Our lake Wobegon
teams did not do well in 1986, the Whippets with no pitching finishing dead
last, the Leonards pitiful and helpless in the fall even with a 230-pounder to
center the offensive line, and now it's basketball season again and already the
boys are getting accustomed to defeat. When they ran out on the floor for the
opener versus Bowlus (who won 58-21), they looked pale and cold in their blue
and gold silks, and Buddy had the custodian turn up the heat, but it was too
late. These boys looked like they were on death row, they trembled as their
names were announced.
It's not defeat
per se that hurts so much, we're used to that; it's the sense of doom and
submission to fate that is awful. When the 230-pounder centered the ball and it
stuck between his tremendous thighs and he toppled forward to be plundered by
the Bisons, it was, I'm sure, with a terrible knowledge in his heart that this
debacle was coming to him and it was useless to resist. Two of the basketball
players are sons of players on the fabled 1958 squad that was supposed to win
the state championship and put our town on the map, but while we looked forward
to that glorious weekend our team was eliminated in the first round by St.
Klaus. None of us ever recovered from that disappointment. But do our children
have to suffer from it, too?
As Harry (Can O'
Corn) Knudsen wrote: "In the game of life we're playing, people now are
saying that the aim of it is friendship and trust. I wish that it were true but
it seems, for me and you, that someone always loses and it's us."
inspiration came from playing 11 years for the Whippets, a humbling experience
for anyone. The team is getting trounced, pummeled, whipped, and Dutch says,
"Come on, guys, you're too tense out there, it's a game, go out there and
have fun," and you think, This is fun? If this is fun, then sic your dogs
on me, let them chew me for a while, that'd be pure pleasure. But out you trot
to rightfield feeling heavyhearted and not even sure you're trotting correctly
so you adjust the trot and your left foot grabs your right, you trip on your
own feet, and down you go like a sack of potatoes and the fans are doubled up
in the stands, gasping and choking, and you have dirt in your mouth that you'll
taste for years—is this experience good for a person?
Some fans have
been led to wonder if maybe our Lake Wobegon athletes are suffering from a
Christian upbringing that stresses the unworthiness angle and is light on the
aspect of grace. How else would boys of 16 and 17 get the feeling that they
were born to lose, if not in Bible class? And the uneasiness our boys have felt
about winning—a fan can recall dozens of nights when the locals had a good
first half, opened a nice lead, began to feel the opponents' pain and
sympathized and lightened up and wound up giving away their lunch. Does this
come from misreading the Gospels?
Wahlberg used to sit in the dugout and preach to the Whippets between innings,
using the score of the ball game to quote Scripture, e.g., John 1:1: "In
the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was
God" or Matthew 4:4: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every
word that proceeds from the mouth of God." That was fine except when he was
pitching. God had never granted Little Jimmy's prayer request for a good
curveball so this fine Christian boy got shelled like a peanut whenever he took
the mound, and one day Ronnie Decker came back to the bench after an eternal
inning in centerfield and said, "First Revelations 13:0: Keep the ball down
and throw at their goddam heads."
Catholic, and they have more taste for blood, it seems. (Was there ever a
Methodist bullfighter?) In St. Klaus, the ladies chant, "Make 'em sing and
make 'em dance/ Kick 'em in the nuts and step on their hands." The boys are
ugly brutes with raw sores on their arms and legs and with little ball-bearing
eyes who will try to hurt you. A gang of men stands by the backstop, drinking
beer and talking to the umpire, a clean-cut Lutheran boy named Fred. Fred knows
that the week before, Carlson called a third strike on a Klausie, dashed to his
car, the men rocked it and let the air out of the tires but couldn't pry the
hood open and disconnect the spark plugs before he started up and rode away on
For a Golden Age
of Lake Wobegon Sports, you'd have to go back to the '40s. The town ball club
was the Lake Wobegon Schroeders, so named because the starting nine were
brothers, sons of E.J. Schroeder. Nine big strapping boys with identical mops
of black hair, big beaks, little chins and so shy they couldn't look you in the
eye, and E.J. was the manager, though the boys were such fine ballplayers, he
only sat in the shade on a white kitchen chair and grumbled at them, no matter
E.J. was ticked
off if a boy hit a bad pitch. He'd spit and curse and rail at him, and then
R.J.'d go up and pound one out of the park (making the score 11-zip) and circle
the bases and the old man'd say, "Boy, he put the old apple right down the
middle, didn't he? Blind man couldn't hit that one. Your gramma coulda put the
wood on that one. If a guy couldn't hit that one out, there'd be something
wrong with him, I'd say. Wind practically took that one out of here, didn't
even need to hit it much"—and lean over and spit. When the Schroeders were
winning every game, E.J. bitched about how they won.
throw to first for, ya dummy?"