Thursday, August 23, 2012

A little golf, a little bike ride, a little pool

Golf on the Prairie

Last week, I was traveling on business when I attended a sales meeting for my company.  This meeting was held at Madden’s Resort in Brainerd, MN and is a yearly occurrence.  The sales leader of this part of my organization is from Minnesota and, like many from that state, he loves the outdoors, and he loves his home state.  As a result, he hosts this meeting for his team.

If you’ve never been to Brainerd (and I’m guessing that’s damn near everyone) it’s a small town in the northern part of the state, not far from the headwaters of the Mississippi River.  Seriously, you can almost jump across the Mighty Mississippi if you go far enough North.  There’s even a sign telling you about it.

Small river grows up to be a big damn deal!

This area is also home to some rustic resorts that have fishing, hiking, golf, tennis, and cycling during the summer months.  From what I can tell, that means May to September.  (Minnesota is known to have only two seasons, winter and six months of bad ice fishing.)  This meeting was the middle of August and the high temperature each day was a refreshing 78 degrees, Fahrenheit.  Evenings were in the upper 50s.  I was in heaven!

The golf courses in the area are very nice and two (The Classic and The Legacy) are excellent, both listed in Golf Digest’s Top Public Courses in America.  They are scenic, challenging, visually appealing, and in top notch condition.  Each one is owned by a competing resort so they focus on providing a world class experience and, I would say, both achieved it.
Picture of The Classic Course -1st Hole

There are several serious golfers on the team and they all seem to think that I should be included in the same group.  Admittedly, I used to be a serious golfer; I was a 3 handicap (that’s a mid-70s shooter) about 25 years ago.  But that was pre-children, pre-divorces, and pre-arthritis.  Might as well be pre-historic.

Since I’m considered “serious” I was invited by some of them to come in early to play. My memory of prior glory precludes me from saying no.  I flew in Saturday night and played 36 holes on Sunday.  Doing this served two purposes.  First, it cleaned out my golf bag of all those pesky golf balls that just weigh you down.  I lost about two dozen balls in those two rounds of golf.  (Did I mention that these courses have a few trees on them?  Yeah….)  The second thing this accomplished was convincing the group that I was no longer a “serious” golfer.  At this point, as a golfer, I’m a pretty good pool player.  Hell, at this point, I’m a good guitarist compared to being a golfer!

I had a good time but I played so badly that I’m having serious conversations with myself about continuing to play.  I totally love the game of golf but unless I make more time to practice and play, and my wrists can stand up to doing that, my game will continue to erode.  And playing that badly, when you’ve played the game at a much higher level, just isn’t a lot of fun.  Actually, it’s painful.  (And expensive, too.  Golf balls are not cheap when you lose them at such an alarming rate.)
Titleist - The Number 1 ball in golf!
Only $30 a dozen!

Of course, one of the things that keeps golfers coming back to play, no matter how badly they’ve done, is the “miracle” shot or hole during the round.  In my case, they all happened near the end of the last round.  I hit a perfect 5 iron shot from 185 yards out to a tiny green with the hole cut very close to a water hazard, and eased the ball in there to about 5 feet for birdie.  On the next hole, a downhill par 3, I hit a towering 8 iron to about 25 feet and lipped out the birdie putt.  On the final hole, I hit a flop shot to a very tight hole location and stopped it about a foot away.  It was ridiculous.

Stupid game.  Maybe next year, I’ll rent a bike and take a long ride while I’m in Brainerd.

Speaking of riding a bike…..

Bad weather and life had gotten in the way of me taking a bike ride for the past couple of weeks.  Too many other things going on so my two wheelers hung ignored on the wall of our shed.

The thing is, I’m trying to stay in riding shape to do another century ride.  Richmond has been named the host city of the 2015 World Cycling Championships.  (I find that laughable based on the fact that the city didn’t even make the list of 50 best cities for bicycling.)  In any case, a local sports organization is holding a Tour of Richmond ride in October as both a fundraiser and a way to shine a light on cycling and all its virtues.  There are three distances and one of those is a century.  Since it’s close to home and doesn’t require an overnight stay or anything, I decided to do it.

I’m also working to recruit others to join me from the ranks of cyclists at the office.  So far, I’ve gotten a couple interested although a full commitment has yet to be made. I’ve invited several to ride with me in preparation but we hadn’t yet connected.  (I’d love to find someone to ride with, frankly, as I’ve been a solo act except when riding with Cuz back on vacation.)

Last Friday night, one of these people sent me a text saying that he would be available for a ride early on Sunday morning.  I immediately texted back, giving him a time and place to meet, midway between our homes.  (We live a few miles apart which is one reason I’ve been working on him.  I hate driving to a ride; seems counter intuitive, you know?)

Sunday morning at 7:00 am I met him at the pre-arranged place after a ten minute ride to get there.  This gave me a nice little warm up which I felt I’d probably need.  This guy, his name is Greg, is probably 15 years younger and doesn’t look as if he’s abused himself in the same manner as yours truly.  Despite all his pre-ride chatter about how he’d need to bring a rope so I could drag him along, I was pretty sure he could run me ragged. (That turned out not to be the case but he could have been toying with me.)

Greg rolled up and we shook hands.  We decided we each had about two hours available and would ride for that period.  I had several routes in mind and mentioned them to him.  He said whatever I wanted to ride was fine him, he was just glad to finally get out.  We set off.

The route we took was a combination of several that I ride all the time except that we rode them in the opposite direction.  It’s amazing the difference this makes!  Climbs that I usually make were now downhill and vice versa.  It’s hard to tell if one direction is more difficult than the other but it made me pay closer attention.
This is the first ride I’ve taken where I was able to chat with someone for most of the ride. By setting out so early, traffic on the roads was nearly non-existent.  We rode abreast for probably 80% of the ride, talking about everything.  Turns out Greg spent a great deal of time in the Boulder area (climbs didn’t seem to bother him too much, as a result) and mentioned that the bike world out there was so crazy that it was perfectly normal to see someone driving a $400 beater of a car with a $10,000 bike in a $500 rack on it.  He also said the views of those glorious climbs, out there, made the pain easier to bear.  Not sure I’d find that to be the case but I’m interested in seeing if it’s true, someday.

On several occasions, one or the other of us would swing out in front and ramp the pace up for several miles while the other would ride the wheel.  I’ve not done this before, for more than a few seconds, and I was amazed at the difference it makes!  On the road from Hopeful Church along Route 33 into Montpelier, a distance of about four miles or so, we averaged slightly over 22 mph.  When I’m riding this stretch by myself, my average speed is closer to 18.  On the last climb, I took the lead and pulled for about a quarter mile. We shot up that in excess of 12 mph; alone I’m lucky to get to 10.  I could get used to having a regular riding partner!

We cruised down Howards Mill road in the last half mile before I turned into my own driveway, thirty five miles totaled up on my bike computer all in less than two hours time.  The morning was perfect for riding with no wind, 70 degrees, and a pleasant discussion with a soon to be friend.  The only thing that would make that better, would be to ride for four hours! 

See you next weekend, Greg?

Let’s to billiards……

That’s one of my favorite anachronisms from Shakespeare.  It’s a line in Julius Caesar referencing a game that won’t be created until 1400 or so years in the future from when the story is taking place.  Excellent work, Bill!

The Bard - He gave everybody the 8!

So, the big news on the pool front here in the Capital of the Commonwealth is that the Side Pocket has closed.  This pool room had been opened for nearly twenty years and the league that I run has been playing in it for over eighteen of those twenty.  My players are devastated.  Well, they’re disturbed.  Okay, they’re inconvenienced.
I’m probably somewhere in the middle.  I really enjoy the opportunity to compete that is league play.  I’m proud to say, and nearly everyone that ever played in this league will agree, that this is the most competitive league in Richmond and possibly the entire state.  A very high level of play coupled with decent sportsmanship (I tried to keep sharking to a minimum) and a friendly facility made the Richmond Pool League a great experience.

What was it about the Side Pocket? Well, it had a large complement of nine foot tables that were usually kept in good shape.  There was always a ten foot carom table for as long as I can remember, occasionally two of them.  The snack bar served home cooked meals with a daily special that actually drew a pretty solid lunch crowd from surrounding businesses. (Thursday was meatloaf and it was one of the highlights of the week when I worked nearby.  I can taste it, right now!)  The beer was always cold and the full bar was available, too.

So, what happened?  Well, the state enacted a smoking ban a few years ago which, like it or not, hammered businesses like the Side Pocket.  The owner claimed he didn’t have the capital to complete build outs that would create a smoking / non-smoking session and allow for both groups to be accommodated.  As a result, business dropped off significantly.  (Sources tell me that the IRS hadn’t been paid for a while either, so the lack of capital seems plausible. It’s the IRS that closed the place, in the end.)

The last nail in the coffin, in my opinion, is the fact that pool is a largely blue collar game.  The beating taken by the building trades and many other blue collar job types over the past four years really reduced the amount of disposable income that is deposited in a place like the Side Pocket.  Reduced revenue will clobber a business like this and that seems to have happened in this instance, too.

I’m feeling kind of stuck at this point.  I’ve built the scheduling of my life around Wednesday nights as my pool league night.  Unfortunately, the number of establishments that can support a pool league around here are limited (this is the third closing in the last 2 years) and that night is already taken in two of them.  I’m working to find a replacement but it may take a while.  Or I may just chuck the whole thing and go play in someone else’s league around town.  (That’ll be fun!  Then I can be the guy that asks all the stupid questions, complains about the crappy payouts, and bitches about how everyone is sandbagging. Hmmm….maybe I don’t want to start the league up somewhere else!)

I did go down to my game room the other day and practice for about ninety minutes.  I noticed my game was pretty sound, despite the lack of play since the State Championships a few weeks ago.  I’ve got some soul searching to do over the next few weeks, I guess, to try to decide my next move for the game around here.

Sounds like a good thing to think about while taking a long bike ride.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Tournament Report and a ride, and a rant

This past weekend I played in a fairly big pool tournament, the Virginia State 9 Ball Championships.  Well, I played in it briefly, anyway.  Mostly, I helped my friend Joshua Dickerson, the tournament promoter, run it.  I was also the referee for the event, making official rulings on various things.  I also served as one of the commentators on the live stream that Inside Pool Magazine sent out over the web.

Happy Anniversary!

The weekend started with a celebration.  MB and I celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary.  This was especially nice as I’d been traveling on business all week and gave us a chance to reconnect.

Our date included a trip to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art to see a special exhibit on the Maharajas of India followed by dinner at the restaurant that is in the museum, Amuse.

The exhibit was quite remarkable.  Displays of incredible silver, textiles, jewelry, and other doodads allowed us to ooh and aaahh for several hours.  Admittedly, I didn’t know much about India and its rich history (still don’t, really) so it was really cool to expand what little I knowledge I did have.  Really fascinating.  Now that India is one of the largest countries in the world, I expect we all need to learn more about it.

Dinner at Amuse was sumptuous.  This restaurant is only open limited hours on weekends.  The chef specializes in making local purchases and then turning them into incredible dishes.  He is a wizard.  The mixologist (bartender) is also talented.  For the India exhibit, he created a couple of signature cocktails that were equally amazing.  I had a “chai tea” drink that was made with rye and several other ingredients, including cream.  The results were stunning.  Turned brown liquor, a spirit that isn’t traditionally thought of as a summer drink, into a very refreshing libation.  MB had a gin and tonic made with designer tonic water (locally produced – as in on the premises) that was the best she’d ever had. 

The dishes we ordered were beautifully prepared and very imaginative and the restaurant offers mini-flights of wine by the glass.  This meant we each were able to create wine pairings with each course.  The results were quite good! 
If you come to the area, I recommend Amuse for dinner on the weekend particularly if you have an adventurous palate!

Tournament Saturday

The pool tournament was held at Diamond Billiards, located on the south side of town in Midlothian.  This pool room is an upscale establishment that’s been in business for about four and a half years.  It’s a really nice place with great equipment, spotless bathrooms, full bar, and a solid menu of bar food and even some healthy selections.

Open table time for warm up and practice was 9:00 a.m. with the tournament scheduled to begin at 11:00.  (Those of you that are pool players know that this means play actually starts about 11:30.)  For the life of me, I don’t know what it is about pool players dragging ass in late but that seems to be the rule rather than the exception.  As someone who is always on time, it drives me nuts.

Due to some miscommunication, the tournament ended up with 72 players – slightly more than the full field of 64.  This added some time to the early round matches.  Saturday’s play didn’t end until 2:30 am Sunday morning, as a result.  I didn’t hear any complaints, though.

My first match was called about 1:00 pm and I took on a pretty talented player in the race to 9.  After losing the lag, I managed to run out the first table when he broke dry.  That was the last really good chance I had to do anything.  I did win three more games but only when he missed in two of them and left me with fairly easy outs.  One game, I managed to win a safety battle but that was due more to a lucky roll.  The fact is, he was a much better player than me and should beat me most of the time.  (He ended up in the money, top twelve, I think.)  I didn’t play badly, I just didn’t get a lot of chances.  It happens.

My second match came about 3:30 or so.  This player seemed to be more my speed, especially since he also lost in an early round.  I won the lag and we fought back and forth until I’d gotten to a 5-3 lead thanks to a run out that included four ridiculous shots in a row; two banks, one carom, and a table length extreme cut shot.  (I’m probably about even money to make just one of those shots.  Making all four in a row is like winning the pick 4 lottery for me!)

From that point, my opponent just hit another gear altogether.  I got very rare looks at a clean shot and the only other game I won happened when he played a rather loose safety that left me with a table length shot that was almost dead straight in with the cue ball on the rail.  I slow rolled the shot and get good enough position on the next ball that I was able to run the last 4 balls and get out.  Lost 9-6.  My opponent finished one round out of the money.

Again, I played fairly well in both matches.  I consider myself a B player and when I’m in an event like this, the draw makes a difference.  I’ve finished in the money here two or three times, sometimes when playing worse.  Until my game jumps up one more level, this will likely be my fate.  I don’t like to lose but until I can devote more time, I have to satisfy myself with quality of play, setting my expectation appropriately.  (I don’t like to lose but I don’t like to be pissed off, either.)

The rest of the day on Saturday, I spent in the broadcast booth, acting as a commentator.  This is great fun for me!

Dozens of Fans!

Being a commentator at a pool tournament is a lot like talking to yourself.  First, the tournament isn’t on TV, it’s on the web.  Kind of like live Youtube, except with fewer viewers.  In order for people to watch, they need to know the web address of the “channel” in order to watch.  Then, they need to be willing to watch something as small as a computer screen to see local pool players bang balls around.  (Don’t get me wrong, some of the play is terrific.  The top players in this event play in the US Open 9 Ball Championships, one of the biggest events in the world.  We’re not all hacks!)

As you might imagine, the audience is rather restricted.  At one point, when I was in the booth, we had slightly over 350 viewers.  While those numbers are really small, they aren’t terrible for a local event. (Keep in mind, these were early rounds.)  Last year during the finals, at one point, I think we had 3,000 which is a really good audience.  Remember, these are die hard pool fans and that’s interesting to pool advertisers.

Anyway, I worked three or four matches on Saturday and I was typically paired with another player in the event.  This makes for some funny story telling along with calling the action and some interviewing.  At least, that’s what I try to do.  Pool is full of interesting people and I like to dig that out for people to listen. 

The way you know whether or not you’re connecting with the audience is that the internet connection allows for a live chat among those watching.  This gives the announce team the chance to see how their comments, calls, opinions, and the like are being received in real time by their audience.  Comments lead to people bringing other viewers in, usually via social media announcements, and that builds viewers.  I also use Twitter and Facebook, resulting in a number of people tuning in, many of whom wouldn’t ordinarily.  (Got a few calls and messages during and afterwards, too, about this.  I may have turned on some new fans!)

Because we’re on the internet rather than the airwaves, streaming tends to be a bit raw both in production quality and commentary.  At one point during a decidedly one sided match, I said the following:

“So Frank finally manages to hook his pickup truck to the back of his neck and pull his head out of his butt long enough to make the nine ball and get on the board.  He now trails 7-1 in this race to nine.”

The chat went crazy at that point.  I simply said what would have been on my mind if I’d been playing the match (and as badly) and the viewers loved it.  I’m guessing I’d never make it on ESPN or the Golf Channel but that’s not in my plan, either.

Shortly before midnight, I hit the wall.  I’d been there almost fifteen hours and was dragging from being “on” during the stream; I have a little background in TV and I just put more energy into my piece of it.  (Think it’s easy?  Just try talking non-stop during the next sporting event you watch on TV.  Yeah.  Let me know how that is.)  I headed home to bed, planning to be back at noon Sunday for the first rounds of play.

Baby Got Back…On the Bike

I managed to sleep in on Sunday; until about 6:30.  That's become sleeping in for me.  I’ve never really been a “good” sleeper and it’s only gotten worse with age.  At least I have lots of interests to stay busy!

I decided to get a bike ride in after breakfast.  Since I spent the entire day before, and most of the day Sunday, in a pool room I thought that would be a nice change of pace!

I set out on my Montpelier circuit of about 25 miles before it got too hot and in no time at all, I was grinning as I spun up the road.  There was very little traffic out on this Sunday morning.  In fact, I rode for thirty minutes before seeing a vehicle.  Sheer bliss!

Once I got to Montpelier, I headed northwest on route 33.  My plan was to turn onto Hopeful Church Road, ride across to Taylor’s Creek Road near the county line, and then turn for home.

I was doing about 25 mph when I got to Hopeful Church and started to make the left turn.  I felt my rear wheel kind of shudder and looked down.  Dammit! Going flat.  This was the fourth flat in six weeks!  WTF?

I slowed down, pulled over and climbed off the bike.  (I hate stopping mid-ride like this because I’m suddenly pouring sweat and it’s running it my eyes.)  I pulled off my helmet and started inspecting the tire for a puncture.  I couldn’t find anything and knew it was fully inflated when I left the house.  I grabbed my frame pump and re-inflated the tire hoping that would take care of it.  (Dreamer!)  I saddled up and continued my ride.

Another two miles or so and I knew I’d have to change it; the tire was slowly going soft again.  I pulled over at a spot that was visible to drivers in both directions and set to changing the tube.  Admittedly, I’m getting very good at this due to all the practice of late.  What it’s taught me is that I have to invest in a CO2 pump; damn frame pumps will wear you out!

After getting the tube out, I worked my fingers all around the inside of the tire looking for the culprit to the flat.  Nothing.  I checked to see if there were spokes that might be poking it from above.  Nothing.  I shook my head and stuffed the old tube in my jersey pocket for future investigation, put a new tube in the wheel, slid the tire back into place and inflated it.  I re-installed the wheel, took a long drink to celebrate another successful repair, and pedaled off.  (Finally got a chance to check the tube last night. Tiny hole in it in about the same place as the last flat.  I'm thinking there is something in the tire that is embedded deep enough that, most of the time, it doesn't cause a flat.  I'm hoping to perform a more indepth investigation this weekend.)

I arrived back home with no further difficulties.  After cooling down, having a snack and a shower, I was ready to head back to the tournament.  That workout was just was I needed!

Tournament Day 2

I walked through the doors at about noon and, much to my surprise, some matches had already started!  I didn’t even expect everyone to be there yet.

Joshua told me that they’d postponed the last couple of matches from last night on the promise that people would get in early enough to keep on time.  That made sense then; for a second, I thought I‘d entered a parallel universe or something.

I headed into the booth to call the match on the TV table and spent most of the afternoon hosting match after match.  I also got a chance to interview a young player who is now based in our area and making a name for himself on the international pool stage, Brandon Shuff.

Brandon is a two time winner of the VA State championship but hasn’t played the last two years due to other commitments.  He graciously worked a couple of matches with me and it gave me a chance to ask him what he’s doing to manage his career.

The upshot was that he has become very intentional about it.  He plans to attend every possible tournament he can, works on his game incessantly, and plays in a lot of money matches (I know, I was shocked) to hone his skills and nerves.  In short, he is a true, pool professional.  And the positive results have been steady although slower than he’d like.  (My BFF Clyde called me on Monday to say how much he enjoyed the interview. He’s not even a pool player.  Thanks!)

I expect some really big things from Brandon over the next couple of years.  He’s got too much talent, heart, and desire not to make it!  Be on the lookout for Brandon “Sho-nuff” Shuff, coming to a big win, near you!

The Finals

The last match began around 9:00 pm and it featured Chris Futrell, the defending champion, against Larry Kressel a former winner of the event.  Chris had gone undefeated through the field to gain the hot seat while Larry had fought his way back from the one loss side where he’d had to play two additional matches to make the finals.

I was out of the booth now because my job was to be the referee of the last two semi-final, and final, matches.  This gave me the best seat in the house to watch what turned out to be a pretty good tussle.

Futrell got out to an early lead, putting up three games before Kressel notched his first.  From there, they fought back and forth with each player going on small streaks of three games each.  Eventually, Futrell moved the score to 10-8 and was on the hill, only one game away from the title.  When he suddenly missed an easy 6  ball in the nineteenth rack, Kressel ran out to get to 10-9.  He then broke and was deftly running out the rack, looking for all the world as if he was going to make it a hill-hill match, when he suddenly rattled the 7 ball leaving it hanging in the jaws of a corner pocket.  Looking absolutely stunned as the crowd gasped in surprise, he slowly walked back to his chair.

Futrell walked purposefully to the table, took his time, and ran out the last three balls for the victory.  He had successfully defended his title!  For his part, Kressel had gotten farther along in the event than he had in five years when he last won it.
Futrell won $1100 and paid entry into the US Open.  Kressel won $600 and paid entry into the US Open, too.  There were 8 women playing in the tournament and Joshua is also paying entry for the top finisher among them into the US Open.  That went to Sheri Bruner.  Congratulations to all!

Back to the world….

I rolled out the door about 11:00 pm to head home, surprised to find that the sun had set.  I’d had a three or four beers over the course of the tournament (seriously) but I still felt like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend.  Unless you make yourself go outside during an event like this, it feels like you’re in a casino or on a binge.  Felt like I missed the weekend, altogether.  Weird.

Anyway, I was back in the office bright and early Monday morning.  I’m so out of sorts that I just told the cashier in the employee cafeteria to have a nice weekend.  And it’s only Wednesday!

I knew I should have had more to drink.

And finally, I need to vent...

I hate to end with this horrible tragedy but feel it needs to be said.  A local cyclist, 24 year old Lanie Kruzewski, was killed while cycling here in Richmond on July 31st, by a hit and run driver.  The driver, a 30 year old advertising executive, turned himself in several days later and reportedly told police he, “thought he hit a deer” and claiming he didn’t realize he’d hit a person and that’s why he kept driving.  

He was arrested, charged with hit and run, and on August 9th was released on $200,000 bond, forfeiting his driver’s license and passport.  His driving record over the past ten years shows a pattern of reckless driving, speeding, and multiple moving violations.

The accident occurred at 10:20 pm on a two lane road with a very small shoulder.  The cyclist, who was riding to her boyfriend’s after getting off work, was wearing all reflective clothing, had a headlight and two blinking taillights on her bike all of which were working.  The Dodge Durango that hit her struck with enough force to throw her 110 feet, crushing the front fender and cracking the entire windshield.

I am incredibly saddened and frightened by this accident.  It’s the second death of a cyclist, at the hands of a driver, in the past year.  Statistics show that cycling is actually safer than riding a motorcycle but that does little to assuage my fear that I’m going to end up on someone’s fender.  I am frequently passed by vehicles going too fast for the conditions, passing in an unsafe manner (not waiting until there is room to do so, for example) and harassing me for being on the road.  I sincerely hope none of those people was you.  If it was, though, please consider this.

If I were in a car instead of on a bike, is that how you would behave?  Probably not.  But because I’m on a bike, and running into me wouldn’t do any damage to your car (or so you seem to think) you might be more likely to take a chance.  Please don’t.  Hitting a human will hurt your car but, more importantly, it will ruin your life.  If it’s me, I promise I will own everything that you have. If I die, my heirs will.  There is nothing that is worth the extra thirty seconds you have to wait in order to go around me. Nothing.

Rant over.  Carry on and please remember, share the road.  There is room for all of us.