As painful and disappointing as it may be to accept, I have finally forced myself to live with the harsh reality that at this point in my life the only way I will ever appear on SportsCenter is if I take a foul ball to the face at a baseball game. And even then, they won’t mention my name and I will only be on for a few seconds while the anchors crack a joke and then report the final score.
Sports dreams die hard in those of us that have them. I’m not sure what the exact percentage is of little boys that have pictured themselves as being locks to be inducted into one or more sports Hall’s of Fame, but I have to believe it’s in the high 90s. I know I was bitten by the baseball bug at first, then football and basketball followed shortly thereafter. By age nine I had my life plan set.
There was absolutely no doubt in my still squishy and not fully developed prepubescent brain that I was going to conquer them all, and be a modern day Jim Thorpe. I would work out a deal where I could have special clearance to play in all the big games in all three sports, and of course I would be able to play for my local Wisconsin teams so I wouldn’t have to move anywhere else.
I was fully prepared to work at it, but that pesky little distraction called “school” kept holding me back from devoting my entire being to what I was sure was to be my true calling. Why would I have to waste valuable space inside my skull with useless claptrap like math or world history?
Millions of little boys – and who knows how many little girls – fall prey to this ridiculous idea every year only to have those delicate dreams and sky high hopes dashed to the rocks below with no consolation prize from the universe. Only a precious few ever make it and that’s just how it is.
The closest I ever made it to participating in professional sports was in high school when I was a ball boy for the Milwaukee Bucks. It was my job to sit underneath one of the baskets during the game, and whenever anybody would hit the ground I ran out on the court with a towel to wipe up the sweat so nobody else would slip and fall. Sometimes the game would stop, sometimes not.
It was especially tricky when it wouldn’t, because I had to run out and wipe up the sweat while watching what was happening on the other end of the court. The action could switch back to my end in a split second, and more than a few times I had to dive off the court to avoid a trampling.
I lasted two seasons as a ball boy, and in retrospect it was an unbelievably pleasant experience most sports fans never get to enjoy. I was lucky enough to have a great staff of fellow ball boys to work with, and we all got along swimmingly. In fact, I am still in touch with many to this day.
One story I will never forget involves my fellow ball boy Wade Waugus and Philadelphia 76er player Henry Bibby. It taught Wade and I a valuable life lesson while also letting us both know in no uncertain terms that a career in the NBA as a player was officially off the bargaining table for the rest of eternity on this particular cosmic plane. Once again, the harshness of it all was ugly.
Like any number of high school boys anywhere Wade and I fancied ourselves to be more than decent basketball players. The fact we were both Caucasians without the genetic dispositions to make us even close to six much less seven feet tall wasn’t enough to stop us from assuming we’d eventually get drafted by an NBA team and spend a dozen years getting rich and winning rings.
Henry Bibby was the last player on the bench for the 76ers who were a powerhouse team then. They had the great Julius Erving aka “Dr. J” and a galaxy of stars around him. Mr. Bibby didn’t play all that much, and he wasn’t all that tall either. He might have been six feet, but no more.
Wade and I were doing our ball boy duties hours before the game and Henry Bibby was on the court by himself practicing his free throws. He sized up Wade and me and asked if either of us were basketball players. We said we were, and Henry came up with an on the spot proposal.
“How about we have a little game then?” he asked innocently. “It will be you two against me and we’ll play to 21. For every basket you get, you get three points. For every basket I get I get one point. And to make it even more interesting, how about we play for one dollar a point?”
To avoid reliving all the bloody details, the final score was 21-3, and I honestly can’t recall if Wade or I scored our lone basket. Mr. Bibby beat us within an inch of our lives, and I don’t think he came close to breaking a sweat. Wade and I instantly had respect for just how good any player is that makes it to the pros – even if it’s the very last person on the bench. He stomped us good.
And to add gas to the fire he made us pay up on the bet. Ball boy salaries were nowhere near player salaries, but a bet was a bet. Wade and I emptied our pockets, and swore we’d never tell a living soul about what happened. I have always kept that secret buried in my heart – until now.
My last brush with professional sports was with baseball. After I graduated high school I still thought I had a shot at getting drafted to play baseball. I pitched in some city leagues around the Milwaukee area and the Kansas City Royals held tryout camps in every Major League city. They came to Milwaukee and my coach suggested I go try out. I did get a second look by the scout on duty, but I never got a contract offer. That was a sledge hammer to the heart, but what could I do?
The following summer the Milwaukee Brewers were hiring vendors. I needed a job, but I also wasn’t ready to let go of the dream. Somewhere deep in the crevices of my cerebral cortex I had a fuzzy image of one of the Brewers’ pitchers tearing his rotator cuff and word getting out that I was in the stadium to come to the rescue. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but it’s absolutely true.
Being a vendor on opening day in an outdoor stadium in Milwaukee made mopping up sweat as a ball boy look like a dream career. The temperature that first day was locked firmly between severe testicle retraction and purple flesh frostbite requiring amputation of digits. It was torture.
And what ball park treat was I assigned to sell for nine hellacious innings? POPCORN! Stale, over salted, disgusting popcorn. I think I had a better chance of selling life insurance that day.
Needless to say, I didn’t set any sales records that first day. It was pelting something between snow and sleet, and the Brewers were playing the dreaded White Sox that day so their obnoxious fans were mixed in with the drunken sea of Brew Crew faithful to make it one big ugly bar fight.
Everybody was yelling at me to, “Get the beer man over here.” I tried to sell them my popcorn but they wouldn’t have any of it. By the end of the game I was ready to jump off the upper deck and end it all. But the Brewers squeaked out a win and I decided to come back for another day.
The next game was two days later, and there were one tenth of the people in the stands that were there for Opening Day. The bad part was there was the same amount of vendors. I had no chance to unload anything without three more of my cohorts swarming around them with the same item for sale. The only redeeming factor was that instead of popcorn I was now selling hot dogs.
After taking a few laps across my section of the stadium and not selling a single dog, I walked down to the front row of the bleachers and plopped myself down next to the warmth of the hot dog container. I started watching the game while simultaneously downing one hot dog after the next. I made it through a half a dozen, and got thirsty so I ended up buying a Coke from one of the other vendors who shot me the most quizzical look I ever received – but he sold me the Coke.
By the later innings a few people had wandered into my section and I shared the remainder of my hot dogs with them. When the game was over I left my container there and put my vendor’s smock on top of it. I didn’t have any money for bus fare, so I ended up walking several miles home. But at least I wasn’t hungry. I can’t help but remember that story whenever another year of baseball starts. Somewhere in the karma files I owe the Milwaukee Brewers 24 hot dogs.
Dobie Maxwell is a stand up comedian, and writer. Find where he’ll be performing his next hell-gig at dobiemaxwell.com