Monday, October 26, 2009

The Year in Jim: The Ironside Experience

The most lasting impression I have is that the tryout season is a lot different as a tryout than as someone on the team. When deciding between players at the end of the roster, the team should consider factors beyond who is "better" (not that there is a single answer to that). Other things being equal, you might prefer a 22 year old who will probably be better the next year than a 44 year old. On the other hand, experience should count for something, too.

So I left Nationals last year not knowing what to do. I was disappointed for the Ironside guys, some of whom I had played with on DoG and others I knew from goaltimate and Boston's Ultimate Showcase Series. I also felt happy for my Worlds teammates who won with Jam. I also missed the excitement of being in games like that. In Masters, win or lose, you're still going to drink beer after, and while you might feel disappointment or excitement, it's on a much lower scale than in Open. I had some misgivings about abandoning the Masters team, and it would have just felt weird to play on a team without Alex. But I felt I owed it to myself more to give it a shot.

So I started preparing myself for the idea of a comeback without officially committing to it. My son was taking swim classes, so I would do a Tabata at the gym during the class, and I played my weekly basketball game as if it were a training session. I committed to attending Kaimana with the intention of playing intense on a big, talented squad. We had a few guys who were invited to the World Games tryouts plus other big names from the Open scene, so I figured this would be a good test for me. I was pretty happy with the results, though it also came with a realization that while I could still hang, I wouldn't be able to do it on every point.

But this fit in with the role I had envisioned for myself, something equivalent to a sixth man in basketball, a starter's role with a substitute's playing time. On a team hoping to win Nationals, I couldn't be THE primary option, but with the opponent's third or fourth best cutter defender covering me (especially if that player was athletic but inexperienced), I thought I could do some damage. I also figured that I could handle a limited amount of playing time and still go all-out, maybe something like 6 O points a game on average. The last couple years, I got used to playing every O point and being in a primary role, but it was against either Masters players or against Open teams that didn't have a prayer at making Nationals, so I could usually afford to get a little lazy with setting up cuts. And if zone offense was required, I am extremely effective at popping.

My next stop was Paganello (hey!). It was a similar experience to Kaimana on the field, playing with a bunch of guys who made semis last year and fitting in just fine, at times standing out, though once again fatigue became a factor from occasional overuse.

Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, I had alerted some of the powers that be on Ironside that I was interested in trying out, and stated what I thought I could contribute. They invited me to come out, though warning me that several starter-level players were moving to the area and were expected to play. I went to the practices (missed at least one, though), even having to skip out on DoG at the White Mountain Open, and played at one tournament.

It was such a different experience at the practices solely due to my station. I wasn't ever sure how much it was appropriate for me to speak. First off, I wasn't sure what had changed since I was left there, and found that I had answered at least one question incorrectly on what the team wanted to do in certain situations. Second, I didn't want to step on anyone's toes. I figured there would be time later to talk if asked about zone O or setting up cuts in vertical or whatever.

It was also a lot of work. I don't know if practices were any harder than they were a few years ago, but without having the luxury of being in charge of my fate, I had to play harder. At my first practice, I put so much effort into every single part of the active warmup that I was already fatigued by the end of it. In one of the early practices, an unfortunately hot day (it hit 90), I was cramping about halfway through, but others appeared to be in worse shape, so I had to keep on playing. Injury felt much closer than it ever had before. In years past, I could monitor my schedule and play time so I could be ready for Nationals. No such luck this time, but even given that, I felt further along in May than I had been in several years (and in fact commented that if I were already on the team, I would be very pleased with where I was in terms of conditioning and in game readiness), especially considering that at best I hoped to be used a point at a time, a few points a game. (There was still some question in my mind how much I would actually enjoy that role, or whether I could physically handle standing around for 20 minutes and then going in for a point. In later years, I found it harder on my body to stand on the sidelines than to play.)

My sole tournament was at Cazenovia, which we won pretty easily. We had about 22 for the tournament, so split into three lines. I was on the O line, had one turnover and one or two D's. I'm a big advocate of purposeful walking, but discovered that in order to try to fit in with the offense, I was doing a lot of purposeless running. I don't think I ever ran as much per second of field time in my life as I did that weekend. Some of this was due to unfamiliarity with what other people wanted to do or could throw, but I found myself having to think instead of reacting to what I saw on the field. I was able to occasionally display my ability to get open without running. One of my strengths is being able to set myself up so that I am open on my first step, provided that the thrower is ready to throw it, and I caught a few goals that way.

So, I was cautiously optimistic about the next few weeks of practices leading up to Boston Invite. I knew that there were a lot of quality players out there and it would be tough, but thought that the team could use an experienced versatile player more than another eager young guy. Even if the team was building for the future, you're never sure if a player will be around the next year. Plus, it was barely June, with almost five months of training and playing to go until Nationals. So that's why it was so shocking and heartbreaking to hear just a couple days after the tournament that my services wouldn't be needed any more. I knew that it was a longshot going in, and knew I hadn't played my way onto the team, but also didn't feel like I had played my way off it, and that a few more weeks of integrating might open the door. Sigh.

It took about a week before I let people know (other than those who knew already). It was a relief in some ways, knowing that I wouldn't have that time and effort commitment and that I wouldn't have to do 400s and that my body wouldn't be falling apart from abuse. But it was mostly a downer. Pretending I was a high school girl, I was wondering what I did wrong, why they liked HIM instead of me, not even caring whether the team was the right fit for me. I'd gotten laid off before, one time out of the blue and in a completely unprofessional way*, but hadn't been cut from a team since JV baseball, and had never had a painful breakup with a woman, and it hurts. In some ways, it's a fair payback for the wholly unprofessional way I had handled the initial cuts on DoG back in 1994, so I could see the irony, and like I said, I never really expected to make it (or at least didn't think it was the likely thing to happen). But it sucked.
* - there had been rumors, and there was a two-week shutdown planned at this 30 person company. One day, I see a co-worker printing off resumes in the library and thought it bold, only to see others come in and tell him how sorry they were he got laid off. I was sorry, too, but glad that I hadn't been told the night before by our boss that I was gone. But then again, I hadn't heard from my boss either, and he was out of town that day. No one says boo to me all day, until finally the CFO just happens to wander past my office and says, "Oh, uh, hi Jim, umm, did Peter talk to you last night?" "No, why do you ask?" "Uhhhh, no reason. Gotta go." Still no bossman, so eventually I corner one of the partners and ask him what's up. He looks at his shoes, the ceiling, out the window, and stammers, "umm, we had a meeting last night and decided we had to let some people go, and you're one of them." Silence. "Gee, Dave, I'm sorry you had to be the one to let me know." "Oh, hey, no problem, t's ok." Finally, about two hours later, I hear a page over the intercom, "Jim, line one, it's Peter." I say to another of the laid-off employees, "Gee, I hope it's not bad news." I pick up the phone and say, "Peter, what's new?!" "Oh, I guess you heard. Sorry." Ah, what laffs.)
So, back to DoG.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Year in Jim: My Sixth (and Final?) Final Season. Prologue

2004 was my first “final season.” I was 39, my kid was 1, and it was time to retire. I went through that season thinking that it was my final season, that this was my final 400, that was my final agility workout, this was my final Saturday practice prior to Nationals. The tournament itself was a bit disappointing. We nearly lost to bottom seed Goat in our first game, and had to play a pre-quarters game for the first time. We nearly redeemed ourselves with a near-epic game against Furious in the quarters, as we didn’t have a turnover until 7-5, but we weren’t good enough and lost. My final pass was our final turnover, a mid-range forehand to Kelvin. I played in the consolation game a little (good old Bravo always insists on playing those) but my muscles had locked up and I could barely run, and I didn’t throw a pass. The next day, leaving the fields, I choked up a bit, remembering all the good times and “knowing” I would never cast my eyes upon this scene again.
But then you get away from the season a little bit, and then like with anything, it doesn't seem so bad, and you remember the thrill of the chase and the good things, so I decided to come back. (Some say it was just to try to sell more books.) In my second final year, we made a somewhat unexpected semifinals appearance, and had the advantage up until Nord’s amazing layout D at 7-7. We started off slowly at Nationals that year and built up, taking down Bravo in the quarters. I don’t think I was really close to retirement that year, after the previous year’s trauma of going through all the emotional baggage about being ready to give it up. The year ended well and optimistically.
2006 was my actual final year in Open. Hard to believe but only seven players from that team are on Ironside this year. (Note to UPA: although it’s good that the link for each team on the championship site goes to the current Score Reporter page for that team, it also means that you can no longer see the roster of previous teams.) The team again had an uninspired performance, dropping down to the pre-quarters and then bowing out in the quarters. The season itself hadn’t gone all that well, either. I had disagreements with management about personnel and commitments and how to play the game, and looking back, I guess I didn’t have faith in the team. After the season, I realized that though I thought I could still get it done, it just wasn’t worth it to me to put in the effort. I also wanted to get the band back together before everyone got too old. So I sent the lamest retirement email ever and started sending out emails to the old DoG guys about putting together a Masters team.
At first I just wanted it to be a reunion team with the goal of making it to and not embarrassing ourselves at Nationals. Eventually wiser heads prevailed and we did some recruiting of non-DoGs. The regular season was fun again. We went to about the same number of tournaments as ever, but pool play games were challenging. Once again there was no doubt whether we’d win any of these, but this time we knew we wouldn’t. Winning is great, but competition is better. And having to play a larger role (both in number of points and in what I had to do on those points) meant that tournaments were that much more taxing. As a result, despite having few practices and doing only occasional high-intensity workouts, I felt like I was in as good shape as the previous year. We had sporadic attendance through the year, but managed to get almost all of the historical DoGs who weren’t injured to play at Nationals, and it was just like old times, winning the tight games and taking home the trophy. Granted, it was just Masters, so who really cares, and it’s not like we worked hard all year as a team (though some of us did, kinda), but it was fun. As I said at the team dinner that night, I didn’t really have any expectations for the team, but we exceeded them nonetheless, and I was surprised at how fun it was.
Having won it all, of course we had to do it again the following year. We got the monster roster commitment for Worlds, and picked up three Condors. We once again won the tight games and took home the trophy. However, there were troubling signs. Several players decided they couldn’t commit to both Worlds and Nationals, and our performance leading up to Nationals was decidedly worse than the previous year. We still won the Region, but I was uneasy going in, and predicted that I would have to be carried from the fields the first day, either from exhaustion from cutting non-stop every point or from being overserved at the beer tent after going 0-3. Instead, the other teams were even worse, and we won our first day’s games 15-4, 15-4, 15-8. It was then that I decided I wanted to do something else the next year. Open? Mixed? Retirement? The second day wasn’t any more competitive, though we gave up a few more goals. Even after getting smoked in the semis, I was convinced that Masters wasn’t worth it and still felt the desire for something more. It’s never enough.
Next: my Ironside experience.