Archive for category Music

The Smothers Brothers


“mom always liked you best” was an LP that influenced me a great deal growing up. I listened to it over a 100 times I’m sure. It’s hard to believe that these guys were the “rebels” of prime time TV in the late 60’s for having the audacity to partake in satire on racism, The President, and The Vietnam War.


The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was a great combination of music and comedy but the brothers had a particular talent for discovering other talent and giving them a chance on their show.  Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Mason Williams to name a few.

From Wikipedia: other guests included  George Harrison, Joan Baez, Buffalo Springfield, Cass Elliot, Harry Belafonte, Cream, Donovan, The Doors, Glen Campbell, Janis Ian, Jefferson Airplane, The Happenings, Peter, Paul and Mary, Spanky and Our Gang, Ringo Starr, Steppenwolf, Simon and Garfunkel, The Hollies, The Who and even Pete Seeger were showcased on the show, despite the advertiser-sensitive nature of their music.

David Bianculli wrote a book called Dangerously Funny that is a pretty good account of the struggles between Tom, Dick, and CBS over show content.  CBS had to try to balance the brothers’ loyal followers with letters from angry fans who wanted the show censored, and even reported pressure from the White House.  Eventually the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had to be taped 10 days ahead of time so CBS could review/edit (sensor) content and not long after that the show was cancelled.

Donna and I randomly met a local gal at a party of a friend in Tualatin who dated Tommy Smothers in the late 1960’s. Their first date?  Tommy was a presenter at the 1968 Grammy Awards show.  She got a back-stage pass to the Grammys as a first date.  As the story goes, the relationship didn’t last because old Tom liked to indulge in the hooch a little too much for her tastes.

A few years ago we made a trip to the Chinook Winds casino in Lincoln City to see the Smothers Brothers, well past their prime, but still pretty funny.





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Keeping up with Technology

Those of us old enough to remember the musical progression of LPs, 45’s, 8 Track Tapes, Cassettes, Reel-to-reel, etc., I remember seeing a funny article a while ago where a guy who had converted his library of music from each of these formats to the ‘new’ format of the day, at considerable time and expense, claimed that “If they change it one more time I’m going to shoot someone.” At the time I thought it was funny because I had gone through the same thing and as a kid, was on a low-budget.  It was frustrating.
Next came CDs (yet another library upgrade. Okay, sure I’ll take all my cassettes and import to CD format using my 1980’s technology… probably about an hour per tape.  No problem.
For 10 years I’ve had a rather large case of CDs, some imported to iTunes, most not.  The stuff I had on my phone was a small library and getting old and stale.
iTunes playlists are a pretty cool way to organize things into libraries but first you have to get the music in there.  So for 10 years I’ve had this backlog item I’ve procrastinated on to import the worthy CDs we own into iTunes and make a legitimate library out of it.
Over the Christmas break I finally bit the bullet and over the better part of 4 days, imported several hundred CDs ( a few thousand songs ) into iTunes and organized the libraries.  Musical Nirvana!   And it’s even backed up on a separate Disk.
Next I ordered a Bluetooth receiver that will be able to connect into the overhead speakers in the house wiring and in a few days, we’ll be able to point and click our iPhones playlist at this wireless device and presto, your musical mood of the moment shall be granted.  Same thing with the car and its Bluetooth receiver.
If they change it again however, I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle it.  This better be the last format change!

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A few random band axioms

Twelve years I toiled in the D leagues of the Portland band scene. I may have gotten up to C level a time or two, but most of it was clearly in the D leagues. Farmers Markets, Private parties, and an occasional corporate event or business opening. I think the most I ever banked from a 3 hour gig was $100. Not bad by some standards. Money-wise that’s as good as some A-B league bands do. But clearly we were operating (intentionally) at the lower levels where mistakes are not a big deal. My goal was usually to get through the night with no quinker-dinkers and I got to the point where I could pull that off more often than not.

I was fortunate enough to ‘play up’ and got to work with some really good mentors who (thankfully) had patience. Along the way you learn some valuable lessons. Here are a few I thought I’d share, for whatever it’s worth.

The singer gets to pick the songs This may seem obvious, but I don’t think it’s often followed.

Travel light You can tell the smart guitar players because they aren’t packing around 500 lbs of shit to every gig. They keep it simple. I watched the best guitar player in Portland show up for a gig one time at Bridgeport Village with The Patrick Lamb Band. He was carrying about 3 things. His guitar on a shoulder strap, a small ( quality ) tube amp, and his pedal was in a bag along with a few cords. That’s it.

Myself, ability-wise about 15 steps down from him, had a habit of showing up for the Annual ZeeRocks corporate gig with my truck loaded to the brim with gear. Let me be the first to admit, the extra gear did not help. And it took an hour to assemble and I was exhausted when I was all done. Worse, I had to remember how to use it all during the gig…. to the point where I’d play the song wrong. You see that’s the point. If you can’t play the song right, then forget about all the other stuff. Priority 1 is learn the song and play it with no mistakes.

Keep the songs moving Some bands/duos do this exceptionally well. Nobody does it better than Tim Ellis and Jim Walker. They can string a medley of 20 songs together without ever stopping. It’s truly amazing. Too often I’ve run into a band member who see a microphone and seizes the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a stand up comic. It usually goes over like a lead balloon. Dude, you’re not funny. Another band member couldn’t stop fucking around with the PA and it drove me nuts. It’s like the entire gig was this 3 hour sound check. That messed with my mojo, but you do what you have to to get along. The point is, the listener wants to hear the next song, not your jokes, or a continuation of the sound check, or anything else.

Coming unprepared to practice is rude When one former band member announced that, “Yeah, I gotta go home and woodshed that one” for the 3rd practice in a row, I was ready to SCREAM. By contrast, nothing is better than coming to practice and cruising through new songs and having them sound pretty good the first time. Enough said.

Keep the gear simple ( see also, Travel light ). The more pedals and extra stuff you have to tweak, the more than can go wrong technically and throw your song off. I know this from personal experience. One of the worst flaws I had as a player for most of the time I played was having to tweak my pedals in the middle of a gig. Cardinal sin. All that stuff should be dialed in and operating it should be second nature during a gig. You can observe the good players doing this.

Put your best material in the middle of the set list. I finally learned to do this after realizing it was fallacy to think that you’re going to play a Farmer’s Market and there will be some sort of ‘grand finale’ that you will go out on. Fact is, most people show up to these sorts of events somewhere in the middle, so that’s where you want to put your best stuff.

Don’t take breaks right when you have some momentum going The set list is a guide, not the Bible. Be flexible. If your band has the mojo going and people are getting into it, keep playing. Just because the set list says set 1 is over and it’s time for a break doesn’t mean it’s the law.

Don’t spend a bunch of time in practice re-writing the arrangement Agree to either ‘do it like the record’ so that everyone has the same reference point coming in, or else document the arrangement and give it to everyone beforehand.

Don’t play too loud Better to have people asking you to turn it up than turn it down.

Be flexible with your band mates’ goals It isn’t he 1960’s anymore. Playing with another band is not a form a cheating. The pay is low, so naturally musicians who need the money are going to try to get as many paying gigs as they can. Sometimes the customer wants a duo. Other times they want a full 5 piece. The best musicians I know play in several different configurations… whatever the gig calls for. Give your band mates some room to breath in the area and try not to get your undies in a bunch when a band mate gets an opportunity to play with other musicians.

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Let’s not get all idealistic here

Keeping a band together can be a real challenge. Especially for us working stiffs who know good and well we need to keep our day jobs and try to do this as a semi-serious hobby or else risk starvation.

There’s the chore of finding others with similar musical tastes, ability, age proximity, and commitment levels. There’s dealing with personality types and communication styles that are different than yours. There’s aligning work and weekend schedules for practice and gigs and commuting distances. The bigger the band, the more of a challenge it becomes. A lot can go wrong on the road to becoming a paid band member, even if it’s just beer money.

But every now and then the planets align and you find a group of people where it comes together pretty well. Keeping that going however, is also hard work. Even if it looks good initially, the opportunity for a band-ending kerfuffle is right around every corner.

Let’s say you work up a couple of sets with a new group, it sounds pretty good and you think you might be about ready to take your show out to the local watering hole. You soon realize you need some demo tracks for potential customers. It’s nearly impossible to get a paying gig without giving a customer who is not familiar with your work something to listen to. The group gets together and decides the solution is to do some recording, put tracks up on Reverb Nation or SoundCloud and link to them from your band’s new Facebook page. How does one go about that?

Studio time is great but bring your wallet. Recording live in your garage probably isn’t going to yield a quality level you’ll be comfortable giving to a customer. The recording process takes time, patience, skill, technology, and smarts.

It’s the last one that eludes a lot of prospective bands in this writer’s opinion. It’s easy to become impatient and post a low quality recording because everyone just got burned out on the recording process and wants to move on. But smart bands know the quickest route to getting those tracks up is to record one instrument / voice at a time and mix until you’ve got what you want. Forget the live recording idea. Someone might go to jail before you reach consensus on enough tracks to release. It’s the story of the tortoise and the hare all over again, with different players.

The last band I was in had the debate about recording live vs. laying down tracks. This turned out to be a real fork in the road. I knew it was a huge mistake at the time but couldn’t convince my peers to layer and mix. One band member in particular was on this idealistic “No False Advertising” campaign and wouldn’t consider mixing tracks because “Then our customers will think they are going to hear one thing when they listen to mixed tracks, but will then be disappointed when they hear us live.” To that I say bullshit. If you can get pretty close, you’re golden and the customer won’t give a damn. They aren’t that stupid as to not know the difference between live sound and a recording.

I do sympathize with the position however if what we’re talking about is mixing in extra effects that we can’t reproduce, or screwing with the features of Pro Tools, or Garage Band (pick your tool) to where you are essentially in the role of song manufacturer vs. recording your musical abilities. That part I get and agree with. I think sometimes band members get so caught up in the bells and whistles of the tools that they forget to play the song.

Anyway, having said all of that, real fork in the road. There were only 3 of us, but the probability that we were all going to play (6) 3-4 minute songs from start to finish with no mistakes, with the right mix of voices to instruments and to the quality level that we wanted to release was next to zero. Take after take after take we struggled to keep our patience with each other and find some half ways decent. It damn near killed the band right then and there. We played the songs so many times we now hated the songs and didn’t want to play them again for 6 months.

Laying down tracks could have been done separately, in the comfort of our homes without the pressure of screwing up and having to start over when everyone else’s part was perfect. And it could have been done in one-third of the time and without the battle scars of trying to record live.

Next time someone says “Let’s record our demo tracks live”, don’t listen to them.

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Lisa Mann — Talent and Heart

Confucius says “Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

I think Lisa Mann may have read that advice and taken it to heart about 35 years ago.   All of the leading experts say that the road to happiness is to figure out what your natural gifts are.  Find your passion and follow it.  Trust your instincts and do what you love and let the chips fall where they may.

It all sounds great.  Wonderful.  Nirvana.  Why didn’t I think of that?  How utterly simple!  Unless of course you discover that your natural talent it to be a performer in the music business.   I would guess that over 99% of the people who realize music is what they love to do end up selling out for their second choice for the simple reason that there’s no money in it.  It’s fine for a lot of people as a second source of income, which is why most keep their days jobs.  To try to make it in the music business full-time, most musicians / singers end up working the business from at least 3 different angles.  Teaching is common.  Some do some recording on the side.  But if your real passion is performing and you’re trying to make the rent from gig money, good luck my friend.  The math just isn’t there, no matter how good you are.

That’s why it’s impressive when I run into local musicians who have taken up the music business full-time come hell or high water.  It’s what they love to do, so they put their hearts and souls into it, 401k be damned.  These people understand the term “personal sacrifice” all too well.

One such local musician, Lisa Mann is a full-time musician ( bass player ), and singer who has taken this road.  Lisa is very much an “in-demand” performer whose motto is “I’ll gig anywhere, anytime.”  She has the flexibility to go out as a duo with just a guitar player for smaller venues, can put together an awesome trio if the budget is a little higher, or if you want the full meal-deal, go with Lisa Mann and her Really Good Band.  Any/all of these configurations I highly recommend.

I first noticed Lisa as a volunteer at the Waterfront Blues Festival.  I was lucky enough to get a “back-stage” assignment for an afternoon which basically amounted to monitoring the stage surroundings to make sure no kids were clowning around underneath.  Tough job.  One one such sunny afternoon in July, I had duty on the North stage and the first act was some kids from the Midwest who had incredibly high energy and stage antics.  I couldn’t tell you the band name but watching them perform you got the impression that they were geared up for Woodstock.  I think about 3 people were paying attention.

Next up was the “Northwest Women in Blues Review” which, near as I could tell, was sort of All-star cast of the best female performers in the Pacific Northwest.  Sonny Hess I was familiar with as I’d seen her at the Blues Festival in previous years and was struck by the fact that she handles leads incredibly well.  You just don’t see women shredding the neck on guitar like that very often so when you do, obviously you remember it.  I was looking forward to seeing her perform with the other NW Women in Blues Review but I wasn’t too familiar with the other names on the list.

So I’m back stage and the women are setting up and I’m watching this short little bass player, all of about 4′ 10″ I reckon, setting up front on the big stage.  Hmmmmm, I wonder who that is?  Pretty soon we all found out.   The vocals were so powerful.  She belted out tunes Aretha Franklin style that echoed across the park and half way down into River Place.  There may have even been some folks on the Sellwood bridge groovin’.  What-a-voice.  The crowd went haywire.  How can so much energy come out of that tiny framework?  I was wanting to find out more about this little dynamo on stage.  Come to find out, her name was Lisa Mann.  So noted.

It’s always good to discover another local talent to follow on your weekend musical diversions.  Portland is rich with local talent that’s for sure.  The bar is set pretty high for being considered in the top tier.  Some of the local musicians we have — a few names come to mind — Erick Hailstone, Tim Ellis, Sandin Wilson, Jason Moore, Norm Whitehurst, Marty McCray, Tiffany Carlson, Jim Walker — and I would include Lisa Mann in this group as a vocalist and songwriter, are just one lucky break away from playing much bigger stages.  The talent is there, no question.  All that’s missing is that one lucky break a person needs to get the national level exposure and things could take off.

Talent aside, that’s not what this blog post is about.  Portland is rich will talent, sure.  But so are a lot of cities.   Big deal.

This post is about heart.  We see benefit concerts fairly frequently on TV. You’ve seen them.  Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Elton John, Neil Young and a whole cast of others get together to give relief to Hurricane victims or Aids relief or whatever the cause.  That’s nice and highly commendable, but these are all millionaire musicians.  They can afford it.  God love ’em for taking the time and I don’t want to take anything away from them for their efforts, but it’s a personal sacrifice of limited measure.

What IS impressive is when you find someone from the non-millionaires club whose finances are anything but flush, offering to throw a benefit for someone less fortunate.  Enter Lisa Mann, some friends and the Rally for Aly

Aly, age 11, is Lisa’s next door neighbor who has been dealing with cancer.  They thought they had it under control and in remission, but apparently it’s back.  I don’t know Aly.  I don’t know Lisa that well either.  I’ve just spoken to her a few times in passing.  But this benefit for her next door neighbor impresses the shit out of me because I know for a fact that a local full-time musician does not have the funds to be doing this all the time.  So there’s only one explanation.  Lisa has a humongous heart and she’s following it.  She’s going to worry about her retirement plan on another day.

Please join me in supporting the Rally for Aly, and while you’re there, let’s thank every participating musician.  In my estimation, these are local heroes that deserve our thanks.

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Finding your level part II

Fast forward to the late 1990’s.  I got the music bug pretty bad and had always wanted to become a really good guitar player, but alas I got married young and had a family and responsibilities therein.  But now my kids were old enough to entertain themselves for the most part and apart from a taxi-ride now and then, they were getting pretty self-sufficient so I picked up the guitar and started taking lessons.

As someone who grew up trying to learn the guitar and appreciating that it’s a real challenge, I used to drool at the guys who could shred the neck.  As luck would have it, one such individual, Erick Hailstone was playing in a band in my own home town.  Erick is not your average shredder.  He’s could share the stage with the top names in the business, he’s that good.  He is the most well-rounded, knowledgable, gifted guitar player I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  He’s got an endless library of Jazz Standards that he can seemingly pull out of nowhere any time he wants.  If he happens to be playing with a rock band, he will absolutely blow you away with speed and tastiness of his licks.  There isn’t anything the guy cannot do as far as I know.

Watching Erick and his band at the Sweetbrier in Tualatin just made my music bug grow more intensely.  I was obsessed with learning as much as I could and getting good enough to play in a band myself.  I figured it might take 5 years or so, but I had time now and it was a priority, so I was going to do it.

A couple of years went by and I was invited to play with the company band at Xerox, “ZeeRocks”.  I didn’t think I was quite ready yet for this, but I couldn’t pass up the offer.  It turned out to be a pretty fun group to play with and a great learning experience for me.  An off-shoot of ZeeRocks was a trio we formed called The SoundWaves Band.  To start with it was Dan Brantley and myself and we featured his daughter Rena on vocals.  Rena has an awesome powerful voice and I enjoyed that band immensely.  We worked our way up from the Farmer’s Markets to the next level so-to-speak where we got to play in a Restaurant BBQ on a golf course.  Great setting.

But all the while, I’m reminded of “leveling” and playing “at my level” and no higher.  The worst thing, I reckoned, was to get up on stage where the expectations on the guitar player are high, and suck.  I knew enough about the limits of my abilities to not try it.

The SoundWaves started playing local Farmer’s Markets and those were a ton of fun.  Before the very first one, I went out to the market the weekend prior to when we were scheduled to play and “scoped the competition” some.  It was a guy playing his guitar underneath a tree, solo.  I figured we might come in with our powerful female vocalist, a keyboard player and electric guitar and rock this house, baby.  We did.  They invited us back for several more gigs.  For their $50 budget — for the band, they weren’t used to getting a vocalist like Rena to come in and blow them away.  We were actually playing “below” our level a bit, but I was enjoying every minute of it.

Several years later, Dan and Rena had to exit The SoundWaves and I tried to keep the band going with new members so that I wouldn’t lose the momentum and the gigs we had acquired.  I happened across some awesome female vocalists in Tiffany Carlson and Melanie Rae and convinced them to give this thing a go.  I also borrowed the drummer and bass player from a local band called Seymour, and we had a 5 piece that did both covers and originals and we were having a pretty good time of it.  The wheels sort of fell off after we got all primed for a series of gigs that got cut back to one gig — argggh!  But I always felt we weren’t stretching our “level” too much.  The key for me was hooking up with great singers and other musicians so that very little of the whole thing depended on just me.  I just had to nail down the rhythm guitar, play a few leads and try not to screw up the background vocals.

After The SoundWaves experience was over, Tiffany had connections with a local restaurant in Tualatin called Haydens and was asked to play.  She asked me if I wanted to join her and Melanie for a gig there.  I declined.  To appreciate why I declined, you’d have to have experienced what goes on at Haydens on a typical weekend.  There’s a duo that plays there – Tim Ellis and Jim Walker.  Ellis’ guitar playing is on par with Erick Hailstone’s.  There isn’t much Tim can’t do.  He can shred.  His timing is always perfect and he rarely makes a mistake.  His library of tunes is endless.  Pair that up with a top notch singer like Jim Walker and you’ve got entertainment.

Consequently, the expectations on the guitar player at Haydens are sky-high.  If some locals came to see live music on a weekend expecting to see Tim Ellis and all of a sudden it was Bill Toner, wow, would they be disappointed.  I just couldn’t do it, much as I liked the idea of playing more gigs with Tiffany and Melanie.  Instead I referred them to a friend of mine, Gary Lapado, who is quite the shredder on the guitar himself.  Gary is more the right “level” for that venue, not me.  They took me up on that suggestion, used Gary, and did great.  I even went down to see them myself, ever-conscious of that little league experience and playing up a level before I was ready.

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Finding your level

Each year as we turn the calendar into March and I see Dad’s with their sons taking a little batting practice out on the wet baseball fields, getting ready for Little League tryouts, I’m reminded of a childhood memory that stuck with me.

My father was a really enthusiastic sports fan and coach.  He loved sports of all kinds, but I think he liked baseball the most due to its strategic nature.  Unless you’ve ever tried to coach at the more senior levels ( kids above 10 or 11 ), you may not appreciate how much strategy there is in baseball.  A lot of people think it’s a really boring game that moves too slowly.  But Dad was really into strategy, so baseball floated his boat more than other sports and he loved a good 1-0 shutout as much as  anything.  Dad also played high school baseball for a small, private high school in Eugene, Oregon.  He did well enough that in his own mind, he thought he had an outside chance of playing baseball his freshman year at Oregon, so he tried out.  He didn’t quite make it, but I was always impressed that, realist that he was, he thought he had an outside chance.  He must not have been any slouch on the field.

I have 3 older sisters, so when I came along, the good news for Dad was, he had a son.  The bad news was, his son wasn’t much of an athlete!  I was “okay” at sports and thanks to some extra tutoring by Dad in baseball at a young age, I even excelled a little in the minor divisions of Little League.  I think he was secretly hoping he could groom me into a catcher that could play at the High School level or beyond, but that was just never in the cards.  I did catch through age 10, but by then I’d had enough of trying to live someone else’s dream.  I wanted to pitch!

For those familiar with how Little League works, every Spring they have a tryout for their “majors” division, which is kids age 10-12.  Majors is when Little League starts to get serious.  The first thing to know is that it’s a “keeper” league, which means you stay on the team you’re drafted through your 12 year old season.  Little League fields have 60′ bases (full size field has 90′ bases) and the pitcher’s mound is set at 46″ (full size is 60′ 6″).   The problem with majors is that some of the 12 year olds have had their growth spurt and are approaching 6 ft tall, so it’s a bit like facing Randy Johnson for batters.  The best 12 year olds can throw 60 mph+ easily, and are schooled enough to throw a little junk at you, just to keep you guessing.  Most 10 year olds aren’t quite ready for that.

I’d had a really fun season as a 9 year old.  My team lost one game the entire season and I got to play a whole bunch of positions and the coaches were great about rotating players in and giving all the kids playing time.  Fresh off of this experience I was eager for the Spring tryout to see if I could get drafted onto a majors team.  I don’t recall how well I did defensively at the tryout, but I remember my turn at the plate and the coaches throwing medium-fast fastballs at me, right down the middle, and making some pretty good contact.  Apparently I made an impression because a week later I was drafted onto a majors team.  Yahoo!  There weren’t very many 10 year olds that got drafted into the majors that year and I was one of them.  Yay for me.

Then came reality.  Practices started and the team already had a 12 year old catcher.  I was dubbed “The Catcher of the Future”, which is not uncommon in majors — to draft a 10 year old and sort of groom him for his 11 and 12 year old seasons.   So my lot for the year as far as playing time was concerned was to play 2 innings in the outfield at games, but to do a lot of catching in practice… for next year.   That part was sort of okay with me anyway because it’s not like I wanted to catch the games anyway.  The fundamental problem was that 90% of the kids were older, bigger, and better than I was and it felt that way every single day.  The 2 innings of playing time usually translated into one at bat per game.  Not a lot of action out there to hold my interest.

I’m convinced keeper leagues are a bad idea.  10 year olds do not possess the ability to think long-term and do not care about next year.  Catcher of the future wasn’t a carrot for me because frankly, I wasn’t even sure I was going to sign up next year if this is how much fun it is.  About half way through the season I wanted to quit.  Dad had a pretty strict “no quitting’ rule.  Once you start something, you finish it.  So I had to tough it out.

I was on the second best team in the majors that year, Mosee Brothers.  Our arch rival team, Wards, had amassed an amazing group of pitchers led by Mike Childs and Tim Pflaum.  Both 12 year olds.  Both threw heat like you wouldn’t believe.  To make matters more interesting, Tim Pflaum was my neighbor and a really good guy and I used to hang out with Tim and his brothers playing sports in the neighborhood, so I knew him pretty well.  Tim was one of the 12 year olds who had experienced his growth spurt early, so he was a towering figure to me on the mound.

We played Wards 3 times that season.  I knew it had to happen eventually, I had to go to bat against Tim Pflaum.  God help me.  I was shaking in the on-deck circle trying to think of a last-minute winning strategy as I watch him fan the guy in front of me with 60 mph fastballs.  “Batter-up!”, here we go.  I had decided that my strategy would be to not swing and hope that Tim would walk me.  Tim probably walked about 4 batters all season, but I didn’t know or care, I wanted a walk.  “Strike One” said the ump as the first fastball went by, right down the middle of the plate.  I don’t remember seeing it go by.  No time to change strategies now, I’m still hoping for a ball.  “Strike Two” said the ump on the next pitch.  Same location, same result.  Damnit, I better change my strategy.  Okay, I’m swinging on the next pitch.  That way I won’t get yelled at for not getting the bat off the shoulders.  So I got ready, looked old Tim in the eye and waited for the next fastball and even though I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to see it, I might get lucky and make contact.  Tim loaded up the pitch in his mitt, reached back and here it came.  I swung the bat with all my might and I’m sure I may have even grunted a bit.  A little later, the pitch, commonly referred to as a “hanging curveball”, looked as if it was coming straight for me, then cut downward across the plate and into the catcher’s mitt.  I was out in front of the pitch by a full 2 seconds.  “Steeeee-rike Three!”

Holding back the tears, I put on a happy face and jogged on back into the dugout.

Wards had remained undefeated during that season, but late in the second half, they lost to a team called United Homes which was a shocker.  That wasn’t supposed to happen.  So Mosee Brothers and Wards ended up tied in the second half with one loss each, forcing a playoff.  Great, a second game!  That’s the last thing I wanted.

They playoff game was a packed house at Meadowland Little League.  The stands were completely full and there was tension in the air.  I was penciled in for 2 innings in left field.  By this time, my goal was to just get through the game without incident.  Please, no balls hit to me.  Please.   As my luck would have it, with a runner on third, there was a short kid at the plate and I just had this awful feeling he was going to hit one to me.  I don’t know how I knew it, I just did.  I thought that maybe if I moved in and played shallow left, he’d have a better chance of hitting it over my head and then I wouldn’t get blamed for not catching it.  I was nervous as hell that a ball would come to me and I’d drop it.  So I moved in.  The coaches noticed and waved me back to play deeper, so I did.  Sure enough, the batter lined one to left field, right at me.  I mis-played it by coming in for it instead of going back a little and it went over my head.  The coaches were mad and I was embarrassed in front of a huge crowd.  Wards took the lead and won the game.  My dad said the runner on third would have scored even if I had caught it, so I felt a little better about not being solely responsible for the loss.  But yeah, the coaching at that level was pretty good in the sense that these guys knew baseball.  Some had played at the college level and beyond.  They knew the game and you can sure tell coaches who know the game vs. not when watching little league just by watching the kids.

Fast forward a few years to the Spring of my 8th grade year when I turned 14.  I decided to go out for baseball again just to see what I could do.  The Sr. League was 13-15 year olds with 90′ bases, same as Major League Baseball.  I remember trying to throw runners out at second base from behind the plate and it seeming like it was all I could do just to get the ball down there let alone beat the runner.

The powers that be in Little League had decided to take a novel approach in structuring the league.  They decided to separate division out into two levels – Sr. Majors and Sr. Minors, sort of like they do today with other sports where they’ll have a “competitive” group and a “recreational” group.   I tried out and since I’d been out of the game for a while and hadn’t played — and I was no specimen as far as athletes go, still pretty short and slow, I was drafted onto a Sr. Minors team.  I was a little surprised and disappointed at first, but as the season went on, I couldn’t have been happier about it.

I remember being tapped on the shoulder to pitch and play shortstop quite a bit.  And I remember hitting well.  I was on base all the time (even stole a few bases which I’m sure shocked my old man). And I got to play shortstop and loved every minute of it.  I wasn’t that bad at it, actually.  I threw a lot of guys out and I was decent with the glove.  On the mound, I found my groove that year.  I had developed a little bit of junk to throw.  Just enough to keep the batters off-balance a bit and I had quite a few strikeouts that year.  Compared to the other pitchers in Sr. Minors, I was probably one of the harder throwers.  That was a FUN season and a great experience for me.  Once again I loved baseball and had enjoyed a lot of success “out there”.

My 15 year old season, I tried out again and this time was shocked that I was left down in Sr. Minors.  I thought this was an incredible injustice of some sort, but whatever.  They had a rule back then that 15 year olds could not pitch in Sr. Minors.  That just added insult to injury.  But just a couple of games into the season I got a “call up” to the bigs.  A Sr. Majors team lost a player and I got the call.  Yeah, I can pitch again!  Woo-hoo!  Obviously these guys wanted me for my pitching prowess, right?  They’d heard about all those strikeouts I had in Sr. Minors, I’m just sure of it!

So I suit up for my first game and I get to the field to find out I’m scheduled for 2 innings in right field.  What?  Is this going to be like my 10 year old season again?  What is this?  Oh man, send me back, send me back!

Like Yogi Berra once said, it’s like Deja Vu all over again because in the very first game, a batter hit a fly ball to me in right field and I when I say “right to me”, I mean “right to me”.  I dropped it.

That long jog back to the dugout was too much for me to handle, I think.  What else is there to do this summer?  Swim?  Ride my bike?  Get a paper route again?  Take guitar lessons?  Go golfing?  Anything?  Anything but play 2 innings in the outfield for these guys,

Finding your right level makes all the difference.  I personally believe it’s better to be star of the show in the minors vs. riding the pines in the bigs.  That’s just my view from personal experience.  I have a close friend who has a son who was a highly recruited high school football player at Tualatin.  Really nice kid and dad.  He could have gone to Linfield and started for 4 years.  Instead, he went for big time college football at Oregon St. and worked his way up through the scout team.  But at Division I college football, if you want to be a starting lineman, you have to be 260# or more and the competition is fierce.

To his credit, he got put in during a home game when the Beavers were far enough ahead for a series or two if I have the story right.  But that was it as far as glory.  It’s a lot better than I could have ever hoped to do, but I wonder now if he wouldn’t have had a better overall experience going to the smaller school and getting more playing time.

I think the same thing can be applied to life in other areas such as work as well.  I’ve worked at places where I felt like the dumbest engineer in the building and I’ve also worked at places where they treated me like some sort of rock star.  I have to say I like rock star better.

Footnote[1]:  The coaches from Wards drafted the All-Star team and about 1/2 the players came from their own team.  I think the entire infield was from Wards plus two of the pitchers.  They did well.  They won the district tournament and State, advanced to the regionals in San Bernardino California and eventually lost there.  But I think they were just one tournament away from going to the really big show, The Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA.   In some ways this makes me feel a little better.  The league was pretty stacked with talent that year so I was playing against some top quality kids.

Footnote[2]: I’m also grateful for the “no quitting” rule from my father.  That’s a good rule for parents to have.  Finish what you start.  Life isn’t always about success.  Tough experiences can be our teacher too.

Footnote[3]: During Dad’s junior baseball season at St. Mary’s High School in Eugene… The team only played 3 games that year, and two of them were a part of a double-header.  Week after week of rainouts.  He recalled sitting in class, watching outside as the rain poured and then hearing the announcement about the cancelled game.  Such is the problem with trying to have a baseball season in the Pacific Northwest when the season starts in March.

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