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Bert Sugar died on March 25, 2012, at the age of 74.
March 25, 2017
I never had a letterman’s jacket in high school — I was more a trenchcoat type of guy, though less in a “goth, trenchcoat mafia” sort of way and more in a “it made me feel like a British detective” way — but I did earn two varsity letters my junior and senior years. The first letter was for playing on the baseball team; I was the backup catcher, or third-string catcher, depending on what mood my coach was in. There were 20 players on the team, and I was probably the 18th or 19th best. The second letter was for playing on the scholastic bowl team, where I was an all-conference player. (Grierson was team captain because he was more organized and more sober-minded than me. Plus, man, you should have seen the pregame speeches.) I’ve never exactly understood why you got an athletic letter for scholastic bowl; it’s not like the chess club or the A/V Club got one. Maybe just because they kept score? Is that enough to make it athletics?
Either way, the two sports, such as they were, took place in the same season, unlike, say, baseball and football, or baseball and basketball, activities that had far more personnel crossover than baseball and scholastic bowl. It generally wasn’t a problem. Scholastic bowl matches were during the week, and baseball had doubleheaders every weekend, so I was able to hit them both without much issue. If memory serves, it was baseball practice on Mondays, Tuesday and Thursdays (with occasional weekday one-off games), and scholastic bowl matches on Wednesdays and Sundays. It was a fully booked life, and, like most high school overachievers, I mostly regret it now. I loved playing on both teams, but I should have been out having more fun.
Anyway, one weekend my senior year, as it turned out, there was a doubleheader in baseball at the exact time there was a huge scholastic bowl meet. This crossover had happened once or twice, and the decision was obvious: You go to baseball. Baseball is a huge deal in Mattoon, and we had a terrific team, one that would eventually win the conference. I was more important to the scholastic bowl team, but baseball was baseball. Plus, baseball is much more tied into the concept of Team than scholastic bowl; no one was ever going to yell at you in a locker room for not being dedicated enough to your quiz bowl teammates.
But this had two special circumstances. First, it was a particularly important scholastic bowl meet, Sectionals, and while we weren’t likely going to go far even if I was there, we were absolutely toast without me. And that would have been the end of my scholastic bowl career: It was my last-ever meet. If I didn’t go, I would never play scholastic bowl again. And I was good at scholastic bowl. (The secret, as with all quiz shows, is that a quick trigger with the buzzer matters so much more than actually being smart.) And the second was a humiliation that had happened at the previous week’s doubleheader. Generally speaking, I would catch the second games of doubleheaders, because the first game was the only one that counted toward our conference record. (The second was just part of the overall record.) It’s too much to ask one guy — even Jeff Carter, a high school friend who was the starting catcher, an all-district one at that — to catch both games, so I’d usually get the second, less important one. I didn’t care: I just wanted to play. But the week before, for a doubleheader at last-place Stephen Decatur High School (a high school that no longer exists), my girlfriend, who was older and not a student at our high school and thus had never seen me play, drove the hour to Decatur to watch the second game. She set up a lawn chair and a book (she didn’t much like baseball) and an umbrella and sat there by herself for five hours.
Except this game, for whatever reason, the coach decided not to have me catch the second game. I was even putting on my gear and everything, and then he said, “no, Will, Beeler’s catching this game.” I sat down on the bench and did what I usually did for the first game: Spat sunflower seeds into a bucket and helped keep score. I looked over at my girlfriend, still sitting by herself. She didn’t seem to notice. It was a good book. I was dying inside.
So, fair to say, I was not feeling in a particularly Go Team mood that next weekend, and I wasn’t finding myself all that eager to sit and pick my nose for five hours, especially after the humiliation of the previous weekend, especially when it was scholastic bowl Sectionals, my last time to play a “sport” I was good at, for a team that desperately needed me. Something inside me told me if I didn’t show up for Sectionals, I’d regret it forever. And I was pissed anyway. I decided: I wasn’t skipping Sectionals. I’d be crawling up the walls of the dugout for five hours, wishing I was playing for a team that wanted me. No way. But how do you tell your baseball coach that, no, you’re not going to show up for a doubleheader because you’d rather answer questions about African geography and Grammy winners?
I did what any stupid teenager would do: I lied. I told my baseball coach that I had a family emergency out of town on Saturday, that I couldn’t make the doubleheader, that I was sorry, that it couldn’t be helped. He just sort of snorted and said, “good luck” and surely didn’t give it another moment’s thought. I then eagerly drove with my team to Sectionals, where we finished seventh, but I played well and got to hang out with Grierson and my closest friends for a whole day. It was valuable to play baseball, to learn to hang out and commiserate with kids I probably wouldn’t ordinarily; it helps develop social skills that will be needed later in life. But all told: I enjoyed the company of the nerds a lot more, and I still do.
(Not that I am calling Grierson a nerd! I am just saying.)
I woke up Monday morning and picked up the Mattoon Journal-Gazette. We had swept the doubleheader, and Beeler had three hits in the second game, assuring what I’d already assumed: I’d lost my backup catcher spot. And then, at the bottom of the page, I saw the headline: GREEN WAVE SCHOLASTIC BOWL FINISHES SEVENTH AT SECTIONALS. The story included this line: “The team was led by Will Leitch, who had six tossups in the final round.” It was there, plain as day: No family trip, no last-second emergency. I had chosen to play scholastic bowl rather than baseball, and the proof was right there on Page Three of the Journal-Gazette sports section.
I spent the whole day of school dreading that afternoon’s baseball practice. What would Coach say? Would he kick me off the team? He would have every right to. I lied right to his face ... and skipped a game! If Yasiel Puig did this, I’m fairly certain he would be shot on sight. Practice finally came, and I was warming up with fellow benchrider Charles Tipsword when I heard coach call out my name. “Got a second, Leitch?”
I jogged over to him. Here we go.
I will reconstruct the exchange the best I can:
Coach: “Hey, everything go OK with your family this weekend?”
Me: [gulps] “Uh, yep.”
Coach: “So you didn’t go play scholastic bowl instead of coming with us to the games?”
Me: [now stuck, deciding to double down] “Nope.”
Coach: [looking at me closely] “Are you sure?”
Me: [now with no choice] “Nope. I heard we won, though.”
He stared at me for a couple of seconds, as if he were seeing me for the first time. He frowned. “OK, then. Get back out there.” I finished warming up, and then we took batting practice, and then we ran sprints, and then practice was over.
He never mentioned it again. It just never came up. I don’t know if my GPA was boosting the team’s percentage so he had to keep me around, I don’t know if he just didn’t want to do the paperwork of kicking me off the team, I don’t know if he just didn’t care enough about me to make any sort of decision one way or another. But for whatever reason, he just sat idle about a player lying to his face and skipping a game. It was quite the favor, when you think about it. I was a good kid who had never gotten into any trouble, and had earned a bit of social capital as the guy who both played baseball and was in the smart-kid classes. He could have blown a lot of that up: I’d still, today, have to know that I was a guy who got kicked off his baseball team.
But he didn’t. I don’t know why he didn’t. But he didn’t. I’ve felt guilty about this for almost 25 years now. Now that I’m coaching baseball myself, albeit real little kids, I’ve found myself thinking more about it of late. He had every right to tell me to stuff it. He probably should have. But he didn’t. It was a small mercy that I did not deserve. I think I’m only appreciating it now.
And that is why I have four high school varsity letters, and not three. And why I only got one at-bat the rest of my high school career. I struck out.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. (This is an attempt to have an objective look at the value of my work in a way that I suspect will be difficult to sustain.)
1. WBC ‘17 Has Emotion, and Baseball Is Better For It, Sports On Earth. Every once in a while, I have to do one of my big This Is A Big Piece About Baseball As We Know It Today pieces. This was this year’s. Next week is the last week before Opening Day, so expect others. This one really worked, though.
2. Brad Underwood Was Illinois’ Best Possible Hire, Sports On Earth. Would I be happy solely writing about movies, the Cardinals and Illinois basketball? I might be.
3. Wisconsin Upsets Villanova, Dispels Tournament Narrative, Sports On Earth. Another fun-with-writing-on-deadline piece. Honestly, people are better when they have time constraints, I truly believe this.
4. Your Sweet 16 Rootability Rankings, Sports On Earth. Go Gonzaga! On, Wisconsin!
5. Your NL East Preview, Sports On Earth. I don’t understand why people are so high on the Mets.
6. Over/Under Picks for MLB’s WAR Leaders, Sports On Earth. So many great baseball players in their mid-20s right now, it’s ridiculous.
7. Gonzaga and Xavier and Escaping the “So Close Brigade,” Sports On Earth. This one would have been better had I not written it on a tired Friday morning.
8. Dive Into Five, Sports On Earth. This has words.
As I say every week: If you are the sort to subscribe to a weekly newsletter, I would have to think it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to subscribe to one of the three podcasts I do. You don’t even have to listen to them! Just download them. Here they are:
Grierson & Leitch, this week filled in by the wonderful Christy Lemire, whom I talked over way too much. We discussed Beauty and the Beast and T2: Trainspotting. Also, Grierson’s ghost returned to talk Easy Rider and Repo Man. He’s back for good next week!
The Will Leitch Experience, the big annual MLB preview show with Joe Sheehan. Subscribe to his newsletter, he is the best.
Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
Have a great weekend, everyone. We had our first Little League baseball game this weekend. Special appearance from Georgia point guard J.J. Frazier, who this year secured his place as one of my favorite college basketball players of all time.