Throwback Thursday: Lasting Impression

Posted: March 31, 2016 in life, poker
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Anyone who has spent time in Pittsburgh can attest to the deep-rooted pride locals possess for not only their city but specifically, it’s sports franchises. Out of the womb, I bled black ‘n gold and found a quick attachment to sports. During the school year, I’d fall asleep to the voice of Paul Steigerwald calling the action for the Pens. Sundays were spent glued to the Steelers’s game, often lamenting over the dark days that were the Bubby Brister era. But it was Barry Bonds, Andy Van SuperMan and the Pittsburgh Pirates that I spent every waking second emulating. From the tapping of the glove on my leg before making a catch, to the waggle of the bat while awaiting a pitch, I wanted just a touch of Bonds’s greatness to rub off.

I’ll never forget my first game at Three Rivers Stadium. It Barry-Bonds-100th-HR0001was 1990 and my Pap had bought group tickets through the church. We rode a school bus down to the game with the other parishioners, and I was armed to the gills with the essentials: my baseball mitt, a family sized bag of Twizzlers and enough Pepsi to ensure the hour ride didn’t wear me out. My Pap spent the entire ride coaching me up, preparing me for the opportunity to snag a foul ball should it present itself.

Walking into the stadium I was awestruck, a short-lived feeling once I realized we had missed the first pitch. I rushed my 60-year-old grandfather to our seats, just in time to see Jay Bell smash a foul ball into the right-field upper deck. I settled in, glove on hand, ready for anything that came my way. The rest of the game went by in the blink of an eye. My Pap, certainly exhausted from hours of sitting and attempting to answer all of my nuanced questions, somehow found the patience to wait in line after the game to buy me replica Barry Bonds batting gloves. I wore them to shreds over the course of my Little League career.

For as far back as I can remember my Pap had a ball in my hand. He was never a star athlete, but his two brothers both had MLB experience prior to being shipped off to war. It didn’t take long before that dream overtook me. I spent countless hours throwing rubber balls off concrete walls and hitting practice golf balls off a makeshift batting tee. I poured myself into the game; into the intricacies, where endless practice and my intimate knowledge highlighted whatever little bit of natural talent I may have possessed. Most importantly I could see the progression.

My Little League career wasn’t exactly the reflection of a natural. I was shy, awkward and overweight, or as my gram affectionately proclaimed, still carrying my baby fat. I had a profound fear of the baseball which meant limited playing time and countless strikeouts. By age 11 my defensive ability had really started to shine, giving my butt a rest from collecting splinters (credit to the brick wall for always pushing me). However, I was a liability at the plate. Fortunately, my coach, Mr. George, was observant enough to realize I excelled at bunting. I would rarely swing away the rest of the season, which at the time was humiliating. I can remember specific scenarios, against pitchers who didn’t scare me, where I would purposely bunt foul twice so that I could swing away. Holding true to most life lessons, I failed to see the application while caught up in the moment. It was a bitter pill to swallow but proved to be for my own good.

New Kids on the Block

Around this time, two new kids moved to our school. Jace Criswell and Scott “Skimpy” Moore. Jace, a seemingly happy kid who had a real passion for blending into his new environment; Skimp, a kid small in stature but could fill a room with his personality and zero f*cks to give attitude. His intention was to take his new environment hostage and make it his bitch by any means necessary. I loathed him. Every day for the better part of a school year he would jump on my back demanding a piggyback ride, at an age where we all had a little too much fight in us. I wanted to knock him out so badly, but my sense of reasoning told me that anyone that small, willing to poke the bear daily, likely had more fight and scrap to him than I’d ever be capable of competing with. Very very very gradually, Skimpy grew on me in a big way. By high school, it was clear he was my intellectual equal, something I didn’t encounter often enough. I was able to have profound discussions with him about life and our upbringings, his being wildly different yet all too relatable. To this day, he’s still the ear I bend when it comes to life’s quandaries and paradoxes.

Jace was far more unassuming. He mostly kept to himself but seemed to align with the inactive group of guys who spent the bulk of their time playing video games and reading comics. We were always looking for additions to our after-school pickup games and being that he was a fellow walker (lived in town and didn’t ride the bus to school) I pushed him to stick around. We became fast friends, not because we had a ton in common, we didn’t, but because he was the one person I could be transparent around. He was the only other kid I knew who understood what it was like to take a $1 food stamp to the store to buy a 10 cent pack of gum in order to save enough change to get into the football games on Fridays without anyone being any the wiser.

35098_449972161884_7570444_nJace wasn’t a model student or standout athlete, but it wasn’t long before he became like a brother to me. We had free reign of the town as his mom worked a lot and mine was effectively comatose 24/7. His house became a second home to me, and mine was one to him. As I continued to expand my social group amongst the athletes and the overachievers (a.k.a. the attractive girls in our class) I made sure Jace was right there by my side. I taught him how to shop the sales rack at Value City, picking up designer brands for next to nothing; a skill my Gram proudly passed on to me. He taught me how to use a butter knife as the only multipurpose tool a man would ever need. Together we helped each other become well adjusted during what should have been the toughest social years of our lives. Instead of simply coping and falling victim to small-town struggles, we flourished.

Much like myself, Jace was well taken care of in spite of financial struggles. At that age, however, living just above the poverty line isn’t a proud position to be in. Reflecting back, all of my friends and their families suffered through their own personal trials and tribulations. That’s the way of the world, particularly in a small, blue-collar, steel mill town. I realize now the concept of wealth was quantified in acceptance and a sense of community, not a six-figure family income. Still as a teenager my scope was tiny and being tight lipped was priority number one.

A Whole New Ballgame

20160330_004921Over the course of the next year, I would grow six inches while maintaining the same weight. With the added size and sharpened hand-eye coordination from a season of bunting, I suddenly had overcome my fear of the ball. I ended the season leading my team, and local Little League, in home runs resulting in a starting position for the All-Star team. Being a part of that team proved to be a pivotal point in my development, both as a ballplayer and as a young man.

Mr. Smail was the head coach of the All-Star team. He was also the head coach of my other best friend and biggest competitor in athletics, Andrew “Gumby” Golembiesky. Their team had just beaten us in the local championship, and though Gumby’s passion was for basketball, his talent for baseball couldn’t be denied. He set the pace for my athletic career and had a massive head start in the natural talent department. I owe a lot of my accomplishments to our friendship and how much his talent pushed me. I also owe the world to Mr. Smail. He was the first person, aside from my Pap, to recognize my passion. He started referring to me as “Crusher” after I hit a homerun off Gumby in the championship. To this day, I can’t recall him calling me by any other name. Gumby and I carried the offense batting 3rd and 4th respectively, tied for the district All-Star lead in home runs. We went on to lose in the district finals under Coach Smail, but my relationship with him was just beginning.

Two of the next three seasons Mr. Smail was either my assistant or head coach. I was one of the youngest on the team and buried behind older kids on the depth chart; Mr. Smail ensured I played. First base was occupied by the head coach’s son so Mr. Smail suggested I played 3rd. I’d go on to make the All-Star team as a lefthanded 3rd baseman. He was one of the first to put me on the mound, giving me no other instructions except to be great. I threw a no-hitter in one of my first few starts. This man simply believed. He invested in me and pushed me to lead, regardless of pecking order or talent. I responded as best I could. I found my voice through success on the field, and suddenly I found myself buying into the belief that I could achieve my deepest aspirations.

Around the same time Gumby, Jace and I had become inseparable. Every day we were forcing Jace out of his comfort zone. Everything from round robin 1-on-1 basketball to home run derbies to the coup de gras of getting him in a pair of rollerblades. Several attempts later, all of which led to stitches, Jace was resigned to playing goalie (on foot) when we created a roller hockey team for a league at the local rink. The Punishers had become my passion project. We played 3 seasons from age 13 to 15 and I was the captain, coach, organizer, or whatever title applies. I can’t fathom how I convinced 12 teenagers to appoint me to the position, but I knew that I really wanted to shoulder the load. We organized practices as many days a week as the weather would permit, forcing parents to haul us and our goals to the local park tennis courts. I ran each practice by the book, literally: I subscribed to Roller Hockey magazine and would start every practice with ball handling, passing and skating drills extracted from the publication, while Gumby took Jace aside and taught him the finer points of becoming a brick wall. There were fights, injuries and even roster cuts, which to this day stands out as my only regret in running the team. Still we were a unit. Everyone had a voice and we rarely struggled with defining roles or ironing out playing time. If only we could have gotten Jace to cut back on the profanity-laced tirades. When he let a goal through, it was as if he suddenly came down with Tourette’s Syndrome. A slew of vulgarities would ensue from under the blue and white goalie mask that would make the most grizzled of men blush.

Eventually, Melwood Rink would mysteriously burn down, but not before we made 3 championship appearances, with Jace and I collecting hardware for the fewest goals against and leading scorer, respectively. Further proving that my nickname, “ball hog” was likely justified. Sadly a team trophy eluded us. But to this day, I still smile in amazement at what we were able to accomplish. What started as an afterschool pickup game, quickly turned into an organized team competing in a league that we helped create. Pride washes over me anytime the conversation amongst my friends shifts to reminiscing about the Punisher days.



15 years after The Punishers’ final season, Gram dusted off my jersey.

**Check back every Thursday for a new installment**

Next Entry: Throwback Thursday: First Love

Previous Entry: Throwback Thursday: A Tale to Tell (cont.)

Start at the beginning…



  1. statuarum says:

    Reblogged this on Out of Position and commented:
    A great series of growing up stories from a real poker star.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Besides, I was busy coming into my own on the field. Coach O retired replaced by my Legion coach, Coach Flemm. He respected my work ethic and knowledge of the game, but the kid I lost my job to the season […]


  3. […] I rode the bench for my entire freshman year all while playing my heart out in my final year under Coach Smail in Senior League. I got better.  I played fall ball for the first time and pushed Gumby to play […]


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