Joe Shlabotnik

I love underdogs in sports.

Hell, I even rooted for both the 1988 and 2021 Baltimore Orioles to just win a game when they eventually ended respective losing streaks of 21 and 19 games…even though if they had kept right on losing in either one of those seasons they could have possibly broken the record of the longest losing streak in major league baseball’s modern era…23 games by the Philadelphia Phillies.

I don’t like to see teams get embarrassed because as a fan I know full well what that feels like. I am a product of my environment, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia. All of our professional teams have a long, inglorious history of being quite far removed from championship glory.  Our current ledger looks like this:

Phillies – World Series Champions in 1980 and 2008. (131 seasons)

Eagles – Super Bowl Champions in 2017. NFL Champions in 1948, 1949, and 1960. (89 seasons)

Flyers – Stanley Cup Champions in 1973-74 and 1974-75. (54 seasons)

76ers – NBA Finals Champions in 1954-55 (as the Syracuse Nationals), 1966-67, and 1982-83. (73 seasons)

Which may be why I love Joe Shlabotnik. It’s usually this time of year – in the baseball dog days of August – when I most often think about Joe. For those who have not previously heard of Joe, he is a fictional baseball player featured in Charles M. Schulz’s classic Peanuts comic strip. He was Charlie Brown’s all-time favorite baseball player.

Charlie Brown worked endlessly to hunt down any and all memorabilia associated with Joe Shlabotnik. He once bought 500 one-card packs of baseball cards to try and get one card of Joe’s. While he wasn’t successful, his pal Lucy van Pelt bought only one pack and what-do-you-know…she was the proud owner of a Joe Shlabotnik baseball card. Unfortunately, Lucy then steadfastly refused to trade Joe’s card to Charlie Brown, even though she had no idea who Joe was. Once Charlie Brown exhausted himself trying to entice her to give up Joe’s card…she eventually decided he wasn’t quite as cute as first thought…and tossed the card into the trash.

Charlie Brown also once was under the impression he had a Joe Shlabotnik autographed baseball…which in fact turned out to be a forgery. But, it isn’t just Charlie Brown’s futility trying to get Joe Shlabotnik memorabilia that makes Joe an underdog for us all to root for. It is the “legendary” career of Joe Shlabotnik:

  1. Joe was demoted to the minor leagues after hitting .004 over an entire season. The one hit was a bloop single…with his team comfortably ahead.
  2. Joe once promised to hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. He instead popped out…but circled the bases anyway.
  3. Joe had a knack for making routine fly balls into spectacular catches. He also had a talent for throwing out runners who had fallen between first and second base.
  4. Joe eventually retired as an active player and took a job managing the Waffletown Syrups. He was fired after one game when he called for a squeeze play…with no one on base.

Charlie Brown never got to meet Joe Shlabotnik. He bought tickets to a sports banquet where fans could dine with their favorite athletes…but Joe was the only athlete who didn’t show up. It turned out Joe had marked the wrong event, city AND date on his calendar. Joe was also invited to attend a testimonial dinner for Charlie Brown. He got lost on the way there.

Ironically, this might be one of the best pro sports years we’ve had in a while. The Phillies are competing down the stretch for a wild-card berth. The Eagles should be in the hunt for the post-season. The Sixers should be a lock for their post-season. The Flyers…they will likely have a season similar to the ones Joe Shlabotnik experienced. Not. Good.

In any case, thank you for allowing me to acknowledge Joe as one of my favorite characters in sports. When it feels like the pro athletes representing Philadelphia are performing poorly, I will think of Joe and realize they aren’t that bad.

 

Picture Courtesy United Feature Syndicate

The I In Team

The first thing that comes to mind when I consider what I would be like as a head coach in a team sport is…I would work hard to ensure every player got to see at least some action in every game.

That concept was forged when I was just thirteen years old. At that age, I was a 7th grade, third-string quarterback on my junior high football team, which consisted of players from 7th-9th grade.

The starting quarterback was a 9th grader, a son of one of our senior high school team’s coaches. Mind you, he did not become a starter on that pedigree alone. He was an excellent player who went on to play some college ball as well. The back-up quarterback was also older and more experienced than I…not nearly as good as our starter…but definitely better than me.

Our school enjoyed a healthy advantage when it came to student enrollment, and as such were dominant against most schools who had a lower number of students to draw from. In this particular season, our team won all six of its games. I believe the “closest” any team got to us all year may have been 21 points. We overwhelmed all of our opponents that year.

The head coach of our junior high team (who was a coach on the senior high team also) visibly enjoyed not only defeating opponents, but annihilating them. In that spirit, our starting players played almost every play of every game.

In our last game of the season, we went up by 30-0 fairly quickly and maintained that score to the final whistle. I did not play in that game.

I did not play in any of our games that year.

Even though we dominated the opposition in every one of our games, with outcomes never in doubt, I did not play one single play.

As I recall, the second-string QB did get into one game that year…but at another position. Our stellar, super-star quarterback – for whatever reason – had to take every snap from center that season. We not only had to win, but had to win by as much as possible.

Football is a challenging game to play. Practice for upcoming seasons often begins in relentless heat and humidity…and I grew up in a time when water breaks were still considered quite the luxury rather than mandatory. And then of course…there’s all those repetitive collisions with other people to consider. It’s a brutal sport at any age.

I knew I’d have a big adjustment at my new school, and I will admit things between my parents could have been better at that time, but I really wanted to play football and was determined to do so. I kept my grades up, made some new friends, and showed up for football practice every single day.

Yet, practice football was all I was accorded. I did not get to actually play football.

I was devastated.

After that season, I focused on basketball and baseball. I also played a year of soccer…but football was over for me. Yes, in those other sports there were still times when I was the guy not playing so much, and other times when others were most often watching me play. It just wasn’t as severe as that 7th grade football season.

I think back…what if I had played just one play that year…played in any of those games at all? Would I have stuck with football? I just could not reconcile returning to it after sitting on the sidelines the whole season. For sure, being better at those other sports certainly factored into the decision to step away from it as well.

Next month, the Little League Baseball International World Series will once again return to Williamsport PA. It’s not that far from where I live, and I have attended a couple of them. This season marks the 75th anniversary of the World Series, and it once again will be a late Summer ritual for fans young and old alike. Several years ago, there was a new category of rules added to Little League Baseball called Mandatory Play. It is as it sounds, making sure all players on a team actually get to play in actual games…not just practice. I think it’s a great thing.

I fully recognize the priority of a head coach, especially at “business” levels, is to win. It’s just my feeling to help ensure an entire team stays actively engaged throughout the year, what better way to do so than to have each player alert to the fact they’re going to be called upon to contribute at any moment? Seasons are long. I think a no-brainer way to keep your players motivated is to assure them they aren’t just going to practice…but play…all year.

I hear high school, college and professional head coaches lament the fact they don’t have enough depth on their teams, are lacking at certain positions, etc. These are often the same coaches who never use their benches no matter what. Maybe their substitutes would be better if they let them into competition once in a while? Who knows, they might find out one or more can contribute more than first thought? Some athletes shine brightest when the bright lights are on…and the minutes actually count for something.

If my team’s substitutes were clearly a couple notches down in ability below my starters, I would still work hard to find a way to get them onto the field, onto the court, etc. I’d be rotating them into play with the majority of starters still playing. I would find ways to not compromise the team’s chances of winning, but still making sure everyone truly felt like a part of the team’s fortunes.

I acknowledge there are team sports where getting everyone onto the playing surface each time out isn’t feasible. I also get the tremendous amount of pressure on head coaches at any level…to just win.

Still, I’d like to think even if it sounds naïve or idealistic on the surface, deep down I’d aspire for my teams to always play together…not just practice together.

 

Picture Courtesy iStock

Trying Baseball

Major League Baseball has many challenges ahead of it as it tries to stay relevant for young and old alike. While the average age of who calls themselves a baseball fan or viewer hovers just below the 60-year mark, I do know a number of people that age or older who don’t give baseball much time anymore. They are indifferent to the sport. There are also enough survey results to conclude baseball doesn’t exactly strike a chord with younger folks.

Baseball has tried in vain to tinker with its rules, and will some more, in order to stabilize its freefall from once being known as “America’s Pastime.” But alas, I don’t think any of those current or proposed changes will ever make a difference. Its time at the top passed long ago…for a host of reasons which have been discussed in great detail elsewhere.

Of course, I have always felt it might help at least a little bit if the majority of baseball fans felt in Spring Training their rooting interest had at least some chance to make the playoffs, let alone win a World Series.

Try: Verb – make an attempt or effort to do something. Noun – an effort to accomplish something; an attempt.

Six MLB franchises are on pace to lose 100 or more games. According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, that number would be the highest ever since the league expanded to 30 clubs back in 1998. The previous high for a season was four teams: 2002…and  as you might expect, the two most recent full seasons in 2019 and 2021.

Quite frankly, many fans know their baseball season is over before it has started, unless they care only about the journey and not the destination. Some franchises are flat-out mismanaged; some are solely focused on profitability instead of perfection.

We’re just at the end of June, and in the National League there are basically eight teams competing for six spots…and it’s six only because MLB expanded its postseason by two teams to try and keep more owners interested in actually trying to get there.

Over the weekend, the Phillies’ Bryce Harper took a 97-mph fastball to his left thumb, and the hopes for the hometown team have taken an equally forceful hit.

But, we in the Philadelphia region are lucky because ownership has been aggressively trying to produce winning baseball in recent seasons.

For other fans, no try…just means another trying season.

 

Picture Courtesy iStock

Wiffle Reminiscence

This week, in many school districts in and around where I live, the last day of class for the 2021-22 school year is taking place.

The very, very best days I ever spent in all my elementary, junior, and senior high school years was always the last day of each school year.

I hated school. I loved summers. (I love winters now, but I digress…)

In my youth, there was no Internet. Kids actually went outside and did stuff. It was all we knew. Parents sent us outside. Go. Get out. Play!

For me, there were a couple of summers growing up where the focus was solely upon Wiffle Ball…pretending to be a big-league baseball star…on a ball field perfectly suited for such a summertime occupation.

And…it had a swimming pool.

For two summers, my friend Jebby and I role-played major league baseball. (Jebby’s given name was Joseph, but I don’t recall ever knowing the genesis of the name Jebby…) His favorite team was the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mine was the Oakland Athletics. Of course, we followed our hometown Phillies…but they lost way, way more than they won back then, so it was easy for a couple of young kids’ attention spans to pivot towards teams having more success playing ball.

Once school let out these two years in question, we “helped” our parents plan our transportation routes so we could get together at our chosen ballpark to play live games in our Wiffle Ball League (WBL). I use the word live because in our WBL, we also had contingency plans for another way to play games…via a deck of playing cards. As we couldn’t meet in-person every day at our League’s home field (family obligations), and because weather was not always our friend, we designed rules for a card game so the WBL could be played daily.

The first order of summertime business was to determine which two teams we would have in our League besides the afore-mentioned Pirates and A’s. We each had to select another team to represent. (It didn’t matter because, deep-down, we both knew it was inevitable any WBL World Series would likely feature Pittsburgh and Oakland…)

Now, I wouldn’t go so far to say when we weren’t playing face-to-face these off-site, remote card games were “fixed” in any way to give the Pirates and A’s built-in advantages against the other two teams…but it was amazing how well our favorite teams did in those circumstances. We built into the rules “strategy” calls to make depending on certain game scenarios, and perhaps we were slightly more aggressive in making potential, strategic run-scoring decisions for when both Pittsburgh and Oakland were at bat.

(OK, maybe “the fix” was in…)

However, the best part of the WBL was when our transportation schedules were coordinated so we could both be driven to my mother’s work place…a work place that featured our Field Of Dreams.

And…a swimming pool.

My mother worked for a guy who was well-off financially, owning a residence which was at least eight acres in size. He had two structures on the property. One was his actual home, which to lower middle-class kids like us seemingly contained a thousand rooms…although in reality I suspect the number of rooms was much lower.

The other, much smaller building on his property served as an office for himself and his staff of three – one of which was my Mom. The “catch” was both he and the other two employees had residences in other states – they didn’t use this office regularly – so most summer days it was just Mom, Jebby and I spending the day there.

Shortly after 9 AM, the WBL games we had scheduled to be played that day commenced. Again, it was amazing how often the schedule for our head-to-head Wiffle Ball games featured the Pirates and A’s. They were often scheduled to play at the very least a doubleheader – if not a three or even four-game series – which was often a crucial one because these teams somehow always seemed to have permanent residence at the top of our four-team standings.

The office structure and the swimming pool were separated by an eight-foot high, wooden fence. At one end of the fence, it was bordered by a number of pine trees. At the other end, the fence was bordered by the home residence. Between the fence and the swimming pool, there was a wide section of immaculate yard – always meticulously groomed as the landscapers must have cut the grass on weekends – which served as our official Wiffle Ball field.

The designated left field foul line/pole consisted of one of the pine trees. The right field “foul” pole area was deemed as anything that hit the home. The swimming pool was just a short walk from home plate (a rock borrowed from an undeveloped property next-door; rocks also served as our bases). Once the WBL schedule was concluded each of these days, the rest of the day (until Mom got done work) was gloriously spent poolside, listening to the songs-of-the day on a radio, working on our tans.

It was truly amazing Jebby and I stayed close friends throughout our Wiffle Ball careers, because the batter in our League always got to call balls and strikes, as well as determine whether a ball was hit fair or foul. Now, our strike zones were reasonably consistent. We often swung at the first thing we saw during each at-bat anyway. However, there were situations where we differed on fair vs. foul, especially down the left field line.

But alas, we didn’t have umpires…or replay.

Hold that thought.

Now that I think of it, that swimming pool not only allowed us to cool off between or after games, but also to cool off from vigorously debating calls. For a couple of kids who lived in row homes, WBL days were the best part of those two summers. On a giant property all to ourselves, in the sun, playing what was then the national pastime, and being able to cool off in that pool whenever you wanted.

Mom was good enough to make sure we were fed at lunch time. (For the uninitiated, you can burn a lot of calories playing multiple, highly-contested Wiffle Ball games…)

The fence was a great fixture and feature of our field. Aside from the occasional home run sailing (just) over the top, we learned over time to deftly play caroms off the fence and keep each other from advancing to an extra base.

As I recall, Jebby’s Pirates won the WBL World Series in our inaugural season. The second summer, it was my Athletics who prevailed, winning in their last World Series at-bat. The clinching hit for Oakland was a screaming, towering shot I struck which hit the appointed foul pole tree…or not.

Jebby expressed his displeasure immediately and loudly about my calling it a home run. He felt it actually hit another one of the trees, which would make it nothing more than a foul ball, and keeping his Pirates’ hopes alive for back-to-back titles. Of course, in these instances we always defaulted to the real-life, major league rulebook…

“Batted balls that directly strike either foul pole on the fly, or leave the park on a fly to the right of the left-field foul pole and to the left of the right-field foul pole are considered home runs.”

With no umpires or replay technology in my mother’s employer’s back yard, as the batter at that moment in time…my call stood.

A’s win.

It would be the last game in the short, yet memorable existence, of the WBL.

For a couple of summers thereafter, Jebby and I competed with and against each other in real-life baseball. He went on to be a three-sport star in high school and a solid junior college football player. I went on to be a one-sport non-star in high school, and an all-star intramural basketball player at a couple of different colleges.

I don’t know where Jebby is today. Yet, each year when the school year ends and summertime officially gets underway for kids, I sometimes think about those couple of Wiffle Ball summers and smile.

And Jebby, if by some chance you are reading this…that ball was fair.

 

Picture Courtesy Pixabay