Panhandlers

The other day I was getting gas at OnCue when a man walked up to me.

“Hey man, you think you could help me out? I need some dinner.”

“Absolutely man. What do you want?”

“Can you just meet me around the corner with the cash? They don’t like me panhandling here in the parking lot. I’ll get kicked out.”

“I don’t have any cash on me. But I’ll use my credit card and buy you whatever you want to eat. So just let me know what you want and I’ll run in and get it for you.”

This took him by surprise. He hemmed and hawed for a minute before saying, “Just a Snickers is fine.”

I got him the Snickers, shook his hand and went on my way.

That moment reminded me of two similar tales from my Lawton days, the first of which shaped how I handle these situations. The second one was just funny.

Like most people fresh out of college, I was more or less broke when I first moved to Lawton in 2002 to start working for the Constitution. I didn’t have any student loan debt but I also didn’t have anything in my bank account, and my salary at the paper wasn’t going to change that. On the plus side, I was a single guy without any expensive habits so it wasn’t hard to survive.

One night I was on dinner break at the paper and went to a fast-food place. Seems like it might have been Quiznos but I can’t say for sure. Anyway, it was your standard fast food joint and it was probably 7 p.m. so it was fairly busy. I was sitting at a table by myself eating when a man came up and asked if I could help him out. We talked for a minute and I said, “Why don’t you go get your food and then come eat with me until I have to go back to work?”

He said that sounded great. I don’t remember how much money I gave him but I doubt it was more than $10. Big bills (aka $20) weren’t really part of my life back then. I actually think I may have given him $7 or pretty much the exact cost of the meal. While I may not remember exactly which restaurant I was at or how much money I gave him, I’ll never forget what happened next.

There were probably four people in line ahead of him. At first he just waited in line normally. Then after he moved up a spot he started to kind of shuffle his feet in place nervously. Then he was staring down at the money and moving it around in his hands (this is why I think I gave him multiple bills). He glanced back at me a couple of times and then back to the money, then to the front of the line. All of a sudden when it was his turn to order he bolted out the door, never to be seen again (by me anyway).

Obviously it sucks to get ripped off, even if it’s only for a few dollars. But I could tell from his body language and how nervous he got in the line that it was really a struggle for him of what to do with that money. He probably felt crappy about himself afterward, which is why I decided personally that I wasn’t going to give money out in those situations anymore. Everybody needs food and water, so from then on I would meet those needs directly and not put someone in a situation where they have to make a hard decision about how to spend the cash.

When I’m going to play poker, I usually have a few snacks in my backpack. When I’m stopped at a light I’ll offer a granola bar or a pack of peanut butter crackers. Those get accepted about 50 percent of the time. A couple of times when they’ve been declined it’s because the person doesn’t have any teeth. A few years back, Missy and Addie put together some basic survival packs that included socks, toothbrush/paste, bottled water and snacks. I thought that was pretty neat.

A few years after that first incident, when I had moved up in the world to the point of having a wife and owning a house, I was at Whataburger with my buddy Spike. We had just finished playing poker so it was probably 2 a.m. (I long for the days I could eat Whataburger on the reg at 2 a.m. and not gain weight).

This guy comes up to us and asks for food money. I told him to order whatever he wanted, it was on me. So he orders a triple cheeseburger value meal, supersized, with a strawberry shake. Gotta tip my hat on that order, it’s impressive. He thanks me and then sits down and eats the meal. There’s not really anyone inside the restaurant at this time besides us.

Spike and I finish our food about the same time as this gentlemen, and as we’re leaving he corners us again and asks for $20 for a cab ride across town. I tell him I can’t do that but I hope he enjoyed his meal. He starts yelling at me that I’m a racist. Meanwhile Spike reaches into his pocket and gives the dude whatever change is in there, about 50 cents. He says, “Thank you so much. God bless you. You’re not PREJUDICED like your friend here. He’s a RACIST!!”

I said, “Dude I just bought you $10 worth of food.”

“No you’re PREJUDGING me!!! PREJUDGING! PREJUDGING!” We slithered out of there while he kept yelling at me.

P.S. After I posted this, Spike remembered that the guy was wearing a Michael Irvin Dallas Cowboys jersey. So I had already overlooked that sin when I bought his dinner in the first place.

More Vegas stories

After my last blog, in which I credited my friend Britt for being generous, I received a complaint from Rychy Shamley.

It seems the ole Shamlerooski was feeling a bit green.

“How come you kept saying how generous Britt is,” he said. “I stayed in Vegas with you for a week and you didn’t say anything about me being generous. Didn’t even write a blog about it at all.”

He’s right. I did stay with Rychy for a week in Vegas and didn’t mention his generosity. Or write a blog. Half of that will change right now.

View of Las Vegas from the giant ferris wheel at the Linq. Our family went on it in 2016.

I don’t remember what year this was but it had to be around 2013. We stayed at the Rio during the World Series of Poker although I don’t think either of us played any tournaments at all.

I have a few strong memories from that trip. First off, the food at the Rio sucks. We tried just about everything and none of it was any good. Second, we couldn’t get the hotel room cooler than about 75 degrees. Made it hard to sleep good.

I also remember Rychy and the Rio conspiring to scam me out of $100. We had played poker all day and were ready to quit and find something good to eat. As I mentioned, this required leaving the Rio because all their food sucks. It must have been around midnight.

Rychy knew about a great sushi place that was open real late and offered half-price sushi and beer after 10 p.m. or something like that. Sounded like a great idea, so we took a cab over there. Indeed, it was a great idea. The sushi and beer was delicious. However, it’s possible that one of those items may have clouded my judgment for the hours ahead.

We took a taxi back to the Rio and decided to stop by one of the bars on the way back to the room for a beer. We ordered one beer each and the bartender said, “That’ll be $16.” This outrageous price seemed even more absurd considering we had probably paid $2.50 each for our beers at the sushi place.

That’s when Rychy came up with an ingenious idea. He said to the bartender, “They’re free if we are gambling, right?” Barkeep confirmed. So Rychy said, “Let’s just play a little video poker here. We’ll probably win enough to pay for the sushi and get our beers for free.”

For whatever reason — must have been the sushi — this seemed like a good idea to me as well. And for a minute it was working even better than we imagined. We put our money into the machine at the bar and won several hands right off the bat. We were heckling the bartender, as if it were his money we were winning. “I can’t believe they give you free beers and pay you money just for sitting here and pressing buttons!”

“We were just trying to bring a beer back to the room and they forced us to take all this money with us!!”

Shockingly, the cards started to break even. Which means the house got its money back and then some. I think we ended up losing about $100 each on that stupid machine. Not the cheapest beer I’ve ever had.

Speaking of surprisingly expensive Vegas experiences, my steak at Cut with Britt and Jeremy reminded me of another story.

This one is even older, maybe 2007. I was in Vegas with my friend Chad and his buddy Aaron. I was still working at the newspaper at this time, so the opportunity to play $1/$2 hold em for 30 hours over three days was rare and incredibly appealing to me. We were staying at The Mirage, and the three of us kind of did our own thing for most of the trip, although Chad also played a lot of poker. But before we even got to Vegas, we scheduled one fancy dinner at the steakhouse there at the Mirage. This would be our one “splurge” meal for three guys who were probably making less than $100k per year combined.

So we got dressed up and went to the place. Everything on the menu looked great, but the waiter mentioned that their special was a kobe steak. You know, the fancy stuff from the cows that drink beer. That’s about all I knew about it, but this waiter kept talking up how great it was and I figured it was a “When in Rome” situation so I ordered it. Without inquiring about the price. Literally every steak or entree on the menu was priced between $30 and $40, which was already a lot of money for me. I just assumed the Kobe would be about the same. But you know what happens when you assume.

I knew I was in trouble when the waiter came by to check on me three different times while I was eating the steak. Chad and Aaron both ordered off the regular menu and he did not give one crap about them. The first time he ran up right after I got the steak and yelled, “HOW YOU LIKING THAT KOBE!!!???” He then waltzed off without even checking on Chad or Aaron’s food.

This brought about some speculation on our part as to how much the steak would cost. I knew it would be way more than Chad or Aaron’s. I figured it probably cost twice as much, something in the $60 range. When the check came, Chad pounced on it, opened it up and exclaimed, “HOLY F***!!”

And that is the story about how a guy making $28,000 per year and trying to pay off $45,000 in student debt paid $150 for a steak (not counting side items, taxes or tip). I felt so guilty. I remember calling Missy — we had only been married a year or so — worrying that she would be quite mad at me. I can’t say she was thrilled but she handled it really well.

I also have to say that was the best steak I’ve ever had in my life. It’s the only one I’d put ahead of the one I had in Vegas last week. I didn’t even need a steak knife, it was so tender and the flavor just poured out of it. I’m glad I didn’t know how much it cost as I was eating it.

My final Vegas story comes from 2016, the last time we drove out to Vegas as a family, and the only time we did it with our full complement of four kids. We did some really fun stuff as a family on that trip. Vegas actually has a lot of fun stuff for kids and families. We went on the giant ferris wheel at the Linq (where the picture above came from), and to a Triple-A baseball game.

This “story” is really just an excuse to show off this cute picture of Hawk at the baseball game. Addie was seven years old at the time, and just as enthusiastic for life as she is now. They had a dancing contest between innings and one of the ushers said she liked Addie’s dancing so much that she gave Addie a ball. Addie then had that ball autographed, not by any of the players but by the Vegas mascot, which is an alien (the guy on my helmet in the picture). That ball was one of her most prized possessions for the next couple of years.

Vegas 2019

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I decided to spend only four days in Vegas this year for the World Series of Poker.

That trip was this past week, from Sunday to Thursday. If you want the Reader’s Digest version, the poker experience was at best “meh” but everything else was amazing. For more details, continue reading.

Sunday, June 16

So this was the setup. My buddy Britt was incredibly generous with me the entire trip. He had a free room at Caesar’s Palace and allowed me to stay with him. We flew on Allegiant Airlines, where we got roundtrip airfare for under $200. So even after paying for food and taxi/Uber fares, my non-poker expenses were less than $500. Which is pretty hard to do in Las Vegas. Our friend Jeremy came to town on the same days I was there and the three of us shared some pretty dadgum good meals.

The first of those came on our very first night in town. For years, Britt has been raving about Wolfgang Puck’s “Cut” steakhouse at the Palazzo. He insisted that he was treating us to this meal to start our trip. Again, incredibly generous on his part because this is definitely the type of restaurant I can’t afford to go to unless it’s an anniversary-type date with Missy.

Usually when someone hypes up a restaurant the way Britt did with this one, it’s hard to not be disappointed. But I was certainly not disappointed with Cut. They specialize in American Wagyu steak, and the three of us each got a different cut of American Wagyu. All three were amazing but I favored the New York Strip that I ordered. We washed those down with some really good craft cocktails and some great side items, the macaroni and cheese being the highlight in my opinion. I’ve had a lot of great steaks in my life, and I can only think of one that I’d put above this one.

There’s a really cool cigar lounge right down the hall from the restaurant called The Dorsey, which seemed like a perfect way to end the evening. They have a massive whiskey menu so I tried a rye I’d never had before and it was great. Went great with the cigar too. All of these fancy lounges serve their whiskeys with the one oversized ice cube, which I love. Makes me feel like James Bond I guess.

My younger cohorts went on to do some classic Vegas gambling well into the night, but this old man was already up past his usual bedtime so I walked back to Caesar’s (the weather was very pleasantly mild while we were there) and crashed.

Monday, June 17

The reason I picked these dates to go on the trip was to play the $1500 pot limit Omaha event at the World Series of Poker. This would be my fourth WSOP Omaha event and I had cashed in two of the previous three, so I was looking forward to trying something different than my usual cash games and hopefully making a deep run. I feel like I’m better at PLO than I ever have been and it’s fun to challenge your brain by having to think in terms of tournament strategy.

Yeah, um, that didn’t pan out. I’ve mentioned in the past my disdain for the typical douchebags that populate the Rio during the WSOP. For some reason they like playing tournaments more than cash games in general. Well, I had either eight or nine of them at my table at all times during this tourney, depending on whether the dealer seemed to be a douche or not.

The guy sitting directly across from me was the worst offender. He would not quit talking, and he talked about only two different things. The first was how great he was at poker. We heard about 85 stories of how he manipulated his opponents into giving him their money during past tournaments and cash games. Without fail he knew exactly what cards they held and exactly how to extract the maximum value out of his winning hands. Sometimes he would make massive bets (oh my!) to make it appear as if he were bluffing when he wanted a call all along. Sometimes he would make tiny bets to induce a raise (epic!). Sometimes he would check to bait his opponent into a bluff, just like Johnny effing Chan.

The other factor that was present in 100% of his poker stories was that he got incredibly unlucky at the end of every tournament. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, this chap. Always had a 90% chance to win with one card left before his hopes were dashed on the final card. Such a shame.

The other thing he talked about nonstop was wrestling. Like, actual college wrestling. I almost preferred the poker talk. This dude’s breaking down the 198-pounder at Nebraska against his rival from Wisconsin. Supposedly, Nebraska thought they were going to run roughshod over the Big Ten but got a huge reality check when they saw how good those Badgers were (sick burn).

This dude didn’t stop flapping his gums for two straight hours, except for the rare occasion when he decided to play a hand of poker. Then, as soon as the dealer was about to put the flop out, this guy would quit talking mid-sentence, put on his sunglasses and stare straight ahead for the entirety of the hand. Didn’t matter if it was 30 seconds or 8 minutes. Then when the hand was over he’d take the glasses off and pick up right where he left off. I’m not making this up. I literally laughed out the second time he quit talking and put the glasses on.

One of the highlights of my poker life was baiting this cauliflower ear into bluffing off his entire stack as I laughed and lit up a cigar in the middle of the poker room. OK, that didn’t happen. At least it was a different player who put the cold deck on me to knock me out of the tournament at around dinnertime.

I was a little unsure of what to do next, as I felt like I should be playing some kind of poker since that’s why I was in town but didn’t feel like I wanted to play Omaha or play all night since I was already a little tired from the tournament. I decided to go back to Caesar’s to rest a bit, and once there I decided I might as well just play here instead of going somewhere else.

I hadn’t played at Caesar’s in probably 9 years. Back then I did tie an all-time poker record by literally winning a pot with no money in it whatsoever. The dealer had dealt the cards but didn’t inform the small or big blinds to put their money in. I raised and everybody folded, including the players in the blinds. The dealer then tried to collect the blinds but they refused to put them in, saying they might have called my raise had they known they already owed money to the pot. This is patently ridiculous, those guys still owed their blinds. The dealer instead said she wasn’t going to make them pay but would reimburse me what they owed out of her tips. I said we could just call it even and thus was the proud winner of a $0 pot.

Perhaps incompetency like this is part of the reason Caesar’s doesn’t host very many poker games anymore. All they had were a handful of tables of $1/$2 hold em and two tables of $2/$5 hold em. These aren’t anything close to “high stakes,” yet because it’s the biggest game Caesar’s has to offer they were in a roped-off section in the back of the room. I never knew I was so big-time, but I dominated the biggest game in the room to the tune of about 1/8th of what I had lost in the tournament that day. But a win is a win, I suppose.

Tuesday, June 18

Now that I was out of the tournament, I knew I’d be playing cash games the rest of the trip. One of the benefits of playing cash games is that you can start and stop whenever you want as opposed to having to jump into a stupid tournament with stupid wrestling guy right when you wake up.

So Jeremy, Britt and I spent a couple of hours at the Caesar’s pool before getting cleaned up and grabbing lunch at Javier’s, a great Mexican place at the Aria. I had the spinach enchilada, which was superb. The chips, salsa and guacamole was top of the line as well.

Everything was set up for the three of us to crush the cash games at Aria, but that’s not how it played out. I got unlucky on a couple of hands early on and then felt myself trying to press a little bit and getting away from my game. As the sun started to go down I didn’t feel like I was playing my best and I certainly wasn’t getting lucky, so I decided to call it a day…at poker, anyway.

By this time Jeremy had also booked a losing session and retired to his quarters, and Britt had won but was ready to quit as well. I didn’t know what to have for dinner but after our steaks the first night I was definitely trusting whatever Britt would recommend. We ended up at Holstein’s, which touts itself as the best burger on the strip. And it really was the best burger I’ve had in a really really long time. The onion rings and sweet potato fries were also on point.

Holstein’s is located at the Cosmopolitan, and after we were done eating Britt was in the mood to gamble. I was in the mood to watch Britt win a lot of money, and luckily the evening worked out for both of us. He won some quick money at the blackjack table and then we moved on to craps, where we both took our turns throwing the dice.

The last two times I played craps, the sessions ended abruptly. The first time I kept throwing the dice real high into the air and they kept bouncing off the table. I was doing pretty good but management did not care for my technique, or for having to chase down my dice on the reg. I figured they were just being sore losers and kept throwing the dice real high and off the table. I made some money but as soon as my turn ended I was pulled aside and told I was no longer welcome to play craps at the Venetian for the remainder of that evening. Boo hoo.

The next time I was staying at this little casino off the strip with my friend Tim, and the casino screwed him out of a bet he had clearly won because they said he didn’t specify the amount he was betting in time. This despite the fact that he was betting the exact same amount on every bet he was making at the table, and he had about a dozen other bets on the table at the same time. So Tim gave the pit boss an earful and we quit playing.

This Tueday at Cosmopolitan, everything was bouncing my way. I kept the dice for about half an hour. We guessed I hit around 10 points before crapping out. When my turn was finally over, the table gave me an ovation. I could have made some good money on myself had I not been making the minimum bet, but luckily Britt was betting more so he made some decent money out of it. And, again, he was incredibly generous with me and gave me something for my efforts even though all I did was throw some dice.

Wednesday, June 19

Jeremy was up and at ’em early since he had gone to bed at 6 p.m. the night before, so we decided to get some Lotus for lunch and hit the Wynn for the PLO games afterward. Lotus of Siam is a high-end Thai place off the strip. This was my second visit and I’ve yet to be disappointed.

The highlight of this meal was the crispy duck curry we split. Neither of us are generally a fan of duck but this place does it just right. I can still taste it, it went perfectly with the curry sauce they served over it. I also got a Thai tea, which I don’t think I’d had since my other visit to Lotus several years prior.

I had high hopes for this cash session as well. By that I mean I really hoped I’d get lucky and win enough to cover both the tournament and my Aria losses from the previous two days. Things got off to a good start when I doubled up very early. I thought I was going to double that stack again, which would have accomplished my goal of getting even, but the last card beat me in a big pot. Me and that wrestling guy, I tell ya we’re always just one card away from GLORY. After losing that pot I was back down to even, and after eight hours of play I counted my chips and found that I was down $3. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be on this trip.

Thursday, June 20

I was able to hit the pool for an hour and half before getting packed up and heading back to the airport. Obviously this wasn’t how I had planned the trip from a poker standpoint, but I also couldn’t have expected it to go so well from every other perspective.

I’m not sure I’ve had such consistently great food over the course of several days like this. Definitely put on a few pounds and I ain’t mad about it. Like I said, the weather was nice and the pool time was relaxing.

But the best thing was hanging out with my friends. I had never gone on a trip like this with Britt, so you never know how those things will work out. Turns out we have a lot in common and it was way more fun than I envisioned. We both like to walk a lot so instead of taking cabs we walked from Caesar’s to Palazzo for dinner, from Caesar’s to Aria for poker, from Aria to Cosmopolitan for burgers and gambling, and then back to Caesar’s. It saved us money and gave us a little exercise after sitting on our buns playing poker for most of the trip. I’ll say it again — he was incredibly generous with me the whole time and it was cool to see him win some money even if I couldn’t.

I’m not planning on going back to Vegas again this year, and who knows what 2020 will bring. I just hope the wrestling douche goes broke.

Softball

Thursday was a weird evening for me in several ways.

First, I was staying the night at my mom’s house. Thanks to everyone who prayed for her hip replacement surgery Tuesday. After a rough first night she rebounded fantastically on Wednesday and was able to go home Thursday. She’s already getting around as well as she was before the procedure and I’m very hopeful that this will greatly increase her quality of life. But I didn’t want her staying home alone on that first night.

Which leads to Weird Thing #2. Mom went to bed early as usual and I had a kid-free evening of relaxation, but with no DVR on the TV. I don’t watch anything live on TV. Even sports, which is the one thing everyone watches live. I still DVR it, wait until the kids go to bed and then fire it up in peace and zip through the games quickly. I can watch a Cubs or Thunder game in about 45 minutes and a football game quicker than that. If it means I have to stay off my phone for a few hours in the evening to avoid spoilers then I consider that an added bonus. So I’m just chilling on her couch, flipping between the NBA Finals and the Women’s College World Series.

Which leads to Weird Thing #3. I watched a lot more of the softball game than I expected to. I’d still say the TV was on the basketball game more than 50% of the time, but it was close.

It was a great back-and-forth game, with OU beating Alabama 3-2. The next night while playing poker I watched the winner’s bracket game between OU and OSU. It’s pretty cool that both schools made it and the atmosphere at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City seemed really electric. The top-ranked Sooners pulled away late for a 6-1 victory.

Why is it that I enjoyed watching softball two nights in a row when I never watch women’s basketball? Why did I watch more softball the past two nights than I’ve watched college baseball over the past two years? I think it comes down to the product. Women’s basketball is (in my opinion) an inferior product to men’s college basketball, which itself has become barely watchable ever since we got an NBA team. But they are essentially the same game. College baseball is an inferior product to minor league baseball, which is an inferior product to Major League Baseball. But they are essentially the same game. Softball is a different sport entirely, and the differences are what make it fun.

Start with the underhanded pitching motion. For one thing, it allows pitchers to throw multiple games in a row, as opposed to major league games where starters get pulled after four innings and it takes 6 guys to complete a game. It also allows for some different spin and manipulation of the ball. It doesn’t take long to figure out how hard it is to make solid contact off of these elite softball pitchers.

Softball games are full of chants and songs that don’t really make sense to an outsider like myself but they make for a festive environment. The whole field and base paths are smaller and shorter than a traditional baseball diamond, which makes the whole game move quicker. The shortstop doesn’t have time to play patty cake with the ball before throwing to first; any hesitation will cost her the out. My great friend and former OU softball beat reporter Josh Ward compares it to Arena League football, and it’s a perfect comparison. The quirks are what make it fun to watch. Yet it’s still very similar to baseball, and the players can easily display their athleticism in the field and on the basepaths.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt when your alma mater has the best program in the country. In 1995, OU hired the coach at Long Beach City College. All Patty Gasso has done since then is win 78% of her games and four national titles. And this year’s squad may be her best yet. OU is 54-4 and didn’t lose a game in Big 12 Conference play. Statistically, this would be their best team ever if they can win three more games and capture another title.

Patty Gasso

I came to OU three years after Gasso did, and in 2000 I was the sports editor of the school paper. The aforementioned Josh Ward covered the softball team, which looked like it might be a special one.

If you know Josh, you know he can be a tough critic (especially the Y2k version of Dub). But he never had a negative word to say about Gasso or the way she ran her program. He said she was great to work with and always “had her shit together.” Not that anyone could have predicted this level of success, but Josh says he never had a doubt that OU would be a big winner under Gasso.

One of the coolest experiences I ever had at OU came on the softball field while I was sports editor. Gasso let me, Josh, and our sports photographer Paul Dryden take batting practice against OU’s pitchers that spring. It was really a testament to both Josh and Coach Gasso. Most reporters wouldn’t have developed the kind of relationship with the team to make that a possibility, and most coaches wouldn’t be cool enough to go along with it.

I remember going to the old (and now defunct) Perfect Swing off Highway 9 to get some practice cuts in. I didn’t plan on hitting a home run but I was darn sure going to get the bat on the ball. OU’s pitchers that year were Jennifer Stewart and Lana Moran. Stewart was the ace and she had a changeup that made Josh and Paul look silly. Like any good pitcher she threw it with the same motion as her fastball and you only had about half a millisecond to react to that if you wanted to hit it, so when she threw the change you looked like Bugs Bunny swinging three times at the same pitch and striking out. I don’t know how anyone hits that pitch unless they just guess right that it’s coming.

Gasso only allowed us 5 or 10 pitches each. Neither Josh nor Paul made contact with any of Stewart’s pitches and the entire team was sitting on the outfield grass laughing up a storm and talking trash. So the pressure was on yours truly. Luckily I didn’t have to face Stewart. Moran was also a good pitcher but she didn’t have that nasty changeup and I was able to send her first pitch over the fence and into the parking lot, where it shattered Gasso’s car window. OK maybe that’s not quite how it happened. Actually, I just fouled it straight back, which was already a pretty big win for me. I also managed to hit one fair, although it would have been a routine ground out.

But it was a blast, and it made me appreciate how hard the sport is. As the sports editor of the paper, it stinks that the school year ends before the Women’s College World Series. Josh had some great coverage of the team during the season but by the time the WCWS rolled around it was summer and I had a regular job.

I’ll never forget the day OU won the national championship that year. It was Memorial Day and our family tradition at that time was to split into two groups. Mom took Andrew and Allison to her hometown of Enid to decorate the graves there, and I went with dad to the small town of Jones where his family was from. In the world before smartphones, I had no idea what was going on in the game against UCLA. As soon as we got home I turned on ESPN and the first batter I saw was the last batter of the game. It was really exciting to see this team we had been covering all year celebrating a national championship. The football championship wouldn’t come for another 7 months so this was the first time OU won anything during my tenure there.

Josh covered the WCWS and says he remembers some kind of special edition of the paper after it was over. It just stinks that the majority of the students wouldn’t have been on campus to read his great work and that I didn’t get to be part of the coverage or design of that paper. He said he gathered his notes and mementos from that WCWS and later gave them to Gasso, although he doesn’t know if she kept them or what she did with them. She’s won three championships since then (with a fourth hopefully on the way in the next week), but that first one is always special.

I was never the beat reporter for the softball team; I covered the baseball team. I covered several high school state tournament games at the Constitution but only one OU game. It was a Bedlam game in Norman, and I wasn’t actually sent to write about the game itself.

I was there to do a feature on Courtney Totte, who was a catcher for Oklahoma State. She was a great player and as far as I can remember she was the only Lawton kid during my time there to go on to play for OU or OSU. The stadium was packed and the crowd was really into it. I remember the weather being absolutely perfect that night, the game moved along at a good pace and OU won (sorry Courtney). Afterward I got a good interview which turned into a pretty good story, if I do say so myself. I remember it being one of those nights that make sportswriting the best job in the world. (The nights when the game takes four hours, the coaches are grumpy and the computer quits working, not so much).

This summer my daughter Addison is playing softball for the first time. We watched some of OSU’s win over Florida the other night together. We’ve gone to the park a few times to practice, just her and I, and it’s those kind of moments that you live for as a parent. She’s got some natural talent but she’s also good at volleyball, basketball, and a lot of non-sports stuff like music, acting, cooking and science so it will be interesting to see what piques her interest the most in the upcoming years.

I’m not pushing her toward softball by any means, but I’ll enjoy whatever time we end up getting on the diamond. And I’ll be watching the Women’s College World Series, at least as long as Gasso and the Sooners are in it.

Boomer.

Church

What kind of feelings does that word evoke?

Probably a fair number of people who normally read my blog won’t even click on this because the title elicits strong negative memories or assumptions. Many others will have the exact opposite reaction, people who can’t imagine a life outside of the faith or whose lives were drastically changed for the better after finding Jesus. Some of those people will be mad about some of the things I’m about to say.

Church has been a part of my life since I was born. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive part of it the majority of the time, with some bumps along the way. Many times those bumps were self-inflicted and occasionally they were caused by the human beings that make up “The Church”. But I can’t write my life story without talking about it, so even though it’s not a popular topic I’m going to put my experiences and beliefs out there.

I was raised in the church. Some of my earliest church memories involve Vacation Bible Study and church camp at Camp Sooner. We went to Draper Park Christian Church, which is still located at 8500 S Walker in Oklahoma City.

Draper Park Christian Church

We weren’t just a Christmas and Easter family, or even just a Sunday church family for that matter. Mom and Dad were both fully committed to Jesus Christ, not just on church days but every day. We prayed before every meal and at bedtime and I saw my parents living their faith in everything they did. I saw them reading their Bibles and Bible study books every day and they lived a life of serving God and others in everything they did.

Biblical Christian values were part of our family rules and expectations. Lying, cheating and stealing were things that never even entered my mind. I remember cursing under my breath once while playing basketball my freshman year and being so overcome with guilt, I probably prayed 100 times for forgiveness from that singular dirty word.

I started reading the Bible on my own when I was in second grade. I would read two chapters every day. Even at such a young age I remember being mesmerized by Jesus’ teachings and the Old Testament prophecies about him that would be fulfilled centuries after they were written.

At summer church camp in about third grade, they showed us a movie where four teenagers died in a car crash and went to hell because they hadn’t accepted Jesus. Of course, one of them was the regular church attendee who just hadn’t gotten around to “being saved.” This movie shows these kids burning in hell, in pain and emotional agony forever. And this movie is being shown to a couple hundred third graders who are in the middle of nowhere, away from their families and now scared out of their minds. I know it scared the crap out of me. Dozens if not hundreds of kids accepted the “altar call” at the end of this movie and got baptized right there at the camp. I have no idea if there was any pushback or negative consequences from the camp for showing that movie to a bunch of 9-year-olds, but there should have been. It was a ridiculous and terrible thing to do. (Told you I’m not sugarcoating anything in this blog. The church is made up of human beings, and human beings make mistakes all the time, regardless of their intentions. I’m sure there are people who wouldn’t have a problem with showing this movie to kids that age — whatever it takes to “save them.” I strongly disagree.)

I had been wanting to get baptized for a couple of years already but mom and dad thought I needed to learn a little more before I could truly make that decision. I don’t remember talking to them specifically about this movie but in any event it would be another year before I got baptized, at Draper Park by my dad on the same day as my sister Allison.

It was at Draper Park where I became friends with Kevin Ash, and through Kevin and Camp Sooner I became friends with Chad Anderson. Those have been two of my best friends ever since then. From that fact alone, church would have been a huge net positive on my life. I’ve always been a people-pleaser so if I had had different friends in high school it could have gotten me into some real trouble.

Draper Park Christian Church is a part of the Independent Christian church denomination, which is on the conservative end of the spectrum. But we had instruments playing during worship and didn’t preach that dancing sent you straight to hell so I guess it wasn’t that bad. Jim Avery was the head preacher at that time, and his messages were always practical and filled with lots of scripture. He didn’t yell about hell and he didn’t tell you you could do whatever you wanted and be fine. And that mindset is what defined DPCC to me. I was surrounded by great people and great role models.

Our youth group was very close. I still keep up with several families from the DPCC days (don’t want to start naming them or I’ll accidentally leave some out) and it’s cool to see what everyone is up to.

A very high percentage of our youth group committed to going into ministry full-time, and a very high percentage of those people did exactly that (including my brother and sister). For whatever reason, I never thought that was in my future. I’ll always be grateful to Jim for the message he delivered to us on graduation Sunday my senior year. There were about 7 of us graduating and I may have been the only one not heading to bible college and planning on entering the ministry. Without calling me out by name, Jim spent a few minutes talking about how important it was to have Christians living good lives in every job and that they were just as important as those entering the ministry.

During college I kept attending DPCC and occasionally floated in and out of the Christ on Campus house at OU (the collegiate ministry of the Independent Christian Church). I wasn’t really involved much by my junior year but through that ministry and my brother I met Missy. So that was a pretty big win for me.

After moving to Lawton I quickly found Carriage Hills Christian Church, another Independent Christian Church. I made a lot of great friends, including another one of my best friends to this day, Mike Carroll. That church wasn’t big but there were a lot of really neat people there. I volunteered with the youth group and played guitar on Sunday mornings.

Meanwhile, back in Oklahoma City, DPCC and other churches of that ilk began seeing a decline in attendance. For some reason they responded by being legalistic and divisive. They tried to make my parents sign a paper saying, among other things, that they believed baptism was essential for salvation. This would essentially send all the Catholics to hell permanently and put quite a dent into the general concept of salvation by faith alone. My parents refused to sign it and switched churches. This made me sad but was the right thing to do.

Around 2007 or 2008, Carriage Hills adopted the same rule. I couldn’t believe it, and it really hurt my heart. One of the most Christ-like families in the whole church, who treated me personally like a son, hadn’t all been baptized and were naturally offended. Missy and I left the church.

In 2009 we moved back to Oklahoma City and we jumped right back to DPCC for several reasons. One, we wanted to be part of a church family again and we still had many friends at DPCC. Two, my brother was going there and we wanted more opportunities to connect with him. Three, I really missed working with the youth group at Carriage Hills and Draper’s youth minister was Clay Atchley, who I had gone to high school with and is a great guy. They didn’t make me sign a “dunk or burn” letter so we hopped back in, and things were great for awhile.

I helped with the youth group on Wednesday nights and led the worship when the full-time music minister was gone. After a couple of years, somebody nominated me to be a deacon, which had no particular significance to me but sure, whatever. Then they told me I had to go to an elder’s meeting to discuss it.

I show up at the meeting and was pretty surprised to find out that the topic was my profession. Evidently this room full of older men I had known for literally almost my entire life was split 50/50 on whether I could be a deacon because I play poker. Never mind the fact that this new title added zero new duties to what I was already doing, and they didn’t mind me playing guitar or working with the youth group while having this job. And they certainly had no qualms about accepting my financial donations which came from this nefarious practice.

To be fair, several people in that room were strongly behind me, although 10 minutes into it I was sure I didn’t want the position anyway. It didn’t matter because the top elder was convinced I was living a life of sin and he got his way. (Trust me, I struggle with about a million sins but playing poker isn’t one of them. Jesus must’ve told this dude directly how bad it is since it’s not mentioned in the Bible).

The whole thing hurt me a lot more than I expected it to. Ultimately, we decided to leave because I felt attitudes like that kept the church from growing and adding new members.

We went from Draper to Journey Church in Norman, where we quickly found some great friends that we still have to this day. But after two or three years there, the church got into financial trouble and sold out to a different denomination with vastly different beliefs.

So now we go to Life Church. Let me tell you what I love about Life Church. It’s very welcoming to newcomers. People dress casually and there’s honestly not a hint of judgment on anyone from what I’ve seen. The kids programs are great.

I really gain a lot from the messages. What I like about Pastor Craig Groeschel’s style is that he blends plenty of scriptural background in with spiritual lessons that also contain simple, practical things that improve your life. If you didn’t believe in God at all and listened to a message it could still help you with your diet, money management, relationship with your spouse, etc. If any of you are interested in attending or have any questions about it, don’t hesitate to reach out.

It’s not a perfect church. No church is. Because churches are made up of people and people make mistakes. My experiences have made me quite cynical when it comes to church politics and church finances. But this is nothing new, it’s not much different at all from what Jesus called out in the church of His day. Pharisees gonna Pharisee.

I’ve probably read the Bible front to back about 10 times in my life. In some ways, the more I learn, the less I feel like I know. But now I feel like the things I’m uncertain about are the things that don’t matter, so I don’t waste my time worrying about them.

I really try to follow the golden rule, to treat others with love, respect and honesty. Much of the other stuff actually gets in the way of the overarching theme of the Bible, that God is love. We don’t need to argue about legalistic things or unknown aspects of what exactly happens when you die. Following Jesus and his teachings will give us and those in our circle better lives right here and right now. And that’s something we can control.

I’ve written some negative things about the church, so let me just fill out a scorecard regarding it. Actually, I’ll let an atheist fill it out. Taking away everything spiritual about it, the church in my life has been a huge positive.

I already mentioned the relationships I’ve gained through it. The church has also been an avenue through which I’ve been able to serve less fortunate people. I’m not much help on a construction crew but I helped build a couple of houses through Habitat for Humanity. I’ve stocked shelves at the Regional Food Bank. I’ve scooped potatoes onto plates at City Rescue Mission. Those last two things I’ve taken my daughter to do with me, hopefully passing on the value of service. I’m not saying these things to brag about myself. I’m better than you at poker but I’m not a better person. I mess up all the time.

I want to tie up the loose ends about Draper Park Christian Church. I have nothing but love for that place. Clay is now the lead preaching minister there and I’m still good friends with him. I listen to every single one of his sermons via podcast and definitely support the vision he has for a place that played such a huge role in my life. I visited there a few months back and it was great to see all of the familiar faces.

Nowadays, I hate even talking about “spiritual” things like baptism. I’m trying to focus on tangible things that clearly benefit people living in the world right now. That’s where I’m at with my faith in 2019, trying to be less selfish and be a net positive on the world.

God is good.

Spring Training Trip

I’m not one of those baseball fans who is determined to make it to all 30 major league ballparks before I die, although that would be cool. But recently I have been able to visit a lot of new cities and ballparks, thanks to Missy Franklin and Aften Anderson.

Our lovely ladies have permitted Chad and I to sneak away one weekend a year for the past few years, where we are able to nerd out on baseball, beer and poker. Most guys go camping, hunting, fishing or golfing; this is our version.

Two years ago we went to Minneapolis, which was a blast. Here is a pic of Target Field.

Last year we went to Denver. Even though both of us had been to games there before, it was a unique opportunity because the third member of our once-inseparable high school nerd trio, Kevin Ash, lived in Boulder at the time so we were able to team up with him.

For this year we decided to do something a little different and go to Arizona for Spring Training. Our favorite teams, the Cubs and Rockies, both train in Arizona and have two of the nicest spring facilities in Major League Baseball. And I’d heard the poker at Talking Stick Casino was good. So off we went.

This marked the third year in a row we got amazing weather for our baseball trip. We arrived Thursday evening, ate dinner at a cool Mexican place in old downtown Scottsdale, and played some poker. I won a decent sized pot with king high but other than that we both broke even.

Friday was an epic day. It’s going to be hard top that one for Best Day of 2019. We were still kind of in Central Time Zone mode so we woke up early and headed to Mesa, where the Cubs play. We got there at 10 a.m., which is when OU’s basketball team was playing in the NCAA Tournament. There’s a nice sports bar right across the street from the stadium that serves breakfast and had the game on TV. Somehow, OU played its best game of the year and won easily, so that was fun to watch.

Then it was on to the stadium, which was much nicer than I expected it to be. The Cubs played the Rangers at 1 p.m.

Any time I go to a new stadium, I like to take a lap around the entire park right away. We did that, and just as we settled into our seats before the game started we heard an announcement: “Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins is signing autographs for charity today. Come meet him now!”

I actually wasn’t paying any mind to the PA announcer but luckily Chad heard it so we made our way to where he was. For only $30 we got an autographed baseball and a picture with Fergie. This was especially cool for Chad because some 30 years ago Jenkins was coaching at an Oklahoma City 89ers baseball camp and he taught Chad how to bunt. Jenkins was super nice and was happy to learn we were fellow Okies.

Hall of Fame Cubs pitcher Ferguson Jenkins

The game itself was great too. My favorite Cub, Ben Zobrist, hit a home run, as did Javier Baez. Jose Quintana pitched six great innings and the Cubs won in a rout.

After the game we went to a burger and beer joint appropriately named Cheeseburgers and Cold Beer. There I ordered a ribeye sandwich described on the menu as “ribeye with melted cheese and carmelized onions.” It was indeed all of those items, ON TOP OF A WHOLE HAMBURGER. I was so disgusted that I discarded the whole meal.

Just kidding, I ate it all.

Then it was on to our second baseball game of the day, Padres vs. Rockies at the Spring Training home shared by the Rockies and Diamondbacks. Another great ballpark with the feel of a great minor league stadium, similar to the one we have in downtown Oklahoma City. The weather was still amazing and we had great seats behind home plate.

We had great seats for Padres vs Rockies

This game featured one of the more impressive plays I’ve ever seen in person. The Padres have one of baseball’s top prospects in shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and he lived up to the hype in this game. I knew he was supposed to be a great hitter and fielder but I didn’t know he was also fast with great baserunning instincts.

We saw him score from first base on a single with no errors. He was stealing on the play and had such a great jump that he would have coasted into second standing up. But the batter hit a line drive up the middle, and Tatis read it and turned the corner to third without slowing down. Most runners would have coasted into third but Tatis was thinking about scoring the whole play and he never slowed down, despite the third base coach giving him the stop sign. The centerfielder threw the ball into second base, not considering the possibility that Tatis would try to score. The second baseman hesitated for just a fraction of a second before throwing home. The throw beat Tatis to the plate but he slid underneath the tag.

The game was a blowout and the Rockies had benched all of their top players so we left after eight innings, which was one inning too soon as it turned out. As a Rockies fan, Chad was excited to see Colorado’s stars as well as infield prospect Garrett Hampson. Hampson had played the whole game but hadn’t done anything special. In a twist unique to Spring Training, the Rockies moved him from 7th in the batting order to the leadoff spot after removing All-Star outfielder Charlie Blackmon from the game. (You can’t do that in a real game). The Rockies ended up rallying for five runs in the bottom of the ninth, capped by a walk-off home run from their new leadoff hitter Garrett Hampson to win the game. Alas, we didn’t see that.

(We also noticed that teams were liberal with the DH rules in these games. Normally, games played in National League parks have no DH. But in the Cubs-Rangers game the Rangers used a DH while the Cubs didn’t. And in the Padres-Rockies game the Padres used a DH while the Rockies didn’t, even though both are NL teams.)

After the game, we headed back to our airbnb in Tempe. Chad had downloaded a bunch of old video games onto his computer, so we partied like it was 1995 and fired up the classics.

Late night booze, snacks and 1990s video games

Our favorite game back then was Hardball 5 (with Al Michaels announcing), so we played a game of that featuring the 1961 Yankees against the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. Then we played some WCW/NWO pro wrestling, followed by a 1990 World Series rematch between the Reds and A’s on RBI 3. It was a good ending to a long but fun day.

On Saturday we drove back into Phoenix and did a tour of Chase Field, where the Arizona Diamondbacks play. Neither of us had been to a game there. Probably the most interesting item in the stadium was a bar hanging from the ceiling just before you enter the dugout. Supposedly, it was installed for Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson, who would use it to stretch out his back in between innings.

The famous pool at Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. You can also see the new fake turf the team has installed for this season. It looks pretty sharp.
Home dugout at Chase Field

After the game we walked over to the renowned Pizzeria Bianco, which was excellent. We decided to split up for the evening, as I wanted to play more poker and Chad wanted to see another baseball game. The Rockies were hosting the Cubs at the same park we had been to the night before, so Chad went back there and saw Colorado whip the Cubs. The only people luckier than the Rockies that night were the poker players at Talking Stick, who obviously didn’t know they were playing with a living legend of the game. They beat my a$$ pretty good.

The benefit of this is that it enabled me to find the cigar lounge at the casino, which was amazing. Because the weather is so nice there, it was mostly open air. Nothing like the smell of pure air mixed with 200 cigars to go with the sound of a good solo guitarist.

Great pizza at Pizzeria Bianco in downtown Phoenix

On our last day in town we were able to meet up with Jason Ramos, one of my good friends from my Lawton days. Ironically, Ramos had joined Chad and I exactly 10 years ago when we drove to Oklahoma City to watch Bryce Harper play for Westmoore High School’s summer team. I got to interview Harper that day, and the story was one of the last things I wrote for the Constitution as a full-time employee.

It was another great day for baseball and we went to the Spring Training complex shared by the Dodgers and White Sox. The White Sox were playing Cleveland, and while we didn’t get to see Bryce Harper we did get to watch another of the game’s top prospects in White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez. We also saw Cleveland’s All-Star infielder Jose Ramirez foul a ball off his leg that may keep him out of the lineup for awhile.

Final game of the trip, Cleveland vs White Sox at Camelback

This stadium wasn’t quite as nice as the other two we visited but the weather was once again ideal. It was a great way to cap another great trip. Again, I can’t thank Missy and Aften enough for letting us get out and do these trips. It really is both fun and therapeutic. I tried to get Missy a souvenir but TSA confiscated it at the airport. It was a small jar of strawberry watermelon jam made at this brunch spot we visited in Tempe. It looked really good.

Depression

This is going to be a bummer of a post, and I don’t blame you if you decide to move on down the road. I wish I could say I had some kind of deep insight or a way to make this issue funny.

I am choosing to write this — and show you a side of myself I’d rather nobody see — because in general I think the taboo nature of mental issues only serves to make them a bigger problem than they need to be. Also, specifically for me and my family, I just want to lay bare what depression looks like for me so that it’s recorded in case any of my kids or grandkids might go through something that looks similar. And maybe this can serve as a reminder or a marker to my future self, to compare whatever I’m going through then to where I was at in 2019.

Three important things. First, I have never at any point felt suicidal. This isn’t some kind of final manifesto. Second, my father did commit suicide in 2004, when I was 25 years old and he was 56. I was very close to dad and did not see it coming, although in hindsight there were warning signs. Third, I have never taken any kind of medication for this. I am scared of the side effects, I partially blame them for what happened with dad, and I don’t feel like my episodes are severe or frequent enough to warrant it at this point.

The first time I ever experienced anything I would describe as depression was in 2006, on my wedding night. The bachelor party the night before the wedding was great, the wedding itself was awesome, and I had no idea what the heck was going on.

I have still never experienced anything nearly as severe as that first depression. I didn’t want to get out of bed and I couldn’t stop crying. I knew I wanted to be married to Missy and there was no regret with that decision whatsoever, which was comforting because other than that I had no idea what was going on. This lasted for about five days, partially ruining the first half of our Costa Rican honeymoon. I can’t begin to thank Missy enough for being totally understanding and not freaking out like I would have if the roles were reversed. Thankfully I felt better as the trip went on and by the second half of it I was able to do everything we had planned and feel more or less normal.

In hindsight I would pin the episode on two factors. First, exhaustion from the bachelor party/wedding prep/wedding. Over the years I’ve realized that lack of sleep is far and away the #1 trigger for me with depression.

Second, there were two things about the wedding that I had not prepared for. One was the overwhelming feeling of love from all of my friends and family who were at our ceremony. It was really awesome but I felt unworthy of such love and attention. The other was a feeling that I was now my dad. Now that I was married I was the man of a household just like he was. I never got any counseling after he died and did a poor job of processing all of my emotions about it. It all came flooding back after the wedding, probably exacerbated by the fact that he was one of the few people I loved who wasn’t at the wedding.

I would place the honeymoon blues incident in a whole separate category from anything I’ve dealt with since then. Here’s what a depression episode since then looks like.

Two factors are present 100% of the time. I’m very tired and it’s night. The honeymoon deal was the one and only time I’ve been depressed during the day. Most of the time it’s after a poker session, where my mind is exhausted from thinking all day. I can’t remember a single depression episode where I was not very tired.

Two other factors are present almost all of the time. Alcohol and losing at poker. It’s very rare that I’m completely sober when this happens. Some would say that it’s stupid not to just quit drinking entirely and eliminate this as a factor. They’re probably right, and that may happen. So far I don’t feel like it’s a frequent enough occurrence to warrant that action.

The poker thing was more of a factor a few years ago. Over the years I’ve gotten better and better at emotionally handling even longer-term downswings. Still, my episodes almost always occur after a losing poker session.

So here’s how it always happens. I’m laying in bed. About half the time I am trying to get to sleep and the other half of the time I wake up in the middle of the night after about 3 hours of sleep. I can’t shut my mind off. I am reliving my personal failures (usually not related to poker, but rather being impatient with the kids, not supportive enough of Missy, drinking too much that night, etc.). Then the poker thing kicks in on top of that, and I’m thinking about how I’m a piece of crap human AND I wasted 10 hours or whatever that day and can’t even support my family financially. I understand there is no logic to this whatsoever. My most recent episode came after the one losing session I’ve had during the best hot streak of my entire 10 year tenure in this job. And everyone falls short of their own personal standards at times.

Even when it’s happening, I understand mentally that it is illogical. I just can’t turn it off. I start crying and I can’t stop. Then Missy wakes up and it only makes it worse for me because now I feel guilty that I woke her up. A couple of times it’s turned into a full on panic attack where my heart rate gets super high and I can’t breathe. I start thinking about the things I need to do the next day but I won’t be able to do them because I’m exhausted and will have been up all night. How I’m going to be even less patient with the kids or lose even more at poker because of the lack of sleep. It really is a vicious cycle. Eventually by 7 or 8 in the morning I’ve usually passed out again, and when I wake up the kids make me happy and I’m fine if somewhat tired the rest of that day. But it’s over.

Episodes like this don’t happen very often, but they sure do suck when they come around. I can’t really put a number on them because I have gone months or maybe even close to a year in between them, but also had two in the same month. Except for the honeymoon incident, I’ve never had one that lasted more than one night. Frequently I’m a little down the next day or maybe two but nothing near the level of the all-nighter. And I’d say that is just from being tired.

Again, I want to emphasize the illogical nature of these events. I completely understand how blessed I am to have everything I need to survive, plus an amazing wife, four awesome kids and scores of friends and family who would and do support me in every way. It’s never a matter of wanting something more or wishing I was in a different place in life.

Anyway, I think that’s a pretty apt description of what depression actually means in my personal case in the year 2019. This weekend I’m going to watch some baseball and play some poker with Chad Anderson, so next week’s blog should be much lighter fare 🙂