”. Now, if you know anything about our team, it’s that we sometimes can struggle to find togetherness. But, at the same time, we also relish finding a common enemy. Fortunately for us, through their arrogance, WAKA became the perfect windmill for this group of Pancho Sanzas to tilt. We decided to be the antidote to the self-importance that we noticed before the tournament started by being the most frightening team possible. If WAKA wanted “enthusiasm” from their teams, we’d give it to them in a larger amount and in a scarier package than they know what do to with. Basically, if we weren’t the best team at the tournament, we’d be the team that you’d least want to meet in a back alley.

This was helped by us being in the black T-shirts, which I think give us the impact of looking like Raider fans. And the fact that outside of the Dogtown Pregnant Cheerleaders, no one had ever seen us since we stayed at a different hotel and boycotted the official WAKA “Captain’s Party” that night. Why did we skip said party? Because it was free for the four captains to get in, but it would have been $25 for the rest of the team.

And I’m sorry, but I’m not going to go party for free while the rest of the team either can’t go or has to pay through the nose. I came to the tournament first and foremost to be with my team, and they’re more important than any “free” party. Sorry WAKA, we’ll pass.

At the opening ceremonies, they introduced each team, who then proceeded to politely clap for themselves. And first off, we had by far the best team name of any team there. Most of the team names were bad puns like “Kick Asphalt” or “No Small Feet” or somehow named after the names of the captains. Come on, guys, “Tack Wacket” vs. “Awesome Helicopter Ninjas”: which team would you rather be on.

Before our turn, Scott made sure that we knew what to do: scream as loud as possible for as long as possible. And also raise our middle fingers high in the air.

So that’s what we did, and brother let me tell you: it was loud. Very loud, probably five times as loud as any other team that was introduced. And the screaming probably lasted for at least 30 seconds. Add the flipping off of the entire tournament while we were doing this, and I’m sure it made for quite a, umm, “spectacle”.

When we were done, all the WAKA PR Rep/MC could say, in a very disgusted voice, was:

“Umm, thanks for the middle fingers, guys…”

The Awesome Helicopter Ninjas: Putting the “K” in “Klassy”.

Then came the National Anthem. As sung by “Spencer the Gardner”, the lead singer of the band that played the Captain’s Party the night before. My impression ahead of time is that the band was some sort of Jimmy Buffet-type jam band. And while his vocal stylings might be OK on a Friday night when you want to “cut loose” and “have a blast” after happy hour at the Black Angus, when it’s heard in the cold, harsh light of morning?

Ugh. More like “Spencer the Warbler” or “Spencer the Guy Who Fucking Murders the National Anthem”. In terms of spectacle, it was more “Ashlee Simpson at the Orange Bowl” than “Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl”.

Which is why I didn’t feel bad that we disrupted the big ending. Again, an idea that came from our fearless captain, Scott Jones, and his beloved hometown of Kansas City. Apparently, it’s a custom at Chiefs games during the National Anthem for the entire crowd of 75,000 people to shout “The home of the Chiefs” over “The home of the brave” at the end of the song. So Scott told us to do the same thing, except shout “The Ninjas” instead of “The Chiefs”. So that’s what we did, all 15 of us. And it was loud.

Except that the singer decided to pause an extra few beats after singing “And the home of the...” In our frenzy, of course we didn’t hear him and just screamed on the beat. I think (and I’m not sure because, like I said, it was loud) that he actually waited for us to stop, but our cacophony lasted so long that eventually he just gave up and didn’t get to finish the song.

To top things off, as we were leaving the Opening Ceremonies and going over to the field for our first game, what happened to fly directly overhead? A pair of Navy helicopters! Of course, this lead to much rejoicing from our team, as we took it as a sign of things to come.

As for the games themselves: as usual, they were superfluous to everything else. A short list of the extraneous bullcrap:

- The confetti canon: Perhaps the highlight of all of our stuff. Scott went and bought a very impressive, high-capacity confetti canon that we shot off several times during the day, complete with black confetti.
- The pool cue chalk: Used once during our opening game.
- Bribe money: I was very happy that this seemed to be a big hit with the other teams. I picked up a very cool suitcase from the 1960s at Goodwill a few weeks ago. I stuffed the briefcase with fake $20s, and before each game I would show the money to the refs and let them know that “I’m not trying to bribe you, but if you the close calls happened to go our way and this briefcase happened to get left with your stuff after the game, I guess that’s just a coincidence.”

Fortunately, every team we played in our Pool Play was very, very cool and I got along with them a lot. Of course, we knew one of them really well, and they were all West Coast teams, which I learned meant that they took things a lot less seriously than the East Coast teams. In order of our games:

- No Small Feet: The team of Shane from kickball365.com, and the team that won the West Coast Regional in Anaheim last month. They were very, very good and probably deserved to beat us, although not by the final score. We were tied 0-0 going into the third inning, and then we just sort of…fell apart. They got two runners on with one out, and then we made a couple of errors to let two runs score. Once that happened, I think we let our nerves of playing in the “World Championships” get the best of us, and we made a series of dumb mental errors. 15 minutes later, and we’re down 8-0. We got one back in the fourth but the game ended because of the time limit before we were able to finish.

- Pregnant Cheerleaders (Dogtown): Scott and I know and played against several of the people on this team when we were all in Hollywood, and they are all very, very cool people. Needless to say, we were very happy when we drew them in our bracket.

We went down 2-0 in this game, but I think we managed to snap out of it and realize that if we played smart, we’d be OK. We got two back to tie it in the second inning. The Cheerleaders scored two more to go ahead, but we tied it back in the top of the fourth. We were desperate to get them out in the fourth inning quickly so we could get one more inning in, since we were positive that we would get at least a couple of runs in the fifth and have a great chance of winning. And I think the Cheerleaders knew that as well, which is why they took their sweet time while at-bat in the bottom of the fourth.

The game ended in a 4-4 tie. At that point, I thought our chances of making it out of group play were sunk no matter what happened the next game.

- Orange Crush: They were the San Diego Champions, and they, again, were a lot of fun. However, I suspect they aren’t as good as they were in Spring when they qualified, since we were able to score early and often. The final score was 10-3, and it was a really good feeling to win a game. However, only two of the four teams from our group would advance, and the first tiebreaker was runs against. I was pretty convinced that giving up eight runs to No Small Feet in our first game would doom us.

However, somehow, someway, we were able to go through. The Cheerleaders lost to No Small Feet in their last game, 7-5. We tied with the Cheerleaders at 1-1-1. However, what we didn’t know was that when they beat Orange Crush in their Opening Game, they still gave up five runs. So, they give up 16 runs in the three games while we gave up 15, sending us through to the next round by one run.

(Note: Before the game, one of Orange Crush’s female players asked me “What was up with the middle fingers at Opening Ceremonies. Not that I was offended, but it just seemed a little…inappropriate.” Which sounds suspiciously similar to “I was offended but don’t want to admit it.” I tried to explain that we weren’t flipping anyone off in particular, and that it was a gesture made out of love, but I don’t think she was buying it. However, the team was very proud when I reported it to them later, and we can proudly fly the banner of “Most Inappropriate Kickball Team in America”.)

- Tack Wacket: Another team that I knew well, this time being the team from Hollywood. The team was captained by Tatiana and Jon Gellar, who are former Lebwoskis and who were on the Board when I was there. And their first baseman is Superman. And I don’t mean like Super Manfredi, but actually Superman, as in Brandon Routh, the guy who played Superman in the last movie. In anticipation of possibly playing them, Michael had wanted to bring a “Kryptonite” kickball painted green, but we didn’t have enough time.

It was a tough game. Tack Wacket scored a run first, but we clawed back. We had Bill on second and Ashley on first with one out, when I got up to the plate. All I wanted to do was get the ball into right field – if it was caught, Bill could tag up and go to third. If it fell for a hit, even better.

Well, my first kick started out down the right field line, but started slicing foul quickly and hard. However, Superman managed to make a great play and go about 15 feet off the base at full speed to make an over-the-shoulder catch. But this is where Superman turned into Clark Kent, so to say. (Har har har.) Because after he made the catch, he just kept running, leaping over coolers and lawn chairs and going about 50 or 60 feet.

I noticed this, and noticed that neither Bill or Ashley were tagging up. It turns out that like Superman, they didn’t realize that you could tag up on a foul out just like a normal fly out. So I started yelling at them to go, and they did. Bill managed to make it all the way home before Superman realized what was happening. He threw to the plate in an attempt to get Bill out, but the throw was wild and went sailing into the crowd. Because of the wild throw, Ashley was also able to score.

So, credit me with a two-run foul out, and we made the two runs hold up with some clutch defense. 2-1 for the Ninjas, and we were on to the semifinals.

- Kick Asphalt: These guys had won five World Championships, and are generally considered to be the best kickball team in America. And big surprise – they’re very good. They take this very, very seriously, almost like they are a semi-pro team. They keep their roster down to 11 or 12 players, with no random players being added to their team that they don’t know (which is how many of our team started as Ninjas). The other Virgina team in the tournament even goes as far as to hold try-outs if you want to join the team. Both teams are all former college athletes, and needless to say they take winning at kickball very seriously.

However, they are incredibly one-note. All they do is bunt, bunt, bunt, every at-bat. Keep in mind that they play exclusively on all-grass fields in the East Coast, while we play on actual dirt softball diamonds. This means that bunting is much more difficult where we play – balls roll further and get to fielders more quickly. Plus, softball diamond are built so that the ground slopes away from the center and towards foul ground (to help drainage when it rains). This means that any bunt down the lines is very likely to eventually roll foul.

But this doesn’t happen on grass. In addition, their pitcher threw overhand and very hard. Again, balls bounce a lot higher on grass, so you wouldn’t be able to do this. But, they have built their team to their environment, and they’re very good at what they do.

Still, we didn’t embarrass ourselves – we didn’t give up any big innings, and we almost scored (Scott was thrown out at the plate). The final was 7-0, and we were out in the semfinals. Since my original goal for the day was just to make it out of Pool Play, I obviously was thrilled. However…

I know this is going to sound like sour grapes, but I seriously think that we’d have a very good chance to beat Kick Asphalt, or any other team, if we played on dirt. Their team is built for grass, and we’re built for dirt. Take away their bunting ability and pitching advantage and I think it’s a lot closer than 7-0.

We stayed to watch the Championship game between Kick Asphalt and Gonzo. They are both from Virginia and are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in America. And the game was…really, really boring. All both teams did was bunt the whole game. And because everyone bunts on the East Coast, they both knew how to defend it really well. So, inning after inning of bunt, bunt, bunt, and no scoring.

After a couple of innings, we were getting really desperate to have something, anything exciting happen. So we decided to make it happen, by trying to do anything to get them to stop bunting. Which basically meant booing at every bunt and cheering every time a) someone was out when they tried to bunt or b) someone actually kicked the ball (which was rare). Not only did our whole team do this, but we managed to get a good portion of the rest of the teams watch to do the same thing. We had chants like “Please just kick it!” and “We hate bunting!” going for most of the game, which seemed to really confuse and/or upset the two teams playing.

Now I know what you might be thinking: it rude to boo two teams that are trying so hard to win and putting their all into it. Which is sort of true. But at the same time, the fact that they took it all so seriously became provocation to be even more unruly as the game went on. Each glare that we got from one of the sidelines was more than enough to spur us on to more chants. Plus, it really was incredibly boring. It was the kickball equivalent of the Neutral Zone Trap in hockey – effective in helping you win, but incredibly boring to watch. Eventually people stopped watching the NHL because of the Neutral Zone Trap, and if every kickball game I played was like the Championship Game, I wouldn’t want to play OR watch.

In the end, Kick Asphalt won 1-0. However, I think we were the big winners for causing discontentment with those who take kickball too seriously. To celebrate this, we ran around like idiots with our smoke bombs after the final out, even though we weren’t playing. And any time we can break out the smoke bombs is a win in my book.

2 comments:

Scott said...

Well said sir! I would like to ad that we exited the Town Car in quite the fashion. You with your suitcase full of money, me with my feather boa, large rings and faux-arrogance. Then Aaron, my quiet friend from "the home of the Chiefs" followed behind carrying our extraneous baggage.

Shane said...

Good meeting you guys, finally! Hope you can raise the theatrics to another level at another regional/national real soon (I have to go outside the Association to k-ball in Williamsburg for that). It was fun hanging with you guys at the after party -- thanks for obliging my silly blast-from-the-past yearbook hobby. And I actually didn't mind the booing ... how else were people that have never seen it supposed to react? The top teams should have thicker skin when it comes to that ...